A trickle of blood ran from the corner of his mouth, down his chin and fell like a drop of red rain into the dark mud. Handing me a calabash half-filled with fresh, warm cow’s blood, the child stared at me in anticipation. “Go on; drink it,” he seemed to be saying. Breakfast was served. I didn’t drink, scared of catching something, but it saddened me to think that if all goes according to plan, the world will lose a little more of its colour and diversity in a few year’s time, and the traditions that I witnessed in this rural part of east Africa will soon be extinct.
The lower Omo Valley region of southwestern Ethiopia is overwhelmingly green, riven with steep-sided hills and home to about two dozen tribal groups, including the bull-jumping Hamer people, the decorated Mursi, whose women folk wear huge lip plates, and Surmi warriors, who paint themselves white to look like spirits in the night. Without any doubt, the lower Omo Valley is one of the most ethnically diverse corners of Africa. It is also, according to environmentalists, an area under severe threat thanks to the enormous Gibe III dam that is being constructed upriver of the Omo Valley. This, they say, will have a dramatic effect on water levels downstream, which in turn will destroy the way of life of the people of Omo. Defenders of the dam disagree and point to the financial and technological advantages it will bring to the region and country as a whole.
My journey started, like most people’s, in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s sprawling capital. According to a well-known guidebook publisher, Addis, as it’s often shortened to, is one of the must-do city break destinations of 2013. As a new arrival, spluttering from car exhaust fumes and looking out across miles of less than inspiring urban confusion, I at first begged to differ with this assessment. But after giving the city a bit of time, I started to understand what they were getting at. Yes, beauty wise Addis is no Paris, but what it does have is the buzz of a city on the up. As one of the faster growing cities in Africa, the diplomatic capital of the continent and the heart of a country that is experiencing an unprecedented economic boom (in recent years Ethiopia’s growth rate has been as high as 11 per cent), Addis increasingly demands attention. From the point of view of a visitor though, what’s more interesting than economic growth patterns is that Addis is a city of culture. There are more quality museums here than virtually any other East African city. An afternoon spent perusing the collections inside the Ethnographic Museum of the Institute of Ethiopian Studies took me on a whistle stop tour of Ethiopian life, death, customs and cultures. And then, for something a little darker, I took a sombre walk around the new “Red Terror” Martyrs Memorial Museum, which, through the use of photos, news clippings, personal artefacts and the bones of some of the victims, took me back to the dreadful days of the late 1970s, when the dictatorial ruler of Ethiopia at the time, Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam, launched his infamous Red Terror Campaign, in which thousands of government opponents died.
Addis isn’t only about dusty artefacts though. This is very much a live-for-the-moment kind of city. And that’s most apparent in and around the up-and-coming Bole Road area of the city, where a plethora of good restaurants serving cuisine from around the world can be found.
It would have been easy for me to have spent a week in Addis eating an array of high-quality Asian and Western dishes, but I’d have been missing out if I hadn’t ventured to one of the city’s traditional Ethiopian restaurants for a meal unlike any other. Like so many things Ethiopian, the national cuisine, injera and wat, is unique. Injera is a kind of sour-tasting, spongy pancake that’s the staple of all Ethiopian meals. On top of this are placed dollops of wat: these are the spicy meat stews, tasty vegetable curries and even cubes of raw beef that add flavour to any Ethiopian meal.
It’s a long journey, taking at least two days, from Addis to the Omo Valley. Not being one to enjoy spending 10 to 12 hours at a stretch in a car, I decided to spin the trip out over several days. Most visitors to Omo head to the eastern side of the valley, which is home to a greater variety of tribal people, as well as a greater range of tourist facilities. I, by contrast, had chosen to visit the remote western side of the valley; home to the Surmi people. Leaving the capital, I drove westward, past the bulbous cone of Mount Wuchacha (3,380 metres), its flanks covered in a thick forest of giant juniper trees.
