Finetastic Adventures

Thursday, November 13, 2008

The Final Chapter

Though we've now been back in the US for over a month, madfineadventure (marti and dave fine adventure) isn't complete without a short description of our backpacking trip through East Africa. I had hoped to be able to post some of our goings-on while we were traveling, but time at internet cafes was too limited.

We said goodbye to Peace Corps and South Africa on the 10th of August from the Johannesburg airport, where we caught a flight to Blantyre, Malawi. Going overland had been prohibitive: time constraints and the fact that unstable Zimbabwe stood between South Africa and Malawi. We stayed over one night in Blantyre before catching a couple of kombis to Zomba, the former capital of Malawi. These public taxis made those of South Africa look pristine, and this fact would remain throughout every country we traveled on this entire trip. We had a full day in Zomba to go up to the Plateau; once on top we hired a guide and hiked to a couple of viewpoints where vibrant Zomba town is visible below. Coming down the mountain we got our first exposure to the use of bicycles in Africa as cargo carriers; in this case men loaded the bikes with wood that they cut down from the forests atop the mountain, and then guided them down the mountain road while fighting to keep the bike upright. This sight became a common one throughout East Africa; the only change would be the type of cargo the men carried on their bicycles. I vowed never to complain about carrying a heavy load on my bicycle again!

A crowded, hot bus ride took us from Zomba to Monkey Bay, on the southern shore of Lake Malawi. Alighting from the bus we were met by a 'beach boy', a local who is looking for a tip after guiding visitors to an accommodation. We tried a couple of guest houses in the desolate town before deciding to walk with him the 2 km to Venice Beach Backpackers, which we found very suitable and affordable. There were only a couple of other guests, and the beach was quiet. Shortly after settling in, we heard a familiar voice—Lizbeth, a fellow PCV who had been traveling on her own for a couple of weeks already, arrived. She had plans to meet another Peace Corps friend there who had also been traveling. Erica arrived the next day; then the following day we all boarded the Ilala ferry.

The ferry was crowded; but the four of us found space on the first class deck, where we would sleep on the floor. Our two days aboard the Ilala were enjoyable; the lake is beautiful, the shore lined with small villages amid the hills and baobabs. We were treated to two beautiful sunsets (and sunrises), and the phenomenon of lake flies. It was now, after hearing from other travelers (primarily Liz), that we changed the remainder of our itinerary. Instead of going from here to Zambia and Lake Tanganyika, we decided to head north and put Zanzibar back into our plans, then head to Rwanda through Kenya and Uganda. Our second night's sleep was permanently interrupted when the boat docked and many of the men who boarded at 2 A.M. headed straight to the bar. That would have been ok except that our floor space was very near the bar, and it re-opened to serve them. Then we had the awful experience of disembarking at Nkhata Bay. Liz and we escaped being trampled; Erica had gotten off at one of the islands the night before. Even with its problems, we loved the Ilala and being on Lake Malawi. A rowboat from Mayoka Village met us at the dock and delivered us to one of our favorite places in which we stayed during this trip. Fortunately I had chosen this place to spend our next two nights, thanks to recommendations from friends. Our chalet overlooked the lake; the food was delicious; and the owners ran a socially conscious business. Nkhata Bay was a thriving village and one that we liked a lot.

Two days later we left, reluctantly, with Liz on a kombi headed north. We thought we would only make it part of the way that day, but with Liz's encouragement, and to our dismay, we crossed the border into Tanzania and arrived by bus in Mbeya well after dark. Another couple from Mayoka Village arrived even later at the same hotel; it had been recommended by the owners there. We had more time than expected in Mbeya; the Tazara train was very late arriving from Zambia. We were able to get a first class compartment when we bought our tickets that morning, and were told the train would leave 5 hours late, at 8 PM that evening. But a phone call from the ticket office informed us we wouldn't leave until 1 AM, so we booked a dirt cheap room for the 3 of us, resting until we left for the train station at midnight. Arriving at the station, we found the entire lobby filled with sleeping bodies and luggage. We too tried to sleep, without much success, until the train finally did arrive at 9 AM, 18 hours late. Our four bed compartment, which we had planned to have only for us three, ended up being filled with another American. It worked out fine, and was very comfortable. The ride through southern and eastern Tanzania is beautiful; the large, open country is dotted with small villages, fields, baobabs, and hills. Half of the 22 hour ride to Dar Es Salaam was during the night; we arrived in Dar early on the morning of August 22 and, at the suggestion of our cab driver, found a comfortable room at the Safari Inn, a backpackers in the city centre. Here we parted ways with Liz; she was off to meet up with other PCVs. We found Dar to be a friendly, safe city, where we were able to walk to dinner after dark. The following morning we boarded the early, fast ferry to Zanzibar.

