If you’re like me, you probably don’t know a whole lot about Ethiopia when it comes to travelling through the country. What you do know is that you’d like to travel through the Omo Valley region to see the fascinating diversity of tribes but beyond that you’re stuck. Planning a trip to South Omo is complicated to say the least and having gone through it myself I’m here to help you.
Throughout this article, I share with you my personal experiences and lessons learned from my trip. I realized pretty quickly that as much as you can plan for a trip like this, Ethiopia will take you on twists and turns that aren’t all necessarily bad. That being said, there are a few key things that you want to make sure you’re prepared for in order to make the most of your time here.
This one’s quite the long one so be prepared for a little bit of reading. It’s jam packed full of information but I built in this nifty little table of contents right below to help you jump to the topics that matter to you.
Table of Contents (jump to where you want to go)
- Why Omo Valley?
- Where Do You Even Start?
- How Much Time Do You Need?
- Picking The Right Guide
- Things You Were Probably Wondering About
- Building An Itinerary
- Things To Pack
- Staying Connected
- Extra Travel Tips
- Why We Cut Our Trip Short
- What I Didn’t Like About Omo Valley
Why Omo Valley
So what drove me to want to go to Ethiopia and more specifically Omo Valley? Simply put, for me it was about a once in a lifetime chance to see a land frozen in time. As a kid I would pick up an issue of National Geographic and flip through pages of explorers uncovering the truth of new traditions or being the first outsider to a tribe and thinking “wow that’s incredible” but also at the same time thinking that “I’d never be able to do something like that”.
Thanks to the development of tourism of the region and the accessibility of travel in the modern world, it is much easier to travel to places like this that only decades ago were near impossible.
Aside from sheer fascination of the incredible diversity of tribes in the Omo Valley, the biggest thing for me at the end of the day was the adventure of the unknown. Having completed the trip, I can tell you that yes, it will be quite the adventure.
While I’d like to say that a trip to Ethiopia is for everyone, it really isn’t. If you are not interested in spartan accommodations, extreme human contact, or uncomfortable situations then you really want to reconsider. If you’re totally down for that and are okay with an open ended itinerary that could change on a dime, then continue reading.
A question I always get asked “what was it like” and “what was the best part of the trip”. If I were to pick, here were 5 of my favourite moments in Omo Valley that truly made it special.
- Mursi Tribe – As aggressive as the Mursi are, staying with them, seeing their way of life, walking to the watering hole with them was quite the experience.
- Donga – Donga is something that’s difficult to plan for but I would ask your guide about it and whether they have any inside scoop on if there will be any chances to see special ceremonies while you’re there and whether you should adjust your schedule to align with them.
- Bull Jumping Ceremony – Bull jumping ceremony was quite interesting although less intimate than I had imagined since there are a ton of tourists there.
- Hamar Tribe – Spending a night under the stars with the Hamar tribe family was quite the special experience.
- Lively Markets – I enjoyed the Dimeka Market the most where Hamar tribes people would travel up to a full day to get there to sell their wares.
Where Do You Even Start?
While it may seem overwhelming at first, it’s really not too bad when you boil it down. The three big questions you’ll want to ask yourself are:
- How much time do you want to spend or can I afford in the Omo Valley region.
- Is there something specific that you’re hoping to see? Is it a specific tribe? Ceremony?
- Where do I find a guide that can take me to all the places I want to go.
How Much Time Do You Need
In my personal opinion, I’d say 8 days is a good amount of time to really get a good flavor for the region and what all the various tribes are about (including travel to and from Arba Minch). Any less and you’re going to have to pick and choose what you see and what you’re going to have to leave out. Any more than 8 and you’ll feel like all the tribes starting to blend together a little and you’ll be itching for better accommodations.
At the end of the day, the one person that you’ll want to take their input seriously is the guide you end up picking. Sure they will probably try to up-sell you on a longer trip but ultimately they know the region best. One thing that is near impossible to gauge is the logistics such as how long it takes to get from one place to another. I’ll tell you now that Google Maps is useless. Your guide will have the ears to the ground on when events are happening and how to arrange which towns you need to be based in, for how long, and in what order.
If you had no choice but to plan a shorter trip, pick all the highlights you’d like to see and get your guide to organize it for you. They will let you know whether it’s possible or not.
The original itinerary for Ethiopia had us spend 10 days in Omo Valley but we cut that short and instead of of going to the Simien Mountains we made a last minute detour to Egypt. That’s a whole other story so more on that later.
Picking The Right Guide
Well that’s a perfect segue into guides. This is perhaps the most critical part of trip planning because having the right guide can make or break your experience. As important as this is, this also becomes the hardest to make sense of.
Finding a guide is hard because it’s extremely fragmented. On one end of the spectrum you have big companies that dominate the “high volume” tour market such as Green Land Tours. These guys are well established companies that will be the direct on-the-ground operator for many package resellers. On the other end you have fragmented group of independent tour operators that you’ll find being promoted on pages like this on TripAdvisor.
The dilemma you face is this: Do you go with a big box tour operator that has the reputation and volume to tout certain guarantees and safety or do you go with a smaller independent guide that can be more nimble and provide private tours?
What To Look For In A Guide
For my trip, we were looking for the flexibility of planning our trip and were adamant to put together a trip that would allow us to get a more of an authentic and hands-on experience. As a result, the pre-packaged trips were off the table.
