by Jenny Makepeace

By 10.30am we were sitting in the courtyard of a frontier type town – Debark – theSimien Mountains View entrance point for the Simien Mountain National Park.

Its been a marvelous three hour drive across mountainous country, almost beyond description.

The rural community have many horses, donkeys, cattle and all seem to be on the move – but to where?

Semmakumie is good fun, fluent and interesting, we have great conversations about history. The Italians built the road from Axum southwards – its now rough and un-tarmaced, so the dust can be a problem when other vehicles pass.

The farmers are cutting teff with small sharp curved knives, the threshing is done in circles with animals treading it.

We registered in the National Park office and appear to be the only English.  We’re eating very good bread and honey while the crew have breakfast – the crew consists of guide, driver cook and scout with a gun.

The beat up Toyota has had a couple of problems – the nearside window fell out and then a nasty knocking sound needed attention – screw in the transmission??  Neither took long to fix.

In one of the small villages Semma bought a small bag of mixed roasted wheat and dried peas – rather delicious and nutty.

It seems incredible that in this vast ocher landscape there is anything like enough for the animals to eat.  The ponies are dreadfully thin but donkeys and cattle look fine.

View Simien MountainsThe views across deep valleys, escarpments, pointy hills and flat topped ones are fabulous and stretch to infinity.

It is nature’s wonder. One can understand why it is described as the Roof of Africa.

The houses around here are mainly timber, vertical poles, tin roofs, sometimes wattle and daub often painted a bright acid green, blue or yellow, sometimes done with ashes, bright blue doors.

I asked Semma why so many Ethiopians are non-negroid, he believes it is an Indian or Arabic influence.  These people use the same gesture of greeting as Keumyul (our Korean friend) – reaching out with one arm supported by the other. It is a cloudless day.

Now 5pm and John and I are sitting on a bench overlooking a landscape like no other I’ve ever witnessed – almost enough to move one to tears in its sheer majesty. A nearly full moon is rising in a blue sky above a wooded bluff.

Rocky outcrops give way to blond fields of barley. A brilliant splash of green on the edge of a gorge and beyond that a row of broken topped peaks and flat plateaux stretching into the infinite distance.

To our immediate west is a deep gorge, the sun just above the highest peak of another range of jagged edges leading down to a valley.  Beyond us, straight ahead is a panhandle of rock ending in a sheer drop.

We walked for about three hours, we are at about 12,000 feet and the air is thin, only noticeable when one walks up an incline and then the breath is short.

Our picnic lunch was shared with an American couple – David Pepper and his wife, he was garrulous, she quiet, they are off to pick up their adopted child after this trip.

The mountain flora is varied and all of the prickly, grey leaved and scented varieties with some unexpectedly familiar plants.

Alchemilla mollis and alpina, hyperiicum revolutum, traclyospermum, echinops, knifofia, thyme, phlomis (white flowered) aloe, Erica – tree type hung with fondant green lichen, wild olive, clematis, festuca.

Also plantain, fennel, myrus odorata, wild white roses with red new stems, verbascum, a eupatoria like plant but with violet flower heads, and most spectacular a lobelia of the size of a small tree with palm like trunk and rustling long soft leaves.

These dry to a crisp pale blond and whilst I thought they would be good to start our fire, Semma said ‘No’, nothing could be used from the wild as it encouraged the locals to kill the plants for more firewood.

Firewood is a huge problem here, and whilst its ok to cut the eucalypt, deaforestation has been going on for ever and it is noticeable that within a few miles of settlements there is only stunted trees.

Charcoal is made but this is illegal too in some areas and the stock is piled out of sight, the sellers run to the edge of the roads and indicate to passing traffic in a way known to passers by that they have charcoal.

The last part of the walk was to see another trickle of a waterfall, but what a wonderful sight it was.

John sat on a rock with the scout whilst Semma and I went on, crossing a narrow tongue of rock with a steep drop either side and coming to a circular rocky outcrop.

From there immediately  to our right was a vertical chasm of black rock, several hundred feet deep, a narrow stream of water falling from the top – quite marvelous.

Gelada-baboons Gelada baboons are endemic here – only here – the males have lion like manes, their faces are long and pleated and eyes bright amber.

There are huge numbers of these vegetarian apes in large family groups, quite fascinating to watch, grooming, playing, digging for roots, nibbling grass, young ones picking the petals off the white roses.

They have ferocious canine teeth which are bared during scuffles and a variety of voices from a shriek of anger to a kind of chatty sound. They spend much time grooming, both  parting the hair with deft little movements of their small black hands.

The tiny ones are enchanting, romping about together and hitching lifts on their older friends, they are sometimes supported by the tails with plumed ends of the bigger ones. One can get very close, sitting quietly, some are curious and come to observe us observing them.

En route Semma stopped the truck and indicated that we creep up to an edge of rock very quietly, there in the valley below was a large Ibex with magnificent horns, these particular ibex are also only found in the Simiens.  The following morning we saw a clip springer on a cliff edge.

The Chenek camp is under Ras Dashen at 4.500m the highest peak in the park.  The campsite is amongst the rustling lobelias with a nearby well and rudimentary facilities.

There is a stone and timber circular building with a narrow bench around the inside where the cooks prepare food, mainly done on calor gas stoves and a bit of a miracle really to produce food for several people on one ring which consisted of vegetable soup and spaghetti with a sauce.

Before dark we sat outside and ate some of my chirozo and popcorn.  Two Germans are here too, they went off to the local market to buy supplies and hire mules for a three day trek and are very cold, the firewood comes in bundles of a dozen or so split eucalyptus branches and quickly burns out.

If you want to read the continuation of Jenny’s exciting Ethiopian experience
Click here for the fouth part of her story

Click here for the 1st part of this story

Eskinder Hailu - Manager, Highway Tours

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