With each rumble of thunder there was a renewed sense of collective urgency amongst our eclectic group. Having been lost for several hours in the Eucalyptus and Pine forests that still engulf the remoter parts of Mount Entoto we were now mid-rescue. It had all started, as many such situations have before, with my bitter and unsoothable disappointment when we reached the top of what everyone assured us WAS Mt Entoto. Broken down by the noise and pollution of the sprawling city below I had spent hours the night before researching the nearest possible escapes. Encouraged by photographs of trees and talk of hiking up dirt tracks I had convinced two others to join me on my escape to nature. So I am sure you can understand, at least to a degree, the soul-crushing suffocation I felt as we reached my imagined oasis to find the road paved, the trees turned to houses and the air every bit as clogged and filthy as it had been in the city.
Close to tears and driven on by a desperation that may be described as irrational I had urged my two friends further and further along the dirt path leading out of this dusty hell and edging promisingly up-hill. We continued despondently along the side of this surprisingly busy road until I spotted some paths running parallel through the forest. And with our spirits beginning to revive and our lungs ceasing to rebel against the poisonous air we found ourselves wandering further and further into the forest. We had attributed our breathlessness to being at altitude (we were at around 2600 meters) but we found that the further we strayed from the polluted streets the easier our breathing became and we wandered effortlessly through the fragrant eucalyptus trees. To spur my companions onward I insisted we had not yet attained the summit of the mountain, and at every bend in the road I urged them on with the promise that it was ‘just around the corner’. We walked for over an hour and apart from an unpleasant encounter with some boys tending their goats who attempted to relieve us of our money and other belongings, we didn’t see a soul.
As the path we followed drew close to the road once more, and no summits were in view, my companions began to talk of returning to back to where we had started and perhaps exploring another direction. But drawn on by the remoteness of this place, by the creeping density of the trees and the deep rooted feeling of escape I couldn’t turn around. Just at that moment I spotted two white men on mountain bikes out on the dirt road. Like a crazed lioness descending on her prey I sprinted down the road after them. Out of breath and sweating I eventually drew level with them and caught their attention. After waiting patiently for me to regain my composure and enquire where they had come from and where we could go to get this promised panorama of the Gotham city we had left behind us, they assured me if we kept on just a bit further we would reach our destination and a suitable view point.
Elated I returned to my companions and we continued our journey. Emerging from the trees a short while later we found ourselves at an intersection decorated by a low key market. Not seeing any obvious view point we picked the path leading up hill, drawn on by a thicket of trees and what looked to be a summit just around the corner…
After another hour or so of walking and seeing what was ‘around the next corner’ the thunder storm which had been threatening all morning broke with an almost biblical fury. I couldn’t help thinking this was the punishment for the smog factory that lay below us. Washing away the diesel fumes and smoke and allowing it to start afresh. Soaked and disheartened we again began to discuss turning around. Just as I was beginning to concede defeat a bright white pickup sped round the corner and slowed to a stop as it approached us. Two Scandinavian men sat in the front and offered us a lift and some shelter from the downpour. When we enquired about the church we were trying to find where we had arranged to meet the other members of our group shortly, they hadn’t heard of it but instead informed us that they had just come from a hyena viewing point where they had seen 5 or 6 hyenas. With directions in our heads and renewed sense of adventure in our hearts we set off once more along the sodden dirt track.
As we found the turn off to the hyena viewing point we drew level with a group of boys aged about 8 to 15. They didn’t seem to speak English but were keen to guide us to the hyena viewing point. Enjoying our solitude, however, we declined their offer and continued to wander up this new dirt path. It was narrower and more rutted by the heavy rainfalls and felt even more isolated. I was suddenly filled with a deep contentment as I absorbed how far we had come into the heart of this wilderness. I stopped to look around at the border between the eucalyptus trees we had grown accustomed to and the new expanse of fir trees that lay ahead. Not far into this forest of firs we came across four young boys spread across the narrow path. They didn’t move as we approached them and their eyes gave off a hostility I had not yet encountered since my arrival in Ethiopia. As we passed them they still didn’t move and we had to walk off the path through the closest trees to get around the group. Something about them made me feel uneasy and it was with heavy steps that we proceeded on our journey. I could feel the energy of the whole group had changed as we plodded onwards. I glanced around to see the boys following us at a distance and we made the decision to turn around and head back to the bigger road. As we passed the boys again they changed direction and fell into step with us without a word. They were carrying heavy branches of wood on their shoulders and one had a hammer with a small axe blade. After they stalked us in this manner for a few minutes I gestured to my companions to stop and suggested to the boys through hand gestures that they continue on. They did so but stopped just 15 meters up the road and stared back at us. We waited for several minutes but they didn’t move and so we had no choice but to begin walking again. As we approached them again they began talking loudly to a young man dressed in jeans and a blue t-shirt who had appeared in a clearing above our heads. We had no idea what they were saying but could make out the word ‘farangi’ (meaning foreigner) was used frequently.
