Rid of the trucks and with no traffic to speak off we begin to see the land around us. Rolling hills, covered in mélange of colours spread out to creep up far distant mountains. We reach Fiche and decide over a Faranji coffee to rest up for the night in the Alem Hotel.
By mid afternoon we are descending on a scary road that clings and some times hangs on viaducts into the Gorge of the Blue Nile. Windows fully rolled down the temperature raises in unification with the far wall of the Gorge. With every turn of her wheels Williwaw engine bellyache against the gradient of the decent. The unrestrained views are dazzling with the blue Nile reflecting the steep gorge walls. It takes us a good hour before we eventually stop on the narrow bridge to take a breather before the ascent. A long abandoned sentry post boxes marked by shrapnel looks dejected, on the opposite bank. We are sure it has many a dark stories never to be told. Looking up the winding ascent there is not a truck to be seen.
We start the whole process in reverse but this time thank god in the shade.
In the only way she knows Williwaw of course protests by overhearing. With two cooling off stops and some unadulterated swearing that never again in a Land Rover we make it to the top to be surrounded in Dejen by a herd of You, You, money kids that have being watching our progress for the last two hours.
Dejen sterility matches it’s strangulate strategic position with a clatter of cheap hotels that feed on the northern bound traffic. Strangely we don’t recall passing through a similar positioned town for southbound traffic. We stay the night.
Another paralysing blue sky greets us in the morning. I collect Williwaw and bring her around to the front of the hotel to awaiting the girls. Sitting behind the wheel I can’t believe my eyes. Williwaw gets a free car wash. With the agility of a deranged cat a young lady totally naked has hopped up on the bonnet and promptly pee’s on the windscreen. I am so startled by the golden shower I don’t dare turn the windscreen wipes on. She is obviously not the full shilling bouncing off down the street in chimpanzee style.
With the girls still not believing a word of the main morning event we reach Debre Markos the capital of the Gojam province. The road now turns to all-weather surfaces till we arrive on the shore of Lake Tana, once known as Lake Pseboe by the Greeks and Lake Coloe by the ancient Egyptians.
Ethiopians largest lake known to the locals as Lake Dambiya or T’ana Hayk it forms the main reservoir for the Blue Nile.
Stopping in Bahir Dar we eventually check into the Tana Hotel a few kilometres outside.
It is clear that Lake Tana is a major Ethiopian tourist attraction. Bahir Dar itself reflecting its earning capacity with many tourist shops, hotels and palm-lined streets. Our hotel is modern both in Architecture and room costs. There are only Faranji prices here.
We are beginning to understand Paul’s comments when he said that the Faranji element is a curse. It is extremely difficult to camp in Ethiopia due to the consent hassle and gimme gimme attire of its young.
Unfortunately the consent association that foreigners are a source of wealth leads one to have a distinct feeling of distrust so much so that you feel that if you camp there will only be the flattened grass left if you leave your campsite for more than a minute.
From our travels we know that it is only individuals that tarnish the ordinary decent people of a country.
We’ve arrived just as dinner is being served in the hotel. Confirmation of our tendencies to have dinner with a tip finally gets our room porter to leave us to settle in. With the lakeshore a short walk away our room looks out on well keep tropical gardens. Opening our large sliding window the bird sounds are inexhaustible, so on arriving downstairs we not surprised to be dining with a group of twitches. The conversation is Watttled Ibis, Abyssinian Long Claws, Blackheaded Siskin, Woodpeckers and the like. To tweet to woo none we knew.
Dawn breaks. A visit to the tourist office house in the hotel has us booked on a lake island monasteries trip.
Lake Tana water expanse seventy miles wide by sixty is dotted with islands housing Monasteries dating back to the 14th century. One of these monasteries is alleged to have been host the Ark of the Covenant for eight hundred years before it was mover to Axum in the 4th century. Where it is hiding ever since apart from when it was slashed on Dago Istanfanos Island in the 16th century no one is sure other than Indiana Jones. Looking at map of the lake there are over thirty other small islands where it could have hung about unknown.
No matter we not here to solve the riddle. Finnegan’s Wake James Joyce’s labyrinthine novel is more than enough for me.
