Part 2 of a 3-part series profiling epic, lesser-known mountain adventures in Africa. Click here for part one.
Words: Michael Henry // photos: Mallika Sobti.
“Congratulations! The association has decided to offer you a discount.”
The four hard-eyed guys turn towards us. They’re lean and dressed in a medley of jeans, tank tops, leather jackets, and beanies. They’d look no different than anyone else in this chilly, smoky town if we hadn’t just seen them aggressively intimidate the tuk-tuk driver who we tried to hire to drive us into the mountains.
“Your final price is 3,800 birr. You save four hundred birr because we like you.”
Mallika and I look at each other and realize that we have no more tricks up our sleeve. We’ve used appeals to reason and to emotion. We’ve cracked jokes and gotten mad. We’ve attempted to shake these guys and their friends off our tail through alleyway misdirection. Despite our best efforts we’ve ended up in the same place as everyone else who tries to visit Simien Mountains National Park independently: at the mercy of the Debark Transport Mafia.
“OK. Let’s do it. We’ll pay half now, half later.”
Hands are shaken and calls made. We’ve booked our ticket into the Simiens, a tremendous mountain landscape packed with otherworldly natural life. We’re headed to the rooftop of Ethiopia, the jagged culmination of the highest major patch of land on the African continent.
A Unique Mountain Culture and Landscape
Upland Ethiopia has retained the strong, unique culture of a mountain kingdom that kept out all colonizers and invaders by force. The injera which graces every meal stands head and shoulders above staple carbs in neighboring countries; the majority practice a distinctive Orthodox Christianity much more ancient than the Roman church; the Ge’ez script used to write Amharic and the honeyed wine leave the head of the farangi [foreigner] spinning. Landscapes are diverse but almost always harsh, from red-rock semi-deserts to freezing thin-soiled ridges. The land becomes even more unforgiving as it tilts up towards the Simiens and reaches its brutal zenith at 4550-metre Ras Dashen. The Simiens are special, and are recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site, because their topography preserves the region’s final significant slice of protected high-mountain ecosystem.
The park’s existence represents a great opportunity to Ethiopia and specifically to the people of the lands surrounding the park. Painstaking agricultural work sets the rhythm of life for most people in the highlands, and chances for cash are scarce. Visitors mean opportunity and money. If this opportunity could be equitably channeled, it would create value for local people who would then have a reason to contribute to the park’s conservation.
The park aims for this dual vision of conservation and opportunity. The building blocks are there to achieve it: the landscape and animals are unique draws. But the park faces challenges that currently block it from fully achieving its vision. Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of a hike in the Simiens is the chance to reflect on these challenges, and how different they are from the issues that Canadian parks deal with. The hiker comes into close contact with various groups of people who are involved in the park’s present and future, each with their own story and way of telling it. These mountain people make the experience, as much as the mountains themselves.
Visitors mean opportunity and money. If this opportunity could be equitably channeled, it would create value for local people who would then have a reason to contribute to the park’s conservation.
Preparing for the Simiens
Hiking the Simiens seems pretty simple. There’s one main trail that follows a massive, irregular ridgeline across peaks and passes, allowing long views the whole way. Sleeping huts and food are available at a few points. The government requires all hikers to be accompanied by a Scout who can point the way, but a guide is not required and fees and red tape are low. Theoretically, that’s about all you need to know.
In reality, it’s a bit more complicated. Which brings us back to the Debark Transport Mafia.
My girlfriend Mallika and I had started in Gondar, capital of former empires and still the region’s biggest city. We grabbed a packed minibus through rocky fields to Debark, the last town accessible by regular public transport before the Simien Mountains. Men herded goats and little kids sold teeth-cleaning sticks by the roadside. As always, our spirits rose as craggy hills grew into mountains around us.
We had the afternoon in Debark to set up the logistics: obtaining permits, sourcing some basic gear we were missing, finding a spot to leave valuables, and securing a ride to the trailhead and a pickup at the trail’s end. All but the rides proved easy. We walked over to the park office, paid for the permits, and arranged to meet our official scout at the office the next morning before setting off. Our hotel allowed us to keep valuables in their lockers while on the trail, so we wrapped our laptops in dirty clothes, disguised them in a thick bundle of garbage bags, and trusted them to the integrity of a one-dollar lock bought off the street. We even met an outgoing young guy, Yohannes, who was happy to arrange us with rental gear for a very reasonable price. He could also hook us up with the rides. Yohannes took out a piece of paper and noted down all the costs.
