The Dawn of A New (Puncture Prone) Age

 We had developed a bad habit of Samosas. These little bundles of food poisoning sit for an unknown length of time in shops, quietly incubating before a hungry traveller, looking for instant gratification decides to take a chance. Rich had taken ill. After a long, draining day of Timkat festivities, Rich was put to bed in the tent whilst Dan and I hit the town. We met our Swiss overland companions then picked up Bob. He had managed not only to cycle the long, mountainous journey from Khartoum, recover from the exhaustion, heat-stroke, injuries and illness but also to befriend half the Rastafarian community of Gondar.

The streets of the city were alive and merry. We had found a local place, which sold beer at a negligible price and a popular dance bar. Ethiopia has opted out of the cultural influences of Europe and America that so much of Africa aspires to. Instead they have their own music, films and dances.* We made the bad decision of ordering food at the dance bar. During our two-hour wait for food, what had been a peaceful, sit-down restaurant erupted into a heaving nightclub. A live band blared out the ubiquitous rocksteady beat with wandering Casio trumpets and vocals that leapt across scales. The room filled with a blur of flamboyant uniforms and traditional dresses straight from the festival. All around, shoulders bobbed at a speed we were unable to replicate. The Ethiopian dance style represents courting birds of paradise, with men bouncing and puffing around women who shake their hair and shoulders. Through the maelstrom came a determined waiter with bowls of pasta held high. Squatting low on stools, we ate what we could beneath a thrusting canopy of dancers before a man dressed as a lime-green silk matador drunkenly flung himself across our table, scattering what was left. We abandoned our supper and entered the fray.

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The following morning, Rich awoke fully recovered from the grip of the Samosa bug. However Dan was now suffering the combined onslaught of food poisoning and a fiendish hangover. He wouldn’t leave the tent for several days. I was somewhere in between, hungover and tired from having spent most of the small hours explaining to a girl that a dance, regardless of its talented execution, does not mean marriage is inevitable. I was not exempt from driving to pick up our friend Megan, bright and early, from Gondar airport.

Megan is so far the only person to brave the African leg of the expedition. An old school friend, Cornish resident and fellow Perraner, not only was she coming out to Africa but enduring two weeks with the expedition. I was a little worried at what she would find.

She would be a new species in an ecosystem that had taken a long time to evolve and equilibrate. The three core members of the expedition had been on the road since the beginning of October. We were into our twentieth country, un-separated from our vehicle or each other. Those clean cut, Cornish doctors had become a tangle of uncut hair, moustaches, running jokes and complex systems. Every position and aspect of the car had evolved a name; we practically spoke a different language when driving or packing. We were probably a little too comfortable with crowded, dusty streets, the intensity of arriving in every village as a celebrity and day after day of bush camping.

I had time to down a couple of superbly strong Ethiopian coffees before we drove to the airport. I managed to fit a dramatic passport loosing-finding fiasco into the hour we had to wait for the internal flight. Megan arrived. During the excited greeting, she disguised her reaction to the state of Tess and us expertly. She was able to catch the last big day of processions and celebrations.

The following days were spent preparing for our onward journey and waiting for Megan’s bags to arrive. They had probably gone through more countries then the expedition. In her luggage however was an Aladdin’s trove of marmalade, marmite, letters from loved ones and single malt without which the expedition would have certainly ground to a demoralised halt.

The city returned to relative normality, Dan stayed in his tent in a shady spot in the garden, exhausted by his malady. He would only whisper faint acknowledgments of our presence during the day. By night, he would babble, laugh or cry-out in primal terror at whatever fever-fueled illusion taunted him. Meanwhile, I had by the skin of my teeth avoided betrothal to a daughter of a powerful Gondar family. Just as the situation was really escalating – having met the mother, brother, sisters and stern, three-piece-suit wearing father – I was dumped, apparently due to my unpredictable future plans and non-committal behaviour. It was time to leave.

As I have said before, the Great Rift Valley, that runs the spine of east Africa, has some pretty serious geography going on. The Simien Mountains are where the Rift Valley is at its riftiest/most-rifted/riftigenous; the bigger brothers of all the other Ethiopian mountains; ‘The Playground of The Gods’. Most amazing is how the land here plunges in great folds down to bellow sea level in the volcanic Danakil depression.

Our venture into this lofty playground had a few ill-fated turns. As we had our own car, we thought we could keep costs down and only hire a scout, without taking a guide. All of the scouts are old war veterans who fought against the Derg and were allowed to keep their guns. The scout we picked up was an ancient, arthritic soldier who spoke no English.

We spent a chilly night in Debark, the last town, before setting off early the next day. Our car was a modest six with the scout, Megan and Bob, whose bike we strapped to the roof. A few miles out of town we took a steep track that fell off the edge of the range. Although we had started above 3000m, we all had a nagging feeling about heading down several monumental cliffs, rather than up into mountains. However there didn’t seem to be another road and our scout sat peacefully in the front, as one would expect from a man going along his usual route.

