South Omo, Ethiopia

Ethiopia Part 1: South Omo

Nothing we’ve seen in Africa quite comes close to South Omo. Here, you don’t find a trace of “modern Africa,” and passing through the Ethiopian mountains was like entering a time warp.

Even up to 50 years ago, the people of South Omo weren’t aware of an “Ethiopia” entity. From the Mursi women who stretch out their bottom lip to fit a lip plate, to the Hamer men who jump across bulls to mark entrance into adulthood, South Omo is veritably a living museum. When we heard we were just in time for the bull jumping ceremonies, we stopped the car.

With our guide in hand (visit the local Tourist Hotel if you’re in need of help), we drove into the bush. At some nondescript location, we parked the car and started hiking through the savannah. Then, out of thin air, a half-clothed man appeared, stared for a few moments, and invited us to tea at his house. I looked at Eugene. Why not?

The local Hamer man led us to his two huts, and presented us with two nut shells, filled with beans and hot water and definitely a few ants. Politely, we sipped our tea. We tried to make conversation, but alas, Amharic either isn’t familiar to them or they preferred silence. Either way, we thanked them and set about another half hour hike to the ceremony.

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We arrived just in time to watch the singing and dancing. As we were getting settled, a loud crack! sliced the air.

I looked up to see a woman being whipped on the arm so hard, that the tree branch twisted around her body and cracked open her back. Almost immediately, she grabbed the whipper’s arm and urged him to do it again. He hesitated, but acquiesed. Our guide explained that the beatings show devotion, and the honorific scars are treasured for life.

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The rest of the clan was also busy getting themselves ready for the final ceremony.

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Later in the afternoon, everyone began moving to a clearing, where a herd of cattle gathered. The initiate, stark naked, let onto the back of a bull. Then he continues jumping from bull to bull, until he reaches the end of the line. Again and again, until the crowd shows its satisfaction.

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Getting a running jump!

A boy no longer, he will now consume only meat, milk, blood and honey until he marries. Manhood!

 

-Christine

 

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In the big city of Nairobi, Kenya

Bumper to bumper traffic welcomed us into the Nairobi, East Africa’s hub. And we were quintessential country kids who finally arrived at “the big city,” marveling at the 24-hr stores, cosmopolitan fare, and skyscrapers 10 stories high.

One of our first days here, we delved into Nairobi’s wild side and paid a visit Nairobi’s Giraffe Center, a success story amongst conservationists. The efforts of African Fund for Endangered Wildlife (AFEW) has more than doubled the population of Rothschild’s giraffes, and the center has successfully released these beautiful animals across Kenya’s national parks.

Hands full of food pellets, we stood face-to-face with the giraffes on a perch and fed them their afternoon snack. With tongues rough as sandpaper, big shiny eyes, and an unimaginable amount of slobber, the gentle creatures won our hearts. As evidenced below!

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Slobber all over the place

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Getting a Valentine’s Day kiss from Lena!

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Two nights later, we checked Carnivore off our Nairobi bucket list. This restaurant takes nyama choma (the unofficial dish of Kenya, meaning barbecued meat) to new heights. With unlimited soup, salad, and 20+ meats brought to the table on swords, the food doesn’t stop coming until the white flag waves, literally. (There’s a flag on the table you need to knock down). Needless to say, we left satisfied.

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The following day we visited the David Sheldrick Center, a foundation that takes in orphaned baby elephants and rhinos, rehabilitates them, and releases them back into Kenya’s wild parks. For one hour every day, they allow visitors to come and watch the baby elephants get their daily mud bath and lunch time milk bottles. We were smitten, and promptly adopted one of them–a baby girl named Sonje. As new foster parents, we received an invite to return in a few hours and see her bedtime ritual.

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Joining the elephant dog pile

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All grown up and bottle-feeding himself!

