"My brain can't compute the mind-bending angles of the terrain... it's amazing!" Oliver stares into the tortured chasms, leaping escarpments and impossible plateaus from the viewpoint at Sana.
He is so distracted he did not notice the yellow-tailed kite that swoops down and snatches his sandwiches. The bird then drops the packet and a huge thick-billed crow floats down and snaps them up discarding the foil with surgical precision. His mind is off food, still bouncing around interpreting the edges and abysses of the Simien Mountains; similar perhaps to the Grand Canyon in some respects, and yet in others, totally other-worldly.
Here we list five euphoric experiences recent travellers witnessed on their trek through Ethiopia's Simien mountainscapes.
1. The Simien Landscape
The Simien landscape is set in its own paint box of greens, browns and golds, with views through the giant heathers laced with hair-like Spanish moss, and the spikes and flower cones of the giant lobelias. The florets are visited by purple and green sunbirds looking like magnified hummingbirds; then there are the silver clusters of helichrysum, known as the everlasting flowers.
Home to many unknown treasures and dramatic landscapes, the Simien Mountains offer spectacular wilderness experiences as you trek with a backdrop of cliffs and escarpments and camp on a volcanic plateau where you are taken aback by the celestial isolation.
"This really is the Land That Time Forgot," says Phil, another group member, "I am half expecting a dinosaur to walk out of those trees."
2. The Wildlife
At some stage on every day of the hike on the Simien escarpment, you are treated to the frolics of the gelada monkey, an ancient species close to the baboon family, but now restricted to these mountains. They are unusual for they eat grass and forage for roots in the dry season. They are highly sociable and don't seem to mind you sitting amongst them.
The babies are always flying up and down rocks, across heathers and jumping onto other monkeys' backs, not always their mothers'. The older males sit apart socially and pretend to be fierce, waiting for their chance to pick up a harem.
After a bit of searching along the escarpment, the walkout of Chenek camp presents an opportunity to find examples of the very rare Walia ibex, grazing and looking above or below from the crags nonchalantly. Once quite common, these stocky but elegant mountain goats are also limited to parts of these mountains.
However, the rarest animal in the Simiens was seen by only a couple of us on a recent trip: the Ethiopian wolf. This elusive creature slyly meandered down through the shrubs smelling a dispatched chicken; a cry went up, and those who could sprint out of their tents and down the road.
The animal had already disappeared but after some searching, I got onto a precarious rock and took some footage of it hunting for vole rats. A remarkable animal: reddy, orange like a fox but with long white legs and a fur-trimmed wolf-like face.
I think we found more of his staple food than he did; close to the summit of Inatiye (4070m) vole rats were popping out of their burrows like fleas giving us the once over.
Among the wildlife is the stunning Ethiopian birdlife, which is abundant during Autumn departures.
Augur buzzards, lammergeiers, peregrine and lanner falcons, thick-billed and fan-tailed crows, red-billed chough, as well as a host of smaller birds, such as the beautiful paradise flycatcher, sunbirds and bee-eaters were observed throughout the trip.
3. The Challenge
The climax of the walk is the 26-kilometre round walk to Ras Dashen; the eastern peak of the rim of an enormous extinct volcano – the northern half of which is cut down over a thousand metres by numerous ravines – draining into the Takkazzi River. It is the tenth highest mountain in Africa at 4553 metres, and a steep walk up starting at three in the morning to avoid the heat as much as possible.
After a long climb through the frosted morning grasses and a few sections of mud road, the peak only really revealed itself in the last hour, before reaching the top where there was a short rock scramble to the summit.
The views from this point were great, although not as good as some from other sections of the escarpment which we have been to earlier such as Sana or Imet Gogo.
Half the group decide to rest on the summit day and have a relaxing time in the Ambiko village below.
There are many other challenges on this route however; there is a long walk from Ambiko under the mountain to the escarpment edge. The walk drops off the escarpment at Sona, where there is a hair-brained horseshoe of escarpment edges and peaks you can see from where we started walking from a week earlier!
We then descended 1400 metres to the River Ansiya where a welcome wash in a pool is at last a possibility. People in the group enjoyed the three days from here to the end of the trek, exposed to more of the lowland way of life; domestic animals, beehives, people washing clothes and the lively children who were less used to seeing tourists than the villagers on the main escarpment.
