Few people know about the Simien, let alone travel there, and while the snows of Mt Kilimanjaro may be the true ‘roof of Africa’, the Simien Mountains are certainly a worthy challenger.
Yes, there are mountains in Ethiopia… in fact, a lot of Ethiopia is actually mountainous highlands, and a large percentage is also fertile grazing and farming land, which is perhaps counter to what most people think. I would guess you’re probably thinking famine and Bob Geldoff? - even though there hasn’t been a famine there for almost thirty years, and I have to admit - until I’d done some research, I had imagined vast arid landscapes and malnourished children with popped-out bellies too.
Located in northern Ethiopia, the mountains are a land of staggering beauty; deep valleys, sudden precipices, towering waterfalls and frightening sheer cliffs - home to some of the most incredible, jaw dropping views and species on this continent. The trail passes along an incredible ridge and must offer the highest ratio of views to km anywhere in the world. It’s a special place, and not just because it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site… you need to experience it to understand it and if, like me, finding somewhere remote with few distractions is your cup of tea...then Ethiopia could well be the place.
It was just a couple of years ago a camper here at the station was telling me of his all-time favourite hike – the Simien Mountains, and I immediately jumped on the computer to Google it. It ticked all the boxes for me…. Rugged and remote, undeveloped, mountains, cultural heritage, wildlife, serenity and Africa (yes, it’s still draws me back, I love that continent). Decision made, this was to be my next hike; and I’d planned to precede it with a fortnight in Senegal with my ‘African Family’ on the way. However, as it happened, I ended up back in Morocco rather than Senegal (hiking in the Anti-Atlas Mountains that border the Sahara Desert), due to the raging Ebola outbreak in West Africa at that time, and you can read my blog, Morocco Revisited, here on the website.
It would be criminal to go all that way to Ethiopia and only visit the Simian Mountains, so I allowed time prior to my hike to visit Addis Ababa and the ancient former capital, Gonder (I was passing through anyway to get to the park, and there were some fascinating castles) and then a couple of days after the hike to unwind in Lalibella- unmissable thanks to its countless ancient rock hewn churches. Many are dug out of red volcanic rock; others are constructed across the sides of valleys or built deep into ravines, the result cave-like…absolutely amazing!! I felt very safe and right at home wandering in Ethiopia, known as the ‘smiling country’, and laughed at my initial stereotyping (before my first trip to the African continent in 2011) that all sub-Saharan Africans looked the same! This is clearly not the case; in fact each country has facial features unique only to that country. East Africans have thinner noses and their eyes are slightly farther apart, West Africans like the Senegalese have wider foreheads, Ghanaians have wider noses… and they come in all shades of black!
Ethiopia also differs from the majority of Africa, being predominantly a Christian country, (with the majority of Christians being Orthodox), and they firmly believe the Ark or the Covenant still exists and rests in Aksum. I love being woken at dawn by the Call to Prayer ringing out from nearby Mosques, but on my first night in Ethiopia I awoke, confused, to ear-splitting chanting... which continued on throughout the night. This almost became a pattern for every town I stayed in; Ethiopia has a lot of holy days it seems, which all require prolonged praying and chanting. So while I enjoyed the historical sites of these towns and cities I was ever so greatful to finally arrive begin my hike.
Flying into the capital, Addis Ababa, it felt very much under construction. There's dust everywhere, but also jacaranda trees, and a promising feeling that this is a city on the rise…. In fact construction will soon be completed on the country’s first motorway and light railway! They tell me it's pretty much always sunny in Addis. And since Ethiopia has its own calendar with 13 months instead of 12 (the details are very ancient and complicated - but it’s only 2007 there), the local joke is that the country boasts 13 months of sunshine.
After meeting up with my guide, Philemon, a young, well-educated Ethiopian who at one time joined the seminary but left to study law … (which he ultimately quit, becoming a guide as he couldn’t afford to stay on at University, his family requiring him to be earning money to support them now, not several years down the track), we collected our two armed guards at the last village before entering the park and set off to meet up with the rest of my crew. Now, trekking in Ethiopia is a bit more of an expedition than trekking in some other places. There are no established huts (at least in the Simien Mountains), so you have to tent camp, and there’s really no place to buy food or water, so you have to bring all that stuff with you. Most people, me included, hire a trekking company to take care of the logistics for you (and I always use locals rather than big travel companies from Australia, the UK or wherever, saves a stack of money – and the international companies only on-sell your business to the locals anyway, making a tidy profit from the transaction) … the company provides tents, a cook, some helpers, porters, the food, the water, paying the park permit and entrance fees, hiring the required armed scout and the mules and mule drivers necessary to move all that stuff from camp to camp (yes, really… there’s only one barely passable dirt road that runs through the mountains here, so most things are moved by mules). So, basically, I just had to show up with my sleeping bag and clothes and walk from place to place, as my support folks would take care of cooking the meals, setting up camp and moving from one location to the next.
