The Bale mountains rise to over 4000m and contain the second highest mountain in Ethiopia. They are an important source of water for the country. From the Omo valley we must travel north and east, taking in the sights along the way.
Our first stop en route to Bale is the town of Yabelo, to visit the bird park there. Ethiopia is a big birding destination. On our trip we frequently came across guided birding tours, minibuses full of khaki clothed enthusiasts bristling with binoculars and long lenses. Part of the attraction is the huge variety of birds found, but also the fact that some birds are extremely restricted in range to parts of this country, making them unique to the area. We are in search of Stresemann's bushcrow, who lives in mature acacia savanna within a restricted 2000 sq mile range around Yabelo.
Our journey takes us through scrub valleys and across dry and stony river beds. Baboon are playing by the road. We arrive at a small hotel which advertises camping. What they mean by this is that you can pitch your tent in the flower bed with one overflowing outside toilet, no shower or other facilities. We have become resigned to using the hotels. They remain expensive for the quality. In Ian and Carmens room the tap falls off the wall flooding the room in 6 inches of water. We are alerted to this by sounds of great hilarity through the wall. The management is put out that they want to move rooms. Apparently a little water on the floor should not be cause for complaint. Indeed it could be considered a bonus. That's Ethiopia for you.
Next day we head for the park. The rule, once again, is we must take a local guide as well as pay park fees. We are reluctant and eventually manage to persuade the guard to let us in to wander on our own. I think we exhausted him. Also the guide was still in bed! Getting up early, as in game viewing activities early, is not popular in Ethiopia. The park looks over grazed and there are cattle inside. We see the bushcrow easily, they are numerous in the straggly acacia and commiphora thorn. Some are building nests of sticks. He looks more like a starling in size and behaviour. For many years it was unknown why the species could be completely absent from areas of suitable habitat near seemingly identical but inhabited land. Recent research has revealed that the bird appears to inhabit an area with a very precise average temperature extreme, all of the seemingly suitable but uninhabited surrounding land actually has a slightly higher average temperature that appears to prevent the birds from successfully colonising. Hence it's rather odd and localised range. The guide eventually finds us. We continue to wander on foot through the park and also see the black billed wood hoopoe, black buffalo weaver, white headed buffalo weaver, superb starling, nubian woodpecker and cardinal woodpecker . That's just the ones we could identify! You see the guide does not really speak English!
We leave Yabello as the heat begins to build, and roll through small towns and villages. We are climbing into a highland region, cool and windy. There are many opportunities to stop on the road side for delicious fresh brewed coffee and local bread. We have an unusual brew of sweet smoked milk which Dudley loves but the jury is out for the rest of us. Ethiopia is certainly a place for unusual culinary techniques and flavours. They smoke the milk in a hollow calabash. I am pretty sure they have been doing this since way before Masterchef!
In the town of Surpo we come across a camel market . A large camel will set you back 25000 birr, thats about R15000 to you and me, quite an investment. Camels are much more common in the east which is a drier terrain and the people are predominantly muslim here, sharing the border with Somalia.
￼The roads become increasingly pocked with massive potholes, slowing progress. This is another country where a days drive is measured in hours and not kilometers. The average speed, even on the open road, is 40 kilometers/hour. It makes dodging the constant flow of people, donkeys and camels a little easier. Spinach seems to be a major crop, mules piled high weave in and out of the traffic, but there is also an abundance of vegetables and fruit.
￼We arrive in the late afternoon at Yerga Allem lodge, a pleasant surprise with luxurious rooms, great gardens and colobus monkeys and hyenas calling at dusk. It costs $ 70 per room which is the same as the flooded disaster at Yabelo. The tariffs are hard to understand and rather random. Ferengi prices I suspect. At least this time it looks like some value for money.
The next morning we continue our journey into the highlands of the Bale mountain range. It gets misty and damp as we climb and now it is not just cool, but cold in icy biting winds. The national park encompasses over 2200 sq and holds 27% of endemic species, some found no where else in the world, which testifies to the unique ecosystem. A large part of the fauna are rodents and it is said that Bale has the greatest concentration of rodents anywhere. This is an important factor in the food chain and accounts for the high density of raptors, as well as the presence of the Ethiopian wolf, a rodent eater. We are here to get a chance to see this rare creature, critically endangered with a world population of just 400 , the most endangered canine in Africa and the most endangered canid in the world.
