The small country of Burundi as an overland tourist destination? It might not feature on the “must visit” lists of many overlanders, but Johan believes it deserves to be given a chance. It has more to offer than you might think…
During the last three months of 2014 the Voetspore team travelled along Africa’s Great Rift Valley. It is a journey that took us from Mozambique to Djibouti. En route there were a few surprises….
Right in the middle of Africa is a small country in the shape of a heart. It is called Burundi. Like its former colonial ruler, Belgium, Burundi is something of an odd destination. Tourists in Europe will visit London, Amsterdam, Paris, Berlin or Rome. Only by chance will a tour group stop in Brussels.
Burundi suffers from nothingness. Their next door neighbour, Rwanda, can “boast” of a genocide in 1994 when the Hutu militia wiped out about 10% of the population. To the west of the country is the Democratic Republic of the Congo with its endless civil war that has raged for decades as various factions fight over the country’s vast mineral wealth. To the east is Tanzania with the Serengeti and the beautiful lake after which it was named. On one side there is little to offer tourists. On the other, there is too much. Stuck in the middle is Burundi. It is a country that may well be worth exploring.
The No 1 attraction in Burundi is that it is now regarded as the southernmost source of the longest river in the world – the Nile. For many years the debate raged – which river is the longest? There is no doubt that the Amazon is the biggest – 74 times bigger than the Nile, in fact. Yet the Nile may be longer than the Amazon, if one takes into consideration that the Nile does not start at Jinja where it exits Lake Victoria. The modern argument goes that Lake Victoria, like Lake Albert, is merely a lake through which the Nile flows. And so it was decided to go and look for the watershed point of the African continent. This was a spot found in Burundi, and so this “insignificant” little country became the site of the southernmost source of the Nile. This is how the total length of the Nile comes to 6650km compared to the 6400km of the mighty Amazon.
Where the Nile starts from a little spring on the edge of a mountain slope it is merely a trickle. But it is the start of a very long journey. It takes more than four years for a drop of water to run all the way from this little spring to the Mediterranean at the Nile Delta in Egypt.
In our search for the source of the Nile (which, incidentally, is clearly marked with road signs and on Tracks4Africa), we found many other interesting things along the way.
At one point we stopped at a soap factory where soap is produced from the huge local palm nuts. Also scattered along the roadside are many clay brick kilns. The bricks are produced on a small scale in villages, and then transported to the capital, Bujumbura, where they are used in constructing the ever-expanding city.
Every time we stopped at the roadside to speak to the locals we were greeted with enthusiasm, even though the language barrier proved difficult. We can get by in French, the official language of Burundi, yet in the rural areas few people are fluent in French, and even fewer have any working knowledge of English.
Two interesting places in Burundi are those with links to some of the greatest explorers of the Victorian age. Close to the border with Tanzania, when you enter from Kigoma and drive north, is the Burton/Speke Memorial. Richard Burton and John Hanning Speke visited the spot in 1858. They were searching for the Holy Grail of African exploration – the source of the Nile.
Burton claimed it to be Lake Tanganyika, but Speke thought otherwise. He believed it to be Lake Victoria. This led to the argument that was called “The duel of the Nile”, which apparently resulted in the suicide of John Hanning Speke. What a pity, because he was the one who was right. The water flows from Burundi to Lake Victoria, and from there it enters the Nile proper at Jinja.
Close to Bujumbura is another spot where two legends of exploration met. Just south of the city is the Livingstone/Stanley rock. There are those who claim that this is where the two met in the 1870s and where Stanley uttered the words, “Dr Livingstone, I presume?”. That meeting actually took place a little farther south on the lake shore, at a place called Ujiji. This spot, just south of Bujumbura, was probably their base while they were circumnavigating Lake Tanganyika after the Ujiji meeting.
On our Voetspore in the Great Rift Valley journey, we took some time off to look for places not even on our Tracks4Africa maps. One gem we found was the beautiful Chutes de Karera. This is a set of three major waterfalls.
At first you feel that the entrance fee of $20 per person is a little stiff, until you start exploring the area. It is worth spending a whole day at Karera – if you can find it, that is. We had to depend on the locals to guide us there.
The capital city, Bujumbura, has the feeling of a big town, but there are no major supermarkets and the ATM facilities are limited. Yet the coffee shops are great and the Wi-Fi is free. Burundi, incidentally, produces probably the best coffee in the world.
Accommodation in Burundi is limited for overlanders. There aren’t many camping spots. Yet just north of the city, on the shores of Lake Tanganyika, are some of the most beautiful beaches on the continent. Here, too, we spent too little time.
When you plan a transcontinental route through Africa, make a detour through the heart of the continent and stop over in Burundi for a few days. You will be pleasantly surprised, I promise.