Trekking in the Simien Mountains was one of the experiences Catherine and I were most looking forward to in Ethiopia. We were keen to walk through both the highlands and the lowlands and arranged an eight-day trek at the Simien Mountains National Park office in Debark.
The variety of the park really surprised us – mountains of all shapes and sizes, huge deep valleys, rivers and waterfalls, lush green countryside, tons of flowers and so many animals – we saw hundreds of endemic Gelada Monkeys, Ibex and the incredibly rare, Ethiopian wolf.
It was a super tough trek, with steeps descents and ascents a daily occurrence! The heat also contributed to the difficulty, especially in the lowlands where it was a very humid heat.
While there were quite a few people hiking the first 3 or 4 days (the highlands), the lowlands were far less traveled and we met no other hikers after day 4. Though at times we did feel a little exposed, our scout, Haille, was incredibly kind and though he spoke very limited English, we really felt safe with him outside our tent. We decided against renting a chef, choosing to cook our own meals, but we did hire a guide.
Day 1 – Debark town (2,800 m) to Sankaber (3,250 m)
14 kms, 5 hours
We drove for an hour out of Debark to Simien Lodge, at 3,260 m supposedly the highest lodge in Africa, and started walking along the ridge, with sheer drops to the valley below. While it was a little hazy, we could make out the outlines of a mixture of mountain shapes and the valley below was far bigger than I’d thought.
It didn’t take long to meet hundreds of Gelada Monkey, distinctive with their heart-shaped red chest patch, which are only found in Ethiopia. Baby’s on their mom’s back and learning to climb in the trees, kids fooling around and male adults with the most amazing manes of hair. They were not bothered by us so we could get really close and most of the time we saw them they were either eating, playing or grooming one another.
Aside from watching the monkeys, we also saw huge vultures circling effortlessly overhead, tiny klipspringer buck and peaceful bushbuck eating with the monkeys.
There were lots of wild flowers and colourful butterflies everywhere and for parts of the day, we walked through long grass meadows with the smell of wild mountain thyme.
It was quite an up and down day, which little did we know was a preview of what lay ahead! The campsite at Sankaber had a lovely view into another huge valley and as we enjoyed dinner, we both agreed it was the quietest and most peaceful place in Ethiopia so far!
Day 2 – Sankaber to Gich (3,600 m)
12 kms, 6 hours
It was a very gentle start to the day as we walked close to the ridge edge before it became quite steep in places. We made our way to an outcrop where we could see a huge 530 m waterfall, with white backed vultures gliding above completing the view.
Throughout the day, we continued seeing fields of yellow, purple and pink wild flowers as well as red hot pokers. Post lunch and a paddle at the river, we walked up quite steeply through the valley, encountering fields of festuka grass, found only in the mountains, and red, purple and grey-blue soil. At one point, we also watched troops of monkeys running and jumping back down the valley.
We camped in a vast open area dotted with giant lobelia trees and joined the monkeys up a little hill near camp to watch the sun set (they perch on the rocks with their hands crossed also admiring the view!). Catherine also decided it would be a good idea to climb down to the edge and into a precarious natural hole in a cliff-edge rock face!
Walking back to camp, one of the guides spotted a beautiful Ethiopian wolf, the world’s rarest canid (with only 50 believed to live in this park), which we followed while it hunted for its dinner. We couldn’t quite believe our luck in seeing one.
Day 3 – Gich to Chennek (3,620 m)
19 kms, 7 hours
We awoke to a beautifully clear day after falling asleep to rain the night before and it was gradual uphill to start the day as we headed up Imet Gogo (3,926 m); enjoying spectacular views of the many different peaks, of all shapes and sizes, before the clouds settled in for the day.
We dropped steeply into the valley, knowing each step down was a step up the other side, and enjoyed our lunch in a field of lobelia trees in a cloud after a long ascent. We continued seeing lots of monkeys and were also joined by intermittent, and super hot, sunshine.
After lunch, we dropped down steeply again into another valley, at the bottom of which was our campsite. Just before sunset, as we played cards, the clouds finally cleared and we could see where we had come from.
Day 4 – Chennek to Ambiko (3,200 m)
18 kms, 8.5 hours
We woke to wonderfully clear and sunny day and started the day with a gradual climb along the ridge, with wonderful views to our left, as we headed for Bwahit (4,430 m), Ethiopia’s third-highest peak.
We continued seeing monkeys plus for the first time Ibex – initially a family on the rocks in the distance and then one crossing our path.
