Fold mountains

Hiking in Ethiopia – above the mountain sea

My eyes registered the gradient as gentle but, after 35 kilometers at around 3,500 meters in elevation, my legs calibrated each step in degrees of pain.

The deeply grooved pony trail led through giant lobelias and huge Erica trees towards a sky that swirled and rumbled, threatening the rain. I found myself chanting my usual mountain mantra: “Why, why, why am I doing this?” It was in 2007 and my goal was Imet Gogo (The Mother), an elevated area on the edge of the Great Rift Valley in northwestern Ethiopia – but that was still a long way off.

A stream plunges over the cliff into the deep Rift Valley below. Image: Don Pinnock

“Eggs?” he said hopefully. When I didn’t answer, the other tried another tactic: “Hellowhat’s yourname do you have penforme?”

“What?” I croaked at him, then realized it was a heavily accented version of a standard local greeting to foreigners. But I had gone too far to be polite: “Listen,” I replied, knowing he wouldn’t understand a word I said. “I just walked all day through your crazy mountains. Two of my group are out there in that Erica forest suffering from exhaustion and altitude sickness. Now you want me to give you a pen and buy your fucking eggs.

Both looked at me with wide eyes, visibly impressed by my speech. Then, simultaneously, they said:Ishee“, (cool) and kept persevering until GitchCamp. This was, I muttered to myself, one of those situations in which the thought of roaming the Simians had been too exciting to allow better judgment to prevail – and now it was too late to retreat.

Earlier in the day, a fellow traveler had done the sensible thing. When a Toyota Land Cruiser magically appeared in Sankarber, he negotiated a price with the driver and threw his bag in the back. His face, as the sturdy vehicle returned to Gondarseemed both disappointed and relieved.

I should have heeded the warning signs at the village of Bark. In Amharic, his name rightly means “not fair”. It certainly wasn’t. It seemed to be filled with loan offers – at wildly inflated prices – of dirty camping mattresses, used maps of the Simien Mountains and lifts for sankaber at prices that would make a banker cry.

We had painfully crossed the village market place in front of the pack mules, hoping to escape the incessant traffic of equipment and services. Apart from a few corrugated iron roofs, the place could have belonged to any century. Hundreds of hopefuls, strewn all around, provided richly colored fabrics, amazingly red peppers, piled up sheep, rolls of shiny fabric, Ge’ez Bibles, beads and an impossible assortment of bric-a-brac that I couldn’t imagine buying.

After hours of arduous walking through fields and dongas, we camped at Mindigebsa in a downpour. “It never rains in Ethiopia in October,” our guide, Bedassa Jote, had insisted, looking offended as he flashed a flame out of the Primus as a drenched muleteer held an umbrella above him. It quickly produced strong, hot tea followed by pasta and a fresh tomato and garlic sauce which we had thankfully swallowed before going to bed at 7.30pm.

Crazy Debrak's Market
Debrak’s crazy market. Image: Don Pinnock

On the way to the top

The trip to Sankaber the next day was peasant-scenic but hadn’t felt like the national park it was: more like an unbroken tableau of people in Old Testament attire riding donkeys, herding sheep, or plowing steep hills with oxen and plows.

The Simians had made themselves felt at the Lamma River, where the path rose and rose to a higher plateau. There was nothing exciting about Sankaber – a few huts and a wallless roof under which visitors could shelter.

map of ethiopia
Map of Ethiopia. Picture: provided

From there a road had carried us three remaining travelers plus a guide, loaded mules, mule keepers and an AK47 guard into a natural meadow that formed the head of a gaping valley offering tantalizing glimpses of wide valleys.

But at this altitude, the day’s hike had been too long and trying for us. Two fellow hikers had suddenly sat somewhere on an endless incline and I guessed it was altitude sickness: I hoped it wasn’t worse. All that was left of the hikers was me and my aching legs – and now my companions were two kids trying to sell eggs. If someone got really sick or injured, help was a long way off.

Loading mule always patient
Loading mule always patient. Image: Don Pinnock
The last step to the top for one lucky runner
The last step to the top for one lucky runner. Image: Don Pinnock

The mules had gone ahead to Gich Camp, the last night’s stop before I met Gogo, and the little blue tents, when they appeared above a hill, looked like the Addis Hilton. Two mules were quickly dispatched to rescue the weary hikers and after a process of rehydration and a cup of whiskey the craziness of being here subsided a bit. A bright Venus dragged the Milky Way into view, the fire boiled our sodden boots, and alfresco rice and roasted corn appeared.

