(Financial Times) — I stood in my room in bathing trunks, looking out over the lake 100 metres away, anticipating the feel of the cool water on my skin.
There was just one small problem: the large, male Anubis baboon blocking my door. He was being groomed by a female. I tapped on the glass and did a little theatrical cough. Our eyes locked. He rolled back his top lip to reveal incisors like daggers. I wanted my swim; he wanted his grooming. They say a baboon can rip a man’s arms out of his sockets. My swim, I decided, could wait.
The day before, I’d arrived from Addis Ababa at Bishangari Lodge in Ethiopia’s Oromiya region, on the shores of Langano, one of a series of lakes that run along the Rift Valley, five hours’ drive south of the capital.
Bishangari, with its eight lovely cabins (called godjos) set back from the lake in a forest of podocarpus and wild fig trees, was the country’s first upmarket lodge when it opened in 2002. Others sprang up in the far north, serving the vast majority of Ethiopia’s tourists, who tend to head to the Unesco sites of Lalibela, Axum and Gondar. But the south’s luxury travel potential remained untapped beyond Bishangari.
Until now. This year a $290-a-night eco-lodge will open in the gloriously wild Bale Mountains, five hours southeast of Bishangari, creating for the first time a southern circuit for luxury travellers in Ethiopia.
And it was this two-lodge experience that I had journeyed south to try. But that wasn’t going to happen if I couldn’t even get out of my room.
Eventually, the baboon moved away from the door and I tiptoed my way through the 40-strong troop, saying “good mornings” as I went, figs raining down on me like hailstones from the tree above. Can baboons snigger? Undoubtedly. I hadn’t encountered such bullying since school.
After my swim, I walked along the shore of the lake. In the shade of an acacia, I sat on a rock and watched a procession of birds wing past, like an avian superhighway – there are 450 species around the lake, eight of them endemic. Hemprich’s hornbills followed a huge black crowned crane, a lone pelican flapped noiselessly inches from the lake surface. There were northern carmine bee eaters and starlings like winged sapphires, each more vivid in colour than the last. A pied kingfisher hovered right in front of me, split the water with its razor beak, then came and sat on a branch above my head to eat its breakfast.
I walked into the forest, past the spring that gave the lodge its name (bishangari means clear, bubbling water in Oromo). A giant warthog crashed out of the bushes right in front of me. In the canopy, colobus monkeys, with their white beards and doleful eyes, like sad little old men, watched me pass. White-cheeked turacos clucked away. I came to a clearing, in which stood a dozen tukels, or houses, with conical thatched roofs and walls of mud. It was a scene probably little changed since the birth of Christ. Children ran up to me, grabbing my hands, rubbing at the pale skin, as if trying to wipe it off.
The Harenna forest in Bale Mountains National Park
This is how lazy days are spent at Bishangari, its remoteness freeing you from any guilty sense that you should be doing anything other than immersing yourself in its tranquillity. After dinner, served in a thatched open-sided structure, and a couple of beers in the treehouse bar set in a 500-year-old ficus, there’s nothing else to do except lie in bed listening to the forest, as the guttural screams, rustling and grunting gradually fade into deep, sonorous silence.
Next day we headed southeast, across wide, expansive plains of barley and teff, the pale golden crop that forms Ethiopia’s staple bread, injera. Carts pulled by donkeys outnumbered the few vehicles on the road. Church-goers, wearing the traditional brilliant-white shama and carrying the beautifully embroidered umbrellas for which Ethiopians are renowned, were strolling along the jacaranda-lined road like Victorian seaside promenaders.
We pulled in at a dusty truck stop for lunch. Large yellow-tailed kites swooped down looking for scraps. A waiter poured water over our hands from a copper decanter, then brought out the injera, a grey dustbin-lid sized slab of it – essentially tablecloth and eating utensil, as well as food – on to which he splodged various chilli sauces, collectively known as wat, each a different colour, so that the whole thing looked like an artist’s palette. Then came the tibs, strips of beef coated in salt and deep-fried until crisp, which we grabbed with torn-off pieces of injera and dunked in the fiery sauces. Delicious.
We hit the foothills of the Bale Mountains. Gone were the plains, replaced with Alpine-like meadows flecked with wild geraniums. Gone, too, were the umbrella-toting walkers, replaced by people on horseback, the animals richly caparisoned, male riders wearing taqiyahs, the women in niqabs – for we had crossed from predominantly Christian Ethiopia into its southern Muslim heartlands.
The tarmac road petered out, replaced with a dirt track. My ears popped. The trees disappeared. Then, too, the low sagebrush and St John’s wort. Clouds kissed the flat, barren, empty land. We were crossing the Sanetti Plateau, the roof of Africa – at 4,000 metres, the highest drivable road on the continent. Just an hour or so earlier we had been basking in Technicolor Africa; now we were shivering on a grey moon.
