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Vanishing Cultures of Ethiopia's Omo Valley

Karo, Surma & Nyagatom Tribes

Deep into the parched bush, far from any city, Ethiopia’s lower Omo Valley is a lost world. At the nexus of Kenya, Ethiopia and South Sudan—a region traversed only by a few beaten tracks of dismal quality, passable only in the dry season—some 15 semi-nomadic tribes inhabit a region roughly the size of West Virginia. Much of this remote slice of Africa remains so tenaciously tribal that it has rebuffed most of the modernizing efforts of the outside world for more than a century—but that soon will change!

This is a true photographic expedition to encounter some of the most remarkable tribal peoples on Earth. To this day, the Omo Valley remains rich in traditional culture and human history. It’s been said: “If Africa was the mother of all humanity then the Omo River acted as a main artery!” Remains of early hominids dating back nearly four million years have been found in the Omo Valley—evidence of an almost continuous “human” presence.

Visiting three fascinating and extremely photogenic tribal groups known for their unique body painting and elaborate adornments, we have access to the villages of the Nyagatom, Karo and Surma (Suri) people. This is an opportunity to photographically document their daily lives, as well as to experience some of their timeless ceremonies. Meeting other tribespeople during the journey is also likely.

The Karo and Nyagatom tribes practice flood retreat cultivation and a traditional pastoralist lifestyle that depends on the Omo River’s flood cycle. Cattle are a very important component of tribal life and, seasonally, entire families go to live in makeshift grazing camps with their herds, surviving on milk and blood from their cattle. Cattle raids and counter-raids from neighboring tribes present a constant danger. Marriage in these tribes requires “bride wealth”—a payment made to the woman’s family—generally consisting of numerous cattle, goats and guns. AK-47 rifles are extremely common in the lower Omo Valley and the Karo are major weapons distributers. Few men are ever seen outside the community without them. Intricate beadwork, animal skin clothing, rolled ochre-red hair, and graphic clay facial and body designs are hallmarks of Karo art.

The Surma (Suri) are also pastoralists and have elevated the custom of body painting to an amazing art form. The additional application of local plant material, fruits and feathers enhances the effect. Photography here can be exceptional! The Surma women practice some of the most profound forms of body adornment in the world―inserting a 7-inch-diameter clay plate into their lower lips, and body scarification created with acacia thorns and (now in modern times) razor blades. Nudity is commonplace. The men are expert in a spectacular form of stick-fighting called Donga and pride themselves on the battle scars they carry. Traditionally, Donga is a place where young men prove themselves to attentive girls and acquire a wife. Today, Donga also prepares warriors for the bloodshed they face from enemy tribes, and provides the training needed to fight for Surma survival. Donga fights are organized only a short time before they commence so your guide must ask the locals for word of an impending bout. We have a very good track record of finding them! A simulated donga can be arranged, but it does not have the intensity of the real thing.

Cattle raids are a relentless part of Surma life. Their cattle herds are under constant threat, and they, in turn, regularly steal the livestock of their enemies. Grazing land is under intense competition, particularly since the protracted Sudan war has displaced neighboring tribes onto Surma land, and gun battles over territory are not uncommon.

This is a rigorous “trip of a lifetime.” Though the trip starts and concludes in a 5-star hotel, camping conditions during the tour are very basic, but comfortable with small tents, sleeping bags and cots. Showers are available as well as “short drop” pit toilets.

The precise time spent in each village depends on what activities take place, goals the group wants to accomplish and the photo opportunities that present themselves―in true expedition style! We have left the program very flexible to ensure there is enough time to immerse ourselves in these remote and fascinating cultures. This truly is an incredible trip-of-a-lifetime!

• Read Joe Van Os' 2010 trip report and see more photos on the Photo Safaris blog

Day 1

Depart from home.

Day 2 (Sep 23)

Arrive at Bole International Airport, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. You are met and transferred to our hotel by private vehicle. Meet the tour leader for dinner and orientation this evening. Overnight in a 5-star hotel. (D)

Day 3–6

An early morning charter flight transports takes us to Tulgit in the remote Surma homeland. Known only to a small segment of the outside world—primarily for the incredible lip plates worn by some women and the ritual stick-fighting called Donga—the real photography opportunities with the Surma are in the fantastic clay facial and body painting/scarification that can rival the finest modern graphic design to be found in the art galleries of the Americas and Europe. We have more than three days to spend with the people living in the area near our campsite. As they get to know us—and as word spreads they are being paid—more and more people in amazing body adornment venture out to meet us. We can also hike to meet them. Small family settlements branch off on narrow tracks from the central roadway near camp—hiking is an important part of visiting Surma villages. At their homes you can photograph everyday life—time with the children, cooking and livestock chores, and tending to crops. Of course, if we are present at the time of a Donga, our guide arranges to photograph the event.

Our camp here is comfortably rustic and erected by a crew of men who spend at least 4 days driving supply trucks over extremely rough roads from Addis Ababa in order to prepare for our arrival at a remote missionary airstrip. (BLD)

Days 7–11

Fly to Murulle and drive to Lumale Camp. Here in the heart of Karo land we visit a tribe known for ritual body scarification, colorful beadwork and flamboyant body painting. With fewer than a thousand members, the Karo are the smallest tribe in the Omo Valley. Karo men scar their chests to represent enemies killed from rival tribes; women with a decoratively-scarred abdomen are considered sensual and desirable. Karo are also known for their exuberant and photogenic dancing.

We stay at a comfortable riverside camp along the Omo immediately adjacent to a Karo village seldom visited by other travelers. This is the seat of Karo government and their log-constructed “Parliament” pavilion is located here. Our guide helps orchestrate the photography—including individual and group portraits, goat and cattle herding, dancing and other activities group members might request.

Nyagatom are located across the river from the camp, and are the arch enemies of the Karo (and virtually all the other nearby tribes). We have boat access to them and to other tribes along the river, depending on how far our group wants to travel on the river from camp. (BLD)

Day 12

We break camp, drive to Murulle and fly by private charter to Addis Ababa. Depending on our flight schedule, we hope to have time for local city shopping. Dinner and overnight at our Addis hotel. (BLD)

Day 13 (Oct 4)

Transfer to the airport two hours prior to departing flights. Depart for home. (B)

Day 14

Arrive home.

Tour Details

Sep 22–Oct 5, 2012
$15,595 from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

Special Terms & Conditions

"Extent of preparation and planning was outstanding—beyond expectations."
—G. Chotrani

"An amazing experience! Top tour on my list."
—R. Dickinson

"Great staff, photo ops, weather, accommodations, food—and terrific subjects."
—J. Mattson

Joseph Van Os Photo Safaris, Inc. P.O. Box 655, Vashon Island, Washington USA 98070
Phone: (206) 463-5383 Fax: (206) 463-5484 Email: info@photosafaris.com
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