Published: June 2nd 2008May 13th 2008
The Deluge at Simien Mountains - Ethiopia
The start of the storm - and it just became worse from here....
The Simien Mountains - one of the most beautiful ranges in Africa, and the destination for a journey beset with unwelcome surprises. Planning for this hike began in the town of Gonder, where I was besieged with offers of packaged tours to the mountains - touts should always be viewed with great suspicion. They provided me with dubious prices for scouts, mules, handlers and cooks, and asserted that there was no public transport between Gonder and Debark - the nondescript town where most hikes begin. As is the case with most touts, they just spoke rubbish - and I managed to organise the same trek they were promoting for only a third of the cost.
After travelling to Debark by the supposedly non-existent public bus, a plan was developed: the first day would involve hiking 15 kilometres between the main mountain base at Sankaber and the more distant village called Geech, prior to returning to Sankaber for the evening. The second day comprised of a 23 kilometre hike down the mountain to Debark - thus obviating the need for vehicle hire and saving on costs - it seemed a good idea at the time. There were three people on this
trek - the diminutive gun-wielding scout named Desarie, whose heavily lined face made him look older than his 54 years, a young Ethopian lady coincidentally named Ethiopia, an aspiring athlete who had competed in the 400 metre track event at the national titles, and me - again the only foreigner amongst the locals.
To commence the hike, we drove 90 minutes to Sankaber - a journey along meandering roads that enabled glimpses of spectacular landscape as we crossed the 3000 metre threshold along this undulating road. Upon arriving in Sankaber, the trek began by skirting the top of the escarpment that make the Simien Mountains so famous. The walk along this route was simply breathtaking - both figuratively and physically. At one point, we needed to ascend a fairly steep incline - nothing overly troublesome at altitudes closer to sea level - but in the rarefied air of the Simiens, I found myself (a mild asthmatic) totally breathless within a very short period. Unlike the very fit Ethiopia who was able to simultaneously hike at altitude and talk on her mobile phone, or Desarie, who moved around this terrain like a mountain goat - my oxygen intake reached such
Galeda Baboon - Simien Mountains, Ethiopia
He was not very impressed with our presence.
a poor level during any steep ascent that it was foolish for me to continue, and after only a couple of hours hiking, we returned to Sankaber.
Though I was breathless, it did not detract from the magnificent landscape surrounding me. The outlook from the escarpment gazed across craggy peaks and lush fields that one could view until the distant land was hidden behind a pale blue haze. The fauna was also beautiful - raptors swung and glided past us at eye level, and the area’s most famous inhabitant - the galeda baboon - could be heard fighting amongst themselves - their unmistakeable squeals echoing across the valleys and cliffs. This is an absolutely magnificent part of the world.
After spending most of the evening in front of a camp fire so ably stoked by Desarie, it was time for an extended sleep prior to a less arduous day that would avoid the climbs causing me so much trouble. The 23 kilometre hike commenced the next morning at 06:30, and the mountain panorama looked so serene in the gentle light that accompanies the first blushes of sunshine. There were large periods of descent and level hiking, but again,
as soon as I needed to scale the most modest of hills, my breath magically disappeared. Thankfully, these inclines were not common, and so we continued at a solid pace - covering the first half of our hike in just over three hours. Though the legs were a trifle weary, this was a day that was proving far more manageable.
But a most dramatic event occurred as we approached the 17 kilometre mark. The three of us had just entered a valley at the foothills of the mountains when thick clouds formed overhead. I thought nothing of it, apart from the fact that the clouds provides pleasant cover from the direct sun, but then my attention was captured by the rolling thunder that rumbled around the valley. At this time we had reached the valley floor - a large dirt area devoid of any trees or buildings. I then felt what I presumed was a heavy raindrop - and being the gentleman, I offered my waterproof jacket to Ethiopia. Though a nice gesture, it was to have some unfortunate consequences for me within a few minutes. Again I felt a heavy raindrop, but this seemed particularly heavy - and
I looked on the ground to espy a tiny hailstone.
Suddenly, a deluge of biblical proportions was unleashed, and thousands of hail pellets pelted us, but what was worse, it was soon accompanied by sheets of drenching rain. I was saturated within minutes (the others shared the same fate later), and was soon confronted with that disagreeable sensation of wet clothes clinging grimly to your body. This rain also had a most unfortunate consequence - for the previously dry ground was fast turning to slushy, slippery mud. I soon discovered another physical inability of mine apart from ascending at altitude, and that was my enormous trouble in holding my footing on muddy surfaces. Whilst the others seemed to be moving with relative ease, I was stumbling on almost every step. Who would think that my days of rollerblading in Australia would come to my rescue, for I am used to sliding along numerous surfaces, and this enabled me to awkwardly glide along the ground in my mud-coated boots.
However, a more serious problem soon emerged. I suggested to Desarie that we should shelter beside one of the few spindly trees to receive even a slight respite from the
Spectacular view from the escarpment - Simien Mountains, Ethiopia
To give you an idea of scale - see if you can spot the small group of people on the hill on the lower left.
downpour. Desaire disagreed, as the creeks we had to cross would soon flood, trapping us in this valley with no escape. This sparked us to move with double haste, which, coupled with the deteriorating state of the ground and the continuing downpour, ensured that everyone (including the able-footed Desarie) fell prostate into the mud on several occasions. The rising water now became our greatest risk - for the murky brown rivers were flooding so incredibly quickly that the rocks used by Desaire (who was leading) to negotiate each river were soon under water by the time I needed to cross, and this caused my squelching boots to continually fill with water.
At one point, I needed to traverse a torrent of water that had risen so rapidly that the stone path Desarie and Ethiopia took was rendered impossible within a few moments of them crossing. My only option was to jump a sloping crevice approximately three metres above the raging torrent. I moved in quickly and successfully jumped to the other side, but struggled to mount the muddy, slippy incline, and started sliding back towards the chasm behind me. I vainly fought to move forward, but the combination of
mud and gravity made this a battle that could not be won. I turned to face the precipice that my feet were inexorably and slowly sliding towards, and decided to again leap the crevice to my original starting point as it was preferable to tumbling into the turbid waters. I garnered all my strength upon reaching the edge of the crevice and vaulted to the other side, throwing myself forward up the incline - and it was this momentum that carried me to safety. I was finally able to cross this river by finding exposed rocks further downstream.
After an indeterminable time, the rains eased and eventually stopped, and a gentle breeze slightly dried our saturated clothes. We were now within several kilometres of home, but the energy expended in fording rivers, and lifting our fallen selves from the muddy ground had totally sapped our strength. Our dishevelled group now passed through some beautiful farm-land with lovely traditional huts, but it was difficult to appreciate them given our current state. As we passed the 21 kilometre mark, we had one final muddy hill to ascend. It was here that Ethiopia, who had handled the conditions so bravely, fell to
the ground clutching a book of bible sayings and began to pray before tears streamed down her face. Remember, this is a competitor from the Ethiopian national athletics championships - yet this last hill was just one ascent too far. After more than a few encouraging words, we walked together towards the summit where we found ourselves in the middle of Debark, and only a 20 minute walk to the end of our gruelling journey.
After eight hours of hiking, I trudged into my hotel and stumbled to my room: my boots were thickly caked in mud, my clothes wet and filthy, and I looked absolutely dreadful. The 23 kilometre walk at altitudes of 3000 metres was always going to be tough, but still achievable. However, the deluge made everything so incredibly difficult - my body almost collapsed from the exhaustion which resulted in aching limbs, a slight flu, and an intense fatigue that lingered for days. I have experienced some physically challenging days in my life, but this was the most difficult one yet.
There are more photos below