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Jun 2016

Words Sarah Kingdom

My husband and I went to Ethiopia on the spur of the moment. I’d been planning a trip for several months, but couldn’t quite work out how to fit it in before the hectic end of year and festive season arrived. Since I didn’t know when the chance would come up again, I just booked our flights in mid-November. A few days after our arrival, we were trekking in the Simien Mountains in the north of the country. 

In the Earth’s long history of dramatic geographical changes, the most recent volcanic upheavals have taken place in East Africa. Torrential rains in the region have created gushing rivers and waterfalls, which in turn have eroded much of the newly formed volcanic mountain massifs—leaving behind a broad plateau divided by gorges thousands of metres deep. As far as the eye can see are the contours of crags and buttresses of hardened basalt, unsoftened by time. Listed as a World Heritage Site, the Simien Mountains are some of the most breathtaking scenery I’ve ever seen. Between 3 500 and 4 000 metres, this is high-altitude trekking, and initially hard work while your body adjusts to the thinner air.

Late, unexpected rain had come to the Simiens just in time for our visit. October and November are usually the best times to explore the area, as the dry season runs from October to April. We had glorious weather in the mornings, which usually lasted just long enough for us to get our daily six or seven hours of trekking done. Just as we’d approach camp, the weather would close in and rain would start to fall. It’d usually last most of the night, making getting out of a cosy sleeping bag, doing battle with a stubborn tent zip and going out to ‘commune with nature’ an unpleasant thought. 

Say the word “Ethiopia”, and most people’s minds would turn to civil war, coups, drought, famine and danger. Yet, the country is slowly becoming a place to which more tourists wish to venture. This year, an estimated 600 000 tourists will visit Ethiopia, and this number is projected to rise to 900 000 in the next year or two. (To put this in perspective, the number of tourists visiting South Africa is now in the region of 10 000 000 annually.) Of these 600 000 or so tourists, about 20 000 will venture to the Simien Mountains, and only about half of those will actually trek in the park. 

We decided on a five-day, 60-plus-kilometre trek, which would finish with a climb up Bwahit—Ethiopia’s second highest mountain. At an altitude of 4 437m, it was a five-hour hike and a one-kilometre vertical ascent above our camp, taking us up into the clouds and giving us a stunning view of where we’d been days before. 

Of course, among the 10 000 people trekking in the Simiens annually, you’re bound to come across a variety of characters. We encountered all sorts: a retired German couple who were absolutely delighted with the entire experience; a bunch of loud and unbelievably ignorant Americans in their 20s; and a narcissistic Spanish girl who emerged briefly from her tent each morning, only to go back inside and spend at least 30 minutes brushing and tying up her hair to give it that artfully contrived, ‘dishevelled chic’ look. 

But it was a group of Belgians who took the cake. We were eating dinner (a chicken that had clearly not had an easy life, and whose drumsticks could perhaps be better termed ‘matchsticks’) in the somewhat cramped and smoke-filled communal cooking shelter. We were celebrating our last night in the mountains with a surprisingly decent bottle of Ethiopian Merlot, when the rain drove the Belgian trekkers into our shelter. They ensconced themselves by our fire and, to our dismay, produced printed song sheets and started a group singalong in Flemish. We endured one song, gulped down the last of our wine, and escaped to our tent, from where we could hear the singing continue for hours! Then finally, silence. We (gratefully) thought we’d have some peace at last—but sadly not. They retired to tents nearby and regaled each other with Belgian jokes for a couple more hours, laughing uproariously. As we didn’t understand a word they were saying, we assumed, judging by the hilarity, that the jokes had to be good ones—until we heard the punchline of one, which happened to be in English: “And that is why my father never lets my mother drink coffee alone!” Which rendered the group hysterical, but left us wondering just how much had been lost in translation!

A remnant of the more unsettled times in Ethiopia is the prevalence of weapons: 80% to 90% of households own a gun, and the majority of the adult male population has either served as soldiers or they’re still members of various militia groups, something like reserve soldiers. It’s compulsory to hire a local ‘militia man’ to accompany you when trekking in the Simiens. They’re approved by the national parks authority to work as scouts and escort you throughout the park, ostensibly to keep you and your possessions safe (though at no point did we feel the ‘man with the gun’ was really needed). The scouts are generally local farmers, and take on this role to earn an extra income. The cavalier and nonchalant way in which our scout slung his Kalashnikov over his shoulder didn’t exactly instil us with confidence—but the thought of an armed man walking up the hill behind us with his ancient weapon pointing vaguely in the direction of our butts certainly provided us with the necessary motivation to keep moving! 

Along with all the spectacular scenery are found several animals endemic to the country. Gelada monkeys, the critically endangered walia ibex (the entire population of which is estimated at approximately 500) and the Ethiopian wolf (the rarest and most endangered canid in the world, with less than 500 left in the wild). 

