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2020 Omo Valley

Key Information

Date: Saturday, February 15, 2020
Duration: 14
Cost: £5090, €5710, $6970 Addis Ababa/Addis Ababa. (Prices are Provisional)
Places: 5

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The extraordinarily diverse country of Ethiopia is home to some of the last true tribal people in all of Africa. In the south west of Ethiopia lies the Omo Valley, a living anthropological treasure of spectacular people including the Hamer, Surma, Dassanech, Karo and Mursi tribes. In the face of their ever changing world, each of these tribes is struggling to maintain their traditions of dress, dance, decoration and way of life. A visit to Ethiopia’s Omo Valley is to visit a world that is fast disappearing. A world of beauty, diversity and strength that has vanished from great tracts of Africa.

Collectively the Omo Valley people draw inspiration from the wilderness that surrounds them and this is reflected in their varying styles of traditional dress.

The first group we will meet on our Omo Valley tour is the spectacular Surma tribe near Kibish. Piercing lips and lobes and inserting lip plates are a strong part of the Suri culture. At puberty most young women have their lower teeth removed in order to get their lower lip pierced. Once the lip is pierced, it is then stretched and lip plates of increasing size are then placed in the hole of the piercing. Having a lip plate is a sign of female beauty and appropriateness; a common thought is that the bigger the plate, the more cattle the woman is ‘worth’ for her bride price, though this is questioned by anthropologists.

The Suri pride themselves on their scars and how many they carry. Women perform decorative scarification by slicing their skin with a razor blade after lifting it with a thorn. After the skin is sliced the piece of skin left over is left to eventually scar. On the other hand, the men traditionally scarred their bodies after they killed someone from an enemy group. These rituals, which are extremely painful, are said by some observers to be a way of getting the younger Suri used to seeing blood and feeling pain.

A sport and ritual the Suri take very seriously is stick fighting, or rather, ceremonial duelling. In most cases, this stick fighting is done so young men can find wives. It is a way for young men to prove themselves to the young women. To the Suri, the ideal time to stick fight is just after it rains. The fights are held between Suri villages, and the fights begin with 20 to 30 people on each side. Of these 20 to 30 people, all get a chance to fight one on one against someone from the other side. During these fights there are referees present to make sure the rules are being followed. Many stick fights end within the first couple of decisive hits. Stick fighting has proven to be dangerous because people have died, e.g., from being hit in the stomach. Since stick fighting draws a large audience, it may become risky. Shooting incidents can easily erupt between men who have other disputes, in real life, and want to fight it out.

Each household in the Suri village is managed by a married woman. The women prepare the food, take care of the children, and cultivate their own fields and gardens, and are allowed to use their profits however they wish. There are also age grades. Young men (Tegay) are the ‘warrior grade’, not yet fully responsible adults. They are mainly responsible for herding and defending the cattle. Junior elders (Rora) are the dominant decision-making age-grade and entrance is gained in an initiation ritual that is held every 20 to 30 years. During this initiation the young men to be ‘promoted’ are tried and tested by elders, and are sometimes whipped until they bleed. Decisions in the Suri community are made by men in an assembly. Women are not allowed to voice their opinions during these debates but are allowed to do so before or after the debates take place. These debates are closed and summed up by the community’s ritual chief (the komoru).

The economy of the Suri is based on livestock herding and agriculture. They keep cattle and goats, the main source of wealth. Crops planted are sorghum, maize, cassava, cabbage, beans, yams, spice plants and some tobacco. During the dry season, the Suri also collect honey. The Suri pan gold in nearby streams which they sell for cash to highland traders. Suri women also used to make earthenware pots and sell them to neighbours, like the Dizi, as also sold produce of game hunting, but these activities have sharply declined in the pas decades. The average married male in the Suri tribe owns somewhere between 30 and 40 cows. These cows are not usually killed, unless needed for ceremonial purposes. Every young male has a ‘favourite cattle’ name (next to others). Cows are very important to the Suri – economically, socially, symbolically – and at times they risk death to protect their herd; Suri men are also judged by how much cattle they own. Men also are not allowed to marry until they have a sufficient number to start paying the bride-wealth. Cows are given to his prospective wife’s family after the initial wedding ceremony. To praise their cattle or mourn their deaths, the Suri sing songs for them.

We will spend three nights in Kibish in order to spend two full days with the Surma people, who are some of the least visited people in the Omo.

From Kibish we will make our way to Jima, Arba Minch and Turmi where we will visit the Arbore, Dassanach and Hamar tribes.

The beautiful Daasanach and Arbore tribes are related to the Turkana tribes in northern Kenya.

A semi-nomadic people, the Daasanach are semi nomadic who adhere to a clan structure across their regions in Ethiopia, Sudan and Kenya. They are very tall and slender, wearing red and yellow jewellery, leather head pieces lined with bottle caps and they are known for their unique, ornate hair buns.

The Arbore are a small tribe who live near the Weito River. The young women are striking with their long black head dresses and layers of colourful beads. The girls shave their heads until they are married when they start to grow their hair again.

From Kibish we will slowly make our way to the eastern part of the Omo Valley via Jimma and Arba Minch. Here we will spend three nights in the Turmi area photographing the spectacular Hamer people. Known as some of the most beautiful people in the Omo, the Hamer women are striking, wearing beautiful colorful beaded skins, ornate necklaces, and metal bangles around their wrist and ankles. Famous for their hairstyle — a crown of long dread-lock braids covered in ocher — the Hamer women are the most decorated of the Omo people.

