Ethiopia for the Wildlife Photographer
– by Kirsten Frost
Ethiopia’s tourism growth rates are increasing exponentially, and for good reason. The country is rich in culture, history, geographic splendor and of course wildlife. I have led multiple photographic tours to Ethiopia’s Omo Valley to photograph remote tribes, but this would be the first time I venture to the Bale and Simien Mountains in search of endemic wildlife.
My goal as a photographic tour leader with ORYX is to craft itineraries and activities to offer you, our guest, the very best chances of experiencing remarkable photographic opportunities. With this in mind, ORYX has pieced together an Ethiopia Photo Tour covering 3 full days in the Bale Mountains and 3 full days in the Simien Mountains. These are the mountain ranges home to the rare Ethiopian Wolf and charismatic Geladas. With endemic plant species, mammals & birdlife, the combination offers a chance to capture the natural wonders of Ethiopia.
Our itinerary looked like this:
Day 1: Arrival in Addis Ababa
Day 2: Fly Addis Ababa to Goba and drive to Bale Mountains
Day 3-5: Bale Mountains
Day 6: Drive to Goba, fly to Addis Ababa and overnight
Day 7: Flight Addis Ababa to Gondar and drive to Simien Mountains
Day 8-10: Simien Mountains
Day 11: Drive to Gondar and overnight (an afternoon exploring Gondar is a must!)
Day 12: Fly Gondar to Addis Ababa and depart
Before ascending the Bale Massif, our routing from Goba took us through a juniper forest which rang out with the songs of birds. We watched out for the huge Mountain Nyala, which are sometimes seen feeding in the stunted vegetation on the open hillsides. Climbing over the edge of the escarpment, we had our first view of the glorious Sanetti Plateau stretching out in front of us. It’s along this stretch that we found ourselves spending most of our time in search of the Ethiopian Wolf. The wide valleys and undulating, hilly terrain are the perfect habitat for the handsome animal.
The sun had already set as we descended the other side of the plateau to our well-located lodge in the Harenna Forest below. We scurried to put down our gear and made our way to the lodge’s dining area where we were soon greeted with a scrumptious dinner served around the fire place.
Our routine for the next few days consisted of early departures in order to ascend the Bale massif and reach the Sanetti Plateau at sunrise. This is crucial for specialist photographic tours. We arranged packed breakfasts and coffee for our early mornings out. We scanned the Sanetti Plateau in search of the wolves as we covered ground using three comfortable 4×4 vehicles (2 guests per vehicle). As their name suggests, Ethiopian wolves are endemic to Ethiopia, where they are restricted to just seven isolated enclaves in the country’s highlands. The largest population can be found here in the Bale Mountains in southern Ethiopia. Once we reach the plateau, we drove on Africa’s highest road (between 3,800m and 4,377m above sea level).
Incredibly, the moorlands here are estimated to support an amazing biomass of 4,000kg of rodents per hectare! Unlike other wolf species, Ethiopian wolves are solitary hunters which meant we often came across single individuals on the hunt. A rodent of special interest is the Giant Mole Rat, a large species that feeds above ground in the daylight and makes hefty craterlike depressions. We stopped at a research station where a study of the Mole Rats is taking place and chatted to students about their projects and findings.
An interesting place that is worth a visit to view and photograph endemic antelope species is the national park headquarters in Dinsho. Warthog, Mountain Nyala, Menelik’s Bushbuck, and Bohor Reedbuck are likely to be seen within the area as are many endemic birds species.
One of our highlights of our time spent exploring the Bale Mountains was without a doubt finding and photographing Ethiopian Wolf pups. Once we identified a location which the pups spent most of their time at, we returned and spent hours waiting for movement. Our patience paid off and we were rewarded with the most fantastic views!
After a successful few days with the Ethiopian Wolves at Bale Mountain National Park, we made our way to our next destination. The spectacular highlands of Simien Mountains National Park are a haven for endemic and endangered species and our photographic target here were without a doubt the incredible Geladas (Gelada Baboons). After settling in at our lodge, we embarked on our first photographic session with a nearby troop of Geladas.
The next three days were spent exploring and photographing the legendary Simien Mountains and its unique inhabitants. Here we were presented with some of the most dramatic scenery in Africa—ancient volcanic plugs that have eroded over the eons into fantastic crags, pinnacles and flat-topped mountains—“the Chess Pieces of God”, as one writer aptly described them.
Troops of Geladas up to four hundred strong thrive here, and we spent quality time observing and photographing these unique and fascinating primates. With long woolly capes, tasseled tails, bare red chests and an arrogant swagger, these remaining relics of once widespread grass-eating baboons are now restricted to the highlands of Ethiopia.
Our focus during this portion of the photography tour was to spend a lot of time with the Geladas in order to experience their way of life and capture their story. When other visitors came and left, our group of 6 ORYX guests remained with the Geladas. This allowed us plenty of time to observe and document their behavior. We experimented with different lenses, compositions and lighting. During our 3 full days, we positioned ourselves at prime locations to photograph the Geladas as they ascended the cliffs in the morning’s first light and made their way back down in the afternoon’s last rays. Guests experienced many aspects of the Geladas’ daily life and came away with a wonderful and diverse photographic portfolio!
Kirsten leads group and private tailor-made Ethiopia Photo Tours to the Bale and Simien Mountains for wildlife photography and various other locations throughout the country for cultural photography.