Trans Africa – The Best and the Worst

BEST-LAID plans and organisation have a tendency to go by the wayside as soon as the real world intervenes (no matter how many  to-do lists you draw up).

The plan to write round-ups of the Trans Africa during the days following our return was overtaken by the small matter of work and, to be honest, a certain need to take a break from the blog and allow for a little bit of perspective from time.

But, finally, here’s the first of those wrap-up articles – it’s a long one, but it breaks down into bitesize chunks and could have been even longer. But we’ll get to that…

Best Moments

  1. 171Gorillas – The most expensive hour of my life, one of the muddiest and one of the best. Spending time in the presence of these magnificent creatures was a privilege. Even enjoyed the walk up and down the Rwandan mountain.
  2. Lake Bunyonyi Community – Another uphill hike that was more than worth it. An afternoon spent with the children of the orphanage, dancing, singing and playing games was exhilarating, humbling, tiring, utterly unforgettable and, when they launched into poems about losing their parents to AIDS, totally heartbreaking.
  3. Yodibikro – Totally unplanned, totally unrepeatable. When the search for a bush camp keeps taking you through rural villages in Cote D’Ivoire, eventually it leaves no option than to stop and ask to stay in one of them. The reception from the village, particularly the children, as a big yellow truck rolled up and the first white people most of them would have seen climbed out was extraordinary. Cooking spaghetti in a sweatbox with a huge crowd was not on the list of things to do, but sums up what overlanding is all about.
  4. 12144880_10153696941528872_7621071827808754893_nPuddle In The Congo – Spending a morning stood in a muddy puddle trying to free a stranded lorry full of stinking veg doesn’t sound like fun, but it was a remarkable few hours of working together, digging in and a fair amount of muddy water being thrown around.
  5. Good Shepherd Orphanage – “An experience… worth holding on to” was my blog description after the trip with Karla to revisit the orphanage outside Accra where she had volunteered three years earlier. Two offers of marriage, a great reception from the children and the delightful moment when one of the staff recognised Karla as we walked towards the kitchen. Coupled with a fair bit of frustration at how things are being run.
  6. Goats In Trees – It’s supposed to be a top five, but this had to be in there… Could easily have been a top 20, even 30 or more.

Worst Moments*

  1. Cellulitis, Pt 1 – It came on in a hurry in Lome, had me flat out as we crossed into Benin, curled up trying to sleep all afternoon by a supposedly very nice pool and spending the night on the floor of the truck. Thankfully, the sickness was gone in 24 hours – to be replaced by a swollen leg – but for a while there, on the back of our first malaria casualty, was convinced my trip was over. And never got the free rum Steve offered as a cure.
  2. Cellulitis, Pt 2 – Another border, another quick onset of sickness (and the other leg swelling), this time from DRC into Angola. More time flat on my back and my first IV line (bout three would bring my first local anaesthetic not in my mouth, first minor surgical procedure and first crutches – sort of – but that was as funny as it was painful), but worst moment was attempting not to throw up on an armed Angolan policeman who climbed on the back of the truck.
  3. PS Nige6First Night In Cameroon – Probably my closest point to losing it. Camping on a mud road in a rainstorm, last thing you want when heading for your tent is to find somebody has moved it, left the groundsheet in a puddle and the sides collapsed on themselves. Was not amused. Blame Canada.
  4. Pointe-Noire – Starting to struggle here, so let’s throw in being tossed about trying to get out of the waves at our beach hangout. Trapped in between some big breakers, just about managed to get my head above water each time before being sent back down again.
  5. Mt Cameroon – So Karla tells me. Some of us had more sense had had a lovely few days down at sea level.

Favourite Countries

No ratings in this one, just five contenders – unable to rate them. Been difficult to get them down to five in chronological order, but these were consistently the best (could have been Congo, but for the police extracting a ‘fine’ from us in Dolisie, could have been Nigeria, Cameroon, DRC, Malawi, Uganda, Egypt… any number of contenders).

  • SAM_0727Mali – A huge, very pleasant surprise that was only on the route due to having to dodge the Ebola zone. The chaos of Bamako comes very high on the list of places we stayed.
  • Namibia – At least one person would disagree, but loved both our stays there. Natural beauty, remote wilderness, civilisation (ish), (flip flop-loving) wildlife and some great food. With the added bonus of regular showers and beds, however many people were in the room.
  • South Africa – Knew more about the country than any other beforehand, but had no real idea just how beautiful it is, particularly the Western Cape. Not there long enough, putting it top of the list of places to go back to.
  • Zimbabwe – Fascinating and frustrating in equal measure. Natural riches highlighted a welcoming, proud nation completely messed up by mismanagement.
  • Rwanda – We were only there for three nights, but pretty much every moment was special. The gorillas were on another level, but seeing how a country has pulled itself up from the nightmare of genocide to a functioning, blossoming (if far from perfect) society – was compelling. The ten-pin bowling alley was typically, shambolically, charmingly African.

