Saturday, February 19, 2011


Kite Boarding on Lake Tanganyika

We spent a week in Burundi, first in the capital, Bujumbura, then driving around the countryside enjoying the beautiful scenery and the friendly people.  It seems that most of the expats in Bujumbura hang out at the clubs on Lake Tanganyika and further inland muzungos weren't as common.  The only ones we saw during our three days in the country worked for CARE or Médecins sans Frontières (Doctors without Borders). 

Pigs at the Seminary barn
We stopped a great seminary in Gitega (Grand Seminary Jean Paul II) and the Abbot gave us a tour of his huge campus.  There were over 40 buildings and it serves as the largest seminary in the country.  The seminary is self-sufficient and was adding new buildings to accommodate guests that come for conferences.  

We drove back to Bujumbura on improved dirt roads with great drainage and metal bridges with only the occasional delay caused by kids herding their cows along the road.  In the mountain passes above town vehicles were stopped by tax collectors (our drive called them "bandits") and it seemed that every 1/4 mile someone had a sign on the ground by a pickup truck and they wanted to collect a different tax- charcoal, oil, banana beer, wood, etc... causing prices in Bujumbura to be 2x the price of commodities in the country.  
Charcoal cost 7000 francs in the country and 15,000 francs in the city
During our trip we also visited a rock on a bluff overlooking a muddy brown river supposedly visited by Stanley and Livingston (as evidenced by their names and a date being carved into the rock) and the Olympic Center on the lake.  The Olympic center featured a soccer field and a building, but the building was closed.  It didn't look like the field had been used in some time as some of the locals had started to plant corn along the outside of the field.
Livingston Rock
Olympic Center
I enjoyed the many public service announcement billboard signs that were posted around the country.  They were locally painted and warned people to use bed nets to stop malaria, breastfeed their babies, wash their hands, and watch out for men with money who will pay to have sex because then you'll get AIDS.

Burundi seemed like a nice country, however it is facing many challenges.  The government had sold, and then resold the frequency spectrum for the country causing the major communications countries to leave causing very poor and sporadic Internet connectivity.  Sometimes without warning the cell phones and land telephone network would stop working.  The day I left the credit card and financial lines out of the country were disconnected so I could not get cash from the banks or use my credit card to pay my hotel bill.
Another major problem for the country is the land dispute problem caused by returning refugees who have a legal right to their former land and the current occupants who also have a legal right to the land.  The court system is jammed up with cases like these where both claimants have a legal right to the land so some have taken to resolving the situation by lobbing grenades over walls in the middle of the night.  I was told not to worry because the grenades and shootings weren't targeting muzungos.

Kigali Memorial Center

During our last day in Kigali we stopped at the Kigali Memorial Center and saw some of the horrors of the massacres in Rwanda.  Over 250,000 Rwandans are buried on the site and it was a very emotional visit for our driver who took us to the site.  He had lost most of his family and he was struggling to forgive and move on.

The museum is full of displays that explain the entire history of the conflict that arose from a differentiation of the Hutus and Tutsis, which was later capitalized on by politicians to push their own agendas in search of power.  The people were conditioned to accept their roles in the slaughter and in the end over 800,000 were killed by machete, often neighbor against neighbor, and family members killing other family members.
Cement caps on the graves of over 250,000 victims
The worst part of the museum for me were the rooms full of pictures of the people that had died in the killings.  Half the second floor was dedicated to the kids that were lost, many often brutally slaughtered.  I wish, as the museum states, that this should never happen again.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Gorillas in the Mist

Virunga, Rwanda
4 February 2011

Exactly at 5am, there was a knock at the door.  It was the porter with the morning hot chocolate and a biscuit which i hastily drank as i got my pack ready for the day searching for gorillas in the mist.  Breakfast was served in the dining room 30 minutes later and then we were on our way, bumping down the rocky dirt road into the snowy mist below from our hilltop resort (elevation 2100m or 6,890ft).

