Week 2: Bale Mountains & Lake Hawassa

Warning, this post is outrageously long because nature is awesome. Also, I have things to say about Addis Ababa, but I’ll be passing through a few more times, so I’ll add my thoughts about the capital to a later post.

Bale Mountains

The reason I’m here in Ethiopia at all is because my amazing neighbor Tselate decided to take a trip back home. For as long as we’ve lived next to each other, I’d been telling her that I was going to come with her the next time she went. She booked her flight, so I booked mine. In spite of growing up in Addis Ababa, she never really got to see a lot of the country and she told me she really wanted to see the Bale (pronounced bah-lay) Mountains, so off we went.

The star of the show in the Bale Mountains is one of the most endangered mammals in the world: the Ethiopian wolf. There are less than 500 of these creatures left on the earth and about 50% of them live in the Bale Mountains. We were lucky enough to see two of them, one of them crossed the road right in front of our car! They are threatened not only by rabies and canine distemper, but also climate change. They live at a particularly high altitude and as the climate gets warmer, they’ll move higher up the mountain until they run out of mountain to go up. I’d recently read the book Inheritors of the Earth, that mentions their plight and some possible solutions.


Ethiopian wolf (3 photos because they are beautiful and rare creatures) known in Amharic as Ky kebero which means red jackal

We were also able to see the mountain nyala, another Ethiopian endemic. There were large groups of females and babies along with a few lone males loitering around nearby.


mountain nyala – baby, female adult, male adult

I have a special fondness for primates, and although I’ve seen lots of baboons and vervet monkeys in my life, the colobus monkey is stunning. Their long black and white fur and long shaggy tails make them extremely distinctive.


olive baboon, colobus monkey, vervet monkeys

Totally unscientific and very subjective comment: warthogs are really cute when they run with their tails wagging. I am aware that the photo of the giant forest hog below is a bit lacking, but apparently it was a rare find (our guide Ahmed had only seen it three times).


warthog, local impressively-crafted houses, giant forest hog

The flora is the high afro-alpine environment is quite unique as well.


spiky plant that I can’t remember the name of, moss-covered heather trees in the Harenna cloud forest (at a slightly lower altitude), giant lobelia

In the Harenna forest, there’s a couple of beautiful waterfalls that we hiked to.


Ahmed relaxing by the upper waterfall, Tselate celebrating our hike, me by the lower waterfall

One of the days we drove three hours (each way) to see a natural limestone cave, known as Sof Omar because of the religious Muslim who lived in the caves for many years along with his daughter. The cave actually continues on for a couple kilometers, but it is full of water at this time of year. The outside was particularly beautiful and it was Tselate’s first time spelunking.


Outside of Sof Omar cave


Tselate, me, Tselate and me after I convinced her to skootch up the side of a rock

Lake Hawassa

On our way back we stopped at Lake Hawassa and took a short boat ride around the lake. It’s not very hard to see why this place is beloved among birders and fishermen.


Egyptian goose, marabou stork, malachite kingfisher


African fish eagle, fishermen going out to fish (mostly tilapia and catfish), boat loaded with nets

Beneath its calm exterior lurks some pretty dangerous animals. There are a few groups of hippopotamuses that call the lake their home.



more hippos, me with a colobus monkey on my head, vervet mama carrying child

Pictures can never fully capture the whole experience. Being trapped in a car for five days means getting to know people in different ways. Ahmed (our guide from Bale Mountain Tours) is from the Oromo tribe, which is the largest ethnic majority in Ethiopia. He taught us some really basic greetings in Oromiffa.

Hello. Ah-kem.
Response to hello. Na-ga-ha.
Good morning. Ah-kem bul-ten.
Good afternoon. Ah-kem ol-ten.
Good night. Hal-kan-ga-ri.

In addition, Tselate, Mohammed (our driver) and Ahmed all helped me learn how to count in Amharic. I still can’t always hear the numbers people say to me, but I can stumble through saying them. Speaking and listening are such different skills.

One of my favorite moments of the trip had nothing to do with nature at all. On the way back from the cave, we got a flat tire and the guys put on the spare. We drove onwards to a small town and while stopping for a coffee break, they realized that we had another flat tire, so Mohammed took the car to get the tires fixed at a shop down the road. Next to the tire shop, there was a small shaded area outside of a restaurant where we perched on benches out of the sun. We watched as the tire guys took apart the hubs using giant hammers and crowbars to get to the tubes inside. Once the tubes were out they had to be taken to a different shop down the street to be patched. A faranji (foreigner) like myself attracts quite a bit of attention in small towns and pretty soon there were a group of young people peering at us.

Tselate asked them about themselves and then encouraged them to practice their English with me, but after a few introductory phrases the kids and I were all stuck. I looked over the woven reed wall separating us from the tire guys and the guy who left with the tubes was nowhere to be seen, so we still had to pass a bit of time. At that moment, I realized we could continue to sit there awkwardly gawking at each other or we could actually interact with each other. The teacher in me took over, and I started teaching the girls how to play Slide, the hand clapping game that one of my campers taught me twenty years ago in Los Angeles. If you’re not familiar with Slide, it’s a simple pattern of hand claps that gets repeated based on the number of turns you’ve completed. The first time, the pattern is repeated once and then the second time, twice, the third time, three times, etc. I’d just learned Amharic numbers, so this was perfect practice. Ahnd, hu-let, sost. One, two, three. As I showed one of the girls the pattern, she started to catch on and count with me. Then Tselate got in on the fun and clarified my instructions in Amharic with the first girl and I started teaching another girl. Just as Ahmed told us the car was fixed, we had gotten the two girls to play Slide with each other. As we walked away, we heard them counting and clapping.

I am so deeply appreciative of Tselate for all the hospitality she and her family have shown me. We’ve lived next to each other for years, but nothing brings you together like sharing the same space. I am deeply grateful for everything she has shared and the depth of our friendship that has developed because of this time. Am-se-ge-ne-she-a-le-hu, Tselate. May we have more exciting adventures in the years to come. 🙂


Tselate in a field of flowers, Tselate drinking mango juice and making new friends in the town of Adama, Tselate drinking her beloved coffee


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