16 June 2012
As much as a day of traveling requires bare minimum efforts, it never fails to make you exhausted.
Tom and I found a dalla dalla equally as cramped as the previous day and set off bright and early to Arusha. The accommodation for the past few nights has been great for $7 per night, and I’m preparing myself for camping over the next month and a half.
Once in Arusha, time was well spent slurping hearty hot chocolate and chatting to mum and dad on Facebook. I know it’s out if their technological comfort zone, and I am so grateful they they have created an account just so they communicate with me while I’m on my travels- I think dad is even getting faster at typing haha.
I make my way to the airport, angrily arguing with a taxi driver because of the astronomical price out there, ready for a speedy one hour flight across the border to Nairobi, Kenya. The plane is of course two hours late, and I’m kicking myself that I wasted a flight on getting to Nairobi when I could have caught a bus and probably got there in half the time!
By the time I arrive in nairobi, my prepaid airport transfer is nowhere to be seen, and I catch a taxi to our joining hotel to arrive at the end of the scheduled 6 pm group meeting. My worries are smoothed away when I realize that half of our fifteen group members are absent, caught in the clutches of carefree Africa time.
I meet my guide, Mikorey (MJ), a good looking thirty something west Kenyan, with perfect levels of confidence, enthusiasm and good humor. I fil out paperwork and hand over my hard American cash that I have been cautiously carting around, and I feel happy to pass over the reigns and let this man guide us through countries I can’t imagine traveling on my lonesome. I have joined an intrepid tour that runs for sixteen days through Kenya, Uganda and most anticipated, the gorilla rich jungles of Rwanda. The cost is sort of astronomical in backpacker standards, but it seems appropriate traveling through a relatively undiscovered continent like Africa, and doing the safari thing is not really possible to do on the cheap or on your own. Entry fees into parks range between single and triple digits per day, and a single gorilla permit to walk with the gentle giants costs a staggering $500 per day. The gorillas are the only reason tourism is funneled through the tiny country of Rwanda, and the permit fees probably keep the country running.
I join my group of avid African adventurers for dinner, and find that my companions originate from Australia, new Zealand, switzerland, England, Canada and the US. Most of us are first timers in this continent, but most have traveled with intrepid at some stage through their life. I am the youngest, and we range up to fifty years old. Thirteen will begin the trip here in Nairobi, and we will meet an Aussie couple in Uganda along the way.
I head up to my room and find that my bedroom/tent companion for this trip is Kimberly from San Francisco. We talk for hours before remembering that we should get some shut eye for the eventful days ahead.
17 June 2012
Tegan- 25 year old Aussie from king island and currently teaching English in Bali at an international school. Blonde and loves horses and wouldnt hurt a fly.
Erin- here with Tegan, 26 year old from sunshine coast currently living in Jakarta teaching English. Hurt her back very badly on first day and currently surviving on pain killers.
Anne- 45ish from Melbourne, private accountant, very well travelled. Owns a blue heeler corgie.
Kieran- 36 from Melbourne, paramedic and ex teacher, done everything. Very confident, blonde and great stories.
Andrea (Andy) – 35 from Christchurch, now working as a radiographer in Melbourne. Dark hair and mauri, fit and lovely girl.
Caitlin- also from NZ, but currently a flat mate with Andy in Melbourne, also 35, a journalist working for a big council. The girls are on a three month trip down to cape town.
Simon- 34 year old handsome London policeman, married one year to Charleen. Loves traveling, great sense of curiosity.
Charlene- agent to famous people, 32 years old from London, dark and tiny. We get on really well.
David- 52 year old Canadian, manages a big Staples store with his wife, Alex, near Niagara Falls.
Alex- Yet another blonde, here with David, very thoughtful couple and I hope to stay with David’s daughter in Vancouver later this year.
Kimberley – 45 but looks 25, from Santa Barbara, works for big company and about to quit her job for something new.
Chantelle- about 35, from Lucerne in Switzerland, super tanned and definitely going to use her as a contact in Europe. Very infectious laugh.
Mark- 28 year old paramedic from Sydney. Here with his girlfriend Kim, they are traveling down to cape town over 4 months. Ginger hair and hilarious.
Kim- fit looking 32 year old, also a paramedic from Sydney. We picked them up and will also drop them off in Uganda, their main prerogative for the trip is the gorillas in Rwanda.
The back of MJs shirt reads ‘it’s not a truck, it’s a bus’. Our method of transportation over the next few weeks is a giant contraption, enough seats for twenty two people, propped up higher than a bus, with spacious windows that can be opened horizontally for prime animal tracking. We have huge compartments of space under the truck for luggage, food and water, tents, mattresses and kitchen utensils. I have my own two seats to myself with big pockets on the seats in front for my belongings. Overhead luggage compartments remove the clutter throughout the bus and it really feels comfortable. We can stand up and walk around and felt like kings in our castle ( until we saw the absolute Africa and other rich bitch countries with trucks double the size).
