BALE MOUNTAINS NATIONAL PARK, ETHIOPIA-At first, it’s little more than a flash of fur, just a blot on the far side of the road, trotting hard and moving fast.
Its auburn coat standing out against the lunarlike landscape, the small animal pauses just for a moment, turns to face us, mouth set in what looks like a toothy grin, and eyes our Land Cruiser’s sleepy band of travellers. Then, in a moment, it dashes off before we can scramble for our cameras, running at a steady pace up and over a ridge, out of sight. By the time we spill clumsily out of the vehicle and walk with our sleep-stiffened joints across the frozen ground to where it once stood, that lone wolf is long gone.
I’ve just seen the Abyssinian red wolf — the world’s most endangered canine. With a habitat that’s now largely limited to the high plateau of Ethiopia’s Bale Mountains National Park — a forbidding, otherworldly place some 4,000 metres above sea level — estimates vary on how many of these wolves remain, but everyone agrees it’s a few hundred, at most.
Cousins of both coyotes and jackals, some experts peg their population at fewer than 300, and dropping fast. I’m here to spot as many as possible, as well as a wide variety of other strange creatures that thrive in the rarefied air of this remote corner of Ethiopia.
With various ecosystems and altitudes packed into one park, the roughly 2,000-square-kilometre Bale Mountains National Park provides opportunities to view some of Africa’s most unusual animals, including the endemic big-headed mole rat, mongoose, jackal, honey badger, black-maned lion and the mountain-adapted leopard.
Arriving here after a long drive, 400 hard km down from the capital, Addis Ababa, with Australian-based Peregrine Adventures, we overnight in the nearby city of Goba.
Rising early, we wind up to the Sanetti Plateau in our hardy Land Cruisers, passing the tree line and entering Africa’s largest uninterrupted high-altitude zone. We skirt frozen ponds and spot one of Ethiopia’s highest peaks — Mount Tullu Dimtu, which rises almost 4,400 metres — and quickly enjoy that fleeting glimpse of the wolf. Before descending into more hospitable climes on the other side, where we stop for a pleasant hike through green pastures and forest to a waterfall, we tarry in Rira, a bustling, ramshackle village inside the park, where we buy a few supplies and stop to snap some photos with the residents.
Soon we’re sitting down for lunch at Bale Mountain Lodge, which is set in a valley below a craggy ridge. Unlike more heavily tourist parts of Africa, safari lodges are rare in Ethiopia, but this one, built in 2014, is aiming to place visitors in the heart of the animal action.
The only wolf in Africa, the Abyssinian is facing extinction. According to the Ethiopian Wolf Conservation Programme, which is headed by an Oxford University zoologist, four consecutive rabies outbreaks — the most recent in 2014 — have precipitated a sharp drop in numbers, with the total population plummeting as much as 75 per cent since the early ’90s. Solutions aren’t easy; transplanting the village of Rira outside the park would be difficult, and moving the vast herds owned by local, rural pastoralists, harder still.
After settling into my comfortable cabin, I re-emerge near nightfall and immediately come face-to-face with a big-headed mole rat. His head is, indeed, quite large, giving him an almost cartoonish look. We stare each other down for just a moment; as I make a slow move for my camera, he darts into the rather large burrow next to the path.
I meet two guides, Ziyad Haji Kamal and Miki Wubishet, who take me out in a jeep as the last light of day slips away. Our night drive bears fruit immediately. Just 30 seconds from the lodge, a large cat skulks across the road, and Ziyad confirms that it’s a mountain-adapted leopard — an extremely rare sight. In just a second, he’s gone, disappeared into the now-inky-black bush. We search for more, driving a series of unsealed roads around the lodge, hanging out the window and beaming a superpowered flashlight into the black, but see nothing more.
Nonetheless thrilled, I make my way through the darkness, along the path to my cabin, a billion stars above. In the silence, I consider the fact I didn’t see another wolf — only that fleeting glimpse, which now seems like so long ago. As I near my cabin, just before turning left to the warm wood stove and comfortable bed waiting for me there, I notice something down a separate path to my right — two eyes, close together, caught for just a second in the beam of my flashlight.
A wolf? Perhaps, but unlikely, at this lower altitude. A honey badger? A jackal or a hyena? Maybe, even probably. I make an improbable decision, here in this wild part of Africa — instead of retreating hastily to the warmth and safety of my cabin, I turn and walk at a steady clip toward those two tiny, shining beacons. Within a second they’re gone, swallowed up by the black night as the animal moves fast into the bush. So, I pivot back and head for bed, satisfied in all I’ve witnessed, and somehow content I will never know what I (almost) saw, in the middle of that dark night.
Tim Johnson was a guest of Peregrine Adventures, which didn’t review or approve this story.
When you go
Do this trip: Peregrine Adventures offers a number of itineraries in both southern and northern Ethiopia. Adventures are undertaken in hardy Land Cruisers and guided by those with an intimate knowledge of this remote corner of the world. Trips to the Bale Mountains can be organized through Peregrine’s private groups team (peregrineadventures.com/en-ca/private-groups ).
Get there: Ethiopian Airlines (ethiopianairlines.ca) offers the only direct flight from Canada to Africa, with daily service from Toronto Pearson International Airport in a 787 Dreamliner. The flight takes about 13 hours, west-to-east, and includes the option of a lie-flat bed and excellent food and wine in its Cloud Nine business class.
Stay: Bale Mountain Lodge (balemountainlodge.com ) offers one of Ethiopia’s few true safari experiences. Set in a valley below a stunning series of craggy peaks, all its rooms include a wood-burning stove. The dining room is built in a traditional tukul (cone-shaped) style, with massive windows that afford panoramic views of the wilderness outside.
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