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Thursday, December 29, 2016

11/17: Hike in Ethiopia's Fantastic Simien Mountains National Park!

After a busy day yesterday spent touring many of the sights around Gonder, today would be all together different as we would be traveling pretty far north of Gonder to visit the Simien Mountains National Park. We got picked up by the driver, Bayou, at 7:30 for the long day trip in a large van. The park was established in 1969 and was the second site to be made a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1978 after Yellowstone National Park. However, due to serious population declines of some of its characteristic native species, in 1996 it was also added to the List of World Heritage in Danger, a site I had never heard of before.
We were lucky that it would only be a two hour drive to Debark, the town that was the entrance to the park because the road that had only been built three years ago by the Chinese. Before the new road, it would have taken five hours in a 4x4 on the gravel road just to the entrance, our driver told us.
The actual time, though, was totally dependent on how often Bayou would have to stop or slow down because of the sheep, cattle, goats and other animals on the road. If that weren't enough to make it stressful enough for any driver, Bayou also had to very careful for pedestrians who might dart out onto the road at any point in time. 
The driver stopped at this overlook so we could enjoy these spectacular panoramic views of the valley.
Simien Mountains National Park includes Ras Dashan, the highest point in Ethiopia. It is home to a number of endangered species, including the Ethiopian wolf and the walia ibex, a wild goat found nowhere else in the world. The gelada baboon and the caracal, a cat, also occur within the Simien Mountains. More than 50 species of birds inhabit the park, including the impressive bearded vulture, or lammergeier, with its massive ten foot wingspan.

Bayou certainly had to be fully alert at all times and not take his eyes off the road for a moment. There were very few passenger cars or vans on the roads so locals weren't used to not having the road to themselves! 
With all the massive number of cultivated fields we've seen all over Ethiopia, I wondered how self-sufficient the country is in terms of being able to provide enough food for the people.

Here in northern Ethiopia, we no longer saw the mud huts with the grass roofs like we had seen previously in Lalibela. Instead, we began seeing homes with stick walls and corrugated metal roofs.

Even though this was the only road connecting Gonder and Debark, there was very little traffic. We soon began passing small communities where the homes were predominantly mud-bricked.
The odd one or two even had some paint on them which showed they had more money to spare on such a luxury.

Any driver on this road sure had to have a horn that worked perfectly. Bayou had to beep his regularly when he saw people or animals on the side of the road to warn them from darting out into the middle of the road.
I noticed a mosque in one of the small towns and Bayou mentioned that that town was half Muslim and half Christian. Speaking as a Muslim himself, he said that people of the two faiths get along well in Ethiopia.
We passed a number of military checkpoints but they were only interested in stopping the local minibuses that provided transportation for the locals between the towns.

As anticipated, we arrived in Debark, the gateway to the park at 9:30. Bayou explained that the town, established in 1674, was one of the regional trading centers and that most of the town's 42,000 residents were Christian. 
We had to wait a while while Bayou arranged to get both a guide and a 'scout' from the park headquarters to take us into the park. More on those positions later.

'Donkey power' was a common form of transportation in Debark!

Bayou told us that the local market was especially busy on both Wednesdays and Saturdays and that people often walk for four days just to attend the market.

Sixty to seventy more 'affluent' people spend 200 Birr - about $9 - one way to get to and from Debark in this packed truck. That is a major sum for most people in this area.

As we began driving along a gravel road for 15 kms to the first park checkpoint, Bayou explained that the park authorities required that everyone entering the park hire a 'scout' aka an armed guard so that tourists are kept safe from the 12,000 locals living in the park that might bother tourists. The locals have only recently begun to understand, he said, what a boon the tourists' dollars, euros, etc are to the local economy. The scout's responsibility is always to protect us and our belongings, Bayou went on to say.

