Inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979, the awesome Simien Massif, situated about 100km north of Gondar, comprises a high plateau of ancient volcanic rock incised with tall, precipitous cliffs and chasmic river valleys. The range includes at least a dozen peaks that top the 4,000m mark, among them the highest mountain in Ethiopia and fifth-highest in Africa, the 4,533m Ras Dejen (also known as Ras Dashen, and often given incorrectly as 4,620m high). In 1966, the most westerly part of the range was set aside as the 136km2 Simien Mountains National Park (SMNP), which has since been expanded eastward to incorporate Ras Dejen and several other comparably high peaks, to cover a total area of 412km2.
Boasting an altitudinal span of around 2,600m, SMNP incorporates many different habitats, including large tracts of Afromontane forest, a medium-altitude ericaceous belt dominated by heather tussocks, and an Afroalpine habitat of guassa grassland punctuated by giant lobelia shrubs above the 3,500m contour. The park’s main attraction is the scenery, which is utterly breathtaking, but it is also an important sanctuary for endemic wildlife, being the only remaining stronghold for the endemic Walia ibex and one of the few protected habitats of the Ethiopian wolf and gelada monkey.
SMNP is Ethiopia’s most popular trekking and hiking destination, best explored over a 3 to 10-day hike or mule trek possibly incorporating an ascent of Ras Dejen and other peaks. However, the recent construction of a good all-weather road running deep into SMNP, as well as the opening of Simien Lodge close to the main entrance gate, has opened it up to overnight visits, and to less strenuous day walks and drives. The name Simien alludes to a near-eponymous Beta Israel kingdom that was centred on the mountains from its medieval heyday until its conquest by Emperor Susenyos in the early 17th century.
Geology: The Simien Mountains were formed about 75 million years ago when an immense dome of basaltic rock was forcibly uplifted by volcanic activity to create a sheer escarpment that towered more than 1,000m above the plains to its north and east. Since then, the original basaltic rock has been incised by massive river canyons and parts have been weathered away by ice and water to form the immense pinnacles and buttresses.
Wild Life: Three large mammals endemic to Ethiopia are resident in the Simiens. Most common is the gelada monkey, with an estimated population of at least 4,000–5,000, often seen in the vicinity of Sankaber in grazing herds of several hundred. By contrast, the Ethiopian wolf is now very rare, with an estimated population of around 50–60 individuals concentrated mostly on the upper slopes of tall peaks such as Ras Dejen, Bwahit and Kidus Yared.
The Walia ibex, whose range is now restricted to the Simiens, was poached close to extinction in the late 1960s, when just 150 animals survived. The population had increased to 400 by 1989, but it declined to 250 in the early 1990s following the collapse of the Derg. Recent counts suggest the ibex population now stands at 1,200 individuals, the highest it has been in at least 50 years. Hikers quite often see ibex from the trail running along the ridge between Gich and Chennek via Imet Gogo.
Of the non-endemic mammals, klipspringer and bushbuck are present, but seldom seen. Nor are you likely to see spotted hyena, even though their droppings are often scattered around the camps. More visible is the common jackal, which also haunts the camps.
The number of birds recorded in the Simiens is not high – 180 species to date, many restricted to the lower slopes – but it does include five Ethiopian endemics and another dozen only otherwise found in Eritrea. The mountains are noted for cliff-nesting birds of prey, in particular the large and powerful lammergeier, which can often be seen soaring above the escarpments on the north side of the national park, and at Sankaber and Gich camps.
Indeed, SMNP deserves a place among your traveling wish list.
Article By: Kaleab Ayenew