Ethiopia has over 20 national parks, but none so famous as the Simien Mountains National Park, guardian of Ethiopia’s highest peak, Ras Dejen at 14,905 ft. The Simien Mountains are known throughout the world for their wildly dramatic scenery as jagged mountain peaks flank deep valleys often referred to as “Africa’s Grand Canyon.”
The Simien Mountains National Park was created initially as a protection area for a number of endangered species, including the Ethiopian wolf and the walia ibex, a wild goat found nowhere else in the world. The ibex is believed to be one of the most endangered mammal species on the planet. For this reason, the national park was one of the first sites to be protected by UNESCO World Heritage back in 1978.
Heading into the park, we would be back in the tents again for three nights of camping. We stopped in Debark, considered the “frontier town” before entering the park to pick up our two guides and our two “scouts.” Each of the three days, there would be two hikes on offer, a short one of two to four hours, and a long one of four to six hours. The two guides would lead these two hikes, and the two rifle-carrying scouts would be the sweeps. Both are a requirement for hiking within the park boundaries. We are told that the reason for hiring the scouts is more to help local employment, as there are no real safety issues.
Debark also has camping gear for rent. Based on experience, Louise recommended we consider renting an “outer” sleeping bag to go over our own bedding. While my REI sleep bag is rated for three seasons, temperatures were predicted to drop below freezing at our higher camp. Waking up with frost on the tent, I was certainly glad I had heeded Louise’s advice!
Our first night would be a camp spot near Sankaber at 3,250 meters, or 10,663 feet. I wasn’t fazed too badly by the altitude initially. However, we spent the second and third night at Chenek, a higher camp at 11,877 feet. Having just come from the family farm in Texas, elevation 660 ft above sea level, a week in Sudan on average of 1,200 ft wasn’t much of an acclimatization period for almost 12,000 ft. In fact, we were each given a chart to evaluate the signs of altitude sickness. Sitting around camp, I felt GREAT! However, as soon as I got up to move, it was like (for any Tarantino fans) Kill Bill’s “five point palm exploding heart technique.” Five steps away from the campfire, and I felt like I was going to collapse! While I eagerly anticipated doing the long hikes all three days, the reality of it was that I only managed to do the shorter hikes on the first and third day. I just couldn’t freekin BREATHE! (In retrospect, my 15 minutes on the Stairmaster back at the Main Street Gym was not enough prep for the Simiens.) 😉
Not only was the altitude breathtaking, but the scenery was equally so. As is often the case, photos can’t do it justice. We encountered three different vegetation zones, starting with the Afro-montane area with its thick juniper and acacia forests dripping with moss reminiscent of Savannah, Georgia, and ground cover of fragrant wild thyme. Moving higher, we reached the grassy plains, heavily harvested and grazed by livestock owned by the local farmers. And finally we reached the Afro alpine region where the Giant Lobella is prolific. Measuring up to 30 ft in height, the plant grows for as long as twenty years before flowering for the first time and then dying.
While the walia ibex numbers are scarce (down to 500 worldwide,) not so for the gelada baboons (called “baboons,” but technically monkeys.) Their number is estimated to be somewhere around 3,000 in the park, 200,000 total, but found only in the Ethiopian Highlands. They are considered to be very intelligent. I found it so fascinating to learn from our guide that the geladas have learned to recognize skin color. Since they feed on grasses and roots, they are the enemy of the barley farmers, who often throw stones or sticks to scare them away. Therefore, the baboons have learned to associate black faces with danger, while they have come to learn that white faces wield only cameras. We were able to “co-mingle” with the baboons on our hikes as well as the campsite as they grazed through the grasslands.
Like so many of our national parks worldwide, the flora and fauna are all at risk. In the Simien Mountains National Park, there is a tug of war between the local people who have inhabited and cultivated the land for 2,000 years, and the conservationists who are working to protect the endangered species. In fact, there is a voluntary relocation program in place to entice the locals to move outside the park. It’s a tough call as the local farmers and their livestock compete for the main habitat of the walia ibex, gelada baboons, and Ethiopian wolves. And the local farmer population is growing just as fast as the animal species are declining, leading to soil degradation and overgrazing. The local people claim they were there first, before the area was designated as a national park. But it’s not always a matter of who was there first, but rather who will be there last. Me, I’m rooting for the geladas.