Where Has the Lion Gone?

“Bridge of God” (an isthmus between Lakes Abaya and Chamo)
Left: Lake Abaya
Right: Lake Chamo

My southern Omo journey would not be complete without a safari trip to the Nechisar National Park  to see the wild animals. (“Safari” is a Swahili word meaning  journey/hunting expedition in eastern Africa). Nechisar (means white grass in Amharic) National Park  is located  near Arba Minch in the Southern Rift Valley, with the undulating Nechisar plains, hosting  lakes Abaya and Chamo.

Going to the Nechisar Plains was anticipated to be a tough journey. The 20km from the entrance of the park to the plains was merely a dirt road, meandering through thick canopied forests and waterlogged marshland. At times, the dirt road did not even exist. The 4×4 was left to climb rocks and boulders, ascending and descending  mountains, and treading across streams and rivers.

Lake Abaya – a beauty of its own kind
It is the largest “rift valley lake” in Ethiopia. (NB Lake Tana in Bahir Dar where I live is the largest lake in Ethiopia) It’s unique red hue is particularly eye catching, especially when seen side by side with Lake Chamo, which has a clear, tranquil blue surface. The red color is caused by heavy load of iron suspension.

Lake Chamo
Another rift valley lake nestled quietly in the Omo valley. Due to time limitation, I did not take the boat to see hippos,crocodiles and pelicans, which was an activity I dearly missed. Most tourists will prefer to take the scenic boat ride while I had taken the road less traveled.

It was only on the second attempt that we successfully reached our destination. We had to head out very early before dawn. Our first undertaking at the Nechisar National Park was aborted after one and a half hours of bumping up and down the narrow trail. Our road was blocked by another tourist 4×4 vehicle, which was stuck and decided to turn back. It had rained  the night before. My experienced driver also considered the danger of the slippery boulders and sinking mud unsafe to proceed further. For the next few days, I was praying faithfully  for the sun to dry up the road.

My strong passion to see the wild animals could be demonstrated by my insistence to return to the park and determination to conquer the challenges. My safari dream could not be achieved without the support and expertise of Seid, my driver. I felt so thankful to have him as a comrade on this journey.  There had been so many moments that we were all holding our breaths and I was clinging tight onto my seat. I swear I did not wet my pants though!

Crossing the same river, three different responses..

This is a river I will never forget, a place where I had my first encounter with the gigantic biting tsetse flies (or tik tik flies). Tsetse flies are the vectors that carry trypanosomes, which  can cause the  deadly sleeping sickness in humans  and nagana (animal trypanosomiasis) in game animals. They have the characteristic resting posture of holding back their wings (like a person holding  back his arms on the back). The flies were swarming over our car, following us through the jungle.

The different responses of my “exploration team” at this spot vividly showed the different personalities of each individual.

It had been several days we did  not have proper access to tap water. Driver Seid stopped at the river and gave his beloved vehicle a thorough wash and wipe. His act was  important to ensure a clear view of windows and mirrors for safe driving.  The windows of the car were shining so spotlessly clean that  I could even see the veins on the wings of the tsetse flies. This made the flies look more horrifying. In addition, he bottled up more water for future use.

Believe it or not, Abush, the chubby tour guide, stripped naked right in front of our eyes and plunged into the river for a bath. He was taking all his time to enjoy the freshness of the water, only to regret that he was a “conspicuous” target of the hungry tsetse flies. He got bitten on  his big toe!

You can call me a coward, but there is no way anybody could bribe me out of the car. Despite I was steaming hot and  my body covered entirely with sweat, I had all the windows rolled up to stay out of harm’s way. Besides, I couldn’t care less whether my body smelled or not. I simply did not have the courage to bathe open in public.

Smile of triumph arriving at the Nechisar Plains. You can imagine how challenging the road had been. The 20km journey had taken nearly 3 hours.
I was immediately cautioned about ticks in the tall grass by my guide. Ticks can transmit typhus and other diseases.  He also meticulously helped me search for bite marks and any hidden ticks  in my jeans and boots after the expedition.

