The Playground of the Gods
Basking in the beauty of Ethiopia’s Simien Mountains at Limalimo Lodge.
It was late in the afternoon, the sun still high in the sky when I returned — exhilarated and wobbly-kneed — from a long and unforgettable hike along the Simiens’ escarpment rim. Millennia before, Homer described these Ethiopian mountains as the playground of the gods; the time-sculpted rock formations here were their chess pieces, he claimed.
He wasn’t exaggerating. Since setting off from my lodge at dawn, I’d spent much of the day observing the world from the massif’s precipitous cliffs, gazing in awe across sweeping canyons riddled with plunging ravines and vast plateaus. From stomach-churning heights, I’d heard the whoosh of wind through the wings of lammergeyers; spied klipspringers and baboons; waded through bushy mounds of Saint John’s wort and Abyssinian rose; and had enchanting encounters with cattle-herding children who’d never before seen anyone with a mop of blond hair.
It had been a day filled with astonishing moments and scintillating perspectives — all of them intoxicating enough to mitigate my terrible fear of heights, so much so that my guide had to repeatedly caution me against getting too close to the precipice. But, when in heaven, who can resist peeking over the edge?
The real surprise, though, was that all of these wonders were within walking distance of Limalimo, a smart boutique-scale ecolodge that opened last year within the Simien Mountains National Park. Having walked so far and seen so much, it didn’t hurt to then be returning to a place that heaps sumptuous comforts upon an unbelievable location. And as if to continue the amassing of astonishment, we arrived to find the day’s most surreal events unfolding right from where we’d set off that morning.
As my tracker and I trudged up Limalimo’s steep driveway, a slight scuffle and series of high-pitched screeches drew our attention to the open-air laundry. There, below white linens billowing in the breeze, was what looked like a short disco-era gigolo — presumably the ringleader — draped in a shaggy fur coat that ruffled at the collar like a lion’s mane. This guy sat dozing while the rest of his crew perched on the ground maniacally tapping away at invisible typewriters, their two-handed typing causing miniature dustbowls to rise all around them.
As grazers, gelada monkeys — also known as bleeding heart monkeys because of the red sac–like blotches on their chests — are unique among primates. Aside from the weird digging technique that they use to forage for the roots of the grass they eat, they have a vocabulary of at least 27 different calls and an incredible social structure that’s kept curious primatologists busy for years.
They’re adorable enough to be one of the main reasons people visit the Simiens, and in fact, the species can only be found within Ethiopia’s Highlands. They’re not only extraordinarily entertaining, as I learned that day, but also apparently happy to allow visitors to get within a few yards of their typing pool.
When fights broke out — presumably among the teenaged boys, presumably over a girl — older males would quickly leap up and march over to the scene of confrontation and settle the dispute not with aggression, but by sticking their bottoms in the air, compelling the hot-headed teens to begin inspecting for ticks. I couldn’t decide if de-ticking the patriarchs was some kind of honor or a form of punishment, but it seemed a thoroughly poetic form of politics. I imagine Homer would have agreed.
The brainchild of Shiferaw “Shif” Asrat and Meles Yemata, a pair of former guides who spent many years leading trails across these mountains, Limalimo sits on the edge of the escarpment at 2,960 meters. It’s the first lodge to be built within the park in over a decade, occupying an unimaginably beautiful ridge in a newly proclaimed section of the reserve, near the village of Limalimo for which the lodge is named.
“I grew up in the Simien Mountains,” said Shif, who long dreamed of creating a lodge here. “I wanted to encourage visitors to come and appreciate them, especially those wanting a bit more luxury than what is available on a typical camping trip.
“The Limalimo area has fantastic views, a large variety of wildlife, and a mix of high plateaus and nearby lowlands,” he added. “Hopefully, by bringing sustainable tourism to the Limalimo area, we will help promote conservation in one of the most spectacular corners of the Simiens.”
Although it feels far from civilization, the lodge is actually just a few miles from Debark, the town where the national park is headquartered. It is also conveniently close to the main road to Tigray, and Gondar — with its flights to Addis Ababa and the rest of the world — is a mere two-hour drive away. And yet, when I stepped onto Limalimo’s terrace, I felt as though I were floating midway between heaven and earth, peering not just across vast and spectacular vistas but into the abyss of time itself. Unfolding before me was an astonishing panorama — a ceaseless dance of light and color and shifting shadows across multitudes of humps and soaring spires.
Designing the lodge fell on an Addis-based British-Italian architect named Mario Balducci, who trained at London’s Bartlett School of Architecture. From the start his heart was set on creating something utterly original, never before done in Ethiopia.
“I was blown away by the view from the top of the mountain,” Balducci told me of the enfolding landscape that inspired his design. “It’s very Eden-esque. I really wanted visitors to feel a strong connection to it, so the main design exercise was to find a way to elicit that connection and to frame the way visitors relate to it.”
Relating to it isn’t so simple. Homer was right: The Simiens are a world created by titans. The range’s tallest peak, Ras Dashen (4,550 m), is Ethiopia’s highest mountain, and Mount Biuat (4,437 m) and Kidis Yared (4,453 m) aren’t far behind.
