Day 1. 3160m
We left the dusty city of Gondar and wound our way North, towards the Simien Mountains. We drove through villages, slowly gaining altitude, though you couldn’t tell we were anywhere near mountains, farm land and dust stretching forever into the distance a long the road. Suddenly, we pulled the car to an overlook, what had previously been flat plains now gave way to stunning, raged cliffs perched impossibly high, and precariously, over the color blocked farm land below. If it weren’t for the haze, it appeared you might beagle to see for miles. We had entered the National Park.
Our first views:
We registered and met our guide, an amicable and shy woman named Mal (because we can’t pronounce her full name properly), who appears to be in her early thirties, we guess. She is one of two women in the guiding association, of which there are sixty-nine men. Of average height, she is also incredibly lean, though she seems small and takes up little space we know immediately, she could run laps around us. And truly, as she took us up to our first camp, in jeans and converses she traipsed over boulders and down encampments with incredible ease as we slid and scrambled in our expensive trekking boots.
Our first day was an easy three hours. We left the dusty, twisting road littered with Gelada monkeys, and walked along a thin path rising and falling along what seemed an dried up riverbed. As we crested hills our feet crushed the fields of thyme, releasing their fragrance into the air. The sun beat down, we immediately felt the prickle of sunburn we hadn’t prepared for. The hot sun slowly slipped away one we arrived at camp, offering brief relief before the air became frigid and we ran to our tents to layer all of our clothes. The temperature fluctuations her are unlike anything I’ve experienced. We’re told, it only gets worse from here.
Day 2. 3600m, Christmas Eve
The morning was still frozen when we woke. We waiting for the sun to warm our campsite as we sipped coffee to keep warm. We remember it’s Christmas Eve, but it doesn’t feel particularly festive, it is however cold enough to feel like winter. We note the irony of leaving chilly Dublin for a warmer climate in Africa.
After breakfast ,our morning hike brings us up and down yes mountains, to a gigantic waterfall, one of the largest I’ve seen that, because it is the dry season was a small shower more than a gushing force. It was stunning nonetheless, though pictures do it no justice.
Today I found my pace. As we’re now at an altitude where our lungs can no longer keep up with our legs, pace is everything. 1,2,3,4, breathe in, breathe out. I try to find that meditative state that allows you to hike continuously, in a sort of rhymic trance for hours on end. It is my favorite part of hiking, a chance for my brain to settle and focus simply on the task at hand. As we walk I wish I were better at the downhill portions, I watch our guide as she sails effortlessly down the gravel and rock filled hills, each step carefully measured and fluid. I on the other hand, move awkwardly, slide occasionally, and am generally just grateful not to have sprained anything.
As our morning neared lunch we approached the river that led to the waterfall. Ahead we hear banging and yelling, both human and not. Suddenly, we look up and spot over 100 monkeys scattering the hillside. Our guide tells us, the locals are throwing rocks at them because the monkeys ate their barley. She laughs, and despite the cacophony of yells and clangs around us we settle in for lunch. No one seems terrible concerned.
After lunch it was a short hike uphill, through a village perched at 3400 meters, one of the few entirely Muslim villages in a country dominated by Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity. Just after passing the thatch hut village we’re at our own campsite. We are the first to arrive, having shaved an hour and a half off the trek time, inadvertently landing us there before our bags, tent, or cooks. We wander the grounds and note immediately how much colder it is here. It’s so strange, to be in the sun and feel hot and freezing cold at the same time. There are few clouds in the sky, which make for a brilliant sunset on top of a peak a few hundred meters above our campsite. A brilliant red sun, the sort I remember from my time in Tanzania warms the sky and casts shadows across the valley. A lovely way to spend our Christmas Eve, until, of course the sun sets and we nearly run back to camp to warm ourselves before the chill of the evening descends.
I know I need to eat, but it is so cold outside. I eat something, as quickly as possible, grab my tea and head to the campfire in hopes to feel warm and shake this bitter cold. It is early when we retire to the tent, in attempts to keep warm before the start of a new day.
Day 3, 4070m, Christmas Day.
