Destination 1: Arba Minch/Tiya/Nechisar National Park
We arrived in Addis Abba, the capital of Ethiopia at 8:00 in the morning and were met by our guide Yigo and driver Abera. They were to accompany us on our short tour of the Omo Valley to visit the tribes living in the area. After a few formalities at the tour company’s office, we were on our way to Arba Minch. Addis Ababa is growing fast. It took us 45 minutes to leave the hustle and bustle of the capital. Our first stop was Tiya, an UNESCO World Heritage site to visit some ancient stelae dating back to the 4th century AD. There were 36 standing stones carved with symbols, the most notable being swords, to mark a huge prehistoric burial site. The largest stone unfortunately had been broken off and carted to the museum in Addis Ababa .
Figure 1 Stelae at Tiya
We continued on our way leaving the Addis plateau and winding our way down through fertile fields and villages to the town of Sodo for lunch. After our long flight, we were sleepy and napped in the Land Cruiser as Abera sped towards Arba Minch. We arrived just as the sun was setting and checked into the Paradise Lodge. We were amazed at all the construction going on in town and all the road construction we encountered along the way. The Chinese are investing heavily in Ethiopia and Yigo told us there were 100,000 Chinese currently working in the country.
The next morning we were to visit Nechisar National Park right on the outskirts of Arba Minch. It started to rain at 5:00 in the morning and as we headed out it was pouring. I was surprised at all the clouds and rain we were encountering. I thought we were visiting during the dry season. At the Park entrance, the attendant warned us that the road may not be passable and he was right. Abera gave it a gallant try but as we proceeded, the road turned into a running river and we had to turn back. We went to the Tourist Restaurant in Arba Minch for some traditional coffee. A coffee ceremony is performed where the beans are ground and brewed in a small earthen pot. The strong bitter brew is served in a small cup with a twig of rue and incense from the resin of an acacia tree is burned to complete the ceremony. As I was sitting there an animal came running up to the table begging for food. At first I thought it was a cat or dog but it turned out to be a Gray Duiker! The restaurant has a resident mother and baby and we were able to pet them when we returned for lunch.
Figure 2 Marc petting the baby Duiker at the Tourist Restaurant, Arba Minch
Yigo informed us that our trip to South Sudan had been canceled! This threw our trip into a tizzy and we went to the internet shop to try and figure out what was going on. We received an email from Akos that the rains in South Sudan had not stopped and that the roads into Boma National Park were impassable. At this point he had not given up all hope but the chances of seeing the White-eared Kob migration seemed pretty slim.
The rain let up and we decided to visit Lake Chamo first to give the road in Nechisar time to dry out. It was a gray day on Lake Chamo but we did get to see some giant crocodiles, hippos and water birds such as Great White Pelicans, Maribou Stork and Herons. After lunch we made another attempt to reach the Nechisar Plains and we were successful. Nechisar National Park is known for its beautiful scenery but unfortunately the clouds obscured most of the views. As Yigo promised we did find Zebra, Grant’s Gazelle, Kudu and one endemic Swayne Hartebeest grazing on the Plains.
Figure 3 Zebra and Kudu on Nechisar Plains
Destination 2: Derashe / Konso /Turmi
At this point our trip to South Sudan had been canceled and we were trying to not let it interfere with our visit to the Omo Valley in Ethiopia. We continued our journey south to the villages of Derashe and Konso. At one time the Derashe and Konso people were in one district but recently they had divided making it easier for the government to administer them but not necessary beneficial to the Derashe and Konso people. We arrived in Konso and chose to visit the Chief’s compound. I was expecting a lavish abode complete with Western amenities but when we arrived we found quite the opposite. We were first taken to the Chief’s cemetery. The Konso are known for their wooden grave totem poles called Waga. Notched wooden poles keep track of the number of generations burred here, in the Chief’s case, 21 generations!
Figure 4 Waga at Chief Kalla Gezahegn’s Compound
Back at the compound we visited the Chief’s kitchen and hut, the huts for his wife and children, the huts for the livestock and funeral huts where the bodies of deceased ancestors were kept . The Chief was educated in Addis Abba and has a degree in Civil Engineering which he practiced for a number of years. When his father passed away, he gave up the modern world and returned to Konso to fulfill his duty as chief. He is responsible for the welfare of 300,000 people and his main role is to settle disputes. I found his story amazing and inspiring.