“Not bad,” I thought, but my mind refused to entirely justify being perched on a flea-infested saddle pad at 3,500 meters above sea level. It was a big wild and harsh country and we weren’t at the top yet.

The party is thinning

The next morning, our group was reduced to two, plus a guide, a muleteer and a guard. The trail climbed through forests of giant lobelias with strange flowering heads towering eight meters above their aloe-like leaves.

After about an hour and a half of steady climbing, our outlying views seemed to narrow – as they sometimes do on high mountains. As we walked on the rocky shoulder of Imet Gogo, the trail faded into nothingness and silence.

To the south, a massive gorge, with sheer cliffs taller than Table Mountain, cut our peninsula off the next finger on which we could see the tiny huts of Chennek Camp. In the gorge, waterfalls plunged like silent lace, channeling water into a web of streams and rivers two kilometers below us.

Further south, another finger probed the abyss: Bwahit, at 4,430 m, the second highest peak of Simiens. Below us, to the east and north as far as the eye could see, was ‘Dib Bahir Woreda’, the sea of ​​mountains.

I sat up suddenly, tears flowing, such was the raw beauty that lay just beyond my boots. The empty silence was shattered by the whistling of the wind on the feathers, and a huge bearded vulture, catching an updraft, glided meters above our heads.

He was so close I could see his golden eyes and the subtle adjustments of his primal feathers. Well below a rare walia ibex with massive horns hugs the base of a steep cliff.

I found myself chanting my other mountain mantra: “Yes, yes, yes. . . .”

lion monkeys

We descended from Imet Gogo in a triumphal procession made up of several hundred gelada ‘lion monkeys’. These large whiskered primates, also known as bleeding-heart baboons due to an exposed heart-shaped piece of red skin on their chests, communicated with sounds so close to human speech it was eerie. They weren’t afraid of us or our horse as they rooted and chattered, simply turning their backs to us to indicate their displeasure if we got too close.

The males of this species, once common throughout Africa, look very much like lions and when baring their teeth are a frightening sight.

The two day trip back to Debark was exhilarating – our legs had been toned up from the uphill journey, our lungs acclimated to the altitude and the trail was mostly downhill. Also, somehow you notice more descents – perhaps because the landscape is below your eye level and not above.

The mountain flora was eerily familiar: mostly giant fynbos. Obviously, many of the plants that make up the Cape Floral Kingdom today began in these highlands and, over millions of years, migrated up the Rift Valley Mountains and the Drakensberg Range to ‘until they can’t go any further south.

As good travelers, they reduced their encumbrance along the way, but in the Simiens, forests of Erica trees jostle with giant geraniums and immortals. St. John’s wort also started from the Ethiopian highlands but only went south as far as Mpumalanga, where its common name is curry bush.

There were few birds at these altitudes, but the valleys echoed deep gorges ha ha ha endemic wattled ibis — This species has a low-pitched call that makes hadedas (also found in Ethiopia) sound like hysterical schoolgirls. And whenever we ate, we were rarely without a flock of Ravens. They were thumping heavily, almost within arm’s reach, their huge, vicious beaks keeping us on our toes.

As we descended, agricultural cultivation brought a marked change to the landscape. It was hard to believe that people had ever gone hungry in Ethiopia. All around were fields of teff, a grain used to make injera, a kind of crepe and staple food of the country. Between them were stretches of wheat and beans.

The rivers flowed with force in the many valleys and plunged with force above the waterfalls. Although the east and northeast of the country are arid – this is where the Tigrayans wage war today and perhaps why – the bounty around us seemed capable of sustaining the nation for years.

I would hazard a guess that two things blocked this: there are no roads to get the produce out, and the farmers, who make up the bulk of the population, are notoriously difficult people to extract a surplus from.

As we descended the road out of the mountains, a beautiful little girl with tight braids followed me. I estimated his age at about six years old. She looked at me shyly, her large eyes twinkling above the fold of her cloak, and began the usual greeting:

I dug into the bottom of my camera bag and pulled out an old Bic. She squeezed it with both hands and gave a little jump of joy.

Ishee, Ishee. . . .”

We were definitely back on the road to Debark. DM/ML

Editor’s Note: The UK and US have included travel to parts of the country on their red list – advise against all but essential travel.

Author Don Pinnock made the trip to the Siemen Mountains in 2007; it’s his memory of the hike. The story was published in May 2022 and has since been slightly edited.

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