Top of the south adventures (Gregs guide)

9 November, 2014

Hey friends,
To help you plan the big 40th birthday party trip, here are my collected thoughts on road tripping around the top of the south island:
First a map showing my two suggested possible routes, and most of the bigger destinations (click to see it in full detail):

Top of the South Map 2 routesFirst lets cover the red route (total distance is 1041km)


Christchurch

The biggest town on the south island, probably where you will fly into. Its most famous for the earthquake and the crusaders.
Its worth stopping here to see the impact of the earthquake on the city, take a drive through the CBD and stare in wonder at the wide empty open spaces – and visit the shipping container shopping centre and other objects of interest. Also take a drive out into the suburbs (head for Avonside Drive), to see what happens when an entire suburb is abandoned to nature!

Avonside drive (from ODT)


The other thing that’s worth doing in Christchurch is the International Antarctic experience – its even as cold as the Antarctic inside there!
antarctic centre

A lot of people go from Christchurch to Akaroa – a small “french” settlement just outside Christchurch, I havent been there, but people seem to like it.
Akaroa

Hanmer Springs
A delightful spa town – in the NZ style, lots of hot pools and good eating and resting places. If you want to go jetboating while in NZ and you are not getting to Queenstown, this probably is the place to do it.  There is also lots of other outdoor pursuits to enjoy in Hanmer, think of it like a scaled down Queenstown.
Hanmer Springs

Between Hanmer and Murchison is a secret set of free hotsprings, called Sylvia Flats, its marked on google maps, if you want to visit them, the hot springs come out of the Boyle River, so you have freezing cold mountain streams and spots of boiling hot water, its a real kiwi experience, just remember to bring mossie repellant!
Sylvia Flats

Also check out the Alpine Fault Wall at Springs Junction (geologists and rock lovers fun).

Maruria Springs thermal resort, is a small japanese style thermal resort tucked at the bottoms of some mind blowing mountains and could make an alternitive overnight stop.

Maruria Springs
Murchison
The traditional halfway spot between Nelson and Christchurch, the town is developing as a bit of an outdoor pursuits destination, but otherwise just a place to stop and fill the car, and the family.
Molesworth Station Road
If you are interested in getting off the beaten track, and don’t mind a bit of dust – then this might be the detour for you, this is a dirt road that runs through New Zealands largest farm, from Hanmer to the South of Marlborough, its NZ high country at its finest, and its relatively undiscovered, it is a 2wd drive road, but its no autobahn! Have a look at photos of Molesworth station and you will see the beauty.
Molesworth

Lake Rotoiti and Lake Rotoroa.
Two beautiful mountain lakes and accompanying villages, Rotoiti is the more developed as a destination – and the best place for some hiking/tramping/rambling/swimming.
Lake Rotoiti
The lakes have walking tracks around them and into the surrounding mountains, from half hour walks to the two day return trip the clearest lake in the world, known as Rotomairewhenua or Blue Lake, its a two-day hike from the park boundary or, for an aerial view, there are scenic flights with Reid Helicopters. Once you get there, you cant actually enter the water, but you can gaze at in wonder, or google it to see how clear it is.
Between Murchison and Lake Rotoiti, is the area where I did most of my tramping with school, known as Matakitaki Valley, if you want to do some challenging hikes through dramatic, isolated, unspoilt scenery, this my top pick. Let me know if you are keen and I will help you out with specific details.
Matakitaki
Nelson
My home town, famous for its sunshine and good food, wine and beer, its a good base for exploring the top of the south island, you should visit the local museum to see how the town was formed, and the Greg Newman memorial rooms etc, also the World of Wearable arts, is a slightly odd museum of strange and eclectic clothing/fashions, that are gathered from an annual competition that was originally held in Nelson. Nelson has some great swimming beaches, in town Tahuna is nice and shallow and good for kids, a bit further out of town, Rabbit Island is another popular swimming destination. In NZ swimming in rivers is just as popular, so in Nelson I would head to one of the many swimming holes in the nearby Maitai Valley.
Maitai Valley
The best beers is either at Macs on Main Road Stoke, or at Founders Bewery, in the Founders historical park near town.
From Nelson you can visit the many vineyards spread between Nelson and Motueka, there is good food and drink spread all over the hills.
You can also catch a boat over the to the Abel Tasman national park, its a good option if you have limited time, rather than driving over to the park, then catching a boat from Kaiteriteri. Either way, your boat will probably leave from Kaiteri, some do leave from nearby Marahau as well.
Richmond
The Fresh Choice Supermarket in richmond has the best selection of NZ beer in the country, its worth visiting, just for that reason!
Fresh Choice Ricmond
Motueka
Its a good place to buy pot – but that’s about it. Actually that’s not true, you can charter a plane to fly over the Abel Tasman, its amazing!
Abel Tasman National Park
Catch a boat into the park (from Kaiteri or Marehau) and then walk out – take your swimming trunks, food, and lots of sun block, if you can stay longer, do, even when its busy in the middle of summer, its still not really busy, the beaches are the best in NZ (IMHO).
Abel Tasman
Kahurangi National Park
I personally think this park is more interesting than the Abel Tasman, if you like the outdoors, this is the dictionary definition of it! Amazing peaks, lush sub tropical greenery, definitely worth at least a day walk – let me know if you want to do it, and I will point you to some tracks.
Kahurangi

