Sunday, April 23, 2023

Five Days in Rwanda (Retrospective from December, 2022)

Our time in Rwanda was brief, even for a country as small as this one. We were in a bit of a hurry to get to Uganda before Christmas, and we knew that many of the sights to be seen in Rwanda could be seen in Uganda more easily and more inexpensively, so we ended up skimming through the country a bit more rapidly than would perhaps be advisable.

The endless green hills of Rwanda

We crossed into Rwanda from Burundi on December 13th. The border was chaotic on the Burundian side, with dozens of would-be fixers, currency exchange guys and carwashers running around, shouting and generally being obnoxious. We exchanged our leftover Burundian francs quickly and then drove to the relative calm of the customs enclosure. It took next to no time to get ourselves and Stanley stamped out of Burundi, but entering Rwanda was a much more leisurely affair, with the customs officials declaring that they wanted to see everything that was packed inside Stanley. When they saw how full the camper was, they compromised on a ten-minute inspection before they got bored. We bought an East African Visa for US$ 100 each, giving us three months in Rwanda, Uganda and Kenya, and it took longer than it might have for the Rwandan border official to fill out the paperwork, find the visa sticker and stamp us in. Luckily there were huge numbers of large fruit bats hanging head-down in the nearby trees, so we had something to look at and photograph during the whole process. We rejected offers to change money at a laughably poor rate and drove into Rwanda.

Serious amounts of sugar cane on the move

The first few minutes of driving into a new country are always an educational experience as we look for what's new and different from the previous country, and what's the same. Rwanda and Burundi are twin countries in terms of having similar land areas, populations and ethnic makeup (84% Hutu, 15% Tutsi, 1% Twa), and also in terms of both having had unimaginable violence and genocide inflicted on their populations. Rwanda was the first of the two to lapse into genocide, with thousands of Tutsis massacred by Hutu revolutionary mobs between 1959 and independence in 1962. Hundreds of thousands of Tutsi refugees fled, mostly to Uganda, the previously downtrodden Hutus took control of the reins of government, and the seeds were sown for the even larger genocide of 1994. The 1994 genocide colours everything in today's Rwanda, with the RPF government's legitimacy stemming from its role as the group that brought the killings to an end in July, 1994 after 100 days of slaughter that left nearly 1 million Tutsis and moderate Hutus dead. Of course it's not quite as simple as that; a compelling book, Do Not Disturb, by the journalist Michela Wrong, which both Terri and I had read just before our visit to the country shows how the RPF itself also indulged in large-scale atrocities after taking control of the country, and how Paul Kagame's government has built up a police state with a Putin-like propensity for imprisoning or killing those it deems disloyal to the state, both within Rwanda and, frequently, abroad.

Huye's main street

None of this was visible to us as we drove slowly north towards Huye, the university town formerly known as Butare. What was visible was the number of bicycles on the road, despite the precipitous grade of the smooth asphalt. As was the case in Burundi, bicycles are the transport vehicle of choice for people in rural Rwanda, and it was impressive to see 100 kilograms or more of bananas being pushed up the hill by two wiry men bathed in sweat. There were more people on bicycles and fewer on foot than in Burundi, and as we approached the hilltop college town, there were far more motorcycles and cars on the road than we had seen anywhere in Burundi. Huye itself was a complete surprise, with neatly laid-out commercial blocks, bike lanes and sidewalks and a suburb of big, prosperous-looking suburban villas. There were banks and ATMs everywhere, the shops were bustling, and there was clearly a large and thriving middle class to be seen in the town. It looked as prosperous as Victoria Falls in Zimbabe or Lusaka, Zambia, and a world away from the grinding, obvious poverty just to the south in Burundi. The roads and back streets were smoothly paved, and we drove, mouths agape, to the Heroes Motel to check in. It was a pleasant suburban garden dotted with neat motel modules, and it looked like a good spot to base ourselves for a couple of nights, especially at a price of US$12 per night for the two of us. 

We wandered around, a bit dazed by the variety of goods for sale. We availed ourselves of the ATMs and headed off to dinner at a Chinese restaurant. The food was plentiful, excellent and not terribly expensive, although pricier than it had been in Burundi. The owner was a Chinese businessman, while the clientele was a mix of tourists, NGO workers and middle-class hipster Rwandans We ate ourselves into a stupor, then wandered home a few blocks to our motel.

The view over the fence of the RNU genocide memorial, Huye

We spent the next morning poking around Huye, which is a pleasant town. Unlike in Burundi, we weren't particularly objects of curiosity and gaping, and the bike paths, broad streets and orderly traffic made cycling around on our folding bikes a pleasure. We bought SIM cards for our phones, although there was some sort of mass outage of the cellular data system so we couldn't access the internet. We rode to a coffee shop in search of wi-fi. The wi-fi turned out not to exist, but the coffee was (according to Terri) very tasty, and it was a pleasant place to sit, eat and read for a while. On the way out, we bought some Rwandan coffee for Terri and then rolled downhill towards the National University of Rwanda. 