We tried looking all over the web for good information but unfortunately there just really isn’t much. It’s either outdated or questionably unauthentic reviews. In the end, the only place with any sort of sizeable up to date information was TripAdvisor. You basically have to read through either the Omo National Park and River attraction (most information consolidated here) or go deep into forum threads under Arba Minch, Southern Nations, Nationalities, and People’s Region, or the Lonely Planet Thorntree forum for Ethiopia. It’s a lot of reading. What’s unorthodox here is that the Ethiopians have gotten travellers to essentially leave unsolicited (most likely solicited) reviews on the attraction page since the attraction has become kind a catch-all for Omo Valley.
When looking for a guide, this is what you should be looking for:
- Someone that understands your request to have an experience that is hands on and not on the typical tourist path
- Ability to completely customize an itinerary. Personalized service is key.
- Large number of authenticated reviews across the web (not just TripAdvisor -> Google it)
- Good command of spoken English (reviews should be telling)
- Affordable price (you’ll find most are in the same ball park)
- Personal connections with certain tribes (in particular Mursi) to get you “inside access” that most large tours don’t have (that doesn’t necessarily mean that they have to be from the southern region)
- Explicit about inclusions and exclusions (you want this to be as all inclusive as possible as to not worry about additional costs along the way – more on that below)
The thing to look for are the clearly unauthentic reviews that are used as shameless self promotion.
Our Guides Solomon and Melak
I’ll preface this section in saying that we did something quite unusual for our trip in that we actually contracted two guides for the trip. My friend’s theory was that if we got two of the top guides of the region, then we’d be hedging our bets in a way and leveraging the strengths of each guide.
Guide #1: Solomon Mulugeta
Website: Paradise Edge Tours
My Experience: It was apparent from the start that Solomon’s strength was in the finances and organization. While I’m sure between our two guides, they talked to each other, ultimately most decisions about the structure of the trip was through Solomon. He was the one that was able to provide clarity on where we were going, the logistics and costing structure.
I would say that Solomon’s personality is more of a reserved nature but that’s not to say that he can’t be chatty and isn’t a wealth of knowledge. He was easy to get along with throughout the trip albeit a little quirky at times. His command of English was quite good in person but I did have trouble understanding his e-mails a few times.
Despite not being from the southern region of Ethiopia, I don’t think that was a hinderance at all in terms of speaking dialect or having the right experience. In fact, I found that he was more hardworking than some of the other guides we met along the way. There were also numerous times when Solomon brought to the table a really good local guide that he was able to build trust with over the years.
Guide #2: Melak Tadesse
My Experience: I found Melak to be a great guide to be around for his laid back nature and how easy it was to have a conversation with him which is pretty important when you’re spending that many days together. His strength was clearly in that he could speak many of the local languages of the tribes and is from the Omo Valley region.
Pre-planning his communication was good throughout but because of the unique circumstances where we contracted two guides, I felt that the business side of things was left for Solomon to manage and so often times I found Melak take the easy back seat. Melak’s writing via e-mail is relatively brief and simple as I found his writing was not as good and vocabulary not as extensive as Solomon’s.
In person, his command of English is good and I personally found to be more outgoing than Solomon. What was great about Melak is that he grew up in Jinka and so had many friends and local contacts in the region. We also had the pleasure of having dinner at his family home which was a lovely experience.
There were a few instances where Melak did not accompany us to a few tribes which was disappointing. Again, this has to do with us having multiple guides. We kindly insisted that Melak stay with us regardless of whether we had a local guide or not and we were fine. So I would say his faults are in being less proactive and at times taking a bit more of a back seat with Solomon being more of the leader in our case.
A Bit About Both
For both Melak and Solomon, I would recommend them to anyone planning on travelling to the region. They were professional and excellent about providing us the best experience possible. Their ability to be flexible (even when our car broke down) and tailor the trip to our needs was critical. It was also quite apparent that both were well respected in the region and had very solid contacts they could rely on.
Where there’s room for improvement is in breaking from the norms and status quo of private guides in the region. Experiential travel is still a relatively new concept for Ethiopia and so before we left we gave them ideas about how they could improve the trip experience by incorporating more things like cooking classes or learning how to sew that we almost had to seek ourselves while in these villages.
I also felt that they could have been more pro-active about explaining things to us and tell us more anecdotal stories. For instance when we were at local festivals like the Donga, we were often left to explore ourselves while they sat in the shade. It would’ve been great if they were more involved in providing commentary on what we were seeing. We also noticed that when local guides were contracted, they also tended to let them run the show as opposed to being equally involved.
The Two Guide Experiment
So how did the two guide experiment go? Like I mentioned above, the hypothesis about having two guides is that we’d be able to take advantage of the strengths of each one for truthfully a marginal bump in price.
Why it worked:
- Get two guides to have a vested interest in your experience
- One guide can back up the other in any and all situations
- Leverage the expertise of each one to improve the overall trip
- Larger pool of local contacts
Why it may not make sense:
- Unknown dynamics that may develop between the two guides
- An unnecessary added cost for marginal benefit
The added cost of including two guides was $400 USD which for us wasn’t too steep of a price to pay. I think what was interesting to see was the dynamic that developed between the two. There were times where I could tell that they disagreed about certain things and so they really had to get over any egos they had to make sure we had the best experience.
