A Big Bad Buffalo in Wakkerstroom

Monday 20 August 2018

Sylvia and I parted in Addis Ababa last night, she heading for Singapore and back to work. I arrived in Johannesburg at 4am, checking into the Intercontinental for a few hours sleep. Around noon Linda and Leon picked me up and we drove southeast to Wakkerstroom. I had come here for a day last year after meeting Louis in Sweden a couple of years ago. Louis and Linda run a 16,000 h farm here. The first couple of hours of the drive the land was fairly flat with a few small hills and gullies. There were a number of large coal power plants and the odd mine. Coal trucks clogged the road feeding the power plants, which were never fed by rail. Arriving at their farm I was dropped at the fisherman’s cottage. A couple of paper bags of bill tong (Jerky) on the kitchen bench were much more tasty than any other I have tried. There are nice views down the valley over the tarns.




I freshened up and soon Leon picked me up and we headed into town to the local pub, also owned by the farm. Linda and daughter Lois, Leon and a number of others dined with us at the pub. An ostrich stew was served and was really tasty. Leon’s father was sitting beside me and gave me a great rundown on the history of the area, including the battle at the River Blood in the first half of the eighteenth century, where three hundred settlers fought of thousands of Zulu warriors. There is a monument carved into the hill here celebrating the journeys of the Voor (forward) trekkers who settled this country 180 years ago.



He also tells me of a friend of his who has just had his farm taken a few hundred kms south of here. Everyone is waiting with anticipation as to how the land grab is going to turn out: will this country end up like Zimbabwe or will some sense of reality prevail?
Leon got a phone call: “the blacks have set the farm on fire again”. I offered to go and assist but the offer was firmly declined. Two nights ago when the guys had gone out to fight a fire they had been shot at. Some background:  recently a villager had turned up dead on the farm. The guy was on the farm illegally and may have been killed by a buffalo or some such beast – the autopsy results are not yet available. The villagers are blaming the death on the farm and retaliating by lighting fires. Leon and a couple of others headed off to sort the fire while the rest of us enjoyed a few drinks before heading home.


Tuesday 21 August 2018

I wandered past the old silos,now apartments, and old stables, now being turned into accommodation, up to the main house and office about 8am to meet Leon.



Leon informed me that there is an old rogue sable bull that has become very evasive, breaking through fences and staying away from its kind, that needs to be found. He went on to say some hunters last week spent five days looking for it. He also informed me about a dangerous rogue buffalo that is mine to hunt. More about that later.

We headed east out the main gate for a few km then south across paddocks and up a track into the small hills. We headed up to the top and along a plateau giving us a view below. We stopped and headed out along the hilltop on what may well be a full day of hunting with no result. We had only gone a few meters when we spotted the rogue sable crossing a clearing below, then bedding down in the shade at the bush edge. We could just see the tips of his horns as we stalked closer. Soon he was out of sight as we stalked through the scrub; the wind was swirling and changing direction. He must have winded us and got up to move. Luckily we saw him as he moved behind a bush and as he moved again I was able to take a shot through the scrub having fully identified the target. We raced across the gully and a second shot was required to finish him.

Leon left me and headed back up the hill to collect the landcruiser. We were lucky to get it close enough to winch this fine beast on board so the meat would go to good use in feeding people. We had been lucky but that’s hunting. After dropping the beast off we headed into town to the pub for a relaxed lunch. Louis soon joined us and we spent a great afternoon chatting and catching up.

In the evening we all met in the dining-house-come-bar with Louis and Linda preparing a great meal including ostrich sausage and quail.



Manni and Tony are here from Pretoria working on the stables conversion. Nandus is doing a gap year helping out on the farm. Louis points out a fine looking and once a prized buffalo mounted on the wall. “He was our most friendly buffalo and was killed by his brother who has gone rogue; you’re going after him tomorrow”.

After dinner Leon and Nandus manned the bar while we sat around telling yarns until it was time for bed.


Wednesday 22 August 2018
After a coffee and a chat in the morning a guy turned up who was supposed to bring a large caliber rifle for Leon as a back up gun, but for some reason he didn’t bring it. As we drove out to hunt the beast Leon pointed out where he was stabbed a couple of years ago when confronting a guy trespassing on the farm. I asked what about the pistol he always wears: “I was a cocky young bugger and left it in the truck”. He then proceeded to give me a run down on what to do if we find this buffalo. He will probably charge prior to which he will lift his head – that’s the time to shoot right where the neck joins the chest. If the charge is already underway then you must aim just under where the horns join. Don’t miss as if you hit the horns the bullet will bounce off and remember I don’t have a back up gun! He also went on to say that one of the trackers was attacked by the beast recently, knocked from his horse and quite badly hurt ,only just escaping. “This beast has been hunted quite a few times and on one occasion we were lucky to get out alive when he attacked us in long grass.”

We stopped in to see the rather well-fed, old neighbor. Leon and he had a lengthy conversation in Afrikaans and then he turned to me in a gruff voice and said “are you up to a buffalo boy?” I said “I guess we will find out!” We got back in the truck and Leon explained the the beast had been breaking into his farm and damaging his crops.

We parked up not far from the farmer’s place and headed down to the bush covered creek.

About a km down the creek Leon picked up fresh tracks leading through the bush up a steep gully. We followed cautiously until the bush got thick and too dangerous to hunt in as there would be no time to react if we were charged. We headed out into the tussock and carried on uphill,. Finding a track, Leon worked out it had left the bush and gone across to the next gully. We followed where he crossed through the next gully and then headed down hill. Some fencers were gathered around their tractor for safety as he had come down the hill towards them and gone back in the bush. We headed in on full alert. A yell went up from the fencers; he had left the bush and headed into the next bit of bush. We rushed over hot on the trail. We eventually saw just the top of his back in some thick scrub. He was on the move heading back the way he had come. We ran to cut him off but the cunning beast had bounced back and I saw him briefly through the bush in the tussock then he was gone. We picked up his tracks as he was headed for another patch of bush. We headed over to it and were about 60m away when we heard loud crashing noises. “He is setting up for an attack” said Leon. I could just see flashes of him through the bush, then he crossed a gap in the bush. I pulled the trigger aiming at the front of his shoulder just as he was disappearing again. That was it – suddenly it was all over and the threat was no more. We had tracked this beast over 5kms.

We headed back to the homestead and got some helpers to winch it onto the landcruiser and in no time at all it was dressed and hanging up ready to be turned into sausages. Leon explained that when bulls get old they leave the herd, taking a couple of young bulls with them. Eventually as they start losing sight, hearing and becoming grumpy old men, the young bulls leave them to it. There is a lot of luck involved when hunting, helped in this case by Leon’s excellent tracking skills.


I had used a South African made Musgrave 375 H&H magnum with a big 350 gr bullet on the buffalo and sable. Now we had to cull a couple of injured Bless buck so we zeroed a 6.5×55 before heading out for this task. As the afternoon drew to a close the bless buck seemed to mob up and at one stage several hundred of them ran past us as though doing a PT session. Wildebeest also mobbed up and ran around, the bulls fighting each other as they went. There are in excess of forty thousand wild animals roaming this land, many are sold on each year to restock parks and other places where the numbers are dwindling.

Leon had had a bet the night before that he could cook a five course meal so on dark he was in the kitchen working away, yes he won the bet.


Thursday 23 August 2018
Malibongwe, the tracker who was knocked from his horse by the big bad buffalo, came over to shake my hand looking rather relieved.

Louie took me for a drive to look at his heard of Nguni cattle, bred for this country originally by Shaka Zulu a couple of hundred years ago.

We also checked a mob of sheep, a few of which had four horns, called Damara. They are like many African sheep, quite different to what we are used to in NZ. In fact it’s often difficult to tell the difference here between sheep and goats; one has to look at the tails – sheep’s tails point down and goat’s tails point up.

All of a sudden the stay is over and Linda runs me back to Johannesburg to catch the flight back to NZ .

Out of Africa: Kenyan Safari

Wednesday 15 August: Roger

After a leisurely breakfast Innocent picked us up at 9am Ugandan time and we headed off down the rather bumpy road to Kisoro. Along the way there were piles of stones harvested from the cultivation and ready for sale; we saw people popping these on their heads and carting them to waiting trucks. New houses were being built of both brick and stone.

Kisoro wasn’t as busy as it had been on the way in as it’s not market day. Arriving at the border we checked in at the security hut, where they guy remembered us and said we were already in the book so no need to fill it in again. Passports stamped at immigration and an Ebola temperature check and we were back in Rwanda with hundreds of people heading in both directions, heads and bicycles laden with goods. We stopped at a gorilla museum and discovered that during our gorilla track on day one we had definitely crossed into the DRC (Democratic Republic of Congo), sometimes refereed to by the guide as the Disorganised RC. I am still not sure of the weight and height of these mighty pre humans as here they said a silverback was 165kg and 160 cm in height. Maybe that was sitting as the big bugger that walked past me a few days ago well and truly dwarfed me.

We headed along a really good road into the thousand hills (which this country is often referred to as). The speed limit Is 60kmph and understandably so as there is a constant stream of pedestrians on the roadside.


The country is stunning with even the steepest hillside cultivated. How the soil doesn’t wash off into the valleys during heavy rain beats me. We passed many brick works, all tidy and well kept with hundreds of people toiling away building kilns out of sun dried bricks ready for firing. Everything here is tidy. Although many of the buildings are rustic they are all well kept. Huge markets dotted the towns along the way.

Arriving in Kigali we drove through a bustling old downtown then onto the markets we had visited last week. Sylvia selected some table mats then buggered off to leave me to the negotiations. According to Innocent we got a good deal. We then headed to the airport enjoying some good views across the city as most of the smog had cleared after a few days of wind. We were able to catch up on our strories and publish the past few days with better internet than we had had for a while.

We boarded a twin Bombardier jet for our flight to Nairobi. On arrival we were met by a guy, who summonsed our driver, and soon were on our way to the Ole-Sereni Hotel. The driver gave Sylvia a few lessons in Swahili along the way; interestingly a sign at the airport said “Uber in Swahili is Uber”

We were upgraded to the “Wardens Suite”, complete with two toilets and a lounge. A bit of a waste really for our less that twelve hour stay. We enjoyed a glass of wine on the deck overlooking the Nairobi National Park, some 20km long and 5km wide, right on the edge of town, although it was too dark to see the lions and other game that apparently occupy it.


Thursday 16 August: Sylvia

We had a leisurely breakfast at the Ole-Sereni hotel. It is amazing to see such a huge national park so close to the city although we didn’t see any animals this morning, just a few pretty birds. We were transferred to the Wilson airport for our charter flight to Segera. Hawkers plied their wares in the dawdling traffic. I could sort of see the market for steering wheel covers, candy and ties but struggled a bit with the bloke trying to sell wall mirrors, and even more with the guy with pruning shears. It’s hard to imagine someone heading to work in the morning thinking… ooh, pruning shears, I need some of those.

After an hour’s delay due to weather we were quickly airborne in our Cessna 206. Climbing out above Nairobi the contrast between the mansions and the slum areas was stark. Luckily we were in a plane that was instrument flight rated as we were able to climb through the clouds with zero visibility until we left them behind for clear skies at about 9,000 feet. Some 45 minutes later we approached the landing strip at Segera retreat under clear skies, enabling great views of elephant and zebra as we came into land.

This place is incredible. It is a two minute walk from the airstrip to the lodge, which is nestled into an old farm site. One of the main areas used to be the stables. All the rooms are beautifully finished with every amenity you could want. The grounds are lush and green and planted with an amazing array of flowers and cacti. They have a huge African art collection here with many ‘interesting’ sculptures dotted about the gardens and more sculptures and paintings in the old stables. There is a large swimming pool in the centre of the complex as well as a luxurious spa and even a gym. Our room is huge with a large outdoor stone bathtub and day bed as well as a swinging daybed downstairs. It looks out over the savannah, which is dotted about with small acacia bushes. I feel like I have arrived in paradise.

We enjoyed a delicious lunch, with much of the produce freshly picked from the garden in the retreat, while zebra, warthog and even a giraffe wandered by outside. Then after a bit of a siesta we met Paul, our guide at 4:30pm and headed out for our first game drive. 

This concession is used for both tourism and farming. It is not the most plentiful or diverse game that we have seen but stunning landscapes with broad open savannah. There are several yellow-necked spur fowl running around the place, they seem like very stupid birds: they always run along in front of the car for a long time before finally flying off into the scrub – seems a pointless waste of energy to me. They do have pretty small wings so maybe they think they can outrun us.

