Addis Ababa to Omo Valley

Hamer Tribe

Addis Ababa

After a very long drive day on the truck from Bahir Dar we finally arrived in Addis Ababa. We were staying at the Itegue Taitu Hotel which is the oldest hotel in Addis, built in 1898. The rooms looked like they might not have been renovated since then, but the main building with the restaurant was really nice and we had a very good dinner there – David having his usual and favorite plate lamb tebs before heading to bed.

We slept in a little and then met up with some of our group to walk to the Ethiopian National Museum. It took us about twenty minutes to get there, so we got to see a little bit of Addis, which seemed to be a little more modern than some other cities we had seen.

Addis Ababa Museum
The National Museum in Addis Ababa was impressive, especially the basement where you can see a replica of Lucy. Her actual remains are in the museum archives.

We were pleasantly surprised by the entrance fee for the National Museum, which was only about 50 cents in US dollars. First we headed to the basement, where they had a great exhibition about the development of the human race and evolution. The display and all the information were modern and very interesting. The exhibition gave us a quick run through the evolution of our race and we got to see a replica of the bones of Lucy, one of our first ancestors from 3.2 million years ago. There were a few other bones, skulls and bone fragments of other races which were before the homo sapiens.

Lucy
As you can see I’m a bit taller than our ancient ancestor Lucy was.

The rest of the museum unfortunately was way less interesting than this part, displaying some religious items and art and culture of Ethiopia as well as Hallie Selassie’s throne.

HaileSelassie
One of the many tributes to the old emperor Haile Selassie.

Before leaving the museum we managed to buy some postcards, the first ones we had seen so far. We wandered a bit through the gardens of the museum and then went to a cafe next to it, where we had some Ethiopian pastries that looked like donuts and croissants but tasted different, nevertheless very good. We were debating on visiting another museum but decided then to slowly walk back to the hotel and buy some stamps at the post office.

Tortiuse
The cafe we stopped at had tortoises!

The next morning we had an early start again, heading out toward our next destination: Konso and the Omo Valley, where we would visit some traditional Ethiopian tribes. The distance between Addis and the valleys is pretty big, so we would camp for a night on the way. We found a local winery on the way to the camp on the map so we decided to stop there for lunch. The place looked really amazing, but unfortunately this day they didn’t offer any wine tastings because it was one of their many fasting days. Those days seemed to be almost every day and besides not being able to taste some more Ethiopian wine, it would also keep us from finding any meat for dinner. We ate our lunch at the parking lot of the winery and some of the group bought some bottles to bring with them. We passed on the wine as we bought some local liquor in Addis, which we wanted to drink that night.

Our group leader told us we would be bush camping that night so we didn’t expect too much, but we had a local guide with us for the Omo Valley and he directed us to a small but beautiful camp site next to Lake Awasa. As we drove in we already saw the tons of vervet monkeys running around the campsite and hanging out in the trees. They weren’t shy at all and hung around the truck the whole evening and tried to sneak into our tents.

Vervet
A vervet was trying to find it’s way inside a tent.
Vervet
Then it found an open tent and helped itself inside.

We set up our tent right next to the lake shore and watched the sun setting over it. While waiting for dinner we started drinking the liquor we bought, which had a very strange green colour and didn’t taste very good, at least in my opinion, David and some of our friends seemed to really enjoy it. When we bought it, David asked for the cheapest and strongest liquor they had, so we kind of knew that it wouldn’t end very well. After dinner and many more cups of the green poison we were getting a little too tipsy, so we headed to bed, but not before stopping David from almost jumping into the lake after he thought that he had seen a crocodile. We learned the next day that there were indeed crocodiles in lake Awasa, but only on the other end of it.

Colobus
One of the group of colobus monkeys at our campsite hanging out in a tree.
Ethiopian Lake
The lake we camped next to as the sun set.

We woke up with big hangover and I was suffering the first hours on the road. It ended up being a very long drive day, as the road turned into a gravel road shortly after we got on it. We arrived at our hotel in Konso pretty late and very hungry, so we tried to find some food. As it was a fasting day in Ethiopia, our hotel didn’t serve any food besides enjera with some sauce. We decided to try to find a place outside the hotel, which turned out to be a difficult task, as there was yet another of the many power cuts we had experienced in Ethiopia and we forgot to bring our headlamps or phones. We ended up taking a tuktuk to another hotel, which unfortunately didn’t have food either. After asking in two other places and being turned down we headed back to the hotel, where some of our friends told us about a small restaurant they found just outside. We managed to find the place and finally had a quick but not very good dinner.

OMO VALLEY

We had a very early start in the morning driving out to Omo Valley, where we would visit some Ethiopian tribes. After two hours we stopped at a small restaurant to get some breakfast, and the only dish they had was tibs, enjera bread with small pieces of meat, so David was quite happy while I ended up eating just bread.

