Today is set aside as an arrival day in the wonderous land of Abyssinia. After arrival in Bole International Airport and taking care of passport control and luggage formalities, you will be met by an ORYX representative outside the departures hall and driven to your hotel nearby. Here you will be met by your ORYX tour leader, and tonight we will have the opportunity to discuss our exciting adventure together in more detail.
If time allows, we will embark on an Addis city tour this morning. Places that we will visit include the Natural History Museum, which houses a replica of Lucy (in Ethiopia, known by her Amharic name of “Dinknesh” – you are wonderful). We will also visit the Merkato, the largest open-air market in Africa.
At a time to be advised we will head back to Bole International Airport to check in for our flight to Jimma. Jimma, the largest city in southwestern Ethiopia, is our destination for the evening. It used to be the capital of the former Kaffa Province, and it is this region which is recognized as the home of the plant Coffea arabica, or coffee.
Today, we will be continuing our southwest routing as we make our way to Mizan Teferi. The scenery on this drive is made up of a mosaic of forest and cultivated land dominated by coffee, tea and various spices, and we will have ample opportunity to stop and take advantage of any photographic opportunities we may encounter.
This morning is an exciting travel day as we head deep into the little-visited portion of southwestern Ethiopia. En route we pass through Bebeka coffee plantation (located about 30km outside Mizan), which is the largest and oldest coffee plantation in Ethiopia. After passing through the town of Tulgit, will finally arrive in Kibish, where we will be camping for the next three nights of our Omo Valley photography tour. Much of our focus today will be photographing the fabulous Surma people, who due to their remoteness are one of the least visited of the Omo Valley’s tribes.
The Surma are pastoralists, placing much value on their cattle, which they protect vigorously against theft from neighbouring Omo Valley tribes. The Surma however also steal livestock from their enemies, and in recent times there has been more pressure on their grazing lands due to input of people from adjacent Sudan who have been displaced by civil war, resulting in not-infrequent fighting in the area.
The Surma people do not make woodcarvings, statues etc., and instead are renowned for their incredibly ornate decoration of themselves, which they achieve through painting, scarification and adornment with flowers and other natural objects. The paintings are dynamic artworks, which vary greatly in design and are truly fascinating to photograph!
Virtually no area of the body is left out, and nakedness is a standard and acceptable part of daily life for the Surma, who regard Westerners concept of clothing with fascination!
Possibly more famously, Surma women, like Mursi women, wear lip plates. In her early twenties, an unmarried woman’s lower lip will be pierced and then progressively stretched over the period of a year. A clay disc, which has its edge indented like a pulley wheel, is squeezed into the hole in the lip. As the lip stretches, a succession of ever-larger discs are forced in until the lip, now a loop, is so long it can sometimes be pulled right over the owner’s head! The size of the lip plate determines the bride price with a large one bringing in fifty head of cattle. Surma women make the lip plates from clay, colouring them with ochre and charcoal and baking them in a fire.
We have two full days of our Omo Valley photography tour to explore and photograph the fascinating Surma, making the most of our time in this remote region of Ethiopia.
Another famous component of Surma life is stick fighting, known a Donga. We will be exceptionally fortunate to witness such a contest, but our local guide will keep an ear to the ground and with luck, we may be able to attend such an event. At a fight, each male contestant is armed with a hardwood pole about six feet long and with a weight of just less than two pounds.
The men paint their bodies with a mixture of chalk and water before the fight. In the attacking position, this pole is gripped at its base with both hands, the left above the right in order to give maximum swing and leverage. Each player beats his opponent with his stick as many times as possible with the intention of knocking him down, and eliminating him from the game. Players are usually unmarried men.
The winner is carried away on a platform of poles to a group of girls waiting at the side of the arena who decide among themselves which of them will ask for his hand in marriage. Taking part in a stick fight is considered to be more important than winning it.
After a scrumptious breakfast prepared by our camp crew, we depart for a full day drive back to Jimma where we will overnight.
Today is another full day drive from Jimma to Arba Minch, gateway to the eastern Omo Valley. We will take regular stops en route to stretch our legs and will take advantage of any possible photo opportunities that we come across.
This morning we have an early start on our Omo Valley photography tour as we depart Arba Minch shortly after breakfast for the town of Turmi. The Hamar is one of the most well known Omo Valley tribes in Southern Ethiopia. This Omo Valley tribe inhabit the territory east of the Omo River and have villages in both Turmi and Dimeka.
