Saturday, January 23, 2010

completing the circle

a home-grown coffee shop in kigali
12 Jan.

On the morning of the 12th, we drove through central Kigali to exit the city and head north, and made a stop off at Bourbon Coffee for some joe and breakfast sandwiches for the road. We bought a bag of coffee to feed Aisha (our housekeeper). I unfortunately had gotten her hooked on caffeine, and we thought it best to give her her own stash.

The most remarkable thing about this last leg of the trip was crossing the border back into Uganda. While it still held that feeling of "home," after visiting Kenya, Tanzania and Rwanda, we couldn't shake the feeling that something is just not right with Uganda. I freshened up on the history of dictators, reading aloud from the guide book. Danny tried his damndest to avoid the idiot drivers trying to run us off the road. Admittedly, that last chunk of road from the border, up through Mbarara and Masaka is quite bad - we knew that. But somehow, after the smooth tarmac of Tanzania and Rwanda, we were quite pissed off.

Remembering our trip out to Mihingo in October, we counted off the clustered items on sale on the way back into Kampala - the drum section, the woven mats, the painted stools, the asparagus-like unidentifiable veggies, the FISH. We pulled back into Kampala, sat in jams and finally pulled into the compound in Muyenga. Greeted with waggy butts of Henry and Neilos, we gave a collective sigh and started to unload the car. Home.

Friday, January 22, 2010

mwanza - kigali

so long, friends
11 Jan.

Eventually we had to say good-bye to Hotel Tilapia and pretty little Mwanza, and get back on the road. We were a little over halfway around the lake - and we only had two days to get Danny back to the office. It was appropriately rainy when we woke up, packed the car and hit the road. Due to some bad instructions from the hotel front desk, we ended up at the wrong ferry. When we finally found the right one about an hour away, the ferry was pulling away from the shore. I silently read the New Yorker (about how to make Jews feel included on Christmas) while Danny fumed.

As always happens on a trip so long on the road, a melt-down occurred. I wanted to read him the New Yorker story and he wanted to be mad. Then I got mad that he was mad and he cheered up by purchasing a monkey hat off a vendor. We rode the ferry silently, with arms crossed.

The road from Mwanza to Kigali was a good one. We reached the border at Rusomo Falls, I walked across the little bridge over a raging orange rapid, and met Danny on the other side. The "no-corruption" policies of the Rwandan border control made for a quick crossing, and we were on our way - on the right-hand side of the road. Rwanda is called the "land of a thousand hills," and we wound our way, zig-zagged and swooped all over the country, heading north, then west into the city. Everything about the Rwanda seemed tidy - from the cleanly swept yards to the impeccable dresses worn by the women. The road was smooth and free of potholes. We remarked at how something must be going right here.

We ended the evening crashing at my friend Julie's house in Kigali. We walked through the residential neighborhood and had dinner at Papyrus, drank oodles of wine and walked back home.

Thursday, January 21, 2010


bye-bye to the animals
9 Jan.

Danny and I were pretty quiet driving back out of the Serengeti. We fondly remembered the worst parts of the trip in "hey, this is where you had your first absolute freak out and took out the emergency flask!" or "hey, isn't this where you got out to pee and had to dance to get the tsetse flies off of you?" We paid another visit to the Grumeti River crossing, which was flooded and filled with crocs. And finally, we were at the gate. Danny haggled with the rangers about the fee, and I sat in the car reading and fending off vervet monkeys that were trying to break in and steal stuff (little bastards).

oh, hi. gimme your cookies.

It was high fives all around when we got back onto the tarmac and made our way to Mwanza. I think I even heard the Defender give a loud sigh of relief.

The rock outcroppings of Mwanza are unmistakable, surrounding the lake shore with scenery. They reflected pink, dusky light as we entered the town from the east. Mwanza is Tanzania's third-largest city. At the suggestion of my Kampala Book Club friend, Anna, we drove straight to Hotel Tilapia.

the buganda queen

It was when we were touring the available rooms that Danny and I caught a glimpse of "Buganda Queen," the steamship permanently docked at the hotel. They'd turned the ship into guest rooms, and to our delight, the Marner Suite was available.

