SIMIEN MOUNTAINS NATIONAL PARK
No matter how you look at them, the Simien Mountains will leave you speechless. This massive 4000m-high table of rock, riven with gullies, offers easy but immensely rewarding trekking along the edge of a plateau that falls sheer to the plains far, far below. It’s not just the scenery (and altitude) that will leave you speechless, but also the excitement of sitting among a group of 100 gelada baboons or watching magnificent walia ibex joust on the rock ledges. Whether you come for a stroll or a two week trek , the Simien Mountains make a great break from the historical circuit’s constant monument-viewing. Besides the mythical baboons (see the boxed text, p75 ), the mountains are also home to a variety of other endemic mammals, birds and plants.
Thanks to the wildlife the park is a World Heritage Site. Although facilities for trekkers are few (the undeveloped state of the park is actually one of its attractions), the mountains are never theless easily accessible and treks can be quickly organised. The Simien Mountains aren’t to be missed – they undoubtedly rank among Africa’s most beautiful ranges.
Although organising trekking yourself at park headquarters in Debark is straightforward, it still takes two hours to complete. It’s best to arrive at headquarters the afternoon before you plan on starting your trek. Organising treks through agencies in Gonder and Addis Ababa is easy, but you’ll end up paying a lot more for the same trip.
WHEN TO GO
December to March is the driest time; after the rainy season in October, scenery is greenest and the wildflowers are out. During the main rainy season, between June and September, mist often obscures the views and trails can be slippery underfoot. However, you’re still assured of several hours of clear, dry weather for walking; the rain tends to come in short, sharp downpours. Daytime temperatures are consistently between 11.5°C and 18°C, while 3°C is typical at night. Between October and December, night time temperatures can dip below freezing.
Park entry fees include camping and are payable at the park headquarters (Tel 0581 113482/0581 170407; admission per 12 hours Birr 90, 5-seat vehicle Birr 20; h8.30am-12.30pm & 1.30-5.30pm Mon-Fri, 8.30am-noon & 2-5pm Sat & Sun). Entrance fees won’t be refunded once paid. However, if mules, cooks, guides and scouts aren’t used (because of bad weather or acclimatisation difficulties), their fees can be refunded; make sure this is clear before setting off.
The most useful trekking map is produced by the well-respected Institute of Geography, University of Berne, Switzerland: the Simen Mountains Trekking Map (2003; 1:100,000). The park rents a laminated version for Birr20 per day. If you want your own copy, it’s best to get it before leaving home. It can also occasionally be found for between Birr200 and Birr250 in Gonder or in Debark’s Simien Park Hotel (p130 ).
Mattresses (Birr15 per day), sleeping bags (Birr15 per day), two-person tents (Birr30 per day) and cooking equipment and gas stoves (Birr40 per day) can be hired at park headquarters. Debark’s petrol station sells kerosene (parrafin).
Outside Debark, there are no shops; though you can buy eggs, chickens and sheep from mountain villages. Your guide will negotiate prices. Mule handlers will gladly kill, skin and roast a sheep if they can tuck in too. Gonder is a better place to stock up as Debark’s food supplies are limited to a few tin cans, biscuits, pasta, tomato sauce and milk powder, plus some fresh fruit and vegetables. Stoves, lanterns and kerosene are also available in Gonder. Anything ‘specialised’, such as packet soups, should be bought in Addis Ababa.
Water is available during the trek but should be treated. Make sure the cook, if you have one, boils the water sufficiently. Though eucalyptus wood (sold by villagers on the mountain) is permitted for fires, it’s best to bring a stove. Burning wood from indigenous trees is strictly forbidden.
GUIDES, SCOUTS, COOKS & MULES
Cooks, scouts, mules and guides are all organised at park headquarters. Only the scouts are compulsory.
- Official guides (Birr120 per day) are recommended and help translate while in villages. Although freelancers, they’re trained by the national park on courses established by an Austrian team. Most are excellent; a few are less so. Guides work by rota, but you should not be afraid to ask for another if you’re not happy with the one assigned to you. Official guides work on a rota basis directly with the park, but many can also be hired privately. We have had very good reports regarding the services of Dawoud Sulayman Mekonnon (firstname.lastname@example.org). Most people who’ve hired cheaper unofficial guides off the street end up regretting the decision. See p247 for more.
