Tuesday, November 1

Simien National Park – Ethiopia

Mary: From Axum we headed to Debark, which is a grotty, dirty shanty town. Here you really do get hassled, but I think we are getting used to it and it didn’t seem terrible. We camped in the parking lot/rubble heap of the Simien Park Hotel (at $3 per tent we couldn’t really complain). We headed off to the Tourist Office to get tickets for Simien Mountain National Park (entry $5.50 90 birr pp/day, car $1.50 20 birr/day, scout $4.50 75 birr/day, camping $0.50 10 birr pppn, map $20 – not really necessary). You have to take a scout (we were assigned a cheerful old guy called Fante) but they don’t speak English, which is obviously designed to encourage you take a guide as well, but that means you should probably hire a mule and mule-driver to carry the guide’s stuff, and one more mule for your stuff, and then you may as well also take a cook, and another mule to carry the food… We didn’t want a whole expensive entourage and being excellent mimes we weren’t put off by Fante’s lack of English, so we didn’t take anyone else, which the guy at the Ticket Office assured us was fine. We got the guys to tell Fante to meet us at our hotel at 8:30 the next morning and headed off. There was a fantastic cafe at the hotel where we had a really good dinner and then headed to bed.
At 7am, Fante turned up to collect us. We were running low on fuel but there is no petrol in Debark (only diesel), so we bought 5l on the black market at a 50% mark-up. Having paid for the fuel we were also pretty low on cash, and there is also no ATM in town, but we figured we wouldn’t need to buy anything and we had enough for a tip for the scout, so we were confident we would be ok. How wrong we were! We arrived at Sankaber campsite where we were planning to spend the first night and got ready to hike to the waterfall. Just as we were leaving the campsite, the senior scout came up and said we needed to pay for an extra scout to guard the car, in case it got stolen. He was extremely aggressive and when we showed him the alarm and gearlock he told us that if we didn’t pay him, “something would definitely break on the car – maybe the mirror or a window”. We even said I would stay and guard the car while Brett went off on the hike, and at that point he really lost it and chased us out of the campsite shouting at us that we couldn’t stay there unless we paid him. We were really annoyed and cleared out, heading for Chennek campsite instead. Chennek is much prettier, with stunning views over the escarpment, and we didn’t have anyone asking for money, so we set off for a hike with Fante up to Inathi peak (4064m). The hike was great, initially very steep as we climbed past herds of grazing cattle and then levelled off. The only problem was the hordes of children who followed us asking for money, pens, t-shirts etc and trying to get us to buy their baskets and hats. They were relentless, following us for several hours and crowding round us when we stopped for lunch. We sat at the peak watching the eagles swooping around us. When we got back to camp, we expected Fante to leave us and hang out with the other scouts in the kitchen, where they apparently get fed and sleep as well. Instead, he hung around while we were reying to relax and eventually laid out his blanket to sleep next to the car – we had to get another guide to come and chat to him – apparently he was worried our stuff might get nicked so was planning to sleep under our tent to guard us…we told him he was fine to go sleep in the kitchen where it is warmer and we finally got some peace.
It was freezing in the night so we slept in a bit the next morning before getting ready to go on our next hike, up to Bhawit peak (4430m). Lo and behold, just as we were setting off up the road, one of the camp scouts appeared to tell us that, surprise surprise, our car wasn’t safe and we would need to hire another scout to look after the car while we were gone, and to top it off, if we wanted to hike up to Bhawit peak we would need an additional scout to come with us as one isn’t enough! By this point we had had enough, but at least the guy was nice about it, so we told him we didn’t have enough money for all these additional scouts and that we were only willing to pay for one extra scout to guard the car (which was not quite true but near enough). This did the trick and we handed over the extra cash, setting off up the hill. We suspected Fante’s English was fractionally better than stated when we started discussing how we would now have less of a tip for him, as he went into a bit of a huff. It is amazing how these things can ruin a hike, and we were both in pretty bad moods. We came across a large group of Gelada baboons on the way and stopped for photos – they seem quite relaxed around people and you would never want to be that close to a normal baboon. Suddenly an Ibex with massive horns came walking down the road, followed by 2 other adults and a couple of juveniles. This was quite a treat and we started up the steepest part of the hike feeling slightly better. By the time we got up to the top of Bhawit our bad moods had evaporated and we soaked up the amazing views – absolutely fantastic and we started to believe that our luck had finally turned Smile hehehe...
