Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Usambara Mountains, a Northern Circuit Safari and Moshi, Tanzania . . . "Mzungu. Mzungu"

We are now in Moshi, a town at the base of Mount Kilimanjaro. When the sky is clear the mountain looms in the background, challenging Phil and frightening me. It looks big. It also looks somewhat out of place when you are viewing its snow capped peaks from the sweltering heat of Moshi.

For the last few months we have been considering the possibility of perhaps (weather, finances and health permitting) making an attempt to climb Kilimanjaro or ‘Kili’ as it is affectionately called in these parts.

Some people – wise people – train for a considerable period before attempting to climb 5,896 metres into very thin air. We have been sitting on buses and lazing around on beaches since climbing Sapitwa (‘Don’t Go There’) Peak in Malawi in March. Before that there were more buses and beaches. We have managed to avoid mirrors and scales for several months, but before we faced Kili we had to face the fact that we were out of shape. We had a few options:

(a) attempt the climb relying upon our ‘natural fitness’;
(b) try and improve our fitness; or
(c) do not attempt the climb.

We decided on (b) and after leaving Dar we spent five days hiking in the Usambara Mountains in the north of Tanzania. The highest peak is about half the height of Kili but at least we managed to get a lot of walking done. The area is beautiful and we spent days walking along winding paths through the small villages scattered all over the mountains. We went to Usambara for the walking but enjoyed it because of the locals. The people were very friendly and welcoming -aside from a few toddlers who screamed in terror when they saw Phil. Of course there were the older kids who followed us with the constant chant “Mzungu. Mzungu” (white person/ foreigner) ignoring my usual objections, but despite that we loved the village experience.

Another highlight was wine. We were deliriously happy to learn that the Usambara Mountains contained not one but two wine producing farms. The first we visited was a mission farm run by nuns who produced wine, cheese, jam and honey. Unfortunately, our expectations were not met. The nuns, in all their wisdom, had decided to use their acres to produce wine from bananas. Banana wine is not great. Think St Tropez wine cooler with a banana twist.

With substantially diminished expectations we visited the second farm, this one run by priests. Although I hate to admit it, the men had done a better job. They produced very drinkable red and white wine (from grapes- imagine that) for about ₤1.50 a bottle. Unable to rid himself of his hording instinct where wine is concerned, Phil picked up two bottles despite the fact that we had a very long walk back to Maweni farm, where we were staying.

This long walk was made longer by my insistence that we avoid the small bushfire we saw on the way to the priests’ farm, in favour of a longer route that would avoid any possibility of death by fire. Luckily, or so we thought at the time, about an hour or so into our walk a local Catholic priest offered to take us all the way back to Maweni farm after stopping for a quick drink at his place on the way.

The ‘quick drink’ lasted two hours during which time we provided him with an audience upon which he could test his theories of the world. His monologue included the following topics: the problems with acidity in wine; the distortion of God in the western world; the misrepresentation of the meaning behind the crucifixion of Jesus; the crucifixion of Jesus as a sacrifice to the goddess of Spring; crucifixion and flagellation; flagellation and Lawrence of Arabia; flagellation and ejaculation (I kid you not); Calvinism; Jews in America; German Jews; Muslims; what is wrong with African development; persecution of the farmer in Africa; persecution generally; the UK and USA’s relatively insignificant contribution to the defeat of Germany in WW2; the strategic genius of Hitler; the brilliance of The Economist (which published two of his letters and which I silently vowed never again to purchase); and the inability of others to appreciate the truth.

We began by trying to take part in what we thought was a conversation but only managed a few words: “Oh yes, Jesus. . .”; “we were taught something quite different”; “well I wouldn’t agree that we were brain-washed, in fact . . .”. We soon gave up and listened until Phil skillfully sensed the end of and sentence and managed to quickly mention an imminent dinner appointment. We were saved.

By the time we got back to Maweni farm we were also exhausted. We decided that we had finished with Usambara. Our confidence buoyed by five days of walking, we went to Moshi, booked the Kili climb and then left for Arusha to do a safari.

