Ethiopia – On Board with Maxby Chan

This article appeared in June 2014, Digital SLR Photography Magazine. It is produced here with permission from the magazine. This is Maxby Chan and Photosafari’s contribution to assist photographers who travel abroad regularly to see the world. If you have any travel questions, you may email us and we will try our best to assist you.

ethiopiaGet on board

If you’re a photographer who’s always up for exciting adventures, you’re in luck — here it is, our latest segment, On Board, where we have compiled handy notes and tips for different photography destinations each month from the expert himself, PhotoSafari and PhotoMalaysia Administrator, Maxby Chan. So pack your bags and let’s explore Ethiopia’s remote lowlands in the sultry southwest that houses some of Africa’s most fascinating tribes, or let’s take a walk at the Bale Mountains National Park and interact with animals and birds seen nowhere else on earth — we have everything laid out here before your flight takes off! This month, Maxby takes us on a journey to the wild and wondrous Ethiopia, which is located in east-central Africa, bordered on the west by the Sudan, the east by Somalia and Djibouti, the south by Kenya, and the northeast by Eritrea — gosh, what a mouthful! It may hardly appear on news headlines and we don’t hear about them very often, but according to our special travel guide, this African country is rich in history. “There are so many things about Ethiopia that we don’t know! At first, it comes across as a simple rural country, but we don’t realise that its history of Ethiopia has gone gone as far back as the time of the Crusades!” said Maxby. As he went on, little did we know that this was also the country where the oldest evidence for modern humans has actually been found, making the African region widely considered as a starting point before Homo sapiens moved to other parts of the globe!

One of the many Mursi people who stays at the OMO Valley. They are a nomad tribe and raise cattle.

One of the many Mursi people who stays at the OMO Valley. They are a nomad tribe and raise cattle.


Woman from the Hamer Tribe with their pleated hair.

Woman from the Hamer Tribe with their pleated hair.

Way of life

Ethiopia’s population is highly diverse and there are more than 80 ethnic groups within Ethiopia itself; surely that’s more than enough for any anthropologist or sociologist to document any research! To name a few, Maxby had the opportunity of visiting the Hamer, Mursi and Karo tribes. The Mursi tribe resides at the Omo Valley and you will have no trouble identifying them as the women ‘wear’ large pottery, wooden discs, or plates in their lower lip! “The story has it that, during the era of slave trading, the women folk would make holes in their lips to make themselves unattractive to the slave traders and they carry this practice till today. In order to wear the lip plates, they extract two teeth in their lower jaw,” Maxby said. Not too far from the Mursis are the Hamer people who live among the bush-covered hills on the eastern side of the valley. One of their traditions for a Hamer man coming of age is to leap over a line of cattle at the rite of passage ceremony as it qualifies him to marry, own cattle and have children. Another ceremony formality is to also have the man’s female relatives gather round the Maza – men who have successfully completed the ceremony – and beg to be whipped on their backs. It is said that this ritual of whipping is to create a strong debt between the young man and his sisters as the scars serve as a mark of how much the sisters suffered for their brother. “You don’t explore Ethiopia for a relaxing getaway; you venture here to be moved and it is the heaven for bird watchers and photographers. You also get to experience fascinating cultures of their tribes in rural areas —  it will be a journey you’ll never forget,” Maxby said.

The Benna Tribal Chief's hairdressing is made from a mixture of clay and grounded hematite. Feathers are usually placed into the small 'ornaments' on their head during celebrations.

The Benna Tribal Chief’s hairdressing is made from a mixture of clay and grounded hematite. Feathers are usually placed into the small ‘ornaments’ on their head during celebrations.


