18 Dec 2013

Paradise Found

Tanzania: Ngorogoro Conservation Area, Ngorogoro Crater

We both had ideas of what the Ngorogoro Crater would look like, but nothing quite prepared us for what would become our favourite day of our trip so far. 

The classic vast plains of the Serengeti continue into the Ngorogoro Conversation Area, but after turning off the main road and heading down a little used road – just two ruts in the grass - we encountered many Maasai in their villages or tending their cattle, sheep and goats.  This felt like true Maasai country – and apart from this experience of seeing them in their true environment, the only tribesmen we encountered were trying to sell us something.  It is sad that such a beautiful tribe has become so commercialised that its priority seems to be to sell you a spear or jewellery and charge you $2 for a picture of their livestock or themselves.  Unfortunately this was a key factor in our decision not to visit a Maasai village.

At the end of the ruts we came across an interesting, and rather surreal, natural phenomenon – the shifting sands.  This is a shifting mass of volcanic ash that moves between 10 and 20 metres a year across the plains.  Its black dune-like formation was a strange sight in the middle of this orange/yellow landscape.  Most incredible is the fact that it seems to hoover up after itself, as it leaves no trail. Following this we headed on a short detour through the Olduvlai Gorge – another important archaeological site which has yielded amazingly intact skulls of Homo Habilis.



With Tonka's help we gradually ascended to the crater rim at over 2,000m and arrived at a viewpoint – this only furthered our excitement for entering the Ngorogoro Crater the next day.  



16 Dec 2013

Following In The Footsteps of Royalty

Tanzania: Serengeti National Park

There is a marked difference between the eastern and western halves of the Serengeti.  The western corridor is more wooded, with far fewer visitors, no campsites and only a handful of luxury lodges.  East of the park headquarters at Seronera is the most heavily visited area (we called it the Serenghetto), busy with day trippers and linked directly by horribly corrugated road to the even greater tourist magnet of the Ngorogoro crater.  Since we were transiting the whole park from West to East, we decided to avoid the crowds and splash out on one of the best tented camps in the Western corridor.  Finding an all-inclusive special offer, Josi had booked us into the fabulous *Serena Kirawira Lodge* for John’s belated birthday present.

Feeling rather self-conscious as we parked Tonka, still plastered with mud and rattling his exhaust, we were greeted by the manager in his crisp white uniform.  From that moment on we were treated like royalty and we later found out that the Queen of Denmark had stayed here on her official visit to Tanzania.  Josi felt immediately at home.

 

Sitting in the Edwardian style lounge bar, looking out over the vast savannah dotted with zebra and wildebeest, we sipped champagne and snacked on canapés served on Villeroy & Bosch porcelain.  This was a far cry from the Tupperware dinners to which we have become accustomed.  Lunch was even more impressive – 5 exquisitely presented courses served in a dining tent with polished wood floors, complete with antique furniture and silver cutlery.  Almost daunted by the prospect of the 7 course dinner only 4 hours away, we retreated to our safari tent to unpack.  This was decorated much like we would imagine a first class cabin on the Orient Express.  Antique closets housed our clothes and the bathroom was panelled in dark tropical wood with English toiletries. 


Also included in our deal were two game drives – one in the evening and one in the morning.  As we were 2 of only 4 people staying that night we had the game drives all to ourselves.  This made it feel like an even more exclusive experience.  It was a novelty to have a guide drive us around and we can’t deny that game sightings were more impressive than we would have managed ourselves.  

14 Dec 2013

“Karibu Sana”

Border crossing: Kenya to Tanzania

 to

Name: Isebania

No. of officials: 6

Building: 3 buildings for Kenya exit, 2 buildings for Tanzania entry

Time taken:  1 hour

Other:  Arriving into this border crossing, our car was immediately and forcibly stopped by a stinger being laid right in front of our front tyres and we were ordered to pay the equivalent of 50p as a council payment to leave the county/country – the receipt was a small piece of paper.  We were pleased to be able to say that this was the only time any ridiculous “extra” cost was asked of us in Kenya.  As is now usual, the touts started to follow us and ask questions.  Here we had no problem with immigration but in Customs there was a guy who answered as the customs officer but was actually an “agent”.  We refused to pay him his “agent fees” for passing our Carnet from our hands to the hands of the actual customs officer.  The Tanzanian office was bliss.  Easy to navigate – no hassle – lovely staff who were interested in our journey and telling us how to get to our next destination.  A perfect start to re-entering Tanzania.  It’s also worth mentioning that we were able to get in on our previous Tanzanian visa as we had only travelled in East African Community.  We heard some people had had issues with that.

Hassle factor: 3/10

Days in Kenya: 6
Days in Africa: 97


Hiking & Biking In The Great Rift Valley

Kenya: Lake Naivasha, Hells Gate National Park, Maasai Mara

Heading south we made our third equator crossing in Africa, although this was the only one with any sign…so we had to stop!  Significant, in the sense that we had already crossed the Arctic Circle with Tonka earlier this year, this was otherwise an anti-climax.


One large circumference led to another as we headed to the famous streetfood stalls of Nyama Choma, where our waist lines had to accommodate a whole barbequed leg of goat and delicious mash of green beans and potatoes.  This was a slightly surreal experience, sitting in the sweltering heat while the perspiring chef proudly carved the meat to the accompaniment of “Feliz Navidad”.  Christmas was, apparently, near!


Further on, we were intrigued to visit one of the archaeological sites excavated by Leakey in the 1920s in the Great Rift Valley.  Through natural subsidence at Kariandusi, an extraordinary concentration of stone tools were exposed in sedimentary layers along with some of the greatest paleontological discoveries of the century.


11 Dec 2013

Tribes & Tribulations

Kenya: Eldoret, Lake Baringo


The road north from Eldoret to Lake Baringo marks a distinct transition from equatorial rains to the drier, desert climate of Northern Kenya.  Lush greenery gradually gives way to spiky succulents and the red earth adopts a more powdery consistency. 

This is also the turning point in our journey.  To the North of Lake Baringo the increasingly rough road leads towards the wilderness of Lake Turkana and, ultimately, into Ethiopia.  While in an ideal world we would have loved to continue on this route we had long since decided that the risks outweighed the benefits.  This northern part of Kenya continues to be blighted by bandit attacks and border closures, and we have heard recent reports of cars being caught in the cross-fire.  So Baringo is as far North as we will venture on this trip.  But with so much to see in this part of Kenya’s Great Rift Valley, this is perhaps no bad thing.

As we pulled up at *Roberts Camp* the first thing we noticed was that the lake’s waters were lapping the bar and several “bandas” (sleeping huts) were totally flooded up to their roofs.  This was, it turned out, the result of the lake having risen an unprecedented 3 metres after an abnormally long wet season.  


As we sat at the bar wondering whether to stay or go, we saw the blinking eyes of a hippo break the surface of the water just a few metres away.  It was wallowing on what had been lawn just a few months before.  With no other camping options we decided to stay in the somewhat poorly equipped campsite near the main building, partially compensating ourselves with a mediocre pizza overlooking the swollen lakeshore. 

Wanting to make the most of our time here, we began the next day with a dawn boat trip out on the lake.  This was a beautiful experience as the sun rose behind the lake’s three islands, bathing the western shore in a gentle golden glow.  Hippos bobbed on the surface before disappearing out of sight and an incredible variety of birds began their daily routine along the lakeshore.  This trip also showed the extent of the damage caused by the flooding – a formally exclusive lodge lay abandoned in the waters, it’s now hollow shell plundered of its fittings and even its roof and timbers.

 

9 Dec 2013

“I don’t accept these Dollars”

Border crossing: Uganda to Kenya

 to

Name: Malaba

No. of officials: 5

Building: 2 buildings for Uganda exit, 3 buildings for Kenya entry

Time taken:  1 hour 20 minutes

Other: Ugandan Customs is reached first and then Immigration which were all simple and passed without incident.  The Kenyan side was a little more complicated.  We had to pay for our visas ($50 each) – we were expecting that but interestingly they did not accept any dollars with even a millimetre of a tear in them – they said the bank wouldn’t accept them!  So the notes had to be post 2004 and without any tear – in fact, preferably completely new.  He threw the money back at us and said “I don’t accept this, it is not good enough” – so we had to delve further into our dwindling supplies of dollars to find some “perfect” dollars!  After a quick customs check and a police check, we were in.