Our safari was fantastic. We visited Lake Manyara, Serengeti and Ngorongoro Crater and we were lucky enough to see the ''Big Five'' (safari-speak for the lion, elephant, leopard, buffalo and rhino), the annual wildebeest migration and several other animals. We went on safari as a group with a fun English couple and managed to keep ourselves entertained by making a competition out of spotting animals. At the end of the day we played other games . . . eg. “What is this Soup?”, “What is this Meat”, and “Guess whether this is Soup or Meat.”

Now we are back in Moshi living under the under the ominous presence of Kili, preparing ourselves for our attempt at the mountain.

There is certainly no guarantee that we will make it to the top, a large percentage of those who attempt it never reach the summit because of altitude sickness. However, it is not the end of the world if we don’t reach the top (or so I have been trying to convince Phil) and we are going to try and enjoy ourselves going up.

It will take us about a week to climb the mountain and a day or so to recover, so the entry next entry will be in about 2 weeks.

In the meantime, Phil has posted more photos of Malawi and Mozambique . . . click here to see them . . .

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Dar es Salaam and Zanzibar, Tanzania . . . "Mambo"

As we have been travelling through Africa during the wet season, we knew we would encounter some rain along the way. So it was not really a surprise when it rained non-stop for the first four days in Zanzibar. We were not pleased but we were not unhappy. This, after all, was what we had signed-up for.

Our misery began later when we chatted to an expat who told us that it “never rains like this in Zanzibar” and that it had, in fact, not rained this heavily or constantly in more than ten years. After this conversation we felt cheated of the trip we were supposed to have: the visit to Zanzibar with intermittent light showers. However, in Africa, as in Australia, you can't complain too loudly or too long about rain because (of course) rain is “good for the farmers”. So we went out exploring Stone Town in the rain with our best happy-for-the-farmers faces.

“Zanzibar” literally means “Land of the Blacks”. The word originates from the Arabic words “zinj” meaning black and “barr” meaning land. Very creative. There is a strong Aribic influence in Zanzibar and much of the East African coast. Stone Town in Zanzibar is a maze of narrow streets, many are just wide enough for a bike. The streets are lined with homes and shops, some of which have enormous carved wooden doors with amazingly detailed designs. Despite Stone Town’s attributes, I must admit that at least on the first day, I was more interested in shopping than architecture.

Luckily for me, given the constant rain, exploring the shops in the narrow streets of Stone Town was the best way to amuse ourselves for a few days. Phil was looking for a Zanzibar chest and I was desperate to buy some new clothes after a conversation I had in a bar about a month ago . . .

Me: So there are prostitutes here. How can you tell who are the prostitutes?

Friendly Expat: Over there, that is a prostitute. In fact, all those girls are prostitutes.

Me: (Incredulous) But how can you tell? She is wearing exactly what I am wearing.

Expat: Hmmmm. (Sympathetic smile)

Who knew that jeans and a strappy top could get you into so much trouble . . .

Given that we are heading further into Muslim territory the further north we travel, I decided that any shopping expedition in Zanzibar must include long-sleeved cotton tops. Such conservative dressing should have the dual benefit of demonstrating some cultural sensitivity and differentiating myself from a lady of the night. I will let you know if it works.

In an attempt not to let the rain stop our exploration of the island, we decided to go on a "Spice Tour". The tours visit a few farms to see how they produce pepper, cinnamon, nutmeg, tumeric, cloves, lemon grass, cardamon and various other spices for which Zanzibar has been historically known. Not forgetting Zanzibar's other great historical trading money spinner- slaves - the tour also made a quick stop at an underground slave holding cell.

Phil was fascinated with the spices: “So this is a vanilla bean!” He asked several questions and I suspect he was making mental notes to plan a five course African-themed dinner party upon our return. My enquiries, on the other hand, focused on what the tour guides were going to feed us for lunch. It doesn’t take much to guess who the chef is in our relationship.

