Cycling the rough roads of South Omo, Ethiopia

Omo Valley is a remote tribal region tucked in South Western corner of Ethiopia.

With Mursi people

It is rapidly changing though. Various mega agricultural and hydropower projects plus ever expanding tourism sector is inevitably changing the face of the Omo Valley region.

One young Karo (tribe known for its intricate body painting rituals
Korcho man told us that even some 10 years ago their village did not had any bars. He probably saw his first white person only at the age of 9 (he is 24 now). Nowadays his Korcho village hosts at least two bars powered by diesel generators with music mercilessly blasting popular Ethiopian music and probably at least ten cars arriving daily packed with foreigners at the high of tourist season. At the same time you still can hear traditional singing and handclaping somewhere in the old village quarters. Tradition is still alive and is not ready to completely depart Omo yet.

Mursi people

The electricity, paved roads, better hotels make these very remote tribes more exposed to the good and bad of what modern world has to offer. It is a fact of life and it reminds me the inevitable melting of all these glaciers that are so beautiful but seemingly temporary. I guess the “old Omo ways” will move to cultural houses or theater stages and will thrive that way, but until then, you still have to put a great effort in order to get there.

Many roads and tracks are still unsurfeced and super rough on your vehicle or bicycle, and your body.

Karo people at Korcho village

We like Omo Valley a lot! People are proud and gracious but still super friendly and approachable. Rough and remote roads mean quiet. Sometimes we experience dust from the passing vehicle but most of the time serenity and lots of sounds of nature. Lots of birds of different colors and shapes. Accompanied by winds which can gather strength in places with less vegetation. The heat is also reaching almost 40 degrees Celsius so it is not an easy place to live. But it is a true place to live as one local put it.

We are almost on our last leg in Ethiopia. Arrived to Omorate, a little tribal outpost not too far from where the Ethiopian, Kenyan and South Sudanese borders meet. Here live Dasenech people.

Dasenech people

Dasenech people are pastorialists and sometimes get in conflict with neighboring Turkana tribes. They sometimes steal each other’s goats and then kill each other, also very sometimes.

We did get to cycle through some serious rain sometimes

Before getting to Omorate from our Bale Mountains exploration we passed Awasa. Probably the most pleasant city in Ethiopia for us. It has a huge lake and very relaxed resort town vibe. It even had a couple coffee shops with passable ice-cream (the first in Ethiopia). We were following Dinsho-Shahemane-Awasa-Sodo-Araba Minch-Konso road.

After cycling over Bale Mountains we hitchhiked local truck couple of times to help us tackle coming mountains
Some wild dancing with the locals in Dorze

All this stretch has a good surfaced road accept the part from Arba Minch to Konso where you get broken asphalt and a very bumpy gravel section between 38 and 61 km of Arba Minch – Karat Konso road.
Around Konso you get those “Ethiopian kids” again. This means they are chasing you just because they are curious and they can. In very large numbers and frequently.

One time the whole school was chasing us!

Sometimes it got too challenging so locals got couple sticks for us to fight the kids off. We were not convinced that this is a good idea, but after seeing that most of the kids abruptly halt their chase as soon as they notice that we have a stick on our bike! It was like a magic to us 🙂
If some unruly kids still were braving our tandem, Igna waved our magic “wand” and more likely than not problems stopped! We’ve been carrying this wand already for over two weeks now. But to tell the truth after Karat – Konso things have changed again and the tribal kids were more timid and much better behaved. We suspect that comes from their families who seem more proud of their ways of life and do not seem to care much about “farenjis”. Not much use of our stick nowadays and we are very happy about that.

There are around 16 different tribes in Omo Valley and we manged to see 4 different ones from up close – Mursi, Banna, Karo and Dasenech.
The most intimate encounter was with Tomas and Bargar family from Banna tribe. One day we arrived to Key Affer and after setting our tent up, went for a walk towards local market. On the way there we passed a few local women who were carrying water on their backs. After some friendly exchange one of them jokingly asked me to help her cary that water tank. I jokingly agreed and the next minute I had that water jug on my back.

Tomas and Tomas

This created a spectacle for the locals and we got lots of thumbs up on our way to the market. Once there we find out that women’s name was Tomas, just like mine! What a considence! Tomas introduced us to her tribal circle of friends who were fascinated with what they were seeing. Borde was shared with us and we passed calabash around in the circle. Borde is one of traditional alcohol drinks that is brewed locally mainly from sorghum. It has a sour yeasty taste and lots of sorghum pulp. It is traditionally brewed at homes to be shared with friends and guests. It seems like this is the main household alcohol beverage that tribes are drinking all day long. Mostly men in social gathering places. Or everyone on market days.
Later a local young man appeared who knew both Banna and English and helped us all learn more about each other. Tomas invited us to sleep at her place that night. Sadly we already had our place set and paid for so I offered to meet the next morning for a tea and some fruit sharing. We agreed that she will wait for us at 8 am on the main road.
The next morning we were late to leave our campsite and only showed up at the agreed spot some 30 minutes late. Tomas was not around and nobody was waving to us so we just pedaled forward. This was a sad moment as we truly hoped to visit Tomas’ hut and share some time with her family. We were not sure about where our exact meeting spot suppose to be as there might be a lot that was lost in translation, plus most of the locals are not comfortable with using map so our meeting place could have been somewhere else.
After another 6 km or so we could not believe our eyes – Tomas was standing on the road and waving at us! Wow! We warmly greeted each other, parked our bike at the neighbour’s place by the road and walked another 2 km deep into the bush until we reached Tomas’ place.

