Nine months after embarking on the original journey to the Mother Coffee tree [as chronicled in this week’s cover story], I had the opportunity to hike to the oldest Coffea arabica tree in the world once again. This time I would do make the approach coming in the opposite direction: a two-day journey coursing through a rocky river valley, relying only on a hastily printed map, my fuzzy memory, and a handful of helpful locals. Again I would wonder: Why all this hardship to make it to a tree?
Luckily it was the tail end of the dry season, and the un-dammed rivers were well below their flood levels. And, more thankfully, I was with a trio of gung-ho American dudes who would risk their skin for an adventure into the Kafa Biosphere Reserve. We followed animal trails along the river, ducking under vines and squeezing through dense foliage for as long as it stayed true. But then, abruptly, the trails ended, and there was only the river as a guide. We leapt from boulder to boulder, afraid of the parasites and bacterium that might afflict us if we fell into the dirty brown river. (The biggest threat was schisto, a worm parasite that is easily acquired in lakes and streams in Ethiopia.)
Oftentimes we had to boulder around sheer dropoffs, or duck under natural bridges and caves. One misstep and a rolled or broken ankle would’ve spelled disaster. No cellphone network. No passing locals. No Coast Guard helicopters rushing to our aid. If someone couldn’t walk, he’d have to be carried out of the gorge. This predicament only got worse when we exhausted all options and, at the cooling hour of 4 pm, had to hitch up our pants and wade through the waist-deep river, up and up the river valley.
Finally, at dusk, we found a suitable place to camp on a rocky sandbar on the side of the river. With moldy feet we pitched our tent, made soup over an open fire, and roasted marshmallows under a night sky with a million beads of starlight dripping on our heads. The next morning, after a harrowing traverse of waist-deep rapids and an uphill climb into foothills, we finally found the “road” that led us to the Mother Coffee tree. Once again, the tree itself was an underwhelming goal, but something occurred to me while I scooped tuna fish out of a can with glucose biscuits while sitting under the Great Tree: No destination is worth its weight in gold if it’s a cakewalk to get to. Mother Coffee was just a landmark we could slap and then turn around and trudge the rest of the way back to the main road, where a 4x4 vehicle awaited us. The route to get there was the trial and tribulation. The coffee trail was the destination.
When the four of us white boys spilled onto the main road, exhausted, hungry, soaking wet … a local elder stopped on the opposite side of the road and stared at us for a very long time. He leaned heavily on his walking stick. He contemplated our very existence. What were we doing here? Where did we come from? Where were we going? Long after the 4x4 LandCruiser spirited us away back to Bonga, the man stood silently on the side of the road, looking on, utterly baffled.