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Last Train to Addis

12th March 2018

After an hour waiting in the heat outside the locked entrance to the Dire Dawa railway museum, the ‘lady with the key’ still hadn’t appeared. Fifty yards away, the old station building was still standing, patrolled by pigeons shuttling between it and the nearby bougainvillea and acacia trees.

In 1930, English writer Evelyn Waugh had breakfasted at Dire Dawa on “porridge, kippers, eggs and champagne”. He was en route by train to Addis where he was to report on the coronation of Haile Selassie for The Times. Now, not only had the old line, from Djibouti to Addis, been abandoned but there was no access to the “graveyard” of de-commissioned engines and rolling stock promised on the museum website.

Three days later I caught sight of the old line to the left of the road to Awash as it weaved through mile upon mile of featureless bush country. Near a few tin-roofed houses, I asked my driver, Dawit, to pull over so I could walk up to it through the scrub and mimosa. Even after just a few years of disuse, the thorns were beginning to colonise it. Back on the road, the new Chinese-built railway line suddenly appeared to the right complete with overhead power lines and raised embankment. But there were no trains to be seen.

At Awash, we pulled off the road to the left, immediately crossing the old line. Waugh had stayed at an “inn” here where he and his fellow passengers were entertained by Gallas dancers who re-enacted a lion hunt, “singing, stamping their feet and clapping their hands.” The inn is gone now and I stayed at a lodge by the Awash Falls, patrolled by crocodiles waiting for victims travelling downstream.

Back on the Addis road, the two railway lines continued their parallel progress through the landscape, the new line punctuated by just-completed station buildings awaiting the start of passenger services. I reached Addis just after lunch and visited the old station building where Waugh would have arrived in the capital. It was Christmas Day.

The following morning I left Addis for home. Two weeks later I read in The Times that passenger services to Dire Dawa and Djibouti had started on the new line.

Peter Heywood

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