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IN PICTURES | Along the banks of Ethiopia’s Blue Nile

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The Blue Nile pours out of Ethiopia’s Lake Tana as a gentle bubbling stream. Around is an ancient land with life-giving waters.


If one needs to be transported to biblical times, the time machine to do so resides on the banks of the Blue Nile in Ethiopia. This ancient land of many cultures and religions has resisted modernity, leaving many of its traditions intact, as I witnessed traveling through the historic Christian circuit of Ethiopia.

The mysterious Nile was long-hidden from Western geographers and explorers. It was not until the expeditions of such great travelers as Bruce, Burton, and Speke in the 18th century that the origins were confirmed: the White Nile originates in East Africa’s Lake Victoria, while the Blue Nile pours out of Ethiopia’s Lake Tana.

It merges with the smaller tributary, the White Nile, at Khartoum, Sudan, to form the mighty Nile River.

The Blue Nile was responsible for the annual floods that contributed to the fertility of the Nile Valley and subsequent rise of the Egyptian civilization. This ended with the construction of the Aswan Dam in the 1960s in Egypt.

For my exploration, I started in Addis Ababa and flew into Bahir Dar, a clean, safe and well-maintained city (by African standards) and the closest approach to the Blue Nile.

It offers access to more than 20 of the world’s oldest monastic churches that date back to the 14th century, located on the peninsulas and islands of Lake Tana. I hired a boat that regularly plies Lake Tana to visit many of its churches and small villages.

I was quite surprised to see locals operating papyrus boats (tankwas) that have been in use since the 9th century BC, either to fish or transport firewood across the lake. The only other place where I have seen papyrus boats still in use was in Lake Titicaca, Bolivia. 

My biblical adventure took me first to the magnificent 14th century Ura Kidane Mehret church decorated with its astoundingly beautiful murals painted more than 250 years ago.

From a rather humble building, some of Ethiopia’s fabled treasures were revealed to me by a priest of the church: ancient parchment books from the 9th century, jewel-studded crowns of emperors, historic battle implements and the mummified remains of 14 of Ethiopia’s most revered emperors.

I was quite surprised at the poor quality of the storage cabinets and an absolute lack of proper security for such priceless treasures.

It barely took a five-minute drive from the lakeside town of Bahir Dar to reach the spot where the Blue Nile flows out of Lake Tana as a gentle bubbling stream. But driving further downstream for about 40 kilometers, the power of the first cataract of the Blue Nile can be appreciated at Tis-Isat village. The village is a market settlement of the Amhara people who have inhabited this area for over 2,000 years, farming crops like wheat, sorghum and teff (from which injera, the delicious national bread, is made).

The footpath leaving the village meanders first beside fertile open fields, then drops into a deep basaltic rift. After about a 30-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 white water.

The approach to the falls was surreal with cowherds playing the flute and local women gathering water from the river in ceramic amphoras (ancient jugs) – scenes that were truly biblical. The Tis-Isat falls had been one of Ethiopia’s major tourist attractions until a decade ago.

Little did I realize that what I saw, despite being impressive, was a far cry from its gloried past. Since 2003, a giant hydroelectric power project has reduced the giant half mile wide water curtain to a mere third of its size. Even though there were many gorges nearby to install a power plant, the government decided on this easier location which has unfortunately affected fish farming in Lake Tana and tourism in the area.

Unlike some of the great falls of the world – Niagara, Victoria and Iguaçu – with endless hotels and tourist offerings nearby, the falls of the Blue Nile are located in a pastoral and primal setting that should showcase its natural might, but it’s being slowly being dammed into silence. Many young rural women and some men in the area sport tattoos of traditional designs, which are as diverse as Ethiopian society, usually indicating the bearer’s cultural, religious and ethnic background.

Traditional tattoos have many forms — from rows of blue or black lines from chin to chest, dots on the forehead to crucifixes or crescents on the back of the hand and tattoos designed to darken pinkish gums.

Meran Kabede, a young lady in her 20s peered through my car window, as I was taking photos of her tattoos. “I am ashamed of my tattoos. My mother told me that it would beautify me but my friends in Bahir Dar tell me that it’s a sign of backwardness and ignorance,” she said in halting English. While I appreciated the beautiful and unique facial decorations, I could very well see her desire to shed her rural identity for more modern times.