All on board (except Kim and Mark who we collect in uganda), we navigated the built up streets of Nairobi, aka nai-robbery, renowned to be one of the most dangerous cities in africa. MJ assures us it’s fine, just act with precaution and don’t be out at night. Skyscrapers blocked our view of the sun and people don’t glance twice at the white people on the king sized bus ambling past.
The fog rolled in heavily as we progressed and I didn’t feel guilty about yakking away to our bus buddies rather than admiring the landscape. Everyone is buzzing with excitement and every one of them is brilliant quality. We talk loads about past traveling quirks and stories and compare home countries, arguing about who has the best beaches, bottoms and chocolate.
First stop of the day is to marvel at the Rift Valley Escarpment, that great east west divide which runs thousands of kilometers through the continent, evident through its low valley and vertical cliffs that run parallel.
After chugging on a few more hours, we reach Gilgil and visit the Saidia children’s home. This orphanage bursts with goodwill and compassion. We are given seats and listen to one of the elderly directors explain how the orphanage runs and how children come into its care. The majority of orphans in Africa are male because young males are kicked off their land by greedy uncles and family members who would rather inherit the land themselves and want to eliminate the possibility of a young boy ruining their chances. One of the orphanages in Tanzania has 90% males precislely due to this issue.
The orphans, ranging from 1 – 20 years, sing for us once the explanation has concluded. Gorgeous little boys in jumpers with hoods shyly clap their hands and sing along, looking to the confident older ones for direction.
The children give us a guided tour of their rooms and the large playground, complete with a torturously squeaky swing set and slippery dip. They delight in the the fact my camera is waterproof and use their plastic water pistols to attack me. The directors words ring true in our ears, that a little bit of love is all they crave. Deceased parents, abusive families, abandonment or banished from their communities are the common stories, and looking at their healthy limbs and giggling fits causes you to forget the unjust past that belongs to each one.
After a few hours, we arrived at Nakuru national park. This is only a small park, but it still costs $105 per person to enter. We pulled up on a campsite free of barriers or fences and the animals simply roam through.
MJ gives a demonstration on how to put up our tents, a chunky brown plastic mass that weighs about 14 kg (ideal for trekking haha). Between two of us, the tent quickly pops up and is large enough for me (and only me I suppose) to stand upright and fit out roll up mattresses and packs inside comfortably. It’s more like temporary housing than camping, and Ken the kitchen man sets up the food while we wonder around sorting ourselves out.
I have been on the trip about eight days now, and the food has been dangerously delicious. Salad sandwiches or leftovers for lunch, coriander chicken with spiced rice for dinners and fresh fruit with everything. This is definitely a deadly combination mixed with the extensive amount of bums on seats while driving!
Nakuru National Park was very exciting, and we agreed that we could all get used to this lifestyle. Piled on the intrepid truck, we had our own seats, propped up high and windows open for the prime game viewing opportunities.
Written from an internet dungeon in a backpackers in Nairobi that smells a little bit like sick. Trying to decide whether to go to Mombasa or Lamu this week is eating my mind while I type.
That afternoon, I got my first case of severe lens envy. We saw all sorts of amazing African animals, black and white rhinos, impalas, Thompsons gazelle, zebras and water-buck, all sharing the might plains of grass, sun baking, snoozing and snacking. Massive flocks of flamingos, pelicans, and a scattering of huge, ugly marabou stalks which we have become well acquainted with, Egyptian ducks and water buffalo frolicking in the gravy like mud. Lake Nakuru, with its impressive backdrop of huge green cliff slopes below perfectly formed rainbows seems to have been specifically as fine food for the human eyes.
With all of this on show for us, I clicked away with my little waterproofie Lumix with 4x zoom, and suddenly became aware of the lenses climbing up around me, more powerful than a goddamn telescope, zooming in to take pictures of the individual hairs and wrinkles on animals hundreds of meters away. These cameras are a common occurrence with the regular tourists traversing Africa. These babies are complete with their own bags, changeable lenses, cleaning equipment, dummy and bib, and probably cost more than my car (maybe that doesn’t prove much). I swear its not just the photo buffs that have them – everyone does! The other day we were on a boat and spotted a huge crocodile. While everyone had their cameras honed in and snapping away at the prehistoric looking specimen, I had my camera pointed at the ridicuoulsy blown up lenses that emerged from their cushy hiding places. I have serious lens envy, and if there’s one place in the world you want a 10,000 x zoom, lenses as long as your leg, fancy pants camera, its Africa. It’s a place where men and women don’t get judged on their physical appearance or personality, but on the size of their lens! Enough said.
