Climb to the roof of Africa

In the company of shepherds and wolves, Andrew Bain hikes into the dramatic Simien Mountains.

In the Amharic language of Ethiopia, Imet Gogo means ''place of great beauty''. It is an understatement. From the summit of the most famous vantage point in the Simien Mountains, the cliffs drop away almost a kilometre into a vast mosaic of green fields, yellow wildflowers and rust-red peaks shaped like chess pieces.

It's a view that has been likened to the Grand Canyon, with elements also reminiscent of Monument Valley. The scene might be described as breathtaking, except that the altitude here has already sucked away most of my breath.

Far away on the horizon, swimming in cloud, is Ras Dashen, Ethiopia's highest mountain and one of the highest in Africa.

It looks impossibly distant and yet three days from now I should be over there, in the clouds, 4550 metres above sea level - assuming my lungs and legs will carry me.

I have walked for three days to reach Imet Gogo, hiking through one of the most abstract mountain-scapes on Earth. The Simiens' deep canyons and cliffs are cut into unnaturally straight - almost architecturally straight - lines. Each day the views have built from excellent to exceptional, the escarpment-edge track overlooking landscapes so enormous you half wonder whether the whole continent can be seen from this range dubbed the ''roof of Africa''.

Not that everything here is about views. The Simien Mountains National Park is a living reserve, not a natural-history museum. Shepherds wander the slopes and goats, cattle and mules graze beside the endemic gelada baboons. About 15,000 people live inside the national park and children materialise seemingly around every bend, wanting to shake hands or parrot their few English phrases.

A blanket of African heat sits over the range but it's tempered by the altitude and the greenness of the plateau. I have come just days after the end of the most generous wet season in more than a decade and the land is thriving. The escarpment is a canvas of wildflowers, vultures turn overhead on wind currents and gelada baboons - the only grass-eating primates in the world - graze the grassy plateau as ferociously as would reindeer.

As per park regulations, an armed scout walks at the head of our group and another walks at the rear. They are here for our safety but what they are protecting us from isn't clear. Villagers smile as we pass. Children wave and call - watching them sprint across the fields to greet us in the thin 4000-metre air, you begin to understand why Ethiopia produces so many great marathon runners.

In the end, our scouts' greatest task is to shoo away overexcited children.

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The night of our ascent of Imet Gogo, we camp at the edge of the Muslim village of Geech, where villagers work weary slopes for little gain. A short distance from the village, as we hike out the next morning, the track dips into a gully covered in giant lobelias, the Simiens' trademark plants. With their flowers reaching up to three metres high, they resemble yuccas on steroids.

From the other side of the gully comes a ripple of excitement. A group walking ahead of us has spotted an Ethiopian wolf, of which fewer than 100 are said to remain in these mountains.

We creep nearer and, from down the gully, catch sight of the wolf, as large as a dingo and as red as a fox. It sniffs its way up a small ridge, stalking and leaping at field rats but somehow always missing.

This endangered canid is the rarest of sights - it's the first time one of our scouts has ever seen one - and a reminder that the Simiens' natural assets don't start and end at the views. In 1978, this mountain range was among the first 12 sites granted World Heritage status, primarily because of its endemic wildlife including the wolf, the gelada baboon and the walia ibex.

We walk on, creeping along the edge of a dizzying canyon before climbing to an adjoining ridge. It's not steep, though, approaching 4000 metres above sea level, everything feels steep. We climb into the clouds, then even further into them.

The weather has turned and, as we lunch on the summit of Inatye, we are assaulted by hailstones. Village kids stand about, barefoot and in threadbare shorts, hoping to sell hats and trinkets to us. When we leave - defeated by the hail, lunch half-eaten - they follow us down the mountain, running on ice, still hawking their wares.

At the foot of the descent is Chenek, our campsite for the night. If I were to create a snapshot of the Simiens it would be from here. In this grassy saddle, we pitch among giant lobelias and gelada baboons, which graze centimetres from my tent. A few metres up the road, walia ibex forage among another troop of baboons. In every direction, peaks rise like barbs.

In the subzero dawn, as the rising sun lights the escarpment, I wander out onto a lonely spur hanging like a diving board over terraced valleys. The only sound is that of gelada baboons waking and scrambling up onto the spur around me, materialising from the cliffs where they have slept to avoid predators.

Out of Chenek, the climbing begins again immediately, ascending 600 metres to bleak Bwahit Pass, at a height where even the hardy lobelias refuse to grow. Just as we are congratulating ourselves on another altitude milestone - we have pushed through 4200 metres - an elderly villager wanders up to the pass, a sandal on one foot, the other broken sandal in his hand. Watching these mountain people exist is almost as exhausting as the hiking.

Across Bwahit Pass, the trek changes character. On this eastern side, nature yields almost entirely to settlement. We find less wildlife and more people; less screeching of baboons and more yelling of children. We descend between fields, nibbling on broad beans picked from the crops as we go.

As we enter camp in the village of Ambikwe, 10 hours after we left Chenek, a goat is being slaughtered for someone's dinner. There are excited calls for me to come and photograph the kill but I decline the generous offer.

We camp on a dusty patch of ground behind the village church, which will become the scene for a funeral the next day. Though we can no longer see Ras Dashen, it looms larger than ever. We are now at its foot; the next day we will make our push for its summit.

In the tradition of summit days, we walk out the next morning in darkness, leaving Ambikwe at 4 o'clock in hope of beating the usual afternoon cloud on to the summit.

Only five of the 10 trekkers in our group are aiming for the summit; the rest have succumbed to altitude, blisters or sickness. Ahead of us is 12 hours of walking - 1400 metres up and 1400 metres back down.

With our head torches lighting the way, we ascend slowly, with the lights of another group following us up the mountain like fireflies. After 90 minutes, faint sunlight blushes the sky and there ahead is Ras Dashen, its rocky summit etched into the blue.

After a few days at altitude, my lungs feel as large as balloons. Joe, however, is struggling. A ridiculously fit and stubborn 72-year-old, he calls out that he can't suck in enough of this thin air. He wants to turn back. Solomon, our guide, entices him on.

The howl of a wolf cuts through the air as we reach the base of the escarpment, where we turn up through a line of piled stones, placed here as a gun post during the country's civil war a decade ago.

As ever, villagers wander through even at this height - often shoeless, sacks of grain or rolls of corrugated iron slung over their shoulders, their songs blowing away on the breeze.

Through a final wall of rock, we scramble onto the summit. The peaks around us somehow look higher but it's an illusion - this is the highest land in Ethiopia.

Joe is still with us, as is a shepherd boy wrapped in animal skins, waiting with his hand out in hope of money, pens or a T-shirt. I look past the shepherd to a view so large it's said to encompass more than 10,000 square kilometres, an area about the size of Lebanon. Barren ridge lines bend away to other rocky peaks, then plunge into the colourful lowlands. I'm standing atop one of the poorest nations on the planet but this is surely one of the richest views.

Andrew Bain travelled courtesy of Peregrine Adventures.

FAST FACTS

Getting there

Emirates flies to Addis Ababa for about $2220 low-season return from Melbourne and Sydney including tax. This entails a flight to Dubai (about 14hr), where you change aircraft for Addis Ababa (about 4hr). Australians require a visa for a stay of up to 30 days.

Trekking there

Peregrine Adventures runs a 14-day Simien Mountain Trek, beginning in Addis Ababa, with eight days of hiking, from $2690. See peregrineadventures.com.au.

When to go

The trekking season in the Simien Mountains is generally between October and March. Wildflowers and colours are best straight after the wet season in October.

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