Not much has changed along the river bank over the centuries; donkey carts transport goods inland while papyrus and dugout boats carry people across the different villages lining the river.

One man, carrying an ancient firearm on his shoulder, claimed to be protecting himself from any number of ethnic conflicts that could arise. The Eritrean, Somali, South Sudan and Kenyan border areas have always been areas of unrest. In fact, I was fully escorted by a Kalashnikov-toting soldier for my tour of the highlands near the Eritrean border.

This ancient land with life-giving waters, in an otherwise parched landscape is both a blessing and curse for Ethiopia. The sharing of the Nile waters has become a contentious issue in Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia where the population explosion has put pressure on water consumption. It is often said that the world’s next war will be fought over water and there are few places as tense as along the river Nile.

-Ramdas Iyer

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Executive Travel: Reneilwe Letsholonyane’s Manchester

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The 37-year-old South African soccer midfielder says he could move to the English city for its sense of serenity and calm.


South Africa’s former national football player Reneilwe ‘Yeye’ Letsholonyane started playing in the streets of Soweto but his fame has often taken him beyond the soccer pitches of South Africa.

Also a fashion entrepreneur and co-founder of the newly-established ShaYe lounge, the veteran midfielder recounts the indelible memories of his most recent holiday to Manchester with his wife, sports presenter Mpho Letsholonyane.

“In the off season of 2018, I had just gotten married. I personally love Jay-Z and my wife loves Beyoncé; and they were having their On The Run 2 tour in Manchester; a major city in the northwest of England.”

READ MORE | Executive Travel: Mpho Popps’ Ghana

Letsholonyane had also always wanted to go to Paris, a major European city and global center for art, fashion, food and culture, so flew to Manchester via the French capital.

The newly-weds spent a few days in Paris and thereon proceeded to Manchester for the concert, flying Air France on both sectors.

“Funnily enough, the economy class on Air France is not as squashed as the economy class on South African Airlines. You’d expect an uncomfortable flight, but that wasn’t the case. There was enough room to stretch your legs and recline your seat,” says the footballer.

Upon landing and clearing customs, a shuttle was waiting for the two to be chauffeured through the city to their hotel. The 40-minute drive was what the 37-year-old says he enjoyed the most. It made him reflect and draw comparisons between his home country and Europe.

At the age of 23, Letsholonyane’s professional career had kicked-started, but it was in 2008 that he joined one of South Africa’s biggest teams, the Kaizer Chiefs Football Club, for an eight-year stint.

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Receiving the call to represent Bafana Bafana for the 2010 World Cup was a moment he recalls vividly.

“We were at camp, and told to check out from the hotel and go home. We were to find out from the media, like other citizens, if we had been selected to play. I remember I was in the streets and didn’t want to focus on the media because I was nervous, panicking and excited.

“My parents broke the news to me, but there was more cheering in my hometown and outside my parent’s home. A soccer pitch and jersey with my number and surname were painted in the streets.”

It was a moment that led to fame and more travels. He flips back to Manchester, gushing about the city’s architecture as he was equally captivated by the serenity of the city and its mild-mannered people.

“The standalone houses are the kind you see on television, with no walls. People that side don’t seem to be worried about burglaries. It seems like the crime rate is low. It’s quiet and it’s the quiet that I like. I remember saying to my wife, ‘I could stay here’.” 

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Letsholonyane admits to seeking alone time to think and ruminate.

Ironically, for the footballer, the Beyoncé and Jay-Z concert was in the home of a football club.

Like all tourists, the couple traveled to Etihad Stadium, the home of Manchester City Football Club, where the musical extravaganza was to take place.

“We were told to use the train; luckily, it was a five-minute walk to the station. We got there but the people around us showed us what to do and where to go. We got off at a station, only to find out we had to wait for another train and it was packed. Then I started thinking about the hassle of getting into the stadium,” he says.

Letsholonyane and his wife dribbled their way through busy subways in Manchester to watch their favorite musicians on stage.

