04.07.2012 - 08.07.2012 20 °C
From the mountainous setting of Lalibela, our next stop was the lakeside town of Bahir Dar, which sits at the source of the Blue Nile on Lake Tana. We flew to Gonder and then hopped on a local minibus along with a healthy number of other travellers for the three hour ride to Bahir Dar. The scenery was lush green, fertile farming land and the road was surprisingly good. We made it to Bahir Dar by late afternoon and checked into our hotel right by the lake. With hindsight, staying beside a lake during rainy season is perhaps not the best decision we have made: a layer of green slime seemed to cover everything at the hotel and our room had a constant dampness to it.
Bahir Dar has become a pretty sizeable town in recent years and is now the regional capital. The big tourist draw here is the lake and the island monasteries that are dotted around it, as well as the Blue Nile Falls. We took a boat tour from our hotel on our first morning to check them out. We landed on the Zege Peninsula and visited first Bet Maryam and then Ura Kidane Mihret. The latter was founded as a Monastry in the 14th century and the circular church we visited was built in the 16th century, with its impressive and bizarre murals dating from 100 to 250 years ago. It is worth noting that only few of the monasteries are open to women. Our Bradt guide book quotes a brochure from the Daga Istafanos trying to explain this:
"The reason why women and all domestic animals are not allowed in is the thinking that creatures of the opposite sex could be bad examples for the monks, especially those young at age. These young virgin hermits should subdue their body to the service of their God, and the devil should not attack them with the spear of adultery, like the Apostle Saint Paul said:"Younger widows may not be placed on the roll."
In fairness, some Scottish golf clubs have similar thinking...
Inside Ura Kidane Mihret
Look closely at these murals, and they depict some truly disturbing things
We dodged around the touts and stall owners that lined the route to each of the churches and enjoyed an Ethiopian coffee break before getting back into the boat.
Coffee drinking has a ritual in Ethiopia including an ornate pot heated over hot coals, the waft of incense, and finally the pouring of the thick, rich coffee into a small bowl. It's heady stuff!
The guys running our boat tour - yes, there were more of them than there were tourists on the trip - seemed in no rush and enjoyed taking us on the longest possible trip back to the mainland. They were keen to show us the local wildlife, and kindly drove the boat straight through a large flock of pelicans so we could get some action shots.
The guys on our boat
These pelicans look comfortable relaxing on the water...
... Let's drive a boat through the middle of them and get them flying for the tourists
The final treat of the boat tour was to see the source of the Blue Nile - a river leading off from the side of Lake Tana - and to admire the hippos that loiter there.
Hippos at the source of the Blue Nile
That evening we had dinner with some South African sisters, Caroline and Andrea, who had been on our boat tour. We seemed to find Bahir Dar's party spot; a place by the lake playing loud East African pop music where stacks of multi-coloured plastic chairs were outnumbered by empty beer bottles sitting amidst large groups of animated local people.
Having dinner at Bahir Dar's party spot
Next day we hit the Blue Nile Falls in the afternoon. We made the school boy error of taking a tuk-tuk to get there as the local buses had stopped running by the time we wanted to go. How bad can a 30 km trip in a tuk-tuk be? Well, on a road that it transpired was no more than a muddy track strewn with rocks, pretty awful. It took us well over an hour of bumping along the dirt road to get to the falls. By the time we got there, it felt like our spines had been turned to pulp. And we had another 30km to do on the way back!
One of the best things about coming to the Falls was simply getting out into proper countryside. Out here, people dress differently and live close to their crops or animals. You see them watching herds of cattle, walking them along the road to fresh pastures, or working in the fields - often using antiquated ploughing equipment dragged by cattle they direct with a whip. Our driver even looked out of place here in his jeans and denim waistcoat, with his big city swagger. When he stopped to ask directions here and there it seemed like people did not understand quite what he was saying, or else were just slightly awestruck by the novelty of a tuk tuk from Bahir Dar carrying two white people being all the way out in their neck of the woods.
The village in which the Falls is situated consisted of mud and wood huts, one main street and a maze of muddy alleyways. When we stopped, crowds of kids surrounded the tuk tuk immediately and even older villagers stood around staring at the new arrivals. Clearly, even though the Falls is a major tourist site it does not get too many visitors. We quickly paid for entry, picked up a guide and set off. When we left our driver, he asked us for a 50 birr (EUR 2.50) advance on what we owed him so he could get some food: even this guy, who is doing relatively well, seemed to be living hand-to-mouth.
