Thursday, October 3, 2013

Africa’s wildlife in the raw

Think of an East African wilderness adventure, and Kenya and Tanzania often spring to mind. Ethiopia – with its hidden cliff top monasteries, cross-wielding priests and crumbling ruins – is usually brushed off as a purely cultural destination. While it may not have the luxury safari lodges and Big Five stakes of its southern neighbours, it also does not have the crowds. Wildlife viewing here is a raw experience; big on nature and short on flashy tours. And during October and November, Ethiopia is at its most lush.
Bleeding heart baboons in the Simeon Mountains
Trekking in north Ethiopia’s Simeon Mountains National Park is a lesson in geologic beauty. The sharp pinnacles thrusting out of the deep ravines are doused in watercolour tints, as if you are standing inside a painting. Formed 40 million years ago by the violent fireworks and lava flow of volcanic eruptions, this mountain massif is home to some of Africa's most staggering scenery. But if deep gullies and spiky incisor-like rocks are not impressive enough, the park also plays host to the cream of the country's endemic gelada baboon crop.

Around 50,000 gelada baboons (a species of monkey rather than a baboon) survive in the wild in Ethiopia's highlands, and large troops, usually around 100 strong, lollop across the grassy plateaus of the Simeon Mountains. If you approach quietly, it is possible to sit down with the troop as they feed on the plateau grass. The males, whose striking red chest-patches give the species the nickname of bleeding heart baboon, also sport shaggy leonine manes, which lend a slightly ludicrous air of 1980s mullet-haired rock singer to their swagger.
Downy-haired, bug-eyed baby monkeys peek out from behind their mothers' backs. The only sound is a quiet tearing and plucking as the troop mows the patch of grassy land. The tranquil scene is finally broken by the roar of the head male who, with a toss of his lustrous mane and surprising show of speed, suddenly mounts a charge at another male. Then, at some impenetrable signal, it is time to move off and the troop trots across the plateau as one.
A daytrip from the national park's headquarters in Debark village will get you close to the gelada baboons, but the real joy here is a multi-day trek. Park entry fees are 90 Ethiopian Birr per day and treks are organised on arrival in Debark, where armed park rangers (compulsory), guides, cooks and mule handlers can be hired.
Ethiopian wolves in the Bale Mountains
The Ethiopian wolf – Africa's most endangered carnivore – is thought to number less than 500, but sightings of the canid amid the sprawling Bale Mountains’ raw and rugged landscape are nearly guaranteed.
Whether trekking or horse riding through the park, keep your eyes peeled for the animal's distinctive russet-red coat on the Sanetti Plateau. This surreally stark and rock-pitted tableland is punctuated by bizarre, spiky-fronded giant lobelia plants, which glower over the landscape, adding to the otherworldly atmosphere. It is also common  to see mountain nyala and spotted hyenas, as well as Lammergeyer (bearded vultures), tawny eagles and augur buzzards regularly swooping over the plateau, training their beady eyes on the scampering rodents.
Although searching for the Ethiopian wolf is the prime reason to visit, try to squeeze in an extra day to visit the park's lower-altitude Harenna Forest. This is Ethiopia's largest cloud forest and the dense canopy of massive trees, branches dripping in epiphytes, is a wondrously spooky sight. While wolf spotting opportunities are sparse within the Harenna Forest, there are many opportunities to see wildlife such as the Bale monkey and (if you are lucky) lions and spotted leopards.
All trekking and horse riding within Bale Mountains National Park must be organised in advance at the park headquarters in the town of Dinsho, where guides (compulsory), cook and horses and horse handlers can all be hired. Entry fees are 90 Birr per day.
Elephant tracking in Babille
Far out in Ethiopia’s east, the Babille Elephant Sanctuary stretches across a rambling landscape of dense scrub and forest. Home to the country's most successfully growing elephant population, park officials believe that approximately 400 elephants (an indigenous subspecies of the African elephant) live in the 7,000sqkm park.
Accompanied by a guide, set out on foot to track down the herd, hiking through territory thick with thorn trees, spiky brambles and cacti; the odd prickle and scratch is worth it. Getting close up to a grazing herd this way, rather than viewing them from the comfortable confines of a jeep, is an experience not to be missed.