An Ill-Fated Walk in the Simien Mountains, Part I

Tuesday, February 9, 2010 | Debark, Ethiopia

Nobody ever called Scout anything but "Scout."  But even in the absence of a name, he proved himself quite a character.
Gondar, the northern town that was Ethiopia's capital in medieval times, still boasts a series of imperial castles that look like they were lifted straight out of old Europe. But Jacqueline and I weren't here for sightseeing—Gondar was our jumping off point for a multi-day hike in the Simien Mountains, several hours' drive north along a rough gravel road.

Along that route, we passed the village of Wolleka—the former home of Ethiopia's once sizeable Jewish community (known as the Falasha)—and then mile after mile of the same Ethiopian farmland that we've been driving through for several days now.

In Debark, the dusty one-horse town at the base of the mountain range, we split up to prepare for the hike. Our driver Yoseph made repairs to the vehicle to ensure it could carry us up the formidable road to our starting point the next morning. Jacqueline dumped out her backpack in our
hotel room and spent the afternoon furiously scrubbing her clothes in the sink, trying to rid herself of a growing flea infestation (picked up from the monastery in Debre Libanos several days earlier, we suspect). Finally, that left me to arrange the services of an official guide and armed scout at the national park headquarters.

The next morning, we convened at our hotel for the drive to our starting point. The scout arrived first, or rather his smell did; it erupted like a foul trumpet call, announcing his presence from afar. His body and ragged clothing stunk of sweat layered upon dirt upon more sweat upon filth, preserved and fermented and encased in yet more odorous sweat. As he approached, after the smell we next noticed the taste, as the scout's stench filled our mouths with an acrid, metallic tang. We foreigners were not the only ones who wondered if the man had bathed in his entire life; Yoseph soon began scolding him in rapid Amharic. Pausing, Yoseph finally explained to us: "Yesterday I told him to clean himself up. He didn't listen."

The guide, a local smooth talker about our age named Melis, soon arrived. We loaded his gear and our own into the vehicle. (The scout had no gear—just his rifle and a bright blue fuzzy blanket wrapped around his head, turban style.) At park headquarters, Yoseph tried to no avail to replace our scout. We headed for the mountains.

Yoseph dropped us inside the park at Buyit Ras, the site of the Simien Lodge and our starting point. Out of nowhere, a crowd of young boys emerged, and set to work stuffing the gear into two large plastic sacks. With a supreme degree of inefficiency approaching artistry, they managed to fit our guide's stuff and only half of ours. Though the total weight was well below the mule's limit of 45kg (100 lbs.), thanks to their world-class packing job the touts declared the load too large, and demanded that we hire a second mule. Realizing that this absurd process had somehow already eaten an hour of our day, and that the stupidity of it all was slowly sending an already itchy Jacqueline over the edge, I shouldered my own backpack, and told them to load the rest on the mule.

Yoseph handed the scout a bar of soap and told him to use it, then bid us farewell and drove off. Our trek had begun.


chris said...

Yes. Yes. There I was. The trek... had begun.

Jeroen said...

Was there too a month ago. Really a fantastic experience!

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