Silver

Together Forever
Saturday 15
th October 2011

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Up bright and early this morning we spent some time strategically filling our suitcases, separating those mostly packed for Rwanda's cooler climate from those more suitable for the beach.

Ahead of us today was a day long journey from the Virunga Mountains to the beautiful white sands of Zanzibar. As much as we were looking forward to relaxing on a beach we were sad to leave. Another few days here at the Sabyinyo Lodge would have gone down a treat. We found the whole experience of staying here so calming and restful.

After spending a further ten minutes balancing out our suitcases as not to exceed the 23kg baggage allowance we walked to the main lodge and had a leisurely breakfast.

We were going to be in transit for most of today so we went for the works, a full cooked breakfast with plates filled twice over with omelettes, potato cakes, mushrooms, tomatoes, scrambled eggs, toast (and sausage and bacon for the carnivore) We were in trouble if they were going to weigh us before we boarded the flight as we were going to be carrying some excess baggage ourselves!

David & Corrine joined us and we soon lost track of time. We were running late for Eric's pick-up and so he phoned reception. We found it funny that he didn't walk up the steep hill to come and get us!

We left a tip in the tip box, said goodbye to Flora and then thanked Nelis for such a truly wonderful stay. Julie even gave him a hug. I gave him a firm handshake. He and Tracey had been the perfect hosts. We left as friends and not guests and hotel manager. It was a shame that Tracey wasn't there, she had left early to go to Kigali on an essential shopping trip.

She had actually given us her telephone number to call her if Eric hadn't found anywhere selling the Rwandan flag. She was going to keep an eye open for one. Once again it was the sort of thing your closest friends would do for you.

Eric was waiting for us in the car park. We apologised for being late but he was more than fine about.

The 96km journey from Ruhengeri to Kigali normally takes no more than two hours so with four hours until take off we had plenty of time to spare.

We headed South, beyond Ruhengeri through some beautiful lush scenery where the road wound up and down countless hills. A glimpse of a gushing waterfall caught my eye but Julie's thoughts were elsewhere, the flight anxiety was already kicking in.

Whilst I was getting animated spotting a muddy brown river snaking its way down from Lake Ruhondo and eventually feeding into the Mukungwa, a tributary of the Nyabarongo (like how exciting!), Julie was fretting about the two flights she had to deal with today.

Other than the natural wonders that surrounded us what we noticed the most were the amount of people walking along this road.

The first 10km out of Ruhengeri was filled with hundreds of people marching in both directions. It was the busiest I had seen anywhere outside of Kigali. Where were they all going? Where did they all come from?

There weren't many towns along this route. Every now and again there would be a collection of houses near the road but nothing on a large scale. 

 

There were numerous roadside stalls selling all sorts of fresh produce. We asked Eric about one in particular. He had sealed pots almost like wicker baskets made from dried banana leaf.

"He is selling eggs." he said "the baskets keep them fresh" "aah" we both went.

Somewhere near the village of Nyarutovu we saw a large gathering of people sat outside. It was clearly some public event. There appeared to be VIPs sitting in the shade to the front of the crowd with a PA system set up. Eric didn't know what it was, it could have been a political rally, or an educational rally. It could even have been a Gacaca trial in progress.

Gacaca is a traditional community based justice system. It historically was used to settle quarrels between neighbours and other small local petty crimes but following the 1994 genocide it was resurrected when they recognised that the courts couldn't cope with the volume of cases that needed processing.  

After about an hour, we stopped at a very modern building. It looked so out of place with it's glass and steel multi-storied front. With it being halfway to Kigali I suppose it had been purpose built to serve the passing tourist trade.

Looking at the map in our Bradt travel guide we must have been near a place they called Base or Rushashi.

The main purpose for us stopping here was that Eric knew they sold the nuclear chilli oil Akabanga in the small shop inside. At 1200 Frw a bottle I bought two, not so much for use in our cooking but more for the late night party games where crazy chilli challenges are the done thing!

I was glad we stopped because I was desperate for the toilet. Eric told me I could use the restaurant's facilities up on the first floor.

I felt quite embarrassed walking in off the street and asking if I could use their toilet without being a paying customer but the staff welcomed me with big smiles and open arms. They even lead my all the way to them. I felt as if they were honoured that I had chosen to have a piss in their establishment!

