Journey to the Roof of Africa
Exploring Ethiopia’s Simien Mountains, one of the most spectacular landscapes in the world.
When the boy arrives with our firewood and squats down on the dust-covered floor to escape the hailstorm raging outside, I can barely tear my eyes from him.
It’s not only that he’s five years old and all alone or that he’s wrapped Jedi-like in a threadbare grey blanket, or that he has materialized through the maelstrom accompanied by a retinue of six drenched cows. Neither is it the fact that, with the fire burning, he spends the next hour motionless, glowering, hunkered like a mute boulder with steam coiling off his sodden clothes. When he gets up to leave, he stops at the doorway to empty his Wellington boots of the pooled water he has been crouching in the whole time.
It is, quite simply, that he is the first thing I have seen all day that hasn’t seemed impossibly huge and unfamiliar. Outside are the Simien Mountains, where encountering anything small is a rarity.
Spending time here, I am already discovering, gives you a pretty good impression of how Jack must have felt on that first expedition up the Beanstalk.
Looming high among the volcanic outriders of the Great Rift Valley in northern Ethiopia, is nature with a serious case of gigantism: a basalt escarpment 40 kilometers long, staggered between altitudes of 11,000 and 15,000 feet, populated with super-sized plants and armies of monkeys 500-strong. In 1978, UNESCO dubbed it “one of the most spectacular landscapes in the world,” and consecrated the Simien Mountains National Park in its very first batch of World Heritage Sites, alongside Yellowstone and the Galapagos Islands.
Until recently, however, outsiders have not always been able to walk its high plateaus. From 1983 to 1999, while Mount Kilimanjaro — Simien’s rival for the “Roof of Africa” title — was elbowing its way onto the pages of every ‘Things To Do Before You Die’ tome in the bookstore, a tragic combination of famine and regional warfare was grinding the Simien’s tourism potential into dust.