Malta: Unlike Rome it is built of stone

As a young soldier, while on leave, I stayed with a Mr Cowan near Hastings in NZ. He was a retired RAF Wing Commander who had been based in Malta in WWII during the Italian and German bombing campaign. He told me a story that has stayed with me. He described it as the bravest thing he had ever seen. An unexploded German time bomb had landed beside their last undamaged hanger. A flight sergeant loaded it on to a forklift and drove it of to the local rubbish dump.

Thursday 27 September 2018

Leaving Italy on Ryan air was an experience in itself. These guys are organised in making every minute count when it comes to getting aircraft back in the air. We were called to board then stood on a stairway for several minutes before heading out onto the tarmac where we stood and watched the passengers disembark from the just-landed plane. As soon as they were all off on we went. Very efficient!

Landing in Malta around 1pm a driver from La Falconeria Hotel picked me up for the short trip into Valletta. The route took us around the north side of the fort (yes this town of 5,500 odd people is a fort). Arriving at the hotel I was greeted by really helpful and friendly staff and soon settled into a room. As Sylvia was flying in from France later in the evening I went for a stroll around the town or fort. The place is outstanding to say the least and steeped in some of the most interesting history I have come across.

Valletta, originally a rocky peninsula jutting into the harbour, has long been of strategic importance. After being attacked by the Ottomans in the early 1500s, they started in 1566 building the tunnel and drainage systems and bastions. By the early 1600 it had become a sizeable city. To try do it justice with the help of wikipedia here is a summary of the history of the 316 km2 country with a population of 432,089 this year.

First occupied by Neolithic farmers, probably from Sicily, around 5900 BC, a combination of global warming (probably not man-made) and bad farming practices ran them out of food and they left.

Repopulated again from Sicily around 3850 BC this group built the temples, one of which, the Ggantija temple in Gozo, is still standing today and is believed to be the oldest free standing building in the world. These guys lasted about 1500 years before being driven out due  again to global warming and drought, at which point this culture too disappeared.

Various Bronze Age people then occupied the island until 800 BC when the Phoenicians possibly arrived. In 400 BC it became a trading post linking  Sicily and Italy to what is now Libya. From 250 BC to 500 AS the Romans ruled in one form or another. In 535 AD it was integrated into the Byzantine province of Sicily. There is speculation the Greeks rued for a short time around 800 AD.

In 870 AD Muslims from North Africa ruled and after a siege, many bloody battles and the annihilation of the population the country lay empty for some time until in 1048 it was resettled by a Muslim community and their slaves. In 1091 Sicily took over again. Over the next 440 years it was sold and resold to various feudal lords until in 1479 it became part of the Spanish empire.

In 1530 the island was handed to the to Knights of St John, who ruled for the next 275 years. In 1798 Napoleon rocked up and stayed for six days, putting in his administration system with the French ruling for a couple of years until in !800 it became a British protectorate.

In 1964  Malta gained independence and in 2004 Malta became part of the EU.

Friday 28 September 2018

After a leisurely breakfast at the hotel we took a stroll up to the top of town and jumped a bus to the old city or fort of Mdina, about 10kms west of Valletta. Even outside Valletta the architecture is pretty amazing with rows and rows of stone buildings, most of which have the famous enclosed Maltese balconies cantilevered out from where the window would be. A stone aqueduct still stands in places that once bought water to Valletta. As we headed west we came across lots of small, arid looking farming plots, many surrounded by stones that had been stacked into fences over many years.


Built on the edge of a cliff, Mdina is quite spectacular with a deep moat on the south side with a bridge to the gate.

Entering the old city we were confronted by a maze of alleys, small squares and a large cathedral. We came across some people dressed in Medieval costumes who invited us into a museum about the Knights of St John. Originally founded in Jerusalem in 1070 as a Catholic military order they roamed Europe leading the Christian crusades eventually arriving in Malta after the fall of Rhodes. They became famous in Malta for repelling the Turks, who turned up with forty thousand men.

