The Bale Mountains National Park is set on a stunning afro-montane mountain range a day’s drive south of Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa. It is home to a large array of endemic species, stunning views, diverse habitats as well as Ethiopian culture. It is truly a naturalist’s dream. There is a lot to experience in the Bale Mountains, from mountain activities to wildlife viewing, bird watching, and beekeeping. It is a bit of a drive to get there, but the views and landscapes you drive through from Addis really open your mind to the diversity Africa and Ethiopia have to offer.
The Bale Mountains National Park is found 400km southeast of Addis Ababa and encompasses an area of 2150 square kilometers. The park itself is made up of the Bale Mountains, the Sanetti Plateau, and the Harena Forest. It was made a national park in 1969 on the advice of British naturalist Dr. Leslie Brown, after his visits in 1963 and 1965. After seeing the incredible diversity of flora and fauna, Dr. Brown recommended the national park be put in place to protect the habitat. It was then John Blower, advisor to the Ethiopian Wildlife Conservation Authority who pushed it through.
The Bale Mountains were formed before the Rift Valley, from lava flows covering underlying rock formations between 30 -7 million years ago. Once the mountains were formed, ice ages and glaciers had a huge effect on the landscape over the last 20 million years. Water, ice, and wind have whittled the area into the environment we can see today.
Thanks to the park’s altitude it attracts a lot of needed rainfall. It is a hugely important water reservoir for the people of Ethiopia, Somalia, and Kenya. The park gets around 2000mm of rainfall a year which 12 million people rely on for their survival. There are 40 rivers and an abundance of mineral springs in the park that the local population relies on for themselves and their cattle. Any alteration to the park’s water resources would have a dramatic effect on the locals in and around the area, adding even more importance to the protection of the national park.
The Bale Mountains National Park is home to the highest incidences of endemic species of any land-based habitat in the world. That is some claim to fame. That park has five unique habitats within it and it is this diversity that allows for such a diverse range of species. The areas include the Northern Grasslands in the Gaysay Valley, Northern Woodlands, Afro-alpine Meadows on the Sanetti Plateau, Erica Moorlands and the Harenna Forest.
The Northern Grasslands and Woodlands are famous for waist-high wildflowers while the Sanetti Plateau is the largest continuous area of its altitude in Africa. It is covered in lichen carpeted rocks and Giant Lobelia with alpine lakes and streams dotted around the place. The Harenna Forest is a foggy woodland of trees draped in old man’s beard, moss, and lichens that makes up half of the park.
The Bale Mountains are home to so many endemic species it is quite extraordinary. It has 26% of Ethiopia’s endemic species including one primate, one bovid, one hare, eight rodent species, and the entire global population of the big-headed African mole-rat as well as some amphibians.
The most famous mammals in the park are the endangered Ethiopian Wold and Mountain Nyala. The Ethiopian wolf is the rarest canid in the world, with only 400 of them left in the world. The Bale Mountains are home to over half of the global population and they are often seen on the Sanetti Plateau hunting for the abundance of rodents the park has to offer.
The park is home to 1,321 species of flowering plants, 163 of which are endemic to Ethiopia. If you find yourself there between May and July, you can witness fields of color, when the plants flower after the dry season and transform the grasslands into a multi-colored meadow.
It is not just about the flowers and mammals, however. The birdlife of the Bale Mountains is quite spectacular and was voted the fourth-best birding site in all of Africa. Ethiopia is home to around 9.5% of the world’s bird diversity and 39% of the bird species in Africa. The Bale Mountains National Park holds 170 species of migratory birds and 282 species of nonmigratory birds, 16 of which are endemic. One’s to look out for are the blue-winged goose, spot-breasted lapwing, Yellow-fronted Parrot, Abyssinian longclaw, Abyssinian catbird, Bale parisoma, Ethiopian Siskin, fawn-breasted waxbill, and the Abyssinian owl.
Most of the activities in the Bale Mountains revolve around discovering the diverse habitats and the wildlife that lurks within it. This can be done by driving, hiking or on horseback.
Picnic On The Sanetti Plateau
A great way to spend a day is to drive up to the Sanetti Plateau to see the Ethiopian wolves in action. The best time to be there is between 11 am and 3 pm when the high-altitude plains have warmed up a bit and the wolves are most active in hunting for rodents.
