“The most marvellous of all Abyssinian landscapes”, wrote the Edwardian travel writer Rosita Forbes of the Simien Mountains, a spectacular range of jagged plateaux and peaks incised by a series of vertiginous river gorges. Situated about 100km north of Gondar, this is Africa’s fifth-highest massif, and includes a dozen peaks that top the 4000m mark, notably Ras Dejen – at 4550m the tallest point in Ethiopia. The western park of the range has been protected in the Simien Mountains National Park since 1969, and the entire massif was inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979. It’s also Ethiopia’s most popular trekking destination, partly due to its proximity to Gondar, and is traversed by an all-weather road that leads east from the gateway village of Debark all the way through the national park to near the base of Ras Dejen.
Ecologically, the Simien Mountains are notable for supporting some of Africa’s most extensive high-altitude habitats, with erica bushes and trees dominating at 3000–3600m, and a low cover of Afro-alpine grassland studded with 10m-high giant lobelias at the highest altitudes. Though it’s best known to travellers for its spectacular scenery, the park is also an important stronghold for endemic wildlife. It forms the last refuge of the Walia ibex, the most numerically important stronghold for the gelada monkey, and is second only to Bale in terms of its Ethiopian wolf population. Six endemic bird species have been recorded, including the localized Ankober serin and striking thick-billed raven. And the tall, jagged cliffs of the Simien are perhaps the best place in the world for close-up views of the spectacular lammergeyer.
Although many travellers set up their Simien trek through an agency in Gondar, it is also possible to make your own arrangements at the park headquarters in Debark, a process that usually takes a couple of hours. Guides, cooks, game scouts and (if required) mules can all be organized on the spot, ideally the afternoon before you want to start trekking.
As far as packing goes, you need to bring plenty of warm clothing, as it can get very chilly at night. You should also buy all the food you require for the duration of your trek in advance, either in Debark, or better still in Gondar or Addis Ababa. A good map, such as the Simen [sic] Mountains World Heritage Site sheet (University of Berne; 2003) will be useful too, especially if you plan on going it alone without a guide, though it may be difficult to locate on the ground. Most other equipment can be hired on the spot, either from the Simen Park Hotel or the park headquarters.
The most rewarding way to explore the park is on foot. Hikes generally start in DEBARK, the site of the park headquarters, which straddles the main road towards Aksum. From Debark, a well-maintained network of trails leads eastward to the main plateau, where there are inexpensive community huts and campsites at Buit Ras (the entrance gate, 15km from the main highway), Sankaber, Gich and Chennek. A number of route options are possible, ranging from a day hike out of Sankaber to a seven- to ten-day trek culminating in an ascent of Ras Dejen. It is also possible to hike all the way through to Lalibela over eighteen days. Hiking in the Simiens is not generally too demanding, with most stages taking around five to eight hours, depending on your fitness. Fresh arrivals to Ethiopia should, however, take into account the affects of trekking at high altitude, which can leave even the fittest of hikers gasping for breath on steep inclines.
For those with limited time, low fitness levels or limited tolerance for camping in near-freezing conditions, the Simiens can be explored in greater comfort, either by basing yourself at the upmarket Simien Lodge, or by renting a 4x4 and tackling the park’s all-weather road as a day-trip. This is a less immediate and fulfilling experience than an overnight trek, but you will still be treated to the same spectacular views, and are almost certain to see the likes of the gelada and lammergeyer, though the Walia ibex and Ethiopian wolf are more elusive.