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Out of Africa (Part 2/7) - Ethiopia - Lake Langano

Updated: Mar 31, 2019

Sun setting on Lake Langano, Ethiopia
Sun setting on Lake Langano

Out of Time

There is a funny thing going on with time in Ethiopia. First of all, it doesn't seem to mean much to most people. Timetables? are you having a laugh? Buses go when they're ready to go. You wait until they are full. It might take five minutes, it might take an hour or more. You never know. In any case, Ethiopian clocks work differently, and when they say 'midnight', that could mean six in the morning. Or six at night; I could never quite work it out. I did know there was roughly six hours' difference between what they said and "European time" as they inaccurately called it - assuming, I supposed, that such a diminutive continent couldn't possibly demand more than one time zone. Second, the Ethiopian calandar is seven full years behind us. They are currently experiencing the year 2011. They have thirteen months instead of twelve; and they celebrate new year in September. All of which is mildly disorientating to the poor foreigner, who at times doesn't know whether he's coming or going. It takes a little while to get used to. I never did get used to it, and pretty much gave up in the end. This has the pleasant effect of you taking less notice of time, which is a plus in a country where travel can take pretty much all day for what looks on the map like an hour or two.

Lake Langano, southern Ethiopia
'The world's biggest cup of tea', Lake Langano

Out of Addis

Conveniently, the Ethiopian New Year came at a time when the English course I was teaching was reaching levels of dullness I hadn't yet experienced in teaching (due to woeful British Council planning, no materials or classroom equipment), so all the students drifted off to their homes - some of which were two or three days away by road - many vowing never to come back. I felt sorry for them and wished their IELTS course could have been more fulfilling. This gave me a nice long weekend with which I could explore a bit of the country outside of Addis for the first time. I was kind of interested in heading north to Lake Tana or maybe east to the walled city of Harar, but in the end decided on going south 150km to Lake Langano with a group of friends. Billed in the Lonely Planet as "the world's biggest cup of tea", owing to it's muddy brown appearance, it sits in the rift valley which runs through East Africa and includes the more famous lakes Victoria, Tanganyika and Malawi to the south. Ethiopia's rift valley lakes are less well-known but host a variety of wildlife, and in the case of Langano, even swimmable - it being the only bilharzia-free lake in this part of Africa. Bilharzia is a nasty disease caused by skin-burrowing parasite that attacks the internal organs and can cause slow death). Getting there proved a challenge; the group I was going with had cleverly arranged a mini-bus to pick them up from the campus as part of a package deal, whereas I was to hitch and bus it down there as I joined them at the last minute - never one to do things the easy way. The first two buses I got on, down through Debre Zeit to Mojo and Ziway, though crowded, were fine - and the roads good. On arriving in Ziway, a town clearly unused to tourists, I was pounced on by various locals keen to take me to Langano - greeted by cries of "where you are go" and "get in here", as they all faught over my Ethiopian Birr. None of which is very helpful, since in these circumstances as a foreigner you are often expected to pay for the whole bus as a kind of private charter. I managed to get away from these pernicious bus drivers, but was unable to shake off the attention of half the town's child population, so was followed down the street like the Pied Piper for a couple of kilometres as I tried unsuccessfully to hitch a lift. Eventually, a bus did pick me up, and I was wedged in between a few sacks of wheat and some chickens for an hour or so as the bus chugged the several kilometres to the turn off by the lake. It had taken me four hours to get 145km, and I still had a long walk.

"You looking at me?" - baboon on the way to the lake

Jungle trek

Lake Langano, being a few hundred metres below Addis, has a much warmer climate, and the temperature had already risen at midday by several degrees from what I was used to. The rainy season was petering out then in Addis, but I had endured a month of solid rain and cool temperatures with very little sunshine. It was beating down now though and it was hot by the side of the road so I stopped for a Pepsi by a shack, outside of which some kids were playing table football. "you, give me one birr" was the inevitable cry (not for the Pepsi). I smiled and shook my head, instead walking off to a maroon jeep that was bumping along the road in my direction - I needed to hitch a lift for the last twenty kilometres or so along a dirt track. The guys in the jeep were an international bunch of missionaries - teachers mainly, here on a voluntary basis unlike me. They were extremely friendly and helpful (thankfully we didn't get onto the subject of religion) and seemed very enthusiastic about their mission. I wasn't surprised if it was putting them in the lap of luxury like this. They took me to their lodge where I was offered some lunch before heading off for the last four kilometres on foot with a local boy to show me the way - he earned his tip, and was I grateful. I came to another eco-lodge called Wenney and stopped for a cold drink - I was sweating with the effort of carrying my bag in the heat. It was set in fantastic surrounds by the lake, with gelada baboons roaming around in the fig trees above our heads. The lodge itself, though beautifully appointed and with what looked like a decent restaurant and chef, was mostly empty. Perhaps that had something to do with the slightly prohibitive price of $75 a night for a single room. Apparantly, this and the Bishangari where I was staying, get popular with groups and fill up from time to time, but the rest of the time are pretty quiet.

Mud huts at the Bishingari Lodge, Lake Langano, Ethiopia
Mud huts at the Bishingari Lodge. All the mod cons.

