SOUTHERN ETHIOPIA

National Parks

Nech Sar, which translates as “white grass”, is one of the most impressive parks in East Africa, which the town of Arba Minch overlooks. Various landscapes are within the park’s boundaries, with many activities available for visitors.

Visitors are able to explore Lake Chamo by boat, with an abundance of birdlife, Nile Crocodiles bathing in the sun, and hippopotami in their natural habitat.

Take your time on a unique walking safari through Nechsar’s savannah, after crossing Lake Chamo, getting up close to the local Burchell’s Zebra population as they graze or as they walk to fetch water from the lake.

If you are patient, you may also come across the Greater and Lesser Kudu, Grant’s gazelle, the Dik dik and the endemic Swayne’s Heartbeast. The park is also hosts over 200 species of birds, and is home to the Nechsar Nightjar, while other mammals include the bushback, bushpig, common baboon, colobus and vervet monkeys!

Daytime walks through the lush forest are available, anything between a quick one-hour visit to a whole day enjoying under the canopy! Picnic lunches can be provided as guests can enjoy the dense fig trees, abundant with birdlife, baboons, and monkeys and of course the natural hot and cold springs, whereby Arba Minch town gets its name!

Multiple day camping and trekking trips can be organised for those feeling more adventurous! This option allows visitors to explore all of Nechsar’s diverse ecosystems and landscapes, as well as the chance to see the legendary Nech Sar nightjar. This option involves taking the time to understand the local environment and wildlife and crossing the Bridge of God to venture into the Amaro Mountains if time allows!

In addition, guests are able to learn about traditional lake fishing and support the local livelihoods with a fresh lakeside fish lunch, prepared by the Chamo fishermen themselves!

The largest park in Ethiopia, yet the most remote and least visited, abundant in wildlife!

The park is spread over more than 400,000 hectares in the far south of Ethiopia, about 800km south of Addis Ababa. It is a true natural gem, allowing adventurous visitors to explore the almost untouched East African natural wilderness.

The major natural attractions within the Park are the Maji Mountains, several hot springs, Sharum, Sai and Lilibai Plains and of course the substantial Mui and Omo Rivers. The highest peak is 1,541m, while most of the park lies at around 800m above sea level. A tremendous diversity in native woodland, scrub and riverine vegetation are found across the Park.

Resident wildlife include: buffalo, giraffe, spotted hyena and elephant, as well as the topi and lelwel hartebeest, lion, leopard, Burchell's zebra, gerenuk, spurred tortoise, python, wart hog, gazelle, and greater and lesser kudu. This dry grassland habitat is also home to many of the 300+ bird species recorded in the area while within the rivers are typically hippopotamus and Nile crocodile.

Akin to many of the other park areas in Ethiopia, the local community are also traditional users of the parks natural ecosystems. The Surma, Mogudge, Dizi, Bume and Mursi peoples are frequent within the parks boundaries, mostly due to the nomadic or pastoralist livelihoods that these tribes lead. The ensuing competition over natural resources and impacts on wildlife conservation in the Omo’s case are in fact pressing.

For visitors who are interested to deepen their understandings of the Omo’s diverse indigenous groups in combination with exploring the Park, this region of the south does not fail to offer an opportune experience.

Access:
Vehicle routes are very minimal and relatively new, allowing curious travellers to spend time exploring the sanctuary mostly by foot. However it is possible to reach the park headquarters by 4wD coming from either Jimma or Omorate. The park is also accessible by boat from Omorate Town. In addition to the Omo National Park base camp, a newly established campsite has been set up on the Mui River.

Maze is a small and new National Park just west of Arba Minch, in the Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples Region of Ethiopia. It covers an area of about 2000 ha and was established recently, in 2003. It is most well known for its healthy population of Swayne’s hartebeest and buffalo, as well as 138 bird species recorded within the park. Conservation efforts in Maze are unique in that they are mostly focussed on the endemic yet endangered hartebeests, which are estimated at about 300 in number in the Park. The area was formerly a hunting ground for the animals.

