Given the lengthy hiatus since my last blog in Kenya, I’m going to fast-forward through my time in Uganda and Rwanda, bringing me up to my first morning in Burundi.
On Wednesday, 13th March, I was woken up to the sound of rain. Slowly opening one eye, my gaze was immediately drawn to a small, albino gecko making a speedy scuttle across the floor before disappearing somewhere into my jacket, which I had carelessly discarded into a sodden, mud-splattered heap the night before. It had been a long day, crossing the border from the weirdly sanitised, structured and developed world of Rwanda into the medieval, impoverished and frequently forgotten land of Burundi, apparently passing through a 500 year time-travel portal in the process. The difference in worlds just 200 metres apart had been mind-blowing but immediately Burundi’s soul had snuck under my skin as fast as the rain had sodden my gloves. Burundi may be a financially impoverished country but the spirit of her people is rich and deep. This is an incredibly mountainous country where no road boasts a gradient of less than 45 degrees and where bicycles are the main mode of transport. As I rode my way to Bujumbura, watching those crazed bicycle taxis free-wheeling at break-neck speeds down the steep Tarmac roads with enormous grins across the faces of rider and passenger alike, their pure exhilaration was palpable, if a little scary to witness! Up the steep climbs, the lean, muscular cyclists wearing only ragged t-shirts and trousers would cling one armed like limpets anywhere they could reach on the back of lumbering lorries, often ten cyclists across, all laughing between them and often helpfully indicating with a wave when it was safe for me to overtake on the twisting road. Given the rains and the huge thunderstorms that raged ahead, I didn’t stop too many times on the way to Bujumbura but whenever I slowly coursed my way through a village, I would be greeted with amazed yells of “mazungu!” and generally when I did stop, it was curiosity that most locals hoped to satisfy rather than pockets or bellies.
Eventually, after a full day of riding in torrential rain and thunderstorms, I arrived into Bujumbura, the surprisingly smart capital city, a far cry from the ramshackle red brick or mud huts that house most of Burundi’s population. From my research it sounded as though hotels in the city were either top-end prices or bargain-basement squats, with little to offer in the middle, so I was lucky to meet a missionary at the border who told me that the Pentecostal Guest House could offer me a reasonably priced room. Regrettably, said missionary had not had the address to hand but had reassured me that if I just asked around, i’d find it without any problem.
Once in Bujumbura, I pulled over on the side of the road at the first opportunity and attempted to ask a reasonably wholesome looking individual in my finest French if he had heard of the Pentecostal Guest House. At first I wasn’t quite sure if his blank expression was a result of his not knowing where this place was or due to my rather tenuous grasp of the language (i’m only of use in a French speaking country if there’s an emergency involving the urgent need for an Orangina - otherwise things are pretty patchy) but soon enough his companion asked another passer by, who by chance did indeed know where it was! The kind man had caught wind of my dubious linguistic skills however and was just working out how to formulate some simple directions when I realised that while we had been having this exchange, a huge swarm of motorbike taxis, cyclists and pedestrians had gathered all around me as I sat there on my motorcycle, to the extent that the crowd was now about 5 men deep in every direction and we were fast becoming a traffic hazard! I didn’t quite know what to say beyond just smiling, but that didn’t matter because the real point of fascination was actually my sat nav, with me being a female mazungu on a motorcycle firmly coming second. As the name of the street was slowly spelled out to me, the crowd drew closer with every letter I tapped into the touch-screen display. A collective gasp of amazement went up (including from myself!) when the device actually recognised the street name I’d entered and very soon I was ready to follow the map. It took a while for the 30 strong crowd to part sufficiently to let me go, but at last with a toot and a wave I was off and before long was successfully ensconced in the guesthouse.
In any case that next morning, after an enormous omelette served with a side helping of fanaticism from the local pastor who had decided that an impassioned 1-to-1 lecture on the evils of “sinners” would be a life-affirming way to start the day, I gave Suzi some throttle and we cruised on out of there, proceeding our way along the scenic banks of Lake Tanganyika. The views were beautiful and slightly reminiscent of a Scottish loch. Alas the parallels with that fine country didn’t end there as the skies darkened menacingly and fat drops of rain began to fall from the sky. The road conditions deteriorated badly and I soon found myself in the grips of an inner battle as the sensible side of me wanted to slow down to avoid a slip as I narrowly avoided each enormous pothole, while the other was keen to make good progress and get to the border.
