Ethiopia’s Simien Mountains: great trekking, unusual wildlife, and a summit

“The most marvellous of all Abyssinian landscapes opened before us, as we looked across a gorge that was clouded amethyst to the peaks of Simyen.” Rosita Forbes, From Red Sea to Blue Nile – A Thousand Miles of Ethiopia (1925)

Last week’s post about the Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition, and my excuse for not doing many wildlife trips because I’m always spending my holidays in the mountains, got me thinking. Where have I been that I’ve been able to combine both stunningly picturesque mountains and interesting, accessible wildlife into a single trip? I didn’t have to think long before an obvious one sprung to mind: Ethiopia, and more specifically the Simien Mountains in the northern part of the country.

Ethiopia’s geography, comprising a great deal of high plateau surrounded by lowlands, has provided it with an evolutionary quirk similar to island paradises such as Madagascar and New Zealand. Although land-locked, Ethiopia’s mountainous areas are a climate zone apart from the surrounding country. Many species have therefore evolved in isolation and are found nowhere else on earth. The geology is pretty interesting too, due to the land’s volcanic origins. Much of the rock was originally lava, which has eroded less quickly than the layers surrounding it, resulting in some interesting rock formations.

There are so many things to appreciate about the Simien Mountains. Here are six of the highlights.

1. Geology: tableland and the escarpment

Looking out from the escarpment's edge to the tableland below
Looking out from the escarpment’s edge to the tableland below

I could do worse than summarise the Simiens’ bizarre geology by continuing the above quotation by the early 20th century adventurer Rosita Forbes, who described the landscape far more imaginatively than I can (albeit with a generous splashing of artistic licence).

“A thousand thousand years ago, when the old gods reigned in Ethiopia, they must have played chess with those stupendous crags, for we saw bishops’ mitres cut in lapis lazuli, castles with the ruby of approaching sunset on their turrets, an emerald knight where the forest crept up on to the rock, and, far away, a king, crowned with sapphire, and guarded by a row of pawns. When the gods exchanged their games for shield and buckler to fight the new men clamouring at their gates, they turned the pieces of their chessboard into mountains.”

Although the reality of their origins is a bit more boring, the mountains themselves are certainly worthy of this lavish description. Originally layers of sandstone and limestone, a sustained period of volcanic activity of the molten-lava-flowing-like-treacle variety (as opposed to the giant-lumps-of-rock-being-fired-into-the-air variety), 40 to 25 million years ago, resulted in the rock being covered over by volcanic basalt with gently sloping sides. This was followed by an ice age, which in Ethiopia involved both glaciers and sustained rainstorms. Giant cracks formed, and the three principal rock types eroded at different rates. The result was huge precipices and giant rock towers resembling the chess pieces in Rosita Forbes’s colourful description.

The most distinctive and memorable part of the Simien Mountains, and the best place to go trekking, is the escarpment edge, much of which is 4000m above sea level, from where you can look down on the “lowlands” 2000 metres below, and peppered with those distinctive table-like rock fragments and spires.

2. Ras Dashen

The summit plateau of Ras Dashen from just below
The summit plateau of Ras Dashen from just below

It’s hard for me to post a blog entry without mentioning a handy summit to climb for any peak baggers out there. The Simien Mountains contain many peaks over 4000m in height, but the one to aim for is Ras Dashen (4533m), the highest mountain in Ethiopia, and the 10th highest in Africa, with only Mt Kenya, Kilimanjaro and its neighbour Mt Meru in Tanzania, and the six principal mountains of Uganda’s Rwenzoris being higher. Anyone who read this blog a couple of weeks ago will also recall that it’s the 23rd highest mountain in the world in terms of topographic prominence.  Don’t let this put you off, though, for you’re starting off at a pretty high altitude, and it’s actually just a straightforward hill walk with a short, easy scramble to get onto the table-like summit.

3. Mammals

Male geladas sun themselves by the escarpment's edge
Male geladas sun themselves by the escarpment’s edge

While the Simien Mountains are home to a great many species of mammal, including klipspringers, duikers, bushbuck, hyenas and jackals, it’s all about the big three species not found anywhere in the world outside Ethiopia (and two of which can only be found in the Simiens): the Ethiopian Wolf, the Walia Ibex, and the Gelada Baboon.

Rarest of all, the Ethiopian Wolf, also known as the Red Fox or the Simien Fox, actually has another home in the Bale Mountains in southern Ethiopia. Alas it’s now so rare that it’s close to extinction, and you will be very lucky to see one while on trek. Although it’s actually a wolf, it resembles a coyote in shape and size, with distinctive long legs and muzzle, which gives it the appearance of a fox. This is because it preys exclusively on rodents, so has evolved pointed ears, an elongated skull, a long thin face, and small, widely spaced teeth for seizing small mammals.

Also threatened with extinction, but sufficiently abundant that there is a good chance of seeing one from the escarpment’s edge, is the Walia Ibex, a species of wild mountain goat. In fact, the Walia Ibex is responsible for improving my once poor head for heights, and is also the reason the Simien Mountains were granted national park status as the last stronghold of this true mountaineer. Poaching and destruction of their habitat over many years has driven them to take refuge on the giant cliff faces of the escarpment edge, and the only way to see them is by peering over the cliff through binoculars in the hope of catching a blink of movement miles down. I remember doing this on many occasions, and was often rewarded with glimpses of a cluster of these remarkable animals in the most hair-raising of places.

