This region is one of Ethiopia's last great surviving wildernesses. This is an ideal base from which to explore the forested land between the lakes, and the plains of Nech Sar beyond where the surviving herds of Swayne's hartebeest, once in abundance, and zebra and Grant's gazelle roam the high savanna.
There's an air of untamed grandeur about all this that lingers over the lakes and mountains. alive with many species of fish - the fighting tigefish,giant Nile perch, barbel, catfish and tilapia offering fine sport - Chamo and Abaya are an angler's paradise. in the reed-fringed bays of Chamo's sparkling aquamarine waters hundreds of hippos emerge at night to graze on the grassy shores. Chamo is also sanctuary for several thousand Nile crocodile, some reaching lenghts of up to seven metres from snout to tip of tail.
Here the balance between predator and prey remain in equilibrium; birdlife flourishes in equal proportion: hordes of yellow weaver birds flit constantly through the rees, and vividly-coloured kingfishers skim the lakes where Great White pelicans, storks, ibises, hornbills and cormorants plumb the waters for food. With piercing echoing cries, black and white fish eagles swoop down from their tree perches to snatch up unwary fish in their talons.
The shores and islands of Abaya and Chamo are populated by farming peoples such as the Ganjule and the Guji, both of whom also have ancient traditions of hippo hunting. The Guji ply the waters of lake Abaya in high-prowed ambatch boats similar to those depicted on the tombs of the ancient Egyptian Pharaohs.
South-west of the lakes in the direction of Jinka, the traveller comes to the homeland of the Konso who practice an intensive form of agriculture on intricately-terraced hillsides. The Konso have a rich indigenous culture that finds expression in haunting music and dance, and in the weaving of beautiful thick cotton blankets.
Another distinctive people of the region around Lakes Chamo and Abaya are the Dorze, once warriors, who have now turned to farming and weaving. They produce the colouurful toga-like robes known as shammas which are worn throughout Ethiopia. Though there's a large Dorze population around Arba Minch itself, their traditional homeland is further to the north around Chencha, high up in the Guge mountain range overlooking the lakes and the Bridge of Heaven.
The short 26 kilometre drive from Arba Minch up to Chencha involves a remarkable transition - climbing from the lush, tropical forests of the lowland, through bamboo at around 2500 metres, into stands of juniper laced with Spanish moss where cold fingers of cloud grasp the ancient limbs of the trees and the air is chill and braching.
Dorze villages are classic examples of simple architecture, unlike anything seen elsewhere in Ethiopia - towering beehive-shaped structures reaching up to 12 metres high, the interiors dark but spacious and airy with floors of pressed earth. The vaulted ceiling walls are covered with an elegant thatch of ensete (false banana) to form a smooth and unbroken convex dome. Each home stands inits own grounds surrounded by smaller but simular houses: guest house, cow-shed, kitchen and perhaps even a workshop forweaving or other work.
Northwards from Chencha, leaving Lake Abaya behand - and with it the wilderness - the traveller eventually comes to the bustling market town of Sodo, which stands on the border between the regions of Gamo, Gofa, Sidamo and Kafa. This is one of Ethiopia's premier coffee-growing areas and quite possibly, the original home of the coffee plant - where the first trees grew wild before being cultivated and then, in the 14th century, taken to Yemen and fromthen across the world.
Arbaminch, Nech Sar Park, Lake Chamo and Abaya, Chencha, Dorze tribes
Far south in Ethiopia's Great Rift Valley lie two marvellous lakes ringed by savanna plains and smokey mountain crests. By far the largest of Ethiopia's Rift Valley Lakes, the 551-square kilometre waters of Chamo and the 1160 square kilometre surface of Abaya are considered by many to be also the most beautifull.
Indeed, few places on earth can match the allure of their setting. Much of this forms part of one of Ethiopia's finest national parks, Nech Sar, established as a sanctuary for the rare Swayne's hartebeest.
From the town of Arba Minch on the ridge of land that devides Abaya and Chamo there are commanding views of the panorama all around including both lakes with Nech Sar on the eastern side and, to the west, the Guge range of mountains. Such is the outstanding beauty of this viewpoint it has long been known as the Bridge of Heaven. Equally poetic, Arba Minch - meaning Forty Springs in Amharic - takes its name from the bubbling streams which spring up amid the undergrowth of the luxuriant forest which clothes the steep slopes beneath the town.