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For once, they got it right. The church Debre Birhan Selassie with a singularly uninspiring exterior is stunning inside.
Tremendously colourful cartoon-like mural paintings depicting scenes from the Old and New Testaments cover the walls. Meanwhile, 80 cherubs (each with a slightly different Ethiopian face) stare down perpetually from the ceiling. Truly breathtaking: anywhere else this would be a World Heritage Site, removed to a museum or closed to the public. Here, it’s a functioning church on the rustic outskirts of a provincial town. In the middle of all these ecclesiastic frescoes the 17th century artist Haile Meskel for some unknown reason painted a rather amusing depiction of the Devil himself.
Perhaps he wished to remind us of the devilries history of Gonder. (Top TIP: Debre Birhan Selasie might not be the Sistine Chapel but don’t miss it.)
By late afternoon we are pulling into Dabark on the foot of the Simien Mountain range. The day’s drive without coming across one gorging truck has being beautiful through highlands and valleys. Just as we enter town we stop at Debark only modern looking building. It turns out to be a restaurant offering rooms and the main base for arranging trekking up into the Mountains.
Paul’s words ring load and clear. “If you decide to take a hike into the Simien Mountains make sure you get a guide that you like.” “Not a Faranji or give me give me type.” “He will run you from one camping site to the next as quickly as he can to earn his fee. “ “This is one of the most beautiful places in Africa so take your time in picking a guide.
Over chicken and omelets several contenders approach us > all easily forgotten. With the girls tucked in bed I take a wander down the town’s main street. There is no street lighting to speak of. Eerie figures mostly dressed in white robes appear and disappear down small side lanes. It’s the nearest I can picture to a scene in Purgatory if it exists. Moonbeams play with the shadows making ever movement startling and every dog twice its size. All sounds are amplified by the almost complete darkness. My nose picks out smells of cooking, paraffin, shit, urine, coffee, and my armpits.
A small light attracts me to the door of flaking white galvanized roofed building. It’s the local shebeen. Pushing the door open my entrance is like a stone hitting a still pool but in reverse. The ripples of sound I had heard before opening the door come to a sudden stop. All eyes watched me as I pointed to a glass and make the drinking signal. My first specimen bottle of Tej. I say specimen bottle as it arrived yellow in a bulbus shape bottle with out a glass. A swig with a few ishee- ishee’s (Ok Ok) breaks the ice.
To my surprise I am addressed in perfect English by one of the shebeen locals. “l am Tedros welcome to Ethiopia.” By the second bottle I have being introduced to all in sundry receiving a broad smile on each introduction that revealed sets of teeth, which would be any dentist’s nightmare. By the time it is my round I have my guide for a four-day trip into the Simyen > (sometime spelled Semyen, Simien and various other adaptations from the Ethiopian alphabet) Tedros. I learn that the word Simyen means north in Amharic a difficulty I have finding on the way back to the girls.
Tedros arrives in the morning. All is arranged. Armed guard, two pack mules, four riding horses, a horseman, a muleteer, a cook, a scout, all will meet us to-morrow at Sankaber where we will leave Williwaw. The girls look a gassed. Have I lost my marbles? Do I think I am Doc Livingstone? “Come on girls this is the only way we are going to see the roof of Africa. “ “We drive up to Sankaber base camp on a new all-weather roads is easy.”
On arrival in Sankaber we find that Aunty (The BBC) is in camp. They are making a nature program on the three endemic Ethiopian animals that live in the mountains. The Bleeding heart baboon or Gelada or Lion monkey as it is sometimes called. The Simien fox that they have being looking for the last three-week without seen one. It is neither, a fox or a wolf but a member of the dog family sometimes referred to as the red Jackal. The Walia Ibex a type of wild goat that lives on near vertical cliffs. We of course have never heard of such creatures never mind seen one or the other.
Pitch No 114 at 3230m is somewhat bracing but it is the view that takes ones breath away.
Over the edge of an abyss is one the most marvellous of all Abyssinian Landscapes. The morning’s glory is cracked by the distant sound of a cock’s crow. We on the road to Axum passing our first group of walking crucified (The name we have allocated to groups of walking Ethiopians due to men’s habit of draping their arms over their walking sticks which are carried across the back of their necks.) Axum or Aksum is three hundred and sixty kilometres to the north three hours driving on a good road but we know better allowing two and a half days.
Described by Rosita Forbes, 1925 from Red Sea to Blue Nile- A Thousand Miles of Ethiopia.
