Monthly Archives: January 2016

Gorillas That I Missed

Along the Congolese border with Rwanda is the spectacular Lake Kivu, one of a string of ‘inland seas’ that run through the Albertine Rift Floor. Though Kivu is a freshwater lake, it is one of three in the world that experience limnic eruptions, a rare type of natural disaster where dissolved CO2 and expanding amounts of methane, coupled with the nearby volcanic activity causes a massive explosion of CO2 from the water, ultimately asphyxiating everything around it.


Rwandans are removing gases from the lake to help power homes in the country, but at the same time it is not known when there will next be an explosion. A lake in Cameroon had a limnic eruption which resulted in 1800 deaths, Kivu is 2000 times larger so the effects would be catastrophic. Kivu is Rwanda’s prime domestic weekend getaway, imagine going on holiday to Skegness with the fear that the amusements might implode and let off some deadly toxins? 


I was going to get the boat from Kabuye to Gisenyi, two of the three Rwandan Kivu settlements, but by no surprise it was cancelled at the last minute so I was forced to drive the rough coastal route. Thankfully there was some beautiful rural scenery and some friendly locals. I found out that a lot of people in Africa don’t like being photographed because they believe that the snaps will be sold for profit and that the subject will receive nothing, I assured this couple that they will make 50% of all the proceeds I make from this photo, which is absolutely nothing.  


Gisenyi ‘Beach’


Rural Football Ground


Near Gisenyi the Pfunda tea estate produces exellent tea thanks to the fertile volcanic soils of the nearby Virunga foothills, it’s just a shame that every cafe I enter doesn’t seem to know how to make a decent brew. 


You can go for a wander around the tea estate but don’t expect it to be peaceful, as the adults graft away the hoards of children run wild and there was far too much Muzungu hysteria here for my liking. There were a lot of ‘give me money’ cries, where do they get the idea that all white people have a bottomless supply of money? My is guess is that one day a rich do gooder walked through this village with a bag full of Francs like the pied piper, and has subsequently ruined the market for everyone else. 


Musanze is the closest town the Volcanos national park, famous for its mountain gorilla tracking. Billed a once in a lifetime enchanting experience and something I would love to do, sadly comes with an extortionate price-tag of $700 per person for a half day excursion, locals pay $50. I’ve got the money, but my morals simply won’t allow me to pay this amount of money to spend an hour with a gorilla, especially when there’s a meathead’s gym at the top of my street that leaves little to the imagination. 


Inside the Dian Fossey research centre


The closest I got


The lovely twin lakes Ruhondo and Burera are renowned birding sights so I finally got to put those bulky binoculars to use, I managed to spot a fire finch, yellow African wagtail and a flycatcher, not bad for a green twitcher. 



Back to the photography subject, some locals pose and allow you to capture them for a small upfront fee. If you are prepared to cough up, then this is what you get…


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One Man Banda

Happy to see the back of Tanzania, the first thing I noticed about Rwanda when completing the final furlong to Kigali, is that the people don’t seem as competent with their English as they do over the border. I was trying to find out how many hours the journey took, but no one understood what I was trying to ask. It’s then I remembered the age old trick of drawing pictures to get your point across, this time it didn’t work but the passengers found it hilarious as the white buffoon sat at the front of the bus scribbling pictures to the standard of a two year old. 

We all realise what happened in Rwanda in 1994, but few of us know what it was actually about and how it all started. Obviously it’s a complex subject, so here’s the quick idiot’s guide to the Rwandan genocide. 

Rwanda is divided into two main ethnic groups, the Hutu and the minority Tutsi. Since the beginning of time the two ethnic groups had some minor rivalries but always managed to get along in relative peace and harmony.

When the Belgians colonised Rwanda, they favoured the Tutsi for their supposed European appearance. They handed out ID cards that stated which group the given person belonged to and give the Tutsi control over Rwanda.    

The grave of Fred Gisa Rwigyema, co-founder of the RPF

Between 1959 and 1972 the Hutus rebelled and overthrew the government and the minority Tutsi were treated poorly as a result. By 1990 a rebel group of Tutsis was formed and invaded Northern Rwanda. A civil war followed along with four years worth of Hutu propaganda claiming that the Tutsi were to turn the Hutu into slaves. The straw that broke the Hutu’s back came when on 6th April 1994 a plane carrying the Hutu president was shot down. The propaganda intensified stating that Rwanda should no longer be divided, it should be a one man band. 


Over the course of the next 100 days 800,000 Tutsis and pro-peace Hutus were were murdered in state-sponsored violence, largely carried out by two Hutu paramilitary organisations but also by civilians who had once been their friends and neighbours. Woman and children were not spared, whole family’s were wiped out. 

