The Simiens are one of Africa’s most dramatic landscapes, endowed with arresting valleys, hidden waterfalls and sudden precipices. Maurice Schutgens travelled to the popularly named Roof of Africa to experience life on Ethiopia’s isolated plateau.
Photographs: Maurice Schutgens
A brutal journey of buses and sleepless nights gave way to the somewhat gritty town of Debark, the gateway to the Simien Mountains National Park. Debark could not have been a bigger contrast to the manic hustle and bustle of Addis. We had arrived with little more than a vague plan, so we immediately headed for the park’s headquarters. Arranging our trip proved to be a hassle free formality and soon we were introduced to a local AK-47 wielding ranger who would accompany us throughout our three-day trek. His name was Kofi, an easygoing wiry-looking chap with a toothy grin who we soon learned spoke a total of five phrases (I don’t know, we go, yes, no, not far). None of his answers ever filled us with any confidence and neither did his general laissez-a-faire attitude to gun safety given the manner he carried his rusty kalashnikov.
Early the next morning we caught a ride on a vehicle heading into the park with a bunch of tourists. As we drove higher on the dusty winding roads, we caught fleeting glimpses of the world-famous views over northern Ethiopia. We could barely contain our excitement. We jumped out at Michibiny (3,230m), no more than a collection of huts situated spectacularly on the edge of the escarpment, and kicked off our slow acclimatisation hike. The wind tore at our clothes as we inched closer to the trail that lay within feet of the terrifyingly exposed sheer cliffs.
Within a few hours we had become closely acquainted with the unrivalled kings of the Simiens: the Gelada Baboons (Theropithecus gelada). These Old World Monkeys with distinctive red patches on their chests (giving rise to their poetic name the bleeding heart baboon), expressive faces and intimidating canines are the world’s only primates that survive solely on grass. We soon learned that the geladas were so unimpressed by human presence that we were able to sit amongst them as they went about their grass eating business, interrupted only by the odd violent bark, sharp falsetto cry or dismissive grunt.
After two hours we stumbled into Sankaber Camp grateful for a quick rest but Kofi was soon on our case: “Not far – we go” he gesticulated, but the urgency with which he said it suggested quite the opposite. We shouldered our backpacks and trudged into thin air. Suddenly, there before us was the highlight of this first day: the Jinbar Waterfall, a spectacular cascade plunging over 500m into the Geech abyss below. We stood mesmerised until Kofi pulled us out of our trance. Leaving the falls behind was a steep climb in the sweltering heat for several more hours until we reached the traditional Muslim village of Geech (3,600m), located on a beautifully exposed spot on the golden grasslands that gently roll towards the precipitous drop on the horizon.
That night, as the sun threatened to dip below the escarpment, hundreds upon hundreds of gelada monkeys came storming towards the cliff. Utterly bewitched, we looked on as without missing a beat and without as much as a check in their speed they launched themselves off the edge with abandon. Seconds later they were transformed into furry brown projectiles, hurtling down the face. At the last possible moment, an outstretched arm hooked onto a random but clearly calculated tuft of grass to arrest their suicidal leap. Slowly they retreated into hidden caves in the rockface, a place where they would be safe from the elusive leopards on the prowl. I had never witnessed something so fascinating.
During the night temperatures plummeted far below zero. While the facilities were basic (think a poorly ventilated tin shack), we were grateful to be cocooned within a sleeping bag under a thick set of fleainfested blankets trying to ignore the awful snoring cacophony. In our attempts to transform this trip into a budget lightweight affair we had brought minimal supplies. The only meal available, Injera (a staple fermented flatbread) with a simple vegetable sauce, tasted like a five-star gourmet meal.
The next morning, with the air freezing in our breath, we hit the trail again. As we climbed higher we passed through stunning patches of afro-alpine forest and jaw-dropping landscapes of moorlands and giant lobelias where in my imagination dinosaurs would have once roamed. Our destination was Chennek campsite, with a detour past Imet Gogo, the jewel of the Simiens. Imet Gogo (3,926m) offered unparalleled views of dramatic gorges and rising pinnacles. In silence, we simply sat and stared until with sadness we had to pull ourselves away.
As shadows lengthened on our final night we got chatting to an English speaking guide at Chennek about the mystical Ethiopian Wolf (Canis simensis), the world’s rarest canid and Africa’s most endangered carnivore, endemic to the Ethiopian highlands. With a global population numbering less than 500 individuals they are few and far between, especially in the Simiens where there are fewer than 100. The guide captivated us with stories of how in previous years he used to spot them regularly not far from the camp but hadn’t seen them recently. Determined, we headed out into a beautiful patch of afroalpine forest and sat down to wait. The hours passed. Nothing. But just as the sun started to lose its strength and the moon rose above the cliffs, there it was; a wolf. Partially hidden through a maze of trees, looking directly back at us. I held my breath, we locked eyes, then it was gone.