Next stop on the tour north was the Simien mountains. I hadn’t realised that these were where the were when booking the trip but was stoked to find out. A repeat offender for David Attenborough documentaries, which are about the only TV I regularly watch, the mountains are fascinating for their geography, people and wildlife.
Erosion has caused basalt rock to be exposed, leaving big wide plateaus with steep drop offs, some up to 1000m down to the lowlands surrounding. Simmo, an old flatmate from Christchurch days had roped me in to scouting out virgin BASE jumping territory for him, once he completes his course in how to kill himself in dramatic fashion in Italy later this month. I don’t know much about the sport, but I would guess some of the cliffs would be ideal.
To go trekking (what the rest of the would seems to call tramping for some reason) in the highlands, it is compulsory to have an armed scout, which is apparently a hangover from when there were problems with banditry and poaching. Now I’m not sure if its much more than a make work scheme. Given most of this scouts cant speak a word of English (not that I could speak any more Amharic), it is highly recommended to have a guide too who can show you where the go, point out the wildlife and get you home in one piece. Most trips are also escorted by mules and mulemen to carry all of the tents, food and water. This ‘glamping’ version of trekking wasn’t what I was used to, given when back home you cart everything you need on your back, no matter how many days you go for. But with the effect of altitude at 3500m, savage sun and hot dry days, I was soon glad I didn’t have anything more than a backpack.
The park is home to several endemic species, with unique characteristics. Most famous are the Gelada baboons, which are only found in the park. These mobs of several hundred baboons spend their days eating and being merry up on the plateaus, but come nightfall, scarper over the edge and down the escarpments to sleep away from any predators. Being sizeable animals, our guide was also telling us that they are known for if being harassed by domestic dogs or wild canines, they will retreat to the cliff edge, and when the dog charges at them, they grab the dog and hurl it off the cliff. Touché baboons, touché.
The park is also home to the Walia Ibex, a type of mountain goat with big backwards curving horns, whose only habitat worldwide is the higher parts of the park. I had heard that it was cheaper to organise a trip yourself from Debark, the local town, rather than give in to the local touts in Gondar who offer to sort everthing for you. Given the logistics of organising a trip, and my previously encountered issue of high costs of doing things alone, there was the risk of things ending up in a Debarkle… So when I did get offered a 2 night trip for about the same as I calculated I could get it if I was splitting things with someone else, I took it. It did mean that I could only do a 2 night trip rather than 3 or 4 which was what I was keener for. That meant we didn’t get far enough into the park to see the Ibex, which was a shame.
The track runs along side these massive bluffs with several hundred metre drop offs down the side. They are constantly patrolled by massive birds of prey including vultures, eagles and lammergeiers – the bearded vulture more commonly known as bone crushers as they have evolved the habit of picking up bones of skeletons and flying up high before dropping them to break them open and expose the nutritious marrow. Not a bad plan if you are a scavenger.
As with a lot of parts of the developing world, tap water is not processed and therefore not overly safe to drink. That therefore brings what seems to be a very environmentally unfriendly practice of going through about 4 plastic bottles a day. Possibly the only redeeming factor to our western fixation on spotless water is the recycling of the bottles by the locals. There must be some massive market on the Ethiopian stock exchange for used plastic bottles, as every kid’s first words to you are “Hello Plastic?” Somehow I was attributed the name Hello plastic by a Belgian couple who were in our group. I did forgive them, as they were happy to be keen campaigners in my mission to get everyone I meet playing 500.
The impact of tourism on these remote communities has always interested me. Whilst good for the country economically, local economies get distorted through high paying tourism with uneven benefit from the proceeds and traditions can get corrupted just to make a tourist dollar. We had walked through a local village, and after being offered to come in for ‘authentic’ coffee ceremonies, a young girl ran out to greet us, yelling in Amharic. Our guide filled us in that she was informing her mum that “here comes ‘Hello’, here comes ‘Hello’.” Our insistence of saying hello to everyone we meet no matter what culture they come from probably entitles us to a more derogatory name that that. Several thousand of these people still live in the park, farming teff and running goats, cattle and sheep. There are plans afoot in conjunction with UNESCO to relocate all of the villages out of the park as human habitation is destroying the landscape.
Sporting a big straw hat, I probably did look like a stupid white man but I figured it was the only thing stopping me from getting heat stroke which one of the girls in our group got hitby. My 3 months in London had also been preparing my skin well to end up like a lobster.
The Simien was a great place to visit, but unfortunately I will have to settle to David Attenborough showing me the Walia Ibex for now.
My ‘expensive’ ($25) hotel was probably gutted that our budget wing was out of water on our return. With no shower facilities available, they had no option to let us in to the delux wing where the shower soon sported a brown river from my dust caked body. Might as well splash out on the luxury of warm running water.