Saturday, March 26, 2011

Guest post - Sarah and Michael - Serengeti!

Day 41: The end of the road in Nairobi

Finishing 41 days overlanding in Africa felt strange. When we began the trip in Cape Town it seemed such a massive journey and now we were almost in Nairobi. Our last African border crossing, our last bumpy day on the truck...though as we rose before 5am and packed up our tent in the dark we knew we wouldn't miss camping anytime soon!

Once in Nairobi we started farewelling friends from the tour. A small group of us went out to dinner with Emma at Carnivore, an atmospheric meat-feast, rated one of the best restaurants in the world. All four tour members who began the trip in Cape Town were present, so it was a fun way to wrap up the trip before people flew out or moved on.

Day 35 to 40: The wild locals of the Serengeti

As we drove towards Arusha, gateway to the Serengeti, we were treated to rare clear views of Mt Kilimanjaro. Our visit to the Serengeti and Ngorongoro Crater was a highlight of our time in Africa. We spent three days game driving and camping in open campsites where zebra filed past in the background and an elephant and buffalo came to visit. We were fortunate enough to see the Big Five - lion, leopard, rhino, elephant, and buffalo.

In the Serengeti we came across a leopard and her cub at a little distance. As we watched, the mother dragged their kill to a tree directly in front of our jeep. We watched her lug the kill up the tree and stop in surprise as the main body of the kill snapped off and dropped to the ground. "Take two" of bringing the kill up the tree was successful and we watched mother and cub eat and relax. Normally leopards are nocturnal and aren't often seen in pairs, so we were lucky.

The Serengeti rains were later than usual, so most of the herds who would normally be on the plains were still in the woods waiting to migrate. We came across a massive herd of a few thousand zebra and enjoyed watching some of them repeatedly taunting a crocodile by drinking water as close to the croc as possible. We also saw a honeymooning lion couple up close and a large pride with cubs slinking through the grasses.

From the Serengeti we drove to the Ngorongoro Crater, the world's largest unbroken volcanic crater. Our game drive was picturesque, with cheetahs running along the crater wall in the morning light, scores of wildebeest slowly trekking along, and lions tearing into their kill while jackals and hyena edged in to snatch their share.

A much needed toilet break proved more eventful than we'd anticipated. As we headed to the toilet block, Michael started walking around a parked jeep towards the Gents. "Don't go there, there's a couple of lions" warned an American couple in the jeep. They sounded so cheerful we thought they were joking, but they assured us they were serious. So we all piled into the Ladies. Emma tried to have our guide come pick us up from the toilet block entrance, but I don't think he registered what she was saying as he just smiled and waved. Feeling rather nervous now, we "confidently" walked from the toilets to our vehicle. Once safe we turned to see a large male and female lion happily entrenched beside the Gents. Luckily for us they weren't in the mood for moving!

After all the excitement we relaxed at our campground near Arusha, learning about Masai culture from the Masai museum, visiting a local Masai village and shopping at the craft markets. To celebrate/commemorate our last evening camping we had delicious smoked lamb and dessert.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Guest entry - Sarah & Michael - The Africa of our imaginations

As we drove through Zambia and Malawi, the picture of Africa we held in our heads came to life across the countryside. Small thatched mud or brick houses replaced the simple Western styled houses of Namibia and Botswana. Basic old fashioned looking towns became dirt streeted villages with a few shops and even capital cities felt like large towns with no high rises in view.

Adverts often lack the hype we've grown used to in the West. An internet provider promoted itself as "probably, the fastest internet connection in Africa" while Jaba Tea simply claimed "It's good, it's strong."

The comparative underdevelopment as we head east tends to stem from corruption and poverty. In Malawi many people live on $1 a day, which in local prices barely buys the plain necessities of life. Contrary to what we might expect, most people seem happy here. I haven't felt bad for being a rich tourist, rather I've been pleased to be able to give my business to locals. The handfuls of people who normally wave at our truck as we travel have become scores of smiling faces and children running to welcome us, which makes traveling in these areas very pleasant.

Guest entry - Sarah & Michael: Being refined in Livingstone - a spot of golf and high tea with special guests

Our first four days in Zambia were spent enjoying creature comforts. Michael and I ditched our tents for a waterfront room on the Zambesi and a group of us headed out to the Livingstone Golf Club for the morning. We teamed up with Cho and Moon, who proved to be excellent first-time golfers. As a treat we hired caddies for a very reasonable price and enjoyed their expert advice and bag carrying service. After seven holes it was getting very hot and cold drinks at the clubhouse was becoming rather enticing, so we called it a day.