We drove past several dazzles of zebra, and a number of defassa water bucks before spotting an impala carcass up a tree. No leopard at that point but one must be around. We drove on and came across a number of reticulated giraffe browsing.  These giraffe are unique to the northern part of Kenya and have exceptionally beautiful markings. They started to get a bit skittish and we wondered why then had a lovely encounter with a couple of hyena, which were no doubt causing the nervousness. Paul gives a very good hyena impression and one curious beast came right up to the car sniffing and looking warily at us for a number of minutes before going back to crunching up old bones. We headed back to camp and this time spotted the large male leopard back up the tree enjoying his kill. Such a treat on our first evening out.

On arriving back at the lodge we were escorted to the Explorer’s Lounge upstairs for dinner. The owner of this concession is clearly a collector and the room contains loads of memorabilia including an old German bible, letters from Ernest Hemingway and a long memo from Theodore Roosevelt organising a hunting trip back in the early 1900’s. He had already shot a dozen lions, giraffes, black rhinos etc and was after white rhino and elephants. Such a different time. We enjoyed a delicious dinner in the room – most of the ingredients are fresh from the gardens and the flavours are fantastic.


Friday 17 August: Roger

We met at the stables for a brew at 6am. Fifteen minutes later Paul had us on board heading east with Mt Kenya in the distance.

Rolling through the euclia brush, which incidentally is not eaten by any of the game, and, only growing a couple of meters high provides good shelter from sun and wind. Lurking around were a bunch of cape buffalo. Next was a herd of eland alongside a bunch of oryx.

A couple of ostrich pranced along as though they were in charge.

A herd of elephant wandered by, one having an altercation with a warthog that must have crossed the undrawn boundary. We stopped by the river that is on the boundary for a brew. On the leisurely drive back to the lodge we spotted five jackals trying to catch one of a flock of helmeted guineafowl. In spite of the birds not taking to the air success was not to be.

A large bull elephant, complete with tracking collar, grubbed the short grass with his huge foot before sifting the dirt out with his trunk and placing it into his huge mouth. Apparently the short grass has more nutrients than the long stuff.

We spotted a grey-headed kingfisher and rock agama lizard.

A hyena lurked in the creek bed looking for scraps.

A few hundred meters from the lodge two male giraffes battled it out for their standing in life, their long necks striking each other with a loud crack. Eventually the darker and smaller of the two gained the upper hand.

Arriving back, a tasty breakfast was organised by Peter before we withdrew to our bungalow to catch up on writing and picture editing. At four, after a brew, we headed out with Paul, heading south. The concession runs 2,500 cattle and employs about 150 people on the farming side of the business. The main reason for the cattle is to try and control the ticks, which play havoc with the wild game. Ticks are attracted to cattle so twice a week the cattle are yarded and sprayed to control the ticks.

At one point a large nada ashes spitting cobra lay across the track basking in the sun.

We stopped at the bomas (or yards), where the cattle are kept at night. Basically the cattle are let out to graze during the day under the watchful eye of the herders. In the evening they are rounded up and put into the yards, about 250 in each mob. They lose the odd one to a lion by day but the herders chase off the the lion and the carcus is removed so the lion doesn’t get used to eating beef. At night the lions are quite cunning; they don’t jump in the yards to get the stock but stalk around the outside upsetting the cattle so they break out, becoming easy prey. The herders, who camp out with the cattle, counter this with a big stick and a torch to chase the lions away.

After checking out the cattle we headed to the bird’s nest, an elevated deck including a bed, where we will spend the night. There is a back up bed underneath the deck in case it rains.

These people do it really well with superb food, a selection of wine and a mosquito net-clad bed lain out on the deck, which overlooks a waterhole and the surrounding savannah. As we lie here under the stars we can hear a lion roaring close by.


Saturday 18 August: Sylvia

We woke this morning up in the bird’s nest. We had both slept well despite hearing a large herd of buffalo heading to the waterhole right next door to drink and some elephants too. Paul arrived just after 6am with hot chocolate and coffee and we headed out on another game drive.

This time we drove north until we reached the edge of the concession. A few years back during a time of drought the people from the neighbouring community lands tried to graze their cattle on this land and it created a bit of conflict. At one point they burnt down one of the ranger stations and cattle yards. Once an agreement had been reached the Segera team decided to dig a 3m trench along the boundary to stop the community cattle coming in and to keep the wildlife safe in the concession. Apparently in one of the other neighbouring concessions 37 wild dogs died of distemper carried by the community dogs.

Along the way we spotted several elephant as well as small mobs of eland, Grant’s gazelle, Thomson’s gazelle and several dazzles of zebra. We also spotted two lionesses with their cubs well camouflaged in the long grass.

After arriving back at camp and enjoying more food (breakfast) Roger headed out with two of the rangers to act as the poacher for the daily training of the tracker dogs (three year-old bloodhounds, fed on PEDIGREE). I headed back to the room to drop some stuff off and disturbed some vervet monkeys playing on the downstairs day bed.

About thirty minutes later the rest of the trackers and I set off in pursuit of the “poacher”. The bloodhound had been given a rag rolled in the dirt where one of Roger’s footprints had been found. Despite the trail winding and weaving, and even at one point jumping a stream, the bloodhound made fast progress with the armed trackers jogging along and me running behind trying not to think too much about the potential snakes hiding in the long grass. It seemed no time before the poacher had been apprehended, the trackers deployed at the perimeter and the site secured. The dogs and trackers go through this process every day but Sunday. There have been no major poaching incidents in the last several years although there have been snares found from poachers after bush meat. All have been successfully apprehended. It was a fun experience to be part of.

Next Paul took us up to the main compound area where the vegetable gardens are well tended. We were each given a tree to plant in the garden, which we did before heading back to the luxury of our room for our afternoon siesta. 

We headed off again at about 4pm for another game drive. We have been searching for the grevy’s zebra, which are endemic to these parts of Kenya but no luck again this afternoon. We mostly saw common zebra, reticulated giraffe and lots of birds but we did at one stage surprise a herd of elephant who ran off up the hill. They look so funny when they run.

Back at camp we had another delicious meal in a stunning location. You certainly cannot fault Segera on service or style. While we have seen some different wildlife here, I do not think it compares on the wildlife front to some of the properties we have visited in Southern Africa and, while Roger has really enjoyed learning about the workings of the ranch side of the business here, I personally prefer to do safaris in areas reserved specifically for wildlife preservation.


Sunday 19 August: Roger

As this was to be our last day in East Africa we decided on a late start. Meeting in the stables for coffee at 9am, Paul picked us up and we headed south in search of the elusive grevy’s zebra. We came across herds of elephants, dazzles of common zebra and most of the animals we had already seen. Sounders of warthogs hung out with both zebras and elephants.

We spotted a couple of hartbeests and a steenbok, neither of which we had seen before.

We spotted a white bellied turaco but the grevy’s zebra remained elusive. We reached the south boundary and the river, which we had visited a couple of days ago. This time four hippos lazed about staying under the water for what seemed much longer than the supposed 6 minutes.

We headed back to the lodge, where I ran in to get the spare camera battery, leaving the door open. As I turned to leave a vervet monkey was well inside the door, his feet skidding on the floor as he made a hasty withdrawal.

We headed past the airstrip, proceeding down to the creek a km or so to the other side of the lodge. There in the shade of acacia trees was laid out a pretty amazing picnic, set up by Peter who had organised all our meals with the assistance of a lovely lady chef. A toilet tent sat off to one side.

We sat down to a beetroot soup, which was outstanding, followed by chicken and a large assortment of vegetables. A chocolate brownie to finish set Sylvia’s taste buds drooling. I stuck to the Chardonnay one of three wines on offer. We then lay on the cushions provided while a bearded woodpecker tapped away at the tree above us, almost in competition with two cardinal woodpeckers on a tree nearby.

All too soon it was time to move but not before wandering over to check out the Veraux’s eagle owl, which sat in its nest above where the ranger was discreetly parked insuring we were all safe.

Back at the lodge we packed up and headed to the stables to wait for our plane. Jens, the manager, joined us for a chat. He outlined that the large trench we had seen yesterday was actually built to stop illegal grazing. A couple of years ago during a big drought people from far away and many different tribes drove nearly a thousand cattle onto the concession. They were all heavily armed, often shooting at each other. The rangers at Segera were too out-numbered to stop them. Interestingly, when tourists at the ranch drove past them they would hide their guns and smile and wave, as threatening tourists is terrorism and carries a ten year jail sentence. Shooting at each other and such crimes leads to only a few days in jail.

Just after 3 we strolled to the waiting Cessna 206, the staff lining up to say goodby. Georgina our house keeper, Elizabeth the chef, Peter the food organiser and waiter, Thomas the barman, Paul our guide and all the staff had done a great job contributing to a great stay.
In no time at all we seemed to be flying over the rusty roofs of the Nairobi slums and coming into the international airport. Large jets waited as we flew well down the runway, touching down just before the taxiway.

The plane parked up on the edge of the apron, a van picked us up and drove us to the domestic terminal from where a lady escorted us right through check in and immigration to the lounge.

The Primates of Uganda and Rwanda

Wednesday 8 August: Sylvia

We had an early start this morning with a 6am pick up for our transfer to Kigali airport. The security is impressive. At one point we had to exit the car and go through screening while Bridge drove the car through some bomb-proof area that must somehow scan the vehicle. After two more thorough screenings we boarded the plane for our one-hour flight to Entebbe. I hadn’t realised that Entebbe is on the shores of Lake Victoria so the views as we descended were impressive.

On arrival in Entebbe we processed through immigration, collected our bags and were escorted almost immediately to a Cessna Caravan for our next hour-long flight, this time to Kisase airstrip, a dusty strip with a couple of dilapidated looking buildings beside it. Here we were met by a new guide, Wilson, who drove us the hour or so to Kyumbura Lodge. When we got in the vehicle he pointed out that as an ex-British colony they drove on the left, but most of the drive we were on the right, or even off the road altogether in our attempt to avoid the potholes. At one point we passed some traffic police conducting random stops; a little further on several people were walking along the road to town having been dropped off by their taxi drivers before the checkpoint as their vehicles were obviously not up to standard. Apparently a well-accepted practice here. 

We drove through Queen Elizabeth National Park, which was inaugurated by the Queen in 1954, with great views over Lake George. It is strange to be on a sealed (albeit pretty shoddy) road and find yourself among buffaloes, defassa waterbuck, baboons, vervet monkeys and even the odd elephant. We also saw several Ugandan kob, which look like large impala but with dark forelegs, and are endemic to this area. 

After being greeted by some local dancers we checked into the lodge, enjoyed a late lunch and then headed out for a short walk to a nearby coffee plantation. As in many developing countries motorcycles rule the road and many passed us as we walked, often with three people on board – and unlike in Kigali, none wearing helmets. Several young men gathered at the river to wash their motorbikes.


 

The Volcanoes Lodge teams under the guise of Volcanoes Safaris Partnership Trust (VSPT) run a number of community-based initiatives aimed at supporting the people who live near their lodges and also supporting conservation. In this area they have seven different initiatives, one of which is a coffee plantation where disadvantaged local women are able to grow, harvest and prepare coffee, all manually, for sale to the local hotels, lodges and to tourists. The VSPT buy the green coffee from the women for about $2/kg (which is above the going rate), then finish processing, roasting and in some cases grinding it, before packaging it for sale at about $35/kg. I wish we could make that sort of profit in our businesses. The profits all go back into their social enterprises. It was very interesting to see how the coffee is grown, harvested and prepared.

There were several rock python skins hanging in one of the sheds on the property. One of them would have been more than 5m long so the snake would have been even longer! Apparently the locals had killed them after they had eaten their goats. The VSPT have put in place a change to the grazing process to stop this happening again and to date no more dead pythons. 

As we were sampling the product a blue-headed agama basked on a tree next to us. 


Thursday 9 August: Roger

Unfortunately Sylvia had come down with a stomach bug last night and was bed bound for the morning. Last night she had headed off to bead early while we were given a talk by Alex Braczkowski. He is here studying the tree climbing lions, which are almost unique to this area. He has, with National Geographic Wild, made a film on them. The lion population, according to Wilson, is about 30 percent less than it was 16 years ago. Alex has fitted tracking collars to ten of them and spent weeks studying and identifying individuals by the markings around their whiskers, a very time consuming process. He is driven by a strong passion and was concerned as one of the collared lions has gone missing. Only a few days ago 12 lions had been poisoned by some locals. As the park is not fenced there is an ongoing conflict with the locals when they lose stock to lions.

Wilson picked me up at 0630 and we drove a short distance to the Kyambura Gorge. With a viewing deck at the head of the track and a few huts there is a great view down the steep gorge and over the savannah. We lined up to fill out another line in yet another book. Someone is making a fortune out of hard covered A4 note books around here as at every place we stopped passport number, age, country of origin and other details had to be entered.


