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The Lost Tribes of the Omo Valley

Together with a United Nations group of our great clients (USA, Australia and Switzerland) I spent 2 weeks in the Omo Valley, Ethiopia in December 2016. It’s taken a couple of weeks to let it all sink in. And you really have to let it sink in – because it is an outer-worldly gobsmacking experience that few on the planet will have a chance to experience, and as modernity engulfs the area, it’s an experience that’s vanishing fast. We weren’t far from Addis Ababa when I realised that what I was witnessing was something incredibly special.

We visited the Surma, Hammar, Karo, Nyangatom, Abore and Daasanach tribes in the Omo Valley. That’s just a handful of the over 80 tribes in Ethiopia and each one was special in it’s own right – from traditions, to dress, to lifestyle.

The Omo Valley trip isn’t for sissies! There’s lots of driving over bumpy roads and it’s hot. Very hot! But every bump, every bead of sweat is worth it. As you move south from Addis Ababa, each kilometer takes you further and further away from life as you know it. Adventure and true exploration doesn’t come with air-con or sheets of a high thread count. (Although ORYX’s small touches of ice-cold wet towels in the middle of the day, and comfy vehicles certainly were appreciated!) You need to get down and dirty. Only with that are you able to go where few others will…

Highlights are difficult to single out from the Omo valley tour. When I asked my travel partners what their’s were I was met with incredulous looks of “it was ALL a highlight…”

For me our visit to the Surma tribe in Kibish was special though. ORYX has developed an extraordinary relationship with them over the years and our arrival was met with smiles and welcome-back hugs. We spent three days camping near the tribe and photographed as much as our batteries and cards would allow. What an incredible experience. Each of us shared our creativity, learnt from each other and took our portrait photography to a new level. With exquisite ceremonial headpieces made from bushes, plants and flowers the Surma proudly posed in front of our lenses. Some of the headpieces were almost larger than the person wearing them – attesting to their incredible artistry!

Other memories that will stick with me for a LONG time are as much cultural as they are photographic. I spent a lot of time stepping back from my camera just to watch the scenes in front of me. I ogled over the lip plates worn by women in both the Surma and Hamar tribes, treasured the ice cold Coke we shared with members of the Karo in a small hut, remember fondly Gadi – one of the oldest member of the Hamar that I spent a while talking to (through a translator). I still smile when I think of the young girl in a market who grabbed my arm and traced the lines of my veins that shine through my translucent skin. These were just a few of the small moments that I collected in addition to the photographs I took.

But the photos. Wow. The photos. These are images that will stay in my portfolio for years to come. Yes, the subject matter is amazing – but with ORYX’s local guides we were able to really get the best out of each photographic opportunity – whether it was simply translation help so that we could communicate with everyone, or their connections and friendship with local chiefs and headmen which helped us get the right permissions in order to spend time in villages to get authentic imagery, to helping us set up impromptu studios. All these things helped turn potential snap shots into situations where you could take your time and creativity to make portraits (as opposed to simply take them).

My shutter finger is itching to go back. The Omo Valley is addictive….

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