Just Back: following General Napier in Ethiopia

Getachew gestures expansively at the massive range of flat- topped mountains before us. “This place, Ethiopia,” he muses, “is very up. Very down.”

He’s not wrong. The drive to Magdala, Emperor Tewodros’s mountain fortress, takes 10 hours by 4×4 from Addis Ababa, rising slowly until the final hairpin ascent beneath sheer cliffs.

Inspired by Philip Marsden’s book The Barefoot Emperor, we’ve come to walk in the footsteps of General Napier, who 146 years ago marched up this way (with 13,000 British troops, 26,000 camp followers and more than 40,000 animals) to free hostages held by Tewodros. Ten adults, two children and a very large cool box, our modern expedition is, by comparison, modest.

Tewodros was educated and urbane, but prone to astonishing outbursts of violence. His favourite method of execution was to cut the hands and feet off condemned prisoners before throwing them live to hyenas. In a fit of pique, when Queen Victoria failed to answer his letters of friendship, he took hostages, but he admired the British and hoped to be reconciled with them, even at the height of battle.

On Falla, a long, boulder-strewn ridge just below the summit, we stand where Tewodros ranged his firepower against the British troops, and there, protected by a barbed-wire fence, we discover his pride and joy, the great cannon Sebastopol.

His terrified missionary hostages cast it to satisfy his ambition for modern armaments. We wait until Getachew is out of earshot, then agree it looks like one of the big bells they were more used to making. By way of a narrow rocky path, we wind up the side of Magdala’s sheer cliff face. We approach the summit through clumps of giant lobelia, hoping for some revelation that will shed light on the emperor.

But we find scant remains of his last stand. Goats graze among the rubble of his government buildings. Near the gates that Napier stormed, Gelada baboons dig for roots in the black earth of the teff fields. A bad portrait of him, looking cross-eyed and paranoid, marks his tomb.

Walking back to our camp beneath the summit, we pass “death rocks” where Tewodros disposed of his victims. We shudder to imagine what happened here.

In the morning we rise stiffly to a chill and a rainbow spanning the gorge below. Beautiful Magdala. As we drink tea, girding ourselves for the drive back to Addis Ababa, we feel as foreign and anachronistic as Napier himself must have done.

(This article won the Telegraph’s Just-back prize in June 2014)