The challenge — and rewards — of visiting southern Ethiopia


It is said that Ethiopia has an image problem, and indeed it has. Years of relentless media coverage of famine, war and rebellions have taken their toll. Unfortunately, this has made travelers pass on the opportunity to visit an area that is unique, not only to Africa but worldwide.

Deciding on a destination

Ethiopia has four faces, or destinations, that are more than adequately described in the Lonely Planet guide (2004 updated edition). Travelers with some limits on their time will have to make a choice. The eastern and northern sections contain the cataracts of the Blue Nile and rock-hewn Coptic churches, while the east offers ancient walled Muslim cities.

However, the area of most appeal to us during the dry season (the only practical time to go) was the south. A visit to the relatively untouched tribes in the lower Omo Valley offered the opportunity to experience societies that had not changed in 1,000 years. We chose the south basically to experience nearly Stone Age societies whose people, if what is common in other parts of Africa is reflected here, will in a generation be watching “The Simpsons” while supping on nachos and sporting NBA T-shirts.

Southern Ethiopia is not the Africa of lush, fixed campsites found in East Africa, South Africa, Botswana, et al. (“Would you like that blouse pressed? Is the water hot enough? Is the Chablis chilled appropriately?”) Ethiopia is not the Africa of luxury and of game herds. It is a place one goes to have the opportunity to see native inhabitants who do not posture for tourists. Make no mistake; this trip is not for the timid.

An arduous journey

Let us say something about how challenging this trip can be. Physical danger and hostility from Ethiopian tribesmen is not a problem. You might find some aloofness and run into some aggressive behavior, but that is all. However, the trip itself is physically very punishing, traveling over dirt tracks and through innumerable rocky riverbeds. The distances are long, and on our trip we were in a Land Cruiser which had handholds that only partially kept us from a battering. At the end of the day, however, the experience rests dramatically on the plus side. Between us, we have over 20 years of independent travel on all continents. Ethiopia represented one of the most satisfying and culturally enriching locations in our large inventory.

Making arrangements

Let us address some specifics of the trip. It is a comfort to have a trip planned out in advance — knowledge of dates, what to take, the assurance of joining folks of like interests, safety in numbers, etc. — but chances are it may not work in Ethiopia.

We like to stay as flexible as possible until the last minute in terms of our planning. A planned tour can be derailed by weather, crop failure and political climate.

We chose to correspond with Travel Ethiopia by e-mail (travel ethiopia@telecom.net.et or fax 251 1510 200) to learn something about what they might offer us and what the current conditions were in the country, but we made no firm plans with them.

We arrived in Addis Ababa on Feb. 22, ’04. We booked the Hilton Addis Ababa (phone 800-HILTONS or e-mail hilton.addis@telecom.
net.et — the cost was $150; consider a garden room) for the first two nights and took a day to flog out an itinerary which reflected weather, political posture, etc., with the travel company after we arrived so we could discuss firsthand our options.

This allowed us to get over our jet lag (Ethiopian Airlines does an excellent job and has a very good safety record, but it is a long flight from the U.S.) and be ready to leave early in the morning of our second day.

We hired Travel Ethiopia for a 2-week trip to the lower Omo Valley for $1,710 per person, including shelter, transportation, fuel, most meals and an excellent driver/guide and cook. In southern Ethiopia, cell phone coverage is nonexistent, but Travel Ethiopia has a shortwave radio link with their home base in the capital.

Travel tips

Traveling in the remote areas of a country like Ethiopia requires adjustments on the part of the traveler. There is virtually no refrigeration, and certainly you cannot drink the water. Never travel with less water than you believe you will ever need, and be prepared to purify water in a pinch. As far as facilities along the road — there is nothing like a bush!

You have to forget the concept of hot water for a shower. Frequently, we used muddy river water to rinse, which only took off the top layer of dust. We recommend stocking plenty of cleansing wipes and disposable facecloths. To put it mildly, we were dirty for two weeks. (Mark is gray and suddenly he had brown hair!) We stayed in rest houses or camped.

The national dish is called injera. Most farenjis (foreigners) don’t like it. If you go, we encourage you to try it. We grew to like it and, while somewhat unappetizing to look at (gray fermented millet is the bread base that it is served on), it is healthy, easy on the stomach and safe to eat.

We liked it better than much of the food that was served in an attempt to duplicate “Continental” dishes by establishments that catered to travelers.

