Joe and Mary Ann McDonald's

Wildlife Photography

Field Journal
Ethiopia - Mountain Wildlife, Primitive Tribes
February-March 2009

Ethiopia 2009 Simien Mountains, Bale Mountains, Omo River Delta
Day 1 - We left Nairobi around noon, and flew for almost 2 hours into Addis Ababa where we met our private charter and took off on another 1.5 hour flight to Gondar, the nearest town to the Simien Mountains.
The flight over was breath-taking. A maze-like network of plowed, worked fields of the local, popular foodstuff, tef, covered most open spaces. Sometimes, but infrequently, a dirt road paralleled or neared the plots, but often, from the air, there seemed to be no access, and often the fields were miles from the nearest villages or settlements. There were no cars or trucks, and even on the two paved roads we flew over, we saw less than a dozen vehicles. We were in another age.

We landed in AA at just shy of 8,000 feet, and for much of our flight we crossed over the Ethiopian plateau which snaked, in twists and turns, across the horizon. Often we flew over incredible canyons, the sides of which sometimes sporting a round, green-roofed structure, the monastery for the orthodox Christians that dominate the highlands. The land was torturous, and only slightly less rugged than the Grand Canyon of Arizona, but here the canyons were country-wide and not a mere slash in the Colorado plateau. The canyons and outcrops are formed from volcanic activity, then shaped in the last assuage by weather - rain, hail, wind, water-erosion (the Blue Nile and its tributaries cut beneath us), and perhaps even glaciers.
The drive to the Simien Mountains and our lodge went through a few bustling villages, crowded, dusty, and dirty, but most of the drive went through open land - all cultivated, but with scattered, small settlements. We stopped at one to photograph the haystacks and met the farmer and family, and he posed obligingly, not really having a clue what we were doing, but responsive to our smiles and handshakes, and intrigued by the digital monitor when we showed him his picture.
At one village we stopped to photograph a white-robed woman, a new bride, we were told, on a pony decorated in red. While the models, and the kids that gathered were cooperative, we were soon swarmed by people and I think it was a bit intimidating for some. But the people were friendly, and when our crowd grew into the size of a mob we hopped back into our LandCruisers and drove off.
Approaching our lodge, we entered the Simien Mountain highlands, and we were soon treated to the absolutely stunning landscapes - buttes reminiscent of Canyonlands or Monument Valley, sheer, towering cliffs that fell straight to the valley floor 2,000 or 3,000 feet below. Our winding dirt road sometimes skirted the cliff edge, albeit with several yards of shoulder, but, of course, no guard rails, and one simply had to trust that our vehicles' had good brakes.
When we arrived at the lodge the electrical power quit, and we unpacked, downloaded, and showered via flashlights, and ate by candlelight. The food was modest and tasty, and after a long day of travel we felt fairly settled, only hoping that we'd have power soon.
Day 2 - Simien Mountains
We still had no power by breakfast, and around 8AM headed to the Gelada Baboon ridges, hoping to photograph them as they climbed out of the valleys, or steep cliff side shelters, where they overnight. We were advised that the Geladas wouldn't appear before 9:30 or so, but we wanted to be sure and left early, and indeed found Geladas already up and on the tightly cropped grass plateaus or along the roadside. We stopped at the first significant group to get some snaps, but there were some researchers there so we quickly moved on, finding our own group not too far ahead.
The Geladas are stunning, at least the males, with blond-brown flowing manes that give a very lion-like appearance to this primate. We were fairly cautious at first, using our long lenses, but we soon discovered that they were completely habituated and would walk, run, or graze within feet of where we stood or sat.
I headed to the cliff edge, hoping to find Geladas just climbing up and still sitting on the edge where I could incorporate the rugged background, and I found several. Within a few minutes I had slid forward, on my butt like a Gelada, within two yards or so, and the baboons were unconcerned.
Over the next several hours we changed locations once, finding another group where the background was even more dramatic. There, on the grassy plateau, we started doing ground-level shots, lying on our bellies and using wide-angles where we were incredibly close. Sometimes, we were actually shooting up at the Geladas with our 16-35mms, framing the baboons against a cloudy sky.
Mary and I followed one troop into the woods, a gnarly, ghostly forest of low trees draped with hanging lichen or mosses, reminding me in a way of some forests in the gorillas' habitat of Rwanda. By then, we were the only two still shooting so we reluctantly returned to the cars and headed back for lunch. We downloaded cards during lunch, and the process drained our laptop's batteries to near zero, so we were worried about our power situation.
Around 4 we headed back out, hoping to catch the baboons as they returned to the cliffs and started down. At our shooting site we had hundreds of baboons interspersed with a few score of goats and a couple of children who tended and moved the livestock. The Geladas were completely unconcerned, feeding by the kids and goats.
The skies were a bit stormy so we tried framing Geladas against the sky, using flash fill to even the exposure, while also working on tight portraits with our telephotos. I had some luck catching views that represented the steep cliffs that the baboons descended, and missed a couple ferocious fights between rival males. We shot to almost sunset, finishing the day with landscapes that depicted the rows of blue ridges, drifting off to a distance haze.
Everyone shot a huge number of images, and all of us were concerned we'd be out of battery power to download cards but, fortunately, the power was on and we downloaded and backed up our images.
