The Simien Mountains - Ethiopia

The Simien Mountains deserve a complete web page to themselves but I have only room here for a brief description of our 8 day trek. Our guide Liban accompanied us from Addis Ababa with the fun starting at the airport as he struggled to check in an enormous box which had once contained a Sony television. Fruit juice was trickling out of one corner and a tiny pile of rice collecting on the dusty floor at another. Eventually somebody produced a ball of string and the box was bound up enough to be loaded on the tiny 17 seater plane which took us to Gondar. Then we were transported by minibus to Debark and the Simien Park Hotel. In the street that evening a group of children called me over to watch the birth of twin goats.

Day 1 - Debark to Sankabar
Early next morning our trekking team was assembled. It consisted of a compulsory armed scout, a cook, 4 muleteers and 6 mules in addition to our guide. All this just for the two of us!

We left Debark on the road but soon left it to drop into a valley and climb out the other side. Then it was down again into a deeper valley and a much steeper and longer climb up onto the Simien plateau. Soon after rejoining the road we arrived at the first magnificent viewpoint off the Simien escarpment. Here we stopped for lunch with cameras clicking, not realizing that even more spectacular scenery lay ahead. There was more up and down before we left the road on a shortcut right along the cliffs and soon arrived at the campsite of Sankabar which lies on a narrowish neck and has dramatic views in all directions.

After this tough 8 hour walk it was a bit galling to see a large party of Germans arrive by bus with several crates of beer!

Day 2 - Sankabar to Geech
The road climbs up from Sankabar and then drops sharply into a valley. Here we made a short diversion to one of the most spectacular spots in the Simien Mountains. We dropped into a small gorge where our sharp-eyed scout spotted klipspringers and a bushbuck though I got only the merest glimpse of the latter. Then we walked out onto a dizzy promontory reached over an airy rock step. We were standing above the Geech Abyss which was still in deep shadow. A waterfall drops into the abyss. It was almost dried up but must be truly spectacular in the rainy season. Above the abyss a dozen or more Egyptian Vultures and a single Lammergeyer were soaring effortlessly and we were looking down on them, a memorable moment. There were Choughs too and tiny Rockchats, completely dwarfed by the scale of the scene. This area must indeed be a birdwatcher's paradise.

Our route now followed the road for some distance and I plucked up the courage to ride one of our two riding mules. I never dared to ride it on a rough track however. A competent rider could save quite a bit of effort, though not a great deal of time since the mules plod along fairly slowly. On the really steep bits everybody has to walk.

We left the road and climbed up through the village of Geech, beyond which is a wide flat camping area where we arrived in time for lunch. In the afternoon we had a short walk northwards to reach the edge of the escarpment at a place called Kadadit (the hole in the rock), another fine viewpoint. We were told that this is a good place to spot the elusive Simien Fox. This is one of the rarest animals in the world, exclusive to Ethiopia but actually much more likely to be seen in the Bale Mountains in the south of the country than in the Simiens.

Day 3 - Geech to Chenek
A couple of hours eastwards from Geech a spur runs out from the escarpment to form a small peak called Imetgogo. Not only are the views some of the finest in the range but the ridge itself is quite dramatic and reaching the tiny summit cone requires a bit of easy scrambling. We sat around here for a long time and watched one of those wildlife spectacles which birdwatchers would travel far to see. The name Lammergeyer mean 'bone-breaker' and we watched this bird drop its prey onto the rocks far below. It retrieved its meal several times and repeated the performance until the bones were sufficiently smashed up for the bone marrow to be eaten.

Eventually we left this marvellous spot and took a very rough and tussocky cross-country route to rejoin the road. Just before reaching the campsite it passes a gap in the rocks above an overhanging cliff, a dizzy vantage point which demands a halt. There was excitement as an apparent ibex was spotted far below but inspection through the binoculars showed it to be a cow, dozing peacefully on an apparently inaccessible but grassy spur.

Chenek must be one of the most spectacular campsites in the world. Our tent was pitched only a few feet from the cliff edge looking out towards Imetgogo, our little peak of the morning, and across a profound valley from which rose an array of weirdly sculpted pinnacles. A small hut provides shelter for the cooking and a porch on which we ate our supper as the sun sank behind this serrated skyline.

Although the road is probably a lifeline for the people living in this area it is sad to see it bringing in tourists. The advice to walkers must be to visit the Simien Mountains now before this magical place is spoilt by a tourist hotel.

Day 4 - Chenek to Ambikwo
Many people turn back at Chenek and indeed the best of the scenery finishes here. The determined peak-bagger who wishes to reach the highest summit in Ethiopia must climb up beyond the camp, cross a rocky ridge and then descend more than 1000m, trying to forget that 2 days later this route must be retraced in an upward direction! As well as the mountain there are other compensations to this diversion. The road is at last left behind and the well trodden path drops into an agricultural area where people plough with oxen as they have done for thousands of years. After crossing the dried up river we climbed up to a campsite beside the church at Ambikwo.

