Dear Diary, About the Simiens…
by Dave and Noelle
Our time in Lalibela and Gondar flew by and was packed with cool sites and interesting history, but we moved so quickly that not all of what we’d seen had sunk in. So what better way to slow things down than to head to the mountains for four days and three nights of hiking and relaxing? Just us, our guides, our thoughts and about a bajillion baboons. The weather was a bit cool and it was rainy season. What could possibly go wrong?
The trek started when our guide picked us up after our short night’s sleep in Gondar and we drove a couple hours to the entrance of Simien Mountains National Park. The park hosts upwards of 17,000 visitors annually, but the bulk of those visitors come earlier in the year when there is less risk of rain (at least leaving us with the least crowded camp sites of the season). Not unlike the rest of our stops in Ethiopia, the Simiens trip was planned with a huge amount of help from Chris, our host in Addis. Of our planned time in Ethiopia, I had been most excited for our time in the Simiens – if for no other reason than Chris’s photos from the region were littered with baboons and Walia Ibex (basically goats, but with massive horns). And if nothing else, this trip revealed an undiscovered obsession of mine… seeing wildlife (EDITOR’S NOTE: Let’s use the term “wildlife” loosely, as this also applies to cows, goats, birds…pretty much any moving creature Dave sees).
The following is a day-by-day account of our first of many times overnighting it in the great outdoors during this trip.
About 20 minutes beyond the entrance to the park, we saw a group of a quarter bajillion gelada baboons eating grass and just generally looking funny on the side of the road. Our driver pulled over so we had a chance to snap some photos (what would be about the first 30 of approximately 200 baboon photos I took during the four days… I wish Noelle wishes I was kidding). These things are the best. Completely harmless and endlessly entertaining as they’d make all kinds of noises while picking at grass, jumping around if we got too close. After our photo shoot, we grabbed our daypacks and were on our way. We hiked as a foursome – me, Noelle, Norr (our guide) and Mehabo (our scout… he carried an M16, which is all you need to know). We had about 3 hours of hiking that first day before settling into our campsite, fully equipped with coffee and popcorn waiting when we arrived.
Our 2pm arrival seemed early to be calling it a day, but made complete sense once we witnessed the first day’s downpour. The rain typically comes in the afternoon during this time of year, so beating it to the camp each day saved us from arriving soaking wet. The early finish to the day’s hiking allowed us time to explore the area and take in some views while we waited for what turned out to be the first of three consecutive nights of gorging to the point of discomfort for dinner. This free time also allowed me to overreact to every single bird or animal I saw. All in all, Day 1 was pretty uneventful, but still enjoyable. We were ready for more.
Gelada baboons. Great views. Dave taking way too many photos of animals. Coffee and popcorn. Everything he said.
It was an early start, but for good reason. We had shared our campsite with a handful of other groups, and Norr insisted upon getting out ahead of them so we could set our own pace. And the early start was worth it because… we saw even more gelada baboons. This time they were on the edge of a cliff, and super camera friendly.
After practically being reprimanded for how long it was taking me to take my photos, we continued on and explored more of the scenery. The morning was clear and the scenery was unreal. We walked along cliffs with 3,000 ft faces, and everything was green, one of the benefits of hiking during the start of rainy season.
About 4 hours, half a bajillion baboons, some shepherds, cattle, a river and one giant waterfall later, we had reached our campsite for the night. Gich, as it was named, was situated just above a small village with thatched-roof homes filled with friendly faces smiling as we approached. Even with the cloud cover that stuck around most of our time here, the views up and down the valley were stunning. We were in the middle of nowhere and only shared the campsite with one other group who stayed out of sight, so it felt like we had the whole place to ourselves.
Day 2 of captivity…
Despite my self-proclaimed “iron stomach” I get what I boasted I wouldn’t in the wee hours of the morning. In a tent the middle of the African mountains. In the pitch black. With the only hope of relief in the form of a hole in the ground, a 5 minute walk into the jungle (fine, it was just bushes, but in the pitch dark, it may have well have been a jungle). Said hole is filled with unspeakable things because the only people using it are people like me, desperation the only motivator to come within 5 feet. Oh, and I have to wake Dave because he’d freak if he woke up and I was gone (being the African jungle and all). Which is fair I guess…but pretty much my nightmare. I hold out for a few hours, staring at the tent ceiling and sweating with each pain, praying for God to take the pain away or at least make it morning so I can sneak off like a wounded animal, no one the wiser. No luck. So yeah. Add one more wave of nausea as dawn breaks, and I descend back into hell.