To pass the time before the private viewing, we made a stop at Kazuri Beads in the Karen & Langata neighborhood. (Kazuri in Swahili means “small and beautiful.”) What began as two women is now a workforce of 100+ single mothers and disabled women who commute daily from the slums to make a living for themselves. A tour of the facilities covered everything from clay making to molding to painting and glazing–it’s a well-oiled operation that provides opportunity and empowerment to a disadvantaged social group.

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A hard day’s work drying off in the sun

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Each bead is hand-rolled, hand-drawn, and hand-painted

Back at the elephant center, we watched the keepers bring all 20+ babies from the bush. The young ones strutted (some ran) into their pens in anticipation of their milk nightcap. Walking around, we looked on as some babies were wrapped up in blankets, a few babies cried out for more milk, and one cheeky little guy chewed on his trainer’s coat (and then proceeded to chew on Eugene’s arm). Sonje, who will be released back into the wild soon, spent the entire time chowing down on dinner.

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Wrapped up for the cold night ahead

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Saying hello to the visitors!

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Nom nom

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Clearly not satisfied with his ration of milk

Last but not least, we can now add another home away from home to our ever expanding list: Jungle Junction. Popular amongst overlanders, the Nairobi house was packed the entire time.

We met a few couples headed the same way, and after careful consideration, decided to change our route north to follow the caravan. Instead of bumpy and bandit-infested Moyale, we are now headed towards remote and beautiful Lake Turkana, en route to Ethiopia.

The Jade Sea awaits!

10 Million Bats and A Few Hot Springs

With Alpheus gone, we decided to gun it through Zambia in order to arrive in Tanzania for some holiday cheer with old friends.

On the recommendation of Toast Coetzer, editor for go!Namibia magazine, we took a detour to Kasanka National Park in central Zambia. Our arrival would serendipitously coincide with Kasanka’s annual bat migration. Every October, millions of gigantic fruit bats flock in from Congo to feast on the park’s plentiful mangoes. At dusk, they emerge from their roosts to feed and fill the sky in all directions–10 million strong in early December. Excited, we arrived an hour before sunset and scaled a 40-foot tall tree to witness what is dubbed “one of Africa’s greatest phenomena.”

Unfortunately, Eugene and I were facing the wrong direction for half the migration. (“Where are all the bats?!”) By the time we realized, they were almost finished. But the few minutes we stole were breathtaking.

Not an inch of untouched sky

Not an inch of untouched sky

When we arrived at camp to sleep off the long day’s drive, the last remaining bats were still flying. The sight of hundreds of Batman symbols soaring overhead is not an image likely to be forgotten.

Our next and last destination before crossing into Tanzania was Kapishya Hot Springs in northern Zambia. We stayed one night in a beautiful, rustic chalet and sought relaxation in the springs. Set in the midst of tropical plants and towering palm trees, the natural springs are sulfur-free and provided just the respite we needed before crossing the border.

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And what a border crossing! Unbeknownst to us, Tunduma is the commercial border which means dozens of large trucks seeking passage. If we waited, we wouldn’t make it into Tanzania until the next day. So Eugene decided to squeeze his way in between lorries and people and oncoming traffic, inches from contact on all sides, while I sat petrified in the passenger seat, gnawing at my nails. A few locals looking for tips helped us traverse past the endless waiting line, and after a tedious hour, we finally arrived on the other side! Having come full circle, we celebrated appropriately over a Kilimanjaro beer.

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At Utengele Coffee Lodge in Mbeya, celebrating our border crossing survival

To Dar es Salaam!

-Christine

The Caprivi Strip, Namibia

A little dated but…

Our first night in the Caprivi Strip in Namibia, we stayed right on the banks of the Okavango River in Rundu. Though the view of the river and Angola on the other side was beautiful, we decided to escape the bug-infested campsite the next day.

We arrived at Ngepi Camp on the Okavango River, an eclectic campsite with a strong liberal lean and an ablution tour, as well as a swimming pool in the Okavango River (fenced from the crocs and hippos, of course)… See for yourself!

Lounging on the Okavango

Lounging on the Okavango

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Bush shower!

Bush shower!

