Up The Hill And Down The Slope

THERE is a building, now a hotel, as you swing around the corner to start journeying along the banks of the picturesque Lake Bunyonyi which used to belong to the Dean of Kampala University.

Right up to the point it caught the eye of Idi Amin.

One of the big bad bogeymen on the news during my childhood, the then Ugandan president (dictator, despot, butcher who oversaw the deaths of around 300,000 of his people during the 1970s… take your pick what you call him) set his sights on the property.

The Dean was never seen again.

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Making A Splash – Paisley takes a leap of faith into Lake Bunyonyi. Reto shaking the ladder not shown

Just one of the many stories about Amin’s years in charge and one which is hard to tally with the welcome and comforts we have received since arriving in Uganda.

Certainly it is a far cry from the idyllic, almost Alpine, scene as the lake sweeps off to my left under the watchful eye of the surrounding hills and our temporary base, just around the lake from Amin’s much-coveted spot.

As well as soaking up the surroundings, we are steeling ourselves for the first of two uphill treks which dominate our thoughts – particularly those of us nursing the odd injury (my knee has chosen the last 48 hours to start playing up) and distinct lack of fitness – and the days ahead.

The first is relatively short and sharp up the hillside over the lake to spend the afternoon and night at a school set up by the local village for children who have lost one or both parents to AIDS.

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Regular Event – One of our fairly frequent crossings of the equator

The second, after the relatively short trip over the Rwandan border, has been looming large for much of the trip for those who booked it before the off – the trek through the mountains to spend an hour with gorillas.

A former colleague recounted tales of people returning in tears after their experience with the gorillas, which put it top of my to-do list, despite his tales of how tough the trek to see them can be.

It is the last part which has taken precedence in my thoughts over the last week.

As the next few days promise to be one of the most physically demanding of the trip, the last week (the 32nd of the trip) has been one of the toughest in other ways.

Not that we (well, me anyway) have done that much, with a fair amount of sitting around the campsite – particularly the bars – and some long days on the bus dominating the last few days, with the odd equator crossing and daily downpour to break up the ennui.

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Loud Goodbyes – Taking a break from saying goodbye and attacking the alcohol stash on our last drive before losing a few members in Nairobi

Nothing in particular set it off (other than perhaps a bit of a come down after the big-ticket items in Zanzibar and the Serengeti on the back of Zimbabwe and Malawi, while marking time ahead of the gorillas and final push north), but for the first time, the sheer length of this trip has started to take its toll.

There have been no thoughts of cutting the trip short, but for the first time, the count has been on the days left (approximately 52) rather than days gone (225) and the little things which drive you nuts have been increasingly hard to ignore.

Maybe all this kicked off as we headed out of Tanzania – via a final few hours of charitable giving at the Snake Park bar – and to the Kenyan capital of Nairobi, where we waved farewell to four of our number.

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Massed Ranks – The final group shot before the goodbyes in Nairobi

Hisako and Helena joined in Accra and were always due to end their trips in Nairobi, but Linda and Jiro were among the bleary-eyed strangers who first came together at Gatwick Airport all those months ago.

Jiro decided some time ago it was time to call it quits in Nairobi and head back to Japan, having left his own individual stamp on the last seven months (topped by him managing to procure two night’s free accommodation in Botswana when all he actually wanted was a late-night drink), while Linda was scheduled to end her trip early to return to work in the Netherlands.

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Restaging History – Recreating the first group shot at Gatwick (with a few gaps)

Their departures sparked much reminiscing and the odd tear and it is hard to fathom Linda is already back in the real world of work (the nascent search for which looms large at the front of my mind and is possibly contributing to my mood), while we remain in our sheltered cocoon of life on the truck.

While we waved farewell to four of the truck family, we welcomed three more (plus Martyn, back from a few extra days of relaxation in Zanzibar) – Paisley and Saskia finally joining us officially after travelling on the other truck as far as Cape Town and being part of the extended Nala family with Vicky becoming the latest fresh meat passenger.

