Jun 1 2010

Rwanda – diary 2010-05-22 to 2010-05-30


The drive to the Rwandan border was about an hour and a half from the Mocray Motel. The road was in relatively good condition and was surprisingly quiet for a national road and main border crossing. We passed through the Tanzanian side without any delays and were elated to find out that South African passport holders do not have to pay for a Rwandan visa. With the carnet and passports stamped we were free to explore Rwanda for 30 days.

Once we were on the road there was a little bit of confusion as to which side of the road we should be travelling on. We were in a French speaking country again and we had a suspicion that we should be driving on the right hand side but were struggling to figure it out until we saw a truck ahead of us which confirmed our suspicions. The drive to Kigali was really beautiful. The terrain is mountainous and covered with intensively cultivated crops. The different colours of green on the hillsides resembled that of a multitude of green, gold, yellow and brown patchwork quilts. The Rwandans were happy and waved gaily at us as we drove by. As we approached Kigali we were once again astounded at how different it was to what we had imagined. We could have been driving in Durban with its skyscrapers, modern buildings, green botanical gardens and water fountains. It far exceeded our expectations and we were amazed to see how swiftly Rwanda was moving forward after its gloomy history. The main reason we were visiting Rwanda was to do the Gorilla trek in the Volcanoes National Park in the north so we hastily located the ORTPN Office to enquire about availability and costs. The office was just about to close so we were lucky enough to be allowed in to ask a few quick questions and find out the cost of the Gorilla Trek – $500 per person. We said we would return in the morning to purchase our permits after deciding on when we would like to do the trek.

After a stressful money changing experience (I am a little paranoid now since our Zambia incident) we made our way down to the Gisozi Genocide Museum. It was an informative and emotional exhibition that drew attention to the build up and ongoing genocide events that occurred between the Hutus and Tutsis since the 1960’s. The most heart rendering part for me was the children’s memorial where photographs of deceased children as young as 6 months old were on display with information about their hobbies, likes, dislikes and characters printed below their portraits. Tutsi women and children were the most targeted as the Hutu soldiers wanted to eradicate the next generation of the Tutsi. There were various other displays of hundreds of bones and skulls that brought shivers down my spine. It was a morbid way to spend the afternoon but we felt it was important to be educated on Rwanda’s history. The mass killings occurred only 16 years ago and what amazed Kirk and me was how quickly the country has picked itself up, put the past behind and moved on to create a country that is attracting more and more tourist each year as well as developing at a rapid pace.

We popped into a bar cum restaurant called Executive Carwash that allows camping on the extensive green lawn behind the building. The owner, Francis, is Kenyans and started his business many years ago. The name is peculiar but well suited as it is situated right next to a car wash and when middleclass folks are getting their cars washed, they pop into Executive Carwash and have a few beers and watch the latest sport. We were happy to see that they were screening the Super 14 Semi Final and then the European Cup Final. We secured a good table, ordered goat brochettes with fries and salad and enjoyed the atmosphere. The open air setting meant that we didn’t feel claustrophobic as the place filled up. More and more tables were shimmied into any available space. The Schol beer promotion of ‘buy one get one free’ ensured that the customers were happy and in high spirits. We made our way to our tent after a very cold shower and listened to the crowed in the restaurant celebrate their teams win. Kirk had unfortunately stubbed his toe on his way back from the gents and was feeling quite a bit of discomfort.

After a good nights rest we enjoyed a good breakfast of avocado on toast and made our way to the ORTPN office. We had deliberated the cost of the Gorilla Trek but settled on the fact that it was a once in a life time opportunity and that we simply had to do it. The only concern was Kirks’ toe and whether or not it would have healed in time. We made the booking for Thursday so that he had 4 days to get it sorted, popped into Simba Supermarket to stock up on supplies for the next few days and headed towards lake Kivu for a little bit of relaxation time.

The drive took us through the most splendid scenery. The road followed the contours and took us into the valleys and up the spurs. The cultivation was again staggering with numerous banana trees, wheat, sugar cane and corn. When we reached the top of the mountains we were afforded sweeping views of Lake Kivu, a huge crater lake forming the border between Rwanda and the DRC. It really was a stunning drive and we were in no hurry to get to our destination. As we descended the mountains we came across masses and masses of tea plantations. Rwanda is renowned for its tea and coffee and we were in the heart of it. We arrived at Paradis Malahide just after 4pm. They don’t really have a camping area but we were happy to camp in the parking area as the setting was lovely and right on the lake.

