The Southern Circuit
SOUTH OMO VALLEY
Kibran – Southern Circuit Attractions
Introduction to the South Omo Valley
Located in Southwest Ethiopia, the Lower Omo Valley is regarded as Africa’s ‘last great wilderness’ and one of one of the continent’s final frontiers.
The Omo Valley is most famous for its fascinating cultural landscape. More than a dozen tribes live here, their ancient lifestyles largely untouched by the influences of the modern world. Each of the Omo Valley tribes has its own unique cultural dress, traditions and rituals, passed down from generation to generation. Some of the best-known tribes are the Mursi, Hamer, Karo, Konso and Dassenech.
The Omo Valley is rich in historical value. Recognized for its paleontological discoveries, the Lower Omo Valley was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1980.
Southern Ethiopia differs vastly from Northern Ethiopia – in topography, climate and character. The remote, lowland landscapes are more reminiscent of sub-Saharan Africa, and characterized by vast savannas and acacia woodlands. An expansive fertile green belt, carved by the Omo River, extends nearly 1,000 kilometers to Lake Turkana, on the Kenyan border. The Omo River is the largest Ethiopian river outside the Nile Basin.
The East African Rift Valley runs through low-lying southern Ethiopia, creating a concentration of magnificent rift valley lakes that teem with aquatic birds and other wildlife. Volcanic outcrops and interesting rock formations add to the beauty of the scenery.
Ethiopia’s greatest concentration of wildlife can be found in these parts. Although the wildlife population is not comparable to countries like neighboring Kenya, southern Ethiopia’s drawcard is its biodiversity and impressive list of endemic species. A number of beautiful national parks are located in southern Ethiopia, each with its own unique attractions.
Good to Know
Recommended length of stay: 3 - 6 nights
Elevation: 1,599 meters (5,246 feet) above sea level
The Omo Valley is a photographer’s paradise. See our “Travel Tips” page for photo etiquette.
UNESCO World Heritage Site
Where to Stay when in the Omo Valley, Ethiopia
Accessible only by boat, Lale’s Camp is both remote and purely exclusive. This stylish tented camp sprawls beneath the shade of beautiful ficus trees, on the eastern bank of the Omo River; and offers the ideal base when exploring the Omo Valley. The scenery is wild and beautiful, with a riverine forest hugging the river and providing a habitat for a host of plants, animals, and birds. The spacious tented bedrooms all have verandas and are tastefully furnished. Each tent has a private shower tent, which is equipped with a bucket shower, basin, and flush toilet. Breakfast and dinner can be enjoyed in the lovely mess tent. Packed lunches are prepared as you head out to visit the fascinating tribes of the Omo Valley.
Good to Know
- Archeologists found a jawbone of an Australopithecus man, estimated at some 2.5 million years old in the area.
- The Omo Valley is best visited between June and March with January and February being particularly hot and humid.
- The Omo Delta, only accessible by boat, is an extremely remote area of islands.
Top tourist sites to visit when in the Omo Valley
OMO VALLEY TRIBES
What makes this remote cultural landscape so unique, is the large diversity of tribes, living within a relatively small area. The Omo Valley tribes have kept their ancient traditions alive, with very little influence from the modern world.
In stark contrast to their harsh way of life, great care is given to appearance. Body adornments, unique to each tribe, include cultural clothing, body paint, handmade jewelry, feathers and flowers. Body scarification is also practiced and, in some instances, can be quite extreme. Mursi women are easily recognized by the large ceramic disks they wear in their lower lip.
Most of the Omo Valley tribes are pastoralists, although they do rely on agriculture to a lesser extent. Daily routines revolve largely around tending to their livestock. Cattle, goats and sheep are bred to produce milk, blood, meat and hides. Cattle represent wealth and are used as currency when negotiation a “bride price” or dowry.
The annual flooding of the Omo River makes flood retreat cultivation possible, providing reasonably dependable harvests even when rainfall is scarce in this semi-arid landscape. The Dassenech, Kara (or Karo), Mursi and several other tribes live along the Omo River, depending on it for their livelihood. Some tribes are still nomadic, whereas others live in fixed locations.
More than a dozen tribes live in this area, each with their own unique customs and traditions. The Mursi, Hamer and Karo tribes are among these.
The Mursi move seasonally between the Tama plains and the Mago National Park, where they settle in simple grass-covered huts, in the Mursi Hills above the eastern banks of the Omo River. Being pastoralists, they place great value on their livestock.
Mursi are famous for their ferocious stick-fighting tradition as well as their elaborate body decorations. The Mursi women practise unique rituals of body beautification. They insert terracotta disks into an incision in their lower lips. These lip plates can be as large as 15cm in diameter.
In addition to rearing cattle and goats, the Hamer grow crops including vegetables, sorghum, cotton and tobacco. Wild honey is one of their staple foods.
The Hamer are easily identifiable by their body adornments and unique hairstyles, which all bear symbolic significance. Creating a paste from fat, ochre and water, the married women form russet braids that are called gosha. When men kill an enemy or dangerous animal they wear a clay bun for a year.
The bull-jumping ceremony is unique to the Hamer tribe. Customarily held between August and November, or January and April, this coming-of-age ceremony involves jumping across a the backs of a row of bulls. Once ten to thirty bulls have been lined up, the young initiate is required to jump across this bovine bridge four times. Once a boy has completed this ritual he is regarded as a man and may take a wife.
