Community-led tourism in Ethiopia – Lake Langano and the Bale Mountains National Park

In Africa, Ethiopia, Nature, Travel, Walking
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After grappling with a ‘sustainable tourism’ assignment in Tanzania, that was unfortunately subject to various elements of sabotage and impropriety, for several months, I was ready for a break. A week’s work in Addis Ababa was an opportunity to fly Chanté out and seek some genuinely locally-rooted tourism experiences that took our cash and used it for good, both for human and wildlife communities.

I’d come across Tesfa (‘hope’ in Amharic) many years ago while researching Ethiopian tourism products for the World Bank. Their main gig is ‘community trekking’ in the north of the country – literally trekking supported by guides and accommodation providers within the mountain villages visited. However, July is the main rain season in the north, and, when we booked, the civil war was still making access difficult. We asked them to put together a package for the drier regions of the Rift Valley and Bale Mountains National Park (where it rains later in the afternoon, leaving much of the day for trekking).

NOTE: for reasons apparently related to ‘terrorism’, binoculars are confiscated by airport security staff, as Chanté discovered when she was detained at Bole, and it’s a real pain in the arse to get them back. DO NOT allow airport staff to scan anything containing binos (I avoided scanning my camera bag at customs as a matter of course – I don’t believe any good can come from voluntarily showing folk that you’re carrying expensive, shiny things). In future, I’ll be concealing them using means best not advertised publicly. However, this still limits you to road transport in-country since the body and bag scan is inescapable when boarding a flight. Hopefully, as tourism recovers, the self-defeating element of this position in a country whose major product is nature will become clear to the authorities.

Topographic map of Ethiopia, showing the Rift Valley and its lakes south of Addis Ababa
Location of Bale Mountains National Park, southeast of Lake Langano

Bishangari Lodge, Langano

The lodge had only just reopened following a disastrous fire and COVID. Gemeda is a kind waiter and an expert local bird guide. He is a walking avian encyclopaedia and can identify the 180(!) locally recorded species by call. He took us out before breakfast and again around sunset to poke around the lake margins and community-managed forest area. The lodge actively supports villagers (and is staffed by them) and visitors pay a fee that is channeled directly into local projects, such as the upgraded bridge shown below.

This is what helps to keep the forest in a relatively untouched state. Villagers observe first-hand how much visitors value it and the life it supports. In fact, we were joined by groups of enthusiastic kids, helping to spot birds and point them out. One little boy found a pygmy kingfisher hidden in deep woodland, something that was challenging to pick up even with binoculars and after he’d already located it. A future guide, hopefully. If anyone has binoculars in good working order that they’ve since upgraded and would like to donate to a good cause, please get in touch — the guides use crappy, barely functional compact models and the kids have none at all.

Here’s a selection of the tiny minority of sightings I managed to record with a camera:

Speckled mousebird
Female Nubian woodpecker
Adult (2&4) and juvenile (1&3) blue-breasted bee-eaters
Woodland kingfisher
Grey-backed fiscal
Red-billed firefinch
Mountain wagtail
Squacco heron
Yellow-billed stork
African spoonbills (with Hottentot teal and African yellow-billed duck in foreground)
Line fishing at dusk
Giant kingfisher
Malachite kingfisher
Pink-backed pelicans
Spur-winged lapwing (plover)
Community bridge, funded by tourism fees
Acacia scrub

Bale Mountains

As we approached Dinsho along the valley road, Abel, our driver, began to point out the first (very) distant mountain nyala through the afternoon downpours. You know how it is when you go to a particular place to see a particular thing – at the back of your mind you’re trying to manage expectations and not get your hopes up. It might be a bird species listed on a nature reserve’s public signage (because one was perhaps spotted flying over five years ago) or it may be that you’ve paid a bunch of fees and travelled for hours to Abruzzo to go ‘bear-watching’, but you content yourself with a pleasant walk and the red deer that nearly stood on everyone while prostrate and waiting in the freezing cold in vain for bears since they are shy and rare and, well, the food and company were good.

So, we were somewhat perturbed when Abel took off again quickly before I could even snap the sketchiest of long-range record shots, not really believing his, “oh, you’ll see loads of those” explanation. Which, in hindsight, was hilarious.

Dinsho and the juniper forest

Were we greeted by guide Muzeyen and the camp logistics team at the no-longer-functional Dinsho Park HQ lodge. They’d set up our tent and, after a quick shoe change, we were skipping through the juniper forest, trying not to trip over rare endemic mammals. Clearly, nobody bothers these animals, such is their apparently highly evolutionarily maladaptive level of tameness (see images below). Presumably they get eaten by the native hyenas, and Bale also hosts lions and leopards, but we obviously look very much like the stupid slow primates that we are, and practically zero shits were given regarding our presence.

