The gelada (Theropithecus gelada) is a species of monkey unique to the Ethiopian Highlands, especially the Simien Mountains. It spends most of its time foraging in grasslands like its close relative the baboon.
Simiens – Long Read

One of the few places in Africa where snow falls

Photo by Anup Shah

Simiens – Long Read One of the few places in Africa where snow falls

Hello Ethiopia, where the high Simien Mountains provide a refuge for rare animals such as the ibex, gelada baboon and even the Abyssinian wolf. As one of the few places in Africa where snow falls regularly, the region's harshness has also preserved the traditional lifestyle of a human population whose way of life is now threatened by the growth of the national park.

Henry Wismayer
Henry Wismayer Travel Writer

When the boy arrives with our firewood, and squats down on the dust-floor to escape the hailstorm raging outside, I find it difficult to tear my eyes from him. It is not only that he is wrapped jedi-like in a threadbare grey blanket and has materialized through the maelstrom with a retinue of six obsidian-colored cattle, despite being only five years old.

Neither is it that, with the fire burning, he spends the next hour glowering at me unmoving, crouched mutely with steam coiling off his sodden clothes; when he gets up to leave, he stops at the doorway to empty his rubber boots of the water he has been crouching in the whole time. It is, quite simply, that he is the first thing I have seen all day that has not seemed impossible huge and unfamiliar. Outside is the Simien Mountains, where small is a rarity.

Looming high among the volcanic outriders of the Great Rift Valley in northern Ethiopia, this is nature with a serious case of gigantism: a basalt escarpment 60 kilometers long, staggered between altitudes of 3,000 and 4,500 meters and populated with super-sized plants and monkey armies 500-strong. This is the place that, in 1978, Unesco dubbed “one of the most spectacular landscapes in the world”, when it named the Simien Mountains National Park in its very first batch of World Heritage Sites, alongside Yellowstone and the Galapagos Islands. Here, the tawny Ethiopian highlands reach an astonishing crescendo, so high in fact that this is one of the few places in Africa where you can see snow.

Until recently, outsiders have not been able to walk its high plateaus. From 1983 to 1999, while Kilimanjaro – its rival for the ‘Roof of Africa’ title – was elbowing its way into every list of Things To Do Before You Die, a tragic combination of famine and regional warfare was grinding the Simiens’ tourism potential into dust. But today Ethiopia’s star is rising, propelled by an expanding economy and a semblance of political stability. In recent years, a steady trickle of infrastructural improvements and foreign investment point towards a promising future, epitomized by the opening of the up- market Simien Lodge, ‘Africa’s Highest Hotel’.

“There are over 11 national parks in Ethiopia but this is the leading one in terms of attracting hikers,” says Alebachew “Alex” Abebe Beyene, who organizes treks into it. “The draw is its panoramic nature and also its wildlife, such as the wild goats known as walia ibex, and the Abyssinian wolf.”

It is on the second morning that the show really begins

I have come here to find out whether this epic tableland might one day become the shiniest pin on the trekker’s map of Africa. Setting off from Sankaber – the classic trailhead for a trek in the Simiens – marks my introduction to a world of unrestrained visual overload: of walking over broad tundra, patrolled by the spiky fronds and ten-foot high flower stems of giant lobelias; of staring into endless skies crisscrossed by squadrons of huge raptors; and of moments spent lying in the dust, belly-down to quell the vertigo, watching streams spill over the escarpment rim to plummet for hundreds of meters before fishtailing into clouds of vapor. By the time a big-billed raven – twice the size of its European cousins – swoops down to croak for the crumbs from my packed-lunch, the Simiens have taken my lofty expectations and drop-kicked them off that towering cliff.

Yet this is all a prelude – it is on the second morning that the show really begins. It finds me at the Gich campgrounds, one of three tracts in the national park set aside for camping, where I have been dozing top-to-tail with the infectiously enthusiastic Dawoud ‘Chigger Yeh- Lem’ [No Problem] Suleyman, and Alemu, the obligatory rifle-toting scout.

