It had been a long career sojourning from one camp to the next, to a lodge somewhere, to another somewhere else. I suppose I had become quite aquatinted with the continent that way. Africa that is. You could, maybe, go as far as saying I was growing into an authority on Africa's peoples and wildlife and the travel to and from one and the other. That is why It was surprising that I felt terribly in danger of becoming an “ultracrepidarian” writer for the first time. No, I didn’t just draw that mammoth word out of my back pocket. It, actually, took considerable effort on Google to find a suitable description, as most dictionaries don’t have this word to properly describe a person who speaks of something that is beyond their knowledge, surprisingly, and seeing that it was only first publicly recorded in 1819 meant that it has likely only to have been used by word worshipers and politicians intent on confusing the readers into blissful ignorance. That is not my intention. However, there I sat, fearful of having to jump out of my lane and away from fact and theory to try to give emphasis to the paradisal and almost mythical place I was experiencing.
Fransico Alvares, one of the first Europeans to lay his eyes upon the churches of Lalibela, writes home in the 1520s and says “I weary of writing more about these buildings because it seems to me that I shall not be believed if I write more…I swear by God, in whose power I am, that all I have written is the truth”. To this day it is still quite unbelievable even when in its presence and I knew I should be careful as to give the descriptive justice that is due I would have to support more my personal perspective rather than factual evidence. After all, there was simply too much to know and to learn. I had only what I had learned while walking the narrow rock corridors of Lalibela, dodging pilgrims on their route to salvation or what I gained from observing the Simien Mountains and its inhabitants, rather than having an acute understanding of what was in front of me. I was ok with that, though, as everything was so different from the rest of Africa. Everything.
Ethiopia needs no literary inspiration. You are surrounded by it from start to finish. Though, it doesn’t come as words. Those you must try your best to acquire in your own time. It comes as layers of extraordinary beauty from its people to its wildlife and landscapes. Endemic beauty, rare and unlike anything I had seen before. The people of central Ethiopia, themselves, are model specimens, to say the least. There were two policewomen who had me thinking I was driving through a Hollywood scene. 'Surely not’ I said to myself while twisting around to confirm what I thought I had seen. Six foot, striking, uniform maculate, body armour, and automatic weapons at the ready. No Hollywood scene neither my imagination I confirm while turning to see another beautiful human. Her eyes deep-sea blue and features the strong and sharp distinguish that is synonymous with the peoples of this region. Curly brown hair and light brown skin. Yet she begs the side of the road. I battle to understand it all. I start to wrangle with the reality but then, through experience in Africa, I have learned that if you engage with these unfathomable and contradictory stories too relentlessly you are left a casualty of the battlefield of your own conscience. I close my eyes and let it be.
They open onto an old and eerie place. Lalibela, home to the largest and oldest single-piece rock churches in the world. My subject's eyes stay closed, though. Straining his ears to a preacher tucked into the opposite and outside corner of the church that towers to the surface above us. He reads the bible to a scattered audience. Some bellow his feet and some just far enough, like us, to be alone but close enough to hear every single word. His voice echoing melodically down and back again through these ancient passages. I sit opposite the man who sits alone, far enough to not be a distraction. We are both alone. 36 feet below the surface. It is cold down here so his perch is chosen carefully, catching one of the slices of sunlight that make it down to the dark floors around the churches. His hood pulled yet through the shadow I see a ghostly figure. His lips moving and head nodding. Half in the dark and half out, he sits. “Aren’t we all” I chuckle to myself while discretely trying to fit this holy story into my widest lens. The sylleptic scene engulfs your imagination as do the reds and blues of the old walls that surround you.
900 years back, now, they were cut downward into the rock. An attempt to replicate the, captured by Saladin, Jerusalem of 1187. A symbol of solidarity in spirituality and humility. It was no easy feet and records state that it took 23 years and 44000 people to complete all 11 of these monolithic structures. The countless chips that texture the sidewalls caused by tools of diggers slowly cutting down into the solid rock give scale to this extraordinary feat. Today it is still one of the holiest cities of Ethiopia along with Axum to its north. Pilgrims flock from all over the country and abroad to seek salvation in its deep, cold, and holy passages. They pass by us, as if we don’t exist, so intent on what they seek. Some have walked for up to two weeks to get here in a broken pair of slip-slops and a white robe, and it shows in there worn faces and dusty feet. But, as soon as they pass through another tunnel that leads to the next church and look up, the sunlight catches their eyes and these apparitions of the shadows come to life and their contempt and textured faces become obvious. Never have I witnessed a scene where the energy tends to change into its opposites so frequently. Dark and mysterious tunnels and passages to vibrant and resonate scenes of rejoicing and prayer. You wonder on countless questions that come with every corner and in the eyes of every pilgrim that passes you and your imagination flees its restraints as you try to capture one church to the next.
