5. Northern Ventures, Part 2

simien mountain trek

Over 2 years ago, I trekked from the northern-most point of Israel, bordering Syria, to the Sea of Galilee; over 50 miles split between 4-5 days. Halfway through my Simien Mountain trek, I discovered we were hovering above the Great Rift Valley, which originates near the Galilee, making me ponder the space between where I was and where I have come. The Valley was formed between divergent tectonic plates, when tens of millions of years ago, eastern Israel traveled with the Arabian plate northeast-ward away from the African plate. The lowest point in the valley (and in the world) is the Dead Sea at 400 meters below sea level, and one of the tallest points along the Great Rift Valley is Ras Dashen (Ethiopia) at 4,550 meters above sea level. Atop Bwahit (4,430m), if it hadn’t been blizzarding, we would’ve had a neighboring view of Dashen, and also down into the glaciated valley, over 4,000 meters below. Experiencing moments like that, discovering rare and less explored places, and being humbled by the immensity of time that has created the space, are some of the reasons I like hiking. 

Pre-Trek

Due to the many regulations in place for visiting the park, it is common for tourists to visit by arranging in advance with an official tour group. So, this is what I did. But sometimes things don’t turn out how you plan. There are a few notable difficulties in going to the Simien Mountains during the summer months. Since it is the rainy season, notorious for sporadic and heavy rainfall, leaving the mountains mucky and rocks slippery, it is less advisable to go during this time. We heard from many people, including 3 different groups of tourists, who had been to the mountains in the days before us, that it is not advisable, that it is foggy and you can’t see anything, and that a river is too high to cross to the second campsite. Okay okay, we understand. BUT we’re going. Other than gaining insights about development, hiking in the Simiens was a primary goal for my time here, and I wasn’t about to let some fog or a river stop me. However, it logistically would not be easy.

We arrived in Gondar, where we would get picked up the next morning to leave for our 3 night and 4 day trek with Nur. Except Nur was not around. His phone was out of service or off for the first hours of us being in Gondar. We met other guides and trip arrangers at our hotel who said he must be out hiking. Great! Finally he called and said the two people other people we were supposed to go with had cancelled. When? Last week. Why didn’t you tell me? Well, you can still go, but it will cost $800; $400 for each Dani and I, instead of the previously arranged $200 each. I’m set on going on this trek, but not for $400. Or would I? Hm, I could fly round trip to Seychelles, or buy a small herd of sheep, or pay for half a months rent in Jersey City. Not comparable, and not helpful to compare, but I’m guessing this is how I was thinking about the seemingly exorbitant amount of money being asked just to hike in the mountains. So, what were the alternatives? Are there any other groups going? I got a few numbers and made some calls. A group of 5 europeans was leaving on tuesday and going for 2 nights. Okay, but it is now saturday. Maybe we can go to Lalibella for 2 days and come back. By then, the river might be dry, said the guide. Really? I don’t think a river dries in two days. And Lalibella is a 9 hour bus ride each way; 18 hours in a bus after already traveling for over a week did not appeal. What could we do for 3 days in Gondar? It’s a historic city, but I wasn’t there to see churches, I was there to go to the Simiens. Also, this trip would cost $275 for 2 nights, and we were planning to pay $200 for 3. For many reasons, Tuesday’s trip wasn’t going to work. There must’ve been 2 or 3 more conversations like this with others and with myself within our 2 days in Gondar leading up to our departure.

I was already starting to feel exhausted when we set out for Debark, the city closest to the mountains, the next morning. There is a park information office there where we’d aim to make all arrangements ourself, rather than going with an inclusive trip. All we really knew was that we wanted to go for 3 nights and to summit Bwahit, the second tallest mountain in Ethiopia at 4,430 meters (approx 13,300 ft), on the third day. So after breakfast in Gondar, we’d go to the bus station and take a public bus for the 1-1.5 hr ride to Debark. Or would we? Some kind of guide said he’d take us in a car with other travelers, and they were leaving in about 20 minutes. Perfect! For only 2 USD or so more than the public van, they’d pick us up right here, and we’d discuss with other hikers what their plans were. The more information the better, right? So, the van comes, we pay the guy, only to get in and realize it was just a public van that he had arranged to drive 2 minutes down the road (in the direction it would’ve gone anyway), to pick us up. Scam! Okay, I see how this guy earns his living. We’re out a few extra bucks, whatever, but also crammed into this van, loaded to its maximum, plus a few tubs full of gasoline…with no lid! The smell was stronger than a gas station, and only a few minutes into the winding and high-altitude drive, even holding my scarf over my face, I became nauseous.

Nauseous and exhausted, with plenty more planning and negotiating to do, honestly wasn’t how I expected to go into this trip. Cold and wet from the rain that had begun to fall halfway through the drive to Debark, we made it to the Simien Mountain Park Information Office. Closed for lunch. Across the street, we’d sit for some of the best bayonet (bay-oh-net = fasting platter = ‘veggie combo’) I’ve had here. Something about those fresh high-altitude potatoes, wrapped in pure teff injera, spiced and dipped in shiro, still makes my mouth water. At the time, they offered a good ‘pro’ on the list of good things that happened in turn for Nur canceling on us. After racking our brains a bit in the information office about how many days we’d spend, if we needed an official guide, if we could find a ride without paying for a private car each way (the most expensive part), or just walk the 22km from town to the first camp site, we paid the daily entrance fee and for scout, and were a few steps closer.