Hassle factor: 5/10

Days in Uganda: 8 (not including the first Southern stint!)
Days in Africa: 91



8 Dec 2013

A River Runs Through It

Uganda: Fort Portal, Crater Lakes, Kampala, Jinja

We made our way through the green country of Uganda towards Fort Portal in the North.  This town was inviting and relaxing – on arrival at our lodge, complete with decorated Christmas tree and decorations, we suddenly felt in the Christmas spirit for the first time.  The crater lakes were a bumpy and narrow ride away.  We decided to stop at a lodge on the top of a hill where they had a great view over one of the crater lakes and we also had a cup of tea from their plantation.  Lovely.


Kampala was a frenzy of people, small shops, cars, trucks, motorbikes and half-finished buildings.  There was something occupying every space in sight. Being John’s birthday Josi had arranged a stay at *Le Petit Village* Hotel, a Belgian run establishment on a plot with a few exclusive Belgian shops – a patisserie, a bakery, a butcher and a fine dining restaurant.  Needless to say, all were used in abundance!  The restaurant had arranged a petal-strewn table for us and we ensured to use the imported goodies to our full advantage.  At the end of the dinner the lights were dimmed and, much as for Josi’s birthday, a full chorus of Happy Birthday broke out with other guests joining in.  A cake made in the patisserie was presented to John, the rest of which we gave to the live band.

2 Dec 2013

Moore on Uganda

Uganda: Kisiizi

In 2012 we met a lady at our Church in London called Anne Moore, she told us her story about moving to Uganda and working in Kisiizi hospital – helping to grow the maternity and paediatric departments.  We realised that we were currently only a few hours drive from this small town so we decided to head over to surprise her and see the good work she has done. 

We took the main road from Kabale but it was not long before the tarmac ran out and we were again making our way through small villages and bumpy roads.  The rolling hills in Uganda are a patchwork of different shades of green dotted with ladies and children in colourful skirts and warm smiles.  Every so often we would come across other cars which were meandering through the obstacle course of a road.  We took a video of one encounter where a very heavily laden pick up (which you could only just see the wheels of from behind) had started slipping in the mud and was tilting to one side with one of the front wheels in the air.  Without delay all 20 people jumped off the top of the pick up and started pushing it back on all fours.  Then, as quickly as they had got off, they all got back on again and headed off in front of us.

After an evening relaxing in the *Rose Cottages* we woke up early to join Anne and the staff and any able patients in the hospital church for a short morning service.  The pastor deployed some of the staff to hold services in the various departments and then gave a great sermon on what it means to be a Christian, followed by a song sung in Swahili – we were given a book and told “it sounds as it is written” – so we gave it our best shot!

1 Dec 2013

Clean present, dirty past

Rwanda: Kigali, Nyamata, Butare

When taken at face value, Kigali is a vibrant, exceptionally clean, safe and progressive city.  Armies of public sector workers constantly groom already immaculate flowerbeds in public spaces, and police officers in crisp uniforms glide along unblemished tarmac on BMW motorcycles.

But even today this apparently utopian capital is, like the rest of the country, defined by the horrific events of 1994.  For example, the Rwandan government is the only one in the world which is comprised of more female members than male, the logic being that a more matriarchal regime is less likely to allow any repeat of the events that Rwanda is still trying to distance itself from.  Another safeguard is the monthly “Umuganda” which, by coincidence, happened to coincide with our visit.  This uniquely Rwandan practice takes place on the last Saturday of each month, and is a rigorously enforced day of community service, compulsory for all citizens from the bottom to the top – even the President himself is not excused.  From early morning until noon Police roadblocks are in force and the streets are eerily devoid of traffic.  But the roadsides and pavements teem with people cutting grass, painting fences and sweeping briskly.  Quite fascinated by this nationwide grime-busting, we learnt that it too has an ulterior motive.  The compulsory participation aims to maintain social cohesion and prevent class or ethnic rifts developing unchecked.

The capital itself has also been remoulded in the wake of 1994.  Grossly overlooked by the international community at the time, aid money (perhaps more accurately described as guilt money) has since poured into Rwanda, helping it to achieve a remarkable turnaround in its infrastructure and redevelopment.

The events themselves of 1994 need no introduction, but little can prepare you for the sensitive but graphic exhibitions at the Kigali Memorial Centre.  Completed in 2004, the primary purpose of this centre is to provide a dignified place of burial for the victims of the genocide and an education resource for future generations.  To date, the remains of over 250,000 bodies are buried here in mass graves, one of which is left open to receive remains which still arrive from around the country.