17 June 2024

The Roof of Africa: The Spectacular Beauty of the Ethiopian Highlands

Do not be uncomfortable if the first words that come to mind when Ethiopia is mentioned have negative connotations. If you live in the developed world then you may easily connect the country to its well documented recent history of insurgency, civil war and famine. Yet although Ethiopia’s troubles are far from over there is much more to the country than this. Its Highlands contain the largest continuous area of high altitude land in the whole of the continent. Little wonder then that the Ethiopian Highlands are often called The Roof of Africa. They are also, without exaggeration, simply spectacular.

The Highlands are enormous and are divided by the Ethiopian Rift. All of the pictures you will see here are from the northwestern side of the highlands. Designated a National Park in 1969 (the first of ten in the country), this portion contains Simien Mountain and Ras Dashan which is the highest peak in Ethiopia.

Image Credit Flickr User Mark Veraart
Image Credit Flickr User Indrik Meyneur
Although the higher you go the more arid the highlands look for many the sheer lushness of the Ethiopian Highlands comes as a surprise. Ethiopia is close to the equator so you would expect it to be hot, effectively. Yet the elevation of the highlands gives the area (and indeed the country) an unexpectedly moderate climate.

Image Credit Flickr User Trekking the Planet
Image Credit Flickr User Trekking the Planet
The monsoon winds of the Indian Ocean are captured by the mountains which then cause rain – lots of it. The rainy season runs in from July to September and means that the stretch of the River Nile which runs through Ethiopia floods during the summer.

Image Credit Flickr User Matthew Goulding
Image Credit Flickr User Trekking the Planet
Although the flora is predominantly African (which is known in botany as Afromontane) some Eurasian flora (palearctic) has grown in the Ethiopian Highlands since the time of the last ice age. In terms of the overall age of the highlands, that is a blink of an eye. These highlands began to form over 75 million years ago with the rift that separates the sections occurring around 30 million years ago.

Image Credit Flickr User Matthew Goulding
Image Credit Flickr User mttsndrs
Not only are the highlands split by the Great Rift Valley, they contain 3 distinct ecoregions, each one distinguishable from the others by its elevation. These photographs are from the Ethiopian montane moorlands, which at over 3,000 meters elevation is the biggest afroapline area on the continent of Africa.

Image Credit Flickr User Matthew Goulding
Image Credit Flickr User Indrik Myneur
You might think that this highest level of the highlands would be comparatively free of human presence (and with it interference) in its aged and delicate ecosystem. Yet Ethiopia remains desperately poor and farming and grazing is common at the base of the mountains, even though they can be in protected areas.

Image Credit Flickr User Rabbit Hole
Image Credit Flickr User Martha de Jong Lantink
Inevitably, two of Ethiopia’s National Parks, Simien pictured here and Bale Mountains in the southern part of the highlands are slowly but surely losing habitat through the encroachment of man. Even though the place is fertile in its own right, life is, for the most part, basic and harsh for the people who subsist here.

Image Credit Flickr User marches lointoines.com
They do not have access to any modern farming technology. Ploughing the field is done in the same way it has been done for centuries. However, they have found an unusual way to dry their hay and keep it away from herbivores.

Image Credit Flickr User Matthew Goulding
Image credit Flickr User opalpeterliu
As such, although the National Park was established in 1969 by 1978 it was placed on the list of World Heritage in Danger sites. Populations of its endemic species, such as the Ethiopian Wolf, the Caracal and the Gelada (see below) are all in serious decline.

Image Credit Flickr User Trekking the Planet
Image Credit Flickr User Trekking the Planet
Nevertheless, the Ethiopian Highlands remain a place of spectacle, of vast almost otherworldly panoramas that we might glimpse in our dreams but here are vibrant, breath-taking realities.

First Image Credit Flickr User Trekking the Planet

If you enjoyed this, why not take a look at one of the endemic species of the Ethiopian Highlands on our sibling site, The Ark in Space?

The Gelada: Unique Primate from the Roof of Africa
Image Credit Flickr User Matthew Goulding
High up in the Ethiopian mountains lives the Gelada. It lives nowhere else and, isolated in these remote Ethiopian Highlands, the primate has developed a way of life all of its own. To begin with there is that patch of red skin; one might guess something with which to attract the opposite sex, but why there? Moreover the gelada exhibits behavior that has led scientists to believe that deceit, crime and punishment are not simply human traits after all.