Ethiopia – Bale Mountains National Park

Over New Year this year we went to Ethiopia, our first visit to the Horn of Africa, to visit the Bale Mountains National Park and Lake Langano, one of the Rift Valley lakes in Ethiopia. The visit to Bale Mountains National Park was particularly anticipated – we have had the park on the “must visit” list for some time, however owing to the basic nature of infrastructure in and around the park it looked like a tricky destination to cover in a  satisfactory manner during a two week office holiday. (Alas travel horizons are a little more limited without a full year of travel time at your disposal!). We were therefore excited to hear of the exciting plan of former  British Army officer Guy Levene and his wife Yvonne to break new ground for Ethiopian tourism by opening a high quality eco-lodge inside the National Park and wasted no time in booking our stay at Bale Mountain Lodge. They were kind enough to allow us to visit before the official opening of the lodge and while some aspects were still in construction the quality of the lodge and the driving ambition behind it were clear to see. Without any templates or established models to follow it is a bold move indeed to create a new tourism product for Ethiopia from the ground up, however high quality buildings have been completed and local employment as guides, drivers, lodge staff and construction workers has been created at good rates. Like any very remote lodge managing the logistics and supply lines is a full time job requiring a firm hand to keep things running smoothly however with cars, drivers and guides provided visitors will be able to explore this unique and remarkably diverse national park as never before.

http://www.balemountainlodge.com/

Sunlight floods through a tree thick with vines, moss and epiphytic growth in the Harenna forest.

Sunlight floods through a tree thick with vines, moss and epiphytic growth in the Harenna forest.

Looking down from the Afro-alpine plateau towards the lower lying forest areas surrounding the cultivated land and village of Rira.

Looking down from the Afro-alpine plateau towards the lower lying forest areas surrounding the cultivated land and village of Rira.

Morning mist on the edge of Rira village.

Morning mist on the edge of Rira village.

Most village houses in Rira have woven bamboo fences surrounding their crops. The houses do not have chimneys so the smoke drifts lazily through the roof in the early mornings.

Most village houses in Rira have woven bamboo fences surrounding their crops. The houses do not have chimneys so the smoke drifts lazily through the roof in the early mornings.

Baboons sun themselves on the sides of the road through the national park.

Baboons sun themselves on the sides of the road through the national park.

The Harenna Cultural Lodge in Rira has some small huts for tourists.

The Harenna Cultural Lodge in Rira has some small huts for tourists.

Outside of Rira there are a few more isolated homesteads that can be seen when looking down from the high elevations.

Outside of Rira there are a few more isolated homesteads that can be seen when looking down from the high elevations.

The stream near Bale Mountain Lodge's "micro hydro" project.

The stream near Bale Mountain Lodge’s “micro hydro” project.

Look carefully through the foliage and you may see one of the endemic chameleons such as Chamaeleo harennae, the Harenna Chameleon.

Look carefully through the foliage and you may see one of the endemic chamaeleons such as Chamaeleo harennae, the Harenna Chamaeleon.

There are many beautiful old trees with thick moss coverings around Rira.

There are many beautiful old trees with thick moss coverings around Rira.

On the slopes above Rira is the erica forest composed principally of giant heather trees.

On the slopes above Rira is the erica forest composed principally of giant heather trees.

Behind and beyond the peaks visible from the forested slopes is the largest Afro-alpine area in Africa.

Behind and beyond the peaks visible from the forested slopes is the largest Afro-alpine area in Africa.

The mountainside can be steep in places and overall ascends up through more than 2000m of elevation before reaching the plateau above 4000m.

The mountainside can be steep in places and overall ascends up through more than 2000m of elevation before reaching the plateau above 4000m.

From the northern edge of the plateau on a clear day the view stretches far out into the plains beyond the mountains with the unmistakable Giant Lobelias in the foreground.

From the northern edge of the plateau on a clear day the view stretches far out into the plains beyond the mountains with the unmistakable Giant Lobelias in the foreground.

Despite the altitude, and the presence of patches of ice on the plateau some sheltered areas look like high altitude gardens rich with kniphofia and other flowering plants.

Despite the altitude, and the presence of patches of icy snow on the plateau on occasion some sheltered areas look like high altitude gardens rich with kniphofia and other flowering plants.

There is a high density of raptors on the plateau, including the charismatic Lammergeier vulture. The Lammergeier eats bone marrow, and to get the marrow it carries bones far up into the sky and then drops them onto rocky terrain below to break them open. The Lammergeier pictured has a section of backbone in its claws.

There is a high density of raptors on the plateau, including the charismatic Lammergeier vulture. The Lammergeier eats bone marrow, and to get the marrow it carries bones far up into the sky and then drops them onto rocky terrain below to break them open. The Lammergeier pictured has a section of backbone in its claws.

The plateau has many pools and lakes on it, one of the largest is the Black Lake. In the foreground is a species of "everlasting flowers" common in the high altitude areas of Bale.

The plateau has many pools and lakes on it, one of the largest is the Black Lake. In the foreground is a species of “everlasting flowers” common in the high altitude areas of Bale.

