Monday, January 20, 2014

Hiking and Searching for Geladas.

Gelada Baboon, Simien National Park

Our road trip to Simien National Park continued after an unplanned stop at a field where villagers had congregated for their Timket service.  Pat, Jean and I were all seated near each other.  Jean kept us entertained with stories about her llamas.  Fascinating how it all came to be that a former hospital administrator living in big city Texas, retired and then built a new home in Hill Country and started raising llamas.  Every now and again, I would look out the window just to make sure I wasn't missing out on seeing anything interesting.

All around us were rolling green hills.  It was that many miles back that the landscape was dry and arid.

I had been  in the seat behind the front passenger but for this ride, I opted to sit in the back so I could take photos from a different vantage point.

We passed by a few small villages filled with ramshackled buildings and people and animals everywhere. - constant reminders of just how poor Ethiopia is. 

Here's what the world looked like as we passed one village.

A short while later and we had another break. This time for Haile to purchase our entry tickets a well as hire two armed guards to accompany us. Apparently, there are dangerous animals (leopards?) in the park and the guards are for our protection just in case we're approached by animals. While Haile did his needful, the rest of us used the facilities. While we waited for Haile to return back to the van, I spotted a small roadside stall. I was curious and so was Pat. We both headed over and found a tiny convenience stall. I was interested in snacks and had the man pull down some biscuits for us. Pat and I picked out a small pack each and I ran back to the van to get the money - 10 birr for both packs of biscuits. Expensive biscuits by Ethiopian standards but what the heck.


On the way back to the van, I noticed a small group of children sitting near the road. I decided they would probably enjoy the biscuits more than I so I tore into the pack and held it out for the children to each take one. I was so surprised at how well behaved they all were - each only took one biscuit and there was shoving of anyone. One small child was extremely shy - the only one who was, in a way, wisely not accepting candy from a stranger. So, I took the cookie and gently placed it in his cupped hands. He was so adorable even through all the layers of dirt and grime that covered every part of his clothing, his skin and his hair. Unless you have a heart of stone, it's really hard to see children suffer as they do here. Someday, I hope they can buy whatever cookies they want, as many as they want and whenever they want.  Luckily at this moment, I had just enough biscuits for each child to have one. Pat had opened her pack of Marie biscuits so I took one from her. Amazing how these biscuits taste pretty much the same no matter what part of the world I'm in.

Not every child gets to sit around. This little boy was on his way home from the market, freshly killed chicken on his back.

Haile soon returned with the two guards in tow.  Somehow, they didn't look as intimidating as I imagined they would be. They looked like two village men and here, village men look pretty scrawny. I just hoped they knew how to use their rifles because most certainly, they were too lightweight to tackle anything....including (sadly) me as I think I weigh more than either of them. We all got into our seats and we made room for the guys to take the back seats - a bit shy and reserved, they seemed happy to have the space. I handed them each a bottle of water which they accepted. Even though they're used to drinking tap/stream water, we'll be out for a few hours without a water source nearby so they will need the bottles.

We saw stunning mountain scenery well before we saw the entry sign for the park where we made a brief stop to pick up a park ranger. Of course, we also had to stop for the obligatory photo op.  I found out that Sam loves scenery and he's sitting in the front passenger seat so we're guaranteed to stop whenever the surroundings catch his eye.

Next, we passed by a small troop of Gelada baboons grazing. Geladas are unique in the monkey world in that they are terrestrial monkeys meaning they live on the ground and they are graminivores meaning they eat primarily grasses. As much as we wanted to get out of the van to get a closer look at the geladas, we would have to wait until after our short hike through the park.

At our next stop, we got off.  This was the starting point for our hike.  As we gazed out at the craggy mountains, Haile told us that Simien is about the size of the country of Belgium which is makes Simien a bit park!

First thing was to take in the magnificent views. Again, smog made the view too hazy for that picture perfect photo. Oh well.

Stand with me and take in the surroundings.

We all walked to the edge to get a view of the Simien Mountains and the valley below.

It was a stunning view, albeit it a very hazy one.

While we took in the views, our armed guards and park ranger waited patiently for us.

And a hiking we will go!

Haile pointed out this bloomer to us - a wild, indigenous rose called the "Holy Rose of Abyssinia".  Nice to see a pretty flower in bloom.

Where there are tourists, there are souvenir vendors.  This was a bit unusual though. the items were all laid out in neat rows and the *vendors* looked to be a large group of young boys.

Lots of different style baskets as well as straw trivets.

Nicely woven, colorful straw baskets.

Gale thought the basket shape would make a cute hat and I think I agree with her.  A bit funky but cute!

The sellers.

Our walk took us across open areas with spectacular views of the mountains beyond.....

It was nice to walk under the shade of trees.

