29 Nov 2013

“There seems to be a problem”

Border crossing: Uganda to Rwanda (and back!)


Name: Gatuna/Katuna

No. of officials: 5

Buildings: 3 buildings for Uganda exit, 2 buildings for Rwanda entry

Time taken:  2 hours Uganda-Rwanda, 1 hour Rwanda-Uganda

Other: On arrival at the border everything seems a little chaotic.  The exit from Uganda was very straight forward (as was the re-entry), but entering Rwanda seemed to be more difficult for a Dane than for a Brit.  John was given a stamp immediately in a similar style to the many others in line, but Josi was given a once over and asked “what passport is this?” to which I answered the quite obvious “Danish” and then a lot of head shaking was set upon amongst the staff.  But I had filed in the online form which had granted me access to Rwanda, so I presented him with this form but this seemed to do nothing to please him and he said “wait to the side” and carried on serving others.  After 15 minutes I asked how it was going and he said “hmm, well there seems to be a problem. Please wait.” It seemed that this was a standard procedure, and that all those needing a visa should wait and then having paid the fee in a separate office 5 minutes away – be presented with a passport at least 20 minutes later with the same stamp as everyone else. 

Hassle factor: 5/10 (because Josi has a DK passport!)

Days in (South) Uganda: 8

Days in Rwanda: 3

28 Nov 2013

Gorillas in the Mist

Uganda: Kabale, Lake Bunyonyi, Bwindi National Park

Uganda makes a great first impression.  The climate is pleasant and the countryside a patchwork of various shades of green – from light, almost translucent emerald fields, to dark, bottle green forest.  Most importantly, the people are incredibly welcoming and friendly.  So we were already in good spirits as we made our way west on the main road from the Tanzanian border towards Lake Bunyonyi in the extreme southwest. 

Although mostly in very good condition, Uganda’s roads are frequently the subject of road works, and also terrorised by some of the most suicidal drivers we have encountered.  This one was no exception.  Having been gnawed at on both sides by the equatorial rains, the tarmac was reduced to a jagged strip one lane wide, along which kamikaze motorists jousted with headlights flashing. 

Predictably, priority on the road is dictated by the size of the vehicle – trucks thunder along on an unerring trajectory, while lesser beings scatter before them.  This survival of the fattest took some getting used to though – while Tonka should at least have ranked above the tuk-tuks and two-wheel drives, we often found ourselves chased off the road by these smaller prey. 

Lake Bunyonyi is located on the doorstep of one of the very few places in the world where you can see mountain gorillas in the wild.  The entire population of these gentle giants is scattered over only a few hundred square kilometres of dense forest where the borders of Rwanda, Uganda and the DRC meet.  Our base for visiting them was *Bunyonyi Overland Camp* occupying an excellent location right on the shore of Lake Bunyonyi, and guarded by a friendly but disconcertingly cross-eyed policeman with the now familiar AK-47.

The only home of the gorillas in Uganda is the “Impenetrable Forest” in Bwindi National Park.  Our pre-dawn drive there revealed two possible explanations for this forest’s name.  Firstly, the dense mist which seems to shroud it from sight much of the time and secondly, the near impossibility of finding anyone who can give you directions to find it.  Finally overcoming the latter of those issues, we were treated to a stunning view as we drove up the mountainside towards the south park entrance at Rushonga.  The forest clad peaks of the surrounding mountains protruded through the mist, seeming like islands in the sky, as the sun rose behind them.

25 Nov 2013

Crossing into Uganda

Border crossing: Tanzania to Uganda


Name: Mutukula

No. of officials: 5

Buildings: 2 buildings for Tanzania exit, 2 buildings for Uganda entry

Time taken:  2 hours

Other: This border crossing is hard to navigate.  There are two unassuming buildings a hundred metres before a padlocked gate – these are the Tanzanian Immigration & Customs rooms.  This was the first customs border that checked Tonka’s carnet against the chassis number etc.  But it was the second border crossing where, when John had disappeared for 2 minutes, the Customs officer started his advances on Josi!  Entering Uganda, you had to go on foot to Customs and Immigration (past the padlocked gate), leaving your car, effectively, in Tanzania while you prepared the documents to then be let in. Contrary to the guidebook, you do need to buy road tax of $25 for 1 month’s cover.  For a change, the touts here seem to listen to you when you say you don’t need any money changing, so it was quite a pleasant experience from that point of view.

Hassle factor: 4/10

Days in (West) Tanzania: 8
Days in Africa: 78

Danger, Danger, High Voltage!

Tanzania: Katavi, Kigoma, Kibondo, Bukoba

Roughly following the eastern shore of Lake Tanganyika, we drove northeast to Katavi National Park.  This little known park receives fewer visitors in one year than the Serengeti does in one day.  Nonetheless its enormous population of densely packed hippos is the most impressive we have seen anywhere.  

Yes, these are ALL hippos!!
From here we continued to Kigoma, spending one night camping next to a stunning stretch of palm fringed sand called Jakobsen’s Beach.

20 Nov 2013

Arrive as guests, leave as friends

Tanzania: Kipili

On entering Tanzania we were welcomed by a host of animals travelling by motorbike, from chickens to pigs to goats. 

After an underwhelming stopover in Mbeya we continued towards Kipili.  We had heard good reports of a place which was “the best place to stay in Africa” in a German couple’s 20 years of travelling in Africa, so we thought it sounded worth a peak.

The western side of Tanzania is flanked by Lake Tanganyika, the longest and second deepest lake in the world.  And the towns and villages around it are by no means catering for tourists – this is a glimpse of true Africa.  The only obvious recent change is the road.  From the south western town of Tunduma up to the turn off to Kipili, the Chinese are building a road that, so far, seemed to only be catering for Tonka and the road workers.  Annoyingly the presence of a number of speed bumps and missing sections meant that a journey that should have taken us 7 hours, took 12 hours!  One of the craziest moments was watching a truck passing another under a bridge. The first one was clearly stuck and the second, not considering whether his was too high for the bridge also ploughed through - and... got stuck!

After stocking up on a few essentials in a local market…a market where all eyes were on the two “mzungu”, we headed towards our final destination – *Lakeshore Lodge & Camping*.  

17 Nov 2013

My Nickname is “Great Deal On ForEx”

Border crossing: Malawi to Tanzania


Name: Kasumulu

No. of officials: 5

Building: 1 building for Malawi exit, 2 buildings for Tanzanian entry

Time taken:  2 hours

Other: Leaving Tanzania was a bit of a hassle as they needed to “make our visa” which look 25 minutes and turned out to just be a stamp with some writing!  We also had to wait to pay the road tax of $5 for 7 days or $25 for 30 days.  We also showed our yellow fever certificates here.  The biggest annoyance at this border was money changers, in particular one who said his nickname was "Great Deal on ForEx" (a long story, best forgotten) – always know what you are exchanging and make sure you are given what is agreed – which can be challenging in a currency with so many 0’s…

Hassle factor: 8/10

Days in Malawi: 21

Days in Africa: 70

Josi’s Top Ten: Malawi

What a country!  We have been really surprised by the variety of things on offer in Malawi and the friendliness of everyone we have met.  “Hello, how are you?” is genuinely asked by all around you – such a welcoming country but also desperately poor in many respects.  Of the things we experienced in Malawi this November, these would be my top ten – in no particular order:

  1. Staring into the vast landscape & reading a book next to a tranquil stream in the Mulanje Massif – the “Island in the Sky”
  2. Hiking through the tea plantations in Mulanje
  3. Sunset cruise on a catamaran with Kayak Africa in Cape Maclear
  4. Seeing the elusive eland & trout fishing in the dams of Nyika National Park
  5. Snorkelling and having a private fresh fish lunch on the island beach off Cape Maclear
  6. Drinking Mzuzu Coffee in Mzuzu Coffee Den (with their banana cake)
  7. Watching the full moon over Lake Malawi from Mushroom Farm
  8. Watching crocodiles, hippos and birds from the boat with our guide McCloud on the Shire River in Liwonde National Park
  9. Trying the range of homegrown meals & chocolate brownies at Ama Khofi café in Lilongwe.
  10. Campsites: Mushroom Farm, Chelinda Camp, Malambe Camp, Mvuu Camp, Mebuya Camp

We loved Malawi – we will be back soon!

16 Nov 2013

A weekend in the Yorkshire Dales

Malawi: Nyika National Park, Livingstonia

In the far north of Malawi lies a hilly plateau with vast rolling grasslands, clear streams and more zebra than people.  This is the Nyika Plateau.

Refreshingly cool compared to the humid shores of Lake Malawi, this was a perfect last detour before crossing into Tanzania.  A fork in the road at Rumphi quickly deteriorates into a rocky track, while gradually climbing higher and higher up to the plateau.  After about three hours, the inevitable destination of *Chelinda Camp* is reached (there is no other accommodation available here.)  This remote route is spectacular in its own right, although not in the jaw dropping way of many of the other landscapes we have passed through.  The gently rounded hilltops covered in coarse grass and punctuated by patches of evergreen woodland have been compared to the Yorkshire dales.  A fair comparison up to a point, but the illusion suddenly evaporates when a huge eland or herd of zebra stroll into view.

This plateau sits at almost 2,000m and our campsite, perched on a hillside, had a wonderfully unobstructed view of the sunset. Antelope, warthogs and herds of zebra looked lost in the vastness, specks on the distant hillside, until they were engulfed in the darkness.  

