An Epic Ethiopian Expedition (2013)

You’re Going Where???

Singapore – Bangkok / Wednesday 27 November 2013

This was pretty much the standard reaction to my telling folks that I was going to Ethiopia for the year-end holidays.  This was followed by a few other ‘next level’ reactions – “WOW!!”, “Why??”, “Safe or not??”

It all started some months ago, when our lady of leisure (Shobs) sent me a link to Oryx Photographic Tours, a South African company specialising in photo expeditions to the ‘wildest and most scenic’ destinations in the world – her email said “Want to go?” and I said “Sure.”  What followed was several emails to the very helpful Kirsty Horne of Oryx, two visits to the Travel Clinic of TTSH to get 7 (yes 7) vaccinations and our malaria prophylaxis, two visits (by Shobs) to the Ethiopian Consulate in Singapore (strangely co-located with the Amoy Canning Factory somewhere in Jurong…they even share email addresses) to get our visas (special for Shobs as she smiled nicely – visas were done in 2 days instead of the usual 5)…and the purchase of some (totally justified) new camera gear.

And so today, we leave on our big adventure.  After many trips to the airport in recent months in Brian’s limo, we had to resort to a plebeian cab this time as our favourite limo driver was otherwise occupied. The Staves were supposed to have returned from Malaysia before we left but didn’t make it in time…which was a big downer as we hadn’t said proper goodbyes – and now we wouldn’t see them for SEVEN months as they would’ve left for Toronto before we get back to Singapore 😦

We were in Changi with plenty of time to spare…and decided (quite unnecessarily) to have chicken curry at Bakerzin…which just meant that we didn’t have space for the Thai chicken curry served on the Thai Air flight to Bangkok.  Suvarnabhumi Airport at midnight is a hive of activity; we spent our 3-hour transit walking, trying to get the wifi to work, and, on the part of Shobs, trying not to fall asleep where she sat.

Another first coming up…Ethiopian Airlines…it’s a member of Star Alliance!

A Very Long 8 Hours, and the Last King of Scotland

Addis Ababa, Ethiopia /  28 November 2013

We were both so tired by the time it was time to board the Ethiopian Airlines flight at 1am (2am Singapore time). As we boarded, we saw several people who were stopped for having carry-ons that were too heavy. Shobs’ backpack was exactly 7kg when she weighed it at home; mine was easily 10kg if not more…but we walked by, trying to appear as if we had practically nothing in those bulging backpacks; fortunately, it worked and no one stopped us.

Once on board, and the battle to fit my backpack into the overhead compartment was won (with help from the stewardess and some passengers), we settled into our seats and promptly fell asleep. We didn’t even know when we took off and slept for pretty much the entire flight. For some reason the 8-hour flight seemed much longer, and each time I woke up and looked at the time, only 10 or 15 minutes would have passed. At about 5 in the morning, there was a quite spectacular sunrise, followed by a less spectacular breakfast.

We touched down very smoothly at Bole International Airport 4 minutes ahead of schedule at 6.41am. There was an Ethiopian Airlines Dreamliner on the tarmac – it didn’t look that big in real life.

It was a lovely crisp 23C with clear blue skies and air that just felt fresh. We were eventually met by the tour guide, Yasin, who had gone to grab a bit of breakfast and wasn’t there when we came out into the arrival hall. The Hotel Jupiter was not far away in the city centre, though traffic was quite heavy – it was the morning ‘rush hour’ and also the festival of St Gabriel, Yasin informed us. He also informed us that Singapore is his “dream city”.

My immediate impression of the city area of Addis Ababa was – “The Last King of Scotland” – the buildings, the cars, even the people seemed to be a throwback to the 70s, and reminded me so much of scenes out of that movie…though yes, that was Uganda not Ethiopia.

Dale Morris, our photographer guide, was at the hotel waiting for us – we were the last of the group to arrive. He had some business to see to this morning…his gear got confiscated at the airport!!! There were stereophonic sharp intakes of breath when he told us this. He said it’s never happened before and that he was praying that all of us get through with no problem – it didn’t even cross my mind that bringing photographic gear in would be a problem!

We had a yummy breakfast at the hotel while waiting for our room to be ready. While at the restaurant we met another member of our group – G from New York and Nairobi. The conversation starter was my Case Logic camera bag…yes, I think it’s going to be a ‘is yours bigger than mine’ kind of trip!

This afternoon, after lunch where we’ll meet the rest of the group, we’ll be going to the Central Market for a walkabout.

A Motley Crew

Addis Ababa, Ethiopia /  28 November 2013

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The Mercato plan was changed as Dale thought there would be better light in the morning – and looking at the scorching afternoon sun outside, we all agreed with his suggestion. So this afternoon after lunch, we headed to the National Museum instead to see Lucy. As a post-script to my previous entry and for those who posted comments – Dale did get all his gear back with some intervention from the Minister for Tourism! It was also Dale’s 40th birthday today and he was surprised with cake!

At lunch, we met the rest of the gang whom we’ll be spending the next week with. G, we’d already met at breakfast. Then there was D and S, a couple from Belgium, who had sold their company (companies?) and were now ‘doing nothing’ except for singing gigs (he) and rescuing dogs (she). The fourth member of the group – T, is a professional photographer from Georgia, USA who also does work with missionary groups. We quickly discovered (to many groans on everyone else’s part) that D takes videos and filmed our every move. G said she hopes she doesn’t have to “go pee in a field” if D is around…

At lunch, we also met injera, the traditional Ethiopian flatbread which looks and feels like fine curtain cloth, and tastes much like thosai. It is usually eaten with meat cooked with tomato, chilly and onions which is also known as tibes, or it is eaten with vegetables sans the meat. Quite delicious!