The initial contacting of our guides was done through my friend and I was brought in later in the process so I’ll speak to my experiences once I was brought into the fold.
This part of the planning was a bit nerve-racking for me because I like to have as much information as I can when going on a trip especially one as exotic as this. I naturally had a lot of questions for them when I came on board and bombarded them with EVERYTHING. They were great about answering every single thing but the one thing that wasn’t clear was what the exact itinerary was going to look like. I was expecting perhaps a Word document with a daily breakdown and all the things we needed to know but instead the plans we left completely in the hands of our guides. They knew how many days we had to work with and we were going to roll with the punches. Solomon’s response below shows you what I was getting myself into:
The itinerary is not one after another like A, B, C, D. Today if we stand on A and tomorrow could be the right time to visit D, then we will skip B and C and visit D. And after we we turn to visit the places we skipped. I can’t break down the itinerary daily, but I can tell you what things we will do and places we will visit in any ways the tour rolls.
Hamer tribe, Mursi tribe, Bodi tribe, Nyagatom tribe, Dasenech tribe, Banna tribe, Dies tribe, Dorze tribe, Konso village, Karo tribe, Ari tribe and a minimum of two tribal market’s, bull jumping ceremony, Evangadi dance and other things that are uncertain.
Having done the trip, I understand why this is because things could truly change on the daily depending on what events are happening.
The truth of the matter is that working with private guides is going to feel like you have to take a leap of faith. Everything will be largely done through e-mail communication and you will just need to put your trust in the hands of your guide. It worked out for us so I would say that there’s no reason to be nervous.
Simply put, this is going to require another leap of faith. Being a developing nation, securing a trip is not as easy as checking out on a website. There’s no order form where you can easily leave your credit card information nor the ability to pay with Paypal. The truth is, Paypal doesn’t even operate in countries like Ethiopia because they’ve been prone to fraud (think Nigerian prince spam).
Understandably, guides in Ethiopia look for some sort of guarantee that you’ll actually come in order for them to make plans and start securing things like hotels and their local guides on the ground. So the expectation is that you’ll have to pay roughly half of the negotiated price upfront.
So if Paypal and credit cards are out of the question, what’s left? Well just like what I had to do with Andean Encounters in Peru, Western Union was the only thing available. It’s not ideal because of the additional fees involved ($25 USD) and below market exchange rates but there’s no real way around it.
If you feel that your guides are particularly antsy about payment and confirming your trip, we learned that it’s because they have all been burned before by people that cancel last minute or end up being no shows. Since their livelihood depends on this income, you can understand why they’re also taking putting trust in you which is why they like to have assurances like your flight ticket and of course this deposit.
So what about the other half of the payment? Well you could bring a large chunk of cash but I wouldn’t recommend it. Instead to make it easier, I would just promise to pay the remaining amount via Western Union as well. With internet in Ethiopia, you should be able to kick off the transaction.
Things You Probably Were Wondering About
While I could probably go on and on about every single experience we had out there, I thought I’d keep a high level overview of some of the basic things that you’re going to be wondering as you head into planning.
You’re going to be having a lot of Ethiopian food along the way whether you like it or hate it. It’s something that I enjoyed having at the beginning of the trip as I wanted to try as much local food as possible but towards the end, I was looking to have more vegetables and less heavy food.
That being said there are alternatives available in the form of western food options that come in the form of pasta and pizza for dinner and toast and omelettes for breakfast. These aren’t going to be very good but if you have a sensitive stomach or just need a little variety, just know that there are options.
My friend travelled on a kosher diet and so he stuck with mostly vegetarian dishes and fish. Vegetarians also won’t have any issues here as there are many options that your guide can order for you.
What I would highly recommend that you try while out there are the fresh fruit juices. There is an abundance of mangos, avocado, and papaya and their “mixto” drink where they layer freshly squeezed juices in a glass is oh so SO good.
While I wish I could say my stomach was iron clad throughout the trip, I did eventually succumb to problems towards the end of the trip. To be honest I’m surprised I lasted that long but this is just a reminder to all of you that you’ll want to take every precaution with staying clean and having proper medication. Ethiopian food is all about using your hands so do make sure to bring a TON of hand sanitizer. Cipro (antibiotic that treats bacterial infection) was something I didn’t have but luckily my friend did and that helped me get better over the course of the 3 days that followed after I fell ill.
Rightfully so, the strategy for accommodations is to start you off easy and it only gets rougher from there. The expectation that you want to have going into a trip like this is that it isn’t going to be 5 stars, 4 stars or even 3 stars. Going chronologically, the below is a breakdown of everywhere we stayed based on the budget we provided our guides. I’m sure if we paid more we could’ve gotten better but I don’t think that would’ve been all that necessary.
Most of you will fly into Arba Minch. Arba Minch being the largest city in the southern region, this is where you’ll be able to find nice lodges of all star levels. We stayed at the Swaynes Hotel and it was far and above the best accommodation we had had throughout the trip. It was extremely clean and spacious. I wish we had a chance to stay here for more days to just relax and gawk at the incredible hilltop landscape but alas it was only for the first night and then we were off.
So what about the rest of the trip? They told it’d go all down from here but to be honest it wasn’t TOO bad if you’re okay with spartan accommodations.
In Jinka we stayed at the Orit Hotel along the main street. This one really wasn’t all that bad. Sure the place looked a little rundown and wasn’t as clean as Swaynes but the bed was comfortable and there was running hot water and lots of electrical plugs for charging. No complaints!
