Travel: On top of the world… Simien Mountains, Ethiopia

Cascade: The spectacular Jinbar Falls, a fine example of the stunning scenery Ehtiopa has to offer, has a drop of 500 metres.
Cascade: The spectacular Jinbar Falls, a fine example of the stunning scenery Ehtiopa has to offer, has a drop of 500 metres.
Gelada baboons
Derek Fanning
The Ethiopian camping trip party.
Church frescoes
Spectacular mountain scenery in Ethiopia.
Map of Ethiopia
Ethiopian dance, a style to be found nowhere else.

The Simien Mountains in Northern Ethiopia are vast and beautiful, and, like all mountains, they can be extremely challenging. Few would undertake to scale them without proper weatherproof clothing and sturdy boots. But some people are made of sterner stuff as I discovered when climbing the slopes of a mountain called Bwahit, at a height of 4,200 metres.


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As we were crossing a particular area I scrambled up a short section of rock, looked up and saw a person, dressed in a shabby white robe stretching down to his ankles, observing me. He was an Ethiopian Orthodox Christian clergyman. His eyes twinkled merrily, and he smiled warmly at me. He was using a slender cross as a walking stick and was barefoot. I could see that the soles of his feet were like leather. We said hello to one another, paused briefly to catch our breath, looked at the beautiful scenery around, and smiled again at one another. He was a wiry, resilient looking man and resembled a medieval pilgrim.

I did not know why he was up so high, nor anything about him, but he seemed to represent a tangible link to the medieval pilgrims in Europe. The fact he seemed so happy also made an impression on me. After a moment or two, we said goodbye and went on our separate routes. This was one of many experiences in Ethiopia when I felt I was in touch with a way of life that was the same in many aspects as centuries ago.

Our knowledge of Ethiopia in the West is generally very poor. Most of us associate the country with famine and desert, but in reality this is a country which is surprisingly fertile, culturally rich and historically fascinating. The desert does exist, but it’s in the east of the country, while most of the 90 million population live in the plateau region, above 1,300 metres, in a green, fertile and pleasant land.

While Ethiopia is a marvellous place to visit, travel here can be taxing. Being a developing country, it can take much longer to get things done than we are used to in the West; many tourists fall prey to upset stomachs, an unpleasant experience which can hamper your plans; and if you are brave enough to drive around the country on your own, then the road conditions are sometimes very poor and dangerous. Travelling here, it’s fair to say that it’s good if you’re the patient and good-humoured type.

One of the standout things about the country is its stunning scenery. Another highlight is the country’s myriad historical sites. Ethiopia is the only country in sub-Saharan Africa with historical remains stretching back to the ancient Mediterranean civilisation. The most popular language is Amharic, which is a Semitic language that derives from Ge’ez, the language of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church to this day. I learned only a few Amharic words, one of them being ‘ishee’ which means ‘ok’.

I visited during October when the wet season had just finished and the landscape was enhanced by many varieties of flowers. There were nine in our group and we spent a few days sightseeing before flying north with the aim of doing a ten-day trek in the much-praised Simien Mountains.

The first port of call for most tourists is the capital city Addis Ababa which is the world’s third highest capital city, situated in the central highlands at 2,400m. The city and its three million inhabitants can be something of a culture shock at first with beggars, taxi drivers and hawkers all demanding your attention; and, of course, it’s not all picturesque; we drove up to an area called Entoto Hill on the outskirts of Addis and on the way we passed through run-down, impoverished suburbs which were like shanty towns and dominated by endless swathes of dilapidated corrugated sheeting.

The possibility of con artists and pick pockets can also be a worry. If you are on an organised trip, as most are, then this shouldn’t present a problem, but if you are an independent traveller then you may feel somewhat overwhelmed. In fact, Addis Ababa is mostly all roar and little bite. It’s a busy, bustling, exciting city with a predominantly friendly population. Visitors are urged to not let first impressions put them off, but to persist and visit some of the many fascinating historical places here.

On our first morning in the city we visited the Ethnography museum which was a worthwhile visit and gave us an insight into Ethiopian culture, including cattle-running as practised by the Hamar people – the men run across the backs of a line of bulls in a male initiation rite. The museum was formerly the palace of Emperor Haile Selassie.

Holy Trinity Cathedral in Addis is worth a visit and this was my first encounter with Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity, a branch of Christianity which broke from Rome many centuries ago because of an argument over the nature of Christ. Holy Trinity was opened for us by a middle-aged Ethiopian Orthodox Christian clergyman with a white beard and kind face. He was wearing a long blue robe and flat-topped blue hat. Holy Trinity Cathedral is the final resting place of Haile Selassie who was murdered by the communists in 1974 by being smothered with a pillow. He was a bad ruler, but the system that followed was much worse. Haile Selassie was crowned emperor in 1930, promising his hard-pressed people much but delivering little. Selassie’s Ethiopia gave very little constitutional protection or power to the vast majority of its citizens. The Emperor favoured the nobility and did little to further the lot of ordinary Ethiopians. The poorly structured political scene attracted self-serving careerists rather than politicians of substance and ideals. When Selassie was murdered in 1974, Ethiopia was no less feudal than it had been in 1930 and the economy was as subsistence-based as ever.

