A guide to hiking to the mighty Blue Nile Falls and searching for wildlife on and around its source, the massive Lake Tana.
After an amazing visit to Guassa Conservation Area searching for and finding the endangered Ethiopian Wolf and hundreds of Gelada Baboon, we made our way to Bahir Dar via Addis. Home to Lake Tana and the gateway city to the Blue Nile Falls, we were excited to see more of Ethiopia’s natural wonders.
We had the option of a minibus or a ‘luxury bus’ to get here. As the journey was nine hours, for only a small price difference, it was a no brainer, we opted for the luxury bus. We left at 5am and the road out of Addis was badly deteriorating. There were a few decent stretches of road, though it was predominantly full of large potholes and in some areas, alarmingly it looked like sections had just dropped a foot! All this meant the journey was a tediously slow one. Despite this, we were rewarded with some incredible scenery of hills, valleys and farmland.
We arrived in Bahir Dar around 2pm and walked the short distance to our pre-booked hostel. Everyone and anyone we saw were selling tours of the lake and the falls, but we elected to stick with our DIY approach. After meeting some other travellers at the hostel we decided to head to the Blue Nile Falls the following day with one of them.
Blue Nile Falls
Our trip to Blue Nile Falls was tale of mixed fortunes. We walked to the local bus station – chaotic and a little intimidating. After a bit of harassment, we eventually got on a very old, rundown minibus and waited for it to fill up. It took a couple of hours driving on very rough unsealed roads, picking up and dropping people off along the way, before we reached the village of Tis Abay.
From Tis Abay we purchased our entrance tickets (Birr50 per adult, USD$1.50) and were pointed in direction of the falls. You can hire a guide for about Birr 300-400 per group from near the ticket office (you will be approached), but having already done our route research, we confidently chose to hike without a guide. A decision we would later regret!
There are two routes you can take to reach the falls:
- The Shorter: Boat route (boat across the river and a 10 minute walk)
- The longer: Eastern route (just over 2km walk)
We had chosen the popular circuit of combining the two, hiking the longer 2km trail via the old Portuguese Bridge, for views across from the falls. Then crossing a suspension bridge over to the falls and taking the boat back across the Blue Nile for a short walk back to the town of Tis Abay.
About 50m from the ticket office is the start of the ‘longer’ route. After walking for a while, we realised there were no signs at all and as the road split, we weren’t sure which way to go. Having been forewarned about men and young boys potentially harassing and trying to mislead us, we fool heartedly ignored some young boys pointing us down a track. As a result, we ended up walking in the wrong direction for half an hour and unintentionally got a little of track!
It wasn’t all bad, there was lovely scenery and a bit of bird life too. In fact, it was actually really interesting to see a completely traditional way of life, unaffected by the western world. Passing locals greeted us with smiles and looks of slight confusion, no doubt wondering where we were actually going. After about 30 minutes we realised our mistake.
After doubling back, we finally got back to the main trail and shortly after we came to the Old Portuguese Bridge. This 17th-century stone bridge is said to be the first stone bridge built in Ethiopia. From the bridge we continued up and onto the best viewpoints directly opposite the falls.
Once we reached the viewpoint, our minor frustrations from the unintentional hike detour were forgotten. The 42m high falls were as impressive as we had hoped. At 400m wide, these falls are not small. Visiting in mid-November, we hadn’t been sure what the water flow would be like. Generally speaking, the best time to visit is at the end of the wet season, from August to October. Since the construction of the Hydro-electric station in 2003, the flow reaching the falls is regulated too. And, it is often said to be pretty underwhelming. But not on this day!
The attendant at the ticket office said that the falls were very full, due to scheduled maintenance on the nearby dam. He hadn’t lied, the dam had been opened and the waterfall was thundering. We had timed our visit perfectly, by pure chance! A day later, we were told, would have been substantially less dramatic. The falls certainly lived up to their Amharic name of ‘Tis Abay’ which translates to ‘the Great Smoke’. In fact, the water flow was so strong that as the water fell, we were covered in spray even at a considerable distance.
After plenty of time on this side of the falls, we crossed the wobbly suspension bridge for some different views and a lot more birdlife, including one of our favourite species, the Bee-eater. Had it not been for our earlier ‘detour’ we would have spent more time here exploring.
