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Simien Mountains

ስሜን: Hiking on the roof of Africa

Story by Northern Adventures March 14th, 2015

Introduction

(Sat Nov 8th - Fri Nov 14TH, 2014)

It was in the Backpacker magazine’s special issue called “The World’s Best Hikes - Our International Life List” where I discovered this amazing area located in Ethiopia.

I have been to Morocco two times, and spent a week in Lagos on business - but still, these trips cannot be really described as a proper African adventure.

The Semien Mountains (in Amharic ስሜን or Səmen; also spelled Simien and Simen), in northern Ethiopia, north east of Gondar, are part of the Ethiopian Highlands. They are a World Heritage Site and include the Semien Mountains National Park. The mountains consist of a plateau separated by valleys and rising to pinnacles. The tallest peak is Ras Dashen (4,550 m). Because of their geological origins the mountains are almost unique, with only South Africa‘s Drakensberg having been formed in the same manner and thus appearing similar. Notable animals in the mountains include the walia ibex, gelada, and caracal. There are a few Ethiopian wolves.

We wanted to go to the Simiens after the rainy season, when everything turns green and flowers are in full blossom. And so we did.

In just a small group of two, having being decimated by family and other reasons of the others, we spent six days in the Simiens, hiking both on the plateau at the escarpment and in the lowland rural areas. We arranged the trek well in advance, wanting to avoid usual hassle at the park’s head quarters - and that’s also why we got an excellent guide, a hard working scout, and a very good chef.

Which means, this was not a hike of hard and tough backpacking.

We got mules to transport our stuff, but still it was a challenge: we found ourselves hiking in the thin air altitude around 4,000 meters, with strong African sun during days, and freezing temperatures during nights.

It was - and is - a magical place.

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Day 1: From Addis Abeba to Sankaber

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We took a local flight operated by Ethiopian Airlines from Addis Abeba to Gondar where we were met by Jemal, a friendly and easy-going owner of a local travel agency called Simien Park Tours.

The short flight to Gondar was nothing less than spectacular: we were flying across the landscape of plateaus and canyons, small fields and local villages.

Jemal took us with his Landcruiser to Debark, a starting point of excursions to the Simiens. Here we were met by Getenet Akalu, our guide. It did not take us long to realize that we got the best guide we may ever had.

He was the man: being raised up in the Simiens and having spent years in the education industry, he knew everything and everybody. Everything and everybody; this is not an exaggeration.
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Having lunch, we continued driving from Debark to the east, slowly riding on a narrow and winding road to the plateau of the Simiens. It was already late afternoon when we set out on the trail.

The first views from the plateau were majestic and incomparable. From the very beginning of the trip, we felt we were hiking at the end of the world, in a unique, awesome and breathtaking area that is only known to a few.
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Soon, we found ourselves on a meadow with a big herd of gelada baboon monkeys.

With the low light of upcoming sunset, it was a fairy-tale African scene. Us, geladas, and majestic views.
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We spent the night in a camp called Sankaber.

We were not alone there; there may have been around thirty other hikers, plus their crew. Still, it was not a touristy place - we were in Africa, on a plateau at the altitude close to 4,000 meters, and it was freezing through the night.

We got a tent and proper sleeping bags we brought with ourselves. Getenet, our guide, had a tent as well - and a sleeping bag. Our scout got neither a tent nor a sleeping bag. He used a polythene thing and a few blankets. A brave man truly.

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Day 2: From Sankaber to GEECH

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The morning in Sankaber was cold in the beginning… but sunny afterwards. Really interesting to witness, the temperature rose to twenty degrees Centigrade from the levels below zero really quickly. A beautiful day on the roof of Africa started.

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We continued hiking along the escarpment in the eastern direction, enjoying the Grand-Canyon-like views all the time. I would call it special, but special things are unique; here, it was a constant.

I have seen Grand Canyon both at sunrise and sunset, but this place in Africa rivals it without any doubt, offering no roads, no buses with Japanese tourists in suits and trekking boots, and throwing in some solitude instead of crowds.
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After a few hours, we descended to a small plateau with a view of a narrow but magnificent Jinbar waterfall. Difficult to photograph in the midday sun and haze, it was still a beautiful wonder of nature to admire.

