In 1963, as the result of a certain chain of events, I found myself teaching English in a provincial school in south-central Ethiopia, “the Middle Kingdom.” The school was the center of activity in the village of Assella, sandwiched between the Great Rift Valley down below on one side, and a range of mountains on the other. The nearest of these peaks was Mt. Chillalo, a 14,000 foot mountain that was clearly visible to me every morning as I walked to school, and resembled very much, I thought, the first mountain I had ever climbed, Mt. Meeker in the Front Range of Colorado.
After a few months of staring at the mountain I began talking to some of the other teachers about a climbing expedition. And in due course four of us agreed to make the climb.
One of the Indian teachers at the school, Mallya, with whom I shared a house, was not one of those inclined toward mountaineering. But I kept urging him in various ways.
“It might be a good story to tell May Britt,” I suggested.
“I hope I don’t need to impress her with my mountain climbing abilities. You’ve heard about my trips to the Himalayas. I loved looking at those mountains, I never wanted to climb one.”
“But Chillalo is just a long uphill walk, not K2.”
“I like to walk, as you know. But climbing a mountain, especially if it’s only a 14,000 foot mountain, for the sake of glory or conquest, just seems absurd to me.”
“What if you think of it as exploring, as a small adventure? It’s only natural for people to do such things. If exploring and climbing mountains is absurd, then we must be a species mad for absurdity.”
“I have no doubt of it,” Mallya replied gravely.
“Still, to live absurdly is better than not to live absurdly, which would be not to live at all.”
“Perhaps there’s another instinct in us that makes us want to live in a way that’s not absurd....”
“A life of great limitation,” I objected.
“Not necessarily. These things are relative, like everything else. Sex, for example, is only absurd to those who don’t practice it.”
“Just like climbing mountains is only absurd to a stick-in-the-mud.”
Mallya mused for a while. “Is this a roundabout way of telling me you think I’m lazy?”
“No, no!” I protested. “I’m only saying that our lives consist of our memories, and the more memorable things we do, the richer our lives become. Climbing Chillalo would create such a memory for you.” I paused to let him think, and then added, “Also you never know, we might see a nyala. Then you would have something to tell May Britt.”
I could tell that my arguments about an adventure and exploring were not going to prevail, but at the mention of the nyala his expression brightened a little.
The mountain nyala is a rare antelope that lives on the slopes of Mt. Chillalo in Arrussi Province and nowhere else in the world. Before the animal had become seriously protected numerous hunters from Europe, America and elsewhere, had come to Arrussi to see if they could add a rare head to their collection of trophies. Usually they never caught a glimpse of a nyala. Sometimes they would see one but not be able to get off a shot. Occasionally a hunter would succeed in bagging his prize. Eventually, when the possibility of extinction became apparent, severe penalties for hunting the nyala were put in place.
My introduction to the mountain nyala had come the first time I visited the post office. There, mounted to a block of wood hanging on the wall, was the most exquisite pair of horns I had ever seen. The artist in me, I suppose, had prompted me to make a small study of African animal horns. I had never seen horns like this anywhere.
The mountain nyala horns resemble those of the bongo, but more graceful, more artful, more like a Brancusi sculpture. At its base the horn has a rectangular shape, which, as the horn gently spirals upward, changes into a triangle, and finally into a point. Like the chambered nautilus, it has a strong appearance of cosmic symbolism. Two beautiful and enigmatic spires rising from the head and pointed towards the heavens.
Underneath the horns, next to the postmaster’s counter, was an official-looking sign printed in Amharic, which aroused my curiosity. Soon after, I asked one of my best English students to come with me to the post office to translate something for me.
My student, Mengistu, explained that the sign was a warning. The horns hanging on the wall had belonged to a nyala shot by an illegal hunter, who was caught and sentenced to a long term in prison. The people of Arrussi Province are proud of the mountain nyala, and any hunters sighted on the slopes of Mt. Chillalo will be reported to the postmaster, Ato Hailu Kebede, who has been appointed by His Imperial Majesty Haile Selassie I, to be the official protector of the rare animal. Moreover, Colonel Gudemsa, head of the Arrussi Province military establishment, has been appointed to enforce the law. Any sightings of hunters on the mountain will be reported to him. By order of His Imperial Majesty, Haile Selassie I, Elect of God, King of Kings, Conquering Lion of Judah.
