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Into the wild…Bale Mountains

It’s true that no visit to Ethiopia is complete without a circuit of the Northern Highlands; rich with orthodox Christian tradition and famed for its rock-hewn churches. The north also boasts the dramatic Simien mountains with its gelada baboons and walia ibex. However, for those seeking to explore a little further, the Bale Mountain region is a rewarding extension.

Situated approximately 500km south-east of the capital Addis Ababa, the Bale Mountains region is a nature lover’s paradise, with breathtaking and varied scenery, and a huge biodiversity including many rare and endemic species. To make things even more enticing, visitors can now stay at the newly opened luxurious Bale Mountain Lodge, overlooking the mountains and forest.

Due to time constraints, I made the journey from Addis Ababa all the way to the lodge in one hit, a journey time of about nine hours or so, including meal and photo stops. Fortunately I was able to sit back and doze off while my experienced driver tackled the hair-raising, rough forest roads of the last section in the dark. The more sensible option is to spend a night en route at Hawassa, a town on the shores of Lake Awassa, where a small fish market is also held. Alternatively, just shy of the mountains, the town of Goba also has simple accommodation at the Wabe Shabelle Hotel, about a seven-hour drive from the capital. For the return journey you can spend a night or two along the shores of Lake Langano in the Rift Valley, and – for those with more time – dip down and add in the delightful Aregash lodge in the town of Yirgalem. Meanwhile, if you are a second time Ethiopia visitor and have travelled in the north before, you can consider doing a full southern tour. Head down to the tribal areas, starting with Arba Minch and then along to Konso and the Omo valley. My first stop in the Bale region was at the park headquarters in Dinsho to pay entrance fees. Rather conveniently, the woods close by to the park offices play host to a large number of endemic mountain nyala (balbok). Sightings are more or less guaranteed, so it’s a good place to take a walk and stretch the legs before pressing on.

The road lead onwards through the town of Goba and – while negotiating carefully around various forms of livestock in the road – I began to climb through increasingly green and lush scenery passing small villages of thatched huts.

Eventually we passed the treeline and reached the Sanetti plateau, Africa’s largest mountain plateau region. At over 4,000 metres above sea level, you are higher here than all but the upper peaks of the Simien range in the north. In my case, darkness had descended and, poking my head out of the window into the chill air, I could see the eerie cloud mists enveloping us. Fortunately, to visit Bale Mountain lodge the plateau must be crossed in both directions, and I was able to complete the experience twice, including in the daylight. It's an area of outstanding stark beauty, with endless vistas of tundra, frozen pools of water and mountain peaks. The sparse vegetation is dotted here and there with prehistoric looking giant lobelia plants. As well as plentiful birdlife, the plateau is the best place in Ethiopia to see the endemic and endangered Ethiopian wolf.

Descending the other side of the plateau, I entered into the Harenna forest, an area stretched over 1000 sq km, consisting of virgin cloud forest. There are more than 280 species of birds in the park, many of them rare. Such mammals include the forest pig, Menelik’s bushbuck and the Bale monkey – only named in 2000 and found close to the lodge. Meanwhile, the Abyssinian lion was spotted by a lodge visitor a few days prior to my arrival, and leopards are also resident in the forest. Finally, rare and unusual amphibians and reptiles abound in the forest. During my stay, two researchers staying at the lodge’s research station were busy making forays into the park; trapping, recording (and releasing) frogs and snakes. It seemed a dubious task to me, but they were full of enthusiasm for their favourite creatures and the job at hand. There was new excitement in the air, as a possible new species of snake had recently been spotted. Happily, all guests at the lodge are able to learn more about wildlife and the work of researchers with visits to the research station during their stay.

The first of its kind in Ethiopia, Bale Mountain Lodge is located in a clearing, with cosy cottages looking out towards a majestic forested peak. It offers a fully inclusive package, alongside a wide range of nature based activities, similar to safari lodges in eastern and southern Africa. The majority of these are led by resident naturalist James Kuria Ndung'u, an expert ornithologist and experienced guide. James led me on a walk into the lush rainforest, through gnarled trees dripping with epiphytes and covered in emerald moss. Wandering into a yellow-flowered forest clearing, I spotted the distinct black and white flash of colobus monkeys. As we came back out to the road and the clouds parted, hundreds of blue and yellow butterflies began to flutter around in the sunshine. Another walk took us past a village, through fields with horses grazing under the yellow droplets of flowering St John’s Wort trees; past mountain streams to a crashing waterfall.

After two nights in the wilds of the mountains it was time to leave. This time I had the opportunity to cross back over the plateau in the early morning, the best time for wolf spotting. The wolves are social animals and this is when they regroup and greet each other. Before descending back down on my journey towards Addis and on to other places, I was lucky enough to spot 12 of these beautiful creatures.