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Neighbours – The hippos who shared our campsite at Lake Naivasha

Their first port of call on the truck was the banks of Lake Naivasha, where we shared our campsite with grazing hippos – thankfully happy to stay on their side of the electric fence – and vervet monkeys, who were less willing to keep their distance and did their best to hoover up any scraps of food we had dumped in the bin.

Opting out of the bike ride through Hell’s Gate National Park, my less energetic excursion took us down the lake to Elsamere, the former home of Joy Adamson, conservationist, author of the book Born Free and an echo of a world long gone.

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Afternoon Tea – Being very British (regardless of nationality) at Elsamere

Born Free – the tale of Elsa the lioness, who was raised and finally released into the wild by Joy and her husband George, both of whom met violent ends – was one of those movies which always seemed to be on every Bank Holiday or wet Sunday growing up. Sort of The Great Escape with fur.

So it was fascinating to watch the dated film on her life and peruse the rather limited museum on the couple before retiring to the lawn overlooking the lake for a rather splendid high tea. All very colonial.

Our stay in Naivasha was also notable for the first of the almost daily, short-lived storms which have cropped up as we have bounced back and forwards across the equator in the last few days.

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Tent Decoration – One of the resident monkeys on Karla’s tent at Lake Naivasha

This downpour was notable for the fact it arrived with me still in the shower and forced to don a towel and dirty clothes to race back to throw my mosquito tent and its contents into the rather more waterproof surrounds of the tent which is my back-up when the rain comes down.

The next day’s rainfall sparked another retreat on arrival at our overnight halt in Turbo, this time to the safety of a room. More accurately, a cell which, even at just $5 a night (which Michael owed me anyway) was probably a little bit overpriced.

It at least made surfacing for an early start on the road to Kampala rather easier, the long day crossing the border and clocking up the miles broken up by the first sighting of a Ugandan speciality – roadside stalls and vendors fighting over the chance to sell us meat on a stick and chapatis.

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Taxation – Ale again fails to heed a warning and lets us near her camera

A new experience we have embraced to the full more than once and have already pencilled in a stop when we return down the same route post gorillas.

By contrast, our base in Kampala was up there among the most salubrious we have had – hot water in the showers (sometimes), a pool, wi-fi, a bar serving cold beer and decent food and oodles of televised football.

It was rather harder to tear ourselves away even earlier to beat the notorious Kampala rush hour traffic, but our reward was our current base on the banks of Lake Bunyonyi.

Things are looking up…

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On A Plain

BACK in my youth, each passing year was marked by the purchase of the latest season’s football sticker album, making the words Figurini Panini part of the vocabulary for a generation of schoolboys.

Each trip to the village shop for weeks was incomplete without a packet or two of stickers as we raced to fill our collection and swapped our doubles – making Irving Nattrass a name that will never be forgotten, even if nobody can remember anything about his playing career.

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So Adorable – A lioness watches us from up on a pile of rocks on our final Serengeti game drive

While others completed every album – celebrating at the point where they could send off for the remaining stickers, the ones which everybody hoped would lurk in their latest packet, only for another Nattrass to appear from under the silver paper – my attention span meant only one of my albums reached completion (the one for the 1980 European Championship, when Wilfred van Moer was the most sought-after prize).

And, for great chunks of this trip, it appeared as if the pursuit of spotting all of Africa’s Big Five would also come up short.

We spotted heaps of elephants and a smattering of rhinos in Etosha, while a fair few lions and buffalo had also roamed across our path. We got up close to cheetahs in Namibia (too close for one of my flip-flops, which has finally been consigned to history after a terminal blow out for its partner that required an improvised strap from my little-used bandana to hold together for two days) and saw plenty of hippos, zebra and giraffe to mop up the new marketing ploy, the Big Nine.

