Africa Archive


Moroccan Reunions

With only a little over a week in Morocco and my parents along for the ride, we had decided to simplify the Moroccan adventure to […]

Parental reunion in Casablanca

With only a little over a week in Morocco and my parents along for the ride, we had decided to simplify the Moroccan adventure to 3 different locations and perspectives; a triangle of experiences so to speak. Casablanca of the movie and beaches fame, mostly because it was easy access; Marrakech for markets, desert and mountains and a small seaside artist town Essaouira, on the Atlantic. It meant not a lot of time wasted in transit which gave us more opportunity to settle in and soak up the respective flavours on offer.

After our false start with Ramadan the day before, we arrived to meet mom and dad at their hotel early afternoon, too firstly catch up but also brief them in on the planned adventure. It was wonderful to see them in person after almost 2 years, surreal as the location of this encounter was in the context of an Australian parental reunion. Rarely does time or distance change much with them, a major blessing when I am always overseas and never in regular proximity. I was still impressed that they had agreed to meet in Morocco during Ramadan and there was some relief that the setting, foreign circumstances or time had not changed the ease and comfortable nature of our relationship. If anything I was the one that was different here – thinner, healthier, less hair and more relaxed or at least that’s the feedback loop.

Later as we walked around the old medina and soaked up the markets and new environment, I had the joy of seeing things through mum and dad’s eyes. Sometimes as a traveller you do get jaded and take things for granted. The day to day of negotiating and buying food at the markets suddenly becomes an enlivened experience through the contrasting perspective of someone doing it for the first time. Country after country, back to back like this sometimes the process becomes the same and you take it for granted.

Buying food at the local street stalls

Watching someone who has never had to negotiate for anything in their life, become aware of the entire process for the first time is fascinating. The simplest items that seem cheap at first glance, escalate downwards in price as you walk away, sometimes ending up at 10% of the original asking price. Initially the prospect of entering this foray to buy something is daunting. I had to press Megumi for months at the start of our trip in South East Asia to engage in the game. She simply wasn’t used to it at all and hated the protracted engagement of it, she wanted out of a transaction as quickly as possible and was happy to pay more to do it. But the negotiation is a process in itself, it puts a face on the deal – both parties get to know each other a little better over the course of a transaction and it feels more real, you have to give more of yourself to own something. We have become so de-sensitized in the west to these things through consumerism. You can spend days buying something and never really talk or look at someone seriously at home. In SE Asia, India, Africa and the Middle East the art of bargaining brings the whole process alive more and there is a greater personal attachment to the purchase. None of which of course is obvious at first and my parents’ initial horror at the difficulty of establishing a real price was priceless to watch.

kids in the alleys of Marrakech

After a day of casual orientation and catching up in Casablanca, we caught a train to Marrakech, an easy 5 hour journey through a countryside that changed gradually from coastal agriculture to more arid inland and ultimately mountain desert. Again mom and dad refreshed our experience with their fascination with the countryside and the agricultural processes on display. This is what they do and love I realize, as the kilometres rolled ceaselessly by they let forth an uninterrupted commentary and speculation on the types of agriculture and plant-life on display. New things were revealed to me, that normally we would look at but not really see – hay bales stacked in barn like shapes with mud coverings on the roof to protect from the elements; strange irrigation systems, exotic crops and endemic plants. Suddenly I felt like a student again – they were going to give as good as they good on this trip, I realized with satisfaction.

Marrakech is famously a crazy place and from the station, we took advantage of an open coffee shop catering to hungry tourists (you eat where you see an opportunity as a foreigner in Ramadan), before plunging in and haggling a taxi to the old medina. A walled fort that represents the old Marrakech, the medina is a large extended marketplace and surrounding honeycomb labyrinth of streets and homes seemingly unchanged in centuries. Outside the walls, the newer Marrakech sprawls a vibrant bright apricot montage of stone buildings, the same uniform colour in all directions. All the colours seem to contrast themselves beautifully against the green of the palm trees, the white walls of the old fort and the orange browns of the town and Medina itself and the distant brown of the Atlas Mountains. Our taxi came to a stop at the end of a tiny, cobble stoned street lost deep in the Medina and all organization also came to an end. Ahead of us was the labyrinth of little laneways, somewhere in the vicinity of a traditional Moroccan home, called a Riad (Dar Tayib) where we had made a booking to stay a few nights. As we pulled our bags from the taxi, a skinny old man with a pull cart (think two wheels on a metal frame) started loading our bags, before we could properly agree a price (a big no-no) and suddenly we were on foot and chasing him through the tiny winding streets, dodging a cacophony of people, dogs, motorbikes and everything else – trying to keep him in sight as he shot left and right into little hidden cobblestone back alleys dodging kids at play to our destination.

The courtyard of our Riad

Arriving surprisingly safely at our Riad, we were greeted by the owner, a lovely Moroccan lady, (married to a Frenchmen) and ushered into a little haven of peace and serenity. The Riad was a 3 storey house and quite typical in design. Built around a central courtyard full of tall palms, plants and a water fountain; on the ground floor were cushioned lounge spaces, a dinning room and a kitchen, the second and 3rd floor contained beautiful bedrooms with stone ensuite bathrooms and the rooftop provided another covered lounge and a sundeck overlooking a closely packed, endless 3 story high jumble in all directions, Mosque turrets littering the skyline, the only thing to really break up the horizon. You can easily imagine jumping across these buildings in an action movie chase scene reminiscent of the ‘Bourne Supremacy?’

Overlooking the grand market in Marrakech

Later, under the careful guidance of a young maid at the hotel, on her way home to her family for the first meal of Ramadan, we were shown how to navigate to the main marketplace and square. A 15 minute journey through a winding network of seemingly all right turns down ever increasing corridors of activity; stalls and markets becoming more tourist orientated the closer we came, until ultimately feeding into the grand square itself. The great square of Marrakech is one of those amazing places, endlessly photographed and in films. Surrounded by Mosques on 2 sides and 2 story restaurants, the square is the gateway to the broader covered markets and supports an ever changing assortment of wildlife. Snake charmers with Cobra’s and other snakes sit around in baskets waiting for tourists to pay them a few bucks to do their tricks. Elsewhere men with monkeys on chains wait to do the same, in non-Ramadan times the place buzzes with jugglers as well, but the combination of heat and no food or liquid must be tough on athletes. At night, 50 or so food stalls set-up with tables and chairs and compete to serve all sorts of Moroccan delicacies – including snails.

Plates anyone?

We ducked the heat and sat on the second storey to take this all in, before plunging into the markets themselves. Marrakech used to be a border town and hub for the tribes of Africa and the Sahara to bring their wares. These days it is more considerably geared towards tourist staples and the operators are vicious salesmen – there are centuries of genetic, Darwinian selection mechanisms at work here on how to make a buck. The market features endless stores selling classic variations of carpets, ornately designed plates, tangines, leather and metalwork, clothing and the more exotic (ie strange herbal cures, owls and chameleons or lion skins). Intertwined with mosques, museums and other attractions, the market takes days to explore fully and even more patience to dodge the touts and friendly scams let alone negotiate a sale effectively. We had 3 days here, enough to get to know our way around reasonably well and get familiar with more realistic prices and some of the standard scams. We are able to hand hold mum through the buying process for an authentic tangine, some baskets and some other novelties to try and get her at least a better deal – no one wins here really though and as good as the markets are, the bargaining process totally wore her out I think.

An overheated driver and his Mercedes

A couple of days in we hired an English speaking driver (and his old blue Mercedes) for the day to take us up into the Atlas mountains and see some of the ancient Kasbahs (forts) and towns of the high plains and Saharan wilderness. Leaving early dad comfortably ensconced in the front seat and rattling off, a whole host of repressed questions about the agriculture and farming practices of the region, we passed through huge tracts of cactus bearing fruits covering the sides of the road and starting rising up into the bare mountains. At this point the Mercedes starting to struggle and the driver pulled over to show us a hole in the radiator. Apparently he needed our fare plus another in order to be able to afford the repair. Somehow he spent the next 10 hours climbing through the mountains, stopping regularly to fight the steam, cool down the engine and replace water without ever breaking his fast and taking a drink. The spiritual strength that the Muslim practice and its key rituals such as Ramadan develop is something to envy.

In front of Ait Bennadou

We weren’t to unnerved at the pace though, stopping regularly and going slowly gave us more time to soak up the dramatic mountain scenery and hundreds of stunning, mud villages set amongst oases along the riverbed floor as they slowly succumbed to the encroaching Saharan desert. We made a couple of key stops to check out the famous Kasbah’s, huge mud like forts where the Sultans used to live that oversaw the region. Decrepit and ruined on the outside, one we saw had stunning mosaic tile work inside the harem (naturally). A guide from the village, a Saharan Bedouin took us around for free which as it turned out meant we in turn needed to check out his carpet shop. They had some nice pieces, but after Iran I was pretty full up on the old carpets and the folks didn’t seem to keen on the potential for bargaining involved. We continued on down the valley, following the small winding stream and green oasis at the bottom as the mountains became more arid and opened into desert, the whole time. Finally we arrived at Ait Bennadou – the famous mud fortress that has appeared in dozens of films from “Gladiator” to “Jewell of the Nile”. Here we had the chance to explore the entire village, tourist trap as it is, it was a stunning location.

The Fort walls of Essaouira

When we eventually made it back to Marrakech, (our driver finally got a drink as the sun set) we had another day for some last minute shopping and exploration of the inner medina, before making the bus trip over to the coastal city of Essaouria a 3 or 4 hour journey. After the chaos of Marrakech, Essaouira was a very pleasant change of pace. Jimmy Hendrix used to escape here and the place has a very laid back, relaxed feel. Positioned by the sea, a fort built by the French out over a windy point; the walls of all the homes, fort and city are shaded white, but all the doors, windows and boats are painted a vivid bright blue. It provided a striking contrast and counterbalance to the apricot, dusty confrontation of Marrakech. We had booked a place at Riad Amana, a beautifully restored Riad with lovely bright, colourful rooms across several floors around a cental courtyard.

Juraba clad local selling hats in Essaouira

The town and characters here were intriguing which is always handy when there is little else to do other than wander around and sample the cuisine, sights and markets. The men here wear long hooded woollen jackets called Jurabas to keep out the wind, while women swaddle themselves in bright colours. The alleys are full of paintings, wood work sculptures and other bright local crafts. While primarily a fishing town, it is very popular with tourists taking in the sights from the fort walls and its cannons; braving the windy beach or just soaking up the seaside atmosphere and tranquility.

