Thursday, 21 February 2013

The Long and Dusty Road

Four months was always an ambitious timetable for a trip as long as ours, and with a bit too much fun, and a bit too much customs admin behind us, we were sitting a bit too far north with a bit too little time when we finally set out from Kigali. Anna had already travelled quite a bit in this part of the continent, so we had always been planning to do it fast, and allow ourselves some more time to enjoy Botswana and Namibia.

We spent 10 solid days driving, racking up around 4,000 km, heading through central Tanzania, down lake Malawi and across the Great East Road through Zambia as far as Livingstone. 

Some of the highlights and lowlights are below:

  •  Crossing a proper border between Rwanda and Tanzania, which is a flimsy bridge over a massive torrent of a river with huge rapids (I really don’t like borders which are just a line on a map)
  •  Exploring the less trodden route through some of mining towns of north western Tanzania; hungry after a long day on the road, we wandered into a dusty cafe and I practised my best Swahili "ni kuna chakula” (“Is there food?”), to which a chips omelette was produced – a culinary delight!
  • Masai warrior on a bicycle.  In fact, pretty much anything and anyone on a bicycle - even bicycle taxis which are a great idea

  •  After our horrible day on the road to Iringa (see below), sampling the most incredible steak and fresh vegetables at the Old Farm House Camp – this healed many wounds
  • Finding a posh coffee plantation to camp in Mbeya, where we could swim in the gorgeous pool, and got to camp next to the helipad (they weren’t expecting anyone that day, but said we’d have to move quickly if one appeared!)

  • Winding through the colourful hillside towns of southern Tanzania near the Malawian border, where the locals were very cheerful and beautifully dressed
  • Benefiting from some of our car based misfortunes (see below), to be in Lilongwe at the right time to see Wales overturn the French in Paris, with the big group of fun ex-pats we met in town
  • Being handed a copy of the highway code at the Zambian border, and finding out that all cattle being herded on the road at night (a common sight in Zambia) should have a white light on the front animal, and a red light on the back one – the herder should also wear a high vis jacket.  Sadly never actually saw this in action...
  • Bumping into old friends on the road; a group of 3 lovely couples we’ve met along the way, which we had a great time exchanging stories with
  • The rain of Livingstone stopping in time to enjoy the majesty of Victoria Falls in full flow: Incredible!

Low Lights

  •        Turning out of Tanzania’s uninspiring capital, Dodoma, to find the road I expected to be tar to be horrible bumpy gravel all the way to Iringa (including having to get towed out of some mud along the way) – despite the incredible vast mountainous forests we were seeing out of the window
  •          Discovering a broken wheel bearing at Chitimba on Lake Malawi (potentially caused by the evil road), and having to crawl into Mzuzu to get it fixed (in a bloke's back garden)
  •          Getting locked out of the boot at Kande beach, and not being able to wash until we made a detour to Lilongwe to fix it
  •         The number of overturned trucks on the road in Zambia; the terrible accident that happened there recently seems like it was inevitable

Short stop in Rwanda

We’d heard that everyone in Rwanda is terribly polite and this proved to be the case.  The first people we met after the border were these lovely students who came to welcome us to their village and the country as we stopped to take some photos at a lake.  They had been learning English in school and were keen to practise (a lot of the older generation speak French but nobody is particularly keen on France post 1994 so English now seems to be the language to learn).

We were even more surprised when we got to Kigali and the roads were beautifully clean and all the motorcycle taxi drivers wore helmets and even carried a spare one for their passengers! 

In Kigali we met up with Kamanda - a friend of a couple of guys from our work.  He works for Friends of Rwandan Rugby, an NGO that promotes the sport in Rwanda.  Here's their website if you're interested in going out to help with their work as Tom and Rob did.

He took us out for some drinks and music in Kigali, but sadly we couldn't make it out to the women's rugby tournament he was running as James had some tummy troubles.

Rwanda delivering on the 'Land of a Thousand Hills' tagline...

...although not all the time

Ugandan Discussions

The officials on the border gave us a pretty easy ride into Uganda (each border seems to have got easier as we’ve headed further south) and didn’t even bother to look at the car, so we were able to make our way to Jinja the same day.  It’s the first major town past the border, but we were particularly excited to go there as it’s the source of the White Nile.  Having followed the Nile right from where it empties into the sea, along through Egypt and Sudan, seen the confluence of the Niles at Khartoum and then followed the Blue Nile into Ethiopia, it was good to get to the southernmost point of the other brand as well.  The only key bit of the river we haven’t made it to is the White Nile stretch between Uganda and Sudan – we’ll have to see how South Sudan pans out before we can make it there.

The country looked pretty similar to the tropical west of Kenya, but there were a few key differences – enough bicycles to give Cambridge a run for its money, central/west African style clothes for the ladies with big puffy sleeves and, suddenly, LOADS of female backpackers.  I don’t think we saw a male muzungu for the first three hours we were there.  Apparently there are lots of volunteer programmes in Uganda, and maybe girls are just nicer.

We stayed at a beautiful campsite at the confusingly named Bujugali Falls, which aren’t falls at all since a major hyrdroelectric dam has been built.  The falls and rapids have now moved further upriver and it was there we headed for some white water rafting.  (For any parents reading, it was very, very safe I promise!).  It was my first experience so I was pretty scared beforehand, but as soon as we started I loved it – probably because the water was lovely and warm.  Given we’ve driven so many miles along the Nile and sailed down it a couple of times it was good to finally be in it, right at the source.

Campsite at Bujagali Falls

We picked up some useful tips for our journey ahead from the manager of the campsite, who turned out to be an ex-overland truck driver – best roads, best campsites, best restaurants in Cape Town, how to get through certain borders (give the border guards dirty magazines), where to find the best deserted beaches...  Then, we (ie James) did a couple of pretty tough days of driving to get us across to Kampala to get mountain gorilla permits and then out to the fabulously named Bwindi Impenetrable National Park.  Having enjoyed pretty nice tar roads most of the way, the last stretch into Bwindi was a bit scary – a rough road with some steep drop offs onto farmland and then into incredibly think jungle as we entered the park.  There had also obviously been some rain as shortly before we reached the park HQ we found a car with several vicars stuck in the mud.  The Beast hauled them out pretty easily, so we hope they got back to the main road before dark.

Bwindi Impenetrable National Park
Maybe our good deed was rewarded, as we had the most amazing mountain gorilla tracking experience the next day.  There are about 10 habituated gorilla families in Bwindi  (the others are in Rwanda and the DRC) and you get assigned to visit one of them.  The rangers know where they saw the gorillas the previous day but they can be pretty far away or hard to find, so we had heard that people could be trekking for up to 5 or 6 hours in search of them.  Looking at the mountains covered in thick rainforest we weren’t exactly surprised.  Fortunately, the Bitukura family who we had permits to visit turned out to be hanging out about an hour away from park HQ so we had a sweaty but fairly short trek to get there.  A couple of trackers had gone ahead and were in radio contact with our ranger, who suddenly led us off the track into thick bush, cutting a path through with a machete where necessary.  A few minutes later we were brought to a stop and had to put our sticks down and get our cameras out.  And then there they were!

The first three we saw were a couple of juveniles and one infant playing pretty boisterously.  

You’re supposed to stay at least 7 or 8m away in case you give them some horrible disease, but one of them broke off to come and have a good look at us.  He came right up to me so I tried to look down and not make eye contact as we’d been told – although I reckon I probably could have taken him.  

That definitely wasn’t the case with the massive silverbacks who gradually emerged from the trees.  They were pretty intimidating but seemed to be in a pretty good mood and didn’t even mind the little ones coming and jumping on them a bit.  

This chap is known as The Judge - what you can't tell from the photo is that he was constantly letting rip with massive farts...

We were only allowed to spend an hour there but it really did feel special (there are only about 800 mountain gorillas in the world), although it was sad you couldn’t go and play with them as the kids looked like they were having a lot of fun.

