The Search for Africa’s Lone Wolf
by Steven Brydon
My hands cupped a porcelain mug of hot, richly dark coffee held close to my face to ward off the morning chill. The steam from the Arabica mixed with the vapor of my breath and gave the morning an extra crisp feeling. My shoulders were hunched and my elbows locked closely to my side and I buried my head into the folds and hood of my fleece jacket. Reminding myself that I was in fact in Africa, I peered out around me as the camp slowly stirred. A thick fog obscured the horizon and, barely able to make out the silhouette of the horizon, I contented myself with a half-hearted inspection of my immediate vicinity.
Our small bivouac was a clutter of several tents, each draped in yesterday’s clothes, a ramshackle and decaying stone cooking hut and the odd hiking boot and trekking pole mistakenly left out overnight and now dusted in frost. This is Africa. Right? Nearby, a squeeze of local goat herders, muleteers and guides sit in tightly wrapped blankets, one lazily trying to prod life into the warm embers from last nights fire. I had arrived at camp late afternoon yesterday, before the clouds gathered and rained down a shower that lasted most of the night. I was told to expect nightly storms but clear days and I was fine with that, another careful sip of coffee. Hot. I wondered silently, ‘would today be the day I would see Africa’s lone wolf?’
Ethiopia’s Simien Mountains National Park in the countries north is an enticing blend of unique wildlife and far reaching views over a basalt range and alpine grasslands shaped by time, nature and farming. I cannot recall when I first became aware of Ethiopia’s highlands but I can remember why I was drawn to the very spot I now found myself. The memory is a golden flicker, a scant recollection of a documentary featuring the continents only wolf species. Quite a few years have passed since I first heard of the Ethiopian Wolf but the one fact that captured me then, and lured me to this landscape now, was the chance to track and spot ‘the world’s rarest carnivore’ and Africa’s only species of wolf.
Today may be that day but as I readied myself to trek out of camp I could not help but reflect on the last few days. Getting into the National Park is adventure itself and the two days of driving and hiking to this point served as a memorable start to my week-long trek. Most visitors to Simien Mountains will commence the journey, usually in a battered but road worthy 4×4, from the city of Gondor.
I was fortunate enough to time my journey to see Gondor and the numerous towns and villages between it and the mountains on market day. All across Ethiopia, every Saturday and Wednesday, the villages and towns heave with livestock, goods being carried to and fro, bought or battered and then ferried away on shoulders, heads, tired pack animals or even more tired looking cars. A transfer is easy to arrange in town but as I was about to leave Gondor, I was met by a fine fellow, all smiles, who introduced himself as Yayo, the cook, as he started to load a week’s worth of rations.
Leaving Gondor was slow. Cows, mules and goats choked the roads and every corner and vacant space held makeshift stalls of fruit and vegetables, clothes and farming equipment. The same scene was repeated village after village and I slowly became numb to the colour and chaos. Between villages the greenery flashed by in a hypnotic blur and I dozed between frequent collisions with potholes. After nearly seven hours of driving, our little party arrived at Park Headquarters to register our route, procure a travel permit and pick up the obligatory guide and armed scout. For a set fee, determined by the trekking itinerary, my entrance chit afforded me the services of a guide named Sugar and an AK-47 wielding Scout, named Scout.
Formalities determined and introductions made, our little posse squeezed into the 4×4 for a further hour of driving deeper into the range. Fortunately language was no barrier, Sugar spoke enough English to more than make up for my non-existent Amharic and Scout, spoke a local dialect that neither Sugar or I could understand. The assault rifle balanced across his lap as we bounced past the park’s boundary offered an air of danger and intrigue to the journey. But in reality, or so I was led to understand, the Scouts are armed simply because the farmers and herders in the area enjoy carrying firearms. OK, that’s explanation enough for me; let’s go.
