Yes, there are mountains in Ethiopia… in fact, a lot of Ethiopia is actually mountainous highlands, which is perhaps counter to what most people think of when they think of Ethiopia (I would guess most people probably think of famine when they think of Ethiopia, even though there hasn’t been a famine here for almost thirty years). In case you couldn’t tell by the whole walk-across-Spain-thing I did, I very much enjoy walking (and I know that several of you reading this have gone on walks with me previously). So, when I actually flipped through the guidebook to Ethiopia and saw that trekking was popular here, I figured I was going to have to do it. For the record, there are two main trekking areas in the country, the Simien Mountains in the north (simien actually means north in amharic) and the Bale Mountains to the south. I had been keeping an eye on the lonely planet thorntree forum for groups going on either area, and had sent out a couple of e-mails to folks looking for additional trekkers. As luck would have it, I found a small group of folks looking to go on a 6-day trek in the Simien Mountains at some dates that worked for me… we exchanged e-mails and it was a go (the more people, the less the cost per person in these types of treks). Once we figured out the final logistical details, I took off from Addis Ababa to do some sightseeing around Bahir Dar before heading up to the city of Gondar where I would meet everyone and be picked up to start the trek.
I figured on taking about the same amount of stuff I took on the Camino… one change of clothes, a light windbreaker, some toiletries and a kindle to maybe pass some time in the tent if necessary. Of course it’d be a little colder in the mountains, so I bought a thick sweater in Addis and decided I’d better bring a pair of jeans and a scarf (November is the dry season in Ethiopia, so I was assured that I wouldn’t have to worry about rain). And all my stuff fit in a regular size backpack, so I wouldn’t have much to carry (if I chose to carry anything at since the trekking company does provide porters… more on that below). The trek was scheduled for six days, with drives to and from Gondar on the first and last days (about 4 hours each way). Each day we’d hike between 13 and 26 kilometers from campsite to campsite, and on the fifth day we’d summit Ras Dashen, Ethiopia’s highest mountain. Now, trekking in Ethiopia is a bit more of an expedition than trekking in some other places. There are no established huts (at least in the Simien Mountains), so you have to tent camp, and there’s really no place to buy food or water, so you have to bring all that stuff with you (from Gondar mostly, as the towns closer to the park have a very limited selection of stuff). Most people, us included, hire a trekking company out of Gondar to take care of the logistics for you… the company provides tents, sleeping bags, blankets, a cook, some helpers, porters, the food, the water and takes care of hiring the guide from the park service, paying the park permit and entrance fees, hiring the required armed scout and the mules and mule drivers necessary to move all that stuff from camp to camp (yes, really… there’s only one barely passable dirt road that runs through the mountains here, so most things are moved by mules). So, basically, all I had to do was show up with my stuff and walk from place to place, as the support folks would take care of cooking the meals, setting up camp and moving camp from one location to the next. Easy-peasy right? Yeah… well, mostly as it turned out.
There were five people (three guys and two girls) signed up for the trek… no one knew each other before, as we’d all come together via a lonely planet forum. However, for a completely random group of people, there were some funny coincidences for me. One guy, John, was an American currently living in Addis Ababa with his wife… and it turns out we went to the same high school, just nine years apart. The other guy, Lushen, was Chinese-born American working for an NGO in Tanzania… and it turns out we went to the same university, just nine years apart the other way. One girl, Irene, was a Spaniard from Galicia, which is the province where the Camino de Santiago ends (the spark of a lot of conversations between us). And the other girl, Javeeka, was an Australian working for an NGO in Nairobi Kenya, which is the country I’ll be visiting next (and then Tanzania). But, come on, how funny is it that… I’m basically on the other side of the world and a randomly meet a guy from my high school and one from my university… at the same time… go figure.