So MJ kitted me out with a pair of old school, 5kg binoculars to help my cause, and I have them constantly glued to my eyes, spotting distant ostriches, warthogs, mongooses and rocks that you swear are hippos.
The bus is a good sanctuary for us – its sort of like we are the ones in the zoo and the animals stop for a glance and then continue on with their everyday life. The only ones who really notice us are the giraffes, who are big posers who turn from side to side and smile for the cameras.
The only problem with the bus is you can’t go to the toilet. This issue is double as stressful because at Nakuru, you can’t get up at night to go to the loo or you face the possibility of being charged, trampled and most likely eaten by a ferociously horned water buffalo. So there’s pretty much no time in the day to drink water safely. I even have to say no to a bedtime hot chocolate! Serious sacrificing. Anyway, of course I had to get up and pee even though I drank nothing all day but my body just decides it wants to dice with death. Stuff the toilet, I pretty much pee on top of the tent then bolt back into the safety of my sleeping bag at the speed of light.
18/19 June 12 – Nakuru – Eldoret – Kampala
After another game drive in the early morning, we packed up and headed out. The driving stints on this trip are long because we are covering such a huge distance on very, very unpredictable roads. This morning, we we waited for about an hour while volunteers cleared the path after a head on collision between two trucks. The majority of time, we have been driving along while our jaws chatter uncontrollably, the windows rattle as do our bones, lockers swing open, dust billows iin making us silently pray for facilities at the next campsite. There are loads of speed bumps, and our driver doesn’t approach them slowly, but screeches on the brakes when we get as close as physically possible, sending us flying forwards. This is a good road at the moment, hence my beautiful writing (cough).
We made a stop at Nakuru, a city of about one million. Im not sure if it was because of the large city centre, or whether it’s just a Kenyan thing, but loads of the women dressed up in bridesmaid dresses! It’s really strange, not only young girls adorn pretty little dresses with bows and ribbons, but women of all ages follow suit. Kimberly thinks that after Westerners wear their wedding dresses, they must be shipped to places like this and don’t go to waste.
We threaded our way through bustling alleyways brimming with makeshift market stalls selling tools and tidbits, teenage boys hauling buckets of colorful polish for a quick street side mani or pedi. When we get to the fresh produce market, I know I prefer the atmosphere of an open courtyard much more than narrow paths which hold a cramped and sinister feel.
I walk with a few of the girls, and between us we can work out what most of the foreign looking fruit might be. A woman sees our confusion at the sight of buckets of rocks lined along the stalls. She puts some in her mouth and offers us to do the same. It’s calcium which pregnant women eat in order to increase their intake of the mineral. I get the idea, but its just like a horrible crumbling lump in my mouth, and all day I pick little stones off my tongue. I suppose it just adds to the joys of pregnancy!
On the topic of pregnancy, so many women have babies on their backs! They slip them under a piece of material and walk around all day gardening or carrying vegetables, and forget they have a miniature being sleeping against their spine. Toddlers run rampant, parents hardly ever in sight. Kenya is currently at 37 million people, and I don’t think it’s showing signs of slowing down. Personal space is considered a luxury, and the majority of citizens share cramped public transport or load their motorbike with the extended family plus a couple of chickens. The houses in the main cities like Nakuru, Kampala, Kigali and Kabale are densely packed to say the least, and the living conditions closer to the city are slum like, with wooden boards and plastic or even aluminum sheeting if you’re lucky, all smeared in that thick layer of red dust which connects the three East African countries I have visited over the past two weeks. Of course, there are some really nice houses in the cities, but it certainly looks more beautiful and spacious to live in the countryside, even if it is only a mud and straw square shelter. Do we actually need more?
We drove further west through Kenya, heading for Eldoret, a small agricultural town bordering Uganda.It looked as though many other safari companies had the same idea that night, so we got down to chatting (with those that spoke English). If we needed a Spanish, French or German translator though,our Swiss companion Chantelle was more than capable. Some people were on journeys of epic proportion – ie 80 days from Cape Town To Nairobi. If you didn’t kill the people on your trip, I think you would at least get blaze about the scenery. The next night, we met a German couple who have traveled from MUNICH and aspire to reach Cape Town. Holy guacamole. They are driving their own car, a 4WD with a tent set up on the rood (maybe so the lions can’t eat them so conveniently, but it doesn’t save you from men with guns in north Africa!) on their journey down the globe.