Takaka and Golden Bay
We spent our early years in Takaka and I think its one of the best parts of NZ, its still relatively untouristy, so it has a real proper kiwi feel – if you know Byron Bay or Kynsna, then you can picture the kind of place.
Golden Bay
The bay has loads to do, you could easily spend a week here, from beautiful Golden Sandy beaches, to mountain top hikes, to exploring caves, the famous pupu springs, old gold workings, the massive sand spit, entering the Abel Tasman from the quieter side. There is tons to do. Its a 2.5 hour drive from Nelson, over a very windy road, but that road is right through Lord of Rings scenery, with Harwoods hole (a massive sink hole), one of the many great walks on the Takaka Hill enroute, also look out for Parafanta snails, the massive land snails that inhabit the area (and I mean massive).
Up the Cobb valley, you can get to the edge of the Kahurangi national park, go fossil hunting and see one of the most famous bush huts in NZ, Asbestos Cottage (4 bunks), home of Annie and Henry Chaffey, who lived in the isolated hut right up till the 1950s.
Cobb Valley
On the very west of Golden Bay, there are more lord of the rings scenery, dramatic beaches and rugged coastline, you can also enter the start of the Heaphy track.
Marlborough Sounds
They look like fjords, (but technically they aren’t), but they are very dramatic none the less! Windy roads and beautiful steep hills dropping straight into the water, amazing scenery, plenty of good swimming and fishing, famous mussels (try green lip mussels at the many restaurants that specialise in them stop in Havelock, at the start of the sounds). Everyone has their favourite bit of the sounds, mine is Double Bay in Queen Charlotte sound, a lovely little sandy bay, where you can swim, pick oysters off the rocks for dinner and camp over night (it has a toilet).
Double Bay

Spend a day driving between Havelock and Picton, along the side of the sounds, dropping into little bays for a swim.

Blenhiem

Its a great place to go wine tasting – and get into a fight (well maybe that was just my teenage years), no joking its a very boring town, but there is plenty of good wine to be drunk – but a do a bus tour of the vineyards, or ride a bike, don’t ttry drinking and driving – you wont last long!

Picton

It only exists because the ferry to the north island stops there, its not worth a stop in its own right.

Kaikoura

See you there!

The Blue then Red loop (total distance is 1173km)


Again leaving from Christchurch, then

Arthurs Pass National Park, across to west coast:
Arthurs Pass
One of only four crossing points for the southern alps, beautiful scenery, highlights of this section include Castle Rock limestone formations, cave stream  – a one hour expedition through a cave, with a stream, awesome mountain scenery – this section can also be done on the breathtaking Tranz Alpine train, and you can pick up a rental car on the west coast.

Then North on SH6

Check out the Point Elizabeth walk just north of Greymouth. A one-way walk of a few hours, but the person who drives to the far end gets to hang out at an awesome pub on a stunning beach.
Point Elizabeth
This coastline is continuous stunning windswept coast and rugged beaches (and baches), think “The piano” without Harvey Kietel nude.

Check out Barrytown, if you are interested in knife making and greenstone/jade carving lessons

The famous Punakaiki pancake rocks and the Pororari Gorge kayaking.
Pororari River
Then Buller Gorge – takes you back onto SH6 and rejoins the red route south of Murchison
Buller Gorge

Books to read;
The Bone People by Keri Hulme – won the Booker Prize in 1985, set on the West Coast
The Exiles of Asbestos Cottage by Jim Henderson – about the Chaffeys, living up the Cobb valley.
Outsiders by Gerard Hindmarsh – explores the stories of some real characters living in the remotest parts of NZ
The Plumb Trilogy by Maurice Gee – a big book – but an amazing work of historical fiction

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I fear I am falling in love with Rwanda.

