The Camelot of Africa

North of Bahir Dar at over 2000 meters above sea level, Gondar is the next stop on the historical circuit and the gateway to the Simien Mountains. According to Google Maps, it’s about a three-hour drive from Bahir Dar. Naturally, it took us over six hours by minibus. During which someone ate and threw up a bunch of bananas and a jerrycan of petrol spilled all over the back seats. It was one of the better bus journeys we had in Ethiopia.

The historical crux of Gondar is Fasil Ghebbi, the so-called Camelot of Africa, a walled-off compound of royal ruins that would not look out of place on a movie set or rolling European countryside. The wall is 900-metres long and contains the well-preserved outer structures of palaces, a banquet hall, a library, churches, lion cages and other ancillary royal buildings. The construction of which was heavily influenced by the Portuguese, who were hanging around Ethiopia at the time. One of the most delightful things about travelling through Ethiopia is that each place is completely different from the one before and it’s always a surprise.

Gondar was the capital of Ethiopia from 1636 to 1855 and home to a series of Solomonic Emperors and one Empress from Fasilides to Iyasu II. The Solomonic dynasty traces its ancestry back to the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon. The dynasty ruled Ethiopia from 1270 until 1974 when Haile Selassie was deposed during a coup d’etat.

African camelot
Fasilides was Emperor from 1632 to 1667. He came to Gondar in 1636 and at first, camped underneath a sprawling tree while he scouted the area for the best spot to build his castle. He built his castle, established Gondar as the capital, and also started the construction of lots of churches; eventually, there would be forty-four churches in Gondar.

 

fasilides castle
Fasilides’ Castle

 

empress mentewab castle.jpg
Empress Mentewab’s castle. Mentewab was Queen regent for 30 years. She was crowned co-rulers with her young son Isayu II after her husband died in 1730. Our guide told us that she was shunned by the rest of the royal family for her “common” lineage and suspected Roman Catholic leanings. Also, he said, she did a lot to support and foster the education of Ethiopian women. She was one of the most powerful women in Ethiopian history.

 

old lion cages
Cages for the royal pet lions

 

church saved by bees
In 1888, the Sudanese army invaded the city and burned all of the churches in Gondar except for this one. Local lore holds that a colony of angry bees protected the church and warded off the marauders.

 

fasilides bath
Fasilides’ Bath. During Timkat (January 19th), it’s filled up with water and people jump into the pool in their clothes, to celebrate the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan river.

 

banyan trees
Banyan trees invading Fasilides’ Bath

 

After a few hours of wandering around Fasil Ghebbi, taking a quick bajaj ride to Fasilides’ Bath and so much information pouring out of the guide that I couldn’t possibly absorb it all, we were done with the educational part of our day. We went for lunch at an open-air restaurant next to the tree that Fasilides used as a camp when he first arrived in Gonder. The guide had told us that the tree was used to hold court proceedings and convicted criminals were hung from its branches. Now, the tree provides dappled shade and a quiet place to sit.

gondar court tree
Law & Order Tree

 

 

The Blue Nile

My daydream of a nice, relaxing holiday where I got to sleep in and have leisurely mornings with fresh fruit drinks and coffee was not to be.

As it turns out, the buses in Ethiopia leave early. Ridiculously early. To catch our bus to Bahir Dar, we had to get up at 3:30 am to make it to the bus station for 4:30 am, to wait around for another hour for the bus to get going. And by ‘bus station’ I mean parking lot in Meskel Square, next to the Red Terror Museum. The road to the Meskel Square was dark and empty; the parking lot where all the outgoing buses were parked was a traffic jam of honking taxis and people wearing white cotton floating around in the dark like ghosts. We didn’t have time for coffee, which proved to be a good thing since bathroom breaks were to be few and far between. As far as buses go, this one wasn’t terrible. The seats were decent, we had snacks, we got a lunch break and they played music and movies. It would be, by far, the best bus we took in Ethiopia.

We left Addis and drove into rolling hills and farmland just as the sun lifted off the horizon; fingers of pink and orange stretched in all directions. Acacia trees like giant leafy umbrellas stood amongst the fields of teff. Teff is the tiny grain that is used to make injera, the spongy, slightly sour bread that serves as plates and cutlery for Ethiopian food. It was harvest season, and people were out in the fields, crouching down in the billowy golden teff with a scythe, cutting it down bit by bit. Piles of cut grass were heaped up in rows and then combined into bales. I saw a few women carrying giant bales of teff on their heads; it looked as though the bales had sprouted legs and were walking themselves to market. As the morning unspooled, farmlands morphed into busy villages of clay, cow dung and straw houses with thatched roofs. Children walked to school, books in hand, in their powder blue and parrot green uniforms. Women hauled plastic containers of water on their backs. Villages gave way to a steep decline into the Nile river valley. We crossed the river and climbed the other side. There were donkeys everywhere. The bus frequently had to stop and wait for a donkey or three to amble out of the way. Or to navigate a pothole. Hours passed this way. The Ethiopian countryside looked just like I imagined, only it felt surreal to actually be there; it might’ve all been a dream.

