"But will we see geladas?" I asked Gebre, our Ethiopian guide, as we tumbled out of our van and started down the trail from the park road.
"I cannot promise but it is 95% sure that you will see them," Gebre assured me. "I have been coming here for 20 years and I have always seen them." He was confident of the odds because he knew that 15,000 geladas—of perhaps 200,000 in the whole country—call the park their home, and Simien is by far the smallest of Ethiopia's nine national parks, only 164 square miles.
The primary reason I was hiking in Simien Mountains National Park was to see the gelada, an autochthonous breed of monkey erroneously referred to as a baboon but actually a different genus entirely. The gelada is the only living example of Theropithecus and is found exclusively in Ethiopia. (All baboons instead are monkeys from the genus Papio).
I was psyched. Geladas are as unique in appearance as they are in genus. They are known as bleeding-heart monkeys because both males and females sport red, hairless, almost heart-shaped patches on their chests. That of the males is more prominent and the redder the patch, the more successful the male is at attracting a female entourage. They are also occasionally referred to as lion-maned monkeys because the males have thick, blonde, lion-like manes that shimmer as they move among the plateaus and cliffs of their high-altitude domain.
The Simien Mountains are a UNESCO World Heritage site, in part for the beauty of their rugged terrain, jagged peaks, and breathtaking vistas, but largely for their variety of endemic species. I had no expectation of seeing Ethiopian wolves or foxes, or the elusive Walya ibex, but I hoped for an encounter with the geladas. The guidebooks didn't say how close you could get but I figured not very. The creatures are not terribly imposing (males weigh about 40 pounds) but they have incisors several inches long. When the alphas are in aggressive mode, they pull back their lips to expose their canines in all their leonine splendor, and the display could not be more apt, ringed by those golden manes.
The park has numerous hiking trails, three major ones that can be completed in three to 10 days, and portions of these ranging from a few hours to a day. What we were doing, a leisurely three-hour hike, was not possible as recently as 15 years ago. Then as now, the jumping off point for mountain exploration was Debark, a sleepy little town of 35,000 located about 25 miles from the park entrance. But there was no road from the town to the park till recently, so trekkers had to start hiking from Debark itself: a minimum hike was three days.
That time commitment was not possible for us, so I was grateful for the current road, paved and smooth as it cut its way to an altitude of 13,000 feet and more. We had slept in a Debark hotel so basic that a decent campsite might have been a luxurious upgrade. But we did have hot running water.
Now we were bouncing and bumping along in a van, windows closed to avoid the ubiquitous red dust. Gebre handed a wad of birr to the clerk at the park entrance office; fees are based on the amount of time one spends inside the park. A park employee inspected the stamped documents proffered by our guide, then lowered a chain across the entrance to let us pass.
We were supposed to have a park guide, since Gebre is not a naturalist. But all the local guides had been summoned to a far corner of the park to help bring a fire under control. So Gebre compensated in experience and savvy what he lacked in biology studies.
At the same time, we acquired two armed guards for the day. Unusually, both were Muslim, although the local population is heavily Christian. Gebre explained that Muslims tend to settle in the lowlands because Christians were already in the highlands when the Muslims arrived centuries ago, and the former did not want to move. Quality of life in the highlands is better because there is no malaria, air and water are cleaner, and there are fewer water-borne diseases.
Our two old-timers were an exception to the norm: Muslims living in the highlands. They were of a certain age and armed accordingly, one with a vintage rifle and one with an ancient WWII semi-automatic weapon. Their presence was not so much to protect us from the wildlife as to thwart unpleasant encounters with poachers and arms dealers smuggling guns from Sudan.
At this point we were officially in the park, still bouncing on the dirt and gravel road and still, surprisingly, in the company of some commercial vehicles—buses and trucks. A new road around the park is being built at UN insistence to protect the animals and safeguard the environment, but it is nowhere near completion. There was not a lot of automotive traffic though. Locals move around on foot, cart, donkey, and horse in this lightly populated area.
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