We rendezvoused with the other gorilla seekers at the park headquarters and were broken into groups of eight and introduced to our guides.  Francis, our guide, said we were lucky to visit the Sabyinyo troop, which featured the largest silver-back gorilla in the park.  From the park we drove another 45 mins, the last 20 mins of which was like driving up a rocky creek bed.  I said a silent prayer when the engine stalled as the badly beaten Landcruiser heaved around a boulder, and fortunately the battered car wheezed back to life with some gentle coaxing from the driver. 

The drivers stayed with the vehicles when we reached the end of the trail and we set out on foot across the green fields on the side of a volcano, accompanied by our guide, a couple trackers with radios, and our two armed escorts carrying AK-47 assault rifles.  Francis gave us a final brief before we jumped over the rock wall that separated the fields from the mountain jungle above.  He warned to us to turn off the flash on our cameras and keep quiet no matter what- even if we rolled in the prolific stinging nettle or got covered with giant biting ants.  Francis asserted that it was better to suffer in silence than to spook the gorillas (because they might get aggressive and charge). 

Over the wall, the first man in line was attacked by huge black ants but he kept quiet.  We then threaded our way through a bamboo forest following the trackers, slipping in the ankle deep mud and occasionally falling into stinging nettle.  We continued on in silence for 20 minutes until we broke into a clearing where Francis told us to drop our bags and grab our cameras because the gorillas were near.  Across the clearing we could see the tops of the giant bamboo sway, one by one, followed by a loud snap as the plant disappeared. 

A tracker took the lead, machete in hand, and disappeared as he ducked under some broken bamboo, closely followed by the first man in the group.  I was the last man to step into the darkness and followed up a steep incline to where the group was stopped.  At first i only saw the huge piles of gorilla poop, but then i looked to where everyone else was staring in stunned silence.  An enormous furry black hand reached out of a nest of bamboo branches, grabbed a stalk about four inches across, snapped it off, and started shoving the tender leaves into his mouth.   The 500 lb silverback looked over at us, paused for a second, then went back to chewing his mouthful of leaves.  Slowly the photographers in the group raised their cameras and tentatively took their first shots.  The gorilla was only ten feet away but didn't seem to mind us watching him closely.  Unlike the zoo there was nothing to stop the giant gorilla from dropping down from his bamboo hammock and ripping our limbs off.  But he just went on chewing leaves, and eventually rolled off his perch and walked away.
The guide only allowed us one hour with the gorillas in order to protect them from too much exposure to humans and the diseases we carry so a tracker quickly led us to another group of gorillas under the bamboo boughs.  As we moved into position to take some photos a baby and a medium-sized gorilla shot past us, nearly knocking me over.  The giant silverback slowly followed them right by us, close enough to feel his breath, up to a small clearing where they sat down and began to strip off and eat the leaves of the stinging nettle. 
We stood around and took pictures only five feet away from the small family and the hour quickly passed.  Reluctantly we packed up our cameras and slipped down the muddy slope to where the armed guards watched over our bags, tipped them, and walked back to our trucks.  Less than an hour later we were back at the super ecolodge, where our muddy boots were collected for cleaning and shining.

Later in the evening school kids from the local village came up to the lodge and performed a series of traditional dances.  The boys swung wooden spears and wore long blond headdresses, and the girls danced with baskets on their heads.  They danced and sang about their ancient traditions of farming and herding in the high hills of Rwanda.  At the end they were joined by their teacher who serenaded us on a local multiple stringed instrument as he sang about the green volcanoes that encircled us, the two lakes on either side of the village below where we sat, and also gave thanks for the ecolodge and asked us to tell our friends  to come visit soon.  After tipping heavily we went back to the dining room for dinner then back to the cabin to our beds with visions of gorillas and kids with spears dancing in our heads.

