Wheezing Our Way Through the Simien Mountains
31.12.2013 - 03.01.2014 -5 °C
On our flight from Mekele to Addis Ababa, I was sorting out our backpack when I realized our camera was missing. After all of the other passengers had disembarked, the Ethiopian Airlines crew tried to help us to search for the lost camera. They alerted Mekele Airport in case we had left the camera at security. I felt sure we hadn’t seen the camera at the airport. I had an inkling that the camera had fallen on the floor of our car on the way to the airport and we accidentally left it in the vehicle when we rushed out to make our flight in a hurry.
It did not help matters that our camera’s SD card (which was not backed up since Lalibela) was probably our single most valuable possession, as it contained all of the photos from the amazing Danakil Depression trip that we had just finished. The only solace at this point was the thought that we didn’t use our camera for the same use as Ian Botham….I digress. We asked the crew to call our driver, Sisay, as his English had been limited (although admittedly far better than our Amharic). We waited anxiously as the stewardess relayed the conversation.
We could hardly believe the news: the driver had checked the vehicle and located our camera! Naturally, it wasn’t going to be easy to retrieve the camera. I’ll attempt to give you real time updates on its location for the duration of these blogs.
[Camera location: Mekele, about 479 miles from Addis]
We had nine hours on the short overnight layover back in Addis between flights. We were due to fly to the city of Gonder on the west side of Ethiopia in the morning and all of the flights from Mekele to Gonder had stopovers in Addis.
Our amazing travel agency, Ethio Travel and Tours, which had organized our Danakil Depression and Tigray trip had kindly offered to find – and bizarrely pay for – a basic hotel room in the Bole district of Addis Ababa, so that we could spend the night close to the airport. The agency even arranged for a driver to pick us up at the Addis airport. Being in close proximity to the airport was supposed to save valuable time we would have spent transiting to the Taitu Hotel, which was a 30 minutes drive in the center of the city.
There was only one flaw in the plan: our driver didn’t have a clue where this local hotel was located. It didn’t help his case that Addis does not have any road names and buildings are referred to with respect to other landmarks. In effect, the hotel had no address. The driver drove up and down the streets of what was clearly the red light district and stopped to ask for direction from every pimp, pusher, or prostitute who ambled along the roadside.
At one point, the driver stopped outside a dodgy-looking bar unannounced and we were suddenly introduced to a man who identified himself as the boss of the travel agency. Even in his drunken stupor, the boss had already been updated about the loss of our camera by the Mekele office and assured us we’d get it back. We eventually found the hotel (really a somewhat shifty motel) situated behind ominous-looking iron gates. Our “short” taxi ride had taken one hour and we crashed for a few hours of much needed sleep.
[Camera location: Gheralta, about 553 miles from Addis – our taxi driver with the camera had left the airport as he had to drive some tourists back up to Gheralta in the East Tigray region]
The cab ride back to the airport, which had taken one hour the previous night, took a whisker under eight minutes at 5:30am the following morning. We caught the short flight to Gonder and drove ten miles into town.
We met our group of 7 that was to join us on our most ambitious physical venture to date: a 4-day high altitude trekking adventure through northern Ethiopia’s Simien Mountains.
[Camera location: Mekele, about 553 miles from Addis –the camera had been given to some other tourists from China, who were flying from Mekele to Addis and were supposed to hand our camera to Ethio Travel in Addis, who would in turn pass it on to us]
The Simien Mountains are one of Africa’s principle mountain ranges and include a number of peaks in excess of 4,000 meters (over 13,000 ft) that offer challenging trekking and reward those brave enough to undertake them with breathtaking views – literally in my case. The altitude proved problematic for me (due to my asthma) right from the outset when the minibus dropped us three hours hiking away from our first camp at a rest camp called Sankaber.
On the way to Sankaber, we encountered a variety of unique and beautiful plants and flowers, as well as a massive field of hundreds Gelada Baboons (found only in Ethiopia) who were not in the least concerned about human presence and went about their business as usual, walking over our feet if they happened to be in their path.
By mid-day the scorching African sun burnt my pasty white English skin through factor 50 sun cream – applied liberally and frequently – while nightfall saw temperatures that plummeted below freezing. It was only the warmth of the camp fire and some ropey local gin that warmed the cockles on the first night at Sankaber. We attempted to stay up to welcome in the New Year but failed miserably as we sought refuge from the cold in our sleeping bags about 3 hours short of midnight.
We toasted the arrival of the New Year in New York at 8am with warm coffee over breakfast that was prepared by our resident Ethiopian cook, Negga. He looked after us throughout our trip, preparing meals, and setting up the camp every night. However, it didn’t seem right calling Negga by his real name, as he waited hand and foot on a group of white foreigners.
Somehow we all ended up avoiding calling him by his name and instead referred to him as “mate.”
Anyway, we needed to take on some serious fuel as the second day’s mountain trekking was as grueling as I had feared with the altitude zapping every last ounce of energy from my body that was still struggling to recover from a case of Ethiopian belly. It felt a damn sight more strenuous than my usual exercise of walking up two flights of stairs when our building’s elevator has broken down.
Along the way we passed the 500m high Jinbar waterfall and stopped for lunch on the banks of the Jinbar river.
We passed through Geech Village where some of the group sat down for coffee with a local family in their traditional tukul hut, which they shared with their animals. I was glad to arrive at the windswept summit of Geech Camp after 6-hours laboured walking up to the summit at 3,600 meters (11,810 feet).
Geech Camp was more stunning than Sankaber, with palm-tree-like Giant Lobelia plants all around (which only grow in East Africa and only at high altitudes above 3,300m).
We somehow survived the second night in sub-zero temperatures again by sleeping fully clothed in multiple layers in a decent sleeping bag covered in four thick blankets doubled over.
Despite another hearty breakfast prepared by our mate, we couldn’t face another all-day trek. My legs hardly worked in the altitude, and I struggled to breathe while standing let alone on the upcoming 9-hour day’s trek traversing two mountains via the summit at Imet Gogo (3,926m /12,880 feet) and ending at Chenek camp (3,600 meters / 11,810 feet).
We decided to break the bank and pay $5 for the 9-hour mule ride instead.
Two local mountain guys pulled their mules along the trail all day with us two happy campers riding the mules and enjoying the stunning views.
Imet Gogo was probably the single most spectacular spot in the whole of the Simiens, with breathtaking 360-degree panoramic views of cliffs, valleys and canyons unlike anything we’d seen before. We could see as far as the eye could stretch.
We were thankful that we had chosen the hardest day to hitch the mule ride. Even the mules struggled, especially up some of the steep gradients. My mule was slower under my weight, so I watched from behind as Marina’s mule struggled to ascend some of the particularly arduous climbs.
With every step the mule lunged forward up the mountain with all its might. As it did so, I heard a large gust of flatulence, which Marina had the audacity to blame on the unsuspecting mule!