The Wild East (Africa)

It's a long haul to Kilimanjaro via Amsterdam; The consolation is that this trip requalifies me as platinum elite. The plane is going on to Dar es Salaam, but all the mzungus ? Swahili for white people (semi-derogatory, akin to "honky") ? get off at Kilimanjaro.

I am met by George, who will be my driver for the next week, and we drive to Moshi. The streets are dead quiet; today the national elections were held and police presence heavy in anticipation of violence. Things turned out to be quiet, but many tourists cancelled. The hotel is empty.

Moshi is the jump-off point for those energetic or crazy enough to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro, the highest mountain in Africa. During the day the summit is obscured by clouds -- as George puts it, "the mountain is shy" -- but there is a clear view early in the morning.

Before starting out I visit the Air Tanzania office to pick up my internal flight tickets. They don't have a credit card machine, so it's cash only. They handwrite the tickets ? no printer either.

Our route takes us through Arusha, the second largest city in Tanzania and center of safari tourism. It now has a second major industry: the UN Rwanda War Crimes Tribunal, a glaring example of your money at waste. It occupies an enormous compound, has fleets of luxury vehicles with special license plates, and a staff of zillions. The front of the daily jumbo jet from Amsterdam is filled with lawyers and judges drawing huge per diems. It's been 10 years since the genocide ended, there haven't been any prosecutions, and there's no end in sight.

A couple hours south is Tarangire National Park, our first stop. It's noted for its baobab trees, of which I see many, and its rock-climbing pythons, of which I see none. There are plenty of elephants and a good variety of other animals.

Tonight I stay in the upscale lodge, which is very nice and mostly empty. Enjoying the safety from predators are numerous hyraxes, also called rock rabbits. They are the size of rabbits but actually are the closest living relative to the elephant. 

The lodge is deep in the park, so there is a game drive on the way in, one in the morning, back to the lodge for lunch, and a game drive on the way out.

We drive on an excellent new road (donated by the Japs) to Ngorongoro Crater, the world's largest intact caldera (collapsed volcano). We stop at "Heroes' Point," where there is a monument to those who gave their lives protecting the animals. An examination reveals that the definition of "hero" is quite liberal: an airplane crash resulting from colliding with a vulture while making a movie; a couple of car crashes; and gored by a rhino. Two rangers were actually shot by poachers. From an overlook on the rim we can see the entire vista and herds grazing on the crater floor.

Also situated on the crater rim is my lodge. I couldn't get a reservation for the nice one, but at least this one has an excellent location. It's no longer run by the government, so the level of service has improved from "lousy" to "indifferent." On the deck are mounted 20X binoculars with which one can pick out individual animals.

After a night in the lodge I have a full day game drive in the crater. The subject of innumerable TV documentaries, Ngorongoro crater has been describe as a little Eden because it is a microcosm of east Africa: its plains, woods, hills, freshwater pond and salt pond are home to just about every animal except giraffes (the trees aren't the type they like.) It's literally wall-to-wall wildlife.

It only takes about 6 hrs to cover every part of the crater. The small size makes it easy to find the animals but also lead to overcrowding -- several vehicles converge at every cat or rhino sighting. At the lunch spot count 32 vehicles, and I estimate than an equal number are still driving around. George tells me that in peak season the vehicle count can reach 250 or 300. Lunch is supposed to be a picnic affair, but I, like everyone else, eat inside the vehicle because every hawk in the crater is on the wing, ready to snatch your food.

Ngorongoro is a conservation area, but not a park, so the Maasai are allowed to bring their cattle to drink at the waterholes, where they mix peaceably with the wildlife. The Maasai stand on guard with spears to protect against lions.

Wildlife count: a pair of lions too lazy even to sit up, and one rhino. At day's end, back at the lodge, I see two more rhinos and a pride of lions through the binoculars.

Leaving the Crater we pass through Olduvai gorge, part of the Great Rift Valley. In 1911 a German scientist came here looking for butterflies. He found fossilized animal bones. Others followed. Louis Leakey arrived in 1931 and spent the next 28 years searching before hitting pay dirt. The rest is history (or, more precisely, pre-history). Many more finds have been made since, including the 3.5 million years old australopithecus (Lucy-type) footprints. There is a small museum and visitors center which, unfortunately, is contaminated by Clinton visit photos.


On to the Serengeti. We cross the southern plains, which, the week before, were covered by herds of wildebeest (1+ million), but they seem to have moved on. But there is no shortage of animals ? there are plenty of antelope and zebras. On the drive to the lodge we see cheetahs and a leopard (a first for me).

The lodge is at the center of the Park. Once again, it's the crummy one because the upscale one was fully booked. (I am sure there are vacancies now due to cancellations, but things here are much too inflexible to switch.) I am warned to keep my windows shut to keep the monkeys out. The morning wake-up is the sound of them stampeding across the roof. At dusk the lawn is covered by dozens of mongoose (mongeese? mongooses? Well, more than one.)

George has learned that the big herd is about 125 miles north where is has recently rained. (It's very dry here.) Rather than spend all day driving to reach them, I opt for a more leisurely day closer to the lodge. There is plenty to see. Near the side of the road are two dead buffalo. A few yards away, under a tree, is a lioness guarding the kill. A vulture waits expectantly on another tree. Where are the others? "If you go near the buffalo," says George, "you will quickly found out." We wait a while, but they don't come out, probably waiting until it is cooler. I take a cue and direct that we return to the lodge for lunch and a break from the midday heat. George also does camping safaris, and he readily admits that he much prefers the lodge kind.

Despite the rest, I am reaching animal burnout. What I remember most about the afternoon is tsetse flies ? lots of 'em.

The highlight of the next morning is a group of cheetahs, real close.

Then on to Lake Manyara National Park, the last stop on my safari. On the way I stop at a couple of souvenir shops. Mostly wooden carvings of varying sizes and skill, all at astronomical prices. Every little stall contains, if you go by the asking prices, a million dollars in inventory. They must rely on tourist already numbed by the cost of a safari because they hold fast on the prices, so I don't buy anything.

Lake Manyara is on the Great Rift. A high escarpment forms one side, atop which sits the hotel. At reception I am cautioned to keep the sliding glass doors LOCKED; otherwise, the baboons can open them.

Dinner is decent, followed by a dance show. Due to outstanding performances in Ethiopia and Senegal, I am considering about creating an Africa exception to my "no cultural dances" rule. Nope. Last night at Serengeti the show was merely lackluster. Tonight is the nadir. Instead of young, vibrant, enthusiastic dancers, this troupe looks like it came direct from the tertiary AIDS ward: some skinny guys in torn T-shirts shuffling around a couple a women beating a tom-tom.

The hotel overlooks the Park. In the morning we drive down into it. Hartari! was filmed here. It is famous for its tree-climbing lions, but I don't see any. The lake is almost dry, so the flamingos are too far away to see. It's a good birding park, and I spot some good ones.

That's it. It's been a week. We drive back to Arusha for my afternoon flight. Zanzibar is only a 50 minute flight away, but I am glad I sprung for the few extra shillings to fly Bwana Class. The plane continues on to Dar es Salaam, but all the mzungus get off in Zanzibar.

The Sultan Has Left The Building

Zanzibar is an island. Those who don't fly arrive from Dar by fast ferry (2hrs). In the 19th century it was the gateway to East African exploration, the hub of the slave trade, and the world's largest grower of cloves. It was controlled by Oman, then became a British protectorate, then independent in 1963, suffered a revolution in 1964, and finally joined with Tanganika (formerly German East Africa) to create the Union of Tanzanzia.

The old part of Zanzibar town is known as Stonetown, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Flying in low, we pass over the lush white-sand beach resorts. My first view of Stonetown is of rusted steel roofs and, in the new town, block after block of grey, concrete soviet-style apartment blocks built by East Germans for the socialist regime. The skyline is punctuated by church steeples and minarets (the island is about 90% Muslim.)

I am staying in a nice place (for too much money), a converted mansion. I find my Canadian buddy, who has been bicycling around the island for a week, and we proceed to the Africa House, the former British Club, to take in the sunset.

