The Edge of the World

When it comes to visiting Ethiopia for nature enthusiasts, or anyone else who enjoys outdoor activities, there's a consensus about the two can't-miss locations: the Simien Mountains and their counterpart on the southeastern side of the Rift Valley, the Bale Mountains. Both are volcanic plateaus towering above the rest of the Ethiopian Highlands, the solidified remnants of massive basalt lava flows that covered the area as the East African Rift was beginning to form. While the Simien Mountains are the more popular destination for tourists for their spectacular geography and (relatively) easier access, for birders and other wildlife enthusiasts the Bale Mountains, with their much higher wildlife diversity, are where it's at. 

I'd been looking forward to visiting the Bale Mountains since I decided to spend the summer in Ethiopia, but the main issue was access: they're a 9-hour drive away from Addis Ababa, and I figured I'd need at least 4 days for a proper visit. However, Mesfin convinced me that it was actually possible to visit them in only 3 days, so I decided to make them the destination of my final weekend trip. Lill and Christina joined me again, as excited to be up in the mountains and out of the big city as I was. 

It really was a long drive from Addis to the Bale Mountains proper, leaving early in the morning and stopping only in the town of Assela to have some of their famous fruit juice (easily the best mango shake I've ever had), and in the town of Dodola for lunch. The drive was an interesting one though, descending from Addis Ababa in the western highlands down into the dry and dusty Rift Valley, then back up into the highlands on the southeast side of the rift. Things got progressively lusher as we moved southeast, and past Dodola the scenery became truly montane as the road wound its way upwards. 

Scenery at the edge of the Bale Mountains

Eventually the winding road flattened out, and we were on a wide, green plateau studded with the huge blooms of Red-hot Pokers and Giant Fennel. The only the birding stop we had time for that afternoon was in the woodland around the Bale Mountain National Park headquarters and the former Dinsho Lodge, yet another example of Ethiopia's tradition of huge but shuttered wildlife tourism lodges (by this point I've been to more closed lodges than I have opened ones). The woodlands themselves have a number of Ethiopian highland endemic birds, but the real stars are the owls, as many hard-to-find species are found only around there. Finding day-roosting owls there is about as difficult as finding day-roosting owls usually is (which is to say, very difficult), but thankfully there's a local man named Abdela who has taken up the mantle of Owl Whisperer, and will go out to look for the owl roosting sites so that they can be spotted by birders with a minimum of disturbance.

We stopped at the park headquarters to pay our entrance fees and pick up Abdela, who Mesfin had spoken with ahead of time to look for the owls with us. By the time we were heading into the woodland by car, it was drizzling, though there was still wildlife around, including a foraging Chestnut-naped Francolin (endemic to the Ethiopian Highlands), and a small herd of Menelik's Bushbuck, including two females that were butting heads. 

Chestnut-naped Francolin

Female Menelik's Bushbucks in some kind of conflict

The first owl we were looking for was Cape Eagle Owl, which Abdela had found roosting some distance away from the road. Eventually we got to a point where the 4x4 could go no further, and we set out on foot despite the pouring rain. It was easily another half mile before we got to the roosting site, and the rain only got stronger, leaving us completely soaked from the waist down despite having raincoats. The roosting spot itself was an isolated cliff face in the middle of some agricultural fields, but by the time we got there there were no owls to be seen. Abdela set out looking for them on his own, while we sheltered in a dry spot underneath the cliff overhang questioning our life choices.

The scenery in the pouring rain

I decided to look around a bit from my dry spot, and happened to notice a dark spot in the silhouetted foliage directly above me. I squinted through my binoculars, and sure enough that dark spot happened to be two huge Cape Eagle Owls! Just as I was pointing them out to Lill and Christina they flew off, and I set out after them in the rain. It took some searching, and I had a spectacular fall into the mud in the process, but finally I found one perched on a bare branch. I was able to get a few pictures, then we headed back to the car. 