The next morning, we mouthed goodbye to Kenya as we stepped across the border to Uganda. Uganda. To me, it meant the movie, The Last King of Scotland. Corrupt, dangerous, exceedingly poor and unjust. I had also imagined desert, young black hollow limbs and bulging bellies with flies in eyes. What presented itself when we began to cross the country was a polar opposite of the wasteland I had pictured. Uganda is the meaning of tropical, banana crops and thick palm trees pop out and then give way to the dense, healthy jumble of vegetation covering the rolling hills that surround in every direction. The housing is markedly different, and there is a lack of the spherical shaped homes from Kenya that are from Massai influence. Uganda is beautiful, and to prove how pathetic my understanding of geography is, I was shocked later that day when we crossed a very significant river. The Nle River. Uganda, and more specifically, Jinja, is the source of this mighty life force that I usually connotate with Egypt. The beer appropriately changed to ‘The Nile Special’. I think that in terms of understanding the geography of the world, you can learn as much as you want on paper, but can’t retain it until you visit these places and they actually mean something to you. Suppose it’s the same with everything though.
We stopped to make our sandwich lunch near the Nile, becoming a great spectacle for the budda bellied, grime covered, clothes tattered children with that uncontainable bursting energy synonymous with all happy and well loved kids across cultures.
Kampala is a bustling capital city, and our next night of temporary tent poles was set up on the outskirts of the city. I don’t really like the feeling of big cities, whether it’s Sydney, Saigon or Kampala. There are too many people, and individuals lost the significance that comes with life in a smaller and relaxed town. Occasionally its fun to get lost in the crowd.
We stayed at a nice campsite called Red Chilli, even better because it had WIFI. I downloaded ‘The Season of Blood’, a recount of the Rwandan genocide, in order to get myself more updated on the dramatic and horrifying history of the next country on our agenda.
At Red Chilli, we scoped out the two new additions to our group, Mark and Kim. They are paramedics from Sydney, and are on a three month venture down to Cape Town. They fitted into our group well, and we chatted over flavours from home (spag bol).
I generally get on with people fine. But I made a big mistake with Ken the cook. He looks more like Bob Marley, with perfectly formed dreads falling from under his puffy, rainbow old beaten leather hat which I am convinced must be stitched to his head. He is so black that at night I only see him like the chesher cat in the tree in Alice in Wonderland – a set of shiny white teeth. He is a man of few words. Actually, that’s a gross understatement, he’s a man of no words. If you offer to help with cooking, he just grunts whilst smoking away on a cigarette which wouldn’t surprise any of us if it was rolled with weed. Maybe that would explain why we are so happy after we eat his food! When the food is ready, he just sets the big silver pots out on the fold away table and sort of jabs his finger at it so we know we are allowed to eat. After our dinner, MJ makes up for Ken’s lack of words with a speech that is polished to perfection. He asks everyone about their favorite part of the day, making you feel like you mean the world to this man, who in reality gets a new group of tourists every few weeks. He is calm and witty, our laughs are not forced. MJ is the best tour guide I have ever had ( ask me again in seven months) and I think the whole group is just as chuffed. For a long time, he jokes that he has six wives and 28 children. MJ 1, Mj 2, MJ 3.. He tells us he bought his first wife for 200 cows and his last he only paid 10. This sets off days worth of conversation about how many cows us girls would be worth in our dowry. Expectations are high! MJ eventually caves and tells us he had one wide and two children living in west Kenya. The job of a guide entertains my imagination, and when we meet a chubby, white, chain smoking bore from England who is leading another bus of travelers, I realise the job wouldn’t be too hard to get. I spoke to this girl for a while (in between breathing clouds of Marlboro), and she told me she just did one of their tours then began working for the company. I think she’s been doing it now for two years through Eygpt and Africa, but wants to go back to her family and normality.Argh, I completely forgot to tell you about my problem with Ken! It began with the hand washing. We have a three bowl system – dettol soap, then three bowls of water to scrub you hands in before eating. It’s like lathering up and preparing to go into theater and perform some brain surgery rather than eat some cornflakes. In Kampala, I had a shower and then toddled down to breakfast. I went to reach for an already stained looking cup and all conversation was silenced when Ken’s voice sliced through; WASH YOUR HANDS!!’. It was hilariously embarrassing, and it happened many times again. So this first morning, I turned to him and said, “I just had a shower, is that cool?”. He looked at me with his black bead eyes and slowly hissed, “No, that is so NOT cool”. I swear the others were gagging and trying not to laugh. I decided it should be a mission to make friends with Ken, who I swear walked around and smiled at everyone, slapped the boys good naturally on the back, and then growled at me. When noone was around, I felt the time was right to make amends. I walked over to Ken, skinny as a rake, so my following words were definately appropriate.He said nothing to me, (of course) so I broke the ice with hellos and then said in my goddamn Australian sarcasm ‘You know, you should never trust a skinny chef’. Ken turned to me and glared and I realised right away that our cook does either not appreciate sarcasm or even worse, doesn’t understand it. He told me how his passion has been food since he was a boy, and I am pretty sure I just insulted his heart of hearts. Over the trip, our relationship didn’t bloom in any way, and I steered clear of Ken when he had his knives out or when he was amlbing about carrying a bowl of scolding hot water. Ken and Jessica did not make friends.