After the Spice Tour we set off for Kendwa beach in the north of Zanzibar where, thankfully, bikinis are acceptable. Fortunately we missed a few hundred dead dolphins by one day. They had washed up onto the Kendwa beach, died in their hundreds and had been buried or removed the day before we arrived. There was much speculation as to the cause of the dead dolphins . . . US submarine signals interfering with the dolphins' sonars was one of the more imaginative.

After a few days on the northern beaches we went to the east coast of Zanzibar to compare the beach experience there. The extremely low tide on the east coast meant that it was not the swimming beach that Kendwa was, but when you are relaxing on a beach in Zanzibar there is nothing that you can complain about. We met some cool Canadians in one of the places we stayed and card games with them kept us entertained when the sun wasn’t shining.

Very sadly and very slowly (two weeks after arrival) it was time to say goodbye to Zanzibar and we hopped on a ferry for mainland Tanzania. A very short (3 hours) but very unpleasant journey during which the girl sitting opposite us lost her lunch into a leaky black plastic bag. We weren’t sick but I was slightly nervous when the boat was thrown around a bit. Phil, of course, was not even remotely concerned. I have found that he has demonstrated a concerning mix of fearlessness and insane optimism through most of our travels. I would try to drum this out of him but it happens to balance well with my cowardice and pessimism.

However, I was somewhat comforted to discover a chink in his armour on our return to Dar es Salaam . . .

Phil: (Casually, almost suspiciously so . . .) What are you spraying the repellent for?

Me: I saw a couple of cockroaches in here.

Phil: (With a look that says the apocalypse is upon us) Cockroaches!! Where?!

Yes, it's true. Superman could not deal with kryptonite and Phil cannot handle cockroaches.

So, we found ourselves back in Dar es Salaam with cockroaches and more rain. In fact, we have been stuck in Dar for six days for certain administrative reasons, one of which was a trip to the dentist for me. It was an interesting visit, the conclusion of which was the dentist’s comment that I should see a psychiatrist. (Note to self: Attempt to behave like a normal person during next visit to the dentist.)

It hasn’t all been dentists and cockroaches in Dar es Salaam though. We entertained ourselves by a visit to the National Museum (or “The House of Remembering” as it was much more poetically called by the taxi driver) and a trip to the movies. It is nice to see a familiar face, even if that face is Tom Cruise in Mission Impossible 3.

We escape Dar tomorrow and head north for some exercise. After five months of fried eggs for breakfast we need it.

Next entry before the end of the month.

PS- Phil has loaded up some more photos so click on the 'Cape Town to Cairo Photos' link or click right here to see photos of Botswana, Vic Falls and Malawi.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

The Road to Kilwa, Tanzania . . . "Jambo"

As everyone knows, travelling does not free you from all decision making responsibilities. True- I no longer have to make an agonising decision about whether to sign-off a letter with “Yours sincerely”, “Yours faithfully” or one of the other five prescribed options built into the computer at one firm I used to work at. (“Love” was never an option). Nor do I have to decide what to wear on Dress-Down Fridays. All that is, tragically, behind me.

However, there are still decisions to be made: where to go and how to get there. Easy? Yes, very easy. We essentially follow 3 simple steps:

(1) Listen to the information we get from other travellers and locals, who always want to help. (You, where are you going? You must catch this bus.”)

(2) Consider the information and whether it has been provided for our assistance (which it usually is) or in an effort to somehow part us from our money. (“You give me money and my brother’s taxi will pick you up tomorrow from your hotel.” “You give me money and I will buy the ticket for you. Special discount.” Or simply . . . “You give me money.”)

(3) Decide what to do before someone else decides for us by grabbing our bags and strapping them to the top of an already moving bus . . . destination unknown.

We were pretty confident in our decision-making. Perhaps over confident, which is how I explain our behaviour travelling north from the Tanzanian border to Kilwa, a mere 200 km away.

