A Travellerspoint blog

September 2010

From Uganda to Rwanda

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The tourist trail, or I guess we could call it the Muzungu trail or gringo trail or banana pancake trail, is the route taken by the vast majority of backpackers in any given region. In Uganda this is much less defined for the people we were meeting were all volunteers, missionaries, NGO workers, or were visiting one. The independent backpacker was a rarity. This was nice, but there was still a pretty defined route of sites and we started to become friends with some of the familiar faces. On the second day at the gorilla camp four such friends arrived, two specifically to meet up with us for a “Walking Safari”

Through the camp we arranged a local guide and a couple porters to walk/canoe the 20km to the nearest town. The first part was mostly along country roads that saw little more than foot traffic. Our rout then descended to the northern tip of lake Mutanda were dug out canoes were waiting to take us across the lake. The wind was blowing in our faces and the first part of the ride was a little scary in the tipsy dug out canoe with whitecaps on the lake and the occasional wave coming over the side of the boat. The wind eventually died down but it took us 4 hours to paddle the lake. The walk on the other side was through villages were we constantly heard the Muzungo call. By the time we got back to the guest house in Kisoro I was exhausted and ready to eat.
View of Lake Mutanda
Kids lugging water up hill (This is the most common sight so far, people carrying water. We are so so fortunate to just turn a facet for ours!)
Our fellow paddlers (That canoe is from only one tree!)
Peter cheesing it up for the camera
One of three volcanoes surrounding the lake, unfortunately difficult to see do to haze.

Up early the next day, we made our way across the boarder into Rwanda. For the first time being a US citizen paid off and we didn’t have to pay for the $60 visa at the boarder! (we have found that if a visa is needed , Americans usually have to pay quiet a bit more then other nationalities) Crossing over the quality of road and buses immediately improved and we were in Kigali, the capital, before we new it! Another first, people where actually denied entrance onto the bus when all the seats were filled. No packed sardines here. The rolling hillside of Rwanda, the country of 10,000 hills (or something like that) was beautiful. Out of the red earth green vegetation thrived, covering the landscape. I didn’t know what to expect from Rwanda, unfortunately most I knew about this country was with regard to is ’94 genocide. We certainly didn’t expect to find our selves, after weeks of Nescafe, in an ultra suave and comfy coffee shop! We had been warned that Kigali would be expensive, but we were shocked! Prices were more in line with New Zealand or the Cook Islands… certainly the most expensive place we had been since Sydney. Who would have thought ?

As it was our 4th wedding anniversary we decided to go out and have a nice dinner. We had drinks at Hotel des Mille Collines, or better known as Hotel Rwanda. This hotel provided refuge to many during the genocide. Today, it is a super luxury hotel with great pool side happy hour . A bit surreal given the history of the place. Afterward we sought out an Indian restaurant. Indian is our new favorite food and fortunately there are a number of good Indian restaurants in East Africa due to the number of Indians living here.
The next day it was a visit to the Kigali Genocide Memorial. The massacre of the Tutsi people that occurred in Rwanda during 1994 is a horrific scar on the history of mankind. Learning more about the history of Rwanda and the events prior to the genocide was frightening. We learned the distinction of the marginalized people was nothing more than a meaningless label placed upon them by colonists. What was absolutely the most shocking was how calculated the killing was, it was not just meaningless intertribal violence but premeditated genocide. The fact that something like this could happen after the events of Nazi Germany, and continues on to this day in places like Darfur is an atrocity.

Peters new look, one in the front and one in the back.
Hotel Rwanda
One of the mass graves at the memorial center. 250,000 people are buried here, ¼ of the estimated deaths during the genocide.
Kigali Memorial Center with downtown Kigali in the background.

