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Ethiopia, Part 9: Off-Road Convoy thru Omo Valley

Ethiopia14 min read

26 - 31 July 2011

My time in Ethiopia was coming to an end and I had a fantastic route planned to make the exit grand. Currently, while traveling overland through Eastern Africa, there is only one area where the riding gets rough and that's the crossing between Ethiopia and Kenya. There are two options with the first one following the main highway south of Addis Ababa to the border town of Moyale and crossing into Kenya there, after which lies a road that destroys suspensions and invites trouble from warring tribes. I was glad that I was taking the second option, which crosses Southwestern Ethiopia, through the Omo Valley and enters Kenya at Lake Turkana. This route is also rough but much more scenic and epic because of the colorful tribes in the area and the vast wilderness in this faraway corner of the globe.

The remoteness of traveling through the Omo Valley and down along Lake Turkana translates into 900 kms (560 mi) between petrol stations. Even with my huge Aqualine Safari fuel tank, I would need to carry extra reserves. I had been planning this stretch of the route ever since I entered Ethiopia and made friends with overlanding vehicles so that we could convoy together on this route with them carrying extra petrol and supplies for me. In return, I offered to cook for them.

The convoy was initially going to be just me and the VW Syncro motorhome couple of Ferdinand and Katie, from Germany, but word spreads in the overlanding circle about convoys and pretty soon our convoy grew to five traveling parties. The others in our convoy would be: Peter and Jill, a retired British couple who were moving from the UK to South Africa in their home-built Land Rover Defender-based motorhome; Guy and Louise, a younger British couple, traveling around Africa in a baby blue Defender; and Carlos, a biker from Spain on a KTM 640.

We all met and came to know of each other at Tim and Kim's overlanding junction in Gorgora and set a date and a location to meet up after our tours through northern Ethiopia. We met up in Awasa and then our route took us through Sodo, then Konso, where we filled up all our petrol and diesel reserves and then the off-road started to Turmi, deep in the Omo Valley. After checking out at the immigration outpost of Omorate, and buying some chickens for a curry, we crossed into the barren land along the eastern shores of Lake Turkana and entered Kenya where the border only existed in our GPS.

Come along for the ride and enjoy the diverse peoples and landscapes of the Omo Valley.

A calming view over Lake Awasa, one of many lakes in the Ethiopian Rift Valley.

After meeting up with everyone in our convoy, we had breakfast together at this lodge on the lakeshore. Ferdi and I sat under this beautiful tree that happened to...

...make it easy for the resident monkeys to come harass us for some breakfast. We kept a stick on the table to ward them off.

This guy was fondling his privates while probably salivating over our breakfast.

Fishermen in reed boats on Lake Awasa.

Our route through Southwestern Ethiopia's Omo Valley, starting from Awasa, we spent the first night in Sodo, then crossed Abra Minch to spend the next night in Konso. From there, it got more remote and we spent the next and last night in Ethiopia in Turmi. We had to deviate from the route to get our passports stamped in Omorate, before turning south for Kenya. Click on it to go to the interactive version in Google Maps.

Within a few kilometers of departing from Awasa, our convoy was involved in an accident near Shashamane. The red truck is Peter and Jill's Defender-based motorhome. Peter spent many years building it and took pride in its construction. They were in front, coming down the highway when the white truck on the right rammed into their side while he was positioning the truck for a wash. The damage wasn't extensive but it deformed parts of the interior, such as the shower and kitchen area.

It soon became quite a show and local Ethiopians flooded the scene, who were all interested in seeing what would happen in this incident between farenji (foreigners) and a local driver. This is Ferdi, looked quite ruffled by the growing number of Ethiopians on the scene.

We waited for the police and the owner of the truck to arrive and in the meantime we were blocking traffic on this highway, but this donkey cart had business to attend to.

Peter (in the blue shirt) was glad to have me there in dealing with the Ethiopians as I have a way of being assertive without coming across as being rude, a skill acquired through my many miles on the road. It was obvious that the truck had hit Peter's Defender but the truck's owner (big man between Peter and I) would not admit to that and the police said that if he did not admit to that, we would need the case to be investigated by the courts before a ruling could be passed and claims could be made on the truck's insurance. This was likely to take weeks, months or even years. After two hours of negotiations, we made no headway in getting any money from the truck's owner to repair the damage to Peter's Defender. In the end, Peter settled for a signed letter from the owner saying that he would not sue Peter for any damages, because there have been cases where foreigners have been pursued even when they were not at fault.

