Saturday, June 30, 2007

Kampala, Murchison Falls

Arrived in Kampala 3 days ago after a 10 hour bus ride from Kigali and not having eaten all day.  Met a Ugandan woman on the bus who told us we could share a taxi with her because it would be soon as we arrived the taxi drivers and motobike drivers had swarmed us, the motobike drivers literally circled us with their motorbikes and we couldn't move.  We dropped the woman off and she invited us into her home for a minute, which was nice.  Then the driver took us to the backpackers and ended up ripping us off for a couple dollars (the woman told us the price we would be 15,000 shillings and he demanded 20,000 when we got there), but he did do a great job darting around all the Kampala traffic jams.  At the backpackers, for the first time since South Africa I was surrounded by mostly independent backpackers.  Was fun to be in a hostel again.  We tried to get on their organized Murchison Falls tour, which seemed like a good deal, but was booked for three weeks in advance.  Found two other travellers who were planning to go to murchison falls and set off to do it on our own.
Since we'd be camping we went to a store to try to find a tent the morning before we left...couldn't find anything under $100 so after spending over an hour in the store exploring our options (including one of the sales people offering to sell us the tent then help us return it 3 days later if we kicked him $20, this was too risky for a $200 tent) we decided to buy two $15 tarps and we'd just sleep outside. 
That decided, we went downtown to catch a bus, where I almost got pickpocketed on the street...slyly avoided.  We caught a 4hr bus to Masindi where we were left with the next problem of how to get into the park and to the campsite we wanted, 90km away.  Ended up finding another independent traveller and after a lot of negotiation got a taxi for $15 a person at 6:20pm, we were told by the driver the park gate closed at 7pm.  We get to the gate at 6:55 and it actually closed at 6:30. 
We start talking to the guard and he tells us how late we are, but he is very nice.  He gets his boss. After him angrily telling us he shouldn't be doing this allows us to pay and go in at about 7:20.  I asked the taxi driver if he knew when the gate actually closed and he said "I thought it closed at 6," so basically he was planning on ripping us off for the ride.  Once we got in, he took us to the campsite, all 5 of us stuffed in a little toyota for an hour on a bumpy dirt road.  
Finally, arrived at the campsite and one of the people we were with saw someone he had met travelling in Sudan and they had an extra tent.  So four of us were able to cram into the tent.  We booked a game drive for $20 a person and picked up 1 more traveller.  The drive was pretty good, saw my first leopard int he wild!  Also saw giraffes, elephants, buffalo, and a lot of birds. 
That afternoon we heard we could camp right at the top of Murchison Falls, so we went on a cruise up to the falls and were able to hike to the campsite along a scenic trail.  5min into the hike a ranger stopped us and said we had to pay $10 each for the hike.  Nobody told us anything about a fee and the hike was only 30minutes long anyway.  We said we weren't going to pay, had a little discussion and he went away saying we'd talk at the campsite.
The falls were pretty, but not amazing.  What was amazing was narrow it was.  The whole 100+ ft wide river flowed out of a 10ft wide crack and the water just raged through it.  Was very cool to water the water splash and churn through the crack from the top of the falls. 
At the campsite we found a pavillion to sleep under, never needed to use the tarps.  We called a taxi driver to pick us up at 8am the next day and take us back to town for about $75.  He said he had a car that fit 6.  The next day he arrives 2hrs late and in an SUV that 2 people had to sit in the trunk.  We renegotiate the price because we were pissed he showed up so late (we missed the bus to Kampala) and that 2 people had to uncomfortably sit in the back.  We get him down almost $20 on the price, get to town and find some other travellers to book a private minibus back to Kampala.  Finally get back at 7pm.
We did everything the people on the organized tour did, including being able to camp at the top of the falls, which they didn't get to do.  The tour was $145, and we spent $125.  Saved $20 doing it on our own! 

Monday, June 25, 2007

Goma Volcano Pics - Back to Kigali

After Kibuye and one night in Cyangugu yesterday we tried to go to the Nyungwe Forest National Park. We talked to a minibus driver and he would take us to the entrance (2hrs away) for the same price as he charged to go all the way to kigali (7hrs)...$6 per person. So we take all our stuff with us and go to the park expecting to pay $20 for the park entry fee and hike around the forest awhile...maybe camp out that night.

We get to the park entrance in the middle of the forest and go to reception. It turns out you pay $20 just for the privilege being in the park and have to pay $30 for a guide on any particular hike you want to do. There is no way to hike alone through the park, not even along the highway that leads through the park without paying $30 for a guide. Rwandan citizens only pay $2 for entry and $4 for a guide. We were so pissed after going all this way...we read online and in brochures it was possible to hike along but this ranger would have none of it.

