Archive for the ‘Travel Logs’ Category

Lake Tanganyika Highlights

Saturday, November 10th, 2012

Well hello again!

I know it’s been ages since my last travel log and I apologize. But let me try to right the wrong with an update here about my trip to the Tanzanian coastline of Lake Tanganyika. I’ll save some of the details as I’m hoping my travels will ultimately find their way as printed words on a published page… But here’s an overview.

Lake Tanganyika is the longest lake in the world, the second deepest, and the oldest in Africa. It is so big, about 420 miles long, that four countries surround it — Tanzania on the east coast, Zambia in the south, the DR Congo in the west and Burundi in the north. I’ve been once before, two years ago I was on the Congo side for a story (found here: http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2011/03/02/meet-amy-lehman-the-woman-behind-congos-floating-hospital.html?cid=topic:originals2), and the lake took my breath away. I’ve been aching to go back ever since. Finally got my chance.

I left NYC on Oct. 13th and got to the Tanzanian side of the lakeshore on the 15th. Three full tiring days of travel – a long trip. But this is not an easy place to get to. I traveled through Amsterdam into Dar es Salaam, where I landed late at night, spent about 45 min in a taxi to my hotel, and got about four hours of sleep. Before the sun even rose, it was onto Mwanza, the country’s second largest city, apparently, sitting on the edge of Lake Victoria. A few sleepy hours later I flew into Kigoma, the largest Tanzanian town on the lakeshore. This is where I would start and end my trip and where the real adventure began. The fact that the journey is not exactly direct comes as no real surprise. In spots, especially along the Congolese and Tanzanian shorelines, Lake Tanganyika happens to be one of the most remote places I’ve ever been lucky enough to see.

And with that isolation comes some intensely beautiful landscapes: utterly empty beaches, graceful formations of volcanic rock, acacia tree-filled hillsides and some imposing mountain peaks. The highest of these in Tanzanian is Mount Nkungwe, in Mahale Mountains National Park, at 8,077 feet above sea level. I saw it from afar, nestled among thick, low-hanging clouds. I am pondering a climb one day… Would definitely not be easy – I’m told that you have to ascend and descend two other peaks before the final uphill push. But after the 11 or 12 hours it would take to reach the top, this would probably be an adventure rewarding as hell.

Mountain peaks not withstanding, there are plenty of other enticements in and around Lake Tanganyika. The biodiversity is spectacular: more than 250 species of Cichlid fish swimming under water, many found nowhere else in the world. I saw a wide variety on a few snorkeling outings. There is no corral here, it’s all rock, which makes for lovely, easy swimming and viewing. Next time, maybe a dive is in order? The water is reliably the same refreshing, never-too-cold, temperature year-round. It is comfortable, crisply clean, and wonderfully clear. I LOVE dipping into this lake!

If the aqueous life is not enough for you, in the jungles along the coast and at nearby national parks there are a bevy of other animals on view: chimpanzees, hippos, crocodiles, lions, leopards, giraffes, zebras, elephants, hyenas, buffalo, warthogs, vultures, eagles and more! It’s a wildlife cornucopia and I saw it all at Gombe, Katavi and Mahale National Parks. The lions and chimps came so near I could have scratched between their ears. Alas, I decided to keep my hand instead… These parks are among the most remote in Tanzania and I usually had the animals to myself – an uncommon treat.

The villages along the shoreline are mostly poor, some profoundly so. Many villages have no electricity, running water, cell phone service or even vehicle accessible roads. If you want to know what isolation looks like, this is it. Still, the settings are often stunning. The homes here are built of mud and brick and covered in thatched roofs made of local grasses. Some are upgraded to corrugated tin. They are all rectangular. The story behind this, I heard, is that the nation’s first post-independence president, Julius Nyerere, instructed people to build them thus because, apparently, only poor people lived in round dwellings! I haven’t been able to verify this yet, so who knows if it’s true, but nonetheless it’s a strange and colorful tale!

Most people in coastal villages make their living as fisherman. Many work late into the night and through the early morning plying the waters by lantern light on the hunt for local sardines. Called dagaa in Swahili, the sardines from Lake Tanganyika, and especially Kigoma, are coveted as a national specialty. Fishermen dry them in the sun laid flat on the nets in which they were caught. Shimmering silver, the dried fish are then bagged and sold on the side of the road in town, if not shipped around the country. The fishermen use a local technique to catch them: two big boats string a net between them and smaller boats with the lanterns move in concentric circles around their bigger partners. The glow draws the fish into the nets, except when the moon shines too brightly. As the night darkens, the view from shore is one of distant golden hues bobbing on the horizon. A beautiful, romantic, montage.