Day 3 - Simien Mountains
We headed out the usual time, going for Walia Ibex at the far end of the park, about 2 hours distant. En route we passed more Geladas, and in the bright sunshine it was killing me to pass them by. Ibex country is high, and our first encounter occurred after we had rounded a 14,000 foot pass. Our park scouts spotted a nice ram, with huge sweeping crenellated horns, fairly high up a hill in the company of a group of Geladas. Rick, Mary and I started up the steep slope, breathing heavily in the thin air. The ibex was shy, but I did manage some near frame-filling shots as it walked by, at 700mm, but shortly afterwards it crested a rock outcrop and bounded passed Steve and away.
We soon found another herd of about 15, all males, down the hill on the opposite side of the road. We followed them several different places, finally having a bit of luck when we jumped into the car and raced ahead on the road to a spot this very shy herd appeared ready to cross. They did, and we got some passing shots. I tried following them up the slope, hoping to intercept them on the ridge, but the Park Warden had appeared, and was giving us a hassle about photography permits, thinking we were a film crew. With much reluctance, I headed back down the slope, after a lung-busting climb that nearly had me to the ibex.
Meanwhile, Bill, Sarah, and Carolyn had driven off with another driver and were extremely lucky, finding an entire family group of ewes, lambs, and rams that approached, paralleled, and crossed the road so close that Bill was shooting head shots! One of our vehicles had gone looking for the three of them, and finding they had luck had raced the several miles back to find and fetch us. By the time we got there the ibex were a few hundred meters up slope, and after all of our hiking, chasing ibex, the three of us were beat, and the climb upwards painful.
But the ibex were there, just off a trail and at the base of a steep slope, and we did quite well as they grazed towards us, before climbing up and over the cliff. Steve and I anticipated this and found a route up, hoping that they'd feed towards us. They didn't - they moved exactly opposite us, but we did get nice shots as two rams reared on their hind legs, pausing for several long seconds, their forelegs raised in a tuck, folded flat against their chests, before dropping and slamming horns. They sparred for several minutes, just fitting within the frame of my 500mm lens. Good shooting! Meanwhile, Mary and Rick worked on ibex lower down on the slope and both shot frame-filling portraits of lambs and ewes on the cliff.
After the shoot, we had a picnic lunch of last evening's left-over pizza on the edge of a cliff face that dropped 3,000 feet to the valley floor. While we munched, a thick-billed raven pair flew down to join us, giving great opportunities for portraits. It was a bit unsettling to be eating less than two meters from a drop off that would surpass any skyscraper's height - it was like eating on the windowsill of the Empire State Building. The view was superb, and the terraced farmland far below resembled the wheat fields of the Pelous in Washington.
Steve and our guides, meanwhile, headed to the warden's office to sort out the photography problem. Originally, when the warden found us (he had raced from HQ on a misinformed tip that there was an unauthorized film crew) he wanted to charge us $400 as a photo fee. Steve, accustomed to the bribes and corruption of Kenya, refused to pay, rightly saying that we didn't need a permit since we were tourists. The warden grew annoyed, and later called his boss who then told the warden that we would need to pay $3,000 instead!
When we arrived at HQ, Steve informed us that our vehicles had been impounded and we were not allowed to pass until we paid the $3,000, which we had no intention of doing. Fortunately, Steve had a satellite phone and called a friend at AA who was connected to the tourism department, and he called the head of the Park Department to sort things out. Eventually, when the Park chief called, we came to a compromise, and we paid the original $400 to the warden, but we did get a receipt, so we know the payment was official.
The encounter put a slight damper on the afternoon, although I made it a point to talk with the warden and his assistant warden, explaining how well-heeled American tourists interested in wildlife would be carrying these big lenses, like ours, and would balk at paying big fees for doing so. We had a pleasant conversation, and hopefully things will be sorted out in the future.
Afterwards, we headed back to the lodge, again passing hundreds of Geladas that tempted us to stop, but we were hoping to shoot the rare Lammergeier Vulture, which we intended to bait with bones. At 4 we did so, but for nearly an hour the skies were empty, although the western sky, our light source, was shrouded in a heavy rain cloud. By 5:30 the storm had passed, and with wonderful late afternoon light an adult Lammergeier flew by, followed later by an Egyptian vulture, and a very curious and cooperative immature Lammergeier and a tawny eagle. We did some great shooting, but rued our luck that our best vulture was only an immature. Still, the shooting was wonderful.
We had no power as evening closed in, but shortly before dinner the electricity came back on, so we could pack, and download, with power and light. We were sorry to have to leave the Simien Mountains, and decided four nights, instead of three, would be the best plan for a future trip.
Day 4 - Gondar to Bale Mountains
We left on schedule by 8, driving directly to Gondar where we visited the one remaining church that survived a Muslim siege and sacking back in the fifteenth century. The artwork inside the temple was outstanding, and we did plenty of slow shutter speeds of frescoes and walls, and some great Rembrandt lighting on a priest I posed. Later, behind the church, I found another man praying with his bible, and he consented for more photos, completely ignoring me while he prayed.