I had met Col. Gudemsa once, at the governor’s wedding feast, and I had seen him at two or three public events. It was rumored that he was a great libertine, that he hosted drunken parties and had a small harem, although he was ostensibly a Christian. For some reason he seemed the perfect protector of an almost mythic animal.
About an hour after our conversation, Mallya informed me that he had decided to go along. “It must be a splendid view from the top,” he said.
“You won’t regret it,” I replied. “Your work with the Kama Sutra will progress if you do things like this once in a while. It’ll keep you in shape for the important stuff.” Mallya smiled and nodded.
The expedition began early on the Saturday morning of a three-day weekend. The three Indian teachers, Mallya, Mukergee and Rhagavan were on board, as well as one of the Ethiopian teachers, Girmamie Alemeyhu, and our houseboy, Demissee, who had volunteered to come along and carry bedrolls and other things. Rhagavan, who said he never went out into the African country-side without a gun, had brought his rifle. “Whatever you may think of guns,” he said, “It’s not a good idea to wander around in the wilds of East Africa without one.”
Our plan was to spend the first night on the side of the mountain, somewhere above timberline, then climb to the top the next morning. First we had to walk through a forest of mixed trees, following trails made by the people who lived on the peak, including quite a few of our students, who had to get up before sunrise and run to school, then run home after school to do some chores before dark. It is this practice of students running to school and back every day in mountainous country that has produced so many great marathoners from Ethiopia and Kenya. Many of these students not only have to run up and down the mountain every day, they are often required to carry water when the mountain springs run dry. Their homesteads usually consist of one or two tukels inside a small makeshift compound. Goat herding is the main occupation, and as in Switzerland and other mountain countries, the goats are herded into an enclosure under the house at night, to help keep the room warm. We saw a few of these small farms as we made our way through the area just above timberline. One of our students came out to greet us, and offered the hospitality of his home. We thanked him, but we told him we wanted to continue on for awhile, so that we would be as close to the top as possible when we started out the next morning.
As we walked I noticed that my companions were scanning the ridges and the slopes ahead. We were all aware of the possibility, unlikely though it be, of spotting a mountain nyala. Eventually we came to a fairly level place where we decided to camp for the night. We ate our jerky and dried fruit, made tea on a small campfire, talked a while, and then tried to get some sleep.
Conditions the next morning were perfect for mountain climbing. From a distance of many miles Mt. Chillalo looks to be smooth, like the Pyramids. Up close, it is strewn with rocks of all sizes, including huge boulders which, as we approached the summit, became more and more difficult to get around. Between the boulders and the two false tops we encountered, by the time we found the true summit we probably all felt we had earned a little glory, absurd though it might be. The summit of Mt. Chillalo, which from a distance appeared to be pointed, turned out to be a field of large boulders. We searched for the one that seemed to be higher than all the others and when we had agreed on a certain one all of us climbed towards it, and when we reached it, Mallya, who had shown an unexpected enthusiasm for the whole thing, scrambled up the boulder until he was standing on its top. Then he got down on his hands and knees and studied something on the rock, “There’s a gold disc here,” he announced, “with numbers and symbols on it.”
We all had to see for ourselves, so one by one we scrambled to the top of the boulder to look at the disc. Suddenly a shot rang out and a bullet ricocheted off a nearby boulder. Another shot was fired, and another bullet bounced off another nearby boulder. We all dove for cover. A third shot then whizzed over our heads. Rhagavan grasped his rifle and chambered a round. We had no idea what was happening. Were there bandits on top of Chillalo?
For awhile all was quiet. Then Girmamie poked his head up and shouted in a voice trembling with rage, “We’re teachers from Ras Dargay School, here to climb the mountain. Who are you, and why are you shooting at us?”
There was no reply. But then a figure emerged from behind a cluster of boulders at the other end of the field that was the summit of Chillalo. We all watched as a large man wearing a uniform staggered towards us waving a bottle of tej in his right hand. When he was about half way he stopped and shouted at us. “I’m sorry! We thought you were illegal hunters!” It was none other than Col. Gudemsa! He then turned and shouted back towards the boulders where he had been, and four more men in uniform, with their rifles shouldered and, like Col. Gudemsa, waving bottles of tej, began to lurch towards us.