People dancing at the rite of passage ceremony

People dancing at the rite of passage ceremony

Not to be missed

As we ease our way more into this exotic land, Maxby mentioned that one of the extraordinary places one would have to visit when in Ethiopia is Lalibela’s rock-hewn churches, especially Church of Saint George. “All eleven of these rock-hewn churches are actually built below ground level… I know it’s hard to believe but you have to see this one with your own eyes — the carvings of the building, both in and out, are exceptionally refine,” Maxby recalled. Visiting the church, however, would be best done with a local guide as they might be able to show you a few good ‘photo-worthy’ viewpoints. Local licensed guides can be arranged at the ticket office or be hired at the nearby town Lalibela. On the other hand, photographers who are wanting to shoot wildlife pictures are in for a treat because Ethiopia is the residence to a few animal species that are not found anywhere else on the planet! “One of the best spots to snap photos of animals and birds would be the Bale Mountain National Park, which is located 400 km southeast of the Addis Ababa city,” Maxby explained. “This park is not only known for its wildlife; its beauty takes your breath away. So it is a hundred percent guarantee that landscape photographers will be snapping away here, whether its them journeying up the hills on foot or via roads, or crossing over the deep gorges, alpine lakes, rushing streams, crashing through waterfalls… The scenic views just go on forever!”

A Mursi woman with a small lip plate who will soon  progress onto inserting a six-inch plate into her lip

A Mursi woman with a small lip plate who will soon progress onto inserting a six-inch plate into her lip

Here’s another one of Maxby’s favourites — Lake Awassa, an endorheic basin which is 16 km long and 9 km wide with a surface area of 129 square kilometers! And apparently, this place is a heaven for bird and landscape photographers, “Birders, if you’re fortunate enough, you might be able to catch a glimpse of the pink-backed pelican, great white egret, or even the woodland kingfisher,” Maxby advises. Okay, if we haven’t impressed you so far, this is the best part. For those craving a raw and extreme adventure, Maxby highly recommends a journey through the hottest place on earth (in terms of year round average temperatures), a place called the Danakil Depression. Apart from being located in the Afar region near the Eritrean and Djibouti borders, this place is just so surreal that it doesn’t look like part of planet Earth at all. “Bubbling volcanoes light up the night sky and sulphurous mounds of yellow contort into otherworldly shapes! And since its temperature frequently stays at 50°C, visiting this region is more than an expedition rather than a tour; in fact everyone should heed signs of heat exhaustion!” Maxby warns.

Scars on the back of Hamer women are a common sight

Scars on the back of Hamer women are a common sight


  • DO rent a 4×4. Unless you want to walk through the dessert for days, your best bet is to travel with a steady, reliable vehicle.
  • DO hire a driver/ translator/ guide for a safe journey.
  • DO charge you camera batteries whenever you have the chance.
  • DO get your yellow fever vaccination before departure.
  • DO keep a stack of birr notes (Ethiopian currency) to give away to some of your photo subjects as they expect it
  • DON’T travel alone. Travelling in groups is the best way, and as they say, “the more the merrier!”
  • DON’T travel to dangerous areas such as Gambella in Western Ethiopia as well as the areas nearing the Somalian border.
  • DON’T forget to apply for a visa at the local Consulate General Office of Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia, 2-5-13, 5th Floor, Menara KLH (Business Centre), No. 2 Jalan Kasipillay, off Jalan Ipoh, 51200 Kuala Lumpur.
  • DON’T get involved in unnecessary discussions or arguments with the locals as it could possibly start a fight or breed quarrels.
  • DON’T accept offers from strangers on the streets as these may result in overcharges and/or may cause other unpleasant encounters
The Church of Saint George view from the bottom.

The Church of Saint George view from the bottom.

Next destination Mount Bromo and Ijen volcano complex, Indonesia Next month, we’ll be much closer to home as we’d be hearing from Maxby on East Java, Indonesia. Despite it still being an active volcano, many photographers find it hard to resist coming to this place as it is something else — it has a supernatural beauty factor in its scenery and the dramatic highland lights really are what dreams are made of! Imagine experiencing Mount Bromo at sunrise with the great crater at its ethereal best and most impressive colours… Then a few hours away, you will find the Ijen volcano complex, a lake that is the site of a labor-intensive sulphur mining operation. Discover a whole new world with us in next month’s issue!


Leave Comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *