Serengeti – home of the world's densest mammal population

flashes of zebra stripes

It’s supposed to be the dry season, but it rained last night in Serengeti. The weather, like the world all over, has been strange here, confusing the animals and vegetation. However, it’s the perfect time of year to watch the great migration, as hundreds of thousands of wildebeest make their way from Tanzania to Kenya for greener pastures. I was lucky enough to see a herd a few thousand strong, headed slowly from Serengeti to Masai Mara.

wildebeests as far as the eye can see

Getting to the Serengeti was quite a mission, since it tailors poorly to backpackers who rock up and think there’s a cheap alternative to visiting the park. The better prepared tourists have planned their safari tour before they even arrived in Tanzania, and hiring a car for a day from outside the park gates will cost you a cool $450, payable only in US cash.

I was in Mwanza, a sort of gateway town to the Serengeti since its only 2 hours away, and also touristy since it sits on the shores of Lake Victoria. I took a local bus to the west gate, and stopped at a campsite there called Serengeti Stopover. The receptionist there quickly shone light on my ill-preparedness, but tried everything he could to help me. After two hours of discussing, making some important phone calls, and talking to another safari car already at Stopover, we had succeeded in the luckiest plan.

elephant crossing

I would go with the 7 passenger range rover, claiming the last seat, for free because the other passengers had already paid for the car and the driver couldn’t ask me to pay more. Im not sure why they agreed; maybe they felt sorry for me, maybe they were curious to see what I’d do once inside the park, or perhaps they’d never met anyone from Iceland and wanted to seize the opportunity.

hippos out of the water, a special sight

We took a leisurely 4 hour game-drive into the park, spotting huge herds of zebra, wildebeest, elephants and hippopotamuses. It was 145km to central rest camp, where I would meet Paolo, the park ranger Stopover arranged my park permit and accommodation with. All the camps and guesthouses were full, so I would stay at Seronera, the staff village. I did not even have to camp there, since they had running water and electricity to all the houses, and I stayed in one of the nicest rooms I had seen in East Africa, complete with a hot shower. The next morning I went out into the village to wait for my bus back out of the park, the staff bus which costs $12 per person, payable only in Tanzanian shillings.

frisky little vervet monkeys

A bird managed to poop on my computer screen as I typed under a shady tree waiting. People lazed around the unfenced camp, and others waiting for the bus sat on their suitcases. Chickens waiting to be slaughtered gobbled in the heat, tied up an unable to move. I was sitting watching a bunch of vervet monkeys play a few metres from me, migrating between the ground, the trees and the roof of the restaurant. I saw an adult steal two tomatoes thru the tiniest crack in the door of the kitchen, and he managed to run back up the tree with one hand full back to the roof without anyone but me noticing. Unfortunately, he got a little clumsy as he greedily started eating the first, so the second tomato slowly rolled down the slanted roof to drop on the floor infront of the shopkeeper. This caused the three women of the house to start waving sticks, brooms and chucking rocks at the monkey on the roof as they taunted him with the lost tomato in a fist shaking hand.

It was hard to believe I was still in Serengeti park, as routine life carried on in Seronera exactly as it does in all the other villages I had seen.

 

 

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Tanzania: Swahili, mafias and 12-passenger sedans

When I first arrived in Uganda, I kept thinking I was in Rwanda and asking silly questions like “What is the local language called in Rwanda?” or “What are the most famous tourist destinations in Rwanda?” People just stopped and stared, wondering whether they should try to answer or ask if I really meant to ask that. Now in Tanzania I keep thinking Im in Kenya, and reflecting on all the stereotypes I thought I had of Kenya in light of what Im seeing and experiencing in Tanzania. It doesn’t help that I’m not sure how to inflect Tanzania; Tanz-EY-nia, Tanz-AH-nia or Tanzanee-AH?

They have a response to Uganda’s Waragi called Konyagi, but what someone says it it sounds like “cognac” and I got pretty confused when served a shot of gin. Its unclear to me why some people say or said English is an official language here, since Swahili or Arabic seem to be the only languages spoken country-wide. Even then, some areas only speak their local languages, and when I arrived at the border town of Ngara, I started to realize the potential problems I would run into.