We found out too that video filming is frowned upon by the authorities here. Things that cannot be filmed – the palace(s), police stations, uniformed people. Melkamu, our very good local guide (with the whitest teeth I’ve seen), had to tell D (very politely) that his indiscriminate filming might ruin everyone’s holiday and to please only film in areas where it is allowed. In the background, G said she wasn’t going to be in D’s movie and that he hadn’t got model releases from us – and she was serious about this.

And so this motley crew rode in a mini bus through the streets of Addis Ababa – it was the festival of St. Gabriel so churches were busy, and for the people of Addis who were too busy to actually go to church, a quick bow and crossing of selves had to suffice. Traffic was wildly chaotic, with tuk tuks, mules, cars (mostly older versions of Toyota Corollas and Nissans, and Ladas) and humans often all within touching distance in the middle of the road. Qat (or khat) chewers were everywhere – all with that distinctive glazed, ‘totally out of it’ appearance.

The National Museum of Ethiopia is a nondescript building – most buildings here are, I don’t think I saw any ‘descript’ building while in Addis. The highlight of the museum was, of course, Lucy, the 3.2 million year old hominid – Melkamu told us that the bones we were looking at were actually very authentic-looking replicas, and that the real thing was safely stored elsewhere and not exhibited. The equally well-informed Shobs told us how Lucy came to be called Lucy – the archaeologists were celebrating their find and Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds was playing on repeat mode in the background and so, displaying much imagination, they named what otherwise would have been known by the archival name of AL288-1, ‘Lucy’. In Ethiopia, Lucy is known by the rather more fitting name of Dinknesh or ‘wondrous one’. It was already quite wondrous to me that 40% of a 3.2 million year old being had been recovered – but in the 1990s, an even more complete skeleton of a 4.4 million year old hominid species was found.

Dinknesh is also the name of Melkamu’s travel agency – Dinknesh Ethiopian Tours… it was a sign – of the wondrous time that lay ahead of us.

A Chaotic Mercato & Panoramic Paradise

Arba Minch, Ethiopia /  29 November 2013

After breakfast (another good meal of injera and unsausage-like sausage) and check out at 9.30 (we were informed by Dale that today would probably be the only day with such a “late start”), the MC (Motley Crew) mini-bus made its arduous way through the morning traffic to the Mercato – touted to be a little city unto itself. We had a pre-departure safety briefing – we were to lock the bus windows as we approached Mercato (to prevent people from reaching in and stealing stuff), we were to bring minimal gear and to leave our valuables in the bus; we were to stay together and not wander off on our own, and (this last bit was the ‘killer app’) – there would be scouts (or ninjas as someone said) watching out for us…and that we were unlikely to see them!

Narrow alleys; people with loads five times their size weaving their way through the human and four-legged traffic; the overwhelming reluctance to be photographed (at its mildest, a wave of the forefinger indicating displeasure; at the other end, getting ‘scolded’ and having the camera actually pushed away); the heady mix of smells – spices, fresh produce, coffee – which got me sneezing six times in quick succession (and surprisingly, Shobs didn’t sneeze even once!). We did see one of the ninjas – who got himself between Shobs and a local who seemed to get a bit too close. And since he’d been ‘identified’ he was happy to chat and guide us in the right direction.

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Mercato traffic

 

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Shade is better than sun

In terms of photography lessons – today’s was about looking for even lighting, “shade is better” and about composition in tight spots. In terms of cultural lessons – Melkamu demonstrated the traditional Ethiopian greeting. There’s the long form (usually with religious connotations) – a hand shake and three alternate shoulder taps (or shoulder kisses for the purists); then there’s the abbreviated form – handshake and a quick right shoulder to right shoulder bump; and finally there’s the macho version – handshake (two grips – the normal handshake, transitioning into the arm wrestling type of handshake – not sure how else to describe this) with two quick shoulder bumps. I thought it all very cool to have this demonstration in the middle of the busy Mercato, but I think the stall owners thought it just plain amusing from some of the looks we got.

 

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This load collapsed right after he walked past us…hope we didn’t cause the collapse

Much chaos later, it was off to lunch and a very welcome cold beer (St. George’s – the local brew) at the Gallery Cafe (which had some lovely, if a bit overpriced, art pieces) before heading to the airport for our flight to the rather exotic sounding Arba Minch.

Arba Minch (which means ‘forty springs’) is about 500km south of Addis at an elevation of 1285m so we expected it to be warmer there compared to Addis which was about 1000m higher.

The Ethiopian Airlines flight on a Q4 Bombardier Dash 4 was comfortable enough but it went through Jimma so we took a bit longer to get to Arba Minch – one and a half hours instead of 45 minutes. The drive to Paradise Lodge from the airport was in some brilliant dusty light and I was kicking myself for not taking my camera out before we got into our 4WDs with bags unreachable in the back. So I just had to take some mental shots – two are particularly vivid in my mind – a herd of cows going home in the backlit dusty glow of the setting sun, and a small group of people – young and old – bathing in a sun-speckled stream.

