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.
baboons in the Simien Mountains
Trekking in north Ethiopia’s Simien
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
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
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
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.
In addition to elephant viewing opportunities, Babille is
home to plentiful gazelle, Menelik's bushback (antelope) and rarely seen lions
and cheetahs. It is also a fabulous bird watching location with more than 200
documented bird species.
The Babille Elephant Sanctuary headquarters, where you pick up your compulsory
scout, lie just 32km south of the city of Harar. Entry fees are 90 Birr.
When night falls on Harar, the labyrinth alleyways of the walled Old Town fall
silent, and the shadowy form of a hyena slinking through the narrow streets is
not an uncommon sight. For those who want an even closer look at the predator –
without the startling heart pounding moment that goes with bumping into them on
a lonely back street – Harar offers its own peculiar and fascinating hyena
men of Harar are a modern phenomenon, begun by a local family in the 1950s
who believed that feeding the city's roaming hyena packs would bring them good
luck. The ritual stems from an older city-wide tradition, when locals, trying
to protect their livestock in times of drought, left porridge for the hyenas to
Just after dark every night, two hyena men begin their
ritual at sites just outside the city walls. Sitting on the ground, they take a
piece of raw flesh out of the bucket beside them, threading it onto a stick. It
does not take long until a few pairs of flashing eyes appear out of the
darkness. Then a few more, and a few more, until about eight great hulking
forms are skulking and prowling nearby.
One massive hyena will finally break from the pack and plod
up to take the meat. The feeder then threads another piece onto the stick and a
furry mountain of animals descend upon him, snarling and climbing over each
other to grab it. The hyena man will push them away when they get too
aggressive as though he is handling the family tabby cat. It is a hair-raising
encounter – especially when the men decide to feed the hyenas strips of meat
straight from their mouths.
The hyena men of Harar set up nightly from about 7 pm at two sites: just
outside the eastern city wall at the shrine of Sheikh Aw Anser and by Fallana
Gate. The fee to watch is 50 Birr, and attendees are usually allowed to have a
go at feeding the hyenas themselves (stick provided!) if they are brave enough.