November 2007: As part of a two week trip that included Yemen and northern Ethiopia, my friend Evan and I chose to visit the Omo Valley of Southern Ethiopia, one of the most culturally diverse tribal areas in the world where true traditional tribal culture can still be found. Ethiopia, which was never colonized and up until recently was isolated due to its 20-year communist government known as the Derg. This along with the huge size of Ethiopia and that it has been vastly undeveloped meant that the tribes of Omo Valley were left alone and were not exposed to outside influence that would attempt to modernize them. As a result, Omo is truly a unique place to visit tribal cultures still living traditional lives and mostly wearing traditional clothes or the lack thereof since many men and women wear little to nothing. Each tribe is distinct with its own customs, clothing, language and religion. I could write a lot about each tribe, but I will just provide a general overview. 

When i went to Omo in 2007, word was just starting to trickle out to the travel community about the tribes and foreigners were just beginning to discover the Omo. I have always known that mass tourism and tribal cultures do not mix well and the two combined form a kind of human zoo, contrived artificial experience where both sides exploit each other. The tribes exploit the tourists for money by providing fake primitive scenes for the camera and the tourist exploits the tribes by not giving anything back and only taking away fake photos of primitive cultures. It is a hard balance to find but, in my experience, the more time you spend with a tribe the better because this gives you a shared experience at the human level instead of quick drive by photography that does little to benefit anyone. I would learn a lot from my experiences in Omo that would serve me well in my future African travels. I made a lot of mistakes, but I also had a lot of good experiences there. The Omo is definitely one of those places that i knew would be threatened by a rapidly changing world and I wanted to get there as soon as possible before new roads and mass tourism encroached changing the cultural landscape f the Omo forever. As a result, my friend Evan and I hired a vehicle and driver for 8 days with a loose itinerary that we were free to modify as we went along. We had our own food and tents and we planned to mostly camp along the way especially since the few hotels we stayed in were so unsanitary and hot, camping was a much-preferred option. This is the story of my Omo trip.

 

 

Location of Omo region in SW Ethiopia

We didn’t have a set itinerary before the trip and we constantly modified what we thought we had planned with the driver, to the driver’s ire, but in the end the itinerary below is what we ended up doing:

Day 1
Depart Lalibela to Addis. Depart on rented vehicle to Arba Minch or as close to Arba Minch as we can in a day of driving.505kms Addis-Arbaminch, stay in hotel.

Day 2
Arba Minch-Konso Chencha-Dorze Village and Market Dorze on Monday)-Arbaminch, visit 40 springs halfway between Sikela and Shecha. Visit Nechisar National Park. Camp at Kulfo River south of park headquarters.

Day 3
Konso-Omo Valley-Jinka, Jinka Hotel

Day 4
Omo Valley, Full day Mursi in Mago National Park, Sleep in Jinka hotel

Day 5
Omo Valley Key Afer Market and drive to Turmi, camp in near Turmi

Day 6
Omo Valley Murulle for Karo and Galab village-cross Omo River, drive to Kenya, Lake Turkana and visit Turkana tribes, drive to Turmi and stay in hotel

Day 7
Jinka to Arba Minch-Dimeka Market and back to Arbaminch, hotel

Day 8
Visit Lake Chamo, Arba Minch to Addis Abbaba, Depart Addis Ababa via Ethiopian Airlines.

Rasta People of Shashamane

Out of Addis, the roads increasingly became worse until eventually the pavement ended and the landscape wilder and tribes more traditional. Traveling south reminded me of the lord of the Rings in that each region had its own unique group of people that were as exotic as the next and there was little mixing of tribes.

We first traveled through Shashamane, a community of Rastafarian people that are well known for their ganja. We stopped for a brief visit for lunch and visited some of the Rasta. King Haile Selassie of Ethiopia was revered by Jamaican Rastas as the 2nd coming of Jesus and when the king visited Jamaica. Some of the Jamaican Rasta were gifted with land by the king in Ethiopia in the Shashamane area where they currently live. of course, where there is Rasta there is ganja. Haile Selassie was later killed by the communist Derg. 