Our flight to Bale was an hour late, but we spent the time looking at Steve's videos of Ethiopia, psyching us for the Omo Valley and the Simien wolves of Bale. The flight to Bale was long, nearly three hours, and went over some spectacular terrain before leveling out on a farmed plateau of 8,000 feet. On landing, we were met by our local guide, who had driven up from AA, and we soon discovered what a gem he, Yilma, was. A great birder and naturalist, perfect, American-accented English, and a good sense of humor, we knew we were in for a good time.
Not surprisingly, there was no power at our hotel, which was scheduled to turn back on at 9PM, but I'm writing this a few minutes passed and I'm still, literally, in the dark. Tomorrow, we go for wolves!
Day 5 - Bale Mountains
WE had breakfast at 7 and were on the road by 7:50, driving slowly and carefully up the wide dirt road that led to the entrance to the Bale Mountains. Our climb would total over 4,000 feet as we passed through farmland and forest, heath and moorland, before reaching the summit - a grassy, rock-strewn landscape, and the home of the wolf.
We hadn't traveled very far into prime habitat when Sarah glanced to her left and said, "There's one, two" that were lying curled up, still in their night's sleep, quite close to the road. As we braked they got up and moved far enough off the road that we needed 700mm, but soon two pups joined the adults and we have a rarely seen treat as the family gamboled together. Eventually they moved off, and we all wondered about our shooting - infirm supports, movement in the bus, etc., and as I write this I don't know if the images will be sharp. We wondered, too, if this was the big opportunity, the first shots of the day, and the rest of the day would be anticlimactic. To be sure, it certainly was not.
Before the day was over we saw at least 15 different Ethiopian wolves, and seeing several that we think we saw two or more times (including the parents and pups - which totaled 3, at least) we had a total of 23-25 viewing opportunities, and many of these were photos. Several times wolves coursed close to the road and crossed it, giving us frame-filling opportunities. Not that the shooting was easy - we had to position a bus with 7 shooters inside, following an animal that was constantly on the move. But we did well, in addition to seeing several endemic species of birds of the Ethiopian highlands.
We concluded the shoot by staking out the wolf den where the mother eventually returned and was greeted by two enthusiastic pups that mobbed her until she regurgitated two rodents. This was a visual, not a shooting opportunity, but it was a fine way to … almost … end the day. As we drove off the plateau a striking rainbow framed a distant cliff and we spent some time shooting some landscapes, and then some cooperative kids, with the rainbow. It started raining and hailing as I ended, so I drove back to town fairly wet.
We had, without question, a spectacular day, and one that is rather ironic for here we were, photographing one of the rarest mammals in Africa, the world's most endangered Canine, with less than 400 in the total population, and we now had better shots of these wolves than we ever made of our own North American Gray Wolf. Our shots of the latter species are fairly poor, but this! What a country!
Day 6 - Bale Mountains
We left at our usual time, driving about 1.75 hours to a lowland extension of the Bale Mountains National Park where we sought Nyala, a large, elk-sized antelope that resembles a stout-horned greater kudu. We were met by a park scout who led us up the steep, juniper-covered hillside and within minutes we had our first bull Nyala, sitting calmly in the shade of a large juniper tree. We shot it from several angles before the scout moved in, possibly to push it up, because it did get to its feet and wandered downhill.
Over the course of the morning we filmed several bull nyalas, as well as cows and some older calves. It was easy to get close enough for 'bust shots,' and actually a lot of fun, reminding me of a shoot in Yellowstone where we would spend hours working a single subject, exploring big horn or pronghorn from several angles. There are two other species of antelope here, the Bohor's Reedbuck and Menelik's Bushbuck, which I didn't have luck with, but Mary did quite well.
Towards the end of the shoot our scout led us to a rock escarpment where he pointed and said, "montane nightjar," but the area looked barren. After repeated pointing I thought I could vaguely see where he was pointing, and aiming my lens, I discovered the incredibly cryptic bird. We shot it from several angles as well, easily getting close enough for frame-filling shots. The most effective shots were 'birds in habitat' where we backed off and closed down the aperture for great depth of field, effectively losing the bird in plain sight.
Afterwards we looked for Abyssinian long-eared owls, but the birds were at neither of the two roosting locations the scout normally finds them, and the group headed downhill. I had a nice cow Nyala and a bull I hoped would reveal itself from the brush, and I was successful with the cow. Meanwhile, Mary returned to the vehicle and then backtracked to retrieve me.
On the way back to Goda we were all tired, and all of us napped at some point during the trip, and in doing so passed by some nice farming shots as herdsmen corralled cattle in a tight circle as they thrashed wheat. Had we stopped, our 2PM lunch would have run even later, but we planned to do similar shots in the afternoon.
Our guide, Yilma, took us to a local bar/restaurant that, at night, is a hopping place for hookers, but he said the food was good and traditional. He ordered 3.5 kilos of meat - sheep, as it turned out, that was actually quite tasty. The local rubber-like pancake, Njera, normally made from Tef, the lowland grain grown throughout most of Ethiopia, is mixed with another grain and, our guide informed us, not nearly as palatable. He was right, and fortunately the meat was served with bread, too, and everyone enjoyed the meal immensely.
After lunch, and quite stuffed, we headed out to look for farm scenes but the area around town was too settled and after a few attempts on side roads we decided to head back and take the afternoon off, with most of us filling that time with editing. Mary had passed on lunch and the drive, having caught a nasty flu-like bug that kept her down for the afternoon.