We were staying at the Paradise Lodge (#1 of 4 in Arba Minch according to TripAdvisor), and after a quick freshening up in our thatched room (or tukul), it was back on the patio with tripods and filters for a lesson on making panorama shots – loads of fun.

It was a relaxing evening – dinner and drinks on the patio restaurant, and fascinating conversation on wildlife and travels. Tomorrow, we start our Omo Valley adventure.

 

Crocodiles, Concentric Circles & A Very Long Day

Konso, Ethiopia /  30 November 2013

The first of our ‘early start’ days – 6.30am breakfast. It was a good night – for me at least; we didn’t encounter any mosquitoes, despite the miniskirts that were masquerading as mosquito nets – this could have been because of the generous amount of mosquito repellent (with requisite percentage of DEET) we sprayed on ourselves before going to bed.
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At breakfast we were directed by Dale to a table which had a fancy setup, the highlight of which was a grilled fish that had olives in its eye sockets. Several of us were snapping pics of the set up; we realised something was not quite right when a bottle of white wine and glasses arrived at the table (we didn’t think we were on a ‘champagne breakfast’ type of trip). We then found out that the table was set up for a food shoot. The director of the shoot appeared, then directed that the food and drink get set up at another table (before our unruly lot started eating the model food), while we sat down for breakfast – no wine or champagne, but the best coffee I’ve had in a long time, french toast with honey and an omelette with everything.

And then, after some quick tips from Dale on camera settings, we were off to Lake Chamo, which we could see in the distance from our hilltop lodge – Lake Abaya to the left, Lake Chamo to the right with the Nech Sar National Park separating them. The crocodile-phobic Shobs had probably done a bit too much research into the crocodile infested lake (much as the acrophobic me had done before our climb to Tiger’s Nest in Bhutan) – and as a result was Really Worried about the boat ride on Lake Chamo, despite everyone’s assurances – “We’re in a BOAT”, “You’re too low calorie even as a mid-morning snack” “We won’t be swimming in the lake” etc etc…you get the drift. Dale’s contribution was that he had taken his crocodile-phobic wife scuba diving with crocs…and she’s still married to him.

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The drive to Lake Chamo

And so we were off – the boat was big enough and it had life jackets, and Shobs and I were soon relaxed and enjoying the view, and getting tutorials on the fly from Dale. And what an amazing mix of wildlife we saw – pelicans escorting a fishing boat, an eagle in a tree, hippos, and the biggest croc that Dale and the others had seen. Truly amazing! There were many different species of birds – but none in the group were really birders so other than pointing them out there wasn’t that much excitement about the birds. Dale told us a story of a recent trip of his, I think to Madagascar. He was with a group of birders when he spotted a jaguar…he was excitedly pointing it out – but the birders weren’t interested, barely glancing at the jaguar and continuing to focus their attention on a little yellow bird.

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LAKE CHAMO TO KONSO

After two hours on the lake (time just sailed by while we drifted), it was time to leave for Konso, 90km away and in the lower Omo Valley, which is in turn in the Greater Rift Valley. It was a two hour drive, through beautiful countryside, cows and goats sharing the road, and children who did one or more of the following:

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AK-47-toting child

1. Ran towards the speeding vehicle from the sides of the road (which got me rather worried), yelling ‘Highland, Hiiii-land!!’ or ‘YouYouYouYouYou!!!’ The former is the brand of Ethiopia’s first bottled water, and is a real collectible by the sound of it; the bottles are used to keep either milk from the cows or sorghum wine. We initially thought the children were asking for water, but it was empty bottles they were asking for. And ‘YouYouYouYouYou!!!’, meant just that – maybe it was the Ethiopian version of ‘You go, girl!’ 🙂

2. Jumped right off the road into a ditch when our driver gave a warning honk,

3. Did a cute jig on one leg by the side of the road (a welcome dance?),

4. Did perfect headstands,

5. Danced on stilts (we saw this once)

6. Carried on minding their goats/cows – there were young boys with AK-47s casually slung across their shoulders as they languidly walked with their herd.

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We got to Konso and stopped for lunch at the Kanta Lodge, where we ate outdoors on the terrace. On Melkamu’s recommendation we had his favourite dish – the lamb tibes with injera – perfect with the ice cold St. George’s.

It was then time to get on the road again – this time to a nearby Konso village. Konso is a UNESCO World Heritage site and besides the steppe agriculture practised here, its villages certainly have some unique features – each village is built in concentric circles with each circle defined by a circular brick wall. At the centre of the village are the living spaces of the village elders. The next generation lives in the next circle and so on. On the outermost circle is also the ‘sleeping place’ for the fittest young men who ostensibly act as the protectors of their village.

Each Konso village has a square or Moro, where meetings are held and where the generation pole resides. The ‘generation’ system is unique to Konso villages, and represents 18 years. Every 18 years, the young men of the village go through their rite of passage which involves lifting a heavy stone over their heads and throwing it backwards (Melkamu demonstrated). This occasion is then marked on the generation pole – and so, like the rings on a tree, the age of the village can be ascertained by the markings on the pole.

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The generation pole

We couldn’t spend too long at the village as we had an 180km drive from Konso to the Buska Lodge in Turmi. What a drive that was. There was more of ‘all of the above’ (the cows, the goats, the children) as the road got steadily narrower, bumpier, dustier and untarred. We then turned into a narrow track which had a sign saying ‘To Buska Lodge, Turmi’…and in smaller print…”113km”!! I braced myself for a spine and joint realigning drive.