Some of the staff at RNU who were hacked to death in 1994

I wanted to visit the campus' genocide memorial; the campus had been the site of terrible atrocities as Tutsi students and staff as well as intellectual Hutus were hacked to death by Hutu death squads. However, the campus security staff barred us from entering the campus, and were not at all helpful in letting us know how we could get permission. We ended up walking along the main road and peering over the fence at the memorial. It was the first time, although not the last, that the Rwandan authorities' desire to control society and individuals would manifest itself. 

A stunning sunbird in Huye

As a plan B, we went for a short walk in a forest reserve opposite the university campus. Although Rwanda is far less litter-strewn than countries like Zambia and Tanzania, this was not the case in this glade, which was clearly used to dump rubbish. As we climbed back up towards the campus, we spotted playful and mischievous vervet monkeys who were fun to watch as they chased each other around the ornamental shrubbery, climbed up the sides of the student dorms and then ran across the busy main road. Vervets, when they're not actively pillaging your campsite, are actually fascinating to watch in action.

We passed a lazy afternoon back at the motel, reading and catching up on sorting photos (a never-ending task!). The motel grounds were full of colourful sunbirds, and we spent a while seeking them out as they flitted restlessly in search of flower nectar.

The following morning we set off for Kigali. I was pleased to find that my Visa card worked to pay for diesel, while the Vodaphone office was able (finally) to get our SIM cards functioning. The drive to Kigali was relatively easy, with less up-and-down undulation than you might expect, given the relentless verticality of the landscape. As in Burundi, more or less every square centimetre was under cultivation, but the houses we saw were several steps up in terms of livability. The highway was perfectly smooth tarmac, and for the first half of the journey had not too much traffic. That changed at a junction with a road leading west to Lake Kivu, and we spent the rest of the trip trying to pass a long succession of slow-moving heavy goods vehicles, many of which looked as though they were heading to the Democratic Republic of Congo. 

The role of France in the runup to the genocide

Photos of genocide victims, Kigali

Once in the city, we made a bee-line for the legendary German Butchery, keen to restock our freezer with delicious meats and cheeses. The Butchery is an NGO project designed to develop markets for Rwandan produce and meat, and it was fabulous. The meat was high quality and very reasonably priced, and we ended up spending nearly US$100 buying so much food that we could barely get our trusty Engel freezer closed. We then settled in for a delicious lunch at their restaurant which was populated almost entirely by Western expats working at local NGOs and embassies.

Replete with pizza and beef stroganoff, we then drove to the one obligatory stop in Kigali, the Kigali Genocide Memorial. Terri had visited years before and had found it so emotionally wrenching that she didn't want to repeat the experience. It took twenty minutes or more to get through the security checkpoint for cars at the entrance to the parking lot; security is a major concern for the RPF government. I spent an hour and a half wandering through the exhibits and the memorial plaques. 

It's a very professionally-presented memorial, but also completely devastating in its unflinching portrayal of the decades leading up to 1994, the progressive demonization of the Tutsis as "cockroaches" that needed to be exterminated, and the hundred days of blood-stained frenzy that started when the presidents of Rwanda and Burundi were assassinated, ironically while returning by air from a peace conference in Tanzania. The identity of who fired the surface-to-air missile that brought down the airplane carrying the two presidents is still a matter of sharp controversy, but most third-party observers now seem to agree that it was fired by the rebel forces of the Rwandan People's Front. 

One single child victim

The RPF was founded in Uganda among descendants of the Tutsis who fled the 1959 genocide, and many of its members had already fought for years in the Ugandan civil war, helping to bring Yoweri Museveni to power in 1986. After playing a key role in rebuilding Uganda after the bloodshed and chaos of Milton Obote's second administration, many of these hardened guerrilla fighters turned their eyes westward to their ancestral homeland and decided to try to overthrow the Hutu-led government in Kigali. The Rwandan president, Juvenal Habyarimana, surrounded himself with a coterie of radical Hutu Power extremists who openly advocated the massacre of Tutsis, and whose violent rhetoric became increasingly genocidal as the RPF advanced through northeastern Rwanda. The killing of the president provided the trigger for violence that had been planned with ruthless efficiency for months. Lists of moderate Hutu politicians and civil servants, along with longer lists of Tutsis, had been prepared, and were now used to round up "enemies of the Hutu people". The small UN peacekeeping force, UNAMIR, was tiny and outnumbered, and a notoriously cruel incident early on in which 10 Belgian peacekeepers were captured, tortured and gruesomely murdered made the UN reluctant to risk more peacekeepers by intervening.

I was in graduate school in 1994, and I remember following the events in Rwanda with an appalled fascination. The international community failed utterly to intervene in any meaningful way for over three months, and the first intervention, by the French military, was actually on the side of the genocidaires, trying to prevent the overthrow of a Francophone government by a group of Anglophone rebels. The completely supine response by the UN and by Western governments was indefensible, and motivates the current government (led by those one-time RPF rebels, who ended up driving the genocidaires into exile in July of 1994) to be utterly dismissive of any Western criticism of Rwanda's human rights record or its long list of assassinations on foreign soil.