Least Favourite Countries

  • Mauritania – Unlucky to make the list, but it was tough to whittle it down to five. Really just drive through with not too much to see, but pleasant enough. Ali Baba’s burgers would have been nicer with a beer.
  • KW_Benin3Benin – Sure it was lovely, just saw next to none of it. Flat on my back for most of it, which is not the easiest thing on roads that bumpy.
  • Gabon – Nice scenery and a good day up front in the cab, but just didn’t quite hit the mark. Everything seemed to be more hassle than it was worth.
  • Zimbabwe – Yes, it is on the favourite list as well. But such is the state of the country under Mugabe amid the constant evidence of what it once was and could be, it is as frustrating as it is amazing.
  • Zambia – Making up the numbers a bit as we pretty much just drove through it and every other contender had more than enough highlights to lift it off this list and nearer to the top five. Could have been Morocco, partly due to the weather, but had enough high spots and we were still fresh to keep it out of the list.

Best Wildlife Experiences

If it’s been tough to find five for the list in some cases, this one has been difficult to cut down. So, here’s a top 10. My blog, my rules. No goats included.

  1. Gorillas – See above. Just the best day.
  2. MT Namibia5A cheetah ate my flip flop – Not every day you get up close to a big cat. Even rarer one of them starts licking your foot and chewing your flip flop. Thankfully, wasn’t the other way round.
  3. Antelope Park – Could probably have done a top five from the Zimbabwe site alone, walking with two young lions, seeing them fed, getting up close to their older brethren piling into a pile of meat, feeding an elephant and sitting having lunch as the elephants walked past (even the fruitless evening lion hunt).
  4. Ngorongoro Crater – Fulfilled a long-held ambition to visit the crater. A special place even without the animals, but the lions alone made it the highlight of our three-day Tanzanian excursion.
  5. Chobe River Cruise – A couple of hours out on the water at sunset, surrounded by wildlife highlights, to the extent that nobody was taking any notice of the elephants  just behind the hippos who stole the show
  6. First Morning at Etosha – Our first major run-in with a wide variety of big game when we hit Namibia. We had been warned the recent rain may have spread the animals out and make them difficult to see, but in the first couple of hours, we saw endless animals.
  7. IMG_4992Elephant Sands – “If you go to the loo in the middle of the night, before you get out of your tent, just shine your torch around to make sure there are no elephants between you and the toilets.” Up close – a bit closer than planned at one point – to wild elephants who wandered through our camp to the drinking hole where we whiled away the hours with a grandstand view.
  8. Lake Manyara – More elephants. Lots of them all around the vehicle and the road at the first part of our three-day safari. Not a bad way to spend my birthday.
  9. Serengeti – Probably the weakest part of our three-day excursion, but still threw up a leopard, lions and a night spent hearing them roar around camp. Not much traffic to the loo that night.
  10. First Elephants at Mole – Edging out the Cape Cross Seal Colony for 10th spot, the thrill of seeing our first elephants across a lake was unforgettable. A day that could have sucked arse, suddenly kicked ass. Cheers pal.

Most Extreme Conditions

  1. SS13Sudan (with a hint of Egypt) – Hot, dry, sandy. And you can insert the word very in front of each one. Up above 50ºC for large chunks – and not all that cooler at night. Told Luxor experienced its second hottest recorded day while we were there. Walking to Karnak Temple in the midday sun.
  2. Sesriem – All seemed so calm when we went to bed, but at some point in the night the wind started to whip up and just kept getting stronger. Anyone on their own in a tent could not get out for fear of it blowing back to South Africa, while even having two people didn’t guarantee it staying put.
  3. Morocco – Wet, very wet. We were lucky, people died in the wettest spell the country has had for decades (the flooded river drew crowds onto the bridges in Marrakesh) while the truck a few days behind us got stuck in the Atlas Mountains. We had our own dramas, riding out a night on the mountainside in a storm, digging ourselves out of the slop when Nala sunk and managing to cross some swollen rivers as the rain in.
  4. Nigeria – Hot. For day after day after day. Maybe not as hot and inescapable as Sudan, but sitting on the border for more than two days was like being in an oven, bar one brief, wonderful shower. Literally. Needed several long, cold drinks.
  5. Chimanamani – The tan, the shorts, the flip-flops suggests Africa lived up to most people’s preconceptions weather wise. But we were, for the large part, in the southern hemisphere heading into winter. For the large part – bar in the wind at the back of the truck when the hoodie was never far away – it was fine during the day, but as soon as the sun went down, it could get cold. Never more than in Zimbabwe, especially when the altitude went up. Tucked up under a sleeping bag and rug, my little nest was fine, but some retreated to the sofas by the fire in the bar – not sure Michael left his spot the entire time we were there.

