Expert Reviews – Bale Mountains NP

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Multiple visits
Overall rating
4/5

It might not rank highly as a conventional safari destination, but Bale Mountains National Park, which rises to a maximum altitude of 4,377m in the southeast highlands of Ethiopia, would be a contender for my personal top 10 African wildlife-viewing destinations. Its geographic centrepiece, the 250km2 Sanetti Plateau, is the world’s largest tract of Afro-alpine moorland and the main stronghold for the Ethiopian wolf, a Critically Endangered endemic listed as the world’s rarest canid, but often seen coursing nonchalantly through the tufted heather looking for the rodents that form its main item of prey. The juniper forest around Dinsho on the northern slopes is a stronghold for the endemic mountain nyala (a shaggier variant of the greater kudu) and all-black Menelik’s bushbuck. The lower-lying and more southerly Harenna Forest – site of the park’s only upmarket tourist lodge – is the only known habitat of the bamboo-chomping Bale monkey, and it also quite regularly throws up sightings of the dark-maned Abyssinian race of lion and giant forest hog. And I’d concur fully with the African Birding Club’s assessment of Bale as the continent’s fourth-best birding site, on account of the exceptional wealth of endemics and rarities
among the 310 species recorded. Forest birds abound at Dinsho and Harena, while the lakes that stud the Sanetti Plateau often attract the likes of Rouget’s rail, blue-winged goose, ruddy shelduck, wattled crane and spot-breasted plover. Bale offers some great opportunities for hiking, but its main habitats are all accessible by car (ideally 4x4), with Sanetti being traversed by the highest all-weather road in Africa.

Ethiopian wolves on Sanetti Plateau
Overall rating
4/5

The main reason I wanted to go to Sanetti Plateau in Bale Mountains was to photograph the endemic Ethiopian wolf, the rarest canine in the world. I knew these dog-like creatures live at very high altitudes and I imagined my journey would involve some serious mountain climbing. Little did I know that the highest all-weather road in Africa would take us right across the Afro-montane moorland of the 4,200m/13,779ft high plateau. Getting up a mountain this high by road feels like cheating, but I wasn’t about to complain; a little stroll around the picnic site left me gasping for oxygen. The otherworldly habitat of Erica-covered moorland dotted with giant lobelias is worth the trip in itself, but we were rewarded with some very special wolf sightings. I saw several individuals trot across the plateau in search of their prey, the endemic giant mole rat. And when dusk rolled in, pack members grouped together for an elaborate greeting ceremony.

Stronghold of the Ethiopian wolf
Overall rating
4/5

Located 400km/249mi southeast of Addis Ababa, the 2,200km²/849mi2 Bale Mountains National Park comprises a magnificently diverse landscape. The national park, set aside in the 1960s and currently supported by the Frankfurt Zoological Society, protects the higher reaches of the Bale mountain range. The high-altitude, Sanetti Plateau rises to over 4,000m/13,123ft and includes Mount Tullo Deemtu (4,377m/14,360ft): the second highest peak in Ethiopia and tallest mountain in the southern Ethiopia highlands.

Over and above the wild Alpine scenery, Bale’s premier attraction is the relative ease with which you can see up to a dozen endemic birds, as well as Ethiopian wolves and mountain nyala. In my experience, the spectacular Sanetti Plateau at sunrise is consistently the best place to spot endangered Ethiopian wolves. And in contrast to Webb Valley, the other prime wolf habitat, Sanetti has yet to be invaded by people.

Unfortunately, the park is under increasing threat from human encroachment, livestock and feral dogs that harass and frequently kill the wolves through competition for food or by spreading disease – predominantly rabies and canine distemper – into the wolf population. The Ethiopian Wolf Conservation Programme does an admirable job of trying to vaccinate and protect the wolves, but the pressures and challenges are unrelenting.

The well-maintained trails of the Bale Mountains National Park are perfect for multiday hiking and horseback riding. Your trek – whether on foot or horseback – will take you on an attractive weeklong circuit across an undulating plateau peppered with numerous glacial lakes, wetlands and rocky ridges. The desolate plateau looks like a moonscape. Often cloaked in swirling mist, with the ethereal howls of wolves, it exudes a strong sense of wilderness, while the park’s southern slopes are covered by the lush and largely unexplored Harenna Forest where lions persist along with giant forest hogs.

Bale Mountains is the ultimate safari destination for nature enthusiasts, intrepid hikers, horseback safari lovers, endemic wildlife seekers and seasoned twitchers (birdwatchers).

The land of the wolf…
Overall rating
4/5

Bale (pronounced Bar-lay) is best known as the home of the world’s rarest canid, the Ethiopian wolf. It’s an elegant creature that looks more like a fox, but with long, thin legs. Only around 400 survive and they’re extremely vulnerable to disease from local dogs. Fortunately the Ethiopian Wolf Conservation Programme is doing excellent work in protecting them and in vaccinating dogs against canine distemper.

