Ethiopia is best described as a vast land of contrast, beauty, and extremes. The images and scenes of the people, in many cases, are highly distorted. The country is not barren, dusty or a land with starving people.
Several years ago I toured the historical Northern route, with my group viewing the splendid, carved, rock-hewn churches, ceremonies, the many obelisks and the fascinating stories of their origin. Also we learned of the passage and return to the homeland of Ethiopia. We visited UNESCO sites, castles, ancient churches and ruins with many tales of the building of a dynasty. It was my great pleasure to sail on Lake Tana and the Blue Nile. It is there I became aware of the developing tourist market for the southern portion of Ethiopia. The Rift Valley lakes and masses of bird and marine life, as well as wildlife in the National Parks bordering Kenya make this area unique.
This is the portion of Africa often portrayed through elaborate photography of colorful people, customs, and practices in expedition and nature magazines.
I recently had the opportunity to return and visit the Omo Valley Region with its popular ethnic treasures, and the place where 50% of the ethnic groups reside. We started from Addis Ababa, and descended via comfortable 4X4 wheel vehicle with a skilled driver and professional English –speaking guide into the region. Along the way we passed through small towns and stopped to visit along the highway villages, meeting people, families and visiting the homes belonging to the Konso people, with their beautiful and most effective terracing agricultural practices and elaborate farms; the Mursi people with their barbarian lifestyle (it is as if time has stood still for hundreds of years). True preservation of the culture! We were then on to visit and shop at the Markets with the colorful Hammer people (body painting and ceremonies) and then to the Karo people (similar to the Hammer people with the body painting, but with adornments from brass, cattle hides and skins, beads or shells.) Many are semi-nomadic. The men and boys work the cattle and farms, the women maintain the homes, fields, and children. Everyone has a job or task to perform (from the time they can walk). This world of Ethiopia is in general a world where African traditions are genuine and demonstrated in the daily traditions of folk music, dress, rituals, and way of life. I have observed many of the traditional practices by African descendents from rural USA and the Americas; through West, East and sections of South and Southern Africa. Whether in Jamaica, Brazil, Aboriginal country of Australia, the Tiwi Islands, some things have survived the long journey from “the Motherland”. In additional to the tremendous cultural beauty, the landscape of the Rift Valley and Omo Valley region is a nature lover’s paradise, off the beaten path. The beautiful Lakes, from blood red to clear waters, hold a mystique and mystery that I must return to explore. The area boasts of some of the largest crocodiles in the world, and numerous Hippos (whom I heard but time did not permit me to witness this aspect on my journey, that is for the next visit).
Accommodations at the Wenney Eco-lodge were comfortable, clean and ecologically minded. I had the opportunity to stay in the bungalow occupied by the President of the Ethiopia – I liked it too! This lodge was hand built by the owner for the purpose of sustainable tourism – using local resources and people. Great stop on the shores of Lake Langano, reportedly bilharzias-free, allowing swimming. There are excellent opportunities for forest exploration, which I would like to do soon.
Our next stop was at Swaynes Hotel constructed in the Dorze, elephant style, currently the best in the region (HOT WATER). The most spectacular feature other than the design to me was the location; on a hill overlooking glorious views of Lake Abaya and Lake Chamo. Here we visited the Dorze village known for its elephant motif built homes, dancing children, beautiful hand woven cotton scarves and Aki (a local home brew) served with bread, fresh honey from the comb and chili sauce. Whew! It was all HOT! My tight schedule again did not afford my cruise on the Lake.
We left for the lower valley and even hotter climate to Evangadi Lodge where we had access to visit several of the local tribes (Hammer, Karos and Mursi) and markets of the area. Unfortunately we were not able to witness a bull-jumping ceremony (marriage proposal) – but the markets were quite a treat.
A bit of caution... Every picture you snap may costs you 2 – 5 Birr. Thankfully, our guide was able to negotiate most of this for us. The markets are an opportunity to not only sell wares, and the harvest, but a social event for the three tribes to meet and interact, court and look for new spouse. It is quite a show of traditional dress, adornments, and “profiling”. It is also becoming known (to the locals) that the tourist are now coming for pictures, so there are the stagers – which I could easily identify. However, it was fun for all.
En route to a visit to the villages, located much off the beaten path, I saw some of the most interesting termite mound formations – having traveled most of Africa, this was amazing to me (elephants, giraffes – almost works of art!).
Village life was much like most of rural Africa—huts from mud and/or cow dung, or bamboo shoots, sticks, banana trees and leaves all with thatched roofs. Near town, the use of tin roofs was spotted on some of the mud huts. Various tribes have elaborate symbols identifying the front.
On the highway – cattle is King. The definition of “traffic jam" is herds of cattle and goats as they travel to and from water at river beds. There was never a dull moment during the trip.
The most challenging part of the experience was the “pit or bush stops” between towns Even this was better than some of the bathroom stops. Just like on safari, only few bushes! Ladies get plenty of knee bending exercise (smile). Be Prepared!
The trip was everything I had anticipated and most of what I wish to see! It is for the adventurer and explorer traveler -- a photographer’s paradise and a cultural enthusiast’s dream. A pure delight for one who has done it all and seekers of a new experience and cultural enlightening!