19 December - Fly to Gondar and Bus to Sankaber Camp
The following morning we set off again to catch a flight, this time for Gondar but not before our archaeologist guide took us off to see the Queen of Sheba's Palace. We had a short time in Gondar to do some last-minute shopping for bottled water, toilet rolls, chocolate and other high-energy snacks before the bus speeded us away on a very dusty track to Debarq, the nearest town to the Simien Mountains National Park, and the location of the Park headquarters. We stopped at the Simien Park Hotel for drinks, washing (we were all covered in dust from the dirt road during the bus ride), and toilets which were pretty basic, two footmarks and a hole to squat over. There was a working cistern which did flush - luxury indeed compared with what we had coming. I managed to drop my loo roll where it was definitely not to be recovered and had to cadge another one later.
We were soon back on the bus and heading for the Park gate. The bus became rather crowded as we had picked up our Park guide and his three Scouts who were armed with rifles. The rifles, we were told, were a precautionary measure though, despite asking, we never found out what they were a precaution against. People had been kidnapped recently near the Eritrean border but we were far from there now. We reached the Park gate with ten minutes to spare. Our tour leader checked us all in and off we went again, the scenery becoming more mountainous as we continued (photo). Suddenly the driver stopped the bus and we all piled out in the middle of a colony of over 100 gelada (pronounced jelada) baboons (photo). They were pretty tame but after we'd photographed them for a while they wandered off.
It was starting to get dark when we arrived at Sankaber camp. We chose our own tents, they were numbered so we kept the same one throughout the trek. A basin of cold water was left ouside each one for washing, if we chose to! I unpacked my kitbag. I had bought four polythene bags a Kendal outdoor shop sells as rucksack liners in which I had carefully segregated and protected my belongings. Out came the head torch, the Thermarest sleeping mat, the sleeping bag and microfleece liner; the MP4 player I had charged fully at Axum, the thermal vest I took to sleep in, my trekking poles and hiking boots. I was prepared for the off the next day before it was completely dark. Our camp staff had put up the mess tent and their cooking tent and we had our first dinner of the trek. It was amazingly good - tasty soup, fresh sliced vegetables and pasta and I forget what the dessert was. The coffee was as good as ever. It was, however getting chilly and I retired to bed, like everyone else, to escape from the cold. I slept badly - the sleeping bag liner behaving like a boa constrictor didn't help. At one point I went out to ease my bladder and while it was fairly cold, 10 Celsius in my tent, I soon forgot that as the stars shone with a clarity I'd not seen for years. The constellations look very different there though it's only because they are at an odd angle - Orion on his side, for example. Once back in bed I listened to some music, then switched it off and snatched some sleep towards the end of the night.
20 December - Sankaber to Geech Camp
We had a bit of a lie in at Sankaber camp. There was no pressure to catch buses or planes so our morning call was at 7:30. We needed to have our bags packed by 8:00 so the camp staff could strike camp. Breakfast began with a ritual washing of hands in Dettol, hygiene is of utmost importance on this kind of trek as infections can spread like wildfire. I can't eat much so soon after getting up or my stomach rebels, so I made do with coffee, toast and marmalade. There was some tasty porridge for those who wanted it. I'd taken breakfast bars and some almond bars with me, enough for three per day, to eat as the morning progressed and stoke up with carbohydrate. As the water from the local streams could not be trusted to be infection-free we had to treat it with iodine tablets. I had taken some blackcurrant-flavoured Go electrolyte powder which helped make the treated water more palatable as well as providing me with trace minerals I might be sweating away. There was a good view south of the camp (photo) and some buildings nearby (photo).
We set off on the trek at 9:00 following the edge of an escarpment which offered spectacular views down the sheer drops of up to 1000 metres, and the mesa-like structures left off the side of the escarpment Here are four examples (view 1) (view 2) (view 3) (view 4). In the distance we could see the tabletop mountain of Awaza which appears on Ethiopian Airline tickets. We walked down to the Chenek road (photo) then back to the edge of the escarpment. Our guide and scouts were very much in evidence when further on we crossed a narrow natural bridge about 3 feet wide with huge drops either side to get to a viewpoint of a waterfall at Deche Nedala (photo). There was very little water falling as we were in the dry season but we could imagine the huge flow of the Jinbar river falling over that dramatic drop when in spate. Further along the escarpment we saw another excellent view (photo).