They are especially well known for their unique rituals, including a cattle-leaping ceremony that the young men have to undergo in order to reach adulthood and to marry. They are a highly ‘superstitious’ people, and to this day they consider twins to be babies born outside of wedlock, while children whose upper milk teeth develop before their lower teeth are deemed to be ‘evil’ or ‘unclean’.
For this reason, such children are discarded in the bush and simply left to die, as they would rather lose a single child than inflict any disaster upon their community. The Hamar people are also known for one of the most bizarre rituals on Earth. This is when the women allow themselves to be whipped by the male members of their family as a symbol of their love! The scars of such encounters are conspicuously evident on the bodies of all Hamar women.
These women take great pride in their appearance and wear traditional dresses consisting of a brown goatskin skirt adorned with dense vertical rows of red and yellow beads.
Their hair is characteristically fixed in dense ringlets with butterfat mixed with red ochre. They also wear many bracelets and necklaces fashioned of beads or metal, depending on their age, wealth and marital status. The men wear woven cloth wrapped around the waist and many elders wear delicately coloured clay head caps that are fashioned into their hair and adorned with an ostrich feather.
As mentioned, the young Hamar men are famous for their “Evangadi dance” and “bull jumping” ceremony (it is as part of this ceremony that the afore-mentioned whipping occurs). This ritual entails young men who wish to marry jumping over a line of bulls, thereby proving their worth to their intended bride’s family. It also signifies their advent into adulthood. This is a rarely seen event, however with luck, we may hear of, and even be invited to attend this landmark event.
The Lower Omo Valley is situated within Africa’s famous and, geologically speaking, rapidly expanding Great Rift Valley (which will eventually split the continent into two landmasses). Here, in south-west Ethiopia’s awkwardly named “Southern Nations, Nationalities, and People’s Region”, bordering Kenya and Sudan, the great Omo River dominates this dry savanna valley, resulting in some of Africa’s most well developed and best preserved arid-zone riverine forests.
The Omo River rises from the Shewan highlands to the north (much of Ethiopia consists of high-lying mountains and fertile plateaus, despite the impression created by some international media bodies that Ethiopia is predominately desert!). It flows 470 miles (750km), mostly southwards, before entering Lake Turkana (previously Lake Rudolf) near the Kenyan border. Lake Turkana, the world’s largest permanent desert lake and also the planet’s largest alkaline lake, has no water outflow, so in effect it’s a dead-end for the Omo River. The importance of the Lower Omo Valley has been recognized by UNESCO, which has declared it a cultural World Heritage site. It also contains two massive national parks and several important bird areas.
Our tribe of interest today is the Karo, another Omo Valley tribe known for its elaborate body and facial paintings. These people live along the east bank of the Omo River and practice flood retreat cultivation, their main crops being maize, sorghum and beans. Unlike the other Omo Valley tribes, they keep only a small number of cattle due to the prevalence of tsetse flies. Like many of the Omo Valley tribes, they paint their bodies and faces with white chalk to prepare for any ceremonies. The chalk is mixed with yellow rock, red iron ore and charcoal to make its requisite colour. Facemasks are worn at times and they have clay hair buns adorned with feathers.
Scarification is also an important part in the Karo people’s lives. This includes the complete scarification of a man’s chest which is to indicate that he has killed an enemy or dangerous animal (Amongst the Karo, killing one’s enemies isn’t viewed as an act of murder, but as an act of honour!).
This scarification process involves lightly slicing the skin with knives or razor blades and then rubbing ash into the open wounds to produce a permanently raised effect. The Karo women have decoratively-scarred abdomens, which are considered sensual and very desirable.
In the afternoon we will head back to the nearby Hamar Village to continue photographing this fascinating tribe in all her glory!
Today on our Omo Valley photography tour, further time will be spent visiting the Hamar, where we will get more opportunities to capture these interesting people, before later continuing onward to Jinka, where we will be staying for the night.
We have an early morning start as we enter Mago National Park at 06:00 in order to reach the Mursi Tribe while the light is still soft. Most famous for the clay lip plates that the women insert in their lower lips, the Mursi are probably one of the last tribes in Africa amongst whom it is still the norm for women to wear these large pottery or wooden discs or plates.