A very bedraggled Cape Eagle-owl

By that time we were soaked through and freezing, and to make things even more fun, the road had gotten so muddy Mesfin couldn't get the car back up the way we had come, and would instead have to take an alternate route back to the main road while we went on foot looking for other owls. Lill and Christina made the eminently sensible choice to stay in the car, but I had come this far and I was willing to put up with more discomfort if it meant seeing the damn owls. The walk back up towards the woodlands with Abdela was anything but fun, with the rain increasing and me getting even colder and wetter. We finally got to the next spot, an area of some tall pine trees, and after a bit of searching Abdela pointed out an amazing Abyssinian Owl squinting down at us from a high branch. Looking like a larger version of a Long-eared Owl, Abyssinian Owls have a reputation for being extremely difficult throughout their range, even at known spots, so seeing one made it worth the discomfort (barely). 

Abyssinian Owl

The last owls to look for were African Wood Owls, and these turned out to be in the trees right next to the former Dinsho Lodge, where Mesfin, Lill and Christina were waiting in the nice warm, dry car. The pair of owls was somewhat easier to find, which is a good thing because by that time I was so cold my fingers were barely functional and I struggled even working my camera. After warming up a little bit, I decided to head back to the park headquarters on foot, so that I could find some more birds (I don't always make logical decisions). The rain had let up, and the walk was actually a pleasant one. There weren't many birds, but there were a few herds of huge Common Warthogs grazing, and many Mountain Nyala, a rare antelope that's now restricted to the Bale Mountains due to habitat destruction and hunting for its unique horns. 

African Wood Owl

Common Warthog

Male Mountain Nyala

Female Mountain Nyala
Back at the main road, I got back into the car once more, and we drove to the nearby town of Goba, at the foot of an escarpment leading to the highest part of the Bale Mountains. We stayed at the Wabe Shabelle Hotel in Goba, the go-to spot for travelers going to the Bale area. The hotel was probably quite fancy and modern at some point (around the 1980s I'm assuming), but it's become quite run-down since along with the general economic decline in the area. Still, the trickle of water coming out of the shower was hot, the internet was relatively functional, and the toilet had a seat on it, which was enough to put it among the better hotels I've stayed at in Ethiopia. 

The next day was to be our biggest day of the weekend, as we were exploring the Sanetti Plateau that caps the Bale massif. The drive from Goba started out flat, then the road began to get rougher and steeper as it ascended toward the plateau. Near the edge of the tree line, where the vegetation began to transition from montane woodland to full tundra, we stopped in an agricultural area that was a known spot for the local subspecies of Brown Parisoma, sometimes considered a full species. It took a while to find the Parisoma, but as I was looking I spotted my lifers Cinnamon Bracken Warbler and Abyssinian Catbird, the latter of which was my last Ethiopian highland endemic. 

Abyssinian Catbird
Kniphofia foliosa (aka Red-hot Poker), an Ethiopian endemic flower

As we were about to get back in the car, I spotted an African Harrier Hawk flying into a eucalyptus tree across the road. Upon close inspection, it turned out that it was raiding the nest of a Baglafecht Weaver, and soon emerged with a nestling in its talons, which it proceeded to happily dismember and eat in front of us. As we watched, it returned to the same nest and came back with yet another nestling- with the parent birds away, I guess the unattended nests were something like an all-you-can-eat raptor buffet. It wasn't the most pleasant of sights, but also one of the coolest animal behaviors I've seen in the wild. 

(I should warn that the pictures that follow are definitely not for the faint of heart)

African Harrier Hawk with a Baglafecht Weaver chick

Returning for another serving

With that unexpectedly grisly start to our morning, we continued upwards to the Sanetti Plateau, where the trees disappeared and were replaced by alpine moorland. Befitting of the ecosystem, just below the lip of the plateau we saw a pair of Moorland Francolins, an elusive bird of the African mountains that's considered an Ethiopian endemic in some lists. Unfortunately my camera lens had fogged up from the sudden temperature change, something I didn't notice until afterwards, meaning that my pictures weren't quite as good as they could have been.

