The small town of Debark, Ethiopia is known as the gateway to the Simien Mountains National Park and it was here that we spent the night (in a local hotel) before our camping adventure began.This gave us the chance to charge all our electrical equipment for the last time for a few days, and for some of the cook groups to use the hotel kitchen for some useful ‘prep’.(Mark’s group took the opportunity to hard boil 40 eggs for our first campsite lunch!)
We also got to meet our guide, Bini, from Simien Experience, who explained all about the treks we would do and the wildlife we could see. We were then introduced to our ‘scouts’, armed guards who are required by the Ethiopian government to accompany all visitors to the National Park, their purpose being to protect us from ambush – human or, more likely, animal.
It was somewhat disconcerting to have these wiry care-worn individuals, with their rifles and inscrutable expressions, join us on the truck the next morning, but it was surprising how quickly we accepted them into our group and, before long, I think they were much more bemused by us than we were by them!
We had to cater for them when we prepared meals. Most of them refused all of our offerings and ate only bread, even when it had become completely stale after the first day. One of their number, however, embraced our cooking. Ali happily tried everything we prepared and gave the thumbs up to most of it! We soon realised that we didn’t have nearly enough sugar when each of our guards requested six spoonfuls in their coffee! By day two, we had introduced them to the wonder of sweeteners. They were baffled at how six tiny tablets could make their drinks taste so good!!
When it came to sleeping, the guards spurned our offer of the use of a spare tent, preferring, when not on watch, to sleep in the open, protected only by a thin blanket. This led, on the second morning, to me waking to the sight of Ali, lying a little way from our tent, covered in a layer of white frost glistening in the moonlight!
As well as protecting us from wildlife (Ali told us that a leopard had walked through the middle of our camp on our first night!), the guards also made sure that we left no rubbish behind. Everything that we considered to be trash and would have binned, they put in bags to take home – empty cans, empty bottles, sweet wrappers, torn plastic bags, rock hard stale bread, everything! All of this would be recycled, upcycled or sold on to make a few pennies.
On our last night in camp, we bought a lamb for dinner out of our remaining kitty money. Obviously, this was purchased alive, so our guards were tasked with slaughtering and skinning it for us. In return, they got to keep the offal and the skin, which they dried on a bush at the edge of the camp. We were told that this was a big prize for one of them to take home to their family. As for the lamb, we prepped it and barbecued it over the open fire, giving us what was probably the best meal of the trip!
When our guards left us in Debark at the end of our camping expedition, we gave them a collective tip. To us, it amounted to very little, but, to them, it was the equivalent of a month’s wages – a boon in the lives of men leading such a precarious existence.