Entering South Africa at Martin’s Drift/Groblers Bridge border crossing was a real pain in the butt! Leaving Botswana was a breeze, and things were looking good until we crossed the bridge and then there in front of us was the longest queue of pedestrians we had seen since leaving Morocco into Mauritania a year and a half ago.
In these instances, where you park the truck takes some thought, you really don’t want to get boxed in and then have to wait for other people to do their paperwork before you can actually leave, so I strategically parked behind a row of commercial trucks so that I could leave the queue and go either way out. As we got to the back of the long queue of people waiting to get to Immigration a security guy told me we couldn’t park there as we weren’t a commercial vehicle. Now despite a queue of at least 200 people in front of us, Grobler Bridge border post is tiny and there is very little parking and Colonel K was definitely never going to fit between the cars in a parking bay (even if one became free). He directed me past the parking area to another security guard, who then directed me even further to another security guard, and so it went on until eventually I was outside the border barrier and now officially in South Africa and parked on the road!!! At no time was I asked for ID, but Jac was now inside, in the queue with my passport, this could now be a problem getting back inside the secure area, NOPE, I just walked though all the barriers saying hi to anyone that looked at me. Armed with hats and 1.5 litres of water we settled down to a two hour shuffle along outside until we got to the Immigration desk.
It was incredibly frustrating with only two officials checking and stamping passports (one was doing 10 times more than the other one that was doing a fantastic impression of a sedated zombie). But eventually we were through, found a customs official that could stamp our carnet, and amazingly Colonel K still had all its wheels when we got back to him, as usual no one bothered to check inside the truck, (we could have had 20 passengers inside).
We badly need to replace our leisure batteries (those that serve our living accommodation), and find somewhere to remove the solar panel and fix a leak underneath and to sort a issue with the air-con unit which sometimes lets in water. So we headed for the large town of Polokwane (formally Pietersburg) in the north of the Limpopo region, where we found a nice small friendly campsite, Boma in the Bush. Here the owners and other guests suggested a few places where we could get this work done and the most promising was a large camping and caravanning shop about 10km back into town.
The next morning we met the workshop manager who quoted for the work, and we booked the Colonel in for 3 days, but not for another week. So we made a plan and decided to go off for a week and then come back for the work to be carried out.
Firstly we wanted to spend a couple of days in the mountains around Letaba. On the way we stopped at the tiny village of Haenertsburg (another recommendation), and had a fantastic coffee and cake which was something we’ve not really experienced since we were last in SA nearly a year ago, and we also had a walk around the curio shops. Then it was up and over the massively steep pass, but at the top we planned to use a campsite that is listed on our trusty ioverlander app. This proved to be a bit of a nightmare, we were expecting a steep down into the valley below, and the first kilometre was ok for our Daf (even though the dirt track was quite wet and slippery), then as we turned left towards the camp again it got really steep, and although the owners had concreted two strips to get a bit of traction into your tyres, in our case our wheel tracks were much too wide!! I jumped out and walked the next half kilometre, NO WAY!!! Turning round was impossible so we ended up reversing back to the left hand turn and shunting the truck around until we faced the right way, it was very steep, very slippery, and of course extremely narrow. Both the clutch and the brakes were now smelling. After turning around we let the Colonel have a few minutes rest and then slowly, very slowly edged our 9,500kg bulk back up the steep slippery hill (it had been raining hard that morning) in Low Range 1st gear. Once again our trusty Daf proved his worth. But maybe the owners of the campsite could put a sign up at the road warning of a steep descent? Ok 90% of other vehicles that go camping in SA are 4×4 bakkies, such as a Landcruiser, or Hi-lux, but some people must get stuck coming out of that ravine.
Ok lets go to the town of Tzaneen and camp there, we knew we could get into that one even though the review on ioverlander suggested that the track into the camp was steep. So this time, leaving Jac in the truck, I walked down to the campsite. This time it was definitely not a problem getting down there and out, but the owners and staff were so unfriendly and uninterested in us, that I thought no I’m not paying to stay here, so walked back up to the tarmac to tell Jac “the good news”. By the time I got back, I was really blowing chunks (it was hot and steeper than it looked), we looked at our options (it was still only early afternoon), and decided to head straight for Kruger National Park to the east.
We stayed at a campsite right next to the Phalaborwa Gate, which is roughly half way up the vast National Park, here we decided to buy our Sanparks WildCard. This card which costs about £200 for a couple (international visitor), and allows free access to all South African National Parks and Reserves (over 80 of them) and lasts for 12 months, even giving you a small discount off the camping rates inside Kruger. Its a no brainer, and offers incredible value for money. So we booked a total of 3 nights camping in the NP (2 nights in Letaba, and 1 night in Satara) and headed off, full of expectation of what was to come (game viewing always does this to us, whether we are self driving or in a game vehicle.
Within a few hundred metres of the gate, we saw a group of large mean looking Spotted Hyena’s crossing the road, things were looking good!
As you can see from the photo above Kruger has tarmac roads, in fact a lot of tarmac roads. In our view this really does distract from the feeling of being in a vast national park, its feels more like being on a main road with drastic speed restrictions due to a large number of wild animals being present. We have actually had this scenario in places such a Tanzania, Kenya and Botswana recently, and saw lots of animals on these main roads.
But despite these tarmac highways (which are always busy) there are lots of dirt and sand tracks that you can drive on (usually a loop that comes back onto the same or a different tarmac road), and weirdly there are very few vehicles on these tracks. I don’t understand why this is, as they are by far the best places to view animals and are definitely more picturesque.
Obviously we did see lots of animals, even though it is the summer here and so also the rainy season, which means the animals have an abundance of both food and water, so don’t need to visit the waterholes near the roadsides.
And of course there was the fantastic array of birdlife including these heron’s, storks and spoonbills.
Both the campsites that we stayed at inside Kruger were enormous, and very unattractive, and incredibly both had a “Mugg & Bean” restaurant/coffee shop! Why anyone needs a Mugg and Bean in a place like Kruger I don’t know, and it really is very different to any other national park that we have stayed in on this trip (but the lime milkshakes were very good). I’m sure if it was your first safari experience you’d think it was amazing, but as you can probably tell we had mixed feeling about the place.
At Letaba Camp we were sitting outside in the shade of our awning drinking a nice fresh coffee when suddenly a medium size Monitor Lizard came shooting out from a under rotten branch, about 3 metres from where we were sitting, it was only because he was banging what ever he had is his mouth on a tree truck that we took more notice. He has an enormous black scorpion in his jaws and was determined to kill and eat it.
I was routing for the lizard, we really didn’t want that black scorpion scuttling around our feet (not so safely encased in flip-flops), and eventually sure enough he swallowed its deadly prey. It just goes to show, you never really know whats around you, especially in the dark.
The view from Letaba camp is really nice over the river, and one of the advantages of staying inside the park is that you are allowed to leave the camp in your vehicle at 4.30am, obviously we took full advantage of this and watched the sun rise (at about 5.15am) over the river bank, from the comfort of our cab.
Proberbly the highlight for us over these 3 days was seeing two male Lions by the side of the track, and watching these extremely full bellied animals dosing and rolling in the sun.
And a beautiful family of hyena, on the way out of the park.
We still had a couple of nights left before we had to be back in Polokwana, so we decided to camp at Graskop, and visit the stunning viewpoints that are “Gods Window” and “The Three Rondavels” that look out over the Blyde River Canyon. We visited these on a previous visit to South Africa, and were keen to re-acquaint ourselves to this area. As we climbed the steep “Kowyns Pass” up into Graskop, we entered the thick cloud, and the wet weather. And this is how it stayed for the next 24 hours. You really could not see a thing!!!
This is the view over “Gods Window” from the infinity pool in the campsite, I’m sure it is stunning on a clear day, as pointed out by the owner on his postcards that he had for sale!
Next morning (it was still raining), we set off for the gold rush mining village of Pilgrims Rest, this is a very rare treat for Africa, as its a Heritage Site and all the buildings have preservation orders on them. So after a lovely coffee and pancakes (yup its still South Africa) in a fantastic coffee shop “Pilgrims Pantry”, we went off for a wander round the village.
Pilgrims Rest has got a strange English and Scottish feel about it, not only from the old British built buildings but also from the wild green hills and forests around the village.
After leaving Pilgrims Rest you are almost straight into “Robbers Pass”, we were warned by someone in the village that it was pretty steep in places, so at the base we selected low range (you need to be stationary to do this really), and very slowly (3rd gear low range mostly) we chugged our way up to the top, and the view was breathtaking, and it had finally stopped raining.
While Colonel K cooled, we chilled and took a few daft photos.
We are now back in Polokwane, at Boma in the Bush, and have been without our home for 5 days (originally 3 days but Friday is a Public Holiday here), and we are in a self catering chalet (uninsulated shed with a tiny kitchen and an even smaller bathroom), but its pretty cheap at £30 a night and we can cook for ourselves.
We were picked up on Saturday morning by a guy from the workshop, as the work had been completed. After a 10km high speed ride in the back of an open pick-up, I walked up to the truck to find a worker still on the roof, no problem I guess its the finishing touches being applied, that is until I climbed up on the cab roof to find him starting to remove the leaking solar panel, he was only just starting, not finishing!!! what the hell? next we looked inside, there was rain water everywhere, it was obvious that it had been parked outside for the 4 days out in the massive thunderstorms that we had experienced from the safety of our “shed” over the previous days. No one bothered to park it in the workshop, and we have learnt that to stop the leak finding its way inside we always park it slightly on a slope, this was parked on completely level ground, I seriously went into orbit. I refused to leave, and supervised and helped the worker seal and refit the solar panel (by this point my confidence in the company to do a decent job have evaporated). It was a Saturday and they close at 1pm, so I will spend most of Monday at the workshop, again making sure that the work is done right.
We got another bakkie ride back to Boma in the Bush, and a South African family that are on the site kindly invited us over for a braii (a barbecue to us brits), it was also a great excuse to get just a little drunk. Jake, Mary-Ann, and their two lovely kids Ethan and Storm, were fantastic and treated us to a mammoth meat eating session, oh and a very welcome drinking session.
We had a fantastic evening, in great company, but Jake and Mary-Ann also invited us to go with them to Debengeni Falls the next day (Sunday). So, with six people tightly packed into Jake’s Renaut Clio, we set off, obviously stopping for a quick beer en-route, we really had a great day. The kids had a ball in the ice cold waters in the mountains, using the slippery rocks as slides into the rock pools.
After the freezing kids had warmed up, we trekked back up to the car and stopped at a nearby village and had a really nice leisurely meal. This was exactly what we needed after the issues with the workshop, a day out with a really lovely family.
Hopefully the God of Trucks will be kind to us and the complete idiots at Limpopo Caravans and Camping will finish the work on Colonel K’s roof and we can get back living in our mini mobile house, then its off to a supermarket to stock up with essentials, and then head off towards Pietermaritzburg (inland from Durban) where we have been very kindly invited to spend Christmas on a friends parents farm.
I would like to wish all 30,000 people that have viewed lorrywaydown over the past two years a very merry Christmas, and all the best for the coming new year. I hope you have enjoyed reading about our little “jolly” as much as we have travelling and telling you about it.
Once again thanks for reading, and see you on the other side of the New Year
Whilst camped in Pioneer Camp, just to the East of the Zambian capital of Lusaka, we were sharing a beer or two with a German couple that we had met previously in South Luangwa, when we heard a truck pulling into the camp it was dark and we couldn’t see who or what it was, but assumed as usual it was a “tour bus” or as we like to call them “magic bus”, or “happy bus”. Off we went to bed only to find out, with great surprise in the morning, that the truck parked no more than 20metres away was not only a private truck, but it was a British registered Leyland Daf T244 (a clone of our very own Colonel K).
It wasn’t long before the owners Clare and Ed appeared and came over for a chat, we compared notes about our journeys and the trials and tribulations of long term travel in a 10 tonne truck in Africa. It was then that we noticed further movement in the back of their Daf, they are travelling with two teenage boys (Jack and Harry)!!! Now thats hardcore in a small box, especially as all four travel up front in the cab.
Whilst we have seen many T244’s here in southern Africa, this was the first one that we had seen as a converted camper like ours, and once again it seems that the trucks are very strong and seem ideal for travel in the harsh environment of Africa. The main problem that Ed has experienced was a broken gearbox, which they had rebuilt and then it failed again shortly afterwards, obviously not rebuilt correctly. But generally most issues have been small and easily sorted en-route due once again to the mechanical simplicity of the Daf. It was great to catch up with some fellow Brits (we are a rare breed in these parts, once outside South Africa and Namibia), and instead of an early start to avoid the mad city traffic of Lusaka (there is no route round the city, you have to drive through the centre) we didn’t leave Pioneer camp until late morning.
The plan was to stop at German Truck Tech (the workshop that sorted our issues on our way north, about 6 months earlier), and get Colonel K booked in to sort out the fuel leak from the diesel return pipe, then stop a few days at nearby Eureka Camp until the work was able to be done. As it happens the owner, Carsten very kindly got his guys to do the work there and then, it took them a couple of hours, including a good dosing of diesel over their faces and clothes, and we were on our way. When I asked Carsten how much I owed him, he said just give the lads a drink! I can’t imagine that in the UK.
For a city campsite Eureka is actually not too bad, but since we were last here they have put their prices up by quite a bit, and wow was it noisy. It was Friday night, and the start of the weekend, and the bar and pool area was packed with local day visitors. The noise still doesn’t seem to deter the Zebra and the Giraffe from wandering in through the gate though, despite the staff trying half heartedly to keep them out.
From here we drove via an overnight stop at Moorings camp, to Livingstone. As we entered the town we were hit by a wall of noise from the trees, it was a mass of Cicada, and it was so loud you really needed ear defenders, it was unbelievable, but once through the trees it was quiet again. We decided to stay at the same campsite we used before on the banks of the river, as its such a beautiful spot and the ablutions are very nice too. Guess what ? As we pulled into the campsite we spotted another British registered vehicle, this time a Landrover Defender, owned by Scott and Helene. We ended up staying for about a week here and had a great time hearing about Scott and Helene’s travels and adventures. They had actually been at Muramba camp for several weeks, as the Landrover dealer in town had completely rebuilt their Defender including a replacement chassis, and many new panels etc, and of course a complete respray. The Landy looks like new, very smart indeed.
But this was only part of the story of their journey with the Defender, every tale that this great couple told involved an issue with a breakdown or just a broken vehicle, but the Landy had made it this far!!! Those of you that are familiar with that fantastically funny British Sitcom “Only fools and Horses”, will understand that their vehicle has been renamed “Triggers Broom” (google it)!!!!