I spent about an hour at the actual Tanzanian border, having just left Burundi and still 38km from Ngara. There were maybe 5 buildings there – the immigration building, a hotel, a house or two, and a bunch of shacks lined up in what seemed to be an empty parking lot or deserted marketplace. Three of the shacks were painted with bus company names like “Taqwa bus,” and each one had 5 or 6 men waiting in and around them. I approached to ask for a bus to Ngara, and each and every person there informed me that no such bus was coming until tomorrow, even though it was only 11 am and 38km away on a safe, paved road. Many also admitted, sheepily, they didn’t work for the bus companies, and that the offices weren’t really open since no tickets were to be sold that day.

Then I asked for a moto-taxi or a taxi, and it took half an hour to communicate that this was also impossible. As I stood there, puzzled and contemplating the time it would take to jog there, an old, beat-up Subaru hatchback pulled up and announced “NGARA NGARA NGARA!” I immediately took the front seat, thrilled that I would avoid spending a night at the border, and got comfortable. Then another woman got in the front seat. We would share. The driver would also share his seat. The backseat would take 4 people and 2 chickens. And the trunk? 4 more.

After an hour, we finally got to Ngara, bottoming out on all the speedbumps along the way and playing an intricate game of Tetris every time we stopped to let someone in or out. Ngara is a town on 2 intersecting roads, no bigger than those 4 blocks around it.

the Supermarket store front

There was only one bank and one ‘supermarket,’ and I could buy water and change money at the supermarket. The woman at the cashier was Arabic, from Oman, and spoke excellent English. She gave me a great rate and then suggested the one hotel and one restaurant I should stay and eat at, 200m away. She offered to drive me there, since it was hot and time for her siesta. We got into her air-conditioned, Japanese-speaking car and before reversing from the driveway, I was invited for lunch at her home.

She lived behind 2 sets of steel doors, manned by 4 guards and a junkyard between, in a beautiful mansion teeming with children. Her daughters, cousins, and their daughters all unveiled at the comfort of me being a woman, and we ate with our hands around a regal, long table.

Sabrah, the Pacino of Ngara

After lunch she dropped me to the hotel, where I met a Canadian miner in town for the night. He was familiar with the town, since he worked 2 hours away in a nickel mine, and explained “Oh, I see you’ve met the legalized mafia!” Turns out, she owns the supermarket, the hotel, the restaurant, and virtually runs the town. Everyone works for her, buys from her, or deals through her since she’s a big piggy bank and speaks the local dialect, Arabic, Swahili and English fluently. Now that I had become her friend, her newly-extended circle of trust would mean I was safer than ever – everyone in town soon learned I had been with her, and Ive never been left in such peace! I could give money to no one, not even for the hotel room, and everyone wanted to help me… but only if it didn’t bother me.

 

Burundi

A transit visa allows you only 3 days in Burundi, and because its tiny and all travel advisories I read about it before coming suggested I shouldn’t go at all, I opted for the 72 hour sampler. Rwanda helped transition me into a French frame of mind, but I find the African-French accent more difficult to understand. Adjusting to another exchange rate is always tricky, since changing money at the border gives you a pretty good chance to getting ripped off handsomely. Its about 1500 Burundian Francs to $1US, and the smallest bill is 50 francs – you can imagine how many bills you end up with if trying to carry $20USD in small notes. The actual bills are the most well used pieces of paper I’ve ever seen, something so worn it should be taken out of circulation and put in an ancient articrafts museum.

In 3 days, I only had a few hours in the rural areas in my transit in and out of Bujumbura, the capital city. After crossing the northern border from Rwanda, things changed slowly to reintroduce me to another country. The terraced hills became fewer, a little more crooked. The language in Rwanda and Burundi is basically the same, but people spoke differently. The villages became more haggard, people – dustier, things – cheaper. Arriving from the rolling hills into the city was an unexpected site – Bujumbura lies on a flat plain bordering Lake Tanganyika.

