Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Wadi Rum Diaries

Cool, powdery red sand slides between our toes as we stand in the silent vastness of Wadi Rum. We've just run up a sand dune which feels more like flour than sand. The jeeps look tiny on the desert floor below surrounded by sand and protruding rock formations. We run, leaping down the dunes like playing in the snow to continue our prehistoric cruise through the sandstone. Staring at the cliffs, you could begin to see pharaohs, pyramids or Petra coming out of the walls. Our Bedouin guides grew up in the Wadi, just like their nomadic ancestors, and were more than happy to tell us that T. E. Lawrence was a punk. As amazing as the red sand and rock formations were, it was the stillness that was overwhelming. The sun on your back, feet in the sand, you could listen to the same silence that caravans of traders heard 2000 years ago.

We found the perfect rock looking west over a valley to watch the sunset in the distant hills. The dramatic colors of the day shone in the golden light. We made our way to camp in the evening glow finding six goat hair tents at the bottom of a tremendous rock face. After a fire, a few cups of Bedouin tea, along with some singing and drumming, we stepped out into the crystal clear night to gaze at the beaming moon. We got back to our tent and dumped a day's worth of red sand out of our shoes.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Musa's Mountain

Our ascent of Mt. Sinai began at 1:00 am in the morning. With our headlamps blazing, we climbed the Camel Path Trail. It's not a clever name. Camels would appear out of the darkness breathing down your neck. The warning of "camel!" was frequent and they don't break for tourists.

We were hiking with the group from the minibus we took from Dahab. Our mountain guide gave us the name "Katrina" which he would scream almost non-stop in a Marco Polo fashion. He would also stop the group for head counts and ask, "Have you seen the woman? The large woman?" After one too many stops and rests on what wasn't that challenging of a hike, we, along with a French artist, decided to push ahead on our own.

We soon met up with a Canadian couple who had also left the Katrina group but didn't have a headlamp. The five of us climbed alone to the end of the Camel Path where the stair climb to the summit begins. When we got to the final concession stand before the summit we learned we were the first ones up. A full three frigid hours before sunrise. We took shelter in the shop where they sold coffee and rented out blankets. We wrapped ourselves up and chatted with our climbing partners.

Soon the shop filled up with other climbers and our guide arrived. "Katrina!" At 4:45 am we walked the final 100 meters to the freezing summit. The group found the perfect spot at the edge and huddled together for warmth. The horizon began to glow long before the sun appeared, lighting the landscape we had just hiked through. Standing in a shivering mass of humanity we waited.

"Here comes the sun!" Temple called out, seeing the orange orb under the clouds. I wish I had said, "it's alright", but I was cold. Besides, it was better than alright. It was biblical.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Thebes

In the middle of ancient Thebes, now Luxor, rise two impressive temples, Karnak and Luxor. Karnak has a incredible hypostyle hall with over 100 towering columns covered in hieroglyphs. Many pharaohs added and expanded on Karnak over the years making it one of the largest religious sites from the ancient world. Karnak was once connected to the Luxor Temple by a sphinx-lined street. Restoration is underway to restore this pathway.

Upon its discovery, Luxor Temple was buried under houses and an important mosque. When archeologists started to uncover it, the local citizens refused to let them destroy the mosque. Now it, along with remnants of Coptic Christians who painted murals over the temple walls, shows Luxor's long and layered history.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

River Nile Felucca

Our fire burns down to embers during a chilly night on the banks of the Nile River. When it's time to board the boat for bed our captain, Allah, notices that the passing river boats have beached our felucca. He and his uncle, who we just call "Uncle," wade into the water and begin to push. They are having little to no success so I roll up my pants and step into the dark Nile. With Uncle and Allah on either side of me, we try to leg press the boat into deeper waters. At first, it is a comedy of errors but soon we begin to feel the felucca coming unstuck. After a few more synchronized pushes, she is floating again.

We boarded the beautiful white sailing boat earlier that day in Aswan. The deck of the felucca had a foam mattress and pillows for lounging. We sailed around, just the two of us, before picking up Tim from Portugal, Catherine from Texas and a Chinese couple. We all relaxed and talked of our travels as Allah tacked back and forth across the Nile. By the time the sun set in the desert to the west, we were all good friends. We continued sailing after dark, gliding along in the Egyptian night before going ashore for dinner and a fire. The Chinese man surprised us all by breaking out his harmonica. Uncle accompanied him on drums. Allah pulled out his travel size hookah and we smoked sheeshah.

Once the boat was unstuck, we boarded and prepared to sleep in the cold under thick blankets. When we awoke, the Chinese were gone, having only signed up for one night. We were in no rush the second day. We didn't start sailing until 11:00am and soon after we stopped for an extended lunch break. Allah said it was a good place to swim. We were all still cold from the night before but I was ready to jump in. I ran into the refreshing water as the other three began to change their minds. Soon we were all bathing in ancient waters.

After lunch we had a strong wind at our backs and continued towards Luxor. We learned from Catherine that Allah had offered her 500 camels and 2,000 Egyptian pounds for her hand in marriage. We laughed about the proposal and the other antics of Allah and Uncle. Allah only spoke a little English and Uncle, none, so much was lost in translation. As funny as Allah was, it was Uncle who stole the show with his crazy eyes, random animal noises and cuddling up to me as a morning wake up call. The laughter continued around the camp fire that night and into the final day of our voyage.

Temples of Upper Egypt

Temple loves temples. Needless to say she was digging the Nile Valley. I'm more of a simpleton, thinking that once you've seen one offering scene of lotus you've seen them all. But amateur Egyptologist Temple Moore's enthusiasm was infectious. She was soon teaching me and our new friends all she had learned in art history class.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Abu Simbel

The temples of Abu Simbel are three hours south of Aswan near the border with Sudan. The tourist convoy leaves every morning at 3:00am and returns around 1:00pm. The crazy hours are so you miss the extreme midday heat in the desert. Although in the winter heat is not such a problem, the schedule doesn't change. So in the wee hours of the morning, we're squeezing into yet another mini bus. It's an uncomfortable journey on which neither of us sleep. More importantly, however, when we get to Abu Simbel, we're the first ones through the gate and our first views of the towering Ramses II are amazing and devoid of tourists.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

How Bazaar

We are lost. We're looking for the bazaar from our guidebook when a small man appears. He asks if we want the tourist bazaar or the real bazaar. Without hesitation we both say, the real one. "Then follow me," he says.

Just steps from the busy street, we're pushing aside oriental rugs and rolls of fabric, heading down dark alleys. Soon we arrive at a spice market out of Arabian Nights. Our new friend Medi introduces the owner of one of the most famous shops who lets us smell and taste all he has to offer. We enjoy the aromas and color and buy some dried hibiscus for tea. Then we continue through the labyrinth past juice bars, a fez factory and the oldest coffee shop in Cairo. We soon find ourselves in a pickling factory where four jovial Cairenes are pickling all types of vegetables in large wooden barrels.

Back outside, we head for our guide's workshop. Turns out he makes beautiful wooden inlaid boxes. He shows us all the different qualities and prices and we watch his fellow artists working. The top of the line boxes are amazingly detailed and expensive. We buy a budget travellers' priced one. But the tour doesn't end there.

He walks us back to the market, stopping in on shoemakers and a papyrus art gallery. After pausing to get us a sugar cane juice, our guide pushes open a large wooden door to an abandoned looking room. He looks back at us with a sly grin and we follow. Soon, we are standing next to a boiling bath tub where men are creating dyes for Egyptian cotton. They are working very intensely on a brown dye after finishing the blazing blues and blinding whites that now hang to dry in the midday sun. We stand there in awe of the color and craftsmanship.