For our last stop, we caught a bus back to Casablanca. Compared to our other destinations this place did not really live up to its billing for mine, there was nothing remarkable here – its amazing what a movie will do to create a false expectation. We did get up to the beach / resort strip just to see how the other side partied though. Not quite the beautiful beaches we had imagined, more wall to wall gated resorts with private pools, restaurants and deckchairs. I get the impression that this is more where wealthy Moroccans come on holiday.

That aside, Morocco was a fantastic experience, it was exotic, unique and leaves a distinct echo in the memory. There are not many places we have been like that. Honestly, in many ways it could have been anywhere really – just being able to reconnect with family would supersede any backdrop for us. But the experience of being able to share our travel experience with mom and dad and in so doing, open up a destination to them that they would likely never have been able to manage on their own was also immensely satisfying.


Touchdown in Ramadan, Morocco

First impressions of a place are always memorable, sometimes though when you are travelling you also have that moment, I’m sure you know what it […]

First impressions of a place are always memorable, sometimes though when you are travelling you also have that moment, I’m sure you know what it feels like – nothing seems right all of a sudden, everything is foreign, threatening and heavy with intent and your instincts tell you that you are not universally aligned with this yet, that you have made a mistake, that you really should not be here. Arriving in Morocco during Ramadan was one of those for me.

Our plane got in from Paris late afternoon and my first Moroccan experience was getting into an argument with the taxi driver. Trying to bring down his rates to what I thought was an acceptable level, 12 months of travelling at least automatically trains you this way. After some heated discussion I was taken over to a faded official looking sign and shown the standard tariffs and made to realize I was undershooting the mark considerably, it was a 30km drive into town. I was gearing myself up a little too much for the infamous Moroccan rip-off I guess, but it set the scene appropriately enough. By the time we reached downtown Casablanca it was 6pm, the taxi driver had been driving way to fast, desperate to get us to our destination so that he could get home to his family to break his fast when the sunset. Can’t say I blame him really, if I hadn’t had anything to eat, drink or smoke all day I would be equally as daring I suspect. As he dropped us off though, he started in with that now familiar drama of pretending not to have any change, (even though I had seen him pull out the right note and hurriedly return it quickly to his pocket). What followed was a feeble show at an attempt to get change from a corner store and then the ‘I need to eat – its Ramadan’, just give it too me because you are a foreigner and must be rich, guilt routine. After our drama at the get-go this was a game I didn’t care to lose, me being a man of principles and all. So I started wandering to a couple of corner stores requesting change until eventually I just bought some water to get it all done. The driver by this time was yelling at me and playing furious. I finally got him his cash and he departed with a tire spin and a whole torrent of abuse in Arabic. Not an auspicious start really.

After that, we roamed a few blocks in downtown Casablanca looking for a hotel. Everything was closed, no shops were open anywhere, dust and rubbish flowed in the streets, young dodgy looking locals and rapid dogs cast nervy, threatening sidelong glances our way and all the hotel owners seemed disinterested to put it mildly. We eventually checked into a relatively clean looking cheapie and since things were now dark outside figured it was safe to go find something to eat. The earlier picture hadn’t changed though and if anything seemed worse, a few coffee shops were open with a scattering of men inside ominously smoking and drinking tea; more young, dangerous looking guys were about and it took us 30 or 40 minutes to find somewhere resembling a restaurant to eat at, there was not another foreigner in sight. As we sat down to order, I had that sinking feeling that I had made a big mistake. Morocco is a dodgy place at the best of times and travelling in Ramadan was obviously not going to work. Nothing of the vibrant, exciting colours and highs of the Morocco experience was going to be accessible. The place was going to be a grumpy, dangerous mortuary of entertainment. The last place in the world you would want to meet your parents for a week of shared travel.

Mom and dad had happened to be in Europe for a few months and since we were both in the same continent and hadn’t seen each other for a few years now, (long before we stated travelling), we had worked out a way to spend a week travelling together. I had sent them some options of places to go, but been pleasantly surprised and excited when they choose Morocco, by far the edgiest of the bunch. Mum, had been a little reticent later on once she had worked out Ramadan was on, but I had confidently reassured her that it would be great – it was the one side of the Muslim world we had yet to really experience in our travels. Now however that all seemed to be a remote pipe dream and extremely ambitious thinking. We were the seasoned travelers in charge of navigation, entertainment, planning, security and the rest. I couldn’t wait to see them, but was anxious to ensure they had a great time and experience and everything went smoothly.

Dinner was naturally a pretty sombre affair as I contemplated all this, an average meal not really helping to boost expectations either. As we walked outside though, (by this time about 9pm or so) the place was dramatically transformed. Suddenly the streets were heaving with people, unsavoury characters magically turned into extended families; cars and motorbikes woven into an intoxicating union of total congestion, while lights of all colours lit up the city in every direction. Stores were open everywhere and every sidewalk cluttered with spot market sellers, even the street cleaners were in operation cleaning up the days mess. The large centre square and fort walls of the old medina, previously abandoned now was a throng of markets and customers, touting all manner of touristy wares, vegetables and mobile phones. But it was the sound itself that left the biggest impression. Noticeably absent before, the place hummed with an energy and positivity that was both infectious and celebratory.

As we wandered the streets catching the mood, all the previous anxiety and tension eased away. The party seemed to continue all night and by morning I couldn’t wait for mom and dad to get here – it was different sure and was going to have it moments, but still going to be a lot of fun! We were just going to have to align ourselves a little differently with this strange new schedule and outlook, but that is what real experiences require anyway!


Zanzibar Reflections

The spice islands of the Zanzibar archipelago, our last stop in East Africa, promised a great chance to relax and with its heat and Muslim […]

The spice islands of the Zanzibar archipelago, our last stop in East Africa, promised a great chance to relax and with its heat and Muslim population, a perfect transitional base for our next move to the Middle East. Located a couple of hours off the coast of Dar es Salaam, Zanzibar is one of those words that just seems to command thoughts of the exotic and mysterious. It is a place steeped in a complicated history, trade here dates back several thousands years. At various times it has been a hub for Persian, Arabic, Indian, British, Portugese and Omani trade. Famed for its spices and as an epicentre for the African slave trade, the sultans of Oman used this as the location for their palaces and centre of government as recently as the turn of the 20th century.

Stonetown's beautiful doors!

Arriving early morning on the ferry from Dar the first place you encounter is Stonetown. A pretty warren of whitewashed stone houses, cobblestone streets, craft shops, forts and palaces, it is a magical setting. From the beach and waterfront Dhow boats sail in all directions, while the doors of many of the houses here are intricately carved works of art and hundreds of years old. Both provide tangible hints to the islands past, traditions and history. We have actually decided to spend a few days here right before our departure, so we jump a ‘dallah dallah’ (an open sided truck version of a mini-bus) and head across the island to the East Coast, Jambiani.

Jambiani is a quiet village that extends several kilometres along one of the best beaches in Zanzibar so we have read. Our first destination is a lodge that we had heard about from most Japanese long term travellers we had met that had stopped through here. Malaika is a small, cheap guesthouse that Japanese seem to love not just for the price (it is the cheapest place by a mile), but for the food. Somewhere along the way the villager who runs this place has not only learn’t Japanese but more importantly how to cater to the Japanese stomach and sure enough when we arrive there are 3 other Japanese solo travellers there. The rooms are simple, no electricity, extremely basic bathrooms but board comes with dinner and breakfast. We dump our bags and head off to explore the beach, only to find that the water was lapping on the edge of the houses that line the waterfront, a little surprised we retreat to the village instead and spend a few hours wandering the thin strip that is the town.

Our rasta run getaway

Everyone is friendly here, Swahili greetings of Jambo (hello), Habari (How are you?) and Karibu (Welcome) echo around us in all directions; old men, play board games in fenced, seated areas beneath tree’s in the afternoon shade, kids chase us down the street so that they can hold our hands and for the first time in as long as I can remember no-one is trying to sell us something! Paradise indeed! The biggest industry in this part of Zanzibar (apart from tourism) seems to be seaweed. Just about every house has a pegged square of the stuff drying. I had read that Japan was one of the huge export markets for this stuff, but it was fascinating to see. As the afternoon grew long, the water receded and a thin beach reassuringly began to appear, so we walked along it looking at the various waterfront options trying to find somewhere to stay longer term. As nice as the food at Malaika might be, no electricity was a bit of an issue and it simply didn’t have the appeal of a 4 day stay. It is low season at present, so most of the hotels and beach escapes are closed or hadn’t seen customers in weeks, making it easy enough to negotiate pretty decent rates. After a few exploratory enquiries, we stumbled upon a bright, funky place called “Starfish”, run by a community of young friendly rasta’s with a constant reggae flow. They had a standalone villa, beautifully appointed, cheap, with hammock and right on the beach just along from the restaurant / bar, all the furniture constructed out of old wooden boats. We struck a deal for tomorrow, got initiated into the ‘family’ and headed back for dinner. True to form, Malaika served up a Japanese fish style curry, accompanied by mountains of rice and tea. Megumi was well satisfied, even more so by the stack of Japanese books they had collected in the library. Post dinner we wandered down the beach to another rasta bar with the other Japanese travellers and received our biggest surprise. It seems we had arrived at high tide and during the dinner interval the water had receded almost 500 metres from shore, in the process stranding the hundreds of dhow boats on the sand and revealing large seaweed farms and a wide sandy beach – the white water of the waves now no more than a tiny spec in the distance.

Our plan was simply to relax and do nothing for 4 days here, catch up on some reading, some blogging & indulge ourselves in other such nothings. As we moved into Starfish the next day we realized we couldn’t have chosen a more apt setting. The oceans daily transformations became the most hypnotic backdrop imaginable. With the ebb and flow of the tide, the entire village appeared, tending their seaweed farms in the morning, going fishing and hauling seaweed back to the shore. You could literally wade out ankle deep for half a kilometre amongst the farms, boats and villagers. Then as the tide came in early afternoon everyone retreated, the ocean a clean, turquoise blanket discreetly hiding all evidence of the labour. The evenings waves washing in with them a huge assortment of seaweed and shells, pickings for the early morning villagers to clean up, sort through and farm out for valuables.

Seaweed gardening at low tide

After a hectic several months, we hadn’t really had a chance to relax or reflect much on our travel to date. Kenya aside, Africa had been a constantly moving feast, with little respite for contemplations, as had our last days in India truth be told. Here, seemingly in a village devoid of tourists or agenda, the space finally revealed itself and in tune with the villagers magnetic daily routines, the thoughts flowed.

