Ethiopia. A desiccated land of trouble and strife. Dusty. Inhospitable. Harsh and unfriendly. A country of unimaginable hardships, droughts, and famine.
Despite oft-held assumptions that it’s a desert,Ethiopia is in fact dominated by lush green mountains, fertile highlands, wide rivers, Rift valley lakes and verdant rainforests.
And as for that stifling heat?
Well, here I am in the Bale Mountain National Park some 400 kilometers south east of Ethiopia’s Capital city, Addis Ababa, and I can’t feel my fingers for the cold.
I am standing in snow; sleet stings my face,but despite the discomforting temperatures I am in absolute raptures.
Just twenty meters from my position are a pair of wolves. Yes, Wolves! Wolves in Africa! Stalking, hunting, working together as a team to ambush a rabbit.
I dare not take a breath lest they notice me and run away, but so intent are they on their hunt that they either don’t see me or they simply don’t care.
One of them is stalking like a leopard, its body held low, its ears flattened back against its head. The other is standing bolt upright, further away but clearly visible to the rabbit.
My heart is pounding now, partly because up here on the Sanetti Plateau at 4000 meters, the air is so thin that the slightest exertion is exhausting. Mostly though, it’s because of the hunt.
Wolf A, a beautiful creature of rusty hues and glistening eyes, backs off slightly from where the rabbit is hiding. He is lying of course; telling his prey “I do not see you”.
The Rabbit, as still as the rock against which he believes he is concealed, watches the wolf. Nose quivering, face locked in fear.
And then, as fast as lightning,it happens.
Wolf B springs up from beneath a shrub, surprising the rabbit, causing it to bolt without thinking. Wolf Atakes it down.
“Wow! That was something” Sultan hisses from the relative balminess of our 4×4 vehicle.He is parked just a few meters away on the only road in the Bale Mountains, smiling warmly from behind his traditional Muslim head scarf.
The wolves are now gone. They vanished within seconds of consuming their food;leaving me standing, breathless, shivering and awed.
I once read that Ethiopian Wolves are not only the rarest of allthe world’s 37 Canid species, but are also one of the world’s rarest animals, period.
“Just 450 left we think” says Sultan Kaedir, a wolf tracker with the Ethiopian Wolf Conservation Project “But here on the Sanetti Plateau, they are easy to see”
The Bale Mountains of Southern Ethiopia do not yetfeatureheavily on Africa’s tourist mapdespite their awesome appearance and high levels of endemic animals.Like most high mountain ranges, they are stratified with an array of startlingly different habitats, all of which are magical in their own right. The lowlands are carpeted in tall cloud forests where black leopards have been seen and endemic Bale monkeysshare their treetop domainwith touracos and silvery cheeked hornbills.
Higher up, you pass through a belt of moss and mist shrouded woodland called the Juniper forests where gnarled and twisted trees conjure up childhood memories of dark fairy tales.Further up still is a fynbos like habitat, and then, at 3500 meters and up, you’ll reach a beautiful plateau of Afro-Alpine Mooreland.
This is where you find the wolves, going about their business hunting mice and mole rats amongst oddly shaped lobelia plants, swirling clouds, and dense silvery shrubs.
It’s a truly amazing place, but why so few tourists?
Well, it’s always been a schlep to get there, what with the rough road and all, and the accommodation options have until now been absolutely atrocious.
Hardy backpackers who don’t mindstaying in run down hotels or outdated tents in sub-zero temperatures have always enjoyed the R40 options, but those of us with more discerning tastes have had nothing to choose from.
Butthat’s changed now, thanks to the opening of the Bale Mountain Lodge:- an upmarket all inclusive hotel, nestled amongst towering trees of the Harenna forest section of the park.
It is here that I stayed, taking advantage of the easy access to the highland plateau which is less than an hour’s drive away.
But Bale is not only about wolves. The Harenna forest is so mysterious that whenever a science team goes in there, they invariably come out clutching a list of brand new species. Huge trees, encrusted with mosses and ferns and brimming with tropical birds,throw their shade over a spidery network of hiking trails. There are waterfalls and mountain viewpoints to walk to, and quite a few avian endemics to find.
But it was the newly discovered Bale Monkey that was top of my list.
I heard them chattering, and I saw the remnants of their bamboo meals littering the forest floor,but alas, themost I saw of one was fleeting glimpse of a bum and a tail.