Rwanda Day 2

Kigali, Rwanda
3 February 2011

Breakfast is served onto fourth floor of Hotel Milles Colines which provides a great view of the hills of Kigali at sun rise.  The view is amazing and the city is beautiful.  After breakfast we walked over to the Rwandan National Parks office and managed to score two passes to the National Park on the Ugandan border to go look for gorillas!  Only 56 people are allowed in the park each day and usually the passes, which cost $500 USD each sell out months in advance, but there were two cancellations so my friend and I were able to get passes for the following day.
Rwandan Countryside
Once we had the passes in hand we went back to the hotel and booked two nights at an ecolodge just outside the park, rented a rusty Toyota Landcruiser (driver included), and headed north.  The old Landcruiser struggled and groaned up the steep hills leaving Kigali and rattled down the few rough sections where the road wasn't paved, but we finally arrived three hours later.  The views were awesome as we drove through the Rwandan countryside and i could easily see how others had called Rwanda the "Garden of Eden."

We booked a cabin with, a small eight cabin eco-resort that was totally off the grid and situated on a hilltop overlooking several lakes and volcanos on the Ugandan border.  The resort was powered by solar panels and a windmill and the water was heated by solar tanks.  Unfortunately, there was no wifi, but it was an all-inclusive resort with drinks, meals, massages, everything included in the price. 

We first had drinks by the fireplace in the main lodge and later we were joined at dinner in the dining room by the other campers, who hailed from Chicago, Vancouver, Victoria Island, and Holland.  All were excited to go on the Gorilla trek in the morning and this was everyones first trip to Africa.
View from the lodge

Hotel Rwanda

Kigali, Rwanda
2 February 2011

We caught the early flight from Dar Es Salaam at 5:10am to Kigali via Nairobi and gained an hour as we moved into Central African Time.  The hills in Rwanda were amazing as we flew into Kigali and a light rain met us on the ground. 

We had a lot of preconceptions or ideas on what to expect in Rwanda from reading lots of books about the genocide and complaints about the fairness of the last elections, but Rwanda has been a weirdly pleasant experience.  We were surprised when the customs people in the airport didn't speak French, and i was taken aback when the plastic bag covering my duffle bag was confiscated.  It turns out that plastic bags are banned in Rwanda in order to protect the environment- which is a great idea in my opinion because too many African countrysides are littered by torn bits of blue and black plastic bags.  I wish more countries would consider doing the same.
Cleaning & painting the curbs, again
Once out of the airport and on our way to the hotel i was amazed to see clean streets!  There was no litter to be seen and squads of locals were painting the curbs an alternating black and white pattern and the city seemed brand new.  Even the roads were freshly paved and smooth.  The next thing that caught my attention was that the city was very quiet- the cacophony of honking horns, loud music, and roaring crowds usually found in African capitals was missing.  Even the people i talked too spoke in hushed voices- almost like living in a library. 
Pool at the famous Hotel Rwanda
We were fortunate to be booked the Hotel Milles Colines, the famous Hotel Rwanda from the Oscar winning movie.  I had recently watched the movie and expected something different, riddled with bullet holes and other damages from the war but the hotel was in great shape.  It wasn't the same as in the movie, but was definitely a high class hotel with a nice pool, bar, and good rooms.  Another unexpected discovery was that the street vendors were selling "the Economist" or "Jeune Afrique" magazines at the hotel gate instead of the usual crowd in other cities that sold cell phone minute cards or the local papers.  The free wifi was greatly appreciated and i surfed the net as i watched the sunset poolside. 

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Kili Day 7

Moshi, Tanzania
Kili Day 7, 30 Jan 2011

For the last day of our Kilimajaro Trek I had mixed feelings.  On one hand I couldn't wait to get off the mountain, but on the other hand I had a lot of fun and really enjoying walking around the mountain with my friends and didn't want it to end.  On summit day I would have told you that my new definition of hell was being stuck on the face of Kili four hours into the climb with a frozen camelbak and two more hours of climbing ahead of you.  Looking back on it two weeks later from the comfort of my warm apartment in Dakar I would do it again.

We leisurely descended the mountain under the canopy of the rain forest, the mountain hidden by the thick trees.  It took us three hours to get to the Mweka Gate where we ate a quick lunch while being harassed by locals selling t-shirts and bracelets.  An hour later we were back at the hotel where we cleaned up before jumping in the pool.  Later we linked up with our Canadian friends and went out to dinner and the next morning we went our separate ways again.