All aboard we set forth to our first island that turns out to be a peninsula. Uran Kidane Mihiret or Mehret monastery on the Zege Peninsula founded in the 14th century is the only one that allows woman inside.
Not knowing what to expect we are met by our first fully robed cross bearing bible bashing Ethiopian sky piloted.
Standing in front of the doorstep to the doorway of the holy of holies he is surrounded by a halo of white-eyed head paintings each with wings and small dark black eyeballs. Every painted face is eyeballing him. In stark contrast to the opulence of his heavy radiating yellow robes white trouser legs protrude with toenails that shine like flecks of mica on bare brown bare feet that match the colour of the wooden floor.
In one hand he is holding a large silver cross-mounted on a staff that shines like the Star of David. A bible in the other suitable opened at a page displaying a picture of the Madonna on the left and St George slaying a dragon on the right. From beneath a skull-cap that rest on his ears his unsmiling beard face pears out at us. Both the Madonna and George have the same black eyeballs, as the on looking host of tightly pinched lipped round lifeless faces on the doors surrounds.
The two enormous doors to the Holy of holies are broken into three painted panels. The top panels of both the left and right doors are covered in life-size paintings of a standing ark angel in clogs with full-feathered wings, sword, and halo. Dwarf size saints at their feet accompany both. Directly beneath them are two further panels. The one on the left represents three white halo veiled priests carrying crosses with another group kneeling in front of them in white robes carrying chin-resting sticks. All are admiring some little bloke who look’s like he is suffering from a sever toothache while standing in a bird box that has a star on top of it. Under this lot is a prancing white horse with a purple robed rider waving a large Arabian type sword that has just chopped off a few heads of some unbelievers?
On the right the second panel has a group of what looks like ladies huddled together in a bus shelter with faces that depict the avoidance of a sudden rain shower. At their feet is a head of a fish with a three-pronged spear stuck in it nut. The spear seems to be held by the archangel above. Under them to set off the white robes chin resting stick group on the opposite side is a group of mulish assorted sexed individuals. The male’s ID by moustaches. All in brown robes with black hair this group of peering pilgrims has a keen interest in our Pilots shining toes.
In the gloom of the holy of holies just visible a towering mural of another Madonna with folded arms sporting a halo with a wingspread white horse fluttering over her head. She is grace with the presence of a white bearded and white hair saint name unknown.
“Five dollar” says the Druid. Three quarters of an hour later we stagger out with stiff necks.
Like very think when you get an overabundance you become comatose. One prancing horse, two prancing horses, three all with riders busy with either squirting dragons, poking bleeding bullocks or hacking the head off some poor wretch on foot blend into one impression > The Glorification of violence in the name of religion. Not much has change.
On to the next island.
The sun is now frying our fellow passenger turning them into Byzantine Murus (Latin for Muriel’s) that could grace any wall in this century or the next. There is no mercy out here on the water of Tana. “It’s a funny thing about those eyes says Florence. “The ones in the church they move”. “Walt Disney pictures.” “Luckily we have had the some common sense to bring suntan oil and hats. The breeze is superb and the sound of water rushing past the hull is music to my ears.
Slowly we draw close to any other craft. Large butter bats paddles propel a lone peddler in a pink shirt under a tablecloth hat on a boat straight out of Classical Antiquity. A Papyrus canoe. “Tankawa a Tankawa says our driver.
Low in the copper tinted water the peddler is oblivious to us. It’s a long journey of over three thousand miles to the sea.
Our landfall Dago Istanfanos a genuine Island this time is on the bow less than ten minutes if the outboard doesn’t conk. We land. The waiting druid is expecting us. Ten bucks. Five mummified Ethiopian kings that refuse to verify the where about’s of the Ark. A 15th century painting of yet another Madonna all of which Fanny and Flo due to their womanly functions are refused admission on the pain of death.
I am not interested in a demonstration of large drum beating or a quick gander at the Monastery crowns. It also seemed pointless (considering that I had just acquired the Amaharic for toilet shintabet,) to take up the offer of reading one of the rare unreadable Ge’ez written holy book. We retreated to the lakeshore for a pee.
Next stop turns out to be a Monastery full of dubious druids. Once more no woman allowed on more count than just religious taboos we feel.
