Slogging in the Simiens

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Africa » Ethiopia
December 18th 2007
Published: December 19th 2007
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Armed and ready!Armed and ready!Armed and ready!

With our scout at the beginning of our hike in the Simien Mountains
Well, our trust paid off and not only were we met with food, but a cook, driver and our own beat up landcruiser to drive from Gondar to Debark where we would pick up our guide, scout and gear. The road was windy, but the drive went quickly with our good driver and American music blaring from the dash! The terraced fields gave way to the start of the Simien Mountains - our destination and truly one of the most magnificent ranges in Africa.

With virtually no cars, the road is the life blood of the communities and always full of people walking on it including the shepherds who wield their crooks and manage to herd their goats, sheep and cows to the side of the road. Everywhere people are covered with white shawls to keep out the ever present and swirling dust. Women are congregated at the community wells where they walk with their huge plastic containers of water strapped to their heads back to their homes. The villages are all stretched out along the road and include low buildings made of wood frames and covered with mud and grain to fill in their walls. Many are painted in bright colourful hues in juxtaposition to the harsh life here. Yellow, turquoise, pink and purple will await you including intricate paintings on the metal doors. There is an order and pace to life here that is evident.

In the villages, fooseball tables stand ready for competition and scales are everywhere for the mules to have their loads weighed before they carry the goods home. The number of UN and signs from aid agencies is striking as are the posters with signs in English warning people about the dangers of AIDs and having children too young.

The two plus hour drive landed us at the Simien Park Headquarters where everything was efficiently orchestrated. Our English speaking guide appeared along with our armed scout ready to take us on our trip. It was a little unnevering getting into the landcruiser with a rifle, but we would have to get used to it because our scout and his gun would be with us for the duration! Paid our park fees and we were off to the Simien Park Hotel where we sat in the sun having a drink while our crew organized all our gear. Weren't expecting much in the way of camping gear and food, but we were there for the scenery anyway!

Left Debark at 2800m and started our descent from the farmland on the plain to terraced plateaus to the true mountainous area of the Simiens. The Simiens were designated as a national park and the entire range was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979. With their range of several peaks over 4000m, they are one of the highest ranges in Africa.

Different from many national parks, there are villages within the park, but arrangements have been struck with the villagers who now understand the benefit of protecting the wildlife and of the tourist dollars. For example, all of the scouts that are hired to walk with the tourists are from the villages in the park and serve on a rotational basis.

The park is home to many wildflowers and flowering trees such as the wild Abysinnian rose, red hot poker, St. John's wort, aloe vera and lobelia. The bird life is highly diverse and fills your steps with song and there is always the chance to glimpse wildlife. Every few minutes walk is a like stepping into another world with its micro climates and always something different to capture all of your senses.

Started our walk after ascending to about 3000m and traversed a ridge line which overlooked the gorge below. The Simiens can best be described as the sister to the Grand Canyon with major plateaus divided by large river valleys. The ancient hills formed by countless eruptions 40 million years ago laid layer upon layer of molten lava giving the effect of a diversity of colours like a woven scarf of scarlet, umber, black and chocolate brown. Making the dramatic vista even more spectacular, the volcanic rock has been eroded into massive pinnacles and tables (mesa) which dot the landscape and anchor the eye while below on the fertile river valleys lay fields of green. This view, even changing in its perspective would dominate our hiking for the next 3 days, but would be something of which we could never tire.

Along the way we would hear endless squeals of children running from fields to say hello to us and wave obvious with their delight of seeing the ferengis (foreigners). Crossing a field after mixing with the locals who were curious, but shy of the camera, we
A little chilly are we? A little chilly are we? A little chilly are we?

Just over 0C in the early morning! Kurt with our scout who slept outside all night. Brrr ...
came upon our first of many sighting of the Gelada baboons. The Gelada baboons are in fact misnamed in that they make up their own species of monkey. Striking by the red markings on their chests, they are also known as the "bleeding heart baboon". They are the most dexterous of primates and highly social living in groups as large as 800. In the Simiens they are alive and well protected foraging on the grasslands and thriving with a population of up to 6000 animals. While I had hoped to see one or two, I was not prepared for the experience which Kurt and I would have literally walking through a forest of baboons!

