We spent 4 days and nights in Simien Mountain National Park. In that short period we walked about 60 km and reached altitudes of almost 4,000 meters. We stayed at campsites and in a village, drank Tej (honey wine) and Jack Daniels with our trekking crew had coffee and injera with villager saw Gelada Baboons, clip springer ibex and other animals.
Simien means north in Amharic. Wikipedia describes the Simien mountains as plateaux separated by valleys and pinnacles. The mountains are unique due to their geological origins and are one of the first UNESCO world heritage sites. Notable wildlife include the walia ibex, gelada, and caracal and Ethiopian wolves. For us it was a place of incredible beauty and a way of life that had changed little in centuries.
The trip started in Gonder with breakfast at the tele cafe. Eliot and I had full (cooked beans with onions, chilis and bread) and ginger tea. A man in the bathroom with a Gonder cross carved out of his afro told me it was cold in the Simien and sold me some Tej (honey wine) that turned out to be sour. My first and last rip off in Ethiopia.
In the mini van we met Jure. A solo Slovenian traveller from Norway. He is a big guy with a bit of an accent and my initial fear was that we may be stuck for 4 days with a Balkan redneck. I wonder what he thought of us initially. Eliot and Jure started a tentative conversation sizing each other up as Dave and his friend munched on potato chips I had brought from Brazil.
We drove to Debark on the new road built by the chinese. The driver had to stop or swerve several times to avoid the people, sheep, donkeys and carts that were also using the road. It was a market day and people were bringing sheep, sticks, and vegetables to the market. In Debark we had lunch while Dave arranged for Park passes and a scout. Eliot, Jure and I shared a large fasting menu with injera. By the time we had finished eating we knew that Jure was worldly from travel, intelligent, open minded and had a great sense of humour. We knew that we would get along.
We drove into the Park from Debark, passing the Simien Mountain Lodge and various research centres on the way. On our first day we hiked along a ridge that led us to Sankaber campsite at 3250 meters. The ridge offered views of the canyon and rock formations. A truck full of passengers passed us and we knew we were in Africa.
fasting lunch (vegan food with injera for Lent)
Ethiopians just hanging out
When we arrived at Sankaber campsite our tents were up with our bags inside. There was a table set with tea and snack and a basin with water and soap for washing up.
The campsite was on a level ridge at the edge of woods and a steep slope. At the site there was a group of Japanese tourists on a deluxe tour. They had folding beds and a dinner tent. There were also a mixed group of Americans and Finns. There was no running water. There were squat pit toilets in small buildings away from the campsite. To do your business you had to stand on the raised edges of a hole and aim.
We were the smallest group but we had the best sites and cooking hut. Dave took us to see the sunset on the other side of the ridge. We met a woman that was preparing barley and a couple of Ethiopians that work for the American Gelada researchers. The Ethiopians sat arm in arm watching the sunset. Ethiopian men show affection to each other very naturally and without affect.
That night we had a huge dinner and then sat by the fire with the Ethiopians. I woke at 3 am with a need to go to the can. I stumbled out of the tent and was blinded by Scout shining his flashlight in my face. I tried to find the outhouse but got lost and eventually had to relieve my self in the woods. As I squatted I saw two sets of eyes reflecting the light from my headlamp. The eyes belonged what looked like two small deer but turned out to be klip springer.
We woke up in a cold tent to the sound of Zafu asking us if we wanted tea or coffee. Breakfast was laid out for us and we left camp at around 8.30 am. We hiked along the ridge and then down to a river. Dave pointed out different plants that we passed on the way including sage (tea), wild garlic (rat poison) mint, Abyssinian roses, and Jasmine flowers. We met our first Geladas on this route and a couple of shepherd boys ran down the hill with their flock when they saw us. Here is a video of the shepherd boys.
We had lunch by a river while some villagers were washing clothing. One village boy came up to us and we gave him half of our sandwich and some candy.
Home in Gich village where we had coffee (outside)
After lunch we climbed up a long hill to a high plane. In Gich village we went to a home for the coffee ceremony. The home was round, had dung/mud walls and eucalyptus branch roof. The woman had a fire going and we sat in the dark on burlap sacks as she washed and then roasted the coffee beans. She shooed away the chickens that started pecking at the coffee beans. It was dark, dusty and smoky. I could not believe that this was a family home. The meows of a cat were competing with the bleating of a lamb and the call of the rooster. Dave explained that the family sleeps together on a raised platform over the enclosure for the animals. The daughter showed us how she prepares barley flour, first separating the chaff with a mortar made out of hard wood. Then she makes flour by grinding the grains against this stone. Her husband from an arranged marriage was out working in the fields. The coffee was served on a tray with injera and chilis paste. It occurred to me that they were living in a different century. They grew and prepared most of their food and built their homes out of local materials. On the other hand, we modern city dwellers were specialized and dependent on others for most of our needs. If modern society were to collapse under the weight of complexity and climate change, we would starve while the Ethiopian villagers have a better shot at survival.
As we sipped coffee and ate injera Dave told us that when he was a kid rain would drip through the roof mix with ash and leave a bitter taste on the injera. Wealthier families have tin roofs to avoid this problem.
Gich is one of the villages that is being relocated outside of the park to protect wildlife from the effects of human habitation. The villagers were given compensation and offered homes in Debark village. They were sad to be leaving, Eliot asked what will they do and we were told that they could become merchants like their moslem brethren. The move had not been completed yet because the villagers were waiting for their homes to be electrified before they leave. On our way out three kids asked for pens and money, we gave them candy. The youngest had flies all over his eyes. It was hard for me to look at him. However, they stood arm in arm and were gentle with each other.
That evening we camped at Gich campsite which is on a high plain above the village. We watched the kids play this game with a ball and sticks and then hiked up to a ridge where we could watch the sun set and the baboons descend the cliffs for safety. It was a beautiful moment, the sun setting over the canyon while we heard the Geladas calling to each other and then watched them tumbling and stumbling down the cliffs.
Here is the itinerary of the trip