Trekking in a prehistoric landscape

By Henry Wismayer
Globe Correspondent / November 14, 2010

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SIMIEN MOUNTAINS NATIONAL PARK, Ethiopia — As dilemmas go, this was a good one: Watch 50-odd monkeys cavorting across an escarpment studded with giant lobelias or keep drinking in the scene beyond the crags around Chenek camp, where the rising sun was peeling back the shadows to reveal an endless expanse of buttes and mesas. In the end I went with the monkeys. Plenty more opportunity to gawp at the lowlands, I thought.

I had spent the last few days discovering what happens when geothermal explosions and erosion conspire to sculpt a precipice more than 37 miles long. Conclusion: If the natural world took to getting jacked-up on steroids, the result would look something like the Simien Mountains National Park in northern Ethiopia.

The Gich Abyss is a showstopper we encounter within an hour of Dawoud Su layman, the park’s preeminent guide, leading us away from the Sankaber trailhead. At the time, standing above a horseshoe of giant, dun-colored cliffs, watching a slender cone of water vaporize into mist as it tumbled into a chasm so deep we could not see the bottom, I would have said the abyss alone was worth the journey. It turned out we were just getting started.

From that moment forward, the Simiens exerted a vise-like grip on our party: Dawoud and I up front, girlfriend Lucy — admirably tolerant of my tendency to scamper ahead — chaperoned by Alemu, the obligatory scout. While Dawoud had talked a lot, Alemu hadn’t said anything beyond “en heed’’ (let’s go). But it was clear that Alemu loved his bolt-action rifle. It never left the crook of his shoulder, even in slumber. Thankfully, his was one of the last weapons left.

From 1983 to 1999, the park was closed to visitors because of nearby political strife, first the Tigrayan rebel movement, later the drawn-out conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrea. But times have changed. Increasing visitor numbers and the opening of the Simien Lodge, said to be Africa’s highest-altitude hotel at over 10,800 feet, attest to the ever-louder bleep the Simiens are emitting on the intrepid trekker’s radar. To come here now felt like beating the stampede.

So, why the gun? “To warn away the kids,’’ Dawoud had claimed. Research later suggested this was overkill; when we weaved through Gich village, not a single child threw a grenade. Several shouted hello. Most just ran away.

Indeed, other than the absolute-certain-death-scenario of keeling off a cliff, our biggest problem had been the weather. But the roiling mantle of purple-gray that drenched us that first afternoon had subsided next dawn, as we started northeast to join the morning commute. Rush-hour began up a slope to our left — a dozen or so simian silhouettes cantering along an outcrop. Soon the numbers multiplied: 20, 50, 100 . . .

As the mob of monkeys surrounded us, Dawoud reeled off the behavioral quirks that have made their species — the gelada baboon — Ethiopia’s biggest wildlife draw: “They spend the night in cliff-side caves,’’ he said. “In the morning they come back onto the escarpment to graze, to groom. They are busy all day long.’’ The herd before us comprised several “harems,’’ each bossed by an alpha male with leonine incisors and rock-star mane. The troublemakers bringing up the rear were a posse of bachelor-pretenders, their medley of barks and leaps a “strength display’’ designed to test the alphas’ resolve.

Over the next couple of days we would enjoy several more gelada encounters, all significantly more tranquil. At Chenek, where sightings are almost guaranteed, they were happy to pick through the tussock-grasses at Lucy’s feet, completely unperturbed by their primate relatives invading their feeding grounds.

As the brouhaha moved on so did we, an hour’s stroll bringing us back to the escarpment rim where a whip-crack of splintered rock wound and rippled out into the void for 500 yards, before terminating at the hummock known as Imet Gogo. The wraparound views that emerged once we scrambled onto this small plateau reminded me of a fellow writer’s celebrated exposition: “The most marvelous of all Abyssinian landscapes opened before us. . . . ’’

Traveling here in the 1920s, the British adventuress Rosita Forbes would go on to describe the plains of pinnacles and mesa-like mountains below as chess pieces of the gods. But now the metaphor seemed too genteel. The shapes I saw were violent: The ravine behind us the blow of battle axe; the table peak in the distance the anvil from a blacksmith’s forge; the ephemeral abutments disappearing into the haze; these were the raised scar tissue of subterranean skirmish, remnants of a titans’ war.

Such impressions weren’t too far from reality; science’s explanation is equally traumatic. The clue was in the buttes. They marked the locations of long-extinct volcanic vents which, a few dozen million years back, pumped out a superheated ooze of lava that solidified over time into a gargantuan igneous dome of basalt over two miles thick. Five million years ago an ice age added the finishing touches, as mighty glaciers kick-started the process of gnawing away the cliffs that fell away all around us.