In Shashamane portraits of King Haile Selassie are everywhere

The small towns in this part of Ethiopia had some pretty rustic accommodation. Whenever possible, if there was a wild area in the vicinity, we would prefer to camp in our tents but if the option wasn’t available, we stayed in a hotel. This hotel in the photo below was one of the good ones.

One of the nicer hotel rooms where we stayed

Toilet Rules Written on the wall “after completing faeces, please pur the water.”

Lake Chamo Crocodiles

We stopped to break up the journey by taking a boat ride out on Lake Chamo rich in hippo and Nile crocodile. Probably the largest crocodiles I have ever seen outside of the Northern Territories in Australia were on lake Chamo.

Lake Chamo Crocodiles

Nechisar National Park

Evan and I chose to camp for the night in Nechisar National Park. We arrived at its gate in the afternoon and there were no park rangers and the road ended and became a foot trail. There was no park infrastructure and our driver dropped us off at the gate. Evan and i walked into the park into a wild scrub forest and saw a few animals such as monkeys, and wart hogs as we walked while the sun began to set. Our plan was to meet our driver the next morning at the gate. We set up our tents in the dark near a stream under a cacophony of rowdy animal noises at night. It was real wild camping and there were all kinds of mysterious sounds of movement in the forest around our tent. We started a small fire and went to sleep drinking red wine. This kind of camping was heaven.

Most common primate we saw all over southern Ethiopia

Wart Hog

My tent in Nechisar National Park

Dorsi Village Beehive Huts

The next day we continued closer to Omo and visited one of the hilltop villages full of giant beehive huts belonging to the Dorsi tribe known for their tall huts. We visited a few homes and tipped each family a small fee for visiting. The gardens around the huts were well manicured with plants and crops. We also visited an active Dorsi market where we saw a lot of old women smoking long tobacco pipes.

Dorsi beehive Hut

Me in the marketplace

Women smoking tobacco pipes 

Into the Omo Region

The further south we went the rougher the roads, and the majestic the scenery became. Wherever we stopped, even when in the middle of nowhere, small children would appear out of nowhere to ask us for highland-an empty plastic water bottle that villagers use to store water with, or they would ask us for one birr-small amount of Ethiopian money.

Driving south into Omo

We stayed one night in Jinka in Omo Valley and visited a nearby village Key Afer. We were there on a market day when hundreds of tribal people from all over the region came into town to sell their wares. One particular item of interest was the small wooden peg everyone carried which I learned is a traditional chair. The markets are extremely photogenic especially with the tribal people and their colorful clothes and beads as well as great big smiles. Most were very friendly, and many did ask for a birr about 20-50 cents if they saw your camera but only if you tried to take a portrait photo of them up close.

Key Afer Market

I was impressed by the style of clothing, hair and athletic builds of the tribes. These were not poor impoverished starving people as the west often portrays them to be. They were proud, well abled and handsome people who seemed to be doing a lot more than just surviving.

Key Afer Market

Key Afer Market

Key Afer Market

Key Afer Market

Mursi Tribe

I asked our driver to take us to a band of Mursi that tourists do not normally visit so that we could get more of an authentic experience, and we met with another local guide to discuss our options and decided on driving deep into their territory into a region of very bad roads to Mago national Park, where there are rumored to be some surviving elephants and lions. The Mursi are notorious for being aggressive. They are not only aggressive with each other and other tribes constantly raiding one another to steal cows, which is why they all have AK47’s, easy to get from war town nearby South Sudan. But the Mursi are also aggressive with tourists. The Mursi wear lip plates and although no one knows for sure why, it is speculated the custom was born out of a need to make the women less attractive to slave raiders. The Mursi know that tourists want photos of them, and they are aggressive about getting money and will grab you and pull and even try and steal from you. For this reason, an armed guard police officer was required to join us into their territory. True to their form they did try and reach into our pockets and grab and pull and they were my least favorite tribe that I visited in Omo. But to be fair we didn’t stay long enough to give them a fair shake and even though I wanted to camp with them, the idea of camping with them and constantly being harassed for money didn’t seem appealing. I was told that they use tourist money to buy modern items in the market that they need like medicine, but they also use it to buy tobacco and alcohol and alcoholism is become a big problem in their tribe. Given how aggressive they are naturally, encountering a drunk Mursi with an AK47 would be a scary experience.