I think I’ll leave it here for now. There is so much more to tell about my journey: a grimy, wonderful 32-hour voyage on a 100-year-old colonial era cargo and passenger ferry; wild animal encounters; deep jungle hikes; sensational sunsets; lots of enchanting bird song; an amazing, luxurious, nearly secret, lodge and more! But this should give you a taste of the place, I hope…!

More to come!

Farm patrol in Rugari

Thursday, October 21st, 2010

12.Oct.2010

If anyone were to tell you that Congo is a beautiful country, don’t doubt it. I saw some truly spectacular countryside today.

Roger and I accompanied the Indian peacekeeping contingent from the Rugari COB (TK) (part of MONUSCO, the UN mission in Congo) on their regular farm patrol where they walk through the vast cultivated countryside whose farmers they are sent to protect.

Hill upon rolling, bright green hill, plotted in neat round rows for beans, sorghum, cassava, potatoes and other vegetables. The terrain was rarely flat, often offering long vistas over the valley below and towards the mountains opposite. The farmers were genial, greeting us graciously as we passed with big smiles, energetic waves and “Jambo! Habari!” (Hello! How are you!) Children hollered happily as we passed, they shy ones warming up after the initial shock of seeing my white skin – Mizungu! Plus, Roger is so sweet with them that few can resist cracking a smile once he goes in for a robust high five handshake.

The land was lush and the footpaths slick and muddy. They cost me my footing once on a downhill slope. Note to self: find walking stick before next rural Congo trek. It makes one feel a little more sheepishly clumsy because the locals run up and down these paths in sure bare feet or meager plastic sandals. Here I was with my water-proof, extra comfy, good soled Tevas and I couldn’t hold it together. Typical.

Besides the fact that we saw a really special area, the reporting was fruitful. More on that in the story…

Driving to Goma

Thursday, October 21st, 2010

10.Oct.2010

A new route, this time, from Kigali to Goma, the northern route. Alphonse is ferrying me there again, cheerful as always, and tells me he likes this way best because the scenery is more striking. Initially that’s hard to imagine because the road to Bukavu is a winding, hilly one that is complete the entire way with striking countryside. But it turns out that driving to Goma takes you past Musenze, a tourist hub at the Rwanda base of Virunga National park and home to six (I think) volcanoes. This is where the mountain gorillas on the Rwanda side reside. It is also where, according to Alphonse, one of the hotels deep in the jungle charges $1000 per night for the privilege of volcano and lake views.

We drove on a Sunday, kind of a grey day, but pleasant. The roadsides where fairly busy with church-goers: women in silky finery and radiant parasols. These are the large umbrellas that seems to be unique to the area, vibrant colors, intricate designs – especially of flowers – used not only to protect from the rain, but in Victorian fashion to shield the women and the babies on their backs from the sun. I’d love to find one and bring it home. This trip, with the venture to Lake Tanganyika is probably not the one…

It felt like a quick ride and Alphonse dropped me at the border. We bade goodbye and I walked to the immigration counter. Roger found me there and we proceeded to the hotel, Cap Kivu again, same room too! The receptionist remembered me! Cute little spot with a slanted ceiling and balcony overlooking the beautiful gardens and lake. I read and slept and tried to regulate my body from the jet lag. Roger and Dobs and I had a nice dinner at Ihusi hotel and then it was off to bed for a day of planning my coverage on Monday. Uneventful. Good.

Idjwi

Thursday, March 25th, 2010

Sunday was an adventure. It started early with a 5 am wake-up so that I could meet Roger, Victoria and Bahati for our 6:30 am boat ride to Idjwi — an island in Lake Kivu. Bahati was out guide for the day. A friend of Roger’s, he grew up on Idwji and knew where to take us to see a village chief, small, private coffee farms, the breathtaking views and the one tourist spot, a local lodge, built seven years prior. Victoria is a woman I met on my last trip and who was again in Congo working with a non-profit women’s center she started to aid rape victims. She and I shared several adventures on my last trip and I knew she’d want to come along on this one.

The boat ride, so early in the morning, was one of the highlights of our day. With the sun coming across the lake in a dazzling blaze, setting alight the many fishing boats in a sparkling silver, the view was truly cinematic. And with all the waving between us and the fishermen, I woke up quickly, snapping away with the camera. Hopefully some of the shots came out…

Our boat was a small speed boat operated by another Idjwi local who know lives in Bukavu. It was a surprisingly smooth ride and the fresh air was lovely. We’d hired the boat for the day, to take us the hour or so to Idjwi and then bring us home in the afternoon. Much better, and easier to organize, than trying to go on the scheduled Bukavu – Goma / Goma-Bukavu boats.

A possible Belgian relic?

A possible Belgian relic?

We arrived on the island at about 8 am and took a short stroll along the water seeing a convent, the hospital and hospital staff’s housing. Though one of the sisters told us there had been a drought, the flowers were gorgeous, including my favorite dahlias. It is one of the things I like best about Congo — the rich flora and fauna. If this was what drought produces, I would love to see it when the rain is abundant.

A view of Lake Kivu from the island of Idjwi

A view of Lake Kivu from the island of Idjwi

We soon then jumped in the hospital jeep and wound our way to the home of one of the village chiefs. There I interviewed him, probing about the island’s history and people’s experiences during the war. There was no real fighting on the island, but it has suffered from the many Rwandan refugees that came there and the resulting environmental problems — many, many trees cut, soil degraded, etc. In conjunction with deep poverty, a growing population and a blight on the banana trees, there is real hunger here.

We saw it very soon after our interview. As we left the chief’s home, we started an ambling walk that wound us along a road bordered by thatched-roof huts, kasava fields and sweeping views of the hilly island and the vast lake. But not long after we started, I noticed a tiny child sitting, by himself, on the side of the road under the shade of a tree. He was totally alone with not an adult in sight. I stopped and asked the chief where his family was. I was told that it’s perfectly normal for him to be sitting there, he does all the time. I didn’t agree. The child was obviously in bad shape — dirty, had wet eyelashes from crying, mucus all over his face, no pants, and as we looked closer, he was severely malnourished. I went over and wiped his face clean with some kleenex and tried to show some affection — gently rubbing his back and head and cheek. I asked the chief (accompanied by several men from the village) to get his parents or someone to come and look after him. It took me nearly 15 minutes or so of urging until he finally called a woman over. The whole episode was deeply upsetting. I nearly started crying because I was so frustrated that no one seemed to care an iota about this child and couldn’t be moved to do anything to help him. Even now, as I write about it, I can feel my blood pressure rising.

The woman who had come over, in no hurry whatsoever by the way, took the child by his hand and pulled him to his feet. Then it was even more clear how sick he was — tiny, shrivled legs, and a rear end of sagging flesh. No muscle, no vitality. I was so upset. I gave her 1500 Congolese francs and asked her to go and buy bananas for him and some for her own children. I urged her to please, please, do this; to understand it was very important to me that she use the money for bananas for the child and not for anything else. With Roger’s help and translation I hope she understood and followed through. What I really wanted to do was to bring the child to the hospital. But with his parents absent I didn’t really think I could just pick him up and take him away.

Only the next day did Roger tell me that it turns out the woman who’d come over was, in fact, the child’s mother. The chief had asked him not to tell me. I am not sure why. But it makes me even more angry. If I’d known we could have taken them together to the hospital. It’s totally heartbreaking. It was among the most painful things I’ve ever seen and experienced. Perhaps it’s good I didn’t know then she was the mother. I may not have been so kind and I know it’s really not my place. My assumption was that she was abusing and neglecting her child. But, when I am rational, I know I can’t understand all of the reasons for his hunger. We were told the father used all the family’s money to buy beer. Thus the layers of reasons for the child’s sickness are likely many and it would be totally presumptuous of me to have lashed out at the mother.

Later in the day we met a nurse from one of the village health centers. We asked him to go find the child and mother and try to bring them to the hospital. I will follow-up with Roger and Bahati that this happens. The nurse seemed to take the news in stride. He was concerned but given the depths of poverty here, it seemed this was certainly not the first case of such extreme malnutrition he’s seen. Turns out, though the island is beautiful and looks extremely fertile, the banana blight is having a serious impact on access to food. Also, much of the land on the island is owned privately, so the population doesn’t have as much land to cultivate as it seems.

The remainder of our walk was nice. We got a real sense of the island’s beauty, saw eucalyptus and cyprus trees, fields of coffee and kasava, beans and potatoes, and had a lovely picnic lunch at the lodge, the Congomani Guest House. But sadly, the day was colored by this encounter.

We also, unfortunately, had another nasty encounter after lunch with an awful man who was bothering Victoria and I about showing him our passports. He claimed to be some intelligence agent, but had no photo ID to show, despite me asking repeatedly. I had been visited by the intelligence service before and they had no problem producing photo ID when I asked. I then had no problem producing my press credentials — all they asked for — and the whole thing ended congenially. This tim, lots of yelling ensued, the man got very aggressive and wouldn’t let us leave the island until Victoria and I showed him our passports, which we ultimately did, though we wouldn’t let him touch them.