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We continued hiking to the east, sometimes ascending and sometimes descending when crossing the plateau, and took a rest at a river flowing through a small and narrow valley.

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Soon, we came to the first village - a Muslim one.

We learned from Getenet that all the villages and inhabitants from the national park are about to be relocated to Debark, mainly due to nature protection reasons.

It was not a long walk from the village to a camp called Geech, where we found our tent pitched and afternoon tea and some biscuits prepared by our crew.

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Shortly before sunset, me and Getenet set out on a short walk to a viewpoint at the edge of the escarpment called Kadavit.

There were horses on pastures around the camp, and the setting sun illuminated the landscape with its fairy-tale colours.

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The views from the Kadavit viewpoint were awesome.

I am not sure whether I have ever witnessed anything similar to these scenes, but it was truly a magical performance that was happening in front of your eyes.

I stayed at the viewpoint during sunset and upcoming twilight, admiring its evening magic and continuous change of colours and mood of the landscape.

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The night at the Geech camp was even colder than the previous night at Sankaber. It was freezing, of course.

The moon was shining so intensively that it looked like the sun.
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Day 3: From Geech to Chenek

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We woke into another sunny but cold morning - these are the mornings in the Simiens. We had a breakfast that our lovely crew prepared for us, and after some time we set out on the trail again.

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It was a different hike we enjoyed here in the morning - hiking across the grassy plateau, we were not at the line of the escarpment, and were enjoying rather strange high-altitude African moods of isolation.

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On the third day, a magnificent viewpoint called Imet Gogo was a fixture on the itinerary.

Not for the first time, we were meeting many (mainly American) doctors here. Trying to save the world as part of whatever organization, they were enthusiastic about everything, prepared for anything, carrying medicine to treat whatever may happen.

They should rather save our dying western civilization and protect it from the illness of political correctness and multicultural craziness, I was thinking when they were passing by, expressing inexhaustible spirit of willingness to help, impolitely invading into the solitude of the other - silent - walkers.

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Me and Jan standing at Imet Gogo viewpoint, photographed by Getenet Akalu.
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From Imet Gogo, the trail led us to the south, firstly descending to a nice grassy valley among rising cliffs.

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From the floor of the valley, we started to ascend to the highest point of our trail, Inatye peak (4,070m). It took us some time to reach the top; we didn’t want to rush, the air was thin - and the views were way too magical.

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The panorama view from the Inatye peak was awesome.

More than one kilometre below us, there were fields and villages of local communities that looked like in the SimCity PC game I played in the 90’s.

Top of the world, it was really like that, with majestic cliffs around and deep abyss falling down right in front of us.
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From the Inatye peak, we continued hiking to the south-east, slowly descending towards another camp called Chenek where we were about to spend our third day in the area.

Again, it was a majestic journey - eagle-eye views, beautiful light, local people we were meeting.

We were hiking in an ancient-times landscape that has not been changed much in the past centuries; unspoiled, beautiful, unknown, and incomparable.

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Shortly before sunset, I did a short walk around the Chenek camp, aiming to find Walia ibex species around.

It is kind of a mountain goat endemic to the Simiens, where only about 500 individuals survive.

Once more did I realize that we would not be able to survive in the wild. Even with my telephoto lens, I was not able to locate a walia ibex species our scout had found using just his eyes - he saw far much better than myself with the 250mm lens. Finally, however, I did locate the ibex as well - and took a few shots…

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Day 4: FRom Chenek to TsYon

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The sunny morning at the Chenek camp was as beautiful as the previous mornings we enjoyed in the area.

From the line of the escarpment, we admired beautiful peaks and valleys of the Simiens, with bright and dark areas created by the morning sun. I spent some time at the escarpment before the breakfast, aiming to fix and memorize the views from the plateau to the lowlands in the north.

