Places to Return to – Uzbekistan

Few places have captured my imagination like Uzbekistan. The first time I went in 2011 I was there for two weeks and apart from Russians, I only saw two tourists (Australian ladies). It was astounding that a country with such incredible architecture, reasonable food and friendly people had so few people visiting it, but how lucky I was to visit then (and to have my buddy Rob along for company). I have since been back to Bukhara and Tashkent (in September 2015), and in one day in Bukhara I saw over two hundred tourists. It was certainly different with so many people around, but still worth going.

Visit Tamerlane’s capital – Samarkand

Tamerlane’s capital, and home to some of the finest Islamic architecture in the world. There are amazing buildings everywhere and you should wander the streets until your feet hurt, but make sure you don’t miss

  • The Registan – truly astounding and widely ranked as one of the most grandiose pieces of architecture in the Islamic work and as one of the noblest public squares in the world. While the building complex has been aggressively renovated, it is still largely faithful to the original design, with tile makers today still toiling to create replacement tiles.Registan
  • The tombs of Shah i Zinda are the holiest of Samarkand’s sites. Many famous samarkand historical figures are buried here, but alas my history education in NZ was too pants to give me much of a grounding in the who’s who. However, it is stunningly beautifulShah i zinda
  • Gur Emir – was my favourite place in Samarkand. A little quieter, and the mausoleum of Tamerlane.Registan 3
  • Bibi Khanum Mosque – worth visiting as it hasn’t been intensively renovated and so is more archaeologically interesting. Was built for Tamerlane by his favourite wife, a chinese princess calls Bibi Khanum, as a surprise for him while he was off devastating North India

Stayed at Malika Prime which was fine, unremarkable but with ok wifi. Arrived by fast train from Tashkent. No guide required, take a map and walk everywhere


Drink tea in Bukhara
Bukhara is a delightful village with plenty of tea shops (and even a german cake shop) deeply contrasting with the hustle and bustle of Samarkand.  I would happily spend a few days in Bukhara hanging out and drinking tea.    My favourite places to while the day away and watch the light are these:
  • Kalon Mosque and Minaret and the Mir i Arab Madrasah – Both the Mosque and the Madrasah are beautiful, but the Minaret is incredible.  It is 48 metres high and has stood for 850 years.  Used for the call to prayer, and as a city lookout, it also served as a place to punish criminals, who were thrown from the top in sacks!

    The Minaret late afternoon (with Rob)
    The Minaret late afternoon
  • Ismael Samani Mausoleum – the best preserved building in Bukhara.  It is a perfect brick cube with brickwork ‘woven’ to look like a basket.  It looks magnificent in the afternoon light

    Tomb of Tajikistan's most loved son
    Tomb of Tajikistan’s most loved son
  • Bolo Hauz Mosque – a beautiful mosque which reflects in a pool across from the Bukhara fortress.  You can take tea at the chaikana next door

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    Bolo Hauz
  • Chor Minor – last but by no means least, the small but perfectly formed gatehouse of an old madrassah with four minarets.
Chor Minor
Stay at any of the pensions around the Lyabi i Hauz.  They are reasonably cheap.  I have stayed at the Emir and the Amelia Boutique and they were both fine.
Get Married in Khiva
There must be something auspicious about getting married in Khiva.  When I visited, it was 5 degrees celcius i.e. bloody freezing, so hardly peak wedding season, but I saw no less than 8 weddings in the old city that day.  The couples all looked in their late teens, with full ‘big fat gypsy wedding’ regalia.  I tried to figure out how to get invite to some of the parties but with no luck.
Khiva wedding
Khiva is more like a museum than Bukhara, but the old city is beautifully preserved and a lovely place to wander around.  My personal highlights were the  the Tash Hauli palace, which has beautiful carved pillars and incredible tiles, and the Kalta Minaret – one of the few minarets which was fully tiled
Ichan Kala Khiva
Stayed at Malika Khiva, which was fine but overpriced for food.  Can walk everywhere!
Some additional tips!
  • There are police everywhere, and life as a local citizen is likely pretty crap.  I was stopped often, but always waved on once they realised I was a tourist.  You feel very safe there, but can’t help feeling bad for the locals in such a totalitarian state
  • The trains are amazing!  I did a couple of night trains by myself and ended up sharing with Russian business men both times.  And in both cases they tried to feed me vodka, and also made sure I was ‘safe’ from the locals
  • Tashkent is an ok city, very easy to get around on the metro system which has some great stations
  • The food is ok, but not extraordinary.  Rob wished he had brought his hot sauce to spice things up.  I ate a lot of the local bread (delicious), tea, pomegranates (amazing!) and cheese.
  • Wherever/whenever you can try and visit the sights 2-3 times during the course of the day.  the light and mood changes significantly, particularly in the late afternoon and it is worth the multiple visits to watch the light play on the walls and take better pictures
  • I watched a good documentary on the bbc the other day on Samarkand – worth a look if you are interested
 Kaon Mosque and minaret

