Out of Africa (Part 3/7) - Ethiopia - Bahir Dar, Lake Tana & The Blue Nile Falls

Updated: Mar 31, 2019


The Blue Nile Falls - quite a sight in rainy season

Hitting the road

Leaving Addis Ababa after four and a half weeks of rain, power cuts, students going on strike, teachers constantly complaining and sniping, inane Ethiopian TV, cheap nights out in the local bar with bad live music, and the worst catering company you could ever imagine was a relief, to say the least. It's fair to say our British Council IELTS course hadn't been a raging success, but no one (in authority) seemed to mind, and we were invited back to do it all again next year. Par for the course in the world of TEFL. So it was that I packed my trusty rucksack, purloined some money from the Dashen Bank near Piazza in Addis (not an easy task), and hopped on a bus heading out of Addis, to the north. Now that process would, in any other country, take a couple of hours, but in Addis Ababa it took all morning, and by the time I'd had lunch it was already after one. Not a problem in most other countries, but in Ethiopia if you don't set off on a long journey at the crack of dawn (or earlier), you usually don't arrive at the destination you have in mind. Thus, after a few hours of chugging north through some pleasant enough countryside in the sunshine on an inevitably crowded bus, I ended up in a rather nondescript little town called Fiche. "Fine", I thought, it's only 4pm, I'll be able to hop on a bus or truck and I'll get to Bahir-Dar (350km north) about 10pm. After shrugging off the usual gang of interested children, by standing next to the police station, I stood and waited for about half an hour, to no avail. A guy came up to me and said in passable English that he could help me; that I was standing in the wrong place for a bus, and I needed to go 2km west to the bus station where there would definitely be a bus to Bahir-Dar.

Countryside between Addis and Bahir Dar - lush after the rainy season

A very Fichey evening

We hopped on a rickshaw, arrived at the station, only to be assured that there definitely would not be a bus today - 5am the next day was the next available one. Taking a horse and trap back to town, he explained to me that he was a law student living there doing work experience during the summer holidays. "Unlikely", I thought, and asked him where he was doing work experience. He pointed vaguely to the right of the road "There", he said, gesturing at a tyre factory. "What are you specializing in?" I asked, to which he shrugged and replied "Law." I began to get suspicious of him at this stage, but still gave him the benefit of the doubt. Going back to my previous roadside spot, I reverted to attempting to thumb a lift, but continued to be unsuccessful. Tilahun, as my new companion told me his name was, said that no cars travel after dark because of a fear of banditry. He became quite persistent that there would be no traffic going north; that I should go with him to a hotel. I wasn't keen on this and tried to persuade him I was alright, that I'd be fine and would get a lift that night. As night fell, so did my spirits and hopes of getting anywhere - which was frustrating because I wanted to meet up with some friends, and this would make the timing of it difficult. I trudged to the hotel with him. The hotel was as bad as I expected - a dingy room with nothing but a sagging bed and peeling wallpaper and a bathroom that I don't like to think about. I put my rucksack down and lay on the bed, virtually sinking to the floor, for about ten minutes when there came a knock on the door. It was Tilahun. "you like a drink?" he asked, gesturing at the bar across the way from my room. I looked around my room, and though I knew I'd be standing drinks for my new friend all night, anything was better than sitting there. On arriving, there was a TV on in the corner with BBC World, surprisingly. I sat back to enjoy my evening's viewing and bought the beers in. However, within five minutes, the lights went off along with the electricity in general. The place filled up quite a bit though I couldn't really see anyone's face, which was a bit surreal - no candles seemed to be produced. Power came back after a while, but lights didn't; loud music replaced the TV, and the room seemed to be populated by tables of men gawping at women standing around the edges of the room. As the night progressed, various women came and sat at our table, mainly beckoned over by Tilahun; none of them spoke English, but all tried speaking to me using Tilahun as a translator. I sank several more St. George's, and the women began looking more attractive but I had to get away from the noise and heat of the bar, so bade Tilahun good evening and retired to bed. He didn't take this well, as I expected he wouldn't, and he tried his hardest to persuade me to stay. He was after a cut of what the women would make out of me, clearly. Luckily, I escaped and when my head hit the pillow I was out like a light. Unluckily, I was awoken about an hour later by a lady of the night knocking on my door quite loudly. Though I sent her away, this recurred three more times. each time, they became more persistent and harder to turn away. I did make it back to sleep, but was woken again about 3am, this time by myself; I was scratching myself on my thighs and ankles: bedbugs. I was being bitten to death. I produced a can of anti-insect spray from my bag, which partially solved the problem, but I was itching all night and slept fitfully. In any case, I was awoken rudely again at 5.30am by the hotel owner banging loudly on my door: the bus to Bahir Dar had arrived from Addis. The mini-bus had indeed arrived and I stepped blearily out into the light to get on it. I wasn't making a mental note to return to Fiche.