Everything kicked off just a touch late as Lushen’s plane was delayed… he was the only one flying in that morning. But the drive went fine, and we picked up our guide and scout in Debark prior to hitting the park entrance. As were running late, our guide cut the planned hike to the first camp in half (by driving a bit farther in) so we could all get settled in before dark. The hike went smoothly, and the first campsite had a pretty spectacular cliff-side setting… plus the food was good, the moon was full and we all were getting along. More of the same the second day… a bit colder, with some fog obscuring some of the views, but otherwise fine. But that night… oh what a surprise. Fist off, the second campsite was already much colder than then first as it was set in the middle of a sloping hill with no trees or wind protection of any kind (cold enough that I was wearing every single piece of warm clothing I had brought). And at around 10:00 PM it started to rain… hard, and not only was it raining (but it’s the dry season…. there’s not supposed to be any rain?), but there was a very strong wind blowing. At around 11:00 PM is when we find out that our tour operator hadn’t exactly provided us with the highest quality of tents. I was sharing a tent with John (the guy from my high school)… neither of us had fallen asleep yet, and we were actually both amazed we weren’t soaked yet given the intensity of the rain and wind. But just as we’re thinking that we hear Irene (our Spanish trekker) get out of her tent and yell that she’s soaked. John and I glance at each other with that look that says wow, that totally sucks, but we’re glad it’s not us, so we’ll just keep quite here. Of course, sweet, sweet karma, not more than five minutes after we exchanged that glance, I start to feel my butt getting wet. I get up and sure enough, my mattress and parts of my sleeping bag are soaked completely through. Fuck… well, we can’t stay in here now, so we both grab our things and make for the only real shelter around… which is the cooking hut. Sure enough, the other three people from our trekking group are there, as well as our whole entourage of help. No one’s going back outside anytime soon as it continues to pour… so we all lay down in a huddle on the concrete floor with whatever dry blankets and sleeping bags we can find… let me just say that not a lot of sleep was had that night. It rained pretty much the entire night, but stopped about and hour before dawn (and yes, I know this because I was still awake). I was not really prepared for wet weather (dry season right?)… so lots of rain was not going to be good (I had one semi-waterproof windbreaker, but it soaks through the seams with a lot of rain… and wet clothes in cold, wet weather is definitely not a good thing). Luckily, it hardly rained during the day, and it was, in fact, even sunny some of the time. We made the next camp without a problem, and ourselves and our entourage spent part of the evening drying out sleeping bags, mattresses and blankets over the fire in the cooking hut. Everything seemed like it would be fine as we put our freshly dried sleeping gear into the tents and settled down for bed… but not ten minutes later, the sky opened up again with a hail storm. Luckily, all of us, thinking it was going to rain, had packed our bags, and were basically ready to run for the shelter of the cooking hut… and once a break in the hail happened, that’s exactly what we did (mattresses, sleeping bags, blankets and all). After the previous night’s experience, everybody was little more prepared, so the cooking hut was a bit more organized this time (with buckets for the leaks in the roof and plastic tarps to put on the ground under the mattresses, sleeping bags and blankets), and we all managed to keep most of our sleeping gear dry, so this night was a bit more completable (as comfortable as sleeping on a concrete floor crammed together with 15 other people as hail bounces off the corrugated metal roof can be). Same as the previous night, it rained and hailed until an hour before dawn, at which point the storm broke and we had some nice sun for the day… although we did get to wake up to this:
Hiking the next day was more of the same, beautiful scenery, wildlife and unpredictable weather. We managed to make it most of the way to next camp before it began to rain again… this time while hiking, so John and I decided to try and rush ahead to get into camp before the storm really broke loose. Of course that only partially worked, as the last 3-4 kilometers was uphill… on a dirt path most of the way… so the last 30 minutes or so was spent slipping up any relatively steep slopes as the ground turned to mush beneath our feet. I was a bit muddy when I reached the camp, but neither too muddy nor too wet, which was nice. And it turned out to be a very good thing that we reached camp when we did as the rain began to take on deluge status, and continued that way for the next couple of hours (the rest of our group was very, very wet). However, at this point you might be thinking we’d be prepared for this eventuality after the previous two nights right… well, not exactly. There was a slight problem here, as the campsite we were now at did not have a true cooking hut. Mind you, there was a hut, but the walls were made of bamboo and the floor was made of dirt. Our entourage tied plastic tarps over the walls on the two windward sides to stop the wind from blowing the rain inside, but all the water that hit the tarps, naturally, created puddles on the ground, which started to turn the floor under the ceiling into mud… so, if the rain kept up, there was really no place to go (also noting that we know the tents will not hold up against any more