Rwanda, Uganda and Kenya (Dec‘09/Jan ’10)
on Susan Somers (Namibia), 29/Jan/2010 09:43, 34 days ago
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I had a great trip in East Africa over my Christmas break. Since internet access was going to be scarce during the trip I decided to try to survive for 2 whole weeks without a computer or phone and without even trying to find an internet connection. I managed just about! I kept a semi-regular travel journal which I’ve now typed up to form a (very long) blog about my trip.Kigali, Rwanda. Sat. 19th December 2009My trip to East Africa got of to a rather uncertain start when, on arriving in Jo’burg from the short flight from Windhoek, I discovered that the AirRwanda flight to Kigali had been canceled. It had been cancelled for over a month, although no one had thought to inform me, but I soon discovered that Kenya Air had taken over the AirRwanda flights. However the replacement flights (which would bring me there via Nairobi) weren’t leaving until the next day but I didn’t even get time to be concerned before I was whisked away to a complementary airport hotel (with a pool and DSTV) given meal vouchers (delicious all-you-eat buffets for both dinner and breakfast) and even rang ImTrav to sort out my airport transfer for when I arrived. The only down side was that I had no bags (since they were checked and currently MIA) but there wasn’t much I could do until the morning. I was discouraged from heading into downtown Jo’burg (more from the price of the taxi – US$25 – than from the dire warnings and horror stories of fellow travelers) and made use of the newly developed shops back at the airport (RSA has World Cup fever and whole chunks are being dug up and made over)After a comfortable night and a hearty breakfast I headed back to the airport to track down my bags before my flights. I spent an hour sitting around and ignoring vague assurances the bags would be fine until I met a nice copped-on Kenya Air lady who tracked them down sent a guy to find them and check them on. She also told me to check on them before I boarded the flight, I did, and thankfully it all worked out and my bag made it Kigali on the same flight as me! The flight was delayed a few hours (naturally) and got in late to Nairobi (which was chaos) but I made my connection (a tiny twin engine plane about the size of a bus) and was picked up in Kigali and brought to my accommodation.It’s late, and dark and I’ve missed out on my day in Kigali but at least me and my luggage are here in one piece. Tomorrow I meet the group who will be my travel buddies for the next 2 weeks!Ruhengeri, Rwanda. Sun. 20th December 2009Early this morning after a quick breakfast we loaded ourselves onto the bright orange Gecko’s overland truck (while attempting introductions) and set off the first day of our trip.Kigali is a fairly small city (pop.700,000, 10 million in the country) and seems to based around a collection of hills. It has modern western style houses and clusters of small shack-like structures, mixing typical African and Western or European influences, but I didn’t get to see too much of the capital city. French is the prevailing European language and after the emptiness of central Namibia is seems quite crowed.Its not as westernized as Windhoek but is a very clean. We were told that one Saturday each month is set aside as‘cleaning day’ when the whole population spends time tidying and cleaning their streets, homes and places of work. They plant trees, paint walls, pick up litter and repair damages. Even the Prime Minister gets invloved and there are fines and punishments for those who don’t help out!Our first stop was the Genocide Memorial Museum, built both to commemorate and inform visitors and residents about Rwanda’s harrowing and horrifying recent history. The grounds contain the mass graves of 250,000 of the victims of the 1994 genocide. There are many more all over the country (over 1 million were killed) but some bodies may never be recovered. Inside the building there is a very well laid out and revealing display, using text, photos and videos, to try and explain and chronicle the 100 days of unimaginable brutality and hatred. There was a heartbreaking memorial to some of the children who were killed and a section comparing it to other instances of recent genocide. The location and design of thememorial meant it wasn’t as chilling or immediate as a visit to Auswitz in Poland or the S-21 prison in Cambodia but the fact that it happened so recently made it somehow more unsettling, and begging the question how can it keep happening? A very somber start to the day and the trip.After lunch we had a chance to go to a tiny supermarket (for snacks and essential supplies– toilet roll and for-ex!) I had some money issues, as the visa for Rwanda cost US$60 and used up most of my spare US dollars, and ATMs here