One great part about travelling without too tight a time frame is that we get lots of time for reading, and our Kindles are used a lot (having read well over 100 books on this trip over the last 20 months). Scott has got literally hundreds of books on his laptop and a program to convert the files into a kindle friendly format, so in exchange for a beer at the bar, he loaded over 200 books onto my Kindle and a similar number onto Jac’s unit. Thats going to save us a few Bob in the future.
The river at Muramba is very different to when we were here last time, it was absolutely clogged with weed in places, but there were still huge hippos and crocodiles around and to watch out for.
One evening we were sitting outside (in the dark) cooking dinner, when two huge hippos appeared, grazing near us, and getting closer. At one point one of them was less than 5 metres from us, but then thankfully these huge animals moved away a bit, at the same time Scott was returning from the ablutions (shower and toilet block), walking cautiously looking left and right, when out of the darkness a huge two tonne hippo charged at him, showing his tonsils in all their glory! Luckily the startled hippo and the even more startled Scott, didn’t actually physically meet, but it just goes to show these dangerous animals need respect (the hippo, not Scott). I got a feeling after his little night time meeting, Scott probably could have done with visiting the ablutions again.
This is the start of the summer here and so the start of the rains, and of course we have a couple of leaks, one requires the solar panel to be removed, and the other is leaking through our air conditioning unit, both we hope will be sorted out when we get to South Africa, until then we just need to manage the situation (we have covered the air-con unit with an off cut of tarpaulin) and try to park with the front slightly higher that the rear, so water runs away from the solar panel.
Whilst at Livingstone we had a fantastic lunch at The Waterfront, and sat overlooking the mighty Zambezi River just before it hits Victoria Falls, it really is a lovely setting for a gin and tonic, and a beer, and although the falls aren’t as spectacular at this time of year, due to the lack of water, its still a very big river here.
From Zambia the shortest route into neighbouring Botswana is via the ferry at Kazungula. This ferry can be a nightmare, as its notoriously unreliable, extremely busy with trucks, and very very slow. Only one truck can go on the ferry at one time with the remaining space taken up with smaller vehicles such as cars and pedestrians. This is the main crossing point for all commercial vehicles going north into Zambia, DRC, Malawi etc, and going south into Botswana and South Africa (Zimbabwe and Mozambique are not used due to cost, road conditions etc). By the time we had driven the 50km from Livingstone to the turning to the Kazungula Ferry, we realised that the queue of trucks to the ferry was at least 20km long (I would guess about a weeks queueing for a truck, maybe more). Whilst we would have just driven Colonel K to the front of the queue (very embarrassing but acceptable as we are tourists and not a goods truck), we decided to avoid the hassle and carry on north and cross the bridge into Namibia’s Caprivi Strip. Yes, it was an extra couple of hundred kilometres, and yet another border crossing, but time is one thing we have in abundance, and Im sure the borders will be more civil and organised.
Within 5km we could see why not many vehicles come this way, the tarmac road was shocking, huge potholes, and broken sections. In many places it was far easier to drive off the “road” on the sand, as the edge of the tarmac was completed gone. This next 50-80km took forever, and there were lots of broken vehicles littering the route. After a few hours we reached the bridge that formed the border between Zambia and Namibia, at least this should be smooth going. Indeed leaving Zambia was a polite and easy experience, that soon changed once we got to the Namibian Customs. After receiving our entry stamp at immigration (we only asked for a few days as we are literally only crossing the short Caprivi Strip to Botswana), we moved across to the Customs desk, where a woman with serious attitude stood facing us. She completely refused to acknowledge my existence and wouldn’t look at me, she would only communicate with Jac, we presented her with our Carnet de Passage, and she refused to stamp it into Namibia, saying that it wasn’t needed!!! I tried to explain that we must have it stamped into every country and out of every country or we my lose our bond with the Carnet issuing company, still she wouldn’t look at me, or acknowledge me. Eventually after lots of huffing and puffing and a huge physical effort of her lazy fat arse part, she stamped the Carnet into Namibia. Welcome to Namibia eh.
We overnighted on a campsite on the river and stocked up with a huge amount of “dog fuss”, from the camps four dogs.
Next stop the border from Namibia into Botswana, this time the Namibian border was a much more friendly affair, then it was over the river to the Botswana border. As we approached the small border post we had to drive the truck through a disinfectant dip, and then as we approached the tiny building Jac noticed a sign says that no uncooked meat, or dairy products are to be taken into Botswana, bugger, we had just stocked up at the supermarket in Livinstone, and hadn’t realised this restriction. Now bearing in mind that all the food for these South African supermarkets comes via Botswana, we guessed it wouldn’t be strictly enforced, and as we hadn’t had time to hide the stuff from the fridge, we would just blag it.
Paperwork was done both friendly and efficiently, and the lovely lady from customs wanted to see the truck before doing our road fund paperwork and insurance (our Comesa insurance expired once we left Zambia). Would she want to check in the fridge for meat or dairy stuffs? No, she was happy, and our paperwork was completed and we were free to go. Well nearly!!!
We were told to stand in a disinfectant mat with our shoes, Jac had to walk through the gate/barrier, while I had to go and get Colonel K. As I approached the barrier an official appeared and asked to see inside the truck. As he climbed the steps, he asked “do you have a fridge?”, yes of course was the answer, as I opened it for him to look inside, we were greeted with a view any Deli would be proud of, sirloin steak, rump steak, bacon, butter, eggs, sausages etc etc! As he bent down to get a closer look inside he asked “do you have any meat or dairy products in here?”, now I quickly had to think about this, was he asking me sarcastically? Was he blind? Or was it a trick question and he was setting me up for a big fine? “No of course not sir, no meat or dairy in here”, he turned and said “ok you may proceed, but you need to place those other shoes under the table onto the mat”. Incredible levels of laziness or incompetence, but our supplies were still intact.
Now that we were the right side of the ferry at Kasungula in Botswana, we stopped for a few days at a newly opened campsite between Kasane and Kasungula, each campsite here had its own private ablutions, but as it had only just opened none of its usual facilities were open, such as the bar or restaurant, and despite the luxury of having our own shower (with hot water no less) and toilet, it just didn’t have much atmosphere to it. All the camp areas were in perfect lines, its was surrounded by a huge fence, it just didn’t feel like a nice place.
Whilst here, we spotted quite a few Bush Baby’s in the trees above us at night, bouncing around from branch to branch and tree to tree, they are fantastic to watch, but with them constantly moving (like tiny possessed monkeys) and the very low light, its impossible to take a photo of them. But we did have a resident Chameleon living in the shrubby bush near us, in the morning he would slowly descend to the ground, turn green to match the grass and then feast on the hatching lace wing type flies (that were appearing from their tiny burrows in their millions after the rains each night) with its amazingly quick tongue.
To show how quickly these creatures change colour, I took the following photos less than 30 seconds apart, as I approached the Chameleon on its branch, it was a very camouflaged grey/brown and blending into the branch perfectly, then I guess it thought “Oh No I’m being looked at, I’d better try green to match the leaves”! Instantly he went green, a fantastic thing to witness.
After staying here for a few nights to catch up on washing clothes (again!) we started moving south in Botswana towards South Africa, next stopping at a nice campsite in Chobe, where guess what? We had our own ablutions again, two camps in a row! There is a pumped water hole in front of the main bar, and although there is plenty of water around the area, the elephants still came and visited the waterhole. There were also a large troop of baboons that live nearby and walk through the camp all day looking for opportunities to steal anything, its a constant battle for the staff to keep these away, and every respectable camper really should have his own catapult with them, most of the time you don’t need a stone in it, just pulling back on the elastic is enough to see them scuttling off.
Mmmmmm African bugs, again! It really is a constant battle against bugs here, from biting ants to cockroaches, from biting spiders to Malaria carrying mosquitoes, we’ve had them all in the truck, and outside it. Our constant companion since we left Mauritania has been our mossy net over our bed, we always have copious amounts of insect spray for inside the truck, and repellent for your skin. These little critters will make a nest anywhere given the chance. One example of this was when we were at Chitimba camp in Malawi, we used our outside gas bottle and head to make a fresh coffee (our no1 luxury item) first thing in the morning, and although it worked the flame wasn’t great coming out of the burner head. A couple of hours later (after doing a load of clothes washing!), we decided another coffee was needed, this time there was no gas coming out of the head at all. In the end Eddie the owner blasted it through with his high power air line, and out popped some spots of dried dirt from the air holes. Perfect, coffee was brewed and drunk and the burner was working great. We then went for a swim in the lake and returned to find quite a large fly buzzing around the gas head, the bugger had filled all four air holes with compacted dirt again, all in less than a hour! Another blast with Ed’s airline and now the gas bottle is stored away while not in use. We had a similar looking fly start to build a mud nest on one of our wall pictures, another had built up a much bigger construction on our spare tyre on the rear of the truck. Its a never ending battle, that Jac is now much braver dealing with, “oh theres another cockroach, pass the spray”, or “Vinnie, I think there might be maggots in the Sog filter again”.
This is one massive flying beetle that was in our sink one morning (our outside campsite sink, not inside the truck, that would be gross), as you can see by the size of it against the tap head, its a big ‘un.
Our next stop on our journey south was one of our favourites, Elephant Sands, and it didn’t disappoint, there were elephants here almost all the time, sometimes only one or two, at other times,usually at night, there could be 40 or more at the waterhole, often causing these usually gentle giants to allow tempers to flare, especially among the young bulls.
At Elephant Sands we met some fantastic young travellers, first of all we had two young French girls pull up with their rental 4×4 complete with roof tent . They were on a three week trip and were planning to originally just visit SA and Namibia, but just like us plans are for changing, and they were now in Northern Botswana without a map or any guide books. After a quick chat with them we gave them our maps and guide books and few tips, they then spent the whole evening in the bar area, pouring over the maps etc and making a new plan for the next few days. These girls had some guts to do this on their own.
Next up, (as we were talking to the French girls), a young German couple arrived, took one look at the massive elephants roaming around the place and asked if they could camp next to our truck in their ground tent. Fabian and Janika didn’t put their tent up that night and thought it was safer to sleep in the car! The next day, they decided to stay another 24 hours at Elephant Sands, and we discussed about where they should reposition their car, and where they should erect their tiny two man tent. I’m still not sure that Janika slept much that second night, as at about 6.00am she went over to the pool area and had a sleep on one of the sun loungers. This is the first leg of a nine month round the world trip for this young German couple, going next to South America, then Australia etc, they left school, worked hard for a year and saved every euro that they could before they start their University courses in a years time. We discussed their budget, and it goes to show that you can do these trips on very little money if you really want to.
Here at Elephant Sands we had a new type of pest aboard Colonel K, a bigger pest, but slightly more worrying. We had a bloody mouse on board!!! The first sign was a munched banana in the cupboard along with lots of droppings.
Then that night we were woken up by what can best be described as someone chewing a coke can, it was obviously coming from the void behind the kitchen cupboard units, where all our water pipes and electric cables run, not good! Definitely not good!!! A quick bang on the wall or ceiling stopped it for about 20 seconds then off he went again, I got up emptied all the cupboards, taped up all the small gaps and hoped he might leave of his own account, next night was a repeat, he was still resident at Hotel Mouseville. The next morning we were leaving the camp and I noticed that under the truck were very tiny footprints, could it be, I wonder he was just coming in to the truck at night and then going home to his burrow in the sand for the day? Yep we never saw or heard from the little desert mouse again, it appears no damage was done, and to this day we can’t see where he got in and out of Colonel K.
We planned one night at a campsite just before Francistown, which was about 10km down the old “Hunters Road”
Woodlands Camp was a very pleasant surprise and we ended up staying for two nights, the stunning pool here was just too tempting, and the birdlife is so profific, including the Woodlands Woodpecker (from where the camp gets its name). In flight this has to be the most striking and stunning bird we’ve seen, with flashes of brilliant blue and white, even its bill is special, the top is bright red and bottom is black, they greet another Woodlands with an amazing display of open wings to each other, a really stunning bird.
There were also Guinea Fowl, and Go-Away Birds, and Crested Barbet
Although it was quite a detour, we decided to visit a community run nature reserve about 30km from the town of Serowe, towards the centre of Botswana, its called Khama Rhino Sanctuary, and whilst it is a closed in area, it is pretty big at 4,300 hectares of Kalahari sandveld and because it’s near a military base, the Rhinos are basically given 24 hour protection by the Botswana Defence Force. Its a great place, and they have received Rhino here from many places including South Africa, where it was felt that the danger from poachers was too great for the Rhinos. At Khama they offer camping and chalet type accommodation, and very reasonable game drives.
The campsite has very real wild feel to it, indeed it is not fenced and animals roam through here all the time, we were told that there are a large number of leopards in the reserve.
We decided to have a early morning guided game drive (the sand here in the park is very deep) and it was only $55.00 for the two of us for a two hour private game drive. At six the next morning our guide pulled into our camp area, and worryingly started looking at the sand by the truck “oh I see you had a friend last night” at first we couldn’t see anything then she pointed out the track of a snake as it had pushed itself along on the soft sand.
If you want to see Rhino in their natural environment, Khama is a great place and during our two hours in the back of the Landcruiser, we saw a total of 19 White Rhino, including a group of 9 with youngsters. It really is such a shame that they have to be placed into a reserve like this to help protect them from a truly ridiculous trade, with the end product (ground rhino horn) being sold to idiots thousands of miles away!
Obviously there are lots of other animals on the reserve, including Giraffe, Black Backed Jackal, and many others.
Next we head for the border and cross into South Africa, where we have very kindly been invited to camp on a friends parents farm in the east of the country.
Sorry I’m a bit behind with the blog, but will try to get up to date over the next few days.
Thanks for reading
First stop after saying goodbye again to Eddie and Carmen at Chitimba Camp in Northern Malawi, was Mzuzu to replenish our much depleted larder. There are certain things that just can’t be bought locally and on the streets, important things like decent bread, and items that needs to be kept in a refrigerator like butter, cheese and yoghurts. And most important of all, you can only get YYCCPB in South African supermarket chains.
The drive up from Lake Malawi onto the high plateau of the west of the country is epic, it climbs seemingly for ever, and in places we were down to 2nd gear for long periods in Colonel K. The tarmac is good on this stretch of road and despite the steepness and the slowness of our travel, we were still catching up and overtaking several fully loaded trucks as they crept up this marathon climb. It also gave us time to reflect on the travels of an English couple that we met at Chitimba a few months previously. Lloyd and Emily were cycling from Nairobi to Capetown and the day they left us they were going to do this epic climb in the mid day heat, respect to these guys, and I can’t wait to read about their adventures (no pressure Lloyd !).
