Christmas in the Mountains

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Africa » Ethiopia » Oromia Region » Bale
December 30th 2007
Published: January 6th 2008
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Day 1 (Christmas Eve) - Dinsho to Sodota

We were dropped off at the Lodge in the National Park Headquarters in Dinsho and bid Elizabeth and Alex farewell - they had been staying in Robe, but were now heading to Arba Minch for the rest of their holiday.

The amount of luggage we had didn’t look too bad but once the kitchen equipment provided by our Guide was added, he decided that the original estimate of 4 horses was too low and that we would need 7! Clare, Julian, Steven and Daniel headed off to Dinsho to buy the last essential provisions - 70 litres of water, injera and firewood, while Anna, Gordon and I stayed with the bags.

We eventually set off at around 11am: Me (Robe based), Clare (Harar), Steven (Assosa), Julian (Debre Brehan), Anna and Gordon (Clare’s friends from the UK), Daniel (Guide), Hussein (Assistant Cook), 4 Horse Assistants and 7 horses! The horses set off behind us but overtook us, which became a pattern for the trek, meaning that the cooking tent was already set up when we arrived at camp.

The first day took us along the Web Valley, past the dried up Finch’Abera Waterfall - where I had previously been with Liza and Rupert (when it was flowing) and to Sodota Campsite. Graham Norton came here to film his programme for ‘Saving Planet Earth’ for the BBC. There is a hut at the campsite, so our first meal of injera and shiro wat was inside with a wood burning stove going. As it was our first night, we had mulled wine with the meal. It was Christmas Eve after all!

Day 2 (Christmas Day) - Sodota to Keyrensa

The nighttime temperature of around -10 degrees C set the scene for the rest of the trip. It was so cold! I had thought that the sleeping bag that I had brought from the UK would be adequate, but apparently not. While Clare and Julian got up early to see wolves waking up, I stayed in the tent to try and get some warmth.

We headed off across the valley, seeing wolves hunting for mole rats, before climbing over a lava flow, where we saw Rock Hyrax. I admit that I was heard to mutter the familiar words (at least to Martin and others I have walked with in the
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Red Hot Pokers - one of the wild plants found in Bale
UK) “I don’t do hills!”

The sheer scale of the Bale Mountains is breathtaking. On the first day, we saw many people who live in the area, but from the second day onwards we saw fewer and fewer. Further into the National Park, villages are seasonal rather than permanent settlements. Life must be hard - there was little evidence of food growing, so perhaps people have to walk for hours to get to Dinsho market to buy provisions.

As we sat having lunch (rice and vegetables cooked the night before by Daniel and carried by Hussein), we watched a young wolf chasing off a domestic dog, before a second wolf joined him. What an amazing Christmas Day!

At Keyrensa Campsite, we swapped Christmas presents (we had organised a not-so-secret-Santa, so that we each bought for one person). Eating mince pies, drinking South African red wine, toasting marshmallows on the campfire, then having curried hotpot and Christmas pudding with custard - watching the full moon rise. Clare and Anna lent me extra warm clothing (with the additional benefit of extra padding, for my horse related injuries) so the night was much warmer.

Day 3 (Boxing Day) -
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This girl attends school in Adaba, but was visiting her sick grandma in Rafu
Keyrensa to Rafu

Waking, yet again to ice on the tents, it was difficult to remember that we were in Africa! Breakfast was a surprise - Daniel was concerned that we wouldn’t have enough porridge oats (he missed some in another bag) so he prepared custard for breakfast, having been shown how to make it the night before by Clare. While it was initially a shock, actually banana custard was reminiscent (for me) of having trifle for Boxing Day breakfast when I was a child.

The walking was amazing - a lot of the day seemed to be spent walking along a valley between lava flows, before climbing up to our highest campsite onto Sanetti Plateau. This was a dream - I have been to Sanetti many times, but always by car. Again the scale was amazing! Approaching Rafu campsite, we passed an incredible valley on the right. Rafu means standing stones. When I initially booked the trek, Rafu had been described to me - but still I wasn’t prepared for the sheer beauty and scale of it.