A rough start to our convoy, but all was good again and we were rolling to Sodo.

We covered 165 kms (102 mi) on the first day and spent the night in a small hotel in Sodo. That's Carlos on his KTM 640, traveling super light and making sanDRina look like a fat cow, but hey, I got enough tools and spares to fix his bike even. Us bikers took some beds in the hotel for 50 Birr (\$3), while the motorhome couples slept in their vehicles.

We had an early start and got back on the road, heading south to Konso. We were going further and further away from civilization, but there was still cellphone reception.

Passing a waterfall, flowing with chocolatey water, laden with sediments from the rainy season up in the highlands.

Carlos took off on an alternate route and we would meet up further ahead in Turmi, where we also planned to meet the fifth party in our convoy, Guy and Lu in their Defender. So, it was us three vehicles for the next two days. Whenever we stopped for a break, it was a matter of seconds before villagers came running to see what this intrusion through their land was.

Children of Southern Ethiopia. They had unique features, such as protruding eye brows and big foreheads.

Most of them were polite and just curious but it was only a matter of time before they started asking for something, which was usually money, followed by sweets, pen or a notebook. I like this shot that Katie took from their van with the girl running to the right looking to the girl at the window and an older man looking on.

A shy boy, covering up his face with deep eyes. I wonder how the two bumps on his forehead came about...

We were passing through less-developed areas, where the people were dependent on foreign aid for their survival. This was one of numerous signs we saw in the area of aid projects underway and it symbolizes Ethiopia's dependence on foreign aid where 15% of its 80 million population depend on food aid for their survival. Ethiopia has been the poster child for poverty and many think that the government likes to play to that image to keep foreign aid flowing in, so that they can spend their own money on other projects, such as building dams, which adversely affect the very people that the aid is trying to help. Foreign aid is a messy game in Ethiopia and for many rural Ethiopians, the only foreigners they've seen are aid workers who give them stuff. It's the reason I believe that rural Ethiopian children demand for things (such as money or gifts) from any foreigner they see.

The route was mostly easy going but we came across some huge rain puddles and Katie just drove through it with no qualms.

That's a big puddle and the tricky part is not knowing how deep it is. I'm glad I'm traveling on a bike, where I can easily avoid such decisions and just go around the puddles and save the mud baths for when it's really needed.

We were still in the mountains, with elevations around 2,000 m (6,560 ft) but would be dropping to the floor of the Great Rift Valley the next day.

Coming around a corner and getting a great view of Lake Abaya, near Abra Minch. It's the largest of Ethiopia's Rift Valley lakes. I wonder what those two Ethiopians must've thought when we drove by.

Taking a lunch break on a side road and as the elevation slowly dropped, the temperatures climbed and I shed my boots and jacket to cool off.

At the turn-off to Konso, where we got back on the dirt.

Beautiful light as the day neared its end.

Enjoying standing on the pegs... on the way to Konso.

Spending the night in Konso at the last hotel for the next few days. I got a room where everyone showered in.

Enjoying our last Ethiopian dinner in Konso with Katie, Ferdi and Peter.

Mmm, I would miss Ethiopian food but after five weeks of eating it almost everyday for every meal, I was ready for a change.

Passing by a field of teff, the cereal used in making injera on our way west into Omo Valley.

From the edge of the highlands, I could see the vast valley of the Great African Rift spreading out before me. We dropped quickly in elevation and the temperatures went the other way as we headed into dry land.

At the bottom of the mountains, we passed this most unusual of roadkill sights. This poor python was trying to cross the road when it got run over by a big truck. It was quite a sight and even though it was definitely dead, I still dared not get any closer than this and also as a sign of respect for such a magnificent beast. I was surprised that such a huge snake would be existing close to human populations and wondered if I should worry about camping tonight...

A close-up of the dead python. There were already maggots in its exposed flesh, but being a meat-eater, I must say the meat looked tasty. I've never had snake but heard it tastes similar to fish.

Two humans... from different planets. As we were leaving the scene of the snake, this little boy ran and caught up with us and Katie captured this incongruity between the lives of two humans, one wearing a small piece of cotton, likely the extent of his clothing, and the other decked out in high-tech Kevlar gear.