Day 7 - Bale Mountains to Omo River Delta
Our flight to the Omo was an hour late - not unusual here, and we arrived in the desert-like Omo region around noon. From the air the area looked tree-covered but grassless, virtually denuded of ground cover and absent of game. It looked inhospitable, and I had to wonder how several tribes could survive here.
We were met by our two local guides/camp managers, Joseph and Lolly, and we proceeded on a 45 minute, bumpy drive through the bush to camp. En route the barren woodlands came alive, with carmine, little, and white-throated bee-eaters, Vitteline's or Riechenaut's masked weavers, various doves, lilac-breasted rollers, brown snake eagles, bateleur eagles, and various doves. We passed cattle that Joseph said were starving, and understandable as there was no grass visible, and several herds of sheep that were probably the source of the devastation.
At camp the local Karo (they call themselves Kara) men greeted us and carried our luggage to the tents, men with no body fat - literally, and quite strong. One man carried both our rather heavy gadget bags and for the first half of the walk he carried the bag bent-armed, as if in a curl. I wondered if he'd fatigue at some point and drop his arms to his side, and he did, somewhat. These were tough people.
The camp is simple but nice, with the singles having plenty of room. Doubles, like Mary and I, and Bill and Sarah, are a bit cramped but the staff put up an equipment tent between us to store excess luggage - all the stuff we needed in the highlands which we certainly won't need here. Behind the tent is a drop toilet and a separate shower tent, and the beds are thick and comfortable.
Lunch was great - salads, vegetable lasagna, shish-ka-bob chicken-gizzards, and afterwards we used the dining tent for our computer work - which I'm doing now.
The village of the Kara people (the fish people) was just a short drive from camp, an open, grassland expanse with a variety of buildings, huts, and a ceremonial structure of pillars, with a heavy wooded platform on top. At first, the village was rather over-whelming, not only because of the visual spectacle but also our own discomfort, timidity, confusion, and sense of chaos, and the very real invasion of personal space as kids, women, and some of the men crowded around the visitors - us. Steve, our guide, informed us it was ok to shoot whenever, and all of us started, timidly at first, but we eventually warmed up.
The Kara (or Karo) were a bit aggressive, some, at least, in asking for their picture being taken, while others went about their business and some, remarkably, set themselves into key spots that were great shooting locations - they knew what they were doing. Some of the women were striking, bare-breasted and healthy, and the warrior men were pleasant, almost sardonic or wry in their approach to the photography.
The trick to shooting these people was to concentrate upon details, or to work with the folks to coax them into poses, or in continuing their activities, like millet grinding or flensing a hide. At the end of the day we headed to a small rise by the river where two women and several men, most carrying automatic rifles, posed against the western skyline for sunset silhouettes.
Day 8 - Nyandatom
We had breakfast at 6:30 and headed out around 7:15, driving a short distance before taking a bushy track that wound through the riverine forest to the river's edge, closer to the village we were going to film. The camp had borrowed a German missionary's boat for our crossing of the now-shallow Omo River, with two men functioning at 'polers' as they stabbed long poles into the river to propel us across the river and cross-current. When we reached mid-stream we started drifting, and it was a bit comical to see the 'polers' rowing with the straight poles to get us across.
After climbing the steep river bank, about a 50 foot incline that, during the wet season has the river lapping at the top, we started shooting. The people were adorned differently, with many of the women having thick necklaces of beads, and the men with more prominent scarification. The Nyangatom people are not visited as frequently - basically only by this camp, but we didn't find them any shyer although one old hag was a master haggler at negotiating the photo price, adamantly refusing 4 bir and demanding 5. She was a great actor, slapping the ground with her fist, yelling, turning her back to me or to the guide who was trying to give her the money. Eventually I relented and gave her 5 bir, and suddenly the angry crone smiled, shook my hand, and we were friends. Later, Rick took some more distant shots of the same woman and he tried paying her 4 bir. She went through the same act but I was there, carrying on with her, and pantomiming that he only took a few shots and he wouldn't pay it. Eventually Rick walked away, having given her 4 bir!
Later, still, Mary and I filmed another girl nearby, and the old woman looked on, calling over to our model to get 5 bir. When we went to pay she refused, and I started wagging my finger and yelling at the old woman for causing trouble. She yelled back, but between displays she smiled and laughed, knowing the entire performance on both our parts was just an act.
We ended the shoot at a riverside tree where we had some beautiful models, then headed back to camp for a very needed shower before lunch.
In the late afternoon we again crossed the river, then walked upstream to a meeting point where a community dance had been arranged. As we arrived, men and women were still milling about, the men still fresh in newly dabbed mud, the women dressed in leather and many, as usual, bare-breasted and bedecked in cowry shells. The men were dressed in a variety of costumes, from cloth loin cloths and sandals, with their bodies covered in mud designs, while others had T-shirts and sneakers. Several men wore caps, army fatigue hats, and camo shirts, and some of these, perhaps because their clothing reflected their aggression and might, proved to be the most powerful dances. Soon, the men gathered and began a deep droning song, quite melodic and musical, and spread out into a line to dance. Within minutes a circle formed, with the women facing the men and the men arranged by age group, creating an ox-bow horn that encircled the women.