We spent two days in Mwanza, without really leaving Hotel Tilapia. The permanently-docked room listed to the left, so you had to do a bit of a gravity-dance in the bathroom so as not to slip and hit the wall. All part of the charm. On the second night we ordered in, Indian food by candlelight on the bow/patio, amidst the old cranks and chains. The rest of the time we caught up on Al-Jazeera and watched Religulous on my netbook. I could have stayed there for a month.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

ngorongoro crater

wildebeest crossing our path on the way to the crater
7 Jan.

The road to Ngorongoro Crater was just as bad as the road to Seronera. If you can ignore the bumps caused by the grading technique used to make the road, it's possible to spend the journey in awe of the landscape. The Serengeti plains were made by layers and layers of volcanic ash from the huge volcano that collapsed into the Ngorongoro Crater. The soil is thin, which accounts for the tree-less plains punctuated by kopjes - the tops of what were once mountains, now just rocks on the surface of the plains.

We passed the turn off for Olduvai Gorge and the landscape changed again, now ascending into verdant green hills, passing Maasai herders as we climbed higher and higher. The temperature dropped quickly and dramatically, and we arrived at the edge of the crater in the middle of the afternoon - lucky to grasp a brief moment of clear before the clouds swept across the rim.

view from the top - ngorongoro crater

The fog crept across the road as we drove along the rim and made our way to Simba A - our camp site for the night, perched at the top of the crater. We concocted our best meal of the trip: Kraft Mac & Cheese, beef chili and canned corn. Five star accommodation and dinner. Late into the night we heard crunching and saw a lone elephant making his way through the trees on the rim. Bush pigs surrounded the camp, crashing and squealing in the dark.

8 Jan.

The next morning, after much discussion and debate, we decided to splurge and pay the fee to go into the crater. We got this far...

After a visit to the Crater Park HQ for fees and fuel, we descended into the crater. The setting seemed surreal, with the lake rimmed with pink flamingos and a giant male lion napping next to the road.

ah, I'm so full, I'm just gonna lay here and zzzzz.........

The blues and greens of the walls were a dramatic backdrop for the yellow grasses of the floor. We mostly just drove around for a while, seeing zebra, elephant, and rhino in the distance. We had to make our way back to Seronera to camp, so after a quick drive around, we had to get back to the ascent road and make our way back. The whole time we were in the crater, I couldn't help but think about the geological process that created it - the instantaneous collapse of an enormous volcano - bigger than Kilimanjaro. I wondered which was more impressive - the volcano in its mighty, natural state, or the depression caused by its collapse?

big lonely guy walking on the crater floor

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

the serengeti

massive herds of grazers on the vast serengeti plains
6 and 7 Jan.

We'd heard from lots of people to be prepared to spend a fortune in Tanzania. The visa alone is $100 for Americans. Entry to the parks is $50 per person per day, with another $40 per vehicle per day and $30 each per night of camping. Get out your calculator - that's $200 per day if you do safari entirely on your own. Maybe that was why I expected big things. Or maybe it was that the Mara was so spectacular, that Serengeti just had to be bigger and better and... more.

bless the rains down in africaaaaaa

I clung to my relentless optimism as we passed through the gate to embark on the "two hour" journey to Seronera camp site. Four and a half hours later, after heavy rains, horrific roads, killer tsetse flies and a looming sense that something must be wrong, we saw the sign for Serena Seronera Serengeti Safari Lodge. We were so frustrated by the drive that we shelled out $427 to stay for one night at the lodge instead of camping. Danny awoke in the morning announcing the "best night of sleep ever in his whole entire life." I just wanted to sit next to the pool. We had a fabulous breakfast with tasty little plums, and one of the staff washed the muck from the Defender and the increasingly smelly muck from our cooler (melted ice + spilled milk + spoiling meat).

defender gets a bath

And then, of course, we got back on the road.

Monday, January 18, 2010

from mara to musoma

5 Jan. Our departure from Masai Mara was a bit delayed - first by the deluge, then sleeping in, then the gutsy blue-balled vervet that stole our pasta, a side trip to see some lions, and the road to Lolgorien "paved" with 3-foot deep mucky muck. We reached the border at Isebania and then continued south on Tanzania's beautiful tarmac roads, hoping to reach camp just outside Serengeti's Ndabaka Gate before nightfall. It was ambitious.