To be honest, I had little expectations in Africa. India / Nepal, the Middle East and South America were all my key destinations when we set out. Africa was kind of a Megumi indulgence, seduced by the animals she so loves and the chance to tick off another continent in our adventure. It was a surprise packet really, an unknown and after almost 3 months here I wouldn’t have had it any other way. Certainly there are a few places I would have loved to have gotten the chance to explore and allocated more time to – Uganda first and foremost, but also Botswana and some countries in the West Coast (Senegal, Ghana). Had we known more, we probably wouldn’t have flown to Egypt either, but rather tried overlanding through Ethopia and the Sudan. Yet everywhere we go, we have such compromises to make.

The endearing sense of the African continent is similar to my own feelings about Australia in many ways, though very different in others. Nature inspires here and is the dominant driving force of the land, everything subordinate; yet whereas the harshness of the Australian condition results in nature achieving numerous harmonious niches, Africa is different this way. It has a raw Darwinian feel to it – it’s all ‘survival of the fittest’, top of the food chain stuff here, something that extends to both its animals and its tribal conflicts among the people. Life is incredibly cheap here and only the strong survive.

Dhow boat at sunset

With a few rare exceptions; civilization and the cities don’t really offer that much in the ways of an experience in Africa. There is little to learn from most of the continents epi-centres, tending simply to be a place for the masses to try their luck at escaping the cycle of poverty. Crime, violence and desperation seem to increase exponentially with the population, but perhaps that could be said of most places in the world outside Japan. It is only out in the countryside, the villages and stunning expanse of the natural environment that Africa impresses. My abiding memories will be those of the safari’s, hikes and bus rides – immersions amongst both people and animals, totally unique experiences in the context of our global adventures.

The other thing that stands out unfortunately is the expense. Africa is not cheap and tragically not suited to the budget traveller. All the good things here cost serious money and they are really the things you want to do. In many places prices are anchored in US dollars, manipulated by corrupt, self serving governments and feel extortionate relative to the poverty of the surrounding people and villages. There is rarely a middle ground. It would not be a problem if it felt like the money was going to the community but this is rarely the case. Asia and other great tourist destinations do not work this way, they tend to embrace their exchange differences as a key attraction, catering to all the market segments and opportunities. In the desperate grab for cash in this land, everyone has sold themselves short of the bigger picture and the chance to captivate more people with the African magic and bridge so many of the cultural and financial divides that simmer below the surface here. For this and other reasons, I am actually glad to be leaving. The time spent here has been magical, insightful and an experience that will live long in the memory – but it is comparative poor value for money. We are not constrained by student budgets as many of the travellers that we meet, but we also know we have other places where we would rather spend it. There are cheaper ways to see Africa though I think – buy a 4WD and camp or alternatively volunteer (though most people we have spoken to working this way, said they have not enjoyed the experience and likely would not come back). Perhaps we will revisit someday if I happen to trip and fall into a fat corporate salary; a limited travel window would tend to hide the sting a lot more effectively.

Until then, though, we have the Middle East to think about. And as I look out at the incoming tide, a whole new set of challenges seems to be washing in – burka’s, conservatism, ancient civilizations, no alcohol and insane heat, all balanced by a completely new raft of exotic delights. I can’t wait!


On Safari in Tanzania

Ego bruised and body still numb from our Kilimanjaro adventures, stage two of our Tanzanian explorations involved a 5 day camping Safari taking in 4 […]

Ego bruised and body still numb from our Kilimanjaro adventures, stage two of our Tanzanian explorations involved a 5 day camping Safari taking in 4 of Tanzania’s national parks, with emphasis on the big 2 – the Serengeti & the Ngorongoro crater. We had chosen to do a combined climbing /safari package with Zara Adventures as this seemed to offer better value for money and was just plain easier really. While still exorbitant, it provided us with a quality budget camping safari scenario and we had also taken a liking to the hotel’s free wifi, hot shower, dining and laundry facilities that nicely bookended each stage of our journey. All up, this combined part of our travels though was far from cheap, eating close to 10% of our overall travel budget – but we were in Africa and somehow it seemed the right thing to do.

Our trusty safari steed

After being introduced to our driver / guide, Robert; our cook, Erasto and a superbly outfitted 4×4 LandCruiser, we were good to go. And after a few supply stops, we left Moshi, a peaceful town at the foothills of Kilimanjaro at about 10.30am and set off North towards our first stop – Manyana National Park.

The drive was a story in itself, perhaps acutely focused by the inability of my limbs to do anything at this point in time the eyes became transfixed by the changing landscape. Moshi is lush, green and verdant – the fields packed with coffee, banana’s and maize (corn). As we rolled past Arusha, the major town that serves as the launching part for Northern Tanzania and the Safari industry, maize became the predominant crop. As the plains appeared and the maize thinned, so too did small herds of goats and sheep, round thatched huts and red clad locals – the distinctive signs of the Masai. The Masai are very a traditional tribe and custodians of the plains and savannahs of these parts for millennia, attired in combinations of red & purple hued tunics (to ward off lions), each carries a traditional walking stick (even on a bike), a sheathed knife and in the wilds a spear. Slowly the singular huts became circular villages (or Bomvu’s) – hemmed by thorny fences to keep out predators and protect their herds at night. The countryside increasingly revealed finely, grazed pastures, the hills dotted with hundreds of small herds of goats, sheep and cattle attended by distant red robed figures. About 3 hours into the drive, we passed a way point where a thousand nomadic Masai had gathered at an impromptu market – trading all manner of vegetables, livestock and other essentials. It was infinitely colourful, blissfully free of cars or tech of any kind; a scene that seemed as though it could have taken place anytime in the last several hundred years. Further on we passed what looked like a council meeting – 30 or so men robed in red, all calmly seated under a large Acacia tree engaged in animated discussion. As the people changed, so too did the landscape and the flat plains began became inundated with the thorny Acacia tree that so dominates the savannah areas, so too the distinctive Boab tree began to emerge; its swollen trunk and twisted tangle of bare branches, ghosting the skylines in all its aged glory.

Lake Manyara

They really are 'blue' !

Around mid afternoon we reached our campsite, its large tree’s a pleasant haven for nesting storks. As our car pulled up, a team of locals stripped our vehicle, erected our tents and kitchens, freeing us for an afternoon game drive. Manyara National Park was not particularly notable, a lucky dip entrée as our guide elegantly put it. The park is a thin strip hemmed between a large lake and the steep hills of the Rift Valley. We saw the usual fare here – elephants, buffalo’s, zebra, giraffe, gazelles, baboons and a huge array of birds. Still sore, our expectations and energy were pleasantly low and the sight of a ‘blue balled’ monkey served nicely as the peak of our afternoons entertainment.

Udupai Gorge & a Masai village

The next morning, we departed early for the drive across to the Ngorongoro crater rim, which we skirted on our way through to the Serengeti. Descending down the crater on the other side, we stopped in at the Udupai Gorge – an archaeological marvel. In the distinctive bedrock layers of the gorge, exposed over time by the rivers erosion, Mary & Louis Leakey in the 60’s and 70’s first discovered signs of mans prehistoric ancestors, dating to some 1.7 million years ago. While earlier remains have since been found in both South Africa & Ethopia, footprints of man have been found here that date to more than 3 million years old – one of the true crucibles of our species and an apt setting for lunchtime contemplations.

Believe it or not, I'm trying!

Perhaps inspired, we stop at a local Masai Bomvu and bribed a chief’s son $40 for a tour of his village. They met us with a traditional greeting; in separate groups of men and women, they chanted their welcome and commenced dancing, a dance famous for the vertical jumping of their male members. As we watched, first myself and then Megumi (with the women) were dragged in to participate and work our incredibly tight calves into some vertical hangtime – it was a pretty pitiful display by comparison, but fun nonetheless. The chief’s son, Paul then explains the key principles of the Masai & clever design of their nomadic camps during a brief tour – the gist being that they are polygamous; they only herd goats, sheep & cattle – eating the meat of all and mixing a concoction of cows blood and milk for drink; these livestock are their total livelihood and invaluable to them, their wealth determined by their numbers; when boys turn 18, they are sent out to roam for 2 years and only become men / married upon return after killing a lion! There is much more of course and Robert our guide, gives us some other great insights on the more modern reality of their role in society & conservation, albeit somewhat cynically afterwards. The tour finishes with offers to buy some of their jewellery – for more traditional minded folk they also really know how to fleece tourists.

The Serengeti

As we came down from the crater rim and onto the single, straight gateway road that provides access to the Serengeti, the skies clear and the perspective is radically transformed. Serengeti is Masai for ‘endless plain’ and it couldn’t be a more perfect description. Before us, the flat treeless, ankle high yellow grassed expanse, opens up as far as you can see, you can actually see the earth bend on the horizon – something I’ve only experienced ever before in the Australian outback. Hundreds of thousands of gazelle, zebra, ostrich and other game roam freely either side of the road on a scale that is hard to fathom. The wildebeast and other larger animals have already left this area though, moving deeper into the centre of the park now that the higher grass has gone and things are starting to dry out. This is the foundation of the ‘great migration’ that builds steam in later July / August to become one of the worlds greatest natural wonders, we hoped to catch its infant stages later on and had planned our trip here accordingly. After another 30 minutes or so driving in a straight line into the plain, we finally encounter some trees, a rocky outcrop and giraffes – the entrance to the park. We had only just arrived in the Serengeti and already we were wonderstruck by the sheer presence of the place.

Leopards courting..

We had planned to camp in the middle of the park, so after registration at the gate, we took a slow game drive for the afternoon, as a roundabout way of getting there. We had briefed Robert our guide that we were really here to see cats & the migration, particularly cheetah and the elusive leopard having already seen most other things. He rapidly tuned through the CB channels to find the rangers station and other drivers that he knew and within minutes had teamed up with another driver from Zara. We then sidetracked and headed North across a rough dirt track, this is prime cheetah country he said. Sure enough, after a while of seeing nothing but grass, we stumbled across a young cheetah with a fresh kill – impala. Particularly sensitive and freaking out about the car, it was ready to abandon the kill without eating, so we let it be – Robert had also intercepted another ranger call – there were leopard sightings, safari’s great rarity. He stepped on the gas and 30 rough minutes later we were facing 2 leopards in a tree, obliviously engaged in a courting ritual. The female jumping around the tree, shaking her bits in an enticing, seductive dance – the male simply lazing away, either already worn out or simply not interested. It was an absolute rare event of the highest calibre and captivating for all. Since it was getting dark, we tore ourselves away all too soon, as we still had to set-up camp for the night, but in so doing chanced on a lion, up a tree. We had been in the park 3 hours and had already ticked off most of our ‘safari wants’ – what a place!

