BootsnAll Travel Network

The End of the Wanderings

December 31st, 2010

Well, that’s it.

Almost eight years to the day since we got together and began backpacking around the world, we arrived in Geneva at the start of October, put our backpacks away, and began our new lives as settled professionals (or at least, Wendy began her new life as a settled professional; I began mine as a settled househusband and an unsettled French student).

Needless to say, we are incredibly thankful to have had the opportunity to visit so many places; by my estimate, we’ve been travelling for just over half of our eight years together (more than four years!), and that doesn’t include the travelling we did on our own before we met each other. We realise we have been extremely lucky to have stumbled into two different types of short-term jobs (tour guiding in Rome 2001-2004 and Games work 2005-2010) which allowed us to go off adventuring virtually whenever we wanted.

As I write from our cosy living room in the centre of Geneva, I can hardly believe that we managed to travel so far and for so long, with virtually no possessions other than what we could fit into our (increasingly smaller) backpacks. Not counting one and two-week trips here and there from our temporary bases, we did nine long trips, ranging from three to 17 months each.

To try to sum up this entire experience in one post is pretty futile, but fortunately I began writing this thing about four years ago and so about half of our travels together are chronicled here, beginning (coincidentally enough) with our least favourite trip which centred – by complete accident, I swear – around West Africa (though I should point out that the start of the trip, mostly featuring Yemen and Morocco before we got to sub-Saharan Africa, was fabulous).

Dome of the Rock

If I had to choose a favourite entire trip, it would probably be the first one: four months overland from Cairo to Istanbul in early 2003. To be able to travel through the cradle of civilisation, see such extraordinary cities as Jerusalem, Damascus and Istanbul and spectacular ruins such as Petra, Ba’albeck, Palmyra and too many to list in Egypt – with virtually no other tourists in the region at the time because of the impending Iraq war – was remarkable. When you’re only just starting to travel and aren’t jaded at all, and you stumble across these types of places, you can barely believe it.

Other favourite individual destinations over the years are: Antarctica (so surreal that it really did feel like a different planet altogether); Nepal (the Annapurna Circuit & Sanctuary, 24 straight days trekking, was one of the best things we’ve ever done); Pakistan (surprisingly fantastic); Madagascar (lemurs!); Andalucía (it made a lovely honeymoon); and several countries in Latin America, notably Argentina, Chile, Perú, Colombia, Cuba and Mexico.

Street Prayers

Meanwhile, many months spent in India and China were both phenomenal and frustrating (often on the same day), but as the time passes since our last visits, the frustration begins to disappear from memory and we’re left with two of the most fabulous and fascinating cultures on earth – ones in which you could easily spend a year or two travelling and not run out of new places to go and new things to experience.

Well, if I don’t stop talking about these places now then I probably never will, so as far as reminiscing goes, I will leave it there.

Of course, since we have strategically located ourselves in the middle of Europe, hopefully there will be plenty more travelling to come. Though now it will take the form of 2-4 week trips abroad and long weekends in Europe, beginning with a trip to Interlaken this weekend for the annual ‘warty ogre’ festival.

Finally, given that our lives have changed so much with this move to Switzerland and we are no longer travellers in the sense that we used to be, I think it’s time to retire this blog. I may start a new one to describe future travels, but I think this one should stand on its own as homage to our years of wandering, which we will probably always remember as the best years of our lives.


Eastern Madagascar: Lemurs, Islands and Lemur Islands

September 27th, 2010

With the southern highlands ‘completed’ earlier than expected thanks to us having the luxury of a private vehicle, we decided to head to eastern Madagascar for our final days in this fabulous country.

Since Knelis and Patricia had not been to Andasibe, we stopped there for two nights, and even though Wendy and I had been there before, we still found some interesting things to do. The highlight was undoubtedly the ‘Ile des Lémuriens’, a small, private island owned by Andasibe’s most luxurious hotel, the Vakôna Lodge. Lemurs previously kept as pets have been relocated to the island, where they are essentially captive (since lemurs can’t swim) but there isn’t a cage in sight and they bound from tree to tree just as they would in the wild. They are incredibly tame these days – apparently it took four years for them to stop being scared of human visitors – and the brown lemurs playfully jumped on our shoulders, and took a particular liking to Wendy just as Indonesian orang-utans did many years ago. We also saw two species here that we hadn’t seen before: the black-and-white ruffed lemur, with a face like a dog; and the small grey bamboo lemur that completes our ‘set’ of the four types of bamboo lemurs. But most handsome of all was the yellow diademed sifaka, and even though we saw this species in the wild on our first trip to Andasibe, it was fabulous to see this one so close and so animated.