The Hôtel des Mille Collines was used as a safe house during the genocide, as seen in the movie Hotel Rwanda.

So many people say that if it wasn’t for the Europeans then both groups would still be living together peacefully. The Belgians may have caused a greater divide, but I’m controversially saying, did they place the pangas in Rwandan people’s hands and order them to slaughter their fellow countryman? Make of it what you will. 

The mass grave at the genocide memorial site

Kigali, Rwanda’s capital city, is built in a hilly area and sprawls across four ridges and valleys. Kigali is a mixture of two Bantu words combined to make a word literally meaning ‘broad’ or ‘big’, so Kigali is just the big city. Plastic bags are banned in Rwanda to help the environment making Kigali quite clean by Afrcian standards. Here you’re more likely to see a smartly dressed businessman than a scruffy kid offering shoe shines on those knackered rubber flip flops. There are numerous colourful markets, where for once a Muzungu can walk around without the deafening cries of ‘come, look at my shop’. 



Kigali’s old quarter Nyamirambo is where the first buildings of the city were raised. Kigali’s coolest neighbourhood is said to be the cities equivalent to Soho in London, that’s funny as I don’t see anyone wearing a gimp suit or a dodgy Albanian pimp. 

The Green Mosque has been a symbol of Nyamirambo since Muslim traders came to a Rwanda in the 1930s. With its weird architecture, the Mosque was another safe house during the genocide. The district escaped some of the worst atrocities due to the Muslim community who opened their doors to protect the Tutsis. Their acts of righteousness resulted in a high conversion rate and since then Kigali’s Muslim population has doubled. So you see, the Muslims who are often discriminated against for various reasons ignored the propaganda and were refused to make a one man banda, in Rwanda. 


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Polé Polé Way

From the Usumbara mountains the quickest way to reach Rwanda is by taking an expensive one way flight from Kilimanjaro. Of course there is a cheap way to do it, this is also the Polé Polé (slowly slowly) way. 

Lushoto to Arusha is a seven hour bus ride. Arusha is Tanzania’s second largest city and where most of the Northern Safaris are organised from. For apparently being a tourist town I was expecting to get constantly hounded by people selling Serengeti tours. The majority of the hassle actually came from one street where everyone wanted to sell me a mattress, apart from that I surprisingly found Arusha quite a friendly and relaxed place, even the blind busker in the street didn’t object to being photographed. 

Mattress Street


The Arushan Badly Drawn Boy

To avoid driving through the Serengeti and Ngorongoro national parks and paying the full entrance fees, I had to go the long way around. Babati is three hours South of Arusha and was an ok place to break up the journey. I paid a local fisherman to take me out into Lake Babati in his dugout canoe to see the hippos that live in the lake. Charles, my canoe driver didn’t want to get too close to the beasts as the heifers can be very aggressive, territorial animals when they have a calf. Charles spoke good English and told me how his ambition was to become a lawyer but he never had the funds to send himself to university so had no choice but to become a fisherman/hippo locator. Feeling rather touched by his story, I let him keep the 30p change. 




Next stop was Singida, another 4 hours West. There’s a few lakes here but I opted to just go for a wander around the villages and climbed up one of the town’s weird rock formations. It was in Singida I broke my record for the cheapest room in Tanzania – £2 for a complete shit hole with bucket showers right next to the bus station, where the music blares from the nearby bar till early hours of the morning. Luckily I had ear plugs, but after spending the night here, I wish I had of bought that mattress in Arusha.



Africans use the phrase Polé Polé meaning slowly slowly in Swahili for many things, as nothing ever seems to be hurried or scheduled. Mwanza, the final stop in Tanzania was meant to be a seven hour drive North but took around nine after the bus broke down 70km away from the city. Myself and four other passengers managed to hitchhike the rest of the way with a Soof Afrikaan gold tycoon who kept complaining about the road “yu paye thu Chinese tu burld yu a roud dis is wat yu git!” Mwanza is the third largest city in Tanzania and also at the centre of an area known as ‘the sorcery belt’. Witchcraft still happens around here and in recent memory some woman have been beaten to death by a mob of people after they were believed to be witches. Albino people are particularly vulnerable in the Mwanza area as they are hunted down and hacked to pieces by witchdoctors for their body parts. The bones from the removed limbs are then grinded into a fine powder and used as a powerful potion to heal even the most deadly curses, this was recently documented on an episode of Ross Kemp’s Extreme World. Kemp travels around East Africa meeting wizards and sorcerers, but none of them seem to have a spell great enough to prevent Ross looking like Zippy from Rainbow. I didn’t leave the cheap hotel in Mwanza after a taxi driver pointed over to me a shouted “Albino”!

