The Bale Mountains are to Ethiopia what Alaska is to the contiguous USA: a world apart where everything found there is like nothing found anywhere else. Ethiopia itself is like nowhere else, a cultural island with its own language, religion and history that can be traced back to the time of the Queen of Sheba.
Land of natural beauty is also a rich center of endemism
Renowned 18th century historian Edward Gibbon (author of the incomparable History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire) said of Ethiopia: “Encompassed by enemies of their religion, the Ethiopians slept for nearly 1,000 years, forgetful of the world by whom they were forgotten.”Even within this natural fortress of a country, the Bale highlands are a natural redoubt that was unknown to outsiders until the early 19th century. For thousands of years before that, however, it was one of the country’s principal sources for wild coffee and honey.
Bale consists or a more or less circular laval escarpment with a summit plateau about 400 square kilometers (155 square miles) in extent and standing at around 4,000 meters (13,000 feet) up in the clouds. The Sanetti Plateau (pictured above) is an Afro-alpine zone of moorlands, meadows and tarns where, if you were lost, you might think you had woken up in the Scottish Highlands. In Africa. The lower slopes are covered by dense Afro-montane forest, where they have not been cleared for agriculture.
This basalt massif is known as the Horn of Africa’s water tower, attracting as it does vast amounts of precipitation which in turn gives rise to some 40 rivers upon which depend 12 million people in Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia. These highlands, and specifically the Bale Mountain National Park, are known as Africa’s – and one of the world’s – richest centers of endemism.
What this means is that it has more animals and plants living there, and only there, than just about anywhere else of comparable size on the planet.
One of Africa's Top Birding Sites
Bale is known as one of the four top birding sites in Africa being home to 282 recorded species including 16 endemics. These include the blue-winged goose, spot-breasted lapwing, yellow-fronted parrot, Abyssinian longclaw, Abyssinian catbird, Bale parisoma, Abyssinian owl, Ethiopian siskin, Bale lark and fawn-breasted waxbill. Add to this the many raptors that are free to wander at will, including lanner falcons, augur buzzards, golden eagles and those lords of the mountain skies, the lammergeier or bearded vulture.
Even a short walk with in the Harenna Forest with James Ndung’u, resident bird guide and naturalist at Bale Mountain Lodge, will ensure you tick off more endemics and lifers that anywhere else, certainly anywhere I have ever been.
The Ethiopian Wolf: the most endangered canid in the world
Among the larger endemic animals are mountain nyala, Menelik’s bushbuck, Bale monkey and giant mole rat. Add to this leopards, hyenas and a small population of lions and you have a natural habitat that is, as I have been trying to explain, a place like no other. And I have not yet mentioned the superstar of the region, the Ethiopian wolf. Until recently it was suspected it was really a fox in wolf’s clothing, given its deep red color, lithe frame and thin muzzle that is adapted to a diet entirely of rodents (there are 11 rodents endemic to the area).
Recent DNA research had confirmed that it is indeed a wolf, its closest living relative being the grey wolf of North America. The Ethiopian wolf is perilously endangered with only around 400 remaining, half of which live on and around the Sanetti Plateau. This makes it the most endangered carnivore in Africa and the most endangered canid in the world.
Numbers of these wolves have never been great, even with a prey population on the plateau greater than that of Africa’s savannas. As Professor Claudio Sillero, a conservation biologist at Oxford University and director of the Ethiopian Wolf Conservation Programme explains, it is the limitations of the frigid habitat, compounded in modern times by human encroachment, which is the major limiting factor.
Stock farmers have long used what is now a national park for seasonal grazing for cattle, but in recent years they have increasingly become permanent residents with large herds of cattle and several hundred attendant dogs. Dogs, being essentially overbred wolves, carry rabies and canine distemper across the domestic line, constituting an ever-present peril for the wolves.
Having visited 21 must-see places in Africa over the past year, from Cape Town to Cairo, I would place Bale – along with the two main gorilla habitats (namely lowland and mountain) – among the top three places to visit.
There is only one place worth mentioning when it comes to board and lodgings and that is Bale Mountain Lodge. It was built and is run by ex-pat couple Guy (OBE) and Yvonne Levene to world class safari lodge standards. Tell them I sent you and remember to take something warm: it’s Africa but it could be Scotland, or Alaska.