Ethiopia - Omo Valley Explorer

Ethiopia - Omo Valley Explorer

Style: TravellerCultural discovery away from the crowds
Duration: 14 days
Type: GroupSmall group tours with a maximum of 12 travellers


Group Tour Essentials

On Arrival

Please note that due to security procedures at Addis Ababa airport, access to the arrivals area may be restricted. If you do not see any one inside the terminal with an “UNDISCOVERED DESTINATIONS” placard, you should be aware that the guide will be waiting for you in the parking lot. The parking lot is located immediately in-front of the terminal, which is close to the exit. Clients need to go outside and walk towards the parking lot and the guide will be there with a placard.

Most nationals, including those from the UK, EU and US require a visa for entry into Ethiopia. These should be obtained before travel. Regulations do frequently change though, so we advise that you check the current requirements with your nearest embassy.


It is your responsibility to ensure that you are in possession of a full passport, valid for at least six months after the date of return to the UK. We strongly advise that your passport contains a minimum of two blank pages, as this may be a requirement of the local immigration authorities. In addition certain countries will stipulate that the two blank pages are opposite each other. If you are unable to meet these requirements you may be refused boarding by your airline or denied entry by the immigration authorities.

For specific information about the requirements for your destination please check with the country’s embassy or consulate. Alternatively UK citizens can visit

Airport Tax
No departure tax is payable for international flights from Addis Ababa. For internal flights, there is a tax of 10ETB per flight.

Health and Immunisations
As with travel to most parts of Africa, we strongly recommend that you contact your doctor’s surgery or a specialist travel clinic for up-to-date information, advice and the necessary vaccinations. For a visit of less than one month, almost certainly you will be advised to have immunisations against the following: Diphtheria and Tetanus, Hepatitis A, Typhoid, Meningitis. Anti-malaria medication may also be required and the use of a DEET-containing insect repellent is highly recommended. Please note that the risk of malaria on our Historic Ethiopia tour is minimal – it is more significant on our Omo Valley tour.


  • What should my travel insurance policy cover?
  • medical and health cover for an injury or sudden illness abroad
  • 24 hour emergency service and assistance
  • personal liability cover in case you’re sued for causing injury or damaging property
  • lost and stolen possessions cover
  • cancellation and curtailment (cutting short your trip) cover
  • Extra cover for activities that are commonly excluded from standard policies, such as certain sports

The policy should cover the whole time that you are away.

Your policy may also have:

  • personal accident cover
  • personal accident cover

Common travel insurance policy exclusions

Always check the conditions and exclusions of your policy:

  • most policies will not cover drink or drug-related incidents

You must take reasonable care of your possessions or your policy will not cover you.

Practical information

Local Currency
The currency is the birr (ETB). For current exchange rates visit

Where currency can be exchanged
It’s relatively easy to exchange money in Ethiopia – either at the airport on arrival or in one of the many banks. However please note that smaller towns, including Lalibela, often do not have exchange facilities.

Credit cards and travellers cheques
Travellers’ cheques are difficult to exchange in Ethiopia and credit cards are not widely accepted. We recommend that you bring cash as ATM machines are few and far between. There is access to ATM machines in the centre of Addis Ababa and in a range of 5* hotels. US dollars are generally the best currency to bring.

Best time to go
Most of Ethiopia is blessed with a fairly pleasant temperature year round, but like much of Africa it has wet and dry seasons. In the north most of the rain falls between June and early October, while in the Omo Valley the rains typically arrive in April and May.(The improved condition of the roads used in this area means that tours are not affected by this.) The temperature in the south, including the Omo Valley, can be quite hot, while the altitude of the north means that temperatures are typically more moderate and can be cold in the mountains at night.

Main Language
Ethiopia’s official language is Amharic, although there are an incredible number of different dialects spoken by various ethnic groups. English is not that widely spoken.

Main Religion
Ethiopia is home to both Islam and their own brand of Christianity, Ethiopian Orthodox. Most of the Moslem population is concentrated in the east of the country. In addition to this many of the ethnic groups in the south followed traditional animistic practices.

