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The beautiful Simien Mountains

Our flight and arrival in Addis went without a hitch and the visa process was pretty straightforward also.  We chose to stay the night at Lobelia Hotel as it was close to the airport and we’d have to leave at an ungodly hour to catch our domestic flight in the morning to Gonder – where we would begin our Historical Northern Tour of Ethiopia.

After checking in and getting some soup for our tummies, I was ready for an early night when I noticed that the hotel had a sauna and a steam room! I later discovered that this is a trend in moderate to nicer hotels in Ethiopia – and it was one I took advantage of at any given opportunity.  This was my first and it helped with my cough immensely.  In the end, I had that cough for about six weeks on and off…it has finally cleared up, as of about a week ago.  I can’t tell you how relieved I am not to have to take antibiotics and be able to sleep through the night without waking Mike up with a coughing fit.

The next morning began rather badly.  As we arrived at the domestic terminal, Mike put his iPhone in another person’s “security box” as his had already gone through and he’d just that moment realized it was still in his pocket as he needed to pass through the body scanner.  Once through, he waited for it to “reappear” on the other side.

It never did.

I was, meanwhile, trying to check both our bags onto the flight and save time.  When Mike wasn’t showing up I went back to find him distressed and searching for his phone.  I cursed myself for not having been there at that moment, as doubtless someone had grabbed it and it might have been possible to spot them if it was done soon enough.  Security was useless, assuring us that they would check the CCTV cameras etc.  I kept asking “how on earth is that going to help?  You won’t know the identity of the person who you see took the phone!”  Besides, I’m pretty sure that it was a member of the x-ray machine team that took it.  We put a message on his phone to indicate it was lost and to contact my number, but unfortunately, Mike hadn’t connected it to the wifi of the domestic terminal yet – so whomever had taken it, wouldn’t see the message.  Moreover, a stolen iPhone might as well be a stolen brick – without the password, there’s no way to get into it.

What a waste.  It was Mike’s baby too – so I felt super bad for him.

Shopping in Gonder

Our flight was only about 45 minutes and we landed in Gonder, taking a hotel shuttle to the AG – chosen because it had my initials!  Mike then discovered that his camera viewing screen was broken and his day had just gotten worse, poor guy.  The hotel was actually quite nice and we soon passed out since we’d barely slept the night before.

Gonder and the day and a half we spent there turned out to be rather arduous.  Other than being the former capital of the country and full of amazing history such as the palace of Emperor Fasilades who founded the city in 1636 – it is already at an elevation of 2133 m and being quite hilly, was a physical test just to walk around and get errands ran before starting our 4 day trek to the Simien mountains.

We had to find a tour company that we could trust and was leaving in the next day or two (NOT an easy task), buy warm jackets as the temperatures at night would be below freezing, find warm hats/gloves, buy some Acetazolamide (altitude medication), buy hiking boots, buy more malaria pills for me as I was almost out, get SIM cards for our phones, and other odds and ends.  It ended up taking us almost all of our free time to accomplish these tasks, and at almost one hour prior to closing – we finally got in a cab to go visit the Royal Palace – feeling it would be too awful to not visit this UNESCO world heritage site before leaving in the am for Debark.

The Royal Palace was quite impressive, especially the castle that was actually intact.  Since we were so late, we failed to find a guide, and had to satisfy our historical curiosities by reading about each building on Lonely Planet – promising ourselves we would do more earnest research later.  Getting back to our room, we had to pack our overnight bags and combine what we were leaving into my suitcase and try to get an early night.

Fasilada’s Palace, Gonder

The next morning, we were picked up nice and early and informed that we would be getting a private tour as the Korean couple they had paired us with had never actually trekked before and our tour operator was concerned that we would leave them in the dust.  Poor Mike just looked at me and I told him that I was sorry he’d had no one else to talk to for the next 3 nights.

On arrival at park headquarters, however, we came across a lovely Polish girl, Kamila, who was looking to hire a scout and share transportation with someone to the trailhead and back from Chennek.  I told her that I’d be happy to let her share our scout and transport – but she’d have to arrange it with Tedele – our “charming” tour operator.  In the end, she paid him $50 for transport and the use of our scout – and as it turned out, she ended up having the exact same trip that we did, except for the fact that she’d brought her own tent.  We didn’t mind, per se, but she sure lucked out with getting fed at every meal – our cooks even baked her a cake on the last day of the hike for her birthday!  I was glad that Mike would have someone new to talk to – and goodness, did they ever hit it off!  They talked a lot on the trail, which was fine with me, because as many of you know, hiking in the mountains is about the only time that I’m relatively quiet – it’s my form of church.

Our first sighting of a group of Gelada monkeys – walking from Buyit Ras to Sankaber

That day the hike was short and relatively easy, though the temperatures were much higher than I had expected.  Since they were only going to feed us plain bread and bananas for lunch, I asked to stop at the Simien Lodge where I managed to finagle some ham and cheese for our rolls – which made them greatly improved.

That evening, we set up tents and got on a few layers before heading out to a viewing point to watch the sunset.  Everything about camp reminded me of Kilimanjaro – especially the little bowl of hot water they’d put out to do washing before dinner.  Already, many of the hikers at camp were feeling sick and had symptoms of AMS.  Thankfully I felt ok – at least, I did at that moment.

