🇪🇹 Ethiopia: The Simien Mountains National Park

The Simien Mountains in Ethiopia are a very popular destination for tourists. People travelling in Ethiopia might miss out on the other popular destinations but nobody really wants to miss the chance of visiting these stunning mountains. The best thing about trekking in the Simien Mountains is that you can decide for yourself the number of days you would like to spend here. Tourists spend anywhere between 1-12 days in the Simiens.  Usually, travellers prefer a 4 day trek and only hardcore mountain climbers go for a 12 day expedition. I could manage a 4 day trek in the mountains as I had just a month in Ethiopia, and I wanted to visit the Omo Valley Tribes in the south as well.

At the same time, my travel buddy – Enya and I did not want to take a guided tour for these mountains. We wanted to do everything on our own and see how we end up on day 04. The idea of mules carrying our bags and chefs preparing incredible food at the end of the day was way too touristy for us and we wanted to explore a more authentic experience. Therefore, we ended up having a lovely time in mid – October’17 climbing these mountains in the Great Rift Valley all by oursleves.

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Here, you can get an idea of the Mountains. Every square bullet point  is a campsite and in 4 days you would reach as far as Chanek when you start from Debark. If you want to climb Ras Dashen (the highest peak in Simien Mountains), you’re looking at a 7 day trek.

When you reach Gonder, you will be ambushed by several tour operators for treks to Simien Mountains. You will be quoted somewhere around $250 for a 4 day trek. This cost will cover everything – Ride from Gonder to the Entry point in Simien Mountains, mules to carry your backpacks, mule-men to guide the mules, mandatory scout, guide, your tents and sleeping bags, trained chefs carrying a lot of food and drinking water and a ride back to Gonder after your trek ends. A lot of people end up taking these tours as it avoids a lot of hassles.

We didn’t want so many people to accompany us. Hence, we decided to ignore all the tour guides in Gonder and take a cheap ride to the Simien Mountains Headquarters in Debark to start our trek.

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But, we prepared ourselves in Gonder. We bought all the food we would need for the next 4 days. Easy to make spaghetti/noodles, peanut butter, sardines, tomato paste, 3 liters of water each and some candies.

Simien Mountains are very dry and to keep your hydration levels high, you would need at least 3 Liters of water a day, if not more. There is no packaged drinking water available inside the National Park and at the same time, it’s not possible to carry 12 Liters of water all by yourself.

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I had invested in this Sawyer mini water filter (0.1 Micron filter) before visiting Ethiopia. I used it throughout my journey and it didn’t fail me! It fits on top of any regular water bottle and you can drink straight from it. Or, you could use the flexible water bags provided free with this product.

We decided not to take tents and sleeping bags as we had heard that there are “lodges” in each campsite with beds. This option was a bit cheaper as we didn’t have to rent tents, sleeping bags & mats and helped us keep our backpacks light. The lodges charge you 80ETB at every campsite, which is much cheaper than renting camping equipment.

We kept our bags as light as possible by removing all the extra clothes and items we wouldn’t need for our hike but they still weighed over 15 Kilos each. Mostly because of 3 Liters of water and a lot of canned food items.

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As per the rules and regulations, visitors are allowed to enter the National Park without taking a guided tour. But, a mandatory Scout has to be hired who carries a gun and will accompany you throughout the National Park. Scouts don’t speak English but they know the way inside the National Park. So, you don’t really need a guide. You just follow your scout. This is Mokuanant, our awesome scout. Look at his footwear. He climbs the Simien Mountains in those shoes/flip-flops.
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So, we reached Debark in the morning. Paid the Entrance fee and Scout fee for 4 days at the Park Headquarters and we were ready to leave for the National Park next morning.

 

DAY-01

We met Mokuanant early in the morning and we decided to walk to Sankabar( the first campsite) all the way from Debark. You will not come across a lot of people who would be ready to do this. Sankabar is about 36 Kms away from Debark by road. Guided tours take you in a van to Buyit Ras (the Park Entrance) and then you walk the last few Kilometers.