Market day in Weyto, a small village in the Omo Valley, where neighboring tribes come to exchange their goods, as they've done for millennia.

The people of Omo Valley are renowned the world-over for their diversity in cultures whilst being in close proximity to each other. There are eight major tribes in the Omo Valley and each one has distinct cultural practices. The lady is from the Arbore Tribe, as is evident from her headwear, a calabash shell. The man is from the Tsemay Tribe as he's holding their characteristic small wooden stool that they carry around to always have a seat handy. It was interesting to see that the men were wearing short skirts while the women where wearing longer skirts.

Weyto sits at the junction between the Arbore and Tsemay people. Everyone was so busy in their market transactions that they hardly took notice of a bunch of foreigners walking around and taking photos. There are guided tours that can lead tourists deeper insider the Omo Valley but the interaction with the local people there seems to be staged and I much prefer to interact with them in a more natural setting, such as this market.

An interaction between a women from the Hamer Tribe, who come from around Turmi, and I think a Hamer man. Women from the Hamer Tribe are known for their colorful beaded jewelry and beaded hair. While they still practice their cultural traditions, influence from outside their world can't be stopped and many tribal people accept western clothing.

The livestock side of the market. Most of the people in Omo Valley are either pastoralists, who manage livestock, or farmers, growing crops on the banks of the Omo River, the lifeblood for all the people and wildlife in this area. Sadly, the future of all these people is in jeopardy as the Ethiopian government is building a huge dam, the Gibe III, upstream on the Omo River that will adversely affect the lives of these tribes. The dam will obstruct the natural flooding cycle of the river that deposits its rich sediments on the banks, which has allowed these people to practice flood retreat cultivation, a farming technique that they've mastered over the millennia that they've lived in this region. This is a harsh landscape and it seems cruel to remove the livelihood of people in the name of development. The dam is predicted to be an ecological disaster and sadly, the hydroelectricity that will be generated from it is geared for export to neighboring countries and will hardly benefit a majority of rural Ethiopians who still live without access to electricity.

A panorama of the market at Weyto. Omo Valley has been designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its importance that it plays in anthropology, the study of humanity, and its diversity in wildlife. In terms of evolutionary anthropology, many hominid fossils have been discovered in the region giving rise to the notion that this area has been crossed by human cultures of all sorts from the very early days in the story of hominids, going back millions of years.

After soaking up our brief glimpse into the culture of the people of the Omo Valley, it was time to head out. I like this shot as it shows how much attention Peter and Jill's unique motorhome attracted over the more mundane-looking VW Syncro of Ferdi and Katie.

Riding out into the dry valley of the Great African Rift.

Passing huge commercial farms that can afford to irrigate their land, compared to the small-scale agriculture practiced by local people that is dependent on getting water from the annual flooding of the Omo River. Sadly, the produce from these large-scale farms in southern Ethiopia is not intended to feed Ethiopia's population, who are dependent on food aid, but is instead geared for export. A phenomenon is taking place across Africa, where rich countries are buying huge tracts of arable land from local governments to farm food for their populations back home, ensuring their own food security at the expense of local people. The Ethiopian government is happy to sell land to foreign investors and is quick to force local people off their land.

We stopped for a lunch break and within a few minutes we had an audience.

Ferdi and Katie are traveling with their dog, Kayous, which is a boon for car safety but a headache when crossing borders and entering national parks. Kayous looked scary on the outside but was a puppy on the inside. It took many interactions for him to accept me, but over the course of this journey, he became comfortable with me. Ferdi and Katie had to make sure to walk him at every break, because the poor guy was holed up in the van most of the time.

The contrasts between a Tsemay man and a German man. The Tsemay man looks lithe and agile, standing diminutively, whilst the German man looks strong and stands confidently. The German is clearly over-dressed for the conditions.

The Tsemay man was interested in my riding boots and I had him try it on for size.

Now, that's a difference in footwear. On the one foot, we have a Tsemay sandal sown from a used tire, while on the other foot, we have a highly-technical piece of plastic and leather articulated armor. It's hot and stuffy but provides excellent insurance in case of an accident.

The benefits of traveling with an overlanding van: salad and fresh veggies for lunch.

Heading along the Great African Rift in Southern Ethiopia.

Riding through open land, wilderness in Africa. Yes.

