Omo River Basin - Field Notes

Note: Due to the intense schedule of ongoing expeditions, the team has not had time to post more recent field notes. Please check back in a few weeks for further posts.

Alison Jones

Alison on the Omo River, Ethiopia
Photo © Nancy McCarthy

Ethiopia with a Purpose:
A month in the “Water Tower of the Horn of Africa” (Sept. 29, 2007)

Hello! I am back in Addis in one piece – albeit a bit stiff and sore thanks to a mule trek, a 2000-foot climb on rocky scree up to a 9000-foot elevation and dodging the fleas in carpeted rock-hewn monasteries where custom dictates removing one’s shoes. For three weeks, our merry band of two Virgo, two Aries, a Capricorn and another Leo have celebrated Ethiopia’s Millennium, two Hamar bull-jumping ceremonies and Meskal, Coptic Christianity’s second holiest day of the year. We explored a very highly flooded Lower Omo River and its delta by boat down to Lake Turkana; danced with the Karo people; and visited the alleged site of the Ark of the Covenant (although females are prohibited from the “inner sanctum”).

This third trip to Ethiopia has combined previous interests and photographic themes with my current commitment to documenting watersheds for our No Water No Life project, which includes Ethiopia’s Blue Nile and Omo River Basins. My Day One journal entry illustrates No Water No Life’s impact on my vision at this point. (See below).

Today, flying back to Addis from Lalibela, we unexpectedly touched down in Bahir Dar on Lake Tana, allowing great views (and photos) of the beginning of the Blue Nile’s course. I have video-interviewed some wonderful Ethiopian resources on water, taped the ceremonies with their mesmerizing chanting, and photographed scenery and stakeholders in these two highly differing watersheds. This upcoming week in Addis I will be interviewing other connections (to be confirmed as I sort through the 628 emails I am currently downloading!).

Then I plan to take a two-month vacation in Kenya. Just kidding! I have organized and edited down my still photos to 96 gigabytes. Detailed captioning needs to be entered, and of course there are the field notes to compile, and so far 12 hours of mini DV’s to sort through. So actually I could very productively use two months in the Masai Mara while sitting under the shade of a large fig tree listening to the bleating herds of migrating wildebeest! Well, I guess that will have to be the next safari!

Salaams to you all! I will be in touch whenever I touch down in NYC. — Alison
(PS - Below is the aforementioned Day One journal entry.)

Expedition: Omo River Basin
Date: Wednesday, Sept. 12, 2007/Entry 1
Location: Over southwestern Ethiopia
Subject: Departing from Addis for the Omo River Basin
Reporter: Alison M. Jones

Day One of Ethiopia’s Third Millenium and our 3-week Expedition in southwest and northwest Ethiopia, carrying WINGS WorldQuest Flag #13.

Our charter Caravan left Addis piloted by a Greek Ethiopian who is also a professional hunter. We took off from the foot of Mt. Herer, cruising over the water reservoir and sewage tanks of Addis to follow a tributary of the Awash River rushing through gorges that have revealed the archeological treasures we visited yesterday.

Shortly we were over the Rift Valley lakes. However cloud cover forced us up to 12,500 feet, so views were limited to the road and seasonal lakes running along eastern foothills of the Gurage Mountain Range. The gleam of rectangular tin roofs indicated a small step up an economic ladder from the traditional thatched tukuls – although the latter are much cooler in this land of intense sun. The land below us was divided into small farming plots with no remaining forest save one eucalyptus farm.

Soon I could spot Arba Minch, a textile center, and its nearby Nech Sar National Park, ringed by escarpment walls and mountains. Having spent an all-too-short day here two years ago, I wrote a 100-page Proposed Management Plan for this Rift Valley park for a Columbia University course. I was thus not surprised that Lake Abaya, the northern end of Nech Sar National Park, showed up as a turbid basin of chocolate thanks to the sediment load washed in by the last three months of rain. A thin saddle of land, which includes a ground water forest of monkeys and savannah plateau of zebras and antelopes, divides Lake Abaya from the adjacent crocodile-infested Lake Chamo. This second lake receives much less sediment and thus was a stark contrast in color, reflecting the day’s blue-grey skies. Happily, my No Water No Life project will afford me a chance to return to Nech Sar soon, since I learned in an interview yesterday that the newly-established Ethiopian Water Institute is in adjacent Arba Minch.

Further to the southwest I noted with relief a higher density of mountain forests. Dodging banks of clouds indicating that the rainy season is not yet over (although it should be), we followed the tributaries of the Weto River rushing down gorges into the desert-ringed Lake Stephanie with the last couple months of the highlands’ rain.

The Omo River Basin, one of the six watersheds in our No Water No Life study, appeared over the next mountain range. Sinuous and serpentine, the Omo River bends back on itself again and again. Barren dry scrubland between the Hamar Mountains on the east and the Omo River, is currently blushed with green vegetation due to three months of heavy rain. This will improve the meager foraging for Hamar pastoralist’s cattle and goats. Our aerial perspective makes it clear that any agriculture must be delegated either to the Omo riverbanks or the mountains.

We landed at Murulle’s dirt airstrip after circling the small 170 hp boat waiting to take us to camp. Blasted by humid heat as we step out of our Caravan, we trudged over to a river ready to burst over its banks and already covering tree trunks. Today’s Omo River is 60 feet higher than its dry season low levels. Hamar pastoralists’s cattle crowded and jostled against us as we boarded the boat, offering us a preview of bull-jumping ceremonies and other indigenous traditions in this wild corner of Ethiopia where humankind first began.