An ancient land.
15.11.2015 - 20.11.2015 23 °C
My first impression of the Simien Mountains, located in the central plateau of Ethiopia some 900 km north of the capital of Addis Ababa, was that the earth had been cleaved open causing the ground to burst into the sky. Which is exactly what happened. Volcanic eruptions some 20-30 million years ago formed a mountain massif of rock rising to a height of around 4,000 m fragmented by precipitous cliffs, pinnacles and gorges that drop 1,000 – 2,000 m over the jagged edge of the escarpment. The red and brown layered lowlands stretching west towards Eritrea are dry and barren broken by gorges and canyons very much resembling the Grand Canyon.
The Simien Mountains National Park was listed as a World Heritage site in 1978 but has been put on the list of World Heritage in Danger since 1996 due to human settlement, over grazing, agriculture and road construction. Despite all this activity, it is home to some very rare animals including the gelada baboon, the Simien fox, the walya ibex and the Ethiopian wolf. The lammergeyer (bearded vulture) and tawny eagle soar on the thermals while the common thick-billed raven caws its presence on the rocks. Giant lobelias and red hot pokers, endemic to the park, dot the landscape between the grasslands and the stands of Erica tree heath.
The six day trek my hiking buddies, Pius, Martin, and I took through the Simien Mountains started by our registering at the Simien Park National Park office in Debark and meeting Mengeshe our guide and Tamrat, our scout. Although it is stated that you can trek independently, all trekkers in the park must be escorted by a scout armed with a rifle ostensibly to protect us from wayward wildlife and to ensure that we followed the park regulations. A registered guide, cooks and mule men are optional but highly recommended to help keep the delightful but pesky kids away, to cook for you unless you are happy with instant ramen noodles, and to carry water and your gear as you have to bring everything with you up very steep hills and at a very high altitude.
Day 1: Debark to Sankaber Camp (3,250 m)
Armed with our 1:100,000 map of the Simien Mountains we bought at the park headquarters, we drove along a dirt road for about an hour before we started the actual six kilometre walk along the northern edge of the densely vegetated escarpment to Sankaber Camp (3,250 m). The walk took us about two hours and gave us some stunning views. My first reaction was ‘wow’ after which my brain went silent and all I could do was look at the mountains in awe.
We sighted our first troop of gelada baboons foraging for grass roots, along with a bush buck, a couple of bearded vultures and a few thick billed ravens. Our erected tents were waiting for us when we arrived as was the table set out with coffee, tea, popcorn and vanilla biscuits. While we had a meet, greet and yatter with our camping neighbours, dinner, which was to consist of vegetable soup, spaghetti, carrots and beans, was being conjured up by our two cooks in one of two cooking huts at the camp with the only light in the hut being from the fading sunset and the fire. It was this night that I discovered my very uncomfortable mattress and cement pillow which I finally adjusted to by sleep five.
Day 2: Sankaber Camp to Gich (3,600 m, 6 hours)
After having to take some time to straighten out my back in the morning, I was able to appreciate the sun casting hues of pink over the hills to the south. There was not a cloud in the sky and the ground and tents were covered in thick hoar frost. Lumpy cone looking shapes were scattered around the campsite which were the scouts, huddled under their cloaks where they slept, sitting up all night, guns propped against their shoulders. After a stretch, a pee and a cup of coffee, the scouts would twist and tuck their shawls onto the top of their heads affording them protection from the sun.
We continued hiking along the edge of the northern escarpment, Mengeshe taking the lead and Tamrat, carrying his rifle over his shoulder and walking in lime green plastic shoes and grey socks, bringing up the rear. We were flanked by entrepreneurial men with mules who would have been most happy to plop you on the back of the steeds should the altitude overwhelm your powers of energy.
The clouds started rolling in about lunchtime and this was the weather pattern to follow us each day. The fog would lift rapidly up the precipitous escarpment, sending fingers of mist roiling over the side onto the plateau. Soon, we would be completely engulfed by a thick, all enveloping fog and all you could see were the dark grey shapes of the lobelia trees, the gelada baboons and the odd human. By evening, the rain set in, a few times quite thunderous and coming down in buckets.
