Africa is another beast of travel – technology-wise. Either the Internet connections were painfully slow, computers were not functioning – or in most of the cases – there was simply no electricity at times. This is why I am posting the articles about the journey through East Africa a bit late.
My Russian friend Evgeny, whom I met back in Patagonia, did invite me to join his “expedition” through various countries on the Africa continent. Together with another Russian friend, Tatjana, we did meet in Moscow to prepare for this trip. Our flight would take us from Moscow to Addis Ababa, having a change of plane and a longer transit stay at the airport in Istanbul, Turkey.
Although the plane ride was quite uneventful, we were shocked about the prices in the “Food Court” of the transit area at Istanbul airport. A small Döner and two beers did set us back with over 35 US dollars – each! Triggered by this excessive pricing, we started to look closer at the duty free shops of that airport. We were amazed how many people would buy mostly overpriced items in these “duty free” stores.
Anyway, we eventually landed at the airport of Addis Ababa in Ethiopia in the early morning hours. We decided to squat some chairs in the arrival hall to get a bit of sleep until the opening hours of the shops in the town.
Once sunrise had established over the capital city, we went to town to hire a car (with driver) which we stocked up with water and food. Then, during the afternoon, we did set off to the North of the country on the so-called “Historical Circuit”.
The first major site on that circuit is the beautiful town of Bahir Dar, located on the shores of lake Tana. Being the largest lake in Ethiopia, it is also the source of the Blue Nile. On the way to Bahir Dar, we stopped overnight at the settlement of Degen (or: Dejen), after a very scenic road trip through windy mountain roads near the Blue Nile Gorge.
Hiring a driver is the only way to rent a car to get around the country individually. There is no option of self-driving hired cars outside of the capital city. Roadsigns – if present – are written in Ethiopic script, which is beautiful to look at, but simply unreadable to tourists like us.
Moreover, traffic conditions with “dead” vehicles from traffic accidents laying in the middle of the road, groups of people wandering along the streets and casually crossing them without paying attention to the traffic, plus a wealth of domestic animals living, literally, on the fast lane – hiring a driver together with the car is the sensible way to travel independently through Ethiopia.
Our driver acted as an interpreter for menus in local restaurants – and it was not long before he introduced us to “Injera”, the national staple. It looks like a very large pancake on which the meat (or other food) is placed. It is quite tasty and fills the stomach like bread. The basis of this pancake (or should I say: bread) is the Ethiopian cereal “Tef”. This gives the very distinct grayish-brown color to the Injera. We got used to this pancake very quickly. Evgeny and I loved to eat spicy food using Injera to wrap small pieces.
Once we arrived at Bahir Dar, we hired a boat from a local fisherman to sail to the islands on Lake Tana. There, a number of monasteries from the 16th century were waiting to be discovered by us. In fact, 20 of 37 islands do feature monasteries.
Although the boat ride was quite scenic, enabling us to see various wildlife, we did not chime into the hype surrounding Lake Tana. We were a bit underwhelmed by the smallish shacks that are called “monastery” – many of them featuring tin roofs and other building features not available in the 16th century. Being only our second day in Ethiopia, we were a bit reluctant whether other parts of the “Historical Circuit” would be of the same kind of disappointment.
Our guidebook prepared us for a potential other disappointment in this area: The Blue Nile Falls – once 400 meters wide cascades – are now a stream of a dozen meters width, falling 30 meters over a shallow edge of a plateau. A hydroelectric plant is diverting most of the water volume to generate power.
Being mentally prepared as such, we visited the site anyway and – we enjoyed every bit of the visit. Thanks to the guide books (and the global financial crisis), there were virtually no tourists. However, we were encountering many local people with donkeys carrying goods on the paths around the waterfalls. And we got introduced to the desperate locals who are missing the usual tourist crowds and do jump on any occasion to make money of the remaining visitors.
This day, we created – unknowingly – the mantra for our whole trip through East Africa: “No guide, please!”. Armed with maps from guidebooks and a bit of common sense and orientation skills, we really did not want to pay guides to point out to us the obvious. Moreover, their broken English is sometimes hard to understand for non-native English speakers like me. But most importantly, they make me feel stupid, because many times, these people explain local folklore which they think I should know about. It usually goes something like this:
“This is the tree from where Yekuno Amlak stole an apple.” “Who the heck is Yekuno Am….?” Big rolling eyes from the local guide: “He is a descendant of King Solomon and Queen Sheba. He was the most important ruler of the Ethiopian Middle Age.” While I try to look intelligent by memorizing the name of the “Queen of cat food”, the guide will almost certainly continue to impress me by mentioning that during this Middle Age period, the “Kebra Negast” – the nation’s epic in Ge’ez literature – was written. Oh sure, I’ve read that book, geez…
Also, guides simply don’t follow my pace of visiting a site. I can easily stay for hours looking at the door frame of the ticket office (dating from the 1980’s) in awe, whereas visiting the subsequent Rosetta Stone will take me half a minute. Luckily, Evgeny and Tatjana do think the same as I do. Therefore we visited the Blue Nile Falls without a guide – despite all their claims that we would have big trouble finding the place and probably get lost.
In fact, we stayed quite some hours at the falls, because the place is definitely scenic. Recommended as side-trip to anyone staying in the town of Bahir Dar.