With its distinct ecoregions and vast range of fauna and flora, the area is home to Ethiopia’s second-highest peak as well as otherworldly landscapes—the Harenna Forest and Sanetti Plateau. Religious tourism, also present at Sof Omar and Sheik Hussein’s tomb, brings numerous Muslim pilgrims. With the recent advent of hiking groups making such travels more accessible to locals, the region stands to win if enabling infrastructures and sustainable development putting locals at the center are employed.
To break from the stressful life of Addis Ababa, Alazar Getachew, 30, traveled to Bale Mountains with number of visitors. . “I believe there is nothing like travelling outside the city to refresh the mind,” he said.
During his stay, he visited the Bale Mountains National Park. Hosting distinct ecoregions including the Sanetti Plateau and peaks like Tulu Dimtu, the park is the largest Afro-Alpine habitat on the African continent and among the first in Ethiopia to be declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1978.
The best time to visit the Bale Mountains is between November and March, when the days are clear and the temperature is perfect. Yet nights are still often below freezing.
“Passing through the clouds across the plateau, watching several distinct and unique habitats, and watching Bale monkeys, giant forest hogs, and olive baboons along the road was an amazing experience. I was totally lost in happiness with the rich history and magnificent natural and cultural beauty of the park. It was an unforgettable discovery to last a life time,” Alazar recalls.
Contrastingly, the life and daily experiences of Edris Sultan, who lives inside the park, is different from Alazar’s. “There is no urban hustle and bustle here. We are living in a place full of numerous secrets yet to be discovered. Watching wild animals like the Ethiopian wolf and mountain nyala, birds like the Abyssinian ground hornbill (Erkum), rock hyrax (Shikoko), and diverse flora constitute my daily experiences. My life is deeply related to nature and is peaceful,” he said.
For Edris, breathing the cold and fresh air of the area, listening to the beautiful songs of various birds, watching Africa’s rarest canid hunt for giant mole rats on the vast Sanetti Plateau, standing amongst soaring birds of prey, watching the golden eagle swoop down and fly off with a meal in its talons, and chasing the endemic mountain nyala are his life’s features at age 24 years.
Straddling across the heart of Ethiopia, Oromia is blessed with an abundance of cultural, traditional, and natural assets of high touristic value. It is the land of astonishing and majestic natural beauty offering all sorts of landscape scenery. The region is home to mountains, peaks, river gorges, moist tropical forests, waterfalls, and various lakes. The wonders of the land and vast range of fauna and flora make up its natural beauty to complement its cultural colors.
Bale, the second largest zone in Oromia after Borena, hosts cities like Dodola, Ginir, Goba, and Robe. Historically, Goba was connected to Addis Ababa via telegraph line in 1931 and served with Ethiopian Airlines DC-3 aircraft by 1950, according to a traveler’s guide published by the Frankfurt Zoological Society and the Bale Mountains National Park. Bale is bordered on the south by the Ganale Dorya River which separates it from Guji Zone, on the west by West Arsi, on the north by Arsi, on the northeast by the Shebelle River which separates it from West and East Hararghe, and on the east by the Somali Region. The highlands of Bale are one of the main sources of rain and rivers in Ethiopia.
Sof Omar, a massive and marvelous cave system, and the tomb of Sheikh Hussein, a Muslim saint of the 13th century are among other well-known tourist attraction sites in Bale alongside its peaks and plateaus. The area is visited by local and international tourists alike. The tomb of the Muslim proselytizer attracts great numbers of local pilgrims.
“Religious tourism is one of the fastest growing kinds in Ethiopia, as well as globally. However, in Ethiopia, its potential has not been effectively exploited yet. Yet, it can still be considered a leading section of local tourism,” states Ashenafi Seleshi, Executive at the Ethiopian Professional Tour Guides Association with more than 15 years of experience.
Besides religious tourism, Bale’s beauty is attractive and lures visitors. Currently, the proliferation of hiking groups makes the process easier and people are motivated to explore new places. Addis Hiking group is a case in point, travelling to the area about a year ago. “The weather was at its peak when we left Addis. But Bale surprised us with cold, pure, and fresh air,” Kalkidan Taddesse, Content Producer at Addis Hiking, told EBR.
“It was a five-and-a-half day trip decorated with amazing endemic animals like the Ethiopian (red) fox, Walia, and Menelik’s Bushbuck,” according to Kalkidan. “Another delight was the lovely hospitality and originality of the local community. In addition, Harenna Forest’s green surface was beautifully covered with fog and it was so sad to leave the forest in a short amount of time. The landscape was colorful and comfortable even for inexperienced hikers, making it more fun and enjoyable. In general, the Bale Mountains National Park is an ideal destination with both tourist attractions and natural amusement,” she added. The Harenna forest is one of Ethiopia’s last remaining natural forests and is an otherworldly beauty to behold.