TRINKETS, GENOCIDES AND CHIMPANZEES
20/21st June 2012 – Kibale Forest National Park
I have decided that in each country I visit, I will buy one special item in remembrance (and yes Dad, shoes definately count).
For Uganda, I found a basic little jewelry store and strained my eyes to look at the pieces in the fading light. Her big marquee umbrella was battered and broken on the ground beside the woman, as a pack of monkeys had just come through and delighted in jumping on the big umbrella until it was flattened. I spoke to the lady, and she told me a story.
When she was a young girl, her mother and father were poor, so they gave her to an aunty to look after her. Her aunty sold her to a man when she was seventeen years old – she was reaped and ran away, pregnant with his child. She struggled for ten years, then met a man who she fell in love with. He supported her to set up a business, getting poor, local women to make jewelry from magazines and pieces of ceramic tile. She is now 35, with two children and her business is running smoothly, helping the women who are in the throes of suffering that she experienced in her younger life.
From her I bought a pair of ceramic earrings dabbed with blue spongy circles. I gave her a thick silver necklace that uncle Alex gave me long ago, and her eyes filled with tears when we hugged and she wore it immediately. The universal bond of sisterhood is a saying I once read, and it certainly rings true here.
We traveled on to Kibale, a seven hour drive. On the way, we stopped at random little markets and towns just to say hello and buy some plantain or roasted corn. MJ can’t stress the importance of local interaction enough, and I’m happy with that because we would play with small children and look at their notebooks – some scrap paper bound with newspaper – and laugh with women over our inability to communicate conventionally. The sky held a deep grey and threatened rain, even though my skin prickled with the heat.
Somewhere along the way (most likely at 0 degrees 😉 ) we stopped at the equator. They had a big sign and it was bang on the spot. This was proven by an enthusiastic local who set up a bowl and funnel, showing us how the water in the funnel spun in a different direction on each side of the equator, and sat still and unswirling on the equator itself. So we stood on the northern and southern hemisphere concurrently, lied on it, rolled on it feeling very worldy and had our African amateur scientist to take happy snaps.
I read the whole book, ‘The Season of Blood’, on the bus. MJ urged us to study the history further, as the Rwandan genocide was much deeper than just a cultural divide. In the past, the Tutsi’s represented 15% of the 7 million population. Tutsis were tall and had aquiline noses, and when the Belgiums (??super ignorant Jessica, forgive me, that’s why I’m travelling) colonized Rwanda after WW1, they enlisted the help of the Tutsis to control the Hutus. The Hutus were treated terribly, and confined to their low social status, with little chance of rising in power. Identification cards were issued to the Hutus and Tutsis by the Belgiums, who wanted to increase this cultural divide. In 1959, the Tutsi president was killed, and the Hutus revolted. Many Tutsis were brutally murdered, and over the following few decades, the ideal amount of anti – Tutsi propaganda was sent to the populace in order to create conditions ripe for total annihilation. When the Hutu president, Habriyamana, was shot down in his private jet on 6 April 1944, the Tutsis were blamed for his murder. No-one knows the assassin to the president, but it triggered a genocidal war in which one million people were murdered in 100 days. Over the entire war period, 2 million people were casualties, dramatically reducing the population. Terrified citizens fled the country. The Tutsis met their savage demise at the roadblocks when their identity became apparent. The Hutus were driven by a government fed string of ideas that the Tutsis would take over again and the only way to prevent this was to wipe them out. It was neighbor against neighbor, friend against friend. Machetes, clubs and any other instruments that could be scrounged were used to beat and hack at civilians tattooed with the deadly title of Tutsi. They attempted to fight back, but were not prepared like the Hutus. The rivers ran red with their blood for days. The international community tied its hands behind its back with a mandate that no force could be used by the 2,500 soldiers in Rwanda at the time. When ten Belgium soldiers were brutally tortured, castrated and murdered, the 2500 soldiers were removed, leaving only 200 United Nations combatants. Red Cross hospitals, churches and schools had no immunity from the brutality of war, and actually had higher concentrations of corpses found there, as people had fled there hoping for protection.
