It seems suitable to wrap up the year with the final, and top, pick in my selection of the 10 finest mountain trails I’ve had the privilege to trek. My favourite trek over the many pairs of boots I’ve worn out is in Ethiopia, atop the mountain range known as the Roof of Africa.
The Simien Mountains aren’t the highest peaks in Africa, though at 4550m Ras Dashen is often claimed as the fourth-highest on the continent (which conveniently overlooks a few unnamed peaks in the Ruwenzori). But it’s not the head-spinning glory of altitude that elevates the Simiens to the head of my list. It’s the headiness of its escarpment, combined with the life – both human and animal – that’s scratched out on its plateau.
View from Chenek
For the nine days we trekked here on a climb to the summit of Ras Dashen, we walked almost entirely along the escarpment edge. Metres – sometimes centimetres – from where we stepped, the world plunged away into the endless patchwork plains of Africa, often more than a kilometre below. Smaller, sharp-tipped peaks pushed through the dust. They were the grandest mountain scenes I’d ever encountered, rivalled only by Patagonia.
Step back from the edge and things were no less fascinating. As we pushed through 4000m we began to feel an intrepid sense of our own mountain power…at least until an old villager stepped over the same pass wearing just a single sandal on his feet. Another morning, as we set out hours before dawn for the summit of Ras Dashen, I tripped over porters sleeping in the middle of the trail in subzero temperatures. Farmers ploughed the unyielding dirt, and children sprinted through hailstorms to greet us.
Among all this, livestock grazed alongside native wildlife. One morning we had the rarest of sightings as a highly endangered Ethiopian wolf – of which there are said to be less than 500 surviving in the wild – stalked a rodent a few metres from where we walked. Another evening, as I wandered out from camp for some solitude, I was caught between warring troupes of gelada baboons – they may be the only grass-eating primate in the world, but they have teeth you don’t want lodged in your leg.
Gelada baboon: no place for a leg
I did reach the summit of Ras Dashen, looking out over what seemed like half of Africa, but that ambition seemed almost secondary by then. I’d already been won over by the days and scenes behind me.
** Adventure before Avarice trekked with Peregrine Adventures.