Bahir Dar isn’t an easy place to love. A sprawling, dusty, bustling commercial centre, it has grown rapidly and urbanisation hasn’t been especially kind. Despite this, it is one of Ethiopia’s major tourist destinations, thanks mainly to its location on the shores of Lake Tana – the origin of the Blue Nile and home to numerous islands occupied by ancient Ethiopian Orthodox monasteries.
I don’t want to be unfair to Bahir Dar. People are friendly, there are good restaurants, a fascinating market and it’s a fairly relaxed place to spend a few days while visiting the nearby sights. It’s just unfortunate that first impressions tend to be lasting. Our first impression was being shown into a hotel room which looked like it was generally rented by the hour (or segments thereof) and had only recently been vacated by its previous occupants. By ‘recently’, I mean there was money lying on the bed and clothing scattered around the room. A used condom adorned the floor.
Once we’d changed hotels, opting for the relative luxury of the Lake Tana Hotel with lake views from the lakeside bar, things improved dramatically. We contacted a guide recommended to us by another traveller, and set off to visit one of Ethiopia’s great natural sights: the Blue Nile Waterfalls. This was a half day walking trip that took us through some beautiful countryside and interesting villages, to the base of the legendary Blue Nile Waterfalls.
Known as Tis Abay, ‘smoke of the Nile’ in Amharic, the waterfalls make quite a lot less smoke these days due to the construction of a hydroelectric dam. Although the water flow over the falls is significantly reduced, they are still impressive, with near permanent rainbows created by water spray and intense Ethiopian sun. The sound of the falls is quite impressive close up, but there was a time when they were deafening. The falls are about 45 meters (150 feet) high and around half a mile wide, from a vantage point above them they make a truly arresting sight, but you can’t help but wonder what they would have looked like before the dam.
When we arrived at the nearby village, called Tissisat, I was glad we’d come with a guide. I saw a couple of tourists being hounded by young kids and adults to buy things or to hire them as guides. This is a poor place and you have to appreciate people are desperate for work, but it can make for an uncomfortable time, especially as self-appointed guides will follow tourists and haggle for cash (sometimes just to go away). We bought some food and drinks in the village, and set off for a two hour circular walk to the falls and back.
The journey takes you through beautiful countryside, with sweeping views to distant hills. At one point we we had to wade across a shallow river, and then you finally arrive at the falls themselves. Despite their reduced size, they are still incredible. When you stand by the side of them, the spray from the Blue Nile cools you down after walking under a hot sun.
After a hot walk we reached another river, which we crossed in a small metal boat, before picking up a car in Tissisat village, and happily returned to the lakeside by the hotel to watch the sun set with a cold beer. Absolutely lovely.