Karl’s Chronicles Article 40 Parted By A Deep Rift
‘No brick and mortar, no gabled roof, no polished bench and leathered book. No spirited leader to shepherd in the quiet flock, for nothing fashioned by human hands could brave the mastery here. Fixed on the chiselled rock, with the sun at their back, the passive group looked far ahead, over rock and tree, ledge and broad valley. The scope of nature did little preach, her measured work spoke for itself, of patience, resilience, obeisance, and perseverance, of falling and growing, of splintering and evolving. Gradually, as the light lifted, their eyes adjusted, a string of smiling faces came to see, that one and all were family. Stripped back through epic ancestry to the naked form of simplicity. Delivered forward to the point of source where Simian roots surveyed the Simien way.’
Curiosity hijacked one’s feet, flinging them forward with marionette absurdity. Such disobedience rendered the mind incalculable, knocked of its throne by daredevil mutiny. The edge came closer, softened with flowers and sweet-scented Summer. Lulling in butterflies and insects that hovered and flitted, possessing no qualms for vanishing ground.
One had to see, not just look, sacrificing Sense and shoving Reason aside, knowing full well what curiosity could do. A cat with eight lives struggling on through. Nearing the end as the land dropped away, bereft of a point from immense clarity.
Down, down, down, such a considerable drop invited vertigo. Even Reason, flung on terra firma, grappled with anxiety. Then the giddiness came, a baritone clamour on the senses as if a merry band of bell-ringers had set up service in the trembling pit of your gut. Reverberating through human scaffolding to the bell-tower of your mind, where empirical evaluations were all but shaken off. Eventually, by patience rather than bravery, the shock receded with the hiss and temper of a locomotive shunting back in its shed.
Dread turned to awe when the eye stayed ahead—hypnotised by distant black mountains -ships funnels in shape, looming up from creased skirts of forest green. Beyond the escarpment, the land fell away to a series of jagged steps and platforms. Many of which had been remarkably cultivated, familiar in form to Asian rice terraces. Leaning closer, scrutinising the land with owlish intensity, emerged tiny settlements—circular huts with thatched roofs sprouting up around planted crops.
The Simien Mountains, credited as a national park and world heritage site, presented one splendid panoramic after another that left the face sore from wide-eye syndrome. The focus, bewitched by the cliff face, mountains, gullies, and the shadowy shelves far below, can easily overlook the flourishing busy world around your feet. The Mountains of the Ethiopian Highlands, split by The Great Rift Valley effortlessly rival The Grand Canyon or the Atlas range in Africa’s northwest for grand magnificence. Receiving a fraction of visitors in comparison, while ensuring a walk or a multi-week trek here, is one remembered for nature than human disturbance.
The Simien Massif mapped out by several plateaus that are divided by broad river valleys, absorb an area of 220 metres square, making it the largest national park in Ethiopia—established back in the late ’60s by Clive Nicol. He penned many of his adventures here in the book Roof of Africa. Almost a decade on, UNESCO awarded the park as a World Heritage Site. Still, in a depressive twist of struggling species, UNESCO added it, nearly two decades on, to its list of World Heritage in Danger.
Many peaks rise above 4000m with Ras Dachen (4543m) the highest. Thanks primarily to endless eruptions many millions of years ago, multiple layers of molten lava ended up compounded into a depth of four kilometres. Succeeding erosion gnawed away at the Ethiopian plateau, producing sharply jagged mountains, valleys, shelves, ridges and the eye-bullying escarpment.
Despite the sharp characteristics of the Simiens, both in elevation and design, the geography of the mountains are home to several endemic species. Moving between alpine and wilderness forest, montane savannah, heath, and the nooks and crags of the cliff. The Walia Ibex, a wild mountain goat, is considered rare, though various surveys have recorded encouraging results with an increase in numbers. It’s occasionally seen grazing close to the escarpment and with the courage of a warrior, nimbly positioned on the slimmest of shelves, halfway up the cliff face. The fascinating gelada baboon, also known as the Bleeding Heart from its bright red chest markings, is by far and away the most common sighting. Moving up and over the escarpment in large troupes, spending ample time sifting through the grasses and trees for food. The Ethiopian Wolf, also referred to as the Simien Fox is resident here, though numbers are more significant in Bale National Park a few hundred kilometres south of Addis. Shy and elusive they are nigh on impossible to spot, preferring to maintain a wide berth, easily achievable when your presence has been noted miles before.