20 May, 2012

After two nights in Addis Ababa, we left for the main event, Rwanda and the gorillas.

Land of 1000 hills

But before we got there, we had another “remember you’re in Africa” moment…. While still at Addis airport, we noticed that our slightly delayed flight had suddenly changed to showing as departed… as the other passengers around us also noticed, there was a short panic, then we were assured it was just the board that was wrong. Of course, we were fairly relaxed, but the poor folks who had already been waiting 24 hours since the day befores flight had been canceled failed to see the comedy in the event! Then we were given 30 seconds warning for a gate change… Quite hilarious, about 100 people running to the gate.

Between Addis and Kigali, we were lucky to have a brief stop over in Uganda. On the tarmac at Entebe, on the edge of the stunning Lake Victoria we parked up next to the very fancy jet of Nigerian President (who was boarding with 20 henchmen), and with 2 giant Russian UN heavy lift jets flanking us, I was pretty sure this would not happen at Brisbane airport. We were then politely asked not to smoke while the plane refueled – with us in it – unsurprisingly we all agreed…

Rwanda

For those of you (like us), who know little or nothing about Rwanda, here are a few facts about Rwanda:

– Kigali is the safest capital city in Africa. We felt more than safe walking at 10pm & searching for an ATM in the dark.

– Plastic bags were banned from 2007. That’s right, no plastic bags, or bottles (except water bottles), and it shows, the countryside is clean and stunning

– The last Saturday of each month is community day, which means every person must spend the day contributing to the community – usually in the form of garden clean up / litter collection

– Rwanda has committed to the 1 laptop: 1 child scheme, the 8th country in the world to do so. It now boasts one of the highest school attendance rates in Africa

– Everywhere you look you see signs denouncing corruption, promoting ease of business and statement such “we need to learn from our history to build a bright future”.

– Rwanda is known as the land of 1,000 hills, there is very little flat land, with small hills and beautiful river valleys covering most of the land.

– Oh, and in 100 days in 1994, over 800,000 Rwandans were slaughtered – by fellow Rwandans – generally without guns or bombs. 100 days of the brutal decapitation and mutilation of men, but mainly women and children in every town, village and hamlet in the country, the perpetrators’ intent was to systematically exterminate the Tutsi population – some 10% of Rwanda’s population of 8 million. They almost succeeded.

This all occurred whilst the UN was on the ground and whilst the French military were providing strategic advice to the perpetrators. Whilst the UN, US and Belgium have since apologised for the deplorable lack of activity- the French never have apologised – no wonder the Rwandans still can not stomach the thought of diplomatic relations with the French.

So, the first day of Rwanda trip see’s us arriving mid afternoon in the small and cute international airport in Kigali, Rwanda. For UK citizens, there was no visa fee. It was all processed at the airport, no bribes, no queues, no trouble, easy peasy!

As soon as we got through immigration, we saw a smiling tall black man, Amon, our guide, driver, host and friend for the duration of our trip. Amon loaded our gear onto the roof of his trusty Landrover defender and we headed off across town. First impressions of Kigali were very positive, with good roads, beautiful gardens, new cars and smiling people, but as with everywhere in Rwanda, the recent history isn’t far below the surface, the parliament building is pock marked with shell holes from the fighting, a lasting reminder of those horrible days.

Our first night, we glammed it up at Hotel des Milles –the place that Hotel Rwanda (the movie) was based on. For those who have seen the film, the real building is a lot more modern than the colonial looking building used in the film, but still it was eerie to know that lives were won and lost at the hotel. If only walls could talk – I guess I’m glad in a way that they didn’t.

Checking out the pool at Hotel Rwanda

Day 2

We had breakfast at the hotel, looking out from the rooftop across the many hills of Kigali. We were surprised to see tamarillos a plenty in the breakfast. Tree tomatoes (as they are known) are plentiful here and delicious, that combined with fresh passionfruit juice at breakfast made it feel a little bit kiwi!

