The Land that Time Forgot: Hiking the Bale Mountains, Ethiopia

The Land that Time Forgot: Hiking the Bale Mountains, Ethiopia

Ooweh, ooweh

cry reverberates around the valley, ringing loud and shrill
like an army of ghouls. I lift my head from the coat I’ve rolled up
as a pillow, the moist fug of the tent clinging to my cheeks as I
pause and listen. “Ooweh,” it comes again, and I scramble out of my
sleeping bag to unzip the canvas and peer carefully outside. In the
near distance, shining through the inky darkness, I spot five fires
dotted around our camp, burning bright under a fierce canopy of
stars. The horsemen are awake; I can see their shadowy figures in
the moonlight, furiously stoking the flames and surveying the
cliffs around us. Hyenas, I realise. They’re surrounding the camp
to try to get to the horses. There goes my night’s sleep.

I’m high up in Ethiopia’s remote Bale Mountains National Park.
Four thousand metres high to be exact. The air is pinched, the
terrain demanding – a rugged, undulating expanse of mountains,
rivers and wind-battered plateaus. I’m not a “seasoned” hiker, but
I am fairly fit. Yet this trek has already proved a challenge; the
altitude clutching at my temples with a Vulcan grip, filling my
legs with lead and sucking the thin air from my lungs.

Sitting in southeast Ethiopia, 400km from the capital Addis
, the park is part of the country’s dramatic highlands –
playing home to Tullu Demtu, the second-highest mountain in
Ethiopia and the highest plateau on the African continent (earning
it the nickname “the rooftop of Africa”). Rarely visited by
tourists, only a small number of operators run trips out here. The
mountains are also home to some of Ethiopia’s rarest and most
fascinating wildlife – packs of roaming wild dogs, elegant mountain
nyala and the Ethiopian wolf, Africa’s rarest carnivore, a
tantalising three times rarer than China’s elusive giant panda.

We’ve been spending daylight hours trekking, gliding through
fields bursting with silvery heather and forests of Triffid-like
Giant Lobelia; across windswept plains dusted with amethyst
wildflowers and towards volcanic mountain ranges rising in the
distance like huge serrated teeth. In the hot sun of the day, our
impeccable mountain guide, Ayuba, points out caves dating back
almost 40 million years, and cliffs whose crags are known homes to
preying leopards. We dip our fingers in waterfalls and weave in and
out of vast herds of goats. At night we set up camp at the bottom
of cliffs while troupes of baboons look on bemused, or bed down for
the night alongside glistening streams where bearded vultures soar,
dropping the bones of their prey from great heights so that marrow
oozes out of the cracks like liquid gold.

The morning after the night of the hyenas we’re up at dawn to a
breakfast of scrambled eggs and chapati, cooked by camp chef
Ebrahim (the horses, thankfully, are all still present and
correct). I pull on my hiking boots, leggings, down jacket and cap
and we, the great unwashed, begin our climb up to the blustery
Sodota plateau. As we amble along, flocks of ibis skim past with an
unholy cackle, rare blue-winged geese (the most isolated on the
planet) plod by, and rock hyrax (small, chinchilla-like creatures
that are actually a direct relative of the elephant) emerge from
bluffs to screech furiously at us. There may be few humans here but
there is certainly plenty of wildlife.

When we reach it, the plateau is a stark place. Pockmarked with
alpine shrubs. Battered by sharp winds. Bleak. As we walk, giant
mole rats the colour of ginger biscuits poke their heads up out of
their holes and the screech of hunting augur buzzards fills the
air. I scan the land: this is wolf country and, with fewer than 500
of the creatures remaining in the wild, I’m determined to spot one.
All seems quiet until, in the distance, suddenly, it appears: a
russet-coloured creature, kind of like a jackal, kind of like a fox
– with white-socked legs and a distinctive black-tipped tail –
skipping across the open plain with staccato footsteps. Just
minutes later, we spot another, resting on its haunches, its
elegant snout sniffing at the air. That evening, as we start our
nightly ritual of tent constructing, fire-building and pulling on
as many layers as possible to fend off the biting cold, we spot
another two wolves – ambling nimbly past the camp as the sun sets,
shafts of amber light warming their fur.

The next morning, we wake to tents slicked with dew, and
commence a gruelling high-altitude hike to the Raffu campsite,
flanked by cooks, porters and horses laden with bags – clanking as
they pass me with great ease. I have to stop every couple of
minutes to catch my breath; the air here is so thin even Ayuba our
seasoned guide succumbs to a nosebleed. My knees are starting to
throb, my feet are blistered and burning, a dull ache spreads
across my hips like a rot. But the reward is worth it. After a slog
of a climb we reach the stone forest – a fantastical-looking place
filled with otherworldly rock formations, absurdly vivid forests of
lobelia and leopards, just the feel of them, snaking around
boulders and scenting the air.

Our last day comes with a smidgeon of relief. My bones are
weary. My lips are blistered, my hair matted, a thick black line of
dirt sits in my fingernails like soot. But we finish on a wide
plateau, hiking together with the horses, cooks, guides and
horsemen who have made our journey so much easier than it should
have been. Surrounded by cows, sheep and local nomadic shepherds
who wave as we pass, we close in on our final destination: a small
speck of a minibus on the road in the distance. When the finish
line arrives, I feel a sense of elation. I’m not far from the top
of the world, I guess, and there is no one else in sight other than
our small group of makeshift adventurers. It’s pretty special, I
concede, this small, wind-beaten pocket of wilderness.

The Lowdown

YellowWood Adventures offer fully
guided nine-day trips from £1299

Discover More
Seeking Solitude in the Simien Mountains, Ethiopia