The villages of the Lower Omo Valley are home to some of Africa’s most fascinating ethnic groups and a trip here represents a unique chance for people to encounter a culture markedly different from their own. Whether it’s wandering through traditional Daasanach villages, watching Hamer people performing a Jumping of the Bulls ceremony or seeing the Mursi’s mind-blowing lip plates, your visit here will stick with you for a lifetime. This is quite a beautiful region, too. The landscape is diverse, ranging from dry, open savannah plains to forests in the high hills and along the Omo and Mago Rivers. The former meanders for nearly 800km, from southwest of Addis Ababa all the way to Lake Turkana on the Kenyan border.
South Omo, as it’s also known, is not a land frozen in time as many visitors with visions of National Geographic articles imagine it, though ancient traditions still form the backbone of daily life. But perhaps not for much longer. Outside factors such as huge hydroelectric dams, sugarcane and palm oil plantations, road construction, oil exploration and laws aiming to ‘civilise’ the people (like outlawing stick fighting) are forcing rapid change. Tourism, though not without its problems, is about the last stabilising influence on the tribal culture because tourists are generally interested in and respectful of it.
Decent roads allow visits all year, though note that even just one day of rain (April, May and October are the wettest months) can render some roads south of the main Konso–Jinka route temporarily impassable due to both mud and lack of bridges. Most of the park is below 500m elevation, so temperatures can soar over 40°C, but some nights get cool enough to necessitate a light jacket. For a cultural insight into the region, the best time to visit is January to April when many celebrations take place, including marriages and initiation ceremonies. The driest period (January and February) increases the odds of animal sightings in Mago National Park.
The towns featured here are completely ordinary, with modern buildings that look no different from elsewhere in the country because they were built and populated mostly by Ethiopians from elsewhere in the country. Tribal peoples generally only visit on market days and you should try to coincide with as many markets as you can. Likewise, the surrounding villages have few people on the market days, at least until late afternoon when they return home.
Accommodation is mostly rough and ridiculously overpriced. Even the ‘luxury’ places in Turmi and Jinka are prone to electricity (and sometimes water) failures. Generators usually only run from 6pm to 10pm. Reservations in Jinka and Turmi are recommended for January to February and September to December.