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Africa Tour August 2011 - August 2012

26/12/2011 Rwanda

Gisenyi, Rwanda

It has been another good day of ups and downs today. Literally, because travelling in Rwanda involves a lot of hills. I'm in Gisenyi now, or better WE are in Gisenyi now. Because since yesterday I am no longer travelling alone. Yesterday I met Martin and Esther again. We arranged to meet in Kibuye on Lake Kivu for lunch, me coming from Kigali and Martin and Esther coming from the South near the DRC border to Bukavu. And it became indeed a big lunch full of good stories.
So today we travelled together, the three of us. All the way from Kibuye to Gisenyi. Which is only about 100km. But it still took most of the day. First of all because we woke up to Esther's bike having a flat tyre. Fortunately there was a tyre repair place within walking distance. But as it goes in Africa things tend to take a while. Around one and a half hours later the tyre was finally fixed. And then it was the road which held us back. Don't get me wrong, it is a beautiful road between Kibuye and Gisenyi. Up and down green hills. With vistas on the left hand side over Lake Kivu. And on the right hand side over banana and tea plantations. Certainly one of the most beautiful sceneries for riding your favourite motorcycle. But the going on this road is really slow. It is a dirt road, a road with many many rocks littering the surface, with steep inclines and lots of narrow corners and also some hairy muddy sections. I learned that a combination of mud and my worn back tyre raises the blood pressure significantly. However, we had a lot of time to enjoy these 100km in first and second gear. As so often before the people along our route made travelling heaps fun today. Much more than in the countries we visited before people keep running towards us with excitement, waiving their hands. Kids in particular. And whenever we stop a big crowd forms around us instantly. The main interest is now directed towards us. No longer towards our motorcycles as it was the case in Tanzania. Here in Rwanda many many curious eyes keep watching our every move, children run around us chasing each other. And people try to communicate with us in any language they can. Mostly the local Rwanda language. It came as a surprise to me that French is not very common around the rural areas. Previously I thought French to be the official language. Which it is. But still, not many people speak it. Also to my surprise people in Rwanda seem to live much more in poverty than their counterparts in Tanzania. When you see the many modern high rise buildings in Kigali you wonder why there is so much poverty. But many people's clothes are absolutely in tatters. Particularly again for kids who are often a pity to look at. Except of course for their big white eyes and their big happy smile when they see us.
Gisenye has a border crossing into the DRC, into Goma. We stopped there today to inquire with people arriving from the Congo about the situation on the other side. Martin did the same thing at the border crossing to Bukavu. So we had something to compare with. And most interestingly there seems to be a consensus between people advising us where to cross and which route to choose. Because the most direct route involves too many 'people with guns'.

Ah yeah, the Congo really worries me. Worries me a lot. Currently I am really not sure if I want to go there. People we met kept warning us about rebels, about road blocks, many guerillas armed and drunk and stoned, and the need to pay them lots of money etc.. It is a really dodgy place to go through. But there is no alternative if we want to get to West Africa. There is also some conflict following the disputed election a few weeks ago. Currently this conflict is not affecting our planned route. But who knows what may develop from this??? I guess we will find out once we cross the border in around two weeks time...
At the same time I must say I miss the people of Mwanza. It was such a great time there, living the Tanzanian life. And I very often think back to it. I still receive phone calls and text messages from these guys on my mobile phone, invitations to celebrate Christmas with their families, pleas not to go to the Congo and to rather return to Mwanza. And I find it very hard to say no. Because one part of me really wants to be back in Mwanza. But now I am a traveller again. And part of a team to explore Africa.

We will soon have Christmas. And to properly celebrate we booked ourselves in for the Mountain Gorilla trekking here in Rwanda. Many Africa travellers I know pick this one as their most memorable experience in Africa. And so I am really looking forward to it. Once we are back I will probably exitedly type my longest report ever about meeting the Gorillas and you will all fall asleep reading it. So stay tuned!
On a second thought this will most likely be posted after Christmas anyway. Internet is very hard to find in Rwanda... So even though you cannot read it in time - I wish you all a very happy Christmas. And thank you very much for following our journey over the last five months.

26/12/2011 Rwanda again

Today is Christmas day, another Christmas without family. So it actually does not feel much like Christmas. We are camping next to a small path in the North of Rwanda, surrounded by lots and lots of children. Most in tattered clothes, watching our every move in excitement. Right here Christmas does not seem to matter.