Figure 5 Chief Kalla Gezahegn with two of his children
We made a quick visit to the old and fortified Konso Village before proceeding to Woito for lunch. We found the short route to Turmi impassable due to all the recent rains so, we took the long way around. Although there’s not much vehicular traffic, the road is used by people and their livestock. Abera made frequent use of his horn to warn people, cows, goats, sheep and dogs to get out of the way of our speeding vehicle. The kids went out of their way to get the attention of passing tourists. This ranged from shouting “Highland, Highland” to get tourists to give away their empty Highland water bottles, wearing body paint, walking on stilts and doing obscene dances.
As we passed through the village of Dimeka the Hamer People were having their weekly market. We stopped for a visit and Yigo took over my camera to photograph the colorful Hamer people. The married women sport dreadlocks with clay and red ochre and adorn their arms and legs with bracelets. The primary wives wear a heavy metal necklace with a protruding post. Their clothes are made from the hides of goats and are decorated with beads and shells.
Figure 6 Hamer women at the market in Dimeka
We arrived in Turmi late in the afternoon and were invited to a Hamer village to witness the aftermath of a bull jumping ceremony. The actual ceremony had taken place the day before but, the young boy, now a Maza since he successfully jumped the bulls, was still celebrating with his family and friends. By the time we arrived most of the dancing had ceased but the Hamar were enjoying a goat barbecue and a pasty mixture of sorghum flour and water and boiled maze. I was intimidated by the Hamer woman who did not want their photos taken. Yigo offered to take them with my camera but I declined. I did feel like I was intruding but the Hamer are used to tourists showing up at their ceremonies.
Figure 8 Hamer people at the post bull jumping ceremony celebration
Destination 3: Omorate
The next stop on our Omo Valley tour was to Omorate to visit the Dassanach people. Enroute we encountered Vulturine Guineafowl, the first time we had ever seen these birds. The males were in their breeding plumage and were doing their courtship dances in the road.
Figure 9 Vulturine Guineafowl
Along the way we also saw five Gerenuks, the first time we’ve seen these antelope since our first trip to Africa in 1990. As we approached Omorate we could see a twisted bridge that did not survive the floods of the Omo river. Fortunately, the river was in a calm state as we crossed by dugout canoe. The canoe was thin and Marc and a hard time squeezing in.
Figure 10 Marc crossing the Omo River in a dugout canoe
Once on the other side the Dassanach people were there to greet us, at least the women as the men were in a meeting with government officials. Photographing the tribes of the Omo Valley is quite a complicated process. You have to pay one bir (the local currency worth about 6 cents) per person per photo. People try and jump into the photo to get a cut of the action and you have to tell them to get out. The women showed us how they grind grain between two stones and how they scrape hides to make their clothes. Their huts were simply constructed from sticks, paper, mosquito nets, USAID box remnants or whatever else was lying around. Sadly the Dassanach people are unaware that a proposed hydroelectric project is soon to alter their traditional way of life forever.
Figure 11 Dassanach Women grinding grain
Destination 4: Jinka / Mago National Park
Jinka is the jumping off spot for Mago National Park and a visit to the Mursi people. We headed out early to visit the Mursi. The road into Mago National Park is being improved to provide access to a large sugar factory being built in the heart of Mago National Park! It started to rain and out of the fog appeared shapes on the road up ahead. Wait! What could they be? A pack of 14 African Wild Dogs! What an unexpected treat! We hadn’t seen wild dogs since 1990 and now we’ve seen them twice in 2011, first in Mana Pools National Park in Zimbabwe and now here in Mago National Park. Amazingly they were not afraid of us and approached the vehicle scent marking the road with their anal glands.
Figure 12 African Wild Dogs in Mago National Park
We continued on picking up a game scout to protect us from wild animals or so I thought. Later Yigo told us the game scout was to protect us from the Mursi as they are quite aggressive. When we arrived at their village they were still asleep. They we quick to arise and put on their adornments. The women insert clay plates into their lower lips that have been stretched over the years. It’s not clear if the plates are supposed to make them more attractive to their husbands or less attractive to marauders. In any case they were the most extreme form of body decoration that we have ever encountered.
