Eco-tourism on Tana


Two years ago Tim Otte and Kim Otte-de Hoop gave up their jobs managing a toy store in Holland and moved to Ethiopia. They came to the shores of Lake Tana, the third-largest lake in Africa, to start an eco-tourism and community development project near the quiet village of Gorgora. The result is Tim & Kim Village, a cluster of stone-walled, grass-thatched lodges with views over water that stretches beyond the horizon like a vast copper-coloured sea.

‘When we were travelling around Africa we saw a lot of not-for-profit projects,’ says Kim, cooking up pancakes in her tiny kitchen to feed half a dozen hungry guests. ‘We took the ideas we thought were working to help people have a better life, we asked the local people for their knowledge and experience, we picked out the good things and mixed them all together. If you want to learn, you can learn a lot.’

The project employs 11 local people, including two cooks, a gardener and skilled workers currently engaged in putting the finishing touches to the traditional tukul lodges. It aims to provide the nearby village with a steady and reliable source of income, channelling profits back into the community in the form of education, water and sanitation projects. In the future, Tim and Kim are planning to hand the day-to-day running of the site over to local managers.

‘We are not fond of giving,’ explains Kim. ‘Simply throwing money at people doesn’t work. It’s better to help them work themselves by giving them an opportunity. You provide the rod and they’ll supply the fish – it’s better than giving them the fish. We’re talking of a kind of micro-credit: we buy a chicken, they look after the chicken, they pay us back in eggs, and they know we’ll continue buying eggs from that point. Then we can buy another chicken. That’s the process.’

There are currently seven tukul lodges, grass-roofed in the style of local houses, as well as four comfortable tents underneath thatched shelters. A large, open-air tukul hut provides a dining room in which you can eat fresh lake perch with traditional injeera bread, there are surprisingly hot solar showers, and a small organic garden. Gorgora also lies near the ‘overlander’ route from South Africa to Sudan – the Sudanese border is a day’s drive away – and lake-view sites can accommodate travellers with their own vehicles. The cool, breezy highland air gives overlanders a welcome relief from the heat of the desert lowlands; some linger here for several weeks, making light repairs and scraping the muck off their dust-encrusted vehicles.

Guests can walk along the lakeshore or into the grassy hills above in search of the region’s abundant wildlife: there are kingfishers and eagle owls, baboons come to drink from the lake in the evenings, occasional hippos are spotted nearby, and when you come back you can fall asleep listening to the distant yelps of hyenas in the hills. It’s also possible to explore the lakeshore by taking out a traditional tankwa, a small papyrus canoe with a strangely Ancient Egyptian look (Lake Tana is, after all, the source of the Blue Nile, and historians believe there were ancient connections between what was then Abyssinia and the land of the Pharaohs). Half an hour of vigorous paddling brings you to the Orthodox Christian churches on a couple of tiny wooded islands to the west, on which, unfortunately, women are forbidden to set foot. If you get bored of natural beauty, there are plenty of other historical sites within close reach of Tim and Kim’s: the ruined palace of Emperor Susneyos and the Debre Sina Maryam Monastery (which does allow women to enter), with its centuries-old murals, both hint at the region’s past imperial glory. On a hill nearby – talking of imperial – can also be seen Mussolini’s Tower, an imposing observation post constructed by the Italian fascists during their short-lived 1940s occupation.

A two-hour bus ride from Gonder to the north, the ancient city that’s a prominent feature on Ethiopia’s ‘historical circuit,’ Gorgora is easily accessible even to those travellers who don’t come equipped with their own hulking continent-crossing vehicles. An altogether less hurried option for getting here is a two-day boat trip on the Lake Tana ferry, which departs weekly from the town of Bahir Dar, on the lake’s furthest shore, passing the famous island monasteries that lie to the south.

The couple have come a long way to reach this point, and been through a lot to make it work. They’ve had their tent almost shredded by hailstones, and Tim suffered a night of agony after being stung by a scorpion (‘like having my arm held over a naked flame.’) But the project is starting to come together. ‘It’s an experiment, in a way,’ says Kim. We are watching one of the local workers making repairs to a thatched roof, expertly tucking the yellow grass and tamping it down with a small wooden paddle. ‘We try one thing, and if it doesn’t work we do it again in a different way, until we find the right one. A community-based project like this is a very new concept here. We hope to form a constructive relationship between tourists and the community, to give local people an investment for the future.’