Simien Mts, Ethiopia
William Mackesy’s account of this walk
Simien Mts WM ac – 5 Day Trek
Day 1 – to Sankaber
We meet our core team at Debark, a cheerful hill town with what looks like a monopoly on supporting Simien treks. The team have some chores to do, so we repair to a cafe and drink fresh mango juice and a shot of Ethiopian coffee in the warm sun. We remount into our minibus, and turn right towards the invisible highlands on a road which climbs steadily through interesting farmland.
A left turn onto a dirt road soon gets us soon into wilder country.
We disembark onto an apparently nondescript roadside, but we quickly realise that we are just below the rim, and are soon gazing out into the abyss, far out over pale plateaux cut by what must be deep gorges. We argue about how far below the tiny villages really are. There is a case made for 1,000m, but I think it is more like half that. I suspect I am wrong.
Kit together, team photo, deep breath, and we’re off. We start off close to the road, sometimes on it, which reduces the magic: we are still in the world of people and transport. Then disbelief suspends itself; then everything is magnificent.
As time passes, we see less of the road, and the path becomes ever more of a stunner, weaving along above the escarpment cliffs through shrubby dry grasslands which nestle, even at the end of the dry season, pretty flowers and tiny irises. Wild rose (Rosa Abyssinica, only found in Africa) and St John’s Wort are in flower, too. On steep slopes, we pass through stands of moss-dripping giant heather – we are in cloud-forest territory here.
We lunch on a high promontory, with endless views out into the hazy canyonny landscape. But we are too busy yacking to really take it in.
Fine scarp-side meanderings after lunch. At some point an unscheduled bush-function is required, which gives rise to the concept of a ‘Benson’. We reach a top, and Getenat the Guide points to a group of scruffy buildings, some clearly part built, and says this is where we will be camping. My heart sinks, and I hope he is talking broadly.
We rejoin the track, and trudge along behind a low ridge, quite soon looking the other way down a long, scruffy cliff to another spectacular canyon on the other side of the isthmus-in-the-sky we are walking along.
The campsite can only be called depressing, a dense cluster of more than 30 tents, with ugly tin shacks, half-finished concrete structures, messy lumps of masonary and free-range trash. And loos so disgusting – I haven’t see anything so hideous since last in Tibet – that one of us sees a German being spontaneously sick on inspecting them.
(Jessica reminds me later of the lovely thyme tea and fig rolls that are produced, so it isn’t all bad, although somebody eats more than their fair share. Moi?? These things matter at altitude!)
It gets worse: a rain storm rolls through, and we retreat to what turn out to be leaky tents. Badly erected or just defective, it is hard to tell. Despite this, I snooze for a bit.
Our cook asks for batteries for his dead head torch.
A whisky sharpener, then supper in the mess tent, which starts downbeat but perks up. We adjourn to warm ourselves by the fire in the cooking shack. This isn’t so bad. There is some music and some desultory dancing, foreigners looking foolish. Then it is back to the mess tent for some witty scrabble while I write this account, and chuck in unhelpful comments
A long while getting off to sleep – it is always thus the first night. Jessica comments: “A couple had a row in the middle of the night. I don’t think anyone slept well.” Scott-of-Antarctic levels of understatement!
Day 2 – to Geech
A fitful first night, as usual, turning over regularly; some loud talk outside at 2-ish; an extraordinarily bright post-storm night misleadingly hinting at early dawn. But, actually, I am not exhausted when my alarm goes at 6.30. It takes an hour to get clear – I will speed up! A good breakfast of honey porridge and toast. Getanat asks for some water to get some ibprofen down. It is quite a thing to be leading groups at his age (61 – gawd, I am almost that old!).
The group is cheerful in the morning sun, despite the hideous campsite. We are off at 8am sharp.
It turns out that there is another site up the hill, which some of us have already discovered when seeking a hole in the bush for their functions. A beautiful, pristine hilltop with no-one there, and a non-gag-making loo. Why weren’t we told?
We take off through bright early morning bush on the southern slopes of the plateau, looking across a deep gorge to long yellow ochre slopes of land. Magical walking in warming sunshine.
