Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Beach Life

Morning all,

Time to pick up where we left off, in Malawi...

So, Chitimba Beach, what to say? Well, it's bloody gorgeous. The campsite fronts onto the beach of Lake Malawi, which is something like the 3rd biggest lake in Africa (behind Victoria and Tanganyika, all of which Tanzania borders on, trivia-fans...). You can't see the far side of it, so it's pretty much like the sea, only with fresh water so it doesn't sting your eyes like crazy if you spend time splashing in it. And it's lovely and warm at this time of year. My first priority on arrival, though, was at the bar. No, not to feed my incipient alcoholism, mother (or at least, not entirely for that) - I needed to find a power point to attempt to recharge my MP3 player, which had had a slight mishap...

You see, one of the useful little items which I bought in my shopping frenzy before leaving the UK was a "Platypus", which is basically a clear plastic water-bladder, with a drinking tube running out of it, which can be fitted into the back of a rucksack. This has come in handy at many times on my trip, but at one point was almost an almighty liability, as I forgot that I had left it fairly full when I crammed my daypack into my locker at the back of the truck (that's one of the things that really makes life easier on Acacia compared to some of the other companies we bumped into, and causes jealousy - we have big lockers at the back of the truck, and so can effectively unpack our packs, fold them flat at the back or sides, and live out of the locker rather than having to perpetually unpack and repack our backpacks). Unfortunately, the end of the drinking tube got squezzed and proceeded to dispense water over much of the base of the locker, some of which appears to have gotten into my beloved Zen player. The damned thing wouldn't start up to start with, and then wouldn't hold a charge, so I was worrying that I'd managed to kill the thing within a few weeks of being on the road.

Luckily, though, I managed to stumble on a fix for it - I recharged it whilst at Chitimba, and then stuck it on a random play of anything from my music list, meaning that it wouldn't automatically turn off and would actually force the thing to run through a full battery charge. This seems to have got anything iffy out of the system (possibly just by warming it up enough that the water evaporated off...) and it's been generally fine since then. Anyways, sticking the thing on charge (like most sites we stayed at, pretty much all the power sockets on the site are in the bar, and only functional when the generator is on) got me chatting with Adela, one of the owners, who'd just got back from the UK (she's a Pom), and Roy, her manager.

Roy is another of those extraordinary characters you meet while travelling, wandering around much of the time in just his sarong and being extraordinarily blunt (well, politically incorrect would probably now be the politically correct term!), whilst also very friendly. I ended up in a not-altogether-unsuccesful attempt to synthesise a capirinha using Malawian cane spirit and lemon juice, as well as sampling Malawi's wonderfully-named Kuche Kuche beer (seeing big, beefy overlander lads wandering up to the bar and ordering a "kootchy kootchy" is always good for a laugh). Seeing as how we were staying two nights in Chitimba, Valdy (our driver) also joined in the drinking, getting us started on shooters (again), and so the night passed quite happily in a mild aloholic haze as we marvelled at the clear view of the moon (reflected in the lake) and stars.

The next day, some of our group decided to be energetic and climb up the hills behind the lake to the Livingstonia mission, and then on up to some waterfalls. I decided to attempt to lie in and catch up on some of the sleep that our early starts had been depriving me of. Unfortunately, I had reckoned without the motorised water pump for the bathroom block, which fired up within hearing range of my tent around 8am. I was not happy... Still, I eventually simply adjourned to the chillout area near the bar, which is all covered by a big thatched roof but not walled off, lay down on one of the futon-like couches and dozed back off again.

I eventually roused myself from my slumber for a spot of swimming late in the morning. A whole bunch of us headed down into the lake with a football, a rugby ball and a frisbee for company, and proceeded to have a bit of a knockaround for a while. All started fairly innocently, but ended up with a few people deliberately aiming throws at the heads of others and other (relatively) good-natured mischief. In one disturbingly funny incident, Paul (our guide) went to retrieve the football from the beach and then proceeded to kick it back into the midst of the game. Unfortunately, Leonie was looking the other way at the time, and it hit her in the small of the back just as she was jumping in the waves. She promptly lost her balance and dropped into the water, looking just the teensiest bit surprised. She was absolutely fine, but you can't script slapstick comedy like that.

