The foot that is restless, will tread on a turd.
When trekking in the mountains you’ll mostly be following centuries-old paths that crisscross the slopes and connect villages with pasture lands, but sometimes you’ll also use the main park road. On some stretches the walking is fairly level, but there are long, steep climbs and descents in many places.
Organising trekking yourself at park headquarters in Debark is straightforward, but it can take up to two hours so it’s best to arrive the afternoon before you plan to trek, or to book through a reputable agency in advance of your visit.
Park fees are payable at the park headquarters in Debark.
Entrance fees won’t be refunded once paid. However, if mules, cooks, guides and scouts aren’t used (because of bad weather or acclimatisation difficulties), their fees can be refunded.
Also be sure to allow time for acclimatisation, particularly if you fly to Gonder right after arriving in Ethiopia.
Guides, Scouts, Cooks & Mule Men
Cooks, scouts, mules and guides are all organised at park headquarters. ‘Scouts’ (armed park rangers) are compulsory (Birr150 per day). Guides (Birr330 per day) are only required for people travelling with an agency, but highly recommended for their knowledge of the mountains and command of English. Some trekkers, unable to communicate with the scout, end up regretting not having a guide along. They’re trained by the national park on courses established by an Austrian team.
In general the guides are excellent. We’ve heard, however, that some try to rush their clients on the final day to get home sooner. Should this happen, refuse to play along and report it when you return. The guides work on a rota basis directly with the park, but you can request a particular guide if, for instance, you hear a good report from a fellow traveller.
Cooks cost Birr350 to Birr400 per day (cooking for one to six people), a welcome luxury for some. Porters aren’t available, but mules (Birr120 per day) with handlers (Birr120 per day) are. Two handlers can handle three mules and each mule can carry 45kg. If you plan on covering two days’ worth of trekking in one, you’ll have to pay your team double for the day.
Guides, scouts, cooks and mule handlers should bring their own food and they usually do when the trekkers aren’t hiring a cook. Regardless, you should make sure the park official organising your trip and/or your guide ensures the team is not going to look to you for sustenance. Or just bring extra packets of rice etc and make the team happy.
Mattresses (Birr50 per day), sleeping bags (Birr50 per day), two-person tents (Birr100 per day), rain jackets (Birr50), walking sticks (to hire/buy Birr50/400) and cooking equipment, including gas stoves (Birr100 per day for two people), can be hired at park headquarters. Tents should be checked carefully and using two sleeping bags ensures a warm night.
Choosing a Trekking Route
Most people trek for four or five days and begin in Debark. In four you can trek to Geech and back; with an extra day you could get to Chenek, taking in Mt Bwahit. If time is of the essence then in two days you could walk from Debark to Sankaber and back; add a third day and you can get to Geech, which has the most spectacular scenery. With eight days to play with, you could summit Ras Dashen.
Many people maximise their mountain experience by using vehicles to access Sankaber and/or Chenek. A minibus can get you to Sankaber year-round, but you’ll need 4WD to reach Chenek during the rainy season. Arranging pick-up or drop-off at Chenek allows a long but satisfying three-day trek to/from Debark.
If you have time, strong legs and a hatred of doubling back, you could finish your trek at Adi Arkay, 75km north of Debark. This allows a mix between highland and lowland scenery and the views up the valleys are just as amazing as the views down into them. Note that since it takes the guides, mules and other members of your team two days to return to Debark from Adi Arkay, you must pay two days’ extra fee.
Though it’s rarely done, guides can even take you all the way to Lalibela. You’ll need to swim across some rivers, carry food for nearly the entire 15 to 17 days and will probably have to purchase rather than hire the mules. An epic trip.
The following Debark-to-Chenek trek is the classic five-day route. The times have been estimated in consultation with local guides, but vary from person to person and also depend on whether exact routes are followed.
Climbing Ras Dashen
Ras Dashen, frankly, doesn’t offer a great deal beyond the satisfaction of ‘bagging it’. And thanks to an odd perspective from its summit, nearby peaks actually look higher. This has led disgruntled trekkers to drag their guides up the other peaks, repeatedly musing the ‘one over there’ is higher! It’s not.
If you want to skip the initial trek, you can drive to Chenek and start the climb there. But even though that trek only takes three days, the park will charge you for six!
It’s only a two-hour drive (in dry season) to Chenek, which leaves lots of time for strolling, taking photos and lounging with gelada monkeys at various spots along the way. During the rainy season the narrow Jinbar Waterfall, estimated to drop 500m, is an almost-mandatory stop. It’s unsigned 4km after Sankaber, down a short (15-minute), muddy trail.
The six- or seven-hour round-trip walk from the road near Ambaras to the amazing Imet Gogo viewpoint would be a popular day trip if park authorities didn’t insist on charging tourists the price of a two-day trip. (Park guides, knowing this policy is taking away business from them, have protested, but to no avail.)
Although there will be precious little time actually in the park, you can drive to it and back from Gonder in a day.
There are numerous tour operators and travel agencies in Addis Ababa and several more in Gonder that can arrange transport, guides, equipment rental and food. However, they charge you more for similar services that you can easily arrange yourself at park headquarters. On the other hand, they probably have higher-quality camping gear.
Some of the park’s top guides, such as Shiferaw Asrat and Nurlign Hassen, also organise all-inclusive trips starting in Gonder or Addis, which should be cheaper than going through one of the bigger agencies.
A fabulous initiative worth supporting are the guided visits to the village of Argin, in the heart of the park and a few kilometres southwest of Chenek. There are two options. One starts at 10am, runs for four hours and includes a 1½-hour trek with a local guide, injera baking, local beer making and a coffee ceremony. It costs Birr300 per person. There's a shorter, 2½-hour version that begins at 11am and costs Birr200, although we strongly recommend the longer version. Revenues go straight to the local community.