Dinner is at Mercury's, a waterfront restaurant that has nothing to with Freddie Mercury, who was born on Zanzibar, except the use of his name. The other choice is the waterfront, along which each evening numerous food vendors grill skewers of fresh seafood. The guidebooks all say that this is the best eating around, and I agree. So do the cats underfoot, waiting for dropped bits.

I spend the next day on a self-guided walking tour. The former palace is now a museum, containing an odd collection of gift to and household possessions of the former sultans. Near the entrance are two life-size full-length portraits of Franz Josef I and Elisabeth of Austria. The rooms contain an assemblage of eastern, Indian, and western furniture and bric-a-brac. Not to be missed is the collection of 1950's Formica.

The back part of the palace is still used for government offices. I peer in and see seven people gabbing, stacks and sheets of paper everywhere, a couple of manual typewriters, and no one doing a lick of work.

After the Revolution a large wooden administration built by the British in 1883 became the Ideological College Museum.  It is now known as The House of Wonders, but only the name has changed: an exhibit on the impact of tourism explains how it destroys culture, and brings drugs, alcohol and prostitution. Also, the high paying jobs don't go the locals; the benefits are not spread equally; housing stock is lost as building are converted to hotel and guesthouses; restaurants buy up all the fish, and the stores are filled with "tourist junk." Now that the glory days of the clove and slave trades are over, they must envision an economy based on chanting Revolutionary slogans.

The historical exhibits include the 1964 presidential limousine ? a Zephyr painted by brush with housepaint. Curiously, in the survey of history and the allocation of blame, the Arab slave traders and Islam get a complete pass.

Over 1 million slaves passed through Zanzibar (almost all to Muslim countries, where they died without descendants) until the British outlawed the slave trade in 1883. (Household slaves were legal until 1917.) Atop the old slave market now sits the Anglican cathedral. A couple of the underground holding cells are still extant and open to visit. Unlike the imaginary slave sites of Goree Island off Senegal, this is the real deal.

Most of Stonetown consists of a warren of alleys flanked by crumbling buildings. Some 85% of the structures are in ruins or decaying. The restored building are mostly hotels.

My comprehensive tour includes the Natural Science Museum, which features of a stuffed Zanzibar leopard (now extinct), elephant shrews, a marlin carved from wood, and a dodo skeleton from Mauritius. On the way back, I spot a large group of new white Land Cruisers parked by a building. Sure enough, it is NGO Central.

Everyone who visits Zanzibar takes a spice tour, and, the next morning, so do I. There are no Spice Girls, but I do meet are a young Welsh couple who are taking a break from their bicycle trip from London to Capetown. They are 18 months along and nearing the goal. (You can follow their progress at And some people think I am adventurous! 

We visit a farm where a great variety of spices are grown in a very compact area. On the way back, we stop at and are underwhelmed by a visit to the ruins of a Persian bath built by the sultan.

For the afternoon I've hired a car to take me out to Jonzi National Park to see the red colobus monkeys. The troupe is habituated to humans, so you can get real close. The guide tries to find me an elephant shrew, but no luck.

The trip is an illustration of what's wrong with Africa: bureaucracy and corruption. To transport me out of the city the driver is supposed to have a permit. A new permit must be obtained for each trip. The permit costs 1500 shillings (about $1.50); to get one you have to go to the government office. My driver doesn't bother. At the roadblock/checkpoint he simply gives the inspector a 500 shilling bribe. A few miles further, we get flagged down for no apparent reason. This shakedown costs another 500 shillings. The third time my driver explains that he is now broke, and let him pass without paying. On the way back we pass freely and are not even stopped ? the cops/soldiers know we have already paid.

My last day on Zanzibar, Christmas eve, is devoted to shopping. Unlike mainland Tanzania, this place is loaded with stuff, and at competitive prices. My first purchase is a T-shirt with "MUZUNGU" printed in large letters across the front. Also, I like the style of paintings and buy three.