All three of us are still damp from a run-in with some table-country weather, after our arrival last night was greeted by a welcoming committee of bruised clouds and marble-sized hailstones that thwarted our best efforts to pitch our hired tents. We sought seeking sanctuary in a communal open-sided roundhouse, crescented around the embers of our evening fire.

After a night largely spent avoiding leaks in the grass-thatched roof, it is comforting to know that our next stage is a short one. We are following an itinerary suggested by the National Park HQ staff in the nearby one-road town of Debark. Today is a circuit of the plateau north and back to Gich, where the going will be almost pancake-flat, affording me maximum gawping time along some of the park’s finest vantages.

A charismatic cast unique to the Ethiopian highlands

The sun is still an extra-planetary smear on the horizon, the lobelia scattered across the moorland a triffid-like army just landed. We set off at a trot – to beat the dawn and to stave off the morning chill – across ground still spongy from last night’s rain. Somewhere to the north, I hear a chorus of chirrups: the gelada monkeys, this region’s tousle-haired icons, are clambering out of their cliff-face caves to join us on the tableland. These gelada are the star-turns in a charismatic cast of creatures that are unique to the Ethiopian highlands. Over the course of our trek, I will run into them time and again but this morning the wildlife is a sideshow. After an hour’s walk, with stomach-turning abruptness, the ground drops away below me for a vertical kilometer.

The trail slithers out from the plateau onto a narrow spine of splintered rock, ending in a knuckle of boulders known as Imet Gogo. It is the park’s most celebrated viewpoint and with good reason. Looking north from its 3,926-meter apex, I see a pair of rock incisors standing in sharp relief, their jagged tips snagging curls of mist. Beyond, vast arid plains start to coalesce through the haze, rising up into ranks of buttes and mesa-like mountains swathed in mineral colors.

This is the sort of view – all friable plains and pinnacles – that the Simiens are famous for. Travelling here in the 1920s, this landscape inspired poetry in the British adventuress Rosita Forbes. “When the old gods reigned in Ethiopia they must have played chess with these stupendous crags,” reads a passage of her 1925 travelogue From Red Sea to Blue Nile. But now the chess-piece metaphor seems too genteel. The shapes I see are violent: the ravine behind me is the blow of battle-axe; the table-peak in the distance the anvil from a blacksmith’s forge; the ephemeral abutments disappearing into the haze: these are the raised scar-tissue of a subterranean skirmish, remnants of a Titan’s war.

Such impressions are not too far from reality: science’s explanation is no less traumatic. The clue is in the buttes – they mark the locations of long-extinct volcanic vents which, a few dozen million years ago, pumped out a superheated ooze of lava that solidified over time into a gargantuan igneous dome of basalt more than three kilometers thick. Five million years ago, with Ethiopia’s early hominids still a glint in evolution’s eye, an ice age added the finishing touches, as mighty glaciers kick-started the process of gnawing away the cliffs that fall away all around us.

Like half the Grand Canyon – only grander

One American visitor, his camera working non-stop, sums up the view: “A bit like half the Grand Canyon – only grander!” Meanwhile, three lammergeyers pull figure-eights overhead, taking it in turns to drop cow femurs on the rocks to get at the marrow within, maneuvering without a single wing-beat even though I can feel no breath of wind.

Some of the park’s residents are more elusive but, with the exception of the weather, which for the duration of my visit breaks into a pell- mell of precipitation each afternoon, everything is going my way. The next morning, after another cold and soggy night at Gich, a local boy helps me to catch a glimpse of the shyest of all.