The scout can only work ten days in a five month period because there are a total of 2,000 scouts available to work in the park. One scout is allotted to every five people entering the park, Bayou told us. The scouts receive two months' training. Our scout, Jimba, was also a farmer as obviously working so few days a year as a scout was not sufficient. By contrast, there were 88 guides in Debark available to work in the park. Fanta, the guide appointed to be ours for the day, told us that he is only able to work six days a month.
He told us that there used to be 40,000 people living within the park's boundaries. The government forced all but the 12,000 living there now, to move to Debark. Fanta explained that the people were compensated by the government depending on how much land they owned, how many cattle they had and the number of people per household. 
The people who were evicted were naturally reluctant at having their lives turned upside down but now understand, he said, the economic benefit derived from the infusion of money from tourists and are happier being in town.
The national park receives so much rain that it, combined with other factors, has resulted in a severe problem of erosion in the park. As a result, the land lies fallow every second year.
Fanta told us that the gravel road we were traveling on is impassable four months a year when it is very cold and rainy. Tourists begin coming in November, he said, and normally stay for two days so they have a better chance of seeing the wild ibex and other rare animals.
The erosion we saw is particularly evident in the deep crevices in the next three pictures.

After an incredibly bumpy road (we thought of it as another 'Ethiopian massage'!), we finally arrived at the entrance to the park. It was at an elevation of 10,500 feet, more than 1,300 feet higher than in Debark, the parks' administrative headquarters. 
While we waited for our permits to be checked, Fanta explained some of the strict rules for the 4,000 people able to live in the park. People needed to understand the consequences of cutting down trees; namely the park would lose tourists. As a result, if they cut down a tree in the park, they are imprisoned for five years. 
Animals in the park were similarly protected. Wild ibex were so hunted for their meat and also valued for their horns that their numbers had decreased to only 250. Now they number 800, Fanta told us. If animals are killed in the park, residents are then imprisoned for seven years.
What a warm welcome by the entrance guard's child!
Fanta pointed out the new church and school being built by the owners of the Simien Lodge, a facility we would see later in the day.
Nearby was a clinic built just two years ago; before that, there had been none for many, many miles.
Another photo showing the erosion caused by the heavy rains.
We stopped for a quick panoramic view of the park.
Fanta had what could only be described as eagle eyes as he spotted one of the only 105 Ethiopian wolves now in the park. Just 13.5 years ago, there were only 22 of the wolves in the park. This was the first time he had ever spotted one. We were incredibly fortunate to have caught a quick glimpse of it in the grass before it ran away.

After driving for another twenty minutes, Bayou stopped the van so we could begin our hike. He arranged with Fanta to pick us up in another area of the park in a couple of hours. We were so excited to start hiking as we'd been in the van for a long time and we wanted to explore the park even though we had never hiked above 10,500 feet before.

Almost immediately we came across huge numbers of the gelada baboons. Sometimes called the bleeding-heart monkey, the gelada baboon are found only in the high grassland of the deep gorges of the central Ethiopian plateau. 
Fanta told us that he had worked for seven years with the BBC filming the gelada baboons in the park. Simien Mountains National Park was Ethiopia's smallest national park; Simien meant North Face, he explained.
Being able to walk within six feet of the geladas was a surreal experience. It was so incredible being able to watch these beautiful animals with no other people around.
Fanta told us that the geladas have 13 different ways of communicating.
Geladas are the only primates that are primarily grazers – grass blades make up to 90% of their diet. They eat both the blades and the seeds of grasses. When both blades and seeds are available, geladas prefer to dig for the seeds using their five fingers.
There had been 30,000 geladas in the park years ago, according to Fanta. Now there are just half that many. The reduction was caused, he said, because the animals were hunted for their fur as the temperatures in the Ethiopian Highlands get very cold in the winter.
The male, distinguished by its very long hair, lives with between six to nine wives and their offspring. Males live up to age 12 normally and females up to 11 because they are a little weaker, Fanta said. 'Bachelor geladas' fight among themselves for a female. The 'winner' remains and the 'loser' leaves the unit.
We saw many of these rat and mouse mounds in the long grass.
I think this is the only photo I got showing the 'bleeding heart' on the male gelada. On a female, the patch is far less pronounced.
Fanta said the fruit in this bush was from the tomato family but the inside of it was very poisonous. The citric acid inside was used for washing clothes but people had to be very careful to keep their eyes averted or risk being blinded. The juice was also used as a skin dye - that sounded way too chancy for me, thank you very much!

He broke off a sprig of wild oregano from this bush and explained that it was used to make tea, to help with altitude sickness and colds as well as a seasoning. I certainly never knew oregano had so many uses.
More stunning views:

Fanta told us that this was an erackarboria tree which means 'tree hearth' in English. The tree is hugely popular in the Ethiopian highlands because it is used for both firewood and building houses. Sadly, the trees are dying off due to pollution from farmers' fires and the mud thrown up by cars passing near them, Fanta said.
The moss tree also had many uses: it's used for incense as part of the coffee ceremony and women use moss to put in their hair during holidays.