The next 2 days were not really used for resting. The laundry bag was overflowing and it took a full day to hand wash and hang everything out to dry. I was absolutely shattered at the end of our 1stday at Lake Kivu but we managed to enjoy a couple of hours chilling on the sun loungers, overlooking the lake in the afternoon but were not able to stay up much later than 8pm. The following day was much the same with Mvubu and the bedding getting a wash, a little bit of tidying and eventually spending the afternoon relaxing playing Igisoro (a Rwandan board game) and sipping hot Rwandan coffee. Kirks’ foot was not doing too well. He had suffered from Gout in Ghana, form an abundance of red meat, and he feared that it had returned as he could hardly move his big toe. It also happened to be the toe that he stubbed but that seemed to have mended quite quickly.  We were supposed to be doing the Gorilla Trek in 2 days time and it was not looking too promising.

The following morning marked no improvement so we packed up our belongings and visited the doctor at the Primus Brewery. We were treated to 1stclass medical treatment with both Kirk and me getting Malaria tests, Kirk’s uric acid level checked as well as his white blood count. The Malaria tests were negative, Kirk’s uric level was better than normal but his white blood count was high. He had picked up an infection in his foot from when he stubbed his toe. After an anti-inflammatory injection, a prescription for antibiotics and a letter from the Doc explaining Kirk’s situation, we were on our way. I was now forced to drive…after 7 months of not driving I was now in a position where I had to drive this huge vehicle on the wrong side of the road. It didn’t last very long as I was uncomfortable driving in a foreign African country on the wrong side of the road. Kirk assured me that the injection had worked and that he was now capable of driving. I relinquished the driver’s seat without hesitation and found comfort in the passenger’s seat once again. We drove the 80km to Rhungheri where there was another ORTPN Office. The terms and conditions on the Gorilla Permits stated that a refund would only be issued if you couldn’t walk due to illness after reporting to the departure point. We didn’t want a refund; we wanted to postpone it for 4 days so that Kirk’s foot could get better. The ranger, Justin was super helpful and after a few phone calls to the head office in Kinigi and Kigali, we successfully moved it to Sunday. We hadn’t really rested at Lake Kivu so we decided that we were not going to do any form of admin whilst waiting for our Gorilla trek; we were going to use the time to read, take slow walks and enjoy the solitude of the volcanic mountains that surrounded us. We stopped at the local agricultural market to buy some fresh vegetables ad made our way to Kinigi Guest House where we set up camp in the car park. Nestled 2000m above sea level on the slopes of a volcano we were feeling the chill in the air. The surroundings were breathtaking with mountain ranges of volcanic peaks encircling us. We were at the foot of the setting to Dianne Fossey’s biography ‘Gorillas in the Mist’. It was magical knowing that we would be walking in the dense forest in search of these enormous primates in a few days time. Excitement and anticipation was growing but we had to be patient and hope that Kirk’s foot would be well enough to endure the trek.

Kirk’s foot healed very quickly. We moved the walk forward a day and would now be trekking on Saturday. We placed a request that we see the Susa family, the group of gorillas that Dianne Fossey habituated. We had been forewarned that big tour companies get in early and take the best groups so we planned on getting to the head office at 6:30am. When we arrived on Saturday morning, bright and early, the front lawn of the head office was teeming with anxious gorilla trekkers. As luck would have it, few people were feeling fit enough to do the Susa group trek. We ended up with only 6 people on our group and were elated that we had been awarded our request.

We drove for and hour and fifteen minutes until we reached the Bispoke Parking area to start the climb. We walked up a steep volcanic slope occupied by intensive agricultural crops and small primitive huts that were occupied by the farming communities. The views of the valley were spectacular and we were welcomed by happy children and women going about their daily chores. We reached the wall to national park which stretches for 72km crossing enclosing a national park to protect the last of the mountain gorillas in DRC, Rwanda and Uganda. We took a short break before submerging ourselves into the thick bamboo undergrowth in the Volcanoes National Park. We walked through the dense jungle where evidence of the gorillas was fresh. The previous nights nest was 40 minutes up the hill and when we reached that we knew we were close. We met the trackers shortly after that and they guided us in the right direction. The first sighting of these magical creatures was surreal. They were spectacular. We were instructed that we should keep a 7 meter distance between ourselves and the primates but this proved null in void when we got there as these gentle giants were so inquisitive and chilled out that at times we would be a mere meter from them. The Silverbacks were majestical in their size and stature. They were evidentially the guardians of the family and kept a close eye on the 6 tourists that were clicking away madly with their cameras. The baby of the group was highly entertaining with his abundance of energy and the numerous roley poleys he was doing. He enjoyed imitating the silverback with his attempt at a chest beat and was the apple of the chief silverback’s eye. The females were very relaxed and went about their daily ablutions and pruning of the younger gorillas. It was a privilege to be afforded the opportunity to watch these great animals and share an hour of their day with them

The Susa group is one of the only groups to have a set of twins. Most twins do not survive due to the demand that it places on the mother. The similarity between humans and gorillas is frightening. Their actions, facial expressions and anatomy are so much like you and I that it is difficult not to believe in evolution. The hour that we spent with the Susa family has been one of the most wonderful experiences of the trip. It was worth every penny and if you have any inkling to have such an experience in your life I would say go for it without hesitation!