The larger-scale political dimensions of the genocide were not foremost in my mind as I wandered through the exhibit halls. Instead I was drawn to the individual stories of victims of the massacres: elderly grandparents; parents who died trying to save their children; schoolchildren; prominent political figures; ordinary citizens butchered by their neighbours and even their own in-laws. The faces gazing out at me from the black-and-white photos and their short life stories written down in a few terse sentences tore at my soul and left me feeling nauseated. 

One gallery near the end, relating the Rwandan genocide to other grim chapters of 20th century history like the 1915 Armenian genocide, the 1904-07 slaughter of the Herero of Namibia by German colonial forces, the Nazi genocide of the Jews of Europe, the Khmer Rouge's massacre of their own population, universalized what happened in Rwanda as something that could happen anywhere that politicians and military leaders succeed in dehumanizing and demonizing vulnerable populations. It's part of the human condition, albeit a dark and horrifying part that most of us don't want to peer at too deeply. Having visited Nazi death camps in eastern Europe, the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem, the Killing Fields of Cambodia, various museums to Soviet atrocities in the Baltic States, and the Tsitsernakaberd Genocide Memorial in Yerevan, I felt an eerie similarity in what I saw here in Kigali. When you add in governments determined to erase entire cultures (the Tibetans and Uighurs in Communist China, the Chechens and Crimean Tatars in the USSR, the indigenous cultures of North America, the Aboriginal peoples of Australia, the Roma of Eastern Europe), the dreadful universal nature of this sanguinary history comes into a sharper perspective. The behaviour of Russian troops in occupied Ukraine and the shrill bombast of Russian leaders are just another manifestation of this human tendency to other, to demonize and (ultimately) to try to erase troublesome people and cultures out of existence.

Names of a few of the million victims, Kigali

I emerged, blinking, into the peaceful outdoor memorials and spent a while wandering around, contemplating what had happened around me 28 years previously. It was hard to believe, on this sunny day, surrounded by a bustling city, what horrors had been perpetrated all around me, often by people who still live here. It must be difficult for those who survived the 1994 genocide to realize that many of the people who used machetes and hoes to kill their relatives are still their neighbours today.

We were in a sombre mood as we drove up into the steep hillside neighbourhood of Step Town in search of a place to camp. We had heard that the Step Town Motel was friendly to overlanders, and so it proved. We drove Stanley up the precipitous driveway and parked in the corner of the parking lot, next to a handy outdoor picnic shelter. It was a bit noisy (the motel is a thriving business, and we could hear voices late into the night from the restaurant and from people on their balconies), but clean, friendly and (for Rwanda) fairly inexpensive.

The following day started off with a series of frustrations. We were trying to catch up on our YouTube video editing, and Terri was trying to communicate with Olive Tree Learning Centre about year-end financial matters, but the internet was terrible, one of my hard drives stopped working (a few days after I had dropped it on a concrete floor), my telephone camera died (after the soaking it received while tracking chimps in Burundi), WhatsApp stopped functioning, our previously uploaded Christmas video suddenly went on the fritz....These were all definitely First World problems, but they were collectively annoying. 

Hotel Mille Collines genocide memorial

Eventually we threw up our hands, gave up and walked downtown to see the Hotel de Mille Collines, the five-star hotel that was the setting for the events depicted in the film Hotel Rwanda, where the manager saved the lives of hundreds of people who were sheltering there from the genocidaires. In a sign of how completely the current Rwandan government wants to impose its authoritarian control of history onto the world, Paul Rusesabagina, the hero of the story, the man who preserved the lives of so many people in 1994, was arrested in 2020. He was charged with terrorism for daring to oppose Paul Kagame's government, was convicted in 2021 and was sentenced to 25 years in prison. Only a month ago his sentence was suddenly commuted and he returned to the US, where he has been a permanent resident for years. We walked steeply uphill to the central business district, along streets full of motorcycle taxis and large SUVs. The Mille Collines is back to functioning as a luxury business hotel, but there are a couple of monuments in the parking lot attesting to the events of 1994. We wandered around, took a few pictures, admired some striking modern Rwandan sculptures and then, just as we were preparing to leave, the skies turned black and one of the biggest cloudbursts of our entire trip descended from the heavens. We headed back to the lobby and sheltered there for an hour as torrents of water lashed down, then gave up on the idea of exploring Kigali and returned to the Step Town. 