.... to the woods.   That's Pat.  Say hello.

It's amazing though just how small the world is or perhaps it's more an indication of the fact that tourists pretty much all travel the same route.  It was the starting point for a two hour hike through part of the park which Haile says is about the same size as the country of Belgium. There were more spectacular views of the Simien Mountains.  It was a gorgeous day to be outdoors and I was really enjoying the walk.

Then, all of a sudden, I heard some laughter and loud greetings. Lo and behold we met back up with Michael Nunez, a freelance professional photographer and his colleagues.  We first met up with Michael on our first day in Lalibela.  I initially approached him to take a photo for me inside one of the churches using my camera - I was hoping that the pro could take the photo but as it turns out, my entry level camera was the limitation.   That and it would have helped to have had a tripod. The next time we met up with Michael was later that same day when we noticed he had split the back of his pants.  That's when we got to talking with him.  He's from Cuba and not only is a photographer but he's also a tour guide who is more than happy to take folks around on a custom tour of his homeland.  Of course, we had to get the email address of his contact in Miami....2015 could be the year of a trip to Cuba!

Took a photo when he wasn't looking :-)

We then met up again with him on our second day in Lalibela and then in the bleachers at Timket Sunday mass in Gondar!  Those occasions we were in relatively small places so no surprise to come across him several times but here?  This park is enormous!  What are the chances we would happen upon him again.   This time we gave each other a hug.  This time I wanted a photo and Judy posed along side.  Wonderful  memory.  I hope to see him one day again.....in Cuba!

Me, Michael, and Judy.

Met back up with the Cuban photographer. Twice in Lalibela. Then again in Gondar at the Sunday morning mass and now in Simien! Considering how big the park is, it's amazing we ran into him. Name is Michael Nunez - part time photographer, part time tour guide. Have the email for his contact in Miami - going to look into arranging a tour to Cuba.

On our way down to our lunch spot.

Judy and I chatted with Michael and his colleague for a few minutes before bidding both goodbye - are fellow tour mates had long left us behind but one of the guards had stayed back.  We followed him and met up with the rest of the group.  It was lunch time.  We had  placed our sandwich orders, with the hotel restaurant, last night and Haile had the driver bring the van nearby to deliver the sandwiches to us.  We found a nice, shady spot to sit under and dove into our lunches.  I had snuck two hard boiled eggs, from the breakfast buffet, into my pack and had already eaten them so I wasn't particularly hungry.  I had ordered a fried fish sandwich and it was a big sandwich. I tore it in half.  Everyone's sandwiches came with a hard boiled egg, a small boiled potato, and a banana. I ate the half sandwich and left the rest inside the bag.  As I stood up, I saw Judy hand over her uneaten food to one of the guards so I decided to do the same.  I had Haile ask the man if he ate fish or not before passing over the food to him.  He looked like he needed the food and I could most certainly afford to lose the weight.  I knew he had water to wash it all down with. 

As we ate, Haile was already working on the next part of our itinerary - finding the gelada baboons.  Word from a local boy was that they were around where we were picnicking but we didn't see them. Then, we were told they were spotted elsewhere but that we would have to take the van to get to the spot. So, back in the van we piled and down the road we went.  It was a short drive to the second spot.  This time luck was on our side.  Lots of geladas feeding!


The baboons are obviously used to humans watching them. I walked around - almost tip toeing, trying not to disturb the monkeys to take photos and shoot video.  What an amazing experience it was to be able to get so close to these wild animals.  It was fascinating watching them eat. 

Adults and young, feeding and playing.



I got a close as maybe 12 feet or so from this large male. With their long fur, the males are actually quite beautiful.

I was fascinate watching them dig into the ground and pull up roots to eat.

One of the unique features of the male gelada is the heart shaped patch of red skin on his chest.  It was so difficult to try and get a shot of baboon sitting upright enough to see the patch.....they were so busy feeding!

When females weren't tending to their young, they were busy feeding.  No rest for the hungry!

Unfortunately, not everyone is as fond of seeing the gelada baboons as we were.  As documented in this episode of the BBC series, Human Planet, local farmers fight a constant with the cheeky baboons who if allowed can decimate an entire field of wheat in one feeding session.



The story follows the life of a twelve year boy and his young siblings who have the task of warding off the baboons.

Soon, it was time for us to go though - I had to be called back to the van, I was so absorbed into watching the monkeys.

Be back tracked to the park entrance where we dropped off the guard and then to the place where we had picked up the armed guards.  Even though they didn't have to ward off any dangerous animals for us, I still gave each a small tip for their time.

As we chugged on down the road to our next and final destination for the day, I filled my time watching videos that I had taken of the gelada baboons.  I had a great time observing them.  Helps to be enveloped in such stunning surroundings.

Goodbye Simien National Park!