I am scheduled to fly to Uganda early the next morning, changing planes in Dar. We depart on time at 8 AM. It's only a 20 minute flight, never climbing above 6000 ft. At Dar I get the news: the onwards flight has been canceled. The reason? It's Christmas. And tomorrow is Boxing Day. The next flight is in two days (which will be too late for me to join my tour). What about Nairobi? All flights cancelled. Johannesburg? The only flight is closed, leaving in a few minutes. That's the story from Air Tanzania. Two windows away is the window for Precision Air, a subcarrier for Kenya Airways, where they say that they have a flight leaving today and that there are plenty of seats available. Air Tanzania tells me that those flights have been cancelled too. A confab between the two produces no resolution. 

The next step is we all visit the Kenya Airways office inside the airport administration building. They don't know what's going on either. They start playing with their booking computer. There supposed to be four flights a day to Nairobi and an equal number from Nairobi to Entebbe. Only by attempting to make a booking can one find out whether a flight will be actually operating. Finally, after many inquiries, they determine that there will be one flight to Nairobi tomorrow at 8 AM and one onwards flight to Entebbe at 8 PM.

In the meantime, Air Tanzania does me right: they transport me to the 5 star Moevenpick in downtown Dar with an open voucher for all meals. Once checked in I join the expat and diplo crowd for the hotel's Xmas buffet, a truly sumptuous repast, then repair to the pool. Also at the hotel are two Finnish student backpackers who were also scheduled to fly to Entebbe. (Apparently the airline only sold three tickets, which is why they canceled the flight.) They have decided to take the flight two days hence and have been give a 48 hour voucher. They think they have died and gone to heaven ? they have never stayed in such a fancy place or had such a fine meal. The hotel staff cannot help sniggering at my T-shirt.

In the late afternoon I venture out and hire a taxi for a city tour. What a dump!

For dinner I let Air Tanzania treat me to room service, and I do the same for breakfast.

In the morning I am off to Nairobi. I have all day to waste. I consider seeing the city, but the thought of a tour of yet another African urban hellhole pales next to the very comfortable airport lounge.

En route to Entebbe that evening the inflight magazine offers a glimpse of life in Africa: a construction company is advertising "low cost housing" (i.e., barracks), walls, electric fences, razor wire, electric razor wire, and automatic security gates.

Arrival at Entebbe is at the new terminal. Across the field is the old terminal, site of the Israeli hostage rescue in 1976, now part of a huge UN airlift and vehicle depot, at the ready, in the event of a crisis, to make expensive and ineffective gestures.

Mzungus In The Mist

I have signed up for the "Gorilla Express" with Gecko's, an Australian adventure travel outfit. (The tour companies snap up all the gorilla permits, so joining a tour is the only way to get one in peak season.) Our group is ten: Canucks, Brits, Aussies, and me. The joining hotel is, as expected, a dump.

We embark. Thirty miles south of Kampala lies the equator.

A bit later the driver's phone rings. It's the hotel. Did we mean to leave luggage behind? Another great African SNAFU unfolds. We were told to bring our luggage to reception. SOME people were advised that the porters would not load the luggage until we had identified it. This is to prevent misleading and mix-ups. The tour company (a local operator) will take no responsibility. To have the bags delivered by taxi will cost us $200. A real Hobson's choice. The luggage is supposed to catch us by lunch.

Two hours later another call: the hotel has four pieces. Is that all? NO! WHERE IS MINE? They will look.

At the end of the day we reach Kibala. Two hours later the luggage shows up. My bag has been located: it was loaded onto the wrong bus and is now at the other end of Uganda. (So much for their failsafe system.) At this point the tour company steps up and does the right thing: they will have my bag delivered at their expense.

The countryside is typically African, but not especially interesting. Many witch doctors, herbalists, and other quacks have posted signs which proclaim their ramshackle clinics as an "AIDS Research Center." As we pass through one town, sirens force us to the side of the road for the presidential motorcade to pass. His Excellency is on the campaign trail. A long convoy of luxury vehicles separated by trucks of helmeted, goggled soldiers in jump seats ready to leap into action. Heavy weapons too. It looks like a convoy in Baghdad. The Maximum President is not taking any chances: he has thrown his opponent in jail.

The countryside is typically African, but not especially interesting. Many witch doctors, herbalists, and other quacks have posted signs which proclaim their ramshackle clinics as an "AIDS Research Center." As we pass through one town, sirens force us to the side of the road for the presidential motorcade to pass. His Excellency is on the campaign trail. A long convoy of luxury vehicles separated by trucks of helmeted, goggled soldiers in jump seats ready to leap into action. Heavy weapons too. It looks like a convoy in Baghdad. The Maximum President is not taking any chances: he has thrown his opponent in jail.