“My name is Tazo. Have you seen the fox?” He is a child-herdsman – spindle-legged, bare-footed, half-mummified in a maroon cowl – who appears apparition-like as I crest a bluff on the trail. “Over there!” he points, and I follow the line of his stabbing finger to where a statuesque beast with a slender muzzle and flame-cultured fur is ghosting across the frosty landscape some 50 meters away. This is a special privilege: an Ethiopian wolf, the world’s most endangered canid (or ‘dog’ if you are not a taxonomist). This lanky shadow is one of an estimated 550 of his species still alive in the wild. “Blimey!” says Dawoud, deploying the odd vernacular he picked up during a year studying in England. “We hardly ever see them!”

It is an auspicious start to a day spent mostly on the move – at 18 kilometers, our longest kick. Bypassing Imet Gogo, the trail turns east through the full spectrum of Simiens landscapes, first edging along the green-walled void of the Meflekeaw Ravine; next passing over a golden prairie rumpled with the filigreed headwaters of a phantom stream; then climbing for 600 meters through a gnarled forest of heather trees, where the rain has unleashed the scent of wild thyme.

Children have gathered to sell goblets and eucalyptus staffs

Along a winding track, over steady terrain, the kilometers fall away behind our boot-heels – Dawoud up front, me in the middle, and Alemu, aquiline and fierce, bringing up the rear in vigilant silence, a burlap sack of our provisions over one bony shoulder, antique bolt action rifle – which never leaves his side, even in slumber – on the other.

“To warn away the kids,” Dawoud says, when I ask why the gun is necessary, although when we next encounter some among the high grasslands, their presence is hardly intimidating. On an outcrop, nearing our trek’s 4,000 meter high-point, some entrepreneurial children have gathered to sell cowhorn goblets and eucalyptus staffs to anyone coming over the summit.

For the Amhara pastoralists who live within the park’s boundaries, selling trinkets to tourists is a recent diversification from this otherwise ancient way of life. As the journey progresses, the chance to spend time with them becomes as integral a part of the Simiens experience as the extraordinary landscape they call home. Seldom does an hour pass without some sight of a tukul – the mud-walled roundhouse with conical thatched roof common throughout Ethiopia’s highland communities – or a chorus of high- pitched hellos assailing us from the top of a distant hill.

One family invites us into their tukul to shelter from a squall. Ducking under the low lintel, I am greeted by a cacophony of bleats and mews. As my eyes adjust to the gloom, I make out a veritable menagerie: little platoons of chicks skitter over the earthen floor; four goats and a tethered calf shelter beneath sleeping platforms rough-hewn from eucalyptus branches. A kitten lies catatonic by the fire, beneath walls decorated with zigzags drawn in charcoal.

It is taboo for them not to offer us something

We sit down on low stools and the father offers us stiff and stodgy barley bread. “It is taboo for them not to offer us something,” whispers Dawoud in my ear. While the daughters winnow barley in a corner, a little saleswoman appears in the doorway, catching my eye and revealing a single hen’s egg from the folds of her headscarf. I swap it for a jar of honey that I picked up in Lalibela. She scampers off, giggling victoriously.

The Ali family, Dawoud says later, are some of over 3,000 Amhara pastoralists living in these highlands. But their relationship with the surrounding land is an uneasy one. In 1996, soil degradation caused by centuries of overgrazing catapulted the Simien Mountains National Park onto Unesco’s List of World Heritage Sites in Danger. Although the conservation picture is improving – a 2010 report found that the local population of Ethiopian wolves has risen fivefold since the mid-1990s – the region’s highlanders are slated for resettlement, and may not be up here much longer.

Back on the trail, the clouds are now dark and ragged, and we scurry to beat the weather to Chenek camp: a few ranger huts strewn along a ledge and two shelters positioned on a lobelia- studded slope beside a stream. In the 1980s, this area was a refuge for the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front during its uprising against the infamous Derg. The rebels had a stronghold at Chenek and hideouts in the caves that perforate the mountainsides. Today, however, things are a lot more hospitable. The lodge here beats the one at Gich, if only in that there is a girl inside selling warm Dashen beer.

