Home » All, Ethiopia Bike Trip 1998-1999, Travel

042 – The Blue Nile Falls

Submitted by on November 13, 1998 – 9:26 pm
Tiru Gondar Sons_opt


The next day after a morning trip by bike to where the Blue Nile emerges from Lake Tana I returned to the Ghion to find Martin sitting in one of the lawn chairs on the grass. He was waiting for Andale, his right hand man on his project, and a second man from the Ministry of Agriculture. The two of them had helped him secure a truck and move some equipment from an old lab building to a new one and he had invited them back to the Ghion for a beer.

This was a hectic time for Martin. He had to hire staff to clean the lab, get the boats in running order, fix the nets and see what equipment was available locally, who owned it, what he could use, what needed to be repaired and what was in good working order. Meanwhile, his professor and thesis advisor was in Addis trying to negotiate the entry of 3,000 kg of laboratory equipment, aquariums and lake pools into the country. They wanted to bring it in duty free and in order to do that they had to agree to leave all of it behind as a gift to Ethiopia when they left. Martin hoped that by the time his project was finished that some Ethiopians would be trained and interested in the use of this equipment because they would likely have the finest fisheries lab in Africa.

Andale and the man from the Ministry of Agriculture were of course Ethiopian and when they arrived the discussion centreed mainly on the personalities of the different people who worked for the Ministry of Agriculture, the Ministry of Fisheries and the Ministry of Livestock, all of whom had a stake in Lake Tana and therefore in Martin’s research. They talked about the kind of personnel that Martin was going to need for his work here and the different people that used to work with a previous PhD student and where they went afterwards. They discussed different exams that they had to take for promotions and some unfair practices that occurred.

They also discussed the ways for Ethiopians to take advantage of Martin’s project, to use it to leap frog into Holland to complete a Master’s or get further training on a Dutch fellowship program. They could even go to the Dutch embassy and apply for work using Martin’s project and his research as a reference and to help them along.

When they left I asked Martin if he could sum up the aim of his research in a simple sentence and my question sparked a fascinating thirty-minute explanation from him of what exactly his research involved, why he was here and what he was doing.

There were supposed to be 14 species of barber fish in Lake Tana and he wanted to find out the exact evolutionary path that each had followed. Using his own boats and nets (as well as local fishermen) he was going to collect specimens from all the different species and compare their morphology, their basic physical appearance (for example the shape of their jaws and the shape of their heads). He was also going to do a genetic study and by laying the results of these two approaches one over the other he’d be able to come up with a relatively accurate time line for the separation and development of each species, their speciation.

As he explained it to me speciation often occurs with an enivoronmental change. For example a long period of drought might cause a large Rift Valley lake to dry up and separate into several smaller individual lakes. A species of fish will be divided up between those smaller lakes and each population will follow a separate evolutionary path. In time heavy rains might bring the lakes together and form one large lake again. The original populations of fish may have developed so far along separate lines that they don’t recognize each other anymore, can’t mate and have offspring and therefore have become different species.

Lake Tana, Martin explained, was quite a bit more complex. It was essentially one large bowl and even if in its past history it experienced long periods of drought it would have remained a single body of water, just smaller. The speciation, therefore, followed a more complicated path, or at least a path more difficult to figure out and analyze. The issue was further muddied because in the barber fish he was looking at it was possible to have two fish with totally distinct morphologies who were in fact the same species and still able to produce offspring. One fish will have very large molar teeth because it eats snails and needs those teeth to crush the snails. Another fish will have small teeth because it eats plant life and algae. But those fish could have been the same when they hatched from the eggs and it was a different food supply that caused them to develop in different ways. So if you took sperm and eggs from these two very distinct fish as adults they will actually combine and produce viable offspring.

I was quite pleased that he gave me this little thumbnail sketch of the work he was planning on doing, but I couldn’t help but contrast it with the conversation that preceded it. I wondered if Andale, the man from the Ministry of Agriculture or any of the dozens of other Ethiopians involved truly appreciated or cared about these academic questions that so obviously fascinated Martin. Certainly they didn’t seem to come up. No one in Ethiopia appeared to be asking Martin, “Why are you here? What is your research concerned with?” Because that wasn’t really at the front of their minds.

At the front of their minds was career advancement and wages and work and of course the economic viability of the lake. It was a functioning lake with a small but vital fisheries. Fishermen were out there every day catching fish and bringing them in. This fish was cut up and processed and sent to market, sent to restaurants and it was cooked and people paid for it and ate it. People made their living from these fish and supported their families. For the various Ministries that was the whole issue. Martin’s research had an ecological angle and linked with their concerns in that way, but ultimately it was a pure science question to do with the evolution of species.

I also wondered how difficult it was going to be for Martin to separate the practical day-to-day concerns of getting the project up and running from the actual accumulation of data that will further his research. For example he’d had a very satisfying day in which he’d gotten hold of a truck and a bunch of people and located and moved and inventoried all kinds of gear. All these physical things happened and he worked hard and meanwhile his professor was in Addis working on getting the permits settled so tons more equiment could be brought into the country. They could work like this for months in fact had been working like this for months, could work on it for the rest of their lives and not accumulate a single item of data. Getting a boat ready, getting a net ready, hiring staff, cleaning the lab, sorting the nets – all of this activity could absorb all of Martin’s time and be very satisfying and involving but in the end do nothing towards accumulating any hard data that would contribute to his research project or his PhD thesis.

Martin said that in his mind he had no trouble separating the two out and his supervisor in fact had been hammering away at this idea, saying that you had to be very careful that you didn’t get so caught up in just the administrative and cultural aspects of being in Ethiopia that you totally forget the real purpose of why you were there.

A Pleasant Encounter

I was getting good at spotting Ethiopian teachers (the nicest people in the country) and stopped to speak with one about 10 kilometers outside of Bahir Dar on my way to see the Blue Nile Falls. Being a rural teacher was the only way to explain why such a well-dressed and well-spoken man was simply standing there, in the middle of nowhere. We soon gathered a crowd as we chatted about his work and whether or not it was currently snowing in Canada. One young girl sparked my photographic instincts. She was very young, around 9 or 10, but wore a leather baby harness that before then I’d only seen older women wear. This garment wrapped around her chest and around her waist and ended in twenty or thirty leather straps about a foot and a half long. Each strap was strung with a half dozen sea shells like beads on a string. The shells clattered together as she moved.

Early in the morning when it was cold the women wore a third layer of clothing, a blanket wrapped around their whole body so I couldn’t see the shells, only hear them. Before I knew what it was I was immensely puzzled to hear all the women rattling as they walked, for all the world like they were dry skeletons underneath with no flesh at all.

As I settled down to take a picture of the girl and brought the image into focus I saw two tiny feet sticking out from behind her It was her baby brother, hidden in the folds of cloth and leather on her back. I moved over to take a picture from the other side so as to include the baby and he stared at me with wide interested eyes.

The teacher taught grade 6 and he said that he taught all subjects. I asked him if the students had to pay to attend school and he said that they didn’t, it was free. I made the observation then that all these children that I saw working in the fields (or chasing ferenjis) could go to school if they didn’t have other responsibilities, could go to school if they chose. He told me that it wasn’t quite so simple as that. School was free in the sense that there were no school fees, but books and pens and clothing all cost money and these farmers had little if any cash to spare for such luxuries.


The village near the falls bore the same name as the falls: Tis Abay. I was expecting hordes of would-be guides and an extremely annoying hard sell, but just as on the road I found everyone to be very low-key. The people in Tis Abay had developed a side-business of making and selling the long and wide pieces of cloth that they called “scarves”. They weren’t really scarves at all of course, more like a wrap. I’d been wanting to buy one to keep the sun off my head and the flies out of my ears, but I still wasn’t clear on the etiquette of this item – were they suitable for men as well as women?

At the far end of town I found a young fellow inside a small building in a barbed wire enclosure – the local tourism office. He seemed embarrassed about charging me for the ticket and asked hopefully if I was a student. I said no. “Then you must give me 15 birr,” he said. And my bicycle, it seemed, must stay inside the barbed wire. Buses, trucks, and mini-vans were allowed to drive the final 1.5 kilometers, but bicycles (for reasons I didn’t even dream of asking about) must stay behind. It was like a punishment. If you are dumb and crazy enough to ride a bicycle 30 km to get here, then we are going to make you walk the final kilometer and a half. Those with brains enough to ride in comfort may as well ride the whole way.

Cycling, I learned did nothing for your walking muscles. Or perhaps it was a psychological resistance to the slowness of it. Either way I struggled through the 30-minute hike to the falls viewing area though there was nothing difficult about it. Deep down I didn’t really want to arrive at the Falls. There was no way they could live up their billing and I wanted to put off the actual arrival as long as possible.

The Falls themselves were not that high (the brochure said 40 meters) but stretched 400 meters across, broken up into four or five major sections. At the first viewing point I found 2 benches under a tree. A young boy suddenly jumped out of the bushes, a Pepsi in one hand a Mirinda in the other.

“Kaskazza, he said. “Amist birr.” Cold. 5 birr.

“Arat,” I countered. (four) I appreciated the work involved in getting cold drinks up there, but I thought double the village price was enough. He agreed, but when he spotted a mini-van load of ferenji cresting the hill he pleaded with me not to tell them I’d paid only 4 birr and not the 5 he was going to charge them.

The Falls sent up a wet spray that kept the surroundings drenched. I looked in vain for the monkeys that “delighted in the mist”, but much nearer the falls I did see 3 naked men dancing around in what must have felt like a cold rain.

The ride back to Bahir Dar was much tougher than the ride there. The sun was high and hot and I soon had fields of white water blisters over my forearms, hands and neck. When I wiped the back of my neck my hands came away soaking wet from the burst blisters. The road was relatively smooth, but even so the constant pounding had blistered the palms of both hands and my body didn’t have the same strength to manhandle the bike through the really rough patches. Traffic was light, but each truck and bus raised a cloud of choking dust that lingered long after it was gone. The 4-wheel drive Toyota trucks moved at high speed and pelted me with rocks.

I ran into Martin at the gate of the Ghion when I got back and he seemed kind of shocked to see the condition I was in. I really looked a mess and my bike was even worse. A disturbing grinding noise started up in the crank area. An hour on my body and two hours on the bike and things were looking better.

041 - The Ghion Hotel Crowd
043 - Bahir Dar to Werota

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