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From Chenek, we started to descend to a valley among the hills, leaving the high-altitude plateau behind. Soon, first houses and small settlements appeared, and quickly everything became rural. No eagle-eye views any more, and instead of that farmers and children - and very often their very first encounters with the white “ferenji” men.

Back in Debark during the trek planning, we were not happy with the lowlands at first, but finally we let Jemal and Getenet persuade us. Here, however, we felt thankful for their choice - it was a completely different experience than the plateau, and the journey was spiced by the fact that there were no other hikers at all.

Getenet told us that it may have been months or even years since the last visit of ferenjis in the area. For local people, we were a joyful attraction in the same way they were for us.
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In a village called Tsyon, we pitched our tents in a small courtyard of the local school. And of course, we became an attraction of everybody: children, teachers, local people.

So we smiled, photographed, talked, and enjoyed the place where we were.

We bought a sheep and let it slaughtered by our cook.

There was a lot of meat for dinner - for the whole crew, for the teachers from the school, and for some other locals as well. Of course, once again we realized that an absolutely basic thing for the locals, killing an animal, is something we are not able to do, not knowing how. A strange world we live in.

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The evening and night were calm and warm - at the altitude of around 2,500 meters, there was no freeze any more.

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Day 5: From TsYon to Beles

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It was another day of hiking in the rural lowland areas, in the middle of the crop season that was just culminating. Local farmers and their children, funny and lovely encounters.

We learned a lot about the local life, about the history of Jewish communities relocated to Israel, about old traditions, and about how Muslims and Christians may peacefully live together.
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In Beles, we were invited to a local house of one of Getenet’s relatives for a coffee. And it was a lovely and special time indeed - and the coffee was delicious.
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We pitched our tents in a courtyard of a local medical centre, causing attraction among local children for yet another time.

Then we set out on a short walk through the village, being followed by tens of children in a really funny way. No one wanted anything from us; not used to white ferenji people, there were no expectations of gifts or money among the children and adults.

They were just happy to have us with them, and so were we.

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In the evening, we visited a local pub.

We were drinking beers whereas the locals were enjoying a strong locally-made spirit we were not brave enough to try.

Getenet was translating from English to Amharic, and it was a lovely chat about those things they (and us) had ever wanted to ask when in such a situation.

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The evening and night were peaceful; we fell asleep soon, knowing we have to get up early to set out on the trail before the dawn.

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Day 6: From Beles Back to Debark

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It was a long and sometimes strenuous climb back to the Simien plateau we had to carry out.

The higher we hiked, the better were the views across the lowland rural valleys. At the top of the plateau, we were met by an arranged car that took us back to Debark.

Before that, it was a time to give a farewell speech to our crew. We were very thankful for their professional services, and were told that the same was applicable to us, as the visitors they were guiding and serving. Tipping time followed, and after that we left back to civilization.

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In Debark, a well-deserved and long-awaited beer time followed.

We had a few beers with Getenet and our chef, watched Ethiopian TV, and enjoyed the mood of a local pub place.

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Rock-hewn Churches of Lalibela

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After the Simiens, we had one more place in Ethiopia on our itinerary - Lalibela.

This rural town is known around the world for its churches carved from the living rock, which play an important part in the history of rock-cut architecture. Though the dating of the churches is not well established, most are thought to have been built during the reign of Lalibela, namely during the 12th and 13th centuries.

A special place indeed, and it was very worth visiting and exploration.
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Lalibela Market

Regular Saturday market in Lalibela couldn’t be missed as well. For this occasion, people from the settlement as well as nearby villages gather to sell and buy everything one may imagine.

From Lalibela, we flew back to Addis Abeba where we spent our last day in Ethiopia.

It was one of those trips that will never be forgotten, that will never leave our memories. The Simiens are magnificent and magical; a special place for hikers and nature lovers.

We hiked for six days on the roof of Africa. Then we saw wonders of an ancient civilization.

Ethiopia is beautiful. A special place.
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Footnote: All images are exclusive property and may not be copied, downloaded, reproduced, transmitted, manipulated or used in any way without permission of the photographer (tomas.zrna@gmail.com).
Ethiopia