Scariest Moments

There was one thing everybody seemed convinced about before we left (apart from the fact we were going to get eaten by lions) – at some point we were going to run into some serious issues, possibly involving locals with guns. But tricky moments were few and far between, to the extent that it has been very difficult to find five entries for this list. In fact, was hard to find three, let alone five.

  1. IMG_5119
    Our taxi driver

    Bulawayo – Ride home with a local as the bar we had been in for 10 hours closed and it became clear no taxi was coming (or probably knew where it was). At breakneck speed and largely on the wrong side of the road.

  2. Ouidah – Onset of cellulitis (part one). See above.
  3. Pointe-Noire – Trying to get out of the sea. See above
  4. Road to Abuja – Mildly concerning for me, probably terrifying for Linda. The first bounce at the back of the truck had us moving, the second had some of us getting serious hang time – thankfully just enough time to pick a landing spot that was not right on top of Linda.
  5. Afi Mountains – Bit of a concern more than really frightening, but when a bunch of young local “vigilantes” under the influence start making threats and trying to “trash” our tents late at night in an isolated village, it does occupy the mind. Perceived threat lessened when we realised we outnumbered them and their phone calls for reinforcements were being made with no signal. And without the phone being on.

Best Bush Camps

One of the defining characteristics of Oasis trips, spending the night completely without facilities (bar some bushes and a shovel) at some previously discovered point or wherever we could find. Approached with trepidation before the trip, became one of the highlights and came with its own bedtime.

Honourable mentions for our home in the woods outside Rabat (anywhere with soft ground earned plenty of bonus points), amid the rocks of Spitzkoppe, the dried river bed near Henties Bay, the rain forest clearing in Gabon and any number of quarries. The Nile felucca doesn’t quite fit here (or anyone else to be honest), but deserves a mention.

  1. KW_WS6Sand Dune – The most stunning place to spend the night in the shadow of a giant dune in the Western Sahara. Would have been a stunning stop if it was a mere detour from the road, climbing the dune and watching the camels wander by, let alone the belated realisation it was our home for the night.
  2. Brandberg Mountains – Close for top spot and picturesque enough to draw a healthy contingent out of bed early to climb the rocks and watch the sun come up. Enough to drive people to song.
  3. Meroe Pyramids – Another spot that drew almost everyone up the slope above Nala to take in the glorious surroundings. Throw in the pyramids and the local camel herders touting for a few passengers and it was another example of the unheralded places which make this trip so special.
  4. 393Volubilis – An early one – way back in Morocco and the first bush camp we just stumbled across – and maybe a bit of a surprise, but probably the one that convinced any sceptics that bush camps were to be savoured. In a glorious spot among the olive trees, overlooking the valley and a wonderful sunset, it also brought a couple of locals out to chat, sell us loves, help with the fire, share our food and vote for the first winner of Malcolm the Monkey.
  5. In Western Sahara Dunes – Night before the giant sand dune she spent the night surrounded by smaller ones. Lovely spot after a long day on the road and a notable change of mood as the first totally warm, dry night as we emerged from the damp of Morocco.

