Falling under the category of “Never too late to get a project done”, Chris has (finally) done something with our videos of our trek through the Virunga National Forest in Rwanda in January of 2010. Enjoy!
To read about our trip, click on the link to the Rwanda post from 2010!
First, a big thank you to Joy, for being my first visitor to come see me in Chad! It was great to have Joy visit us for a week and show her around town, and totally cool that on her last day, we took a boat ride on the Chari River and saw a HUGE herd of elephants drinking at the river!
With Chris in the US visiting family, and Joy back to Sudan for work, I took off for Togo and parts unknown. As soon as I landed in Lomé I could see the ocean and smell the salt- and feel the humidity! The first two nights I stayed in a small hotel above a bar, called Le Galion, unfortunately in a non a/c room- big mistake. West Africa sure is sweaty!
I tried to visit the Lomé museum but it was closed, and after visiting the big marche, there wasn’t much else to do in town (except enjoy being out of Chad). So I hopped on a bus and went north to Kara, the gateway city to the Tamberma Valley. I met up with three Belgian volunteers and we hired a car and driver for the day to take us to see the traditional villages out in the hinterland. Very interesting architecture, but it made me sad to see the way the people live in the village- they seemed malnourished and out of step- and not in a good way, just listless and unprepared for the world around them. The next day, the four of us had the same taxi driver take us to the Burkina Faso border (a seriously bad road). After paying a whopping $190 for my visa, I entered Burkina and the four of us got a bus to Ougadougou. We arrived late at night and they invited me to stay with them at a friend’s unfinished house that night. We slept under the stars in what was to become a surprisingly chilly night!
The next day I dropped off my passport at the Ghanaian embassy for a visa, and took off for Bobo-Diolasso. I liked it better than Ouga- a bit quieter, more manageable. But both cities have this quality of a dusty, dirty, run-down city. I guess nothing on the edge of the Sahara desert stays pretty looking for long. I loved my little guest house, Villa Bobo, and sampled some great cuisine, especially a totally delicious local yogurt with honey. Mmmm. Had it three times.
Back to Ouga to pick up my passport and visa, and I stopped at the village of Sabou along the way to see my volunteer friends. We visited the sacred crocodile lake (animists in the village believe the crocodiles are the reincarnated souls of the chief’s ancestors) and we actually paid a visit to the chief himself, as one of the volunteers was new to the project and the chief likes to meet anyone new to the area. That night we slept outside again, as the volunteers’ house has no electricity. Living rough in Africa!
I stayed in Ouga for two days after that, recovering from some unfortunate stomach distress, at a beautiful little garden pensione called Jardin de Kouloubra. A great place to recover. Finally I was feeling ready to take the 8 hour bus down to Tamele, Ghana, where I spent the night at a Catholic guest house, then another bus to Kumasi (hello, humidity; I remember you!). There I visited the Asante palace and museum and learned a lot about the Asante culture. From there it was an easy bus ride to Cape Coast, where I finished up my trip with some visits to the beach, the slave castle, and a few good restaurants. The history of the trans-Atlantic slave trade was pretty interesting and very moving to see the actual places.
From Cape Coast, I skipped right over Accra and took my flight back to Chad. Although I’m really glad that I went, because I had really wanted to visit West Africa before we leave the continent, I found the whole trip a lot harder than I had anticipated. The infrastructure, the (lack of) hospitality industry, the huge amounts of trash everywhere- all of it is just not ideal for easy tourism- definitely not for the faint at heart. The fact that Togo and Burkina both speak French, and even in Ghana, most people spoke a native language more than they really spoke English, made getting around and getting things done just that much harder. In the end, I felt like West Africa didn’t have the amazing animals like Kenya and Tanzania did, the fascinating culture like Ethiopia did, the stunning scenery like Rwanda and Uganda, or the general together-ness like Namibia and South Africa. West Africa has a lot of ground to cover if it wants to have tourism be a big draw for their economies.
After five years living in Africa, and twenty-some odd countries visited in the continent, I finally had the chance to accompany Chris to Central African Republic on business. Having visited southern, eastern, and western Africa, it was time to venture into the center of the continent- the very heart of darkness.