After all that unaccustomed exertion, we had a leisurely lunch and settled down to veg out for the afternoon. At this point we also started the unofficial truck Chess championship which continued until we arrived in Cape Town yesterday. These early stages went pretty well for me, as I beat both Tony and Valdy. By late afternoon, the others who'd climbed the hills started drifting back in, and it was time to think about dinner. This was to be my first cooking experience on the trip, as I'd been pressured into going in a "packing team" rather than a "cooking team" within the truck for the first leg of the journey. Post-Zanzi, I transferred onto the cooking roster, so I ended up, along with Jeff and Barry, helping Paul cook a delectable roast dinner on a campfire. I had never even thought of this being possible, as I associate roasts with an oven, but anything appears to be possible with sufficient coals and tinfoil, so we had some beautful roast lamb and chicken, with potatoes, butternut squash stuffed with garlic butter and salad. As you can tell, I've been a long way from starving on the trip.

The latter part of the evening was spent back in the bar, wrestling with Paul's laptop to try and get my MP3 player to download some music to upload on Adela and Roy's iPod (the digital music player has definitely arrived in the backpacking world these days - we've been listening to stuff through an iTrip for much of the way, which has left me rueing Apple's insistence on proprietary technology). Despite much cursing, I didn't manage to get mine to synch up, but we did manage to load some music that the others already had on the laptop onto the iPod, as well as attempting to retrieve some songs off scratched CDs in the bar by ripping them to MP3. Everyone else had crashed out pretty early, though, so there was precious little atmosphere in the bar as I beavered away in the evening light and the wind picked up off the lake. Eventually, it was time for the generator to go off and for me to retire to my tent.

I awoke in the morning to a downpour. Despite the gorgeous previous weather, and our being in the heart of the dry season, Malawi's climate decided it was time to absolutely drench us. This was something of a shock, as the only previous rain I'd had on the trip was a couple of short bursts over on Zanzibar, whereas this was vertical torrential downpour. Worse, due to the ongoing clement weather I had stopped bothering to put a fly-sheet on the tent so, when I came to strike the tent in the morning ahead of our departure, it was all soaked and heavy to put away. I ended up wandering around in my swimmers and a shirt, soaked to the skin as I struggled to pack away on my own (Jon, my tent-buddy, had gotten a room for the two nights along with Leonie and Heetan). Everyone got soaked to a greater or lesser extent, meaning we were not entirely impressed when the rain trickled to a halt about half an hour after we managed to break camp and get on the road. However, it was to return later that morning when we passed through the town of Mzuzu.

Mzuzu was the first sizable settlement we had been through in Malawi, and so was our first real chance to stock up on Malawian cash (this requiring banks and/or ATMs) and to try and check internet. The former was relatively straightforward, the latter rather less so, due to ridiculously slow connection speeds. After this, we headed out to the markets, ready for a quick shopping spree ahead of the night's festivities. There is something of a tradition on Acacia trucks of having at least one serious party in Malawi, which works somewhere along the lines of "Secret Santa".

For those not familiar with the concept, this involved placing the names of everybody on the truck in a hat, and then each person drawing a name at random. The person drawing the name is responsible for acquiring something for the person whose name is drawn. In Secret Santa, this is usually a present, often of a humourous nature. In this case, it was a costume for the person involved. 2 minor catches: first, we were each only allowed to spend 300 Kwacha (about 2.50 USD, or slightly under 1.50 GBP) on the whole outift; second, the outfit had to be for the opposite gender of the intended recipient. To further complicate matters, the rain returned at this point, so we were scuttling around the markets, swathed in raincoats or huddled under umbrellas, frantically haggling to try and get costumes of dodgy provenance for a pittance. All quite amusing, though definitely more so for those buying dresses for the lads than for those, like me, trying to get something approxiomating to male clothing for 1 pound 50p...

After our shopping exploits, and a subsequent lunch adventure involving the hawker stalls at the market (most selling chicken and chips fried in front of you, which was, I must admit, absolutely delicious), it was back on the truck as we rolled further down the lake shore, towards our destination of Kande Beach campsite, near Chinteche. And that will have to wait for the next posting, as this one is ridiculously long already. Watch this space...

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Monday, June 27, 2005

On the road again...