Moments later, we find ourselves where we had been lost just an hour before. "This is where I leave you." And with that, our guide disappears back into the bazaar.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Pyramid Fields

Out of the taxi window, we get our first glimpse of the Giza Pyramids. We have only been in Cairo a few hours and are determined to get on a camel asap. All our romantic notions of camels, sand dunes and pyramids quickly collide and crumble into modern Giza. Our camels look abused. Instead of sand dunes we are on city streets. And very far from the pyramids.

This camel ride begins a pattern in Egypt. Doing something you think will be amazing, then it turns out to be bootleg, and just as you're about to lose hope, mystic ancient Egypt appears and takes your breath away. Because after riding through the neighborhood with no pyramids in sight, we ride past a graveyard and into the desert, not very far into the desert but still. Just a few sand dunes away are the three pyramids. Aside from the large chain-link fence with security cameras patrolling the perimeter, the view is time travel back four thousand years. It's hard to add any insight to pyramids that were considered ancient by the ancient Greeks. They are timeless, looking thousands of years old and space-age all at once. Or like a constellation, appearing, from a far sand dune, as stars in space. Watching one sunset of the million the pyramids have seen and the millions more they will see, is the perfect end to the first day of our Egyptian adventure.

Early the following morning, we're alone at the Dahshur pyramid field. Our first up close encounter is with the Red Pyramid. We walk around in awe, then climb up the walls to crawl down into the tomb. Tight squeeze is an understatement. Doubled over, we waddle down the narrow passage until it opens into a large chamber. It smells bad and is burning hot. Soon we are crawling back out. Behind the Red Pyramid is the Bent Pyramid. During construction they had to change the angle half way up to avoid collapse. It's not structurally sound to this day and is off limits to tourists.

Our next stop is the Saqqara Pyramid, the first pyramid and first stone structure ever built. The work of the great architect Imhotep, it is a step pyramid making it unique from the more famous complete pyramids.

To end the day we head to the Giza Pyramids. After having Dahshur and Saqqara basically to ourselves, the number of people at Giza is overwhelming and a little demystifying. Large even on a modern scale, every apsect about the pyramids is difficult to comprehend. Down the hill sits the Sphinx. No riddles were asked. The only question was how do I get away from all these people? But the throngs of tourists are appropriate. It's been a wonder for nearly five thousand years.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

And Me

These kids don't get dizzy. It's impossible to spin one kid around without all the others wanting to take flight. As soon as I set Elibaraka down, here comes Bennett, Micha and Yohani pulling at my shirt calling "and me! and me!". When I start to get dizzy from all the circles, I tell them to count to 100. Most get to 50 -by which time my equilibrium has returned- and they get another spin. After a few more rounds, I have to ask them to count again. This time, before they hit double digits, they lose interest and go play elsewhere. But moments later, without fail, they return screaming "me high! me high!".

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Manyara House

The Manyara boys are the big men on campus. The younger kids of the village look up to them and it's no mystery why. They are cool, smart, funny and loyal, making a great team.

Saidi is the leader of the house, telling others what to do and maintaining his tough-guy image despite an impossibly sweet grin. Benja is the ham. He loves to crack jokes but also to assert his authority. Although he's small, Swedi takes after his big brother Saidi, and is very mature for his age. Jackie tends to be a little shy except for on the soccer field. Then there is Abdul, the charming, sensitive one. He loves reading and has the best smile in the village. Silly Yusufu, as the youngest boy, gets pushed around quite a bit. James, inquisitive and sarcastic, always has something on his mind. The boys are eager to learn new things, whether its a story from a history book or a dance from Step It Up the movie. They are responsible, always completing their chores without being asked and having fun in the process. Each one is more than willing to take care of baby January whenever he's out of the Mamas' arms. Together the Manyara men are a charming act and constant entertainment.

Along with the boys, there are three sweet girls living in the house plus Neema who returns from high school during holidays, and who I hung out with during my last week. Edina is sassy and hard-headed. She takes good care of her younger sister Rehema who is smart, and so, mischievous. They are both adorable but Natalie takes the cake. Three years old and full of personality, I fell in love with her on day one. Immediately, she latched on to me and I to her, both of us crying when it was time to say goodbye.

Mama Priska is the main disciplinarian of the house. I visited her small, cozy home when I took some kids on a walk to pick peaches in her village. Mama Eliphas is Masaai and so has a shaved head and sings upbeat chants while playing with the baby. She loves teasing the kids and it is a joy to see her laugh. Both of them were so lovely to me. Also living in Manyara is young Melanie, who cooks a lot of the meals, and Elizabeth, the kindergarden teacher. I gave them typing lessons on my computer and we would stay up late watching Tanzanian soap operas. I appreciate these wonderful women and their joyful spirits.

I feel so blessed to have lived in Manyara for my three weeks at RCVC. On the last day of school when the students marched, I was so proud of all of them, especially Jackie for winning the best sportsmanship award and of Abduli for receiving best student overall. I am so impressed by the love and respect that these young people show for and expect of each other. Although they occasionally fight, the kids are quick to protect their cacas and dadas (brothers and sisters). They gave me a wonderful gift when they accepted me in and I am forever grateful.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Serengeti House

"Tell one from your heart" says Isaka from the top bunk.

After a perfect day of peach-picking, frisbee-throwing and monkey bar-swinging, it's story time and all the Serengeti boys are awaiting an epic tale. I tell them stories of a group of eight boys named Mole, Paulo, Simon, Christopher, Vicente, Boaz, Joshua and Isaka. Their adventures take them around Africa, swimming at Mosi-oa-Tunya, rafting down the Zambezi, sailing to Zanzibar and having close encounters with lions. Though they enjoy each story, their favorite one is when they are all signed to play for Manchester United and win the Premier League. Basking in the glow of victory, they fall asleep and dream of the Champion's League.

I then cross the house and knock on the girls' door. "Hodi?" "May I come in?" Inside, Christina, Eva and Happy are quietly doing schoolwork, reading books or folding laundry. A huge change from the rowdy boys' room. I tell them similar adventures only changing the characters to three girls. But they want true stories, about me. I tell them about my friends and family back home, mainly, tis' the season, about our family Christmas traditions. When my stories are over Christina reads The Giving Tree, her favorite book. She reads it so well, though she doesn't need the book at all. "I know it in my heart," she says. Each reading is incredibly moving and a highlight of my day. "Lala salama," I say, closing the door behind me.

Lying in bed that night, I dread leaving in a few days, but am happy knowing that this place, these children and our stories will always be in my heart.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Playgroup

Right after breakfast, and still blurry eyed, we head to Rubondo House for playgroup where ten adorable and rambunctious toddlers await us. Luckily, we had Laura, who had been volunteering since September, to show us the ropes.

First, we try to settle them down around the table with books. Sometimes the kids want you to read to them, sometimes they want to point at the pictures or play i-spy. We are happy as long as they are seated quietly, sharing and not ripping pages out.

