Hiking the Roof of Africa

Ethiopia’s Simien Mountains and Bale National Park. The mention of Ethiopia as a hiking destination – across the roof of Africa, no less – may bring surprise and intrigue in equal measure to most. After all, there is a surprising lack of available information on the 17-day trek from the Simien Mountains near Debark to the historic village of Lalibela.

Never having been to Africa before I didn’t think my first visit to the continent would be trekking in mountainous terrain, but Mitiku, a local Ethiopian mountain guide from Debark ensured us it would be a great adventure.

Simien National Park

One of the best ways to start an Ethiopian adventure is with a tour of the castles of Gondar (or Gonder).

Who would’ve thought that castles reminiscent of King Arthur’s reign could be found in the landlocked country located in the Horn of Africa? Gondar previously served as the capital of Ethiopian Empire and the city still has the remains of several royal castles and is often referred to as the “Camelot of Africa”. A local guide in Gondar is part of the entrance requirements to view the castle which is a World Heritage site. However, with their knowledge and training, it is well worth the small cost required to enter the site.

After a day in Gondar, trekking guides will purchase supplies for the trek before embarking on a 1.5-hour drive to Debark – and to the UNESCO registration and permit office for Simien National Park. It’s also where you can pick up a scout, a requirement of the National Park Authority. It may sound daunting to have a scout with a Kalashnikov following your trekking party but rest assured the weapons are not used very often.

Thirty minutes on from the National Park entrance takes you to the beginning of the trek – the first day is a four-hour acclimatisation hike to the campsite with stunning views. You may have your initial encounter with the unique Ethiopian primate – the Geladas (aka “bleeding heart monkey”), baboon-sized monkeys which only live in the high mountain meadows of Ethiopia. The Geladas live in family groups and you may encounter hundreds during your few days trekking in the Simien Mountains just grazing peacefully in their native homelands.

Sankaber to Ras Dejen

With much of the massif sitting above 3,000m, the Simien Mountains involve high altitude trekking. The first camp is Sankaber at 3,250m, which offers spectacular views of the canyon. Over the next few days, you’ll trek to Gich via the Jinbar waterfall, then onto Chennek which has some of the most spectacular views in the National Park. A highlight will be trekking along the mountain ridges with little idea of the surrounding landscape due to low cloud. You can stop for a tea break and when the clouds part, you may find yourself sitting amidst a hundred Gelada baboons – definitely an extraordinary experience.

After four days of trekking, you’ll be at Ambiquo having visited Mt Buwahit, believed to be the second-highest peak in Ethiopia. An even higher peak awaits on day five. After a 3 am start from the campsite – you’ll summit Ras Dajen at 4,543m, the highest peak in Ethiopia.

The views in the Simien Mountains National Park and from the top of Ras Dejen are nothing short of breathtaking. In addition to the views, the endemic wildlife in the park – the Geladas, Walia Ibex, and incredible birdlife – make it a nature-based trekking experience not to be missed. However, it’s also not for the faint of heart.

Ras Dejen to Lalibela

From Ras Dejen, you’ll begin your journey into the lowlands, trekking through rural villages, camping on the Sava River, onto Debra Selam, walking across the Tekeze river (the largest river in Ethiopia and one which uses hydroelectric power), through to Sekota after 12 days of hiking. The hike through these regions can be very challenging, especially once you hit the lowlands.

When we were there, the wet season rains had not arrived earlier in the year, leaving many of the waterways and rivers without adequate supply. Also, the daytime temperatures reached into the mid to high 30’s. In the villages we walked through, many villagers had to walk for up four hours per day just to obtain water.

Instead of continuing on foot to Lalibela, you can take a local bus from Sekota to Lalibela. You can spend a couple of days walking through and marvelling over the extraordinary rock-hewn churches of Lalibela and immersing yourself in the history of Ethiopia.
You can fly back to Addis Ababa; alternatively, you can extend your trip and explore the Bale Mountains.

Bale National Park

Bale National Park is around a 400km drive from Addis Ababa – the first 100kms are along a modern, multi-lane freeway built by the Chinese as part of their One Belt One Road Strategy. However, once the freeways finish, you’ll encounter the more traditional
rural roads for the remainder of the journey, complete with single lanes, huge potholes, and the occasional camels, goats, and dogs travelling along the roads.

You can opt to overnight at Lake Zway en route, one of the freshwater Rift Valley lakes of Ethiopia, where you can experience the
extraordinary birdlife in this region. You may be able to spot great Pelicans, Sacred Ibis, African Maribous, and countless other
wading birds.

A 4-hour drive will bring you to the Bale Mountains, where it’s estimated that only around 200 people a year trek into. The Park is dominated by giant lobelia trees, and the trekking is more or less “up and down”, with the Park being located high on the Sanetti Plateau.

Much of the walking is above 3,000m which make for magnificent days, but very cold nights. One of the highlights of visiting Bale is spotting the elusive Ethiopian wolf, which you can see on almost every trekking day (we saw around 20 in total throughout
our trek). You may also encounter warthogs, mountain nyalas, Menelik’s bushbuck, and an incredible number of birds, including spectacular birds of prey such as the Augur-Buzzard and Lammergeiers.

The Bale trek starts at the Park Headquarters in Donsho, and you trek to Adelay via the Geysay valley and the Web River. From Adelay to Sodoto, you’ll hike across the Kotera Plains amidst giant 6m Lobelias, with one-night camping at the beautiful Habera waterfall. From here, you’ll trek through the Wolla Valley (where you can spot numerous birds) and the lava plains of the Sennati plateau before meeting your transport back to Addis Ababa.

There were many highlights of our trekking adventure in Ethiopia, but the one standout for me was the extraordinary effort our guides, chef, porters, and others who made this experience a safe and memorable once-in-a-lifetime adventure. One thing is for sure: it won’t be my last visit to this part of the world.

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