“The local community is starting to benefit from the growth in tourism, with jobs such as scouting, hiring out or looking after mules, cooking and so on,” says Alex. “There are now mule associations that control who is going with whom, and for how many days etc. As time goes on, the local people begin to understand how to use the opportunities. There are those who complain, asking why they are not benefiting. I tell them that, with the current low number of visitors, it is hard to look after the interests of everybody but, as things progress in Ethiopia and if they can remain patient, there is no reason why they shouldn’t in the future.”

An upsurge in tourism that shows little sign of slowing

An unpaved road – the only road to penetrate the national park – runs through Chenek, and the hour of our arrival coincides with a commotion further up the hillside, where a tour agency’s four-wheel-drive has become lodged in a ditch. This road is the most obvious manifestation of the changes being wrought here due to an upsurge in tourism that shows little sign of slowing.

“We are hoping that the growth of visitors doesn’t become a curse,” says Dawoud after we have joined in the heave to extricate the jeep. “When I started guiding a decade ago we would only see a few hundred visitors a year. Today we get up to 200 arriving every day in high season. Of course it brings in money and employment opportunities, and it gives the government a reason to rehabilitate wildlife and vegetation – investors are starting to realize that this could be one of the big natural attractions of Africa. But the benefits haven’t reached the people who live within the park boundaries.”

Dawoud goes on to explain that the Ali family, whose hospitality we’d enjoyed earlier, are some of over 3,000 Amhara pastoralists living in these highlands. But their relationship with the surrounding land is an uneasy one. In 1996, soil degradation caused by centuries of overgrazing catapulted the Simien Mountains National Park onto UNESCO’s List of World Heritage Sites in Danger. Although the conservation picture is improving – a 2010 report found that the local population of Ethiopian wolves has risen fivefold since the mid-1990s – the region’s highlanders are slated for resettlement, and may not be up here much longer.

“When I was a child people used to wear beautiful traditional woven clothes, but you don’t see it today. My grandmother used to provide milk for local villages in calabashes. Today you can hear the children asking tourists for plastic bottles to use instead. They end up as litter…” he tails off ruefully.

Picking through the tussock-grasses that surround the camp

If the time I spend at Chenek is anything to go by, the Simiens face a battle to keep the hordes away. As well as boasting more eye-popping views, Chenek also proves to be home to some of the park’s most unabashed gelada herds. Each morning they clamber up onto the escarpment, before gathering in groups of a dozen or so to graze and groom, shuffling around on their backsides and picking through the tussock-grasses that surround the camp. I can sit and watch them for hours. The monkeys, exhibiting the chutzpah of a species that has evolved in isolation, hardly pay us a second glance.

“They are the only monkeys to eat almost nothing but grass,” says Dawoud as we crouch with our Dashen beers near a group that evening. The herd before us, he explains, is made up of several “harems”, each bossed by an alpha male with leonine incisors and rock-star mane. The troublemaking young males who strut about in smaller posses are bachelor-pretenders, their barks and leaps a strength display designed to test the alphas’ resolve.

The Simiens have long been a favorite of natural history filmmakers, and these are scenes straight from the archives. Some trekkers use Chenek as the base-camp to scale Ras Dashen (4,620m), Ethiopia’s highest peak. But for once the egocentric drive to bag a summit does not grab me, its lure overridden by the urge to sit and let the images soak in. I spend the last few days doing shorter walks out and back, skirting the crags that ripple eastwards, and scouring the cliffs for rare glimpses of walia ibex. This mountain goat with extravagant scimitar horns is unique to this region, and the last creature on my Simiens tick- list.

Indeed, as I prepare to leave, the ibex is the only member of the cast that has not spoiled me rotten. That is until my final afternoon, when Dawoud comes running into the tukul with some news: “Come and see… the ibex… more than 20 have come right into camp to graze!”

Except by now, of course, I am not surprised at all.

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