Africa Part 5: Missing cousins, Great White Sharks and the Word of the Lord

23 08 2008

This post is part of a series:

Table Mountain

I could never be a hunter. I don’t have much of a stomach for blood, guts and gore. My father, eldest son in a farming family that spanned back generations, spent his childhood on a large dairy farm in rural New Zealand, surrounded by animals, bailing hay and milking cows – good honest blokes stuff. Decades later, no doubt eager to share the joys of country living with my eight year old self, he took it upon himself to take me to see a calf being born.

When we arrived, there was evidently a complication with the birth which required some human intervention to resolve. While the others were milling around deciding on a course of action my Dad handed me a transparent, shoulder-length glove and casually suggested I stick my arm inside the cow and feel the unborn calf within. So revolted by the mere thought of this I chose instead to flee back to the car, leaving my Dad standing there – plastic glove in hand and a puzzled look upon on his face (and yes, I’ll admit it, I’m a total chicken.)

Giraffe ViewIf you’ve ever been unfortunate enough to have seen footage from industrial farms and slaughterhouses, you’ll be all too aware the horrendous conditions in which animals are raised and killed before finding their way to our dinner tables. A few years back, after having seen one of these videos myself I was sufficiently repulsed to experiment with being a vegetarian. I lasted only about five weeks before one fateful night at a Chinese restaurant Sweet and Sour Pork became my downfall – and I’ve never looked back. As much as I hate to say it, I just love meat too much to seriously consider life without it.

My thoughts on hunting and animal welfare aside, I can actually understand why the original explorers to Africa would take to big game hunting. If you’d grown up in England or the Americas, your experience of wildlife limited to livestock, domestic animals and perhaps the occasional fox ; coming across an animal as preposterous as a giraffe or elephant must have been completely unfathomable. I also suspect that without the evidence to back up your claims, very few people back home would believe your tales of yellow, long necked herbivores roaming the African continent.

Plains Zebra, Boehm's raceWe saw all the famed ‘Big 5’, originally a term used to refer to the five animals said to be most dangerous to hunt in Africa – Lion, Elephant, Leopard, Rhino and Buffalo. Lions are remarkably lazy, I’m not sure how they made the top 5, I could have easily killed a dozen lions if I had so desired. Every one that we saw was asleep in the sunshine, their most strenuous efforts amounting to nothing more than the occasional flick of the tail – far from the active, predatory animals I had imagined.

Despite being an eager zoo visitor as a kid, it turns out I knew very little about the animals which I’d admired in their enclosures so many times. Hippopotamus, who I’d once considered rather boring and docile, are actually responsible for the most human fatalities in Africa every year. Fiercely territorial, they will charge at up to thirty miles per hour to protect their domain and something as small as getting in between a hippo and the water is enough to provoke this aggression – almost always with dire consequences. Tito, our guide with Absolute Africa, told us he’d seen with his very eyes a hippopotamus attacking an Australian girl by the side of Lake Naivasha where we were staying. Ignoring thrown stones and shouts from aghast onlookers, they had to resort to ramming the large mammal with a truck to get it to shift back to the water, but sadly, it was already too late for the Aussie. Needless to say, none of us took a stroll around the lake that night.

Hippo FightsThe following day we took a boat ride around the lake to see the hippos up close and personal. When our small boat was a few metres away from a group, the skipper would kill the engines and we’d bob up and down in silence, watching with nervous fascination. With a sharp snort, one by one they’d drop beneath the waves, no doubt planning some sort of terrible revenge on the boatload of humans invading their turf. We waited with bated breath as the captain yanked again and again on the starter cord, trying to get our stubborn outboards to spring back to life. Thankfully, the engines would always eventually roar back in to life and we would escape the fearsome hippopotami and continue on our way.

After leaving Tanzania we spent a few nights in Lilongwe, the capital of Malawi. Mike and I decided we’d had enough activity for a few days, so we found some nice, comfy couches at our campground and proceeded to spend the remainder of our time in the city reclining in comfort, savouring the free wireless internet and close proximity of the bar. On our third day of sitting around on the same sofas, the bartender brought us out two beers telling us they’d been purchased for us by another customer. Mystified, Mike and I looked around the bar trying to catch the eye of the shy lass who’d obviously been so taken by our handsome good looks, yet was just too timid to introduce herself. After much observation of our fellow patrons, our anonymous beauty had still failed to make herself known, so I approached the bartender and asked after her identity so that I might do the gallant thing and introduce myself. Unfortunately, it turns out that our secret admirer wasn’t an admirer at all, but a Japanese business man who had just abandoned his surplus currency behind the bar before heading to the airport. He’d advised the bar staff to buy drinks for their best customers. So sadly, not only were we not being eyed up by the lady folk of the campground, but being classed as “best customers” could also be a construed as being a vague accusation of being alcoholics. (Damn…)

Desperate Times Call For Desperate Measures...From Lilongwe we travelled to Caroline Bay on the shores of the immense Lake Malawi. Miles from anywhere, we’d failed to realise that they might not accept credit cards and we found ourselves in something of a financial predicament. After counting every last Kwacha we had, we worked out that our daily budget encompassed two options: three regular sized meals plus water, or two cheese-and-tomato toasted sandwiches plus half a dozen lagers each in the evening. (Errr, we chose the beer.)