His and hers... all in one

Notice the padlock on the men’s side

Next river destination was the Kwando River, the beginnings of the more well-known Chobe River in the Okavango Delta. Our lunch spot was on an island, reachable only via a small boat ride. Zipping at river level through the maze of tall reeds, we encountered a troupe of hippos native to the area. As we passed by, one cheeky hippo followed us with his gaze… before dunking under the water. Our driver drove our boat a little further up… and good thing he did, because the hippo proceeded to jump out of the water right where we were a few seconds ago, so high that we could see his legs. The troublemaker had tried to flip our boat!

The local troublemakers

The local bullies

Having had enough excitement for the day, we wound up at an extremely secluded camp, with our site right by the riverbed. We were unwinding over a beer and chatting about the hippos, when we noticed a pair of eyes hovering above the water, slowly encroaching upon our campsite.

"Hippo! Get to the car!"

“Hippo! Get to the car!”

Beers still in hand, we bolted to the PPE and dog-piled in the backseat.

What then commenced was a debate on appropriate action steps while the giant hippo rose from the water and began dinner 3 feet away from us. Eugene wanted to shine lights on the animal. I vetoed. He shined the lights anyway. Alpheus inquired about his camera flash. I lamented on the spilled beer and my leg cramp. Eugene yelled that we were talking too loudly.

When the hippo strolled into the nearby bushes, we dashed for our respective shelters for the night and resolved only to emerge if necessary.

Morning cruise picked us up at our campsite

Morning cruise boat picked us up right at our campsite… exactly where the hippo had risen a mere 12 hours earlier

The following day, we camped again on the Kwando River a few hundred kilometers south and retired to the roof tent when the sky was still a beautiful blue, though we only glanced at some lightning and storm clouds a ways away.

Should’ve paid a bit more attention, as an hour later, it was pouring inside our tent.

We tried frantically to sop up water with our towels, but it became clear that it was a temporary band-aid. {At this approximate moment in time, Alpheus also realized his tent’s waterproofing had worn off.} Hopes of a respite withered as the rain continued. It was the beginning of one memorable night, which would end in an uncomfortably soggy morning and a quick group decision to outrun the rainclouds.

To Zambia!

-CHou

Etosha National Park, Namibia

After a brief stopover in Windhoek, we put the pedal to the floor and made it to Etosha National Park right before the Andersson Gate closed.

At the gates!

We hurried to set up our tents at Okaukuejo rest camp, and promptly rushed over to the flood-lit watering hole, hoping to catch some game at sunset. A troupe of giraffes greeted us, soon to be followed by two black rhinos.

A late night drink

After an uneventful morning drive the next day, we returned to Okaukuejo on a lark. Rewarded with a packed watering hole and our first sightings of elephants, we decided to prolong our stay. And good thing we did, because one of the most beautiful sights awaited… a sunset that lit the sky into blue, purple, and pink; elephants, rhinos, giraffes, and various antelope drinking together, their mirror reflections crystal clear in the water.

The following day, Etosha continued to mesmerize us.

Zebra crossing!

We watched this little scavenger fend off 3 others before finally eating his lunch

An elephant venturing close at the watering hole

Within trunk-touching distance!

One day we noticed elephant dung on the road (“Looks fresh!” — Alpheus) and decided to follow their trail. Our search mission ended with a family of elephants playing in a deep pool, with a baby in the midst.

Splashing around in the kiddie pool

By the last day in Etosha, our only disappointment was the lack of lions (we’d given up on leopards long ago). On our last game drive, Eugene had barely yelled, “Where are the lions?!?” when we drove around a bend and saw two male lions crossing the road (followed by a cute jackal). And as we followed their path, there stood a lone petite springbok antelope a mere 100 meters away–as still as a leaf, with its tail down and eyes fixated on the predators until the lions were out of sight.

And with that, our luck changed. In our remaining 2 hours in the park, we managed to find three more lions, including what may have been a pride lazing in the bushes!

“Too hot to do anything but sleep…”

And so ended our tour through Etosha National Park. Next up–Epupa Falls!