Expert Reviews – Simien Mountains NP

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The spectacular roof of Ethiopia
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As with its southern counterpart Bale Mountains, Simien Mountains National Park – which protects Africa’s fifth-highest mountain range, summiting at 4,533m – is not a conventional safari destination, but it does support a thrilling selection of endemic wildlife. It is also Ethiopia’s premier hiking destination, thanks largely to its spectacular landscape – all jagged peaks and ridges incised by sheer kilometre-deep river gorges – but also to its proximity to the city of Gondar, a popular stop along the country’s renowned historical tour circuit. For wildlife enthusiasts, a highlight is the opportunity to walk among the park’s habituated troops of several hundred gelada monkey (a unique baboon-like primate notable for feeding primarily on grass and for the male’s spectacular golden mane and red chest patch). I would regard this to be Africa’s most thrilling primate encounter after gorilla or chimpanzee trekking. Simien is also the last stronghold for the endemic Walia ibex, a massive-horned wild goat whose presence in Ethiopia underscores the country’s many ecological affinities to the Eurasian region. The Ethiopian wolf is less common here than in Bale Mountains (though I’ve seen it in two recent occasions) while the avian highlight is large raptors such as lammergeier (it is surely the best place in the world to see this spectacular vulture up close), Rüppell’s vulture and Verreaux’s eagle. Though the park is most popular with hikers, an all-weather road now offers easy access to more sedentary travellers.

The Simien Mountains – a haven for Ethiopian endemics
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Simien Mountains National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, protects some of Africa’s most dramatic scenery. A single rutted road brings you close to Ras Dashen, which is Ethiopia’s highest peak at 4,550m/14,928ft. The easy summit is perhaps slightly disappointing to mountain climbers, since it is little more than a hillock protruding from the surrounding 4,000m/13,123ft high Afro-alpine moorland. Hiking through the park, you can expect some rewarding wildlife viewing. Not your usual big animals, but several of Ethiopia’s most exciting endemics. Most visible and approachable are the big troops of gelada monkey. Male geladas, with their swirling manes and bold red chests, look quite scary, but these vegetarian grass-munching primates are in fact very chilled. The highly endangered and more elusive Walia ibex is a goat-like acrobat most likely to be seen on the precipitous cliffs that form its preferred habitat. Last but not least, the Ethiopian wolf, which is most easily seen in Bale Mountains National Park, is also making a comeback in the Simiens, and on my most recent visit I was lucky to see one of them trotting across the grassy slopes.

Africa’s Grand Canyon
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The Simien Mountains National Park is one of the most popular destinations for hiking in the country, with dramatic landscapes of precipices and gorges, spindly rock spires, deep ravines and soaring mountains. Indeed, it’s home to Ras Dashen (or Dejen), Ethiopia’s highest peak at 4550m. But the summit is not for the fainthearted – on the final day, we struggled up an ascent of 1200m in parched heat, a hard slog over tough rocky terrain. However, walks around the Simiens and into Ras Dashen itself are beautiful.

The campsites on the main trail are often busy and not always as clean as they could be, but they are improving since I first climbed here in 2004. More recently, I hiked a trail outside the park and the views were just as fabulous – we even had a tremendous view of Ras Dashen in profile all the way from its start to its summit. Seeing the scale of it like that, it was hard to believe I’d ever made it to the top.

The wildlife in the park is unusual, and includes rare gelada monkeys. They’re not at all shy and are great to photograph, with their leonine manes and red chests, known as their bleeding hearts. You might also catch a glimpse of the elusive goat-like walia ibex and the Ethiopian wolf, which resembles a fox.

The roof of Africa
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Ethiopia’s most talked-about national park isn’t a standard safari destination. There’s no driving around in a jeep peering at elephants here. The Simien Mountains are instead a place to lace up your hiking boots and stride out across the cold and barren, 4km-high Ethiopian plateau. And this more interactive way of experiencing the African countryside makes Simien a hugely appealing destination.

Scenically, it’s breath-taking, but describing Simien as ‘mountains’ paints the wrong kind of picture. There are no soaring high peaks towering thousands of metres above the walker. Instead, you walk along the fringe of an undulating plateau that falls sheer to the hot plains hundreds of metres below. This means that once you’re acclimatised, hiking in the Simiens is generally fairly easy going. While you walk, keep your eyes peeled for some wildlife, because though it’s no Serengeti, there are animals here. And like so much in Ethiopia, they are totally different from anything else you might see in Africa. If you’re lucky you might catch a sneaky glimpse of an endangered walia ibex scrambling about the cliff faces, and if you look up you might spy the bone breaking lammergeyer. For most people, though, it’s the gelada monkey (often wrongly called a baboon), with its apparently bleeding chest, shaggy mane and formidable fangs, that is the star of the Simiens. Indeed, one of my fondest memories of the Simiens was the time I walked through an upland pasture with maybe a hundred of these large, but harmless, vegetarian monkeys frolicking in the grasses all around me.

Home of the endemic triumvirate
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Situated 100km north of Gondar on the eastern side of the Axum road, the Simien Mountains are one of Africa’s largest mountain ranges, sporting at least a dozen peaks above 4000m. The western side of the massif was gazetted as the Simien Mountains National Park in 1969. Frequently referred to as the Grand Canyon of Africa, the Simien Mountains were deservedly declared a UNESCO World Heritage site due to the area’s extreme natural beauty, jaw-dropping escarpment vistas, alpine meadows and unique indigenous wildlife. Hemmed in by villages and farms on every side, three of Ethiopia’s endemic large mammals survive within this highly pressured protected area: the gelada monkey, Walia ibex and Ethiopian wolf.

Trekking in the Simien Mountains is spectacular, with arresting views around every bend in the trail. The park is also home to Ras Dejen – the highest mountain in Ethiopia and the fourth-highest peak in Africa at 4533m. Whether on a short half-day hike, or multi-day trekking adventure, exploring the Simien Mountains is best done on foot. But be prepared for some energy-sapping ascents, undulating plateaus traverses amid groves of giant lobelias, and staggering escarpment views. Imagine sheer rocky cliffs, plunging waterfalls, and rocky towers rising from the forested valleys below.

In addition to popular multi-day guided treks and camping safaris, the national park also has two attractive camps – Limalimo Lodge and Simien Lodge – that are ideally located for pre- and post-trekking rest and recuperation.

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