Looking out at the Hotel Mille Collines pool

I picked up my malfunctioning laptop and two equally non-performing hard drives, stuffed them into a knapsack and set off on the pack of a motorcycle taxi for a computer repair shop that we had found online. I was not optimistic; I seem to have an aura that destroys electronic gear. This time, however, I hit the jackpot of luck. The computer repair shop was run by an unassuming middle-aged man from Mumbai named Akbar, and he was a wizard. He got one of my hard drives working immediately, and then took apart my laptop, pulled out a large pencil eraser and set to work rubbing the connections of the computer's RAM. A few minutes of erasing, and suddenly my laptop, which hadn't worked since Livingstone (I had bought a backup in Lusaka which I had been using ever since) was alive again. My other hard drive, the one I had dropped, was judged to be completely dead, but (as Meatloaf once sang) two out of three ain't bad. I reached for my wallet, and Akbar refused payment, saying that it had only taken a few minutes, and hadn't involved any real technical skill. I tried to press some payment on him, and he laughed and refused again. I thanked him profusely and hopped back onto another motorcycle taxi to return to Stanley and Maree.

The hills of northern Rwanda

The hillsides of the Nile-Congo divide
The next morning we were planning on getting going early, but fate intervened. After sleeping in unexpectedly late, we were starting to pack up when Terri's beloved MacBook Air laptop suddenly stopped working. After fighting with it for a long time and trying to back up as much data as possible, Terri retraced my steps of the previous day and headed to see Akbar. Akbar produced his usual wizardry, and an hour later Terri was back with a resurrected computer. We finally got going at 12:30 with me at the wheel. I promptly got misdirected on the way out of town by our navigator, ending up stuck on a steep sidestreet that ended abruptly. It took Terri ten stressful minutes to get us turned around and heading uphill again. Once we got going, in a sea of heavily laden trucks, we settled into a day of steep, unrelenting climbs and descents. On one of them our radiator started to boil and we took twenty minutes to let poor Stanley cool down. As we climbed, our views became more expansive and we began to catch sight of the big volcanoes of the Virunga Range. We stopped a few times for photos of the green hillsides (full of tea plantations) with the volcanic cones behind, but were constantly badgered by kids begging insistently and loudly, so eventually we gave up on photography and concentrated on driving.

The volcanic cones of the Virunga Range

We reached an altitude of 2420 metres above sea level before the road began finally to slope definitively down to the Albertine Rift Valley. After dropping a vertical kilometre, we came out in the untidy tangle of houses and hotels that is Gisenyi. This is where Rwanda runs into the Democratic Republic of Congo, with the large Congolese city of Goma just across the border. A few dozen kilometres away the M23 rebel group were busy fighting the DRC's army for control over key towns and transport routes, but there was no sign of this from our vantage point. 

The M23 is widely believed to be armed and supported by Rwanda, who have been meddling in eastern DRC for the past 25 years, having invaded in force in 1996 and then again in greater numbers in 1998. The second invasion set into place a regional war that drew in no fewer than nine African countries and resulted in millions of death, largely due to disease and starvation, as eastern DRC became a killing ground fought over by dozens of warlords and African governments, all attracted by the mineral wealth of the region. Rwanda is estimated to have extracted several billions of dollars in wealth from its depredations in DRC, and tensions continue to bubble up. Only a month after our visit Rwandan forces fired at a DRC fighter jet that it claimed had violated Rwandan airspace, leaving it to make an emergency landing at Goma airport with flames licking out of one of its wings. There are persistent rumours of a renewal of full-scale war, with Uganda backing the DRC government; one-time colleagues and comrades-in-arms Yoweri Museveni and Paul Kagame have very definitively fallen out, and another regional war cannot be ruled out. Meanwhile the population of North Kivu province of DRC continues to suffer rape, killings, robberies and the depredations of warlords.

The start of the Lake Kivu gas project

Lesser striped swallow, Kivu Paradis

Luckily, on the Rwandan side of the border it's still peaceful, and we drove along a narrow steep track that clings to the lakeside mountains to reach Kivu Paradis, a small resort on a tiny bay in Lake Kivu, just before sunset. Unfortunately for the Rwandan owner of the hotel, Lake Kivu is about to see a huge natural gas production facility come onstream, and many of the pipes transporting gas to shore will pass right in front of the hotel; already the view is despoiled by a mass of pipes running out of the depths of the lake. We camped in the muddy parking lot and watched the sun go down over the lake, lighting up the Congolese side of the lake.

It was a reasonable place to sleep, and the next morning, December 18th, we awoke early to the sound of birdsong. We leapt up and set off to explore the hotel grounds. The owner has created a very pretty garden, full of flowers that attract sunbirds as well as dozens of other bird species. We spent a couple of happy hours peering through binoculars, taking photos and wandering through the gardens. However we had a long drive and a border crossing ahead of us, so by 9:00 we were on the road again. We ground 1000 metres uphill again to the watershed between the Congo and Nile basins, then backtracked further to where the road to the Ugandan border peels off at Musanze. We lost all of the truck traffic and drove along quickly to reach the Ugandan border at Cyanika where we had one of the quickest and easiest border crossings of our trip. And then, just like that, we were finished with Rwanda after only five days.