Best Campsites

  1. HighlandersHighlanders – So good, we went back. Our first (and last) taste of South Africa in a stunning terraced setting overlooking a valley of vineyards. Wine tasting (with repercussions), a pool, a great bar (more repercussions), a lovely meal from the staff, good toilets and a mad dog. Wonderful place.
  2. Zebra Bar – It could have been a contender if it had just offered the most welcome cold beer after the deprivations of southern Morocco and Mauritania. Throw in a stunning location on the banks of an estuary, hot showers and a bar that allowed us to just help ourselves and you’ve got overlander heaven. With added monkey.
  3. Felix Unite – An unplanned stop before leaving Namibia and certainly very welcome. Great setting on the banks of the Orange River, fantastic pool, terrific bar, lovely soft grass and top showers, probably the most luxurious campsite of the trip. Yep, that’s why we remember it. Some people nearly got swept away with excitement.
  4. Hilali Camp – Namibia quickly assumed a mythical status as we headed down the west side, the place where we would find all the stuff we had been missing. Hilali, our base for the night on our first trip to Etosha National Park, gave us a pool, hot showers (which got everybody a bit over-excited) and an evening watching the wildlife around the watering hole.
  5. Kande Beach – Tough choice for the fifth spot, but Kande Beach edges the vote. A riotous night that may, or may not, have involved me dancing on the bar.

Best Places We Stayed

Anywhere we spent the night which doesn’t necessarily involve a campsite, but is some form of organised accommodation. Top five are not necessarily the most luxurious places we stayed, but for one reason or another, the most memorable (and welcome).

  1. Big Milly’s Backyard, Kokrobite – My first bed for 66 days, complete with a (very popular) shower. Was supposed to be just for a couple of nights, but stayed put for both of our stays. Throw in a bar, restaurant (even with a very relaxed attitude to quick service), occasional live entertainment and even a sweet shop, it became our home from home for the best part of two weeks.
  2. HV8Brasserie De La Mer, Pointe-Noire – On the back of around 10 days without a shower (and on the heels of some less than savoury treatment by the Congolese officials), we would have taken pretty much welcomed anywhere that had running water and somewhere reasonably comfortable to lay our heads. We found camping on the beach, a great bar (once you could get served) with decent food and some thunderous surf.
  3. Nile Valley Hotel, Luxor – Air conditioning in a room right next to the pool (not close enough to stop burning your feet en route, such was the heat), a bar, restaurant and staff who were determined to be as helpful as possible. All on the banks of the Nile with ready access to some of Egypt’s greatest historic sights. And donkeys.
  4. Amanpuri Lodge, Swakopmund – Not the most luxurious with most of us sharing the same dorm. But again, it came on the end of a long stretch without too many facilities and marked our real arrival in southern Africa. Also brought our first contact with fellow overlanders. Some more than others.
  5. Train from Victoria Falls to Bulawayo – Certainly not luxurious and with precious few facilities (and what there was did not work). And for Karla, not the quietest night. But certainly one of the most charming and interesting travel experiences – mixed with the usual frustrations of doing anything in Zimbabwe.

Worst Places We Stayed

  1. Palm Springs Motel, Turbo – Considering how many nights we spent in bush camps, it is perhaps strange that a night spent in a bed tops this list. But paying $5 for that cell was too much (even if Michael actually paid), it was cold, wet and my mood matched the weather. Just about my lowest point before the delights of Lake Bunyonyi and Rwanda re-energised me for the final push.
  2. KW_Cam6First Night in Cameroon – Considering the euphoria of crossing the border, the loss of sense of humour in the downpour at camp on an old, mud road was extreme and total (see Worst Moments). Mood cleared quickly with the weather and still a night to look back on and smile – events in a puddle, naked Asians and the immortal line “You are not coming in here without any clothes on”.
  3. Atlas Mountains – Our first extreme conditions. Moved by police halfway up a mountain to a hotel car park for our own safety, we found ourselves battling the storm to put up our tents and woke to find ourselves in the middle of a small pond. Again, the wet, miserable mood quickly disappeared as the hotel owners took pity with some warming drinks and heaters before we headed off on one of the most dramatic, wettest and enjoyable drive days of the trip through the mountains to Marrakesh. With non-stop Eminem.
  4. Sheraton Hotel – Would appear high on any list of best toilets and, if we’d had the money to spend in there, possibly the swishest bar of anywhere we stayed. There was even hot showers and where we camped was perfectly comfortable. But they clearly didn’t want us there and that came across right clearly, despite the efforts of one security guard to make our brief stay as memorable as possible.
  5. Cameroon – Not having a go at an entire country, it was not far off my top five list. But after that opening night, we didn’t have much luck with bush camps. The next night we rolled in after dark and pitched our tents on the side of a school football pitch, only to be moved on to the paddock outside a police station. Perfectly fine spot, but putting tents up and down in quick succession was too much for my back – had to call on Tent Whisperer Linda and Ale (who had Martha to do her tent) for help. Another night saw us trying to find a gap between the puddles and piles of rubbish to pitch our tents.