The dances had three themes - the first, a war dance that replayed past great deeds, with men pantomiming using their AK47s or a bow, dancing in a loping stride in a broad skipping motion, while the other two dances involved their prowess as cattle men, and stealing cattle, and the other as their prowess as lovers and how beautiful the women were. In the cattle dance individual men would enter the ring, striding and leaping in time with a beat. It was quite dramatic. The air resounded with the crowd's clapping beat, which hit a crescendo in synch with the landing of a great jump. While I didn't notice it , Mary and Rick noticed the syncopated footwork, with the women's feet up when the men's were down, and, of course, vise versa. For their last dance the women were quite interactive, grabbing men and taking them out into the circle, where they hopped and bobbed. Men, it seemed, were more reluctant than women to dance, with some being pulled out, then laughingly shrugging the woman off and retreating back into the circle of their friends. By the end of the dancing everyone, men and woman alike, were covered in sweat, the women's bare backs, or completely bare torso, glistening and beaded, dripping in streams that soaked their leather skirts. The face and body paint of the men was now a featureless smear, all pattern lost by the sweat and exercise. At the end, some men wanted to continue dancing, while others were ready to quit, and tensions rose. Steve decided it was time for us to leave, and as is the custom with these people we did so without fanfare, disappearing down river on the trail that snaked through the riverine forest.
Day 9 - Hamar
Today we witnessed one of the most bizarre displays of courtship, loyalty, or love that may still exist on this planet. While tourists coming to the Omo are lured by the fearsome and grotesquely decorated Mursi women, the bull-jumping ceremony, and attendant rituals, of the Hamar people seemed almost incomprehensible. Coupled with that, we had the chance to watch a photographer on assignment for the National Geographic at work, and that demonstration of rudeness, self-importance, and callousness could create an unfavorable impression for any serious photographer, and certainly epitomized the sense of 'the ugly American.'
We left at the usual time, driving through the bush country we passed after our flight here, and in route spotting Kirk's dik-dik, pale chanting goshawk, four species of hornbill, including a new bird for us, the Abyssinnian Ground Hornbill that was fairly tame as it walked across the grassland and the road in front of us. The route wound through various hilly country on tracks and trails that eventually merged into a rather passable road which led past the Hamar village.
The village was similar to that of the Karo, conical huts, wooden stockades, and vegetationless, dusty courtyards. The village was mainly women, kids, and old men - I didn't see any young men, which I'll presume were out herding stock. The women were particularly beautiful, with great teeth and some with wonderful smiles and fit bodies, and although they were mildly aggressive about earning fees by posing, they posed cooperatively and were quite adjustable. We spent nearly two hours at the village before heading on to the Hamar market, where Steve told us most tour groups only go as their Hamar experience. If so, what a loss, as the women were sitting in the shade of their little kiosks, selling grain or wares, in an environment that lacked dignity and symbolized squalor, nothing like the life we saw when visiting their village. We didn't stay long, just long enough to buy some cokes and headrests - the wooden, T-shaped stands the men carry everywhere, using as a neck/head support when resting or sleeping, and as a stool when sitting.
After lunch we headed to our next destination, an event that in the Hamar community may occur only several times a year - the bull jumping ceremony where an adolescent boy is reborn as a man. We hadn't expected to see this - although it may occur weekly, depending on age group and location, a given area may not see this event occur for months. The bull-jumping itself is merely the climax of a rather involved, afternoon-long event, and consists of a naked boy, or several, jumping onto the back of a row of cows or bulls and running across their back and jumping off on the other side. Men hold the heads and tails of the cattle to keep them in place, so there's little danger, except for potential embarrassment if the boy loses his balance and falls. However, it's not a test of manhood, there is no failure, it is simply a rite of passage and a community event that marks it. That, however, is not what makes this ceremony unique.
To get to this ceremony we drove nearly an hour on a vehicle track that wound through hills and brush country, virtual wilderness to our eyes until we rounded a hill and overlooked a few scattered huts. En route, various walkers added directions, but exactly how our guide, Lolli, found the spot defies me. As we neared we passed a woman plowing a horn, drawing other's attention that an event was about to occur. Reaching the destination, we had to wait while our guides negotiated an entrance fee for our presence - regardless of what our National Geographic friend might think, no white man enters this area without paying for the privilege, even if his local guide does so on the sly. That business passed, we started the uphill hike to the ceremony.
Muted by distance, the clanging, banging clatter of ankle bangles reached our ears, and another noise which Mary mistook for the snapping pop of a small fire-cracker. It was not, it was the snap as an eight-foot switch met the flesh of a woman who stood, placid and accepting, of the lash. Warriors were gathered beneath a tree, preparing themselves with face paint for the ceremony, but before we could start shooting our guide had to again explain, and then display, the wads of bir that he had paid for our entrance here. Eventually, that hurdle was passed.
Around the tree men painted themselves, or took turns accommodating the women who approached them, a pile of switches in hand, to deliver one or several whippings. The woman would dance about, stomping her feet and moving in a circle, then stop and wait, facing the man and awaiting the strike. Some women wore Tee-shirts, others the traditional leather apron which exposed bare flesh on their backs, but either way, arms, shoulders, and backs were smacked with a resounding smack that made me physically wince. Afterwards, the woman would bow, sometimes attempting to solicit another strike, and more often the man would just walk off and return to whatever he was doing.
