Initially, we had planned to go no farther north than the city of Gondar. However, in the pretrip planning, I came across photos of Simien Mountain National Park and knew I had to go there. I told my friend Dino to take a look; we went.
The road from Gondar to Debark, the city where one gets the pass, the guide, and the guard to go into the park is typical of the Ethiopian highland country, high, wet, and green.
We kept saying things like “Are you sure we aren’t in Ireland?” Nothing seemed to fit the stereotype everyone in the US seems to have of Ethiopia.
Acacia trees like these out the front window must surely be among the most picturesque trees on the planet.
Fences are relatively rare in Ethiopia. Usually, animals are herded by boys and girls rather then enclosed by fences. To get into Simien Mountain National Park, you must stop, sign in with your name, age, address, and passport in Debark. After you do this, your party is assigned an official guide and a guard. Yes, a guard. These two men stay with you everywhere you go except your room and when you eat in the dining room at the only lodging inside the park.
My room at Simien Park Lodge with traditional Ethiopia textiles for curtains and bedspreads. This lodge resides at 3260 meters (nearly 11,000 feet) above sea level. There is no heat in the rooms. To keep warm, each guest receives a hot water bottle to put in bed to keep warm. I piled on two blankets and crawled in, but before doing so…
I tried a new drink, Romana Sambuca, here in the highest bar in Africa. We were told that normally, when the British owner is here, the locals, the guides, guards, drivers, etc. are not allowed either in here or the dining room. We were glad he was not there so everyone could hang out around the fire together. Even with this, Alemu could not eat with us in the dining room. Such rules made us quite unhappy. This sort of elitism seemed totally inappropriate and insulting, especially since this is their country.
Knowing all I would have to keep me warm at night would be the hot water bottle and blankets, I felt reluctant to leave this fire in the bar.
After checking in, we headed out for an afternoon hike.
The hiking was relatively easy, not too up and down, but in places very wet and slippery.
Our guard carried an umbrella (we all did and had the opportunity to use them) and a Kalashnikov and never let us out of his sight. He spoke no English so only Dino could actually chat with him. He seemed very nice and helpful. Yes, it was cold. I wore four layers.
Finding familiar plants in a different form fascinated me. This plant, a type of thistle, bristles with thorns both on top and on the underside of its leaves. Herbs grow everywhere.
And then the cliffs and vistas overwhelm. I have been all over the Rockies in the US and some of Canada, have driven through some mountains in Kashmir, and flown in and out of Nepal with a view of the highest mountains in the world. Nowhere have I seen mountains like these: endless cliffs falling thousands of feet, endless vistas, and endless emerald green.
Frequently we walked or drove above various bits of clouds. Sometimes the fog became so thick we could barely see where we were going. I am moderately brave regarding heights but it was wet and slippery. Sometimes while the guard and my friends climbed right on the cliff edge, I chose to go higher with the guide. In at least one instance, this strategy really paid off because we walked right through the middle of this huge group of gelada baboons.
These baboons exist only in four places in Ethiopia. I travelled in three of the four places. The males have a big red heart on their chests and heavy lionlike manes.
The views never failed to astonish me.
After five o’clock the baboons disappear, climbing down the cliffs into caves to protect themselves from predators–leopards and hyenas.
Michael, the guide on the left, and the guard, fearless–these drop-offs are routine.
The heights did not bother Dino. He scared us with his ability to walk right up to the edge except in one case where he and Zuriash decided it was even too daunting for them.