Between, shall we say, ‘intestinal troubles’ (must have been those toasted sandwiches…) and Frank Herbert’s novel Dune, I was in little mood for conversation for most of the time we were in Caroline Bay. Mike having finished his book was left desperate for reading material and after scouring the resort for something new, he returned with the only text he could find – the Gideon’s Bible.

With the Good Book in hand, Mike took great delight in spending the majority of the day quoting to me from the scriptures and otherwise informing me of the error of my sinning ways. Michael’s conversion from Atheist to Christian Extremist seemed to come to an appropriate climax when after snaffling some fireworks from the resort later that evening, we let them off on the lake shore only to find out that the building behind us was in fact a mosque, resulting in us being chased down the dark beach by an irate Muslim for interrupting his evening prayers with explosives.

From Malawi we had three options on how to make our way down to South Africa: six full days in a cramped, thousand degree minivan; an overnight coach that ran through Zimbabwe, stopping off in Harare; or to fly. Option one seemed way too sadistic and option two would almost certainly result in being mugged, stabbed or beaten so we took option three and booked flights from the southern city of Blantyre down to Johannesburg.

Carlsberg Brewery Tour IBlantyre is an industrial town, named after the Scottish birth place of famed explorer, David Livingstone. There isn’t really much to see in Blantyre, the only real attraction being the Carlsberg Brewery – Mecca for African beer drinkers. With our flights early the following morning Mike, Tony and I decided we’d use our spare afternoon and go see where the magic happens.

Far from the Willy Wonka experience we might have imagined, the brewery turned out to be sterile, foul smelling and decidedly yawn inducing. After an hour of plodding around feigning interest at vats and loud machinery we got to the eagerly anticipated sampling session. We’d been forewarned by a fellow camper that sampling time would last a mere 45 minutes, so we took advantage of this knowledge and necked as many free lagers as we could – mostly the potent Elephant brand clocking in at a respectable 7.4%.

Three quarters of an hour later we found our inebriated selves ejected from the brewery, so we did the only sensible thing one can do in the these situations and along with some others from the tour, we staggered back to our campground bar in search of another cold drink. Some hours later, after an relaxed afternoon of sitting in the sunshine, chatting up fellow campers and drinking yet more beer I finally decided to leave Mike at the bar and go climb in to my sleeping bag – mindful of our flight in the early hours and the hangover that was sure to ensue.

Woken by my alarm at 5am the following morning I reached across the tent over to poke Mike in the forehead – (his least favourite way to be roused from slumber) – only to find my errant cousin missing. I strapped on my headtorch and went looking for his comatose body in every chair, hedge and any other place I thought might seem a promising option for a drunkard to pass out; yet after walking around repeatedly shouting out his name – no doubt waking everyone else in the campground – I had still failed to find any sign of him. With dawn breaking and the clock ticking down, I gave up the search and went to start pulling down the tent, hoping he would show up of his own accord.

Carlsberg Brewery Tour VIAn hour later, our taxi arrived and Mike was still no where to be seen. Not willing to forfeit our US$500 plane tickets for his stupidity, I scrawled a quick note calling my cousin a retard, wished him luck and told him to meet us in Cape Town. Stuffing the note in his bag, Tony, Wendy and I climbed in to the cab and set off for the airport.

About the time Tony, Wendy and I were finishing our airport check-in Mike awoke dazed and confused in a room with one of the girls from the night before wrapped around him. Noticing the sunlight creeping in through the curtains he suddenly remembered the flight and in a panic, pulled on his trousers and dashed out the door with barely a word to his half-asleep lady friend. Sprinting out to the tents, he found the spot bare and proceeded to leg it down to reception to find his pack already sitting there waiting for him, “Please get me cab,” he pleaded with the reception staff, “AS FAST AS YOU CAN!”

After a leisurely Full English breakfast and few cups of mediocre coffee Tony, Wendy and I strolled down to the departure lounge and prepared to board our plane. As we stood queuing, a dishevelled Mike burst through the door, complete with bed hair, bleary eyes and the pungent smell of alcohol oozing from his pores – and only minutes to spare.

Arriving in Johannesburg was a welcome reunion with civilisation, after two months in mainland Africa I had almost forgotten that there were such things as smooth roads, broadband internet and white people. Celebrating our return to the first world, the four of us found it fitting to order delivery pizza and spend the afternoon crashed out on the sofa watching trashy celebrity documentaries on TV.