Food and drink
Meals in Ethiopia are normally fairly simple affairs, usually consisting of some form of wat (stew), accompanied by injara, Ethiopian bread. Injara is a unique type of bread, which looks rather like a pancake and is made from tef, a type of cereal found only in Ethiopia, and is very different from any other bread you will have tried! Most dishes are meat based, and the main types of meat found here are lamb and beef. However, vegetarians need not despair – restaurants will also serve vegetarian dishes, although the choice may be limited – a common dish is shiro, which is a type of chickpea dhal and very tasty, and pasta or spaghetti dishes are also commonly available. In hotels the choice is likely to be more extensive and western dishes may also be served.

On Wednesdays and Fridays however, the tables are turned. These are traditional fasting days, and restaurants will usually only serve vegetable dishes on these days. The choice on these days is much more extensive than during the rest of the week.

A popular Ethiopian dish is kitfo, which is minced meat that has been warmed – but not cooked. This is considered a delicacy in Ethiopia, but may not suit Western stomachs!

If you have any special dietary requirements you must notify us at the time of booking. While we will make every effort to cater for you, we cannot guarantee that this will be possible.

Generally not a lot of money is needed for to cover these costs. A cup of coffee costs around $0.50, a bottle of water costs $1, and a three course meal at a typical restaurant costs around $5-6.

Our tours in Ethiopia use mini-vans and sometimes 4WD vehicles or private buses. The Historic Ethiopia tour uses mini-vans and on occasions buses may be used. In the Omo Valley it is mainly mini-vans with the occasional 4WD vehicle when required.

On our Historic Ethiopia tour we take internal flights, operated by Ethiopian Air, between some of the major towns.

Local conditions
Travelling in the destinations that we visit requires a good deal of understanding that often standards simply won’t be as they are at home. While we aim to make your trip as comfortable as possible, please be aware that we are often visiting remote or less developed regions that may have little infrastructure. While we aim to make your trip run as smoothly as possible there may be times when we need to ask for your patience while we rectify any problems.

What to take with you

First Aid Kit
The first thing on your list should be a first aid kit. Whilst there is no undue cause for alarm, travellers are best advised to travel well-prepared: adequately immunized, with sufficient supplies of prescription drugs, along with a medical kit.

When it comes to clothing it is usually recommended that lighter clothes are worn through the day, and warmer ones at night. A hat is also advised to be worn through the day to protect from the sun, along with at least one piece of waterproof clothing for any days that the weather may be wet or windy. If you are travelling on our Historic Ethiopia tour, we recommend that you bring a fleece for time spent in the mountains.

Footwear is a main priority on this tour. Comfortable walking shoes/boots are recommended.

Your luggage should not exceed 20kgs (44lbs). One large suitcase/rucksack, and one small hand luggage rucksack is acceptable.

Suncream/sunblock is a must. Insect repellent, including a bite spray will also be useful to have. As our tours in Ethiopia involve camping, a torch (flashlight) is essential.

If you will be using a camera which needs film, it is recommended that a supply is taken with you, as it is not always available in Ethiopia. For those with digital cameras, we would advise you to take a spare battery if you are travelling to the Omo Valley, as recharging can sometimes be difficult.

This tour does not require any special degree of fitness but you will find it more enjoyable if you are reasonably fit.

Cultural and environmental guidelines
Please follow the guidelines with respect to dress and behaviour when entering churches – both men and women should dress respectfully at religious sites. You may find that some monasteries will not allow women to enter – please respect this.

You are likely to come across beggars while on tour in Ethiopia. Every traveller has different perspectives on this and ultimately the choice is up to you. Many sources recommend that you watch to see if local people give, and then follow their lead with genuine beggars. We do not recommend giving money, sweets, pens etc to children as this can encourage a begging mentality and can lead to children choosing to beg rather than go to school.

Haggling is a way of life in Africa when making many purchases, especially with tourist souvenirs. Usually, but not always, the vendor will start with a price that is higher than they are prepared to accept, and the buyer is expected to haggle. There are no hard and fast rules with this – some vendors may initially quote a vastly overinflated price, others may start with a price close to the true value, while others may just present you with one price and not be prepared to discuss it. Although many tourists may feel uncomfortable with this, it’s important to remember that this is best entered into in a relaxed manner. Once you have agreed upon a price, it is extremely bad form to then not pay this. Please also bear in mind that a small amount of money to you can be a relatively large amount for the vendor, and that it is not necessarily best practice to ‘beat the vendor down’ to the lowest possible price. Remember that they also have a living to make.

Please make sure that you take any rubbish back to the hotels with you where it can be properly disposed of – this includes cigarette butts as well.

