Getting up close with gelada monkeys in the Simien Mountains

When I first read about the Simien Mountains a year or so ago in National Geographic, I assumed the name derived from the Latin word simian, meaning ape. In fact, according to my tour guide, the mountains are thus named after the word for north in Amharic, because they are found in the north of the country in the Amhara region. Still, I like to think that there’s something cheekily apelike in the name, and it certainly lives up to it.

The Simien Mountain range contains Ras Dejen (or Dashen), the highest peak in Ethiopia at 4,533m. Clive W. Nicol, a British-born Japanese writer, penned a well-known book about his two years spent as a game warden in the Simiens, From the Roof of Africa, in 1971. Unfortunately I haven’t read it, but this seems to be the book that put the Simien Mountains on the map – and followed its designation as a National Park worthy of protection, which Nicol brought about in 1969.

Getting to Debark – the closest jumping-off point to the Simiens – from Axum requires taking public minibuses with several changes, or like me you could negotiate a private car for about 700 birr (about 23 euros) to bring you for the full six-hour journey.

For accommodation, I stayed at the Simien Lodge Hotel for 300 birr (about 10 euros) per night, which was a good deal, especially as the café on site has half-decent wifi and very nice macchiatos (more on that later). You’ll be sharing toilets (basic) and showers (cold) but there’s a nice buzzy hostel-y vibe –if you like that kind of thing, it’s a good basecamp for meeting other groups of backpackers seeking to go to the Simiens.

On the way back to Debark after my tour, however, I was feeling awful as a result of altitude sickness, so I opted to stay at the Atse Tewodros Hotel and Lodge, the address of which is given only as “around Debark University”. (It’s quite common in Ethiopia that taxi/tuk-tuk drivers to get around without using maps, so don’t attempt to give precise addresses – a name or area is much more useful.) This place was extremely pleasant, with everyone housed in round, hut-like rooms with comfy beds, and only 400 birr (about 12 euros) per night, including a good breakfast of eggs and juice. It’s in its own “compound” slightly away from the main road, and is a nice quiet haven for this reason. The host is also really helpful, organising local taxis and onward transport for me when I asked.

The journey from Axum was long and winding, characterised by nauseating climbs and drops in elevation and watched over by the dry, dusty, yellow mountainous landscape I’d grown accustomed to by that point. Little children asked us for pens and money – but mostly pens – at every checkpoint (ropes are strung across village roads so that authorities can check vehicles for people transporting items they shouldn’t be across regional borders, for example powdered milk). Some stared and laughed; shy girls sidled up to me to waggle their fingers at me and get a closer look. Everywhere one looks it is dry, dry, dry. It only rains for three months of the year here, from about the end of June to September. I’d love to see it in its post-watering green bloom.

However, about one hour from Debark, as your (hopefully 4×4) vehicle weaves its way up the gravelly mountain track that the smooth road gives way to at this stage, the surroundings suddenly begin to change. The intense heat gives way to lush greenery and cool air; flying insects and animal sounds are suddenly in the air. We even spotted some small monkeys sitting at the edge of the road. It feels almost rainforest-like; I anticipated exciting things to come.

At the Simien Lodge Hotel the next morning, we were informed by a British primatologist working for the African Wildlife Foundation that Sir David Attenborough himself had sat at the café drinking the Lodge’s famous macchiato, which we promptly ordered along with scrambled eggs and delicious fresh mango juice. (The macchiato was, indeed, excellent – as I found with every macchiato I had in Ethiopia after that.) At the risk of giving too much credit to Ethiopia’s failed colonisers, there seems to be a legacy of Italian cuisine which fuses with the traditional Ethiopian dishes – a cuisine I first came to love while living in London – to make for fantastic menus in even simple restaurants. One can almost always choose from delicious injera-based dishes, such as shiro or misir wot, or spaghetti, lasagne, and pizzas. For this reason it’s also a fantastic destination for vegetarians.

Spectacular views of the Simien Mountains during our hike

After that it was time to find a tour operator, and my little group managed to hook up with a cool middle-aged German couple who were there on their honeymoon after marrying 11 years into their relationship. Tours are very expensive and charged in US dollars – without fighting for a lower price, one could easily end up paying 300 USD for a three-day tour.