The Debark Transport Mafia
We looked at the paper and realized that the rides were exorbitantly expensive. We were somewhat aware, based on blogs we’d glanced at, that this could be an issue. We attempted to politely decline the rides while agreeing to everything else.
Our new friend kindly informed us that we were not allowed to decline the rides. He said that, for our safety, we had to get transport from the accredited association of which he was a part. We pointed out that we would be travelling with a scout who would be responsible for our safety. Yohannes stuck to his position. Mallika and I decided to agree to disagree for now, and try to find a tuk-tuk driver early the next morning who could bring us into the Simiens.
The next day we were up early but not, apparently, earlier than the Debark Transport Mafia. We stopped a tuk-tuk and tried to communicate our request to the driver, but he nervously glanced behind us and then sped away. We turned around and saw nothing out of the ordinary—just a few guys standing around. We walked further down the street and noticed a few of them start walking in the same direction, so we jogged to put some distance between us and stopped another tuk-tuk. This driver was visibly nervous but willing to talk. We were about to strike a deal when the guys from down the street shoved us out of the way and started aggressively berating the driver, slapping him around a little, trying to shove his vehicle down the street. We eventually managed to shout down the aggressors and convince them that he was just driving us to the park office, which they allowed him to do. With inordinate bravery he even accompanied us into the office as we tried to talk through the issue with the park staff; but when the guys from the street showed up, the staff stopped talking and the driver left.
We accepted our fate and entered negotiations with the Mafia. They had clearly defined roles: there were enforcers who intimidated drivers on the street, and handlers who spoke good English, struck the deals, and collected the money. Yohannes, the handler who had originally identified us, was nowhere to be found but the new handler assured us that they worked together. The bargaining session was fun due to its absurdity: we were standing beside a metal storage container on Debark’s main road where the Mafia kept all their outdoor gear, arguing over prices with absolutely no leverage (everyone knew we weren’t about to give up on the hike). In another unexpected twist, their gear rental prices were very reasonable. We closed the deal and handed over the first half of the 3,800 birr. A car showed up, whisked us to the park office, and picked up our Scout. We were on our way.
The Life and Times of the Simiens Scout
Our scout, Getachew, was an old man with a blanket, a tarp, a water bottle, and an AK-47. He wore sandals and a bright orange toque visible through dense fog, spoke less English than our three words of Amharic, and carried no food. Our driver stopped to let him buy some bread for the three-day journey, but Getachew found none to his liking and we drove on. We mentally prepared to divide our noodles and peanut butter by three, instead of two.
Scouts in the Simiens are grossly underpaid and undertrained for the difficult job they are asked to do. The government says it requires hikers to hire scouts because of some past aggression towards park visitors and thefts of gear and valuables. This means that scouts have to stay with groups for the duration of the hike, including watching over them at night. They must climb the same ridges, withstand the same cold and rain, and put in the same long trail days as the hikers. For this grueling, 24-hours-a-day task, they receive no gear or food from the park other than the AK-47.
Scouts in the Simiens are grossly underpaid and undertrained for the difficult job they are asked to do.
I have no doubt that any hiker would happily pay higher park fees to ensure that scouts could have boots, food, and sleeping bags. Instead, hikers’ money flows to the Transport Mafia. We grew to respect Getachew’s toughness and outstanding mountain skills as he left us in his dust for most of the hike and never seemed affected by the difficult conditions. But he, and the other scouts of the Simiens, should not have to be this tough.
The Hike Begins
The road brought us up the ridge into the park, and we began our hike amid shifting clouds. Incredible views presented themselves immediately. To our left, massive drop-offs revealed serrated ridges and tall, thin mesas guarding deep river valleys. The trail traversed fields of long grass and dense forests of small trees. The landscape’s verticality and staggering diversity of landforms more than made up for a lack of outstanding peaks.
An hour in, we came into a field and found ourselves almost on top of a group of Gelada baboons socializing with each other in a way uncannily similar to humans. Geladas are endemic to the Ethiopian highlands and have their major stronghold in the Simiens. They are highly social and live in multi-family groups composed of up to hundreds of animals. In the Simiens, they are also wonderfully indifferent to humans. We were able to watch their interactions from a few metres away: the larger adults were calmer, grooming each other and foraging efficiently, while the youngsters ran around, clung to their bellies, roughoused with each other, and sometimes tried to copy the adults’ foraging. Geladas are one of the park’s main claims to fame, and it was heartwarming to see them doing well.
When the trail winded away from the ridge’s edge and downhill, we often ran into young kids waiting by the trail to sell small handicrafts to hikers. They must have been waiting a long time: we were there in the low season and met only one other hiking group over three days. Their offers presented a dilemma. Buying something would send a little money to the neighboring communities, who seem to benefit in no other way from the park’s existence. But it would also encourage the negative cycle of kids having to do this work. Another challenging decision in the Simiens.