Transitioning to French as the lingua franca was a small problem, but only for me since others spoke enough English to help me through any language failures. Feeling lost in communication was the least of my problems when I tried to navigate Bujumbura’s central market. It’s this intensely vast market, open at the sides but covered by a vaulted roof high enough to keep fresh air circulating through the congested corridors.

 

the sewing section

Arriving at one of the entrances resulted in stares and cheers, and I guessed it was from wearing shorts so I took my scarf and wrapped it around me as a skirt. People quieted once I was inside the market, and instead I heard quite “Karibu’s” and felt faint touches on my arm as I walked past each vendor, welcoming me to look in their stall. The market was overwhelmingly large, but perfectly organized, with each type of good in its designated corner. You can anything you can imagine there, from clothes to flour to pesticide and alcohol. I wandered in circles and made left and right turns that just resulted in me turning myself around so many times I had no idea where I started. I never walked the same alley twice, and only when I returned back to the raw meat butcheries did I recognize a corner of the market I’d already seen. I was totally lost for about an hour, and felt like I had been to the most dense shopping market imaginable. It was a zoo of people and things, unintelligible calls for what they sold, and I, the only person not buying or selling anything.

Informal Couchsurfing

Right now Im sitting at the shores of Lake Tanganyika in Bujumbura, the capital of Burundi. The lake is so big it looks like Im looking out at the ocean, but I know Im not because there are 5 hippos wading in the freshwater grunting like asses every few minutes. Its 5:17 and the sun is about to go down, directly infront of me. Im at a place called the Touristic Beach, which is a huge restaurant/bar/patio/disco venue with seats for about 300 people, but Im only one of about 11 people, half of them staff, in this whole place. Im the only non-burundian, and alone, so it’s a perfect time to write.

the very lonely touristic beach, except for the wading hippos

Im staying here with a Burundian/Belgian couple, a pair of couchsurfers that live right by the lake. Its such an amazing luxury to be welcomed into someones house with a place to sleep, and in todays case, a hot lunch, when they’ve never even met me before. Couchsurfing truly revolutionizes travel.

Ive only had to stay in paid accommodation 2 nights so far, and my previous two hosts were informal couchsurfers. Elaine, a Tawainese American living in Kampala, offered me to stay with her when a mutual friend of ours wasn’t able to, after knowing eachother all of 15 minutes. I had her spare room, in the company of one playful mouse, who somehow found it entertaining to climb into my mosquito net, scurry up the side of it, hang upside down from the top, and then drop straight down on my shoulder, scaring the hell out of me dead asleep. Elaine lived on campus so it was perfect for attending my conference, and we went out one night for hookah and Ethiopian food before she literally gave me all the information I needed to plan my trip to Rwanda.

me and jon with a big silverback

She connected me with a couple of Belgian guys and one awesome South African guy named Jon in Kigali, where I was headed next, and after intending to only stopover a couple days, spent 3 nights in their house one night in Parc Volcan. There we managed to see the gorillas for an actually affordable price because of a friend of Jon’s, and took the best trek to the Susa group where more than 30, totally habituated gorillas surrounded us on a Dr. Seuss-esque landscape.

From Jon’s expat life I bounced to Ed’s expat life. In Bujumbura I spent half my time with an ex-schoolmate of Jon’s who introduced me to the mini-Europe community living in Bujumbura. On my first night there, we went out in a group for dinner to Belvedere, a patio restaurant on the hillside overlooking the city. None of us actually knew it at the time but we had the best seats to the lunar eclipse, so we watched the moon turn yellow, then orange, then almost deep red before totally blacking out. As eerily as it disappeared, it starting growing, fading to yellow again, until it returned to its normal white glow despite the apocalyptic feeling of it all.

East Africa so far

East Africa is worlds apart from South Africa, but strangely similar to parts of Central America, the Caribbean, or India. At times it seems I’ve been transported to Nicaragua; one-storey concrete homes are painted by Coca Cola and competing cell phone networks; rice and unidentifiable fried meat are staple; servitude is acceptable by hierarchical class distinctions reminiscent of the castes in India; and the chaos of road traffic and markets are just functioning in a different language by darker faces.  Reggae music creates the atmosphere of a Caribbean night as it blares from every street corner from the moment the town stirs awake at 7 am until the party stops in the wee hours of the following morning.

The biggest difference is the people: everyone here is unbelievably friendly and smiley! People always greet you and ask how you are, shake hands for a little too long and hug with extra rigor. Ive given up any notion of a personal bubble, since private space is invaded by almost anyone who talks to me; some latch onto my arm, stand within a few milimetres of me, and talk directly into my ear so close to my face that I cant actually turn to face them while they talk to me without knocking foreheads. Its only unfortunate when they have bad breath or you really do want to turn to face them to remember what they look like and you just cant.

People are genuinely interested in helping you, and will do so without expecting any sort of payment. Im not sure if its pity or curiousity, but the sight of a muzungu girl makes them think theres no way I’ll make it without their help, so everyone wants to know where Im going, do I know any Swahili, do I have a friend waiting for me, or what am I looking for. Upon giving an answer, it becomes their sole goal to help me find what, where or who I need and translate any language, directions, or pricing confusion.

Women wear beautifully colourful clothing, with elaborate pattern stamps in bright colours that shine in contrast to their dark skin. They’re quite modest, covering most of their body and head in wraps of cloth, and Ive learned that showing arms is ok, but leg-baring shorts causes me quite a bit of grief. That’s especially unfortunate since its so hot and Im constantly sweating through my jeans, and a little embarrassing since Ive seen few people break a sweat even in the most intense mid-day heat.

Its hot and dry here, with luscious green vegetation and red-mud huts covering all the rural areas. The dirt roads are bright red, contrasted dramatically by the green palms and crop fields. All the soil and spit up dust are also blood red, and it seems to keep most peoples clothes a little earthy coloured no matter how clean they are. Parts of Uganda and all of Rwanda are rolling, forever continuing hills, and almost every square foot of arable land is still exploited through terraced agriculture practice. When dirivng along the winding roads, its hard not to get car sick or frightened by the cliff-dropping heights, but the beautiful symmetry of the perfectly groomed hillsides makes for a very geometric scenery to enjoy.

I’ve decided to bus my way around East Africa, mostly to save money, but also to avoid the high end tourism market catered to with chartered flights. Terrestrial travel lets you see so much more, take in a scenic drive for hours instead of staring at the tops of clouds for 45 minutes. Traveling by bus is also better for the mind and body – it gives you time to adjust the changes in altitude, temperature, humidity, and the brain has more time to process its surroundings and sensual bombardment.

On most buses its impossible to sleep, and if you do, people immediately worry “are you feeling sick?” Preoccupying your conscious mind for 3 or 6 hours can either lead you to some new friends or some crazy ideas. Bus travel is supposed to be fairly safe, but I often get snapped out of my daydreams by an abrupt road block, since police checks are regular and they’ve always got important questions to ask. I can never understand what goes on, but their dialogue interchange is usually stern, slow, and results in an exasperated bus driver raising his voice and gesturing his hands in way that means to me “whatever, sorry, Ive got nothing!” Maybe their asking for registration papers, maybe a bribe, maybe illegal drugs… I’m not sure.

The buses have been less than luxurious, mostly due to overcrowding, but also an unshakeable uneasiness from excessive speeding and bold overtaking driving habits. Im still the only non-east African on every bust Ive taken, and this could be a warning Im refusing to take notice of but I’ll keep believing I truly enjoy the excitement and entertainment of each ride. I’ve had half-dead chickens in a box beside me, a 10L jug of water splashing at my feet, and a 5 kg bag of flour explode ontop of me. Most buses have assigned seating, but the taxi cars and mini-buses usually have two people per seat and a few more standing in between or shoved in the trunk. I’ve had children refuse to sit beside me, even though women plop them on my lap when they’ve got too many to fit on their own. Im not sure if they’re afraid or too shy, but other children can’t get enough of me as they grip at my skin to make sure Im real.

