Trekking in the Simien Mountains

Simien Mountains Travel Blog

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October 11th 2005

We have just come back from a 4 day trek to the Simien Mountains National Park. The national park is World Heritage Listed and has stunning scenery and a lot of wildlife as well. A woman travelling here in the 1920s described it as "The most marvellous of Abyssinian landscapes"

The Simien mountains are close to the town of Gonder, into which we had just flown.
We stayed at the aptly named, 'Circle Hotel', a round building right in the centre of town. Apparently it is a new hotel (around 2 years), but if so, it has become very run down, very quickly.
It has a bar, a reasonable restaurant that is popular with locals, and an internet cafe. It also appears to be the hang out of all the 'fix it' men.
Keen to make a buck, the are constantly accosting any foreigner they see with offers to organise trips such as those to the Simien Mountains (big business), to organise city guides, or transport to the airport.

They are a tad annoying, though we did want to go to the mountains, but wanted to choose somebody reputable, not just any old guy off the street, as we would be outlaying a fair bit of Birr in advance.
We also wanted somebody experienced in organising these trips - the last thing you would want would be not to have enough food for example.

I got talking to an American scientist in an internet cafe, who was in Ethiopia for 6 months researching the Gelada baboons. He recomended a guy who he said was honest and good at what he did. This guy came by a little later and we organised a 4 day trip, leaving the following day.
We gave him 50% of the fee and he went off to buy all the food, water, and fuel we would need, as well as organisecooking equipment, a tent, and a 4WD with driver.

For his trouble, his commission was 20% of the total - not bad money. However, the total price was what was in our 2 year old Lonely Planet, so we were happy enough.

7am the next day we were off in a Landcruiser, driving on a round unsealed road, through some beautiful scenery. Two hours later we were at the village of Debark, the gateway to the Simiens.
At the park headquarters, we picked up our guide, a young man called Addis; our cook, a friendly girl in her early 20s called Merbit, and our scout, Dershetty.

Armed scouts are compulsory for anybody going into the Simien mountains. They each carry a semi-automatic rifle which is always slung over their shoulders. When you first see them, they look quote scary and off putting, however their role is to protect us.

I wasn't ever entirely sure of what they were protecting us from, though I think it was from animals such as hyenas, jackals, and the very rare (but apparently present) leopard.
Dershetty was a former soldier in the Ethiopia/Eritrea war, and was a very sweet, softly spoken man, a little bit older than the others. He couldn't speak a word of English, but he was ever ready to help with anything.

The Simien mountains are called the 'Roof of Africa'. Although Kilamanjaro is higher, it is a single mountain, where as the Simiens are a mountain range with many mountains over 4000m.

10000 people reside within the national park, living a traditional life of farming and keeping animals. We saw many shepherds with their flocks of goats, cows, and donkeys.
The government is trying to relocate them out of the park to preserve the environment of the Simiens, but there is much resistance.

On the first day, we got out of the 4WD and walked the last 3 hours to our first camp site.
We passed some beautiful scenery, though the weather had turned very cold, and grey with a rolling mist. So we couldn't really see anything at the lookouts we came to.
When we got to camp, Merbit, the cook, had set up all her equipment in the open hut at the camp, and had already started preparing dinner. She greeted us with a hot drink and plates of snacks such as biscuits, popcorn, dates, chocolate, and sultanas.

It was mid afternoon but the weather was really starting to close in. It was getting very cold and misty.

There were two other couples there. A french couple, Sabrina and Eric, and a British couple, Adrian and Debby.
We wer eall on separate expeditions, but all our crew were stationed in the same hut for cooking.
Sabrina and Eric also had a cook who was busily chopping vegetables on the other side of the hut. Adrian and Debbie had employed a guide and scout, but decided to cook for themselves.
We realised on the first day that although dinner was started at around 2pm, it wouldn't be ready until around 5:30-6:00.

The other two couples were good company and we sat around talking for hours. The english couple, able to sniff out alcohol anywhere, told us that they had heard there was lady who lived in a shack near the camp who sold Ras Dashen beer (the local beer) for 6 Birr per bottle (double the price in Gonder, but still only around $1)
It was starting to rain a little bit, so we put on our waterproof jackets and set out looking for this lady.

We came across a local boy. "Dashen?" we asked him, and he pointed to a small hut a little further on.
When we got there, we found the local hang out for our guides. They laughed that we'd found them, and invited us in.
We all squeezed into the tiny hut and sat down. The lady popped the tops of bottles of Dashen and we settled in. Then came the rain and boy did it come down! The sound on the tin roof was deafening. Then in started hailing which just went on and on and on. There was a bucket just outside the door, and soon it was full of water and ice.
We wondered about our tents back at the campsite, but really, what could we do? More beers were passed around.

The rain kept pelting down (apparently a storm like this only occurs once in five years!) Adrian tried to answer a call of nature, but retreated back as soon as he opened the door.

