"Not one would mind, neither bird nor tree
If mankind perished utterly" - Sara Teasdale.
I have decided to combine our 3 night stay at the spectacular but forbidding Bale NP in this single post. We found Bale and also the Danakil Depression and Erte Ale Volcano to be far and away the most rewarding destinations we visited in Ethiopia. Any readers please need to appreciate my considerable bias towards isolated wilderness destinations. Also consider this opinion as coming from an African who cannot find the sort of magic in African cultural and urban life that might fascinate others totally new to those things.
Bale is fairly out of the way and is sometimes skipped by self-drivers, my advice is to visit it if at all possible and spend at least 2 nights there. It is reputed to be more rewarding than its fellow Ethiopian mountain destination, the Simien Mountain NP and we agree. The weather was clouding over as we left and we realized that we were very likely to have some adverse weather conditions up in the mountains. We drove via Shashemene and then via Dodola Adaba to Dinsho, the entry point into Bale. This is an excellent tarred road, not dirt as indicated in my edition of T4A. We drove through vast areas of fields of what I presume is the staple grain of Ethiopia, namely teff used for the ubiquitous injera. Hereafter the road climbs steadily to 3,400m with lovely scenic passes as one nears the Bale Mountain range. Here we saw from the car a little cameo scene that encapsulates the contrasts and contradictions that typify Ethiopia to me. Picture the dead horse lying next to the road. Also a domestic mongrel feasting on the guts of the carcass, breaking off intermittently to chase off the gathering flock of greedy vultures.
Soon after the sign indicating that we were entering the Bale Mountain NP we saw groups of impressive mountain nyala grazing in the grasslands. These are common in Bale and are larger than the Nyala we know from the south, reminding me of the greater kudu. The bulls also have twirling horns albeit less impressive than the kudu. We were steadily notching up new animal species and find this very exciting. We also spotted another endemic, the wattled ibis. At first glance these are very similar to the hadeda ibis but have wattles on the face, white flashes on the sides of their wings and a similar but far hoarser call than the hadeda well known to all African travelers.
We reached the park HQ at Dinsho village by about 13H00 and were able to proceed with our plans to camp in the park that night. Here we had a long discussion with the officials. They insisted a guide was compulsory for all those camping in the park, except for those confining themselves to the nearby Dinsho Camp. A guide is also required for all hikers except for those taking the short juniper forest walk around the Dinsho Lodge area. Reading the rules this did appear to be the case. However I still demurred fearing a guide would be intrusive and they eventually said we could proceed without a guide but would still have to pay for one. It turned out that the guide is responsible for his own catering and there are special huts for the guides to sleep sharing with the resident attendant at each campsite. Reassured that we would have the privacy we desired we elected to take a guide which proved to be a fairly good idea as Hussein smoothed our way a little. Luckily Wayne had a spare seat. We discussed suitable campsites and their order so that we could obtain a good overview of the park over 3 nights. We settled on Webb Valley Campsite known as Sodota (highly recommended beforehand to us), followed by that in the Hargenia Forest in the south, Katcha Campsite and then finally near the highest part of the park at the Sanetti Plateau Campsite. These discussions where detailed and involved Hussein and the admin officials on duty. At no time was it mentioned that there was any problem with Katcha Campsite.
• Entrance fee pppd Birr 90 (US$9).
• Foreign vehicle per day Birr20.
• Camping per tent (1-4 persons) Birr 300pd.
• Guide per day Birr100, (independent of group size and not on a 24hr clock but on a day or part thereof, we thus had to pay for an extra day for the guide). This is a community project.
• Wood Birr55 per large bundle. This is a community project using foreign Eucalyptus, but don’t bother our wood was still too green. No wood gathering allowed in park.
The Dinsho park HQ is very high at 3,100m and we were extremely lucky as there was not a cloud in sight after a few days of continuous rain. We took the guide back to Dinsho village to pick up his clothing and supplies before setting out on the rather testing drive to the Webb Valley. Driving through the juniper forest above Dinsho Lodge and the HQ, we saw our first Menelik’s subspecies of bushbuck. The road was still very slippery and muddy after the recent rains and driving was tricky. I became a little bogged down in the mud, but nothing low range and a bit of difflock could not sort out. In places this track was also very rocky and there were multiple rocky and tricky crossings with flowing mountain streams and some steep climbs and slow descents. It was very slow going and was reminiscent of 4x4 training courses. It took us over 2hrs to cover the 21km to the Sodota Campsite in the very spectacular and very isolated Webb River Valley. The Webb River was flowing quite strongly and here I spotted the endemic blue-quilled goose.
The vegetation is most interesting with absolute acres of redhot poker (Knipfolia) plants being present in the mid-altitude areas. Unfortunately these had just finished flowering but the mass effect as far as the eye can see, must be quite a sight. At higher altitude typical Afro-alpine vegetation starts appearing on the flat moorland. There are plenty of raptors because of the rodents and we saw regular auger buzzards and steppe eagles. Unfortunately we failed to locate any lammergeyers here. They were plentiful later at the Simien Mountain National Park.