After hiking for a good while, we came across, seemingly out of the blue, a semi-circle of about 20 men, women and children on a plateau. In front of them, was a huge array of beautifully woven baskets, mats, hats, cow horn cups and smaller items. Of course, we were expected to buy something or preferably many items!

 I am an absolute sucker for woven mats but had no 'use' for them at home.

I also really admired this cup because it was so unusual but again thought what on earth would we ever do with it?
This was one of the most uncomfortable situations I can remember being in as the whole crowd of people were staring at us as we walked among the items they had made with each one hoping I/we would pick his or her item. Nobody said a word the entire time. I finally chose this adorable little basket made in the shape of a home and decorated with the colors of the Ethiopian flag. Once I chose it this girl then stepped forward from the group of shepherds to indicate she had made it. I shall treasure it but NOT the experience of choosing it!
I have no idea how they knew to gather in that spot because we were the only tourists around. Had they somehow been forewarned that we were headed that way and thus were awaiting our arrival? I don't know. I felt badly only buying the one item but we still had a lot of hiking ahead of us and didn't want to carry anything more than a small item.
As we continued our hike, Fanta pointed out this Abyssinian rose bush. Fanta shared that the rose was good for stomach upsets as well as making tea. 
The husk was used for making chili and bees use it for honey. When Fanta broke off a piece, white liquid came out. That was used to help wounds, he said. To my admittedly naive eyes, the Abyssinian rose looked like a dogwood, the provincial flower of British Columbia.

The geladas sleep on the ledges in the cliffs at night to escape hyenas who are unable to climb down.

If you click on the next couple of pictures to enlarge them, you'll see the klipspringers or small antelope we saw scampering up the rocks.

Fanta chose that idyllic spot for us to rest and eat the boxed lunch that was included in our fee for the day by the tour company. It consisted of cold omelet on a roll, a banana and oranges and a bottle of water - we were pretty hungry so it all tasted great!
Yikes, was my hair ever gray then. But at least I no longer had the shaggy look since getting it cut yesterday at the 'salon' in Gonder!

I don't think Steven and I have ever had a more perfect spot for a picnic than this one overlooking the majestic Simien Mountains.
Jimba, our scout, and Fanta, our guide, rested a few feet away. They had no lunch so we shared ours with them.
We had been warned that it would likely be chilly in the mountains and that therefore we should dress warmly. As you may have noticed from the previous photos though, I found it quite warm and didn't need the fleece jacket I had brought. Fanta explained that Jimba came from the lowlands and wasn't accustomed to what he thought was the chilly weather here in the mountains.

If you wonder if we felt more than a little disconcerted by having a gun-toting guard always bringing up our rear, you are absolutely right!
Fanta said that the grass was used for the roofs of the people's homes living in the park. It only lasted for two years and then was replaced.

These three mountain peaks in the distance were the symbol or logo for Ethiopian Airlines, Fanta told us.
Fanta told us that there were about 15,000 visitors a year in the park. I wondered if that number was down in the last month or so because of all the anti-government activity and the resulting crackdowns imposed by the government that would last for the next five months minimum. Not only had the US State Department strongly urged in no uncertain terms that Americans not visit Ethiopia now but many other governments had expressed extreme caution for their citizens too.

Another glorious Abyssinian rose bush:

As we came across more breathtaking views of the mountains, we were so happy that we had decided just two days ago to make arrangements for this day trip to the national park. Normally, we plan day trips many months in advance but this one was done pretty well on the spur of the moment after arriving in Gonder.
The park's extreme elevation ensures substantial rainfall during the wet season. The force of those heavy rains had created this gully. 
Fanta pointed out the crest of the hill way behind us and said that was where we had started our hike! Luckily, neither of us were much affected by hiking at the high altitude.

Fanta explained that this grass was called 'everlasting' and only grows at high altitudes. It is eaten by wild ibex, he added.
Bayou, the driver, met us here and then drove us to another part of the park so we could see the highest waterfall in Ethiopia.
Locals' homes:

Fanta pointed out another klipspringer. Luckily, we could see this one far more easily then the previous one! We were especially fortunate, too, seeing one because they normally sleep in the afternoons.

