Thursday, 11 December 2014

Democratic Republic of Congo

For weeks we'd been discussing the possibility of travelling to Democratic Republic of Congo. Friends we had met along this trip had tried and failed to obtain visas in recent months, with the situation too volatile or the national park near Goma closed due to rebel activity there. We applied for visas and got the all clear, so we thought we'd go for it. The foreign office advice of no travel to areas outside Goma and only essential travel to Goma itself added to the excitement. Although the day before we were set to travel across the border 14 people were hacked to death with machetes, reminding us of the dangers in the area.

Our first glimpse of DRC was from the border crossing in Rwanda, where all went relatively smoothly. We then made a 10 minute journey across the city, showing us the centre and some suburbs of the city. The roads we travelled down were better than several other African cities we've visited, although practically every other vehicle was a 4x4 with UN or Oxfam plastered down the side.

We walked into our hotel and soon felt out of place. We'd had to splash out for a couple of nights, as we were unable to find any budget accommodation. I walked in wearing 4 day old underwear (laundry is a rare luxury) to find very wealthy looking businessmen in suits. Our differences in wealth showed at meal time, where we tried to pretend that we were strict vegetarians to avoid the staff realising we couldn't afford any meat dishes. The cover was blown at the buffet breakfast where I stacked about 4 platefuls of ham.

A nights sleep in the comfiest bed we've slept in for 4 months, possibly ever, saw an early start for our journey to gorilla trekking. We soon saw the real side of the city, where a turn off the main road saw you on a dirt track surrounded by dishevelled looking shacks. Either side of the road there were lines of boulders, where a volcanic eruption in 2002 had buried half the town. The outskirts of the town were packed with UN bases, including a military camp which seemed to stretch on forever. We were also required to pick up an armed guard for the journey 'for our safety'.

The first hour and a half of the trip saw the state of the roads reducing us to an average speed of 30mph. The second hour and a half didn't see us get above 6mph, with the roads turning into outcrops of steep rock for our 4x4 to attempt to climb. Every so often the driver would stop for a few seconds and look in his mirror, before driving off again. This was a little unnerving until we realised it was because kids had jumped onto the back of the vehicle.

Our trek to the gorillas saw us hiking through farms on the outskirts of Virunga National Park until we found our entrance, which was a duck under the electric fence into the park. Here any signs of tracks disappeared, with our 2 guides creating a route with their machetes, whilst the two guards with ak47's looked on for rebel groups who are rumoured to be hiding within the park.

The guides stopped us after a reasonably short hike and told us to put on our medical masks, used to stop spreading diseases to the animals. We turned the next corner to find 3 gorillas lieing feet away, including a huge silverback laid on his stomach. They acted as if we weren't there, occasionally giving us a grunt which the guards returned to show we weren't a danger to them.

Around the corner was a further 6 or 7 gorillas, including a tiny 2 year old. It seems the younger they are the fluffier they are, with this one looking like a ball of fluff, with an Afro I'd be proud of. At one point the little one tried to grab hold of Sammie's leg, our guides forbid contact with the gorillas, so the 6 of us had to run away from this 2 foot high little thing. The older gorillas seemed contempt to just lie there, occasionally grab something to eat and every 30 seconds or so let out a huge, huge fart. There wasn't many occasions when they weren't farting and I wasn't giggling.

The next morning we made the short journey to the 1900m high base of the Mount Nyiragongo trail, where we met the group of Indians, Turks and a fellow Brit who we'd be ascending with. The first 2 and a half hours of the hike went pretty smoothly, with the only downside being a lack of views because of thick cloud cover. We were walking along unsteady layers of volcanic rock, laid on the ground during the eruption 12 years ago. The second half of the trek took a lot longer, with storm rains battering down on us and a member of the group, sloth girl, deciding to make a competition out of how slow she could walk. The group couldn't separate because of the potential dangers in the area, so we were stuck behind her, pacing for 3 or 4 steps before stopping for her to catch her breath. By the sounds she was making I can only assume she was going through labour whilst doing the hike, so fair play to her for finishing.

After 6 and a half hours we reached the 3500m high summit. The freezing winds, heavy rainfall and lack of any consistent movement meant that we were absolutely freezing, me and Sammie went and changed into dry clothes before even bothering to look over the ridge into the volcano. Fortunately our huts were approximately 5 metres from the ridge, so a good view wasn't hard to come by. After a couple of cloudy glimpses of the worlds largest lava lake, we headed for bed at 6pm, moaning and shivering. I spent the night in 4 t-shirts, 2 trousers, a jumper, a hoody and a sleeping bag and it still wasn't warm.