The third highest peak in Ethiopia, Mount Guge at 4200 metres, also lies on the border of the park. This makes a visit to Maze an ideal addition for visitors interested in trekking the Gamo Highlands, as well as those most interested in Ethiopia’s wildlife protection efforts.

The park’s other main attractions include the Bilbo hot springs, the Maze River, the Wonja Caves and the “Kaouwa Wella” sacred trees. Bilbo has geysers shooting hot water and steam high into the air, which is understood to have healing elements by the local community. Wonja, on the other hand, has the capacity to hold hundreds of people. Local legends explain that the caves were used to banish wrongdoers of the community. The “Kaouwa Wella”, meaning “King’s Tree”, are two of the oldest and largest trees in the park; the traditional legend says that they hold peace-building qualities.

Adjacent to the Omo National Park, and about half the size, Mago is spread along the banks of the Omo River, is mostly savannah, shrub land and thick-forested areas along the river. However the highest peak of Mount Mago is found at 2,528 metres above sea level.

The park was established in 1979 to assist in the protection of the various plains animals living in the Omo Valley. There are more than 80 reported mammal species in the Park. Alike Omo National Park, the resident wildlife include buffalo, giraffe, spotted hyena and elephant, as well as the topi and lelwel hartebeest, lion, leopard, Burchell's zebra, gerenuk, spurred tortoise, python, wart hog, gazelle, and greater and lesser kudu. This dry grassland habitat is also home to many of the 300+ bird species recorded in the area while within the rivers are typically hippopotamus and Nile crocodile.

The Park’s surroundings are home to the Mursi peoples, who are commonly known by their distinctive lip plates and pastoralist lifestyle. As well as this, the lower parts of the Omo River have been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site due to the discovery of some of our oldest remains in 1980, Homo Sapien fossils estimated at 195,000 years old.

Access:
The park is accessible by gravel road from Jinka. Infrastructure within the park is not very well established, making a trip to Mago and Omo National Parks an authentic adventure and a true exploration of nature. Camping and walking safaris are regular.

Also relatively new and untouched, established in 2005, Chebera Churchura is arguably the most underrated park in Ethiopia’s South. It is by far the easiest park to observe elephants, tracking by foot with local scouts prove to bring immense satisfaction for all those who venture here. Alike Maze, Chebera Churchura was established to help protect the African Elephant population, who have been traditionally hunted in the area.

Hiking trails through the lush Maka Forest, three crater lakes covered in lilies, waterfalls from the Bardo Riber, hot springs and a camping ground on the banks of the Shoshuma River provide an incredibly unique nature experience.
Spanning across 121,000 ha of mostly lowland vegetation, other wildlife in Chebera Churchura include hippos, antelope, giant forest hog, buffalo and the more reserved lions and black leopards – this is four of the big five!

The Park boasts the most reliable ecosystem with the least disruption for its wildlife than any other in Ethiopia. The first visitors from abroad visited the Park in 2010, highlighting the level of novelty that this park offers.

Spanning across 240,000 hectares, Bale National Park is a diverse natural wonderland split between high-altitude plateaus and gorges to the north of the Harenna escarpment and densely forested areas to the south. The Sanetti Plateau in the north lies at 4000 metres above sea level, the highest area in southern Ethiopia and is vegetated by afro-alpine plants. It’s peak, Tulhi Deemtu, is Ethiopia’s second highest mountain at 4,377 metres.

Largely unexplored, 78 mammal species are recorded within the Park and 300 bird varieties, however researchers recently recorded 22 previously unknown butterfly and moth species, proving just how much there is more to learn about Bale’s environment.

Waterfalls, alpine lakes, volcanic rock cliffs, streams and wildflowers are other natural attractions in the north of the Harenna, as well as the endemic Ethiopian Wolf, only found in Bale and the native mountain Nyala, usually spotted in large numbers, Menelik’s bushback and the African wild dog. The park hosts the giant mole rat, as well as sixteen endemic bird species that are easily found within the park, making bird watching a popular activity. A diverse natural

Harenna Forest is densely vegetated by wild bamboo and spectacularly large trees covered by ferns, lichen and moss varieties. Many pristine streams, rivers and gorges pave their way through the various Bale landscapes, also hosting a healthy population of Rainbow Trout.