When walking through the National Park we had to be accompanied at all times by a guide or scout. The Ethiopian Authorities take the safety of their visitors very seriously as bad publicity could gravely damage their embryonic tourist trade. Guides and scouts are likely to be thrown into gaol if any harm comes to their charges. There were scheduled stops en route but not all of us wanted to stop that frequently or for so long so we arranged that those who wanted temporarily to go ahead or fall behind could do so with a guide or scout. This suited me very well as I try to walk at a constant energy output to take best advantage of my feeble frame's resources. Once I get into my (perhaps plodding) rhythm I rarely stop, except to take a photograph or have a drink or something to eat, and then only briefly.
Soon we were climbing up past Geech village (photo) and up to Geech campsite at some 3,400 metres above sea level. We were staying here two nights, thus helping our altitude acclimatisation, and there was a nearby stream where we could wash some clothes. This was not as easy as it sounds as with very little water flow the few clear pools were very small. Our tour leader arranged some rope to be strung between our tents to act as washing lines and soon there was loads of washing out drying in the sun. This was not to last as the sun was going down and it was getting chilly. There were other tour parties camping nearby and we were advised to take in our washing for the night. We had a dinner up to out cook's usual high standard and took to our beds, the only place to keep warm. It got pretty cold that night, I saw three Celsius on my thermometer in the tent sometime that night. In the morning there was a heavy frost. My washing, which I'd put in a corner of my tent was OK, but those who'd left their's in the bellmouths of their tents awoke to find it frozen solid.
21 December - Trip to Imet Gogo
There was no rush to set out from Geech camp that morning. There was an undemanding day's walking planned and we were staying put that night. Our mules spent the day grazing on the rich grassland. We walked to Imet Gogo, spotting these rock forms on the way (photo), a viewpoint on the edge of the escarpment at an elevation of 3926 metres. From here (photo) we could see in the distance Ras Dashen, the highest mountain in Ethiopia. Some of us had aspirations of reaching its summit in the coming days. The rock forms in the view to the northwest are memorable (photo). From Imet Gogo we walked back along the escarpment to Saha (3785 metres) (photo) and yet another startling abyss carved from the rock (photo), and then on to Kedadit (3760 metres) (photo), very close to Geech camp (photo) to which we then returned. Our washing was dry when we got back. Our kitchen staff had slaughtered a lamb for our evening meal and they left the remains near the camp to attract the birds. The thick-billed ravens were the first to come and they picked the bones clean, but not before two lammergeiers (photo) had been attracted and were circling above. With the ravens almost done the lammergeiers came down to swallow the bones; quite big bones at that. But then, they are big birds - large ones have a wingspan of nine feet. Some of the group went back up to Kedadit to watch the sun set - I watched it from the camp (photo). The birds may have enjoyed the lamb but I'm sure we enjoyed it more. It was beautifully cooked with the meat just falling apart. This evening was even chillier than the one before and we soon retired to our sleeping bags. I saw zero Celsius on my thermometer that night.
22 December - Geech to Chenek Camp
We were up early the following morning as we had a long day ahead, 13 kilometres distance, 800 metres of descent, then 1200 metres of ascent and finally another 400 metres of descent. I'll do this in Lakeland with no bother but at 4000 metres it's a different matter. The route took us towards Imet Gogo but then off to the right past a great cleft (photo) and down to a gap in the escarpment. We saw this on the way (photo). On the ascent at the other side I chose my own steady pace behind the scout and everyone else seemed content to follow. When I'm in the right frame of mind, as I was then, I forget about the hard work involved in the ascent and my mind drifts off onto other things, the scenery, where we've been, what we've done and before I've thought about getting to the top, I'm there. And so it was this day. From the top, Inalye (4190 metres), we could see our camp, and I knew we'd broken the back of the day's walk. We could idle the rest of the way and easily get to the camp in time. There are good views from here from whence we came (photo) and where we were going (photo). As we had lunch thick-billed ravens looked for scraps (photo).
