Omo & Chebera-Churchura, Dec 2016

Simon writes:

Notes on recent trip to Ethiopia, with reference to 7th Edition.

P92 Camping Gear

The guide now refers to several parks with camping sites as the only suitable option and if travelling independently off the beaten track, a tent in a village compound may be a better option than a night in a flea ridden shack! Note that there is little camping equipment for sale in Addis and small gas cylinders are almost unobtainable. (The old style non-valve Camping Gaz cylinder can be found, but in 2 days of searching in Addis I only came across empty ones!

P96 ‘By Bus, Truck or Minibus’

I travelled exclusively by Bus. Selam seem to have a more extensive network than Sky (or some of the newer start-ups). Note that you must buy a ticket the day before for Selam, while Sky take reservations over the phone. Selam now run a service to Mizan Teferi and Arba Minch from Addis. These coaches are significantly more comfortable than the standard bus, having only 4 seats across, rather than 5 and more leg room. The double back axle also helps on potholed roads. On intercity buses it is better to buy a ticket the day before, it avoids handling cash in the pre dawn rush and you have a ticket with a destination written on it!

‘Local’ buses do not have a reservation system and are more of a free for all. Be prepared to move from bus to bus while the operators work out how to manage the demand and agree on which bus will go where- when they finally do leave. These buses may leave the town with a correct number of people on board, but once they are past the last police check point it is open season and they can often have double the passengers on board, making for very slow progress, especially if going up or down hills.

If there is no bus available and you look for a lift in a car/truck, expect to pay about double the price of a bus ticket. You may be ‘helped’ by a local youth who will act as an intermediary and find a lift for you. A tip of around 20% will be expected!

Pp99 By Car/Car Hire. You quote $150-200/day for a car (presumably a Landcruiser). I asked several of the operators at Itegue Taitu, and they all quoted $130/day including driver and fuel. Have prices come down, or are these guys not that reliable? Most other prices in the book have gone up by 10%.

P99 Accommodation

Without fail, whatever the standard of Hotel, the bathrooms are always in poorer condition that the rooms, so don’t be seduced by a fancy looking bed and check out the bathroom!

P156 Accommodation in Addis.

Green Valley Hotel is a significant step up in quality compared with Lomi and Ankober Guest Houses, with very helpful staff (I was allowed to store my excess bag for 3 weeks before I checked in!) It is on the main minibus route from Piazza to Magenanga. Ask to be dropped at ‘Kabena’

P 161 ‘Piazza, Arat Kilo Restaurants’. 

The long established ‘Romina Cafe’ next door to Maleda Cafe and Restaurant (map P 154 E2) is an excellent place to relax and take in the atmosphere on King George Street. Ansi Gallery. Not easy to spot. Look out for a sign ‘Safe Haven for Youth’ next door.

P177 Kiddist Maryam Church on King George Street

This has an excellent museum attached which can be accessed from the side street heading west between the church and the National Museum.

P532 Arba Minch.

Salem bus now run daily to Addis from next to the Bank of Abyssinia Bank in Sikela. Birr280.

Lemlem Beer Garden is in Shesha and not Sikela.

P561 Jinka

Rendu Cafe and Restaurant is in the wrong place on the map. It should be between No 8 ‘Orit’  and the Internet Cafe. I failed to find ‘Mercy Mini Market’ and No 10 ‘Jinka Heaven Drop’ Restaurant. Kuku Abebech is a quirky shop selling nice wooden carvings, signposted just before the mosque on the way up to the Research Centre.

The Pioneers Guide Association looks very run down. When I enquired about a potential trip in the future, I was told I would have to pay for the information if I wasn’t wanting to go now!

I came across a new local set up called Zani Tours, who offer walking trips as well as the more usual Landcruiser tours, who seemed very enlightened. (www.zaniethiopiantours.com)

P573 Omorate. Getting there and away.

There is now a bus service from Jinka to Omerate on Tuesday and Friday, with return presumably the next day.

P575 Kangatan. 

