October 31, 2005

Where there is no Coca-Cola

Bulawayo, Zimbabwe

Gas stations throughout Africa, like everywhere else, display their prices in big bold numbers visible from far away. One in Uganda might say something like:


("Petrol", o American readers, is the British word for gasoline. Paraffin is primarily used as cooking fuel, but is also used for lamps and fridges.)

If you walk from Zambia to Zimbabwe, as I did a couple of days ago, you cross over a metal suspension bridge perched 111 metres above the Zambezi river gorge. From your right comes the constant thunder of Victoria Falls. To your left, a bungee-jumping booth stands on the left side of the bridge. If you look over the edge, you may see, far below, amid whitewater wrinkles, yellow Tonka-toy-sized river rafts, full of adrenalinized tourists about to brave 22 of the 24 rapids of the lower Zambezi gorge.

(One of them is Grade Six, too violent to raft; and you don't raft the last rapid, because then you hit croc territory.)

Once past the Zimbabwe border - at which the inspection of yours truly was very cursory compared to the inspection of the US$30 I paid for a three-month tourist visa - almost the first building you reach, after a long hot uphill half-K walk, is a Total gas station. Here, in Victoria Falls, once the heart of Zimbabwe's thriving tourist industry, now its last vestigial remain, the station's price board reads:


African gas stations also include stores, which sell sweets, snacks, drinks - and, often, luxury imported goods. Mobil Marts, BP Shops, and La Boutique at Total (they're not being pretentious, it's a French company) are sometimes where you go for European cheese, chocolate, and toiletries, because they're built with gleaming international-standard production values, they feature backup generators that keep fridges running during power cuts, and they are already tied into reliable international distribution networks.

If you walk into La Boutique at the Victoria Falls Total, you will see a large Coca-Cola fridge with a crack across one pane. Large and utterly empty. There is Fanta, curiously; there are local Zimbabwean fruit juices; but when I entered Zimbabwe, there was no Coca-Cola available anywhere in Victoria Falls. This was somehow more shocking than the absence of gasoline.

Sometimes the first impression says it all.

There is no fuel here because there is no money. No foreign money, that is; no hard currency. The country is awash in Zim dollars, millions and billions of them, thanks to the governmental inability to realize that printing more money is not a valid solution to an economic crisis. When I was here seven years ago, US$1 bought you Z$20. Today's black-market exchange rate is US$1=Z$100,000.

(That is, if everyone is honest. They usually aren't. As a sign at my lodge in Victoria Falls said: "Do not change money on the street, you will be ripped off." An Aussie couple I was travelling with got cheated twice, in Zambia, where they had to change on the streets because the ATMs there accepted Visa but not MasterCard. The first time, the guy made an enormous amount of trouble during the transaction, changing his rate and how much he was willing to change, to cover a Sting-esque con in which he switched one of their $100s for a fake. The second time, although they were extra paranoid and all the money was on a table and in plain sight at all times, the guy somehow, in a performance worthy of the Magic Castle, disappeared 30,000 of their Tanzanian shillings, then cancelled the transaction, claiming he had changed his mind. I know, easy to say it wouldn't happen to you, that you'd be more careful; but the thing is, you wouldn't be, not when it's brutally hot, you've been travelling for 48 hours straight, you're in a strange country full of worries and distractions, and all you want to do is get to your lodge and into a shower. These two were veteran travellers, but you can't keep your guard up all the time.)

I changed $20 at a bank here (it's wise to have an Official Exchange Receipt handy) and the very thorough clerk gave me small change, including a Z$20 note, which has a value of 1/50th of one US cent - literally not worth the paper it's printed on. On the other end of the scale, the largest note is Z$20,000, worth less than a quarter. Change a hundred dollars, and you get a wad of notes - cheap notes, printed only on one side - four inches thick. Every retail transaction is slow here because both sides have to take an appreciable amount of time just to count the money.

(Which leads to yet another money-changing danger, the undercount. So how do you change money on the black market?

It's actually not an issue that comes up often. In all my travels, I've only found real currency black markets in Nigeria and Zimbabwe. Artificial, unsustainable currency rates are such an obviously bad idea that they only happen in semi-failed states. (Fully failed states like the Congo just use US dollars, eliminating the problem.) In other places, you may get a 5% better rate on the street, but the risk isn't worth it.

At borders, where you need to change money on the street to afford a ride to the nearest town, you just change ten bucks' worth of currency from the previous country - preferably without taking out your money stash - and accept that you're going to get an awful rate. In town, you use a semi-trusted source; ask staff or security where you're staying, or people at a cafe, somewhere that caters to travellers. Then the transaction is indoors, in a controlled environment, with plenty of time for everybody to doublecheck, and you know someone to go to if there's a problem.

If you must change a lot of money on the street, agree a rate, take their money, count it, pull the money you previously decided to change - and only that money - from a pocket, give it to him/them, and immediately walk away.)

In Victoria Falls, at least, the fuel shortage is not that big a deal. It's close enough to the border, and there's sufficient local liquidity on the currency black market, that you can often buy fuel smuggled in from rich Botswana for the reasonable price of Z$100,000 per litre. (It's for this reason that the Botswana pula is even more desirable than the US dollar.) Elsewhere in the country, though, if fuel is available at all, it is often only available to those with foreign currency.

(I remember, on the drive from Burning Man to San Francisco with A. and M., not two months ago, we stopped in Reno and picked up a newspaper full of Hurricane Katrina news. This was the point at which everyone was still saying things like "certainly thousands and thousands dead." Another, similarly histrionic article reported that fuel prices had gone up to $5 in some places and that in some parts of America fuel was not available. "Not available?" M. asked, stunned. "What - what does that mean?")

The Zimbabwe fuel shortage means that people go from Harare to their home village to attend their father's funeral, and wind up stranded there for weeks. It means that ambulances have been replaced by oxcarts in certain remote areas. It means that businesses shut down, buses do not run, fields are not tilled, grains are not milled. It means that any driver that does come into the country makes sure they bring enough fuel to get out again. It means that the black market quite literally keeps the country running. If you have some source of hard currency - probably from a relative working in a foreign nation - you're OK. If not, your life is paralyzed.

It's not that there isn't any gasoline available for import. It's that hyperinflation, and the government's subsequent attempts to fix both the price of fuel and the value of its currency, has caused legal importers to throw in their hands and give up. There is no way to bring fuel in, sell it legally, and make a profit - in fact, you'd lose more than half your money. And so the country stays in stasis; food shortages worsen, here in what everyone will tell you was once "the breadbasket of Africa", a nation that once exported food to all its neighbours; and slowly, day by day, the country rots.

