Bale Mountains National Park
Bale Mountains National Park is an area of high altitude plateau that is broken by numerous spectacular volcanic plugs and peaks, beautiful alpine lakes and rushing mountain streams that descend into deep rocky gorges on their way to the lowlands below. As you ascend into the mountains you will experience changes in the vegetation with altitude, from juniper forests to heather moorlands and alpine meadows, which at various times of year exhibit an abundance of colourful wildflowers.
Bale Mountains National Park is the largest area of Afro-Alpine habitat in the whole of the continent. It gives the visitor opportunities for unsurpassed mountain walking, horse trekking, scenic driving and the chances to view many of Ethiopia's endemic mammals, in particular the Mountain Nyala and Semien Fox, and birds, such as the Thick-billed Raven, Wattled Ibis, Blue-winged Goose, and Rouget's Rail. (see our nature photo album)
The Bale Mountains rise from the extensive surrounding farmlands at 2,500 m above sea level to the west, north and east. The National Park area is divided into two major parts by the spectacular Harenna escarpment that runs from east to west.
North of this escarpment is a high altitude plateau area at 4,000 m altitude. The plateau is formed of ancient volcanic rocks (trachytes, basalts, agglomerates and tuffs) dissected by many Rivers and streams that have cut deep gorges into the edges over the centuries. In some places this has resulted in scenic waterfalls. From the plateau rise several mountain massifs of rounded and craggy peaks, including Tullu Deemtu the second-highest mountain in Ethiopia at 4,377 m above sea level. (Ras Dashen, near the Simien Mountains National Park in the north is the highest - 4,543 m). A major part of the central peaks area is covered by a capping of more recent lava flows, still mainly unvegetated, and forming spectacular rock ripples and pillars. Many shallow depressions on the plateau are filled with water in the wet season, forming small lakes that mirror the surrounding scenery. Larger lakes such as Garba Guracha ("black water"), Hora Bachay and Hala Weoz, contain water all year round. These many lakes provide habitat for water birds, especially migrating ducks from Europe during the northern winter.
The high rainfall in the Bale Mountains, together with the great variation in altitude and topography, result in rich diversity in the vegetation. Changes in the vegetation with altitude are clearly seen, this zonation being a result of increasing then decreasing rainfall as you ascend, generally decreasing temperatures, and increased exposure of rock and resulting poorer soils.
The mountains are surrounded to the northwest and northeast by fertile plains at 2,500 m that are heavily utilized for agriculture mainly wheat growing. This is succeeded by remnants of beautiful juniper and Kosso (Hagenia abyssinica) forest -a belt that reaches up to about 3,300 m altitude, which is the upper limit of the tree zone, apart from a few isolated trees in protected valleys. Above the tree line the heather moorlands begin, reaching to about 3,600 m altitudes on gently sloping ground, and as high as 3,800 m on steep rocky slopes. Above this are various forms of Afro-Alpine moorland, dominated by different plants depending on slope, drainage and rodent activity. The tops of most of the high peaks are either bare rocks, or exposed soil with very small hardy tussock herbs or grasses. To the south, the land falls away far more, through rich and varied forest below the heather, containing bamboo and giant Podocarpus trees, and finally giving way to dry short-tree wooded grasslands at 1,600 m on the southern boundary of the Park.
The northern forests are open with little under-growth, and while dominated by Juniper and Hagenia trees, also contain St John's Wort and bushes (Hypericum spp.) with large golden-yellow flowers, Schefflera abyssinica and Rappanea simensis trees amongst others. The grassy forest floor makes for easy walking and viewing of animals; the wonderful fruity smell of fallen Hagenia leaves rising from your path. This large tree of the rose family, has separate male and female trees; the female flowers contain anthelmintic, and are widely used in a decoction against the tapeworm. Another member of the rose family - Rosa abyssinica is found here, with its beautiful white flowers and delicate scent, the only indigenous African rose.
The southern forests, in contrast, are much denser with a greater variety of tree, shrub and herb species. Juniper is not found on the south side, but the other species are. The trees are covered in epiphytes and creepers, and in many cases rise to over thirty metres in height. Higher reaches of the forests, near Katcha at 2,600 m, are interspersed with bamboo groves, and many wildflowers beside the small rushing torrents. Early in the wet season, dense thickets of edible Rubus steudneri in the blackberry family are in flower and fruit. Streamside beds of the white-flowered Crinum ornatum with their heavy sweet scent also bloom at this time. Occasional grassy glades occur mainly where drainage is poor and small swamps form along River and stream courses.