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We chose to ditch the road and stroll into the countryside and make our way towards the National Park.
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All the tour guides we had consulted had discouraged us saying “there is nothing to see between Debark and Buyit Ras (the entrance of National Park)”. But this is not true. Decide for yourself.
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You cross streams of rivers.
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And agricultural fields
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Villagers often join you for a chat. Mokuanant was not carrying any food or water with him even after we asked him to. You are not responsible to feed your scout but I would sincerely ask you to share some food and water with them. Most of the scouts cannot afford food and are dependent on their travellers or other groups in the campsite. But, not once did he ask for food from us. Only when we shared something with him, he would happily accept.
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The foothills are beautiful in its own way.
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Resting period in-between our climbs.
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Back on the road after 3 hours of diversion in the countryside.
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I wish I could ride a horse here! I didn’t expect the first day to be so exhausting.
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We passed time talking to each other. With Mokuanant’s English vocabulary limited to about 5 words and my Amharic vocabulary to 2 words, we did quite well! He taught me a lot of Amharic words. Whenever we reached a viewpoint, he would shout – “Buttam harifnoooo!” and expect me to repeat it. I think it means ‘very beautiful”.
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As soon as we got inside the National Park, we could feel the surroundings change. The grass was much longer and denser.
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Wild flowers grew in patches.
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October is considered the best month to visit the Simiens. The wet season is over and wild flowers cover entire hills. Shades of yellow, green and purple everywhere.
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These spooky trees also made a cameo. They have threads all over them. Not sure how these threads are formed.
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And we didn’t have to wait for long before we came across the first troop of Gelada Baboons! Hundreds of them chilling and having lunch.
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Gelada Baboons are only found in Ethiopia. Their red chests sets them apart from other baboons and monkeys, giving them a unique look.
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The females are small and are always with their babies.
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Whereas, the males are much larger and take control of the entire troop. Their faces and builds are more ferocious than that of the females.
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They fight a lot as well. Obviously, for power.
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I was hesitant at first to get up close with them but Mokuanant insisted. It was an incredible feeling sitting among them and observing them continue with their daily routine.
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When around the Geladas, sit as low as possible and refrain from any sudden actions or loud noises. Otherwise, they could feel threatened.
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Finally after 9 hours of hike, we reached our first campsite – Sankabar.
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This is the kitchen & dining room at the campsites. As all other tourists were travelling in groups and had their own cooks who were carrying cooking gas and stoves to cook food on, we chose to hire their cooking equipment to cook our dinner and the next day’s breakfast and lunch. But these tour groups cook so much extra food that there is always food left behind which is thrown away. So, as soon as everyone finished their dinner, they gave us all the leftovers. It was a three course meal that we got for free! We did end up tipping the cook for offering us a free meal.
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And my bag has had enough! How am I going to continue my trek tomorrow?

 

DAY-02

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This was the Sankabar “lodge” from the inside. The word “Lodge” is an exaggeration. It’s more like a shack where tens of people are stuffed in a room. The beds are relatively cleaner and comfortable at Sankabar. However, I would not say the same about Geech and Chanek. Every morning we would get up early and go to the nearest water sources (which were quite far from the camp) to bring water and then we would filter it using the Sawyer water filter. We filtered 6 Liters of water every morning.

As my backpack was torn and it could no longer carry 15Kilos of weight, we decided to hire a porter from Sankabar who would carry my bag in a sack. We arranged a fixed price with him (and this was a much more difficult task than hiking 8 hours a day). We were surrounded by a group of angry men after they found out that the boy had agreed to take the bags for lesser amount. They acted as a union and did not allow us to hire that boy as our porter. Hence, we had to pay more.

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And, we are off! Day-02 was a very scenic hike and but also steep at times. You will be climbing about 400m between Sankabar and Geech. At some moments I was left gasping for air. The trick is to go slow and steady.
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This is how it looks behind those beautiful photographs if you’re travelling with tour guides and in groups. We all would leave the campsites together and walk the entire day on our own paces and reunite in the evening for dinner.
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The landscape just kept getting better with every meter you climb.

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Animals were hidden around us all the time. Can you spot two deer here?
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Now?
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And, here I am at the Jinbar waterfall! I’m sure this spectacular view could be the deciding factor as to why you should visit the Simiens. Another reason why October is the best month to visit this place because the source dries up in November.
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We spent more than an hour just sitting there peacefully. A very serene and peaceful experience.
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Met this young man and his friend climbing these mighty mountains along with their children. Over 65 years old but that didn’t stop them to hike here.
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Lunch time! We cooked these noodles last night at Sankabar. To improve it’s taste, we’ve added some canned sardines. Was a cold lunch but you really don’t care when you’re hungry.
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Our first sighting of a Lammergeier (aka the bearded vultures)! Definitely not our last.
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Finally after a long day of hiking, we arrive at Geech. This is their lodge or should I call shack? If the lodges have empty beds by evening, they are given to the tour guides and their groups. And they can be very loud!
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Visit to the toilets can be a huge task in the middle of the night as they are located about a hundred steps away from the lodges. So, carry a torch. And, don’t expect the toilets to be clean.
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After a few snacks, we decided to walk to a viewpoint very near to Geech (15 minutes) to observe the sunset.
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More Geladas here!
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They can easily hide in the grass with their hair as a camouflage.
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Sunset from the viewpoint.
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Our dinner on Day 02 being cooked on firewood. In Geech and Chanek, there are food services available and you can find an Injera + Shiro meal or scrambled eggs to fill you up.

 

DAY-03

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Day-03 starts with this breakfast and the scenery.