don’t take international credit cards but I changed the last of my euro into local currency (the Rwandan franc; 1US$ = RFr 500) which will keep me going.Then we headed for the hills! A 2 hour drive along steep, narrow curving roads to R?? at the edge of the volcanic mountains and jungle on the border with Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. We were upgraded to dorms tonight (which saves the hassle of putting up a tent for one night) and finally got around to official introductions at dinnertime. There are 3 crew; Chris, the guide, Eunice, the cook and (magic) Johnson, the driver - all from Kenya. There are 17 in the group, 12 from Australia, 3 from the UK, one from the Netherlands and me. There is an uneven number and I’m the odd one out (there are 4 couples, 2 girls and 2 guys travelling together, which leaves 2 single guys and 3 single girls – but the other 2 have already paired up!) Everyone seems friendly enough and I’m sure I’ll find out more as we go! We went to the bar for a few drinks (Primus beer)in the evening but as we’re an early start we all went to bed fairly early.Kisoro, Uganda 21st Dec 2009Today was an early start and a long day but the gorilla trek was worth every bit of strain! We arrived at the HQ of the Parc National des Volcans in the Rwandan Virungas (volcanic mountains) at around 7am and were divided into groups of 6-8. Only 7 families of gorillas are habitualised to humans and can be visited and only 8 can visit each group in a day– which is what make the permits so hard to get and therefore expensive (US$500). Our group (2 girls, 5 guys, a guide, a trainee guide and an armed escort!) were off to see the Umbango family group, under the care of a silverback called Charles!.It was a cool day (perfect for trekking, esp with long sleves, long combats and runners!) and even before we started the scenery was amazing. In the morning there were picturesque cone shaped mountains , some partially covered in jungle, rising out of the mist. We first drove to the foot of the mountain (well bumped over a rocky, rutted path of sorts in a range Rover) then walked across some village farm land (where they were growing potatoes, maize and what looked like daisies for making insecticides) After climbing a wall we were in the park and on our trek. We walked along steep narrow paths in single file up the side of the Volcano. I had to go first as the guide decided I was the slowest ( I really must get fit one of these days!) but everyone was happy to stop often for a rest and drink. The first hour or so was hard going but not too uncomfortable. Then we got into tougher territory with giant stinging nettles (that stung through my long sleeved t-shirt) but kept going. After 2½ hours I was getting really tired and wonder if I’d ever get to see them. The gorillas are constantly followed by trackers that move with them as they munch their way across the mountain. The gorillas make nests at dusk and sleep so the trackers leave them but are back at dawn the next day to continue following them and relay their movements to the guides with walkie talkies. It is still a job to find them and you can never tell exactly how long it will take.This was proven for us when, just as we arrived in the area where the tracker said they were, only to catch a glimpse of black, as the family suddenly decided to move and we had to scramble up a steep muddy bamboo and bush covered mountain side to follow them. After several minutes of scrambling about on rocks and mud and jungle plants we rounded some bushes and there were two gorillas lying only a few metres away, one chewing on a bit of a tree, the other sprawled in the sun!In the course of the hour we spent with them we got even closer. We saw a mother cradling her cute little baby, only a few months old, and trying to put manners on him when he wanted run off. We saw adolescents playing and climbing and hanging out, We saw an older female napping by a tree, looking for all the world like an old woman, we saw Mr. Star a blackback tearing through the jungle and making the trees shake, we saw the family lying in the sun for a while grooming each other and we saw Mr. Charles the huge silverback, who made a charge at us when we got a bit close. Gorillas are peaceful vegetarians but have vicious teeth, are very strong and territorial? One of the guides got too close to a mother and baby which caused her to charge too: we very sensibly backed up... quickly! It was amazing; we got within metres of them (sometimes nearly falling down the side of the mountain), took tons of photos, marveled at how human they appear and the time flew by.The trek down only took only 1½ hours and was much easier since we were heading down hill. We were the last group back to the campsite, since the other gorilla families were closer that day. We left straight away to make it across the Ugandan