The next morning however our bodies had reheated and we came out to look at the lava in the pitch black. It was an absolutely amazing view, seeing the lake of lava settling before starting to throw around pools of lava and releasing scores of smoke. I really can't write well enough to do the place justice, it was amazing. The health and safety consisted of a guide occasionally telling us to be careful near the edge, which explains why a tourist fell to her death a few years ago. It was completely untouched, with you leaning over the edge looking 100m down into the crater.

The journey down saw sloth girl up to her old tricks again, so the gentle 3 hour descent turned into a 5 and a half hour hike that was mostly stationary. After that we got a ride back to the border and crossed back into Rwanda. It was a short detour to Democratic Republic of Congo, but it's definitely got to be two of the best experiences of the trip so far.


The trip from Malawi to Rwanda took us on a 4 day journey from the south to the north of Tanzania. This included over 50 hours of buses, over two thirds of which didn't hit tarmac. The best journey took us from Mbeya to Tabora, where an expected 12 hour journey was supposed to see us arrive at 8pm. 5 breakdowns later and we arrived at 2am, after circling the town to find accommodation either full or trying to charge us a fortune, we went back to the station and spent the night sleeping on the stationary bus.

After a rough few days travelling through Tanzania we reached the Rwandan border. Here we discovered that about 2 weeks earlier Rwanda had changed its policy of letting in tourists in for free and started charging them for a $30 visa. This turned into a nightmare as we didn't have enough dollars to cross the border, but after getting some off a local for some outrageous exchange prices, we finally made it into the country.

The contrast between Rwanda and Tanzania or Malawi was huge and immediately obvious. The land was completely dominated by hills, with all of this land cultivated for farming. The buildings, roads and organisation of the land gave the country a much wealthier feel to it than what we'd been used to. A ban on plastic bags and the whole population donating two hours of their time on the last Saturday of the month to community service, gave the country a beautifully clean and finished look. 

Our journey from the west of the country into the centre only took a couple of hours, the country is a dot on the map next to Tanzania. Our destination was Kigali, the capital of the country and the cleanest, calmest and most welcoming city we've seen. The streets were even lined with palm trees. 

The first day in the city was spent doing the main tourist site, with it being Rwanda this was the genocide museum commemorating the 1994 genocide where 1 million people were killed in 100 days. The museum was fascinating, looking at the causes and effects of the genocide, it was crazy to think even people our age must have witnessed horrific events. The Hotel which the film 'Hotel Rwanda' was based on didn't live up to the heights of the museum, with me and Sammie walking around the hotel for 15 minutes before realising there was nothing here but a functioning hotel. A good few days in the city was topped off by sharing a goat leg and arm between 5 of us, a delicious Rwandan speciality. (I'm still not sure goats have arms).

From Kigali we headed to Kibuye, a small town on the edge of Lake Kivu. 2 and a half hours of snaking roads through mountainous scenery took us to the town. Here we hired a motorbike taxi to our hostel, seeing Sammie try and balance a bag on her front and back whilst staying on a motorbike was hilarious. She fell off a stationary bike just before we came out here.

Our new home was equipped with stunning panoramic views of the lake. We spent the next few days relaxing here, reading, playing plenty of cards and going on some hikes of the hills surrounding the lake, even spotting an otter who came up for air a few metres away from us.

A boat trip north up Lake Kivu took us to our final Rwandan destination of Gisenyi. Here we stayed in an old Belgian colonial mansion which had been converted into a hostel. We stuck to a similar routine of doing very little here, organising future plans and spending some days by a pool. 

The time spent in Rwanda has been a nice chilled break, it's a beautiful country where just walking or driving through the hills is a great experience. 

Saturday, 22 November 2014


After a care free border crossing we walked the bridge into Malawi, the warm heart of Africa. The bus station we were looking for turned out to be a minibus parked at the side of the road. So we got in the 14 seater alongside 25 other passengers, a lot of luggage and some potent smelling fish. We had read along the way that Malawians are a friendly bunch who settle disagreements with good humour. There seemed to be no good humour from the station attendant at our first stop whilst he was punching our driver in the side of the head through his window.

After this crammed 11 hour journey we made it to Nkhata Bay, a picturesque tourist spot on the shore of lake Malawi. We spent the first week acclimatising (sunbathing), alongside a boat trip and a few walks to discover our new home. We also bought bikes for our expected weekly commute to our out of town school, naively deciding to bike them the 47km back from Mzuzu. The unending hills made the journey hard. The pedals falling off made it impossible. After a few hours of cycling and and hour of walking in the pitch black we gave up and hitched a ride back into town.

