You know when somebody says that something was a breath of fresh air, I can’t describe how apt that saying is when it comes to Rwanda. It is there that you find all that Africa could be if only its scumbag criminal leaders would allow it. But there’s no time to dilly-dally, I’ve got a mission and a damn good reason to get to Egypt in 11 days time… Mandy.
I hopped a motorbike taxi (and for the first time in Africa, crash helmets are mandatory) to the bus station nice and early and before long I was being whisked out of the country towards Uganda, past the green terraced hills and the cute little villages along the way. Since the darkness of 1994, Rwanda has turned itself around like you would not believe. THAT’S what you can achieve with 15 years of half-decent governance and well-structured aid programmes.
Rwanda shouldn’t really be in this position. Don’t forget, it wasn’t just the 1994 genocide which knocked the country sideways, Rwanda was heavily involved in the conflict in DR Congo which claimed the lives of the most number of people since WWII. It’s also totally landlocked with pretty lousy neighbours (the road from Dar es Salaam to Kigali is still not sealed all the way and you can forget about trucking stuff in from DR Congo – there are no roads!) but, against the odds, they have forged a successful state of which all Rwandans (there are no Tutsi or Hutu any more, only Rwandans) should be proud.
Unlike Uganda which sucked the big one. Yup, sorry to report but once over that border (an ordeal and an utter rip off $50 for a one day transit visa) Africa reverted back to its dusty, dirty, unfinished, grimy, sweaty, unpleasant, uncomfortable, stressful, poverty-stricken, pot-holed, manic, dangerous, diseased, dispossessed, corrupt, undemocratic, sticking, grotty, unsanitary, littered, open-drained cesspool that we all kinda expect it to be (and it is).
When you consider that Uganda has only had three leaders since independence back in the sixties (and one of them was Idi Amin) and that the current leader has been in charge since the mid-eighties, you can imagine that this is another place where, to quote the Manics when they were good, democracy is an empty lie. So Uganda finds itself in the same trap as nearly every other African nation – politicians go for the job for the money, not to make things better, the people are nothing more than an inconvenience in the way of the leaders true calling – to skim off a percentage for every bit of oil, gold, diamonds, timber, coltan whatever that is extracted at the behest of the western world with no net gain for the people.
My heart sank as I saw the same skanky shops that line the roads of every country I’ve been through since Morocco. The same shoeless orphans, the same put-upon women carrying the same mosquito-infested buckets of water on their heads, the same grind, the same unfinished concrete hovels, the same the same the same. God it’s depressing. I’ve had seven months of this and I’m sick of it. As I’ve said before, I see no romance in poverty. Life here is brutish, nasty and short. The average life expectancy is 50. The same that it was in Britain 200 years ago. The gap between us developed and them undeveloping is vast and perhaps unimaginable to bridge, but if Rwanda can turn itself around after those dark, dark days of 1994, then there’s a glimmer of hope for the future; if only Africa could rid herself of the gangsters, criminals and thugs that currently run the show. If only…
The mad thing is that these places run by horrible little thieves, bastards and con-men actually get to vote on important issues facing the planet, most pertinent this week being action against climate change. That scum like the miserable turd who is currently running nasty narco-state Guinea into the ground (although I’m kinda intrigued to see how it could possibly sink any lower) are allowed to have a say on any matter beggars belief, but on a matter of such complexity and import as the urgently needed cuts to worldwide carbon emissions it just leaves me dumbfounded. It’s like asking Ian Huntley his opinion on the matter, only he murdered considerably less children. Why are these dreadful men allowed to use international democratic institutions when their concept of domestic democracy involves taking out any opposition with a bullet to the head?
If Hitler were around today, would he get a vote? Looking around the credentials of the current crop of African tin-pot dictators one would have to conclude yes.
Anyway, so what do you want to know? Uganda was same old same old, and that’s all I have to say about it. I’ve seen it forty times before and I’m bored of it now. I think I’ve got poverty fatigue. I just can’t seem to get as excited about it as Mike Leigh or Ken Loach. There is no stoic dignity about seeing half of your children die and having to shit in the streets.
So I passed through Kampala really not caring less, but I will report that – as usual – the people were an utter delight. Incredibly friendly and talkative, and it’s great to see the increasing cross-pollination of the five East African states (Tanzania, Burundi, Rwanda, Uganda & Kenya) in microcosm on the bus. When I have a pop at the state of Africa in 2009, please don’t think for one second that I’m bitching about Africans. I am not. I am bitching about African politicians, who are a breed apart. A breed of psychopaths and sociopaths who don’t deserve the time of day much less a seat in the UN for their twisted cronies and henchmen.
I was a little worried at the Kenyan border that I’d miss the bus as I was last in the queue to get stamped out of Uganda and when I changed my money at the Western Union they took their sweet time about it, so I legged it over the border. Bad call. It was dark and was I really expecting a road in Africa to be, you know, flat? Of course it wasn’t. I went FLYING, scraping my left arm and right hand in the process.
