When it comes to hiking in Africa, Mount Kilimanjaro claims all the fame: Snow-capped and wreathed in clouds, it’s the highest peak on the continent and the tallest free-standing mountain in the world. As an adrenalin junkie and a hopeless romantic I admit to being tempted, but the price of a climb – up to $4,000 – forced me to look for cheaper alternatives.
I stumbled upon the Simien Mountains in Ethiopia and within a few minutes was utterly sold. A series of jaw-dropping peaks, plateaus and valleys in the northern Ethiopian Highlands, the range is part of Simien National Park, a 1978 UNESCO World Heritage Site. The hills are home to the socially adventurous gelada baboons, the elusive Ethiopian wolves and the shy but regal walia ibex, a goat found nowhere else in the world. Years of plateau erosion have created one of the most spectacular landscapes on Earth, and if you’re a beginner on a budget like me, few mountain ranges can offer you more.
The national park was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1978. (Photo by Elizabeth McSheffrey)
My journey began by haggling a price with online tour companies, which quoted me between $600 and $2,000 for an all-inclusive four-day hike. This looked like a bit of a gimmick to me, and I was sure the agents would charge me as much as they could from behind their computer screens. I was proven right, and through the grapevine learned that the cheapest way to book a climb was last minute, upon arrival in the northern Ethiopian city of Gondar.
I took a chance, and at the airport in Gondar met a sprightly young booking agent named Bocata. We negotiated our deal in town: $435 for a four-day hike including food, accommodation, porters, a guide and round-trip transportation from the city to the park. I ordered a beer to celebrate my bargaining skills, sat on a patio and watched livestock scurry through the crumbling streets (I later learned that another couple got the same package for $375 by forcing multiple agents to compete for their business).
My mountain adventure began in the small town of Debarq, also known as “the Gateway to the Simien Mountains.” I joined a group of other tourists, accompanied by an experienced guide named Lej and a gun-toting scout who, to our great surprise, climbed the entire range in a pair of plastic sandals. We hiked at our own pace over challenging but manageable terrain, and camped overnight in tents at designated checkpoints. Every meal was a veritable smorgasbord, and we were provided ample break time for lunch, water and photography throughout our climb.
Gelada baboons are just one of the species that can be observed on the climb. (Photo by Elizabeth McSheffrey)
The Simien Mountains are almost uniquely diverse in their geological formation, boasting rippling highlands, cliffs and gorges of overwhelming natural beauty. The scenery changed every few hours from winding forest on the cliffs to rolling hills of yellow barley, almost biblical in appearance. We passed some of the most beautiful flora and fauna I have ever seen – rich eucalyptus groves, giant lobelia, icy-white everlastings, red hot pokers and mountain palm trees. We stopped for a drink at the great Jinbar Waterfall, which tumbles more than 500 metres into the bottomless Geech Abyss, and had lunch by the cool streams that run down the mountain.
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