When we finally alighted from the 4×4 I drew in deep breaths of the cool air and the oily odor of car and city quickly faded. As we walked along I probed Sugar for details about our route, chances of seeing wolves and other species in the area. Keeping pace with Sugar and Scout was comfortable and I relaxed into a slow gait while keeping my eyes to the horizon as much as the rocky trail would allow. Almost immediately I started to get a sense of the immense scale and spectacle of the Simien Mountains. The margins of this high plateau consist of precipitous cliffs and deep, green gorges. In many areas, the escarpments to left and right offer wonderful natural lookout points and once again I became lost in daydreams.
The Ethiopia of my past was a land that existed only in news telecasts of harrowing montages of poverty and famine. Ethiopia was the Africa of Bob Geldof, where we sent money to, why we had all night rock concerts and I never imagined ever ‘going there’. But that Ethiopia is, if not forgotten, not evident or discussed. Ethiopia today has a thriving tourism industry, is one of the world’s leading coffee exporters and is doing more and more to attract visitors with its warm and engaging people, distinct tribal cultures and stunning landscapes.
I shook the thoughts of the last few days out of my mind and, as I stood in a wet campsite not far from the village of Geech I set aside my coffee and stowed my camera, water and some lunch into a small daypack. There were a few other groups in camp, most would follow the same route from Geech to Chenuck and perhaps beyond Ambikvo to tackle Ras Dashen or to circle back to the park’s entrance at Debark.
Over night our troupe had grown by four mulemen and their docile but healthy caravan of mules. Each day they would break camp and move on to set up the next site in readiness for my mid-to-late afternoon arrival. I came to enjoy the routine of watching the team shift methodically out of camp and, under muffled protests from the mules, I waved them farewell only to be greeted by their cheers and smiles each afternoon. Maybe the group was betting whether or not I would make it in each day, or counting on a healthy gratuity at the end of the week?
Ethiopia’s unique biospheres of steep cliffs, cool climate and high tree lines are vital for the survival of several endangered and endemic species. In addition to the Ethiopian Wolf, also know as the Simien Fox, many other animals are found in the Park, most notably the Walia Ibex and the endemic, yet commonly sighted, Gelada baboon. Like many other travelers, I was attracted by the rareness of these species, but also by the trekking itself and the opportunity to spend a week hiking over mountain passes between villages and absorbing what I could from the experience. Now after a night in camp I had rid myself of the bumps and bruises sustained on the road from Gondor and was more than happy to be tracking wolves for the day. I also pestered Sugar about seeing Walia Ibex and the startlingly impressive looking Gelada Baboon. Sugar reassured me, “Gelada most definitely, Ibex? Maybe.” And Wolf? “Maybe, maybe.”
Our entourage crossed a wide saddle of grass in single file and when I glanced left the earth seemed to drop away, the horizon now a bright blue day against the lush sway of the grass. Not long after departing we paused at an immense canyon, the rocky wall below punctuated by a 500 metre streak of raging water crashing onto the valley floor below. The sun was creeping in now and its warmth was chasing away shadows from the canyon walls and pushing the mist up to its rim. As the cloud rose above us I shivered until light completely filled the great yawn below me. Ethiopian vultures had started to circle, hovering and gliding, scanning the nooks and crevices for Alpine Rats. All creatures, great and small seemed to be welcoming the sun’s heat and I settled for a few moments to take pictures and steel a little rest.
Sugar and Scout urged me out along a precarious neck of rock to a better vantage point. After a slow, careful crawl along the short but narrow ridge I understood their enthusiasm for the spot. The falls crashed perfectly to my front now, framed by a wide rock amphitheatre as the vultures continued their circular vigil below.
