Ethiopia’s Simien Mountains: an easy trek in mindbogglingly spectacular scenery

In Ethiopia by Richard16 Comments

Gelada baboon at Chennek

Gelada baboon at Chennek

Final descent to Chennek, day 3

Final descent to Chennek, day 3

Walia ibex at Chennek

The summit of Inatye (4,070 meters), the highest point of our four-day hike

The summit of Inatye (4,070 meters), the highest point of our four-day hike

Kilimanjaro, Mount Kenya, the Otter Trail, Toubkal: Africa has some incredible hiking; sad to say I’ve done none of them yet (although I did make it half way up Toubkal many years ago).     Add to that list the Simian Mountains in Ethiopia. Ethiopia doesn’t immediately spring to mind as prime hiking country, yet although well-known these days for the incredible rock-hewn churches of Lalibela (a popular candidate for the ‘Eighth Wonder of the World’) and as the alleged site of the Arc of the Covenant (said to contain the Ten Commandments: remember it from the end of Raiders of the Lost Arc?), it has two world-class trekking destinations.

Near Sankabar

Near Sankabar

Various succulents…

...and Abyssinian roses (Africa's onlt indigenous rose species) are both common sights along the route

…and Abyssinian roses (Africa’s only indigenous rose species) are both common sights along the route

Giant lobelia are also common between Geech and Chennek

Giant lobelia are also common between Geech and Chennek

The first, the Bale Mountains in the south of the country, would be a popular magnet for hikers in almost any other African country, since  (apparently – I haven’t been) they offer magnificent scenery along with a good chance of seeing a variety of very rare endemic mammals.  Ethiopia, however, also has the spellbinding Simien Mountains, which not only offer possibly the most jaw-droppingly spectacular scenery I’ve ever seen (think vast, vast panoramas from the brink of incredible vertical cliffs which must be at least eight or nine hundred meters high in places), but also happen to offer easy, simple multi-day trekking and lie just two hours from one of Ethiopia’s most popular tourist towns.

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Near Chennek

Near Chennek

Chennek

Before sunset at Chennek (day 3)

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Gelada baboons are absolutely fearless of humans, and will allow you to come right up to them!

Thanks to recent improvements in the road, the entrance to the Simien Mountains National Park lies just two hours from Gonder, one of the four main stops  in Ethiopia’s prime tourist attraction, the so-called ‘Historic Circuit.’ This is a huge loop of over 2,000 kilometers linking the capital, Addis Ababa, with the ancient capitals of Axum, Lalibela and Gonder, plus the newer city of Bahir Dar, on the banks of vast Lake Tana in the northwest. The Historic Route is the backbone of most visitors’ first trip to this utterly astounding country.

The summit of Imet Gogo (3,925 meters)

The summit of Imet Gogo (3,925 meters)

Around Imet Gogo (on the morning of day three), the scenery, which has been amazing all the way, suddenly rises several notches and starts becoming truly mind-boggling...

Around Imet Gogo (on the morning of day three), the scenery, which has been amazing all the way, suddenly rises several notches and starts becoming truly mind-boggling…

Our scout below Imet Gogo, en route to Mount Inatye

Below Imet Gogo, en route to Mount Inatye

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We were in Ethiopia for just three weeks (not even close to enough!) but managed to fit a four-day trek in the Simiens into our schedule.  How to describe the place? One thing that constantly surprised me is the glaring gap between the universally ecstatic reports of this place and uniformly underwhelming photos of the place  that are posted up on the Net. Yeah, it looks impressive, but that old truism that great places never look nearly as good in photos as in real life is only too true here. The Simien Mountains are the full deal – incredibly spectacular scenery, rare and enchanting endemic wildlife, a friendly and endlessly fascinating people, and a smidgen of the country’s extraordinary, time-warp culture (although you’d be better visiting Axum, Lalibela or the rock-hewn churches of Tigray for example  to experience the full force of Ethiopia’s  spellbinding cultural uniqueness: in some places it feels like a film set for some movie set in Biblical times).

