Wildlife at the roof of Africa

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Ethiopia’s ethereal Bale Mountains National Park is home to some of Africa’s rarest wildlife – including the elusive Ethiopian wolf. Lizzie Pook goes in search of the mysterious creature

The air inside the tent is fuggy. Inky black and still. I’m cocooned in several layers inside my sleeping bag, but my teeth still chatter from the cold outside the rain-slicked canvas. I’m dozing fitfully when suddenly, a sound pierces the air outside the tent – a ghoulish hoot ringing loud and clear through the night’s silence, followed by another, then another.

“I know that sound”, I think, scurrying out of my sleeping bag and unzipping the tent. The horsemen are awake, furiously stoking several fires dotted carefully throughout the camp. A jolt of adrenaline thunders through my spine. I know what they’re trying to keep away; why they’re trying to protect the horses that have so diligently carried our tents, belongings, pots and pans up to this dizzying altitude. It’s hyenas. And they’re on the hunt.

Ethiopia’s Bale Mountains National Park is an otherworldly place, strewn with fantastical giant lobelia plants, lunar-like rock formations and jewel-coloured swathes of wild heather.

Situated in southeast Ethiopia, 400km from the capital Addis Ababa and home to the highest plateau on the African continent (they don’t call it ‘the rooftop of Africa’ for nothing), it’s less visited than the Simien Mountains in the north. But it’s also home to some of Ethiopia’s rarest and most fascinating wildlife – from herds of majestic mountain nyala and flurries of giant mole rats, to packs of roaming wild dogs and colossal swooping lämmergeier (known by locals as ‘bone crunchers’ because they drop the bones of their prey from a great height, before descending to feast on the spilt marrow).

Most intriguing of all, however, is the Ethiopian wolf, Africa’s most endangered carnivore and the world’s rarest canid. The overall adult population is estimated to be somewhere between 360-440 individuals (making them even rarer than China’s giant panda), with more than half of them being found here in the Bale Mountains.

I’m on an eight-day hike with YellowWood Adventures – one of the only companies that runs tours in this area – and so far, it hasn’t been what you might call ‘a walk in the park’. The altitude is extreme – 4000m, a height that can floor even the fittest of souls – and my body is taking a beating. My bones are aching, my lips are blistered from the harsh equatorial sun, my hair knotted by high winds, and a sea of dirt cloaks my skin like ash.

But the landscape is enough to keep me trudging on. On our hike towards the Sottota plateau, rare blue-winged geese – the most isolated on the planet – splash delicately in glassy puddles of water around us; furious rock hyrax screech from their bluffs as we pass; and, across a ravine, a huge Abyssinian eagle owl is being terrorised by a flock of rambunctious crows.

That evening we set up camp at the bottom of a cliff that’s known to host leopards in its crags. In the middle of the night, when I clamber out of my tent to use ‘nature’s bathroom’, I look up to see a fierce canopy of stars emblazoned across the night sky. And I can’t quite shake the feeling that I’m being watched by something lurking silently in the shadowy cliff-face.

When we eventually reach the plateau it is bleak and blustery, pockmarked with scratchy highland shrubs and very little else. But this is wolf country, so I keep my binoculars poised, ready for any blur of ginger that might streak across the landscape.

Just moments after we arrive, we spot it. “Wolf!” I shriek. In the near distance, it skips nimbly across the open plain, its white-socked legs and distinctive black-tipped tail visible against the grey-green vegetation.

Minutes later, we set eyes on another, resting on its haunches, its long, slim snout sniffing at the air. Magnificent, I think, surveying the sweeping landscape. And for a moment, I forget all about my weary bones.

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