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Lake Nakuru: One final game drive

I have a secret to tell. Something that fills me with immense shame. Here it goes.

By the time we reached Kenya, I was kind of over safaris.

It feels good to finally get that out there. Those of you who’ve been with me from the beginning might remember a certain starry eyed overlander who said she would never tire of seeing elephants up close. I stand by that, because even in Kenya every elephant forced me to have to pause and catch my breath. I guess what I’m saying is I just didn’t have the same level of excitement about going our all day game drive around Lake Nakuru as I did way back in Etosha. I’d been spoilt, plain and simple!

Lake Nakuru National Park is famous for its flamingos, and although my friends back home will smile knowingly upon reading that. However, I’ve somehow managed to log 7 months of travels without alluding to my flamingo obsession. This particular game drive drive also happened to be our last real wildlife spotting opportunity of the trip. So with the promise of vast quantities if flamingos, and a leopard sighting still eluding me, I joined the others in the wee hours of the morning and headed off on our very last game drive.

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Lake Nakuru had experienced some big floods in the lead up to our visit, so a lot of areas were off limits. One of the entrance gates was still actually underwater! But it’s a beautiful park, and well worth a visit no matter how jaded an animal enthusiast you’ve become.

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We didn’t see a leopard, and the flamingos, though plentiful, turned out to be tiny blips on the horizon of my zoom lens. But what we did see was spectacular.

We saw lions, with all their exuding power and pride.

We saw rhino in numbers far greater than we’d been blessed to see this whole trip.

We saw not one, not two, but an entire pack of hyenas. We saw baboons harassing unsuspecting tourists whilst they tried to picnic. We saw some truly unique bird life (we’re all birders these days). We even saw two giraffes, duking it out, crashing their necks together in violent dance. Who needs a leopard when you’ve been lucky enough to see all that?

 

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Kenya dig it?

See what I did there? Eh? Eh?

Crossing the border into Kenya, I had the very really feeling that this would be our last taste of the Africa I’d so fallen in love with. Ethiopia and Sudan would be unlike anywhere we’d been so far, and I felt the desperate need to latch onto and savour this crazy, colourful, chaos that had become my home.

In the lead up to our time in Kenya there were numerous bombings in Nairobi. Suffice it to say there were a few nervous overlanding parents scattered across the globe. The reality of the mood in Kenya, however, was starkly different to the western media’s portrayal. Beyond the odd metal detector and car boot check as we made our way into shopping centres, there was very little to give away what the city had been going through.

I must admit, I was immediately divided in my opinions of Kenya and whether it would have a lasting place in my heart. I struggled with the blatant wealth divide, which was more obvious here than anywhere else on our trip. Later on in our Kenyan travels we would enjoy a $45 meal right across the highway from the largest slum in Africa and that divide would really hit home.

Kenya’s general affluence means that it’s not a cheap place to travel. It is a playground for wealthy tourists, boasting some of Africa’s premium safari offerings – I’m talking glamping on crack, none of this overlanding business. It lacks, I think, some of the make-do charm of its neighbouring countries. The upside, however, is that there is no shortage of things to do and see. There’s a tonne of fun to be had and I could easily have doubled my time in Kenya without managing to cross off everything on my wish list.

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Photo by my dear friend Sonja Haeni

 

Our first campsite may have been one of my all time favourites, had it not been the mosquito camp from hell. It was a sweet little spot called Dunga Hill. The aforementioned hill overlooked Lake Victoria, and was topped with a grand old tree decorated in fairy lights. The perfect spot to take in sunset beers and the Football World Cup. Sadly, it was in fact the mosquito camp from hell, so one beer was enough before I scurried to the relative safety of my tent. A lovely, if somewhat itchy start to our Kenyan adventures.

We were warned that it was quite common for hippos to venture into the campsite at night, something which had Lottie and me a little nervous given our last hippo encounter in Botswana (also known as ‘That time we got charged by a hippo and somehow lived to tell the tale’). Fortunately, this overlander had lost any sense of propriety ages ago and had her undies strung up all over the campsite. If that wasn’t going to scare hippos away, nothing would!

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Uganda: Bed Rest and Booze Cruises

It seemed my body was ready to crash by the time we got to Uganda. It held out just long enough to tick the Mountain Gorillas off the ol’ bucket list before things started heading down hill. It’s hard to say for sure what tipped me over the edge, but I have a sneaking suspicion our play date with the kids at Lake Bunyoni was one hell of a germ party!

