Salambo discovering Ethiopia
After a restful three days in Yirga Alem, we continued our journey with a long six-hour drive south to Yabello, a crossroad town about 200 kilometres from the Kenyan border. The only reason to stop in Yabello is to have an overnight break on the way to Kenya or West to the Omo valley. Apart from a motel – the Yabello Motel known to all travellers – and a petrol station, there is nothing of interest, except maybe the Yabello Wildlife Sanctuary for its diversity of birds. I nevertheless found the drive through the country very interesting. Ethiopia is extremely diverse and the landscape changes often. From the lush coffee country south of Awassa, we drove down in altitude towards a semi-arid plain with sparse acacia trees. The drive down from the high-plateau escarpment into the valley is spectacular, the scenery is in some part breathtaking, but after a while, the road becomes a monotonous straight line for miles and miles.
We then made our way West on a narrow gravel road through the Borena region to reach the Konso Highlands. There we were in a completely different part of Ethiopia, far away from the classical image of the Abyssinian high-plateau. People are ethnically different, looking more like their Kenyan neighbours. They also wear different clothes and use colourful beads as decoration. Again, the whole area is dry and arid with different shades of burnt yellow and ochre, brightened up from time to time by colourful fuchsia desert flowers. During the three-hour drive, we crossed no more than a couple of cars.
Arriving in Konso, we were again in a different territory, more similar to the Highlands of the North. Women wear white cotton skirts with colourful linings, not unlike their northern fellow country people. The Konso cultural landscape was classified a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2011, because in UNESCO’s own words, “it represents a spectacular example of a living cultural tradition stretching back 21 generations and adapted to its dry hostile environment.” Konso is known for its terraced fields and walled medieval villages where they count generations by erecting a stone for each passing generation. Konso is also known for its singular totem like figures known as waka, which are used as grave markers.
We visited one of the traditional villages, where the people way of living seems to have remained the same for centuries. In the typical Konso style, houses were built in wood and straw, and each roof was decorated with a different emblem. In the middle of the village stood the community house, a roof-covered open area, where the villagers meet to resolve pending conflicts. The birth rate per family tend to remain high in those villages, as was reflected in the impressive number of kids of all ages following us everywhere we went. Still, people were very friendly and welcoming. In Karat-Konso however, the main town with facilities for tourist and visitors, people tend to assault and hassle visitors as soon as they stop their car. This could be due to the sudden rise in foreign visitors since the area was classified by UNESCO; local people are still getting used to this sudden interest and influx of cash. Having said that, visits to villages and sites are well organised from the town through the local tourism association. The infrastructure though needs to be better developed. We stayed in the Kanta Lodge, the only descent one in town run by an Swiss-Ethiopian family. The Lodge had stunning views over the valley, however it is expanding so fast that the bedrooms we occupied were not fully finished and had no running water, and we had to bargain extremely hard not to pay the full price of $84 each!