The second thing we chose to do at Andasibe was ‘Mad Arbe’, in which, using a harness and a rope ladder, you climb to the top of a 20-metre high tree in the Mitsinjo reserve and look out over the jungle canopy below you. The climb up was harder than we’d anticipated, and my complete lack of upper body strength meant my shoulders and forearms hurt for days afterwards, but the view from the comfort of a hammock tied to the tree-top, and the beautiful calls of nearby troupes of Indri Indri, made it worth the effort.

Continuing east to the coast, we stopped at Parc Ivoloina, a research/tourist site containing five species of free-ranging lemurs and numerous more caged ones. Among the free-ranging lemurs, we saw the crowned lemur at very close range and the white-fronted brown lemur performing enormous leaps at a distance, thus completing our lemur species count – for this trip anyway – at 14 wild species and four more contained but free-ranging ones.

Our final stop, and the purpose of this eastern swing, was Ile Sainte Marie, an idyllic, elongated island in the Indian Ocean, an hour by speed boat from the mainland. Once we arrived, we headed for the southern end of the island and took a wonderful trip in a dugout canoe to an even smaller island called Ile aux Nattes, where we celebrated our new-found mid-range status by lazing in a lovely bungalow and eating lots of seafood while gazing out over the crystal clear waters and palm-fringed coast of the tiny island. Plus, there were some free-ranging black-and-white ruffed lemurs at our resort to complete the Madagascar version of an island getaway.

It is perhaps ironic that our last days as vagabond travellers were spent at the beach, which we’ve essentially avoided for the past eight years, but after two months in East Africa and one in Madagascar, we figured we deserved it, and it was certainly a nice way to finish the trip.

We’re now back in the capital Tana, from where we fly back to Nairobi tomorrow for a couple of days before returning to Geneva.

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The RN7 National Park trail

September 18th, 2010

A week ago we returned to Antsirabe from western Madagascar and have since enjoyed, for the first time in our many years of travelling, the luxury of a rented car and driver for an extended period. We banded together with a Dutch couple, Knelis and Patricia, who we met on the Tsingy tour, and have since been zipping up and down national highway No. 7 at a pace you could only dream of while travelling by taxi-brousse. Having our driver ‘Tax’ and a 4WD (for dirt road forays off RN7) has been brilliant and it will be very hard to go back to public transport on future travels in the third world.

Along RN7, the architecture, market-atmosphere and waving kids of the highland villages has been wonderful to see, but our true purpose for travelling the road was to visit the string of national parks which were all thoroughly enjoyable. Our visits went like this:

Ranomafana NP: Ranomafana is probably the most famous, and certainly the best-named, of all national parks in Madagascar (though the Malagasy pronunciation is more like ‘Ranmafan’, which takes some of the fun out of it). Ranomafana is a rainforest that protects 12 species of lemur, and though we saw six of them on our day walk (including three we had not seen before: the golden bamboo lemur, the greater bamboo lemur and the Milne-Edwards sifaka), they were all high in the trees, perhaps as a result of the previous night’s rain. The highlight of our day walk was (for me anyway) an extraordinary leaf-tailed gecko, even better than the one we saw in Andasibe and truly one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen. Not just the tail, but the entire thing, is virtually indistinguishable from a plain leaf and we could barely believe it even after it was pointed out to us. The other major highlight of Ranomafana was to see (baited) mouse lemurs at close range on the night walk. Mouse lemurs are tiny and, as you might expect, look rather like mice, and it’s pretty astonishing to see one and realise that this is the same animal as the Indri Indri.

Anja Park: This is not a national park but a private reserve, and we stopped by the day after visiting Ranomafana on our way down to Isalo. Aside from seeing, up close, the granite boulder scenery that dominates this section of RN7, here we enjoyed our first sightings of the ring-tailed lemur (of the animated film ‘Madagascar’ fame). We arrived in the middle of the day and they were mostly sleeping in the trees, but we were very lucky to see a new group just as we were about to leave, who were scurrying along the ground very close to us, many with three-week old babies in toe (including one with twins!). This was pretty fabulous and ranks alongside the Indri Indri viewing as our best lemur experience to date.

Isalo NP: Having left the rainforest and boulders behind, we continued southwest on RN7 to Isalo National Park, famed for its sandstone cliffs and escarpments that rise out of the plain. Here, as in the far west of the country, the heat is pretty unforgiving, and the daily showers of the highlands seemed a world away. Nevertheless, we came here to hike, and hike we did for eight hours on our first day in the park. The scenery was quite stunning and the heat was thankfully countered by a series of swimming holes, the most beautiful of which was undoubtedly the stunning ‘Piscine Naturelle’ (Natural Pool), a gorgeous, crystal clear oasis among the surrounding sandstone cliffs. The next day we visited the Lemur Canyon (curiously called the Monkey Canyon in French), which was also very striking and had surprisingly few visitors – we only saw two other tourists there after encountering 100 or more the previous day.