We hike further into the mountains (because WHERE ELSE CAN I GO…WE’RE IN THE AFRICAN JUNGLE/bush), where I have frequent cold sweats and stomach pains, resulting in scampering off IN THE WOODS for my final act of mortification. Or so I thought.
Feeling better back at the next campsite that afternoon, I make one more trip to the NEW hole, equally as disturbing…and MY RIGHT SHOE FALLS IN THE HOLE! Just let that sink in. And don’t ask questions. It just happened. Several tears later back in the tent, Dave climbs abreast his white horse ventures down and finds my shoe miraculously fell on the dry straw to the side (which I didn’t know existed because WHO EVER LOOKS DOWN A PORTAL TO HELL??), so he fashions a hooked pole (MCGUYVER STYLE) and fishes out my clean shoe. All while I lay curled in a ball in my sleeping bag in the tent pretending I’m on Greecian beaches…or really, ANYWHERE ELSE. To recap…sick in front of strangers and new husband, shoe in African toilet hole in middle of jungle, husband retrieves shoe with jungle-made tool. I LOVE THIS MAN (although also am still having trouble making eye contact).
So, there’s that.
With the longest day of hiking ahead of us, this morning brought clear skies and comfortable temperatures. We went down the valley from Gich, then back up the other side to the top of Mount Wecantrememberthename – about 12,000 ft above sea level, the highest point during our trip.
As we neared the top, fog rolled in that didn’t let up the rest of the day. There were a handful of stops when Norr turned to us and said “there are great views from here” and all we could see was the shield of fog about 10 feet in front us, giving it’s own unique view. And crazy that we still passed the child shepherds and their herds of cattle, sheep, goats, donkeys and whatever else each of them was responsible for. If you ever think you have lonely working conditions, try keeping track of dozens of animals on a rocky hill in dense fog with nobody to talk to… All. Day. Long.
We reached our campsite around 12:30pm, which again seemed incredibly early to call it a day. But lucky for us, we got there about 15 minutes before it started raining…then thundering…then hailing. We spent a long afternoon passing the time by taking turns at solitaire with Norr, who promptly won about every other hand he played while Noelle and I came up empty. Once the rain stopped we heard from fellow campers that there were wolves nearby and headed out to catch a few pictures from a distance. Normally, hearing “Come out here, there are wolves nearby,” would prompt a response like, “I’m sorry, for a second there it sounded like you were asking me to walk outside to go greet wolves in the wild. Come again…” But these ones were different. Wolves in Ethiopia look like foxes on steroids, and their “howls” sound more like they are yelping in pain. Still cool to see, nonetheless.
Our early stop from the hiking also meant an early dinner and by the time 7:30pm rolled around, we were ready to call it a night and head to the tent. That’s not an exaggeration. We were asleep no later than 8:30pm.
Everything he said. Four thousandy hours of solitaire. Nauseous all day. No sleep. Wolves Shmolves. Are we done talking about this yet?
We had a couple hours to fill before our driver picked us up late morning, which we did with a search for the Walia Ibex.
The weather was perfect, Norr seemed confident and Mohabo, gun in hand, could spot animals from across mountains, so we were feeling optimistic. Zero Ibex and the final quarter bajillion gelada baboons later, we were about to call it quits when we finally found a pack of them down the face of a cliff. The pictures below are on the furthest zoom our camera has, but we were still excited to see them.
It was a great way to wrap up our time in the mountains. Norr and his crew were fun to spend time with and helped us gain an appreciation for everything we saw. It was our first camping trip of the year, and while we enjoyed it, we were definitely ready to get back to civilization. Or at least to Gondar, where we were to spend one more night before returning to Addis. And real beds.
Sweet, sweet relief. Get me the F out of this place. I need pepto and a soft pillow. And my mommy if you’re asking. Oh, it’s Sunday you say? When the people of Gondar ALSO play music and chant through the night and sleep will be merely a temptress just out of reach?
Simiens? We are never, ever getting back together. Like ever.