Please do not buy any products made from endangered species – this is not sustainable and hastens the species’ decline.

You should always ask permission before taking anyone's photograph and respect their decision if they say no. In more remote areas women and older people often do not want to be photographed. Some people may also ask for some money – sometimes a little, sometimes a lot - in return for a photo. Taking photos of military installations, state buildings, and airports can lead to problems with local authorities. If you are unsure about whether it is acceptable to take a photo, please ask your tour leader or guide.

This is especially pertinent in the Omo Valley. Many tribes in the valley are sensitive towards photography, and / or will request a fee for each photograph taken – their way of obtaining some material benefit from your visit. This is sometimes rigorously enforced, and many visitors can feel that it has a somewhat mercenary character. However, this has become the norm in many villages and refusal to pay could result in difficulties for you and your group. Again, if you need advice on this then please ask your guide.

Tipping is common practise in Africa. If your local guide has been helpful then you could think about tipping. This amount can obviously be left to you. When tipping a driver, a guide or hotel staff a few dollars will always be gratefully received.

Foreign Office Advice
We constantly monitor the advice posted by the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO). In particular we will always advise clients of any travel warnings. At the time of writing the Foreign and Commonwealth Office does not advise against travel to any of the areas within Ethiopia that we visit on our tours. Please feel free to contact us should you have any specific concerns or if would like to know in detail what measures are being taken to ensure visits remain trouble free and without incident.

It should be noted that this information applies to British citizens. Other nationals are asked to check the current position of their respective government.

Further Information

Public Holidays in Ethiopia:

January 7th Ethiopian Christmas
January 19th Epiphany
March 2nd Battle of Adowa
April 6th Victory Day
May 6th May Day
September 11th New Year’s Day

In addition to these are the holidays associated with Ramadan, which follow a lunar calendar and vary annually.

Dates are for guidance only and may vary year to year

Electrical Supply
Electrical supply is 220V/50 Hz and plugs usually have two round pins.

Recommended Reading

Ethiopia – The Bradt Guide
Philip Briggs

In Ethiopia with a Mule
Dervla Murphy

The Barefoot Emperor
Philip Marsden


Please note that the information provided is correct at the time of writing but may change. It is intended as a guide only. Further information regarding vaccinations and travel health visit or contact your local healthcare provider.

In addition we strongly advise you to check the information and any travel advice provided by your government. For British citizens you should visit the Foreign Office website

Furthermore, you should be aware that any travel warnings or advisories may affect the validity of your travel insurance. Therefore, at the time of booking your tour it is essential you check any restrictions on cover with your insurance provider.

Issue Date – 24/6/13

For possible changes to this dossier please visit or call +44 (0)191 296 2674

Historical background

Few people know very much about Ethiopia, and many of those that do have ideas tainted by the shocking pictures of famine that featured in news reports in the 1980’s. Why would you want to go to Ethiopia – isn’t it just a disaster zone? Well, actually no it isn’t. Certainly poverty is widespread, and there are still regions that struggle with securing basic supplies, but Ethiopia is a warm and friendly country, with surprisingly lush vegetation in many parts, and a collection of word class sites that had they been anywhere else would undoubtedly have seen masses of tourists. The north of the country harbours superlative attractions dating back centuries – the churches of Lalibela and the castles of Gondar giving lie to the supposition that Africa had no sophisticated civilisations prior to contact with Europeans. The Simien Mountains are a glorious landscape of chasms, ravines and gorges, carpeted in green and with excellent opportunities for spotting unusual wildlife. Ethiopia’s south offers an entirely different perspective, with remote tribal groups with customs and cultures that will astound. To travel here is to feel like one of the privileged few granted access to a wonderful kaleidoscope of superb architecture, spectacular scenery and fascinating people. Grab the chance before the rest of the world wakes up to what this amazing country has to offer.

Ethiopia’s wide and varied history stretches back just about as far as it can go. In 1974, the skeleton of a hominid was discovered in the Danakil region, dating back 3.5 million years. Nicknamed Lucy after the song (Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds) that was playing on the radio when it was unearthed, it provided valuable new information on the development of humans. Since then, subsequent discoveries in the region are adding to what scientists know about the earliest history of humankind.

