Monday, 28 December 2009

Christmas 2009 in the South Omo Valley - Ethiopia

December 21st saw Siobhan and I embark on a nine days custom made trip to the south of Ethiopia on a 2000km journey with Abel of Ethio Treasure and our driver Ashu. I will try to ‘tell the story’ of our Ethiopian Christmas adventure. I travel with a mobile internet connection...a dongol... in the hope that when we have mobile phone coverage we can use the dongol to stay connected to the outside world. In hindsight this was rather optimistic!

Leaving Addis we travelled by asphalt road (read luxury compared to what was to come!) to the town of Melka Awash to visit Melka Kunture, an archaeological site which is situated on the banks of the Awash River. Thousands of stone age tools, together with many fossils of extinct animals and early man are here in an open air museum with a guide who was simply impossible to understand. Two brothers from Switzerland were also here on their bikes on their way to Addis to end a trip that they has been doing for months across Europe and Africa. Intrepid travellers for sure!

We journeyed on to the Tiya Stelae fields a Unesco world heritage site...UNeSCO has designated 8 places in Ethiopia with this status...40 stelae are found here with swords carvings...two Irish babes checking out the stelae. Then stopping at a local market where the locals were friendly and shy...the market happens twice a week and it is a time to get together and hear what is happening in the community as much as buy and sell goods.

We continued on to Lake Ziway where we stopped for lunch at Tourist Hotel bump into Rob Hughes and his family - another teacher from school. We continued south to Sheshamanie a Rastafarian settlement where we sampled the Sheshamie ice cream which is not as good as holy water and then to Lake Awassa where we spent the night at the newly built Oasis International Hotel – a great place and a steal at 350 birr per night. Pineapple cocktails on the roof terrace followed by dinner at Dolce Vita ...which would be in the running for the best Italian in Ethiopia and infact anywhere!
A diverse and great first day!

Day 2 started with a trip to the fish market at Awassa which has moved location since I was there last in September...still a hive of activity with the humongous Maribo storks as tall as a child. We took a short boat ride on the lake and had a fabulous breakfast of fresh fried Talapia with salt and lime...awesome...
Then a long day to the village of Chencha driving on unpaved roads for a long time skirting lake Abaya 1160 km squared - the biggest lake in the Rift Valley. We stopped at a village to meet the locals – a great experience. Stopping at the Bekele for lunch. Our day long drive took us to the Guge Mountains above Arba Minch to stay the night with the Dorze people in a traditional hut...that looks like an elephant and is woven from Bamboo. An evening of cultural singing and dancing – beautiful dancing around a campfire that is more about the hips than the shoulders. We were the only people staying here and wrapped in a Gabi – a blanket woven from the softest cotton – we enjoyed the evenings craic before heading off to bed. At 100 birr for the room it is excellent. So far the weather has been kind to us – not too hot. No phone and no internet!

Day 3 saw an early morning wake up for a hike to a beautiful waterfall....except for the kids who decided to use us for target practice by hurling rocks at us! Our guides protected the two Irish damsels in distress gallantly. I guess there won’t be anything in Santa’s sack for them! Back to the village to see how they use Enset...false banana for cooking and breakfast before we go down into the valley to Arba Minch and our first time this trip of high lunch at Paradise Lodge was a heavenly experience and the decision to stay here a great one!
For the afternoon a trip on Lake Chamo to see massive crocodiles, hippos and lots of birdlife...a perfect activity in the hot afternoon. The evening was just right relaxing on the deck of Paradise lodge sipping mango cocktails below then star filled African sky...watching the shooting stars. This lodge is the best I have stayed in so far in all of Ethiopia – highly recommended! Phone and internet – this was to be the last connection for days but we did not know at the time!

Day 4 A great breakfast at paradise and a hunt for 1 birr notes as we would need them for photo opps as we headed further south to venture among more tribes....the first was the Konso who are amazing agriculturalists...terraced farming on hill sides bounded by stones – this tribe is famous for their use of stone in everyday life. They were growing a huge variety of crops and the alleyways created by their stone terracing created a vast maze...they had a central area in the compound with a generation pole that was somewhat like a totem pole...each 18 years a new section is added so that you can tell how old each community is.

We travelled through very rough territory in immense heat and got a puncture on the way – this created time for Siobhan and I to wander on the road a bit to met a few locals who stared at us and in time the children petted our skin. A brief lunch stop complete with fruit and shiro and we ventured on into Hammer territory and our camp site – the bit I was not looking forward was lovely. On the edge of a dry river bed. Abel pitched our tent in no time beneath the mango trees just like the Jack Johnson song! It was peaceful and spotless and Abel encouraged us to walk along the dry river to a point where it met the road – the perfect vantage point from which to Hammer women returning from the town. We gained their trust by smiling and Abel negotiated with them to have some photos taken. Their daily clothes and hair styles are unique – twists with red clay dye and are works of art. They wear goat skin decorated with beads and silver beads at the bottom of the skirts to make then hang down. Beads and metal coils around their legs and arms and large heavy necklaces – signifying which wife they are – a protruding bit form the necklace means first wife.