Earlier that afternoon, we stopped in Gich village to partake in a traditional coffee ceremony in one of the wood sided and straw roofed huts in which the entire family and their animals live. Ethiopians like their coffee (buna) and indulge frequently in a rather exhaustive brewing process, even in the roadside buna houses in the towns. In Gich, we sat on the dirt floor while the green coffee beans were first washed and then roasted over hot coals, gasping a wee bit because of all the smoke from the fire and the incense being burned. Once roasted, our hostess ground the beans with a mortar and pestle. The ground coffee was then placed into a bulbous shaped earthenware pot called a jebana where it brewed away. Two major teaspoons of sugar were placed into a tiny cup over which the coffee was poured. No milk is lavished. It’s a brew that assaults the jugular and brain with pure caffeine and sugar. The coffee was very strong but not in the least bit bitter. In time, I learned how to politely limit the amount of heart jittering sugar that was put into my cup. The caffeine I was able to live with as long as I limited my coffee to one hit a day.
We were also served freshly made injera, the traditional pancake-like fermented bread that is a staple in the diet of an Ethiopian, which we dipped into a spicy sauce made from berbere (a spice mixture made of chili peppers, garlic, ginger and a medley of other spices which flavours many Ethiopian dishes), and some really thick, yummy honey. Injera is a food that I liked the first time I ate it and progressively came to dislike it to the point that I just could not eat any. It was a bit like an American trying to get used to Vegemite. Even if I got past the sour taste, I found that the pancake gurgled and burbled in my stomach – and finally like Mt Vesuvius, gas erupted as one giant fart.
Day 3: Gich to Chenek (3,620 m, 7 hours)
After a rather cold night of about 5 oC, we set off under foggy skies to Chenek. We again followed the edge of the escarpment, ascending to Imet Gogo (3,920 m) and further to the slightly higher Shayno Sefer (3,962 m) and Inatye (4,070 m) peaks. We walked through various types of habitat include grasslands with the endemic poker plants and wildflowers, fields of giant lobelia and heather tree forests. I found that walking was a wee hard on my knees as the trail consisted of uneven rocks, mud and puddles, and at one point making a near vertical descent of about 500 m, an ascent of 400 m followed by another steep decent of about 400 m.
A short walk from our campsite to the vertigo inducing edge of the escarpment provided us with some spectacular views of the mountains and outlying lowlands to the north. This was also the first time I sighted a male walya ibex which caused me no end of excitement. We were also able to observe a troop of gelada baboons make their way down the steep sides of the escarpment at dusk where they aggregated and huddled together for the night in a small cave etched into the cliff.
Although we did have some clear skies during the day, the fog moved in again by lunchtime and a downpour of rain caught up with us not long after we reached Chenek camp marking the start of a very wet night.
Day 4: Chenek to Sona (2,750 m 8 hours)
Our initial aim was to hike to the top of Ras Dashen, the highest peak in Ethiopia at 4,533 m. Our plans were thwarted when three days of consistently heavy rain threatened to flood the Mesheha River which we needed to cross to climb up the mountain. As we could not get any weather reports and we did not want to get stranded or endanger ourselves and our trekking crew, we opted instead to cross Bwahit Pass and hike up Ras Bwahit the third highest peak in Ethiopia at an altitude of 4,430 m. Despite our prudent decision and a degree of disappointment, it appears we did not miss much by not hiking up Ras Dashen. We were told later by Chris, a trekker we had met on top of Ras Bwahit, that the trek to Ras Dashan was a trudge as there was a very steep descent and ascent that took an eon to walk, you had to backtrack along the same route and much of the track followed a road through grain fields. There was no overly spectacular view at the top that had not been seen before and, most irksome, the surrounding buttresses looked higher than Ras Dashen due to the wonders of perspective.
The highlight of the ascent up Ras Bwahit was the sighting of five female and one male walya ibex running down the hill to a small stream. To get to the top of the mountain, we had to follow a road for a short while after which we followed a narrow rocky track through open rangeland and finally do a wee bit of scrambling at the very top. Before the fog set in, we could see Ras Dashen on the other side of the Mesheha River valley. Our solitude was broken by the sound of trucks working on a road under construction and new settlements being built in the lower hills. We decided over our soggy vegetable sandwiches which we had every day for lunch that we had saved wearing out our feet and knees that little bit by not hiking over to and up Ras Dashen just for the sake of saying “been there, done that”.