The lady started roasting some coffee, then ground it up in the traditional way. We all had cups of delicious but heart palpitating strong coffee. It was 4:30 in the afternoon. We mused about what we would normally be doing at 4:30pm on a typical day, and decided that sitting in a dark hut in the middle of Ethiopia in a hail storm was far more interesting.

Finally there was a break in the weather and we made a run for it. Outside it was white an the ice was very thick. We could have been in Alaska. As we walked back to camp, our feet sunk into a slurry of ice. My waterproof shoes turned out to be not so waterproof, and my feet was soon freezing.
Back at the camp, our tents had held up, though the bright orange fly of the tent belonging to a couple of Israeli guys had shredded to pieces, and bits of orange plastic littered the ground.
After the hail storm

Our mattresses and sleeping bags were a tad damp, but overall the tent had withstood the storm.
However ice was piled up against it on all sides. We worried about what would happen when all that ice melted so we tried to shove as much of it away from the tent as possible.
One of the guys, who we later discovered was our assistant cook (though we hadn't hired one) proved his weight in gold by setting to work building a trench around the top of our tent to direct any melting ice away. This meant that our tent stayed dry all night, but many others at the camp complained of a miserable wet night.

Merbit, our cook (with help from our assistant cook, Amalina) cooked up a hearty dinner every night. A hearty vegetable soup, and then a huge plate of pasta with a tomato sauce.

When we had finished, she asked if we wanted more. The first night we took her up on the offer. We were pretty hungry after our walk. However the rest of the time we understood better how things worked and just had a single serve. She cooked up a large pot of food, but we soon saw that there was a very obvious pecking order when it came to being fed. We were served first and offered seconds, then our guide, and whatever was left over was shared between our scout, the assistant cook, and Merbit herself. We were always looking to make sure that they all had something to eat, which they seemed to, but we never saw Merbit eat. However as Cameron said, she didn't look underfed, so must have had something.

Merbit's good was very good. She was extremely organised with all the cooking equipment neatly laid out and the food not needed was stowed away in a box.

We tended though, to have the same main course each night - pasta with a tomato sauce (which was more than fine with me).
Sabrina and Eric's cook at the opposite side of the hut told us proudly that he was a trained chef, and though his area looked like a pig stye, he definitely turned out an impressive variety of camp food.
I think Merbit was getting some ideas from the other cook as sometimes the following day, we'd get something similar to what Sabrina and Eric got the day before.

The morning of the second day was clear so we set off to hike along the 'escarpment'. It was really stunning, walking along a cliff face, looking down overdeep gorges, valleys, and waterfalls.
October is the end of the rainy season (well officially anyway), so it was very green and all the wildflowers were out.

The Simiens are also home to thousands of Gelada baboons. They're called bleeding heart baboons as they have a large red mark on their chests - apparently a symbol of their virility.
We didn't have to walk far to see them. At one point there were so many on a grassy area that it looked like a battle scen from 'Planet of the Apes'.
They weren't overly scared of us, but were slightly cautious (for example turning their backs to us).
The locals hate them as they eat their crops, though it is illegal to shoot them or harm them in any way.
The locals blame them for any crime that takes place. Apparently police files at nearby towns have them as the culprit for all sorts of things including murders.

Again that day, the clear morning ended in a very cold and misty afternoon.

You could barely see 10 metres in front of you. Then all night it rained and rained with really strong winds. It kept us awake for a little while, wondering if the whole tent was going to collapse, but it was fine and no water got into the tent. Many of the other people in the camp however complained of a wet and miserable night. We were really grateful for that trench around our tent!

Everyday as we left to go hiking, Merbit would give us a packed lunch to take along. This was always a breadroll with some sort of filling she'd cooked up, and some fruit. We noticed that although the guide was also given some to take along, lunch is not provided for the scouts. They are the least paid of everyone, but are expected to bring their own food. We made sure that we gave Dershetty some of our lunch and he was very grateful.

The final night we had moved to another camp, around 3 hours walk away. We had another hearty meal. It was very cold but it was a clear night.
Sabrina and Eric were the only other foreigners there apart from us. Our guides, cooks, and scouts built a bonfire to keep us warm (with eucalyptus wood, as indigenous wood is forbidden to be used for fires). They started singing traditional Ethiopian songs and were really getting into it, laughing and clapping. Its true that you have to watch the quiet ones, as Amalina, who was always so quiet turned out to be the life of the party.
Dershetty our scout also came out of his shell, getting down with some Ethiopian dancing (best described as standing with a rigid body and moving the head and shoulders rapidly from side to side).

They were all having a great old time and it was lots of fun.

The best part of it was that it was totally spontaneous and not simply put on for us Faranji. Thats the best thing we've found about Ethiopia - its not touristy yet.

The next morning we packed up camp, said our goodbyes and headed back to the town of Gonder. It was a great trip and really worthwhile going, but boy was it good to have a shower after 4 days!
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After the hail storm
After the hail storm
Merbit, our cook
Merbit, our cook
Simien Mountains
photo by: xander_van_hoof