It's our 40th Birthday! Take a look at our birthday offers page here

Two faces of Africa: trekking in the Simien Mountains and the Sahara

Whether it’s lofty mountains or sweeping deserts, Africa’s landscapes have always inspired those with exploration in their souls. Writer Brend... Read more
Two faces of Africa: trekking in the Simien Mountains and the Sahara

Whether it’s lofty mountains or sweeping deserts, Africa’s landscapes have always inspired those with exploration in their souls. Writer Brendan Daly tells us of his time hiking in Ethiopia’s Simien Mountains and across the Moroccan sands of the Sahara on the ultimate journey of contrasts.

The hills are alive with the sound of gelada baboons.

A band of yapping, yelling, and yelping baboons are loitering just in front of me. Copper and fawn-coloured, they carry babies on their backs, stuff blades of grass into their mouths, and – almost endlessly – groom each other. But before you can say “Julie Andrews”, the baboons, following their chief, turn around and quickly climb down the cliff ledge. From the ledge, a shimmering, rouge-speckled dreamscape of dizzying canyons, epic escarpments, and pin-sharp summits unravels.

I’m in the Simien Mountains National Park in Ethiopia and I’m about to begin a six-day trek through this UNESCO World Heritage site. I’ve come here from Gondar, Ethiopia’s former capital. Our guide to that city’s Royal Enclosure – a sprawling compound of castles and palaces dating from the 17th century – is Haile. His passion for his country is matched by the immaculacy of his flamboyant traditional dress: a burgundy-coloured, gold-enamelled shawl on top of a porcelain-white long pants and shirt, complemented by a headband, necklace, and wristband all in Ethiopia’s national colours: green, yellow, and red.

“Ethiopia is the only country in Africa that was never colonised,” Haile tells us. “In honour of this, when other countries in Africa got their independence they adopted the national colours of Ethiopia in their flags.”

Ethiopians love to dance: in the north of the country people mostly use their shoulders, in the south their legs. Haile gives us a limber demonstration of a dance that demands robust neck-flailing – a dance, he says, that women in rural Ethiopia perform as a way of paying homage to the bountiful chicken.

Just before our bus enters the Simien Mountains National Park, a man holding a Kalashnikov gets in, sits beside me, and says: “Hello, I am Solomon.” Park regulations insist that each visitor group must be accompanied by armed scouts and a park guide. The scouts and guide join us after we collect our support crew, including our expert chef. Each morning of the trek he makes us delicious, generous breakfasts of omelettes, pancakes, and French toast.

On the second day of the trek, we walk through tawny fields festooned with palm trees. As we approach a ridge, we hear the high-pitched, slightly doleful cry of baboons below us. But this time it’s louder, more intense. “They are fighting over territory,” says Tesfa, our attentive and resourceful tour guide, as he points out a troop of buccaneering baboons trying to encroach on an occupied plot, but who are stoutly repelled in what passes for street fighting in the Simien Mountains. You can see why the pretenders are so desperate to unseat the current inhabitants: the view blends a bouquet of volcanic peaks and lush meadows into an intoxicating tableau.

As we return to the campsite, we pass a just-broken-out yoga session. When we sit for a dinner of pasta and sardines, the crew present us with two bottles of Ethiopian wine to mark Steve’s birthday. Steve is a member of our 15-person tour group, most of whom are from the UK and which, reassuringly, includes five medical doctors. It’s beginning to grow dusk and as I walk back towards my tent the cinematic sky is a luminous, swirling collage of amber and carmine.

Our intention is to summit Ras Dashen (4543m), the highest peak in Ethiopia. But on the fourth day of the trek we realise that we aren’t going to make it. Around 11am, just as we’re about to begin a descent, we are pummelled by hailstones. At lunchtime, we take shelter under trees where a man is selling bottles of Coke and Fanta. He invites us to his house in a nearby village and we follow him.

The man welcomes us into his circular, thatched house, built of stones and mud, where bowls and saucepans hang from the walls. He lights candles – the village isn’t connected to electricity – and we sit around a bone-warming fire. As the rain becomes more ferocious, the man shepherds a mule, a donkey, and a cow into an adjacent smoky room, where his wife sits fermenting barley beer.

Tesfa suggests that the rain will make it extremely difficult to reach the camp from where we would attempt Ras Dashen. With the group’s unanimous agreement, Tesfa instead arranges for us to stay the night at a makeshift campsite.

Ultimately, the unlikely conditions – we’re here during Ethiopia’s dry season – mean that we must curtail our visit to the Simien Mountains. But, to balance things out, Tesfa rustles up an unplanned walk when we visit the sacred site of Lalibela – a stunning constellation of 11 subterranean churches carved into blush-coloured basalt.

