Ethiopia is a land of legends and mystery – the Queen of Sheba and the Ark of the Covenant to name but two. The landscape is also mesmerising. In the far north are the Simien Mountains – a mystical world of primeval forests, misty peaks, bizarre plants and exotic creatures. Trekking these stunning highlands is like stepping into an otherworldly paradise.
Violent volcanic eruptions 40 million years ago created the Simien Mountains massif, which rises to over 4500m in northern Ethiopia. Over millennia, erosive forces have sculpted its jagged pinnacles, deep ravines and volcanic plugs. Treks of between five and ten days along high-altitude escarpments, across alpine meadows and through the fertile lowlands are the best way to fully appreciate the amazing diversity of the Simiens, much of what today is protected as part of Simien Mountains National Park.
Steep ascents lead to lush plateaus populated with giant lobelias – freaky fleshy-leaved plants growing to 3m in height, evoking images of dinosaurs and ancient days. Escarpment vistas are filled with sheer cliffs, plunging waterfalls, and rocky turrets spiking out from the forested valleys below. Ribbons of mist drift over the ground. Vultures and ravens cruise the skies. It is a strangely beautiful yet primal world.
Dropping off the escarpment, the landscape undergoes a dramatic transformation as it descends some 2000m into the lowlands – lowlands being a misnomer given these valleys are still over 2000m in altitude. Vibrantly coloured red hot poker plants cover the mountain slopes, and desert-style cactus trees and groves of aloe vera line the trail. Cultivated fields of yellow canola flowers and feathery green tef are peppered with tropical-style giant ficus and palm trees.
Make it happen
The driest time of year for hiking is from December to March but at the end of the rainy season, in October, the land is a riot of green. Wildflowers bloom in August and last well into October.
Organised trekking tours take care of the hassles – equipment, permits and supplies – but independent trekking is not too difficult to arrange. Everything can be organised at the Simien Mountains National Park headquarters in Debark: paying entrance fees, arranging drop-offs and pick-ups at trail access points, hiring camping equipment, guides, scouts, cooks and mules.
Park regulations require scouts (armed park rangers) to accompany trekkers even though the greatest danger is altitude sickness. The scouts are fit and wiry, often war veterans from past battles. With AK-47s slung across their shoulders, they saunter up steep hillsides in their ill-fitting plastic sandals, and willingly brandish their rifles for happy snaps.