border before it shut.We stopped at a camp site in Kisoro, where I paid US$4 for a upgrade to a dorm (which I had all to myself) since it was almost dark and we were leaving again in the morning. There was no bar (or at least no cold drinks) so after a hot shower and dinner I went to bedQueen Elizabeth National Park, Uganda 23rd Dec 2009Yesterday morning we left early to drive across south eastern Uganda, on good and bad roads, to Queen Elizabeth National Park. The views, especially some of the small lakes in the morning mist, were lovely. Uganda is also quite hilly and very green with crop growing on every plant-able surface. The steep hills terraced and planted with potatoes, maize, Kasava and bananas reminding me a little of parts of south east Aisa.We stopped in the town of Kabale to stock up on essentials (mostly snacks and alcohol) and go to go to an ATM (which worked) to get some Ugandan schillings (US$1 = UsH 2000– too many zeros for me!) We stopped by the side of the road (with an audience of locals) to prepare and eat our lunch of sandwiches and arrived in the park in around 3pm. The Park was once very famous and full of a wide variety of animals but is now trying to recover from losing a lot of animalsduring the fighting in the 70s. We arrived at our camp site near the shores of the Kazingo Channel and put up our tents (first time this trip for me!)After dinner I opened a box of wine I’d bought in a messy supermarket earlier and some of stayed up around the camp fire. A lot still seemed to head off to bed early but some stayed up!Today was spent in Queen Elizabeth National Park; we had a safari drive in the morning and a both trip on Lake Edward in the afternoon. A families of elephants crossed right in front of our truck and seemed a little nervous of us– which is unusual compared to other African national parks I’ve been to –still wary of humans even though its almost 30 years since they were hunted by both malicious and hungry soldiers. It must be true that elephants have long memories. We also saw giraffes and risked a fine going off roadto see some young male lions lazing about. We spotted lots of antelope/deer type animals including the Ugandan Kob who looks alot like all the other antelopes (but I tend to get the gazelle/kudu/Oryx/hartebeest/waterbucks etc. mixed up!) On the boat trip we got quite close to hippos, buffalos, crocsand lots of birds. There were some local fishing on the river but through conservation programmes they don’t hunt the animals instead benefitting from the tourism that they bring.Red Chilli Hideaway, Kampala, Uganda. Thurs 24th December 2009It’s Christmas Eve and I’m last one to bed again! A few of us (3 of us and Chris the guide) stayed up to have a Christmas drink and play pool. I’m in a room again - it was drizzling when we arrived and putting up a tent didn’t seem worth the effort for a night.Today was mostly a travel day, crossing Uganda to the capital. It seems a large and modern capital although we more or less skirted the city to our campsite on the outskirts. Like Rwanda, I really will have to come back and see the place properly!Jinja, Uganda. Saturday 26th December 2009Had an extremely relaxing Christmas in the delightful town of Jinja– not that I honestly saw much beyond ‘Adrift Bar’ at our campsite!We left Kampala in the morning (some brave soles having headed off to do some whitewater rafting) to stopping to do some shopping for our Chrismas dinner. We stopped at an animal market to get a goat (no turkeys for traditional festive dinner here!) but they were sold out, it being Christmas morning and all, so we bought a sheep, which they cleaned and butchered for us. We then bought lots of fruit, alcohol and decorations from market stalls and mini supermarkets!After a quick lunch of sandwiches I helped out making the punch (I’m better with drink than with food) by chopping up fruit (papaya, mango, pineapple, watermelon and peach) and putting it and a load of alcohol (including, but not limited to gin, whiskey, vodka and sparkling wine!) into a clean cool box. A quick stir and let it settle and we had a delicious Christmas punch! We spent the rest of the day drinking it and in the afternoon had the roast sheep with lots of veg, which was nice too! There was also sheep’s head soup – great for a hangover I’m told – but I passed as I didn’t have one and it smelt awful!Christmas night was spent in the campsite bar, having switched to beer when the punch ran out! The Adrift bar (same name as the campsite and white water rafting company based there) was perched on rocks overlooking the rapids of the Nile, shortly after it had flowed out of Lake Victoria) and had a large wooden deck under a reed roof and lots of comfy sofas. I was last to bed– which is becoming a habit, but it was barley midnight!