We had pretty high expectations going into Ethiopia, as various friends had been there and raved about it, but throughout all of our trip we really weren’t disappointed. As we headed south from Addis, every drive continued to be absolutely stunning – which was fortunate as we had quite a long distance to cover to get down to the Kenyan border.
Our first leg was following the Rift Valley down to Arba Minch. The roads were the usual challenge of livestock and child dodging, but the landscape really changed from highlands, to savannah, up into rainforested hills and then down into the classic red soil African valleys.
|Rift Valley south of Addis|
|Forest and red soil|
Arba Minch itself is in a pretty amazing location. We stayed at a campsite overlooking ‘The Bridge of God’, a thin strip of land between two Rift Valley lakes. Not sure if it’s obvious from the photo, but the two lakes are totally different colours as the northern one has a reddish tinge from the mineral rich mountains that feed it.
|It really is pretty red in real life|
We shared our campsite with a lot of Ethiopian Christmas revellers and three fairly friendly warthogs.
|Definitely not nervous|
Heading up into the mountains we visited the villages of the Dorze, highlanders famous for weaving. We had a really fun day seeing how they build their huts (very tall but shrinking over the years as the termites gradually eat them) and learning how to make the local bread (fake banana plant buried in the ground and left to ferment for several weeks – fairly ‘interesting’ taste).
|Bread fermented underground - nicer than it sounds|
The last area of Ethiopia we visited was the Omo Valley, which is famous for its distinctive tribes, partly due to Don McCullin’s photos of them.
The remoteness of the area has preserved a lot of local traditions and distinctive dress - although the all pervasive football shirt was definitely being incorporated into a lot of the traditional outfits! Some customs sounded pretty entertaining (running along the backs of bulls before you’re allowed to get married), some less so (whipping your female relatives), but we put on our cultural relativity hats and headed off.
We’d heard the experience of travelling the area could be a bit weird and ‘human zoo’ because of all the tourism, and while that was definitely the case in some places it really wasn’t in others.
We drove into the valley past the usual stunning landscapes and stopped in a town called Key Afer as it was market day the next day. Having spent most of the evening playing with the kids from our campsite, we ended up with several tiny (and very serious) tour guides for our visit.
First stop was the livestock market. It’s just getting warmed up, in these photos but the guys rocking mini skirts, headbands and utility vests are from the Banna tribe, who we think are probably the coolest.
The main market was for fruit and veg (although the electronics stall was attracting the most attention). In the market and on all the road approaching it were masses of people from different tribes – more Banna, Ari in grass skirts, Hamer ladies with ochre coloured hair and calabashes on their heads – it really was like walking into a different world.
Next day however, we came up against some of the grimmer impacts of tourism in the valley. We had driven into the Mago National Park and camped for the night right in the forest. The local elephants stayed away, but we had visits from Colobus monkeys and a troop of baboons.
|Road to the park|
We decided to visit some of the villages of the Mursi in the park – famous for the lip plates that a lot of the women wear. It was a pretty depressing experience though, as the guides from the nearest big town (Jinja) just seem to bus tourists out and stick them in front of the locals to take photos, with zero effort to translate or create any exchange between the visitors and the villagers. Everyone just stands there demanding money and a lot of the guys seemed to be high/drunk. Probably a great case study of how it can all go wrong, but left us feeling pretty sad.
|Cool photo but generally feeling a lot of tourist guilt!|
We definitely preferred just driving across the region and meeting everybody in the towns or on the roads – that really was unforgettable and it was amazing to see so many places that were
just totally alien to anything we were used to.
|Ari (I think) women on the way to market|
|Mago National Park in the rain|