On our first night in Bangui, we wandered down to the Bangui Plage, a small outdoor restaurant on the banks of the Oubangui River. It was dark by the time we arrived, and we met up with two other travelers seated on the patio. Over wonderfully ripe and creamy avocat aux crevettes, and several ice cold Mocaf beers, the pilots told us stories of flying over the jungles of Africa (“Basically, this whole continent is on fire”) and the perils of trying to get fuel with a credit card in cities such as Bangui and Juba (“Headquarters does not like handwritten receipts written on a napkin and signed by an illiterate man”.). In the darkness beyond the restaurant, we could see an occasional kerosene lantern across the Oubangui River representing small huts in a Congolese village, but not the river itself.
The next day was a hustle of activity for me as I set off to explore the small city- village, rather- of Bangui. The French called the city “La Coquette” (the beautiful), but the few signs still bearing the name were peeling, flaking, dirt-covered placards of a by-gone era. I set out to look for the Musee de Boganda, housing artifacts from “Emperor Bokassa’s” reign and more, but it was closed. I found the office for the Hotel des Chutes de Boali, a small hotel 100 km outside of town at the edge of a waterfall- the office was also closed, but helpfully listed a phone number to call to arrange a ride out to the hotel. I tried a small hotel listed in my guidebook (four pages dedicated to C.A.R.) that boasted a band on Sunday nights, but after finding the manager, discovered that the band in question no longer played in the hotel and had not for some years.
I walked along the red dust-covered streets of Bangui, shouts of “Cherie” and “Americaine” following me wherever I went. Small children walked next to me, practicing their few phrases in English that they knew, and tugging on my pants pockets for change. Around every corner, half a dozen young men stood, selling phone cards, making 2% profit on the face value of the cards. Taxis beeped their horn as they trolled the few paved streets, looking for a paying customer. Men carried flats of egg crates stacked a dozen high, only the top three flats cut and stacked with eggs to make a pyramid. Only the tops of their egg towers could be seen as they wound their way through a crowd.
For dinner that night we drove to the edge of town, to the property owned by the Oubangui Hotel (a Sofitel property in an earlier life). The tallest building in town, the Oubangui Hotel sits at the easternmost side of the city, overlooking the Oubangui River and Congo. A series of natural rocks juts out into the river, with a concrete walkway connecting them to the hotel. Atop the peninsula are a dozen covered tables, all bearing the names of French and West-African cities. We sat at the “Nice” table and sipped a cold drink, watching the sunset over the river. Sellers and workers drifted across the river towards Congo in their pirogues, calling out to each other in Sango. As the sun set, the river fell silent.
Having secured a ride to the waterfall at Boali, the next day we headed outside the city. The falls are not too far from the city, and the road was surprisingly well-paved, considering that few roads in the capital itself are paved at all. A little more than an hour after we left Bangui, we had arrived at the village of Boali. Bags of charcoal stacked alongside the highway sat next to piles of ripe papaya, waiting for a traveler with the coins to purchase one. As we passed into the village, the local outdoor church finished its services, the congregation drifting towards their homes, the women wrapped in brightly colored pagnes and the men wearing crisp white shirts, pressed pants, and freshly shined shoes. Once at the falls, a group of six young men attached themselves to us, eagerly offering to be our “guides” as we descended to the bottom of the falls, ascended the other side, and crossed back over the river upstream of the falls on a swaying, precarious vine bridge (reinforced by steel wire). Feeling rushed by our young friends, I rebelled against their hurried tour guide spiels and took off my shoes and socks, slipping my feet into the clear, cold water of the Mpoko River. Later we hiked back up to the top of the waterfall, and then crossed back over the river on a vine bridge- very scary! After our water adventures we had a lunch of grilled chicken, fried plantains, and cold beer at the water’s edge.
Also while in Bangui, I got to try two tennis lessons. I hadn’t played since college, when I took tennis as one of my P.E.’s and pretty much was terrible at it. The two lessons went well and I’m hoping to practice some more once we return to Chad.
All in all, Bangui: interesting place to visit, wouldn’t want to live there.