“I’m sorry about the shots,” Col. Gudemsa apologized again as he came up to us. “It’s our duty to protect the nyala, you understand. Not many people come just to climb the mountain.”
Two of the Colonel’s men were carrying knapsacks with bottles of tej in them, and they began passing these around, one for each of us. I don’t think anybody in our climbing party wanted to drink much, but we felt cautiously obliged to accept their hospitality. Not long after we began drinking Col. Gudemsa, who was doing his best to play the role of charming and exuberant host, announced that he had a confession to make.
“We didn’t fire those warning shots because we thought you were nyala poachers. We did it because you had seen the gold disc on top of this big boulder. Do you have any idea what that disc signifies? No? Let me tell you a little story.”
Col. Gudemsa spoke about the rumors that had abounded in Arrussi Province for more than two decades, rumors of a stash of gold buried somewhere on Mt. Chillalo by the Italians during the occupation. Not many people climbed to the top of Mt. Chillalo, and those who did usually didn’t climb up onto the top of the boulder. But about seven years ago a climber reported seeing a gold disc on top of the mountain. This was not taken very seriously until recently, when another climber reported a gold disc buried in rock on the very top of the mountain. So the Colonel and his four trusted men had climbed the mountain a month ago and found the disc. What he didn’t understand was if the disc marked the place where the gold was buried, or if the mysterious numbers and letters and other symbols engraved in the disc showed where the gold was actually buried. It was a code of some sort, he thought. Or, if the gold was buried directly beneath the disc, then they had a different problem. He suspected that the Italians would not have been able to bury the gold under a boulder that size, and so had made this disc as a secret map.
All of the time that the Colonel was talking Girmamie seemed extremely anxious to say something. I suspected he was going to burst Col. Gudemsa’s bubble with some mundane explanation for the disc. So I nudged him and spoke into his ear, “I think we should humor him.” Girmamie seemed to agree.
“I have an idea!” Col. Gudemsa announced at the end of his story. “We shall all share equally in this discovery. Only the eleven of us know about it. You are teachers, you can do research. If you can translate these symbols into a place to dig, we will all be rewarded equally. We will meet here and dig it up together. Of course it all belongs to His Imperial Majesty, but for having discovered it and dug it up I believe the Conquering Lion of Judah will not mind if we take a small share for ourselves. God has given us this opportunity to improve our lives. You must not tell anyone about this, of course, especially not your wives, if you have wives.”
I looked around at our climbing group and concluded that they had all decided to go along with the whole thing, for the sake of keeping the peace.
“I have my sketchbook,” I offered. “I could draw a replica of the symbols.” My suggestion was greeted with great enthusiasm. Two of the Colonel’s men hoisted me up to the top of the boulder and handed me my sketchbook and pencils. Fifteen minutes later I had a fairly exact copy of the disc and its bizarre markings.
Soon the tej began to run low and it was time anyway for us to be going. Col. Gudemsa reminded us not to tell anyone about this. We all assured him we would keep it to ourselves.
We stumbled down the mountain, hoping to reach our campsite of the previous night before dark. Along the way Girmamie regaled us with the solution to the mystery of the disc. As a science teacher he subscribed to a science journal that had, a few years back, published an article about how the Italians, during their occupation of Ethiopia from 1935-40, had embedded very light bronze navigational discs into the rock on the tops of a number of mountains in Ethiopia. Pilots flying over the country could see the flash from theses discs and know where they were. Since the Ethiopian mountains were seldom climbed, it was thought the discs would be more-or-less permanent. We all had a good laugh over this, as we sweated the alcohol out of our bodies. Suddenly Mukergee grasped my arm and pointed.
“There,” he said softly.
Standing on a ridge just to the West was a graceful and beautiful antelope. The mountain nyala! We all stopped and stared in silence. The nyala looked in our direction, then disappeared over the other side of the ridge. The last part of the animal to be seen was the horns, and just before they too disappeared the sun caught them in such a way as to cause a quick golden flash of light on the smooth pointed tips.
“There’s the real gold of Chillalo!” Mallya proclaimed.
And in our fading drunkenness we all raised a hearty cheer.