National Parks of Ethiopia
Bale Mountain National Park Part II
By John Graham
The first time I visited Bale park, I went across the highland Saneti Plateau, but stopped short of descending the other side into the Harena Forest. Why bother going to see a forest? The road looked bad - windy and muddy. I didnt go.
Fortunately I didnt repeat the mistake a second time. I went, and I went back again. The Harena Forest is actually a jungle. It is wild and rich in foliage and wildlife. The road winds through the encroaching jungle like an advertisement for four wheel drive vehicles. It is wonderful.
It is a bit of a long haul to the forest. If you stay as I did at the Dinsho lodge, then you drive 35 km to Robe, a further 20 to Goba, then up and up on to the Saneti Plateau. On the plateau you must stop to see the Simien wolves and to climb the tallest peak in the Bale Mountains, Tullu Deemtu, at over 4200 meters. It is cold up there - really cold. It is a windy alpine plateau.
Menelik's Bushbuck in Bale
Even with a couple of stops, it is only about an hour from Goba across the plateau to the other side. At the top you have a beautiful view over the cloud shrouded peaks and down to the Harena Forest. From there you descend rapidly down a series of sharp hairpin turns. The landscape changes from alpine meadow to gnarled alpine forest to jungle.
About 15 minutes down the road is a picturesque little village, Rira. There you can stop for the local speciality, natural honey from the many hives in the area, served with local bread. You can also have some of the typical Oromo foods, like a wheat dish called chechefsa and a dry barley powder called mechira.
Travelling further down the valley I was impressed by the stunted trees which began to appear, clinging onto the steep slopes. The piles of firewood by the side of the road began to appear shortly after. I thought this was the Harena Forest, but my local informants said no. This was only the appetiser.
The forest is a jungle. Some of the trees are huge. The undergrowth looks impenetrably thick. Flowers of purple, yellow and red poke out unexpectedly among the trees. Odd shaped ivy-shrouded trees rise above the forest. The road cuts through the overhanging foliage, providing a narrow view of thick trees ahead.
It is not a good road. Trucks dig deep holes in various places during the rains, although it is passable with a good four-wheel drive. Although maintenance is always promised in the next few months the road remains very challenging.
The other fabulous thing about Harena is the wildlife. Baboons regularly troop across your path. We saw a big warthog disappearing into the bush. An unfortunate snake appeared suddenly in front of our tires. The best of all was a lioness who appeared ahead of us walking down the road, but disappeared into the undergrowth before we could get close enough for a good photo.
Inside Dinsho Lodge
The Harena forest was opened up recently, guidebooks say the early 80s, and is so rich in wildlife that biologists are apparently still identifying new species of butterflies (which were plentiful) and lizards.
Although the road is passable, we had the painful experience of getting caught behind a very large herd of cattle on the way back. Because of the narrowness of the road and the thick bush on either side, it was extremely difficult to get past, but after about 20 minutes we cleared the 100 or so cattle.
The Harena forest is part of Bale Park, so it is protected. There is obviously mixed use in the park, witness the cattle, but it seems relatively untouched. Past the park habitation becomes much thicker, with lots of farmsteads and thinner foliage.
A much publicized fire hit the forest in the bone dry early months of the year 2000. Despite damage to the outlying areas, the main forest around the road was untouched.
The town of Mena lies past the forest on the road to Negelle. Mena has been my furthest destination, I ve gone no further. Reports had it that the road further south was even worse than the road through Harena, so it isnt worth hazarding at this time. The other route to Negelle is from the Awassa side, which is also a bad road but apparently more passable.
Mena is a surprisingly large town of about 10,000, with a river running through it and a large and colourful market. It is much lower, and therefore a lot hotter than the forest.
We stopped for a picnic under the trees just a few kilometers north of Mena. It was reassuring to have people around after our encounters with the lion and the snake on the road through the forest. If you are on a day trip from Dinsho, Robe or Goba, this is a good place to turn around. We covered the Saneti plateau and the Harena forest in about 4-5 hours.
On our return trip we were treated to sightings on the plateau of 2 duikers (small buck), 2 hares and plenty of waterfowl. Two Simien wolves (they are wolves according to the biologists - not foxes or jackals) treated us to a long close up sighting. They yowled and gambolled around together, and one entertainingly snapped up one of the mice which is their staple.
Its with regret that we left and made the steep drive down off of the plateau back to Dinsho.
Next week we continue our tour of Bale
Contact John Graham with your questions or comments at