Day 5 - Ras Dashen
The route continues up the valley and then swings left, below the higher village of Mizma, to reach a small col amidst alpine pastures complete with cattle and goats and many small boys minding their herds. Here we took a path which climbed up the rocky spur then contoured around over a couple more ridges before climbing steeply onto the skyline above. Here is how the Bradt 'Guide to Ethiopia' describes the completion of the climb:

.. after 3 to 4 hours pass through a gap in an old stone wall, then swing left up a broad ridge to enter a wide semi-circular corrie, surrounded by three major buttresses with steep sides of exposed rock. From this point it's impossible to see which buttress is the highest. The summit of Ras Dashen is on the top of the buttress on the left. To reach it, scramble up a gully through the cliffs to reach the cairn marking the summit ...

This is exactly what we did, culminating in handshakes all round and summit photos. Then we sat down to lunch and slowly realized that it wasn't the highest point! The middle buttress was close and indisputably higher with a cairn at the left hand end above the edge of the escarpment. It looked like a rock climb on all sides. The rightmost top was probably higher still but we couldn't really be sure. I took a panorama shot of the other two summits. The guide assured us twice that we were on the highest top and when we asked if he had climbed the others said 'yes, but that little top over there is difficult because you have to climb through a cave'. Well maybe that is why there is a 'tourist top' or maybe he didn't want to set out in the dark which would probably be necessary to reach the further summit. Since there was clearly no time to get there and we had to live with this (otherwise very pleasant) guide for another 10 days we had little choice but to go along with the deception.

There was a party of 14 Germans in the camp that night and they set out next day even later than we did so it's pretty well certain that they were taken to the same top. I wonder if they noticed?!

Day 6 - Ambikwo to Chenek
We were lucky to have a rather cloudy day for the long hard climb back up into the National Park. After crossing the rocky ridge below Amba Bhawit our scout swung across to the escarpment to try and spot a Walia Ibex. Throughout the trek he had been seeking one of these elusive animals, so far without success. This time I caught just a glimpse of a dark fleeing shape bounding down the cliff. A little further along the escarpment he was beckoning to us again. We approached quietly to see four animals and a small calf browsing below. This group was unaware of being watched and moved calmly away. We watched until they disappeared over a subsidiary ridge. This is one of the rarest animals in the world being confined to the Simien Mountains and numbering only about 400 individuals. Their inaccessible habitat on the cliffs and the setting up of the National Park should ensure that they continue to thrive here.

Day 7 - Chenek to Sankabar
A road now runs from Chenek all the way back to Debark and we learned later that the German party were brought out by bus. We set out walking on the road but we soon left it and dropped down into the valley on the southern side away from the dramatic escarpment. Here we wandered through an agricultural landscape. It was the ploughing season, a time of preparation for planting with the small rains expected. Once again the day was somewhat cloudy which was cooler for us and a welcome sign to the farmers of wet weather to come. Donkeys are used for carrying and oxen for ploughing, sometimes on amazingly steep slopes.

Our scout lives in this area and we were invited into his house, a simple hut with room for the horses on one side, people on the other and a fire of dung in the middle. The wooden walls are partly open to allow smoke to escape and a delightful breeze to circulate. We tasted the local bread injera which is slightly fermented, has the consistency of foam rubber and is rather delicious served with beans in a spicy sauce known as wat. We also sampled a sip of the home brewed barley beer talla served up in old tin cans, which seems to be the tradition. I must admit it is not really to my taste but our mulemen consumed several canfulls.

As we arrived at Sankabar we passed a very large flock of baboons. Most of them were the Gelada or 'bleeding heart' baboons, so called because of a red heart-shaped mark on their chests. These are endemic to Ethiopia but they are certainly not endangered. Amongst the flock were a few red-faced Hamadreyus baboons which we were warned might be aggressive. The Geladas on the other hand are peaceable vegetarians and rather shy. Or so I was told. Later that afternoon I managed to approach one quite closely. After photographing this baboon through my 160m lens I decided that perhaps this was close enough!

Day 8 - Sankabar to Debark
Once again we took a route away from the escarpment and further south than our outward route, visiting the school in the village of Michibi en route. School is compulsory in theory but since the children are expected to help with minding the animals and other work not all of them attend in practice.

Although the return is basically downhill there were two long climbs which seemed even harder on the way back as we descended into hot and windless valleys. Higher up there was usually some breeze and the nights were quite cool, though not as cold as we had been told to expect.

At last we entered Debark with the market in full swing and we were soon bidding a grateful farewell to our team before being driven back to Gondar.

To see pictures of our trek please click on the highlighted links.


I would love to know which really was the summit and why we were not taken there. If you have climbed Ras Dashen please mail me at and compare notes.

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