The mountains are most famous as home and refuge of the endemic Mountain Nyala and Semien Fox. Both these mammals occur in reasonable numbers, and visits to the Gaysay area, and the Sanetti plateau will ensure you see both. The Mountain Nyala is a large antelope in the spiral-horned antelope family. Males are a dark brown colour with a pair of gently spiraled horns with white tips. They bear handsome white markings on the face, neck and legs, together with usually at least one stripe and some white spots on each side. The hornless females are a lighter brown colour, and typically have the same white markings as the males, though less often have stripes, but normally have spots on the sides. Males can weigh as much as 280 kilos, stand one and a half metres at the shoulder, and have a mane of long erectile hairs along the spine. Females weigh less and have no mane.
Younger animals are lighter in colour, and young males bear tiny spike horns from about five months of age, that go through various shapes as they develop. Both sexes have enormous ears. Mountain Nyala are especially numerous in the Gaysay area, and occur in small scattered groups else where in the Park at all altitudes. They are mainly browsers - feeding on bushes and herbs, but also eat grass. Groups vary in size -from lone adult males, or a female with her offspring from the last two years, to aggregations of over seventy animals. Males may be seen to make strange slow, strutting displays at each other, or to dig the earth with their horns and twist branches between them. Mountain Nyala only occur in Ethiopia, and only in the high mountains east of the Rift Valley, between Harar in the North, Arsi, and Bale in the South.
The Ethiopian Wolf is more common here in Bale than it is in Simien Mountains. It is found nowhere in between these two isolated mountain areas, and nowhere else in the world. The animal is the size and color of a European Red Fox, but with long legs, longer muzzle, and a striking black and white tail. The male and female are similar in appearance. Semien Fox feed on rodents, and as a result are mainly found at the higher altitudes where rodents abound. The Sanetti Plateau is an especially good area to see them, but they do occur in higher parts of the mountains, as well as down at Gaysay on rare occasions. They are usually seen hunting alone, but can be seen in pairs, and after the breeding season as many as eight adults and cubs have been seen together. The Semien Fox hunts their prey by standing still over the rodent holes, patiently listening, turning their head and ears from side to side, and suddenly pouncing when a rat emerges. They will also dig to reach rats on occasions. They give a high yelping bark. To keep contact with other foxes, and when apprehensive about anything such as your close proximity. They are well camouflaged amongst the lichen - covered rocks of the plateau and can be very hard to see, despite their striking orange-red colour.
There are more than twenty other small to large-sized mammals to be seen in the Park. Some are sighted only rarely or are known by the evidence they leave -such as droppings and footprints. Menelik's Bushbuck is a form, or subspecies, of the one commonly found over most of Africa. It is very different however, in that the adult male is a jet-black color, and both sexes are long-haired. Bushbuck are the smallest of the Mountain Nyala family that also includes the Greater and Lesser Kudu, Eland, Bongo and Sitatunga. Like these other animals, the bushbuck has spirally twisted horns and spots and stripes on the coat. However, the horns -found in the male only - are relatively short. They are relatively easy to see at Dinsho and Gaysay, and are especially plentiful in the forest and heather of the Adelay ridge. They are not found on the high plateau however which is largely devoid of vegetation cover, and have rarely been sighted at altitudes over 3,400 m.
After the Mountain Nyala, the next most common antelope is the Bohor Reedbuck. These medium-sized straw-coloured antelope are found in large numbers in the flat grasslands and swamps round Gaysay mountain. Males are easily recognized from their forward-pointing hooked horns. Reedbuck are almost only found in the Gaysay and Adelay grasslands, there being no suitable long-grass areas higher in the mountains. Grey Duiker are the smallest antelope in the Park. They occur at Gaysay and in the valleys with sufficient vegetation cover up to about 3,700 m altitude. They are usually seen alone, diving into cover. Only the males have the short straight horns.
Klipspringer are only found where there is suitable rocky habitat, mainly at higher elevations, though a few are found on the very top of Gaysay mountain. They are especially common in the Lava Flows area. Their unusual spiky fur and square hooves are adaptations to their agile existence amongst the rocks and cliffs. They probably derive their Amharic name of "Saas" from their strange sneezing alarm call. Warthog are reasonably common in the Gaysay grasslands and forest patches and on Adelay ridge. Groups with large numbers of piglets are frequently seen in the dry and early wet seasons. Warthog are not found at higher altitudes in the mountains. Bushpig and Giant Forest Hog occur in the southern Harenna forest area, but are rarely seen.
