We arrived at the grimly poor town of Debark, our base for hiking in the Simien mountains. The altitude is 2,800 metres (9,250 feet), which is 400 metres higher than the highest ski resort in the Alps. It's cold and the grinding poverty is palpable. I don't know what they eat here, but there is nothing to speak of in the grey and dirty market except for onions and cookware made from beaten-out oil drums, spread out in heaps on the muddy ground and ineffectually protected from the elements by rudimentary structures of eucalyptus poles and ragged flapping plastic. Everything is dusty and grimy including the ragged barefoot children, but I fancied the atmosphere was one of determination rather than despair. One man's entire business seemed to be trying to sell one pair of second-hand trainers, but at least he wasn't begging.
But still wherever we go people wave, blow kisses, kiss their thumbs and race the truck in bare feet at altitudes where just walking leaves some of our party breathless.
These mountains are really something. Unfeasibly large sheer-sided rocks, waves, corrugations, egg-box patterns, dizzying drops and vast walls of rock filling one's entire field of vision.
Here the mule outdoes the Hi-lux as the chief mode of transport. I tried riding one. It was a bit like trying to have a conversation with a profoundly deaf person or, better, an autistic child (in this context I will make no mention of Marek - who, having now read my attempts to make him famous, has become uncaharacteristically taciturn with me. He'll come round, I know he loves me). I tried riding a horse too – an ancient pack animal with no teeth. My sympathy that such a poor old creature was still in harness was tempered by the consideration that in most other countries she would have been dog meat years ago. At least here she still had some commercial value. Her tack was made from string and bent wire. This old lady had made love to so many donkeys that she was bow-legged and probably thought of herself as a mule. She certainly behaved like one.
The truck is very inefficient at these altitudes which, combined with the many steep inclines, gives us plenty of time to marvel at the panoramas which greet us at every hairpin turn. We spent two nights camping in the Simien mountains. At the first site, a late-arriving group of tourists made the mistake of asking Marek to move his tent so they could pitch theirs in a neat group. I could have warned them not to mess with a Pole who had just finished a long struggle with aluminium and canvas in less than hospitable conditions.
The second camp was at 3,600 metres, over 12,000 feet. This is now 50% higher than Val Thorens and above the height at which it is a disciplinary offence in the RAF not to use oxygen in unpressurised aircraft. It was miserably cold from the moment the sun set, and it froze hard overnight. Most of us were equipped for the desert and had not expected such conditions in Africa. Even fully-dressed and with a borrowed blanket and knitted hat to supplement my lightweight sleeping bag, I was awake all night with the cold. I have already told you (several postings back) how Marek greeted the dawn.
In order to trek in these mountains our group of 18 had to have 2 guides and 3 armed scouts. My group set off for a peak at 4,400 metres (over 14,500 feet) but the pace proved too much for a 60 year-old former wage slave. Apparently my maximum safe heart rate is 160. Thinking I might be overdoing things I stopped to check – 176. From then on I made regular stops and saw the rest of the group gradually disappear ahead of and above me. I was still a few (OK, a lot of) metres short of the top when I met them coming down, and silently affected a pained expression and a severe limp as a possible justification for my performance. All a bit embarrassing for a newly-qualified ski instructor who had been (very subtly) bragging about his familiarity with high altitudes.
It didn't seem to faze Pierre though, and he's a year older than me – but then he's always been a clean-living man. Not only that but let me tell of one of the scouts, who hung back to keep me company. During one of our breathless conversations (I refer to myself only, his conversation was annoyingly breathful) without more than a few words in common, he communicated to me that we were both born in the same month and year. Smug bastard (forgive that remark, it was only made for effect, he was lovely guy and shared his modest rations with me). I was dressed in full safari gear and butch-looking hiking boots bought only recently at Black's Leisure - in both Chiswick High Road and their sale. I also carried an avalanche probe - not that there was any snow, but because I thought it gave me a rather professional panache, as well as something to lean on. He, on the other hand, was dressed in plastic sandals without socks and, rather improbably you may think, a two piece pin-striped City suit. This is the gospel truth. I didn't embarrass him by asking to see the label but, although ill-fitting and very worn, it was well-made and elegantly cut. It could well have been Gieves & Hawkes. I really should have asked him to show me that label, it would have made a much better story - damn. All in all, as you will have gathered, I felt a bit of a twat.
Fear ye not, there is more self-pitying bleating to come.