‘Did you hear the jackal last night? ’
I was only half listening to our cook, Nega’s cheerful commentary on the previous night as I emerged, tired and sleepless from my freezing tent into an impossibly colder day. At more than three and a half thousand metres above sea level, balanced on a plateau whose edge tumbled dramatically into a mountainous nothingness, the campsite above the tiny village of Geech was exposed to the freezing winds which blasted across it.
‘It was quite close by’ he continued- to himself really- as I weighed up the merits of removing several layers of thermal clothing for my first wash in a number of days. To me, this was a more pressing consideration than the proximity of the endangered Ky Kebero, Red Jackal or Ethiopian Wolf the previous night. I decided to remain clothed.
The gently soaking drizzle of the previous afternoon had cleared overnight, and the morning was bright.
‘Samoyawi’, the Ethiopians would say, teaching me the Amharic word for the colour blue. ‘Like the sky’.
But I could see that a haze was already beginning to form- a thin watery film which would soon become a thick curtain of steely grey, drawn firmly across the blue of morning. It was October, late in Kremt, the season of long rains, and although they were slowly ceasing, the weather in the Simien Mountains was still unpredictable. I watched a group of shepherds pull their checked woven blankets more tightly around their shoulders against the morning chill. We’d have to get going soon.
Our scout pulled a striped snood over his head, slung his Kalashnikov over one shoulder and slunk off ahead, leaving us to traipse behind, stamping our feet to warm them as we walked. We soon found ourselves removing our layers and tying them round our waists, turning our faces to the sun whose rays were now puncturing the thin air. We wandered through phallic landscapes of giant lobelia, huge versions of the red- hot pokers which had dotted the escarpment of the previous day. Their stubby trunks emerged from the grass, sprouting large balls of spiky aloe- like leaves before tapering to long protruberances which pointed proudly towards their native sky. In contrast to the wildflowers and woodlands, and the sheer drama of the northern escarpment we’d walked along the previous day, there was something other- wordly, almost lunar about this terrain of silvery grasses, boulders and these alien plants.
We’d walked for more than an hour, and climbed a further few hundred metres when Tifitu, our mountain guide, pointed ahead.
‘There it is. Imet Gogo. Place of great beauty.’
As we approached a frame of rock, fringed with dancing grasses, the world fell away, gently at first, then more steeply, as though the land had been sliced. Lammergeyers soared overhead as our viewpoint tumbled into an astonishingly deep valley. I caught sight of miniature tin rooves here and there, as they flashed for a moment in the brightness. This world below us felt like a million miles away in every sense.
At the other end of the valley, the land sloped back up into the mountains on the far side. Their ridges rose steeply away from us, and their slopes lay in velvety folds, one of each alight with the sun whilst their dark sides plunged into shadowy ravines. Beyond this, further ranges lay perpendicular, lining up endlessly, waiting their turn to step away towards the still- blue horizon, before fading into the haze.
It was time to go. We were to cross the park southwards to Ambaras, home to many of the mountain scouts and their families where we would be met by a car which would take us back to Gondar town. We descended steeply, scrambling over boulders, taking care as we skidded down the scree, pausing to watch a family of gelada baboons play in the crevices of a steep piece of rock. It grew cooler and darker, the curtain of grey finally unfolding as we walked. I looked back to see the heights of Imet Gogo shrouded in billowing cloud. Its glory had passed for the day. It had had its moment. And so, I reflected, had we.