I used to be known as Owl Man by the residents of Kielder Village, Northumberland, while I was PhD-ing them there, but The Old Guy (as he was described to us, with no further name details) almost certainly deserves the title more. At any one time, he knows the location of local owls to the tree and will rapidly take you there, also pointing out the mammals (still approaching as if with a death wish) as they passed. Muzeyen (Muza) had arranged for The Old Guy to appear when I mentioned my owl fancying tendencies. And, just like one of his owls, suddenly, there he was. Again, I was a little skeptical – my tracking experience told me that even when the things are radio-tagged, they can detect your approach and fly off before you reach their roosting place. Not these ones, and not with The Old Guy.

African wood owl (Strix woodfordii, from the same genus as the European tawny owl)
Abyssinian owl, or African long-eared owl
Look at the horns on that
Although attentive, mountain nyala can be closely approached with care…
…causing you to zoom the lens out!
Nose flies give a female a spotted appearance
“What’s up, ape guy?”
Young males
Male bohor reedbuck
Male Menelik’s bushbuck
…and another
Hyena caves with warthog bones, like something out of The Hobbit
Group of female reedbuck
Red hot pokers, flowering and lush following the rains
Lone male nyala just behind the Dinsho park HQ buildings
Warthogs were the most ludicrously tame of all

After a night punctuated regularly by the sounds of nearby hyenas and warthogs, I played toilet roulette and lost (the four toilet cisterns in the compound shared a puzzling and unpredictable water supply and I was forced to obtain a pan and water from the kitchen to flush — one of the features of tropical life is becoming far more familiar with the products of your bodily functions than is desirable). We downed a vast breakfast and made only semi-successful attempts to carry our own luggage to the vehicle – I’ve never been comfortable with being waited on in that way.

The Web Valley and Sodota Camp

The Web Valley is central to multiple Ethiopian wolf territories. Bale has the largest of the remaining sub-populations, with the national (and, therefore, world) total estimated at around 400-520 individuals. Again, “we really hope we’ll see one”, became a naïve observation in hindsight. Muza is to wolves what The Old Guy is to owls — he has worked on the wolf conservation programme long-term and is responsible for the sightings behind most of the images and films in international media, although he rarely gets the credit he deserves for his work, with many authors and presenters preferring to keep his contributions hidden.

The wolf research and monitoring team is constantly looking for good quality outdoor equipment, which isn’t available locally. If any readers have kit in good condition that they’d like to donate, please get in touch with me.

There are far too many livestock in the world. Here, they compact soil and eat natural vegetation. They also place carnivores in direct human conflict — one paper found that Ethiopian wolves and golden jackals take around 1.2 heads per year (10% of the average herd size). However, other social studies from Bale have revealed that pastoralists are much more likely to have a favourable view of wolves if they see direct economic benefits from wolf tourism

Local herders attempting to keep dry during a heavier shower
Rain moving through
The wolves are sustained by an incredibly dense small mammal community. Their staple, and the producer of the thousands of large holes that pepper the plains, is the giant mole rat
A potential meal moves underground
The ear tag signifies that the animal has been vaccinated against the rabies carried and transmitted by domestic dogs
One of two wolves that were patrolling the Web Valley together as heavy rain came and went before finally trotting off, pausing periodically to consume the giant mole rat they were carrying. Although they live in groups of two to 18 animals, and defend an exclusive territory, they generally forage alone by daylight
Giant lobelia (only found between around 3,100-4,400m above sea level) plants and shrubs above Sodota Camp
Water begins to flow toward the seasonal Fincha Habera waterfall as the rain continues to fall long after the customary short afternoon showers would usually have ended. The valley also hosts endemic spot-breasted lapwings (plovers), blue-winged geese and Starck’s hares
Muza on the trek back toward Dinsho

The Sanetti Plateau

Rising to 4,377m at its highest point of Mount Tullu Dimtu, the plateau is an incredible moorland system and the largest Afroalpine region in the Ethiopian Highlands.

Ethiopian wolf amid fields of the endemic dwarf shrub Helichrysum citrispinum, whose colouration gives the impression of a deep frost
Barbary falcon
Ruddy shelduck, with its only Ethiopian breeding population on the plateau
Tawny eagle atop a giant lobelia plant
Augur buzzard in an afternoon shower
Pale phase adult augur buzzard
Lappet-faced vultures, standing separately with their backs to a melée around several ox corpses and seemingly viewing the other birds’ behaviour with embarrassment
A thick-billed raven grabs a morsel from the edge of the scrum
An adult Rüppell’s vulture gets a little too close for a juvenile’s liking…
…causing a foot full of talons to be thrust in its direction

Rira and the Harenna Forest

Rira is a delight. The local bars serve delicious ambesha and gomen, a flatbread and steamed kale served with spices and local unprocessed honey (with the bees thronging the container apparently determined to take it back again), and the usual treacle-like coffee, or in macchiato form. Down the hill from the campsite is the the Harenna forest, with its Bale monkeys and giant hogs. We didn’t see either of these as the light rain barely let up and it’s called cloud forest for a reason, but the fern-covered trees were stunning in their own right, it it blows the mind that black-maned lions roam around here, albeit rarely seen.