The guide told us to walk ahead slowly and there they were, sitting on the plain, feasting on the grasslands which we wandered throughout the group of more than 200 baboons. The adults were relaxed and let us get within 2 metres of them making for incredible photos while the babies cried in alarm and hid behind their mothers or else hopped on their backs in the hopes of a ride to safety. We stayed there for 30 minutes just taking photos and watching them at work and play, the young males fighting and staking out territory and the elder males strutting their stuff. It was a truly magical experience so with a big smile on our face we continued on to our camp.

Arrived at Sankabar 3200m to find only one other tourist and our tent set up by our cook and crew who had gone ahead. Immediately we were served tea on a silver platter complete with biscuits and knew that we were going to be well looked after by all! Our evening was spent sitting around the campfire with all the crew and trading stories and songs. At one point we had to poke ourselves because we heard Celine Dion's voice, only to find out that we were not hallecinating, but rather that it was coming from the MP3 player on our driver's cel phone. The next thing we know all the Ethiopians are singing and swaying to Celine! We can't contain our laughter as they then move on to Jennifer Lopez and others. Of course this is followed by the request to sing our national anthem -- so high on the Ethiopian plains comes a heartfelt, but shaky version of "Oh Canada" followed by the Ethiopian national anthem sung with feeling! When we heard the hyenas howling, it was time to go to sleep!

The next day we hiked through the forest and up, up, up through the mountains to Gich Village, a small remote community of Muslims who live in Tukal huts and keep their animals under the floor to keep them safe from the hyenas! The children of the village ran out to meet us and shake our hands. They were very cute though extremely malnourished from the harsh climate! The hands and feet were weathered from the exposure to the outside, but their spirits were light as they welcomed us with glee. Their voices were only matched by the melodic singsong voice of our scout who told stories most of the way and kept us laughing with his "ahhhhhh-eeee" sound like the KIA commercial. He was a kind soul with a gentleness and caring and always a wide smile for us.

Over the last hill to Gich Camp set out on a wide plain and full exposed at 3600m, I could feel the real effects of altitude! Was very happy to see our tent set up, but very sad to find out that the toilet was a long hike down which meant climbing back up which made my heart race as I was so out of breath from the evil altitude! Yes, I am a sea level girl! As the light began to fade, the children herded their animals back to the village and the place became quiet as we sat with our guide on the still warm rocks of the cook's hut and talked about life in Canada and Ethiopia - so different, but also the same.

The evening was cold so we went to sleep as soon as the fire went out, but surprisingly not as bad as at Sankabar the evening before when there was frost and it had been around 0 celcius. The poor quality sleeping bags didn't do much to keep us warm so we slept back to back and wore all our our clothes to keep warm! Just kept thinking that our minor and temporary hardship was nothing compared to the people of the area, many of which had no pants or skirts to cover their legs.

The last day we hiked out in the blazing sun, up for the last 6 km which was trying as my lungs were still screaming from the altitude. We got to see the klipspringer (like a small deer) thanks to the eagle eyes of our scout and revel in the panoramic views across the canyon floor. The baboons were everywhere to buoy up our spirits, but I was never so glad to see a landcruiser as I was that time! With the cook, guide and scout in tow, we said goodbye to our assistant cook and mule men who had helped us so much. We headed back to Debark where we had started our journey watching the magnificent of the Simiens recede in the distance - truly one of the undiscovered jewels of the trekking world. As we came back to a bustling market where the roads were swarmed by locals who were trading all their goods and livestock and making the streets impassable! It was definitely not life in the mountains, but their equivalent of the big city.

At our hotel had a drink with all of our crew and said our goodbye and thanks because they had made the entire experience. Rested up for our long journey the next day and looked forward to the next adventure and a hot shower because I don't think that my feet have ever been so dirty!

PS - Just to explain the picture from the story before of Kurt as the electrician - we had no hot water in our room because the wires had been cut so he spliced them together and repaired it and it worked! They asked him if he was an electrician in Canada and he said "No, but maybe in Ethiopia" and he makes house callls! : )

PPS - Since it is taking over 15 minutes to download each photo, I can only include a few photos. If we get to another town with a faster connection (dubious!), I will try to add more photos!


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