We drove past Sankaber, the first hut used by overnight trekkers in the park.

From the middle seat of the van, Fanta spied a Menelik's Bushbuck at the summit. We scurried out quickly but this shot was as good as I was able to get of the animal that was endemic or native to the park. I can only say that Fanta must have had the best eyesight of anyone I have ever known to have spotted it in the brush from a moving van!
The female klipsringer had no horns. It was amazing how it stopped and 'posed' for us.
Bayou then parked the van as we needed to walk the rest of the way to the waterfalls. This lovely red plant was an aloe plant and used to relieve burns, Fanta told us. In addition, it was also used to feed animals when mixed with salt!

Not only did we have to climb higher to access the falls but we really noticed the greater elevation here. We huffed and puffed our way as we neared the falls!
There were many large waterfalls in the park but Jinbar Waterfall was considered the most significant. Though the drainage wasn't huge when we were there, the falls more than made up for it in splendor, as they plunged at least 1,600 feet into a canyon known as the Geech Abyss in a single wispy fall. The volume of the water varies substantially from season to season. During the wet months of September and October, the falls produce an immense amount of water. The water then comes straight over the mountain and not just down, Fanta told us.

We got back to the van about 3 after seeing the waterfall. From there we had a 42 km - about 26 miles - long ride on the gravel road to 'look forward to' just to the park exit. Great - another 'Ethiopian massage'!
Steven slept for much of the ride back but my eyes were pretty well glued to the amazing park scenery.

We had a short break when we stopped for a few minutes to see Simien Lodge, the highest lodge in Africa, at 10,700 feet.

On the remainder of the 90 minute drive back to Debark where we would drop off both Fanta and Jimba, I reflected on some of the people we had met here in Ethiopia. The most common expression of all the Ethiopian tour guides, hotel staff, tuk tuk drivers and others we had encountered was 'why not?' as in 'Of course we can do that, go there, see it, etc.' They had a marvelous sense of hospitality, always wanting to make sure we were happy, that we liked what we had seen and done. A constant phrase told to us was 'If you're happy, I'm happy.' Never anywhere else in the world have we experienced anything like this degree of warmth.
How sad seeing geladas for the last time as we left the park as I had grown quite fond of them.
We also saw a surprising number of horses grazing.
We had first seen this gorgeous, fiery red bush around a number of the rock-hewn churches in Lalibela but I didn't know what it was. Fanta explained it was rumex nervous and part of it was used for flossing teeth.
From the time we had picked up Fanta and Jimba in Debark this morning until we dropped them off, it was close to six hours. We found out that Fanta knew he would only be paid only $20 for all that time. Jimba, our armed scout, would only be paid a measly $6. We had no way of knowing whether those rates were set by the park authorities in Debark or by our tour agency back in Gonder. Needless to say, we felt their pay was scandalously low so tipped them generously. 

We couldn't say enough positive things about Bayou, our superb driver. Driving on those really treacherous gravel roads through the park had to have been so draining. Then, having to drive back to Gonder in the dark was very trying because of the difficulty seeing people and animals on the road. The people weren't used to seeing many vehicles so they didn't pay a great deal of attention when crossing the road and often just walked down the middle.

He explained that if he were to hit a horse on the road back to Gonder, he would be fined 10,000 Birr - about $445. The cost of a horse in the market was only about half that though. The cost for hitting a sheep was 2,000 Birr or about $89.
Bayou took a 'pee break' on the way and came back to the car with these branches that smelled like Mentholatum or Vicks Vapor Rub! He had been sneezing all day long. But, when he put a leaf up his nostril, he felt and sounded better! Normally, the leaves are boiled and people inhale the fumes, he said. No time for that in these circumstances though!
Our day in Simien Mountain National Park was without a doubt one of the absolute highlights of our long trip. That was due to the fabulous scenery, our great luck seeing many of the park's endemic animals, our long and almost solitary hike and, above all, the friendly and knowledgeable company of both Bayou and Fanta.

Posted on December 29th from Littleton, Colorado.


  1. Nice story, Annie! Thanks! the klipspringer made me think of a llama a little. Of course we have antelope even in Canada and I remember how surprised i was when I first saw them!

  2. I saw your new red shoes. Lil Red


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