Graeme Green treks through Ethiopia’s mysterious highlands in search of red-chested geladas and hungry wolves.
I’m being given the cold shoulder. It’s my fault; all the gelada monkey wants to do is dig into the ground for fresh, juicy grass and eat in peace, but from a few metres away, I’m pointing a camera lens in his face. His reaction is still surprisingly human, and a little at odds with the rest of the primates’ behaviour. Minutes before, I’d seen adults having rambunctious sex, not caring at all that they were surrounded by friends and family, including their offspring and the male’s other ‘wives’. When it comes to eating, though, it seems they prefer a little privacy.
Spending time with the geladas is fascinating, and the remarkable Simien Mountains in northern Ethiopia is the place to do it. There are around 10,000 of them in this luscious, mountainous region, and although those living inside the national park are wild, they’re habituated enough to the presence of humans that, except for sudden moves or loud noises, I can sit among them as they go about their daily monkey business.
Each morning, as the day warms, troops of monkeys come up from the cliffs where they sleep, moving in chain-like lines to coalesce on the Simiens’ grand plateaus. “You’re very lucky,” wildlife guide Dani Fikru tells me when I pack up the camera for the day. “I never saw so many together. There must be at least 400 out there today.”
I’ve come to Ethiopia to seek out the wildlife in the country’s highlands, including Simien Mountains National Park up north and Bale Mountains National Park in the remote south. Endemic species like the geladas and Ethiopian wolves sit high on my list of hope-to-sees.
From the bustle of the country’s capital, Addis Ababa, a plane carries me to the ancient city of Gondar before I journey north with Ethiopian guide Dawit Teferi to Limalimo Lodge, a new opening located inside Simien Mountains National Park that promises understated luxury.
It doesn’t take long before the first gelada makes an appearance. Drawing back the curtains on the first morning, I spy a big male prowling through the forest below, and a mother passes by the window with her infant riding on her back. Over breakfast, a bearded vulture, known locally as ‘bone breakers’ because they smash bones from carcasses against rocks to get the soft marrow inside, rises up the hillside. Spotting wildlife among the deep gorges, interwoven forests and imposing outcrops of the majestic Simiens isn’t going to be a problem.
With Dawit, Dani and an armed ranger piled into our 4WD, we venture into the mountainous park.
Formally established in 1966 and one of the world’s first natural UNESCO World Heritage Sites, the Simien Mountains National Park spans 412 square kilometres – roughly the size of Barbados – and ranges in altitude from 1900 metres to the 4533-metre peak of Ethiopia’s highest mountain, Ras Dashen.
Before long, we notice geladas munching their way across the hillside. “They eat one kilo of grass each day,” Dani tells me.
Between mouthfuls of grass blades, they huddle together and pick at each other’s fur. “It’s a ‘you-scratch-my-back, I’ll-scratch-yours’ situation,” Dani says. “Thirty to 40 per cent of their day is spent grooming. They’re picking out parasites, but it also has social value, a way to show friendship.”
The geladas gambol across the verdant hills. Infants tumble playfully, while others hitch rides on their mothers’ backs. A male gelada stands on all four paws, keeping watch over his ‘family’, which can include anywhere between seven and 14 wives.
“The male looks after his family,” Dani explains. “Leopards and hyenas are their natural predators. It’s why the Simiens are such a good place to see geladas – they like the big open areas and they have the safety of the cliffs to go to at night. They feel safe here.”
The signature red patch on the chest explains their alternate moniker ‘bleeding heart monkeys’, while the shaggy coats and thick manes of the adult males have earned them the nickname ‘lion monkeys’.
Despite the baboon-like appearance, Dawit explains the geladas are actually part of the monkey family (baboons are their own genus). “Nowadays, scientists say they’re technically gelada monkeys.
“They look like baboons, behave like baboons, but they have different DNA. Genetically, they’re more similar to a monkey that was historically in this area of Africa. The same thing happened with the Ethiopian wolf. It used to be called the Simien fox, but they found out the closest relative was the grey wolf, even though it looks like a fox.”