From Ras Bwahit, we began our descent to the lowlands, passing some small settlements and fields of barley, sorghum and teff (a fine grain about the size of a poppy seed which is indigenous to Ethiopia and which they use for making injera). It was harvest season and the grain was being gathered by men using a small traditional hand held scythe. Although the area we were hiking in was still in the world heritage area, the ground was sadly very badly eroded due to overgrazing by cows and goats. We were told that there is a plan to resettle the people living in the park to areas outside the park and rehabilitate the land. A very long term project indeed.
The weather did not disappoint and by 4 pm we were walking in drenching rain with dashes of hail, thunder and lightning. Although our tents had been set up in the schoolyard in Sona village before we arrived, the rain had turned the yard into a mud field complete with flowing water. Men, women and children from the village, all either barefoot or wearing the ubiquitous fluoro-coloured plastic sandals, were standing under what little eaves the school buildings provided while the rain steadily fell, threatening to flood our tents as it was evident that the tents had not been properly erected.
Day 5: Sona to Mekarebia (2,200 m, 6 hours)
The rain did not let up all night. Pius and Martin bore the brunt of a badly erected, leaky tent ending up with wet mattresses and sleeping bags while my tent, being in somewhat better condition, got only partially wet on the inside. Needless to say, Pius and Martin were in grumpy-land the next morning despite waking up to clear, blue skies, the soothing noises of the village coming to life, and a rather good breakfast of scrambled eggs, toast with honey and a big jar of Nutella.
The descent to the Mesheha River bordered on dastardly. The descent was over 1,000 m near vertical drop along a rock and mud track. It is a main pathway for the locals coming to and from the valley to the villages on the plateau so it was well used, but I felt every joint of my legs as I made the descent which in itself took 3 ½ hours. We had to cross the river twice which was not difficult as the water level only came to our mid thighs at the deepest point. We stopped at the river for our spaghetti lunch where we had a wee swim and did some laundry. The local ladies also set up one of their mobile pop-up stores next to the river, selling mainly multi-coloured, hand woven baskets. The rest of the day was an easy walk following the river valley, passing some rather majestic ficus trees, to our campsite in the village of Mekarebia, a small village made up of traditional wood houses and surrounded by sorghum and teff fields.
Although we still had stunning views looking up the escarpment to the south and pinnacles to the north, we had sighted virtually no wildlife nor other trekkers once we left Chenek. The exception was a couple of Columbus monkeys Mengeshe pointed out to me hanging out in a huge ficus tree not far outside of Mekarebia.
As in the other villages we passed through, we got the hordes of kids following us asking for money and pencils. There is no running water or electricity in the villages but when you see the kids covered in open sores, scabs and runny noses of green snot, all you want to do is find a tub of water and give them a bath. After dabbing a lot of sores on skinny arms, I left a tube of betadine with a family of six kids who had invited me into their home, but I rather think that was a pretty insignificant gesture.
Day 5: Mekarebia to Mulit (2,000 m, 6 hours)
We woke to the sound of roosters, ululating villagers, fighting dogs and porridge. It was a warm night, relatively comfortable despite the lump of dirt smack in the middle of my tent floor corresponding with the small of my back. Some of the villagers were already standing around waiting for the foreigners to arise and as soon as we appeared, the children started their money-pencils chant.
We followed the valley of the Insiya River passing through the village of Hawaza where we rather enjoyed a swim in a deep pool cut into the river rock. The refreshing water was soon forgotten during the hot, shadeless ascent of 500 m to the village of Mulit. Our tents had been set up in grassed compound dotted with trees providing shade and respite from the hot sun. After some negotiation, I agreed to have my very dusty hiking shoes cleaned by an enterprising young chap, not realizing that the cleaning would consist of a lot of soap, water and elbow grease scrubbing. I think he actually managed to de-gortex my shoes.
Day 6: Mulit to Adiarkaye (2,188 m, 2 hours)
It was market day so the trail was busy with people carrying their goods from their villages to Adiarkaye. The loads of mainly sacks and bags of grain were carried by men, women and children on their heads or on their backs along the dusty, rocky trail, some of these loads being up to 50 kilos. Once in the town of Adiarkaye, we had the obligatory Pepsi, piled into the car and headed to the city of Axum.