PENS, SOAP & OTHER THINGS OF VALUE

On the way we had an unscheduled stop at an Aerbore village. This was our first experience of face-painted villagers in traditional gear as the Konso villagers were slightly more adventurous in their sartorial choices, opting for t-shirts (many football jerseys were seen), shorts and skirts.

Melkamu found the village ‘liaison person’ and proceeded to negotiate a rate that kept everyone happy – the villagers and the photographers. It was a somewhat chaotic time – us trying to ‘network’ and photograph, the tribes people pulling at our sleeves asking for pens (usually asked for by the children, waving their school exercise books for us to see what they’ll be using the pens for), soap (quite a precious commodity we gathered) and one old man wanted my camera vest AND my shirt!!

BUSKA LODGE, TURMI

Melkamu and Dale soon hurried us along, saying we needed to get to the lodge before dark – I thought it was because the roads (tracks!) would be difficult to navigate in the dark but Dale said ‘lawlessness’ was the main problem (gulp!). As it turned out we did have to drive the last hour or so in the dark but fortunately, there was no drama. The most drama we had was crossing a rather large river bed which hadn’t quite dried out fully (apparently it was flooded just a few weeks ago) and so, some air had to be let out of the tyres before we could cross it. Our driver, Million (they do have the most wonderful names; our stewardess on the flight to Addis was a Ms Jerusalem!), was skilful and safe, and played us hypnotic Ethiopian music from his MP3, which he promised to let us copy.

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The long and dusty road to Buska

The cold cold towels and the even colder beer that greeted us at Buska was simply perfect after our long and dusty day. We had quick showers, a delicious buffet dinner and I was asleep before the electricity went out at 10.30pm (as it does every night). Waking up in the middle of the night in pitch blackness was slightly disconcerting – but only momentarily as I fell right back asleep.

Tomorrow would be another early start – 5.30am

 

Counting Clicks and Men With Guns

Turmi, Ethiopia /  1 December 2013

A very early start today – the electricity at Buska Lodge normally only comes on at 6 every morning.  But we were to have a 5.30AM start and Melkamu persuaded the management to turn the power on at 5AM so we weren’t floundering around in the dark.  We were warned though that “This is Africa” and to have our torches handy anyway.  Much to our pleasant surprise, the power did come on just after 5AM and we were ready to go by 5.30 after a quick coffee.  Breakfast would be later.

We were really excited about today – there was to be a bull jumping ceremony at a nearby Hamar village in the afternoon.  This is not a common occurrence, Melkamu informed us.  He said that Oryx had done 8 expeditions to the region and this was only the second time they were lucky enough to see a bull jumping ceremony.  With the bull jumping, there’s also the women whipping – which I wasn’t as enthusiastic about but… I’m getting ahead of myself – more about this ceremony later.

The agenda for the morning was a visit to the Kara (or Karo) tribe who live on the east bank of the Omo river.  They grow sorghum and maize, and don’t have large herds of cattle (unlike the Hamar and the Mursi as we were to find out) – as a result, there were far fewer flies here.  The village is up on a hill overlooking the Omo River – what a magnificent view!

First item on the agenda, as always (we were fast finding out) – negotiation.  Dale informed us that tourists are usually charged per click (yes, the villagers actually count the number of clicks); Melkamu was negotiating for a ‘group rate’ so that we were free to take as many pictures as we wanted of the chosen ‘models’.  We also realised that we weren’t really free to go walkabout…but given the number of young men with Kalashnikovs and machetes, we were quite happy to stick with the group.  For the first time we saw the unsmiling aggressive side of Melkamu – at one point during the negotiations, he flung some birr (the Ethiopian currency) at the feet of a group of young men (one of whom looked slightly menacing with his AK-47) – both Melkamu and gun-man walked away after this money flinging, while some of the other men quickly picked the notes up.  But it did seem like the deal was sealed and we could start photographing.  I suppose the smiling, soft-spoken, kind version of Melkamu wouldn’t have been quite as effective in this situation.

Photography lesson for today – use of off-camera flash, and the use of Dale’s fisheye to take photos of a magnificently painted village elder.  The Kara tribe are from the same lineage as the Hamar tribe and are known for their elaborate body art, which can change daily, and can range from stripes, circles, stars, or in the case of one little boy – “I love Ethiopia” on his chest.  Scars are also important features of the tribe – either signifying valour (chest scars on a man mean he’s killed an enemy – one line=one killing…fortunately or unfortunately we didn’t see any man with significant scars on his chest in this village) or beauty (when the scars are on the women). Some of the women also had needles inserted just below their lower lip – the original body piercing? We could tell we were going into increasingly remote regions – no more t-shirts.  The odd ‘Highland’ (left by tourists, no doubt), Turkish Airlines baggage tags used as ear-rings (!) and the AK-47s were the only ‘modern’ intrusions in this otherwise otherworldly village.

As we were leaving, other groups of tourists were coming in and we were grateful for our early start.  There was a group of tourists whose behaviour left all of us with a bad taste in our mouths. One of our group, G, had waited in her vehicle while the rest of us walked through the village. She said that a group of tourists (from China?) swept in wearing face masks and gloves (to protect themselves from African germs or to protect the Kara from foreign germs?).  They then proceeded to ask the men to remove their loin cloths for their photographs – the men declined; I’m surprised no one was shot or decimated. Dale said so many tourists come to this region and behave like they’re dealing with non-human beings.