It’s not just geladas here, though. As we hike out to a ledge, we spot a bushbuck among the trees and small klipspringers on the cliffs below. Dawit and Dani list the exotic names for the impressive procession of birds of prey that soar across the canyon: griffon vulture, augur buzzard, Verreaux’s eagle.
Giant lobelia trees pop up between grasslands and rocky structures indicating we’re reaching the high altitudes we need in search of the endemic ibex. Its distinctive long, curved horns silhouetted against the sky appear in Dani’s binoculars, and we find another two closer to Bwahit Pass. As we try to keep up with the sauntering animal, it’s evident its legs and lungs are far better suited to the 4300-metre altitude we’re currently exploring. That explains my shortness of breath.
Leaving the Simiens behind us, it takes a full day of driving from Addis Ababa through the country’s south-eastern grasslands to reach Bale Mountains National Park. We’ve barely arrived when we spy the curved horns of mountain nyala (an antelope unique to this region), warthogs and Anubis baboons all gathered by a river. Hiding high up in the trees are shy colobus monkeys.
As we drive through plains that stretch to the horizon or climb slowly up to an escarpment, there’s and incredible feeling of space. Only occasionally, through the window, do we see distant figures of local people travelling from village to village.
By evening, we’ve passed through the national park to reach the warmth of the fireside at Bale Mountain Lodge, set within the thick greenery of Harenna Forest. Mist lingers over the treetops that cover the hillsides, and the forest rises up to a high jagged ridge.
On the road to the Sanetti Plateau, we pass by colourfully painted mosques and through several small villages within the national park. Clouds rise up from the valleys and onto the peaks, creating enough moisture to explain why the 4000-metre-high ground of the plateau is so green and fertile – there are more than enough small lakes, rivers and plant life to make this area an attractive home for the wildlife.
It’s in this region that we’re most likely to see the Ethiopian wolves. “There are possibly 200 here, out of a population of 500 in the country,” Dawit tells me. The abundance of giant mole-rats plays a role in the wolves’ attraction to this region; there’s plenty of food for the wolves to consume.
We search with binoculars to see if we can find any of the elegant golden animals, which, according to local guide Kassim Datu, sometimes hide among the cows to get closer to the mole-rats.
We spy two wolves among a cluster of rocks. They’re orange and look like foxes, but larger and more powerful. We see a third wolf down in the valley and, later, three smaller ones on the hillside, most likely hunting.
More emerge the next morning. Our first sighting is a wolf stalking geese down by a stream. Another crosses the road, pausing to nose and paw at holes, in search of food. Further along, we see three down in the valley. “That’s amazing,” says another local guide, Ziyad Kemal. “Five pups in one morning.”
It’s been a lucky day, but the Ethiopian wolf is are the most endangered canid in the world and Africa’s most threatened carnivore, and numbers are declining. “I see less today than I did five years ago,” says Dawit. “There’s a lot more land under cultivation, so they’ve lost habitat. But the main problem is people’s dogs and diseases like rabies and distemper.”
We drive to the summit of Mount Tullu Dimtu, the highest peak in the Bale area, for rewarding views of mist rolling across the mountains before a hike across the spectacular Sanetti Plateau. The warm sun brings out the bright greens of the grasses and spiky leaves of the giant lobelia, and enhances the pinks and yellows of Afro-alpine flowers. The plateau is alive with birdsong. Starck’s hares bolt to safety, disturbed by our presence, while a pair of lammergeier (bearded vultures) circle high up in the cloud.
Augur buzzards glide over the plateau or perch on the trunks of lobelia, scanning the surroundings for an afternoon meal. It shouldn’t take them long here.
That’s just how it is in Ethiopia’s remarkable highlands – wherever you look, there are signs of life or, depending on your perspective, lunch.
Travel from Sydney to Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia, with Qatar Airways from $1510 return.
The best time to visit both national parks is late September to April. The main wet season is from June to September, though rains can start in May.
Cazenove+loyd offers tailor-made holidays in Ethiopia, including an eight-day trip with three nights at Limalimo Lodge in the Simien Mountains, one night at the Radisson Blu in Addis Ababa and three nights at Bale Mountains Lodge. It also covers domestic flights, private guides and transfers. From AU$6780 twin-share. cazloyd.com