Due to altitude sickness, my stay in the Simien highlands was brief. The drive to the base city of Debarq, up winding mountain roads, was both harrowing and beautiful. Here’s a view:
The road is almost exclusively dirt, but much of it is under construction, in the process of being paved, so we often had to drive around boulders and other debris. Sometimes, we had to wait for bulldozers to clear a path for us to pass. The workers are all Ethiopian, but their bosses, and the engineers, are Chinese. The Chinese are responsible for paving many, if not most, of the roads in Ethiopia – and they’re not doing so out of the goodness of their hearts. From what I could gather, Ethiopians have mixed feelings about the Chinese. On the one hand, they’re grateful for the paved roads, on the other hand, the Chinese are not known for their good manners and humility. Take smoking for example. While in Beijing, it seemed to me that almost everybody (at least the males) smoked, and they’d leave trails of butts and mucus everywhere. In contrast, very few Ethiopians smoke. While waiting for a flight in Addis Ababa, a couple of young Chinese men were sitting in front of me chatting. They weren’t bothering anybody, but the Ethiopians in front of them would periodically glance back at them with what seemed like a mixture of curiosity and wariness. Perhaps they didn’t find Mandarin pleasing to their ears. I think the Ethiopians are right to be wary of the Chinese; Ethiopia suffered immensely under communist rule, and the Chinese are (at least officially) communist. Ethiopia is a poor country, while China is (in comparison) an economic powerhouse.
Here’s the hotel I stayed at while in Debarq:
Just kidding! I stayed at a finer hotel than that one, and here are some of the employees there:
On the morning of my departure for the mountains, I took a short stroll through the town, and then hung out at the entrance to my hotel. Some kids came up to me and showed me a few bottle caps they’d collected from the ground. They were playing a game where they stack the bottle caps, and then stand back a few feet and try to hit them with rocks. I joined them in this game for a while, but I wasn’t able to hit the bottle caps even once. I blame the altitude sickness. Some official-looking adults were passing by. I think they were members of the city council, or something like that. When they saw a farenji playing with the kids, they reckoned at least one of them should participate as well. So they sent their most prominent member to play the game – and he hit the caps on his first try! Obviously, he is a great man. I duly congratulated him.
Here are some shots of Debarq and its inhabitants:
The drive up to the mountains took almost an hour. When we stopped, one or two other groups of tourists were also there. I recognized a British couple I’d shared a car with on my tour of Danakil. Martin and Rose, if you’re reading this, I hope everything’s going well with you in the UK, and that you enjoyed the rest of your trip.
One of our group was 70 years old, and he had no trouble with the hike. But I had to stop and rest every 5 minutes or so; my legs felt like lead and I would run out of breath very quickly. It was embarrassing, as I was holding up the group – and the initial impression was that I was simply in very bad physical shape. Still, I managed to get some decent photographs of the view:
and of some of the natives:
and the animals:
The highlight of this excursion was, of course, the Gelata baboons (more correctly spelled “Jelata”). Here they are carrying on:
American biologists would rather call them “monkeys.” Either way, they’re fun to watch, and they have very little fear of humans; I was able to get within 2 or 3 feet of the younger ones.
After that, it was another hour or so to the first camp, where we would spend the night – and clouds were starting to fill the sky. With great difficulty, I was able to make it to camp, though I lagged behind the others. Tents were already set up for us, and I collapsed on the ground inside one of them. Not five minutes later, the heavens opened up and rain poured down. Somebody brought me a mattress, and I was barely even able to find enough energy to maneuver myself on top of it.
A while later, they came to tell me dinner was ready, and I forced myself up to eat. I had no appetite, but the soup was delicious nevertheless. They practically forced me to eat solid food, and then I returned to my tent, where I tossed and turned all night. I ached all over and felt a bit nauseous.
The following morning, it was obvious I could go no further; I was convinced I’d contracted malaria. Ten days earlier, I’d been to Hawasa, which is a malaria region, and I had not taken my anti-malarial medication. Ten days is the incubation period for malaria and all the symptoms were there. I felt too cold in the shade and too hot in the sun, and I had to get off that mountain. The tour operators tried, for hours, to get somebody to stop and take me back to Debarq. I felt like I would die if I had to stay on the mountain one more night. Finally, a truck driver agreed to take me – for $50! I told him I’d pay him 500 Birr. Still way too much, but I was in no position to refuse the ride either. The truck was just like the large truck shown here:
It was not a comfortable ride. At least they put me in front. I was crunched up against other passengers and the ride was very bumpy. There were no seat belts for passengers, though the driver had one. The driver seemed to go out of his way to get as close to the ledge as possible, all the while chatting on his cell phone. We passed groups of Gelata baboons, but I was in no position to take photos. My plan was to stop at the Simien Mountain tourist office and call for help from there. But when we got there, after about an hour, the office was closed. I was forced to hire a tuktuk (a miniature 3-wheeled taxi) to the bus station. From there I took a minivan to Gondar. This wasn’t a pleasant journey either. It was crowded, nobody spoke any English, and the guy next to me kept shamelessly begging me for money.
When we arrived in Gondar, I had to hire yet another tuktuk to take me to my hotel. I felt better almost immediately, and an ETT driver came by to meet me soon thereafter. He told me that they’d been following me the whole way from Simien, trying to catch up with me in order to help. He took me to a nearby clinic, called “The Zebu Clinic.” They did a blood test and determined that I did not have malaria. Back at the hotel, the staff asked if I’d seen zebus in the Simien highlands. I answered, “No, but I did see the Zebu Clinic!”