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The East - Danakil, Harar and Bale Mountains

Eastern Ethiopia is a land of astonishing geographic extremes. In the far northeast, the austere lavascapes and salt-flats plunges to 116m below sea level in the Danakil. Further south, the Bale Mountains rise to above 4,300m and support a wealth of highland wildlife including Ethiopian wolves and mountain nyala. Tempering these climatic extremes, are lush well-watered mid-altitude slopes swathed in lovely crater lakes, unexplored montane forests, Harenna Forest, and the historic city of Harar, the spiritual heart of the predominantly Muslim inhabitants of Ethiopia’s exotic east.

  • The scorching Danakil Depression, much of which lies below sea level, supports a harsh but surreally beautiful habitat of  blinding-white salt-flats and startling multicoloured geysers.
  • Utterly spectacular by day or night, Erta Ale Volcano cradles the world's oldest lava lake: a bubbling molten cauldron from which erupt firework-like fountains of glowing red-hot magma.
  • The atmospheric walled citadel of Harar Jugol is the world’s fourth-holiest Islamic settlement and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Its labyrinthine are lined with ancient Islamic mosques and shrines, bustling markets overhung with aromatic spices, and cafes brewing freshly-roasted coffee plucked from the surrounding hills.
  • Bale Mountain National Park, a spectacular hiking destination also explorable  by road, is Ethiopia’s most important biodiversity hotspot, one of the top five birding sites in Africa thanks to its wealth of endemic, and the most important stronghold of the handsome Ethiopian wolf (the world’s most endangered canid).
  • The cool Harenna Forest on the southern slope of the Bale Mountains comprises a vast tract of gnarled tree heathers, towering bamboo clumps and evergreen foliage.
  • Carved by the Web River, the labyrinthine Sof Omar Caves - which can be explored along an atmospheric foot trail - is an important pilgrimage site named after a revered sheik who took refuge there in the 12th century.

The spectacular Fentalle Crater and Awash Falls are scenic highlights of Awash National Park, which also offers outstanding dry-country birding and the chance to see the handsome Beisa oryx and Hamadryas baboon in the wild.

Getting There

Ethiopian Airlines (www.ethiopianairlines.com) flies between Addis Ababa and the eastern cities of Dire Dawa, Jijiga, Semera and the northern city of Mekele. It should also resume flights to Goba (for Bale Mountains National Park) when the airport there reopens in 2016. Most trunk roads through Eastern Ethiopia are asphalted, but many minor routes remain unsurfaced, as do many 4x4 tracks in the Danakil and various national parks.

Of the region’s main tourist sites, Harar is a full day’s drive from Addis Ababa, or can be flown to via nearby Dire Dawa. Bale Mountains National Park can only be visited by road at present, and is often linked with a trip to the Rift Valley lakes. The Danakil is usually visited with organized tours by road and 4x4 track from Mekele or Semera and requires at the very least two nights. Privately owned local airline companies can also arrange non-scheduled or chartered flights upon request.

Accommodation

International-quality accommodation is available in Bishoftu and in the Harenna Forest in the south of Bale Mountains National Park. Midrange and budget rooms are available in Bishoftu, Awash National Park, Dire Dawa, Harar, Semera, Jigjiga Robe and Goba (for Bale Mountains National Park) and Negele Borena. Very basic budget accommodation can be found in most other towns and larger villages. Camping is the only viable option in the Danakil and for multi day hikes in Bale Mountains National Park.

Other Practicalities

The climate of eastern Ethiopian ranges from the searing heat of the Danakil to subzero temperatures on the Sanetti Plateau. Pack clothing according to the areas you intend to visit.

The shadeless 10km ascent of Erta Ale is best undertaken in the late afternoon, returning to the base the next morning.

Irrecha is a colourful Oromo thanksgiving festival held on the shore of Bishoftu’s Lake Hora on the 1st day of October. Dancing Oromo carry sheaves of leaves and flowers to the water’s edge to praise their God for the bounty of nature, and outsiders are very welcome.

Ethiopian Wildlife Conservation Authority: (www.ewca.gov.et ).

Bale Mountains National Park: (www.balemountains.org ).

