Eager to explore some of the islands of Lake Tana and seek the source of the Blue Nile, I arranged a boat with the folks at my hotel and headed out over what looked to be a calm and blissful lake. The first mistake I made for this journey is not exploring more options. The tiny 15hp engine of the rickety craft made trips between the islands longer than they should be. The second mistake was not taking my fowl weather gear — that is my rain jacket.
Locals pilot with ease unstable papyrus boats carrying mounds of firewood all over Lake Tana.
There are about twenty islands that dot Lake Tana. Most of them with centuries old monasteries.
Docking at the islands was sometimes simple other times a bit of a challenge.
All started out okay. The beautiful islands basque in the their lush green vegetation under the beating sun. Locals in hand-built papyrus boats ferry stacks of firewood from island to shore and back again. Fisherman pull in fresh tilapia while others bathe and wash clothes lakeside. The visit to the first island home of the Entos Eyesu Monastery was a breeze. Closest to the boat docks and my hotel and upon arrival met a group of local students from Addis who were as eager to learn about my journeys as I was about Ethiopia. Climbing up a short incline we explored a monastery, round and featuring a series of small caves that served as living quarters and chapels for priests. In the 15th century these islands were more remote and offered solace and peace for those looking to learn and get closer god. But what’s amazing is how well preserved the murals and paintings that illustrate the personalities and stories of Ethiopian saints — of which I think there are more in the Ethiopian Christian Orthodox religion than any other. After visiting churches in Addis and through the monasteries of Lake Tana, I can safely say that the overwhelming favorite could very well be Saint George who is the patron Saint of Ethiopia seemingly always slaying dragons upon his beautiful white horse.
Above images from the Entos Eyesu Monastery.
It was on the way to Kibran St. Gabrael Monastery (Kebran Gabriel) that things took a turn for the worse. By now the lake had, in less than an hour, turned to stormy white caps while clouds dumped rain. Not only did I get soaked by the unleashing of the clouds, but with every slam of the hull over each three or four foot wave, buckets of water drenched me. Nowhere in the boat was I safe, nor dry. Doing my best to keep my camera gear from getting wet, I watched another tour boat cruise by with a bigger engine, elevated passenger area and smiling and dry passengers. Grrrrrr. Keep in mind, these are simple wooden boats. Nothing fancy not technologically advanced here. I was worried this boat could capsize or be damaged in the rough water. That’s when I looked around for the lifejackets. A little late I guess. Because there were none.
It was a bit frightening. Perhaps not as frightening as a ride from the Indonesia island of Flores to Komodo and then Lombok islands I took some years back — that was three days of rough riding. But this was rougher in that I set out for a day ride around the peaceful Lake Tana and now what looked like to be a day long journey through hell. At least I could pray for better weather at the next monastery.
It took about 40 minutes through the pounding waves and piercing rain. I had no interest in seeing the monastery when we landed. I just laid there dockside shivering and praying for the sun and trying to dry out. When I finally did roam the grounds of what was probably the highlight of my monastery tour here, the Kibran St. Gabrael (as they spelt in on the signage) only permits men from entering, is a dramatic 17th century building with a portico supported by a dozen columns. A tiny building adjacent to the building houses a small museum which the priest was happy to open and show artifacts including holy books made from goatskin and papyrus dating from the 16th and 17th century, illustrated colorfully. In the monastery the paintings here were vibrant and dramatic depictions of events including Iyasu presented in front of Christ.
Graphics are well planned on signs leading to the monasteries. Here at Kebran Gabriel no woman should pass this point, and the rocky steep path is not for those with shaky ankles or missteps in foot work.
Above all images from Kebran Gabriel on Lake Tana.
By the time we got to the Azwa Mariam Monastery the sun crept out and the waters much calmer. Blaming the bad weather and slow ride on our captain, I suggested strongly that I captain the boat to Azwa Mariam which had perhaps the most well preserved paintings and murals of the day. So I took the help while our former captain took to rest and took the helm of this pitifully slow boat.
We finished our journey by cruising to the outlet of the Blue Nile and then back at the hotel in time for dinner. While hanging my still wet clothes to dry I met Gareth and Helen, two Kiwi’s who after working the past several years in London decided to shove the rat race aside and hop upon bikes and head back to New Zealand – the long way around! But they were in Bahir Dar sans motorcycles. Turns out that Helen, who just learned to ride a few weeks before hopping on her classic BMW F650 (the older carburated model), was having problems with a caliper for her bike. They’ve been waiting a week for a part to be shipped from USA. They’re bikes are sitting at a hotel in Gondar, which is where I’m heading next, and they took the trip to Bahir Dar on a bus with a friend who flew in from London for a couple weeks. They’re not sure how long until they get the part, so they’re not wasting time just sitting around. We made plans to connect again in Gondar.