When we got back to camp the car was completely unguarded with the fantasy additional scout nowhere to be seen. We made some popcorn and settled into a nice sit-and-relax, and just then an English lady came up to ask for help. She was hiking with her husband, son and his girlfriend on an organised tour, but the son’s girlfriend had become very unwell with altitude sickeness. The tour company vehicle had left and they weren’t sure if it would be coming back that night, they had no first aid and they really needed to get her down to a lower altitude – could we pack up and take son & girlfriend down to Sankaber camp or preferably Debark? We both jumped at the chance to get back to Debark a night early rather than camping in the freezing mountains as the previous night had been so cold, and we had planned to pack up in the morning anyway to get on to Gonder. We were concerned about petrol as the fuel consumption had been so high due to the steep windy rough roads – the needle was below E and we didn’t want to run out on the way back to Debark with a sick patient onboard – so we asked if they had any petrol at the camp. Now, to clarify, petrol is “benzeen” in Amharic, whereas diesel is “naptha” (or “diesel”, or just “fuel”, since everything in town except motorbikes runs on diesel). So we said, “benzeen?”, and they said “yes, benzeen”, and that is how we ended up with 20l of diesel in the tank. The engine was turning over but we were not going anywhere and lots of smoke was coming out of the exhaust, drawing a massive crowd of spectators. “Maybe the fuel is a bit dirty” suggested one helpful fellow; “it must be the battery!” cried another. Suddenly suspicious, I asked the man with the yellow jerry if he was sure it was benzeen…”WHAAAAAT??? benzeen?? but this is DIESEL!” he replied, looking truly shocked – *!#@$%!!*.
The campsite scouts were really apologetic and pretty much every local at the campsite had a go at trying to siphon the diesel out, but the only pipe we could find was too short. Just as it started getting dark, we finally managed to get most of the diesel out by disconnecting the pipe leading to the fuel filter and pump (there was a lot more in the tank than we had thought, and we would have easily made it back to Debark – we now know exactly how much our reserve is!). Using our sat phone, the tour guide (Tesfaye) was able to contact their vehicle and arrange for the group to get collected and taken back down to Debark. We managed to scrounge some Diamox from some kindly Israeli hikers and said a hasty goodbye to the group as the headed down the mountain. They took one of our jerry cans and some dollars – Tesfaye had promised to come back the next morning with 20l of petrol. There was nothing for it but to set ourselves up for another night in the mountains.
Brett: After a fairly restless night we got up and made a cheer-up breakfast of eggs and viennas, and then settled in for the long wait for petrol. Mary was pessimistic about our chances of the petrol or our money ever being seen again, but at about 12 a truck full of locals pulled up and a guy jumped off, handed me the (full) jerry, some money and a handwritten note, climbed back on the truck and disappeared into the distance. Tesfaye had been true to his word and changed our dollars, bought us petrol, and sending it back up the mountain with the correct change in the hands of a trusty sheepherder – what a star. We didn’t waste any time and chugged the petrol in – on the 3rd attempt the Beast roared to life and we were on our way! The scouts at the campsite all came out to say goodbye and wish us well. It was a great feeling to finally blow that rice paddy and I don’t think any tourist has ever been happier to see Debark town. We were readier than ever to head on to Gonder, but needed to get more petrol as we didn’t have enough to get to the next petrol station. Of course, Murphy wasn’t done with us just yet and as we got to the Kobil station (only sells diesel but the manager runs the black market in petrol) we were told there was no more petrol available in Debark…so once again we handed over a jerry can and somebody promised to take the bus to Gonder to go buy petrol for us. We camped again at the Simien Park Hotel and treated ourselves to a nice dinner where we met a friendly Chinese/German girl travelling on her own, also hoping to go to Simien NP. We told her our tale of woe but didn’t put her off too much as it was still really beautiful and cheap (aside from the petrol/diesel disaster it had cost us $75 for 2 people for 3 days – tour companies were quoting $400pp).
In the morning a messenger came to tell us our petrol had arrived so we packed up and set off for the Kobil station. When we got there, they told us we just needed to go collect the jerry from somewhere else, so the manager hopped in the back and we drove off up a little dirt road towards the slummier part of town. We didn’t really know what was going on but had no choice but to go where he directed us… and he directed us to - the police station! At this point we were both a little tense and waiting 45 minutes for the police chief to turn up didn’t help, especially as the Kobil guys didn’t tell us much besides that the police had confiscated our jerry because the business was illegal, but that it would all be fine. When the police chief arrived we thought a fine/bribe would be requested, even though we hadn’t done anything wrong, and we couldn’t figure out exactly why we were at the police station in the first place. Fortunately this time it was all quickly resolved – there is no petrol in Debark so it is not a problem for the Kobil manager to run a black market in petrol (in fact he apparently supplies the police with petrol for their motorbikes!), but they had assumed that the Beast was diesel and that the manager was trying some elaborate scam on us by charging us an inflated price when there was already legitimate diesel in the pumps. After a quick inspection to confirm it was petrol in the jerry after all, we were released back into the wild. Finally we were on our way with enough petrol to get us to Gonder… we were free!

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