Bleeding Hearts

Of baboon lust, ibex ballets, and the necessity of the African wolf.

May 1, 2001
Outside Magazine
THERE WAS NO EASING into this trek. In four hours we covered 12 miles and gained 3,000 feet. Much of the land was intensely cultivated, a dry quiltwork of barley fields and hayfields and pastures shorn down to the dirt by goats and sheep. When Simen Mountains National Park was established, in 1969, the region was populated, the plateau thoroughly agrarian. Only the face of the escarpment was free of humans. Encroachment by farmers and livestock was already decimating the park's wildlife. Still, local men were given the opportunity to work for the park as scouts. Some of their families had lived here for 2,000 years; this was their habitat as well.

We met shepherds and farmers, their knobby-kneed legs hardly thicker than their canes, on every slope. Douré greeted all of them. They were his neighbors and we shook their hands. We reached the lip of the escarpment at dusk and camped.

The next morning we encountered the flying-trapeze troop of lion baboons. They made such an impression on Sue and me that, while the muleteer and packhorses beelined for the next camp through the tilled fields, we insisted that the four of us hike along the escarpment for the rest of the journey. Because of the denticulated architecture of the rim, with its numerous and perilous lookouts, this would add countless miles to our trip.

Douré was silently skeptical. No ferenge (Amharic for "gringo") had ever walked the rim. That trail was for the wild animals, and the locals, people who knew how to walk. But by the third day we had proven ourselves.

There is one sure way to gain the respect of a village African: Walk with him. NGO workers are chauffeured around in white Land Cruisers. Soldiers roar by in military trucks. The untouchably wealthy blacks and Indians cruise past in Mercedes sedans with tinted windows. But rural Africans walk. Their legs are their life. You can give them food or money or praise or pity and you will hardly get a thank-you. But just once, step out of your automobile and volunteer to walk with them, at their pace for as long as they walk and as far as they walk, without whining or judging or condescending, and you have earned their respect for life.

Ethiopians go only by first names, which often have meaning. Tesfaye means "Hope." Terunesh means "Wonderful." Ababa, "Flower." Halfway through our trek, Douré rechristened Sue "Madame Gobez." Madame Strong.