WE ARRIVED IN THE dusty village of Debark after two days of flights and four hours in a grinding local bus. The headquarters of Simen Mountains National Park is a tin-roofed bungalow on a steep hillside.
The cost for a week of trekking in the park for two hikers—plus a scout, a guide, a muleteer, and two pack animals (all mandatory)—was roughly $200. An hour after we paid, our packs were already cinched onto two small, slight horses; our white-turbaned mule-skinner-cum-holy-man had murmured prayers for the safety of our journey; Mulat had filled his army canteen with water; Douré had filled his clip with 30 shiny bullets; and we were off.
The trail sliced up through an erosional landscape of mesas and deep gorges where the bird life was stunning.
"Over 830 species in Ethiopia," said Mulat, "Sixteen endemic to only Ethiopia, 14 endemic to Ethiopia and Eritrea."
Mulat could name every bird we encountered: red-winged starling, blackheaded siskin, kestrel, white-backed vulture, thick-billed raven. There was an enormous, rufous-colored, sharp-winged raptor circling above us. I pointed up at it.
"The lammergeier," Mulat said gravely. "The bone bird."
The lammergeier is a mythic creature to Ethiopians, for it feeds on marrow. Living on the edge of precipices, it will raise skeletons high into the sky, dash them onto the rocks, and then extract the marrow with its curved beak. Legend has it that the lammergeier will sometimes dive at animals, even humans, trying to scare them into falling off the escarpment.
While I walked with Mulat, Sue walked with Douré. The two of them developed an immediate, intuitive rapport. Because Douré did not speak a word of English, Sue practiced her fledgling Amharic.
"Dehna-neh, Douré?" How are you, Douré?
Douré's regal face, very small and chiseled and refined, with pointed cheekbones, a prince's nose, and topped by a purple skullcap, crinkled in delight. "Dehna!" I am fine. He had the highest voice of any man I'd ever met.
I asked Mulat why Douré carried a machine gun.
"For protection," said Mulat.
"Leopards," said Mulat.
"Leopards don't attack grown humans," I argued.
"Hyenas don't attack humans."
"OK. Humans," Mulat said finally. "Humans do attack humans."
Who? Rebels left over from the war with Eritrea? Bandits? Opportunists? I was unsure what he meant.
"Are there people in this park who would attack us?"
"Then why are we required to hire an armed guard?"