The Ethiopian highlands must be one of the most impressive mountain areas in Africa – but also one of the least known. Certainly it is little known amongst the hiking fraternity, although it has been on my list for a long time. Last year, after a sight-seeing week in Ethiopia which included flying over the Simien Mountains, I decided to arrange a proper hiking tour. This was done through Jo Meintjes here in Johannesburg and FK Explorers of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. The plan was to spend eight days in the Simien Mountains (900km north of Addis Ababa) and then six days in the Bale Mountains (400km south of Addis Ababa). The party was made up of four JHC people – Jim Arnett, Britta Freitag, Kristen Hammond and Dick Carlisle, and we all met in Addis Ababa on Saturday 12 November 2005. This is the best time of year for hiking – after the rains (June to Sept/Oct) but whilst it is still green and relatively lush. Days are pleasantly warm and sunny, and nights usually go below freezing.
The next morning we flew (by Ethiopian Airlines - an excellent airline!) to the ancient city of Gondar at the north end of Lake Tana. At one time it was the capital of Ethiopia, and has many castles of which King Arthur would have been proud. From there we went by road (on roads that no-one could be proud of) to the Simien Mountains National Park entrance at Debark, then on to the first camp site at Sankaber. The following day we started hiking, and five days later reached the top of Ras Deshen at 4 620 meters, the highest point in Ethiopia.
FK Explorers supplied all the food and equipment, the guides and cooks, and mules and muleteers to carry all the baggage – and even the hikers sometimes. We were also accompanied at all times by an elderly man from the National Parks who was armed with an AK47. We were not sure if he was there to guard us or to see that we did not do anything that we shouldn’t. But we looked after him when he became ill, and treated him from our medical supplies, and got him back safely to base. Most of the hiking is along the edge of the escarpment, with sheer cliffs and high points and deep gullies and waterfalls, and fanastic views to the north to Eritrea and beyond. And then it was down the escarpment, over a river and up the other side - and up and up - to the top of Ras Deshen. That’s when it came in useful to ride the mules, but it was debatable whether it wasn’t harder work than walking! From there, it was more or less the same route back to Sankaber and Gondar.
There is not a lot of wild life in the Simien, but we did see large troops of Gelada baboons, which are like our own baboon but, especially the males, have long, thick, golden, flowing manes. They are also known as the lion monkey for obvious reasons. The Lammergeier seemed quite common, and the Thick-billed Raven was very common, and always looking for scraps. We also saw (we think) the Walia Ibex, a very rare and endangered species of wild goat. They live on nearly vertical cliff faces and narrow ledges, but even with binoculars I’m not sure if I saw it. A very common plant at these altitudes is the Giant Lobelia, which of course also occurs high up on Mt Kenya, Kilimanjaro, Mountains of the Moon etc.
Back in Gondar we had one night at a hotel in a magnificent position but with very mediocre food, and the next day flew back to Addis Ababa, and then set off south by road, on bad roads, heading for the Bale Mountains National Park. By now we were down to two hikers, Jim and me, as the ladies were off doing what ladies do when they’re not hiking. After a night at the Park HQ at Dinsho, we hiked up onto the Sanetti Plateau, which is similar to the Simien and at the same sort of altitude ie about 3 500, rising to well over 4000 meters. We were lucky enough to see from a distance a few of the rare, and endangered, Simien Fox, also known as the Abyssinian Wolf, and in Amharic (Ethiopian) its name means Red Jackal. Despite its various names it is not a fox or a wolf or a jackel, but scientists put it in the dog family with a category all its own. As far as we could see from a distance, it is not unlike an Alsatian dog with a beautiful golden coat.
After Bale, we returned to Addis Ababa by a different route, first on a rough road again, until getting onto good tarmac, which is the main road from Nairobi and the Kenya border at Moyale, and follows the Great Rift Valley with lots of lakes and flamingoes, and presumably the road eventually gets to Cairo. After another night in a ho-hum hotel, we flew back to Johannesburg on Tuesday 29 November, after a very worthwhile tour seeing only part of an interesting country.
We can strongly recommend Ethiopia for people looking for good hiking, or other kinds of holidays. In a lot of ways it is a backward and little-developed place, especially when it comes to tourism, but perhaps that’s not a bad thing. Hiking there is not cheap, and maybe there are other companies who could offer better rates than FK Explorers but I could not find them. It is a very historical and religious country, going back to Christian and pre-Christian times with a wealth of churches, castles, tombs etc., and other places of interest.