Cloud hangs above the Harenna forest at the southern edge of the plateau
Rira mosque and cloud forest
Poker patch in the campsite garden…
…visited by a female malachite sunbird
Abel, our driver and fixer (front right), and his local kitchen team load the camping gear

Full trip lists (in order of sightings/identification; * = endemic)

Birds

  • Hooded vulture
  • Hadada ibis
  • Pied crow
  • Great white pelican
  • Great cormorant
  • Long-tailed cormorant
  • Squacco heron
  • Intermediate egret
  • Yellow-billed stork
  • Egyptian goose
  • African fish eagle
  • Palm nut vulture
  • Spur-winged lapwing
  • Common sandpiper
  • Red-eyed dove
  • Pied kingfisher
  • Northern black flycatcher
  • Greater blue-eared starling
  • Rüppell’s starling
  • Swainson’s sparrow
  • Rüppell’s weaver
  • Woolly-necked stork
  • Grasshopper buzzard
  • Senegal thick-knee
  • Laughing dove
  • Black-winged lovebird*
  • Bare-faced go-away bird
  • White-cheeked turaco
  • Speckled mousebird
  • Blue-naped mousebird
  • Woodland kingfisher
  • African pygmy kingfisher
  • Little bee-eater
  • Blue-breasted bee-eater
  • Black-billed wood hoopoe
  • Black scimitarbill
  • Hemprich’s hornbill
  • Abyssinian ground hornbill
  • Double-toothed barbet
  • Banded barbet
  • Black-throated barbet
  • Red-fronted tinkerbird
  • Greater honeyguide
  • Nubian woodpecker
  • African grey woodpecker
  • Ethiopian swallow
  • Common bulbul
  • African paradise flycatcher
  • Grey-headed batis
  • Grey-backed fiscal
  • Northern puffback
  • Ethiopian boubou
  • Black-headed oriole
  • Fork-tailed drongo
  • Red-billed oxpecker
  • Superb starling
  • White-browed sparrow weaver
  • Village weaver
  • Little weaver
  • Red-cheeked cordon bleu
  • Red-billed firefinch
  • African hoopoe
  • Striated heron
  • Cinnamon-breasted bunting
  • Three-banded plover
  • Giant kingfisher
  • Malachite kingfisher
  • Pink-backed pelican
  • Great egret
  • African spoonbill
  • Hottentot teal
  • Yellow-billed duck
  • Red-knobbed coot
  • African jacana
  • Grey-headed gull
  • Narina trogon
  • Silvery-cheeked hornbill
  • Mountain wagtail
  • Red-shouldered cukooshrike
  • African dusky flycatcher
  • Sacred ibis
  • Wattled ibis
  • Augur buzzard
  • Mountain thrush
  • African pied wagtail
  • Malachite sunbird
  • Cape crow
  • Brown-rumped seedeater
  • African wood owl
  • Abyssinian owl*
  • Ethiopian siskin*
  • Yellow bishop
  • Red-winged starling
  • Blue-winged goose*
  • Tacazze sunbird
  • Tawny eagle
  • Groundscraper thrush
  • African stonechat
  • Moorland chat
  • Mosque swallow
  • Rock martin
  • Baglafecht weaver
  • Thekla lark
  • Spot-breasted lapwing*
  • Mountain buzzard
  • Little grebe
  • Grey heron
  • Ruddy shelduck
  • Rüppell’s vulture
  • Barbary falcon
  • Moorland francolin*
  • Wattled crane
  • Fan-tailed raven
  • Thick-billed raven
  • Abyssinian longclaw*
  • Cinnamon bracken warbler
  • Streaky seedeater
  • Yellow-crowned canary
  • Montane white-eye
  • Red-billed chough
  • Rüppell’s robin-chat
  • Lappet-faced vulture
  • African white-backed vulture
  • White-collared pigeon
  • African pygmy goose
  • Hammerkop
  • Little egret
  • Ring-necked dove
  • African darter
  • African thrush
  • Gull-billed tern
  • Maribou stork
  • Goliath heron
  • Yellow-billed kite
  • Eastern yellow-billed hornbill
  • Northern red-billed hornbill
  • Northern red bishop
  • Cattle egret
  • Bateleur
  • Helmeted guineafowl
  • Emerald-spotted wood dove
  • African orange-bellied parrot
  • White-bellied go-away bird
  • Northern carmine bee-eater
  • Hunter’s sunbird
  • Taita fiscal
  • Lilac-breasted roller
  • Wahlberg’s eagle
  • Beautiful sunbird
  • African citril

Mammals

  • Olive baboon
  • Black and white colobus monkey
  • Common warthog
  • Bohor reedbuck
  • Menelik’s bushbuck*
  • Mountain nyala*
  • Ethiopian wolf*
  • Giant mole rat
  • Rock hyrax
  • Starck’s hare*
  • Hippopotamus
  • Günther’s dik-dik

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