Monday, September 1, 2008

Ethiopia trip #2: August 2008 in Rifts & Omo Valleys

I just read my report on last year’s February trip to Northern Ethiopia, which concluded with  my intent to return, to travel in the Afar-Dankalia region down to the ancient Muslim town of Harar and  to explore the Rift and Omo Valleys.   This was the Rift and Omo Valleys  trip, two weeks into Southern Ethiopia..  

And like the first trip it was a substitution, this time for a camel trek into Kenya’s Rift Valley,  canceled for lack of attendance.  This tour was available and fairly high up on my list of future travels.  So I packed up the duffel and away I went, yet again!

It started, as everything does in Ethiopia, in Addis Ababa, a sprawling combination of old and new.  I joined the group a bit late in the first day, following their exploration of the city which featured  the Ethnological Museum  - been there,  done that, on my first trip, so didn’t feel deprived.

Now the North is a rather organized third world area, with towns and hotels and churches.  Oh yes, churches for it is very Orthodox Christian what with the Ark of the Covenant and the Queen of Sheba.   The South is rural, tribal country with few amenities for Westerners. While the Cross was worn and replicas were sold at market, Muslims and animists prevail in much of the area.  The South is totally different from the North,  distinctly different , a very African place.   

From Addis, we drove, the nine of us plus tour leader and drivers, in three well used Land Cruisers - as I’ve commented before, I’d love to have the Toyota agency for Africa and/or  the Middle East; I’d never want in this or any other life again!   We traveled near lakes, through National parks, into Mountains and valleys on roads ranging from passable to impossible.  And good or bad, everyone and everything used the roads.  Trucks to donkey carts; motorcycles to pedestrians, cows to goats.  

The landscape varied: there was  lush tropical greenery, dry dusty flat land, mountain and lake.  Per Lonely Planet, the southwest Omo region has been called “Africa's last great wilderness”.  We saw hippos and crocs, zebras and kudu, monkeys and baboons.  We went to tribal compounds of the Mursi, Hammer and Konsos.  We wandered in three various markets, including one where police and army patrolled because of ongoing tribal differences.  And when there are tribal differences, contemporary weapons have entered the cultures.  Guns were evident along with spears and  colorful tribal clothing - or lack of it.  

We were welcomed, either as a curiosity or a source of income - two birr per photo required by the tourist savvy.  Kids would immediately run to take your hand, sometimes to ask for a  pen and most often, just to grin happily at you.  I often felt overwhelmed by the tribal people and would back off while others in our group managed  more gracefully.  One Brit, a primary grade teacher, knew a few basic magic tricks which made him the pied piper of our bunch.

I talked with two teen-aged boys, who attended school in Jinka, the door to the Omo Valley.  They boarded there and were awaiting results of their preparatory school exam.  One hoped to be a teacher while the other, a doctor.  Both wanted to return to their tribe.    One boy  pointed out his younger sister to me but though he wanted to help her, admitted there would be little he could do  for when he returned from his schooling, she would be married and with a family.   Girls simply had little educational opportunities:

Early on, we stopped at the  Black Lion Museum, the Rastafarian community’s headquarters at Shashemene.  The current leader  (they rotate), a rather imposing Jamaican, gave us chapter and verse about the Rastas - he was a good looking mature man with patience for our questions and a nice sense of humor.  

We camped four of our fourteen  nights.  The first night was  near a river, quite basic isolated place though there was a pump for water and a rudimentary toilet of sorts.  The other three nights was at a somewhat more organized campground, with several oil can jerry rigged showers and  basic squat  toilets; there was also a water pump used by campers and locals as well. When we arrived there were nearly two dozen land cruisers about with the campground quite full.  After the first night, the population lessened considerably.
Covered space was also  available for cooking: we had picked up a cook  to accompany us throughout the camping experience and he was superb.  Missed him dearly when we returned to local restaurant  meals.  The Ethiopians may have politically  expelled the Italians,  but  the culinary  presence remains for all menus, everywhere,  offered pasta  as an option.
It was from the campgrounds, we could travel to some of the less accessible  sites. We  had some contact with about half a dozen different tribes., most  grazing cattle, goats and/sheep.  Body and hair decorations differed from tribe to tribe.  Some wore bits and pieces of Western clothing, some did not.   We lost what few  tourists that had been about;  Italian and French seem to predominate.

As we came  out of the tribal lands, we drove and walked  to the stelae, ancient rock carvings, at Tututi,  Not as spectacular as at Aksum, but still impressive.  There were two areas with columns of differing lengths lying about.  Likely, there were double that still buried.  On the last day on the road, time was spent at  Lake Awassa and the lakeside fish market enroute Addis Ababa.  

Hotels were, with one or two exceptions, rather basic.  In fact, one, St Mary’s at Konso, was god awful; I suspect it hadn’t been cleaned since the Italians had been expelled.  Below basic!  The resort hotel  at Wondo Genet, had allegedly been a stopping place for Haile Selassie in the old days - the grounds were extensive with blue balled monkeys running rampant.  I, and others in the group, did a several hour climb about the area.  Rooms and food were mediocre, however.  

The Addis Ababa accommodation was certainly an upgrade from last year’s accommodation.   The Ghion Hotel had been 5* in its day and was the premier local hotel.  The grounds were extensive and meticulously maintained.  Rooms showed evidence of years of use but were clean - and there was hot water!  I was there three nights: the first night and then two nights at the end of the tour.  I spent that time just wandering around, picking up some gifts for friends and clearing off hundreds of Emails once I found an Internet place.  

Interestingly, the flights and hotels were jam packed full with a combination of students, NGO workers, and adoptive and would-be adoptive parents.  It appears Ethiopia is a mecca for would be adoptive parents, both US and European.

The last night of the tour was at the Crown(?) Hotel’s restaurant which had both band and dancers.  They were quite good and did  various ethnic music and dances. while we had  the Ethiopian nation dish:  injra.  Simply put, this is a large pancake with food place atop it.; you tear off pieces to use in picking up the food.  No knives, no forks!   By the time the night ended, our leader, several of our drivers and others in our group got up to move to the music - including moi!  
There were nine in our group: seven Brits, an Irish woman who had been a month in Rwanda prior to this tour, and myself.   Only one came through the trip unscathed:  I badly sprained my wrist the second day, missing a foothold while climbing up  an embankment and the rest had intestinal problems of one kind or another.  Our tour leader was excellent; though from the North, he was familiar with animals, birds, fauna and tribes in the south.  

This was an Exodus tour booked through Adventure  Center in Emeryville (  Like most of the others I’ve taken, it is a  eco-conscious, budget priced, small group British tour.  Cost for the tour was $2420 (twin share - I paid an additional $30 to have a tent of my own!), which included all meals.  Airfare, via United to Dulles and Ethiopian to Addis, was $2388. Extra hotel cost was $34.  

Incidentally, I paid 8 birr for the taxi ride from the airport into Addis in a bad, sad cab reeking of gasoline fumes; booked through the hotel, I paid 6 birr for the return ride in a  Benz - not the newest but running perfectly.   Go figure!   

Comment:  Storks and Vultures are some ot the world's the ugliest creatures, more so than crocs!  

Still have the the Afar-Dankalia region and Harar to go!  May combine that with Djibouti and Eritrea, if the Eritrea-Ethiopia border ever opens.  

(NB:  roughly, a birr is a buck!)


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