Exploring Ethiopia’s Simien Mountains, one of the most spectacular landscapes in the world.
When the boy arrives with our firewood and squats down on the dust-covered floor to escape the hailstorm raging outside, I can barely tear my eyes from him.
It’s not only that he’s five years old and all alone or that he’s wrapped Jedi-like in a threadbare grey blanket, or that he has materialized through the maelstrom accompanied by a retinue of six drenched cows. Neither is it the fact that, with the fire burning, he spends the next hour motionless, glowering, crouched like a mute boulder with steam coiling off his sodden clothes. When he gets up to leave, he stops at the doorway to empty his Wellington boots of the pooled water he has been crouching in the whole time.
It is, quite simply, that he is the first thing I have seen all day that hasn’t seemed impossibly huge and unfamiliar. Outside are the Simien Mountains, where encountering anything small is a rarity.
Spending time here, I am already discovering, gives you a pretty good impression of how Jack must have felt on that first expedition up the Beanstalk.
Looming high among the volcanic outriders of the Great Rift Valley in northern Ethiopia, is nature with a serious case of gigantism: a basalt escarpment 40 kilometers long, staggered between altitudes of 11,000 and 15,000 feet, populated with super-sized plants and armies of monkeys 500-strong. In 1978, UNESCO dubbed it “one of the most spectacular landscapes in the world,” and consecrated the Simien Mountains National Park in its very first batch of World Heritage Sites, alongside Yellowstone and the Galapagos Islands.
Until recently, however, outsiders have not always been able to walk its high plateaus. From 1983 to 1999, while Mount Kilimanjaro — Simien’s rival for the “Roof of Africa” title — was elbowing its way onto the pages of every ‘Things To Do Before You Die’ tome in the bookstore, a tragic combination of famine and regional warfare was grinding the Simien’s tourism potential into dust.
In recent years, however, a steady trickle of infrastructural improvements and foreign investment — epitomized by the opening of the up-market Simien Lodge, dubbed “Africa’s Highest Hotel,” would seem to point towards a promising future. I have come here to find out whether this epic tableland might one day become the most coveted pin on the trekker’s map of Africa.
Setting off from Sankaber — the classic trailhead for a trek in the Simiens — marks my introduction to a world of unrestrained visual overload: walking over broad tundra patrolled by the spiky fronds and 10-foot high flower stems of giant lobelias; staring into endless skies crisscrossed by squadrons of huge raptors; and moments spent lying in the dust, belly-down to quell the vertigo, watching streams spill over the escarpment rim, plummeting hundreds of meters before fishtailing into clouds of vapor. By the time a big-billed raven — twice the size of its European cousins — swoops down to croak for the crumbs from my packed-lunch, the Simiens have taken my lofty expectations and dropkicked them off the cliff.
Yet this is all a prelude, and it’s on the second morning that the show really begins. It finds me at the Gich campgrounds, one of three tracts in the national park set aside for camping, where I’ve been dozing top-to-tail with Dawoud ‘Chigger Yeh-Lem’ [No Problem] Suleyman, an infectiously enthusiastic guide, and Alemu, the obligatory rifle-toting scout.
All three of us are still damp from a run-in with some table-country weather, after our arrival last night was greeted by a welcoming committee of bruised clouds and marble-sized hailstones that thwarted our best efforts to pitch our hired tents. In one corner of the field stands a ‘lodge’, “but it is crap,” Dawoud had assessed bluntly, deploying for the first of many times the vernacular he picked up during a year studying at a college in Chichester, England. Further inspection revealed little more than a mud-spattered shed. We ended up seeking sanctuary in a communal open-sided roundhouse, crescented around the embers of our evening fire.
After the night that followed, which was largely spent avoiding leaks in the grass-thatched roof, it is comforting to know that our next stage is a short one. We are following an itinerary suggested by the National Park HQ staff in the nearby one-road town of Debark and today — a circuit of the plateau north and back to Gich — the going will be almost pancake-flat, affording me maximum gawping time along some of the park’s finest vantages.