Laid-back ambiance

Although the Bishangari Lodge was a relatively costly affair (40 dollars a night gets you a basic room) especially staying on my own as I did, it was a great experience. I checked in to my own little tukul (mudhut) - basic inside but comfortable, and equipped with a mosquito net. It was situated in a little 'village' of other identical huts - overpriced maybe but then you pay for the location; and the location was awesome. I strolled along a sandy path through a wooded copse to my mates who (having arrived comfortably a couple of hours previously) were inevitably wandering to the Tree Bar for a bottle of beer or five. The laid-back ambiance of the place was typified by a hammock hanging between two fig trees. I felt like going to sleep there and then. Instead I had a beer and wandered down to the little sandy beach a few metres away and went for a swim. The rest of the day was spent in a pleasant state of drunkenness, as several bottles of South African wine were consumed with our evening meal at the very decent restaurant along with some bottles of our own and some gin we had smuggled in. That evening, sitting on the beach with crickets chirping and looking up at a myriad of stars in the sky, It truly felt like being on the African continent for the first time since arriving. Langano is the perfect antidote to Addis if you can afford it, but it's a rich man's world and you feel somewhat removed from African reality. The sense of guilt does hit you when you're at places like this in Africa, unlike in Europe; the fact they exist here among such dire poverty makes you being here very removed from the real Africa, and I wasn't particularly comfortable with that. Not that my digs were plush - a bed in an empty room with a candle and outdoor showers didn't feel like the bargain of the century, and I was to find out that the rudimentary windows were no bar for mosquitoes at night, when I got well and truly eaten alive.

Pelicans at feeding time, Lake Langano, Ethiopia
Pelicans at feeding time

Back to nature

Nature really is in abundance at Langano, and you can see a huge variety of birdlife along the lodge's southern shoreline - including pelicans, flamingos, fan-tailed ravens and hornbills among its attractions. Watching pelicans at feeding time was a rare treat. They use the lake as a breeding ground due to the mild climate and shallow, clement waters, It's not only people who find these environs agreeable clearly. The shallow alkaline waters are surrounded by gentle grassy slopes and acacia woodland, and among the trees can be found ibex, monkeys and baboons in large numbers, as well as numerous insects and spiders whose webs you have to be careful to avoid as you walk. Most spectacular and beautiful of all though, is the fact that hippos inhabit these waters. We went on a trek to observe them - they stay away from the area where humans live - and it was quite a sight to see these huge cumbersome creatures frolicking around in the water, masters of their territory. They are not dangerous animals, but are best kept away from as they will attack if they are protecting their young. This is also a hippopotamus breeding and nesting ground. We sat and watched these magnificent creatures bobbing up and down from the water for about an hour. They were extremely playful - it's both fascinating and fun to watch such a huge mammal at play, having pretend fights and splashing water about, not a care in the world. It's a fantastic experience, and almost justifes the large price alone. Walking back through the forest, we spotted a herd of baboons swinging through the trees, and I was able to get some good close-up shots.

Hippo at Lake Langano, Ethiopia
Lake Langano is also a hippopotamous breeding ground

Quintessential Africa

The experience of Langano is the typical European in Africa one - arguably the quintessential one - where you feel on safari and removed from real life - with the pluses and minuses that go with that. It's hard to really put money into local pockets there when you're staying in a (probably foreign owned) lodge, but at least the locals get work out of it. Waiters, cooks, tour guides, bar staff - all well-paid by local standards and living off tips from tourists no doubt. Our meals there were pretty good, as was the bar, which was well-stocked with St.George's beer (as are most places in Ethiopia it seemed). In general, sadly, Ethiopian food was a disappointment, and when good food was to be found, it was mainly foreign - usually Italian. Often, a very average pizza or pasta was preferable to an injera piled high with questionable steaming piles of wat (meat in sauce). I'd heard good things about Ethiopian food before I'd arrived, but it seemed to me to be typical foodie hype, and I didn't go away with more than one or two memorable Ethiopian meals which were from obviously high-class establishments. That said, it's probably got a better reputation than most other African countries, where food is not one of the attractions. Overall though, Langano was a great experience and a memorable one. The one drawback to it all as I mentioned is the number of insects around - particularly at night - where you get bitten to death by mosquitoes and attacked by swarms of flies; not to mention walking into errant spiders' webs or worse. A slight detractor from what was a very relaxing weekend - and one which may deter the squeamish and/or those prone to mosquitoes. There are countless other activities you can do there (but at a price) such as cycling, fishing, hiking in the nearby mountains, horse riding and mountain biking. I chose mainly to lie back in a deck chair with a beer and soak up rays on the beach. I knew that the next three weeks of travel would not include much relaxation time. I was heading to the north - next stop Bahir-dar, en-route to the Simien Mountains.

Local guides, Lake Langano, Ethiopia
Spear of destiny. Locals show us around the lake


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This blog is part of a series. To see the previous/next parts, on Addis Ababa and Bahir Dar area respectively, please go here:

Part 1/7: Addis Ababa

Part 3/7: Bahir Dar, Lake Tana & The Blue Nile Falls

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