By Arlene Shovald Special to The Mail
An expedition to Ethiopia late last year left Dan Downing of Salida with a new perspective on his homeland and the “luxuries” bestowed upon most Americans.
He’s known locally as a photographer and member of the Heart of the Rockies Regional Medical Center board of directors.
“The expedition to Ethiopia was part of a project to build a foot bridge across the Blue Nile River,” Downing said. David Clark, president of the Salida Aspen Concerts board, also participated.
The organization is called Bridges to Prosperity.
Ken Frantz founded Bridges to Prosperity. Downing’s late mother-in-law and Frantz’ mother were friends.
“As a result of that connection, my wife, Betsey, volunteered me,” Downing said. “Subsequently, I volunteered Dave and we were off on an adventure we won’t forget.”
The bridge project was financed through efforts of several Rotary Clubs. Translators for the expedition were Rotarians from Bahir Dar in Ethiopia.
The bridge spans the largest tributary of the Nile, about 50 miles downstream from its source in Lake Tana in the northwest Highlands of Ethiopia.
It’s called “broken bridge” because it’s been broken so many times – sometimes intentionally, as in World War II – in an attempt to slow advance of invading Italians.
The bridge was built in 1560 by the Portuguese about 20 feet above the normal water line. Not long after, its height was more than doubled by the Ethiopians and it served them for centuries – until just before World War II.
“The trip was, without a doubt, the best and the worst of travels I’ve been involved with,” Downing said. “Just about everything that could go wrong, did.”
The “broken bridge” is remote, so if something was needed it meant sending a key person 13 miles on foot to catch a bus for a four hour trip to Bahir Dar where there was a 50-50 chance of finding what was needed.
After a 3½ hour commercial flight from Denver to Washington, D.C., there was another 15 hours by air to the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa.
Exhausted, Downing said he spent a couple of hours clearing customs and checking baggage before taking a 7 a.m. flight to Bahir Dar.
Next was a bus trip to remote Mota, normally a 3½ hour ride up a rough, rocky road. Part way there, the underpowered bus overheated on a long grade.
“The assistant driver ran 500 feet down the hill to carry five gallons of water back up,” Downing said. “After (the engine) cooled a little, we made it another half hour before breaking down again about 45 minutes outside Mota.
“There was no water. Ken hitched a ride into Mota and sent a rescue bus. We arrived in Mota after eight hours en route.”
From Mota, the trip was on foot – 13 miles to the gorge of the Blue Nile River. It was relatively flat for the first five miles, but then dropped, as Downing described it, like a “slam dunk,” 4,000 feet to the river.
“The trail was like nothing I’d ever seen anywhere in the world,” he said. “Not only was it dangerously steep, it was terribly rocky. That’s where the previous 48 hours caught up with me. My body began to shut down.”
Hands and legs cramped and no amount of water or Gatorade helped. Downing pushed on and kept drinking as much as possible.
“Ten hours later I dragged my exhausted body into camp and rested an hour before recovering enough to set up my tent.”
The next shock was seeing the rickety temporary bridge cobbled together from logs, sticks, stones, rope and cable replacing the steel truss bridge the Bridge to Prosperity group installed in 2002. That bridge was swept away by high water.
“That was amazing,” Downing said, “considering the bridge is about 40 feet above the normal level of the river and was made of 2-by-2-by-¼-inch angle iron.
The temporary structure sagged three feet within the 20 or so feet it spanned and listed 20 degrees toward the downstream side.
“The thought of crossing was enough to put my heart in my throat and I was already feeling sick to my stomach. I began questioning my sanity.”
But, the group had reached it’s destination – rebuilding Sebara Dildi, literally translated, “broken bridge.”
When Frantz saw a picture of the bridge in National Geographic in 1998 he felt an overwhelming compulsion to fix it, planting seeds for the organization.
He heads an organization which builds bridges throughout the world to help people easily and safely cross chasms (which) hinder development of their homelands and make life difficult in general.
Sebara Dildi bridge saves a 150 mile detour or a life threatening crossing on a rickety dove’s nest of a “bridge” or worse, hanging by a rope when the span is swept away by recurring floods.
The bridge Downing and Clark worked on was approximately 300 feet long and a little downstream of the ancient bridge. It’s wide enough to let people pass. They can cross with animals like donkeys and cows.
“Abutments were supposedly completed when we arrived,” Downing said.
“When two employees of Bridges to Prosperity arrived ahead of our group, they found one abutment built and they built the second before stretching the six, 1-inch diameter cables across the river.
“Ken (Frantz) and his two brothers began installing decking while others worked at tensioning hand rail cables. They were about a third of the way across when one of the masonry towers gave way and tumbled into the river.
“Fortunately their safety harnesses weren’t clipped to the cable which dropped nearly to the river. They got a hair-raising ride, but were unhurt.”
The crash of the tower returned them to square one when they discovered there were no reinforcing rods in it. That meant dismantling the other tower and starting from scratch.
“Of course the other abutment, the one the Bridges to Prosperity employees had built, was done properly and didn’t have to be rebuilt, but we had to assume the second tower on the original abutment was faulty. It had to come down,” Downing said.
The next couple of days were spent regrouping and sending for more material.
“The bridge wasn’t completed before David and I had to leave,” Downing said. “I know they were close before we left Ethiopia, because our plane back to Addis Ababa flew over the site and I could see decking stretched all the way across the gorge.”
An aside to the expedition was a health clinic manned by a doctor from Mota and volunteers from the Bridges to Prosperity group.
“They were equipped to deal with minor things, mainly cleaning and dressing wounds, but word got out there was a clinic and patients with all kinds of maladies showed up,” Downing said.
“Several women were carried in on stretchers made of eucalyptus poles lashed together with grass and leaves to cushion the ride. Some had malaria or other illnesses.
“None could be treated. One woman’s breast was riddled with abscesses which had been stuffed with cotton to stop drainage.
“A young boy walked in on a compound fracture of his left ankle. How far he walked, I don’t know.
“There was little that could be done, but the wound was cleaned and dressed and I watched in amazement as he walked up the trail toward whatever place he called home. Those people are tough.”
Arriving home just before Thanksgiving 2009, Downing said his holiday dinner was viewed with new perspective.
“I wasn’t just thankful to be home, but thankful for the accident of my birth in a country of plenty,” he said.