Is it possible to cough up a lung?

May 22, City Hotel St Polten, Austria

Well you can probably tell from the title….  the day didn’t pan out exactly as I hoped.   I was up at 4am, had my prescribed Ironman breakfast of bread and bananas, and got a taxi to the race area.   I borrowed a pump from a delightful Austrian girl, sorted out my tires and made sure my bottles were all sorted for my bike.   Wandered over to the swim prep area, got my wetsuit on to the waist (mostly because I was freezing) and found a cafe for a latte….  I was so organised, I was ready an hour before the race.   Everyone was super friendly and supportive, a random stranger wandered past and helped me hoick up my wetsuit.  Pretty soon we were all in the pens getting ready for the rolling start.   I had easily swum the distance in 43 minutes in training, so I assumed that was a reasonable estimate for the swim.  I made lots of friends in the pen, and feeling calm and zen, plunged into the water.

And thats when it all started going wrong.  The water was freezing and black.  Within about 10 meters I had sucked in what felt like a litre of water into my lungs.   I tried to swim freestyle but couldn’t breathe, couldn’t even get my head into the water let alone do normal strokes.   I tried to do a weird freestyle version with my head out of the water like a drowning puppy, but that didn’t work either, and I was coughing and spluttering like a wheezy old emphysema sufferer.    Well, I ended up doing a weird side stroke for the entire distance…. it was honestly the longest and toughest hour of my life…. punctuated by the swim officials paddling up to see if I was ok.  The swim was split across two lakes, and by the time I got out of the water in the first lake, I would have been happy never to have seen water again.   Darling Hubby was there when I got out of the first lake and ran with me to the second lake.  What a legend!!!  I wanted to die, I had to stop a couple of times to try and cough up my lungs (the coughing didn’t actually stop until mid afternoon).

With tenacity I didn’t know I possessed, I got into the second lake and kept swimming…. or at least approximating a swim….. another 1km of side stroke with a fantastic nonstop coughing symphony.  I was clearly in terrible shape, because in this lake the swim officials paddled next to me for all of the race, handing me off from one to the other.  They did ask if I wanted to stop, but I wanted to keep going.  I knew if I could just get on to the bike things would be better.   The agony finally ended as I stumbled out of the water.  Darling hubby has some video footage, but nobody needs to see that.   I summoned all the energy I had and ran to transition, worried that I was not going to make it under the cut off time for the swim (you only have an hour and 15 minutes to get out of the bike zone or you are out of the race).   I was pretty sure I was going to be too late as pretty much the entire field had passed me in the water.  A lovely Israeli girl helped me get my wetsuit off (this is much harder to do than you might think), and I geared up and sprinted to my bike.     A very scary looking Austrian lady stopped me taking my bike off the rack and said I was done.   The race director checked my time, and confirmed that I was just under two minutes over the cut off so I was out.

I am really bummed I didn’t get to go on, though I probably wouldn’t have turned in a stellar performance given my lack of training and the shape my shins and back were in.  I also felt incredibly guilty that I had dragged my Darling Hubby to Austria, shipped my bike, spent a lot of money, and all for a vile 1 hour and 15 minutes of coughing up my lungs in a freezing lake.   I am mostly trying to stay zen about it, and in my more grown up moments I am excited about the potential to overcome the lake demon and get in some more practice swims (oh yes – confession time – I had never swum in open water before the race, and only been in my wetsuit once in the tooting bec lido).    On the bright side, I was genuinely impressed with how wonderful the volunteers were, I wouldn’t have made it around the lake without them.  And, I am proud of myself for giving it a shot, and not quitting, although there were a couple of times in the lake where I did consider swimming up to the official boat and getting a ride back.

