Lake Ziway, known in the local language of Oromifa as Hara Dembel, is the largest lake in Ethiopia’s Central Rift Valley and is home to thriving bird populations, shy hippos and tilapia fish – delicious served grilled with lime!
Five volcanic islands dot Lake Ziway’s surface, with hiking trails, forests, and ancient monasteries to discover. Tulu Gudo is the largest island and is famed for once acting as the hiding place of the Ark of the Convenant. The Story goes that King Menelik I, the son of the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon, brought powerful relic to Ethiopia in the 4th century B.C. Hidden deep within the Saint Mary Zion Church’s sacred Holy of Holies in Axum, the Ark rested peacefully until the 10th century when the violent campaigns of warrior-Queen Yodit Gudit threatened to destroy it. Queen Gudit, the then ruler of Axum, was known for her destruction of Christian churches and her crusade to exterminate the rulers of the Axumite dynasty. To protect the Ark, it was carried far south to the island now known as Tulu Gudo, where is remained for some 70 years before being safely returned to Axum. Those that brought the Ark to Tulu Gudo became known as the Zay people, the guardians of the Ark.
Lake Ziway holds adventures for both culture and nature lovers alike. Due to its important role in Ethiopian Christian history, Tulu Gudo’s Maryan Tsion monastery boats a number of manuscripts dating back over 1,000 years, that are said to have accompanied the Ark on its journey to the island. For nature lovers, Lake Ziway offers a fantastic variety of aquatic and arboreal bird species on its islands, shoreline, and neighboring forests. Highlights include the Sacred Ibis, Hammer Kop, and Long-tailed Starling as well as a host of endemic and near-endemic species including the Black-headed Forest Oriole, Abyssinian Catbird, Yellow Fronted Parrot, Black-winged Lovebird, Wattled Ibis, and Thick-billed Raven.
Tours on Lake Ziway are offered through a partnership between the Hara Dembel Boat Owners Association and the Tulu Gudo Tourism Cooperative. The Boat Owners’s Association benefits its 11 members and reinvests 5% of its profits into community development.
The Tulu Gudo Tourism Cooperative is comprised of 18 members and profits from the business benefit them and their family members, impacting upwards of 100 people directly. Additionally, 20% of cooperative profits are channeled into a community development and conservation fund to assist the entire community.
RasRobeenTours recommend spending the full day exploring Tulu Gudo Island including a boat tour on Lake Ziway. During the scenic boat ride across Lake Ziway, passengers will enjoy observing native birds and the local fishermen on their reed boats. Upon arrival at the island of Tulu Gudo, visitors are met by local guides and introduced to the unique culture of the Zay people. Though just 900 of them live on the island, their culture and language are completely different from the surrounding Oromo people.
Visitors begin the hike with a short walk through a traditional Tulu Gudo village, ascending through the lush green hills of the island. Pausing for breathtaking views of the island and surround Lake Ziway, tourists will learn about the history, culture, and nature of the island. Near the summit of the island, visitors can see the ruins of the monastery where the Ark rested for nearly 70 years and learn about the Zay people’s link to the Ark. Visitors then descend to the community-run, open-air restaurant where they can enjoy a traditional lunch or freshly caught and grilled fish, served with local vegetables and injerra.
The tour continues to the monastery Maryam Tsion which is the highlight of the tour. Home to a fascinating collection of ancient relics dating back almost 1,100 years, the monastery features relics such as the beautiful Gedle-Kidusen manuscript, a parchment book written in Ge’ez, the ancient language of Ethiopia.
From Tulu Gudo, visitors depart for Bochessa on the mainland and may be able to see one of the lake’s shy hippos, endemic birds, and the large monitor lizard that call the mangroves home.
Please contact RasRobeenTours directly if you are interested in visiting this area so that we can include a trip to Lake Ziway and Tulu Gudo Island into a tour to Southern Ethiopia.