If a rifle could tell stories I certainly wish the Mosin-Nagant that our ranger carried could speak. Which parts of World War 2 did it fight in? Who carried it then? How did it get here? Why is he mumbling to himself I wonder, wearily. My distractions are brief, though, as the landscape to our north starts to fall away. We are ascending the winding roads that lead to the peaks of the Simien Mountains. A site I have craved to witness for most of my life. Although, I have been on the mountain tops of some of Africas most iconic ranges. Magnificent they all were, I wouldn’t dare depreciate even one, yet I could not have been ready for the site that beholds you as you crescent the final peaks of the Simien. Words truly escaped me, even now, as I gasped at that heavenly landscape. The Simien Mountains, unlike other ranges I have seen, descend in almost a single fall to its lowlands. A sheer cliff that only ends with far below hills that roll into the distance before pink and blue shades of horizon vanish the land. Your optic limits are reached as your mind starts to digest what lies in front of you. The wind is mountain fresh and a sound cuts through its hiss off the grass. Barks and screams of Gelada Baboons who wrestle in the last light of day before finding safe roosts upon the cliffs, can just be heard coming from the adjacent ridge. The sun falls off the edge of the earth, it felt like only a few minutes, but you have been enchanted for an hour staring as far as the mind can see.
The early morning mist is dense from a cold night. You find your way through mystical St Johns Wart groves along the cliff edges. Golden beings start to take shape in the greyness. Then, you notice them and hear them. Sounds, hilarious sounds actually, coming from the all over the ridge. The sun starts to burn the mist away and you start to see, vividly, hundreds of Gelada Baboons stretched out and lazy in their family groups. The sun brings with it, though, an injection of life and the first to rise are the youngsters. Electric and not concerned about family politics of the adults, they come bouncing and flipping past you and through the grass and over ledges. Out of control and comedic antics that can entertain you for an entire day and more. The adults take their turn soon after and females jog after the scrumming youngsters to regain order. The ravishing males with blond locks that will make any male lion blush, stand, stretch and quickly stiffen as they asses the positions of adjacent males. Exchanging eye contact under raised eyebrows until it is decided that it is not yet time lose composer and fight and they hurry along after their families. You hurry with them, undisturbed by your presence, only a few meters apart and from grassy meadows to forests and then back to the cliffs after a day in the life of these incredible animals.
The mountains seem distant as you speed down the dusty roads of the Omo Valley. A low-lying region, it is hot and humid and closer to quintessential Africa, the one I was so familiar with. Yet the tribes within couldn’t be further from quintessential and I couldn’t be less familiar with such extraordinary people. A place where 'remoteness' fears to venture and where 'bizarre' struggles for comfort. An off-planet place to the rest of the world but home to eight of the most interesting, beautifully and strangely decorated, friendly, and sometimes slightly scary tribes on the continent…maybe the world. Actually, the existence of these tribes is only a recent discovery, they were so cut off from the world. A story is told of George W Bush visiting the valley and was not recognized once whilst visiting the various tribes. In Africa, the tribal similarities can be traced far across country borders. Many relating back to the spread of the Benin Empire and the movement of the Bantu people southwards across the continent. Hundreds of separate tribes have evolved into themselves over millennia, yet clear similarities are obvious in language, dress, and cultures. This is not the case in the Omo Valley. Firstly, Ethiopians are unable to speak this rare language that is unlike any other and each tribe, even though so close to each other, is completely different in their ways and even speaks different dialects to each other.
Bodi men are usually fat. A rarity in Ethiopia yet a proudly excepted figure that stems from a ceremony where the men competed for the “fattest of the village” by consuming large amounts of milk and cows blood. The Ka’el ceremony is the time to strut their rounded stomachs and the men who compete to become these “heroes’ of the village live in isolation for the six months prior to consume the high protein, fat, and lactose diet on a regular basis. The Karo tribe mix locally found and mined white chalk, yellow mineral rock, iron ore, and charcoal to create a paint that they apply every morning to create a full-bodied art-scape.
Along with carefully placed scarification’s, they appear the most striking and fearsome warriors yet are warm on welcome and take great pride in leading you around their villages along the Omo River. The Mursi, historically an aggressive tribe, known for an incredibly large lip plate that can reach up to 15cm in diameter. First inserted into an incision in young girls’ lower lips at about fourteen years old and with time the small disc is made larger…and larger. The larger the plate the more beautiful and more admired she is by the village. Whilst the woman stretch their lips to gain attention from the men, the men fight with sticks heavy enough to down an ox. Proving their hardness and worthiness of the “largest-plated” woman. Strange, yes, but understand these are only a few tribes of the Omo Valley and only a few of many strange traditions of each. Narratives that can only be believed when in the presence of these remarkable people.
The tribes of the valley earn their own article entirely, in fact every corner of this incredible country does. I keep heading back for all of the above reasons and so much more and in time I hope to do more and more visual justice to this wonderful place. From its tribes to its ancient historical monuments and to its endemic wildlife that so happens to exist in some of the most attractive landscapes on earth.