After about an hour of negotiating these perilous craters, I took a left turn away from the lake with the ambition of making a shortcut and trimming some mileage. Alas this soon proved to be a false economy as the Tarmac quickly deteriorated into a rough dirt road where speeds had to be kept low in order to successfully negotiate straying cattle, rocks and large muddy puddles. Fortunately however, the rains had cleared by this point so at least my field of vision -and morale -had improved! 50 miles later, I eventually came to the border town and had my carnet and passport stamped out. Almost the very minute I passed into the 20km odd stretch of no-man’s land, the skies blackened and the suddenly eerily silent afternoon was punctuated with a deafening crack of thunder. As I hadn’t seen any lightening, it was hard to tell how far away the thunder was, but as I proceeded along the dirt track through a dark and shady forest of very tall pine trees, I began to weigh up whether I should get off the bike and seek shelter or whether I was actually safer on it rather than hiding amongst tall trees! Concluding that if I stayed on Suzi, I might at least be riding out of the storm, I kept going, pushing on and on towards the Tanzanian border, becoming ever more sodden with every kilometre.
Eventually to my great relief, the dirt merged onto a perfect ribbon of Tarmac and with one more twist of the road, the border offices were upon me - hurrah! Parking up at the right hand office first, I squelched my way in and quickly purchased a two week transit visa. The friendly immigration official attempted to up-sell me to a standard 30 day tourist visa, but I declined, quite sure that I would be out of the country within the week. I was keen to crack on to Malawi so my plan was to just cross the south west of the country down to Mbeya and the border in 4 or 5 days, and so I was quite comfortable that 2 weeks was more than enough. It’s fair to say that I wasn’t without a degree of nervousness about this route, which was displayed on my Michelin map as a thin purple line (ie very minor and certainly not tarmac) with appropriately hairy edges in one section (denoting “impassable in the rainy season). A north-bound cyclist I had met in Uganda had warned me off taking this route, which passes through a hippo and croc infested national park, ridden with tetse flies. He had crossed it before the rains had come, but even then had had to push for most of the way and had described it as “hell”, warning that there are scant few
villages along the route so if you get into trouble, you’re on your own. Alas this account had only sparked my interest, leading me to the regrettable conclusion of “well, how bad can it really be?!”. (will I EVER learn?!?!)
In any case, with a stamped passport in my hand I set off to the customs building and encountered a jauntily dressed official in his fifties who had effortlessly teamed a gingham shirt with a brown tie and flat cap. I think the look he was aiming to achieve was one of edgy sophistication but alas this get-up just made him appear rather dodgy, more Del Trotter than David Beckham. Nonetheless this man somehow gave the impression of potential information, so I ventured to ask him what he knew of the road I intended to take - was it in good condition at the moment or had there been rain there? The man regarded me unsmilingly. “You must try it and then you will find out” was his unhelpful response.
Bidding him a farewell, I left the office to discover that while I had been busy with my carnet, the rains had taken a significant turn for the worse - the whole road was now consumed in thick fog and the rain was bouncing powerfully off the Tarmac. It didn’t look as though this might pass over in a hurry so, resigning myself to another thorough drenching, I clambered back onto the bike and set off for the 40km journey to my destination for the night, the small town of Kasulu. It would have been helpful if “Del” had mentioned that Tanzanians, unlike Burundians, drive on the left hand side of the road not the right, rather than leaving it to me to work out courtesy of an oncoming vehicle in “my” lane, but perhaps he was taking a more Darwinian approach to road safety, who knows. In any case, once safely back on the correct side of the road, I proceeded up towards the junction forking left to Kasulu and joined a dirt road. At first the track was mostly murram (ie hard packed, levelled stone and dirt), so the going was easy as I proceeded through tall grassy plains interspersed with the occasional mud hut. Alas, the going was about to get tougher as within 10km, the track descended into more of a greasy mud with a steep camber and some quite deep ruts. The rain had mercifully lightened up enough for me to pull down my goggles and see easily at a slow and steady speed, helping me to negotiate the terrain. Alas as the track curved around to the left, a relatively steep descent opened out before me with even greasier mud than before - it was like someone had sprayed the entire track with a thin coating of oil. I felt as though I was gaining speed rather faster than I was comfortable with and feathered the brakes. Big mistake. Before I could process what was happening, Suzi started to slide and with a 180 degree spin, we fell and slammed down hard onto the track.