We put back with our fellow lobster looking Franajis arriving back in time for the evening lecture on avifauna. Leaving the girls languishing in the hotel I drive Williwaw out along the lakeshore in search of the Blue Nile’s outlet from the lake its source.
The Lake ( discovered by a Portuguese Jesuit named Fr. Pedro Paez in 1631 The Jesuits were expelled from Ethiopia in 1632) land locked 11°04.N, 37° 02E, provides over 80% of the volume of the combined Niles making it is one of the most important lake in Africa.
Unlike Lake Victoria the Niles other suckling Lake Tana is still free of the jaw snapping Nile perch and oxygen sapping water lilies. However both lakes at their outlets of life-giving water have hydroelectric dams.
Lake Tana dam is diverting so much water that it is already a festering bone of contention that will either destroy the lake or sour relations with Sudan and Egypt in the not so distant future.
On a bridge overlooked by a palace originally built for Haile Selassie I pull over. Immediately I attract two youth how take some shaking off with their persistence that they should guide me. Eventually they get the message. I drive Williwaw as far off the road as possible and take to shanks mare following a well-trodden track till I come to some boggy ground. A set of well-worn stepping-stones signals the way.
One hour later in dense tangled lakeshore bush I reach the beginning of the Blue Nile a few thousand years to late to be credited with the distinction of giving a lecture to the Geographical Society in London. But who cares I feel every bit as good a James Bruce (1730-1794) when he stood here claiming he found the source long before mobile phones or the Internet.
Unlike Bruce who went on to trace this water to their coming together with the White Nile all I have to do is to remember which set of stepping-stone I crossed in the first place.
I arrive back to be showered in glory to find both lasses snoring their head off. Too much fresh air, sun, combined with awe-inspiring paintings of a blissful ancient civilization has both of them in the land of nod.
After a late start and another visit to the tourist office we drive out to Tis Abay. Our intention is to visit the Smoke of the Nile one of Africa most amazing waterfalls. As independent traveller this is easier said than done. Arriving we are surrounded by a herd of guides and You, You, kids. There is no option other than whacking and hacking your whole way to the falls other than taking a guide. Although we make several heroic attempts to set forth on our own we are followed to the point of out right abuse. For the sake of tranquillity we eventually surrender. God knows the 18th century explorer James Bruce who is credited with being the first European to see Tis Abay had less hassle than us.
I eventually agreed a ten-dollar fee. We cross over a small stone bridge to start a climb up a dense wooded slop which takes all of a half an hour. Another fifteen minutes we surface to the thunderous roar of a mini compact Victoria. Our first view is breathtaking. Photo no –cd the falls are in full bombardment. Set in a wonderful un polluted natural surroundings it has more of an impact on us than its more famous Victoria.
Gaining the main viewing vantage point the falls is in fact two separate falls.
One is plunging with great intensity into a narrow gorge while the other with a wider jumping off platform pours with greater volume but with a little less passion to join its more vigorous partner in the head long rush to the Hydro Electrical plant that will eventually cause trouble boil and trouble.
Rounding a bend to another viewing point we a meet by a flock of birds. Not the endemic white-cheeked turaco but five young bridesmaids in flaming red dresses. Their tightly bunned jet-black hair and rose-red dresses against the backdrop of the pouring white waters make a starling photo.
The European bride and her newly wedded handsome tuxedo wearing man radiate a feeling of happiness and love that is infectious. We all chat over a most welcome glass of bubbly. I find out that on its less spirited side of the falls it is possible to walk under the falls.
Leaving with the wedding party in full flow it is shock and horror to our guide when I point downwards. Much to his contentment I start down. We arrive at a small not so wide deep stream. There is nothing for it but to get the karks off. The guide is visibly scared stiff of water. Up to the Adams apple I cross without any difficulty he stay rooted to terra firma.
Working my way along the stream the roar of the falls is hearing-impairing. The spray is blinding. Hugging the rock face I advance foot by foot till I reach the first vain of cascading water. The path ahead looks dangerous and uninviting so I chicken out. Returning to my spot where I crossed the stream the guide has long done a runner. Reunited with the girls we walk back to Williwaw guide free.
(To be continued)
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