Whites OnlyWe only spent one night in Jo’burg, the tales of gun violence and car jacking was enough to convince us that there was no reason to delay getting to Cape Town. We made a quick stop at the Apartheid Museum before we departed, a stark reminder of South Africa’s troubled history. Apartheid may officially be over, but it seems to live on in the hearts and minds of the people. So many South Africans we have met spout venomous abuse towards the blacks, blaming equal rights and black politicians for what they perceive as the decline of their country. In my outsiders opinion, there is still a long, long way to go before South Africa becomes a truly racially equal nation.

We’ve now been in Cape Town for five nights, only a few more days until Mike and I depart for Asia. After a lethargic couple of weeks, we decided a few days ago that some exercise was a good idea so we set out to climb Table Mountain, the immense stone ridge that provides the backdrop to the city. We arrived at the beginning of the trail early afternoon, the hot South African sun high in the sky, and started climbing the steep path. Not long after we began our ascent we found ourselves drenched in sweat and struggling for air; falling against a rock we huffed and puffed trying to regain our composure, only to be put to shame by a passing pre-adolescent girl who didn’t even seem to notice the incline. Suddenly we were regretting our decision not to take the cable car.

Mike on Table MountainAfter a slow arduous climb we arrived at the top, all too aware how unfit the two of us have gotten since being in Africa. Finding a rocky overhang we sat down, exhausted. Drinking in the view of Cape Town miles below, Mike and I sat with out feet dangling over the edge of the precipice and made a pledge to alter our hedonistic ways and start living healthier lifestyles – (although thus far we have yet to follow through…)

The following day, departing from the small town of Gansbaai on the southern coast, we set out by boat to find the largest predatory fish in the ocean: the Great White Shark. Using a slab of tuna attached to a buoy and “Gladys”, a floating seal decoy, the boats crew lured the aquatic death machines up to the boat. Shortly the waters were writhing with sharks, eleven in total, all about five metres (16 ft) in length – their fins slicing through the surface, radiating eternal malice.

With the boat now completely surrounded, we set about donning wetsuits and masks and dropped in to a metal cage suspended in the cold sea off the side of the boat. Completely submerged, the seven of us in the water would make a quick check to make sure none of our limbs were protruding in to shark territory and then through the steel lattice we’d watch the sharks savagely attacking the bait and decoy – their cold, dark, lifeless eyes watching us from just inches away.

Great White Shark IIIn a burst of aggression, one of the male sharks surged at the side of the cage, latching on with his teeth and shaking us all around violently. Thankfully, as quickly as he came, he released us and vanished back off in to the depths, giving us a mighty whack with his tail as he left.

The African leg of this trip is now coming rapidly to a close, Mike and I depart Cape Town in only a few days from now. It’s been a fascinating nine weeks on the continent, needless to say that life here often takes a markedly different form than that of us in the Western world. The people have been great, from the locals we have talked to on the streets and met in stores, restaurants and bars, to the traditional Masai warriors in Kenya and the poverty stricken blacks in the vast slum cities skirting Cape Town; Africans may carry out their lives differently from you or me, but it seems to me that ultimately they want the same things as all of us – health, love, comfort, respect.

Seal Island III’m sure my travelling companions would agree that the highlight of this trip has definitely been the wildlife. Words can’t adequately describe how it feels to climb through dense jungle on the side of a volcano in Rwanda and found yourself surrounded by screaming, chest-beating Silverback gorillas existing in their natural habitat, the way they have for eons. Diving with Great Whites and sleeping in a national park, our tents surrounded by Baboons, are also experiences I am unlikely to forget any time soon.

Usually I’m not prone to homesickness, but with my first return trip to New Zealand in years now only a couple of weeks away, I suddenly can’t wait to get out of Africa and start working my way homeward. With just over a fortnight to go I can almost taste Pineapple Lumps, L&P and the steak-and-cheese pies!

Bring it on.

NEXT STOP: Singapore



Africa Part 4: Genocide, Naps and Tetris

6 08 2008

This post is part of a series:

African Village
African Village

I seem to have reverted to the sleeping patterns of a 4 year old. As the sun sets, I finish my evening meal and fatigue overwhelms me. I stumble back to my tent in the dark and promptly fall asleep, the time being no later than about half past seven. In the morning, I awake with the sun and am dressed and have eaten breakfast before its even 6 o’clock, then mid-afternoon I crash again, joyfully drifting off in to my now almost daily afternoon nap.

You may just think I am lazy – and perhaps you are right – but it’s not just me operating on the same schedule as the sun. As soon as the first rays of light penetrate the darkness there is a cacophony of birds, dogs and people all up and about starting their new day.

We’ve now been in Malawi for a few days; the temperature has dropped as we’ve gone south (I’m not even sweating right now!), Wendy has Malaria and I’ve discovered after a lifetime of not liking peanut butter, it’s actually not that revolting after all.

Trouser Socks: Sexy.

Transport has always been an interesting adventure since arriving on the African continent. Our trip to the Malawi border, like so many other journeys since we’ve been here, was bursting with people. Our 14 seater bus was crammed full with 25 sweaty people plus luggage, babies and sacks of god-knows-what filling every square inch of interior space, bouncing over the uneven, potholed roads providing us all with the teeth chattering, bone shuddering experience known affectionately as an ‘African massage’. Time estimates are, shall we say, relaxed. Supposedly two hour journeys take five and departure times are likewise irrelevant: we waited 17 hours in Dar Es Salaam for our train to Mbeya to arrive.