The book made my stomach turn,. and everything had a shade a grey. Wouldn’t you rather just be dead if you were in a situation where you knew that monsters were real, in the form of someone you knew?
The genocide only occurred 18 years ago, and I can’t believe we are going to visit so soon after the calamities of war. Would they blame us for not intervening? Would there still be cultural divides even if they tried to smooth it over publically? Do they get support for mental health after such extreme events that affected so many? Are the perpetrators dead or sentenced? My head rocked and I felt curious and anxious to see the country that has experienced more pain than should ever be inflicted anywhere.
I should explain where I am, which is also admitting how lazy my diary efforts have been. It’s the 3rd of July, I am sitting over a flickering candle in a small restaurant on Lamu Island. I took a painstakingly long 16 hour bus trip to get to this famed location of ancient Swahili ruins, and I am glad I did. I am staring out past the heavily robed Muslim women and free roaming donkeys at the full moon in the salty night sky above me.
So, back to Kibale. We reached our picturesque campsite in the sweltering heat of a Ugandan afternoon, and pitched our tents, overlooking tea plantations and densely terraced hills that slide down to the huge river below (which translates to mean ‘mother of mosquitoes’, just great). After taking a much needed walk to stretch our rigid legs and seat imprinted bums, we laid back with a beer (I’m finally learning to enjoy it!) and touched wood our luck would continue on with more campsites like this one.
Mark and I had a big chat, and he gave me heaps of ideas for reading and also inspired me with this 30 day challenge idea. Each month, he takes on a different activity, ie no meat eating or maybe a half hour of meditation each day. I have decided it sounds like a fun distraction from everyday life, and I will take on a new one each month from now on. For July, I’m going to read for at last half an hour every day. It’s not a very big goal, but I can’t do anything extreme like give up meat while I’m travelling and there are exciting things on offer!!
In the morning, we were able to really check out the surrounds when we were given two tall scruffy boy guides and sent on a walking safari. MJ has a habit of exaggerating to a high degree, emphasizing the physical exertion and sturdy clothing required for the ‘walking safari’, which in actual fact was a gentle stroll, and my feet only got hot because we stood in the same place for too long while Ignatius the guide explained why the grey crested bird liked that particular tree. It was a delightful morning nonetheless, marked by tea trees, colobus monkeys, colorful birds, local peanut butter and deciphering the African/English dialect. But the real fun awaited us in the afternoon.
We geared up; sunscreen, hair tied back, safari long sleeve shirts buttoned, channeling our inner Jane Goodall for our afternoon with Uganda’s renowned chimpanzees. Kibale National Park has the highest concentration of these primates, and after driving further into the heart of the jungle, we were split into groups of six in order to track a family of chimps each.
My group pleased me, and Kieran, Tegan, Chantelle and I gave each other looks of smug approval with our intelligent looking, bespectacled guide. At the last minute we had a late addition, Sue. She has been the topic of many a conversation since the chimp day, debating whether she is an old movie star. She waltzed into the picture with her manicured Canadian accent, cheekbones that seemed to hang from string (which is no mean feat for a women of 82!!) a lens-envy worthy camera in a satchel strapped over her stomach and her divine white locks. I got out all I could from her until the guide told me to shut up, because apparently we were listening for chimp noises. So, Sue is from Canada but has been travelling for the past 15 years, and specifically in the Antarctic where her friends have a ship.. Moral of the story, don’t forget to get your arse to Uganda in your eighties Jessica, oh, and undertake regular polar expeditions.
We all joined the Sue fan club and I gave her my walking pole and we put her at the front.
Supposedly, the trek could take anywhere from 1 – 4 hours to even locate the hairy primates. Just as I was settling with my iPod and getting my plod on, the goddamn chimps screeched – after only 20 minutes!!
Lots of the rules we had been given flew out the window, and all of a sudden all of the groups had crunched their way in towards the noise. So rather than a cosy six people observing the chimps, we had a herd of 20 of us there, posing only about 3 metres from the huge alpha male.
Sue got a bit excited though, and apparently her super lens wasn’t good enough for her and she got so close as to get a hysterical sounding response from the chimpanzees on more than two occasions. We didn’t mind though, Sue can do as she pleases.
