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
Our second spell in Nairobi (or Nai-robbery, as its affectionately known), involved more coffees out, a very nice Italian meal, and a restock of food stuffs in the new Carrefour supermarket, oh and a few minor jobs on Colonel K (replacement of broken rivets on the roof rack, removal of dud leisure batteries, and a small leak on the return pipe to the fuel tank). As I’ve said before Africa is very tough on vehicles, but our Leyland Daf is holding up better than most. Chris, the owner of Jungle Junction also took our South African and our UK gas bottles into town and got them both filled up for us, this should now last us (our UK bottles anyway) until we get back to SA at around Christmas. Once again we had a great, if a little cold (compared to what we are used to), time at Jungle Junction, and again met some great people, and our thanks go out to Chris, his family and staff.
From Nairobi we headed north to Lake Naivasha, and stayed for about 4 nights camped right on the shores of the lake. As its quite close to Nairobi it can be quite a busy area at weekends, and sure enough on the Saturday night it proved a very popular place especially with the Kenyan Indian population. The area is a great place to see Hippo’s,both in and out of the water and many many species of birds, including Fish Eagles, Goshawks, Cormorants, Herons, Kingfishers, Waxbills, Weaver Birds etc. There are also many thieving Vervet Monkeys, just waiting for a split second opportunity to dash in and steal something, anything!
There was also a first for us, a small troop of Colobus Monkey’s, these were so different from the manic Vervet’s, so much slower moving and more wary of humans, but beautiful to look at.
Whilst at Lake Naivasha, we decided to drive to Crater Lake, which is in a Nature Reserve and only 19km away (12 miles), surely this can’t take more than 30 minutes to get there, especially as it was a tarmac road past where we were camped. Well the first 8km remained as tarmac (though with huge and I do mean huge potholes), then it turned to dirt, but surely it can’t be too bad as it does go to a popular tourist site………. WRONG! That last 10 km took us well over an hour, it went from very badly rutted dried mud, to quite deep sand, to washed away sections, it was shockingly bad, and really didn’t improve when we got to the gate of the NR, but after negotiating a rate to take Colonel K in, we drove to the reception area. Crater Lake is much smaller than all the other lakes in the area, and is actually a collapsed volcano that has filled with water, but it is a really nice place (though maybe not worth the $50 that we paid for the two of us and the truck).
We were told by the very helpful guy on reception (I don’t think they get too many visitors here), that it was approx a two hour walk around the rim of the crater (this is much further than following the lake shore, which isn’t a walk anyway), but in true lorrywaydown style we arrived in the blazing heat of the day and it was seriously hot! So we decided to walk up to the highest viewpoint above the lake, and were shown the start of the walk by one of the rangers here. Armed with water supply and decent footwear we set off up the hill, and guess what? we went the wrong way! The path is supposed to be marked with arrows, well there definitely aren’t enough of them, and it is obvious that not many people walk this route, so being very careful where we put our feet (there are all sorts of nasty’s up in these hills) we retraced our steps and found the correct route. From up there the view was stunning, and we could clearly see the vast Lake Naivasha in the distance.
Back down to the truck, we had a quick bite to eat before heading back on that rotten road to Camp Conelleys on Lake Navaisha.
We met some great characters at Lake Navaisha, including a lovely America lady that runs an orphanage nearby that currently has 82 children living there, but after four nights it was time to move on to a campsite near Lake Nakuru NP.
We had been recommended this campsite by another overlander, and whilst there is no view of Lake Nakuru it is a lovely place with very well tended gardens and a great bar (it was here that we saw our only Olympics, the Brownlee Brothers taking gold and silver in the Triathlon). Again the bird life was great.
But we timed our visit badly and on the second day approx 15 tents were set up quite near us, and a large group of very very loud Americans, with about a dozen Kenyan youngsters descended upon us, it was like a scene out of a US teen movie, lots of Americans shouting, whistles, even using mega-phones (not required). We left the next morning!
On the way out of the Nakuru area we crossed the Equator, and obviously had to do the compulsory selfie shots, at the metal spinning globe (well it spins if you give it a hard yank).
Next up was Lake Borgoria to the north, this was a great recommendation from Chris at Jungle Junction. We turned up at Lake Borgoria Spa Resort (yup as nice as it sounds), and was told by the receptionist (that was busy dealing with some very rude Chinese guests), that camping was possible but the rate was 2,000ksh (about $20) per person per day. After politely telling her we couldn’t afford that much, she called the manager, who appeared with a big smile and a warm handshake. He then took us on a guided tour of the whole resort, including the camp site, swimming pool, showers and toilets, and the hot springs pool. This place was good value at $20 pppn, but Phillip, the manager, agreed that we could stay for $10 pppn, an absolute bargain! Heaven knows how much the Chinese guests were paying to stay here! A couple of hours later, as arranged, our Dutch friends Robert and Clarey turned up and we spend the next few days and nights in their great company (including a few great “happy hours” around our huge camp fires). The swimming pool here was by far the best and cleanest that we had seen for a very long time, and we made the most of it during our stay here.
Although we were mostly the only humans that used the pool (the hot spring fed pool always seemed busy), there were other “visitors”, including a large number of Marabou Storks that visited the pool regularly for a drink, up close these birds are both huge and very ugly (they are part of the “Ugly Five” after all).
Then there are the Vervet Monkeys. These buggers have perfected the art of stealing anything, they are so fast here, and so cunning, I even had one large male stand its ground with me as I tried to chase it off.
Sadly it was time to say goodbye for the final time to Robert and Clarey, as they headed back to Nairobi to have a few jobs done on their truck, and then they will head north into Ethiopia, and back to Europe. We stayed for another night (and another day in the pool obviously), and decided to eat in the restaurant that evening, Jac ordered pizza, and I ordered a minced beef curry (all the Chinese had a buffet), once again we were disappointed in our eating out, we should have learnt our lesson by now. Jac’s pizza was basically 25mm thick of tomato base (very sickly) and a few blobs of cheese on top, and my curry was so bloody hot (spicy hot) that it was almost but not completely inedible. But the great waiter that we had, decided that we needed to speak better Swahili, and ended up writing out our “homework” for the evening! Then our friendly security guard, Lawrence decided we needed escorting back to the truck and also started teaching us Swahili. With such great teachers we should be fluent in no time!
The next morning we left for Lake Beringo, again further north (the furthest north so far on the east side of Africa), and to a campsite that Robert and Clarey had visited on a previous trip in 2010, called strangely enough “Roberts Camp”. When they were here before they were allowed to camp down by the lake shore, the problem now is the water level has risen dramatically, and even some of their rooms are now way out in the lake.
Despite having to camp in their ground to the side of the bar (The Thirsty Goat), and not actually having a good view of the lake, we still had plenty of visitors that night including two huge Hippo’s that decided our camp fire was more inviting that their grass that they were munching.
There was at least one huge crocodile near the bank and we were warned not to stand too near the waters edge by the manager and of course in true Kenyan style there were the mischievous Vervets again!
We also had a pair of Southern Red-Billed Hornbills that refused to stop attacking Colonel K, both the windows and the mirrors, the male was particularly persistant.
We only stayed one night at the blazing hot Lake Beringo, it was a very uncomfortable night with no breeze, and the cold shower was for once quite a relief, but next morning we set off west towards the mountains. Leaving the lake at about 950 metres (just over 3,000 feet) above sea level, we went up and over the first mountain range up to Kabernet (at just over 2,000 metres), a small town right on the top, the tarmac road then plunges very steeply back down to about 1,200 metres, and then rises again very very steeply up to the mountain town of Iten at 2,400 metres (over 8,000 feet) above sea level. Much of this journey was done with the truck in low range, and at times we were down to not much more than walking pace as it was so steep, but eventually we made it to Iten after climbing a total of over 8,000 feet in a day! Our plan was to camp at a place just outside Iten, and from here to explore the area and hopefully ‘blag’ our way into the high altitude training camp as used by many long distance runners including Paula Radcliffe and Mo Farah.
But the campsite that we had in mind (there is little to choose from up here as this is not part of the usual tourist route) was under going a bit of a refurb, and the ground we were told to park on was almost as sloping as the road up there! So we headed on to the large town of Eldoret, about 70km away.
We have been in Kenya for over a month now, and have really enjoyed our time here, the people (in the rural areas) are very friendly, and the country has lots to offer the tourist. Tourism here has definitely taken a downward turn over recent years (perhaps after the terrorist attacks that have sadly targeted the country), but it now seems very secure and safe. Self driving here really is quite easy, wether camping or using lodges, the only downside is the safety of the roads. The driving standards of everybody from car, to truck, through to bus drivers (actually especially the bus drivers) really is quite shocking! It seems that for a Kenyan, it is impossible to judge risk while driving, and sod EVERYONE else.
Anyway, tomorrow we head for the Ugandan border, a long days drive to Jinja on the River Nile………… excited? oh yes!