At the bottom of our descent we reached Kurbet Metaya, a well-known viewpoint (photo) where our guide spotted a Walya ibex down in the valley. This place has a sinister past as it was one location the Dergue, the communist regime of the 1970s, used to execute prisoners and throw the bodies over the edge. For us there was merely the inconvenience of a short sharp ascent to Chenek camp (photo), a sting in the tail of the day's walk. There was the promise of being able to freshen up in a stream near the camp but there was little water in it and the rocks by it were grimy leaving nowhere to sit or leave a towel. There was water from a hand pump upstream so we had (cold) water in our basins beside our tents. For some of us trying to stay clean and odour-free was becoming a lost cause. Were we bovvered? The toilets were filthy. Our tour leader arranged for them to be swilled out making a great improvement. We had lamb chops that night. The camp wasn't as cold as Geech but we turned in early again (8:00 pm?). There was another hard day tomorrow.
23 December - Chenek to Ambikwa Camp
I'd woken early, and feeling wide awake and with no reason to get up I grabbed the MP4 player and played some music. As I was listening to the finale of Sibelius's Third Symphony, which I find a very uplifting piece, the rising sun suddenly struck my orange tent suffusing the interior with an orange glow. It was an exhilarating start to the day. Fortified with the usual excellent breakfast we started the day from Chenek camp with a 600 metre ascent; along the escarpment again, firstly to look back along the ridge (photo), then to see the view to the north (photo), and finally to the summit of Bwahit Pass at 4190 metres (photo). It was cool to start with but the temperature rose with the sun to the typical 26 Celsius we got every day. Our mules had followed the road for part of the way before climbing the track to the summit. They seemed uneasy about the descent, which started as a very steep narrow rocky path more suited to goats than mules. One had fallen to its death the year before. There was quite a lot of traffic, both mules and people, as this is a main route for local people within the park either to Arkwasiye (photo) or down to Chiro Leba and beyond (photo). The butresses of Bwahit look formidable as we look back up the pass (photo) and the slope eases as we look down (photo). For our party there was a descent of 1000 metres to the village of Chiro Leba, where we stopped for lunch, and a further 400 metres to the Mesheha river. We had pizza for lunch with a choice of bottled drinks in Chiro Leba schoolroom. It was as primitive as I could have imagined; dark, with a dirt floor and an almost unreadable blackboard (photo), but it served its purpose and I believe they were grateful for it.
As we headed off down through the village, with its spectacular views (photo), the local children showed typical curiosity, asking how we were, where were we from and where were we going. I pointed up to the distant ridge. "Ras Dashen" they chorused with glee. Even that dismal schoolroom couldn't dampen their enthusiasm. After leaving the village we stopped momentarily at a stream, where we could splash ourselves with running water, then we followed the stream down to the Mesheha river (photo). We tried temporarily to ignore the ascent on the other side of the river (photo). Here we stopped, removed our boots, and bathed our feet in the water (photo). It was just the refreshment my feet needed after that long descent and prepared them well for the 400 metre climb up to Ambikwa village and our camp. The camp was in a small meadow by the local church. The toilets were in a block above the camp and while they were in better condition than those at Cheneck they had no way of bolting the door from the inside. This was somewhat inhibiting when I found myself being interrupted twice in rapid succession with my trousers round my ankles - sorry, no photograph!
As we ate dinner we were briefed on the following day's optional walk - the ascent of Ras Dashen. Our day's walk of 15 kilometres, 1000 metres of ascent and 1400 metres of descent plus one stomach upset had taken a toll on three of the party but the rest of us were eager to go, so it was off to bed without delay ready for an early start.