Andringitra NP: Heading back up RN7, we detoured for two hours off the highway on a pretty bad dirt road to Andringitra NP, another beautiful part of Madagascar ideal for hiking.  Wendy and I chose the Circuit Diavolana (Knelis and Patricia did a different, shorter route) and spent a glorious 5.5 hours walking among the park’s celebrated and imposing granite boulders, little streams and yellow and brown grasses. We didn’t see any other tourists on the entire trail and thoroughly enjoyed it – it was long enough and contained a somewhat strenuous climb at the beginning to give us a workout, but easy enough to allow us to enjoy the scenery.

Today, we kept heading north and visited a handicraft village (which I didn’t enjoy much) and a well-run orphanage that was filled with playful and smiling kids but was nevertheless quite an emotional experience. Now we find ourselves back in Antsirabe about a week earlier than we had planned, so we’re going to keep the car and move on to the eastern part of the country with the aim of reaching idyllic Ile Sainte Marie about four days from now.

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Western Madagascar by dug-out canoe and zebu-cart

September 15th, 2010

Madagascar is renowned for its dreadful roads and packed-like-sardines public transport, and with this in mind we knew that getting to the western part of the country to see the famed ‘tsingy’ would be the most challenging part of a challenging country. To get to Tsingy de Bemaraha National Park from Tana, you have to take an 18-hour taxi-brousse (usually a minibus) to Morondava and then have to hire a 4WD for the 8-10 hour journey on a dirt road. And then do it again in reverse to get back. You can fly to Morondava, but at €450 per person one way we baulked at this, and instead settled on what seemed to be a good solution that took public transport out of the equation and avoided the worst stretch of road: we took a taxi-brousse three hours south of Tana to Antsirabe, took in the sights and sounds of its Saturday market, and then arranged a 7-day tour to the tsingy with a local guide named Robinson Crusoe (seriously) and four other foreigners. This involved three days in a private 4WD and some other, more creative means of transport – the highlights of the trip are detailed below.

The Tsiribihina River by Pirogue: We spent days 2-4 floating down the Tsiribihina River and through the Manambolo Gorge in dug-out wooden canoes, a fabulous experience despite the intense heat and the fact that we thought the gorge was not all that spectacular. We camped on the river bank for two nights, saw all-white Decken’s sifakas in the trees and stopped at a gorgeous waterfall / swimming hole on the second day. And, of course, we got a great taste of rural Malagasy river life in a very remote area devoid of roads and, really, anything that could be called infrastructure. Meanwhile, the company was excellent (we made friends with a lovely 73-year-old Frenchwoman named Jacqueline who has invited us to her country house outside Paris) and the boatmen made our seats as comfortable as they could by propping up our backpacks for seat-backs and using folded mattresses for padding.

To Antsiraraka by Zebu-Cart: After disembarking from our pirogues for the last time on the afternoon of Day 4, we hopped onto the main form of transport in the area: a zebu-pulled cart. (Zebus are ubiquitous humpbacked cattle that are regularly seen in both the Malagasy countryside and on the Malagasy dinner plate.) We enjoyed a rather bumpy ride through some villages for about 45 minutes to Antsiraraka, itself nothing more than a village surrounded by rice fields and baobab trees but one that offered bungalows and our first shower for three days.

The Tsingy: After another whole day in a 4WD, we finally arrived in the afternoon of Day 5 at Tsingy de Bemaraha National Park. The next day, we spent about four hours in the ‘Grand Tsingy’ in the morning and two hours in the ‘Petit Tsingy’ in the afternoon and, as we’d hoped, this was another great experience. The Grand Tsingy especially is a forest of jagged limestone rock pinnacles created by erosion and the advancing and receding of the sea over millions of years. The national park authorities have created an impressive circuit involving bolted ladders and bridges that allows you (with a rope and harness) to experience the best of the tsingy and to see it from all angles – from the narrow canyons on the ground to the viewpoints above the tsingy. I think (but I could be wrong) there are only two other places in the world like this – one in China’s Yunnan province and one in Malaysian Borneo, and having not been to either it was very satisfying to reach this one (and to think: we skipped the Borneo one because it was too hard to get to!!!). Plus, on the way back from the Tsingy we saw a Decken’s sifaka (one of the so-called dancing sifakas) bound along the ground like a kangaroo in a hilarious fashion – absolutely priceless.

The Avenue of Baobabs: There are eight species of baobab trees in the world: one on mainland Africa, specifically West Africa, that we saw when we were in the region three years ago; one in Australia that I’ve never seen; and six that are only found in Madagascar. We saw quite a few baobabs along the way once we were past the river stage of the trip, but it was on the last afternoon that we saw the most famous ones of the region: specifically the intertwined ‘lover baobabs’ and, most impressively, the Avenue of the Baobabs, where the enormous trees line both sides of a dirt road with zebu-carts passing underneath them – a fabulous and very Malagasy sight.

