Hey folks.Today’s blog I talk about one of the most amazing places I’ve been in the world – the Simien Mountains in Northern Ethiopia. One of the most stunning settings you’ll find anywhere in the world, a great place for trekking too. I am not a big ‘trekker’ (and not a big trekkie either, I favour the good Time Lord known as the Doctor ;)) but when I was in Ethiopia I wanted to visit the mountains, and was luckily travelling with two great people who wanted to go trekking. It was an unforgettable experience, and thoroughly rewarding. It pushed my body to the limits, but mainly because I am so bloody unfit!
We took a bone-crunching, slow bus ride from Gondar to Debark, which acts as a sort of gateway town to the mountains. Debark is not a town to linger in. It’s not unpleasant at all, but the reason travellers go there is that it’s the place to start your trek into the beautiful Simien Mountains. We’d decided to do three nights and four days trekking. I was pretty out of shape beforehand, and to be honest even worse today! However I survived alright after adjusting to the altitude. The town itself isn’t very pretty, although its surrounds are. There are a lot of flat, corrugated rooves, and many of the houses and buildings do look a bit ramshackle. There are often electricity and water outages too, to be expected in such a remote place. Be aware that you’ve gone up in altitude again to get to Debark. It gets pretty cold at night!
The Simien Mountains Park Headquarters is in Debark, so aside from our hotel this is the place we spent most of our time whilst here. Although there are opportunities to organise your trek elsewhere in Ethiopia – Gondar and Addis principally, the cheapest way is to wait until Debark. If you arrive about lunch time you can have everything sorted and ready by dinner for a departure the next day, and you’ll have a good idea of what you are getting.
I won’t list prices here. They change, generally going up so they won’t be current. But you have a fair few things to organise here before going and it takes a few hours. The first is your guide, the most important. I can only say that throughout Ethiopia we were very lucky, all our guides were fantastic, and it was no exception for the Simien Mountains trek.
You need a cook, donkeys and their handlers (they will carry the food and supplies), tents if you don’t have your own (they go with the donkeys), you need to buy the food, you need to decide on a route, and there are lot of possibilities – time is the most important factor. You need to organise park fees as well. There’s also the stove for the cook, mattresses and important a ‘scout’ – a man with a gun who follows you along to keep away the wild animals. Not that there are that many of them, but it’s a requirement and they won’t let you trek without one.
We decided to start trekking from Sankabar Camp, so we needed to organise transport there as well. The good news is that this office organises almost everything for you, it’s all official and on the level so you shouldn’t be getting ripped off in anyway, and they are friendly and helpful.
We had been talking about the trek earlier, even before we left our home countries. We knew that along with perhaps Lalibela, the trek was going to be the highlight of visiting Ethiopia. I had planned to do a shorter trek but the others were keen for the four days. It was the right choice.
The hardest thing for me was adjusting to the altitude. It’s the highest I’ve ever been in my life. We started walking at 3600 metres, and we reached 4070 metres. Breathing was seriously difficult initially, and even though I’d been at over 2000 metres since I arrived it wasn’t until half way through the second day that I adjusted to the altitude.
The rest of the day we sorted out our bags, leaving what we needed at our hotel, and we went to a small store with the cook and our guide to organise supplies/food. We had to pay, obviously, for all the food so that’s another expense you need to factor in.
So it was the next morning we left, taking a jeep to Sankabar camp. There the donkeys were hired and chosen, and each was loaded with our belongings, food and tents. They could take a maximum of 45 kilos each, we had two donkeys for our group, each with around 40 kilos. It was reassuring to know that they did have limits.
The first day took us to Geech camp, and was very much uphill. I struggled quickly, but made it well after the leaders in our group. The camp was cool, we played soccer with some children there, but one quick run down the wing and I was doubled over, pulling oxygen into my lungs desperately. We were over 3600 metres at the camp, and I was not accustomed to the thin air.
It got worse for me on the second day, although the scenery was beautiful and we hit a couple of peaks. I stopped at one point and vomited everywhere! It seemed, somehow, to cleanse my system, although I don’t believe this is normal for altitude sickness. I had a new lease on life as we headed Chenek Camp for the night, nearby were a herd of Walia Ibex (a kind of deer) and we had a Gelada Baboon come into the camp!
Day three was easier, and I was moving well. We made our way past small communities and farms to Sankabar Camp. The last day we descended to Debark, which was quite brutal on my feet – in fact I needed my boots repaired that evening before we headed back to Gondar the next day. On the final day walk we scrambled over a lot of rocks which hadn’t helped. But we had also had a chance to see a large family of Gelada Baboons and were able to get in close for photos – unforgettable.
The Simiens are quite bare, not a lot of vegetation, but the views across the region are stunning. You see a mountain range below that seemed to go for hundreds of kilometres. Actually, it DOES go for hundreds of kilometres. You can do more ambitious treks than we did, or easier ones too. The air is thin but donkeys carry most of your things, and you have a guide, cook and scout. It was somewhere in the range of 40-50 dollars a day, so it doesn’t set you back that much. The day time temperatures are in the mid-teens (celcius) so it’s decent weather for trekking, although cold at night.
If you are into trekking, it’s a fantastic place to go. Ethiopia is a fantastic country. Maybe not the first one you think of for trekking or tourism – but well worth the effort to visit!
Andrew Boland is the author of Short Journeys: Ethiopia, and the other Short Journeys ebooks. You can find more information on them here on this WordPress site.
You could also take a look at my video, Simien Mountains – a 4 day trek.