Most Memorable Borders

  1. MfumNigeria-Cameroon – More time than the rest of the borders put together. Probably. After six days holed up in Calabar looking for ways through a closed border, we chanced our arm and just turned up. After 56 hours of camping on the roadside, showering in the rain, being served drinks by a schoolboy and befriending the locals, somebody finally took pity on us and let us through. Sounds an ordeal, but was great fun.
  2. Mauritania-Senegal – The border itself was quick, they wanted to pack up and go home as much as we wanted to get through and reach our first beers for the best part of two weeks. Getting there was the fun part as Steve managed to get us stuck off the side of the road and in need of a tow as the clock ticked to the border closing and those beers looked increasingly far away.
  3. Sudan-Egypt – It was hot, it was sandy, it was unpleasant, right up to the point where they ushered us to the front of the queue and into an air-conditioned waiting room and on again to a cafe to wait for the truck to pass immigration. Even more notable for being the first Trans Africa to cross via the new land border, rather than a lengthy boat trip with no guarantee us and Nala would arrive anything like together.
  4. Cabinda (Angola)-DRC – Relatively, surprisingly, smooth. Notable for the sudden, dramatic change as the tarmac roads from the prosperous Cabinda ended at a rope strung across the road, to be replaced immediately by a mud track in the rather less wealthy DRC. Second border in a day after…
  5. Congo-Cabinda – We were only in the Angolan exclave of Cabinda  for a few hours, but it caused any number of problems and delays as it meant a double entry visa nobody seemed able to give us. When we got there, we were welcomed into the modern office by a friendly border official and allowed to use their toilets – once all our details had been copied out into a traditional ledger.

Favourite Food

There were complaints about the food (one person in particular writing about his displeasure with anyone’s cooking bar his own haute cuisine that nobody else can actually remember), but on the whole it was not bad. It could get a bit repetitive, but that’s overlandning. My diet was probably the best it has been for years and led to four inches off the waistline.

Honourable mention to any number of street stalls which have been forgotten and the pancakes and Morrocan tea in Casablanca (more memorable than the place itself).

  1. Kudu steaks – Any guilt which may have been felt by digging in to one of the game we had been spotting was soon swept away by the fact it was just terrific. Went back to the same place for the same thing.
  2. IMG_0332Warthog ribs – They had received a big build-up which could have set us up for disappointment. No worries there, absolutely gorgeous.
  3. Meat on a stick – Still reckon there is a market for lumps of meat served up on a stick for a few pennies back home. The ultimate in fast food – just don’t take too much attention to the conditions they are being cooked in.
  4. Pies – There were times we should have been sightseeing. Or at the very least shopping for something more practical. But when you’ve had a few days of nothing but veg and eggs, you can be excused for making a beeline for the pies every time we rolled into a supermarket.
  5. Anything not involving eggs – Yes, they are easy to buy on a limited budget and allow you to do a variety of things. But when every cook group has come to the same conclusion – culminating in one group spending their entire budget on 159 eggs – enough is enough.

Best Purchases

  1. SAM_0635Rug – Potentially fell into a total tourist trap in the Fes Medina, but was undoubtedly a great buy. On top of my mattress, helped create a comfy bed; when it got cold, went over opened-up sleeping bag to build a snuggly nest; when it got hot in Sudan, kept the worst of the heat from the floor out (as well as cutting down the impact of a deflating bed). And will come in useful when finally have somewhere more permanent to live.
  2. Flip Flops – Took a while to be converted, but once my sandals gave way in Namibia, it did not take long for them to become de rigeur (after a while trying to find a pair big enough). Not that the first pair stayed in one piece for a while, courtesy of a cheetah. Thanks to Kris for keeping the replacements coming.
  3. Shorts – Part of the revamped wardrobe in Cape Town. Much relief to me and everybody else to find a pair of trousers which did not keep falling down constantly (although even these were by the end).
  4. Canvas Bag – From a market in, if memory serves me right, Tanzania. Should have done it much earlier. Sounds simple, but just having something to carry and store my bedding in made life much easier (after a string of torn plastic bags). Still crammed full of stuff.
  5. Gloves – Only used once and a bit of a cheat as bought before departure – the last thing purchased. But the advice to get some gardening gloves for the trek to see the gorillas (cheers Stephen) was spot on. Cut down on the stings from the nettles, even if they got so caked in mud they were immediately consigned to the bin.

Did consider a worst purchase list, but was lucky it would have been tricky to get up to five (was not my camera’s fault that it slid off the bar and broke the night before we went into the Serengeti, having only bought it in Cape Town).

