Southern Ethiopia, a mosaic of colorful cultures and a variety of landscapes
This is a truly unspoiled part of Earthalt with lakes, hot-springs, rolling green hills, rugged mountains, huge forests, wild coffee and the real African savannah and semi-desert. There are several National Parks where a great variety of wildlife and birds can be seen. A mosaic of tribes live in this varied landscape. More then 45 languages are spoken here
Read also our tour program Tribes and Lakes.
The Sidama Coffee which grows in the south- especially the Yrgachefe Coffee, well known for its special
aroma - is one of the major export products of Ethiopia. The Sidama area is very fertile and green. Everywhere you see the peoplealts huts, surrounded by Ensete, a banana like tree which is eaten by more than a third of the Ethiopian population. After a long process of preparation, a kind of sour tasting unleavened bread or porridge is prepared from it. The Wolayta people are also good farmers. When going further to the south you come to a relatively small area where many different tribes are living in their own territory. These people still use what nature provides them, proud, free and independent from all modern technical achievements. Cults, traditions, songs and dances are still as vivid as they have been for ages. But due to road construction, building of schools, introduction of modern communication and growing contact with people from other parts of Ethiopia and from other (western) countries, the 21st century is entering slowly into this area and into the culture and life of the people.
The Bale Mountains National Park is the best place in Ethiopia for those who love trekking and hiking. It is a rough, impressive landscape with forests, heather, Afro-alpine landscape, lakes, streams, rivers and is the best place to see endemic wildlife and endemic birds.
In Wondo Genet you can take hot showers and swim in the natural hot spring water, surrounded by a beautiful, paradise like landscape. The surroundings are also ideal for hiking.
Highlights of southern Ethiopia
Rift Valley Lakes
Like a chain of pearls, the lakes cover the bottom of the Rift Valley stretching from Djibouti to Mozambique with a width of 50km. All the Lakes are full of fish like Tilapia and Nile Perch and thus attract many different bird species, making them a paradise for bird watchers. They are also altideal places for a real vacation with relaxation, swimming, boat trips, fishing, watching crocodiles and hippo's and enjoying the serene, romantic views, especially at sunset, with only the voices of the birds or crickets as background music.
Coming from Addis Abeba, you first pass the artificially-made lake where the Koka Dam provides electricity for the capital. Not long after passing this lake, the first Rift Valley lake comes into view: Lake Zway. Here you can observe many birds such as white pelican, saddle bill, yellow bill, storks and kingfishers. Hippo's can also be seen. A boat can be rented to visit one or more of the islands with their monasteries. Debre Sion is the most famous. It is said that in the 9th century A.D., the Ark of the Covenant was brought here from Axum because it was in danger of being destroyed by the ferocious queen Gudit. Indeed, the oldest written documents about Axum has been discovered here. The inhabitants of the island are Tigrigna (the language of the North) speaking people.
Travelling further to the south there is an excellent opportunity to relax at the shores of Lake Langano. This lake with its reddish brown water is free of Bilharzia, so it is safe to swim. There are several good hotels and Lodges in a beautiful setting where you can relax on the sandy shores and where boats, pedalboats, fishing equipment and cycles can be hired. It is an ideal base to make trips to the nearby Lakes Shala and Abiata. Lake Abiata provides a stunning spectacle of untouched, unspoilt Ethiopia. It hosts an extraordinary number of birds like wild duck, geese, cormorants, flamingos and great numbers of Great White Pelicans. These pelicans come only to Abiata to feed, they nest and sleep on islands in neighbouring Lake Shala. These islands are home to the most important breeding colony of Great White Pelicans in Africa. Lake Shala which is a crater lake, has many bays fringed with wild fig, acacia and euphorbia, overlooking dark waters which are the deepest in Ethiopia, 200 metres or more. It breathes an untouched, mysterious beauty. In its surroundings several sulphurous springs bubble up. There are excellent places for camping on its shores, ideal for people who seek rest and silence in unspoiled nature. There is not much wild life around the lakes but the beautiful Grant's Gazelle and different species of monkeys can regularly be seen.
After passing Shashemene, the unofficial capital of the Ethiopian Rastafarian Community - which altcan be visited on appointment - you get a beautiful view of Lake Awassa. It has a circumference of 62 km, with reed-lined shores and many swampy bays and is enclosed by a gentle chain of mountains. Awassa, the capital of the Southern Nations, is situated on its shores. It is a friendly, lively, quickly growing town with a pleasant climate, many hotels and restaurants with cosy terraces, a big university, bustling market and beautiful surroundings, an ideal base to make trips. As with the other lakes, in and around lake Awassa you can see many bird species. Boats can be rented for a romantic latalte afternoon trip to the hippo colony and to see the beautiful sunset while peacefully rowing on the silver water.