As soon as everyone has put up their books, it's play dough time. The kids ask us to make lions, elephants and giraffes. Clean up sometimes takes longer than play dough time itself since the blue mud quickly spreads around the room. The kids love singing songs like "Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes", "The Wheels on the Bus" and "Elephant, Go Take a Bath" (a RVCV classic). Then, to chill them out, we watch five minutes of Sesame Street before "saya lala", nap time. While they sleep, we get a needed break.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Rift Valley Children's Village

In 2003, founder India Howell began her dream of the Rift Valley Children's Village. After six years, the dream and the village have grown to 69 young Tanzanians living in five houses: Serengeti, Manyara, Rubondo, Mkumi, and Kiran. Beautifully situated just outside the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, the village is surrounded by green hills of coffee plantations, purple jacaranda trees, and pink bougainvillea flowers. During our stay, Temple lived in Manyara House and Clay stayed in Serengeti House assisting the mamas and attempting to communicate in Swahili.

Early every morning, we were awoken by the sound of bunk beds and chairs being drug across the floor. Sitting together around a large table the kids eat breakfast, either PB&J or porridge called ugi, then complete their morning chores. Around 7:00 am uniforms are on and the short walk to school begins. The kids are surprisingly perky as they drag yawning volunteers down the road. While the older kids were at school, we spent the morning with playgroup, 2-3 year olds, in Rubundo House. After their morning naps, they are joined by the pre-schoolers, 4-5 year olds, to play in the library, coloring, building legos, and climbing all over volunteers. 12:30 is saa kula, lunch time.

In the afternoon, Temple was in charge of pre-school kids. She'd take them on nature walks, draw with sidewalk chalk or play games. While helping Temple with pre-school, Clay tutored/played with Elibaraka, a really bright 4-year old who loves math and puzzles.

At the end of the day is free play. This is a time for controlled chaos with older kids coming back from school and the little ones running about. After returning home for bath time, the kids eat a snack of egg and bread, then watch a movie. We'd eat dinner with the kids if they were having chapati, but normally we'd eat in the volunteer house then return for story time and to say goodnight.

Our days followed this pattern but every one was special. The kids welcomed us into their lives so quickly and with so much love. On the first day, we realized that three weeks would not be long enough but we made the most of every moment and every friendship in this unforgettable place.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Ngorongoro Crater

Early in the morning we descended into the Ngorongoro Crater, the largest caldera in the world created when a volcano exploded millions of years ago. It is now a unique ecosystem with a constant supply of water, making migrations like those of the Serengeti unnecessary. The crater is home to thousands of wildebeests and zebras as well as a variety of birds, antelope and cats. It is amazing to see such large amounts of animals living side by side peacefully, although occasionally, they do eat each other.

On This Serengeti For Two

Our Land Cruiser rumbled and rambled through the Ngorongoro Conservation Area to the vast plains of the Serengeti. The journey was long but quickly rewarded with unbelievable wildlife viewing.


When we thought the Serengeti couldn't get any better, we had a close encounter with the King and Queen of the Jungle beginning their annual mating ritual.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Cloudy Kilimanjaro

We stopped in Moshi for a day just to see the snows of Kilimanjaro. When we arrived, the summit was completely covered by clouds. No snows. We left our camera in our room and went for dinner at a rooftop restaurant where a clear day offers great views of the mountain. When we ordered our Kilimanjaro Lagers the summit was still obscured. But about half way through the first round the clouds began to part. Soon we could see the roof of Africa. In the setting sun the peak looked like a Varsity Frosted Orange. We toasted the mountain with our second round and enjoyed the views in the last moments of daylight. The next day we returned to the rooftop for photos but the clouds had returned.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

I Stayed At A Farm in Africa

After the tropical heat of the islands, we were ready to escape to the cool air of the Usambara Mountains in northern Tanzania. We packed into a bus which traversed curvy mountain roads to drop us in Soni, a small dusty intersection with a few shops and people drifting about.

Maweni Farm is two kilometers outside of town at the base of a large rock face. When we arrived, we knew we'd found the perfect mountain getaway. In colonial times the farm was a coffee plantation run by a German family but now it is solely a lodge. The main house where our quaint room was, sat on a small hill next to a lovely pond, home to many yellow weavers. Next to the pond was a huge boulder and some lovely jacaranda and acacia trees. The first night we shared the dining room with two other couples but after that we had the place to ourselves. We had private picnics in the thick grass next to the pond and went for walks along the main road past villagers busily working the farmland or walking from the market.

The day we left, Msheba, the friendly manager of Maweni Farm, offered to drive us the 45 minutes to Lusotho which is a bigger, though still tiny, town higher up in the mountains. He took us all the way to our next destination, Irente Farm, curious to see the accommodation for himself. Unlike Maweni, Irente was still an operating farm producing cheese, bread, juice and jam. The farm belongs to the Luther Church which also runs a neighboring school for the blind, a center for kids with mental disabilities and an orphanage.

The manager, Peter, has gotten the farm certified as a biodiversity reserve and has begun to protect the native plant species in the area. He gave us a tour of the operation, taking us through the farm pointing out native and invasive species before walking us down to the Irente Farm Children's Home. Here we were greeted by a gregarious Swedish woman who gave us a tour and told us a few of childern's stories. We met the young Tanzanian women who volunteer here for two years in order to help pay for future education. The children were precious. We got to feed them lunch before their naps.

Later we walked to the Irente Viewpoint which offers amazing views of the Masaai Steppe. We met a local and watched the sunset with him. Then he invited us to his house which was a small hut right behind the lookout. We met his son and wife, then her sisters. We had a nice visit before heading back to the farm.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Jambo Mambo

After an uncomfortable overnight ferry ride we disembark in the small port town of Mkoani on the northern island of Pemba. Immediately we feel we are in a different world. Gone are the tourists, hawkers, and crowded streets. We are the only wazungu here and are thankful not to hear any yells for "taxi! hotel! boat ride!". When a man approaches us and says he'll walk us to the Jondeni Guesthouse we are grateful since our guidebook only states it is "on the main road". At the small hostel the kind and helpful manager greets us as if we are the first guests in weeks.

We walk into town along a tarred road which seems out of place for a town where most people travel on foot. We pass the fish market area near the port where in low tide people linger long after the main catch has arrived, digging for clams or cleaning boats. I am especially careful to wear a long skirt and long sleeves here as not a strand of hair or even an elbow is revealed from the local women. We walk down the shoreline in front of small huts where everyone waves, especially children who stare and yell "Jambo!" We return the hello and wave. We walk past a couple's house where the wife is cooking on an open fire and the husband joins us on the beach to practice his English. Walking back through the market area I suddenly hear "Temple!". No, that can't be, I think, and then recognize our hotel manager Mzee. He is likely picking out our dinner for that evening. Knowing we are interested in a beach he tells us to follow the main road past the hotel, down the hill then up and down another, take a left at the soccer pitch and we'll find a nice one. We thank him and quickly set out.

We pass by many houses made of mud and sticks where women dressed in colorful patterns and men in modern clothing keep busy in the afternoon heat. They stare at us suspiciously before we say "Jambo" and they smile and greet us. "Karibu." Welcome. "Mambo?" How are you? "Poa" Good. We continuously exchange these greetings during the walk. The kids scream in excitement at the sight of us and at one point a group follows us down the street laughing and yelling.