For visitors looking to understand where coffee comes from and how it is produced traditionally in forests, tours can be arranged at the Manyate Coffee Village and Nature Trail in Bale.

Lastly, the Sof Omar Caves on the outskirts of Bale National Park longest network of underground caves in all of Africa, spanning 15 km is often described from the inside to replicate a cathedral.

Arba Minch

Arba Minch, or ‘Forty Springs’, takes its name from the many springs that emerge from the base of the Western side of the Great Rift Valley, which neighbours the township.

The town is the capital of the Gamo-Gofa Province and is located by Lake Chamo, Lake Abaya and Nech Sar National Park. It was established as recently as 1960 and has since grown to be Southern Ethiopia’s largest town of over 100,000 residents. The city’s growth is mostly due to the establishment of The University of Arba Minch, founded in 1986 and now attended by around 15,000 students.

It is set amidst some of the most spectacular scenery in all of Ethiopia, looking over lakes Chamo and Abaya and the lush groundwater forest fed by the forty springs, and the Gamo Highlands, which rise to over 4000 metres above sea level to the west.

Tropical fruit plantations and cotton production, reliant on irrigation from the nearby lakes and rivers, dominate the surrounding lower-land area. Traditional fishing is also a major livelihood of the Arba Minch community, supplying fish to other Ethiopian cities.

The town is a regional centre and a gateway to the deeper south and has a vibrant and welcoming community. There are plenty of places about the town where you can eat or drink, or just relax and enjoy the view.

Arba Minch is 500km from the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa. It is accessible by road or by the daily flight from Addis.

Several communities scatter the mountainous landscape of the GamoHighlands, just west of Arba Minch and Nech Sar National Park.

Day trips to visit these unique mountain villages are common, as well as multiple day trekking trips to explore more of the landscape including GugeMountain at 4,200 metres above sea level.

The Dorze community is the first settlement as the landscape ascends from Arba Minch, of about 29,000 people. The Dorze tribe were once warriors, now they are famous for their cotton weaving and sustainable livelihoods based almost entirely on “enset” or false banana trees. Land cultivation is done along the mountainside, using terracing to prevent erosion.

Dorze houses have a unique appearance, built to replicate an elephant, however they are made from enset and bamboo. Family housing is built around the problem of termites, whereby a hut is removed from its base once attacked by termites, and relocated to a different site, however every move does shorten the height!

The Konso nation is well known as hard-working farmers who practice sustainable agriculture that includes a distinctive system of stone terracing.

The Konso people traditionally live in closely packed centralized settlements typically situated on the top of hills and enclosed by stonewalls up to 4 metres high.

The Konso Cultural Landscape has been granted a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2011 due to its longstanding traditions and social cohesion. The community practices the same lifestyle as their ancestors did more than 400 years ago. They are renowned for their spiritual protection of forests and wooden statues, or “Waka”, which are placed nearby the graves of warriors and heroic men.

Omo Valley

The Omo Valley is arguably one of most remarkable regions of the world, known internationally as a “melting pot” of ethnic diversity. The Valley itself contains a population of over 200,000 agro-pastoralists over the 18 ethnic groups, which represent 4 of Africa’s major linguistic groups.

Some of the most frequently visited and welcoming tribes include the Konsonation, Mursi, Hamer, Ari, Dassanech, Kara, Bodi, Abore, Tsemay and Suritribes.

The Lower Omo Valley and Lake Turkana areas are UNESCO World Heritage Region due to the important human discoveries of some of the first homo gracilis fossils.

The administrative capital of the Southern Nations Region, Hawassa is a bustling lakeside town, which makes a good overnight stop if travelling by road from Addis Ababa to Bale National Park, Arba Minch or further south to the Omo Valley. Recently, the town has been at the heart of the Government of Ethiopia’s development plans, with a recently established industrial park and university.