On a clear day the deep blue sky adds to the ruggedly beautiful landscape of the plateau.

On a clear day the deep blue sky adds to the ruggedly beautiful landscape of the plateau.

The edges of the lakes support verdant growth of many pretty alpine plants.

The edges of the lakes support verdant growth of many pretty alpine plants.

One plant in particular, from the Alchemilla family, is the main food source of the endemic Giant Mole Rat.

One plant in particular, from the Alchemilla family, is the main food source of the endemic Giant Mole Rat.

Giant Mole Rats are unusual creatures, and are indeed on the large side, weighing up to a kilo.

Giant Mole Rats are unusual creatures, and are indeed on the large side, weighing up to a kilo.

Giant Mole Rats are the primary food source of the Ethiopian Wolf, one of the most famous species in the park and the rarest canid in the world, found only on the plateau.

Giant Mole Rats are the primary food source of the Ethiopian Wolf, one of the most famous species in the park and the rarest canid in the world, found only on the plateau.

Whilst it may look dry and barren the plateau is in fact teeming with rodent life, thus helping to support the wolf and raptor populations.

Whilst it may look dry and barren the plateau is in fact teeming with rodent life, thus helping to support the wolf and raptor populations.

During the day Ethiopian Wolves hunt alone, Giant Mole Rats are not big enough to share between an entire pack.

During the day Ethiopian Wolves hunt alone, Giant Mole Rats are not big enough to share between an entire pack.

The wolves regroup towards the end of the day and will sleep in a group.

The wolves slowly regroup towards the end of the day and will sleep in a group.

An eagle soars over the plateau. A wide variety of birds of prey can be seen.

An eagle soars over the plateau. A wide variety of birds of prey can be seen.

The most striking plant of the plateau is without doubt the Giant Lobelia. Enduring the continual wind, regular freezes and high UV radiation these plants grow for approximately ten years before flowering one and dying. Amazingly, they are pollinated by small sunbirds that venture up to the heights of 4,000m or more where the largest lobelia groups are. This plant was close to the peak of Tulu Dimtu, Ethiopia's second highest point at 4,377m.

The most striking plant of the plateau is without doubt the Giant Lobelia. Enduring the continual wind, regular freezes and high UV radiation these plants grow for approximately ten years before flowering one and dying. Amazingly, they are pollinated by small sunbirds that venture up to the heights of 4,000m or more where the largest lobelia groups are. This plant was close to the peak of Tulu Dimtu, Ethiopia’s second highest point at 4,377m.

Giant Lobelia flower close-up.

Giant Lobelia flower close-up.

The interest does not stop with the lobelias however, there are many pretty alpines on the rocky faces and ledges.

The interest does not stop with the lobelias however, there are many pretty alpines on the rocky faces and ledges.

Although it was the dry season when we visited, this did not stop hailstorms and icy snow showers on the plateau which add to the extremely unusual feel of the place.

Although it was the dry season when we visited, this did not stop hailstorms and icy snow showers on the plateau which add to the extremely unusual feel of the place.

The view from the peak of Tulu Dimtu, Ethiopia's second highest point, and the highest point in the Bale Mountains.

The view from the peak of Tulu Dimtu, Ethiopia’s second highest point, and the highest point in the Bale Mountains.

Coming back down from the plateau the plant life starts with low growing heather but soon becomes more varied.

Coming back down from the plateau the plant life starts with low growing heather but soon becomes more varied.

The Bale Monkey is endemic to the Bale Mountains and little is known about its biology. It is commonly found around bamboo forests, however on both occasions we saw it is was eating small blue flowers from a grassy clearing.

The Bale Monkey is endemic to the Bale Mountains and little is known about its biology. It is commonly found around bamboo forests, however on both occasions we saw them they were eating small blue flowers from a grassy clearing.

Black and White Colobus monkeys are well represented in the park and also more easily seen.

Black and White Colobus monkeys are well represented in the park and also more easily seen.

This kite has caught a small black bird and is plucking it on a tree stump.

This kite has caught a small black bird (?) and is plucking it on a tree stump.

More usually seen in the undergrowth or when crossing the road is Menedik's bushbuck.

More usually seen in the undergrowth or when crossing the road is Menedik’s bushbuck.

Across the different habitats of Bale there are quite a few different deer and antelope. This is a female Mountain Nyala in the Gaysay grasslands area of Bale.

Across the different habitats of Bale there are quite a few different deer and antelope. This is a female Mountain Nyala in the Gaysay grasslands area of Bale.

The males of the Mountain Nyala have impressively curved horns.

The males of the Mountain Nyala have impressively curved horns.

Underlining the amazing contrast of habitats in this small corner of Ethiopia, barely a couple of hours drive through the Harenna forest down to lower altitudes the environment changes again and before long you enter arid desert like conditions.

Underlining the amazing contrast of habitats in this small corner of Ethiopia, barely a couple of hours drive through the Harenna forest down to lower altitudes the environment changes again and before long you enter arid desert like conditions.


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