Posted by pmunson 05:29 Archived in Rwanda Comments (1)


Spice in the Indian Ocean

Zanzibar. Just the name sounds so exotic. It is ringed by white sand beaches and exotic coral reefs teaming with marine life, has a dark history in the slave trade, is covered with spice farms, and is alive with Swahili culture. Wooden dhows are still built on the sand and ply the old fishing routs. Kids scurry about the narrow alleyways of stone town, playing football in any opening they can find. Men sit and play games and women dress in the traditional kanga. From the start Zanzibar was amazing and so far has the most character of anywhere else we have seen in our small view of East Africa.
Stone Town from the Ferry

We spent our first three nights at the pyramid guesthouse. A great budget place well adorned with Zanzibar beds in every room. These are high wooden beds that are ornately carved and have 4 four tall posters romantically draped with mosquito nets. The name comes from the incredibly steep stair case leading up to the upper floors. We took in our sundowners at Mercury’s bar, named after Freddy Mercury of queen who was boor on Zanzibar. Meals were had at the famed street venders serving up all sorts of delicacies from the sea. Lobster, Crab, Prawns, Squid, Octopus, and many different types of fish were laid out on tables in front of Smokey BBQ grills. At first this was disappointingly touristy but as the night grew long more and more locals showed up and tourists departed. We wound up eating hear every night, hooked on fresh sea food served up on paper plates. This along with sugarcane juice and a desert of banana chocolate chapatti pizzas fresh from the grill was our diet while in Stone town. We decided to do the spice tour, which was as disappointing as we expected but I was nice to learn more about how all the spices we use in our day to day cooking are grown and we got a little taste of the beach on our way back. We spent the rest of the time just wandering around and getting lost in the maze of alleyways that makes up stone town. This old Swahili city was enchanting. It was the Muslim holy month of Ramadan so it was really quiet during the day but everything came alive at night . After the sun had set and the days fast would be broken people would come out to socialize.
Pyramid Hotel
Sunset from Mercury’s
Stone Town
Stone town Waterfront
Masi Man on a cell phone
Stone Town
Street food from the Sea. So Good.
Spiral coconut tree. Inspiration for tropical cocktails.

We set out on our 4th day to find the beach and do some scuba diving. The local transportation on Zanzibar is shared trucks called dala dalas. These are long bed trucks with benches running down each side and covered with a short roof. From the market on the edge of stone town these were constantly departing in all directions. We had a hell of a time finding the right truck; all the while being hounded by “friendly” touts who would not leave us alone without following us to the truck and then demanding a commission. You would think that after 10 months of travel we would be able to beat the touts at their own game but they are truly relentless. We finally got on the right truck, refused to pay any commission or negotiate, and were off. We decided on a beach on the northeast called Matemwe. From here you could easily access Mnenba Island which is said to have the best diving on around Zanzibar.
Matemwe Beach

We had made arrangements to stay at Mohamed’s Beach Camp, a small four hut accommodation right on the beach run by an enterprising local. Mohamed was incredibly friendly and accommodating and shared is story of success with us. He came from a broken family and grew up with next to nothing. He told us most of the time that his mother and him did not have food to eat and really struggled. He managed to learn English and went to work in a hotel. After a few years he had saved enough to buy a motorcycle. He then rented this out to the gusts at the hotel and earned enough to buy a 2nd motorcycle. Before long he had saved more money, sold one of the bikes, and managed to buy the small plot of land were we stayed. He said he was completely wiped out from buying the land and it took many years before he had enough to build. Now he has a successful little business on a prime stretch of beach.

Meghan relaxes at Mohamed’s
Local homes in Matemwe village made from coral

There were a few up market hotels tucked away down the beach but we were right next to the village and got to observe the daily activity of the people. This was fascinating and the most rewarding part of our visit. The community relied on the sea to provide for it needs. When we arrived all the fishing boats had just come in and their was a lively fish market on the beach. Men huddled around strings of fresh fish haggling over the price. Little kids waited to earn a few shillings by prepping the catch on the beach. Squid and octopus were prevalent here and all around the beach kids were beating octopus with wooden sticks in the sand. This was to tenderize the meat but also got the ink out, turning the white sand black. It seamed like the whole village came out for this and were actively involved in bringing the boats in, getting the fish on the beach, selling, buying, and cleaning. We found out how fresh the fish was latter that night when Mohammed served us up some incredible coconut snapper that was caught a few hours earlier. The next day the boats were already out when we woke up and the tide was going out. By low tide all the women were out in the shallows tending to seaweed gardens that filled the lagoon inside the coral reef. Kids played on or around the few boats that had been left behind or rode their fathers bikes up and down the long tidal plain. A few men also stayed behind working on their boats or doing maintenance. All the fishing boats were outrigger canoes fit with a sail. All the building materials were taken from the forest giving individual character to the hand crafted vessels. Later that day after walking up the beach the boats started to come back in. I waded out into the shallow waters of the lagoon and watched them silently glide by me. I felt like I had slipped back to a simpler time.

