Three new expats, two human, one canine, countless adventures
First it was the thick-billed ravens, later a kite got in on the act. The feathered fiends of the Simien Mountains are after your stuff…watch your back!
Ethiopia is a country packed with fascinating old churches, castles and cultural gems but, despite the endless historical riches on offer, the undoubted highlight of my trip there was my five day trek in the Simien Mountains National Park. What I found was natural beauty and thrilling wildlife encounters way beyond my expectations. The Simien mountains now stand out as my favourite overall trekking destination: incomparable stunning natural scenery, up close and personal encounters with wildlife, and a glimpse into the lives of the people dwelling and scraping out a living within the boundaries of the national park. It’s also relatively unknown compared to the trekking routes of, say, Kenya or Tanzania so most of the time we were hiking there was nobody else around.
Life here is tough, as it is for poor mountain people the world over. But this is not the Ethiopia of famine, of barren, desolate plains and terrible suffering. It’s the Ethiopia of soaring peaks, of views that take your breath away time after time, of canyons, valleys and waterfalls that seem to stretch to the ends of the earth.
This is a day by day guide to one of the spectacular routes through the national park. I found it hard to get this sort of coherent information before my trip and to begin to build picture a route in my mind so I’m writing it in the hope it saves somebody some time.
I travelled in October, in a group of four trekkers (me, Mr T, Janine & Martin from Slovakia) plus support staff – guide, scout, cook, cook’s assistant, two mule men and two mules, and an extra man to carry an excess 15kg baggage that wasn’t enough to warrant an additional mule.
Our guide, Teshager, was great and really added to the enjoyment of the trek. He was born in the national park but now lives in the town of Debark, just outside the park and home to the park HQ, where you have to go to register for a visit to the park.
Gondar to Debark to just past Simien Lodge driving, then trekking to Sankabar camp, 3250m
We drove from Gondar in a 4×4, stopping in Debark to register at the park office and pick up our trekking guide, Teshegar, and our scout, Gasho, along with the rest of our team and the supplies for the five days.
Once in the park we drove till a little way past the Simien Lodge where we got out of the vehicle, ate our packed lunch, and began our trek. We made our way leisurely along the trail, stopping lots of times to soak up the views and marvel at the closeness of the first baboon troop we encountered. The baboons here are of a gentler variety than those in East Africa and on this part of the mountain they are very habituated to people as they often have researchers sitting among them. They wandered close to us but paid us scant attention which is the perfect scenario.
The scenery was reminiscent of, but different to, the Grand Canyon. We hiked up and down for two hours till we reached Sankabar around 5pm.
There were about ten other tents at the camp and we were next to the kitchen. There are two toilet blocks, I only saw one and was pleasantly surprised as I half expected some festival-type nightmare but it wasn’t smelly or dirty at all. There are also plenty of bushes if you don’t feel like the walk all the way to the toilet which is a short distance down the hill from the camping area.
There are big birds hoping around camp, the aptly named thick billed ravens, with powerful-looking beaks that I’m sure could do some real damage if you were on the wrong end of an angry bird. One of them took advantage of our new-to-the-mountain innocence and launched a sneak attack to steal the bar of soap which had been put out for us along with warm water to wash our hands. What he planned to do with it I don’t know but he flew off quite happily with it clasped in that big bill of his. Luckily we managed to find another bar of soap and lesson learnt, we kept a closer eye on the ravens from then on.
Day One hiking time: 2 hours
Wildlife: gelaba baboons; birds: alpine chat, thick billed raven, auger buzzard, white backed black tit
Sankabar to Gich 3600m via Jinbar River 2850m
Shortly after departing camp we emerged from the trees to be greeted with more spectacular views. Soon after we saw one big group of trekkers on the trail but after we had passed them it felt like it was just the four of us, our guide and scout on the mountains (the rest of the team and mules travel separately by a different route). We passed occasional children selling little woven baskets – ‘mobile gift shops’ as we called them. I bought a couple not because I really liked them but just to give some income to the local families. Of course I worried that by buying little things from children I might be encouraging the parents to send them out selling rather than send them to school. Teshagar told us, however, that local families are too poor to send all the children to school, some simply have to work to help support the family, be it through selling to tourists or by minding the animals.
One nice thing about being in the mountains was there was almost no begging or hassle at all from the children. Only twice in five days did I hear a child ask for something.
Later we stopped to speak to two of the luckier children, two little boys of 11 years old, on their way home from school. Teshegar translated for us as we asked them some questions and joked with them. One said he wanted to be a guide, pointing to Teshegar. The other had grander ideas, he wanted to be a pilot. A special moment for all of us as we were reminded that children everywhere, no matter how humble their circumstances, have dreams just like all of us.
We continued on our way for a while before stopping to look at a 500m high waterfall. There wasn’t a great deal of water flowing at this time of year but it was a lovely spot to rest and take in the view. Not long after we descended to the banks of the Jinbar river to stop for lunch. If you like goats be sure to keep hold of your orange and banana peel to feed the goats you’ll pass along the trail. I love goats so really enjoyed doing this. There were plenty of thick billed ravens hopping about, full of hope that an odd bit of sandwich will be tossed their way.
From the river the trail headed upwards through fields planted with crops and in time reached Geech village. Teshagar had mentioned it can sometimes be possible to go inside one of the tukuls, the basic huts that the mountain families life in. Everybody was keen to get a glimpse into family life on the mountain and a visit was easily arranged at the village. It was really interesting to see inside the tukuls. Be sure to keep your torch in your day pack if you plan to do this as it’s very dark in there. The tukul we visited was home to a family of seven and their animals. The family sleep together on a raised platform above the animals, so that the body heat and breath from the animals will keep them warm during the very cold nights.