“Getting to Etihad Stadium was a pain-free experience. We got there early and people were idling outside. We went straight in and got seats in the front. There was no opening act, just the artists’ music playing.

Then the lights went dimmer and dimmer.

“It was time, we were about 10 meters away, and we saw them closely. Then it started raining. You’d think people would run for cover but no, people were just enjoying themselves. It was two and half hours of Beyoncé and Jay-Z and an experience never to be forgotten,” he says.

It was well after 1AM when the couple reached their hotel. “There was nothing that made us uncomfortable about walking the streets of Manchester at night. It felt like day.”

The night ended with rain, rounding off a day so different from playing under the hot African sun in the soccer fields of South Africa.

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No Longer In The Wilderness

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Meet the women challenging stereotypes deep in the bush in Botswana’s tourism capital Maun, filling roles conventionally held by men.


For 10 years, until 2018, Botswana had no First Lady, as President Ian Khama was unmarried. Botswana’s first First Lady, Ruth Williams Khama, the wife of Botswana’s first president Sir Seretse Khama, was recognized for her charitable work with women, and the current First Lady, Neo Masisi, is a champion for these causes too.

However, Masisi is also an accountant by profession with an MBA and an impressive resume (United Nations Headquarters in New York, United Nations Economic Commission for Africa and United Nations Integrated Peacebuilding Office in the Central African Republic).

But not just on the frontlines, in the deeper realms of this southern African country and acclaimed tourism destination, there are more women defying stereotypes, especially in its famed safari industry.

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In the country’s tourism capital of Maun, at Kwando Safaris, guests visiting the iconic Okavango Delta waterways and predator plains of the Central Kalahari might be surprised to discover that for over a decade, a majority team of women have been behind the operation.

“Having so many women work in the company was never a policy; it just happened that way. I guess that women were just more capable,” says Sue Smart in her office in Maun.

She talks about her role as the Director of Kwando Safaris for 12 years as an accidental occupation, but a gutsy corporate background primed her for the head position.

“Coming to Gaborone as a volunteer, I worked with children impacted by HIV/AIDS. Then I visited the Okavango Delta on holiday. A chain of life events eventually led to me working at Kwando Safaris’ Kwara Camp, volunteering back of house, in the kitchen, with housekeeping – anywhere they needed it.”

Ungwang Makuluba is Moremi Air’s first local female pilot. Picture: Melanie Van Zyl

Formerly a Director at PricewaterhouseCoopers, with a background in environmental biology, it was a chance meeting with the owner that saw her grow from volunteer to boss in just three months. “In many ways, I was not a conventional fit for this role. I’m not African, a pilot, a guide, or a man, but my background in other areas meant I could run a business – even in the bush.”

Having a woman at the helm has had significant side effects for the company. Many women at Kwando Safaris hold high positions, from the general manager to operations manager to those in reservations to sales and marketing. This unofficial head office policy also extends into the camps in a formal staff management plan, where each lodge has a male and a female camp manager always on duty. 

Looking at the origins of tourism in Botswana, it’s perhaps not surprising that (generally speaking) travel in southern Africa has been a male-dominated industry. After all, the very first visitors to Botswana’s wild spaces were rough and tough gun-slinging, trophy-seeking tourists.

The current CEO of Botswana Tourism is a woman and, attesting to the country’s progressiveness, she’s not the first either. Myra Sekgororoane is encouraging about women in the industry saying, “I have not encountered any significant challenges because of my gender. Perhaps, I have been lucky in that the hospitality and tourism industry tends to have a high predominance of females globally.”

READ MORE | Feisty And Fearless Pioneers Thandi Ndlovu & Nonkululeko Gobodo

According to National Geographic, research shows working women in developing countries invest 90% of their income in their families, compared to the 35% generally contributed by men.

Tumie Matlhware and Ruth Stewart, managers for Travel For Impact, wholeheartedly agree. The Maun-based NGO aims to spread the wealth generated from tourism activities into the community, providing a direct and tangible link between conservation and its benefits.

“We want tourism dollars working beyond the traditional tourism world,” says Stewart, when we meet for coffee at the charming Tshilli Farmstall, another female-run establishment in Maun.