Fish market on the beach
Fresh Catch
Local boy with freshly cleaned and tenderized octopus
Women Harvesting Seaweed
Seaweed drying on the beach
Dhows coming home from a day of Fishing

Next day it was scuba time and we were on the boat early. We had to motor up the shore a ways to a break in the reef before we could cut across the island and the surrounding dive sights. We were paired with a nice girl who was on her honeymoon and our dive master Mario, an Italian who loved being the center of attention. The other divers in our boat jumped out at different dive sites and we got to explore ours on our own. We saw many fish but the real highlight was a sea turtle. I had seen one in the Cook Islands from a good distance but this was Meghan’s first, and it was up close and personal. The turtle was just chilling out on some coral and we were about 5 feet away from it. It just checked us out and kept on doing its thing undisturbed. The second dive was a wall dive. A near vertical embankment of coral plunged into the ocean well below our diving depth. A light current meant that we did not have to swim that much, just sit back and enjoy it. On this dive we saw two large white tip sharks, but from a safe distance. When we got back on land we took advantage of the pool and lounge chairs at the nicer resort were the dive shop was located before heading back to Mohamed’s for dinner. After seeing so much Squid and Octopus on the beach I thought I would give it a go and was not disappointed, I did not know octopus could be so tender… not chewy at all. The squid was equally impressive and I was stuffed when I finished my plate. Matemwe was incredible, the complete lack of tourists on the beach was a refreshing change from most beach destinations. Sitting in the shade watching life unfold in front of us was all the entertainment we needed.

Our Dive Boat
Mnenba Island
Fresh from the underwater world
Pool Poaching
Low tide was a great time for a ride on the beach.
Mohamed’s beach camp from the water

Posted by pmunson 23:01 Archived in Tanzania Comments (2)

Paradise found....again

Zanzibar to Lake Malawi

Back on the Train!


Even if the busses in Tanzania had not treated us so poorly we would have opted to jump back on the train. After such good experiences on the trains in India and Thailand we decided to get on the busy train from Dar es Salaam heading south where we would disembark in the town Mbeya, the closest stop to the boarder with Malawi. After departing Dar it was country all the way. I do not think I saw as much as a paved road the entire time. We crossed a few small villages and did stop for a few of them but very rural. Mostly we were staring our across unblemished African landscape. We had heard roomers of elephants and other wildlife seen out the cabin window but despite all my looking we only spotted a few monkeys.

At the station

A lone Cyclist waits for the train to pass

With a 24 hour ride I had plenty of time to study our trusty guidebook in our comfy first class cabin.

After a quick overnight in Mbeya, we where on our way south to Malawi. We had an interesting ride from the train station to the boarder. The bus made an incredible amount of stops along the way including an accident. A truck went off the road ahead of us and we gathered the injured driver and took him to the next town. Shortly after this we picked up two guys in handcuffs and their armed guard!

The problem with AIDS in Africa is no laughing matter but this sign at the border had us cracking up.

Once into Malawi it was complete mayhem. Taxi drivers fought it out for our fare, a fare that we negotiated down to 50% of the first quote. Kids surrounded us trying to sell water and grabbed at the money in my hand when I went to buy. Even after we were in the cab the aggressive negotiations between the drivers continued. We switched to a Matola (Malawi’s version of small shared public transport) in the town of Karonga. The bus was as packed as we expected but the real surprise was when we stopped along the roadside and picked up passengers with two huge baskets filled with small fish about the size of sardines. They had to completely rearrange people and luggage to get them in the van. The smell was overpowering. It was a smell we would have to get used two while staying alongside lake Malawi which dominates the western boarder of the country. Fishing was the primary source of income along the lake and was evidenced by countless drying racks lined with the small fish everywhere you went. Chitimba would be our first stop in Malawi. This was a tiny road stop with a collection of huts resembling a village.

