The Simien Mountains National Park in northern Ethiopia offers some of the most jaw dropping scenery in Africa with its mountain peaks, deep gorges, rivers, waterfalls and plains stretching into Eritrea. Endemic species of animals, not found anywhere else in the world, live here in this unique ecosystem. The park makes a perfect destination for multi-day trekking or shorter hikes, or as an extension of a visit to the historical sites of Gondar, Axum and Lalibela. 

Listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the huge plateau was formed 40 million years ago and eroded through the ages to form the rugged landscape we see today. Its highest peak, called Ras Dashen, lies at 4550m and drops a staggering 1500m into the plains. The escarpment edge is the best place to look down on the plains, with its rocky spires 

Vertigo

Hiking the park is only possible with a certified guide and a scout, carrying a gun for protection. Both can be hired when purchasing your permits at the park’s entrance.  They know the area and the trails very well. Trails start from various places, such as the scenic Sankaber Trail that leads through grasslands, valleys and offers amazing vistas. It is not very strenuous but has a few tricky parts with steep ascend and descents. Another scenic trail leads to the Jinbar waterfall, which is not recommended for anyone suffering from vertigo.  

During the hikes you will encounter plenty of bushbuck, duikers, and klipspringers. The unusual variation of heights and plains have also created excellent circumstances for a number of endemic species and birds to survive, such as the peaceful Gelada Baboons, the elusive Ethiopian wolf, the endangered Walia Ibex and the mysterious Lammergeier.

You will be very lucky to encounter the Ethiopian wolf, which unfortunately is close to extinction and sightings are rare. There is a better chance to see the Walia Ibex, a large wild mountain goat but you may need to use your binoculars to see it balancing on the edges of steep cliffs or grazing on rocks that are covered with silver everlasting flowers and giant lobelia. 

Golden manes

What you will see, without a doubt, are Gelada Baboons. These peaceful animals are grass eaters, in spite of their lion-sized canine teeth. The baboons move around in large groups of hundreds, constantly chewing, grooming their golden manes and communicating in the form of calls and yawns. These primates are an important part of the attraction of the Simiens. Not just because they are so quaint looking with their long cartoon-like hair and gentle demeanor, but also because they are comfortable to allow visitors at a very close range. As long as you don’t touch them and refrain from sudden a noise of movement, you can sit among the geladas in the grass and observe. 

Dozens of endemic bird species also live in the area, most notable the wattled ibis, the thick-billed raven and the Lammergeier, a large vulture, with a three-meter wing span. The Lammergeier soars over the ridges and gorges with swooshing wings and feeds on the bones of dead animals. If bones are too large to eat, the vulture carries them to great height in order to drop them onto the rocky cliffs below, smashing them into smaller, edible pieces. So, be sure to watch the skies when climbing these rocks. 

There are nine campsites and a few community lodges for basic stays during your trekking. If you prefer more comfort, then head to Limalimo Lodge, a boutique ecolodge in the park, not far from the main entrance.  The lodge was built with minimal impact on the environment and with help from the African Wildlife Foundation. It is a good place to start your hikes and return in the evening for a coffee at their spectacular viewing deck or a glass of Ethiopian Rift Valley Shiraz by the fireplace. The lodge’s design has an attractive no frills austerity.

Community efforts

A few villages are scattered in the area, and according to our guide approximately 45,000 people currently live inside the park, mostly farmers growing barley to make injera, the national dish of Ethiopia. They greet travelers with a smiling “Salaam”.  Unfortunately, the Simien Mountains are at risk due to human encroachments. Trees are used for fuel, livestock grazes on the protected land and land is used for cultivation. Villagers here live in extreme circumstances and need the land for their survival. This is why initiatives like Limalimo Lodge, with its community efforts are important for the Simien Mountains. They offer villagers alternative sources of income and help with training and education about conservation. 

The Simien Mountains are best enjoyed during the dryer seasons. From June to August, many trails will be difficult to pass due to the rain. After the rains, the park explodes with flowers and lush green vegetation. From then on, the temperatures will start to rise slowly. 

How to get there?

From Gondar airport it is 2-3 hour drive by car or local bus to the Park headquarters at Debark.  At the Park entrance you pay for the permits, obtain maps and arrange a guide and a scout. 

More information: Simienmountainsnationalpark.org

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This article was published in Inzozi Magazine, Spring 2019