(I took the train from Vic Falls to Bulawayo, the night before last. It's almost the only way to travel cross-country now; few who do manage to get their hands on fuel want to expend it on long-distance travel. The train itself has decayed greatly from seven years ago; rusted fixtures, doors that don't close, torn seats, worn hinges, cracked glass, screeching brakes. The twin interlinked Rs of Rhodesian Railways are still embossed on every window and metal fitting, although Rhodesia ceased to exist twenty-five years ago. We left an hour late, because of a huge line buying last-minute tickets; and it took us fourteen hours to travel 450 km, because we stopped anywhere along the line where people waited, to pick them up; it's become a matatu on rails. It has to be. There's no other way for many people to travel.)

There are a few things you should understand, that may not be obvious if all you know about Zimbabwe is what you read in the media.

The first is that this was once a rich country. It didn't just feed itself; it had thriving tobacco, mining, and tourist industries that brought in stacks of money. Villages that the train passed by were dominated by brick houses with tiled roofs, not the bamboo-and-thatch or concrete-and-tin of east Africa. Bulawayo, "the City of Kings", Zimbabwe's second city, in which I sit, is a city of wide boulevards lit by elegant street lights, big beautiful parks full of majestic trees, museums, galleries, theatres, department stores, factories, hypermarkets, metered taxis, cinema multiplexes, golf courses - and once upon a time, not so long ago, these catered not just to white farmers, Asian merchants, and rich government cronies, but to a growing African middle class.

(I remember, when I flew from Cameroon to Harare in 1998, being a little stunned for the first couple of days - bright lights, big city, wealth, bustling civilization. Zimbabwe was an incredible tourist playground back then. I bungee'd and rafted at Vic Falls, went on game drives in Matopos, canoed in Kariba, explored Great Zimbabwe, walked with elephants and wild dogs in Mana Pools, went hiking in the Eastern Highlands, watched recent-release movies in Harare movie houses and gorged myself at braais in the late lamented Possum Lodge, and after four rewarding but often difficult months in West Africa, it was all so easy, so affordable, so comfortable, and so much fun. The place was paradise.)

The second thing is that while straits are dire here, it is not a place in the midst of utter ruin. The government is fascist, but this is not, for the most part, a violent police state. There is no visible men-with-guns presence. There are no roadblocks, but all African countries have these, and I haven't seen anybody trying for a bribe. Journalists and opposition politicians have been beaten, jailed, tortured, and murdered, yes - but at the same time, there is a very visible political opposition, and while the press carefully watches what it says, it doesn't just parrot government propaganda. Some stores are closed, and others have thinly stocked or half-empty shelves; the streets are half-deserted; there are power cuts, and water cuts, and Bulawayo's water is no longer safe to drink; some people in remote areas are beginning to starve; the papers are full of news of factories that have closed, or agricultural plans that have been abandoned, due to lack of forex but - from what I've seen so far, mind - somehow, life goes on. People cope. It's an economic crisis, not (yet) a security crisis. Don't get me wrong, these are desperate times for Zimbabwe, but the country is not collapsing. Instead it's slowly rotting away. Which may be worse.

The third thing is that there is actually room for a kind of guarded optimism. The place may have finally hit economic bottom. Tourists are returning to Vic Falls: three years ago, the Victoria Falls Hotel had nights with fewer than ten guests, but right now, an average of 150 are esconced in its colonial luxury. Two weeks ago, the official dollar rate was US$1=$Z26000, but the pragmatic new central-bank governor has introduced an "auction" system (he's not allowed to say "devaluation" because Mugabe will flip out if he hears the word) which has already raised the rate to a more realistic Z$60000, and is expected to bring it up to the black-market rate in a few weeks. And the government is now permitting small-scale importers to bring in fuel - until a few weeks ago, exclusively the legal right of the ministry of transport, whose officials siphoned away all forex for themselves. There is a chance that in a month or so the Victorial Falls Total station may once again sell fuel.

It's not much, but maybe it's a start.

(And the Coca-Cola delivery truck arrived in Vic Falls the day after I did. Coke is hard to come by here in Bulawayo, but not impossible.)

What went wrong? That, my friends, is both a simple story, and a long and complex one. Either way, it's a subject for later posts; this one's long enough already.

Seems like DARK PLACES is going to be on TV again. (I, however, will not; I'm in Zimbabwe, and that's a long way to send a camera crew.) This is courtesy of Booked TV - here's their press release:

In a story where human evil flourishes in the cyber world, BOOKED experts examine a deadly internet game in this hunt for a killer stalking backpackers in some of the most remote parts of the globe.

Episodic experts: Intelligence Officer, Roger Adkin; Crown Prosecutor, Technology and Internet Crime, Steve Bilodeau; Journalist and Novelist, Rita Feutl; Hacker and Computer Programmer, "John".

Find out when this episode airs by checking our episodic broadcast schedule http://www.booked.tv/html/show/synopses.htm

October 24, 2005

Miles and miles of bloody Africa

Lusaka, Zambia

Dar es Salaam - Kapiri Mposhi - Lusaka is a 2000-kilometre journey that took 48 hours; 44 by train (which arrived either four hours late or two hours early, depending on who you talked to) 4 by minibus.

The train was quite civilized. Slowly falling apart at the seams, like all African infrastructure, but it didn't actually break down. The first-class compartments ($50) were four-person bunks with comfortable bedding. There was a comfy bar car that served beer, wine, water and soft drinks, and showed movies (mostly Hollywood, a little Bollywood, and one truly bizarre black-and-white African money-porn thing called "Billionaires Club 2"). There was a dining car that served cheap greasy food. There were basic but serviceable toilets. And there were glorious views all through the daylight hours.

Well. Mostly glorious. We departed at 4PM Friday and spent that afternoon chugging through Tanzania's lush green coastal lowlands, all palm trees and forest and thickly green farmland. I was a little feverish and flu-y for the first half of the journey, and between that and finally inhaling Order of the Phoenix, it was midafternoon on the second day before I really looked out the window again, and double-taked. I wasn't quite sure what I was seeing.

At first I thought it was desert highland; the same stark, minimal palette, stretching across rocky hills and ridges. But there were trees, bushes, grasses. It's just that all of them were dead. Occasional patches of burnt black testified to grassfires, but those were only occasional. We roared past geometrically patterned farming plots, all of it empty, covered with a tawny carpet of sun-killed, shredded, windblown grass. This was farmland, obvious - but it looked like nothing would ever grow here again. I saw a few cattle, here and there, but even to me, they looked dangerously skinny.