We soon cross the road to the great northern cliffs, and walk along the scarp edge through delightfully varying vegetation – a stand of moss-dripping giant heather, a field of bright yellow grass, flowering shrubs.
We weave along between points with amazing views, huge striated cliffs above forested ledges, buttes which were clearly made in Utah and somehow dumped here standing clear in the distance, vultures soaring on the thermals. Far below are the hazy orange and dun canyons and spikes and little farmland plateaux of the (relative) lowlands. Stunning.
Getanat gives us a chat on the geology of the Simien; he has a charming and humorous face and manner. A huge, ugly thick-billed raven picks at some rubbish right by us. We are getting used now to our rifle-bearing ‘scouts’, who bring up the rear and are never without a smile. I take a memorable picture of Alex sitting cross-legged and panama-hatted on a slightly improbable bench safely back from the cliff-edge, with the blanket-wrapped gunmen (one of them also toting an umbrella) beside him.
We drop through more lovely scrub and climb along the top of a narrow volcanic dyke to a viewpoint across to the 500m Jimbal waterfall dropping into Geech chasm. We meet retail opportunities at two junctions – boys selling coloured slings and mats. How it is worth their while to slog up here – the nearer villages have been cleared – speaks volumes of the economy, and, perhaps, the gullibility of us travellers. Purchases are made.
We make a long climb to the road, which has retreated high up the hillside. We have got to quite an altitude (3,400m?) quicker than would be perfect, and it is a tiring slog. The road traverses for a km or two. We are passed by a dust-stirring lorry carrying impossible numbers of people.
To our right, large tracts of fields and bush have been burned, I assume an accident or a controlled burn – but, I later hear, it is a deliberate ploy by forces opposed to the new(ish) president who trying to create problems and distractions. Tragic, and a stark reminder that, beneath the current peaceable veneer, this is a tough and unstable country.
Our trail cuts down into rough, stony fields which must be hell to plough. We descend steadily to the stream at the bottom of the valley above the waterfall. It is 12.30 and LUNCHTIME on the rocks by a pretty pool, marred a bit by well-strewn litter. It has been a long morning. Serena swims.
We break for half an hour or so, perhaps too short. We begin a long slog up a steep hillside. Not much to report, other than some bands of bright volcanic pigments and widening views over yellow abandoned fields dotted with giant lobelia and stands of eucalyptus to the still-tilled fields across the valley. We finish a long walk with a final climb up and then across through bright dry yellow grasslands to our campsite near the once-village of Geech, which has been cleared recently to make way for nature. A good move – the next two days are the best for remoteness, nature and wildlife.
Our campsite is much better, on a flat, wide top with fine views, with some other campers some way off. We have some tea, then are driven by a lack of chairs with backs into our tents – it is too much to perch straight-backed after 6 hours’ walking, and we all lie down for a bit.
A rainstorm rolls in and we shrink into corners of the mess tent to avoid leaks: there are so many that we have to divide the table to find non-dripping areas. It is a bit dreary. I tap away at this account; Serena leads a bridge session. Our cook asks for use of one of our power-packs for his dead mobile phone.
Supper comes at 6.30. Lentil soup, cabbage and potatoes, tomato pasta and rice balls. And Banana fritters with honey. Delicious, if all over within an hour. People want to change the itinerary to shorten the trek, to my annoyance. I think I have beaten it off.
We retire to the cooking shack for some more fire time, then spilt up to go to bed or return to the mess tent.
Day 3 - Imet Gogo ridge
Woken by heavy coughing at night, and I fear someone has an altitude issue (pulmonary oedema?). I lie there planning how best to deal with an emergency. Sleep curtailed.
We lie in to a princely 7am, emerging to a clear sky. Our table sits in the already warm slanting sun, laden with honey porridge, bread, jams and Nutella. A sight to cheer altitude-jaded heads.
We are heading to the Imet Gogo high point at the sharp end of the ridge (wide here) we are camping on. This is going to be a beautiful and relatively easy day, a good thing given we are walking to 3,926m on just our third day.
We set off at 8.30, making a long, steady climb through gorgeous ochre meadows up the right flank of the narrowing ridge. A valley separates us from the main Simien mass to our right, its bottom too deep to be seen.
This is a magical landscape of giant lobelias scattered across wide, sloping grasslands, which have begun to return to nature after the recent evacuation of Geech village.
A night at 3,600m has helped our acclimatization, and we plod along cheerfully.
After perhaps 1.5hrs, we reach a stone platform near the end of the ridge, with huge and thrilling views out to the north-west, and across where our valley was – it has ended in a startlingly deep abyss – south-east past the even higher escarpment rim towards Chenek, tomorrow night's camp, and the ridge which supports Ras Dashen, Ethiopia's highest point, on the far horizon.
We head on along the top of a narrow rocky dyke, dropping off and back where it breaks, eventually reaching the all-round wonder-views of the Imet Gogo point. Rapturous inspection is made.
On our return, we find a troupe of gelada monkeys on our platform. They swing acrobatically down the little cliff to the balcony below. We have a delicious half hour watching them grazing, playing, scratching and socializing along just below us. They are remarkably confident.
We turn right along the northern escarpment edge to the Saha hilltop, where we eat vegetable sandwiches and admire yet more astounding views over the weird forms of the escarpment edge to the distance-hazed, deep-gorged farmland far below.
Round the flank of a hill, we descend steadily though scattered lobelias onto a wide grassy plain – fantabulous walking – where we see a huge group of geladas to our right. We cut round above to their right, then turn through the middle of them - they are strung out over perhaps half a mile. They move casually aside, as we silently tiptoe through. They move slowly along, grazing, their babies leaping and playing. It is a few minutes of unalloyed joy.
We then make a steady climb to the Kedadit hilltop for yet more vast and thrilling views out from the escarpment. Afternoon clouds add shadow-definition to the slopes and wildly broken lower hill-country.
A gentle half-hour descent gets us back to camp, where we take tea and biscuits. What a day.
We wash and take tent time. Jessica and I draw one of our scouts, who is sitting dozily by the mess tent, already blanket-wrapped and clutching his gun. We potter about, taking in the views and the mellowing light. The Simien foxes we saw yesterday forage their way along the slope above us.
It gets cold as the sun sinks and a breeze develops, and we drink a whisky in the last rays, in the lee of the cooking hut. Supper is chicken and veggies – delicious courgettes.
We sit by the fire in the cooking hut and talk. Bridge is played back in the mess tent, and I start today's account. Bed at 9.30 - an early start tomorrow.
Day 4 - to Chenek
A bad night, with a sore tummy. Trouble brewing? It is, though, another beautiful empty-skied morning as I poke my nose out at 6.30. Breakfast is outdoors again, our busy-laden table incongruous in the wide, bright yet quiet expanse.
Our first hour or so follows yesterday's route back towards Imet Gogo, rather than, as some books suggest, dropping south-east from Geech across the river then following the road round to Chenek.
This is such beautiful and idiosyncratic landscape. We veer off right and traverse steadily downwards to the cutback right below Imet Gogo, the last stretch dropping steeply through lichen-dripping giant heather to the extraordinary head of the now-dry valley, where it tips off down the vast sheer cliffs we saw yesterday. It somehow feels the wrong way round for a gentle valley-head to end at its top end in an abyss like this. Surely it should descend there?
Then it is climb time, a big one, some 500m to Inatye at 4,070m. Getanet later tells me that even locals find it tough. It would actually be straightforward were it not for the altitude. An excellent path heads right, diagonally up the hill, back from the escarpment edge, as we have a cutback to negotiate higher up.
We climb through beautiful giant heather, with glades and dapples of warm sunshine. I am very slow, plodding with two steps to each very long breath, stopping regularly to enjoy the beauty. Proper high-mountain progress, although I am well behind the rest of the group.
We emerge gradually into the rocky grassland above, climbing slowly through lavishly beautiful scenery towards the final platform at Inatye. We're over 4,000m. Amazing views all around, of course, but I at least am a bit too light-headed to fully appreciate them. Lunch on top, but I don't have a huge appetite.