Are we sitting comfortably? Then I'll begin again. When last I found time to commit my musings to the net, I had just had my spooky "it's a bloody small world" experience in Dar. The next morning was another of our horrendous early starts, back off across the harbour ferry (this time without White Nile getting her tail-bar stuck on the loading ramp...) and on out of the city. Needless to say, after my evening supping slushies at the bar I snoozed for a fair part of what was basically just one really long day of driving. No activities to mention, just the odd stop for food and/or petrol and/or toilets. We drove through the middle of Mikumi National Park (solely because the main road south-west through Tanzania slices down the middle of it), and finally arrived, after dark, at our campsite near the town of Iringa in southwest Tanzi.

Now this was a bit of a culture shock, as we went from the big-city feel and tropical swelter of Dar to the mountains and a campsite on an old farm which didn't have any electricity. Everything lit by paraffin lamps, a bar in what is basically a mud-hut (with luke-warm beer) and absolutely freezing cold. I had an early night, and promptly earned myself the emnity of much of the truck by snoring pretty drastically. The combination of the cold, possible dehydration and the fact that I'm sleeping in a "mummy" sleeping bag, which gives rather less room to manoeuvre than a sarcophagus, appears to have kicked my intermittent snoring into gear. (These last couple of nights, sleeping in a dorm bunk in Swakop, there's been absolutely no problem.)

Anyways, it was up for yet another terminally early morning start (I am growing to loathe the hours around 5am ad 6am), this time complete with my hands going numb and feeling on the verge of dropping off as I put my tent away, before piling back into White Nile and rumbling on down to the Malawian border. That's one of the things I possibly underestimated a little about the trip, is just how many days do get consumed simply with getting from one place to the next. Africa's fricking huge. Anyways, no worries at the border, so we rolled on down, with the gleaming Lake Malawi on our left-hand side in the afternoon sun.

Malawi is absolutely gorgeous, picture-postcard style. It's also known as the "warm heart of Africa", on the basis of how friendly the people are, and that seems pretty well-deserved too (although there is still the usual African syndrome that a truckload of kizungu is met by hoardes of kids waving and screaming "gimme pen!" - quite what makes a biro such a status symbol is confusing, but never mind). Our destination that night was the lovely Chitimba Beach, a camp-site down on the lake below the old mission of Livingstonia (no prizes whatsoever for guessing where that name came from...). This was to be the first of several lovely days in Malawi, but that will have to wait for another day. For my time is nearly at an end here (truck leaves in 5 minutes), and I must bid you all adieu.

Take care and have fun,


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Sunday, June 26, 2005

A few more Zanzibar photos

A few of you might be wondering why there aren't loads more pictures of sun-kissed tropical beaches and the like from Zanzibar. The simple answer is that I was having fun on or around said beaches, and didn't want to risk my camera getting damaged or nicked, so I didn't take it out that often. Sorry!
The inestimable Ali T, tour guide extraordinaire
The token maniac demonstrating how to climb a palm tree to chop down coconuts
A palm tree you really wouldn't want to try and climb like that - the Corkscrew Palm
The jetties up in Nungwi at high tide, after we got back from SCUBA diving
The beginnings of sunset, from the deck at Bwana Willie's
Yours truly, enjoying a nice cold beer - mmmmmm, beeeerrr....
Some of the more energetic of Nungwi's inhabitants. This was before my discovering in Malawi that I actually quite like playing beach volleyball.
Another shot out over the Indian Ocean

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Saturday, June 25, 2005

Howling at the Moon

So, back to Friday 24th June, the night of the Full Moon. And we all know what Full Moon plus Tropical Paradise Island means, don't we, boys and girls? Yep, it was time for a Full Moon Party (after a rather pleasant fish BBQ on the beach for dinner). However, the slight fly in the ointment was that the venue was several kms down the beach from Nungwi. With my feet still recovering from the ravages of being eaten to bits by sandflies back when we were in Dar, not to mention a disastrous flirtation with some local leather sandals (not a good idea), I was an enthusiastic adherent to the idea of getting a local dhow down the coast as a kind of water taxi. What I, and the 20 or so others on the boat, had not counted on was that peculiar combination of running out of petrol, driving into fishing nets (thus fouling the propellor) and anything else that can go wrong in the manifestation of Murphy's Law that is much of East Africa.