Africa is a continent of walking. The roads, littered with bicycles and pedestrians, leave little room for the few automobiles trying to traverse the tarmac. Drivers of the smokey, rusty, broken down clap-traps drive with one hand rested on the horn, honking incessantly to clear a path through the mêlée of human traffic.

Like their roading system, Africa is a land of differences. Obviously, there are the big things such as poverty, civil unrest and superstitious tribal culture, but there a little differences also. For example, all soft drinks are sold in glass bottles which you have to pay a deposit for. After one has enjoyed their carbonated beverage and returned the bottle, your deposit is refunded, then the bottles are sent back to Coca-Cola HQ to be sterilized and reused again and again.

Misty Roads
Misty Roads

Africa is also a land of contrast. The people we have encountered have been ubiquitously friendly, although like anywhere, some of them are out to make a few shillings profit, but most are just happy to say Jambo (hello) and find out about the strange muzungo (whiteys) that happens to be passing through their towns. I find the warmth and civility of these people makes it all the more difficult to believe the atrocities which have, and continue to, occur in this part of the world.

A few weeks back we visited the Genocide Memorial Museum in Rwanda, our sombre visit made all the more poignant by the tears and moans of sorrow erupting from one poor Rwandan woman overwhelmed by the experience; only 14 years on, this is still a fresh and painful memory for many.

Before colonial rule, Rwanda was inhabited by two tribes, the Hutu and the Tutsi. Unlike the vast majority of African tribes, the Hutu and Tutsi lived peacefully as one. They married one another, lived in the same towns and had happy lives together.

Setting Up Camp (Again...)
Setting Up Camp (Again…)

Then the Belgians arrived. With superior firepower they seized control of the small country and after putting the locals through a degrading process of testing and experimentation they decided that genetically, the Tutsi were the superior people and elevated them to ruling class; for the first time creating a disparity between the Hutu and Tutsi tribes. From then on, between the people that had once lived as brothers, a gulf of hatred grew.

This aggression finally came to a head when in 1994 Belgium withdrew from Rwanda, removing the power from Tutsi and handing it to the Hutu who had by then been treated unfairly for so long. This reversal of power led promptly to a backlash against the Tutsi which rapidly spiraled in to mass killing; the Hutu openly slaughtering Tutsi on the streets. Laws were then passed revoking the citizenship and all rights of the Tutsi, effectively sentencing all every Tutsi man, woman and child to death.

People killed Tutsi members of their own family, and along with their parents, children were macheted to death to prevent another generation of Tutsi from arising. With little support from the rest of the world, the violence quickly spiraled out of control. Bill Clinton later stated that not sending support to Rwanda was one of the biggest regrets of his career.

Tough Times In Lilongwe
Tough Times In Lilongwe

If the experience of the museum wasn’t painful enough, there was a separate wing dedicated to the children of the conflict. Below large pictures of smiling children, often the only remaining pictures the families had, were plaques stating information like:

Age: 14 months
Favourite Food: Ice Cream
Favourite Activity: Playing with his older brother
Died: Macheted to death


Age: 3 years
Favourite Food: Chapatti
Favourite Activity: Singing in church
Died: Grenaded in a bathtub

It was truly heartbreaking. I still find it hard to digest that a land full of such kind people – or for that matter, human beings in general – are capable of such horrific acts. Surprisingly though, Rwandans seems to have well and truly left their history in the past and have again come together to be a comparatively prosperous, successful country. Perhaps in the face of such ghastly events, one has no choice but to bury the hatchet and move on. Still, I found it surprising to see their smiles.

We’ve recently starting seeking out local markets in search of produce for our meals. My cousin Michael is a chef, so we haggle over the price of fruits and vege then return to the campground for him to work his culinary magic while I play sous chef, slicing and dicing and trying to learn the tricks of the trade. The markets are an experience in themselves; loud, boisterous men trying to hock their various wares, just today I purchased a cheap watch which instead of a second hand flashes the words “I love you” sixty times a minute. Classy. Africa seems to inherit the world’s hand-me-downs – tatty old clothes, worn-out shoes, and toys I remember from my early childhood are proudly displayed as modern technology (Tetris! Sweet!).

Elephants Of The Serengeti
Elephants Of The Serengeti

It’s been an odd transition coming to Africa, in many ways it feels like stepping back in time, but at the same time there are a lot of parallels to life in the West. Everyone has cellphones, even those living in mud huts, and a huge proportion of the young men here are dressed in British football team jerseys. Primitive shacks are adorned with huge satellite dishes, yet piped hot water is practically unheard of. Similarly to my experiences in South East Asia a few years back, I find it striking how joyous the people are in these impoverished places; perhaps there is some truth to the old adage that money doesn’t buy happiness. That said, I’m so looking forward to a hot shower, not sleeping in a tent and having regular, fast internet access.

