all travel ideas for your Ethiopian journey to the Danakil Depression, Harar and Bale National Park
The Awash National Park, located at 215 km to the east from the capital, was the first in Ethiopia when it was established in 1966. Spanning across plains at an altitude ranging from 750 to 2,007 metres high at the Fantale volcano’s summit, the park is bordered by the Awash gorges to the south and cuts through the territories of several nomadic ethnies - the Ittu Oromo, the Afar and the Karayu.
The diverse land covering 756 km² is populated by a great number of animals of various species, including some 50 mammal species. Among them you will easily recognise the east african oryx - by its long straight horns and the simmering gazelle - one of the most common and easily approachable species on these great plains. Small and taller kudus with their spiral horns will rather be found in the more bushy grasslands, especially to the north of the park. The Fantale’s rocky slopes are home to a few felines and constitute the klipspringer and the mountain reedbuck’s territory. It is not uncommon to spot a jackal, a serval, a wildcat or warthog sounders in these areas. Closer to the Awash banks you will not have any trouble to observe olive baboons, hamadryas baboons, colobus monkeys and green monkeys, as well as crocodiles. The more discreet hyenas, leopards, lions and cheetahs inhabiting the area will be more difficult to encounter. With 452 listed bird species, including 6 endemic ones, the park is also a prime location for ornithological observation.
The Bale massif is one of Ethiopia’s most spectacular wild regions. The mountains constitute a true landmark for trekkings in natural circumstances of striking beauty and calm. Due to its topography, the massif endure eight months of rainy season from March to October, with rainfall peaks in April, then again from August to October. Despite being accessible all year long, during those periods the ice-cold wind, the fog and soggy ground make excursions really excruciating. The best period for hiking trips in the mountains is definitely the dry season, from November to February.
Depending on the altitude, the park is divided into several habitats, each of them sheltering a specific wildlife. Between 3,000 and 3,500 metres, the Gaysay river plain is covered with vast prairies bristling with a combination of vegetation typical for wetlands and a multitude of wild flowers. Among these you will find the Artemesia and the Helichrysum - a prime food supply for nyalas, which you can spot in great number in this region. The plain is also the territory of the Menelik’s bushbuck, the common duiker, the serval and the warthog. At dawn, spotted hyenas and jackals take over the land.
At over 3,800 metres, the Sanetti plateau is dominated by Mount Tullu Dimtu - one of the highest peak in Ethiopia, culminating at 4,377metres. The vegetation proper to this area is a typical afro-alpine tapestry of heathers, lichen and pearly everlastings. This desertlike environment is the territory of rodents, including 11 species endemic to Ethiopia - such as the giant kangaroo rat, specific to the Bale massif. These little mammals constitute an important food reserve for raptor colonies, harriers, eagles, falcons, bearded vultures but first and foremost - for the indisputable master of the area, the Ethiopian wolf! This predator is considered the world’s most rare canid species.
On the southern cliff of the mountain, the Harenna forest constitutes an ecosystem on its own. Covering over 4,000km², it is Ethiopia’s second largest tropical woodland. Depending on the altitude, its vegetation is composed of giant heathers or - in its lower parts - of podocarpus, fig trees and bamboos dominating over wild coffee shrubs and mulberries. This dense forest canopy is home to many monkey species, but it also shelters wild pigs and big carnivores such as lions, leopards and wild dogs.
The park’s diversity makes it an ideal bird sanctuary: nearly 200 bird species have been listed here, including 16 endemic species. Turacos, orioles, yellow-faced parrots and manifold other volatiles give color to the forests, while the high mountain lakes are paradise to migratory birds, ducks and shorebirds. It is the only region where you will be able to spot the blue-winged goose.
The Danakil Depression, also known as the Afar Triangle, is the result of an intense geological activity triggered by the friction of three tectonic plates. Millions of years ago, the whole area was flooded by the Red Sea, then slowly dried, turning into a gigantic salt desert. The lowest point on earth situated at -155 metres below sea level is also the world’s hottest - with temperatures reaching as high as 60°C during some periods of the year. It is also one of the globe’s most spectacular areas due to the Erta Ale Volcano - one of the few active volcanoes one can get close to - and the lunar landscapes of the ancient Dallol crater. This extremely geo-thermally active region is a true paradise for geologists, volcanologists and adventure seekers alike.
Landscapes here mostly consist of magnificent canyons, hot acid water springs, sulfur pits, little bubbling geysers and salt needles. This vast desolate area is the land of the fascinating Afar. These proud semi-nomadic people extract salt from the inhospitable soils and transport it into cities with the help of dromedaries caravans.