Then we headed for the genocide museum, wow, double wow, what an experience, it probably can’t be summed up. Once you get over the fact that there are 250,000 people buried in the grounds of the museum, next you follow the story of the Rwandan genocide, from the seeds sown by the French and Belgians – who turned an arbitrary socio economic grouping into a not very scientific or logical ethnic profile and then used it to divide and rule the country.

under these concrete slabs, 250,000 people are buried

So many emotions were felt. Sadness for the families who lost people, anger that those Rwandans who committed the murders, mutiliations and rapes, are still alive, frustration as to why the international community did absolutely nothing and bewilderment as to how the French Govt got away with complicity to murder. However, the greatest feeling was disbelief as to how anyone who survived this could possibly live a “normal life”.  But as we saw, Rwandans are a people who are hard to beat, so they are working hard at building a “normal” country….

You can read some of the background and some survivors stories here on the memorial website:

http://www.kigalimemorialcentre.org/old/survivors/dancilla.html

Eventually we composed ourselves and we headed east from Kigali towards the Tanzanian border to the Akagara National Park for a safari adventure.

Leaving Kigali

so much scenery

So much scenery…

Its the largest park in Rwanda at 2,500km square, but half of the park was given to the Genocide Survivors in 2000 – with various NGOs building houses, wells and schools in attempt to restore some Normality to the returning refugees.

Rwandan house and farmland, everything that can be, is farmed!

Driving towards the park (in a feeling that reminded us of travelling around in  Cambodia) we were greeted in the streets by laughter, smiles and genuine hand waving. These people were not begging they seemed interested in us. We reciprocated with some serious hand waving back – but so quickly after the visiting the memorial, we couldn’t help feel tinges of guilt, reminding ourselves what anyone over the age of 17 must have endured during the 100 days.

So much to see, and feel..

We had three days on safari in the park, we stayed at the main hotel in the south of the park and pretty much had the place to ourselves!

We did two full days of game drives, they were fun, but the park is still being restocked and restored, so though we did see some game, it wasn’t in the quantities that we have seen on previous trips to Kenya or South Africa. But, as a side tour to the main event of trekking for gorillas, its still a great adventure.

Family fun

Wheres the mozzarella?

are you having a giraffe?

One member of staff who definitely deserved a mention was the chimp guard – a man who had the sisyphean task of trying to stop the chimps from annoying the guests. His challenge was as funny as it was pointless, after many years of battles, the chimps hated him and he hated the chimps, so they tormented each other continually, but largely left the rest of us alone!!

The chimp guard

Day 4

We broke camp and headed towards the town of Ruhengari, the base for gorilla trekking. It was a journey from the very east, to the north west, a journey that didn’t quite take all of a day. To give some perspective of size, Rwanda is about half the size of Switzerland, or the same size as the Solomon Islands.

Every inch of land is dedicated to food

production

The travelling distances are not great which is great is definitely in Rwandas favor, there cant be many other places where you can go from African savannah to sub tropical rain forest in one easy day.

The daily water run, its your turn today!

Bananas anyone?

On the drive we stopped for a special treat, a roadside stall that served baked potatoes and goat skewers, we bought some banana wine and settled in for a feast fit for a king!

Best baked potatoes…. in the world!

How many times have you thought… i could kill banana wine?
Probably a good idea, before it kills you!

Day 5  – The gorillas….

The volcanoes…

We had a wealth of good advice from Mel and Aaron (who introduced us to Amon), so I think we were better prepared that most for our trek.

The top tips that we would pass on are:

Take some gardening gloves; the track is cut fresh every day and the day we went was muddy and slippery, so some gloves enable you to grab hold of anything to keep your balance

Take something to eat and drink, the guides make it clear that the target is a moving family of gorillas, so a two hour trek could easily turn into a five hour trek if the target group are moving away from you. So we had some super snack bars, plenty of water and lunch, which we had provided for us by the lodge.

Take wet weather gear, proper wet weather gear – without our jackets, over trousers, and solid boots, we would have been like drenched rats – they do call it a rain forest for a reason.

So, well prepared and raring to go, we had a big breakfast and headed to the national park headquarters where we were matched with our gorillas.

There are 18 groups in the park, 10 of which are visited on any day.