The Knights having had word of the invasion harvested all the crops even those not ripe then poisoned many wells to deprive the invaders of food and water. The Turks overran a fort near Valletta then a bare peninsular. They cut the heads off the Knights they captured and floated them on crosses in the harbour. The knights then cut the heads of their Turk prisoners, loaded them into canons and fired them into the Turk camps. Apparently this had quite a demoralising effect on the Turk soldiers. Eventually the Turks withdrew from the island having lost over two thirds of their troops.

From both the fort walls and the restaurant we visited for lunch outside the walls we had great views of the local farmland.

We then headed by taxi to the Hagar Qim Temples out by the coast. These are the oldest temples in Malta and they reckon the oldest man made structures in the world. Built  back around 3800 BC with no written language and no steel tools they managed to build these structures, which included door frames chiseled out of stone. In 1995 this and four other sites on Malta were recognised by UNESCO as world heritage sites. They have had structures built over them similar to the ones we saw over the monolithic churches in Ethiopia recently to protect them from the elements.

The two sites here consist mainly of the original stone and some that has been recreated. there is also a museum which takes one through the history of the people who occupied the island at that time.

After the second temple we strolled across the arid land to look at one of the eight surviving watch towers, thirteen of which were were built by the Knights between 1658 and 59 to warn of coastal attacks.

A bus took us back to Valletta where we sat on the deck at the hotel enjoying a quiet evening and a view over the city.

Saturday 29 September 2018

After another great breakfast at the hotel we headed for a stroll around Valletta heading to the northeast side of the peninsular overlooking the Marsamxett Harbour. Around here there is simply fort after fort, all as if they are keeping an eye on each other. Looking across at Fort Manoel on another peninsular jutting into the harbour to the left of which were pleasure boats and more solid looking buildings. To the right on a coastal peninsular are modern looking apartment type of buildings looking somewhat out of place.

Rounding the bottom of the peninsular we passed the Malta War Museum and then had great views across the Grand Harbour, the far side of which is also lined with forts.

We then strolled through the streets heading up to the top of the town to view the noon firing of one of the canons. There is something really neat about this town and the way the buildings look, all built of lime stone with balconies – most enclosed with timber and glass and painted  in varying colours – protruding from them.

Arriving at the canons we were greeted by a young man in a khaki uniform, complete with pith helmet. He was super helpful and gave us a good rundown on what was going to take place at noon. As noon approached crowds gathered on the walls above the guns, music played and khaki-clad men marched out to prepare gun number 4 for firing. A loud bang as the gun fired its blank across a large cruise liner,  a cloud of smoke and it was all over.

We headed to a small cafe on the nearby square and enjoyed a light lunch after which we headed back to the guns where another khaki-clad man gripped us up and lead us the entrance of the war tunnels.

These tunnels were originally dug by slaves and prisoners over 500 years ago, designed as escape routes and as a way for people to move about the fort safe from artillery bombardment. Originally they were a lot smaller but were enlarged at various times, particularly in WWII. It was then that ventilation was put into the tunnels to extract air, often using recycled ventilation ducting from submarines. After passing a 20,000 litre water tank and a boarded up 20-plus meter escape shaft, we entered the tunnel, passing small rooms with six bunks that slept twelve people -called hot bunking (something I have experienced on mining mill reline jobs where there has been a shortage of beds).

We headed down a steep stairway into the operations room, which still had the maps on the wall from the NATO days (1950s to 1974). Desks and rooms overlooked this area where the bosses sat to observe the movement of attacking aircraft and ships during WWII and the position of both the NATO fleet and the Russian fleets in the later days. Somewhat decayed, old recovered maps from WWII lay on the table and in a back room.

Our guide explained that it was only in 2009 that they entered the tunnels to begin restoration and there are still many tunnels yet to be accessed and explored. We headed back up past the radar room which played a big part in defending the island. Malta had the earliest sophisticated radar system during WWII which played a large part in in preventing invasion.

We exited the tunnels into the ditch, a large moat like structure that was never filled with water to prevent mosquitoes breeding, but in the early days had canons firing wooden canisters filled with 700 lead balls down on invaders. Here you can see the line where the rock ends and the stone fort starts.

