Glimpses of the Blue Nile and Simien Mountains
Saga’s ‘Antique Land’ led us on an amazing cultural trail but as we travelled across the Ethiopian Highlands, natural wonders added their own magical touch.
The Blue Nile
“The Blue Nile, a day trip from Addis?” Not for us on a gentle outing but as we approached the vast gorge area, cliffs shimmering in the morning haze, we could imagine the river beyond the escarpment, forging its way into the distance through the ‘Grand Canyon of Ethiopia’. It stretches 480 km with gorges plunging down 1500 metres in places. We could not see it all but vibes tingled all over me when we scrambled up a rocky plateau strewn with prickly pear and aloe vera. Far below, under the quaint archways of a stone bridge used by locals, the river Gur – barely a stream this time of year- made its way towards the Nile of my dreams, I just had to wait another day. Lammergeyers circled overhead while a golden-backed woodpecker drummed on a tree.
Next morning we flew north to the beautiful lakeside resort of Bahir Dar garlanded in jacaranda, roses and palms. The sweet fragrance of frangipani lingered in the air and the sun rose in magnificent colours over the placid lake. As big as an inland sea and fed by many streams, Tana claims the source of the Blue Nile. So we sailed across the southern tip and as we reached the point where the river flows out, a hippo family came to greet us, groaning and grunting to their heart’s content. A rare occurrence, said the guide, and even the old man in a canoe stopped to look, his freshly-collected papyrus blowing in the breeze, incense for the gods. There the river heads south then west through the canyons before turning back north towards Sudan and the confluence with the White Nile near Khartoum. In the rainy season, the Blue Nile provides over 80% of the water for the combined rivers.
But just 35km from the lake, the Blue Nile Falls promised to dazzle us after a bone-rattling ride among donkey carts, rickety huts and heaps of cow dung fuel. At the end of the lane, a pretty girl sold hats and beads then all was quiet as we rambled through shrubs and trees, looking for shade in the rising heat. Monkeys swung on high branches, butterflies fluttered along the trail then the increasing rumbling of the Nile told us we were close. “Of course” warned the guide, “it’s most awesome in the monsoon. The river is so wide, hundreds of metres sometimes, rushing over the rocks and down into a gorge just 20 metres across. We call it the ‘water that smokes…” But even on that sunny February day, the Falls sent shivers down my spine as we gasped at the panorama from the cliff top then bounced across the long suspension bridge before struggling down the steepest rocks to reach the pools, 45 metres below. No bathing but feeling the spray so close to my face, I could have stayed all day, gazing at lovebirds, bee-eaters and parrots while yellow candle-bush glowed on the nearby slopes.
The Simien National Park
Two days later we headed north on a bumpy 4-hour drive across a luminous plain, boasting the only rice fields in Ethiopia, then climbing through spectacular mountains bristling with rocks and peaks. Our aim was Gondar, a relaxed city speckled with fairy-tale castles and churches, nestling at 2200 metres. Our hilltop hotel had glorious views and in the golden light of dawn, hornbills came to feed on their favourite trees.
But Simien was calling, the ‘mountains of the north’, just 100 km further on, up a steep winding road garlanded in the red feathery strands of the local bush. Buff-coloured hills stretched as far as we could see, villages glistened here and there then we reached the entrance to the Simien Mountains National Park on the world heritage list. Set up in 1966, it covers 412 km2 from 1900 metres to 4533 on the top of Ras Dejen. A few farmers still eke out a living but as advised by UNESCO, plans are on their way to divert the dusty main road. So from the Montane Forest to the Afroalpine zone, this remote location accounts for 1200 species of plants, myriad birds and mammals such as the rare Ethiopian wolf and walia ibex and the thriving Gelada baboons unique to Ethiopia.
“Wow, look, geladas, right by the trail.” There were dozens of them, not much bigger than monkeys but so cute, I thought, with their pale golden hair ruffled around their face as they fed and preened their young, among them a new-born babe. Foraging on the dry grass, they made all sorts of noises, sometimes aggressive -males showing off the sexy red patch on their chest- others twittering like birds but they took no notice of us. They know humans won’t harm them and live in colonies up to 300 strong.
That was truly special but at over 3260 metres the scenery was equally breath-taking, jagged mountains, precipitous cliffs, deep valleys and dark fathomless canyons. “We’ll follow the ridge” said the rangers, “be careful, long way down”. So off we went in single file above a vertiginous gorge, stopping every few steps to enjoy the views from barren hills shifting through light and shade to bushes and trees clinging tenaciously to rocky slopes. We found heather trees, white Abyssinian roses, orchids taller than I’d ever seen and blue sage and thyme which released their scent as we brushed past. It was unreal but on we went, slightly giddy from the altitude, until we reached the picnic spot where injera, the local bread, had never tasted so good. A thick-billed raven watched us for a while then took off, his wide open wings glistening like silver in the late afternoon sun.
The best time to visit Ethiopia is in the dry season, most popular January to March for pleasant temperatures and plenty of sunshine. But this is a mountain country, expect lower temperatures after dark and rain which could happen any time.
Most of the land is above 2000 metres so be prepared for high altitude, especially when you trek in the Simien Mountains. Drink plenty of water, walk at a gentle pace and rest frequently. Good shoes and sun cream are essential, trekking pole helpful.
Saga includes several internal flights but some attractions require fairly long drives on winding mountain roads. Pack tablets or armbands if you think you might need them.
Mosquitoes are rarely found above 2000 metres so the most likely risk on the tourist trail is around Lake Tana (1800 metres). Use plenty of repellent, cover your skin, especially after dark, and consult your GP about malaria.
More natural wonders? Check out Saga’s extension to the Bale Mountains National Park in Southern Ethiopia.
Silver Travel Advisor recommends Saga Holidays