I could ramble on and on about Zanzibar, the exotic island off the coast of Dar. We spent a glorious 5 days there, three nights in Stone Town and two nights at Kendwa Beach. Stone Town is an African-Arab town whose narrow alleyways and buildings reminded us of Jerusalem. We spent one day on a spice tour, learning and seeing dozens of different spice plants that used to be a large part of the industry; now only cloves are exported from there. Our two wonderful days at the beach near the northern tip of the island were picture and book perfect. The accommodations at Kendwa Rocks were very comfortable ; the food was great, and the beach....ah, the beach. Soft white sands, and the most crystal clear, turquoise water. With no waves (not sure why) it was possible to see several feet to the bottom. Tofo Beach in Mozambique had been like paradise; Kendwa probably only beat that because of the lack of the waves-allowing the visibility. The one other thing I must mention about Zanzibar, because it was the first place we saw this, was the prevalence of Obama stickers and signs! They were everywhere, from bumper stickers on cars to handwritten scrawls on homemade pushcarts. The upcoming election was big and important news to Africans everywhere; we never had trouble finding a local to talk about it; and Tanzania seemed to have more evidence of Obama supporters than in any other country we visited.

After a very bumpy ferry ride back to Dar, we arranged a two day safari from Arusha, in northeast Tanzania, where we were headed the next day. We fortunately nabbed two of the last seats on a 'luxury' bus for the next morning. The all-day bus ride passed near Mt Kilimanjaro, though it was covered by clouds. Arusha was our least favorite city, being filled with touts, who constantly bombard tourists selling either souvenirs or safaris. The city's location near Kili and the Serengeti make it a busy place. We spent a fantastic two days/one night on a safari that took us to Lake Manyara National Park and the Ngorongoro Crater. Prior to taking this trip we had decided we wouldn't be doing any safaris or game drives; we had done our share already and seen most of the big game. But this safari was so different; we are so glad we listened to other travelers' advice. Lake Manyara was beautiful; the crater was exceptional. The drive starts out on the rim, then you descend into the huge crater; it's filled with large herds of animals. We had seen all of these animals before, but the sheer numbers were amazing. Wildebeests, or gnus, by the hundreds, as well as the dwarf antelope, the dik dik, roamed the crater floor.  Hyenas, warthogs, gazelles, hippos, elephants, buffalo, rhino, and so many birds were sighted. The only animal that doesn't live in the crater, understandably, is the giraffe. But we had seen them the day before in the Park. Giraffe had become my favorite park animal during our stay in South Africa; and here I was treated to seeing a new species, the Masai giraffe (as opposed to the Cape giraffe). The crater was definitely another highlight of our trip so far; we began recommending it to other backpackers as well.

Our last day in Arusha was spent at the International Tribunal for Rwanda Genocide. This is something we were very interested in visiting, knowing that we would be ending this trip in Rwanda, and having read about it in a book in preparation for the trip. Unfortunately, most of the day was spent waiting--sometimes waiting for a trial to start, but primarily waiting for one of the three courtrooms to have an open session. Anyone with a passport can watch the sessions, but only a few of them aren't closed to the public. We finally got to watch and listen to about one hour of testimony from a man who had apparently murdered several people. It wasn't very exciting, being slow and repetitive, but it was still eerie to be there watching this proceeding.

The following morning we caught a shuttle (small bus) to Nairobi, Kenya. Mt Meru was still clearly visible that morning, as it had been the day before. At one point before crossing the border, looking out the window at the dry and mostly flat landscape, I spotted a lonely giraffe. This was a timely sighting, saying goodbye to Tanzania by seeing my favorite animal in the exotic Great Rift Valley through which we had been traveling.

Nairobi is a huge, bustling city, and supposedly dangerous. So we were cautious since we stayed in the city centre, walking to dinner while it was still light out, but taking a cab back the 6 blocks later. We were able to have a delicious lunch and spend an afternoon with Krupa, a PCV whose family lives there. We had expected, with Kenya being Obama's father's home, to find much more Obama paraphernalia here; there was literally nothing--how odd! We finally happened upon a store with a t-shirt in the window--turns out the Indian owner has another store outside Chicago and goes there often. We had him make us each a t-shirt, that we had to pick up before noon, since Ramadan had just started. After two nights in central Nairobi, we caught the morning bus to Kampala, Uganda.