Crossing the ditch, as they call it, we headed through another steel door and up some stairs to an observation area with views over the harbour and back to the land behind the fort. We overlooked large oil rigs being serviced and a couple of cruise ships bringing thousands of people to the island. Interestingly most of Malta’s income is from tourism; the day I arrived 4,000 people were flying in for a conference.

We then wound our way through more tunnels coming to one that was used as an air raid shelter with steel bunks hinged from the walls for important people; the other poor buggers had to sleep in the floor.

A few more tunnels and our guide delivered us to the Lascaris War Rooms, where we waited in a theatre watching some movie footage from WWII, which showed us the utter devastation Valletta suffered during the bombings. it was during this period that King George V awarded Malta the George Cross, which to this day holds pride of place on their flag.

Soon another guide moved us through to the war rooms, which are also well underground connected by tunnels. They have set up a small a small museum with various uniforms and the original WWII map which was discovered behind the NATO map in the operations room.

From here we moved through a number of small rooms including the telephone exchange to the plotting room. Our guide gave us a demonstration of how aircraft and ships would be positioned on the map to show both enemy and friendly forces.  He then went on to explain how a captured enigma (code) machine was used at Malta to intercept enemy radio traffic and know the movement of their ships. So as not to let the Germans know they had broken their codes, spotter planes would be sent out on what looked like a random course and just ‘happen to run across’ a convoy of German or Italian ships.

Leaving the war rooms we headed to the top of Valletta and taxied around the south side of the Grand Harbour passing the many fortified towns on the way to Fort Rinella. Entering the fort grounds we headed down the path into what were originally the barracks and store rooms of the fort. We arrived while one of the khaki-clad men was giving a tour to a group explaining with great knowledge what each room contained in the way of various equipment uniforms medical supplies etc.

The tour over, we headed into a courtyard where another khaki-clad man went through the history of the sword. This was followed by an excellent demonstration of how soldiers were drilled in the use of the sword and the practice that took place after that.

From there we headed into some more tunnels to see how the world’s largest muzzle-loading canon worked. This Armstrong canon weighing over 100 tons could propel a 1 ton shell, with a charge of 250kg of black powder, eight miles with the ability of penetrating 21 inches of steel.

The canon, too big to be manhandled, had a large water tank sunk into the floor filled by a steam pump with a weight placed on top of it creating hydraulic pressure, which both rotated and elevated the gun. After each shot the gun would be rotated to a washing position to flush any sparks out before reloading. A hydraulic ram was used to load both the charge and the projectile through the muzzle. Pretty impressive for 1883. There were two of these guns, ones on each side of the harbour. The other was cut up for scrap years ago.

Tour over we took the bus back to Valletta, on the way discussing how impressed we had been with both the passion and knowledge displayed by those khaki-clad men from Heritage Malta.

The evening upon us we were sitting on the deck at the hotel when we heard loud bangs echoing around the town. Looking north about a km away across the harbour near a church we saw fireworks exploding high in the sky. This went on for well over an hour. Apparently fireworks are very common here with few rules and regulations regarding the manufacture of them. Hence many villages have their own fireworks factory. I was unable to ascertain if this particular display had any significance but it was impressive to watch.

Sunday 30 September 2018

We headed off reasonably early to visit Marsaxlokk, a fishing port and town south of Valletta. Very picturesque with many small boats painted many colours, market stalls lined the water front many selling the normal ‘made in China’ junk. It took a while to make our way to the fish stalls where there was a large army of produce mostly, but not all caught from the local sea. Some fisherman sat on their boats still picking small fish from their nets in the hot sun. As we left the many fish restaurants alongside the water from were beginning to fill with the day’s tourist catch.

We mounted the bus for the journey back to Valletta to be greeted (which is probably not the right word) by a rather grumpy bus driver. He took my 5 euro note and waved me down the back of the bus, pissed of I did not have the 2 euro fare in coins. I noted he put the note in his pocket. As we wound our way back through the narrow streets he would abuse people for getting on or off the bus too slowly, at one point banging his fist on the side of his compartment as people were slow to move. On arriving at Valletta I asked him for my change. “I fkn!! gave it to you he said”. I pointed to the note still in his top pocket; he delivered more abuse, so I picked 3 euro out of his tray and got off the bus to as he thew the 5 euro note after me, which I returned to his tray. He threw it again so I just kept walking as a bunch of about-to-mount passengers looked on in horror.

