Once you’ve been up on the Roof of Africa in the Ethiopian Highlands, you won’t want to come down
Ethiopia is known as “The Roof of Africa” as it holds about 80 per cent of all the land in Africa above 3,000 meters. Located in the highlands of northwest Ethiopia, the Simien Mountains are truly a wonder to behold. Reaching as high as almost 15,000 feet above sea level, these rugged mountains are home to several photogenic wildlife species, including Walia ibex, Ethiopian wolf, klipspringer, and gelada monkeys. Numerous vantage points offer stunning views of steep cliffs, jagged peaks, and seemingly endless ridges marching towards the horizon.
View of sunset over the ridges of the northwest Ethiopian highlands, Simien Mountains National Park, Ethiopia. Canon 5DIV, Canon 70-200mm f/4 lens, ISO 800, f/8, 1/125 second.
The best time to visit the Simien is, from September through November; after the summer rains, the landscape is more green and the views are less hazy, and there is a good mix of sunshine and photogenic clouds (although when I was there in November, there was plenty of haze caused by dust blowing in from the nearby Sahara Desert). December through April is typically dry, sunny, and hazy, making it less interesting for photography. It is quite rainy from June through August, making trekking less desirable, although there might be the potential for dramatic cloudy skies at sunrise and sunset.
Although I saw a few Ethiopian wolves and ibex from a distance, the main wildlife attraction of the Simien, are the gelada monkeys. Although geladas are often mistakenly referred to as baboons, they are in fact the last surviving species of ancient grass-eating terrestrial monkeys that were once numerous throughout Africa. Geladas are also sometimes called “bleeding heart” monkeys because of the characteristic red markings found on their chests.
A male gelada stands to get a better view of his surroundings, revealing his distinctive red chest marking. I used fill flash to gently illuminate the front of the monkey; his thick golden mane was backlit by the rising sun. Simien Mountains National Park, Ethiopia.
Canon 5DIV, Tamron 24-70mm f/2.8 lens, flash, ISO 100, f/11, 1/200 second.
Geladas live only in the high mountains of Ethiopia. They are skillful rock climbers, perfectly adapted to the steep, rocky cliffs of the Simien Mountains. In fact, at night, geladas climb down over the escarpment edge to sleep on cliff ledges, safe from predators. They spend most of the day grazing and roaming in large groups of up to several hundred individuals. They are surprisingly approachable, with some groups perfectly comfortable around humans. If you are careful to avoid any sudden movements, you can get close enough to use wide-angle lenses with the geladas, giving you opportunities to include the dramatic scenery in the background.
I photographed this gelada backlit by the rising sun as it stood on top of a boulder. Simien Mountains National Park, Ethiopia. Canon 5DIV, Tamron 24-70mm f/2.8 lens, ISO 100, f/20, 1/160 second.
I spent several days backcountry trekking in the Simiens, using Simien Mountains Trekking and Tours, which provided a guide, porters, camp cook, and armed scout (all excursions into the park require a guide and scout). This allowed me to access remote scenery, including a beautiful and dramatic gorge, which I photographed at sunset. I was lucky to get some storm clouds in the sky that evening, adding color to the landscape.
I used some blooming flowers as a leading element for this composition at sunset, Simien Mountains National Park, Ethiopia. Canon 5DSR, Canon 11-24mm f/4 lens, ISO 100, f/11, 1/20 second.
While shooting landscapes at the gorge, a large troop of geladas came down to the escarpment, getting ready to climb down the cliff to their nighttime roost. Once the best light faded from the sky, I left my landscape camera behind, and grabbed my wildlife kit. I made many photographs of cooperative geladas poised on the edge of the cliff overlooking the gorge, using a gentle amount of fill light to illuminate the monkeys against the darkening and dramatic twilight sky.