Anyway, Shoprite Supermarket in Mzuzu didn’t disappoint, I virtually cleared them out of Yum Yum Caramel Crunch Peanut Butter, and we managed to get almost everything that we needed. After a quick chat with a few locals, and a trip to a bank for some Malawian Kwatcha, we found a great new backpackers with camping right behind Shoprite. This place is owned by a South African couple, and despite having a fridge full of fresh produce we decided to eat in their bar/terrace, he recommended pizza. Wow, these pizzas were amazing, we have had pizza before on this trip and they have always disappointed, not this time…… delicious. As with Chitimba, we also had a dog fest, with three crazy dogs protecting us and our truck overnight we felt safe in this town centre camp (in truth the dogs weren’t needed as it is a very safe place anyway).
Before we left Mzuzu the next morning, I ended up chatting to the same locals as the day before (Jac had gone back into Shoprite to try for some freshly baked bread). After explaining to them what a “Cockney” is, and why they can’t understand a Liverpool footballer being interviewed with a” Scouse “accent despite the fact that they are english. Oh and to try and convince one of them that he shouldn’t be supporting Arsenal! As I started Colonel K’s engine one of them turned around, and said “we like taking to you, you don’t tell us to go away!” I took this as a compliment but also explained that once I had told them “I wasn’t going to buy anything off of them or going to give them anything” they didn’t ask again, so I enjoyed chatting to them. Will they learn this lesson?
Last time we were in Malawi we followed the route along the lake, just with the occasional trip up into the hills, this time we were staying up on the highland route, which really is stunning.
We decided to stop at a lodge and campsite in Luwawa Forest, which promised a very different side to Malawi that we were keen to see (away from the huge population of the lakeside areas). Looking on a map or indeed our trusty Garmin, we saw that there were three ways into the forest from the main tarmac road. The first turning that we came to actually had a sign for Luwawa Forest Lodge, so we took this track. It very quickly became apparent that we would need to select Low Range in the transfer box, as this route had a lot of sections of deep sand, and it was quite steep in places (this is the end of the dry season in Malawi and the rains are expected soon), but after 15km we arrived at the campsite deep in the forest.
The lodge is run by an English couple, George and Christine and it has a real feel of the old colonial days about it, especially in the evenings where after having a beer or a G&T on the terrace overlooking the stunning garden, you can retire to the lounge complete with settee’s and arm chairs and finish your drinks in-front of a roaring log fire in the brick built fire place (not that a fire was needed, it was so bloody hot there!).
We stayed here for 4 nights, and early every morning we took a map from reception, and followed a different walk into the forest each day. The walks ranged from 2 hours to 4 hours long, and though it may have been reasonably cool when we left Colonel K, by the time we go back it was very hot indeed. One thing the walks had in common was that they were all through stunning scenery.
They have a huge problem with forest fires here on the Viphya Plateau, mostly caused by illegal charcoaling and logging for domestic cooking. There is also the issue of illegal logging where they sell to timber mills in the forest, the government have done nothing to stop this practice and the forest is disappearing at an unbelievable rate.
One morning we were walking up in the hills, along a very narrow path, when we heard voices off to our right, to see what was going on I climbed up on an old termite mound and looked down into the gully below. At first I couldn’t see anything, but then the guys below spotted me, they had built a “pit saw” over the gully and were using a “Push-Pull” logging saw and were ripping down a huge log into manageable planks. On seeing me, a “Mzunga” (white man), they grabbed their belongings and ran off up the hill opposite and away into the deeper forest. I was glad that we didn’t get closer to them before they saw us as the outcome could have been very different, but it does highlight how big a problem this is. In four days of walking in the forest we saw very little wildlife other than birds and small reptiles, the fires and logging (which seem to go together) are devastating this environment.
The lodge owner was telling us that the only way this is going to change is to take the forests out of Government hands and put areas under the control of non-profit organisations that manage the replanting and the foresting operations. This has been done with great success in a few small areas. He also told us how the UK government had paid millions of pounds to Malawi to organise the rest of the forests and put into non-profit organisations, this was all sorted out with the organisations in place, and then at the last minute the Ministry in Malawi withdrew the plan. The millions from the UK have strangely disappeared and the forest is still also disappearing…….
The colours in these hills are stunning, with wild flowers coming up through the burnt areas, and we even found some wild Blackberries and Raspberries.
But George and Christine’s constant lobbying to the Malawi Government, seems to have at last been listened to, while out walking one morning we were approached by a platoon of Malawian soldiers piled into a Land Cruiser, it seems that this small band of armed soldiers are to carry out patrols in the forest, and punish (really “beat the hell out of”) anyone that they find illegally operating in these areas. As Christine rightly said, “how can you fine someone that has nothing?”. Time will tell if this initiative works, and for how long the army will stay here in the forest.
Our last walk took us to the highest point of the forest, to the manned “Luwawa Fire Tower”, the last part of this walk is very steep and in an area devoid of trees so offered no shade at all, but it was well worth the climb. On a clear day (it was a little hazy) you can see Lake Malawi one way and across into Zambia the other way.
Obviously I had to climb the fire-tower, and I really don’t have an issue with heights, but this little gem was a different kettle of fish. It was a concrete tower with a very dodgy wooden staircase, every tread was a different size and height, the hand rail wasn’t fixed in most places and the stairs were seriously steep and completely mobile!
Despite it being the dry season, the “fire spotter” wasn’t at home, but we were told by another guy, “that he may be in later”………mmmmmm. Hope there are no big fires today then!!!!
A short walk from the campsite is a beautiful little lake (lakes in Africa are known as a Dam), the owner told us that the lake holds a “population” of Wide Mouthed Bream so after digging out my fishing gear, we walked down to the nearest part of the lake which is accessed via a very long board walk made up of very rickety and rotten timbers. This took us across a long marshy stretch, and poor old Jac seriously struggled with the flexing and moving of the timbers below her.
The water here was so murky and muddy, but ‘what the hell?’ lets give it ago anyway.
Within two casts I realised that it was less than a foot deep for as far as I could cast my lure! Bugger, we need a rethink, then George the owner appeared along the boards and suggested that we walk further round to the “Dam wall”. So then I thought, is the dam wall a dam for the lake, which is actually called a dam anyway? Whoa this crazy terminology is sooo confusing. Actually the lake was originally build by the British to provide a reliable source of water for the replanting of the forests in the 1950’s.
The water here was much deeper from the dam wall, but the problem now was that this wall is used as a thoroughfare from the forest into the local village and we were being watched by a multitude of locals as they made their way home. I told Jac, that there was no way that I’m leaving Luwawa Forest until I caught a Wide Mouthed Bream!
Sometimes in life you just can’t keep promises, I never did catch one of those elusive fish from Luwawa Dam, but that night while talking to George and Christine, he did let slip that if he can gain full control of all the shores of the dam, he will carry out a restocking programme. As a fisherman, I took that to mean all the locals had stolen ALL the fish out of the bloody lake.
The last two evenings that we were at Luwawa Lodge, it rained, and the last night it rained a lot, for quite a long time. This worried me a little as we had seen the state of the track when we arrived, if the sandy dust turned to deep mud we could be in trouble, but luckily we spoke to George who told us to leave on a slightly better track that the logging trucks use, but we should leave early before the commercial boys start to chew it up and turn it to rutted deep mud. We needn’t have worried, this track was much better and despite it being very slippery in places, Colonel K managed the track with ease.
We decided that rather than “hack it” to the border with Zambia, we would stop in the Malawian capital Lilongwe for a couple of nights, this would give us a full day in town to ‘do shopping’, ‘do lunch’ and (Jac hoped), to ‘do ice-cream’!
We parked and camped at a well known backpackers place in the city centre, and were surprised how busy it was, of course about 90% of people here were “Volunteers” either just finishing their short stint in a school or orphanage, and having their holiday in Malawi now, or they were having their holiday before their “voluntary” spell in a school or orphanage. Perhaps I sound rather cynical about aid and volunteers in Malawi, and if I do thats because I am. I’m not sure what good it does to go into a rural Malawian school, or orphanage for 4-6 weeks and then leave again, but I guess it looks good on a CV.
A quick ride into town in one of the little “Tuk-Tuk’s” for about £1.00, and we were doing, shopping, lunch and even ice-cream. I even managed to find yet another tub of YYCCPB in a Shoprite, RESULT!
After crossing the border into Zambia, we stopped for a night in the town of Chipata, and paid our bill for camping that evening with a plan to leave early the next morning en-route to Lusaka. After sitting down with a Gin and Tonic though we decided that we couldn’t leave this area without visiting one of our favourite places of this trip, the South Luangwa Valley and National Park. It would mean a round trip of 300 kilometres, but we thought we may never come back again, it also meant that we didn’t need to get up at “stupid o’clock”.
Wildlife Camp in South Luangwa did not disappoint! On our way into the campsite we passed a couple of elephants, and once parked up and a quick look around showed many more elephants in the vicinity. There is no shortage of elephants here…..
We were last here at the end of May, and then the river was full and flowing fast, it was full of hippos and crocodiles, but now in November its a very different place.
Our original plan was to pay for a night game drive into the National Park, and last time we did this we had an amazing safari experience. But now it seemed that not much was being spotted in the Park, and that we were seeing just as much from our camp on the river bank and at the waterhole in the campsite, so we saved our $150 (the cost for the two of us including park fees), and just savoured the animals that we could see.
Ever seen a” Pig in Stilleto black boots ” ?!!
Without visiting the National Park, over the 4 days that we stayed at Wildlife Camp we saw elephants, hippos, many types of antelope, warthogs, baboons, vervet monkeys, mongoose, giraffe, plus others, at night we heard quite close by (possibly in the camp) the amazing sounds of lion and hyena. The only animals that we might have seen on a paid night drive were cats such as leopard, lion and other smaller cats. But we had no regrets with not going on a paid evening game drive, our previous game drives from both Zikomo Lodge and Wildlife Camp were amazing experiences and I think this time would have been a slight anti-climax.
Since we were last at Wildlife Camp they have made quite a few changes, including a new hide at the main water hole, we spent quite a long time in there watching herds of elephants coming and going, usually en-route to reek havoc in the nearby village, ripping up vegetables and eating fruit. But also here we saw a beautiful monitor lizard, and just to show how diverse the wildlife is here I managed to get all in one shot a tiny squirrel, a love-bird and a starling.
Whilst you really have to respect the baboons here, they can be fascinating to watch (perhaps even more so the vervet monkeys), and the “big daddy” of the troop did make us laugh as every day he would plant himself on a picnic bench as if he was “lording it up”, watching his troop and keeping them in line, especially the youngsters. These primates are great to watch, but they are a real pain, especially the vervet’s as they are so bloody fast, they appear from nowhere (usually hiding in the trees above you), and can pinch your treasured apple from the table in a flash, or your hat, sunglasses, phone, in fact anything.
The rest of our time here, when not watching animals, was spent in or around the small pool. It was a lovely way to cool off, and the view across the river and towards the National Park is stunning.
Its not the cheapest place to camp (and a beer is $2.00), but at $10 per person per night, its an absolute bargain.
Within 5 km of Wildlife Camp), we saw not one, but three ex-British army T244 Leyland Daf’s (same as Colonel K in a previous life), all in unconverted flat bed condition including the one below which is used by the camp for fetching supplies. We also saw another a few days later on a campsite near Lusaka. It just goes to show how many of these trucks have been shipped to Africa and registered locally, so far we have seen them in camps in Botswana, Zambia, Tanzania, and Kenya. I think this also proves that getting spares for these trucks isn’t such an issue as you would think, many parts are not exclusive to the T244, and they are super simple to fix.
So safe in the knowledge that we had saved $150 by not going on a game drive, we set off on the 150km drive back to Chipata for the night, only for Jac to suggest that we stop at the “factory” of Tribal Textiles…….. Money eh, easy come easy go…….
Tribal Textiles, is a great initiative, owned and run by an English couple, but it employs over 100 men and women from the local community. All designs are set out and coloured by hand, ensuring all items are unique, even the dyes (100% natural) are mixed by hand, using the eye to match the paint/dye to a colour wanted by the “painter” as shown on a colour chart.
As a full blooded male, I guess I’m not really into soft furnishing, but the designs displayed really are very nice. They export all over the world, and do have an on-line shop if you fancy spending a bit of cash on a good cause. I know they are looking to make a profit, but they do offer a large number of people full time employment and also support local issues such as the new primary school. In many ways I think this is money better spent than sending it to a large non-profit organisation only for it to go to yet another $60,000 Toyota Landcruiser! The workforce seemed immensely proud of the goods that they turn out here and the job that they do.
The drive from Chipata to Lusaka is a gruelling 600km, and we ended up doing this in one day, it took 11 hours, but generally the road surface is good, and in true African style they have built a fancy new bridge (with a police road block of course), that is only wide enough for one vehicle and slightly more concerning only one truck is allowed on the bridge at anyone time!
I would guess that on this 600km stretch there are about 15-20 road blocks of one kind or another (this is quite a low number for an African country), most of which in Zambia you just get waved through (after slowing right down or actually stopping), but one of these road blocks stands out as a REAL waste of time. At this particular barrier we were approached by an un-armed guy, with what could only be described as a large white “butterfly net”. The usual questions started “where are you going”, “where have you come from”, then after explaining that we have come from South Luangwa, he looked concerned and grasped his butterfly net tighter “I am looking for Tsetse Flies, I need to check inside your vehicle”. I replied “we don’t have any Tsetse Flies, there are no Tsetse Flies in our vehicle”, with that he lowered his butterfly net, and said “ok you may proceed”, the barrier was raised and off we went, like I said a real waste of time!
Thanks for reading
After leaving the generally super smooth tarmac of Rwanda behind, and once again being amazed at the smoothness of the border operation (a one stop shop), it was a shock hitting the broken, pot holed roads of northern Tanzania. The first 100km was horrendous, and took forever, much of it taken at not much more than walking pace, you really don’t want to break-down in these parts! This is a major border crossing and an important trade route, we passed (in both directions) many many trucks loaded up, including dozens of fuel tankers. And the number that were broken down, or just merely “broken” on this “road” was unbelievable. Rwanda must look across their border and shake their heads at the mess on the other side.
This part of our journey south took so long we ended up staying in the front of a very grotty guest house in Nyakanazi that seemed set up to supply budget (very budget) rooms for truck drivers, none of which were en-suite. We agreed a price to camp in their “secure carpark” (well there was an armed guard), and were shown the shared toilet and shower. Lets just say that thank god for our onboard toilet and shower!!!!! That was a very noisy night, as we were in the centre of a scruffy little town, and many of the trucks were coming and going very early in the morning, probably to get an early start on that shocking road.