Man I’m a nerd, I miss my internet … bad.


Africa Part 3: Muslims, Monkeys and Marijuana

4 08 2008

This post is part of a series:

Mark & Cobra The Monkey

Cobra The Monkey

Things are definitely turning more Islamic as we head south. The vans emblazoned with Christian messages are gone and we are now treated to Islamic prayers five times a day, thundered across the city from loud speakers high upon the mosques. Both on the island of Zanzibar and the port city of Dar es Salaam the majority of the locals are dressed in Islamic garb and much to our distress, the area is practically dry, it took my cousin Michael and I three hours of walking in the blistering heat to find somewhere to buy a single bottle of whiskey!

Zanzibar is truly paradise. White sand beaches, warm clear water, beach bars with thatched roofs, great diving and scorching sunshine; the affluence and luxury quite a contrast to the Africa we have experienced so far. We spent a week on the island; five nights on the picturesque Kendwa beach in the north of the island, then an additional two in Stone Town, the biggest town on the island. Kendwa was all about the beach. I alternated between the hammock, beach chair and a towel on the sand, and after a stressful day of this to and fro, I’d get a massage right on the beach, listening to the waves roll in while a dark skinned woman kneaded away at my muscles.

Kendwa Beach, Zanzibar

Kendwa Beach, Zanzibar

After a very enjoyable, but largely uneventful five nights in Kendwa we went south to Stone Town, which perhaps would be more aptly named ‘Stoner Town’. During our few nights there we were constantly approached by muscular black men trying to flog football shirts, crappy CDs of naff African music and then in hushed tones “marijuana, mary-jane, hashish?”

While strolling around Stone Town, Michael and I met three guys, one of which had a monkey perched nonchalantly on his shoulder. We sat down on a concrete wall overlooking the sparkling blue ocean and talked with the men about their lives on the idyllic paradise that is Zanzibar. It turned out the three were brothers and amongst other things, highly skilled martial artists. They went on to give us a demonstration of the Brazilian martial art Capoeira, while their monkey named Cobra, climbed all over me grooming my body hair with his delicate fingers seemingly in the hopes of finding some tasty lice to eat (unfortunately for him I am totally bug free!).

Tony and I Diving In Zanzibar

Tony and I Diving In Zanzibar

I asked the three Tanzanians how they came to know Capoeira and they told us they’d seen two Americans who were visiting Zanzibar practicing on the beach and asked them to show them some moves. After the Americans left there was no one on the small island who could teach them, so they obtained some instructional books and self-taught themselves to the high grade we were seeing now. Having spent so long mastering the art, they have since taken it upon themselves to share the knowledge and enthusiastically give free lessons to the enthralled local children.

As the afternoon drew on, increasingly more and more people showed up until there was a circle of about twenty smiling young men taking turns to do back flips, handstands and to jostle with one another. It was impressive to watch, these guys knew what they were doing and I think it’s remarkable they’ve gone to such effort to learn what they have. Their joy for life was palpable and I can’t help but admire their dedication and persistence to learn, despite being subject to such hardship and poverty.

Stone Town Wanderer

Stone Town Wanderer

As much as I was enjoying the martial arts show, I have to confess I only stayed as long as I did because I was totally in love with the monkey. He was awesome. Totally awesome. Incredibly awesome. We asked how long they’d had Cobra; three weeks they told us, they’d gone in to the forest one night and stolen him while he was sleeping. While I’m not sure I approve of this practice, after messing around with him all afternoon I can at least understand why they’d go to such lengths. We were so taken in fact, that later that evening while we were puffing away on a shisha pipe at a rooftop bar, Mike and I weighed up the pros and cons of one day escaping to a tropical island ourselves, setting up a beach side bar / dive shop and acquiring some pint-sized primates of our own.

Our mate Tony celebrated his 30th birthday while we were in Stone Town (although ‘celebrated’ is probably the wrong word, ‘lamented’ is probably more accurate). We dined at an outdoor restaurant, feasted on jumbo sized prawns and smoked foreign cigars with imported whiskey. Afterwards, Tony, feeling his advancing years, decided to take his wife and retire for the evening, while Mike and I decided to combine forces with some random Norwegian medical students we met on the street.

One Night In Dar Es Salaam

One Night In Dar Es Salaam

I’m not sure of the exact statistics, but I would guess that if you are white, under 30 and in Tanzania there is something like a 93.59% chance that you are a medical student – we found them everywhere. So with our new found Doctor-to-be friends, we set up shop in a dark, smoky bar and discussed our reflections on Africa, life, and our thoughts on which is the superior African beer well in to the early hours of the morning (FYI: it’s the Tanzanian Safari and Ugandan Nile Special). Swallowing the dregs of my now-warm beer I announced I was done for the night and left an inebriated Mike to fend for himself whilst I stumbled merrily back to our hotel.