One US tourist summed up the end result rather well: “A bit like half the Grand Canyon,’’ he said, “only grander.’’ The views pretty much shut everyone up after that.

From Imet Gogo our route took us over a rumpled meadow of intertwining headwaters which, chaotic underfoot, looked filigreed and ordered when we looked down on them later from high vantage. The uphill tract in between wove through knots of wizened heather trees draped in lichen — the only landscape within the Simiens that didn’t feel huge and unfamiliar. Above them, the terrain always returned to alpine moorland, sun-yellowed plains dominated by giant lobelia: aliens in our midst.

Walking ahead, I was going solo when I ran into a young herdsman in a maroon blanket. “My name is Tazo,’’ the boy said. “Have you seen the fox?’’

I followed the line of his pointing finger to where a statuesque beast with a slender muzzle and flame-colored fur was slaloming in-and-out of the lobelia about 55 yards away: an Ethiopian wolf, the world’s most endangered canid (or “dog’’ if you’re not a taxonomist). A census released in June revealed that the Simiens’ wolf population has increased fivefold since 1996, when the ongoing issue of habitat loss landed the national park on UNESCO’s list of World Heritage Sites in Danger. This resident hardly gave me a second glance.

Beyond the fox’s plateau domain, the trail uncoiled through a pea-soup cloud that clawed over the lip, intermittently reducing visibility to a few yards — unnerving when you are walking within a foot of a mile-high drop. Chenek camp, an agglomeration of tin-roofed scout huts lining the precipice, was a welcome reward for a long day’s effort. The other trekkers we had seen on Imet Gogo, perhaps fearing another deluge, had doubled-back to Gich, leaving Chenek’s shelters and scattering of concrete viewpoint benches for us alone.

We spent the afternoon and much of the next morning simpering over monkey-business and picking out sabre-horned walia ibex trotting along the tiered crags we had tripped up and over the day before. With the end of our time here drawing close, I roped in Dawoud for one last kick uphill.

At around midday we clambered onto the Bua Heed Pass and stood with feet crunching in pockets of hail while looking down on a mosaic of scorched fields, where the temperature would have been pushing 90. In the distance loomed the broad-shouldered hulk of Ras Dashen, Ethiopia’s highest peak, consistently cited by the country’s self-aggrandizing tourism officials as the fourth highest in Africa. In fact, Dawoud admitted with a wry smile, it’s ninth.

Someone should tell them: In the Simiens, no such exaggeration is necessary.

Henry Wismayer can be reached at

If You Go

Planning your trip
The Simiens can be visited year-round, but a trip during Ethiopia’s main dry season, from October to March, guarantees the clearer views from the escarpment. It’s possible to drive into the park, either in your own vehicle or on a day tour out of Gonder, on the dirt road that bisects it from west to east. But the best way to enjoy both scenery and wildlife is on foot.
The author’s trek followed a classic itinerary starting at Sankaber and traveling through Gich and Chenek. Independent travelers can arrange guides, porters, and equipment hire at the National Park office in Debark. Note that all visitors must stop here to pay entrance fees ($6 per person per day), and to arrange a scout ($2.50 per day), mandatory for each group entering the park.
How to get there
Addis Ababa, the capital, is served by a number of international carriers. From there, internal flights with Ethiopian Airlines (www.ethiopianair leave daily for the medieval fortress town of Gonder — 60 miles south of the Simien Mountains National Park — where it is possible to arrange tours and stock up on supplies. The park is located just west of Debark, around 670 miles north of Addis Ababa along Route 3.
Where to stay
Billing itself as the “highest hotel in Africa,’’ the Simien Lodge (, 011-251-582-310-741) sits more than 10,000 feet above sea level on the western edge of the park. Well-appointed, solar-heated rooms housed in brick-walled roundhouses come with all Western amenities. Twins cost $152 per night. Passable budget options in Debark are the Giant Lobelia Hotel (011-251-581-170-566) and Hotel Imet Gogo (011-251-581-170-634). Both offer basic rooms for $15-$25 per night.
Tour agencies
Learn Ethiopia (www.learneth, 011-252-911-637-211) specializes in organizing tours throughout Ethiopia’s northern circuit. They can arrange tailor-made treks in the company of local guide Dawoud Sulayman — including food, accommodations, transfers, and logistics — to suit a range of budgets.