The other shock entering Tanzania from Rwanda is the state of the place. Rwanda is by far the cleanest, tidiest country in Africa, with zero rubbish anywhere, here in the early morning light there were plastic bags, bottles etc everywhere. Don’t get me wrong, Tanzania isn’t particularly dirty, it’s just a normal African country with lots of rubbish lying around, but Rwanda proves that it doesn’t have to be like this. We ended up staying in a couple more hotel carparks (obviously sleeping in the truck), but usually we were given a room to use the shower and toilet. This is not on the usual tourist route, and there are no camping facilities.
This part of northern Tanzania is quite green and as you go past the southern part of Lake Victoria, it starts to get a lot drier and more arid, and the population really starts to thin out, mostly I guess because of the lack of water.
So what does an African President do with such a huge dry, empty area in the centre of his country? Surely its obvious…….. Move the capital and that includes the parliament, administration, all the foreign embassies, etc, etc to Dodoma, a tiny town with no infrastructure to cope with this, like I say its obvious….. We drove through this little town, right in the centre of what I called “The Badlands”, and witnessed the huge amount of money that the government must be spending on this crazy “pet project”. Where the hell they are going to house all these people that are coming here to work, and more importantly, where is the water going to come from (its about 600km to Lake Victoria), I really don’t know. We heard from one person that the US has refused to relocate their American Embassy from Dar Es Salaam, at the cost of millions of dollars. There are millions of people struggling to live in Tanzania (most aren’t seen by many doing the tourist trail), and all this money is being wasted trying to build a new city where no-one wants to live, like I said CRAZY!
On this road, from Nzega, through Singida, Dodoma, to Iringa (about 1,000km) we devised a new game to pass the hours while driving this very boring stretch of tarmac. Jac listed out the alphabet, A-Z on a piece of paper then we both took it in turns to pick a letter until we had 13 letters each. Then with our iPod set on shuffle in our trusty Sony stereo, we ticked off each letter as an artist came on, e.g. A for Arctic Monkey’s, W for The Who, etc, I was confident of a fairly swift victory, at one point I was 8-4 up and cruising…..
Then Jac started coming back with weird and wonderful “one hit wonders” that I didn’t even know was on there. Within no time (well about 3 or 4 hours) of “banging tunes” Jac was 12-8 up on me, I couldn’t believe it, but I still had hope and she still had a “Q” to get, and we are not big “Queen” fans. 12-9, and it was starting to get tense, and then from no-where “Bohemian Rapsody” popped up from an old compilation album that I didn’t even know we had. I was gutted, Jac was ecstatic, oh how those hours just flew by………..
Also on this road, we both got really mad! We ended up catching up with an open truck full of donkeys, and they seemed nice and calm and not stressed at all (not sure where they were going but it wasn’t looking good for Donkey and Co), then as we were looking to overtake the truck a guy appeared in the back with a huge length of plastic pipe and started hitting the donkeys, for seemingly no reason other than to show off to us. I started blasting our horn at him, but it just seemed to make it worse, he was a nasty bit of work, and we had no option other than to overtake the truck and hope to forget about it. In Europe we aren’t used to this sort of behaviour, but in Africa it is deemed acceptable. Its a side of Africa that we don’t like to see, we know that animals are treated badly and sometimes with contempt, but we certainly don’t have to like it.
After stopping in Iringa to stock up on a few bits and pieces and getting some much needed Diesel in the belly of Colonel K, we camped that night next to some stone age excavations, we were told that the best view of the “ruins” of Isimila was from a short climb up on some nearby rocks.
We sat up on the rocks for quite some time in the early morning sun, it was a really nice spot.
And then unbelievably a dog that had spent the night sleeping under Colonel K appeared, he’d followed us to the top, was he protecting us? Who knows, but once again it was tempting to scoop him up and take him with us.
We decided to once again stop at Kisolanza Farm, we loved it here last time (about 3 months ago on our journey north) and once again it didn’t disappoint. We caught up on all our washing, first day clothes, second day was bedding and towels, oh the romance of long tern overloading eh….
It was nice to be away from the wet seasons of Uganda and Rwanda, but it was back to being hot with a vengeance. Incredibly at Kisolanza Farm we had our hair cut here, yes that included Jac getting her colour or “foils” (what ever that is) done, all carried out very professionally by Layla, in her purpose built salon (shed).
Check out that spooky face in the bottom of the mirror!
We ended up staying here for a week, and did quite a bit of walking late in the afternoon’s once it started to cool off a little, exploring the huge farm here. It really is a beautiful place, and we were made very welcome by the owner Nikki and her staff.
Within the area we were camping, the variety of birdlife was incredible with Waxbills, Finches, etc, all vying for your attention.
From here we had to retrace our steps back to the town of Mbeya, and this meant driving back through the very extended road works. Here in Africa if a road is being upgraded then the easiest way to do it is to put in a temporary road alongside the part to be upgraded. In this case the temporary sections (two of which were about 40km long) are in sand/mud, depending on the conditions and are used by hundreds of trucks, buses, motor bikes, and cars every hour, all at crazy speeds creating zero visibility and mostly in very narrow places. Driving on these parts takes forever, and adds about 3 hours to your journey.
At Mbeya we had to make a decision, our original idea was to drive from Mbeya north westwards up to Lake Tanganyika and cross the border into the far north of Zambia at Mbala, but we met a truck driver that advised us not to use this crossing as he had previously had problems here. The first time he had his diesel syphoned out of his tank, and the second time he had his spare wheel stolen, he also advised us that the first 800km of this rout ,until it gets to the Great North Road is very bad. The other road into Zambia from Mbeya is better but not very interesting, so our other option was to return via Malawi. The main down side of this was cost, visa’s into Malawi are $75 each and the road tax for Colonel K is over $50, but we could go through the country by a different route. After staying at a coffee farm for a couple of nights and trying to find out more information of the Zambia route, with little success we decided to go via Malawi.
The border crossing from Tanzania into Malawi was a joke! It started badly with a guy at a barrier into the Tanzanian side demanding $5 before he would open the barrier to let us in, we refuse. I lost my temper and started revving the engine and threatening to drive straight through the metal barrier, Jac tried polite…… I lost it !!!!!! He opened the barrier, not sure which method worked but we never paid him. Still not one dollar of a bribe has left our pockets on this trip, and it wasn’t going to start with such an idiot trying to rip off a pair of Mzunga’s!
After leaving the Tanzanian side we got to the Malawi border control, paid our $150 for two Visa’a, and went to customs to pay our road tax and get our Carnet stamped, paperwork was done reasonably quickly, but the customs officer told us we had to go to the the cashier around the corner to pay our $52, no problem, the queue was fairly short, with only about 7 or 8 truck drivers (locals) waiting to pay. It was then that we realised that these weren’t the drivers but agents paid to queue up for the truck drivers to sort out their road tax, each person in the queue had a wad of papers to be paid and stamped, maybe up to 20 vehicles worth each. After 30 minutes in the “queue” and not moving an inch, I was starting to get very, very hot (obviously no fans or aircon in these buildings) and agitated, eventually the customs guy saw us and took pity on us, took our paperwork and our $52 and went with it into the rear of the cashier’s office and gave it to the “topman”, we could see a conversation starting and fingers pointing at us from the back of the office, but somehow we had jumped the queue, papers were stamped and we were out of there. All we needed now was the barrier lifted again into Malawi, and in true Malawian style this took another 15 to 20 minutes and another stamp, very frustrating. These truck drivers deserve a medal at these borders, they can be stuck there for days on end trying to get through with their goods, all they want to do is pay their road tax….. crazy.
We couldn’t go into Malawi without stopping at Chitimba Camp and seeing Eddie and Carman the Dutch owners. Last time we went to Chitimba was 3 months ago, we had a great time there and we ended up staying a week, this time the plan was only to stop for a couple of days, then move on. Of course that never happened, its too nice a place and we ended up staying for a week again. As expected we were met very warmly (like old friends) by Ed and Carmen, they weren’t expecting to ever see us again at their lovely backpackers/campsite. This time the place was much quieter, with most of the Overland tour trucks (the happy buses, as we like to call them), now going into their quiet period on their trips from Nairobi to Capetown in about 60 days, and then back again. But we had a great time again, cooling down and swimming in Lake Malawi a couple of times a day.
As always in Malawi, its on the beach at the lake that you meet the locals (or walking to the nearby village), and especially the local kids, and we met some fantastic kids.
We knew we had stayed at Chitimba for maybe a little too long, when one morning as we walked up to the village, we had to go past the local school, and a large number of the kids were running out of the school shouting “Jacqui”, and “Vinnie”, and “SpiderMan” (I must admit I did mention to a few kids the previous day, that I was really SpiderMan), and suddenly they were holding our hands and didn’t want to go back to school!!!! We had to promise them that in return for them going back to school, we would play with them later on the beach.
Eddie Petters is a published photographer, (and a really nice guy), and we were lucky enough to have him on the beach with us for a couple of evenings snapping a few photos of us, the quality is plain to see.
These kids completely wore me out, day after day the kids wanted me to pick them up and throw them into the lake, time after time, it was exhausting, but they were so much fun.
Despite these kids spending most day after school in the lake, virtually all of them cannot swim .Bizarrely a couple of them could swim underwater until they had to come up for air, but none could swim once they were out of their depth, so I decided that the easiest way to have a break from the kids was to tell them that “I was going to swim to Tanzania” (about 50km away, and certainly not visable), so off I would swim out into the deep water, the trouble is about half a dozen of them followed me!!!! All I could hear was “Going to Tanzania”, “Going to Tanzania”………. I had to turn around to stop a drowning accident! I could see the BBC headlines “SpiderMan Drowns Six Malawian Children”, not ideal for our onward travels really.
Once again the kids showed us how agile and flexible they are, and they were proud to show off their skills.
Not once, did we ever see a parent with any of the kids at the lake, its no wonder that they latch onto Mzunga’s that are willing to spend a bit of time with them.
Whilst at Chitimba we saw this very strange pure white frog in the sand, and also a stunning chameleon in a creeping plant.
We also met a few overland travellers at Chitimba Camp, and spent many hours talking about each others varied travels here in Africa. We are definitely a dying breed in Africa so its always good to meet other independent overlanders.
We are going to follow the highland route through Malawi, and stay away from the lake after Chitimba, as we have already seen most of that part of the country. The Lake Malawi shore is stunning so we hope we won’t regret that decision.
Next stop Mzuzu, where theres a nice modern Supermarket, and there is the promise of Yum Yum Caramel Crunch Peanut Butter (the food of Gods) or YYCCPB for short.
Thanks for reading
This blog posted is in two parts, the first part might be a little upsetting to a some people.
Our time here in Rwanda included visiting a few Genocide Memorials, I will describe these in more detail later, but first a little background to what happened, and why.
For hundreds of years, up to 1900, the minority population of Tutsis had ruled over the majority Hutu’s in relative peace, even the Arab slave traders hadn’t reached into Rwanda. Then in 1898 the country was formally absorbed into German East Africa, and things started to change. First of all Germany encouraged the Tutsi monarchy to bring the far northern area of independent Hutu controlled regions under their control, this was be a long running sore that started to cause resentment between Tutsis and Hutu’s that was to last a century.
In 1916, during The First World War, the Belgians invaded Rwanda and Burundi from Congo, and overrun the German forces. After the war, Belgium was handed responsibility for both countries, and like the Germans before them, were amazed at the different physical attributes of each of the three different peoples of Rwanda. The Tutsi chiefs and nobles being mainly tall and lanky, the shorter stockier farming Hutu’s (who formed the majority), and the much smaller Twa (forest dwelling pygmy’s). Even allowing for intermarriage, the differences were mostly plain to see.
The Tutsi monarchy was resistant to Colonialism, and especially the missionaries from the Catholic and later Protestant churches, then in 1931 the monarch was forced by Belgium to abdicate and hand power over to his more western friendly son. At the same time, Belgium embarked on a census to record all indigenous inhabitants, using incredibly, tape measures, scales, and even callipers to measure noses etc. Then in 1935 they issued every person in Rwanda and Burundi with an identity card, which stated whether that person was a Tutsi, Hutu or Twa. If after extensive measuring the Belgium authorities still weren’t sure of a person’s ethnic background, they unbelievably looked at things like cattle ownership, if a person had more than 10 cows they must be a Tutsi, if less than 10 cows, then they must be a Hutu! These Identity cards were still in place up to the Genocide in 1994.
During the run up to independence, the Catholic church became very pro-Hutu, and openly supported political parties run by Hutu’s (the Tutsi had resisted christianity being forced onto Rwanda and Burundi), this time in the early 1960’s was the first time for many years that there was bloodshed between the two main groups. But after hastily manipulated elections the new Hutu based government was sworn in, and quota’s were introduced, giving the Tutsis (who were a minority of 9% of the population) a right to only 9% of school places, 9% of the jobs in the workforce, and so on. This was easy to administer as everyone had an ID card, remember. Many Tutsis fled to Uganda, where supported by the Ugandan Government, formed a political group called the RPF, led eventually by Paul Kagame (the current President of Rwanda), and carried out a guerrilla type war into Rwanda from Uganda. At the same time France was actively arming the Rwandan army and local militia, know as ‘interahamwe’ (meaning “those who stand together”), and behind the scenes plans were being put in place for the extermination of the “problem” Tutsis. The power of the media and especially radio was used to spread hate against the Tutsi people.
On 6th April 1994, a plane carrying the Rwandan President and Burundi’s new president was shot down by a rocket fired near Kigali airport, both men died, within hours the killing began. It was well organised, roadblocks were quickly erected, and the army and interahamwe went into action on a rampage of death, torture, rape and destruction. Tutsis, and moderate Hutu’s were targeted (if a Hutu refused to kill his Tutsi friend and neighbour, he and all his family were also killed).
Over the next 100 days (3 months), over one million people were killed, using machetes, hoes, clubs, guns and grenades. The brutality was on an unbelievable scale, and the outside world just watched and talked about it. On 4th July the RPF (the Rwandan Patriotic Front, that had invaded from Uganda) captured the capital Kigali, and two weeks later announced that the war was over, and Paul Kagame was sworn in as head of a Government of National Unity. France sent in 2,500 troops to act as peace keepers, while the UN were still talking about what to do, at no stage was the word “genocide” spoken at the UN, if they had mentioned the “G” word the United Nations would have been legally obliged to ‘prevent and punish the perpetrators’.
As I mentioned earlier there are a number of memorials that have been set up to commemorate the dead and to remind everyone that this must never happen again.
The largest memorial is the Kigali Genocide Memorial, which is the burial ground for a staggering 250,000 people killed on those horrendous 100 days.
The museum section is split into a few sections, the first detailing the run up to the genocide, then in the main section the horrors are gruesomely shown via various exhibits and halls, (its all done every tastefully), and then the last section is devoted to other recent genocide carried out, such as the Balkans, Armenia, Namibia, Nazi Germany, and Cambodia. This is a cruel world.