Eric also had his own reason to stop. He was hungry. He returned from this street food vendor with a baked potato, sliced into thick wedges, deep fried and covered in a piri piri sauce.

It looked incredibly delicious. Julie and I rued the fact we were still full of breakfast. We would have loved to have tried some.

Back in the Toyota we continued our journey along the Ruhengeri - Kigali road, the landscape constantly stunning and often breathtaking.

We experienced such a gasp somewhere near Mount Jari where from a higher altitude we had a magnificent view over a wide valley with a meandering river. We were so high up here I'm sure we could see across the entire country and on into the Congo!

It wasn't long before we could see Kigali appear over on the next hill. After a week of driving around rural Rwanda the sight of Kigali's skyline was genuinely impressive!

We swooped down and over the Nyabarango river. It was now around 10:45am so it had taken us the two hours to reach Kigali city limits.

It was quite congested as we drove along Boulevard de Nayabugogo through the suburbs. Julie anxiously checked the time. We still had another hour before the check in desks opened so we were fine.

But then Eric said he just needed to pop to the office!

He had some business to attend to at the Primate Safaris office and promised us we had plenty of time to spare.

So at the fountain of Place de l'Unité Nationale we turned up towards the city centre and parked up on Boulevard de la Paix. We followed Eric into the office where he introduced us to every member of staff, even to the General Manager Chris Munyao.

"You have a good camera" he asked me noting my Canon-EOS "do you have any good photos?"

I'm not one for blowing my own trumpet but I nodded.

"We've paid a photographer lots of money and he hasn't delivered." he explained "Could we have some of your best ones? We're about to launch a new website but we have no pictures!"

"Yes, of course, I'd be honoured" I replied.

He wanted to connect me up there and then and start downloading but Eric suggested I should e-mail them later as it was time we really should be going.

Back in the jeep we shot off across the city to the airport arriving at precisely 12pm.

It was time to say goodbye to Eric.

We had become good friends over the last week. If only our Rwandan adventure wasn't coming to an end. It was sad to leave.

On our original itinerary we had planned to visit Akagera National Park, a savannah area to the East of the country for a more traditional "safari" (except they don't have any lions, well, not yet anyway) but we were persuaded against it for a number of reasons. However, right now, we wished we were heading there as it would have extended our stay in this charming and stunning country.

We promised Eric that we would not only return but also tell all our friends that they should also visit this beautiful land. In such an incredible turn around Julie was now up for the role of an ambassador for the country!

Eric left us by the entrance and we went through to the check-in desks.

Whilst we were queuing I felt a nudge in my back. I turned around to notice I had been prodded by a walking stick. I followed the stick up to its holder and it was David (with Corrine), chuckling to himself. They had travelled down from the Sabiynio Lodge a while behind us. They were going to be on the same flight to Nairobi.

After some confusion at the Kenyan Airways check-in where our "final destination" was Nairobi and not Zanzibar (which seriously unnerved Julie!) we sat up in the departures lounge with a cup of Rwanda's finest tea looking out over Kigali.

 

From here we could see Amahoro Stadium in the distance. During the genocide 12000 people sought refuge there under the protection of the UN. It's quite remarkable how this country is recovering from the nightmare of what happened. I think what we'll take home with us the most is the openness, friendliness and joy of its people.

At 1pm we went through to departure gate 1 (I'm sure there was only one gate anyway) Despite the mix up at check-in Julie was taking this flight in her stride as a new found courage took over. She admitted to still being anxious but she had everything under control.

The flight was uneventful which is always a good thing when you're in an aeroplane!

We landed effortlessly in Nairobi where we hardly noticed we had touched down. Ahead of us was a two and a half hour wait in international departures.

We found out that our gate was to be no.4, we also discovered our flight was going to the Tanzanian capital Dar es Salaam. This unsettled Julie again.

Having walked up and down the departures terminal (which took all of ten minutes) we parked ourselves at a small bar called Dormans, a short distance away from gate 4.

It was a great place to people watch as a variety came and went, a self-important business man over here, a Naomi Campbell look-a-like over there, a young Australian backpacker listening to his iPod, a retired British couple ignoring each other and a completely bonkers Ukrainian ex-fighter jet pilot!