And on that note, we said goodbye to the Kara tribe and set off back to Buska, stopping on the way for a photo with a humungous termite nest, to help another 4WD which had a flat tyre and a picnic lunch.  A table was set up in the middle of nowhere and we had a much welcome coffee, and bread with butter and jam.  It was only 10 in the morning but we felt we’d been out and about the whole day.

After a quick lunch and freshening up back at Buska, it was off to a nearby Hamar village (about 12km away) for the highlight of the day bull jumping and whipping women – which probably deserves a ‘chapter’ all of its own…

Jumping Bulls & Whipping Women

Turmi, Ethiopia /  1 December 2013

It was with much excitement that we set off for the Hamar village – remoteness measure: it took us almost an hour to cover the 12km to the village. Many other 4WDs with tourists were already there for this very public important event. This was going to be a “bring all your gear” kind of afternoon, so we set off on the trek to the village lugging all our gear.
This was probably the only occasion where negotiations were not needed and we were free to photograph – provided our subjects didn’t mind. When they did mind, we got a high-pitched “Nip” (never quite figured out what exactly that meant other than its intended meaning of ‘No photos’); by the end of the trip, Dale was doing his own version of “Nip” in reply to other “Nip”s.

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The bull/cattle jumping ceremony or bullah is a coming of age ceremony for the Hamar boys. They are required to run six times (without falling) across the backs of several cows/bulls which are lined up side by side. Once done, they are certified marriage-able. I think the Konso boys got a better deal, if all they had to do was pick up a heavy stone and throw it over their heads.

There was much going on and at the same time much not going on. Ever so often a group of girls would get up and dance in a little clearing, their anklets clanging very loudly, horns blown incessantly; other groups just sat in the shade of the trees – and watched us watching them. At some point the bull jumper came through – identifiable by his tonsure, and very nervous demeanour. The bull jumping wasn’t going to happen till sunset so we had plenty of time to sit around and observe.

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Occasionally, the girls would run off into the bush – we were told they were looking for the maza. The maza are men who have completed the bull jump but who have not yet married. They travel from jump to jump whipping the women who are sisters and other female relatives of the jumper of the day. There was an Italian tourist with flowing white scarves who was sitting with the Hamar women puffing away on a cigarette, blowing smoke into their faces while posing for ‘white woman with tribeswoman’ photos – she was fast codenamed Karen Blixen by our group.

Dale very generously lent me his 200-400mm lens to use. This is a huge lens – about 3.5kg and really in your face (mine and the subjects). My hands, wrists and arms got a good workout, and at one point I felt I’d been in the gym…but oh what a gorgeous lens and what a pleasure (aside from the pain) to use!

The peace of the afternoon was soon destroyed by the cracking sound of a whip…we hurried towards the sound – it was an unbelievable sight. Several young women were going up to the maza (mostly young men), asking them to take the five foot long switches and whip them. It appeared to me that the men appeared reluctant, almost embarrassed, while the women were inciting them, taunting them (to “be a man”?) – and on occasion almost begging to be whipped. We had read that being whipped was a sign of love – love of the women for their male relative who would be jumping bulls later; it also meant that the jumper was obliged to take care of his female relatives who got whipped for him. It was mind-boggling to say the least, especially as I think I flinched just watching while the whipped women, with blood dripping off their backs went back for more.

At some point, the whipping stopped and face painting ensued. D got his face painted resulting in much hilarity. We then moved to another part of the village where a quietly drunken party was underway. The distinctive smell of ochre and fat which is used to give hair an orange-red glow, filled the air. Glazed eyes from the local brew and qat were everywhere.

Enter stage right – the jumper with his entourage enters the family compound and goes through the last few rituals before the jump – purifying sand is poured over him before he runs out of the compound to the bull jumping area, about a half kilometre away. The rest of us follow at a quick clip, the setting sun behind us.

At the bull jumping area, tourists and tribespeople jostle for space as the cows are dragged into position. Hylian (I think that was his name), our local guide, pushes Shobs and me towards the tribespeople. There is a little altercation between Hylian and a tribesman – tribesman says we should be standing with the tourists, Hylian insists we stay, Shobs and I meekly try to say “we’ll go back to our group” and are roundly ignored by everyone.

So we stood there and got a slightly different perspective of the jump compared to the rest of our group. The jumper, now bereft of even his cowskin, makes a running leap for the first cow (a calf which was a stepping stone to the larger animals) and he was off. He did the six runs perfectly much to everyone’s relief – in particular his family’s and any future in-laws who were there, I’m sure. Even I felt relief for this young man who had to perform this acrobatic feat in front of his family, friends and tourists with flashing cameras.

Feeling very happy with our day, we started our walk back to our 4WDs, wanting to get back before it got completely dark. I walked with Million, our driver, and discovered that his name was spelt just that way, though it was pronounced Milli-on. Shobs pulled up in the rear with Dale – she unfortunately managed to walk into a thorn bush and got a splinter in her thumb. Karen Blixen’s billowy white silk scarf also got caught in a thorn bush – I am sure she didn’t get as much sympathy as Shobs did.

Back at Buska Lodge – a welcome hot shower, dinner and a minor operation to remove Shobs’ splinter, aided by T’s tweezer, Dale’s headlamp and some good luck.

It was an awesome day, in every sense of the word.