Creating the lodge was no mean task. Aiming to build a structure that would have minimal impact on the environment, Balducci’s design called for a rammed earth construction technique that had never previously been used in Ethiopia.
Balducci explained how rammed earth was appropriate for a variety of reasons aside from its aesthetic novelty. “It possesses microclimatic properties, since the walls in the rooms absorb heat from the afternoon sun and radiate it back during the night, and has many environmental benefits, given that it was sourced directly from the site and is completely reusable at the end of the buildings’ lifespan.”
In addition to the rammed earth, Balducci said that many of the construction materials were sustainably sourced. For example, eucalyptus — a pestiferous plant that authorities are trying to remove from the park — is used extensively throughout the lodge, along with various types of pine wood.
“Apart from being able to catch views,” said Balducci, “the blocks have also been positioned to incur minimal impact on the local vegetation, so as to ensure that we didn’t cut any trees.” To further help negate the impact of the buildings’ footprint, each room has a living roof — capped with soil and planted with greenery to help camouflage the construction and become part of the local ecology.
The result, architecturally, is earthy yet super contemporary. Its mix of rough-hewn materials plus blond, pared-down furniture has resulted in a remarkably crisp yet unfettered scheme. Bravely, the design holds back on unnecessary bells and whistles, allowing the surrounding beauty and the wonder it inspires to take center stage.
Accommodations are likewise marvelously sparse and muted. With their raw-looking walls, concrete bathroom floors, and huge, sunset-facing windows, the 12 rooms are set in eight individual cabins, each quite svelte, contemporary, contained. They are furnished simply but comfortably, done out in chic, natural hues, with such details as handmade clay basins in the bathrooms and raw calico fabrics throughout.
It’s a luxurious kind of simplicity that achieves its goal of focusing attention not on the lodge itself but on its stunning setting. Rather than distractions coming in the form of baubles and artwork brought in from far away, my eye was repeatedly pointed toward what lay just inches from my room: the raw, rugged wilderness I traveled so far to experience.
“I think the so-called ‘minimal’ look works very well,” said Balducci. “I think that it has to do with having a grounding effect on guests. It’s important to have a calming space to be able to process the intense, and often exhausting, experiences a traveler has when visiting Ethiopia.”
There was plenty more on offer to ease the exhaustion of traveling, not to mention the exhaustion from hiking on the kind of scale that’s inevitable here. Aside from morning yoga sessions on the terrace facing the rising sun, the team offered Ethiopian foot massages as a traditional welcome. The bar was amply stocked, and pre-dinner drinks were served with canapés and heartfelt conversation. Fires were lit just as the evening temperatures started to dip, and meals were served when and where my mood suited.
On cold nights, the staff sent me to bed with a hot water bottle tucked under my arm. And then came the delight of climbing into a vast bed, with a handmade Hypnos mattress bedecked in lavish linens by Sabahar. The resulting slab of comfort helped induce a deep and wondrous sleep — the kind that’s a welcome necessity after days spent absorbing the nuances of a world that seems so much larger than life. My dreams were vivid and magical, and I would wake up hungry for each new day.
Catching a glimpse of local life
Whatever the other guests and I got up to between sunrise and sunset was entirely up to us; options abounded, and trekking guides and chauffered 4x4s were summoned by staff at fairly short notice.
High on my priority list was accessing those wildlife areas where it’s possible to see endangered Ethiopian wolves and the Simiens’ endemic walia ibexes — a goal that required a 40-minute drive from Limalimo into the older part of the reserve. After that followed a long, bumpy expedition along a fierce dirt road to arrive at Chennek, typically reached at the end of a four-day hike from Debark.
Time here is not solely about views and wildlife, though, but also opportunity to glimpse into the lives of people who inhabit the Simien Mountains. Limalimo is touchingly integrated into the lives of the local community, with most of the staff coming from the two neighboring villages.
“Of course I like to see happy guests. But the lodge’s real reward is seeing the difference the employment we provide brings to the local community,” said Julia Jeans, Shif’s U.K.-born wife who manages the lodge, adding that the staff mostly comes from farming backgrounds.
“To train everyone, we started from scratch by simply encouraging our team to create the warm hospitality that Ethiopians typically show in their own homes. The result has been high levels of friendly and thoughtful service that most of our guests have commented on.”
“There’s a strong feeling that the lodge is part of the community,” added Jeans, “and everyone at the lodge is involved in community events — from births, marriages and funerals, to ploughing, sowing and harvest activities.”
The result of this collaborative ethos is that the staff takes immense pride in what’s been created here. For guests, the added benefit of this intimate relationship is the chance to be welcomed into Limalimo village. A steep, 30-minute walk down the mountain to a stunningly positioned plateau, the idyllic hamlet is set among meadows and forest glades backed by a tall ridge. Its vast patchwork of barley and wheat fields gives on to magnificent views, and life unfolds as if untouched by modernity.
