Sunday, November 28, 2010

The Adventures of P.

I'm currently in Queen Elizabeth National Park and connection to the Internet is just not possible. I will share my findings and photos on my return to "civilization".

P. is a Korean born Californian who kindly offered me, and readers of ALITD this offering from his travels from Ethiopia to Somaliland and back again.

After leaving the fantastic city of Harrar, I had to travel for two days through two additional cities to get to the border. I first went to the city of Jijiga from Harrar, and during transit in the mini-bus I met two Ethiopian girls but ethnically Somalis. As always, I first received stares and jeers, and like usual they started referring to me as Chinese, and I would politely but firmly state with all the required gesticulations that, “I’m not Chinese, me KO-RE-AN….actually KO-RE-AN-American.” The girls were amused by this, and started trying to talk to me with their very limited English and adding Ahmeric (the Ethiopian language). On a side note, I think there are some simmering animosity against the Chinese, because much of the road constructions are being worked on by the Chinese, and I think the Ethiopians see them as foreigners taking away their jobs, so when they (Ethiopians) find out I’m not Chinese, they almost always become nicer to me. So, on with the story…as you can imagine, there was a lot of gesticulating to convey each other’s thoughts. I found out that the two girls were from the city of Wechele, which is the place I was heading to, because that’s the city bordering Somaliland. The girls were nice enough to offer me food and their company, and I enjoyed the 6 hour journey, a journey that should have taken an hour?! Part of the reason why the journey from Harrar to Jijigga took so long is because of the checkpoints and the really rough roads. When we arrived in Jijiga the bus station was rife with activity, and when I got off the bus the frenzy was overwhelming, a lot more than my usual bus exit. People or what I would like to call bus touts who are charged to get passengers to a certain bus for commission and tip (I’ll add a section in the end regarding the bus experience, because Ethiopian bus experience or adventure is one of a kind) was grabbing at me and grabbing my bag and pulling it away from me and from each other. After minutes of pulling, shoving and gesticulating, I was able to get my bag back, and the girls motioned me over to them. They then gently guided me towards the bus to Wechele and conveniently told the touts that I was following them to their bus. We boarded the bus and finally, we were out of the grasps of the bus touts! One of the girls, Nila, patted the seat next to her, and I promptly sat down. Nila and I had an instant connection, and she was the person that started offering me food and was the one that started chatting (if you could call it that) with me. Both Nila and her friend sold Khat (pronounced Chat or Cot), which is a mild stimulant and is considered a narcotic, but is not illegal in most Islamic countries. This drug is particularly popular in the Somali region of Ethiopia and all three sections of Somalia, and are used in most of the Arab countries-more on Khat later. Unlike the journey from Harrar to Jijiga, the trip from jijiga to Wechele had an inauspicious start and continued to be bad throughout the trip. The girls were harassed by many people during the trip because they were carrying large quantities of Khat, and since it’s a very popular plant, everybody and their dog were trying to get a piece of the plant. Many times, I saw them use a branch of the plant as tip. As you can image their large quantities started dwindling from either tips or people just simply snatching a little/large bits from them by force. The issue was compounded by the fact that the Khat originated from Harrar-which has the reputation of having the best Khat around-so, this prized plant was coveted by EVERYONE. The girls transport these plants to Wechele to great physical threat to themselves and sell it in Wechele. For tiny girls, (In my approximation, Nila was bit shorter than 5’ tall and less than maybe 80 pounds) I saw a lot of fight, dignity, determination, and camaraderie amongst the two girls, I figured they were best friends and business partners. Conversely, I also saw two frightened girls that were bruised and battered from transporting this awful plant for years and saw first-hand what they had to endure. I still remember Nila asking in her broken English pleading with me to take her with me to Hergeisa. I had to tell her “no,” but in my heart I desperately wanted to help both Nila and her friend. It was personally heartbreaking for me to tell her no..and seeing her reaction of passive resignation that her life will be hard for the remainder of her life was hard for me to swallow. As I was contemplating this, I heard Nila yell at the top of her lungs and push a guy through the window. I saw him through the window and gave him a very stern look, and he looked at her, and I presumed he asked, “are you with him?”, and she just nodded. He silently started walking backwards giving an equally stern look at me and walked away from the bus, and periodically looked back. Unfortunately for Islamic women in many conservative Islamic countries, especially those that has adopted Sharia Law, disallows or frowns upon women travelling alone without a male companion, doing business, or not wearing a head covering of some sorts (hijab, niqab, etc). When young Islamic men see this, they take this opportunity to take some liberties on the women (most often sexually groping and sometimes worse). They consider such women of low morals and consider them equal to prostitutes. I absolutely abhor such practices, and when I see it, I try to make sure I help however I can. In Nila’s instance she was violating all three aspects (her head coverings were half way off), and apparently this young ethic Somali was trying to teach her a lesson. However, as soon as he realized that she was with me, he immediately started to move away to avoid confrontation, but to save face, stared aggressively back at me.
As the bus continued through the Somali region, there were checkpoints after checkpoints, and most of them made all of the passengers exit the bus for inspection. This journey should have taken 30 minutes, but instead took 4 hours because of these checkpoints *sigh*. What’s the reason for these inspections you ask? For several years the Somali region has had some major insurrection activities calling for the Somali region of Ethiopia to secede as an independent state. The state of Ethiopia aggressively and brutally fought, killed and captured the insurrectionists. Most if not all of the insurrection activities has now ceased, because anyone related to such activities have been killed, jailed, or given up. I can see from the reaction of the ethnic Somalis that there are huge amounts of resentment and anger toward the Ethiopian government. When someone from Ethiopia asks me the question, “how do you like Ethiopia?,” I have a stock answer of, “I Love Ethiopia and it’s absolutely beautiful here!” They then nod their heads like they expected or knew what the answer would be. But in the Somali region when a man asked the question and I answered with my stock answer, he replied “really?” with a disgusted look. He points to the desolate desert and bumpy roads and state, “you think that’s pretty…and you love that?” Since I didn’t have anything to say, I didn’t say anything.

During the last checkpoint before Wechele, the people manning the checkpoint were REALLY aggressive. They also looked very different…most of the checkpoints were manned by police with either a police or military like uniforms, but these guys were plain clothes, which could mean that they are either special police or intelligence. One of them boarded the bus and he snapped his finger at me-which is the most accepted way of getting someone’s attention to get them to do what you would like, although it’s considered rude in most western cultures- and with an aggressive tone told me to get out. I simply ignored him. Then another guy that literally looked like a goblin-who I’ll call Gablo-came over to me and politely asked me to move to another seat and pointed to the seat across mine. While this was happening, half the bus was taken out of the bus, some forcefully. Nila’s friend was yelling and screaming outside and one of the men were yanking the Khat from her hands. After seeing this, I reluctantly moved over to the other seat. Gablo aggressively told Nila to give him the Khat and get out of the bus. Nila was holding onto the Khat and passively and silently disobeyed. Gablo then snapped, rushed right into the seat, and it looked like he was going to beat or forcibly remove Nila from her seat. After witnessing such brutal treatment from these so called police officers, I could not simply watch idly by while this man tried to manhandle Nila. I yelled, “Hey, hold on!” Gablo stopped, and I approached him and proceeded to tell him to wait, and give Nila the chance to get up out of her seat. For some reason he complied with my request (I was totally amazed), and Nila was able to compose herself, grab the bags of Khat, and exit the bus. After discussions outside and finishing up the inspections, the police allowed everyone back on-board, and it was apparent that Nila and her friend was a few bags short but unharmed and safe. I was taken aback about the girls losing some of their produce, however, I was relieved that she and everyone that exited was safe and sound on the bus. The rest of the bus ride into Wechele, the people in the bus treated me like a hero, which frankly I wasn’t comfortable with (I rather keep under the radar and avoid any attention)…and they kept on asking me where I was from, and EVERYONE was interested in getting to know me better. It was a little funny because when everyone started calling me Chinese, Nila would simply correct them and say that I’m Korean, and they would almost all repeat in unison, “Oh, KO-RE-AN…ah”. I had to really try to avoid the attention, but with no avail. We finally made it to Wechele, the town not really a city was poor, dirt tracked, and lightless, I could see why Nila wanted to go somewhere else. As soon as I exited, a very large but young looking Somali walked over with my heavy bag over his head (he seriously looked like a body builder) and gave me my bag. I reach for my wallet, but he looked at me, smiled, and motioned to me that he wouldn’t accept the tip. He gave me a very solid handshake and went around the bus. I walked towards the border and he looked at me and raised his hand to say goodbye. I’ve never had anyone in Ethiopia decline a tip, so I think he might have heard of what happened in the bus. I bid Nila and her friend farewell and proceeded towards the border.