Crazy Canoes & Bottlecap Bouffant

Omorate, Ethiopia /  2 December 2013

We had a slight reprieve this morning after yesterday’s adventures…we started out only at the late hour of 6AM after a full breakfast. Tribe for today – the Dassanech. We drove almost two hours towards the Kenyan border to the Omorate, where the Omo River enters Lake Turkana. There was a stop to record our passport details though there was no Kenyan passport stamp as we weren’t crossing the border.

The Dassanech village we were visiting was across the river from where we had parked; my initial reaction when I saw the “boats” we were crossing in, and what looked like an almost vertical slope down to the river, was “You’ve got to be kidding”. But no one was kidding and we were to cross the river in dugout canoes, some almost S-shaped. And yes, we were to go down that vertical slope. So, after handing my camera and bag to one of the many boys there, and with one hand firmly clutching the hand of a local boy, the other on another boy’s shoulder, downhill I went – thankfully remaining on my feet all the way down. I was directed to the most normal looking boat there together with S and Melkamu, while Shobs, G and Dale got into one of the dugout canoes…with Shobs disappearing from sight as she sat down in the canoe.

It was a short ride across the river, and we had boys swimming by our canoes, crossing the river faster than we did. The landing point on the other side was fortunately less treacherous looking – a gentle slope that even I could manage.

As soon as everyone had arrived, we started on our walk to the Dassanech village about a kilometre away. A teenaged boy in a Van Persie jersey walked with me and we got to talking. He was 16 and his name was Antonim. He pointed out the Kenyan and Sudanese borders and said that the rest of his family lived near the Kenyan border while he lived in Omorate as he went to school there. And he wants to be a doctor.

At the village, it was the usual drill – we waited outside the village fence while Melkamu and one of the village ‘liaison persons’ went in to negotiate. The villagers didn’t bite so we walked away (much like how it happens in Petaling Street, Chathuchak, and street markets across the world). As we walked away, someone called us back, a middle ground was agreed upon, and we went back to the village where models and a location were chosen – the latter proving to be quite a challenge as the sun was high in the sky and the village huts provided little shade. We finally found a covered area where Dale set up his green screen and we managed to experiment a bit with off-camera flash and portraiture.

The women of this village had rather unique head dresses – made of bottle caps, and a Casio watch strap or two! The Dassanech are supposed to be famous for scarification but we didn’t see any. The Dassanech also practice female circumcision; girls who aren’t circumcised aren’t allowed to get married.

We spent about an hour in the village. On the walk back I had not one, but two chaps – Antonim and one other – helping me down to the boat and then up the sheer (at least to me) face the other side. After a nice cold Coke (it’s been years since Coke featured on my menu but somehow in this setting it seemed appropriate – especially as it came in an old-fashioned glass bottle!), it was back on the road – back to the Buska Lodge for lunch, before a quick visit to the Turmi local market. Shobs and I decided to buy some beaded bracelets and enlisted Melkamu’s help to do the bargaining…once again we were witness to Melkamu’s ‘fierce’ side as the bargaining got just a tad heated.

It was then time for a 3-hour drive to Jinka, our next stop. Along the way, Dale spotted a couple of rather photogenic cowherds; a quick negotiation was done and our 3 vehicles sped ahead to get in position for a good shot – this entailed practically lying flat on the dirt track (Dale and me), squatting in a ditch (Shobs, T, S and D), and at one point sitting on some thorny plants (just Shobs)…the depths we’d go to for that low angle shot!!

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After a couple of hours more of rough riding, we came to the town of Dimeka – it was a shock to the system to see road signs proclaiming school zones and speed limits of 35kph – the first I’d seen since we left Addis. We finally reached our next destination, the Omo Eco-Lodge (#1 of 2 Specialty Lodging in Jinka according to TripAdvisor), at about 6 in the evening. Accommodation was tented and on a raised platform, and it was quite cold. The shower was the highlight of the Omo Eco-Lodge – it was a water-conserving shower where a press of the shower knob would give you perhaps 45 seconds to a minute of hot water. To add to the complexity of having a shower in 45-second bursts, each time the knob is pressed the water that spouts out gets hotter.

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Here the electricity goes off at 11.30 every night and only comes on after 6AM, though once again Melkamu had asked the management to turn on the power by 5AM. We had to be packed and ready to go by 5.45 the next morning and so, I showered, packed everything except my toothbrush and went to sleep in most of the clothes I would be wearing the next day (something I’d not done since my first couple of weeks in med school, during ragging when we had to be up at 5AM for our PE!). It was very cold and having all those clothes and socks on made for a slightly less freezing night. Once again I fell asleep before the pitch darkness that ensued when the power went off…only waking once when Shobs’ voice came floating across the tent, asking me if I’m asleep…sigh.

Lip-plates, Warriors & the Profound Jamalesh

Jinka, Ethiopia /  3 December 2013

The lights came on at 5.30AM but with some skilful torch handling and minimal contact with the freezing tap water, we were ready to go by 5.45AM. With bananas to fortify ourselves, we were off to the Mago National Park to visit the famous Mursi tribe with those incredible lip plates. It took us 15 minutes to reach the park entrance which had just opened at 6AM, then another hour and a half to reach the far interior of the park where the Mursi village was. We had to pick up an armed scout on the way, and he scooted in the front seat of vehicle #1 with Melkamu, AK-47 and all.