It is time now for a long, gorgeous descent behind the sawn-off escarpment rim. We spend a while on the short-cropped grasslands of the summit plateau (we are near enough to habitation to be back in the world of pastoralism), then drop off into a marvellous traverse-descent around the back of the rim, catching glimpses out north-west across the ridges and rough farmlands far below. The campsites and shacks of Chenek appear some way off and a long way down: it is to be a long and, in places, steep descent, then a final plod on exhausted legs up the road, to our bathetically dust-blown site, part-erected right by the road. We can't help noticing the quieter sites back from the road we might have been on.
Some tea and biscuits, then a potter up to the rim just above us to chat aimlessly while enjoying the astounding views in warm afternoon sun; some tent time; then we take our bottles back to a knoll on the ridge-top for a sundowner as the light plays on the high hills behind us and the silhouetted cliffs ahead fade into the evening. Another memorable hour. John, of course, bumps into a friend.
Back in the dusty roadside world, supper is minestrone, veggies and pasta, banana fritters. A fire is lit outside, and we sit gazing into the flames. Getenat joins us and wants feedback. Awkward. We expound on the joys, but do explain the disappointments – unnecessarily depressing campsites the prime topic.
We drift off to out tents: the Buahit-summiting group will be off early. I write this account in the mess tent for a while. Serena isn't sleepy, and stays by the fire, chatting to the staff, who themselves drift off until it is just her and the cook, who puts his arm round her shoulder... she shoots off. Wish we'd witnessed that!
I have my best night yet, some really good sleep. Funny that that should wait until the last night!
Day 5 - Buahit
A great night, 8 hrs sleep although fitful and one cold pee needed.
Up at 6 for a 7am breakfast. A leisurely pack in the dim early light.
5 of us are going to climb Mt Buahit, at 4,430m the second-highest in The Simien. So we load up on porridge and very jammy bread in the still-cold mountain air – the sun gets to Chenek late.
We set off shortly after 7.30. After a short road stretch, we strike right up a startlingly pretty valley, notable for its mixed heather and lobelia vegetation. Everlasting flower bushes, packed thick with their white, papery blooms, glow against the early sun.
This is a long, steady climb of 800m or so, easy enough at normal altitudes but a slog here. Fortunately, there are many excuses to stop and admire stuff. We reach the escarpment edge for some of the best views yet, courtesy of the vivid, slanting early light. We are a third of the way in an hour, that tipping point when you know you will make it so you know the slog is worthwhile.
We wind just behind the lip for half an hour or so, through gorgeous vegetation, every so often reaching huge views out over the morning landscape thousands of feet below.
We meet a group of geladas grazing, playing, grooming (with screeches as pain is inflicted), climbing the lobelias to pick at their upper fronds. Utterly delightful.
We rejoin the road for a stretch, then turn uphill for the real test. We trudge straight up the steeper upper slope, relieved to find magnificent walia ibex, the males with tremendous curved horns, to pause to admire. They are rare, but plentiful here and not shy. It is any excuse now, but they enable a lot of breath-catching.
Everlasting flowers are the main plants here, so these slopes are a delicate pale grey.
I am reduced to stopping for breath every 100 paces as the summit approaches. Fortunately, so is Jessica, so I am not humiliatingly alone. Then we are there on top, 4,430m, in 3 hrs 20 (Bill must have got there in well under 3hrs, Paul not that long after – creditable given he has had a problem night). Stunning views all round: Ras Dashen, the highest summit, due east; the amazing escarpment lip we walked yesterday behind us; and a youth tending a rug-full of tat! We can't not buy, hard-headed cynics as we may be, given his effort to be there: what is says about the economy, though.
Our descent takes 1hr 30 – Jessica and I retrace our steps along the escarpment edge for the best views, while Bill, Serena and Paul head straight down.
John and Alex have had a good morning photographing and reading in the sun. Everyone is happy.
Lunch is veggie 'pizza', then it is the tipping moment, which as usual has taken a lot of prepartory discussion. It goes fine (well, we think, anyway). Then we're off.