13th May 2016
The sheer size of many African countries means that travellers will often get to see a variety of landscapes. Botswana offers desert, open Savannah, wetlands and riverine terrain, whilst Kenya allows visitors to relax on Palm fronded beaches, climb snow topped mountains and traverse the arid plains of the north. But in such destinations one always feels you are in the same country, the language, culture and general feel of the place doesn't change. Ethiopia on the other hand offers a staggering contrast between its principal tourist areas of the north and south.
The north offers a certain familiarity and the landscape that one would associate with the general portrayal of Ethiopia. Dry, dry plateaus, dusty roads with some extraordinary sights to see along the way. But moving down to the south really feels like you have stepped into another world. The journey south is via Addis Ababa, flying down to Abra Minch, a small town straddling lakes Abbay and Choma.
The difference is apparent the moment one steps off the plane onto the tarmac. The humidity is noticeable as is the deeper smell of rains in the soil and rather than blue skies, there is often a covering of cloud. The landscapes too take on a different view. Gone are the light brown, endless landscapes of the north, replaced with something altogether more tropical. A boat cruise along Lake Chamo was reminiscent of a trip to Rwanda's Virunga National Park, with gently sloping hills covered in dense, green forests, their peaks shrouded in a constant mist, so far removed from what you see in the north. The agriculture of the region reflects this change, with huge banana and sugar plantations replacing the grain growing fields of the north.
As one moves deeper into the Omo Valley, this is where one sees the starkest contrast between the north and south, the people. Gone are the mobile phones and satellite dishes seen in the north, replaced by genuine, often marginalised tribal people, attempting to sustain their way of life against the increasing pressures and temptations of modernisation. The people down in the south bear a strong resemblance to the Masai and Samburu of Kenya, both physically and in the way they decorate themselves with brightly coloured beadwork.
Visits to their village are a chance to see how they live, far removed from the lifestyles those who live in the nearby towns experience. With cattle regarded as a great store of wealth, they protect and nurture their herds, often moving entire villages to ensure good grazing and have the young men sleeping amongst the herds at night to protect them from hyena. My guide recounted a lovely tale of a Hamer chief who, on visiting Austria for a TV documentary, returned after just a few days, proclaiming his hosts to be very poor as they owned no cattle. It is refreshing and hugely interesting to interact with such people and experience, if just for a fleeting moment, a way of life that has existed unchanged for hundreds of years. Those lucky enough to visit during a coming of age ceremony will be able to see the tradition of "bull leaping" where young men prove their strength by jumping over their cattle.
Naturally one of the principal attractions of a visit to the Omo Valley is the take photos of the iconic, painted tribespeople that are such a feature of the region. Whilst we don’t deter this at all, we would suggest discussing a plan of how to approach this with your guide before visiting each village. That way they can ensure that an appropriate sum of money (usually 5 Birr for each person photographed) is paid in advance leaving you free to take photos at your leisure rather than being surrounded by people demanding you take their photos. The guides manage this very well and this should help to enhance both your experience of visiting the villages but also the quality of the photos that you take as well.
A visit to the Omo Valley is not without its challenges, the roads can be poor and days involve lots of driving, but the chance to visit and interact with these small, nomadic communities is a genuine privilege and one that is hard to find in many other parts of the world. The pressures of modernisation are clear to see, so we would suggest visiting soon, before these villages are no more and the people move to the towns and lose their unique culture altogether.