Where did life begin? Traveling to Ethiopia’s Omo Valley – Early Man


My passion for understanding the past through early man caves, paleontology, archeology, encounters with ancient tribes with connections to the past and life origins and what matters most…  these strike directly at the heart of what I find meaningful in travel.  Indiana Jones wasn’t just looking for gold statues… he was looking for answers.

Early Man Ethiopia

If you’re trying to connect with the past, there really isn’t any place where you’ll find more diverse tribes in such a small area than in Ethiopia.  Seriously.  If you have found something more diverse and connected with the past, I’d really like to know.  While the exact number is unknown, there are around 80 tribes and 86 living languages with an incredibly diverse ethnic groups living in Ethiopia. Most of the urban population belongs to the Amhara or Oromo tribes.  Ethiopia is the oldest independent country in Africa and one of the oldest in the world.  Ethiopia today is one of the fastest growing economies in the world, and yet has some of the best preserved untouched primitive tribal living in the world. What makes Ethiopia unique is the longevity of Ethiopia without much outside influence.  Italy was trying to build an empire in Ethiopia had such a small impact, you’ll struggle to find anything Italian unless you visit Gondar where there are a few buildings that look Italian.  Italians made an attempt to have Ethiopia as their share of Africa. They invaded in 1893 but were shamefully defeated by the Ethiopians to become the first European losers in a colonial war. This led to the Italy-Ethiopia war conducted in 1930’s.  Ultimately Ethiopia was colonized by Italy from 1936 to 1941.  Only 5 years, so you can understand how little impact would come from that.  Things will change. 

So, going back to it.  Ethiopia has a lot of primitive tribes that continue to live the way they have for thousands of years… I was anxious to visit early man, and what an incredible experience I had making so many new friends and gaining insights about ancient life.   

Early Man Lucy

While it may seem like Ethiopia has always been the cradle of civilization it was not until 1963 that ancient hominids were discovered in Ethiopia where stone tools that were over a million years old at Kella.  Since then many important finds have propelled Ethiopia to the forefront of paleontology. The oldest hominid discovered to date in Ethiopia is the 4.2 million year old Ardi found by Tim White in 1994. The most well known hominid discovery is Lucy, found in the Awash Valley of Ethiopia’s Afar region in 1974 by Donald Johanson, and is one of the most complete and best preserved, adult fossils ever uncovered. Lucy is estimated to have lived 3.2 million years ago.  You can see Lucy and Ardi bones in the museum in Addis Ababa in the capital.  

early man skulllucy bones

There have been many other notable fossil findings in the country. Near Gona stone tools were uncovered in 1992 that were 2.52 million years old, these are the oldest such tools ever discovered anywhere in the world.  In 2010 fossilized animal bones, that were 3.4 million years old were found with stone-tool-inflicted marks on them in the Lower Awash Valley by an international team, which is the oldest evidence of stone tool use ever found anywhere in the world.  In 2004 fossils found near the Omo river at Kibbish at 195,000 years old, the oldest date in East Africa for modern Homo sapiens. Imagine walking around in a valley where the bones you might stumble across could be an ancient ancestor.

tribal encounters

You really don’t have to spend much time with the tribes to find their simple, but ancient traditions to be enlightening.  You really don’t have to go to distant islands where you risk getting shot by arrows.  You can come to the Omo Valley, and get a guide and scout who are provided for your safety and convenience to communicate with the chief and his warriors, who are really quite friendly.

olmec headimage

Last summer I traveled to Mexico to see the Olmec heads.  I was NOT expecting to see one in Addis Ababa outside the museum in Ethiopia.

National Museum of Ethiopia

The National Museum of Ethiopia is worthwhile.  Even in just the last few years it has gotten a lot better.  It was the Lucy bones that drew me the first time, but taking my 9 year old boy to put some context in paleontology was very worthwhile.

 imageNational Church Ethiopia

My friend Abeye who I met on a trip to Lalibella, Ethiopia 8 years earlier with his school friends.  It was him and his friends who were our guides when we were trying to locate an orphanage.  I had the biggest epiphany… everything you think you know about Africa is wrong.  Everything you think you know about Ethiopia is also wrong.  Giving money to the orphanages in Lalibela would have been a mistake.  They were the only spoiled kids in the city.   Who would have guessed?  Instead I found a blind kid and his friend who helped us locate school supplies which we were able to distribute to as many kids as we could find.  It was a life changing event.  Bringing books and school supplies to a few schools along our route on our trips was a lot of fun for the whole family.  Mission accomplished.  My 9 year old and his cousin will never forget how they felt as they had many first contact type experiences with the kids at the markets.  If you’ve never had the opportunity to be a minority, I highly recommend it.  It’s important to get out of your comfort zone, and let a villager touch your freckles or softly pinch your skin and stare right through your blue eyes.  You sort of feel like an alien.  Imagine if everyone had the opportunity to feel like an alien.  How much prejudice and bigotry would melt away to empathy?

first contact

first contact ethiopia

No matter how much you try to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, you will still struggle to understand how someone could put such a large plate in their lip, but if you don’t try to connect with them and imagine life in a straw hut and attempt to connect with their present and your past… to see what life might have been like 3,000 or 30,000 years ago.