The Nechisar National Park is home to a large number of animals and birds: antelopes, hartebeest (endemic to Ethiopia), Grant’s gazelles, greater and lesser kudus, dik diks, Burchell’s zebras, black and white Colubus monkeys, olive baboons, bush bucks, bush pigs, warthogs, hippos, crocodiles, crested francolins, doves, white pelicans, white brow sparrows, gray back fiscals,… just to name a few.  I was lucky to come face to face with many of  them almost within arm’s reach. Sometimes I wish my little “point and shoot” camera could respond faster and capture all these wonderful creatures created by God with vibrant colors, interesting shapes and bold patterns. Some of the animals and birds are endemic only to Africa. I realized my knowledge about animals and birds was extremely limited. Often I had to look up their names retrospectively. Flamboyant colored butterflies and dragonflies painted an magnificent scene every time our car splashed over a puddle. Startled from their romance, the insects swarmed and rendezvoused over our car, fluttering their beautiful wings. Numerous species of fish live in the rift valley lakes. I had the chance of tasting the big hefty Nile perch for dinner after the trip.

Crested Francolins

Two warthogs bucking heads, opposing each other obstinately.
They were charging forcefully at each other for quite a long while with no one able to proceed forward.
How many times do we see this in human beings too?

Olive baboon

Same baboon posing for my camera after given a banana.
Picture looks familiar? (Mentioned earlier in  my blogs: tribal people posing for photos after monetary or other material rewards)

Greater Kudu
Both the greater kudu and its close cousin the lesser kudu have stripes and spots on the body, and most have a chevron of white hair between the eyes.

Male Greater Kudu
The greater kudu’s horns are spectacular and can grow as long as 72 inches, making 2 1/2 graceful twists. This male chauvinist was proudly leading our car for at least half a kilometer before rejoining his herd

Burchell’s zebras – 5 in a row

The Burchell’s zebras are not shy of taking close-ups!

Little dik dik

You must wonder, how come I was walking so freely on the Nechisar Plains watching wild animals without the fear of being attacked by the lions? Where has the lion gone?  That was a very good question. Due to overhunting by the tribes living in the national park and poor conservation, many of the large mammals, including the lions, giraffes and elephants, have extincted on the plains . This was evidenced by the victory waka poles on the graves of the tribal heroes documenting how many lions they had killed in their lives. In 1998, a blogger described he could still hear the roar of the lions in the vicinity of his hotel. Today, the tour guide told me there was only one lion left in Nechisar National Park. I suspected this was a “fact” he made up to lessen my disappointment. He said there might still be some of these large mammals in the Omo National Park, which was hardly accessible by car. The only way to get there was either by rafting or by foot. Otherwise, I need to visit them in the safari in Kenya or Tanzania.

Thus, the awards from my African safari trip was definitely not the prize of a  hunted lion (or I should say the fortune of not being devoured by a lion) but the joy of the intimate encounter with Nature, the thrill and excitement of the adventure, and the pride of overcoming challenges all along the way.


Days Without Connection

Embarking my Adventurous African Journey

On October 12, 2012, I flew from Addis Ababa (capital of Ethiopia) to Arba Minch (name means 40 Springs in Amharic) to embark on my adventurous journey in the South Omo Valley. The Omo Valley is a remote area in the south-western part of Ethiopia bordering Kenya. It’s located in the Africa’s Great Rift Valley. About 50 years ago, it was literally untouched by the outside world. It is a fascinating place with its own unique culture and diversity. It has once been known as the “Lost Eden”.

My wild African dream would not have been made possible without my “team” which consists of the following team members:

The adventurous explorer- me and the reliable 4×4.
The area is not easily accessible without a 4×4. Most of the roads are dirt paths climbing up and down steep mountains, rocky paths or marsh areas. The road conditions would even be harsher after rain.

