First stop on my tiki-tour of the north was Bahir Dar. A 11 hour bus ride meant an early start to avoid driving in the night. Trying to navigate the complexities of an early morning taxi with limited english was a bit tricky. Ethiopia has a clock which starts at 6am. So a 4:45am pick up, meant a 10:45pm pick up arrangement. On top of that, the date in Ethiopia calendar is based on the coptic calendar with a difference of 8 years, and the new year begins on the 11 of September. It did result in some puzzlement when at the national museum, I wondered why no one else had been there in the last 8 years…
Anyway, after a early start, I was on my way north. The road to Bahir Dar has benefited from some of the major developement that the country has been going through. With it, a pretty decent road took us up north. Waking from my time killing snooze, I was presented with pretty impressive views across the Blue NIle Gorge. We slowly wound our way down and then back up, crossing what was previous a big geographical barrier seperating northern and southern Ethiopia.
Bahir Dar, is nestled on the southern shores of Lake Tana, the source of the Blue NIle. Famous for it’s island monastries built in the 16th century, it is now one of the main stops on the tourist trail north. Having already sorted my $12 hotel, I avoided the barrage of tuk tuk drivers accosting you are the bus stop. One of the issues that I have found about travelling alone is that you lose economies of scale (the economists will probably lambast me for incorrect use of terms). Without the ability to split the cost of a boat, taxi or minivan 3 or 4 ways, you have a much weakner position to barter are prone to having to pay an amount closer to what the touts are wanting. After being talked into a 700 birr ($50) trip to see the island monastaries, Asmawaw,the cousin of my guide from Addis turned up. He had come with strict instructions from his cousin to look after me and help me out.
The next day was spent on the lake having a look at a couple of the monastaries. Circular wooden structues, with a locked central core, only allowed to be entered by the priests, they are knwon for their fastastic murals that adorn the inner walls. Despite getting charged a premium for my boat trip, I was with a few brits who seemed to have got it for about 1/3 the price, and my newly (self) appointed guide, who was keen to show me around. I had got a good deal on accomdation, with them paying about $30 USD for a worse guest house, so I guess it all works out in the end. The quality of the painting in the monastaries, all done with natural colours from earth, flowers and other natural pigments are painted on cotton that lines the clay/mud walls. Most still remain in great condition despite the warm humid air and 500 years that have passed. St George slaying the dragon, and Mary play a much more important role in orthodox christianity, with the paintings representing them on a par with events like the crucifiction and resurrection etc.
After the churches, it was on the another ‘highlight’ of the lake, which is the source of the Blue Nile. The Blue Nile contributes 85% of the Nile’s water, draining the whole of the mountainous Ethiopian highlands, before the river heads north to meet the White Nile in Khartoum. The source isn’t the most impressive thing ever, just being a corner of the lake where the river flows out. The other main local highlight is the Blue Nile Falls, which are the second biggest in Africa after Victoria Falls. My ‘guide’ reckoned it was possible for us to take the local bus to the falls, costing only a dollar or so each way, instead of the $40 USD I had been offered. He was a local of the village near the falls, so was happy to show me and the 3 brits from the day before the way to do it on a budget. Delays of sorting further transport in the mornign meant we were on too tight a timeframe to take the ‘African massage’ option of the local bus on the gravel roads, and we had to opt for a chartered mini van. The falls themselves these days, whilst worth a look are no natural wonder of the world. A couple of decades ago, 80% of the water was diverted to a adjacent hydroelectric scheme, rendering the falls to be not that impressive. After being charged inflated prices (100 birr = 7 dollars) which seem to go up to arbitrary amounts despite reports from the day before that the cost was 10 birr, we boated back across the Nile, including seeing a croc lurking in the reeds, much to the excitement of many of the tourists.
That afternoon, I jumped on a local mini van to Gonder, for the next stage. Asmawaw was keen to come with me to the north to act as a guide, as apparently he felt we had made a good bond (despite trying, I had struggled to have much of a conversation with him). He then informed me that it had cost him 200 birr to stay in town to help be my guide, and also the local guides at the falls had made him pay 200 birr (the normal guide rate) as he was stealing their business. I wasn’t sure what the deal was going to be with my largely involuntary guide, and I guess I was under no firm obligation to pay antyhing, his attempt to be helpful was apparent, so with a small tip and his some money to cover his apparent costs, we parted ways, much to my relief and his dissapointment. Although not one to want to travel alone, having a person I couldn’t really talk to tag along at my expense wasn’t what I had wanted either. Several other travellers I met had had good experiences with locals showing them the sights, so I guess it is a bit of luck of the draw.