You start to enter rougher territory when the camping begins and on the third night, were welcomed into one of the Mursi tribe villages. This was perhaps the roughest night on the trip mainly because you’re camping on a ground that’s grazed by cows. I’m not going to sugar coat it. The field has dung all over and so during the day you’re contending with the smells and swarms of black flies. Thankfully once the sun goes down, the flies disappear and the smells mellow out.
The dilemma you face out here is that even at night it’s very hot and so either decide to sleep in the protection of the tent with barely any ventilation coming through the mesh door or you throw your mattress out on the field and just sleep under the stars. I chose the former and wow was it a hot one that night.
While you’re camping, keep in mind that there’s no showers or anything like that so before I slept I tried my best to use my wet naps to wipe down the grime and dirt before changing into next day’s clothes. The foam mattresses and pillow provided were quite cushiony which was a pleasant surprise. Also, no sleeping bags were required because it was so hot so all I used was my sleeping bag liner.
What made the experience a bit ghetto was the fact that the food was literally cooked on a pan over a makeshift fire pit. Food was diced on a cutting board placed on the ground (remember the same ground that cattle graze on) and eggs are whisked in a cut open water bottle. It’s at points like this where you realize sanitary rules are thrown out the window and you have to hope that the cooking kills everything. I ate what I could but it didn’t help to find a few ants on the plate. It is what it is right?
As a photographer, the trickiest part on camping days was to make sure I had enough power to carry me into the next day. The good thing was I had a lot of extra power packs and I had a way of charging via USB through my power bank overnight which helped.
I can’t say I felt particularly refreshed after a night camping out here but the experience of hanging out with the Chief and other tribe mates late into the night while star gazing and drinking moonshine made it all worth it.
To say that I was relieved to be staying in a lodge the day after camping is an understatement. I was quite impressed with the Turmi Lodge actually and I’d say an improvement over even Orit Hotel in Jinka. There was hot water, a bed, power, and even a fan to turn on at night. What more can you ask for in Omo Valley right?
While there was an option to camp again right after, we ended up staying at this lodge for two nights instead of the proposed one. That again speaks to how flexible they are out here and there wasn’t an impact on price.
The last camping opportunity came with the Hamer tribe where we stayed with our local guide, Kala’s, family. I found this to be an even better experience than the Mursi tribe just because they were much open to conversation and overall more friendly and social. We ended up singing throughout the night while laying on animal skin and the crackle of fire behind us.
We used the same equipment as our earlier camping experience and it was more or less the same set up. Again, you had the choice of either sleeping outdoors or in the tent. I elected to stay inside but luckily it wasn’t as hot of a night as it was in the Mursi tribe.
This part wasn’t planned because we ended up cutting our trip short. We left Turmi late that final day and while our hope was that we could race back to Arba Minch, there just wasn’t enough sunlight left and the jeep had headlight problems. We ended up in the tiny town of Key Afer and stayed at this random unmarked hotel.
It wasn’t all that bad here but what was the worst about it was that there wasn’t any running water. You had to use a bucket of water to flush the toilet and clean yourself (same water). I also needed to wash my clothes at this point so you can imagine how inconvenient this all was. I needed so much water that I had to get the lady working there to fill up another bucket for me.
I’ve done some hardcore trekking in the past so this wasn’t new to me but I can see this spooking some. That being said, do keep in perspective that this was an unplanned stop and most likely would never be part of an itinerary that a local guide plans.
So all in all it’s really not all that bad. I did feel absolutely gross on the camping days because of how sticky I was but the wipes certainly helped. Another key learning from this trip was just how little mosquitos were a factor during the time of year I was there (February). Mosquito nets were found in every hotel we stayed at which was very helpful.
Additional Costs and Carrying Money
One detail that I loved about working with Solomon and Melak is that they handle all additional cost items for you so you just pay at the end. You don’t understand how easy it makes travel in Ethiopia when you don’t have to deal with carrying small bills and know how much to pay who. I am not sure if this is something that all guides do but if not, I’d say this is a huge differentiator.
Anytime you travel to a new country and have to deal with currency, it presents a bit of a headache because you have to figure out beforehand how much you want to exchange. In that decision you have to do your best estimate because you don’t want to over-withdraw and you don’t want to under-withdraw either because that means you’ll have to go to the bank again. Then you have the issue of bill denominations. While you want to carry bigger bills to lessen the amount you have to carry, in countries like Ethiopia, you’ll most likely be paying very little so you also need a ton of small bills. The more you think about it, the bigger headache it presents so to not have to worry about it was a blessing in disguise.
The way it worked for us was this: Upon landing, the guides prepared for each of us a stack of 2100 Birr which is roughly equivalent to $100 USD. This would act as our bank throughout the trip. All extra spending would come from this bank and the idea of this is that for every 21 Birr that is spent, we would have to pay $1 extra at the end of the trip.
Now how precisely this is tracked and accounted another matter but by the end of the trip, these were things that I was okay with not fussing over.
So what’s not included?
- Shopping, souvenirs, and other
Food was always included even at the hotels that had morning breakfast. In those instances, we were told to just bill it back to the room/Solomon. During meals we were also free to order whatever drinks we waned whether it be water or pop.