The Karo, who live along the Omo River’s eastern bank, are considered the most endangered of the Omo Valley tribes. Originally pastoralists, they converted to agriculture when their livestock were destroyed by disease. Being related, their appearance and language resemble those of the Hamer.
The Karo are considered to be masters of body adornment. In preparation for cultural celebrations and dances, they paint their bodies using white chalk and charcoal, to imitate the plumage of the guinea fowl.
RIFT VALLEY LAKES
A chain of magnificent rift valley lakes extends through Ethiopia, with many of these concentrated in the low-lying southern part of the country. Formed by the East African Rift Valley, which bisects Ethiopia from the Afar region up north all the way down into Kenya, these lakes are mostly alkaline and teem with aquatic birds and other wildlife. Lake Chamo, Lake Abaya, Lake Awassa and Lake Ziway are a few of the major lakes.
The Mago National Park, Omo National Park and Nechisar National Park are some of the better-known parks. Each park has its own list of attractions and unique characteristics.
Nechisar National Park, near Arba Minch, is located in the East African Rift Valley. The park is known for its lakes – Lake Abaya and Lake Chamo. With over 340 recorded bird species, and 84 animal species, the park is a flourishing wildlife sanctuary. Animals include hippo, Greater kudu, Swayne’s hartebeest, Burchell’s zebra, Guenther’s dik-dik and African hunting dog. The Nechisar nightjar is an endemic that can only be found in the park.
Named after its two rift valley lakes – Abijatta and Shalla, the Abijatta-Shalla National Park near Lake Langano, is a bird-lovers paradise. More than 300 recorded species occur here, in a range of habitats.
The Yabelo Wildlife Sanctuary and Senkele Wildlife Sanctuary also provide excellent birding, with an impressive checklist of rare and endemic species.
HIGHLIGHTS (BY DESTINATION)
Due to the remoteness of the area it takes time to travel between villages, and visitors are invited to embrace the slower pace. Arba Minch, Jinka and Turmi are three of the towns and villages that are worth a visit.
DESTINATION: ARBA MINCH
Meaning „forty springs“ in Amharic, Arba Minch is a lush nature-lover’s paradise! Besides the abundance of natural springs that occur here, the town is flanked by two vast rift valley lakes – Lake Chamo and Lake Abayo. It is further surrounded by lush forests and fertile farmlands yielding generous crops of bananas, mangos, guavas, pineapples, sweetpotatoes and many more.
An isthmus, connecting the two lakes, forms part of the Nechsar National Park, making Arba Minch an ideal base for game viewing. Boat rides on Lake Chamo are a great way to enjoy sightings of the lake’s famous giant crocodiles, hippos and aquatic birdlife. Another highlight, when visiting Arba Minch, is known as “The Crocodile Market”. Located at the point where the Kufo River drains into Lake Chamo, the “market” comprises a massive gathering of huge crocodiles, sunning themselves on the banks.
One of the Omo Valley’s fascinating tribes, the Dorze, can be visited at the village of Chencha, which is situated just north of Arba Minch.
Some of the country’s best-woven cotton comes from tbe village Chencha and the Shama (traditional) cloth produced around Chencha is regarded to be the finest in Ethiopia.
Arba Minch is the largest town in the region and regarded as the „gateway“ to the Southern parts.
The town is situated a day’s drive from Addis Ababa (with interesting sightseeing stops along the way).
The market town of Jinka is a cultural melting pot. Many of the Omo Valley tribes gather here, especially on Saturdays, as this is the town’s main market day.
Perched on a hill looking out over Jinka, the South Omo Museum and Research Center provides not only a great view of the town centre, but a useful overview of the various cultures of the Omo Valley. The museum was founded by a German anthropologist, who spent years studying the fascinating tribes of the area. Exhibitions include an archive of his research, informative posters and collections of paraphernalia used by the various tribes, such as clothing, utensils, baskets, body decorations, musical instruments and weapons. Look out for the exhibits of small wooden stools which the Hamer and Bena men carry with them wherever they go. These beautifully crafted stools, or Keri, double up as headrests.
Not far from Jinka, lies Key Afer. The Key Afer market, which takes place every Tuesday, is the most famous market in the lower Omo valley. Frequented by tribes including the Bena, Ari and Hamer, the market is a bustling hive of activity.
The Mago National Park, home to the Mursi tribe, lies about 34 kilometres from Jinka. The park has varied habitats dominated by sprawling savannas, acacia woodlands and riverine forests that hug the banks of the Omo River and its tributary, the Mago River. The Mago Mountains stand guardian to the park, adding the final touch to its picture-perfect beauty. Although an impressive variety of animals inhabit the park, sightings of the larger mammals such as african elephant, black rhinoceros, giraffe and lions are rare. Across the river lies the Omo National Park.
Turmi is home to the Hamer tribe, famed for their body decorations and rituals. The enchanting Evangedi dance (Moonlight Dance) and Bull-jumping – a rite of passage from childhood to adulthood, are two of their rituals.
Mondays are the main market day in Turmi. Hamer people from nearby villages travel by foot to sell their wares and stock up on essentials. Fresh fruit and vegetables, goatskins and traditional jewelry can be bargained for. Market days are also social occasions, during which tribal women go the extra mile to adorn themselves in the traditional way.
The village of Kolcho, not far from Turmi, is well worth a visit. Kolcho is home to the Karo tribe, who are considred to be masters of body painting.
Local Attractions – Omo Valley
Omo Valley Photo Gallery
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