Moorland Francolins

The Sanetti Plateau itself is a surreal landscape of rocky tundra, dotted with towering giant lobelias and flat alpine lakes. By the edge of one of the first lakes we passed by we happened upon a pair of spectacular Wattled Cranes, one of my primary targets for the trip, foraging in the heathland. Uncommon and declining throughout their range, Wattled Cranes are one of the specialty birds of the Bale Mountains, so it was a treat to be able to see a pair of them. There were some more of the usual highland birds in the area, including Ethiopian Siskins and many screaming Spot-breasted Lapwings.

Wattled Cranes

The landscape of the northern Sanetti Plateau

A little bit further down the road, we stopped by some rock formations so we could do some hiking across the plateau. That proved to be easier said than done, however, as the plateau was more than 4,000 meters above sea level (13,000 feet), and things like walking up hill or even crouching down to take a picture left us gasping for breath. Still, the landscape was amazing, and there were many cool plants and animals to distract us from our exhaustion, including Starck's Hares, Blick's Grass Rat, and the strange-looking Giant Mole Rat, all of which are endemic to Ethiopia and form the primary diet of the extremely rare Ethiopian Wolf.

Giant Mole Rat

Starck's Hare

Lobelia rhynchopetaluma giant lobelia endemic to Ethiopia

An unidentified shrub 

Some kind of forget-me-not

Some kind of thistle

Map or lichen?

More Sanetti Plateau landscape

The landscape in black-and-white

Close-up of the bark of a dead giant lobelia

We continued down the road southwards, stopping occasionally to look for birds and, of course, Ethiopian Wolves, arguably the star of the Bale Mountains. Long-legged rufous-colored wolves, Ethiopian Wolves are unusual for a large canine as they subside mainly on rodents and other small mammals, digging the local Giant Mole Rats out of their burrows or pouncing whenever they come up to look around. They're also critically endangered, with a worldwide population of fewer than 500 adults, the majority of which can be found in the Bale Mountains as their habitats elsewhere in the Ethiopian Highlands have been lost to farming and urbanization. 

A ways down the road I spotted a pair of Ruddy Shelducks, part of the small population of this species that breeds in the Bale Mountains. As I was taking pictures of the ducks, I spotted a flash of rufous-red on a distant hillside- an Ethiopian Wolf! We watched as it bounded over the plateau, stopping occasionally to listen and pounce towards rodent burrows (without success). It was a little farther away than I'd hoped, but still a cool encounter with an incredibly rare species.

Ruddy Shelduck

Ethiopian Wolf

As we continued south, the Sanetti Plateau became higher, dryer, and colder, with the giant lobelias disappearing and being replaced by a desolate plain of boulders and Helichrysum shrubs. We passed by Mount Tullo Dimtu, the second-highest mountain in Ethiopia, behind only Dashen Peak in the Simien Mountains, which has a rocky road running to the top of it. Improbably, we also passed by a number of bus stops, used for the old, rickety buses plying the Sanetti Plateau between the towns of Goba and Rira. Even the plateau itself is actually populated, the southern plateau dotted with the mud-daub villages of pastoralists grazing their goats on the barren landscape. 

Mount Tullo Dimtu, the second-highest peak in Ethiopia

The landscapes of the southern Sanetti Plateau

On its southern edge, the Sanetti Plateau drops precipitously down toward the Harenna Forest, where one of the last remaining primary forests in Ethiopia hugs the southern edge of the Bale massif. Beginning the switchbacking road down toward the forest really felt like driving off the edge of the world, especially since the slopes below us were enveloped in a bank of clouds. The landscape transformed quickly from alpine tundra to meadow to woodlands to elfin highland forest as we went downwards, a great demonstration of how much altitude matters in determining climate. 