Alcohol wise, we were told it was extra but Solomon also stated that we were allowed to have 2 beers after each dinner which were included. Overall there weren’t too many opportunities to have alcohol but when we did in say Jinka, I don’t think it was ever added on top.
Overall I wouldn’t ever worry about food costs so eat and drink to your heart’s content.
I knew going into this trip that photography was going to be an interesting experience and it sure was. What makes the trip feel awkward and strange is that you’ll be hounded for money every tribe you go as long as you have a camera.
The tribes have now been conditioned, with the introduction of tourism, that the best way to make money is through photography. The going rate as of 2016 is 5 Birr ($0.25 USD) for photo.
I was a bit nervous about how this was going to work prior to the trip and how strictly they’d track shutter count that I set up my Olympus OM-D EM-1’s stealth mode for this purpose. In the end, I realized that nobody’s actually counting. Even for the Mursi tribe which are a bit more aggressive about these things, as long as you took shots of each model relatively quickly, that would count as one shot. Our guide here would really push me to shoot faster here.
The annoying part about photography in Ethiopia is that anytime you have your camera up in ready position and even so much as point in the direction of a tribe member, they’ll start yelling at your guide to get paid. Towards the end, this honestly made me want to not pull out the camera because I was constantly harassed for “5 Birr!”
But I digress, the payment part of photography was incredibly easy for me because I just had to focus on shooting while the guide would dish out the cash as I moved from subject to subject. Imagine if I had to count out bills every time I took a photo of someone. That would’ve increased stress levels ten fold. The only thing I had to be conscious of was that every time I took posed photos, I needed to have a guide with me to handle the transaction.
With Solomon and Melak, each person on the tour is allotted a free 100 photos. Anything beyond this is extra. The reality is that unless you’re doing some crazy commercial shooting out there, you probably won’t hit this number.
- Nobody’s actually counting out there
- You’ll probably get tired of taking posed model photos by the end in favour of sneaking more natural ones from afar
This was the most ambiguous by far and probably something Solomon and Melak probably could’ve done a better job explaining upfront.
Where the confusion lay was in whether tips were included as part of this bank of cash that we had. We had assumed that like everything else that tips would be handled by our guides but that was actually not true.
I didn’t pick up on the social cues until it clicked with me why certain local guides would always linger after their part was over. They were expecting tip! In some situations I had USD ready but I think the awkward part was that they probably really only wanted Birr which I didn’t have since we never had any.
So a few ideas for future travellers:
- Bring up with your guides the idea that they pay for the appropriate tips since as travellers we don’t have a good concept of what’s fair and what they expect. Use the “bill me later” model.
- Ask your guides to give you some Birr in pocket in case. There were a number of times I wanted to give some money out of charity but when I tried to give USD, they actually refused. Alternatively, there were times I was passing by a shop and wanted to pick up a quick postcard but couldn’t because I didn’t have any Birr in my pocket.
There were no doubt a bunch of people we inadvertently pissed off because we thought Solomon or Melak were going to tip.
Shopping, Souvenirs and Other
Where else was the “bill me later” handy? Well, I’ll go into the whole SIM card situation later but all of that we didn’t have to worry about until the end. They paid for all of it including the recharges.
Another example was my purchases of souvenirs and my trip to the post office. Solomon or Melak were with me in either situation and they just paid for it. Now don’t ask me how they kept track of it because I don’t think they were but if you wanted to be a real stickler about it, try to write things like this down for reconciliation later.
By the end of it all, they did some math based on what they could remember or tracked and I owed $40 USD for all of my additional spending. It really isn’t a whole lot and so I honestly wouldn’t stress out too much about this and just let your guides deal with it.
Donga stick fighting tournament while we were in the Mursi tribes was completely unplanned. The beauty of having our guides manage money and be flexible enough to adjust our schedule, there was never any question of whether we could do it or not.
In my post about my Donga experience, I tell the story of how another larger group of tourists tried to join in but were rejected when they low-balled on price. It’s a shame because all the tour company had to do was tell their group that this would cost extra and they could’ve made it work. Instead the company knew they didn’t have much extra funds to work with and made a low offer to spectate.
We didn’t have this issue because 1) we had the right connections (it kind of helps to have a village chief travel with you) and 2) Solomon and Melak were able to calculate on the fly whether this would work with their open budget and then make it happen.
In this case, I don’t think we were dinged extra for going to Donga but this just speaks to the fact that the pricing we built into our trip could account for fluctuation in expenses. Even if it cost us extra, we gladly would’ve paid the price.
So far I’ve been talking about these local guides but what the heck does that mean? Every tribe and village you go to, your main guides (Solomon and Melak in our case) have their own personal contacts. These contacts act as the liaison between the guides and the tribe. Often times, these would be actual members of the tribe we were visiting.
This actually makes a lot of sense because through the local guide there is an established level of trust between the guide and the tribe. Through the local guide you also have someone that speaks the language and knows more about the culture.
In our case, most of the local guides we had were quite young and the quality of the local guides ranged from very good to average and more of an escort than anything else. The challenge is that their English is not as strong but rightfully so since most have not been properly schooled.
Our Mursi tribe guide, Lala, is an example of someone that was valuable. He seemed to be very capable of being a guide himself but his specialty definitely lies in having the personal connections to various villages of the Mursi tribe. We picked him up in Jinka along with our camping gear and while I thought it was odd at the time, he turned out to be an invaluable resource.