water… they were even still wet from the previous two nights). Our guide and cook remained optimistic… just wait until after dinner they said… then we can see what happens. Which is what we did, while huddled in the dry spots under the roof of the cooking structure (doesn’t even really deserve to be called a hut) watching the sky. Fortunately, luck was on our side. The storm broke, and we were able to at least go to sleep with everything being relatively dry… all the while praying for it not to rain during the night. Again, fortunately, by the time our 4 AM wake up call rolled around (that day we were summitting Rash Dashen, Ethiopia’s highest mountain, and a 26-kilometer round trip, so an early start was necessary) we were still dry. The summit trip was successful, although the top of Ras Dashen was covered with snow (yes, snow in Ethiopia). John and I, given the track record of the previous couple of days, actually rushed back on the descent to beat any chance of rain, and to avoid slipping and sliding our way down the relatively steep dirt-turned-to-mud paths. But, again, no more rain that day or that evening, and we actually awoke to a very sunny morning for our last day’s hike back to the previous camp (where we would be picked up and driven back to Gondar). funny enough, the last day was actually the only part of the trek I didn’t enjoy… with our legs burnt from summitting the day before, we actually had to hike up a huge climb to get back to the previous camp (17 kilometers, with a 400 meter descent, followed by fording a river, followed by a 1,500 climb, followed by another 400 meter descent) for the car to pick us up (despite the road going all the way through to a village we stopped at halfway for coffee… they said they couldn’t pick us up there because the road was too dangerous for passenger vehicles to traverse past the last camp… although we did see plenty of trucks ans a couple of passenger vehicles on the road in that village). So, even though the last day was quite long (huge hike, actually the only part of the trek where I was really struggling to walk, followed by a four hour car ride back to Gondar), the trek was quite good, and the rain provided a little bit of adventure and some good memories.
As far as some stats on the trek…. over 6 days we walked approximately 90 kilometers and climbed approximately 12,450 meters (48,480 feet, or 9 miles)… so not easy by any means… lots of steep descents and climbs.
A couple of more observations. Despite it being a national park (designated so in 1969), plenty of people live here, and we passed several villages along the way (two of the campsites were adjacent to villages). In fact, I would say that most of the trekking paths, with some diversions, were simply the walking paths between the villages. Even the climb up to Ras Dashen (with the exception of the last part that heads off to the summit) is a path between villages… so we were continually passing, and being passed by, mule trains, livestock and people simply moving from place to place. The good thing is that you can never get lost as there’s always someone around, but the bad thing is that there is a lot of animal shit on the paths. So when it’s muddy, you get a lot of crap mixed up on your shoes, and when it’s hot, which I thought was worse, you get swarms of flies (another reason the rain, cold and cloud cover was actually a good thing, and also another reason why the last day was pretty miserable… a very warm morning on a well trod, and therefore, well shat, path). As these are small agricultural villages, the children, when they aren’t in school, are set out to mind the animals… so there are children everywhere, literally. It doesn’t matter how high you are, or how steep the mountain is, there are already 15 kids there… from 7 AM on, there is a constant stream of children saying hello, trying to sell you things, asking for money or pens, and generally just being curios (as children are want to do), about everything (which makes for interesting times when you peel off the group to go to the bathroom… you always get some onlookers/company… and the kids will literally run hundreds of yards straight up or down to watch you pass by on the path). Another thing the shepherds do, at least the boys do anyway, is sing, so there is generally a constant stream of singing echoing off the hills in the background… so very hard to imagine yourself on a solitary expedition, with the constant singing, children everywhere and the continuous stream of people walking by. As far as scenery goes, several of the trails basically follow right along the edges of huge cliffs, so those that are afraid of heights, or have a touch of vertigo, would not like portions of this trek… unfortunately for us, a lot of the time the view down was covered in clouds. Oh yes, and this being Africa and all, there are some wild animals… mostly Gelada Baboons and Ibex. As the people and animals that live here don’t ever seem to bother each other, the animals are used to having people around, and aren’t at all skittish or threatening to humans… so one could actually walk within about 25 feet of the both the baboons and ibex, something that was both really cool and slightly disconcerting (especially with the baboons as you know they could kill you if they wanted to). So there’s trekking in Ethiopia’s Simien Mountains… for those of you that are curious, the cost of the trek came out to about $375 USD per person…$300 for the trek itself and $75 towards tipping out everybody in the entourage (eight people in total… the guide, the cook, the scout and five mule handlers/helpers), or $62.50 per day, which I thought was a pretty good deal for what we got (despite the non-waterproof tents).