Most people probably don’t immediately associate a cloud forest with Ethiopia. But there it was all the same: the sight of seemingly endless jungle canopy with snatches of exotic bird song floating above it all. Large elusive predators are said to dwell here as well as a host of new species waiting to be discovered. Welcome to the Harenna forest!
My main reason for visiting Bale Mountains National Park was to try and photograph Africa’s most endangered carnivore: the Ethiopian wolf (Canis simensis). Which I did! These beautiful predators are specialized in hunting Afro-Alpine rodents, meaning they primarily occur at the lofty altitudes of the Web Valley and Sanetti Plateau. But the Bale Mountains NP has much more to offer. The Sanetti Plateau drops rapidly from 4,000m to 2,000m over a distance of only 8km to the mysterious Harenna forest. Bale Mountains NP can be found about 280kms south of the capital Addis Ababa.
A little known gem
I tried reading up on the Harenna forest beforehand, but information and especially photographs are rather limited, as most sources on the park tend to focus on the Ethiopian wolves. As a result, I only had an inkling of what to expect. That, in combination with the stark contrast between the barren landscape of the Sanetti Plateau and the lush Afromontane vegetation, made the two days I spend in Harenna a definitive highlight of my trip. One moment you’re standing on the roof of Africa with its extraordinary scenery, and the next you are immersed in a tropical forest. A sensation that is hard to put into words.
This Afromontane forest covers most of the southern part of the park. With several thousand square kilometers it is the largest cloud forest, and the second-largest forest, in the country. Following the only road on the Sanetti Plateau down the Harenna escarpment, you pass several distinct vegetation zones. From the Afro-Alpine meadows, you pass through a fairytale belt of heather (both moorland and forest). Lower still, you reach the upper levels of the Harenna forest, a wet cloud forest with a large bamboo belt, while the lower levels are drier mountain forest. The tiny town of Rira is situated just below, where the heather belt ends and the Harenna starts. From there, you can drive through the Harenna for around 43km on the single red gravel road in the direction of Dola Mena.
Wildlife is more elusive, but we enjoyed some good sightings of several mammal and bird species. Merely the possibility to suddenly spot a critter is very much part of the appeal. Because the forest is so dense, you mainly depend on the single road for wildlife viewing, with only two separate hiking trails available. If you are thinking of where to stay, accommodation options are limited. You can probably find something in Rira, but we simply camped at the rangers’ station (40 Birr p/n). There is also Bale Mountain Lodge, a boutique high-end lodge, where we stopped for a coffee and a chat. You might like to visit Manyate too, a small village 35km south of Rira, where enterprising locals offer wild forest coffee ceremonies and tasty wild honey.
The diversity of the Harenna forest is mind-blowing. You will see massive fig trees where mantled guerezas (Colobus guereza) and white-cheeked turacos (Tauraco leucotis) darting around its epiphyte-covered branches and with silvery-cheeked hornbills (Bycanistes brevis) flying overhead. A multitude of birds like warblers, cuckoos, orioles, hoopoes, chats, and weavers create a living tapestry of sound, while massive carpenter bees do high-speed fly-bys.
There are also large carnivores present like lions, leopard, and hyenas. Packs of African wild dogs have been sighted in the past, but are reportedly extinct here. Big game is very elusive, however. There was a film crew on-site for several weeks, with camera traps and all, without seeing as much as a tail. Despite our own best efforts, we only found hyena tracks. Walking through potential lion territory is a real treat though, despite the lack of sightings. Probably not so much for the local people… One evening we decided to go for a game drive. Halfway on the road in pitch-black conditions and many km away from Rira we encountered two young boys, only armed with sticks walking on the road to their home somewhere in the forest. Ahmed – our guide – suddenly thought he saw something big cross the road ahead of them, but we couldn’t find anything with our lights. The memory however of those kids walking through that jungle at night will surely remain with me. The next morning we heard two cows had been killed by lions that same night.
We were lucky to see the endemic Bale Mountains vervet – or Bale monkey (Chlorocebus djamdjamensis). Other wildlife sightings included hyrax, civet, some unidentified mustelid, olive baboons, warthogs, Menelik’s bushbuck, and frogs. I would love to return one day to spend more time exploring and looking for giant forest hog, bush pig, and the fabled Bale two-horned chameleon (Trioceros balebicornutus).
Humans have probably been harvesting the riches of the Harenna forest for centuries. Ethiopia is said to be the birthplace of wild coffee and the forest has populations of wild-growing forest coffee (Coffea arabica), with people harvesting the berries by hand. Beekeeping has also been practiced in the Harenna for at least eight generations. Everywhere we looked we saw bamboo beehives high up in the trees.
While those practices seem pretty sustainable to me (and the results taste great!), I also noticed a lot of pastoralists passing through with their cattle. Apparently their number but also the amount of permanent houses in Harenna forest is slowly increasing, in part due to the agricultural expansion of the plains surrounding the mountains. Despite its status as a National Park habit degradation and habitat loss are real threats here, just as with the Ethiopian wolves. So, visit it while you can and support the park and its people in doing so!