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Lesser Spotted – One of the two leopards

But there was no sign of a leopard, traditionally the most difficult of the five to spot.

Right up until deep into our afternoon in the Serengeti when, with the light fading and the rain falling, Gabriel our guide pulled up behind a couple of vehicles whose occupants were staring at a distant tree.

It took some spotting, but lounging on a branch was the silhouette of a leopard, which promptly stood up and began to climb, seemingly out of reach of prying eyes.

Right up to the point when a second, smaller silhouette emerged from behind some leaves and the two of them started, with a brief squeal, to do what comes naturally – making the silhouette with two backs. Very briefly, but just in case we were in any doubt about what was going on, they started doing it again. And then again.

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Full Set – One of the leopards completes our Big Five in a day in the Serengeti

On the heels of a wild cheetah sat 30 yards from the road with a cub, it was not a bad way to complete our Big Five in one day – even the Big Nine – after the wide open spaces of the Serengeti, the spectacular concentration of wildlife and natural beauty in the Ngorongoro Crater and, the day before, the lesser known, but elephant-filled Lake Manyara.

Our threeday excursion into the adjoining national parks – complete with the luxuries of people cooking and putting our tents up for us, to say nothing of lions providing the evening soundtrack around camp – provided a pretty good way to mark my birthday.

Five years ago, my 40th birthday was spent crossing three US states down the west coast from Washington to California. Moving nearer to 50 from 40 was marked by getting up pretty close to some spectacular wildlife (although it also saw the demise of my third camera of the trip).

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Darts Interrupted – Breaking off from a tussle on the oche to cut my birthday cake

Our journey north through Tanzania took us up the coast via Bagamoyo (notable mainly for us spending most of the evening waiting for pasta to boil as we got the rare chance to cook on a gas stove) and Marangu, base for expeditions up Mount Kilimanjaro – which refused to emerge from behind the clouds – or, in my case, base to catch up on some sleep.

And then we rolled into Snake Park, home for those not heading out on the Serengeti expedition and something of an institution among the overland community.

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Road Block – Elephants stroll across our path at Lake Manyara

Started in 1993 by a South African couple – known to legions of travellers and crew as BJ and Ma – on what used to be a patch of scrub at Meserani, not far from the city of Arusha, it has been turned into an oasis over the years.

And drinking in its legendary bar, decorated with years of signed tour T-shirts (our contribution managing to misspell Africa), trip pictures and memorabilia (including a welcome amount of rugby shirts) is all in the name of charity, with bar takings going towards the on-site clinic which tends to the locals and snake bite victims.

Struck by a sudden rush of philanthropy, we did our bit for charity and my sporting experiment proved over exposure to the shots which came as the early celebrations of  my birthday kicked into gear have a detrimental impact on my ability to play darts. Especially when playing the only person not drinking.

My birthday itself arrived with a remarkably clear head, given the shots and drinks which followed, and our seven-strong group’s departure on our safari expedition.

Who is doing the Serengeti, by far the most expensive excursion bookable on the trip, has been a topic of conversation since the off, partly because the price comes down as more people sign up.

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Tall Tales – We got a bit blase about giraffes, which was a bit tough on a wonderful creature

It was always on my list of must-do activities – along with the pre-booked trek to see the gorillas in Rwanda, which is looming large on the horizon amid mounting horror at the potential physical test of tramping uphill through a rain forest – and, even with a fairly substantial cost, it was well worth it.

While the Serengeti steals the headlines, the vast plains which constitute the national park were actually outshone by the other two sections of the expedition, one of which fulfilled a long-standing ambition.

We kicked off at the less-heralded Lake Manyara National Park in the Great Rift Valley, which has carved out such remarkable wildlife watching territory down the east of Africa.