9 Nov 2013

The Island in the Sky

Malawi: Mulanje Massif, Kondanani Village

President Joyce Banda’s election in 2011 was a beacon of hope for many waiting for a more transparent administration.  But people we have spoken to say that problems of corruption persist, with exports of tobacco, tea and coffee doing little to benefit the general population.  On the road south towards Mulanje, we saw where some of these misplaced coffers might have ended up.  While filling diesel we were suddenly told to move along by the attendant – a police escort with lights flashing was chaperoning a shiny new Hummer with blacked out glass.  We don’t know who was in it, but such an expensive car seemed incongruous in this poor rural setting.  This juxtaposition seemed even more pronounced as we turned the corner into the next street. Here a large crowd had gathered around an aid agency truck to receive hand-outs of fertiliser.  The large sacks were decanted into smaller bags which were then carried or wheeled away on the backs of bicycles.  The new Banda regime is undoubtedly more liberal and progressive than the previous, but the gap between the haves and have-nots seems as great as ever.

Our primary reason for visiting the Mulanje Massif was to scale the summit of its highest point, Mount Sapitwa - the highest mountain in Southern Africa.  Only subsequently did we learn that this name translates as “Don’t go there.”

We learnt that Mulanje in traditional folklore is home to ancestral spirits.  According to tradition, these spirits will be angered if you “eat pork or mice” before you hike up there – we were happy to comply with at least half of that!  If you disobey, you risk being covered by a white sheet by the spirits and disappearing forever in the mists that cling to the summit.  This seems highly improbable given that a white sheet is virtually impossible to find in Africa, let alone on the summit of a mountain…

5 Nov 2013

Crocs, Hippos & Mud Wrestling

Malawi: Liwonde National Park

When compared with its neighbours, Malawi is not an obvious destination for a big game safari.  But Liwonde National Park, nestled on the east bank of the River Shire, just to the south of Lake Malawi, is an often overlooked gem.  This park has two claims to fame that we are aware of.  Firstly, it was along this shoreline that deserters from David Livingstone’s final expedition falsely claimed that Livingstone had been attacked and killed by local tribes.  It was this report, sent back to London via Zanzibar, which sparked frenzied debate for years to come about whether Livingstone was alive or dead.  Secondly, J.R.R. Tolkien apparently visited this region before writing The Hobbit and was so taken with the stunning landscape that “the Shire” in his book was inspired by this original namesake.

The park fees are a refreshing change from those further west – just $10 per person per day and $3 for Tonka.  Once again, camping gave us the option to gate-crash far more exclusive accommodation than we would otherwise be able to frequent.  In this case it was the rather classy *Mvuu Camp*, its cluster of safari style tents positioned along the riverbank.  These are occupied by fly in tourists at nearly $500 per night, and so it was immensely satisfying to pay our $15 each and park Tonka almost alongside them.

In a well-rehearsed routine, we quickly changed into our least dusty clothes and swaggered into the lodge bar.  And so our metamorphosis from road weary vagrants to civilised tourists was complete.  As the sun sank over the far bank of the Shire, we watched giant monitor lizards (about 1.5m long) scurry around in the twilight. 

Dinner back at the campsite was interrupted by a sudden and violent rainstorm, during which huge clouds were illuminated like Chinese lanterns by great flashes of lightening within.  Clutching our plates we dashed up into the tent, while the rain hammered deafeningly on the flysheet, finally giving way to the nocturnal rumblings of a pod of hippos close to the camp.

The next day dawned clear and later than afternoon we joined a bout trip for the best views of the wildlife.  From here we could really appreciate how the riverbanks and shallows team with fauna.  There are hundreds of species of birds in the park and we could only recognise a handful of them – several species of Kingfisher, heron, and the ubiquitous African Fish Eagle.  

2 Nov 2013

Chill, Man, Chill

Malawi: Lilongwe, Monkey Bay & Cape Maclear

Although Malawi is a pint sized country, its (relatively recent) capital Lilongwe still struggles to rise to the occasion.  It has the feel of a small town that has reproduced itself several times over – its skyline devoid of any discernible centre.  In fact it has 2 main areas, the old town and the newer commercial district, although the layout of each has a slightly random feel.  There are no Lusaka-type malls here, but the wide streets are well kept, and trees explode in blossoms of bright orange and red. 

Despite being one of the poorest countries in the world, it quickly becomes apparent why Malawi is known as the “warm heart of Africa.”  Everyone smiles and has time to chat, and the standard greeting of “Hello, how are you?” is a genuine enquiry rather than hollow rhetoric.  At least one reason for this constantly happy disposition must be the amazing treats on offer at “Ama Khofi.”  This eco café tucked away in the Four Seasons Centre had the best chocolate brownie we had tasted in a long time, together with home grown salads, pumpkin quiche and delicious coffee straight from the hills of Mzuzu.  Suberb.