High on our – Julie’s – list of reasons to come to Ethiopia was to see the Gelada monkeys which live in large numbers in the Simien Mountains.
The entry town for the mountains is Gondar. It was the royal capital of Ethiopia from the mid 1600s to the mid 1800s and worth a visit just for the relics of that era.
The 70,000 sq metre Royal Enclosure contains numerous castles and palaces built by successive kings. It is now a UNESCO listed site.
One of the kings of that era also built a swimming complex on the edge of town, where the royals floated around in life jackets made of goat skins. Fasiladas’ Bath is refilled and used for watery festivities each year during Timkat, the Orthodox Church’s celebration of the Epiphany.
We also visited Ras Gimb, a 17th or 18th century palace later used by Emperor Selassie as a country house, then by the Derg as a torture chamber. It’s now a museum, although an absence of electricity meant we were shown the exhibits by a delightful lady with a dolphin torch.
The Saturday market is bedlam and completely takes over the streets around the bus station. It was nearing Christmas and plastic trees were on sale alongside more traditional and modern offerings.
Gondar is pleasant enough for a day or so, but we were here for the monkeys, so we headed off for a trek in the mountains.
Day 1 – Gondar to Sankaber: Independent hiking is not permitted in the Simien Mountains National Park, so we had signed up with a group which turned out to be ourselves, another Aussie couple, an Irish couple, an Austrian couple, a German lady and a French guy living in Addis. It was a fun crowd.
From Gondar it is approximately 100km by minibus to the park headquarters at Debark where we picked up our guide and a ranger. All groups visiting the park must be accompanied by a park-registered guide and a ranger with a rifle. We could never get a straight answer as to whether the gun-toting ranger was for protection from wild animals or from potential muggers, or just to put a few dollars back into the local economy.
After a further drive up into the park, we began hiking and within the hour, there they were. The ground in this area is covered in wild thyme and the monkeys love it.
Pretty good wildflowers too. This is the Abyssinian rose.
And the views across the mountains were stupendous.
Our ranger was taking things seriously.
The locals seemed pretty friendly. There are still some communities living on the edges of the park, and even in some areas within the park there are still small villages and small farming and herding activities ongoing.
We ended the day at a basic camp called Sankaber. At 3,250 metres altitude, the temperature fell rapidly once the sun set, dipping below zero overnight. Huddled together under one blanket, wearing almost every piece of clothing we had with us, we were warm. Uncomfortable but warm. It was a Christmas Day we won’t forget.
Day 2 – Sankaber to Gich: Today’s hike initially followed an escarpment with more spectacular views.
Around mid-morning we reached a viewing point from which we could see Jinbar Falls. This 500 metre waterfall is apparently a torrent in the wet season, but as expected had slowed to just a steady flow by this time of year.
We climbed steadily down to have lunch by the Jinbar River, just a trickle really.
And then we climbed again. It was hot and the climb was long. As we crested the last peak just before reaching our camp for the night, what breath we had left was taken away by the sight of even more of those beautiful Gelada monkeys.
Geladas are the world’s only grass-eating monkey and are found only in the northern Ethiopian mountains. They have evolved small hands to pick grasses instead of larger ones for swinging in trees.
They are sometimes called bleeding heart monkeys because of the distinctive red marking on their chest. It is a sign of oestrogen levels and has evolved on the chest because they spend the majority of their time squatting on the ground. A marking on their butt – like most monkeys have – wouldn’t be very effective.
They were totally unperturbed by humans lurking around watching them. They just move a bit further away if you get closer than they are comfortable with. So there is unlimited opportunity to just sit and watch them. We did, for ages.
At dusk the monkeys lope across the escarpment to the cliffs and climb down to sleep in caves. This is for safety against predators, although it’s hard to think what predators they would have here.
We had salubrious accommodation of our own. No lights, no heating, no windows, a squat loo that was about half a mile away, and at 3,600 metres, once again it was sub-zero temperatures in the night.
Day 3 – Gich to Chennek: As we set out today the landscape was more open, grassy hills dotted with giant lobelias and flowers which our guide helpfully advised were ‘everlastings’.
The hills turned steeper and we ascended to a spectacular viewing point at Imet-Gogo with a 360 degree panorama across the mountain ranges.
The walk then followed the escarpment, giving us further brilliant views of the volcanic landscape. Six of the group were doing only three days trek, so they split off with another group to head to a pick up point. The remaining four of us climbed on up to a summit at 4,070 metres where we stopped for lunch. The views were great, but a strong wind made it cold despite bright sunshine.
More of those beautiful monkeys provided a distraction from the cold.
After lunch we continued to follow narrow paths around the escarpment, climbing up and down.
It is a good area for birds, and we spotted some black ibis and the ugly old man of this park, the thick-billed raven.
As the afternoon progressed, it was getting windy and quite chilly on the exposed ridges. Even the monkeys looked cold!
Then our camp for the night came into sight. Those green roofs in the distance. If only we had a suspension bridge. But no. Down and down, then up and up.
When we arrived at the camp there were many monkeys grazing on the grasses around the buildings. It really is amazing. They are totally comfortable so close to people but show no interest in engaging. No begging, no scavenging of human food.
There was still a couple of hours of daylight left and we just sat on the grass and watched them.
Top class accommodation again. Again the hut was cold and dark, and the loo was a hike in itself, but the views and the monkeys made it all worthwhile.
Day 4 – Chennek loop: After a late breakfast we set out for the last leg of our hike. The other two in our group were continuing on for another two days, to a base camp and then to ascend Ethiopia’s highest mountain, Ras Dashen. We walked together for the first hour and they then joined another group and headed off on that route, leaving just us with our original guide.
Our intended route was an ascent of Ethiopia’s second highest peak and return to Chennek for transport back to Gondar. Julie was feeling the altitude a bit too much and we realised we were never going to get to the top and back in time for our lift so the guide took us to a closer, lower peak which, ironically had one of the best views of the whole walk.
Then it was back to the Chennek camp where confusion set in regarding our return arrangements. Our guide vanished. Another guide took us with his group 30 minutes up the road to meet a vehicle which he said would take us all. The driver asserted he wasn’t our transport – but he’d take us if we paid an amount that was about equivalent to a third of the cost of the hike. We refused and he drove off, leaving us an hour’s drive from the park headquarters in the middle of nowhere. We had no idea where we were. There was no phone coverage, and the sun was rapidly dipping toward the mountains.
The driver relented and returned for us, then refused to stop the vehicle and let us off when our actual driver tried to flag him down to get us! Crazy stuff.
But eventually we got back to Gondar. A hot shower and a warm room hadn’t felt so good in a long time. But the monkeys and the amazing scenery were worth it. Absolutely no question.