Stranger than Fiction
First exposure to Ethiopian highland culture tends to leave you feeling that you haven't merely entered another country, but have been beamed into a parallel universe. Bale NP — Ethiopia's most important wildlife destination — generates a similar sense of otherworldliness, with ecological affinities that are one part Palaearctic, one part African — and one part science fiction. The 4000m-high Sanetti Plateau is breathtaking, figuratively and literally — if the undulating landscape of pastel heath studded with sparkling tarns, preposterous giant lobelias and waxen green aloes doesn't leave you gasping, the nippy temperatures and altitude surely will.
Traversed by Africa's highest all-weather road, Sanetti is the last stronghold of the Simien wolf, a handsome russet canid thought to number less than 500 in the wild. The peculiar Giant mole rat — the wolf's main prey — scurries between burrows. The birdlife includes the endemic Rouget's rail and Blue-winged goose, as well as Africa's only breeding populations of Golden eagle and Ruddy shelduck.
The fragrant hagenia and juniper forest at the park headquarters at Dinsho harbours a different selection of Ethiopian endemics, notably the shaggy kudu-like Mountain nyala, jet-black Menelik's bushbuck and melodious Abyssinian catbird. Also at Dinsho, an inexpensive self-catering resthouse and adjoining campsite (only ten minutes on foot from a trunk road) forms a great base for day walks and extended hikes. A better starting point for exploring the Sanetti Plateau by car is Goba town, graced by one relatively commodious hotel as well as a clutch of shoestring dives.
God's Chess Board
"The most marvellous of all Abyssinian landscapes" is how the hardy traveller Rosita Forbes described the Simien Mountains in the 1920s. Read on and Forbes fantasises about how "the old gods... played chess with these stupendous crags... bishops' mitres cut in lapis lazuli, castles with the ruby of approaching sunset on their turrets, an emerald knight where the forest crept up the rock". Enough, frankly, to leave one more intrigued by Forbes's hallucinogenic tendencies than her travel advice. But, really, she's spot on: in a land distinguished by spectacular montane scenery, the Simiens — jagged escarpments falling to impossibly deep river gorges and rising to Africa's fourth-highest peak (Ras Dashen, 4620m) — still stand out as special.
The Simiens are firstly a scenic destination, but their vestigial wildlife includes several Ethiopian endemics. The Simien wolf now verges on local extinction, but the park forms a last stronghold for the highly endangered Walia ibex — rare, but occasionally seen on the cliffs. More certain is the magnificent golden-maned Gelada baboon, a grazer that congregates by the hundred on the highland meadows. Although not a birding destination to compare with Bale, the Simiens do harbour several endemics — and the awesome Lammergeier (Bearded vulture) is virtually guaranteed.
Partially accessible by road, the mountains are more normally explored over a few days' hiking or mule-trekking from Debark, a small town on the Gonder-Axum road with a couple of acceptable local guesthouses. Hiking is cheap by comparison to East Africa's other major mountains, but once on the trail, accommodation options boil down to rudimentary campsites or bedding down alongside goats, chickens and fleas in local huts.
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By Philip Briggs