What a contrast the rural areas were to the metropolis - Grubby kids ran from primitive wood huts to stare at me, a 'farenjis' (white person) who had come to walk in the Simien Mountains. In Ethiopia you don't walk for pleasure, you walk because you have to. Despite the Simien Mountains being a national park (designated so in 1969), plenty of people live there, and we passed several villages over the course of the six days hiking, occasionally being invited into homes to enjoy a coffee ceremony, considered a mark of friendship or respect and an excellent example of Ethiopian hospitality. Performing the ceremony is almost obligatory in the presence of a visitor, whatever the time of day and you don’t want to be in a hurry - it is most definitely not instant.
As I’ve come to expect in rural areas of third world countries, many children don’t attend school. They are required to work to support their families, so whilst passing the time minding their small herd of stock they try their luck selling cheap souvenirs to the passing trekkers, sitting quietly by while I stopped for a break, their little handmade trinkets and artefacts spread out on the ground nearby, quietly hoping for a sale but never saying a word. In fact, I would say that most of the trekking paths, with some diversions, were simply the walking paths between the villages. Even the climb up to Ras Dashen (with the exception of the last part that heads off to the summit) is a path between villages… so we were continually passing, and being passed by, mule trains, livestock and people simply moving from place to place.
Armed guards?....well, according to Philemon, there have been sporadic problems with banditry over the years in the park, though another explanation I heard was that the presence of these fellows had more to do with the park administration's desire to draw as many local residents into the tourist economy as possible, thereby giving them a stake in the success of the park. And so over the coming week, my armed scouts, with AK 47 rifles casually slung over their shoulders, walked a few meters in front and behind of me every day, sleeping curled up under a blanket in below zero temperatures outside my tent at night, and whilst we didn’t speak a common language there was a real bond between us all by the end.
As far as some stats on the trek…. over 6 days I hiked approximately 90 kilometres, mostly at altitudes ranging from 3,600 to 4,600 metres (the summit of Ras Dashen, Ethiopia’s highest peak), and climbed approximately 12,450 metres (48,480 feet, or 9 miles)… so not easy by any means… lots of steep descents and climbs – wearing on the knees, and in the last days I almost needed my walking poles to get up from the squatting toilets!. However I resist the enterprising villagers, lurking with mules at each steep climb, hoping to sell a ride up the hill; they reminded me of vultures, quickly identifying the weakest link in any party and trailing close behind. I just loved this remote locale, the mesmerising landscapes, the stunning views, the remoteness and of course the beautiful, gentle Ethiopian people (more than 83 million, made up of over 80 ethnic tribes – and the second highest populated African country after Nigeria).
While in the Simien, I was hoping to catch a glimpse of the wildlife not found anywhere else in the world outside Ethiopia - the Ethiopian Wolf, the Walia Ibex and the Gelada Baboon. Just a glimpse I thought…. Instead I spent several days tripping over gelada baboons! While far from endangered, with an estimated population of over 200,000, the bleeding heart baboon is the king of the Ethiopian highlands. They are incredible animals, with the stunning red patches on their chests, and I particularly enjoyed their sunset antics. As the sun began to dip below the escarpment hundreds upon hundreds of geladas came storming to the cliff faces. It was fascinating! As they neared the abrupt cliff face, dropping a mind-boggling 1.5km, there was no check in their speed and they launched themselves off the cliff, and seconds later they were no more than furry brown balls of monkey flailing head over heels down the sheer face, only to stop themselves at the last possible moment by grabbing a random tuft of grass. It was amazing, not a single one misjudged it, and gradually they all retreated to the safety of a cave within the cliff face, safe from predators.
Despite the continuous entertainment of the friendly geladas, I was really hoping for encounters with a wolf and the Wallia Ibex. The Ethiopian wolf is the world’s rarest canid and Africa’s most endangered carnivore. Endemic to the highlands of Ethiopia, the wolf has a global population of probably less than 500 individuals and less than 100 in the Simien Mountains, so I had no illusions that we’d actually encounter one … But you just never know! Heading out from camp very early one morning, and hiking through a beautiful patch of afro alpine forest- there it was: a wolf. Partially hidden through a maze of plants, looking directly back at us. Wow! It was a magical moment to look into the eyes of such a mysterious creature. It hung around for a minute or two, and then it was gone.
Also threatened with extinction, but sufficiently abundant that there was a good chance of seeing one from the escarpment’s edge, is the Walia Ibex, a species of wild mountain goat. Poaching and destruction of their habitat over many years has driven them to take refuge on the giant cliff faces of the escarpment edge, and the only way to see them is by peering over the cliff through binoculars in the hope of catching a blink of movement miles down. I did this on many occasions (the Simien is not a place for anyone suffering vertigo), and was often rewarded with glimpses of a cluster of these remarkable animals in the most hair-raising of places.
With the trek over Philemon and I made our way back to Gonder, which is easier said than done. We hitched a ride on a small overcrowded bus, but it never once had the power to make it up to the top of the many steep hills. A routine was quickly established whereby one of the locals would jump out just as we ground to a halt, placing a large rock under a back wheel to stop us rolling backwards; whereupon we all bailed out and walked to the top while the empty bus lumbered up. Desperate for a hot shower and clean clothes, we first had to endure 5 hours of this routine along with the typically bone rattling roads and choking dust. Never before has such a feeble shower been so warmly welcomed.