We did enjoy some of the day, we watched the first finishers come in, in some truly astounding times!  Then we wandered back to the hotel along the run course past some truly varied body shapes….. I am wildly impressed at the age and shape of some of my fellow competitors….. and some of the chubbier runners were doing times at least 40% faster than I would have ever been able to do.

Huge thanks to my darling hubby, who has my eternal gratitude for his support.  It wasn’t fun having to go back to the race later in the day to pick up my bike and hand in my timing chip surrounded by tired but elated finishers. It was even less fun going to dinner that night and being surrounded by people wearing their finishers medals.    My husband was an absolute darling and kept me company the whole time! and amused me by joking about the nobs.    Love ya babe!!!

Enormous, Scary Lycra Clad Aryans

May 21, City Hotel St Polten, Austria

My darling hubby/support crew extraordinaire and I are in gorgeous St Polten for the weekend.  Several months ago, when i was uninjured and feeling strong, I signed up for a half ironman…. thinking this would be a pretty easy race distance and good practice for the full ironman I intend to do at some point.  I have run, cycled and swum all the distances pretty easily in the past and within the cut off times.   Hmmmmm, feeling a whole lot less cocky now!  It has been six weeks since I injured my shin, and i have only run for 20 minutes in that time (two x ten minute runs in the last week), and only cycled a couple of times.   Worse, I seem to have developed a back problem so everything hurts – even walking hurts.   Oh well, I paid the money and it was non refundable, so i thought I may as well try and race.  And, my hardcore physio was ok with me giving it a bash…. in his words, ‘oh well, just gut it out and see what happens’.   I am oscillating between crapping my pants with fear and then trying to remind myself that it doesn’t matter – ideally I will finish, but if not, it aint the end of the world.   Think I managed to mostly hold it together today, except for a bout of overwhelming panic and awe as we went down to breakfast this morning –  we were surrounded by enormous lycra clad, ironman branded, bronzed, aryan looking germans and austrians!  f@ck me – they were giants!!!! with long rangy muscly legs!!!!  Holy crap on a crap stick, these folks are going to eat me up and spit me out.

The panic eventually abated enough for me to leave the hotel and go and figure out the registration process.   All signed up, collected the bike, sorted out the transition bags, dropped the bike, went to race briefing, went back to bike area as had forgotten to pick up timing chip………, hopefully everything is in the right bag.  If you have never raced a tri before,  be warned, there are epic amounts of kit that you need to have, and it all needs to be in the right place.  Oh, and don’t forget the lube!!!!!!      there are also too many rules for me to follow, so i am sticking to remember the drafting rules, and not too litter – as that is grounds for immediate disqualification.   Also trying to remind myself that as long as I finish, i will be the first woman from NZ to finish (I am the only one entered!!).   Am heading to bed now, stomach is stuffed full of carbs as have gone on a major carb loading effort today.  Fingers crossed I can get my wetsuit off easily tomorrow and I don’t miss any of the cut off times.  Oh, and fingers crossed I can figure out how to pee on the bike….. maybe just a quick google before I sleep to figure that out.  Alarm is set for 4.30 am 😃.

Thwarted Thatcher Coup…

May 14, Ibis, Malabo, Equatorial Guinea

Before visiting all I really knew about Equatorial Guinea was the thwarted coup attempt against President Obiang funded by Margaret Thatcher’s son in 2004 (a.k.a the Wonga coup), for which he pleaded guilty (eventually) and was given a four year suspended sentence and a $500k fine in South Africa.  British mercenary Simon Mann didn’t fare so well, and spent 5 years in the notorious Black Beach prison in Malabo as part of a 34 year sentence, from which the president eventually pardoned him.  Mr Mann is apparently doing fine now as he made a killing on his book deal

President Obiang is still in power (37 years so far) and the government are keen to improve their image, which is hard to do in a country where  the per capita wealth is higher than Britain, but much of the country live on less than a dollar a day.  (Guardian article).  He is still clearly working on his image as there are huge billboards of him all over town!!!

