Rick Layne & Mary Thomas’ Ethiopian Diaries
SIMIEN MOUNTAINS NATIONAL PARK
Saturday 06/Sunday 07 — Simien Mountains National Park — Back in our dependable Toyota van we head approx. 3 hours north to the Simien Mountains, and it is an easy drive on a paved road through farm country, where we can see the locals threshing the wheat they harvested last month in methods which haven’t changed for millennia: two or more animals (oxen or horses) led in a tight circle to crush the wheat while farmers pitchfork the trampled wheat into the air to separate the kernels from the chaff. As it is Saturday, it is market day and we have noticed for miles a continuous river of pedestrians coming into Debark on their way to market. There are hundreds of people on the road in groups ranging from 2 to 10, with or without animals, carrying goods on their backs or heads. Ethiopia is nation on foot.
The main thoroughfare in Debark is closed due to market day and our guide sends the van on a detour as we take a shortcut on foot through the market. Like the market in Woreta, Debark is swarming with people in the same purposeful chaos of buying, selling, meeting, greeting. The same sense of being transported back to another era also applies. We re-connect with our driver and point the van for the Simien Mountains. As we leave Debark and the market behind, and also leave behind any semblance of a paved road surface, and we are back on testing the resilience of our kidneys all the way into the park and up to our hotel (the Simien Mountain Lodge – the only hotel currently in the park) where we will stay for the next two nights. It is rustic, but very serviceable with heated round, stone cabins.
We spend the remainder of Saturday and all day Sunday exploring the park on foot (mostly) and by van, admiring the spectacular scenery and looking for two endemic mammal species: the Gelada monkey and the Walia Ibex. The scenery is dramatic, maybe the most dramatic in Africa: great volcanic plugs, 40 million years old, and eroded over time to form crags, pinnacles, and flat topped mountains looming over the fertile valleys below. Some of the scenery is reminiscent of the Grand Canyon, but not as colorful. There is one horrible dirt road which traverses the park and criss-crossed by numerous walking trails created by the indigenous people. It is on one of these footpaths we head off on Saturday to soak up the scenery and search for the Gelada. The Lodge is situated at 3,650 meters elevation and over the next 36 hours our five person team will trek between that altitude and 4000 meters, so our surroundings are breathtaking literally as well as figuratively. After about 2.5 hours of walking we’ve seen nary a Gelada as we rendezvous with the van along the road to plot our next move.
We hear a group of Geladas have been seen down the road and hop in the van and drive maybe a km to see if this is so, and there they are: a group of 100 plus Geladas on a field next to the road. We leave our support team behind and walk towards the group. (The monkeys, which look like baboons but are technically classified as monkeys, are wary of the black-skinned locals, because of mistreatment by the local farmers.) These are largish monkeys with the mature males having long fur and tails that resemble those of lions, and all have colorful red and blue chests. The group which consists of members as young as a week old to large alpha males with all sorts in between, is moving across the ground looking for grass to eat. While they are aware of our presence, they are not disturbed and we stand in their midst while they eat, the youngsters cavort and mothers suckle the very young or carry them on their backs. I end up sitting down on the ground to get better photos while this mass of simian wildlife passes by. At one point, I look around to find a large male sitting behind me a foot away. We stay with the group for perhaps 45 minutes until they move across a small ravine and into the adjoining woods, whereupon we head back and rejoin the others at the van.
Our reconstituted group of five continue our trek in the opposite direction, up a hill and away from the road. After a half an hour of walking we come across another large group of Geladas coming down the hill towards us. We stand and admire them as they pass until we hear some screaming from in front of us on top of the hill. The Geladas scream back and then execute a u-turn and head back in the direction from which they came, putting all on the same path. So for the next 40 minutes all of us, humans and Geladas, amble up the hill together as one tribe. On the top of the hill is a large, grassy plain, populated by an even larger band of Geladas. Also on the hilltop is our van and a professional film crew photographing the Geladas. Again we stand and sit, co-mingling with this large tribe of hundreds of monkeys, getting stunning pictures, until they leave down the escarpment towards their night quarters. Unbelievable experience.