Wildebeast taking a breather mid 'migration'

That night, we camped in a small campsite; it featured basic toilets and dining areas caged off as protection from hungry animals. We were then warned to stay in our tents all night in spite of any emergency toiletry needs – there were no fences here and animals of all kinds liked to wander through. Sure enough, after eating a sumptuous camp feast prepared out of thin air by our chef Erasto, at about 9.00pm, a large male lion started roaring at the edge of the campsite, a few hundred metres from our tents at most. The loud call was him distinctly marking his territory, letting everyone know whose land this was. Captivated and not without a bit of trepidation, I stood in the middle of the campsite until quite late, chatting to an Aussie musician, Simon and a few other campers, while the lion slowly roared its way around our perimeter – there are no words to really describe the thrill and awe this experience inspired or for that mater the hyena cries later on, as they patrolled in the lions wake.

A lion family dinner

The next day we woke with the sunrise to head further into the centre – our goal was to catch the illusive migrating wildebeast as they started to chaotically form the groups and mass that would later tally in excess of a million as it stampeded its way into Kenya. For a few hours we were treated to little more than elephants, ostriches and vultures, so Robert stopped for a late breakfast at a hippo pool. There is nothing like seeing 300 hippo’s crowded all over each other, fighting and moaning to kickstart a days sightseeing, let me tell you. Shortly after this, we found our first wildebeast herd – a group numbering some 10 thousand or more charging through the undergrowth madly in one direction, getting tired, resting and then tearing off in another. They will do this for the next month, slowly building in number as the groups coalesce and fine tuning their direction based on water supply – even on this small scale though, the site is still exhilarating. We came across several other such groups that day, as well as herds of elephants, crocodiles and our big prize, a large pride of 20 or so lions that had just killed a buffalo. As we were pulling up to the site, a lioness emerges from the grass right in front of our vehicle to cross the road to the kill – to our amazement (and Megumi’s lifetime fantasy) a small procession of 5 tiny lion cubs then follow the lioness out of the bushes in single file – pure magic. We spent several hours simply watching this extended lion family feasting, sleeping and enjoying their afternoon spoils.

The next morning, we woke up to an elephant in the camp, a large herd was passing by and a big bull came to the campsite to investigate all the noise. (A large migrating herd of dutch football fans had arrived late in the night, driving orange cars of all description and making plenty of noise!) When Megumi tried to get close for a photo she was soundly trumpeted for her efforts.

The Ngorongoro Crater

Staring down into Ngorongoro crater

As we drove back through the Serengeti and the fields of game to the Ngorongoro crater, I could not help feel a sense of complete awe at this place. I honestly doubted there is anything that can compare to this from a safari perspective, everything else we had seen felt like a zoo or controlled environment in comparison. Yet, as we climbed up to the crater rim away from the sunshine and through the rain and clouds, then descended back down to the sunny floor of the Ngorongoro crater national park, a new wonder was revealed.

Ngorongoro is a volcanic crater about 25 km in diameter, surrounded on all sides by walls that rise more than 500m upwards, to create one of natures most stunning natural amphitheatres. Creating its own set of unique microclimates, the crater forms dense, impenetrable jungle in a cloud layer at the top, combining with the sheer walls to provide perfect isolation from the outside world. The floor of the crater is largely a flat treeless plain, with a large lake forming the centre, a marshland in one corner and a forest in another and also consuming the surrounding walls. During rainy season the roads in and out (there are only 2) become impassable and even now it was too much for a few 4×4’s. Leaving we were forced to give a lift to a Finnish couple whose safari vehicle’s radiator had burned out on the ascent.

Ugandan Clown Cranes

Once down on the floor, every form of African wildlife was in abundance and immediately accessible at close quarters. In our 6 hour drive around, we saw more than 20 lions, several different prides all resting uncaring in the sun or on roads – old males, lionesses, young cubs. Elephants roamed the marshlands, while hippo’s escaped the sun in the fresh water ponds. On the plain thousands of zebra, buffalo, wildebeest, rhino, antelope and gazelle graze side by side with ostrich, flamingos, storks and pelicans. We were treated to a cheetah resting under a tree, numerous hyena roaming and a rare sighting of a large civet cat. But perhaps the most stunning of all was the Ugandan, clown crane – simply the most beautiful bird I have ever beheld.

If the Serengeti was stunning for its raw scale; Ngorongoro is more than its equal, simply because it forms the world’s most perfect natural biosphere. The descent into (and out) of the crater feels like a descent into another world entirely. I would suggest that the inspiration for Spielberg’s movie Jurassic Park stems largely from here.

Tarangire National Park

Boab trees in Tarangire

On a post crater high, we returned to the same campsite near Manyara National Park (together with our Finnish rescuee’s) and next day rose early again for our final game drive, the Tarangire. By now, we had seen everything we had really dreamed of and this represented simply a scenic route home. The Tarangire is a large national park that is very popular in the dry season, but during the wet tends to clear of animals. The wet marsh and riverbed becomes unpleasant to most of the wild animals underfoot (think footrot), so they migrate out of the park and return when it’s drier. Consequently our expectations where not particularly high here and our real interest was the stunning collection of great and ancient boab tree’s that pepper the parks landscape.

As we started the drive, the huge ancient boabs immediately stole attention and after a while thus absorbed, we stumbled across a 4×4 bogged axle deep in the mud, attempting to cross one of those roads that screams out for avoidance. We then spent the next hour watching 2 Irishman try every innovation imaginable to try and free the thing – apparently their first day on a self drive safari – it’s a pretty tough school!

Well worth the wait!

True to form, there was little game here – we saw a few elephants, some giraffe’s and the odd waterbuck as we drove around, but Robert had heard that there were 2 cheetahs up ahead near a waterhole somewhere. As he pulled up approximately at the site, we assumed we had missed them, but cautioned otherwise we settled down to watch and wait, Robert convinced they were just resting in the grass somewhere and would stick their head up eventually if we were patient. After what seemed like half an hour of close attention (plus a bit of whistling and banging truth be told), Megumi spotted a cheetah head perhaps 70m from the road and we watched as it rose, walked across a few metres and lay down again under a tree. A bit more waiting, whistling and banging and suddenly 3 cheetah heads popped up – a whole family. In a park without animals, somehow we had hit the jackpot, likely the only one around as well.

In all, it capped off a remarkable 5 days. Megumi was in raptures – it was animal planet and more in the flesh and her absolute dream. As for me, it was everything I dreamed a safari and the magical African adventure should be. Worth every cent and as an experience something that will live long in the memory!


Of Climbing Kilimanjaro

I will confess upfront, that I got roped in a bit on this one. Megumi perhaps inspired by Nepal was dead keen to do it […]

I will confess upfront, that I got roped in a bit on this one. Megumi perhaps inspired by Nepal was dead keen to do it before the glaciers disappeared! I was happy to go along and help her achieve it, although I was not all that inspired and for these reasons probably didn’t research or really take the whole thing seriously enough, but anyway…

For those that don’t know, Mt Kilimanjaro is on the border of Kenya / Tanzania and at 5,895m it is the tallest mountain in Africa and indeed taller than all the mountains in Europe and many other continents besides. The mountain is particularly stunning and its snow capped, glacier covered cone rises from the surrounding plains to dominate the African landscape, somewhat similar too if not more imposing than Mt Fuji in Japan. While we had passed “Kili” several times in our travels so far, we had yet to really see it. The mountain seemingly constantly enveloped in cloud. It’s a strange thing, climbing something you have never seen.

Climbing Kili is not cheap though no matter how you go about it. It costs at least $1,000 per person to do. Half of this is due to the national park fees, something like $100 per day, the rest covers the compulsory guides and porters necessary to transport all your food, cooking gear (you need to bring your own gas) and other supplies including a tent (if you are camping). Megumi had found a company Zara, that offered a pretty reliable package according to other Japanese bloggers she had read, all had had a great experience with them. So we signed up, rocked up to Moshi from Nairobi and set about preparing to climb.

Now anyone that has seen our facebook updates already knows how this story ends, so I will get a few excuses in early here. While climbing Kili is one off those big touristy things to do in Africa (about 12,000 people try it a year), it is also a pretty intense challenge. Altitude sickness (AMS) is a serious problem for everyone who attempts it and Kili kills (twice as many people as Everest apparently), it had already accounted for a young 30 year old guy as recently as 3 weeks ago. I had actually come down with a bit of a cold in Nairobi, but it was only a light sinus infection and thinking that in Nepal I had had no real trouble with AMS, (whereas Megumi had really struggled) I didn’t particularly take it seriously. I just bought a bagful of chems to stave things off, if it got any worse.

With our guide, Felix

On arriving at Zara, we received a short briefing on the climb and along with the other member of our climbing posse, a Canadian woman named Joanne, got introduced to our guide (Felix) and his cousin and assistant guide (Wilson) for the trek. From conversations with other returning climbers we knew it was going to be very cold (and wet) so introductions done, we set about hiring essential gear – sleeping bags, rain gear, walking sticks and other such stuff and packed our bags. Simple really!

Next morning, we set off at about 9am. We had chosen to do the easy climb, the Marangu route which features convenient huts at the key stops along the way. We were attempting to do the climb in 5 days, without an acclimatization day, which is pretty aggressive but not that uncommon and didn’t seem to affect success rates either way. These days most people try to climb via the Machame route which is a little more scenic, takes 6 days so offers better acclimatization, though with no huts it requires tents and the additional ensemble of supporting porters and gear. With lots of rain about, this camping option hadn’t really appealed to us much. Even though we were staying in huts though, we still required 3 porters for my and Megumi’s gear and food, plus a cook, a waiter and the 2 guides all shared across the party. In total for ourselves and Joanne, it represented a support team of 9 people. In Nepal, we had had just one!

