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Bale Mountains National Park - A view from our expert author


Sanetti Plateau  by Ariadne Van Zandbergen Africa Image Library www.africaimagelibrary.comThe Sanetti Plateau supports heath-like vegetation, typical of the Afro-Alpine habitat on Africa's highest mountains © Ariadne Van Zandbergen, Africa Image Library

Accessible as it is today, Bale was one of the last parts of Africa to attract serious scientific exploration, and it remains sufficiently out of the way even today that very few travellers make it there by comparison with, say, the Simiens.

This scenic 2,200km² national park, set aside in the 1960s but never officially gazetted, protects the higher reaches of the Bale range, including Mount Tullo Deemtu, which at 4,377m is the second-highest peak in Ethiopia. The main attractions of the park are the wild alpine scenery, particularly on the 4,000m-high Sanetti Plateau, and the relative ease with which one can see up to a dozen endemic birds as well as Ethiopian wolves and mountain nyala. Bale is very accessible on public transport, and can be explored on foot, on horseback or by vehicle. The road across the Sanetti Plateau, built by the Derg to provide an alternative emergency access route to the south, is reportedly the highest all-weather road in Africa.

The Bale Mountains are of relatively ancient volcanic origin, having formed from solidified lava more than ten million years ago. The slopes above 3,500m supported glacial activity until as recently as 2,000 years ago, and still receive the occasional snowfall, most often in the dry season between November and February. More than 40 streams including the Web, Genale and Welmel rise in the Bale Watershed, most of which eventually flow into the mighty Juba or Wabe Shebelle rivers after they cross the border into Somalia.

The main habitats protected by Bale are juniper and hagenia woodland, Afro-montane forest and Afro-alpine moorland. The juniper–hagenia woodland lies at elevations of between 2,500m and 3,300m, and is mostly found on the northern slopes, such as around the park headquarters at Dinsho. At similar elevations on the southern slopes, the vast and little-studied Harenna Forest is the park’s main stand of Afro-montane forest. Afro-alpine moorland is characteristic of altitudes above 3,500m, with the most extensive patches to be found on the Sanetti Plateau and in the Web river valley. The moorland, as well as the open vegetation below the forest zone, is characterised by wonderful wild-flower displays, particularly between August and November. One of the most common and distinctive plants throughout the Bale region is the red-hot poker, an aloe that grows to shrub height and can be identified by its orange spear-shaped flowers.Red-hot pokers Ethiopia by Ariadne Van Zandbergen Africa Image Library www.africaimagelibrary.com

The characteristic large mammals of Bale’s juniper woodland are the mountain nyala and Menelik’s bushbuck (both endemic to Ethiopia), as well as warthog and bohor reedbuck. Moorland is the favoured habitat of the Ethiopian wolf. Commonly seen mammals of the extensive Harenna Forest, which lies south of the Sanetti Plateau, include guereza, vervet monkey, the localised bamboo-dwelling Bale monkey, olive baboon, Menelik’s bushbuck, bushpig and the lesser known giant forest hog. Large predators such as lion, leopard and African wild dog are still resident but are seldom seen by visitors. Bale National Park region is undoubtedly the best part of Ethiopia for endemic birds.

Accessible as it is today, Bale was one of the last parts of Africa to attract serious scientific exploration, and it remains sufficiently out of the way even today that very few travellers make it there by comparison with, say, the Simiens.

(Photo: Red-hot pokers © Ariadne Van Zandbergen, Africa Image Library)

The earliest-recorded visitor to the Sanetti Plateau was the German naturalist Carl van Erlanger, who traversed it in 1899, discovering the giant mole rat in the process. Bizarrely, no further expedition to the upper slopes of Bale was documented between then and the late 1950s, when the Finnish geographer Helmer Smels made several visits to the area, discovering – among other things – that the mountains hosted a previously unsuspected population of the rare Ethiopian wolf. It was the British naturalist Leslie Brown, upon visiting the mountains in 1963, who first recognised that Bale might actually be the wolf’s main stronghold, and it was he who proposed that the area be set aside as a national park. Only in 1974 did James Malcolm collect the first wolf census data to confirm Brown’s belief. The wolves are now recognised as being Africa’s most endangered carnivore, as well as the world’s rarest canid species.

(Entrance US$5.50 per 24hrs; vehicle entrance US$1.50/2.50 1–12 seater/12+ seater; www.balemountains.org)

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