The Simien Mountains
HAULING MYSELF UP a stony path, the air thins with every breath. Ribbons of mist weave past me and a vulture circles overhead. Just when I think my legs can’t take it anymore, I reach the top.
A local shepherd boy
My guide, Mulat Gezahegn, warns me not to step any closer to the edge. Totally ignoring him, I bound forth out of blind curiosity. It is the most terrifying sensation I have experienced—and one of the most rewarding. I look over the edge of a precipice. All around me similar hills rise like turrets in the valley below, with sheer drops for sides, and it is hard to take in the scale. With these majestic cathedrals of rock—and not another soul as far as the eye can see—it’s obvious why they call this the Roof of Africa.
I spent my first few days in Ethiopia exploring the capital, Addis Ababa, then caught a flight to Gondar in the north, where I met Mulat and our driver, Melsie Nuru, and started preparing for our four-day, 50-kilometer trek across the Simien Mountains.
A group of gelada baboons
Danita Delimont/AWL Images
The Chinese-built roads make the three-hour drive to the base camp at Sankaber an easy whiz through lush pastures and past goat herds weaving their way across the road, oblivious to traffic. Soon the roads give way to dirt tracks, and after leaving the final village, the real adventure begins. It is unimaginable to contemplate this stretch without an SUV, as we lurch from side to side through unfathomably deep mud, on a number of occasions jolting within a hair’s breadth of the precipitous edge.
When the car finally stops, the cook and driver go off to set up camp, while my guide and I begin our trek. The air is cool and I am thankful for my four layers. We pass trees covered in lichen as wild thyme perfumes our journey. Blue salvia plants illuminate the pastures. Suddenly, Mulat stops and motions for me to slow down as he points to a spot out in the distance. There, sitting contentedly in a neat circle, are three gelada baboons—found only in the Ethiopian Highlands.
The Lowdown: Gondar and Lalibela
STAYING THERE: Accommodation can be pretty basic here. In Gondar, Lodge Fasil is a clean and friendly guesthouse ($45, or €34, for double room, lodgefasil.weebly.com ). Lalibela, a 40-minute flight from Gondar or a six-hour drive, is the perfect final stop for any trip. Mountain View is a relatively luxurious hotel with heart-stopping views ($89 for a double, mountainview-hotel.com ).
TOURING THERE: My trip, a package with all accommodation and meals including a stay at Lalibela, was organized by Tourdust (from $2,100 per person, including domestic but not international flights; tourdust.com ). Other companies working in the region include Abercrombie Kent ( abercrombiekent.co.uk ) and Original Travel ( originaltravel.co.uk ).
He explains that because these animals used to be hunted by locals, they will only allow white people to approach. I walk forward, tentatively. They start to make little grunts but the chief holds his ground until I am almost touching him before he lopes off, followed by his clan.
When we finally reach base camp, there is just one other trekker pitching his tent. The rainy season, which runs from June until early September, has its benefits: The views may not be as clear and sometimes you are well above the cloud line, but you definitely get the place to yourself.
The bathrooms are basic—holes in the ground—and washing is done from a bucket of warm water behind the nearest bush, but luxury does come in one form: incredible food. Chef Fentie Wubu has donned his full whites to serve up an impeccable feast of vegetable soup, chicken breast, green beans and red peppers. This is far from the instant noodles I was expecting. Fatigue creeps in and, with a ranger guarding camp—mainly from hyenas—I retreat to my tent and fall into a deep sleep.
The campsite at Chenek
I wake up early, ready for the day—and the walk—ahead, which takes us up a gentle ascent to the aforementioned spectacular lookout. I sit for a long time at the edge, with my legs dangling and my mind clear of any thoughts other than what’s in front of me.
The remaining days are a wonderfully peaceful routine of early starts and long walks. We were lucky with the rains. Almost on cue, on arrival at camp each day, the heavens open, allowing for a quiet afternoon of reading and catching up. I feel like I have been enveloped in a brief mystical world, and head back home restored, a little part of my mind still happily adrift in these floating lands.
St. George’s rock-hewn church at Lalibela