Geladas are amazing and intelligent Old World monkeys, sometimes called bleeding-heart monkeys due to the patches of hairless skin on their chest which turn crimson when females are in oestrus; the males have vampire-like canines that they bare frequently, and golden manes that wouldn’t look out of place in a shampoo commercial! Once found all over Africa and into the Mediterranean and Asia, according to fossil records, they’re now found only in the mountains of Ethiopia. With their falsetto cries, explosive barks and soft grunts, they have one of the most varied repertoires of all the primates. Grazing primarily on grass, these noisy herds are easy to follow—except at night when they disappear over the edge of the steep cliffs to sleep on tiny ledges out of the way of leopards and other predators. We could happily have spent hours watching them. 

We also saw the ibex and heard the wolf (though, sadly, never saw it); given the heights we climbed, we had the rare vantage point of looking down on a variety of kites, eagles and vultures—including the lammergeyer, whose old name, ossifrage, means ‘bone breaker’, as the bird drops animal bones from great heights to smash them open and reach the marrow inside.

Ethiopia has much more to offer than just mountains and spectacular scenery. Going back in time, we travelled to the town of Bahir Dar to visit the 14th century Ethiopian Orthodox monastery of Ura Kidane Mehret on Lake Tana. It’s an uninspiring building from the outside, but as we crossed the threshold we were blown away by the 700-year-old paintings that covered every inch of the interior walls. Created by monks using only natural pigments, crushed berries and plants, the paintings are a spectacular depiction of biblical scenes and Ethiopian mythology which have survived the ravages of time.

Even more remarkable were the ruins at Gondar, 175km from Bahir Dar. Nestled in the foothills of the Simien Mountains, Gondar was the ancient capital of Ethiopia. Sometimes referred to as the “Camelot of Africa”, it has an impressive royal enclosure of castles and palaces all dating back to the 1600s. Nearby there’s the church of Debre Birhan Selassie, with its walls decorated with paintings of biblical scenes and the ceiling painted with beautiful angels. 

To top it all was Lalibela in the mountains of northern Ethiopia. Here we visited the 11 medieval churches, all over 800 years old and carved by hand out of solid rock—with, as myth has it, the help of angels. Emperor Lalibela started the construction of these churches after living for some time in Jerusalem. Following Jerusalem’s capture by Muslim forces in 1187, legend has it that the emperor was instructed in a dream to recreate the splendours of Jerusalem in Ethiopia. Centuries after its creation, Lalibela has lost none of its power to awe; even more incredible is that, despite their age, the churches are still tended by white-robed priests who speak Ge’ez (an ancient Semitic tongue), with hermits still living in tiny caves in the walls of the courtyards and people still praying there every day.

To millions of Ethiopian Orthodox Christians, though, Axum is the most sacred city, where the country’s most precious religious object—the Ark of the Covenant (believed by Orthodox Ethiopians to be the original sacred chest of the Hebrews)—is housed. We didn’t have time to get there on this trip, but it’s definitely on our list for next time.  

Without really checking into the finer details, we decided to hike from our hotel in Lalibela, at an altitude of 2 600m, to the famous 12th century Asheten Maryam monastery towering over the town at a height of 4 000m. About halfway up, I glimpsed a road that seemed to be heading in roughly the same direction. I asked the guide where it led and he replied, straight-faced, “To the monastery.” Upon hearing this, my husband, who’s an ‘exercise avoider’ of note, muttered under his breath: “If I get to the top and there’s a McDonald’s and a car park, this guy will not be getting a bloody tip!” 

Climbing through local villages, we were nearly always greeted with calls of “Selamta!” (welcome), and for a while we were accompanied by an old man wrapped in a ‘repurposed’ Ethiopian Airlines blanket, herding his donkey up the mountain. He derived great enjoyment from my husband’s red-faced huffing and puffing, and from time to time would place an arm around his shoulders and chuckle with delight at some joke of his own. 

There was no McDonald’s at the top, but there was indeed a small place for vehicles to park, about a 15-minute walk from the monastery. It was still a bit of a precarious march along the edge of the cliff and a slight scramble to get from the ‘car park’ to the top, but the views over Lalibela and countryside were worth the effort. The monastery was the first of the famous Lalibela churches on which construction began, though the last to be finished. About 20 tourists a day come by bus and climb the last stretch to the monastery—and usually only one or two people a day are foolish enough to walk the five-hour round trip like us! When we got back down, it took two beers and lunch to restore my husband’s spirits. 

Ethiopia is an experience like no other, with stunning scenery, rare wildlife, warm people, and intriguing ancient culture and history. Well worth an entry on your bucket list.

We were fortunate to have our travels impeccably organised by Shif Asrat of, who not only seamlessly arranged all our logistics but also offered accommodation at his Limalimo Lodge, a sustainable luxury lodge on the edge of the escarpment overlooking the Simien Mountains National Park (see We flew Ethiopian Airlines, and it’s worth noting that if you arrive in Ethiopia on an Ethiopian Airlines international flight, you’re eligible for up to 40% discount on your domestic flights with the airline. 

Source: The Intrepid Explorer

The Intrepid explorer