Soon we are greeted by Juma, a young local boy who speaks some English. We ask if we we're going in the right direction for the beach. He says yes and begins to lead us. He points out a short cut and suddenly we're off the main road, walking through thick lush jungle with clove farms interspersed. Cloves are the primary industry on Pemba island. Since I have no idea what a clove plant looks like, I'm glad when Juma hands me a bloom and says "clove". He points to other plants and tells us which ones to smell, just like a pro. It starts to rain after ten minutes and Juma points to a cement shelter rather randomly sitting in the middle of someone's farm. "Wait or beach?" he asks. For the camera's sake we decide to wait and the peaceful downpour ends as quickly as it began. Only a few steps further and we are at a small sliver of a beach in the lagoon with not a soul in sight. A rickety dhow sits in the turquoise water and we enjoy the reward of our long hot trek. On the way back we thank Juma and return to Jondeni. That night we eat fresh fish and watch from the porch as the sun sets in the bay.

The following day it's go time once again. Our first hour or so is spent in a minibus to Chake Chake, the main town of Pemba Island. In the dusty square of Chake Chake you can get to most towns on the island by dalaa dalaas which are pick up trucks with benches lining the bed and a makeshift roof for cargo. Drivers wait until people are packed in like sardines before heading off. Soon enough the 602 dalaa dalaa to Konde shows and we are some of the first in. We sit in the front of the flat bed pressed against the cabin. Our packs are tied on top along with bicycles, huge bags of wheat and other luggage. Another fifteen people join us before we set off and at lest ten more passengers are picked up along the way. Babies and old women squeeze in close while some of the men stand on the back bumper holding on. People engage in pleasant conversation, I coo at the adorable baby to my left and, somehow, Clay takes a nap. An hour and a half later we arrive in Konde. It's the smallest town we've seen yet and we find a ride through the Ngezi Forest Reserve on a five kilometer mud road with small lakes in the middle of it. We arrive 20 minutes later at the Kervan Saray Beach, home of Swahili Divers.

The place is secluded on an incredible beach just minutes from some of the most pristine diving in the world. This place was on my list early on but Clay never thought he'd try scuba diving. With no convincing from me, he figured if he ever tries it this is the place. He signs up for a discovery dive which is done in close proximity to a Dive Master and requires no certification. I am excited and nervous for him. The next morning, watching him practice the skills in the pool with a Brit couple who were also discover divers, I remember the unnatural and scary feeling of breathing underwater for the first time. I am very proud of his courage to try something that he had said from the beginning did not appeal to him.

Clay goes with the discover divers and I, reluctant to leave him, go down with another group. The views are incredible. We don't see the sharks or dolphins of South Africa but the colors and varieties of coral are astounding. Our first dive is along a wall of coral that falls incredibly deep. There are beautiful parrot fish, puffer fish, anemone fish, lion fish, starfish, sea cucumbers and moray eels. On the second dive at Manta Point we see more beautiful coral and when the sun breaks through the water everything glows.

After the excitement of diving, we get a ride to Konde and take a minibus instead of the dalaa dalaa back to Chake Chake. The next day we take a flight back to the Tanzanian mainland, another thrill. We take off from the small Pemba airport in an 12 seat airplane from which we see the beautiful green island surrounded by thick coral reef stretch out below us.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Hakuna Matata

After exploring Stone Town, we head to the northern beaches of Zanzibar. We arrive at Kendwa Rocks after a frantic- to say the least- two hour drive. The beach, complete with palm trees and thatched umbrella huts, is a picturesque paradise so we park cheese immediately and inhale the sea breeze. The next few days have little activity besides lounging in hammocks and swimming in the aquamarine waves next to traditional sailboats called dhows. We stay at Les Tois de Palme, a small group of tucked away bungalows with a restaurant serving what I'm convinced is the best food on the island. Our nights are filled with laughter and octopus, watching sunsets and chatting with Masaai warriors who stroll the beach.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Stone Town, Zanzibar

Quickly after stepping off the train into chaotic Dar es Salaam, we feel an immediate need to flee to the sandy white beaches of Zanzibar. The next day we board a large ferry for the short ride to the Spice Island. Halfway through the journey, we bump into Tank and Daniel again and decide to surrender to fate and unite. Together, we step off the ferry into the crowded port and received the symbolic Zanzibar entry stamp (Zanzibar was an independent nation until 1964 when it joined with mainland Tanganyika to form present day Tanzania and the islanders cling to their sovereign past).

Afterwards, we head into Stone Town in search of cheap accommodation. Hawkers stick to us wazungu (foreigners) like glue, trying to sell trips or get commission from hotels they recommend. They are very friendly despite their pushiness and we quickly get used to the attention. Hundreds of years ago, powerful sultans ruled Zanzibar which was an important trading port for Africa, the Middle East and India. We enjoy the unique culture and the historical buildings as we snake through the labyrinth of skinny avenues that crawl past stone buildings with the famous Zanzibar doors. After settling in at a cheap hotel, we enjoy our first Kilimanjaro beer and plan our next move.

Soon we head for the water. Inspired by the frequent guidebook photo of young locals diving off walls, we go to the stone wall near the Old Fort. I stay with our bags and the guys leap off the wall. I watch and chat with onlookers, mostly the young boys from said photos. They quickly join Clay, Tank and Daniel who are enjoying the refreshing water. Because of a strong Islamic tradition in Tanzania- and in Zanzibar it's even more prolific- women are covered from head to toe and tourists are encouraged not to bear too much skin. I don't want to offend or shock but the water is too tempting. As soon as the guys come out I hand Clay our stuff and quickly jump in. Just what I needed after a simmering day. I cover myself in a sarong when I leave the water and climb the stone steps. Soon the local kids are doing tricks off the wall and showing off for us. Our Zanzibar adventure has begun.

Next we get some beers and "park cheese" -Tank and Daniel speak for chill- on the local beach. There are several boats tied up to the shore, sunset cruises passing by and local kids enjoying what must be their one millionth swim in the turquoise water. The atmosphere is perfect. We relax on the sand and meet friendly locals who will be selling seafood at the fish market later. One man in particular, Ali, joins our little party on the beach and makes us promise to come to his stall at the market. As the sun drops out of sight our stomachs are growling. We head to the fish market which is surprisingly well-organized. Chefs in white hats are assisted by local fisherman who eagerly help customers choose from the many skewers of fish, octopus, shrimp, crab and lobster. After making our selections, they throw it on the charcoal grill with some coconut bread or falafel. It is fresh and delicious. I have a fresh sugar cane and ginger juice to accompany my barracuda and shrimp. After we are stuffed and happy we walk to Ali's favorite reggae bar to have a few more Kilis and reflect on our new love for Stone Town.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Tazara Express

It takes 46 hours to get from Kapiri Moshi to Dar es Salaam if the train's on time. We bought our tickets for the journey in Lusaka the day before. They look like 20 year old movie tickets which the woman behind the counter flipped over a few times writing our names and some numbers on each side. On the day of departure, we took a two hour bus to Kapiri Moshi. It's a dusty nothing mining town in the Copper Belt province. The exporting of copper was the reason the train was built in the 70's by the Chinese. As we waited for the train, we reunited with our new friends Tank and Daniel, who we'd been running into ever since Zimbabwe.

The train was scheduled to depart at 4:00 pm but we heard that delays of up to 12 hours were common. However, around 3:30 we boarded the train and by 4:00 we were rolling out of the station. We sprung for 1st class tickets. First class is a four person sleeper, second is a six person, and third is a bench. First class was only about 5 bucks more and we thought the personal space would be worth it. On Tanzanian trains men and women aren't allowed to sleep in the same cabin unless they purchase all four tickets. As the journey began we both had our own personal cabins right next to each other. The Zambian countryside rolled by as we enjoyed the setting sun. After dark, we met in the dining car for a simple meal. Tank and Daniel soon appeared and we drank a few not-so-cold beers from the bar. Later we hung our heads out of the window, looking up at the star filled sky. The middle-of-nowhere Zambia is excellent southern hemisphere star gazing territory.