Weaver, Kivu Paradis

We could have spent more time in Rwanda, but given that Rwandan national parks and wildlife reserves are quite expensive, it made more sense for us to save our time and money for Uganda, where many of the same animals and birds are to be seen. I think we got a good sense of the country during our brief stay, and I don't really feel the need to return. So long Rwanda: it's been fun!

Kivu Paradis 

Sunday, February 19, 2023

A Brief Visit to Western Tanzania (Retrospective, Nov-Dec 2022)


February 19th, Jambiani, Zanzibar

I am slowly trying to work my way through my backlog of pending blog posts. A few weeks ago I published a how-to post about visiting Burundi, but today it's back to a traditional narrative post, about our journey up the western side of Tanzania.

The Backstory

When I was a lot younger than I am today, in January of 1981, my family moved to Morogoro, Tanzania for two years. My father had accepted a two-year contract through the Norwegian foreign aid organization NORAD to teach forestry at the agricultural university in Morogoro; he took a two-year leave of absence from his teaching post at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay and off we went to live in the foothills of the Uluguru Mountains. Although at first I didn't want to go, those two years definitely lit the spark of wanderlust that has been stoked into a raging wildfire in my adult years. I came back from that sojourn much more aware of the wider world outside Northwestern Ontario. I went back to East Africa for seven hectic weeks in 1995, visiting my sister Audie who was working as a biologist in the Serengeti National Park, then travelling to Zanzibar, climbing Kilimanjaro, Mt. Meru and Mt. Kenya, and then going to see gorillas in eastern DRC (or Zaire, as it was then) and chimpanzees in Uganda.

That was twenty-seven years ago, when I was half the age I am now. When Terri and I started Stanley's Travels in 2016, the plan was always to drive up into East Africa with our camper, but news of my father's cancer called me home, and we ended up not driving any further north than Zambia on that leg of our trip. Our 2018 trip took us only to Namibia and South Africa, and the covid pandemic in 2020 shelved our return to East Africa for another two years. Finally, on the morning of November 26, 2022, we found ourselves at the tiny border crossing post at Kasesya, crossing from Zambia into Tanzania. Although we weren't planning to pass through Morogoro, it still felt like a form of homecoming.

The Chaos of Sumbawanga

The border crossing was relatively straightforward, although we were nervous. We had been told that we needed to show valid yellow fever certificates at the border, and we had just discovered that not only was mine expired (they last for 10 years), so was Terri's. We had tried in several spots in Zambia to rectify this, but nowhere had yellow fever vaccine in stock, and so we decided to take a chance. Luckily the health officer was busy on the telephone, flirting with a young woman, and took only a cursory glance at our yellow vaccination booklets, not even opening them, so we squeaked through. We drove away, thanking our lucky stars, and trundled off down the dirt road into Tanzania.

We were at a reasonable altitude (1200 m) at the border, and I was slightly surprised that the road headed slowly uphill. It was a densely-populated area (Tanzania's population, 65.5 million, is three times what it was when I lived there, and is growing at a very rapid 3% per year), intensively farmed, full of neatly-built brick houses. We stopped for a roadside sandwich at a rare rural space between settlement, then drove into the regional centre of Sumbawanga on a really good tarmac road that started some 20 km outside town. 

A team of oxen plodding uphill near Sumbawanga

Sumbawanga was the biggest town we had seen since Lusaka, and was a bit overwhelming. We got Tanzanian shillings out of an ATM, then spent a very loud hour getting local SIM cards for our phones. It took several attempts to find a place to buy them, and several attempts to make the mandatory government registration process work. The process was overseen by a young man and woman who were full of hilarity and mirth, especially when I trotted out a few half-remembered Swahili phrases. We finally left just before sunset with functioning cell phones and found a small motel to spend the night. It was comfortable and inexpensive, but didn't have the atmosphere of a campsite in the wilderness.

The next morning we drove uphill from Sumbawanga (at 1600 m above sea level) in search of Mbizi Forest Reserve, said to be full of a subspecies of red colobus monkey. It was a depressing outing, as we drove uphill to find the area that had once been the forest reserve completely clearcut to establish farms, whose shiny metal roofs testified to their recent date. That swelling human population had overwhelmed the forest reserve, and its trees (and monkeys) were no more. Scanning the horizon and, we could see that there might be a few tiny vestiges of forest 10 or 15 km away, but we decided to cut our losses and retreat, saddened at the habitat loss.

In (futile) search of the Mbizi Forest Reserve above Sumbawanga

From there we drove for 60 blissfully smooth kilometres along a brand-new tarmac highway, with our only regret being that almost the entire way we were in villages and towns, where our speed was limited to 50 km/h. We had heard worrying stories about Tanzanian traffic police, but the two times we were stopped at checkpoints, we had friendly conversations and were sent on our way, making me think that the cops were just bored and keen to practice their English. The landscape was pretty, with rolling hills that saw us climb up as high as 1900 m before declining again gently.