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President Obiang

Equatorial Guinea isn’t covered in the Lonely Planet Africa guide as apparently not enough people visit to make it worth their while.  There are only four sights listed on TripAdvisor (one of which includes the new sports stadium), and I dutifully wandered around town to visit these, clocking up 12km of walking and sweating several buckets.  Compared to Douala, this place is paradise – huge big clean buildings, level footpaths (though no-one appears to walk anywhere except for a couple of kids I saw), and ultra modern highways.  Its a little bit like an African version of Turkmenistan – you can really see where they are spending their oil money!

Malabo Catedral
Malabo Catedral

After exhausting the tourist sites, I wandered round the markets and chatted to some old men in my appalling spanish.  I also tried the supermarkets but they were pretty sad compared to the ones in Cameroon and Gabon, and I couldn’t even find any dark chocolate to buy (#firstworldproblems).

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Mercado Central

Sticky, icky and frenetic

May 12,  Star Land Hotel, Douala, Cameroon

The Lonely Planet aptly describes Douala as ‘sticky, icky and frenetic’. True dat.   I would also add ‘ cacaphonic’ (not an actual word but an apt descriptor), as there is a constant background honk of horns.

Arriving at Douala airport, I was impressed by the levels of filth and how badly it smelled.  I was less than impressed by the immigration official who called me Mami…. he got a bit of a dressing down as I told him I wasn’t his Maman or anyone else’s.   I also feel like my youth has now clearly departed if total strangers think it is acceptable to call me Mum!.  Exiting customs into the carnage of the arrivals hall, the hotel shuttle driver was (of course) not there, so I found another ‘ reliable’ taxi driver to drop me off, and was entertained by his 15 minute monologue on his sexual energy and then politely declined his offer of a dinner date.

I spent three hours walking around today to see the ‘sights’ .  Again – there were only two – the Espace Doual’art and the cathedral.   I loved the Espace Doual’art which was a small but perfectly formed contemporary art space.  The Hako Hankson works on display were terrific!!!

Hako Hankson


Hako Hankson
 The cathedral was less impressive, but I quite liked the creative use of shipping containers to create retail space adjacent to the church.
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It was a hot and sticky day, and I was dripping with so much sweat I almost wished it would start raining.  Fortunately most of the locals were sweating too!

I was cautious in my wanderings to keep my photos discreet, given my fellow adventurer Evelthon was detained by the police here a few weeks ago for ‘tourist offences’ for taking pictures of the cathedral.   There isn’t much point arguing with the authorities here!.   Fortunately no-one bothered me apart from a couple of dodgy playboys.

Following the dictator theme – as an fyi, the Cameroon People’s ‘Democratic” Movement party and the leader Paul Biya have been in power since 1982.  Love democracy in action.

Next bonkers dictatorship – Equatorial Guinea! – here I come

Potentially the worlds greatest wildlife destination, but I wasn’t going to find out…..

May 9, Royal Palm Hotel, Libreville, Gabon

In the next of a series of mad dictatorships – welcome to Gabon.  Omar Bongo was president for 42 years from 1967 until he died in 2009.  The reins were taken up by his son Ali Bongo who has been in power since, ‘winning’ the 2009 election with 42% of the vote.  Highlights of his time in office include apparently paying Lionel Messi £2.5m for visiting and laying the foundational stone for the Africa cup of nations stadium for 2017, and cutting the size of the Ministry.  The leader of the banned ‘opposition’ party, Andre Mba Obame died of unknown causes last year.

The airport worked and no bribes were solicited.  I got a taxi to the hotel, the windows didn’t work and there was no door handle, but the driver played terrific african samba music and serenaded me in between outlining his run-ins with over-enthusiastic police officers and government officials.  He also only overcharged me relative to the locals by about 50%, such a kind heart.

The streets are lined with big new 4WDs and some gleaming buildings – this is a town clearly awash with oil money.  The highlight of which is the presidential palace.  I have been warned not to take photos of anything, especially the presidential palace, as the police don’t like potential spies.  So I don’t have my own photo – but you can check it out on google.

I set out to visit ‘all’ of the tourist attractions (the lonely planet guide to Libreville lists two :-)).  Saw the presidential palace, and tried to visit the arts museum but it was closed.  The only other tourist attraction is the folk sculptures along the waterfront, which were relatively interesting.

