The Simien Mountain Escarpment, EthiopiaThe Greek poet, Homer, described the Simien Mountains in northern Ethiopia as 'The Chess Set of the Gods'. This incredible landscape is formed from an ancient super-volcano which has been heavily eroded in its northern half by millions of years of rain and wind, leaving the dramatic escarpment and spellbinding buttes and mesas of today
Day One: Africa’s ‘Grand Canyon’
I catch my breath as I peer over the edge of the terrifying precipice upon which I am standing that plunges vertically downwards for over a kilometre. To the north wave upon wave of sienna-brown peaks, pinnacles and spires are illuminated by great shafts of light radiating down from a bank of broken flint-grey cloud, before fading to sepia to be swallowed in a glassy haze. The rainy season ended some six months ago, the crops of sorghum, barley and sesame in the terraced fields far below have been harvested and the baked brown earth is bare and fallow leaving everything dusty and tinder-dry. An enormous grey curtain of rain slowly pulsates across this magnificent landscape which bears a striking resemblance to Arizona’s Grand Canyon. I suddenly realise I am not alone as I spot a solitary male baboon sitting silently atop the escarpment, staring, like me, towards the distant horizon. It eyes me knowingly before a cry from one of its kind is the signal for it to bound away to rejoin its troop.
Martin and I are in the Simien Mountains having just travelled from the dusty, dirty, ramshackle market town of Debark. Geared up for Easter which is just a week away, it resembles a scene from Biblical times and is teeming with turbaned men dressed in flowing white robes, brandishing wooden sticks driving heavily-laden donkeys, cattle, sheep and goats. Colourfully dressed women with goods balanced atop their heads, many with children ensconced in a cotton sling across their backs, line the busy streets of this gateway settlement to the Simien Mountains National Park which is situated in Ethiopia’s remote, northern hinterland: the North Gondar Zone of the Amhara region. Here we have registered at the park headquarters and our guide, Michael, has paid our permit fee for an eight-day trek which will see us cover almost 100 km. We have been joined by an elderly Amhara man with a lean and whipcord appearance whose spontaneous smile is infectious. Noursein is to be our compulsory armed scout and brandishes a battered Kalashnikov rifle which must be as old as he is.
Established in 1969, this park was one of the first sites to be made a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1978. The spellbinding landscape of fertile valleys, Afroalpine grasslands and heathlands, is broken into towering plateaux, sharp precipices and deep valleys by a multitude of rushing rivers and tumbling waterfalls which have eaten away at the basalts and tuffs in the northern half of what was once one of Africa’s ancient super-volcanoes. Marvelling at the majesty of the towering spires, volcanic pinnacles, gaping gorges, gullies and vast rock formations, the Greek poet, Homer, fancifully imagined these to be ‘the chess set of the Gods’. Standing on the very edge of the vast escarpment that extends eastwards for some 35 kilometres, I can see why.
Simien Mountains National ParkThe buttes and mesas form part of an eroded super-volcano. The escarpment plunges down around one kilometre creating an epic landscape
The Simien Mountains remain devoid of sealed roads, and there only a few unsealed routes that can take vehicular traffic, but they are criss-crossed by a multitude of footpaths linking remote Amhara villages. We will be using some of these ancient trails over the next week. This mountain wilderness is home to several critically endangered endemic species including the grass-eating Gelada baboon which I have just spotted, the enormous horned Walia ibex (a nimble shaggy-coated wild mountain goat), and the shy, russet-coated Ethiopian wolf which is considered to be the rarest canid species in the world.
Our cook Tigabu, an ebullient man nicknamed ‘Mr Fantastic’, and his assistant, Wondem, have gone on ahead by minibus to Sankaber to set up our first camp, leaving us to walk along a well-trodden trail that meanders along the edge of the vast escarpment for some five and a half kilometres. Although the pace is modest, I can feel the effects of altitude as we make our way along the undulating trail, for we are already well over 3,000 metres above sea level and many of the peaks in this range are over 4,000 metres high, including Ethiopia’s highest point, Ras Dashen, which soars to 4,620 metres.
We soon encounter a large troop of Gelada baboons busily foraging for grass roots and tubers in a thyme-scented meadow. They are herbivores and obtaining sufficient calories from grass, herbs and seeds takes a lot of work, so geladas spend most of their days rooting around on their buttocks. The males have striking lion-like manes and a large patch of crimson skin shaped like a fish tail on their chest which has lent them the name, 'bleeding heart monkeys'. The air is filled with squeaks and honks, and shrieks that resemble squabbling crows.
Male gelada baboon, Simien Mountains, EthiopiaThe gelada baboon is found only in Ethiopia. The males have striking lion-like manes and a large patch of crimson skin shaped like a fish tail on their chest
These extremely vocal primates do not appear to be at all concerned by our presence and we are able to get quite close to them and to observe their communal antics which include avid grooming! As dusk falls the gelada will retire to their sleeping cliffs, the narrow rocky ledges of the escarpment, where they will try to stay safe from leopards, hyenas and feral dogs. Overhead a lone lammergeyer soars on the thermals. Its haunting cry fills the air.
We arrive at Sankaber camp before sunset. We are the sole occupants and our cooks have commandeered a tulkul, a circular hut with a conical tin roof. A fire has been lit in the hearth at the centre of the hut which casts a thick column of choking blue smoke up into the roof. The firewood is eucalyptus which was introduced to Ethiopia from Australia in the late nineteenth century by Emperor Menelik who needed a readily available building material for his new city, Addis Ababa. The rapidly growing eucalyptus is now ubiquitous throughout Ethiopia, and is much used in building construction and as a fuel, even though it is responsible for negative environmental impacts due to it being a thirsty plant.
Sankaber CampThe round buildings, called tulkuls, are used by the cooks to prepare meals
Camp fire in a tukul at Sankaber, Simien Mountains, EthiopiaWondem, our assistant cook, tends to the eucalyptus wood fire. Eucalyptus was introduced to Ethiopia from Australia in the late nineteenth century by Emperor Menelik and is now much used as a fuel and for construction purposes
After a hearty vegetarian meal washed down with spicy thyme tea, we retire to our tent under the watchful eye of our scout, Noursein. Away from the fire it is decidedly chilly and he is sitting outside the tulkul wrapped in just a cotton shawl. Later we discover that he has gone to sleep under a nearby bush with just a thin sheet of plastic sacking wrapped round himself; we wonder at his hardiness.