We were at the Mursi village (described as “one of the most isolated regions of the country”) by 7.30AM – it was quite surreal, as for the first time we didn’t have the tribespeople coming up to us when we arrived…they were just waking up, and putting on their paint and other accoutrements. It was so tempting to click away, but the negotiations were ongoing and so we kept our shutter fingers in check till we got the all clear.

The Mursi, in my view, have the most elaborate of decorations – from face paint and extensive head gear comprising cowry shells and ivory tusks, to the famed lip plates and beautiful scars (is that an oxymoron??).

Melkamu told us that it is rare that all the men are ‘in town’ as they were today – they usually are out in the fields with their herds. But today, men and cows were both in…and with the latter, the flies were also in. We hadn’t encountered this many flies in all the time we’d been here – and I hoped none of them went by the name of tsetse. We were photographing by the cows, trying not to step into fresh dung (by this time of the trip, we were only avoiding fresh dung; dry or semi-dry dung was ignored) when Million tapped my shoulder – right behind me, a cow was being bled – the spurting blood from the cow’s neck was being collected in a plastic container (not being drunk directly from the cow as I’d seen in some long ago NatGeo photo), while several boys held the cow still.

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The lip plates were quite incredible – especially as the girls and women slipped them in and out of their lower lip so easily. I cannot begin to imagine how that first cut in the lower lip is made and steadily extended to accommodate increasingly larger and larger lip plates.

The young men in this village looked particularly warrior-like. There was one young man with some fabulous scars on his arm (did he kill another human being or some dangerous animal??). He readily posed for pictures, then walked over to view the result on my camera…he peered at the picture of himself for quite some time, then in this deep deep voice said “Very good”!

 

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“Very good!”

We spent a fair bit of time at the Mursi village – there were just so many photogenic people around – elders, young women and the cutest of children…which also meant that we drifted away from the chosen models, which in turn meant that Melkamu had to renegotiate the payment several times.

We finally had to leave. Some distance from the village, we stopped off the side of the road, and breakfast was set up. Luxury this time – we had a proper sit down breakfast with hard boiled eggs, bread, peanut butter, pancakes, honey and coffee. Quite a feast!

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Picnic breakfast

JINKA & JAMALESH

At about 11AM we got to the little dusty town of Jinka, where we stopped for a cold drink – I opted for a Fanta Orange this time, having had quite enough Coke. On the way in I saw a shopfront sign that said “Obama Engine Oil. Yes We Can!” – I mentioned this to T from Georgia, who snorted and said “Obama’s taken America into the dark ages.” I guess T is a Republican.

I wandered out to take some street photos. While standing by a little stall that sold CDs (and burnt them if you chose your songs – much like Sunrise Store in Seremban which recorded compilations on cassettes), a young man in a red checked shirt called from across the lane, “Take my photo.” Having been well schooled in the last week to ignore such calls (as it was usually followed by “2 Birr” or “5 Birr” and an outstretched hand), I did just that. A couple of minutes later, this man walked over and asked “Why don’t you want to take my photo? I’m an indigenous person.” (!!) To which I replied, “If I take your photo, will you ask for birr?” – and he quite indignantly replied, “No, I won’t ask you for money! In fact, I will pay YOU! Maybe I won’t pay you money but you will benefit if you take my photo.”

We then got to talking – his name was Jamalesh, and he said his parents gave him that name as it means ‘he who will do great things’, and as the eldest son his parents wanted him to do great things, which he said he unfortunately hasn’t done yet. He also said that at 15 or 16 he had an opportunity to go to Europe to work but he turned it down because “I love my country and want to die here.”

Jamalesh then said, “You know that you’re not visiting Africa?” I must’ve looked puzzled. He went on to say, “You’re not visiting Africa. You’re coming home. This is where it all started – this is your home too.” The huge-ness of this statement in the smallest of African towns from a young man whom I’m sure would do great things, touched me profoundly.

As he walked away, saying “I think maybe you’ve gained something from today”, I realised I hadn’t taken his photo. He didn’t approve of the first shot (“I look drunk.”) and struck a more ‘intellectual’ pose – which he thoroughly approved of.

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Jamalesh of Jinka

#2 FOLLOWS #1, #3 FOLLOWS #2

With that it was time to get on the road again, and as always our 4WDs were in 1,2,3 formation. Melkamu and Dale were with G in vehicle #1, T was with Shobs and me in vehicle #2, with D & S pulling up in the rear in their black 4WD, #3.

After about an hour on the road, Million realised that #3 was nowhere to be seen in his rear view mirror. We waited a while, then #1 and #2 both backtracked – to find that #3 had had a flat. So out everyone got, with Million, Dale and Melkamu helping the other drivers to fix it. I managed to scratch my head on a thorn bush – the same species that Shobs and Karen Blixen got entangled with. Big D checked the top of my head and assured me there was no blood.

The rest of the drive back to Arba Minch was uneventful and it was good to be back in Paradise Lodge (where the power stays on all night). A supposedly relaxing evening encountered some dramatic and quite traumatic road bumps when one of our party discovered a mix-up in flight schedules. The issue was solved by the ever efficient Melkamu, while the rest of us recovered from the trauma with ‘double everything’ rounds of drinks.