The Rock Hyrax are found in the same cliff and rocky habitat as the Klipspringer in large numbers at all altitudes. These small dark-coloured and tailless relatives of the elephant are very numerous in some localities. They are extremely agile in leaping up and down rock crevices and their shrill calls echo from the cliffs in the evenings and early mornings.
Rats, mice, etc, are not usually considered "wildlife" by most visitors! However, in the Bale Mountains they are an extremely important part of the ecosystem. This is because of the role that several species play in modifying the soil and vegetation at the higher altitudes, and as the Semien Fox's source of food. Most parts of the Sanetti Plateau look as though they have been ploughed recently all the soil freshly turned and exposed, and tunnelled with numerous holes. This is entirely the work of the hordes of rodents, several species of which are endemic to the Bale Mountains, or the high mountain areas of Ethiopia. Their squeaks are heard easily as you pass through the area, and numbers of them can be seen on sunny days rushing for their holes as you approach. Of special interest is the Giant Molerat, a large species that feeds above ground in the daylight and makes large craterlike depressions. It only partly emerges from these holes as it feeds the edges. Later it blocks the entrance with soil and vegetation, and then digs to a new crater nearby to feed there. These large numbers of rodents support not only the healthy Semien Fox population in the high plateau area, but also numerous birds of prey, especially European migrants in the dry season, that pass the European winter in the Bale Mountains.
Only three primate species have been found in the Bale Mountains National Park so far. The Guereza, or black and white Colobus Monkey, is common wherever there is suitable forest habitat. Several troops are on the flanks of Gaysay Mountain and the Adelay ridge, and they are very common in the Harenna forest area. They are not found in the high mountain area however, since this is above the forest zone. The Olive Baboon is also found in large numbers in the Harenna forest, and troops also occur on Gaysay and Adelay. Surprisingly one troop exists in the high mountain area in the Lava Flows at over 3,700 m altitude. The small Grivet Monkey is found only in the Harenna forest at altitudes lower than 3,000 m. They are sometimes seen from the Goba to Dolo Mena road as you drive through.
There are several other carnivores you are likely to see apart from the Semien Fox in the Bale Mountains National Park.
The Gaysay grasslands and Dinsho Hill are good places to see the beautiful Serval Cat. These small, spotted, long-Iegged and short-tailed cats hunt alone in long grass, depending on rats and small birds as food. Also at Gaysay you often see the long, lithe shape of the Egyptian mongoose. They occur in small family parties of up to four or five animals, and like to use the vehicle tracks as pathways. A close relative -the White-tailed Mongoose -is nocturnal and may appear in your car headlights when driving at night.
Spotted Hyena are found at all altitudes in the Park, but in low numbers, and are rarely seen by day except in the early morning. Their calls punctuate the night near most villages.
The Golden Jackal however though usually nocturnal, has often been seen by day in the Gaysay and Dinsho areas. Other carnivores that are rarely seen but are known to exist in the area are Leopard, Lion, Civet and the little striped Zorilla.
The Bale Mountains possess many habitats rich in birds, particularly the Harenna Forest which has been little studied. More than one hundred and sixty species of birds are known from the Park area, but their number is certain to be added to considerably in the future. Since the Bale Mountains are isolated from other similar habitats in Africa by low and dry areas, many endemic species are found. At least twenty-three species of birds are known to be endemic to Ethiopia. No less than fourteen of these species are known to occur in the Bale Mountains National Park area, and several are easily seen every day.
Amongst the endemics, the more commonly seen only are mentioned here. The Blue-winged Goose and Rouget's Rail are found near any water be it stream or high mountain lake, at all altitudes. The noisy Wattled Ibis occurs in most muddy places busily probing for food with its long curved bill. Large numbers roost on high, cliffs in the mountains every night. The beautiful Spot-breasted Plover is found in large numbers in the wet season on the Sanetti Plateau, and large flocks of the White-collared Pigeon feed on the ground here at the same period. The weird-Iooking Thick-billed Raven is a denizen of most villages, and usually finds your camp at any altitude. The colourful little green and red Black-winged Love-birds are seen in large numbers in the forest areas, while the larger Yellow-fronted Parrot is less often seen in the same habitat. The strident ringing calls of the shy Abyssinian Catbird betray its presence in forest. Close observation in the Gaysay grasslands and beside the main road will reveal the Abyssinian Long claw -a drab little bird, but with a smart yellow bib. The high plateau is characterized by large flocks of the little black and yellow Black-headed Siskin.
The Bale Mountains, rich in streams and little Alpine lakes, provide food and security for unusual water birds such as the Ruddy Shelduck and the tall elegant Wattled Crane. Many European ducks and waders pass the dry season in the mountains, before returning to Europe, as do several birds of prey such as the Steppe Eagle and Kestrel. Probably the most common and friendly bird at all altitudes is the little drab but cheery Mountain Chat - puffed up like a round feathered ball in the icy dawn, hopping from tussock to tussock as he investigates you. One of the largest and most spectacular birds is the Lammergeier also called the Bearded Vulture or Bone-breaker. This enormous bird with its over-two-metre wingspan is often seen soaring alone over suitably high cliffs and rock outcrops, while splintered bone fragments, even on the top of Tullu Deemtu and Mt. Batu tell of its presence. Wherever you go in Bale there are birds to watch, and generally unusual ones to add considerably to your experience of this wonderful area.
Bale Mountains National Park is essentially a walking area. Mountain bike or Horse treks of several days duration into the main peak area with pack and riding horses or bikes and accompanied by a guide, can be arranged through Dinknesh or the Park authorities in Dinsho. In addition, shorter walks or treks can be accomplished in the Dinsho area, or from anywhere along the roads and tracks mentioned above.
At Dinsho Headquarters a one kilometre Nature Trail has been designed up Dinsho Hill. This gives a brief introduction to the plants and animals of the area, and the location of the main Park. There is the added opportunity of seeing Mountain Nyala at close quarters on foot, in the Sanctuary afforded by the fence around the compound. From the top of the hill (3,240 m) good views on a clear day in all directions help in understanding the layout of the Park.
Walking on Gaysay hill is rewarding in terms of the views and the chances of seeing wildlife at close quarters. The physically fit will find the steep climb to the Boditi summit (3,520 m) worthwhile for a spectacular view of the Gaysay River flats and south into the main Park area.
A very enjoyable day-Iong walk can be had from Dinsho, up the Web valley to Gasuray peak (3,325 m). The steep Climb to the summit is through beautiful mature Hagenia and juniper forest, and into heather at the top. A traverse of the uplands to the north along the connecting spur to the Adelay ridge leads you through beautiful heather and grass glades with the strange grey tussocks of Helichrysum citrispinum -one of the "everlasting flowers". Mountain nyala, Klipspringer. Menelik's Bushbuck and Warthog are commonly encountered here. A steep descent off the northeast corner of Adelay brings you back down to the main road and Dinsho village.
The Sanetti Plateau is crowned by several peaks that add a good walk to the drive over it. Konteh Tullu - the striking volcanic plug east of the road on the plateau, may look formidable, but twenty minutes of steep scrambling from its base gives you magnificent views from the top (4, 132 m) in all directions. Tullu Deemtu is the second highest mountain in Ethiopia at 4,377 m, and the highest point in the Bale Mountains. Starting from the main road at its base it takes one and a half to two hours to climb the slopes and reach the summit - a rounded ridge hidden from the aspect of your starting point. Hares and rodents abound up here, despite the sparse vegetation cover. Mountain Nyala are often seen below the summit to the south where there is a small water seepage point and grove of Giant Lobelia plants. Wide views can be had all around, but especially to the main plateau with its lakes and lava flows to the west, and to Mt. Batu a short distance north.
Short riding trips can be arranged in the Dinsho area, but it is far more worthwhile to set aside at least four full days to enjoy a horse trip to the full. Arrangements are best made beforehand by letter or phone, but horses can be organized for a morning departure if requested the afternoon before. Various routes can be followed, and it is best to take the advice of your local guide from Dinsho.
Nine Rivers and streams between Adaba and Goba were stocked with trout in the early 1970' s. These have thrived and are now available for sport fishing. Information, guides and permits can be obtained from the Ministry of Agriculture offices in Adaba, Dinsho and Goba.Brown Trout can be fished on a short stretch of the Web River near Dinsho, while all the other Rivers are stocked with Rainbow. Anglers have to provide all their own equipment. Fishing conditions are varied - cascading waterfalls, deep still pools, or the tiny narrow and clear Danka stream. Good exercise, beautiful scenery, peaceful surroundings, are all combined in the one activity.