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Trip Report Ethiopia and the tribes of the Omo Valley

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I took a trip to the Omo Valley in Ethiopia to photograph the tribes in the Omo Valley. In 2009 I was on a photography workshop shooting black bears in Minnesota and met a guy from France there. He had a couple of external hard drives full of pictures from previous trips and some were from the Omo Valley. His images were incredible and I was totally blown away with what he saw and captured. When Sandy (divewop) emailed me about this trip - another photographer's scouting trip with a limit of 3 people and a reasonable price - I just had to go.

This trip report is the same one I posted on another website and I just copied it for here.

I left home Sept 15th and arrived back home October 9th. I flew from home to Dulles and spent the night there to catch an early morning flight on Ethiopian Airlines. I couldn't find many reviews about this airline so I had a little apprehension but all for nothing. The airline staff was friendly and nice, the airplane was clean, on time and no complaints. Except the food. Airline food is always pretty sketchy but flying from Ethiopia it wasn't good at all.

The carry on limit is 15 lbs and I had 75 lbs (plus 40 lbs checked). When I bought the ticket I emailed Ethiopian Airlines and asked them what I could do to make sure I could carry on my photography gear because their website said not to put cameras or expensive items in checked luggage. They replied and said they would do their best to accommodate me. I printed that email and showed it every time I had problems and was only really worried one time but it all worked out okay.

Anyway, I would fly Ethiopian Airlines again and now on with the trip. I flew from Dulles to Addis Ababa where I changed planes and flew on to Nairobi. I spent the night at the little hotel down the street from the Wilson Airport and Sandy met me there the next morning. We started the trip with 5 days in the Mara at Governor's Camp before the Ethiopia portion. Sandy and I went there together.

The trip leader for the Ethiopian portion of the trip, Piper, was on a workshop with Andy Biggs at Governors at the same time we were there so we were able to meet before the official trip began. And I finally met Andy after first "talking" to him on the internet almost a decade ago. Very nice guy, as you all know. He was very helpful when Sandy had camera and tripod problems and was able to get her tripod repaired in the machine shop there at Governors. Good on you, Andy. I wouldn't have even thought of that.

The Ethiopian part of the trip started with a 3:30 AM flight from Nairobi to Addis Ababa. Yes, 3:30 AM. Yes, it was a couple hundred dollars cheaper than the reasonable time flight. Yes, I was willing to get up at the time I’m usually going to bed to save a couple hundred dollars. At the Addis airport the first stop after customs was a toilet stop and the first intro to no toilet paper, a common theme in Ethiopia. I got my own roll and carried it everywhere. :)

At this airport you have to go thru a scanner when you leave the airport. They said they were looking for video equipment. I had no video equipment so no worries. We were met by our guide, Robel, who gathered us and our luggage and took us to the vehicles with our drivers for the next week or so. We drove to a hotel where we met our 4th traveling companion, Vaughn, and had breakfast. One more trip to the toilet (with TP) and we were on our way.

I quickly learned that you cannot drive in Ethiopia without your car horn. There were plenty of cars and people everywhere in Addis. Any signal lights or stop signs were ignored and you just honked your way along . Vehicles have the right of way over pedestrians so you honk your horn when you approach other cars or people, especially people walking in the direction you were driving that couldn’t see you coming. And you honk a lot. This would be for the whole trip.

We made a couple of stops in Addis looking for a place to pick up a bottle of bourbon and amarula. Once we finally found some it was $60-65 US dollars so we decided we would stick to beer and wine. But we did run across a very nice little grocery store and a pastry store. Vaughn indulged in a pastry and I got chastised in the grocery store for taking photos (it was such a neat, cute store!). We didn’t pick up beer or wine in Addis because “it will be available everywhere on the trip”.

The first 3 days are driving days. You might think we went a long way since we drove for 3 days but you would be mistaken. The roads are dirt/gravel and the cows and goats have the right of way. If the map I looked at was correct we traveled about 400 miles over the 3 days and we went from early morning to late afternoon/dusk every day. We honked our way along and made a few quick stops for photos but it was just slow driving.

We stayed in hotels on the travel days but we were on the non-tourist west side of the Omo River. The first hotel was on the nicer side (for a developing country) but the second left a bit (lot!) to be desired. The shower didn’t work at all in 2 of the rooms, 1 room didn’t have hot water and the 4th room did but it ran out when the first person was half finished showering. They did have flush toilets with TP, dirty sheets, doors that barely locked, windows that didn’t shut and they did have mosquito netting for the bed. The beer was cold and the food was good.

The 3rd night we arrived at our first village where we camped. We were quickly surrounded by children as we would be everywhere we went. Robel was pretty good about making sure we weren’t too mobbed and shooed the kids away after the initial meet and greet.

We met with the chief of the tribe and our trip leader, Piper, made financial arrangements to photo some of the people. I’m told that regular tourists pay 1 or 2 birr per click of the camera. We aren’t as good a photographers as they are and it takes us many clicks to get an image we are happy with :) so we made an arrangement for group rates. Usually it was 10 birr per photographer per subject (I’ll refer to them as models to make it easier). So if all 4 of us photographed one model, that model received 40 birr. This arrangement worked well for the first couple of tribes but towards the end of the trip the same arrangements were made but the models wanted more money. Each of us would choose our model and take photos and pay. Sometimes the model would then want to argue. Sometimes I would keep the money and just walk away and later the model would approach me with their hand out and accept the same amount I offered in the first place. Sometimes the model would follow me around (cussing me out, probably) and then I would call for our guide, Robel, or the translator. We picked up a translator/guide before we went into any village so any problems could be worked out. Sometimes some of us would leave in one vehicle and leave the guides there still arguing with the tribes people. (lots of sometimes in there. sorry!)

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