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Taking A Break – A family of lions hang out in the long grass of the Ngorongoro Crater

We instantly found ourselves face to face with a sizeable family of elephants on the roadside who also crossed our path – literally at times – as we rolled out of the park hours later. Sandwiched in between was a catalogue of animal spotting, from the giant hippos lurking in and around a lake, giraffe, zebras, vervet monkeys (complete with their blue balls) and a distant lion to a turtle and its baby basking on the edge of a pond, plus any number of other animals in between.

Early to bed – certainly far earlier than a normal birthday – and early to rise for our next destination, the remarkable Ngorongoro Crater.

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Bucket List – The view from the rim of the Ngorongoro Crater

The crater has been high on my must-visit list for many years and it did not disappoint, even if the early-morning mist obscured the views from the rim as we entered.

There was no problem with vision when we hit the crater floor, two large prides of lions lounging around garnering much of the attention with rhinos, giraffe and the normal coterie of antelopes, zebras et al – and the odd cheeky monkey attempting to get his hands on our packed lunches – studded across the most amazing landscape.

Rolling the relatively short distance from the crater to the Serengeti – past endless zebra and wildebeest yet to set off on their great migration after the arrival of late young – we headed out on the plains as the gathering storm and big cats took our attention.

While the crater has legions of animals squeezed into a relatively small area, the vastness of the Serengeti – Endless Plain in Swahili – means there are large expanses with nothing to spot.

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On The Prowl – The lioness we followed for ages in the Serengeti

But every so often in our afternoon and morning game drives, up would pop one of the big cats – the amorous leopards, cheetah and various lions, most lounging around on rocks just waiting for cameras to arrive, but one lioness walked alongside our vehicle for a considerable distance as she headed out for an early-evening hunt.

And by the time we headed back past the crater – via a brief stop to replace a blown tyre with giraffe wandering around us – the view had cleared for one final, memorable photo stop.

Not a bad birthday weekend and certainly enough to spark another bout of charitable donations throughout the evening.

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  • Ngoron
  • Thanks to Ale for some of the big cat pictures – her camera was a lot better than my iPhone. She also had a good eye for an ‘adorable’ creature, but also kept trusting me to hold her camera for some reason.
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Ocean Rain

LET me paint you a picture.

As darkness falls over the beach in Nungwi, Zanzibar, to my right the local beach boys are playing their nightly sunset game of football (pretty skilled, very competitive, but low scoring given the small size of the goals), silhouetted against the still waters of the Indian Ocean.

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Pre Match – The sun starts to set over our beach retreat on Zanzibar

To my left is a tall, cold, almost empty Cuba Libre – about to be replaced by another one before working out exactly where tonight’s dinner is coming from – while the sounds of reggae and the whizzing of the barman’s blender are drowning out the sound of Tanzanian TV blaring out an old episode of ALF.

Sadly, the chances of getting Gloucester’s European play-off final with Bordeaux-Begles on the screen are slightly slimmer than they were for last night’s FA Cup Final but, hey, can’t have everything?

Just to balance things out, our few days away from the African mainland on the spice island of Zanzibar have seen our first major rain since the opposite coast in Angola while we were still heading south and had yet to begin our journey across the continent from west to east.

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Lopsided – How to confuse weighbridges, put all the weight over one end

But between the showers, downpours in some cases, we have had a few truly memorable days, largely from activities which never had me that bothered beforehand (and even had me jumping off the upper deck of a boat, never mind tasting particularly pungent fruit).

Thankfully, the rain waited until we were on the island and safely ensconced in rooms, rather than sleeping in tents and, for much of the early going in Tanzania, in bush camps.

Since rolling into Swakopmund halfway through our first passage through Namibia, bush camps, so common all the way through West Africa, have been few and far between.

We are a pretty well-oiled machine when we roll into a bush camp, heading off into the trees to (among other things) collect enough fire wood to cook both the evening meal and breakfast and, as darkness falls, putting up our tents, settling down for the evening meal, packing the kitchen away and either settling around the fire to chat or taking advantage of the early “bush camp bedtime” to catch up on some sleep (especially if an early start beckons the next day).