The edge of the Sanetti Plateau
The beginning of the Harenna Forest

Kniphofia thomsonii

We stopped in the town of Rira for a simple but excellent lunch of vegetables and honey on flatbread, then continued on to the Bale Mountain Lodge, located in the middle of the Harenna Forest. Unlike the Dinsho Lodge, the Bale Mountain Lodge is still open. Unfortunately, it's also jaw-droppingly expensive, and therefore off-limits to all who don't want to spend $250 per person for a night there. The setup is as posh as one would imagine for a place that costs half the average yearly income in Ethiopia for one night, but it's the sort of place that seems jarringly out of place here, especially considering the rumors I've heard of low little the local staff are being paid. Still, it was a nice walk around the area of the lodge, where I saw an Abyssinian Woodpecker and another Abyssinian Catbird, as well as many Common Warthogs and Olive Baboons. 

Olive Baboons, with the babies riding on their mother's backs

The view from the Bale Mountain Lodge

After a quick stop at the Bale Mountain Lodge, we made our way back up the southern escarpment, stopping on the edge of the Sanetti Plateau for more views. The drive north was quicker this time, as we had less need to stop, although I did see a soaring Mountain Buzzard and a dark-morph Augur Buzzard perched on the ground. 

Scenery at the edge of the plateau 
Dark morph Augur Buzzard

We stopped in the central part of the plateau, as Mesfin told us there were some nice lakes to be seen a little bit off the road. There was enough sunlight left for one more hike, so we set off into the moors, protected as much as we could be from the brutal cold (the temperatures were near freezing). The hike was indeed beautiful, and there were lots of Ethiopian Highland Hares to be seen, surprisingly unafraid of humans for being a prey animal. In the lakes themselves there was a family of Blue-winged Geese, including a gaggle of fuzzy goslings. A pair of uncommon Red-billed Choughs flew past, part of the southernmost breeding population of this otherwise Eurasian bird and possibly a distinct species.

Ethiopian Highland Hare 
Baby Blue-winged Geese

Ethiopian Siskin

Red-billed Chough

The plateau landscape

Some kind of wild mustard

We were ready to call it a day, but there was one more surprise to be had. When we rounded a corner near a rock face, we looked up to see an Ethiopian Wolf standing in front of us! We got to watch as it slowly walked in front of us then disappeared over the top of the rock face, seemingly unperturbed by our presence. It was an incredibly close encounter with the world's rarest canine, and the perfect way to finish off our day on the plateau. 

Ethiopian Wolf

It was a happy drive back towards Goba, with a few stops for pictures of the landscape, as well as a Rouget's Rail by the side of the road. 

The top of the plateau

The northern Goba escarpment, with the town of Goba in the distance

The next day was mostly a drive back to Addis, but we had time for a few more stops on the way out. The area northwest of Goba is known as the Gaysay Plain, a flat, flower-studded area between mountain ranges that has a reputation for being good for Serval Cat. Mesfin knew a road into the plain area, and we stopped by a defunct ranger station next to a pretty stream. There were no Serval Cats to be seen, probably because it was the rainy season and the foliage was thick enough to hide small, skulking cats. There were, however, lots of Mountain Nyala, and even a Bohor Reedbuck. Even better, there were lots of beautiful Malachite Sunbirds singing from the tops of flower stalks- certainly one of the best-looking African sunbirds, and a rarely-seen resident to Ethiopia. On the way out we stopped once more for the last lifer of the weekend, a singing African Stonechat of the Ethiopian-endemic subspecies. 

Abyssinian Longclaw

Male Malachite Sunbird

Many Malachite Sunbirds

African Stonechat

A very sneaky Mountain Nyala 
Western Honey-bee

The Gaysay Plain

From there it was another long, long drive back to Addis, but I was happy to finish up another very trip in one of the most beautiful areas I've ever been to- the perfect way to spend one of my last weekends in Ethiopia.


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