“Mountain Nyala, yes, many of them” Muzeyen, our fixer for the park tells us that these mythical beasts are very common. We’ve just entered the reserve and are fixated on this member of the antelope family. In the days to come these would be very common run-ins. Simply, I’ve never seen so much wildlife in one place. The Bale Mountains are nearly predator-less, leaving warthogs and antelope to dominate the landscape. Washington back country is full of peaks and lakes. While Bale is short on these, it is bursting with life: 47 species of mammals, 282 birds (9.5% of world diversity), and 1,000+ plants scatter the massive 2,150 km2 park.
We are dropped off at the Dinsho lodge, our home for the next few days located inside the park itself. We walk in the lodge and out the window are a pack of another antelope family member, ears perked at our arrival. There is no one else at the lodge, so the three employees who live on-site are there just for us. Kings of the lodge. The manager is a young guy, always wearing a blue zip up hoodie with the hood on. The kitchen is run by two girls, both around 20 years old. On our arrival they are incredibly shy, but roast some beans and pour some coffee. Have you smelled roasted coffee beans? It’s similar to popcorn. After they’re done roasting, were offered a smell of the pan and grab a few beans to munch on. Eat your heart out Starbucks.
After setting a schedule for the rest of our time at the park with Muzeyen, we head off for an afternoon stroll. Just a couple hundred meters from the lodge and we are stopped above a small valley by a family of warthogs. Their stout bodies and long, curved tusks call something from a childhood safari story. We’re both in awe, assuming this may be a rare sight. Slowly we approach the pack, unsure if they will charge us or run off. We later find out there are no dangerous mammals in the park, aside from the extremely rare rain forest lion. Seriously, there are lions in the rain forest here. The warthogs run off despite our ridiculous crouched approach in the ankle-high grassy field, but we are already giggling with excitement. We get back on the trail and another pack of warthogs in front of us. To our left are bohor reedbuck. Small and red, delicate looking animals. We start to realize the sheer volume of life around us. We continue up the path and in the distance is a straw hut, sitting atop a small ridge. In the field in front of us a warthog group gather, and two males charge directly at one another. I point my camera and:
I’m a national geographic photographer! Well maybe not, but I feel like one and that’s enough. We walk through the tall and curvy trees that make much the forest around us. Light darts in and out, making a dramatic scene with dark clouds moving in overhead. As we wander on well-worn walkways, the sounds of a village pick up in the distance. The rain pops on the orchestra of leafs above. The park contains many small of these villages. None of the ones we encountered had running water, electricity, or HBO. The villagers maintain an old and traditional lifestyle, living off the land and venturing into town on donkey and horse to trade in the weekly market. They are the Oromo people, which compose nearly 1/3 of the Ethiopian population. However, these clans have been in the Bale area for some time. Some estimate date back over a millennia. While I can't imagine living a life without HBO, their longevity makes me think they have managed somehow.
We find a clearing from the trees and spend some time laying in the sun with the valley we just drove through drowned in golden hour sunlight. The only sounds reaching our ears are a cluster of chirping birds and Nyala bounding down the hill in front of us. A falcon or some big bird hovers ahead, appearing to be suspended in peace from where I lay. As we fall asleep with heads in the grass I can only think ‘We’ve made it. The city is far, far away’.