Ethiopia: Into the Simien Mountains

Five minutes drive into the Simien National Park we came across our first group of Gelada monkeys. Our driver shrugged when we asked to get out. What was an amazing sight for us was, we now know, just part of everyday life 3,000m up in the mountains.

Our guide, the wonderful Eshete Berju, was thrilled at our enthusiasm. He urged us to go nearer.

“Are you certain?” I asked, looking nervously at the 100 or more baboons frantically tearing at grass whilst grunting at each other. Posing for a photo we were urged nearer and nearer by Eshete and by the total lack of reaction, it was clear the monkeys didn’t give a monkeys about visitors!

It was a glorious introduction to the Simien Mountains and hanging out with Geladas became a necessary and magical part of each day’s trekking; and one that never bored.

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The trip up to the Park was easy and fun. It started really when we got to Debark, to the park office. Craggy, rugged rangers hung around outside, ancient guns slung over their shoulders like troubadours would wear their guitars. Assigned to us for the four day trip was Fantoun, whose museum piece wouldn’t scare a five year old, let alone a hungry leopard. In the truck, Kate asked: “When was the last time you fired it?” Eshete translated and everyone laughed – Fantoun, our driver, Messi the chef and his sidekick. “Well?” Prompted Kate.

“Oh, he’s never shot it,” declared Eshete, seemingly amazed.

“So how does he know it works?”

“Well, he takes it apart and puts it back together all the time, so he knows all the parts work.”

Our laughter set them off again. It was going to be a fun trip.

Debark is at 2,800m and our first camp was 3,250m.

Altitude Guide to our camps and peaks.
Altitude Guide to our camps and peaks.

It’s not much of an elevation but when you’re trying to acclimatise the heart starts to pound and the breath shorten the very second that a path heads uphill. Thankfully that first day, nothing was too steep. Once the driver left us to trek, taking Messi and his assistant onto camp, Eshete, Fantoun, Kate and I set off for a few hours to walk to camp.

Just twenty minutes in, Eshete chatted to a couple of children and then pointed off track into a flat, almost treeless plain.

“There is a big group of geladas across there.” We couldn’t see them but we set off. It took me a long time to spot them but when I did, I was astounded. Hundreds of them. Hundreds. We had lunch with them. Geladas have absolutely no interest in the food we eat, so we were sitting surrounded by them. It was weird. And amazing. The noise is fascinating, as mostly it’s the sound of constant tearing and munching of grass. Every now and then, there would be a minor squabble about nothing and a minor game of chase, but mostly just tearing and munching, munching and tearing.

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Eventually we set off again and the afternoon was filled with great views and birds of prey. As Kate said, “The Simien Mountains: a great place to be a buzzard.” I think I could watch birds coast the thermals for hours on end. It was hard to tear ourselves away from each and every cliff face.

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We arrived at camp to find our tent up and a camp table laid out with flasks of tea and coffee. Popcorn arrived within minutes. It’s the snack of choice in Ethiopia – it’s part of the coffee ceremony that takes place all over the country in most houses, hostelries and hotels.

The view just beyond our campsite was fantastic; a gorge so peaceful that the only sounds were bees (do they have bees that high up or is this a figment of my imagination?) and the occasional distant chatter from the campsite. It was a lovely place to sit as the light mellowed.

The view from the campsite
The view from the campsite

The minute the sun started to sink, however, it got cold. Suddenly we were very grateful for the fire in the cooking hut and layering up, we rushed inside. Expecting a simple supper, we were staggered at what Messi had achieved. He had one big gas ring and about eight different pots. Vast quantities of vegetable soup were followed by a main course of about six different veggies and pasta. As if that wasn’t spectacular enough, we had banana fritters for pud. I had been expecting very simple one pot cooking on the trip. I couldn’t have been more delighted.

Messi the chef - a genius of the cooking hut and a nice bloke to boot.
Messi the chef – a genius of the cooking hut and a nice bloke to boot.

And to top it off, we were given a hot water bottle each to take back to our little tent.

Not bad at all for a first day in the mountains.

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