Ethiopia claims to be the world’s oldest Christian country – a tradition that stretches back to 330AD – and, among the competing theories, it’s believed that Lalibela was built as a ‘New Jerusalem’ in the late 12th and early 13th centuries. Soaring up from an abyss and fashioned in the shape of a Greek cross, the Biete Giyorgis (St. George) church is the jewel in Lalibela’s crown.

Sidestepping persistent children whose demands effortlessly move from pens to money, we descend narrow steps and pass white-robed pilgrims. We see priests carrying small wooden crosses. Inside, the floors of the rock-hewn churches are covered with simple carpets. Murals decorate the walls. The windows are sculpted into a cruciform shape. To get to one church, we have to go through hell: a claustrophobic, coal-black, 35-metre tunnel symbolising eternal damnation.

Earlier, we hiked to churches in the foothills outside Lalibela. The sense of wonder evoked there by glimpsing ancient passageways illuminated by the morning sun is complemented that evening when we see the shadows of passing pilgrims flicker across the hallowed, sun-bleached walls of Biete Giyorgis.

If the Ethiopia trip provides a broad sweep of a relatively undiscovered country, the tour I join to Morocco – a familiar fixture on tourist itineraries – is dedicated to a specific activity: trekking in the Sahara. The Simien Mountains part of the Ethiopia tour and the latter both involve walking about 15 kilometres a day. But where I felt some symptoms of altitude sickness – headaches and breathlessness – in the Simiens, the elevation of the desert means this isn’t a consideration in the Sahara expedition.

To get to the Sahara, we drive for a full day from Marrakech through the rose-hued High Atlas Mountains to the fixed Berber camp, adapted with showers and Western toilets, in Ouled Driss. A mix of Canadians, Americans, English, and Irish, there are seven of us on the tour. Most of us are on our first trip, but Mike, a true Morocco-phile, is making his eight visit to the country.

Far from a uniform environment, the desert reveals itself as a cocktail of distinct landscapes. On the opening day of the trek, we pass the eerie remains of an abandoned village and walk through a vast barren plateau where a lone olive tree stands defiantly on the horizon. On our last day, the terrain shifts between towering palm trees and swathes of hardened, tiled sand. As we make our way back to the fixed camp, we traverse a rocky dry river valley.

Temperatures during the trek range from around 15 degrees Celsius in the daytime to near freezing at night. Our crew includes five camels, two camel drivers, and our cook, Mohammed. Before we stop for lunch, the crew lays out rugs and mattresses for us and we are served sweet mint tea followed by sardines, rice, and a huge dish of fresh vegetables – tomatoes, beetroot, onions, carrots, and peppers. The vegetables sparkle with such vivid colours that it feels as if I’m looking at them through a high-definition Instagram filter.

Throughout the entire trek, Hamid, our easy-going guide, instinctively navigates without ever using a map or a compass. Hamid is a Berber, the indigenous people of North Africa who in the Middle Ages led caravans of up to 10,000 camels carrying goods to sub-Saharan Africa across the terrain we are now walking through.

“For a long time, schools in Morocco weren’t allowed to teach the Berber language,” Hamid tells us one evening, as he sketches the context for the sometimes-complicated historical relationship between Berbers and Arabs.

About midway through the trek, we reach the soft, bulbous dunes of Zahar that conjure quintessential desert images. Delicate, sweeping lines of bronze-coloured sand, wrinkled by the wind, stretch out under an enormous, cloudless azure sky. As the late afternoon approaches, we climb a ridge and gaze out across the abundant stillness on a mosaic of crater-like dunes saturated in the golden glow of a setting sun.

“Travelling,” the French philosopher René Descartes wrote, “is almost like talking with those of other centuries.” During my visits to Ethiopia and the Sahara, I witnessed fleeting moments charged with a whiff of the otherworldly, as though I was somehow travelling outside of time. Busy baboons and Saharan sunrises, rock-hewn churches and pristine desert skies, basalt escarpments and sand dunes that zing – these are a few of my favourite things.

Brendan Daly

Brendan is an Irish journalist who writes for The Sunday Business Post, The Irish Independent, and The Irish Examiner. He writes about books, theatre and – despite “no sense of direction” – travel. He regularly travels with KE for his own holidays.


Do you want to know more about KE's Ethiopian Simien Mountains Explorer holiday or KE's Edge of Sahara Trek? Just give our adventure-loving team a call on +017687 29593 or USA/Canada toll-free 1888 630 4415.

Footer logos
Your Wishlist
No Wishlist Items

Start your next adventure.

Click the heart icon on the search or holiday pages to save a holiday to your wishlist.

Holiday Search