Beachfront sculpture
Beachfront sculpture
Beachfront sculpture probably inspired by the presidents investment in the Tour d'Africa which is suppose to rival the tour de France
Beachfront sculpture probably inspired by the presidents investment in the Tour d’Africa which is suppose to rival the tour de France
It was a good albeit sweaty 10k walk there and back, and the locals were surprised to see me walking, everyone takes shared taxis everywhere.    Feeling a huge sense of achievement at having completed the tourist activities I retired to the pool for the afternoon.   I had contemplated the beach in front of the hotel, until on closer inspection I realised it was actually the rubbish dump.
Didn't inspire me to sunbathe
Didn’t inspire me to sunbathe
Note on ecotourism .  Gabon is unique amongst African nations, as the president created a 13 park network in 2002 which cover 11% of the country in 2002 (the highest percentage of land conservation in the world).  This kicked off a spate of investment in ecotourism and camps.  However, most of the investors in eco tourism have subsequently exited,  citing corruption and bureaucracy issues that were making it impossible to run businesses.  I had originally planned to visit Loango national park – a much heralded wild life destination with gorillas and surfing hippos.   However, it proved impossible to do so in any reasonable way as an independent traveller, but if you have a group together you might be able to get the logistics sorted.   Check out

The other Congo!

May 8,  Mikhail’s Hotel, Brazzaville, Republic of Congo

A lovely day wandering around Brazzaville in the Republic of Congo – the formerly french one, a.ka. Congo Brazzaville (not to be confused with the Democratic Republic of Congo – the formerly Belgian one, historically called Zaire).

It was weird arriving here yesterday, the flight was 40 minutes early, and I had to wait in the arrivals area for the hotel shuttle.  I waited in a crowd of people, and not once did anyone harass  me, offer me a taxi, or try and sell me anything……,  truly weird and totally unheard of in any African airport!  I commented on it to a couple I met on the plane when they came out, and they wryly noted that there are some benefits of visiting a totalitarian state where the president has been in office for 26 years, people are too scared to cause any trouble.    This was reinforced today in a 4 hour walk around town!  I did have some friendly locals say hello as everyone was out taking their Sunday walks, but in the same way as they would in NZ.  The only two people to bother me the whole time were two kids asking for money, and they were promptly despatched with some shouts from a security guard at the gas station I was walking past.     I am not sure I am in an African capital city!!!

There are not a huge amount of tourist attractions in Brazzaville.   As it was Sunday, I popped in to see the Basilique Sainte Anne of the Congo – a modernist church built by Roger Erell.  While it was nice, I was more impressed by the local ladies in their colourful finery.

Basilique Sainte Anne
Basilique Sainte Anne

Then a nice walk along the corniche for 6k watching all the other locals (including a ladies walking club) out walking, jogging and cycling.  I stopped by the  Memorial of Pierre Savorgnan (the founder of Brazzaville, pic above). Then kept walking over the new 15 August 1960 bridge which has just been finished.

Newly completed bridge
Newly completed bridge

From the corniche, you can see across the mighty Congo river to Kinshasa.  – historically proudly referred to as “Kin La Belle” (Kinshasa The Beautiful) but now dubbed “Kin La Poubelle” (Kinshasa the rubbish bin) given how dirty it is.  Brazzaville and Kinshasa are only 1 mile apart, and you can go between the two on an easy ferry ride, with a lot of paperwork.

View of Kinshasa on the right and Brazzaville on the Left
View of Kinshasa on the right and Brazzaville on the Left

Finally, a bit of retail therapy to top up my food supplies, with a visit to the Geant Casino hypermarche.  I love that in all the former french colonies, from Vanuatu to Senegal, you can always find a french supermarket with brioche, rillettes and poulet roti.   The humidity and 35 degree heat defeated me by lunchtime, so back to the hotel to do some laundry and take a nap.

P.s spoke too soon!  the officials at the airport didn’t let me down when I was leaving – they were back on corrupt form, asking me to buy them cokes in exchange for clearing my bags through security!!!!

More gorilla love….this time in Rwanda

May 6, Virunga Hotel, Musanze, Rwanda

I love gorilla trekking.  I came to Rwanda solo in 2013 and gifted myself a gorilla trek as a 40th birthday present.  I enjoyed it so much, I planned this trip so hubby could get to see them too!.  Watching gorillas play is just delightful!!!.   Things have become more sophisticated since my first visit, and they even have a computer system to check your permit.

Mum, I’m tired, give me a ride

Our guide Frances was lovely, and gave us a proper briefing   The walk was relatively easy, though I felt for some of the tourists with us who had clearly not been out in the bush much and didn’t cope well with the mud. (The non bush friendly tourists were easy to spot at the briefing as they all had hired gators and wore spotless new hiking boots).

Apparently three days earlier the guides had had an American tourist who was too tired to walk after the first couple of minutes, so she paid 9 porters $200 to carry her on a stretcher to see the gorillas.  One of our group (Gemma from the Netherlands) had been with this group, and apparently it took them 2-3 hours to do a 20 minute walk (as the porters and rangers had to hack a path for the stretcher through the jungle), and by the time the group arrived, they only saw the silver back and no other gorillas.  I would have been furious, and Gemma was indeed still furious three days later.

they were checking out the wildlife i.e us

Fortunately, no such issues for us.  We had an easy, albeit muddy, stroll through the bamboo to find our gorilla group in various stages of snoozing and farting.   After watching for a while, they eventually roused themselves and went for a wander through the bamboo, swinging ungracefully through the trees….., and the little baby put on a chest pounding and roly poly demonstration.  The highlight was watching the silver back come muscularly through the forest – he was huge and gorgeous!  Hubby got stuck at one point between three gorillas and the rangers had to help him navigate his way out.  As always the hour passed incredibly quickly!  Sad to leave, we wandered back, enjoying the view of the volcanoes now the clouds had cleared.

hanging out
Onward to Kigali!

On prices – Gorilla trekking in Rwanda is now a pretty sophisticated scale operation with up to 80 people trekking every day.  With permit prices now at USD 750 for one hour – you might think this is expensive and the government is profiteering.  However, in total this is a maximum of $20m revenue p.a for the national park – actually not a huge amount of money to drive research, ensure that the park is protected from poachers, pay rangers and vets, ensure that local farmers don’t encroach on the land etc.   Personally I think it is terrific value for money for a ‘once in a lifetime experience’ and a great way to support gorilla conservation.

Following up on my tipping guidelines form the DRC – In Rwanda we tipped $20 to each of the 2 rangers plus $5 each to the three spotters – so $55 for hubby and I combined.

Whether to gorilla trek in DRC or Rwanda – quite a few people I met in the DRC had come to see the gorillas as they thought it was ‘cheaper’ than Rwanda.   While the permits are cheaper ($400 vs $750), the experience definitely isn’t, once you throw in the $100 for a DRC visa, $30 for the reentry visa to Rwanda (you can’t reliably get to Goma any other way than overland from Kigali), and then of course the transport to and from the gorillas which is c. $100 more expensive than transport in Rwanda.  So, net the cost is more or less the same.    If you have time and money, I would do both!

The gates of hell

May 4, Nyiragongo Summit Shelters – Democratic Republic of Congo

After a relaxing couple of nights doing precisely nada at Mikeno lodge in the heart of the Virunga National Park, we roused ourselves early this morning to prep our gear for the climb up Nyiragongo summit (3470m), home of Africa’s largest lava lake.  The volcano last erupted in 2002, wiping out a significant portion of the nearby town of Goma as well as killing all of the tourists who were camping at the summit.  Apparently things have improved since then and there are now volcano experts monitoring the situation so we shouldn’t expect an eruption overnight.

We met our hiking fellows, the wonderful Alexei, Sergei and Dimitri from Moscow (who had all left their ladies at home), and the amazing Heather and sardonic Billy from San Francisco (more about them later).    And of course, our whole troup of rangers, guides, cooks and porters who were going to accompany us to the top.  Steph and I felt a bit low key as we only had a cook and one porter (as while we carried all our own gear, I didn’t want to carry the extra 8kg of water we needed), whereas our Russian colleagues were fully prepped with a support crew of five.

Our hiking companions…. and the 25 staff couldn’t fit in the picture

The climb was actually pretty easy (relative to my recent Ironman training). We ascended 1600 metres over 8km with some steep, rocky and muddy sections,  with the DRC rain storms pelting down on us for the last two hours.   Dear hubby had a rough time of it, as he was hit by a bout of altitude sickness relatively early on, with fluid on the lungs, a fever and a pounding headache.  He soldiered on like a good stubborn french man, and the fantastic Heather (conveniently an ER doctor) dosed him with some diomax, and we all eventually made it to the top, albeit with frozen fingers.  The view at this point was non existent, and we were surrounded by pea soup fog, so we were all crossing those frozen fingers hoping that the fog would clear so we could see the lava lake.