After a good night's sleep we woke up to another relaxed day of reading and watching villages pass by. We still had the couchette to ourselves. 18 hours into the trip we crossed over into Tanzania. Immigration was handled on the train and, with the visas we got in Pretoria, it was all very smooth. In Tanzania, the small villages and stations became more frequent. At each stop tons of smiling and waving children ran towards the train and women came to the windows selling fresh bananas, onions and potatoes from the baskets on their heads. We bought a few "nye nye", tomatoes, for our sandwiches. We kept on rolling, enjoyed another sunset, and met up with the boys in the dining car for another night of stories.

On the final day, we rode through Selous National Park, the largest in Tanzania, though we just saw a few baboons. As we neared Dar es Salaam we realized we were right on time. Forty-six hours after leaving Kapiri Moshi we arrived, delay-free, in Dar.

Monday, October 19, 2009

The Mighty Zambezi

Every night at Shoestrings Backpackers in Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe, they show the video of that day's rafting trip down the Zambezi River. We came back from dinner just as it began to play. The crowd was a rowdy one and it sounded like they had had a blast. The video confirmed this. We hadn't thought much about rafting but after watching the huge rapids we knew we had to run the Mighty Zambezi.

Early the next morning, we climbed down the gorge to our put in just below Mosi-oa-Tunya. In our boat were two Swiss couples and their overland South African guide. We were led by Colgate with his pearly white smile. The big water started immediately and didn't stop all day. We flipped the raft on the sixth rapid called the Devil's Toilet Bowl because of the whirlpool in the middle. Temple's head popped up with a shocked look on her face. Later, Clay took a swim on the longest Class V of the day called Gulliver's Travels.

We both felt at home on the raging river. Even more so when we took out for lunch and were greeted by a local boy in a red shirt that read, "Athens: a drinking town with a football problem."

The last rapid of the day was Oblivion. With a series of three huge waves, it's easy for a raft to cut a complete front to back flip. We hit it perfectly though and the big wave crashed all over us as we sailed safely through. At the take out we thanked Nyami Nyami, the river god, and the Mighty Zambezi for a thrilling and safe passage. Then, we climbed up the steep gorge wall and headed back to Shoestrings to relive it all over again.

(The images in the slideshow are screen shots from the DVD)

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Devil's Pool

Mosi-oa-Tunya was dubbed "Victoria Falls" by David Livingstone in 1855 when he first came across it. Like Dr. Livingstone, we arrived during the dry season. Since the water level was low it allowed us to explore areas of the Zambian falls that were usually under rushing water. Instead of overwhelming mist soaking us to the bone we could see the cliff faces with sheer drops to the mighty Zambezi River below. The loud and impressive falls spill over only half of the gorge the other half was dry for the moment and we hiked along the edge. In only a few months time, tremendous amounts of water will be rushing over our footprints. After about a 30 minute walk along the boulders and through the creeks we approached the Smoke that Thunders. As we did a nice guy in khaki shorts approached us with an exciting offer. Before we knew it we were wading into the water.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Mosi-oa-Tunya

Mosi-oa-Tunya means "The Smoke That Thunders". The falls themselves are on the Zambian side but for the best views you head to Zimbabwe. Standing on the Zim side of the canyon, you are surrounded by thunder and showered by smoke. We hiked down to see rainbows spanning the width of the gorge, admire the lush surrounding forest, and staggering rock walls. As we approached different viewpoints the thunder rages louder. It's hard to imagine it in the rainy season when the water flow is more than 10 times this volume.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Hitchhiker's Guide to the Chobe River

We woke up at 5:45 to catch the 6:30 bus from Maun to Nata. The night before we scheduled a cab to pick us up that morning at 6:00. Getting up was more chaotic than normal because we forgot where we put our passports before the mokoro trip. At the same time, Temple was searching frantically for the Deet bug repellant, haunted by the malaria risk. As our bag emptying search ensued, we failed to notice that the cab hadn't shown. We asked the only employee of the backpackers who was up that early but unfortunately he didn't speak much English. We asked if he could call a cab then he indicated he was also looking for a ride into town. So we gave up on the cab but hoped we could catch a minibus to town from the main road, which was a five minute walk from the hostel. With our new traveling companion in tow we walked down the dirt road over the old bridge to the main road. As we neared we flagged down a speeding van. As soon as we saw break lights we all broke into a sprint. When we got to the mini we threw our packs on the roof rack and squeezed in with 15 other passengers half of them school children in uniform. When we arrived at the bus station at 6:36 the bus to Nata was nowhere to be found but at least our bags were still on the roof. We had to wait for the 8:00 bus which turned out to be our lucky break.

Around 8:00 we departed for the four hour drive across Botswana to Nata. The road is almost perfectly straight save for a few potholes and detours. We slept most of the way. Nata isn't so much a town as a gas station at a crossroads. We had the option of squeezing into a hot minibus for a four hour drive on the bumpy road to Kasane or hitchhiking. When we inquired about the minibus we were told that it was already full because the previous mini had broken down. Supposedly, it was easy to hitch to Kasane because everyone in Nata is either headed there or coming from there. I first asked for a ride from a young British couple because they reminded me of us but their car was a compact and filled with supplies. Then I asked two guys in a row who were both from Kasane but not headed home at the moment. I next approached a Land Rover that was completely decked out in safari gear. I asked the driver if he was heading to Kasane. He replied angrily, "Look. You're the second guy to ask me. You guys need to take a look in the back. We're completely full. And, yes we're going to Kasane." I told him to take it easy and walked away.

On the other side of the pump was a BMW SUV filling up. In the drivers seat was a cool looking guy in sunglasses. I repeated my question, sure to be turned away. He was headed to Kasane, further even to the Democratic Republic of Congo. He said he could give us a lift and just needed to rearrange a few things. At first, I thought he was alone but soon Sharon, aka Stone, appeared from the gas station. We said hello and she didn't seem too surprised to see us. It took a while but Jason's amazing repacking job cleared the entire back seat. Sweet, we thought. This is a major improvement from the prospective minibus. We were climbing in when he said, "Patrick, we got two more passengers." We both looked over to see Patrick lumbering towards the car. A sort of South African Ignatius Reilly who we would soon be calling Opa (Afrikaans for grandfather). We had our bags between our feet and on our laps and Temple was squeezed between Opa and me. It was 300 kilometers to Kasane and we couldn't be happier squeezed in with the A/C on full blast and Lauren Hill on Jason's iPod.

We learned only a few details about our new companions. They were all from Jo'burg so we talked about South Africa and how much fun we had there. Jason had work in the DRC and traveled this road a lot. Opa had never in his 62 years left his home country until Jason offered to bring him along on one of his business trips. And Stone and Opa lived in the same house and were friends of many years. Temple enjoyed Jason's soundtrack and Opa and Sharon shared dirty jokes. The five of us were becoming fast friends.