With the waning light painting a magical horizon around us, we tried once again to find that idyllic off-the-road spot that eluded us in Kisii. We pulled off to see about camping on a farmer's property, and were quickly surrounded by every Tanzanian in a 5-mile radius - none of whom could speak English. We drew pictures of tents and tried our best to convey our need for a scenic and private campsite, but to no avail.

We pressed on in the dark, eventually arriving at Tembo Beach Hotel in Musoma - a small town on the shores of Lake Victoria. Tembo Beach is a common stopping point for ginormous overland trucks, and when we pulled into the car park, there was a circle of travelers chatting next to one of the large, lumbering vehicles. We set up our tent in a sandy spot and cooked chicken spaghetti. I turned in early and left Danny to the devices of an older woman from the overland group - who'd taken a liking to him and his scotch.

Upon leaving the next morning, we saw what we'd missed in the cover of night. Musoma is a really neat town, with sand-swept streets and a languid beachy feel. As we drove through on our way to Serengeti, we were both sad that we didn't have time to walk around and get a better feel for the place.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

food chain

crows on a wire (Flickr pic)

I read a Sherman Alexie book - War Dances - on vacation. Mostly at the Serengeti petrol/repair station in Seronera, while some guys repaired the bushings on the Defender. Later on, as we were making our way to Mwanza, I got to the last page and found this poem, Food Chain, which really struck me. I'm still writing about our trip, but this is a little interlude.

Food Chain

This is my will:

Bury me
In an anthill.

After one week
Of this feast,

Set the ants on fire.
Make me a funeral pyre.

Let my smoke rise
Into the eyes

Of those crows
On the telephone wire.

Startle those birds
Into flight

With my last words:
I loved my life.

~ Sherman Alexie, from War Dances

Saturday, January 16, 2010

hyena, lion, weaver : dog, cat, bird

teddy bear? no, that's a sleeping hyena

danny woke them up

Then, the next day, we heard a rumor about some cats that made a kill....

that's a very dead giraffe head in the foreground


Later that day, the rain sent the weavers into a frenzy.

sand river camp = locus amoenus

Home to the first 360 degree sunset.

Several people had suggested we stay at Sand River Camp. The site, which is actually a park gate, is nestled in the hills, on the winding banks of aptly-named Sand River. We were the only campers, which added to the feeling of remoteness of the place.

When we pulled up to talk to the rangers on the first day, they all shrieked and ran away. Turns out it wasn't because of us, but rather a young green mamba that showed up on the walls of the gate. Here's the deadly little guy eating a lizard. The ranger gave us a full lecture on the deadliness of the green mamba.

green mamba eating a lizard, which appears to be shitting itself

The first night at Sand River, after the amazing sunset, night fell and we were sitting at our campfire - when suddenly we heard what can only be described as munching. We took out the spotlight to check it out - a family of five elephants was walking along, eating grass on the other side of the car - not 25 yards from where we were sitting.

Our second night at Sand River, we decided to cross the river and camp a bit further from the gate. We picked a perfect spot with a tree on a bending bank. After a full day of incredible safari, we pulled up in the drizzle to set up camp. It had been drizzling all day, and it turned into full-on rain as night fell. Sometime while I was cooking dinner (minestrone soup mix with pasta and chicken added in), there was this strange howling sound. It gave me goosebumps. Again, out with the spotlight... but this time it wasn't animals, but rather a fast-rising river. Within minutes, Sand River had risen about 6 feet and was now a raging torrent of dark brown water.

morning after the deluge

We pulled the Defender up higher onto the bank and nestled in for a night of flood-filled dreams. The next morning, we took our time with breakfast, assuming the bridge was out.

We weren't alone. A vervet monkey crept up on our campsite and perched himself in the tree. It didn't take long to figure out he was casing the joint, and as we were merrily photographing his blue balls, he chose the perfect moment to run into our campsite, tucking a bag of rainbow-colored pasta under his arm football-style, looked both ways and ran. Danny was fast behind him (yes, he chased a wild monkey to retrieve our pasta), returning and fist-pumping the bag of pasta he stole back from the monkey.

And THAT was the end of our stay at Sand River.

Friday, January 15, 2010

from kisii to sand river camp

atop the western escarpment, looking out over masai mara

3 Jan. Following our hearty mashed potato breakfast, we continued south through Kilgoris, where the tarmac ended and began a winding journey through a beautiful pastoral setting - green hills with grass kept short by munching cattle, the occasional Maasai herdsman. My trucker side-kick sun burn began.