As we left the park the heavens opened and a huge rainstorm started so we were pretty relieved that we had found the gorilla family so rapidly.  This was the first real rain of our trip so it was a bit of a shock.  Having been used to perfect/scorching sunshine most of the way, we got a bit miserable when we turned up at lovely Lake Bunyoni and couldn’t really go out as it rained all the time.  We decided to head for the border instead and had a spectacular drive through volcanoes and past mountain lakes into Rwanda.

Tuesday, 12 February 2013

Ready for Battle

The Masai warriors of south western Kenya are famous for their ability to go from a deep sleep to battle ready in a matter of seconds. Since this is a trait I am always claiming I share with the Masai, it was pretty essential that we go to visit their homeland in the Mara reserve, to see whether we had any more features in common. The fact that it is also home to all of the ‘big 5’ game, is another matter.

I’d always assumed the Masai Mara would be a hyper-accessible tourist trap, but when 80km from the park the road turned into (horribly corrugated) gravel and eventually dirt track and groups of Zebra and Giraffe started wandering around past us on the side of road, I changed my tune.

We arrived at Arusha Camp, just outside the park gates as it was getting dark, only to be chased up the road by a local Masai. It’s pretty common in Africa when you arrive in a place that someone will follow you, trying to give you directions to somewhere which you already know, and then try to get a tip from you for the privilege. Thinking this was the usual drill, we waved, and pressed on to the camp. Only when we arrived, after making him chase us for about a kilometre, did we realise that this was Edward, the guide that our camp had arranged for us to show us around the park (though in the event, he was no less dodgy than we had first assumed!)

Edward checks out the hippos
We left for the park at dawn, after a painful 5am alarm, but we were straight into the action. Edward may have been trying to ‘make an arrangement’ with us for reduced park fees (paid direct to him, of course), but he really knew where the animals liked to hang out. We turned off the road, 15 mins into the park, and were straight on top of 4 lionesses. Edward wasn’t sufficiently impressed with this though, and urged us to press on (the sight of The Beast cruising through the Mara with a Masai warrior sticking out of the sun roof giving directions is one I really wish I’d gotten a photo of). He was right.

We pushed on, past distant elephant and giraffe in search of a leopard (the most difficult of the big 5 to see). As we approached a likely site, we were suddenly confronted by a family of cheetah, on the hunt, being followed by hyena, looking for what they might leave behind. Breathtaking; but all too easy for Edward. He screamed at me to drive on.

Finally we reached the leopard’s tree, where he had dragged a dead impala up the day before and gazed at the elusive leopard for 10 mins through his shrubby hide. Very cool.

Look very closely, and you can see a Leopard

Still, Edward drove us on, it was back to the cheetah now, to follow the hunt. We stalked them for half an hour, saw them climb trees for a better look, saw the occasional burst of speed, but sadly no kill.

Cheetah in a tree

From there, we then went on to find a group of 4 young male lions who had killed a hippo the day before and were lazing under a tree looking very full.

It was by then about 10am, and we had seen so much!

In the Mara, you’re not supposed to leave the car ever, outside of the guarded picnic spots. As ever, Edward knew better, and took us to a shaded spot, where the river was full of hippos, and insisted it was safe. After some initial scepticism, we both left the car, and eventually, tired after the early start and the morning’s excitement, went to sleep under the tree, hoping not to become a lion’s prey (just as well I’m always so battle ready!)

Once the heat of the day had passed we headed out once more, taking on the terrible Mara roads, but being lucky enough to come across a group of 100+ elephants. We got as close as we dared (encouraging a bit of ear flapping from one big female, at which we promptly retreated!) and headed out of the park, exhausted but happy. What a day!


After our Safari, it was time to make for the border. The upcoming elections in Kenya have been causing trouble as people protest against corruption, and rebel against a government which does nothing for them. 
This takes the police away from the road, and constantly has us wondering what might be up ahead as we drive around. After 2 days on the road, the safety of Uganda awaited...