The lip plate (dhebi a tugoin) has become the chief visible distinguishing characteristic of the fascinating Mursi people. A girl’s lower lip is cut, typically by her mother or another woman of her settlement, when she reaches the age of 15 or 16. The cut is then held open by a wooden plug until the wound heals. It appears to be up to the individual girl to decide how far to stretch the lip, which she does by inserting progressively larger plugs over several months. Some girls even persevere until their lips can take plates of 5 inches (12 cm) or more in diameter!
The Mursi and their neighbours became part of the Ethiopian State in the final years of the 19th century, when Emperor Menelik II established control over the southwestern lowlands bordering Kenya and Sudan.
This was an area inhabited by several small tribes with fluid identities, highly adaptable to environmental conditions and capable of easily absorbing outsiders into their communities. The Mursi as we know them today are the product of a large-scale migratory movement of cattle herding peoples in the general direction of the Ethiopian highlands. Three separate movements may be distinguished in the recent history of the Mursi, each the result of growing environmental pressure associated with the drying out of the Omo basin over the last 150 – 200 years.
The Mursi attribute overwhelming cultural importance to cattle. Almost every significant social relationship – particularly marriage – is marked and authenticated by exchanging cattle. The “Bride wealth” (ideally consisting of 38 head of cattle) is handed over by the groom’s family to the bride’s father, who must meet the demands of a wide range of relatives from different clans. This ensures that cattle are continually redistributed around the community, thereby helping to provide for the long-term economic security of individuals as well as their families.
After a morning’s photographic session for the Mursi our incredible time in the lower Omo Valley comes to an end and we drive northeast back to Arba Minch. En route we may stop at Konso, a small town famed for its amazing terraces and agriculture, and recognized as an UNESCO World Heritage Site (declared in 2011).
The Konso tribe migrated into this area thousands of years ago, and from these stone-age beginnings their remarkable culture developed in virtual isolation. They have led a largely independent existence, rarely involving themselves in trade with other communities, and have defended their lands fiercely. Their fortifications will be evident when we visit one of their walled villages. Here a community guide who will explain and demonstrate the fascinating lifestyle, beliefs and traditions of these industrious people, will guide us through this experience. We return to Arba Minch and to our now familiar accommodations.
At a time to be advised we will depart Arba Minch to connect with our scheduled morning flight back to Addis Ababa.
Although Dale grew up in suburban London, which certainly isn’t replete with wild animals, his addiction to wildlife films instilled a deep love for animals and the outdoors, and he has subsequently left London and spent the last 20 years travelling the globe working with, and photographing its wildlife.
During this time, he has produced more than 400 nature, travel and photography oriented magazine articles and has worked on numerous wildlife documentaries including for the BBC. His photographs have appeared on high profile front covers and he has won several awards with global publishing companies.
Aside from having guided widely in Africa, his extensive experience in tropics, whether it be the steamy jungles of south-east Asia or South America, or the endemic rich island of Madagascar, make him the natural choice for ORYX’s Brazil, Borneo and Madagascar tours. His sense of humour and relaxed demeanour ensure that he is a hit with all the people he guides, both young and old!
“I thought I should write to you of the amazing trip we had to the Omo Valley with Dale.
The trip was well organised and we were well taken care of.
Dale was a wonderful leader. He was generous with his knowledge and we learnt a lot from him. He was kind, considerate and a lot of fun!
The local arrangements with Dinknesh were excellent too, the drivers were very pleasant and Melkamu in particular was fantastic.
It would be remiss of me not to also mention Kirsty, who was always responsive and efficient.
You can be sure we will be recommending ORYX to our friends!
“I second all of what Shobha has said. We had such an amazing time. The Dale-Melkamu combination was fabulous, as were all our drivers from Dinknesh. We always felt well taken care of, and safe.
Dale was not only generous with his knowledge but also his lenses. He truly has a wealth of information and we really learnt so much from him. His wicked sense of humour was also much appreciated :)
Thank you too to the ever efficient Kirsty!
We hope to be doing more photo tours with ORYX in the not too distant future!
