Although I’ve managed to visit the Simien Mountains several times, and it has been most worthwhile and impressive, I have yet to complete an assault on Ras Dashen , the tallest mountain in Ethiopia and 4th highest in Africa.
The Simien Mountains have the best scenery in Ethiopia, which is quite an accomplishment in this marvelously endowed country. The challenge is the high altitude and the inclement weather which accompanies it.
The first time we planned to climb Ras Dashen was at Easter time, normally a dry time in the Simiens. I was already at the jump off spot of Gondar, when the reports of heavy snowfall in the Simiens reached me. Trucks were stuck on the road through the Simiens, in snow of all things. Some intrepid hikers had gone ahead into the Simiens and I met them after they had come out. Their cheeks were flushed and red, and they had the exuberant look and feel of people who had survived a trial. They had been stuck in their tents for hours at a time in heavy rain or snow, shivering and waiting out the bad weather. I decided not to go!
Our next attempt was made in early June, which is generally a dry time as well. It started off promising enough, although again there were reports of heavy rain and stuck trucks.
Although the drive from Addis to Gondar is worth doing at least once, the current construction on the road from Addis to Bahir Dar makes the trip arduous. Flying to Gondar is much more convenient and simple.
Getting to the Park
On the last expedition to Simiens we landed at Gondar, with a faithful driver and hardy vehicle waiting for us, and set off almost immediately. Unfortunately there were power outages in Gondar, which along with water shortages is a common problem, so that fuel for the vehicle was difficult to acquire. The fuel stations dependent on electricity with no generator couldn’t help us, and the places with a generator were predictably popular and had run out of fuel. Eventually we begged 100 liters and headed off.
The jump off point to the park is at Debark, about 2 hours north of Gondar. From past experience we knew that the process of registering and getting organized in Debark might take a little while. Even at the best of times it takes awhile, but we had arrived on Saturday. Considering that the Park office was closed, things were pretty efficient. We went to the park office and found it closed, but there were a couple of guards there who directed us to the house of the Park Warden.
Ciff-Side Water Fall
The Park normally requires that you take a guide from Debark with you, and prefers if you take a guide and a guard. We knew this would be a problem, because we already had a car which was very full (9 people in a landcruiser with all our camping stuff). We also had our highly motivated and competent driver – Adamu – so that we were sure to get through any organizational difficulties.
The Simien Hotel was gracious enough to allow us to unpack our lunch and eat on their tables (we had as usual brought enough food to feed several armies), but we did trouble them for refreshments. Another stop was the bustling town market, just off the main road on the turnoff to the Park, where we purchased a couple of extra pots and created a lot of excitement amongst the locals.
The children in the town seem particularly excited by the appearance of ferengies, and competed with our four waifs to see who could annoy the other the most (although in good fun). Our teenage girls (my daughter and her friend) especially attracted attention. They decided to fuss over a cute little girl, who was so terrified by the attention of the ferengies that she burst into tears!
After a few more decent machiattos at the Simien Hotel in the centre of town, the Park Warden was found and we went off to the office. There was an unexpected crowd of men, all guide wannabes’ waiting to be chosen. The Warden was an excellent fellow, who signed us up to go into the park and accepted our explanation that we had no room to carry a guide with us. For the negligible sum of 320 Birr, entrance of 40 birr per adult, 15 per child, 10 per vehicle and 90 for the guide/guard, we were granted the right of entry and enjoyment of the park for 48 hours.
Into the Park
Once we were away from Debark we expected the 58 km to the high Chennek camp to take about 2 hours on the decent but windy gravel road. In Debark the weather was encouraging, a bit of rain, but nothing oppressive. We had the option of staying in the basic accommodation in town, but we were all enthusiastic about pressing on and camping for the night in the park.
As we gained altitude up from Debark, we ran into thick fog – which gave the appearance of eerie shapes and a bit of worry as we turned corners around steep drops, with large trucks suddenly looming out of the mist into our path. The road also became increasingly muddy. The many trucks taking the route had churned the road into quite a mess at times, and we were threatened with being high centered more than once.
Under these circumstances we were quite pleased to forgo the challenge of going all the way to Chennek, and we stopped at the second of the 4 major campgrounds at Sankober. This was only 36 km from Debark, and 1 hour and 10 minutes in travelling time. It had become almost impossible to see anything in the fog.
Even the Sankober camp kept its mysteries from us in the fog, so all we saw was the sign to the campsite. I remembered from previous visits that it was quite a large camp, with a number of green roofed buildings. We could see none of them. Eventually we did locate the tukul which we colonized to become our kitchen and rest spot for the next two days.
No sooner had we unpacked our food things, put some water on the camp stove to heat, set up our tents, and, of course, bought some firewood, when it started to rain. The timing was good, except for the firewood. It began to thunder heavily, and flashes of lightning penetrated the fog a couple of times. The force of the rain continued to increase, which wasn’t a direct problem for us in our tarpaulin reinforced tukul. We consumed 3 bottles of wine, warmed up some chicken and noodles, and chatted cosily.
When we decided to go to bed at the late hour of 8 PM, it was a different story. The rain had taken its toll on two out of three tents, which were looking a little shaky. The brave (or foolish) campers decided to stick with the tents rather than join the wise Adamu and walk across the way to the little lodge at Sankober (sleeps 8 – basic but okay).
This was a mistake. The rain gradually developed into a downpour. Despite the jury-rigged ‘flys’ to keep the rain off, first on tent, then a second, surrendered their drenched inhabitants. Three climbed into the car, and one into our tent, where 5 of us managed to keep reasonably warm and dry.
All of us I’m sure have heard those urban legends about the people washed out of their tents in the middle of the night. The horror of dealing with water, drenched clothes and sleeping bags is only worsened by cold temperatures, and Sankober was freezing. Our bedraggled companions began with loud talking, followed by low voices strategizing, followed by cries for help. I found myself deeply sympathetic to the plight of my friends and colleagues, but strangely reluctant to leave the warmth of my sleeping bag. I did rouse myself to give the keys of the vehicle to my friends so they could climb in.
Although the weather in the morning was much improved, with no rain falling, the campsite was a pathetic sight. Two tents had receded into the surrounding mud. Three bodies were crammed into the landcruiser. Not much sleep had been had.