The more mountains you climb, the more mountains you realize you want to climb. At the beginning, all I wanted to climb in Africa was Mt. Kilimanjaro, but having climbed Africa’s highest peak in 2011 I realized that there are many more exciting peaks scattered all over the fascinating continent. In 2015, I returned to climb Morocco’s Mt. Toubkal, which is the highest peak in all of North Africa at 4,167 meters above sea level. To start this year, I embarked on another adventure: Ras Dashen, Ethiopia’s highest peak and the tenth highest in all of Africa.
Of course, I didn’t book my flights for the mountain alone. The Simien Mountains, of which Ras Dashen (sometimes pronounced as Ras Dejen) is part, is a World Heritage Site that boasts of stunning canyons and fascinating wildlife, including the waila ibex and the gelada baboons. Gondar, the major town to get there, is home to another World Heritage Site, one that bears the legacy of emperors past. And of course, as the birthplace of coffee and home of unique cultures, Ethiopia’s charms would surely be enough to entice any traveler.
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As it turns out, I would not be disappointed. In Addis Adaba alone–just one flight from Manila thanks to Ethiopian Airlines’ service that only makes a technical stop in Hong Kong—the coffee culture shouldn’t be missed, and the high quality of the coffee is appreciable even to a non-connoisseur like me. Families prefer to buy live goats, sheep, and even cattle for beef, making meat particularly delicious. The distinctive features of Ethiopian culture also reveal itself in the Orthodox churches, the reverence for the late emperor Haile Selassie, and pride in a history that local tradition traces to the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon.
The anthropologist in me would appreciate not just the history but the equally-rich prehistory. To my great delight, I had the chance to behold Lucy, the skeleton believed to represent the hominin species Australopithecus afarensis. I now prefer to call her by her Amharic name: Dinkinesh, which means "you are marvelous.”
The long trek
“Here in Ethiopia you are eight years younger,” our guide Samuel told me and my three Filipino companions as we trekked in Mount Entoto in the outskirts of the capital (a warm up daytrip), referencing their use of the Julian calendar which reckons this year as 2012. With the adventures that beckon, I was feeling younger anyway!
After a few days in Addis Adaba, we took a one-hour fight to Gondar, where we would stage our five-day trek through the Simien Mountains. In the airport where staff offer free coffee to all arriving passengers, our trekking company picked us up and drove us to the Simien Mountains National Park to register and to secure our support team, which included a licensed guide and an armed scout to accompany us through the trek.
The gelada baboons were a sight to behold. We saw a whole troop even before the hike commenced, and I was thrilled that so far, the adventure was living up to its promise. The thrill continued with the sight that day of the dramatic canyons and peaks that earn for the Simien Mountains the distinction of being considered the “Roof of Africa.” It rained a bit that day but the land was dry when we arrived in our first campsite: Gich (3,600 meters). As a reward for arriving earlier than expected, we trekked to Kedadit Mountain (3,760 meters), and witnessed a spectacular sunset.
Our second day was far more intense than the first one. From Gich we ascended Imet Gogo (3,926m)–one of the best vantage points in the Simiens–and went up and down several times to reach Chenek campsite, in a 19-kilometer sojourn.
If the second day was challenging, the third was equally so, with an even higher point between two campsites: the 4,200-meter Bwahit Pass. Fortunately, we caught sight of the famed waila ibex near the Pass! From the Pass, it was still an arduous descent to the bustling village of Chiro Leba and finally to Ambiko, our third and final campsite. Unlike the two previous campsites, Ambiko was actually a living community and interacting with the locals made our camp even more special.
Finally, we came to the highlight of the whole journey: the ascent to Ras Dashen on the fourth and longest day. We started before 4 am, but it still took us until noon to reach the summit, in what would turn out to be a 24-kilometer day that took us through a long and meandering trail and a final scramble up the rocky peak. Thankfully, we had fantastic weather throughout the day, a rarity according to our guide. With pride, relief, and joy, we unfurled the Philippine flag in what the park officials say might be a first for Ras Dashen.
Having already spent our energy in the ascent, the descent back to Ambiko felt even longer. Fortunately, we managed to get back in one piece, and to our relief, we learned that we didn’t have to go all the way back to Chenek; instead, after trekking back to Chiro Leba on our fifth and final day in the Simiens, the vehicle–the same Land Cruiser that brought us five days ago–picked us up and brought us back to Gondar. All told, we had walked over 80 kilometers in high altitude!
In Gondar, a former imperial capital, we explored castles of bygone emperors, sampled more of the local food (the dish called ‘lamb tibs’ is not to be missed), drank more coffee–and even wine which to my surprise is produced in the region to surprisingly-ebullient results.
Soon, our time in Ethiopia was up. I would go back to the Philippines feeling reinvigorated, and no less excited to dream of another African adventure.