We arrived in Bahir Dar at around 4:30 pm. A swarm of touts, guides and bajaj (Ethiopian tuk-tuks) drivers surrounded us when we disembarked. We had arranged a pick up from the bus station with the hotel, so when a smiling guy greeted us and said he was from the hotel, we followed. He took us to the right hotel, but we found out later he did not work there. He was trying to get us to book a tour with him. Perhaps he would have been the better one to go with.

Bahir Dar is full of waving palm trees and mosquitoes. Blue and white bajajs zipped around palm-lined streets and Lake Tana, the source of the Blue Nile river, glittered in the sun. We went up to a lookout point to watch the sunset over the lake and the river that winds from it like a great blue snake. The blue of the sky meets the blue of the water and the landscape was a meditation on the color blue.

“The world is blue at its edges and in its depths. This blue is the light that got lost. […] This light that does not touch us, does not travel the whole distance, the light that gets lost, gives us the beauty of the world, so much of which is in the color blue.”

Rebecca Solnit, A Field Guide to Getting Lost

Blue Nile river and Lake Tana in the distance
A study in blue: a view of the Blue Nile and Lake Tana in the distance

 

The next day we went on a full day tour of Lake Tana and the Blue Nile Falls, arranged through our hotel. In the morning, we were ushered onto a long wooden boat with a shade covering and puttered out onto the lake. Lake Tana is vast, edged with papyrus reeds, coffee plants and lush forest, its soft blue water ripples like silk. We visited two monasteries on richly wooded islands in the middle of the lake. Birds twittered from the trees and incense hung heavy in the air. The monasteries, round buildings with layers like Russian nesting dolls, perched in amongst the trees. Inside the first layer, vibrant religious paintings covered the circular walls from floor to ceiling. Men dressed all in white sat outside the building in a group; low, rhythmic chanting drifted up and mingled with birdsong. A guide was explaining the finer details of the paintings to a group of hushed tourists when a fracas broke out in the treetops just outside. The group abandoned the lesson to watch a troupe of monkeys fight with a flock of birds. I thought I saw the guide rolling his eyes. The pathway to one of the monasteries was lined with vendors selling crosses, small paintings and coffee. They called, “Look! Look! Looking is free!” as we passed. When we returned to the edge of the lake, we sat at one of the coffee vendors and had a little teacup of freshly brewed coffee and looked out over the lake, studying the rocks in case they were actually hippos.

 

On the way back, we stopped in a reedy part of the lake and waited for the hippos. A purple-brown, bulbous head popped up out of the water with a splash and dove under again and again. A baby hippo poked his head out of the water, waggled its little ears and disappeared. We left too soon; I could have watched the hippos playing peekaboo for ages.

As we stepped off the boat, the tour organizer and a minivan were waiting for us. The tour organizer impatiently ushered us into the van with a group of other tourists and sent us on our way. He’d said it was a quick, one hour drive to the Blue Nile Falls and we’d have more than enough time to get there, see the falls and return before it got dark. And that might have worked out, however, along the way, one of the tires burst. The driver swapped it for a spare and we were on our way again. Briefly. Until the same tire burst again. And this time, there was no spare. We were stranded. A group of children ran out and thronged us, all smiles and giggles and requests for money. We loitered by the side of the road for a while until it became apparent that if we wanted to get to the falls that day, we were going to have to do it ourselves.

Mini van with popped tire by the side of the road
Stranded

 

 

A passing bus was flagged down and half of the group squeezed their way in. The rest of us waited for the next one, hoping there’d be more room. There was not, but we stuffed ourselves inside anyway, pressed into the crush like play-doh into a plastic mould. I should have gone to the bathroom before we left.

Worries over how we’d know where to get off were assuaged when the bus terminated at the back end of a little town and people helpfully pointed us to the ticket office for the falls. After paying the entrance fee and acquiring a guide and an armed guard, we walked through farmer’s fields towards the little boat that would take us across the river, stopping to sample little gold fruit from a kumquat tree. People were loading long stalks of sugar cane onto donkeys and the children were chewing on broken off pieces and jumping around, all hopped up on sugar. The sun dipped low in the sky; twilight approached.

Finally, we crested a hill and descended into the soggy, marshy green slope that faced the falls. It was dry season and most of the falls were diverted into the hydroelectric dam, so the falls were only at about 15% of the wet season volume. Still impressive, though; curtains of water rushing into a wide swath of lush, misty, muddy valley, awash in the soft golden light of the gloaming.

We made it back to the little town just as night fell, and met the idling replacement minibus that took us, without incident, back to Bahir Dar.

blue nile falls in lush valley
Blue Nile Falls