We reluctantly left the Susa Family saying goodbye and making our way back down the volcano. The experience will stay with us forever.

We visited the market on the way back to Kinigi Guest House where we purchased 2kgs of beef fillet and an abundance of fresh fruit. The variety was incredible as were the prices. The northern region of Rwanda was rich in agriculture with fertile soil and an abundance of land to farm. Our stay had been wonderful and we were sad to be leaving the following day but time was ticking by and we still had other places to see.

Rwanda surpassed both kirk and my expectations. It was the cleanest country we had visited, seeing that plastic is illegal, and the natural surroundings were spectacular. The people were super friendly and welcomed us into their country without prejudice. It is one African country that I would personally recommend for a trip to Africa. The gorillas are obviously the highlight but it also has so much more in terms of the crater lakes, the cities, the national parks and its history that they have moved on from so swiftly. We were impressed and filled with hope that Africa can move on from its dark past.[book id=’26’ /]

Jun 1 2010

Tanzania – diary 2010-05-14 to 2010-05-22

2010-05-14 to 2010-05-22

We crossed into Tanzania at 4:30pm which was a fairly hassle free process. We paid $50 each for our visas as well as $25 for Mvubu to drive on the Tanzanian roads as he was a foreign registered vehicle. After all formalities were over we adjusted our clocks, we had gone forward one hour, and made our way towards the northern shores of Lake Nyasa (Lake Malawi) where we had been told that a new camp was in the process of being opened called Crazy Crocodile. The road there was rough and definitely off the beaten track. We drove through rice paddies and wheat fields that were giving off the most gorgeous light as the sun set behind us. We arrived in the town of Matemba where cries of Mzungu (white man) trailed after us as the children ran excitedly from their homes into the road to wave at us and welcome us into their village. We followed the red Crazy Crocodile signs and eventually arrived at the site of the new camp. Darkness had just fallen so e were feeling a little bit disorientated, furthermore, Thomas, the proprietor was not back from his meeting in Dodoma and so nobody could give us certainty that we were able to camp on the lake shore. Thomas was eventually reached by mobile phone and he was more than happy to have us but he told us that there were no facilities as they were still in the process of building the showers and the toilets. The wind had picked up and rain clouds were looking ominous above us so we decided it was probably better to camp at the established Matemba Beach Lodge and to visit Thomas in the morning.

We arrived at Matemba Beach Lodge and the rains started falling. We set up our tent and sought shelter under the overhang that it provided once we had opened it up. When it came time to shower we were awakened to the fact that we were back in the land of squat toilets and cold showers! We stepped into the shower gingerly, scrubbed up and climbed into bed.

The sun was out the following morning which dried the tent and prepared us for the hot day that was to come. We popped in at Crazy Crocodile where Thomas was there to meet us. He gave us a grand tour and explained the plan he had for the piece of land that was perfectly situated on Lake Nyasa. After a good hour of visiting we said our goodbyes, visited a nearby pottery market and then took a slow dive to Tukuyu. The drive was exquisite and took us through subsistence plantations of coffee, tea, bananas, cocoa, rice, cassava and wheat. The altitude increased from 500meters to 1400meters taking us through a winding dirt which bypassed numerous crater lakes which held much historical importance during World War I. Before reaching Tukuyu we passed a truck loading thousands of bananas to take to the market. We stopped to enquire about the price and came away with 3 avocados and about 20 bananas all for less than a dollar. The beauty about rural Africa is the availability of cheap fresh fruit and vegetables. We settled in at Bongo Camping for the afternoon and evening. It was a community run camp that had basic facilities (cold showers and squat toilets) and a wonderful gaggle of local village children who were immediately intrigued by the mzungus who had just arrived. The afternoon was spent teaching the Tanzanian children how to throw a Frisbee, doing cartwheels and watching them play. When night fell some of the children dissipated and returned to their homes but a few of them stuck around but seemed to congregate around the florescent lights with long sticks. At closer inspection it became apparent what they were doing… catching grasshoppers, a Tanzanian delicacy. They each had an empty 500ml water bottle that was filled with unfortunate grasshoppers. Kirk and I crept off to bed only to be woken by the same grasshoppers that had sought refuge in between the fly sheet of our tent. They were making the most horrendous sound that was reverberating off the canvass. A few vicious bangs on the tent seemed to get rid of them and we were once again able to enjoy a peaceful night sleep.