Upon getting back to the hotel, alcohol consumption and exhaustion overwhelmed me and I collapsed in a heap on my bed and promptly fell asleep. Some hours later, I heard a quiet knock on the door. “Hello?”, I inquired, only to find a bereft Mike standing on the other side. Turns out he’d returned to the room a little after me and banged on the door for me to let him in, but got no response. He then banged a little louder, then louder still, then loud enough to wake up the manager upstairs, all the people in the surrounding rooms, Tony and Wendy down the hall – seemingly everyone except for me.

Spiders In Stone Town

Spiders In Stone Town

The manager then banged the door, Michael banged some more, everyone was shouting trying to rouse me from my slumber, but the long day of drinking had taken its toll and I was well and truly comatose. Accepting defeat, Mike lay down on the tiled corridor floor and tried to fall asleep. After several uncomfortable hours on the hard slate he decided to give the door one last try and it was this time I heard him. Despite my apologies, Michael was fairly unimpressed and to make things worse, I may have inadvertently inflamed the situation when I told him to “stop being such a whinging pussy – just harden up and deal with it.” I always seem to know just the right thing to say.

I once heard someone refer to the Tanzanian city Dar Es Salaam as ‘Dar is a Slum‘. I personally am not sure it’s honestly much different from any of the larger African cities we’ve visited, but our hotel definitely was a dump. Mike and I, each armed with a piece of footwear set about assassinating the legion of cockroaches crawling around inside our room. Big ones, little ones, anything that moved got a wallop with our sandals of doom. Our �window� was actually just a series of CD sized holes leading directly outside to the street and located right above our beds, so any new roaches would drop straight down on to us, one of them literally landing on Mike’s head. Too cheap and too lazy to move hotels, we instead had a midnight rearrange of the furniture in our small room enabling us to hook up our mosquito nets and after tucking them in under the mattress we climbed inside and took happy refuge in our impenetrable, insect proof cocoons.

Camp Cooking With Michael Jones

Camp Cooking With Michael Jones

Now, if we may, let us briefly move on to some more serious topics. Namely, coffee. I won’t claim to be a coffee aficionado, but I definitely enjoy a good cup and along with Michael and Tony we were eagerly awaiting some superior blends from the continent that grows some of the finest beans in all the world. Instead we found they all proudly drink Africafe, a rancid instant coffee which they blend with powdered milk to make a vile, lumpy concoction which admittedly, we chugged back anyway for the sake of caffeine.

So where is all the good coffee? They must export it all to the West I guess. We were in a supermarket back in Nairobi when a girl dressed in Nescafe attire tried to flog us some Nescafe Instant. I shook my head and told her “We’re looking for real coffee”, “Oh, but this is real coffee” she replied. No, my dear. It really isn’t.

We’ve had a rather drastic itinerary change in the last few days, we were going to go to Botswana and Zambia, only Botswana is expensive and Zambian visas were proving inconvenient to obtain, so we’ve now decided to simply abandon the West coast all together. We’re now en route to Malawi and Mozambique before dropping down in to South Africa. Unfortunately, this route change will mean we don’t make it to Victoria Falls, and as much as I was looking forward to seeing the biggest waterfall in the world, I had previously consented to all sorts of foolish nonsense like bungy jumping and gorge swinging while we were there, which I was more than happy to wriggle out of. To further sweeten the deal, Mozambique holds the promise of diving with Whale Sharks, Hump Backs and giant Manta Rays – all of which sound like a much more agreeable way to spend my time.

Eastern White-Bearded Wildebeest

Eastern White-Bearded Wildebeest

So onwards we go, a little over halfway through the African leg of this trip we now with just under four weeks to go before we depart the continent.

Stay tuned.


Africa Part 2: Safari, Seregeti and the Complete Absence of Showers

17 07 2008

This post is part of a series:

The Aftermath

Quad-Biking in Jinja: The Aftermath

I smell. My clothes are covered in dirt. I haven’t shaved in over a month and my beard is caked in grime and dust. Life in Africa is a dirty business. Tony, Wendy, Michael and I, have been on tour with Absolute Africa for the past 25 days, the last week of which we spent on safari in the Masai Mara in Kenya and the Serengeti in Tanzania.

In the day we’ve been cruising around in an open top 4×4, the boys hanging out the roof with cameras and binoculars, the humid wind whipping past our faces, while the girls sit politely below talking about whatever it is that girls talk about. At night we’ve been camping miles from civilization, our tents pitched deep inside the park, a few thin sheets of canvas the only thing protecting us from the creatures lurking in the darkness.

Elephants, lions, rhinos and scores of other animals roam freely over hundreds of square kilometres of open terrain, our guide warning us severely against leaving our tents in the night in case we encounter a hungry predator lurking amongst the tents – this message compounded by the scuffling and grunting we heard outside while curled up warm in our sleeping bags.