In a way, he took over the entire Mursi experience as he was the one we relied on to even be allowed by Chief Nogali to be honoured special guests, cooking, translating, and walking through the village with me for photos. I noticed that our main guides actually took a back seat in this situation and let Lala run the show.
What’s great about this model is that this really gets more locals involved in the tourism industry and are tapped into the flow of money. The added benefit as well is that through these guides, you also get inside access to areas that other travel companies may not have. Sustainable tourism!
Alternatively there were also “friends” and other guides that kind of tagged along but didn’t add too much value from an itinerary perspective but were nice to meet and get to know. Without sounding too cynical, I did feel that the ultimate end game of some of these were that there was always an ask at the end for money.
We had quite the interesting start to our trip by having our 4×4 die on us in Arba Minch. As a result the original driver we had and car were replaced that day with a new one. The driver we ended up getting was Billy and he was a great guy to be around. His English may not have been the greatest but he was always full of energy and was quite the skilled driver.
Vast distances need to be covered on this trip and what you soon come to learn is that the paved roads out of Arba Minch only stretch so far and even those are in the worst of conditions. The result is a super bumpy ride filled with plenty of swerving to miss potholes or the shoeing of crossing of cattle. Once the paved roads disappear, you’re left with rough red soil gravel road. On top of the nice bottom massage you get, be ready to have everything covered in red sand. Hand washing my clothes always lead to a clay red mixture.
The long journey from Arba Minch to Jinka is the most stunning and filled with moments where you’re just at awe at the Ethiopian landscape. Out here there’s an incredible flow of barren valley floor, rugged hills, terraces and mountains in the distance.
Coles Notes on Tribes
Every single tribe is unique in their culture and language. Here’s a really quick look at each one and what made them memorable to me.
Mursi Tribe – Most aggressive out of all of them but fascination to be see because of their clay lip plate traditions. Out of all the tribes I’d have to say they had the roughest of villages with dung literally everywhere.
Hamar Tribe – Incredibly friendly and easily recognizable by their red shiny wet clay that they have in their braided hair. All the women have the same hairdo!
Ari Tribe – The tribe that seemed to have become the most modernized out of everyone. This tribe was right outside Jinka and were essentially indistinguishable from modern-day Ethiopians.
Karo Tribe – The tribe with the best and most well known view of Omo River that flows right below the edge of the village in a horseshoe shape. I remember them being more well off and established than the other tribes and seemed to have a very well thought out community building planning. This is also the tribe that has it so good that they have their own hut that doubles as the local bar with refrigeration courtesy of outdoor generator.
Nyangatom Tribe – I just remember it being insanely hot by the time we got here. This is the tribe where women will wear large plastic bead necklaces. We didn’t stay too long here but Steve had a blast learning how to sew. I had a chance to get inside a few of the huts and overall I was fascinated with how communities were planned and how similar a sense of “home” is to ours with home, front yard and area for gardening.
Dassenech Tribe – Located near the border of South Sudan and Kenya, I was a little nervous things turned out fine. This tribe required the crossing of the Omo River in a canoe made of one large tree trunk which was an experience in itself. One interest fact we learned about the Dassenech is that they all children are circumcised where a shaman may be involved. This was also the tribe where I vividly remember thinking that their metal sheet roofed huts reminded me of a post apocalyptic Mad Maxx kind of world.
Dual-Edged Sword of Photography
As a blogger and photographer, I was ecstatic about the opportunity of capturing dynamic and the raw emotion of the people I’d be meeting along the way. My excitement was tempered with a few of the reviews out there on the experience and how it’s become this awkward and uncomfortable enterprise that the tribes have latched on.
As you can tell from the samples in this article and my Donga experience article, the end product of my photography out there is some of my best work but it came at a cost. Everything they say about photography is true. The tribes have learned to commoditize themselves and every interaction you have with them is about “5 Birr” if they see that you have a camera. There were moments in some tribes where I literally couldn’t walk around with being bugged about taking photos.
It got so bad that when we went to the Dassenech Tribe, I decided not to bring my camera at all. Instead I just had my phone and my GoPro. The experiment resulted in a better experience as they did not seem to care as much for “unprofessional” photos because they couldn’t charge for it. Video caused more fascination than anything (or disgust) and was another thing they didn’t know how to charge because there wasn’t a finite number of clicks to count.
This brings me to the point of just how a trip like this really gets you to start thinking about the fundamental impacts of travel on indigenous cultures. Photography as a specific example shone light on this perpetuating dance between photo hungry travellers and money hungry tribesmen. You know you want “the shot” but at what cost?
With the Mursi tribe, I was practically pushed into this very staged portrait photoshoot with a rotating carousel of tribeswomen posing in ceremonial garb that they normally wouldn’t wear on the day-to-day. In a matter of 20 minutes, I had literally gone through almost all the women and children in the village. Our local guide paid Birrs along the way and in a true human safari like experience I was done and off to the next thing. What I was aching for was more natural and candid photos and I learned quickly you just had to be good at talking photos from afar without being caught.
It was very interesting to see how contrasting of an experience I had versus my friend. While I ended up being more of the traditional photographer, Steve would escape outside the glare of the camera and as a result was able to have more interactions with locals and get access to random mundane tasks in various nooks and crannies such as grinding sorghum, herding cows, getting his hair coloured, or doing pottery. Steve could be that crazy tourist intruding on the tribes, asking a ton of questions, and being that hilarious foreigner that doesn’t know better.