We entered Masai Mara through the seldom-used western gate - most tourists come from Nairobi, which puts you at the northeastern corner of the park. Seeing that Kenya had been receiving huge amounts of off-season rain, the last stretch of road into the park was horrific. Danny got to use more than his fair share of his defensive driving skills getting through this mucky mud pit that was eating everyone else's cars. I don't know how he did it. The actual arrival at the park is stunning - we didn't realize we'd been driving atop an escarpment, which promptly opened to the widest, most beautiful and empty scene you can imagine - yellow-green grass, acacia trees, and rainstorms on the horizon.

wide open spaces in masai mara

After a brief stop off to check out Kichwa Tembo Camp (a luxury camp - we stopped for a beer, tour and some ice for the coolers), we reached the main gate.

Our campsite, Sand River Camp, was on the complete opposite end (southeast corner) of the park, so we got to drive through the entire park on our way there.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

hitting the road: from kampala to kisii

Danny and I are unfortunately getting a reputation for being late to things. We were definitely late for our trip - luckily there was no plane to catch - just the Defender sitting in the driveway, waiting patiently. We spent most of New Years Day packing: a trunk with our clothes; a bin filled with canned beans and corn, chili, pasta, oatmeal, coffee, mac & cheese, packets of tuna; foldable camp chairs and table; lanterns and cooking stove; yellow jerry cans of drinking water; "the kitchen" - a backpack filled with cooking and eating utensils; coolers with meat for the early days on the road; our two guitars (in a romantic ideal of our trip, we were musical vagrants), and an inexplicable amount of booze for two people for 12 days (you know, just in case). Neilos hopped in the back seat and put on a VERY depressed face.

We finally hit the road just before dark, and ran into rain on the Kampala-Jinja Road, realizing the headlights were not sufficient to be driving in the dark. So, on our first day, we made it about 90 km. We stopped for the night at our friend Wim's place, staying in his cottage for the night.

2 Jan - time to get serious. We got on the road to Kenya and crossed the border at Busia. Kenya greeted us with rain and shitty roads (yes, worse than Uganda). We drove into Kisumu for money and bread - Kisumu is a lakeside town, and Kenya's third largest city. Then on further south to Kisii. I'd been reading about what an utter crap hole Kisii was - litter-strewn streets, lots of weird unfinished construction - a sort of Tijuana in the Kenyan hills. Unfortunately, darkness was again fast approaching, and we recognized that there was no possible way we'd make it to the Mara before dark. We both shared the dream of setting up camp in some idyllic spot just off the road, with stunning views.

Instead of scenery, we were awarded with an evening at the Kisii police barracks. Danny pulled his international policeman card and we parked the Defender between two buildings housing about ten officers. Surely the highlight of their new year.

The highlight of my morning, however, was when Danny tried to turn last night's mashed potatoes (accidentally made enough for an army) into potato pancakes. Note: mashed potatoes fry up nicely the next day as.... mashed potatoes, nothing more. So we had mashed potatoes for breakfast and hit the road.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

the big trip

adventure! animals! the roar of a diesel engine!

Sometime this past fall, Danny and I decided we wanted to take a big trip - a road trip. His affinity for Land Rovers made it an easy thing to envision - hitting up some of the hottest spots in East Africa on an over-land adventure all our own, in the world's coolest car. Danny already had a Land Rover Discovery when I met him. Sometime in 2009, he came home with a beat-to-hell white Defender, made sometime in the late 80s, with doors that didn't entirely work, and a constant smell of petrol - reminiscent of going out on the boat at home. As much as I loved that Defender, the thought of relying on it to get us around East Africa made me nervous. The solution? Buy one more Land Rover Defender - this time a late 90s model (also white) with a roof rack.

I came back from the holidays with maps of TZ, Kenya and Rwanda. A friend loaned us his South African rooftop tent, which involved a few Clubs and Danny sawing off part of his roof rack with a handsaw. After that we were more or less ready to go. Except that we didn't have the slightest clue of where, exactly, we were headed. At some point we'd gotten it into our heads that we'd just drive all the way around Lake Victoria - seeing everything we could along the way. Eastern Uganda, western Kenya, Masai Mara, Serengeti, Ngorongoro Crater, Lake Vic's coastline, Rwanda's hills, western Uganda and home again.

In twelve days.