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Published: January 16th 2011
Arriving in Bahir Dar, after a perhaps too eventful minibus ride from Gonder (complete with a little fender-bender), I felt like I had arrived in a tropical paradise. Although still the Ethiopian highlands, Bahir Dar is a bit lower (less than 2000m!) and there is a greater lushness to this lakeside town. There were even palm trees to complete the picture. So different from the brown landscapes of the dry season in the other parts of Ethiopia that I had visited!
Bahir Dar is on the southern shore of Lake Tana, the largest lake in Ethiopia and generally considered to be the source of the Blue Nile (though there are those who would argue that there are springs that pour into the lake – so it is not really THE source). I took a certain smug pleasure in standing on the lake’s shore, knowing that I live at the end of the Blue Nile, where it merges with the White. A sort of alpha and omega kind of moment.
The mouth of the Blue Nile makes a lazy exit from the lake; indeed, it’s almost impossible to tell whether it is coming or going. But in the sluggish
brown waters of the departing river, I saw hippos – my first wild hippopotami! It was if these enormous creatures were there to say “bon voyage!” to the waters spilling from the lake.
A little less than 40km outside of town, the slowly meandering river takes a plunge at the Blue Nile Falls. While perhaps not Victoria Falls, this particular waterfall once was pretty mighty. A hint of its former glory comes in its local name, Tis Isat, or the Water that Smokes. Unfortunately, most of its smoke and thunder now has been stolen by the major hydroelectric project a bit further upstream. It was sort of heart wrenching to see how dry most of the original lip of the waterfall is now. Still, the falls mark the point where the Blue Nile really picks up speed, hurdling from the Ethiopian highlands down to the desert plains of Sudan. I now understood why the Blue Nile runs so fast and furious in Khartoum during August – when Ethiopia is experiencing its rainy season. Not surprisingly, there were no hippos here... "Hippo overboard!"
Lake Tana, besides being the mother of the Blue Nile, also is home to a
large concentration of monasteries and churches, some tucked into the forests along the shore, others secluded on little islands scattered across the lake. I joined an Australian family, the parents and three kids, for a tour of a few of these monasteries, puttering out in our guesthouse’s boat.
By far the most visually impressive was the church of Ura Kidane Meret, set on the Zege Peninsula. While rather plain on the outside, its interior maqdas is covered with such vibrant icons that it comes a close second (in my humble opinion) to the gorgeous Debre Berhan Selassie back in Gonder. Ura Kidane Meret’s colorful interior even features as the cover photograph of the Bradt Guide to Ethiopia.
At the end of a day of monastery-hopping and hippo-spotting, I opted to relax in the garden of the Ghion Hotel. I listened to the birds and monkeys chattering above and watched Lake Tana’s waves lap at the shore.
I needed to soak up a little tropical paradise before heading back into the dry hills and into the madness that is Ethiopian Christmas in Lalibela.
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