Despite the scorching heat and a rather unfortunate falling out with one of the other tourists on the penultimate night (a long story that’s not worth telling, other than to say that you can’t expect to hire a private vehicle and simply pay the taxi-brousse price while the other passengers pay the remainder), it was a memorable trip and is well worth doing not just as a way to reach the Tsingy but for the experience in and of itself.

From Morondava, we took a 14.5 hour taxi-brousse ride back to Ansirabe, which wasn’t too bad all things considered, and then began the next stage of our Madagascar experience: the southern national park trail.

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Introduction to Madagascar: Lemurs and plenty more

September 15th, 2010

Our flight from Nairobi dumped us in the Malagasy capital Antananarivo (hereafter ‘Tana’) at 2am, and after a night in a hotel near the airport and a good sleep in, we were ready to begin the last stage of our last big journey – a month in Madagascar. Within five days, we’d already come and gone from Tana twice without really seeing much of the city, but at first glance it’s infinitely more pleasant than any major city on the African mainland, and nicer than most in Asia too, for what it’s worth. I mention Asia because that was the first aspect of Madagascar’s ‘otherness’ that struck us upon arrival – that despite its position off the southeast coast of Africa, the Malagasy people (well, at least those of the highlands in and around Tana) look Asian, having arrived by dugout canoe from Indonesia/Malaysia about 2000 years ago.

We had known for a while that one month would not be enough to cover all of Madagascar, so we decided to abandon the north of the country (at least until the next trip) and focus largely on the south. But for our first explorations outside Tana, we thought that heading east to the closest major national park to the capital, Andasibe-Mantadia, would be the best place to start. This would be our introduction to the unique flora and fauna of Madagascar, and like all other visitors to this land, we were most looking forward to seeing our first lemurs.

Lemurs, to give a brief introduction, are about 40-50 million years old and predate the monkey. Indeed, it was the arrival of the quicker, smarter monkey on the scene about 35 million years ago that spelled the end for the lemur everywhere – except Madagascar, where there are 86 species and sub-species still going strong, and not a single monkey in the entire country. On our first day in Andasibe we saw five different lemur species – the brown lemur, the lesser bamboo lemur, the red-bellied lemur (somewhat rare in Andasibe) and two spectacular species, the Indri Indri and the diademed sifaka, which both deserve a detailed description.

The Indri Indri is the largest lemur, the only one without a monkey-style tail and the only one with a singing-style call (which is quite beautiful and enchanting when you hear it deep in the rainforest). It is about the size of a small bear, looks like a combination of a panda and a koala and is, in every way, an absolutely extraordinary animal. We saw one close up (but briefly) in Andasibe and then saw a handful of them at very close range the following day in Mitsinjo, an NGO reserve nearby, as they came out of the trees to the forest floor. To be so close to this bizarre but wonderful animal was absolutely fantastic and more than we could have hoped for.

The diademed sifaka is one of nine types of sifaka and is notable for its striking yellow fur. Sifakas are, I think, the most beautiful lemurs in general because of their thick fur and bright colours, and the diademed sifaka is quite rare and only found in this area. In fact, the ones that we saw in the Andasibe section of the park had been transferred from the Mantadia section, which is, I believe, the only national park where you can see them in their natural habitat. The sifakas jump spectacularly from tree to tree – not at all like a monkey but instead using virtually only their back legs to rebound from one tree trunk to another.

On our day in the NGO reserve, we also saw our first chameleon, who was green, large and quite spectacular, as well as the most extraordinary gecko we had ever seen by far (though this was a title it was not to hold for long) – a leaf-tailed gecko that had camouflaged itself so amazingly well to a tree trunk that we simply couldn’t see it for a minute or two despite our guide pointing right at it. We also took a night walk in the same reserve and saw our first nocturnal lemur, the avahi or woolly lemur.

In short, our Madagascar experience was off to a fantastic start, and we returned to Tana excited about what lay in store for the rest of the trip.

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Life in Africa continues…

August 29th, 2010

Let me start with an anecdote that illustrates African life pretty well, I think. A few days ago, we took a shared taxi (which the Ugandans call a matatu) from Mbale in Eastern Uganda to Sipi Falls, a journey of about 45km. Apparently the trip is too short for minibuses (which are called matatus in Kenya but, confusingly, taxis in Uganda) to bother. We were packed in like sardines into the station wagon with two passengers in the front and four in the back (very uncomfortable, but good practice for the taxi-brousses of Madagascar).

Soon after leaving Mbale, the driver stopped, flagged down a boda-boda (motorbike taxi) and one of the passengers in the front got out and jumped on the back of the bike – none of which made much sense to us at the time. We soon found out what was going on: we were coming up to a checkpoint and the traffic police weren’t going to allow two passengers in the front, so the idea was to get through the checkpoint with five passengers and then pick up the other passenger at a pre-arranged spot on the other side.