After driving another four hours we got to our campsite for the night where we had a quick lunch and then hurried out to drive the last 20km before getting to the Hamer tribe. We had to get there on time for a very special ceremony that would take place this day. A couple was to get married so they would perform some rituals that had to happen before they were allowed to be married. Our guide Dasta explained to us that the man would have to jump over some bulls, while the woman would get whipped to show her strength and courage. We were very intrigued and a little concerned as well. Before finally reaching the Hamer tribe, our truck got stuck in a patch of soft sand and we all had to help out with sand mats and pushing to get it out.

We parked the truck and were greeted by some people from the tribe and walked up to the village with them. The Hamer village was already crowded with tribal people sitting on the floor in the shade. Our local guide arranged for us to be able to take as many pictures and videos as we liked, he just advised us not to show them the pictures after because they believe it takes part of their soul. The tribes still live they way they always did, without running water or electricity or any other of our western conveniences and devices. Very few of them were wearing some sort of western clothes, like a t-shirt. Most of the tribal people still only had their traditional clothes, although some of them asked us to give them our shirts, watches, and water bottles. The tribal people are cattle herders and live semi nomadic. Some of the wealthiest of them own a couple of thousand cattle and they never sell any of it, except possibly in really bad emergencies.

Hamer Tribe
I spent some time playing with the kids, one grabbed the hat from one of our group members.

Our guide said that we were free to walk around the village and go down to the riverbed where some of the Hamer girls were being whipped. We went down there and witnessed what in our eyes was a very cruel tradition. A couple of girls were walking in circles, singing and blowing into a small horn and every once in a while they handed a thin stick to one of the guys, demanding to be whipped. They guys mostly seemed reluctant to do it, but went along with it anyway. In their tradition, it is honorable for the girls to have a lot of scars from the whipping, the more they have the more likely they are to find a good, wealthy husband and it is a sign of a strong mind. Guys who don’t want to whip or don’t whip hard enough are called weak and girls by the women. Every whip the girls received left a bleeding wound on their back, but they didn’t seem to notice the pain and some looked like they kind of enjoyed it, demanding more lashes.

Hamer Tribe
The scarred back of one of the women of the Hamer tribe years after her whipping.
Hamer Tribe
This woman was whipped in front of us. She chased the man asking for more after her back began to bleed.

We watched the girls for a while and a young man getting traditional face paint put on, and then headed back to the village, where more people from the tribe had arrived. Most of them were sitting in the shade and drinking a sort of coffee, which they also offered to us. David sat down in the middle of them and dared to try some of it.

Hamer Tribe
David drinking local coffee from a hollowed out gourd with the Hamer tribe.

After a while a group of girls and women started a sort of dance, where they would walk up and down singing and blowing into a little horn and then suddenly they stopped and started jumping up and down. Most of them were wearing bells on their legs so it was very exciting to watch. We just stood there and watched the tribal people for hours. They don’t speak English or know much about the world outside of their tribe, so when David showed them some pictures of our travels, they couldn’t believe what they were seeing.

The women jumping up and down during their dance.
The women jumping up and down during their dance.
Hamer Tribe
One of the Hamer children looking on, watching the women dance after being whipped.

Our tour leader wanted us to leave before it got dark, but the bull jumping ceremony still hadn’t happened so we decided to wait a little longer. Finally somebody came up to the village centre, bringing three bulls and we got excited that it would start soon, when suddenly the bulls panicked and ran way, leaving the men desperately chasing after them.It took another 20 minutes or so til they got the bulls back and also brought up some more. The women were forming a big circle around the group of bulls and started to sing and jump again. Some men tried to line up five bulls by grabbing them at their horns and tails and pushing them next to each other. Of course the bulls didn’t like that too much, so the men had quite a difficult time keeping them in place.

Finally the to be married man appeared out of the crowd. Men in the Hamer tribe must jump naked over the bulls in order to become a real man and to be allowed to marry a woman. The woman that is to be married will receive lashes and then has to spend 40 days hidden away in the upstairs of the house of the mother of her future husband, only leaving it at night, when nobody can see her.

Without further notice the man started jumping. He jumped up the back of the first bull in line and then sort of walked/jumped onto the next bulls. It didn’t look too elegant and the bulls were now really upset, trying even harder to get away. The man jumped the line of bulls another three times, when he was held back by another man and the bulls were released. Some men jump up to 20 times over the bulls, depending on their wealth. The ceremony is special and a man needs to announce that he wants to jump and therefore become a real man a year in advance. The ceremony was interesting to watch but we were more impressed by the young women, that had the strength to let themselves get whipped over and over again.

Hamer Tribe
One of the Hamer women getting whipped during the ceremony. She had to chase the man down and make him do it.