Birdlife is plentiful as it is varied with visitors regularly noting thick-billed ravens, white-collared pigeon, the noisy wattled ibis and the charmingly named Ankober seedeater. It’s not uncommon to the see the sweeping gait of a lammergeier (bearded vulture) circling above, whose diet consists mainly of animal bone.
In consideration to visiting the park, the driest times fall between December and March. After October, once the rainy season has petered out, the landscapes are lush and rejuvenated. Made colourful by swathes of efflorescent wildflowers. Trekking between June and September can be frustrating when mists hang over the escarpment. But the rains, though frequent, don’t last long, falling in brief heavy bursts. Being here off-season, though fickle with the weather affords the advantage of side-stepping the crowds. Enjoying campsites, viewpoints and the magnificence of the mountains as it should be. Unlike the very tip of the escarpment, this could be one drop that embodies greater satisfaction.
Note: Visits to Ethiopia currently involve a week’s self-isolation in Addis before onward travel. FCO travel advice has yet to change from its Yellow warning against –All but essential travel. Travel insurance will not cover you and the UK government have imposed a 14-day term of self-isolation for when you return.
Treks commence from the small town of Debark where the parks HQ is. Arranging guides, pack-horses, cooks, equipment, fees and setting out the route is all finalised here. Allow a few hours to iron out the formalities and a few more to stock up on food and water. If you are coming directly from Gonder or Addis, it’s worth buying your essentials there, where choice is more liberal. The market and groceries in Debark stock the basics but little else. If you decide to hire a pack-horse, you’ll need to buy sacks and rope for storing and tie-ing. The horse and its handler go on ahead with your luggage to the next camp, releasing you the burden of shouldering the extra weight. Bear in mind to transfer any essentials for the days hike before the horse sets off, as you will not reunite again until reaching camp. A scout is compulsory for your protection, though many don’t speak English. The crew are supposed to bring their own food, but I would recommend including enough to feed them properly like any standard expedition. Often they arrive with nothing more than bread. It’s also advisable to check their clothing and footwear is adequate. I remember the scout suffering by the third day from blisters, caused by oversized boots rubbing against bare feet. As regards to tipping, the rule of thumb is a day’s extra wage for each week hired.
Don’t forget to pack extra batteries for your camera or a powerbank if using a smartphone, plus additional memory storage. The scenery will keep you busy shutter-clicking all day. Pack a couple of cigarette lighters for the stove (kerosene is available from Debark’s garage), water purification pills, paracetamol, a raincoat, hat and jumper as it does get cold at night. Take out what you take in, and if you can, other litter you see along the way. Such benevolent acts reap great rewards, appearing in all manner of disguises.
The park offers plenty of trekking routes, all of which can be covered on foot. Leaving Debark for the first camp Sankaber, then onto Buyit Ras and Geech where the scenery capitalises the word WOW. Once at Geech, the third camp, you have the optional excursion to take in Imet Gogo, 5km northeast. At 3296m in elevation, the promontory welcomes you with inspiring views of the Simien Mountains. A dirt road runs to Chenek camp 55km from Debark which makes it possible to hike in and drive out or vice versa. However, the road back to Debark presents another theatre of spectacular scenery. Climbing Ras Dashen is highly possible, and many hikers camp a couple of nights at Ambikwa, making a dawn ascent on the second day.
If you’re not into camping, the primitive Sankaber Lodge offers dorm styled beds
and the very upmarket Simien Park Lodge offers both dorm and private rooms. Finding a basic room in one of the villages is also an option, and your scout will be privy to their whereabouts.
Debark offers a couple of decent places to stay, both The Simien Park Hotel and The Giant Lobelia Hotel offer budget room no thrills rooms. The Lobelia has a popular downstairs restaurant with helpful staff. Reserve a room for the day of your return, eliminating the challenge of finding accommodation when you are exhausted. You never know if a large group has arrived in between.
Visas, required before arrival, can be obtained by e-visa from www.evisa.gov.et The Embassy of Ethiopia in London is only dealing with clients by pre-arranged appointments. www.ethioembassy.org.uk Tel: 020 7589 7212. Mon-Fri. 10:00 – 16:00. A Single Entry 30-day visa costs $52 and a Single Entry 90-day visa is $72. The application doesn’t require a Yellow Fever Certificate.