The last 400m were very steep but that was soon forgotten as we admired the wonderful 360 views. We enjoyed a divine piece of chocolate cake, courtesy of Matt who we’d met on the trek, before saying goodbye to the lovely Swiss couple who’d been trekking with us since the start.
We headed down the other side and it was a VERY LONG descent, well over 1,000 m. It was absolutely spectacular though – no clouds whatsoever, a bright blue sky framing a range of peaks, fields of red hot pokers and a patchwork of different crops.
We stopped for lunch in a tiny town then headed down to a river before climbing (wearily!) back up through the gorge along another river for some 400 m to camp. It was the toughest day so far and we were shattered!
Day 5 – Ambiko to Sona (3,200 m)
21 kms, 7 hours
We decided against climbing Ras Dejen, the country’s highest peak, as we’d read it didn’t offer any better views to what we’d seen atop Bwahit and also wasn’t a great climb. Instead, we walked back down the gorge to the river and began climbing – we kept climbing for three hours, initially past loads of cool cactus trees then through huge valley after valley of farm-land surrounded on all side by mountains under a bright blue sky. We snacked on peas and broad beans from the fields and were asked to shake numerous little hands as kids ran up to us shouting salaam.
Eventually we reached a summit of sorts and for the rest of the day it was less steep and more undulating as we continued walking through fields of crops. Our campsite was the grounds of the Sona primary school and with no lights anywhere near us, we enjoyed a beautiful sky full of stars.
Day 6 – Sona to Mekarbia (1,800 m)
16 kms, 7 hours
We woke to a super view of Imet Gogo, Bwahit and the range from the other side. We realised we were walking a loop and it was awesome to see this view from the opposite side.
It was a very steep morning as we descended for some four hours into the valley; the landscape becoming greener and greener, with more and more flowers the lower we got. Eventually we made it to the river where we had a refreshing paddle and some lunch.
After lunch we walked through the lush green valley that we’d seen from the top of the ridge for the first few days. There were lots of trees and flowers, ferns growing everywhere as well as plenty of crops. Mountains of all shapes and sizes framed the view and it felt tropical and a lot more humid.
Day 7 – Mekarbia to Muli (1,900 m)
15 kms, 8 hours
We headed down to the river, getting stuck behind a herd of cows at one point!, which we waded through barefoot five times. The water was thigh deep in places and it was slow going but very refreshing in the heat.
When we finally left the river, it was a gentle walk along the bank through the valley with lots of traffic in the opposite direction (donkeys definitely have right of way!).
It was perhaps the hottest it had been all week and we enjoyed an unbelievably refreshing swim in a lovely natural pool under a waterfall before having lunch in the shade of a big tree.
It was then a super steep climb out of the valley, in incredibly hot and humid weather. In no time we were both literally dripping, and we felt as if we were back in the water!
Once at the top, it was flat until the village with a lovely campsite in someone’s garden. We experienced a coffee ceremony at the campsite – beans are washed, roasted, ground and you are served three cups, and then set up tent with an audience of inquisitive kids.
The owners made us delicious injera and spicy tshoro (local sauce) for dinner and it was an awesome evening for our last night.
Day 8 – Muli to Adi Arkay
We were up before six to walk to town as we were hoping to make it to Axum that day. This last stretch was steep in places but took no more than two hours and we were able to catch a bus north, making it to Axum by mid-afternoon where a long shower was well overdue!
Can you visit independently?
Definitely! We arranged our trek at the national park office in Debark. We met Bogi, our guide, and he helped us arrange everything (from contacting a mule man to buying food at the supermarket and kerosene at market). Be sure to check your guide has a registration card.
Food – it’s tricky to get at all campsites so it’s best to bring supplies. We didn’t hire a chef and chose to cook ourselves (if you can afford it, a chef will definitely add to your experience as the meals they prepare are delicious).
Water – we carried purification drops with us and as there were lots of rivers and streams, we were able to always fill up. Rivers may dry up as we move more into the dry season so it’s best to check with your guide before setting off.
Weather – it’s super hot during the day so bring a hat and a ton of sunscreen. It does get cold in the highlands at night so come prepared.
Sleeping – we had our own tent but a few people who were renting got wet.
Toilets – very basic – it’s best to find a tree if you can!
Costs (Ethiopian Birr)
- Entrance – 100/person/day
- Scout – 150/day
- Guide – 600/day (optional)
- Mule – 150/day (can carry up to 40kgs)
- Mule Man – 150/day
- Ropes and Sacks for the Mule – 140
- Cooking Stove & cutlery etc – 100/day
- Food – 1,000
- Kerosene – 140
- Car – 550 (we split this with the Swiss couple, total is 1,100)