‘Stephen’s Day was spent in much the same way as Christmas night. There was the option of painting walls in a local orphanage in the morning and quad bike riding in the afternoon but I decided I was on holidays from volunteer work and felt like having a thoroughly lazy day off! So I sprawled myself on the squashy sofas ate chips, drank beer and just hung out all day reading and chatting to the other like-minded travelers.Kericho, Kenya Sunday 27th December 2009Left Jinja early this morning and crossed into Kenya by the Busia border crossing (supposedly one of the busiest in East Africa but fairly quiet today.) We paid our US$25 dollar vias fee and had our yellow fever vaccination certs checked.We’re staying at the Tea Hotel, and as we could see as we drove into the district, this area produces quite a lot of tea! This hotel has quite a colonial feel to it and we had afternoon tea in the hotel to sample the ambiance! We also ordered fruit cake – which turned out to be a huge hunk of drymaderia cake with about one rasin in it! The tea however was delicious! They are big fans of their chai here in Kenya.It was pretty wet this morning– we had a few showers in Kampala and Jinja but nothing major and it was still warm – and absolutely poured this afternoon and evening. I’m actually cold today and it’s the first time I’ve put on my runners, combats and fleece due to the weather in months. We ate our dinner in two sheds tonight (one for the cooking and one with our camp chairs set out for eating) The hotel bar was pretty quiet, and the lads were soon engrossed in some soccer match so I decided to have a hot shower and early night (I’ve paid an upgrade for room again - camping isn’t any fun in the rain!) but therewas no hot water but at least the bed has lots of warm blankets!East Africa Mission Orphanage, Nakuru, Kenya. Tues. 29th December 2009On Monday morning we had a tour of the tea plantation and learned all about how tea is grown and harvested (eg tea bushes can live to be 45 years old, tea is made from the green tips which are picked every 2-3 weeks by‘pickers’ that can pick up to 60kg of leaves a day!)We then travelled on to the East Africa Mission Orphanage near the town of Nakuru and had a tour of the Orphanage by its Aussie owner Ralph. He explained how he and his wife moved to Africa with their family over 15 years ago and after a time decided to foster 2 orphans. This became 3, and then 5, and then 10 - after which they decided to open a small orphanage. But the number continued to grow and they now find themselves running an orphanage of over 170 kids, with 30 staff. They moved from temporary accommodation 10 years ago to their present location, a 50 acre site purchased by Ralph and which is still evolving. I was actually kind of surprised to see that it seemed like a wonderful place with genuinely happy kids and relaxed staff. Compared to many orphans in Kenya, these children would appear to be lucky. They have their own bed, 3 healthy meals a day, a school on site and even some toys and new clothes. There seemed to be a family feel to the place, with the older ones helping the younger ones, like brothers and sisters. The children range in age from a few months to about 14 or 15.Ralph seems very innovative and pro-active, constantly fundraising to keep the place running and improve the building and facilities (they recently opened a new girls’ dorm built by Canadian sponsors and he plans to turn the old dorm into proper classrooms to replace the wooden sheds they’ve been using) He is also looking for new ways of developing the orphanage such as planting their own vegetable garden and a flower farm (which as well as food and money –flowers are a growing cash crop in Kenya - will also provide potential employment for some of the children as they grow older.) He joked with kids (who all call him ‘Dad’) and staff, as he chatted to us, answering all questions with a typical Aussie straight-forward frankness. He never tried to‘sell’ the project to us (although we were, of course, potential donors) and we never got that guilty, uncomfortable feeling you sometimes get when you visit charities.We ate dinner with kids, each of the group‘adopted’ by one of the orphans who made it their job to ‘mind’ us and show us around. Geckos bring tour groups there every few weeks so all of the kids get a chance to be tour guide if they want. I was adopted by 6 year old Suzy who was very shy but well able to fight her corner if anyone else tried to hold my hand. She was also fascinated with some balloons that were in the truck (left over from Christmas.) After dinner there were prayers and singing before we settled down to watch ‘Garfield: The Movie’. It was very relaxed with little kids coming and going and climbing onto yourlap. As their various bedtimes arrived the younger kids were shepherded off to bed by the older ones (without any complaining!) and by 8pm they were all, more or less, in