Dinner was very abundant, and just like on Kili, they had already fed us with popcorn and cookies so I wasn’t exactly hungry, but that didn’t stop me from pigging out.  It was lovely and warm in the cook tent, especially when they lit a nice wooden fire which we sat around with tea after dinner.

Start of Day 2 – heading to Geech

I was feeling a bit too full but fine right after dinner and was soon snugly wrapped up in my sleeping bag within a sleeping bag.  I found that I just couldn’t get comfortable and my stomach was rumbling a bit, but I put it down to having overeaten.  Around 11:30 at night, I suddenly felt bile rise in my mouth and I knew I had seconds before I was going to barf over everything in the tent, including Mike.  In those few seconds, I managed to locate my headlamp, unzip my sleeping bags, unzip the tent and stick my head out far enough that when the contents of my stomach emptied out, it was just inches from the tarp under our tent.  Feeling somewhat relieved, I crawled back inside, thinking that I would immediately feel better and be able to fall asleep.

Not so.

I started feeling nauseous and the pain in my stomach was only getting worse.  The hours crawled by slowly and I was soon writhing in agony.  Soon enough, I realized I needed the bathroom and I struggled to walk down to the outhouse because I was also starting to feel feverish and weak.  I won’t go into too much detail about what happened next – but my travel partner Mike the next day best described it as my body mandating a total body evacuation.  I sipped some water on return to my tent, believing that by now, at 3am, the worst had to be over.

I was wrong.  The next thing that happened was one of the most embarrassing and dehumanizing moments of my life.  I shat my pants, and I realized that I was too sick to be able to walk back to the outhouse without help.  I lay there crying and woke up Mike telling him what had happened through gulped tears.  God bless him, he got up and helped me walk back down the hill to the nasty nasty hole in the ground that was the outhouse.

I’m not sure how I still had that much still left inside me, and furthermore I don’t know from where I found the strength to also change my clothes while having to balance on alternating feet in my shoes.  But Mike stayed the whole time and got me some mango juice to sip on once we were back in the tent.

It was 5am and feeling horrifically weak and sorry for myself, I managed to fall asleep.

After only a few hours’ of rest, it was time for us to awaken and head out for our 5-6 hour hike to the next camp.  I didn’t think I’d be able to make it – I felt so lousy.  Problem was, Mike was insisting on accompanying me if I decided to head back to Debark and wait my illness out.   I kept telling him that I wanted him to go on and enjoy the trip without me.  He refused.

Riding the horse after being sick all night

So, – I made a decision to try and walk for the first 90 minutes at which point our guide, Gashaw, informed me that we would be crossing the main road, and if I was still too sick to continue, I would be able to arrange transport from there.

And so, in pain, nauseated and very weak – I started to put one foot in front of the other.  It was pretty bad and required all my concentration.  After the first hour, the pain eased a little bit, and in another 30 mins I found out why – my period had just started.  Oh great – exactly what I needed on top of my nasty bug, I had horrible cramps that I’d mistaken for aftermath of the night before.

At least I was feeling a little stronger, but that didn’t stop me from taking advantage of an offer of a horse ride the rest of the way to camp when we came across a boy with a horse offering rides to presumably feeble tourists who didn’t want to go uphill.  Though it really went against the grain for me to “give up” like that – I reasoned that if I took it easier that day, I just might have the strength to finish the rest of the hike that was two more days and lots more elevation gain – up to Mt Bwahit which was at 4437 M.

Our beautiful campsite at Geech

The views on arrival at our campsite that afternoon were so welcome.  It was a beautiful high altitude plain of grass, open and flat but surrounded by cliffs in all directions.   Thought it was only 4pm, I was feeling utterly spent and happily crawled into my sleeping bag and slept for three hours before I was told dinner was ready.  I also learned that the others had gone on a short hike from camp to watch the sunset and had been stampeded by a larger group of gorgeous gelada monkeys (granted we had seen them several times during the day – but this was a very up, close and personal encounter) as they tried to get past the humans to the cliffs where they would rest for the night inside caves.  I was glad I had chosen to rest and regain strength, but disappointed not to have witnessed this spectacle first hand.

Luckily, Mike was able to capture the event on video and I include it here for your viewing pleasure.

That night in Geech was particularly cold.  I got up around 10pm to take a pee, and for the second night, I noticed our 64-year old scout – a delightfully cheerful though non-English speaking man – sitting out in the open air wearing nothing more than his shirt, thin jacket and a tarp for warmth.  I literally feared for his life and was so worried that I ended up taking the extra jacket that I’d bought in Gonder and went over to where he was keeping watch and offered it to him.  At first he motioned with his hand, “Anita…no, no, it ok!” but then I forcibly unwrapped him from his tarp and put his arms inside the jacket, the hood up over his head and zipped him all the way up.  To my delight, it fit him perfectly (it is very disturbing that the men I come into contact with here seem to all have a body shape and size that would mean I could share my wardrobe with them!)  From that point on, he wore my jacket most of the day, removing it only in the heat of midday – and even then, leaving the detachable hood on his head like the coolest dude ever.  I loved Nursie…he said almost nothing, but was always smiling, saying my name, and saying “Good, good Anita! Strong!”