Bicycles can be rented to make a trip around the lake or to nearby Wondo Genet, the green Paradise in the mountains where you can overnight in a hotel set in beautiful surroundings, with flowers, jacaranda's and other flowering trees and a splendid view of lake Awassa in the distance. Here you can swim in the pool filled with hot spring water while the Colobus Monkeys are watching you, hike in the surrounding mountains covered with forests and visit the Sidama people in their huts surrounded by Ensete. The whole place is used to grow abundant coffee, chat, sugar cane, papaya, mango and banana. The farmers have made an ingenious irrigation system which gives them harvest the whole year round. Also the nearby Wondo Genet College of forestry is worth a visit.
Through Wolayta region you reach Arba Minch ("forty springs") where you can overnight in a good hotel or lodge with a splendid view of the twin Lakes Abaya and Chamo. Looking over the alttwo lakes, divided by a ridge of land known as "the Bridge of God" you indeed get the feeling as if earth is freshly created by the hand of God. Lake Abaya is used by the Harura people in their wogolo boats made of a light-weight local wood named isoke. These boats can carry quite heavy loads, including cattle. On Lake Chamo you can take a boat trip to see the hippos and the famous huge Arba Minch crocodiles (up to 6 metres long) on the sandy shores. There are so many of them that it is named the "crocodile market". It is also worth seeing the 40 springs in the only evergreen ground water forest in East Africa and to bathe in one of them. Before reaching Arba Minch the Dorze village, Chencha is worth a visit. The Dorze people are famous for their sometimes 6 metres high bee-hive shaped huts with a kind of giant "nose" at the front and their ingenious terraces on the mountain slopes. They are also skilled weavers who make the best cotton "shammas" and "gabis" in Ethiopia.
Arba Minch is not only an interesting place because of its lakes. Via the "Bridge of God" you enter Nech Sar National Park. Nech Sar means white grass, indeed the white savannah grass is characteristic of the park. With the mountains of Sidama in the background and unexpected panoramic views of lake Chamo and lake Abaya through open spaces, it is one of the most altscenic parks of east-Africa. It is a beautiful sight to see the large herds of Burchell's zebra's on the savannah plains. The greater Kudu, dik-dik, Grant's Gazelle and Swayne's hartebeest can easily been observed. Lions are living in the park but they are rarely seen. In the forest you will discover bush-pigs, warthogs, Anubis baboons, genets, bushcuks and vervet monkeys. Totally, 91 mammal and 351 bird species are found in the park.
Further to the South you can visit the Omo and the Mago National Parks in an area which is claimed to be the last great wilderness of the African Continent. In the Mago National Park lion, leopard, elephant and giraffe have their home but their numbers are decreasing because of widespread poaching by the tribes who are living in this area. But, buffaloes can be observed, especially close to water sources and also Burchell's zebra, greater and lesser kudu, Defassa waterbuck, gerenuk, topis and Lelwel hartebeest can more easily be seen. Camping is possible in the park, which will give you a real back to wilderness feeling.
In the Omo National Park you have more chance to see elephant, lion, leopard, buffalo, giraffe, zebra and elan, as well as Lelwel's hartebeest, waterbuck, kudu and gerenuk. The best time to make a game drive is early in the morning or late in the afternoon. This park is a vast expanse of true wilderness and one of the richest and least-visited wildlife sanctuaries of East-Africa. It is a special and unforgettable experience to camp on the banks of the Omo River, sitting in the evening by a campfire with millions of stars above you in the deep black sky, hearing the roaming of the different wild animals in the distance.
The Bale Mountains National Park offers some of the finest high-altitude horse and foot trekking routes in the world. It is a giant wilderness with rugged peaks -some more than 4000 altmetres high, rolling emerald-green moor lands, laced with deep unfathomable fissures, heather, afro-alpine zone, dense forest, lakes, streams and rivers teeming with brown and rainbow trout -a paradise for anglers-, extraordinary flora with giant heath and the spectacular giant lobelia and an abundant bird- and wildlife. Over 60 mammal species and 260 bird species have their home in the Bale Mountains. Among the endemic species the Semien Fox, mountain Nyala and Menelik's Bushbuck are the most important and they can easily be observed. Thirteen of Ethiopia's endemic birds inhabit the Bale Mountains. A botanist wrote: "The African mountain flora is one of the most remarkable and specialized in the whole world... In Africa not only are the species quite distinct but they usually have an entirely different kind of growth-form, with the result that the flora can be described as like nothing else on earth." In the Bale Mountains you have the opportunity to observe this with your own eyes! The Bale Mountains are really an unforgettable experience for trekking-specialists.
When you visit the Bale Mountains, you shouldn't miss the Sof Omar Caves. The forces of nature have created in Sof Omar an underground marvel. With a guide and a good torch, you can make a trip of one kilometre through this wonderful world of passages and galleries of polished white stone. In the large central hall the chamber of Columns, more than 20 massive pillars soar towards the high arched roof with the river flowing silent and cold around these great pedestals. From Sof Omar it is not far -via a scenic route- to visit Sheikh Hussein, Ethiopia's most important centre of Muslim pilgrimage.
Tribes of the Omo Valley
Read more about the extraordinary tribes of the Omo valley