Day Two: Escarpment Exertions
I am woken by the loud braying of a mule. The muleteers must have arrived. Outside the tulkul several men are deep in conversation with Michael and a park ranger. Only one team will get the job of conveying our bag and the camping and cooking equipment for the next week. Competition is fierce. Yared, a slightly built man with high cheek bones and sunken cheeks is to be our head muleteer, assisted by a jovial young man named Miretu. They have two mules that comfortably convey our equipment.
The sky is cobalt blue and cloud free and we take breakfast next to our tent, eyed all the while by a couple of brazen thick-billed ravens, while a group of klipspringer are quietly grazing at the edge of camp. Today’s walk to Geech Camp is around 13 km and initially follows the edge of the escarpment eastwards promising panoramic views.
The thick-billed raven (Corvus crassirostris), Simien Mountains National Park, EthiopiaThis corvid is endemic to the Horn of Africa. Its habitat includes mountains and plateaus between elevations of 1500 to 3400 metres
The trail passes through thickets of giant heather (Erica Arborea) which are heavily garlanded with wispy strands of greyish-green old man’s beard lichens. The ground is flecked with pale pink and aromatic wild thyme flowers, while amid the gnarled boughs of the giant heather, yellow St John’s wort flowers, delicate white sweet smelling jasmine flowers and pale pink Abyssinian roses bloom. Leaving the escarpment we descend steeply into a pocket of forest in the Kaba Valley which offers a welcome respite from the heat which is steadily rising. A scramble over a narrow, precipitous rocky ridge brings us to a scenic viewpoint where the Jinbar River plunges some 500 metres into the terrifyingly deep Geech Abyss. A thin, silver curtain of water is just visible in the black crease of rock leading from the river valley. This waterfall would be a truly impressive sight in the rainy season when the Jinbar is in spate.
Jinbar Waterfall, Simien Mountains, EthiopiaThe Jinbar River plunges over 500 metres in to the Geech Abyss in the Simien Mountains, Ethiopia
We now undertake a lung busting climb up a trail towards the unsealed road that runs from Sankaber to Chenek. The path weaves it way between African olive trees that trap the humidity making the going tough. Once on the road, the sun beats down with unrestrained brutality and the passing trucks and buses send up clouds of choking dust. I am relieved when we finally leave the dusty road to descend steeply towards the Jinbar River where we will stop for lunch. The route takes us down through a maze of small dusty fields where the barley has been cropped and where we encounter numerous children herding livestock who pester us for empty plastic water bottles which they can reuse to carry water to school. View from the Escarpment, Simien Mountains National Park, EthiopiaShort break to admire the view before the descent to the Jinbar River
Above the rocky river bed we manage to find a few spindly trees that cast just enough shade to sit under. Even in the shadows the heat still lingers and we derive no cooling benefit from the close proximity to the sluggishly flowing river with its brackish water. The terrain now changes as we begin our ascent out of the valley towards Geech Camp. The baked earth with its friable, multicoloured bands is clearly derived from volcanic deposits which reflect the heat. Just below Geech Camp was a Muslim village, betrayed now only by broken down stone-walled field systems amid partially felled plantations of eucalyptus. It is eerily quiet as we pass through what was once a thriving settlement. Population increase, deforestation, overgrazing and severe soil erosion led to the whole settlement being recently relocated to Debarq to help protect the National Park which was placed on the List of World Heritage in Danger by UNESCO in 1996. After protracted consultation the villagers reluctantly left, but before they departed they burned their tulkuls to the ground.
Jinbar RiverWe derive no cooling benefit from the close proximity to the sluggishly flowing river with its brackish water
Mid-afternoon we arrive at Geech Campsite which is situated on a high windswept plateau of shivering yellow grasses studded with giant lobelia plants. There are only a couple of other campers here and the place is all but deserted. The cloud has banked up steadily during the day and the atmosphere is pregnant with rain. We only just make our group’s tulkul before the heavens open and great curtains of rain pulsate across the undulating plateau finally banishing the heat and humidity. I watch as huge raindrops are greedily swallowed by the parched earth which gives off a loamy fragrance. The rain is as refreshing as the Dashen beer which I am sipping!
The rainstorm quickly blows itself out and I wander off to a nearby long drop. On my way back to camp I spot a sleek fox-like animal moving swiftly across the plateau. It passes quite close by and seems to be as invigorated by the recent shower of rain as me. It’s an Ethiopian wolf and I call out excitedly to Martin who sees it too. Unfortunately, neither of us manages to get a photo of this rare creature which we are privileged to see, as there are currently only about 40 individuals in the park. We were planning to walk up to the nearby viewpoint of Kedadit to see the sun set from the escarpment, but a persistent thick bank of grey cloud on the western horizon scuppers this idea and we content ourselves instead with another beer!
A local chicken has been procured for our dinner tonight, but my excitement at having meat (which is at a premium on this trek and not just because the Christians are observing Lent), soon subsides. The flesh of this bird is rubbery and tough as hemp, and I struggle to eat even a small portion! Moreover, the eucalyptus wood is smeeching and a layer of acrid blue smoke hangs like a veil across the interior of the tulkul making our eyes smart, so we beat a hasty retreat to our tent. The cloud is now clearing and through the gaps we spy a sky teeming with stars. The warmth of the day is rapidly seeping from the earth as the mercury plummets and the rising moon bathes the shimmering grasses in a pearly luminescence. Moonlight over Geech Campsite, Simien Mountains National Park, EthiopiaThe Milky Way can just be seen in the moonlit skies over Geech Campsite
Day Three: The Roof of Africa
The sun is hot on our backs as we breakfast by our tent. It’s going to be another scorcher. Our journey today takes us 20km to Chennek Camp which is at an elevation of 3,600 metres, the same as Geech, but the terrain between the two involves steep descents and ascents which make this day challenging. First we must climb around 300 metres to the rocky promontory, Imet-Gogo (3,926 metres). We set off across a wide tract of Afroalpine moorland beneath a cobalt-blue sky flecked with flour-white cloud. Trails that look as if they have been made by a one legged goat meander amid the knee high grass and the terrain is dotted with giant lobelia which lift their shaggy green heads high above the ground on palm-like trunks. The scenery is magnificent and quintessentially African.