It has been over 8 years since Addis Hiking was founded. Within 8 years, over 3,000 nature enthusiasts have traveled with them. When traveling to Bale, each person contributed ETB6,000 for transportation, food and drinks (including energy snacks), park entrance and scouting fees, tenting and lodging (sleeping bags provided for free if required), and other miscellaneous costs. Although there is a thrice-weekly flight to Bale, a daily flight is necessary to increase tourist flows.
The travelers’ experience at the park was full of challenges and great moments. The challenge, for some, was the cold and foggy weather, to the point where vehicles couldn’t travel safely. “We had to walk through the Harenna Forest, though some of us did enjoy that. The severe cold made it almost impossible to sleep, to the point where the grass would almost freeze. Yet, we got to see a group of Walias having breakfast around our camp site after a long, freezing evening. The best moments include being chased by a group of wild oxen during hiking, fun around the camp fire, mingling with total strangers and feeling at home with them, and the camaraderie amongst hikers,” Kalkidan explains.
The park, located 400 kilometers southeast of Addis Ababa, was established in 1970 under the Dergue regime. The park covers an area of 2,150 square kilometers and is endowed with 1,600 flowering plant species of which 163 are endemic, 78 mammal species, and 310 different bird species. Also, it offers over 340 varieties of medicinal plants.
The Bale Mountains are the ancestral home of the Oromo, one of the largest ethnic groups in Africa, where they harvest coffee and honey, amongst other agrarian practices. Bale houses are circular in shape, have walls and roofs made with juniper and eucalyptus trees, and roofs covered with dried grain stalks. Supported by a central wooden pillar, houses are portioned off by walls made of bamboo or mud mixed with barley or grass stubble. Bamboo handicrafts are also used as decoration.
Bamboo is heavily present in the region and many visitors enjoy walks within bamboo forests, stopping by villages for delicacies made with fresh local produce including honey and coffee. The Harenna Forest is endowed with various tree species serving as excellent hives for great forest coffee. Alongside Ethiopia’s favorite drink is honey, organically sourced from the forest. Ethiopia is the leading producer of honey in Africa where traditional beekeeping has been practiced since ancient times. The indigenous people of the area possess extensive knowledge of tree species and their value.
Kalkidan believes that local tourism is making its way up through hiking and tour groups. “People are learning to adopt a healthy lifestyle all the while discovering and rediscovering their homeland and building a culture of travel and exploration. We believe Addis Hiking has helped pave the way to introduce people to less-known spots in Ethiopia,” she noted. Although the growth of local and foreign tourism is good news for the country as it will stimulate the economy and increase incomes, there are also challenges requiring stakeholder attention.
The booming human population within the Bale Mountains National Park’s boundaries has amplified pressure upon the area’s natural resources. Ashenafi sees this hardship in two different contexts. “The detrimental effects of residents who preceded the park’s establishment is small, especially in certain areas. Even though demand for land increases alongside population numbers, by virtue of primarily being coffee and honey producers, their reliance on the forests to sustain production ensures the protection of the natural habitat. What is an issue, however, is the traditional transhumance system known as Godantu which is problematic and deserves serious attention,” Ashenafi remarks. Godantu is where livestock, particularly cattle, are sent to higher grazing grounds at times when lower altitude lands are farmed or into the shady forests during the hot dry season. This has greatly affected the park.
In addition to population pressures, shortage of proper accommodation and accessibility issues take their own share in hindering the growth of the area’s tourism sector. “Attraction sites, accommodation, and accessibility are the basics for the tourism industry. Sites are already there. But a lot of work has to be done to improve enabling infrastructures,” Ashenafi states. The park also needs clear demarcation and signs to guide visitors.
“To mitigate the challenges and keep the park safe, local communities should be empowered and benefit from touristic activities,” Ashenafi stresses. Agreeingly, Kalkidan adds that “national parks can bring dramatic change in the local community’s economic status. Foreign and local tourists can visit en masse, with the earnings helping to create a stable environment for the area. So, engaging locals will benefit the community as well as the park, as it will create a sense of belongingness,” she remarks.
Despite areas that need improvement to attract more tourists, the various traditional, cultural, and natural beauties of Oromia in general, and Bale in particular can make Oromia a preferred tourist destination in Ethiopia as well as the world. Also, the great 5-kilometer run in Bale, which started this year, is an additional reason to visit Bale. “The history of the Oromo people, their diverse culture, historical heritage, wisdom, tolerance, and hospitality make Oromia breathtakingly beautiful. Therefore, to get the best out of life, visit Bale—a land of diverse beauty,” Alazar concludes. EBR
9th Year • Apr 16 – May 15 2021 • No. 97