And so I come to the end of seven days of nature photography. It’s been huge fun. It is good to wade through the back catalogue every now and again, to remember gorgeous moments outdoors, whether at home or in an exotic location.
I might just have to set myself a new project next month – maybe my ‘best of the best’ and maybe even doing it for the entire month. Now, there’s a thought!
For my last day, there is no contest. It has to be one of my many gelada monkey photos from the Simien Mountains in Ethiopia. These are astonishing animals, who have zero fear of the trekkers that come through their territory and so it’s possible to get up close.
One evening, we walked out to a viewpoint near our campsite and couldn’t believe our luck when we saw this group huddled together, looking like a family trying to shield each other from the elements. The strange this is that it wasn’t yet dark and not yet cold.
Day three in the Simien Mountains was a day of expanding joy. It took us higher than the first two and the views were astounding. In the lead up to the trip, when I had been day-dreaming of being in the mountains of Ethiopia, these were just the views I had envisaged.
I jumped for joy up there.
Here are my best pictures from the morning. I don’t really have the right lens for wildlife or birds but I think I’ve done okay.
We had a long trek ahead of us in the afternoon, so I had a wee ride on the mule for a while (we had to hire one for medical reasons in the morning). I have always been quite sniffy about riding on a mule; as I gave myself a rest and gently plodded along, I began to shift my view on that. So restful!
Alas, we reached a point where the mule had to go back to its village and there was no escaping the long, hot path uphill.
There were more lovely views up there and every now and again, our guide pointed into the far, far distance and claimed our campsite was in view. He promised us a shower when we got there – with hot water. As the afternoon wore on, he urged us to speed up but we didn’t really understand why. But we did our best and as we clambered the final long push downhill, we found ourselves singing ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ for some bizarre reason.
Eventually, we arrived at camp. To our huge disappointment, all the hot water had been used. All of a sudden, we twigged why our guide had been urging us to hurry. There was a limited supply of water in the tank. Instead, we had bowls of water – not quite the same but at least we got clean.
A lammergeier was floating overhead, so I had to race to get dressed again and grab my camera.
Feeling slightly disgruntled for about 10 minutes in that weird way that comes with the privilege of having running water back home, we took ourselves off for a stroll to look at the view on the other side of the road. We lucked out – first, a great big old Ibex strolled into camp just as we were about to leave and then, when we crossed to the viewpoint, three gelada monkeys were huddled together on the cliff edge, giving me one of my favourite gelada shots of the whole holiday.
A year ago, I had a month to go before travelling to Ethiopia. I was bouncy with anticipation and eager to get going. There were mountains to hike in, wildlife to see, coffee to drink.
I don’t know what happened when I returned; I failed to blog about the trip beyond my arrival and initial sight-seeing (Gonder) and my first day in the Simien Mountains. It wasn’t through a lack of enthusiasm. I had a truly fantastic time and one that I want to remember forever.
I’ve decided that it’s never too late to blog about a travel experience. There could be someone gearing up for a trip to this magical country now and who will find my posts useful. Or maybe someone just fancies looking at some cracking photos of Gelada Monkeys for a few minutes. You may simply enjoy travel blogs and stories. Whoever you are and however you have arrived here, you’ll find me blogging about Ethiopia for a while so that I capture the memories before a whole year goes by.
In this episode, we join our intrepid writer as she begins her second day in the Simien Mountains. I’d like to remind readers of our wonderful guide, as I’d like to think that he might get enquiries. Eshete Berju of Travel Simien really was a star.
It was cold and barely light. Sunrise in the Simiens comes slowly. The ridges on the other side of the gorge were hiding the sun but the light was changing. Gold was beginning to light the grass and I bent down to capture the moment with a few photos. The air was so, so pure.
On our second day in the mountains we hiked for about 14km. It doesn’t sound much but when you’re tackling some steep uphill sections and still acclimatising, it’s tough! Tight chest, short breaths, pumping heart. It’s a vile feeling, as I felt as if I were a wimp and unfit but the minute I got onto the flat or downhill, I was right as rain. But it’s worth it for the views, the seclusion, the wildlife.
In the morning we saw buzzards and a young lammergaier.
It was hot that day. Or hot enough to make us very glad indeed to find out that our lunch spot was by a river. Tempted though I was to jump in, I resisted and instead, stuck my head under a miniature waterfall – half a metre of delicious, cold water.
Happily we saw more gelada monkeys. It’s a fantastic daily occurrence up there.
The afternoon was tough and when we reached our second camp – Gich – we had reached 3,650m. It was still early when we got to camp but as it was near a village, there was a good deal of people watching to be done. Locals gathered and children played on the high open high. It was easy to sit and watch, taking shot after shot as the light changed. Here’s a selection.
Here are the best photos from that second day.
The next day was spectacular. We went up to Mount Gogo and experienced the views we had dreamt of before we set off. More about that tomorrow!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
And to top it off, we were given a hot water bottle each to take back to our little tent.