Arriving at the gate of the park before noon, we set about climbing. Day One was an easy, 3 hour gradual, gravel road climb through a scenic rainforest. Not particularly exerting it was quite enjoyable. We ambled along deeply in conversation with Joanne, trading backgrounds and stories; the tree’s all covered in moss and lichen, monkeys making noise in the tree-tops, all pretty pleasant stuff. When we stopped briefly for lunch, 2 Mongoose kept darting out from the bushes, rather sinisterly hunting for scraps. Arriving mid afternoon at the first set of huts and our stop for the first night, we found a family of black and white Colobus monkeys and 20 odd schoolkids on an excursion. After checking into our nice 4 bed hut, we had some afternoon tea & popcorn and then did a brief acclimatization walk up to a nearby crater. The thinking being walk higher and sleep lower to better help you adjust to the altitude. We were now at 2,800 metres – not much higher than Nairobi where we had been staying for the last 2 weeks, so everyone was feeling pretty good.

Our waiter / Porter - Manuel!

The next day, we set off about 9am with our guides; the porters and cooks had already taken off earlier up the trail, bags, cooking gear and baskets of food perched precariously atop their heads, African style. The second days climb was about 5-6 hours, rising about 1,000m – again nothing too steep or challenging, just a slow gradual climb into altitude. An hour into the walk, the tree’s started to drop away and the landscape transition into heather, moor and a fascinating local tree species that only grows above 3,000m not dissimilar to Australian “grass trees”. As we rose further, we started to ascend through the cloud layer experiencing a little rain and while we glimpsed some heavily veiled peaks in the distance, Kilimanjaro remained cloaked throughout.

The Horombo camp, was a pretty collection of huts, located on a river above a helipad, the view backward and beyond was that of an endless sea of clouds, quite stunning. At 3,700 m, we were starting to get into AMS territory, although all 3 of us were feeling fine. Again arriving mid-afternoon, we enjoyed our tea and popcorn (our last actually – it was giving us all gas!) and climbed up a few hundred metres in the late afternoon, just to gain some acclimatization before returning back to bed. After a solid meal, we slept soundly in our little hut, although the cold was starting to kick in more seriously now.

The next day was much like the 2nd only colder and we broke out the jackets and wet weather gear for another 6 hour gradual climb up a further 1,000m. Here the path climbed out of the heather and the ‘grass trees’ into an arid, alpine desert landscape inching closer to the craggy peaks. Winds howled across the empty, stoned landscapes adding a decided chill to events. Largely uneventful, we started passing a few other climbers coming down most looked exhausted, a few elated. As we got close to the Kibo Hut, our end destination for the afternoon, the path steepened and in the high altitude we experienced our first real climbing test. Nothing too challenging, but it left us short of breath, we could suddenly feel how high we were.

View from Horombo Hut

Arriving at Kibo Hut at around 4700m, we met several other climbers just recently descended, all were quite exhausted and they left little doubt at how hard the task was going to be from here. We got billeted into our dorm, a large room with 20 bunks and a table in a large cold hut; we promptly dumped our bags and crashed out. Now at this point, I had barely raised a sweat and was feeling really good, despite the dripping tap for a nose. However, when we awoke after a short nap, things were a little different. Joanne was feeling terrible, so we walked up the slope a few hundred metres to see if some that would help. Along the way she was overcome with nausea and threw up – not good signs. Not feeling that great either I postulated that maybe the sleep was the problem, the light breathing of sleep bringing on AMS as the body was starved of oxygen. Back at the hut, we had dinner around 5pm, Joanne and I had little appetite, though Megumi threw down enough pasta for both of us. As we did so, we watched another young male climber out our window throw up into the hillside, apparently everyone does it up here, says our guide, nothing to worry about.

The full 'Kili' expedition team

The plan was to sleep until 11pm, get up, dress in everything we had and set off for the climb about 11.30pm. I promptly fell into a deep sleep and next thing I knew was being woken up. Suddenly though, I felt terrible – just getting dressed was an impossible effort and brought on waves of nausea. Jo-anne hadn’t slept much at all and though not great was feeling ok, Megumi was raring to go. The sleep thing had obviously affected my badly – I hate it when I am right. Grabbing a handful of cold and flu tablets, some panadol and diamox (for altitude) I struggled out the door. I knew I was in a lot of trouble.

The first hour of the climb or so, was a slow trudge uphill under a stunning starry sky. No-one was saying much and I tried to battle through the nausea and tiredness thinking I could just work it off. Suddenly though, I experienced a dizzy spell and almost fainted, throwing out a pole to catch me for support. Our guide, Felix was in front and his assistant guide (and cousin, Wilson) was behind me bringing up the rear. They kept up a steady conversation in Swahili throughout and I knew I was under close observation. After the first dizzy spill, things got worse, I struggled to breathe, my nose completely blocked, every move became a huge effort and I was unable to get enough air through my lungs. I was forced to stop several times, my heart thumping, desperately short of breath, on the verge of throwing up and dizzy. Each time, Felix pushed me to keep going, each time I did thinking I might improve and it got worse. After 2 or 3 attempts at this, I realized I was simply unable to keep it up, headaches were circulating ominously now as well. We were only 2 and 1/2 hours into the climb, just over 5,000m which meant we had 5 hours more of this (and another 800+ metres) still to go and we hadn’t even hit the steep bits yet. Megumi was full of beans at this stage and Joanne, while grateful to stop, seemed to be doing fine as well. Felix was talking with Wilson about perhaps splitting the teams, one moving slowly, me, and the other pushing on to reach the peak at sunrise. I decided to give it one more go, but only lasted a couple of minutes before coming to an exhausted, breathless stop amid another dizzy spell. A cold reality and truth settled in, I could not go on. Normally I ooze willpower and there are very few times in my life that I have not achieved anything I set my mind to. But I realized this was just becoming physically impossible, mind would not bend matter. My breathing apparatus may have only been down 10-15% because of my flu, but I simply couldn’t get enough oxygen at this altitude and the resulting nausea, weakness and dizziness was pushing me to unsafe limits with AMS. I decided to turn back.

Sunrise on the 'roof of Africa'

After checking my pulse and heart, Felix decided to take me back down, as guide he was totally responsible and if my situation did not improve or got worse back at camp, he would have to take me down further or organize to sled / chopper me out. Wilson the assistant guide would push on with Megumi & Joanne. Megumi, god bless her, was happy to come back with me as well, but I urged her on telling her I would be fine – this was her dream after all! Immediately after we started down I began to feel better and knew I had made the right decision, I had been at the physical limit and my body simply could not support what would be needed of it over the next few hours. Back at camp, we could see the lights of the others high up on the side of the mountain and under Felix’s careful watch I collapsed, exhausted into my bunk – still suffering intense waves of nausea. It was just after 3am and I had no problems falling asleep, while I waited for the others to return.

Megumi at the summit (uhuru)

As to the ascent, I can only narrate what Megumi and Joanne told me afterwards. Megumi apparently had little trouble at all (according to Joanne), though Joanne said she had herself really struggled. Apparently about an hour after I turned back they hit a really steep incline which left them both breathless and exhausted – they both agreed afterwards that I had made the best decision turning back when I did. In all they spent 6 hours ascending step by step, constantly short of breath in the high altitude, taking in large sweeping u-turns and a gruelling last hour up the sharp rocky incline to Gilmans Point; then traversing across the snow a further 2 hours to Uhuru, the highest peak, with clear commanding views above the clouds and of the glacier, arriving just after sunrise. They were on a high and at the roof of Africa, though suffering from too much altitude to really dwell on it much. Megumi was elated to see the glacier and realize it was still in such stunning condition. Though completely exhausted, somehow she still had enough energy left to take a stack of photo’s and document everything along the way. The trip down only took 3 or so hours, coming straight down the gravel inclines they had worked so hard to zig-zag up at night. Felix sent up our waiter Manuel, a real entertainer, to meet them and grab their day packs and ease their final hour or so of descent.

When they both walked into the hut a little later, they were clearly exhausted, though Megumi still seemed to be jumping around the room. Both claimed it was the hardest thing they had ever done and neither wished to ever do it again (but perhaps they were just being nice). Though still feeling nausea I was definitely significantly improved and though well short of an appetite, we forced a quick breakfast and rather than delay any further with rest, decided to keep going down the mountain back to the Horombo hut and lower altitude as soon as possible. While mostly downhill, it was still a long way (12 km) after the all night exhaustions especially of the others and we stumbled into camp mid afternoon with very little energy left. Everyone slept well that night!

Toasting success - Megumi & Joanne

The final day was basically walking back down the paths of day 1 and 2 combined. We left very early, all our legs really feeling it, but in the lower altitude we were in good spirits and able to make good time. We got back to the hotel sometime around 3pm and after sorting out tips for our large posse of helpers, settled back with a few civilizing beers, some wine, rewarding hot showers and clean clothes

And that was it, funny really. I was outdone by 2 girls. I had felt physically fine right up until the final ascent and then it was all over before I knew it. In the next few days, I wondered what I could have done differently. Strangely for once in my life, I don’t think the climb or the fitness was the problem. The simple truth was that I had underestimated what was required and should have waited to do the climb in better health. Under the microscope of high altitude I was simply found wanting. No shame in it really though, I have heard as many as 40% don’t actually make it to the top. And as solace, the local beer Kilimanjaro has a t-shirt that says, “if you can’t climb it, drink it.” I have seen people wearing it – all good advice, which I have been diligently following since. Now I just need to find out where to buy one.….


‘Hotel Heine’, Kenya

After the travails of overlanding, we arrived in Nairobi, some 2 days behind schedule and on a bus that was 7 hours late – a […]

After the travails of overlanding, we arrived in Nairobi, some 2 days behind schedule and on a bus that was 7 hours late – a cumulative African delay the result of crossing Tanzania by land from Malawi. Arriving in downtown Nairobi (Nai-robbery as the place is affectionately known) at a bus stand at 2am in is certainly not something any guidebook recommends. One of the toughest cities in Africa, stories of high crime abound – kidnapping, robbery and much worse. The border crossing at night from Kenya to Tanzania at night had already been an interesting experience. Midway along a 6 hour apology for a dirt road, that frequently threw you several metres into the air from your seat; the bus drops you off and proceeds through to the other side of immigration. You are then forced to walk the unlit gauntlet of no-mans land from one immigration centre to the other, while innumerable faces jump out of the dark at you demanding passports or visa payments, telling you your bus is leaving and to follow them or trying to simply change money at ridiculous rates. A hundred scams of chance playing on the nights’ confusion and traveller ignorance, to perhaps extort a profit and distract you from the task at hand.

James & Anais - learning to walk!