Once on the plateau, you can enjoy a walk around the moonlike environment and stop for a lovely picnic at one of the little streams or lakes. It is very chilly up there so remember to take some layers with you.
Hiking and Horseback Safari
It is very easy to hire a guide for a hiking and or horseback safari around the park. It is recommended to bring pack horses to carry your gear if you choose to hike and if you are worried about riding a horse for the first time, it’s ok, no previous riding experience is required.
The park has been set up for hiking and you can choose a route that lasts between 1 and 13 days or one that is tailored to your interests. For example, there is a birding route, which walks you through all the right spots to see the species on offer.
The campsites are 17km to 22km apart and walking or riding from one to the next takes 6-8 hours. This is by far the best way to experience the Bale Mountains, as you will explore all the habitats on offer as you trek across the home of the Ethiopian wolf, mountain nyala, giant molerat and Bale monkey.
As you wander around the mountains, through dense forest, past waterfalls, highland lakes and amongst rock pinnacles etched out of the lava flows by millions of years of ice and winds you will have the best chance to encounter the stunning flora and fauna available. You could see anything from an olive baboon, warthog, rock hyrax, Starck’s hare, klipspringer, grey duiker, African wild dog, giant forest hog, leopard, endemic and migratory birds, Ethiopian wolves, mountain nyala, Bale monkey, and the rare black-maned lions.
Back in 1963, brown and rainbow trout were stocked in the rivers of the Bale Mountains and have remained there ever since. Today 3 rivers can be fished, the Shaya, the Danka, and the Web. The Web is set in a stunning gorge and is one of the most picturesque rivers I have ever seen, whereas the Shaya is set in a forest and surrounded by wheat fields, you could easily think you were in mid-west America fishing rather than in Ethiopia. The fishing is excellent and the rivers hold some good-sized trout too. Permits and guides can be found at the Dinsho Rural and Agricultural Offices. You will have to bring all your equipment with you.
Visit The Wild Forest Coffee Village
Coffee originates in Ethiopia and in the Bale Mountains you have a chance to visit the village of Manyate, a coffee village on the edge of the Harena Forest. The area is home to huge trees and as you hike the trail through the forest you walk past wild coffee and end up at a mineral spring. In the right season, you can join in with the village and help to pick the ripest of red coffee berries. After the hike, you can enjoy a visit to the coffee house and a traditional coffee ceremony.
Havest Some Wild Honey
Ethiopia is the leading producer of honey in Africa and traditional beekeeping has been practiced for thousands of years in Ethiopia. The people of the Harenna forest are pro-beekeepers and each one has their own special way of luring in bees to their hives. The honey harvest happens between late May and early July and in November. If you are in Bale over that time you can go with a beekeeper to harvest and taste some fresh honey. If you are there outside of the harvest, a walk with a beekeeper to his or her hives is very interesting as you learn their ways.
When To Go
The best time to visit is from October to April. The days are sunny and night skies are filled with stars. If you are wanting to hike and go fishing, this is the time.
Rain falls most days from May until September and the mountains are dramatically cloaked in mist and cloud. However, May through July is a pleasant time to visit and despite the frequent afternoon showers, the days are warm and sunny. June is the best time for spring flowers; red-hot pokers cover the hillside with their flame-colored vegetation.
Where To Stay
Aside from camping, there are only two places to stay in the Bale Mountain National Park.
If you are on a budget the Dinsho Self-Help Lodge is your best choice and is held within the park headquarters. The lodge can accommodate up to 30 people and has a communal kitchen, toilets, showers, sauna and a large common area with a log fire. A variety of dorms are available with bunk beds as well as several rooms with double beds. There is also a designated campsite on the hilltop above the lodge.
If you would like a bit of luxury, Bale Mountain Lodge is for you. Set in the Harena forest, the lodge has 15 double rooms and offers activities related to the forest flora and fauna. A resident naturalist is on hand to provide advice and information and the lodge is an excellent place from which to explore the area.
There are no flights to the park and the only option is by road. It is about an 8-hour drive from Addis through the stunning Rift Valley. The route takes you past a multitude of lakes and up into the mountains. It is best to hire a car or organize a private transfer. You can also take public transport if you are on a budget.