Packing the fish in (note Peter’s red backpack)

We found ourselves at Mdokera’a Beach Campsite. Mdokera ran a tiny beach campsite on his property. He had a collection of small huts with sandy floors that served as basic accommodation. He was incredibly friendly and received us with the warmest greeting one could give. We were quick to dip ourselves in the cool fresh waters of lake Malawi and before too long we were surrounded by all the neighborhood kids who spend most of their days on the beach. Meghan and I were the only two guests and got the run of the small place. His family prepared a delicious meal of local foods (beans, greens, and rice) for us to enjoy under a palm thatched gazebo on the sand.

Meghan and Mdokera

Lake Malawi

At first a few…

And then Many. These kids were cute but they would not leave us alone.

The next day, after making arrangement with a guide, we hiked 10 miles and 3000 feet up above Lake Malawi onto a large plateau to the town of Livingstonia. In the late 1800s after falling victim to malaria on long the lake, the Scottish mission headed by Dr Laws and in memory of African explorer and missionary Dr. Livingston founded its base here. Today it is a view into Malawi’s missionary history with wide tree lined dirt roads, incredible panoramic views of the lake and surrounding hillside, and old colonial buildings. (Including hospital, university, technical school and church) We spent the night in Stone House, home to Dr Laws, a 20th century home with huge rooms built in the Victorian style. We wanted to hitch a ride back down the bumpy dirt road, but after waiting alongside the road for 2 hours without any sign of a jeep we reluctantly deciding to walk back down the trail in the heat of the mid day sun. The 200 miles in Nepal apparently had done nothing to prepare me for this and by the time we got back to Mdokera’s my feet were killing me and I was completely exhausted. We lazed on the beach for the rest of the day and were passed out shortly after the sun set.

Heading into the hills on our hike to Livingstonia

Stained glass window in the Church

The Stone House

A view back down to Lake Malawi

Our main destination and reason for visiting Malawi was a trip on the Ilala Ferry to Chizumulu and Linkoma Islands. This trusty ship has ran the length of the lake weekly since 1957, although its seaworthiness is up for debate. We made our way to Nkhata Bay, a small but incredibly busy port town. This was completely different from the isolated beachside village feeling we got at Mdokera’s. Instead of having the place to ourselves we found the all to familiar backpacker scene reemerging. We only spent one night here but had the entire second day to hang out while waiting for the ferry to arrive from the north. Town was hopping with hundreds of people milling about and stocking up at the market waiting for the ferry to take them back out to the islands. The boat, the only transportation on the lake, brings people in from the Islands on Saturday and then brings them back out with their cargo on Monday night. A weekly market took over the entire town and it was fun to walk around and see it all. We secured our tickets for the first class deck and then spent the rest of the day lazing around .

Bungalows at The Big Blue Star

Edge of the market at Nkhata Bay

One fish, two fish, million fish, all small fish

Scheduled to arrive at 1:00PM and the leave at 8:00PM the Ilala did not show up until 7:30pm. We where told that it would leave as soon at it was loaded, little did we know what this meant! Hundreds of people with an unbelievable amount of cargo were waiting. Most were waiting to board 2nd class with out assigned seating so this meant that there was a huge frantic push to board when we finally were allowed. Clearly not the time for someone with first class tickets to be boarding. Before realizing our mistake, we were swept away in a strong human current over a long narrow bridge to a loading dock. All the locals had big heavy parcels on their heads pushing in a rugby scrum style mass towards the loading ramp. On the ramp itself people were climbing on under the handrail and handing parcels overhead onto the boat. People were actually scaling the railings on the side of the boat trying to board. It was complete chaos and probably one of the most dangerous situations we had found ourselves in yet. Meghan was close to a panic attack but we were already in the mass, and once you were in their was no getting out. Eventually we got close to the ramp and I pushed on the back of her backpack with all my might pushing her past people and onto the ramp. I really felt like it was a fight for your life type of a situation. I am not exaggerating. Once on board we had to continue the fight through the already full 2nd class and up to the first class deck, which was empty.

Chaos at the loading dock. This picture does so little to represent what we went through. Far worse then trying to get on the subway in Calcutta!

The first class “deck” ticket did not buy us much other than a safe haven above the masses below. The top deck only had a few wooden benches and a small bar. After hiring mattresses we spread out on the open deck and slept under the stars. We arrived in Chizumula shortly after sunrise and making our way off the boat was almost as much of a struggle as getting on. The Island did not have a jetty, unloading was unto over stuffed motor boats. The lowered decks were impossibly crowded. Stepping over people and parcels of mostly dried fish and maize we scrambled towards the exit wondering how we would make it on a boat.

