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Out of Africa (Part 4/7) - Ethiopia - Gondar & The Simien Mountains

Updated: Mar 31, 2019

View in the Simien Mountains, Central Ethioipia
View in the Simien Mountains, Central Ethioipia

To Gondar - rare travel comfort

Arriving in Gondar by bus from Bahir Dar is a relatively straightforward task, in comparison to the majority of journeys you need to do by road to get around the historical loop in Ethiopia. Three hours along a straight, and for the most part tarmacked, road by minibus at any time of day you choose. Ideally, this would be the case travelling around the rest of the country too, in which case it would be a travellers' dream instead of the almighty slog and problem-fraught nightmare that it actually is. Gondar is a historical city; founded by King Fasiladas in the 17th century due to its favourable geographical position, laying at a trading crossroads and surrounded by fertile land, it flourished for over a century as Ethiopia's capital before political infighting weakened it severely and the Gondar kingdom fell. Although my trusty Lonely Planet said promisingly, "By the end of the 17th Century, Gondar boasted several magnificent palaces, and was the site of extravagent court pageantry, attracting visitors from around the world.. it's thriving market even drawing Muslim merchants from across the country," when you compare Gondar today with what it undoubtedly used to be, it comes as a bit of a disappointment. The town itself is rather shabby and run-down, and by night its loud bars and clubs are the inevitable home to countless hookers plying their trade. The historical monuments that remain in Gondar are however some of Ethiopia's (and Africa's) best preserved and most impressive, and an afternoon wandering among the shadows of 'Africa's Camelot' is a most enjoyable experience. The lack of tourists at such an important and impressive historical site is a major advantage, as is the lack of touts and guides bothering what few tourists do go there. Highly recommended, and deservedly declared a UNESCO world heritage site in 1979.

Gondar castle ruins, central Ethiopia
Gondar castle ruins date from the 17th Century

A visit to King Fasilada's bath, 2km south of the town centre and easily accessible by rickshaw, is also well worth doing. The site is also quite deserted, and highly atmospheric; a peaceful spot shaded by ancient trees which envelop the place with their serpentine roots, the huge and now empty bath, several metres deep, serves to remind you of the extravagance of the defunct Ethiopian royalty, and contrasts sharply with the poverty that surrounds you as a traveller today. It's quite difficult to reconcile these two facts at times whilst travelling in Ethiopia; quite how such an important and powerful kingdom could descend into the chaotic shambles that is today's reality is hard to fathom, though not unique. Ethiopia today boasts more historical points of interest than any other sub-Saharan African country as a result of this proud history, and perhaps is behind only Egypt in Africa as whole when it comes to historical tourist potential.

Tree roots at King Fasilada's Bath near Gondar, central Ethiopia
Tree roots run riot at King Fasilada's Bath near Gondar

Simien Logistics

One hassle you do have to deal with in Gondar are travel agency workers and touts selling trips to the Simien Mountains, which lie about 100km to the north of the city. They sidle up to you on the street all the time, annoyingly trying to get you involved in one of their (expensive) organised trips, knowing that the vast majority of tourists who make it as far as Gondar will continue up to the mountains. Because of the fact of their inaccessibility and that most visitors don't have the right equipment, clothing, food etc - never mind knowledge of the area or maps, tourists are a bit snookered in Gondar, and are forced to simply choose the best deal offered to them. Most organized tours cost in the region of $50-100 a day per person, including food and accommodation. We bravely (or foolishly) decided to stick to our principles and go down the budget route, and attempted to do it all without being part of an organised trip. By now I had joined up with four other people - three guys and a French girl. After a lot of discussion, one of the guys and the girl decided to drop out and we were down to three. My new friends Harry and James, the former a broke and out of work politics graduate, constantly borrowing money and with a habit of using the word 'trust' to assure you that he will in fact have money at some point; the latter an Aussie guy who looked like a surfer dude but was actually a smart young doctor doing a round-the-world trip, were equally determined to keep costs down, and it took an evening of skillful negotiation to organize a mini-bus driver to take us up to Debark - the gateway to the Simiens and the place where we could organize all the equipment.

