Known locally as Tis Isat - 'Smoke of Fire' - the Blue Nile Falls is the most dramatic spectacle on either the White or the Blue Nile rivers. Four hundred metres (1,312 feet) wide when in flood, and dropping over a sheer chasm more than forty-five metres (150 feet) deep, the falls throw up a continuous spray of water, which drenches onlookers up to a kilometre away. This misty deluge produces rainbows, shimmering across the gorge, and a small perennial rainforest of lush green vegetation, to the delight of the many monkeys and multicoloured birds that inhabit the area.
To reach the falls, which are about thirty-five kilometres (22 miles) away, drive south from the town for about half an hour, and stop at Tis Isat village. Here travellers will quickly find themselves surrounded by a retinue of sometimes overzealous youthful guides who, for a small fee, will show the way and point out several places of historic interest en route.
After leaving the village the footpath meanders first beside open and fertile fields, then drops into a deep rift that is spanned by an ancient, fortified stone bridge built in the seventeenth century by Portuguese adventurers and still in use. After a thirty-minute walk, a stiff climb up a grassy hillside is rewarded by a magnificent view of the falls, breaking the smooth edge of the rolling river into a thundering cataract of foaming water.
A rewarding but longer trek is to walk along the east bank all the way to the back of the falls; crossing the river by tankwa.
The site overlooking the waterfall has had many notable visitors over the years, including the late eighteenth-century traveller James Bruce, and, in more recent times, Queen Elizabeth II of Britain.
Lake Tana: Source of the Blue Nile
Rivalling the attraction of the Blue Nile Falls are the thirty-seven islands scattered about on the 3,000-square-kilometre (1,860square-mile) surface of Ethiopia's largest body of water, Lake Tana. Some twenty of these islands shelter churches and monasteries of significant historical and cultural interest. They are decorated with beautiful paintings and are the repository of innumerable treasures
The islands and peninsulas of Lake Tana can most conveniently be approached by boat from the port of Bahar Dar, on the southern side of the lake, though boats crossing the lake can also be obtained at the port of Gorgora on the northern shore. You can hire a boat from the Maritime Transport Authority, based in Bahar Dar. There is a minimum charge of 150 birr per hour, and as the nearest monastery Kebran Gabriel - is about a two-hour return trip, expect to spend a minimum of 300 birr for a group of 1-5 people. It is more economical to team up with other travellers for lake crossings.
Interesting and historic churches and monasteries on or around the lake can be found on the islands of Birgida Maryam, Dega Estefanos, Dek, Narga, Tana Cherkos, Mitsele Fasilidas, Kebran and Debre Maryam, as well as the peninsulas of Gorgora, Mandaba, and Zeghe, which has long been renowned for its coffee.
These places all have excellent churches. Though founded much earlier, most of the buildings date from the late sixteenth or early seventeenth century. Many have beautiful mural paintings and church crosses, and house crowns and clothes of former kings.
Access for the most part is closed to women, who are allowed to land on the banks of the islands but not permitted to proceed any further. The clergy, who are usually very good humoured, can sometimes be prevailed upon to bring some of their treasures to the water's edge.
Women are, however, permitted to visit churches on the Zeghe peninsula and the nearby church of Ura Kidane Mehret, as well as Narga Selassie.
Kebran Gabriel, the nearest monastery to Bahar Dar, is a principal tourist attraction for male visitors only, as this is one of the places where women are forbidden. Originally established in the fourteenth century and rebuilt during the reign of Emperor Iyasu I (1682-1706), it is an unassuming but impressive building with a distinct cathedral atmosphere.
Ura Kidane Mehret is another popular attraction that is open to women. Located on the Zeghe peninsula, the design of the monastery dates from the same period as that of the one at Kebran Gabriel but is a more decorative building, arched over with a huge conical thatched roof and painted inside with colourful frescoes depicting scenes from biblical lore and from the history of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.
The third principal attraction amongst the islands of Lake Tana is Dega Estefanos, which, like Kebran Gabriel, is closed to women. Although farther away from Bahar Dar (allow a day to get there and back and about 1,000 birr for the boat journey), it is well worth visiting. A steep trek up a winding path leads towards the monastery on the summit. Some ninety metres (300 feet) above the surface of the lake are the low, round, thatched-roof buildings that house the monks, and nearby an arch set into a high stone wall leads to a grassy clearing, at the centre of which stands the church of Saint Stephanos. Despite the fact that it houses a Holy Madonna painted during the reign of Emperor Zara Yaqob (1434-1468), it is a relatively new building, erected about a century ago after the original structure had burned down in a grass fire.
The real historic interest in Dega Estefanos, however, lies in its treasury, secreted away under a massive antique lock, which is opened with a huge iron key. Here, together with numerous piles of brightly coloured ceremonial robes, are the glass-sided coffins containing the mummified remains of several of the former emperors of Ethiopia: Yekuno Amlak, who restored the Solomonic dynasty to the throne in 1270; Dawit, late fourteenth century; Zara Yaqob, fifteenth century; Za Dengel, early seventeenth century; and Fasilidas, also seventeenth century.
Also of interest is the sixteenth-century Susneyos Palace near Gorgora, which served as a 'blueprint' for the famous Gondar palaces. It was built for Emperor Susneyos, founder of the Gondar dynasties, by Catholic missionaries.
Bird lovers should make a point of visiting Fasilidas Island, near the eastern side of the lake, which is the breeding base for a number of wetland species.