Nairobi is a strange city. On one hand it is modern with all the bells and whistles you would expect to find in London or Los Angles but on the other it is crowded, hot and unsafe once the sun goes down. Rivaling Johannesburg for the title of most dangerous city, I proceeded cautiously when leaving the hostel for a pack of cigarettes at 10pm on a Friday night. I had originally planned to cross from Kenya into Tanzania and climb Mt Kilimanjaro, while I am sure this would have been an amazing and rewarding experience it costs over $1000USD. I figured I could spend the same amount getting lost in East Africa’s Great Lake region of Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi. These are a few snippets from a month in paradise.
I found myself waking to the sound of monkeys tripping over my tent-lines. Peering out of my triangle I looked out across Lake Navashir. Bounding towards me was Tractor, a six month old St Bernard that belonged to Sean, the owner of Fisherman´s Camp. Over the next few days Tractor became my companion, exploring the lakes shores and warding off Hippo´s which strayed too close. However Hells Gate´s policy of no dogs put an end to our bromance and I teamed up with a couple of Aussies to tackle one of Kenya´s most rugged National Parks. It is unique among Africa´s wildlife experiences in that you are actively encouraged to rent a mountain bike to explore the valley. The prospect of having no metallic bonnet between myself and the Buffalo, Leopard and Elephant was exhilarating. The landscape of the park was simply breathtaking as we explored deep valleys and vast open plains filled with Zebra, Giraffe, Impala, Warthog, Baboons, Hippo´s and Buffalo. My first big game experience and I was hooked .
While camping was quite cheap for an empty tent without a mattress, the food at the lodge was a little pricey for my wallet. My Scottish blood shone through and because I didn’t want to leave my new found slice of paradise I began devising ways to avoid eating at the restaurant. I befriended the resident weaver who sold his crafts to the passing tourists; his name was Tom, a short thin man with dark leathery hands and a slight hobble as he walked to and from his spinning wheel. After leaving my tent each morning I would meet Tom in his shack and discuss Kenyan politics until around 7:30am when Mamma Rosie would come around selling cups of African porridge for 50c a cup. The mornings were slow, spent reading or talking with the various travelers staying lakeside. I slipped efficiently into a routine, heading up to the local village for a lunch of Ugali (mashed Maze) and Roast Goat. If my mornings were slow my afternoons were at snail’s pace, spent sitting with Tom and other boatmen on the jetty, fishing with a rod I had crafted myself out of a reed and some twine and a toothpick. The pickings were slim but in about 3 hours I usually managed to get 5-6 hand sized fish, which I gutted and stuck on a skewer to be roasted over a fire when the sun went down. It was my routine and I liked it. No, I loved it.
My first photo in Uganda
´Your name is Sharp? My name is Sharp! Welcome to Uganda Sharp!´ It appeared that the over enthusiastic Border Guard at Uganda´s Malaba crossing was also named Sharp. Within a minute of walking through the border post I was stepping up into the cab of Osama´s truck. Osama´s mother is from Yemen and his father from Kenya, meaning that we could communicate in Saudi Arabic. The three hour drive to Jinja was enough time for me to hear Osama´s life story. His two sons named Gaddafi and Saddam (no I am not kidding) attend school in Kenya´s Muslim dominated Mombasa. Our honeymoon period came to an end when the truck peetered out on the side of the road. I left Osama tinkering under the hood as I jumped on a bus for the last few kilometers. Perched on the northern tip of Lake Victoria, Jinja is where the Nile begins its journey north to the shores of the Mediterranean. So I had done it; followed the world´s longest river from its end in Egypt to its birth in Central Africa. A dull sense of accomplishment came over me followed by a the thought: ´what next?` Silly question, follow the mantra, ´if in doubt, head south´.
Kampala is another bustling African mess splayed out across seven hills and valleys.
Lake Bunyoni lies in the hills between Uganda, The Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda. Its isolation is its greatest asset. The placid water gives way to our wooden boat as Nicolas, our driver, reeves the throttle of his two stroke motor. In the darkness I could make out a jetty lit by a kerosene lamp. At this stage I should mention that I am travelling with a fellow Kiwi named Hamish who is a Doctor working in Zambia. We spent the next few days exploring the backwaters of the lake and the remote villages flanked by steep valley walls.
A Mountain Gorilla shares 97% of our DNA. Remarkably they seem to know it; as I watch a teenage male reaches from Ham´s orange bag. But my eyes are fixed on the 300kg Male Silverback sitting less than two meters in front of me. I am transfixed by this brooding black beast who sits up, scratches his balls and then sniffs his fingers. His family play around him, female’s, babies on their backs and rebellious youths occupy the branches and trees around our clearing. Words cannot describe. Because of the risk of spreading disease to the Gorillas the time is limited to one hour and we were soon being dragged away with backward glances. Thank god Hamish and I were able to share his camera.
James spent his time fighting the LRA (Kony) before coming to work at the Park
James, Ham, Bonnie
We hiked to a ridge above the park, accompanied by two armed guards to scare off bush elephants apparently; their names were James and Bonnie, great chaps. Surrounded by dense jungle that spreads out of the largest forest in Africa, Hamish casually pulls out his Iphone to check our location. I shit you not the little blue dot was well inside the line that marks the Border with the DRC, meaning that we had unknowingly crossed into one of the most dangerous countries in the world. As I looked across at the Congo, it called to me in a way that scarily reminded me of the Middle East. What I had hoped was just an attraction to Arab culture was becoming a strange obsession with something not so savory. Something much more dangerous: an addiction to conflict.
For me Rwanda represents one thing in my mind. Shame. We did not act to prevent one of the greatest tragedies in our history. What always hit me the hardest is the French force of 500 soldiers were sent in to Kigali to rescue all the ´whites´ from the Interhamwe (killing militias). The reality is that those 500 paratroopers were the best of the French army and with their advanced weaponry could have stopped the violence being committed by the blade of the machete. Easily. And yet we did nothing and as a result one million corpses lined the streets of this tiny country that I now found myself in. Walking the streets is a constant reminder of our guilt; after the Genocide international guilt money flowed into the country and it has been lavishly spent on modern footpaths and pristine gardens that reminded me of American Suburbia. Hamish and I headed north to a remote border town on the shores of Lake Kivu. My attempt to cross into the Congo was short-lived, fueled by the prospect of another adventure, and extinguished by a corrupt border guard who sensing my eagerness refused to allow me across unless a hefty sum was handed over. I didn’t fight it, part of me, the rational side breathed a sigh of relief that I knew would be echoed by my family across the world. I was eager to leave Rwanda, its scars a painful reminder of what is happening in Syria. A reminder that we are doing this again, we are abandoning innocent people to be slaughtered like dogs in the street. Excuse me while I rant. I am well aware that for people back home it is hard to comprehend why I give a damn, why I am constantly posting articles about Syria. Not that I feel the need to justify my Facebook activity; it is an issue very close to my heart. When every time you turn on the news you see images of the places you have been, now lying in heaps of rumble or when I see pictures of dead bodies, wondering, did I meet her, or him, did she wave to me as I drove past that one time? It is impossible not to be gripped at the very core, frightened to read the news, for fear of reading as I did three days ago of a bomb that killed 43 and injured 100 in the town of Reyhanli. Reyhanli, the town where I bought a lighter from the supermarket, where we shared Syrian bread with Mahmoud and his family, where we met 7 year old Jamil, where we watched a game of football being played under lights, where we played a game of table tennis at the youth center and the laughed at me because I tripped over whilst fetching the ball. It is real to me and I care. I do not want to stand in a memorial in Damascus one day as I stood then in Kigali and read about how the UN floundered around like headless chickens. I do not want to read the names of my friends carved into a marble stone with the words ´never again´ written above them.
Jamil a Syrian refugee in Reyhanli
Burundi only emerged from civil war in 2007 and the peace has been somewhat fragile since to say the least. Yet this was my next destination and I managed to drag Hamish along, although he wasn’t hard to convince in the end. We knew we were among a handful of travelers to make the trip overland on public transport through the northern provinces to the capital Bujumbura. We didn’t let this deter us, setting out early from Kigali so to be sure to be off the road by nightfall in Burundi. French, I didn’t enjoy it when I was third form and I didn’t enjoy it now. I will give you an example: one night we went to a local place for a meal and looked at the menu, it was in French. I wanted the chicken, all out, the pork, all out, the beef, all out, and so I was left staring at Chevre, which I mistook for Chevron- which means horse. Hamish went ahead and ordered what I thought was horse while I shot him dirty looks across the table. Having spent a lot of time around horses as a boy I could not bring myself to eat the animal and so ordered plain chips and salad, shite food. The ´horse´ arrived and I made some remark about how small the knee joint was for a horse, ´must´ve been a pony´ Hamish remarked taking clear joy in my squeamishness. A week after leaving Burundi I open an email from old Ham which explains that Chevre means goat and that I went hungry that night for nothing .
Burundi pleasantly surprised me in its normalness. For a country that has a travel warning of ´high risk´ for the entire country I was left wondering what on earth for? We headed for the beach on Sunday and caught the local aid workers, contractors and UN Peace Keepers in their weekly routine of beers and volleyball with the mountains of the DRC watching us from across Lake Tanganyika. Playing a game of volleyball and sipping beers in the pool is not how I envisioned my trip inside what I thought was going to be the most dangerous place in Africa. I was sad to leave but the three day visa dictated that we must part in our ways and make for opposite borders, Hamish heading north for Kilimanjaro and I south for Kigoma. Squeezed eight into a five seat sedan, and with a flurry of hands exchanging thin notes of cash I crossed into Tanzania for the first time. Jambo, Habari Jesus!’
I will finish on a light note, as this post has been more of a yarn than any kind of short stories that I designed when I began writing. The Africans have taken to calling me names, ranging from Mazungu (white man) to Johnny (what they think all Englishmen are named) to Chuck Norris and finally the most common and by far the most irritating; Jesus. ´Hey Jesus!´ constantly. To be fair I have long hair and a beard now but I take pleasure in shooting them warning glances and for those who push their luck I snap back that Jesus was an Arab and watch their face crumble in disillusionment. After 11 countries, 10,000km and three months I am ready to leave Africa, yet I still have some way to go yet and I don’t know when my next post will come. But in the meantime take a look the new and improved photo galleries and please scroll down and sign the petition for Syria, as a Birthday favor to me if nothing else.
Toda Aba. Asante Sane. Shukran Kter. Merci Becou. Thank you very much.