As I approached the border to Somaliland, I met three Germans (2 men and 1 woman) that just came back from Somaliland and was coming back into Ethiopia, which is exactly what I was planning to do. After they officially entered into Ethiopia, they told me everything I needed to know to get a visa back into Ethiopia. They told me 1) I needed to produce 4 passport sized pictures, which is easily do-able in Hargeisa 2) Get a letter of support from the Somaliland immigration-Which SHOULD NOT cost anything 3) Go to the Ethiopian Embassy and get the visa-although it takes three day, I can plead my case and try to get it the same day. They also told me that both the Somaliland immigration and the Ethiopian Embassy is kinda hard to find. I was also told to ask for a receipt, if a government official asked for money for anything, and if they don’t provide a receipt, don’t pay. I was also told that Somaliland was extremely expensive. I was a bit anxious, because in approximately 4 days I have to get to Addis Ababa to fly into Uganda. It was bad enough to go through this red tape in Somaliland, but I had to do it in a short timeframe. I was up for the challenge, so I went through the exit process and entered into Somaliland.

Somaliland, Laas Geel, and escape from Somaliland

As soon as I entered into Somaliland, I was charged large amounts of money to get a car to drop me off into Hargeisa. The Toyota hatchback should have only fit 5 to 6 people max, but they managed to squeeze 13 people, and one lady was sitting between me and the driver almost on the clutch. As soon as I got into the city, I was excited and the city itself was vibrant with activity. I checked into the Al Jazira hotel based on discussions with the Germans. After checking in, the hotel looked pretty good, but nothing seemed to work properly. I went downstairs to get some help with my visa and get things rolling. I talked with the hotel staff, and one of the staff took me to the photo place, and I got the photos for 5 US dollars. I exchanged 10 US dollars and I literally got stacks of Somaliland Shillings, so much so that I could barely fit it into my pocket. I felt pretty good, and I proceeded to try to get some help to get to the Embassy and Immigration the following day. Luckily, while talking to the staff, the owner stopped by, and offered to take me to those places. I was elated that a local, especially a hotel owner was willing to help me out. I was a little skeptical, because like I said before, it seems like no one in Ethiopia was willing to help me without some sort of reward. However, I had no other choice other than accept his assistance, or I am stuck trying to get to places by myself and most likely will have to pay an expensive taxi (I mean really expensive) to drive me around. If I had time it would be a different story, but since I had very limited time I wanted to get things done ASAP.

The next day, Abdee (the hotel owner), as promised, took me to the Somaliland immigration. We arrived in immigration an hour early, because the Germans gave me the wrong information, so I felt really bad, because Abdee had to wait there for an hour with me. When I arrived there, they told me to get photo copy of my passport and copy of the Somaliland visa (which the Germans forgot to tell me). I went and got the photo copies, but while we were walking back, we met an immigration official, and he told abdee that he could help me with the process. I thought that he would be helpful, so we followed him into the office. After finishing up all of the formalities, he told me that he needed 10 dollars as a processing fee. I insisted that I was told by previous people that came to immigration that the letter of support to the Ethiopian Embassy was free, but the official insisted that the fee is mandatory, and there’s no buts about it. Reluctantly, I told the official that I would pay, but would like a receipt, and he told me that I would not get one..he said, “the letter is your receipt.” I was livid…because I knew he was pocketing the money, essentially a bribe. He then looked at me, picked up the application that he just put together, he grabbed my picture (all the while staring at me), and started to very slowly peel it off the application. I felt like I was in a really bad movie! He was in an office with me, Abdee and another immigration official, and he was literally telling me that if I don’t pay, he won’t process the letter. I could have made a spectacle and asked to see his boss, but I feel like that will get me nowhere, and result in me either getting the letter really late or worse, not get it at all. The prospect of never getting out of Somaliland hit me, and with huge reservations and compromising on my principals, I paid the 10 US dollars. I guess this official will eat well tonight, and have some nice Khat to chew! I then headed to the Ethiopian Embassy to get the visa, but since it was a Sunday, the Embassy was closed-again, another bit of information that was incorrect that was given to me by the Germans. After having a nice dinner at the Oriental hotel, I went around town, and I was received very rudely by the Somalis…they kept aggressively calling me CHINESE (although this happened in Ethiopia, I didn’t feel any malice), though I didn’t feel unsafe, however, I felt unwelcomed. I read blogs where others that have gone to Somaliland said they were received with curiosity and with open arms, but I think THAT Hargeisa is long gone, and there’s some level of Xenophobia within the city..and it has been a reoccurring theme with most of my interactions with the Somalis with some exceptions. I slept that night, but I was awoken at 3 AM in the morning with the call to prayer. During my travels, the first experienced with the call to prayer was in Damascus, Syria, and the way it was conducted there, it was almost like poetry through music, and the person chanting “Alla Hu Akbar” calmed my soul throughout the day. However, in Haregisa, it was chorus of raucous chants of several different people singing and stopping going on and on, it was one of the most horrendous sounds I’ve ever heard, it was by far the worst call to prayer, and I’ve heard pretty awful ones through the years. The call to prayer continued on until I got out of bed at 7 AM…this was a reoccurring theme, and needless to say, I was miserable with the lack of sleep. When I awoke, I knocked on Abdee’s room, and we both took off to the Ethiopian Embassy, which was behind the presidential palace. As I approached the Embassy, the soldiers told me that I was the only person allowed, and Abdee had to stay outside. The guard at the entrance told me to take out all electronics and a second person scanned me with a metal detector and told me to get in and sit. I was met by an embassy official as he literally wrote down all of the information on to the application-which I felt a little weird about-and I was promptly taken to the person processing the visa. I told the official my current situation, that I needed to catch a plane in Addis Ababa in two days. He said that the process takes three working days, but since I’m in a hurry he would process it today, but I was told not to tell the others outside, since I was the only one receiving this special treatment. He also added that since I’m an American in Somaliland, I was to pay a visa fee of 70 dollars instead of the customary 20. I was floored, but I bit my lip and gave him the $70. He then proceeded to take care of all of the visa formalities, and without me asking he gave me a receipt for the visa (which put my mind at ease that this was not a bribe). It was done! I finally had my passport with the Ethiopian visa….I thought the hard part was done, but I didn’t know what was to come.

After leaving the Ethiopian Embassy, and feeling much better about my situation, I was ready to setup my trip to Laas Geel, the place of the pre-historic cave paintings. As Abdee and I was walking back to our car, a random car approached the presidential palace, which we (abdee and I) were right in front of…5-7 well armed military guards simultaneously pointed their machine guns at the car, but one actually pointed it directly at me. I was freaking-out, but didn’t move..and the guard behind the man that was training his gun on me, smiled, pointed to the other side of the street motioning me to cross the street, and I quickly complied. I was a little freaked-out about the incident, since I’ve never had a gun pointed at me. Later that day, I talked to Abdee about the trip to Laas Geel, and he was nice enough to offer to drive me to Laas Geel. The day before, Abdee helped me rent a car from his friend’s car rental shop, and for some odd reason Abdee rented a sedan instead of a 4x4, Abdee’s decision would haunt us for the rest of my stay in Somaliland. After the machine gun incident, Abdee took me around Hargeisa, but for some reason two traffic cop stopped us, and asked for Abdee’s driver license, but he told the officers that he didn’t have it on him and that he was the owner of the Al Jizira Hotel. The traffic cops didn’t care who he was and told him that they will keep the car on the sidewalk until he can produce the license!? The cops entered the car and a heated debate ensued (cops in Africa love to get into people’s car), and a small Somali boy (maybe 10-12 years old) came to the door of the car and started mimicking a cut throat motion towards me, and an even smaller girl came to the window and gave me the finger (I was mortified as to how these kids could do such a thing). The police officers exited the car and Abdee told me to come with him. Several minutes later, Abdee came back with me and the owner of the car rental shop in toe. After more heated discussions, I was told by Abdee that the traffic cops would not release the vehicle (that was still on the side of the road!) until I gave each of them $5 US dollars each. After I gave them the $10 dollars, they were pleasant as Muppets and all of a sudden have become our best friends, apologized for the “misunderstanding,” and then we left. At this point, I was extremely disillusioned with the quasi-state of Somaliland, its officials, and frankly its people. I was treated with utter contempt by its people, and was being milked for all I was worth, having paid 2 bribes within the matter of an hour!!! Open statement to the Somaliland government: If Somaliland wants to be an official state, YOU need to somehow make the tourists feel welcome in your borders, and also YOUR little quasi-state MUST root-out corruption at EVERY level.

