TIPS ON TREKKING INDEPENDENTLY IN THE SIMIEN MOUNTAINS (Information current as of January 2014)
Thought I would give you all some useful info on trekking the Simien Mountains without having to join a tour group. (About $98 for a solo traveller for 3 days!) Everything can easily be arranged at the park office in Debark. The park office is located on your left just as your coming into town. You can get the mini bus to drop you off there on your way in from Gonder.
The most popular route to take is to get transportation to Sankaber Campsite (alternatively you should be able to start in Buyit Ras) and start your trek from there. In this case your equipment will be weighed at Sankaber and mules, handlers and porters arranged from there. Unless you have extra days to spare, I don’t recommend trekking from Debark. Not much for scenery, a good portion will be hiked on a dusty, gravel road.
From Sankaber you would trek to the Geech Campsite for the night (4-5hrs). There is a lovely village about 30min before arriving at Geech, reminded me of the Shire from Lord of the Rings. 🙂 The next day you will trek to Chenek camp via Imet Gogo (breathtaking scenery!) along the escarpment which is longer than the alternative of following the dirt road but very worthwhile as this will be the most scenic part of your trek (7-8hrs). On the third day you can summit Mt. Bwahit (best chance of spotting the Ibex on this route) 5-6hrs and stay at Chenek for another night or head back to Debark. The fourth day could be spent trekking back to Sankaber along a dusty gravel road (7-8hrs) although I would recommend just getting a ride back.
The itiniery I mentioned above is set. If you plan to combine these routes to cut time be aware that they will charge you park fees accordingly. For example if you combine 2 days into one you will still be charged for 2 days. Again, you can easily contact the office by phone to clarify everything. They are quite helpful.
The scouts, porters and mule handlers are responsible for bringing their own meals but you’ll notice that many only eat once a day to cut costs so we collectively as a group would give them dinner to keep morale up for them as well as for ourselves. You could bring some instant noodle packets for them for example or snacks but you are not obligated. They did not charge extra for lodging for the scout, they sleep on the floor in the common area. And the scouts self-admittedly prefer people who stay in lodges because it’s warmer for them. If you are camping though, they have to stay near you so they sleep in the eating shacks at the campsite and might ask you to pay for some wood to keep them warm on cold nights.
Prices have increased as of Jan 9th 2014 so be aware. All prices are on a PER DAY basis, unless otherwise noted. On a typical 3 day trek most people get a ride back to Debark from Chenek camp. So if you spend 3 days trekking and ride back the park WILL CHARGE YOU AN ADDITIONAL DAY for Admission, Mules and Handlers, Porters and Scout, their reasoning being that it would take them an extra day to walk back home (even though the scout gets a ride back with you because he’s required to stay with you till you exit the park).
The park doesn’t advertise this but it is possible to get a porter which is much cheaper and useful for solo travellers on a budget. Porters can carry up to 20kg. A handler is required for each mule which is a total money grab as you will notice on your trip that 1 person can easily handle a half a dozen mules on their own. Mules can carry up to 40kg. Most people aren’t aware of what their bags weigh and this is another way tour companies get extra money from you. An average bag should weight between 10-15kg with food for 3-4 days (bringing only what you need for the trip) I shared the costs of 2 mules between 8 people (including cooking equipment) just to give you an idea.
Admission: 90 Birr
Vehicle Admission: 20 Birr
Camping Fee: 10 Birr / per campsite
Scout (Mandatory): 150 Birr
Guide: 300 Birr (up to 5 people) 350 Birr 6+people
Cook: 300 Birr (1-3people) 450 Birr (4-10 people)
Mule Handler: 120 Birr
Mule: 120 Birr
Porter: 120 Birr
Cooking Equipment: 90 Birr
Tents: 90 Birr
Mattress: 40 Birr
Sleeping Bag: 80 Birr
Lodge: 80 Birr
This will be the most expensive part of your trek. It is a total monopoly as they leave you with no other options and charge ridiculous prices to get in and out of the park. I was lucky and joined a group of 8 and shared the cost of getting in but they were on a 4 day trek and I was on a 3 day so I had to find my own transportation back. I couldn’t afford to pay the 2200 Birr they were asking from Chenek to Debark so opted to try and hitch a ride. The park really frowns upon this so I told them that I had made previous arrangements to have a friend’s tour company pick me up on their way out from another trek. The Isuzu trucks you will see on the road is illegal for foreigners to catch a ride but money talks and I was able to hop on one for 200 Birr which covered me and my scout. They put a blanket over me and told me to stay low so as not to get caught. Another alternative would be to ask other tour groups for a ride back if they have room. This will save you a bundle! Another option to get a ride into the park is to make all your arrangements the day prior at the park office and catch a ride in on the local bus at 6 a.m. (100 Birr) it will drop you off at any of the points mentioned above. The park doesn’t advertise this but it is another alternative. Catching the local bus back the other way may be difficult as it’s usually full. You can easily take a minibus between Gondor and Debark for about 40 Birr one way.
Transportation from/to Buyit Ras: 1000 Birr (4 people) Transportation from/to Sankaber: 1400 Birr (4 people) 1800 Birr (4-8 people) Transportation from /to Ayenameda: 1800 Birr (4 people) Transportation from/to Chenek to Debark: 2200 Birr (4 people)
Plus the additional 20 Birr vehicle admission for each ride!
WAYS TO CUT COSTS:
For those on a budget, unless you have your own camping gear, it would be much cheaper to stay in the lodges than rent everything. It will also be more comfortable, warmer and less weight for your mule or porter to carry.
eg. Tent, sleeping bag, mattress and camping fee: 220 Birr / Day vs 80 Birr per night at lodge
For lodge availability just ask the park office.
Simple meals can be purchased at the lodges as a much cheaper alternative than purchasing and carrying in your own food which is quite expensive at the supermarkets in Gondor. Not to mention saving money not renting cooking equipment and the added weight for mules / porters. Just bring enough food for lunches and snacks and let the lodge take care of breakfast and dinner or have them cook food that you bring in for you for a fee. Water is available at every campsite but will have to be boiled or treated. The only thing about the lodges is that I did get fleas at the Chenek Lodge which was horrible. I would advise you to bring a can of bug spray to give your bed a once over before jumping in or putting your bag on it. If you have a sleeping bag, bring it with you even for the lodge. It can get very cold at night (was close to freezing at Geech camp) even for the lodges. If you are planning to camp and are renting a sleeping bag, I would recommend getting 2. They are not warm enough and the people who had them couldn’t sleep because it was so cold for them.
A guide is not mandatory so we did not use one to cut costs. A scout is though and will show you the way but they don’t speak any english which can be frustrating to try and communicate simple things to and plan to tip them as they don’t get much pay from the park.
A solo traveler on a 3 day trek from Sankaber to Chenek could essentially cost just under $100 plus food and tips and it only gets cheaper if you find more people to share costs with!
Admission: 360 Birr (4 days)
Lodge: 160 Birr (2 nights)
Scout: 600 Birr (4 days)
Porter (optional): 480 Birr (4 days)
Local Bus to Sankaber: 100 Birr
Hitchhike back on Isuzu: 200 Birr
= 1,900 Birr ($98 USD)
So it can be done on the cheap! Hope this helps! I have done a lot of trekking and the Simien Mountains have been one of the most scenic I’ve done to date and one of my biggest highlights in Ethiopia. I never expected that Ethiopia had that kind of terrain and surprised me with it’s breath taking scenery. I highly recommend it! For those short on time and money, 3 days is plenty to see the most scenic parts of the park.