The best place to see the Ethiopian wolves is on the Sanetti Plateau, but be warned – it is bitterly cold! Because there are so few wolves, I had doubted we’d see any when we visited, but while we were looking through binoculars to one wolf in the distance, another came and sat right next to our Land Rover, watching us quietly and full of curiosity, and so close I could have stroked him.

Some of Bale’s 78 mammal species and 310 species of birds can only be found here, like the handsome mountain nyala, the skittish Menelik’s bushbuck and the weird giant mole-rat (a favorite meal for the wolf). And black-maned lions, giant forest hogs and an unusual black leopard have been spotted in the mystical, lichen-draped Harenna Forest.

The wolves’ last stand
Overall rating
4/5

Bale Mountains National Park, in southern Ethiopia, is quite unlike anywhere else in Africa. The last time I was there, I spent several fabulous days breathing in the cold, thin air as I trekked across the 4km-high plateau and camped at the foot of volcanic fingers of rock. The only other people I saw (aside from my guide) were the occasional horsemen galloping over the plateau on horses dressed in red frills and tassels. It was like something from a fairy tale. And like any half-decent fairy tale, this one also involved wolves. My reason for going to the Bale Mountains was to find out what I could of the conservation status of the highly endangered Ethiopian wolf. Harassed by disease, habitat loss and human interference, the Ethiopian wolf is making its last stand on these bleak, wind-blown moorlands and seeing them, as I occasionally did, slipping across the sunlit plateau in search of a giant mole rat dinner, was an extraordinary experience and one that makes the long journey to Bale more than worthwhile.

The biggest surprise wasn’t so much the wolves and mountain grandeur, but the lower slopes of the park where twisted goblin-like forests dominate, lions can occasionally be seen (but don’t come here expecting a Serengeti-like lion encounter) and it’s possible to walk over hot golden-grass savannah as hundreds of Bohor reedbuck, Menelik’s bushbuck and even the occasional towering mountain nyala graze unconcerned a few dozen metres away.

Bale won’t appeal to everyone, but for those who relish in getting off the beaten track and walking through stunning, wildlife-busy mountainscapes, this is easily the best national park in Ethiopia.

Where the Ethiopian wolf roams
Overall rating
4/5

Located 400km southeast of Addis Ababa, the 2200km² Bale Mountains National Park comprises a magnificently diverse landscape. The national park, set aside in the 1960s and currently supported by the Frankfurt Zoological Society, protects the higher reaches of the Bale mountain range. The high altitude, afro-montane Sanetti Plateau rises to over 4000m and includes Mount Tullo Deemtu (4377m): the second highest peak in Ethiopia and tallest mountain in the southern Ethiopia highlands.

In the Bale Mountains National Park you stand an excellent chance of seeing many mammals and birds that are endemic to Ethiopia. Over and above the wild Alpine scenery, Bale’s premier attraction is the relative ease with which you can see up to a dozen endemic birds, as well as Ethiopian wolves and mountain nyala. The spectacular Sanetti Plateau at sunrise is probably the best place in Africa to spot the rare and endangered Ethiopian wolf.

The well-maintained trails of the Bale Mountains National Park are perfect for hiking and horse riding. Your trek – whether on foot or horseback – will take you on an attractive weeklong circuit across an undulating plateau peppered with numerous glacial lakes and swamps, and surrounded by surreal volcanic ridges. The desolate plateau exudes a strong sense of wilderness, while the park’s southern slopes are covered by the lush and largely unexplored Harenna Forest.

Make sure you come well equipped to deal with the weather and altitude, because a multi-day trek exploring the Bale Mountains National Park should not be overlooked. Bale Mountains is the ultimate safari destination for nature enthusiasts, intrepid hikers, fishers, wildlife watchers and seasoned twitchers.

THE place to see the Ethiopian Wolf
Overall rating
3/5

This is the jewel in the crown of Ethiopia’s national parks – it is THE place to see the highly endangered Ethiopian wolf as well as a hotspot for a number of Ethiopia’s endemic birds. It is a stunningly beautiful park, with wild alpine scenery on top of the 4000m high Sanetti Plateau, and juniper and hagenia woodlands on the lower foothills. The Ethiopian wolf is relatively easy to see on the plateau – though they are quite shy, and difficult to photograph. Endemic birds on the plateau include the blue-winged goose, Rouget’s rail, wattled ibis, Abyssinian longclaw and spot breasted lapwing. Although not endemic, we also had great sightings of bearded vulture up here.

In the juniper forest on the foothills, you should hopefully see the mountain nyala and Menelik’s bushbuck, and endemic bird specials such as Abyssian catbird, black-headed siskin and white-backed black tit. Make sure you schedule enough time to visit both these very different habitats in Bale.
As well as the more basic rest-camp at the Park HQ, the newly opened Bale Mountain Lodge is a game-changer in Ethiopia’s eco-tourism industry, with knowledgeable guides, great food and comfortable chalets.

Average Expert Rating

  • 3.9/5
  • Wildlife
  • Scenery
  • Bush Vibe
  • Birding

Rating Breakdown

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