This was a really emotional place, both inside and outside (remember there are mass graves here, holding over a quarter of a million people), the gardens are under development, and it is encouraged that everyone comes to visit the place (entry is free for everyone). It is managed by Aegis, which is a UK charity, that works to prevent and educate against genocide around the world.
There are many stories told in the Memorial/Museum, many involving heart break, other involving heroics (Hutu’s hiding Tutsis), but possibly the most heart rendering tale that we heard was from the taxi driver that we used for the few days that we were in Kigali. He very tearfully started to tell us that as a young boy he took refuge in a church and had to stay there for 60 days while the genocide raged across the country. Being in a church was not the safe haven that they thought it would be, or indeed those that thought that the catholic priests would protect them. He went on to tell us how one day, the interahamwe came and killed 200 children in front of the others sheltering there, he also told us that no one dared to bring food or water to the church, and so starvation was widespread and towards the end of the 60 days that he spent here, each morning involved the finding of up to 20 more adults and children that had died during the night.
You are allowed to take photos outside in the mass grave and gardens area’s, but somehow it just didn’t seem right, besides we will never forget this place.
The next day we visited two Catholic churches outside of Kigali on the road south, these were both the scene of terrible massacres in 1994. The church at Ntarama was the scene of horrendous acts of barbarity, where over 5,000 people were killed with guns, grenades, machetes, etc, there are piles of clothes on the pews, and coffins inside awaiting burial in the newly built crypts, there were even skeletons under tarpaulins next to the altar waiting to be hopefully identified. But the thing that really hit us at Ntarama was in the Sunday School building, there is still a large blood stain marking the wall in the corner where babies were brought and had their heads smashed against the wall here, sometimes while their mothers watched in horror. There were also large sticks against the wall, which were used to kill women after they had been raped. These were forcibly inserted inside the women until they exited from the upper body.The guide here in this remote place does a tough job with supreme dignity.
We then went to the Church at Nyamata, it was here that over 10,000 people took refuge from the town and nearby areas. On 10th April (only 4 days after the plane was shot down), the militia came and brutally slaughtered every person here. We were invited to walk down into the crypts under the church were many of the skulls are stored, along with a women in a coffin who was killed in the obscene method described above. Once back out into the fresh air we were taken around to the rear of the church to where in three mass graves 45,000 men, women, boys and girls are buried, before we had time to think about it, our guide said we should enter one of the mass graves via a staircase leading under ground and seeing literally thousands of skulls, bones and coffins in that dim light was truly moving. I now know what the true smell of death is like, we will never ever forget seeing those thousands of coffins and bones piled up.
Following the genocide, many people were convicted of their terrible crimes, including a priest that encouraged his entire congregation to shelter in his church then locked them inside, and called the militia who bulldozed the church to the ground with hundreds inside. There were also two Nun’s that were convicted of crimes against humanity.
A survey conducted in 1995 by UNICEF concluded that 99.9% of children in Rwanda experienced violence during those 3 months, and 69.5% witnessed someone being killed or injured. So how can a country recover from something like this?
Well Rwanda has most definitely recovered. Of course there are still raw, terrible memories, (it was only 22 years ago) but generally speaking there are now NO Tutsis or Hutu’s anymore, everyone here is Rwandan, and we have never experienced a country with such a community spirit. For example, once a month on the fourth Saturday of the month, everything stops, traffic, work, cooking, farming, everything for half a day. During this half a day every person in Rwanda, including the President and his family, and tourists, are expected to spend this time working together to clean the streets and generally tidy their environment. The result of this is amazing, the whole country is completely spotless, both in the towns and in rural areas, there is NO rubbish at all. This is also helped by a complete ban on plastic bags (we had our truck checked at the border to make sure we didn’t have any bags on board). The Rwandan’s really do seem to share a common pride for their country.
After crossing the border from Uganda into Rwanda (the quickest and most efficient border crossing we have experienced in Africa), we went into the northern town of Musanze (formally known as Ruhengeri), found a bank and changed some money in Rwandan Francs, then headed out of the town to a backpackers type place called Red Rocks, which amazingly for Rwanda had a camping area.
Red Rocks is run by Harriet, who’s family were originally from Rwanda, before fleeing to Uganda, and then to the United States. Incredibly, Harriet has chosen to leave her relatively easy life as an US citizen to set up Red Rocks here which operates as a community supporting operation. We had a great time here for a few days, especially the last day when an overland tour bus pitched up and Harriet decided that there were enough guests to open up the “night club” at the rear! We would never have expected that we would be dancing to Bob Marley, and local Rwandan music (which was pretty good), under flashing lights and massively loud speakers here in rural Rwanda with a number of locals. A great night though.
We asked Harriet how she thought Rwanda had managed to recover from the devastating genocide, she said a few important decisions were made politically quite early on. One was the decision to drop French as the main “international” language, and teach English at school level (this was a real surprise for us, as we were expecting to have to use our very limited French here), the other was to encourage “forgiveness” against the many perpetrators of the genocide. It really is worth reading about how this forgiveness works here in Rwanda.
This is Harriet and her “crew”.
Next morning while nursing a couple of mildly sore heads, we set off for the capital Kigali (pronounced Ch-igali). This day we found out why Rwanda is known as “The Land of a Thousand Hills”! the terrain is relentless, long steep up, long steep down, long steep up, long……. you get the idea. Rwanda is a small country, about a third of the size of Scotland, but with a population of about 15 million, it means that there are people everywhere. Thankfully the roads are without a doubt the best we have seen during our time on the continent of Africa, the tarmac is mostly “table top smooth” and are mostly without the plague of crazy speed humps. But despite the excellent tarmac, it takes forever to get anywhere because of the steepness of the hills, especially on the descents.
Kigali is a very clean, bright, modern and friendly city. In the 3 days that we spent here, not once were we hassled, or felt uncomfortable walking around, its supposed to have a very low crime rate, and thats exactly how it felt. There is an extraordinary large number of police in the city (and on the roads outside), all very well equipped with machine guns. Also everywhere you go, including hotels, shopping malls, car parks etc, every bag is put through an airport type scanner, and you have to walk through a scanner after emptying your pockets. Security is very tight here against a possible terrorist attack. Again it feels very safe.
There is no camping in Kigali, even the overland tour buses have to stay in a hotel or hostel, so we headed for Hotel Chez Lando on the ‘airport side’ of the city. We tried to convince the staff at the front desk that we would be happy to sleep in the truck in the heavily guarded rear carpark, but in true Rwandan style, said this wasn’t possible as there was a rule staying that no-one could camp here. Rwandans like their rules and regulations. So we took their cheapest room at $94 a night inc breakfast. The room was fine, it was clean, had a decent bed (though not as good as our super mattress in Colonel K), and all was good until I went for a shower. As I turned on the hot water tap over the bath, I heard water running behind me, the high level electric hot water cylinder was pouring out boiling hot water every where, turning off the tap didn’t stop it!!! There was water rapidly flooding our first floor room. After a quick trip to reception they agreed to upgrade us to a room in the ‘new’ block, these were a staggering $154 a night, and the only difference was the bed was a little bigger and the bathroom a bit wider. Next morning we had to move again, this time to a cheaper ground floor room back in the ‘old’ block. Three different rooms in 12 hours not bad eh?
After 3 nights in a hotel room, we were glad to be back in Colonel K, and back on the road. We had planned to head south from Kigali to visit a place called Murambi which is another Genocide Memorial, near the border with Burundi. But we decided that we had seen enough memorials, and visiting Burundi isn’t advisable at the present time due to ongoing troubles there, so we headed east towards Akagera National Park.
Its a shame that we have arrived in Rwanda during the wet season (the ‘short rains’), and this is limiting us as to where we actually want to go. We aren’t actually going to visit any of the national parks, mostly because of both the cost and the rain, and we even decided that its not worth driving over to the far west to visit Lake Kivu because of the weather (we have seen a hell of a lot of large lakes here in East and Central Africa). We also saw the Mountain Gorillas while in Uganda, so there little point in paying to visit Volcano’s NP here in Rwanda. Rwanda does have a lot to offer the tourist, and not just the genocide memorials, its just our timing could have been better!!
We are currently camped at a place called a “Women’s Opportunity Centre”, which really is a great initiative, designed to empower local women, and is typical of Rwanda trying to improve conditions for women. Rwanda has a very high percentage of women politicians, (one of the highest in the world) and this is openly encouraged, some of the thinking behind this is that women hopefully would never let the terrible events of 1994 happen again.
The centre here is a very modern, eco friendly set up, with stunning views over the valley behind us.
Some of the basket weaving that is done here is stunning, and Jac had a good laugh with the women that work together here.
Despite the traumatic experiences at the Memorials, we have enjoyed our short time in Rwanda, yes its quite expensive compared to neighbouring countries (diesel is about 88p per litre, compared to about 57p per litre), and imported shop bought food is crazily expensive, but the generally quite shy people here have been very welcoming, helpful and friendly. Rwanda seems to be doing amazingly well, especially given its recent history.
Tomorrow we head for the border with Tanzania, and the long, long drive through the centre of the country.
Thanks for reading, sorry its a bit grim
The day had finally arrived, it was time for our Gorilla Tracking experience. We had booked and paid for it 3 weeks ago while in Kampala, and had been talking about it ever since. Suffice to say we were more than a little excited!!!
After a hearty breakfast of sweet bread toast (this is the only bread you can get in rural Uganda), layered with lashing of Yum Yum peanut butter, all for added energy, we walked the short distance to the UWA office to check in with our permits (on a credit card type system) and of course our passports. This is to ensure that the person named on the permit is the person at the National Park. Its quite a slick operation.
A little about the Mountain Gorilla….. First of all, these are not the same gorilla species as you would have seen in a zoo, there are absolutely NO Mountain Gorilla’s in captivity anywhere in the world, if you have seen gorillas in captivity then these will have been either the Eastern Lowland Gorillas, or Western Lowland Gorillas. The main difference visually is that Mountain Gorillas are larger and more hairy than their Lowland cousins. They are much more endangered than the Lowland Gorillas, with only 880 left on Earth, a dire situation. All Mountain gorillas are located in a relatively small area in the historically troubled region of where the borders of Uganda, Rwanda and the DRC (Congo) all meet. We chose Uganda to track them as its a little cheaper than Rwanda ($600 as opposed to $750), obviously Uganda is English speaking, and it is politically more stable than the DRC, and we would have had to pay for accommodation and visa fees in the DRC (even though the permits here are “only” $450 each). So we now find our selves in Buhoma in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park.
We were told that we must have a walking staff and gloves with us, so we hired these from the community camp before we left, as the fees raised here go to the women’s group and the local orphanage. We also had a rucksack each, carrying waterproofs (this is the wet season here), 4.5 litres of water in a Camelback, and water bottle, two cameras, insect repellant, hats, and food for a packed lunch. We knew it could be a tough day, but equally it could be a breeze, it just depends what group (family) of gorillas you are assigned to and of course where they are located. Many people we had met had reached the group within an hour, and so were back at the base by lunchtime, whereas we heard of one group the day before not getting back until 6.30pm, as they couldn’t locate the group. We were hoping for a fairly easy day!
There are 3 groups of gorillas that can be visited from the base at Buhoma, the Habinyanja Group, the Rushegura Group and the Mubare Group, the first two are reached currently by using a vehicle and are generally easier and quicker to get to, the last group, the Mubare Group are currently accessed by hiking straight out of the back of the UWA head quarters and straight up and over the Mountain. With a maximum of 8 in each walking group, this means a maximum of 24 tourists per day.
Guess which one we were assigned to? Yup, the dreaded Mubare group!!! Our guide was Rita, and she proceeded to tell us and the six other paying trackers that were with us, what was expected of us. We were to expect a very hard day, and that at sometime it WILL rain, so we needed to be suitably equipped and prepared. We were also told to tuck the bottom of our trousers into our socks or boots as the rain forest is full of nasty bugs and especially the large number of “fire ants”. If these get onto your legs apparently you end up doing the fire ant dance!!
The last piece of advice from Rita was that we should employ a “Porter” from the village to carry our rucksack, he would also help to push, and pull you up and down the mountain. We had previously spoken about this and had decided that we wouldn’t need a “Porter” as we only had a small (32 litre) rucksack each. Now that we realised that we had been assigned the Mubare Group, we had to have a rethink. The cost of a Porter for the day was a minimum of 50,000 Ugandan Shillings (£11.36), but if you were impressed with him you could pay him extra. These Porters are just regular guys from the village that turn up at the UWA headquarters on a rotor system hoping to get a days work from the “Mzungu” tourists. Rita also reminded us that a 10kg rucksack will feel like a 30kg rucksack after the first hour of climbing the mountain. It was a no brainer…….. we took on the services of Jackson, but had to explain to him that we didn’t have any money with us, so he would have to return to the campsite with us at the end of the day to get paid. Two of the other couples also had a Porter.
Bwindi Impenetrable Forest base at Buhoma is located at about 2,000 metres (roughly 6,600 feet) above sea level, so the air is thin, and it is hot and very humid, not a good combination for a long hike straight up a mountain, in dense bush, so with this in mind we put all the water, food, and heavier items into one rucksack and gave that to Jackson to carry, we are very caring tourists!
The cost of not making the climb was a return trip to the camp and of course no refund. There is an option of a pair of bearers with a stretcher carrying you the rest of the way at a cost of $300. We had heard of a young and fit Australian woman having to take this option only a few days before.
With an armed guard at the front of us, then Rita the guide, and then another armed guard at the rear we set off at about 8.30am.
Straight away, as soon as we crossed the bridge over the river, the steepness was quite severe, it was also slippery after the heavy rains from the night before, but we plodded along a reasonably defined path.
This is Jac with the rest of the group, taking a quick breather, its is still not raining, and as you can see the vegetation is very dense.
None of the Gorillas are collared or tagged, so to help locate the group, a team of trackers set off before dawn and try to find them before we arrive in the area, obviously the starting point is where they were last seen the day before. Mountain Gorillas do not move at night, and build “nests” to sleep in, in a different place each 24 hours. So after about two hours of climbing, Rita started to communicate on her radio with the trackers about the precise location of the group. In the meantime we had reached the summit of the mountain and were descending into the valley beyond. At this point we realised that Gorillas a) move around a lot and b) do not eat anywhere near a path!
Out came the machetes and we started cutting our way though the very dense jungle, this is not like you see on the TV, we were climbing over fallen logs, scaling huge rocks, and walking over things that could not be seen. Gloves were put on to protect your hands from thorns, nettles, ants, and any other little critter that takes a fancy to your pearly white skin, they also mean that you can grab branches, roots and rocks without having to inspect them too closely.