After a bout of pothole weaving we were closing in on Kasane. The three of them had started at 2:00am that morning from Jo'burg and had traveled all the way through Botswana in a day. They were going to continue in the morning and Jason offered to take us to Livingstone, Zambia. I asked Jason if he knew any good backpackers in Kasane. "In Africa, I leave the backpackers to you guys" he said. Jason was a sharp dresser and his BMW had all the bells and whistles. He was clearly a step above bunk beds. We didn't have a real plan for Kasane but we told him we were looking to do a cruise along the Chobe riverfront. Jason said, "Maybe we'll get there in time for the sundowners tonight." We didn't think much of this at the time and were mainly trying to pick out a hostel from our guidebook. Jason said he usually stays at the Chobe Lodge and that maybe we could stay there. Temple mentioned that it may not fit in our budget but we could take a taxi from there to the backpackers. As we drove through Kasane we were reading about places to stay. In our book we read "Chobe Game Lodge, the pinnacle of Botswanan Luxury." Way out of our league.

Not five minutes later we pulled through the gates of the Lodge, a five star resort on the banks of the Chobe River. Jason went to the front desk to check in. He came back and asked, "What's the budget?" Trying not to sound cheap in the pinnacle of luxury, Temple said 50 bucks. Jason said "There's a chalet with three bedrooms so you guys can have one of the rooms." I asked, "Is it in the budget?" "Yes, don't worry about it. We'll figure it out later." Um okay? Jason then asked the concierge about a sundowner cruise for the five of us. A boat was about to pull out so we hurried to put our stuff down in the chalet. A minute later we were on a deluxe booze cruise surrounded by hippos, crocs and elephants. We were laughing at our luck, Opa's jokes, and the antics of the hippos. Jason had his camcorder out and Temple and I were snapping away.

After the cruise, we returned to the chalet to freshen up for dinner. Luckily, we clean up nice. We joined the others for a lovely meal. Over dinner Opa continued to give his life lessons. Our companions were all exhausted from driving since 2:00 am and soon went to bed. Temple and I walked around the lodge and tried to wrap our minds around our good luck. We laughed at what characters they were and marveled at how nice Jason was. Soon we were back in the chalet sleeping in crisp white linens on non-bunk beds.

We woke up at 6:00 the next morning to catch the Jason Express to Livingstone. We all piled back into the car for the short ride to the border. We attempted to hand Jason some gas money but he refused. To enter Zambia you take a ferry and your vehicle across the Zambezi river. We enjoyed the ride knowing we were upriver from Victoria Falls. In all the excitement we forgot we needed US dollars to pay for our Zambian visas, $80 a piece for double entry. At immigration, I asked Jason if we could borrow money for the visas and pay him back in Livingstone. He handed me two crisp hundred dollar bills. Once again we were amazed by his generosity and very determined to pay him back. When we tried to give him the change he said hold on to it until Livingstone. We waited by the car as Jason took car of customs and paid road tolls.

Once we were in Zambia, Jason said he knew a great breakfast spot right next to the falls. Pretty soon we were pulling into another five star resort, this one with an amazing breakfast buffet. I finished eating and ran to the resort bank to get money to pay Jason back for the visa money and some portion of the other expenses he'd taken care of. Meanwhile, Jason, Stone and Opa went to take a quick look at Vic Falls. Back from the bank, Temple and I acted like regulars of the resort and I took a swim in their large pool. When our three compadres returned we walked to the car to get our bags, thanking Jason all the way for everything. When we handed him our email addresses along with the reimbursement he refused the money again. "Have a beer on me." After some profuse thanks and hugs, we said goodbye to these kind strangers as they headed off to DRC. We stood there in the parking lot glad we'd missed that 6:30 bus.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Okavango Delta

We met our poler Jonas at the put in for our two day mokoro trip on the Okavango Delta, the largest inland delta in the world. Mokoros are traditional dugout canoes that hold two people seated and a poler standing in the back. Unlike other canoes, and because the delta is so shallow, mokoro polers push off the bottom with a long wooden stick as they steer through the reed grass. Jonas was a great guide with an even better laugh. The delta is a quite place. At times the only sound is the pole dipping into the water and the boat parting the thick grass.

We rode for about two hours passing vibrant birds, infinite dragonflies and colorful lily pads. We reached our campsite on an island in the middle of the river. In the midday heat Jonas took us to the local swimming hole. The shallow water was warm from the intense sun but still felt nice. Later, we got back into the mokoros for a sunset cruise to the hippo pool. Along the way Jonas pulled over to track two elephants, tossing sand to test the wind and climbing termite mounds for a better view. We didn't get very close but the chase was thrilling. Back on the water, the sky and delta were already changing colors. The hippo pool was a large open area that was too deep to cross in the mokoros. The hippos wiggled their ears and made gurgling sounds as they surfaced for air. The boat rocked in the hippo waves. Evening bird songs filled the air on our way back to camp.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Can You Drive a Hyundai?

South African Road Trip 2009 is over. Our trusty Hyundai Accent, "Champagne", carried us safely from Cape Town to Pretoria. Through the winelands of Francshoek to the whales of Hermanus, from the southern tip of Africa and the worlds highest bungee jump to the waterfalls of Tsitsikama and the stormy Drakensberg mountains. She dueled elephants in Addo, snuck passed rhinos in HI and maneuvered around the king of the jungle in Kruger. But what this midsize will be remembered for is her courage, valor and strength on the road to Bulungula Lodge. Where other Hyundais would have turned back she pressed on with the heart of a 4x4. That's why on the day we returned her to Tempest Car Hire we raise a glass of Pierre Jordan bubbly, a bottle she has carried from the first days of our journey, and we say thank you Champagne and God speed.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Working On My ROAR

Before the sun was up, we were on the trail of an African elephant during a game walk in the granddaddy of them all, Kruger National Park. Led by two rangers with rifles, we learned great tips on animal tracking by examining footprints and a lot of dung.

During the day, we drove the Hyundai around and saw a mother lion with two baby cubs, a herd of buffalo on the water's edge and hippos getting feisty in their local watering holes.

While eating lunch, we sat at a watering hole admiring several species of birds and antelope quench their thirst. We pulled up to a traffic jam of cars watching a male lion in the bush that we couldn't quite see. Suddenly, an older cub walked out in the direction of our car. He showed us that he was working on his roar when he opened his mouth and let out a few very adorable meows. We watched in awe for a few seconds before he turned around and returned to his elders.

In the early evening we climbed into a large safari truck for our sunset drive. Early into the ride, we spotted an adult male lion close to the road. We oohed and awwed at his beautiful mane and piercing yellow eyes. When we thought it couldn't get any better, he got up and climbed the rocks, looking like the true king of the jungle.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

In the Clouds

We woke to dark skies and cold rain on our first day in the Ukhalamba-Drakensberg mountains. With hope and disregard we loaded into the minibus to hike to the Ampitheatre, a five kilometer wide, one kilometer deep rock face. Our fearless leader Sim drove through Free State province with the wipers on high yet maintaining a positive outlook. Hakuna matata. It'll clear up. We reached the trail head. Stepping out into the clouds, we were completely soaked in seconds. One Dutch girl refused to get out, saying she'd rather spend six hours in the van. Visibility was low but the hale and hearty set out on the trek. Six of us with Sim in the lead pushed through, our heads down and wind and rain blowing in our faces. About ten minutes in, a German girl and the Dutch girl's boyfriend turned back. And then there were four. We marched on but as the weather worsened and gusts of cold rain persisted with no hope of clearing, we all decided to turn back and try another day.

Two days later it was still cloudy and cold but the rain and wind held off so we jumped in Sim's van and were determined to get to the top. At the starting point, the cloud cover was incredibly thick. Sim described what we would be seeing had it been a clear day and the canyons and river valley all looked great in our imaginations. After a series of cutbacks we got to a rocky climb straight up to the top of Amp. Once we arrived at the top we enjoyed our cheese sandwiches and hard boiled eggs but no Amp view. I could barely see Temple 20 feet away. She walked across the way curious if there was anything to see besides white. When she turned around she yelled, "I see something!" Yes, the clouds were moving! The Ampitheatre materialized before our eyes. Pure joy. Everyone ran for the rim of the mountain taking pictures furiously of the cliff walls and river valley, not sure if the next wind would obscure the view once again. But the lingering clouds stayed back and actually added to the dramatic views.

We walked along the rim and saw the 2nd highest waterfall in the world though it was just a trickle in dry season. The clouds were moving back in as we made our way off the mountain. We climbed down chain link ladders which were bolted into the rock face. There were two ladders to choose from: the more stable one and the more fun one. Temple was the first on the more stable one and I was next to her on the more fun one. For an added degree of difficulty it began to rain as we stepped onto the ladders. Many people in our group were a little nervous about the descent. I told Sim I was lucky to have a girlfriend without fear. After the climb down it finally cleared for good and we saw all the views that we could only imagine hours before.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Kingdom in the Sky

From the foothills of the Ukhalamba Drakensbergs, we traveled through the Manontsa Pass to the village of Mafika-Lisiu in the small and very high kingdom of Lesotho. We pulled our jackets tight and walked around the village comprised of small clay houses and rondavels. We climbed into the hills above the town to see ancient San rock paintings which were likely over 2000 years old. After the climb we received our just rewards at the local shabeen, the village brewery. The white flag flying outside a small rondavel told us there was traditional maize beer to be had. Villagers, mostly older, crowded around a fire while a large cup filled with the brew was passed around the circle. It was cider-like, a little gritty and warm but pretty tasty.

After a walk back to the village school, we played with the kids during recess. Most were jumping rope or playing soccer. They were curious and spoke a little English. Not surprisingly, the kids that live in the highest country in the world were just like kids everywhere else.

When school let out for the day we went to meet with the village sangoma who smiled as he answered questions about his job as the traditional healer. He was quiet and soft-spoken but very gracious in his responses, translated by our guide Sim. Afterwards we tried some mealie pap which is eaten all over southern Africa- though under different names. It's like sticky grits that's eaten with your hands and usually with cooked spinach.

Our last stop was the Two Sisters market for some more beer but this one, called Maluti after the surrounding mountains, was a regular lager available only in Lesotho. We bought a large bottle of the hoppy brew and toasted the mountains, the people of the village and the kingdom of Lesotho.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Lion in a Tree

We had read great things about the Hluhluwe-Umfolozi Game Reserve but only decided two nights before going that we should squeeze it into the road trip. We spent 4 hours driving to Mtubatuba where we stayed the night. We woke very early, getting to the park when the gates opened so that we'd have sufficient time there before our drive to the mountains. We were amazed by how much we saw in the 6 hours we drove ourselves around. Immediately we saw a mammoth white rhino, several giraffes and zebras. Then a nice man told us that in the bush were two male lions just beginning to grow their manes. We were very close to one lion lounging in the shade before we suddenly realized that his brother was 5 feet above him in the tree! This man in the neighboring car was some kind of lion expert and said he'd never heard of a lion climbing a tree, so this was quite rare. It seemed the lion was a curious teenager who enjoyed not playing by the rules and we enjoyed every minute of watching him.

Soon after, we saw a herd of white rhino nibbling on the grass and sending us glances. They all looked to me like they were wearing gray sweat suits because of the gray folds in their skin. We loved watching the peaceful giraffe whose bird friends helped pick bugs off his long neck. The impala had the same friendship with these birds. Later we pulled up to a magnificent cheetah lounging in the shade. We stayed long enough to see him get up, scratch himself on the tree, look around and then resume his napping. In the few strides we could sense his elegance and strength.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Aliwal Shoal

Since we landed in South Africa I had been looking forward to diving at the Aliwal Shoal, a huge coral reef just south of Durban which is said to be one of the top 10 dive sites in the world. I signed up for two dives, one in the morning and one around midday. It had been a few years since my last dive and I was a little unsure of myself when getting instructions from my dive master Kenny, a young blond guy. After a drive to the beach we boarded a small inflatable dingy that required us to wear lifejackets, strap our feet into the bottom and hold on to a rope on the side in order to make it out to the reef. Hitting huge waves at full speed was very fun and an unexpected thrill for all but my dive buddy Andrew. Andrew, a young guy from Jo'burg, was doing his first ever ocean dive and immediately became sea sick. He would feel better once he was in the water. On the count of three we fell backwards into the water and before I was ready everyone was sinking except for me. I didn't have enough weight on my weight belt to take me down. Great. I signaled the driver of the boat who helped me put two more weights in my BC and pulled me over to the buoy attached to Kenny down below. Of course this whole sudden and unexpected situation frayed my nerves and I had to take a few breaths before my descent. I went down and calmed myself so that I wouldn't use us my oxygen up too fast. The first thing I saw was a small reef shark which was cool but I had to find Andrew.

When I found him we traded hand signals to indicate we were both okay. Then it was time to enjoy the scenery. There were incredibly colorful fish everywhere. The reef was intensely complex and colorful. Some of our companion divers had underwater cameras and Kenny pointed out some rock fish, scorpion fish and a lobster. When Andrew indicated he was at his minimum oxygen limit I said lets go up and I would just tell Kenny. I had been following him closely, knowing it was him by the cord he was carrying which led to the buoy on top of the water. I tapped on his shoulder and an older bearded man's face turned around. That's not Kenny, how strange. We came up and this bearded man laughed and said Who are you and Why have you been following us for 20 minutes? Just great. We'd lost the group. At least we hadn't lost each other, I thought. This group's boat went to go get our driver while we sat in the open turbulent water laughing at ourselves. Our driver came over and helped us out of the water. I was embarrassed but relieved once I saw that the same thing happened to another pair, apparently when this other group intersected ours which was about the time of my late descent.

This shook me up a little but I was determined to go on the second dive so I'd have a better experience. We went out a few hours later and Andrew braved the even rougher seas. I had a liter of water in my ear from the gigantic waves crashing on me but at least I wasn't throwing up on the side of the boat. So we went down this time all together and it was not as crowded with other groups as the previous dive. We landed on sandy ground at the bottom, looked for sharks teeth then moved on to the reef. The different shapes and sizes and colors of fish were amazing. Trumpet fish, paper fish, blow fish, florescent purple fish, blue polka dotted fish, angel fish. I stayed very close to Kenny this time and followed him into a cave where a white tipped reef shark was sitting. They are only about two feet long and not threatening. We moved on and came across a large rag-toothed shark which was the biggest thing I'd ever seen under water. It definitely looked more threatening and we were quite close but it luckily didn't feel threatened by us. We peered into more crevasses seeing eels and rock fish and then I heard a chirp like a dolphin. I swam up and heard someone grunt. There, 20 feet away, were schools of dolphin swimming by singing and encircling us. It was awesome. They seemed to be smiling at us as they swiftly flew past in small groups. When we surfaced and climbed back on the boat the dolphins were all around jumping completely out of the water and swimming really close to us. It was a magical experience to see them underwater and then above. I smiled as waves pounded my face all the way back to shore.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Bulungula Lodge

Driving to Bulungula Lodge might be the most unforgettable part of our South African road trip. Our journey began on the N2, the highway that runs from Cape Town to Durban. Even though its the major highway in the Eastern Cape, there are signs that read "No Fences for 20 Km" to warn drivers of the cows crossing the road, sometimes alone, sometimes in herds of 20. After dodging cattle we turned off the N2 onto a small black topped road that quickly turned into a pothole minefield. I felt like Han Solo steering the Millennium Falcon through the asteroid field. We dodged the tire-flattening holes for 37 km before coming to the turn-off where our map for the lodge picked up. We confirmed with locals that the building to our right was Nocollege Store and, therefore, the road next to it the way to Bulungula. For 2 rand he said we were heading in the right direction. Pulling away I had a feeling that we might be asking too much of our Hyundai Accent. Although the region is in the middle of a three year drought it had rained the night before turning this dirt road into a mud track. As I drove down the first hill I quickly realized I was sliding. Temple said, "stay to the left." I had to inform her I wasn't in control. The map said continue on the road for 20 km. After 30 minutes the odometer said we had only traveled 1.9 km. But we pressed on waving at every local we saw thinking that at any moment we would be requesting assistance in the form of a tow or a place to sleep for the night. All returned our greetings with broad smiles and waves.