View of the Simien Mountains, central Ethiopia
Early morning photo-stop on the way to the Simien mountains

It cost us only $12 each. Our bus, which inevitably left our hotel at 5am the following morning, took us through some bumpy but periodically stunning scenery to Debark, arriving about four hours later. We got our stuff sorted out in Debark surprisingly quickly - tents, stove, cooking equipment, sleeping bags, two mules and their drivers, a (gun-wielding) scout to lead us and maps - and we went to the park admin office to pay for the rather steep park entrance fees ($20 each). The gun, I hoped, was more for show than necessity, but bandits and bears are not unknown in the region so we felt safer with it. We managed to do all this for about $100 each for the three days - less than a third of the tour prices, but with admittedly less frills. We were to do a three day trek which took in the best the Simiens has to offer, staying in the little villages of Geech and Chenek, starting at a place called Sankober. Ample food and drink had been procured, including a bottle of whiskey and one of 'Tej' - potent honey wine; the temperatures at night were known to drop to near zero up there, and we knew we'd need something to fortify us against the cold.

Simien Mountains between Sankober and Geech, central Ethiopia
Simien Mountains between Sankober and Geech

Hiking the Simiens

We reached the starting point for our hike, Sankober, about an hour later after a bumpy ride up a steep track, and set off shortly after, the mules having been loaded with difficulty (they objected to the weight initially and stroppily threw all our stuff on the ground), and we were off into the wilds of the mountains in beautiful sunny conditions. The rainy season had finished by this time, and we had enjoyed several days of pleasant sunshine and heat, a stark contrast to the constant gloom and rain in Addis for the previous month or so. Within a few minutes, we had reached the edge of a spectacular cliff with precipitous drops below our feet, and we followed the edge of this for a couple of kilometres, taking in some great views, including a waterfall which cascaded down the sheer rock face for several hundred metres. The walk continued to be stunning for the rest of the afternoon, and although tiring due to the altitiude (we were at something like 2500-3500 metres), it was never exhausting, being more of a cross-country trek than an uphill hike. still it was up and down, and when we arrived at our camp about five hours later, I was thoroughly knackered.

Simien mountain guide, central Ethiopia
Son of a gun. Harry tries our scout's rifle out for size

The campsite at Geech was on the top of an exposed hillside, and lacked all but the most basic of amenities, so we just had to make do. Our scout, somewhat taciturn, and not a speaker of English anyway, laid down his knapsack and went into a hut to get sustenance, while we were forced to set up camp and cook our basic food (rice and pasta with tinned tomatoes) in the rather draughty gazebo outside. James and particularly Harry were much more adept at setting up the tent than I was, so I settled down to a drink. Or at least I tried - when I reached into the sack to find the whiskey, I found only a dribble lying in the bottom of the bottle. it had been broken when the mules bucked our load off their backs. B*****s. Still, there was always the Tej. I went to open the bottle, but no sooner had I started uncorking it, the top flew off into the air, champagne-bottle style. It had been shaken up and the gases in it had forced it off. Unfortunately, most of the contents of the bottle also escaped with the top..not a good start to the evening. As the sun set, the wind picked up, and I donned as many layers as I could find, which weren't enough. My thick fleece was only just adequate against the cold at sunset, and it got progressively colder as night fell. It probably dropped to about 5 Celsius, but the wind chill was a factor. All we had left to do was cook our evening meal. All around us, groups of people who had had the sense to go with an agency were munching contentedly on food their chefs had expertly prepared for them. A group of very-well prepared Israelis with hi-tech camping equipment and more tasty-looking food than us seemed to be cooking up something pleasant. After an hour or so of struggling with an ancient stove, chopping up vegetables in the dark and searching out water to cook our pasta from a distant stream, we were also munching on what can only be described as food.

Debark campsite, Simien mountains, central Ethiopia
Debark campsite, Simien mountains. Setting: spectacular

A jovial Yorkshireman seemed to be enjoying our discomfort, and sporadically inquired as to the quality of our feast. "Great, really nice actually" Harry replied rather disingenuously, but as I looked at the stodge congealing in my bowl, I thought otherwise. After some token socialising around the much-needed campfire, I retired to bed to attempt to warm up. It was about 8pm. I can say I slept fitfully that night; three men in a cold tent is not really my idea of fun, and I've never really been much of a one for camping. It is a massive effort to camp, and at certain times it can be fun, particularly when you are young. But to me it's rather overrated. How you are expected to sleep on stoney ground in near zero temperatures with only the protection of some thin layers of material, sqeezed into a small dark space with two fully-grown, snoring men is a mystery to me. Suffice to say, the following morning, after a couple of hours very shallow sleep, I was not in the best of moods. Tossing and turning all night, wishing your sleeping bag is just that big thicker and bigger, that you haven't got a lump sticking in the small of your back, and that you don't need to go through the rigmarole of going for a slash, thereby stumbling over and awakening everyone and making yourself even colder, is not conducive to a bright and breezy morning. Stumbling to the toilet block to put my contact lenses in (which in itself was pointless as there were no sinks, never mind mirrors - just holes in the ground guarded amply by swarms of flies), I kind of wished I was somewhere else. However, I had a 'Withnail' moment when I blearily looked around me with my lenses in and saw the mists rising off the surrounding hills - it was a truly stunning setting.