The next morning Abdee and I started at 10 AM, which I reluctantly agreed, since he was giving me a favor to drive me to Laas Geel. The drive was supposed to be 4 hours, and I was hoping to get there early, so we would have no problems getting back into Hargeisa in a reasonable hour. Instead of starting the drive, Abdee picked up his cousin (Eid), who is a police officer-He will make sure that I can get through all of the checkpoints without a problem. Additionally, he was supposed to be our security, which is required for anyone venturing outside Hargeisa. We dilly dallied for what seemed like forever..and even ate lunch. I didn’t mind stopping for lunch since we ate Camel at Abdee’s cousin’s restaurant, an animal that I’ve never eaten before, but I found the meat delicious. If I get a chance to eat it again, I’ll jump at the chance. After wasting 3 hours, we started our journey at 1 PM. We drove for 3 hours and we didn’t see much, but we saw an abandoned tank from Somalia’s civil war..and I saw that there was a white person next to the tank with a large SUV and an entourage. As I found out, he lived literally 2 hours from my home in LA and he came to Somaliland just to see Laas Geel. He told me that the only people that would help him get here was the Ambassador Hotel, which is the most expensive and posh hotel in Hargeisa, which meant that this man spent a pretty penny for the tour. He was travelling in a brand new spanking 4x4 with two armed guards and a guide/driver. Not to mention that he probably had to pay $25 park entrance fee to the ministry of tourism, and also pay $20 at the site. He looked at Abdee and our car and asked if I rented the car, and if Abdee was my driver. I said yes about renting the car, but told him that Abdee was my friend and his cousin Eid was tagging along as security (he was carrying an old pistol that looked like it wouldn’t even work). As said previously, the Ministry of Tourism mandated that all tourists travelling outside of Hargeisa travel with an armed guard, but this poor guy had two armed guard with AKs! When I told him that I rented the car and that Abdee was my friend and he arranged the transport and security, he ruefully stated, “how did you find such a good friend in Hargeisa? The only people that would help me was the people at the Ambassador Hotel.” I felt pretty good about my current situation, and we started our way onwards to Laas Geel. One thing that stuck me, if the road was so good, then why did they need such a good 4x4…I soon found out. As soon as we got off the highway, we started our trek towards a dirt track road on the way to Laas Geel. Before we could even get into the dirt track, the car got stuck in this very big ditch, and it wouldn’t move. No matter what we did, we couldn’t move the car forward, and the wheels were getting buried in the dirt. Seeing that we will not get out, Abdee went to get help, but came back with a Sheppard boy. He was really helpful (as he saw other cars that was stuck there previously) and recommended that we try to put rocks on the dirt road and essentially make our own rock road, but that didn’t work. After a little bit, there was a family of 10 that was coming towards us, and with 12 people pushing, we were able to move the car up the ditch. By the time we were out of the ditch and moving, the sun was starting to set, and I was really getting worried that I would not get to see Laas Geel after all of that. We put half of their family members into the car and started driving. We got stuck momentarily couple of more times, and we finally got to the checkpoint at Laas Geel. I paid the guard the obligatory $20, and he guided us through the caves. The hill/rock formation was in the middle of nowhere, and I was wondering who and how this place was discovered. As we moved closer up the rock formation, I started to see the rock art. I’ve seen a lot of monuments and stuff like that all around the world, and I simply do not get that excited or easily impressed. As soon as I started to see the rock art, my heart was thumping, and I was screaming and jumping up and down like a tween at a Justin Beaver concert. It was amazing..the rock art looked like it was literally painted yesterday. Instead of couple of pictures on the wall as I have imagined, they were everywhere. I couldn’t stop taking pictures and was giddy as a school boy. After site-seeing this awesome place, and seeing the sun set over Laas Geel, we started our journey back to Hargeisa. Since we knew where the bad parts were on the road, we were able to navigate through or around the trouble spots. We drove and passed many checkpoints, and was finally in Hargeisa around 9PM, I was done, and simply content with the day’s events. Finally, things were going my way in Somaliland….so I thought.

I convinced Abdee to drive me to the border at 9 AM, since I knew we wouldn’t leave until 10, because Abdee loves to dilly dally. So, sure enough, we left around 10 AM after gassing up, picking up his cousin and Abdee’s friend the Khat vendor (found it bit strange). Instead of getting straight on the road, Abdee, stopped to eat lunch! This time on the menu was goat, which is another animal I have never eaten, but was definitely not as good as the Camel..after lunch, we finally started moving forward. I didn’t say this before, but Abdee is an awful/careless driver, The short time he drove in Hargeisa, he almost hit dozens of people and actually bumped into a woman-which caused all sort of problems for us for a period of time. He admits he doesn’t want to drive, especially in Hargeisa, but he thought that this was the best, or else, I would have to pay extortion level prices just to get around. At any rate, during the drive to the border Abdee ran over many pot holes, as you can imagine Somaliland roads are not in the best of shape. We were on the road for couple of hours when all of a sudden Abdee started driving very fast, and he hit some really big (6 of them to be exact) pot holes on the road, and the car started losing power and essentially stopped in the middle of nowhere. Abdee (like he always does) stopped every car and their dog, and they all tried to help fix our car or offer advice, but like us, most of them were clueless. After being stranded for an hour, Abdee and his friend each hailed a passing by car and went to the nearest town. I was a bit perplexed as to why we needed to get two mechanics (which I later found out). Abdee and his friend each brought a mechanic and Abdee’s friend brought back the passing by driver with him. The two mechanics and the passer-by all started working together. One of the mechanic didn’t have a clue, while the mechanic that Abdee brought seemed to have the answers and know how….so, that was the reason why they had to get two mechanics, just in case one was clueless and couldn’t fix the car. After an hour and half of working on the car with using only a screw driver, the proficient mechanic removed the backseat, removed the fuel tank, emptied a quarter of the gas, and the car started up. I was extremely relieved, and I had hope that I may be able to make it to the border in time for me to get to Addis to fly out of the airport. It was now Tuesday afternoon, and I needed to catch a plane in Addis to Kampala Uganda by Thursday at noon. As soon as I knew it, we started having major skirmishes with the mechanics and the passer-by driver, since everyone wanted to get paid, even the clueless mechanic and the passer-by. After much haggling and money literally being thrown back and forth, we agreed on the payment and left. We were now off, and I was praying that Abdee would be a little calmer driving, but no such luck, he was even driving faster and more reckless. I was incredulous…and I was thinking- does he NOT want me to make it to the border?!?! After an hour of driving on the highway, we started on the dirt track towards Wechele. As soon as I saw the dirt road, I had flashback about the Laas Geel trip, and asked Abdee to be careful. But before we could drive into the dirt track, we heard this hissing sound. All four of us got out, and lo and behold we had a flat tire on the left back tire. We went straight to the trunk and immediately replaced the tire. At this point, I was thinking that someone didn’t want me to make it back to Ethiopia and I’ll be stuck in Somaliland forever. I literally could not have had worse luck nor could I afford anything else to happen on this trip. We all got back into the car, and I was assured that nothing else would happen and we would continue to the border-I had my fingers crossed. This time, Instead of Abdee driving the car, somehow his cousin convinced him that he would be a better option to drive. Initially, the drive was really smooth, and I felt good about the change in drivers..and the next thing you know Eid crashes the front tire on the side of a rock and we hear another hissing sound. We all get out and realize that the front left tire is now flat. Now, I’m almost sure that it’s impossible for us to make it to the border today, and I’m going to miss my flight! I’m really frustrated and angry, and the only thing I can think of is..if Abdee listened to me and rented a 4x4, we would have had absolutely no problems. Instead of going absolutely berserk with anger and sitting down and crying, I calmed myself down. Abdee continued with his tactic of asking for help from anyone. We started talking to the locals that owned a farm nearby, and they told us the border to Wechele was merely a 30 minutes drive, and that made me even more upset. Then a crazy mad driver started coming down the road, and abdee stopped him, and he told him of the situation. The driver got out of his car without any hesitation, he went to the back of his trunk, unscrewed his spare tire, and literally threw it at us, and took off driving at a very high rate of speed. The crazy driver was driving a Ford, and we were driving a instinct was that it wouldn’t fit, and with the luck I was having, I wasn’t too optimistic. We jacked up the car, and took out the flat tire, and since the jack wasn’t stable, the famers started digging into the ground to get the tire in alignment with the drum. The time it took to dig the hole seemed to last forever, and I was waiting in anticipation…I would either be very disappointed or elated. It was a miracle, the random spare tire that was thrown at us fit like a glove. We were all in disbelief and elated. We all boarded the car and made it to the boarder at around 8 PM. What should have taken 4 hours literally took 10, and the guys wanted to celebrate our epic journey by crossing the border and having a nice beer. Since Somaliland is an Islamic quasi-state, you cannot get beer or alcohol unless you go to the black market and buy it with hugely marked up prices. So, we passed by the Ethiopian and Somaliland military guys pretty easily, and we were now in a bar in the Wechele side of the border. We had beer and I bought Eid some hard liquor poured into a water bottle, some Khat for Abdee’s friend, and I gave Abdee little somethin somethin for his help. We said our goodbyes, and I proceeded to get a hotel at Wechele, somehow avoiding the Somaliland immigration and also avoiding to pay the exit fee of $20, which nullified my bribes to the officials two days ago. I checked into the Addis Ababa hotel, which had clean rooms, but had shared toilets and Ethiopian toilets (hole in the ground), and they were filthy. I was resigned not to take a shower or do anything in those toilets-these communal toilets and showers were generally an Ethiopian affair. After arguing with the hotel receptionist, who was high on Khat, about the price of the hotel room. The Ethiopians pay another rate while, “ferengies” or foreigners had to pay almost double. The price of the hotel rooms were literally written on the walls in Ahmeric, and I bluntly refused to pay the foreigner prices like I have done in many other places..I was simply fed up at this point, and the receptionist, who wanted to go back to his room and ching (chew)-Khat with his friends relented. I gave him 70 birr ($4 US), and I went straight into the hotel room and slept after an epic journey, and I was extremely relieved that I finally escaped Somaliland. I now had great hopes in making it into Addis on time for my flight…again, I spoke to soon.
The next morning, I awoke at 4 AM to get ready to take the bus from Wechele to Jijigga. I got to the bus station (if you can call it that) early. I saw several buses, but there was absolutely no activity, unlike any other bus stations I’ve been in, which was a bad sign. After waiting for half an hour, the guys running the bus finally awoke and came out of the bus. They dilly dallied for hours and waited for passengers to fill the bus, and we didn’t leave until 9 AM arggg! We were finally moving, but we ran into a checkpoint right away, and everyone had to exit the bus, baggage removed, and the bags were individually inspected by military or police personnel. After that, everything back on and we started moving. As I stated before, the ethic Somali Ethiopians were highly scrutinized and the goods being ferried back and forth was confiscated much of the time. Life is already hard for these people, but the Ethiopian government makes it very difficult for these people to make a living. They are treated as second class citizens in their own country, and if they somehow make it to Hargeisa, they are treated as outsiders, and never given any opportunities. These Somalis have an extremely hard life and I feel for them. Since the Ethiopian government confiscate goods travelling through the Somali region, they (vendors) setup a particular system. First, the vendors would get on the bus, then they would hire people to carry the merchandise by foot, and meet them somewhere after the checkpoint, and load their goods on the bus. One lady had a different approach, she put on most of the shirts underneath her clothes and gave some of them to other bus passengers to wear, and collected them after the checkpoints. The vendors were exclusively older women, and they would take them to the markets in Jijigga or Harrar. Unfortunately, this is the realities of life in the Somali region of Ethiopia. After several more checkpoints, and some contrabands/market goods being confiscated we finally arrived in Jijigga at 1 PM. I had approximately 23 hours until my flight to Uganda, so I promptly talked to someone offering a mini-bus ride to Addis. The price was reasonable, but I knew there would be some sort of catch. I was later told that the mini-bus would not leave until 4 hours, I took it in stride, got some lunch, hung around with locals and had a good time relaxing at the bus station. At around 2:30 PM the bus was ready to leave (finally, a bus leaving earlier than expected…this is the first time for me in Ethiopia). As soon as we took-off we were grounded, the police stopped the vehicle, and deemed the vehicle to be un-road worthy..which is ridiculous, since I’ve seen other mini-vans and they were not even near the condition as this van. I felt the police stopped the car and told them to go to their garage because I (the Chinese) was in the mini-van. With minor alterations..the van was ready to drive in 2 hours, but at this point, the driver stated that he was tired and refused to drive the 12 hour drive towards Addis. As you can imagine, I was not very happy with this new turn of events…I felt like something is always going wrong on this particular part of the trip..and most of it was out of my control. So, I waited another 5 hours until another mini-van was available…and of course there’s always some sort of catch, nothing is that simple in Ethiopia. The mini-van was full with occupants, and the van that should hold about 10 people was now crammed with 23 irritated and angry people. I was the lucky one and didn’t even have a seat, I literally had a stool with a cushion for a 12-13 hour journey at night?!?! Finally we were taking off, and then we hit yet another problem. A traffic police officer stopped the mini-van, and instructed the driver to go back to the garage, and he came back with us to the garage. There were an army of transport employees talking to the police officer, and two big Somalis slow moved the police officer back as it looked like they were giving him a bribe, and next thing you know they were best friends and one of the large Somalis was wearing the police officer’s hat. We then all filed into the mini-van like sardines, and started moving again, and on the same intersection where we were turned back, there was yet another police officer and he stopped the mini-van, and instructed us to go back to the garage. This time, the police officer refused to be bought and even rebuked the other police officer, and refused to allow us to move on….I WAS BEYOND FRUSTRATED AND UPSET. I would normally be very respectful of police officers, but I had enough of these shenanigans! I walked outside the van, and started to yell at the officer, “I’ve been waiting for 10 hours here, and I have to catch a flight in Addis Ababa!”
At the same time, I’m gesturing an airplane, and there were several other employees from the transport company following my gesture, and telling the officer in Ahmeric that I will miss my flight. After that, I said very angrily, “YOU’RE GOING TO MAKE ME MISS MY FLIGHT!” He looked at me, and gestured a motion that looked like he was telling me to calm down, and immediately after that, he pulled four girls out of the van, and refused to listen to their protests. The rest of the passengers in the mini-van loaded up, and again, I sat on the stool, and we took off. We dropped off the police officer, and he shook my hand through the open window and we were off. I felt bad for the girls, but someone had to come out of the van, and it wasn’t going to me, after all I was the first passenger and was waiting the longest. We again got stopped by another police officer, and everyone in the van assured me that we would not be sent back to the garage, and sure enough, the police officer let us through without a problem. We all laughed in unison, it was more of a laugh of relief than anything else.