Meanwhile, the Geographic photographer, XXXXX, moved in close, using either a wide-angle or short zoom and fill flash, and shot away. I couldn't see the logic - the contrast between sky and subject was great and unless the flash was really doing a terrific job wide-angle seemed, to me, self-defeating. But hey, I'm not a Geographic photographer.
As our group attempted to set up it was soon clear that XXXXX had no interest or concern about where or how his position affected anyone else's photography. As it was later explained to us, he was not only trying to document the ceremonies and activities involved with the bull-jumping, but also the tourist interaction. The forthcoming article was to involve the impact a hydroelectric plant would have on the Omo peoples, and likewise the effect of tourism, so he wanted white tourists in his shots. For some unpleasant reason he seemed to key in on me, as I was filming close, using flash, and, more significantly, I was actually interacting with the people, and showing my interested subjects the shots on the back of my LCD. XXXXXX, just feet away, shot away, and I was quite self-conscious and uncomfortable, faced with the decision to either make faces at him, stop what I was doing, and, significantly, cease showing my subjects their fascinating shots. So I ignored him, feeling very much like I was posing for this guy and not liking it one bit.
One could say then, what was the difference between what he was doing with me and what I was doing with the Hamar, Nyangatom, Karo, or, soon, Mursi people we photographed. While some tourists may indeed act just like XXXXX, not interacting, not talking to his subject, and generally just recording images, Mary and I actively interact with our subjects. We laugh with them, tease them, touch them, and hopefully make them feel as if we are indeed working with them, and not just using them like inanimate still lifes - human carrots, if you will. With XXXXX, I felt like a thinking carrot.
While XXXXX eventually became almost part of the scenery, which I'm sure he felt he was achieving his objective of 'disappearing' and being unnoticed, he became so with about the same effectiveness as a Tsetse fly that hovers about, biting and making a nuisance of itself but impossible to swat or kill. You know the bastard is there, but what can you do? So you ignore it until it really, really gets you annoyed, then you get mad and try to kill it, or hope somebody will. As it turned out, XXXXX's later behavior at the actual bull-jumping ceremony could have possibly done just that.
In that event, a huge crowd of people had gathered in a semi-circle around the cows. Tourists were interspersed throughout, especially around the two ends where the boy would enter or leave, where the best views were to be had. XXXX, alone, moved throughout the cows, standing among them and, of course, being in everyone's picture regardless of what one could try to do. As the jumps were about to begin he moved to one end, and in doing so blocked the view of over a dozen other photographers. This annoyed everyone, and two Italian tourists approached him, nicely but obviously annoyed, and tried to explain to him that he was ruining everyone else's experience and shooting opportunity. XXXXX shrugged them off, saying he was working, that he was a Geographic shooter, and he deserved to be there. Although I didn't see it, others said he actually shoved people out of his way. No one else bought it, and while they argued the first jump took place. XXXX started shooting again, and continued to muck up the shots.
When the event ended and the cows were beginning to be pulled away, XXXX approached the tourists again and while our guide expected that was to apologize, his impression was that instead he was simply reasserting his aggressive position, literally starting a fight. The Italians guide came over to add his annoyance, and a few fists were swung before others jumped in and interceded, pulling the Ethiopian guide away. XXXX disappeared from my view, apparently heading back to his vehicle, and we never saw him again. Needless to say, his behavior was more a part of our drive home's conversation than the actual bull-jumping ceremony, and it was not complimentary. In short, he left a very sour taste in our American mouths, and I can just imagine how the Italians viewed him, the 'big magazine' he was shooting for (the Italians almost exact words), and, sadly, perhaps, all Americans in general.
Pretending XXXXX the tsetse fly wasn't there, we tried shooting the event. The warriors used a small compact mirror to self-apply their face paint, then having an assistant using a daub stick to make their final, fine-tuned designs. In the background, sometimes in the shade, sometimes in the open sun, a woman would drag a man out, dancing her foot-stomping solicitation, and then getting a sharp crack with the whipping stick. In most cases the branch snapped afterwards, whereupon she'd offer another which he accepted or declined, walking back to his friends.
Periodically the entire band of women would dance off, leaving the men and the tourists behind, but eventually they, or a new group, would return. I wandered uphill to where the majority of the community seemed to have gathered, many clustered behind a branch and leaf pavilion where they waited in the shade. We photographed their tea-brewing, drinking, and, of course, more whipping. While I sat near the pavilion one of the bull-jumping boy's relatives moved about serving the tea, offering it like a communion chalice to each person in turn. I watched with some amusement as he offered it to two young European men sitting nearby, and noted that they brought the gourd to their mouths and pretended to sip, but not bringing any fluid to their mouths. My turn came, and the man rotated the gourd to a dry, unused spot, and I took a sip. It tasted like tea - it is actually a weak brew of coffee made from the husks shucked from the coffee beans that are harvested, but I must confess I didn't swallow. Holding the warm fluid in my mouth I waited a few minutes and covertly let it spill out. I was probably safe, regardless, as the water had been brewing and was probably boiled.
