The town of Debark rests at the foot of the Simien Mountain range, a Unesco World Heritage Site in northern Ethiopia that’s marked by steep cliffs and breathtaking canyon-style gorges. We’re going trekking for four days and this is where we meet our guide and our rather elaborate support team.
Hiring a guide feels luxurious enough but we also have two chefs, an armed scout, a mule and mule man. It seems extravagant to say the least. However this is the normal provisions with the trekking companies here. As part of our 15 day trip in Ethiopia, this is the part we’ve been the most excited about. Here’s our rough route:
Taking it easy at the start, we walked along the escarpment from Simien Lodge to Sankaber Lodge. The walking is gentle although at an altitude above 3,600m, you can feel the difference.
Peering off the ridge of the escarpment, thin strips of trees line the base, and valleys lead down to remote villages that occupy every plateau into the distance. Marking the landscape is dramatic, brown jagged pinnacles of rock, soaring like high-rise buildings. The views are beautiful and expansive, blurring into a film of haze on the horizon; a haze that lingers after each rainy season.
Our guide Ashoo is leading us. He’s gentle and courteous and has answers to almost all of our questions about the wildlife and fauna. Working as a guide is a good job in Ethiopia and takes several years of training. It’s a job Ashoo seems to enjoy, being able to share his passion for these mountains. He points into the distance, giving a nod towards his home village. This range is his home and he cares passionately about protecting it.
Usually trailing at the back is our scout, Misha. Misha carries a rifle, speaks very little English and has the warmest smile. I had some binoculars with me for the trek and he was absolutely delighted to borrow them.
In the pastures, we often see children herding goats or shepherding flocks of sheep. Older people gather hay. Wild mountain thyme is in abundance, its piney fragrance is uplifting. It’s very peaceful and I try to imagine what it might be like to live in these mountains – so very remote and cut-off. The lifestyle appears simple but I suspect there is a complexity and richness that we, as tourists, do not see in these communities. And without a doubt, much hardship and poverty.
As we pass children and families along the way, I do wonder how welcome our tourism is. Designating this mountain range as a National Park in the late 1970s will have had its consequences. I hope many positive impacts such as income, jobs and greater environmental protection. However, the influx of tourists and development of the park will have meant a forced displacement for some communities, that wouldn’t have been so welcome.
There are many moments when I worry about soil erosion. In some parts of the park, I have never seen it so clear. Exposed, bare soil baking under the sun, slowly turning to dust and washing away with the rains. It’s said that annually, Ethiopia losses over 1.5 billion tons of topsoil from the highlands to erosion; a huge threat to food security.My worries don’t just stop here.
The rare wildlife is one of the big attractions of the Simeon Mountains. While I have limited botanical and natural history knowledge, I was struck by the limited diversity of wildlife and fauna on our hike. Over the four days, we persistently saw a recurring handful of species. The ever-present eucalyptus (two different varieties), red hot pokers (Kniphofia), giant lobelias and erica trees. The erica trees have a bit of a haunted look as if they are covered in cobwebs. I only saw one lone acacia tree. Maybe I’m being overly harsh here. I feel the same about our national parks here in the UK. They are beautiful landscapes but barren ecologically, against the biodiversity that can be found in ancient woodlands or mixed forests.
Camping in the Simeon Mountains is only allowed in designated campsites. Given the high tourist footfall, at least in the section we trekked, this is certainly for the best. Each evening we arrived at a campsite with our tents already up and a thermos of coffee and bowl of popcorn laid out for us. What luxury! The campsites have drop toilets and basic community lodges for the guides to stay in. The chefs join forces to cook delicious meals for us walkers. It really is quite an impressive operation.
Just before sunset, on our second night, we were fortunate to see an Ethiopian Wolf. Striding slowly, majestically, across the hillside into the distance. That same evening we headed to the nearest peak and watched the gelada baboons scramble over the precipice edges of the cliffs, down to ledges where they huddle together for the night. The younger ones play fighting, the older ones tenderly grooming each other.
I could happily spend the day watching geladas. They are sometimes known as the bleeding-heart monkeys, as they possess a bright red patch on their chest – a bit of a grotesque feature. They spend their days foraging, grazing the grasses, plants and digging for roots and other plants.
As soon as the sunset, the cold swept in while we ate our evening meals outside. I was not prepared for how cold the nights would be. I was silly enough not to bring a proper coat, so I layered up my all my shirts and one jumper. Afterwards, we spent a short time by the fire and we must have chosen the right tour company, as they provided us with hot water bottles for the night. I hugged mine tight and then spent the time worrying about the poor scouts, who sleep outside of the tents, keeping guard for the night. They must have been freezing cold. I think some of them must have snuggled together to keep warm. The sunrise was always a welcome relief, bringing its warm glow.
In terms of other wildlife, we saw Klipspringer bushbacks and the endemic Walia Ibex on our final day. We regularly had lammergeier swooping over our heads – an impressive bird with a two-meter wingspan that hunts mole rats and other small mammals. Swallows were always to be seen around the cliffs, darting and diving with speed, presumably feasting on insects. Thick-bill ravens were a common sight too, often in pairs, dancing in the sky and diving down the escarpment.
The highest peak on our trek was Kmet Gogo, 5km northeast of Geech camp, standing at 3,962m. We finished our trek at Chenek. At sunset, we strolled by the edge of the escarpment, watching the ibex and baboons settle down for the night. Our wonderful chefs prepared a delicious meal of chicken, rice, fried aubergine and vegetables – washed down with some red wine. It was the perfect end to a spectacular hike.