It didn’t work. The traffic police somehow knew/suspected what our plan was and stopped the car at the checkpoint and refused to allow us to continue. Apparently the driver also had “previous cases” and the car wasn’t up to standard, so he was forced to get out and one of the traffic police got in and drove the five remaining passengers back to Mbale. In between the Lugandan sentences there was some English thrown in and I repeatedly heard the policeman say “1 and 3” to refer to the number of allowable passengers (amazingly, this is also the same number of passengers the car was designed to hold, but I chose not to press this point). The policeman also stressed to everyone that it was much better to follow the law rather than try to find ways around it.

Back in Mbale, another driver then approached us all to make the same journey. We told him that the traffic police wouldn’t allow more than four passengers, but he took all five of us anyway and then he and the Ugandan passengers immediately began devising ways to run the checkpoint. We set off and as we neared the post, we turned off the main road and navigated a series of dirt roads through Mbale’s ‘suburbs’, re-emerging onto the main road beyond the checkpoint. We then picked up our sixth passenger who had been patiently waiting for the first car for some time, and later we picked up a seventh passenger for good measure and he sat in the boot/trunk, which is actually the most spacious place to sit in such a setup.

On the way back the next day, we had seven adult passengers and four children – needless to say, we took the back roads again and skipped the traffic police point.

I think the moral of the story goes something like this: in West Africa, ‘checkpoints’ exist so corrupt officials can solicit bribes, so if drivers want to break the law, they can do so if they part with a handful of CFA. In the Ugandan case, the police officers are trying to enforce the law honestly and won’t take bribes, which is of course a good thing. But instead of that integrity filtering down to the population, it’s instead forcing them to come up with new and more innovative ways to get around the law, and in the end, the result is the same – in this case that Africa, whether in the developing east or the poverty-stricken west, isn’t ready for one seat per person.

We spent our last few days in Uganda running around Kampala getting things done and then making the trip to Sipi Falls, a lovely spot among lush green farmland and a sheer cliff face. Two nights ago, we took a 13-hour bus from Mbale across the border to Kenya and back to Nairobi where it all began.

So, after two months in East Africa, this part of our trip is now over. I’m happy to report that it was infinitely more enjoyable than West Africa in all facets (sights/food/infrastructure/transport) and we’re happy with what we’ve done; the unquestioned highlights were Masai Mara and Lamu in Kenya, Zanzibar in Tanzania and gorillas and the volcano in the DRC.

While on the subject of the DRC, we discovered a couple of days ago how lucky we were to have been able to go there in the first place (and not lose the $800 we had paid in advance for gorillas). The $35 tourist visa for the Goma area has been discontinued and the land borders into the western DRC are now closed to foreigners, except aid workers with a special $250 visa. Two Canadians we met were turned away at two different border points (one of which was the same one we entered through) shortly after we made it in and met others who were also denied entry even after trying bribery. Putting the pieces together, we think the border may have been closed even while we were still in the DRC. Apparently, this was all sparked by increased rebel activity culminating in the killing of three Indian UN peacekeeper troops.

Leaving East Africa behind, we’re flying to Madagascar tonight and by tomorrow night we’ll hopefully already be in a National Park awaiting our first lemur sightings. Madagascar is too large, and the transport/roads are too poor for us to see everything we want to see in 30 days, but we’ve made an itinerary that we think will work well, allowing us to see lots of different types of lemurs and a few of the other natural wonders that the country has to offer.

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Taking it slowly in Uganda

August 22nd, 2010

We’ve been in Uganda for two weeks now, so I suppose I should offer some impressions of the country. It’s the most laid-back and relaxing country we’ve been to in East Africa, with easily the friendliest people, and these aspects have been most welcome. It’s also by far the most interesting market country we’ve seen in East Africa – it seems every other town or village has a twice-weekly market, and everywhere you go throughout the country you can see large bunches of unripe, green bananas being sold or, most often, being strapped onto a bicycle. (These are mashed up to form matoke, the most popular food staple in Uganda).

Unfortunately, given that we’ve already seen gorillas in the DRC and the savannah animals in Kenya, Uganda does lack a bit of star power in terms of attractions. Indeed, we thought about speeding through Uganda and returning to Kenya six or eight days before our flight out to climb Mt. Kenya or visit Lake Turkana. But instead we decided to take it easy and meander slowly through Uganda, stopping for a day or two longer here and there.