We enjoyed the hike to the falls as a way of getting rid of the tuk tuk-induced aches. Our guide led us on an hour long loop to the falls, over a suspension bridge and back via a local boat to cross the river above the falls. On the way we passed countless local people selling the usual Ethiopian shawls, crosses and semi-precious stones. There were even women who had hauled a crate of soft drinks a couple of kilometres from town to the spot overlooking the Falls and were brewing coffee there for passers by. Since we were the only passers by, we made sure to buy something from them. The lengths to which people go to make a little bit of money here is incredible, but understandable.
The Blue Nile Falls is the second biggest waterfall in Africa and it was very impressive even if a lot of the water that used to flow over it has now been diverted to a hydroelectric power plant. We were shocked to learn that an American guy staying in our hotel had decided to commit suicide here earlier on the day we visited by jumping from the suspension bridge: all the local people were chattering about it and the police were on the scene.
Blue Nile Falls
Scenery around the Falls area
Suspension bridge to get across the gorge - the scene of a suicide earlier that day
To get back to the tuk tuk we had to take a lift in a boat across the river above the Falls. As we waited for the motorised tourist boat, a rowing boat full of local farmers docked on the bank next to us. The farmers with their long cloaks, shorts, bare feet and walking staffs enjoyed some friendly banter with our tour guide and the novelty of seeing white faces in their neighbourhood. One of them had an AK47 casually slung over his shoulder - apparently to protect his animals, so our guide said. But he also said that the local tradition is "very bad", which seemed to suggest problems related to guns. One thing is sure: an AK47 is a significant investment for a farmer here to protect his flock. Our guide quoted 30,000 Bir - or EUR 1,500 - to buy one.
A local boat ferrying local farmers, one of whom was casually carrying an AK47 assault rifle
Grant and a local farmer in the typical dress of this region
Our ride back to the car park, bracing ourselves for the bumpy ride home
Darkness fell as we were driving back to Bahir Dar, obscuring the bumps in the road and adding even more excitement to the tortuous tuk tuk ride.
Next day we took a minibus to Gonder. It was supposed to pick us up at 7 but we weren't too concerned when 15, 20 and then 30 minutes went by, thinking that the driver probably was collecting other passengers. When it finally picked us up from our hotel at half seven, we saw that it was empty and quickly realised what awaited us. We spent the next two hours circling the local market while the conductor gathered customers and loaded them in. When we finally left we were full to capacity with assorted locals. The road was quiet and the driving quick. We only stopped a couple of times in nameless towns where kids selling chewing gum, bottled water and charred corn on the cob crowded around the windows to try to get a sale.
We made it to Gonder for a late brunch and then took a guide to show us the sights. It has to be said, although Gonder is quite a nice looking town and an ancient capital of Ethiopia, its sights were not great. We took in the Royal Enclosure first, a collection of ruined palaces built in the seventeenth century by several generations of Ethiopian kings who seemed to have a nasty habit of poisoning each other. It reminded us a lot of ruined Scottish castles.
The Royal Enclosure of ruined palaces in Gonder
Next stop was King Fasilidas' Pool, a 30m x 50m outdoor pool built 400 years ago. It sounded like a great place for a dip but unfortunately these days it is only ever filled for a religious festival in January and the rest of the time it sits empty. Which is a shame, because we could do with the exercise.
King Fasilidas' Pool - it would be great to swim in here if there was any water...
Our last Gonder sight was the Debre Birhan Selassie Church, which is renowned for its wall and ceiling paintings.
Debre Birhan Selassie Church
The rules - women had better enter only through the special side door
Inside and around the church
The church was nice and kept us busy for fifteen minutes before we retreated for a beer to the nicest hotel in town, overlooking Gonder. We met a couple of friendly Belgian guys (Flemish) who every year organise a mountain biking trip for around 20 people, to somewhere exotic - in November it is time for Ethiopia. Every year they make sure that the tour and accommodation suggested by the local operator is ok and so far Ethiopia seemed to be getting thumbs up.
View of Gonder from the Goha Hotel
The highlight of the day was dinner, where we tracked down the Four Sisters restaurant and enjoyed brilliant injera and local music from a musician playing a kind of single stringed violin and singing. A couple of locals would shout out lines for him to incorporate into his songs and then clap along as he made a song with them. Soon the Four Sisters themselves were up dancing with the music, along with the musician and one of the punters who had been shouting out lines. Before she knew what was going on, Helena had been dragged up on to the floor as well and was being taught the Ethiopian "shoulder twitch" dance. The local honey wine helped. Grant stayed put simply because someone had to take photos of the event.
Tasty Ethiopian food and honey wine (Tej) at Four Sisters
Helena joining in the dancing
We packed a lot into our afternoon and evening in Gonder, and the next day we would fly north to Axum.