Africa has featured on the BBC’s schedule a lot recently, most notably David Attenborough’s epic wildlife series and the more tongue-in-cheek special on Top Gear. Their ‘quest’ to find the source of the Nile in a trio of second-hand estate cars has been rather amusing and it brought to mind an episode from my own African adventure, when I got to visit one of the Nile’s sources.
Ethiopia is an interesting country in many ways and experiencing it for the first time is a complete culture-shock. One of just two African countries not to have been colonised in the nineteenth century, it has its own distinct language and alphabet, and it is widely to be believed to the region from which homo sapiens originated. Its take on time is very different from our own, and to the tourist this is somewhat disorientating. I was there in August 2005 but according to all the local calendars it was in fact November 1997, and as far as telling the time of day is concerned, 12 o’clock happens to be at dawn. Thus, when you are told that a bus is leaving the following day at 11, they mean it’s leaving at 5am.
The buses, which usually leave before dawn, are dilapidated vehicles that, once they get out of the towns, invariably have to cope with unsealed roads. Punctures are frequent. While the buses are in motion, no-one is allowed to open any of the windows (no matter how hot or smelly it becomes) as this brings in evil spirits. This was how I, very often the only faranju (white man) on the bus, travelled around the whole country, trying to communicate with the locals (taking packets of biscuits onto the buses helps to break down the barriers), marveling at the scenery and listening to a lot of the Amharic pop music that all Ethiopian bus-drivers love to play on the PA system.
My African travels had started in Cairo, from where I’d followed the Nile south down to Aswan, then into Sudan via Lake Nasser. At Khartoum, the Nile’s two main tributaries, the White Nile and the Blue Nile, meet. Of these, the White one is the longest but the Blue one, coming as it does from the Ethiopian Highlands, supplies most of the Nile’s water. From Khartoum, my journey took me into northern Ethiopia where I experienced a complete culture-shock as I travelled along the northern circuit, taking in the historic towns of Gondar, Aksum and Lalibela before reaching Bahar Dar, a pleasant city located on the shores of the source of the Blue Nile, Lake Tana.
The hotel I stayed in was right next to the lake and organised boat trips for any guests who wished to visit the island monasteries for which it is famous. The man behind the reception desk put me onto a man who he called the ‘official guide’, who I found by the boats having an argument with a French couple who (also) wanted to visit the island monasteries but were tempted by another guide who was charging a quarter of what this man wanted. He had a ready answer to that: “He has no official licence. He knows nothing. That’s why he’s only charging 5 birr!” Eventually, they, and yours truly, went with the official bloke.
From our boat, Lake Tana seemed like a very peaceful place, and it wasn’t long before we got to see some of the traditional papyrus-reed canoes, which the guide said last for about four months before the papyrus becomes waterlogged and a new canoe has to be built. They have been used by local people to travel on the lake for thousands of years.