Comforts continued with a small group of us taking high tea at the Royal Livingstone, a very posh colonial-style hotel. Decadent amounts of delicious food were polished off, with a refreshing swim in the pristine pool and cocktails on the riverfront deck to conclude. Cheeky monkeys swooped onto our table to steal snacks and wrestle with Tanith for her cocktail. Tanith having successfully saved her cocktail, we farewelled the high life and were pleasantly surprised to encounter giraffe and zebra crossing the hotel driveway as we left.

While in Livingstone we of course visited Victoria Falls, Livingstone's star attraction. We were blown away by the power and immensity of the falls. Lax health and safety regulations let us get as close as we liked to the waters edge at the top of the falls and we watched one crazy adventurer paddle his body board scarily near the lip of the falls. The ways you could die by going over the falls were varied and gruesome, so none of us were tempted to take a dip for ourselves. The spray from the falls was pretty much torrential rain, so we emerged saturated from the viewing walk, with the exception of Cho and Moon who had their own incredibly waterproof ponchos (you could hire ponchos or wear a jacket, but the water still poured in any gap).

The adventure seekers in our group chose to bungy jump from a bridge over the Zambesi river near the falls. We enjoyed spurring them on, but I thought the jumps looked so terrifying I decided I'd be quite content to never bungy jump!

Livingstone was the departure point for most of our group, so we celebrated Bree and Cho's birthdays at a local Indian restaurant and enjoyed a laid back pizza night before saying our goodbyes. Four group members were leaving to continue their own travels, eight were joining another group heading to Johannesburg, leaving Michael, Bree, Satoshi and I continuing up to Nairobi. We had expected at least a few people, if not lots, to join the tour at Livingstone, but the only addition was a trainee called Arnold, giving us nearly as many crew as tour members. As we pulled out of Livingstone to start a new leg of the tour, the truck felt empty and a little lonely with so few of us on board. Still, we figured the next 21 days would give us time to adjust and come to appreciate the benefits of being a smaller group.

Zanzibar....monkeys and beaches

The next day we wake up early and head out East to the Jozani Forest, home of the red colombus monkey, which is endemic to Zanzibar. First we take a trip through the forest, spotting mangrove crabs, horned spiders, black monkeys, ting frogs...but no pythons. The forest is in three sections - planted, natural and coral, all of which look very different.

The monkeys are next and we look around, but see...none. That is until we round the corner and have to duck as two or three in hot pursuit of each other swing from tree to tree about 6 inches above our heads, and scale the coconut trees for food - and fun. They are super cute and the whole group spends lots of time taking photos, occasionally leaping back with some agility as the monkeys increasingly consider whether to jump onto our heads as they decide we are fixtures and fittings.

Relunctantly leaving them, we head up to Nungwi, where we will spend two nights. The beach is declared to be paradise - and one of the top 5 beaches in the world, and thats before we've even set foot in the sea! Two lazy days follow, with snorkelling, feasting on seafood and sunbathing featuring heavily... it seems the truck and the rain are but a distant memory!

Zanzibar... the first day...

Having picked up our new pax, we head off the most complicated journey of the whole trip - two minute ride in a dalla-dalla down to one ferry to cross to Dar's business district (and the ferry terminals), then a brisk walk in 30 degree heat and 90% humidity to the port. Having all melted, we quickly change money before boarding the ferry and settling back on beanbags for the three hour trip across to Zanzibar. THe crossing is fortunately smooth, but the same will probably not be the same for the way back!

Once we arrive in Stonetown and check-in at the hotel (Safari Lodge) - some head off on a spice tour, which includes lunch at a local restaurant, a tour of the old Slave Market, a visit to David Livingstone's house and a tour of the spice plantations - if you're feeling adventurous you can even climb a coconut tree which is distinctly harder than it looks.

Later that evening we head out to Africa House, an throw back to the colonial days where the poshness of high tea at the Royal Livingstone is re-created with cocktails, and then off to the night markets to see the evening in with seafood skewers and the favourite - zanzibar pizza!

Monday, March 7, 2011

Cross borders again...

Two big drive days in quick succession - from Chitimba to Iringa and then on to Dar es Salaam.

The first is marked by continual pouring rain - which we all hope means that it won't rain in Zanzibar, our next big stop - fingers crossed! Apart from a border crossing the day passes without incident, and we get to our stop - a campsite called The Farmhouse in good time. That evening we eat in the campsite restaurant, which has been converted from an old barn, and later nestle into the sofas and low set stools in the bar, huddling around the fires, because we are at altitude and for the first time of the trip... its cold. very cold.

The next day is our earliest start... and we are in the truck and setting off at 5am. We pass through Mikumi National Park and are very lucky - loads of animals seem to be parading along the roadside for us, including lions, giraffe, a massive herd of buffalo, and elephants. In fact the elephants decide to cross the road just infront of us, and despite the fact that we are technically not allowed to stop (as otherwise we'd have to pay park fees), you don't argue with an elephant and we sit back and ennjoy the view.