Eventually, what should have been a journey of 15 minutes or so took us the best part of an hour, but we got there, in one piece (apart from frayed nerves). The party itself wasn't exactly what I'd expected - unlike what I've heard about in Thailand, this wasn't just a madcap beach party around a bunch of bonfires, but was actually based around a bar complex. The good news, at least compared to much of the rest of our travels in Africa, was that it wasn't just the mzungu backpackers and the like there, but a lot of the locals as well, which made for a bit more of a lively atmosphere. With my wounded feet, I couldn't join in much of the dancing (for those acquainted with me an dancing, you'll be aware this is probably a good thing), but it was good to enjoy the atmosphere for a while. Eventually (around 3am or so), a load of us started off for the walk back up the beach (changing occasionally to a wade, as we had left it to the last minute to beat the rising tide) and crashed out back at Nungwi.

The next day brought the suddenly unfamiliar prospect of packing up and moving on again, after the untold luxury of 3 nights in the same place (and no tents involved!). We piled onto a suddenly less full minibus, having left our 5 medic friends, along with Jane and Vicky, back at Nungwi (Jo and Jacqueline had departed the previous day) - at a stroke, 1/3 of the populace of White Nile had vanished, leaving things a little quieter and a small empty place in my heart. As was once said most memorably, parting is such sweet sorrow, and when you've been spending almost all of your time for 2 weeks with people, it's hard to leave them behind. But we had to move on, so it was back on a very somnolent bus to Stone Town, there to connect with the catamaran back to the mainland, and on across the harbour ferry to Mikadi Beach and our truck.

That night in Mikadi, I consoled myself with a few more slushies and got chatting with a couple of girls at the bar, only to find myself in the most extraordinary example of "It's A Small World..." I've ever had when travelling. The 2 lasses were over working in a school in Tanzi as part of their gap year, and we got chatting, exchanging tales etc. I then found out that one of them, Clare, is from Caldecote. Yes, the same tiny back-end-of-nowhere village outside Cambridge where I grew up. One which, until a few years ago, only had a few hundred inhabitants. Not only that, Clare was also a pupil at Kings' School in Cambridge, where I spent a few brief years, and apparently started in their pre-prep classes the year after I left. To top this off, her friend, Anna, is from Croxley Green (near Watford), about 2 streets over from my cousins. Now if that ain't one of the world's bigger coincidences, to run into these two randomly in a bar in a campsite in the southern suburbs of Dar-Es-Salaam, I don't know what is. Spooky.

Anyways, it is time to go. Hope you are all well. Until I write again, farewell.

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Friday, June 24, 2005

Leapfrog, Tattoos, SCUBA, whatever next...

When I left you last, I believe I had just arrived, mud-sodden and knackered, on the Vespa from hell in Nungwi. After a quick break to freshen up (i.e. sluice off the mud) I went off and had a very pleasant dinner catching up with some of the others who'd missed out on How To Use A Vespa As A Dirtbike. After this, we adjourned to Bwana Willy's, aka "the swing bar" - not a reference to music or "dating preferences", but to the fact that there are swings all around the bar. As you can probably guess, much enjoyment was had gently bobbing back and forth whilst nursing the odd bottle of Kili (Kilimanjaro beer - one of the better ones from Tanzi, outdone only by the rather nice Serengeti; Safari is also pretty drinkable; all in all, Tanzi is definitely a better place for beer than Kenya, and also beats Malawi and Zambia). Though it was all rather less fun when Vicky decided to spin my swing up and then let it go. I do not enjoy being made to feel distinctly dizzy mid-beer....

The swing bar also did a nice line in cocktails, of which a few had to be sampled for the feel of things - you can't very well come to a tropical paradise and then just drink lager, can you? After catching back up with all the medics (who, in stark contrast to our adventures, had basically spent the whole day on the beach) for a while, the bar indicated it would be closing soon, so we adjourned further up the beach to The Ship. This is another interesting establishment, with a big thatched roof, a high wooden bar, no walls, various bits of boats sticking out of it, and a prime position overlooking a beautiful stretch of beach. However, having purchased our poisons of choice, we left the bar to its own devices and went down to the beach. There then ensued some daft dancing (especially by Valdy, wearing a sarong due to a laundry crisis), a reversion to childhood in the form of Heetan and a couple of the medics, who stuck their arms out and spun around until they fell over, a game of leapfrog, a few dunkings and a sand burial (the latter both involving Amy - hope the skirt recovered eventually!). Eventually, around 2am, enough was enough, and several of us headed back to the bungalows.