Thankfully, some skilled haggling – not by me, I hasten to add – led to a price of just $100 each, including a local guide, cook, scout (for protection), and National Park entry fees. Our driver brought us one and a half hours into the Park along an incredibly bumpy, uncomfortable road. Along the way we were lucky to pass by a troupe of the very creatures I’d been so excited to see since reading about them the first time: gelada monkeys!

I shouldn’t really call them “gelada monkeys”, since gelada simply means baboon. We didn’t get to spend much time with them at this stage, but we later found some more after we had begun our slow hike to the first campsite. Cautiously inching towards them as they grazed on a farmer’s grassland, we quickly realised they don’t care one iota about human beings, barely giving you a passing glance as you get within metres of them.

Gelada monkeys – sometimes called gelada baboons, or just gelada – are an extant species of so-called “Old World monkey” of the graminivorous (grass-eating) variety, the only grass-eating primates left today. I am especially fond of their vegetarianism and their silky, elegant arms, which look like they are encased in long black gloves. Bathed in the golden light of late afternoon, the flowing manes of the males rippled, auburn, and the entire troupe was engaged very attentively in plucking shoots, roots, and possibly small insects in the hay-like grass. There must have been several hundred of them.

The troupe of gelada didn’t pay much attention to our group, but went on picking at their favourite food: grass.

Did you know there is no difference between an ape and a monkey? Most people think that “ape” is somehow more noble, perhaps because it is sometimes preceded by the word “great” when we refer to gorillas, chimpanzees, orangutans, bonobos.

I know this because I have just finished reading Hackenfeller’s Ape (1953) by Brigid Brophy, a fantastic short satire which must surely be one of the earliest works considering the idea of animal rights and vegetarianism. Seeing the gelada up close, with the recent memory of Lucy fresh in my mind, I’m again struck by just how human apes are. Even on four legs, their strut is that of a cocky teenager. Did we really send them into space?

The gelada are an annoyance to local farmers, of whom there are many even in the National Park (80% of Ethiopia’s economy is based on agriculture), and whose crops they come to make an easy meal of. Yet for us, the 40 or so minutes we spent with the gelada, listening to their soft cries and the small throaty noises they made as they strode around, were nothing short of delightful. They really are fabulous.

The rest of the eight or nine-kilometre hike to the Sankaber campsite is gentle, and the only difficulty is the altitude – which reaches 3,250m by the time you get to the camp. Once there, having watched the sunset, we enjoyed tea and a delicious plant-based dinner of vegetable soup and pasta with spinach, carrots, and potatoes. We eventually sat by a large campfire sipping more sweet tea, and were in bed by 21:00, watched over by our guard – Ethiopian wolves live in these mountains.

Our campsite for the night, all set up!

Debark and the Simiens, compared to Addis, Me’kele, and the other places I’d visited thus far, were extremely cold after dark. You’ll need thermals, fleeces, hats, scarves to arm yourself against temperatures that get close to zero – I piled on every item of clothing I had with me and still suffered a sleepless night.

The moon shone tirelessly. I awoke feeling incredibly groggy and sick. I couldn’t get a thing into my nauseated stomach but chamomile tea, but wanted to get going, so we slowly hiked onwards from the camp to eventually reach the Ginbar Waterfall, which at 530m high is incredibly impressive – even if the water was more trickle than fall at this time of year.

The Ginbar Waterfall, which is much fuller during the rainy season.

There, we were treated to the presence of yet another troupe of gelada that came so close we could almost touch them. Although I felt horrible – a delayed reaction to the altitude, I’d decided, as the symptoms were remarkably similar to what I’d experienced at Laguna 69 in Peru in 2015 – it was a fantastic end to the two-day trip.   

Zero f*cks given

And I never perfected that simian stroll … Elbow’s beautiful elegy to adolescent loitering, “Lippy Kids”.  

Ethiopia – suggested reading / watching

Bradt travel guide: Ethiopia Highlights by Philip Briggs (2012 edition)

The Roof of Africa by C. W. Nicol (1972)

The Emperor by Ryszard Kapuściński (1978)

Hackenfeller’s Ape by Brigid Brophy (1953)

BBC clip about gelada: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/profiles/4N9V1pmQlFSY01VFZ620sZ1/gelada

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