We headed by taxi around the Grand Harbour to the Malta at War museum, situated at Birgu. Unfortunately it is closed Sunday so we wandered down past the many boats in the inlet and caught a small local back to Valletta.

A tour of the National War Museum at Fort St Elmo took us again through the history of Malta and was well laid out enabling one to get a true feel of how complex the history of this small island really is.

Our time up in this ‘must come back and spend some more time here’ place we headed for the airport. At the check in counter it turned out that Lufthansa had some how cancelled Sylvia’s return fare. So much for helping them out by changing flights on the way to Milan. We were sent to the service desk where eventually the young ‘trying to be helpful but out of her depth woman’ got the manager. He, who maybe hadn’t heard of the word service, got himself off to a really bad start to the point by the time he had finished Sylvia had certainly given him a lesson in service. Eventually we were put, with some apprehension, on a Turkish Airlines flight via Istanbul to Singapore. All credit to them the service and the food quality on the flight was really great.

Lake Como, Italy for a good mate’s 70th

Saturday 22 September 2018
A couple of hours before we were due to depart for Milan, via Frankfurt, on Lufthansa, I received a call from Singapore Airlines saying Lufthansa was overbooked and would we mind flying direct to Milan on Singapore Airlines. “Yes please!” We landed in Milan at 7am and headed to Sixt, the car rental company, The car wasn’t ready so we had some breakfast then headed back to Sixt. These guys in their bright orange and black uniforms would have to be the best rental car company we have ever dealt with. As they didn’t have the car we wanted ready they upgraded us to an E Class Mercedes, a bit under powered and a challenge to drive on the narrow roads around Lake Como but they didn’t know where we were going.

We headed to Como then up the east side of the lake to Torno. We scouted Villa Torno and then drove up the narrow roads to Bellagio, where Sylvia had found, on the net, a good shoe shop. The place was packed so I dropped her off and drove out of town and waited in the car until the shoe purchase was done as there was no where to park. Two pairs of Italian shoes in hand I picked her up and we headed back along the narrow windy road to Torno, often having to pull over to let cars, trucks and the odd bus past.

Arriving back at Torno my long time and great friends, John and Lesley, had arrived at the Villa. We parked in a car park off the main road and headed, baggage in hand, to the Villa we had scouted earlier. Ringing the bell, a lady in a bikini informed is there was no John here. Bugger! wrong Villa Torno! John sent a google location and we headed up steep paths and alleys to the correct location, high on the hill with stunning views. We arrived covered in sweat to find we could have driven up. It’s John’s 70th tomorrow and they have booked this place to celebrate after a cruse in the Adriatic. John’s son Gair, wife Amy and their two well-behaved daughters, Piper and Phoebe, are also here.

Lesley and Amy cooked a great meal and we enjoyed an evening catching up and recalling funny events from the past.

Sunday 23 September 2018
Sylvia had to fly out to France for a meeting so we set off early to Bergamo airport. The round trip was over four hours. On returning I wandered the narrow streets of Torno before settling down at a bar by the lake to wait for John’s crew to return by ferry from Como where they had been shopping.

We spent the evening again eating great food, reminding John that he is now officially old and having a good time.

Monday 24 September 2018
Lesley and the rest of the crew headed to Como, this time for some real shopping – as in not just food etc. John and I took a stroll down into Torno, checking out the amazing way a town like this is put together with its narrow alleys, steep steps, and buildings, which all seem to stand on every bit of land no matter what it’s shape.

After a leisurely lunch by the lake we strolled back up the hill finding some steps near the villa which we thought may be a short cut. They ran up the hill to an old, unoccupied stone house on a small field. Long ago it would have supported a family living mainly off the land.

It was close to the villa so we cut through the woods and over a few stone walls to get home. Villa Torno is owned by a local art dealer and is built around an old stone watch tower, of which there are many in the area. It took 4 years to build. With stunning views, sauna, spa pool and lots of rock around the back it’s a great place to stay.