We awoke to a white Christmas of sorts. The clear night sky gave way to below freezing temperatures and a morning frost that shattered down from our tent as we opened it at daylight. Once it was bearable to sit outside we ate our breakfast as Mal asks us about American Christmas, as theirs isn’t for another few weeks. She tells us all the scouts, who sleep, inexplicably outside under blankets to “guard the tourists” had decided to celebrate Farangi Christmas last night by getting properly drunk. Luckily for us, the most they need to guard us from is a wayward monkey. The topic of conversation ends when she asks us if we like Obama, to which we always awkwardly reply something to the effect of, “well, he’s better than the last guy!” She asks us when the next election is and who we think will win. We tell her, we don’t know-but maybe we’ll have a woman president. She doesn’t know who Hilary Clinton is, and when we explain who her husband is she looks confused. Then suddenly explains, “oh right! You American women change your last names when you get married!” Then, “that is so strange, why do you do that? So many women just get divorced anyway, and then what? I just don’t get it.” To which I wanted to respond, “I’m with you, there lady!” But just said not everyone in the states does. It was a subtle reminder of a subconscious lesson travel has imparted. Specifically, that what we choose to do “because it’s don’t that way” in a variety facets of life is not a universal truth. And therefore, more or less, we are free to decide what we want for our own lives. And that is pretty incredible.
After breakfast we set out on relatively flat planes that looked as if a giant fork had dug into the earth, and dragged out ridges of ground which we hopped to and from on our way out of camp. Midway into the morning we deviated our path and climbed up an overlook to view the cliffs and valleys extending in the distance. The theme of this trek has generally been to hike for an hour before coming upon a vista, each more spectacular than the last. Soon the ridged farm land gave way to lava fields and rhododendrons, which lasted a short while until we descended 600 meters into the shade do low lying trees. We crossed from one valley to the next, and began to climb back up 800 meters. There are a fair amount of people on the trail, and the campsites are nearly full, but it’s easy enough to hike alone. Our fellow hikers are from all over, primarily Europe, but Americans are representing as well, from young kids with their families to couples well into their 70’s and older. One group, which had a few Americans, and several people our age were overlanding from a South Africa (a 6-month trip). I rarely feel travel jealous these days, but upon learning this I felt a twinge of guilt rising, over landing Africa is on my bucket list, and here were people my own age doing just that. But, of course, it passed.
After a very difficult, cold climb we reached the top, 4070 m, and our lunch place. It was cold and windy, or else we’d stay longer and admire the views. But we had to keep moving. Luckily, as we moved toward camp the sun came out and wind stopped. We spent the last two hours pleasantly sauntering to camp after an exhausting 11 miles and 1,000m elevation change, during which we were afforded some of the most spectacular views we’ve ever seen, different, though on par with Kilimanjaro. 1,000m (or more) cliffs jetted themselves from the mountain, mere feet from where we stood. It made me dizzy to look down and particularly careful when navigating the rocky path down towards the camp.
Once we had our afternoon tea we explored the camp where we watched dozens of monkeys and antelopes meander around together. Apparently, they travel together, and the monkeys alert them to danger. These monkeys, who are extremely friendly, allow us to get very close.
Our evening begins with “Christmas Beers” followed by dinner, and a cake made special for Christmas by our cooks. Though it was a long, hard day, it was a wonderful, and unforgettable way to spend our Christmas.
Day 4, 4230m
We stared up at the steep rock face in front of us, cold wind whipping unmercifully. Mal tells us we have two options. To go straight up, or to go around to a different view point. The way straight up leads the the second highest peak in Ethiopia. Mal muses, “it is your choice, of course, but I think the view is better and the hike more pleasant on the lower one. But if you want to be on the second highest peak, we’ll go straight.”
Normally, we’d climb. But with the wind, cold, and the promise of a better view we opt for the lower peak. As we near the top, we watch other hikers on the other peak, struggling their way up. “I don’t know why tourists do that, it is so disappointing up there, this is better.” Mal informs us, clearly, we made the correct choice. And, much like the rest of the hike the views are stunning. We snap a few photos before heading to camp. It was a short day, with only 4 hours of hiking. It was also our last, as the car will pick us up at our final campsite.
On the way back Mal tells us about her family. Her story starts in a typical rural-Ethiopian way. Her mother married at nine years old in an arranged marriage. By fifteen she had her first child of eight. Mal was the fourth. Her older here siblings were also married young, but she was allowed to finish school. She went to University and became a history teacher. Her family could not support sending her younger three siblings to school as well, and decided to arrange for their marriages instead. Mal , on a dismal teachers salary offered to help support them. She changed professions, working in tourism to earn more money. Now with last of her siblings is about to go to University. And she says now she can focus on building her business. She wants to run her own guiding company with only women, something I’ve only seen once in Nepal. In a country with deep rooted patriarchy and oppression of women, this is an ambitious endeavor. But you can tell when she speaks, she is fully capable. She is certainly remarkable, and we both feel lucky to have met her. The trekking company we used, Simientrek, ended up being one of the best choices we made the whole trip. The owner runs the company spectacularly, our guide being just one example of this.
Back at camp, we meander around, taking in the sights for the last time. Trekking here, though brief, has been more rewarding than we hoped. From stunning scenery, challenging hikes, and fantastic people the last 30 miles have simply been wonderful.