“Trip to Omo valley with Oryx expeditions and Marius Coetzee is like a dream, like a walking meditation. Every detail is so very well ironed out that you forget you are in some of the remotest parts of the world. He will always have his ear to the ground for the rumblings in the valley. Giving you indelible memories is what he is after. No corners are ever cut to ensure your comfort. If some unexpected situation does arise, his steady and calm leadership will keep you centered. You know that he will put your safety first no matter what.
From photography point of view, his genius is talked about a lot all over the internet so I won’t delve on it. What I would like to highlight however is how generous and patient he is as a teacher. He quickly assesses your level of expertise and gives you appropriate pointers. His passion and zeal is consistent whether you are amateur fumbling with a new camera or a well versed photographer yourself. Sometimes he will push you out of your comfort zone to get better images and and then other times he knows to give you creative space.
I have wondered at times if he has more than two eyes. Not sure how he picks on you making faulty composition, helping someone set their camera, keeping an eye out for the senior member so that she does not fall and watching where the “red bag” of a forgetful client went all at the same time!
This is not an expedition. This is treasure of life experiences. You genuinely forget that Marius is your expedition leader. He becomes your friend and family.”
“Game over. All the good things come to an end and it is now the time to say bye bye to Ethiopia.
The trip to Omo Valley has been a real photographic expedition and a great adventure. I travelled to lot of places with different people but I must say that this trip was very special. I had the chance to meet Marius Coetzee few years ago and I had the impression that, besides the fact the he his really a great photographer, he is also a real tour leader with clear ideas of what he is doing. I do normally travel with my wife and not too much oriented to groups but this time it was different. We acted like a team and everybody was just fantastic and I was honoured to share this time with you all.
Now, many Companies sell the Omo Valley tours. Just forget about. If you are a photographer just Google ORYX Photography and sign a tour with them! This was not only a ‘tour’ this was a real experience with real people and a real leader.
Thanks Marius and thanks ORYX! I also had the chance to improve my photography with you, and thanks to my entire companion. You were all great and it was a pleasure to share this experience and will be glad to repeat it with all of you (and this time with my wife!) the Mongolian Experience in 2016. Travel safe, travel with ORYX…”
“Last day of a fabulous and extraordinary three week adventure in Ethiopia! Massive thanks to Marius Coetzee and Kirsty Horne at ORYX Photography for a superbly organized trip and also to Eyob our legendary local guide!
Anyone wanting an Epic trip, I can highly recommend Ethiopia – stunning scenery, friendly people, great food (and beers) and so much more… And go with ORYX Worldwide Photographic Expeditions -you won’t regret it!!”
“I had a simply phenomenal time and loved Ethiopia every bit as much as you forecast! The other participants on the trip were great fun – we were from five different continents – and all got on extremely well. Thank you for an exceptional, inspiring holiday, ORYX. Everybody said how wonderful you had been, Kirsty, always responding in a friendly, efficient way as if we were your only clients. Thank you, team!”Ethiopia
“Kirsty, Marius and ORYX photography expeditions in general. What I can say..words sometimes cannot justify and explain experiences those experiences need to be lived so one can understand them. Kirsty from day one when I sent the initial email you replied within hours and since never ever anything seemed to be problem..to be honest it was your prompt responses that made me make the final decision to go ahead with ORYX…so for that huge Thank you Kirsty you are amazing :).
Marius – I really don’t have words to describe your commitment towards your clients, your passion for photography, your people skills and ability to deal with different situations. Kirsty you have asked if the tour was up to my expectations. To be honest well above exceeded my expectations..uncle Marius is the best :).
I guess this trip and the people that I met will always stay in my memories..how can one forget the adventures that we had from crossing rivers, negotiating with uncles, to meeting up the most isolated tribes and learning more about photography….I’m looking forward to be with the same group of people on the Mongolia trip.. and final word…. Marius you are young passionate entrepreneur and you should be very, very proud of yourself my friend :).
Regards and lots of Love”
“It does not matter whether you are an adventurer, photographer, traveller or tourist, the Omo Valley in Ethiopia, has a special appeal. Its exotic name conjures mystery, mysticism and certainly, a road less travelled. It is in this valley that several tribes with their traditional ancient culture and customs reside. Each tribe has their particular features and uniqueness. The Mursi with their lip plates, the Karo with their beautifully painted bodies, the Hamer with their Ochre hair and they offer excellent opportunities for “unguarded moment” photography. However, with increasing tourism, it has been a practice that the person to be photographed will demand payment for each photograph taken. Do not be deterred as this is probably one of the ways that the tribesmen can earn some tourist dollar. Do not expect luxurious accommodation but the basic accommodation is liveable and adds on to the rustic experience of your trip of a lifetime. In some places we had to stay in tents which are large and comfortable.