Big thanks to Chombo, our guide from Zara Tours, for getting us up and down the mountain safely.  I am particularly grateful he helped me through my altitude sickness and that he judged me well enough to continue, all the way to the top.

Kili Day 6.2

Mweka Camp
Kili Day 6.2, 29 Jan 2011

I awoke from my nap refreshed, but still with a mild dull headache.  Several members of the group puked on the way down from the summit and now we were in a hurry to get lower.  Going up may be hard, but I think descending can be more painful.  Especially when you descend 5,000 vertical feet in less than five hours.

The alpine scree and boulder fields gradually gave way to Heather and scrub brush as we descended a ridgeline trail.  By the end of the day we were back in the rain forest, but luckily it wasn't raining.  The constant pounding numbed my two big toes (different than the Diamox tingling that would affect your hands, feet, and face) but in the seven-day trek no one in the group had any blisters.

"Billy Goat" celebrated back in camp with Kilimanjaro beers, Jack, and cigars while I downed a Sprite, more Milo, and popcorn.  I was glad to sleep on flat ground again and everyone felt much better below 10,000ft.  Worn out from the day everyone crashed early and slept soundly through the night.

While we descended passing groups shared some bad news from the mountain.  The night we summitted a man died from altitude sickness and two others broke their legs and had to be carried off the mountain.  The fatality was a man who started the climb sick, and against medical advice, decided to sleep on the mountain despite acute altitude sickness.  Our group was very fortunate that we all summitted and descended without any injury or problems beside mild altitude sickness.  Usually once we puked we felt better!

KIli Day 6

Barafu Camp
Kili Day 6, 28 Jan 2011

I slept well, for about two hours, then put on all my gear and fought through the wind to link up with the group in the dinner tent.  I was wearing medium weight polypro tights under pants and covered with my snow bibs for my lower body.  On my upper body I wore a polypro top, pullover, and a puff jacket and carried my shell in my pack.  I filled my camelbak with three liters of Camelbak Elixer drink and carried two snickers bars for energy (can't stand Powerbars of Clifbars anymore- I have reached my lifetime limit).  I also carried spare batteries for my headlamp, which came in handy for "Trailbait" when hers died three hours into the climb.

It was dark, cold, and windy when we stepped off at 11:45pm.  Normally its 20*F at the camp but the 30mph wind gusts froze my camelbak solid by 2:30am.  We started "Pole Pole," just one foot in front of the other, in the frigid dark.  The headlamps only illuminated the way for six to ten feet so we just watched the back or the feet of the person in front of you.  We only took three breaks of five minutes each on the way to the top- everyone was too cold to be stationary for too long. 

Around 2:20am a blood red horseshoe of a crescent moon rose above the horizon below us.  The stars around us didn't give enough light to see our surroundings.  Down in the distance below us we could see the lights of many small towns.  We just kept moving, six inches forward per step as the incline increased over steep scree and sand covered slopes.  I don't remember too much as I tried to go to my "happy place" as the hours of climbing went by. 

As we got closer to the top under the thin light of the moon I could make out the edge of the horizon before us and the glaciers around us.  Around 5am we made it to the rim of the crater and turned left.  I was at the end of the group, breathing like I was running the last bit of a marathon, with my heart beating four times for every breath.  When I slowed my breathing the headache at the base of my skull would set in, so I was Lamaze breathing like I was having a baby.
Back row: Poles, Milo (me), Pooter, Jake, Viagra, Brian, G4, Billy Goat. Front row: Chombo, Trailbait

At 5:50am we made it to the rickty wooden sign that said we were at the highest point in Africa- Uhuru Peak at 5896m (19,343 ft).  As we gathered in front of the sign for victory picture the first sliver of red light pierced the cloud-covered horizon below us.  Headaches began to assault us as we stood at the top so I split with a small group to get down "Haraka Haraka" (quickly quickly). 