Figure 13 Mursi woman wearing a lip plate
The women adorn themselves with what’s ever available, fruit, metal rings, warthog tusks, and even animal skulls. There are only approximately 7000 Mursi left. They have a high mortality rate due to waterborne diseases and fighting. The men tend to get drunk and shoot off guns. If they accidently kill someone they have to pay the deceased’s family up to 20 cows and a young girl to serve as a slave. I thought the tradition of women wearing a lip plate was extreme but the men have an even more gruesome tradition. According to Yigo, they beat each other often times to the death with heavy wooden sticks to establish dominance. Our photo session was cut short by the rain and we left after taking only a few photos. The game scout told Yigo a story which he translated to us. Back in 2008 an American sociologist came to study the Mursi. He slept with a young girl and unbeknownst to him got her pregnant. After he had left the village, the girl gave birth to a baby boy. Unfortunately, he was white and her secret was out. The elders told her to get rid of the baby. She could not kill her child so she left him on the doorstep of the game scouts’ hut. Unfortunately, they did not discover him in time and he was eaten by wild animals. I don’t know if the incident actually happened but it makes for an incredibly sad story.
We had time for a short game drive in the Park before heading back to Arba Minch. We saw many pairs of Gunther’s Dik- dik , Lesser Kudu and Helmeted Guineafowl along the road to the Park Headquarters.
Figure 14 Gunther’s Dik-dik, Mago National Park
Destination 5: Addis Abba/ Dorze
Our quick trip to the South was coming to an end and it was time to start the long drive back to Addis Abba. We took a detour to visit the Dorze people. Their traditions evolve around the false banana tree. They construct their elephant-shaped houses from the leaves and stems and their main staple is a bread made from the pulp of the false banana tree stem.
Figure 15 Marc and Peggy in front of Dorze House
While we were visiting the village there was a funeral taking place. There was much singing and dancing going on. The Dorze believe in celebrating the deceased ‘s life rather than mourning his death. We continued along our way having to cross a raging river at one point. We arrived in the town of Shashemene created for Jamaicans returning to Ethiopia. I never understood the connection between Jamaica and Ethiopia before Yigo explained it to us. Some Jamaicans believe that Haile Selassie, the last emperor of Ethiopia, is the messiah. Before becoming emperor, his name was Tafari Makonnen and he was a governor or Ras. Hence the name Rastafarians or followers of Haile Selassie formerly known as Ras Tafari. The Rastafarians believe that Haile Selassie is the messiah because he was a descendant of King Solomon, the first black ruler to visit the White House (JFK was president at the time), brought rain to Jamaica after a one year drought and was prophesized by Marcus Garvey a Jamaican freedom fighter. Yigo believes that many Rastafarians are returning to Ethiopia because pot is legal here.
We had lunch at the Sabana Beach Resort a very nice hotel on the shore of Rift Valley Lake Lagano. As we got closer to Addis Abba, the traffic increased and the area became more industrialized with cement factories, greenhouses growing flowers for export to Europe and even a French vineyard. We arrived in the Capital after dark and spent the night at the Dreamliner Hotel.
Destination 6: Deberziet / Senkele Sanctuary / Lake Awassa / Wondogenet
We decided rather than returning home early we’d extend our stay in Ethiopia to visit some of the places we missed on our 1995 trip. We chose to visit Bale Mountains National Park and Axum. Unfortunately, we would have to say goodbye to Yigo as he was already leading another tour and get a new guide, Tes to accompany us. To our delight , Abera was to remain our driver. We left Addis Abba for Deberziet and spent the next night at the Babogaya Resort on the shore of a lake with the same name. The next morning we retraced our route back to Senkele Wildlife Sanctuary to see more endemic Swayne’s Hartebeest. We passed through the town of Ziway again with another Rift Valley lake of the same name. Lake Ziway has five islands with the largest being the home of 3000 Tigre People. These people supposedly brought the Ark of the Covenant from Axum to the island for safe keeping during a war between the Orthodox Christians and the Jews. We stopped to watch cows threshing teff, the grain used to make the Ethiopian bread injera.