Mursi tribe

The Mursi tribe are a nomadic people known for their lip plates, they live in grass huts between the Omo River and its tributary the Mago, one of the most isolated regions of the country.  They are animists. Lip plates are a well known aspect of the Mursi and Surma, who are probably the last groups in Africa amongst whom it is still the norm for women to wear large pottery, wooden discs, or plates in their lower lips. 

happy tribal encounters

I had a great time with my new friend.  We were taking selfies and could keep a straight face.  After traveling 3 days to get deep into the Omo Valley I was so excited to spend time with one of the most primitive tribes in Ethiopia.  Clothing optional, this tribe could construct their grass hut village in less than 24 hours.  They are a nomadic tribe.

Zebra kids

As we drove by these zebra stripped kids I was struck.  I was really on the edge of the planet.  Our guide said, “don’t take their picture they’ll throw rocks!”  It was too late.  I caught this beautiful photo first.  I hope it represents them well.  For the most part prior to us arriving at a village there were terms on photos and we’d work it out with the chief.  It’s true… sometimes they wanted money for each picture, but it was my preference to trade.  If we could bring things the tribe needed, I felt a lot better…. school supplies, solar lantern, or simple toys.

Ancient Konso pole

This pole may look like a bunch of poles lashed together, but actually this is a clock.  The tribe adds a new pole to this central point in the village every generation (18 years.)  Konso, this ancient UNESCO heritage village is over 400 years old.

Tiye UNESCO

Tiya, a UNESCO site of large stones from an ancient burrial ground.  No one recognizes the swords.  They don’t match any on record in Ethiopia.   I love it.  The site is still being understood.  You can be an archeologist and figure it out!  The guides on site have some good ideas, but you can tell much of what they are saying is guestimates.

Ethiopian sword and shield

You can compare these swords from the museum… Doesn’t look anything like it.  The 1600s was a pretty exciting time in Ethiopia with the royal courts, castles, and conquests.  You wouldn’t believe the history.  Gondar Ethiopia where the castles are is a must for a longer trip to Ethiopia.

Ethiopian crock Lake Chamo

Humans aren’t the only ancient thing in Ethiopia.  Very old crocodiles and hippos in the lake.  You can take a guide, captain and scout by boat and go trekking for animals in Lake Chamo Nechi Sar

Adadi Mariam

Ancient stone churches are both in the North and in the South.  Lalibella in the North has some of the best monolithic buildings in the world.

The only southerly rock hewn church Adadi Mariam… It’s like visiting a cave church carved out of rock, not unlike the cave churches in Cappadocia, but those churches don’t have a holy of holies and these are all fashioned after Solomon’s temple and often have a ark of the covenant replica based on the real one… just ask them.  The religion runs very deep in Ethiopia, and there’s no doubt they are from lost tribes of ancient Israel… the DNA studies and the heritage back up the stories.  The stories are fantastic and rich as the countries culture.

Ancient New York

Breathtaking natural beauty outside the windows of the ancient village near Konso.  This valley is coined New York for what look a vast city scape in dirt… like sky scrapers.

Mursi Warrior

This Mursi Warrior may look tough, and they are, but they are also very sweet.

Raw Beef

If you don’t stick to tourist food, you can try some amazing tibs.  Tare tare may be a french term, but at this shop, they chop off cuts of fresh beef, seasoning optional.  Strips of raw meat – Tere Sega.  I LOVE Ethiopian food.  It took some convincing my driver that I had an iron stomach, then I could get to the really good places where the locals eat.  Tibs, Shiro, Kifto, Gomen, Doro Wat, Shiro Feces, served with a layer of Injira. 

Ethiopian Market

Incredible markets.  Tribes would come to trade or sell their vegetables or clothes.  Markets aren’t every day, but on market day it’s a treat to meet those that come from far away.  I did find it annoying that some local government officials thought we needed a permit to go to the market.  They were persistent.

Konso tribal hut

Traditional ancient Konso tribal Hut.  These are really the nice huts.  There are much more primitive and temporary huts.

Ethiopian hard working women

The hardest working women in the world.  I believe.  These women spend all day looking for sticks to turn to charcoal to sell or to use as firewood to feed their families.

Konso Tribal Elders

The wise tribal elders of Konso

Tribal market

Those wooden seats double as a pillow and are one of the few items you might find in a hut.

Ancient tribal hut

The inside of a hut.  This women was near the center of the village so she has some additional amenities.

huts

The animals live in the stone walled in village for protection.  The further outer rings of the village the newer but more risky.

inside Mursi hut

The inside of the grass hut.  Embers still warm.