The Amber beer was cold and refreshing; our host’s smile warm and welcoming. Twelve hours into our two-week trip to Ethiopia and I was already feeling embraced by its people. From the minute we stepped off the ‘plane to be directed by a smiling airport official, I had a good feeling about Ethiopia; a feeling that told me this trip wouldn’t just be about the wildlife, landscapes and history.
With every beautiful smile and twinkly-eyed laugh, I fell a little more in love with Ethiopia.
By the time we reached Gonder and Mayleko Lodge, we were ready for that beer. While the domestic terminal of Bole Airport in Addis Adaba had proven surprisingly comfortable, thanks to its body-curve recliners that allowed us to snooze, 24 hours of travelling were taking their toll. A spacious cabin with big beds was just what we needed as we adjusted from British winter to African summer. A beautifully quiet place, 16km outside Gonder itself, Mayleko Lodge is a complex of about ten cabins, each with its own terrace – the perfect place to drink the owner’s favourite beer, Amber. A few minutes later, she sent over a plate of home made fries as an evening appetiser. Nice touch!
As the sun softened and the beer softened us, my friend Kate and I contemplated our trip with huge grins. The flights had been booked back in December, and nearly three months in which to plan and anticipate had added to the excitement of setting off on our first big trip together. Finally, we were here, in the cradle of civilisation and coffee.
With one day to see Gonder, we were keen to get going the next day, thinking it would be a rush to fit everything in. Not so. It’s a lovely place, full of 17th Century palaces, but most of them are grouped together in one site, making it neat and easy to see everything. The complete lack of hassle immediately marked Ethiopia out as different from many other African countries we’ve been to. I’m not really one for a guided tour, although I’ve been on many of them. I don’t absorb historical facts well, so for me, the enjoyment of a place is much more aesthetic than factual. We entered by the ticket office, expecting to be followed round by guides touting for business. But after a polite enquiry and an equally polite refusal from us, that was it. No-one pursued us and no-one looked at all put out that we weren’t hiring a guide.
It was a gorgeous complex of palaces to meander round, mostly crumbling. It was wonderful to imagine the grand court of Emperor Fasiladas meeting, greeting, scheming and partying. While we focused on photos of the ruins, Ethiopian tourists posed for photos. And while they were immaculately dressed, we were in traveller’s gear of baggy t-shirts and deeply unpretty walking trousers; not ideal when they asked us to pose for photos with them! There’s nothing like a stunningly beautiful Ethiopian woman to make you feel frumpy and dishevelled. It wasn’t the first time that I wished that I’d packed some make up and I came to regret deeply the absence of hair conditioner in my wash bag.
Quitting the palace complex we hailed our first tuk-tuk. There’s something about a tuk-tuk ride that makes me feel ‘yes, I’m away’. The noise, the dust, the drivers (and in some countries the crazy traffic) signal ‘other world’ in one gloriously loud and frantic snapshot.
The tuk-tuk driver wound up a short hill to Debre Berhan Selassie Church, one of the area’s most richly decorated. Every square centimetre of the walls and ceiling inside are covered in religious murals – wide-eyed cherubs above and bible scenes on the walls. It was fascinating.
But this was my favourite photo from the site.
All this history made us hungry for shade. And lunch. The tuk-tuk trundled uphill, struggling and bumping, to The Goha Hotel. It was recommended because of the view; perched on the edge of town, it’s truly panoramic. It was full of tourist groups and was deeply disappointing because of this. I think it was just too European for us on our first day of sightseeing. The view, though, was superb.
Suitably rested, we realised our beginners’ mistake; don’t let your tuk-tuk go when you’re in the middle of nowhere. Negotiate a price for the day instead. Still, the long hot walk back into town meant that we chatted on the way to a few people and had lots of nods and smiles.
Thirsty for our first real Ethiopian coffee, we eventually found a tuk-tuk and asked for the EEPCo Coffee House (praised in the guide book as the one with the best coffee in town). Much to our amusement (and that of our tuk-tuk driver) they had no coffee. So we went round the corner to Habesha Coffee Shop. I loved the fact that although we were the only women there, no-one gave us a second glance. I’ve been in plenty of African and Middle Eastern countries where we would have been objects of intense interest. Ethiopia was wonderfully refreshing in this respect.
The coffee was stunning – as strong as an espresso but beautifully rounded and deep without a hint of bitterness. And no grounds, unlike Turkish coffee. Ethiopian coffee made the traditional way is the best coffee I’ve ever drunk and probably ever will.
Next stop was the ceremonial baths, which in Fasiladas’ time was a summer house and party central. These days, it is the focus for Timkat (Epiphany, on 6 January), when hundreds of people are ‘re-baptised’ in a raucous, joyful celebration. In the quiet season, the pool is empty and a gentle wind breezes around the walled enclosure, leaves fluttering to the floor. It was a serene, lovely place.
The highlight of the day wasn’t the sight-seeing, although everything we saw was superb. The highlight was getting on a little minibus, crammed in with local shoppers and workers. We couldn’t chat, as we had no Amharic, but there were many smiles and nods and laughter. I think my bleached, cropped hair was a good source of entertainment but mostly I think it was just that tourists tend not to hop on the bus.
It was a pretty fine start to the holiday but the best was yet to come. The Simien Mountains beckoned…