The signs were bad: the wolf researchers had already had a tyre blowout before we joined them. That was the spare tyre gone and, being a Landrover, replacement tyres could only be sourced from Addis, hundreds of miles south. We decided to continue anyway – as Chris Gordon, the Ethiopian Wolf Conservation Programme’s coordinator pointed out, it was the first tyre puncture they’d had in 7 months with the car, so how unlucky could we be?
Very, it turned out. We had gone just half an hour into the journey from Gonder to the Simien Mountains National Park when there was an ominous bang. Chris stopped the car and he, his partner Anne-Marie Stewert, the other researchers, me and Nick hopped out to take a look. Flat tyre. We jacked it up, took off the tyre, stopped a truck heading to the nearest town and sent oe of the guys off with the tyre to get it fixed.
We were en route to one of the few remaining habitats for this most endangered canid, Africa’s rarest carnivore. The Ethiopian wolf is fox like in colour and unusual in behaviour. Chris and Anne-Marie’s group is the only one working to actively conserve the species, by vaccinating dogs against rabies (their main threat) and trying to convince the government here to allow them to deliver oral vaccination to the wolves by baiting.
They were travelling to the Simiens from their research base in the Bale Mountains, where there are 250 wolves, to collect data on the northern population. With them was a researcher from Frankfurt Zoological Society who was collecting GPS data on land-use change – the wolves’ diet consist almost entirely of marmoset rodents, and as agriculture creeps up the mountains, the rodents are being ploughed out of existence, threatening the wolves.
Nick and I were very excited to be seeing the wolves, and happy when an hour later, the tyre returned fixed. We continued down the road for perhaps another four minutes, when the tyre reflattened. Aaggh! Very frustrating. It would take another four days four a new tyre to arrive from Addis.
As the crowd of local people with, as is always the way in these places, nothing better to do than stand around watching us, grew, me and Nick had to make a tough decision.
We decided to press on into the mountains, rather than turn back. We hitched a lift from a passing truck, and got ourselves organised with the compulsory scout (guy with gun to protect us from leopards), guide, mule and mule-man. We bought food from the market, rented cooking supplies and headed up on foot into the mountains, the largest high-altitude ecosystem in Africa.
On the way, above flower-filled meadows and streams, we saw beautiful lammergeier birds (bearded vultures) soaring effortlessly above us. Then one dropped a horse bone from a great height, precisely onto a rock just a few metres from us. They do this to release the marrow – they have specially shaped tongues to scoop it out – and we were luckier than one Ancient Greek poet, who met his end when a lammergeier dropped a tortoise on his head.
The path rose higher and higher, and beside us, the escarpment grew more and more spectacular. Once we get decent internet connection, we’ll upload some images.