Simien Mountains Trek – Backpacking Ethiopia

I made my way to the high altitude country of Ethiopia to be in the mountains and avoid any cities for New Year´s 2020. Without much research Ethiopia turned out to be the best place to do just that, in fact, their New Year is in September (more about this here). I arrived December 29th at night, stayed less then a day then flew to Gondar (huge country, flying is highly recommended!), stayed a night then made my way to Debark (1.5-2 hours away)…the entrance to the Simien Mountains.

New Year fireworks, parties, etc weren´t even a thing here! If a city cared to please the Gregorian and Julian calendar tourists there might have been a little something at 10:00 p.m.

I should have reserved with a company in advance to do my hike since I knew I wanted to be in the mountains to celebrate New Years. Per usual I decided instead to do it all myself despite the reviews warning that this was near impossible to do on your own because local guides fathom that tourists would try to do such a thing without spending money on them (corruption at it´s finest). You need a scout (armed escort, for protection) but guide isn´t required so they make it very hard on you. I arrived to the National Park offices on New Years Eve by car via 2 guys from South Africa who were driving the length of the continent (met them at hostel)…which made for excellent conversation from Gondar on New Years Eve. I planned to hike the mountains for several days while they would drive the road in a day taking in some views so we parted ways. I nearly had a group I could join for a ride in and some itinerary but the park office wouldn´t process me because I had no return ride out (my plan was to take the slow, bumpy local buses…) so my group left and I got stuck in town for the night. Best transportation option is an arranged taxi for said date because the scammers try to make it hard to get on the local bus….oh that wonderful corruption from the local guides…but taxi is expensive for a solo traveler…maybe $100USD. I was forced to join a group for the next day, a 3 night excursion….not quite the 5 like I wanted but that was my only option soon as a single traveler…I saved some money but was delayed a day to hike…all was still fine (cost of group tour should be less than $200 a person). Doing your own backcountry hike like I wished to do is much easier if you have a group of friends/travelers but you would still be hassled by guides….still much more plausible. Once all settled I went to find a hotel (btw any sign with a bed on it is a hotel, look around!) and a place to ¨say adios¨ to 2019 with a nice meal.

New Years Day I met my group and we were shuttled into the National Park to begin our 3-day journey. The group was great, they were a wonderful mix of travelers from all over the planet. We were even lucky enough to have some local Ethiopians in the group doing the trek. I was very happy to be in nature for the start of 2020. Funny though, I couldn´t quite escape the New Year celebration as our guide, cook, and other´s helping the group surprised us with a cake and singing! Our group
was very excited about this and we continued singing and dancing around the fire into the evening. Other campers were not into our fun and wanted more quiet way before it was even late…we of course continued but dropped the songs and did riddles instead.

Besides the surprise celebration and epic views on day one´s short hike it felt similar, in a way, to the Grand Canyon. The only other memorable sighting was the wildlife! The Simien´s are the endemic home to several incredible animals (also endangered). Easiest to see is the Gelada Baboons (Chilada, local name) in their massive tribe (100-200) who let you come very close to them, weren´t worried at all with us around and climbed up and down the cliffs with ease! Not to mention how
stunning it is to see these beautiful creatures. Other wildlife found in the Simien Mountains include the Walya Ibex (Walia, local name) which we saw on the last day too far for my camera 😦 and the Ethiopian wolf or Simien Fox (Ky Kebero, local name)…pretty much missed him/her but others we met did see it. I also saw a deer…antelope?

We woke up bright and early the next morning to do the longest day of trekking on the trip. Where we gained plenty of altitude and saw a waterfall…the summit climb would be the following day, the third day. Impressed I was by the unique wildlife and stunning views from this literally breath taking place it really makes you think while looking at the deep valleys that drop out below you and seem to be endless that here is where our human origins were found. It is not exactly in these mountains but in Rift Valley where the oldest human remains were found, similar to those valleys I was looking down at from the Simien Mountains…but really farther East SE of where I was hiking.

This was my first multi-day hike where I didn´t carry a backpack and the weirdest thing ever happened….half way through day 2 we were shuttled in a vehicle farther up the mountain so we could do everything in 3 days. This has never happened to me on a hike and quite frankly I was thoroughly disappointed in this itinerary. I didn´t know beforehand that this was part of the hike and I hated it the moment I found out what was happening…but again, nothing to do about it and I wasn´t going to let it ruin the trip…but thought you should know about this horrible interruption of walking in nature on the 3-day hike. Should you go, do 4-days instead because you do a normal hike through. After the waterfall a few in our group took a car out (2-day tour) while the rest of us headed farther into the park to continue hiking.