On this day, the flora kept changing around us. By the time we reached Chanek, it was completely different. You will see below:

First we walked to the peak of Imet Gogo (at 3926m). It gives a 270deg view of Simien Mountains once you reach on top.

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We were blessed with clear skies when we started our day.
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The stretch between Geech and Chanek is also famous for sightings of Red Wolves. These wolves are endemic to Ethiopia and Simien Mountains has a population of only 75. We were unfortunate to not come across these wolves in our journey. (Image from Google)
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Suddenly, there were lots of cactus and thorny bushes around us and the area was very dry.

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On the way to Imet Gogo, you need to climb a few boulders to make your way to the top of the peak. This could be a bit tricky.
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And, as soon as we reached on top, clouds decided to photobomb and ruin our view. Sigh!
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This is probably the best photo I have from Imet Gogo.
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It was time to go downhill and get ready for a much steeper hike. Flora again changed.
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We were now to hike to 4000m. It was raining and it was cold. Our rain jackets were on and we were exhausted. But 13Kms. to go!
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Yes, we’ve reached the top (4000m)! The Lammergeiers welcoming us.
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They were more interested in our lunch. (Or making us their lunch?)
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Lammergeiers are bone eating birds with 70-90% of their diet based on bones. They are mostly found in southern Europe, Iran, Ethiopia and Tibet. Due to over-hunting, they are highly endangered now. (Image from harvard.edu)
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Our last stretch was to descend from the hill as we head towards Chanek.
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The descend was steep and our feet were giving up but we could see the road now. So, we were nearby. This kept us going.
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For the scale of this image, try to spot fellow hikers on the bottom right.
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As we got closer to Chanek, the nature around us changed once again. The spooky trees and cacti co-existed here.
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Chanek campsite. The funny thing about this campsite is that they don’t have clean packaged drinking water but they have beer! After such an exhausting day, you would definitely want a beer.

 

DAY-04

I woke up scratching and itching after a horrible night in the lodge. Beds in Chanek were infested with bedbugs. My waist line and arms were dark red. We had plans to climb Bwahit (2nd highest peak in the Simiens at 4430m) but we had no idea how to get back to Debark from here. Everybody had told us to book a car ride back to Gonder before the trip began but it was over 100USD and we were not ready to pay that price. Surely, there must be a way for villagers to commute we thought. Or, we could ask other travellers to accommodate us in their luxurious vans. (Although, their guides were reluctant about giving you a ride back to Debark. They ignored us as much as possible.) So, we thought we’ll take a chance and let’s see how we return.

And it worked! While I was sitting outside impatiently scratching myself, we heard the horn of a bus coming down the hill. THERE WAS A BUS!!!

We charged towards the bus to bring it to a halt and  we tried to negotiate our ride costs. While the locals pay 20 birr, we were asked for 400 birr each! On persistent negotiating by Enya, we came down to 200 birr each. This was way cheaper than if we would have booked a car (2400 birr to Gonder).

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The bus was completely packed.
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But, this gentleman (in red) gave up his seat for Enya and he sat in his wife’s laps the entire 3 hour journey back to Debark! Haha.
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So, for future travellers – Yes, there is a bus in the morning between 7-9am (Not sure if it’s everyday). If you’re on a budget and cannot afford a car to head back to Gonder, you could either wait for this bus or you could try to fix a ride with other travellers/guides. As far as I know, travelling in ISUZU trucks is illegal and your scout will try to prevent you from taking that option. (Photo clicked at Debark bus station)

So, this was my 4 day journey through the Simiens. Completely unplanned and without a guided tour. Guided tour operators quote somewhere around 250-300 USD for a 4 day trip, whereas, we managed to complete the same trip in about 80 USD each. Yes, the comfort was missing but when you’re hiking, it’s the last thing you want.

The Simiens are stunning! There is no reason for you to skip visiting these mountains in the Great Rift Valley. People of all ages take their chances and usually succeed. Altitude sickness could take over as you will be touching 4000m or even more if you climb Bwahit Peak (4430m). So, the things I would really recommend you to carry are – Water purifying system, good quality backpacks and shoes, any necessary medications and a lot of confidence!

6 thoughts on “🇪🇹 Ethiopia: The Simien Mountains National Park

  1. Sat shri akal Jaitegh. Your blog gives an insight view of Simien mountains. Never thought Ethiopia was so beautiful. WaheGuru mehar karan
    Warm regards Baljit

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Heyho Mokha!!
    I enjoyed reading your articles about Ethiopia a lot!! 😀

    Hoffe dir geht es gut & auf ein baldiges Wiedersehen! 😉
    Simon

    Like

    1. Hi,
      Thanks!
      I would not recommend the Simiens in July as it is the rainy period and it will be swampy and mushy. Some parts are really steep and this weather would only make things worse.

      Mokha

      Like

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