There is now a bus service from Jinka to Kangatan on Tuesday, Thursday and Friday with return the following day. The new concrete bridge over the river Omo is nearing completion and there is no problem crossing the temporary bridge. However the village of Kangatan has been split in two by a 6M high stone approach road to the bridge. The area is overrun with road construction workers with plenty of money to spend on beer, discos and young girls with very short skirts. There are 2 hotels, the better one is the Yeshi, but still basic and noisy. The rooms have fans but get very hot when the generator stops. Connection to the electric grid is imminent. The road east towards Tumi is very bad for the first 20kms but then improves. A brand new gravel road is being built up the west side of the Omo valley which gives access to the remote OMO National Park.(Turn off @ 05deg 51.85N 35deg 47.54E) There is no access to foreigners beyond this point to the controversial sugar plantations and factory further North.

P581 Jimma

The last 50kms into Jimma from Addis is now poor tarmac with lots of potholes.

The rooms in Boni Hotel look luxurious, but were booked out when I needed one! Syf is the same standard as the old wing of Central Jimma. The new wing is much nicer but much more expensive.

P585 Chebera-Churchura National Park.

The road from Chida to Ameya is still not asphalted!. It will probably be early 2018 before it is finished and at present Ameya is a construction site. The bus got stuck in the mud in the dry season!

I travelled on the early morning bus from Jimma direct to Ameya. The road on towards Bonga is impassable but will one day be asphalt (5 years min). Bear in mind that the road to Chebera descends 700M  in 15kms of dirt track, which could be alarming by motor bike taxi if wet.

On my return I was lucky to get a lift in a pick up to Chida where I had to wait 2hrs for a lift in a truck back to Jimma, as the morning bus from Ameya had already passed through. It is not quite as simple a journey as you make it out to be!

The track to the campsite is now very bad and the only facilities there are a very basic long drop toilet. The ‘Guest House’ project has stalled. The shell of the buildings are there, but no power, water or toilets. However a large new office compound is nearing completion along with conference rooms etc. Hopefully there will be efforts made to finish things……

The camp staff were helpful, if surprised to see me arrive without a car and I saw elephants within 2 hours of arrival as they were nearby. The hot springs are somewhat overrun by cattle.

I would agree with your comments about the excitement of elephant tracking. It is like gorilla tracking, but they are much bigger and definitely not accustomed to people! A great deal of patience is needed to get really close to them but 2 hours of stalking got us to within 30M.

P589 Mizan Tefari

Getting There. The road from Jimma is now fully surfaced.

P591 Kibbish and Southwest Omo.

A better approach to Kibbish is via the good gravel road (with tarred sections) that turns off the Bonga road 20kms out of Mizan Tefari and goes to the village of Tum where there is a basic hotel and a few restaurants and  also a campsite 2kms out of town. There is a weekly market of Saturdays that attracts Surma from the surrounding area, there is no charge to visit the market and no-one charging for photos so long as you are discreet with your camera. There is also a market on Saturday in the long established village of Madj about 15kms from Tum on top of a ridge where plenty of cattle change hands.  A daily bus leaves Mizan Tefari for Tum and there is minibuses from Tum to  Madj. The road from Tum towards Kibbish is good till Tulgit, where apparently there is a nice campsite. The last 15kms to Kibbish is very rough. Sporadic trucks make the trip from Tum to Kibbish.

As with many other villages in South Omo, there are plenty of charges levied on arrival in the Surma village of Kibbish. The village entrance is now $18 and the same for the local guide. There are plenty of people in traditional dress hoping to be photographed. There is a lot of gold mining in the area and tribesmen can be seen selling their gold dust at the co-operative just opposite the police station. Bear in mind that the villagers spend a lot of their cash in local bars and are often drunk in the afternoon requiring a significant police presence on the main street to keep the peace. There is a very basic hotel and restaurant in town but the community campsite is abandoned. Spend a very short time here and it will be all hassle, but stay a while, keep your camera hidden to start with and you will make friends and enjoy the experience.

In a private vehicle it is possible to drive to the rarely visited Omo National Park (no facilities!) from both Kibbish and Madj and from there on to Kangatan. The area around Kibbish is very remote but offers wonderful hiking for anyone very well prepared.