To visit the gorillas, you need to buy a USD$500 permit, the permits are rumored to be going up soon, but as they are quick to point out, when they put the price up from USD$300 per day, there was no fall in demand, so they will keep putting up the price until the demand stops rising. The money is well spent, it provides each family with a full time 24 hour armed guard, stopping poaching and ensuring they are safe. The remaining money goes into the park maintenance and also provides services for the villages around the park. Having spent the money, I am happy to say the experience is so amazing, I would spend it again in the blink of an eye!

The big difference between trekking for the gorillas and doing a safari or going to the zoo to see the animals is that trekking for the gorillas means going into the animals environment and seeing them on their terms. This is so totally different to seeing them in a controlled and somewhat sterile environment, where you are your comfort zone and the animals are there just for your viewing pleasure!

The permits need to be bought in advance, but contrary to the rumor, if you go outside the peak season, permits are relatively easy to get, just get your tour organizer to get the for you. We managed to get two extra passes for friends who were driving by (literally) with only one weeks notice!

At the park headquarters, the rangers matched the locations of the 10 families (which are radioed in every morning) with the fitness and appetite for adventure of the various groups. The day we visited it was raining heavily, so we didn’t push the envelope to far, stories of 10 hour treks returning in the rain and Gregs dodgy knee meant that we were probably assigned a group in the not too hard, not too easy middle ground…

We also found out that for just USD$200 extra you can arrange 16 porters who will carry you up the mountain! We were disappointed to hear that this was most commonly taken up by Americans and Australians who are too unhealthy to do the trek!

So, with a cool Spanish couple, our group were assigned a guide, a bloke with a machete to cut the path and provide a helping hand and a guard with an AK47  (to protect us from the buffalo apparently)?!?!?!?

Clean, fresh and dry……

And we headed off up the side of the volcano.

It starts off easy, walking through the farmland at the foot of the volcano

Then we started climbing

Somewhere in the mist

The trek was amazing, amazingly tough, amazingly beautiful, amazingly misty and amazingly exciting. After about 2.5 hours of solid climbing we met the blokes who were guarding our family. We dropped our back packs and got our cameras out and headed off to where the family had stopped for the day, we thought we still had a kilometer to go, but our guide cunningly tricked us, and before we knew it, he suddenly stopped, turned around to us and grinned, we quickly realized that we were surrounded by gorillas….

Sitting all around us, munching on leaves, playing with mum, sitting in the rain, the whole family was there. The feeling of amazement, awe, fear, excitement and shock was almost amazing, it was one of the most memorable moments of my life, one I am sure we will remember until we die!!

Here they were, the 300kg silver back and his family….

Well good morning..

Being watched by 300kgs of gorilla, this is totally safe right?!?!?!

Mum and baby

So, we had an hour @ $500 (or $8.33 per minute) and we totally soaked it up, snapping photos, sitting and watching, taping video, sharing stupid grins and looking in complete wonder.

he was looking at us, like we were the ones in his zoo!

The minutes flew by and then after 55 minutes the silverback got up and shuffled around, turning his back on his and signaling that our time was up.

Its time for you to go… I am bored by you….

We headed off down the mountain, it was just one hour, I cant imagine many other experiences that could create such an impact so quickly.

By the time we got down the mountain, we were soaked, elated, muddy and buzzing.

Gorilla trekkers in the mud

Amon, our every present guide and guru knew just what we needed to forget our weary bones, so after a quick shower back at our hotel, he took us to see his own little secret. Amon the quintessential entrepreneur has been working on his own mountain lodge and we were lucky enough to visit the work in progress. After doing the royal tour, we settled downin the bar to enjoy some awesome bbq’d goat, roasted potatoes and corn on the cob, all washed down in the full moon light, at the foot of the volcanoes with a cold beer in hand.

Amons bar and Amon and Deb!

Best goat skewers…. in the world!

The evening was another magical experience that will leave us all with a lasting memory of true spirit of Rwanda, a country where anything is possible, where people don’t just talk about their dreams, but they work damn hard until their dreams are a reality.

Day 7

After a big nights sleep, we got up (some of us feeling more like an old man than normal).

Carrots heading for market – they tasted like the ones from Grandads garden!

After breakfast we jumped in the landrover and headed west, to the border of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and the lakeside town of Gisenyi.  The DRC (formerly Zaire and the Belgian Congo) with its population of 71,000,000 is another of Africa’s failed states, a war, known as the African World War has been raging in and around the DRC since 1998 killing 5,400,000 people. The war in the DRC appears to be settling down, but the East (the corner we were heading to) is still a bit random, but in parallel its quickly developing as a tourist destination. Amon our driver raved about the scenery and the people, and assured us it was safe for a visit.