As we entered the final part of the valley where the wolf research station hut and campsite are, one of my absolutely most fervent wishes for the entire trip was fulfilled. There were a pair of magnificently coloured orange-brown Ethiopian Wolves lounging in the sunlight. These are considerably larger than jackals and are a magnificent sight on the open moorland. We were able to approach fairly closely on foot to take better photos. Little did I realize that these 2 were to be the first of 10 wolves we were to see. The Bale NP is said to be the best place to spot these wolves, far better than the Simien Mountains. Bale has 400 wolves and they are subject to intensive research as becomes the world’s rarest canid and Africa’s rarest carnivore. The population used to be far higher but they are now recovering rapidly from a severe outbreak of rabies some 10 years ago. They thrive in this barren and hostile environment because of the high numbers of rodents in the park, the hyrax (dassie)-sized giant mole-rat being a staple. We were to see them stalking and digging for these rodents. The view from the campsite down the Webb Valley will always be a treasured memory. In camp were a pair of Canadian hikers after their first day and they were really suffering having been ill-equipped by the tour company for what lay ahead. I was genuinely concerned about their wellbeing and doubt if they completed the 4 day hike. Fortunately they had a very experienced and sensible local guide. Hussein, our compulsory guide, only really added value for us in that he knew the route. The wolf research station hut was locked as there was no researcher on site at that time.
Sodota Campsite is at 3,300m far lower than Sanetti Campsite but still it was very cold as evening approached and the breeze was biting. There was far worse to come. The simple campsite was situated in the lee of a small hill but is barren with no ablutions other than a particularly obnoxious pit latrine. We dug holes. There is a hut dominated by the camp attendant and guides and 2 small lean-to’s not suitable for shelter. We parked the 2 vehicles strategically and were quite sheltered in their lee. To indicate quite how cold we were, I was wearing 3 layers of jackets including a 30 year old down jacket, and 2 pairs of fleecy track suit pants. Our hot water bottles provided great comfort in bed that night and our sleeping bags stood up to the testing cold. Around the camp the rare white-necked pigeons were common and we were also entertained by the very confiding alpine chats we had first met in the Aberdares. Later on the way to the Sanetti area we saw the very captivating Rouget’s rail with its fluffy white tail. I think we ticked almost all the boxes here.
We enjoyed Sodota Campsite in the Webb Valley the most of the three we stayed in, both because of its isolation (you need a sturdy 4x4 to get there) and because of its views down the Webb Valley. This is reputed to be the best area to see the Ethiopian Wolf although we saw most of ours in the Sanetti area. The next morning just before we left the wolf pair were out and about again hunting rodents and walked past our campsite not a stone throw away.
Next on Sunday 25 October we were off to Katcha Campsite in the far south of the park on the lower slopes of Afro-montane forest known as the Hargenia Forest and consisting mainly of the lovely harenna trees. I had beforehand realized that we would have to retrace our route to Dinsho but not that we would have to rejoin the original tar road, this time travelling further west for about 54km before reaching another entry gate named Angesso Check Point. To get there we had to pass through the villages and towns of Homa, Robe and Goba on tar. These have some supplies ATMs and fuel. Here I received a sad text message that the Boks had lost to the All Blacks 18-20 in the RWC semi-finals, what a pity. Now I can give our holiday my undivided attention. To reach the Hargenia Forest in the south one has to travel north to south over the Sanetti plateau and then descend to Katcha Camp. This distance from the checkpoint is about 49km and one first climbs and then descend through winding passes. This dirt road is in excellent condition and was obviously constructed to be serviceable in all weathers. At the top of the plateau we could see our first sightings of typical alpine vegetation in the form of giant lobelias, groundsells and hardy heaths and silvery vegetation of the moorland. By now the clouds had moved in with low mist and soft rain giving a real otherworldly appearance. We drove past the turnoff to the highest all-weather road in Africa, to Tullu Deemtu peak, the second highest in Ethiopia. This was on the schedule for the morrow.
When we began approaching the Hargenia Forest is when our relationship with our guide began deteriorating. He had assured us that the Katcha Campsite was lovely but as we entered the forest he had another story to tell. He said that he would prefer us to stay at the “campsite” in the compound of the park’s Rira Sub-HQ office. His explanation was that we would be safer there as there were a couple of army soldiers stationed there and it was fenced off. It was just beyond a little village and we initially suspected was based on the fact that he would have somewhere comfortable to stay nearby to us. He had not brought any camping equipment. We stopped off there and did not like the look of this so-called campsite at all. It was confined within a fairly small compound dominated by park offices and derelict outbuildings. There was no view and the latrine was a cesspit. No shower was available but there was water.