May I just note here, in the most secular way, that having Dani with me was truly a blessing. Dani had come last year on the IFP, and recently moved to Ethiopia for the foreseeable future, so she knows the language sufficiently to get around and to understand some of the cultural nuances which I have failed to pick up on in my month here so far. She has also come to understand and accept the consequences of Ethiopia’s informalities. I remember in Gondar when Nur wasn’t answering and the trip we had arranged wasn’t going to realize, that her neutral face showed her to be completely unfazed. No surprise, anger, worry, pain; it was all just, “eshi, so…”. This method of dealing with the issues at hand rather than dwelling on them is one that I try to practice, but Dani has it down. Her companionship and help in making decisions during this time was truly appreciated.

That night we’d stay at Ever Lasting hotel and leave in the morning by car, to the first camp site. Our stay included a walk to the owner’s home to meet and milk his happily grazing cow, a glass of his homemade tej (honey wine), made from the honey of a nearby village, good for warmth for the night and strength for the next day, and a most delicious breakfast of fresh eggs, bread, and fruit.

6 AM, and we were off, equipped with: head-to-toe rain jackets ($2 per day rental), sleeping bags ($2.50 per day rental, to be used as supplement to bedding in lodges where we slept each night), our packs with extra clothes and scarves, fresh bread, peanut butter, dried dates, our guide, Djargo, and Scout (man with gun, required for all trips in the park. Scout will be his name for the duration of the trip). During drier times, we might have camped, which would’ve required a heavier pack with tent and etc, or a donkey to carry it. But we stayed in lodges ($5-6 per night per person), which were equipped, for purchase, with water, tea/coffee, and shiro+injera. We saw a sign for “hot shower” at the first camp, but we were highly skeptical! 

The views were the most dramatically spectacular that I’ve ever seen, the intimacy with nature and its inhabitants, unparalleled, and the company and insights of Scout and Djargo, locals of the area, were invaluable. This blog would be a lot longer if I included all the interesting things we learned from them! But, most importantly, Ayzosh! (be strong!)

Birds Over 100 of Ethiopia’s 860+ bird species can be found in the Simien Mountains. We saw many, but here are two special ones.

Lammergeier/Bearded Vulture: Known in amharic (english translation) as “bone crusher” for its method of scavenging bones and throwing them against rocks in order to eat the marrow. Wingspan is over 2 meters (similar to human arm span). Seen soaring high over the valley of the waterfall. 

bearded vulture

Thick-billed Raven: These two (or multiple pairs), always together, seemed to follow us along our route. One time I was sitting with Djargo at a look-out point near the lodge, talking about the mating rituals of the two different baboon species in the park (and later observing them!!). Surrounded only by fog, as if we were floating in a cloud, or watching a surround-screen blank TV, two of them swooped right in front of us, maybe 5 feet from our faces, out of no where, with raucous CAWCAWs. If only I had an HD camera.

Endemic Mammals Many people travel to the Simiens in hopes of seeing some of Ethiopia’s endemic and rare mammals, including the Walia Ibex, Red Fox (Ethiopian Wolf), multiple monkey species (most prevalent: Gilada baboon), and others which they hope not to see, like the spotted hyena and leopard!

(left: Walia in its preferred and safe habitat, right: grazing Giladas, not visible: hundreds more, which Dani and I sat observing the last morning, for hours, while waiting for our car to arrive.)

We were also lucky enough to see and hear 4 out of the 40 total red foxes left in the park, who presented themselves as red dots, darting across the hill on the other side of a valley (thanks to Djargo and Scout, who have killer eye sight, for pointing them out).

Not seen: hyena or leopard. But, we did hear many stories of them from Djargo’s days as a shephard, over multiple cans full of Tela (local barley beer), in a local’s house nearby the lodge, while the sun was setting and giladas were a-grazing just outside of the door. These were unforgettable times.

Rainy season and difficulties: recap and recommendations

Just take a public bus. even if someone tells you they’ll take you in a nicer car/with other travelers, they will show up with the same public van, and you’ll be out a few dollars for no reason (happened to us on the way back too!)

Expect contradicting information from different guides and visitors. the result will depend on your time, energy, and financial constraints. i would say to ‘just go with a tour group’, but apparently that is not the most reliable method during the low season.

If they tell you the river is too high and you wont be able to cross, you can. you can either cross by wading, maybe by forging if you have a donkey!, there is no ferry, but you can walk along the road. the road will be a long extra time by foot, so if you are with a group, your car can take you. if not, it may be expensive to hire a car, but if your tour guide is well known in the area, he may be able to hitch you a ride with a truck or bus driver!

There will be mud. Wear hiking boots or other shoes with grip and preferably a higher ankle.

Benefits: less people, more animal sightings, a full flowing waterfall (tallest in Ethiopia, at other times of year is more of a stream)

waterfall

Finally, climb the mountain! Climb all the mountains! And scream when you get to the top, even if you can’t breath from lack of oxygen 🙂