I love to hike, but I don’t think my body does. I can’t predict the future but I think by body can. Every time we have been about to embark on a long trek I have been struck by some bug or other. In Iran I had diarrhoea, in Lebanon it was stomach cramps, in Malawi it was vomiting and this time, the day before we were going to head up to over 4000 metres in the Simien mountains I got hit with a nasty cough and cold.
So we started a day later than planned while I felt sorry for myself and tried to recover from the cold and bumpy 4 hour, 5am start bus journey under the covers in our hotel room and dave went to rustle up donkeys and food etc. I think I had it lucky though, our original guide had to cancel on us because his wife had just gone into labour, although super helpful he was so we had to forcibly send him away to his wife’s bedside in the end.
Day 1: Our new guide Shaggy, The scout Den and two nameless mule handlers, Dave and I made our way through the small dusty flat town and its equally small dusty market and down to the smooth rocked and meadow edged river which marked the start of the hills. We crossed the river by rocks and up through the gentle grassy hills, through forest and later wide open plains to our first campsite “Sankaber”. Dave and I had chosen to cook our own meals instead of hiring a cook and in the cooking area we one-by-one met the cast of this week’s stint in the mountains. Although each group would be walking with their guide in their own group and set out at different times we would invariably find ourselves meeting at the lookout points and rest stops and of course in the campsites over the next few days.
Day 2: Our first view from a height of the volcanic created and then river eroded valley floor. Wow. We shared our lunch with a troop of non-plussed baboons. At first we we thought they hadn’t seen us and kept quiet but then we realised they weren’t bothered in the slightest. We later caught up with some French walkers and while we approached we were hushed as if a rare shy creature had been spotted close by. As we approached we saw that we were looking down on what can only be described as a hilly baboon hobbit-village at some distance. We humoured the French for a little while and then strode noisily into the middle of the pack and watched as baboons of all ages gambled and grazed around us while others pelted themselves down the far woody hillside and chased each other round rocks. The guides had to drag us all away assuring us that there were hundreds more baboons ahead and, to paraphrase, could we, like, get over it already because we had some miles to cover :-p To which we replied “5 more minutes” Eventually we followed on, waving goodbye to baboon city and continued a gentle up over open gentle rolling plains, through fields of alien looking giant lobelia and small villages of round thatched houses to the stunningly situated campsite “Gitch”. Although it feels like the campsite is in the middle of nowhere there is actually a village somewhere hidden nearby and we were told we could buy a chicken there for dinner. Which we could…a live one. So while Dave went off to witness the butchery (in the halal sense) I started the sous-cheffing as the sun set and watched the cattle and horses being driven to lower ground for the night (check out the photos of the sunset and location of camp when Dave puts them up – it was breathtaking). After chopping a mountain of ginger, garlic, onions and carrot we made a tasty (if extremely rubbery) marinated chicken. Pah, who needs a chef. The campsite is at 3200 so as soon as the sun sets it gets mighty chilly so we all huddled round the campfire and turned in early only to wake at dawn to find the ground and tent covered in frost! This is not what I imaged Africa to be like! But it only added to the site’s beauty and didn’t last long at all once the sun was up again.
Day 3: Wow…again. This was by far the most spectacular day of the hike. We were climbing higher and higher along the edge of an incomprehensibly high, vertical dropping escarpment and so each turn revealed a new view of the still-high-in-their-own-right plateaus below as we climbed to 4070m to have lunch (where a sheep stole Dave’s lunch hahaha). One particularly good look out was the fabulously names GoGoMater which in Ethiopian means “go go old woman” and is named for the place where a local old woman chased after a foreigner who was walking past. Really it should have been called “Bugger me we’re high up and you can see for hundreds of miles in every direction” because we were stood on the jutting out point of the escarpment which meant you could see the craggy rocky mountains and plateaus on one side and a sheer drop and other face of the escarpment on the other. The guide pointed out where the path would take us on the other side of the vertical cliff, right along the very edge, and I think that should have been named merely “gulp”. It turned out no to be too bad because the path was a few metres back and the slope of the path was towards safety but even Dave had to lie down to peer over the edge and admitted to feeling a bit queasy when looking down. The sheer scale addled my little mind they did. The escarpment took us direct to the third and cutest of the campsites “Chenneck” where we all regrouped, lounged in the sun, drank tea, washed our steaming socks, watched the campsite baboons and eagles, and shared our “wow, wasn’t that amazing”s of the day.
Day 4. This is where all the groups parted company because there are several routes through the Simiens and we were going for the highest peak Ras Dashen. So the two of us made the slog alone down down down through the valley and along the river to the Ras Dashen base camp, stopping for lunch and some provisions shopping in a busy village having its market day. Ambiko camp is right next to a village and unfortunately it has many beggars, particularly children, who come to the camp – partly for entertainment I think - so it isn’t the most relaxing place unfortunately. I mean tot write a little separate piece about the relationship between tourists and locals later on but this place is a particularly interesting example. In the past you could stay in the village in a local person’s house if you wanted. This would give a bit of income to someone from the village and you were able to (in an admittedly small and surface way) get an idea of how people live up in the mountains. But the National Park authorities have put a stop to that – claiming reasons of “hygiene”. Which means that the village is denied an income from tourists except to beg, and tourists are forcedly separated/elevated(?) against their will from the people area they’ve come to visit. And why not in that case *teach* the villagers about hygiene which can only be a benefit to everyone? We thought it was madness and made for an uncomfortable situation all round.
Day 5. The previous day I had decided not to climb Ras Dashen with Dave because I was still coughing very badly from my cold every time we stopped for a rest so Dave went to the summit while I pottered around in camp and made friends with, and did small tasks (what they’d let me!) for the chefs who were preparing meals for the walkers. Dave was first back off the mountain and said it was a lovely walk on top of the world and despite being over 4500m wasn’t too strenuous. Everyone who came down was greeted by the chefs and mule drivers with a “Welcome back, welcome back, welcome back from Ras Dashen” song and a small posy of flowers which was a really sweet touch. Mood in the camp that night was understandably high, with campfire singing and dancing, but everyone was pooped so it was an early satisfied night for all.
Day 6. Was merely day 4 in reverse and a tough slog up up up. But at Chenneck we met a few new faces and shared our various experiences so far. Oh and a baboon stole Dave’s tea but put it down without spilling a drop just to teach him a lesson I think…cheeky baboon One of the newly arrived guides had a history degree and gave us all an interesting history of the country which filled in a few gaps and answered some questions not in the guidebooks. He knew much more about European and british history and politics than any of us did and made me quite ashamed how little I know. Must get one of those ‘orrible history for kids books when I get back
Day 7. We spent the day on the gravel/dust road to cut out Gitch and Sankaber camps and go straight to the site clostest to the final town. Although normally we shun the roads we were quite glad in this case as it was easier walking when we were both quite weary and footsore by now. We spent the journey piecing together what parts of history we could work out (“normans…they were important for something weren’t they…we they before or after the magna carta?”). We arrived at camp super tired after the longest days walk yet but we had promised the guides a chicken so we bought another two live chickens and together we prepared a local spiced meal and shared it with everyone. It was a real sense of achievement for us and even without much language we had a few moments around the small fire.
Day 8. We hobbled the final 4 hours back into town with various blisters and aches but finished at last to share a beer and take winners photos. Tell you what, I was looking forward to sitting on that bus back to Gonder.
I think the Simiens have been some of the most spectacular walking I’ve ever done….and I’ve been to Scotland! You should go.