The plan for the rest of the day was to trek a looping arc in the area before settling back at the Geech camp for another evening. The grassy terrain of the plateau made for easy walking and shortly after leaving the falls we crossed a bend in a the road that links villages within the park and walked up on a family of grazing Gelada Baboons. Grinning, and with hurried movements I pulled my camera from my backpack and snapped away. Uninterested, the troupe ignored me and foraged through the tussocks of grass. The Gelada, like other baboons, are mostly terrestrial and seemingly unperturbed by people. It is a large and striking ‘Old World Monkey’ with a thick quilt of coarse hair and pale eyelids set deep in a dark face. Adult males have a long, heavy cape of hair on their backs and wispy fronds of lighter hair on their cheeks and crown. Its most distinguishing feature, from other baboon, is a bright red hourglass-shaped patch of skin on its chest, earning it the alternate moniker of the ‘Bleeding Heart Baboon’.
Over the next several days I came to pass by, and amongst grazing Gelada many more times. Each experience enjoyable, offering different insights into their habits and behaviors and a welcome respite from trekking during the heat of the day. I wandered away from that initial sighting with Scout close in toe. He and I shared absolutely zero conversation but we both somehow whiled away most of the day in chatter. Pointing, exaggerated gestures for stop, eat (or was that stop eating), rest and ‘watch out you’re about to walk off a cliff’ enabled us to enjoy each other’s quiet company.
I arrived back at camp exhausted and elated, after a wonderful day wandering the range and catching fleeting glimpses of bushbucks and Klipspringer. On queue and shortly after our arrival in camp, the storm clouds also appeared. The sky closed in and grew dark before opening up in a heavy but mercilessly short downpour. The sun burst bright again just as a large herd of goats was led through camp and as I settled down for the de rigor dinner of noodles and vegetables.
After dark and huddled around a low fire, Sugar and I discussed the days ahead. “We cannot say for sure we will see a wolf tomorrow. But tomorrow, we will see a wolf.”
“For sure?” I asked, smiling.
Evidently farmers had seen a wolf gazing near by just before sunset and if the winds were right it was likely to be still hunting in the area from first light. After another damp night of broken sleep I rose excited and packed quickly. The mulemen broke camp once more and waited for us to depart. Sugar and Scout seemed anxious and spoke in low tones, pointing to a rocky bluff a kilometre or so from camp. I suspect they knew a wolf was in the area but may have been frightened off by noisy mules and noisier mulemen, arguing and laughing as if it were the national sport.
Sugar was confident, this is a good place to see the wolf he said. In truth it is more likely to see wolf in the Bale Mountains in the countries’ south, where its numbers are higher than the population in the Simiens. Based on a census taken by a research team in 2010 only 102 wolves lived in Simien Mountains. A disturbingly small number, but with an overall adult population estimated at 360-440 individuals my chances of seeing one were tiny, so I may as well enjoy the views the Simien massif was treating me to.
The Ethiopian Wolf is similar in size and build to a coyote and, from pictures, reminded me more of a Dingo than a wolf. It has long and narrow skull and reddish-brown fur with flecks of white. One of the reasons its habitat is so isolated is because the Ethiopian Wolf has evolved a specialised diet of Afroalpine rodents and very specific habitat requirements. Threats to their already tiny population are habitat degradation through overgrazing and disease from farmers’ free ranging dogs. Despite our banter and Sugar’s confidence, I did not hold out much hope of seeing one.
Not far from camp we paused as Sugar motioned toward a low rocky crag to our far right. He liked the wind direction and was confident he recognised the site that farmers described to him the evening before. Excited now he pointed and smiled at me, “yes, the wolf is still there.”
“Where?” Sugar guided my gaze toward the shadows at the base of the small kopje of rocks and just visible was a rusty flash well camouflaged amongst the crags. Despite such an obstructed view, and through binoculars, I was elated and my excited was poorly contained as I skittered around to get the best view I could.
