Monday, 10 October 2011

The One Where Captain Jeff took us to Burundi on His Cargo Ship

The themed title of the blog has changed just for this once.   Not because amusing incidents haven’t occurred involving Tim, but because quite frankly, the last week of travelling has been phenomenal.  This blog might contain slightly more information about our journey than will be entertaining or amusing, but the way that we got from Tanzania to Burundi was from other people’s blogs so I hope that this blog might help some travellers along the way.  If you choose to just look at the pictures, I won’t judge you. 

Journey:  Iringa, TZ --> Mbeya, TZ --> Tunduma, TZ --> Mpulungu, Zambia --> Lake Tanganyika --> Bujumbura, Burundi.

Start date: Friday 30th Sept, 8am
End date: Friday 7th Oct, 815am

Leaving Iringa was emotional.  First Chui.

Mama Quaver and Chui

Tim's ever persistent want to pick her up

Frankly she was probably glad to see the back of us after losing 2 of her 9 lives in just the week that we were back…mainly my fault

1)  Trying to introduce her to the slightly manic dog Wilma by holding Chui up to Wilma’s face at which Wilma snapped…

Dog (in the bath) & Wilma (chained up)

Dog meeting Chui

2) Then I nearly sat on her.
So many traumas so soon into life.

But truly the tears started flowing when saying goodbye to Ben and Katy.  Their kindness and generosity to us could only be paid back in the form of a ‘goodies hamper’.  In this were luxuries of: mozzarella, tomato ketchup, butter, marshmallows, jam and bacon.  If Fortnum and Mason’s made Tanzanian hampers, these too would be the products in them…

We bid them good bye at the bus terminal in Iringa – we were set to go on the 6hr bus to Mbeya (with the sub-woofer directly above us – yeay.).  

The bus entertained us with Swahili worship songs, some we were now familiar with having been on buses for a few hours in Africa now, and then their feature film.  Following worship songs with a film about a child that is possessed by demons was an odd choice…the low budget nature of the Tanzanian film, with its bad special effects, over long monologues and a repetition of preachers and witch doctors trying to exorcise her meant that following the story line was not difficult.

On arriving in Mbeya and being mobbed by touts wanting to take our bags and offer us tickets to Malawi, we declined all such offers and used our trust Lonely Planet Guide to take us to a local hotel that happened to have a bar! Our room had no hot water or water pressure but we had a bar (and randomly the Michael Jackson trial on our room TV…)!

We searched the town for lunch and how to get to Zambia and found both in the hotel/restaurant Sombreros.  Not a Mexican decoration or Mexican food sort in sight but the waitress managed to get her friend to come and talk to us about buses and provide us with a curry and spag bol.  Her friend, James, arrived and told us he could sort everything out – bus to the border, border transfer and bus to Mpulungu, Zambia all for 90,000 shillings (£36).  After using great bargaining skills and getting 4,000 shillings (£1.60) off the asking price, we purchased the tickets, slightly apprehensive about the validity of such tickets in 2 different countries.

An early start with a promise from James that he would send a taxi for us still left me holding my breath, waiting for the con…but James himself arrived with the taxi and settled us on the dalla-dalla (mini-bus) with credit for our phone and a number for the guy meeting us at the border.

Our journey to Tunduma was uneventful bar the driving which was erratic as ever at the driver took the traffic jam at the border into his own hands.  We were dropped off where ‘John’ was supposed to meet us but we continued to think we were being conned so reluctantly went with the guy who claimed to be John…long story but turns out it was in fact John.  We were breezed through exiting Tanzania, entering Zambia and doing some money exchange during it all.  On the other side, we met a beautifully gleaming bus with the same name as the company on our tickets. Phew! However…the guy at the bus led us to a dilapidated taxi and said that we’d be riding in it with 2 others for 5 hours on a dirt road to Mpulungu.  Despite the disappointment of not having a shiny bus, our bus tickets were honoured and we didn’t pay any extra.  James (bless him) had taken the initiative to get his colleague to find us a faster way to Mpulungu, to get there before dark, as the bus wasn’t full and wouldn’t be leaving for a while.

As expected the journey was long, bumpy and life threatening at times….our driver thought that getting there sooner rather than later was better….haring down a dirt track in a saloon at 70kmph, waving the crater sized holes and following the single track carved out car lane – personally I subscribe to slow and steady gets us there alive.  Despite the fact we stopped a number of times to check that the underneath of the car was still intact and we hadn’t blown a tyre, the driver continued at break-neck speed.

A rubbish photo but getting a good one of the road was tricky...
During the drive, we really felt like we were in deepest darkest Africa.  You could see for miles with no urban development.  Nestled in amongst the trees were brick houses with thatched roofs.  It sounds surprisingly like England when you put it that way – think one room houses rather than cottages.  Our journey was peppered with children running out into the road staring at us (during the short stints of slow driving after a recent inspection and a brief moment of conscientious driving!). After 5 hours, we hit tarmac and zoomed at 120 kmph as the petrol gauge hit the red.  The taxi driver blagged his way through a police stop as he didn’t have any road tax, but he told us that he wouldn’t be able to take us the whole way as he didn’t think he could blag another police stop.  He found a minivan that was even worse for wears than his car (it was held together by rope and had no back door) and paid for it to take us to Mpulungu. 

Not having any guidebook information about Mpulungu we were ill prepared about where to stay and were at the mercy of local information which meant that we would have to stay at something a touch more ‘roughing it’ than usual.  No running water, no air conditioning or fan, a mozzie net that didn’t fit the bed and no bathroom light.  HOWEVER we did have a TV showing 1 local channel. Bonus. 