Tomas was absolutely right – we could not reach her home on the bike

It appears Banna people live in loosely arranged clusters of huts where naighbouring families stay not too far from each other. Her particular compound was very neatly organized with main family hut in the center then some huts for their animals and other storage spaces. We were greeted by Balgar, Tomas’ husband and their children and invidet inside their main hut. White cowskin was laid on the floor for the guest seating and the coffee husk tea was brewing on the open fire inside in the corner.

Together with Tomas and Bargar family

We shared some fruits we brought with us and candies. We were drinking tea and later some delicious borde. Shared some jokes and laughter, then were treated with fresh cows milk and sorghum bread. They are very sweet people with extremely simple way of life with almost everything made from organic locally sourced materials. Calabash can serve as a decorative hat or a cup for drinking for example.

After a few hours we had to continue our journey to Turmi (another small town some 60 km away, inhabited with mostly Hamer tribe). We walked back to our bike and off we went.
The road from Key Afer to Turmi is all bumpy gravel, so it took us little longer but most of it was downhill so we cannot complaint.
By this time we had couple mediocre experiences with local guides so we decided to move forward and visit next tribe on our own. We have heard that Karo people were standing out with their elaborate body paintings, so we figured we will search for their village and will simply show up asking for a possibility to camp. We were hoping that spending more time at the village will allow us to overcome that touristy “pay wall”.

We decided to visit Karo Korcho village that was some 49 km away from Turmi. We were told that road is extremely challenging and “maybe not for a bicycle”. We decided to head there anyway and yes, it is all beat up gravel with first 20 km pretty hilly so it was not fast and quite challenging on a loaded tandem. From Turmi to Korcho elevation takes you down by some 400 meters or so. Because of this decline we managed to get there in some 4 – 5 hours.
At the village we were greeted by local guides who dropped their beers and ran after us trying to make sure we do not sneak in without paying proper fees. We tried our best to avoid giving money directly to them so they took us to their “cheef”. We say “cheef” as there is no way to verify who is who and sure thing the “cheef” was hanging out with them in the bar and really indifferent to who or why or what is going on. Anyway, we gave him these entrance fees sans guide fee and they directed us to the campsite.

At the Korcho village

The campsite is probably the most picturesque from what we had so far. It is located at the end of the village on the cliff overlooking the Omo River with its crocodiles soaking in the hot sun at the battom on its banks. Really stunning views! That is where the most pictures are taken with Karo people. Tourists come mostly in the morning and locals are already waiting dressed up and decorated ready to earn their share.

We set our tent and were enjoying the views and curious locals. We had some joyous tandem rides them and also went down to a river to wash off our road dust. “Are you not afraid of the crocodiles?” – I asked one of the locals. “We know the system. Crocodiles cannot dive deeper than 2 meters, so you just dive deep and suddenly change the direction of you swimming so croc gets confused” – replies our new friend. “Anyway they do not like people and noise so never approach us when we are washing or collecting water”. Somehow it sounded reassuring and from the numbers of locals bathing inside the river we decided it was safe.
Next day we befriended some Italians who were camping along with us. They came by car and we asked them to take a few of our heaviest bags with them back to Turmi. They kindly agreed so we thought we will have a little easier ride back to town. We still had A LOT OF WORK to do before we reached Turmi. This ride from Korcho to Turmi was the second most challenging so far (first one being the climb over Bale mountains). The heat, strong head wind and brutal road surface with continuous climb took the toll and we spent 6.5 hours on our way back. We probably got a heat stroke as our heads were spinning and we had breaks more and more often towards the end. I cannot even imagine how it would feel if we had to carry all of our luggage. As a reward we had a very nice dinner with our Italian friends at the fancy hotel they were staying. Italians were a fun bunch with lots of African traveling experience and their great stories about how they tried to support local kids here.
Next morning we headed off towards Omorate where we are currently resting. We were lucky to find DESENECH hotel which always has running water, more room space than your average option and also Wi-Fi. Costs some $18/night – much more than we normally pay but after a week of camping we felt we are ready to treat ourselves 🙂

Ahmed on the right inspecting his watermelon fields

We met Ahmed in our hotel. He is a young entrepreneur who is trying to establish his farming business. Ahmed spent years in the USA studying international business and came back to his home country to help his farther to cultivate newly acquired land. He speaks excellent English and is really helpful with his insights about Omorate practicalities. He even took us to his farm to show his watermelon fields. Apparently local people did not know what watermelon is until Ahmed introduced it. Soil is very fertile and nearby Omo river makes farming smoother. Ahmed’s farm is surrounded by Dasenech people so we got to interact with them too. After the visit to his farm Ahmed showed us a local fish restaurant were we got to try freshly cooked Omo fish. Good, slow and lazy days.

Kenya and its sandy Turkana roads will greet us tomorrow!

In a mean time you can check out many more pictures from our visit to Omo Valley.

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