This was very very tough going, we were all sweating buckets, and it was here that Jackson started to seriously earn his money. He took up a position in front of Jac, and literally pulled her up and over obstacles, steadied her over streams, and generally assisted her at all times during this the hardest bit of the tracking. We were very slowly descending down and across the very steep bank, then after about 45 minutes of heading in this direction Rita got a message from the trackers up ahead that the gorillas had looped round and were now actually above us!!!! Bugger!!
So we then had to climb back up, but not using the path that we had taken as we needed to be further over, this was the toughest part of the day, and everyone in the group was exhausted.
This is Jac, just about visible ahead in the dense vegetation.
Eventually after 4.5 hours of really hard physical graft, we cut our way into a clearing and there were the three trackers that had been following the Mubare Group for the last few hours. We knew then that we were close to the Mountain gorillas and straight away all our aching limbs were forgotten about! We were given another pep talk by Rita that involved a few do’s and dont’s (though not many really), and were told to get our cameras out, leave our bags with the Porters, and to get ready for an amazing experience.
I was dreading being in this position, if it was pouring with rain, and not being able to use my camera, but amazingly it was still not raining, we just needed it to hold off for another hour. After a few minutes of cutting through the jungle, we were presented with a scene that we could only have dreamt about, the first thing we saw was a young gorilla playing in a tree, underneath the tree were two adult females, and another youngster, and incredibly sitting with his back to us only about 3 metres away was the huge Silverback male of the group.
We had over an hour in the company of these amazing primates, and there were at least two people in our group that definitely had a tears in their eyes during the first five minutes. The gorillas made us work during our time with them, as they were constantly moving along following the Silverback, so we had to cut our way through to try to get ahead of them a few times, but this really paid off. After hearing other peoples stories about their tracking day, I was expecting to get a few photos of gorillas in very dense vegetation, and hopefully see them occasionally, this hour or so was way beyond our wildest dreams as far as seeing the animals was concerned.
At one point the Silverback (weighing as much as 200kgs) walked straight towards me (I was at the end of the clearing, and the tracker had moved away to cut some vegetation), and passed so close to me I could have touched him!
I think we saw almost every member in the group (11 adults plus youngsters), apart from a female that had a two month old baby, but we were warned back at base that we would be unlikely to see the mother and baby. Then just to top a perfect day (it still wasn’t raining), she appeared with the baby on her breast!!!
We were very happy “Mzunga”!!
We definitely had over our maximum time of an hour with the Gorilla’s, but it seemed to pass in a flash, but we had to turn around and head back to the camp at Buhoma. En-route we stopped for a quick lunch stop, where I got stung by a particularly evil wasp/bee, but I think we all wanted to get back before the now dark and heavy sky decided to drop its load of water on us. Much easier than we expected we got down to the river crossing in about two hours, and it still wasn’t raining!! Again Jackson was a massive help to Jac as we scrabbled down the mountainside.
Back at the the headquarters, we were each given a certificate (a little tacky perhaps), and after being out in the rain forest for 7.5 hours, there were some seriously creaky bones! Jac organised everyone on our group to have a photo taken, including Jackson and Rita our guide.
After taking Jackson back to the nearby campsite we paid him a total of 80,000 Shillings (£18.00), this included a tip of 30,000 Shillings, he left a very happy man (he called round the next morning at 6.30am to say goodbye as we were warming up Colonel K). He was a genuinely nice guy, and Jac, says he was immensely strong.
Within 20 minutes of us getting back to the truck the heavens opened and it rained for hours! How lucky were we!!!!
Our clothes were absolutely minging with sweat, and a cold beer was needed, so after a quick shower, and a change of clothes we headed to the camp bar (obviously we were the only campers again), and spent the evening over dinner talking about the most amazing day that we had experienced.
Despite our bodies aching like made we decided that if it wasn’t raining in the morning (we had set our alarm for 6.00am), we would leave at first light and negotiate the dirt tracks over the mountain before the conditions got even worst.
Its about 80km from Buhoma back to the tarmac road, and the first 20km despite being the narrowest and least used track went well with no dramas, just stunning scenery.
Then it started to get really steep, and with that the mud started to get much more slippery, then on one steep up hill section we came across a recently installed culvert, and the mud over the top of the culvert was very soft. There was a quite severe camber on the track, and the truck just dug into the mud, and all four wheels were spinning on the slippery surface, but worst, the rear of the truck was sliding towards the edge and and so the long drop down into the valley below!!! Very scary.
We managed to extract ourselves from the mud by mostly using the weight of the truck to roll back down the hill, and straightening the truck up to have another go, no chance!!! We started digging out stones from the verges of the track and placing them into the deep mud, that by now was a real mess. We were in the middle of nowhere, with no other vehicles around (I think most go north from Buhoma) and no body to be seen. Then in true African style, locals appeared from nowhere, they were probably working in the fields nearby and heard Colonel K’s engine and spinning wheels. Next thing we knew we had several men and children, digging out mud, placing stones and generally getting stuck in. Jac and Myself were absolutely plastered in mud, with Jac up to here ankles in soft sticky goo. We tried again, and again the tyres just sank in deep and stopped forward motion. We decided to try our lovely bright orange Maxtrax sand ladders, the local’s looked at us as if we mad, but with a Maxtrax located in front of each wheel, we slowly but surely drove over the mud and up onto the top of the hill where I stopped and walked back to pick up a muddy set of Maxtrax, and a very muddy wife!
This is our Uganda Recovery team.
We had to use the Maxtrax two more times (on our own this time), on this track, it was slow going, especially on the steep descents but Jac has definitely got the hang of placing the boards under the tyres now! When we arrived at Ruhija Gate, which is near the highest point of the mountain, Jac jumped out of the cab to sort out the paperwork for exiting the National Park, and as she approached the rangers they all stood there and looked at her muddy feet! They then apologised for the fact that we had got stuck on Ugandan roads. Trying to control the descent of a 9 tonne Daf on these very slippery mountain routes was very demanding, and it was a journey that we will never forget. That 80km took us about 5 hours, and for the first 65km I think we only saw one other vehicle (a LandCruiser). In the dry season it would have been a breeze but in late September after heavy rains it was very different.
We are now in the border town of Kisoro, where we have spent the day carrying out the washing of our sweaty and muddy clothes, and our nice muddy Maxtrax. We have had an incredible last five days, and the memories of the Mountain Gorilla’s will definitely stay with us for ever.
Whilst in town today we were having a coffee outside a “cafe” when Jac spotted a couple that were Gorilla Tracking with us, they had another permit booked for the following day. They told us the experience on the second day was the complete opposite to the one we shared with them, this time they drove part of the way there, only walked for an hour to find them, the gorilla group were mostly inactive while they were with them (and mostly sleeping), and they were back at their lodge by lunchtime! How lucky were we?
Tomorrow we will cross yet another African land border, into Rwanda. I can honestly say we have had a fantastic time in Uganda, it really has so much to offer, its very diverse, and its people are super friendly and helpful, and you really can’t help but have an adventure here!!!!!!
Thanks for reading
So we got our Gorilla permits sorted, but we still had a bit of time to kill, so after Queen Elizabeth NP, we decided to head for Lake Bunyoni in the South of the country and chill out for a bit. On the climb out from QENP we past the stunning series of Crater lakes that are at the top of the hills here. Some appear to be just normal lakes that come right up to the road side, whereas others have very steep sides, and the water’s a long way down, but all are crystal clear and beautiful in the early morning low light.
This was the start of the tea growing area for Uganda, and it was strange to see both large scale growing of tea, and also small scale (tiny plots owned by individual families), they sell the tea to large factories.
At the town of Kabale, we turned off onto the dirt track that takes you up over the mountain and then back down to Lake Bunyoni, this is quite steep in places, but it was dry and we had decent grip. Then after about 10 km we drove through the small village and into the camp at the lake side. This really is a beautiful place, and is quite popular as a stop over for the overland tour trucks (each with up to 25 guests on board). With this in mind, we managed to drive right down to the lake shore, and parked up (not particularly level, but definitely in the best spot), less that two metres from the water.
Lake Bunyoni was formed when a volcano erupted and the lava flow blocked the end of the valley, and this is the highest lake in Uganda at 6,500 feet above sea level. It has a lot of history surrounding the place, from both colonial times, and before, some quite dark too!
But today the lake is used mostly by local people for getting around, as the banks all round the lake are very steep and the water is the easier way round. There is a market every Monday and Friday, and on these days the dugout canoes are packed with either goods or people or both, some have tiny outboard motors but most just use a paddle.
Obviously we visited the market, and of course it was mayhem! But we managed to get some fresh fruit and veg, but as usual the vast majority of items sold at the market were old second hand European clothes. Piles and piles of clothes. This has been the same in most Sub-Saharan African countries, bundles of clothes opened up on the ground and sold on, nice and cheaply.
This is most definitely the rainy season in Southern Uganda, and virtually every day we have seen rain. Usually it doesn’t rain until late in the day, and it involves massive violent thunderstorms, with torrential rain, so we tried to time it with a walk to the bar!
But most of the time we just chilled out and read lots of books (well Kindle), caught up with jobs on Colonel K, and did all our washing. A very relaxing place, and we ended up staying here for eight nights. The staff were very friendly and the locals, as else where in Uganda were extremely welcoming.
We decided one day to take a tour of the lake for a few hours, the lake was as flat as a mill pond, and it was a really nice morning. We were taken around the various Islands on the lake, including one Island that has not only a school, but also a hospital. Then there was Leper Island that was used to deposit anyone with Leprosy on it in years gone by.
But the “highlight” of every boat trip here is a circle around “Punishment Island”. This tiny island (shown in the background on the photo below), was where unmarried women or girls were taken if they fell pregnant, they were dropped off here with no food, and left to die. If there was a possibility that they might be able to swim to the shore or another island, they were taken up the hill and thrown off the top of a water fall.
Jac asked our guide “if this is what happened to the girls, then what happens to the bloke that made the girl pregnant?”, to this he stuttered a bit, and then replied “we don’t do this to the girls anymore”, I don’t think Jac was satisfied with the answer!
Lake Bunyoni is a great place to sit and watch the wildlife and every single day we were there we watched the otters, driving down and swimming around, but they are a nightmare to photograph. There are also lots of birdlife including, Sunbirds, Kingfishers, Ibis’s, and Crowned Cranes.
Our Gorilla Permits were for Wednesday, so we decided to leave Bunyoni on Monday morning, just in case we had a problem (the two permits cost us $1,200 so didn’t want to miss the date). So after negotiating the steep hill again we drove into the nearby town of Kabale to fill Colonel K up, and try to seek out a “supermarket” to stock up with a few items.
If you are wondering what a Ugandan “supermarket” is like, this is a photo of the main one in Kabale, it is Jac shopping at “Good times Supermarket” in the main street (smaller than most corner shops in England)
Whilst I was sitting in the truck waiting for Jac to come back from the “Good times”, I was watching the security at the Bank opposite, and couldn’t resist taking these photos. I especially love the one with the woman guard, that looks very alert with her rifle across her lap, and the guy with the AK47 sharing a funny video on his phone with her. Every bank, however large or small in Africa has at least one armed guard, even if they are closed. You get used to these things and don’t think anything of it after a while.
When we booked our Gorilla Permits we decided the best place in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest for us to see them would be at the most northerly place which is Buhoma. We did this for two reasons, firstly we knew that we could camp at the Community Camp and it was right next to the meeting point at the start of the tracking, and secondly we thought we would be coming into Bwindi from the North. Instead as we were coming from Lake Bunyoni, we found that we were coming from the south east of the forest. This meant that we had to drive the full length of the rain forest and up and over the various mountains, but on a plus point we had heard that the road had been upgraded. In Uganda (or indeed anywhere in Africa) ‘upgraded’ could mean anything, but we were hoping that it might mean that it had been tarmac’ed. Only one way to find out I guess.
After turning off of the main tarmac road, and following our Tracks4Africa software, we followed a very small track that was getting smaller all the time. It was then that Jac realised that our paper maps were in the back, so on the edge of a small village we stopped so Jac could retrieve the maps. It was here we had a stroke of luck, Jac started talking to a young guy that spoke very broken English and explained that much further up the track a bridge had been washed away and it was completely impassable. If we hadn’t of stopped there we would have carried on all the way to the collapsed bridge and that would have been the day gone! We had to drive on for another few kilometres before we could find a place to turn the truck around.
Back at the tarmac road, we had a quick look at the map and saw that there was another track that went in the direction that we wanted about 15km further along. When we got to the turning there was actually a UWA signpost showing Buhoma off that way, so this was looking good, perhaps this was the upgraded route after all.
Well it wasn’t tarmac but it was a quite a good dirt track so far, though Buhoma was 80km up this track. For the first 15km everything was going swimmingly, then we hit Ugandan roadworks. There was a massive digger in the middle of the track and it was scooping out large amounts of dirt and rock right across from one side to the other to put in an underground culvert to take away the rain water.
It was also digging away the bank on the right hand side, this was peoples access to their houses on the top, and check out the woman and the child standing on the mud bank as he is still digging.
A guy came over to us and said that the road will be closed for about 40 minutes (I knew it was going to be longer, but we had to wait it out), so we switched Colonel K off, and settled down to watch as people walked around the digger as it was swinging around, climbing down in the ditch it was digging, and then climbing out the other side, just so they could carry on their daily lives. No health and safety here!
As usual within minutes we were surrounded by local kids, and many of these kids had never met a ‘mazungu’ (white man) before, and a few of them were petrified of us (well me anyway). But it wasn’t long before these lovely kids started to get more used to us, and Jac was dancing with them and of course they all got a toy each (as donated by my great nephews and nieces back home).
As you can see these kids are very poor, and many tourists visiting Uganda don’t see children like these from very rural areas, they have very little. This really struck home when we had to show them how to actually play with these toys, whether its a car, or a plane, or a doll. We ended up with fourteen of these kids with us and they all had a little toy each, and we had some good fun with them, you soon see which ones are the cheeky ones, or the ‘cool’ ones etc, these kids are no different from those at home.
Two hours later, we were told we could carry on!!!!
This is a stunning landscape and we were very quickly into the rain forest, yes it was steep (needing the low range gears for the whole time), but it was still dry and so quite grippy on the dirt track.
Then just after entering the National Park the heavens opened and it started pouring down! Let me tell you, dirt tracks are a different thing altogether in the pouring rain, and it was very slow going, (10 tonnes is not easy to slow down on a muddy surface) we eventually got to Buhoma late in the afternoon, and parked in the very small Community Camp car park. It was a long day and we decided to eat in their small “restaurant” that evening. But sitting there having a cheeky beer we realised that we were in a very special place indeed. This was our view from our drinking hole, overlooking the vast rainforest in front of us, with the mist rising and blowing gently away, “gorillas in the mist”?