Our brief stay in Zambia made us feel very much like white people.  Mpulungu was not set up for tourists in the shape of places to eat, buy food, find out local information etc. so we did stick out like a sore thumb, but we were living the travellers dream: the road less travelled on.
Relaxing on the Lake

Chilling out with 'Mama' who was in the taxi with us and we
happened to see her the following day!

Drying fish in the sun
We were unable to find out about getting a boat from Mpulungu, up Lake Tanganyika to Bujumbura until the port was open on the Monday at 8am.  At which time we found Captain Jeff.  Captain Jeff looked like the mummy-guy who was in the film The Mummy, or Habib Marhwhan from 24 (same actor).  Sadly didn’t get a photo of him.  He said that we could hitch a lift on his cargo ship which would be leaving that morning, for the price of $70 each.  (Going rate it seems on others’ blogs) We were super excited to find a boat so soon – we gathered our things, had our bags ‘screened’ (not in an x-ray machine but rooted through by 3 people) – explained away marmite, contact lenses and our excessive amount of malaria medication, and were sent to immigration.  The immigration officer just wanted to double, triple check we were in fact leaving this morning, and lucky he did, because we weren’t. 

Zambia port workers decided to strike on that day. Gutted.  Everyone was very confident that it would end by lunchtime and we’d be on our way by the afternoon but that was wishful thinking really wasn’t it.  We took the time to review our dollars that we’d been advised to buy on the black market – we were pretty sure our $100 bill was fake so Tim went up to the bank and exchanged some more just in case God was holding up our journey because we’d done some dodgy dealings. (Turns out it was real as the Captain said that the black market was trust worthy there as the crew come in and out of town all the time).  
Hanging with the Port Authorities...

Our cargo ship - The Teza!


...still waiting...
Alas the boat didn’t go that day and we went to find another hotel – one very close to the port which gave us a fan and a TV again.  That evening was spent at the mercy of someone else’s cable TV choice – flicking between football highlights and Sergeant Bilko – slightly random.  I slept very little that night as an almighty thunder and lightning storm ensued right overhead but as the noise of the pelting rain subsided, so the sound of the trucks moving into the port struck up – yeay! The workers were back to work – we would be going today! (Tuesday)

Back to the port with our stuff, back to the immigration officer and stamp! We were outta Zambia! Well sort of.  We went to the ship, we carried our bags down a shady ladder onto the ship and up through the boat to a cabin with bunks and an ensuite!  We watched 120 tons of brown sugar being loaded into the cargo hold and rested as we waited for the ship to move.  Which it did, at about 11am – so we celebrated with a gingernut biscuit we’d bought to last us the 38hrs on the boat.  A celebration too soon.  We were just swapping places with another cargo ship whilst our paperwork was being sorted…BUT then the captain received a call from Bujumbura wanting more cargo! Which we weren’t able to load until the following morning.  So we were going to be on the boat for 3 days instead of 2 – our 1 loaf of bread and 2 packets of biscuits just weren’t going to cut it for that long…but we couldn’t go back on land as we’d been stamped out of Zambia!  We asked one of the captains to go to the market for us and thus we were well prepared with tomatoes, rice, fruit and 5 more packets of biscuits. (Don’t tell the kids at school what was Mrs Smith’s diet – they’ll have a right go at me…).

Walking to The Teza

Loading sugar

Loading sugar
Tallying brown sugar
Excited that we don't have to help with the loading!
Timmy makes home in our cabin...
Odd to think that the last time we were in bunks
was on the Orient Express


In the reeds there is a crocodile...

View from our cabin at port

Making one of the 3 meals of rice and tomatoes...
The following morning (Wednesday) we did in fact set sail – 1045am and this time we celebrated with a shower – cold but full of water in our ‘ensuite’ – we felt cleaner than we had done in days! 

At 'lake'!


Ship to shore phone

Surrounded by boats in Burundian waters

Waking up to Bujumbura, Burundi

6.30am - ready to get off the boat!

In summary (for those that have been looking at the pictures)…

During the 38hr journey on Lake Tanganyika I enjoyed hours of reading and playing cards with Tim.  We watched Tanzania come into view and leave us again on the starboard side and speculated as to the trouble in the Congo on the port.  We’ve estimated how long it would take to swim to either side and been shown by different crew members where they are from on the map of the lake in the kitchen.  We longed to see hippos and were pleasantly surprised to see a pair tussling as we arrived in Bujumbura.  The croc in the reeds at Mpulungu was quite a find as well (the Lonely Planet says it’s safe to swim in Mpulungu because there’s too much commotion in the water – maybe before – now they’ve learned commotion might mean food!).  We enjoyed the part Swahili, part French, part English conversations we had with the crew and their laughter at/with us.  The ultimate telegraph puzzle book that Tim’s mum gave us before we left served us well; maybe one day we’ll be able to do a cryptic crossword.  My fears of boats and water have been tested and abated on this sturdy ship.  Tim’s explanations about water displacement and how it floats still confuses me, but I thank God and the Laws of Physics that it does.

As Tim aptly put it, this lake is the antithesis of the Africa we’ve seen – not dry, dusty and in need, but pure, clean, wet and teeming with abundant life.  Until entering Burundian waters, we hadn’t seen another boat for almost 30 hours. 

This journey will remain with me always as one that has not been straight forward or easy, but peaceful and a blessing.  Each bump of our taxi ride, creak of the boat and change of the weather has reflected God’s graciousness and hand over it all.

Watch this space for Burundian news...

Much love,

Tic Toc xx