The next day dawned bright and sunny, but I didn't see it as I slept in until around midday. Sheer, utter bliss. Had curry for brunch (bliss!), then a couple of hours on the net, trying to make up for truly dreadful East African connections, before going for a swim and lounging around on the beach with the others. I'm not one for spending days on end doing nothing but lie on the beach, but it does have its odd moments. I then treated myself to a wonderful massage and a henna tattoo, before meeting up with people for a couple of drinks and then getting an early-ish night.

For the next day I was off SCUBA diving. Well, doing a couple of intro SCUBA dives - I don't actually have my PADI or anything, so was all supervised. The ride out was extraordinary, on a zodiac-type inflatable boat which must have been doing 20-something knots through choppy seas, bouncing along like an over-excited wallaby. I unfortunately had a bit of a panic attack when I first tried going back underwater - it had been 5 years since the last time I did an intro dive, and my phobias about being stuck underwater had had plenty of time to come back. This meant I effectively lost out on doing the first full dive, as I spent the whole time gettting used to being underwater again, and practising "the skills" (primarily replacing my regulator if it came out and clearing my mask) to the point where I could staisfy my instructor.

I was then okay to do the 2nd dive. Those familiar with SCUBA would probably be a bit surprised that this started down on the bottom at around 12m, considering the group contained myself, 2 other novices and our tour leader Paul (who had dived before and was not qualified), supervised by our instructor, Jaco. This would be because novices are not normally taken below 10m, given that 12m is as low as you can go and make an immediate emergency ascent. They would then probably be more surprised that we went deeper. I'm pretty certain that I was down to at least 18m or 19m, and Heetan apparently got down to about 24m (chasing fish) before Paul brought him back up. We didn't have any complications or anything, and saw some really cool fish (and some quite good coral), but it was certainly something to think about when I realised up on the surface what we'd been up to. The ride back in to shore was rather more sedate, as the guys who'd been snorkelling went in on the zodiac while we ambled back aboard the dive company's dhow.

And that is where I will have to leave you now. Until the next time...


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Thursday, June 23, 2005

Slushies, Vespas, and other madness

Right, time for another attempted entry. I left you last time as we arrived in Dar. Well, actually, in the beach suburbs south of Dar, across the aforementioned ferry. Our home for the night was the Mikadi Beach campsite. Plus points: decent toilets, hot showers. Minus points: all water is salt-water, sandflies. Super-extra-plus point: Slushies. Known in some places as slush-puppies, slurpies or Mr Frosties, these are basically crushed ice with some form of flavouring added. In the case of the Mikadi Slushies, this includes a few slightly more potent additions. No real anarchy resulted, but, after the horrors of the day earlier, they were incredibly refreshing and contributed to a pretty mellow atmosphere.

The next day dawned bright and early, in what has been an uncomfortably common occurrence (why, when I am supposedly on holiday, am I getting up often at least two hours before I ever would for work...?). And we got one of our occasional truly African experiences, as we were using a local contractor to get us from Mikadi to the Zanzibar ferry terminal. Meaning that we piled 26 of us (including Paul and Valdy), plus 10 full packs and 16 day packs onto a bus that might hope to hold 18 people, without luggage, if they were all quite happy to get cosy. And then, when there seemed to be no other room, our 3 Tanzanian guides hopped in and squeezed the door closed. It was at the point where, when we stopped at the docks to wait for the ferry to pull in, nobody even thought about trying to get out (well, apart from Jeff, another of our Canadian mature overlanders, who hopped out the window). With people sitting literally on top of one another, this wasn't terribly surprising.