We now started the epic 13 hour journey from Jijigga to Addis Ababa, for me, it was absolute torture. Imagine sitting on a tool for a night journey for 13 hours through some bumpy and some not so bumpy roads, and trying to sleep with 20 or so other people in a mini-bus, you’re tired and trying to sleep on a seat with no back was almost impossible. Also, there were approximately 6 checkpoints to Addis Ababa. If the check points were one of those that check you ID and move on, it would be fine, but it’s the variety that unloads all passengers and bags, and open all of the bag and inspect each bag individually…after that, we would have to load everything back into the van. It seemed like an eternity, but finally, we got through the last checkpoint, and we started to get into Addis Ababa. We arrived at the transport company’s private garage at 7 Am-ish instead of the bus stop (where my hotel was), so I and two other passengers took a taxi into the bus station. I checked into my hotel and crashed for an hour, took a shower, took a shared taxi to the airport, and arrived on-time to the airport with couple of hours to spare. When I checked into the Emerits check-in counter, they gave me my ticket, but it was for someone else, and they proceeded to tell me that I was not booked for the flight?!?! I shook my head, and I was saying, what more can go wrong, but finally some luck, she re-checked the flight, and ‘lo and behold my name appeared. *sigh*…I boarded the plane and landed safely into Kampala, Uganda. This was my epic journey to and from Somaliland, and I joked with other travelers that this was my Jack Bauer moment, and my mission of getting on the plane on-time was accomplished!

Needless to say i won't be going to Somaliland myself.

Saturday, November 27, 2010


I am in a personal rebellion against long bus rides at the moment.

I therefore break up my journey between Kabale and Queen Elizabeth National Park at the town of Mbarara, a name i have total difficulty pronouncing.

It’s not particularly interesting, but does have a few good restaurants and a quirky feel to the place. Check out the lane behind High Street and you’ll find an alley of chiropodists operating off small wooden crates.

Probably the best restaurant in town is the City Top restaurant at the heart of the town centre on Main Road, offering a hearty selection of snacks and mains and boasting an African, Indian and Continental menu. Fridays are their chicken Biryani Special day. Their chicken tikka masala is pretty tasty too.

Or a cheaper alternative you could do worse than check out the Hot Spot restaurant. It can be found off Main Road at the Barclay’s Bank turn-off.

It is election time here in Uganda (not dissimilar to my journey through Tanzania) and there are continuous parades going through the town centre with loud music and honking horns continually as all three parties contending here trying to outdo the other.

Uganda is enjoying a rare period of political stability. Multi-party democracy was only secured in 2005.

Ever wondered what happened to that big fat bastard Idi Amin who murdered some 300,000 Ugandans? He fled to Libya in early 1979 and eventually died in Saudi Arabia in 2003.

With so much action going on along Main Street, i check into Bena Guest House also on Main Street but further away from the town centre. It is a clean and comfortable en-suite room with lashes of hot water, but charges USh30,000 per room including breakfast without a single person discount.

Unfortunately it transpires to be neighbouring an evangelical church that blares monotonous hymns on a Yamaha organ till 11pm.

There are a couple of ATMs in town.

Friday, November 26, 2010

The Beauty of MP3 Players

I have always loved music.

As a much younger back-packer i would bring a series of favourite cassettes with me for my Walkman and be forced to chose real carefully.

Then in the 1990s came the wonders of Mini-disc players. Smaller in size and digital sound quality too and i was in heaven.

These days of course the MP3 has revolutionised music listening. My much loved and treasured Creative Zen not only carries all my musical needs but stores favourite photographs, plays video and records sound too. Awesome.

