Thursday, May 13, 2010

Coming Home

In four hours I'll board a plane bound for Sydney, Australia. I've spent the past two days in Rome at World Food Programme headquarters debriefing with my fellow Vodafone peers who also participated in the World of Difference Programme.

This past year was jam-packed with so many amazing experiences. I will never forget the places, the work, the music, the food and - above all - the people. I know I'll come back.. Uganda feels like a second home.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Tracking Gorillas in Uganda

In the early hours of 3 April 2010, we rolled out of the beds in our simple but comfortable bandas at Buhoma Community Rest Camp to pursue mountain gorillas. Here's a snap of us carb-loading before our gorilla trek with the magnificent forest in the background.
Bwindi Impenetrable Forest lies on the edge of the Western Rift Valley (also known as the Albertine Rift) in southwestern Uganda. Bwindi is home to four habituated gorilla groups that can be tracked by tourists. There is an additional habituated group that is preserved purely for research. We tracked the Rushegura or "R" group.

Our gorilla guide, David (pictured below), started by briefing us on the nuances of tracking gorillas, basically - what's respectful and what's not. One extra tip from David was to tuck our trousers into our socks literally to avoid ants in our pants. A group of enthusiastic trekkers from Sweden were on the case immediately doubling over to tuck their hiking pants into their socks. We played it cool, only "tucking in" before we stepped into the forest.. vanity still counts for some, even in the Great Rift Valley.
Rushegura group is made up of 19 gorillas each with their own personality. The unique identifier for a gorilla is its nose print, in the same way humans are uniquely identified by a fingerprint and giraffes by their distinct coat pattern.

In a group of eight (I'm talking humans here) we set off to find the Rushegura gorillas. David told us that a group of trackers head out earlier in the morning to locate the gorillas to a general vicinity in the forest. They then radio this position back to base so that when we (the tourists) come out we can head in the general direction of their whereabouts. Locating the gorillas can take anywhere between 15 minutes to six or seven hours! We had braced ourselves for the 'worst'.

From our first encounter with the gorillas the clock started ticking. Visitors are allowed one hour with these amazing animals which is tightly controlled by the guides in deference to the gorillas. After a 45 minute hike up a dense forest hill David, our guide, asked us to pause and inhale, "Do you smell that?" It was the smell of animal.. we were in the gorilla's hood. Before we new it about five of the Rushegura gorillas crossed our paths (or did we cross theirs?) as they were descending the hill into the valley below.
David informed us that they hadn't been down in the valley for the past two months. For this we were lucky, yes, but it also meant that we had to race down the hill through dense forest as David and the other guides created a path for us to scramble down. As we slipped and slided down the hill the Rushegura gorillas trailed a parallel path much more gracefully than us!
The sun was shining brightly in the valley which is reflected in the improved clarity of my pictures from my basic point and shoot camera.
We were not allowed to touch the gorillas but they came close to us of their own volition.
Check out those hands.
A pensive G.
This video starts with a focus on one of the two silverback gorillas in the Rushegura group. It then pans to some of the smaller gorillas in the group. What an amazing experience.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

On the Right Wavelength

I'm down to my last few weeks in Uganda and it's sad to think my time working for WFP in East Africa is almost over. I'll be back in Australia next month.

Here's some short reading about what I've been up to at work during the past year. It's an article that appeared in WFP's "Wavelength" magazine: I hope you enjoy it.

Ntarama and Nyamata - 1994 Rwandan Genocide

Ntarama and Nyamata are the sites of two Catholic Churches in Rwanda which now serve as memorials to the heinous Rwandan Genocide of 1994. Freddy, from East Africa Eco Explorer tour company, took me 30km outside of Kigali - the capital of Rwanda - to the location of these harrowing sites where thousands of Rwandans were murdered.
A sign at Ntarama that reads: "If you knew me and you really knew yourself, you would not have killed me."
The images and video speak for themselves.

To Timbuktu and Back! (PART I)

Earlier in 2009 one of my great friends from childhood - Nada - suggested a plan to meet at a desert music festival in Mali over New Year. Concurring it was a great idea, the trips were soon booked with Nada travelling from Perth, Australia (via Paris) and myself travelling from Kampala, Uganda (via Nairobi).

Mali is in West Africa, also the musical heartland of Africa. We met in Bamako, the capital of Mali, and from there we hatched our plan to travel to Timbuktu on the southern edge of the Sahara Desert some nine hundreds of kilometres from the capital.