The paved road comes to an end at Kibala. We are entering hill country. The combination of bad road and switchback means that it takes three hours to cover fifty miles. The scenery is good. The soil is rich, and the dense population has cultivated the slopes to their crests, denuding the hillsides. It's an erosion disaster in the making.

This is also the road to the Congo. A steady flow of trucks brings in everything they need and hauls minerals back out.

Congo, Rwanda, and Uganda all meet near here. The border area is the only home of the mountain gorillas.

Finally, some justice in this world: at the Rwandan border, holders US and UK passports get a free visa. A rare exception in a continent of ingrates.

In Rwanda, the road changes from dirt to smooth macadam. And we switch from left-side driving to right. Besides the good road, we can thank the Belgians, the former colonial masters of Rwanda, for something else: at dinner, instead of cold, greasy, chips we are served hot, fresh fries.

There memorials and "please do not commit genocide" signs in each town, but the country has pretty much moved on, i.e., the 85% have forgiven themselves for what they did to the other 15%, and have returned their attention to cadging aid.

We stay in Ruhenga, the main base for gorilla tourism. A large banner at the Dian Fossey Center (she was the "Gorillas In The Mist" gal) commemorates the 20th anniversary of her murder ? which happens to have been exactly yesterday. Gosh, and I missed the party!

Dian Fossey did a good thing during her life -- saved the mountain gorilla -- and a lucky thing afterwards: was played by Sigourney Weaver in the movie. A more accurate casting would have been Kathy Bates, and the success and influence of the movie would have been much less.

That evening, a joyous reunion takes place: my bag has arrived, have been driven 1200 km across Uganda and over the border.  Now I won't have to go gorilla tracking in T-shirt, shorts, and sneakers.

Assembly time is at 7 AM at Park HQ. The 800 or so mountain gorillas in the world live in two populations: in the Virungas, a chain of extinct volcanoes that form the Congo-Rwanda border; and in the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest in Uganda. There are only two groups that can be visited in Bwindi, and permits to see them are book up more than a year in advance. No one goes to the Congo these days. The gorillas in Rwanda are the most accessible: there are eight groups, five of which can be visited by tourists. No more than 8 tourists can visit a group each day, so the maximum number of permits available is 40 per day. (It was a difficult to obtain mine six months ago.) Each permit costs $375 and allows a visit of one hour. At the morning assembly, everyone is complaining; afterwards, no one will not think it was worth the expense.

The rangers divide us according to apparent fitness. For some reason, I am placed with the fittest who will have to hike the furthest to reach the highest, most remote group.

The briefing begins. The mountain gorilla was unknown to science until 1902, and there are none in zoos. We will be visiting the Susa group, the largest, which has 39 members. We study the photos (this is sounding a bit like "Mission Impossible"). Some of them were in the movie. There are twin babies, the only pair know to have survived. There are lots of rules, but four cardinal ones: no flash; no pointing; no touching; and, if charged, do not attempt to run away.

We drive for about an hour to a village where our escorts await: four soldiers, plus porters. The latter are optional ? they will carry your pack for $5. The former are mandatory ? a few years ago Hutu rebels tried to destroy the Ugandan tourist industry by kidnapping and killing tourists. Anything could be lurking in the Congo, just over the hill. (The official reason is that they are there to protect us from the buffalos and elephants that inhabit the forest but no one ever sees.)

We begin: a soldier with and AK-47 in front, our guide, 8 mzungus, porters, and two soldiers in the rear. (One stays back with the vehicle.) After 15 minutes of climbing through cultivated fields we reach the park wall. On the other side is dense bamboo forest.

It is now 8:30. Trackers go out each morning at 6 o'clock to find the gorillas. Our guide is in radio contact. He says they are about and hour and a half away.

The going ain't easy going, climbing through extremely dense vegetation past 10,000 feet. It's exhausting, but rest periods are liberally granted. After 90 minutes we reach the placewhere the gorillas were yesterday. It's easy to spot: they make new nests each night, leaving a wide swatch of trampled greenery and lots of scat. 

