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Southern Ethiopia - A view from our expert author
Horseriding in the Bale National Park © Ariadne Van Zandbergen, Africa Image Library
Although most African countries pale by comparison with southern Ethiopia when it comes to historical sightseeing – rock-hewn churches, mysterious medieval stelae and remote monasteries being among its underrated attractions – the region is of primary interest for its natural and cultural attractions.
Ethiopia is not one of the world’s more crowded travel destinations, and while I have no idea what proportion of travellers to the country head south of Addis Ababa, I would be surprised to learn that it is more than 20%. Given the singularity of northern Ethiopia’s cultural sites, the relatively scant attention paid to the south is understandable enough. And yet, were north and south to split into separate countries tomorrow, southern Ethiopia could more than stand on its feet as a tourist destination in its own right.
Although most African countries pale by comparison with southern Ethiopia when it comes to historical sightseeing – rock-hewn churches, mysterious medieval stelae and remote monasteries being among its underrated attractions – the region is of primary interest for its natural and cultural attractions. Bale National Park is the best part of Ethiopia for viewing endemic wildlife, home to the country’s largest (though still scarce) populations of Ethiopian wolf and mountain nyala, as well as half the birds whose range is restricted to Ethiopia and Eritrea. In addition, there is the lovely string of lakes along the Rift Valley floor, the lush forests of Wondo Genet and southern Bale, the vast arid plains south of Dilla, the majestic setting of Nechisar National Park. This, in short, is a region of exceptional natural beauty and variety.
Culturally, the highlight of southern Ethiopia is South Omo, a remote zone tucked against the Kenyan border where a dozen or more different ethnic groups live – and decorate themselves – in a manner that scarcely acknowledges the 20th century ever happened, let alone the 21st. No less interesting are the Konso people and their walled stone villages, the Dorze with their tall conical huts, and the semi-nomadic Borena with their precious cattle herds and singing wells. Tangled into this rich cultural mosaic are the Oromo, Ethiopia’s largest ethno-linguistic group, with one foot in the modern world, and the other hoisting them up onto the saddle to ride blanketed through the frosty Bale Highlands.
(Photo: Karo men playing a traditional game alongside the Omo River in Kolcho © Ariadne Van Zandbergen, Africa Image Library)
Southern Ethiopia lacks for any clearly defined tourist circuit, and it would be limiting rather than helpful to attempt to describe it in terms of a prescribed loop. The main regional transport hub is Shashemene, which lies at the junction of the roads north to Addis Ababa, west to Arba Minch and South Omo, south to Hawassa (Awassa), Dilla and Moyale, and east to Dodola and Bale. Passing through Shashemene.
There is an obscure but rewarding route running south from Addis Ababa to Butajira and Hosaina via Melka Kunture Prehistoric Site, the rock-hewn Church of Adadi Maryam, and the Tiya stelae field. Another follows the Rift Valley and its lakes from Addis Ababa south to the junction town of Shashemene and city of Hawassa (Awassa). A third covers the wonderful trekking country and wildlife of Bale Mountains National Park and environs. A fourth covers the road from Hawassa south to Moyale on the Kenyan border. There’s also the option to concentrate on Arba Minch and Nechisar National Park, or on the cultural wonders of Konso and South Omo.