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Places:Start at Lon 38.013, Lat 13.2203, end at Lon 38.061, Lat 13.4475 26km N from Start Logged as completed by 2
Mention Ethiopia and many of us instantly conjure up images of the 1970s civil war, the long-drawn out bloody war with Eritrea, the notorious famine of the mid-80s, and the even more notorious Bob Geldof. And coffee, excellent coffee. Ethiopia is now a fledgling democracy which exports lots of fine coffee worldwide, the famine is a distant memory and Eritrea is independent. But (Sir) Bob Geldof and the signature tune of the famine, ‘Do They Know it’s Christmas time’, unfortunately haven’t gone away! Being a predominantly Christian country, someone should have told Bob Geldof that the Ethiopians most certainly do know that it’s Christmas time, even if this is a couple of weeks after Christmas here in Ireland. Some things move at glacial pace in Ethiopia where they still follow the old Julian calendar…
Something that most certainly isn’t moving at snail’s pace (in geological terms!) are the tectonic plates that underlie this country. Ethiopia is situated in the Horn of Africa and is mostly comprised of mountainous terrain. Hence it is dubbed the ‘Roof of Africa’ and the highest of its summits are well over 4,000 metres. The East African Rift, which cuts through the centre of the country, is in the process of splitting the African Plate into two new separate plates, and the northern part of the Rift forms the Afar Triple Junction, adjacent to the Red Sea.
It is this geological upheaval that has given birth to the Simien Mountains, situated in the north west of the country. This mountain range is the eroded remains of an enormous supervolcano which formed 30 million years ago. The rocks consist of alternating beds of basalts and tuffs overlain on earlier Trap flood basalts. The north western part of the volcano has been heavily eroded by the tributaries of the Tekeze River, resulting in a 1,000m high escarpment. Below this dramatic escarpment the landscape has been eroded into towering buttes and mesas, volcanic pinnacles, gaping gorges and gullies. The Greek poet, Homer, fancifully imagined these to be ‘the chess set of the Gods’.
Unsurprisingly, this remarkable area is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, for it is home to several critically endangered endemic species. These include the grass-eating Gelada baboon, the enormous horned Walia ibex (a nimble shaggy-coated wild mountain goat), and the shy, russet-coated Ethiopian wolf, the rarest canid species in the world. The Simien Mountains conjure up an almost prehistoric world of primeval forests, misty peaks, bizarre plants and exotic creatures; trekking these stunning highlands is like stepping into an otherworldly paradise. Following the more peaceful political situation in Ethiopia, the Simien Mountains have grown in popularity for trekking. And with almost daily flights direct from Dublin to Addis Ababa with Ethiopian Airlines, now is the perfect time to tick this destination off your bucket list!
All treks begin at the Simien Mountains National Park headquarters in Debarq (Debark), a two hour drive from the ancient city of Gondar. Here you must resister and pay a fee to enter the park. It isn’t possible to trek without a local guide and armed scout. We engaged both for our eight day trek, plus two cooks and two muleteers with their mules. They carried all the supplies and camping equipment (there are no refuges in the park), plus our kit bag containing personal belongings. We used our own sleeping bags, but these can be provided. The peak trekking season is October-December, after the rains when everything is green. We visited in early April, the dry season, but there was some rain in the afternoons which made for brooding skies and dramatic photographs. It was also very quiet in the camps and at the various viewpoints, which suited us.
From Debark there is a short drive to the start of the trek. Many trekkers do a 4 or 5 day trek which takes them over the dramatic peaks of the escarpment, culminating in an ascent of Mount Bwahit (4,437m). It is also possible to extend this to summit the highest mountain, Ras Dashen (4,550m). We chose to do the classic escarpment trek and then to descend into the lowlands which allowed us to experience the incredible views from the escarpment, and the subsistence farming communities who live in its shadow, where life hasn’t changed much since Biblical times.
The highland campsites are situated at an altitude between 3,250 and 3,600m, while the lowland ones are between 1,990 and 1,655m. Most campsites are located around 15-25 km from each other, but you will feel the altitude climbing to over 4,000m on the escarpment. In total we walked about 100 km over 8 days with 3,500m of ascent and 5,300m of descent. It was one of the most difficult treks we have undertaken anywhere in the world due to the altitude, heat and humidity, and the relentlessly rough and rugged terrain.
Trekking in the Simien Mountains is not just about the scenery, flora and fauna; it is also about meeting the people who eek out a precarious livelihood in this remarkable landscape. We spotted herds of Walia ibex, troops of Gelada baboons, and the shy Ethiopian wolf. We saw rain sweep in great veils across the dramatic buttes and mesas of the lowlands, heard thunder rumbling across the endless Afroalpine montane studded with weird giant lobelia plants, started in awe at the enormous starry night skies and saw the golden orb of the sun erupt at dawn behind ‘the chess set of the Gods’.
Great though these memories are, they are incomparable to those of the warmth of the greeting from scores of scruffy, dirty children who wore the biggest smiles on their beautiful faces; being guests of honour at one of many coffee ceremonies, sharing injera round a camp fire with our trekking crew, and chewing chat to the chanting of numerous ‘Amens’ as our new friends wished us a safe trip home to Ireland. For an in-depth description of our trek see http://purplepeakadventures.com/blog/2017/4/-the-chess-set-of-the-gods-trekking-in-the-simien-mountains-of-ethiopia
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Note: ALL information such as Ascent, Length and Creator time taken etc should be regarded as approximate. The creator's comments are opinions and may not be accurate or still correct.
Your time to complete will depend on your speed plus break time and your mode of transport. For walkers: Naismith's rule, a rough and often inaccurate estimate, suggests a time of 23h 19m + time stopped for breaks
Note: It is up to you to ensure that your route is appropriate for you and your party to follow bearing in mind all factors such as safety, weather conditions, experience and access permission.