Then I realized: drought. This was why Malawi, just a couple hundred K south, recently declared a food emergency. The rains did not come this year, and the land is dry and dead. I was looking out at disaster. Tazania is relatively rich and stable, for Africa, and its coastal lands are still fertile; its people, even here, are unlikely to starve; but disaster all the same. The people the train rolled past, looking up at us, dressed in colours that seemed shockingly bright against the parched brown and gold behind them - they had already lost almost everything. It was sobering. As were the rusted, mangled remains of a derailed train we passed later, after the Zambian border.

The border, incidentally, was perfectly straightforward and painless. Instincts 1, Lonely Planet (which claimed I had to get my visa in advance if coming by train) 0.

On the third day, I finished OotP, devoured The Men Who Stare At Goats (which is hilariously terrifying - everyone the slightest bit interested in the US Army, Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay, Heaven's Gate, hippie militaries, and how these things are connected, should read it immediately), arrived at Kapiri Mposhi, and hopped a minibus to Lusaka. The minibus waited until full, departed, failed to get gas at the next station, and disgorged most its passengers into another minibus, which again waited until full before departing, a sequence of events that annoyed me into the following contemplations:

what were they thinking?

Public transit in Africa, in large part, consists of minibuses that hold sixteen or more persons (in twelve seats) and shuttle from town to town. Large, scheduled buses do exist, but generally only between scheduled cities; but minibuses - called tro-tros, shared-taxis, matatus, dalla-dallas, etc - go everywhere. They follow regular routes, usually between towns two to three hours apart. They'll pick you up or drop you off anywhere in between, if there is space. And they leave only - only - when full. The lone exception is late in the afternoon, when they want to get home before dark. Even then, the driver and conductor will leave with empty spaces only with the greatest reluctance.

In town, similarly, minibuses run back and forth between widely spaced points, leaving when full, picking up and dropping off anywhere in between. They're not supposed to stop long en route, but just now, about half a kilometre from the shopping mall where I sit, my minibus disgorged almost all of its passengers, and its driver-conductor team didn't want to go any further, not mostly empty. So they stayed where they were, trying to fill the minibus at least halfway up.

Thing is, this takes time; and meanwhile, other minibuses on the same route are whizzing by; and passengers don't want to sit and wait for this minibus to fill halfway, so this comic Laurel-and-Hardy routine developed where a passenger would come in, sit down, realize that this bus was a) hot b) not going anywhere until it was fuller, get out, and, ignoring the conductor's protests, get on one of the many other passing buses that had the advantage of being actually, you know, in the process of going somewhere. All the driver and conductor had to do was accept that they weren't going to get more than a couple passengers here, drive up to this shopping mall - a mere half-kilometre - and refill. But the thought of going anywhere with an mostly empty minibus seemed to cause them physical pain. It seemed, I think, like pouring money away. And so they stayed, and continued their futile attempt to recruit passengers. Eventually I got up and walked here. The minibus did not pass me en route.

It was funny. It was also exactly the same mindset that dictates that inter-city minibuses only leave when full, even though the roads are full of people wanting to get on, even though you may wait half an hour for the last few passengers who may only be going a kilometre, even though it clearly, in some cases, makes more economic sense to do three runs starting out three-quarters-full (and filling up en route!) rather than two runs starting when full, given the same amount of time. I realize that one instinctively thinks everyone across the whole freakin' continent does this, therefore it must make the most economic sense. Rational-actor economic theory and all that. But you know what? I don't think it applies. I don't think it makes any real sense at all.

Just as pervasive and inexplicable a mindset is the one that expats and old Africa hands will lament most loudly about, if you give them half a chance. "No one does any maintenance here", they will say. "No one. Ever." And they're not far wrong. Remember that bit about Dar es Salaam being plunged into darkness for two weeks, because its two main power transformers blew? Well, here in Zambia, they're just coming out of a three-week fuel crisis, during which people had to queue all night for fuel to get any at all, because the country's major fuel refinery stopped working for awhile. I'll bet you large sums of money that both disasters were caused by lack of maintenance. You see it everywhere. Paint peeling off? Don't bother throwing on a new coat; let it moulder. Tap leaking? Leaking a little more every day, in fact? Never mind. Wait for disaster. Don't do anything until then. When disaster does come, people here are fantastically good at both fixing what's wrong and coping while it's not working. But maintain things to prevent disaster in the first place? Almost never. It's very mysterious.

I have, I think, a partial rationale for both, but that'll have to wait, 'cause I'm about to go see my first movie in a theatre in some three weeks.

October 21, 2005

one day in dar

So I may or may not get bounced at the Zambian border tomorrow. (Canadians now need visas; said visas may be free, and should be available at most ports of entry, but not necessarily the Tazara Rail point of entry.) It's not that big a deal - worst case, should just mean another long uncomfortable day on a bus - but now I'm all anxious about the border. It's the Lariam, I swear, making me neurotic. Like the half-hour of gloom I fall into if I smoke a cigarette in the absence of alcohol, knowing that the emotion is purely chemical only partly blunts it.

Also, rumour has it that Book Two will be reviewed in this Sunday's Washington Post Book World. Gulp. Let's hope that the paper that brought down Richard Nixon will be kinder to yours truly.

Dar es Salaam is a typical African city, so an accounting of my day spent there may prove, I dunno, instructive, or if you're easily amused, interesting.

12 hours in the Haven Of Peace

9.00 Arrive ferry terminal. Wander through dusty, cavernous customs hall to gauntlet of would-be taxi drivers. Bargain halfheartedly with a couple of them, determine that taxi prices have doubled from when my guidebook was printed. Employ none of said drivers and stop by at nearby French bakery. No bread - curious - but good coffee, served with steaming-hot milk.

9.30 Continue through downtown streets. The sidewalks tend to be pillared walkways to provide shade for pedestrians. The buildings are mostly 1960s monstrosities or cheaply-thrown-up concrete shells, but there are a couple nice old colonial buildings. Everything permanent - walls, roads, signs - is faded, shabby, cracked, peeling, crumbling, dusty, mottled with sun and water damage, drained of colour. Men dress in drab slacks and short-sleeved shirts, women in colourful wraps. They pour past me in a slow-walking stream. Stores sell stationary, tools, textbooks, clothes, dry goods; street hawkers sell shoeshines, Cokes, sunglasses, used books, newspapers, etc. Taxi drivers and would-be moneychangers call for my attention. Generators whir on both sides of the street. I see a headline: 'DAR PLUNGED INTO DARKNESS'. It isn't until then that I realize that none of the buildings around me have power.

10.00 Take a taxi to the YMCA, which is faded, shabby, cracked, etc etc. Also full. They direct me to the nearby YWCA, which is not full. I pay $10 for a double room, which is faded, shabby, crackd, etc etc, but reasonably clean. Mind you, there is no power and no running water. They can't make change - lack of "small money" is often an enormous hassle in the Third World - so the lady writes "3,000", the change I am owed, on the back of my receipt, and tells me to ask for it later.

10.30 Walk a short distance down the street, past gleaming Citigroup, Subway, and Emirates logos - in a building which has power, from its own generator - to the Movenpick four-star hotel, which of course has power too. Such islands of 21st century civilization are both common and welcome in downtown African cities. Enjoy A/C, Eat a jam donut, check expensive Internet, ask them if I can use their gym. No, I can't; they want to help me, you can see it, but their bureaucracy doesn't allow it, they don't have a Procedure for day memberships.

12.00 Complete long, hot wander through downtown. Through the area of walled ministries, hotels, and banks, into the thronging, pounding, intertwining streets near the post office, the nexus of all dalla-dalla (local public transit) activity in Dar. It's very hot, and I'm wearing jeans, but as long as you keep moving, and stop off in A/C places (such as the shiny bookstore A Novel Idea which, I'm pleased to see, sells both Book One and Book Two) it's not so bad. In most places, despite the power cut, business continues almost as normal. It reminds me of a Zambian joke: "What did we use in Zambia before we had candles?" "Electricity."

13.00 Back to YWCA for brief siesta in midday heat. A me-shaped puddle of sweat has appeared on the bed by the time I get up. Still no small money for change. I argue with several taxi drivers before finding one who will take me up to the Masiki district, 5K north of the city, for 5,000 shillings (US$4.50).

14.00 It's like a different world up here. Huge estates beyond whose high, broken-glass-topped walls can be seen huge houses, huge satellite dishes, and manicured lawns and gardens. Security company logos are emblazoned on the gates, which open to allow huge 4WD vehicles. I stop at the Slipway, a wealthy shopping mall with a supermarket full of Western goods, a Japanese restaurant, a smoothie bar, a sheesha bar, a coffee house, a pizzeria, another branch of A Novel Idea, a movie theater, a flashy hotel, and docks used by oceangoing boats - including yachts. This is where the other half lives; expats, embassy staff, Asian merchants and rich Africans.

Most African cities are set up like this. The bustling, busy, fun but disagreeable downtown; the ministries-and-NGOs district; the green, wealthy, pretty surburb where the rich live lives of Western standard, with pseudo-Western stores and logos all about; a tiny belt of houses where the vanishingly small African middle class live; and then a long, long stretch of poor exurbs and poorer shantytowns, home to the overwhelming majority of the population.

15.00 Work out at the Dar Fitness Centre, a very nice gym. The hostess speaks English with I've-lived-in-America fluidity. I'm the only one there. I've definitely lost some strength this trip.

17.00 To yet another wealthy enclave, the Sea Cliff, a luxury hotel at which many presidents have stayed (but they seem proudest of Angelina Jolie) and another nearby luxury minimall. I eat an enormous pepper steak at a branch of a South African steak house, and have a beer and read on the cliff over the Indian Ocean, washing the waves dash themselves against the stones as the sun sets. The local paper reports that the power in central Dar es Salaam will be out for two weeks - two major transformers have blown. But this district, with better and more recent infrastructure, is unaffected.

19.00 Night has fallen. I argue with taxi drivers outside the Sea Cliff, who tell me that while it may be 5,000 shillings to get from downtown to there, it's 10,000 to get from there to downtown. "Never mind," I say, annoyed, "I'll take a dalla-dalla." The drivers laugh, calling my bluff. Then they look at me incredulously, as a dalla-dalla appears with Hollywood timing, and I hop on - with, I have to admit, a certain amount of smug self-satisfaction.

But they're probably right most of the time. I suspect only a vanishingly small proportion of the Sea Cliff's clientele would be willing to take public transit, particularly at night. Partly out of inchoate (and totally irrational) fear, and partly, I think, out of a never-articulated belief that it's Just Not Right for a rich white person to get on a minibus packed with poor black commuters.

In practice, said commuters don't give a shit about me; nobody even looks twice. And at this hour the minibus isn't even overcrowded. The conductor helpfully gets me to change dalla-dallas at the right place, and I'm back at the YWCA about as fast as I would have been via taxi, for a total cost of 400 shillings.

20.00 Still no small money at the dark YWCA. They give out candles at reception. I talk to a couple American girls in a nearby room - they're appalled by the news of the two-week powercut.

21.00 In bed and nearing sleep. And I'm a night person in the West, I swear, but in Africa, you adopt a dawn-to-dusk schedule whether you like it or not.

October 19, 2005

stand on zanzibar

Stone Town, Zanzibar, Tanzania

Outside, heavy rain falls on Zanzibar.

Let the record show that I made it here only because I managed to perform the first successful MasterCard transation in the history of Kigali International Airport. (At long last my retail experience comes in handy!) And soon I depart on a train that will take 40 to 48 hours - opinions vary - to carry me from Dar es Salaam to somewhere deep in Zambia. If all goes according to plan. That being, this being Africa, quite unlikely.

I sorta wanna go back to the Congo, but I think I need a better reason than "sorta wanna". Also it's bloody expensive.

Stone Town to somewhere under the sea

Stone Town, the capital of Zanzibar, is an intoxicating, captivating mix of colonial-era compound and Arab medina. Walking through it is like playing Zork: "you are in a maze of narrow, twisty alleyways, all alike." Old Stone Town's cobblestoned walkways are too narrow for cars. They are clogged instead by passersby, cyclists, motorcyclists, mopedists; tall Swahili women in gloriously coloured or plain black robes and headscarves, and men in Islamic skullcaps; malformed beggars; vendors selling vegetables, paintings, carvings, trinkets, Cokes, or books in most European languages; skittering cats and giggling children following a rolling tire rim to wherever it leads. They pass mosques, travel agents, Internet cafes, jewellery stores, hotels, convenience kiosks, homes, and mysterious buildings with extraordinarily elaborate doorways, wood carved into fantastically detailed and delicate patterns, bristling with brass knobs and protrusions. Your doorway, in Zanzibar, is an indication of your social status.