Our intentions to stay and teach at a school just outside Nhkata Bay for a year lasted just over a week, when we had to make the unfortunate decision to leave. We won't go into details. It was a sad goodbye to the class we had taught for that time, when we were just growing used to each other and making some progress.

The next few days were spent reevaluating our plans, which resulted in us moving to Butterfly Space, a volunteer lodge on the lakeshore. This turned out to be a fantastic move, with the next two months spent working in the local nursery, youth club but mainly in the on site primary school with a class of 6 (ish) year olds.

The school started well, with the kids a little wild but a lot of fun. After the first few weeks though the local support teacher was replaced, with the replacement a lot more helpful and enthusiastic, which was fairly vital with the kids speaking very little English. This combined with a new volunteer starting, who's home job was a teacher trainer, made the school a lot more structured and organised, helping us and the kids a lot.

So the next two months were spent with the kids learning maths, English and science through a lot of fun activities. Face painting, mask making, papier-mâché, planting a garden and weekly swimming lessons were part of a curriculum which the kids loved. It's easy to see why when some at the kids at surrounding primary schools had up to 120 students in a single class, sat outside on the floor. A good education is still an appreciated privilege here, unlike at home.

Our stay at butterfly wasn't completely pain free, with a couple of bouts of illness cropping up along the way. Me and Sammie, along with a few of the other guests were diagnosed with Gardia, which made us pretty useless and quite unpleasant for a few days. I followed this with a worm living in my bum cheek which had to be removed by a doctor. He diagnosed it as myaisis and eagerly asked Sammie if she had a camera to take pictures of it hanging out of me. We should have expected it after 2 months washing in the lake. The showers were up a steep flight of stairs.

In between our school weeks we tried to fit in exploring some of Malawi's sites and experiences. A trip to Mushroom farm near Livingstonia saw our open faced chalet overlooking a series of mountains leading down to the lake, allowing us to watch the sun come up from over the horizon from our bed. It was a pretty amazing place. Another weekend set us on a canoeing trip northwards up the lake with another English couple. The 10km ride took us to our guides local village, where we camped out on a deserted beach. The weekend was spent touring the village and being followed by up to 40 kids. During the day we fell asleep alone on the beach, but woke up to 30 pairs of eyes looking over us in silence. I felt violated. The rest of the time was spent barbecuing on the beach and the second night we ditched the tent to sleep on the beach under the stars, a really special experience.

Our penultimate weekend in the country saw us volunteering in Kasungu National Park, doing a game count. The park has seen a steep rise in poaching recently, so an annual count was created to log the damage being done. This involved groups being given a walking trail and counting animals along the way. Our group was pretty unsuccessful, although the other people we went with from Butterfly saw herds of elephants amongst other animals. Either way it was a free walking safari and we got to stay in a beautiful hut next to a watering hole full of hippos and bathing elephants. You can't complain.

Daily life in Nkhata Bay was an experience in itself. Swarms of lake flies occasionally came to shore
to lay eggs, with literally billions of them swarming the land to the point that you have to stay inside.
Locals capitalise on this by catching swarms and condensing them into a fly burger to eat. It's utterly rancid and completely unnecessary when mango season saw us buying 54 mangoes for 66p.

Our last weekend showed how much the place meant to us, with a leaving party with the kids at school reducing Sammie to tears and a leaving meal with the adults forcing us to say goodbye to all the friends we'd made during our stay. We were very lucky to have the chance to spend that much time in a really great place and it's an experience we will never forget.

But all good things must come to an end, so after a final fun weekend of beach volleyball, we left the country as we'd entered it; crammed into a sweaty minibus with too many people, too many fish and this time even a couple of chickens. Goodbye Malawi.

Sunday, 28 September 2014


After a tearful goodbye at Gatwick (from Sammie) we boarded a plane that took us to Dar es Salaam, via Istanbul. A taxi drive from the airport introduced us to the city at 3am, with our hostel lurking around narrow backstreets lined with homeless sleeping bodies. A daunting first image of Tanzania.

The next day was spent exploring the city in daylight. Dar es Salaam has little to attract tourists, it's more of a transport hub and a stopping point en route to somewhere more exciting. Walking through the streets gave us some good glimpses of hectic city life, but that was the only highlight.

Zanzibar was our escape from the sweaty crowded city, with a ferry taking us across a short stretch of Indian Ocean to the picturesque honeymoon island. The first two days were spent navigating the colonial settlement of Stone Town, an old trading port with some historic significance. We endlessly got lost in the narrow, illogical maze of streets which seemed endless until you suddenly turned a corner to discover a view of the ocean. We arrived at the end of Ramadan festival, so hundreds of locals filled the streets at night, enjoying street food and a party atmosphere. A day trip to Prison island from Stone Town showed us a very mundane abandoned prison, this was outshone by a giant tortoise sanctuary, with dozens of huge tortoises lounging about.