Historians have established that around a thousand years before the birth of Christ, parts of Ethiopia were home to relatively developed societies. Local tradition has it that the people of Ethiopia are descended from the great grandson of the biblical figure Noah, and there are indeed references to Ethiopia in the bible. The legendary Queen of Sheba is believed to be from Ethiopia, and during the time of King Solomon travelled to Jerusalem to meet him, returning home pregnant with his son who was to become Emperor Menelik. When older, Menelik travelled back to Jerusalem to meet his father, and was accompanied back to Ethiopia representatives of the twelve tribes of Israel, starting a connection with Judaism that Ethiopia only lost when its Jews emigrated to the newly created state of Israel in the twentieth century. He also came back with the Ark of the Covenant, which is reputed to remain in Axum today.

By the first century AD, the northern town of Axum had established itself as a dominant power in the region, creating an empire that controlled the sea routes between Asia and Africa and controlling many parts of the area including a presence in Yemen. Links were established as far afield as Ceylon, India and Constantinople. The Axumites were a sophisticated people, developing the language of Ge’ez, still used in religious scriptures today. At some point the empire converted to Christianity, making it one of the oldest Christian civilisations. Remnants of Axum’s greatness can be found in the town today, notably its impressive collection of enormous stelae. Militarily powerful, Axum remained a force to be reckoned with for several centuries, but the rise of Islam weakened its dominance and wrested control of the trade routes away from the empire. Axum was also weakened by growing Jewish resistance, which under Queen Yodit set about attempting to remove the influence of Christianity and destroyed much of Axumite civilisation.

The decline of the Axumite empire around the end of the first millennium AD, and with it the Solomonic dynasty, gave rise to the Zagwe dynasty, which stabilised Ethiopia and were responsible for some of Ethiopia’s greatest wonders including the rock cut churches at Lalibela. Eventually this dynasty was itself replaced, with the Solomonic dynasty being restored in the thirteenth century. Around this time, Ethiopia came to be associated with the legend of Prester John, a mysterious priest king ruling over a Christian land in the east, who had sent letters to the powers in Europe. The mystery of Prester John inspired much of early European exploration of the east, with its nations keen to find a powerful ally to help them defeat the powerful empire of Islam during the crusades. The Portuguese, as was often the case, were very active in this field, sending missions to Ethiopia and establishing a small presence there. Despite all attempts, Prester John was never found and his legend remains the subject of much speculation today.

The rise of Islam saw aggressive expansion within the Middle East and beyond, with the faith making inroads into the east of the country and the rest of the horn of Africa. Conflict with the Christian kingdom of Ethiopia was inevitable, causing several battles and Ethiopia’s expansion of empire into the far south. In the 16th century, Ethiopia sought help from Portugal in defeating invading Moslem forces, led by a powerful leader based in the eastern city of Harar, Ahmed the Left Handed. Although the Moslem forces were eventually defeated, this was not without significant loss of life and the destruction of much of Ethiopia’s ancient churches and monasteries.

Increasing expansion by Jesuit missionaries into the region led to the Emperor Susneyos converting to Catholicism in the 17th century, a vastly unpopular move among Ethiopia’s Orthodox population which eventually led to his removal. Fearful of European influence, subsequent emperors set about isolating Ethiopia from external forces and banned foreigners from entering the kingdom. Ethiopia also found itself under pressure from the pagan Oromo people, who had taken advantage of the previous wars with Islamic forces and settled themselves in many parts of the country. In the 17th century the royal capital of Gondar was established, its castles and palaces remaining well preserved to this day. Gradually intrepid European explorers crept back into the kingdom. At first, those who managed to make it to Ethiopia were welcomed, treated extremely well by the royal court, but never allowed to leave. The 18th century saw much civil strife and royal intrigue as emperors were assassinated, provinces began to rebel against central power and feudal lords effectively assumed power, with the king being reduced to little more than a figurehead.

In the mid 19th century, through a series of campaigns against rival states, Emperor Tewodros assumed control of the throne and set about unifying the kingdom, now in disarray after decades of power struggles and political turmoil. Keen to modernise his country and enlist western support while remaining an independent power, Tewodros found little interest among the European powers. In a last ditch attempt to make Europe stand up and take notice, as well as due to a perceived slight from Queen Victoria, Tewodros kidnapped British prisoners including missionaries and the British consul. This provoked a serious response from Victorian Britain, who despatched a sizeable force to Ethiopia and surrounded the Emperor at Makdala, Outnumbered and outgunned, Tewodros committed suicide.