Lake Tana at sunset

Bahir Dar

The journey up to Bahir Dar was only 350km but it took about ten grueling hours, due to appalling roads, constant stopping and endless waiting - a true travel nightmare - and one which I was to repeat countless times before the end of the trip. By the end of the day I was absolutely exhausted, and was in no doubt why all Ethiopian journeys begin at the crack of dawn. It was mostly non-descript too unfortunately, but there was one major highlight, and that was going through the spectacular blue Nile Gorge - a massive 1000 metre descent followed by a climb of the same height out of the ravine. It was during a lunch break in a town called Debre Markos that I met my travelling companion for the rest of the holiday, a young guy going by the name of Harry. a bearded, public school type, he seemed to fancy himself as a bit of an adventurer, and was full of stories about visiting Somaliland and ambitions to visit the Congo. He seemed friendly enough, and he had a couple of mates with him, one an Israeli callled Ishi and another an Aussie called James. It was good to have someone to travel with, I thought - even only going by my first night's experiences alone - so on arriving at our destination we all wandered in the same direction, to the spectacularly located Gihon Hotel. Bahir Dar is located by the shores of Lake Tana, by far Ethiopia's largest lake. It's not swimmable, but it has got one major attraction, and that's the ancient monasteries on its islands. Unable to face any sightseeing, for the rest of the day we chilled out in the leafy grounds of the hotel and the laid-back streets of the town near our hotel. Totally different in character to Addis - the streets lined with palms and little rickshaws buzzing around everywhere - it had a pleasant ambiance and was very relaxing. Unfortunately, it was plagued with mosquitoes, being next to the lake. I was bitten to death that night, but by bedbugs, not mosquitoes, since the room came supplied with a net. Pity there is no protection from bed-bound insects. Fortunately, I was pleasantly drunk after several bottles of Dashen beer and a bottle of truly terrible Ethiopian red wine, so didn't notice till I awoke.

The Blue Nile Falls - one of Ethiopia's top tourist attractions

Falling for Ethiopia

The next day was mainly taken up with a visit to the Blue Nile Falls. It was a bumpy one hour bus ride to get to the point where you walk to the Falls. The walk was pleasant, but arriving at the Falls was truly an experience - the sheer volume of water cascading over the 40m drop from the 400m wide river was impossible not to admire. The Falls, it seems, have well, fallen, from being the tourist magnet they once were: for most of the year these days, there is only a trickle of water coming out since the river has been taken over by a hydro-electric project. Luckily, we caught it post-rainy season when the volume of water was so huge that the project didn't seem to have much effect. Seeing the mists rise off the bottom of the falls and rainbows form above it, I was pretty happy to catch it at that point in time. It was certainly the most impressive and voluminous waterfall I had seen, and the thundering noise of it could be heard from a great distance. The amount of spray being thrown off by the water crashing down meant that getting any sort of photo from a close vantage point was tricky, and you have to protect your camera from getting too wet.

Village on an island in Lake Tana

Lake Tana

The main point in coming to Bahir Dar, obviously, is to see the lake. After a quick look around the city on a death trap of a bicycle, I cycled along the lake shores the following day. Despite a pedal that had come off altogether after a couple of kilometres, I was battling bravely against the traffic. It had looked unpredictable from the inside of a bus; now I had full confirmation, if it were needed, that Ethiopian driving, and road sense in general, is terrible. Cars pull out in front of you, regardless of whether it's your right of way; donkeys and herds of goats wander around randomly and unpredictably; and to make it worse, people jump out at you all the time shouting "faranjee!"; there is no rhyme or reason to Ethiopian roads. I read that there is a belief in the countryside that if you dart in front of a moving car, and survive, it is good luck. This just adds to the chaos on the roads, and I could only handle it for a couple of hours before I gave up on my bike and strolled down to the lake shore for a more sedate boat trip. The lake is huge, but dotted around it are little islands with centuries-old monasteries on - and little communities of people living there. Many of them date from the 16th or 17th centuries, though most were founded even earlier and may even have been the site of pre-Christian shrines. Stepping into one of these monasteries is a little like stepping back in time; you must first take off your shoes and hand over an amount of Birr to a cross-wielding priest, who will then unbar the way for you to walk around lovely little atmospheric decorated monasteries, which usually feature intricate paintings of biblical scenes; some of them even contain mummified remains of Ethiopian emperors. It's even said that the ark of the covenant was hidden in one of these small island monasteries for 800 years.

A cross-wielding priest, Lake Tana

However, the best thing about these little islands, if you can get away from the persistent children trying to sell stuff, is their peace and solitude; wandering through lemon trees or coffee groves, the aromas are pleasant as well. All in all, quite a nice experience, and one that is unique in Ethiopia. Travelling on water in this land-locked country is also quite rare, so very worth doing and not at a high price. Getting back to the hustle and bustle of Bahir Dar later that day was a bit of a disappointment really, and made me realize what an average sort of place it really was. More of a stopover point to places of greater interest in the north than a worthy destination in itself, it nevertheless offered a few half-decent restaurants, guest-houses and cafes to make it worth a couple of nights - or as long as you can stand the mosquitoes. Without the twin attractions of Lake Tana and the Blue Nile Falls though, it would be pretty forgettable. Next stop was the historic city of Gondar, gateway to the Simien Mountains, looming on the horizon to the north - which I was determined to explore and would prove somewhat more pricey and challenging.

Spray from the Blue Nile waterfall causing rainbow effect




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This blog is part of a series. To see the previous/next parts, go here:

Part 2/7: Lake Langano

Part 4/7: The Simien Mountains