It's impossible to maintain one's sense of direction. The alleyways are walled by buildings sufficiently high that the sun remains invisible for all but a fraction of the day, and even then, the tin awnings and incredible spaghetti tangle of electrical cables block much of its force. Streets zig, zag, bend and twist, widen and narrow, all so subtly that you can turn fully around without knowing it. Many buildings have concrete benches built into their side; they and tables at little squares and intersections are often full of men loudly arguing politics. There's an election in ten days, and the mood is tense.

Zanzibar is extremely touristy. After the previous month, this is actually kind of relaxing. Ramadan doesn't interfere much - my hostel, a converted slave market in which I have a vast and decaying room (with vast and decaying balcony) for US$25, serves breakfast after dawn, and decent Chinese and Indian restaurants are open for lunch, as are various touristy places. On the beaches of Nungwi, further north, you'd be hard-pressed to know it's Ramadan at all.

Nungwi is one of those ridiculously gorgeous tropical backpacker paradises to which one could easily retire for a month. A row of lodges runs along a shore thick with baobab trees and coconut palms. Each lodge offers, in back, a row of bungalows along with maybe a Net cafe, little store, coffee shop (with Tim Horton's coffee!), travel agent or dive shop; and in front, a large restaurant-bar with thatched roofs and wooden deck, perch on a massive coral-rock outcrop. At low tide, these overhanging outcrops jut out over a wide expanse of cool white beach; at high tide, you can dive straight from the bar into the Indian Ocean. Daily minibuses take you to and from Stone Town for five bucks. You can dive, snorkel, learn to sail a dhow, play volleyball on the beach, visit the gargantuan nearby Italian1 five-star resort, go on spice or monkey or dolphins tours, or, a highly favoured option, do nothing at all. The ocean sunsets are fantastic. The full moon, two nights ago, was bright as a searchlight, you could literally read a newspaper. The sea is sparkling blue, warm and welcoming.

A little away from the backpacker enclave is Nungwi village, a sprawl of small dusty one-room brick houses. On one side of the beach, fishermen repair nets, and children wash the massive fish caught in those nets, four feet long and looking like they're made of burnished steel, in the village tap. Further down the beach, shipbuilders make dhows: sailing vessels whose design and construction have changed little in the last thousand years. Forty feet long, made of wood cut, adzed, joined, and hammered together by hand, these oceangoing ships are amazingly solid. A single sail hangs from a crossbar, raised up the mainmast by a pulley; ropes connected to the corners of the sail control its setting. Dhows can and do still travel all the way up and down the East African coast. Some go as far as Dubai.

The dive trip I joined set out in a dhow, although, conceding the existence of the 21st century, it was powered by a Yamaha outboard motor rather than a sail. It wasn't the greatest dive trip in history. On the first dive, my neighbour mistimed and mis-aimed his backwards roll, and I bashed my head bloody against his scuba tank. Either both of my tanks were filled only three-quarters full, or the air gauge was faulty (the latter being far more likely, but you don't want to find out the hard way). The sinus cavities between my eyes ached painfully through both dives, and I came up both times with a bloody nose to go with my dented cranium, a worrying development. We were promised turtles on the second dive, but saw none, and the blood billowing from my scalp failed to attract any sharks. And the ocean was much rougher than is apparently usual, meaning that visibility was silted down to maybe 15m, the journey to and from the atoll took a solid two hours each way, and on the way back, as we rolled up and down twenty-foot swells, half the girls who came along to snorkel wound up clutching the gunwales and feeding the fish.

Despite the comedy of errors, it was fun. The atoll was a picture-perfect island of white sand and turquoise water studded with coral reefs. Dolphins frolicked past us as we approached the first dive site. Huge schools of colourful fish scudded around us, and on the second dive, we passed over an amazing formation of plate coral, like nothing I've ever seen before. My dive buddy was a Danish sport fisherman; also along were a South African divemaster who looked like a lot like the blond bad guy in Die Hard, and another South African who'd given up sea captaincy to drive Jo'burg-to-Nairobi overland trucks.

I have a long angry political post to make about aid and Lords of Poverty and the trouble with Africa, but I think I'll hold fire for a little while. This here is a good place to just sit back, watch the sunset, and let your troubles wash away.

1There are massive numbers of Italians here, even more than in Egypt. You never, ever, see them anywhere else in the world. And if anyone knows where the Spanish travel, if they do, let me know - I didn't even find any in South America, where I expected them most.

October 13, 2005

In the shadow of doom

Goma, Democratic Republic of the Congo

This place is crazy.

Can whole cities can be cursed? Because it seems that's what happened to Goma. As if just being situated in eastern Congo, the farthest-flung province of a nation ransacked by three decades of kleptocracy, wasn't bad enough, ten years ago things started getting real bad.

In 1994, more than one million refugees fleeing the rebel army invading Rwanda (and putting an end to the genocide) came to rest here. Tens of thousands died in cholera before the UN constructed the world's largest refugee camp. But many of these 'refugees', fed and sheltered and medicated by the UN for a million dollars a day, were in fact the same militia who planned and carried out Rwandan genocide. These interahamwe ruled the camps with iron fists, and, supplied by the UN, used them as bases for a continuing low-level war with Rwanda for some years, until finally, in 1998, Rwanda invaded and repatriated the refugees.

That was just the start of Goma's problems. This invasion was part of a Congolose civil war that quickly grew to involve seven nations and innumerable rebel armies, factions, and militias. The resulting war dragged on for years and is believed to have killed some three million people. Finally, a couple years ago, a deal was struck, UN peacekeepers moved in, things began to settle down -

- and that's when Mount Doom blew its top1. Mount Nyiragongo, some twenty K north of the town, erupted in January 2002, and half-mile-wide rivers of red-hot lava flowed straight through the city center into Lake Kivu. Hundreds died; half a million more fled their homes.

City on the edge of never

Today, as I type, an ever-present plume of smoke drifts from the mountain, a looming flat-topped darkness visible from most of the city, like the CN Tower in Toronto. On a clear night, the volcano's murky red glow can be seen for many miles. The word on the street is that a vulcanologist recently told the governor that the volcano will almost certainly erupt again in the next two years, and that all of Goma should be immediately relocated - but the governor quashed the report. Not that relocation might help. A gargantuan inversion layer of methane gas and carbon dioxide is believed to be festering beneath the surface of Lake Kivu, and further volcanic activity might cause it all to be released at once, possibly suffocating to death all two million people who live around the lake. Experts believe they may be able to give as much as eight minutes' warning.

