I had a date set with the MV Liemba – a twice sunk former battleship – to cruise the longest lake in the world but first I had to get to port through the mountinas and unfamiliar territory of Burundi - where I would share a tender, loving embrace with a hairy local female.
Crossing from Rwanda to Burundi is like taking a leap down the development ladder. Immediately the difference in fortunes of the countries is apparent. Burundi is squalid and disorderly yet its imperfections make it more intriguing and the cheery greetings that welcomed my first few meters carried genuine warmth. Accompanied by frolicking youngsters, my content and gutful of Fanta propelled me up the first hefty ascent with a Froome-like velocity. Hello Burundi.
Burundi is a ceaseless expansse of hills that strive to be mountains; steep climbs and spectacular vistas of fertile valleys stretching from horizon to horizon. It’s the kind of place where cyclists’ legs endure for the elixir the eyes doth pour.
My French flowed more freely after being dusted off in Rwanda and recovering atop each climb I enjoyed the familiar inquisition about my ride, while I probed gently into the lives of the faces surrounding me. In those encounters there was an honesty and innocence which left me charmed.
After a day and half of toil and reward the peaks before me fell away and I began the glorious 30km descent to Bujumbura. In spite of crag and vale, the most remarkable sight was the daredevil cyclists clinging to the back of trucks as they hurtled up the hill at breakneck speed. It was clearly a young man’s pursuit; any accident – of which there must be many – would almost certainly be fatal. Even my dormant inner parent cried for them to ‘take care’. In this poverty stricken country the rewards of bringing charcoal down from the hills are too attractive to resist, especially for the young and reckless.
CouchSurfing had provided a link to another generous host in Bujumbura. From the moment I arrived, Mirco – a UN Volunteer – and his four room-mates made me feel right at home, generous servings of home-cooked food went even further to tickle my fancy.
I have to admit I’d deliberately opted for an ex-pat host with the assumption the lodging would be comfortable and conversation easy. This decision perhaps a sign of my increasing travel-weariness; my intrigue to discover more about Burundi succumbed to my desire for familiarity.
Having an experienced host opens the doors that to a tourist sequestered in a hotel room would remain unknown: we watched hippos while sipping sundowners, relaxed by the lakeside pools, watched ‘tambourineus’ drumming, ate great Italian food, and knew where to go for the best ice-cream in town. Needless to say I was in no hurry to leave; I could gladly have stayed with this convivial crew for a month.
The highlight of my days in Bujumbura was a trip to the Ruzizi Nature Reserve. We took a boat through the estuary and got fantastic close up views of hippo families as well as the life along the river.
On our way back we headed to a local beach-front bar resort for a swim, where we were startled to see a chimp nesting in a tree. It turns out this chimp lives in a big wooden animal run on the site and had escaped that morning. I took a few photos, cautious that this chimp might not be too friendly given her life in captivity. As we made to leave I was surprised to see the chimp now assist one of the workmen in fixing her cage, literally holding the wood in place while he fixed it. The workman was on the inside of the cage and the playful chimp was hugging him. The workman was obviously ticklish and let out spasms of laughter when she cuddled him; it was very very amusing. Unable to control his giggles, he shooed her away. She wandered out of the cage towards me – I wasn’t cautious any more - I knelt down and opened my arms to her and we held a long tender hug.
It seemed all she wanted was a some interaction and for the next 15 minutes she led me around the grounds to her favourite spots for berries and water, stopping to play and climbing up my back to be carried. I had craved this kind of spontaneous interaction most of my life and for this moment I was indebted to the wonders of life.
Orphanage of Hearts
Before leaving Bujumura I visited the ‘Orphanage of Hearts’ whom Ken had assisted during his time here, almost two years prior. The home is a lifeline for 73 orphaned children. They struggle for funding and just manage to scrape by. They presented an income generating project to me, doing wholesale trade of food stuffs near the port. It had been carefully planned and was just needing funding. After discussing with Ken we will provide around £2,500 to help get the business started – hopefully providing some regular income to cover the rent and food at a fraction of the current cost. There can be no guarantee the venture will succeed but we both agree it’s the best way we can support this worthy cause.
Ride to Kigoma
The next day I reluctantly packed my bags and set off; I had a boat to catch, 3 days and 220km south in Kigoma, Tanzania. The first day was a picturesque and largely flat journey along the shores of Lake Tanganyika. My lungs were heavy with some recurring lung problem I’d been having so I was glad for the easy ride; the next day however registered as one of the toughest climbs I’d ever done.
The ride profile signals the alarm, as had Ken, referring to it as a brute of climb. I had to strain every sinew to keep the pedals turning. Eventually lungs tearing at the exertion I resorted to pushing my bike. As the summit I threw my hands aloft elated and exhausted. Leaving Burundi there was a 20km hilly dirt road stretch to re-join Tanzania – it was an interesting stretch of road but the effort of the climb had left me totally drained; I endured what should have been enjoyed. My lungs were in revolt and even the following day’s 50km roll downhill to the port left me shattered. Thankfully I had two days of plain sailing ahead of me.
The MV Liemba ploughs up and down Lake Tanganyika carrying a handful of tourists and brining brim-fulls of cargo to and from several lakeside communities without any other means of accessing the outside world. It is a riot of colour, frenzied trading, loading and off-loading which turns spectating into a full-time pursuit.
The boat itself is quite an enigma; sunk by its German captains in World War I to stop it falling into the hands of the British, it was refloated, sunk and raised again before beginning its long and dutiful life as a cargo boat, as well as the inspiration for the book the ‘African Queen’. It is charmingly decrepit, with hints of colonial yesteryear, surrounded by the brusque everyday practicality of lakeside traders and travellers.
The few days aboard gave me time to recover, read a couple of books and reflect on two and a half years in East Africa. It was a wonderful experience for which after the ardours of arriving, my body and mind were most grateful. As the sun set over the mountains of the Congo I waved goodbye to a long and eventful chapter of the journey.
Greeted by the first light of dawn - just half a day later than scheduled – the boat pulled into the exotically named Mpulungu in Northern Zambia. With my mind now focussed on completing the ride, from here I would begin the final furlong to Cape Town in Southern Africa – just 4000km to go.