Our glamorous accommodations for the evening were small huts with comfy plastic mattresses, and an extremely luxurious outdoor loo with an epic vista over lake kiva (or at least out into the fog…. yes that is the roof of the loo you can see down the slope in the mist).

the long drop with a foggy view

Unfortunately reaching said loo required scrambling down a step rock face holding onto a rope, so most of us figured out how to discreetly pee between the huts.  The wonderful Joshua (our deeply christian and delightful chef) warmed us up with homemade biscuits and coffee, and then whipped up a three course meal of soup, chicken and veg, and cake around the fire.  He even decided to feed Heather as he felt sad that she had only bought some sandwiches with her.   The fog finally cleared by the time we finished dinner, so we all sat by the crater edge checking out the view until we were too cold to stand it anymore.   We were collectively proud of the sardonic Billy for making it out of his hut and sleeping bag to check out the lake….. he was so cold at one point, he told Heather that he would be happy checking out the pictures on wikipedia and youtube when he got home  (he wins my prize for the driest sense of humour I have ever found in an American).

the largest lava lake in the world

After a huge breakfast at 6am the next day, we ambled back down.  I won the award for falling on my butt the most, in spite of having two hiking poles rather than the single wooden sticks which everyone else had.   It was sunny the whole way, and the porters were all clearly keen for a drink as we only stopped twice for ten minutes each.    It was definitely worth the trip, though next time I would take even more wet weather and cold weather gear!!!!

Am pretty sure I am talking some nonsense given the expressions of my companions
Am pretty sure I am talking some nonsense given the expressions of my companions

Note I found out a few days later from a guy at the British embassy in Kinshasa that they don’t advise anyone to climb the volcano – not because of the danger from the volcano, but the likelihood of being kidnapped on the road between Goma and Kibati.  We had no problems, as we had booked direct with and were accompanied on all road trips with armed (but friendly) rangers.  If you are interested in checking out Virunga, it is worth checking out the film Virunga on netflix

Gorillas in the mist, rain and thunder

May 1, Bukima Tented Camp, DRC

After a damp cold night at a tented camp at 2400m where hubby and I were the only guests, it was lovely to wake up this morning to a perfect view of Mikeno and Nyiragongo out across the farmlands in the Congo.

View from Bukima

We shared our breakfast with Jacques the mouse catching cat and then headed off for the 8am briefing.  About an hour and a half later, some faffing about the lack of permit documents, a bit of back and forth on what gorilla group we were going to go visit,  the briefing commenced.   5 minutes later we were off, with two rangers (toting the rustiest guns I have ever seen), and two UN workers who have been living in Goma and weren’t exactly the fittest couple we had ever met, so it took us an hour to reach the park boundary.

Mandatory facemasks were donned, and our trusty rangers hacked away lots of the foliage so we could have an amazing 60 minutes hanging out with the gorillas.  The highlight was watching these two little gorillas play energetically, while the rest of the family were snoozing, eating bugs off of each other, and licking their armpits (amazing to think of licking your own armpits).   The hour passes in about 5 minutes, and hubby and I took 300 pictures.   The rain thankfully held off until we had done and then the skies opened up!!!

contemplating life
having a snooze
how delightful to be able to scratch your face with your toes!

After some warming coffee we were treated to a free African massage on the hour long ride from Bukima to Mikeno lodge bouncing up and down in the 4wd.  The national highway in the DRC is a fantastic example of infrastructure development!! (yes this is national highway no.2)

National Highway No. 2

Note – if you come, please tip generously.  Rangers and trackers do a huge amount to support the gorillas and any money you give to them (and indirectly their families and communities) reinforces the value of preserving the gorillas and the national park.   On occasions like this, I tip often.   If in doubt, give more.  As my darling hubby always says, whether we give $10 or $20 makes no difference to us, but makes a huge difference to the recipient.   Being a ranger in the national park is a high risk occupation! see article on  rangers killed! We tipped $25 to each ranger and $25 to each tracker