Road into Mago

Mursi men who tend to walk naked outside the village but wear a blanket around their waste when in village

Most Mursi carry an AK 47with them and are feared by other tribes as being warrior like and aggressive cattle thieves.

Mursi woman

The further south we went the rougher the roads, and the majestic the scenery became. Wherever we stopped, even when in the middle of nowhere, small children would appear to ask us for highland-an empty plastic water bottle that villagers use to store water with, or they would ask us for one birr-small amount of Ethiopian money.

Mursi village

Mursi woman with lip plate removed

Mursi woman in village

Mursi woman in village

Hamar People

The Hamar was my favorite tribe. Evan and I stayed two nights in Turmi, one of my favorite little towns. We stayed in a very basic little hotel in town and had a feast of chicken and local beer with some new tribal friends we met at the hotel.  The cost was cheap and from our table we watched as tribal people came and went in their traditional clothes greeting us. The Hamar was always friendly and were not aggressive about seeking money. We visited a small Hamar village outside of town and we did pay the chief a small fee but after that no one asked us for money and we just sat with the Hamar and interacted with them spending quality time with them and getting to know them, even drinking their home-made alcohol with them. it was one of the best tribal experiences I had in Omo.

Hamar People

Hamar People

Hamar People

The Hamar brought us to a small boy stricken with malaria and asked us for medicine and I shared some malaria medicine i had and painkillers but there was little we could do sadly.

Hamar boy with malaria

One of the Hamar villagers spoke English which he learned in school, and we sat with him, and his family drinking homemade hooch.

Me drinking homemade hooch with Hamar

Daasanach Tribe

We visited a village of another tribe called the Daasanach, who are located further south and all the way into northern Kenya. The first village could only be reached by crossing the Omo River by boat and was an aggressive experience like the Mursi and not a favorite of mine as each villager asked for money. But as we went further south towards lake Turkana, we encountered villages that had never seen or rarely see foreigners, and some were even terrified of us and would run away.

Me crossing Omo to Daasanach village

Me in a  Daasanach village

Daasanach village

Daasanach looking at their photos

Northern lake Turkana Tribes in Kenya

Our driver was not thrilled when I asked him to go south on a very bad road to lake Turkana across the Kenya border, but he did it in the end and the trip was worth it because we went to a part of Omo where foreigners do not go and the tribes, we met were the most rewarding. They ranged from overly ecstatic to meet us to terrified. The children mostly were curious but some of the adults were afraid and one man taller and far mightier than me did pose for a photo for me, but he was quick to move along with a very worried demeanor. In this region no one asked us for money.

Villages in lake Turkana

Villages in lake Turkana

Our car at lake Turkana

At lake Turkana villages carried massive lake perch and huge crocodile skulls laid on the shore. The lake is known for its massive man-eating crocodiles.

 

Kids playing

Turkama tribe

Parts of modern life like this watch band have been incorporated into traditional dress

Turkana People

This man standing approx. 6.7′ with his chair was pleasant enough to pose for me but was visibly perplexed by me and not trusting.

 

Driving south into Omo

A woman carrying goat skins on her head who was also perplexed by us and just stared

This kid was my favorite and we had a good time laughing together

Me photographing the kids

On the drive back, Evan and I camped in more remote locations and the drive was long and grueling and luckily our vehicle made it all the way back to Addis within a few hours before breaking down, which was easy to replace. This was much better than in the middle of nowhere in lake Turkana.  

 

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