A marketplace in Chiri, a village 50 minutes from Bale Mountain Lodge
We parked and went for a walk, layered up against the chill wind, crunching on the permafrost, puffing hard in the thin air, weaving between small, oily tarns that sparkled like mirrors. We seemed to be walking through the most lifeless, uninhabited place on earth. On closer inspection, though, the ground was alive, black blurs scuttling everywhere, appearing and disappearing in the blink of an eye. These, as Endele Teshome, our guide, explained, were the giant mole rats and grass rats that thrive in the conditions up here.
“There! There!” Teshome said, pointing. Walking towards us, russet in the monochrome, was an endemic Ethiopian wolf. With only 450 surviving, 250 of them in the Bale Mountains National Park, it is one of the rarest mammals on the planet, driven to near-extinction by hunters and the rabies their dogs carry. My heart stopped. It was one of the most stunning animals I had ever seen.
“He’s out hunting,” Teshome said. He explained that the mole rat forms the wolf’s staple diet. So for the Ethiopian wolf, the site is an all-you-can-eat buffet. The wolf caught sight of us and disappeared behind some rocks. “Don’t worry,” Teshome said. “We will see more before the trip is out.”
We drove to the edge of the Sanetti escarpment. Far, far beneath us, stretching to the horizon, cloud forest so lush and viridescent that it hurt your eyes. This was the Harenna, the third-largest forest in Africa.
We descended through the low, gnarled trees, which were dripping with old man’s beard and ancient creepers, dense and foreboding like a forest from a Grimm fairytale.
The trees parted, and there was the Bale Mountain Lodge. Well, what will become the Bale Mountain Lodge. When I visited in December, it was still a building site, with work having fallen months behind schedule.
The brainchild of former British army colonel Guy Levene, the 18-bedroom luxury lodge will be the first to operate within an Ethiopian national park. Guy’s wife Yvonne told of the setbacks they had encountered, the frustrations and bureaucracy (Guy was in Addis Ababa trying to liberate building materials from customs).
She showed us around the one completed lodge, with hay-bale walls, hardwood floors and wood burner; and another, half-built, which is romantically reached via a staircase through the tangled roots of a giant tree, with a terrace overlooking the cloud forest and, looming above, the craggy peak of Mount Gujerale, a giant thumb hitching a lift in the sky. It was a stunning setting and easy to imagine how the Levenes lost their hearts when they first saw it in 2011.
We walked in the forest, alive with birdsong, the floor carpeted with purple acanthus, the 500-year-old schefflera trees festooned with traditional bamboo basket beehives for the honey the lodge will serve.
“We saw a big lion in this very spot last week,” Yvonne said. I picked up a stick. I’m not quite sure why.
Horse riding in the Web Valley
On the way back to Addis, we headed for the Web Valley in the national park, a two-hour drive off-road along hideously rutted tracks, once more leaving the trees behind as we climbed, the landscape now punctuated only by the spikes of giant lobelia. We camped outside the research hut of the Ethiopian Wolf Conservation Project where, overnight, the temperature plunged to -10C. In the morning, we mounted horses (the wildlife is used to them, and doesn’t see the humans) and rode off across the frigid steppe, the surrounding mesas beginning to glow gently golden in the morning sun. It was like being in your own Sergio Leone movie.
The valley’s hunters were starting their day shift. A serval cat slunk across our path. The sky grew full of giant raptors – Verreaux’s, tawny and golden eagles, augur buzzards, kites, all as common here as pigeons in a city park. An Abyssinian hare ran across the ground at cartoon speed, as well it might. A group of handsome mountain nyalas, an antelope endemic to Bale, snorted, the frozen air sending great plumes of steam from their nostrils.
We rode until, in the late afternoon, we found our prey: there, 100 metres in front of us, in the rocks, was the entrance to an Ethiopian wolf den. Teshome explained how a wolf community works: how the adults all take responsibility for the pups; how they live as a pack but hunt during the day in solitude. Through binoculars, we watched as four tiny pups, about a month old, rare, precious bundles of fur, frolicked. A shadow flew across the lens. A tawny eagle landed inches from one of the pups. “They take young wolves,” Teshome said. I held my breath. The pup and eagle eyed each other.
A bark. We scanned left. There, striding through the gloaming under the infinite sky, was a big male. The eagle flew off. The pups ran to greet the returning adult, mobbing him, dancing around his feet. The wolf sat down, sniffed the air and then locked his eyes on us. He threw back his head, the plaintive, haunting howl echoing around the valley.