The endemic Walia ibex are supposedly extemely rare (now found only in the Simian Mountains), but a herd calming hovered on the edge of the camp at Chennek the evening we arrived, and seemed none too shy as I cautiously approached

The endemic Walia ibex are supposedly extremely rare (now found only in the Simien Mountains), but a herd calmly hovered on the edge of the camp at Chennek the evening we arrived, and seemed none too shy as I cautiously approached

Fantastic scenery near Chennek

Fantastic scenery near Chennek

More amazing views from the escarpment en route to Chennek

More amazing views from the escarpment en route to Chennek

Giant lobelia plants punctuate the route between Geech and Chennek

Giant lobelia plants punctuate the route between Geech and Chennek

The Simien Mountains reach their highest point at Ras Dashen (4,543 meters) which is variously described as the fourth or fifth highest mountain in Africa (its exact height varies, according to which map you look at). Getting to the summit (which is outside the National Park border) and back takes a full week or more, but, for once, the highest point doesn’t form the focal point of most Simien Mountains trekkers’ itinerary. It’s generally agreed that the best scenery in the Simians lies  on the popular 3-5 day trekking route that lies completely within the National Park boundary, and it’s hard to believe anyone doing that could be less than gobsmacked by the stunning scenery almost all the way. Add to this the fact that this is one of the simplest, least strenuous high  mountain treks I’ve ever done, and the Simien Mountains are an absolute winner. As a rough guide, among other treks I’ve done, the level of difficulty (or ease, really) of the popular 4-5 day Simian loop trek is similar to Yushan or Snow Mountain in Taiwan, a good bit easier than the Inca Trail, a great deal less tiring than Kinabalu, and an utter walk-in-the-park compared to the painfully strenuous (and muddy!) 6-day Central Circuit of the Ruwenzoris (or Mountains of the Moon) in Uganda (which includes Africa’s third highest mountain, and is sadly the only other real trek I’ve done in the Dark Continent to date).

Heading down after Inatye

Heading down after Inatye

On the escarpment

On the escarpment

The sheer face of Inatye (day 3)

The sheer face of Inatye (day 3)

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Near the summit of Inatye

Anyway, the Simien Mountains are an absolute must-do for any self-respecting trekker if they’re in Africa. Think of it as a relaxing postlude to a climb up Kilimanjaro, Mount Kenya of the Ruwenzories, or just book a flight to Ethiopia and spend as long as you can just exploring the country. I’m prone to exaggerating on occasion, but I’m not over-stating things by saying that my recent three-week trip to Ethiopia was probably the most amazing, adventurous trip I’ve ever done. It’s that good.

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The escarpment on the ascent to Inatye

On the ascent to Inatye

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ORGANISING A TRIP

Once you’ve got yourself to Ethiopia, it’s dead easy! Travelling around Ethiopia is pretty simple by African standards, and any traveller who’s explored independently a few other third world countries and thus knows the basic ropes should have no major problems. People there speak English, transport connections are improving all the time, and it’s really cheap.

Day one: en route to Chennek

Day one: en route to Chennek

At the viewpoint over the spectacular Geech abyss (Day 2)

At the viewpoint over the spectacular Geech abyss (Day 2)

With our scout

With our scout

Sunset at Geech camp

Sunset at Geech camp

Geech village, just below Geech camp

Geech village, just below Geech camp

The jumping-off point for Simien Mountains trips is Gonder (or Gondar, one of Ethiopia’s old capitals, famous for its walled enclosure full of ruined castles). From there it’s now just 2 hours by local bus or minibus to Debark, near the entrance to the Simian Mountains National Park: the road has recently been surfaced from Gonder as far as Debark (they were paving the road through town on our visit, making it a dustier place than ever).