So we waited on the road for another minibus to come by and had to pay the full price to kigali again after deciding to just screw it and go to Kigali and catch a bus to Uganda. Couldn't find a cheap room (under $40 even) in the center of town so we went back to the sketchy hole we stayed at the first two nights and got the same $12 room as before. No problem though, we know our way around. Found the bus to Kampala and bookeda ticket tomorrow. Had to change money today, only had a 1996 $100 bill, and they charged me $5 commission because the bill was before 2003...i was only changing $30 too. Aside from the no ATM problems, Kigali is a great city, wouldn't mind coming back here.

See below for some Volcano pics...

Saturday, June 23, 2007

More on Goma, Kibuye

I didn't write about Goma itself.  In 2002 there was an eruption from the volcano i climbed, it flowed into the city at 60km/hr and buried half the town under lava along with killing about 100 people.  Driving through the town is very surreal as the streets are just lava rock...there are rocks piled up everwhere and some of the buildings are still half-buried under lava.  The tour company I used, did a great job, they are new and just set up an office in town.  Although they charged me $30 more per person than the rest of the group i was with i'd still recommend them. 
Yesterday we took a bus down to Kibuye and had a very cramped ride on a packed bus, luckily someone helped us get a seat right when the bus left...people have been way too nice to us.  They just kept picking up more and more people even when i thought the bus was full.  The ride was only about 110 km, but it took nearly 6 hours due to all the stops and the horribly bumpy dirt road.  We got to kibuye, which is beautiful and found a place to stay.  The scenery is great there, though there is nothing to do.  We paid way too much for our food at the guesthouse and left this morning for Cyangogu in the southwest of Rwanda.  This bus ride was even more packed, but the first hour was great with the whole bus singing beautiful rwandan songs. 
Tomorrow we check out Nyungwe forest.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Josh Vs. the Volcano

It's been an interesting couple of days since the last post. In Kigali we visited the actual hotel from Hotel Rwanda, there was no plaque or exhibit or anything...we had to ask one of the waiters if it was the real hotel and he assured us it was.  After that we tried to go to the Genocide Memorial but didn't know what time it closed (4pm) and we got there right as it closed. 
Two days ago we took a bus from Kigali to Gisenyi.  On the bus we met someone who spoke pretty good english, Emmanuel.  He worked at reception at one of the hotels in town and volunteered to show us around town.  Seemed like a nice guy, and he took us around for a couple hours...seemed to know every other person in town, so he was a good guy to know. 
The reason we came to Gisenyi was one for Lake Kivu, which is nice, but I wanted to go into Goma, Congo to hike up the Nyiragogo volcano.  It is an active volcano that you can climp to the top and look into a huge boiling lava lake.  I asked Emmanuel how to go, and he introduced me to his cousin whose husband is in the Congo army, she wanted to send me with her brother as a bodyguard just to go look at the volcano...I knew there was a way to go up and camp out at the top, so she finally found me a tour agency that would take me up. 
I didn't write on here about my plan to go to Congo because I was afraid my parents would flip out.  So I booked the hike and crossed the border yesterday.  I was in a group with an American family who were much more prepared with food, walking sticks, and warm clothing than I was (i had a fleece, sleeping bag, a tube of pringles, and some muffins for an overnight hike...they didn't tell me they didn't provide food until that morning).  The hike was much more difficult than expected, 5hrs, 4 of them almost straight up.  The peak was 2300 meters and I think we hiked around 2000 (~6000ft) in the 5 hours.  We had a ranger with us who was packing an AK-47 so I wasn't too worried about safety, also had 5 porters carrying food, wood, and our tents. 
When night fell we went from our campsite to the peak to see the red glowing lava lake at was one of the most incredible things I've ever seen.  Looking with my binoculars I could see the lava bubbling and frothing on the suface...lots of little mini-eruptions.  I took a lot of beautiful pictures that i'll post on here when I'm able...but the pictures just don't do it justice.  From about 500ft up I could feel the heat on my face.  There was a huge plume of gas that from below glowed...really stunning.
The whole trip cost $230, including the visa ($30) and park fee ($100), it was priceless though. 
Tomorrow we're trying to book a bus to Kibuye, Rwanda...another city on the lake.  From there down to the Southwest and into the Nyungwe forest national park. 

Monday, June 18, 2007

Kahama to Rwanda

First, before I left Nomad they ended up giving each of us who went on the Ngorongoro crater tour $30 back due to us not being able to camp out on the rim of the crater as promised. We were hoping to get $50 but at least we got something.

Be sure to check out all the pics I posted below...

My parents sent me an e-mail flipping out about us going to Rwanda and Uganda, but it is very safe to travel here. Don't worry!

2 days ago Stacey and I took the bus I had booked from Arusha to Kahama. We almost slept too late, but we managed to get there about 10 minutes before the bus came by and picked us up at the entrance to our campsite 20km from Arusha. There was 5 people to a row, with about 75 people crammed in. There was barely enough room for my knees, overall it wasn't horribly uncomfortable...until we hit the dirt roads. It took about 7 hours to get from Arusha to Singida, including about 45 minutes stopped at a police checkpoint. 5 of those 7 hours were driving as fast as possible on a potholed dirt road that seemed to never end. It didn't make me feel any better when the guy next to us told us there was a bus crash on the road a few days ago were 18 people died and 60 were in the hospital (this was the reason for the long police checkpoint).

We had no idea how we were getting to Kahama because this bus was going to Mwanza, but the guy next to me, Henry, was so helpful and friendly, he found someone on the bus also going to Kahama, named Dennis. We had to get off at some random town and take a minibus to Kahama. Dennis escorted us the whole way and couldn't have been more friendly. He found us a nice hotel room in town (walked us there) and found a guy in town driving to Kigali the next day that would give us a ride (for a price). So we got a good night's sleep in a nice clean room for $10 a night, then Dennis skipped church that morning to help us meet up with the taxi driver and negotiate a good price. The final cost was $50, $25 each for a 450km ride in a nice comfortable Mercedes Benz to Kigali. The only problem was the border...

It turned out that guy who gave us a ride, Claude, was importing this car to Rwanda (it's a landlocked country, so he is driving it from the Tanzania coast to Rwanda). We get to the border, and of course customs takes 1.5hrs on the tanzania side and 1.5hours on the Rwanda side. So we wait 3 hours only to find out the car didn't clear customs on the Rwanda side and we have to get a ride into kigali with his friend George (Claude came along). George spoke english, which Claude did not, but we were getting a little worried as it was getting dark and they had to show their import papers at every police checkpoint...taking a long time to get to Kigali. Eventually we got to town and dropped Claude off...George had to drop the car off and pay the import taxes and we had to switch cars again to George's personal car.

We had a deal with Claude that he would take us to a specific address in Kigali...we get to the first address and the hotel charged $24 a night b/c there is some big conference in town. Too expensive and the reception guy seemed like an asshole, so George reccomended a place he knew for $10 a night. We go there, find a double room for $12. Finally, it's 8pm, dark out, spent 11hrs going 300 miles, get a room, then of course George starts asking for money for the ride. He wants $15, which is ridiculous, so I tell him I'll give him $5 for taking us from the original address to the new hotel and that satisfies him.

Hotel employees speak no english, only horrible french from taking it 4 yrs in high school is failing me completely...i can't even remember the most basic things. This morning we went to a coffee shop in a nice little mall and bumped into an American doctor who's been working in Namibia for the last couple years. He's in town for the huge AIDS conference that's going here. We had a nice long chat with him and he treated us to breakfast, which was very generous. I was even able to change my $3 worth of namibian money with him for some Rwandan Francs. He told us, they've really cleaned up the city for the conference since it's the first major conference in Kigali. Plenty of perfectly manicured gardens and cops everywhere on the streets. The city is is in the mountains and everything is on hills, it's very beautiful. Most of the roads in Rwanda are very well paved doesn't seem like the East Africa i've come to know.

Now the biggest problem is getting cash, there's no international ATMs here so I'll probably have to take a cash advance on my credit card to get funds. Might be able to western union myself some money also. This afternoon we'll be checking out the genocide museum which is supposed to be very well done and tomorrow we'll probably head to Butare then the Nyungwe Forest national park.

Pictures! Click to view larger ones

Friday, June 15, 2007

Ngorongoro Crater

Spent the day yesterday in the famous Ngorongoro Crater, home to all kinds of wildlife in a 300 sq km area.  Saw almost every animal I ever wanted to see, Elephant, Buffalo, Hippo, Jackal, Hyena, Lion, Cheetah, a million Wildebeast and Zebras, Warthogs, Gazelles, and so many bids, all amidst the stunning backdrop of the crater. 

