Ibexes, Wolves and Baboons (Oh My!) – Trekking in Ethiopia’s Simien Mountains

November 7, 2012

During our three weeks in Ethiopia we visited a variety of archeological and historical sites. We also came to this country to trek in a remote place. With a guide, scout, cook and mules we set off for a six-day, five night trek in the Simien Mountains to view the incredible vistas and see three unique animals.

The Simien Mountains are located in the Ethiopian Highlands, sometimes called the ‘Roof of Africa’ because of its high continuous altitude. It is the largest high altitude area on the continent. The mountains here range from 4,921 feet (1,500 meters) to 14,928 feet (4,550 meters) and consist of a variety of plateaus and peaks that drop off dramatically into deep valleys. Some of these escarpments (steep slopes or cliffs) are as long as 20 miles (35 kilometers). Simien was created as a national park in 1969.

When the park was established it included villages that had existed in the area for hundreds of years. Also within the park are many types of animals, including the Gelada baboon, the Ethiopian wolf (or Simien fox) and the Walia ibex, a goat found nowhere else in the world. The Ethiopian wolf and Walia ibex are both endangered species. It was because of these animals that this area was added to the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1978. Since that time, decreased numbers of animals and increased human park population growth have resulted in Simien’s placement on the List of World Heritage in Danger in 1996.

On the first day of our trek we were dropped off inside the park and completed a short acclimatization hike of 4.1 miles (6.7 kilometers) to our first camp at about 10,500 feet (3,200 meters). Within five minutes of starting our trek we rounded a corner on the trail and ran into a troop of Gelada baboons. This was to be a common occurrence in the coming days as we came across numerous troops, with some containing as many as 100 baboons. The troops consisted of large males and females with babies riding on their backs or hanging upside down under their stomachs. Juvenile baboons scampered around chasing each other and playing. Individuals would call to others in screeches and groans. Typically the troop sat in the middle of a grassy area and simultaneously pulled the grass from the ground to eat it. We found it amazing to stand still and hear nothing but that pulling sound performed in unison by the multitude of baboons.

While the Gelada baboons number in the thousands and were easily spotted we had to wait several days to see other types of animals. In the meantime, our attention turned to the spectacular scenery that we saw as we hiked. The trail alternated between running along the edge of the escarpments to viewpoints and turning in to go along trees and bushes. Each viewpoint provided a different perspective. Looking at rolling hills and plateaus in the dramatic gorges below reminded us a little of the Grand Canyon in the U.S. without the corresponding rim on the other side.

After sleeping at one of the park campgrounds that night, we continued trekking past more viewpoints the next day. We hiked down to see a waterfall and then the trail went straight up a ridge. While huffing and puffing up this track, locals with their horses tried to persuade us to ride up instead. We persevered and made it to the top of the ridge and continued our hike.

One hour later we turned down a hill and hiked to the Jinbar River where we stopped for a lunch break. We went across the river and then headed up the other side of a ridge to the village of Geech, which is one of the largest in the park with a population of about 6,000 people. Our campsite for the night, located at about 11,811 feet (3,620 meters), was a short distance past the village.

We spent two nights here which provided the opportunity to visit some additional viewpoints during the next day. The most famous one is called Imet Gogo and is located at about 12,881 feet (3,926 meters). Although the weather was cloudy that day we were still treated to some spectacular views. We also caught just a glance of an Ethiopian wolf in the far distance.

The final camp in the park was reached via a dramatic hike the next day, which took us down from our camp to the very edge of a large escarpment. After hiking along there for a time, we climbed steeply up a ridge to the highest point of our trek, at about 13,353 feet (4,070 meters). We were in the clouds when we stopped at this viewpoint for lunch, but had better luck with the views that we encountered as we climbed down later in the afternoon. Our night’s camp at Chenek was at the same altitude (11,811 feet) as the previous one at Geech, but we had gained and lost thousands of feet in the process of hiking there.

We stayed at Chenek for two nights and took a hike early the next morning to look for the Walia ibex, which are known to graze in the area. After about 30 minutes we were rewarded with a sighting of several close to the trail, including a male with large curved horns. Later that day we hiked in the opposite direction to a nearby village and a school. There we had the opportunity to speak to the entire student body of about 140 students about geography and our journey.

The last night of the trek was similar to the others in that we had great conversations with other hikers from around the world that had also come to the Simien Mountains to trek. During our hike we met trekkers from Japan, Israel, Sweden, Germany, Spain, Scotland and Denmark. We all had stories about the beautiful vistas we had seen, the encounters with the Gelada baboons and Walia ibex and even far away sightings of the Ethiopian wolf.

The last morning, as we slept in while waiting for our transportation out of the park, we heard our scout yelling at us. He had spotted the Ethiopian wolf on a hill right above the camp! Darren quickly threw some clothes on and ran out of the tent to take a picture. With less than 100 wolves in the entire park we were thrilled to have seen one so close!

Our trek in the Simien Mountains was a great opportunity to view some unique and endangered animals in the wild. Hiking along the escarpments was one of our favorite trekking experiences of the entire around-the-world journey. After this trek it was on to the archeological and historical sites of Northern Ethiopia. Our next Destination Dispatch will highlight our time there.

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