Undoubted winner, the cheap tray of Celtia beer which was just about drinkable if you downed it in one while ice cold, before it warmed up slightly. Remains ended in a bin at a truck clean in South Africa, along with my pillow, bought in Morocco but started to look a bit of a health risk.

  • Tough one as, illness apart, there were not that many. Low points were usually down to tiredness or a need to just get away for a short while, so this took some thinking about.
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Feel Good Inc

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Closing Shot – Not sure which creature Ale is happier to be pictured with. Again, not too many captions for the gorillas we spent an hour with

OVER the past decade or so, I have been lucky enough to see some amazing things on my travels – the sights and experiences which move from prominent places on my mental bucket list to lodge at the forefront of my memory.

The moments which answer the question: “Why do you travel?”.

317On my last major overland adventure from London to New York, we had a phrase for them – Wow Moments. Everybody will have them, we were told, everybody’s will be different and could be something you don’t feel the same way about. Don’t mock or criticise them, just let them enjoy them.

Sitting on a rock on Olkhon Island in Siberia, watching the sun set over the frozen Lake Baikal was my main one on that trip (although wow was not the word used when the sun set and the full extent of how cold it was became apparent), with more dotted throughout the that trip and others.

And the Wow Moments have popped up along the road through Africa, from sharing an evening with the villagers of Yodibikro to digging a lorry out of a pothole in the Congo (more exciting than it sounds) and from meeting the lion cubs of Antelope Park to visiting an orphanage in Accra and our afternoon with the children of Lake Bunyonyi.

But think all of them are going to have to play second fiddle to meeting the gorillas of Rwanda.

IMG_0641Wow doesn’t go far enough.

Spotting the first gorilla up a tree was special. Just spending time that close to them was something to cherish. Watching a giant silverback run down the path we had very quickly jumped to the side of was a treat. Even hearing the silverback break wind (long and loudly) from the top of a tree was an experience.

But when you add in one younger male inquisitively grabbing my collar and trying to pull off my jacket as he wandered past, it moves to another level.

And that’s before another one charged down the path and bowled me over into the Rwandan mud.

Something truly special. Certainly the most expensive hour of my life, but worth every penny and right up there among the greatest experiences.

Back in my brief time working for an overland company – which saw the first seeds of heading out on this adventure planted in my mind – the two of us who shared the office would spend a lot of time chatting about places we had been and seen.

240Well, to be honest, my contributions were fairly short compared to Stephen, who had spent a lot of time in Africa and had plenty of tales to tell – notably about people returning from their treks to visit the gorillas in tears, so moved were they by the experience.

His words stuck with me (as did his advice to wear gloves, which came in very handy, even if they were dispatched into the bin after bearing the brunt of the mud which accompanied us up and down the mountain) and when it came time to book this trip, there was no hesitation in pre-booking one of the limited daily permits.

There was more hesitation in doing something about being in shape to cope with the trek up to see these magnificent beasts – one issue with mountain gorillas is they tend to live up mountains or, in this case, on a range of volcanoes – so excitement was mixed with some trepidation as we rolled into Rwanda and our base for a couple of nights in a Catholic pastoral centre in Musanze.

Did not quite resort to praying the night before, opting instead to pack a backpack with essential supplies and find some comfort in the bar.

IMG_0664Not too much comfort, mind you, given the early start as the dozen of us who had signed up grabbed breakfast and packed some lunch before being carried off to the registration point and split into two groups.

Having grabbed one of the spots on the easier trek – which, we were told, should take between an hour and hour and a half to reach the gorillas – we piled back in the van to be driven up to the trail head, from where our guides Francois and Bernice, plus our team of trackers, would lead us into the Parc National des Volcans in search of the Umubano group of gorillas.

Thankfully, Francois was more than keen to stop and point out things of interest as we hit the lower slopes, giving plenty of time to catch our breath, and just as things began to ramp up – including my breathing rate – he sat on a rock alongside the entrance to the park and ran through a few rules about how to behave when we found the gorillas.

What with trying to digest them and cope with the slippery mud that kept flinging us into bushes and stinging nettles – only fell the once, just straight into a combination of the two – there was little time to get too tired before our accompanying tracker started cutting a patch through the vegetation and we caught our first glimpse of a gorilla up a tree about 50 yards away.