After the ceremony we rushed back to our truck and drove to our campsite. This time we didn’t get stuck in the sandy patch, so we reached our campsite about an hour and a half later where we had a quick dinner before heading to bed.

The next morning we got up a little later and drove to another village of the Hamer tribe. We were greeted by the tribe, which were mostly girls and women as the men have to go out and herd the cattle and goats. Some of the girls asked us to give them our shirts, which was one of the few English words they knew. Our guide asked us to come inside one of their houses, which are built out of wood and dirt and aren’t very big or high. We had to crawl in and could barely move around. We were told that all the woman and kids sleep inside the house while the men sleep outside, and that there is a constant fire burning to keep the termites away. It was a very interesting experience. We took some pictures and then hopped back on the truck to drive to a second, different tribe we planned to visit, the Dasenich tribe, who lives across the Omo river, close to the Kenyan border.

We drove about two hours until we reached the river and had to show our passports before we were allowed to cross. The river wasn’t big at all, but we still had to get to the other side, so we hopped in some small boats and reached the other shoreline after two minutes. We walked up to the village of the Dasenich tribe and our first impression was disappointment. Their houses are mostly build out of metal and wood and didn’t look very nice. There was plastic and trash everywhere and a lot of them wore western clothes. We paid a bit so we were allowed to take pictures and they would to a traditional dance for us. The women lined up and started to jump around a bit while some others clapped and sang, but they seemed very reluctant to do it and we felt quite uncomfortable. Compared to the Hamer tribe, where we were just observers of their traditions, here it seemed to us like we were in a tourist trap.

Dasenich Tribe
One of the children we met while visiting the Dasenich tribe.

The Dasenich tribe are also cattle herders and are more nomadic than the Hamer. They don’t have the traditions of the whipping or bull jumping but a different very cruel one. In order to become a man, the men there must go out and kill other man before cutting off their penis and conserving it in a pot of butter that they bury under their house. The more they have, the more likely they will find a good wife. Before getting married they have to show their future wife their “collection”. The Ethiopian government and some NGOs are trying to convince the tribes to give up their traditions, with some success.

Dasenich Tribe
A few of the women of the Dasenich tribe. They pierce their lips and put feathers in to prevent lockjaw.

We paid around $85 to enter the national park, visit the tribes and to be allowed to watch the bull-jumping ceremony, which really was an amazing experience that probably will cease to exist in the near future. The government is trying to integrate the tribal people and want to stop some of their traditions and some big companies are starting to buy land in the Omo Valley, forcing the tribes to move.

We spent another 15 minutes or so at the village before we headed back to the truck and started our drive back to Konso, where we would spent another night before heading toward the Kenyan border. The drive day ended up being very long and we reached Konso just before 10pm. We had an early start the next morning and spent the day driving toward the border. The roads were changing constantly, from dirt road to tarmac so by 6pm we still were another 80k away from the border. We decided to bush camp next to the road and try again the next day.

Termite Mound Ethiopia
Throughout the country we saw termite mounds that reached higher than some of the trees.

Surprisingly the road turned out to be good after another 10km the next day so we reached the border by 9am. We hoped to be able to enter Kenya quickly but then, still on the Ethiopian side, when half of our group was through the passport check there was another power outage. The generator in the customs building was out of fuel, and the local gas station required power to pump any fuel. We ended up waiting almost another hour before someone managed to get fuel for the generator so we finally could drive over the border to Kenya, where we would go on our first Safaris of the trip!

Highlights

  • Trekking in the Simien Mountains! The best way to explore the amazing Simien Mountains is a three or more night trek. Instead of renting or bringing a tent, you can sleep at the community lodges, with comfortable beds, a place to cook and they even sell cold beer. You’ll likely encounter the amazing gelada baboons throughout the mountains.
  • The Ethiopian food! The enjera bread, lamb tebs, firfir and shiro are a must try. Some local tej (honey wine) goes well with it.
  • The castles in Gondar are something very unusual to see in Africa, and how well some of them are preserved definitely make them worth a visit! Fasil Ghebbi is on par with almost any European castles we have seen.
  • The Omo Valley, where you can visit and experience how traditional Ethiopian tribes like the Hamer tribe live. The best time to visit would be when they are celebrating their bull-jumping ceremony.
  • Go to a local bar, like the Torpedo Bar in Lalibela, to see some Ethiopians dancing in their very unique style.

Advice

  • If you plan on trekking in the Simien Mountains, budget in for the mandatory guides and armed scouts that need to accompany you there ($25/day for a guide and $12/day for a scout).
  • Budget in more time if you’re traveling overland for some very bad roads and unexpected obstacles like turned over trucks.
  • Don’t be surprised by the local kids and sometimes adults constantly asking for money, water or anything else. Especially in Lalibela you’ll have boys coming up to you asking you for clothes or your email address to ask you for money later on, the best thing to do is ignore them.

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