Giant mole-rats were the main dish on the menu in Bale Mountains National Park. They are perhaps the weirdest rodents on earth, with an enormous head, big goofy teeth, a long bendy body, and legs as short as a sausage dog's. Thankfully, looks aren't important to the Ethiopian wolves that depend on these ugly creatures for sustenance: an estimated 5,000 giant mole-rats per square kilometre help keep the world's rarest canids alive.
Only 450 Ethiopian wolves survive today. Some 220 live around Bale's bleak yet beautiful Sanetti Plateau in southern Ethiopia, a six-hour drive south from Addis Ababa. Despite their rarity, spotting them along the roadside through the National Park is almost as easy as spotting an urban fox in London. They look like foxes too, with deep russet coats and black-tipped tails, but they're sleeker, taller, and incredibly handsome. In just 15 minutes on the plateau, we saw our first wolf, a juvenile, skulking low, then waiting patiently to pounce on his living lunch.
You would never see this scene outside Ethiopia – both the wolf and giant mole-rats are endemic to the country. But they're not the only endemic animals in the National Park, which is the size of Herefordshire. On the Dinsho Trail, we walked along tracks on undulating hillsides with massive juniper trees sheltering mountain nyala and Menelik's bushbuck, both antelopes unique to Ethiopia. We saw the impressive twisted horns of the male mountain nyala poking from the top of a bush before the rest of him appeared, running ahead to protect his ladies. The smaller Menelik's bushbuck, almost black with a fluffy coat and shorter horns, was more skittish, dashing into undergrowth on hearing us approach.
"A lot of things pop up mysteriously here," resident naturalist James Ndungu commented as we drove through the spectacular Harenna Forest on the Park's southern slopes. "The other day, we saw a pack of 20 African wild dogs with young ones, so they're obviously breeding. And a guest saw a black leopard here too." Harenna is dripping with moss, giant heather and lichen: it's the kind of place where you feel that trees have eyes and come alive at night.
Bale is known to be home to 78 mammal species and around 300 species of birds, but who knows what truly lives here? Largely unexplored yet potentially full of exciting discoveries, researchers have recently found 22 previously unknown species of butterflies and moths.
We drove for two hours, through the forest's dramatically changing vegetation as the road descended 2,000m to reach Dola Mena for market day. A typically scruffy tin-shack junction town, its market was chaotic. We were the only white people: judging by the response of locals, they don't come along often. Some followed us in silence, others ran away, a few smiled and spoke. Somali and Oromo people all mingled together. Their stalls sold everything from camels, goats and donkeys to clothes, food and furniture. My partner, Will, tried some chat, a bitter plant whose leaves are a stimulant. "You'd need to eat a whole hedge to get any effect," James told him. In the dusty mid-day heat, we resorted to beer instead.
Few tourists visit Bale, but with the opening last month of Bale Mountain Lodge more will undoubtedly arrive. Dramatically raising the standard of local accommodation, the lodge lies within the beautiful Katcha clearing in Harenna Forest.
The owners are Guy and Yvonne Levene, a former British Army officer based in Addis and a teacher respectively. Eight thatched chalets look on to verdant glades in the shadow of the imposing Mount Gujuralli, a two-hour walk away.
With delays to the opening of the lodge through local bureaucracy and supply problems, the couple have had a steep learning curve. They have bold ambitions. "We didn't just want to run a business, we wanted more than that," Guy explained. "We want to protect Bale."
The Levenes pay a percentage of revenue to Ethiopian Wildlife and Conservation Authority and supporting various research groups, including the Ethiopian Wolf Conservation Programme. They are also working with the local village, Rira, helping with much-needed employment, education, health facilities, and income-generating initiatives to deter people from bringing livestock and dogs into the Park. Human encroachment, canine distemper and rabies threaten the very existence of the endangered, enchanting Ethiopian wolves.
The hunting techniques of the wolves themselves don't always help their survival. As we observed our juvenile wolf waiting to pounce on his lunch, another three giant mole-rats bobbed out of their subterranean dens nearby. Overwhelmed by choice, he simply gave up and walked away. But while we'd been busy watching him through binoculars and cameras, another wolf had been watching us – right alongside our Land Rover. He stared at us with curious, amber eyes, and his beauty and elegance rendered me speechless.
Cox & Kings (020 7873 5000; coxandkings.co.uk) has a two-week tour priced from £2,895pp including Ethiopian Airlines flights from Heathrow, transfers, excursions and full-board accommodation. A six-night extension, including three nights' full board at the Bale Mountain Lodge costs from £1,695.
You can alternatively fly via Dubai or Doha from a range of UK airports on Emirates or Qatar Airways.
British travellers need a visa (£14). Get one in advance from the embassy in London (020 7838 3898; ethioembassy.org.uk) or on arrival at Addis Ababa airport..
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