I was riding on the back of a moto, an old helmet dangling on my head as we drove through nocturnal Kigali, full of the views of hillsides, lit up with streetlights in the darkness of the night. After many long video calls discussing potential travel routes, visas, accommodation, and how exactly we wanted to discover East Africa, I was on my way to pick Tom up from the airport and start this grand East African Exploration.
Words by Karmen Tornius | Photography by Tom Saater
Tom had been buried in work and assignments in Nigeria, and myself, I had been working for some months in Ethiopia, spending nearly two weeks off the grid by Lake Bunyonyi in Southern Uganda. Neither of us were very keen on sightseeing, we both wanted to get off the beaten track. Part of the plan was to stay in peoples’ homes who are locally established, avoiding hotels. This sometimes meant Airbnb, but often simply staying with old friends or acquaintances. The second aspect of the trip was that we were going to do the whole journey over land. No flights to plan or catch, meaning fewer time constraints along the road that lay ahead.
On our first day in Kigali we strolled the busy streets of the business district. We were astounded by the cleanliness as much as by the peaceful yet energetic pace of the city. I had to get rid of all my plastic bags on the border and we had also heard of strict anti-littering policies, but to see how the whole country of Rwanda is being kept clean surprised us still.
Regardless of the warm welcome in Kigali, after a few days we were anxious to leave the capital and explore more of Rwanda.
Our first trip out was to Gisenyi. Gisenyi is a small city on the shores of massive Lake Kivu, bordering with Congolese city of Goma, making it a border town of a historically notorious frontier. Our second destination in Rwanda was another lakeside city, Kibuye. The front-seat ride did not disappoint in terms of breathtaking views for hours. Biting into freshly grilled corn on a stick, passed through the car window by street vendors, made the journey all the more enjoyable. The beautifully located hotel on the shore of Lake Kivu offered perfect views of the green, almost cone-shaped hilltops that decorated the lakeside. We were tempted when a young lad offered us a ride for a fixed price on a boat. By noontime the next day we had gathered a group of people to join us. We were indeed a group from all over the world, representing Canada, Israel, the US, France, Nigeria, and Estonia. With our new friends, we suddenly found ourselves on a four-hour boat journey back to Gisenyi. Travelling alone or with a friend can be extremely eventful and fun, but sometimes it is just great to have a group of people to go for lunches, long dinners and make plans with.
When the whole gang discovered that they were all heading in the same direction, to Lake Bunyonyi in Uganda, my heart started to ache. Lake Bunyonyi had been my therapeutic getaway where I had spent two weeks, made friends, and found a temporary place to call home. Even though it changed our planned travel route completely, Tom was in.
The off-grid campsite was situated on a grassy hillside, with a view to Lake Bunyonyi. After a good 7km up and down on a red soil road, you reach a fig tree with a sign hanging upside down from it. The lake and valleys separated us from other similar hills, but at the same time left us close enough that we could see just how many hands were working on the hills across from us. The farming lands are shaped into long lines or often squares, framed with dark green bushes or small trees. Next to freshly dug red soil plots (ready for Irish potatoes to be sewn) there are plots for maize, cabbage, lettuce, tea plants and a number of things which´s names I have never known. Combinations of about 13 shades of green created patterns and mosaics on the hillsides. There were small patches of luscious and bushy forest bearing witness to what it was like before farming. The closer you drive to the lake, it starts making more sense that gorillas live here. With time, one can also get an idea of how they've become endangered. If peoples’ main or only livelihood is farming, as individuals as well as communities, then the forests will inevitably come down and farmlands will be expanded. Not a judgment, just an observation.
In order to get us back on track with our original route, we had to get back on the road. Apparently, you can get a bus straight from Lake Bunyonyi to Mombasa, a famous and historical town on the Swahili coast in Kenya. Yes, as you can imagine, it was the longest bus journey of all time. Not to mention the little border incident, where we had trouble crossing from Uganda to Kenya. Tom was stopped at the border because apparently, it was hard to believe that ‘Africans just travel’. Our bus left us behind and we made our way through the marketplace labyrinth to find our bus company’s office. In all fairness, it all worked out pretty great. We paid maybe a couple of dollars to change our tickets, but we had time to stretch our legs and have a decent lunch, and still arrived in Mombasa perhaps an hour earlier than scheduled. We were not that well prepared for bus journeys, food-wise. We were living off of fried bananas, grilled corn and other fast foods offered through the window during stops.