Giant Lobelia, Simien Mountains National Park, EthiopiaThe Afroalpine moorland above Geech Camp
As the heat has not yet risen enough to create the disorienting haze that later in the day will obscure from sight the distant landforms, atop Imet-Gogo we have superb 360 degree views of the deeply incised valleys separated by razor thin ridges of rock, the enormous cliffs of the escarpment and the iconic buttes and mesas rearing up from the lowland plains where we will end our trek. From this high point we spot Egyptian vultures and lammergeyers soaring on the thermals and two black kites tumbling like fighter jets locked into a dog-fight. A steep descent following the plunging edge of the escarpment into the Jinbahir Valley offers incredible views up to Imet-Gogo, perched fortress-like above sky-scrapper high walls of rock.
The Simien Mountains, EthiopiaThis panorama was taken from the escarpment near Imet-Gogo and shows the massively eroded northern section of the ancient super-volcano
Lunch is to be taken atop the 4,070 metre Inatye Peak which entails a steep 600 metre climb out of the Jinbahir Valley. The cloud is beginning to boil up from the east and I am sweating profusely as we battle the altitude following the well-worn trail through stands of giant heather which instantly trap the humidity. I observe that Michael and Noursein barely seem to have broken a sweat. Their brown skin has only the faintest hint of moistness, resembling polished stone. Without warning we are suddenly pelted with small hail stones as gunmetal-grey clouds pass overhead, bringing a welcome drop in the temperature. Eventually the vegetation thins, the terrain becomes bare and rocky with scrubby grass interspersed with patches of snow-white helichrysum and the odd lobelia. Here we spot giant mole rats darting amid the rocks. The main food of the Ethiopian wolf, they flee into holes as we approach.
The descent from Imet-Gogo, Simien Mountains National Park, EthiopiaA steep descent to the Jinbahir Valley is followed by a steep 600 metre climb to reach the 4,070 metre Inatye Peak which can be seen centre top
View down through a gorge, Simien Mountains National Park, EthiopiaA gorge lined with giant lobelia plunges down from the escarpment plateau en route to Inatye Peak
After what seems like an eternity we reach Inatye Peak, our lunch spot, a rocky crown protruding high above the near-vertical cliffs of the escarpment. Inatye means something like Mamma Mia in Amharic, and peering over the vertiginous edge it's not hard to see why. Below, the contorted and eroded landscape of fantastical chess-set shapes stretching away into the hazy horizon brood under a sky of slowly churning cloud. A feeble sun picks at a slit in the ashen cloud which is disgorging huge veils of rain that sweep dramatically across the landscape. We are standing on the very roof of Africa.
Rain over the Simien Mountains, EthiopiaRain sweeps across the buttes and mesas visible from Inatye Peak (4,070 metres)
A loud crack of thunder suddenly rends the air breaking the spell. The wind begins to gust as a storm approaches from the east and we sense it’s time to beat a hasty retreat. The air is cooler now and we descend rapidly across the afroalpine heathland as large leaden raindrops begin to fall. Just as quickly as it arrived, the shower departs, sunlight once more floods the landscape amplifying the golden hues of the grasses, and we enjoy the steep descent towards Chennek Camp along a truly scenic trail which threads its way precariously along the top of the plunging cliffs of the escarpment.
Giant heather, Simien Mountains, EthiopiaThe descent to Chennek Camp passes through stands of giant heather draped with old men's beard lichen
We arrive at the virtually deserted camp in the late afternoon and are instantly regaled with Dashen beer and popcorn. A large troop of Gelada baboons passing close to our tulkul entertain us with their grooming and foraging antics and we enjoy the spectacle of the setting sun turning the sky above the dramatic cliffs of the escarpment shades of apricot, violet and mauve. As soon as it gets dark in Africa people tend to go to bed, and Noursein has already staked his bush for the night close to our tent as we leave the warmth of the tulkul’s fire. It’s much cooler tonight as the sky is crystal clear and crammed full of stars. We marvel at the brilliance of the Milky Way that arches majestically above a ridge leading to Ras Bwahit which we will be climbing tomorrow.
Chennek Camp, Simien Mountains, EthiopiaThe escarpment we had just traversed as seen from Chennek Camp
Day Four: Bagging Ras Bwahit
It’s not yet 9.00 am and I’m already sweating profusely and sucking hard on my water bladder as we slowly inch our way up what has to be one of Africa’s highest roads which passes close to Chennek camp. Unsealed, it zig-zags its way upwards to a pass just below the shoulder of Ras Bwahit and is busy with traffic. We spot several trucks crammed full of people which bear the name ‘Obama’. Michael explains that these were brought into service at the time Barak Obama first took office and are named Obama Trucks in honour of the first African-American president. Great plumes of fine dust thrown up by the slow moving vehicles combine with choking blue diesel fumes which make me gag. The atmosphere is thick and hazy, the heat is reflected back off the parched roadway and each searing breath I take feels like I’m inhaling molten lava. I’m relieved when we leave the road to climb up towards the edge of the escarpment.
Obama truck, Simien Mountains, EthiopiaA truck travelling on one of Africa's highest roads is named after Barak Obama who became America's first ever African-American president the same year this truck entered service
Almost immediately we happen upon a group of Walia ibex not far above the precipitous drop. A male with a pair of majestic backward curved horns, chocolate brown coat and a long Billy-goat beard standing amid the shivering yellow grass cuts a formidable figure. Close by are several smaller females with less impressive horns and lighter coloured coats. Some are grazing, but others lie in the long grass and are quite hard to spot. This wild mountain goat is found only in the northern mountains of Ethiopia and is on the IUCN’s endangered list. There are thought to be only about 500 individuals in the Simien Mountains National Park, so we are immensely privileged to have seen this group of about eight.
Living on the edge!A group of Walia ibex graze close to the escarpment edge above Chennek Camp
The trail takes us along the edge of the escarpment with incredible views down over the farmland far below. From up here the burnt-sienna and golden yellow-coloured terraced field systems dotted with small farms look like an enormous and intricate jigsaw puzzle. On the road below we spot our muleteers rounding a hairpin bend and we wave to them and shout words of encouragement. They are making for the village of Arkazye where we will camp tonight.
Muleteers, Simien Mountains National Park, EthiopiaOur muleteers, Yared and Miretu making for Arkazye Village
But first we have a date with the summit of Ras Bwahit, 4,437 metres above sea level, making it the third highest mountain in Ethiopia and the 14th highest peak in Africa. Back on the unmade road, we are slowly slogging our way upward battling the heat and altitude. At least the trucks are barely moving much faster than us!
One of Africa's highest roads in the Simien Mountains National Park, EthiopiaOne of Africa's highest roads threading its way upward above the Simien Escarpment as seen from the slope of Mount Bwahit
Leaving the road we strike out across the silver-hued terrain which is covered in helichrysum flowers which ape the surrounding rocks. The giant lobelia, not so giant anymore, eventually vanish as the route gets progressively rocky and steeper, and near the top we are forced to place our hands on the rock. We are moving a little faster now as the sun is obscured behind a bank of cloud and there is a refreshing stiff breeze. Combined with the natural fall in temperature due to the altitude, this makes climbing much more comfortable for us and I am somewhat surprised when Michael announces that we have reached the summit which is crowned with a rocky cairn.
As we pose for the obligatory summit pictures, Noursein hands me his aged Kalashnikov rifle to hold which is a somewhat surreal moment! Martin produces a 500 ml bottle of Tullamore Dew purchased duty free in Dubai which we have been quaffing each night and which contains just enough whiskey to toast our summit success! The views up here are magnificent. Below, Africa’s highest road switchbacks its way up the escarpment above the yawning void cut down some one kilometre by numerous ravines draining into the Tekeze River. The awe-inspiring ‘chess set of the Gods' is laid out beneath brooding gunmetal grey skies. Atop Mount Bwahit we are standing on the western rim of the enormous ancient super-volcano, the eastern counterpart of which is Ras Dashen, Ethiopia’s highest mountain. As the crow files Ras Dashen is only about 20 km away from the summit of Bwahit, but an incredibly deep gorge containing the Meshaha river lies between.
Atop the summit of Ras Bhwait (4,437 metres), Simien Mountains, EthiopiaOur guide, Michael (holding the Kalashnikov), and our scout, Noursein, celebrate our summitting Ras Bhwait
Rainstorm over the Simien Mountains National Park, EthiopiaAfrica’s highest road switchbacks its way up the escarpment above the yawning void cut down some one kilometre by numerous ravines draining into the Takkazzi River
Our Ethiopian friends are feeling decidedly chilly and reluctantly we bid farewell to the summit, but only after buying a few painted ceramic birds from a hawker who has made his way to the mountain top to sell his wares. We have been well and truly overcharged for these, but I took pity on the poor ragged fellow with bad teeth who now proves his usefulness by showing us a route he uses to quickly descend to his village, Arkazye, where we are camping tonight.
Descent from Ras Bhwait, Simien Mountains, EthiopiaThe long descent from the rock strewn northern slope of Ras Bhwait to the village of Arkazye was gruelling
We descend through a field of loose rock and boulders. Michael, who has drained the last vestiges from the plastic whiskey bottle which is now residing in Noursein’s jacket pocket (it’s a useful receptacle for water for his pre-prayer ablutions!) instructs us to take care not to fall. He stumbles twice, but we’re in our element - it’s just like hillwalking in Ireland! The route threads its way steeply down through a small gorge and then traverses the eastern side of a great fin of rock. Distances are farther than they look and progress is slow due to the roughness of the terrain - the dusty trail is comprised of loose, jagged rock. We pass another herd of grazing Walia ibex and lower down, numerous Christian villagers on their way to a shrine sited somewhere in the mountains. The rocky terrain eventually evens out, field systems begin to appear, then the odd thatched tulkul surrounded by yellow hay ricks and tall, conical piles of dried dung pats. Ragged, dirty children, many barefooted, stare at us. Some smile and shyly return our waves, while others rush forward eager to greet the ferenji (white foreigners) and to parrot the few English words they have learnt at school. Their tiny hands outstretched in greeting are ingrained with dirt and grime and rough as sandpaper.
Tulkul near Arkazye, Simien Mountains, EthiopiaThatched tulkul surrounded by yellow hay ricks and tall, conical piles of dried dung pats above the farming village of Arkazye
Eventually Arkazye Village comes into view, and a steep climb down brings us to rows of rectangular huts constructed of wooden stakes and daub with galvanised roofs. Our tents are erected on a flat, dung strewn area right above the dirty river that runs below the houses upslope. Our arrival attracts quite a crowd of children who take up position to stare at us just metres from where we are seated enjoying a cool beer. I find their presence quite unnerving and they are eventually dispersed by Noursein who senses our unease.
The village of Arkazye, Simien Mountains, EthiopiaThis settlement of 1,000 people rely on subsistence farming and raising livestock
Arkazye Villagers, Simien Mountains, EthiopiaOur arrival in the village attracted many curious onlookers. Many were hoping that the ferenji would be able to give them some pills
A young man, the only other white person in the village of about 1,000 people, leaves a game of volley ball that is going on nearby and comes across to greet us. A medical graduate from Oxford, he is one week into his month’s stay as the guest doctor of a charity running the clinic here and is clearly delighted to see us. He paints a grim picture of life in this settlement which has no electricity and no running water, where most people are infested with parasites and typhoid fever is currently doing the rounds. ‘They have no concept of the faecal-oral route of disease transmission’ he says, shrugging his shoulders as a young boy drops his trousers to relieve himself on the bank of the nearby river. ‘I hope you have had your typhoid fever jabs and have plenty of sanitising hand gel with you!’ We learn that the communal toilet is so disgusting that the villagers practice open defecation, and the doctor kindly offers us the use of his ‘pit in the ground’ at the clinic.
Just as dusk is falling we are ushered into a nearby hut which has chickens running about inside. A candle stub is burning dimly in one corner where a woman is hunched over a small fire which is lit on the dirt floor. We are seated on a low bench covered in goatskins. East Africa is the home of coffee and the woman is going to perform Ethiopia’s famous coffee ceremony for us. She takes up handfuls of green beans and washes them thoroughly. She then places the beans into a cast iron pan and roasts them gently over the fire. Her face, illuminated by the light of the fire, is etched in concentration as she moves them briskly about the pan. They soon begin to let out a rich aroma which blends pleasantly with the frankincense which is burning in a small charcoal brazier. The coffee beans, now emitting a thin blue smoke, are wafted beneath our noses for us to savour the smell before they are placed into a deep wooden mortar. The woman then proceeds to pound the roasted beans with an iron tipped pestle before tipping the coarse powder into a ceramic pot called a jebena. Adding water, she places this atop the glowing embers of the fire.
The Coffee Ceremony, Arquzye Village, Simien Mountains, EthiopiaThe green beans which have been thoroughly washed, have now been placed in a pan to be roasted over the fire
As we are waiting for the coffee to brew, a large platter of injera with shiro is served. Injera is the national dish in Ethiopia and resembles a grey-coloured crepe, but with a much spongier texture. Made primarily of teff and/or barley flour mixed with water, it has a slightly sour taste as a result of the batter being left to ferment for several days. Small heaps of various dishes are placed upon the injera which is always consumed communally, with each diner using only their right hand to tear off strips of the doughy pancake to scoop up portions of food. Shiro, a spicy dish made from minced onions and garlic mixed with ground chickpeas and berbere (Ethiopian spices) is a favourite during Lent which is being religiously observed in this Christian village. We, however, are quietly told by Michael not to eat the injera or drink the coffee, as previous clients have become sick after doing so due to the poor hygiene here. The coffee is finally ready and the woman dramatically pours it from the jabena from a height of about one foot into a collection of small handleless cups lined up on a tray without stopping until each cup is full. The coffee is rich and intense, and I can’t resist a tiny sip. Dinner complete and washed down with a rather good bottle of Ethiopian red wine to toast our summit success, we head back to our tent where Noursein, who has prepared his bed close by, has ensured that the curious onlookers of earlier have been banished and we enjoy a sound night’s sleep.
Day Five: Back to School!
The crowds are back! I’m greeted by shouts of ‘Allo Ferenji’ as I emerge from the tent. Scores of snot-smeared ragged children too young to attend school are joined by numerous old people who are sitting quietly in the dust just feet from our tent. Michael tells us that the elderly villagers are hoping that the ferenji will be able to give them some pills to relieve their pain. I look on in despair. I have no idea what afflictions these people are suffering, but an ibuprofen pill is unlikely to bring them much respite. The children have now edged closer and are staring at us as we attempt to eat our breakfast and then to perform our ablutions. Tired of being ignored, one of them throws a small stone which lands on our breakfast table. Feigning anger, Noursein runs over to them brandishing his Kalashnikov and they flee.
The village is slowly stirring to life; smoke emanates from each hut and hovers in a thin blue layer over the rooftops. People make their way uphill to tend their fields and young men drive their livestock up into the high pastures for grazing. The sun commands a clear blue sky - it’s going to be another incredibly hot day. I can’t say I’m sorry to be leaving this village, as being constantly stared at and pestered by children has been quite an intimidating experience and the risk of contracting a helminth here is very real.
Camping at Arkazye Village, Simien Mountains, EthiopiaBlue wood smoke hangs like a veil over the roof tops of Arkazye as the village stirs to life
Today we have a much shorter distance to travel which is welcome news after the rigours of yesterday. The route out of the village is along a valley of afroalpine grassland dotted with giant lobelia which is heavily eroded due to overgrazing. Atop a ridge above the village we stop to admire the view of Ras Bwahit and the length of the escarpment towards Sankaber close to where we started our trek five days ago. Laid out below us is hectare upon hectare of rolling farmland dotted with thatched tulkul, each ploughed plot of crumbling earth hugging the next in an unbroken sea of agriculture. It is an idyllic scene that does not hint at the hardship endured by the farmers who live literally hand to mouth in the Simiens where rising population levels, chronic overgrazing and soil erosion has caused environmental degradation that now threatens livelihoods.
The Simien Mountain Escarpment, EthiopiaMount Bwahit (far left) and the length of the escarpment towards Sankaber close to where we started our trek five days ago
Farms in the Simien Mountains, EthiopiaHectare upon hectare of rolling farmland is dotted with thatched tulkul, each ploughed plot of crumbling earth hugging the next in an unbroken sea of agriculture. This idyllic scene does not hint at the hardship endured by the farmers who live literally hand to mouth
We eventually approach a compound on a hillside surrounded by a wooden palisade containing several rectangular buildings with galvanised roofs. The Ethiopian national flag and that of the Amhara region flutter on flagpoles over the buildings. Scores of children are running about inside the compound which we discover is the primary school of Sona Village. Inevitably we are mobbed as we enter the compound where our tents have been erected close to the ramshackle accommodation used by the teachers. Noursein, who seems to command the respect of everyone he meets, keeps them at a reasonable distance as we sit down to enjoy a beer. One by one the children depart for their homes as the school day is now over, and peace of a kind eventually descends over the compound.
Sona Village Primary School, Simien Mountains, EthiopiaThe compound housing the Sona Village Primary School that local children attend until the age of 14
Sona Village Primary School pupils, EthiopiaA group of curious schoolchildren greet us on arrival at the primary school
Sona Village Primary School, Simien Mountains, EthiopiaThe school office
Sona Village, Simien Mountains, EthiopiaThatched tulkul close to the school in Sona Village
Or cook, Mr Fantastic, has set up shop in one of the schoolrooms and we wander over to take a look inside. Like most buildings in Ethiopia, the walls are made of eucalyptus stakes and mud, the earthen floor is uneven and the roof is galvanised. Slits let in just enough light to see the grubby handwritten chart of the Ge’ez alphabet, some mathematical tables and the attendance register for the morning and afternoon sessions nailed to the wall. The pupils of this school, which number over 300, sit on rickety wooden benches that aren’t half a foot wide. There isn’t any comfort in this wretched schoolroom at all; how a child can learn anything in such an environment is beyond me.