He was the most interesting of the lot. He sat down at our table an introduced himself as Ivan. "I fly planes" he said. I almost heard Julie think "Oh my God, I hope your not flying mine!"

"I'm fly out of Lubumbashi, all over East of Congo" he continued "pay is good and I get plenty of times off but .... " he sighed and pulled a pained expression "the Congo, it is a shit."

He was on his way home via Amsterdam which he said with some relish and a twinkle in his eye. Whilst he was entertaining he thankfully didn't out stay his welcome and left to buy some duty free.

Several Tusker beers later we checked our boarding passes. This is when Julie noticed that our carrier wasn't going to be Kenyan Airways but a company neither of us had heard of before called Precision Air. Well, she went into meltdown. This was her worst fear. "How can they do that? It says Kenyan Airways on our itinerary. How can they change it to some shitty little tin pot airline from Bongo Bongo Land!?!"

She activated the data roaming on her phone and scoured the internet for anything on them. The 2.8 out of 10 rating on a review website made matters worse. She could hardly speak yet managed to say "They only passed their safety checks in 2006!"

"At least they've passed" I said but with the shock of it all Julie couldn't see any positives. In fact they weren't some fly-by-night tin pot company, they were actually partly owned by Kenyan Airways and were the only Tanzanian airline to have passed the IATA safety audit. That should have instilled confidence but it didn't.

We moved to gate 4 and Julie hopes were raised briefly as a Kenyan Airways jet was parked outside. It was short-lived. A Precision Air twin prop ATR-42 plane landed and taxied over towards us.

The news that we were flying first to Zanzibar before it continued to Dar Es Salaam was scant consolation for Julie. Her face was wracked by fear. I thought she was having a stroke such was her struggle to hold in her total distress.

The gloom and despair was intensified when she phoned her sister to say "good bye" only to hear bad news about the sale of her house having fallen through.

The gate opened and we began to board. Of all the flights we've boarded over the years this was by far the worse for Julie to overcome but from some where she found the courage to stand up and walk out over the tarmac towards the plane.

The back door opened, pulled down to the floor, forming on its reverse the steps up which we hauled ourselves. How can it get any worse? Well, it did when we realised that we had been allocated seats that were apart. She sat in 15A. She was like a caged animal, literally climbing the walls, wound up like a coil ready to explode. When the propellers roared into action she slumped into her chair holding her head.

She resigned herself to dying on this flight alongside the cabin crew who were dressed in a hideous lime green acrylic uniform.

"I hope the pilot isn't dressed like The bloody Joker" she said, not at all in jest. Even the Picasso inspired sponge cake couldn't lift her spirits.

I had obviously by then sat in the seat next to her ignoring my seat number. When the holder of the ticket for seat 15B turned up a polite but firm "sorry mate we're together and I'm not moving" shooed him away. I could easily have escalated into a flight rage incident. Thankfully he was cool about it.

Julie was slightly comforted by the loud hum of the propellers; as long as she could still hear them then there was more chance of us staying up in the air.

There wasn't much in the way of in-flight entertainment to distract us unless you count the comical service of the cabin crew. Firstly they dropped a bread roll, then they doused me in water as they squeezed an open bottle too hard, then they fumbled an empty plastic cup. It bounced off my head and into my lap.

There was a small screen every other three rows. We couldn't hear the sound but as it was Japanese Candid Camera it didn't matter as most gags were visual.

It was a little too small to strain our eyes for too long. So instead we clipped an iPod shuffle to the back of the seat and watched a slide show of our India photos whilst listening to music.

After a while, a little calmer and much more composed we played a game called the "Moron Test" on the iPad. I'm not much of gamer but when it became a matter of honour to prove that I'm no moron I really got the bit between my teeth!

The game distracted us for quite some time and we were very surprised when before we expected we saw the street lights of Zanzibar.

It wasn't long before we could see the ground getting nearer and we braced ourselves for landing. We hit the runway hard then hurtled down it at speed. There was no sign of us slowing down as we shot past the terminal building. It must have been a very long runway as we continued at high velocity for an alarming length of time. Even I had began to question it. Julie had lost it, shaking and whimpering "Stop, please stop!"