That being said, an exception to all this would be the Hamar and Ari tribe. I’m not sure if the photography charge was pre-arranged but we weren’t nickel and dimed on every single click. We were free to take photos as long as we did it in a respectful way.
I’ll be honest, I don’t know what the right answer is here. If you’re going to be doing photography there, you just have to accept the fact that it is the way it is and suck it up. If you’re looking for a fundamentally different experience, don’t bother bringing a camera and be there to soak in everything.
Building An Itinerary
There’s so much I could speak about here but what I wanted to get across here were a few major themes to think about when you build your itinerary with your guide. Obviously there’s a ton of information so far but here’s a summarized version:
- Decide on the number of days you have available for Omo Valley
- Research all the different tribes of Omo Valley and have an idea yourself of which you absolutely have to see.
- Pick a solid and reputable private guide to give you the best experience. I can easily recommend Solomon and Melak to any of my readers so that’s one way to start.
- Budget into your planning the type of accommodations that you want. The ones we had were about standard I’d say but if you want more luxurious digs or less, let your guides know and that should play a role in how much you have to pay.
- Make sure your guides have a “bill me later” type of program to make your life easier.
What To Pack
- More toilet paper – You just never know when you’re going to need it. You’ll especially need it when you run into stomach troubles like I did towards the end.
- More hand sanitizer – I brought lots but it still wasn’t enough. Bring more than you think and be religious about using it before eating.
- Cipro – As a Canadian, this actually isn’t available even as a prescription (as far as I know) but if you do have access, this is a good backup for when the stomach situation goes real bad. Make sure you talk to your doctor beforehand about your options.
- Long sleeved shirt – Never needed it during the time of year I was there. Not even once!
- Sleeping bag – I originally packed this because of the Simien Mountains but since we cancelled last minute, this ended up being a whole lot of dead weight I never once pulled out of my backpack.
- Anything nice to be honest and that includes watches, hats, bandanas – Let me rephrase, you can bring these but when you’re visiting tribes, I would keep it in your bag away from sight because I was bugged by many tribe members to keep whatever it is they had their eye on. It’d sometimes start with a “let me look at it” kind of gesture that would eventually lead to “oh you want it back?”.
- Mosquito repellant – Okay I’d still bring it but surprisingly mosquitos weren’t an issue AT ALL while we were out there. All the lodges we stayed at had mosquito nets and during the day when we were out I don’t think I encountered many (too hot for them?).
- Crappy solar power bank – I don’t know if I just had a defective unit but my last minute solar charger was a bust. The solar part never seemed to work and may have fried while charging under the intense Ethiopian sun. In the end I used it as a regular power bank and charged it via electrical outlet.
- Wet naps – These wipes were great to just wiping dirt off the body or to use to wash your hands. Especially useful while camping.
- Hydration pack – Having access to water at all times was very helpful.
- Long pants – On the one day I wore shorts, we walked through a field with lots of thorny things and thereafter I started to wear long khaki pants for the rest of the trip.
- Sleeping bag liner – They provided sleeping bags but I was much more comfortable to just sleep in the liner consider how hot it was. I didn’t need much of the insulation from the sleeping bags since it was so hot.
- Lots of batteries – With camping involved and lodges that didn’t have too many available plugs, it was good to have extra batteries and lots of different ways to charge. Don’t underestimate how much you need. Solar chargers are nice to have too but unfortunately for me mine broke part way through the trip. I would say the same for memory as well.
- Headlamp – Always key for a trip like this and a must-have because you never know when there will be a power outage and of course while camping.
What I’m glad I didn’t bring:
- Mosquito net – I had a last minute panic attack about whether I needed to buy this last minute but Melak talked me out of it. I’m glad he did because this was at every single hotel we stayed at.
In a world where we want to be as connected as possible, one big question you’ll have is how the connectivity situation is on a trip like this. There are really only two options. 1) Pick up a SIM card for your smartphone or 2) Rely on wifi.
This is probably the most convenient of the two and surprisingly very easy to get up and running. What I did prior to the trip was reach out to Melak and ask him what the situation was. I told him buy in advance two SIM cards for us so we could hit the ground running.
The main reason I wanted a SIM card for my phone was to be able to stay connected on social media for the blog, connect to the internet if I needed to, check e-mails, and make emergency calls if need be. Overall I have to say that the 3G speeds I got from phone was fast enough to do essentially anything I wanted on the phone. While I tried to keep data consumption low, there were definitely times when I crazy amounts of image uploads. The coverage was also good enough for almost all areas went to in Omo Valley with the exception of maybe the Mursi tribe. Yes there would be random pockets where data would cut off while were driving but for the most part I was very impressed with the cellular coverage.
The cellular market in Ethiopia is monopolized by Ethio Telecom so there isn’t a lot of choice here. The prepaid SIM only comes in the micro SIM size which means that it has to be cut which is a bit of a foresight by our guides. On our first full day in Arba Minch, we stopped by a small cellular shop to get ours cut down to nano size for iPhone 6’s.
WARNING: In our case, the shop didn’t have a proper stamping tool and must’ve cut it out by hand because all the edges came out extremely rough. The mistake I made was forcing the SIM card in despite this. While it worked in Ethiopia, when I needed to switch SIMs in Egypt, I couldn’t pull out my tray. I couldn’t do anything about this until I was back home in Toronto.
