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 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.