View near Debark campsite, Simien Mountains, Ethiopia
That 'Withnail' moment - clouds disperse to reveal view near our campsite


A few minutes later, after a few cups of strong, sweet tea and some bowls of heavily sugared porridge, I felt much better. Unfortunately, our friend James did not - he had also had a very bad night's sleep, and had diagnosed himself with a stomach infection; he had been suffering the day before, but it didn't seem too bad. However, to our surprise he decided to call it a day on the trip and go back to Gondar to recover. This was unexpected, and disappointing - he was a good guy and had really been the one who had done the most in organizing the trip. He wasn't to be dissuaded though, and took one of the locals with him to help him back to Gondar. Harry and I continued with our less than loquacious scout - he was also disappointed because he seemed to get on with James better than either me or Harry - but before long we were back in some absolutely stunning scenery, which took our minds off it. A couple of hundred metres above the camp, two hours walk distant, the vista opened out before us, at the peak of Mount Imet Gogo (3926m). A gaping chasm had appeared before us, and again cliffs with jaw-dropping precipices plummeted beneath our feet. we just sat for several minutes in silence and admired the views.

Looking toward Mount Imet Gogo, Simien Mountains, Ethiopia
Looking toward Mount Imet Gogo

It's hard to bring to mind more stunning scenery - even in the Himalayas - at least in my experience. That view alone made the trip worth doing for me. The great thing was that as the hike progressed - and it was a long day, almost eight hours of solid walking - the great views just kept coming. Though it was totally exhausting because of the altitude and I kept having to stop to grab a breath, I took so many great shots that day. Following a footpath for several hundred metres right on the edge of deep ravines was simply breathtaking, and watching the mists swirl around the peaks was truly a sight to behold. Arriving at around sunset to the spectacularly-located camp at Chenek, I collapsed and just lay on the ground for several minutes, admiring the cloud-topped peaks above us and particularly the one we had just come down for the final hour and a half. Herds of Gelada baboons (native to the Simiens) played on a hillside adjoining the camp; smoke drifted up from the mud huts in the village. Chenek is one of the most perfect campsite settings you could imagine.

Looking out over a gorge near Chenek, Simien Mountains, central Ethiopia
Our guide looking out over a gorge near Chenek

Exiting the Simiens

Although the night's cooking efforts were little better than the previous night, they were better, and somehow the whole effort of camping seemed less of an effort. The jovial Yorkshire couple seemed less annoying, as did the group of efficient Israelis. We even managed to get a couple of beers from a local guy, and they went down very nicely by the campfire with the rice/tuna/tomato/onion dish we had hashed together. although the night's sleep wasn't much less fitful (or cold), I felt better when I woke up the next morning. All there was to do was to hitch a lift out of the park - otherwise we would have had to backtrack to Sankober the way we came or hike 30km by road. We gathered our things together, bade our mule drivers farewell and tipped them despite the whiskey incident, and hopped on the back of a passing truck loaded with people and goods including chickens and beer crates. We had to negotiate a 200 birr (15 dollar) rate with the driver, who was wary of taking us due to a law in the national park which forbids giving lifts to 'faranjees'; we were asked to put on head scarves and don sunglasses to avoid being spotted by eagle-eyed park rangers. Luckily, we were not, and after a very bumpy and uncomfortable, but oddly enjoyable, 2 hours, we were back in Debark. Our scout hoisted our gear off the truck just before we got into town, and we hiked the last few hundred metres, so as not to be spotted by anyone. We made for the closest bar for a well-deserved beer. We had done the Simiens on the cheap - not an easy task - but more importantly, we'd seen probably some of the best scenery Ethiopia - and quite possibly Africa - has to offer. Worth it? Undoubtedly. Trust.

Stuart Wadsworth, Simien Mountains, central Ethiopia
Smuggling ourselves out of the Simiens on the back of a truck


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This blog is part of a series. To see the previous/next parts, go here:

Part 3/7: Bahir Dar, Lake Tana & The Blue Nile Falls

Part 5/7: Axum's Stellae

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