We follow the trail, sometimes easy, sometimes not. After another 45 minutes we meet the trackers. We leave our packs and proceed, taking only our cameras, the guide, and one guard.

People often write of the excitement of one's first encounter with a gorilla in the wild. Being a pretty jaded individual, I figured that these reports were over-hyped. Not so! Advancing slowly through the dense bush we hear deep grunts, then an ENORMOUS black, shaggy creature emerges not 20 feet away and pulls down a small tree. Talk about a King Kong moment! Then, from nearby in the bush, chest-beating! My heart is racing, and not just from the altitude.

We move on to find the main group. What luck! The only complaint people have is that the gorillas normally found in dark forest cover. Between the lack of light and the jet-black fur, photographic results are generally poor. Here, most of the Susa group are in a sunlit glade. The adults are picking, peeling and eating plant shoots while the kids play. They behave just like children. They come as close as 6 feet away, generally ignoring us but occasionally looking directly in our eyes. It's a feeling and experience that no zoo encounter could replicate. AND THEY ARE HUGE!

 The hour goes by more quickly than you could imagine. They are habituated to human visitors, but researchers insist that we strictly abide by the one-hour limit. Back to base camp for lunch, then the hike down, which is much faster and easier than the uphill.

Our tour group reassembles, and we re-enter Uganda. We spent the night in the border town of Kisoro at the historic Traveler's Rest, used as base by writers and researchers (including Dian Fossey) since 1955. A local orphanage (between AIDS, accidents, disease, and genocide, there are LOTS of orphans) puts on a dance show that makes up for the sorry performances I endured in Tanzania.

The next day, Friday, is filler. I would like to visit the Pygmies, who used to live in these hills until crowded out by the Bantus and then evicted by the creation of the National Park. The surviving remnant live in misery and poverty in relocation camps. They are the real "native Africans," displaced from their land, stripped of their culture, segregated and scorned. Calling Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton! (Oh, I forgot, you can only call whites racists.)

Instead, we drive back to Kibale and then to Lake Buyoni and an island tourist camp. It's an eco-tourism, community development project, which means that the warm and fuzzy feeling those terms engender is supposed to make up for the lack of anything to do. "Eco-tourism" usually means "nothing but bugs," but here the insects are minimal and several colorful birds alight near my tent area. The tents are permanent and arranged for privacy. I read and work on this trip report. At dinner, a local dance show. So-so. The night is surprisingly comfortable and very quiet and restful.

Saturday is consumed with the drive back to Kampala. We are staying in the city this time. It's the usual congested, chaotic, third world hellhole in which every commercial establishment needs armed guards. For a city built so near the equator, air conditioning is surprisingly scarce, as are cold drinks and ice. It's New Year's Eve, so I attend the giant, outdoor party at the Sheraton (terrible) followed by fireworks (somewhat less so).

Sunday, New Year's Day. The last activity on the tour is a visit to the chimp sanctuary on Ngama Island in Lake Victoria. Behind an electric fence are about 40 chimps that were abandoned pets or confiscated from illegal dealers. One has to view them from an elevated platform because they are nasty and throw stones. They aren't being rehabilitated (there is nowhere to release them) and the island is too small for them to forage, so they just sit around waiting for handouts -- the welfare state in action.

We are subjected to the "education" function of the facility, i.e., indoctrination. The main problem of chimps is twofold: loss of habitat and the locals consider them delicious. Therefore, we shouldn't go to circuses that have performing animals. Right.

That's it. The trip is over. I get dropped off at the Entebbe Flight Motel, where I have taken a day room until my evening flight. The Imperial Botanical Beach Hotel has a large banner welcoming "His Excellency George W. Bush," but I can't wait around. (I hope they get the air conditioning working in time for his arrival, because it wasn't working last week.)

Parting shot: the lounge at the new Entebbe terminal is very nice. Too bad one wall is marred by pictures of a Clinton visitation. Framed is a letter from the US Ambassador thanking the lounge staff for their hospitality during a very long wait for His Fraudulency.

Trip date: December, 2005