Crossing the Omo Valley on foot

With the construction of a bridge across the Omo river at Kangatan, it seemed reasonable that transport links between Kibbish and Tumi would improve, so I set off with a tent and 5 days of food to make the journey, hoping to pass through areas where there are few visitors. I picked up a local guide in Tum and travelled to Kibbish by truck. Having gained approval from the police we set off for the village of Adicas with 2 armed guards on a a stiff 1000M climb up into the hills.  The government has built houses with tin roofs for the Surma people, but they lay abandoned as they prefer to live in their grass huts. The higher ground is populated by the Dieze people, who wear western clothes but even the school teachers do not speak a word of English despite teaching it to their pupils! On arrival we had to report in to the police, which strangely was 2kms out of the village, before returning to the school to camp on the football pitch. It wasalso 1km to collect water from a very polluted well, so all in all 20kms walking on day one. A very rough dirt track does reach here from Madj.

Due to tribal tensions, day two required 2 armed guards and the chief’s brother as ambassador for a hike on footpaths to the village of Colu. This area was only ‘settled’ by the Surma 15 years ago when they evicted the villagers after a dispute over cattle, murdering many of them. Apart from armed herdsmen, there was also an armed lookout as we approached the village. After some discussions I was allowed to approach Chief Bologidan’s compound, where I was introduced and slowly accepted. A very interesting afternoon ensued as we were fed and watered by the chief’s wife and met a few villagers who came to see who we were. The only modern materials in use were a metal cooking pot and a plastic bottle with local ‘gin’.

On day 3 I had my guide, 2 armed guards, the chief’s brother and also Chief Bologidan, who escorted us across his lands for an hour, sending forward messages allowing us safe passage. Passing many herdsmen in the hills tending their cattle was fascinating.  As the path started to descend into the Omo valley, the villages stopped and it got much hotter. After 16kms we reached a small river and a welcome rest and cool off. After lunch the plan was to walk a short while and camp in the bush, but the guards were frightened of wild animals and forced us on. Finally after walking a further 14kms along a dried up river bed we arrived utterly exhausted, in the dark, at the Omo National Park Headquarters.

Omo National Park was taken over by ‘Africa Parks’ about 10 years ago and they built a nice camp, but they pulled out after a couple of years and the set up is slowly falling apart. No water, electricity (despite plenty of solar panels lying about) or food for visitors. The shutters in the reception area overlooking the water hole (where the staff wash their clothes!) are jammed shut so they can watch football on a large TV. Having sent my guards back home, I found I had to pay 2 rangers as 24hr guards while in the camp.

After a day’s rest, we walked 5kms to the ‘Sugar Road’ to look for a lift south towards Kangatan. There is a very contentious sugar plantation and factory being built in the upper Omo valley and the Chinese are building an excellent gravel access road . However there is very little passing traffic and after 5 hours  without any cars we returned to camp, only to repeat the procedure the next day, and the day after that too! We did however spot 10 lions just 100M from the junction. Finally on day 4, running out of money to pay guards, food and time, a national parks vehicle arrived and agreed to take us 45kms south to the Chinese road camp, from where we managed to get a lift with the supervisor and so finally made it to a very hot and dusty village Kangatan on the banks of the Omo river.

Kangatan is home to the Nyangatom tribe, but unfortunately the presence of a large construction camp and the building of the bridge has brought an influx of money resulting in a ‘wild west’ town of booze, discos and prostitution. There are 2 hotels in Kangatan, (neither very good)  but the bus only comes 3 times a week, and not the day I needed it and time was running out. However after plenty of enquiries I managed to find a lift from the Chinese construction company the next day and passed through Tumi and Dimeka with only fleeting sightings of the Hamer people, but had accomplished my goal of crossing the valley.

Was it worth it? The time at the village of Colu was utterly unique, as almost no-one has been in the area. The 30km walk to the Park headquarters is far too much to do in one day, but could be broken up with better planning. I see no likelihood of improved traffic on the ‘Sugar’ Road, but a vehicle could be arranged from Jinka to collect you at the park, which would allow exploration of the more ‘usual’ villages in the valley. I travelled alone (apart from all my guides and guards!) and doubt I would have had the same reception if part of a larger group, or without many years of experience visiting very remote areas. Not once was I asked to pay for a photo, but then again I did not poke my camera into their faces on arrival. Packing for a 5 day+ hike in hot conditions requires organization and a reasonable level of fitness, but if you are up for it physically and mentally it is a very special area!

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