As we descended the morning light illuminated the dirty white & blue glacier fields we had passed in the night.  The views were awesome, but I couldn't stop to take any pictures- my head was killing me and it was too damn cold.  It took us six hours to get to the top, but we descended the 5,000 ft in an hour.  The best part of the descent was the 1000 vertical feet of a scree field that I jumped down.  Besides that the conclusion of the group was that it was good that we ascended in the dark of the night because the steepness of the slope was ridiculous. 

We were the first group to make it to the top and we blew by the groups that had sped by us on the lower elevations earlier in the week.  Our "Pole Pole" guides had got us into a rhythm that carried us to the top, with 100% success- all nine of us made it to the summit.  Back at camp I quickly shucked my gear and thawed my camelbak for a quick drink before taking a nap.  After lunch we had another 5,000 vertical feet to descend to get to the camp for the night.

Kili Day 5

Barafu Camp
Kili Day 5, 28 Jan 2011

We had opted for the 7-day climb instead of the more common 6-day climb along the Machame Route in order to give us an extra day of acclimatization.  When we stopped at the Karanga Camp last night many others pushed on to Barafu Camp at 4550m (14,927 ft).  This allowed us to take it easy on day five, to sleep in a little, and only have to walk for three hours.  Last night we played 19 hands of Hearts (won by "Viagra") and today after our short walk we played two games of 13 and 14 hands each (won by "G4 Challenge" and "Pooter").

The trail to Barafu camp was steep and traversed many scree covered slopes and sand fields.  We all felt pretty good and were amazed at the views that surrounded us.  Surprisingly we never ran out of stuff to talk about while other groups around us were melting down and people were being threatened with trekking pole stabbings.  Our guides kept us going "Pole Pole" and we trudged along, becoming more excited as we got ever closer to the top.

At the end of the trail, we arrived at the last camp before the summit, on a rocky exposed ridge with steep drops off either side.  A set of permanent latrines hung over the side of a cliff face and the porters stayed in green colored round metal shacks.  We, however, slept in our blue little dome tents with a relentless howling wind that threatened to launch our tents off the ridge. 
Porters & tents getting blown off the ridge
We ate an early dinner and went to bed before 7pm because the next day, and the final assault on the summit, would begin at 11:30pm.

Kili Day 4

Karanga Camp
Kili Day 4, 27 Jan 2011
Feeling better & enjoying my morning Milo
After a good 10 hours of sleep I woke up feeling great!  The nausea and headaches were gone and I was hungry again!  I ate three bowls of porridge and got the brief for the days trek- a short day, but with a lot of scrambling.  We would first have to scale the Great Barranco Wall, then cross over the ridge to sleep at the new camp, but at about the same elevation.

We tried to start late in order to allow the porters to get their heavy burdens through the narrow bottlenecks and overhead climbs but still got stuck in the mix.  The Great Barranco Wall is a narrow trail up a 600m cliff face where if you slip you will plunge to your death in the rocky stream below.  One of our porters climbing ahead of us slipped and tumbled to the edge and hung on while his bag sailed off the cliff.  We were all glad to see he was ok but all the other porters whistled at him the whole way as he had to run back down the narrow trail to pickup the bag and back up to catch up with the group (the bad held Chombo's tent). 

Once past the wall the trail opened up again and we crossed many glacial streams, passed freezing waterfalls and traversed several wide sandy fields.  The surviving member of the Canadian group joined us on the trail as the rest had gone down early in the morning due to the altitude sickness.  We were now above the cloud layer and the sun began to burn us as we walked.  SPF 50 couldn't stop the suns rays from burning my neck so I had to use my Afghan handkerchief as a scarf (the "Arnie of Africa" phase).

The walk was easy until we got to the final kilometer to the Karanga Camp, where a chasm like the Grand Canyon opened before us.  It would have been the perfect place for an Indiana Jones style rope bridge as a narrow stream had cut a steep valley at least 200 meters deep.  Instead we had to descend carefully the steep canyon walls, sliding down some exposed rock slabs, to the bottom and then slowly up a trail with many, many switchbacks.  At the top we were rewarded with our campsite and a great view of the summit that was slowly approaching.

