Ethiopia's Bale Mountains National Park makes UNESCO World Heritage list

The new UNESCO site dazzles with a range of otherworldly landscapes, and is also one of Africa's most exciting yet quirky wildlife destinations...

6 mins

A highland mist swirls above a pastel landscape of tussocked heather, glassy tarns, lichen-crusted boulders and prehistoric giant lobelias. The morning air is chilly and gaspingly thin here at 4,000-plus metres on the Sanetti Plateau, the world’s largest remaining pocket of Afro-alpine moorland. As a gap opens in the mist, a coyote-like silhouette emerges, first trotting through a field of red-hot pokers, then approaching more closely to reveal a striking chestnut coat offset by a bold white throat and flanks. This, thrillingly, is an Ethiopian wolf, a critically endangered Ethiopian endemic whose aura of cheerful doggy nonchalance belies its status as Africa's scarcest carnivore.

The lofty centerpiece of Bale Mountains National Park, otherworldly Sanetti, is a vast lava plateau whose upper slopes are studded with ancient volcanic cones that include Ethiopia’s second-highest peak Tullo Deemtu (4,377m). It is also one of Africa’s most unusual and exciting wildlife destinations, though, recommending Bale Mountains to anyone expecting a quick-fix Big Five safari would qualify as an act of wilful spite. But for those seeking a truly unique off-the-beaten-track wilderness experience, this remote 2,200km2 park, with its rich assemblage of highland flora and fauna, comes across as a kind of Serengeti of Quirkiness.

An Ethiopian wolf in Sanetti Plateau  (Shutterstock)

An Ethiopian wolf in Sanetti Plateau (Shutterstock)

Bizarre lava flow rock formations in Bale Mountains NP (Alamy Stock Photo)

Bizarre lava flow rock formations in Bale Mountains NP (Alamy Stock Photo)

Bale’s most stellar attraction is its Ethiopian wolves. Around half the global population of 500 individuals is resident in the park, and they be can observed with unexpected ease on the Sanetti Plateau. Better still, these confiding creatures often approach hikers or vehicles to within a few meters, and you might well see packs playing together in the thin morning sun, or individuals pouncing on one of the giant mole-rats that form their main diet.

Set at a lower altitude, the juniper-hagenia forest around Dinsho is the last major stronghold for the endangered mountain nyala. Endemic to southwest Ethiopia, this handsome spiral-horned antelope – which looks like a shaggier version of a greater kudu – has the distinction of being one of Africa’s most recently described large ungulates (the type specimen was shot by one Major Buxton in 1908) and one of the rarest (fewer than 3,000 individuals remain). Despite this, you’re likely to see several herds of mountain nyala at Dinsho, along with the smaller Menelik’s bushbuck, a jet-black subspecies that’s also endemic to Ethiopia.

Also partially protected within Bale, the vast Harenna Forest was practically unknown to scientists until a road was cut through it in the 1980s. The road in question switchbacks downhill from the southern escarpment of Sanetti through a fairy-tale forest of hunchbacked trees adorned with straggly old-man’s beard. At the base of the escarpment, it enters a biodiverse rainforest that recalls the Congo Basin or Uganda. Unusual large mammals found here include the endemic Bale monkey, the fearsome giant forest hog, and a small population of lions.

The enchanting Harenna Forest (Shutterstock)

The enchanting Harenna Forest (Shutterstock)

Endangered nyala live in Bale Mountains NP (Shutterstock)

Endangered nyala live in Bale Mountains NP (Shutterstock)

The African Birding Club has ranked Bale among the continent’s top five birding hotspots. Certainly, there’s no better place to seek out a wide selection of species endemic or near-endemic to Ethiopia. The likes of Rouget’s rail, spot-throated lapwing and blue-winged goose are easily seen on Sanetti, while white-cheeked turaco, black-winged lovebird and Abyssinian catbird are among the more colourful birds that lurk in the montane forests. Bale’s diverse birdlife also encapsulates Ethiopia’s unique combination of Palaearctic and Afrotropical ecological affinities. Here, sub-Saharan Africa’s only populations of golden eagle, ruddy shelduck and chough populations breed alongside more typical African species including the northern hemisphere’s only resident flock of wattled crane.

In 2009, Bale Mountains National Park was nominated to UNESCO’s World Heritage Tentative List due to the Outstanding Universal Value of its spectacular scenery, diverse Ethiopian highland vistas and high level of endemism. The value of this highland park extends beyond conservation and aesthetics to more pragmatically concerns. A vital watershed, it feeds a number of rivers which collectively provide perennial water to around 12 million people living in the arid lowlands of southeast Ethiopia and Somalia. In addition, an astonishing 400 medicinal plant species have been documented here alongside  the world’s largest natural stand of wild coffee and Africa’s only indigenous flowering rose species. For all these reasons, the news that Bale was finally inscribed as Ethiopia’s eleventh World Heritage Site on 18 September 2023 is a highly welcome and exciting development.

Rouget’s rail in Bale Mountains NP (Shutterstock)

Rouget’s rail in Bale Mountains NP (Shutterstock)

Need to know

Location: Bale lies 400km south of the capital Addis Ababa, though the exact distance depends on which part of the park you visit.

Getting there: Ethiopian Airlines flies to Addis Ababa from London and several other European cities. It also operates flights to Goba, the closest town to Bale. Alternatively, you can bus or arrange to be driven from Addis Ababa to Bale, but should allow a full day for this.

Getting around: Most points of interest can be reached by road in a 4x4. Hikes and horseback treks can be arranged with local guides or specialist Ethiopia operators. 

When to go: Year round, but hiking options are reduced during the rains (July to October).

Accommodation: Bale Mountain Lodge, a small boutique lodge set in the Harenna Forest, has been operating on a self-catering basis since the Covid-19 pandemic but is set to reopen fully before the end of 2023. Several basic hotels in the towns of Goba and Robe can be used as a base for visits.

Further information: Ethiopia (Bradt Travel Guides; 8th edition 2019) by Philip Briggs

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