Down the Omo River to Africa's unspoiled heart

River runners, like mountain climbers, belong to an exclusive fraternity. The higher the mountain, the greater the challenge. The rougher and more remote the river, the greater the dare.

Sobek Expeditions, through Mountain Travel of Albany, California, has met this challenge with an exciting and sometimes hazardous three-week-long 350-mile journey on oar-propelled rafts on the Omo River in southwestern Ethiopia to visit the country of the Bodis, a primitive African tribe that has lived in isolation from the rest of the world for unknown generations.

When wife and I recently joined this expedition, we were forewarned to be prepared for discomfort and the hazards of possible hippo and crocodile attacks on the boats. We were not misled. TBefore the trip, Mountain Travel very wisely sent along a list of "don'ts" to apply when boating on the Omo -- don't camp on hippo trails; don't go near the water after dark (that's when most crocs feed); don't provoke the hippos; don't hike or swim alone; and don't drink the water until it has been treated.

Jet connections between Los Angeles and Athens are frequent and reliable. In Athens, Ethiopian Airlines flies directly south to the capital city of Ethiopia, Addis Ababa.

With a war against guerrilla armies on two fronts, a military junta in power, high unemployment, and serious gas and food shortages, Addis seethed - but below the surface.

The Army was out in force, and huge portraits of Marx, Lenin, and Engels adorned walls. Other poster described Uncle Sam being mercilessly beaten by enraged citizenry. The Ethiopians on the street, although not openly hostile on their regime, watched indifferently as new Russian equipment rumbled through the streets on its way to the Ogaden front.

The expedition was completely self-contained. We brought all our food with us on the boats - enough to last, we hoped, for three weeks. Tents and clothing were stored in waterproof bags. There was no way out, no turning back from the Omo until the Mui game reserve far to the south was reached.

Our expedition was made up of five rafts and six oarsmen. Sobek Expeditions uses 18-foot Avon rubber rafts that can carry four persons plus supplies with reasonable comfort. They also supplied oarsmen - all young, experienced American river runners, usually a few with previous experience on the Omo.

No one else seems to travel on the Omo, so we had it to ourselves, if you don't count its rather sizable population of hippos and crocs, which often present a problem.

Once a crocodile did attack a raft and was only driven off after being beaten over the head with an oar and a barrage of rocks. All boats carried "croc rocks" for this purpose.

The hippos are just as formidable but easier to see and avoid. In previous trips they have been known to attack and puncture rafts. But for us they only announced their annoyance at our presence with loud snorts and glared balefully at our boats gliding by. On one day alone we dodged 375 of these monsters and at the end of the trip had sighted over 1,200.

The Omo River is truly an unspoiled beauty. It tumbles and spumes its way over scores of cataracts, cutting deep gorges through the Ethiopian highlands to spill out into the savannah lowlands of the Omo Valley.Finally it comes to rest in Lake Rudolph.

At night we pitched tents along the tropical banks. The air was alive with the sounds of baboons barkins, the cries of the fish eagles, the hippos snorting in the river, and the hurried murmur of the Omo pushing her way south to the distant Omo Valley.

Daytimes we often suffered intense tropical heat to chilling rainstorms but on the whole the weather was surprisingly comfortable, usually in the middle 80 s. But insects kept our party in shirts and pants most of the time.

The river was the color of chocolate and running high and swift, swollen from the nightly thunderstorms. The frequent rapids were exciting tests of the oarsmen's skills and rivaled anything the Grand Canyon gorge had to offer.

We spotted our first Bodi on the 15th day. A tall, spear carrying warrior hailed us from the river bank, shouting, "salam, salam." The expedition had reached the land of the Bodis, considered by some anthropologists to be among the most primitive and isolated people left in Africa today.

Usually shunning clothing the Bodis adorn themselves with decorative scarring , ear and nose rings. Occasional women still wear the clay lip plates -- although this is a dying prac and the few we saw with discs hid their faces in embarrassment.

Actually there are three tribes inhabiting the Omo Valley: the Bodis, the Mersis and the Bachas. Altogether they probably number no more than 3,000 people.

The Mersis are the largest of the tribes, more sophisticated, given to occasional wearing of scanty clothing and more successful in their "cattle wars" with the other tribes. Some of the men were even armed with ancient Mauser rifles. Ammunition, however, was so scarce that only a few bullets were in evidence.

The Bodia are hunter-gatherers, usually armed with long spears, likable and friendly and, when given the chance, great orators. My wife introduced them to a tape recorder and once they heard their own voices nothing could turn them off.

The Bachas are believed to be fairly recent tribe in the Omo Valley -- possibly (although nobody knows for sure) coming from the nearby Sudan. They number no more than several hundred and appear to be poor and exploited by the other tribes. Once a Mersi tribesman referred to the Bachas as "those monkey people."

Although the Bodis rarely see foreigners they have become accustomed to the once-a- year Sobek expeditions, now in their fourth year, and they have learned that the name of the game is Trade.We traded our soap and razor blades for their native artifacts. We also posted guards at our campsites to keep them from pilfering us blind, but it was all a game and if caught treated them as a huge joke.

Once I caught a young man trying to steal my ground pad which he had wrapped around him. We both enjoyed a laugh while i retrieved it but my laugh had a hollow ring since he was armed with an eight-foot spear and my heaviest weapon was a fly swatter.

A week was spent visiting with these tribespeople who still start their fires by twirling stick method and grind their sorghum in stone pestles.

Sobek Expeditions arranged for a DC-3 charter to pick up boats, passengers, and crew at the Mui game reserve at journey's end but warned the expedition members to be flexible about their time schedules -- for good reason.

Our group waited three days for our aircraft to show. Bad weather had held it up. At this point our rations had beed reduced to a bag of granola and a goat we had purchased from one of the game guards at Mui.

Memories of the animals, the exotic birds, and the colorful tribes that made the Omo unique will remain with me forever. Here is the heart of Africa, the old Africa, unspoiled, timeless, remote, and still splendidly primordial.

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