Burundi is a little known and less visited country to the south of Rwanda of about the same size. Twenty years of civil war and lack of major tourist tickets has meant that it has never really featured on the itineraries of travellers. Insurgency in the north of the country close to the Rwandan border had created a barrier to travelling down to the relative safety of the capital, Bujambura (or ‘Buj’).
I had initially given it a pass due to the safety concerns, and having to backtrack into Rwanda afterwards. However, Hector was planning on heading south and then following Lake Tanganyika south into Tanzania and into Zambia. With someone else to travel with, and an adventure to a rarely travelled spot and therefore relatively untouched location, I had to decide either way. Did i listen to the NZ/Australian/UK/US travel warnings about hijacking and robbery in the mountains of the north although this was mostly due to events over a year ago. What about the recent claims by the Somalian branch of Al Quaeda – Al-Shabaab’s claims it was going to attack US interests in Burundi only two weeks prior. Or did the fact that about 10 busses make that trip daily, with no issue for ages, mean that the advisories were just playing captain safety. After enquiries with other expats in Rwanda who were clued up to the situation, it turned it that Buj was a regular weekend getaway. Therefore with money stashed down my boots, decoy wallets with token amounts of cash, and passports hidden in secret bag compartments we headed off through the hilly north. The trip was in uneventful aside from watching the budget version of hitch hiking through the hills. Standing on the handles on the ends of shipping containers or being towed on your bike 4 abreast on the back of a truck up and down winding roads wasn’t going to pass my litmus safety test.
Coup and counter coup between Tutsi and Hutu factions have led to ongoing bloodshed in Burundi since independence, and although the scale of Rwanda was thankfully never reached, hundreds of thousands have died since 1962. The last few years have brought some stability to the country, but pretty much our only stop was to be Buj, partly due to the security situation and not helped by the fact you only get a two night visa for your 30 USD.
Unlike Rwanda which is in the process of ditching its francophone roots in favour of English, Burundi is still very much a French speaking country. It was surprisingly easy to re-stoke the cells buried deep in my brain and not used since getting my 56% in Bursary French in 2002. Buj is sedate city located on the plains squeezed between Lake Tanganyika and the surrounding mountains. Like its language, it also retains another great contribution the French have made to the world – awesome pastries.
Breakfast of une croissant avec jambon et fromage and une tasse de jus de la maracoucha (ham and cheese croissant with a glass of passion fruit juice) went down a treat.
The morning of our full day in Buj was spent wandering the makeshift market that surrounds the burnt out remains of the main city market. Hector was having some technology issues for which Buj’s limited shopping precincts were surprisingly helpful. Everyone we met was very friendly and it was not the dodgy crime-fest I had been expecting, although we still abided by the recommendation of taking taxis at night. We had read murmurings that the rock marking the spot where Henry Morton Stanley first met David Livingstone, with the words “Dr Livingstone I presume”, was located near Buj. However it appears that the real location was just further south in Tanzania and they travelled soon after up Lake Tanganyika to Burundi. We instead spent our afternoon down at the beach, at what appeared to be the local expat hangout. Good pizza, a nice pool, cold beer and some great volleyball soon used up the day. There was an eclectic mix of people there – British building a new Hilton hotel (a good indicator that things are moving the right direction), Americans working for the state department, French volunteer workers, Dutch brewery managers, family of Belgian diplomats, and lots of Pakistani soldiers on leave from UN duties in the Congo. Wanting to try something local for dinner, we got our new found friends to point us towards a local eatery. Much to Hector’s disappointment, the only meat they had left was chèvre, which with my rusty French, I was surprised to find that the horse meat was quite tasty although the joints were smaller than expected – must have been a pony I mused. It tasted surprisingly like goat. It wasn’t until a few days later that my confusion with chevaux (horse) and chèvre (goat) was pointed out, much to Hector’s irritation at having to settle for a plate of fries…
The next morning we bid our farewells to each other as I headed back north into Rwanda and then into northern Tanzania that night, while Heck-Torr had a slow trip south down the lake into southern Tanzania. Again, the stuffing of money down boots was an unnecessary precaution I took. It was good to get back into the zone of being fully covered for travel insurance though. Transit through Kigali bus station timed perfectly to meet up with Phil and Claire, a kiwi couple we had met in Kigali a few days before, who were keen to see similar things in Tanzania. As our bus driver seemed to race the setting sun to the east of Rwanda, I tried to shut out of my mind the lecture about the biggest risk whilst travelling was road traffic accidents, which wasn’t helped by a couple of freshly capsized trucks in the ditch. We got to the border after nightfall, not able to see but only hear the Rusumu falls which mark the border crossing. Next was some more immigration officials keen to look at our ornate NZ passports and tell us all about their lives. Much better than having them up in your grill. Some stiff bartering with the border money exchange ritual, and a limited choice (one) of taxis, we reached the sleepy town of Benako, which would be generous to call it more than an oversized truck stop. We were checked in to the local guest house complete with candle lit rooms (as the power stops earlier) and a massive cauldron of hot water to sort a warm shower out of a bucket, following a good feed of beans, rice and goat (the go to staple), we we sussed.