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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.