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Narrow Streets – Getting lost in Stone Town

The vast majority of us are now pretty comfortable with the lack of facilities – although one person has made it this far without resorting to the shovels – and have our own routines. Personally, it is to sneak off before breakfast when it is usually still dark enough to provide some extra cover and not everybody is up. Consider that crucial advice for any prospective overlanders.

If the rural idyll, particularly the rolling hills through the tea and banana plantations after crossing the border, gave us a gentle introduction to Tanzania (which was greeted with a little dance on the back of the truck for reaching my 50th country) and rolled towards the coast, all that was forgotten as we hit the roads heading into Dar Es Salaam.

Forewarned, as soon as we rolled to a halt in the first of a series of traffic jams – or was it one long jam? –  we were up and leaning out of the sides on the lookout for opportunist thieves trying to make off with something from off or under the truck. Or we were trying to buy peanuts and ice cream from the myriad of vendors, dependent on who was leaning out.

Our reward for crawling through the notoriously choked city streets for a couple of hours on a stifling afternoon was a return to the beach, for the first time on the clear blue waters of the Indian Ocean (well, for the first time since Cape Agulhas in South Africa, where it meets the colder waters of the Atlantic and you don’t really have quite the same urge to jump in).

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On The Waterfront – Down by the harbour in Stone Town

Not that we had too much time to get wet or sample the delights of the bar at Kipepeo Beach (gave it a good try mind) as we packed our bags, grabbed haircuts as Sam set up an impromptu salon and prepared to wave a pre-dawn farewell to Nala for a few days.

Spending quite so much time at the bar was maybe not such a good idea as we headed off along the coast road and into more traffic, first vehicles and then human as we fought our way onto the ferry across the harbour and then, rather more sedately, the boat to Zanzibar.

Met at the other end by Daniel, our guide for our opening 24 hours or so on the island, we were whisked off into the heart of the alleys which wind their way through Stone Town to our hotel for the night and then out and about to get our bearings.

Not that those bearings were any use as, having opted to leave the others as they ate lunch and strike out on my own, my usually reliable sense of direction got thoroughly scrambled and carved a haphazard route through the back streets and alleys. Much to my benefit as my explorations unveiled a town full of life and colour.

There was more life and colour as we headed out for sunset cocktails overlooking the sea and on to the night market to indulge the penchant for street food most of us nurtured on the west side, the night rounding off in Mercury’s bar where we would have coasted to victory in the pub quiz. If we had only bothered to enter.

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Beachfront Property – The walk up the beach at Nungwi

Another early start – probably too early, given the amount of faffing around getting money and fixing phones that went on before we even left town – sent us out on a tour of a spice farm, one signed up for with hesitation but turned into a real gem.

Daniel and his sidekick Moussa steered us through the range of plants on offer with a series of smells and tastes to sample, before we were treated to a wide choice of fruits, including the notorious durian fruit which did not smell as bad as feared, but also did not taste as nice as hyped.

A quick example of how to climb a coconut tree, despite the rain, was followed by a quicker example of how not to do it from Michael, before we were bussed off to a sublime lunch at Daniel’s house and charming rendition of the Tanzanian national anthem from his daughter before we headed north to Nungwi and the beach.

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Dressed To Impress – Well, one of them was

Despite the rain, we settled into a weekend on the beach which is winding down to a relaxed finale (bar Gloucester blowing a 16-point lead and losing to a last-kick drop goal – rather different than Arsenal fan Matt’s enjoyment of the cup final).

Some have headed out on dives, most of us at least wandered up the beach while the majority ventured out on a booze, sorry, sunset cruise which featured plenty of throwing ourselves off the roof of the boat into the welcoming ocean. Some more athletically than others.

And that is that for Zanzibar as we head out early to head back to the mainland and start winding our way north and back inland and next weekend in the Serengeti.

So, another quiet week ahead then.

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