This wolf was an excellent hunter and we watched him stalk three rats in 15 minutes. Unlike most social carnivores, the Ethiopian Wolf tends to forage and feed on small prey alone. It is most active during the day, when rodents are themselves most active. Abyssinian grass rats live in large colonies and dart from burrow to burrow, trying to avoid wolves and raptors. True to nature, we were watching a lone wolf pause then pounce and repeat. As inspired as I was by the spectacle it was time to move on, but I did so content in a way that only success can bring.
By now the coolness of morning was long gone and we searched for a nice spot to halt and enjoy lunch and respite from the heat. A couple of hours trekking eastwards from Geech a spur runs out from the escarpment to form the towering serrations of the Imet Gogo Pinnacles. The pinnacles that dominate the far rim of the seemingly bottomless Geech Abyss are commonly captured in postcards and the perfect setting for lunch. Scout sat close to the edge of precipice with a relaxed grip on his AK-47. It was a picture perfect moment and I snapped a quick photo before Scout shifted. When he heard my camera click he turned and smiled. Scout loved getting his photo taken and whenever I pointed a lens toward him he adopted an intimidating piercing stare. When I lowered the camera he never failed to laugh, ask to see the picture and nod, quite impressed with himself indeed.
After a short while I settled back on my pack in the long grass and surrendered to the sun’s warmth for a nap before moving on to Chenek. In camp, with plenty of daylight left, I made my way down under the watchful escort of the ever-present Scout, to a nearby stream to wash my clothes. Scout shuffled until he could contain his frustration no more. Evidently I was doing a poor job of the laundry and Scout smiled and took the sopping clothes from me. Watching an armed scout hunched over, an AK-47 still slung over his shoulders, pounding my clothes against a concrete slab, was a surreal sight indeed. He handed my clothes back to me with a flourish and smile at a job well done and we wandered back to the fireside as the clouds rolled in.
My week in the Simien Mountains followed a similar routine of frosty mornings, warm days and angry skies at night. Wildlife and wildflowers by day and the growl of thunder and dance of electrical storms on the horizon crowned each evening. My memories are filled with images of Gelada moving, unconcerned through our campgrounds and between the tents, eating, screeching and settling family squabbles as they went.
Not far from Chenek, on the road to Ambikwe a small herd of Walia Ibex nibbled at the short grasses just off a gravel road. The matriarch, his thick scimitar-like horns sweeping back over his shoulders stood proud over his harem. Seeing the Ibex capped a stunningly successful week of trekking and tracking wildlife. The trekking was challenging on occasion, made all the more difficult by the hot sun overhead and uneven trails underfoot, but it was always rewarding. My days were punctuated by rare treats; sightings of more wolves, bartering with goat herders for traditional woolen hats and strolling through beautiful patches of the Lolibella plant with their orange trumpet shaped flowers in stark contrast to the green hills and the brown fields of region’s tilled farmlands.
With the trek drawing to a close near the town of Debark I was greeted by the mulemen with flowers, a traditional Ethiopian gift for someone returning from a great journey. And although brief, that is exactly what it felt like. During the course of the trek I think I shook hands with every child in Ethiopia. On our last evening we enjoyed some Tej, a potent mead served in a small glass flask in a cluttered and dusty shebeen. If the Simien Mountains are the jewel of Ethiopia, these small moments are its gems. With more than a tinge of melancholy I bid farewell to Scout and the mulemen as they faded back to their villages. They were central to my enjoyment of the country and I missed them. I updated my diary and watched three thin boys chase three thinner chickens around camp. Yayo smiled at me; no noodles and vegetables tonight. Perfect.
Emirates has daily flights from most Australian capitals cities to Dubai and a daily connection to Addis Ababa. Ethiopian Airlines has daily flights from Addis Ababa to Gondor
Trekking in the Simien Mountains
Numerous operators (world Expeditions, Intrepid) offer organized tours or Guides, Scouts and Mules can be procured locally at Park Headquarters with little difficult
The Best Time to Visit
December through April has plenty of sunshine, but the days can be hazy. The rains fall in June, July and August, keeping visitor numbers low.