Had a great time, but the tour itself was a huge rip-off and all 6 of us who went are pretty pissed about it.  We paid our tour company $160 for a tour described as 1 night 2 days Serengeti and crater tour.  Originally we were to drive through the Serengeti then camp the night at the rim of the crater.  Next day take a long game drive in the crater itself.  Then right before we paid, we found out we don't go near the Serengeti, but that was ok b/c i only wanted to see the crater.  So the 6 people who wanted this option (the other option was 2 nights 3 days Serengeti and crater tour for !!$330!!) all paid expecting to camp on the rim of the crater. 

We leave the next day at 2pm, drive 2hrs to a camp site 30km away from the crater and have to camp there.  They sold us on camping at the crater, but we couldn't even see it from our campsite.  We might as well have woken up early at the campsite we were already at then driven up to the crater directly.  We basically paid $160 for a 1 day game drive and 3hr trip to the crater ($50 were park fees, so a $110 per person game drive).  Everyone was really upset we didn't camp at the crater as described...we're trying to get some kind kind of refund but it's being sorted by our tour group company Nomad Overland and i have 0 faith anything will happen.

Brings me to Nomad...I would recommend people traveling africa go on one of these overland tours but I would never recommend Nomad...our first week was good, but everything since then has been horribly disorganized.  Overall the trip was great, but almost everyone in the group is upset about how poorly organized the trip was and how many delays and easily avoidable annoyances we had to endure due to Nomad.

Very happy to be setting off with Stacey on our own tomorrow.  I just booked a bus from here to Kahama, will spend a night there then take a bus from Kahama to Rwanda.  We'll spend a week or so in Rwanda then go to Uganda before crossing Kenya to Ethiopia.  That's the plan so far, might change any day.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Very Long Post - Zambia, Malawi, & Tanzania - Updated

I haven't had internet access at all in the last 2 weeks going through the dark heart of East Africa. Been a lot of ups and downs and I'll try to remember and summarize what's happened.

First of all, Africa is incredibly expensive. If you go to the game parks and tourist areas expect to spend a small fortune. You would think since the countries are so poor it is cheap like in Asia, but all the parks and hotels charge rediculous prices because they know you have no choice but to pay it.

The last entry I was going over to Vic Falls in Zimbabwe. We were misinformed that you could get a $10 one day visa to go over and see the falls, instead we pay $10 for a 7km cab ride to the border and find out it's $30 for a day visa (the brits had to pay $55!) then we go over and it costs $20 just to get into the park to see the falls. We had a nice buffet dinner at night scheduled for $20 a person and this is quickly becoming the most expensive day of my trip. We decide not to go to the falls at all, getting really sick of every dollar being sucked out of us. we just hung out for lunch and got harrassed by every other person on the street asking me for my shoes or a pen or a t-shirt to trade for wooden salad bowls, giraffes, rhinos, and every other african craft item you can imagine. Bring a box-full of Bic pens to Zim and you could furnish your whole house with wooden figurines. Walking down the street all I heard was "I love your shoes!" from every stall I passed. The country is falling apart and the people are the most desparate i've ever seen. Even the currency has an expiration date b/c there is something like 1000% inflation and they have to keep issuing new bills. The buffet dinner that night was nice, had warthog meat for the first time and watched some half naked tribal dancers pimp their millenia old culture out for a few dollars in tips (i hate seeing this crap).

Next day we went to the Zambia side of Victoria falls, and it was only $10 and really great...the mist just pours on you and it's impossible not to get soaked. We had a great time running around and checking out the assortment of rainbows formed by the mist. Have an awesome picture of stacey standing under a full rainbow. After that we met up with the new group we would be with from Livingstone to Nairobi.

New group has been a lot of fun, the main problem on this half of the trip has been the itinerary. First week of the trip we spent the first 4 out of 5 days driving 13hours a day then just setting up our tent drinking and going to sleep.

Stacey and I had an interesting experience in Lusaka, Zambia b/c our visa had run out (no one told us we needed to ask at the border for 10 day visa, since everyone else in our group only stayed 3 days they only gave us a 3 day one). We told the tour leader several times we needed to renew our visa but they didn't take us to an immigration post until the day after it ran out. We spent 2 hours trying to find it in Lusaka, finally find it on the second floor of some random building downtown and this fat bald guy who runs the show is standing behind a counter...his whole job is to extend visas. Takes him a minute to notice our visa is out of date, tells stacey and I very emphatically we needed to pay 1 million kwatcha each as a millllliiiioooon kwatcha...almost laughed when he said it. forget the exact x-change rate, but i think it was about $150. We said we don't have the money and he pronounces us deported immediately and that if we had been caught at a checkpoint we'd be sitting in jail. Says we have to go to the border that day and leave the country, takes out a big stamp and pounds it into our passports. Then he starts asking us why we didn't get it extended earlier and we go on about how we're on a tour and didn't have any options and that we're really sorry, etc etc. He gives Stacey and me our passports back and says "get out of the country right now"...I walk out and look at my passport and he actually gave us a 10 day extension...huge asshole, but really funny in retrospect, didn't even have to bribe him.