But even in Rwanda you can see the occasional Christmas tree, mostly a chinese plastic model with many colourful flashing lights. Or sometimes you hear a Christmas song out of a shop or a small stall on the street. In these moments you remember to think of your friends back home and how different their Christmas is.
Yesterday, on Christmas Eve, we went to see one of the highlights for all Africa travellers: the Mountain Gorillas in the Parc National de Volcanoes in Rwanda. Very early in the morning we set off from Ruwengeri to meet our guide in the NP head quarters at 7am. From there it was another 30 minutes ride to the start of the track. And man, that was indeed some of the roughest terrain I have ever ridden my little Suzuki along. Rocks and ruts and mud, the whole lot. Pretty scary if you have the wellbeing of your lovely bike in mind.
Once at the start of the track our small group assembled for a short briefing and then up we went, up the volcano. We were incredibly lucky again for having a beautiful sunny day after many days of rain. Our group was eight tourists, one guide and one security officer with a big gun. His job was to protect us from the aggresive buffaloes in the park. Seing his big gun we felt a lot safer. Although it wasn't the buffaloes to worry us. Because we soon learned how the buffaloes stay away from the gorillas. For a Gorilla can easily kill a buffalo if it feels treatened by it's presence.
It took us a few hours of hiking the steep and muddy terrain until we found our designated gorilla family. It was a group of twelve gorillas, three Silverbacks, three babies and the rest some females and juveniles. All sitting around or sleeping or playing within a few metres of each other in the lush green shrub that makes up the volcanoe's vegetation. We were given one hour with these friendly gorillas. Friendly because they literally ignored us. Sometimes coming really close, even within a metre of us. Or walking around us when we blocked the path. These apes were not concerned about the 10 people standing around watching them. The other way around was a different matter though. For us normal people, not habituated to have a 200kg gorilla running past with maybe a metre to spare, it is quite a chilling experience. But cool, really cool. Of all the animal tours and game drives etc. we ever did in Africa, the gorilla trekking was by far the most exciting. You're not sitting in a car, you're not protected by a fence or a cage, nothing. You're just out there in the bush, small and vulnerable. And you are there at the grace of a family of huge animals. And that is a pretty sexy feeling. Also because these guys act so human, you can tell their intentions by the expressions on their face, they play with their babies same as people would do. When they look at you with their big black eyes you would almost expect them saying "G'day, how are you?". It was a really awesome way to spend Christmas eve.
And today, on Christmas day, we went riding our bikes again. From Ruwengeri to the border with Uganda. There we sold the little 125ccm tanzanian motorbike of Esther. Because she will fly back home after Christmas. So then it will only be Martin and myself, taking on the mighty Congo.
In the last couple of days we asked every person we could get hold of with a Congo registered car or truck about the situation there. Some simply advised us to stay away as far as possible. Others were more specific and explained us the situation in more detail. About which roads have a high probability for rebel attacks (e.g. the road south of Bukavu averages a 40 armed attacks per week). But alltogether we plotted a route through the Congo which might not be the shortest but the safest. Many truck drivers agree on that route, it is doable by semi trailer, the likelyhood of rebel attacks is less than on all other routes. And just in case, these rebels are supposed to be friendlier, asking for money first before they shoot. So let's cross fingers. Another issue is the recent election. Both, the incumbend president Kabila and the leader of the opposition claim to be the winner of the election. Some people predict this may lead to a civil war. But most expect that Mr. Kabila has such a broad support that the opposition will simply not get the numbers together for any serious trouble. Trouble so far is restricted to the capital Kinshasa and some southern provinces far away from us. So we should be fine.
But on a serious note, this report will probably be the last one for a long time. We don't expect much internet access in the following weeks and we expect a slow going. We should be out of the worst by mid February. Till then, for our own security, I don't want to publish our exact route here on the net. But I promise to tell you guys our Congo adventures once we are back in a safe location. And I promise to turn around and get out of that place as soon as we smell trouble.
Until then, take care!

31/12/2011 Happy New Year from Rwanda

Today is our last day in Rwanda. Esther is already in a plane on her way home to Germany while Martin and me, we continue our journey. Just the two of us.
During the last few days we saw a lot of dead people. Rwanda is unfortunately famous for the genocide against the Tutsi group which happened during only a few months in 1994. But it left more than one million people dead. The memorial sites around the country are countless. Every town has their own story and their mass grave. Most of the time just a faceless concrete slab and a plaque. But there are a few sites which stand out. And yesterday and today I visited four of them.
Yesterday I went to the small town of Gikongoro, a very nice ride for 140km of excellent tarmac through green hilly landscape. Today's memorial is on the compound of a polytechnical college, a school building and a few boarding houses. On this site, just during two days in 1994, 50000 people died. Being hacked to pieces with machetes or other sharp instruments, being smashed by timber clubs with nails or simply chopped up with axes.
After the genocide 1000 of those casualties were exhumed and mumified using powderised lime. And these 1000 bodies are placed back into the rooms where so many of them died. So you go from room to room, each one filled with the smell of rotten flesh. You go there and see these bodies, completely white from the lime powder. But still in the position in which they died. Mothers hugging babies, others bent in agony. There are kids, women, old people, young people. You see these horrible injuries, many smashed heads. And most disturbing of all the expressions in their face, frozen in time from the moment of them dying. Room after room the same picture, rooms filled with bodies in agony. 1000 of them. And you know there are still more than 49000 still in mass graves on that very same compound. A very impressive memorial indeed.
Then today I went to the countrie's main genocide memorial in Kigali. There it is mainly the story which is told. Told in text and pictures, original radio excerpts and videos. And although it might not be as spectacular as these bodies in Gikongoro, the story alone is good to make you shiver. And it is on this very site where 250000 casualties are buried. A quarter of a million people who were killed just in this one town alone. Killed for no reason.
Then there is also the church of Ntarama which is left untouched from the day the genocide happened. 10000 people died in here, sheltering in the protection of the church. But to no avail. The bodies have been buried in a mass grave on the ground. But today you still see their clothes piled up, torn and stained. Huge piles of them. And you see the blood stained floor. The holes in the wall from the granades. The various belongings of the people hoping to survive in there. Bags, pens, water bottles etc.. And you see the brutal instruments left behind by the killers. Machetes, axes, wooden clubs, chains.
On one wall you see a thick black substance. Our guide explained that this was the spot where babies got smashed against the wall. That black substance is the mix of skin, blood, brain and hairs of countless babies.