Lake Hawassa is known for its abundant tilapia fish population, giving culinary fame to the local fresh fish dishes in town. The relaxed atmosphere that the lakeside town radiates, especially with its pedestrian cobblestone promenade along the lake, attracts locals and visitors alike to pass time in the late afternoon sun enjoying the waterfront with a cold local brew and fresh grilled fish. This is particularly nice for sunset.

Visitors in Hawassa enjoy boat trips across the lake to observe the local hippopotamus population and rich birdlife. An early morning visit to the fish market is also quite a spectacle. On the way out of town, a short mountain walk and swim at the nearby Wondo Genet hot spring is a popular activity.

The most well known residents of South Omo are a distinctive group of pastoralists who number around 5,000 and whose territory is more or less bounded by the Omo river to the west and the Mago river to the east.

When a Mursi woman reaches the age of about 20 a cut between her lower lip and mouth is made and over the next year the gap is progressively stretched until it is large enough for a small clay plate which is fitted into place. This practice remains widespread today.

The Hamer number around 35,000 and occupy a large territory that stretches east from the Omo river to lake Chew Bahir.

The Hamer are pastoralists and take great pride in their cattle herds.

The most important event in Hamer society is the bull jumping ceremony that is undertaken by Hamer boys as a rite of passage to manhood.

The Ari occupy the largest territory of any of the ethno-linguistic groups of South Omo, extending from the northern border of Mago National Park in to the highland around Jinka. The Ari are mixed farmers who grow various grains – as well as coffee and enset at higher altitudes – keep livestock, and produce an excellent honey.

The Dassanech tribe live in the far lower Omo Valley along the banks of the Omo River, their name meaning “People of the Delta”. Their lifestyles are pastoralist, with mobile housing structures. They have adapted in many ways to a semi-arid environment.

Agriculture is based on flooding of the river systems after heavy rainfall; at other times of year cattle and river hunting are their main livelihoods.

The Kara or Karo people are one of the smaller ethnic groups in the South Omo, with a population of 3000 people. Their home is on the banks of the Omo River, where they practice flood cultivation. Unlike many other tribes, they do not raise cattle due to the presence of tsetse flies.

For special ceremonies, the Karo people use natural chalks, charcoal, coloured rock and soil to paint their bodies and faces. Clay and feathers are used to decorate their hair. Women scar their chests and pierce their lips as a sign of beauty.  Most men have 2 or 3 wives, if they can afford it!

The Bodi are a semi-nomadic tribe of about 10,000 people, living in the South Omo Valley, about 140km from Jinka. Their livelihoods are dependent on livestock, as well as some subsistence crop cultivation. Cattle are central to their culture, playing an important role in marriage, coming-of-age rituals and spirituality. They have over 80 words to describe the different colours and patterns of cows!

Their most well-known annual ceremony is to welcome the Bodi New Year whereby selected men break their 3-6 month fattening diet of cow blood, milk and honey leading up to the event. Most men double their weight in this process and then compete on the New Year through a mixture of dance and showing off their new bodies. The elders choose the winner based on the fattest man!

The Suri or Surma people are also found in the Omo Valley, nearby to the Mursi territory. The young men practice tribal stick fighting to earn social status, known as “Donga”. This ritual usually takes place after the harvest season. Winners of the Donga fight are then deemed eligible for marriage. Cattle are then commonly given to the family of a woman who is preparing for marriage.

Suri women decorate themselves using scarring, lip plates and flowers. However Suri men with scarring indicate that he has killed a member of a rival tribe!

The Tsemay, the dominant people of Weyto on the Konso-Jinka road, are amongst the least well known ethnic group of Ethiopia, and are estimated to number around 5,000 people. Their territory extends along the western bank of Weyto river – known in Tsemay as the Dulaika river – and they are mixed subsistence farmers who practice flood cultivation, with major crops of sorghum and maize.

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