A night in the not-so-democratic-republic of the Congo

Most people know about the ludicrous gorilla wildlife tourism market in Uganda and Rwanda, but some may not realize those same gorilla groups wander passportless to the DRC and thus, also gorilla track in the Congo. The benefit is its cheaper and not sold out months in advance, but the pitfall include bad organization, unreliability and arguably more dangerous. I talked with a tour agent in Kampala, Uganda, who thought it may be hard to get a gorilla permit in any of the Ugandan parks, so connected me with a tour operator in Bunugana, the border town between Uganda and Congo.

His name was Jackson, aged about 30, portly and soft-spoken. He met me in Kisoro a few kilometers out of Bunagana. It took me 6 hrs on a bus the night before to get to Kabale, then 3 hours in a car taxi to get to Kisoro. You’d think the bus ride was worse, but atleast it was during the evening, since the car ride was intolerably hot, and involved the driver squishing 8 adults into a 5 seater sedan. I shared the front seat with another woman whose dress smelled like menstruation, and the driver shared his seat with a man whose legs cradled the stick shift. In the back, the four squeezed sardines looked slightly more comfortable.

If that doesn’t sound bad enough, imagine the entire dirt road under construction, with stop and go one-way traffic, semi-trucks spewing constant dust clouds on the air-conditionless car, and keeping our windows shut to avoid being coloured red by it and instead cooking in the 8 person sauna at high noon. It was fun.

Jackson making dinner while the laptop entertains us

When I finally met Jackson, he put both of us on one moto-taxi, and 3 people on an 8km ride with speed bumps the whole way to the Congo border was certainly an upgrade, but not necessarily luxurious. We sped to the border which he explained we needed to clear my Ugandan exit since it was almost 5 pm, and in the morning we wouldn’t have time to do anything but clear the Congo entry visa. The borders are only open during sunup, so we would have to wait from 6:30 am outside the congo border to get my $50 8-day visa available only at that border for that province of Congo (other entry points are more like $150-$250) and only because I had a letter of invitation by the gorilla park rangers.

We then walked over to Congo anyway, and with a head nod at the right guard, were free to refuge illegally in the Congo til the border reopened. There was a few metres of no mans land, where French, English, luganda and a Congolese dialect all mixed together, and then I enjoyed a coca cola on the patio of his Congolese family. We were to stay in their extra apartment, which was just one big room, no electricity, no running water, and a dingy mattress on the floor that he usually shared with his 3 sons.

prepping the coal stove

At this point I was kind of reconsidering my idea, but then the other Katrin whispered “you can totally do this, this is how everyone here lives.” So I stuck it out, and the apartment slowly got cosier and cosier. The boys lit some coals and a few candles to provide light and heat, Jackson brought out his laptop and played Ugandan reggaeton music videos, and he cooked chapatti over the coals in a pan much too dirty to eat out of. Then he paired it with warm beer, and all of this I took graciously since I couldn’t even leave if I wanted to – I was already exited out of Uganda and illegally in the Congo.

Sure enough, the night was sleepless, and Jackson wanted to confide in me his whole life story and feelings of loneliness. It was awkward, inappropriate, and perhaps my fault, but by 6 am the borders had opened and I tried to start the day anew with a goal to try and choose my tour guides more carefully.

Then, it turned out I couldn’t not get the Congolese visa, since the park rangers were not at the border in person to confirm I was tracking gorillas, so as Jackson suggested I stay another night and be patient until tomorrow, I literally ran away back to Uganda. The problem was I was now illegally reentering Uganda, and I actually had to escape both the Congo and Uganda to hire a moto-taxi to take me the 14 km to the Rwandan border. Thank god no one noticed that I had been stamped out twice since I would have had to reenter and pay another $50 Ugandan visa. Even more thanks to God when I finally arrived on Rwandan soil and got issued a visa even though I wasn’t eligible for one since I didn’t preapply for one online – perhaps another piece of useful information one could take from this blog.