The sun is still an extra-planetary smear on the horizon, the lobelia scattered across the moorland a triffid-like army just landed. We set off at a trot — to beat the dawn and to stave off the morning chill — across ground still spongy from last night’s rain.
Somewhere to the north, I hear a chorus of chirrups: the gelada monkeys, this region’s tousle-haired icons, are clambering out of their cliff-face caves to join us on the tableland. These gelada are the star-turns in a charismatic cast of creatures unique to the Ethiopian highlands.
Over the course of our trek, I will run into them time and again. But this morning the wildlife is a sideshow. For now, it’s all about the views. After an hour’s walk, with stomach-turning abruptness, the ground drops away below me for a vertical mile.
The trail slithers out from the plateau onto a narrow spine of splintered rock, ending in a knuckle of boulders known as Imet Gogo. It is the park’s most celebrated viewpoint and with good reason. Looking north from its 12,000-foot apex, I see a pair of rock incisors standing in sharp relief, their jagged tips snagging curls of mist. Beyond, vast arid plains start to coalesce through the haze, rising up into ranks of buttes and mesa-like mountains swathed in mineral colors.
This is the sort of view — all friable plains and pinnacles — that the Simiens are famous for. Travelling here in the 1920s, this landscape inspired poetry in the British adventuress Rosita Forbes. “When the old gods reigned in Ethiopia they must have played chess with these stupendous crags,” reads a passage of her 1925 travelogue From Red Sea to Blue Nile.
But now the chess-piece metaphor seems too genteel. The shapes I see are violent: the ravine behind me is the blow of a battle-axe; the table-peak in the distance the anvil from a blacksmith’s forge; the ephemeral abutments disappearing into the haze are the raised scar-tissue of a subterranean skirmish, remnants of a Titan’s war.
After an hour’s walk, with stomach-turning abruptness, the ground drops away below me for a vertical kilometer
Such impressions are not too far from reality: science’s explanation is no less traumatic. The clue is in the buttes: they mark the locations of long-extinct volcanic vents which, a few dozen million years ago, pumped out a superheated ooze of lava that solidified over time into a gargantuan igneous dome of basalt more than three kilometers thick. Five million years ago, with Ethiopia’s early hominids still a glint in evolution’s eye, an ice age added the finishing touches, as mighty glaciers kickstarted the process of gnawing away the cliffs that now fall away all around us.
One American visitor, reeling off shots by the dozen, sums up the end-result rather well: “A bit like half the Grand Canyon,” he says. “Only grander.” The panorama pretty much shut everyone up after that.
All the while, three lammergeyers — relatives of the vulture — pull figure-eights overhead, taking turns dropping in on cow femur bones scattered on the rocks to get at the marrow within, maneuvering without a single wing-beat even though I cannot feel a breath of the wind they’re riding.
Some of the park’s residents are more elusive but — with the exception of the weather, which for the duration of my visit breaks into a pell-mell of precipitation each afternoon — everything is going my way. The next morning, after another cold and soggy night at Gich, a local boy helps me catch a glimpse of the most elusive of them all.
“My name is Tazo. Have you seen the fox?”
He is a child-herdsman — spindle-legged, barefooted, half-mummified in a maroon cowl — who appears apparition-like as I crest a bluff on the trail. “Over there!” he points. I follow the line of his stabbing finger to where a statuesque beast with a slender muzzle and flame-colored fur is ghosting across the frosty landscape some 200 feet away. This is a special privilege, to encounter an Ethiopian wolf, the world’s most endangered canid (or ‘dog’ if you are not a taxonomist). This lanky shadow is one of an estimated 550 of his species still alive in the wild.
A simien fox, the world’s most endangered canid.
“Blimey!” says Dawoud, joining us on the ridge as the specter spies us and canters away. “We hardly ever see them.”