African Buffalo

African Buffalo

We’ve just arrived in Arusha, Tanzania this morning and it’s here that Tony, Wendy, Michael and I leave our overland tour with Absolute Africa and resume independent travel for the remainder of the African leg of this trip. Our tour with Absolute was terrific, our yellow monster of a truck handled the jarring, potholed roads with ease – although not always to the comfort of its passengers clinging on for dear life inside. The food was delicious; curries, meat and stews – a far cry from the baked beans on toast I was expecting and the guides were knowledgeable, helpful and everything else you would want in a guide. The other people on the truck were great and we spent many happy days and drunken nights exploring and enjoying the continent together. It was with some definite sadness we said our farewells this morning, although not quite ready to say goodbye for good we’ve arranged to rendezvous with the group a few more times over the next few weeks.

It’s been fascinating meeting the people of Africa. I think one of my fellow travellers summed it up best when she said “It’s arrogant to come here and pity their way of life”, which made me realize that’s exactly what I was expecting to do. It’s true that the Africans largely live a basic existence – there are still many tribes that live in their traditional ways and in the cities the public infrastructure definitely isn’t at the same standard as us in the West but this doesn’t seem to affect their quality of life much. All the people I have talked with are friendly, happy and seem optimistic about their future.

In Kenya we visited with a Masai tribe who still live in the same way they have for centuries, their homes are small, dark primitive huts made from sticks, animal dung and reeds. The huts take the whole tribe two months to build and last six years in the harsh desert sun, the dung and reeds fusing together to make a basic waterproof ceiling for the wet season.

Masai Warriors - Masai Mara, Kenya

Masai Warriors

A Masai chief can take up to seven wives, (which they normally do), and single families swell to up to 70 people and fill an entire settlement which is surrounded by a rudimentary fence to keep lions and hyenas from attacking them and their livestock at night. To find a bride, a young Masai warrior must leave his tribe and walk huge distances to other communities in search of a suitable girl. Upon finding a potential wife the young warrior must offer her family a dowry, traditionally a lion which he has killed, but in modern times with the rise of tourism the government have outlawed the hunting of big cats so the Masai trade goats or cows instead. If I was a young Masai warrior I think I’d be quite pleased with this development, I’m not sure I would fare so well against an angry lion with nothing but a spear to protect me.

Interestingly, Masai children don’t belong to their parents, but to the community as a whole so everyone in the tribe actively participates in raising the young. To enter adulthood the Masai must complete a rite of passage, for the young men this involves being held down and circumcised by the elders of the group, if they move or make a single sound during the ceremony they are deemed unworthy of being Masai men and are cast from the tribe. As delightful as this sounds, I have to confess to being pretty pleased not to be a Masai myself.

Lioness With Her Kill

Lioness With Her Kill

Tomorrow night we will be leaving Arusha en route to the island of Zanzibar via Dar Es Salaam. Zanzibar is renowned for some of the best scuba diving in the world, so I see a lot days underwater ahead and mojitos on the beach front in the evening.

Anyway, I’m back in the city now so I have no excuse for being so gross. Time to find a shower and put on some clean clothes.


Africa Part 1: Chimpanzees, Gorillas and Adventures on Public Transport

4 07 2008

This post is part of a series:

Mark and Mike At The Ugandan Equator

Mark and Mike At The Ugandan Equator

I’ve never felt so white in all my life. My friends Tony and Wendy, and my cousin Michael and I have now spent roughly a fortnight on African soil and its impossible not to notice how severely our pale flesh stands out amongst the sea of black faces, I feel like a neon sign glowing in the night.

We’ve already adjusted to ‘Africa time’, the ambling pace of life here. Never order food if you have less than an hour to spare and don’t expect your taxi driver to be putting the pedal to the metal any time soon – it’s a little annoying at first but soon enough the warm, humid hours seem to expand and a lethargic relaxation kicks in.

The four of us spent a few nights in the Kenyan capital city Nairobi before venturing to Entebbe, Uganda to join a tour with the company Absolute Africa for three weeks. Nairobi is charmingly nicknamed ‘Nai-robbery’ after the huge amount of street crime that goes on there. After reading dire warnings in the Lonely Planet which were then compounded by the unfortunate tales shared by hostel staff, we nervously made our way in to the city, eyeing suspiciously every thing that moved en route.

Perhaps threatened by our fearsome New Zealand strength, apart from one solitary chap trying to flog a budget safari, we were left completely alone as we hunted the streets for the Ugandan embassy. After a confusing hour looking for the government building we finally found it down an unmarked alley and up a winding staircase where we handed over fifty American dollars, collected our visas and were on our way.

Chimpanzee Grooming

Chimpanzee Grooming

That night, we made our way to the bus station and jumped on a rickety old bus, full of fat African women in bright colours eating and talking at full volume. Within minutes of departing the bus decided to die, prompting some emergency roadside repair by the driver. Finally, after an hour sitting in the darkness the bus rumbled back in to life and we started our bone shuddering overnight bus ride over the horrendous potholed dirt roads to Uganda.

