Ethiopian Airlines flight to Addis Ababa via Rome, the final hour or so in daylight over the vast landscapes of northern Ethiopia, a taster of what was to come over the next two weeks. Addis Ababa is a surprisingly modern and efficient airport and visa formalities were quickly expedited.
Met by Graham, the Exodus leader, and transferred to the Extreme Hotel in the northern suburbs. Roads were busier than usual as the African Congress was in town.
Later in the day we visited the Kiddist Selassie (Holy Trinity) Cathedral, built in 1933, and now the final resting place of Emperor Haile Selassie, reburied there in 2000, 25 years after his murder.
|Tomb of Emperor Haile Selassie, Addis Ababa|
Addis is quite unlike any other African city I have visited, orderly and unthreatening, and people generally very friendly. At 2,200m it still suffers from traffic pollution, like just about any other city in the developing world.
Dinner back at the hotel comprised of injera (a sponge like bread dipped into a selection of spicy meats and vegetables), all washed down with a good local beer, Meta (5% abv).
A very early start for a 50 minute flight to Gonder, a former capital of the nation.
The atmosphere here is quite different to Addis, a breezy but pleasantly warm climate with abundant birdlife much in evidence, particularly the ubiquitous black kite. We checked into the Goha Hotel, part of the government owned Ghion chain, perched on a hill overlooking the town about 1.5km from the town centre, a peaceful spot with excellent views over the town.
Gonder was established in 1635 by Emperor Fasilidas (Fasil), who united the nation after a tumultuous century of Muslim and Catholic impositions. Fasil re-established the Orthodox Church and by 1667 Gonder was the largest and most prominent city of the Abyssinian Empire.
We visited the walled Royal Enclosure, containing six well preserved castles constructed in the 17th century and now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. After lunch we visited Debre Birham Selassie (‘Mountain of the Enlightened Trinity’), founded by Iyasu in the 1690s, and rated as one of the most beautiful of Ethiopian churches. There are prolific paintings inside, including the famous ceiling covered in 80 cherubic angels.
|Royal Enclosure, Gonder|
|Ceiling in Debre Birham Selassie (‘Mountain of the Enlightened Trinity’)|
I took the opportunity to visit one of Exodus’ responsible tourism projects later in the day, meeting staff at the Gonder Eye Clinic Project, which is partly helped by donations from Exodus clients. Cataracts are a common issue in Ethiopia due to dust, high levels of UV and the smoky atmosphere many people live in. Amongst other things, this project aims to train local nurses to do simple operations out in the villages and deal with this common cause of blindness. A worthy cause!
An early start after a somewhat disturbed night, with dogs barking at 0100 and the local preacher singing his head off from 0400 to kick start the Festival of St Mary. Today local Christians will take the day off, dress in their white religious robes and have a party! This was seen in all towns and villages we passed through later in the day, en route to the start point of our trek, the small town of Debark, three hours drive to the north.
Already at 2,800m, we set off late morning, our kit now stowed on mules, and were soon crossing dusty tracks through rolling hills, passing farms and small hamlets along the way. Black kites, auger buzzards and lammergeyers were frequently seen in the sky, and, on the ground we were regularly regaled by groups of local kids eager to make their acquaintance with the strange ‘faranji’ passing through. Up and down at a reasonable pace for three hours, then a short lunch stop before a steep pull up 300m to rejoin the gravel road which provides access to some of the camps further east in the national park.
Huge views and big skies, with volcanic plugs so typical of the Simien Mountains to our left. This is sheep and cow country, with people eking out a subsistence living with barley and vegetables in season.
We reached Buyit Ras camp after 4.5 hours walking, a great spot on a wide plateau and one rarely used by walking groups other than Exodus. Practised some yoga before the light faded, with the most idyllic view to inspire a good asana!
|Buyit Ras Camp|
|Our scout, Youssef|
A usual disturbed night in the tent, awaking just after 0600 to a bright sunny day. On the hill by 0750, quickly reaching an escarpment with huge views to the ‘lowlands’ to the east, our destination later next week. It rather resembled the south rim of the Grand Canyon here, but the key difference was the resident population of the endemic Gelada Baboon seen on numerous occasions as we climbed higher. They are fairly relaxed animals, seen in small groups grooming each other, and will tolerate people getting to within 5m of them.
|Gelada baboon, Simien Mountain National Park|
There was a steep descent to our lunch spot, followed by a long climb on to the plateau in the afternoon. After another river valley descent the final climb of the day, a mere 400m, brought us to Gich Camp at 3544m, passing through the nearby Muslim village. A windy and cold night, and, needless to say, another restless one!
|Scarp views from Gich|
|Breakfast at Gich Camp|
We walked along the ridge with a little easy scrambling to surmount the summit of Imet Gogo at 3,926m, the highest point of the trip so far. Great views to the east and north and we were able to pick out our route for the next seven days or so…a bloody long way! Retracing our steps a little, then turning east over easy ground to enjoy the views from Saha at 3,785m, the end of a ridge with spectacular drops below us. Returned to camp for lunch and had a lazy afternoon before setting off for a half hour walk to watch the sunset from the edge of the escarpment at Girdir Got 3423m. A chilly night ahead!
|Stumpy at Imet Gogo|
|View from Imet Gogo, 3926m|
|Looking back to Imet Gogo from Saha, 3785m|
Another fitful night, but awoke to clear skies again. Headed off in the direction of Imet Gogo, through swathes of giant lobelia, before veering off east to reach the summit of Inatye 4,070m. This provided spectacular walking along the edge of the escarpment, with gelada baboon in abundance but no sightings of the elusive Walia Ibex.