Once in Debark, it’s easy and quick to arrange a trek, which can be sorted out in a hour or so: the National Park office on the southern (Gonder) edge of town can arrange the (compulsory) armed scout and entrance fees, plus an optional guide, mules (plus mule drivers: porters aren’t used in the Simians), and a cook. We went the whole hog and got the lot, plus a lift by car for the 12 or so kilometers from Debark to the Simian Lodge, inside the park gate, where the spectacular scenery begins and we started the walk (saving 4 or 5 long hours of walking along the road from Debark to the park gate, which is scenic enough but in nothing like the same league as the remainder of the hike). At the end of the trip, we paid for another lift from Sankabar back to Debark, as the alternative would be to follow the dirt road all the way back (2 long and very dusty days). In the Simians (as in Ethiopia as a whole) most things are very cheap, and National Park entrance fees, the scout, guide, mules and drivers, and cook are pretty cheap. Getting dropped inside the park on the other hand is really expensive: 1,400 birr (US$75) by car from Debark to Sankabar, and a whopping 2,400 birr (NS$130) from Chennek back to Debark, but it’s worth it. With the help of the car, we hiked what’s generally regarded as the best part of the Simian Mountains in 4 days, walking from the Simian Lodge to Sankabar on day one (2-3 hours), from Sankabar to Geech (Gich) on the second day, and on the magnificent third day, hiking Geech to Chennek (a hike which absolutely shouldn’t be missed!) These two days both took 7-8 hours at a leisurely pace. The fourth and last day turned out to be a bit of a cheat, as we simply wandered around by ourselves around Chennek camp for a couple of hours (an incredibly scenic spot, by the way) and then caught the car (when it finally turned up) back to Debark (a 2-hour drive) in the afternoon. We could have probably just made the summit of Bwahit (4,430 meters), which rises above Chennek camp, if we were quick, and returned late afternoon back to Debark, but after three fabulous days’ hiking (and three mind-blowing weeks in Ethiopia) we were happy to get back to a hottish shower and a proper bed. Talking about beds, although most trekkers still camp, there are now very OK huts at Sankabar, Chennek and Geech camps, with real beds (!) cleanish sheets and blankets. We had no problem with fleas (apparently a big problem in many cheap Ethiopian hotels), and all three nights were far more comfortable than those I’ve spent in huts in the Taiwan mountains. The price per night also works out about the same as renting a tent and sleeping bag (ie very cheap).

At the Geech Abyss

At the Geech Abyss

Giant lobelia at Chennek

Giant lobelia at Chennek

The the trail between Geech and Imet Gogo

The the trail between Geech and Imet Gogo

The gelada baboons are an undisputed highlight of the Simian Mountains

The gelada baboons are an undisputed highlight of the Simian Mountains trek

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If I had one minor problem with the whole trip, it’s that Simien Mountains treks are big business these days and guides, cooks etc are just beginning to realise how to wring a little extra money out of hikers. It’s all very good-natured and easy enough to avoid, but guides will try to add extra days that aren’t really needed (we could have done the trek in three long days and still got out of the National Park before the gates closed for the night at 6 pm), the cook tried to buy up half the food in Debark for our four-day trip (for example she tried to buy FIFTY good-sized bread rolls for two of us, for just three days!!), and the cost of private transport to-and-from the Park is simply a rip-off. In the end though we still spent only about US$450 between two of us, and had an absolutely awesome time.

Chennek Camp (day 3)

Chennek Camp (day 3)

Gelada baboon on the escarpment near Sankabar

Gelada baboon on the escarpment near Sankabar

The view along the escarpment from Sankabar camp

The view along the escarpment from Sankabar camp

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Comments

  1. My kind of trip. At first I thought Ethiopa? But I like going somewhere a little different than others and it looks incredible.

    1. Author

      You’ll have the time of you life if you do go! Enjoy (and try to get to the Danakil Depression, if you go at a time when the trips are running).

  2. If you start your trip in Sankabar or buyit ras(simien lodge) – where do you hire the mules ? and where do you pay for it ?
    Thanks

    1. Author

      We hired mules only from day two in Sankabar, where some of the mule-drivers hang out, and carted all the stuff from Debark to Sankabar on the first day by the same car we were riding. Hope this helps!

      1. Thanks !
        So you hired in Sankabar, and paid them, or paid in advance in simien park office ?

  3. Thanks for the detailed account and for the great pictures, this gives me the best idea of the track from everything else I read!
    You mention that ‘there are now very OK huts at Sankabar, Chennek and Geech camps, with real beds (!) cleanish sheets and blankets’. Where can we get some info about these, is it possible to book these or arrange with the guides? I guess the guides would not be interested to mention or arrange these as they would prefer to sell their tent/sleeping bag service?

    1. Author

      Thanks Milosh, and glad you found the blog useful! If, like us, you’re organising the trip yourself, it’s dead easy to organise huts at the park office in Debark, along with everything else. We spent all three nights by ourselves, so it was pretty comfortable, although that’s in comparison with mountain huts in Taiwan and Japan I’ve stayed in, which are really, grotty! The main place we had to watch for fairly shameless (although good-natured and possibly innocent) price-gouging, was when buying food. Our cook tried to buy up half the market (they’ll eat your food themselves) so we had to constantly politely stop her trying to buy way too much (like 40 bread rolls for a 4-day trek for 2 people…)! No need to say enjoy the trip, as I’m pretty sure you’ll be awestruck by the Simians!

