There are serious changes in the south-western part of Ethiopia, which hosts some of Africa's most fascinating and colorful ethnic groups. Things are changing very fast and not everything is for the better for the people there, like for example the Suri people around Kibish, Tulgit and Koka. The Ethiopian Agriculture and Rural Development State Minister Aberra Deressa once claimed: " ... at the end of the day we [do] not really appreciate pastoralists remaining in the forest like this ... pastoralism is not sustainable ... we must bring commercial farming, mechanized agriculture, to create job opportunities to change the environment." In 2011 the Ethiopian government started a 5 years development plan for the region around the Omo River. It covers among others state-run sugar plantations and factories in South Omo, the Gibe III dam, a resettlement program and the Malaysian plantation in Koka.
In October 2012 I visited the Koka plantation which is operated by the Malaysian company Lim Siow Jin Estate. The plantation was founded almost 2 years ago. Right now around 140 people are working on the farm, among them also a few Suri people. The manager of the plantation explained me the master plan of the 55-year leasing contract between the Malaysian owner and the Ethiopian government, which is quite impressive. The plantation has a size of about 31.000 ha, which is half the size of Singapore. The plantation grows palm oil, sesame and rubber trees. For 2013 an airport is planned, and in the near future a number of factories. The plantation is far away from the harbor (Djibouti), so transportation will be a problem. Since the target of the plantation is the world market, the plantation is planning to process the raw material in new factories directly on the farm, and the transport will be managed by airplane. At the end of the leasing time over 40.000 people should work on the plantation and in the nearby factories.
Many travelers like Myanmar because of the wonderful and amazing people. And I think they are absolutely right. Especially in areas away from the popular tourist destinations. And it is still very simple to explore the authentic way of life in Myanmar. Visit a big market in the outskirts of Yangon for example, or stay a couple of nights in Sagaing, take enough time to visit the monasteries there and get in touch with the monks and the Buddhism way of life. In a monastery in Sagaing I asked the monks if they receive a lot of visitors, they answered that I am the second tourist since a couple of years!
Here a few practical tips if you like to visit Myanmar any time soon. The travel guides like for example the Lonely Planet from 2011 are already partly outdated. Things are changing too quickly in Myanmar right now.
Changing money: Don't listen to the travel guides like Lonely Planet! You get by far the best rates at the airport. You should change money directly when you arrive in Yangon. Or you go to Bogyoke Aung San Market, leave all the black market moneychangers behind and go to a small bank at the far end of the market to change money with a very good rate. They also accept smaller banknotes for the same rate, which the black market moneychangers don't do.
I just returned from a one month magnificent trip to the Suri tribe in the South Western part of Ethiopia. To reach Kibish it is still a 3 days drive from Addis over Jimma, Bonga and Mizan. There are two roads from Mizan to Kibish: the old road via Bebeka Coffee Plantation and Dima, or the new Waji-Maji road via Tum and Koka. From time to time the roads are blocked because of rain, so you should better ask in advance which road is open. Drivers usually prefer the new road, although the new road is a detour and the old road is well maintained and the scenery is by far more beautiful. But there are security issues between Dizi and Suri people around Dima and sometimes government cars are attacked, but for tourists it should be safe. Beginning of October only the old road was passable so we had no choice.
The countryside in October after the raining season is lush and green, and more diversified than the more commonly travelled South Omo. In four weeks I only met a handful of tourists. The area around Kibish, Tulgit and Koka is still quite untouched, and there are plenty of opportunities to see and experience the traditional life of the Suri tribe.
The Suri people love to sing and dance. First day on the trip we had car trouble, the leaf spring was broken, so we spent the afternoon in Tulgit where a Suri mechanic repaired the spring. Luckily there was a big dance in Tulgit this afternoon. But suddenly a fight between young men started during the dance, and from one moment to another I was in the middle of a pretty violent stick fight. The stick fights are called Donga, and the government banned the Donga for Suri people. But a Donga is still a very important tradition for young Suri men, so the Suri keep on fighting secretly. October is Donga season, so almost every day there is a Donga somewhere around Kibish, Tulgit or Koka. And obviously the young men on the dance still had to settle an outstanding score of the last Donga. Lucky for me to get at least an impression of a real stick fight, since I'm not allowed to join and watch a Donga as a tourist.
The coastal desert "Namib" in Southern Africa is often referred to as the world's oldest desert and it stretches for more than 2,000 kilometers along the Atlantic coasts of Angola, Namibia and South Africa. In the heart of the Namib the Namib-Naukluft National Park is located, the largest game park in Africa and the fourth largest park in the world. The most famous and scenic attractions of the park are the red sand dunes at Sossusvlei, which are the tallest sand dunes in the world with an altitude up to 300 meters. "Sossus" is from Bushman and Nama origin for "gathering place of water", while "Vlei" is the Afrikaans word for a shallow depression filled with water. Basically "Sossusvlei" is only the name of the huge clay pan covered in a crust of salt-rich sand. But the name is also commonly used in an extended meaning to refer to the surrounding area of the high red dunes and the famous neighboring Dead Vlei. The clay pan itself is only filled with water after a heavy rainfall, which is a rare event in this area, in average every ten years.
The best time to visit Sossusvlei and the sand dunes is early in the morning at sunrise, the red color of the sand is very strong and bright, allowing wonderful photographic opportunities. The sand dunes of Sossusvlei are about 66km past the gate, which is located in the small settlement Sesriem, a main access point to the Namib-Naukluft National Park. The gate to Sossusvlei opens at 5:00 in the morning. Since there are no accommodation facilities directly at the dunes, you have to stay in one of the lodges or camps around Sesriem. From the gate the drive to the sand dunes takes about an hour. You are certainly not the only visitor, so be sure to expect other cars or trucks waiting at the gate, especially in the high season around July to October. 45 km past the gate the Dune 45 is situated, also known as one of the most photographed dunes in the world. The dune is 80 meters high and it is not very steep, so that it can easily be climbed. If you start at 5:00 at the gate, you have all the time to reach the dune and climb up the dune before sunrise.