Though he wouldn’t give me his name — shouldn’t have been a problem if he was legit, no???? — I found out and told another intelligence agent I saw the next day. Not a nice side of Congo, this…

Gorillas!

Sunday, March 14th, 2010

Holy, holy mountain gorillas! Saw them today on my trek into the depths of the bush in Virunga National Park. It was incredible.

A backside view of the 200 kilo Silverback and Papa to the 12-member gorilla family I saw

A backside view of the 200 kilo Silverback and Papa to the 12-member gorilla family I saw

Which of these tasty morsels shall I chomp on next?

Which of these tasty morsels shall I chomp on next?

The family baby -- loving his chance to play and stuff his grill!

The family baby -- loving his chance to play and stuff his grill!

The adventure began on the road into the park. It’s a mostly uphill, deeply rutted route marked with huge jagged lava rock that look made to pop tires, stall cars and dent anything and everything underneath our seats… It was a bumpy and slow ride, at times even mildly harrowing. But despite a couple stalls and spinning wheels and take twos and threes, we made it. We actually walked the last 100 meters to the trail head while the car drivers tried to navigate a particularly treacherous mud / rut / rock combination. In our absence, and with several sets of young hands from the local village youth, they eventually made it to the ranger station where we started and ended our gorilla adventure.

The head ranger, a welcoming man named Michel whose been a ranger here for 20 years, told us that between Congo, Rwanda and Uganda — the park crosses into each country at points — there are about 700 mountain gorillas left. In the area where we walked, called Mikono, there are 6 families totaling about 43 gorillas.

We walked about an hour and a half through the densest forest I think I’ve ever been in — there was no trail because we were following the gorilla’s paths, actually tracking them. So the rangers had to use their machetes to carve our way through. As we ducked under and climbed over roots, pushed vines to the side and untangled them from our feet, we eventually got to an enclave of 10 gorilla nests. They were infested with flies and adorned with fresh logs of gorilla poop. The rangers need to check the nests and the poop in particular to make sure the animals remain healthy. Blood in stool = no good. No blood = good.

These indicators also signal the way. Michel said after they nest the gorillas don’t move that far away. He then predicted another 30 minutes of walking. And in 31 minutes we saw them! A family of twelve, including the father, a 200 kilo Silverback (massive fingers and toes, hunk of a head), and an utterly adorable little baby gorilla. It was such fun and so unlike anything I’ve gotten to do here yet. The gorillas were super chill and even seemed to be posing for us at times. At one point the baby started walking straight at one of the guys in our group (we were four — me, roger, and a Canadian couple), as if to grab him. But the mamma gorilla pulled the baby back, reeling in mischief. So human! Michel said the baby was shocked by our light skin and would have wanted to touch us and see if it would wipe off! I don’t think they see that many tourists these days.

This is, in fact, considered the low season. Only about 25 people have gone to see the gorillas this month. Back in the late ’80s, early ’90s, there were upwards of 3,000 visitors each year. Now the number is about 250-300. The park closed in 2005 because of violence and only reopened in the southern section (where we were) in May of 2009. That was when the Congoloese army was able to clear the FDLR (former Interahamwe from Rwanda) from the area. These days things are calm again and our rangers were more worried about running into a possibly angry elephant than anything else!

Being in the forest was great. It was hot and muggy and pretty difficult to walk because of all the vines and branches, and not really being able to see the ground much because of said vines and branches, which not only made standing upright at times a challenge, but cover the forest floor. Yet it added so much to the experience to follow the actual path the gorilla’s take and find them that way. Needless to say, they move much more easily through the jungle than I. However, I am now able to officially claim I’ve bush-whacked!

I saw a bit of rural Congo on our drive, as well. As I expected the poverty was intense. The homes had mostly thatched roofed and bamboo walls with mud or leaves in between, and the children ran about in tattered t-shirts and dresses. When they saw us they got very excited and immediately asked for cookies! I should have known and brought some — though it might have required a trunk-full to satisfy each child! Note to self…

Tomorrow I’m back to reporting. But those gorillas will not been soon forgotten.

For more info visit the Virunga National Park Web site.

The head ranger and I pose in front of the gorilla family, our masks firmly in place to keep our diseases from infecting the precious animals

The head ranger and I pose in front of the gorilla family, our masks firmly in place to keep our diseases from infecting the precious animals