2016 December: Ethiopia – Water, Water Everywhere
The dominant feature of our first days in Ethiopia was one I had least expected – water. The most populous landlocked country in the world is yet to shed the Live Aid/Geldof framing of famine, drought and hardship. But we four – Jane, our two children, Kit, 11, Tess, 9 and I – found something quite different when we arrived for a month of exploring over Christmas 2016. Ethiopia’s biggest export turns out to be….water. Roughly 80 per cent of the Nile that flows through Cairo comes from this supposedly parched corner of upper East Africa.
It might not have a coast but Ethiopia does have lakes, none larger than Lake Tana which came into view on our final approach to the provincial capital of Bahar Dar. The name is Amharic for `Sea Shore’ and from the aircraft windows the city could be seen framed by the southern edge of a lake so large it could indeed be mistaken for an inland sea. Visitors of lyrical bent have described its azure allure but what we saw was a horizonless expanse the tone of milky tea, any azure muddied by rich deposits of silt.
Bahar Dar city has as its spine a long, tree-shaded boulevard running west-east along Lake Tana’s foreshore with a short but pleasant enough `corniche’ footpath contouring the water’s edge. To the south stretches a grid of streets that peters out after a few kilometers into farmland busy with human industry at its most simple: fields being harvested by hand, hayricks being forked into drying domes, charcoal sacks being carted to homes unreached by electricity. The lake itself is clean enough for fishermen on papyrus canoes to paddle right up to the shallows in search of their catch. And the corniche is used not just by strollers but by locals who clamber down into the water to do their laundry.
Bahar Dar city centre had its share of banks, ATMs and towerblocks but a sprawling and unashamedly boisterous market gave a fairer cross-section of the large local population from outlying rural areas. To reach it we walked pavements that got steadily more clotted with hawkers, along roads buzzing with what Ethiopians refer to as `bajaj’ – motorised tuk-tuk rickshaws from Asia. The street hawkers offered up a standard enough array of Chinese-made tat but with a feature I had not seen before: bathroom scales where you can be weighed for a fee.
The lake itself is fed by scores of streams, rivers and springs but it has only one outlet, one of the great rivers of Africa, the Blue Nile. The name comes from a Sudanese word describing all that silt and distinguishes it from its much longer but less powerful cousin, the White Nile, which starts deep down within equatorial central Africa. The two come together in the Sudanese capital, Khartoum, to begin their surge north to the Mediterranean, but the power of the mighty Nile (the majority of its flow and the mineral deposits that so famously enriched the lower valley, enabling all those pharaonic dynasties) starts here in the Ethiopian highlands.
`We are perfectly safe,’ our boat pilot assured us when we saw a pod of hippos guarding the very start of the Blue Nile. We had taken a boat trip out to some islands on Lake Tana but could not resist a peek at the lake’s overflow, the beginning of an epic riverine journey that ends in the eastern Mediterranean. Hippos kill more humans than any wild animal in Africa, a thought that came freshly to mind as the alpha male from the pod slipped underwater out of sight, seconds later re-emerging noisily a few metres from our boat. The pilot slipped the engine into reverse.
The Blue Nile represents such a rich natural asset that the Ethiopian government has built two hydro-electric power stations within its first few kilometres, skimming off more than 70 per cent of the flow. An hour’s drive south of Bahar Dar and the river tumbles down its first meaningful waterfall, an attraction that has drawn visitors for centuries, not least Queen Elizabeth II in 1965. The flow today might be much reduced by those power stations but it was still worth a visit.
Blue Nile Falls, about 30 km downstream from Lake Tana, 2016