After the lively atmosphere of Stone Town we took the hour long journey to the other side of the island, to the idyllic paradise of Michamvie Kae. Here we walked out of our hostel onto a deserted white sand beach leading into turquoise waters. 8 days were spent here doing not much more than a couple of walks into the mangroves and a lot of playing cards. Our bodies were still adjusting to our malaria medicine so a glimpse of sunshine ended up in burnt skin. Our Rastafarian hosts were a source of entertainment, we knew how much they had been smoking by how much of what they said made sense. They had been smoking a lot on the last day when the taxi they ordered us took us to the airport instead of to the ferry.

An overnight stay back in Dar es Salaam was needed before an 8 hour bus journey inland took us to Iringa. Here we arrived at 5pm and had a safari booked by 6pm, leaving the following morning at 8am. The safari was in Ruaha national park, a few hours drive from Iringa. Our guide Serafino took us to our cottage inside the park, where we could spot animals whilst laid in bed. Within the site an armed guard had to walk us from the restaurant to our room, as a lack of any fencing meant you could get closer to some lions than expected. The next 3 days were an amazing experience, driving in a park with only a few other trucks meant we could go hours without seeing any other people. During our stay we saw a lion stalking some antelope in the tall grasses by a river, another lion guarding it's dead prey of baby elephant, leopards, cheetahs, elephants, hippos, crocodiles and even a drooling giraffe. All the while our Attenborough styled guide was explaining the plants and animals, taking us on walks in the park and even giving us some dung to handle.

After the excitement of the safari we travelled to the political capital, Dodoma. Here we spent two days waiting for our train, filling the time with some walks through the city and it's markets, but mostly making use of our first personal TV and access to football since the UK. We arrived at the train station at the required time of 6am, unfortunately the train timetable isn't too reliable, so when the train arrived at 2pm we boarded, ready to leave at 4pm. Our private room was initially filled with a young boy who we found out had been arrested and then forgotten about by the police. We gave him a couple of muffins before he was found again by another officer. The train was another great experience, giving us a truer image of what real life is like in Tanzania. We stopped several times during the 30 hour journey, at local villages where swarms of people ran to the windows selling anything from rice and fish to 3 foot high pestle and mortars. We also learnt the valuable lesson of never walking on train tracks, as the toilets were holes in the floor.

On arrival in Kigoma we avoided the screaming lunatic getting slapped and carried away to the police station, and made our way to our hostel outside of the centre for a quiet nights sleep. Our quiet night was interrupted by the nightclub situated around 4 yards from our window, with music blaring out until the early hours (we're definitely getting old). A quick escape in the morning took us to Gombe national park, which is only accessible by boat. We arrived at Gombe to find a hostel set on a secluded beach, for the next 3 days we shared the park with between 1 and 6 other people, it was virtually empty. Before our first guided walk in the park I made the mistake of spilling peanut butter all over my trousers, and whilst waiting outside alone for the guide, was cornered by a large baboon who obviously liked the smell. Sammie came out of our room to find me pushing up against the door to keep out the baboon who had learnt how to use door handles.

Our time in Gombe is the best thing we've done to date. Trekking up steep hills, through dense forest only to be rewarded by close encounters with large groups of chimpanzees. The groups walk for around 5 minutes before having a relax or play for around half an hour, where you can sit close and watch them enjoying themselves. A couple of the more aggressive males did charge at us and some other tourists, with one alpha male called Titan charging at a German couple, throwing rocks and sticks at them. It was like a scene from planet of the apes. At one point a young chimp starting sucking on my backpack and shirt, and another one grabbed Sammie's leg before smelling her bum - big mistake. The trip was made better by hikes to a peak with a 360 degree view of the park and a waterfall in the centre of the forest. Our guide here took a shining to Sammie, frequently complimenting her whilst forgetting my name. I'd had about enough by the time he started telling her he was going to try and show her a big snake.

After the fun of Gombe we had a few days of constant travel, with buses from Kigoma to Mpanda, Mpanda to Sumbawanga, Sumbawanga to Mbeya and Mbeya to the Malawian border. One bus was missed because of the confusing Swahili system of time; 12:00 actually means 6am, which meant that we turned up for a bus 6 hours late. I still can't get my head round the system. We were treated to buses with 35 odd seats being filled with well over double that amount of people, and a lot of women squatting on the roadside for a quick wee. Lovely.

The time in Tanzania has been fantastic and completely trouble free. After a few slightly worrying days Sammie soon settled in and started enjoying herself. The food has been great and the people even better. All in all we couldn't have hoped for a better start.