Challenges of the Trail
We camped that night at Sankaber, a small clearing near the ridgeline with a few bare-bones huts for shelter. We had counted on finding water, but found none and explored the area with increasing desperation. We stumbled into a village with four or five families, and, amazingly, a University of Michigan sign on a post pointing down a gravel driveway. There was also a sign clearly prohibiting hikers’ entry, but as a Michigan alum I felt I had a chance to talk my way through. We followed the driveway to the door of a sturdy hut and knocked. The initially suspicious grad students who opened the door quickly warmed up and, after swapping a few stories, gave us some life-saving water.
Our second day dawned cold and gray. Getachew, offering us an easy way out, encouraged us to hitchhike on the park road to the next campsite. We stubbornly marched on, and the mountains rewarded us with intimate views of the Geladas and epic cloudforms billowing over the ridges. Soon, though, rain started and our pace slowed. The trail became increasingly treacherous, consisting in parts of barely anchored mud on a steep incline.
We came to a decision point where the trail met back up with the park road. We needed to pick up the pace to reach Chenek, the next established camp, by sundown. Our trail pace was too slow, but if we walked the road (sacrificing views and variety), we might make it. Food was the biggest issue, and we had heard Chenek might have some. We finished off our last cheese and crackers while pondering our decision. A truck passed- headed back the way we had come—and Getachew, sensing victory, tried to get us on it. We almost agreed.
Giving up Control
But we resisted the truck’s temptation and resigned ourselves to walking the remaining 12km by road. We were fully inside the clouds, with minimal visibility, and the cold mist easily found the seams in our clothes. We were dragging. Getachew, however, had found new motivation when he realized that the end of the day’s work lay ahead at Chenek rather than in a retreat to Sankaber. Enterprisingly, he even flagged down a young, blanketed boy who appeared alone in the mist, and motioned that we should follow the boy. A shortcut, it seemed. The boy scampered off the road, straight into the cloud, and Getachew followed.
The best trips include moments where you have to give up control to the mountain and to the people who know it better than you. This was our moment. We put away our doubts and followed the AK-47–wielding old man and his youthful guide into the mist.
The People of the Mountains
Once we made it back to the road, we caught a second wind from views down into the valley communities far below us. Uniformed schoolkids streamed out a building for recess, young men loaded up mules, and old women chatted against the blue-green wall of an orthodox church. A woman wrapped in weather-beaten blankets walked with Getachew for some time, sharing her load of a heavy sack of flour. We felt lucky to experience a slice of peoples’ lives by walking the trails that are the lifeline of their existence.
At the same time, we gained urgency from the edge of hostility we detected in some people we passed. Groups of boys materialized from behind high crags to stare at us, with their dogs growling menacingly. Three young girls sat by the roadside and smiled at us as we approached, but hurled insults as we declined their handicrafts. A glowering man waved us past his field. There was a tangible disconnect between our vacation-time, in-and-out experience of these mountains and the reality of their lives in this rough terrain. We glimpsed villages and isolated households on neighboring ridges, and could not fathom the difficulty of life that their location implied.
Hundreds of vertical metres from any road, families carry on via marginal subsistence agriculture with little support from the government or—importantly—from the park. A single house sat on a large triangular plateau, created by a confluence of two rivers, in the valley below; the hike down the plateau, across the river, and up to the nearest neighbor’s house must take hours. Add a few days to get to a market. While such isolation represents impressive, honorable self-sufficiency, it also struck us that any rules about cutting wood or hunting animals from the park would seem totally meaningless to this household.
The real conservation challenge, very different than what most Canadian parks face, is to provide some opportunity more enticing than encroaching on the park. Patrols and enforcement, and scouts who are given no resources to work with, cannot sustainably conserve this land.
Currently, the bulk of park tourist income flows to guided tours or the Transport Mafia, who have used marketing, aggression, and force to corner the market. There are no effective policies or practices to spread the money more evenly.
The park’s lack of engagement with neighboring communities leaves them no viable way to benefit from the World Heritage site at their doorstep while also conserving it. The Simiens are populated, somewhat densely, by people who have little access to opportunity. The real conservation challenge, very different than what most Canadian parks face, is to provide some opportunity more enticing than encroaching on the park. Patrols and enforcement, and scouts who are given no resources to work with, cannot sustainably conserve this land.