Classroom at the Sona Village Primary SchoolInterior of one of the classrooms which is basic to say the least
By late afternoon the sky is once more dark and angry and we are reclining in our tent when the heavens open. This time the swirling battleship-grey clouds spit out hailstones along with buckshot rain. Within minutes the surrounding ground is white and rivulets of water run in all directions, including into our tent which has holes in the groundsheet! After half an hour the storm has passed over leaving the eastern slope of Ras Bwahit frosted white. The sun once more floods the landscape and the ground in the compound steams and emits a loamy odour. As dusk approaches we stroll half a kilometre to a vantage point over the sepia and smoky grey pinnacles and spires of the lowlands to watch the sun set in an apricot haze. Inevitably, we attract a posy of squealing children from the nearby farms who are eager to have their photo taken.
Ras Bhwait from Sona VillageThe hailstorm turned the northern slope of Ras Bhwait white
Sunset over the Simien Mountains from Sona VillageThe smoky grey pinnacles and peaks of the Simien Mountains just after the sun has set as seen from Sona Village
Chicken is on the menu tonight and is far more edible than that of a few nights ago. Inside the schoolroom, warmed by a roaring eucalyptus fire, it is warm and cosy. But the cold hits us like a sledgehammer as we return to our tent. The stars are incredible, the best yet, the Milky Way etched in pin sharp clarity above Ras Bwahit. However, the biting cold causes me to quickly seek the warmth and comfort of my four season sleeping bag.
Milky Way over the Simien MountainsThe Milky Way is etched in pin sharp clarity above Ras Bhwait as seen on a bitterly cold night from Sona Village
Day Six: Water, water everywhere, nor any drop to drink!
Last night was bitterly cold and I am grateful for the warmth of the morning sun on my shoulders as we begin the gruelling 1,600 metre descent to Mekarebiya Village in the lowlands. Noursein does not seem to be himself this morning, he is not moving as steadily as usual, and he carries his rifle as if it is a dead weight across his shoulders. After a few kilometres he slows before announcing that he does not feel well and asks for some water. Pressed by us all, he says the bitter cold of last night has affected his chest which is causing him pain. I immediately give him two painkillers and we make him rest while they take effect. I have grown immensely fond of this kind Muslim man with his ready smile and wicked sense of humour who has spent every minute of this trek looking out for us and our belongings. I feel guilty that because of us, a 61 year old grandfather lay down last night in the open in sub-zero temperatures with just a thin sheet of plastic sacking to cover him. I am relieved when he rallies and announces with a broad smile that the mountain lion is ready to roar once more!
The farmland gradually peters out until we are standing at the top of a deep river valley with thickly forested slopes. Through the blue haze I can see the serpentine coils of a river far below. On its bank under the shade of a large fig tree we will stop for lunch. The zig-zag trail is brutally steep and rough underfoot, comprised of loose, angular rocks, and the heat is tremendous causing us to flee into any available patch of shade at regular intervals. Tiny rivulets of sweat trickle down from my brow and sting my eyes. My hair is stiff with sweat and dust. Yared and Miretu, our muleteers, pass by us in a cloud of dust, spurred on by words of encouragement from Michael and Noursein. Even the mules seem to be weary from the oppressive heat.
Simien Mountain EscarpmentThe farmland eventually peters out until we are standing at the top of a deep river valley below the imposing Simien Escarpment
The steep trail from Sona Village to MekarebyaTo reach our camp at Makarebya meant a gruelling 1,600 metre descent from Sona Village with the mercury soaring to the mid-30s
After what seems like an eternity, we spot the beautiful green boughs of the fig tree where we will stop for lunch. I’m relieved as I have almost drained the two litres of water from my bladder. We pick our way carefully across the river with its turbid waters and make for the welcome shade of this venerable old tree that must have stood on the sandy river bank for over a century. People from the nearby farms are busy washing their clothes in the river and local women have spread a variety of ceramic pots and basketry on the ground in the hope of making a sale to passing ferenji. I look about for a water vendor. Everywhere we have been we have encountered some enterprising soul selling mineral water, Coke, Fanta or beer. But not here, and at a time when obtaining water is critical. We still have two hours to walk until we reach our camping ground; I’m out of water, Martin’s bladder is almost empty, Michael has a mere dribble in his half litre bottle and the temperature has soared into the mid-30s. One look at the human faeces scattered about the river bank tells me that the water here is totally undrinkable and our Steripen is on the mule!
On the trail from Sona Village to MekarebyaHere we are with our trusty scout, Noursein, the lion of the Simiens!
Basket sellers near MakarebyaThere were plenty of baskets for sale by the river, but not one bottle of water!
Michael assured us that we would be able to buy water here, which is why we didn’t carry an extra bottle each. We come up with a solution: Michael must go on ahead to get someone to meet us half way with water. He scoots off at once and we set out slowly along the trail that wends its way above the river under the watchful eye of Noursein, who ensures that we make regular stops in the shade. Eventually we see our assistant cook, Wondem, and Miretu the muleteer, running along the trail with several bottles of water. To say we are pleased to see them is an understatement! I eagerly gulp down almost half a litre in one go. So far we have managed to maintain proper hydration and haven’t suffered any ill effects of the altitude or the heat. No matter how much water you drink in this climate, the thirst continues to gnaw at you until the sun slips below the horizon and the sky explodes in welcome shades of scarlet and tangerine which usher in the sweet relief of cooler night air.
On the trail near MakarebyaWondem and Miretu come to the rescue with bottles of water. The park rangers also put in an appearance!