By now it had been raining for a while and we had to insist on seeing the official Katcha Campsite. Hussein had plenty of opportunity to come clean about what was to develop. Following T4A to what was marked as Katcha we came upon a gate and a sign marked Bale Mountain Lodge. We were allowed to enter and spoke to a British couple who had built this new, very upmarket lodge very recently. They had been allocated the original Katcha Campsite location which was lovely. They firmly turned down our plea to be allowed to camp discretely in the large lodge grounds as the lodge was completely booked out. They explained that a new campsite had been allocated up the road. Wayne had noticed this turnoff but Hussein had insisted that it was not a campsite. The lodge owners said that for reasons not known to them the community had removed the signs to the campsite. It turns out that the site of the new campsite did not suit the local community and that we could expect some physical opposition from them if we moved in there. This was obviously known to Hussein but for reasons of his own he kept this information to himself. There was also a nearby clearing very suitable for wild camping but once again Hussein warned of community antagonism. We then drove off to the turnoff to the new Katcha Campsite. It was not all that far off the road and was situated in a lovely forest clearing. Unfortunately the access road was completely muddied up and I doubted whether we would be able to get in or out of it in the rain. By this time Hussein’s lip was on the ground and he had a completely uncooperative attitude. This is when I let rip, accusing him and his colleagues at HQ of being less than truthful with us about Katcha and that he had had ample opportunity to correct any misunderstandings. I do not think he was surprised to receive no tip from us.
We spent the night camped in the compound in the front of the Rira offices in the rain. It was a “dark and stormy night” but actually worked out quite well as we were able to set up our chairs and tables on the office verandah out of the rain and I cooked a lamb knuckle stew as compensation for our relative misery. Nothing that a few shots of good whiskey and Drambuie could not sort out. These lamb knuckles had been in our freezer for 7 months from South Africa and I could not think of a more apt moment to pull them out of the bag. I should mention that the forest is beautiful and in more friendly conditions I am sure a long walk would have been rewarding. That night we heard the mournful calls of hyenas and all that was missing was a black cat and a hag on a broomstick. Of such nights are memories made and we have a good laugh now when we recall such moments.
Monday 26 October and a day of decisions. We were free to decide where to spend the next night as one pays only for a certain number of nights camping in the park and not for specific campsites. We had to climb up to the Sanetti Plateau again to exit the park. Our alternate camping sites were either on the Sanetti Plateau where conditions had appeared very grim the day before or at the far lower altitude of Dinsho Campsite above the park HQ. We decided that we needed to drive to the Sanetti Campsite to have a look at conditions.The steep and winding drive up to the plateau was done in difficult conditions in thick mist and drizzle. Fortunately the road surface was holding out. I did it slowly in low range with all my lights on. One could barely see 10m and this is a public road used by the occasional bus, what were the odds of meeting one head-on on one of the many blind corners? As it was we actually climbed to above the cloud line and had great views of the plateau with the surroundings wreathed in mist. Here we saw 6 more Ethiopian wolves with some brilliant photo opportunities that I tried my best to exploit.
We took the steep and slightly rough 4km road up to Tulu Deemtu peak, as mentioned the highest all weather road in Africa reaching an amazing 4377m. Slow Donkey huffed and puffed up there bravely in low range due to the thin air. There is a hut up there with an attendant who is stationed there for 2 weeks at a time. I cannot imagine a more hostile place to stay, the wind was howling and with the chill factor the temperature was far below freezing. After some quick photos and appreciation of the stark views we were off on our way to the Sanetti Campsite to assess viability of camping there. As at Webb Valley there is a simple hut for the resident attendant and any guides. There was scarcely a level place to park for the RTT and certainly no shelter from the teeth of the biting wind. The wolf researcher’s hut was locked but we had heard that the Argentinian researcher was not all that welcoming. I suppose campers do get in his hair. We had brunch there despite the conditions which were absolutely freezing at midday. Goodness knows how we would survive there by nightfall. The decision was easy, we were making for the far more benign Dinsho Campsite at far lower altitudes and of which we had read good reports. Excellent decision!
As a matter of interest the total distance from the campsite at Rira to Sanetti Campsite was 34km and to Dinsho HQ along the tar road was 110km.
There are 2 campsites at Dinsho, poles apart. Our misguide Hussein suggested we camp in the car park behind the rustic Dinsho Lodge a little way above the HQ offices. However far preferable was a campsite higher up, reached by driving up the steep track behind the lodge. It is set in beautiful surroundings, a clearing in the juniper forest with bushbuck, mountain nyala and warthog wandering about. It had a great view down the valley unfortunately spoilt a little after dark by the lights of Dinsho village and cars on the tar road. Also the calls to prayer from the village were audible. The howls of a hyena blended strangely with this. There is a pit latrine in an unmentionable condition but we reverted to wild camp mode and had a wonderful evening in relatively benign weather conditions.
We had a fairly early night as we were taking the long road to Addis Ababa the following day but were all feeling satisfyingly mellow after a really memorable stay in Bale. Another item off the bucket list and on top of it all wonderful sightings of the endemic animals and birds.
Main, Ethiopian wolf.
1. Bale Mountains outside the park.
2. Entering the park.
3. Mountain nyala.
4. Dinsho HQ offices.
5. Webb River.
6. The road to Sodota Campsite.
7. The Webb Valley.
8. Webb Valley Campsite.
9. White-necked pigeon.
10. Alpine chat.
11. Camping at Rira.
12. The moorland on Sanetti Plateau.
13. The view from Tulu Deemtu.
14. A giant lobelia.
15. A wolf hunting rodents.
16. A giant mole-rat.
17, The campsite at Dinsho.
18. View from Dinsho Campsite.