Tuesday 25 September 2018
After a leisurely breakfast we headed in convoys up to Bellagio so Lesley and Amy could explore the shops. It wasn’t as busy today so we found a park easily. While the others shopped John and I looked at interesting things like the car ferry berthing in a strong wind and a choppy lake, architecture and a few other things.

Around noon we all met for lunch at a nice restaurant half way up the hill in one of the many staircase alleys.

At lunch Lesley informed us she had found this wonderful family-owned jewellery shop. After a stop at the gastronomie for some supplies we wandered down some steps, stopping at a silk shop. This area is known for its silk as it has been harvested in northern Italy for over a thousand years. After a lot of guidance from Lesley, Sylvia now has a nice silk scarf.

Next stop, at the bottom of the steps on the flat, was Corner Shop Bellagio. In we went and like in the silk shop the staff were really friendly and helpful – to the point of removing all pain as I slid my card across the counter. Once again with a little help and a lot of encouragement from Lesley, Sylvia now has a nice necklace with matching bracelet. John also slipped out his card and bought a very nice necklace for Lesley as his birthday was also their 20th wedding anniversary. “Great way not to forget the wedding anniversary”

That evening we dined at a local Torno restaurant by the lake.

Wednesday 26 September 2018
We are up early to say goodbye to Gair, Amy, Piper and Phoebe who are heading to Milan to catch the train to Paris, where they will finish their holiday before returning to Sydney. After breakfast we headed into Como and around the bottom of the lake to head up the west side. The road started off quite good here with wide lanes and tunnels to cut out the windy roads around the hill. All went well until we got just south of Argegno. Here the traffic just stopped. As we waited for the best part of an hour many cars in the line turned around and headed back down the lake. Eventually we got moving and then stopped again. This time there were some police directing the traffic. What had happened is that two or three big trucks and a bus going in both directions had met in the narrow town streets. I mentioned this to a waiter at a restaurant later – he just shrugged his shoulders “it’s just normal here”.

We eventually arrived at Dongo, the place where the partisans had captured Mussolini in 1944. They also executed him a bit further down the lake with a French-made 7.65 MAS-38. Only 1900-odd of these were made in France after the German occupation but somehow many got into the hands of the local partisans. The museum took us through how Mussolini was captured along with 16 of his ministers, disguised as German soldiers. Many of the partisans worked at the local steel mill, which then employed 1500 people. They organised a strike that day so they could go out and attack a German convoy as there was a rumour Mussolini was moving through the area. They let the Germans go, not a shot fired, once they had their prisoners, who were held in what is now the museum for a short time. The 16 ministers were shot on the local beach. Mussolini and his mistress were taken further down the lake, executed and then their bodies  were taken to Milan and hung up by their feet while people threw objects and shot at them. Must have saved the country a fortune in a long expensive trial.

After lunch we headed to Griante, where a car ferry took us across the lake to Bellagio. There was no way we were going to risk another hour waiting for a truck jam to clear. Lesley did ask if I wanted to pay another visit to the Corner Shop – I politely declined.

We spent a relaxing evening at the villa, again with great food and tasty wine. I was heading to Malta early the next morning, John and Lesley back to Sydney.
Life is busy and short so it’s always great to spend time with great friends.

A new factory in Korea and a Sharp Blade in Japan

Sunday 09 September 2018

In September last year we visited the new, under construction, Royal Canin factory  at Gimje, around 200 kms south of Seoul.

Landing at Incheon airport an hour or so before Sylvia I was met by Jonathon, one of hte RC leaders in Korea. We chatted over a brew until Sylvia arrived from Singapore, after which we jumped a taxi to Seoul, then the train south to Jeonju Station. Arriving at the Ramada hotel Jonathon headed off to a dinner meeting and  we settled into the room, then headed to the well-advertised hotel restaurant for an evening meal. For some reason it wasn’t open – we couldn’t establish why so we headed into the local streets to find food. We were just in time to find everything closed or closing, eventually stumbling across a Burger King to satisfy our appetite.