My music tastes are somewhat eclectic from Bach through jazz, ambient and dub. All is catered for by my Zen – including the complete Throwing Muses and Kristin Hersh discography.

Indeed i even have fitted on a series of talking books including British playwright Alan Bennett and Michael Palin travelogues, for helping me get to sleep, as well as drown out background noise, not least from the ever pervading mosques that seem to be built specifically outside my hotel bedroom windows.

Others have had a input as well. Sniffy aka Lost Jonny gave me an 8mb sound card including diverse sounds from African roots music to Noam Chomsky lectures. Best Bud G. insisted on the uploading of both Glasvegas and The Fuckbuttons, and even a few tracks of gym sounds and Utah radio classics from Ying! I am also much indebted to Jandre for Port St. John who put a compilation of ambient dub sounds that has found a very popular audience.

Travelling and music has never been so easy and compatible.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Lake Bunyonyi

If Peter Jackson got turned down by the New Zealand government to film The Hobbit, he could have done a lot worse than to relocate to Lake Bunyoyi in southwest Uganda.

A boda-boda (motorcycle taxi) takes me from the Kabale town centre for USh5,000 to cover the 9kms to the lake. I want to stay at the highly recommended Byoona Amagara Island Retreat, so i drop off at Rutinda Market pier.

Unfortunately i meet Sam – a cheating local guide who tells me i have to charter a boat across to the tiny Itambira Island for USh4000. It is actually free if you leave from the Byoona Amagara parking lot right next door to the pier.

the island is small enough not to get lost - especially with the helpful signposts

The canoe takes some 50 minutes across this tranquil lake, with terraced hilltops shrouded in clouds.

I am greeted by the friendly duo – Junior and Clinton who warmly welcome me and take me around this special facility. There are several other accommodation options, but this is a local community project which always appeals to me.

The accommodation options are aimed more at the budget and independent travellist with camping spots for USh 8,000, quad-tent for USh30,000, big dorm beds at USh13,000, small dorm beds at USh 13,000, Basic GeoDomes for USh16,000 (per person), deluxe GeoDomes for USh 28,000 (per person), wood cabin for USh30,000 per person and Family Cottage at USh40,000 (per person).

I fall in love with the deluxe GeoDome and splash the cash – in high season they charge a person and a half for single occupancy.

i fell in love with my deluxe geodome - damn the expense

sunset from my veranda

I do bring a few additional supplies with me from Kabale, although the food is both good and reasonably priced.

They also run a variety of tours, sell handicrafts and offer Internet access – although in this remote location it is both slow and enjoys frequent cut-offs. They also have an extensive video collection which can be ordered for 8pm screening in the library. Admission is USh2,000.

The tiny island has an abundance of different species of flowering plants and is therefore a paradise for ornithologists.

so many species of stunning flowering plants

one of several variety of finches

For two blissful days i am not referred to as Mzungu and chill with other travellers. This is something i have rarely done over the last six and a half months. Although a great source of further travel information, i generally preferring the company of locals. This travellist prefers to go local.

A canoe can be arranged for USh3,000 to return you to the Mainland.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010


In the tourist brochures Kabale is dubbed the “Switzerland of Africa”. This is somewhat of an exaggeration for whilst not dirty, it can be a bit scruffy in parts, and certainly you'll never see a huge quarry site in the middle of a Swiss town. Nonetheless, it is quite pretty with surrounding forests and a laid-back feel to the town. With an altitude of almost 2000 metres, it also boasts being the highest town in Uganda.

Based at the comfortable Flockline Hotel (formerly Sky Blue Hotel), opposite the Shell garage on the main thoroughfare Mbarara Road, centrally close to the main bus station. The rooms are named after planets, and i find myself in Mercury (despite the key being labelled Mercury).For those suffering from a dodgy stomach, you might want to check into Uranus! It is clean with attached bathroom and mosquito nets, for which i’m paying USh30,000. Unfortunately, all i get from the hot water tap is a mild electric shock. Breakfast is not included so i put an order in for scrambled eggs on toast. They don’t have they tell me, but they can produce fried eggs on toast nonetheless. I therefore take my breakfasts at Skyline who can produce scrambled eggs on toast.

On my brief return to the town i move to the Home of Edirisa. It is cheaper (dorms USh2,000/single - USh11,000 and double - Ush20,000) but the rooms are all pretty dark. Nonetheless breakfast is included, it has a great hangout place upstairs, the menu is varied, with very popular pizzas, and the museum is free to residents. Lonely Planet rave about the mikshakes, but my banana one was very disappointing.

The Cafe Royal sorts out my caffeine fix for USh3,500 for a large espresso and they also have a varied and reasonable food menu.

The Royal supermarket next to Cafe Royal is a great place for some good imported goods.

The Little Ritz restaurant and bar does a fair pizza (USh10,000) and provides English Premiership football screenings.

it might not look quite like Switzerland, but it does have its own cows

There are three ATMs to withdraw cash in town.

There is not much to do for the travellist, and i am keen to move on to my next destination as soon as i can sort out my Internet connection for my laptop.

a church roof

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Clowns Without Borders

For some time i have been somewhat sceptical about NGOs. In both Mozambique and Malawi especially, i have witnessed first hand the complete disempowerment of local Africans. And don't get me started on my two month spell in Haiti earlier this year. Completely unforgivably shocking!

However, i meet the most bizarre of NGO groups in Kigali.

This group of Swedish hippies go around training youngsters the art of clowning and acrobatic feats, and show them how to organise and budget their finances Check them out on this Youtube video clip.

Aub Adds:
It should be noted that i am coulrophobic. Coincidentally, (or not), so is Ying!

Monday, November 22, 2010

Crossing Borders – Rwanda to Uganda

There are two border crossings between Rwanda and Uganda, but i opt for the secondary crossing between Cyanika and Kisoro.

Minibuses depart when full from Ruhengeri’s town centre and take some 45 minutes to Cyanika. The fare is RFr500.

Money changers are available on the Rwandan side, but i get better rates on the Ugandan side.

The Ugandan visa costs US$50 but they will not take Rwandan Francs/ Unfortunately for me, there is no longer a 50% discount for students.

It’s 12kms from the border to the small town of Kisoro and i see no evidence of a minibus transfer as referred to in Lonely Planet. Taxi drivers and moto-taxis (motorbikes) offer their services, and as per usual i hold my usual anti-auction. The taxi-drivers start at USh10,000 down to USh7,000 and the moto-taxis drop their price down from USh10,000 to USh5,000. Motor-taxi it is!

There is nothing to keep me in Kisoro, but there are only two buses between Kisoro and Kabale. The afternoon bus doesn’t leave till 6pm so i opt for a shared taxi. It’s a bit of a crush in the back with four adults and a baby in the small saloon. Nonetheless, the ride is beautiful, with verdant terraces as far as the eye can see over the rolling hills and the Virunga volcanoes. The road also climbs over the Kanaba Pass at about 2,300 metres offering gorgeous views over Lake Bunyonyi. Much of the road has now been paved, and a journey i expected would take more than three hours is completed in one hour forty five minutes. The cost is USh12,000 – i am told the bus is about USh10,000 – Ush12,000.

If Tripfinder is correct, Uganda marks my entry into my 60th country.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Ciao Rwanda

As you read this hopefully i am safe and sound in Uganda – my ninth country on my African Adventures and my 60th country on my life journey. Dromomania is not just for Christmas.

As usual there may be a gap between postings for every country i pass through i have to find ways of getting on-line via my laptop. To this end, i am humbly grateful to Mark who i met in my very first week of my African Adventures in Windhoek who passed me his dongle. Mark was working as an educational adviser for VSO in northern Namibia and was returning back to the UK before embarking on a new placement in Rwanda. Like myself he has worked many years on the international school circuit and risen through the ranks from humble class teacher through to senior management.

The dongle has worked throughout the trip so far so it seems somewhat uncanny that Rwanda has been the first country which has failed me and i have to purchase a new dongle from MTN – the phone/computer network company.

Once again Mark finds himself in the sticks, just some 20kms north of the Tanzanian/Rwanda border, but nonetheless he is happy to come and spend the day with me in Kigali. He knows a few good places to take me and he gives me several interesting insights into the country as well. Many thanks Mark!

My all too brief sojourn in Rwanda has been awesome. The people have been warm, open and friendly – just what i needed after my often disappointing contact with Tanzanians. It seems almost inconceivable that the cultural genocide was just 16 years ago, and yet the country seems to have moved so far forward in such a short space of time. Nonetheless, it is difficult to look at anyone over thirty and wonder what they were doing during this darkest moment of history. Were they victims whose family were slaughtered or were they slayers of their very own neighbours?

