It is hard to capture in words the beauty and the grandeur of the Simien Mountains. You can’t help but think of the Grand Canyon when you stand on a precipice and overlook this amazing landscape.
But it is a much different experience. The Simien mountains are still enough off the beaten path that we were the only tourists climbing for most of our hike. The rest of the time the only people we encountered were the people who lived in the mountains, living off the land.
We started our hike at Sankabar camp, which is surrounded by Gelada Baboons. These Old World monkeys are only found in the highlands of Ethiopia. Our guide, Mulat, told us that they are nicknamed “Bleeding Heart Baboons” because of their strikingly pinkish-red chests.
As we hiked, Mulat pointed out various plants and their medicinal or practical applications. This plant, for instance, produces fruit which they use for washing:
He squeezed the fruit and a bunch of sudsy foam came out.
Along the way we asked him questions about various aspects of Ethiopian life. He described how the Muslims and the Christians peacefully coexist but that they don’t intermarry. Although he did say that if two people fell in love, despite their different religions, that one of them could convert to the others’ religion. He also taught us about the various rings that a woman wears depending on her relationship status: a ring on the pinky means the woman is too young or not yet ready for marriage; a ring on the ‘ring finger’ is similar to us, she is engaged; a ring on the middle finger means the woman is divorced or widowed; a ring on the index finger means the woman is interested or looking for a mate; and a ring on the thumb means the woman is too old or that she is not interested in a relationship.
The hike was not intensive, or rather would not have felt intensive if 1) we were not at such a high altitude, and 2) Steve and I were not experiencing altitude sickness. At such a high altitude, you have shortness of breath as soon as you start walking, even at the lowest of inclines. I actually didn’t start feeling the effects of altitude sickness until about halfway. But when it hit me, it hit me hard. You feel dizzy and light-headed, you have zero energy, and worst in my case, you feel like you need to throw-up. None of which make hiking pleasant nor even seem plausible…except if you’re already halfway up a mountain.
While our guide kept saying the Swahili phrase “pole, pole” – slowly slowly – neither Steve or I felt that we were going slow enough. Mulat, Rockr, and Junkii were feeling fine and so were keeping a steady pace, usually far in front of Steve and I.
I remember I wanted to scream every time Mulat said those words “pole pole.”
But to be fair, it wasn’t until we were near the finish that Mulat realized Steve and I had altitude sickness. And it was at that point that he informed us that the 35km (22 mile) hike we were undertaking at an altitude of 3600m (12200 ft) was meant to be spread out over several days, so that you can become accustomed. He informed us that the park office had instructed him not to say anything to us, “don’t upset the tourists,” and to carry-on as we had planned. This would have been fine, had none of us been suffering from the altitude.
Actually Addis Ababa is quite a high altitude, so we’re pretty sure that Steve was experiencing symptoms from the very first day. And when you think about it, it was only our third day in Ethiopia when we started hiking up the mountain. So we really didn’t have time to acclimatize.
So, lesson learned. Acclimatize. And know what you’re getting into.
But back to the stunning views!
At one point on our hike, we rounded a corner and there was a young boy watching over his goats. He told Mulat in Amharic that one of the goats had just given birth to babies, only minutes before. As we approached, we saw the mother goat cleaning her kids.
I mentioned that we had to hire a scout as well as a guide. Our scout was a 60 year old man, wielding an AK-47 and a big smile. He didn’t speak English.
A scout is mandatory for entrance into the park, and they are there as protection. I asked Mulat what he was protecting us from. He said that the scout stopped people from bothering us, as well as protected us in the very unlikely case that a leopard should try to attack, in which case he would kill it. The former purpose explained why when we went through the small town of Gich, children whispered very quietly to us, asking us for money or our water bottles. The latter was not because they wanted to drink the bottled water, but rather because they get money from the bottles themselves.
I was so very done when we finally reached the flat field that led to our camp for the night. It was the hardest hike I’ve ever done and the worst part at that moment was that I knew we had an even longer hike in store for us the next day.
When we got there they showed us our tents and then laid out a table with coffee, popcorn and, of all things, peanuts. We had made it very clear to the guy who organized the tour that Steve was deathly allergic to peanuts, but somehow we still sat in front of a plate full of them upon our arrival. Mulat had excellent English and stressed the severity of the situation should there happen to be any nuts in the dinner they were cooking and Steve was assured that he would be able to eat that night.
However it was me that didn’t eat.
After snapping some sunset photos, I crawled into bed and hoped I would be able to sleep despite the cold – once the sun descended, the temperature plummeted.
As I said before, I think it was the worst night of my life. I was exhausted, sick, and freezing cold. The temperature dropped to 5 degrees celcius (41F) with a breeze and all we had were thin canvas tents and sleeping bags (not the made-for-cold ones!). We slept in all the clothes we had with us, including our jackets, huddled together and still we couldn’t warm up. Our basic needs were not being met – I couldn’t eat because I felt like I would throw up, our shelter was not protecting us from the elements, and going to the bathroom was not all peaches and roses either – the “facilities” consisted of holes in the ground with very little privacy. After my initial visit I opted for the “in the bush” option, since it had turned dark. The only good thing about that night? The sky was so clear that we could see so many stars.
Unfortunately, none of us slept a wink. But it meant that Rockr and Junkii were in no mood to hike an entire day again either. So the next day we worked it out with Mulat that we would do the short (ha!) hike up to the top to see the view, and then we would take the mule route back to the road and our driver would pick us up there.
It still ended up being 3-4 hours of hiking the next day, and it mostly sucked because the mule route is not much to look at, but all of us were ready to get back. I was kind of glad it wasn’t as picturesque because I wasn’t in the mood to take pictures. Every step I took I was trying not to throw up or pass out. It was such a relief when we finally reached our trusty van and collapsed inside. It was still a looooong drive back to Gondar, but at least it required no effort from us.
There are many more photos on SmugMug, should you want to take a gander.