Monday 10 September 2018

Sylvia and the team headed off to the factory and  I was picked up at the hotel by Kevin, who had taken me out for a tour on my last visit. Myioung Kevin’s sister and law, and the wife of the RC HR manager, had come along to drive us around, having taken a day off from the bakery she runs. We headed west to Iksan-si to a gem museum, enjoying looking at the many rice fields, towns and surrounding bush clad hills, eventually arriving at the museum to see the “Closed Monday” sign.

Continuing on we headed to the coast and a place called Gunsan-si, bordered to the east by the sea and to the north by the Guem River. At low tide many boats are sitting on the mud waiting for the rising tide to reflect them.

We came across a memorial area with lost of flags and a small display of military aircraft and armoured vehicles, plus a ship which housed a small museum. Here on display was what is believed to be one of the first automatic firearms, firing a series of rockets snd invented around 1448.

We then headed through the very clean and tidy streets to find a restaurant that served marinated raw crabs, a local delicacy. After ending up in the wrong place, same name but no crabs, we checked out their antiques upstairs while waiting to be seated, then headed off down the road to the correct place.

In true Korean style the table was soon full with many dishes including the raw prawns and crabs. The crab tasted good, especially the chilli ones, but the texture was a bit different and a bit hard to describe – sort of jelly-ish.

Lunch over, we headed to the factory, stopping at a small lake on the way. Interestingly here an amphibious kind of tractor, fitted with shears was busy floating along and cutting the weed in the lake. Many blokes looked on with interest from the surrounding boardwalks.

Arriving at the factory just before 4pm, Jimmy, the Korean general manager ,and Mark, the factory manager, took me for a quick tour of the factory. No photos allowed! It is set up in such a way that visitors can view the goings on from a specially built passage way which means the need to get into clean overalls and safety gear is avoided. Even these passageways are stunningly clean as are the floors and plant inside the factory, which we viewed through the clean glass. At the start of the tour there is a lecture room where people are introduced by Video to the factory and its processes. Mark and jimmy allowed a photo here but that was it.

The hygiene in this plant is as good as one gets in any food manufacturing plant as dogs and cats, like humans, have to be protected and deserve the highest quality. The plant is split into two parts:  Red where the ingredients are mixed and Blue where the final product comes out of the extruders and is cooled and packaged to seal in the nutrients and quality. Each new product produced here must go to France to be checked and tested before it can be sold in the market.

Tour over we were bused to the station and trained to Seoul.

Jimmy took Sylvia and I for a great Korean BBQ meal near our hotel. It started with raw beef, which was rather nice with several delicious courses following. Jimmy also got me to try the the traditional Korean rice wine Soju. He said he had ordered 6 bottles each of this rocket fuel at 17% alcohol. I was rather pleased to find out he was having me on. He did however give us a good rundown on some of the traditions that go with drinking it. The bottle is held with two hands as is the glass during pouring. When touching the glasses together the junior person holds his glass lower and turns his or her head away from the more senior person when drinking.

Tuesday 11 September 2018

The sky is still clear around Seoul as a recent typhoon blew all the smog away. It’s surprising to see rocky hills surrounding the city as we hadn’t seen them during our previous visits. Apparently they are only visible about a third of the time.

I took a stroll through the underground part of the Coex Mall, which is over 500m long. Arriving on the street at the other end I cane across the Bongeunsa Temple. This place is quite large, containing numerous prayer houses, each with its Buddha and hundreds of little flags or notes hanging from the sealing. There has been a heatwave here recently and lots of little electric fans have been placed around the floor in the temples looking slightly out of place. I popped into a tea house and a friendly old lady took me through the process of making and drinking the tea, no just tossing in a tea bag around here! There was also an open building with a large drum in that I would have loved to bang with the big hammer.

Mid afternoon I met up with Sylvia and Jimmy’s team and we headed off to the Sasfield Mall at Hanam-Si, about 15kms southeast of our hotel. Here we were ushered into Sports Monster, a giant adult (as in for grown ups) playground. Here there were dozens of both interactive and physical challenges to try out, We did laser pistol shooting ,soccer a virtual reality roller coaster ride, Tae Kwan Do and a climbing course where one was harnessed and hooked on before heading off up high and across judder boards, climbing walls, ropes and more.