Once I had established that my shoulder hadn’t partially dislocated again - always my greatest dread - the next thing I became aware of was the tinkle of childrens laughter, without doubt at having witnessed the crash. That was a low moment. While I appreciated that some silly mazungu dressed up like a space invader crashing just metres from your front door may well seem amusing, I wasn’t ready to see the funny side of it. Pulling myself from underneath the bike and crouching down next to it, I just felt very alone, soaking wet, cold, a bit shocked and tired and wondered how on earth I was going to lift Suzi up again. Taking off my helmet, I realised that my arm was really quite sore and that I had banged it in exactly the same place near the elbow as when I had popped my shoulder originally. Already it was beginning to swell and for a moment I cursed myself for ending up in this grim predicament.
Just a few moments later though, the latest reincarnations of my guardian angels arrived in the form of two lovely mamas, all wrapped up in robes of cloth and headscarves. One smiled at me warmly and touched my arm. They both spoke to me in Swahili and even though I couldn’t understand a word of it, whatever they said sounded comforting and immediately I felt better for their kindness. They had been followed down to my crash site by ten or so children - probably the same ones who had laughed - who now gathered around wide eyed at the strange foreigner. It wasn’t clear to me yet quite yet how to get Suzi rubber-side down again - I’m sure these ladies were stronger than they looked but I didn’t feel I could ask them to help lift her. Seconds later though, my thoughts were interrupted by a white saloon car careering around the corner and speeding down the hill right towards where Suzi was lying on the ground. I was quite sure that I was about to witness my beloved bike being run over and destroyed entirely, but somehow this supremely skilled driver managed to pull off the perfect emergency stop and stepped out of his vehicle to assess the scene.
With only a few words to the ladies, he quickly set about lifting my bike out of the mud and setting her in the right direction, carefully removing the excess mud that was stuck all over the rear brake lever and giving her a good once over. Then the man turned to me, holding up one finger and asking me a question in Swahili. At first I didn’t understand him but then after he held up his index finger again and pointed at me, I realised his question - “are you on this bike alone?”. Oh, how I wished I wasn’t, but there was no denying it so I confirmed that this was the case. The man nodded, looking perhaps a little concerned. In truth, so was I. It was clear that if I was struggling on this road, then the idea of taking the extreme route south was out of the question - after all, if there were so few villages along the route, what on earth would I do if I became stuck? I feared it would be hard for my angels to find me there. I had no idea which route would be better as I was still hundreds of kms from Tarmac, but for the time being I just needed to get to Kasulu, to a hot shower and bed. Pushing my dreaded fears for the near future aside, I returned to dealing with the present.
With each of us standing on either side of the bike, the man waited while I tested that Suzi would still start. After the usual post-fall protests she roared back into life with a gusto that caused the children to all shriek and run backwards by a metre or so up the verge. Once I had thanked the women and the man, I mounted up once again with my heart in my mouth. “Pole, pole!” the man urged (“slowly, slowly”), to which I nodded vigorously. I pulled away very tentatively and expected the driver to overtake and speed off once again to pick up his next customer, but instead he similarly pulled away very slowly and it soon became clear that he had no intention of overtaking - he was watching my back. When I realised this I felt a huge flood of gratitude for this man and immediately felt more positive about the whole situation, reminding me of a very similar set of circumstances while offroading in Wales the previous year. This was no time for reminiscing though as the terrain provided me with ever greater challenges as the gradients steepened and the mud thickened - “pole pole” was constantly at the front of my mind. We proceeded on like this with me leading and the taxi driver following behind for 10 or so kilometres until we reached a village, at which point he slowly overtook me, gave me a vigorous wave and then turned off the road. I wish I had had the Swahili to thank him with but I have a feeling he could tell how grateful I was, or at least I hope so.
Now back on my own, I had just 7km left to go til Kasulu. Still feeling the influence of this man’s careful watch, I took the track slowly and managed to proceed down a particularly steep, long mudbath of a hill without incident, unlike a truck belonging to “Grant of Cannock” who had lost traction on the ascent and ditched lop-sidedly into the bushes.
