Saturday, 21 September 2013

Burundi, Hairy Females & the MV Liemba

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.

Welcome to Burundi

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 Border Mountains

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.

Curious Crowd

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.

Les Orangers

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.

No 5 Orangers

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.

Dinner at Les Orangers

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.

Les Tambourineurs

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.

Hippo Family
Bailing out the boat
Streaming Kids

Charming Chimp

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.

Lady in the Leaves
Chimp Attention
Cross Species Hugs

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.

Visiting Orphanage of Hearts, Bujumbura

Ride to Kigoma

Lake Tanganyika Coast Road

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 Hill that almost Killed me

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.

MV Liemba

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.

MV Liemba

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.

Organised Chaos Liemba Style
Curious Passengers
Above the Boat
Cautious Cargo

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.

Congo Sunset on the Liemba
Tanganyika Starry Sky

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.

Urugendo Rwiza: Good Travel

Sunday, 8 September 2013

Rwanda: Ghosts, Potatoes & Progress

Down But Not Out

Having survived the adventures and misadventures of Uganda, with Habaqa (my bike) left brutally crushed Manu & I limped into Kigali, Rwanda by bus with the hope of getting her in a condition to ride again.

Habaqa Kabba Kabbaa

In our last days in Uganda we salvaged the worst of the damage to the twisted frame with numerous poundings and some re-welding. I sought out a new front wheel and a few specialist parts sent from home. After a few days of fixing, tweaking and re-tweaking Habaqa was reborn. It was a huge relief.

Rwanda is known as the land of a thousand hills; it is no exaggeration – mini-mountains would be more appropriate. It is spectacular however not kind on Manu’s ailing knees. We visited tranquil Lake Kivu and explored a bit of Rwanda together before she flew ahead to Namibia, giving her knee time to recover while volunteering at Cheshire Home a home for disable children there.

Lake Kivu Panorama


Kigali itself is unlike any other city I’ve visited on my travels. It is modernising fast; at least in pockets and everywhere there is a sense of cleanliness and organisation atypical of the other places on the continent. Sometimes stability that supports growth and investment, comes at a cost; it seems in Rwanda as for many countries in Africa 'democratic dictatorship' is one of them. In spite of the lack of political freedoms however it does seem to be a country headed in the right direction.

Kigali Dawn
Roofs of Kigali

My first days were overwhelmed by thoughts of the 1994 genocide in which over a million people were brutally murdered. It left a very eerie feeling knowing that almost everyone over the age of 25 will have borne witness to the atrocity, or worse participated in it. The Genocide Memorial Museum is a harrowing reminder of those horrific days as well as a stark reminder of other genocides that have occurred around the world.

Whether it was the dark shadow of the genocide or the mixture of rapid development with poverty, I cannot say, however in the six weeks I was there I rarely felt in sync with Rwandan life; something seemed to have been left behind or lost. There are no tribes any more, just Rwandans but without being able to celebrate the best of their heritage the nation’s soul feels hollow, being filled by progress, development and material wealth. Yet these changes do not appear to offer an identity the common Rwandan man can identify with or for that matter can I.

Moonlight Garden

My weeks in Kigali were lifted mainly by the great hospitality of my CouchSurfing hosts Paul and Julian, two young German volunteers. It was fun to hang out with them and meet several interesting friends of theirs, normally while enjoying a beer in their moonlight garden.

Reraneza Association Logo

Reraneza Association

I did a few days of volunteering for Reraneza Association – which aims to provide vocational training and access to education & healthcare for the poorest people in Musanze, a small city in the north. I have been in touch with Christophe Bizimana, the founder, for almost five years - he and his team have tremendous enthusiasm for improving their community - it was fantastic to finally meet him.

Reraneza Studying Mechanics
Reraneza Students

Having spent some time with Christophe and the other board members I helped them to article their strategy, passing on some good ideas from other projects, as well as doing a fundraising workshop. They were delighted with the outcome and mercifully understanding of my encumbered French speaking.

Meeting Reraneza

In addition to the 5 year strategic plan, I've put a basic webpage together and designed the logo and corporate identity. Ken - ever helpful - has helped set up the organisation with a domain, email and hosting.

Reraneza Potato Acre

We have also chosen to invest £2500 to support an agriculture programme growing potatoes. If successful the programme has enormous potential to provide sustainable income for the organisation. The first crop is now planted and we expectantly await the harvest to calculate the return and potential growth of the programme to support the most vulnerable families in the area.

Draining Detour

Cycling south from Kigali with my bike fully loaded I breathed a huge sigh of relief; the ride was back on the road. For a while I really wondered if I would be able to ride Habaqa again.

The two and a half days to the border were punctuated by hill climbs, beautiful views and a feeling of content. The roads were quiet, the tarmac smooth and I cruised along gazing over terracotta rooftops and along valleys. However as I neared the border something inevitable happened.

Terracotta Roofs

Throughout East Africa there is a tendency amongst road-builders to line the roads with a storm drain. The idea seems practical enough yet in reality the drains are 3ft deep, uncovered, perilously close to the road, and could probably act as a tributary to the Nile if needed. I’d been eyeing them with scepticism for a few thousand kilometres; now fate deemed it time to get better acquainted.

Waving a little too enthusiastically to a family as I puffed my way uphill, my motions caused a little wiggle in my front wheel and I rolled head first into the drain. Amid the adrenalin and embarrassment fuelled slow-motion that occurs at times of epic ineptitude such as this, I was able to watch the faces of the family turn from cheer to startled horror as I disappeared over the side.

It took at least a minute of frantic gesturing to convey to the family that I was unharmed - the bike too mercifully – and once the panic had passed we were able to share a nerve-wracked yet hearty laugh together; a wonderfully spontaneous moment.

Rwandan Hills

Rwanda had proven to be a collage of contrasts encompassed by the ‘mille collines’. I will continue to watch the progress of the country and specifically Reraneza with great interest. As I rolled down the valley to the border Burundi I was glad to be entering a place I knew almost nothing about.

Mount Kigali Lookout