In this surrealist landscape, Dallol offers in itself a wonderful spectacle of natural wonder. The site is very colourful, full of whites, yellows, greens and reds - its colours due to the presence of sulfur, iron oxyde, salt and other minerals. When getting closer you will yourself standing on a fissured hard soil, made of cracked salt crusts. The dominant colours here are yellow-browns and purple. A few metres further, strange salt forms will emerge from the ground, resembling giant termite mounds. Some other mushroom-like giant structures are scattered in the area. You will also find yellow sulfur ponds with many bubbling geysers. A few steps into it, the water turns light green. Suddenly, in the middle of nowhere, you will see a pool overflowing with boiling liquid sulfur. Finally you will come back to a field of white salt-covered land scattered with fleeting and shallow salt lakes. Venturing here can be compared to a journey to the center of the Earth.
More to the south, the Erta Ale Volcano is the scene of another unique natural show. Erta Ale is one of Africa’s most active volcanoes and it belongs to a mountains range consisting of seven volcanoes. For almost 120 years, Erta Ale’s crater had the only permanent lava lake in the world. The crater is located at only 613 metres of altitude but its base goes beneath the sea level. Leaving from base camp at El Dom at the foot of the volcano, it is best to start the ascent after the sunset, to avoid the daytime’s extreme heat. It takes three to four hours to hike to the crater. You can also get there on camelback. The moment you approach the crater in the late evening’s hours is unforgettable. An intense red light radiates from the crater’s molten lava into the dark sky while some occasional eruptions may occur on the lava’s surface. The view of the molten lava drawing incandescent arabesques at the bottom of the crater is a truly magical experience.
Listed as UNESCO’s World Heritage in 2006, Harar is a city on its own in Ethiopia. While most of the country has evolved around its Christian heritage, Harar - an important trade crossroad - has always been the gateway to Islam in the Horn of Africa. To travellers, Harar symbolises a different Ethiopia - one in which you can stroll along the narrow streets, admire old Peugeots 404, walk in the footsteps of Rimbaud or Henri de Monfreid or even experience an exciting encounter with the hyenas. Harar was founded in the 7th century. Since then it has developed cultural, religious and trade relationships with the neighbouring Arabia and has arisen as an important center of Islamic theology. Furthermore, it is considered the fourth most holy city of Islam. For centuries the city has asserted its power by resisting the attacks of Christian sovereigns trying to gain control over the Red Sea trade routes. Nowadays still Harar entertains its own cultural, linguistic and craftsmanship peculiarities that make its unique charm.
The old town’s singular architectural environment, with its many marketplaces and coffee sellers, is extremely animated. Besides coffee you will find tobacco, cereals, draperies, spices and the indispensable “khat” - an euphoriant plant grazed in Ethiopia, Djibouti and Yemen, chiefly produced in Harar region. The old town called Jugal, surrounded by a perimeter wall with seven gates, represents a true maze of narrow streets boarded with little clay painted houses and more than 99 mosques as well several hundreds of little sanctuaries. Here and there you will find some more imposing residences with their Ottoman, Yemeni, Egyptian or Occidental architecture influences - the glorious Arthur Rimbaud’s house being one of them. Walking along the perimeter wall you might spot some holes made in the enclosure for hyenas which have long been considered the city’s scavengers. Nowadays still, when walking around the city in the evening, it is not uncommon to encounter hyenas roaming near the city’s dustbins - but their most impressive “feast” is being served each night. This gives you the unique opportunity to watch these impressive animals from up close or even - if you feel like it - feed them yourself.
The second most populated city of Ethiopia, Dire Dawa, is located some 60km north from Harar. The city has been created as part of the railroad line joining Djibouti and Addis Ababa, built at the beginning of the 20th century. The line was conceived in a common effort with the French Railway Company which has left a significant imprint on the city. As a matter of fact, while the city itself is not necessarily of great touristic interest, it is probably the most French city of Ethiopia. Many roadsigns here are still written in French and many of the city’s inhabitants speak French themselves. The Alliance Francaise still holds an important place in the community; in the past many future railwaymen had to go complete their education in its school.
South of Harar you will find a protected area that shelters kudus, lions and wild donkeys, but first and foremost - a few specimen of an endemic elephant species. The Babile Elephant Sanctuary spans across almost 7,000km² in a desertlike environment with large gorges and meandering rivers surrounded by vast open plains. However, the elephants are very scarce and remain quite difficult to spot.
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