Eventually the park guide jumped in the back with his AK, complete with folding bayonet, carried to fend off attacking animals. I had a vision of how it would turn out with him emptying his 32 rounds of tiny bullets into a large elephant then, as a last stand, folding out the bayonet as the beast, now super pissed off, grabbed him and beat him to death. In all fairness, chatting to him later, the three or four times he has used it in the last nine years a few shots in the air have been enough.

Leading a convoy of four vehicles we headed off down the track alongside the gorge. About 500m along the way a large bull elephant stood side on across the track. We stopped and observed for a while then we edged closer, stopping again until the beast turned front on giving an almighty challenge. Shaking his head with large clouds of dust coming from his ears and a loud trumpet he stood his ground, the morning sun glistening on his large tusks.
Eventually Wilson revved the land cruiser and lurched forward a few feet. Jumbo stood his ground, seconds passed slowly then Wilson made another charge. Jumbo conceded and with another loud trumpet turned and ran off. As we drove on Wilson explained that one must always confront these beasts front on as a side on attack will only end in disaster. A good tip for any trainee elephant bulls out there.


Soon we stopped and dismounted. With nine in the group we were briefed by the tracker about not running and standing one’s ground when we come into contact with the chimps. We had just descended the track into the gorge when a bunch of hippos sparked up, then a large beast running full tit (about 20kms an hour) charged out of the creek and through the bush about ten meters away, fortunately running parallel to us as it answered the call of its mates in the pond nearby.

We had only gone a few more meters when the chimps sparked up with loud screams coming from high in the trees all around us, a lucky and early find. We hurried on, crossing a rickety bridge. Not far down the track a chimp confronted us on the track ahead then hurried off into the bush, mounting a tree and heading off out on to a branch overhanging the track. He sat there feeding on ironwood seeds, opening each leaf to pick out the seed almost ignoring the excited group below as cameras clicked away.




After about 20 minutes we moved on to let another group in. Only a few meters down the track another chimp sat high in a tree then decided to pay us a visit. There was nothing graceful about his descent as he basically fell the 20-odd meters, grabbing the odd branch on the way as the guide instructed us to run, not because of the chimp, but to get away from the falling branches he had dislodged along the way. Finally he landed on a branch three meters from the ground sitting long enough for us to race back and take photos before he jumped to the ground and raced up a track with us in pursuit.

He disappeared off into the bush as we carried along the hillside. As we came back down to the stream we spotted him crossing on a fallen tree. We followed with some of the group somewhat apprehensive of the crossing. An American woman from Minnesota became a bit upset saying to her husband “this is not for me”.


We continued up stream spotting large pods of hippos lazing about in the water, blowing bubbles and snorting loudly.


The chimps having gone silent we headed back up the hill to the vehicles then back to the Lodge for lunch.

Sylvia had recovered somewhat and was able to join us when Wilson appeared again early afternoon to drive us to the Mweya Lodge, where we again filled out the book and passed through two security check points before looking around. We then headed down to the local boat ramp, boarding a boat for a look around the lower end of the Kazinga Channel, which is a large waterway that runs from Lake George to Lake Edward. Over the next two hours we observed a huge number of cape buffalo, some with a reddish coat meaning they were a cross with the forest buffalo. Hippos by the hundreds basked in the water among small crocodiles. There are a great variety of both game and birds around the shores of this area. Fisherman from the local village were preparing for their night’s fishing as we ended our tour. The hippos head ashore at night making it safe to fish.

Back at the lodge we had a great chat over dinner with Blain and Paul from San Francisco and Eric and Jessica from Washington DC. Blain and Paul we had met the night before and were great company. Eric and Jessica were just here for the day having being in Africa doing some work for their respective employees and managed to tack on a few days holiday.


Friday 10 August: Sylvia

It was another early start today with Alexis, our fantastic butler, bringing us coffee and cookies at 5:15am so we could have breakfast before our 6:30 departure with Wilson back to Kasese airstrip for our flight to Kisoro, near the border with Rwanda. On the way we spotted a small clan of hyenas heading back to their dens. We also saw many people working their fields in the community land opposite the national park. Here they plant cotton in about September for harvest in January/February. It looks like back-breaking work hoeing the soil in preparation. The farmers live further up the mountains and prepare temporary accommodation on their land here for the cotton season.

The flight to Kisoro was very smooth over increasingly mountainous terrain, some of which is obviously national park and well forested, the remainder being terraced farm plots. I cannot imagine how challenging it must be to manage the crops up on these mountainsides.

We made the first of three land border crossings we will do between Uganda and Rwanda. It was all pretty painless – register in Uganda, then hand your passport over for stamping in Rwanda, pass through a few barricades and you are done. Several locals were in transit, many carrying large loads. I am constantly amazed at how much weight the women here can carry on their heads – and balance too – even large piles of wood seem to be carried this way. The other primary form of transport here seems to be bicycle and we saw several of these laden down with sacks of what looked like potatoes.

We arrived and checked into Virunga Lodge, a beautiful lodge with fantastic views over two crater lakes towards the five volcanoes this area is famous for. it was a great place to chill for the afternoon, enjoying the views.


Saturday 11 August: Roger

We set off from Virunga Lodge just after 6am heading through the local village, which was well alive with people, mainly on foot, heading in both directions, many with loads on their heads. Several women were busy sweeping the dirt outside their houses. As the town got bigger taxi push-bikes appeared with a flat seat for the passenger where the carrier would normally go.

It seemed we were at the gorilla assembly point in no time at all. Forms etc. were completed as around a hundred people milled around drinking the coffee supplied and watching the intro movie. After about 40 minutes we were put into a group, by chance with 6 people traveling together who we had dined with last night, pretty much all family members some from the UK and some South Africa. They had yesterday enjoyed a close encounter with a gorilla family within 15 minutes from the start of their trek with Hannah actually being kicked by a young one as it ran past. We were taken to a little alcove for a briefing by Carlie and Patrick, our guides. Such things as do not go within seven meters, crouch down if the silverback approaches, and a few hygiene things such as not sneezing in their direction. We then got back in our vehicle and headed of to the start point. 

At the start point we were met by our guides and 8 porters to carry our small packs, unnecessary but it provides employment for the locals. These young men, all dressed in clean blue overalls and wearing gumboots, were really helpful, friendly and polite. The gorilla tracking is really well managed with $100 from each trekker going back into the community. There are about 1000 gorilla in the extended national park, which is partly in Rwanda, part in Uganda and part in the Democratic Republic of Congo. In Rwanda there are 12 families habituated for trekking and another 10 habituated for studying. When one group has a sick family member or looks like they need a break they are swapped out with a study family. 

Soon we were heading through local potato and daisy paddocks (the daisies used for making insect repellent). At the end of the farmland we were met by an AK man and climbed over a wall into a bamboo forest, strolling along at a leisurely pace, stopping for a rest from time to time. Meanwhile, up in the jungle, a bunch of four trackers were hard at work locating the family and making phone calls to Carli to give us directions to the group. Not only do they track the gorillas but they also check for snares that may have been set by poachers and keep an eye on the health and well-being of the family. Soon we spotted some some silverback poo and the porters cut a track through the undergrowth around the side of a hill to a thicket of bamboo. We were close so backpacks and walking sticks were held by the porters as the rest of us closed in on the family. 

The first sighting was a bit of a surprise as right beside our cut track in the undergrowth (about a metre away) was a female munching away, not bothered in the least by the intrusion (somebody forgot to tell the gorillas the 7m rule).

From here it was all on an amazing experience that is hard to describe. We rounded a bamboo thicket and there to our right sat Gorhonda the 47 year old silverback, the oldest guy in the park having passed the normal lifespan of 40-45 years. He has his eldest son waiting to take over when he dies, who fights off challenging males, now and again with a bit of back up from his father when the going gets too tough.

To our left two boys play-fought in the branches, the trackers cutting branches away so we could get a better view. They were totally unperturbed by the chopping. They climbed up branches, play-fighting with each other then dropping into the undergrowth only to repeat the performance.

Gorhonda suddenly stood up and only 4m away headed for us. “Down” was the command from Carli, then “don’t worry” as the boss headed down the steep hill. We followed to experience all sorts of close encounters as the family headed down hill through the undergrowth. I stepped aside at one point as a mum came past then lay down a meter away and stripped leaves off a branch looking at me and I am sure smiling. We ended up at the bottom of a little gully where the boss had laid down behind some bush while the kids continued their play in front of us. 2IC silverback lay up on a mound relaxing by a tree. The guide suggested I move closer to him. I obeyed, watching him for some time, taking numerous pics and some video. He eventually got up coming straight at me. I crouched as he moved past, almost brushing me, not in the least bothered by my presence. He lay down in the bottom of the gully for a rest while the kids climbed up and down a nearby tree still play-fighting, just like kids do, beating their chests from time to time.

All of a sudden our time was up and we withdrew back up the hill, the family oblivious to the life time experience they had created for all of us. We stopped some distance away and ate our lunch gathered in the shade of some bamboo. Pictured from the left our partners in this fantastic experience Hanna, Hebert, Patrícia, Andrew, Lauren and Duncan.

We tipped the four trackers who then melted back into the jungle. The rest of us headed back to the vehicles,  which had been brought into the farmland to shorten our journey. We tipped the porters and guides, said our goodbyes to our new found friends and headed to the new Wilderness Safaris Lodge not far away to be met by Ingrid and her singing staff for a tour of our facilities for our night’s stay after an amazing day out. 


Sunday 12 August: Sylvia

We left Bisate at 6:30am, heading back to the main gorilla trekking assembly point, passing many well-dressed people from the local villages walking to church. Arriving at the assembly point we sat and waited for Innocent to get us registered and for the headquarters people to assign our group. Today we were assigned to the Agashaya group, one of the largest groups in the forest with twenty three members. Our guides, Patience and Bosco, conducted the usual briefing and we headed off in convoy with the other two vehicles in our group to the starting point of our trek, some 25 minutes over very rough road.

There were still many people out working their fields. The main crop here is potatoes. The rich volcanic soil creates ideal conditions and this area supplies almost all the potatoes in Rwanda. They rotate the potato crops with pyrethrum, which looks like a large white daisy, is dried and then made into insect repellent, and at the same time replenishes the nitrogen in the soil. Both potatoes and pyrethrum are grown in raised mounds. All these fields are cultivated by hand with grubbers. 

Our trekking companions today were a lovely couple from South Carolina and a group of four from California, one of whom was really struggling with the altitude. Porters assigned, we headed off on our trek, initially making our way up the hillside between mounds of potatoes before eventually entering the forest. It was easier going than yesterday, mostly up hill but the path was clearer with way fewer stinging nettles. We walked very slowly (always at the pace of the slowest person) but it still seemed a very short time before we met with the trackers.

Our hour with the gorillas passed quickly. They seem completely oblivious to us most of the time although one mother with a very young baby watched us closely, the guides making soothing noises regularly to reassure her. Other young ones played and tumbled about, an adult female sat on top of a bush feeding and a teenage male played a game of hide and seek with us as he ate: the guides tried to pull away some of the leaves in front of him but every time they did he pulled them back – it was a hilarious tug of war to watch. 

At one stage one of the two trainee silverbacks walked along the path right beside us, even stepping on Roger’s foot as he passed. Just before our time was up the big silverback, who had been asleep the rest of the time, woke up and headed towards us. He sat down not far away and was joined by one of the females with her baby. She proceeded to groom him, picking off the lice and eating them while he sat looking very pleased with himself and the baby cuddled in between them both. A fitting end to our gorilla trekking in Rwanda.

We strolled back down to where Innocent was waiting with the car and then headed back to Bisate for another restful afternoon. Bisate is a fantastic Lodge, as I had expected given my previous experiences with Wilderness Safaris. It has only been open for about a year and the rooms are lovely and extremely comfortable. The service is outstanding. Ingrid and Rob, the managers have done a great job training the staff. The massages were the best I have had in Africa and they even made me a hot chocolate as good as anything I have had in New Zealand. A great place to end our time in Rwanda, a country and people I have developed a huge admiration and affection for.


Monday 13 August: Roger

After a relaxed start to the day and saying goodbye to Ingrid and Rob, who do an outstanding job of running this magnificent place, Innocent picked us up and we headed towards Uganda. Everyone was busy going about their day. The fields were full of people grubbing and planting, bikes carried huge loads; at one point some 20 people were walking along the roadside each with a 30kg bag of cement on their heads. Women swept the streets and people queued for water. Very few of the houses here have running water. Everywhere is clean and tidy. Bikes are a big deal here often used to carry huge loads.

On arriving at the Uganda border we crossed over, went to a guard house and filled the book in before then going to immigration to have our passports stamped. We had stopped on the other side to get some Rwanda francs out as Innocent said the money machines in Uganda often have no money and he knew someone here who could change the money for us. After we had done immigration Innocent turns up with the best dressed guy in town. I handed him 150k in francs, he then reached down, lifted his trouser leg and pulled a 100mil plus bundle of money out of his sock. He sorted me 500k of Ugandan shillings and job was done, no paperwork required. We headed to Kisoro, where the streets were crammed with people and the markets in full swing. The difference between the two countries is immediately evident, both in regulations and the standards of buildings. There is no way you would see 20 people in a pick up in Rwanda.

We turned up a rough dirt road and soon were at Mt Gahinga Lodge. After lunch we joined a bunch of Kiwis from Auckland who were staying at the Lodge while on a road trip around Uganda. Heading just up the road we were treated by Jane the local Batwa (Pygmy)tribe leader for a tour of their heritage trail, where through a translater they explained how they used to live in the forest until the government forced them out with no compensation to create the park in 1992.

From their we took a stroll to their village. Land has been bought by the Volcano Trust, houses built and 105 of them live in this village, the women mainly cultivating the land and raising sheep and goats while the men work around the local area. They walk 2km every day each way to fetch water. About 100 people turned up to welcome us, some from another village alerted by the drum beat of a plastic water can. They put on a long dance to welcome us, the kids really getting stuck in to show us their best. We then went to the meeting house for a welcome and introduced ourselves before wandering back to the Lodge for drinks and dinner.



Tuesday 14 August: Sylvia

Mt Gahinga Lodge is only about 200m from the park headquarters so it was a very short transfer with Innocent at 8am (7am Rwanda time – we lost an hour when we crossed the border yesterday). In the Uganda part of the Virunga Massive Park (Mgahinga Gorilla Notional Park) there is only one group of habituated gorillas so the registration process was much simpler than in Rwanda with only eight trekkers each day. After a fairly standard briefing we were on our way. This is the second trek we have done where the guide has taken one look at Roger and started referring to him as “our silverback”. Our companions today were a group of six young people who are travelling around in a large yellow truck in a group of about 28. They can join and leave at different points to suit their schedules. The six with us this morning were two kiwis on their way back home after working in London for two years, an Australian, three from the UK and one American, who is currently studying in Rotterdam and who had injured her ankle a few days ago in a kayaking accident. 

Porters assigned (here they wear grey rather than blue overalls) we set off very slowly with our guide Laurina. We had heard the gorillas were fairly close and were able to leave directly from park headquarters. Along the way we saw a giant earthworm – this one was only about a foot long but they can grow to one metre – and a side-striped chameleon. We also passed the National Park board Batwa Heritage Trail. This seems a similar set up to what we did with Gahinga Lodge yesterday, although at a charge. Whilst they say they give back to the local communities when we spoke with Herbert, who is the VSPT liaison with the Batwa he was less than positive about the actual amount going back to the Batwa. 

After about 90 minutes or so we met up with the trackers, dropped our sticks off and headed into the bush. The group we were tracking has nine members, three silverbacks, two adult females and four juveniles. Over the course of our hour with them we saw all nine members and were well-entertained by the young ones chasing each other, play-fighting and carrying on as per the last few days. About 10 minutes before our time was up we decided to go back and spend time with the silverbacks, who had been sleeping the whole time. The youngest of the three decided it was time to entertain us. After rolling around and stretching he stood up and walked right through the middle of our group, passing within centimetres of me, then proceeded to sit down in front of us and show off his back. Then he walked back through the middle of us again and proceeded to haul his 250+kg bulk up into a tree that looked far too spindly to hold him. Sure enough as we moved off down the track back towards the headquarters we heard an almighty crack behind us – it seems the branch eventually gave out. 

Arriving back at the base we were surprised with “graduation” certificates to commemorate the trip. And you guessed it, first to receive their certificate was the dominant silverback of the group (Roger).

Then we hooked up with Innocent again for the marathon 200m drive back to the lodge for lunch and an afternoon’s rest. I feel quite bad for poor Innocent: he is staying about an hour away over very rough roads in Kisoro, had to drive up to pick us up this morning, manage the registration process, then wait for 3-4 hours while we were trekking and drive us back to the lodge, before driving all the way back to Kisoro. He will be back again to pick us up in the morning. We could easily have walked, done the registration ourselves and saved him the journey, but he seems nonplussed, always greeting us with a cheery smile and going out of his way to make sure we are well looked after.

In the evening we had another pleasant catch up with the other kiwis and their UK-based daughters. All in all a very good day!

Rwanda: Genocide and an Amazing Recovery

Monday 6 August: Sylvia

Today was pretty much a travel day. We spent a leisurely morning at the Sheraton in Addis, finishing the blog to date, catching up on some much needed rest and enjoying having hot water for the shower.

Our original itinerary showed a direct flight from Addis to Kigali in Rwanda but somewhere along the way there was a schedule change and we ended up flying through Bujumbura in Burundi, which meant a bit over an hour sitting on the tarmac while the plane refueled and passengers for Bujumbura disembarked and those for Kigali embarked. We were not allowed off the plane at all.

Eventually we arrived in Kigali and were met and escorted through immigration by our guide for this part of the trip. Today was a simple transfer to the hotel. I was impressed by the wide, tree-lined streets with their broad, spotless footpaths. Many motorbike taxis swarm the roads, the drivers in their visible red vests with spare helmets sling over their arms. I am happy to see every driver and passenger wearing a helmet. The buildings are all clean and tidy and even the people look better dressed and fed than those we met in Ethiopia. From the air looking down, even in the areas with red dirt roads, the houses are large, tidily laid out and mostly fenced. 

After checking in to the Marriott,  Roger and our guide, Bridge, headed out on a mission to buy some cigars. Three shops and $4 later he returned with a box of about 100 small Rwandan cigars! Apparently Bridge would not take no for an answer. Based on the look on Roger’s face when he tried the cigar this evening I am guessing he wished Bridges had been less insistent.


Tuesday 6 August 2018: Roger

Around 10am Bridge picked us up for a tour of Kigali. We drove around this neat and tidy city, which if we haven’t known better could have been a Southern European city. Everything is clean and tidy – even the labourers are in clean, well-presented overalls, and the traffic flows with an unusual politeness, there are no honking horns, people stop and let people cross the heavy traffic. The streets are swept and police are spaced regularly on the footpaths, some with long guns, others with pistols, always replying to a wave with a smile and a wave. Government buildings and banks are surrounded by armed soldiers. Entering carparks and buildings guards run a mirror under the car, check boots, glove-boxes and under the bonnet.

Our first stop was at a memorial to ten Belgian commandos who were tasked with guarding the prime minister’s palace. After the shooting down of his plane they were taken under guard to a local military barracks. They had managed to smuggle out some side arms. Realising they were to to be executed they put up a hell of a fight as the building they were in was strafed with heavy machine gun fire – the bullet holes remain to this day. Finally they were tortured and then executed in a corner of a room where hundreds of submachine gun bullets still mark the walls today. There is a very moving memorial in the garden to them with each stone having slots cut out depicting their age.

Our second main stop was the Genocide Museum. A little history as best we could interpret:
Rwanda was settled by the Tutsis, a pastoral people, in the 15th century. From the late 1800’s Germany ruled until the end of WWI. It then became a Belgium protectorate until independance was gained in 1962. It was during their reign in 1936 that people were segregated into races. It’s complicated but as best we can interpret, prior to that if someone had more than 10 cows they were a Tutsi, less they were a Hutu; a person could rise from a Hutu by increasing his flock to 10 cows. The Belgium authority gave out identity cards defining people as Tutsi, Hutu or Twa (a group of pygmy hunter-gatherers who had been here for thousands of years) based on things like the size of their heads and noses.
Initially they supported and helped educate the Tutsis, who were the group of the original monarchy. After the king tried to claim independence they started to support the Hutus and educate them. In 1959 during a Hutu revolt against the Belgians large numbers of Tutsis fled to Uganda forming the RFP Rwandan Patriotic Front. Waves of Hutu violence against the RPF and Tutsi followed Rwandan independence in 1962. International pressure on the Hutu government of Juvénal Habyarimana resulted in a ceasefire in 1993. The Hutu led government ran a marketing campaign via print and radio to convince the people that the Tutsis should be eliminated. On 6 April 1994, an airplane carrying Habyarimana and Burundian President Cyprien Ntaryamira was shot down on its descent into Kigali. At the time, the plane was in the airspace above Habyarimana’s house. One person survived but died soon after en route to the hospital. This started the genocide killing of the Tutsis, which resulted in roughly one million (70% of the Tutsi, 30% of the Twa and a number of moderate Hutus) being killed in just one hundred days. It was only stopped by the troops of the RPF advancing from Uganda. They were halted by the French in the south who let the Hutu genocidists escape to Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of Congo. For some years conflict continued on the border with Zaire.

The museum is well set up with over 250,000 victiums buried in the gardens. The inside takes one in detail through the the history and the traumas that occurred during the 100 days, including neighbours exposing the Tutsis next door and in many cases assisting in their termination, Catholic priests taking Tutsis into their church as refuge then informing the Hutu and in many cases assisting with their termination. Woman were assigned to be raped by Hutu men with Aids hence after the war many children were born with Aids, an epidemic that lasted for years. The UN and the world stood by and watched this happen in spite of warnings and requests from the UN officer in charge on the ground at the time. Now we stand by again as the new ruler does the same thing with the Rohingya people in her newly named country Myanmar.

After leaving the museum Bridge drove us around new wealthy areas being developed in Kigali. We stopped at Hotel Rwanda for lunch. This visit was intriguing to say the least.
Bridge, as a 17 year old, had enough money on him to bribe the Hutu police to get in the gate here during the genocide. I had seen the movie “Hotel Rwanda” a couple of years ago. He said the movie was far from the truth. He recommended a movie “I shake the hand of the devil” as being more real. He went on to explain how the Bangladeshie UN troops were occupying the hotel and how a group of twelve of them went out on a couple of occasions and rescued some people by paying a bribe but on the third attempt were shot at and one of them killed. As they were under orders not to return fire they then remained at the hotel. The Hutu cut the water to the hotel but fortunately the hotel was well stocked with provisions and by using the water from the pool they were able to survive the next month. An agreement was reached with the Hutu that they would be taken out by truck. By this stage the hotel was taking heavy machine gun fire and they were sleeping in the grounds hoping to be able to escape if the compound was overrun. The trucks drove them some distance from the hotel where they were stopped, with Hutu troops on one side and RPF troops on the other. They sat for some time with people crying and thinking they were going to die. The trucks were then driven into the RPF area as other trucks loaded with the family members of the Hutu government were driven out in a prisoner exchange deal. His two brothers had sought refuge with many others at the local Catholic Church only a few hundred meters away. The priest there took part in their slaughter with a gun. He, the priest, is still a practicing priest in France. The French refuse to return him to stand trail. Bridge’s mother escaped to the countryside and survived. To this day she is still bitter for the loss of her husband and children.

Paul Kagame, who led the RPF invasion to quell the genocide, became Vice President and in 2000 the president, which he still is today. To all accounts he has done a marvellous job; even today he goes out once a month and helps clean the streets with the rest of the Kigali people. He has decreed there will be no animosity amongst people here today and all citizens now have their race shown only as Rwandan on their ID cards.

After leaving the hotel we visited some local craft markets before returning to our hotel.

Bridge, our guide from a Thousand Hills Safari’s, although at times a little hard to understand was excellent with a passion for both his country and his job. To have survived the genocide and moved on with his life bearing no grudge is a truly outstanding achievement.


 

Ethiopia’s Southern Tribes: A step back in time

Friday 3 August 2018: Roger

Up at 5.45am for a cold shower and breakfast, with Christmas music playing in the background, we were ready for our flight south. The Kuriftu Resort is probably the flashest place we have stayed at so far but hot water for a shower was not working today. The breakfast was great though and by 7.30am we were at the airport and through the first set of security. Despite being on a charter flight we still had to go through the full double security process.

At 8.30am we took off in the Cessna Caravan heading south to Addis Ababa. This country has to be the food bowl of Africa as every available bit of ground we flew over for the next 500kms seemed to be cultivated. A quick refuel at Addis, with a couple of dilapidated old DC3s in the background, and we were back in the air.

Heading south toward the intersection of the Kenya, Southern Sudan and Ethiopian borders the land stayed much the same with vast expanses of agriculture even as it got steeper with huge cliffs and ravines. It was not until we were around 400kms south that the hilly land became arid and scrubby. It eventually flattened out and we spotted the village of Murule not far from a large cotton field, irrigated from the Omo river. It looks somewhat out of place here. We flew over a clear patch of dirt, circled and soon were on the ground to be greeted by Lale, the camp owner and manager, who was surrounded by kids carrying AK assault rifles. They were there for a chat while looking after their goat and sheep herds.

We headed to the river in a land cruiser and boarded a boat. Hundreds of cows, goats and sheep we gathered on the beach having being driven there by their minders for their daily drink. As we headed up river people looked on from the east bank and Nile crocs from the west. The Cessna climbed out above us on its way back to Addis.

Over the next 40 minutes we spotted more crocs, baboons, colobus monkeys, a de Brazzas monkey, Goliath herons, African fish eagles, people washing, walking or just laying around on the river bank, and lots more mobs of stock drinking on the beaches. Areas of bush on the riverbank were being cleared to plant sorghum grain.

On arrival at Lale’s camp we were escorted to our tent, stowed our kit and adjourned to the dining tent for lunch and a briefing. Unfortunately the visit to the Mursi tribe (the one where woman have plates in their lips) is off the agenda; since the Gebe Dam was finished three years ago the river no longer floods, which used to fertilise the land for the next crop and as a result the Mursi have had to move into the hills some distance from here in order to find enough food.

Time is an interesting thing in Ethiopia. A few days ago in Lalibella we needed to go to the bank to get some money changed. Asking at the hotel reception the guy said the bank is open from 6 to 11. As it was around 3pm we trotted off thinking we could get money the next morning. Then suddenly we realised he may have been talking local time. And as it turned out he was. This is how it works here: 6am (daybreak) is 1am their time. They have 13 months in a year; 12 have 30 days and the 13th has 5, or 6 in a leap year. But down here they just point to the sky saying I will meet you when the sun is here.

At around 5pm, or in local time when the “day cools off”, we met with Lale to join the local Karo people. Twice a week groups of villagers gather away from the village to get dolled up, then head back and parade around the village. We strolled among them as both men and woman applied their, not war paint, but beauty paint, derived from various clays and plants, often with very intricate designs. They were rapt as I took photos then showed them on the camera screen.

Men sat gathered in one group, married woman in another, the single woman in a third group, while kids, boys mostly naked and girls with a cloth around their waist, roamed amongst them all. AK assault rifles lay around leaning on trees and logs. Interestingly talking to Lale later he explained that these have brought peace to the local tribes and villages.

During lunch Lale was telling us it had been a couple of years since a crocodile had eaten one of the local kids, but lots of goats get eaten. Just then a shot rang out close by. Apparently a croc was having a crack at a goat. Lale went on to explain that prior to the AKs (sourced from both Somalia and Southern Sudan) when people stole stock they would be hunted down and killed with spears. Since the guns arrived no-one steals anymore.


Saturday 4 August: Sylvia

We woke early this morning to the sound of colobus monkeys calling, punctuated by the rooster crowing in the nearby village and starlings in the trees around us. After another cold shower (I am even getting used to them now) and a quick coffee, we headed off upstream at about 7am, motoring for about 30 minutes to a very dusty and barren area on the far bank where we stopped to visit the Nyangatom tribe. These people arrived in the area some 25 years ago from Southern Sudan. Originally in small groups, the Karo tribe were happy to allow them to farm alongside them on their land but as more and more of them arrived things got very tense and they eventually took over all the land on the west side of the river. Nowadays the elders have come to a peaceful settlement but tensions were clearly fraught for many years.

We walked about 700 meters to the village passing numerous cactus bushes and surprisingly beautiful desert roses. We also saw many locusts clinging to the branches on the scrubby trees.

We passed a large thorn enclosure, with many cattle inside tended by a few young men, then arrived at the village itself. The Nyangatom are nomadic and had only arrived in this location in the last few days. The women have built about 13 grass huts and the compound has been encircled by thorn bushes for protection. Some young kids came running to welcome us, removing the large thorn bush that passes as a gate for us to enter.

Inside the compound the huts were scattered about, other thorn-encircled enclosures held goats, sheep, donkeys and more cattle. There would have been well over 1,000 animals in total. Women tended their fires, brewing the local coffee, which is made with the husks from the coffee beans rather than the beans themselves. The men sat on their little stools drinking the coffee from large calabashes. As usual Roger was mobbed by children, who love looking at their photos on the screen of the camera. 

The Nyangatom practice scarification as a form of beautification. Many of the women had scars carved into their stomachs and some of the men had them on their arms. The elder of the tribe had large scars all over his torso, apparently a sign that he has killed one or more of his enemies. 

The women mainly wear goat skins, shorter in the front and long in the back. The men tend to wear a piece of cloth wrapped around their middle although some have shorts and/or t’shirts. Many of the kids wear raggedy clothes but the younger buys are generally naked. The women and girls all have many beads around their necks and even the males wear single strands around their necks and sometimes arms too.

We felt extremely privileged to be invited into the village while they went about their preparations for the day ahead.

We headed back to camp for breakfast, sitting in the dining tent and being served like royalty while the local women wandered past carting water from the river. I wonder what they think of us? 

We then headed back upriver. If I had any concerns about whether the villages were set up purely for tourism they were completely dispelled as we motored past numerous people going about their daily routine: women worked the ground in their skins, saggy breasts banging against their chests ( I was reminded of an article I read recently that women should not wear bras as if they don’t their breasts will naturally tighten up – obviously whoever wrote that had never seen these fit, healthy women with their “spaniel-ear” breasts – Roger’s term!); men and boys tended their stock, some even stripping off naked to wash in the river, showing no signs of embarrassment or concern as we motored past. 

After about 90 minutes we arrived at another Karo village further upstream. Some NGO  spent a lot of money about 8 years ago putting in a solar powered pumping and filtering station so the women didn’t need to carry water from the river. They left it in the hands of the government to maintain but it hasn’t worked for at least the last two years.

Because it was the middle of the day only a few people were about, mostly women and children sitting under a shade in the centre of the village. The huts here are primarily wood with thatch roofs. There are small circular storage buildings dotted about where they keep their grain. They spread out a clean goatskin for us to sit on and brought us coffee in calabashes. One little boy had been stung by a bee and was sporting a large swollen lip.

After an hour or so we headed back to camp for lunch and to rest out the heat of the day. 

Just after 5pm we met Lale and took the short drive to the Karo village nearest the camp where the tribes people from all three Karo villages meet once or twice a week for a dance. The men have again painted their bodies and the women their faces although this time in one colour only without the additional decoration. The men stand around one side of the circle with their little sitting stools on their shoulders, the elders at one end and the young men at the other; the women stand on the other side – there is lots of chatter and laughing. Kids run around the outside, rolling in the dust, playing together and laughing. The dancing consists first of groups of men jumping as high as they can while others clap, the women doing a different jumping motion. Later on individual men take turns jumping, showing off their strength. Then men and women dance together, but not with their wives/husbands. The dancing finishes about 6:30pm and they take a break until 9ish. Apparently when they start again only the unmarried women are allowed to join.

Behind the dancing area is a large meeting hall where the married adult men (those who have jumped the bulls and had the top of their left ear cut) meet to make important decisions for the tribe. It has ten different areas staring with the elders all the way to the newest members but when decisions are being made all voices can be heard equally.


Sunday 5 August 2018: Roger

Coffee was served at 6.30 after which we mounted the Land Cruser and headed northeast on a dirt track to visit a small family from the Hamer Tribe. As we bounced along we spotted a number of dikdiks, one stopping to look back as it sped away.



After crossing a dry creek bed we arrived at a couple of huts to be greeted by a couple of engaged sisters who were about to set off with their donkey to get water, about a five hour task from here. Red hair is quite popular with the women around here (Karo and Hamer tribes). It is taken strand by strand and braided with a mixture of butter and clay.


They invited us into one of the fly filled huts where a pot boiled on an open fire. Ignoring the thousands of flys that settled on them and us they were happy to serve their coffee in bowls made from calabash. This stuff tastes even weaker than earl grey tea.


Soon we were joined by another young woman, then her mother and sister, followed by another young woman who were just dropping by for coffee, a common practice around here. It is only the father and first and sometimes second wife that get to sleep inside a hut; the rest of the family sleep on the ground outside except in the rainy season.


Relationships vary from tribe to tribe here. The two sisters that invited us in here are both engaged. That means the families organised who the husbands will be, the husband to be then waited with a couple of mates for the girl to come along, grabbed her painted her in cow dung and left. The engagement will last five years then after the husband has run the bulls ( they have to run across a coral full of cattle to become a man) a wedding can take place. During the engagement the girl can do as she likes as can the man. One of these girls has been pregnant and performed an abortion so she is free of children for the wedding.

In the Karo tribe until recently if a girl got pregnant before manage they carried the baby to full term then literally threw the baby in the bush. This practice has now mostly stopped.In this tribe if a man shags another man’s wife and gets caught then it is the man’s fault and he is killed (The wife is the property of the husband – after all he paid 127 goats for her). It seems the authorities respect these traditions and do not intervene.

As we emmerged from the hut a few of the local men had gathered for a yarn by a tree.

An aircraft had been spotted overhead and it was presumed it was for us even though several hours early. A much faster trip was made back to camp where we packed our gear, had a tasty breakfast and boarded the boat for the down river trip to the air strip, the boatman looking as serious as ever. We passed a belly-up croc floating mid-river. It had been shot late yesterday while trying to take a goat.

A taxi up the runway into the wind to make sure it was clear of stock, a quick turn and the Caravan lifted early into the air in spite of the tail wind.


On landing back in Addis Ababa we were eventually picked up by our driver and taken back to the Sheraton Hotel for a relaxing afternoon. We were picked up again at 7pm and taken to 2000 Habesha traditional restaurant and cultural show with a band consisting of a flute, two kirars (a 5-stringed guitar like instrument), a set of drums and a masinko (a bit like a one-stringed violin). These guys bashed out a fair bit of traditional music, at times accompanied by dancers, singers or sometimes both.

 

 

Ethiopia: The historic churches of the north


Monday 30 July 2018: Roger

After breakfast at the Sabean Hotel we took a stroll down the Main Street. The blue tuktuks swarmed the street like ants in search of crumbs. There are apparently over a thousand of these in this town of 50,000. Most of the shops are still closed as ladies set up their coffee shops with grass spread in front of the fire box and comfortable stools spread out ready for the morning rush. 

At 10 we departed for the airport. I am Intrigued to see a third storey on one of the many partly finished buildings, reinforcing in place ready for the concrete pour, all held up by eucalyptus sticks. We passed young men sitting on piles of rocks with a hammer breaking them into smaller rocks. 

I discovered that the dozens of incomplete multi-storey buildings in the town came about through corruption in relation to a previous government. 

A friendly policeman greeted us and checked our passports before we entered the confines of the tiny airport. 

Flying into Lalibella airport we passed over lots of cultivated land with small round-housed villages separated by deep ravines. Picked up in a clean, white van, we headed northeast up a valley then up into the hills. This relatively new road has many new houses being constructed on each side. Nowadays square houses with iron roofs are replacing the traditional round ones with thatched roofs. Unfortunately, although easier to build, the iron does not provide the insulation the thatched ones used to. The construction starts off with eucalyptus sticks making a frame; more sticks are added to make an enclosure; the roof goes on then the inside is plastered, as is the floor; then the outside is plastered. A mixture of mud and straw is used to make the plaster. It has to be just right; too much straw and a donkey may eat your house. 

We climbed a steep part in the road with stone retaining walls and stopped at a lookout for great views back down the valley. A petite woman lugs a load of firewood up the hill to sell in the town while a boy looks on, I am sure pleased he can avoid that task. These new roads and much of the new infrastructure is being provided by China – apparently originally they provided the labour in the form of prisoners from China. 

Not far along the ridge we dropped down into the city of Lalibella. Situated on a ridge it drops off steeply on each side with houses often perched on cliff edges. With around 50,000 people the town is spreading rapidly with a number of government built houses. 

Thousands of concrete pipes line fields below, all part of the China input for future infrastructure.

Although there are some sewerage pipelines most houses are not connected and still use long drops. Most houses have electricity but like the rest of the country they have many power cuts. Running water is also piped to most houses but the supply is inconsistent. 

A little way through the town we turned down a cobbled street passing a bunch of tidy stalls made from corrugated iron. This area was a little more tidy containing a number of small hotels. Our hotel Maribela is pretty new and situated on the top of a hill with expansive views over the land below.

After lunch we headed back through town to what was around 900 years ago a solid rock ridge. Then along came King Lalibella who decided to create a few churches. Rather than cutting the stone into blocks and building a church he decided to cut the stone and carve a church. The first and the largest monolithic church in the world is, to say the least, a great feat of engineering. The rock has been chiselled away all around the structure providing drainage and access, then columns chiselled out around the outside. From there they have chiselled their way inside creating internal columns to hold up the roof. A bread room has been chiselled into the rock to the south and entrances made on the north, west and east sides. 

Some of the outside columns have been replaced with block ones by UNESCO and a large structure has been built well above the church to protect it from the elements. 

There were also two little corrugated iron boxes which I thought were dog kennels. Oops got that wrong – “those are for the security guards to sleep in”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

After a look inside we exited and headed through a hole in some rock to the next one. We were able to circle around and up onto the rock between the two structures for a good view of both. There are no safety rails but only one tourist has fallen to their death, and they were not following directions. 

On each side of the second monolithic church are two much smaller semi-monolithic churches. In each of these structures priests sat or stood around while getting photographed by the tourists. 

Apparently part of the reason the king had these built was to attract visitors to the area. It appears he certainly got that bit right. There are two more semi-monolithic churches here but they are closed for repairs just now. Apparently all these sites are funded and administered by UNESCO. 

We headed down and out through what served both as a path and a drain, which continued down into what the king named the river Jordan, which contains a cross and baptism pool designed so locals didn’t have to make the pilgrimage to the Middle East. 

From here we headed to the town centre, chatting to the many local kids there keen to practice their English. 

A stroll down a nearby street revealed a local burger butcher, identified by lungs and trachea hanging outside, then to an ale house identified by a stick outside the door with a tin on it. We went in and Yohannes sampled the local beer brewed from honey. 

As we exited the bar the local women had gathered to clean the street, sweeping and picking up rubbish.

We were lead into a hall where a bunch of teenage girls were practicing for an upcoming dance to the beat of a plastic drum. We even got to join in and later take a group photo followed by a small donation. 

Back at Hotel Maribela we sat on the couch at the end of the dining room. The manager decided they should light the open fire. Five staff undertook this task: some sticks 100mm x 1m were put vertical in the fireplace, meths added and then the attempted lighting of a plastic bag. “Woof” the meths ignited, five staff reeled backwards, the flames died out and the process started again as they tried to get the fire going at the top of the sticks. To be fair, after over an hour of perseverance they did have a bit of a fire going. 


Tuesday 31 July 2018

We had a leisurely breakfast then decided to wander around a bit before our 9am pick up to see if we could get a few photos. We were soon mobbed by kids clamouring to try out their English and asking for money to support their schooling. One thing about this place: there are always lots of people hanging about.

We got some good pictures of some bone crusher or bearded vultures (lammergeiers), and black kites which were soaring on the thermals near the hotel.

After reconnecting with Yohannes our first stop was the church of St George. This is probably the most famous of all the Lalibela churches. It is carved in the shape of a cross and is very impressive. I still cannot fathom why anyone would go to all the difficulty of carving a church underground out of granite – surely it would be easier to build above ground – especially considering the large drainage ditches that needed to be dug out for managing the water. Earlier in the morning we passed a group of men chipping away at some granite rock with hammers – I commented to one of the kids hanging around that it made it easy to see just how difficult carving the churches out of the granite would have been back in the late 12th century. He quickly advised that the churches were actually carved by angels (one of the common beliefs espoused by the church here).

From the church we could see a small local market so wandered over to take a closer look. All sorts of wares were laid out including spices, vegetables, cooking utensils and much more. Apparently at the Saturday markets, which are the main markets of the week, you can barely move for all the people.

Next we visited the final group of churches. There is some debate between the church and the scholars whether these were originally built as churches or as a palace, banquet hall, kitchen and church complex for the king. Based on what I saw I am siding with the scholars but they are all used as churches today. Again I had to marvel at the amount of work involved and the intricacy of some of the carvings. These churches are all interconnected with a series of tunnels. You can walk around the top and take the main entrance but we opted to take the path known as “passing through hell”, a pitch black tunnel through the granite – left hand on the roof so we didn’t hit our heads and staying as close to the right as possible to avoid big rocks protruding from the left – it was slow progress. Roger gave Yohannes quite a fright after the two of us had exited and Roger didn’t respond to any calling and hung around in the tunnel for a while!!! Luckily I think Yohannes generally appreciates Roger’s unique brand of humour. 

We stopped for lunch at a uniquely shaped restaurant with nearly 360 degree views over the surrounding countryside then headed to a rather touristic “traditional coffee ceremony”. We continue to be impressed by how green and fertile this area is. Admittedly it is the rainy season right now and there has been rainfall every evening but given that we are at 2700m above sea level here and nothing grows at that height in NZ the lushness has surprised us. 

After we had been dropped back at the hotel we wandered into the main part of town to change some money at the local bank – I continue to be extremely grateful that I grew up in a developed country with so many amenities. The bank was crowded and stuffy and the processes seemed incredibly manual with multiple pieces of paper being exchanged during the transaction.

As we neared the hotel on the way back two of the girls Roger had been talking to in the morning invited us into their house for coffee. They were quite insistent so we joined and felt extremely privileged to experience a really traditional coffee. The eldest girl turns 16 tomorrow and was busy making the local staple, injera bread, which is made from the local grain, teff. It is cooked a bit like a pancake on a large griddle and they even had me have a go – edible but not pretty. 


Wednesday 1 August: Roger

Around 9.30am we left the Maribela Hotel heading to the airport. Just on the edge of the fast expanding town we turned down a dirt road. The driver stopped to talk to a couple of locals who warned him he would get stuck if he went any further. So we went further and yes we got stuck. We alighted leaving the driver to sort the van. There were several bullocks working the land nearby. 

We continued on foot, this time to a cave church. Apparently they tried to chisel deeper into an existing cave but the rock was too hard. It is part of a monastery with nowadays about forty monks housed in huts around the steep valley. It is also a place where people come to heal. An old guy lay on the ground wrapped in a blanket and was undertaking the holy water treatment (that’s the water that drips off the cliff above the cave). I think looking at the guy a doctor might be a better option. 

As we waited outside a woman turned up and swept the steps. Her title on the tag that hung around her neck was “tourist support and shoe keeper”.

Then a really old looking priest turned up. Our shoes in safe hands we went into the church. Bits of corrugated iron were in strategic places to keep the water out as the wall did not reach the cave roof. 

After another detailed history lesson from guide Yohannes we finally ended up at a steel box from which the priest extracted various crosses, crowns and a few other artefacts supposedly dating back around 800 years. Next was the goat skin bible in place here for some 500 years. I think the priest may have arrived not long after the bible. 

Heading back to the car a young boy and girl accompanied by a teenager who had been earlier impressively cracking a whip were singing, then wanted their photo taken. After some insistence I obliged. Yes, you got it! Next they wanted money, that they didn’t get. 

Skilled and well practiced at extracting money from tourists they followed us back to the van with one of them even turning on the tears. 

We had a long discussion with Yohannes regarding this practice, all too common here. It is unfortunate that we, as tourists, see people living in a less privileged situation than we are and feel the need to hand out money with no thought of the effect that it has on their future. Kids stop going to school and hang around on the streets saying to tourists “money, money, money”. In the long run our misguided generosity does more harm than good. We came to the conclusion it is better to give a lump sum to a local aid organisation than to individuals. 

At the airport we again went through the double security, the same people scanning and searching us (shoes off, computers out) as we entered the terminal and again at the boarding lounge some 10 meters away.

On arrival at Gonder we were driven through what, I think, are two or three towns which are joined into one big city. Here again there is a huge amount of construction going on as the town expands; the government is encouraging the expat community who escaped to Sudan under the Marxist rule to return.

There are lots of 5-storey apartment blocks and new houses built and being built. Eucalyptus is in abundance here and is used both in houses and in the construction of multi-storey buildings.

There are more tuk-tuks on the road here than there are privately owned cars – they literally jam up the roads. Horses are used to cart large loads on drays and horse-drawn buggies also cart people around. Animals roam even on the main roads and in the streets.

After a vegan lunch at the the Four Sisters Restaurant we headed to the local castle. Up to the 1600’s most of the feudal kings used to live in tents and move around. In 1632 King Fasillades decided to stay put and built a castle. His son then built another as did his son, hence there are several hectares of castles contained behind a wall in Gonder. The first-built and main castle and some others were bombed in the process of defeating the Italians in 1941. This is another UNESCO site and slowly they are being restored. 

Next stop another church. Surrounded by a wall yet another Holy Trinity church, built by one of the kings, is lined with paintings depicting bible stories. Yohannes proceeded to pick up a stick and point out the full details, picture by picture. Sylvia listened intently and by the end I felt a bit like the guy in the last picture!!! All credit to Yohannes he really knows his stuff. 

Next stop was the summer palace where the surrounding moat is now used as a baptism pool, filled once a year for the epiphany when thousands of people gather for a dip. 

The day over we headed to the Mayleko Resort for the night. 


Thursday 2 August: Sylvia

We left Mayleko Lodge at about 8am and headed out on the fairly new, Chinese built road the 180-odd kilometres to Bahir Dar. Despite being a main highway it often felt more like a footpath than a road, the fairly sparse traffic needing to dodge people, donkeys, sheep, goats, cattle and many other things that clearly have the right of way. Some of the animals felt comfortable enough to sleep right in the middle of the road and even very young children run along the side of the highway that has a 60-80 kmph speed limit. People were busy moving their animals to pasture for the day or preparing to plough their fields. Women carry heavy loads on their heads while men carry them on their backs, often propped up with the stick they all seem to carry with them. Wells are placed sporadically along the way and groups of people gather there to pump water for their day’s use.

The scenery varied from wide open pastureland to terraced hills and through busy villages. Tall volcanic plugs jutted out in some places; the locals call them the fingers of God.


Even small boys carry their ploughs in two pieces, the yoke (a thick plank with four sticks jutting from it that will sit over the bullocks’ necks), and the plough, (a longer stick with the ploughshare attached at one end). We stopped to take photographs at one paddock where a man was hitching his bullocks and attaching the plough. After getting his ploughing started he offered Roger to have a turn – probably the wiggliest furrow in all of Ethiopia eventuated and at the end the cattle kept going, even starting to plough the neighbour’s field, until the farmer ran over to stop them. I was impressed though by his ability to crack the whip. 

After about three and a half hours we arrived at Kuriftu Resort in Bahir Dar where we will stay tonight. Bahir Dar is situated beside Lake Tana, a large lake around 80km long, which is the source of the Blue Nile. This river meanders through Ethiopia and Sudan, eventually joining the White Nile in Khartoum and becoming the Nile river which flows through Egypt. Apparently 86% of the water in the Nile starts here in Lake Tana. 

After lunch we headed out again to drive to the Blue Nile Falls. The tarseal ran out fairly quickly so most of the hour-long drive was over bumpy, muddy dirt road, passing through many villages and busy markets, including the first livestock market we have seen with many goats, sheep and donkeys in groups ready for sale. We spotted the odd person carrying an assault rifle – apparently the local militia. These guys are charged with keeping the peace in the local villages but need to call in the police  from the nearest town for any serious issues or when they run out of bullets.

We eventually arrived at a small village called Tis Abay where Yohannes purchased tickets while we tried to fend off the many touts trying to sell us hats, scarves and other bits and pieces, all while engaging in humorous banter. 

We then wandered up a muddy track with many people offering to help steady us as we navigated the stepping stones. Being the rainy season the water in the river leading to the falls is a dark brown colour, reminiscent of the chocolate river in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. The falls themselves were also a chocolate brown, but impressive nonetheless. These are apparently the second-largest falls in Africa (after Victoria Falls). There is a well-engineered and surprisingly sturdy swing bridge over the river at one point. 

As we made our way back to the vehicle we were besieged by touts – Roger was kindly but firmly trying to give lessons in politeness but I’m not sure how well he was understood. Even his firmest “no means no” only resulted in one tout being replaced by another. It was a shame as this detracted somewhat from what would otherwise have been an exceedingly positive experience.

We made our way back to Bahir Dar and boarded a boat for a trip over Lake Tana to the start of the Blue Nile river, where we even saw several hippos, including a mother and a very small calf. 

Returning to the resort we enjoyed a drink with Yohannes and our driver before retiring for the evening. We have been very much enjoying our engaging conversations with Yohannes. It seems that Ethiopia is going through a major political change with a new prime minister elected about 3 months ago. He appears to be very popular and seems to have been making some very positive changes in the country. I certainly hope he is able to deliver against the expectations.

Roger and Yohannes have also enjoyed a lot of banter with each other and it will be sad to leave him behind when we head south tomorrow.

 

Ethiopia: An intriguing history

Saturday 28 July 2018: Roger

Departing Singapore at 2am on Ethiopian Airlines, with their bright green blankets and bright yellow eyeshades, we had no doubt we were on the right airline.

Landing in Addis Ababa at 6am local time we were bussed to the terminal and really appreciated being first in line as the immigration guy took 10 minutes to process the two of us. Moving out through the unattended customs area we were surprised to see that most of the local hotels had their own little booth in the terminal.

Initially no one was around to meet us; eventually a lady turned up with a sign bearing the name of the travel company and soon we were in a van with our guide, Johannes, and his driver, heading through the quiet streets to the Sheraton Hotel. The hotel and its grounds are impressive; security is taken seriously. A federal policeman sits in the guard alcove AK across his lap. A mirror is used to check the underside of the van. Before entering the lobby we pass through X-ray machines and metal detectors.