Not an auspicious entry in my 128th Nation I’ve got to say. But an entrance nonetheless and the fact I’ve got to 4 nations in less than two days is a goddamn miracle. I get into the capital of Kenya, Nairobi, at 5am tomorrow. If I can get my Ethiopia AND Djibouti visas in the morning (unlikely) I should be able to get an overnight bus towards Ethiopia and then I really will be on schedule for the boat to Egypt and what lies beyond.
If not, I’m going to be pushing it, not least because Friday is Christmas Day and things (buses, border posts etc.) might shut down. But then again, if I’m in Ethiopia, no worries – they don’t celebrate Christmas until January!
Onward, my friends, onward…
The coach arrived at 9am in an strangely subdued Kampala. Where the hell was everyone? Then I realised it was Sunday and it all kinda made sense – they be at church being told how homosexuals make Baby Jesus cry and therefore should be put to death. The bus office next to the buses back to Dar was advertising overnighters to Juba, South Sudan, leaving at 9pm. I bought a ticket with a strange sense of calm elation. I’ve learnt time and time again not to get too excited about ANYTHING on this journey, just in case something goes horribly wrong.
I set off to find myself a cash machine, a SIM card, some camcorder tapes and Internet access. Only the ATM was forthcoming, everywhere was shut. After wandering around Kampala for a bit too long, I was pointed at the direction of the decidedly down-at-heel Equatorial Hotel, which apparently had wi-fi. They wanted US$10, which was extortionate but I was kinda of desperate to get these YouTube videos online. What I didn’t realise was that the connection would be so agonisingly slow. It took over two hours to just upload one vid, I had another four ready to go. Anna, a journo from Al-Jazeera who I was supposed to be meeting today had she not been ill, texted to say I should use connection at the swanky Serena Hotel on the other side of town. So I went for a walk with all my bags, arriving there at 6pm. Meanwhile, Casey was busy firing out press releases to all and sundry. Thank you Case!!
I managed to get the remaining few vids up online. Okay, everything is set. All I need now is for my bus to the border not to crash/break down/explode and I’ll have done it. I’d be the first person to visit every country in the world without flying. This was really IT.
Take it easy. Keep your head on Graham. I took an over-priced taxi to the bus station. I took my seat, strapped myself in and set off towards The Final Frontier, the culmination of 1,425 days of highs, lows, buses, trains, ships, sunsets, beers, joy, disappointment, hilarity, friendship, frustration, adventure, illumination, stubbornness, self-belief and dogged determination. The End of The Odyssey Expedition.
It was 5am and I was up and showered, ready to begin my long journey back to the UK. Remarkably, in terms of physical distance, Durban to Khartoum in North Sudan is 3142 miles and Khartoum to Liverpool is 3244 miles, so I should be halfway there, but if only things were that easy. All things being equal I could jump in a car (or a boat if I was feeling fruity) and head on up the White Nile to Khartoum. From there it’s just 10 hours (if that) to Wadi Halfa on the border with Egypt. If there was a road crossing the border (clue: there isn’t) it would be a few more hours by bus to Aswan and an overnight train journey to Cairo. I could be ready to get the ferry across the Med in less than three days. I could be home in a week. Seriously.
But things are not that easy up here in North Africa. Not that easy at all. First up, the border between South and North Sudan is VERY closed, as is the border between South Sudan and Kenya. There isn’t even a road between South Sudan and Ethiopia, so you can forget about that too. The only way out of the country (without flying) is back to Uganda and the only way from there to North Sudan is to wheel around through Kenya and Ethiopia.
Kenya is no problem, you can get a visa on the border. Ethiopia, however. Urgh. Not only can you not get a visa on the border, you cannot even buy a visa anywhere in Africa (with the possible exception of Somaliland). You have to get it in London. Furthermore, a visa for North Sudan almost just as hard to get a hold of. The Sudanese embassy in Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia, is infamous for its mercurial nature. I can take very little on this portion of the journey for granted.
Nevertheless, I have set a date for my return to Liverpool. By hook or by crook I will be crossing the River Mersey on the ferry and arriving at The Pier Head (in front of the iconic Liver Buildings) at 2.45pm on Saturday 22nd December. Mark my words: BY HOOK OR BY CROOK, I SHALL BE THERE!!!
Everybody reading this is welcome to come along if you can make it. Please bring the flag of your favourite country (or your favourite flag)!! Afterwards we will be heading off to a secret location for booze, music and dancing. You can say you’re coming via Facebook at: https://www.facebook.com/events/376044069148554/
I am racing to get to Kampala before 5.30pm today as my gorgeous friend Lindsey has been an angel/star/legend again this week and nabbed me one of ’em pesky Ethiopian visas for my second passport and posted it DHL to Uganda. It arrived a couple of days ago. If I can get there today before it closes, I can continue my journey onto Kenya tomorrow night, thereby saving me a day of travel. Nice!
