The Anglo-Ethiopian Society

Napier Expedition - Ethiopia 2012, Journey to Magdala

Author - Richard P. Jeynes


Sat on a rock in the middle of Bodmin Moor in 2007 I was approached by a walker interested in the off-road rider training we were doing in preparation for an expedition to Iceland.

"If you want a real challenge you should get yourself out to Ethiopia and take on the Napier trail" he muttered as he wandered off into the rain.

A few weeks later, whilst browsing in a bookshop in Oxford, I came across the newly published The Barefoot Emperor by Philip Marsden, which tells the story of the events leading to the original Napier expedition. It was a significant coincidence and the rest, as they say, is history.........

Riding Team Left to Right: Tony Bethwaite, Pat Jeynes, Richard Cox, Flavio Bonatui, Dean Miles and seated Ian Reed
Riding Team Left to Right: Tony Bethwaite, Pat Jeynes, Richard Cox, Flavio Bonatui, Dean Miles and seated Ian Reed
Photo © Richard Jeynes, Trailquest
Dessie locals showing an interest
Dessie locals showing an interest
Photo © Richard Jeynes, Trailquest
Napier riders on the road
Napier riders on the road
Photo © Richard Jeynes, Trailquest
Landscape on the approach to Magdala
Landscape on the approach to Magdala
Photo © Richard Jeynes, Trailquest
View from the summit of Magdala
View from the summit of Magdala
Photo © Richard Jeynes, Trailquest
Richard Cox on a demanding section of trail
Richard Cox on a demanding section of trail
Photo © Richard Jeynes, Trailquest
Handing out pencils and pencil cases - Dean Miles and Ian Bell
Handing out pencils and pencil cases
Dean Miles and Ian Bell (Trailquest)
Photo © Richard Jeynes, Trailquest

After several false starts the expedition commenced with team selection in the Autumn of 2010. With the aim of riding to Magdala on a route encompassing sections of the trail used by Napier's expedition, with additional sections to enable more of the country to be seen, a final team of six riders was selected and the project was officially launched in January 2011.

Coming from a range of backgrounds and with varying levels of experience, the team was put through a series of challenging training weekends covering essential expedition skills such as navigation, first aid, survival techniques, and off road riding.

With the final training exercise completed over a cold December weekend in Malvern the contrast with Ethiopia in January 2012 could not have been starker! Leaving an ice-bound Heathrow the ten hour flight transported the team to a warm East African night in Ethiopia's capital Addis Ababa.

Having spent our first night in the comfort of the four star Jupiter International hotel the following day saw the team collecting their motorcycles and support vehicles to begin the first stage of the expedition. The ride through the traffic of Addis Ababa being something akin to a video game, it was quickly realised that this was likely to be the most dangerous part of the whole trip!

By necessity, the first day and a half was spent on tarmac as the team moved north. The riding was easy with near perfect roads, hardly any motorised traffic, and many locals waving and cheering the team on their way. Donkeys, camels, and dogs proved to be the major hazard whereas we experienced little of the often reported stone throwing. Our reception at the various villages we passed through proved to be nothing but warm and helpful. For many this was their first experience of motorcycles and the intense interest shown in our bikes and equipment was a delight to behold.

The team finally embarked upon the off road section of the route that would take us first to the ancient stone cut churches of Lalibela and then on to the mighty fortress of Magdala. For about 600km the trail wound its way across numerous mountain ranges and over fertile valley bottoms. With a surface of rough loose gravel and numerous hairpin bends flanked by 1000ft drops total concentration was required and it later transpired that most of the riders had been genuinely scared of sections of the route! At a height of 3000m above sea level the sun was intense and the physical demands placed on the riders severe. Frequent periods of rest plus cautious riding meant that progress was slow and it was not until late in the day on Ethiopia's Christmas Eve (January 6) that the team reached Lalibela.

One of the most sacred sites in Africa, the ancient churches were carved out of solid rock. With hundreds of pilgrims approaching from all directions to celebrate Christmas, delays were inevitable and the team was forced to seek a camp site in darkness. There followed a restless night with sleep interrupted by passing groups of pilgrims and a somewhat angry dog who decided to visit the tents during the small hours of the night!

The following day saw the move onwards to Magdala. Further mountain trails culminated in a dead end at the foot of the mountain, which became the base camp for the walk to the summit the following day. Again the team quickly attracted the interest of groups of locals who gathered a short distance away from the camp to watch with amusement as the team set up tents and prepared food. Local soldiers offered to guard the camp and keep the crowds at bay. Their offer was much appreciated and rewarded with Christmas cake brought over from the UK.

The sides of Magdala are almost sheer and the route to the summit is a challenge. The plateau on top is home to a small community that makes a living out of farming and the few visitors who manage to reach the site. The remains of the fortress are still visible including the grave of the Emperor Tewdros and his great mortar that had been constructed by captive hostages on his orders prior to the arrival of the British assault force in April 1868.

Following a second night camped at the base of Magdala the team headed West along trails even more demanding than those of the first few days. The intense heat and the physical demands of riding began to show, hence the decision was taken to halt early and set up camp for the remainder of the day. Again the team attracted crowds of spectators all keen to help collect firewood and view the spectacle. In what became one of the highlights of the trip four local children stayed late into the night enthralled by a showing of Walt Disney's Bambi on the expedition laptop. Never has an audience been so entranced!

A challenging ride the following day saw the start of fuel problems with some of the bikes. Almost certainly due to poor quality fuel from one of the few rural petrol stations speed was reduced to walking pace at times. With several punctures also hindering progress, it was clear that the final section of the chosen route would not be possible and it was decided to return to Addis Ababa a day early. The final approach to Addis was again a precarious occupation with the dangers of traffic, animals, and pedestrians further enhanced by flat tyres and failing engines.

Our final day in Ethiopia was spent visiting a school in Addis Ababa and helping to deliver pencil cases to the grateful pupils. The work being done by Arabella Stewart and her Project Pencil Case charity is clearly important and effective making a real impact on the lives of so many children. For this reason we are already working on a follow up expedition to further assist the charity.

We made many friends during our journey and our eyes were opened to a country very different from the one so often portrayed by Western media. There is no doubt that we shall be returning.


Slideshow of Expedition Photographs prepared by Trailquest


First Published in News File Summer 2012

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