I've wanted to get into the wild on foot ever since arriving six weeks ago, but opportunities have been limited. On Sunday I am finally able to get in a good hike, to a place on the outskirts of town called Jebel Mountain. It’s actually three distinct, rock-covered hills, and you can easily hike to the top of one of the peaks in about an hour. A colleague and I plan to meet up with some other expats at an outdoor restaurant called Home and Away at 8 a.m. It's a little early for me on a Sunday, especially after staying up late last night while watching Barcelona tear apart Man U in the Champions League Final. However I bite the bullet and get up early, head fuzzier than usual. On our way out, our guard, James, shows us that one of the rabbits had babies recently. He is smiling as he squats over the tiny nursing bunnies in the driveway. “I love animals,” he says, grinning from ear to ear. "Only one did not live.”
We walk to the restaurant, where I'm surprised to find a good sized group of people - about ten altogether -- who are also going on the hike. We order coffee but it never comes, so we decide to leave, it’s getting warmer as the morning unfolds and we don’t want to start too late. A rugged Australian named Phil, who has a spunky puppy with him and a large carabiner strapped to his day pack, offers to transport us all in his Land Cruiser.
“Can we all fit?” someone asks.
“Sure,” says Phil. “It’s a troop transporter!”
All ten of us climb in an especially large Land Cruiser. This one has two long, comfortable benches that face each other in the back and we squeeze eight in the back, two in the front, and the driver. We are just pulling out when Phil’s fiancé asks him if he has the puppy.
He does not. Truck stops abruptly while someone runs into the restaurant to retrieve the puppy, which climbs in the back with us, happily clambering and wriggling over 16 feet, eight laps and sets of shoulders. "She has all the grace of a baby giraffe," says Phil, who found the pup during a Hash race in town. She is narrow, brown and short-haired with a pointy nose, which she lay on my lap during a rare break from her antics.
Phil has hiked Jebel countless times and is a natural guide and leader, so he takes over when we arrive at the base of the hills. He makes sure we are all carrying water and reminds us to be respectful and careful when taking photos. If we don’t stay with the group, we need to pair up – no one walks by themselves. He tells us that we also need to be cautious about which rocks we step on, because local villagers are quarrying them, and some of the larger boulders are in the process of being dislodged and readied for rolling down the mountain. Rock busting is the big business in this area, which is called Rock Village. Villagers climb into the hills and haul down bucket after bucket of rocks. Women sit under home-made shelters at the base of the mountain and use hammers to splinter the rocks into gravel, which is sold and used in roads and construction. It is hard work and as we look up the boulder-strewn hill sides, we can see about a dozen sweating shirtless men of varying ages working at the rocks. There is some smoke as well, and Phil explains that villagers sometimes bring tires up the mountain and set them afire at the base of large boulders to help clear the brush underneath and loosen them.
As we start up, Phil reminds us that these hills were the site of some major battles between the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (southern rebels) and the Sudanese military (Sudanese Armed Forces) from the north, and that there is still some unexploded ordnance and/or mines in the area. For that reason, he strongly recommends staying on established paths. A French hiker in our group would later find a large bullet casing.
We start up and a local rock worker tells us we should climb to the right. “They are bringing down a very large rock,” from the direction we are heading, he says. So we switch around to the right. We walk up narrow paths over gray and black rock, and through sometimes waist-high green grass. With the onset of the rains, the landscape is transforming from dry brown to lush green. “By August this grass will be over our heads,” someone says.
We do some mildly tricky climbing in places, up and down a few crevices and broad smooth rock faces, hanging onto tree branches, rock edges and outcroppings, whatever we can find for a hand-hold, but everybody makes it. At one point we rock climb past a dark cave full of small bats but they are sleeping so we don’t disturb them. When they are awakened, they fly out in bunches and bang into you but don’t bite, Phil says; we decide to let them alone. Near the top of the middle peak someone sees a decent-sized black snake slither into a crack in the rocks, but I missed it. Pythons and monkeys once lived up here but they apparently are now gone – probably eaten during the war. Locals like to say a French NGO (non-governmental organization) took all the pythons from Jebel back to France but Phil says he finds that unlikely.
Some fantastic views out over Juba from the peak on a beautiful clear morning, and we can see the Nile from up here. Phil points out where the new U.S. Embassy will be built, on a huge green field not too far from the mountain base. Construction is in the very early stages. Building it will cost in the neighborhood of half a billion dollars, but South Sudan is viewed by the U.S. government as a very important partner in East Africa, not only for its oil but also for strategic/security reasons.
On the trail down we pass a man under a tree butchering something, probably a goat, with a big knife. He smiles and holds up his knife and some glistening entrails as we walk by.