It was Shobs and my last night with the rest. T, D and S would be going on with Dale and Melkamu to the Bale Mountains and Lalibela over the next 2 weeks. Lalibela…now that’s another adventure that awaits…

A Day of Bonuses – Photoshop & a Forest Walk

Arba Minch, Ethiopia /  4 December 2013

Our last morning in Ethiopia – according to the official schedule, it was to be a do nothing morning before our flight back to Addis. However, Dale and Melkamu offered us a few other choices besides doing nothing (and perhaps going for a massage at Paradise Lodge) – we could either visit a tribe which specialises in a particular banana crop (about an hour’s drive away) or go down into the valley beneath our lodge for a walk in the forest of the Nech Sar National Park (20 minutes drive away). We chose the latter – which was also Dale’s choice, we found out later, given his anthropological interests. The rest decided to give it a miss since they had another 2 weeks of forest adventures ahead of them. Shobs and I, on the other hand, wanted to pack in as much as possible on our last day.

So, after a leisurely breakfast and a short lesson on Photoshop with Dale (a bonus inclusion), Shobs, Melkamu, Dale and I piled into vehicle #1 and headed to the Nech Sar National Park. Here too we picked up an armed scout to accompany us into the forest.

First stop was a photo op featuring an Anubis Gibbon – or was it a baboon? – he sat posing for us near the track for quite some time. We also saw vervet monkeys and the Colabus Monkey, with its bright white bushy tail.

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Dale and scout spot something – not a taipan!

We drove to one of the Arba Minch (which means forty springs) – clear clear water. Dale put his feet in and got a nibble from the several little fish swimming in the spring. From where we stood we could see the pipes taking the spring water up to Paradise Lodge. We walked further into the forest to a little ‘swimming pool’ – which presented a perfect photo op involving a group of boys having a swim; the lighting was just perfect…but we all felt it would’ve been too intrusive and so reluctantly walked on, cameras off.

It was fascinating walking through the forest with Dale – he saw so many things that we would’ve otherwise just walked past…a dung beetle hard at work, a kite spider (both of which provided opportunities for some macro photography, despite us not having macro lenses…our next buy?), spiders’ nests within tree trunks. The scout mentioned snakes, and I think he said, ‘taipan’ – fortunately we didn’t encounter any.

The forest was so green, almost tropical – not quite the Ethiopia that Bob Geldof showed the world. The two hours just flew by and all too soon it was time to get back to Paradise Lodge for lunch and then to the airport for our flight to Addis Ababa.

I can’t remember a time when there were manual bag checks at an airport as there were no x-ray scanners. Melkamu warned us that there would be manual checks which involved the removing of almost everything in our check-in luggage, and he very apologetically requested our patience. Given the recent terrorist threats and the possibility that Ethiopia was the next target of the Al-Shabaab, we were all quite happy to subject ourselves to whatever checks necessary. Besides, the officers doing the checking were polite and tried as much as possible to repack our bags exactly how they were.

Melkamu also told us to sit on the right side of the plane so we could see a volcanic crater as we approached Addis – which we did. I was entertained on the flight by a little girl in the row ahead of us – she and her mum had been at Paradise Lodge too; they had done the ‘lite’ version of the Omo as it was unlikely the girl (who was probably around Jude’s age – 8) would’ve been up for the full version. The girl was busy writing her journal, in large felt-tipped letters – from where I sat I could read her entry for 3rd December – “Today I had a big fight with my mom.” :))

At about 5pm on Wednesday 4th December, 6 days after we arrived, we were back where we began – at the Jupiter Hotel, Addis Ababa. The hotel which was a 3-star one when we arrived, now appeared very much 5-star to us – large carpeted rooms, a hairdryer in the bathroom – a HAIRDRYER!! Funny how ‘relative’ things are…

After delivering some first aid stuff to D & S to treat a rather angry looking wound on D’s finger, a long leisurely shower and some repacking, we had our ‘last supper’ with Dale, T and S, before leaving for our flight to Singapore via Bangkok. Melkamu had gone home to see his wife and 2-year old daughter for one night before he left for the Bale Mountains with the others tomorrow. E-mail addresses and phone numbers had been exchanged the previous night and invitations to visit were repeated – D & S told us we and our families are welcome to stay with them in their very well-appointed villa in Andalusia – complete with infinity pool and view of the sea; T said to look him up if we’re ever in Savannah; Dale offered photographic help via Skype and email, as well as tips on more exciting trips like this one. We, of course, told everyone to let us know if they’re in our neck of the woods…and everyone said if Oryx organised a photo expedition to Borneo with Dale as guide, our motley crew would be there. Goodbyes were said, promises to keep in touch were made, and it was time to leave.

Dinknesh had lived up to its name – what a wondrous trip it was, visiting places and seeing people I’d never dreamt I would, especially knowing that some of these places and people may cease to exist even within my lifetime, as “progress” in the form of roads and a dam reaches the Omo Valley. The journey to get to these oh so remote places was an adventure in itself. I will remember the Mursi warrior who said “Very Good”, the obliging Kara elder who patiently sat for our fisheye-and-off-camera-flash experiments and the profound Jamalesh for a long long time.

Then there was our own little tribe – our motley crew – each one so well travelled with so many stories to share. I learnt so much, not just about photography, but about wildlife, insects (Dale’s stories about bot flies, filaria and princeling monkeys held me in thrall) and what happens when a group of strangers with a common interest get thrown together for a week.

One of our motley crew, when asked why his wife didn’t join him on this trip, replied, “She doesn’t do squalor.” I count myself lucky – that I enjoy arduous trips like this one (complete with ‘squalor’) and Waldorf Astoria ones in equal measure – it simply doubles the wondrous possibilities!

 

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