Someone heard her and we eventually we slowed down reaching the very end of the runway before doing what felt like a three point turn (but surely it couldn't have been?) and returning to the terminal building. The relief on Julie's face was a joy to behold. She honestly couldn't believe that she survived the flight.

In the terminal we collected a visa application form and filled it in on the floor. It was all a bit chaotic as they tried to process everyone as quick as possible. It was a bit like a cattle market with a lot of shouting and mooing. Having paid $50 each to get in (thankfully we weren't American as the price doubled!) we stepped through to collect our luggage.

We found them in the custody of two burly men. Our immediate thought was "Shit, they're going to want to search our bags" but they turned out to be two opportunistic porters who insisted on rolling our cases the whole 5m from the exit to our pick-up. Dazed and confused as we followed them, bypassing the customs desk as our porters exchanged words with the staff. "We've done you a favour" said one of them.

I didn't want them to "do me a favour" but we didn't have a choice in the matter. Neither did we have a choice about paying for their service, a dollar each was all they got from us though.

We were met by a driver called Hamza and a guide "My name is Karame but you can call me Godfrey" he said.

"uh ... OK" we both replied in unison.

It was now dark and the streets of Stone Town were mostly unlit. All we could see was what was directly in front of us lit up by our headlamps.

With Julie and I sat comfortably in the back of the car Godfrey turned and placed his face between the seats and launched into a Zanzibar history lesson, delivered at rapid pace without noticeably taking breath.

I tried to look interested but it was all just noise. "Blah blah blahedy blah". His English was fairly good but his pronunciation was a little difficult to understand. We were so tired we took none of it in. He carried on regardless. Before too long Julie was looking quite unwell, pale and calmy. She seemed in quite some distress.

In the end she cracked. She interrupted Godfrey in mid-sentence and asked "I'm sorry but could we stop somewhere, I really need the toilet" On top of all the trauma she had endured today the ordeal of being talked at whilst her bladder was about to burst was too much to bare.

Julie would have been happy with squatting behind a bush at the side of the road but we drove for a further fifteen tortuous minutes until we had reached a petrol station. It was closed but Hamza seemed to know the security guard on duty. We pulled over and were shown to the back of the building where there was a toilet. In addition to being just a porcelain hole in the ground the infestation of giant ants was a little disconcerting for Julie but when you've got to go you've got to go. Many ants were massacred.

Back in the car Godfrey seemed to be either sulking or had given up as he hardly spoke to us for the remainder of the journey. All I remember him saying was that Hamza was a Muslim and that he was a Christian but despite this they got on fine. An hour after leaving the airport and a short distance after passing the village of Bweju we saw a sign for Echo Beach and turned off the tarmac road.

A short track brought us to the gates where a very drowsy looking security guard opened up for us.

 

We parked up and stepped out of the car onto soft sand. The air was warm and fragrant. The relief of finally arriving at our destination was immense. It had been a very long day in transit.

"Welcome to Echo Beach" said a lady who seem to float towards us. "Let us take your luggage to your room so you can relax, freshen up and then come back here for something to eat. We'll deal with all the check-in formalities tomorrow"

All of a sudden we seem to be floating too. We drifted to our chalet, no.2. Next to no.1 it was the nearest to the main hub.

The room was lovely and the bed was romantically decorated with rose petals. It's no reflection on the room but Julie asked if we could move to a one a little further away from the centre.

Prisca, who welcomed us, said that it would be "perfectly possible" to move tomorrow as a guests were leaving no.7. I'm sure she winked at us when she said it was "much more private". It was like she could read our minds.

We did as we were told and after freshening up we returned to the bar for something to eat. It was now well gone 10pm and they had kept the kitchen open especially for us.

We were so grateful for some food. The bonus was that it was actually very tasty. My asparagus tart with cumin flavoured rice was incredibly delicious and Julie's King Fish dish hit the spot. The only downside was that they had this song "Echo Beach" (which I think was recorded by Martha and the Muffins) playing on continuous loop whilst we ate.

The first time we heard it we thought "ah, how nice". After the twelfth time it began to grate a little. The twentieth time it was time to leave.

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ęCopyright 2000 - 2022  Colin Owen