16 February 2008

Trekking the Simien Mountains of Ethiopia

I travelled with Exodus in January/February 2008

Day 1

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
Then on to the Museum & Library of the Institute of Ethiopian Studies, the former palace of Haile Selassie, set amongst flowering jacaranda trees in the grounds of the University of Addis Ababa. Here we visited the ethnographic museum, a good introduction to the tribal diversity of the country.
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).

Day 2
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’)
Fasilida's Pool
A short drive away we were able to view Fasilida’s Pool, a sunken bathing pool which today functions as the central stage for the annual Timkat (Epithany) Festival.
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!

Day 3
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
Day 4
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
We continued on this undulating traverse around several high level ridges, passing through Sankaber Camp along the way, stopping to refresh water bottles from a nearby spring. Altitude 3,100-3,200m all morning. Numerous wildlife sightings, including klipspringer and Melinik’s bushbuck, with kites, auger buzzards and lammergeyer overhead.
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
Day 5

Breakfast at Gich Camp
Awoke to frost on the camp site, but another glorious day. The camp is situated on a wide plateau above Gich. A later start this morning after the long day yesterday, and the walk began with a steady ascent for a couple of hours across a heath of tussock grass and giant lobelia. Two jackal were spotted along with the tawny eagle, lammergeyer and thick-billed raven. We reached the edge of the escarpment close to Imet Gogo, with superb vistas on both sides of the ridge. One, to the north and west, gave us the classic ‘brochure shot’ of the Simiens, and a few paces across revealed a 500m deep canyon wending its way to the north east.
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
Day 6

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
Chennek Camp
Hit the gravel road at the end of a long, hot descent and then a short yomp took us to Chennek Camp at ~3,600m. Managed to get a wash here with water from a pump, then chilled out for the rest of the afternoon. Some tough days ahead!
Another awful night spent sliding down the tent on sloping ground.

Day 7
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
After a short stop on the summit we faced a 1,600m descent, steep at first, with a lunch stop after about 500m of sustained pressure on the knees. Later we passed through farmland before stopping at a larger village for a Pepsi, surrounded by friendly local kids as usual.

Pepsi salesmen!
Then more downhill to a river valley at 2,800m, before a final climb to reach Ambikwe Camp at ~3,200m, a very noisy place, especially as we had just passed a group of farmers man-hauling a new petrol engine to be used for grinding grain in their village. They were carrying this heavy equipment all the way from Bhawit Pass to a village far beyond Ras Dashen, and this would mean that they would be climbing with this thing on their shoulders to well over 4,000m the following day! Much trumpeting of horns, singing, and general mayhem followed them up the hill. We reached camp after 8.5 hours, with very high temperatures at the close of the day.

View to Ras Dashen
Unfortunately, one of our team decided that his back would not be able to take more punishment like this, so he arranged to depart the following day back to Gonder, hitching a ride on a Dragoman truck that was also in camp for the night.

Day 8

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
After a short rest, we tackled a 100m scramble, with one slightly awkward pitch (‘the window’) as we gained the crest of the ridge, but quickly attained the summit at around 1000, five hours after we had set off…a good time.

View north from Ras Dashen
Summit ridge, Ras Dashen 
Exodus group on the summit of Ras Dashen
Stumpy on top of Ras Dashen, 4533m
Great views back to Bhawit and Imet Gogo (both seemed a long distance away!), and to more mountains stretching far to the north and east. In all, a 1,450m ascent, which, of course, we then had to reverse! Getting off the summit involved some easy down-climbing, then a long plod back across the boulder field, this time entertained by a big group of gelada baboon, who went quickly and easily up the summit cliffs to our right. Lunch at 4,200m, before reversing the morning’s climb…a long way…did we really climb up all this way earlier in the day?!

Final stage of the descent from Ras Dashen, the river valley above Ambikwe camp
The final 500m back down the steep river valley was not much fun, but we were soon back to camp at 3,200m for a few beers and that quintessential wet wipe moment!

Day 9

Ambikwe Camp
Another ’fun’ night on sloping ground, with cockerels crowing at 0115 and a religious service involving drums and repetitive singing starting at 0300. Otherwise a good night’s sleep…not! On the hill again by 0815, this time with a 400m descent back to the river valley, before attacking the steep crest of a ridge which was to take us out towards the lowlands. A long traverse across a wild farming landscape, and we were able to snatch views back to Bhawit and Ras Dashen as the morning progressed. There was along pull up to a col for lunch, which was a cold, windy spot, despite the strong sun overhead. 

Farm country en route to Sona camp
There followed an easy but long walk around numerous interlocking spurs, before a final pull up to the village of Arkwasiye, where we were then invited into a widow’s house to experience a traditional Ethiopian coffee ceremony. The ‘house’ comprised a dirt floor (complete with mischievous chicken), a fire, a bed about one metre off the floor, and numerous storage containers for food. And, of course, a very smoky atmosphere.
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
The final part of the day involved another long haul, with fine views the north and west towards Sona, our camp for the night. This was the best site yet, very basic, but perched on a cliff edge with a 1,200m drop. There were no toilet facilities here, just a hole in the ground, carefully situated in the middle of a thorny bush, with a tarpaulin dragged in front to provide some privacy.
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
Day 10
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
There followed a steep, but generally well-graded path, with occasional sightings of vervet monkeys and one colubus monkey, and we reached the river valley far below in just under three hours. We then spent a pleasant couple of hours relaxing by the river alongside locals who gather there to wash themselves and their clothes. They put out some more handicrafts for us to sell, but quietly packed them away and drifted off when they could see we had little interest in buying anything. Quite unlike other parts of Africa! The kids were delightful, as always, and I gave one of the young cow-herders an empty ‘Highland’ PET bottle – you should have seen the joy on his face, as these are always sought after by kids who spend their whole days with grazing animals up on the slopes away from water sources.

View back to Sona
There followed an easy 90 minute walk to a next camp at Lamu, an open site next to the village with stunning views to the south east, most of which was country that we had visited over the past week. To the north were more fine volcanic mountains and pinnacles.
A couple of beers and all was well in the world!

Day 11

Breakfast at Lamu camp
An easy start to the day. We visited a local school straight after breakfast. This is a joint initiative between the government and charities, and educated ‘local’ children who walk 2-3 hours to reach the school each morning. There was limited light in each of the classrooms, not enough seats and not enough books to go around either.
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
Beers, dinner, followed by our muleteers singing and dancing around a bonfire brought a pleasant close to the day.

Day 12

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.

Day 13
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.