As we closed in on Chenek, Getachew sped up to an unexpectedly nimble trot and his enthusiasm combined with the thickening groves of otherworldly giant lobelias to get us properly excited. Little by little, the clouds opened up and breaks in the ridgeline revealed endless broken ridges. Adrenaline hit us all at once, and we whooped as we flew into Chenek, a beautiful hanging valley with rushing streams and pristine alpine steppe surreally broken up by alien megaflora. We found a dry patch to set up our tent and managed to order a solid injera dinner at a well-kept roadside hut. Best of all, a pump next to a chuckling stream gave us infinite water after we had come so far with so little. We had made it. We were preparing to sink into absolute blissful laziness when Mallika spotted a deep orange glow on the ridge behind us. The sun, blocked by a hill in front of us, must be setting; we left the injera and sprinted up the hill to catch it.
Some sunsets just mean more. Purples, oranges, and golds bled over the jagged land and softened it until the mountains felt like a masterpiece painted especially for us. Each moment brought new detail as the setting sun pierced new sliver-thin valleys and illuminated unseen headlands. We forgot our tiredness and tension, and giggled like little kids. I’m not sure if that evening at Chenek was the best sunset I’ve ever seen. But, after the uncertain, monotonous hours going up that road in the freezing cloud, it felt more honestly earned than any I can remember.
Retreat and Reflection
Our third and final day on the trail was an opportunity to get as high as we could before our scheduled 2pm pickup. The trail quickly left the Lobelias behind and we floated among the best views of the trip as we worked towards a high pass from which we could see the Simiens continue to their summit at Ras Dashen. Unfortunately, it was not meant to be: rain came again, colder this time, and it seemed best to turn back at least for the sake of Getachew, who had already come farther than anyone should in sandals. The down-hike was spent with the difficult task of determining the right amount to tip him for his three hard days of work. We arrived back at Chenek in time for a seeing-off party from the biggest crew of Geladas we had seen yet, contentedly grazing and grooming like a full village of people going about their day.
The car took us back the same road we had walked. We stumbled out onto the streets of Debark to find the full Transport Mafia waiting to collect the second half of their payment. We handed it over, grabbed our stuff, and crammed into the back of a minibus bound for Gondar. Some kids outside the bus got me to flinch by pretending to throw a rock at my head; the men inside it leered at Mallika. But the trip was smooth, and we stretched out in the Gondar airport well in time for our flight back to Addis, knowing that it would take some time to process what we had just done and seen. The airport offered a glamorous version of a traditional tea ceremony, and beautiful tourist brochures featuring photos of pristine Simiens landscape and animals. We knew that the reality on the ground was a little more complex. But if the Simiens are to be conserved, for their people, for their pure natural value, and even for foreign visitors, their uniquely beautiful side needs to be shown to the world. We saw their best and their worst, and it was absolutely worth it.
Michael Henry is a Canadian currently based in India after stints in southern and western Africa, working to help the international development and aid sector become more effective. He seeks out connections between culture, community livelihoods, conservation, and adventure. Link to personal blog.
Trail Summary: Start at Buyit Ras (19km from Debark); sleep at Sankaber Camp (km hike) and then at Chenek Camp (20km hike). We came back from Chenek, but it is possible to continue 3-5 days from there to Ras Dashen, or even all the way to Lalibela.
Visas and vaccines: Ethiopia provides visa-on-arrival for $50 cash at the airport to Canadians and many other nationalities. Recommended to pay in cash with a crisp bill.
Transport to trailhead and from trail’s end: From Gondar, get a minibus to Debark. In Debark, the Mafia will find you and organize everything; transport will cost 100-150 CAD total. Alternatively, you can find a creative way to avoid them. Note the hike is out-and-back with no loop feasible, so best to set a pickup time at trail’s end and make sure to arrive on time.
Gear: Regular multi-day backpacking gear; the Mafia can rent sleeping bags, pads, raincoats.
Maps: Available but expensive in the park office. We did not buy one and did fine; the scout knows the way and offline mapping apps show the trail accurately.
Food and water: Carry enough water to last until deep into the second day. From there, it is more plentiful. Bring enough food to provide your scout with a full portion.
Costs and red tape: Buy permits (about $10 CAD/person for the trip) and pay for your scout ($5 CAD/day) at the park office in Debark. Plan to tip your scout an additional amount (another $5 CAD/day seems fair at minimum) at the end of the hike. Guide, cook, and porters can also be hired here but are not required.
Personal safety: Though it feels tense at times, there are few examples of hikers having issues. Scouts are there to watch out for hikers and it makes sense to listen to their advice on where to pitch the tent, etc. Keep valuables on you at all times and ideally hike with a partner. Note there is almost no cell service in the park.