Ethiopian Wildlife and Natural History Society: (www.ewnhs.org.et ).

Harari Culture Heritage and Tourism Bureau: (www.experienceharar.com ; www.facebook.com/pages/Harar-Tourism ).

Oromia Culture and Tourism Bureau: (www.oromiatourism.gov.et).

Further Reading

Bradt Guide to Ethiopia: (7th edition 2015, www.bradtguides.com ).

Harar: A Cultural Guide: (2007, www.shamaethiopia.com ).

Afar Region Dancalia 1:950,000 Geological and Route Map (www.dancalia.it ).

Bale Mountains National Park: A Traveller’s Guidebook (2013).

Bale Mountains National Park: Birding Booklet (2013).

  1. A popular first stop out of Addis Ababa, Bishoftu is set amidst a field of volcanic calderas, several of which host beautiful crater lakes serviced by modern resort hotels.
  2. The spectacular Fentalle Crater and Awash Falls are scenic highlights of Awash National Park, which also offers outstanding dry-country birding and the chance to see the handsome Beisa oryx and Hamadryas baboon in the wild.
  3. Serviced by a pair of remote wilderness lodges, Bilen Hot Springs is a good base for exploring Alledeghi Wildlife Reserve, home to Ethiopia’s largest population of the endangered Grevy’s zebra.
  4. With a combined area of 14,150km², the Yangudi-Rassa National Park and contiguous Mille-Serdo Reserve support the world’s only extant population of African wild ass, a Critically Endangered ancestor of the domestic donkey.
  5. The Lower Valley of the Awash, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, incorporates several important palaeontological sites, including Hadar, where the 3.2 million year old skeleton of ‘Lucy’ was unearthed in 1974.
  6. Custom built Semera, capital of Afar Region since 2007, is the popular springboard for expeditions into the Danakil Desert.
  7. The staggeringly beautiful multicoloured geysers at Dallol lie at 50m below sea level in a shallow crater formed by an eruption in 1926.
  8. The lowest point in Ethiopia, dipping to 116 metres below sea level, is on the shore of Lake Asale (or Karum), set amid expansive salt flats that have been mined by the Afar for millennia.
  9. The Danakil’s most spectacular sight, especially at night, is the permanent lava lake in the caldera of Erta Ale, a shield volcano whose rim is reached via a shadeless 10km footpath.
  10. Set at the base of the active 1,295m high Afdera Volcano, emerald-hued Lake Afdera (also known as Afrera) fed by hot springs, is an important source of salt, which is extracted from evaporation pools.
  11. The atmospheric walled citadel of Harar Jugol is the world’s fourth-holiest Islamic settlement and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Harar area also produces a distinct variety of coffee.
  12. Founded in 1902 on the railway between Addis Ababa and the port of Djibouti, Dire Dawa is now one of the largest cities in Ethiopia, and the main air gateway to Harar.
  13. The most accessible of southeast Ethiopia’s rock art sites is Laga Oda, a limestone shelter decorated with 5,000 year old paintings of cattle, people and wild animals.
  14. Spanning 7,000km² of semi-arid country, the vast Babile Elephant Sanctuary supports some 200 elephants belonging to a subspecies unique to the Horn of Africa.
  15. Jijiga, administrative capital of Somali Region, is a lively small town renowned for its large sprawling market and the strong Somali flavour of the local cuisine.
  16. The Adaba-Dodola Integrated Forest Management Project offers wonderful hiking opportunities between a series of five overnight huts on the northern slopes of the Bale Massif.
  17. Bale Mountain National Park, a spectacular hiking destination also explorable by road, is Ethiopia’s most important biodiversity hotspot, and one of the top five birding sites in Africa.
  18. Carved by the Web River, the labyrinthine Sof Omar Caves is a place of worship and a tentative UNESCO World Heritage Site named after a revered sheik who took refuge there in the 12th century.
  19. The most important religious shrine and pilgrimage site in the far southeast is the whitewashed dome tomb of Sheikh Hussein, who converted the Bale Oromo to Islam in the 12th century.
  20. Negele Borena is the pivotal town on the southeastern birding route, where the eagerly sought Ruspoli’s turaco occurs alongside several Horn of Africa endemics not easily seen elsewhere.