"Behind you, behind you!" In the distance a figure waved and shouted in earnest from atop the highest lava pinnacle in a field of humbling rocky erections. By his clothes I recognised our guide, Allu Hussein, though his message was lost to the wind. "Behind you! There's a wolf!" As I turned away from Allu's exaggerated pantomime of pointing and jumping, my gaze was indeed returned by the forward-facing binocular vision of one of the world's rarest hunters, about 100m away. An Ethiopian wolf, head hanging low, straining forward, scenting the air speculatively.
Rising from lowland plains, the remote plateau of Ethiopia's Bale Mountains is a high redoubt for an estimated 220 Ethiopian wolves. An earlier meeting with Chris Goodman of Oxford University-supported Ethiopian Wolf Conservation Programme (EWCP) had set the scene. "In all Ethiopia there are probably 420 to 430 wolves. The Bale Mountains have the highest concentration – a genetically viable population – but at the moment the park borders are not even gazetted. Ethiopia's human population is rising and, as the climate changes, crops are being grown at higher and higher altitudes. Right now, almost 20,000 people, many with their cattle, live inside the boundaries."
At Rafu, amid an otherworldly lava landscape, our lone wolf paused, perhaps trying to interpret the antics of a lanky Ethiopian jumping up and down. Then, catching wind of three Europeans, unwashed after several days' hiking and camping, he adjusted his course,perhaps seeking the more fragrant company of giant mole rats. We watched as he disappeared, a little-known Ethiopian endemic: Africa's species of only wolf.
As we retraced our steps through rocky crevices and canyons, some hiding pools of dark water overhung by green and delicate ferns, we chose our footing with care, being beyond the assistance of mobile phones or VHF radio.
Hard pressed by smooth basalt monoliths, buffeted by the wind and clinging to the tumbledown remains of a cattle herder's camp, our tents had only a tenuous grip on the landscape. However, as light faded, in a sheltered niche a campfire soon burned bright. Rudimentary tack was checked and fraying saddle blankets re-stitched before the handlers gave each horse a pile of barley and hobbled it for the night. Then, complaining bitterly of the cold, our horse whisperers retreated within the crumbling, windowless thatched hut, hacking and spitting as campfire smoke billowed through the doorway.
Venus grew brightly in the night sky as the fire drew us closer, its spirit-enhancing warmth fed by eucalyptus wood. A bottle of Jura malt, though a comforting presence, saw little service; the cocktail of fatigue, altitude and Diamox had dulled any appetite for alcohol. Instead, Licklesh and Asefa, our innovative, ever-smiling cook crew, saw to it that an enhanced thirst for steaming tea was sated, a prelude to chicken soup and the finest goulash in all Ethiopia.
After fitful sleep, the new day was heralded by an altitude-derived headache. Even stowing gear and tying bootlaces led quickly to a breathless hiatus. Beyond our fumbled tent-zippers, frost-encrusted giant lobelias, the silent sentinels of the plateau, rose up to meet the morning's cloudless blue sky, while from the escarpment overlooking our camp rock hyraxes screeched. Licklesh's freshly brewed Ethiopian coffee brought the day into focus; her porridge, liberally doped with honey, steadied our legs for the trek ahead.
"Shall we go then, guys?" called Allu. From Rafu to our proposed evening camp would be a trek of 30km. "This wind, it's a little bit cheeky. Wrap a scarf across your face. It will help," he suggested. Away from camp the plain opened out and the unrelenting wind maintained a harrying head-on pressure. Underfoot, firm rock had become sandy soil riddled with the tunnels of scurrying rodents. I remembered Chris's advice: "Don't try to keep up with Allu. He'll walk you into the ground." Time for a distraction.