Mombasa was definitely worth the detour. The city's Old Town was a curious labyrinth of over a thousand years old narrow cobblestone streets. Incredibly, you only had to turn the corner to go from a completely quiet street where a little boy was planting little greens by his door, to a busy and bustling street, full of people making business deals and going about their daily chores. Still, Tanzania was calling us both and as soon as we put our bags down, we started planning our onward journey.
A day-long bus journey later, we arrived in hot and busy Dar Es Salaam, the business capital of Tanzania. Without a shadow of a doubt, Tom and I both loved it here. It offered us a beautiful home with a British-American family. Dar Es Salaam is a layered city in all senses of the expression. Different parts of town could easily be different cities in terms of how they feel, what you can do there, what you can buy and even the people that live there. Masaki Peninsula is the little expat island full of embassies, organic coffee shops, international supermarkets and posh bars. It was also the first place in ages where I felt comfortable wearing shorts. From exploring the fish-markets, going snorkelling, wondering the business district and the Hindu quarter of the city, to going to a cinema to see Black Panther - Dar Es Salaam is a city that keeps on giving and can easily make you feel at home. It was a perfect place to wind down and regroup, after realising that we were in our fourth country in the same week. In addition to walks on the beach and exploring a variety of different types of restaurants, we got back on track with work, sorted out pending paperwork and arrangements for onward travel. We met unwavering kindness everywhere we went, with friendly people treating us as precious guests. After a week and a few days, we did not feel ready to leave, but we discovered that the date for Tom’s flight back home was approaching and we’d better get a move on.
A whole day bus journey later, we found ourselves in Arusha bus station, googling a hotel to stay in. Arusha was meant to be a stop on our way to Mwanza, the second business centre in Tanzania, a city that is separated from Rwanda and Uganda only by Lake Victoria. However, the logistics of that plan and the attractiveness of the Kilimanjaro region in Tanzania made us change our plans once more. We decided to stay in Arusha for a couple of days and then head back to Moshi. We had basically two objectives. Tom needed someone to fix his film camera and I was desperate to go to a forest. After a whole week in the city, I wanted to feel the bark of a tree under my fingers.
We stepped into every photoshop we could find to ask if anyone could fix the camera problem and sell us some film. Tom had apparently bought the last rolls of film remaining in Dar Es Salaam and it was said that we could find some in Mwanza, but nowhere else in the country. Well, we ended up finding some film, but that’s a whole different story. After spending a good hour with some photo enthusiast guys, we were put in touch with a camera mechanic who lives slightly out of town and was working from home. Next thing, we are on a pikipiki, taking those curves on the sandy village roads, looking for our guy. He was very happy and humbled to host us on the porch of his house, where he continued to work on Tom’s camera for one and a half hours. His baby daughter, who allegedly wanted to become a camera mechanic too, was braiding my hair while the grown-ups were discussing important things like Tanzanian politics.
It was now Tom’s last day in Tanzania and as it sometimes happens with last days, we were unsure of how to make the best of it. I looked up a waterfall on the map, we negotiated an acceptable price with pikipiki drivers and off we went. You could feel the change of scenery in the air, the air felt crispy and fresh and had a different smell to it. It was still hot, but the humidity levels made it feel quite different. We were joined by an enthusiastic young tour guide who grabbed a motorcycle for himself and guided us on a hiking path, leading down to the waterfall. It was a perfect afternoon in the sun, driving through the wild greenery on the slopes of Mount Kilimanjaro, where banana trees and coffee plants grow in perfect symbiosis. We ditched our motorcycles and embarked on a no more than 10-minute walk towards the waterfall.
Ndoro Waterfall in Marangu is impressive from the distance, however, when you stand under its showering flow it really feels like God itself is pouring water from the sky to wash your soul clean. I will never forget our two pikipiki drivers who have been living their whole lives in the area but had never seen a waterfall that tall. First, they were taking photos and selfies and then they both just found a place for themselves and sat there, staring at the water with peaceful and grateful eyes. This was the perfect ending to our adventures in East Africa. As Tom returned to Lagos, I continued my journey to Zanzibar and Mozambique.
Our Millican bags were travelling with us this whole time, keeping our 2 cameras safe. Tom had brought me a Millican bag for this trip, as we both needed bags that would be compact, allow us to be mobile and work while on the road. I got so excited that I got rid of my big backpack altogether. Sounds crazy, but with all those compartments I was able to fit everything necessary for life, including a hammock, in this bag. In those few months since we split, Tom's bag has travelled to Niger, Canada, Turkey, Ivory Coast and the US, while mine to Zanzibar, Mozambique, the UK, Estonia and Mauritius.