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The Rift Valley and the Cultural Mosaic of the South

Misty highland meadows and tall escarpment forests make up much of Southern Ethiopia, but the region is also incised by the gaping kilometre-deep tectonic scar we know as the Great Rift Valley, its acacia-swathed floor dotted with beautiful lakes renowned for their diverse profusion of birds. The ethnic diversity of this astonishing region embraces modern cities such as Hawassa and Arba Minch, but also the walled hilltop warrens of the Konso Cultural Landscape, the remote tribes of South Omo, the singing wells of the desert-dwelling Borena, towering Dorze homesteads and thousand year old island monasteries.

  • Lake Ziway’s Tullu Guddo Island is where Ethiopian tradition says the Ark of the Covenant was stowed during the 9th century, while nearby French-owned Castel Winery produces East Africa’s finest wines.
  • Lined with resorts and ecolodges, Lake Langano, with its bilharzia-free waters, is both a popular weekend beach and water sport retreat, and a great site for bird watching.
  • Named after the two large lakes within its borders, Abijatta-Shalla National Park is an important waterbird sanctuary, hosting up to 300,000 pink-hued flamingoes at the end of the rains.
  • Thought to be 5,000 years old, the Shappe Rock Engravings, 15 minutes drive from the well-equipped town of Dilla, depict a herd of around 70 cattle on a vertical rock face..
  • The hilly 58km2 Senkele Swayne’s Hartebeest Sanctuary is the easiest place to see the endangered endemic antelope for which it is named.
  • South Omo is a unique cultural kaleidoscope populated by 16 different ethnic groups whose traditional ways of life include body painting and unique hair styles.
  • The modern city of Hawassa offers some some fine lakeside wining and dining, and an abundance of aquatic wildlife.
  • The environs of Yabello Wildlife Sanctuary, near the town of the same name, is the only place to see two ultra-localised Ethiopian endemics: Stresemann’s bush crow and white-tailed swallow.
  • The fortified hilltop settlements, terraced fields and anthropomorphic grave-markers of the Konso Cultural Landscape have led to its inscription as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
  • Nech Sar National Park protects a spectacular landscape of mountains, lakes and forests, and it harbours 70-plus mammal species, as well as prodigious crocodiles and the endemic Nechisar nightjar - the latter arguably the world's rarest bird.
  • The communal ‘singing wells’ at Dubluck are famed for the local Borena tradition of forming a chanting human chain to haul buckets of water from the well.

Mago National Park still supports a wide range of savannah wildlife, including lion, elephant, buffalo and various antelope

Getting There

Arba Minch is the only southern Ethiopian town serviced by flights. These are operated by Ethiopian Airlines (www.ethiopianairlines.com), which should also resume flights to Hawassa (the regional capital) and Jinka, the capital of South Omo, following the completion of new airports currently under construction.

Most trunk roads through Southern Ethiopia are asphalted, but many minor routes remain unsurfaced, as do tracks in the national parks and other reserves. Tours of the region can be arranged through any tour operator in Addis Ababa. Taxis and local guides are readily available in all larger towns. Privately owned local airline companies can also arrange non-scheduled or chartered flights upon request.

Accommodation

International-quality accommodation is available in Hawassa, Arba Minch and on the shores of Lake Langano. Midrange rooms are available in the above sites, as well as in Ziway, Shashemene, Wondo Genet, Dilla, Yabello, Dorze, Karat-Konso and parts of South Omo. Budget accommodation can be found in almost all towns and larger villages in the region.

Other Practicalities

Ethiopian New Year (11 September) is the one holiday celebrated throughout southern Ethiopia. Hawassa celebrates the 2 week long fiche Chembelala new year cultural festival based on the Sidama people.  Religious holidays tend to vary from one place to the next as the region supports a diversity of faiths including the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, Islam, various protestant denominations, and even some traditional beliefs. Meskel (the finding of the True Cross) on September 27 (except leap years) is the most popular celebration particularly for the Gurage people.

Handicrafts can be bought throughout the region, but Dorze is particularly recommended for quality cotton fabrics.

The climate of southern Ethiopia varies widely based largely on altitude. Bring a mix of summer and spring clothing.

Ethiopian Wildlife Conservation Authority: (www.ewca.gov.et ).

