Jul 03, 2016
Trekking in Ethiopia’s Simien Mountains
A mountain guide recounts her experience of trekking in the Simien Mountains in Ethiopia.
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Accompanied by a local ‘militia man’ as their scout, they climbed up Mt. Bwahit (4437m), encountered Gelada monkeys, Walia ibex and several other endemic wildlife of the region, and came across some spectacular ancient structures in this World Heritage Site.
To most people Ethiopia is synonymous with civil war, coups, droughts, famines and danger; but Ethiopia is becoming a country more and more people are starting to venture to. Our trip there was very spur of the moment; three days after deciding to go, we found ourselves trekking in the Simien Mountains in the north of the country; one of the most stunning places I have ever hiked. Ethiopia is a beautiful, dynamic and fascinating country, and the people we met on our trip were some of the friendliest, most welcoming and professional I have come across in all my African travels.
We had decided to combine a five day (approx 60km trek) with a few days spent checking out some of the amazing historical and cultural sites in the country. Our Simien Hike would conclude with a climb up Bwahit, Ethiopia’s second highest mountain. At an altitude of 4,437m, Bwahit was a five hour hike, and a one kilometre vertical ascent above our final campsite… taking us up into the clouds and giving us a stunning view back over where we had hiked the preceding days. Once we left the mountains we planned to head off to see some of the oldest and most incredible historical sites we had visited on the African continent.
In the earth’s long history of dramatic geographical changes, the most recent volcanic upheavals took place in East Africa. Torrential rains in the region created gushing rivers and waterfalls, which in turn eroded much of the newly formed volcanic mountain massifs; leaving behind a broad plateau split by gorges thousands of metres deep. As far as the horizon in every direction are steep mountains and deep valleys carved from the hardened basalt; a seemingly timeless landscape. Listed as a World Heritage Site the Simien Mountains are breathtaking.
Late, unexpected rain had come to the Simiens, just in time for our visit. October and November are usually the best times to visit, as the dry season runs from October to April, and we had come in mid-November. We had perfect weather in the mornings, lasting long enough to get 6 or 7 hours of trekking done. Just as we approached camp, or not long after arriving, the weather would close in and light rain would start falling. The rain usually lasted most of the night, making getting out of a sleeping bag, battling with stubborn tent zips and going out to ‘commune with nature’ a bit of a chore. We had generally gone to bed by seven thirty or eight o’clock at night, so the morning was a long way away and presented a challenge to bladder holding skills.
Amazing scenery aside, the Simien’s are home to several animals endemic to Ethiopia. Gelada monkeys, the critically endangered Walia ibex (the entire population of which, is estimated at approx 500) and the Ethiopian wolf (the rarest and most endangered canid in the world, with less than 500 left in the wild). Geladas are amazing and intelligent ‘old world’ monkeys, the males have vampire like canines, which they bare frequently, and golden manes that wouldn’t look out of place in a shampoo commercial! Once found, according to fossil records, all over Africa and into the Mediterranean and Asia, they are now found only in the mountains of Ethiopia.
With their falsetto cries, explosive barks and soft grunts they have one of the most varied repertoires of all the primates. Grazing primarily on grass, these noisy herds are easy to follow, except at night when they disappear over the edge of the steep cliffs to sleep on tiny ledges out of the way of leopards and other predators.
We could happily have spent hours watching them. We saw the ibex and heard the wolf (though sadly never saw it), and given the heights we climbed, we had the rare vantage point of looking down on a variety of kites, eagles and vultures, including the lammergeyer, known as the ‘bone breaker’ for its habit of dropping animal bones from great heights to smash them open and reach the marrow inside.
A remnant of the more unsettled times in Ethiopia’s past is the prevalence of weapons, 80 – 90% of households own a gun, and the bulk of the adult male population have either served as soldiers or are still members of various militia groups (something like reserve soldiers). It is compulsory to hire a local ‘militia man’ to accompany you as a scout when trekking in the Simiens.