It was here that I was shown into a small house built of eucalyptus branches and mud. Seated on goatskins in the dim light, I watched as our hostess, a slender woman with high cheekbones and an astonishing smile, built a small fire for the ritual of washing, roasting and grinding coffee that had been grown on the nearby slopes. Then she boiled the grinds three times, producing three successive rounds of delicious coffee that we sipped between handfuls of dark, chunky wheat bread known as dabo.
Buoyed by the coffee and the intimacy of breaking bread with strangers, I then followed Gebre Yogzaw, the village’s young honey farmer, into his one-room home. Here, he filled tall glasses with a fortifying, non-alcoholic concoction of raw honey and spring water. He called it “bzzzrt.”
Each time I took a swig of his sweet potion, he eagerly topped up my glass until I eventually begged him to stop.
“Oh! Bzzzrt?” I finally said, flapping both arms in imitation of a bee.
Gebre laughed, nodded and used the opportunity to fill my glass once again. The look on his face said it all: Who in their right mind refuses the nectar of the gods?
And so I drank. And, silently, I toasted Homer.
For the Long Haul
Limalimo teams with the African Wildlife Foundation to catalyze conservation.
The Simiens’ afromontane ecosystem encompasses landscapes quite unlike anything else in East Africa. Even despite comparisons with America’s Grand Canyon, there are unique features of habitat and geology that set it apart. Some of its wildlife is found nowhere else on earth; the walia ibex, an endangered mountain goat, occurs here exclusively, and it’s one of few places where Ethiopian wolves, the world’s most endangered carnivores, can be seen. Gelada monkeys are found only in the Ethiopian Highlands, with some of the largest populations in these mountains.
And yet, despite such widespread acclaim, Simien Mountains National Park has been on UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites in Danger watchlist since as far back as 1996. Human encroachment is a major concern. Trees are felled for fuel, livestock grazes on protected land, and indigenous vegetation is cleared for cultivation. People need to survive.
Which is why Limalimo has value beyond being an oasis of luxury for travelers. Founders Shif and Meles explain that a key motivation for establishing the lodge was to bring sustainable tourism to the Limalimo area, thereby creating an alternative income stream for communities that dwell close to the park.
While Shif and Meles had the right connections from their years as guides with the Ethiopian Wildlife Conservation Authority, the lodge would never have seen the light of day without an investment loan from African Wildlife Capital, the impact-investing subsidiary of the African Wildlife Foundation that focuses on supporting and catalyzing businesses in frontier markets to achieve conservation.
“A number of factors played into why Limalimo Lodge was such an attractive investment for African Wildlife Capital,” said the AWF’s Mayu Mishina. “The AWF specifically works to address conservation challenges at the intersection of wildlife, wild lands and people. We believe that long-term conservation cannot be achieved without buy-in from the people living around those areas. In our experience, the economic benefits that come from nature-based tourism frequently incentivize local communities to value and protect both the wildlife and the protected area that draws tourists.”
“Previously there was no direct reason for local communities to promote conservation in the area,” said Julia Jeans, who heads up Limalimo’s daily operations and management. “But now they can see the direct link and therefore understand its importance. We’ve been able to achieve the difficult task of balancing the conservation of this uniquely beautiful spot while supporting those who live here in extreme conditions.”
The partnership between AWF and Limalimo is ongoing, explained the AWF’s Grace Wairima, adding that a “conservation covenant” now exists between the foundation and the lodge. Through this, a local primary school, Adisge, is being rebuilt with lodge architect Mario Balducci at the helm and using the same innovative building techniques and localized approach.
“It’s completely community-built, also using earth,” said Balducci. “The school is set on a semi-barren site, so we worked to bring the landscape in by creating a central garden with indigenous plants from the park, so that the students can live with the plants and learn to enjoy and appreciate them in their everyday life.”
Aside from the benefits of being schooled in an aesthetically nurturing environment, students will follow an enhanced curriculum, said Jeans, that will include conservation and an appreciation for the precious wildlife that surrounds them.
“Our reasoning is multifold,” explained Mishina. “In the short-term, the idea is to offer a quid pro quo of sorts to communities that often end up making a fairly large sacrifice in the name of conservation. In the longer-term, we’re offering an opportunity to educate the next generation of African conservationists. Not to mention that a well-educated population is less likely to rely on livelihood activities that have such direct negative impacts on the environment.
“We’d like to help the Ethiopian Wildlife Conservation Authority get to a point where Simien Mountains National Park is no longer considered a World Heritage Site in Danger,” she added, “but is simply recognized as a World Heritage Site. Limalimo Lodge plays an important role, as we’ve found that such investments can help seed further economic development.”
Keith Bain is a South African freelance writer who has authored guidebooks to countries on three continents, as well as A Hedonist’s guide to Cape Town, covering the city where he lives and works when not traveling. Having taken years to finally visit the Simiens, he says the love affair was instantaneous; smitten by the beauty and enchanted by the people, he was out of breath a lot (thanks, in part, to the altitude as well).