Having slaked our thirst, we set off towards the camp only to be met by a rescue party of six park rangers bearing AK-47s! Told there was an emergency, they seem surprised that there are no casualties, but we had enough experience to ensure that this did not occur. Everyone looks relieved when we finally arrive at our camp in Mekarebiya Village, and we treat our team to cold drinks after what has been a very eventful day! Yared is particularly delighted as I offer him a second Walia beer, and prostrates himself on the ground. He’s quite a character! Hemmed in on all sides by jagged spires and peaks, dotted with red hot pokers and fringed with tall palm trees, the camp setting is very scenic and we enjoy our beers as we watch a young man plough a nearby field with a team of oxen as the sun sinks lower in the western sky. It's a scene that could have been lifted from the pages of a children's Bible. We turn in immediately after dinner as we have to be up at 4.00 am to make an early start to avoid the heat as we traverse the lowlands en route to our final camp.
Mekarebiya CampFringed with tall palm trees and hemmed in on all sides by jagged spires and peaks, our camp setting is very scenic
Ploughing with oxen, MekarebyaThere is little mechanisation in any of the farming communities of the Simien Mountains where animal and manual labour persist
Day Seven: Letting the Chat out of the Bag…
Never before have I breakfasted under such an impressive starry sky. The moon has set and the Milky Way arches overhead in a blaze of brilliance across a deep purple sky. It’s pitch black and the air is cool as we set off for a very steep descent over a badly eroded trail to a dried up riverbed which we follow up a valley for several kilometres. Walking over and around the river cobbles and through patches of deep sand is tedious. The eastern sky is brightening and there is now enough light to see a group of vervet monkeys cavorting in a large fig tree overhanging the river bed. Just before we begin our ascent into a neighbouring valley we pass a group of people splashing about in a series of shallow pools. They are catching small fish which they will sell at tomorrow’s market.
Dawn en route to MulitThe sun has risen but the dried up river valley we are walking up is thankfully still in the shade
Catching fishThese people are busy catching small fish before it gets too hot. They will sell them at tomorrow's market
By now the sun has risen but the valley we are walking up is still in the shade and the trail is busy with people, who like us, have risen early to beat the heat. Suddenly a large party of men run by us bearing an animal hide stretcher. A woman is being rushed to the hospital in Addi Arkay. She has recently given birth, but has post delivery complications. Her eyes are rolling to the back of her head and the poor soul looks delirious. With no vehicular access and no helicopter service from her village, her journey to the hospital will be a long and uncomfortable one. I hope that she arrives there in time for treatment.
The sun that was a throbbing orange orb only an hour ago, casting its warming rays upon the night-chilled soil, has now become an angry incandescent inferno which radiates its relentless heat down onto us as we begin a gruelling climb of over 400 metres up a rough zig-zag pathway to a wooded plateau. The scenery is magnificent and we marvel at a tall pinnacle of rock called God’s Finger (Ye’Ab Idj) which comes into view as we approach the top of the trail. This spectacular landform is a volcanic plug. Near the top of the trail we spot Hamadryas baboons, who are aggressively grunting and shrieking at each other, and a black and white Colobus monkey swinging through the undergrowth. Nearby basalt outcrops glowing golden in the early afternoon sun rise from the surrounding valley, sculpted into crooked spires and monumental buttes by centuries of wind and rain.
Before God's FingerThe reward for a lung busting climb of 400 metres in temperatures soaring into the mid-30s is this view of the iconic 'Ye’Ab Idj' a volcanic plug
It’s now the hottest time of the day and we stop at a café in the palm fringed village of Haweza. The proprietors are a Muslim family so there’s no beer to be had, but we are regaled with bottles of soft drinks. Our hosts, who are distantly related to Noursein, are very kind and friendly, and the lady performs the coffee ceremony for us and gives us a free meal of injera and wat (stew).
Cafe in Haweza VillageNoursein tucks into injera and wat
Grinding roasted coffee beans, Haweza VillageOur hosts' daughter grinds the roasted coffee beans in a wooden mortar
Coffee Ceremony, Haweza VillageOur hostess pours coffee for us
We stay with them for several hours and greatly enjoy their company. The woman asks us how many children we have, and throws back her head and laughs when we tell her three between us. ‘That is why you are rich and I am poor,’ she says, ‘I have ten children!’ She might be financially poor compared to us, but she and her family are rich in many other ways. I doubt she has ever sat down to eat alone in her life. A large mat is placed upon the floor so Noursein and his relative can perform their afternoon prayers and a small bag of green leaves is then produced. They are going to chew chat, a flowering shrub native to the Horn of Africa.
Afternoon prayers in HawezaOur Muslim host performing his afternoon prayers
Chat leaves contain a monoamine alkaloid called cathinone, an amphetamine-like stimulant that causes mild euphoria. As the chat begins to take effect on Noursein and his relative, an ancient MP3 player is produced and devotional music soon fills the room. Several generations of the family sit around chanting and clapping and I can’t help but smile as I see Noursein drinking Fanta orange mixed with water from the Tullamore Dew whiskey bottle! Everyone looks so happy and contented, and I will long remember the beautiful smile on Noursein’s face as he catches my eye. The chat session ends with copious prayers for our safe return home which are met with a chorus of Amens. I am slightly sad when we say our goodbyes to this lovely family and hit the trial for the short walk to the village of Mulit where we will spend our last night.
The chat's out of the bag!Chat leaves contain a monoamine alkaloid called cathinone, an amphetamine-like stimulant that causes mild euphoria
Chat time in Hawaza VillageNoursein, an observant Muslim, drinking Fanta orange mixed with water from our discarded Tullamore Dew whiskey bottle!
Scenery near MulitThe road between Haweza and Mulit is very scenic
Our tents are erected inside a small walled compound under the shade of an African olive tree. Long horned cattle and goats roam the interior and a huge pile of golden sorghum stalks has been stowed in a tree which is reached by a ladder. A plastic cup stuck on the end of a stick at the main gate advertises the fact that tella, home-brewed beer is sold here. Our muleteer, Yared, has taken up residence on a wooden bench outside the beer house along with several local men, and jovially raises a cow horn cup and implores me to join him. I opt for a bottle of St George’s beer instead!