The final leg of this gruelling journey started at 5am at Mwanza bus station where I departed the Nyehunge express, after half an hour a ferry hauls the bus across lake Victoria and I got to see the sunrise over Mwanza, this is where the fun ended. 

The next 8 hours were spent being thrown around the back of the bus with my new friends as the Ferrari crashed along on possibly the worst road in all of Tanzania until in reached the former refugee camp of Benaco. Here it’s a quick shared taxi to the border where I walked about 1km through no man’s land and stopped to admire Rusomo falls, a huge volume of water that surges from the Akagera river beneath the bridge between the two border posts. It’s here that German troops reported seeing the dead bodies of Rwandan genocide victims being thrown over the falls at a rate of two or three per minute. 



So I finally made it to Rwanda, the slowly slowly way, after five days, 40 hours worth of driving time and four nights spent in cheap local hotels next to dusty bus stations. I may have some acute symptoms of deep vein thrombosis to remind me of this journey, but on the bright side I’ve saved myself some money and got to see a more rural side of Tanzania. Welcome in Rwanda! 


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Jambo Usumbaras

The Usambara mountain range in North East Tanzania forms part of the Eastern Arc chain, a stretch of mountains in a broken crescent from Southern Kenya to the Southern highlands, making them at least 100 million years old, fifty times that of Mount Kilimanjaro. Home to the Shambaa people, agriculturists who are said to have moved here after a Masai invasion down on the plains. Lushoto, the main town of the Usumbaras is 1400m above sea level, making it a nice cool getaway for a few days and to do a bit of casual rambling. 

There’s no real need to have a guide if you’re only visiting some of the local countryside, Yoghoi village about 7km from Lushoto is a friendly place and all the locals will help you find your way. Just be prepared to say Jambo (hello) to everybody you pass. Jambo is reserved for tourists so I’m assuming it’s a bit like a Chinaman coming to England and saying something incredibly cliché such as ‘lovrey jubrey’. Yoghoi also has the Usumbara’s biggest Arsenal fan, he’s the owner of the Emirates shop and the Highbury barbers. 


On the edge of the Usumbara massif there’s some vast views of the Masai Steppes 1000m below, just say to a local in Yoghoi “Jambo, Viewpoint” whilst doing the classic looking on the horizon gesture. It may seem like you’re trying to re-enact the dance moves for ‘In the navy’ by the village people, buy they’ll know what you mean.


Soni Falls, a short ride from Lushoto near the town of the same name

On Sundays and Thursdays Lushoto has a colourful market where the Shambaa woman come from the surrounding villages to sell local produce. Ever wondered where your second hand clothes end up? Well by the looks of it Lushoto market. Everything is at a reduced price, says the woman wearing a pink shirt that reads ‘Donna’s Hen Do, Blackpool 2009’. 



Magamba forest is about a 90 minute uphill walk from Lushoto. In the dense rainforest it is possible to spot blue monkeys and colobus monkeys if you’re lucky and also the endemic Usumbara Weaver and Usumbara Akalat. I finally got some use out of the binoculars I brought but I’m a long way to becoming a true twitcher. It was just particularly nice strolling along listening to the sounds of the ancient forest and learning about the many types of tree that grow here. 


Eucalyptus tree

Lushoto was of particular importance during the German colonial period, when the town was known as Wilhelmstal and provided cool relief for the Deutsch workers travelling up on the weekends to escape the dry heat of the plains. The German cave hidden inside the Magamba forest was carved out of the limestone cliff and was used as a hideout during World War One. Now it serves as a hideout for pot smoking Rastas.  


The view from the top of 2230m Mount Magamba, the highest peak in the forest

On the way back down to Lushoto we purchased some local banana cake – banana mashed up and mixed with maize then rolled and held together with a leaf, very stodgy and not particularly appetising but it certainly filled a hole after that sweaty trek through the forest. So far in Tanzania I’ve noticed that for some reason most adults do not like being photographed, even if you ask. After purchasing the banana cakes from two fine Shambaa woman, I managed to talk them into letting me take a photo for my memories of the Usumbaras, which they obliged with the utmost enthusiasm. Say banana cake! 



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Chagua Magufuli, Chagua Mafia

The Mafia archipelago has a rather unusual and unfortunate name. ‘Mafia’ derives from the Arabic word ‘Morfiyeh’, meaning group. Although you won’t find any pistol wielding gangsters sporting Cordoba hats, the real criminal here is the marine park. Anyone diving, snorkelling, or even just staying within the marine park boundaries, which are all around the village of Utende – where all the resorts are, and Chole bay- where the dives sites are, must pay $20 marine fee per person per day. To put that into context, a couple on a fortnight’s holiday staying in a Utende lodge will have to dish out $560, even if they plan on doing nothing more than sitting on the beach. This is truly ridiculous, it’s not uncommon anywhere in the world to pay a one off fee when diving in a marine park, as most of the time the tourist dollar does go towards the marine conservation. By charging this amount it is only putting people off coming here and the annoying thing is that everybody knows that only a fraction of the money received is going back into the park, the majority is shared between the dirty hands involved with corrupt African politics. We stayed in the main town on Mafia island, Kilindoni, where the rooms are a fraction of the price and there’s more going on in terms of affordable food and drink. Kilindoni is outside the marine park so we only had to pay the fee on the days we travelled to Utende to dive, I ended up actually only paying $40 for the five days I entered, which I felt was fair. Where there’s a will there’s a way! 

Mafia is said to have some of the best diving in the West Indian Ocean. ‘Kinasi Pass’ is a sloping reef with a maximum depth of 23 metres. Lovely to just drift along the bottom of the slope and look up at the thousands common fish with the odd schools of needlefish and barracuda, just like swimming in the pre-title sequence of a 007 movie. 



On most of our dives we always seemed to come across at least one Nudibranch, a shell-less marine mollusc under the order of Nudibranchia aka a sea slug. It may not sound like much to a non-diver, but these tiny cartoony creatures come in a wide range of shapes and colours and are a favourite with many macro dive junkies. 


Makadoni outside of the bay, is a beautiful site with a lot of different corals, huge schools of snapper, sweet lips, morays, and turtles. Somehow the sight of a turtle gliding towards me is something I never get bored of, apart from the time when I was involved in a car crash at a junction in Ashington with a van transporting a load of those teenage mutants, that was turtle mayhem. 



We visited an unnamed site which I like to refer to as ‘we can’t get out of the bay so let’s just dive here’ and it was surprisingly good. Here we were followed by some giant napoleon wrasse’s, which is unusual as something with such a French sounding name you’d expect to run away from the English. There was also some nice topography when looking at the rock formations from below, proving that diving is not just about fish and coral. 



Seahorse City is done from the shore at Utende. At only 3m deep we were basically diving in the sand and weeds in search of unusual creatures that you wouldn’t normally find out at the other sites such as pipefish, razorfish, upside down jellyfish, pufferfish and after which this site is named, seahorses. These minute, prehistoric looking critters are difficult to spot and got me thinking about the two seahorses on Newcastle United’s crest. They’re taken from the city’s coat of arms which they were added to by William Flower, Norray King of Arms in 1575 as a reminder that Newcastle is a seaport. 



About a 20 minute drive from Kilindoni and outside the marine park is the peninsular of Kisimani Mafia. There was once an Arabic fort here and it is possible to still find some ancient Arabic coins in the sand. Now all you will find here is an amazing unspoiled beach, which at high tide, is one of the best I’ve ever seen. At the moment there’s no road leading to Kisimani, just a sand trail so you have to come by motorcycle. There’s a few half finished bungalows that a Russian investor started to build some years ago, which may be finished one day. I wonder if in 20 or 30 years time I’ll visit here again to find Kisimani developed into Mafia’s answer to Nungwi? 


Mange Island, is a sandbank a few hours from Mafia in the middle of the ocean, about a 50 metre stretch of permanent, pure white sand. A great way to spend Christmas Day having BBQ seafood for our dinner, minus the pigs in blankets. The reefs around here are not as good as those in Chole bay, but are apparently a good place to see reef sharks. Sadly there were no sharks out to play on this day, but plenty of blue spotted rays which take off like a rocket whenever they’re spooked.



Before I came to Mafia I had high expectations, I haven’t been disappointed. Beautiful diving, untouched beaches, friendly locals, and a much more low-key and less touristic alternative to Zanzibar. In the last few months Tanzania has voted a new president into government, John Magufuli. Magufuli’s campaign posters reading ‘Chagua Magafuli’ (choose Magafuli) are still plastered on every wall all over the country. He’s proven very popular with a lot of the people after he has sworn to rid his nation of all corruption which may hopefully introduce some more sensible rules in regards to the current marine fee in the near future. We all know that what politicians promise, and what politicians actually do are two different things. Only time will tell whether Magafuli goes down the same road as his predecessors, either way let’s hope that Mafia will remain the gem of the Indian Ocean that it truly is. 


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