I gave him the jacket to keep on the last day of the trip.

Nursie – our fearless but chilled scout who kept watch over us

The altitude and remnants of my illness had destroyed my appetite and I forced myself to have a little soup and bread most nights, got porridge in me for the morning and snacked lightly during the day.   As such, I found myself having lost much of the weight I’d gained during my time in West Africa – so being sick and this high up did have some positive consequences.

The third day’s hike was pretty tough – about 8 hours of walking, and I was proud that I managed it – despite still vacating most of what I was eating along the way.  One time I went to pee and found that I peed out of my butt instead without warning.  I felt bad because one is supposed to dig a deep hole to avoid the almost extinct Ethiopian wolves from accidentally ingesting your feces and suffering fatal consequences.  Incidentally, the beetroots I’d managed to eat the night before had turned my product a violent pink color.  I looked for a giant rock to, at the very least, cover up the evidence that I’d failed to “leave no trace”, only to accidentally drop it from a height that caused everything to spatter raspberry colored shit over the entire surrounding area, including my shoes and trekking poles.  I had to use up some of my precious drinking water to rectify the situation, and be on my way – now precariously behind the rest of the group and getting slower as the afternoon wore on.

Looking back, it is still quite a funny story – and I am so proud of myself for not giving up and for pressing on.

More Geladas

As a sidenote to all this talk of excrement (my apologies, dear readers) – the scenery we were passing through was pretty immense and spectacular, despite the fact that it was rather brown given the time of year and it being the dry season.  Much of the wide expanse of ridges below us reminded me of a lighter colored south rim of the Grand Canyon.  Once we’d made it to Imet Gogo – all the suffering was made worthwhile by the incredible views we got to enjoy from this high point.  Unfortunately, this is the typical turnaround point for all the folks who choose to do the 2 night/3 day itinerary.  I found, however, that it was the scenery and the ability to walk along a long ridgeline the rest of the afternoon before descending to Chennek and our 3rd camp night – to be the highlight of the whole trek.

On the descent to Chennek, Mike and I spotted our one far away Ibex, which made us happy – though we were hoping to spot more the next day.  On arrival at camp, we were happy to note that there was a cold water well with a pump where we could take an ice-cold bucket shower.  We took it in turns to pump water for one another, hastily, as the sun was setting and it would soon be cold both by water and air temperature.

3rd day on the way to Chennek

At Imet Gogo

I took another early night as I was very spent, forcing myself to eat a little food.  The group had quite a rowdy dance/singalong by the fire that night, and I tried so hard to enjoy it for as long as I could, then grabbing my hot water bottle and bidding all a good night.

Singalong around the campfire

The next day was an optional day hike to the summit of Bwahit – the second highest mountain in Ethiopia.  Though I had told myself I didn’t really have to summit – I don’t easily give up, and despite having another bout of diarrhea, I proudly made the summit – albeit much more slowly than the rest of the team.  I felt an amazing sense of accomplishment, especially after noting several of the members of other groups on the mountain turning around, tired or deterred by the extreme altitude.

I made it!

Celebrating the summit of Mt. Bwahit

After some celebratory summit shots, I was happy to point my feet downhill for the last time.  We loaded back into 4 x 4’s and were treated to a nice sunny field picnic lunch on the way back where Kamila was presented with a birthday cake made for her by our cook, Messy.

I was relieved when we got to Debark, and though very pissed off at having another drama just getting our bags back (which I talked about in the last article) – was so happy to finally find ourselves in a room at the Hotel Sona resting a bit before going out for dinner.  Unfortunately, the room we found (that Kamila shared since it was a family room with four beds and adjoining rooms) was on the 4th floor of the hotel that didn’t have an elevator – so you can imagine how it felt going up and down those stairs with luggage after the day we’d had.  To add insult to injury, the water was shut off for a few hours but we finally were able to take a restorative lukewarm shower.

Men getting it on, I mean “dancing”, on the dancefloor in Debark

We had agreed to meet up with Messy and Gashaw for dinner, and they took us to a bar where we started with beer.  Everyone was up and dancing (shoulder dancing, that is – my first introduction into this uniqe and rather strange custom of dance that doesn’t include much in the way of hip or lower body movement.)   Funny thing is – it took 30 minutes after we’d ordered food for the waiter to come over and tell us that they were out of food!

Turns out this was the last night before lent and 55 days of fasting for Ethiopians.  So finding food was going to be difficult.  We finally left and went to another bar where more guys were dancing (only with other guys and in an alarmingly intense manner) and I was able to order some injera with veggies and minced meat.  I ate a little and then made my apologies and headed back to our hotel.

It was only a few blocks, but I still managed to get harassed multiple times on the way back.  I was so not in the mood and needed my bed.

What a memory-filled trek it had been.  Proud and happy that I finished what I had started.  It really reminded me how much physical suffering is and can be mind-over-matter.  I pushed myself, hard.  And I had made it!