A bed for the night.

Sunrise from the top deck

First Class, Ilala Style

Soon we were greeted by William, the assistant manager from Wakwenda Retreat on board. He came out in his own boat and boarded the ferry in search of any backpackers headed toward his place. I felt like we had been rescued from an impossible situation as we were whisked away on own private shuttle. Wakwenda Retreat was directly in front of us and gave a great first impression. Small wooden decks with tables and chairs were built into a rocky outcropping jutting into the lake. In every nook and cranny there was another little place to sit or lay out and relax. An open aired bar and restaurant crowned the small peninsula looking out over the vast lake. I was afraid that the budget backpackers accommodation may have gone upscale but was please to find that we could still pitch out tent on the beach for USD$3.50 a night! Our host Nick, a slightly cynical and crazy expat from the UK ran the only accommodation on the island and was currently empty. There were six of us who had come off the ferry and we were all surprised to find that we were the only tourists on the Island.

Unloading the Ilala. The boat was anchored of Chizzy for over 5 hours unloading and a reported 12 hours at Likooma. Through passengers had to stay aboard and wait.

Nick’s Wakwenda Retreat from the ferry.

Meghan, Jacky, and the Ilala. We had already had breakfast, checked in, set up the tent, and were in the water before the ferry departed.

We spent the next three days just hanging around. The snorkeling right around the rocks was impressive for fresh water. Many different colored cichlids swam about the shallow rocks making themselves easily viewable from the surface. At night time we would all hang around the bar drinking “chizzy” (short for Cizumulu) refreshers with Nick until we were all a little buzzed.

Checking in on the cichilids

Coffee and Bao. We spent a lot of time playing this popular game that involves trying to capture your opponents seeds.

Meghan in her favorite spot on the Island… Do we have to leave?

On our 2nd day we went out for a dive. Heading out into big waves and a lot of wind did not help the sea sickness situation!. Feeling a little woozy we all rolled back into the lake and made our way to the anchor line. There was a good amount of current and the visibility was not that great but we proceeded. A few fun swim through rock formations saved the dive and we wound up having good time while we were under. The ride back in was with the wind and we were pushed back quickly by the waves to the shelter of the bay.

Camping on the Sand. The tree behind the tent is a massive Boabab. The tree is completely hollow on the inside served as a bar at one time and reportedly could sit up to 12!

The new bar and restaurant.

King of the boabab trees. Check out the size in comparison to the small hut by the trunk.

The sun setting on Chizzy

The only way to other neighboring island of Likoma without waiting for the ferry was on a dhow that sailed daily between the two islands. We set out to the beach were we could catch the boat and waited for departure. This was a real deal dhow. The mast and crossbars were narrow tree trunks and the sails were bed sheets. There was no seating, just a few 2X4’s and the side of the hull. The wind was barely up and we moved very slowly across the water. Two hours later we landed on the beach only a few meters from Mango Drift, on the western side of the island.

Our ride to Likoma

Slow ride

Far removed from any of the villages on the island, Mango Drift enjoyed a nice bay with a long beach of golden sand. A few nice beach huts were tucked in underneath many grand baobab trees and a nice bar and lounge area faced the lake. We had slowly sailed from one island paradise to another. We set up our tent on the sand within earshot of the gentle waves lapping the sandy shore. Here we would settle back into our new routine of lounging, trying to perfect the art of doing nothing. Fortunately, a fellow traveler with an endless amount of energy kept us busy with games of volleyball and kite flying! Four more days would pass before the ferry would return to pick us up and we both looked forward to the continued break from the hustle and bustle of the taxing life of an independent traveler…. catching busses, finding accommodation, figuring out were to eat, and trying were to decide to head next.

Mango Drift

The bar and lounge that we rarely strayed from

View of chizzy in the distance

St Peters Cathedral. Out of place on an Island without many buildings bigger than a thatched beach hut!

Our spot on the sand

We were entertained by a poet and a one man band… with a one stringed instrument!

Facing west at Mango Drift we were treated to great Lake Malawi sunsets

Posted by pmunson 09:02 Archived in Malawi Comments (2)

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