In preparation for the new Rough Guide to Ethiopia, the book’s editor, Edward Aves, travelled to the remote and little-visited Bale Mountains National Park.
“Another two hours? This is interminable!”, blurts out one of my fellow passengers, as frustration at the bus’s glacial progress along the single, winding dirt track begins to set in, sparking snorts of nervous laughter that pierce the tension. Traversing the dramatic, ethereal lunar landscape of the high Sanetti plateau of the Bale Mountains National Park, dodging rocks and giant puddles, this is not a road to be tackled at night. An hour later, having narrowly escaped a cataclysmic-looking electrical storm, we’re switchbacking steeply down a 1500-metre escarpment into the lush Harenna Forest and the glittering night sky is obscured by a dense fairytale canopy of gnarled erica – giant heather – trees, looming menacingly over the road. Soon we’re dispatched into the warmth and comfort of the luxurious Bale Mountain Lodge, exhausted but exhilarated.
Far from the iconic rock-hewn churches, royal castles and ancient sights of northern Ethiopia, comparatively few visitors make it to the Bale Mountains, some 400km southeast of Addis Ababa and accessed via the highest all-weather road in Africa. Those that do are rewarded with a landscape of high drama – ranging from wild, rugged alpine scenery to thick, damp cloud forest – that’s home to an astonishing array of endemic species and the densest concentration of large mammals in the country.
Though the park is rumoured to be accessible by road in just seven hours from Addis, we’d set off the previous afternoon, eventually wriggling free from the corrugated shanty towns on the capital’s edge to pause overnight on the tranquil, verdant shores of bird-filled Lake Kuriftu. Continuing our journey the following morning, the road climbed through the dusty town of Bekoji, famed as the birthplace to an astonishing six recent Olympic Gold-winning long-distance runners; no one really knows why, altitude – and hard graft – aside, this unremarkable place should breed such an army of champions, except that running is bred in the bone here, and training starts early – when school is 10km away and there’s no bus, what sense is there in walking?
Beyond here, we rose through an archetypically sparse African landscape of domesticated, red-ochre fields punctuated by acacia trees and cactus-like aloes, scattered with the neat, simple gojo-hut farmsteads of the Muslim Oromo people. At this altitude horses and mules replace the ubiquitous fragile-looking donkeys as the pack animal of choice; at one point, we witnessed a horseback wedding party, the male members of the bride’s family chaperoning a tiny, vulnerable, veiled figure clad in colourful robes to a village feast.
On the edge of the park, Bale’s reputation for impressive wildlife proved itself to be well founded; as the bus ground to a halt at the centre of a flat, grassy plain surrounded by low, craggy hills, and the guide pointed out – amid scampering warthogs and inquisitive olive baboons – small herds of the area’s two graceful, rare endemic antelope, the mountain nyala and Menelik’s bushbuck, I lowered my binoculars to the middle distance and to my astonishment spied, unseen in the undergrowth, a creeping lion. Sadly, with our arrival at our mountain lodge already long overdue, there was no time to hang around for a kill, but wildlife-spotting in Ethiopia – said to be no match for neighbouring Kenya – was never supposed to be this exciting.
Exploring the dense forest surrounding the lodge in the crisp chill of early morning the next day I begin to gain an understanding of the Bale Mountains’ remarkable biodiversity. As a pair of silvery-cheeked hornbills fly overhead, their heavy wingbeats emitting a low, electrical hum, the lodge’s resident naturalist, James, explains how the land was shifted upwards by a volcanic eruption millions of years ago, the resulting cloud forest forming a natural barrier for animals trapped in these isolated uplands.
Two hours later, we’re trundling across the bleak, wind-blown Sanetti plateau once again, keeping our eyes peeled for the Ethiopian wolf, the world’s rarest canid and Africa’s most endangered carnivore. While spottings are exceptionally rare up north in the popular Simien Mountains, here at Bale you are almost guaranteed a sighting – and probably several – as the wolves hunt their favourite prey, the fluffy, guinea-pig-like giant mole rat, as they emerge from their burrows into the warmth of the daytime sunshine.
Our last stop brings us to what feels like the roof of the roof of the world, where with lammergeiers and buzzards soaring overhead, we scramble dizzily and breathlessly to the summit of the 4377m Tule Dimtu, Ethiopia’s second highest point, to survey the vast, implacable plateau falling away to either side. Had only the mysterious Bale Mountains, even now relatively unexplored, been known to Victorian travellers, Conan Doyle might well have set The Lost World here.
Edward travelled to Ethiopia with Ethiopian Airlines, who operate daily flights by 787 Dreamliner from London to Addis Ababa (from £561 including taxes; 7–8hr). On September 1, Ethiopian started flying four times weekly from Addis to Roba Airport, just 30km east of the Bale Mountains park headquarters at Dinsho. Visit ethiopianairlines.com or call 0800 635 0644 for more information.