I took some serious time out at our next stop in Kampala. While the rest of the group sought out a cinema and bowling alley, I spent the day curled up on the couch watching storms clouds roll in over the outskirts of the city.

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The next couple of days are a bit of a blur of snot, coughing fits, bed rest, and a whole lot of self pity. Luckily we were camping at the most bizarrely modern hostel you could imagine. A huge two story complex complete with hot showers, lap pool, sprawling green lawns, and its own wood fire pizza restaurant. In the suburbs of Kampala of all places! Naturally, I managed to heal just in time to join the rest of the group on a booze cruise to celebrate Nick’s 30th birthday. What can I say, where there’s a booze cruise will there’s a way.

Jinja, our next stop, is famous for two things: white water rafting and booze cruising. Nick’s birthday was the final one of the trip so we felt kind of obligated to make it one to remember (or not, as the case may be). Not that this group of riff raff needed much coaxing in any situation where a bar tab is concerned. The cruise lasted a mere two hours, but I can only assume that we were stuck in a time vortex, because while we boarded with a civilised level of birthday cheer, we elited two hours later on a whole other level of “party”.

For the sake of everyone’s dignity, I’ll allow what happened on the booze cruise to stay on the booze cruise, and share some of the earlier and somewhat classier photos of the evening.

The two days that followed were filled with little more than rest and relaxation – exactly what I needed as I suspect Nick’s birthday took me a few steps backward in my recovery. Most of our group elected to go white water rafting, but despite throwing myself from as many heights as possible so far in Africa, I drew the line at potential death by rocks and/or drowning. I spent my day instead wandering out to the local village in search of a Nutella chipati and getting my eyebrows done in the local “salon”, which I’m pretty sure was just the nice young lady’s bedroom floor (luckily, her eyebrow game was on point).

For the record, everyone came back raving about the rafting. By all accounts it was money well spent. For the less adrenaline-seeking junkies reading, you will be happy to know that you can still enjoy the Nile just as much from the banks of Jinja. I mean look that view!

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Jinja was our final stop in Uganda, before we made our way to the Kenyan border. Sadly I didn’t get to explore Uganda anywhere as much as I would have liked to but sometimes you have to listen to your body, right? What little I did see though was more than enough for the country to etch it’s way into my heart. From the idyllic mountain scenery, to the beautiful kids, to the mighty Nile – it’s easy to see why Uganda is such a favourite on the East African travel scene.

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Did I mention you can cross the equator in Uganda?!

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The Children of Lake Bunyoni – Uganda

There is something about the smiles of African children. Of the singing, and dancing, and unabashed confidence. Children who often grow up in the mismatched shoe donations of the western world, who have little in the way of personal possessions, and yet who radiate such joy. Anyone who’s ever been on the receiving end of those delighted squeals when you show an African child their photo on your camera screen will know exactly what I mean.

Lake Bunyoni, a charming little slice of mountain paradise in the hills of Uganda, is the kind of place you might plan to visit for day and then find yourself still relaxing in a week later. The kind of place that makes starry eyed travellers like myself think we could just pack in life on the road and live out our days as an honorary Bunyonian.

We were there to visit a school close to the Oasis crew members’ hearts and to spend the morning meeting and playing with the kids. It took one long winding bus ride, a boat across the lake, and a deceptively tough uphill walk (it’s got to be the altitude, surely) to get there. The hike from the boat up to the school took us through other school yards, church grounds, through crops of maize and plantain, past family homes, and smiling lakeside locals.

I carried with me a couple of hesitations about this day trip. Those who know me well, know that I’m one of the least naturally maternal people in the world. Kind of a worry considering I teach a children’s ju jitsu class back home, but I’m just assuming those genes will kick in when I have my own kids on the way. My second worry was that this would be one of those manufactured “look-how-cute-we-are-now-give-us-money” kind of interactions. But Ishi had been speaking lovingly about these kids since day one of the trip, so I tried to go in with an open mind.

Three hours of dancing, singing, racing, running, and piggy back riding later and I could not wipe the smile off my face. My cheeks were actually sore because of it. I’m not sure I’ve ever come across children with such boundless energy, and I actually worked up a sweat trying to keep up with them. This instantly became one of my most cherished memories of the trip.

I really wish I had more photos to share but I had about three kids hanging off each limb for most of the day so my camera stayed safely away while I tried to capture those Kodak (or should I say Olympus?) moments in my head.

