January 11-15, 2009
From Gonder we kept going north and spent four days trekking in the Simian Mountains. We didn’t know much about the Simians but it sounded like a good break from the cultural touring we’d done so far – we’d seen a lot of churches and we were ready for some nature and physical exercise.
No Tours, Thank You
To visit the Simian Mountains most tourists sign up for a group tour from Gonder. The tour includes jeep transportation to the trailhead and back, an armed scout, a guide, a mule to carry your gear, a cook and all meals. We found one offer to do a group tour like this for $200 each. It seemed like a really excessive price, especially for Ethiopia where everything so far had been so cheap. Also, we thought it was silly to go north from Gonder to the park and return back to Gonder, only to then go north once again on the way to our next destination, Aksum. But that’s just how these tours work – they start and finish in Aksum.
So we decided to head to the Simians on our own. Was it a good choice? Well, in hindsight we can definitely say that it was a lot cheaper – instead of $200 each it was more like $100 for both. But as they say: you get what you pay for. Instead of getting to the trailhead by private jeep, we arrived by public bus. We didn’t hire a mule; we carried our own stuff. We didn’t hire a guide but we did have an armed scout – this was required by the park. Our scout, Adane, basically acted like our guide. He lead the way and, though he didn’t really speak English, he did know a few crucial words like “water”. We didn’t have a cook and we carried our own food, stuff that we bought hastily in Gonder before heading out. We had very dull meals – mostly just bread, a few tomatos, and some wafers. Despite all these shortcomings, if we did it over again I think we would again choose to go on our own. The only difference is that we would probably spend a little more time shopping for interesting food – after a couple of days it was hard to stomach any more bread.
One other benefit of going on an organized tour is that the jeep drops you off some distance into the trek where the scenery is more interesting. In our case we started the trek in the town of Debark where the park office is located. We had a full day’s hike before we reached the point where the jeeps drop off the tour groups and the scenery was OK but not spectacular. It reminded us a little of our trek in Lesotho except that it was much cooler.
Our scout, Adane, walked really fast and frequently had to pause to wait for us to catch up. Whenever he saw other locals walking up ahead he would rush to join them – it must have been boring for him to walk with us since the language barrier kept us from having any sort of conversation. But anyhow he was really nice.
Local kids kept running up to us. They would ask for “birr” (money) or “pens” – stuff we’d heard from kids before. But many of them also asked for “island”. This really confused us. What kind of island could they possibly want?? Turns out they wanted our empty water bottles. The first bottled brand in Ethiopia was called “Highland”, so the word came to be used for all bottled waters (our bottles were a different brand).
We spent the first night in near the village of Buyt Ras. There’s a really expensive lodge there, Simian Lodge, where each night’s stay costs $100, a real fortune in Ethiopia. But we stayed in the very simple government lodge. A few kids gathered there and some knew a bit of English. When I pulled out the camera to take some pictures they started posing, and they used the only props available: Adane’s rifle and our books. It made for some interesting shots…
On the second day the landscape became more dramatic. We reached the edge of our high plateau and had a view of other mountains and canyons below. The vegetation was pretty dried out, though, and the waterfalls were mere trickles. We could only imagine how green this area must look in the wet season.
We also reached a few huge groups of Golada Baboons. Pnina and I had seen hundreds of baboons on our trip so far, but these were different – their hair was a lighter brown and much longer, and they had interesting red markings.
We spent our second night in a campsite called Gich, where we ran into two Swiss guys, both called Nikolas. They were the first visitors we’d seen since starting our trek, which tells you that the Simian Mountains are a fairly unvisited location in a country that itself only gets so many visitors. Anyhow, it was fun to chat with other people and we had a great sunset. After the sun set it became really cold and there was little to do but bundle up in all our layers and go to sleep.
The next morning we kept walking towards our final destination, a hilltop called Imet Gogo. By this point the altitude was becoming noticeable – we reached 3.9 km and we were huffing and puffing our way up the hill (but not our scout, he kept running like it was nothing). But the views at the top were worth the effort.
From there we began the long hike back.
Not long after passing Gich we ran into Helga, the Belgian lady we met back in Lalibela. She said that on her bus ride to Debark some guy stole money out of her wallet. She just has the worst luck! 😦
We spent our third night in a camp called Sakaber. Here we met a tour group with three French women who currently live in Djibuti. They said that the French are slowly moving out and are being replaced by US military families (there’s a new US base there). Their guide was nice enough to offer us some of their dinner since they made too much. After 3 days of eating basically nothing but bread, it was a very welcome offer; that meal was awesome.
The next morning we started heading back to town. We were pretty tired by this point and not so excited to repeat a section of the trail we had already seen. We heard that there were local busses you could take back to Debark but nobody could tell us exactly when they go, so we decided to follow the road. Eventually one bus did come along so we asked for the price and climbed aboard. Once we were onboard, though, the conductor decided to jack up the price. We wouldn’t have it. After 10 minutes he decided to kick us off the bus. The good thing is that during those 10 minutes the bus driver proceeded, so we got 1 or 2 kilometers for free 🙂 Eventually we found one of those jeeps who just finished dropping off his own group and we negotiated a good price (50 Birr for all 3 of us).
When we entered Debark we found that it was market day. There were people and livestock everywhere. Normally we would jump out of the car to mingle and photograph this lively chaos, but at this point all we wanted was a good shower. We were so filthy that I actually abandoned my pair of socks at the Sankaber camp.
All in all it was a good hike. Pnina and I prefer lush vegetation like the kind we saw in Drakensberg and Muhavura, but still the mountains here are pretty impressive, even more so than Lesotho. Plus, other than the kids asking for “island”, nobody bugged us, so it was a good break from the hassles we experienced everywhere else in Ethiopia.
The day after we returned from our hike in the Simian mountains we planned to head north towards Aksum. This turned out to be a difficult thing to do. Every day there are several busses heading south from Debark, but not a single bus heading north. There are busses that pass through Debark on their way north, but by the time they reach Debark they are completely full, no hope of getting on.
So, one thing you can do is take the bus back down to Gonder, sleep there the night, and then get on the bus going north. But of course that’s a big waste of your time and money. Another solution is to hire someone else to go through this back-and-forth for you. In other words, you pay a local guy to ride the bus to Gonder, sleep there, then take the bus north and save seats for you. When the bus arrives in Debark, he gets off and hands you the tickets. Pnina and I hated the idea of actually paying for such a stupid service, but we couldn’t find another way, so that’s what we did. By the way, we asked whether it’s possible to just pay the bus company to save us seats without having to send a human back-and-forth, and no that’s not an option. The guy we hired didn’t take too much of a comission. The $25 we gave him covered all his expenses plus our bus tickets.
The horse-and-buggy is still a popular form of transportation in Debark and many other towns in Ethiopia.