If we are lucky during our stay we may encounter a traditional Hamer Bull Jumping Ceremony. The Hamar are known for their unique custom of “bull jumping,” which initiates a boy into manhood. First, female relatives dance and invite whipping from men who have recently been initiated; this shows their support of the initiated, and their scars give them a right to demand his help in time of need. The boy must run back and forth twice across the backs of a row of bulls or castrated steers, and he is ridiculed if he fails.

We will then visit the elaborately painted and scarred Karo People. The Karo excel in face and body painting practiced daily in preparation of their dances and ceremonies. They pulverize locally found white chalk, yellow mineral rock, red iron ore, and black charcoal to decorate their bodies, often mimicking the spotted plumage of a guinea fowl. The men create highly decorated clay hair buns, which can take up to three days to complete. Their ornate body scarring, where a cut is made with a knife and ash is rubbed into the wound to produce a raised welt, is also a known characteristic of the Karo.

Finally we will visit and spend time with the Mursi people of the Omo Valley near Jinka. The second group of people who adorn themselves with elaborate ‘lip disks’ the Mursi are a Nilotic, pastoralist tribe of people who undergo various rites of passage, educational or disciplinary processes. 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. Girls’ lips are pierced at the age of 15 or 16. Occasionally lip plates are worn to a dance by unmarried women.

Ceremonial duelling (thagine), a form of ritualised male violence, is a highly valued and popular activity of Mursi men, especially unmarried men, and a key marker of Mursi identity. Age sets are an important political feature, where men are formed into named “age sets” and pass through a number of “age grades” during the course of their lives; married women have the same age grade status as their husbands.

We will enjoy a final night at the beautiful Paradise Lodge in Arba Minch where we will recap on our encounters with these magnificent people. The tour will end with a flight from Arba Minch to Addis Abbaba.


Road transport is by 4WD vehicles as roads in southern Ethiopia can sometimes be quite rough. With the exception of the camp at Kibish, accommodation is in comfortable lodges.


The walking effort is easy throughout.


Generally warm or hot, dry and sunny.


Opportunities for wildlife photography will be minimal as our principal focus will be the people of the Omo Valley.

If you use a DSLR for wildlife or you prefer to photograph people from a distance, then please consider bringing a larger zoom or telephoto lens for photography. It is our experience that sometimes people can feel threatened by large cameras and lenses so you may wish to bring a smaller sized zoom lens like the Canon 100-400mm which doesn’t appear as threatening as a large fixed focal length telephoto lens.

For photographing the people of the Omo Valley, a travel lens similar to a Canon 24-105mm, 70-200mm or wide angle lenses from 10mm and smaller will be perfect for working with the people of the Omo.

If you bring a good quality bridge camera instead of a DSLR (and this is a perfectly good option in Ethiopia due to the wide variety of photography subjects) it will be best if it has an optical zoom of 18-20x or more, combined with a reasonable wide-angle at the other end of the zoom range.

If you have a phone or tablet that can be used for photography, you may find these quite useful around people.

Similarly if you have a Polaroid camera like the Leica Sofort or an Instax Mini, these are wonderful to have on hand when you spend time with tribal people. If you decide to bring one of these, please bring lots of film with you as the photographs you produce will be quite popular!

Be sure to bring plenty of spare battery power. If you would like to talk over suitable equipment, please contact our office. We will be happy to advise.


Day 1

Our Omo Valley photography tour will begin this evening in Addis Ababa, where we will overnight.

Overnight: Washington Hotel

Day 2

Today we will head for the airport to fly from Addis Ababa to Jimma, where we will stay one night before our longer drive into the Omo Valley. If the flight timings allow we will enjoy a small tour of the city this morning, including the natural history museum and the Merkato, a huge open-air market.

Overnight: Dololo Hotel

Day 3

This morning we will start the long journey into the Omo Valley from Jimma. En-route we will pass through some of Ethiopia’s largest coffee plantations and we may get the chance to stop and photograph some of the coffee workers going about their daily chores. On the drive from Jimma into the Omo Valley area, we will experience a drastic change in the scenery as we leave the Ethiopian highlands.

Overnight: Guest House accommodation in a coffee plantation.

Days 4 – 6

From Jimma we will drive in to the remote Kibish area where we will spend three nights and two full days photographing the first of the “lip disk” tribal people, the Surma. The Kibish area is truly a ‘cradle of our civilisation’. Skeletal remains of early humans dating back 195,000 years have been found in the Kibish area. Our focus will be visiting the spectacular Surma people, whose women have removed their bottom teeth and replaced them with elaborate ‘lip disks’ as tribal decoration.

Overnight: Non-permanent tented camp with shared toilet and shower facilities.

Day 7

Today we will undertake a full day drive from Kibish to Jimma and enjoyan overnight stay at a four star hotel.

Overnight: Dololo Hotel.

Day 8

Another full day drive from Jimma to Arba Minch. During our drives in the Omo we may have the chance to stop if we find tribal people on the side of the road (if time and the itinerary allows).

Overnight: Paradise Lodge, Arba Minch

Days 9 – 12

From Arba Minch we will drive slowly to Turmi stopping to photograph the Arbore and Hamar tribal people. We will spend three days in the Turmi and Karo areas photographing the Hamer, Karo, Arbore and Dassanach people.

Overnight: Buska Lodge, Turmi

Day 13

After an early start in the Mago National Park to visit the second of the ‘lip disk’ tribal people, the Mursi, we will spend the afternoon driving from Mago to Arba Minch.

Overnight: Paradise Lodge, Arba Minch.

Day 14

On the final day of the tour we will fly from Arba Minch back to Addis Ababa, where you will have day use of an hotel room before our Omo Valley photographic tour ends this evening.

Day Use: Washington Hotel

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