Near the pavilion another, smaller pavilion hosted several young men that were obviously the warriors and the object of the women's whipping solicitations. By this point, about 1.5 hours into the festivities, the women who had been beaten were clearly showing the effects. Those with bare backs had open wounds, and while most had only a few cuts, some were cut sharply in several places. Invariably, these fresh wounds were interlaced with the scars from previous whippings.
One woman was particularly adamant about being whipped. Wearing a tee-shirt instead of the traditional leather apron, she had one side of her front jacked up to expose her right breast, but by wearing the shirt she protected her left - the side that would receive the strike of the whip. She carried and continued to toot a small horn, creating a honking, carnival like atmosphere that. Coupled with the sounds and honking blasts of other women, sometimes was almost deafening. She'd bend and toot in front of her prospective whipper, pausing if he didn't respond to argue or plea, sometimes grabbing a hand or arm to draw him out, and occasionally being successful. Other women, less aggressive, seemed to have more luck, and would approach and draw out a man, and seconds later, while she stood facing the man, receive a resounding whack. The sound of a whip - the eight foot switch striking flesh - made me wince each time, but the woman didn't flinch. She smiled, perhaps, and bowed, and began stomping or tooting her horn again, trying to draw out another whipping.
A whole contingent of people started a running parade up the hill, and we heard that something significant was about to occur. Several of us followed, up and up, and wondering where the hell we were going. The parade ended at a small corral where they brought the boy to do the final leg of the ceremony. This involves a symbolized mating and birth, where the boy is placed sitting upon the ground, another boy holding him in place either for reassurance or as a precaution, while another waved a large, wooden phallus was pushed toward him, simulating intercourse. The phallus was then reversed, and held by the boy as if he now had the erection, and soon afterward that was removed. Although I couldn't see what followed, the next step is said to be the birthing where gestures mimic the drawing out of a baby. Shortly afterwards, the boy ran, naked, down the hill towards the cows, and the entire mob - all of us, started racing down hill to see the ceremony.
It was an amusing, chaotic run. Several girls, whom Mary had befriended, helped Mary run, holding her hands and one, her camera, but she fell anyway. She got up immediately and continued, and all of us got into our position. The jumping soon started, with the men coaching the boy and giving him reassurances, and then the jumps began. He did three runs in total, and on completion of the last one a wreathe of vine was removed and the ceremony was over. The arguments with XXXXX continued, and we headed downhill to our vehicles.
We ate dinner en route, under the stars in a dry wash, and returned to camp at nearly midnight.
Day 10 - Everyone slept late, caught up on our journals and editing, and had a great time just relaxing and discussing XXXXX and his awful behavior. While he may have thought he was not paying to be at the ceremony, or any shoot, he was - as is guide paid without his knowing. However, the irony to this is that he thought he wasn't paying, and therefore was not playing by the rules the Hamar, and all the other people of the area, impose, and by doing so he consciously cheated them of revenue. While the tourists are supposedly exploiting the natives, it was he, indeed, that did so by attempting to shoot pure by cheating them of much needed cash. Perhaps even worse, none of us ever saw him interact with anyone - as the exploiting tourists did constantly, showing the people images of themselves, talking with them, and having pleasant interchanges. The only interchange I saw with XXXXX was when he would be caught shooting someone who did not want it, then, he'd smirk apologetically, shrug his shoulders, and put up his hands as if in surrender … until they looked away. It was very slimy behavior.
In the late afternoon our camp manager, Lolli, set up a traditional dance with his tribe, the people who live near the camp. Although someone said it might be a bit contrived, it was not --- once it was organized, the people fell into what they did naturally, having a dance and a party to which we were invited. It was wonderful. While we started on the outside, photographing the people as they stomped and paraded to their dance site, kicking up dust and chanting resoundingly, once the people gathered in their circle we moved closer. Soon, I was squeezed in between the legs of some dancers to shoot inside the circle, at knee level, and soon after I just joined the group. The people greeted me with handshakes, encouraged me to bob and clap along, and simply could not have been more gracious.
Later, I squatted down again, and the men encouraged me to move inside the circle, where Rick joined me. It got interesting then, and kind of funny, as two old women - not nubile babes -- approached me, pointed their elbows at me, or Rick, to indicate an interest. Later, one woman repeatedly went even further, coming forth, rubbing her forearm bracelets together in a clacking gesture - that, I was told, meant she was willing and ready. No thanks.
The dance lasted until shortly before sunset, and it was fun, filled with fellowship, and truly the highlight of our people photography, to date and, as it would turn out, for all the shooting. We were welcomed, we became a part of the event, and we, and they, had fun. Several times, both by men who told me to go in there, and by the women who tried to entice me into the ring, I was asked to dance, and Mary went in several times with one older man who was having a great time. Finally, during one of the dances, Mary and I went in and I proved, definitively, that white men can't dance. The Karo, however, enjoyed the spectacle.
Day 11 - Our last full day of shooting was one we looked forward to the most, photographing the iconic people of the Omo Delta, the Mursi People, who are famous for the female mutilation that results in the insertion of clay plates into their stretched and cut lower lips. The adornment is, by any definition, grotesque, stretching the women's lower lip but also their upper, creating a hang-dog face. The Mursi, perhaps because of tourist exploitation and tourist rudeness, or perhaps because of their own nature, are aggressive, pushy, hostile people, and we were warned that the experience could be stressful, taxing, and perhaps short-lived. It was a fitting climax to the trip, and one where, if there was any danger here in Ethiopia, we would be in it here.
The drive took hours. We left at 7 and didn't arrive at the tiny Mursi village until 11:30AM. En route we passed through Mago National Park, that hosts elephants, lions, cheetahs, two species of kudus, and more, although we only saw a few timid Lesser Kudu that jumped across the road and disappeared into the thick brush, a group of oribis - seemingly out of place in the grassland/scrub habitat, and baboons, and several species of birds. Near Mago Headquarters we encountered a group of tourists that were on a 'nature walk' of some sort, ironic because this area is most likely to host elephants, and the thick brush could easily hide lions. The people were scattered over nearly a half mile stretch of road, and it was only by luck that an ele or a lion wasn't nearby and angry, or hungry, while they walked the road.
The village we visited was on the end of a long dirt track, off the main route that led, we were told, to a larger, and potentially more chaotic, village most tourists visit. As we entered Mursi country we were stopped at a 'toll booth' where both vehicles had to pay a $20 fee, which hurts the tourist experience since the headman of a given village usually received that fee and now misses out. Not getting cash, he, and the other villagers, are a bit more hostile, since immediate cash is not at hand.
When we stopped at the village we were immediately met with hostility. We expected that, and figured that after a few minutes things would settle down. We kept our cameras inside the vehicles and simply roamed around the village for a few minutes, looking for shady areas where we could set up a 'studio' for doing portraits. Meanwhile, the guides were attempting to negotiate a photo price, but a few teenage bucks, or just a bit older, were very hostile and were trying to push us off. Eventually, Bill got the OK to shoot and started, and I was told it was OK. I made the mistake of photographing one of the bucks soon after, and got into a real macho match with him as he refused the 4 bir notes the village had agreed on. Several times, as I ignored him, he tapped me on the hip or shoulder with his walking stick - an aggressive act - and I responded by dressing him down, in English, pointing my finger and giving him the mean eye, trying to let him know I wasn't going to be intimidated.
The Mursi were indeed a difficult people, grabbing people to solicit photos, yet being very impatient once a shoot began. After a bit the shoot took on a rhythm as models realized we were not going to shoot just one click, but a half dozen or more, and eventually I'd make weird clicking noises to mimic firing several frames, not just one. Actually, the 6 shot or so limitation kept us from shooting needless repetitious shots, and we moved through a lot of subjects rather quickly. Rick, Mary, and I all had various assembly lines going on, as people gathered around, poking us to get our attention, but waiting for their turn to get photographed and earn some money.
In all, we spent nearly 2 hours shooting, and the shoot went pretty well. Some of the young men that were real pains lined up for shooting, and one ended up to be a real nice subject, and a real ham. One older man, probably just in his thirties or less, was fun - he and I had a High Five hand slapping contest where we'd smack our palms, hard, and I know my hand was stinging. After four or five whacks we'd shake hands, laugh, and go on. Some of the others tested me with firm handshakes and we'd squeeze each other's hands, looking into each other's eyes and laughing. It was a fun sorting out of a pecking order.
Our Mago guide was a Hamar, and created more trouble than he was worth. First, he gave the Mursi the impression we'd just do a snap, but worse, he was cruel and bossy with the people. Rick shooed him off after he struck a dog with a stick, and although I didn't know it was him, his was the hand that twisted a young boy's head into extreme positions when I tried getting a slightly different angle. I could see why the Mursi may not get along with other tribes.
We left close to 2PM, had lunch around 3, and started home at nearly 4. We arrived back to our camp near to sunset, tired after another very long day.
Day 12 - Return to Nairobi
We had a 7:30 breakfast and headed out for the several hour drive to the Kenyan air strip near Lake Turkana, and Leakey's fossil camp, where our charter would meet us. One of the vehicles broke down near the customs office for Ethiopia, but we got it started again, getting all of us to Customs before quitting for good. After several attempts to get the vehicle working - they think the fuel pump died, we all piled into one vehicle, stuffed the luggage around us, and headed on.
Soon we were in complete desert, crossing several sandy dry washes - river beds now dry, and scattered remote and sparsely populated villages. Down to one vehicle, I worried about another breakdown, not only because we'd miss our charter but, more importantly, we'd be in serious trouble waiting for rescue. We had enough liquid with us for a lunch or dinner, but in this 100 plus degree heat we'd go through that before nightfall. Our guide, I learned later, had a satellite phone with him, so rescue could be called, but it was remote, inhospitable, and potentially scary. I mused how ironic, we, citizens of one of the richest and most powerful nations on earth, could be the poorest if marooned, and the lonely, skinny women we'd see occasionally walking, sack on head, in the middle of no where were, in this environment, far richer. They could survive here, they knew how to, and to thrive, while we, if marooned, would be hard-pressed to last 48 hours.
We arrived at the air field on time, at 2PM, and easy 5 plus hour trip, the plane flew in shortly afterwards, and we continued on our 2 hour plus flight to Nairobi without incident. As we left the deserts the green of Kenya's southern half created a striking contrast with the dry barrenness of the Omo and environs.