Mago National Park
On the eastern bank of the Omo River, Mago National Park is 2,162 square kilometres (835 square miles) in area, ranging in altitude from 450 to 2,528 metres (1,476 to 8,292 feet), the latter being the height of Mount Mago situated in the north of the park.
Temperatures here swing between 14° and 41°C (57° and 106°P) and rainfall, which falls from March to May and October to December, is low, being 480 mm (19 inches) on average.
If you are interested just in seeing Mago National Park, the quickest and most direct route is from Jinka, where there is a small thirty-five-kilometre (22-mile) track leading down a very steep escarpment to the plains below, where the park headquarters and campsites are located.
Although there is very little in the way of driving circuits in the park, about five kilometres (three miles) from the headquarters a turnoff to the left leads to the Mago River, where you cross a bridge and climb up a short but steep escarpment to the grassy plateau that is the northern extension of the Mursi Mountains (also called the Ngalibong Mountains). The track, which was improved in late 1993 but is vulnerable to rain damage, crosses the plateau and drops into dense bushbelt along the Omo River, reaching the river itself at a point called Omo Mursi, where a few Mago National Park rangers are stationed.
This outpost is opposite a track that leads thirty-two kilometres (20 miles) to the Omo National Park headquarters at Mui River. Unfortunately, however, the ferry constructed by the Wildlife Organization was never successfully put into service and today lies rusting on the steep mud banks. Omo Mursi attracts a small but steady flow of visitors who want to see and photograph the Mursi people, famous for the large clay discs that the women wear in their slit lower lips.
Another route into Mago, however, is the preferred one because it offers the opportunity to travel through the varied villages of the colourful and diverse ethnic groups found in the region. It also usually affords better wildlife viewing and still winds up at the Mago park headquarters and the campsites. For this route, backtrack to the junction midway between Key Afer and Konso, where you'll turn right (south-west) on the road to Arbore, Turmi, and Omo Rate.
This part of the broad Weyto Valley is inhabited by the Tsemay, handsome and photogenic people who, like most of the small ethnic groups of the far south-west, practise a combination of pastoralism and shifting opportunistic rain-fed agriculture.
Continuing South downs the Weyto Valley, walled on the right by the precipitous rocky mountains of Tsemay and Hamer, a small settlement with a police station appears on the left. This village is known as Arbore. The Arbore people are very closely related to the Borena and share their unique adornments, such as aluminium bead necklaces.
Past Arbore, obscure tracks lead out onto the surface of Chew Bahir (Lake Stefanie), which presents an awesome spectacle of blistering saline lake bed bounded in the distance by jagged mountains. Oryx and gazelle sometimes frequent the lake bed, which, if dry, offers the temptation of smooth high-speed driving in any direction. But this is no place to break down, so exercise caution and follow the advice of a local guide, whose presence is definitely advisable.
The road leaves the Weyto Valley and makes a dramatic ascent to the Hamer country by following one of the major dry watercourses that spill off the highlands. Just outside Turmi, ninety-five kilometres (59 miles) from the Weyto bridge, a well on the edge of the broad, sandy, and usually dry Kaske riverbed is the sole good source of water for miles around and visitors frequently camp nearby.
The Kaske is lined with beautiful acacias and tamarinds, in which colobus, baboons, and many birds may be seen. An added bonus is the procession of extremely picturesque and striking Hamer girls coming to fetch water or cultivate the adjacent papaya orchard. And the Turmi Monday market is not to be missed, with large numbers of Hamer coming to buy, sell, and exchange news.
At Turmi, a track leads north to Dimeka and joins the Konso-Jinka road at Key Afer, offering the possibility of a circuit that is shorter and less remote than the one including Omo Rate, Murle, and Mago National Park described next.
Omo National Park
On the west bank of the Omo River, Omo National Park is 4,068 square kilometres (1,570 square miles) in area and its highest point is 1,183 metres (3,880 feet). Temperatures are high, ranging from 14° to 41°C (57° to 106°F), and the rainfall averages 500 mm (19.5 inches) a year, falling between March and April and September and October.
This large and beautiful park has been hardly visited in the last two decades, as getting there has been so difficult (although until the early 1970s, Ethiopian Airlines had twice-weekly scheduled flights to an airstrip in the park, where the long-time Ethiopia resident Carl-Gustav Forsmark had a wonderful tented camp by the Mui River).
The only access to Omo National Park is via Omo Rate, by ferry to the west bank of the Omo River, and north to the border settlement of Kibish, where a seventy-fivekilometre (46-mile) unmaintained track leads to the Omo Park headquarters. However, in early 1994, a GTZ project was working on the long-neglected route from Mui River up to Maji, which is tenuously linked to Jimma. When this road is passable, a drive from Jimma, besides being extremely interesting in itself, will bestow the reward of visiting this truly wild and untamed area.
Anyone planning to attempt a visit to Omo National Park should first contact EWCO for the latest information on access, road conditions, security, and so on. The European Union has been talking about spending as much as US$20 million on Omo National Park and, if this happens, great changes could occur soon.
In the central area of the park is a pleasant campsite on the Mui River, set amidst large fig trees. Water is present all year, though it may be confined to pools. Park staff will inform visitors which pools are safe to use, as some crocodiles are resident here.
Also in the centre of the park on the Mui River, which is a tributary of the Omo, is the park headquarters and new airstrip. From here one can set out in essentially four different directions to explore the park - south toward Kibish, east to the point opposite Omo Mursi, north-west to Maji, or across the Mui River and north into a beautiful area of grassland, scattered thickets, and small hills. Take a ranger.
Vegetation in the park is typical of a hot dry area, with sweeping grasslands, wooded grasslands, and belts of forest along the rivers. The Omo River has along its length a wide belt of acacia thicket. The grass plains are relieved by bands of hills to the north and south of the park headquarters. There are hot springs at Lilibai and Kuma.