|Hard as I tried, I failed to take a photo that really captured the stunning scope of the Simien Mountains' valleys and jagged cliffs.|
As we progressed deeper into the park, the views grew even more stunning, and the wildlife more plentiful. We saw a pair of klipspringer in a wooded thicket, passed springs and waterfalls, and by the time we stopped for lunch on the bank of a small river, had seen so many Gelada baboons that we no longer bothered to turn our heads to watch them.
But all was not well in paradise.
The scout, who insisted on leading, thereby leaving us to walk in a trail of his choking odor, set an ambitious pace. He also insisted at several points on blazing his own path through stands of thorn
bushes. Jacqueline stopped every few minutes to scratch at her flea bites, which were multiplying across her abdomen and legs. Though we'd been wearing our hiking boots nonstop for days before our hike, blisters were starting to burn on both our feet. We had hours to go. (Well, our guide Melis told us we did, and beside his word, we didn't have any other indication of distances. Also, I had accidentally buried my wristwatch in my pack.)
After lunch, the afternoon's trek—again at a hard pace—was entirely uphill, under a blazing sun. We plodded on for what seemed like hours before reaching the dismal little village of Geech, around which the hillsides were strewn with cow bones. It was another grueling half hour uphill to the campsite; if we had had to go further, I think I might have had to carry Jacqueline.
But the greatest blow was yet to come. When we reached the camp, I pulled my backpack off the mule and dug out my watch. It was 1:00pm—we still had five solid hours of daylight left. The grueling pace set all morning by our guide and scout had been completely unnecessary.
* * *
For Jacqueline, this was the last straw. (That the official flea bite count had now climbed to around 60 certainly didn't help, either.) She was unequivocal: under no circumstance was she doing the next day's hike, a steep 25km (15.5 mile) slog to the Chennek camp, known as one of the Simiens' most scenic spots.
I was on the fence. On the one hand, I knew I could make it through the next day's hike (though I also knew I wouldn't feel too good by the end). I also suspected that Jacqueline had another day's walk in her, despite her misgivings. And the chance to reach Chennek, home to Walia ibex, Lammergeier vultures, and the rare Ethiopian wolf certainly spurred me on.
In the end (and in an admittedly rare display of selflessness) I gave in to Jacqueline's pleading, and was soon glad I did, as further evidence of our guide's incompetence came to light.
When I told him that we had decided to turn back early the next day, and asked to call our driver for an early pickup along the road the next day, Melis revealed that he didn't have his mobile phone with him. Over the coming hours, with my senses now more attuned to these failings, I determined that neither our guide, scout, nor muleteer were carrying a mobile phone, knife, matches, first aid kit, or flashlight. (Luckily I had all of the above, except the phone.) These were the officially sanctioned, trained experts who had been provided to take us into the wilderness.
* * *
The next day's trek back to the Sankaber camp and the road was long and miserable.
That evening, as we rode back to Gondar with Yoseph, Jacqueline had trouble thinking of much beside her itching flea bites (official count: 65). Meanwhile, I reflected back on the three-day ordeal. First and foremost, given our guide's failure to prepare, I felt relieved that at least a real emergency hadn't occurred. Second, while the trek had been far from ideal, at least the scenery had more than met my expectations.