We didn’t have very far to travel the following morning so we packed up slowly and Kirk was coaxed into the grasshopper hunt. One of the smallest and youngest boys, Augustine, had taken a liking to Kirk and with repeated please of Mzungu Mzungu and a pointing finger, to show Kirk where the grasshoppers were hiding; he managed to fill his bottle up in no time at all. After a good hour of grasshopper hunting we left Bongo Camping and made a slow journey to Mbeya. The drive was once again spectacular with many of the hills being cultivated and giving off an array of different shades of green. We were pretty much restricted from venturing further afield as we didn’t have many Tanzanian Shillings and the banks would only be open on Monday. We stopped off at the BP garage to find out how much a new brake line would cost as we were a little uncertain about the repair job that had been done on the original one after the welding machine nicked it in Livingstonia. The guys at the garage were super helpful and in 3 hours we were all set and ready to go again. Because of our lack of Tanzanian Shillings they were trusting enough to let us go and return the following morning to pay them for their services.

We spent the afternoon exploring the town centre in search of bread and then ventured further afield to Utengule Country Hotel which was set amongst the hills of a coffee plantation owned by some very rich Tanzanians. Their prices were extortionate and even a coffee would have set us back enough to buy bananas for a week. We returned to Mbeya where we camped at the Karibuni Centre in Mbeya. It was a peaceful church yard that again had basic facilities but very friendly people who were very helpful in giving us advice on the roads up north.

We had decided to take the road less travelled towards Tabora which cut through the middle of Tanzania avoiding Dodoma. We did all the necessary admin such as changing money, paying our friendly mechanics buying the odd few groceries and hit the road. The GPS did not recommend the road that we were about to take but we had been assured, the previous evening, that the road was I good condition. The roads were dusty and very rural. Again we were treated to spectacular scenery of undulating cultivated hills and small rural settlements. The road took us to the top of the escarpment offering us sweeping views of the East African Rift Valley. The view was magnificent! The valley was luscious and green and dotted with the odd rocky outcrop and acacia tree. We continued north and drove through many more villages where the people waved frantically and called ‘Mzungu’ to get our attention. We found a great bush camp 220km south of Tabora and 10km north of Rungwa. The setting was idyllic with acacia trees surrounding us and the bell of the grazing cows tinkling in the distance. We made a fire to cook our dinner on and as we were sitting enjoying the solitude that this setting had to offer a herder started playing his pennywhistle, oblivious to the fact that there were 2 mzungus camping a little way from where he was, providing us with a melodious tune and completing the ambience that this tranquil place had to offer. It was just too beautiful.

As you do with bush camping, you rise when the sun does and you hit the road as soon as possible. We were literally in the wilderness as was evident by 2 little Black Back Jackals that were scavenging in the road and decided to run ahead of Mvubu and eventually dash off into the bush. The bird life was also impressive with massive birds of prey perched on the top of trees. We were hoping to see some elephants as there was fresh evidence that they had been on the road that night but they had moved on and were sheltered by the thick vegetation of the savannah. We arrived in Tabora just after 11am where we bought some meat, tomatoes and beer and pushed on to Mwanza, a port town on the shores of Lake Victoria. We were utterly exhausted when we arrived and the camping options were non existence and so we treated ourselves to a little bit of luxury and stayed at Isamilo Lodge. It was a relatively new hotel complex that was perched on the hillside offering great views of the lake from the hotel room balcony. We enjoyed our dinner of Indian curry under the stars on the restaurant terrace as well as the luxury of having TV, air conditioner and hot water in our room. It was a real treat and one that Kirk and I relished every moment of.