At Chala, we turned off the tarmac and, after a brief traverse across a plateau, we entered a forest reserve (which actually existed this time!) and began the dramatic descent into the Albertine (or western) Rift Valley, that gash in the landscape that is filled by a series of lakes, the largest and most consequential of which is Lake Tanganyika. The road was in reasonable condition, and the forest was filled with birds and flowers and was utterly devoid of human habitation. Finally we spilled out at an elevation of 800 m onto the cultivated fields around Lake Tanganyika and made our way to the Lake Shore Lodge, an almost obligatory stop for overlanders in western Tanzania.

Lounging at Lake Shore

Lake Shore Lodge is a wonderful oasis of beauty. It's a high-end resort right on a lovely stretch of shoreline, and its rooms are beautiful and pricey. Luckily they also have a series of reasonably priced campsites, well separated and shaded, with solar panels to plug one's camper batteries into to compensate for the vehicle roof being in shade. We ended up spending three wonderful nights there, and I would have been glad to stay longer.

A palm-nut vulture at Lake Shore
It was the first time that either Terri or I had seen Lake Tanganyika, and it was an impressive sight of an even more impressive lake. I grew up on the shore of Lake Superior, the largest freshwater lake in the world by area, and so I am attracted to big inland bodies of water. I knew from many a pub quiz that the most voluminous freshwater lake in the world is Russia's Lake Baikal, but it wasn't until I looked up Lake Tanganyika that I realized that Tanganyika, not Superior, is number two on that list, despite being only the fifth largest by area. The reason for this impressive volume is that Tanganyika is seriously deep, with its deepest point being some 1500 m below the surface (and so 730 m below sea level), thanks to its position in the huge geological gash that is the Albertine Rift. It's a very long, narrow lake, some 640 km long but with the other side of the lake always visible, no matter where on the lake you are. We gazed out across the lake towards the misty mountains of the Democratic Republic of Congo, wishing it were easier and safer to cross into DRC and lamenting the loss of the legendary steamer MV Liemba which spent a century linking isolated communities along the shores of the great lake. 

Sunset over Lake Tanganyika at Lake Shore

Our idea was to borrow a sea kayak and go exploring the islands that dot the bays around the resort. Sadly, that never happened. We did manage to go swimming every day that we were there, but every afternoon the skies would darken and apocalyptic thunderstorms would roll in from the DRC over the lake. It made for dramatic sunsets, but didn't encourage lengthy paddling explorations. We did do some fun birdwatching (the exquisite gardens of the resort attracted a plethora of sunbirds), but after two days we decided that paddling Lake Tanganyika would have to wait for the dry season.

Another Lake Shore sunset, with DRC behind

We had a fun evening one night dining in the resort with the three owner/managers of the resort, a South African couple and a German man, Thomas. I sat at dinner with Thomas and we exchanged travel stories, as he is also a keen overlander and explorer of the African continent. 

Captivating Katavi

The view from our campsite in Sitalike

Lioness on the track in Katavi

On November 30th we bid a regretful farewell to Lake Shore and headed back up the escarpment out of the Rift. It felt good to regain the tarmac and pump up our tires back to higher pressure. We thought that we would be on asphalt the entire way to our next destination, Katavi National Park, but it was not to be. At the town of Kisi, the pavement came to an end and a detour sign pointed us unexpectedly to the right. From that point on the road was hardpacked, rutted red laterite and progress became slow and shuddering. We later learned that we could have continued along the "closed" road, but we didn't know, and ended up sharing the road with a procession of trucks that were either really slow or else drove dangerously quickly. The road cut through Katavi National Park but we saw almost no animals, as we were surrounded by dense bush. It was a relief to pop out in the village of Sitalike and camp in the welcoming grounds of the Riverside Camp, run by the friendly and obliging Juma. 

Curious giraffe

Intricate giraffe patterns

We spent three nights in Juma's camp, and it was a memorable place to stay. The camp is on the banks of a river that is as full of hippopotamuses as it is possible to imagine. There were an easy 300 or 400 hippos within 100 metres of our vehicle, and they spent the day submerged in the river, occasionally venting frustration at pushy neighbours in a series of noisy complaints, and often opening their jaws impressively wide to show their deadly and enormous tusks. I had never spent so much time so close to so many of these ominous animals, and I spent a long time photographing and filming them, especially at dusk as they emerged to graze on land (usually on the opposite bank).

Southern ground-hornbill

Southern ground-hornbill displaying

The plan was to spend one day in Katavi National Park and then move on. However we awoke in the middle of the night to an epic downpour that lasted until noon, so we postponed our plans for another day. The next morning dawned bright and sunny, so we pulled down our roof at 7:20 am and set off for a day of safari driving. It started slowly; we had to go to the park headquarters, on the other side of the river, to pay, and when we arrived none of the staff had arrived yet, despite it being 30 minutes after opening time. I guess when you get fewer visitors in a year than Serengeti gets on an average day, you can get a bit lackadaisical. Eventually a ranger arrived, rubbing sleep from his eyes, and checked us in at such a leisurely pace that Terri nearly combusted from frustration.