"Allu, since you've been working with EWCP what changes have you noticed in the park?" I enquired, breathlessly. Without breaking his stride Allu considered, then replied. "In my lifetime the climate has changed. There used to be large areas of spongy ground: no longer. Also, the people once must wear thick clothes at all times. Now in the day they can wear T-shirts. Where we've come from, in the Web Valley, there were once just two or three people. Now there are many. Where we walked yesterday, people had to take care for leopards. When people came, they killed them. They were afraid and the leopards attacked their stock. These people have other places in the lowlands with houses and grazing. They're just greedy. This place, the Bale Mountains, is so important for Ethiopia. Not only for conservation but to provide water." As if on cue our footsteps crackled, breaking a thin crust of sparkling ice covering a mossy depression. "There are 14 springs here. Cattle and people all contaminate the water supply."
Ahead, on the ground, bleached white by the sun, a skull lay at the end of a trail of vertebrae still joined by connective tissue. "Here it is: a wolf. See the teeth? It was an adult." Allu took out his GPS and noted the co-ordinates. "What did it die of?" I asked. "Difficult to know. Disease is a big problem," replied Allu, considering the skull in Yorick-like pose.
Chris Goodman had described the problem. "Disease, specifically rabies and canine distemper, carried by domesticated animals, even more than habitat destruction and human encroachment, is the main cause of wolf mortality. We've seen whole packs wiped out by rabies."
Vaccination of dogs was addressed by EWCP, with almost 5,000 being immunised annually. But a more economic and effective solution is envisaged. To that end, after nine years of lobbying, a limited oral vaccine trial on wolves using baits laced with canine distemper vaccine was allowed in 2011; the results await analysis.
Grateful for the halt, our group slumped in the scrub, allowing the horses carrying lunch to catch up. "OK, guys. Shall we walk a bit?" Obviously versed in chivvying lowland Europeans, Allu chose a point on the horizon and described a shady glade and a gently trickling stream where our picnic would be enjoyed. We walked on. Never has cold pasta been so welcomed. At the foot of a rocky outcrop there was indeed a stream; also, as promised, the wind had abated. As our feet luxuriated in bootless freedom, each of us wrapped our heads in scarves or sought out meagre shade, silently digesting our food.
A steady climb to over 4,200m lay ahead, before the sudden surprise view of Kidney Lake. Honking blue-winged geese took flight as we dropped down to disturb their brackish dabbling. An elastic confusion of stark's hares rebounded here and there, similarly concerned. In golden light we followed Allu along the shore, before quickly gaining height. "Here, there may be young wolves. Let's keep quiet," he instructed. Keeping below the skyline we skirted the next summit, waiting for Allu's gaze to pick out our quarry. Rounding a hillock, he motioned for us to crouch. Remarkably, across a shallow valley three wolf cubs gambolled in low brush, darting this way and that, climbing upon each other. We watched as a fourth cub appeared, separated from its siblings. Then, higher on the hillside, having spied our presence a mother called her careless offspring. She watched us as a tumbling ball of three cubs made an erratic progress to greet her, then continue out of sight, waiting for the fourth straggler before herself jogging beyond view. Smiling, at each of us in turn, Allu consulted his notebook. "Just over two months old, all four cubs. But that's it, guys; that's all we can do. They're gone for the night.'
As we descended once more, the diminutive green-roofed EWCP hut at Sanetti Camp hove into view; its chimney promised a warm evening. Over four days in the Bale Mountains we'd hiked about 70km over terrain between 3,300m and 4,200m high, observing plant and animal species seen nowhere else on Earth. We'd observed more than 40 Ethiopian wolves, from cubs and juveniles to adults, a figure worthy of some self-congratulation. Until it dawned that this was almost 10 per cent of the entire population.
Nick Redmayne travelled with Steppes Discovery (01285 643333; steppesdiscovery.co.uk) which is running a 13-day small group trip to Ethiopia, from 9 November, led by Bradt author Philip Briggs, for £2,495pp (flights extra), including a donation to the Ethiopian Wolf Conservation Programme. Ethiopian Airlines (0800 635 0644; flyethiopian.com) offers direct links between Heathrow and the capital Addis Ababa, with prices starting at £625 return.
British travellers require a visa to visit Ethiopia, available from the embassy in London (020-7838 3898; www.ethioembassy.org.uk), by post or on arrival at Addis Ababa's Bole International Airport. A single-entry permit costs £14.