Luckily no further problems with the ferry, so we headed over to central Dar and the ferry port for Zanzibar, where we boarded a surprisingly modern catamaran for the 2 hours or so crossing to Zanzibar Town (also known as Stone Town), the capital of Unguja (also known as Zanzibar Island). All these multiple names - most confusing. Our entertainment on the way consisted of an episode of Mr Bean (no, I'm not joking) and a truly terrible Jean-Claude van Damme film. The latter was definitely not family entertainment, and was a bit surprising given that many Tanzanians are pretty devout Muslims and quite conservative. I also got started on Su Doku puzzles, which Jon has introduced me to - a kind of logical number puzzle, and not a bad way to pass the time on long journeys.

On arrival at Stone Town port, Jon and I were persuaded by our lovely quintet of medical students (Amy, Vicky, Anna, Sarita and Amy) to help carry their exceedingly heavy bag of medical supplies off the boat (they're all doing their electives at Stone Town hospital). We were then slightly surprised to discover that said supplies included a hair dryer and an epilator (sp?). The things required by modern medicine today... We then temporarily took our leave of the girls who, along with Jane, Vicky, Jacqueline, Joanne and a visibly grinning Valdy, were headed straight up to Nungwi, at the northern tip of Zanzibar. The rest of us were staying a night in Stone Town, and went off down some exceedingly dodgy-looking alleyways, eventually landing up at our distinctly non-dodgy lodgings, the Safari Lodge.

We then went off for an afternoon Spice Tour, including a curry lunch at a local restaurant and a visit to a couple of the spice farms on the island. This was done in the care of the inestimable Ali T, a truly extraordinary local with some amazing vocal mannerisms, some of which were derived from Staines' finest, Ali G. If any of you ever head out to Zanzi, I can definitely recommend doing the spice tour. We saw a whole load of the spice plants, as well as some of the tropical fruits that are grown alongside them, and tasted a whole bunch of them (including some divine Spice Tea). Really fun afternoon. We then topped this off by going for some dinner at Foradhani Gardens, a seaside hawker market, where you can wander around, picking out a bit of this and a bit of that. I had a delightful barracuda kebab and a "Zanzibar Pizza", which is actually more like a kind of crossbreed of an omelette and a pastry, washed down with Stoney Tangawizi, one of the things I now miss about East Africa - mmm, ginger beer....

After that we had a relatively early night, before heading out the next morning to hire scooters to go around the island. Now, I know what quite a few of you may be thinking here: Pat doesn't actually know how to ride a motorbike or anything, nor does he have a license for one. This, slightly worryingly, isn't an issue really on Zanzibar. The latter was taken care of by handing over my (car) driver's license and paying the princely sum of 6 US dollars for a temporary permit, and the former by about half an hour or so's worth of instruction on a local football pitch. And no, I'm not joking about this either.

Having demonstrated sufficient proficiency on out trusty steeds to satisfy the guys from the bike-hire agency, we were driven off by them (our training was not adjudged sufficient to handle Stone Town traffic), first to the old slave market (now underneath a mission and hostel), then to a petrol station to fill up, then far enough out of town for the traffic to have died down. In this I was slightly unfortunate, as I appeared to have inherited a rider (Eddie) who was the reincarnated spirit of Evil Knievl. Perched on the back of the Vespa, I could only hang on to the strap in the saddle for dear life as we swooped through the traffic, dodging cyclists, other scooters, a few 4WDs and the deadly dala-dalas, the Zanzibari minibuses. I swear, that has to be one of the scariest things I've done so far on this trip. Still, eventually he stopped to let me take over and, once the others caught up, our little flotilla of Vespas (with Paul riding herd on a trail bike, Leonie perched on the pillion) sped off south-east towards the only stand of forest on Zanzibar, Jozani.

After what must have been the most shambolic lunch we have had (after two hours, 3 dishes still hadn't arrived, and they then promptly got the bill wrong...), not to mention the efforts of a forest guide to charge us 80 USD each to go and see the monkeys, we decided to cut our losses and start the long journey up to join our friends in Nungwi. The intersting point there is that, despite what our map might indicate, the main road up the east coast is not all sealed. This, plus a shortcut that we took, meant that we were taking Vespas where Vespas weren't really meant to go, down dirt tracks, through mud and puddles, around tree roots... This came to a head when we reached the point that the puddles straddled the whole track, and we had to see how well-adapted to aquatic ventures they were. And promptly lost Jon's mount, which tipped over in the middle of the largest puddle. Cue flooded carburetor (sp?), doused sparkplugs, and about half an hour's worth of tinkering to get the machine running again.