But day 7 for us, was also the 7th of April, 18 years to the day since the genocide begun. So across the country in every city, town and village people were gathering for memorial services.  Where we have a war memorial ont he edge of our towns and villages, Rwandan towns have a mass grave, some of which are still being filled as bodies are uncovered and found in the countryside. Kids play football on fields with bodies beneath them..

For a country and a people to face up to the fact that a genocide happened in their midst is a big thing. And it appears, not always a perfect thing,  so not surprisingly there was a real palpable tension in the air, their was a heavy military presence, with many check points, armed patrols and  lots of nervous looking men in uniform holding big guns.

All of the places we drove through were holding services, memorials or just chats and though we were initially keen to share in this experience, we soon realized that this was not an experience for tourists, so we left them to it.

School kids gather as a service starts at a village school

The people of Rwanda have been through some horrible, terrible shit, a level of terror, fear, guilt and anger that most of us couldn’t even begin to fathom, and this was there day to continue the slow path to healing.

On the road to the border we passed a massive UN refugee camp, the camp has moved from being originally on the DRC side for Rwandan refugees, its now on the Rwandan side, for refugees from the DRC. The site of the blue UN tarpulin buildings stretching off into the distance added another level of feeling into what was already a very somber day.

So we drove all the way to the border with the DRC, then we got of the car, and after Amon worked his magic with the border guards, we headed across the Rwandan border and had a quick photo in the no mans land between the two countries…

Hanging out in no mans land

The town of Gisenyi is a very strange place, on the edge of a massive lake, with white sandy beaches, it’s a cute little resort town, complete with luxury resorts and deck chairs, but only 500 metres across the border, the DRC is a largely lawless country full to the brim with mineral wealth – a blessing and a curse on the DRC. We could see from our side of the border, that the local airport on the DRC side was buzzing with flights arriving every 20 minutes, businessmen, entrepreneurs, fortune hunters and all the flotsam and jetsam that operate in land with too many minerals and not enough security.


Across the lake to the DRC… 

One the return journey we stopped for the now obligatory haircut, stopping at a random village and a random barbers shop, Greg went in and got his hair cut. Rwanda is now officially the cheapest place in the known world to get a hair cut – just 50p for a smashing haircut! Our stopover in a random town in a random barber shop caused quite a stir, with the local police commissioner eventually arriving to see what all the fuss was about!

50p, you cant beat that price!

Some drunk guy, my new barber and me!

We then drove back to our hotel, again passing through countless towns and villages where groups of people gathered to share their stories, their experiences, their tears and their hopes as they tried to come to terms with genocide.

On the way back to the hotel, we stopped at a local store and bought ourselves some drinks and junk food. Then when were back in our room we lit a roaring fire, sat in the comfy chairs and spent the night discussing all that we had seen, read and heard, none of us expected Rwanda and its recent history to have such an impact on us.

Day 9 – this is the end.

Before we started on our trip Ruhengari à Kigali à Addis Ababa à Rome à London, we started our day with a last walk around the base of the volcano.

The ever present crowd of kids

So much harder than could ever be imagined!

The hotel staff provided us with a guide, one of the hotel Porters who escorted us for our wander. We spent two magic hours wandering through the farms, villages, markets and schools that ring the national park. On an earlier day as we drove around the country, Amon had told us that when a local brewer makes a fresh brew of beer, he will put a tree branch on his roof, to show that he has fresh beer to sell. As the tree branch wilts, the customers will know that the beer is no longer fresh. I had stored this vital piece of local wisdom away and for nearly a week I had been looking for a fresh looking tree branch, and then low and behold, on our last day, on our last walk, I spotted the vital branch. The group of kids that were following us and practicing their English as we walked thought it was hilarious that a big white guy wanted to go for a beer. But this was a chance of a lifetime, so I made my way through the door into a very dark mud hut.

Rwandan pub

Happy hour, Rwandan style

Inside, it was pretty basic, some wooden trestles, some low tables and at the back of the room a bar with a smiling barman. I bought two beers, a sorgum beer and a corn beer, all for the princely sum of 50p. The beers came, two old, one served in used milk bottle, the other an old tin cup, both filled to the brim with beer!

There was no clean glasses, no straws and no option (with the assembled crowds watching), for us to do anything but to smile and drink!

Cheers!

The beers were amazing, the corn one was much more like our beer, the sorgum one was another flavor completely. But despite the dirty vessels, the floating bits, the few bubbles and the amazing surroundings, it was definitely beer – and you know I love beer!

After our great walk, we headed off to back to Kigali, stopping at road side stalls, enjoying street roasted potatoes and more meat skewers while soaking up the never ending scenery.

What a trip, what a country, I don’t know how anyone couldn’t fall in love with Rwanda!


Land of 1,000 hills, and 20,000,000 smiles!

If you would like to help make Rwanda an even better place, then we think a good place to start is Kiva.org.

Its a micro-finance portal enabling first world people to loan money to people who want to work to make their lives better:

Kiva – Loans in Rwanda


My trip to the Amazon, by Cathy Whitaker

10 August, 2009

I feel like starting this way because I feel like I am about to do the Greatest Show and Tell EVERl!!! I was so excited to go on this adventure. I mean how much have you heard about the Amazon in your life? The river, the lungs if the earth, the Toucans, Piranhas, etc …. What does this place not have?

Ever since it became clear that (UNFORTUNATELY) we were leaving Brasil (I’m still devastated about this), I couldn’t reconcile the fact that I had not seen the Amazon or indeed the North East. We just had to. Thankfully we had the opportunity, and the means, and thus we embarked on a 4 week adventure.

We arrived in Manaus last Saturday. It’s a pretty amazing city, 2,000,000 people on the banks of the Amazon, surrounded by over 1,000km of forest in every direction. As you would imagine, being in the middle of the jungle, its hot, damn hot, 30 degrees most days, and humid, really humid – 85% on average. So its hot and wet, even if its not raining!

We did a quick tour around the famous Amazon Teatro (which was beautiful) but still it was very strange as all the materials came from europe…. Except for the gorgeous brasil wood… Its was over a hundred years old.

Teatro Amazonia

But the main draw card for Manaus is that it is the send off point for the Amazon. In Manaus however, we did find another new food, a mixed fruit salad with condensed milk and a little grinded oats makes a very yummy dinner … oh and not to mention the world’s biggest banana market!!!

On Sunday, we set off for our survival tour of the Amazon. This meant no electricity, no hot water, no broadband, no facebook or even Ugly Betty, sleeping outside, finding food and generally enjoying the land for all its natural beauty without contamination from “things”.

We met the “tour organiser” the day before and if I’m honest, I was a little scared. I asked him his previous experience and he told us he worked on border control with Venezuela… We pressed a little further … “oh, so you worked for the (brasilian) Federal Police?” “No”. “so you worked for the (brasil) customs control”? “No”. Fidget, stumble, act cool… “so what did you do?” “I worked in Security….. for importers and exporters….” Ok, no more questions from us!

Thank god we arrived at the dock and realised scary man would not be joining us. Instead we were greeted by Herman, our guide, born in the far north west corner of brasil, who felt vaguely familiar, but as he had never left the Amazon region, I thought it was unlikely we had met before.

So, 6 days to go on our survival tour… On a boat called “great amazon adventure” indeed it was. We putted down the Rio Negro, Cath telling herself that she was not going to get sea sick… And reminding herself that what does not kill her would make her stronger. It was an hour travelling up the Rio  Negro until we met the Amazon river at the perfectly named ” meeting of the rivers” both 2 very different colours but both as equally gorgeous. The mixture of black & white, which for me is a metaphor of Brasil.

The meeting of the rivers

We then headed a further 5 hours down the Amazon and we prepared for our 1st night. A couple of notes first:

– the Amazon has had the biggest floods in 65 years in 2009, meaning that the mosquitos were outrageously bad.
– the Amazon isn’t really one river, or even one really really big river, its more like a giant tree filled lake that goes for kms in every direction. At this time of the year, the swollen river fills every valley around it creating amazingly beautiful flooded forests.
– the “boat” had no hot water, electricity and a serious lack of shade. I know I mentioned this before, but I really do like to shower!
– anyone who knows me, knows I get a sea sick bbbbaaaahhhdddd.  And I was so far feeling OK.

The Amazon, its big!

So, without too much convincing, we agreed to stay on the boat.

Day 2 arrived without too much of a commotion, ooohh, except for the beautiful sunrise, the sound of screeching monkeys and the realisation that I was on the Amazon!!! OMG! How lucky am I ???

