10 – Head in the Clouds

10 – Head in the Clouds

After exploring Aksum and learning of its legends, we continued our loop around Ethiopia westwards. Our next stop was another UNESCO World Heritage site; the Simien Mountains. This mountain massif reaches as high as four thousand five hundred and forty-three metres. Understandably, it’s often referred to as “the roof of Ethiopia”.

The entrance to the Simien Mountains National Park is situated in a small town called Debark. The road to get there from Aksum is long. The only direct bus leaves Shire at six in the morning (a town forty-two miles to the west of Aksum). We therefore mentally prepared ourselves to travel by bus for two days.

That evening a tourist guide happened to stop by our hotel. Funny how that happens, isn’t it?! He offered to take us to Shire by car at four in the morning so that we could make the journey to Debark in one day. He even said he could book us bus tickets, despite the fact it is normally impossible to purchase them in advance. His services meant the journey would be a little more expensive (eight pounds extra for the two of us), but we gladly accepted his offer.

All went to plan, and at twenty to six in the morning we were on the bus in Shire, tickets in hand. The driver had managed to get us into the bus station before it was open to the public. We soon realised how grateful we were to have spent the extra eight pounds! The gates to the bus station opened and a herd of people came charging towards us. It was a chaotic free-for-all. The lucky ones ended up with a seat (or half a seat) on the bus, the not so lucky ones ended up on a wooden stool in the aisle and the rest – well, I guess they had to try again the next day! Good job we did not have to fight for a seat, or we would probably still be in Shire, squished to the ground by the crowd.

Our bus at the first of many army checkpoints

Sitting comfortably in our seats, we thought we had managed to avoid the worst of the journey. Haha, how we were wrong! As the road climbed into the mountains, the tarmac gave way to a rugged dirt track. The bus used all its force to stagger up the narrow hairpin bends, jerking up and down and tipping from side to side as it went. Either side of us was a steep drop – we could not even see the road when we peered down from the window. It made our tummies turn. To make matters worse, a storm broke out. Waterfalls gushed down the cliff side and onto the road. The view was superb, but you are going to have to take our word for it because we did not dare let go of our chairs to take photos. It felt like at any moment the bus would completely tip over and go rolling down the mountain. The gentleman behind us began to pray out loud. Reassuring. Questions spun round our heads: if the bus topples over, is it better to be on the left side or the right? Is it better to assume a brace position or hang onto the bars in the aisle? Is it better to tense our muscles or relax? Will the trees below slow down the fall? What will be the headline in the news? Thankfully we did not need the answers to our questions. The rickety bus managed to haul itself to the top of the mountain. Debark, finally!

The inside of the bus half empty when we broke down en route. See the football stickers?

We found a great hotel where we could recover from the bus journey. It was the most expensive hotel we had stayed in yet (around twenty-eight pounds per night), but honestly, we needed it! Once our energy had been restored, we organised our trek in the Simien Mountains.

We chose the cheapest option:  a scout to protect us (obligatory), plus the entrance fee and a camping permit for two days. The prices were reasonable for all that (1200 birrs, i.e. thirty-three pounds). But, (because there is always a but for tourists), this was not including the transport. The entrance gate to the National Park is fourteen miles from Debark, and there is only one road to get there. If we wanted to have time to get off the beaten track and avoid walking the same long road twice, it was best to organise transport there and back. The park authorities know this and take full advantage. They have organised a sort of “taxi mafia” who make faranji (foreigners) pay exorbitant prices. We did our homework, scoured the market, asked around and came to a solution. We would take a bajaj to the park gate (which technically is forbidden, but hey, the park authorities did not need to know) and a mafia car on the way back.

The morning of departure, we met with our scout in front of our hotel. He was called Fenta. Fenta brought with him minimal equipment: his gun (come armrest), a multicoloured umbrella (come tent) and a blanket (in his drawstring bag). He wore Chinese jelly shoes, like ninety percent of Ethiopians. We looked a bit over-the-top next to him with our big rucksacks and hardcore walking boots. We were a little nervous about how he would react to the bajaj. Thankfully he was relieved to see the bajaj as he knew it would save his feet walking an extra fourteen miles uphill. Fenta turned a blind eye and off we went. The army officer at the gate, however, had a very stern look when he saw us arriving in the bajaj. We smiled, played the ignorant tourist card, and in we went without any issues. Yay!

It took us just under five hours to hike to our campsite in Sankaber (including breaks). The path was often steep. The lack of oxygen in the air did not help (we were at three thousand two hundred metres altitude). We hung on in there and kept up with Fenta.

The Climb to Sankaber
What the climb felt like

The weather kept changing from super sunny to grey and rainy as we went through the clouds gathering at the top of the mountains. Fenta guided us to several view-points along the way but sometimes all we could see was a thick wall of cloud! Occasionally the sky would clear, giving us spectacular views over the mountains.

Fenta guiding us

We saw many beautiful birds and flowers (including lots of adey abeba). The park is also home to long-haired Gelada Baboons, though we only saw them from afar.

We arrived at our campsite at around two in the afternoon. We had plenty of time to relax, pitch the tent and cook a yummy meal. On the menu: rice, tuna and veggies (that we had chopped at the hotel and stored in water). Arnaud also had a tea using a plant which supposedly makes you happy (it looks like Thyme?!)

Fenta slept outside. We tried to convince him to take cover in the scout hut, but he assured us he had to stay and protect us from tigers (!?) – his dangerous animal vocabulary in English was clearly limited! The night was super windy with torrential rain – it seemed crazy to us that he stayed outside. We asked ourselves how the scouts manage when they are on duty for several nights in a row!


The weather was the same the next day. In the morning we hiked along a cliff-top in the clouds to a beautiful waterfall nearby. Well, Fenta told us there was beautiful waterfall there. All we saw was fog!

Thanks to our stove, we enjoyed hot chocolates, coffees and a hot lunch whilst we waited for the cloud to budge. Sadly, it never did.

An hour and a half later it rained on us and we gave up our attempts to see the waterfall. We then rang the car mafia and asked them to come pick us up from the bottom of the mountain.

We waited for our car with these boys. They were selling hats

We both really enjoyed our two days in the stunning Simien Mountains.

The road back to Debark

5 Replies to “10 – Head in the Clouds”

  1. Well! Breathtaking adventure on so many levels. What kind of tea are you on Heather? If I didn’t know better I would say that looks like Heather binking!
    Colours and scenery are absolutely stunning. Thank you for sharing words and pictures with us. What a journey you are experiencing. God Bless as you continue your travels. So much love xxx

  2. Absolutely stunning scenery – amazing! We have been waiting for this update with great expectations and it has not disappointed!
    Take care. Lots of love.

  3. Loving the adventure. My favourite was the inside of the bus knowing that you made it up those mountains. Also the pic of you leaping in front of your tent entrance, glad the tigers left you in peace. Can’t wait to read where to next…much ♥️ Lxx

  4. Great spending time catching up on your last week of adventures … you two certainly are seeing some wonderful sights that very few of us are only likely to take in because of your sharing (coupled with an inherent fear of bus trips up windy mountain passes) – so thank you! Keep the posts coming!

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