Travel: Ethiopia’s Deep South

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VIEWS

Words & Images Patrick Cruywagen

In a key snapshot from Kingsley Holgate’s recent “Living Traditions” expedition through northern Kenya, southern Ethiopia and south Sudan, Patrick Cruywagen witnesses a world-first traverse of Chew Bahir, Southern Ethiopia’s great salt ocean, in Land Rovers and land yachts. Then it was back to the mosquito nets and much-needed spectacles…


The success of our “The Living Traditions Expedition – A Journey to Chew Bahir” is in serious jeopardy. Our negotiations with the police at Arbore have reached an unfortunate stalemate − the Swiss might have invented the clock, but it is the Africans who own time. Arbore is the last village of significance before our convoy of three Land Rovers makes its way onto Chew Bahir, southern Ethiopia’s Great Salt Ocean, for an attempt at a historic world-first traverse by Land Rover and land yacht.

Very few tourists come this way, and for good reason. In the 1960s, the lake was up to eight metres deep in places; now, it is nothing more than a dry saltpan which develops small swamp sections during the rainy season. In April 1888, Count Samuel Teleki, who was the first European to set his eyes on Lake Turkana, christened this place Lake Stefanie in honour of Princess Stéphanie of Belgium. Even back then, the water was too salty for human or animal consumption. Today, locals prefer to call it Chew Bahir.

These are tense times in Ethiopia’s South Omo valleys, home to as many as two dozen different tribes. The cattle conflict between the Arbore and Hamer tribes is threatening to escalate into an all-out war, and we now find ourselves slap-bang in the middle of it all.

Here, just about every male over the age of about 15 is carrying a Kalashnikov, probably purchased in the nearby volatile South Sudan with stolen cattle.

To help negotiations along, we decide that now might be a good time for all of us to enjoy some coffee at a roadside café. (Coffee has its origins in Ethiopia, and today you will struggle to find a country more passionate about its coffee.) A quick cuppa gives Kingsley a moment to ponder our situation.

We are looking for an armed escort to join us on the dry lake, but the Arbore police are unwilling to travel with us as we will be passing through their enemy’s stronghold. (For a touch of irony, the border between the two tribes is a Chinesebuilt cell-phone tower.) Eventually they relent and give us permission for the attempted traverse – but without any armed escorts.

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