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Adventure Travel

Go Backpacking in Africa's Alpine Zone

In Ethiopia, the Bale Mountains’ glacier-carved plateaus and canyons teem with rare wildlife.

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The morning sun melts the frost outside my tent, revealing a landscape that looks like it belongs in Canyonlands. Stunted juniper trees, sagebrush, and rock formations make it familiar enough—except for warthogs and spiral-horned nyalas. I watch the animals make their way out of the woodlands and into the desert to graze. My guide, Ayuba, says that later today we’ll likely spot the Ethiopian wolf, the rarest canine species on Earth.

Backpacking amid Africa’s exotic wildlife is rare. Lions and malaria make it a risky proposition. But you won’t find either in high-elevation Bale Mountains National Park in southern Ethiopia. You don’t even need a guide. But, since the Bales are both alpine and tropical, they’re home to A-list wildlife—so I hired a guide anyway to piece together an itinerary that was sure to provide sightings. I knew Ayuba was my guy because he can identify all 310 species of Bale birds by sound alone. The Bales are two-thirds the size of Yosemite, so we could have done anything from a quick overnight to a two-week expedition across alpine summits and cloud forests. We landed on a 45-mile, six-night itinerary—the shortest route to hitting all of the Bales’ five major ecosystems.

We ascended 1,500 feet through forested woodlands of juniper and massive hagenia trees on a cross-country route. On day two, we reached the treeless Sanetti Plateau, where we would spend five nights. Up at 11,500 feet, clouds and mountains mingled, while the plains below went forever. We could see for miles across the tablelands, making it easy to spot wildlife. Ayuba pointed out the spot below the cliffs where he saw a leopard lurking during a previous expedition. I was not quite as lucky, but we did get a show from a pair of lammergeiers—oversized vultures—that soared overhead, dropping cow femurs to expose the marrow. On day three, after spending the night on a canyon rim, we poked around slots where we discovered a troop of baboons. 

When I awake on day four, I’m not feeling anxious about spying more wildlife. I’ve seen more animals than I have on any other hike. But that doesn’t dampen the thrill when Ayuba points out an Ethiopian wolf prowling for mole rats. There are some 400 of them on this planet—and here’s one right in front of me. Her red fur makes her look like a giant fox. When a pair of younger males follows her into the sagebrush, my heart starts pumping. But theirs probably don’t: Aside from a few short howls to acknowledge that they see us, they pay no mind. I could consider my wolf sighting a backcountry miracle of sorts, but four days in the Bales and nothing surprises.

On the final night of our trek, Ayuba and I share a dinner of shiro (chickpea stew) and injera (flatbread) at a glacier-carved lake where yucca-like giant lobelia stand like green sentinels. By now, Ayuba and I are old backpacking buddies. Despite our profoundly different backgrounds, we share a love for blissful mountain settings. I tell him to come to Colorado and we’ll go hiking through the Maroon Bells. He’s never seen a porcupine.

DO ITFly into Addis Ababa and drive (or take public transit or a private shuttle) six hours south to Dinsho, where most treks begin. SEASON November to April GUIDEBale Mountains Eco Tours (about $30-50/day) PERMIT Required; about $4/day

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