After the cold, high altitude hills of Lalibela, I was glad to find myself in the palm-fringed tourist destination of Bahir Dar, beautifully located alongside the shores of Lake Tana, the largest lake in Ethiopia.
As I mentioned in my prior post, Mike and I had considered beginning our Northern circuit in this city, but we opted to fly to Gonder instead because of the long distance we would have had to cover by road between the two places. As it turned out, going to Bahir Dar as our last stop before Addis turned it into a truly pleasant last stop on the clockwise circuit we had covered.
Our flight was only 35 minutes long and very convenient, especially considering it cost less than road transport would have. We hopped into a van offering free rides to the Palm Palace Hotel – since the “free” van to the hotel we had chosen on the plane had already left by the time we’d gotten our bags, and somehow paying for a cab to a destination that offers free transport just didn’t make sense.
We were bombarded, as usual, with a small crowd of screaming dudes who all claimed to represent the best hotels Bahir Dar had to offer and it was an all too familiar sales pitch that immediately irked me. One particularly aggressive guy who would not leave us alone kept yelling and yelling that we should go with him, and only shut up when I point blank cursed him out to his face. He cursed back at me and gave me the middle finger as we drove away in his competitors’ vehicle. It somehow gave me a strange sense of satisfaction.
I know, I was getting to the end of my psychological rope in Ethiopia and I was starting to feel ready to leave.
The Palm Palace seemed nice enough of a hotel, and I immediately tried to take a nap as I had been unable to sleep the night before. I was growing increasingly frustrated as well, waiting on a text message that just wouldn’t come that would inform me whether or not a friend of mine in Accra was going to be available to see me – so I could spend my last few days in Africa somewhere that I really enjoyed instead of here.
Mike and I headed out that afternoon to explore and found a rather pretty walking path which lead around the southern edge of the lake. We ended up grabbing an early dinner at a place called Desset – which had really attractive lakeside seating on benches overlooking the water. In need of some comfort food – I ordered Spaghetti Bolognese which I scoffed with cold beer. Mike was not feeling too well and that combined with my admitted grumpiness resulted in us having another sibling tiff such as we’d had in Lalibela. I absolutely adore Mike and I think he is a fantastic person and amazing traveling companion – these things inevitably happen sometimes when you’ve been traveling with the same individual for six straight weeks – especially in a country where I was literally dependent on Mike to go anywhere because of how much hassle I would get if I went anywhere alone as a female (a state I didn’t, unfortunately, have much control over).
Wanting to be alone, I took my leave and headed back to the hotel on foot. I told myself that since it wasn’t quite dusk yet, that I should be fine taking the same pathway along the water as we had taken to dinner. About 20 minutes into my walk, I got grabbed by the arm and waist by a random man who opened with some version of “Hey baby…where you heading so fast? Slow down and talk to me.” I tried to wriggle free as a slew of verbal profanity came out of my mouth. He resisted and then said “Come on baby. I just want to bite your ass.”
Somehow, even amidst the fear and desperation to get out of his grasp, I remember thinking how absurd his suggestion was, and how much he must have been convinced that it would serve to seduce rather than repulse me. He couldn’t have been more wrong and eventually he let go as I spun around and kicked him in the shin and screamed at the top of my lungs.
This was in daylight with about 30 or so people walking along or milling in the park. Nobody flinched or moved to help or intervene. My pulse was racing and I moved away, not looking back at a faster pace than before, cursing my stupidity at leaving Mike and walking alone.
I got back to my hotel physically unscathed but had a really good cry to let it all out. Unable to go anywhere else and not really feeling like it anyway – I ended up watching a movie on Mike’s laptop and drinking whisky that I’d bought in Lalibela. Since it was a Friday night (Feb 23) – the sounds from various clubs in the streets below our room made it very hard to sleep. Without a fan, we had left the windows open only to have to close them as we were getting eaten alive by mosquitoes. At around 2am, I went downstairs and got a standing fan which helped a little.
In addition, we were awoken at 0500 to what sounded like the call to prayer, but after it hadn’t let up for over an hour – we realized it was an Orthodox church ceremony which are often broadcast from speakers set up all around the church. In this case, it was coming from St George’s church which was literally a block away from our hotel. The ceremony was a cacophony of wailing and singing, much the same in style as what we’d endured in Lalibela. It went on for three hours and both Mike and I resolved that this was going to be our only night at this property.
We wandered off in the opposite direction around the lake to check out a few other hotels that were on the eastern part of town. None of them were too appealing but we did manage to locate and negotiate a decent rate for a private van to take us to visit the Blue Nile Falls which were about an hour’s drive south out of the city. We decided to put all of our luggage into the van so that we could be dropped off at a new hotel on the way back. Alternatively, there was a small chance my friend in Accra was going to get confirmation of his return to Ghana, in which case, I would head straight to the airport on an Air miles ticket and get out of Ethiopia.
The whole trip to the Blue Nile I was on pins and needles, trying to tell myself that no matter what transpired, it was all going to work out for the best. Not having any 3G and being entirely reliant on totally unreliable Wifi was also taking a toll. Not being able to make arrangements for any type of travel and having communication with anyone not physically with you be logistically challenging is a frustration I will not soon forget. We take instant, fast, internet service for granted. You don’t realize the extent to which it permeates every aspect of our daily lives until you find yourself in Ethiopia without it.
We elected to be dropped off on the trail towards Portuguese Bridge and then ended up walking the entire circular circuit which drops you back at the river where you can take a boat across the water. Luckily we had taken our driver’s phone number and so could call him to arrange our pick up. Getting out in nature and getting a nice workout on this trail was exactly what I needed. After dealing with hundreds of requests to “show us the way” we steadfastly made our way along the trail entirely guided by the app maps.me (which is a revelatory help, incidentally, for any traveler who is offline and needs GPS) and managed to self-navigate for the entire trail.
We managed to get quite close to the falls themselves that we’d been told would be a mere sprinkle in comparison to its full rainy season glory. For me, they weren’t disappointing in the least and we happily navigated the muddy ground to stand in the invigorating spray that formed a beautiful rainbow where the sun hit.
The only disappointing aspect of the hike was that little kids were trying to sell us wooden flutes along the way, and one particular girl decided to hit me with hers when I kindly declined purchasing one from her. That had never happened to me before and I was quite shocked.
Overall, the falls didn’t disappoint and we arrived back to the van muddy, sweaty but smiling. Driving back I couldn’t help feeling the stress of the minutes ticking by and considering whether or not I would make the last flight to Addis this evening if a text arrived indicating that my friend in Accra was available for a visit. As it turned out, that text didn’t arrive and so Mike and I decided to check into the Jacoranda hotel and I immediately ordered a double gin and tonic. This was the last chance I had to fly out and for the trip to be worth the four-hour flight since I would be returning to fly to London on March 1st. We elected to eat dinner at our hotel, which we were delighted with – it had a lovely fire pit out front and was really modern and excellent value for money.
It helped restore my disappointed spirits.
The food was also great – I ordered a delicious chicken in mushroom sauce with mashed potatoes and spinach. I felt re-energized, and after a shower, Mike and I headed out to the Checheho Cultural restaurant which was absolutely wonderful and featured a large and rather crowded audience drinking beers and watching/participating in a traditional dance performance. This was still the strangely intriguing but somewhat perplexing “shoulder” dancing that we had seen in other parts of Northern Ethiopia, but since there were at least some women on stage, it was somewhat less weird. Here is a link to some video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T1xBbg_vNRI The crowd really got into it and it was a very pleasant way to spend the evening.
The following day we decided to rent a boat across the lake to visit some of the monasteries and churches that were considered the main tourist attractions of Bahir Dar. We elected to take the “medium speed” boat which still afforded a nice 90-minute lake journey in the blazing sun. We were told that the boat trip would cost us 1500 Birr (about $50) and would include visits to Azwa Maryam, Ura Kidane, Kibran, and the Blue Nile Outlet. The first two monasteries were interesting and unique in that their design was circular – something we’d not come across in religious architecture here thus far. Inside each building were hundreds of paintings of religious and biblical scenes which included the famous depiction of the torture of St. George.
The setting of these churches, close to the beaches of the pretty peninsula also added to their appeal, which was slightly marred by the row upon row of trinket-selling stalls which lined the paths from the boat dock to the churches.
On our way back from Ura Kidane, Mike and I opted to take a coffee before pressing on with our afternoon’s itinerary. Upon getting our coffee, our boat captain indicated that it was perhaps time to “get back”? We were confused as we believed the tour to be only half way done and asked him why we weren’t going to Kibran or the Blue Nile? His face got sullen and he started saying how much farther that was to drive his boat, that it was late, etc. etc. to which we responded – yeah, ok, but we are not paying you the 1500 Birr we promised you for only ½ the tour.
This made our tour guide mad and he immediately contacted the agent we had used to arrange the trip. He put the agent on the phone and the agent explained in broken English how “everything was fine now” because he had “talked with the boat owner and told him he MUST take us to Kibran and then to Blue Nile Outlet…and that there was no problem.” We tried, several times, to explain that yes, there was a problem in that our driver shouldn’t need “convincing” to give us the services that we had already negotiated and that we were fine with going back now since he obviously didn’t want to elongate his afternoon and was in a foul mood. The agent and our boat driver immediately started cursing one another and began a screaming match – all while we tried to sip our coffee in this idyllic lakeside forest-fringed location. The tranquility was gone, and our fun quotient along with it. The cell phone was thrust into our faces several more times which was making us ever more exasperated. In the end, we insisted on being taken straight back to town, and we paid 1200 Birr on arrival and walked away, shaking our heads.
In need of a cold Habesha, we checked out the floating barge “bar” at Mango Park and became instant celebrities to the locals hanging out on this hot Sunday afternoon. Families were out and some folks were swimming in the lake. It was a pleasant place to recover from our tourism-by-yelling experience of the afternoon.
We took a long stroll back to the Jacaranda Hotel and opted to order dinner in again since we’d had such a wonderful meal the night before. Cue my hilarious Chicken Leg story that I wrote about in my first Ethiopian Blog post here. After a few beers, I opted for an early night of writing and reading.
On our last morning in Bahir Dar – we decided to rent bicycles and head out to the famous viewpoint next to the Palace of Emperor Haile Selassie. We had booked a shuttle to the airport for 2pm, our flight being at 4pm. I would be spending 2 nights and 3 days in Addis before boarding my Ethiopian Airlines flight to London. It was hard to believe that my time in Africa was coming to an end…though I wasn’t that disappointed to be leaving Ethiopia, I must admit.
We had only ridden bikes one other time on this trip and that was in Burkina Fasso during our visit to the Royal Court of Tiabele. I do wish bikes were more readily available to tourists to rent – they offer such a unique way to see a city and get around – with a far superior vantage point than a bus or a car.
Initially we headed out on bikes that had been arranged for us by the same agent we’d used to arrange the boat. However, it became obvious pretty quickly that these bikes would need to be traded in – Mike’s brakes barely worked and my bike frame was made for someone over 6 ft tall. So, we found our way to the rental store and tried out other bikes. I managed to give myself a frightful injury akin to a guy getting slammed in the nuts when I tried out a bike whose gears jammed and had me falling with my full body weight onto the “male framed” central bike spoke right between my legs. Despite my pain and hurt pride, we found two more suitable bikes and headed off out of town on our mini adventure.
Luckily, the rest of the morning went smoothly except for some nasty school boys who decided it would be fun to try and hit me as I rode past them. Never have I met a country of more violent children before! Having survived this onslaught – we weren’t disappointed after our efforts to climb several steep hills gave us the reward of a sweeping view over the city and Lake Tana. As an added bonus, there was a wedding party getting official photos there – so it was fun to witness that.
After a sweaty ride back, I was happy I’d packed a change of clothes and that the hotel was kind enough to let me shower before we headed to the airport. Despite it being largely unplanned, I had enjoyed our time in Bahir Dar – mostly!