 

In a spirit of transparency.  I’m fine sharing what I got

Omo valley cultural tour

Day 1 – Rock Hewn church, Tiya UNESCO site

Day 2 Trekking for Zebras, visiting crocks and hippos

Day 3 Jinka!!! Konso tribes the 400 year old UNESCO village including New York

Day 4 Mursi tribe and Mago National Park.  This is the lip plate tribe.  Dimeka Market…

Day 5 Turmi cultural tribal city in the middle of Omo Valley

Day 6 Dorze village

I ended up going back to Paradise Lodge.  We loved that place.  The view was incredible.  So we elected for 3 nights there in Arba Minch. 

King Dawit tours

For $75 a day for $525 we had a Toyota Land Cruiser driver and vehicle for about 7 days.  I felt pretty good about what I negotiated.  Our driver knew the route, and while he didn’t like driving in the dark.  We were able to push him to put in 12 hour days and saw an incredible amount of Southern Ethiopia on this trip.

It was so great to get back to Ethiopia one of my favorite countries not only in Africa, but in the world.

If you enjoyed this post… you might enjoy my previous post on Ethiopia on Lalibela and the Rock Hewn Churches where I first met Abeye and fell in love with ancient Ethiopia.  My friend Abeye is now building his own ethiopian tours.

Panama Island Escape: Bocas Del Torro and Urraca – Adventures in Paradise

Private islands

monkey scream

Before when I thought of Panama, all I could think of was the Panama canal.  Now I think of Islands.  There are so many little islands off the coast of Panama.

The only way to get around the islands is with boats.  The boats are like busses taking you from place to place.  The first time I visited Bocas del Torro, I thought the island was the destination.  It wasn’t until I spent a little time on the island and I discovered that the adventures are all around you.

  • Red Frog Island
  • Urraca Private Island
  • El Tigre – Native Tribe Island
  • Bat Caves
  • Waterfalls
  • Scuba Diving for underwater ship, sea horses, and amazing

I wasn’t satisfied just to see a small bit of Panama.  I had to come back, so I brought my family.  I did some searching and came across Urraca Private Island.  It sounded magical.  Your own private island, the lady who runs the place has her own monkey, a French Canadian who travelled the Caribbean looking for paradise.  She found 2 islands of mangroves and found a way to put a house on stilts.  These beautiful places are designed with nature in mind.  The electricity comes from the sun, the water in the house comes from the rain.

water out the window

While I was really hoping to find “utopia,” instead we had a great adventure that tested my wife’s limits.  I think over those few days I’d see something in her as an adventure traveler that would make me realize things have changed (at least knowing that there are comfort limits.)  My wife didn’t like the cold showers, didn’t like the rain showers that barely let up a couple of days. Even though it wasn’t the rainy season we spent a lot of time in the rain forest and you don’t know how it will effect a person.

I realized we couldn’t do hostels as a family.  I tried a couple of different styles and we drew the lines at A/C – required, hot showers – required, and no bugs.  We didn’t have screens in the windows and the little fans didn’t do enough to keep the kids and my wife happy.  The adventure became too much of one.

It was a little daunting not to be able to be in control.  You tell the boat when to come and that’s when it will come.  No earlier, no later.  When it’s time to eat and you’re on a private island, you don’t have a lot of choices if you didn’t prepare.  You likely will eat what is being cooked and if you don’t like it or don’t like the prices… tough.  You may not even know the price until the end of the week, and at that point you better be prepared.  Ask for a menu and ask for prices, and ask for alternatives.  I did come across some places, but easily 30 minutes away and that means gas or it means going to dinner on your way back from an adventure.

water bar bocas del torro island paradise

Pictured: Left the food places at Bocas are often out on the water with incredible views. Right: The swim up to it table, difficult to get on those seats at low tide, but beautiful to look at.  There’s a lot of symbolism in this… It looks better than it feels without knowing and realizing it’s going to be an adventure and that’s what it’s all about.

While it may not have been the ultimate paradise for everyone on those three days on the private island.  I really really enjoyed the adventure even though I discovered their comfort limits.  Here are just a few things we experienced.

  • Capuchin monkey
  • Fresh lobster
  • Private beaches
  • Encounters with natives
  • Snorkling and scuba
  • Cave spiders that look like scorpions
  • Seeing sloths in the wild!
  • Bioluminescent waters
  • Dolphins

monkey manprivate islandwater walkway

Crossing from Costa Rica across a wild train bridge was quite the adventure.  It really wasn’t hard to catch a bus from Puerto Viejo or Manzanilla to the border.  You can even pay to get all the way to Bocas del Torro which involves crossing the train bridge then riding a van transport to water transport and then on for another hour to Bocas del Torro.

big rodentbaby with monkey

Pictured: Jared with his rodent friend that had a rabbit face on Right my 3 year old and Tutsi the monkey

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Pictured: Get your scuba certification in 3 days. Open Water PADI certified. It was the best dive with the worst equipment, but I got what I paid for… it was cheap!

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Local breakfast on Bocas del Torro… a local meal of scone and two meatballs.  I’m sure there was a local name for it.