We camped at 3963m (13,001 ft) and the steady wind kept it cold and shook the tent all night.  I was grateful for the 0*F down sleeping bag I had bought just for the trip- the water froze again during the night but I had to unzip the bag because I was overheating!

Kili Day 3

Barranco Camp
Kili Day 3, 26 Jan 2011

Feeling good before breakfast at Shira Camp
I didn't enjoy the potatoes too much last night (our theory about the constant potatoes was that the porters didn't want to carry them anymore so they fed us a steady diet of potatoes) and didn't wake up very hungry.  I couldn't eat the eggs they offered for breakfast but had some Milo and we hit the trail.  Chambo, our guide, warned us that today was going to be a hard day, as we would go high and camp low.  

Walking up to the Lava Tower
We followed our guides as we were continually passed by porters along the Shira route up to the Lava Tower at 4630m (15,190 ft) and down the other side.  I felt pretty good as we climbed the trail to the tower so I disregarded Chombo's advice to get off the tower quickly and spent some time climbing some boulders and taking pictures.  As we came down from the tower I started to get a headache at the base of my skull that gradually increased and I completely lost my appetite.  At lunch I tried to choke down some peanuts and bread but couldn't eat anything else.
Descending from the Lava Tower

Seven hours after we set out we reached Barranco Camp at 3950m (12,959 ft) and I was suffering.  I was barely putting one foot in front of the other and had severe tunnel vision.  It hurt to lift my head so I just trudged along at the end of the line until I tumbled into my tent.  I immediately fell asleep and woke up to "Billy Goat" (trail name of the guy who put the trip together) checking on me since I disappeared as soon as we got into camp.  He tried to get me to eat something and instead I started to throw up- luckily outside the tent.  After I puked I felt much better, drank some water, and fell asleep for four hours.
Crossing a glacial stream

I woke up for dinner and the nausea was gone and the headache had diminished some so I ate some porridge for dinner with Camelbak Elixir and went back to bed.  While I was eating a member of the Canadian party that was following us came by looking for a doctor.  A lady in the group was also sick, but much worse.  It turns out they were told that an Advil a day would be enough to counter the effects of the altitude.  They were painfully mistaken and she had to climb down in the morning.

Finally the camp is in sight

Kili Day 2

Shira Camp
Kili Day 2, 25 Jan 2011

The rain stopped during the night and in the morning the clouds already had formed a floor that blocked the view beneath the forest.  We had some porriage for breakfast and shouldered our packs to start up the hill.  As we exited the camp the rain forest gave way to misty heather with many large bushes.  We were thankful as the trail changed from the rich loam of the forest to more of a gravel trail that wasn't as slippery.

As we walked we were continuously enveloped in passing clouds.  It was hard to tell time in the clouds and the 9km scheduled for the day went by quickly.  The walking wasn't hard and there were only a few places near the end of the day where we had to put the trekking poles away in order to use our hands to climb over a rock escarpment onto the Shira plateau.  It took us six hours to get to Shira Camp at 3840m (12,598 ft) and when the clouds broke we had an amazing view of the plains below and the summit above.  It didn't look that far away but we still had another four days of walking to get to the top.

We got into camp early in order to allow ourselves time to acclimatize and try to avoid altitude sickness.  Most of our crew lives at sea level so we were concerned and took Diamox as a precaution.  However, one member of the group was unable to take Diamox due to a sulpha-allergy and took Viagra instead (his trail name).

Since we had some time to kill I wandered around our huge encampment.  There were hundreds of tents set up over the side of the mountain and many different languages and accents I didn't recognize.  Next to our camp was a bunch of Germans who were taking baths in the open with cold water.  On the other side was a luxury group of girls with video cameras doing a documentary about climbing the three highest points in Africa over a three-week period.  Further down the slope was the porter camp, which was the loudest and most colorful of all, and where our food was cooked.

Dinner was more potatoes and some kind of meat accompanied by potato-leek soup.  The cold wind blowing across the exposed plain where we camped kept the temperatures cool and during the night water left outside froze.