And this continued, with at least three more scooters breaking down in some way or other as we headed north. Our grand plan to arrive in Nungwi by nightfall was in tatters, but we eventually made it back to the sealed road, and buzzed north like a swarm of anxious hornets under darkening skies, cheered on by locals as we passed through villages, desperately searching for the turning for Nungwi. The road to Nungwi itself was only sealed for part of the distance, though at least it was drier than the east coast road. Still, we ended up slaloming around potholes in the dark, creeping our way northwards. My Vespa (which had survived throwing a hubcap amongst others) nearly gave up the ghost as we reached Nungwi itself (possibly in protest at trail-blazing through puddles earlier) and I limped into the car-park of the Amaan Bungalows in 1st gear. But I'd made it. As eventually did we all.

And here I must leave you. Until the next time mes amis, adieu!

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Tuesday, June 21, 2005

The Game & The Long Drive

[This and many subsequent postings were posted noticeably later than the dates given - I've edited the dates so that it gives a better idea when I did things rather than when I got around to writing about them - P]

Let's get back to where I left you last time, which was as we returned from Serengeti and Ngorongoro to Arusha and the delights of the Meserani Snake Park. There was only one other truck in residence at that point (as compared to the 3 on our previous visit), so you would be forgiven for thinking it would have been a quiet-ish night. Unfortunately, you would have been unaware that we were due to spend an extra night in Arusha, meaning that we didn't have to drive off the next day, meaning (as a consequence) that our driver, Valdy, could go out drinking.

Now Valdy is what is commonly termed "a bit of a character". Almost always smiling, generally quite soft-spoken and polite, ice-blue eyes (described by one of the young ladies we've encountered on our travels as being "like a kitten's"...) and an apparently unflappable demeanour. Often seems the perfect gentleman. However, get the odd drink inside him and the "Tour Driver" DNA starts to assert itself, whether in a notable fondness for shooters to get a drinking session going, or in an obvious interest in passing female flesh (though quite how he manages to get anywhere with the line "would you like to help me set up my tent...?" is anybody's guess!). Hence, when Valdy doesn't have to drive the next day, we are rather more likely to have a noisy night.

(Mum, Dad, you probably don't want to read the next paragraph...)

This particular evening got something of a kickstart when Valdy started off doing shooters with Jon, then a few more of us got involved, and the rules of a rudimentary game were set: going round the group, each person got to nominate a shooter from the menu, and everybody had to partake. Would have been messy, but pretty survivable, had it remained with the initial 5 or 6 "players". However, once we got up to the point where 16 people were in on a round, things began to get a little out of hand. Around the 4th round, Ian also instituted a rather unfortunate practice called the "Circle of Truth". The idea being that we all went outside, stood in a circle, then each person had to pass on a "truth" to the group before necking their shot. This started off quite tame, but soon people were passing on "truths" about other people (particularly Valdy and Heetan, one of the other real characters on the truck) and it all spiralled away a bit. By the time we got to a round of Brain Haemorrhages things were a little strained in the circle, Leonie (who usually doesn't drink much) was having to be carried to and from the bar and the few sober onlookers were looking a little worried. After the next round, given the further raised voices, increased spillages and an unfortunate redecoration of a hedge, not to mention the fact that nobody seemed to be either sober or enthusiastic enough to continue, I agreed with the bar manager that this was probably a good time to stop...

The next morning was quite amusing, after a few people emerged from tents that weren't those they usually resided within. The rest of the day was relatively relaxed - we headed back into Arusha, giving time for a little internet checking and banking, unfortunately intermingled with having to dodge the usual swarm of inquiries as to my health, name and country of origin, offers to sell me batiks, banana-leaf art, Maasai spears or soft drinks, and requests to come and see people's curio stores. On our return from Arusha, we were taken through a Maasai Cultural Museum (a bit like a smaller version of the Jorvik Viking Museum in York, only not quite so smelly) before getting a guided walk around a local Maasai village. This was one of the relatively few occasions on which I could actually interact with and learn from some of the local African people - even more than I had anticipated, overland trucks tend to travel in something of a bubble, staying in overlander campsites outside the main towns, complete with bars and/or cafe/restaurants, and meeting primarily other overlanders.

Beyond that, