Into the unknown – the Omo Valley
After a long day on the road battling cattle and human traffic we navigated our way through the bustling city of Addis Ababa to Wim’s campsite. The bar was already occupied with our new found friends Andrew and Tina with their Sand Loving Land Rover, and Sam, our entertaining British travelling companion who was coming through the Omo Valley with us for the next couple of weeks.
The Omo Valley route into Kenya had been on our minds for most of the trip as it posed the most adventurous route of our travels to date. We had read loads of encounters from past travellers and had our reservations about doing the route in a single vehicle as the area was so remote. Fortunately Andrew and Tina had recently travelled the same route north and were brimming with a contagious enthusiasm which helped us to overlook any concerns we had regarding heading off on our own.
We met Sam back in Dahab and had pre-arranged to meet up for this particular section of our trip as he was trying to get to the Omo valley, an area difficult to travel via public transport. So after a couple of days at Wim’s doing some routine maintenance on Rodders over the very handy servicing pit they have on site and drinking a few too many draft St George beers, we packed up and set off on route to Dorze near Lake Abaya with our second hitch hiker on board and a jam packed Rodders.
The route south was similar to most of the other tarmac roads we had encountered in Ethiopia – very good quality but unfortunately mistaken by locals as a footpath or stock route so progress was never fast. Sam was dead set on trying some qat to pass the drive time. Neither of us had tried it but after past experiences chewing on Coca leaves I wasn’t overly excited by the prospect, the concept of chewing leaves and balling them up in your cheek doesn’t seem to work with me as I end up swallowing everything and having a sore stomach. After several hours of munching away like a pair of mountain gorillas Ness and Sam both finished their branches, and although the high experienced wasn’t worth the effort expended (it’s supposedly similar to drinking a strong cup of coffee), it did provide some entertainment for the drive and landed them both with very green tongues.
We didn’t quite make it to the Dorze village that evening but found a nice spot just off the road near Lake Abaya to camp without too much hassle. The next morning we continued to Dorze and made our way up to the community based Dorze lodge which is a must stop location for anyone passing through the area. We were met by a very friendly chap, Getu who took us for a guided tour of the village showing us how the local community use the false banana trees to provide food and rope fibres for day to day life. We were taken around a number of family bamboo frond huts and shown how they are relocated every ten years to minimize termite damage, with the huts getting progressively shorter and shorter over the decades. The highlight of the tour was being shown step-by-step how they process the false banana leaf. First they cut the leaves from the palm and scrape off the thickest part of the leaf into a pulp, which they wrap in fresh leaves and bury in the ground for some months. They dug up some of the fermented product which looked and smelt a lot like cheese. A series of products were collected and combined to form our ‘pizza’ which was fried between two fresh palm leaves on a hotplate on the fire. We ate it piping hot, dipping it in a spicy paste before eating.
We were fortunate to time our visit to Dorze with market day so spent the afternoon with Getu sampling the regional delicacies and haggling for a few locally grown products. The local tobacco is a fermented product which doesn’t smell too different from horse shit and is smoked through a clay pot with a long bamboo pipe. The tobacco doesn’t taste as bad as it smells but there were several times over the following days after parking Rodders in the hot sun for a few hours that we questioned Sam’s decision to purchase this particular product. We stopped off at the Tej bar on the edge of the market to try the local brew, a bright yellow honey wine which was sold in small pyrex flasks, not far different from something found in a standard chemistry set. It was easy to spot the Tej vendors as their hands were stained yellow. We also tried a few shots of the white liquor being sold out of plastic jerrycans, which nearly burnt our throats it was so strong. The market was really colourful and it was great going around with Getu buying local produce and talking to the vendors. Our experience in Dorze was one of our highlights in Ethiopia and definitely worth the short detour from Arba Minch.
From Dorze we continued south to Konso where we spent the night in the permaculture camp named Strawberry Fields. We had been plagued by some serious rainfall on our travels since Addis but nothing compared to the downpour and thunder that clapped around our tent that night. One of main concerns we had about crossing into Kenya via the Omo Valley was rainfall as we had been pre-warned about the number of muddy river beds on the route. Needless to say that day after day of rain wasn’t doing much to boost our confidence about the route ahead. It was hard to determine if it was the deafening thunder or concern about the route that prevented us from getting much sleep. Poor Sam ended up testing the floating capacity of my thermarest as he was flooded out for the first time of the trip. The evenings experience hadn’t done much to form Sam’s appreciation for the concept of permaculture and from then on if anything untoward happened to us, Sam would simply say – “It’s permaculture, man!” In the morning we had a look around the permaculture gardens which were lush and green and filled with fruit trees, vegetables and herbs, and self-composting toilets. It was fantastic to see! Unfortunately the staff tried to rip us off on the price of camping which we weren’t too impressed about, and the paths were surfaced in a thick sticky mud that covered everything and caked up on our shoes until we were several inches taller. The combination of rain and mud, and being ripped off had worn us down, and the mood in Rodders as we left Strawberry Fields wasn’t filled with jubilation. In saying that, the flat mood was probably more related to the fact that in true permaculture spirit we had decided to leave Michael, our pet preying mantis, at Strawberry Fields to take on an important new job of pest control. Michael had travelled with us in Rodders for several days, living in the corner of the windscreen and providing Ness with hours of entertainment catching flies as we drove along. With tears in our eyes we bid Michael farewell and wished him all the best in his new permaculture home.
After a bit of haggling with the local servo to agree a fair price we filled everything we had to the brim with diesel on the premise that it was our last supply before Kenya. We don’t have the additional sub tank common on vehicles doing this trip so are limited to the standard 90 litre tank and four 20L jerry cans on the roof. I was fairly relieved to discover two fuel stations in Jinka as to date we hadn’t really tested the fuel economy of Rodders on rough off-road trails and were a bit nervous about making it through.
The following day we had arranged to take a guide from the Jinka resort where we were camped (or flooded for the second time in Sam’s case) to enter the national park and visit a local Mursi tribe village. We were a bit nervous about the experience as the Mursi have a reputation of being fairly aggressive. Access into the park was also ‘weather dependant’ according to our guide as there was a potential risk of getting bogged on the route in. Even with the high rainfall we had been experiencing, neither concern proved to be an issue. The road had recently been graded and the steep winding road with a top layer of mud provided the perfect set of conditions to test Rodders out in rally mode (a setting he has a habit of choosing himself when conditions permit). The Mursi are famous for the clay lip plates worn by the women of the tribe, some of which can measure a staggering 20cm across. Scarification is also a big part of their culture and between the twenty or so members of the group we visited there was an impressive display of patterns and markings on both the male and female members present. I did come away from our time with the Mursi group feeling like I’d been at a human zoo for the morning but we hadn’t had to deal with any aggressive or threatening behaviour which we had read reports of so can’t really complain. The group we visited seemed fairly in tune with the idea of milking tourists for money to take photographs of them which added to the ‘zoo’ feel of the visit but in total the visit only cost us about £20. I couldn’t help but wonder how the concept of a lip plate had ever been born after witnessing the reality of having to live with a big floppy lower lip which is separated from the women’s face by a gaping void. Still it was interesting to see.
The following day we departed Jinka on route to Turmi. We had expected to hit some fairly rough roads by this stage but were yet again surprised to discover some serious road construction and patches of extremely good tar seal on route. In some ways we were a bit sad to see the improved road network reaching areas like the Omo Valley as the influx of tourists to the area willsurely have a big impact on how the local tribes people live their lives. We saw lots of friendly Hamer and Banna people on the way. They really do look impressive with their cowshide wraps, shimmering red ochre dreadlocks and impressive jewellery. At Turmi we camped at the Mango campsite just out of town. The campsite is beneath the shelter of a large grove of Mango trees and on the banks of a sandy riverbed. It provided a great spot to chill out in the shade for the afternoon but we certainly didn’t see the funny side of the monkeys game of ensuring our tent was completely covered in urine and mango poo by morning!
We had deliberately timed our arrival in Turmi for the following days market and it certainly didn’t fail to impress. The people-watching is fantastic as local tribes people from the Hamar & Banna, all spectacularly dressed in traditional get-up, gather to trade goods and have a general catch up. We chose a quiet, shaded corner of the market to sit and watch everyone come and go. The most striking image that stuck in my mind from the array of colourful and detailed aspects of their culture was the scarring on the women’s backs. Local tradition dictates that when boys wish to marry they must take part in a bull jumping ceremony where they are required to run naked across the backs of bulls. Prior to the ceremony the young men whip their sisters’ and cousins’ backs with sticks, creating thick scars all over their backs. Looking closely at the large number of slug like welts grouped on the women’s backs, you couldn’t help but compare them to that of a torture victim but supposedly they were considered to show bravery and status, and were attractive to men of the tribe. I can’t really do the experience justice with words but we have uploaded a few photos from the morning which show in more detail the efforts everyone goes to to look their best.
That afternoon we continued on our way towards Omorate, finally reaching the limit of the developed road infrastructure and letting Rodders loose on some great sandy offroad single tracks through a pretty remote part of the country. We took a detour towards the Kolcho village where the Karo tribe live. The Karo people are famous for using recycled materials as part of their jewellery, but upon arriving we were slightly disappointed to discover that this wasn’t the case with this particular rather drab (at least in comparison to the mornings tribal wear) group of individuals. We arrived to Kolcho just on dusk and were treated to a great view over a bend in the Omo River, some distance below us with the sun setting over the horizon and small children leaping off the banks onto the sandy slopes below.
As we had continually discovered in Ethiopia, tourism still seems to be a foreign concept to a lot of locals and Kolcho was no exception. After deciding to take the risk of a night of performing for the throngs of villagers who had gathered around us we agreed a price for the three of us to camp there for the night. We were just about to set up camp when our friendly village rep added that there would be an additional ‘village vehicle entrance’ fee of 400 Birr for passing through the village. In the grand scheme of things this isn’t much money but we had very limited local currency left as we only had one day remaining in the country and figured that given that he was one of the few to speak English that he would be pocketing the money anyway. So after attempting to bargain with this chap for a while and making no progress we said our goodbyes and went on our way, all the while wondering how such a remote village with so few resources could let such easy money escape them.
The road came to an abrupt end less than a kilometre down the road which we figured had been the reasoning behind our village rep’s stubbornness, assuming that we would soon return to camp. Although the concept of being completely surrounded by eyes watching your every move may appeal to some, we decided that this spot away from the villagers on the banks of the Omo River was far more appealing. We don’t think this decision went down well back at Kolcho as mid way through our dinner a volley of gunfire erupted above us at the village. For the rest of the evening we watched as the occasional spurt of automatic gunfire tracers flew in a high arc out towards the river (over our heads…). This continued throughout the night and was accompanied by the loud splashing of crocodiles in the river below to lull us to sleep. I have to admit that this was the first time during the trip that I’d decided to take the emergency locator beacon that mum and dad had got us up into the tent in case things went pear shaped during the night.
After what turned out to be our first dry night (no rain or monkey piss) we gingerly made our way back towards the village (the only way out) and raced through without incident, Ness and Sam waving furiously to appease the locals. We continued along some great seldom used sandy tracks between very impressive termite skyscrapers reaching heights of more than three metres high (the likes of which we haven’t seen since) until we reached the main road to Omorate where we had to stop to get our passports stamped for exiting the country. This was a fairly painless event and before we knew it we were back in bush bashing mode on route to Kenya which was very exciting.
The bushtrack from Omorate to Kenya is where we first started to encounter the infamous riverbeds, well known on the route. Luckily for us, none of the rainfall we had been experiencing in the north had made it into the catchment area for these rivers and they were mostly dry. The worst of the crossings was easily 150m across and although still a bit boggy in places we were glad not to need to tackle it on our own in flowing water as help was nowhere to be seen.
The rest of the journey into Kenya was fairly uneventful; we had some exciting drives through a couple of unexpected villages where the children took it upon themselves to chase us on mass (nothing unusual there) and towed a stranded motorcyclist and his buddy 5km to a police post. All I can say there is that I wouldn’t want to be towed on a motorcycle in sand, it didn’t look easy and the poor chap took a few spills…
We only had the GPS to alert us when we were actually crossing the border as there is nothing at the crossing point. We stopped and took a few celebratory photos. It was hard to believe we had made it into Kenya, almost exactly 20 years since I had last been there. We were all pretty stoked and before long had found a great spot right on the border near Lake Turkana to camp for an evening of high winds, lake flies on mass and elevated temperatures. What had we got ourselves in to!
Check out the rest of our photos on our photos page for the Omo Valley.
Sam has written up a brilliant account of the tribes we visited on his website www.africaman.net – scroll down to the TRIBES – Ethiopia and Kenya section. We have included a few of his photos on our photos page as well – thanks Sam!!
Tips and tricks
We’ve put some route notes together for the Omo Valley – Lake Turkana route.