Figure 16 Cows threshing Teff
We stopped at the Lilly of the Valley Hotel in Shashemene for lunch. Bob Marley wanted to be buried here but the Jamaican government would not release his body because it had become a major tourist attraction. After lunch we arrived at Senkele and as Yigo promised we saw more Swayne’s Hartebeest as well as Bohor Reedbuck and warthogs.
Figure 17 Swayne’s Hartebeest, Senkele Wildlife Sanctuary
It was a short drive to Wondogenet and the Wabishebellle Hotel. We arrived early and had a chance to walk around the hotel grounds before lunch. A handsome Black and White Colobus monkey was in a tree not far from the restaurant and we were able to get some nice photos.
Figure 18 Black and White Colobus MonkeyAfter lunch we went to the forests of Wondogenet to do some birding. It was difficult to see the birds in the thick vegetation but we did manage to spot White-cheeked Turaco, Abyssinian Orioles and a barbet. We drove on some back roads to the natural thermal springs. The water was boiling in some spots but cool enough for the local boys to take a swim further out.
Destination 7: Bale Mountains National Park
The next stop on our tour was Bale Mountains National Park, home to several of Ethiopia’s endemic mammals and birds. We stayed at the Dinsho Lodge not far from the Park headquarters. We took a walk in the juniper and Kosso (Hagenia abyssinica) forest around the lodge and spotted our first Mountain Nyala, found only in the Bale Mountains. The number of Mountain Nyala in the Park has increased to around 8000 because the government has imposed fines or imprisonment for killing them. If you hit a male Mountain Nyala with a vehicle and kill it, it will cost you 200,000 bir (almost $12,000). It’s even more for killing a female Mountain Nyala. We also saw another endemic, Menelik’s Bushbuck and warthogs on our walk. The next day we took a walk in open fields to get a better view of the Mountain Nyala. We also saw herds of Bohor Reedbuck, Grey Duiker, warthogs and the endemic Wattled Ibis. The Kosso trees were in bloom with bright red flowers. The locals grind the seeds and mix with water to create a bitter brew that is used to treat tapeworms.
Figure 19 Male and female Mountain Nyala
We ventured up to the Sanetti Plateau to see more of Ethiopia’s endemic birds and animals. The plateau is at an elevation of 4000 m and is an open expanse of heather moorlands interspersed with Giant Lobelia. It was not long before we encountered endemic birds such as Rouget’s Rail, Blue-winged Goose, Black-headed Siskins, White-collared Pigeon and Spot-breasted Plovers.
Figure 20 Spot-breasted Plovers
The big draw to the Sanetti Plateau is the chance of seeing the World’s rarest canid, the Ethiopian Wolf. We had seen one years ago in the Simien Mountains but were not able to photograph it. This time we were not disappointed. Tes spotted a wolf not far from the road and Marc was able to get some good photographs.
Figure 21 Ethiopian Wolf, Bale Mountains National Park
We continued along the Plateau and decided to take a detour and drive to the top of Tullu Demtu . At 4377 m, Tullu Demtu is the highest peak in the Bale Mountains and the second highest in Ethiopia. The view from the top was somewhat obscured by the clouds and the temperature was a brisk 5 degrees C. We left the Plateau and continued down through the giant heath forest with trees dripping in Old Man’s beard, past the village of Rira with fences constructed of bamboo to the Harrena Forest. We stopped to admire some Black and White Colobus Monkeys that were feeding in the trees along the road. Idris, our local guide, commented “there is another monkey found in these forests but rarely seen, wait there are two right there”. We looked over and sure enough there were two Bale Monkeys in the trees nearby. We had never heard of these monkeys and little is known about them. Apparently, they feed almost exclusively on bamboo.
