The Simien Mountains National Park – life on the edge

While the snows of Kilimanjaro may be the true ‘roof of Africa’, the Simien Mountains may be a worthy challenger.

Simien Mountains WaterfallA land of staggering beauty, deep valleys and sudden precipices, the Simiens are home to some of the most incredible views and species on this continent. It is a special place. You need to experience it to understand it.

Located just north of Ethiopia’s Great Rift Valley, the Simien Mountains have been shaped over millions of years into one of the world’s most spectacular and dramatic landscapes. Sharp pinnacles, towering waterfalls and frightening sheer cliffs. But the mesmerising landscapes and stunning views were not the only reason for our visit… we had come in search of the wildlife that roams the Ethiopian plateau.

The park is located directly within one of Africa’s biodiversity hotspots and as a result there is an incredible diversity of both vegetation and wildlife. As we climbed into thin air (most of the park lies at an altitude of 3000-4500m) we passed through afro-alpine forests and montane savannahs hoping to catch a glimpse of the mysterious walia ibex (an endangered wild mountain goat) and the elusive Ethiopian wolf.

Instead we spent several days tripping over gelada baboons! While far from endangered, with an estimated population of over 200 000 individuals, the bleeding heart baboon is the king of the Ethiopian highlands. And they soon became a favourite presence as we struggled up the steep escarpments. Initially the massive canines, ferocious expressions and their stocky size put us off from getting a closer look but we soon discovered that this stunning old world monkey was not even remotely interested in us.

After no more than a casual glance, they quickly ignored our presence and re-focused their attention at the grass at their feet. Geladas are the only primate in the world that survives solely on eating grass! Often we simply sat near them and watched them shuffle along picking at the odd root of grass. It was mesmerising!

We spent several days in the gelada’s company. They are incredible animals, from the stunning red patches on their chests, to their gigantic canines (which they are eager to display during a good yawn) and their unique mewing sounds. However, the display we enjoyed most came every night at sunset. As the sun threatened to dip below the escarpment hundreds upon hundreds of geladas came storming to the cliff faces. We watched in utter fascination. As they neared the abrupt cliff face, dropping a mind-boggling 1.5km, there was no check in their speed and they launched themselves off the cliff. Seconds later they were no more than furry brown balls of monkey flailing head over toe down the sheer face only to arrest themselves at the last possible moment by grabbing a random tuft of grass. It was astonishing, not a single one misjudged it and gradually they all retreated to the safety of a cave within the cliff face. This is where they sleep, safe from the company of leopards.

Despite the continuous entertainment of the friendly geladas, we yearned for an encounter with a wolf. The Ethiopian wolf is the world’s rarest canid and Africa’s most endangered carnivore. The chances of seeing one in the Simien Mountains were thus incredibly small. Endemic to the highlands of Ethiopia the wolf has a global population of probably less than 500 individuals and less than 100 in the Simien Mountains. We had no illusions that we would actually encounter one. But you just never know!

On our final night in the Simien Mountains we camped at the Chennek campsite. A guide mentioned he had seen an Ethiopian wolf hang around there in years gone by, but not recently. Despite the chances of spotting one being slim, we were determined to give it our best shot. We headed into a beautiful patch of afroalpine forest and sat down to wait. After two hours of imagining wolves in every gust of the wind and flutter of the grass… nothing! Shadows continued to lengthen, the grasslands turned a stunning golden colour, and just as the moon rose over the mountains, there it was: a wolf. Partially hidden through a maze of plants, looking directly back at us. It was a magical moment to look into the eyes of such a mysterious creature. It hung around for a minute or two. Then it was gone.