And finally there is the church of Nyamata, another church which offered a false sense of protection for many. 20000 people died here. In Nyamata the mass graves are open. So you can climb down and are stared upon by 20000 skulls, many with cuts and holes through the bone or bits and pieces missing. The bones of all the victims are put in huge shelves, really overwhelming to stand in between those.
Seeing all this really kills the happiness out of your day. But fortunately Rwanda today is a much happier place. And much praise has to be said about the people and the government to rise out of this mess from 1994 and create a safe and modern society. Rwanda is the first country we visited where people are very happy with their government. And seeing where they are coming from and where they are now they have all reason to be proud.
In the Rwanda today you have expensive european cars, I-phones, street lighting, drinkable tap water and traffic lights. Most roads are excellent tarmac with good footpaths and working drainage. Plastic bags are banned and everything is really clean. Remarkable for Africa, hey?

There has also been a big change for us. Both, Martin and me developed a really bad feeling about our choice of route lately. We both could feel the heavy weight of the DRC on our mood. And we started talking about alternative options to get to Germany.
Information from people who just came out of the DRC or who work there is really really discouraging. We talked to many at border crossings to Rwanda. And they strongly advised us not to go. With much weight on the word STRONGLY. Rebel activity and armed robberies or killings are numerous in the provinces of North and South Kivu and Orientale. There is one stretch of road with an average of 40 armed hold-ups per week. And these are exactly the three provinces we need to go through to get to Kisangani. And biggest current issue is that after the election the violence continues with the failed opposition candidate threatening to form his own government and fight the one of Mr Kabila. So currently there is two presidents in the Congo. Many people see a valid chance of the DRC sliding into a civil war any time from now. Probably sometime when we would be right in the middle of it. On top of that the many thousand km of really miserable road, lack in petrol stations etc., not a pleasant place to go through. Other countries on our list like the Centralafrican Republik or Niger deteriorated too to a degree that the security situation is more than bad. There is only 11 countries in the world which the Australian government advised to 'Do Not Travel' and recommending that if you are in one of those 11 countries you need to get out now. Countries like Afghanistan, Iraq or Somalia. And also DRC, Centralafrican Republic and Niger. And even though often this government advice is on the pessimistic side of things, both Martin and me did not like the fact to travel through this dangerous mess for the next couple of months and along many thousand of km. After all we are here to enjoy our time. And it's hard to enjoy when you are scared. For valid reasons or not. There is a huge difference in researching the internet from your safe living room in Sydney and talking to the people on the ground coming across the border. Watching the expressions on their face when we say we go through the DRC.

So we revised our route to go along the eastern countries, back to Tanzania then Kenya, Ethiopia, Djibouti, Eritrea, Sudan and Egypt. These places will be very different from West Africa but nonetheless interesting. Believe me, this was a very very tough decision and we put a lot of thinking and consideration into it. Because West Africa is really luring us. Just the way to get there causes us so much trouble. But with our new plan we still have many options. Because fortunately we have a lot of time. Depending on our time and condition on arrival in Egypt we shall decide which way to continue from there.
As for the next couple of days we will do a lot of riding through Tanzania and Kenya and then spend much more time in Ethopia, a country which both of us are keen to see. And no more worrying about the Congo. Happy days again!

01/01/2012 Rwanda pics

Typical scene in Rwanda. It is all very green and hilly.

Another new friend. More than in other countries big crowds form around us whenever we stop with our bikes.

My little Suzuki and a tea plantation

Silverback Mountain Gorilla in the Volcanoes National Park

Juvenile Gorilla


Volcanoes National Park in the distance

01/01/2012 Happy New Year everyone!

Everyone thanks again for following this blog. It's really good to know there's people out there interested in what we are doing in Africa!

I wish you all a very Happy New Year 2012 full of adventure and dreams realised!

We are now on our way back through Tanzania and Kenya. And our New Year's celebration will be in Mwanza. We decided to go through Mwanza again for saving us the money for another Uganda Visa and Uganda motorbike insurance. It seems like destiny keeps pushing me back to this place. But here we know people and we had a welcome like kings when we arrived back at my old guesthouse with the motorbike taxis in front. Really really cool.

On Jan 1st we should then continue around Lake Victoria to Musoma and Kenya. 2010 will be another year of good fun!

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(c) 2012    marco hoffmann