As we still had another day before our long awaiting tracking experience, we decided to go on a 3 hour ‘village walk’ with a guide, this seemed a really touristy thing to do and usually we don’t do this sort of thing, but all the money ($25 each) goes into the community in Buhoma, and it looked quite interesting.
The walk turned out to be a fantastic and quite a personal experience, we saw how the tea and coffee was picked and told how it was sold to quite large factories back down in the valley . A truck comes up every day and takes each persons tea from their own tiny plantation. Then we walked past a couple of guys that were hand carving wooden gorillas with nothing more that a machete, mallet and a chisel. This was way out in a field, then they sell them to the shops in the village.
The walk through these fields was stunning, everywhere is so lush and green.
Next we visited the village healer, who uses natural remedies, he was a real character, and he also works in collaboration with the local hospital.Taking his patients there if they do not improve. He explained the “Dosing” marks on his containers and showed us how he rolls up banana leaves to get medicine into a child’s mouth and in a very animated way how he uses this method for ears, nose and bottoms ! He didn’t speak any English, so our guide translated, but you really got the idea, especially when he was explaining his remedies for constipation and diarrhoea.
But the thing that made me laugh was the posters that he had up in his “consulting room”, “Black Blood takes over”, “Barak Obama with Africa’s Strong Presidents” and in true Ugandan style “Arsenal FC”.
Then we went to the local banana brewing site, where we tried the local Banana Gin, YUCK!!!!, but it was interesting.
Samuel our guide then took us to the local school, which was perhaps for us the best part of the day.
This school has 600 pupils, in eight classes, with the lowest classes having well over 100 pupils in a class. The children in Uganda have to pass an examination before they can proceed to the next classroom level, so you could have a wide range of ages in each class, it’s dependant on that pupils ability to pass an exam.
One of the teachers came out to meet us and took us into a few of the classrooms, which the children found highly amusing, especially when the “muzungu” decided to sit on their desks with them.
We were then taken into another classroom where the kids cleared the desks away and then started singing and dancing for us, I noticed that Jac had a tear in her eye, as these two stupid white people were treated to an extraordinary show of perfect singing and super high energy dancing, the kids really genuinely seemed to enjoy themselves.
Then we were taken to see the head master’s office (last time I was taken to the head master I was given the cane!), but first we were shown the school library, this is the sum total of text books for all 600 pupils.
We spent about 20 minutes in with the Head who was passionate about improving the education of these children, but he also explained that there was still pressure from many families for their children to withdraw from education altogether, many many children in Buhoma don’t go to school at all. There are at least 3 schools in Buhoma, so this give an indication of the number of children just in this village and the surrounding areas.
Next Samuel took us to the local Batwa Community, these are a tribe of Pygmy’s that have been removed from the rain forest in part to protect the Mountain Gorilla’s there. I’m still not sure what I feel about these people having their way of life taken from them, and being placed in a “normal” rural community.Samuel our guide explained that they were actually happy, as they now had houses to live in, easier access to food and shelter, but they may all not feel the same way. It was interesting to see them but we both felt quite awkward.
It was a great day, with lots of walking and a torrential down pour, and there was also lots of different feelings felt, depending on where we were and with whom. The weird thing about the day was, that we had a guy called Edward follow us around all day with a Kalashnikov machine gun, in the brewery, with the Pygmy’s, even at the school! We have always felt very safe and secure walking around in Uganda (even in Kampala), and when we asked Samuel why we had an armed guard, he just said it was to stop the kids from pestering us! Blimey, even I don’t think kids are that bad!
Later when we got back to the community camp I noticed a discrete stone memorial plate on a wall of one of the buildings, with the names of 6 young people on it that lost their lives on that spot in 1991 (4 English, and 2 from New Zealand). When I asked what happened we were told that some armed guys came across from the DRC (Congo), and robbed and shot the campers, then fled. Perhaps thats why we had an armed escort.
Tomorrow we go Mountain Gorilla Tracking.
Thanks for reading
From Kampala we headed north to Murchison Falls National Park, this meant leaving the capital city at daybreak, in a futile attempt to avoid the worst of the heavy traffic. Judging by the traffic when we got to Kampala, we estimated it taking us at least two hours to get out of the city and onto more open roads. In the end we managed it in about an hour and a half, then had the benefit of a good tarmac road taking us up to the town of Masindi, from here is a decent dirt road (they don’t do gravel in Uganda), all the way to and through the National Park. There are of course a number of bridges to cross and a couple of them were very tight to accommodate the width of the Daf, there was also one that had large holes that had rusted through the steel plate (deep breath as we pass over these).
So after paying our entrance fees at the gate ($40 per person per day, and $150 for Colonel K), and having a laugh with the rangers, we drove the short 10km to a small lodge that provides Chimpanzee Tracking in the rainforest. They had no availability for the tracking for two days time, and it would be leaving the lodge on foot early in the morning, so after negotiating a rate for us to camp in their small carpark for the following night and booking the tracking we drove on through the stunning forest to Red Chilli Rest Camp (about 55km further into the NP). The camp is right next to the ferry that takes you across the Nile and into the game viewing area north of the river. We decided due to the costs involved, that we wouldn’t go across on the ferry, we have seen plenty of animals on this trip, and we are sure that we will see lots more.
Next morning we decided to drive to the top of the falls, and view for ourselves this natural wonder. Shortly after leaving the Rest Camp we encountered our first Tsetse flies of this trip, these are vicious buggers, that have to be experienced to be believed. They have no respect for any fly repellent, they bite through clothes, and are very hard to splat! But worst of all they actually chase vehicles.
Now remember we have no air conditioning in the cab of Colonel K, and to be honest have not really missed it (you get used to the heat much better without air-con), but that morning I’d have sold my soul for a decent air-con system, (its very hot here in the mid day sun), but it was too late, the cab was full of them. Jac was trying frantically to splat them with her Dads old fly swatter, with a very low success rate, meanwhile we were being eaten alive. A Tsetse fly is about the size of a honey bee, and looks like a horse fly, and can bite you repeatedly, and each bite really really hurts. We turned off the main track onto a much smaller track that takes you to the top of the falls, the Tsetse flies got worst, and it was a nightmare driving on this track while trying to keep these buggers off of you, then just as we started our very steep descent to the falls, they disappeared as quick as they appeared! It seems the Tsetse flies don’t like changes in altitude, there were no new ones we just had to get to the parking area with the ones that were already in with us, and then get out quick.
Luckily we were the only visitors there (as usual), and there was no one there to laugh at the stupid British tourists falling out of their truck, thrashing at thin air! But the thunder of the water falls was immediately apparent, and we soon forgot the horrendous bites that were covering our bodies.
Murchison Falls is at the point of the River Nile as it descends down into Lake Albert (and then it turns north into South Sudan), and at this point the mighty Nile is forced through a narrow gorge only 6 metres wide (it was about 200 metres wide when we last saw it at Jinja). The result is a truly breath taking fury of water as it is funnelled through this narrow cleft and down the Rift Valley escarpment.
Winston Churchill visited the falls in 1907, and commented that the Nile was so narrow at this point that “it would cost less than £10 to put a bridge across the Nile here”. As you can see from the middle photo, someone decided to do just that (in Idi Amin’s regime days), it lasted less than one year, and was washed away in the first big flood!.
After spending a couple of hours at the falls (you can walk about quite freely, health and safety aren’t high priority here in Uganda), we headed back to the truck, and got “armoured up” and ready for the Tsetse flies, that we knew we were going to encounter again at the top of the steep track. Our plan was to,despite the extreme heat of early afternoon, keep the windows of the cab firmly closed and just sweat it out until we were clear of them, then at least if we did have to open the windows we had long sleeves, trousers and even shoes on to protect us a little. We also sprayed all our clothing with Tabard (a Deet based repellant), and hoped for the best. As we got near to top of the steep climb (on loose gravel and involving some very tight hairpins), and sweating profusely they descended on us once more, but with the windows tightly shut, they couldn’t get in. Like a scene from a horror movie that followed us, and I mean really followed us, at one point bearing in mind that we were driving along the dirt road at speeds up to 25kmph, there were at least a dozen of them hanging onto the mirrors and loads more on the windscreen and side windows, and then the vast number were on the rear cabin!
We were sweating buckets, but nothing was going to make me or Jac open those windows, then after about 45 minutes they disappeared again, we were thankfully gaining in altitude as we got closer to the rain forest. By the time we got to Kanyiyo Pabidi Forest, we had cooled down but still itching and scratching like mad, we found a nice place to park the truck for the night and settled down for the rest of the day with a few beers. We asked the guy in charge if we could pay for our Chimpanzee Tracking and camping on our Visa card (as we were worried that we might run out of cash), amazingly he said we could but that we would have to walk out onto the track with the cordless machine as there is no signal at the lodge. Next thing we knew we were blowing chunks as we were walked to the top of a hill to get a signal, incredibly the machine beeped into life and the transaction was made, in the rainforest!
That evening a group of Spanish tourists returned from the tracking hot and sweaty, and very down beat……. they hadn’t seen any chimps at all! Not good, and we were now worried that our $100 each for the tracking might have been a waste of money.
Next morning we signed our indemnity forms (whats this? health and safety in Uganda?) , put on our heavy walking boots, tucked our trousers into our socks, applied copious amounts of insect repellant, and was introduced to our tracking guide for the day, Pauline.
As we set off into the dense rainforest (or jungle as its commonly known), we realised that we were lucky to a) have a group of only us two, and b) have Pauline as a guide, she is very keen and passionate about the primates of Uganda. After walking on well trodden paths for about 15 minutes, we heard our first chimpanzee calls in the distance, both to our right and to our left. Pauline decided to try turning towards the right calls, and explained that in the morning, a group of chimps will split into 3 or 4 different groups and head out to find a suitable source of food, leaves, figs and other fruits, then once one group is successful they will call the others over, but at this stage no one knows which group will find the best food source. The noise in this forest is fantastic, with all the birds, monkeys, and insects, but once the Chimpanzees start loudly chattering across the large distances, it is something else (oh and the spiders and their webs are truly massive).
10 minutes later we saw our first Chimpanzee, way up in the top of the tree, but we saw one! Then another……
Pauline then decided that we should find the other group that we had heard, so we set off back the way we came, but this time we turned off the path and headed directly through the dense forest. We were glad we had decent boots on, we hadn’t a clue what we were treading on out here! But she was sure that we were safe (we had been told the day before that there is a huge number of Black Cobra’s here), and that we were heading towards the chimps. Again she was absolutely spot on, several hundred metres into the dense scrub she spotted about 5 chimps up the tree and they started calling, there was masses of fig fruits in the tree, and they were telling their mates…….
What happened next was very scary! Suddenly from our left came some very loud crashing and then the screaming and calling of a number of Chimpanzees as they sought to get to their mates and the food that they had been told about. Let me tell you, an adult Chimpanzee when its on the ground and running towards you screaming loudly, is a formidable animal, and here were about six of them. Just before they got to us, they shot up into the large fig trees above us. We spent about 40 minutes watching this large group that included male and female, young and old, eating, playing, grooming, even copulating. All the time Pauline was explaining about the social interaction of the group and what was actually going on, while Jac and I dodged the Chimp urine and figs from above.
Pauline explained to us that the female that was “on heat” (in photo above), has to copulate with every adult male in the group (this could be 10-15 males) each time she is in season, so no male is sure if he is the father to the baby or not. If a male didn’t mate with a particular female and he was sure that he wasn’t the babies “papa”, then he would likely kill the baby Chimpanzee. We even watched this particular female take a “lower ranked chimp” off to a more private branch of the fig tree, so the dominant male couldn’t see that she mated with this lowly member of the group! Chimpanzee social groups are quite complex.
It really was a magical few hours, and seeing these incredible primates in the wild, and in such a beautiful setting will be something that we will never forget. The photos were a real challenge as the humidity took its toll on the Lumix, a couple of times the zoom refused to move, and the lens was continually steaming up.
Back at the truck, we had a quick shower (it was extremely hot and very humid under the canopy of the forest), and headed back towards the gate for the National Park. In Uganda you pay for a 24 hour period, and we didn’t want to be charged for another day, so after once again giving the Ranger some stick about supporting Liverpool, we followed the dirt track back to Masindi.
Our next stop was at a safari lodge on the shores of Lake Albert, this meant going via the town of Hoima. The road from Masindi to Hoima was as we were expecting, dirt, and it was slow going through hundreds of tiny villages, but at Hoima the god of roads was truly shining down on us. They have discovered oil in Lake Albert, and in order to get the exploration equipment to the lake (and down the very steep escarpment) they have had to build a new tarmac road. It has recently opened and is amazingly smooth, no repairs, no pot holes, just lovely smooth bitumen, and it takes you right to the entrance to the lodge. This was just as well as it was starting to get dark when we arrived.
Down the centre of Lake Albert is the border between Uganda and the DRC, and the view from the safari lodge and where we were camped, was across to mountains of the Congo, and made a stunning backdrop.
We stayed here for 3 nights, and would probably have stayed longer but the camp site fees were $40 per night for the two of us (this is at least twice as much as anywhere else in Uganda), plus as its in Kabwoya Wildlife Reserve, we had to pay another $10 each per day in park fees. Mind you we did manage to talk the young ranger at the gate to only charge us for a saloon car instead of a 10 tonne truck, as there were only two of us in it!
The Manager at the lodge gave us a few tips about the route down to Fort Portal (including what track to avoid as it had been raining heavily), but we knew that it was going to be a long hard slog on bad dirt roads for about 130km of the 250km trip. The first short cut which cut off about 50km and meant we didn’t need to return to Hoim), was not too bad, it was quite muddy and slippery but not too bad.
Then we eventually got onto the “main road” between Hoima and Fort Portal, and it was really bad, and very very slow going. There were actually contractors working on the tracks in places, but what they were doing apart from causing chaos, and a mud bath I really don’t know.
Then we noticed a rattle coming from the under belly of Colonel K, sounds like exhaust bracket again, so we pulled over where is was reasonably wide, and not too many locals and had a look. The exhaust bracket nearest the front had snapped (we had already had the other one strengthened) and was hanging down and swinging on the 12mm bolt. I could see that if I didn’t remove it, then it would catch on a rock or a high ridge in the centre of the track and really damage the silencer. So laying in the mud under the truck I tried unsuccessfully to undo the seized bolt, I decided that a hacksaw blade would cut through it, maybe……
With the pull-out steps into the living accommodation indeed pulled out, it gave me a decent about of space to sit up and slowly but surely cut through the very hard bolt. Then it all went very horribly wrong. Another truck was coming up the hill behind us, and Jac had a mental black out……. She slammed the steps back into their housing, out of the way of the truck, but there was something stopping the metal angle from fitting back properly……. MY HEAD!!!