Hardly unsurprisingly then, that we were incredibly thankful & relieved to be drifting from our usual travelling script and backpacker trail to be actually staying with friends in Nairobi. As a former working colleague of both myself and Megumi; we had known, befriended and shared many trials and tribulations of the professional ilk with James over some 6+ years in Japan. He, his wife Claudia and 9 month gorgeous baby girl, Anais, had recently relocated here from Tokyo; Claudia taking up a job with the UN Environment Programme which is headquartered in Nairobi. After our late night rendezvous with James, we were then given a tour of his recently settled, 5 bedroom house in a UN approved housing compound on the outskirts of the city, complete with several security guards and a maid. With the introduction of our own room & bathroom, a gourmet kitchen, wireless internet and the incredibly generous offer to make ourselves at home for as long as we needed; for us this was more akin to a 5 star hotel than simply crashing at a ‘friends’ place. A breath of fresh air in complete contrast to our recent African adventures, it represented a re-acquaintance with old friends, forgotten luxuries and a sense of home that we had not really experienced since Myanmar some 8 months distant now.

United Nations HQ

The last year it seems had been quite transformative on all fronts and more than just a reunion, it provided an interesting chance to reflect. Both us, and the Heines’, had experienced huge changes in the last 12 months. For them, having a baby and moving to Kenya was embarking on an exciting, if not daunting new lifestage and career in a new frontier and continent. It was a radical transition that in many ways mirrored our own travel induced evolutions. The joy of seeing James happily transformed into ‘Mr Mom’ and sharing the daily joys and development of the gorgeous Anais with them was immensely rewarding. Equally over the next 2 weeks through Claudia, we were also experienced a fascinating insight into the workings of the UN. The UN complex here employs over 2,000 people and represents the only divisional HQ of the UN based in a developing nation. More akin to a university campus than a set of office’s, it propagates an entire support community in Nairobi. The ever present symphony of cars with red UN diplomatic plates necessitates its own police force and a network of international restaurants, malls, shops and café’s that all supports a lifestyle and international community that we had not experienced since South Africa. While we were there, a large UN divisional biodiversity conference was taking place and Claudia kindly treated us to a tour. Delegates from all the UN countries were in town to meet over several days to share information, research and set / argue policies around key global biodiversity issues. Once hammered out, these policies and guidelines are fed back to their respective governments as global directives and initiatives to influence local executions and bio-diversity programmes. Perusing the display stands showing the latest information, research and policy outlines towards such subjects as biofuels, climate change, indigenous cropping and farming, all provided a fascinating insight into the role the UN is trying to play here. In all, it provided a fantastic perspective and environment that couldn’t be in more contrast with other fellow traveller’s experiences of the city. Suffice to say, that very few people had actually stuck around here for long.

Despite all our other intentions to explore Kenya though, we did not really stray far from this comfortable base. Through the shared passion and perspective imbued by James’ insights, we were able to get some appraisal of the emerging Kenyan & East African mobile, internet and infrastructure space; a glimmer of some of the ideas, opportunities and challenges inherent here. Yet apart from learning, catching up & trading tales, this was also a chance to re-equip, organize and take care of essentials ahead of our next stages of adventure. From the simple joys of being able to upload photo’s, research destinations, book plane tickets (for Iran & Morocco) and buy essentials; to visiting a professional ophthalmologist to sort out my rather serious recurring eye infection and treating ourselves to some gourmet home cooking, we found it quite hard to move. A blissful respite that we remain incredibly grateful for!

Hells Gate National Park

The one exception to this was a four day escape a few hours north of Nairobi to do some hiking and explore some of the more accessible and stunning Rift Valley and Lakeside national parks. Via matatu (Kenyan mini-buses) we first made our way to Navaisha, a large lake famous for its flowers and decadent expat behaviour in the 1930’s, made famous by the book “Out of Africa’. Staying at Fisherman’s camp, a beautiful campsite by Lake Navaisha, replete with a local population of captivating black & white Colobus monkeys and surrounded by an electrical fence to keep out the innumerable nocturnal grazing hippo’s; we used this as a base to explore the nearby Hell’s Gate National park on foot. A simple attempt to get some fitness and exercise, while exploring the stunning gorge on Masai land, made famous as sets in the Indiana Jones and TombRaider movies. From Navaisha, we then travelled north to the soda lakes and National Park of Nakuru. Famous for its resident population of 1 million pink flamingos; we chartered a car and circumnavigated the lake as part of a 6 hour tour. As well as a variety of now very familiar African game in the form of buffalo’s, zebra, giraffe, gazelle and hyena, we managed to see more than a dozen white rhino, casually grazing around the edges of the Lake; a fantastic contrast and photographic juxtaposition with the stunning, pink profusion of the flamingos, pelicans and storks – all diligently feeding on the lakes algae.

Reluctantly and indebtedly after a stay of a little more than 2 weeks, we forced ourselves to uproot and move on. We only had 3 weeks left in East Africa before flying to Egypt and had now managed to organize ourselves for a tightly run Tanzanian trifecta to finish – climbing Kilimanjaro the highest mountain in Africa; a safari to explore the Serengeti and Ngorongoro Crater and a final week exploring the exotic Arabic, tropical spice island paradise of the Zanzibar archipelago. With the sorrow of departures, balanced by the excitement of new stages of adventure, we bade a sad farewell to our wonderful hosts, we leave Kenya still largely unexplored, but in doing so, leave plenty of room for a future return…


Overlanding Africa

When travelling, it seems no matter where you are, you still operate in a kind of bubble. You move in an almost semi-detached observer capacity […]

When travelling, it seems no matter where you are, you still operate in a kind of bubble. You move in an almost semi-detached observer capacity to your surroundings, unable to see or experience things truly as the locals do. Insulated by your bank balance perhaps, the knowledge of alternative options or simply that you are merely ‘passing through’ and have a ticket out; there are a thousand subtle factors that differentiate you from ‘them’. Where you stay is always that little bit more accessed by other travellers, and catered, no matter how low budget, it is still tinged with western comforts. There are some exceptions to this of course – volunteering, actual homestays and hiking off-track all take you that much closer. Not that even a ‘totally realistic’ local experiences is even necessary either – its’ just difficult to achieve!

The one area I have found that this comes closest to the ‘real’ though is the simple act of sharing local transport, getting from A to B. We have found this most effectively in catching buses in Africa but it is equally true of trains in India & buses in Nepal. Here you are all thrown together – locals and travellers alike, there is no differentiation in class, the discomforts, delays, bumps, food and other circumstances are all shared equally by everybody. And for these moments the experience achieves a rare utopian equality, cherished by us perhaps, but in the most part quickly lost in the mundane by the locals – but such is life.

Winding our way across Africa

In the last few months, this contrast has been particularly evident as we traded the insulated backpacker environment of ‘BazBus’ in South Africa for ‘slow overland travel’ – distance coaches, local & mini-buses of all variety, trains and shared taxi’s. Winding our way from Capetown, at the southern most point of Africa, west to Namibia, and then swinging back across the continent north eastwards through Zambia, Malawi and Tanzania to Kenya. We have experienced all modes of transport combinations in between through simple necessity and in doing so watched cold coast become desert, desert unfold to savannah, dry forest give way to lakeside fisheries; and the more tropical rice fields, tea, coffee & banana plantations; lush mountain scapes transform back into savannah plains and then finally become tropical beaches.

Just like the landscape, along the way we have also watched Africa transform. As the villages roll by and new tribes reveal themselves – the people, culture and experience has itself evolved in interesting ways. On boarding the coach in Capetown, a pre-recorded version of the “Lords Prayer” was played over the intercom as a prelude to a safe trip. Departing Namibia, the manager of the bus got on and led a very heartfelt, personal prayer effort. Leaving Livingstone, Zambia a evangelical preacher got on and spent 50 minutes praizing Jeeezus, praying for our sinz and trying to “saaive our mortal soulzz” at a frantic pace. Then on a bus leaving Lilongwe, Milawi, a young preacher got on & started exorting ‘Halleluyahs’, ‘praise brothers’ and ‘Amens’ from the packed, responsive local bus, a woman behind me started chanting frenetically, hyperventilating and ‘speaking in tongues’, then broke down into tears that took about 20 minutes to dissipate, other people took it in turns to respond and share prayers while the buses speakers blared soulful, rhythmic spirituals – we had to double check whether we were  actually on a public bus or perhaps mistakenly  boarded a church tour. Later in Tanzania, we were even treated to an ‘in coach’ video of the “Life of Jesus” in Swahili. Either the transport got more and more dangerous as we progressed or things were definitely more religious in central / Eastern Africa. Our journey though was also paralleling a deeper exploration into more AIDS / HIV devastated country. Something like 30% of the population in Zambia is HIV positive, the average age there is late 30’s (stats similar for Malawi). One person, Polly we met in Lusaka had been researching Zambian modern artists – she had a list of 10 people to interview in the capital, but had only found 3 still alive. All had died from HIV related illness in the last few years. Most were sub 40 years old!

Quite often we were the only foreigners on the bus, sometimes there was just a single other traveller. We have been crammed into minibuses, designed to seat 12 with more than 20 other people. Every space, even the vertical, has a value in Africa it seems. I have been seated next to old ladies of all tribes and had large sacks of eggs, bananas, maize and chickens for travel companions on numerous occasions. (We found out subsequently that it is customary to bring a chicken along when you visit relatives in some parts of Africa). Babies have endured a full days cycle of smiles, fits, feeding and defecation all squashed up against my leg, sometimes roaming free but more often strapped snugly into position on mum, by a brightly patterned tablecloth in the African fashion. We have encountered several chickens thus intimately enshrined as well. It is often said of African women that they don’t just travel, they move and the aisles, racks and roofs of most bus are overflowing with large sacks of produce, food and suitcases that stand testament to this – jumping off the bus in a remote village for a quick toilet break, is frequently more akin to a game of tetris.

We have literally spent multiple days on buses – buying our food through the window at passing villages or stops as we go. Impoverished locals displaying their wares gallantly on baskets on their heads or trays as a bus pauses – quickly shouting their offerings through the windows to try and close a deal – fresh banana’s, apples, carrots, biscuits, bread rolls, coke or water, airtime, furniture, crafts or electronics. You rarely need to go looking for anything in Africa it seems, just catch a bus and it comes to you. Thus supplied, we have been constantly delayed – accidents, flat tires, police fines, derailments and everything else it seems bar a hijack (fingers crossed). Since we left South Africa, we have yet to be ontime anywhere and we have soaked it all up and loved it. As a result, we have spent intimidating nights at minibus stops in the middle of large cities, crossed dodgy border posts at the most ungodly hours and even been derailed in a national park in Tanzania, a 7 hour stop that became a travel highlight.

