The Simien range lies north of Gondar and to the east of the main road to Axum. The western side of the range has been designated the Simien Mountains National Park. The Simien range is one of Africa’s largest mountain ranges: many of its peaks rise above 4,000m and Mount Ras Dashen (4,620m) is the highest point in Ethiopia and the fourth highest peak in Africa.
Most parts of the Simiens are inaccessible to vehicles, but the range is crossed by a number of tracks used by the local people, which make ideal walking routes. Combined with the impressive scenery, this makes the Simiens an excellent area for trekking.
The Simien range consists of several major plateaux, divided by large river valleys. The western plateau is bounded on the north and east by a massive escarpment, many kilometres long and over 1,000m high in places, and cut along its length by steep gorges.
The views from the top of the escarpment look north over the vast plains to Eritrea. At their foot are the remains of ancient hills.
Three of Ethiopia’s endemic large mammals live in the Simiens. The gelada baboon is the most common of these, with an estimated 20,000 individuals living in troops of up to 400. The range of the walia ibex is restricted entirely to the Simiens. The Simien fox is now very rare in the mountains, with a population of only around 100. You may also see the jackal, which haunt the camps. The number of birds recorded in the Simiens is very low and endemics are not that well represented.
How to get there
Debark, 90km north of Gondar, is the base for hiking into the Simien Mountains. From Gondar, catch a bus to Debark and the journey will take three to four hours. Alternatively you can hire a taxi in which case the journey will take roughly two hours. From Axum catch a bus to Shire (marked on maps as Inda Selasie), and spend the night there before catching the morning bus to Gondar, which will drop you in Debark.
If you have a 4×4 you can drive into the mountains as far as Sankaber.
Where to stay
In Debark the relatively smart and clean Simien Park Hotel charges US$ 3/5 single/double using communal showers.
There is no organised accommodation on the mountain. You can either be completely self-contained with tent and camping equipment, including sleeping bag, stove and cooking gear; or else you can lodge with local people in the villages. Most local people are happy to make space in their hut for a visitor and it provides a bit of extra income (you should pay around a dollar a night) though conditions will be very basic. Your guide will find you a hut to stay in if you take this option.
Debark is the obvious place to organise a hike, but you can also do so from Gondar. In Gondar someone will approach you offering to set up a hike and they will advise you on the equipment, route, food and so on. They will ring your requirements through to Debark and will arrange for someone to meet your bus. As you do not pay until you get to Debark there is little risk involved.
If you do not arrange things in Gondar, or you are coming from Axum, then you will need to set yourself up in Debark. If an official guide does not approach you, head to the National Park Office.
Supplies – Debark has a few shops and stalls where you can buy vegetables and a few other basic items. In Gondar there are several shops with reasonable stocks of foodstuffs. If you don’t have all the equipment you need you can rent most of it in Debark.
Guides and Rangers – The park rules stipulate that all visitors must be accompanied by an armed ranger. After years of civil war, some parts of the Simien range are still a bit lawless and it is reassuring to have a ranger with you (they charge around US$ 2.50 per day). He’ll probably run out of food after a few days so consider buying extra rice and salt to give him halfway through the trek. It is advisable, but not obligatory, to trek with a local guide.
Mules – Porters are not available and it is usual to take mules as pack animals. Carrying all your own food and gear is not recommended, unless you’re used to backpacking, as distances are long and routes undulating. The scout and guide will expect you to hire at least one mule to carry their food and blankets. Before hiring a mule, make sure it’s in good condition. If it has a limp do not hire it, and insist the mule has a blanket under the saddle for padding.
Most trekking routes take you through small villages and terraced fields in the lower valleys, before reaching a series of dramatic cliffs and escarpments. Beyond the escarpments you reach the beautiful alpine meadows and the rugged wilderness of the high peak areas.
You have several route options, depending on the time you have and the distance you want to cover (some spend ten days trekking, but most people take a shorter trek). Your route is also determined by the places where you can sleep the night and find water.
Most visitors stay near the National Park camps (at Sankaber, Geech and Chenek) as they are spaced around a day’s walk apart and have a good water supply.
You should not underestimate the effects of altitude when planning your route. Make sure you have had time to acclimatise.
If the prospect of setting up your own trip seems a little daunting you can set up an organised trek through a tour operator in Addis Ababa.
Source: Ethiopia: The Bradt Travel Guide – third edition by Philip Briggs http://www.bradt-travelguides.com