My first night stop was the small town of Weliso, where I stayed at the excellent Negash Lodge (www.negashlodge.com; 00 251 113 410002; rooms cost 759 to 1,012 birr [Dh152 to Dh202]). The following morning I set out for a day’s hiking around the beautiful, 3,280-metre-high Mount Wenchi. The goal of this walk wasn’t so much bagging the summit, but rather it was about circumnavigating the luminous blue lake hidden away inside the mountain’s secret crater.
Just a couple of hours out of Addis and here I was in a scene of rural bliss. Geese and ducks puttered slowly across the lake surface, tiny fields of barley and teff (the unique Ethiopian cereal from which injera is made) turning gold in the warm highland sun and the tinkle of cool, fresh waters splashed through
From Mount Wenchi and Weliso I continued west, the landscape became ever more fertile, low clouds and mist played through the valleys and around the mountain slopes. Eventually I reached the muddy agricultural town of Mizan Tefari, situated deep in the heart of Ethiopian coffee country. Mizan Tefari is best known in Ethiopia for being the home of Bebeka Coffee Plantation, the country’s oldest and largest coffee farm. Although a tour of the farm proved impossible to organise, I did get the consolation prize of a night in one of the estate’s atmospheric guest houses. Mizan Tefari was also the point at which I veered south and descended into the scrubby, acacia-spotted savannah lands of the lower Omo Valley. For a while I drove through countryside apparently empty of life, save for the occasional flutter from the wings of a departing yellow-billed hornbill. And then, suddenly, emerging out of the scrub was a herd of mud-stained cattle followed by a man wearing royal purple robes, painted all over in white horizontal tiger stripes and a Kalashnikov rifle slung over his shoulder. I was at last in Surmi country.
Not long afterwards, the rutted track tumbled into the pocket-sized village of Kibish, where an extraordinary sight awaited me. Sauntering down the red earth street were hundreds of tall and elegant men dressed in greens and purples, their glistening black skin dusted in white stripes. Around them wove groups of women in day-glo bright colours; it wasn’t the clothing that caught the eye but rather the women’s jewellery: clay lip plates that stretched lower lips eight to 10 centimetres outwards and ear rings so heavy that earlobes were forced to grow unnaturally long. Mesmerised by the people around me, I set up camp under the shade of a spreading acacia tree and walked down to the nearby riverbank, where cattle were being driven down in the soft sunlight for a drink, children splashed naked through the shallows and, using the natural paint from the local chalky rocks, adults painted geometric lines across each other’s bodies.
For the next few days I settled into a pattern of hiking between outlying hamlets and villages and spending the golden evenings watching life unfold along the river bank. On my last morning in Kibish, I was invited to breakfast at the house of a man we’d befriended. He lived, surrounded by his cattle, an hour’s walk away. When I arrived, his children were in the process of preparing breakfast. A large brown cow was brought out of the corral they were kept in at night, a rope tied tightly around its neck and then, using a miniature bow and arrow, an arrow was fired into a jugular on the cow’s neck and a fountain of thick red blood spurted upwards and outwards. Using a calabash the children caught the blood and, when it was full, they tipped it back and all took turns to take a long drink.
On my final night in the valley, I crawled into my tent as cicadas wailed and, in the distance, a jackal yelped. I fell asleep to images flickering through my mind of ghost-white figures striding through savannah and of a proud and determined people fighting to retain their traditional way of life in the hurly-burly of a rapidly approaching new world order.
If you go
The flight A return flight on Emirates (www.emirates.com) from Dubai to Addis Ababa costs from Dh1,230 return, including taxes. The flight takes four hours.
The stay A double room at the three-star Stay Easy (www.stayeasyaddis.com; 00 251 116 616 688) costs from US$50 (Dh183) per night, including taxes. A double room at the Sheraton (www.luxurycollection.com/addis; 00 251 115 171 717) costs from $331 (Dh1,215) per night, including taxes.