The highlights so far have been two relaxing camping spots: Lake Bunyonyi in the southwest and the Crater Lakes near Fort Portal in the west. At Lake Bunyonyi, we stayed at a fantastic place on one of the islands called Byoona Amagara, where for three days we forgot about Africa and instead read books, watched movies, ate great food and met some interesting fellow travellers. Unfortunately it is quite dry and brown at Bunyonyi at this time of year, but it was still a very pleasant stay nevertheless. Further north at Lake Nkuruba, we spent three nights camping on the rim of a volcanic crater lake with vervet, red colobus and black-and-white colobus monkeys for company. The black-and-white colobus monkey is perhaps the most handsome monkey we’ve ever seen with its white face, black fur, white fringes and black tail with a white tip, and it was fantastic to see them up close at our own leisure around the campsite (especially since we nearly paid $140 to track them in Rwanda!).

The camp sites aside, other things we’ve done in Uganda include tracking the very rare golden monkey as well as chimpanzees, though in both cases we only saw the primates high in the tree canopies, and visiting a Batwa (pygmy) village in the southwest, which was interesting enough.

We have now arrived in the capital Kampala, where we have some admin-type things to take care of over the next couple of days. Those tasks aside, we’ve pretty much done everything we wanted to do in East Africa, so we’ll head to Sipi Falls in the eastern part of the country for our last relax/camp stop in Uganda, and then take the bus back to Nairobi.

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Four days in the DRC

August 9th, 2010

Of all the war-torn countries in Africa, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC, once known as Zaire) remains one of the most dangerous and unstable. According to what we’ve read, the largest current United Nations peacekeeping force is the one in the DRC, which tells you most of what you need to know about the current state of affairs.

The vast majority of the country, which is as big as Western Europe, is off limits to tourists but there are a handful of places that can usually be visited, including Goma, which is a 10-minute walk from the Rwandan border in the far east of the country. That being the case, we walked across said border last Wednesday (paying $35 each for a seven-day visa and not even being asked for a bribe), and suddenly found ourselves in the DRC.

Goma, which is set on Lake Kivu and within sight of the Virunga volcanoes chain, must be one of the more unusual towns I’ve ever visited. I didn’t know quite what to expect as we began walking into town, but I certainly hadn’t envisaged seeing lots of new 4WDs and lovely gated villas on the shores of Lake Kivu belonging to wealthy Congolese. But that was something of a mirage; it turns out that an individual’s ability to build a villa far exceeds the state’s ability to provide basic services, so Goma has regular power cuts, is very often without running water, and has only a handful of paved roads. Elsewhere in town, especially towards the outskirts, the villas and 4WDs are nowhere in sight and it is a very different story. There, hundreds of locals cram into the dirt streets where vendors sell produce and other items amid volcanic debris and women walk back from the town well with buckets of water. Those streets represent one of the poorest urban centres I can remember seeing in Africa.

But most of all, to our eyes anyway, Goma is a UN town, which would have always been interesting but is more so for us now given Wendy’s new UN job in Geneva. In addition to the UNOCHA office in the centre of town, we saw four massive UN compounds on the outskirts of Goma filled with trucks, tanks and enormous supply crates. We saw UN peacekeeping soldiers driving through town, UN trucks bringing water into town, and dozens of jeeps branded either with the UN or with the initials of a UN subsidiary: UNOCHA, UNICEF, the World Food Programme, the UN High Commission for Refugees – they’re all in Goma. But the most obvious reminder of Goma’s position as an aid agency base for the DRC was the sound overhead, every 10 or 15 minutes throughout the day, of low-flying supply planes taking off from the airport close to the city centre, with UN or EU or Service Air branding.

All of this made Goma feel almost like two towns living side-by-side but completely oblivious to the other. There certainly seemed to be two economies in operation: one where you pay 500 francs (about 55 cents) for a bunch of 11 bananas from a vender on a street corner, and the other where you go into a supermarket and pay US$20, in hard currency, for an imported box of cereal.

In the end, we didn’t feel unsafe in Goma (though we didn’t go out at night), and despite the security concerns, we didn’t feel nearly the same kind of tension that we did in Xinjiang during the Uigher uprising last year. But at any rate, it was an interesting experience.

And so it was to this environment that we came, rather strangely it might seem, to hike through a jungle to track mountain gorillas.

Gorilla Tracking

The reason we came to the DRC in the first place was that gorilla-tracking reservations in Rwanda and Uganda were already fully booked by the time we started planning the trip. Our last remaining option was the DRC’s Parc National des Virungas, the oldest national park on the continent and one so large that it adjoins at least six separate national parks in Rwanda and Uganda. Unfortunately it’s not always safe, and the highest-profile example of how the turmoil in the country can affect gorilla-tracking was the 2007 execution of one of the four habituated gorilla families in the Bukima section of the park. Gorilla-tracking in the DRC was subsequently suspended, but has since recommenced, so we made our booking and hoped that the current security situation would hold up. At US$400 per person, it’s $100 cheaper than in Rwanda or Uganda, but with an extra charge of $110 for a hire jeep and $35 each for the DRC visa, it pretty much turned out to be a wash.

On the morning of our reservation, we woke up at 5:10am and 20 minutes later we were in a 4WD heading towards the park, with an army jeep escorting us most of the way. The 40km ride from Goma to the park headquarters on an increasingly dreadful road took us about 2hrs 15min – to put this in perspective, a marathon runner could have beaten us.

In any case, it was fascinating to go past the villages along the way and see what the DRC is like outside the ‘haven’ of Goma. The villages closest to Goma were the most prosperous, with most houses built of wood with tin roofs, though even here there were signs of much hardship. Some houses had no roofs at all and instead had UN tarpaulins for shelter, while the local women had to walk several kilometres to fetch water from the nearest pump well. Meanwhile, the men transported bamboo, bananas, sacks of grain etc on a device extremely ill-suited for such a task: a home-made bicycle made entirely of wood with neither a seat nor pedals called a trottinette, which, interestingly, is the French for scooter in the developed world. (In Goma, a gaudy golden statue of a man wheeling a trottinette adorns a roundabout, utterly out of place in war-torn DRC. We were told that the rich local man who funded the building of the statue began life as a poor villager with a trottinette; the statue, odd as it is, enhances the vehicle’s status as one of the symbols of the DRC.)

Further on, the people were poorer and lived in shacks constructed only of bamboo and earth. It wasn’t the most poverty we’ve seen in Africa – the climate is conducive to successful farming, especially of banana trees, whereas in the semi-desert of the West African Sahel the people have absolutely nothing – but it wasn’t far off. Hundreds of kids in rags ran to our 4WD to smile and wave at us, and only as we got closer to the park headquarters did they start sticking out their hands hoping for money or sweets.

We arrived at the park at about 8:15am and were delighted to find that we would be the only tourists tracking the Munaga group that day (there is a maximum of six tourists per family, and I think it’s quite rare even in the DRC to have the gorillas to yourselves). With an entourage of a guide, an armed guard and a machete-laden jungle hacker, we headed into the forest towards the slopes of one of the volcanoes of the Virungas chain in search of our gorillas.

After 45 minutes we met the advanced tracking party, who had been sent out ahead of us to find the gorillas. Fifteen minutes later, a silverback was barging towards us, crashing through the jungle as he went and causing us to hurriedly back away – and after all these years of talking and dreaming about seeing mountain gorillas in the wild, here we were.

The Munaga family is apparently rather special as it consists of three silverbacks as well as two adult females and one baby of nine months. We watched them go about their daily lives – the adults climbed trees in a hugely destructive fashion while the cheeky baby did tumble turns on the ground and made funny facial expressions. They were much more active than I had expected and to see a silverback really charge is quite an extraordinary sight. Overall, the hour that we spent with these fascinating creatures (which is all you are allowed) was one of the great highlights of our travels, and worth every penny.

Nyiragongo Volcano

The next day, we relieved ourselves of a further $450 and returned to the park for the 5.5 hour hike to the crater of the Nyiragongo Volcano. We walked with three other foreigners and three armed guards (with more stationed at various points along the trail, if you could describe lying under a tree as being ‘stationed’), as security at the volcano is even more precarious than it is for the gorillas. In fact, the volcano was only reopened to tourists in March 2010 after being closed for 18 months. Even then, it was closed for another week in April, so we were fortunate that it was open for us. And beyond the security issue, there’s also the active volcano issue: in 2002, it erupted and buried Goma under two metres of ash and lava.

It was a tough hike and we struggled a bit, especially towards the end as we scrambled over volcanic rocks on approach to the 3400m crater. We knew there was a lava lake below but we weren’t really prepared for the sight that awaited us at the top: an enormous, desolate crater with a circular lava lake raised up on a platform far below in a way that seemed too perfectly designed to have been crafted entirely by nature. In the ‘lake’ itself, smoke billowed up from the shifting and erupting lava pockets to create a truly awesome scene – one that looked even better a few hours later as night descended on the volcano and the lava lake lit up in a brilliant orange that can be seen, reflected on the smoke, from Goma.

We camped on the crater rim for the night and headed back down the next morning, exhausted but thrilled with the experience. We’ve climbed our fair share of volcanoes over the years, but this one was by far the most spectacular. It was completely worth both the expense and the tough trek up – even though as I type this two days later we are hobbling around the Ugandan town of Kisoro on extremely sore legs.

We might have rested another day in Goma before continuing on, but we wanted to avoid today’s presidential elections in Rwanda just in case. To that end, yesterday, one day after coming down from the volcano, we crossed back into Rwanda and then continued into Uganda, our last East African country before we head back to Nairobi to fly to Madagascar.

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Rwanda: a thousand hills and a million deaths

August 9th, 2010

After a 32-hour bus ride from Dar es Salaam – which was pretty trying but not terrible by African standards – we arrived in Kigali at around lunchtime last Friday and spent the next five days in Rwanda. The country is small, doesn’t have a wealth of tourist sites, and the primate tracking is more expensive than elsewhere in the region (e.g. $100 per person to track golden monkeys in Rwanda and half that in Uganda), so that’s why we didn’t devote much time to it.

