Some 25km southeast of Bahir Dar as the crow flies, the 400m-wide Blue Nile Falls – known locally as Tis Isat (“Smoking Water”) – are one of Ethiopia’s most compelling natural phenomena. Described by Scottish explorer James Bruce as “a magnificent sight, that ages, added to the greatest length of human life, would not efface or eradicate from my memory”, the falls consist of four separate streams that plunge up to 45m over a formation of solidified lava. Unfortunately, Ethiopia’s most famous waterfall has become a rather capricious phenomenon in recent years, thanks to the opening of a hydroelectric plant through which much of the river’s water is frequently diverted: at times the cascade is reduced to a mere trickle, though between late July and early October – the height of the rainy season – the falls remains reliably spectacular. Even when the water is low, however, the hike to the falls makes for a pleasant excursion, and can be particularly rewarding for birdwatchers.
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Many people visit the waterfall as an organized day excursion from Bahir Dar, though it’s also very easy to visit independently, via the village of Tis Abay (“Smoke of the Nile”), which is connected to Bahir Dar by bus.
Hiking to the falls
There are two footpaths from Tis Abay to the waterfall. The longer one, just over 2km long, skirts past the hydroelectric plant, crosses the gorge below the falls on a seventeenth-century stone-and-lime bridge built by the Portuguese and then turns back for a series of commanding viewpoints facing the main drop. The riverine woodland here hosts several striking birds, including the blue-breasted bee-eater, white-cheeked turaco and yellow-fronted parrot.
The easier walk entails crossing the Nile above the falls by motorboat, then following a flat footpath for 500m to a viewpoint west of the main cataract. You may want to use one route in and the other out: a Swiss-constructed suspension bridge across the west side of the gorge connects the two to form a walking circuit that takes roughly an hour.