We have lunch in a local restaurant in Chalinze before braving the final 80km into dar. Everyone has been warned that the traffic situation in Dar can be horrendous, so of course, we sail straight through. That is, until we get to the ferry queue. Here the traffic situation returns to form, and the wait time to get onto the ferry is estimated at 2 hours. We quickly 'make a plan' and everyone (except Letaloi) hops off Shashe and we board the ferry on foot and the squeeze onto dalla-dallas for the 2 minute journey to Mikadi beachcamp. Two hours later we leave the hammocks and bar area as we hear the truck finally turn up!

Today our numbers increase - actually double - as we welcome new pax for this leg of the tour.

Malawi fun

After Senga Bay we head up the Lake to Kande Beach, home of many legendary overlander parties! We have two nights here so the whole group decides to upgrade - some into dorms, and others into beachside chalets. The main reason for this is to avoid putting up tents. However this strategy is flawed as the tents are still wet from the immense storm the day before so have to be put up and aired anyway!

We head out for a dinner in the village, hosted by 'Mr Smooth', a local villager who has changed his name so its more memorable. He is not the only own - we also meet Mr Potatohead, Mel Gibson, Spiderman and Vin Diesel. During our meal we sit on raffia mats outside, and eat traditional Malawian fare - pap, spinach, rice, eggs and soup. After the meal the village children come and sing to the group and demonstrate the very athletic Malawi dancing - their number starts off small - 2 or 3 kinds, and gradually as the others lose their shyness, the number increases to about 20. All the pax are then invited/ dragged up by the kids to show off their dancing skills, with varying degrees of success.

The next morning we head over to the local daycare centre, which has been set up by an Australian lady called Robyn Casey. It is part of a network of ten daycare centres in the area, and provides much needed assistance to the local community. More info can be found here: Unfortunately it is a public holiday so the children are at home, so after a brief visit and explanation of what the porject is aiming to achieve, the pax go for a walk round the village where is quickly becomes apparent that the definition of 'not far now' must be viewed (very) flexibly.

Today is the day that some pax have been waiting for - and we have arranged for a goat to be cooked on a spit. I go back to supervise the goat's demise, and then, less dramatically to make bread, prepare veggies and whip up white chocolate and passionfruit mousse for dessert. We are also hosting another Acacia group (southbound) for lunch as they are temporarily without a truck while it undergoes some 'maintenance' nearby.

Shortly after we wave them off, and in the evening the goat lives up to expectations and everyone is completely stuffed!

Our last campsite is in a village called Chitumba, and here is where the serious trading takes place. Malawi is famed for its woodwork, and the craftsmen/ sellers are happy to trade for literally...anything! Hats, tissues, socks, boxers, cameras, and even teabags are handed over in return for souvenirs.

We spend some time learning the traditional local game - the Bao counting game, which some (Bree) prove better at than others (Michael!). This campsite has also got some resident wildlife - two baby table owls, which enjoy terrorising guests by flying/ swooping round the bar and a baby blue duiker, which was destined to become a local meal until the campsite owner saw it.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Days 29-30: Beach-ward bound

Senga Bay is our first beach stop since Swakopmund, and all the more impressive since Malawi is landlocked. Lake Malawi takes up 20% of the landmass of the country though, and for that reason we spend our nights on lakeside campsites as we travel up the country.

Senga Bay has a resident monkey and baboon population so we have to continue to be viligant in securing the truck against them. The pax also have an epic (as in ever lasting) darts competition, in which light is purely optional, a water aerobics session and, due to there being no upgrades here, spend the night in tents with the rain hammering down, and the most spectacular (and noisy) storm preventing any sort of sleep!

Accordingly the next morning, everyone is up super early and we make a quick get-away to Kande Beach.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Days 27-28 - into Malawi...

Crossing the border again proves simple enough, except that the border officials decide they want one different extra fact than is specified on the immigration form from each group member. So one person provides details of how much money they think they might possibly be spending, the next the truck registration number and so on!

We head to Lilongwe (capital city of Malawi) where Arnold and I head off to the vegetable markets, to haggle with the local traders as to whether 20p or 30p is a fair price for a variety of fruits and vegetables. (Actually we wish it was that cheap, but it nearly is)

Coming into East Africa is a bit of a culture shock for some pax - there are many more people on the roads - though walking or cycling, not driving, lots more market stalls and traditional villages and houses - infact much more how people imagine Africa to be before they arrive.

Lilongwe has got a biggish (for East Africa) selection of shops and restaurants so for today everyone gets a lunch allowance to fulfil their pizza/ icecream/ Nandos (last chance for this one) cravings. After lunch we'll head off to Senga Bay, a quietish but beautiful campsite where we can rest before we hit Kande Beach. We'll only be able to rest after fully securing the truck against monkeys and baboons though, which seems to be the theme of the trip so far!