Returning to the Omo valley, I found that the experience second time around was better than the first. This was mainly due to the people that I was travelling with. The leader of our team was Marius Coetzee, a superb photographer, who is the CEO of ORYX – Worldwide Photographic Expeditions (Pty) Ltd. The trip undertaken by me and my two Australian travelling companions, was a customised photography tour and Marius was always ready to share with us his experiences and tricks of the trade of a photographer extraordinaire. The organisation by ORYX is immaculate and excellent and the vehicles, drivers, cook, guide used were world class. The company took care of everything including negotiating the payments for the photographing of the tribes and preventing the unnecessary hassle of us having to negotiate for a price to photograph an individual and then spending endless time and effort debating over a few cents.
It was a 13 day well spent, I returned from the trip certainly a better photographer and more knowledgeable in the culture of the various tribes of the Omo Valley. Furthermore, I appreciate how difficult it is for the tribes to cope with the changes to modernity. I certainly also left the valley as a better human being.”
“Words really fail me in trying to thank you adequately for leading and orchestrating an unbelievable, enlightening, photographically enriching, rough, tough, soul searching and at times happy and sad, all rolled into one, expedition to the Omo Valley, Ethiopia.
I have come out of the experience not only having acquired new photographic skills but also understanding so much more about myself and what I need and would like to achieve as a person on a harsh but beautiful planet!
The organization of the trip was faultless and Afe and all the guys of Dinknesh, Ethiopia were fantastic. The vehicles held up under incredibly rough conditions without a blip and considering the kilometers travelled, days on end, the group and team were like a close knit family unit…. Chilled and respectful towards each other and photographic models we encountered along the way.
Literally, I was blown away and loved every moment! Thank you from the bottom of my heart. I hope you will be able to lead many like minded people to the Omo before things change too much!
Thank you Marius and team, please also convey my thanks to September for the delicious food whilst camping…. Although, I’m also missing my omelette and hot red wine in a tumbler ;). Good times!”
‘I travel overseas 18 times a year, many of these being photographic trips. Ethiopia is not an easy destination – truly beautiful but definitely hard roads and weather conditions.
This is a trip that I had been planning for 2 years. I went thru’ every single tripadvisor review on Ethiopia and looked at many webpages of travel agents and photographers offering photo expeditions to this place. During our trip, we bumped into a few other travel expeditions by other travel companies. It is clear that the deal given to me by Oryx was the best. Everything was carefully planned, we did not have to compete with other tour groups. Very happy with this trip altogether…my highest recommendations. Thank you Marius once again for making all this possible!’Ethiopia - Omo Valley
“I just returned from the Omo Valley trip and must say it was the most interesting cultural expedition I have ever taken. In looking back at my photos I am overwhelmed by the amazing people and places we visited. We were able to visit a number of tribes, all with different beliefs and customs. In addition we spent 5 hours at a Bull Jumping ceremony with access that few people get. We also were able to attend a morning ceremony of harvesting blood from cows. The blood is mixed with milk and the tribe drinks it for protein. This wasn’t a staged ceremony, it was a daily ritual. Everything we saw was authentic.
Marius was always on the look out for photo opportunities. You never knew when he would stop the car, and we would pile out, lay on our bellies in the dust, and have someone drive a heard of goats or cattle our way in order to catch the light hitting the dust to get just the right image. We made several stops at markets and were always the only non-local people in attendance. The trip was perfectly coordinated by ORYX and we had a fabulous local guide, Afe, who added local knowledge to the trip. ORYX has a long standing relationship with most of the tribes we visited.
Knowing the Chief and elders ensured our safety and made it easy to photograph the people.
I can’t imagine any detail that was overlooked. Our safety and comfort and photographic education were always paramount.
After going on a trip with ORYX, I don’t want to do anything other than small group travel again. There were 3 guests, a local guide Afe, Marius, and we also had another professional photographer with ORYX, Sam, who gave us invaluable advice. I used exposure settings and compositions I had not considered, and got great results. I can’t say enough positive things about ORYX.”