However, the bus, rather predictably, broke down on the way to the border. Flat tyre. The bus boys spent an hour trying to take the wheel off, but that last nut just refused to budge. So they reattached all the other nuts and we piled back onboard and proceeded to Nimule at a more gentler pace. Thank God for double wheels.
At the border there was no time to mess around. I cunningly did the old tourist trick of ignoring the MASSIVE queue and walking straight into the immigration building and then looking a bit lost. It doesn’t always work, but today was my lucky day, not only did I get stamped out of South Sudan in record time, I also got stamped IN to Uganda in record time. I abandoned my wonky bus (I didn’t want to be trundling along at half-speed all the way to Kampala) and clambered onboard whichever bus looks like it was leaving next. We thundered south, arriving at the outskirts of Kampala around 5pm, I was willing us to get into the station straight away, but it wasn’t to be: we got caught in a traffic jam. Possibly karma for me jumping the queue this morning. It was 6pm by the time we got to the bus station. There was a bus leaving for Nairobi at 7pm, but I couldn’t leave without my passport.
Too late to arrange a CouchSurf, I checked into the Kampala Backpackers for the night, caught up on a stack of written interviews (damn my fingers ACHE! Why can’t they just ring meeeee?!) and then crashed out at an embarrassingly early time (for me) of 11pm.
Up at 7am and down to DHL for 8.30pm. Passport – avec Ethiopian visa – in hand (praise be to Lindsey!), I bought a ticket for the bus to Nairobi, leaving at 11am. Well, kind of. After finding out what time the bus left I shopped around the bus station for a better deal, timewise – this bus would get into Nairobi at 11pm. I thought it better to get an overnighter. However, I had been told that the buses north from Nairobi to the Ethiopian border left at 6am, and all the other buses I could find left at 7pm this evening, arriving Nairobi 7am tomorrow: my schedule would be all skew-if. Last time was in Nairobi, since I spent the morning getting my Ethiopian AND Djibouti visas (something that would be double impossible now), I was told that the big bus had gone and I would have to take a mini-bus. A minibus covered in Hello Kitty stickers designed to take Japanese kids to school. SURPRISINGLY, it broke down about 17 times on, you know, the roughest highway in the whole of East Africa, costing me at least a day of travel. Won’t be making *that* mistake again.
So I went back to the Spider Bus (the one that left at 11) and asked for a ticket. The woman smiled and told me they were now sold out. I had only been gone 10 minutes!!
A helpful bus guy told me not to worry, they could sort out a ticket for me, but I’d have to sit on a low stool in the aisle. As it wasn’t an overnighter, I figured in for a penny in for a pound and took him up on the offer. I then went on a quick dash around the city, picking up supplies for the last leg: video tapes, wetwipes, handgel, shampoo, deodorant (how hard is it to get spray-on deodorant in hot countries?!), talc and plasters. Kampala is an epic busy city. When I was here last Sunday I was lulled into a false sense of security, I should have noticed it was Sunday in this, a deeply Christian country. (So Christian in fact that they want to introduce the death penalty for homosexuality. Oh I can see Jesus, being a unkempt, unmarried, unemployed 33 year-old who hung out with sailors and prostitutes (sound familiar?), being SO GLAD at this prospect – him being the least chromatically adept member of the pantheon of White-Man’s Gods… *chuckle*)
Anyway, chores completed, I raced back to the bus station and before I knew it we were thundering east towards Kenya at a frightening rate of knots. We got to the frontier in good time, but after that we really started slowing down. Our eta of 11pm became midnight, became 1am, became 2am… I’m a champion sleeper, but even I have my limits, and I think sitting in the aisle on a tiny three-legged stool while being driven through Kenya at night is quite possibly it. It was all I could do to not fall off the damn thing.
Still, managed to do an interview for CNN from the floor of the nightbus to Nairobi. Not a lot of people can add that one to their bragging rights.
We were stopped numerous times by the police, the most hilarious moment being when I was taken off the coach (just me, not the other five people sitting in the aisle) and was told that I had broken the law and that I was going to be arrested and held in the jail cell (pointed out with his baton) until Monday morning.
The usual course of action in these circumstances is to act all shocked and dismayed and ‘see if we can come to some sort of arrangement’. Not me.
‘Sorry about that, officer, I’ll just go get my bag.’
‘Oh no, sir, it’s okay.’
‘No, no, it’s just here by the door, I’ll get it. Hey I’m tired anyway – it’ll be good to get my head down, even if it is on cockroach-infested concrete, and – who knew? – I have a certain fondness for African jail cells.’
‘Sir, please, it’s okay, you didn’t know.’
‘Ignorance of the law is no excuse, officer’ say I, grinning broadly, whilst readying my saved ‘HELP! BEEN ARRESTED!!’ text message to go out on Twitter. You know what they say, no publicity is bad publicity. (Well, unless it involves having sex with children, eh Max?)
‘No no, it’s no problem, you can get back on the bus.’
‘Ah, okay, thanks… goodnight!’
Remarkably, I did manage to get a few minutes sleep on my three-legged stool. However, we didn’t get to Nairobi until 5am.