Alhassane, our pinasse driver and guide who took us for a ride on the Niger River. A pinasse is a traditional wooden boat used to transport people and various goods on the river.
Mahmoud, a new friend from Timbuktu, pictured below. A fluent English speaker and a charming young fellow, Mahmoud runs a tour business in Mali. If you are looking to travel in Mali I recommend Mahmoud as a guide. Get in touch with Mahmoud.
Nada and I in tradition Touareg head-dress. It protects one from the harsh elements of the desert - that would be sun and sand!
Cruising the Niger River in Mopti - Nada and me. Mopti is a port town between Bamako and Timbuktu.
Dogon is a popular area for travellers because of its beautiful panoramas, and rich history and culture. Dogon is a series of small towns between which you can hike. Each town has its own unique history and cultural mix. I was particularly interested by the history of the Tellem, the pygmy inhabitants of the area who left centuries ago but whose abandoned dwellings still exist in many of the Dogon towns. One of the first towns on the way to Dogon Country is Jigibombo - what a brilliant name (definitely more exciting than the name of my hometown in Australia - Adelaide).

Here is a short video of a dance at a mask festival at Ende one of the many towns in Dogon Country and the third and final town we visited in Dogon.
In my next post I'll tell you more about the Touareg music festival we attended and some other stories from Mali.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010


Any airport that has an airline called "Mango" is my kind of airport!
I arrived in Johannesburg on Saturday 5 December for a weekender with my good friend, Natalie, who had just finished a one month tour through East Africa and was on her way back to Australia. Natalie and I worked together at Vodafone some years back - that's how we met. The flight from Dar es Salaam to Johannesburg is a two and a half hour direct flight. Given it was just a weekend trip I borrowed a small suitcase from my neighbour, Janet, in Dar es Salaam. Travelling light is not usually my forte but I think I did pretty well although my plastic bag is not the epitome of stylish travel luggage (I am yet to find Louis Vuitton in Uganda).
Johannesburg is the largest city in South Africa and the capital of Gauteng province. It's a modern city in terms of infrastructure and services. I stayed in a well-to-do area of Joburg called Sandton which has one of the largest malls in Africa called Sandton City. Sandton has become the financial hub of the country. Walking through Sandton City was an almost strange experience as I realised I've become quite unaccustomed to large malls since I left Australia. Mr Westfield is yet to travel across the Indian Ocean - thankfully! This shoe or 'all-terrain vehicle' I spied in a shoe store in Sandton City gave me a new appreciation for the understated second-hand shoes on offer in Kampala's Owino Market.
Johannesburg's Apartheid Museum offers a comprehensive view of the apartheid struggle in South Africa. Apartheid was an official policy of the South African government between 1948 and 1994 although well prior to 1948 discrimination along racial grounds was commonplace. A special exhibition on Mandela was open at the museum during our visit. Here is a picture of Natalie and I outside the museum in front of the special exhibition banner.
When you purchase your museum ticket you are also randomly allocated a special pass which says "white" or "non-white". This pass dictates which entrance by which you are allowed to enter the museum - serving as a small taste of the overt discrimination people experienced during the apartheid era.
Below is the South African flag which was adopted in 1994. It marked the dawn of a new era in South Africa.
Nelson Mandela lives in the upmarket Joburg suburb of Houghton. This is a picture of his home which I drove past.
Through my hotel I organised a trip to Soweto, one of the largest black townships in South Africa. The name Soweto is a shortened form of the words "SOuth WEstern TOwnship". With my guide, Trust, we drove through Joburg CBD, across Nelson Mandela Bridge and past the strangely named Housewives Paradise (both pictured below) in the direction of Soweto. Soweto, not known as Soweto until 1964, was established to house black labourers most of whom worked in the many gold mines around Johannesburg.
A small home on Vilakazi Street in West Orlando, a suburb of Soweto, is the site of Mandela's first house. Mandela moved there with his first wife. Later he lived there with his second wife, Winnie Mandela. Much of Mandela's time was spent away from the small red brick home as he was on the run and later during his incarceration. Winnie stayed in the home with their two children Zeni and Zindzi. The tree pictured in Mandela's garden below is where the umbilical cords of their two children and grandchildren are buried. This is a tradition of the Xhosa people, the ethnic group to which Nelson and Winnie belong. Xhosa language is famous for its click sounds.
Across the road and a few doors down, also on Vilakazi Street, is the home of Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Unlike Mandela's house, Tutu's remains a private home to this day. Winnie Mandela did not have an easy run whilst her then husband was in prison. Their home in Soweto was regularly attacked and under surveillance by the police. In the picture below you can see a patched up bullet hole on the lower right of the window. This is only one of the bullet holes that are visible on the facade.
The Soweto Uprising of 1976 was a significant event in the apartheid struggle in South Africa. The uprising was triggered by the governing National Party policy that enforced the use Afrikaans as an official language of instruction in black schools for key subjects such as mathematics. A peaceful protest was organised by students in Soweto to express their discontent at yet another of the oppressive policies of the apartheid government. Police opened fire and the protest transformed into a full scale riot. Some hundreds of protestors were killed or injured in the brutal display of police savagery. An enduring image of the Soweto Uprising is a photo taken by a photographer of the dying young boy - Hector Pieterson - who was only 12 years old. In the impressive Hector Pieterson Museum in Soweto there is an outdoor area with hundreds of granite tiles each bearing the name of a person who died in the riots. Here is a picture of Hector Pieterson's tile. Wikipedia has an interesting writeup on Hector here:

This is the soccer stadium in Soweto where a number of World Cup games will be staged.
This is the major stadium called Soccer City in Johannesburg for the 2010 Soccer World Cup. Soccer City has been built to resemble a calabash and is an impressive structure.
This oversized beaded replica of Nelson Mandela was on display at the Joburg airport. I didn't make it all that far past his knee!
Interestingly, today - 2 February 2010 - is the 20th anniversary of the speech given by former president F.W. de Clerk announcing the release of all political prisoners, including Mandela, and marking the decline of the policy of apartheid in South Africa.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Kibo .. Kili .. Kilimanjaro

On Saturday, 28 November I boarded a Dar Express coachline at Ubungo bus terminal in Dar es Salaam. My destination was Moshi, a town in Northern Tanzania. A couple of weeks earlier, Felister (a colleague of mine at the WFP Tanzania Country Office), and I were chatting over lunch and I mentioned how much I'd like to see Mt Kilimanjaro. All the while I had been thinking it was out of the realm of possibility given my time constraints. Hailing from the north of Tanzania, Felister not only said it was doable but also said I would be most welcome to stay with her family in Moshi. I planned my trip north on the Eid-ul-Fitr long weekend.

I paid 25,000 Tanzanian shillings (appx US$21) for a one way ticket from Dar es Salaam to Moshi. Departing at 8am I arrived in Moshi at 4:30pm. Here's a picture of a rainbow we passed about 4 hours out of Dar es Salaam. I didn't have time to collect the pot of gold.
Felister's family welcomed me with open arms at the bus stop. Below is a picture of her wonderful family in Moshi. Mr (right of pic) and Mrs (left of pic) Msuya are both teachers. Mr Msuya is also an engineer.
That evening I was invited by Mr and Mrs Msuya to join them at a post-wedding thank you party at a local restaurant (pictured below). The party was hosted by the parents of a recently married family friend to thank the wedding organising committee for all their help organising the event. In Tanzania, when a couple gets married close friends of the couple's family form a wedding committee to help plan and organise the event. We dined on tender roast goat and chicken with cooked shredded cabbage and grilled bananas. The parents of the bride gave a thank you speech to their friends in Swahili.
After the party we walked a few doors down to the small convenience store that Mr and Mrs Msuya own. They sell a variety of goods such as drinks, cooking oil, mobile phone recharge, snacks and more. In the back Mr Msuya has a small office.
Moshi is a beautiful town - if I remember correctly it is the tidiest town in Tanzania. The air is fresh and the rains create a luscious oasis of green. The pictures below are my first sightings of Mt Kilimanjaro (also known as Kibo by locals or affectionately as Kili). I took these pictures of the Mountain as we drove into town from Mr and Mrs Msuya's house on Sunday morning. The first is taken through the back window of the car!
At 9:30am on Sunday morning I met Felister's friend, Abisai, who was going to take me to the base of Mt Kili and on a tour of sights in the area. At least five days is required to climb Kili so I had to settle with planting my foot at the base.

Marangu route, also known as the 'Coca Cola route', is the easiest and most popular route to reach the top of the mountain - hence the name 'Coca Cola route'. The picture below is the start of the Marangu route with a couple of climbers setting off on their expedition. I smiled at the sight of tall Australian gum trees at the base of the mountain which you can also see in the picture below.
This sign indicates the five key stops along the Coca Cola route. The peak of the mountain sits at an altitude of 5895m where the depleting ice cap is located.
After spending some time soaking up the fresh air at the foot of the mountain we headed to other sights around Marangu town. At the start of the day we picked up a guide - Kenneth - in Marangu. As you drive through Marangu a number of guides wait by the side of the road and you can negotiate a price with a guide to show you around for the day. Here's a picture of Kenneth showing us through some caves.
The people of Kilimanjaro are known as Chagga. According to Wikipedia they are the third largest ethnic group of Tanzania. Below is a picture of Edward, the curator of Chaggaland Museum which documents the history of Chagga people. The traditional Chagga home is a round hut with a thatched roof. The outside of a Chagga hut is surrounded by pineapple bushes whose serrated leaves protect the occupants from snakes or other creatures who can easily cut themselves on the sharp leaves. A Chagga family traditionally keeps their cattle inside their hut. This is a picture of Edward, the curator of the museum, with a cow inside a hut.
Inside the Chagga hut there are two beds. The father sleeps on his own bed near the entrance ready to protect his family from intruders. The mother sleeps with her children on the second bed. Here is a picture of me baring my pearly whites on the mother's bed.
I ended the day by having a swim in Kilasiya Waterfall. The water is cool and fresh - run off from Mt Kilimanjaro. No one else was game to join me so it was a solo dip.
A snap after the swim on the way back to the car.
After a wonderful couple of days I left Moshi at 8am on Monday morning. This shot of ladies selling fruit and vegetables was my last memory of Moshi as I left on the bus back to Dar. Don't those fresh carrots look delicious?