I’m not really sure who’s bright idea it was originally, but for Christmas this year, Adam and Hussam (my travel partners to Ethiopia last year) and I decided that this year we would climb Mt. Kilimanjaro, the highest mountain in Africa. Luckily, Chris was able to get a week off and climb with us.
We arrived in Moshi, Tanzania, and went to our rooms at the local YMCA. We met with our tour guide later that day to get a few last minute items such as heavy coats and sleeping bags. Since we had been living in Khartoum, we didn’t actually own any of those items, so we rented them for the hike. We paid the rest of our money owed on our trip and we were ready to go!
We began our climb on Sunday, December 19th. The first day we started out at about 1800 meters above sea level, at the gates to the Kilimanjaro National Park. Below that level is cultivated land, and above 1800 m is a rainforest. Our first day’s walk, about 5 hours, was 9 km long and we rose about 900 meters to a height of 2700 meters. The weather was hot and humid and it rained a bit. The climb was not too bad and we were tired but not exhausted when we reached our first camp, Mandara camp. We had a snack of tea and popcorn, got our cabin ready, ate dinner, and went to sleep…. wondering what the next day would be like.
On Monday we hiked from Mandara camp to Homboro camp, another 9 or 10 km and another 900 meters up in altitude. Again, about 5 or 6 hours of hiking, although the altitude was noticeably thinner and breathing was more difficult. The rain forest behind us, we hiked through moorlands, with strange trees and little animal life. By the time we got to Homboro we all had headaches, were pretty tired, and glad of an acclimatization day the next day.
Day three we stayed at Homboro camp and took a short walk up to the Zebra Rocks, a strange rock formation made of naturally occuring black and white striped rocks. Our headaches were better but we were still dreading the following day as we were to climb to Kibo Camp.
Day four we climbed through the alpine desert to Kibo Camp, an altitude of 4700 meters. It took us maybe 4 or 5 hours, but we were all definitely suffering by the end of it. The weather was much colder, we had some rain and hail, although periodically the sun would come out and the fleece sweaters would come off. By the time we reached Kibo my head was killing me and my vision was blurry and seeing double. I could keep my head down and watch the trail in front of me but if I tried to raise my eyes I would see a bright corona around everything and it hurt like hell. I hoped a nap and some food would help me recover enough to attempt the summit at midnight.
Kibo camp was freezing cold (literally) and we slept a bit and ate some dinner- pasta- trying to carb up for the final ascent. After dinner we slept some more and were awoken at midnight. We were already wearing most of our clothes so we just put on our gloves and jackets and started off for the final 1200 meters up.
After 2 hours and having only made it 200 or 300 meters, I knew I couldn’t go on. I really wanted Adam and Hussam and Chris to be able to summit and I was holding them back with my slow pace. I thought I could maybe eke out another hour or two max, but I knew I’d never reach Gilman’s Point at 5700 meters or the top of Uhuru Peak at 5895 meters. So finally I decided to cut my losses and head back to Kibo. I convinced Chris that it was okay to go on without me, and I headed back down. I was sad that I couldn’t finish but frankly was in too much pain to really care that much. All I wanted was a bed and (more) headache medicine.
I sat at Kibo camp and watched the stars and the summit for a while. Finally it was too cold to stay out any longer so I went in and went to sleep in my bunk. Around noon, the guys returned, having successfully summited. They rested at Kibo for a couple of hours and then we returned down to Homboro camp for our final night on the mountain.
The last day we walked down the 20 km from Homboro to Mandara camp, to the park gate. Even going down was not exactly easy. Our knees and toes were screaming from the downward motion. But the breathing was much easier and our headaches were gone. At last we reached the bottom, 2 pm on Christmas Eve day. We celebrated with a Kilimanjaro beer, and the guys collected their certificates. We shuffled off back to our hotel, looking forward to a hot shower and a warm bed.
A great adventure! Did I fail at climbing Mt Kilimanjaro? I prefer instead to think of the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson, who said: “To finish the moment, to find the journey’s end in every step of the road, to live the greatest number of good hours, is wisdom.” .