Though this was truly one of the nicest buses on which we had ridden, the ride was also the worst. The roads were in horrific shape; some were being redone, but for long stretches of several kilometers there would be no evidence of workers or equipment. But the scenery was beautiful. Lush green hills, tea plantations, and oh, the bananas. Nearing the Ugandan border and for the entire rest of our trip, bananas were everywhere. In Uganda we rode near Lake Victoria, and at Jinja we crossed the Victoria Nile, one of the 'sources' of the great river.

Kampala is a crazy city; we arrived after dark and so caught a private taxi to a backpackers. The driver was helpful, showing us some of the sites while driving through this city built on seven hills. The moto (small motorcycles used as taxis) drivers are insane; thousands of them are on the streets day and night and swerve dangerously in and out of traffic. When we walked to town the following day we were afraid to cross the streets; we escaped being hit by any of them but it made walking a nightmare. While at the backpackers we found a brochure for a retreat on an island in southeast Uganda; one of the women there had been to this place and recommended it. The price was right, and they had a 2 bed dorm available for us, so we booked it and left on a bus for Kabale the following morning. The bus was very late in leaving, so we were forced to stay in Kabale overnight when we arrived there after dark. It was another beautiful ride; Uganda is very green and lush. Throughout the country we saw so many men riding (or walking) bicycles loaded down with loads of all sorts, but mostly bananas. It was an enjoyable ride too, not too uncomfortable and with other passengers to whom we could chat. The man sitting next to us spoke excellent English, and of course, the American election came up. He, as usual, knew a lot about the election; but, not as usual for a black African, he was not an Obama supporter. He, like only one or two other people with whom we spoke, was a Christian who could not support pro-choice. We began to realize how important this election was to everyone in Africa, and around the globe, and how the outcome would affect them. No wonder many of them wished they had the right to vote too!

We left Kabale the next morning with a young Israeli couple whom we met at breakfast; we had to travel by private taxi to the boat dock of the island retreat where we all had reservations for the next couple of days. Lake Bunyonyi has several small islands that have private lodgings; our island was a 50 minute dugout canoe ride away. Two canoes took each of us couples on a perfectly quiet, relaxing smooth ride to Byoona Amagara, an absolute paradise which would become our favorite place at which we would stay on this trip, and possibly in our more than two years in Africa. Only a few other guests were there; the deck/dining area of the wooden lodge overlooks the lake and an adjacent island to the west, where one can snuggle up with a good book and watch the gorgeous sunsets with the volcanoes of the Virungas in the distance. The food was incredible; not only fresh and delicious but more varied than food anywhere else we had stayed. The library/resource center and computer lab serve guests too, but primarily they are used in an after-school program for students who are brought over from the island to its west. This retreat not only boasts wonderful accommodations for travelers, but the NGO that runs it provides services for other students too; meals are prepared and boated to several hundred needy students on the mainland. When Dave and I heard from the manager that the NGO was getting a Peace Corps volunteer later this year, we were envious of that lucky soul! We took a short hike around the island (the only option since it's small); and rented a dugout canoe. What an experience; we had canoed before but we had read about the 'Muzungu corkscrew' in the guidebooks, and did we oblige! We hoped no one could see us, but we laughed at ourselves until we finally sorta figured out how to make the canoe go sorta straight. (Muzungu refers to white people.) We were proud of ourselves for being able to dock the canoe without calling out for help. (We later learned that David and Talia had captured our hilarious moments on video!) After two glorious days and nights in Paradise we hired a canoeist to take us back to the mainland The taxi driver who met us at the dock agreed to take us all the way to the Rwanda border, which wasn't very far. There we walked across to get a shared taxi to Kigali, which fortunately didn't take too long to fill.

