The Land Full of Water
A day well spent amid Bishoftu’s tranquil lakes.
As we rumble along Addis Ababa’s crowded streets on our way out of town, weaving amid daring minibuses and darting pedestrians, my muscles tense and my pulse quickens. The further we get from the city center, though, the more the traffic thins out and the construction craze gives way to greenery; the scenery of new buildings switches to that of slender eucalyptus trees ringing the open road. The mountains in the distance seem an invitation to rest.
My non-city-dwelling colleagues and I have been in Addis for nearly a week, and though we’re energized by the capital’s rhythms, we’re more than a bit ready to experience its rural surroundings. Gliding along the smooth asphalt toll road en route to Bishoftu (located some 40 kilometers southeast of the capital), we pass wheat and teff fields on either side. Bulls and donkeys amble along beside us — almost as if to herald our entry into the farm town where we will spend a lazy Saturday.
Bishoftu (or “Debre Zeit,” as it was formerly called) has been a popular weekend getaway for decades. Known for its seven lakes, each now surrounded by luxurious resorts, Bishoftu became the go-to relaxation spot for Addis Ababa residents and tourists alike as far back as the mid-20th century. Even Emperor Haile Selassie favored the town, retreating at week’s end to his palace overlooking the largest of the lakes, Lake Hora.
“Debre Zeit is a Sunday town,” says an October 1969 article in Ethiopia Mirror magazine. “In fact, while on other days of the week Debre Zeit has the aspect of many other towns, on Sunday it is invaded by joyful, noisy people who run away from Addis Ababa.”
And with only some 40 kilometers separating Bishoftu from the capital, it’s a rather short run indeed. As we pull off the expressway and enter town, everything just feels slower, as if Bishoftu itself is one deep exhale from city living. People ride donkeys down the main dirt road, and sheep trot along its side. I feel my own inner pace slow, too, in preparation for our leisurely afternoon at the Pyramid Hotel and Resort — one of several lakeside lodges to have opened in recent years.
A waft of spicy-smelling frankincense greets us as we walk into the hotel, drifting over from the traditional coffee ceremony going on just beyond the lobby. Already fully caffeinated, however, we walk past to the balcony café overlooking Lake Bishoftu and each order a thick, refreshing strawberry juice.
The next few hours are a blur of relaxation, spent lazing around the pool or looking out over the still, emerald green lake below. Five of the seven lakes in the area are crater lakes — those that have naturally formed in a volcanic crater or caldera following an eruption. With a maximum depth of 87 meters, Lake Bishoftu is the area’s deepest (and the second deepest in Ethiopia). For whatever reason, though, it is not frequented by boats or watersport enthusiasts; its main attraction lies in the striking views it provides, as the escarpment plunges steeply from the crater rim down to the water.
Lakes Babogaya and Hora, on the other hand, draw many to their banks for fishing, swimming or even canoeing. Hearing this, we decide to leave Pyramid’s luxury behind and venture out to Lake Hora for a rowboat ride. Settling into the wooden seats as the late-afternoon sun begins to hang its head, we listen to our guide explain that the lake and its forests are home to a wide variety of birdlife. Though our tour is short, we spy colonies of black-backed cormorants, a handful of Egyptian geese, and even a pied kingfisher or two. Immense cacti cling to the surrounding cliffs, and “Fairfield” — as Haile Selassie named his compound — looms above, now serving as an Ethiopian Air Force hospital.
We row along, watching groups recline on the lakeshore or hike along the footpath that winds through the mountain forests. Our guide tells us about how once a year at the end of the rainy season, the Oromo people gather on the banks in the thousands to celebrate Irecha. The festival represents a time of thanksgiving to God for what lay behind, as well as hope for an abundant harvest ahead.
My mind drifts off as I imagine the scene and take in the one around me. I notice the sunlight dancing on the lake, hear the oars lapping the water, feel the boat swaying gently with the breeze, and my every sense is put at ease. A faint moon appears just as the sun falls behind the escarpment, and a cormorant dives deep for its catch. My stomach growls in response, and I realize I’m not only ready for dinner; after a day spent amid Bishoftu’s tranquility, I’m also hungry for Addis.
The things I love about the capital come rushing back, and suddenly it dawns on me: This town has been a weekend retreat for ages not only because it feels a world apart, but because it sends one back with a new appreciation for many of the things from which one sought to escape. In that sense, and many more, Bishoftu is the perfect getaway indeed.