More common, and most memorable of all is the Gelada Baboon, also known as the bleeding-heart monkey due to the distinctive red bald patch on its chest, and the lion monkey due to the male’s shaggy golden mane of hair. It’s extremely tame and peaceable and is unusual among primates in that it feeds mainly on grass and roots. Apart from feeding, its main activity is grooming. Each male has a harem of around half a dozen females, and individual harems often live together to defend themselves against groups of ‘bachelor males’ looking to take over harems of their own. The gelada is known to have a vocabulary of at least 27 contact calls, an unusually large number for non-human primates. Like the walia ibex, the gelada is also a great climber, and frequently plunges down the cliff face at the first sign of alarm.

4. Bird life

A lammergeier, or bearded vulture
A lammergeier, or bearded vulture

Ethiopia is a bit of a paradise for bird lovers. Of the 835 species of bird known to be found there, 23 are endemic (ie. can be found nowhere else in the world). Many of these can be found in the Simien Mountains, including the thick-billed raven, wattled ibis, white-collared pigeon, spot-breasted plover, white-billed starling, black-headed siskin, white-backed black tit, and the barbour-coated twitcher. Actually, this last one is a joke. The barbour-coated twitcher is a primate that can be found in other parts of the world too, but it’s drawn to Ethiopia by the country’s unique fauna.

One of the most easily seen of the endemic species is the thick-billed raven. Sufficiently large that it can be mistaken for a bird of prey when in flight, it has a beak of sufficient girth to rival that of a toucan, and the white splash of plumage on the nape of its neck can lead it to being mistaken for a hornbill at first glance, another bird species of which there are many in the lower tablelands.

One of my favourite Simien bird species is one that isn’t endemic at all, and one I’ve seen commonly across the Himalayas. But I’ve never got up close to one like I did in Ethiopia: the Lammergeier, or bearded vulture. An enormous bird, well over a metre in height with a vast three metre wing span, it’s easily recognisable with its white face, black mask and golden breast contrasting with its darker body. Its diet of bones and bone marrow also gives rise to an unusual feeding habit, whereby it carries bones to a great height before dropping them onto rocks to break them.

5. Plant life

The extraordinary giant lobelia
The extraordinary giant lobelia

Again the island nature of the Simien Mountains has given rise to plants that are highly specialised and slightly bizarre, either nothing like plants elsewhere or often giant versions. Two of these are the Giant Heath and the Giant St John’s Wort, both giant versions of species that exist as small shrubs in the moorland and gardens of Europe, but have grown to tree-like proportions in Africa.

Most of the Simien Mountains are grassland, which range in altitude from 2700m in the lowlands, through 4000m on the plateau and escarpment, to 4533m on the summit Ras Dashen. There are many colourful wild flowers including red hot pokers, the yellow Abyssinian wild rose, clusters of silver everlastings, and the curious golden globe thistle.

Most distinctive of all Simien plants is the giant lobelia, which grows for 15 to 20 years into the shape of a giant woody spear as tall as ten metres in height, before dying.

6. The people

Friendly children in Geech village
Friendly children in Geech village

Ethiopia is probably the best example of Christians and Muslims living side by side in harmony anywhere in the world. Its population is fairly evenly divided between the two (35% Muslim and 45% Christian), yet it has remained refreshingly free from religious conflict for most of its history. Christianity first came to Ethiopia in the 4th century AD, and its isolation from the rest of Christendom led to stories of it being the home of the legendary kingdom of Prester John. Surrounded by other Islamic states, inevitably many Muslims also settled there.

Although it’s a national park, the Simiens contain many settlements with cultivated land. The people here are Amharas speaking Ethiopia’s official language of Amharic, and mostly living as farmers growing barley to make injera, the national dish of Ethiopia, a kind of doughy pancake thing a bit like carpet underlay. Sheep, goat, chickens and eggs are their main source of protein.

They are also some of the friendliest people I’ve ever come across as a tourist. In most places of the world where tourism is well-established, a child extending their hand along the way is usually accompanied by a plea for money, sweets or a pen. In the Simien Mountains most just want to shake hands and touch the strange white traveller, and I found it quite touching.

All these things can be encountered on a single trip, and taken all together this makes the Simien Mountains a pretty special place. But I’d like to temper this by describing a fairly unpleasant incident that occured when I trekked there a few years ago, which stuck in my mind and I’m unable to dislodge however hard I try.

We had descended from the escarpment to the tablelands. Lower down it was much dustier, but along the shores of rivers was a fertile oasis of shady trees and refreshing rock pools. We stopped at one of these to bathe our feet and relax. As we were starting to eat our lunch on some rocks nearby, a party of middle-aged Austrian trekkers arrived, stripped completely naked and started jumping around in the water. It was as much as I could do to hold my food down, avoid vomiting in their paddling pool, and count my lucky stars that I wasn’t eating knockwurst. A somewhat repulsive experience, I can tell you.

But such incidents are rare, and I can confidently say that if you manage to avoid Austrian trekkers you will enjoy every minute of your time there.

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