24 December - Ascent of Ras Dashen
It was Christmas Eve, breakfast was at 4:30 and we set of at 5:00 walking with the aid of our head torches. It was cold but we were adequately clothed and kept moving. We had a long steep climb out of the village but as the sun rose we started a gradual traverse round two mountainsides. We stopped briefly for drinks, and a few photographs (photo), before starting on the second steep climb that would take us to a col at about 4250 metres. It was hard work in the thin air and I think everyone was affected. We rested at the col before setting of across a stony hollow towards the summit wall (photo). Even though it was not very steep it was the hardest part of the whole ascent. We rested again at the base of the summit's protective wall before doing a rocky scramble up to the top at 4543 metres. Our scouts hugged us, we hugged them and we hugged each other as the stresses and strains of the ascent ebbed away. These were the views to the north (photo) and the south (photo). After looking at the views and taking group photographs (photo) we descended the scramble and spent one hour having lunch and sunbathing.
Our return to Ambikwa was by the same route as our ascent, but at least we could see it all. This was the path towards Ras Dashen (photo). As we approached the camp, the time was 15:30, I could hear people chanting and singing. It was only as I stepped through the camp wall and was presented with a sprig of Erica that I realised this celebration was organized by our camp staff and was in our honour. The singing and dancing went on for about twenty minutes (photo) and helped maintain our high spirits at realizing our summit ambitions. It had been a long, tiring, but very fulfilling day.
25 December - Ambikwa to Arkwasiye Camp
Next morning, Christmas Day, we were off again, but with slightly less urgency, down to the Mesheha river for another crossing. Our first hill climb was short and steep ascending some 900 metres (photo) and there were some weary legs getting back into their walking rhythm. Bwahit Pass was high above us both here (photo) and further on (photo). We descended again before climbing (photo) to the next ridge where we stopped for lunch (photo) with a picturesque view in front of us, rather less rugged than the escarpment we'd spent so much time on. There was a scattering of mountain hamlets in this more agricultural landscape. A dust devil sprang up without warning shooting debris up into the air and scattering another party who were lunching nearby (photo). Soon afterwards a kite (photo) spotted a chance for a meal and buzzed us relentlessly.
After lunch we wound our way across to and up a valley that led to Arkwasiye village. There was no camp here and our tents were pitched on the hillside nearby (photo). A hole had been dug and a tent pitched over it to serve as a toilet, the first clean toilet we'd seen in days. Later we visited one of the village huts to witness a coffee ceremony. Our hostess wet-roasted fresh coffee beans over a wood fire (photo) before grinding (photo) them and brewing and pouring (photo) for us. She also roasted some wheat for us to eat, very tasty and a bit like popcorn. On the way back to our tents I noticed someone spinning cotton and got her to pose for a (photo). Dusk arrived, it got cold and we retired to bed with another tough climb to look forward to.
26 December - Arkwasiye to Chenek Camp
We had already come over Bwahit pass three days earlier and today, Boxing Day, we were to go back over it. The vertical ascent from Arkwasiye is a mere 800 metres along a wide ridge. Here we were looking up at the escarpment we'd trodden days before (photo). Near the top of the pass we came across a prisoner in chains being escorted back to his village. He'd committed some misdemeanour and run away and now he was being returned for the villagers to deal with. The camp staff had brought up a hot lunch for us at the summit and afterwards we split into two groups, one opted to climb Bwahit, the second highest Ethiopian peak, and the others opted out. It was only another 230 metres of ascent to Bwahit's summit and we were soon up there surveying our routes over the previous days, almost a bird's eye view. Ras Dashen, Imet Gogo and Silki, the third highest peak were clear to see. Here are the views to the east (photo), the west (photo), and south (photo).
It was planned that we should return to the pass and go back the same way as the other party but two of us, both used to planning routes in the Lakeland fells, thought we could see another way down. We discussed this with our tour leader and he with the scout. He was not allowed to take us down untried routes but he did suggest another, more direct route down to Chenek camp, to which we agreed. It was a good choice with an easy path and good views of the landscape (photo). When we met our other group back at the camp we were full of what we'd seen, but they had had their own triumph. A group of Walya ibex, usually very shy and well hidden, had been by the road and easily photographed.
The night at Chenek camp was to be our last in the Simien Mountains National Park and we celebrated by buying some wood and having a campfire. Our camp staff joined us for some dancing and singing. When I retired to bed I thought back over the previous days trekking and fell asleep feeling very nostalgic. I didn't really want to leave.
27 December - return to civilisation
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