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The piercing clang of metal-on-metal and the incessant shouting from construction workers wasn’t exactly the peace and quiet I had in mind when I decided to visit Limalimo Lodge in Ethiopia’s Simien Mountains. I was thinking more along the lines of sunset G&Ts in the bar overlooking the lush green lowlands before sinking into sleep on a dreamily plush mattress, keeping warm beneath the lodge’s custom-made Ethiopian bed linen.
But unfortunately, time wasn’t on my side and the lodge was still under construction when I arrived on a balmy October afternoon. Instead of making myself at home in one of their modern en-suite rooms (built using the eco-friendly rammed-earth method) I was destined for a canvas home beneath the stars on the building site that would eventually become the most luxurious place to stay in the Simiens.
Founded by Simien Mountain guides, Shif and Meles, Limalimo Lodge – named after a nearby village – is much more than just an escape from the hectic towns on Ethiopia’s tourist trail. Meles explained that their vision was to create something which would benefit the local economy and help preserve the stunning natural surroundings. It’s very much a community project; local men and women from the village are involved in its construction and will be employed as staff when they open their doors to guests. The kitchen will use as much locally sourced produce as possible, while they’re planning to introduce new crops like peppers and squash, as well as help farmers to successfully cultivate them.
Their dedication to the environment also extends to restoration. For example, eucalyptus trees which surround the site and were imported from Australia in the 20th century, severely damaging indigenous plant populations are gradually being replaced with acacias and other native Ethiopian varieties.
While it was an empty shell of a building on my visit, I could see just how wonderful the lodge would be and general manager, Julia, gave me the full Limalimo arrival experience. I was driven to the lodge from Debark, the nearest town to the Simien Mountains National Park, and dropped off at the bottom of a small hill. To my right, occasional glimpses of faraway peaks were visible through the woods, teasing me as I walked up the beautiful, tree-lined track that was once the old Italian road. I arrived at the reception and as I made a right, walking along what would become an outdoor covered walkway, an incredible view opened up before me. Towering rock formations of every shape and size peppered the horizon in a blue haze, and before them lay a bed of green, undulating lowlands in a patchwork of farmland, forest and rock. Birds soared beneath me and, as I stood watching the clouds make shifting light patterns on the landscape, I realised that I wasn’t breathing: Limalimo had literally taken my breath away. Much like the design and infrastructure of the place, even the lodge’s location and layout was a meticulously thought-out piece of theatre, designed to wow.
After the sun set and the construction workers had gone home, I finally got to experience the peace I had come here for. With a million stars as the roof over my head, I sat and ate dinner with Mengistu – the lodge’s expert chef who was cooking on hot coals for me that night.
Beyond its prime location and eco-credentials, Limalimo is the base for what’s essentially a natural adventure playground. The lodge organises activities ranging from trips to a local village to morning yoga, bird watching and running camps. There are luxury picnics to be had in the nearby valleys (champagne included) but what most people come to the Simiens for is the trekking. So as the truckloads of builders arrived the following morning, I set off to seek solitude in the mountains on foot.
Our route was one few people had done before, and after just one hour, I found out why. It was a merciless landscape of ups and downs. We followed the edge of the escarpment, climbing steep peaks and skidding down the valleys in between. Hovering around 3,200m above sea level, the altitude made the ups even harder, and I found myself reduced to a sweating, panting mess after just a few steps.
But for all our hard work we were handsomely rewarded with glorious views of other-worldly peaks in the distance. We trekked through farmland, past grazing horses and came across child shepherds guiding their goats, cows and sheep effortlessly through the difficult terrain.
Electric-yellow meskel flowers carpeted the open grassy plains, clashing with the bright blue sky. Occasionally, the smell of thyme crushed under my feet brought memories of my mother’s cooking. At one point, ducking inside a juniper forest to reach the top of steepest hill yet, I squeezed the berries in my hand and let the smell of gin push me forward. Just a few more hours, I told myself, then the gin is yours.
We finally reached our campsite at Buit Ras exhausted, bedraggled and sodden from the rain that began just a mile from our destination. We had trekked 20km in 8.5 hours and taken over 35,000 steps (according to my pedometer) from Limalimo Lodge.
As he poured me a glass of Rift Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, my guide told me that it was the hardest trek he’d ever done – and he’s been trekking here for almost five years.
I spent the evening reminiscing, scrolling through all the photographs I’d taken throughout the day. It had been so gruelling but so great: vista after vista of gorgeous green scenery made every bit of burning muscle pain worth it. But in that moment, even more beautiful was knowing that next time I saw those towering mountain peaks, I’d be admiring them from the bar at a completed Limalimo Lodge, G&T in hand and not a blister in sight.
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