‘Looking across a gorge of clouded amethyst … A thousand years ago, when old gods reigned in Ethiopia, they must have played chess with these stupendous crags, for we saw bishops’ mitres cut in lapis lazuli, castles with the ruby of approaching sunset on their turrets, an emerald knight where the forest crept up the on the rock, and far away a king, crowned with sapphire, and guarded by row of pawns. When the gods exchanged their games for shield and buckler to fight the new men clamouring at their gates, they turned the pieces of their chessboard into mountains. In the Simien they stand enchanted, till once again the world is pagan and the titans and the earth gods lean down from the monstrous cloud bank to wager a star or two on their sport.’
It would be a sacrilege of written description to attempt to describe the view in any other words.
I can only say that it sometimes hard to persuade the mind that it is you that is standing on a spot. Looking out over miles rolling away beneath you can’t help but get a deep sense that you were meant to stand here. To see you life as a whole, a foretaste, maybe of that promised instant before death when all that you have been, all that you have seen, tasted, touched and been touched by is present at one and the same time. Perhaps it is the feeling one gets on the summit of Everest.
So you can visualize our reaction to the first bleeding heart that appeared over the edge of the abyss. Definitely this has to be one of the weirdest animals of our trip. Out of tin air a large male appears to surveys his surroundings. Admitting a sound that is hard to express other than it sounds human in tone he gives the thumbs up for the rest of his harem to hop over and commence plucking grass, digging for roots and bulbs.
Turning towards us I can only think that if this is a strict vegetarian we better be sure we are stakes. Drawing back it lips it exposes the nearest thing I have seen to a Spielberg Alien. Weighing about 16-20kg it has a thick lion-like mane on its head and shoulders and right in the middle of its chest a heart –shaped patch of bare fleshy reddish skin. Only its long tufted tail makes it look any way comical. The rest of it looks like run for your life. Tedros assures us that it is harmless.
Strictly vegetarian they spend the day when not occupied by you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours grazing like cows. Seldom found far from vertical cliffs which they plunge over at the first sign of danger they sure made us forget about the volcanic plugs formed over 40 million ago that have eroded into the fantastic crags and pinnacles and flat-topped mountains described by Rosita Forbes.
Morning: Our small multitude has arrived > AK47, seven animals and four and a half humans > the half being a young boy. (Top TIP: Even thought you might know sweet f all about mules or horses it’s a good idea to have all four-legged marched up and down in front of you. One limp gives it the flick. Also remove the saddles any cuts or sores get the same treatment.)
Fanny satisfied that we have only the best of sock equipment and supplies all are loaded and lashed. A John Wayne tallyho later and we off each of us equipped by the horseman with a stick to be used as a quirt. A tap on the left turns you to the right and a tap on the right to the left. Fast forward tap on the ass with a “Mitch” for a mule and a “che!” for a horse. All very simple except if you tap on the wrong side it’s over the side.
Our column moves out along a narrow neck into a land of Afro-Alpine meadows and grasslands punctuated by Giant Lobelia and flowering red-hot pokers. “They use to hide their weapons in the Giant Lobelia,” says Tedros. Standing at eight meters with flowering stalks these plants are called Djebera in Amharic. “There are over 200 species of Lobelia in the world but this one is only found here.” “It grows for fifteen to twenty years before flowering and then dies”. “How it comes to be here no one knows”.
“Once the whole of this area of the Simien was once covered in forest junipers and olive trees”, continues Tedros. “You see that? It’s a dindero”. (Amharic for Giant sphere thistle) “It grows to the size of shrubs and even tree up here”. The one we are looking at is all of three meters high. Again it is only found in Ethiopia.
Tedros is in element enjoying sharing his knowledge pointing to this and that strange plant with all the enthusiasm of a botanist. Straw – flowers or everlasting, clematis, q’aga (Amharic for the Abyssinan wild rose) the only wild rose native to Africa, the kosso tree that takes it name from the Amharic for tapeworm. Its flowers or seed are better than Smarties for getting rid of tapeworms. By any standards the flora is bizarre.
Leaving behind the different types of growth slowly we begin to climb steeper. It is time to give our animals a rest so we are walking. The effects of altitude are noticeable with shortness of breath and a lot of panting. At 3300 meters we come upon our first goat shepherd. A young boy carrying a blanket and the unavoidable stick a coarse woollen hat with a sheep flees slung over his shoulders. As we pass by there is no give me give so I slip him a packet of sweets.
