A Turn Into War
7 May, 1999 (2,480 km)
Time slipped out of gear and everything seemed
to happen in slow motion. I stamped on the gas instantly, Kevin pitched
down, the soldiers whirled and brought their guns level, the leader
rocketed into a run drawing his pistol. I saw the leader's eyes
lock mine for an instant and he aimed his pistol pivoting with our
movement, I tensed for the shot…
A quick border transit, pothole slalom, and a final twenty minutes
of spine wrenching madness on a track that had no business being called
a road - and we arrived at Masai Camp in Arusha. The english graffiti in
the bathroom stalls was profane, the swahili graffiti religious - interesting.
If the words of the modern prophets are written on the walls then things
don't look good for the first world. Stocked up on groceries, checked e-mail – and
headed into the really interesting stuff.
I still blame Kevin for what happened
next. Seriously. He had travelled with me for over a week and certainly
had ideas about my driving. We had turned onto a horribly washed-out
dirt road to get to the Ngorongoro crater travelling at a sedate 60kph
and Kevin said, "You must really be enjoying driving at this speed
over this road."
"Well" I said, "what I'm really keen to do is drive a rally car
on this same road at about 120kph."
"There's no way that anyone could do 120kph on this road!"
Right there - do you see it? "…no way ANYONE could…" I'm sorry but
it was a statement that had only one answer… "Really? Wanna see?" Kevin
grinned and said, "Oh there's no way man."
To get the picture you have to envision
the road. Mud ruts ground into the red clay, loose stones and bowling
ball boulders in a continuous scree, twisting hills, hard edged washouts
slashed across the surface, and standing puddles of axle deep water fueled
by a constant drizzle. We should have been going thirty, at sixty kilometers
per hour Stanley was doing a man's work, but 120 was as they said in
Spaceballs - Ludicrous Speed. Of course if you have the driving gene,
120 is fun time. We accelerated to 120. I'll admit that I was a bit nervous.
We literally tore that road up, shocks whacking bump stop maximums, steering
dialed in seconds early, anticipate, anticipate, throwing the inertia
of the truck at the corner apex, driving like leaping down a hill - just
a controlled fall bouncing from spot to spot. Mind blowing.
Looking into Ngorongoro crater at sunset
Buffalo herd in the Ngorongoro crater
Golden eagle with kill
Flamingos in the crater lake
The Masai chief shot several minutes of video - mostly of his goats
Kevin conducts a cultural exchange - spear traded for sunglasses
Olduvai Gorge - 'Lucy in the sky with diamonds'
Serengeti - The world's premier park
Thirty minutes later we had donned
rain ponchos and cranked up Ella Fitzgerald to serenade us as we jacked
the truck up to replace the left rear tire with a fist sized blowout.
It was another surreal African scene. Ella never sounded so good as she
did on the road to Ngorongoro at dusk. And although you'd think I would
be annoyed - well, I HAD gone 120kph at sustained speed, Kevin WAS impressed
(and a little shell shocked), and I DID have two spares, so chalk another
one up to experience.
We camped at Twiga camp that night
just outside the National Park to be able to hit the park early and minimize
the horrendous park fees. Ngorongoro and Serengetti are cash cows for
the Tanzanian gov't and they also support the other National Parks in
the country. "Ngorongoro crater is universally acclaimed as one
of the natural wonders of the world. On the verdant crater floor, thousands
of wild creatures live a fishbowl existence in a setting of almost sublime
beauty. Spread over treeless pastures, the animals are displayed in glorious,
unobstructed view. The crater has it all -mighty bull elephants, dour-faces
buffalo, beleaguered rhinoceros, lions galore, even a flamingo thronged
soda lake. Everything is enclosed within the velvety green walls of a
perfect volcanic bowl. In this mile-high caldera, where the mountain
air is as fresh as Creation, billowing cumulous skies dip close enough
to touch the crater rim, sealing Ngorongoro in a misty world of its own." (Adventuring
in East Africa)
Ninety dollars later the next day
we were in. My bourgeois nature led us to the panoramic view of the Serena
resort dining room, set into the cliff's edge a mile above the sprawling
caldera floor. It was off-season and not very crowded so my Swahili got
us the table where Mrs. Clinton and Chelsea had eaten a few months prior!
Great food, great view - spectacular! We continued around the crater
lip and then - after a guide mishap - drove down into the crater. Despite
it being off season, and despite being cynically ripped off for another
$10 "guide fee", we were still awed by the spectacle. Some
of God's creation just defies mere explanation. After a few hours of
ploughing through the animals we pointed Stanley upward and climbed a
mile back out of the crater.
Feeling much poorer, a bit annoyed at the added on fees, and
unwilling to pay an extra $20 for the barren official "campsite" -
we decided to venture into the neighboring reserve and have a wild camp.
Although I'd done this with spectacular success in Botswana, it is still
a little daunting to be driving through a very wild game park in the rapidly
darkening evening scouting for a place to set-up a flimsy tent. We reached
a river near the Olduvai Gorge and suddenly saw a flashlight flicker. Dimly
visible was a Masai boma – a camp with a thornbush outer wall about eight
feet high. A Masai warrior came out and we asked if we could camp with
them. No problem. So they pulled out the thornbush gate, we drove Stanley
in, and in an hour we were sitting under the stars sharing a pot of tea
with three moran (warriors).
The Masai are completely attached
to their cattle. Tall and gaunt, wearing red cloths draped over their
shoulders, they tend their cattle like children - often naming them and
even singing to them. A moran always carries his spear and club - his
weapons and his status. It's quite typical for a Masai moran to kill
a lion with just a spear and club. In fact it's pretty much the only
way to get any bragging rights. The men are fearless and operate on a
hair trigger. Many of them have bent skulls from arguments that escalated
into club bashing. They are a resilient and prolific tribe, stretching
into all the East African countries. They're often derided for being
country hicks, but nobody messes with a Masai at a bar.
We were in a boma that had converted
to a tourist attraction, so Stanley was allowed inside the enclosure.
Usually any space not used by a hut would be reserved for livestock.
I slept a bit late in the morning - getting up at 7am - and Kevin was
already up and had been on a game walk. He decided to buy a spear and
was joking about being ready to go after his lion. The warriors thought
this was a fine joke. I got the feeling that they tolerated us but aside
from the tea, thought we were pretty much useless in all the things that
count - cow herding, lion killing, and the ability to take a good club
bashing over the head.
After a bit of souvenir purchasing
and pictures all round, the chief insisted on accompanying us to the
Olduvai Gorge. We saw the work of the Leakys and the famous excavations
- bought more souvenirs - and hightailed it to the Serengeti gate to
stay within our 24hr pass limit.
Turns out that we weren't supposed
to camp outside the barren camp - and for the pleasure of staying with
the Masai we would have to pay $40 each for a "special camp".
Of course this rule was not written anywhere. After a $100 soaking the
day prior and another $80 to come - my patience was too thin and I snapped.
With flying gestures and rattling Swahili I explained that there was
NO WAY that we would pay the fee. The warden was intractable. Off we
went. Fourty minutes later the warden suggested that we take it up with
head office. I suggested he call them on the radio.
As the guard placed the call the
warden capitulated - admitting that the rule was not written down and
compromising with a $20 fee. We agreed. Then suddenly head office came
on-line and the warden yelled in to the guard not to say anything (since
head office would very probably tell us to pay the $40 and get stuffed – it
is Africa). The guard said, "Ahhhh, roger that head office hold
for a second." Twisted around the corner, "What do I tell them
now?? I got them on the radio!"
The warden paused, "Ummm, tell them that ahhhh, ummm the water is coming."
"The water is coming?"
"Yeah, you know, that water truck shipment is coming."
"They know that!"
"Well just say like you're reporting that it's here"
The guard clicked the radio back on and with all his mustered confidence, "Yes
roger head office, the water shipment is now arriving."
"Ohhh, ahhh definitely not, also the animals are moving down below and…." I
didn't hear anymore. My wildly gesticulating argument in Swahili had attracted
a crowd of Africans, and we all busted out laughing.
- The World's Greatest Game Park
Serengeti demands another litany of adjectives. Its sheer size.
The massive herds of thousands of animals. We actually interrupted the
great annual wildebeest migration as we drove through with Stanley. A stream
of beasts leapt across the road, pushed by a line of thousands stretched
back kilometre after kilometre. Kevin had a coveted first chance at driving
Stanley and he motored through the park with the touch of a grin on his
face. After all, driving a kitted-out V8 Land Rover through the middle
of the Serengeti with thousands of animals on all sides - it doesn't get
much more stereotypical African Safari than that!
We popped out on the east shore of
Lake Victoria and worked our way southwest toward Mwanza. The road was
nicely paved and a pleasure to drive on after the last few days. No lunch,
a long argument, and a short night in the Masai boma left me thin on
reserves and looking forward to the nearest restaurant. Suddenly about
sixty km out of town, the pavement was turned off like a tap. And worse,
it was a fomerly paved road which meant that thin shards of pavement
perched above the canyons of ruts ready to bottom out a spring. Dirt
driving is fun if you're prepared for it, but being ambushed at the end
of a long day about finished me. The road was so bad that no amount of
skill, no weaving, no speed variation, no finesse could dampen the blows
- and finally we just drove straight and slow, the dust pouring into
the truck, the setting sun glaring of the filthy windshield, taking the
beating numbly, seething at the corrupt politician that had skimmed the
funds to finish the road.
Middle of Nowhere
African guesthouses had remained off the list of possible accommodation,
but by Mwanza we'd truly gotten off the tourist track and the choices were
limited to $100 or $3 per night. Budget triumphed over bourgeois and I
watched the roaches scatter when the lights went on. Handy tip: if the
place you're staying doesn't provide a towel - use the top sheet. Handy
tip 2: when taking cold showers, start with the arms and legs because you
lose most of your heat through the head. I was proud though. Despite the
filth it was certainly survivable - and I felt like a real traveler. Stanley
got some needed TLC; new shock mounts, re-welded muffler mount, patched
and balanced tires, repaired windshield washer.
Out of Mwanza to Shiringaya, out
of the way but supposedly the best road. Not so. Within a few hours we'd
pulverized two shock mounts and were back to metal on metal… and I was
only driving 40-60kph. We stopped in a village and a shade tree mechanic
crawled out from under a lorry carcass to assist. We needed new shock
mounts - no such thing in town - but he managed to find a guy who sawed
and carved some out of an old tire. Put them on, good as new. He wanted
2,000 shillings ($3) for his work but being the shrewd bargainer that
I am I insisted I would pay no less than 3,000 ($4). I got a big smile.
We pressed on to the Rwanda border
and arrived a bit late to cross. Learning from my night of terror at
the Zambian border, we went to the police station to ask about camping.
They laughed at us and took us to another guest house with a trustworthy
host. Stanley was safely guarded and we slept well - but what impressed
me was the warm water heated especially for our bucket bath in the morning.
And the pride of our host when he pointed to a cheap plastic kettle on
the cement step, "I know you mzungus brush your teeth so I have
special clean water for you." This undeserved attention. The latent
generosity of the people. Africa deserves better than it gets.
Site of a Genocide
Entry to Rwanda was a breeze (no thanks to the $30 Letter of
Introduction) and the roads took a decided turn for the better. Kigali
spread out before us in a few hours and we twisted and turned our way up
into the city center. Due to the recent bombing of the American embassy
in Nairobi, the government had tightened security precautions by closing
the two main streets bordering the building. Name a capitol city where
a major artery can be walled off with barrels indefinitely by a foreign
government- weird. It was hard not to drive through the streets without
thinking about the Tutsi genocide only a few years ago. Hundreds of thousands
of people were butchered with machetes simply because they were of a different
tribe - and Kigoma was the epicentre of it all. Tribal loyalty is a lever
that local politicians yank shamelessly. Africa really does deserve better
than it gets.
The gorilla park was closed. The
volcano park was off limits due to excessive mining - no, the little
round explosive kind of mines. So another cheap guesthouse and we headed
south. We had plenty of time to make Bujumbura, the capitol city of Burundi,
but we were ambushed in Butare. Not literally, figuratively. We drove
through this town and were pulled off the road by a fantastic piece of
architecture. It turned out to be the national museum - a gift from Belgium.
Lunch was required prior to a visit and we were ambushed again, this
time by an innocuous restaurant in an old house. The chef was superb,
the meal a delight, and the crepe flambe simply the best I'd ever had
in my life. Who knew? The museum proved equally delightful. Complete
exhibits, anthropological studies, a massive reconstruction of a royal
hut, great souvenirs… Butare, that's spelled B-U-T-A-R-E. We were way
behind schedule when we hit the border.
This border proved to be one of the
most frustrating. Although there were only two people in front of us,
it took 40 minutes to get to the front. When I did it was easy to see
why. The clerk had the slowest handwriting I've ever seen. It was a delight
to watch. It actually seemed to suspend time. Is it humanly possible
to take a full minute to write a capital H and make it look good? Try
it sometime. We barely made it across the border and we were informed
that the main road was closed every night at 6pm due to civil unrest.
The border town looked seedy so we decided to push on and find a nice
into a Civil War
Although Rwanda had settled into relative peace, Burundi was
still in a civil war. The president was an army man who'd stormed in during
a coup and promoted himself to general. His regime had been in place for
a few years, but the northern part of the country didn't like him and occasionally
shot up innocent Toyotas to prove the point. We'd entered from the north.
Bujumbura was in the south.
Traffic had been steady as we left
the border, even as it began to get dark, and I had no qualms about pushing
through the next town. We still couldn't find a safe looking place for
Stanley. Little did we know that we'd just passed the last big town.
Sure enough, within half an hour we were alone on the road - and it was
good and dark. Our worthless map showed another big town ahead, so we
pressed on. My throat got a bit dry and my heart started pounding a bit
faster, but I prattled on to Kevin about this and that trying to stay
casual about everything. After all, we should hit the big town soon and
everything would be all right. Not so. We rounded a corner and stopped
abruptly for a roadblock of nailed boards and barbed wire. It didn't
look official and sure enough a soldier appeared out of a shack, casually
pointed his AK-47 at Kevin and demanded 5,000 Burundi shillings ($10).
We knew that there was supposed to be an official roadblock - but this
didn't seem to be it, and there was certainly no big town around. I hummed
and hawed and finally paid the bribe.
Out of nowhere a second soldier appeared.
He trotted over to the truck and yelled quite loudly, "Negatif!
Negatif!" The first soldier walked away with our money! What now?
Neither spoke English, French, or Swahili - only Kirundi. Kevin poked
his head out the window and yelled in French, "What's up? Hey, what
are you doing?" A truck of drunken men rolled out of a side road
and the attention of the second soldier was distracted. The first one
went quickly and opened the barrier - we didn't hesitate and drove through
In minutes I realized our mistake.
That was no informal shakedown barrier. We'd just bribed our way into
no-mans-land. The official no traffic buffer zone between north and south.
It was 9pm. Pitch black. The road curled violently around the mountain
edges, up and down through passes, past ominous jungle. I turned to Kevin, "Listen,
if anyone tries to stop us now I will not stop. We've crossed into no-mans-land.
We have no idea what they will do to us. If we run into any problems,
duck as low as you can and you should be safe from bullets." Kevin
was no fool. We'd been traveling together awhile and he'd seen Africa
- good and bad. He nodded. I sped up as fast as I dared, skidding around
some corners. Anyone out there would see our blazing Hella headlights
from a ways away, no sense in giving them time to get ready for us.
They hit us ten minutes later. We
came around a bend and three guys walked into the road, hands up waving
us to stop, AK-47s held ready. The decision was already made and I threw
the dice. Time slipped out of gear and everything seemed to happen in
slow motion. I stamped on the gas instantly, Kevin pitched down, the
soldiers whirled and brought their guns level, the leader rocketed into
a run drawing his pistol, I passed at what seemed like a snails pace
calculating odds and trajectories like a supercomputer, "I have
the right rear corner, the rear mounted spare tire, and the headrest
between me and a head shot, I've got momentum for anything else except
a gas tank shot…" I saw the leader's eyes lock mine for an instant
and he aimed his pistol pivoting with our movement, I tensed for the
shot… expecting it… and we squealed around the corner.
I don't know why he didn't shoot.
We gave them very little time to re-act but they still had a chance for
one shot. Sometimes being white helps, or maybe they just couldn't be
sure what would happen. Maybe guardian angels and prayer. Our hearts
pounded for ages and we just looked at each other and grinned. Ten minutes
later we saw Bujumbura's golden glow beckoning like a lighthouse to a
safe harbor, and we dove down the escarpment to safety. Or almost, there
was one more barrier into town, but Swahili and charm took us right through.
Bujumbura captured both our hearts that night and even though she wasn't
the nicest or neatest capitol city, in the two days we stayed we loved
There's more to the story. A more
dangerous border, an aborted ride into the Congo, and the worst road
on the trip. But this e-mail is already too long so I'll save it for
the next time.