At long last I arrived into Kasulu, a grim truckers town, and pulled up outside my hotel for the night, the Ndituye Highway hotel, a grease coated horror of a place. My first impression of the place was the appalling stench of something like congealed goat - the smell was truly nauseating and permeated the entire ground and first floor, so I took a rather bleak room on the second floor and tried not to breathe too deeply. Once I had lugged my bags up the mud-encrusted staircase, I decided it was high time for a shower, but did a double take when the water that sloshed forth from the taps was also a thick, silty brown.
Concluding that I would probably remain moderately cleaner if I didn’t take a shower, I decided to head out in search of an Internet cafe in order to research the best route from here. Alas after a miserable trudge around this festering hole of a town where faintly menacing, disembodied adult cries of “mazungu!!!” followed my every step (I was definitely the only white in the village), my mission had to be aborted: the one sign for an Internet cafe had proven a red herring as shop owners from a nearby shack informed me that it had recently burned down in a fire. Returning to the hotel, I decided that sometimes, alcohol most certainly is the answer and ordered a beer as well as a simple supper of rice and vegetables to eat in my room - with that dreadful pong still emanating strongly from the restaurant, there was no chance of me being able to consume food in there. After supper, I admitted defeat on the day and curled up for a grubby night’s sleep.
Next morning I packed up and headed off as quickly as possible with the strategy of heading north as far as possible in the hope of hitting Tarmac within several hundred kilometres, then heading east. It would be a big loop of the country - at least 3x the originally intensed route, but the only realistic way to reach the border. Heading back through Kasulu and taking a right turn onto the track north, I quickly checked with a local that this was definitely the correct track. “yes!” he replied, “do not worry!” he encouraged with a big smile. Taking heart from this man’s confidence, I set off on my way, steadily negotiating the ruts and the mud very slowly and steadily. Some of the downhills were so bad that I had to slow down to a walking pace and paddle with both feet, not made any easier by the torrential rain blurring my view. It was coming down so heavily that my goggles were permanently awash with water and were better left off, leaving me to blink through the hard rains and intermittently blow the water off my mouth to feel like I wasn’t drowning. For all the hardship though, in a strange sense I was loving it, not least because of the locals. Whenever I encountered one coming the opposite way, they would each, to a man, raise a great big grin for me and give me a hearty thumbs up, even though they were at least as drenched as I was and definitely making more exertion on their bicycles, usually heavily laden with sacks of potatoes or lumber. This incredible camradery and optimism really kept me going and urged me on my way, grinning back with a big thumbs up as I went.
The day wasn’t without its hairy moments though, not least when a truck came hurtling towards me on a straight section flashing it’s lights and I only just realised in time that it was completely out of control. By some miracle I managed an emergency abort procedure that somehow narrowly cleared me from the truck’s huge wheels as they thundered past me, while also managing to avoid hurtling headfirst down a steep ditch. No mean feat (i have no idea how I managed it) and one which called for a 5 minute break and an emergency biscuit afterwards to calm the frayed nerves both of Donkey and myself after this sizeable adrenalin jolt. Ever the opportunist, Donkey then called for another biscuit in celebration of our both still being alive and 3D! Saluting Donkey for his positive spirit, I unwrapped another biscuit for each of us and even though they were just dry, rich-tea inspired numbers, Donkey ate his with all the gusto he usually reserved for his favourite crunch creams. It definitely had been a close call.
Suffice to say that after 200 miles of this terrain, I nearly died of joy when I spotted a perfect stretch of Tarmac in front of me and had to be reassured many times by a jovial policeman that this Tarmac stretched all the way to Dodoma. That night I found a hotel in a small mining town that boasted an unexpectedly decent hotel with clean water and a comfortable bed and concluded that I must be in heaven. It had been a hard couple of days and little did I know, it was about to get a whole lot better - but that’s a story for another time! I’m now in Malawi and about to start work with the Microloan Foundation on Monday for a few weeks, something I’ve been looking forward to for a long time. Apparently my remit will be trying to establish some kind of maintenance program for the fleet of motorcycles that the charity uses to access their beneficiaries in remote communities. Unfortunately there is no word for “maintenance” in this country, only “repairs”, so this could be an interesting learning curve both for them and for me!