Our strategy of slow and steady was paying off. The kilometers continued to be conquered. As we continued, the opposite of what we thought would happen occurred and the road began to improve although our perspective was a little skewed. The road just got less muddy and the potholes were smaller. We received the unsolicited help of a group of young boys driving a pick-up in the direction of the lodge. We followed closely behind until they pointed us towards the patch of trees where the Bulungula Store was. We pulled into the parking spot where we'd leave our car. The road ahead was only passable by 4x4. We thanked the Hyundai for getting us this far and only asked that she get us out in a few days. We hiked the final 3 km through the traditional Xhosa (pronounced with a click at the beginning) village of Nqileni where hills are dotted with rondavels and animals graze freely. When we saw the Bulungula Lodge sitting at the meeting point of the Xhora river and the Indian Ocean, we knew the journey was worth it.

Immediately, we met the charming Liesel and Albert as well as villagers that worked at the lodge. The village owns 40% of the lodge and all of the activities are run by members of the community so they receive 100% of the proceeds. Albert showed us to our beds in a turquoise rondavel. On the day we arrived the whole village was celebrating the opening of the new school built with the help of the lodge. That evening we had a delicious traditional Xhosa meal with fellow travelers. Some children and parents had gathered around the main area to play drums and listen to music. An adorable 7 year old boy took the floor and busted some incredible moves. Soon there were more participants and we had a good time with locals and tourists shaking hips in the dance circle.

The next day we rose at 5:45 for sunrise pancakes. We walked along the beach with our new Belgian and Dutch friends. Although it was cloudy and started to rain, we enjoyed the views of crashing waves but even more so the delicious pancakes. A few hours later a nice villager who spoke only a little English walked us over hills to another part of the Xhora river for canoeing. We enjoyed rowing through the quiet landscape, seeing the occasional goat or farmer on the riverside.

That evening we had the pleasure of a visit by the sangomas (traditional healers) of the village. A middle aged man led the dance and chants while two older women and a sangoma apprentice danced with him. A lot of children and people of the community were gathered around to watch, drum, sing and chant. Some of the women had white clay painted on their faces, typical of the Xhosa people. The singing and dancing was energizing and we felt blessed be be a part of such a special ceremony.

The next day a nice 22 year old girl from the village gave us a tour of the area. First we visited one of the older female sangomas who we had seen dance the night before. She wore white beads which are traditional for sangomas and a headdress. Some things were lost in translation but her goodwill was obvious. We saw inside of her home where a relative was spreading mud on the floor of the rondavel, which is done every month or so for purification. It was interesting to see the inside of a real rondavel and how the people cook, sleep on mats and keep warm. We met some other nice villagers, saw the two schools, the old silos and the new community center.

Afterwards, we said goodbye to our new friends. We hiked through the village towards the Bulungula Store where our trusty automobile awaited for a long drive out.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

We Won't Forget You Either

Our first encounter with The Big Five came at Addo Elephant National Park where - you guessed it- we saw a ton of elephants. But the park has a lot more than just ellies. They also have the flight-less dung beetle.

We arrived at the park at 6:00 am when the gates opened and drove ourselves around for a few hours before our scheduled game drive. Immediately we saw elephants on the side of the road. We also saw ugly but endearing warthogs, elegant ostriches and beautiful kudus with their meter long spiraling antlers. You can get amazingly close to these gigantic animals. They just continue chewing on the closest bush and sometimes cross in front of your car.

I was excited to leave the driving to someone else and climb into an open air Land Rover for our safari drive through the park. Our driver was not afraid to pull right up to the elephants. The excitement level kicked up a notch when we heard there was a lion down the way. We hurried to get there stopping only to see some elephant babies with their moms. We sped past antelope and ostriches and took a right at the buffalo carcass. And there she was, about 200 feet away just sunning herself and checking us out. After a crowd gathered the lioness headed back into the bush.

Back in the Hyundai we sat for a while at a watering hole watching a family of elephants nap, nuzzle and assert their masculinity.

Heading out of the park, we rounded a corner and saw a huge male elephant walking on the dirt road. It wasn't the first elephant we'd seen in the middle of the road but this one was marching directly towards us. I quickly hit the car in reverse to give the alpha male some space. Our hearts were racing as he continued to advance on us. Finally we got to a part in the road wide enough to pass him. 'What a great way to end the day,' we thought as we continued towards the gate. Not even two minutes later, just as I said the word 'awesome,' an enormous male kudu bounded out of the bush landing almost on top of the car. I slammed on the brakes and it was already back in the air jumping over the hood and landing on the other side of the road, before jumping out of sight. That is why there are speed limits in African National Parks.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Tsitsikamma Jump

By 10:00 am we were done with bungee jumping and not sure if the rest of the day could compete. With our hearts still racing, we headed to Tsitsikamma National Park where we began the coastal Waterfall Trail hike. After about an hour and a half we arrived at a beautiful waterfall and swimming hole not 100 feet from the Indian Ocean. We were the only people there and the water looked inviting. The second jump of the day was as memorable as the first.

5-4-3-2-1...Bungee

We were already wearing our harnesses when we walked out onto the catwalk on the Bloukrans Bridge. We looked down through the metal grates at the lush river valley we would soon jump into. Bloukrans Bridge is the highest commercial bungee jump in the world and we were the first jumpers of the day Clay, J1, and Temple, J2.

As our ankles were being tied together we were both surprisingly calm. I hopped towards the edge. Temple said "I love you" and waved goodbye. "Hang your toes over" was the command. That was the hard part, the rest gravity took care of. The crew then showed me the camera hanging six feet in front of my face and they began counting down from 5. 4-3-2-1- and I jumped as far out as I could. The feelings that followed are difficult to put into words. It was very primal.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Southern Tip of Africa

After clearing up where the true southern tip of Africa was, Cape Agulhas not Cape Point, we made our way there. Although it's the southern most point in Africa it's off the beaten path. At the tip is a stone platform that reads Indian Ocean with an arrow pointing east and Atlantic Ocean with an arrow pointing west. We both climbed up to reach across two oceans. Legend has it that if you pee where the oceans meet its good luck. I arrived with a full bladder to get as much luck as I could. The lighthouse that overlooks the cape was one we had to climb. We went up four large wooden ladders to the top. It was difficult to open the door to the outside because the wind was so strong. We ran around for while before seeking refuge from the gale.