We were a convoy but didn't really drive together all the time. I took off in the lead to stay away from the dust clouds produced by the bigger vehicles.

I was waiting for the motorhomes to catch up and this Hamer man showed up...

...wearing a mini skirt and toting a rifle. As soon as I took his photo, he demanded payment of 10 Birr.

Riding the beautiful landscapes of the Omo Valley.

Peter and Jill's Defender motoring across Africa.

I was enjoying being here at this moment, soaking in the vast landscape.

Katie captured these Hamer children as we took a break in the late afternoon.

We crossed this drying river bed just before Turmi and took it as a taste for things to come. The route along the northern shores of Lake Turkana is famous for its numerous river bed crossings, which obviously is a much more difficult task in the rainy season. We were all hoping that the river beds were dry.

Spending our last night in Ethiopia at Evangadi Camp in Turmi. We met up with the rest of our convoy, Guy and Lu in the blue Defender and Carlos, who took a room in a nearby hotel.

It had been a while since I had slept in my one-man Catoma Twist tent and quickly found comfort in my minimalist accommodation.

Our group of travelers took turns in preparing dinner and...

...Jill prepared a hearty pasta dinner for everyone. Good conversations over warm food and cold beer. We were all excited for what lay ahead in the next few days, as the crossing along Lake Turkana promised to be quite an adventure.

The next morning, we set off from Turmi, where the local villagers came out to see our strange vehicles as Carlos bought some last-minute supplies.

A sign board of an aid project underway to increase people's resilience to drought. This was a dry land and we stored up on our fresh water supplies.

Passing a giant anthill on the way to Omorate.

The four-wheel parties in our convoy, each showing that there's no one way to overland across Africa. If I had to do this on four wheels, I think I'd take the VW Syncro because it could handle anything the Land Rovers could do and it had the most space inside for comfortable living, but yeah, the Defender has the classic look for overlanding across Africa.

Arriving at the remote immigration post in the small village of Omorate, on the banks of the Omo River. This is the only place to get our passports stamped out in southern Ethiopia.

But we had bad timing as the only immigration officer on duty had just taken off for his breakfast, which lasted about an hour and a half.

Lots of milling about in the heat and waiting for the immigration officer to show up. Nice capture of the Ethiopian flag flying strong.

This little girl had quite a bit of sass and kept Guy entertained.

Finally, our man showed up and pain-stakingly went through every page of every passport before stamping us out. I like the expressions captured by the German couple frustrated with the bureaucratic inefficiency.

I had promised Ferdi and Katie that I would cook them a chicken curry in exchange for carrying petrol for me and we set about finding chickens in Omorate. We managed to buy two live birds and then found this small hotel that offered to kill and clean the chickens for us. The ladies were boiling up meat for the lunch rush.

Boiled beef, Omorate style. If you're sensitive to headless chickens, skip the next few photos.

The moment one of our chickens lost its head. I was on a quest to get closer to killing an animal if I was going to be comfortable eating it and wanted to observe how a chicken went from being a live bird to the meat that we're more familiar with.

The headless chicken was quickly put under this tub for the rest of body to die down.

Once properly dead, precision cuts were made in the skin that saw all of it come off with the feathers.

This was an interesting moment for all of us and we relished the fact that we were having some chickens prepared in a remote village in southern Ethiopia for a chicken curry dinner that was going to be prepared by an Indian motorcyclist along the shores of Lake Turkana in Kenya that evening.

Overlanders are not squeamish people as is evident by Carlos eating an egg sandwich as he watched the cleaning of this recently alive chicken.

My ride through Ethiopia confirmed the hype that this country is truly an adventure riding paradise. There are steep, off-road mountainous climbs in the Northern Highlands to well-made, twisting tarmac and hundreds of kilometers of off-road riding through remote land in the southwest. And I only saw half the country, there is still all the eastern side to ride.

Next: Kenya, Part 1: Riding the Sands and Rocks along Lake Turkana

Previous: Ethiopia, Part 8: Addis Ababa, Lucy and Shashamane


Jammin thru the Global South was the 3+ year, 100,000+ km ride Jay did from the US to India via Latin America, Europe and Africa. Explore the photojournals at the Journey Posts tab.

Jammin Global Adventures is a tour company run by Jay Kannaiyan. He organizes small group, premium motorcycle adventures in Peru, Kenya, Mongolia, India and more.

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