We have been learning ‘not to sweat the small stuff’, cultivating patience and a sense of relaxed resignation at our progress – ‘inshallah’ / ‘ce la vie’ / ‘shoganii’ / ‘whatever will be, will be’ – the joy of travel without time limits. And in all that, as ever we have met some amazing local people of all tribes and descriptions – friendly, smiling, accommodating and equanimous in the cramped, shared conditions. We have criss-crossed the African continent, spontaneously feeling our way as we go and in so doing have been gifted some amazing insights and experiences of the real Africa; we emerge perhaps better illuminated as to travel’s grand purpose along the way.


A Desert Road Trip in Namibia

Namibia is about the size of Pakistan, with a population of only 2 million. The place is pretty much empty of people, but home to […]

Namibia is about the size of Pakistan, with a population of only 2 million. The place is pretty much empty of people, but home to some amazing natural landscapes, national parks, ancient tribes and the worlds oldest deserts. The deserts are what attracted us here. A chance to soak up some amazing, surreal scenery and scratch a few photographic itches bred of our latest travel investment – a new Sony digital camera that takes 180 degree panoramic photo’s and maps GPS / compass data. (like we needed more toys, but anyway!)

Team Namibia

From Capetown we had caught a surprisingly comfortable 20 hour bus to the Namibian capital of Windhoek. Staying at the Chameleon Backpackers, it was our plan to try some meet people there who might be in interested in hiring a car. As empty as inland Australia, to get anywhere in Namibia you need your own 4 wheel drive or else be willing to shell out $500+ minimum per person to join a tour or Safari for a few days. Chameleon was a backpacker hub, a highly organized, pleasant set-up and bustling connection point for other travellers in Namibia – we figured it our best bet for some spontaneous recruitment. On arrival though, after the marathon bus trip I promptly passed out, only to wake up 3 hours later and find that Megumi had already befriended a group of other long term Japanese travellers, (both starting out and 1 years / 3 years into their respective trips) and another Korean girl. 3 of whom were up for pooling resources. Job done!

Alien horizons

Accompanied by Hiro, Shimche, and Tacto – we grabbed a 4×4, hired a tent for 3 days (All of which, plus fuel worked out to be a netcost of $120 pp) and set out on the 6 hour drive to the Namib desert, the oldest desert in the world and famous for its red sand dunes and the extremely photogenic Dead Vlei. The drive itself was fantastic though challenging, less than an hour out of town we hit gravel road, the last we would see of bitumen for the next 2 days. From the typical savannahs of the African plains, the landscape slowly gave way to rocky hill outcrops reminiscent of Hampi in India and transitioned into flat, treeless plains with rocky peaks spanning the horizon in every direction. As we got closer to the Namib, these rocky hills took on stranger and stranger hues and took on a magical Alien air – it was not a great leap to see ourselves exploring Mars in a rover here. Arriving at the central entrance to the Namib National Park in Sesriem around mid-afternoon, we quickly set up our tents at the campground and made a quick dash for the Ellingen dune to view the sunset.

Climbing a sand dune is a lot harder than it sounds and is exhausting work, each foot sliding down and back, it really does take twice the effort to get anywhere. The horizons at sunset were well worth it though. Spectacular panorama’s aplenty in all directions; as the sky slowly worked through a cascading series of soft pinks, purple and redish tones, magnificently contrasted by the red sand of the dunes themselves and the rocky panorama’s in every direction.

Climbing Dune 45

The next morning we got up early (4am) and lined up at the park gate for the 5am opening and sunrise dash. Our aim was to drive the 45 km to get to Dune 45 (naming obvious) and climb-up for the sunrise. This quickly took on  a ‘right of passage’ almost ritual feel, as we proceeded in procession with a score of other 4×4’s, safari jeeps and customized tour vehicles into the darkness, out deep into the desert. On arriving at Dune 45, we quickly disembarked and climbed the 500m great red dune ridgeface to the top with the other like minded early risers. The growing light, revealed hundreds of red sand dunes parading themselves on all sides, slowly shifting colours as they danced to the prospects of the new day. The trip down was much more expedient and fun, a series of orchestrated sprints by all straight down the steep inclines.

Next stop was Dead Vlei in Soussvlei, much deeper in, but accessed via a sandy, 4×4 track, 5km into the desert basin. I have driven 4×4’s a few times, but wheels deep in up to a foot of sand was quite different. About halfway in, we got a bogged in the sand, not once but 3 times. Our tires buried half way up, I suddenly had the sinking feeling that we would spend the rest of the day trying to get out, (ironically powered by Asian push power). Thankfully a “not too happy tour guide” stopped by and with a ‘look that said it all’ put my car into the correct “Low Gear”, so that we could continue forward. Obviously we are far from the first tourists he has had to teach how to drive here, probably not his first today even judging by his demeanour. From there, we made the 1km walk over some dunes to the stunning white clay flats, dead tree’s and the huge red sand dune backdrops that make up the Dead Vlei. The movie, “The Cell” was shot here, so it was a very familiar sight and incredibly photogenic and fun, before the desert heat kicked in at least.

A magic invisible line!

Leaving the red dunes, we then drove across to Swakopmund, an arduous 6 hour drive along gravel roads winding through the Namib National Park North to the coast, but another continual progression of stunning backdrops, changing desert landscapes and strangely coloured hills. Swakopmund is a strange town. A German colonial city that looks like a movie set and completely out of place in the middle of desert. The town is a cute, progression of classic Hans Christian Anderson architecture on the beach, its prison a fairy palace. This is a big tourist destination apparently, South Africans come for beach / fishing escapes, Angela Jolie and Brad Pitt come here to have babies – entirely pleasant as it was, it was hard to know what to make of it.

Me & Will

Ahead of a drive back to Windhoek, we wanted to see the world oldest plants and surrounding moon landscapes; so had planned on an exploratory drive into the surrounding deserts with little maps or information. The moon landscape was easy to find, a jagged landscape of large grey hollows and thousands of what appeared to be impact craters. The Wilwitschia took some more work and faith though – down a dirt road into endlessly flat desert sand plains, until we finally spotted a few plants amongst the desert scrubs. Driving on we came across a large section of desert dominated by the huge, obviously greatly aged plants. The Wilwitscchia is the world’s oldest plant and found only in the deserts of Namiibia. It has 2 leaves that shred over time emerging from a central wooden cocoon; males with spores, females buds. They have a strange peaceful aura, somehow in the middle of nowhere they have managed to live through it all – hard to fathom that some of the ones we were looking at had existed before Jesus.

On returning to Windhoek, (by proper road this time), we said our goodbyes to the rest of the crew and checked into Backpacker Unite. Well hosted and Megumi happily entertained a 5 beautiful cats, we stayed up very late into the night exchanging travel tales with the owners.A Namibian born of South African decent and his wife. He had served in the army during the conflicts with Angola and had some fascinating insights into recent Namibian history, its parallels with South African apartheid and its other tribal / political idiosyncrasies.

Women from the Himba tribe

We had decided to forego the Etosha national park this trip, thinking we were a bit safari’ed up and still had Kenya / Tanzania to go, we had however wanted to visit the Hemba triba in the Northern part of Namibia. The Hemba are a beautiful tribe who still stick very strongly to their old ways, their women reknowned for their beauty and cover themselves in red mud. You need special permission to visit though and require a guide etc, so it had seemed a little too difficult (and expensive) to incorporate into our trip this time. But as luck would have it, there we were wandering around the markets in Windhoek when we spied 3 half naked, mud covered women selling crafts. A quick chat, a souvenir and a photo and Wham, Bam, Thankyou Namibia! Another 20 hour bus ride across the Kalahari desert to Livingstone, Zambia!


Getting under the skin of South Africa

South Africa, the rainbow nation, is a land of dichotomies and contrasts. While the natural beauty and diversity of the country is stunning and the […]

South Africa, the rainbow nation, is a land of dichotomies and contrasts. While the natural beauty and diversity of the country is stunning and the wildlife tantalizingly exotic; it is the people we have met here that leave the biggest impression. From fellow travellers to the locals, both black, white & everything in between, everyone is engaging and ready with a smile and a tale. We have spent many nights simply sitting around meeting people at the backpacker inns we have stayed at, rather than heading out to explore, simply because the people were so interesting. India was very different to this, we met a lot of fantastic people there, but the place somehow forces you to put up more barriers I think, if only to filter out the visual and sensory onslaught that India entails. Perhaps travellers there were all just seeking or searching for something different and off on their own trip. Africa has none of that, it is a place for the adventurous and the energy of the local people just seems naturally more socially infectious.

On the traveller side, we have met lots of students, doctors, nurses & other volunteers, mostly European (many Dutch) & some Americans with big hearts and aspirations, but few from Australia or Asia (perhaps that’s just seasonal?). There are many older travellers, retires and business people and regular interceptions of other longer term travellers like us, mid-stream though around their own world adventures of different types. There are too many travellers to mention of course, but its hard not to give a special plug to a fellow mad aussie Tristan – who is running 52 marathons in 52 countries in 52 weeks, yet still finding time to ‘run with the bulls’, attend rock festivals and have a regular night on the town. (Follow him at

And then there are the South Africans. South Africa is both rich and poor, it is Africa on a micro scale with all its different tribes and yet also global with its English, Dutch, Asian and Indian roots all bound together. In so many ways, the country is a crucible for the rest of the worlds’ struggles and its internal conflicts seem to represent all of our burdens as globalization and the ‘one world’ concept struggles to become reality. On the surface everyone is incredibly friendly, you get genuine engaging smiles & conversation from almost everyone you encounter. Perhaps this is part pre-world cup face, part cultural, but it is touching & welcoming nonetheless. The more time you spend here though, the more you start to scratch the surface and realize the country is bubbling away with strained racial tensions and still trying to come to terms with its past and its future. Racism is real here. In Australia, there are plenty of rednecks and racial overtones but most are bred through ignorance and lack of contact with other peoples. It is almost superficial, South Africa is different. Here there is a history and cause to the prejudices. Like its famed diamonds, it is uncut; each potential facet has its own character, history, issues and opinions. Yet with all its potential, it is still well short of the necessary polish and cuts required to really catch the light. Perhaps time is the polisher here, it is hard to be sure.