Although protected, it is threatened by habitat loss and disease including rabies and distemper, and so perhaps this really is "last chance to see"
The area has 5 different ecosystems ranging between the stark mountain plateaus dotted with giant lobelias and lush Havana forest hung with moss and lichen. There are dramatic temperature changes through these habitats, from an average of 25C in the forests, to 10C on the mountaintops. The plateau is almost continually cloaked in mist and cloud and drizzle, a bigger contrast to the African bushveld we have just left is difficult to imagine. As we rumble up the potholed roads the scenic changes are mirrored in a change in the people and dwellings. The mountain people are tough wiry specimens jogging along on heavily laden donkeys and swathed in blankets. They look rather dour and unfriendly but this is a harsh environment to scrape a living, and fun and frivolity hard to come by.
Cold boiled potatoes from the side of the road make a surprisingly tasty lunch.
We roll into the Bale Lodge. After agitating the drivers to find us camping, to justify all our camp gear hire, we are assured the lodge has both camping and rooms. As the weather becomes colder and more inclement we may want to rethink this strategy but we bounce out of the car willing to give it a try. However when they show us the camp site under 6 inches of water we give in to the inevitable and take a dorm room. This is more like a youth hostel than a lodge and the facilities are basic to say the least.
Our first fight comes when we put all our cooking gear in the kitchen, which is 50 m from the lodge on top of a hill and a bit of a slog in the wet slippery conditions, only to be told we have to pay extra to use the kitchen. Well we are a bit fed up with the extra extra tradition of Ethiopian hospitality, and so we stomp out and remove our gear and tell them to keep the kitchen. Dudley sets up a fire under the eves of the lodge and we announce we will cook there and keep the food and utensils in the outside room shared by our drivers.
The manager circles us wringing his hands. The rest of our stay, as a response to the rain and damp, we gradually moved our kitchen into the lounge. By the end they were begging us to use the kitchen free of charge. Ha too little, too late.
Well despite the rather poor conditions, we had to use our own wood for the communal fire and the beds were alive with bed bugs and fleas, the setting was magnificent. Nestled in the forest on the slopes of the Bale mountains with wildlife all around , mountain nyala, bigger and more handsome than the home grown ones, Meneliks bushbuck and warthogs. The birds were amazing and again some new and rare finds like Rougets rail, thick billed raven and Abyssinian pigeon. As night fell and temperatures dropped and the drizzle continued to fall softly the infested bunk beds began to look not so bad and we drank gin and played cards by the fire.
For the next 2 days we toured the Sanetti plateau. When entering the park, in keeping with the pro employment policies of Ethiopia, you must hire a guide. The guide does not like to get up early and quite frankly is minimally useful and we had some negotiating to try and get up to the top for the morning light. The cold is biting and we enter a mist belt which makes the landscape ghostly, pierced by the 2-3 m giant lobelia and carpeted in white heather like snow.
The ground is in constant movement from rodents darting from rock to burrow and the Augur and mountain buzzards perch on each lobelia like sentries. In rocky wetlands we see the blue winged goose . The black headed Siskin flies in flocks of 100 or more and we see the burglar finch, the Thelma lark, Somali starling, wattled crane, alpine larks and other birds better known to us. It is birding heaven. We drove to Tutu Dimtu, the second highest peak but the mist is so dense we cannot see beyond our noses.
Next day we head for the forest, dripping with moss and old mans beard. The drizzle remains relentless and we stop at the village of Hamanan, a popular trekking spot, for a lunch of spinach potatoes and fresh flat bread washed down with sweet tea. This is served in a warm smoky hut with black rafters and no chimney. The stale peanut butter packed lunch is consigned to the birds and beasts. We are off to trek to a waterfall through the forested valley.
We slip and slide down grassy slopes past grazing cows and goats and through a bamboo forest to the Guza waterfall bathed in glittering spray. On the way home we glimpse the black and white colobus monkey. Eagles and a hooded vulture perch in the trees. It is truly a remarkable and enchanted place. It's off to the petrol station for an injeera fix before heading home.