In the evening Dave and Chrissie, friends from NZ,  who were here for Chrissie’s brother’s birthday. He lives out near Incheon near the airport and they made the two-hour journey by train to come and meet us for a drink. During their journey they struck the same helpfulness from the Korean people that I experienced last time I was hear. Juan, one of Sylvia’s colleges from Shanghai also joined us for a great evening of catching up.

Wednesday 12 September 2018

A 15km stroll across town didn’t reveal much I hadn’t seen before so I trained back to the hotel and checked out the Hyundai shopping mall next to the hotel. Back home Hyundai only relates to cars – over there they seem to have their name on all sorts of things including apartments, steel companies and finance. With all the Gucci type names on display plus a few more this place is 10 floors of full on expensive shopping plus two basement floors of mainly food-courts and a further four lower floors for parking. They are certainly good at digging deep here.

It seemed like in no time at all we were on a plane and landing in Tokyo for the next two days of our journey.

Thursday 13 September 2018

The train or MRT system in Tokyo, although reliable, clean and safe to use has got to be one of the most complicated in the world. You can’t just buy a day pass for the trains as there are three or four different rail companies in the city. I brought a day pass for Tokyo rail then headed off to a sword museum situated next to a nice garden and not far down the road from the Sumo wrestling stadium (all sold out today).

I was told at the ticket box when passing that this place has an amazing display of modern swords still made by hand in the traditional way. All the exhibits here are prize winning pieces. There is also a great video on the sword making process and although in Japanese it is still easy to follow and ascertain the labour and skill that goes into turning out these masterpieces.

From there I headed out to look at a karate place but it was on another train company line so another ticket was required. The last time I went to look at a karate place in Tokyo it was no longer there – yep you guessed! it this one was gone to. Back on the train I headed over to Chuo to try out the art of the Japanese sword Iai-do at the HiSui Tokyo.

The directions on the web site almost got me there and with the help of a couple of locals soon I was on the 5th floor of a building and entering the school. The reception has a great display of swords and calligraphy. Money paid I was taken into a Dojo (training hall) and dressed in the top and bottom garments of a swordsman. Soon I was joined by a couple of Canadian guys from Montreal. In comes the teacher who is quick to point out that the practice swords he hands us are not sharp but the real ones we will be using soon will be really sharp. A quick lesson on how to draw the sword, then a few practices at cutting down with the sword and than it is on to the angle cut done by holding the blade above ones head moving it to the right then cutting down to the left. this is what we are going to do to cut the tatami mat. After our practice as a group we were told to sit down and the teacher proceeded to show us how to cut through a tatami mat, which he did with ease. Next it was our turn  to cut a thinner mat than the teacher. First a Canadian who managed okay. I was next and really enjoyed the three cuts through the mat, feeling some of the that focus I learned in the years I studied karate come back into my mind. Next the other Canadian successful with the first cut but the next two the sword getting stuck half way through the mat. it’s actually not as easy as it looks. I bet the local mat maker really loves this place.

Friday 14 September 2018

On the train again I headed out to Bunkyo City to the headquarters of Kodokan Judo. Established in Kano Jigoro in 1882 and still going, unlike many other martial arts in Japan, particularly karate – which through poor management and lack of foresight have had splits over the years with students breaking away from their masters and starting their own form or style, the master not leaving a legacy. Kodokan now owns and occupies an 8 storey building with a large number of Dojos (training halls). There is even accommodation for dedicated students.  THey also have a Dojo just for international students, some dedicated practitioners live in the accommodation that they also provide. Unfortunately I was unable to visit these areas but enjoyed viewing the Judo museum in the building which displayed many photos of past masters who’s dedication and management has kept the practice going for over 130 years. On the 8th floor is a stadium whcih looks down on a large matted are where competition takes place.

After a  train journey back to Shinagawa and a short walk to the hotel I enjoyed a light lunch overlooking a nice garden before heading to the airport with Sylvia for our flight to Singapore.







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.