Towards the end of the 19th century Ethiopia came under pressure from a number of regions. Egypt was keen to expand its territory, which already nominally included Sudan, to include the source of the Blue Nile at Lake Tana. The Italians had gained a foothold on the coast in present day Eritrea, establishing themselves at the port of Massawa, and wanted to catch up with the rest of Europe in gaining control of an African empire. In addition to this, the Mahdist forces in Sudan, fighting against their British and Egyptian overlords, had also turned their attentions to Ethiopia, attacking Gondar before they were repelled. The future Emperor Menelik was also threatening the current Yohannis. A treaty with Britain, the successors to the rulers of Egypt ensured that this particular situation was stabilised, but battles with Italy continued. Emperor Yohannis was defeated in battle against the Sudanese Mahdists, who decapitated him and brought his head on a pole to their khalifa. Menelik quickly stepped in to fill the vacuum, and had himself crowned Emperor Menelik II.

Menelik had had friendly relations with the Italians, who had been providing him with arms to challenge Yohannis. In 1889 he signed the Treaty of Wichale, granting small pockets of land to Italy in return for further consignments of weapons. However the Italians had craftily altered the Italian version of the treaty, which in effect reduced Ethiopia to their protectorate, a clause which did not exist in the Amharic language version. Refusing to honour this duplicitous treaty, Menelik found himself at war with Italy, who made common cause with Menelik’s enemies within the country in order to usurp him. Quarrels with one of these rival princes led to a decisive victory for Italy in the province of Tigre, and Italy retained possession of towns such as Adigrat and Adowa. In 1896 matters came to a head. Menelik amassed vastly more numerous forces and marched to Tigre. The resulting battle of Adwa was a disaster for the Italians. Menelik’s forces soundly defeated them, resulting in humiliation for the national army who had not conceived that they could be beaten by an African power. Negotiations following this ensured Ethiopia’s sovereignty, and treaties with European rivals France and Britain, who Menelik played off against each other, enabled him to expand his empire to include parts of both British and French Somaliland.

Menelik died in 1913, and by the 1920’s Ras Tafari, or Haile Selassie, had become Emperor, solidly unifying the country but failing to effectively modernise it, preferring instead that Ethiopia remain locked in its feudal past. The 1930’s saw the rise to power in Italy of Benito Mussolini, a fascist who dreamed of reinstating the glory of the Roman Empire by capturing possessions in Ethiopia and other parts of Africa. Lacking European support, Haile Selassie found his country occupied by 1936 and fled into exile. The Italians never managed to completely subdue Ethiopia however, with brutal repercussions against Ethiopian resistance being both shocking and commonplace. Italy’s declaration of war against Britain in the Second World War however ensured that the occupation did not last long – allied forces liberated the country by 1941.

Haile Selassie returned to Ethiopia and through political manoeuvrings managed to obtain control of the former Italian colony of Eritrea by playing on cold war fears of Soviet influence in the region. Eritrea was quickly absorbed into Ethiopia sparking a civil war that lasted decades and costs tens of thousands of lives. Haile Selassie’s form of absolute feudal rule and his failure to develop the country eventually resulted in a coup, in which he was deposed and murdered. What followed next was a period of extreme brutality, as the revolutionary council that had deposed him, known as the Dergue, set about creating one of the most frightening and oppressive Marxist governments that Africa has seen. Led by the ruthless Mengistu Haile Maryam, a brutal military dictatorship was established. Opposition was crushed and mass arrests and execution common, and Ethiopia’s population lived in fear of saying or doing the wrong thing lest they be considered to be subversive, taken away never to be seen again. Mengistu courted Soviet and Cuban aid during this period, allowing him to maintain his regime, but rebel groups from Oromo and Tigray provinces, as well as the seemingly never-ending war with Eritrea, meant that Ethiopia was in a constant state of turmoil in the 1970’s and 80’s, exacerbated by widescale and devastating famines in many areas that caught the attention of the western world.

As is often the case in Africa, the collapse of the Cold War led to a shift of power in the region. No longer able to count on Soviet support, the Dergue was weakened, with Eritrean and Tigrayan rebel groups winning decisive battles and taking Addis Ababa in 1991. Eritrea was granted independence in 1993, although simmering tensions over border demarcations have meant that the two nations have never existed particularly comfortably, with conflict breaking out periodically in that region. Despite that however, Ethiopia has come a long way in the last fifty years, from an almost isolationist and regressive state to one that is tentatively embracing democracy.

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