Of course, Rwanda is most famous for the 1994 genocide, when the majority Hutus slew a million minority Tutsis in 100 days of madness. Sixteen years later, the country seems to have made good progress in moving on, but numerous memorials across the country ensure that the local people will never forget it. We visited the Kigali memorial which I would describe as chilling, and even sickening. Seeing the skulls of some victims and photos of hundreds of bodies strewn on the ground was very moving, but the saddest and most powerful part for me was seeing photos of lost children, accompanied by profiles which would say things like:
Age: 6
Favourite food: rice with sauce
Best friend: his Mum
Cause of death: hacked to death with a machete

After leaving Kigali, we headed south to Butare and from there we got to experience the justifiably famous Rwandan countryside. Rwanda is known as the Land of a Thousand Hills, and it’s extremely apt, since rolling hills dominate the landscape of virtually the entire country (even Kigali itself is built on a series of hills). I thought the most beautiful stretch was between Butare and Nyungwe NP, where tea, coffee, rice and wheat plantations dotted the hills in all directions.

We had gone to Nyungwe to track black-and-white colobus monkeys, and we saw one on the road on the way there. Then once we arrived at the park HQ, having been offered transport by two very friendly Swiss families, we baulked at having to get further transport to a different area and then having to pay $140 to track them, so in the end we decided to turn around and head back to Butare. We started flagging down anything going our way and wound up hitching with a wealthy local couple and then a Red Cross worker, so it was a nice experience to chat with some local people. The conversations were in French, but other than this there is just as much English spoken in Rwanda these days, making it hard to know what language to start a conversation with. Under President Paul Kagame, who doesn’t speak French, the country is deliberately moving away from its francophone past (as a Belgian colony) and traditional Central African relationship with francophone Burundi and the DRC towards an alliance with British colonies Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania as part of the East African Community agreement.

From Butare, we returned to Kigali and then headed west towards Gisenyi, which is apparently a pretty fabulous place if you pay $150 a night for a hotel on Lake Kivu with a private beach. But if you prefer to pay $15 instead, you get a pretty dodgy room in a dirty and child-beggar-ridden town, and after walking down to the lake and looking at it for 15 minutes you are more than ready to leave. This being our experience, we left Rwanda behind and headed to the DRC.

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Zanzibar: Spices and Spiky Monkeys

July 27th, 2010

“This Zanzibar better be worth it,” grumbled Wendy as she forked over US$100 for her Tanzania visa (almost all other nationalities pay $50), the seventh time she has had to pay at least $100 for a tourist visa during our travels. Luckily, despite warily eyeing Zanzibar through Lamu-coloured glasses upon arrival, we were soon happy to be there and it was well worth it.

CoastThe major difference between Lamu and Zanzibar is scale – the latter is grander in all facets, from the size of the Stone Town to the size of the houses within it to the width of the alleyways (and, yes, the number of tourists). Zanzibar has more historic non-residential buildings and you can tell that in the heyday of the Swahili Coast, Zanzibar yielded real power while Lamu was always somewhat of a backwater. Some other points in Zanzibar’s favour are sunsets, town beaches – good for watching locals play football and haul in fishing boats – and a wider variety of food. Lamu counters with better fruit juice, a more personal touch (after a couple of days it seems like everyone knows you) and the feeling that you’ve stumbled on a less well-trodden path.

MonkeyWe spent most of our time in Zanzibar walking around Stone Town, visiting the local markets, and eating seafood pizza at Mercury’s overlooking the beach. Other than this, yesterday we did the virtually obligatory spice/beach tour, which we found OK but not outstanding. A better outing this morning was taking a dalla-dalla (the local converted truck transport) to a beautiful forest to see red colobus monkeys, the spiky-haired version of which lives only on Zanzibar.

As for Tanzania … that’s it. We were as surprised as anyone to discover, when we started our research, that Tanzania would not be the fulcrum of the trip as we had anticipated and instead would be a virtual obstacle in our path. The thing is, Tanzania and Kenya have very similar attractions, and if you’ve travelled significantly in one of them, there’s not much point in spending a lot of time in the other on the same trip. All four of Tanzania’s main attractions have a (cheaper) Kenyan ‘equivalent’: Mt. Kiliminjaro = Mt. Kenya, Serengeti NP / Ngorongoro Crater = Masai Mara NR, Zanzibar = Lamu.

So, after considering flying to the Rwandan capital Kigali but baulking at the $900 price, we will take the ferry to Dar es Salaam tomorrow and then face an overland journey across Tanzania to Kigali that, if we’re lucky and get good connections, will take us two days.


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