We were pointed in the direction of a local boat (still no signs) that crossed over the river flowing from the falls back to the village of Tis Abay. The cost for the small boat crossing was Birr 20 (USD$0.60). We were only too happy to take the quicker route back. After crossing the river, it was a short walk back to Tis Abay, where we then waited for the bus to fill up again. As we were now well accustomed to, the journey back to town was again slow, dusty and very crowded.
Following a great day at the the Blue Nile Falls we spent some time considering what we wanted to see on the lake. The most popular option was a boat trip to historic Island Monasteries with their centuries old paintings. The other option being a more wildlife focused day, exploring the lake by boat in search of its wildlife. We had initially hoped to combine the two, but after much deliberation we chose to go with what we love most, wildlife.
In the morning we went for a walk to the main boat jetty, bypassing the hordes of boatmen trying to sell their Island day/half-day excursions. We instead arranged to spend just a couple of hours cruising around the lake privately. We had explained to the friendly boatman that we wanted to see the ‘source of the nile’, hippopotamus and any other wildlife he was able to show us. And off we went.
Bahir Dar literally translates to ‘sea shore’ or ‘by the sea’. And a common, but diminishing sight on Ethiopia’s largest lake is that of the local fisherman on reed boats known as Tankwas. These little vessels are made from papyrus and lashed together by rope. The centuries old practice is said to have been bought to Ethiopia and Sudan by the Nubian dynasty. This is one of very few places in the world where you can still see these ancient boats. Traditionally crafted from Lake Tana’s plentiful papyrus on its shoreline, this craft is no longer practiced. Similar to that of the reed boats of Lake Titicaca Peru, it was fascinating watching the fisherman on these unique little boats of a bygone era.
Well away from the Tankwa fisherman, in shallower parts of the lake we found some hippo. There’s only a small population of hippopotamus in Lake Tana. Often at, or near the source of the Blue Nile these seemingly gentle giants bathe in the shallow waters. Although docile looking we knew from our multiple of hippo encounters throughout Africa, that these creatures can be extremely volatile if you get too close. It’s no surprise the Tankwa fisherman keep their distance!
As of 2015, Lake Tana was designated a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve because of its massive ecological importance. It’s not only hippo’s you can find in the lake, it’s a birding hotspot. After watching the hippos for a while, we cruised closer to the lakes shores. There were multiple species of Kingfisher, Heron and Stork, African Darters and Great White Pelican.
After a lovely trip out on the lake, we spent sometime on our own exploring the banks on foot close to Kurftu Resort and Spa. There was plenty to see on its shores for a couple of bird enthusiasts. More Red-Cheeked Cordon-Bleu, African Fish Eagle, various Kingfishers and even some Hoopoe were flying around. Some were only too willing to pose for the camera.
To fully appreciate the massive scale of the lake we were keen to find some sort of vantage point. Looking around, we saw one possible option the Grand Hotel & Resort (now Radisson Hotel Bahir Dar). We went into the swankiest hotel we had seen in Ethiopia and worked the charm offensive with reception. They very kindly said a bellboy would take us up to the rooftop, so we could take a quick photo. The views were awesome and we were very grateful to the staff for letting us up there. From here we headed back to our hostel where we arranged a minibus to Gondar for the following day.
The problem with travelling by minibus in Ethiopia, is that they won’t leave until they are full. And when we say full, we mean packed in like sardines in a tin. As a rule, the number of seats on the bus is half the amount of people they’ll squeeze on. So for a 10 seater van, expect 20 people to be considered full enough to depart. Luckily, we were the first in and got the front seats with the driver, so we weren’t too cramped. We drove around in circles for two hours before finally filling the bus bound for Gondar and next part of our Ethiopian adventure; Hiking the Simien Mountains.
The journey we were promised, would take only three hours, it took over five! All part of the fun of backpacking through Ethiopia!
Getting to/from and around
Addis – Bahir Dar
Minivans, standard buses and luxury buses (Selam Bus or Sky bus) operate between Addis and Bahir Dar. We travelled with Sky bus, which was very comfortable. Their ticket office was located at Itegue Taitu Hotel (which was where we stayed). Tickets cost Birr 350 p/p (US$10.50). The journey takes around 9 hours, with a lunch stop and 1-2 toilet breaks (bush toilets only!)
