Climate & Geography
Bale can be rewarding at any time. Although the nights are cold, November to March is dry and visibility is at its best, thus it’s the ideal time to trek. August to October is the wettest time and wildflowers are most abundant, though the rain usually comes only in the afternoon and the fog can last for days. Negative temperatures are normal at night on the Sanetti Plateau, whose name means ‘where strong winds blow’ in Oromo.
The park stretches over 2400 sq km and ranges in altitude from 1500m to 4377m. It covers the largest area above 3000m in Africa. The Harenna Escarpment splits the park in two, running fracture-like from east to west. North of the escarpment lies the high-altitude plateau known as the Sanetti Plateau (4000m), which is dotted with several peaks, including Tullu Deemtu (4377m), the second-highest in Ethiopia. To the south, the land falls away from the plateau, and a thick heather belt gives way to the 4000-sq-km Harenna Forest.
The park can be divided into three main ecological zones. The northernmost area, the Gaysay Grassland, near the park headquarters at Dinsho, consists of grassy, riverine plains and bushland. From 2500m to 3300m, woodland of mainly Hagenia abyssinica and Juniperus procera is found. The abundant wildflowers in the area include geranium, lobelia and alchemilla. Higher up, montane grassland gives way to heather, which here rarely grows tall.
The second zone, the Sanetti Plateau, is home to the continent’s largest swath of Afro-alpine plants, some of which have adapted to the extreme conditions by either remaining very small or becoming very large. The best known is the curious-looking giant lobelia (Lobelia rhynchopetalum), which can soar to 9m in height. The silver Helichrysum (‘everlasting’ flowers) are the dominant wildflowers. Keep an eye out for the indigenous Abyssinian rose.
The third habitat, the moist, tropical Harenna Forest, is the second-largest remaining forest in Ethiopia, and its only cloud forest. It’s little explored and scientists are still revealing new species. At the southern end of the park, there are some enormous podocarpus and fig trees, and wild coffee still grows in their shadows. At its highest reaches, around the Harenna Escarpment, the giant heather stands, with twisted trunks draped in ‘old man’s beard’ lichens and thick moss, and with cloud swirling around, the forest is straight out of a Grimm brothers fairy tale.
Seventy-eight mammal species reside here, but none excites like the Ethiopian wolf; sightings are almost guaranteed on the Sanetti Plateau. The rare mountain nyala is also likely to be seen. Other common sightings include Menelik’s bushbucks, Bohor reedbucks, grey duikers, spotted hyenas, warthogs, the giant molerat, black-and-white colobus and the only recently defined bamboo-eating Bale monkey. The area around the park headquarters and the nearby Gaysay Grassland are two of the best places to see many of the larger mammals.
The Bale Mountains are a hot spot for endemic wildlife and there are more endemic mammals (including giant molerats and the bamboo-eating Bale monkey) in this spot than in any other area of equal size in the world. There are also many endemic amphibians.
In the Harenna Forest reside giant forest hogs, black-and-white colobus, leopards, lions and African hunting dogs. The last three are rarely seen.
The Bale Mountains’ bird list is 280 species strong, but, again, it’s the nine Ethiopian-Eritrean endemics (including the locally endemic Bale parisoma) that set Bale apart. On the plateau, sightings of the blue-winged goose, wattled ibis, thick-billed raven, black-headed siskin, spot-breasted plover and Rouget’s rail are almost guaranteed. The birdlife in the juniper forests around the park headquarters is outstanding, too, where Abyssinian catbirds and Abyssinian longclaw are two top ticks.
The Ethiopian Wolf
The Ethiopian wolf (Canis simensis) is the rarest canid (dog-family member) in the world. Found only in the Ethiopian highlands, it's teetering on the verge of extinction with only about 300 believed to be remaining. The Bale Mountains are home to the largest population, with approximately 150.
In Amharic, the wolf is known as a key kebero (red jackal), and indeed it does outwardly resemble one. Living in family groups of around 13 adults, the wolves are highly territorial and family oriented. When the dominant female in the pack gives birth to her annual litter of between two and six pups, all members chip in to rear the young. When it comes to hunting, however, the wolves forage alone, favouring giant molerats and other rodents.
The main threats to the wolves are rabies and canine distemper, caught from the domestic dog population. These days wolves and dogs are vaccinated. Lack of genetic diversity is also a problem.
Visit the Ethiopian Wolf Conservation Programme (www.ethiopianwolf.org) to learn more.