It is an auspicious start to a day spent mostly on the move — at 11 miles, our longest kick. Bypassing Imet Gogo, the trail turns east through the full spectrum of the Simiens landscapes, first edging along the green-walled void of the Meflekeaw Ravine; next passing over a golden prairie rumpled with the filigreed headwaters of a phantom stream; then climbing for 2,000 feet through a gnarled forest of heather trees, where the rain has unleashed the scent of wild thyme.
Along a winding track, over steady terrain, the kilometers fall away behind our boot heels with Dawoud up front, me in the middle, and Alemu, aquiline and fierce, bringing up the rear in vigilant silence, a burlap sack full of our accumulated litter slung over one bony shoulder and antique bolt action rifle — which never leaves his side, even in slumber — on the other.
“To warn away the kids,” Dawoud claims, when I ask why the gun is necessary, although when we next encounter some back among the high grasslands, their presence is hardly intimidating. On an outcrop, nearing our trek’s 13,000-foot high point, some entrepreneurial children have gathered to hawk cow-horn goblets and eucalyptus crooks to anyone filing over the summit.
For the Amhara pastoralists who live within the park’s boundaries, selling trinkets to tourists is a recent diversification from an otherwise ancient way of life. As the journey progresses, the opportunity to spend time with them becomes as integral a part of the Simien experience as the extraordinary landscape they call home. Seldom does an hour pass without some sight of a tukul — the mud-walled roundhouse with conical thatched roof seen throughout Ethiopia’s highland communities — or a chorus of high-pitched hellos assailing us from the top of a distant hill.
One family invites us into their tukul to shelter from a squall. Ducking under the low lintel, I am greeted by a cacophony of bleats and mews. As my eyes adjust to the gloom, I make out a veritable menagerie: little platoons of chicks skitter over the earthen floor; four goats and a tethered calf shelter beneath sleeping platforms rough-hewn from eucalyptus branches. A kitten lies catatonic by the fire, beneath walls decorated with zigzags drawn in charcoal. We sit down on low stools. The father — slender, with a delicate beard — offers us stiff and stodgy barley bread.
“It is taboo for them not to offer us something,” whispers Dawoud in my ear. While the daughters winnow barley in a corner, a little saleswoman appears in the doorway, catching my eye and revealing a single hen’s egg from the folds of her headscarf. I swap it for a jar of honey that I picked up in Lalibela. She scampers off, giggling victoriously.
Beyond, vast arid plains start to coalesce through the haze, rising up into ranks of buttes and mesa-like mountains swathed in mineral colors.
While the men catch up on local gossip, the mother prepares an impromptu coffee ceremony. Beans are roasted on an iron plate, frankincense is burned on an upside-down saucepan lid, and the mud-thick brew is served to those gathered — three cups each, as is the custom. She does all this with a baby goat-skinned to her back, and a small glowering boy with a Mohican haircut clasped to her belly.
“He is afraid of faranjis [foreigners],” says Dawoud, and you can hardly blame him. Like mountain pass and lowland plain, we are worlds apart.
Back on the trail, the clouds have become dark and ragged, and we scurry to beat the weather to Chenek camp: a few ranger huts strewn along a ledge and two shelters positioned on a lobelia-studded slope beside a stream. In the 1980s, this area was a refuge for the Tigray People’s Liberation Front during its uprising against the infamous Derg regime. The rebels had a stronghold at Chenek and hideouts in caves that perforated the mountainsides. Today, however, things are a lot more hospitable. The lodge here is less crap than the one at Gich, if only for the fact that there is a pretty girl inside with a crate of warm Dashen beer.
An unpaved road — the only one to penetrate the national park — runs through Chenek, and the hour of our arrival coincides with a commotion further up the hillside, where a tour agency’s four-wheel drive has become lodged in a ditch.
This road is the most obvious manifestation of the changes being wrought here due to an upsurge in tourism that shows little sign of slowing.