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One day, when my bank account is a tiny bit healthier post-travel I hope to sponsor one of these children so they can continue to have the education they deserve. In the meantime however, the school, and in particular one man by the name of Edison, is working hard to try and build a steady stream of income to keep the school going. He proudly showed off three half completed huts and the beginnings of a restaurant that he is hoping to finish. Eventually these will be donation based accommodation for travellers, with the profits going towards the school. I’m excited at the prospect of one day returning to Lake Bunyoni and staying in one of those huts knowing how much of a difference they will make to the lives of the beautiful children we had the privilege to meet there.

My favourite photo of the day - such a sweet moment

My favourite photo of the day – such a sweet moment

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Rwanda: Mountain Gorillas and memorials

It was not lost on me that anyone I met in Rwanda from about the age of 20 onwards had experienced and survived one of the most unspeakably dark events of the 20th century. Was the man driving my taxi a Hutu or a Tutsi? What was his story? Did he lose loved ones? Did he still think about it each day? What did he see? Did he himself kill anyone? It was impossible not to wonder.

After two days caged in the back of the truck from 5am through until well after dark, finally crossing the border and pulling into our Rwandan campsite was a moment of pure elation. Though possibly not for our poor cook group who had to pull dinner together at 9pm in the freezing cold rain.

Entering Rwanda that morning instantly brought back memories of our early days in Guinea – the people were just so friendly. They could not have made us feel more at home. The big beaming smiles and waving arms were in stark contrast to the welcome I’d expected, given Rwanda’s history.

Making friends and as always, drawing a crowd

We arrived at our campsite at 9pm at night and had our Gorilla trek booked for the crack of dawn the very next morning. We were cutting it a little fine, but we made it. Malaria cases and emergency crew changes be damned!

The gorillas were something we’d been talking about since day one, so we’d had a good six months to build up the experience in our imaginations. Turns out they were every bit as incredible as we’d hoped. We trekked for about two hours to reach Amohoro, our gorilla family, named after the Rwandan word for ‘peace’.

The trek itself was no easy feat. We walked about two hours each way in the intermittent rain, the whole time either ankle deep in mud or pushing our way through stinging nettles. The gorillas are tracked all day every day, so our guide knew exactly where to take us, and before long it was time to leave the trail and head down the mountain. That meant another half hour of trying to balance from tree root to tree root like the graceful gazelles we are not, trying desperately not to slip and break an ankle.

There are few things in this world worth braving stinging nettles for, but seeing an entire family of Mountain Gorillas is definitely one of them! We had 45 precious minutes to sit, observe, and try to pick our jaws back up off the floor, as we watched these beautiful creatures go about their day to day business. We saw a baby tumble turning, up and down the mountain, crawling all over her elders before eventually having a nap on a mate’s belly. We watched as the big silverback, more powerful in person than I could ever capture in my photos, stirred from his sleep and took his place in the middle of the family. We even got a romantic display of…ahem…affection from one of the silverbacks and his lady friend who didn’t seem to mind an audience. Every single moment was incredible.

I left the Amahoro family on a high, breathing a quick sigh of relief that my $900 had been well spent.

Our time in Rwanada was shortlived and after the gorillas we had just one more night before we headed to Rwanda. We headed into town for a long night and morning of dancing in a local club, we discovered a little cafe with real coffee and the best mushroom soup I have ever tasted in my life, and we browsed the local markets delighted to find rosemary among the otherwise standard assortment of African fruit and vegetables. Africa is yet to really truly embrace the herb in its cooking repertoire, so you can understand why a little sprig of rosemary would cause a cook group so much joy.

Our final stop before heading to the border, was the Genocide Memorial in Kigali. A place to learn, to try and understand, and to remember what happened in 1994. What I find truly remarkable about Rwanda is that Rwandans as a whole have not allowed themselves to become victims of their past. Whether it’s in spite of or because of the genocide, Rwanda seemed to me to be a country that doesn’t want to forget, and yet refuses to have their future defined by the past. A country of one people, one nation.

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The Curse of the Tran Africa: a lesson in anti-malarials

When your driver gets recurring malaria driving down West Africa, you think that’s pretty unlucky.

When your TL gets Typhoid with a side of malaria, you think that’s getting really unlucky.

But by the time your East Coast driver gets malaria, it’s almost getting comically unlucky. Though I’m sure poor Nick could thing of a few other choice words to describe the experience.

And so it was, with our third crew victim down and out, that the curse of the Trans Africa 2014 became legend.