The “Team”
My Muslim driver,Seid Ebrahim, has been driving these rough roads through the mountains and valleys for 30 years. He is so good avoiding the potholes and smoothening all the skids that I did not even need a single motion sickness pill nor my white flower ointment. I would highly recommend him to anybody who wants a driver to visit Omo valley.
The chubby guy is my local guide- his nickname is “Abush” which means little boy in his language.

In some places such as the Mago National Park, it is compulsory to hire an armed security guard carrying a rifle (AK47). His presence made me feel so much like a VIP. He was there not to protect me from being eaten by lions, but to keep me from the hassle of the tribal villagers. It is kind of sad to need such a service as the villagers are usually pretty benign. They swarmed over a foreigner simply because of curiosity or because of their basic needs are not met such as need for money, food and water, clothing, etc.They live in such a remote area that these amenities are not easily accessible except tourists are bringing in these items from outside.

On the first day, we drove by a small town called Weita where the Tsemai people were having their market day.

The journey was often slowed by these road users who always had the right of way- large herds of cattle and sheep

The Tsemai, are the dominant people in the Weita village. They speak an east cushitic language.

The Tsemai are mixed subsistence farmers who practice flood cultivation, with the major crops being sorghum and maize. They also rear livestock, cattle and keep beehives for honey.

Market days are great social gathering opportunities for the Tsemai villagers. The women often use clay mixed with butter to apply on their hair to give a copper color to make themselves look pretty.

These trucks, overloaded with passengers, are their ” local buses” to go to market.

Tsemai people greeting each other

En route to Jinka for the night, we went past another very colorful market.

Termite mount

Colorful market of Jinka

Jinka is the administrative capital of the South Omo zone. This small town has a small airstrip in the centre which used to land airplanes. Many traders from different areas come to Jinka’s market to sell their goods.

The second day  we went to the Mago National Park where the Mursi tribe lived. The steep dirt road between Jinka and Mago National Park was only 40km, but it took two hours to cover. Most of the park lied on the Rift Valley floor and was  covered densely by acacia woodland. Due to inadequate conservative measures, many large mammals were now severely depleted through years of poaching. Not many wildlife could be seen in the park.

White chalk markings on their chests are symbols of the Mursi tribe

Markings on arms to brag their bravery and how many animals they have killed

More Mursi women with disfigured lower lips

The accomodation for my whole trip was very modest. Most of the “4 star” hotel did not have power, water nor internet. Some hotels did have their own generator which might be on intermittently. It was an experience with complete  disconnection with the outside world. I also had the opportunity  to stay in a hotel which was built with mud, grass and cement looking like the following:

The hotel built with mud, grass and cement in Turmi

Hotel restaurant

Chef slaghtering a goat at the back of hotel

Vulture waiting eagerly for its meal

Washing basins

Common pit latrine

Each tribe living in the Omo Valley does have is own characteristic tradition, style, fashion and housing. On the third day, we went to visit the Hamer Tribe in Turmi.

The Hamer woman is adorned with thick plaits of ochre-colored hair hanging down in a heavy fringe, leather skirts decorated with cowries,and many copper bracelets.Married women wear thick copper necklaces- from her necklace, we can tell she is the second wife of her husband.

Hamen men can marry many wifes. This is the necklace worn by the first wife.

Crafts seen at the Hamer market:

Portable little stools used only by the Hamer men

Hamer men skilfully sitting on their little stools having a conversation….
Man with a feather indicates he has had the bull-jumping ceremony, an event that shows his adulthood, his readiness to own cattle,to marry a wife and can perform the ritual beating of women.

…while Hamer women only sit on the floor.

Hut of the Hamer people

The Hamer women are consensually beaten by men of their tribe who had suscuessfully undertaken the bull jumping ceremony. The pain and the scars on their back show their love to their kinsmen .

Women of all these tribes are very strong and they carry heavy loads on their back, walking long distances. This one is carrying grass to feed cattle back home.

I hope  this blog will give you a brief glimpse of the differrent tribes of people living in the Omo Valley. Can you tell the difference between them? Please follow on and more to come in my next blog.