So we set off to find Greg’s all time fav animal, the sloth! No, I am not making this up.  A lifetime of reading National Geographic had set himself up for this.. And there was no disappointment. After a 2 hour hunting mission, involving a 5 foot wooden boat, tree climbing, scratches & Cath wondering if it were possible to die from dragon fly bites, we caught one. She was adorable, sharp claws, very, very slow! 200 photos later, we said good bye and she crawled off into a tree, really, really, really, really slowly….

The four toed sloth

That night we stayed on the boat, but beans and rice were starting to lose their appeal as the only food we could eat…

A typical evening view from our boat.

Day 3. We went fishin!!! My grandmother would have been proud. A bamboo stick, dried beef, a line attached the end of the bamboo stick, a rusty hook — and a quick reminder that I had a tetanus shot, at least ten years ago 🙂 was all we needed to catch piranha!! Mean little beggers they were, they had teeth sharper than mine, but god it was fun.

Am not gonna lie and say I un hooked them, and Herman was keen that the little critters gave our bait back, which involved us tapping their nose till they opened their mouth so he could use the hook and scoop the dried meat from their gullet.

We caught 13… To be honest they weren’t that nice to eat. The firmest meat ever eaten, very solid, perhaps it was their Aitkins diet of protein only which gave them this texture? Actually if I had known how they were going to taste I would have left the dried beef in the gullets, it would have tasted better.

Herman and the red piranhas.

Day 4, we had now been putting along through the jungle for three days, we were miles from civilization surrounded by deep, lush, virgin rain forst, it was full to bursting with animals, monkeys, birds, sloths, mosquitos, flies, dragonflies, fish, but also people. No matter how deep we got into the amazon, there were still people eking out a hard and simple life on the banks of the river, fishing, farming, living all in the middle of “nowhere”.

Typical Housing

Riding home from school with dad.

The local pub

It was also around this time that thoughts of a crisp Sauvignon Blanc or maybe a Voigner, accompanied by Pringles and perhaps a Magnum White Chocolate icecream came floating into my mind. However, I didn’t think the markets available would be able to cater for this request.

The Floating Shop

So it was now time to spend our first night in the jungle. I was ready! Insect repellent (check), long sleeve top and trousers (check), woollen socks, to protect from leeches (check), wind up torch (check), alcohol (check, ok double check), toilet paper (check)

So, we set up the hammocks, the boys collected wood, I encouraged them, they were so strong, amazing, remarkable, sigh if only I could have helped (someone had to read the books).

Hotel Amazonia -5 stars
And then it got dark… Hmmm…. For the record, mosquitos can get through a net, 2 layers of clothing, repellent, and my lightning fast reactions… Even after half a bottle of straight cachaca. I slept 90 minutes. I cannot explain the joy of waking to find 2 mosquitos up my nose at 4am. So pleasant.

Still, the sky, the stars, the noises, including some animal eating our scraps at 2am in the morning (am told Jaguars were near 2 weeks ago), monkeys screeching at each other, the rustle of passing iguanas and a near death experience with a Scorpion (I tried to balance myself by holding on to a tree stump and there she was, 20cm from my hand, a scorpion). Without doubt, that night will be a life long memory. I am told this was not the same sentiment I was screaming at 4am in the morning, apparently my words were of a shorter nature…. But god it felt good to be alive. Properly alive!

Another iguana!

Just as we were lighting the fire for dinner, it came to me. The familiarity with Herman … I had watched a Discovery documentary 2 weeks prior with a guide who lit fires with batteries… It was him!!! Unbelievable.

A grey dolphin doing a swim past

Next day we were out on the deck of the boat, and there it was, a splash… Yes! It was a pink dolphin. Almost performing in front of us. I didn’t believe it. Just amazing… I had to be part of it, time for a swim! Off we went, piranhas and all, and it was worth it.

So more days of drinking from water vines, swinging on tarzan ropes, eating wild hen, delicious larvae, brazil nuts, making our own acai juice.

Another delicous lunch of beatle larvae

I have become an Acai junkie in Brasil, not only is it delicious, great for breakfast but it has one of the highest sources of iron, all good for my Anaemia!

Cath with a cup of jungle fresh acai juice.

… And we had to go back to Recife… Well Fernando de Noronha actually…. Which aint that bad!

More blogging after our time there!

Bye till then!