Travel For Impact has a powerful goal, with the slogan of “If every tourist who slept in our beautiful country paid 1 USD for every night they spent here, we would raise in excess of 300,000 USD per year”.

By partnering with exclusive lodges, camps, tour operators and hotels in Botswana, funds generated are put into local community partners, such as support for basket-weaving cooperatives. Looking at the company profile, the NGO funds many projects that support women.

Stewart shares the scientific standpoint endorsed by National Geographic, saying: “Women are the backbone of the community. If you support women, it gets passed down. They buy food, school supplies and more. They are the pillars of society.” 

The corporate social responsibility choice at Kwando Safaris concurs. Smart believes that “the ultimate saviors of animals are people, which is why we sponsor the grassroots initiative, Mummy’s Angels, instead of a more usual conservation project”.

Mummy’s Angels started in April 2018, spearheaded by three women in Maun, to empower mothers with newborns who have little by way of financial support.

“We had second-hand clothes and other baby items in good condition and wanted to donate somewhere it would make a difference,” says one founder, Rochelle Katz.

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Executive Travel: Mpho Popps’ Ghana

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The 32-year-old South African comedian traveled to the West African country for some eye-opening experiences.


South African comedian, actor and entrepreneur, Mpho ‘Popps’ Modikoane, is a frequent traveler but ask him about his happy place and he says it’s a little corner of Africa named Ghana.

He has traveled overseas before, but it was his travels within Africa that opened his eyes to the magic of the continent, and made him realize that all Africans have the same stories and are essentially the same.

“It’s just these borders we were brought up [in that] we don’t take the time to learn about each other’s cultures and share each other’s stories,” says Modikoane.

“I’ve traveled to a lot of countries over the years and early on in my career, I was in the US. A few years ago, I went to Canada for the annual Just For Laughs international comedy festival and these places are amazing, but traveling in Africa has been the most eye-opening for me.”

Mpho ‘Popps’ Modikoane in Ghana. Picture: Supplied

 Modikoane’s career kick-started in 2009 on the reality TV show, So You Think You’re Funny? His growing audiences haven’t stopped laughing since.

With fame, came the chances to travel. His very first trip to West Africa was to Nigeria on Arik Air two years ago, when he flew business class.

“I don’t know what it is about us [black people], but when we don’t have things, we don’t see why it’s necessary – we don’t understand why we have to pay R30,000 ($2,000) for a seat, a leather seat,” he says, chuckling.

He goes on to elaborate with his trademark wit: “The seat is reclined all the way, we are drinking champagne in glasses; I didn’t even know there were glasses on planes…. Even forks and knives. And in business class, you don’t get shouted at by the attendants for reclining your seat four centimeters back, never! Even the magazines are not the same – we get business magazines and informative magazines. We even have a food menu with pages.”

That was his trip to Nigeria when on the ground, he was impressed by the hard work of the locals, the hustle and bustle of the streets and everything from bikes and Maybachs driving past him.

However, Ghana was his most memorable destination where he stayed five days.

“Ghana just looks beautiful and is next to Nigeria and they have this feud going on about who makes the best jollof rice and after tasting both, I have to give it up to Ghana,” says the comedian. 

What he also loved about Ghana was its orderliness, and the warmth of the people.

  What impressed Modikoane was that the people did not wait for the government to give them handouts and opportunities; the locals were willing to work hard to find them.

“The people there work outside of their work, have a business outside of their job and that’s the one thing I’ve come to realize about traveling in Africa. We [South Africans] are sitting in the land of opportunity but we are not working as hard as those from other parts of Africa. That is the magic of going to these places and spending time with other artists or musicians who also may have [on the side] their own clothing store, a restaurant, a barber shop…”

Mpho ‘Popps’ Modikoane in an interview in Ghana. Picture: Supplied

Modikoane juxtaposes his experiences in Ghana and South Africa, making various comparisons in the ways people conduct their lives. “When you go outside of South Africa, you see the Africanness of our continent. We South Africans have the modern, western element and live with white people in our communities and our country is not fully ours, but there, it’s theirs. Their heritage is rich, their culture is rich.”

And the most important part about visiting the rest of Africa for Modikoane?

“They make you feel like a celebrity,” he chuckles again. 


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