Our next destination is the Simian mountains, highlands in the northwest of the country and the scene of iconic waterfalls cascading down sheer cliffs into the Sud swamps. We cross the plains and down into the Teseke Valley a large tributary to the Nile. Baobabs are all around as we drop beneath 1000 meters. As we wind up into the highlands the scenery is stunning, Mescal daisies are still in bloom providing splashes of yellow sweeping across the mountainous landscape. The roads wind through green forests and cascading waterfalls. The road is precipitous, and life feels cheap. Any miscalculation will spell death on the rocky slopes. Eagles keep pace with the car. Donkeys compete for space on the road. This is one of the greatest scenic roads we have ever been on. Truly spectacular .
Wildflowers are everywhere. Fields of barley have been skilfully terraced down steep mountainsides. We arrive at the park gate and enter into tricky negotiations. I have a rather loud and impassioned argument about not wanting a guide and eventually win. The rule is you must take a guide if you are on an organised tour but it is optional if you are self drive. We don't want to fill the cars with extra bodies any more. It is uncomfortable and makes the photography difficult.
The armed scout is compulsory and as far as we are concerned he is enough. Our drivers know where to go. They argue we should be contributing to the community by using the guide. I argue we have done nothing but contribute to the community since we set foot in Ethiopia! I may be losing it again, the opinion is mixed but it is with relief we find local gin for sale in the village. Purely medicinal you understand.
We eventually leave with the necessary permits. We enter the park just as the light is getting good. It is spectacular. Steep mountain escarpments with waterfalls, rolling hills, aloes and red hot pokers carpeting whole slopes. We have our first sight of the Gelada baboons. A big troop moving on their bottoms across a grassy slope picking grass and leaves as they go and chattering and squeaking. This magnificent creature roams in large groups across the Simian range. It is the only grass eating baboon and is only found in the Ethiopian highlands. The males have a large red patch on the chest, hence their other name the bleeding heart monkey. They are large with beautiful long grey hair and they are social and sociable.
They chatter and play and seem to be hypersexual, mating with anything which stays still long enough. Grooming is a busy pastime, they must be carrying many little friends in that luxurious fur. The youngsters frolic and play and the moms carry the babies, girls on the back and boys on the front to protect them from other jealous males. They are incredibly sure footed, running up and down the sheer cliffs when startled. They move around shuffling on their bottoms while foraging. The low sound of munching is a background to the squeaking and chattering and during our trip they are commonly found by the side of the road and in the fields. They run away from the Ethiopians but ignore the foreigners although they will usually turn their backs to the camera in distain.
As the sun sets the wind becomes icy and we move into cloudy and overcast weather as we climb higher. It is getting dark and camping is beginning to lose its appeal. We hire a bunkhouse belonging to a local family and all pile in including the drivers. The symphonic snoring is something to behold.
We wake early at 5 30 am to get some early landscapes and scramble up the hill behind the bunkhouse. The armed guard shadows us everywhere.
I am not sure why we need a guy with a gun in this reserve where the most ferocious animal we may encounter is a grass eating monkey but he takes his job seriously and is rather sweet. If we get out of the car, he does, if we walk he does and he carries his gun all the time at the ready even when eating or to the bathroom.
He speaks no English but he has taken to helping me to scramble up and down the hills with solemn concern. What he thinks of an overweight, unfit white woman running around his country is anyones guess but he displays the understated kindness I have come to recognise in many of our encounters with the Ethiopian people and every so often I surprise a small smile out of him. The day draws to a close. We sit with the baboons in the golden light of sunset. It is a magical place. Perhaps one of the most beautiful in a country that is generously gifted with beauty.
We head out to explore the mountains. It is even more impressive in the morning light. The wind is icy but it's bright and sunny. The mountains are really breathtaking. We spot a lammergeier. soaring. They are endemic here. We are roving the hills looking for the Walia Ibex. This is a sure footed mountain goat with magnificent curved horns.
He is also only found here in northern Ethiopia and is critically endangered, perhaps 500 left in the wild. Eventually our patience is rewarded and we spot a group on a nearby hillside. We climb to get closer but it is tough going. The guard sticks close to me in his self imposed guardian mode. The iconic image of this ibex is standing on a sheer ledge holding on nonchalantly with his toenails.