    2. No matter what, don’t take a guide in simien mountains, waste of time, money and quiet.

      The mule man can get some beds for you when he arrives at the camp.

      1. Author

        Sure, there’s no need for a guide (the mule handler knows the way, which is generally easy to find anyway), but they probably won’t speak any English, and the guide (who can) can hopefully answer a lot of questions about the area, the wildlife, flora etc, and point out animals you’d never see or identify on your own, making for a richer experience. It’s worth trying to get a recommended guide though – ours (which we couldn’t recommend!) gently tried to wheedle a bit of extra money out of us in several ways (and don’t forget the tip at the end which you’ll be pressurized to give to everyone in your group!), but still very glad we took a guide – it’s not exactly expensive, plus it goes directly to locals – I’m sure the guides there don’t get to go out every week, so it’s important income for them.

  4. Too bad westerners live and die by the picture the media paint of any place. The “tar all” media focus only on a slice of time and a slice of place, and always on the sensational. The consumer is for ever cheated and beguiled, unaware to his blindness and ignorance. You would think that Ethiopia sprouted spectacular scenery (80% of Africa’s high ground), impossible clifftop monasteries, wonderful rock hewn churches, boiling lava lakes, a yawning Rift Valley swarming with legions of birds, and exotic culture in just a decade. But travelers know better.

    Few places on the planet are as beautiful or charming as Ethiopia is. I saw this mountain range over thirty years ago. It stayed in my memory bright, fresh, and lucid all those years, like a dream of heaven. I used to bring it up in happy hour conversations whenever travelers discussed journeys. I am afraid that not too few thought, politely and quietly, that I had imbibed one too many or was prone to exaggeration .

    How do you tell a zealot that it is all in his head?

    1. I was born in Ethiopia i and left my beloved country in 1983. I have had the privilege to travel all over the world and experience different cultures and landscapes. Nothing compares to the Ethiopian countryside. I have since been back many times and have traveled all over Ethiopia. It is so diverse in so many ways that I find it hard to explain to others what a magical place it is. I am lucky in that I am fluent in Amharic and Tigrigna and get all the cultural nuances in taxis, buses, or simply hanging out with locals. Ethiopia is home to 75 dialects and numerous ethnic groups. The food is amazing and highly evolved (6K years old! Which 90% is considered now as a super food by western health nuts). It makes me so happy to see that others have gone there and experienced it for themselves. I am not exaggerating when I say people cry at the airport when leaving… people may seem to be materially poor to some (hey they own their land downright with no bank mortgage hovering over their heads!) but are rich in spirit, humanity and dignity. Peace reigns supreme there.
      I will be there trekking to Ras Dashen in late August, 2015. Can’t wait! Thank you for sharing this blog with us and the pictures.

      Selam Lante’

      1. Author

        Thanks for writing! I’m not surprised to hear you’re so proud of your country. Ethiopia is one of my very favorite places to date – it’s a quite extraordinary place. Enjoy the hike to Ras Dashem! Maybe I’ll make it that far next time.

  5. This is great, and so helpful to read! I’m a female travelling alone and am planning to visit the Simian mountains for a similar trek in September. Do you think that travelling/trekking alone will be an issue? Or will the cost be inflated as I’m not splitting the hike with anyone?

    I was hopeful that there may be enough people with similar thoughts that I could tag on to a group.

    1. Author

      Thanks! Glad it was useful! When we were in the area, it was easy to meet other people and split the costs (although we booked up at the village around the national park entrance area and the price was pretty low, even for just two of us). The only relatively expensive part of the trek was paying for the drive back at the end, which is pretty inflated, although you could of course walk in and back out again. The only thing that might make it harder, both to find others to trek with, and on the walk itself, is that September is the end of the rainy season in the Simian Mountains. The end of the month would be better than the beginning. Have a great time though – it’s spectacular!

      1. The only extra charge is the scout (75 birr/day, 2013, plus extra day of payment), the mule+muleman(130 birr/day, for one mule, which can carry upto 45kg)
        guide- no need at all
        as for the drive back – you can take a lift with a truck (since it’s forbidden for them, they will welcome a payment of 300-500 birr, to take you back). a car will cost about 1500 birr
        or if you find other ppl, since you are only one, there is a good probability you can join their shuttle

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