Ethiopian food is an unusual affair. One eats by hand using sections of injera (a large, pancake-shaped food which looks like carpet liner) to grab the small selections of vegetables and meat. The veg and meat were excellent, being beautifully spicy. Ethiopian cuisine is very interesting, even in the cheapest places.

We flew north to the city of Gondar which is located near malaria-riddled Lake Tana, but malaria is rare in Gondar itself. A good-humoured local woman was our guide for the day and showed us around the city’s well preserved 17th-century castles. Gondar was the imperial capital of Ethiopia for 200 years and was founded by Emperor Fasilidas in 1635. The walled Royal Enclosure dominates the city centre and contains several castles, partially restored by UNESCO.

The Scottish explorer James Bruce came this way in 1790 and wrote about his experiences here, descriptions which shocked folks back home. We spent a couple of hours in the Royal Enclosure and our guide told us the plottings, the evil ambition, and the backstabbing that went on over the centuries between members of the Royal Family. The architecture was an interesting blend of foreign influences. Of the various rulers, Emperor Iyasu (1682-1706) stands out because he was a popular and peace-loving emperor, and was described as a “lively and sagacious genius”.

Sadly, many of Gondar’s beautiful churches were destroyed in 1888 and the only church to survive entirely unscathed was Debre Berhan Selassie (“Mountain of the Enlightened Trinity”) which contains wonderful paintings within, including a beautiful ceiling decorated with the faces of 80 cherubs. Iyasu intended to move the Ark of the Covenant to Debre Berhan from Axum. This never happened and Ethiopians say the Ark still remains in Axum, although this has never been proved.

After Gondar we began our trek in the Simien Mountains, which are a couple of hours’ drive north of the city. The trek was a wonderful, demanding trip. It fluctuated regularly between very warm and very cold; it was at high altitude; it involved camping, and there were several long, hard days of walking. The trek was nine nights of camping and 10 days of walking in steep terrain with the equatorial sun often beating down upon us.

On the trek’s first day we walked to the famous escarpment which goes on for many miles and sometimes drops as much as 3,000 feet. Here we were treated to our first view of the spectacular landscape of the Simiens with its mesas, plateaus and spires; a landscape created by volcanic activity 70 million years ago and consisting of basalt.

On day five, shortly after we encountered the bare-footed, medieval-looking clergyman, we reached Bwahit Pass which was a magnificent viewpoint where we could see a wide panorama of huge mountains with their vast cliffs and spires. From here we set off on a knee-jarring descent of 1400 metres, which got progressively warmer as we dropped.

One of our camps was at a place called Geech, which was a wide, grassy, treeless plain at 3,600 metres. That night it dropped to minus five degrees celsius and there were millions of stars in the sky. In the distance we could see huge swathes of lightning illuminating the sky and clouds. We hoped that the storm wouldn’t reach us. Thankfully, it didn’t. The next morning we were treated to our first sighting of the magnificent lammergeyer, a high altitude vulture, with an enormous wingspan, which looks wonderful in flight.

One day our trek took us to the hugely impressive Geech Abyss where we scrambled a few feet over a narrow bridge of rock in order to gain a better view of the wonderful Jinbar river waterfall plunging hundreds of feet. This was a sight to stay with one forever. The Jinbar Falls are 500 metres high and are one of the tallest falls in Africa. According to one list I saw, Jinbar is the 108th tallest waterfall in the world.

While trekking in the Simiens is challenging, it is not beyond people with average fitness. Many visitors to Ethiopia go on a fortnight-long historical trail which includes Addis, Gondar, Axum and Lalibela. My guidebook told me that if it were virtually anywhere but in Ethiopia, Lalibela would be called one of the wonders of the world. As it stands, Lalibela is barely known outside Ethiopia.

Gorgeous food

Food can be unimaginative and unappetising in many African towns, but not so in Ethiopia where the food is a welcome surprise. It’s deliciously spicy, and portions are generous and very cheap. One plate of food, costing about a Euro, is often enough to feed two. There are a wide variety of dishes, most of them unique to Ethiopia, which are eaten using a pancake-shaped, slightly sour tasting dough called Injera. You use this to scoop up a choice of vegetables and meat including lamb, goat, beef, and fish.

Church frescoes

Debre Birhan Selassie in the city of Gondar is one of the most beautiful churches in Ethiopia. It’s decorated inside with a huge number of gorgeous frescoes, including the striking ceiling with its 80 cherub faces. There’s a depiction of an especially fearsome-looking Satan surrounded by flames, and a painting of a captive Muhammad being led by the devil. Some say the frescoes were painted by one artist in the 1600s. Others say that probably several artists were involved during the early 19th Century.

Full-on dance

Another unique cultural aspect of this country is its dancing, a style to be found nowhere else. The dancing reveals a passionate, emotional streak in the Ethiopian character. The music sounds like nothing you’ve heard before. Accompanied by singers and musicians, dancers entertain tourists in restaurants and hotels, their shoulders jerking and twitching in an unusual style. Everything builds in intensity until musicians and dancers, are in a state of full-on energy. It’s a special, exciting experience.

Getting there

Derek travelled on the 13-day Simien Mountain Trek tour. The tour costs from £2,095 per person, to include return flights; three nights hotel and nine nights’ camping on a bed and breakfast basis; most meals; transport and the services of a tour leader, driver, local guide and cook. For further information, or to book, visit or call +1252 884 723.

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