White South Africans seem to be a paranoid bunch, mostly justly chastened by their own experiences I am sure. We were constantly warned about crime and to expect the worst in people, despite all our experiences to the contrary. One white South African I met told me that “we fear them because of the potential for crime and violence we see disguised in every face. They fear us because of what we have & can do to them” with our wealth, power and knowledge of the system.

Another South African from Joburg told us, that since apartheid every Taxi (with a black driver) he gets in, drives at insane, dangerous speeds, as some form of subtle retaliation for sins past. Now, the next generation of white kids (his sons) have grown up experiencing this and they feel anger and resentment seeding new racial issues of their own. The cycle continues.

Another guy we met showed me an SMS from his daughter, the gist of which read “Hi Daddy, grandad got shot the other day, he is doing much, much better though”, a childhood positive spin on an otherwise everyday Mercedes hijacking in Joburg.

Other’s reminiscence about the times of Apartheid because things got done then, under the new regime everything is corrupt, African style – suggesting that the place is dysfunctional at every level of organization these days. The papers seem to suggest so as well, with scandals aplenty. President Zuma has loads of wives & 25+ kids, perhaps he just needs to feed them all somehow 😉

On the flip side our black Suweto tour guide, was showing us the township which we were expecting to be a ghetto, but looked like a pleasant neighbourhood in comparison to the barbed wire, guard dogs and heavily patrolled Joburg residences. He explained its simply by “Ubuntu”, as in, “we believe in community above all else”, something the white folks don’t have.

Our guide in Kruger had a lot to say on Apartheid and both his and his fathers struggles working under British and Afrikaans rule and the mines of Johannesburg, but that story we mostly knew already. Most revealing were his comments about the other tribes, particularly the Zulu (Zuma the PM is a Zulu), describing them as not very intelligent for a start. Suggestions and overtones we would hear many times, the black population themselves seem firmly divided by their own tribes and politics. The divide is far deeper than simple skin colour.

In Durban we met Indians (there are something like 1.3 million in Durban), seemingly the most positive of the lot, while in Capetown we met ‘coloureds’ (of Malaysian / Indonesian slave backgrounds). All were quick to offer different views, opinions and issues again, to the same endless debate. Everyone is very forward with their conversations about race and race issues, it seems to be the one saving grace – open discussion, however negative has to be some kind of step.

While we have been here the leader of the ANC youth (a subset of Mandella’s old party, the ANC), has publicly been singing a song containing the inflammatory lyrics “kill the boer”, he has violently thrown a BBC journalist out of a news conference and just visited Mugabe in Zimbabwe praising some of his policies against white farm reclamations and attitudes towards foreign company ownership. In the same week, the leader of the AWB (the Afrikaans version of white supremists I gather) gets murdered by 2 black farmhands and both parties are rallying against each other with retaliation statements, while the rest of nation waits on tenderhooks, suspecting a race war to break out.

All this in the lead up to what should South Africa’s coming out party. If anything was going to unite this place, the World Cup should. It’s a black mans sport, the national obsession and a global showcase of South Africa to the world, one suspects it is their best chance at trying to forge some national unity.


South African Travelogue

After India, arriving in South Africa was almost like coming home too oz. Overtly friendly people, western comfort foods aplenty (meat pies & ginger beer […]

After India, arriving in South Africa was almost like coming home too oz. Overtly friendly people, western comfort foods aplenty (meat pies & ginger beer foremost among them), rugby and cricket on TV and fantastic natural settings, all under the familiar gaze of the southern night skies and the Southern Cross. Arriving in Johannesburg from Mumbai, we hung out for a few days and decompressed – Megumi recovering from a bout of Indian belly (her first would you believe, struck down on the last day) and just generally soaked up being in a western country for the first time in 6 months.

Joburg was not the murder capital we were expecting and after India, we found everyone friendly, relaxed & full of smiles, albeit quite expensive, (having to get around in taxi’s because its ‘too dangerous to walk’ takes its toll). After nothing more than shopping, sleeping and eating for a few days, we embarked on our African adventure. First stop, the Apartheid museum (the first museum on our trip so far believe it or not), before doing a tour of the famous Suweto township, home to Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela among many others and central in the Apartheid battles and uprisings. Expecting an extreme ghetto, coming from the slums of Mumbai, it was surprisingly an incredibly civilized city (a black population of more than 3 million), home to a fantastic new World Cup stadium there were lots of nice houses balancing the tin shacks, a modern transport infrastructure and remarkably in contrast to Joburg, free of barbed wire and security guards. One gets the sense that this was the frontline in the ‘new South Africa’ World Cup cover story (or cover up depending on your level of cynicism)

On Safari in Kruger

From Joburg, we caught the Baz Bus (a convenient minibus service for backpackers that allows you to hop on and hop off at backpacker destinations of your choice across the country), for our first safari adventure in Kruger National Park. Staying at the Funky Monkeybackpacker in Nelspruit, we signed up for a relatively cheap, good value safari adventure. That taken care of, I sank tequila with some locals, endured a late night dip in the pool after losing at cards and suddenly felt like I had settled into travel South African style.

The Kruger safari was a 3 day, 2 night adventure, sleeping in canvas tents within the national park and touring the grounds in the custom built safari jeeps that seem to permeate this part of the world (plus a spotlighting tour at night). For company we had a local guide in his mid forties, having been tracking / guiding for nearly 30 years, 2 Swedes, a German girl and a peculiar Hungarian / Israeli chap who quickly earned the moniker Mr Bean. Kruger is a fantastic park and you are hard pressed not to see plenty of wildlife – we chalked up a dozen lions, hundreds of elephants, impala, rhino’s, hyaena’s, giraffe’s, hippo’s, crocs, eagles and zebra’s amongst everything else. (Actually everything but the leopard & cheetah on Megumi’s hitlist anyway) As with all safari’s in Africa it was not cheap, but stunning and a fantastic way to integrate into the African experience.

Lions at play

Post safari, we decided to ditch the limited confines of the BazBus route and hire a car so that we could forge our own paths over the mountains into Swaziland and Zululand beyond. A 7 hour winding adventure over dodgy, forestry dirt tracks into a sketchy Swaziland border crossing and remote logging villages, all in a tiny Tata sedan ,almost made us re-evaluate the wisdom of this choice, but eventually we found our way through the mountains into Swazilands civilized tourist belt and set ourselves up at Sondeza backpackers, in the middle of Milwane Wildlife Sanctary for more natural immersion. This backpacker has it all – warthogs mowed the lawn, ostriches woke us up tapping the windows at dawn, hippo’s and crocs roamed the pond and the surrounding fields had all manner of impala, antelope and zebra roaming about happily free of carnivores. Breakfast and dinner was cooked on a braa (Afrikaans for BBQ), beef and warthog for me & maize (pap) for Megumi (newly vegetarian and struggling in Africa!) Happy to soak up our new environs, our Swaziland experience was limited to this relaxed point of view; interactions with locals on the sanctuary and the surrounding crafts/ tribalware shops, but we get the feeling we didn’t miss too much.

Hippo's fighting / kissing, St Lucia

From there we headed down to Sodwana Bay, back into South Africa and the Elephant Coast for a brief flirt with some of South Africa’s best diving. Unable to compete with a ferocious rip and Megumi seasick from the aggressive beach surf take-offs, we cut our losses and keep heading downwards to the St Lucia estuary via the Hluhluwe Reserve. Hluhluwe is Rhino central and the park effectively brought the black rhino back from extinction. Doing a self drive safari through the national park, we managed to see more than 20 Rhino’s. One mean bastard charged our car from the bushes at dusk and the elusive black rhino (almost impossible to see apparently) happened to walk right up to the restaurant window as we ate lunch! St Lucia was all about hippo’s and crocs, the beautiful estuary, a UNESCO heritage area has some amazing birdlife, fishing and pretty dangerous waters, we took a boat cruise up the estuary to see the sites, but getting somewhat sick of wildlife spotting by now, kept the visit short.

For the final leg of the car trip, we jumped across Zululand to the Drakensburg mountains, where we spent the night in a beautiful backpacker, the Inkosana Lodge, waking up in the awesome shadow of the Dragon Mountains peaks and then exploring ancient bushman cave paintings (approx. 3000 years old) before hiking up into one of the surrounding valleys at Giant’s castle, before heading onto Durban. The Drakensburg mountain range borders the country of Lesotho and is a remarkable extension of sharp peaks and beautiful grass covered valleys. We could have easily spent a week there, hiking trails and exploring the numerous cave paintings, but we had only given ourselves 3 weeks in South Africa and already craved some real, African experiences as opposed to the entirely familiar western experience we were encountering, we decided to move on as quickly as we could.

Bushmen paintings - shamanic transformation

From Durban we rejoined the BazBus backpacker trail and spent 3 days on the Wild Coast in Coffee Bay, staying at Bomvu Backpackers. Coffee Bay is remote, accessed by a 2 hour incredibly potholed road from the nearest highway and for that reason amongst the most untouched areas remaining in South Africa. The beach, community and remote hill sides Xhosa townships of round, pale blue ‘rondavel’ huts, all create a fascinating backdrop. And Bomvu itself is an institution in the community here, with live drumming sessions at nights around the fire and jazz / drumming / trance festivals held in their own private valley. While we were there, a jazz / drumming festival was being held, largely targeted towards the local community with many local bands, singers and performers. Not really my style of music, but a lot of fun, mostly because it provided the opportunity for a real, local interaction experience, watching the locals dance, party and move is hypnotic in itself and something quite hard to find in a country of segregation and pre-packaged tourist tribal experiences.

From there, we reluctantly made our way down to Port Elizabeth and then Knysna, a pretty settlement on a beautiful lake, before rounding out with the better part of a week in the beautiful city of Capetown. Here, apart from just relaxing from the backpacker crawl of the previous few weeks and exploring the city, we managed to meet all manner of interesting fellow travellers – departing, arriving and planning their own exotic adventures. We did manage to score a clear day and climb Table Mountain to soak up the stunning Capetown views and do some resupplying for the trip ahead, but decided to skip the wine tours, beaches, Cape of Good Hope tour and other sights. In part, we were a little chastened by the high cost of tourist travel in South Africa, but largely were left craving ‘real African experiences’. We had gotten used to living in more edgy places now I think, more used to the real and fascinating reality that travel through the third world seduces you with. The natural beauty of South Africa was stunning and we met some fantastic people, but the rest was a bit too comfortable and westernized to satisfy us for long. Perhaps we will appreciate that more a little bit later of course, but for the moment 3 and 1/2 weeks was enough. We were keen to move on. Next stop the stunning deserts landscapes of Namibia.