Eliot and I trekked in Simien mountains national park for four days from March 8-12. In those 4 days, we saw incredibly beautiful landscapes and watched wildlife up close. The trek was one of the best experiences I had so far on the trip and much of the credit goes to the guide and the staff that took care of us.
By way of background, the Simien Mountains National Park is located in the North West corner of Ethiopia, near the town of Debark. It is home to a number of endemic species including the Gelada Baboons. Within the park, there are subsistence farmers and herders. We went on a guided trek in which everything is taken care of from food, to tent and baggage.
Dave (Dawit) Johannes is the man that put the trek together. He organized and guided us for 4 days in the mountains and 1 day in Gonder. We found Dave through recommendations from a TripAdvisor forum when we were in Colombia. We contacted him directly and then planned and booked the trek by email and WhatsApp. This was the best example I have seen of Internet empowerment so far. Dave was able to reach clients from Ethiopia with little more than a laptop. We were able to plan the trip directly with our guide. The trek cost much less than comparable treks offered by adventure companies and the entire sum went to Dave and the people he hired.
I realize that what made this work was that there was an element of trust. We had to trust a person we had only met by email to take care of us in a remote part of Ethiopia. Dave had to trust us to show up and pay the balance as promised. The only monetary assurance provided was $100 we sent by Western Union. The trust was built from our email correspondence. We contacted a number of guides but decided on Dave because of his consistency and the way he communicated with such enthusiasm about the tour and the mountains. It was if he too was excited to be going on the trek.
Dave is 28 and was born and raised in Simien mountains. Like most boys in his village, Dave spent his early years herding sheep and goats. He would get up at 7, have breakfast and spend the day guiding the herd to the places where there was grass and scrub. He would return before dark.
We met many shepherd kids on our hike. They would sing to each other and some would come to see us. The kids were dusty and dressed in ripped clothing some had no shoes. They all had sticks for the prodding the herd and sling shots for chasing away hyenas. Dogs were recently banned in the park because rabies was infecting the endangered Ethiopian wolves. Dave told us how he was once beaten by his parents because a hyena got a lamb.
Eliot asked about school and Dave told us that kids went to school if their parents let them. Dave’s parents eventually sent him go to school. But he had to walk 4 hours a day to the next village before his parents moved to a village that had its own school. Dave then took courses in english and tourism and started guiding. He is basically self-taught. Dave was very matter of fact about his story. There was none of the North American whining about a difficult childhood. He showed us a photo on his cell phone of him as a child that had been taken by a tourist and later sent to him.
Shepherd boys that we met on our trek.
It was amazing to think that 20 years ago Dave was one of these boys and here is now talking to us in English, with his smart phone making plans as he runs his own business. Hopefully, in ten years I will be asked to send the above photo to one of these boys.
During the trek we had injera and beer with his aunt and met his grandmother in Argin village. This town has not changed much since Dave left. There is still no electricity or running water. There is an elementary school but the kids have to walk 4 hours a day to get to the high school in Ambaras.
Dave’s aunt making Injera in her home with her daughter in background
Dave and his grandmother
School children Argin (20 years ago there was no primary school)
The places we are from form part, but not all of who we are. Most people stay in or around the place they are from unless compelled to leave by circumstances or a personal desire for change.
Like my grandparents z’l, Dave left his “shtetl” (village) for a new life. However, his village still exists while my grandparents’s villages were destroyed and continued only in their minds. When asked if he could live in the village again, David replied that he had become too accustomed to modern town life including the internet and the music.
David’s mother never left the mountains. When he tried to bring her to visit him Debark she got car sick on the bus (it was her first time) and refused to continue. Dave’s grandmother did manage to leave the village to travel to Dubai to visit a grandchild. She returned and at 89 is the oldest person in the village. Not everyone has the desire or ability to change and those that seek it out need resiliency and self-confidence to figure out what they ultimately want and who they are.
Moving to a new place can be a great exercise in self-realization. You get to build your identity based on your old and new worlds. Eliot left Buga Colombia to live in Vancouver. When he left Colombia was beset with violence. He had to learn a new language and fit in to a new culture. He worked very hard to learn English and attend university in his second language. Talk about resiliency. Everyone that knows Eliot knows that he is his own person. I think Dave was a lot like Eliot in that sense.