Roan antelope

Once we had paid our US$ 118 ($30 per person, $40 for the vehicle and 18% VAT; this is the cheapest national park to visit in Tanzania, far cheaper than famous places like the Serengeti and Ngorongoro), we drove back along the dreadful truck road of the day before, and then turned off into the park and its lovely bush. The main game-viewing part of the park is the Katisunga Plain, and no sooner had we emerged onto the plain than game started to appear. At first it was a plentiful supply of giraffes (one of our favourite animals to watch), but quite soon we came around a slight bend in the track and found three lionesses lounging right in the middle of the road, bellies distended with whatever animal they had recently hunted. We sat and watched them for a long time, taking photos and videos, but the lions were not at all interested in us, or in moving. When we wanted to continue, they reluctantly got to their feet and moved a couple of metres as we edged by in Stanley. It was a memorably up-close lion encounter!


Juvenile African fish-eagle

The day continued to be excellent for game viewing. We encountered numerous southern ground-hornbills, including (a first for us) some juveniles. Impala were present in great quantities, and as we moved closer to the river bank, we saw Bohor reedbuck, Defassa waterbuck, topi and typical wetland bird species such as pelicans and herons. We stopped for a snack of tea, bread and honey at the side of the track (keeping a wary eye out for any lurking predators; luckily it was a wide-open plain!), and then continued our clockwise circling of the Katisunga Plain until we ran into the impassable barrier of the river. Along the way we saw a lapwing who had picked an unfortunate spot for its nest, smack in the middle of the track, and who defended its eggs fiercely, trying to scare us off with its wide-stretched wings and harsh cries. We had to drive along the track (there was swampy ground to both sides), but we managed to straddle the nest and its tiny, precious clutch of eggs; we then had to return and repeat the process a half-hour later when we had to backtrack from the river.

White-browed coucal

We retreated to the main track of the park and followed it out to the Ikuu Bridge, on the truck road, where we stopped to admire the sheer number of hippos and crocodiles basking in the river. There were plenty of baboons lounging on the bridge as well, along with plenty of birdlife. We left the main road and continued our way along the edge of the plain, where we were rewarded with several bird species which we had never seen before: the Tanzania red hornbill, the grey kestrel, the white-browed coucal and the grey-backed fiscal. There were a number of African fish eagles, including three juveniles (again a novelty for us). Eventually, with one eye on the clock, we turned around reluctantly and saw many of the same birds and animals on the return journey, along with our first eland in years (a small group galloped across the path and disappeared into the bush) as well as our first roan antelopes in years as well. It was wonderful to renew our acquaintances with these large, powerful and rarely-seen antelope, and we drove back to Sitalike glowing in the satisfied feeling that a good day of game driving always gives us. A snack of chips and eggs and beer in a truck stop restaurant rounded out the day, and we returned to our campsite to grill up some fine steaks.

Still there, six hours later

Striking coloration on a frog at Riverside Camp

Kigoma, Ujiji and Following in Stanley's Footsteps

The long dirt track to Kigoma

From Sitalike it was a long day of driving along some rough laterite roads to reach Kigoma, our next destination. The going was slow, the distance was reasonably long (357 km) and we had to cross a range of fairly steep mountains to reach Kigoma. The forest through which we drove was often wild and dense and full of birds (parts of it were some sort of forest reserve), and I'm sure that in the future some of it will feature a wonderful campsite in the midst of untouched jungle, so that this long leg can be divided up. As it was, the sun had already set by the time we got to the centre of Kigoma, and we drove the last few kilometres out to Jacobsen's Beach, just south of town, in the gloaming. The darkness made the steep drive into the campsite even more alarming than it already is, and we were glad to turn off the ignition, pop up the roof and settle in.

Off for a hike overlooking the lake

The rocky slopes above Jacobsen's Beach

We loved Jacobsen's Beach. It's on the shores of Lake Tanganyika, only 6 km south of downtown Kigoma, but it feels remote, with sweeping views out over the lake that don't show any buildings; steep headlands prevent you from seeing the city from the campsite. It's an oasis of native forest, surrounded by clearcut properties, so it feels like a wildlife reserve. There's even a semi-domesticated zebra who hangs around the campsite, hoping to have his mane brushed (as the campsite staff do) but also randomly attacking campers; one camper, Lilli, was badly bitten by the zebra, while I got chased and headbutted by him. There are plenty of vervet monkeys around as well, so luckily both of the campsites have a kitchen fully enclosed by heavy-duty screens that's fully monkey-proof; the monkeys are always on the lookout for raiding opportunities, and are really quick.