bed. They seemed to manage this, and the cleaning up after dinner, pretty much among themselves with very little adult intervention or direction.Today we spent a full day in Lake Nakuru National Park, most famous for its flamingoes that turn the lake pink with their numbers at certain times of the year. We saw lots (although in the distance on the lake as it was very difficult to get close since this meant walking across smelly sticking mud and they just fly away when you get near anyway!) We also saw white rhino (actually grey in colour but identifiable by their wide square mouths for grass grazing) and later saw the rarer black rhino (also grey but with a pointed upper lip for browsing on bushes rather than grass) before he ran off because of a rain storm. We saw more olive baboons (constantly grooming– i.e. picking fleas out of each other) vervet monkeys (cute and the males have bright red and blue balls!) and the black and white colobus monkey (with cape of white fur and solemn looking faces) We also lots of the usual buffaloes, zebra and antelope (which we hardly get out of seat to look at now) as well as giraffe and a family of hyenas.The scenery in the park was also amazing– especially as seen from top of Baboon Cliff when blue sky, fluffy clouds and the distant hills could be seen reflected in the lake, all surrounded by lush African savannah. The cliffs also lived up to their name when we were attacked by a baboon! There were qute a few tourists and vehicles on the cliff top view point and the crafty primate made a dash for one of the open top vans while we were all admiring the view. He almost got inside but was seen off by some guides with sticks. While we all laughed about this he crept around and made another attempt, this time making off with a plasticbag containing some unfortunates lunch. Well out of reach in a tree higher on the cliff face he didn’t seem very impressed with his haul since most of it was wrapped in plastic and was thrown away.After a quick stop in town for banks/supermarkets/coffee we headed back to the EAMO. We had dinner on our own and a few glasses of wine around the camp fire before bed.Crayfish Camp Site, Naivasha, Kenya. Wed. 30th December 2009We were waved off with songs from the orphans this morning and then drove to Lake Naivasha. Our camp site is nice– it has the usual chalets and some quirkey ones made out of small boats, old cars, busses and other vehicles. It also has a nice bar where I spent the afternoon, instead of an arduous bike trip through Hells Gate N.P, which I don’t regret since it poured rain!Acacia Camp site, Masaai Mara Nature Reserve, Kenya. Friday 1st January 2010After an early morning boat trip on Lake Naivasha (getting very close to schools of hippos) we drove to the Masaai Mara Nature Reserve on the Tanzanian border (the Kenyan side of the Serengeti) The roads in the park were pretty bad (exacerbated by the recent rain) craters inside potholes in some places. Another overland bus got stuck at one particularly muddy river crossing and had to be towed out. Our driver proved he was‘magic’ in getting us to our campsite without getting bogged or stuck.For New Years Eve we made more punch and stayed up late (most until just after midnight - which is exceptionally late for most of this lot– and a few of us until 3am!)Today we spent on another game drive through the Masaai Mara, where, apart from the now usual buffaloes, hippos, elephants, wildebeest and antelopes we saw quite a few cats! We say lions on honeymoon, protecting a kill and just generally‘lion-ing’ around. We also saw some cheetahs – a mother teaching her offspring to hunt by pouncing on and chasing each other.We had a Masaai warrior dance before dinner and lots more rain (which is becoming a regular feature) but it luckily hasn’t been cold.Nairobi, Kenya. Sun 3rd Jan 2010I finished my trip in Nairobi last night with a group meal at Carnivore Restaurant. It was expensive but unusual enough to be worth it. We got a plate and servers came around with ridiculous amounts of meat on huge skewers and sawed off bits onto our plates. It was all you could eat ostrich, crocodile, kudu and beef! There was some potatoes and veg– but only if you asked. They also had a wide menu for the ‘boozivore.’ We then had a few drinks in the hotel bar before saying goodbye to everyone.Now I’m back at Nairobi Airport (I was up at 4.30am) on my way home – to Namibia that is. It was nice to stay at a hotel last night– with a double bed, my own bathroom and endless hot water only steps away! I’m also looking forward to unpacking and washing but not necessarily to going back to reality!Its been a great trip, an unusual Christmas and New Year and I feel I’ve been away longer than 2 weeks. Although I feel refreshed I’m not particularly looking forward to work on Wednesday… but who ever likes going back to work in January?