Our cook also prepared excellent meals from a goat and chicken purchased along the road. There were plenty of fresh vegetables and fruits. Beer and soda are also widely available but served lukewarm.

When possible, take an aircraft (spotty service) one way to a destination. Two ways by land is both rough and redundant. We wish we had done so.

On this trip we also visited the Bale Mountains. For those who have traveled in other parts of Africa or in parks in the U.S., the Bale Mountains, entailing a grueling side trip, may be a disappointment. Wild game is sparse, and natural grandeur could be considered third-rate compared to other locations travelers may well have visited.

On the plus side

We have told you about some of the difficulties, but we need to describe what made this trip so wonderful and unusual. On our way to the Omo Valley we drove through many African towns. We shared the road with a few cars but mostly animals, carts and Ethiopians walking. We mean thousands of people walking many kilometers. They all were carrying something: water jugs, firewood sticks, food in sacks. . . They also were carrying sick people on litters to the local clinic, usually many kilometers away. The vitality of these villages was quite amazing.

Progressing deeper into the Rift Valley, we no longer passed by large villages. As we entered the Omo Valley, small settlements began to appear and then just desert for many, many miles. Roads disappeared and dirt tracks were the norm.

The tribes of the lower Omo Valley were the big draw, for us. We had read something about them, but words can hardly describe the experience of being there in person. In general, most of the more remote tribes are still wearing skins. They have some metal, such as spear points and knives. Each tribe dresses differently from one another, as they are widely separated. Some of the clothing and body adornment is truly spectacular.

Scarification, body painting and exotic hair designs are very common. Long-standing tribal customs may be disturbing to some, for they reflect cultures that are entirely remote from ours. However, the thrill of experiencing a totally foreign social environment quickly overcomes any initial uneasiness. These tribes were not dressing up for the tourists, as we were the only ones visiting at that time.

We had the opportunity to visit on market day of the Hamer tribe and had the chance to see the bartering and interaction of the group. The children loved seeing us and would hang onto our hands. A picture of our own families with children and grandchildren was a great icebreaker and drew a crowd. We almost always found a child (usually a boy) who had studied English in school and wanted to practice on us.

At the Hamer village, we were able to go into a woman’s house. After climbing through the doorway of the round hut, we felt as though we had moved back in time — skins on the floor, gourds hanging from the walls and a fire pit on the floor. It reminded us of some of the early-man exhibits that you find in museums.

Everywhere we went we saw children as young as five who were given the responsibility of herding some goats or cattle. They were out in the bush with a spear to fend off wild animals, and you knew that if they took out 10 goats they were expected to bring 10 back!

The Konso tribe was one of our favorites. They live on a terraced hillside and have lived in the area for at least 800 years. The stonework is truly amazing.

They have a very complex society and clearly defined rules for living in such close proximity to one another. This tribe is a little closer to “civilization,” yet the women still carry all their water up a steep hillside every day. We were so impressed with our guide there, Dinote Kusia Shenkere (c/o Bekawle Post Office, via Arba Minch, Konso, Ethiopia), a former teacher, that we sent him a box later with school supplies.

There is no waste in any of these tribes. Everything is reused. The young girls use whatever they find to add to their jewelry, including film canisters, watchbands, paper clips and anything that might be shiny. The girls also loved looking in the rear view mirrors of the van to see themselves. It evoked lots of giggling.

For more detailed information about these tribes and others, the Lonely Planet is an excellent source.

A relaxing finish

After 12 grueling days in the bush, we were tired and very dirty. For our last day of the trip we had planned a stay at Bishangari Lodge (P.O. Box 5790, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia; phone 251 1 51 75 33, fax 251 1 62 08 26 or visit www.bishangari.com). This lodge is located about 4_ hours from Addis Ababa on the shores of Lake Langano. The cost for double occupancy was $187 weekends or $138 weekdays, including full board.

Our bungalow was very spacious, with two double beds, a lovely porch with a view of the lake and — best of all, for us — a bathroom with plenty of hot water for showers!

The lodge is located in Bishangari Forest, and guided walking trips through the forest can be arranged.

Bishangari Lodge compares most favorably with any of the fixed camps in East Africa and is a perfect halfway house for reentry into “our” world (see Sept. ’04, pg. 86).

We have every intention of returning to travel to other parts of this varied country in the near future.