We were thrown violently thrown side to side, up and down in our seats, the air seemingly as often dust as it was oxygen. Tired, grumpy and with a film of sweat and dirt caking my face, it was with great pleasure that after six torturous hours, the road thankfully smoothed out and the heat dropped to a non-sweat inducing temperature allowing us all to get some much needed shut-eye. Having donned my ever fashionable eye mask, bright yellow ear plugs and inflatable neck pillow I drifted off in to an uncomfortable sleep only to be roused sometime after by an angry militant sporting a Russian machine gun. After kicking us all of the bus, bleary eyed at 4 o’clock in the morning, we were given not one, but two rough friskings on the road side by the Ugandan police, before being allowed to return to our seats and resume our restless slumber.

After nearly sixteen hours on the bus we arrived the following morning in the Ugandan capital Kampala. After waiting an age for them to release our packs from customs we jumped on a crammed mini-van which then took us another couple of hours to the small town of Entebbe, where we met our huge yellow Absolute truck and thankfully completed our current adventures on public transport.

The following morning, after an evening of getting acquainted with out fellow passengers (coincidentally almost half of which are Kiwi) we took a two hour boat ride across the choppy Lake Victoria to visit a chimpanzee sanctuary. Encompassing an entire island, the refuge now provides a safe home for sick or at risk chimps which are rescued from the jungle and brought here before eventually being re-released back in to the wild. Chimps, being 99% similar to humans in DNA are susceptible to many human diseases so the remote location of the island protects the chimpanzees from our illnesses, but also from people who are out to kidnap them for zoos and private collections around the world.

Baby Gorilla

Baby Gorilla

The chimps are fed by sanctuary staff five times a day, one of these feedings we were fortunate to be able to watch. We were led to a wooden viewing platform perched high above a wire fence which surrounds the dense jungle. With loud squeals and much stomping the chimps made their way down to feast on the fruits lobbed towards them by their keepers, squabbling and fighting which each other the whole time. From their physical appearance to their behaviour and interactions with each another it’s easy to see the genetic similarities with us homo sapiens – it’s kind of creepy to be honest.

It’s now been a few weeks since we met our big yellow truck and we’ve since driven countless bumpy miles, visited three African countries, seen chimpanzees, monkeys, gorillas, lions and scores of tiny black children in ragged clothes bouncing up and down, waving excitedly at us perched high up in our vehicle as we thunder through their small villages.

Christianity undoubtedly has a very strong foothold here, people merrily walk around toting Bibles in hats proclaiming their love for the Lord and vehicles everywhere are sign-written sporting Bible verses and slogans like “No Jesus, No Life – Know Jesus, Know Life”. Preachers enthusiastically evangelise on public buses, working themselves in to a frenzy of excitement, their arms flailing and their voice booming with the power of the Lord – much to the mirth of my heathen self.

Absolute Africa Crew

Absolute Africa Crew

We spent a few nights in Ruhengeri, a small Rwandan town, which is evidently a little off the usual tourist track – both adults and children alike stared openly at our alien pink skin as we wandered around buying groceries. I waved at one little girl on the street side which sent her scurrying frightfully to hide behind her mother, one cautious eye peeping out at me from behind her protectors leg.

The highlight of the trip thus far was easily the visit to the Volcanos National Park in Rwanda. After hiking through the dense forest with our trousers fashionably tucked in to our socks to protect us from the vicious fire ants, we visited a family of 27 gorillas living wild on the side of a volcano. I was expecting to view the primates from afar, but we soon found ourselves right in the middle of them all.

The gorilla family was composed of mainly adolescent and adult gorillas plus two babies and four super size Silverback gorillas, all of which seemed completely unperturbed by our presence. Standing off to the side of a narrow path in the muggy forest, we watched in awe as the gorillas climbed trees and then stormed past us in a cacophony of screams and chest beating. Once, with me at the rear of our group, we were following the gorillas up a narrow path through the heavy growth when I turned slightly and out of the corner of my eye caught a glimpse of something black behind me. I turned around to find just a metre behind me a quarter-ton Silverback idly watching me amble up the path.


Our guide had reassuringly warned us earlier on that running from a gorilla will only cause it to chase and beat you, so with my heart suddenly beating at a thousand beats a second I tried to slide slowly out of the way, my foot creeping back inch by inch. Suddenly the monstrous beast howled and charged forward sending me careening backward in to a bush as he crashed his way up the path, leaving the ground shaking in his wake.

Having left Rwanda we’re now camped out in Jinja, a small Ugandan town where I’m presently sitting with my laptop overlooking the river Nile, sipping a cold beer. We’re less than two weeks through the nine we are spending on the continent, so there is still plenty of time ahead. We part ways with the tour group in a little over a week, but not before doing two safaris through both the Serengeti and Masai Mara where we’ve already been warned about leaving our tents during the night in case we encounter Hippos or Elephants while doing our business.

After resuming independent travel, the four of us are going to slow the pace right down and spend a week or two diving off the coast of Tanzania and Zanzibar before continuing our journey south.

Stay tuned.