The Great Rift Valley

One of the most striking geographical features of Africa is a giant tear across the earth's surface: the Great Rift Valley. Extending from the Middle East to Mozambique, the Rift Valley passes right through Ethiopia, endowing the country with some spectacular features that range from hot, dry, and barren places to a string of beautiful lakes.


Volcanic activity, which greatly contributed to the formation of the Rift Valley, continues up to present times. In Ethiopia, it finds expression in the presence of hot springs in many parts of the country, as well as volcanic cones in the Danakil Depression in the north-east.

Symetrical crater of Jira volcano rises out of Danakil Depression

The Danakil, or Dallol, Depression, in eastern Tigray region, is one of the earth's hottest and most inhospitable places. Parts are more than 100 metres below sea level and noon-time temperatures soar to above 50°(, After the Rift opened, much of this area was flooded by the in-rushing waters of the Red Sea, a flood that was subsequently stemmed by fresh volcanic activity that raised barriers of basaltic lava. Behind these barriers the trapped inland sea began to evaporate - a process that is almost complete. These have left huge beds of natural salt. The Danakil is the site of a dry salt lake from which Ethiopians since time immemorial have obtained their amoles, or bars of salt, used both for consumption and, long ago, as a form of currency. Mined by the Afar people, the salt is loaded on camels and taken to the highlands where it is still in demand.


Lip plates and ear lobe discs denote female beauty among the Mursi people

South of Addis Ababa, a string of delightful lakes takes travellers as far as the northern Kenya border. Linked to this chain of lakes, the Ethiopian section of the Rift Valley boasts a number of fascinating national parks: Abijatta-Shalla, Nechisar, Mago and Omo - each unique in its own way.


People and their Culture


The Rift Valley is also home to many diverse peoples and cultures: such as the Dorze, famed for their weaving of cotton cloth, and the Konso who, for centuries, have practised terracing and intensive agriculture on their steeply-sloping land. Along the Omo River, the Karo, Geleb, Burne, Mursi, Kwegu, Bodi, and others live a life that is still principally nomadic or pastoral, with some hunting and gathering, and fishing. Unaffected by the ways of the modern world, these people remain as remote and unchanged as the land in which they live. The Omo Valley is virtually free from human habitation, but is rich in palaeoanthropological remains. According to 1982 scientific research conducted by the University of California at Berkeley, hominid remains from the Omo Valley probably date back more than four million years.


Lake Chamo and AbayaThe two southernmost links in the chain - Abaya (551 square kilometres) and Chamo (1,160 square kilometres) - are also the lushest in vegetation, richest in wildlife, and to many, the most beautiful. The lakes support numerous species of fish, including Nile perch and tiger fish, and hordes of hippos and crocodiles.


The two lakes are divided by a hilly ridge with the delightful name of 'Bridge of Heaven'. Lake Abaya, the longest of all of Ethiopia's Rift Valley lakes, has reddish-brown mineral water, contrasting with the clear blue waters of its southern neighbour, Lake Chamo. Many small rivers empty into both lakes.


Lake LanganoSome 160 square kilo metres south of Addis Ababa lies Ziway, the northernmost and largest lake in the chain which extends over 434 square kilometres. Its extensive aquatic vegetation attracts a variety of water birds. Commonly seen and easily identified are the long-tailed cormorant, darter, and various herons and storks ­including the distinctive saddlebill stork Wading through the water lilies are long-toed marsh birds such as the greater jacana. The handsome African fish eagle, green pigeon, black-headed oriole, wood hoopoe and barbet are also Ziway residents. Five islands dot the surface of the lake; at least three of these were sites for medieval churches.


Sunset at Lake Awasa210 square kilometres south of Addis Ababa, the brown and copper coloured Lake Langano beckons. It is a popular resort for swimming, aquatic sports, sunbathing, camping and bird-watching. Along the shores cliff dwellers and acacia-inhabiting birds set up a noisy chatter, including fantailed ravens and hornbills - most notably Hemprich's horn bill. Helmet shrikes are also found in great numbers, along with the butcher-birds. The 4,000 metre-high Arsi mountains to the east of Langano provide a lovely stage behind which the morning sun rises.



For peace and serenity, Lake Awasa - lying just south of the town of Shashemene and with the town of Awasa on its shore - is peerless. A gentle chain of mountains and a low plateau surround the lake, opening to a wide, low bay in the south. Swampy bays interspersed with volcanic rocks, sandy shores with bare rocky hills, and every formation of terrain imaginable can be found near Awasa.

The lake teems with a great variety of fish and, as elsewhere in the Rift Valley, endless species of birds. A local fishing community, using small boats and simple nets and lures, thrives on the stock, as do many species of birds - storks and herons in particular which can be seen wading watchfully in Hot Springthe shallows.



Another feature of the park is the hot springs or Filwoha (meaning 'hot water'), situated in the extreme north of the park. These can be reached by either one of two scenic tracks, which start opposite the main gate on the far side of the road and bear right, progressing either along the floor of the beautiful lower Kudu Valley or along the top of the ridge. Ask at the gate about road conditions and take a game scout with you to avoid any problems with the local people.


The water of these springs and rivers is in the region of 36°C (97°F) and is used by the local people for watering stock. The unbelievably clear blue pools surrounded by doum palms invite the dusty traveller to wash off the dust of the day - but be warned, the water is hot.