These militia men are approved by the national parks authority to work as scouts and to accompany you throughout the park, ostensibly to keep you and your possessions safe; though at no point did we feel threatened or that the gun was really necessary. The scouts are generally local farmers, and take on this role to earn an extra income. The nonchalant way our scout slung his Kalashnikov over his shoulders didn’t exactly instill us with confidence as to his weapon handling proficiency, but the thought of an armed man walking behind you up the steep hills, with his ancient weapon pointed in the general direction of your butt, did provided extra incentive to keep moving, even on the steepest of slopes!
Ethiopia has more to offer than mountains and scenery. We travelled to the town of Bahir Dar to visit the 14th century Ethiopian Orthodox monastery of Ura Kidane Mihret on Lake Tana. An somewhat uninspiring building from outside, but after crossing the threshold we were blown away by the 700 year old paintings that covering every inch of the interior walls. Created by monks using only natural pigments, crushed berries and plants, the paintings are a spectacular depiction of biblical scenes and Ethiopian mythology that have survived the ravages of time. Lake Tana is the source of the Blue Nile and the Blue Nile Falls are situated close by, though frankly at the time of year we visited, not really worth the several hours drive on bad roads to get there.
Even more spectacular are the ruins at Gondar. Nestled in the foothills of the Simien Mountains, Gondar was the ancient capital of Ethiopia. Sometimes referred to as the ‘Camelot of Africa’, the city has an impressive royal enclosure of castles and palaces all dating back to the 1600s. Gondar is also home to the church of Debre Birhan Selassie, with its walls decorated with paintings of biblical scenes and it ceiling painted with beautiful winged angels.
To top it all was Lalibela, in the mountains of northern Ethiopia. Here we visited the eleven medieval churches, all over eight hundred years old and all carved, by hand, out of solid rock with ‘the help of angels’. Emperor Lalibela, started the construction of these churches after having lived for some time in Jerusalem. Following Jerusalem’s capture by Muslim forces in 1187, legend has it that a dream told Emperor Lalibela to recreate the splendors of Jerusalem in Ethiopia. Lalibela has lost none of its power to awe centuries after its creation, even more incredible is that, despite their age, these churches are still tended by white robed priests who speak Geez (an ancient Semitic tongue), hermits still live in tiny caves in the walls of the church’s courtyards and people still pray in these churches every day.
We hiked from our hotel in Lalibela, at an altitude of 2600m, to the 12th century Asheten Maryam monastery towering over the town at a height of 4000m. As we climbed through local villages we were greeted with calls of “selamta” (welcome) and for much of the climb we were accompanied by an old man wrapped in a ‘repurposed’ Ethiopian Airlines blanket, herding his donkey up the mountain. He derived great enjoyment from my husband’s red faced huffing and puffing, and from time to time would place an arm around his shoulders and chuckle with delight as some private joke. Reaching the top the views over Lalibela and countryside were beautiful. The monastery was the first of the famous Lalibela churches to be commenced, though the last to be finished, and is still an active church today. About 20 tourists a day visit Asheten Maryam, mostly arriving by bus and scrambling the last short, rocky stretch to the monastery; only one or two people a day are ‘foolish’ enough to actually walk the 5 hour round trip like us!
Ethiopia is an experience like no other. Stunning scenery, the incredibly rare wildlife, the amazing people, the history and ancient culture combine to make it a must visit destination.
Our travel was organised by Shif Asrat of www.simientrek.com who arranged all our logistics and also runs Limalimo Lodge, a sustainable luxury eco-lodge located on the edge of the escarpment overlooking the Simien Park www.limalimolodge.com.
Images: Sarah Kingdom and Simien Trek
Feature Image: Gelada monkeys, sometimes called the bleeding heart monkey for their red chests, on the rim of the Simien Mountains escarpment / Photo Courtesy Simien Trek