Our sense of unease was growing by the minute and I shared my new plan with the other girls. They were clearly planning something and weren’t going to walk away and we couldn’t risk them walking along with us as we still had a long way to go to reach the other road. Therefore our best hope was to try and speed up and walk past them. They were carrying heavy loads and we might be able to get away from them. We quickly increased our pace and I felt myself getting ahead of them but after a few minutes the others called me back. Without grips on their shoes they were slipping and sliding whenever they tried to speed up and the boys were easily matching their pace. Frustrated and beginning to be frightened I called them to stop again. Once more the boys walked on a short distance and stopped to watch us menacingly. I glanced down at the ground and noticed that it was littered with thick sticks. I picked up the biggest one I could see and the others copied. Brandishing it in as casual a manner as I could whilst trying to convey a subtly menacing message we began once more to walk toward the group. Surprisingly and to our relief this seemed to work. The boys continued to glance back at us frequently but little by little they increased the distance between us until they disappeared around a bend. Reassured by this distance we also increased our pace, hoping their larger friend int he blue t-shirt didn’t make any sudden appearances. We almost broke into a jog along the last straight leading back to the bigger road and then just as quickly slowed to a crawl as we saw that the four boys had joined up with the group we had passed earlier. They had all turned to stare at us silently as we approached our of the forest, about 12 in total, and they no longer had the pleasant air of young boys looking to earn a few birr taking us to see the hyenas.
‘Don’t slow down, don’t look over at them and keep to that clear space on the right’ I whispered to my friends and we did just that. Just as we reached they boys they man in blue burst out of the trees but we didn’t slow down and as we reached the bigger road we simultaneously broke into a frantic sprint as it dropped sharply downhill. As the road levelled we slowed back to a walk and we continued silently retracing our steps and clutching our sticks for some time until we were sure we were no longer being followed.
It was a longer road back than we had remembered. Fuelled by excitement and the thought of hyenas we had walked further than we realised. We still had no idea where the church was we had promised to meet the others and their impatient texts were growing more frequent. We had headed along a few paths that turned out to be dead ends and each time we were forced to retrace our steps we grew a little more despondent. At the back of all our minds I suspected lay the warning from the men on mountain bikes about the well known dangers of getting into a random taxi as three females alone. We really would have liked to reach the others and get a taxi back with them.
Eventually we drew level with the yellow arches of what we hoped was the church we were aiming for. By now the rain had ceased and we were beginning to dry out. There was no name written in English, but there was quite a smartly dressed woman in traditional white Ethiopian robes and with a western-style backpack at her feet. I approached her and asked if she knew where St Raguel church was. Thankfully she spoke a bit of English, and even better knew where we were headed. She couldn’t quite think how to direct us there and so instead she slipped her shoes back on and picked up her backpack to accompany us as she was also headed in that direction.
And so we come back to the present as Hannan and a group of three local woman and their young son urge us on to beat the breaking of the next storm. After we had turned off down a muddy path that Hannan told us was a short cut, this other group had quickly caught us up as we slipped and slid in the thick mud. At first they stayed a short distance behind us, talking loudly amongst themselves and staring openly. Slowly they began shyly to speak to Hannan and ask her some questions about us, and as we all rushed on in the same direction they overcame their shyness and began laughing and joking with us though neither could understand the other. Based on body language I assumed my rather short running shorts were drawing the majority of their interest. They kept pointing and laughing at my exposed white legs. Due to the rain we had all put on jumpers or rain jackets and the other two had sodden trousers on, so my bare naked legs stood out alone. The women were dressed in the traditionally conservative manner of both Christians and Muslims in Ethiopia. They wore long skirts and their heads were covered in white scarves that reached down well below their shoulders. Their attention was friendly, however, and soon alleviated my fear that my nakedness would offend them. They continued to laugh and tease us, occasionally translated through Hannan and they seemed to enjoy our company.
At last we reached the familiar sight of St Mary’s church which we had passed near the start of our journey, many hours ago now. Hannan explained that we should continue up the hill as we had done already, but rather than head off up the alluring dirt road, we should stick to the paved road until we reached the church. Excited to be finally on the road home, and back in reach of mobile phone signal, we began to message our friend’s and tell them we were on our way. To our dismay just at that moment a message beeped through from a short while before saying they hoped we were safe and that they would meet us back at the hotel. We were crestfallen. To have come so far to meet them and to have to risk a taxi back on our own anyway… But with no other clear plan we slumped up the steep hill towards the church. Hoping at the very least for a hot cup of coffee and an official yellow taxi. It was a long walk on tired and hungry legs, but at long last the majestic blue steeple of St Raguel’s church emerged in the distance.
As we crested the hill, however, it became rapidly evident that our meagre wishes of tea and transport would not be realised. The surrounds of the church were quiet and deserted. I suggested our safest option may be to flag down one of the small shared taxi vans that had passed us on our walk up. Just as we had agreed on this and crossed the road to wait, a big shiny red and yellow bus appeared over the horizon. Without daring to hope we flagged it down and asked if it was going back to the city. It was in fact terminating just a short walk from our hotel. Delighted at this last stroke of luck we skipped on to the bus and settled into some seats near the front. Tired, hungry but fully satisfied by our day’s escape from the city.