The Kigali Memorial Centre had a profound effect on me, and although i planned on visiting two more genocide sites outside Kigali, (Nyamata and Ntarama), after KMC i was not up for it. I subsequently met Cheech, a hardened older Ontarian working in the steel mills who visited Myamata. He was physically sick having seen a whole pile of baby skulls, many of which had been smashed to a pulp. I’m pleased not to have witnessed this first hand.

President Paul Kagame must take huge credit for the healing that has taken place. It is true he runs the country very much with an iron fist, but almost uniquely on the African continent corruption has been stamped on mercilessly. Throughout my travels i have heard stories of corruption and nepotism which has blighted development throughout the African continent.

Bus journeys have been great too. Not since South Africa have i witnessed a one bum one seat policy.

Two other short observations i wanted to share.
1) The importance of shoes – Shoes are a major status symbol in Rwanda. Even waiters in bog-standard restaurants will ensure their shoes are looking impeccable. They are rigorously cleaned every day. I don’t dare wear my flip-flops here.
2) Smoking – smoking is a big no-no here. Trying to purchase a lighter has been challenging – even in Kigali!

I hope to update you soon.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Gorillas In The Mist

Parc National des Volcans is located in north western Rwanda. The scenery is dramtic with five volcanoes running along its spine – Karisimbi (4507m), Bisoke (3711m), Sabyinyo (3634m), Gahinga (3474m) and Mahabura (4127m).

Made famous by Dian Fossey, it is home to some 18 habituated gorilla groups; eight for tourists to visit and ten for researchers to monitor. Whilst it is also possible to track gorillas in neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda, sightings are not guaranteed. Here in Rwanda, the 18 groups are monitored by full-time trackers so sightings are full-proof.

It’s not all about the Mountain Gorillas however, the Park can provide fine hiking experiences as well as opportunities to see the Golden Monkeys too. There are also mountain elephants and buffaloes to spot too. These hikes can also be arranged through the ORTPN office in Kigali or at the Park Headquarters in Kinigi.

For those wishing to see the Mountain Gorillas in Parc National des Volcans, most go through a travel agent in Kigali who can organise the Gorilla Permit and transport to and from the city departing about 4am to the Park Headquarters in Kinigi. Others will arrange a overnight stop or two in Kinigi or Ruhengeri (now renamed as Musauze), As my budget is tight i opt to see the gorillas independently.

Permits are granted through the polite and friendly, if somewhat incompetent ORTPN office in Kigali on the Blvd. de la Revolution. The US$500 payment must be given in cash (perfect bills accepted only) or RFr equivalent. They failed to respond to emails i had sent from Tanzania – a not uncommon event. With numbers limited to 40 a day during high season this can take a while. Fortunately i only have a six day wait. Trying to gain further information on the Volcano National Park and the procedures for the day are unclear, so i decide to head to Ruhengeri to try and find out more concrete information and details.

I opt for the Belvedere Bus Company which depart central Kigali every two hours and costs RFr1,700. Bigger busses are somewhat safer than the minibuses (Virunga run buses every half an hour but cost the same). With less stops however, i complete the journey in two hours whilst minibuses take closer to three hours.

I base myself in Ruhengeri at a Mission hostel – Notre Dame de Fatima, where a single room costs RFr10,000 for an unattached room with mosquito net and sink. The shared facilities are good and the hostel is kept very clean, and has both a restaurant and Internet cafe. It is found just to the west of the town centre.

The day before my permit, i take a motor taxi (RFr2,000) up to the National Park Headquarters in Kisingi about 11kms away. Regular Virunga buses run up and down also. Here i finally get concrete information. All participants for gorilla checking need to arrive at 7am to register at the headquarters in a 4wd. All participants are divided up before heading off in 4wds to different sites. No more than eight tourists are allowed to visit each group thus the necessity for the Gorilla Permits. Permits are limited to 40 a day.

The roads up are both rough and steep and only a 4wd is going to get you there. This is no problem for those on tour groups but somewhat tricky for the independent traveller. I ask the Park Warden for advise and he helpfully puts me in touch with Francis, a local with a pick-up truck. The standard fare is US$80 but he tells me he has three other clients so he will charge US$20. Fair enough methinks.

Feeling totally sorted and extremely hyped for the experience awaiting i am unable to sleep properly. I fall into a dose around 1am before waking at 3.45am and then again at 5am. Francis isn’t due till 6.15am and i am already packed from the night before, so i surf the Net to try calm myself down. It fails but fills in the time right enough.

the gate of the Park Headquarters in Kinigi

Francis arrives precisely on time, but he is apologetic. The three others i am scheduled to share the ride with are bed-ridden with food poisoning. He will have to charge me the full US$80. Drats! But what can i do? We arrive at Park HQ at 6.50am and they have laid on coffee and tea. The other participants drift in slowly, whilst the rangers meet and work out how to divide the groups up. My feet are itching to move and i seriously over-indulge in the free coffee as i impatiently await.

Finally, at 7.50, i am called over to Mr. Oliver with a group on predominantly young English people on a 2 – 4 week Africa tour party. Oliver informs us that we are scheduled to meet the Susa group. This is the largest of all the groups, consisting of some 29 individuals, including three silverbacks, two sets of twins (a rarity) and a three month old baby. The group had once been bigger – up to 42 members but that had subsequently subdivided back in 2008. I’m totally thrilled, but just as i am about to jump into Francis’ pick-up, i am called back over by the head- ranger. He informs me that this group is the furthest away and that the ride will now cost US$100! In fairness, he offers me an alternative group to view, but my desire to hang with the Susa band is overwhelming. Damn the extra expense – Susa it is!

It takes some 50 minutes to drive from the park HQ to Musumba at an altitude of 2565 metres up a really steep and rocky path. Here we have to disembark to hike up through the fields and into the park. We are greeted by our compulsory armed guard and a bunch of porters offering their services for US$5. Walking sticks are provided free of charge. Interestingly it is the youngsters who take up the option of the porters, and probably just as well as most are heavily panting and drag behind the guide who is forced to slacken off the pace. The walk is pretty enough with good panoramas over the hills and through the potato and wheat fields.

agricultural worker in the fields

It takes almost an hour to reach the park boundary and we rest up a while before proceeding. The 24 hour guards following our group inform us that the Susa band are close by.

The bamboo and vegetation is extremely dense – no wonder the park’s other name on the Ugandan side is known as the Impenetrable Forest. Going is slow and tough, with nettles and fire ants for good measure. Nonetheless, it is beautiful and with the light drizzle descending the aroma from the forest is beautifully intense.

Oliver (far left) and our armed escort in the forest

After some 30 minutes Oliver stops us and we can hear the tearing of bamboo up in front. The Susa family are just 200 metres away. We’re told to leave everything apart from cameras with the porters whilst Oliver, our armed guard and eight over-excited tourists head towards the group. My heart is pounding really fast and it’s certainly not due to our elevation – some 2835 metres.

Shadows of individuals against the thick bamboo are seen before we reach a small clearing where some 15 or so individuals become visible. It is a completely breathtaking moment for an incredible encounter.

No encounter is allowed to exceed one hour, for although all eight gorilla groups are habituated, it is important that the gorillas’ stress levels are kept low.

We huddle together next to Oliver in complete awe and wonderment at the spectacle unfolding before our very eyes. The dominant silverback is lying down, with a female and young baby lying against him just five metres from where we are standing. Two juveniles are playing about and chasing each other around the vegetation with younger individuals climbing through the dense bamboo. Crashes and low growls emanate all around us.

Within moments there is a crash from behind us as two juveniles rush into the clearing, pushing me to one side. It doesn’t hurt, but i am completely startled from this direct assault against my back. Another juvenile rushes in too and deliberately slaps a tourist’s ass before he joins in the frolics.

The Ranger calls us in even closer together. Two more such direct encounters are to ensue during our hour long stay, the last one forcing me backwards and i almost go ass over tit over a youngster following directly behind. A magical moment that i’ll never forget. Indeed the whole experience is completely mind-blowing.

dirty faced baby

how cute is this curious toddler?

I guess it’s like visiting any large family in their home. A second silverback calmly finishes dinner, collects a few leaves for a pillow and lies down, scratching his ass and balls periodically. The kids are all playful and get rather over-excited, wrestling and showing their teeth until eventually the Number One silverback can’t take it any more, gets up, roars loudly at the youngsters, beats his chest and rushes into the dense bamboo on just his feet. This quietens them down – at least for a while.

one of the two juveniles playing rough and tumble

the rough and tumble getting a bit out of hand

Adult females look on adoringly at the youngsters, whilst a few individuals are curious at these human animals with their cameras, and stare with mild curiosity but with no fear or alarm whatsoever.

mum fussing over her baby

a curious female checks me out; the lead silverback behind just doesn’t care

such a delicate touch from a huge beast

The silverbacks are so immense, and as they tear down huge thick bamboo stems with the ease of ripping paper, their enormity and strength belie their gentle nature. You are made very much aware that they could rip you into pieces with the same ease.

a very contemplative silverback

a silverback enjoys a good scratch

a silverback sucking his thumb and scratching his balls

if you cut me do i not bleed? A somewhat nasty foot injury on one of the silverbacks

Three girls in our group have tears pouring down their eyes as we gawp spellbound at such a privileged and awesome sight so close to us. They are so human-like in their expressions and daily routines it is eerie beyond belief.