It was such an unreal experience walking into their habitat, watching Mum and daughter swing between the branches with an almost mechanical jolt, yet still maintaining gracefulness. The adults sat on the grass or high in the treetops eating heavy jackfruit, barely noticing our presence and entranced in scraping the fruit clean. Once it was done, the would just drop the hollow, bowl like jackfruit from height, and we humans would scuffle around trying to avoid brain damage. Younger ones dared their weight on paper thin branches while their older siblings laid out flexed in a slice of sun. We had one hour with them, and during that time we got to see lots of bodily functions going on. Some mating scenes that our famous pornography photographer Mark captured more than once. I watched over the movie that night and witnessed the whole process in less than 30 seconds, ending with the female running off impatiently. I suppose we aren’t all that different, just like they say! Haah
Our one hour visit was also enough time for me to get a splattering of poo on the wrist from our newfound friends.
It was a great experience, because they are not only in the trees but literally on the grass in front of you. There are many families in the park, but this is one of the groups that has been habituated. There are about 20 in a family, and 500 across the whole park. Habituated chimps means that rangers have followed and camped with them for an extended period of time until humans become completely familiar. There have been no cases of humans in danger from the chimps within this park, and I think that fact alone made us very brazen during our visit. An itchy male got up at once stage, in order to scratch elsewhere, and walked straight past us, brushing my side, not afraid yet not threatening. I felt invisible to them, and I just hope that reflects that we are not a danger or care to them.
When it was time to say our goodbyes and our memory cards were overflowing with chimpanzees, the groups reformed and set off on the short stomp back to the office.
We headed off on a so called shortcut with our guide, who we quickly learned was an academic and that meant far from practical. Even I, with my paralyzed sense of geography, felt that we were curving around the forest in a big circle. We laughed at the prospect, but once 20 minutes had elapsed and the vegetation in no way resembled a path but a barrier of trees and vines fit for some Tarzan maneuvers, we asked the guide the inevitable question. He laughed, embarrassed, and said something about the sun not looking like normal. We walked on with raised eyebrows and hushed giggles, but poor Sue was falling over amongst the vines. After some 40 minutes, we actually arrived back at the chimps. We laughed our heads off, a full circle. With still some difficulty, we found our way back to the path, and our guide went on to spin an elaborate reason for our temporarily geographical embarrassment. The devil, yes THE DEVIL, had pulled us off the track, causing us to get lost (even though I just got crapped on by a chimp, which he told me is a good luck charm) but our bespectacled guide, heroically, pulled us back on track before the dark set in and we could have been lost dreadfully in the dark.
We arrived back with a half dead Sue, a superstitious guide and three laughing girls who had entirely lost hope in the practicality of the male species.
22 June 12 Queen Elizabeth National Park
It felt brilliant to have two nights in the one campsite, but it was time to head further west into Uganda.
My stomach tortured me, tying itself in elaborate knots throughout the day, and nothing would relieve the cramps. A few of the group shared my pain, and every now and then one of us would buckle over at the middle and you knew the cramps had hit. I assume it’s the water we have been drinking straight from the tap, but MJ assures us it’s safe.
If its possible to judge, I think the drive was even more teeth shattering than usual. Queen Elizabeth National Park presented itself as an intricate system of rivers and lakes, with excitingly high concentrations of wild animals on the banks of the waterways.
After setting up camp (every day a record breaking time- we could do it with our hands tied by now) and joking about our jealously at those sensible ones amongst us who spent $10 to upgrade to a permanent tent complete with ensuite and bed, we made our way into the park for the afternoon.
In the middle of nowhere in the middle of Uganda, a Shell petrol station sat symbolically, a greeting from the western world, next to a Park office.
Inside the park office, I blew my mind over the size of the elephant, hippo and buffalo skulls on display. The hippos jaw is so wide that I stuck my head inside comfortably. No wonder they are the most dangerous animal in Africa, but then I remembered they are herbivores!
MJ left us at a jetty, where two boats awaited the oncoming stampede of tourists. We didn’t disappoint, and turned up in buses, spanking new matatus, crumbling old vans and even walking on foot , coming from godknowswhere.
Everyone piled onto a boat, and Tegan and I immediately made our way to the rooftop, where we met the two Dutch boys. They were traveling alone, and later got a lift with us back to our campsite. At nightfall we pulled in, and they realized it was too expensive (and more importantly, didn’t have a TV to watch the football) and paid someone to drive them an hour more into the unpredictable African night to a more appropriate accommodation candidate. MJ scolded their stupidity and lack of organization, whereas I just smiled, impressed with their freedom and risk taking.
On the boat, we heard the drones of the stern park ranger belowdeck explaining the characteristics of the animals on the banks. We gazed out at gatherings of elephants, buffalos, and most blood pumping, hippopotamus, just below us.
Hippos are the laziest animal of all time, guzzling scum and plants under the surface and then coming up to wiggle their ears and draw in a slow breath of oxygen before disappearing again. One territorial male stood tall and let loose with a big poo and concurrent helicopter motion from his tail, dicing and spraying the stuff all over his chubby friends in the process. Hippos are truly hilarious, but this one had really ruined the romantic atmosphere we had going with the dutch boys.
