Sat 20 Aug 2011 - Sat 10 Sep 2011
For the Eastern African part of our world tour, we decided to do something different. While we met travellers who successfully traveled across Africa independently, we heard that it took a lot of time and patience to use the haphazard local transportation system and to negotiate safaris. Tempted by the allure of a pre-organized, package tour that would take us to all of the hot spots in Eastern Africa, we signed up for an Overland tour with Intrepid. This meant our group of around 22 would travel in an overland truck ("It's not a bus!"), camp in tents for most of the nights, and participate with cooking for the group. We had a driver, a leader, and a cook to help us accomplish these tasks.
We flew to Nairobi in time to meet with our first overland group, who were a nice mix of Americans, Canadians, Brits and Aussies. The great group dynamic made everyday living much easier, as we were expected to participate in the work around the camp. An average day would be spent waking at 6, taking down our campsite and packing the truck until 6:45, breakfast, flapping our dishes, then off to an activity or on the road by 7:30. Our day would end around 16:00 when we would set up camp, shower if there were showers, prep for dinner, eat, then wash up. The strange thing was that on most nights the day ended at the bar - yes, even campsites without hot showers would have a bar - and at $1.50 a beer we were happy to spend the night chatting there.
Adjusting to camping was pretty easy, (if I can't have a shower, neither can the rest of the group!). While we did have a lot of rain, our tents were of very good quality and we wouldn't get wet. It became our routine to put our headlamps on at around 18:00 in preparation for dark evenings. The animals in our campsite (buffalo, warthogs, baboons and hippos) were just there to munch and didn't want anything to do with us (except the story to come...). Our overland truck was really comfortable and sturdy and only once did we have to jump ship through a particularly muddy road - tipping over was on our mind but our driver remained calm. The local villagers came out to watch the scene and ask for candy, which of course we refused. Our team leaders had really strong opinions on the kind of mark we should leave on the landscape; they provided purified water so that we didn't buy bottled water, encouraged giving through proper channels to discourage begging (and teeth rot - no dentists in the rural areas) and punished plastic bag users with the job of washing pots.
Our tour started in Nairobi, but we pretty much left right away to our first safari in Lake Nakuru National Park. On the way we stopped at an orphanage which is one of the sponsorship projects of Intrepid, the company we were travelling with. Friendly, toothless kids grabbed our hands to show us around their humble living quarters and school, while the older kids played football (soccer) outside. I caught the eye of an older girl, the oldest at 16. She shyly took me aside and showed me her desk, school work, and kitchen area. She spoke confidently, but it was evident right away that she was hard of hearing. She has dreams of becoming a pilot, but has been told to set her sights lower. After an hour spent with her I couldn't tear myself away.
At Lake Nakuru NP we went on the best game drive - we saw buffalo, zebra, flamingos, hyenas, lions (even a lion eating a zebra), antelope, gazelles, rhinos, baboons, giraffes, warthogs and more. We also spotted a leopard, but he dashed into the bush before anyone got a picture. As we sat staring into the bush he warned us not to get too close - with the most spine-chilling growl. That was a highlight for us!
While we were on the game drive, the cheeky monkeys got into one tent and took their toiletries bags and a sleeping bag. We returned to a ripped tent with foot powder sprinkled on top. What do they want with a sleeping bag, anyway??
After a few long travel days we were in Uganda, where the highlight was trekking to see chimpanzees in Kibale NP. We had to walk for an hour and a half to find them in the bush. They were amazing up close, and at one point I was in the path of one who walked right by me ("Don't move, don't show your teeth!") and I got it on video. They were much bigger than I thought they would be. Also in Uganda we did a boat safari in Queen Elizabeth NP where we saw hippos, crocodiles, eagles and more buffalo, and in a DIFFERENT lake (Lake Bunyonyi) we could swim for a bit.
We only spent three days in Rwanda, where we visited the Genocide Museum in Kigali and did our biggest trek to see the wild gorillas in Ruhengeri. I can't even begin to express the highs and lows of Rwanda. First, it's a beautiful country, with lush, green hills. They have strict rules against plastic bags and littering, so that makes it one of the cleanest countries we've been to. But the scars of history run deep, and the welcome from the local people was mixed. We were stared at, or ignored, given begging hands, and occasionally waved away rudely. I tried my best to understand why this reaction would be so cold, or hesitant. First, it was only 17 years ago when their country was torn apart by the genocide while the outside world did nothing about it. Then, to ease our own guilt, aid poured in at abnormally high rates. So perhaps the Western people are only seen in that light. Also, we all tend to drive through in our big trucks, so the interaction with the local people is minimal. The men we worked with to see the gorillas were awesome. The Volcanoes National Park hires ex-poachers to track the beasts, changing their relationship with them. It is evident how much they are respected now, and there hasn't been an incident of poaching since 2002.
So the way it works is this: there are 11 families of gorillas living in the park, so 11 groups of 8 people can see them a day. They trek to wherever the family has moved to, so it can be hours away. Our family was deeper into the bush, so we hiked for one hour in farmer's fields, 1.5 hours uphill in ankle-deep mud paths through the jungle, then half an hour in the bush, which had to be cleared by machete. When we were close we left our bags and walking sticks, and could photograph the family for one hour. What a rush. First, they were much closer than I thought they'd be. The silverback was enormous, and we were all instantly aware that he could crush us with one finger. But he was calm! I suppose he knew that he was the boss, while the females held on to their babies or warned us not to get too close by the classic charging and beating of her chest. We saw three babies, and I fell in love. What amazing creatures. It was like looking into a mirror.
After Rwanda we went back through Uganda and returned to Kenya. We celebrated Toby's birthday in Jinja with cake, streamers and a card from the group. He had to wear a party hat all day, though since we were driving for most of the day, he didn't mind!
We said goodbye to our group after two weeks and went on our own to the coast of Kenya. First stop was Mombasa, where we walked through the old town with two other travellers and took local transport and ate local food. People were very friendly here, but unfortunately there is a two-tiered price system and it is difficult, but not impossible, to get local prices. This wasn't a big deal in terms of costs, but more on principal. "It's racism," one traveller thought, and after a few days it did feel that way. We took a long, bumpy, dusty road to Lamu, one of our favourite places because of the Arab influence on the island. They use donkeys instead of cars and it is a place with a slow pace and beautiful scenery. We used some local guides to show us around different areas (one for the old town, one for a museum, one on a boat journey, one for dinner at his home) and felt like we could just chill here for a long time.
Once we returned to Nairobi, we prepared for our second tour, which would take us to some of the top parks in Eastern Africa: Masai Mara NP and Serengeti in Tanzania. To be continued!