Hiking : The Best Trekking Holidays in Ethiopia

Drawing from her lived and travel experiences in Ethiopia, Claire A Davies shares trekking and hiking stories.

Hiking _ Trekking _ Ethiopia _ Landscape near Lalibela
Landscape outside of Lalibela. Photo : Claire A Davis

borkena
By Claire A Davies
January 13, 2020

The peaks of the Simien Mountains stretched endlessly before me as vertical eruptions from the earth.The ravine below the escarpment ran two kilometres deep.This massif was sculpted by 30 million years of erosion and volcanic eruptions into a wonderland of jagged pinnacles and sheer precipices. 

The wind gathered all its strength here, causing me to wobble backwards on my feet.This other-worldly place is Africa’s biggest mountain range. From the bizarre shape of the mountains, the freshness of the wind,the sporadic barefooted herdsmen cloaked in green we had encountered on the way up: this could only be Ethiopia.

From the highland town of Gondar, we had taken a car to Debark where we had hired a park guide, Getanet.He carried his rifle slung over both shoulders like a yolk. Apparently, this was to protect us against bandits or shiftas and the prospect of attacks from baboons.The car dropped us a few miles up into the mountains, along the dirt track.The land grew only the thinnest grass and the tough leaves of alpine succulents.Here and there there were spikes of giant lobelia that looked more suited to growing on the moon.I grumbled that we had left it too late to hire a porter for my rucksack.Out of nowhere, a purple-cloaked man appeared.“Mesresha”, said the man smiling and gesturing at himself and then my bag.He gave my rucksack a pointed look,indicating his dim view of such an item, before hoisting it onto his shoulders.

The walk to the camp at Geech took the few remaining hours of daylight. Mesresha surged ahead up and down the steep slopes, striding out in his plastic sandals. Getanet followed, rifle slung behind his neck. Finally there was me, my boots tripping on the rocks and my mouth gasping at the thin air. By now, we were high on the Simien plateau, heading towards the edge of a massive escarpment.The landscape was a series of folds, hills that were low but steep and a succession of sharp-sided ravines. 

The hut at Geech was more akin to a stable, with two rooms, one containing the ashes of many fires and the other with a stone shelf above the floor. I pitched my tent outside.It was around 5 pm and the daylight was already fading and so we headed upwards take in the view, Getanet springing ahead as if this was his first chance ever to see it, Jude, my boyfriend, in the middle and me, almost at crawling pace now.

The escarpment lip had looked near but turned out to be a forty five minute scramble uphill,broken at frequent intervals by my collapsing onto rocks. The land was dotted with boulders from the volcanic eruptions of the past.

Across the plateau came a sound, a single note – a high, distant sound that was nevertheless clear..I thought at first it was a bird, but then I saw the ground moving in the distance as a cattle herd crossed the land followed by a shepherd.There was another sound, then another, a collection of hollow, human voices that floated across the plateau like the note of a flute, a sound as pure as the mountain air.Other shepherds appeared with their herds, a synchronised calling of the time to return to a distant village.

Finally, we reached the edge.Below us, the sharp peaks rose up like broken teeth. The sun’s rays of the sun formed slats of silver-grey light through the clouds.The valleys beneath were already darkening.It was easy to imagine we were on the lip of a great mouth where we could be entirely swallowed by the earth.

A bird dropped off the cliff, making a vertical dive, before spreading its seven foot wings in the air,its size. It glided on the wind along the cliffs, unhurried and with ease.

‘Lammergeyer,’ said Getanet.

We watched in silence as the lammergeyer circled on the breeze.At that moment it seemed a metaphor for everything in Ethiopia: the perfection of the earth and the sky, the grace of this giant bird and us, always, the aliens in the landscape.

Practical details

The Simien Mountains are by far the most well known hiking spot in Ethiopia. While still the first choice for most visitors, parts of the trail are now busier in peak seasons.The advance of tourism and infrastructure has however, expanded the options as well as the choice of comfort level.Here are a few ideas for hiking below:

Tigray

Tigray province, at the very north of the country, while lower and drier than the Simiens, now offers the opportunity for hiking through organised treks via various companies.The landscape here is slightly drier than the Simiens, the red sandstone mountains lower but still spectacular.Highlights here are the vertiginous ascents to some of the rock churches, set at great heights supposedly so the Orthodox priests can be closer to God.Eritrea can be glimpsed from some points – simply more mysterious peaks in the distance.

A Priest Climbs into a rock church in Tigray, North Ethiopia. Photo : Claire

Lalibela

The Lasta Mountains of Wollo around Lalibela are another series of escarpments and peaks, again a slightly gentler but still stunning terrain.  Treks are available lasting several days and including village stays to learn about the way of life.Several companies advertise themselves as promoting tourism that directly benefits sustainability and development of the local community. 

The mountains also contain numerous medieval monasteries and rock churches including Yemrahana Kristos,notable for its striking construction of wood beams and plastered stone. 

For a taster,the rock church at Asheton Maryam sits directly overlooking Lalibela town and can be reached by an ascent of approximately 3 to 4 hours.

Simien Mountains

Still the classic trek for visitors, the park contains Ethiopia’s highest peak, Ras Dashen, at 4550 metres.Treks can be arranged easily from nearby Gondar, lasting anything from one night to a minimum of 5 days to include Ras Dashen.Other highlights include the 3900m promontory at Imet Gogo and huge troops of gelada baboons. Accommodation is in simple huts at designated camps. 

The luxury Limalamo Lodge is set right in the park with stunning views. 

Bale Mountains

This southern mountain range contains Ethiopia’s second highest peak, Mount Tullo Deemtu,  at 4377 m.The park contains 5 different types of habitat from grasslands,juniper woodlands, afro alpine meadows and the dense Harenna forest with its giant fig trees.

Wildlife here includes nyala, babbon, warthog, colobus monkey and bushbuck as well as teeming birdlife.The Hareena forest is home for an ancient community of beekeepers who uphold a traditional method of creating hives from the hollowed out trunks of dead trees. 

Bale Mountain Lodge within the park is a boutique hotel and eco lodge. Generating its electricity from a micro hydro power plant,the lodge’s guest rooms each contain a wood burning stove. 

Follow Claire A Davies on Twitter : @dispatchesfrom

By same author : Harar: Ethiopia’s walled city (among other travel writings)



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