All too fast Oliver informs us that we have 10 minutes left and to get the last of our photos completed. There is so much going on around us i don’t know what to shoot first and madly swap lenses repeatedly to try and capture this truly remarkable spectacle.

Finally it is time to leave, but none of us want to go. I let the others pass as i endeavour to grab just a few extra moments. Indeed Oliver has to return and almost drag me away to the waiting porters and bags. He rhetorically asks if we “have enjoyed the experience?” But all eight of us are speechless. The encounter defies words.

Sadly and silently we return from whence we came as the rain descends on us again, and back at the car, Oliver issues us with Gorilla Tracking certificates.

Local children around Kinigi - very friendly but also a little scared of mzungus

Practicalities for the Budget Individual Travellist:

There are many hotel options in the vicinity of the park but most are aimed the higher end market. I opt to stay in Ruhengeri (now renamed Musauze) and the Notre Dame de Fatima mission is a great option. You could also check out possibilities at Hotel Muhambura on the main thoroughfare. The Relays Gorilla Inn looks quite good with singles/doubles at RFr 15,000/ 20,000 and has a good menu as well. It's just opposite Ecobank.

A real cheapy is the Tourist Inn where a self-contained room is RFr7,000 but the rooms are dark, dank and squalid.

The best restaurant in town is the Volcana Lounge serving pizzas (from Rfr3800) and pasta dishes ranging between RFr3,700 – Rfr5500. It has great volcano views and a fire in the evening. The pizzas and spaghetti bolognaise are good, and they serve the best espressos in town.

Another tasty option is at the Silverback restaurant at The Relays Gorilla Inn. The menu is continental with mains priced between Rfr2,500 - 4,500, although the service can be pretty slow.

Buffets are available at both Green Garden Cafe and Vision 2020 for RFr2000 and RFr1500 with the later considerably more popular.

The coffee-shop at IIshema Hotel does reasonably priced selection of cakes and coffees, although i have had better espressos in Rwanda. Unfortunately the Woodley Coffee Bar is not open at the time of writing as their coffee machine has broken down. It can be found opposite the Ruhengeri Resource Centre which can offer some local information to the passing travellist.

You can try to visit the Karisove Gorilla Research Station, set up by Dian Fossey but it is closed when i tried to visit, or the friendly folk at Gorilla Doctors.

The Ecobank have an international visa ATM although every time i visit, it is out of service.

Motor taxis charge between RFr200 - 300 around the town.

For 4wd transport, i’m happy to recommend the humble and caring Francis. His English is excellent and you can contact him directly on 0788 448 958.

Closer to the Park Headquarters is Kinigi. Here you will find La Paillotte Gorilla Place with rooms ranging from RFr8 – 12,000 and a VIP suite too. Their buffet lunch and dinner is also good and reasonably priced at RFr1,500. Email or call 0785523561

Closer still to the Park Headquarters (you can almost roll out of bed) is the Kinigi Guesthouse run to assist vulnerable Rwandan women. Their rooms are nice if a bit pricey with en-suite rooms costing US$40/50 single/double, but they do have a four room dorm at just RFR5,000. Call ahead on 0788 533606.

Mountain Gorillas:

The Mountain Gorilla (Gorilla beringei beringei) is one of the two sub-species of the Eastern Gorilla. There are two populations. One is found in the Virunga volcanic mountains of Central Africa, within three national parks: Mgahinga, in south-west Uganda; Volcanoes, in north-west Rwanda; and Virunga in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The other is found in Uganda's Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. Some primatologists say that the Bwindi population in Uganda may be a separate sub-species, though no description has been finished.

The fur of the Mountain Gorilla, often thicker and longer than that of other Gorilla species, enables them to live in colder temperatures. Gorillas can be identified by nose prints unique to each individual. Males usually weigh twice as much as the females, and this sub-species is on average the largest of all gorillas. Adult males have more pronounced bony crests on the top and back of their skulls, giving their heads a more conical shape. These crests anchor the powerful masseter muscles, which attach to the mandible. Adult females also have these crests, but they are less pronounced.

Adult males are called silverbacks because a saddle of gray or silver-colored hair develops on their backs with age. The hair on their backs is shorter than on most other body parts, and their arm hair is especially long. Fully erect, males reach 1.9 m (6 ft 3 in) in height, with an arm span of 2.3 m (7 ft 7 in) and weigh 220 kg (490 lb). The tallest silverback recorded was a 1.94 m (6 ft 4 in) individual shot in Alimbongo, northern Kivu in May 1938 and the heaviest was a 1.83 m (6 ft) silverback shot in Ambam, Cameroon which weighed about 266 kg (590 lb).

The Mountain Gorilla is primarily terrestrial and quadrupedal. However, it will climb into fruiting trees if the branches can carry its weight, and it is capable of running bipedally up to 6 m (20 ft). Like all great apes other than humans, its arms are longer than its legs. It moves by knuckle-walking (like the Common Chimpanzee, but unlike the Bonobo and both orangutan species), supporting its weight on the backs of its curved fingers rather than its palms.

The Mountain Gorilla is diurnal, most active between 6:00 a.m. and 6:00 p.m. Many of these hours are spent eating, as large quantities of food are needed to sustain its massive bulk. It forages in early morning, rests during the late morning and around midday, and in the afternoon it forages again before resting at night. Each gorilla builds a nest from surrounding vegetation to sleep in, constructing a new one every evening. Only infants sleep in the same nest as their mothers. They leave their sleeping sites when the sun rises at around 6 am, except when it is cold and overcast; then they often stay longer in their nests.

The Mountain Gorilla inhabits the Albertine Rift montane cloud forests and of the Virunga Volcanoes, ranging in altitude from 2,200–4,300 metres (7,200–14,100 ft). Most are found on the slopes of three of the dormant volcanoes: Karisimbi, Mikeno, and Visoke. The vegetation is very dense at the bottom of the mountains, becoming more sparse at higher elevations, and the forests where the Mountain Gorilla lives are often cloudy, misty and cold.

The Mountain Gorilla is primarily an herbivore; the majority of its diet is composed of the leaves, shoots and stems (85.8%) of 142 plant species. It also feeds on bark (6.9%), roots (3.3%), flowers (2.3%), and fruit (1.7%), as well as small invertebrates. (0.1%). Adult males can eat up to 34 kilograms (75 lb) of vegetation a day, while a female can eat as much as 18 kilograms (40 lb).

The home range size (the area used by one group of gorillas during one year) is influenced by availability of food sources and usually includes several vegetation zones. George Schaller identified ten distinct zones, including: the bamboo forests at 2,200–2,800 metres (7,200–9,200 ft); the Hagenia forests at 2,800–3,400 metres (9,200–11,200 ft); and the giant senecio zone at 3,400–4,300 metres (11,200–14,100 ft). The Mountain Gorilla spends most of its time in the Hagenia forests, where gallium vines are found year-round. All parts of this vine are consumed: leaves, stems, flowers, and berries. It travels to the bamboo forests during the few months of the year fresh shoots are available, and it climbs into sub-alpine regions to eat the soft centers of giant senecio trees.

A newborn gorilla weighs about 1.8 kilograms (4.0 lb), and spends its first few months of life in constant physical contact with its mother. In their first few months of life, infant Mountain Gorillas ride on their mother's backs. At an earlier stage, the mother will almost constantly be holding the infant. It begins to walk at around four or five months, and starts to put plant parts in its mouth between four and six months. At eight months it regularly ingests solid food.Weaning occur s around three years of age, although juveniles may remain with their mothers for years after that.

Young male and female gorillas are considered infants from birth until three years of age, juvenile between the ages of about three and six, and sub-adult from six to about eight years old. Blackbacks are sexually immature males from around eight years until they have developed the silver saddle and large canines of maturity. Females begin to ovulate at 7 or 8 years of age and have their first infant between the ages of 10 and 12. Males generally do not start breeding before the age of 15.

The Mountain Gorilla has no mating season and females usually initiate mating behavior. The length of their menstrual cycle is about 28 days with 1-3 fertile days, and ovulation ceases for 3–5 years after reproducing. The length of gestation is eight and a half months. Females generally bear one infant every 6 to 8 years, and may leave only 2–6 offspring over a 40 year life span. Males that have harems of 3–4 females increase their reproductive output by fathering 10–20 offspring over 50 years.

The Mountain Gorilla is highly social, and lives in relatively stable, cohesive groups held together by long-term bonds between adult males and females.

Relationships among females are relatively weak. These groups are non-territorial; the silverback generally defends his group rather than his territory. In the Virunga Mountain Gorillas, the average length of tenure for a dominant silverback is 4.7 years.