Lovely views out over Lake Tanganyika

We ended up spending five nights at Jacobsen's, splitting our days between lounging at the campsite and going to town. When we were at Jacobsen's, we went hiking in the boulder-strewn hills above the lake, swam in the idyllic waters of the lake, took out a pedal-boat to explore nearby bays, watched birds in the trees and cooked up feasts in the kitchen. Every evening we sat on our private beach and watched the sun sink into the forests of the DRC, across the deep blue waters of the lake. It was pretty idyllic and hard to tear ourselves away from!

The stroppy zebra at Jacobsen's Beach

Lake reflections
We had one big day in town, getting Burundi tourist visas at their consulate in town, a process that was expensive (US$ 90 per person for a 30-day tourist visa) but amazingly quick and painless. We had a big tandoori chicken lunch in an Indian restaurant in town, and then drove out to Ujiji to pay homage to Stanley's more famous namesake. It was in Ujiji, in November 1871, that Henry Morton Stanley, a young, ambitious reporter and would-be explorer, found the legendary explorer and missionary David Livingstone, from whom no news had reached England in almost two years, uttering the catchphrase "Doctor Livingstone, I presume?" We drove out to Ujiji, paid the steep US$10 admission fee and listened as an old, keen guide regaled us with his well-rehearsed spiel outside at the monument to the exact meeting spot (under a mango tree which has since fallen down, but whose descendants grow everywhere around). There were two monuments to Livingstone and Stanley, and another to Speke and Burton, who passed through Ujiji 13 years before, en route to searching for the source of the Nile. The museum is pretty modest, but did have some good maps and a rather elementary-school diorama of the meeting. It was surprisingly emotional to see this historic site given how much Stanley's Travels looks to Henry Morton Stanley.  

Stanley meets Stanley in Ujiji

Myself and Terri at the Stanley-Livingstone Monument

We took lots of photos and video, then headed back to Jacobsen's Beach through the run-down streets of modern Ujiji. Ujiji was the main town of the region in the late 1800s and was a centre of the slave trade, but its water sources were always dodgy, and fluctuations in the lake water levels led to the German colonial administrators choosing nearby Kigoma as their port and railhead in the region, leaving Ujiji in suburban obscurity. Sic transit gloria mundi.

Stanley, Terri and Livingstone in Ujiji

We also took care of an important piece of bureaucratic business that was hanging over our heads. We had squeaked into Tanzania by luck when our yellow fever vaccination record wasn't checked, but we couldn't count on that continuing. We had asked in various towns along our route in Tanzania to see whether we could get vaccinated, but we had struck out every time. Kigoma, though, as a major port with a lot of Congolese traffic and passengers passing through it, has a port health officer who checks Congolese passengers for their yellow fever cards, and administers vaccines to those who haven't had it. We found him (after a long and tedious search through the back streets of Kigoma, all of which were under construction) and when he examined our vaccination certificates he said that Terri was fine as her vaccination record had no end date on it (and the WHO has stated that the vaccinations are now considered to provide life-long immunity), but that my vaccination, from the same facility in the same year as Terri's, had to be re-done since the health officer in Switzerland had written an end date on my card. I had to wait for a couple of days until there were other patients to share the vial with (each vial provides up to 5 doses). I got a message late one afternoon and raced into town in a tuk-tuk auto-rickshaw to get jabbed; it was a relief to have that taken care of.

Another plaque at the Stanley-Livingstone meeting point

We met some interesting fellow travellers in the campsite and in the cottages at Jacobsen's. The most interesting was Lilli, a German woman who has spent much of the past 30 years on the road in Africa. We swapped stories and Facebook addresses, and we have been in touch ever since for advice and to share experiences. Many other overlanders we have met also know Lilli, who is a bit of a legendary figure, and has even featured in several YouTube interviews, such as this one. It was a lot of fun to discuss adventures and misadventures of the road beside Lake Tanganyika.

Yet another perfect evening beside the lake

Mother and kittens taking over Terri's chair

One of our favourite memories from Jacobsen's was made in the last two days of our stay, when a local stray cat which the staff had been feeding and who had taken a shine to us wandered into our kitchen enclosure, made herself at home in Terri's camping chair and then slipped out and under the floor of the kitchen. She returned with a tiny newborn kitten, like a fuzzy cinnamon roll, and deposited him in the chair. She made two more trips, and soon she was seated in the chair with the three blind babies crawling over her in search of milk. Terri was captivated (as was I) and we spent time making sure that the mother cat was fed and would continue to be fed in our absence. It was an unexpected touch of home, and made us miss our own ginger cat, now living with our housekeeper in Bali.

Cinnamon buns with legs

Off to Burundi

All good things must come to an end, however, and so it was with our time beside the mighty lake. On December 8th we packed up, said a fond farewell to the campsite and the kittens, stopped off in town to buy a few final supplies, and then drove east and then north, climbing steadily up into the cool mountains from the lowlands around Lake Tanganyika (780 metres above sea level). Within a couple of hours of leaving Kigoma, we were being stamped out of Tanzania and into Burundi, starting a new chapter in Stanley's Travels (and ticking off a new country for both of us).

Farewell, Lake Tanganyika!