A huge cataract of black lava runs straight through the city, dotted by the jumbled, rusted carcasses of cars, and a few burnt skeletons of buildings. Goma's cathedral took the full brunt of the flow, and only its walls remain, beneath an ashen crucifix, surrounded by a glistening field of solid lava, patterned in huge whorls, like the fingerprints of titans. The main market was immolated. The city was cut in two.

And the Congolese have responded with typical, well, either indomitable tenacity or bewildering optimism, depending on your point of view. Much of the lava that "cooled and lay in twisted dragon-shapes", as Tolkien put it, has been now put to use; heaps of lava gravel and orderly piles of watermelon-sized stones wait to be mortared into huge lava walls that will surround newly built properties on the newly vacant real estate, and hopefully divert any future "red rivers" that flow from the mountain. Children in blue-and-white uniforms play on the enormous jagged field of dark lava that starts just outside the doors to the biggest local school. Nearby, brand-new homes, unprotected by perimeter walls, sit brightly on the jet-black rubble. The streets seethe with noise, chaos, colour: Congolese are far more exuberant, in both attitude and dress, than the reserved Rwandese. The city is very much alive.

And it's a crazy kind of life. This is the Wild East. According to the map, I'm in the Congo, but in practice, the Congolese government does not function here at all. Eastern Congo is a crazy-quilt patchwork of shifting territories controlled by various armed groups; Congo troops, Rwandan troops, interahamwe remnants, various rebel forces with connections to one or more of Rwanda, Uganda, Zimbabwe, Angola, and Namibia, independent warlords, the feared Mai Mai cannibal rebel army, the Lord's Resistance Army, more factions than you can shake a Kalashnikov at. The UN force here - MONUC, some 17,000 troops, which sounds like a lot, but remember that this country is the size of Western Europe - maintains, for now, an uneasy, and regularly broken, stability.

MONUC costs a billion dollars a year, and lives in a parallel world from most of the Congolese: gleaming white APCs, passenger trucks, oil tankers, etc, most of which are behind huge razor-wired lava-rubble walls down by Lake Kivu at any given time. The troops around here are India (from Bihar, incidentally, India's poorest and most corrupt state.) The hordes of NGOs - Medecins Sans Frontieres, Save The Children, UNICEF, UNHCR, etc etc - live the same "satellite dishes and 4WDs behind high walls and guards" existence. The local bar Doga is frequented by expats, NGO workers, the haggard-looking vulcanologist, and a supporting cast of shady characters from God knows where, most of whom are very good pool players. They serve good pizza and burgers, even though they don't really need to - Doga is the only bar, in the Western sense, in town.

You don't really get any tourists. I'm the first visitor my (extremely friendly and welcoming) quasi-hosts here have ever had. As I walked through the thriving, colourful market yesterday, people stared at me amazed, and there was a constant refrain of "mzungu mzungu mzungu"; there are plenty of white people in town, but they don't wander around on foot much, I'm guessing. (Several kids independently kept shouting "Zidane!" at me, too, in blatant and highly successful attempts to flatter me by implying I resemble the incomparable French midfield maestro.) The other guests at my (quite nice, US$50) hotel are all Congolese or NGO people here temporarily. Sample overheard snippet of French from a nearby breakfast table this morning: "I assure you, the money is ready!"

Both of my vague plans here have been torpedoed. Due to bad timing/logistics, I just missed out on an expedition by a few British medical students to climb Mount Nyiragongo, which is kind of a shame, 'cause I was thinking of dropping in my Iron Ring and seeing what happened, but maybe it's better for the world that I didn't. I'm a little bummed about this (and starting to wonder if I'll ever climb a volcano again) especially since I passed up the opportunity in part so I could take a boat across Lake Kivu to Bukavu, another Congo city, tomorrow morning - but have just now discovered that, in traditional Africa style, tomorrow's boat is definitely not running, and Saturday's boat may or may not function. Sigh. I might just go back to Rwanda a demain. Which is, amazingly, less than a mile away as I type, but in some ways feels like a whole other world.

What's left in this world, after MONUC and the NGOs, is somewhere between a libertarian paradise and terrifying anarchy. Start with the economy. The local currency here is a bizarre hybrid of cash US dollars with Congolese francs instead of small change. (And the dollars can be wrinkled, grubby, and brown, but God help you if there's even the smallest tear.) No credit cards, no travellers' cheques, but one of the local banks does do Western Union. No gas stations: instead, gangs by the side of the road sell gasoline from yellow 20L jerrycans, siphoning it into empty water bottles.

Actually, let's explore that a little further. Because there is no government here, there is no tax. And so, this oil, which is mostly trucked in from Kenya via Uganda, sells for half the price in Congo than it does in Uganda due to the latter nation's taxes, so there is a thriving business in smuggling jerrycans and 200L drums of gasoline back into Uganda and selling it for a huge profit. The rest of the Congo's extraordinary natural resources - oil, gold, diamonds, emeralds, manganese, cobalt, copper, coltan, mahogany, all here for the taking in vast amounts - follow similar shady routes to enormous profits for someone.

Meanwhile, airplanes and helicopters zoom in and out of Goma's lava-shortened airstrip at all hours, going to and from other Congo cities, courtesy of companies with names like Hewa Boru Airlines and Wimbu Diwa Airways. You have to fly, you see; no actual roads connect Congo's provinces. There are hilariously frightening tales of drunken Ukrainian pilots, or radio chatter that goes like: "Hello, Goma? I'm trying to land! Is there anyone there? Is there anyone at the tower? Goma, do you read? I'm trying to, oh, hell. I'm just going to go ahead and land. OK, I'm landing now. Hello? Is anyone there?" The aircraft are limping Antonov2 jets or prop planes, carrying rebel leaders, mining prospectors3, aid workers, NGO employees, smuggler barons, and God knows who else - for a twenty-dollar doucement, they'll put anyone's name on your ticket - from place to place.

At least communication is easy. And amazingly cheap. Mobile-phone companies have towers all over the hills that dot this rugged landscape. For $3 I bought a SIM card that came with a dollar of talk time, and 10 free text messages a month for a year. (Talk ain't cheap - 30 cents/minute - but Internet is - 75 cents/hour.) Every intersection has a little booth selling airtime cards. Eastern Congo is not a country in the traditional sense, but it's not quite anarchy either; it's like this weird distributed economic community, built around airstrips and mobile-phone antennas, connected by a bad intraprovince road network guarded by the roadblocks of maybe a dozen armed factions, some of whom play nice, some of whom will kill you and eat you on sight. It's utter madness. I kind of like it.