We cashed in on the free internet access and spent the following morning updating blogs and sending e-mails after our delicious continental style breakfast. We left Isamilo Lodge just after lunchtime and made our way towards the Serengeti National Park. We had not intended to enter the park on the same day but when we arrived at the gate and made enquiries about the cost and accommodation options in the park it made sense to enter straight away as the park permit was valid for 24 hours. We managed to wangle our way out of paying $200 for Mvubu as we claimed that he weighed less than 2 tonnes and so we got away with only paying $40 for him. The remainder of the costs included $50 each for park entry and $30 each for camping in the park. All in all a grand total of $200 for 24 hours but a magnificent saving of $160! It was 3:30pm and the gate warden assured us that we would reach the designated camping area before sunset which is when all cars were supposed to be off the road. The camping area was 180km away and with sunset at 6:30pm we had quite a distance to cover. The amount of animals on the plains was amazing. The Serengeti most certainly lived up to its name with us bearing witness to herds and herds of zebra, giraffe, impala and warthogs. The migration was still in its early stages with the wildebeest and zebras moving up from the southern sections of the park towards the north. We had entered through the western corridor and bore witness to thousands and thousands of Wildebeest grazing, playing, dancing and butting heads on the lush green plains. It was a spectacular sight. At about 5pm the heavens opened and we were treated to an African savannah storm which turned the clay roads into an ice rink. We were sticking to the speed limit of 50km per hour but alas on 2 occasions we lost control of the car and spun out once. It was a hair raising experience and my nerves were shot by the second episode. Because of the slippery roads we were forced to slow down and made our way into camp at 7pm. The camps were unfenced and had 3 caged dining areas that had been occupied by the tour groups which had arrived earlier in the evening. Kirk and I resorted to cooking and eating our dinner in the open at the back of Mvubu as we normally did. We were in no danger of being mauled by a lion or hyena because the noise levels were enough to chase any intrigued wildlife away. It had been such a whirlwind day that when silence eventually fell and the sounds of the nocturnal predators filled the air, it eventually sunk in that we were in one of Africa’s most eminent national parks and we had the following day to see what it had to offer.

We were up before the crack of dawn and were on the road at 6am. The suns rays had still not touched the earth with its warm rays and we were able to explore the park in darkness for the first 20 minutes. Seronera is the area of the park where most of the animals are concentrated with various other granite outcrops to explore that are home to leopard, cheetah, rhino and lions so we decide to head towards that direction. We had until 11am to search or these elusive animals before having to make our way back towards the gate that we had entered through. The morning started off well with the sighting of 2 big buffalo right outside the camping area as well as a Serval cat running for cover. This seemed to be the 1st of our luck because not long afterwards we spotted our 1st leopard. Next on the list was a pride of lions relaxing in the sun after a hard night of hunting followed by 2 cheetahs stalking and playing together. We were having a wonderful time and were feeling very fortunate but luck seemed to be on our side because not long afterwards we saw 2 hyenas and an abundance of elephants. The Serengeti was most certainly living up to its name and we were elated with our fortune. We had seen 4 of the Big 5 in less than 2 hours and now only needed to hunt for one of the 33 Black Rhino that were in the SNP. We didn’t have much luck with the sighting of a Rhino but we were instead privileged enough to again witness the masses and masses of Wildebeest that were on the march and walking in a westerly direction. We actually needed to stop the car in order for them to cross the road in their droves. We made our way back towards the western gate and were lucky enough again to see a mother and cub leopard in a tree. We were elated with our good fortune. We left the park feeling satisfied that we had made the most of our $200 and vowed to return one day but to do it the luxury way…an all inclusive 5* package. Wouldn’t that be great!

We didn’t venture too far from the Serengeti that evening and camped on the shores of Lake Victoria where fishing Dows were buoyant in the distance and the waves created by the windy conditions lapped onto the sandy shore. The reality of the day took time to sink in and both Kirk and I went to bed content and happy with our recent adventure.

Kirk had checked the welded diff the previous evening and found that it was leaking some oil and so we decided that we should head back to Mwanza to have it checked out by a Toyota mechanic. When Mvubu was on the ramp and we were able to inspect it more closely it was discovered that there was only a very small hole that was not going to cause much of a problem. We left the mechanic without paying for any unnecessary work and instead stopped off at Total to change the oil. We were on the road by 11am heading towards the Rwandan border where we stopped at Morcay Motel to spend the night before crossing into our 20th country. We enjoyed a meal of tough chicken, rice and a tasty tomato sauce at the adjoining restaurant and a couple of beers at the adjoining bar. It was Friday night and everyone was out on the razz. It was lovely to soak up the local atmosphere of Tanzania before leaving it the following day.

We had only spent 8 days in Tanzania but would be returning in a month and a half to climb the infamous Kilimanjaro and explore the coastal region. We were pleased that we had seen a large part of the country that not many overlanders explore and we had managed to visit the Serengeti at a fraction of the cost that it would have been if we had entered through Arusha. We look forward to our next visit.[book id=’25’ /]