Thursday, January 27, 2011

Uganda - Gorillas and waterfalls!

Once in Uganda I settled down just outside Kampala in a hostel called Red Chilli Hideaway. It was time to start work on getting my gorilla tracking permit. I headed to the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) and began checking things out - luckily I was being careful as the first date they tried to give me a permit for, the only accomodation in the area was a massive $60 per night! The UWA people insisted I should be able to pay this (being a muzungu of course. . . no problem!) so eventually I gave up for a bit and decided to nip over to Jinja while I thought about the best way to approach this expensive part of my trip.

Jinja is about 70 kilometres northeast of Kampala and famous as the source of the Nile where Lake Victoria's waters start the long journey to the Mediterranean. While there I found a very quiet relaxing place near the Bujagali falls where white water rafting was being offered for a very decent price. Having not done much of note for a while I decided to give it a go resulting in an awesome day, some new friends, muscle ache and sunburn!

A few days later it was back to Kampala for my second attempt at co-ordinating my gorilla tracking permit with accomodation availability. Kampala is a beautiful city with some pretty insane traffic. The best way to get around is on the Bodabodas (bike taxis) which can be pretty scary. Helmet laws do not exist as far as I can tell, and while I love bikes, I do much prefer to be the one in control when squeezing through rush hour traffic! Every tree in the city seems to have Marabou storks nesting on them - they look pretty weird and not unlike modern day pterodactyls watching over the city. As I was there over the weekend I took the time to check out Kampala's famous night life and was not disappointed. There are many massive clubs dotted around the city, with a great many of them located in an area known as Kabalagala. There were a few crazy nights with some other people staying at Red Chilli - on the Saturday we left Kabalagala at about 7am and the party was still going strong!

A few days later I had managed to get my permit to track gorillas in the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest near a small town called Ruhija. There was a new campsite that had opened up with very reasonable prices of ten dollars a night for a small room. I caught the first bus I could down to Kabale near the Rwanda/Congo border and found a Bodaboda driver willing to drive the two hours it would take to get to Ruhija. Within twenty minutes we were on a dirt track and heading away from any signs of civilisation. The variation in plant life in this area is pretty incredible and I started to understand why it is called the 'impenetrable' forest. Everywhere you look there are miles and miles of trees covering a very mountainous area. Between the trees are smaller plants of every variety and covering all that a mass of vines and creepers. Even with a small army of people and machetes it would take hours to get anywhere in this kind of landscape if it wasn't for the one track that we were haring along. I was almost at my wits end from hanging on to the bike when we finally saw the sign indicating we were at Ruhija and I went to settle in for the night.

The morning brought the realisation that I was now in new territory. It was raining lightly and the valleys were filled with mist as I enjoyed some tea and toast before setting off to the UWA post a kilometre down the road. On arrival there were six other tourists there (a Swedish and Danish couple, two Australians and two Americans) and once the briefing was over we set off down the road. The guides were in radio contacts with the trackers who had set off an hour earlier and we soon turned off the road and onto a small path into the forest proper. Within minutes we were trekking up and down hills as the trackers gave us directions and we got slowly closer to the gorillas. They would stop to eat fruit at one location, then double back on themselves while we were negotiating our way round the thick undergrowth and avoiding the really steep areas. After about four hours we found them relaxing in the bottom of a valley. Our first sighting was a silverback sitting with one of the younger males in a tiny area they had cleared.

They pretty much ignored us and it is very clear they are used to people popping by to have a look. One of the most interesting things to me was hearing the other gorillas grunt to alert each other to their position. It was clear that there was a few of them around but due to the foliage one can only see a few metres in any direction if that so they remained just sounds to us. A few metres further on we found another silverback and the oldest male of the group who was heavily scarred on his head apparently from fights for dominance. The one hour we had was over before we knew it and we headed back.