1Well, technically, its side.

2At this very Internet cafe, the printer just churned out a "Certificat de Navigabilite" for an Antonov. I'm sure that's just entirely on the up-and-up.

3Within five minutes of arriving in Congo, a guy named Chi-Chi came up to me and tried to talk me into investing in some local manganese mine.

October 10, 2005

gorillas, in the midst

Gisenyi, Rwanda

Get ready for the experience of a lifetime says Lonely Planet East Africa, with respect to preparations for tracking wild mountain gorillas in the Virungas. The Bradt Guide to Rwanda concurs: in 15 years of African travel, we have yet to encounter anyone who had gone gorilla-tracking and regretted the physical or financial expense.

Well, then. Let me be the first.

The silverback has no clothes!

OK, yes, it was a pretty cool experience. There was indeed a faint alien-species-first-contact frisson. The gorillas were cute or majestic or occasionally both. The setting, a bamboo forest straight out of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, was stunning, all vertical lines enclouded by leaves, which also formed a soft brown carpet. (Apparently young bamboo shoots are like gorilla chocolate.) The gorillas played together, climbed trees, groomed, wandered, ate, hooted and growled. (No chestbeating through.) These gorillas, though wild, are habituated to human contact, which means, in practice, they almost entirely ignored us. One, a mother with a tiny baby riding on her shoulder, actually brushed past me. (In theory you're supposed to keep a 7-metre distance, but in practice the guards don't enforce more than 2 metres, and more to the point, nobody ever sent the gorillas the memo.) Another mother left her child behind, and it ran after her, mewling and weeping piteously, before catching up and leaping onto her back as she walked. The silverbacks strolled past us the forest like lords of the jungle. The hour passed in a flash, and yes, $400 is a lot to pay for said hour, but it's what you'd pay for the same amount of time with a hotshot lawyer, and the apes are a lot more photogenic.

But oh, the opportunity cost. Because, you see, the gorillas are found in one of the most stunning landscapes on the planet, the green, stark-jutting Virunga range of volcanoes, and for that same $400 you could spend five days climbing up and down a couple of said volcanoes, visiting gorgeous crater lakes, spending days wandering nature trails, visiting golden monkeys, and seeing the Dian Fossey memorial, all of which would in toto be far more beautiful and rewarding, I'm sure - and nobody does. They pony up the hundreds, show up for one day, hang with the gorillas for an hour, and flee. And, having spent the money, and not having the time (repeat after me: "it's a work trip! I'm workin' here! I'm workin'!"1), I've done the same damn thing. It's a terrible shame.

I'm now in Gisenyi, a very sleepy, very pretty city on the Congo border, with a dusty, disagreeable downtown rescued by a gorgeous leafy waterfront - sort of half-forest, half-city. The front in question is Lake Kivu, a warm, placid, spectaularly pretty body of water that may kill you if you swim in it: it belches large bubbles of unbreathable volcanic methane every now and again. (The beaches right by Gisenyi are believed safe. Also bilharzia-free.) Tomorrow, work out at the nearby four-star hotel2, wander a bit, then (or maybe the next day) to neighbouring Goma in the Congo, where a contact has volunteered to show me around some. Then I gotta decide where I go next.

1OK, gorillas are very unlikely to make it into the next book, but, well, it's one of those things you pay to not regret not going as much as you pay to go, y'know?

2I suppose it would be the height of self-centred persinickitiness to complain that the Hotel Rwanda has a crappy fitness centre. This one looks marginally better.

Also, I have what I believe to be gorilla dung smeared on my jeans. I swear I'll never wash them again.

October 05, 2005

to penetrate the impenetrable

Lake Bunyonyi, Uganda

I have been to the middle of nowhere, and it is not the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. It is, rather, where you go when your teenage taxi driver takes a wrong turn en route to said impenetrability and continues for half an hour unawares.

I was first made aware of our misdirection when the top of my head smacked into the roof of our car. I'd splashed out on a private ("special hire") taxi to Bwindi, public transit being chancy-to-unavailable except on market day, and somehow contrived to fall asleep despite the humped, fissured, rocky dirt road that winds along ridgetops and steep hillsides, past glorius views of the Western Rift Valley, the cloud-shrouded Ruwenzori, and the Virunga volcanoes, along terraced fields and stands of eucalyptus forest, during the (theoretically) 3-hour journey. But when I woke, the road was no longer dirt. It wasn't even, really, a road. Barely even the idea of a road; more of a wide grass walking trail, very uneven - hence the wakeup bump - segregating raw jungle from small semi-cultivated fields and banana plantations.

I gently suggested to Isaac-the-driver that this couldn't be right. (Thinking: "I know they call it Impenetrable and all, but this is ridiculous.") Isaac bridled but eventually, with universale male reluctance, agreed to stop and ask directions. "Of who?" I thought, but indeed, round the next bend, next to a small igloo-like structure made of mud and strips of bark, there they were; a woman and five children, dressed in colour-drained rags, staring at us amazed.

Information was exchanged. A clearing was found, a little ways on, in which to turn around. We drove past the (now more amused than amazed) family and rattled back up a road I wouldn't have taken a 4WD down, much less a battered Corolla; vertiginously steep, narrow, twisted, uneven, and incredibly bumpy. Eventually, as I offered silent prayers of thanks to Toyota engineers, two parallel strips of dirt emerged from the grass; then the grass meridian vanished; and finally, thirty minutes' drive and maybe 12K after turning around, we were back on the proper route to Bwindi.

To give Isaac credit, he did drive with ferocious skill. If only his navigational abilities were commensurate. Or his negotiating skills; I later learned that he'd severely undercharged me, which may explain his failure to turn up today for the agreed-upon return leg.

The nearest town to Bwindi is called Butogota, and even more than most small African towns, it's like something out of the Wild West. A single wide street of blasted dirt runs between two rows of storefronts, concrete blocks with tin awningss. The store I entered sells big sacks of wheat and beans; bags of salt, sugar, and tea; soap (in long unwrapped bars), candles, baking soda, matches, toilet paper, paraffin - and that's it. No chocolate, no sweets, no biscuits, no baby food, no Vaseline, no lotions or powders, none of the other usual array of colourful disposables found in most African shop-stalls.