Figure 22 Bale Monkey, Bale Mountains National Park
After a quick picnic lunch it was time to head back to Goba. On the way back to the Plateau we saw some male klipspringers along the road. We were hoping to spot another Ethiopian Wolf on our way back but, we didn’t see any. I asked if we could take one more pass before returning to Goba and Tes and Indris agreed. We spotted another Wolf trotting along the moorland. He was not as close to the road so we got out of the Land Cruiser and followed him on foot. We couldn’t get very close and returned to the vehicle to watch him. He stopped to sniff at what appeared to be a rock covered in red lichen but it moved. It was another Ethiopian Wolf, most likely a female. We tried to get closer to her on foot but she too trotted away. What luck, to see 3 Ethiopian Wolves in one day!
Destination 8: Awash National Park
Since we had such good luck the day before in seeing the Ethiopian Wolves and other endemic mammals and birds, we decided to take Tes up on his suggestion and leave Goba for Awash National Park. We had visited the Park back in 1995 and were curious to see how much has changed. We arrived in time for an evening game drive. It was good to see that Oryx, Soemmerring’s Gazelles and Salt’s Dik-dik are still common in the Park. Rather than drive to the town of Awash we decided to see if there were any rooms available at the Awash Falls Lodge right inside the park. This lodge was not built back in 1995. Fortunately, there was a room available and we slept to the soothing sound of the Awash Falls.
Figure 23 Oryx, Awash National Park
The next morning we did another game drive and managed to spot a Bat-eared Fox sleeping near his den, some more Oryx, Soemmerring’s Gazelle, Salt’s Dik-dik and Kudu. We visited the Awash Falls and the campground we stayed in 16 years ago and it brought back many fond memories.
Figure 24 Marc and Peggy at Zinjero Campsite, we stayed here 16 years ago!
It was time to head back to Deberziet. Tes received a phone call that was clearly very upsetting to him. I was concerned about his mother since he told us back in Goba that she was in the hospital after what sounded like suffering from a stroke. When we arrived back at the Babogaya Resort Tes confirmed my worst fears, his mother had passed away. It was a quick, teary goodbye as Tes and Abera headed back to Addis Abba.
Destination 9: Axum
The final destination on our trip was Axum in the far North. Abera arrived at 4:00 in the morning to bring us to the Addis Abba airport for our flight to Axum. We finally saw our first live (up until now all the hyenas we saw were dead, hit by cars) Spotted Hyenas. There were three foraging along the road. It took awhile to get to Axum as we had to stop in Gondar and Lalibela first. We visited these cities back in 1995 and noted that the airstrips are now paved. We arrived in Axum around 10:00 and were met by our local guide. We checked into the Yeha Hotel before visiting the Stelae which Axum is famous for. The Stelae were constructed in the 4th Century BC by a pagan culture, the Aksumites. The largest is 33.5 meters tall and weighs 500 tons. It fell in the 10th century AD. It was constructed by King Remhay for his family tomb. The huge granite slabs used to make the stelae were transported from a quarry 7 km away by elephants. We were told that it took 3000 elephants to drag just one stone! A smaller stele was actually brought to Rome for 70 years and only recently, 2007 returned to Ethiopia. The Italians cut into 3 pieces and used chemicals to clean it so it looks lighter that the other stelae.
Figure 25 Stelae, Axum
We went to lunch at a traditional Ethiopian restaurant and had a local dish called mahberawi. It consists of samples of rice, potato, spinach, lentils, ground meat and hard boiled eggs served on injera, the local bread.
Figure 26 Mahberawi
After lunch we visited the Queen of Sheba’s Palace built in the 10th century BC. Not much remains other than some reconstructed stone walls and some of the original floor and steps. We also visited our Lady Mary of Zion Church built by Haile Selassie in 1945 so women would have a place to worship. The church can hold up to 3000 people and has some interesting murals and a 500 year old bible printed on goat skin. The next stop was the Chapel of the Tablet which supposedly houses the Ark of the Covenant. I was told that I could not visit because I was a woman! This is 2011 I argued but some old traditions die hard. Marc refrained from visiting in support of me.
Figure 27 Chapel of the Tablet, Axum
The next morning we flew back to Addis Abba to start the long journey home. Although not the trip we had originally planned, we were happy with our second visit to Ethiopia. We had the opportunity to visit places that we did not see in 1995. The Omo Valley is changing fast and we feel that now is the time to visit the tribes before their traditional way of life is lost forever. We were also happy to see many of Ethiopia’s endemic mammals and birds.