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After four hours winding down rocky paths only really fit for mules, we had a puncture. As the countless, would-be assistants melted out of the landscape to stare at us changing the wheel, I craned my head up at the wall we had dropped down. I thought I’d better just check with our guide. He tried to escape the conversation when I asked for the name of our destination but I noticed him flinch in realisation at ‘Sambikir’ the name of the first camp. He shrugged his shoulders and made an elaborate show of shooing away the locals with a pointed AK47, as if to highlight that he was a guard, not a guide. This façade of ignorance was fooling no one. He caved under further interrogation to reveal that despite being only a few miles as the crow flies from our ultimate destination, a couple of those miles were vertical. We would have to go back to the beginning. This marked the start of a time I would like to call ‘the flat tyre era’. The rest of the day was spent with the five of us (plus gloomy scout) crammed inside Tess, climbing back up to the start.

It was dark when we limped into camp. We had salvaged some of the day by finding and following a thousand strong troop of Gadella baboons, the largest and most peaceful of their kind. We had also endured a further puncture, using up our second spare. We found the Swiss camped in a grassy clearing overlooking a sheer valley. Over supper they told us that they wanted to leave their car hidden in the mountains in order to trek away from the road. They asked us whether we could find it and drive it on to the third campsite, where they would pick it up a day later. We readily agreed. The plan seemed flawless.

The following morning we awoke to find golden sunlight kissing the peaks and Tess listing over a third flat. Our Toyo all terrains that we had bought second hand on e-bay had held up well until now, but seemed to be failing on the rough mountain roads. Rich decided to attempt fixing the tyres in the bush and look after Dan. Meanwhile I would take a trekking party of Megan, Bob our confused scout to see the waterfalls. We would try and locate the Swiss’ car (a day’s walk ahead) then await the Landie before heading in convoy deeper into the range. Over breakfast, as if to mark an omen, a Black Kite circled, then dive-bombed Megan as she prepared breakfast, making off in a hiss of feathers with a doughnut in its talons.

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The morning’s trekking was deifying; worthy of a power ballad. We walked along the edge of oblivion, tumbles of highland, tiny farms, houses and soaring eagles all miles beneath us. By lunchtime we were at the waterfall, a great granite cleft, disappearing into the shadows of the mountain it had hewn. Tiny, we peered into empty air. The sun caught the backs of rising vultures. Neither sight nor sound could be glimpsed of the bottom. We trekked on to the road to wait for the support vehicle and eat a modest lunch of Samosa roulette.

By three, we were faced with difficult decision. The car had not arrived and was probably back at first camp. The Swiss-mobile was hopefully a few hours up the road. Our bag only had a few jumpers and a coup of water bottles. We decided to take a gamble on the support being close behind and to push on and up to find the car. As long as we stayed on the road, we couldn’t miss Dan and Rich.

We trudged for a further two hours along a high plateaux and past a village, gaining altitude all the way. There was still no sign of the car. Our guide, who seemed to be suffering, was becoming very anxious as the shadows grew longer and a sparse mountain chill began to bite our sunburnt cheeks. It wasn’t really possible to explain our complicated plan to the scout, only keep repeating the name of the point Dario had hopefully left the car. Worryingly, his directions kept changing. We had to keep going.

By six, we were tired and hungry. I was silent with worry. Over each horizon we would scan with binoculars for the silver of a hidden vehicle before heading to the next viewpoint. There was no sign or word from Rich, Dan and Tess. Finally, as the temperature was really dropping, we spied the car.

The group of locals who had been paid to watch it were alarmed when a trio of farangis marched across their field and fell upon the car, ravenously ransacking the vehicle for food and warm clothes. We had no choice but to drive the final ten miles to Debark (the third camp). The road was extremely treacherous and it was my first time in a left hand drive car. Our poor scout wisely did not release his white-knuckled grip of the handrail for the whole journey.

After navigating several precipices we rolled into the final camp. The low light was electric pink. Ravens and vast Lamergiers swooped and crowed around the cluster of buildings. Otherwise the thin air was silent. We watched sunset with an eagles’-nest panorama. The high mountain moors were wild and cold above us. The song of the Simien wolves drifted just beyond recognition. That night we spent our meagre funds on a hot meal. We had no warm clothes and no sleeping bags. The car had a roof tent, a towel and a thin blanket. Temperature dropped to around minus five as we huddled together for scraps of sleep.

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Meanwhile, Rich had been thwarted by a series of cheap Chinese pumps, which broke in quick succession. He was forced to hitchhike back to the town, rolling two wheels to be repaired. He salvaged his situation somewhat by infiltrating the dinner of a Belgian tour group and charming their daughters. Dan spent the night alone in the wilderness with just his delirious nightmares for company.

Our delivery complete Bob, Megan and our broken scout were forced to hike back until we could flag down a vehicle. We eventually jumped into a road builder’s truck filled with the mountain’s commuters. In the trailer we held on to wherever we could as the driver accelerated around sheer-sided corners with complete disregard for potholes or his suspension. Megan, Bob and the scout kept their heads wisely inside the trailer bed. We had all seen the skeletons of trucks and holes in the barriers that mark out the Ethiopian roads like milestones. Bob had even witnessed the last expressions of a mini-van full of passengers as they left the mountainside on two wheels. I remained standing and planned how to jump out and roll, were we to go over.

Today the driver had prayed sufficiently and we arrived back at Tess to be reunited with the complete team. We headed back to Gondar to recover.

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