I wasn’t disappointed though; Colobus monkeys, beautiful birds, mountain nyala, bush pigs and handsome scenery were all to be seen aplenty.
But for the ultimate animal encounter, you must head North to the towering cliffs and precipitous plummets of the mighty Simian Mountains.
It’s a UNESCO world heritage park, a place of dizzying peaks and ragged canyons which can best be summed up as the Drakensberg on steroids. Here you’ll find the Gelada.
In my humble opinion, the weirdest, friendliest and most charismatic primate on the planet. Move over Gorillas, Geladas are the next big thing.
Imagine yourself, if you will, sitting on an undulating plane as green and as manicured as a golf course. This idyllic ‘garden’ terminates at a cliff edge which drops more than a kilometer straight down. If you fell, chances are you could whistle your favorite tune in entirety before hitting the ground.
Your attention has, until now, been taken up by a small cluster of the incredibly rare Walia Ibex; a long horned mountain goat found here and nowhere else on earth.
The males, arrogant and proud, fill the air with the percussion of their knocking horns. A pair of bearded vultures circle overhead.
Then, suddenly, a horde of hairy beasts pours forth from the lip of the cliff and like an advancing army, they push on towards you. There’s literally hundreds of them.
The mountain winds send their shaggy coats into disarray. The field fills up with chattering monkeys, and yet still more come; spilling out onto the greenery like an endless river of hair and teeth and colour.
The ibex keep up their head butting and pay the swarm no heed.
Its alarming at first. After all, they have the largest canine teeth of any primate, yet they are peaceful.
Within moments you are surrounded on all sides. Pinned in. Unable to move.
“I think this group is about 500 strong” My guide from the Simian Mountain Lodge tells me “But I’ve seen bigger”
Geladas are the last of their kind. A remnant species from a group of grass eating monkeys that once dominated the African Continent. Basically, they are the cows of the Simians, spending their entire day marching across the highlands grazing on shoots.
In the Simian National Park, there is a rule that says you must not approach a Gelada to within two meters. It’s for their sake rather than yours. But when you are siting amongst them, as I was, and the throng encircles you, there’s not much to be done about it.
They plonk themselves down next to you, sidle up beside you, nudge up against you; and their adorable babies cartwheel right over your legs.
You don’t really exist in their eyes, so intent are they on socializing and grazing.
And like all monkeys the world over, they are busy, busy beasts.
There’s always some entertaining antics to be seen, such as big males sparring, crèches of fuzzy youngsters, politicking and bluster. It’s truly an amazing experience; and what made it even better was that my guide and I were the only two people there.
Ethiopia, as I discovered, is not a desolate place of sand and heat and underweight folk. It is, instead, a surprising place of astounding landscapes and wildlife encounters the likes of which you cannot have elsewhere.
It’s a new side to Africa I didn’t know about, and one which I will certainly head back to whenever I can.
Why so Rare?
Although Ethiopia has around fifteen National Parks and Nature Reserves, human encroachment is a major problem in almost all of them.
Ethiopian wolves were common and widespread as recently as the mid-19th century, but not so today.
Now they are found only in certain fragmented highland regions.
In Bale, pastoralists bring their cattle and dogs even to the highest reaches of the park, spreading diseases to the wolves such as rabies and distemper.
The Ethiopian Wolf Conservation Programme has a highly effective vaccination project in place, yet still rabies outbreaks occur. In 1991 an epidemic killed around 75% of the population. Hybridization with domestic dogs is also a serious problem.
The plight of the Ibex of the Simians is similarly dire. Hunting and habitat loss caused their numbers to plummet to under 200 but recent conservation efforts have allowed for a gradual comeback. There are now an estimated 600 in the park
Although not officially endangered, Gelada monkeys must compete with tens of thousands of people who reside within the boundaries of the Simian Mountain National Park. Crop raids are common as is human retribution despite laws prohibiting the killing of monkeys. Domestic and feral dogs are very common. Wolves are most definitely not.
Despite all this, there is great hope for Ethiopia’s beleaguered wildlife thanks to a valuable growth in Eco Tourism.
Tourism related cash is being channeled into conservation efforts and the government, although apparently apathetic towards wildlife, may well change its focus in the face of growing international attention.
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