We were told: “You have missed the bus. Too late now for the bus to Kilwa.” “You wait. Tomorrow morning there is the bus.”

Do we listen? No, we went to the bus stop and decided to catch a truck that we were told (by the person who took our money) would take 2 hours to get to Kilwa. We climbed onto the truck and were informed, by others concerned that we had been misled, that the bus will take “6 hours, maybe more” and that it didn’t stop at Kilwa itself but at a junction about 10 km from Kilwa.

At the time it was about 4pm. Did we consider how we would get from the junction to Kilwa late at night when the truck arrived? No, we attempted to make ourselves comfortable squashed into the back of the truck with about 30 locals on top of a few hundred coconuts. We soon found that, given the coconuts, we were never going to get comfortable. We began to have second thoughts . . .

Phil: Maybe we should get off and catch the bus tomorrow morning?
Me: Mmmm, maybe we should. Should we get off then?
Phil: Maybe, what do you think?
Me: Maybe we should.

This inane conversation continued along the same lines for some time. Did we make a decision? No, the truck started and we were off.

Phil: At least we are moving.

In a continent where we have spent significant amounts of time waiting for a bus/truck/train to leave, it is always a relief to be moving. Unfortunately, we were not moving for long before we got our first flat tyre. Or what we presumed was a flat tyre. The truck stopped, the front wheel was taken off, the inner back wheel was swapped with the outer back wheel the outer back wheel was swapped with the front wheel and, I think, something was done with the spare, but I was too confused to work it out. Shortly afterwards, we had another flat, the truck developed battery problems and sparks intermittently flew from underneath it which we could see quite well as it was dark by this time. It slowly dawned on us that, perhaps, we had made a mistake.

At about 11pm, after 7 hours on the coconuts, we were told we were still a few hours from the junction. We finally realised that by the time we got to the junction there would be no way to get to Kilwa and no one to ask for help, our fellow travellers were all heading further north to Dar Es Salaam. We considered cutting our losses by abandoning the truck, setting up camp by the side of the road and waiting for the morning bus. We were discussing the pros (we can get off the truck and the coconuts) and the cons (we had no food and no real idea where we were) of this idea, when we were interrupted by the other travellers, yelling “Simba!! Simba!!”. ‘Simba’ means lion in Swahili. Apparently, the section of road we were on is frequented by prowling lions. I added “possibility of attack by lion” to the list of ‘cons’ and we decided to stay on the truck.

We arrived at the junction at 4am, about 12 hours after climbing onto the truck. Like ‘moving’, ‘arriving’ is always something to be celebrated, but this time we were not as pleased as we usually are. Luckily for us, the truck driver was, like most locals we meet travelling, genuinely concerned about our welfare and willing to put himself out to ensure we were OK. Worried about leaving us in a place that was (as we later found out) known for its after-dark muggings, the driver escorted us to a nearby police road block and informed the incredulous police officers that they had to baby-sit the “mzungus”. (‘Mzungu’ means ‘white person' or 'foreigner’ and no matter how much I protest -“No, he’s a mzungu, I’m not a mzungu. My father is from Ghana... Africa!” - it seems that I am still considered a ‘mzungu’.)

We thanked the truck driver and settled ourselves into the dirt by the side of the road and chatted to Wilford and his fellow policemen until day break.

On the bright side, it was a nice sunrise.

Shortly after the sun came up we managed to hitch our way into Kilwa and spent the next few days recovering at a lovely place on the beach, Kilwa Dreams. It was aptly named, as we spent the first two days there asleep. Once we had recovered we visited the ruins at Kilwa Kisiwani, a Unesco World Heritage site. Kilwa Kisiwani is now a fishing village on an island but it had at one time been the seat of sultans and the centre of a trading network linking the East African coast with Persia, India and China. Having done our cultural duty it was time to leave Kilwa and head north for Dar Es Salaam.

More on Dar Es Salaam and Zanzibar in the next entry, which will be within the fortnight.