After 3.5 full days of driving we get to Luangwa national park, stay at a campsite there along the river. From the campsite we can see hippos, crocs, baboons (they ran around the camp stealing all our food) just hanging out by the river. Even saw a few giraffes. We stayed there 2 nights, the 2nd night there was an optional game drive in the park, but it cost $25 to go into the park and $35 for the drive, $60 dollars for a 3hr drive...I'm not that into animals. I guess people come to africa for the animals and it's worth it to them, but $60 is crazy to me. We saw almost all the animals I wanted to see from our campsite anyway.

From there we spent 2 days driving to Malawi and the scenery got better and better and the people friendlier. Malawi has some of the friendliest people I've met. Even the people selling the trinkets and paintings are so friendly and not so pushy that it makes you want to buy stuff from them. In Zim I might have bought some things, it was really cheap, but the hawkers were so irritating and aggressive I didn't buy anything. The first day in Malawi we stop on the side of the road for lunch in what seemed to be in the middle of africa even when you think you're in the middle of nowhere people just seem to pop out of the trees. Within a few minutes we had an audience of children. Someone in our group had a soccer ball and we start up a game of soccer with the kids. Someone produced a whistle and one of the locals became a referree. A bunch of us played soccer with the kids for about 45 minutes and before it was over about 75 people had come to watch the game...people were running and biking down the street from a mile away to come watch. Had lunch then left the soccer ball and whistle with the kids.

From there we went to Lake Malawi, beautiful area. The lake is so big it looks like the ocean, can barely make out the other side. We started another pickup game of soccer with a bunch of local fisherman down the beach from where we were staying...a lot of fun. I tried to go scuba diving the next day, but the campsite reception was too incompetent to organize it properly and the scuba staff had all gone home by the time it was set up. Ended up going snorkeling, which was better than I expected, a lot of colorful fish many of which are only found in that lake. On the the boatride back to the beach I saw one of the most beautiful sunset I've ever seen, with the mountains in the background, the calm water, and fisherman coming off the shore for their nightly fishing trip.

Next day went to another campsite on the northern part of the lake. There we hung out on the beach some more the first day and the second day a small group of us hiked up one of the mountains and caught some great views of the lake and surrounding mountain. Hellishly hot, but a very good hike.

After Malawi spent 2 days driving through Tanzania to Dar Es Salaam on the northeast coast. Now in Muslim country, mosques all over and the city has a middle eastern feel to it. After stopping in the middle of town for everyone to use ATMs we had to take a 500meter ferry to the campsite we were staying at. After driving for 11 hours, running around town in the heat, we then had to wait 2hrs just to take this ferry a distance we could easily swim. Then the next day we had to wait 2hrs to take the ferry back to the mainland...stuff like this has been what pisses me off about travelling with this tour group, it just doesn't make sense to camp out in a site on an island it takes 2hrs to get to and from...would rather have gone straight to Zanzibar that day.

After Dar we went to Zanzibar, found a hotel after spending 2hrs waiting for that short ferry, 1hr waiting in the hear for the ferry to zanzibar, then 1hr waiting at Zanzibar immigration due to our tour guides insisting we have to go through as a group (we didn't have to). Once we found a room it was all forgotten though, and stacey and I and Sean, another person from our group just wandered around Stonetown. The town is really beautiful, all kinds of narrow alleyways and interesting architechture. The people are also incredible friendly, almost all muslim, the women with their heads covered and men wearing cool little hats. Had dinner that night at a fish market where they grill kebabs of almost any kind of fish you can imagine.

Next day Stacey, Sean and I rented a Jeep and drove around the island...mostly off-roading...lots of fun and got to check out a bunch of inland villages and fishing villages. Went up to the Northwest coast and found a room there. Hung out by the beach, and the next day found a scuba shop with a couple other people from our trip and went out for some great diving on the east coast. Beautiful fish and coral reefs.

Today we head back to Dar then off to Arusha tomorrow for the Serengheti and Ngorogoro crater (insanely high park fees, but I think i have to do it...$360 for 3 days!!!...I might do the 1 day trip for $180)