The last stop on our little tour of northern Ethiopia was the Simien Mountains National Park. We arrived in the small city of Debark the night before our scheduled trek, and took advantage of the hot showers and fresh coffee available there. The following morning we piled into our bus and began the slow, winding drive into the park itself. The roads were something else: being the rainy season, we were often driving axle-deep through puddles of mud and water, and we even pulled a couple of semi-controlled slide/drifts around some of the muddy switchback corners. That’s a little unnerving when the valley below you drops away a thousand feet sheer. Luckily we had a very good driver, and he successfully negotiated all of the dangers without incident.
On our way to our “lodge”, we stopped a couple of times to check out the sights. Unfortunately the weather was not cooperating on this day, and heavy clouds were constantly obscuring our panoramic views. Once in a while they would clear just enough to reveal a sweeping landscape stretching away below us, and we would be made suddenly aware of how high up we really were. For the rest of the time, the clouds created a dreamy, other-worldliness type of atmosphere, and this somehow added to our sense of intrepidness as we ventured deeper into the park.
One sight that was happily not obscured in cloud was a large herd of gelada baboons that we came across on our drive in. The gelada baboons are one of the park’s endemic species, and are unique to Ethiopia. They are sometimes called “lion monkeys” because of their large manes, and sometimes called “bleeding hearts” because of the red hour-glass shape on their chests. They were moving across the plateau, eating grasses as they went, and being followed by a small group of researchers who invited us to spread out and move among the baboons as we liked. We got quite close to some, and they showed no signs of aggression. The males especially were impressive, and it was easy to see where the nickname “lion monkey” came from as they moved powerfully and swiftly past us, their manes waving back and forth in time with their swaggers.
We finally arrived at our “lodge” just before lunch. It consisted of a small grouping of stone and concrete huts, perched on a ridge at 11,200 feet above sea level. The sleeping quarters consisted of two huts with nine beds each, which was a bit of a problem since there were twenty of us. Bryan and Guy very generously volunteered to take spots on the floor, although Bryan sort of ended up volunteering inadvertently when he discovered part-way through the night that sharing a single bed with his girlfriend was not as comfortable as he originally thought. Still, we heard no complaints, and the rest of us were very appreciative to have the small luxury of a mattress, especially in the absence of anything else even remotely resembling luxury.
After we had dumped our sleeping stuff in the huts, we headed out on a trek through the park. The plan was to hike for about 5 hours, and to do a loop which would take us along a cliff’s edge with stunning views down into the valley below. The ultimate destination was a viewpoint overlooking a 1500 foot waterfall tumbling down the cliff face. We were very excited — but unfortunately mother nature had other plans for us. The clouds closed in all around us, and our visibility was reduced often to no more that 20 feet or so. We got to the lookout and could hear the waterfall through the white wall of fog, but although we waited around for almost half an hour, we never got a glimpse of it. As we turned to head back to camp, the skies opened up and bucketed down on us. We turned a 5 hour hike into a 3 hour sprint, as we all put our heads down and booked it back as fast as possible. We arrived soaked through, and quickly changed into whatever dry clothing we had left and wrapped ourselves in blankets to ward off the cold. And cold it was, too! It felt like we were back in Canada in early winter. And I thought Africa was supposed to be hot! Some of the higher peaks of the Simien Mountains actually get snow in the cold season. It’s amazing the effect that elevation has on climate.
After feasting on a meal of two-minute noodles and tinned beans, we huddled up in our huts and played cards for a while, before cozying up in our sleeping bags for warmth. Even though the day hadn’t provided the breathtaking views we’d hoped for, it was energizing to be in the mountains, and the hiking was still beautiful in its own way. We’d love to come back to Ethiopia one day to give the mountains another look — we hear that September/October is the time to do it, when the weather is clearer and the flowers are in bloom. Just one more place on our ever-expanding list of destinations to come back to one day.