The bottle shop next door sells beer, Coke, and water. There is a post office; a police station; a hand-cranked gas station; an immigration post (it's right on the Congo border); a hotel/bar, with pool table; a few dry-goods type stores, J. Nkrumah and Sons and such by name, with shadowed, indeterminate contents; and, in the town's one concession to the 21st century, an MTN mobile-phone airtime-voucher stall. There are two secondary schools, one Muslim one Christian, and a bunch of one-room primary schools. There were fewer than a dozen vehicles. But for them, the MTN store, and the banana-tree backdrop, we could have been at the Texas-Mexico border a hundred years ago.

The Bwindi Impenetrable Forest is a national park in remote southwest Uganda, on the Congo border. It is best known for being home to half the world's mountain gorillas (the others are fifty K south, in the Virunga range of volanoes that straddle the Uganda-Rwanda-Congo borders.) Bwindi means "dark". The Dark Impenetrable Forest - it's like something out of a fantasy novel, isn't it? I mean, Mirkwood's got nothing on this place.

where even the epiphytes have epiphytes

Bwindi is rainforest, not jungle. Rainforest is dominated by enormous canopy trees, fifty metres high, that soak up almost all the sunlight - hence "dark" - and means the undergrowth, though still extremely profuse, is push-your-way-through rather than hack-your-way-through, though Bwindi verged on the latter in many places - hence "impenetrable" - far moreso than other African montane rainforest I've seen. (Mount Afi, on the Nigeria-Cameroon border, and the Vumba in eastern Zimbabwe.)

From the park gate, you can see the forest rising high across a steep ravine. It is an incredible wall of thick, tangled green, interrupted only by the thin pale strips of canopy-tree trunks. Only trees are visible, a vast, looming, endless mass of them; no trails, no clearings, no landscape features; only this utterly opaque arboreal shield.

Within, the forest is so violently, densely fecund that even the greenery has greenery; roots and branches are covered by moss; vines hang on vines; the very stones look like verdant hillocks. Clouds of pure-white butterflies scatter as you walk. Birds hoot, monkeys ook, water burbles. It's beautiful.

On the way in, en route to the first three-hour hike1, the sky was bright blue. Mindful that they don't call it rainforest for nothing, I asked at the park gate if it might rain later. "No," the guard assured me, "I guarantee." I decided not to double back to the village of lodges and curio shops just outside the park for my raincoat, and pressed on. You see where this is heading.

I was assigned a guide and two guards with Kalashnikovs. Overkill, for a maybe 7K walk, you'd think - but in 1999, forty tourists were kidnapped here, and eight murdered, by members of one of the Congo's innumerable warlord militias. Since then security has been high. LP calls the Uganda military presence here "invisible", but it sure didn't look that way to me when we passed a troop going into the forest. "To find snares set by poachers," my guide helpfully explained. I smiled, nodded, looked at the dozen soldiers' light machine guns and bulbous RPGs, and disbelieved.

In perhaps-not-entirely-unrelated news, the Ugandan papers have of late been full of reports that the Lord's Resistance Army, a rebel group of eye-popping barbarity that has terrorized northern Uganda for two decades, has just moved its base from the Sudan to easterns Congo - although they are believed to be hundreds of miles north of Bwindi.

The main trail we passed the soldiers on runs straight through the forest to a market at the Congo border, some two hours' walk. I asked if I could go see it, but only local villagers are allowed to pass through the park to the market, and I'm sure my guards weren't keen on escorting an unpredictable mzungu there, and that was all a moot point because the government had ordered the market closed this week to contain a cholera outbreak.

Cholera, machine guns, gorillas, a divinely inspired army of atrocity, the Dark Impenetrable Forest - I mean, if I can't get story material out of this place, I ought to hang up my thriller-writer keyboard now, no?

1I didn't go gorilla tracking at Bwindi; that's planned for next week, in Rwanda, if there's a permit spare, and at US$400 a pop it's too expensive to go twice. Also I feel kind of lukewarm about the whole idea. I mean, primates cool and all, but I'm not that big a wildlife lover, and $400 seems like a lot of money to stand near a bunch of apes for an hour. But I guess it's one of those if-in-the-area obligatory things, and everyone I meet raves about it, so I guess I'll try to go.

before, after

A quick catchup of the rest of my time:

From Jinja I went to Kampala, which is a pleasant if uneventful city compared to Nairobi, where I stayed in the very grimy Hotel Sun City but ate well, shopped at fantastically cheap and well-equipped suburban supermarkets, and saw THE DUKES OF HAZZARD, of all things. From Kampala, an EMS Post Bus took me to Fort Portal, an even more pleasant town set in the foothills of the Ruwenzori, tea plantations and seas of green-starburst banana trees and limpid crater lakes and cool limestone caves, plus a very good restaurant with a bar showing Premiership football.

I did not trek the Ruwenzori, which I felt less guilty about when I stopped off at my next destination, the luxury Mweya Lodge in Queen Elizabeth Park. (My policy is a week or two of roughing it, then two weeks of luxury.) This glorious situated lodge is on a peninsula between Lake Edward and the Kazingi Channel waterway, and from its balconies, in theory, one can see the Ruwenzori. In fact I only twice caught glimpses of their snowstreaked slopes. In rainy season, you see, they are caught up in cloud 23.5 hours of the average day, and the appeal of climbing up and down steep slopes of mud and slippery rocks with nothing around but mist to look at it is very limited. I'll come back in the dry season, some year.

From the Mweya Lodge's balconies one could, however, see a ridiculous amount of wildlife, without even getting up. Banded mongooses, warthogs, and (by night) hippos roamed the grounds; and across the Kazinga Channel, on the shore, herds of buffalo, occasional elephants, masses of hippos, several crocodiles, and ridiculous amounts of birds watered. On an afternoon launch ride up the channel we saw all of the above up closer, plus spotted hyenas; on an early-morning game drive through classic African savannah, with a very nice British couple doing a similar rare splurge, we saw teeming herds of antelope, thousands of them. No big cats though. They're there - in fact, Queen Elizabeth is the only place in the world where lions, for some reason, climb trees - but wildlife numbers are still recovering from Uganda's war years. Leopards are plentiful, of course, like everywhere else in Africa, but like everywhere else in Africa they're also basically invisible, though I did see a tawny blob high in a faraway tree at one point.

I hitched a ride with a super-nice Dutch group to the ugly and busy but well-located town of Kabale, from which I caught Isaac's taxi to Bwindi via parts unknown; and now I'm some 9K from Kabale, at the ridiculously beautiful Lake Bunyonyi, surrounded by green terraced hills, 2000m above sea level, one of Uganda's two real backpacker hangouts (the other is Bujagali Falls near Jinja). Tomorrow - or the next day, if I feel lazy - Rwanda.