Mulit CampOur final campsite was a compound in Mulit Village which contained a beer shop where tella is brewed
The lady who runs the beer house is preparing coffee and injera and we are invited to join her. A couple of chickens scatter as I enter the beer house with its earthen floor. A calf is tied up next to one of two large conical ceramic tanks containing the fermenting liquor. The tella is usually made from teff and sorghum, but in some regions, barley, wheat or maize are used instead, and spices may also be added. Dried and ground gesho leaves are used for fermentation. Due to the addition of bread and use of a fermentation vessel which has been smoked over dried olive wood or Abyssinian rose wood, tella may have a smoky flavour. The alcohol content of unfiltered tella is usually around 2–4 percent volume with the filtered variety being stronger. We decline a cup of tella, opting instead for the coffee which is rich and delicious and we take three cups as is the custom of the country.
The Mulit beer shopOne of two large conical ceramic tanks containing the fermenting liquor. Tella is usually made from teff and sorghum
Mr Fantastic provides a true feast for our final night, a huge platter of injera with a variety of delicious dishes piled on top which we devour with gusto. Michael tells me that at Haweza he bought a bag of chat leaves for me to try. I take a few of the green leaves and place them into my mouth and chew on them before adding more, all the while working the mass to one cheek with my tongue and sucking out the juice. It’s not unlike chewing coca leaves which we did in South America; indeed, chat has a similar tannin-like taste. Eventually I spit out the wad of green gunk and drink plenty of water. The effect of the chat comes on gently but slowly intensifies. I find it to be stimulating like coffee, but slightly more pleasurable and the conversation with Michael flows readily as we drain the remains of the second bottle of Tullamore Dew! We turn in early as we plan to rise early to catch the dawn. Perhaps it is the effects of the chat keeping me from sleeping soundly, but I am woken in the small hours by animated conversation emanating from the direction of the beer house. It sounds remarkably like Yared…
A starry night in Mulit VillageThe incredible buttes that we had seen in the distance from Sankaber a week ago are now just a stone's throw away
Day Eight: Market Day
Martin has already left the tent when I wake up. I join him just outside the compound walls where there is a fantastic view to the east over landforms that really resemble Homer’s ‘chess set of the Gods’ behind which the sun will rise. We wait patiently as the eastern sky turns crimson, pulsating and radiating streaks of fire, before the glowing white orb of the sun erupts dramatically between two iconic buttes.
Dawn from Mulit VillageThe eastern sky turns crimson, pulsating and radiating streaks of fire
Dawn over the Simien Mountains at Mulit VillageThe glowing orb of the sun erupts behind 'the chess set of the Gods'
Breakfasting back in the compound I spy Yared walking across to his mule, Chai. I wave at him, but I get no response. Red-eyed and unusually silent, it’s obvious that he’s nursing a bad hangover! We set off along a well-worn and typically rugged track that zig-zags its way steeply down to the town of Addi Arkay, the end point of our trek. It seems everyone else is on the move too, and the walk reminds me of a scene from The Life of Brian! Today is Easter Saturday and there is a big market in the town where people are hoping to get good prices for their wares. Men, women and children hurry by driving goats and heavily laden donkeys. Most are carrying all manner of goods: eucalyptus poles, huge wicker baskets, hessian sacks, bundles of leaves and grasses, and live chickens tied by their feet and hung upside down. Lent is broken across Ethiopia by consuming one of the nation’s most famous dishes, Doro Wat (spicy chicken stew), and these chickens are destined for the pot. In the human flotsam sweeping by are our muleteers. I catch Noursein’s eye and we share a laugh as Yared passes us still wearing the glazed look of someone who is suffering the day after the night before!
En route to marketPeople from Mulit and Haweza hurry by on their way to the Easter Saturday market in Addi Arkay, the end point of our trek
En route to Addi ArkayThe lady who runs the beer shop makes her way to the market with two of her daughters
Children off the Addi Arkay MarketChildren grow up quickly in the Simien Mountains and these young entrepreneurs are hoping for good prices for their produce which includes a live chicken!
Yared and NourseinYared and Noursein are from the Amhara tribe, one is a Christian and one a Muslim, and both are unforgettable characters!
Addi Arkay, shimmering in the heat haze on a plain below, doesn’t appear to be getting any closer and like all the tracks in Ethiopia this one is dusty, brutally steep in places and full of broken loose rock. Local people however make light of this, and as I trudge heavily downwards like a cart horse in my leather walking boots, they spring over the rocks like gazelles in their flimsy plastic shoes, every one a Mo Farah in the making! I marvel at their agility and endurance.
Addi ArkayAddi Arkay, shimmering in the heat haze on a plain below, doesn’t appear to be getting any closer!
As we enter the outskirts of Addi Arkay we are mobbed by small children shouting 'Allo Ferenji' and trying to shake our hands which are clasping our walking poles firmly. Everyone is imploring us to buy trinkets. Noursein to the rescue again! Eventually we reach the sanctuary of a small café where our group convenes and we order cold drinks for everyone. Martin stands to make a speech thanking our team for all their help and hard work in taking care of us for the past eight days. We then present them with tips before we board a minibus that will take us to Axum to begin a week’s exploration that will end with a visit to the world famous stone churches of Lalibela. As we pull away, I spot Yared among the throng of people on the pavement and wave vigorously at him. Wearing a look of utter dejection, he seems to be in another world! I laugh when Michael says that Yared is convinced he has been swindled out of some money by one of the other team members. The price one pays for drinking too much tella!
Arrival at Addi ArkayAfter a week, it was a real relief to finally leave the rough, dusty trails for a tarmac road in the market town of Addi Arkay!
Drinks all round!L-R: Michael, the guide; Miretu, muleteer; Wondem, assistant cook; Noursein, scout; Yared, muleteer; Tigabu aka 'Mr Fantastic', the cook, and Gimbe, our guide for Axum and Lalibela
This has been by far the most challenging multi-day trek we have ever undertaken due to the climate, the altitude, the brutally steep ascents and descents, and the unrelentingly rugged trails. Yet walking amid the breathtaking scenery of ‘the chess set of the Gods’ through vibrant farming communities where life is little changed since Biblical times has been a rewarding, eye-opening experience. For this is a country far removed from the barren, famine-ravaged, poverty-stricken nation oft portrayed in the western media. Quite simply, Ethiopia is one of the most friendly, welcoming, culturally fascinating and inspiring countries we have had the pleasure of visiting.
Watch the video of our trek on: