2017 Jan: The Simiens, Africa’s greatest mountain playground
Imagine a range of mountains cleaved in two. From one side it looks like any other: slopes gaining height from valley floor to rocky skyline. But when you reach that skyline, there’s something missing – the other half of the massif. It’s simply not there. Instead there are cliff walls dropping away hundreds and hundreds of vertical metres and a rucked curtain of rock that stretches away either side of you for sixty kilometres. Welcome to the extraordinary escarpment of the Simien Mountains National Park in north-west Ethiopia.
With peaks of around 4,500m the Simiens might not be the highest mountain range. One can climb higher in the Himalaya, of course, the European Alps and the Andes while Kilimanjaro closer to the Equator rightly takes the laurels for Africa’s highest spot. But what makes the Simiens so special is the verticality, the tectonic freak show of the African Rift that appears quite simply to have gobbled up half the range. So unlike the Andes, Alps or Himalayas you get a sense of drop-off which is like nowhere else. In the Simiens you don’t just see Lammergeyer vultures, you look down on Lammergeyer vultures. Little wonder the BBC routinely uses helicopter shots of the Simiens to open its mega natural history documentaries.
There were many things to marvel at in the Simiens, not least its animal inhabitants and Jurassic plantlife, but for me perhaps the most surprising feature was how accessible it all was, even for a family group like ours with young children. Established as a national park in 1969, it has a web of well marked footpaths connecting a series of camp sites separated by a day’s walk of roughly five or six hours. Facilities at the sites are basic: a cooking hut, ablution blocks and space to erect a tent, but really what more do you need after a day of fabulous hiking? Most of the routes take you along the very lip of the escarpment unfolding panorama after panorama, views that are breathtaking in every sense of the word. Altitude sickness is a common experience, especially among first-time visitors.
Routes can be tailored to any level of strength or fitness, no matter how young or old. Our guide, Dave Yohannes, looked after my family beautifully, making sure that mules were never too far away should the children begin to feel the strain and providing us with excellent tents, comfortable mattresses and clean sleeping bags. Although plenty hot during the day, the nights were eye-wateringly cold so extra sleeping bags, hot water bottles and thermal underwear were all put to some use. It helped that Dave’s team included perhaps the best cook in the Simiens, Fanta, who kept up a steady flow of warming tea, thick soups and rich porridge.