Remounted we arrive at a viewing point that looks down on the Jin Bahir River, which plunges into an abyss called Geech. Stunning beautiful we stop for a break. We have now being on the go for five hours with every minute breathtaking. Our horseman, his boy and our arm guard with the cook have walked the whole way without the least sign of any effort. Any time we have had to dismount we struggled with the altitude. Our destination Mietgogo a large peak according to Tedros lies two hours further on up at 3600 meters he is also on foot.
On we go into the blueness Florence being led by our bodyguard and Fanny riding high with her handbag Photo Opportunity 66. Fanny’s in her wisdom has both herself and Florence sitting on our sheepskins, which she had draped over the basic saddles. We eventually arrive at our campsite Pitch No 115, which is in a hollow surrounded by Giant St; John’s wort intermingled with giant heath.
Watched by thick billed ravens that protest our arrival with a deep wheezing croak that sounds like a frog with asthma we set up camp for the night. It’s an unpleasant night due partially to the condition of our faithfully tent and the rarefied damp conditions.
Morning brakes with spectacular views to the north and east across the foothills and plains. Perched like gargoyles we watch two Walia ibex on a virtual vertical cliff face hop from one unseen ledge to the next. Mount Everest would be no problem to these fellows. According to Tedros only five hundred are left due to poaching. Thousand of feet below a village set in a deep valley cuddle up to the mountains. The village roofs look like large field mushrooms. Hot coffee and bread is most welcome before we set off on day three to Chenek our last stop.
Another wonderful day first descending into a huge valley ziz-zaging across streams and climbing again to stunning views in every direction with our first view of Mт Ras Dashen at 4620 meters (15,158 feet) Africa’s ninth highest peak. (Kilimanjaro 5895 meters, Mt Kenya 5199 meters)
Pitch No 116 with Circling Ruppell’s griffon vultures is another miserable night sleep that rules out any attempt on Ras Dashen. Turning for home Tedros knowledge of birds is accomplished as his plant awareness. He points out bearded vultures that drop bones from great heights to get at the marrow. “You know that they are capable of flying as high as 25,000 feet”. “They are called Ch’ululey in Amharic”. There is not the space here to mention all the birds but god forbid I ever get a serious dose of the twitters because a revisit to the Simyen would be on the top of the list.
With one overnight stop pitch no 117 we arrive back to Sankaber. Aunty has left so we take their prime camping spot looking out over a long narrow valley. Pitch No 118. With all expenses settled we say adios too our Tedros, the horses men, the horses, the cook the horse-boy before settling down for an early night kip.
Unknowing to us the Simyen has one last surprise in store for us. Out of the darkness a young woman appears with a lanky teenager. In sign language we gather that the youth has being gored by a Zbou Bull in the groined.
With the nearest aide being 25k away from Debareq there is no immediate medical help to be had up in the mountains. They had walked all day down from the roof of Africa in the hope of meeting Aunty or us whom they had heard were in camp.
The young lad looks pale and somewhat terrorized by the girl’s presents. All attempts to get him to show the wound fail. Eventually there is nothing for it but to drop my own boxers. Getting the message he grudgingly removes his. A nasty gash the size of my index figure is exposed obviously infected. Fanny cleans it as best as she can apply a Steri-strip closures plaster. During all time he stood in front of Fanny he nether flinches or makes a sound. In true African manner there is no thank you. He walks out of the tent and into the darkness never to be seen by us again.
Our humanitarian deed is rewarded in the morning by the sighting of two of the Simyen most unique animals. Its bright rufous coat, white under markings and nearly black tail confirms that we are looking at two Simien foxes. What a reward. Most visitors never see one. We are not even sure if Aunty had any luck. A welcome night’s decedent sleep back in Debark tops the whole trip off. (Top TIP: Don’t miss it.)
Bumping out of Debark Axum is or next port of call. Founded several centuries before the birth of Christ it lies to our north in the northern province of Tigre famous for the notorious famine of 1985.
The road dropping some 2000 meters hugs the foothill of the Simines. It is dramatic and scary to say the least. Progress is slow marked by many a broken down truck or recent gaps in the bush where a set of failed brakes launched some poor unfortunate into the blue yonder. The landscape has changed from the rounded hills to a rocky harsh territorial terrain.
(TO BE CONTINUED)
DONATION NEWS: Every bit as bad as the bleeding hearts of the Gelada or Lion monkey.
Be the First. Robert Dillon: Account no 62259189. Ulster Bank 33 College Green Dublin 2: Sorting Code: 98-50-10.