Stopped for lunch on the edge of a 1,000m drop – great exposure – then a steep descent following the edge of the escarpment, affording great views and some exposed walking. Good stuff!
|Big drops over the scarp|
|Descent along the Imet Gogo escarpment|
Another awful night spent sliding down the tent on sloping ground.
A cold start, as the camp is in shadow until after 0800. Started with a 800m climb straight after breakfast, the ascent of Ethiopia’s second highest mountain, Bhawit 4,430m, being our objective for the day. We initially followed a river valley, before reaching the scarp edge again, this time populated with Walia Ibex, seen grazing below us on the most precipitous of cliffs.
Eventually we reached Bhawit Pass at over 4,000m, to be confronted with a local market! People from far and wide trading sheets of corrugating iron (for roofing), animals and plastic containers. The final 300m section was hard work, but the summit was easily surmounted with a little scrambling. More ibex were spotted along the way. Fine views all around, back to Gich Camp, Imet Gogo and towards Ras Dashen, our objective for the next day, further to the east. A big panorama.
|View back to Imet Gogo from Bhawit, 4430m|
|View to Ras Dashen|
Up at 0415, a quick breakfast, and on the hill, walking by head-torch, by 0500. A long climb up a steep river valley from the village, breaching a col at sunrise around 0630. Then on to a long, slowly ascending stretch around numerous interlocking spurs, entering giant lobelia country at around 4,000m. Then increasingly steep sections took us to another col, where the trader’s route then left us. After a short break we turned left for the final ascent to the summit. Harder work now above 4,300m, but personally felt quite strong as we crossed the boulder field below the imposing summit ridge.
|Boulder field before scramble to Ras Dashen's summit|
|View north from Ras Dashen|
|Summit ridge, Ras Dashen|
|Exodus group on the summit of Ras Dashen|
|Stumpy on top of Ras Dashen, 4533m|
|Final stage of the descent from Ras Dashen, the river valley above Ambikwe camp|
|Farm country en route to Sona camp|
She washed the coffee beans, then roasted them over the fire, before pounding the beans into a fine powder and added to a kettle of boiling water. To add to the atmosphere, frankincense was added to some burning embers, producing a pungent but pleasant white smoke. Each of us was then served a succession of three cups of (good) coffee, progressively weaker on each pouring. After this, we left the house to face what seemed like the whole village, who had turned out to sell their wares, but the whole thing was very low pressure.
|Villagers at Arkwasiye|
|Coffee ceremony in Arkwasiye|
We had great views of the whole escarpment, centred on Imet Gogo and another range of rock pinnacles further to the south.
Sore feet today! The trek had started at 0815 and we did not reach camp until after 1700, but this site gave some of the best mountain views I have ever seen, and we had them all to ourselves as this camp is rarely visited by other trekking parties. From here I could see why the Simien Mountains have often been called the ‘Chess Pieces of the Gods’. A great sunset too.
|View from Sona camp|
Up early to catch the early sun on the north east facing scarp of the Imet Gogo range. Superb, with huge drops below us reminding us of the steep 1,400m descent that faced us after breakfast. An outdoor breakfast, just metres from the cliff edge, got us into good shape for the work ahead.
|View to western end of the Simien Mountains in Ethiopia|
|Imet Gogo from Sona Camp|
|View back to Sona|
A couple of beers and all was well in the world!
|Breakfast at Lamu camp|
There followed a steep 300m descent to a river, then a few miles of boulder hopping and umpteen crossings of the river, before we pulled up into a side valley to reach a pool at the base of a waterfall. It was very hot walking, around 380C, so a long lunch with some swimming gave welcome respite.
However, we then faced a 400m ascent – very hot indeed by now – so a slow Alpine plod was de rigeur. We reached a ‘pub’ at the top of the hill but no beer available, so soft drinks and coffee were enjoyed by all. The bar was decorated with grain sacking, but was clean and well ordered.
This had been a birder’s day – red beaked hornbill, black headed forest oriole, finches, bee-eaters, and more.
The final 90 minute walk was on easier ground and brought us to the camp at Mulit, amidst terrain that looks somewhat like the Monument Valley, with the main Simien massif now well away in the distance. This was an atmospheric campsite, nestled within a number of farmsteads, so chickens clucking and kid’s playing were the order of the day.
|View from Mulit Camp|
|Muleteer dance at Mulit Camp|
This was to be our last trekking day, with another broken night on sloping ground. We were off by 0730 and descended about 350m to the small town of Adi Arkay at 1700m, then on to the small bus to get us back to Debark for a quick lunch before the final stretch to Gonder. In all, about a five hour journey from Adi Arkay to Gonder.
Early flight to Addis Ababa, day rooms to rest in before midnight flight back to London via Rome.
Not a trek for first-timers! A lot of big ascents and descents, with most of the closing stages of the day walks in very hot weather, especially as you trek into the lowlands towards the end of the trip. We were walking during the beginning of the dry season, so no malarial prophylactics were required.
Altitude affected almost everybody, but by day 4/5 we were all hill fit and much stronger. Sloping tent pitches are the norm, so be prepared for disturbed nights (or find a way of not slipping down your Thermarest!).
But, the compensations were enormous
- scenery and landscapes without parallel: a very distinctive mountain environment
- wonderfully friendly people, spontaneous in their welcome, polite and really no hassle at all
We travelled through an area which gets no more than about 7,000 visitors p.a., and the last few days were spent in country where there are probably less than 200 visitors each year.
A wonderful journey…highly recommended.