IMG_0686Having dropped off our gear under a tree, we headed up a steep, narrow pathway which had me wondering exactly how to get up it without sliding all the way back down when we heard a few branches snap just before us and the silverback (evidently weighing about 210kg and 26 years old) came running down exactly the same path.

There was not enough room for all of us and, wisely, we took the unspoken decision to let the silverback have right of way and clambered the best we could off the slippery slope into the vegetation as he thundered past and up a nearby tree.

We were still untangling ourselves from the trees when a younger male followed down the path, stopping to investigate Ale and Emily sheltering just above me and then heading down and grabbing me by the collar of my jacket – Bernice finally coaxing him away with a few well-rehearsed gorillas noises.

Gradually we were surrounded by gorillas who headed up the trees, gambolled around on the floor or set about stripping trees of bark to get at the sap beneath, which is why my attention was elsewhere when a, thankfully, smaller male charged down the path straight into my leg and sent me sprawling.

One of those moments that brought rather more than ‘Wow’ to my lips – amid the laughter – and just one of a number as we spent the best part of an hour up close (very close at times) and sharing the forest with these magnificent beasts, among them a mother clutching her young baby protectively.

There is something special about them. We have seen the Big Five over the last few months and had any number of unforgettable animal encounters, but this took it to another level – the torrential rain which fell almost throughout almost ignored (until we had to start going down again, at least).

171They knew we were there and, when they did bother to look our way and our eyes met, there was a connection. They just weren’t that fussed about us, knowing full well that this was their turf and we were merely visitors.

The silverback also appears to be a good timekeeper as, with our allotted hour almost up, he led the gorillas back up the path.

Expecting to be steered back down, we were instead guided back up the path to find him sat holding court in a clearing that enabled us all to shuffle in front of him for the most amazing picture opportunity.

With huge smiles on our faces, it was finally time to negotiate the downhill journey which brought more slipping, sliding and, frankly, falling over. Again, only went once, but enough to render my later efforts to remove the mud from my trousers as utterly pointless.

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Dirty Work – Trekking to see the gorillas left its mark

Reunited with our fellow trekkers back at camp – after they had taken a longer route to find their group – everyone was talking at a fast pace, anxious to get their tales of the gorillas out. Always a sign something special has happened.

It was, at well in excess of £500, an expensive hour. Expensive enough to put some people off and have others questioning the wisdom of paying so much.

But it was worth it. Worth it to share a privileged hour with these marvellous creatures. And, above all, worth it to contribute in some small way to the efforts to conserve them as their numbers fall to dangerously low levels.

It was even worth all that effort slogging through the mud.

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All The Young Dudes

WHEN the time comes to sit back and reflect on this Trans Africa adventure, the few days we spent either side of the Uganda-Rwanda border are likely to take prominence.

Any feeling of lethargy which may have crept in was washed away as the upper reaches of the list of my favourite moments on the trip were completely rewritten.

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Pictures Tell… – No more captions for these. Just us, the teachers, the children and Ale falling over a chair

Over the course of four days, we laughed, danced (well, sort of), sang, climbed, descended, slipped, fell, sank into mud, got soaked and went through a range of emotions from delight to horror, mixing the life-affirming and downright hilarious with the chilling, awe-inspiring and difficult to process.

To say nothing of trekking up some serious slopes to share these memorable experiences with the inhabitants of the upper reaches.

Yep, no room for lethargy.

IMG_0593The trek up into the mountains to spend an hour with gorillas, had long been tagged as a highlight – even if the prospect of walking up the slope with my current state of fitness (or lack of it) had a few alarm bells ringing – since booking it at the same time as the whole trip.

And, for very different reasons, the trip to the Genocide Memorial in the Rwandan capital Kigali was also chalked up on the must-do list before leaving home.

IMG_0598Neither disappointed, but we’ll get there in later posts – when you can discover just how my feet were taken out from under me by a passing gorilla.

But the events of Lake Bunyonyi came as a pleasant surprise for all of us who shared an enchanting, exhausting, inspiring and thought-provoking few hours among the children and community of the hillside overlooking the picturesque lake and the rather more luxurious lodges and resorts on the opposite bank.

IMG_0583Our destination, via a boat ride across the lake and a short, steep trek up the hill – thankfully just under half of the hour Joe had predicted it would take and, more remarkably, with me right up the front of the line all the way, albeit blowing hard by the end – was the school which has been created for the local children.

Many of those children, who were torn between paying attention to their lessons and watching us as we breathlessly arrived outside their classrooms, have lost one or both parents to HIV (a sign as we passed through Kampala spelled out the stark statistic that 375 people contract the virus each day in Uganda).