4. The People
Ethiopia's greatest resource is her people. In the countryside especially, they are hardworking, resourceful, inquisitive and very friendly; this goes for the children as well.
One of the best features of this tour, according to the group, was the fascination of observing village life at close hand. This included local brewing from barley and making teff, barley pancakes and Indura – the local staple which is a 3-day fermented teff bread.
There is so little wood left these days that in many places food is cooked using dry cow dung. Depending upon the time of the year, you might see all types of traditional farming activity, including ploughing with oxen, winnowing by hand fork and spade, plus threshing with mules and donkeys.
In autumn, there's a mass of frenetic harvesting with scythes. You will see children herding animals and looking for wood, carrying weighty containers of water on their heads, or doing the washing in whatever water is available.
The walk threads its way through villages where the way of life has been played out in more or less the same way for centuries. Everywhere there are children who are enthusiastic to watch you at close quarters; popping out of the bush, road and trackside to observe you in wonder. Some ask for things, but people are pretty poor so its understandable; others have few crafts to sell. It's a hand-to-mouth existence for most of them and life can be very difficult.
Over 80% of the population are subsistence farmers, nevertheless, the fertility of the country speaks for itself. At the time of Live Aid in 1985, there were an estimated 37 million people in Ethiopia and regional famine; roll onto 2018 and there is an estimated population of 102 million. Though regardless of their situation, people smile a lot in Ethiopia and they absolutely love music and dancing.
5. The Cultural Circuit Experience
The World Expeditions trip is such a good itinerary because there are so many layers to this journey. There is the standard Simien Hike, then the Ascent of Ras Dashen, followed by the walk off the escarpment into the dramatic lowland landscape of river valleys, as well as cultivated or grazed terraces which most groups do not see.
If the trek is the filling, the sandwich around the tour is the cultural circuit, making use of the excellent Ethiopian Airways service that triangulates daily between the interesting northern cities of Bahir Dar, Axum and Lalibela.
At these places, you can take in the delights such as Lake Tana (source of the Blue Nile) with the painted 14th-century monastery of Ura Kidane Mehret and the Blue Nile Falls. Next is Gondar and the Royal Palace enclosure from the 17th Century, Emperor Fasilidas’ pool and the beautiful church of Gebre Birhan Selassie saved from Muslim invaders, it is said, by a swarm of bees.
After the trek, the tour hopscotches to Axum the capital of a huge empire from maybe 1000 BC to 700 AD. It is famous for appearing as the home of the Queen of Sheba and for its burial chambers beneath towering carved Stele stones.
Here, for contrast to Gondar, is the Queen of Sheba's Pool and several churches including the 17th century St. Mary of Zion, which claimed to contain the original Ark of the Covenant. Reportedly, the Ark was moved to the more modern Chapel of the Tablet next door because a 'divine heat' from the Tablets had cracked the stones in St. Mary's. None of the histories can be verified and you cannot see the Ark, which leaves tourists a bit bewildered and skeptical.
If Axumite history leaves a bit to the imagination, the last leg of the tour spends an afternoon at the dramatic rock hewn churches at Lalibela. You have to remove your shoes to pad your way across the well-polished church floors through wooden doors, and access tunnels at this 12th Century 'New Jerusalem' which began in the reign of King Lalibela 1181–1221 AD.
The layout and names of the major buildings in Lalibela are a symbolic representation of Jerusalem, so this would date the current church forms to the years following the capture of Jerusalem in 1187 by Muslim leader, Saladin. It is amazing how much is still not known about Gondar, Axum and Lalibela.
Just outside Axum, we spent time with Elias our guide searching in an area of the quarry where the huge Stele was carved for the 'Lioness of Gobedra', a beautiful carving of a prancing lioness of indeterminate age.
In reality, no one knows anything about it, but in mythology, this is where the Archangel Michael was attacked by a lion, and he shook it off with such force that it imprinted on the rock.
All this seems to reflect the journey through the country and the views of the Simien chain, so beautiful and yet so hard to interpret.
Words by John Millen.
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