The SIM card comes with a certain amount of credit built in but it did not last long. I can’t remember how much Birr was in there because it honestly didn’t matter. We burned through data so fast and we were told that the remaining credit numbers weren’t accurate and was in the interest of Ethio Telecom to be used faster than actual usage. I don’t know if I buy into that but it is entirely possible. We lasted a grand total of a day before we needed more credits.
Credits could be purchased from side-of-the-road convenient stores in 50 Birr ($2.30 USD) denominations. Every time we refilled, I would get our guides to purchase 100 Birr for each of us. The reload itself was pretty easy. Press *805*thirteen digit recharge pins# then dial and you were good to go.
Checking your balance was equally easy. All you had to do was press *804# then dial and a menu would show up in your phone with the remaining credits.
To be honest, I have no clue how much everything cost because our guides took care of the costs and bundled it together under the “additional spending” bucket at the end. That being said, we must’ve done roughly 3 recharges of 100 Birr and so that’s less than $15 USD in additional data spend. That has to blow your mind when you think about how much we pay back home.
What I tried to do was wait until I was in range of wifi to do some of my more data intensive activities like photo uploads to Facebook and FaceTime.
As good as cellular coverage is in Ethiopia, finding free wifi was near impossible where we were in Omo Valley. There was good connectivity in the common area of Swaynes Hotel in Arba Minch but beyond that I’m having trouble thinking of anywhere else that had wifi.
We were so desperate for data at one point that we walked to the internet cafe as seen above in Jinka.
General rule of thumb in Ethiopia is to not rely on wifi at all which just means that you REALLY do want to get a SIM card and load up on lots of credit.
The below is a breakdown of what it cost to do this tour of Omo Valley. A few things to keep in mind when looking at this is that we originally planned to be in Omo Valley for 10 days instead of the 9 we actually did do. We honoured the original agreement and paid the full amount that our guides were owed. The only thing this doesn’t include are the flights that we took both internationally and domestically since it will differ for each traveller.
The below costs are per person:
- 10 days in Omo Valley (calculated for a private tour for two) – $2450
- Contract two guides ($400 total)- $200
- Additional spend – $50
TOTAL = $2700 USD
Extra Travel Tips
If all of that wasn’t enough, I put together a few more things that I thought would be useful for anyone planning a trip to Ethiopia.
- Mosquitoes really aren’t that bad in the Omo Valley. All hotels have mosquito nets. It may have been the time of the year we were there but I don’t even think I got bit once.
- Long pants are a good idea. The African bush is sharp and thorny. I learned the hard way when we had to hike 40 minutes to get to Donga.
- It will get very hot during the day. I found it very helpful to have a hydration bladder like my Geigerrig built into my bag which is much more convenient than carrying around a bottle of water.
- Bring napkins and wet naps because you eat with your hands and they usually don’t provide napkins.
- Even though it’s hot, I found wearing my Columbia hiking shoes were better than my Keen sandals. The issue with sandals is that your feet will get insanely dirty because of the amount of red sand dirt that’s out there. It’s practically a desert in Turmi.
- There’s a lot of dust here so bring a rocket blower and LensPen for your camera gear.
- We found out that they’re actually building an airport in Jinka which would eliminate that long drive required from Arba Minch. No ETA on its completion but I would ask about it.
Why We Cut Our Trip Short
While I may not have planned most of the trip, we realized pretty quickly that after 6 tribes that we really had a good understanding of what these tribes were all about. Not to marginalize the differences between the tribes but since most tribes are variations of 3 core tribes, each had the unique properties but the experience for each was more or less the same.
Every tribe we visited had us driving a long distance, arriving at the host village of the tribe, walking around to explore the village, poke around where allowed, sit down and try to chat with the locals, photo shoot, say goodbye. Of course it was a little different if we actually stayed overnight and that’s where the best experiences were from.
Originally we had planned for trekking in the Simien Mountains but after 8 days in a rougher setting, we started scheming where we could detour to in the region. In the end we decided on Egypt and in a matter of an afternoon, we worked magic to rebook flights, the Nile cruise and the due diligence that the new itinerary would work. Once we had most of it figured out, we let our guides know that we needed to head back to Arba Minch ASAP.
Ultimately it came down to being fully satisfied with what we had seen and feeling ready to move on to something different. Spending another 2 days in Omo Valley felt like we’d be doing largely the same thing and have similar experiences for each of the remaining tribes. How true that is we’ll never know but I was all for this new change of scenery because my stomach problems had just surfaced and I was struggling quite mightily.
What I Didn’t Like About Omo Valley
I’m all about not sugar-coating my trip guides and there are a few things I didn’t like about my adventure throughout South Omo.
- Commoditization of photography and all the baggage it comes with. Expect to be harassed with “5 Birr!”
- More human safari-like and less immersive and interactive than I would’ve liked.
- I didn’t mind Ethiopian food at the beginning but towards the end I really wanted to have something different and that was hard other than the very poor attempts at Italian.
- Long drives on unpaved roads
- Aggressive nature of some tribes
- That helpless feeling you get that you’re not sure if tourism in Omo Valley is helping or is simply accelerating the overturning of these tribes’ way of life.
There’s nothing like watching what the experience was like over reading about it so I highly encourage you to check out my highlight montage of my time in Ethiopia.