61% of groups are composed of one adult male and a number of females and 36% contain more than one adult male. The remaining gorillas are either lone males or exclusively male groups, usually made up of one mature male and a few younger males. Group sizes vary from five to thirty, with an average of ten individuals. A typical group contains: one silverback, who is the group's undisputed leader; one or two blackbacks, who act as sentries; three to four sexually mature females, who are ordinarily bonded to the dominant silverback for life; and from three to six juveniles and infants.

Most males, and about 60% of females, leave their natal group. Males leave when they are about 11 years old, and often the separation process is slow: they spend more and more time on the edge of the group until they leave altogether.

The dominant silverback generally determines the movements of the group, leading it to appropriate feeding sites throughout the year. He also mediates conflicts within the group and protects it from external threats. He is the centre of attention during rest sessions, and young animals frequently stay close to him and include him in their games. If a mother dies or leaves the group, the silverback is usually the one who looks after his abandoned offspring, even allowing them to sleep in his nest. Experienced silverbacks are capable of removing poachers' snares from the hands or feet of their group members.

When the dominant silverback dies or is killed by disease, accident, or poachers, the family group may be severely disrupted. Unless he leaves behind a male descendant capable of taking over his position, the group will either split up or be taken over in its entirety by an unrelated male. When a new silverback takes control of a family group, he may kill all of the infants of the dead silverback. This practice of infanticide is an effective reproductive strategy, in that the newly acquired females are then able to conceive the new male's offspring. Infanticide has not been observed in stable groups.

Severe aggression is rare in stable groups, but when two Mountain Gorilla groups meet, the two silverbacks can sometimes engage in a fight to the death, using their canines to cause deep, gaping injuries. The entire sequence has nine steps:
(1) progressively quickening hooting
(2) symbolic feeding
(3) rising bipedally
(4) throwing vegetation
(5) chest-beating with cupped hands
(6) one leg kick
(7) sideways running, two-legged to four-legged
(8) slapping and tearing vegetation
(9) thumping the ground with palms to end display

quaffing down the young fresh bamboo shoots

after eating it's time for a rest

The midday rest period is an important time for establishing and reinforcing relationships within the group. Mutual grooming reinforces social bonds, and helps keep hair free from dirt and parasites. It is not as common among gorillas as in other primates, although females groom their offspring regularly. Young gorillas play often and are more arboreal than the large adults. Playing helps them learn how to communicate and behave within the group. Activities include wrestling, chasing and somersault, and just playing around. The silverback and his females bogies even participate if encouraged.

Twenty-five distinct vocalizations are recognized, many of which are used primarily for group communication within dense vegetation. Sounds classified as grunts and barks are heard most frequently while traveling, and indicate the whereabouts of individual group members. They may also be used during social interactions when discipline is required. Screams and roars signal alarm or warning, and are produced most often by silverbacks. Deep, rumbling belches suggest contentment and are heard frequently during feeding and resting periods. They are the most common form of intragroup communication.

For reasons unknown, Mountain Gorillas that have been studied appear to be naturally afraid of certain reptiles. Infants, whose natural behavior is to chase anything that moves, will go out of their way to avoid chameleons and caterpillars. Koko, the western lowland gorilla trained in sign language, is afraid of crocodiles and alligators, even though she was born in captivity and has never seen them. They are also afraid of water and will cross streams only if they can do so without getting wet (i.e. crossing over fallen logs). Dian Fossey observed and noted the Mountain Gorilla's obvious dislike of rain, as well.

Mountain Gorillas are threatened by poaching, loss of habitat, and disease.
• Poaching: Mountain Gorillas are not usually hunted for bush-meat, but they are frequently maimed or killed by traps and snares intended for other animals. They have been killed for their heads, hands, and feet, which are sold to collectors. Infants are sold to zoos, researchers, and people who want them as pets. The abduction of infants generally involves the loss of at least one adult, as members of a group will fight to the death to protect their young. Poaching for meat is particularly threatening in regions of political unrest. Most of the African great apes survive in areas of chronic insecurity, where there is a breakdown of law and order. The killing of mountain gorillas at Bikenge in Virunga National Park in January 2007 was a well documented case.
• Habitat loss: The forests where Mountain Gorillas live are surrounded by rapidly increasing human settlement. The humans' need for land, food, and timber encroaches on the gorillas' habitat through roads, slash-and-burn agriculture, and logging. The resulting deforestation confines the gorillas to isolated deserts . Some groups may raid crops for food, creating further animosity and retaliation.
• Disease: Humans and gorillas are genetically similar enough that gorillas are vulnerable to many humans. However, gorillas have not developed the immunities to resist human diseases, and infections could severely impact the population. Habituated groups that are visited by tourists have the greatest risk.
• War and civil unrest: Civil wars and weak governments in central Africa, and in particular in the Congo, put conservation efforts at risk from local militias and government corruption.

The Mountain gorillas are at a critical state of endangerment. The last census in 2002 gave numbers of just 700. However with a new census due out shortly it is thought that this may rise to between 800 – 850. Whether this is a viable number to sustain their existence is debatable with such a small gene pool. It has been observed that many individuals are now been born with either webbed fingers or toes – a common sign of inter-breeding.

Conservation requires work at many levels, from local to international, and involves protection and law enforcement as well as research and education:
• “Active conservation includes frequent patrols in wildlife areas to destroy poacher equipment and weapons, firm and prompt law enforcement, census counts in regions of breeding and ranging concentration, and strong safeguards for the limited habitat the animals occupy."
• "Theoretical conservation seeks to encourage growth in tourism by improving existing roads that circle the mountains, by renovating the park headquarters and tourists' lodging, and by the habituation of gorillas near the park boundaries for tourists to visit and photograph."
• Community-based conservation supports African ownership, provides education on the personal as well as environmental benefits of preserving protected areas, and encourages local people to take pride in and assume some of the responsibility for the protection of their parks.

The Rwandan people have realized the importance of the mountain gorillas and their natural habitat. They have created Kwita Izina - the Baby Gorilla Naming Ceremony in which each baby gorilla gets a name.

Researchers recently discovered that about 800,000 years ago, the mountain gorilla had evolved from the eastern gorilla.

Rules of Engagement:

• Anyone with illness should not track the gorillas. They are susceptible to sharing our diseases
• Eating, drinking and smoking are not allowed inside the park
• Flash photography is not allowed – it upsets the gorillas
• Speak very quietly
• Don’t point at the gorillas – it can make them paranoid
• Follow all instructions given by the ranger, and stick close together
• You are not meant to get closer than seven metres to an individual gorilla – but nobody has told the gorillas this
• Stand still when faced with a charging silverback, crouch low and look away. Running away is likely to be the end of you
• Do not leave anything in the park – take out what you bring in – keep this incredible ecosystem pristine

What To Bring:

• Good walking boots are imperative – the path is usually wet and slippery
• Long trousers – stinging nettles and fire ants abound
• Long sleeved waterproof jacket – any time of year can see rain
• Water and snacks – these are not available at the park headquarters
• Insect repellent

Photographic Tips:

Getting decent photographs is somewhat tricky for several reasons. The forest is very dense and lighting conditions are extremely variable. I always like to shoot at lowest possible ISO ratings for clarity of pixels, but using my 70 – 300mm lens i am pretty much forced to shoot ISO 1000 and above – even on large aperture setting. Fortunately we get pretty close to the gorillas at times and i am able to switch to my 50mm standard fixed lens which undoubtedly produce the best results.

Being black in hue the gorillas can play havoc with the light metering. I found it best to shoot on spot metering rather than my usual matrix metering.

It sounds obvious but the jungle is well jungle-like. The best photos are ones unobstructed from vegetation; no easy feat with branches and leaves everywhere. Attempt to get different angles by moving around slightly.

Whilst it’s tempting to get in close, try and use wider angles to be able to put the gorillas in their natural environment.

up, close and personal

Gorillas are shy animals indeed and for long periods of time they just sit with their backs to my ever-poised lenses. Patience is a must – some will turn round and you need to be ready for the moment.

If you’re anything like me you’ll be shooting to excess. Make sure you have enough film/room on your memory card. I shot 260 images in the one hour encounter.

Obvious again, but make sure your batteries are fully charged.

Finally, even though the temptation is to shoot away like mad given a tight one hour limit, it is so worthwhile to take time out from your view-finder. Sit back, relax and just watch the overall scene around you. It’s truly remarkable.

So – was it worth the US$500 i hear you ask? The experience was completely priceless. Although not confirmed, rumours abound that the price will be US$1000 starting January 1st 2011. I’d probably pay that also. It is important to remember that the money not only stimulates the Rwandan economy (i heard it accounts for 40% of Rwanda’s GNP) but also directly helps to protect these beautiful animals too.

Editor Adds: Please be reminded that all photographs from A Leap Into The Dark are copyright and should not be downloaded. But please feel free to view and enjoy them on the site. That is what they are here for.