Seeking the source of the Nile in Ethiopia

Drawing on a history filled with adventure and mystery, a journey to the Blue Nile Falls reveals unheralded and surprising sides of the celebrated river.

For millennia it was a mystery for the ancients, for 18th century explorers it was a lifetime obsession, and for most Europeans it was the Boy’s-Own discovery thriller: the source of the Nile. And here I am, standing right in front of it ... well, the Blue Nile. 

Water churns over a chunk of curving 400m rock face — the Blue Nile Falls. It tumbles vertically with frightening power into a plume of mist 45m below. It’s thunderous. And it’s chocolate brown.

The falls are in a parkland setting, a short stroll from the village of Tis Isat (“smoking waters”). The sun shines on picnickers and kids kick a ball. A bridal party is photographed, shrieking wet — too close to the “smoke”. 

With barely two columns of flowing water it’s a far cry from the photos of yesteryear. This volume looks about 5 per cent of its full curtain potential, reduced by a dam and the current dry season.

Tis Isat is 30km or 1½ hours away by unsealed road from Bahir Dar, Ethiopia’s fourth-largest city and gateway to important Lake Tana, at 3500sq km, its largest lake. It was known to the ancient Egyptians and Greeks. These falls are not the source of the river. Unnoticed and unheralded, I have passed over it several times on the bridge between my hotel and downtown Bahir Dar; it’s the unprepossessing outlet from lake to river.

The Nile; such a celebrity it needs no description. The world now knows the river is formed by the White Nile and Blue Nile, meeting at Khartoum in Sudan. But the ancients and Europeans sought a single source (headwaters). Jesuit missionary Pedro Paez is credited with discovering the Blue Nile about 1590 but didn’t publicise witnessing the falls at Tis Isat. Scottish explorer James Bruce did publicise “his find” 180 years later. Further afield, Englishman John Speke sighted Lake Victoria in 1863, claiming it as the headwaters. American Henry Stanley (who asked “Dr Livingstone, I presume?”) confirmed this in 1875 as the White Nile source.

Bahir Dar (“sea shore”) lies 58km north-west of Addis Ababa at 1800m on the highland plateau, easily accessible by road and air from the capital.

It’s the capital of Amhara province that provides about a quarter of the nation’s population — and its language.

What a pleasant surprise to see wide, palm-lined streets that wrap around historic, indeed photogenic, Lake Tana. This university town, with its modern sports stadium and regional market, seems bustling with commercial enterprise. 

Oddly, Bahir Dar spurns expansive lake views. It’s impossible to access, or see, it for high vegetation. Near St George church, between lake and a street of hotels and offices, there are market gardens. Our quiet and leafy Abay Minch Hotel is 5km from town over the nascent Blue Nile. We get about in cheap and cheerful tuktuks, wandering at will, unhindered.

The highlight is a day on Lake Tana visiting the many monasteries sequestered on 20 of its 37 islands. Many are 16th century, some built on the shrines of antiquity. Hidden to us but only 100m from town is a jetty with 4m-boats for hire. We set forth with Dawit, an English-speaking guide. It’s a beautiful day giving a different perspective of Bahir Dar. 

Our first stop is Kebran Gabriel monastery. A dark trail passes the monks’ decrepit eating and sleeping quarters. Living here looks dire. 

At a concrete bunker Dawit proudly shows “treasures”. It is distressing to see important illustrated manuscripts kept on a plank in this three-sided structure. The people are devout but the Ethiopian Orthodox Church is poor. 

On to the 16th century church with its column portico, well-preserved biblical paintings and ecclesiastical drums. The instructions are no photography and “no water”.

We head for a cluster of monasteries on Zega Peninsula across open water. It feels like an island.

After 15 minutes, halfway up a steep, wooded hill, our track lights up with handicraft stalls on either side. Hanging textiles are caught in a shaft of sunlight. Ura Kidane Meret is the most famous monastery. 

It’s crammed with vivid, some horrific, illustrated stories. A familiar St George is depicted slaying a dragon. Ethiopia has hundreds of saints including Belai the Cannibal and one who prayed for years on one leg. George, that ubiquitous saint, features prominently as Ethiopia’s patron. This is a place to linger. And we do.

We visit the recently completed Zeghie Satekela museum. Here, at least, exhibits are kept in old cabinets.

We are invited to a nearby wooden building. It’s the monks’ refectory. After adjusting for the dank and darkness it’s clear these shabby monks are getting plastered. 

I’m handed a beer, quickly putting it down. Ghastly; it’s thick, full of pips and sediment. At thatched-roofed Azuwa Maryam monastery, near the boat landing, I find, again, we attract tourists eager to hear Dawit’s English commentary. 

We’ve been educated and exhilarated but it’s nearly 3pm. Lunch would be welcome. The boatman drops us at the Lake Shore restaurant near town; from strange 16th century into modernity. 

We dine on the lake’s finest fish in a garden setting, entertained by a swimming monitor lizard and a fisherman in a papyrus “tankwa”. Ethiopia just keeps getting better.


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