The weather was perfect and we sat under the sun with our legs poking through the bars and dangling high over the murky waters of Queen Elizabeth National Park.
To our surprise, we cruised past a village, where people were washing just down river from the hippos. We later leant that a woman on the banks had been killed by one of the gigantic animals just the week before, and it’s not an uncommon occurrence. Their chunky legs can actually move at 40 km/hr.
When we arrived back from our river cruise, it appeared that the official boy scout crew from the US had arrived, dressed to the safari nines, complete with gloves, bandana and goddamn knives tied to their belts. We left before they knew our laughing fits were thanks to them.
23 June 12 Lake Bunyonyi
I think lake Bunyonyi was one if the most beautiful places we visited in Uganda. As usual, it took a day of driving to arrive at our destination in the south west of the country. My legs yearned for the blood to pump through them, so Mark, Kim, Andy and I took a lung bashing hike to the highest vantage point in the area. Looking back down over the Lake felt like a scene from New Zealand. The sparkling water skirted around a bunch of green islands, this pattern stretching out as far as we could see.
With the buzz of circulation riding through our bodies, we walked on until late, meeting villagers and cheeky groups of school kids who wouldn’t let go of my iPod when I offered them a listen. We arrived back at sundown and leant the others also enjoyed themselves, some conquering the local mokoro boats whilst others spun hopelessly in circles out in the middle of the lake.
24-26 June 12 – Rwanda
On the drive through to the border of
Uganda, we pulled over at Kabale. A heap of the group had planned on getting shirts for the Intrepid trip made here in this town, but once they saw the decent looking coffee shop next door, that plan disappeared under a splash of long life milk.
I checked the Internet and a big smile sat on my face while I read through emails from friends. Already, Maree and Z, Danni and Lucy are planning to join me in Rio for New Years Eve. It’s so exciting and I want to make plans with them now, but it’s jut so far in the future. Before then, I’ve still got three continents to survive.
To prepare for the big travelling day, we had woken in a dark sky and fumbled to put tents down then made packed lunches with the hopeless, crumbling African bread. Once at the border to Rwanda, the looming Ruhengeri mountain range was there to meet us. With the ink still drying on our visa stamp, we looked out eagerly for the signs advertising this regions beer brand and caught snippets of French flying by in the wind.
We passed through Kigali- a remarkably normal looking city. On the outskirts, the Kigali Genocide Memorial looks over the city, a physical reminder of their undeniably horrific past. We arrived in June, and joined many locals adorned in a purple sash to commemorate those lost. For the months of April, may and June each year, rwandans travel from the far reaches of the country to pay their respects. We were given two hours and an audio headset and sent off to discover the place for ourselves. I didn’t take photos because it didn’t feel appropriate, I might have been standing next to a man and taking a picture of his daughters grave. It’s like a fresh crime scene.
The place grabbed your attention and didn’t let it go, even after leaving. Inside, there are walls explaining the political lead up to the catastrophe. One room is filled with family album type photos of those who died. I suppose the memorial centre asked for families or friends to send in pictures, and there are a huge array of happy snaps; a boy graduating, a woman gardening, parents proudly showing off a new addition to the family, a huge grin on a chubby lady with a red top, young and old, male and female, all sharing one thing; an unjust, untimely demise.
Women in traditional one shouldered robes wept openly in the room, either for someone they loved of for the sad plight humanity had taken for these souls.
In another room, live footage of people being shot point blank on streets and bodies strewn messily at a murder scene filled the screens. Some visitors walked on hurriedly, but I found my eyes glued to the images. People should come and see this disgusting horror, maybe it will help prevent humankind’s mistakes we keep repeating. Genocide, war, murder, rape; all shown in the idea of educating future generations of the dangers of men with loud voices and deceitful tricks of propaganda.
The last room held a select few child victims. A large board held their portrait, and underneath, family and friends had helped to create a description of their favourite food and hobbies and the way they were killed. It’s heavy for a human to fully absorb, so I went and sat quietly and when the others showed up we mentioned the memorial lightly then spoke of unrelated topics and busied ourselves rating coffee. Genocide is publicly swept under the carpet with the peas, probably because it’s too psychologically complex to discuss.
Musanze became our home for the next three nights, and we abandoned our tents for real beds in cramped dormitories. All except two would be undertaking the undisputed highlight of the trip the next day- tracking the famous mountain gorillas of rwanda. Mark and Kim volunteered to go on the day after next, because there aren’t enough permits for us all to go on the same day.