“We are hoping that the growth of visitors doesn’t become a curse,” says Dawoud after we’ve joined in the heave to extricate the jeep. “When I started guiding a decade ago, we would only see a few hundred visitors a year. Today we get up to 200 arriving every day in high season.”
“Isn’t that good for the area?” I ask, thinking of the new hotels I’d seen being flung up in Debark, of plans to resurface the Gonder road, of jobs and tourist dollars.
“Of course it brings in money and employment opportunities, and it gives the government a reason to rehabilitate wildlife and vegetation — investors are starting to realize that this could be one of the big natural attractions of Africa. But the benefits haven’t reached the people who live within the park boundaries.”
Dawoud goes on to explain that the Ali family, whose hospitality we’d enjoyed earlier, are some of more than 3,000 Amhara pastoralists living in these highlands. But their relationship with the surrounding land is an uneasy one. In 1996, soil degradation caused by centuries of overgrazing catapulted the Simien Mountains National Park onto UNESCO’s List of World Heritage Sites in Danger. Although the conservation picture is improving — a 2010 report found that the local population of Ethiopian wolves has risen fivefold since the mid-1990s — the region’s highlanders remain pegged for resettlement, and may not be here much longer.
She serves the mud-thick brew to those gathered — all this with a baby goat-skinned to her back, and a small glowering boy clasped to her belly
“When I was a child people used to wear beautiful traditional woven clothes, but you don’t see it today. My grandmother used to provide milk for local villages in calabashes. Today you can hear the children asking tourists for plastic bottles to use instead. They end up as litter…” Dawoud tails off ruefully, stricken by the classic development versus culture dilemma.
If the time I spend at Chenek is anything to go by, the Simiens face a battle to keep the hordes away. Beyond boasting more eye-popping views, Chenek is also home to some of the park’s most unabashed gelada herds. Each morning they clamber up onto the escarpment, before gathering in groups of a dozen or so to graze and groom, shuffling around on their backsides and picking through the tussock-grasses that surround the camp.
To say that gelada sightings are guaranteed would be to undersell the reality, which is that I can sit and observe them in close proximity for hours. The monkeys, exhibiting the chutzpah of a species that has evolved in isolation, hardly pay us a second glance.
“They are the only monkeys to eat almost nothing but grass,” says Dawoud as we crouch near a particularly insouciant group that evening with our Dashen beers. The herd before us, he explains, comprises several “harems,” each bossed by a dashingly accoutered alpha male with leonine incisors and rockstar-worthy mane. The troublemaking groups of young males who strut about in smaller posses are bachelor-pretenders, their barks and leaps a “strength display” designed to test the alphas’ resolve.
The Simiens have long been a favorite of the natural history filmmaker’s lens, and these are scenes straight from naturalist David Attenborough’s archives. My experience brings to mind those 10-minute diary segments at the end of nature documentaries: camera crews returning from some inhospitable wilderness with straggly beards and a few seconds of never-before-seen footage in the can. Here, by contrast, the phenomena are playing out before me: the Discovery Channel live, and on-demand.
Some trekkers use Chenek as the base camp for the onward push to scale Ras Dashen, Ethiopia’s highest peak at 15,157 feet. But for once the egocentric drive to bag a summit does not grab me, its lure overridden by the urge to sit and let the images soak in. I spend the last couple days taking shorter walks out and back, skirting the crags that ripple eastwards, and scouring the cliffs for rare glimpses of walia ibex, a mountain goat with extravagant scimitar horns that’s unique to this region, and the last creature on my Simiens checklist.
Indeed, as I prepare to descend the Beanstalk, the ibex is the only member of the cast that has not spoiled me rotten. That is until my final afternoon, when Dawoud comes running into the tukul with some news: “Come and see… the ibex… more than 20 have come right into camp to graze!”
Except by now, of course, I’m not surprised at all.