I was convinced (and so was Jac) that my head must be split open, the pain was incredible, but amazingly there was no blood, I laid there under the truck holding my head, with Jac screaming “sorry, sorry”. I just had a very big lump on my head. Eventually I managed to cut through the bolt enough to shear it of using two spanners, and we were on our way again. It was a long hard days drive to Fort Portal, and included driving through a massive thunder storm which of course made it very slippery, but eventually we got there and ended up staying at a hostel called YES (Youth Encouragement Services).
YES is run by an amazing American lady of 72 years called Carol Adams, she has lived in Uganda for over 20 years, and apart from running the large hostel, she also runs an Orphanage that operates for HIV Positive kids (still a huge issue in sub-Saharan Africa), with over 30 children there. On top of that she also has currently over 200 young people that she paying to go through the education system here, providing, fees, books, uniforms etc. This is one very busy and inspirational lady.
The next day we arranged (through Carol) for a mechanic to come out to the Hostel to take away the exhaust bracket and repair it, but upon looking at it John decided that we should follow him to his workshop/garage, and he would carry out the work there. Right in the town centre was the amazingly named ‘Stitch and Sew Garage Services’, we just about managed to squeeze Colonel K in there and two of his guys went about removing the rest of the rusted up bolts and re-welding the large bracket with extra reinforcement. This was then sprayed a very nice silver and when dry it was refitted, a couple of hours and we were away, the total cost for all this, just over £5.00!
Back at YES, Carol asked us if we would like to see her latest project, a newly built vocational training centre that is due to be opened by the Presidents wife in a months time. We jumped at the chance and before we knew it, we were in Carol’s old Suzuki Vitara, and arriving at the new centre. The buildings were a real surprise to me, the quality of the construction was on a different level to any thing we had seen in this part of Africa. The building work was overseen by a German that will be fronting the project, and it really shows.
There are separate buildings for ceramics (including kilns as shown above), carpentry, hair and beauty, administration, and even a coffee shop and curio shop for visitors.
Who needs a JCB?
During our time in Africa we have met many NGO groups, but Carol is different, she is truly passionate and hardworking, striving to help vulnerable youngsters in Uganda. We stayed in Fort Portal for nearly a week, and during that time we heard locals speaking very highly of Carol and her work in this area. Her website is http://www.caroladamsministry.com its well worth a look, and any donations are spent very wisely. All proceeds from the Hostel also go to fund her charities, no money is wasted here, there are no fancy new cars, no big salaries, every penny is spent on vulnerable young people.
Oh and the view from the “camping area” out towards the Rwenzori Mountains (Mountains of the Moon) is amazing.
We are now just south of Queen Elizabeth National Park, having camped one night at either end of the park, but only driven through it. We again decided not to actually visit the game driving areas due to the cost and we are unlikely to see anything that we haven’t already seen.
But even without driving in the park we still saw quite a bit of wildlife from the truck.
On our way through to QENP we once again crossed the Equator, this time heading south, so of course we had to take the usual photo opportunities.
We are constantly being asked what is our favourite country of the trip, and it is a very tough question to answer, but after just over 3 weeks travelling around Uganda, this place is definitely in our top 3, its people are amazingly friendly without any hard sell or asking for anything, and the country is so stunning and diverse (if a little challenging at times).
We have now managed to obtain our Gorilla tracking permits, so I’m looking forward to seeing some more of Jac’s relatives.
Thanks for reading
Ahhh, good old African land border time again! But surely the exiting of Kenya can’t be too bad?
Just to get to the Kenyan border post we had to overtake/queue jump somewhere between 500 and 1,000 trucks, then when eventually we got within sight of the border, we gently managed to ‘push’ our way into the queue, no body seems to get upset with us doing this as we aren’t commercial, just dumb tourists in a mobile apartment. Then as we settled down to an estimated two hour wait, a “fixer’ appeared and signalled for us to follow him and overtake the remaining 20 or so trucks infront of us. We don’t usually use the services of a fixer at borders, but this guy seemed to know exactly the sort of shortcuts that we needed, so we pulled out and followed him. Running along in front of Colonel K, he signalled for us to follow him down the lane that exited from Uganda, the completely wrong way, oh well “in for a penny in for a pound”. A problem arose when we drove past a guard with a machine gun, he really didn’t approve of us driving the wrong way against the Kenya bound traffic, and even the fixer was telling me to ignore the guard and follow him, I could see the gun carrying guard getting very irate at us, so we pulled over and stopped. The guard caught up, I told him I was following the Fixer’s instructions, he started shouting at the Fixer, and then realised it would be impossible for us to reverse or turn around so ended up waving us through. I would estimate that our little “shortcut” saved us between 2 to 3 hours. The trouble was we now needed to process our paperwork to leave Kenya at the gate where everyone enters Kenya!
We were also told that we owed road tax for the journey from Nairobi to the Ugandan border (we knew this, but thought we could get away without paying it), and in true Kenyan style we couldn’t pay it at the border it had to be paid into a bank. Guess what there is no bank at the border!!!! So we gave our trusty Fixer, Patrick a fist full of Kenyan Shillings, he jumped on the back of a motorbike and went off to the previous town before the border to pay our money into the Revenue Authorities bank account, he was gone ages. Had he run off with our wad of cash? Eventually, over a hour later, he returned with the receipt for the payment and told us the bank was very busy with truck drivers. A crazy system, but its to stop fraud at the border, no cash changing hands. After getting our paperwork stamped and sorted, we drove out of the ‘in gate’, and no one batted an eyelid, apart from the huge incoming trucks that were negotiating the terrible No-Mans Land” track that included a weak bridge that only one truck was allowed on at a time. Incredibly there was no signs to say this, and no police or guards to enforce it, you just knew and did it!
The Ugandan side of the border was a breeze, and a much more pleasant experience, and Patrick came with us (on the back of a bike again), and once again saved us an enormous amount of time, by showing us a different exit gate which only had a few cars there. Of course there are no signs indicating where to go, but we were processed through within an hour, and this included Patrick going to the Ugandan Bank to once again pay our road tax for our 10 tonne truck. We managed to get a decent exchange rate for changing our Kenyan currency into Ugandan Shillings with a money dealer, and paid Patrick about £20.00 for his services. That was money well spent!
Within 5km of the border, we noticed the difference. Kenya is crazy on the road, the traffic is quite heavy, the driving standard is very poor, and the surface is not great (huge potholes in tarmac, and dirt roads very badly kept), but here in Uganda its different. I would estimate about 20% of the traffic volume, and much calmer driving from the Ugandans. And so far the road surfaces are much better, Uganda is looking good.
We were given a tip from an Austrian couple that we met a few weeks prior about a campsite on the River Nile just north of Jinja, so shortly after crossing the start of the White Nile (the main river), as it exits lake Victoria (the Official source of the Nile), we turned off and drove up a series of dirt tracks that run parallel with the Nile for about 30km on the west bank. Eventually, late in the afternoon after a long day, we arrived at The Haven, wow what a place, definitely one of the best places we have stayed at on our Africa trip so far. The view over the cataracts (rapids) below the lodge was breathtaking. They even let us camp here for half price ($7 pppn) as were are long term travellers.
Everywhere was so lush and green, and the noise from the water is constant as it tumbles down through the rocks.
We ended up staying at The Haven for six nights, had dinner in the restaurant a couple of nights, enjoyed the use of their small swimming pool, and generally chilled out. Apart from one day. We decided that we should go White Water Rafting down the River Nile. So after doing a bit of homework about the various companies offering this service (there are about four of them), we booked for a full days trip with “Adrift”, as these seemed the most professional outfit. Our $140.00 per person included collection from The Haven a lunch stop, and beers afterwards, before being driven the hour or so back to our campsite. So it was looking good.
Jac had previously done some White Water Rafting in New Zealand (the adrenaline capital of the world?), and loved it so we were both keen to experience it here in Africa on the Nile, one of the top spots in the world. So after getting fitted out with our ill-fitting crash helmets, very old buoyancy jackets and handed a paddle, we got into the raft. There were a total of eight of us in our raft, Me, Jac, two young Israeli guys, a young Dutch guy, an older Indian fella, and then the Skipper Roberto, and a young trainee. There were also two other rafts with guests, a safety raft, and about six safety kayaks that would help us out if we got into difficulty in the water.
After paddling out into the centre of the river (its about 200metres across here and nice and calm), we jumped out of the boat and were shown how to get back in with minimum of fuss. We were then shown how escape from under a capsized raft, and then how to get it back up the right way, and again get back in it. Thats it a total of 5-10 minutes of health and safety training! Africa style.
Back in the raft, we were the lead boat, and heading for the cataracts below the onlooking gaze of Colonel K, safely back at The Haven, high up on the bank, we were both very excited, and had full trust in the experience of our Ugandan Skipper, Roberto. We had to wait for the other two rafts, and safety crews in the kayaks to catch up, and we rowed over to the sheltered water to the right of the rapids, and were given our instructions regarding paddling, and holding on. The kayaks shot past at an amazing speed in the current, and completely disappeared from view. Was this normal? Roberto then informed us that our first set of cataracts (there were a total of nine sets for the day) was in fact one of the toughest, and is a grade 5 (these are official set grades and are used the world over, they only go up to grade 6), and that it was in fact a waterfall, after a turbulent rocky section we would drop down a 20-25 foot waterfall. We could not see this from The Haven, perhaps Colonel K was smiling at us as we prepared.
What happened next was not expected! Roberto misjudged the top section and we ended up getting spun round, and disappeared over the waterfall backwards. The two Israeli’s and the Dutch guy were thrown out, the rest of us were all over the raft, and we were stuck in the back wash of the waterfall, we had to be thrown a line from the safety boat and hauled out of the churning waters of the waterfall.
Sorry about the quality of the photos, but they were taken from a video that was done at a few of the cataracts that we did during the day.
That was a crazy start to the day, but maybe, just maybe the rest will be easier, ha, bloody ha!
During that first set, Jac ended up with a bruised hand where she landed on her paddle (the paddle had snapped), but apart from that we were unscathed, the rest of the morning was equally tough. Jac got washed out of the raft a few times, the raft completely capsized once (and we all got washed away), and Jacs injuries were mounting up, she now had a cut foot (struck on underwater rocks) a sprained ankle, and a small cut to her chin, and everyone had ended up drinking a lot of Nile water!
That morning we had completed 5 sets of rapids (two grade 5’s and three grade 4’s), we had also had to leave the river and walk barefoot around an unbelievable crazy section that was a grade 6 (we thankfully weren’t allowed to attempt this). Eventually we stopped at the imaginatively named “Lunch Island” in the centre of the river, here we had a buffet lunch, and the first aid kit was brought out for various patching up of the clients. The other two rafts seemed to have fared worst than us, there were cut eyes (from flying paddles probably), cuts to arms, etc. There was also an Australian woman that was in tears, and quite a few shocked faces. What a morning, the river was taking its toll.
After lunch, a few clients had taken to the security of the safety raft, this always takes the easier route through the cataracts, and I think that if Jac had realised that this was an option she would have taken it, but it was too late, and we were heading for our next set of rapids, Jac got washed out and away down stream again! Back in the raft, she asked Roberto if she could now get in the safety raft, but it was too late again, it was already way off in the distance in front of us, Jac was exhausted, and had truly had enough. It’s hard to describe the feeling of constantly being dragged down by the “washing machine” that is the churning mass of the River Nile, as soon as you are up, you grab a breath (and a lot of river water), and then get sucked back under, its relentless.
But next up was another grade 5, called “The Bad Place”, there was an easier grade 4 route, but we told Roberto to take the tougher route (not sure how Jac felt about this group decision).
Bloody hell that was tough, some how I managed to end up mid stream and was washed well down stream, seemingly miles down stream, all the safety kayaks were busy rescuing the rest of the crew, while I was being washed very rapidly down stream, it was impossible to swim across the current to the bank, and the worst thing was, I wasn’t sure what was ahead of me! Luckily the other two rafts took the easy option round the rapids and one was paddling frantically towards me, I got hauled into their raft, and took a few minutes to catch my breath. Everyone from our raft was ok but exhausted, Jac had truly had enough, and was getting into the safety boat, if anyone had argued with her I think she would have punched them! Jac had done eight out of the nine sets, but I was worried about her, she was truly knackered and quite pale and shaking. The Ugandan Asian guy didn’t look any better, and appeared completely shell shocked with the last 15 minutes, but he stayed on the raft.
The last set of cataracts ended up with us going vertical (but not flipping over) but ended up with our skipper being washed out the back with his trainee, so left us to negotiate the last bit on our own, paddling furiously.
It was an incredible day, truly exhausting, both physically and mentally, but I loved it. Jac hated it! We have met other tourists that have done the same section of river as us, and no one fell out of the rafts, or capsized, or got washed away, maybe the river was flowing harder this day (I doubt it), more likely we had a proper hard core day, with some adrenaline junkies, that wanted to scare the crap out of some tourists. It worked! Im convinced that only in Africa could you get away with doing this with paying guests (Jac confirmed that what she did in New Zealand was nothing like this).
We spent another couple of days to get over our bruised and battered bodies at The Haven (poor Jac could hardly move the next day), then we headed for the capital city of Kampala.
Bike wash Uganda style, just ride it down to the River Nile.
Body wash Uganda style, just walk down to the River Nile
Normally we avoid big cities in Africa (this is usually where you are more likely to have trouble, and we don’t usually enjoy them), but we needed to book our Mountain Gorilla Trekking Permits. Whilst staying at Red Chilli Backpackers (we camped obviously), we used their free shuttle bus into the city to stock up on food for the coming weeks ahead, and eventually managed to obtain two permits for trekking in the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest for later in the month, these cost a staggering $600.00 each plus booking expenses. Budget blown!
While we were sat outside a coffee shop in Kampala, we experienced how important football is to these people, Uganda were playing the tiny nation of Comoros, and a win will see them qualify for the Africa Cup of Nations for the first time in 38 years. It seemed everyone in Kampala was out on a motorbike (sometimes four people on a bike), wearing a Ugandan football shirt, and had a horn of some kind. The noise and colour was incredible, and seemingly trouble free. That evening we watched the game in a bar and saw Uganda win 1-0, and qualify. Uganda was a happy nation that night.
We are really enjoying Uganda, the people here are very friendly, and the countryside is truly stunning, but as with all countries in Africa, there has to be a downside to the place. In Uganda’s case that downside is blindingly obvious. Everywhere you look its there! As much as I try to turn a blind eye, its there, everywhere! An unhealthy number of Arsenal football shirts! I’ve asked a number of locals about this, and they tell me its the older generation that carry this on from when Arsenal FC were successful. I guess that explains why the are faded and mostly in tatters.
Next we head up to Murchison Falls, this will be as far north as we plan to go on lorrywaydown, before we again cross the equator and back into the southern hemisphere.
Thanks for reading