The first half of day two was spent hiking to Ethiopia´s highest waterfall…grand but not that grand in dry season…still Jinbar Waterfall is some 500m (1,640 ft) high making it the third highest in Africa so it´s still cool to see. Better with more rain, same goes for the amazing Blue Nile Falls…which I skipped on this trip for that same reason (dry season). So much to see in Ethiopia…when traveling one must focus on what is your most enticing adventure (might change by seasons…ha ha)…you can always return…visas are processed upon entry (in Addis Ababa) or online and Ethiopian Airways has plenty of flights connecting from every which direction…plus a special discount for domestic flights if you arrive to Ethiopia on them…something like 50% off!

In fact, most of the first two days trekking had plenty of moments showing epic views as we walked along the trail and gazed down the more or less sheer 2000 ft cliffs but the second part of day two had us making sure we had 4 points of contact before peering over the edges right next to us. Amazing to take in the multi-tiered endless mountainous views, tiny villages off in the distance far below us and seeing a variety of colors of green paired nicely with blue sky or threatening clouds
was compelling. 

The evening camp was beautiful so naturally before dinner I spent relaxing, washing my feet in the river and taking in the impressive views all around us. The jaw dropping views were plentiful in the Simien Mountains, especially from camp 2, making it a completely worthy journey!

Ras Dashen 4,550 m (14,927 ft) is the tallest mountain in Ethiopia, the 10th highest in Africa and takes 5-7 days to reach it´s summit. I saw it off in the distance as we summited Mount Bwahit at 4,430 m (14,557 ft), the third tallest in Ethiopia, on our last day trekking. No matter the ranking it sure felt like I was on top of the world when I reached the summit. Staying true to the around the world trip mountain saga, I too was first to summit Mount Bwahit this day (Mt. Kinabalu, Malaysia story here). In nature was most definitely the best way to start 2020…and had I known I would have stayed in nature all year long (truth…I did actually spend a ton of my time there). Also no worries on hiking highest mountains, I mention them so you know but they haven´t ever been my reason for choosing which to climb….for me it´s always been about the scenery. A few years back I did hike a peak on the second highest mountain in Africa…read about it here, Mt. Kenya.  

Five or six hours later we´d be back to Gondar from camp. A three day trek was great but personally not recommended, four days or more would be ideal so as to not have a car shuttling you in the middle of the trek for time. Do go to the Simien´s on your trip if you like nature and animals because this is the place for both…but there are other mountains too, for instance the Bale Mountains.

Lastly, I want to mention Gondar, the city that many use as the gateway for visiting Simien Mountains. I arrived to Addis and had to research this to figure out where to go to hike in the Semiens…know that I fly by the seat of my pants on many trips (especially on my world tour). If not Gondar another plethora of tourists visit from Axum/Aksum (approx. 5 hour drive and known for it´s historic civilization and religious importance).

Be sure to look out the window as you drive from Gondar to Debark and even up into the Simien Mountains, the unprotected outskirts of the park, for it is here where village, farm and rural life is in full display. It is also where teff is grown! You see tons of farm for it..60% of Ethiopians rely on it…aka over approximately 50 million people. Teff is the grain that is used to make the injera which comes with nearly all meals, it´s gluten free and oh so nutritious for you..but does take time to get used to the flavor! Cool to see where it is grown but also very sad to see such an important product in the 21st century using obsolete, very traditional methods of farming that would shock you but if you have been around the world, it would not.  It is still quite common in many countries to not have access to faster, easier agricultural methods…and they need it most.

Gondar felt like you could enjoy for a few days if not at least one whole day like I miraculously had after hiking. Don´t miss these highlights from a rather quick day: the castle, yes, castles exist in Ethiopia also because for many years there were emperors in Ethiopia and one by the name of Fasiladas wanted to make Gondar his home and thus the capital (at that time). In addition check out Fasiladas’ Baths (included free with prior entrance fee) where a big festival takes place in late January and Debre Berhan Selassie Church for stunning Ethiopian Orthodox paintings. My first church visit which spun me on a adventure of seeking out other AmAzing churches found in Ethiopia! Also just walk and get lost in the neighborhoods, you never know what you will find….an incredible sunset for sure. If you have more time know that there are local hikes and more to discover!


More of my blogs on Ethiopia:

Ethiopia, The Most Unique & Challenging Country To Date
Ethiopian Churches and Religion
Ethiopian High Altitude Running Camp

More Information:

Simien Mountain Park Fees
Example Itinerary (4 day)

Rift Valley Info
Wildlife in Simien Mountains
Gondar Castle History
More about Teff

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