Simien Mountains
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The National Parks of Ethiopia Simien Mountains – Part III

In the last two weeks we’ve walked through the Simien Park. Now the adventure continues

Threat to the Environment

The fragile environment of the high Simiens is in constant danger from the infringement of man. Ethiopia’s highlands are crowded as they are the preferred living spot for Northern Ethiopians –areas that are free from malaria and many other diseases. Fear of the lowlands has turned into a superstition for most highlanders. The fear must be intense to keep these bare footed people in the freezing heights. The Simiens are so high that they are sparsely populated, and not suitable for crops. Livestock graze throughout the park, at least until some better alternative is worked out.

The greatest danger to the ecosystem comes from the large populations to the East of the park, in lower highland areas, who must cross the park to reach the urban centres to the west. In the past, tens of thousands of these people needed to trek for days across the park to Debark to receive food aid. It is truly horrifying to think that starving people had to walk 3 ½ days each way to receive food and trek it back to their families.

During the bad rain years of 1997-2000, the road was gradually extended through the park. Inevitably the food distributions followed the road, and thousands of farmers received the food progressively at Sankober camp, then up to Chennek camp. The shorter distances certainly benefited the beleaguered peasants. The World Food Programme helped by supporting construction of a footbridge across the dangerous Tekkeze River, which had swept away peasants and their donkeys with the food assistance in previous years.

Fertile Plains between Sankober & Debark

I was horrified to witness the distribution of food aid at Chennek camp in 1999. Thousands of needy people had swarmed into this sensitive part of the park to receive food piled on plastic sheets in the open. Thunderstorms constantly threatened to turn the precious piles of food in unusable lumps.

I like to think that we at Save the Children (UK) played our own small part in rectifying this appalling situation. Working with the local Disaster Prevention (DPPC) authorities, who were painfully aware of the problem, we identified and assessed a site beyond the park at the town of Mekane Berhan (more below). This was both much closer to the people requiring the food, and outside the sensitive and fragile park area. Here we agreed to build a food warehouse, to provide a safe and dry place to distribute food assistance without disturbing the park, and considerably reducing the distance people had to walk for their aid. The warehouse is now functioning, and distribution at Chennek is a thing of the past.

Mekane Berhan

Mekane Berhan is very remote, and is the gateway to the extremely remote. It is 1 ½ days walk for a hardy peasant to Debark, which the new road without buses or any private cars on it hasn’t changed yet. On the way to Mekane Berhan I asked my colleagues if there was anything interesting about the place. They replied that there was an old church in Mekane Berhan. ‘So what’ I thought. Then they told me that the Emperor Tewodros was crowned at the church, that perked my ears up. Tewodros is a personal hero of mine!

The Tewodros connection was not a big topic in Mekane Berhan, which was a surprisingly bustling place in the middle of nowhere at the end of the road.

Despite the relative lack of interest of the local officials in the Tewodros connection, once our work was done they pointed me in the direction of the church of Mekane Berhan (Derisigie Maryam) where Tewodros had been crowned Emperor almost 150 years ago. The church proved to be extremely impressive on the outside, with a massive stone outer wall crumbling in places with a large front tower and gates. Upon entering the open gate we found a second inner wall, quite a lot lower, with another large tower and gate. This gate was closed. My colleagues called through and undertook a prolonged conversation through the gate with an old blind man who did not have the authority to let us in. He was able to have a bizarre conversation by yelling from the other side of the gate, and my colleagues were able to gather some information.

While this was going on I wandered off to a large and impressive structure (bell tower doesn’t do it justice). From there I could see the two churches inside the second wall, both fairly typical and unimpressive round churches painted in the Ethiopian national colours with corrugated iron roofs.

Sankober Camp

Upon returning to my colleagues I learned the local version of the Tewodros crowning (which I promise to check for accuracy some day). The church was apparently built by Dezzamatch Hubi of Tigray (Dezzamatch is an army chief), who intended to have himself crowned as emperor of Ethiopia. Unfortunately for him, he was defeated (and eventually killed) by the former shifta (bandit) Tewodros just before the church was finished. The coronation ceremony had already been prepared, and even the guests who included foreign clergy had arrived. Tewodros, who also intended to have himself crowned Emperor, didn’t want to ruin such elaborate preparations, so he travelled to Mekane Berhan and had himself crowned, instead of the Dezzamatch.

The blind keeper said that the crown of Tewodros was no longer at the church – it had been taken by the British to Kenya (news to the Kenyans!). He also said that Tewodros second wife Tawawork had maintained a connection with the church, as Dezzamatch Hubi was her father. She’d been married to off to Tewodros as part of an obviously failed dynastic unity effort. She never forgave Tewodros for defeating and imprisoning her father, and had him buried at Dersigie Maryam. He died in prison two years before Tewodros was defeated by a British invasion force in 1868.

Mekane Berhan had clearly been a major centre during these events but is now very remote. When I walked through the town market I wasn’t surprised to gather an entourage of 50 kids, but I was shocked by how many people were afraid of me as I walked along. Clearly Ferengis were a rare commodity. While we were driving on the forty kilometers of road (I’d call it a path with an ego) nearest the town horses and mules bolted in fear at the car, obviously unaccustomed to any traffic. With the ‘improvements’ underway there is now almost a real road to the town, and this remoteness is, somewhat regrettably, ending.

Simien Mountain waterfall

Walking out of the Park

Once you’ve gone as far as Mekane Berhan, there is no farther to go, so you have to go back the other way. We returned to Sankober camp.

Having discovered the joys of walking in the park, between Sankober and Gich camps, we decided to enjoy walking out from Sankober to Debark. It is about 36 km by road between the two places, but shorter by foot. The sights are marvelous along the way, with plenty of spine tingling cliffs. As you descend, fairly thick forests of small trees spring up, and provide a pleasant surrounding for a walk. Impossibly verdant valleys line the small streams, with groups of horses, cattle, sheep and goats grazing peacefully on the short but very green grass.

More alarmingly some of the animals graze on the cliff faces, especially the nimble goats, with the amazingly nonchalant herd boys jumping around over several hundred meter drops. I panic just watching them!!

Although the walk is shorter than the drive, the road quite sensibly follows the high ridges. Walking therefore inevitably involves going down into valleys, then back up again. The distance suddenly doesn’t seem that much shorter. In particular the climbs up from the valley bottoms seemed very long indeed. The scenery was great, and the groups of herders were friendly, bu the high altiitude takes its’ toll during steep climbs. This doesn’t seem to bother the locals. Various women of about 70 years of age seemed to have no problem negotiating the climbs, leaving us embarrassed in their wake.

It soon became clear that not everyone in our group could make it to Debark. Fortunately the road cuts across the path a number of times, and our band gradually dwindled as more took the option of riding in our car. At the half way mark we stopped for lunch, and those of us who wanted to finish graciously deferred to the larger group and drove the rest of the way!

The descent into Debark takes you away from the highland meadows and steep cliffs to the rolling agricultural hills that helped support Ethiopian civilization during the height of the Gondar Emperors. After a few days in the Simiens Debark seems positively cosmopolitan, no the medieval mudpit it appears when you arrive from anywhere else!