I have been thinking that perhaps I could have done without Bahir Dar and that if time were short for someone visiting Ethiopia it would probably be the place to drop. However, sometimes there are just too many churches, pagodas, Buddha, and history in general; breaking it up with a dose of natural attractions is exactly what the doctor ordered. So when I think about it more, Bahir Dar was a nice escape and my time in the surrounding countryside was a highlight of my trip so far.
Bahir Dar is an hour’s flight from Addis and about an eight-hour drive on windy, bump roads with very little in between. It is where Lake Tana lays, the largest lake in Ethiopia and the 3rd largest in Africa. The lake is 3500 sq km, 9m deep and is the home to tilapia, catfish and whitefish as well as the Blue Nile hippo. It is made up of 37 islands, 20 with Orthodox Christian monasteries. Some are only for men and unfortunately, more often than not, these monasteries hold the most interesting religious relics.
Keep in mind that Lake Tana is not a lake you want to swim in. First, it is advised that foreigners do not swim in freshwater lakes while in many parts of Africa for fear of bacteria, malaria and disease. But also, the catfish here are 2-3’ long and then the hippos, well, I think that says it all. The fish are an important source of food for the locals and while the natives consume tilapia and whitefish they are opposed to catfish as their skin is too much like that of humans. Hmmm, I may have to rethink my consumption of catfish at home; it is one of my favourites.
From February to June the waters of Lake Tana are low and infested with Blue Nile hippos. Hippos are not swimmers and they walk the bottom of the lake feasting on plants. During these months I’m told there are so many that sometimes they leave the water and hang out on one of the small bridges between two island close to shore; now that is something I’d love to see. I was lucky the day I was there because the waters were high and we had to search the lake a bit to find one. We finally found a lone bull and I got this picture of it when it came up to take a breath.
But, the main reason you visit Lake Tana is to visit the monasteries. The main two are Ura Kidanemhret and Azwa Mary (Miriam) the second much like the first but with a thatched roof, much like the original construction method. I walked to Azwa Mary, a pleasant walk with village vendors along the way but I didn’t pay the entrance nor went inside; the paintings and what I learned at the Ura Kidanemhret was enough for me. Many visit just these two monasteries and both sexes are permitted at both.
My trip, search and observation of my hippo took us about three (3) hours. Of course, you could take longer, visiting more monasteries and in hippo season we likely would have watched them for a while. The boat launch is almost directly across from the Summerland Hotel and there are many boats for hire. With the cost of the boat being $40 it is more economical to share the boat with other people but since tourism is relatively new in Ethiopia and it is rare to be able to call an agency or a hotel and join a group doing the same activity. Best when you’re travelling with a loved one, friends or a group. Also, make sure you take a fiberglass boat, which will definitely cut down the time.
What I learned that day was that all the monasteries were established in the 14th century and many still have the original mural paintings on the wall, all depicting religious circumstances. Lake Tana’s monasteries lay the groundwork for my knowledge of the inner workings of the country’s churches. Churches are primarily round and are divided into three sections. The innermost circle in every church is called the Holy of Holy. It is kept secret, only the priest may enter and it holds religious relics, a processional cross, cloaks and crowns donated by the king but most importantly, a replica of the Arc of the Covenant. Every church has a replica and no one but the priest enters this area. The second inner circle is for chanting and the third, the area in which you first enter is for prayer; men and women divided. Communion is often prepared in the Holy of the Holy and the public, attending mass at the church nearest their village then congregate in the two outer circles to receive it.
The other monastery you may find interesting is the Tana Kirkos monastery where the Arc of the Covenant was kept for 800 years before taken to Aksum (Axum). It is on an island 30-40 km from Bahir Dar but only men may visit. And that was it I had my fill, back to the hotel to work and off to bed.
I love myself a good countryside market, village market, flea market, or meat market. Ok, drop the last one. Anyone been to the bar Two Cats in Toronto? I rest my case.
We were originally scheduled to visit Tis Isat Waterfalls on a Friday but it was taking me a lot longer than normal to acclimatize to jet lag. I have been around the “travel block” too many times to have not abided by the cardinal rule of pushing through. You’ve got to push through the day and sleep at night if arriving in the morning at your destination when it’s usually bedtime for you. A quick nap is ok but don’t throw the alarm across the room and sleep nine hours.
The torturous routine I created ended up being a great thing because we ended up travelling out of Bahir Dar, through the countryside on a Saturday – market day. It was incredible to witness the countryside exodus of farmers into town for market. Children as young as five carrying huge bustles of firewood, wheat, teft and corn, others herding sheep and cows as we carefully tried to navigate through, all the while our driver honk ing horn.
It is about an hour and a half drive from Bahir Dar to Tis Isat and it’s well worth the drive. I enjoyed observing tiny communities consisting of 4-5 huts, elderly shepherds herding livestock and escaping the sun under the shade of a huge Acacian tree, children running to the road to yell ”hello, hello,” and then running away as soon as I would raise my camera. All the while being stared at and talked about in a language I couldn’t understand; it reminds me of the Vietnamese nail salons in Toronto. I may get stared at more than most because they all say I am Ethiopian. When I say “Jamaican” they say “ah, yes, Ethiopian.” DNA test it is.
The walk to the falls was candy for the eyes, side stepping around many villagers who walked barefoot for 3-4 hours carrying 20kg bags of corn, millet and teft to market.
Sheep, cows and goats scurrying along to slaughter, almost running me over as they crossed the 17th century built Portuguese bridge, which connects two provinces, Bahir Dar and Gonjam. It has greatly improved the walk for the villagers.
The falls themselves were beautiful, swollen with muddy water from the recently ended rainy season. The ride through the countryside, my mild interaction with the villagers and the rainbow at the falls made it that more enjoyable and I thoroughly enjoyed it because it was market day. Any subsequent visit would definitely be scheduled around the same days.
In conclusion Bahir Dar is a must stop for any itinerary to Ethiopia. Please refer to the Dirty Details of Bahir Dar for more information of how, what to book and costs.
A huge shout out and thanks to Tariku of Yama Tours for your hospitality during my stay in Addis and Northern Ethiopia. Your knowledge, professionalism and the speed in which we organized things was incredible and I am so thankful that we got to work together. Anyone going to Ethiopia must contact Tariku for an unforgettable experience.
LIFE IS SHORT SO LIVE IT!