We left Snake Park for the Rwandan border like a bus load of excited school kids. And with good reason too, we were off to see the Mountain Gorillas! We only got as far as the Shoprite in Arusha, however, when it became pretty clear that Nick needed to get to a doctor ASAP. He’d been unwell our entire time in Arusha, but had twice been cleared of malaria and had put it down to a bad flu.

Third time tests must be the charm though because this time, not only did he test positive for malaria, but his counts were so high he was told he might not have made it one more day without treatment.

We managed to pin the time of infection down to the dress up party in Lake Malawi, where Nick was coerced into sporting this little number:

Great for showing off those pins. Not so great for mosquito protection.

Great for showing off those pins. Not so great for mosquito protection.

A lot of overlanding crew living in Africa choose not to take anti-malarials because long term use isn’t exactly good for liver and kidneys. But then again, Nick doesn’t exactly walk around dressed like a tramp every night either.

Now being unexpectedly stranded in strange places for days is just a regular part of the Trans, and at any other time we would have welcome the extended visit to Shoprite and free wifi at the ice cream store, but on this particular occasion we had mountain gorillas to see and we only had a few days to get there!

Overlanding family to the rescue! While oasis flew emergency driver Gareth in from Uganda, Acacia Africa lent us one of their own to see us back to Snake Park safely.

With a whole day of travelling lost, we spent two straight days trapped in the back of the truck trying to cover as many miles as possible. We’d wake up well before sunrise, and set up camp well after dark. But we made it!

Poor Gareth. Not only was he thrusted into leadership of our group of riff-raff who’d already been travelling around Africa for over six months, far longer than any of his east coast tour groups. He also copped a never ending barrage of pre-emptive malaria jokes for the two weeks that followed. So imagine how bad we felt when we got word just after he left us that he too was a victim of the Big M. Crew member number 4.

The Trans Africa 2014 curse. Turns out, it’s a thing.

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Arusha: Riding in buses with goats

When you’re standing on the bus, feet straddled either side of a stranger’s knee, your bag of groceries in the care of a Mama Africa you’ve never met so that your hands are free to hang on for dear life, stooped over with no choice but to your head resting on your neighbour’s shoulder, a rogue elbow resting on your own shoulder because personal space schmersonal space, the back of your neck thumping against the roof of the bus with each speed bump (and believe me there are many), and the flustered cluck of a chicken from the seat below you. This my friends, is when you know you’re in Africa.

And such was my daily experience in Arusha.

Arusha is one of Tanzania’s main hubs, where thousands of tourists converge to tackle Mt Kilimanjaro or to try their luck at game spotting in the Serengeti. Having opted to do neither of the two, I found myself with 5 nights to kill here.

We stayed at a campsite called Snake Park, another time-honoured tradition on the African overlanding circuit, and for good reason. Snake Park supports a life saving snake bite clinic which provides free medical care to approximately 1000 Tanzanians a month. Proceeds from the bar go directly to the clinic, so getting drunk here almost feel honourable. Any wonder all the overlanders make themselves at home here!

Being about 20 minutes out of town, I got very well acquainted with the local bus system. The easiest way to get to Arusha from Snake Park is by Dala Dala, essentially a beat up mini bus decorated in either rapper, football teams, or bible quotes. They’re cheap, they’re easy to figure out, and as a tourist you’re a guaranteed novelty so the locals are generally eager to help you out with directions and stops. Sure you might have to share the back seat with a farm animal, but it’s either that or pay $30USD to catch a taxi (I’ll take a goat over that any day)!

Driver Nick tasked us with trying to use up as much of the truck’s food stores as possible during our time at Snake Park, so we decided a party was in order. A surprise, children’s birthday themed, farewell/congratulations party to be exact. We were saying goodbye to Lottie and Carolyn who finished their journey with us in Arusha, as well as celebrating Carolyn and Helen’s mammoth feat of making it all the way to the top of Mt Kili without dying. If they didn’t deserve to eat all our truck reserves of powdered hummus and sweet onion pickle then who did?

We went into full party planning mode and every day was spent busing backwards and forwards into Arusha tracking down party food and decorations. We made streamers, donned party hats, and we even managed to make a cheesecake! I should probably be ashamed to admit that we spent approximately $25USD on cheese so we could have cheese and pineapple sticks, but I’m not. Those cheese and pineapple sticks were good.

The party was a hit, and despite a few bittersweet tears the girls were absolutely stoked. Not as stoked as Nick, the winner of pass-the-parcel, who now had a Mills and Boon to keep them company at night.

As for me, I was just looking forward to riding goat free in the back of the truck again.