THE SIMIEN MOUNTAINS
Updated: Aug 9, 2020
' A dirt road, of sorts, winding its way through hairpin bends and roller-coaster vistas littered with rockslides and craters , that cuts through the heart of the park to the rudimentary campsite '
Sometimes you go to places and then you can’t bear to leave. The Simien mountains in Ethiopia’s heartland, wild, ancient, utterly compelling, is such a place.
Carol, my late mum-in-law who died before Christmas, would have loved it here. I hope she won’t mind if I dedicate this little blog to her: an Englishwoman who, like many others of her kind, cultured and intrepid, lived the axiom ‘ He who only England knows does not England know’.
I have been here before, in 1973, a lifetime ago. Haile Selassie, Ethiopia’s last emperor, 5ft nothing, clever, western educated despot, King of Kings, Lion of Judah and Rastafarian poster-boy was still on the throne. He drove around the capital’s potholed streets with a cavalcade of Rolls Royces.
Country folk would throw themselves to the ground as his motorcade passed. He was admired by many western leaders including Churchill for his political savvy and yet he tolerated slavery. He was overthrown by a military coup a year after my trip by the mysterious Derg, authors of the Red Terror. The last of the Solomonic dynasty dating back to the 13th century, he was later strangled, possibly in bed.
I was a young Daily Express reporter. It was a ‘thank you’ from the editor after a spell covering the Troubles in Ulster. I came with a bunch of young volunteers who wanted to ‘make a difference’. ( Ethiopia was Abyssinia - land not just of the Queen of Sheba but also that Fleet Street legend Boot of The Daily Beast in Evelyn Waugh's Scoop). It made a great story but, more to the point, I was incurably smitten.
The Simien National Park is a vast and ancient volcanic plateau carved with deep canyons, jagged peaks and soaring outcrops that look like hooded giants slumbering in the beating sun, rising thousands of feet from the valley floor. God was at the top of his game that day. It’s a geological masterpiece which is so beautiful, no matter how much of it you drink it in you can’t quench your thirst.
It’s also a fragile eco-system where humans and cattle compete for scarce resources with wildlife, much of it, like the awesome Gelada monkeys and the shy Wallia Ibex native to the region. (We were lucky to see one) And the endangered Ethiopian wolf. In my day it was called the Simien fox. It’s since been upgraded to wolf status by clever scientists.
The Simiens, which were then barely accessible, have changed. A bit. There’s a telephone line and tiny pockets of power. Corrugated iron roofs have replaced some thatched huts on the plateaus where barley and beans are grown; ancient ramshackle buses loaded to the roof carrying people and grain make the bone-rattling journey from the gateway town of Debark. It was here that I got sloshed for the first and last time on Tej, Ethiopian home-brewed honey wine.
People in this high country live an existence on little island plateaus, a day’s walk or more from the nearest village or town, with a few cattle a small, hand-tilled plot and a mobile phone - a life which can fairly be described as SIM-card medieval.
Chenek camp, at 13,000ft, where the treeline ends and where we spent a freezing night, looks over the massif that stretches all the way to the Red Sea. Ethiopia is sometimes called the cradle of humanity. (Just about the time I was last here, Lucy was discovered in a dried-up lake. She was 3.2 million old and she walked on two legs.)
Standing on the escarpment it sure feels like it. As the sun sets and the shadows lengthen the temperature plummets from around 32 centigrade to just above freezing. Grandeur barely does it justice. Move over Arizona.
Today there is a dirt road, of sorts, winding its way through hairpin bends and roller-coaster vistas littered with rockslides and craters , that cuts through the heart of the park to the rudimentary campsite. It’s now a well-trodden path for tourists, drawn by one of the last great wilderness areas of Africa. Most are day-trippers.
We camped, assisted by a Toyota Landcruiser, driver, chef, guide and, Solomon, our obligatory park ranger, armed with an ancient, bolt-action rifle which almost certainly dated to before Mussolini invaded Abyssinia in between the wars. I make no apologies for being in the post- backpacking phase of my life.
On the way up to the camp we spotted two young women researchers with clipboards surrounded by perhaps 200 Gellada monkeys who were totally oblivious to their presence as they went round spooning bits of pooh into plastic specimen bottles – the researchers not the monkeys. There are perhaps 10-15,000 of these magnificent creatures which are entirely endemic and confined to the Simiens. (Clue: it’s in the name)
They move around in huge troops, hundreds strong, feeding off roots. First they dig a hole then they stick their snouts in and, provided the aroma comes up to their exacting standards, they eat. Incessantly. The males sport spectacular lion-like manes. The occasional fight breaks out with much hissing and shrieking and baring of teeth- sibling rivalry. But mostly they eat. You can sit next to them quite happily. Just don’t look them in the eye. They are organised to a fault. They groom each other. They’re good parents. They’re a community. And of course they’re gold dust for the local tourist business.
Carol would have loved walking through these wild ranges scattered with St. John’s Wort, lavender and wild rock roses silver-backed vouchers and tawny African eagles wheeling overhead rising with the updrafts to giddy heights. In the higher oxygen-poor reaches the rising heat lifts and wafts the heady scent of wild thyme that grows in abundance on the slopes.
The Simiens are one of the wonders of the natural world. It’s a land that time forgot. But progress is now snapping at its foothills. How to preserve it and at the same time lift up the people who live here – some of whom do find jobs as guides, drivers and rangers - without decimating the wildlife and the flora that make it unique?
It’s a huge ecological challenge as tourism – and the local population grows. UNESCO will fund some of this but it wants the government to move the population out. It’s a binary choice it says: you can preserve the Simiens or you can develop its economy. But you can’t do both. It’s a familiar but, to my mind, a lazy argument.
The people, their culture, their ancestral lands are just as much part of the magic as the Gellada monkeys, the Ibex and the wolf with whom they have co-existed for hundreds perhaps thousands of years. Experience elsewhere (the Aborigine Down Under, American Indians) suggests wholesale displacement is a recipe for unemployment, gambling, alcoholism, drugs and an early death. It’s not beyond the wit to make it work.
Come before it’s too late and stay , if you can get in, at the eco-friendly Limalimo Lodge - comfy, well run, charming- which must be one of the most spectacularly situated inns on the planet.
The Simien mountains