At this point I got a lucky break as I was discussing the tiring bike ride from Kabale to Ruhija when Jurgen and Anita (the Danish gentleman and Swedish wife) kindly offered to drive me back to Kabale in their hired 4 wheel drive. We left at 9.30 am the next morning and before I knew it I was back in Kabale ready to find transport to Rwanda.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Malaria and cargo boats

The story of how I got to Uganda and discovered the real Malaria! I left Dar Es Salaam around the 24th wanting to cover some distance. The bus trip was a good eleven hours and it was about half way through that I started to feel the chills. Having not slept much the night before I have to admit to thinking I was simply overtired. The first real warning signs started an hour later when I started to feel what can only be described as serious muscle-ache in my neck which quickly spread to my lower back. Now anyone who has driven on the roads (those that have tarmac) in Tanzania will probably be able to tell you they really like their speed bumps, and these are not gentle ones, oh no! Every bump was acutely felt in my back and neck and together with my feeling cold resulted in the sulk of all sulks on the last few hours of that run. Eventually we arrived at Arusha where I forked out the extra for a normal taxi cab and was taken to a very nice place called Maasai camp.

Bottom line, malaria sucks. Never skimp on your anti malarial tablets and definitely go to the doctor the moment you suspect it may be an issue. Needless to say I failed on both of these, false sense of security from hanging around with the locals who never take prophylaxis and I have the bad habit of trying to ride out feeling ill instead of seeking medical help. Unfortunately malaria hits pretty bad, you sleep through the good parts leaving you wide awake for the fever. That and the inability to eat or even drink much really messes you up. On the 30th I came to my senses and went to the clinic where I was given a small bucket of tablets and told to take them after meals (hurr hurr funny doctor). The nice surprise was that I started getting my energy back on the 1st January, a good omen for the coming year?!

The next few days I toured around Arusha with the help of a bike taxi driver who had no problem with being my passenger instead. I was still grumpy over being ill so decided to get my bus ticket to Mwanza on the south shore of Lake Victoria and leave all the bad mojo behind! By the 4th January I was on the road again and had a nice surprise as two friends from Malawi (Jakob and Ola) boarded the same bus. The ride over was fairly horrific to be honest. There was no tarmac on the majority of the road and the driver had taken to screaming around corners and over bumps as if he was a rally driver. We had all managed to get in the back two rows of the bus so every time we hit a bump we all literally flew into the air. Eventually the driver had to slow down slightly as angry passengers started complaining loudly yet even that did not prevent a tyre blowing out half way through the journey (third one this trip!).

We arrived in Mwanza battered, bruised and very glad to be off the death trap. We found a nice cheap guest house in the centre of town and spent a few days doing as little as possible apart from finding nice restaurants where we could and being guided around by a very kind young local guy who took a shine to us. Having strangely enough tired of using buses I visited the port to see if I could hop on a cargo boat to cross the lake to Uganda. There was a boat leaving on the Friday called the Sukhmani and I managed to get the price down to $40 from the $80 they originally wanted. It was a slow trip taking a total of 38 hours but I had a bunk and was fed with the rest of the crew who were very accommodating and interested to talk with me about anything and everything. As we got near Uganda I was offered a sample of the cargo (lots of beer).

I received no exit stamp from Tanzania as the immigration guys bunked off early and was quite worried when we arrived on the Sunday the 9th as it appeared there was nobody in customs at Port Bell to sort out my visa with. After a few discussions with the local police and me pointing out I really wanted to avoid sleeping on the boat again if there was any way, they called out an immigration official who arrived after an hour and processed my visa quickly. I apologised for the call out - I had been hoping to just be allowed through leaving my passport and then return to sort the visa on Monday - and finally was free to enter Uganda.

One hectic Bodaboda (bike taxi under new name) ride later and I was at Red Chilli Hideaway, a very nice backpacker hostel outside Kampala. This is it! I shall travel north no more - now the plan is to go see the source of the Nile at Jinja and see if I can get a gorilla tracking permit. Ciao for now peeps, this has been Bryan reporting from the equator - hurrah!

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Tanzania (well, mostly Zanzibar!)

After waking up in Tanzania I headed back to the border to get myself stamped out and obtain my visa. It cost me $50 but seems to be for three months - the customs official also advised me that I should be able to cross into Uganda and Rwanda then back without getting a new visa (my experiences at borders so far tell me that is a damn lie but I will live in hope!) I walked the two kilometres to the bus depot, not really fun at 11am in Tanzania, but I made it a sweat drenched mess and jumped on the next minibus to Mbeya. Now came the race to get to the train station before the scheduled departure at 1400. The trip took a couple of hours and after hopping into a couple of local buses I was finally at Mbeya train station with thirty minutes to spare. I managed to grab an economy ticket for a seat - the only tickets left - and suddenly spotted some friends who I had met during my stay at Nkhata Bay, Paul from Canada two girls, Marilee and Eva, who were dozing while waiting for the train. We sat down in the shade and eventually it was boarding time four hours later (the Tazara train is reknowned for breaking down regularly and is pretty much never on time as far as I can tell).