The mother showed us how she grinds barley by hand and then she roasted and ground up some beans to serve us coffee. She also roasted wheat for a tasty snack which we all shared. It was smoky work and made us wonder what it does to people’s health, especially the babies and children, spending so much of their lives in this smoky environment. By the end of our visit the whole family was there: mum, dad, three young children and a baby which had been strapped to the mother’s back the whole time but which we didn’t notice at first – as I said, it’s dark in there!
We each contributed 25 birr to the family for their time and hospitality. Money well spent.
About twenty minutes after leaving the village we reached Geech camp. This is very different to Sankabar: flat, very exposed, windy and cold. And not a bush in sight so no option but to trek down the hill a bit to the toilet block.
Hiking time: around 6 hours
Wildlife: gelada baboons; birds: lammergeyers, black headed siskin, red wing starling, sunbird, thick billed raven
Geech to Imet Gogo 3926m to Geech
We started late as it was a short day today and took our time walking up a gentle slope with only a few steep parts, reaching Imet Gogo after two hours. Absolutely spectacular! The view is 360 degrees around with stunning vistas in every direction. This is the spot, more than any other, that made me feel like the canyons and mountains stretched on forever, to the ends of the earth.
We stayed for a while staring in awe and soaking up the view but clouds started to roll in so we headed off to Saha view point which we reached less than an hour later. The cook’s assistant was waiting there for us with our lunch. We didn’t get much of a view at Saha as it was cloudy all around us but it was great to enjoy a cooked lunch before heading back downhill. There was a third viewpoint about thirty minutes from the camp but it was too cloudy to be worth going so we went straight back to camp. It then rained heavily and hailed for two hours so we just sat it out in our tents relaxing, reading and dozing.
Dinner tonight was a bit special, not only did the cook don chef’s whites which stood out in the dimness of the large, dark tukul used for cooking and eating, but we shared a much appreciated bottle of Gondar red wine. Very civilised for 3600m!
Wildlife: 1 gelada baboon; birds: auger buzzard, wattled ibis, peregrine falcon, thick billed raven, lammergeyers
Geech to Chenek 3600m via Elate escarpment 4070m
This morning we follow the same route as yesterday but veer off before it heads up to Imet Gogo and take a different route from there. After an early lunch at a viewpoint on the Elate escarpment we descend and find ourselves walking straight through a large troop of about 100 baboons. These were less habituated to people and were very entertaining to watch. They were very active, lots of running around, chasing each other and screeching. We saw more ‘mobile gift shops’ on the way and, as usual, no hassle from the children. We encountered a child carrying a whip made of rope and we all had a go at trying to crack it. We tourists were all pretty useless but Gasho our scout was great and the loud cracks he made reverberated around the hills.
Today’s hike was simply a case of one amazing view after another. I’m still in awe and a state of disbelief at just how beautiful this area is.
Once at the camp we sat at a table eager to eat the hot chips (fries) the cook had made as little treat. He was approaching our table carrying them when a bird, a kite, swooped down and grabbed a bunch of them. I looked up just in time to see this kite heading towards my head at an alarming speed and I quickly ducked. The bird came from behind the cook, grabbed some of the chips and knocked a load more on the floor. The cook admirably kept hold of the plate so we could eat the remaining chips. It really was a comical moment, worth the sacrifice of some chips for the amusement it provided to us and everybody around.
In late afternoon a very large troop of baboons came down off a nearby hill on their way to the cliffs, their safe place to sleep at night. They came straight through the camp and stopped there for a while to eat. Of course everybody rushed to get cameras and the baboons simply ignored the humans and carried on eating, wandering very close to people and taking their own leisurely time as if we weren’t there at all.
A large male walia ibex was spotted grazing next to camp. We watched him for a while and then followed when he wandered over the cliff to join four females. It was great to finally see one and much closer than we ever expected.
There was something particularly magical about the light around Chenek camp, it was truly beautiful and reminded me of the light in the Scottish Highlands.
We heard the Simien fox (aka Ethiopian wolf) in the evening but didn’t seem them.
Wildlife: gelada baboons, walia ibex; birds: well I could make this up but instead I’ll admit I was just too absorbed in the scenery today to remember to write down the birds we saw!
Chenek to Bwahit Peak 4430m and return
What a fantastic start to the day! We again heard Ethiopian wolves and saw around 25 walia ibex and some baboons right beside camp, the ibex grazing, lounging on rocks and mock fighting. They are magnificent creatures! We had to drag ourselves away to head out towards Bwahit Peak, the highest point of our trek. This hike was unrelentingly upwards the whole way, along the cliff edge with more fabulous views. We were all suitably impressed with the three mountain bikers we saw cycling up the road. It was steep and at high altitude, hats off to them for their fitness and grit. We reached the summit after two and a half hours and stayed there for a while enjoying the views and the achievement. There was a guy up there selling beer which would have been a nice idea if I wasn’t a bit too cold to drink a cold beer!
On arrival back in camp after our descent from the summit, there were 25-30 ibex grazing right beside camp and another troop of baboons came wandering through. After watching the animals for a while we had to accept our trek was over and get ourselves organised and packed for the journey back to Gondar. The trip, by 4×4, took almost five hours (two hours Chenek to Debark), this includes time spent stopped at Debark for a quick bit of shopping for an Ethiopian shawl and to change a tyre on the 4×4.
Without a doubt this is the best all round trek I’ve ever done. The scenery defies description it is just so stunning. The close encounters with wildlife were wonderful and the glimpse into the harsh lives of the mountain people interesting and thought-provoking.
I highly recommend our guide, Teshagar (or Tesh) and his one man operation, Trek Simien. He’s professional, reliable, well organised and good fun. He can organize everything for you, all the team and all the equipment, and you’ll be in safe hands.
name: Teshager Berihun
mobile: +251 91873 1621