- ‘Scouts’ (armed park rangers) are compulsory (Birr40 per day). Few speak English, but what they lack in conversation they make up for in willingness to help.
- Cooks can be hired for Birr75 per day (cooking for one to five people), a welcome and not-too-costly luxury for some. Porters aren’t available, but mules (Birr35 per day) with handlers (Birr35 per day) can be hired.
- Check mules for tender feet (ask the owner to walk the mule up and down) and signs of saddle sores. If in doubt, ask for another.
The guide and scout will expect at least one mule for carrying their blankets and provisions. Guides, scouts, cooks and mule handlers should bring their own food. In reality many bring token supplies or nothing at all and will then look to you for sustenance. This is OK if you know about it in advance – sadly most people don’t and the result is that everybody goes hungry. We have received dozens of complaints regarding this. Either check that they have enough or bring extra packets of rice etc. If you plan on covering two days’ worth of trekking in one, you’ll have to pay your team double for the day. See p252 for post-trek tipping advice.
There are numerous tour operators or travel agencies in Addis Ababa (see p270 ) and several more in Gonder ( p120 ) that can organise transport, guides, equipment rental and food. However, they charge you a lot more to hire exactly the same services from the park headquarters that you can easily arrange yourself. There are also numerous freelance ‘agents’ in Gonder offering to organise treks for you, but most receive mixed reviews at best from travellers.
The foot that is restless, will tread on a turd
Most treks begin and end in Debark, but it’s possible to use 4WDs to start or end your hike anywhere between Debark and Chenek. If you have time, strong legs and a hatred of doubling back, you could finish your trek at Adi Arkay, 75km north of Debark.
Once on the mountains you’ll be following centuries-old paths that crisscross the slopes and connect villages with pasturelands. They make terrific trekking routes; the walking itself is generally not challenging and gradients aren’t too steep. Be sure to allow time for acclimatisation when planning your routes, particularly if you’re aiming for Ras Dashen. Review the Safety Guidelines for Trekking (p243 ) and Responsible Trekking (p244 ) boxed texts.
CHOOSING A TREKKING ROUTE
DEBARK TO CHENEK TREK
ONWARD TO RAS DASHEN
Sleeping & Eating
ON THE MOUNTAINS
Getting There & Around
The mean annual rainfall is 1,550mm falling in two wet seasons, from February to March, and July to September which is said to have become much lower since the 1960s (Magin, 2001). Temperatures range from a minimum of -2.5°C to 4°C to a maximum of 11°C to 18°C. There are often drying winds during the day; frosts may occur at night, and snow sometimes settles on the summit of Ras Dazhen.
Geography & Geology
Comprising one of Africa’s principal mountain massifs, the Simiens are made up of several plateaus, separated by broad river valleys. A number of peaks rise above 4000m, including Ras Dashen (4543m), which is highly touted – incorrectly so – by Ethiopian tourism officials as the fourth-highest mountain in Africa. They seem to have happily forgotten the Ruwenzori Range’s Mt Speke (4890m), Mt Baker (4844m), Mt Emin (4792m), Mt Gessi (4717m) and Mt Luigi (4626m), as well as Tanzania’s Mt Meru (4566m)! The Simiens’ landscape is incredibly dramatic. It was formed by countless eruptions, some 40 million years ago; layer upon layer of molten lava was poured until it reached a thickness of 4000m. The subsequent erosion produced the mountains’ jagged and spectacular landscapes seen today. The famous pinnacles that sharply and abruptly rise from the surrounding landscape are volcanic necks, the solidified plumbing of the eroded ancient volcanoes. The 179-sq-km park lies within the ‘Afroalpine’ zone, between 1900m and 4543m elevation.
The mountains are home to three of Ethiopia’s larger endemic mammals: the walia ibex (numbers were estimated at around 600 and increasing at the last survey conducted in 2005), the gelada baboon (estimated to number around 6000) and the elusive Ethiopian wolf (71 were seen in and around the park in 2005). Other mammals sometimes seen are rock hyraxes, jackals, bushbucks and klipspringers. Endemic birds include the often-seen thick-billed raven and the less common blackheaded siskin, white-collared pigeon, whitebilled starling, wattled ibis, spot-breasted plover, white-backed black tit and Ankober seedeater or serin. Though common, one of the most memorable sights (and sounds!) is the lammergeier soaring low. Along the roadside on the approach to Sankaber, look out for the endemic ivorycoloured Abyssinian rose.