Ethiopian Wildlife and Natural History Society: (www.ewnhs.org.et ).

Ethiopia Community Tourism: (www.rootsofethiopia.com ).

Konso Tourist Information Centre: (www.konsotourism.gov.et ).

Oromia Culture and Tourism Bureau: (www.oromiatourism.gov.et ).

Further Reading

Bradt Guide to Ethiopia: (7th edition 2015, www.bradtguides.com ).

Guide to the Tribes of Omo Valley by Minalu Adem (2014).

Ethiopia’s Rift Valley: Geology and Scenery by Frances Williams and Paul Mohr (2011).

Destination Ethiopia: Central and Southern Ethiopia (2011, National Geographic Society).

  1. Lake Ziway’s Tullu Guddo Island is where Ethiopian tradition says the Ark of the Covenant was stowed during the 9th century, while nearby French-owned Castel Winery produces East Africa’s finest wines.
  2. Lined with resorts and ecolodges, Lake Langano, with its bilharzia-free waters, is both a popular weekend beach and water sport retreat, and a great site for bird watching.
  3. Named after the two large lakes within its borders, Abijatta-Shalla National Park is an important waterbird sanctuary, hosting up to 300,000 pink-hued flamingoes at the end of the rains.
  4. The Lephis Ecotourism Cooperative offers guided walks and horseback trips into an escarpment forest inhabited by colobus monkeys, Menelik’s bushbuck and the beautiful white-cheeked turaco.
  5. All roads in southern Ethiopia converge on Shashemene, a junction town famed for the Rastafarian community founded there by Caribbean settlers on land donated by Emperor Haile Selassie.
  6. Wondo Genet is a hot springs resort set in a dense escarpment forest alive with primates and woodland endemics such as Abyssinian woodpecker, yellow-fronted parrot and banded barbet.
  7. The hilly 58km2 Senkele Swayne’s Hartebeest Sanctuary is the easiest place to see the endangered endemic antelope for which it is named.
  8. Named after the lake it overlooks, the modern city of Hawassa combines the urban structures of a regional capital with some fine lakeside wining and dining, and an abundance of aquatic wildlife.
  9. The recently created Maze National Park is the second most important global stronghold for the endemic Swayne’s Hartebeest, and the easiest place in Ethiopia to see lions.
  10. Thought to be 5,000 years old, the Shappe Rock Engravings, 15 minutes drive from the well-equipped town of Dilla, depict a herd of around 70 cattle on a vertical rock face. Near Dilla, Yirgachefe is a micro region known for its unique coffee variety.
  11. The largest of two similar sites close to Dilla, the Tututi Stelae Field comprises around 1,200 megaliths, the tallest of which, now collapsed, measured 7.55 metres from base to head.
  12. The environs of Yabello Wildlife Sanctuary, near the town of the same name, is the only place to see two ultra-localised Ethiopian endemics: Stresemann’s bush crow and white-tailed swallow.
  13. The communal ‘singing wells’ at Dubluck south of Yabello are famed for the local Borena tradition of forming a chanting human chain to haul buckets of water from the well.
  14. Enclosed in a sheer volcanic crater, starkly beautiful Hayk Chew Bet (Lake Salt House) is an important regional centre of salt extraction known as El Sod (Place of Salt) by local Borena.
  15. The attractive town of Arba Minch (Forty Springs) lies in a rich agricultural area offering superb views across a lush groundwater forest to Lakes Chamo and Abaya, and Nech Sar National Park.
  16. Nech Sar National Park’s spectacular landscape of mountains, lakes and forests harbours 70-plus mammal species, prodigious crocodiles and endemic Nechisar nightjar.
  17. Set in the chilly highlands above Arba Minch, Dorze is named after its inhabitants, skilled cotton weavers whose towering homesteads are made of bamboo, grass and Ethiopian banana leaves.
  18. The ancient fortified villages of the Konso Cultural Landscape, a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2011, are adorned with totem-like grave-markers and surrounded by steep terraced fields.
  19. South Omo, named after the Omo River that flows along its western boundary, is home to 16 culturally diverse and strongly traditional ethnic groups.
  20. Flanking the river of the same name, Mago National Park area is known for its rich cultural diversity as well as for its wide range of savannah wildlife including lion, elephant, buffalo and various antelope.