Overlooking the hotel is the residence of the prime minister who is currently visiting the US.

After settling into our room, freshening up and a hearty breakfast, Johannes picked us and we headed into town. Addis is the third highest capitol city in the world at 2,500 to 3,000m above sea level. The first stop was a Karl Marx statue, the only reminder of the marxist rule, which lasted from 1974 until the early 90’s when the Ethiopian military was defeated and rebels took control of the country.

Next we headed to the city university, once the palace of Haile Salassie. He ruled from 1930 to 1936 when the Italians invaded. Then again from 1941 to 1974. Apparently in many respects he was a highly rated leader. His earlier name was Ras Tafari and his elaborate coronation ceremony apparently created the Rastafarian movement in Jamaica where he has deity status. After one of his sons tried to overthrow him in the early 60s he gave his palace to the country as a university which it still is today. In front of the palace, part of which is a museum, is a staircase going nowhere. Built by the Italians during their occupation with 14 steps to celebrate 14 years of Facism. With the assistance of the Brits the Italians were thrown out and Haile took over again. Asked what he wanted done with the steps he said “place a Lion of Judah (the symbol of Ethiopia) on them.”

Once known as the hidden Empire, Ethiopia evolved in in relative isolation, protected by fierce fighters and impassable terrain. In the fourth century King Evan was converted to Christianity leading to the creation of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church which is still strong today. The east supports a sizeable Islamic population founded by propheit Mohammed way back.

In the late 1800’s the Italians were defeated when trying to invade. This makes them the only African country not to have been colonised (except for Mussolini’s brief run in the 1930’s). Since the 50’s they have had an on and off scrap with Eritrea which lead in part to the particularly brutal down fall of Haile by the Marxist military regime known as Dergue. They tolerated no dissent and initiated mass killings and forced relocations. When citizens arrived to claim bodies of state murdered dissenters they were asked to pay for the bullets in the victims. During this time Somalia, supported by the US, started a scrap over the Ogaden region.

As we went up the marble staircase a couple of cleaners joined Johannes for a photo. We also had Mekdla, a student, join us for our tour. We checked out various artefacts including drums and wooden discs which are put in women’s lips by a particular tribe. One area we toured by the light from our phones as the power wasn’t working.

Finally we had a tour of the seperate bedrooms used by Haile and his wife; her bathroom in pink and his in blue. Some uniforms and other memorabilia were also on display.

Next stop was the Holy Trinity church, surrounded by a cemetery where armed soldiers guard the tombs of past leaders. There is some contraversy here just now as a few days ago a famous engineer was assassinated on his way to an interview with the media supposedly to expose the corruption of the previous government. People are asking the question as to why soldiers can be provided to protect the dead but are not available to protect the living. There is also a shrine here where many of the heads of the previous government were executed by the Marxists.

Next stop was a restaurant called Lucy’s where we tried a local dish Bozena Shiro consisting of chickpeas, beans, spices and lamb served with copious quantities of Indera bread – gluten free and made from a local grain, teff, this is a main part of the diet here. Washed down with a local beer it tasted pretty good. The staff were super friendly and keen to pose for photos with Johannes and our driver, who are regular visitors.

After lunch we headed to the museum almost next door to check out the real Lucy. Here they have a really interesting board outlining the evolution of man like it was done in 60 seconds, with 0 being 7 million years ago and 60 being 5500 years ago when writing was first used. Various exhibits showed how animals had evolved over time, often to survive a changing environment. These all lead to Lucy who was discovered in the 70’s and is the oldest artefact found of man as an upright walking human.

We drove from there past Yekatit 12 Martyr’s Square with its statue representing the people who had been killed by the Italians in 1936 when they herded some 30,000 people onto the streets and ran them over with tanks and heavy vehicles.

Next we passed the Meyazia 27 Square Monument, a monument to Ethiopia overcoming Italian racism.

From there we headed to the centre of town where the metro rail begins. A number of buildings under construction or repair have eucalyptus branches and sticks used as scaffolding, apparently a common practice here.

The streets are dirty and dusty with lots of stalls set up along the road side. A bright blue Mosque is under construction amongst the rubbish that lies around the landscape.

Next we drove through the Merkato, one of the largest market places in Africa. It was like nothing I have ever seen before. It has evolved into sections; there is one area where they are remaking umbrellas from salvaged parts, in another there are people sewing and doing alterations, another seems to be recycled pots and pans, another electrical wire. And on it goes. Scrap arrives on top of cars and vans to be recycled. Looking down alley into the background there are thousands of shacks all with a satellite dish. Women process food, men carry huge loads on their backs or heads. Clusters of blue and white taxis, some Toyotas, many Lada’s gather in groups, many hardly looking road worthy. Amongst this absolute chaos people are smiley and friendly. Even the photos cannot truly describe what we saw here. Stuff arrives here as rubbish to be resurrected and sold in the thousand of stalls which also provide food for the locals.

 


Sunday 29 July: Sylvia

This morning we were up bright and early with a 6:20am pick up at the hotel to transfer to the airport for our flight to Axum. At one point we came across long lines of cars stopped – apparently a random search underway due to the funeral in town this afternoon so we did a quick U-turn and took a different road to the airport.

As with many developing countries chaos ensued at the airport. Queueing is definitely not practiced here – people pile over each other to get to the front of the line. It is good to be in relaxed holiday mode!

Once on board the Q400 Bombadier propeller plane it was an easy 1 hr-30 flight to Axum.  Axum is situated in a rural plateau with lots of agriculture. On our way into town we passed several trucks filled with young men, horns honking as they headed to a demonstration. We also passed lots of buildings in various stages of development. Apparently the government takes the land back if building is not started so people complete as much as they can and then wait for more money before doing more. 

We checked into the Sabean Hotel – simple and clean, then headed back out with Johannes to tour the area. Axum is the oldest known Christian community in Ethiopia. It all dates back to Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. He converted her to Judaism so this was originally a Jewish area. Legend has it that the original arc of the covenant was transported to Ethiopia and remains in one of the large churches here in Axum. 

We visited the ruins of a Jewish temple dating back over 2000 years. An Ethiopian eunuch was converted to Christianity in the early AD period and the Jewish temple was converted to a church. But not everyone converted and in the 9th century AD a female Jew lead a rebellion against the Christians in Axum and destroyed the temple. Churches were rebuilt in later years including one that women are not allowed to visit so I sat outside – much to Roger’s amusement. I was quite content to watch the many beautiful and often brightly coloured birds.

People here are incredibly friendly and seem to like to try out their English on us ferengi. And the kids are not shy about asking for money or a football either… and always with big smiles on their faces.

Next we visited the cathedral of St Mary Zion. It is in a small chapel outside this cathedral, also built by Haile Salassie, that the arc of the covenant is said to reside. Apparently only one chosen deacon ever sees the arc. He lives inside with it and is provided for by another deacon. They are building a new chapel next to the current one as it is starting to leak. Roger suggested that he might try and fly a drone overhead when they are moving the arc to the new building so someone can actually get a look at it.

The cathedral itself is a large cavernous building with many bright paintings inside depicting biblical stories of significance to the Ethiopians. It is clear the the Ethiopian Orthodox Church plays a critical role in the lives of Ethiopians with around 50% ascribing to this religion.

Next we visited a small, dilapidated museum show-casing numerous religious relics and the crowns of many of Ethiopia’s kings. Everything was stored inside glass cabinets but still looked dusty and dirty. Despite the security (no electronics or cameras – we had to lock them up outside and were scanned before entering), it certainly wouldn’t pass as a museum back home.

We headed up the cobbled road (they are not allowed to use tar seal here as they do not want to damage any of the other old buildings that lie buried here) to the ruins of a castle of a couple of kings from the 6th century AD. We also stopped at a small shack housing a large slab of granite engraved in three languages telling the story of  King Ezana’s (4th century) victories over his enemies.

After lunch and a rest at the hotel we headed out agin this afternoon, first to look at a field with about 70 monolithic stelae in them, three of them exceedingly large and engraved with different patterns. At 34m apparently one is the largest obelisk in the world. Archeologists are divided as to their purpose but it seems most likely they were grave markers given they have unearthed several graves and interconnected rooms under the field. There is a field outside the town with a number of smaller stelae in. Roger remarked that they were waiting for some fertiliser to help them grow.

We also visited the ruins of the palace of the Queen of Sheba and heard a more detailed version of the legend of her union with Solomon that led to nearly two thousand years of Solomic dynasty, ending in 1974 when Haile Salassie was dethroned. Legend or truth, there is no doubt that the locals believe the story and have built their religion on its basis.

Before heading back to the hotel for the evening we drove around the town and watched the locals going about their usual Sunday activities. There is a large university on the outskirts of town and many small businesses have sprung up along the roadside catering to the needs of students. We stopped at one stall and participated in a coffee ceremony with some of the locals.

 

Alaska for a Wedding

Friday 8 June 2018

Arriving in Anchorage, via San Fransisco, late last night I was lucky to have been offered a bed in Palmer with Barry and Marlene. Barry had provided his boat and taken us bear hunting when Ross and I visited 5 years ago. After a late breakfast we head out to Hatcher Pass for a  walk up to an old gold mine. The road up the hill to the mine is still closed so we park at a carpark below the gate. There are a bunch of Spanish bikers also there to check out the mine. Apparently these bikers are part of a world wide club and travel to different countries hiring what look to be some pretty nice bikes for their local journeys.

Barry had stayed home to do some jobs, Marlene had brought the dog Bella along. Visiting from Minnesota for the wedding were Debbie, Jim, Stacy and Mark. A few squirrel like things things bounced around in the snow, no one seemed to know exactly what they were.

 

Gold was discovered around here at the end of the 1800s this mine was a hard rock mine where they blasted tunnels through the rock to extract the ore. It operated until 1950 and is now a reserve with many of the buildings still in good repair. The area is now used a lot for cross country skiing in the winter and in the summer for hiking.

The wedding was set down for 4pm so no doubt while we were out and about Steve and Chantelle we busy preparing for the big day. The bride no doubt getting prepped up with make up while the groom and his team did their preparation. (photo stolen off facebook).

The wedding place was a lovely spot in the country overlooking the Matanuska River. Barry and I posed for a photo in front of Steve’s Super Cub parked up ready for he and Chantelle to depart after the ceremony.

After the ceremony we headed across to the local Wolf Lake Airport to a hangar for the party, which continued into the early hours. At this time of year it doesn’t really get dark so its pretty easy not to notice the time go by.


Saturday 9 June 2018

Mid-morning we headed down to the Alaska Aviation Museum where a plaque was being presented by the Baldwin family in honour of Steve’s father Jay, who died in an aircraft accident three years ago.

The museum, although small and dedicated to flying in Alaska, has some interesting exhibits including a Boeing 737 200 designed with special plating underneath to land on gravel runways carrying cargo and passengers to remote places.

The have a hangar they rent out for functions and another that is used for restoration. Staffed by volunteers, they aim to have most of their aircraft able to fly; this includes a Curtiss P40 Warhawk, which was recovered recently from the Resolution Islands, part of which were occupied by the Japanese during WWII.

In The evening we headed to the Grape Trap, a local Wasilla restaurant, where we enjoyed a good yarn and some pretty nice food.


Sunday 10 June 2018

After breakfast the Minnesota crew headed off to the airport. Barry and Marlene headed off to their local church while I relaxed. Later in the day Marlene and I headed over and picked up John and Carol, who are in the process of building a new hangar at the end of the Wolf Lake airport. Interestingly around here one does not need any permits of consent from the local council to build a house; even building inspections are not required although most good builders contract a private company to inspect their work.

We headed up to the Gold Mine Trail in the same are we had gone to on Friday. John is armed with a bear flare just in case. We bump into Kent and Helen, who joined us on the stroll. It’s a wide walking track heading up a valley alongside a hastily moving creek, charged with waters from the spring snow melt. Light rain sets is as we are a few hundred meters up the track – luckily I had my trusty red poncho.

By the look of it this valley had once been occupied by a glacier, leaving moraine walls on each side of the valley. There are a number of beaver dams along the way, which always intrigue me as to how, with the aid of twigs and mud, these things seem to hold water.

Carol, John, Marlene, Kent and Helen

In the evening Barry and Marlene cooked up some of their self-caught salmon. We were joined by John, Carol, Gary  and his wife Ramona. Gary, a retired airforce colonel, had some great stories to tell both about the military and about his flying exploits in Alaska and around the US. Flying is in the blood of most people here. With only 12,000 miles of paved roads 90% of Alaska is not accessible by road so small planes are the main form of transport into the back blocks. There are 16 times the number of aircraft per capita when compared to the lower 48 states of the US. With over 600 airports and 3000 plus airstrips flying is the way to go. Plus there are 114 seaplane bases, these fly out and land on all sorts of lakes and rivers.


Monday 11 June 2018

After another hearty breakfast we headed into Anchorage to do a bit of shopping. A visit to Bass Pro drew a blank for me as they seemed to be very under staffed and no one was too keen to assist me in my quest for new boots.

Next was REI and success with a couple of keen assistants giving good advice and bringing out different brands to try on. They also sorted me some leather treatment for the boots, which later got confiscated in Frankfurt as it was 110mls!!!

At Cabellas I got a new case for my binoculars and had a look at a few interesting guns. One in particular was the Smith and Wesson 460 5-shot revolver; unfortunately there was no way that was going to get through airport security in my carry-on bag.

Lastly we stopped at a huge warehouse called Costco, which one has to be a member of,  where people buy in bulk every thing from groceries to boats.

All too soon the stay was over as Barry and Marlene dropped me at the airport for the journey to Singapore. Interestingly I was for some reason routed through Denver, Houston, Chicago and Frankfurt, where I got to spend a day and night with my sister, Rachel, and her husband, Edward, who have lived in Germany for over 20 years.

Vancouver and Chicago

Friday 1 June 2018
Early evening Sylvia and I met at the Vancouver airport. She had flown from Singapore via Taiwan and I had flown from Auckland via LA. It’s interesting just how much walking is involved at airports from landing in LA and changing terminals to getting through immigration in Vancouver I had walked according to my phone nearly 4kms. I feel sorry for old people travelling. We taxied to the downtown Fairmont Pacific Rim Hotel. With fantastic views over the grass-topped convention centre to the harbour, great staff and excellent service it’s a great place to stay.

Saturday 2 June

After a lazy breakfast we took a short stroll around the town, visiting a few shops, where again people bent over backwards to be helpful. The streets are clean and the buildings tidy.
At noon we wandered down to the to a jetty next to the convention centre where Harbour Air are based. After checking in, and having free coffee during the wait, we boarded a Twin Otter float plane for the flight to Victoria on Vancouver Island.
We took of to the north up the harbour before turning south and passing a huge heap of sulphur. Known as the Vancouver Sulphur pile it has been there for years; not the same pile but a never ending pile that is brought in by rail, mainly from Alberta. It is  a byproduct of oil sands. From here it is shipped all over the world.
We flew over a few dozen ships waiting for their turn to berth. Looking down at the sea it looks like there has been an oil spill with black streaks on the sand; it is in fact silt brought down from the mountains during the spring snow melt.
The flight over the many islands was very picturesque with lots of islands along the way. Flying at 1000ft we could only see a small part of Vancouver Island. There are lots of boats running around the harbour as we come into land but it all seems to work well.
A short taxi and we were at the jetty, tied up along with the other float planes. I had visited Victoria five years ago so was keen to give Sylvia a quick tour. This was going well until Sylvia spotted a funky shoe shop where we spent some time buying funky shoes. We continued out stroll around the town, which has lots of really neat buildings and is kept clean and tidy for the thousands of tourists that visit every day. Soon we spotted Big Bad John’s bar, which I had visited last time. We ventured in but not much had changed in spite of the barmaid telling us it had been refurbished a couple of years ago. The walls are lined with bras, money and other memorabilia from all over the world. We added a kiwi note with our names on it to the collection.
Across town we came to the parliament buildings – built of stone with grand lawns these are rather spectacular. They were closed for tours today with an orchestra playing on the steps. I did the tour last time I was here. We stopped at a wharfside cafe and enjoyed a nice lunch before catching the plane back to Vancouver. There are lots of water taxis running about the harbour that look quire top heavy but apparently are quite safe.
All too soon our visit was over. As we boarded the plane the pilot asked me to sit in the copilot’s seat for the flight home. We taxied to the outer part of the harbour to take-off into the light breeze. There was a ferry coming in but after some discussion over the radio we were cleared to take off with plenty of room to spare. We soon turned, heading north. Along the way the pilot pointed out different islands, mostly now owned by tech billionaires. One with a deep water port was used to manufacture ammunition during WWII, Another, Spieden Island, is the US territory where during the 60’s plains game such as kudu and bison were released so hunters could come and hunt them. This apparently went well until someone missed an animal and the bullet went through a house on a neighbouring island. Some of the animals still roam the island having adapted to the climate by growing thicker coats.

Sunday 3 June 2018

Sylvia was flying to Chicago just after lunch so we headed to the airport early to meet her uncle and aunt, Simon and Dale, who live at White Rocks near the US border. Simon, a former anesthesiologist, worked in Vancouver for many years and they are now enjoying their retirement here and, like us, they love to travel.
I took the train back to town and was surprised to see, when crossing the Fraser River, that large stocks of logs were contained but floating along the riverbank. I didn’t realise this method was still a method of transporting timber.
Arriving back at the hotel I took a free bike (they did have a stand of electric ones for $30 per hour). After being assured by the bike man it was not going to rain I headed of for a ride around what was once the island. Not far along the track it started to rain quite hard so I ended up stopping under a bridge and yarning to a Flemish couple who had also been caught out. After waiting some time and the rain not abating I put on my poncho and headed back to the hotel.
In the early evening, Des, a member of the local police ERT (Emergency Response Team) arrived. I had met Des in Texas last year while doing some long range shooting. We had a good catch up in the lounge on the 20th floor with his wife Kerri joining us later. One of the staff recommended a local restaurant called Nightingale so we headed there for a very nice meal and a good catch up, also enjoying the decor and the well-stocked bar. A game of pool and a couple more drinks at a local bar brought the evening/early morning to a close.

Monday 4 June 2018

I was in the lounge doing some work when I looked up to see a bloke hanging around on a rope cleaning the windows. I went out onto the balcony to have a closer look. This building is 48 storeys and the lounge is on the 20th floor. Duncan looked very comfortable hanging in his harness, suspended on a rope with another there, I presume, as a back up. He had been in NZ during the last Rugby World Cup and worked there teaching rock climbing.
Later in the morning I met Des and Kerri and they drove me around a few of the local places. Chinatown is a very tidy part of town as is the Gastown district with its steam clock. Hastings Street however is not quite what I was expecting. It’s like they have got every bad bugger in Canada and confined them to one street. Des explained how the street is just seething with crime, every illicit drug is available, local properties are constantly burgled to obtain items to sell to buy drugs, there are fights, stabbings and more. Apparently the city does its best to try and house, help and rehabilitate these people with little success and for some reason they all seem to congregate in this area.
We checked out the stream clock, the first of its kind in the world, installed apparently over a steam vent to stop the homeless congregating there to keep warm. At a cost of 42k it blows steam every 45 minutes and keeps people amused with a series of balls being carried up and down inside.
We then enjoyed a nice lunch at a local Japanese restaurant, after which Des and Kerri dropped me back at the hotel. I again took a bike and headed off for a ride around Stanley Park. This is a pretty area with good bike and walking paths and lots of green spaces. On the southern and eastern sides there are some beaches, all with logs laid out for seating and back rests. I presume they have been fished from the sea having escaped on the way to the saw mill. The bike trail back off the island lead me past a stadium and the World of Science, through Chinatown, across Hastings street and past the steam clock.
Around 5.30 Dayne (an ERT chap I also met in Texas last year) picked me up in his work SUV. The doormen did a bit of a double take as this tall, fully tooled up bloke dismounted and shook my hand before we jumped in the big black machine and headed off.
We cruised down Hastings St, where several cop cars were parked, lights flashing, as the cops were sorting out a bit of trouble. Several people lay cuffed, face down on the footpath, a few others in the process of being restrained while calling the cops not very nice names. We watched for a while, Dayne not wanting to get involved in case something serious went down somewhere else. From there we headed over to their HQ and took a look at their new armoured truck and had a look around their muster room and kit lockers. We had a good chat about various tools of their trade and then headed across town to the shooting range and training complex. Here all 1200 Vancouver police do both their shooting and situation-type training. In addition to the 25 and 50M shooting ranges there are rooms that can be set up with various sonorous sim (like a paint ball round) ammunition can be used to ensure police get it right in a real situation. There is also a large matted room where police are taught the art of restraining people. A lot of judo techniques are being brought into play here to try and restrain people without injuring them.
In the car park Dayne opened up the back of his truck to show me through the kit they carry, which, to name a bit, included stun grenades, runner and tear gas bullets, little mobile cameras to throw on buildings to see what is going on, a sniper rifle and night vision gear. Unfortunately nowadays there is a strong likelihood that some really bad bastards will show up in town so Vancouver, like many cities worldwide, has to have some real good bastards with the best kit to keep the rest of us safe.
As we left there Dayne got a call out – a guy was barricaded in a 6 floor apartment with a samurai sword threatening to kill people. He dropped me back at the hotel and went to help deal with the stand-off that lasted five hours.

Tuesday 5 June 2018

It’s cruise ship season here just now and there always seemed to be three in port and at least one in the bay leaving or coming. Some of these ships look more like a set of apartments, with each upper deck cabin having its own little balcony. After watching one of these leave the harbour I headed to the station and caught the train to the airport.
Arriving in Chicago late afternoon I caught the train towards the city, alighting at Damen a few kms north west of down town. Sylvia and her crew are staying in this wedge-shaped hotel, I think once a commercial building. On the roof is a bar; the sky is really clear this evening making for some great views over the city.
Sylvia and a team of senior managers from Mars are here working with a charity organisation called CARA who specialise in getting ex drug addicts homeless and other disadvantaged people back into the workforce, with a real focus on inclusive employment. The charity has been around for 27 years.

Wednesday 6 June 2018

After a leisurely breakfast I took a slow stroll into the city. I was surprised how little traffic there was as I headed down Milwaukee Ave.
I have been here a couple of times before and have looked at the museum, the Wells tower and done the ‘must do’ Architectural River Tour, where they explain how they reverse engineered the river to get it to run out of the lake to take the pollution down to the Mississippi River, and how over 100 years ago they jacked up all the buildings to raise the city. There are even more lift up bridges here than there are roads. The river splits, running north and south a few ks from the lake.
This time I booked to do the Gangasters and Ghosts Walking tour. As I made my way through the streets crossing the river, amazed at the number of bridges – all of which lift up to let yachts and ships through, including the odd spare one permanently stuck up in the air as if waiting for a new road road reach it. Arriving a little early at 75 Upper Wacker Drive I headed into the Land and Lake Cafe for a bite to eat. There I had a good bit of banter with Roberta, the waitress as I explained how what they call cream is really closer to what we call milk as that’s sort of how you get it from the cow.
Eventually finding Stefan, the charming, well-rehearsed walking guide a few doors down the road, we headed off on our tour joined by an Aussi bloke and a couple of women from Florida.
The first stop was to point out the building where Al Capone had his Stratosphere Club on the top floor. Interestingly the building housed mainly diamond traders who were consistently robbed on their way to and from work. To alleviate this problem a car elevator was installed, the first of its kind in the world, so the traders could drive in off lower Wacker drive and take car and all up to their office.
Next are the towers where interestingly, in the one on the right, over 1000 people have died through suuicide or murder by backing their cars over the edge of the car park. These were the first buildings in the world using a tower crane to build them. Apparently when they were digging the foundations on the right one they found human bones, maybe from an old Indian burial site and just carried on building. The building on the left has had only one suicide since they were completed in the 60’s hence the rent is cheaper in the right one.
The ship Eastland was berthed in the river and looked a bit top heavy as upper cabins, and then, following the Titanic sinking extra life boats added. One night during a fireworks display all the people on board rushed to the riverside to watch and it tipped over, killing over 800 people.
Next was the great fire. Apparently people jumped into the river to escape the flames. The river was so polluted with fat from the meat works that it caught fire around 300 people died. Not far from there is Death Alley, next to what was once the Iroquois Theatre, which was packed to over capacity, with people seated on the floor and exit doors that opened inwards, when a kerosene lamp set fire to the curtains and over 600 people died. The alley was curtained off and the charred remains laid out there.
The tour continued explaining various places where Capone had had people walked, particularly under the train lines while a train was passing to hide the noise. The above ground train lines were built in the late 1800s as too many people were being run over by trains. Interestingly they are the only lines I have seen where the electric rail is fully exposed.
As the city has been raised there is a huge amount of disused basement space, which is where many of the illegal bars were set up during the probation era. We stopped at the Palmer House Hilton, built in the early 1900’s with ornate ceilings and surroundings. Here was where many of the jazz musicians, brought up from the south by Capone, stayed.
We then wandered across to the Congress Hotel, where not only did Capone have a penthouse, but a mass murderer also  picked up a lot of his victims from here.
By this stage my bloody nuisance ankle was starting to swell again so I took the train back to the hotel where we spent a quiet evening.