In addition to Dave there were 4 others he hired to take care of Eliot, myself and Jure. These were Abieu the cook, Zafu the assistant cook and Solomon and Degef to handle the mules and set up camp. We were also required to hire a “scout” to protect us. Only Dave spoke english and therefore what we know about the other team members is based on observation and Dave’s account.
Here is a photo right to left, Solomon, Degif, Zafu assistant cook, driver (seated) Dave, Abieu (cook) and scout (gun)
The trek team in the morning in Ambaras village. They slept outside that night. It is cold after dark and Ethiopians in the mountains wrap themselves in blankets.
The National Park has a program of hiring local villagers to act as scouts for tourists. In order to be a scout you need to have a gun and be willing to hike. When I asked if there was any requirement that the scout know how to use the gun, Dave laughed. The only threat comes from Hyenas and they are usually chased away by a flashlight. Scout work is spread out amongst the men in the different villages and in general the maximum number of days a villager can work as a scout per year is 10.
Makkebaw was our Scout. We know that he is 50 years old, Ethiopian orthodox christian and had a Soviet WW2 rifle but no bullets. He did not have a flashlight either and had to borrow ours. Makkebaw took his job seriously and would always walk last in the group. He slept outside our tent and would shine the light in our eyes whenever I tried to go to the outhouse in the middle of the night. Makkebaw pointed out his village on a mountainside on our third day. It was very small collection of round mud houses and some steep terraced fields. There was no church and the houses had eucalyptus branch roofs which meant that the villagers were too poor to afford tin roofs. Makkebaw was observing lent (vegan fast) and when we had coffee at a moslem home in Gich village Makkebaw did not drink any because in his view only moslems drank coffee. This was one of a few slight indications we had of differences between the communities. We would give Makkebaw different food items but never saw him eating them. Instead he put everything in a bag and gave it to his daughter when we saw her at a school to take home to his wife along with the tip that Jure had given him on the third day.
Eliot with Makkebaw and the Scout from another group
A Scout guarding the tents
Abiew was our cook. He had taken a cooking course and knew the English names of the foods he prepared. Abiew and his assistant Zafu would prepare breakfast and pack lunch in one camp, pack up and move to the next camp with the mules. In the second camp they would set up the kitchen and prepare afternoon snacks and dinner. There was no electricity/refrigeration or running water. They used my flashlight and light from a wood fire to cook. Abiew was hilarious, we did not understand him but he made everyone laugh. He was always joking and changing his voice and making the other guys laugh. Abiew has a wife and a daughter that he has to leave when he goes on treks. He liked to drink and liked Jack Daniels. His food was varied and very good. The soups were especially good. He would serve it in a chef’s outfit with a flourish. We would sometimes hear him telling Zafu to run and do things like get water or gather wild herbs for our tea.
Dave, Eliot and Abiew at Gich campsite dinner
The other team members we did not really get to know very well. We would sit around the campfires with them at night and they would all talk and sing and even dance. Click this Camp Fire Song link to hear an audio recording of the campfire song that we sang sitting under the stars in the cold. The guys were rocking and smiling.
This team of 5 including Dave, took care of Eliot, myself and Jure (a Slovenian tourist that was added to our group and who we quickly befriended ) for 5 days. There is a huge linguistic, cultural and socio economic gap between us and the team members. However, they were all very friendly in a natural unforced way.
One night we opened a bottle of Jack Daniels and played cards (golf) with them and a couple of Finnish tourists from another group. Whoever lost a hand had to down his drink, Abiew did not see that as a downside and he eagerly downed his booze when he lost a hand. It was a great moment playing cards and drinking booze in a small cooking hut in Ethiopia. The barriers between us went down at least temporarily as the Ethiopians quickly mastered the card game and won most of the hands.
At one point in time, I was thinking of booking the trip with a known tour company but decided instead to arrange the trip with Dave. I am so happy I did. In the end the small bit of trust that we put in someone we met on line paid off in a big way. We got to not only see the mountains but spend time with local people and hear their story.
Having Dave as our guide really made the Simien Trek such a good experience He was such a guide and a great person; you could see it in how he interacted with other people. If anyone is interested in going to see the Simien Mountains, we highly recommend Dave to be your guide. He has an extensive knowledge of the mountains, including the plants, wildlife, history and people. His website is not up yet but he can be contacted by email at firstname.lastname@example.org
For Canadian charities that help build capacity in Ethiopia