That first day was pretty boring so after a short nap I headed up the train to explore and found the restaurant carriage with Paul and company at a table, I joined them and we got our food after about an hour and a half - hardly surprising as the tiny kitchen was trying to feed the whole train. The girls suddenly dragged out a load of sachets they had brought over from Malawi - possibly some of the cheapest booze in the world - and being bored witless that was the rest of the evening planned out! We sat in between carriages (the only place we could smoke) on some lovely 70s spinny seats we had 'acquired' and talked crap until the early hours when satisfied we had passed enough time everyone retired hoping to wake up in time for passing through Selous National Park. The next day we were back in the restaurant car just in time and while munching away were treated to the sight of the usual impala by the dozen as well as a few sightings of elephants and zebras - Hurrah, free game drive! No big cats, but that is hardly a problem since my time with the lions in Zimbabwe I think I have had my fill. We arrived in Dar Es Salaam in daylight and headed to the YMCA, a nice clean hostel in the centre of town. After a shower and shave the guys wanted to go out so we found an awesome restaurant serving every kind of food we could imagine, ate ourselves silly and went out to paint the town red. Dar seems a nice place, you can strongly feel the middle eastern influence is much stronger here through the architectural style as well as of course the abundance of mosques. One of the nice surprises I hadn't thought about was being able to smell the sea again!

After a couple of days in Dar I decided it was time to see Zanzibar (locally known as Unguja) and meet up with Shawn who was relaxing on some beach in the north of the island. A very modern fast ferry had Paul and I there in a couple of hours and after meeting Xabi from Barcelona at the island's customs area we headed to a hostel in Stonetown where we managed to convince the guy there to let us take the last twin room and shove an extra mattress in. Stonetown is lovely and reminiscent of the old town areas of Gibraltar as many of them were when I was a child but the streets are thinner and the Islamic influence is much stronger.

In the evening we found our way to an open air food market where fish such as snapper, barracuda, shark, tuna as well as various types of prawn, crab and lobster are sold cooked in various ways for relatively decent prices. After that we found a bar called Mercury's (Freddy was born here you know!) for a few drinks before we decided to retire and plan our trip north to the white sandy beaches in the north.

The morning saw a quick tour of Stonetown followed by some haggling to get a decent price for the one and a half hour drive to Kendwa Rocks, a place on the beach near Nungwi in the north of the island. The drive up was picturesque with the road flanked by palm and banana trees on both sides and on arriving at the beach I was greeted by white powder sand and azure blue seas like I have never seen before (in real life
anyway). The place we stayed at, while the cheapest around, was a real money eating place. The bar worked with cards that you have to top up with cash the net effect being that it is much harder to keep track of your spending.

I found Shawn (my fellow volunteer from Malawi) laid out on the beach in his shades turning himself as brown as possible. That day we set to finding out where we could obtain drinks and food that were closer to our budget. Shawn showed me a restaurant where the prices were great and all the fish was awesome and fresh - cue lots of tuna for me over the next few days - and we soon found a Rasta run bar where the beers were slightly less expensive than at the beach side.

The next few days were spent doing very little other than eating fish, lying in the sun and drinking beers. All great fun but even that started to pale as the christmas runup ramped up and the carol playing at the beach bar became constant. While the location is stunning, this area is still very much a resort style place with plenty of honeymooning couples and young wealthy families on the beach. A far cry from the backpacking Africa I have become used to so on the twenty third I decided to head back to Stonetown and prepare myself for the run to Uganda. Tanzania itself just didn't interest me enough as a lot of it is geared around game runs for many many dollars and klimbing mount Kilimanjaro (only around $1000 dollars - much cheapness, not). By the 24th I was back in Dar and buying my ticket for Arusha in the north of the country.