076The community, spearheaded by our host and guide Edison, has rallied together to build the school, support the orphaned youngsters and work on creating a destination for volunteers – hopefully some time in the near future – to live and work at the heart of village life.

As long as volunteers do not expect too many luxuries (well, any to be honest) and are pretty good at walking up and down the hill to collect anything they may need, as the villagers and children do constantly.

070Joe has been bringing his Oasis groups here over the last couple of years and had arranged for us to break new ground, becoming the first party to spend the night at the school – much to the excitement of Edison, who gave us a quick tour (it’s not a big place, so it was always going to be quick) and explanation of the project as the children finished their lessons.

Once they had cleared the classrooms, we moved in, setting up our beds for the night on the mud floors under the mosquito nets we had brought with us to leave behind so future groups can follow suit.

122We emerged back into the light to the sound of singing from the adjoining grassy area and gradually assembled outside the ring of children as they went through their repertoire of songs – each with its own dance moves, which they had pretty much down to perfection, and accompanied by a single drum which kept time throughout, whoever happened to be playing it.

Gradually, we joined (or were coerced into) the circle to join in the singing and dancing (well, clapping at the very least) and over the course of the next three hours, we fed off the infectious energy of the children through a series of seemingly more complicated and energetic dance routines and games, which at least gave us the chance to sit down and rest in between.

IMG_0591At least until your team won one of the series of games, which instantly sparked a bout of jumping up and down, singing “We are the winners” in celebration. Any reluctance to join in was met by a group of small children attempting to pull you to your feet (they may have struggled with me) and share in their joy.

All a very different approach to us, who mocked whichever one of us lost a game rather than celebrating who won. Thankfully, they did not take our lead – except when they waited for us to laugh first (as we did, hysterically) when Ale’s turn at the blindfold running race ended with her heading sideways into a chair.

Each of us developed our own little team of children, who steered us through the dance routines, held our hands, donned our sunglasses (which became pretty difficult to keep track of), played with our armfuls of bracelets (and nearly choked me by pulling at my necklace) and crowded round to check out the pictures they fought to get in.

IMG_0592A couple even became obsessed with watches – one young girl attempting to push the second hand round on mine – while one of the smallest, William, whiled away the afternoon undoing my shoelaces until the prospect of a hug from Karla proved more enticing as he came to the verge of tears after losing his blindfold race (still, unlike Reto, he did not claim a win over a small child who had actually finished first).

It was all utterly joyous and one of those experiences with the African people which will live in the memory, but it was also dotted with reminders of exactly why we were there – and why so many of these children need the help of places like this.

LakeBunyonyi2Taking a breather from the non-stop action, one of the teachers steered the children through a series of poems they had been learning.

Starting with the charming, if vital, message of Milk (which proclaimed a crucial friendship with cows), the poems soon took on a darker edge, particularly one about AIDS.

“AIDS, you took away our parents, AIDS, you made us orphans…”

LkBnyMMIt was truly heartbreaking and as the children continued through their poetic repertoire – moving on to one about praying for a friend who was at the hospital with his sick mother – a quick look around the group showed a few faces struggling to process what they were hearing (as confirmed by our chat around the campfire on the same spot as darkness fell).

Whether it is 20-odd years as a journalist or my natural disposition, a certain (hopefully healthy in most cases) cynicism tends to run through my veins. When faced with televised LakeBunyonyicharitable extravaganzas, the sight of a celebrity emoting to camera about the plight of starving children usually has me reaching for the remote control rather than the telephone to donate.

But if this trip has done anything, it has diluted that cynicism – how can it not when people who have so little are so willing to share whatever they have got, even if it is only time or a place to sleep?

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Down The Hill – The view of Lake Bunyonyi from the school

Edison exemplified that – once the children had gone home, still full of energy while we were all flagging – with a sublime meal of chicken, crayfish, rice, potatoes and vegetables cooked at his house and then heading down the hill to fetch us beers to drink around the fire before we headed to bed exhausted but happy.

He was at it again in the morning, sending us on our way with tea and chapatis to fuel a final climb to the top of the hill, along the ridge for some spectacular views of the lake and the 29 islands which dot it and back down to catch the boat back across the lake and back to Nala for the short trip to Rwanda.

And that’s a whole other story…

  • For more details of the Lake Bunyonyi Community project, check out their Facebook page (Lake Bunyonyi Community) and their website at www.lakebunyonyi.org
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