I went to Africa in the January of 2010 on a one-way ticket with a vague plan to stay a few months. But it’s Africa, and it has a way of getting under your skin and consuming you. I didn’t get back on a plane for a year.

After meeting a couple of friends in Kenya, we set about kitting ourselves out with camping gear. The only tent that seemed to be for sale in Nairobi came from the local supermarket and had ‘The Weekender’ cheerfully emblazoned on one side. Heading inland towards peak rainy season this was mildly disconcerting, but the tent proved me wrong – surviving 4 months until being swapped for a smaller one in Namibia.

Kenya was beautiful for camping. Determined to see some wildlife without having to pay horrendous package tour prices, we took on whatever public transport was available. And it turned out to be quite easy, as long as you don’t suffer from claustrophobia or live by any sort of time schedule!

Besides discovering loads of great places to camp, the days became inundated with Matatu (shared minivan transport) stories. Squeezing up to 28 passengers in a 12 seater van might be a great way to meet people, but it meant personal space soon went out the window, along with personal cleanliness and the ability to care about personal cleanliness.

Crossing into Uganda was like crossing into the Africa I’d dreamed about. The noisy, dusty towns of Kenya were replaced by sweeping lush green valleys. Rainy season had kicked in a month early, the hills were sliding, and everywhere was ankle deep in red fertile mud. We stayed more than a month. People were unbelievably accommodating, and as I were discovering, things don’t happen fast in Africa so there’s little point in rushing about. Ugandan’s warned me about Rwanda for that exact reason. “They’re always too busy rushing about to be friendly…”

But not long after getting there I had met a bunch of people that would wind up becoming long-term friends, and I came to discover the reasons behind why Rwanda is not such a relaxed and free place as Uganda – most of this is too complex to publish online, so remind me to tell you a few stories next time I see you! I stayed with a family there, shot a rap video & dipped into the Democratic Republic of Congo to try and shoot a documentary.

Next stop Namibia – to catch up with my friends before they left. The only problem was, it was on the other side of the continent and they’d had a month’s head start. A bus company called TAQWA offered the solution through a (supposed) non-stop route down to the west of Zambia, it sounded like the way to go. 82 hours and a million drama’s later, we crawled into Lusaka. I had absolutely no intention of ever doing that again, yet 3 1/2 months later would find myself having to take the same company on an equally long, equally corrupt endeavour; and for a second time find that a video camera, notebook and minimal acting skills, can eventually, move traffic.

A cruisy 20 hours on another bus and I was in Namibia. Such a strange country, only 2 million people, most of which are in the one city, huge silent deserts and rugged wind-torn coastlines. Being an ex-German colony, everything runs like clockwork. I had to keep reminding myself it was still Africa.

From here I was officially traveling El Solo. It was looking increasingly likely that I’d return to Rwanda to take up the job offer from Top 5 SAI production studio’s, but in the meantime football fever was reaching epic proportions in neighbouring South Africa. Despite not being a place that had ever particularly appealed, I figured I’d be silly not to pop down and check out the World Cup.

Another 26 hour bus marathon and I was in Cape Town. As good luck would have it I meet a kiwi that first night with a spare ticket to the New Zealand-Slovakia match; we decided to go on a road-trip along the southern coast before the game. South Africa turned out to be a beautiful country, full of happy welcoming people. Spending time in Soweto was a particular highlight. Overall it hinted at the culture shock which I knew would hit by the bucket load upon going home: shopping malls, pet dogs and people drinking wine. It all felt a little bit alien.

The World Cup atmosphere was truly electrifying and boy was it strange to suddenly be surrounded by kiwi’s. South Africa was experiencing it’s coldest winter in 150 years. After one particularly frosty night in Rustenburg where my vege’s grew icicles inside the tent, I decided to head for the sunny shores of Mozambique.

Whale sharks frequent the coastline of Mozambique at certain times of the year, and one day I had the amazing experience of snorkeling among a few of them. They are each the size of a bus with pale white spots that illuminate up through the murky water. Traveling independently in Mozambique was tricky due to road conditions and hitchhiking was only viable so far, so I soon headed inland towards Malawi.

Immediately Malawi became on par for me with Uganda, both in its vibrant natural beauty and friendly people. It was also on par in terms with what we call ‘poverty-levels’, and I wondered if somehow the two extremes co-exist for a reason. With a beautiful lake to bath in every morning, and gritty sand-stones for scrubbing clothes, dishes and body, it was easy to see why Malawian’s didn’t want for more.

The trip back to Rwanda from there involved a nightmare hardly worth mentioning. But it was lovely to finally get back to my town of Ruhengeri, with its familiar faces and a scenic backdrop of the Congolese volcanoes. Settling down for a few months and really getting to know one place felt like a good way to end the trip after so long spent sleeping on the hard ground and packing every few days.

Not a day in Africa went by that didn’t make me laugh, and on many occasions, cry. The highs and lows of the year were exhausting but totally enlivening; which made leaving very hard. I would love to drop family & friends into the life I was living there, even for a day to experience just how different things are. And vice-versa, to bring friends from there into the extreme world of Western culture so they can see what mzungu’s (foreigners) get up to back home! But perhaps one day Africa will call again and I‘ll be lucky enough to return for more adventures.

All content copyright Charlotte Hayes © 2011

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