We went to the local eatery – aptly names the tourist hotel and had some chips followed by some axumite red wine around the campfire while we waited for Santa to arrive.

Day 5 – waking up in the campsite surprisingly rested – the imagined hazard of bugs did not materialise – the largest hazard was the mangos falling from the trees - we were the only campers there that night so it was great. Back to have some more chips for breakfast – have I mentioned they were the best chips I have ever had! We went 70km south to just 20km from the Kenyan border on a cloudy Christmas day – the best gift Santa could bring here was the clouds so it must mean Siobhan and I have been good this year. We went to the town of Omorate on the banks of the Omo River and climbed into a huge dug out canoe, crossed the river to meet the Dasenech tribe who are nomadic and again different in their style of dress and utilising many things we would discard – bottle caps, watch straps etc.

Back to Turmi for some bull jumping and a great ceremony – from the whipping of the women to the painting of faces to chanting and dancing and the bull jumping itself – here a picture paints the scene...time then to shower off...dirt and grime engrained washed away and feeling refreshed for what was to become the camp site cinema as we downloaded pictures and video to the laptop only for the locals to be mesmerised and laugh and point at the screen. A great Christmas day 2009, where will we be next year?

Time and time again on this trip I can’t get over how different the south of Ethiopia is to the North – they are like two different countries and a big plus is to get here before the masses – the infrastructure is keeping them at bay – the lack of paved roads makes travelling tiring even in a 4WD with only two of us, but also very rewarding. Also the industrious farming that is not what we imagine of life in Ethiopia...sunflowers elegantly reaching towards the sky is not the image we conjure up in our minds when we think of Ethiopia, yet time and time again they smile at us as we travel through the countryside. Let’s hope we don’t spoil it. Here’s what the Bradt guide says and it emphasises just how lucky we are to be here...

Nothing in all of Africa prepares you for South is believed that as recently as 50 years ago the people here did not even realise the rest of Ethiopia existed. South Omo is literally fantastic. Descending form the green highlands to the low-lying plains feels not just like a journey through space but also through time. South Omo is as close as you can come to an Africa untouched by outside influences. This is Africa as it once was, or as some might imagine it to be, and its existence is at once wonderful and scarcely credible.

Day 6 saw us drive to Jinka on ‘roads’ that felt like a teenage boys dream of stock car racing – a combination of quarry driving and sand driving. Arriving in Jinka for the Saturday market - large and colourful with many items to buy and sell from ropes to spices . Standing on a cows leg without the leg attached to the not the highlight was definitely memorable the kids and people are friendly. Definitely feeling mobile phone coverage withdrawal at this point...we are such addicts!

Day 7 saw a rainy start to the day – I swear that Siobhan brought it with her! that necessitated a change of plan...instead of going to see the Mursi as planned, the somewhat famous tribe with the lip plates worn by women and stick fighting by men - we headed a day early to Yabelo because the roads were impassable due to the heavy night of rain. We stopped in Konso at Strawberry Fields Eco lodge for lunch... a interesting venture started by a man Alex from Northern Ireland. The lack of phone coverage now getting to us as we happily sat in the back of the car with our mobiles glued to our ears talking to each other – I think at this point Abel and Ashu thought we had lost the plot!

Evening brought us to Yabelo and the hope of mobile and internet...we were rewarded with mobile only! Rooms not to be recommended at the Yabello motel but we will survive for one night.

Food ...we now dream of Addis and a choice of food perhaps prompted by the lack of choice – here there are not even any chips! So I dream now of Turmi and the Christmas day single choice of menu – chips! Overall the food has been fine – and we stuck to simple things and had no health issues - we brought a food bag with some provisions a wise move! But thoughts of Addis and the great restaurants are now in both our minds.

Day 8 – we had the worst night’s sleep of the entire trip last night – we had to share a bed in a hot horrible room – so with iPOD in, the only thing we could be thankful for was the mattress did not sag in the middle – this thought at 3am wide awake and then the decision to leave the door of the room wide open brought some relief and eventually some sleep which then was shattered by a nightmare that Nuala had been abducted.

Fingers crossed for a room at Argash Lodge in Yirga Alem a place I stayed at Ethiopian New Year in September or even Oasis in Awassa as we start the journey north to Addis – man!!! will my bed feel great – and a soak in the tub and I am not sure how many days at Boston Spa I will need to feel human again : -)

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