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At last I am here—in Ethiopia,
a country on the eastern edge of Africa, the horn
of Africa, the sub-Saharan, the birthplace of humankind.
Here I am for adventure. Despite the 66.5 million
people, I feel alone, far from the familiar, far from
medical facilities, far from loved ones—far
away. Yet, there are also elements of familiarity
and comfort in this cultural exploration and hiking
expedition. I’ve been this remote before and
know the potential consequences. It’s strange
that this world of adversity and fragility can feel
comfortable. But working in the mountains and on the
ocean has taught me how to thrive and enjoy this type
of life. I embrace it here on the edge of my personal
comfort zone, it is here that I learn the most and
feel the most alive. But this time is different—I
This expedition to Ethiopia is not about
climbing the highest peak, running an unknown river,
or spending 75 days in the backcountry, though I value
those experiences. Usually, my personal expeditions
are about personal growth and understanding. Expeditions
teach lifelong lessons and unite me with new cultures.
This journey is no different.
I leave for the mountains from the
city of Gondar before first light, while the muffled
and scratchy speakers project the call to Morning
Prayer over the town. The intonation of the song resonates
over rooftops, by doorways, and through the cloth
that covers windows. There are a few kerosene lanterns
glowing in houses, but mostly it is dark. On my way
to the bus station I walk past silent shadows and
silhouettes of people carrying loads of hay or rice
on their heads and shoulders. It is market day.
In the bus station, drivers shout names
of destinations: “Lalibela! Lalibela! Axum!
Axum! Debark!” In the dull light of dawn people
run to board the buses before the seats are filled.
I am lucky to share a two-person seat with three others.
Such is travel in Africa. I leave the station aboard
a colorful bus that meanders drowsily through the
narrow streets. The bus driver swerves slowly around
children, goats, mules, and bikers—an obstacle
course of moving objects that no one seems to mind.
There is one tape of music that plays four songs repeatedly
during the five-hour trip. I am grateful for the slow
pace and start to relax a little as we climb into
I bounce along surrounded by a sea of
white cloth, the traditional clothing for Christian
Ethiopians. In Ethiopia, I was told the safety of
the bus ride is not determined by the physical condition
of the vehicle but by the religious affiliation of
the driver—Muslim or Christian. A friend said
the Muslim drivers believe that Allah controls their
fate, therefore, there is no need to slow down around
sharp corners with a 1,000-foot drop off. The Christian
bus drivers, however, believe that fate is in their
own hands and every action they take will be judged
at the gates of heaven, so in general they drive much
slower. As a self-imposed rule, I try to travel in
buses with Jesus memorabilia.
When I arrive in Debark it’s dusty
and hot. People walk barefoot along the road hidden
in the shade of their black umbrellas. I take refuge
under a weathered baseball cap. Here, in the highlands,
the sun feels closer to me, but I feel closer to the
earth, like my skin is starting to blend in with the
burnt tones around me.
This is where I begin hiking into Simien
Mountain National Park, located in the northcentral
portion of Ethiopia on a massive high altitude plateau.
It is a well maintained park with trails that eventually
lead to Ras Dashen (4,620 meters), the fourth highest
peak in Africa. The park is home to people, livestock,
and a variety of flora and fauna, including four endemic
animals. The farmers are allowed to grow crops in
the park and the domestic animals can graze there.
For the people who live within the park boundaries,
it is their home first and a national park second.
Feeding the family is what is most important. Yet,
they respect the land, and need it for survival, so
there is an invested interest in the park.
Here I find wilderness as far as the
eye can see. Ethiopia appears far more remote and
empty than I imagined when I began this expedition.
Already something doesn’t feel right, and I’m
scared, but I don’t know why. I remind myself
that I’ve been this remote before. I know the
potential consequences and I accept the risk, and
usually embrace the adversity and fragility of this
type of travel. I feel comfortable in the journey
of the unknown. Working for NOLS in the mountains
or on the ocean has taught me how to thrive and enjoy
living like this. So why do I feel uneasy?
As required by park regulations, I
must hire a ranger who carries a Russian rifle. I’m
told that because of the most recent civil war with
the now newly recognized country Eritrea, and because
of bandits, an armed ranger is necessary. Brono doesn’t
speak much English, and my Amharic is limited to a
few learned pleasantries. We manage to communicate
through laughs and sign language, but we end up hiking
in silence most of the day.
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