Day 4 - Rafu to Garba Guracha

In the morning, Clare, Anna and I went for a walk
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Steven at the top of a huge hill
among the stones to see the sun rising. Then, after the more normal breakfast of porridge, we set off across the Plateau, still white with the last of the night’s frost. Tullu Demtu (the highest point) was to our right as we crossed the huge expanse - it seemed to go on and on. Eventually, we climbed across a small pass to be greeted by the sight of Garba Guracha (Black Lake) - which was much bigger than I expected. One of the best things about the trek is the variety of landscapes and flora. The Bale Mountains National Park contains the largest area of afro-alpine habitat in Africa.

Day 5 - Garba Guracha to beyond Worgona

We woke to hail! Dressed more like we were in the Scottish highlands than in Ethiopia, we set off. There seemed to be too much ‘up’. After lunch in a Jurassic-style valley scattered with giant lobelia we started climbing. As most of the walking during the week was over 3500 metres (often over 4000 m) going up can be tough due to the effects of altitude. This was a huge hill, but the view of the other side was worth it!
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Everything but the kitchen sink on a horse
At least, in retrospect.

Daniel had decided that, as we did not have transport back to Robe on Saturday, we were better to go further than Worgona - the planned campsite, so we spent the night at a campsite beyond there, meaning a longer walk, but less to do the following day. Yet another camp fire and great food, along with mulled wine for our final night.

Day 6 - Return to Dinsho … and to Robe

We set off an hour earlier than usual, and walked at a much faster pace. Gordon, who was feeling unwell, was put on a horse for most of the way. We arrived back at the National Park HQ at around 1.30 and sorted out the food, paid our marvellous team and had a group end-of-trek photo.

I was slightly concerned about how 6 of us, plus luggage, were going to get from Dinsho to Robe, but spoke to Isobel and Kev (2 VSO volunteers up here on holiday) who very kindly offered us the use of their vehicle to get back as they were pony trekking that afternoon and wouldn’t need it. After several frantic calls between me and
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Along the Web valley
Isobel (on horseback), me and their driver, Daniel and their driver - we finally got back to Robe … to find that there was no water again! Just what was needed after 5 nights in the wilderness.

It was such a good week - excellent trekking - excellent people we went with and simply amazing scenery. We walked over 90km (as measured by Julian’s GPS), much to the amazement of my Ethiopian colleagues who ask me about my Christmas trip.

The main beauty of the Bale Mountains is in the scale and variation of the scenery - I am incredibly lucky to live so close to this area. We did also see quite a lot of wildlife, including:

Starck’s Hare (Endemic)
Ethiopian Wolf (Endemic)
Rats (can’t remember the species)
Rock Hyrax

Wattled Ibis (Endemic)
Blue-winged Goose (Endemic)
Rouget’s Rail (Endemic)
White-collared pigeon (Endemic)
Thick-billed Raven (Endemic)
Black-headed Siskin (Endemic)
Yellow-billed duck
Tawny Eagle
Black Kite
Augur Buzzard
Black Eagle
African Sacred Ibis
Northern Shoveller (?)
Common Ringed Plover
Crowned Lapwing (?)
Speckled Pigeon
Eurasian Hoopoe
Thekla Lark (?)
Alpine Chat

One of the highlights for me (apart form the usual awe at seeing Ethiopian Wolves) was watching a Lammergeyer mobbing an Auger Buzzard on Day 5.

Additional photos below
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Arrival at Sodota camp site.
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Ethiopian wolves
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Rock hyrax
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Daniel - our guide - spotting Julian who had gone back for his binoculars.
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Kedir - one of the Horse Assistants - enjoying the camp fire
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Boxing Day Breakfast
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Valley to the right as we were approaching Rafu campsite
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Housing near Rafu
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Clare at sunrise
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Small village at Rafu

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