Bahir Dar – Gondar
Minivans are the easiest and cheapest option costing Birr 100 (USD$3) p/p. You can pre-book a seat at the minibus station in town, or ask you accommodation to arrange it for you, which will usually include a pick you up from your accommodation. This may cost a little extra, but worth it in order to avoid the hassle at the bus station. You’re generally first onboard, so you can grab the front seats. This saves you being packed in like sardines in the back. This is a particularly useful tip for any minibus in Ethiopia. Minibuses depart when full, so you may have to wait a while. Allow 5 hours travel time, even if they tell you 3 hours!
To/from Bahir Dar – Tis Abay
Minivans can be caught from the minibus station in town. The journey cost Birr 15 (USD$0.50) p/p takes 1-2hours.
You can easily arrange tours from Bahir Dar that include transfers, if being crammed into a local minivan isn’t your sort of thing.
There are loads of accommodation options in Bahir Dar. You often don’t get a lot of bang for your buck in Ethiopia and places are often overpriced. Check out booking.com for options and read some reviews before you commit.
We stayed at a hostel near the lake. Our room was fine, but the owner was very pushy trying to sell us tours both in Bahir Dar and the Simien Mountains. It made us feel uncomfortable and for this reason, we won’t name the hostel on this occassion.
Best time to visit
As a whole the drier months from mid-October through to April are the best time to visit Ethiopia.
For the Blue Nile Falls, the best chance of seeing them full is the latter part of the wet season from July to first half of October. This is when the flow is generally at its strongest. If you’re visiting the falls during the dry season (from December to February), it will likely just be an underwhelming trickle.
How much time do you need
In our opinion, 2/3 days is plenty of time to see everything in and around Bahir Dar. Allow half to 1 day to visit Blue Nile Falls. 1 day on the lake and an extra day to see the town (if that interests you). If you’re short on time, you can combine a visit to the falls and lake into a day trip if you hire a guide with transport.
Blue Nile Falls – Essential information and tips
Visiting Blue Nile Falls was a slightly bizarre experience. After arriving at Tis Abay, we had really look for the ticket office. There were no signs and no ‘entrance gate’ or staff checking you had bought a ticket. If you’re going to DIY your visit here, we recommend the following:
- Check how full the falls will be during your planned visit. We have seen pictures of the falls at the end of the dry season and it they were pretty underwhelming. It’s a nice area to explore regardless though.
- Guides are not compulsory. But for about Birr300-400 per group they will provide you with lots of information and importantly prevent you from going the wrong way, like us!
- Speak to the ticket office for details on route to the falls. There were no maps available when we visited
- If going solo without a guide, make sure you have downloaded Maps.me so you have an offline map and don’t unintentionally get a little off track.
- Don’t be fooled by the name ‘Blue Nile.’ It’s certainly not blue. Soil erosion upstream means it’s full of sediment, and a far more appropriate name would be the ‘Brown Nile’!
- Locals may offer to take you to the falls (or harass you). Don’t expect this to be free. They can get quite nasty if you refuse to pay or don’t pay them what they demand.
Lake Tana – Essential information and tips
The Lake Tana Island Church/Monasteries boat trips gets a lot of very mixed feedback. We recommend establishing exactly what’s included before you book. If you book through your accommodation, you will probably pay more than booking direct with a boatman. However, this may ensure a smoother excursion. If you book directly with a boatman, the price you pay will come down to your negotiation skills. The recurring criticism of these excursions were that they were:
- Overpriced, overrated and over touristy
- Entry into each church was an additional cost, but sold as included in the overall trip cost
- Trips were sold as ‘full’ or ‘half’ day excursions, but are often considerably shorter
- Things that people thought they were going to see were often bypassed
- Passengers often pay significantly different prices, leaving some feeling ripped off
If it’s wildlife you interested in, you can easily negotiate private trips out on the lake for a fraction of the price of the island trips.
- Antibacterial handwash
- Decent reusable water bottle(s). By bringing a couple of decent-sized reusable water bottles, you can minimize the impact you have on your travels.
- Quick-dry travel towel
- Some people are content with just seeing wildlife. But if like us you have a passion for wildlife photography, we highly recommend taking a decent zoom lens. We shoot the majority of our wildlife pics with a Canon 100-400mm.
- A good wide angle lens is highly recommended.
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