From the moment we entered Rwanda until the day we left, we were amazed at this small Central African country. Not only is it beautiful, with its green hills which are covered with terraced fields, but it so doesn't seem like a place that underwent the worst of genocides just 14 years earlier. The entire country is clean; we learned that one Saturday every month is cleaning day - countrywide. Kigali is a vibrant, clean, safe city. For the first time in years, we crossed streets on crosswalks, and the traffic actually stopped to let us cross. Walking alone at night, anywhere, is safe; what a thought! We collected our gorilla tracking permits that we had arranged and paid for three months prior, and had a beer on the pool patio of the hotel known to Westerners as 'Hotel Rwanda'. Then a funny thing happened. While walking through town we saw a sign above a building door with the name of an organization for which Alyssa had worked near Chapel Hill before she moved to Mauritius two years ago. We knew they did work in Africa, and had met her boss once while on a visit to see Alyssa while she was doing research for them. We had time to kill, so we went inside just to see what was there. When we told the receptionist our story and asked if by any chance Alyssa's boss might sometimes be there, she didn't really answer but asked us to follow her. After going up and down several flights of stairs and her talking to coworkers, she said that "yes, Candice was there, in the building somewhere". Well, sure enough, a few minutes later we surprised Candice. She was only in Kigali for the week, having to present a paper the next day; that paper was the one Alyssa had done research for and Candice showed us Alyssa's name as a co-author! Though it was in French, we were excited to see Alyssa's name on a project that had come to fruition after 3 years, and in the country for whom it was done. What a small world!!

Several hours were spent at the Genocide Memorial: a short, safe (helmeted and slow, normal-driven) motorbike taxi ride away from city center. Though the genocide had ended less than 14 years before, this memorial opened a few years ago to commemorate the atrocities, not only of that genocide but of others worldwide as well. Over 250,000 bodies have been moved to the site. It is very well-done and though difficult, is well worth seeing. It is a testament to the fact that this country and its president see its citizens, Hutu and Tutsi, as one people-Rwandans.

Two days after arriving in Kigali we had a beautiful two hour bus ride to Ruhengeri, where we caught a kombi to the village of Kinigi, in the north of Rwanda. We got lucky and caught a lift the last few kilometers to the guest house where we would stay for two nights; park headquarters were just a few hundred meters up the road. Finally the time had come for us to visit the National Park of the Volcanoes for gorilla tracking! In the morning we 56 permit holders gathered at headquarters to be divided into 7 groups; each group would track a different mountain gorilla family. Dave and I seemed to be the only ones without transportation, which is necessary to reach the beginning of the trek. A young couple graciously agreed to let us join them in their truck; the four of us plus four other visitors with their drivers followed our group's guide to the start of our walk. Porters were waiting for us; hiring one, though unnecessary, is expected; if not, these men go home without this day's wages. Even though no one has more than a light day pack, we all hire one and I will appreciate the walking stick and my porter's hand once we hit the hills. A tracker has been in the hills for hours following our gorilla family and now communicates with our guide so that he knows in which direction to lead us. Our long day begins easily enough, hiking through fields of potatoes and pyrethrum. Bamboo fields are dense and dark; then the climbing begins. After about one and a half to two hours of difficult trekking, our mountain gorilla family is finally spotted. It is quite an amazing site, though only six of the eleven are within sight. We are too far away, and so the arduous approach is begun. At one point there is a vertical drop of about eight feet, but the wet undergrowth makes the going treacherous. The guides had to literally catch each of us as we slid down; otherwise there's no telling how far down the mountainside we might have gone! The rain had begun falling; by the time we reached the gorillas it was pouring. Though we were within the allowed 7 meter distance of them, the rain kept the remaining silverback and infant nearest to us from being active. So for about 15 minutes we sat in the rain and heavy mist, watching the two of them sit--the silverback with his arms folded and head down, the infant at his back trying to stay warm. It was disappointing not to be able to see the silverback stand and possibly beat his chest, but it was still amazing to sit so close to these marvelous endangered creatures in this beautiful country. Dian Fossey's “Gorillas in the Mist” had been appropriately named. The trek out was equally, if not more, difficult; the mud often forcing us to slip and slide and leaving no one with unmuddy pants—I know I butt-slid down more than once. If not for the kind hand of our porter and the strong hold of bamboo, I would have tumbled downhill more than once. We were exhausted and muddy after walking back to our lodge, but we were exhilarated too. Seeing mountain gorillas up close is a truly awesome experience and well-worth the expense.

Three teenage boys accompanied us on our walk to Kinigi village the following morning and we paid for their kombi ride to Ruhengeri; we were impressed with their English and dedication to school. We arrived back in Kigali a couple of hours before we headed for the airport. Rwanda had been a perfect country with which to end this amazing journey. It was with mixed emotions we flew out of Central Africa; we looked forward to our return to the States, but knew that Africa would always be a part of us.


  • Wow! Sounds so wonderful and sorta makes me wish I had pursued Rwanda more heartily. Hope to talk to you soon. Sarah

    By Anonymous, at 10:56 AM  

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