Thanks for reading………..Tutaonana………… Hakuna Matata
Turning east from the lakeside town of Mwanza, Tanzania, we headed for the border with Kenya. This was a relatively easy border (with some decent security for once), and we managed to get a 90 day, multi-entry East Africa Visa, which covers us for Kenya, Uganda and also Rwanda. We were lucky as these were the last two visa stickers that they had at this border, they cost $100 each but in the long run it will save us both time and money when we cross the next couple of land borders. These visas are not mentioned anywhere in the immigration building, but we had been told about them by another traveller. So after Immigration, we turned to the Customs counter to get our Carnet de Passage stamped into Kenya, and of course pay the road tax that each country deems fit to impose on Colonel K. After a quick look at our truck by a customs officer (from about 50 metres away), followed by a sharp intake of breath, we were told that we had to pay $30 road tax, but………. it had to be paid in Kenyan Shillings, despite the visa being paid in US dollars, plus we couldn’t pay by cash, or credit card, it had to be paid by mobile phone! This is a crazy situation, and we ended up getting a local guy with a Kenyan sim card in his phone to make a payment via Safaricom and charging us a small fee (of course), for carrying out the transaction. Eventually we were armed with our wad of papers, and we proceeded to the exit gate and out into Kenya, what could possibly go wrong?
We passed the border guards, armed appropriately with assault rifles, and out into the mayhem that is a typical African border town, there were cars, motorbikes, and buses everywhere, and coming at us from all directions. My attention wasn’t applied 100% to our offside (Jac’s side as Colonel K is LHD, and in true British colonial style they drive on the left here), and there was a Toyota Probox Estate (yup thats a real car here), diagonally across the road, and our fold up metal steps hit just before the drivers door and opened up the side of his car like a tin of sardines all the way to the rear and then ripped the rear light cluster out……. Bugger!
This was within less that 10 metres of the armed border guards, and we drove about 20 metres to park up and sort the accident out with the other party, and to keep the border road clear. As I jumped out of the cab, I was instantly surrounded by about 50-80 young men all looking to get involved. I pushed through the mob and found the driver of the Toyota (it was quite old and a bit tatty, but quite good for African standards). I told him that I was not willing to negotiate compensation with him (it was my fault after all) until the angry mob dispersed, by this time I was convinced that they were looking to lynch the “mazunga”, this had little effect, but some quick thinking by Jac saved the day. I turned back towards the truck to see a big crowd surrounding Jac in the cab, next thing I know she had climbed out and was standing on the wing, and started filming the mob on her phone. Wow that had the desired effect, and the majority just dispersed into their normal lives. With no Kenyan Shillings to our name yet, I decided to open negotiations in US Dollars, we agreed on a final sum of $20.00, Jac recorded the agreement and hand shake on her iPhone, and I drove off before he realised how much $20 actually was! Not a great introduction to Kenya, but things can only get better eh.
That night we camped in the rear of a Mission just before the town of Migori. The “staff” at Migori Mission really made us welcome, and the young kids here even carried buckets of water to fill up Robert and Clary’s truck water tank (this is the Dutch/Australian couple that we met at Mwanza, that we had caught up with here). They provided a room for us with a ‘hot’ shower and toilet in it, and in the morning,a Sunday, we were treated to some wonderful singing from the church hall. We were warned the evening before that there would be a lot of children around on the Sunday, and they weren’t kidding, there were hundreds here, but as always, they were very polite and friendly, and of course very curious about the two big trucks parked in the grounds of their church. We even had a guy bring us a local sim card for our phone and registered it on his phone and then showed us how to purchase data and airtime on it, this was more like the Kenya we were expecting.
After a brief detour into town ,again completely craz), and a trip to a few ATM’s, we managed to get some local currency, and so headed off to the Masai Mara Nature Reserve, via the lesser used route into the west of the reserve. After about 50km and about 100km still to go, we realised why this is a lesser used route, it was an horrendous track! Very rutted, very bumpy and very slow going. We were stopped by one guy in a Landrover Defender, telling us that the track got really bad further on as it had rained up ahead, and that we wouldn’t get through in the truck. But we knew that our Dutch friends were in front of us , but weren’t 100% sure if they were on the same track, so we decided to plod on. It was a bit slippery in places, and the ruts were quite deep but eventually we got to our campsite at Mara West. This was a fantastic campsite run by an American couple, and the showers and toilets were like nothing we had experienced for a few weeks. The owner also has three ex-British Military Leyland Daf T244’s (same as Colonel K), which he uses for bringing in supplies to the camp and also in his construction business (we also me another camp owner while in Nairobi that also runs a T244, they get everywhere, apparently 150no T244’s were shipped directly from Afghanistan to Mombasa).
It was here we also met Jason and Lisa, an English couple that are travelling around Southern and Eastern Africa in their Defender, it was great chatting to them and hearing about their travels. But we were here in the Masai Mara for one reason and one reason only……. to see the great migration across the Mara River of millions of Wildebesst and Zebra (as seen on TV ha). So we decided to camp for two nights inside the Mara Triangle, so we could get to the river crossing points early in the day, and stay until sunset if necessary. This was obviously more expensive than staying outside in Mara West Camp, but was about a third of the cost of the parks in Tanzania.
So we desended the steep rocky track down to the gate, with Robert and Clary behind us in their Mercedes truck, and after paying our fees, we set off into the Mara Triangle.
We hadn’t gone far before we saw what we had come here for, vast herds of Wildebesst and Zebra, but these had already crossed the Mara River, so we just hoped that we hadn’t arrived too late.
After about 30mins of driving we arrived at a small area known for some reason as Hippo Pool, this is the only area of the park where you are allowed outside of your vehicle (more on this later), where there is a guard, and toilets (nasty, very nasty long drop toilets), but still couldn’t see why it was called Hippo Pool !
More people are killed by these “gentle giants” than any other mammal in Africa, they need to be respected especially at night.
Then we got to the main crossing point of the river, we removed the Gun Hatch cover in the cab (also known as the game viewing hatch), and Jac popped out and took in the other side of the river.
And yes on the other side there were indeed large herds slowly building up ready to cross. They have to cross the river for new grass after the rains and they have travelled up from the Serengeti in Tanzania, and indeed will enter the river when thirst gets the better of them. But and it is a big but, there are huge dangers involved in that crossing, the river is flowing very fast, and its very rocky underneath,ideal for being swept away or breaking a leg,or lunch for the huge number of very large crocodiles waiting for them!
Time and again the herd would push up to the water edge and look like they would cross, then something would spook them and they would scatter back across the plain, this was very much a waiting game. At one point a Ranger (in a little Suzuki Vitara) stopped, and had a good look at Jac sitting on top of the cab roof with her legs dangling and instructed her to put her feet lower in the cab! It was ok to stand with her top half outside the truck but not too sit with all of her body outside the truck! Health and Safety eh.
After a quick drive around the park, we decided to return to the river again at about 5pm, and most of the other vehicles had gone, we parked up and waited again. Then suddenly a small number of Zebra and Wildebeest (about 200) broke away from the main herd and came up to the bank to our left, we had the perfect place to watch this, and sure enough they took the plunge and literally leapt into the river.
Jac was again standing through the gun hatch taking photo’s while I watched with binoculars at the unfolding drama, some of these animals really really struggle with the current especially the young Zebra and the noise as mothers are calling their young from both banks is incredible.
With animals literally jumping on top of each other, and climbing over each other it was a chaotic scene, and as I was looking at the far bank, I thought I was watching a wildebeest leaping onto another, but then almost instantly the herd scattered, and I realised what I had seen was a Lioness leaping from the bank onto a young wildebeest, and killing it by seizing it by the throat. It was obvious that no more animals were going to cross here again that day. An amazing end to a great first day in the Mara (but not for the young Wildebeest).
So we turned away from the river to find our campsite for the next two nights, all we had was the GPS coordinates for the location, and sure enough when we got to the top of the hill and our trusty Garmin was telling us to turn off the track, there was no sign, and only a track where a vehicle had driven across the grass. Eventually we decided to throw caution to the wind and try this “track”, unbelievably this did arrive at a small clearing at the top of the escarpment, no water, no toilets, nothing but an incredible view for us and our Cloggie friends.
Ok, so this is where “Health and Safety Africa LTD” goes a little array, earlier today Jac was told off for not having her feet planted on our front storage box of the cab, but now here we are surrounded by bush and long grass, with no fences, and the roar of lions all night, it was bloody fantastic! Early next morning at about 5.45am, this was the view from our ‘camp’.
After a quick look at the crossing point, we decided that it didn’t look likely that a mass crossing was going to occur any time soon, so we went off for a drive again, and soon realised that this is a special place, so much variety of wildlife, and different terrain.
A quick stop off at Hippo Pool for a pee, and a chat with Daniel, the guard, (he was so pleased that I’d remembered his name from the previous day), and he confirmed that because of the very hot sun, the herd will HAVE to cross the river by about 2.00pm. So after making a quick coffee here and chatting to quite a few tourists that were again surprised to see a British truck here in East Africa, we returned to the river to park up in a suitable spot to hopefully view a full on unimpeded crossing. By now there were tens of thousands of zebra and wildebeest waiting on the far side, but still no one was willing to be the first into the crocodile infested Mara River.
Eventually, as suddenly as someone throwing a switch, the pressure from the herd behind became too much and for the next 30 minutes or so, the river became full of animals throwing themselves into the churning river, driven by thirst and hunger to pastures anew.
This was a spectacle that we will never forget, and were very lucky to time our trip to coincide with this happening. All these animals will cross again in a month or so to return to Serengti in Tanzania, a true natural wonder. After seeing this there was no point in staying at the river so we set out for another game drive in Colonel K, and came across this zebra that unbelievably had escaped the claws and jaws of a lion attack, it was in a bad way, on its feet but I’m sure it would survive the night.
We then settled down to a final night in our “bush camp”, again to the amazing sounds of the night in the Masai Mara, but not before enjoying another “Happy Hour” with our Dutch/Aussie friends.
To get our monies worth from our park fees, as usual Jac and I were up and out in the truck by 6.00am, and had agreed to meet Robert and Clary at the gate at 10.00am (we had to exit the park by 10.10am or be charged another day). We had a long slow drive in the general direction of the Gate, taking lots of small tracks as diversions for game viewing, it was on one of these tracks that we came across a Hyena Den. There were so many Spotted Hyena here, probably a pack of about 15-18. The highlight for us was the very young cubs that were suckling from their mother, and a few pregnant females. We watched these animals for about 30 minutes until the inevitable happened……. and we were spotted by a couple of safari vehicles full of Chinese tourists all chatting away like Alan Carr on speed!, We moved on…..
Within about 3km of the gate we found a lovely spot by the river, so decided to park up here for a bit and wait for Robert and Clary to catch up.
It wasn’t long before their fantastic Mercedes appeared over the horizon, and spotted us.
At the gate we checked out and were given 120 minutes “free passage” to transit the East side of the Masai Mara National reserve, then exiting at Sekenai Gate, we thought we had plenty of time, but were held up for about 10 minutes before we could cross the Mara river by a safari vehicle jumping the queue and causing road rage between the other guides waiting patiently to enter the Mara Triangle, thus we arrived with only about 5 minutes to spare. Just outside Sekenai gate, we stopped for the night at Mara Explorers Camp, which we were surprised to find out was run by an English woman and her Kenyan husband, they seemed to be very busy here with lots of ready set up tents and rooms for guests, of course we were the only campers.
Next stop was Jungle Junction in Nairobi, but to get there was the long, long climb up from the Rift Valley at Narok. This is a busy route full of vastly overloaded and frequently broken down trucks, its a crazy road with many vehicles doing little more than walking pace, and some of the overtaking manoeuvres really do begger belief.
We stayed at Jungle Junction (in the nicer part of Nairobi, called Karen), for a few days, and again run into Jason and Lisa, they were busy sorting out shipping of their Landrover from Mombasa to Greece, and of course having some work done (it is a Landrover after all).
We had many “Happy Hours” with both our Dutch and English friends, and it was great to catch up with them again. We took the opportunity to get two new tyres fitted to Colonel K, and give him a oil and filter change. While in Nairobi, we were both treated to a trip to the hair stylist (worryingly called Extreme Hairstylist), in a new shopping centre that had just opened nearby. We also experienced lunch out, and a proper coffee shop, something that we hadn’t had for a long time. We also visited the new Carrefour Supermarket, and were shocked by the prices here, these are on the most part much higher than at home in the UK, but it was well stocked. It was also good to see that security was very tight getting into the shopping centre, with all vehicles being searched before entering the carpark, and then your bags scanned before you can enter the actual shops.
After a few days in Nairobi we headed out on the Mombasa Road towards Amboseli National Park, Robert and Clary also came with us, but decided not to go into the park, so we camped just outside the gate in a camp run by the nearby Masai Village, it was a nice campsite with not so great ablutions, but very friendly staff.
We were intrigued with the Masai footwear that they make completely from old motorcycle tyres.
And it was great to have a nice big fire to cook on at night, something that we have missed for the last couple of months.
At Amboseli you pay for a 24 hour period and are allowed to split this into two different visits, so we decided to enter the park at about 2.00pm on the first day, then had to be out by sunset (6.30pm), then re-enter the park the next morning at sunrise (6.00am) then have to leave by 2.00pm that afternoon. Amboseli is a beautiful park, with lots of wet areas (swampy conditions), and open dry savannah, strangely we didn’t see any of the large cats that its famous for (no one during that time seemed too either that we spoke to). But we did see lots of other wildlife including hundreds of elephants, sometimes in quite large herds, and with all the adults having absolutely huge tusks, they really are beautiful animals. It seemed strange that the Masai are still grazing their cattle alongside the other wildlife actually in the NP.
This Big Boy was right up to his Axles in swamp, but he just pushed on through munching all the time.
And then we found our second Hyena Den in less than a week!
When we got back to the campsite, Robert and Clary had left and were travelling to the coast near Mombasa, we still hadn’t made up our minds whether to go there or head back to Nairobi. Looking at the map made the decision for us, it was along way (about 1,000km round trip) on the most dangerous road in the country and we don’t really enjoy beaches that much, so despite lots of messages from the” Cloggies” telling us how nice it was, we left the next morning for Jungle Junction yet again. From here we will head north to the lakes before heading towards the Uganda border.
Thanks for reading
On our way to Serengeti NP we had looked over the rim of Ngorognoro Crater and saw the beauty of the place 620m (over 2,000 feet) below, and were very excited about getting down there the next day, but first we were booked into Sopa Lodge for the night, and got there about an hour before sunset (which was at about 6.30pm). This is a large but really nice lodge, and is the only accommodation located on the less accessible eastern side of the rim, obviously this means that you have a fantastic view of the sunsetting over the far side of the crater. As it turns out, it wasn’t a great day for sunsets as it was a bit hazy, but it was still beautiful.
We were amazed that there was even a wedding going on here, there didn’t appear to be any guests with the bride and groom, but there were a few Maasai that were following the happy couple, perhaps they were witnesses, but it is a stunning place for a wedding here.
As the sun started to drop over the far rim, the temperature started to drop quite rapidly, and the ice in our gin and tonics suddenly seemed to stop melting (we were at 8,500 feet here), but we had paid dearly for this place and weren’t going to waste a minute here, though the pool was absolutely out of bounds, it was freezing.
We had a lovely big room that was a long walk from the bar/restaurant (up hill), but the one fantastic thing about that room was the hot shower! It was amazing, so much water, so hot, constant heat, even the water drained away as it should, I was starting to think that plumbed in hot water that drained away was something that couldn’t happen near the equator, thankfully I was proved wrong.
We had a lovely dinner again that night, this time a buffet and sadly Ole our Maasai guide wasn’t allowed to join us this evening, so we arranged that he would pick us up in the reception as early as possible the next morning. So after a very quick early breakfast (specially arranged with the kitchen the night before), we met Ole before the sun came up. Sopa Lodge has its own “descent road” as its about an hours drive to the main “descent road” on the western side of the crater, and we soon discovered why we weren’t allowed to bring our truck down here, its very very steep.
It looked like we were the first safari vehicle to enter the crater (from this track anyway), and even before we had finished descending we were upon four Lionesses, all of which appeared (according to Ole) pregnant. Things were looking good.
It was freezing down in the crater, obviously made worse by standing up to look through the pop up roof of the Landcruiser, but we were wrapped up and prepared for it, thanks to Jac insisting I would need my Rab Down jacket and wooly hat.
The crater was formed about 2.5 million years ago when a volcano imploded in on itself, leaving today the largest unbroken and unflooded crater in the world, apparently it is home to approx 30,000 large mammals, the vast majority of which are the large herds of wildebeest and zebra, that unlike their cousins on the Serengeti plains do not migrate, there is no need too, as there’s a constant supply of fresh water and grass in the crater.
But apart from the grasslands, and the walls, the main feature of the crater is the shallow and alkaline Lake Magadi, this is home to huge flocks of Flamingos, and creates yet another stunning back drop.
There is also a large array of other birds in the crater including Crowned Cranes, lots of birds of prey likes these Black Kites, and of course Ostrich.
Ngorongoro may be the largest unflooded crater in the world (its 19km across), and there may be a lot of mammals, but Tanzania has once again ruined the experience by putting too many of us tourists in one place at one time (especially considering how much they charge for entry into these National Parks/Conservation areas). This was highlighted when Ole our excellent guide got an inkling that someone had spotted possibly, maybe, an elusive and endangered Black Rhino, there are just over 20 of these beautiful animals in the crater, (not to be confused with the more common White Rhino that is normally seen, though there are no White Rhino in Ngorongoro). So off we set at high speed on the very very bumpy track, along with quite a few other identical Safari vehicles (again all closed in apart from the pop up roof), for about 10 minutes until we were faced with this in front of us!
Within two minutes the same scene was also behind us, Ole managed to push his way into the centre (he is without a doubt a very respected guide, and we were lucky to have him), sure enough there was the Black Rhino……..almost a kilometre away from the track, down in the long grass, and impossible to see without binoculars, even my trusty Panasonic Lumix with its 600mm (equivalent) lens could not pick out this fella! I counted over 100 safari vehicles watching this distant Rhino slowly getting further and further away, all three of us were laughing (Me, Jac and Ole) at the ridiculous state of affairs that was unfolding, there were cars pushing in everywhere, and tempers fraying, with everyone wanting that shot of a Black Rhino (I suggest going to Damaraland in Namibia, if your lucky you can watch one there on your own, without paying any park fees at all). Earlier this year the Tanzanian government hugely increased the entrance fees to Ngorongoro, and then at the end of May decided to put 18% tax onto ALL park fees as well………. I wonder how many people will be here in a few years time. Perhaps when you book your safari as a package from the comfort of your home country you don’t notice the costs of the parks in Tanzania, but it is making the overall holiday much more expensive than say, Botswana, or Zambia. I understand that they don’t want people self driving in the parks, but ask any campsite owner in northern Tanzania, and their takings are massively down. The South Africans especially have stopped coming as its too expensive now.
Ole decided that we wanted to stay away from the crowds (we definitely agreed), and we had a lovely time (on our own) in the only forested area of the crater, where there were a very large herd of elephants, monkeys and some great bird life…. this was more like it.
We left the crater just after lunchtime, after another very good packed lunch (see last post), but even then it was still freezing cold (its difficult to guess the temperature as we’ve really got used to the hot daytime temperatures of Eastern Africa).
By the time we drove up the “ascent road”, it was even colder, but the air was a little clearer, in the distance you can see the salty Lake Magadi on the floor of the crater.
By the time we got to the entrance gate, we were down to tee shirts and shorts again. We ended up staying at Maasai Camp in Arusha for another couple of nights, giving us chance to catch up on the clothes washing etc. On the day we left Maasai Camp we decided that as we needed to travel directly through Arusha centre (the traffic here is not good) and as we wanted to do some food shopping we wouldn’t go too far and would camp only 25km outside of Arusha at Meserani Snake Park, this would then give us a good place for an early morning start to Singida (our next planned stop).
Meserani is owned and run by South Africans that love snakes, any snakes, all snakes. The family here remove snakes from certain areas if the only other option is that the locals would kill them, they also have a large collection of snakes that you can view including, Mamba’s, Cobra’s, Boomslang’s, and more harmless snakes. When they first opened the campsite and started the Snake Park, they obviously kept anti-venom on site as a precaution for themselves getting bitten. The locals soon discovered this and started to come to them when they had been bitten for treatment with the anti-venom. The next step was to build a snake bite clinic, and now together with donations, the campsite, bar and snake park all contribute to the funding of the Clinic (which is opposite the campsite). After a quick walk around and viewing the snakes and other reptiles, we asked if we could visit the Clinic ,obviously with Jac being a nurse, she wanted to see inside. Unbelievabl ,for me anyway, all six beds of the clinic were full, including two young boys, one older woman and three men, all recuperating after their potentially deadly bites. The biggest problem we were told by the amazing nurse was necrosis and infection into the wound. This was highlighted by the youngest boy who I guess was about 4 years old and who had been bitten on the top of his head by a Red Cobra . The snakes apparently seek the warmth of a human in bed at night, and usually strike when that person wakes up. This little boy had been in the Clinic for two months while they ensure that the wound is cleaned and redressed and so heals properly. The other boy who was a little older had been bitten on his hand, again by a Cobra, while the woman in the end bed had been bitten just above her ankle by a Puff Adder. The thing that amazed Jac was that the nurse just walked us into the two three bed wards, and threw back the blankets and showed us the injury, there’s not too much discretion here!
There are two nurses that work here, with one on site at all times, they do a fantastic job and although the main stay of their work is with snake bites they also treat other ailments if they can’t get to Arusha. This is the Nurse (sorry I can’t remember her name) that showed us around the clinic with one of the precious anti-venom phials, these cost almost $250 each, and one guy that had been bitten by a Black Mamba required nine phials (thats well over $2,000).
Next the nurse opened her lap top and showed us photos of the wounds when the patients had first got to her (usually leaving it far too long), showing the grossly affected areas of skin then proudly showing the same areas after all the infected/necrotic flesh had been cut away, right down to the bone in places, Jac was intrigued, I was trying to be brave and not throw up!. It goes without saying we were very impressed and left a good donation. We returned about 30 minutes later with a couple of toys for the young lads (their little faces were beaming), and a bag full of toys for future kids that are unfortunate enough to get admitted. The owner later told is that there is very little provision from the government for treatment of snake bites in Tanzania, and many end up having at the very least limbs amputated ( http://www.meseranisnakepark.com ).
That night was spent in the bar of the campsite in the company of the owner “Ma”, she was such a character, and infectious to listen too. But just as she was closing the bar (of course we were the last customers left), some how she mentioned that her brother was Kork Ballington! For those that have never heard of him, Kork was a famous South African motorcycle racer from the late 70’s, four times world champion (250cc, and 350cc) and was a childhood hero of mine. I couldn’t believe it, and “Ma” was equally surprised that I was so excited about hearing stories about Kork and his mechanic and brother Dozy. Out come the old photos, his autobiography, and a guided tour of the photos on the wall of other racers (such as Kevin Schwantz, and Mick Grant) that Kork and Dozy had brought to Snake Park over the years.
Our next night was spent camped in a hotel car park in Singida, we negotiated a fee that included a room for us to use just for the toilet and a hot shower. Ha, yeah right, first of all the hot tap was as cold as the cold tap, and guess what? The bathroom was flooded as the fall in the wet area was going the wrong way! More dodgy ablutions, but hey, TIA, That Is Africa.
We are now camped on the southern shores of Lake Victoria, at “The Yacht Club”, (well there are two small motorboats moored here), on a nice flat grassy site just on the edge of the booming town of Mwanza. Here we met the rare breed, that is a couple travelling Africa in an overland truck. Robert and Clary are a Dutch couple that now ‘live’ in Australia, but have been travelling on and off around the world for the past 6 years.
Their Mercedes is a very well thought out truck, and includes a little cubby hole for a Suzuki scooter.
They travelled through Rwanda, Uganda and Kenya in 2010, and were kind enough to share a few good camp spots in these countries (we also shared a few beers over the evenings that we spent together).
Our view from the campsite is back towards the town, and is beautiful both day and night.
This is one of the local fishermen out on the lake in his bamboo boat, rather them than me!
The skies here are full of huge Yellow Billed Kites, and there are hundreds of Pied Kingfishers, Herons and beautiful Blue Waxbills looking for seeds in the grass
Our plan was to drive from Mwanza up to the border with Rwanda then do a loop in a clockwise direction around Lake Victoria, going from Rwanda through Uganda and Kenya before arriving back in Tanzania. Obviously the big pull for us is Gorilla Tracking on the borders of Rwanda and Uganda with the DRC, but Permits for tracking are very hard to come by at the moment as its peak season, so we once again are changing our plans and are going to cross into Kenya first and go anti-clockwise round the lake. The other advantage of doing this, is there is the possibility (slight possibility) that we might witness the mass migration of the Wildebeest herds across the Mara River, with hundreds of hungry crocodiles waiting for them. Hopefully by the time we then get to Uganda and Rwanda we will stand a better chance of getting those elusive permits.
Today we have been catching up on ALL the washing, including towels and bed linen, and took over the lawn area with our washing lines, ah the glamour of travelling eh.
Thanks for reading
After getting stopped for speeding (see last post), I should have learnt my lesson, but I’m weak willed and the 50kmph limit is ridiculous in places, so yes I got caught again and this time had to pay an on the spot fine of 30,000 Shillings (about £11.00) for doing 63kmph in a 50kmph zone. Whilst talking about the roads here in Tanzania, I have to say they are probably the best surfaced roads that we have seen here in East Africa, but without a doubt the worst drivers that we have seen on this trip. Bar None! Its almost as though Tanzanians have no concept of risk or danger, over taking around the outside on a blind bend, over taking on the brow of a hill, all par for the course here. We have seen some horrendous accidents (some without a doubt fatal) and are still not sure how after doing about three thousand kilometres , how we haven’t been involved in an accident ourselves. Coaches are the worst, a total disregard for human life, other drivers, cyclists, motorbike riders, their own passengers, it doesn’t matter, its as if the are in some weird version of “The Wacky Races” (under 45’s may not understand this).
We decided to head for the coastal resort of Bagamoyo, just north of Dar es Salaam, on the warm Indian Ocean. We were surprised to find that a new tarmac road had recently been completed from the main Dar to Nairobi road down to Bagamoyo, great we thought…… apart from the speed humps (on the way back out we counted 115 speed humps in less than 70km). It seems that the only way to vaguely control the traffic here is to put in suspension busting speed humps, sometimes just to slow you down for a mediocre corner. Anyway eventually after a long drive we arrived in the old “slave town” of Bagamoyo, and headed to “Firefly Camp” in the narrow streets of the old town, drove in and drove back out, it was not good (it had been recommended to us by some other travellers). So we drove further along the narrow streets of town, ducking Colonel K under the very low power cables that criss crossed the road, and tried the Travellers Rest Hotel. This is a big place, and it was obvious from the signs everywhere that they were hosting the Tanzanian Rally 2016 here, oh bugger we were running out of options (I really didn’t want to eat humble pie and go back to Firefly Camp). After a quick chat with the manager, the head groundsman, oh and the owners “helpful” teenage son, we were told that we could park Colonel K in between the palm trees in the centre of the bungalow rooms. This was tight, very tight to get below and between the trees, but we got there and drove out into the more open area in the centre…. until we got stuck! Yup they had sent us into the deepest softest sand and we were proper stuck. In the heat and humidity of late afternoon, we got the Maxtrax sand ladders out again and used them to get back on the surface and turn around and thread ourselves out again through those same trees. We parked directly in front of the bungalows in the end.
Up to this point we had been very impressed with the campsites that we had stayed at in Tanzania, all that changed in Bagamoyo, the ablutions were not good, and we ended up using the shower in the truck while we were here. The only thing that kept us there was the promise of the Rally stopping here overnight ,this was the reason that we weren’t allowed to park on the expansive lawn area, as it was reserved for the cars and the support vehicles. In the end the swarms of Mosquitos and the horrendous Sand Flies, together with the very uncomfortable humidity drove us back inland onto higher and cooler ground before there was any sign of the Rally arriving.
To highlight the strange rules of the road we took a photo of this road sign as we drove through Mikuni National Park (sorry about the quality, Jac took it as we were moving), it lists the wild animals that are resident in the Park and next to each animal is an amount that you have to pay if you hit and kill that animal on the road. An Elephant or Giraffe will set you back $15,000 (and your car written off), but a poor old Baboon is only worth $110, even a Lion will only cost you $4,900, crazy!
After Bagamoyo, we had an overnight stay parked in the carpark of a Hotel in the small town of Same, and ironically this was a better camping experience than the time we spent on the Indian Ocean. That evening as we were sitting outside the bar having a cheeky beer, we witnessed the distressing scene of a domestic cat carrying her (fairly) new born kitten out of the bush and and hiding it in the nearby flower bed, hotly pursued by a huge troop of Vervet Monkeys. She gently laid it on a bed of leaves, and briskly set off, I assume to retrieve another kitten, we spent the next hour or so chasing Monkeys away from the kitten, while another couple tried to find where the cat went. Eventually it got dark, and the Vervet Monkeys disappeared off into the trees for the night, but we never saw the cat again. When we went to bed the tiny kitten was still asleep where it was left, but in the morning it was gone, hopefully the mother returned during the night to take it to safety (this is the story Jac wants to believe), but over grown flower beds are dangerous places for a little kitten in these parts. We managed to negotiate with the manager our breakfasts included in our “camping” fee, and we enjoyed a nice omelette with a sausage, and toast, they even had the BBC News channel on the TV. A good experience.
From Same, we drove along the base of Mount Kilimanjaro, and through the large town of Moshi, disappointingly most of the mountain was shrouded in cloud, and we didn’t get to see the iconic peak, we then pushed on to the city of Arusha to Maasi Camp. Based here were about 30 kids (about 15-16 years old) from two schools in Bristol, that were staying here for about 3 weeks and were constructing a fence around a local school nearby, these were great kids, and they were having a great adventure of their own. After the 3 weeks in Arusha, they had the choice of either a few days safari in Tsarvo, Kenya, or a six day climb to the top of Kilimanjaro. The majority opted for the easier safari…..
Tanzania is by far the most expensive country that we have traveled through in Africa (and that includes Botswana), especially once you get near the National Parks. Our original “plan” was to drive through Serengeti NP up to Lake Victoria, but we worked it out that it was going to cost us well over $1,000.00 just to drive through, and we would only have 24 hours to clear the Park (its illegal to drive after dusk in the NP), after that if we weren’t clear of the gate they would charge us another days fees. This is ridiculous, but we really wanted to experience both the Serengeti, and Ngorongoro Crater (we wouldn’t be allowed to take Colonel K into the crater anyway), so we looked at booking a 3 day safari. We ended up booking a trip with Tropical Trails (based at Maasi Camp) for just over $2,000.00 for the two of us, which included all our park fees, one night in a tented camp in Serengeti NP, one night in a lodge on the rim of the crater at Ngorongoro, our own Toyota Landcruiser and a driver/guide. This seriously blew our budget but it seemed to make sense if we truly wanted to see these places, and it meant not having to drive for those three days.
So early on Monday morning with our tiny rucksacks packed, we set off with Ole our guide in the enclosed Landcruiser safari vehicle. Ole is a genuine Maasi tribesman (with huge piercings in his ears), and it was great to understand more about this amazing nomadic tribe.
On the way Ole stopped on the edge of a small town (the NP is about 200km from Arusha), and showed us a huge colony of Maribou, and Yellow Billed Storks in the trees above the road, lovely to see, but the stench from the droppings was horrendous, I really don’t know how people would live near that.
To get to Serengeti National Park, you have to drive through the Ngorongoro Conservation Area ,this includes the Crater area, but paying to drive through doesn’t allow you to descend into the crater. So first stop was at the Gate into Ngorongoro, this took Ole about 30 minutes to sort out and enabled us to get coffees for the three of us. To highlight the “rip off” that is Tanzania National Parks, the three coffees cost us 24,000 shillings, this is nearly £9.00, you may think that £3 for a coffee is not bad but here its a seriously lot of money ,normally we would pay less than a £1 for a coffee in a nice coffee shop and don’t forget they grow coffee here.
After setting off from the gate, we hit the notoriously bad track and quickly climbed to the rim of the crater (we were just passing at this stage), this is about 8,500 feet above sea level, and the temperature here was markedly lower than at the gate, but it did give us our first glimpse of the crater floor, including the herds of Cape Buffalo that we could clearly see even though it was 2,000 feet below us. We couldn’t wait to get down there in a couple of days time, it was stunning.
Away from the Crater Rim we stopped for a packed lunch that Ole had picked up on route, during this trip we had three packed lunches and they were all very good, and this one included a chicken leg, a sandwich, a boiled egg, bag of crisps, bar of chocolate, fruit, a packet of nuts, drinks etc in each box. Each day was slightly different but all were equally as good, it sure beats our usual crackers and tomatoes that is our norm.
As we started to descend down towards the Serengeti Plains, we left behind the lush green almost “rain forest” environment, of the highlands and below us appeared the vast grasslands with the Maasi villages dotted around.
We even spotted an old ex British army T244 Leyland Daf (same as Colonel K) coming the other way, creating its own cloud of dust.
After about 30km we came to the edge of the national park, and Ole thought we might like to use the “bush toilet” here while he chatted to a few fellow Massi.
Next up was the gate where Ole had to pay the park fees, this took a frustrating hour and a half, and considering the amount of money that people like us had paid for this experience it wasn’t surprising that there were a lot of very pissed off people here! There were about 40 safari vehicles waiting to pay and enter and about 20 trying to exit the park, all had to queue up to sort out the appropriate paper work.
But as soon as we set off from the entrance we soon forgot about this crazy state of affairs, the wildlife was coming think and fast in the long dried grass, including this Jackal and the Grants Gazelle keeping a close eye.
And this stunning Secretary Bird
And of course there were Lions, and Hartebeest.
We saw these two Secretary Birds on the top of a Flat topped Acacia no doubt looking for a tasty snake for dinner.
There were birds of prey everywhere and of course many many elephants, and hippos in every available pocket of water.
Just as it started to get dark we arrived at Katikati Tented Camp, this consisted of eleven tents, each with its own bathroom with bucket shower and another open tent that served as a dining area. We were given strict instructions not to leave the tent during the hours of darkness (there are no fences here), and had to flash our torches for an unarmed escort to take us to dinner and breakfast. This all seemed a little over the top to us, as we had spent many many nights on this trip in just as wild places on our own, without any guards or fences. But I guess for some people this might be their first experience of “wild” Africa, so the comfort of an emergency whistle, and being led to dinner by a “responsible adult” is quite reassuring for them.
This was a really nice place and we were served with an amazing dinner, but ultimately we arrived in the dark, and left at sunrise.
Fifteen minutes after we left Katikati the following morning, we saw the sun rising through the early morning clouds, and in true Tanzanian style the sky filled with five tourist packed hot air balloons, (the cost of this 60 minute flight was $500 per person!).
Of course in this early hour with the chill of the night still evident, there was of course another dose of wildlife to see, like this Oxpecker hitching a ride on the horns of a Cape Buffalo, and of course more elephants.
Then came the highlight for us on this Serengeti safari, Ole spotted a Leopard in a tree about 20 metres from the track, she had killed a Gazelle in the night and to protect the kill, had dragged the carcass up into the Sausage Tree and was devouring it without the threat of it being stolen by the many packs of Spotted Hyena that move around the plains.
Those of you that regularly read our blog will know that we have been lucky to see Leopard on this trip, but we had yet to see one in the tree, so this was a real treat. We watched her changing position and tearing lumps of flesh off the gazelle, with most of the carcass hanging from the tree, then amazingly another slightly younger Leopard appeared from nowhere and leapt up onto the lower branch of the tree obviously tempted by the hanging rear leg and body of the meal.
In a flash the older female jumped down and chased the young pretender away (dropping the carcass in the process).
With the youngster gone, the older female seemed content with finishing her meal on the floor,not that there was much meat left on the carcass by this time and this was the last we saw of her, they are very difficult to see once in the dried grass. We also saw the head and shoulders of a Cheetah in the long grass but it was quite a way off and with the heat haze, the photos weren’t great, but it was our first Cheetah sighting, maybe we will see one in Ngorongoro the next day.
On the way out of the Serengeti, in early afternoon we saw a large pride of Lions, with both male and female, all of the Lionesses appeared to be pregnant, which bodes well for the future, (though perhaps the Buffalo and Gazelle might not think so positively). There were nine adults in the group and they were very slowly edging there way along a river, perhaps following their prey.
But time was moving on, and we had to get back to Ngorongoro for that night, so we left Serengeti, and again had the crazy situation of having to wait to get stamped out, this time it took a “mere” 60 minutes, and again there was some fabulous wildlife viewing to be done, large and small.
So what were our thoughts on the Serengeti? Well as you can see from the photos’s its a great place to see animals, in a Savannah environment. BUT……. and for us its a massive BUT, the” safari experience” was not that great, and its ridiculously expensive (our park fees made up over $800 of our trip), but the biggest issue for us in the Serengeti was the vehicle. Every single safari vehicle there is closed in Landcruiser with a pop-up roof for viewing, all identical (apart from a few Landrover Defenders, also with pop-up roofs, mostly broken down lol), and we ended up standing up almost constantly to game spot. No vehicle that we saw, and we saw hundreds during our safari, had a spotter, everyone only had a driver/guide, and it is left to the guests ,who are set higher than the driver to see over the grass, not such an issue for us, but we saw dozens of “guests” in other vehicles with ear phone’s in and looking at their phones, unbelievable! They use closed in vehicles for two reasons, first the drive from Arusha, which is where almost all the vehicles come from, is about 200km, and thats a long way in an open safari vehicle, and secondly and to me almost unbelievably, Tanzanian National Parks (the government in effect) charge a 50% increase in park fees if you travel in a open vehicle!!!!!
But all of the above does not take away from the fantastic wildlife that can be seen, the trouble is you are never, ever, ever alone! There were, hundreds of vehicles in Serengeti at any one time, and although its a vast area, as soon as a decent sighting is made, vehicles appear from everywhere.
We’ve been spoilt with game viewing in Namibia, Botswana, and Zambia, maybe you don’t see so much game but its a much nicer(and considerably cheaper experience.
But tomorrow we are off to Ngorongoro Crater and are very excited about this, we’ve read the hype and paid the money, so can’t wait! I’ll tell you how we got on in our next post.
Thanks for reading
Vince, Jac, and an abandoned Colonel K.
We ended up stopping for a week at Kande Beach, during which time we enjoyed the walks into the village (to do a bit of fresh food shopping), this was about a 20 minute walk each way. On one such visit we met a young lad who stayed with us and helped us get a decent deal on our fruit and veg, somehow we ended up back at the hut that he shared with his Gran, who was busy washing clothes. Before we knew it, we had been invited to their local church the next day (Sunday) for singing and dancing, and also to have lunch afterwards at his Gran’s. Although we would dearly have loved to experience this Malawian Church, deep down we knew that it wouldn’t end with just a brief visit so we declined his kind offer.
We had a great time at Kande, but we had to move on further north towards the border with Tanzania, so it was time to say goodbye to the Sass, Skank, and their two adorable daughters, and of course the dogs (including the would be stow away, Pie).
We needed to restock the truck with provisions, including tins (we use a lot of tinned food, including chopped tomatoes, green beans, sweetcorn, baked beans, tuna, etc), so we headed for the busy town of Mzuzu, this involved another epic climb up away from the Lake. We found a brand new “Shoprite” super market, and parked in the Overland Truck section (no height restriction), our wheels were still turning when we were crowded by local “hawkers”. Amongst them (most were selling the usual tourist stuff) was a guy that introduced himself as “Georgie Porgie”, he was a vegetable and fruit runner, he presented us with a comprehensive list of produce that was available, and Jac went through it ticking off what we wanted and roughly how much. There were no prices, but Georgie Porgie assured us that if we weren’t happy with the quality or if something was too expensive then we didn’t have to pay for it. So off we went to do our shopping, including a visit to the pharmacy next door where we bought our “worming” tablets to help combat the possibility of Bilharzia from our swimming in Lake Malawi. Returning about an hour later to Georgie Porgie camped next to Colonel K with bags and bags of fresh fruit and veg. All was in good condition and after some negotiation we agreed the price of 7,000 Kwatcha (about £6.90, this was pre-referendum). The remainder of that day was spent on the road to Chitimba Camp, again on the shore of Lake Malawi, and involved a steep descent down to the village, during which the views were stunning.
Sometimes its hard to remember that this is a fresh water lake (the ninth largest in the world), but it is huge, roughly the length of England, and 700 metres deep in places, its also nice and warm for swimming, and of course is a huge natural resource for the Malawian people, being a source of (almost endless) fresh water (for drinking and irrigation), a supply of food, and a massive tourist attraction.
We intended only to stay at Chitimba Camp for two nights, but as usual plans are there for changing, we ended up staying there for eight nights. The Dutch owners here, Eddie and Carmen and their staff made us very welcome, and this was the first place in Malawi (or indeed Zimbabwe and Zambia), where the campsite and rooms are being hugely upgraded. If anyone deserves to do well in Malawi its these guys,oh and their dogs Ziggy and Nyasi, (meaning garbage apparently).
Eddie and Carmen really look after their staff and do a lot for the local community, they supported their local school until they found out about the corruption, so switched their support to the school in the next village. The locals know about the corrupt head master and the damage that its doing to the local kids, but still do nothing about it, this really needs to change.
Although there are a number of water pumps in the village, Eddie allows staff families to enter the camp and use the taps here, and even the smallest children (especially the girls) are expected to carry massive buckets of water on their heads back to their houses. One young girl was struggling to pick up this huge bucket (I would guess that it weighed about 30kg), so Jac went over to help lift it onto her head, she couldn’t believe the weight! They found it highly amusing.
As at Kande, the beach at Chitimba Camp is stunning, but now with the added back drop of the mountains and escarpment behind. On top of these hills is the old Mission settlement of Livingstonia situated 3,000 feet above the lake shore.
On the beach at Chitimba, we ended up playing football with the local kids ,there is a football pitch in front of the camp that Eddie lets the kids use, but as we spotted a small snake on the pitch the previous day I decided to stay playing on the beach! During this “knock about” I was running for the ball when one young lads did a forward flip in front of me (these are seriously agile kids) and caught me with his foot across the bridge of my nose, digging my sunglasses in through the skin. Poor little Asher was so upset that he had pole axed the “Mazunga” and caused me to bleed. It was an accident but these kids are super fit and very skilful with a football (a load of plastic bags wrapped up in a number of rubber bands).
One day another truck pulled in, this time from South Africa, after introductions we were given a guided tour of this super equipped 4 wheel drive vehicle, it boasted a front loading automatic washing machine, a dish washer, a huge deep freeze, an ice maker, a coffee machine and a massive pull out gas braii (barbecue to you in the UK), oh and not only a TV with a full satellite system on board but also a TV screen outside so you can watch while cooking your braii. Unbelievable!
He also has a small motorbike on the back, a full set of golf clubs, and two sets of scuba diving gear!
But the real shock for me was the amount he paid for the brand new Mercedes 4×4 chassis cab, complete with auto-box, diff locks, air suspended seats, etc, it was 620,000 Rand (£27,000 pre-referendum rate), with a total cost including the above mentioned kit of £75,000 (pre-referendum rate). In Europe this would be about 3 to 4 times that amount. Not that you need any of that stuff on board an overland truck for two people. But there was a little bit of truck envy, and of course I had to convince Jac that washing clothes and dishes was good for the body and soul.
That morning we heard the news that the UK was to leave the EU after a very close referendum, this was a real surprise to us but a source of much humour for Eddie, and even some of the guests. But the real shock came a few days later when we checked the exchange rate (after it supposedly had recovered), we had gone from 1,030 Kwatcha to the pound, down to 865 Kwatcha, this meant everything was now going to cost us over 15% more on this trip! (for the moment at least) Ouch……( It has since recovered slightly but no where near what it was before the vote).
At Chitimba Camp we met a lovely English couple, Lloyd and Emily that are cycling from Nairobi, Kenya down to Capetown in just over 100 days. They decided to have a rest day , so after a long chat that evening, we arranged to visit Livingstonia with them, hopefully sharing the cost (now post referendum). Eddie had already advised us not to try to drive the Daf up the dirt track as it involves some seriously steep and tight hairpin sections and is very rocky. So early the next morning the four of us walked up to the tarmac road and along to the turning to Livingstonia, after a lot of negotiating we agreed with the owner of a seriously beaten up Landrover pickup/backie (4 bald tyres, covered in dents, etc), that we would pay 5,000 Kwatcha each for a return trip and he would wait for us as long as we wanted him too. There were already 3 passengers in the back with all their pots, pans, dried fish & maize etc, so with us 4 that would mean a total of 7 in the back of the pickup. But even that wasn’t enough we had to wait for another 4 passengers to make it pay!!!
Eventually we set off, it was soon apparent that Colonel K would have seriously struggled on this mountainside, from the tarmac its 15km to Livingstonia, and its over 3,000 feet up there from the lakeshore. We were shaken to bits, battered and bruised, the only respite came when we got an inevitable puncture in one of the bald tyres.
But it did give Emily the chance to show her maternal side (she is a midwife), taking one of the passengers baby off of her as she nimbly climbed out of the back of the Landrover. I warned Lloyd that his girl friends body clock appears to be ticking loudly.
Eventually we arrived at Livingstonia, somehow in one piece, found a “coffee shop”, visited the museum, had a quick walk around the village, and then walked the 3 or 4 km back down the track to the waterfalls. The views from here are beautiful, and its quite a wild place, with I guess very few visitors.
But strangely the highlight of the day for me was walking down the track another few kilometres and finding Lukwe Ecocamp for a lunch stop, the food was very good (all freshly prepared), the surroundings were great, but the view from the veranda was truly breathtaking.
On the way to Lukwe, we were passed by our driver that had now “moved the goal posts” and wanted us to go down to Chitimba now, so we paid him half of what we agreed and decided to take our chances on getting another lift down or walking the remaining 10-12km back to the tarmac. After walking a few kilometres (and realising that we wouldn’t make it before night fall), we heard a vehicle coming down the track behind us, we flagged him down and asked if we could pay for a ride down to the road. It was a fairly new Toyota Hilux pickup, owned by an electric supply company, and was full of ladders, coils of cable, and what looked like huge man traps (these were spiky metal things used to climb timber poles), oh and 3 large men, so after agreeing 1,000 Kwatcha each (roughly a Pound), we climbed in the back and set off down the mountainside. Wedged into any corner that we could, holding on for grim death, we descended like it was a Subaru rally car! I love speed, but wow this was crazy driving, you could tell that this wasn’t an “owner driver” and I think he was showing off just a little. Amazingly we survived with little worse that a lot of bruises. That evening Eddie told us the tale of how he was asked to drive up in his Hilux to collect the body of a young girl that had fallen from a backie whilst travelling this route! We all drunk too much in the bar that evening, and Lloyd and Emily decided to have another “rest day” the following day.
We cooked a “one pot “ steak meal for the cyclists, with Jac deciding that they needed more nutrition that they were getting from the vast supplies of Peanut Butter that Lloyd was consuming. There’s nothing of Lloyd but boy can he put it away!
Next morning we said goodbye to Emily and Lloyd, promising to stay in touch, and wishing them all the best on the rest of their trip. We also said a sad farewell to Eddie and Carmen and the staff at Chitimba Camp. Below is Eddie with the Genet that he rescued as a baby, both are real characters, but only one is a fantastic photographer, and only one pee’s in the ash trays on the bar (can you guess which one).
We thought we would have a fairly easy day, driving to the border, and then on to Mbeya in Tanzania to find a campsite, get some local currency, and a sim card for the iPhone, in all about 270km, no problem eh.
The border was chaos, there was a massive queue of commercial trucks, on the Malawi side (which we obviously jumped), stretching back for a couple of kilometres, and it wasn’t moving, the idiots had caused gridlock, and nothing could get through from Tanzania over the bridge. Paper work was done quite quickly in the offices on the Malawi side, with one woman Customs official asking for a payment to “process” the Carnet de Passage, after we both laughed at her, she handed the document back to us, and went back behind her desk. We have not paid any bribes at all on this trip and didn’t intend starting now.
For some reason the drivers of the commercial trucks seem quite happy for us to push in to the front of the queue (we only saw one car crossing this border, it was all trucks), and so eventually we crossed the bridge into an equally chaotic Tanzania border post. We paid for our Visa’s, ($50.00 each), then road tax etc, totalling another $25.00, and we were good to go. At no point on either side were our documents checked (you are normally given a gate pass once you have completed all the necessary official stuff), and we could have just driven through both borders without being stopped (in theory). It took a total of 3 hours to get through the shambles, mostly caused by the Malawi side, and would have been all day if we hadn’t jumped the queue.
We decided not to stop in the town but to drive straight through and head for Utengule Coffee Farm, that has a Lodge and Campsite, we got there just before it got dark, luckily they take payment from a Visa card, so we didn’t need to panic about getting some Tanzanian Shillings (we had got a small amount at the border, at post-referendum rates). Its a lovely place with a very very cold swimming pool, tennis court, volley ball pitch and a great restaurant. We stayed there for 3 nights, and really enjoyed the coffee, it was like being back in “Slowtown Coffee” in Swakopmund, Namibia. We walked along the hill side to the actual coffee farm (about 20 minute walk), and watched them sieving and drying the beans in the daytime sun.
Even here there was a guy with a gun!
There was one other campervan at the coffee farm, a German couple that were part of a larger group on an organised tour of Southern Africa, 24 vehicles in total, all shipping their own campers from Europe. These two sadly had to split from the rest of their group as she caught Malaria, and was stuck in the nearby hospital for a number of days, and were waiting for the rest of the group to return to the coffee farm (2 weeks later). But the amazing thing is, that this camper (apparently the only one in the group) is just a front wheel drive Fiat based camper that you would find travelling around Europe! It has got very little ground clearance and a huge wheel base, and of course grounds out constantly on the dirt roads! It will be wrecked by the time it gets shipped back to Germany in a couple of months time. As they are German, they are looking forward to what will be the trip highlight for them, Namibia. I didn’t have the courage to tell them that the gravel roads there will destroy their camper!
After leaving the coffee farm, we stopped in Mbeya at a ATM, Jac jumped out to get some cash while I parked the truck, This must be the best guarded Bank on the planet! There were 4 uniformed guards outside the (still closed) bank, all carrying machine guns, and there were another two guarding the bank next door.
We are now camped on an old Colonial farm near the Southern town of Iringa (towards Dar es Salaam), it was exactly 300km from the coffee farm and it took us 8.5 hours to drive. There were numerous diversions off of the tarmac (some about 10 km long), for about half the journey, it was very very slow. Then to top it all I managed to get stopped for speeding! Yes speeding in our ultra slow Leyland Daf. I had actually been speeding coming out of the previous town, over taking a very slow truck, up hill, in a 50kmph speed limit doing about 65kmph, but obviously I denied it (my mate Clive would have been proud of me), and we asked to see the evidence. The Sergeant took away my driving license and informed me to wait for the speed gun to be brought up to us from the previous town (where the operator had been hiding in the scrub no doubt). For about 15 minutes we waited (along with a few other vehicles), some just paid the fine and carried on, but eventually this plain car pulled up, and out jumped 4 very excited civilians (they obviously had been using the speed gun). Then the Sergeant sternly told me to get out of the cab and follow him to the rabble that were viewing the speed gun (consisting of a digital SLR camera fixed to a double lens bit of kit), there was lots of shouting and excitable voices that kept turning their gaze from the camera to Colonel K and back to the camera. Buttons were being pressed by lots of fingers, then it went quiet, and there were two very pissed off policemen, they had accidentally deleted the filming of Colonel K! I was told by the Sergeant that an error was made and that his men had stopped the wrong vehicle, and that he hoped “we would forgive the Tanzanian Police” for their mistake! With driving licence back in my guilty little hand we were off. Very lucky indeed.
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We’ve now spent a couple of weeks in Malawi, and it seems to me that Malawi is the Foreign Aid capital of Africa! Is it actually doing any good? mmmmm read on, but some people may not like what they are reading.
After leaving Liwonde National Park, which is a lovely campsite, basic but clean and efficiently run, we headed south to the town of Zomba. This is the former capital city of Malawi before it was moved to Lilongwe, and has actually got some quite nice former colonial buildings (these have mostly fallen into disrepair, which is a shame as they could be lovely places and have many uses). I dropped Jac off to raid the ATM of the most modern looking bank (also the one that had a guard with a machine gun), she then returned with handfuls of notes. Let me explain, the largest note is circulation in Malawi is 1,000 Malawian Kwatcha, this is the equivalent to about 98p, and because of this, the bank can only give out a maximum of 40,000MK at a time, so two lots is 80 notes, and this is less than £80.00 worth. Malawi isn’t cheap either (compared to Europe its cheap, but not to other Southern African countries, such as Namibia, South Africa and Zambia), so this means we go through 40,000MK quite quickly, especially with diesel being a relatively expensive 77p per litre. Next stop was a Shoprite Cash and Carry “Supermarket” down one of the manic side streets of Zomba, as is usual with most supermarkets in Malawi there was no fresh produce such as vegetables, fruit or even meat (you are expected to buy this on the street from local sellers), so after stocking up on cans of stuff, and few other bits we again ran the gauntlet of locals with their hands out. Malawi is by far the worst country that we have been through for people asking for handouts, could this be a result of all the handouts from western countries, charities and “non profit organisations”?
Zomba town is set at the base of the mountains (at about 800m above sea level) and the campsite that we were aiming for was almost at the top of the plateau (at about 1400m), and that 600m (nearly 2,000 feet in old money) is gained in a very short distance, its a very very steep climb. Thankfully virtually all of it, apart from the final part was tarmac (this was built a few years back when they constructed a large dam wall and reservoir, to supply water to Zomba), Colonel K earned his diesel that day. On the way up we noticed lots of men with their cycles fully loaded up with logs, struggling to control them on the steep decent (walking alongside them), and also many women carrying huge piles of wood on their heads, we would learn more about this extreme work later.
Amazingly near the top of the climb we were met by lots of men selling fruit, not your usual bananas and oranges, but strawberries, raspberries and even gooseberries, we filled our boots! These were the first locally produced “red” fruits we had seen since leaving the England over 14 months ago, and they were fantastic, especially the strawberries.
We had heard that the campsite up here was very basic, and run down, and in true Malawian style it didn’t disappoint. It was previously (not long ago I think) a thriving trout farm, with lots of fish holding tanks, and ponds, and it obviously was an attraction for day visitors and campers and there was a former restaurant over looking the largest pond. It must have been very nice here, but as you can see from the photo of one of the huge log cabins, it would now make a great film set for the sequel of the “Blair Witch Project”!
Zomba Plateau is renown for its hiking opportunities, so we arranged for a guide to take us on a 3 hour walk up in the hills, and we were lucky enough to meet Benson who made the experience very enjoyable and interesting. First stop en-route to the “top” was Williams Falls, this is a long series of fairly short waterfalls.
We climbed a total of about 1,000 feet from the trout farm up to the top of the Plateau, and it was quite tough going for us as we have lost our fitness a bit since we have been away (lots of sitting in the cab, and of course its too bloody hot to walk quite a lot of the time), but it is so green and lush at the top (it wasn’t the highest point, that was further round the plateau).
Even up here, we passed guys trying to hold up their fully loaded cycles under the incredible weight of the logs, it was about 15km down to the town from here, and Benson explained more about this. Each morning before it gets light these men and women leave the town and start the long walk up the hill (men with push bikes), and at the gate (near the top) they have to purchase a forestry permit for 200MK (this allows them to cut logs for that day and remove them from the Plateau), they then spend ALL DAY cutting wood and loading it onto their bikes (I would estimate there is about 50-75KG loaded onto the bikes (they even in-fill the triangle of the frame), and slowly struggle to control the bikes down the long and very steep in places tarmac road, down to Zomba town. Benson told us that the going rate for one of these loads of firewood is 4,000MK, so after buying the permit the profit is 3,800MK (approx £3.80) for a very long hard days graft.
There are two famous viewpoints from up on the Plateau, Emperor’s, and Queen’s viewpoints, respectively named after Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia, and the Queen Mother of Great Britain both of whom visited the Plateau in the 1950’s. I showed my ignorance of all things African when I asked if the sign was painted in the colours of the Ethiopian flag.
“No” Benson replied, “thats the Rasta colours”! And so it was, down at the viewpoint was a stall with a Rastafarian selling all the usual tourist stuff, but with a Rasta theme, very strange and also very friendly. The view from both here and the nearby Queen’s is quite breathtaking, and really shows the old volcano that stands on the other side of Zomba.
On the way back down to the trout farm, we passed two man made lakes, the highest one was so still, and peaceful in amongst the pine trees.
Benson, only guides walkers when required (he said its usually only once or twice a week, there really are very few tourists staying up here), the rest of the time he works with his brother who’s a carpenter making things to sell to tourists and when he told us that he wanted to take us to their shop on the way back to the campsite, I groaned inwardly! Another tourist trinket trap, selling all the same old crap? Well no, quite a bit of this stuff was actually very good, and a bit different. They make everything themselves in their “workshop” opposite the shop (obviously not an actual shop, more a set of tables with roof over them), and in this instance we broke our usual rule not to buy any touristy stuff. In the end we bought a “globe” with a map of the world (approximately) hand carved into it, then cut in half and the insides chisled out and sanded to allow some storage (peanuts?) inside. Its all made from one solid piece of “ironwood”, and is beautifully finished, we agreed a price of 10,000MK (approx £10.00). On the way back to the campsite I asked Benson how long it took to make this one off globe, he told me it took his older brother about seven days to make this one item, and judging by the quality of it, I believe him.
It took us as long to get down from the Plateau as it did to get up there! It was tough on the brakes this time, and most of the time we were doing about 15kmph down the long steep road. Concentration was the key.
Next stop was back to Lake Malawi, and this time Senga Bay, we chose Steps Campsite, as we knew it had a private beach, and that we could use the facilities at the adjacent Sunbird hotel. We got there on a Friday, and was met at the huge steel gates by the head of security “Pax”, he suggested that we use their “old” campsite as it was likely to get very busy at the new campsite with day visitors at the weekend. It was already quite busy so we took his advice and parked right next to the sandy beach and almost next to the actual hotel rooms. Next day was very busy and included a coach load of teenagers that were just finishing their exams at school and were here to let off steam. The music was pumping, and it was great to see them having a fun time in the lake, playing football, and generally doing what all teenagers do. Most of them had no change of clothes or swimwear, they just went in fully clothed.
We spent a couple of days chilling around the very nice swimming pool at the hotel, and watching Euro 16 football in the nearby bar, but while we were there a local choir (consisting of about 30 women) used the hotel pool and beach areas to film a video (very low budget) for their latest song, it was quite surreal really, but they seemed very excited about being in this hotel.
We heard that song so many times, that I couldn’t get it out of my head for days afterwards!
Whilst at Senga Bay, I asked Pax why there was such a high level of security at the campsite (we were the only guests staying here), his immediate answer was to tell us that it was to make us feel safe (his guards are dressed almost as paramilitaries and march and salute as such), but then he also explained that it was to stop the locals coming to sell Cannabis on the beach. I was quite shocked at this, and asked him if it was a big problem in Malawi, he said that although it is illegal to grow, sell or smoke cannabis here it is a huge issue for them here at Senga Bay. I was intrigued about this and wondered where it was coming from, we were soon to find out!
After again being on the lake for a few days, we decided we would head inland again and this time to a campsite on the Bua River in the Nkhotakota Wildlife Reserve. Bua River Lodge is about 12km from the tarmac M5 lakeside road, and as we turned onto the dirt track, it was soon obvious that they had received some rain here earlier that day, and in places the hard packed mud had chewed up a bit and was very slippery, but eventually we got to the Reserve gate, and was told that we would have to pay $23.00 to enter the park to reach the campsite . We agreed with the female ranger on the gate, that we would pay when we came back out, as we didn’t know how many nights we would stay for (and also if the campsite wasn’t suitable for our truck then we could leave within the hour without paying). From the gate Tracks4Africa was showing that it was about 4km to the lodge and campsite, and with 800m to go, the track split and was signposted left to the lodge and reception, and right to the campsite, there was also another sign below instructing campers to proceed straight to the campsite, so we turned right…….
After about 250m we knew we had made a big mistake, the track was extremely steep, very rocky, and after the rain that morning, very very slippery! There was no way that Colonel K would be able to reverse back up, we just had to carry on very slowly and hope we could turn around at the bottom and drive back out. It got worse, a lot worse, in places we had wheels locked up and was sliding down (9 tonnes is a lot of weight to hold on wet, muddy and slippery rocks), but eventually we got down to a very small tight campsite, and was met by a very smiley Manager. My first words were “why the hell don’t you have a ‘caution steep descent’ sign at the top?”, at least that would have given us some warning and would have walked down and checked it out first. He just looked and smiled again, and said “you should be ok to get out tomorrow if it doesn’t rain again!” I walked up the track and thought NO WAY!
I calmed down and just crossed every part of my body that it remained dry for the next 18 hours, but even if dry (and it was completely covered by a thick canopy of trees), I really had my doubts that our 150hp Cummins engine would haul our 9 tonne truck up that bank of rocks and mud. So we went on a sunset walk with a couple of beers and our guide “Tony”. Health and safety don’t feature very highly in these parts, and as we walked down and along the river bank, we came into a clearing for our beers to watch the sun go down, and it was full of sun bathing crocodiles!
Also present at this lovely pool was a family of Vervet Monkeys, a stunning African Fish Eagle, and a young Bull Elephant.
It was a lovely hour or so, and the walk/guide was free, we just had to pay for our beers (which Tony carried for us of course).
After a good nights sleep (for me anyway, Jac said she hardly slept as she was worried about getting out of the campsite) in this very peaceful spot, we woke to thankfully a dry morning, so after putting the coffee pot on, and planning to have a leisurely breakfast I went to use the toilet. Bugger, the sky is seriously black in the distance, rain is on the way………. So a rapid pack up, with the truck having a very long warm up of the engine, Jac went and settled the bill, and we readied ourselves and Colonel K before the heavens opened! First Gear, Low Range, and off we went……..In the end the Daf made very light work of it, just feeling the tyres spinning every so often on the wet and muddy sections, but once again Colonel K surprised us with his capabilities. We stopped at the Reserve gate and had toast for breakfast and laughed at how worried we were about getting out, and the young female rangers ridiculously large military style boots (she was tiny, with about size 43 boots!). Oh and it didn’t rain, the sky cleared and it was another hot sunny day.
On the track back to the tarmac, we suddenly noticed the crop being grown here, Cannabis on a huge scale (small plots, but almost everyone was growing Pot here), there was no sign of the usual maize or sugar cane. This theme continued all the way to Kande Beach. Yes there was now some plots of sugar cane and maize, and even a few people growing cotton, but there is tonnes of Cannabis being grown here, and apparently most is exported to South Africa, and Mozambique (where of course it is sent to Europe amongst other places). It is illegal to grow it here and yet it is so blatant along side the main roads, the authorities must be turning a blind eye to this (or taking a cut), but what really makes me angry is this is prime land and could be used for growing maize etc, and providing food for the amazing people of Malawi. But of course hundreds of tonnes of food aid is brought into Malawi each year, so why bother growing your own when we could grow profitable illegal drugs! Rant over? Nope not yet!!!!
While travelling around Malawi you get to realise how many “volunteers”, aid workers, and NGO’s there are here, I’m sure that intentions are all good, but with literally thousands of “gap year” students spending a month, or even a few months ‘painting a school’, or ‘playing with orphaned children’ (then leaving them behind once they have got used to them), is it really helping this country?. Almost every child that you drive past is screaming “sweety”, or “pen” with his or her palm held out, they have got used to the “Mzungu” (white man) bringing gifts into the communities. Is this good for the long term of this country or its people? We have met a few “overland truck/bus” drivers that say that Malawi is the only country that they drive through (except Zimbabwe), that hasn’t moved forward at all in terms of infrastructure, and this is despite the massive amount of aid that comes in from the EU and USA. Along the tarmac roads, especially the long lake side road, at almost every 10km you will see a sign with the EU flag on it proclaiming a new initiative such as a “Goat Club”, or “Community Feed Initative”, many are now faded, so are they still operating? Who knows, but I doubt it. Then there’s the obscene amount of money spent on brand new Landcruisers, Hilux’s, etc that are driven by idiots that have no regard for other road users, cyclists, and pedestrians, all have got some sort of charity or foreign flag stuck to the front doors. Money well spent? Not in my eyes.
We are currently staying on a fantastic campsite on Kande Beach, which also has a number of good quality cheap rooms (there is also a certified dive school attached) they employ 40 full time local members of staff (yes 40! not including the dive school), there are many like this place on Lake Malawi. As I see it, having a two week beach holiday in Malawi may benefit the country more, and you would have a great African experience as well. As with a lot of Southern African countries, there is a lot of hope in the new president here and that any curruption will stop, I for one hope so too, the people of Malawi deserve better.
Ok rant over, sorry if you don’t agree with what I said, but its just a view on what we have seen and listening to people here in Malawi.
Thanks for reading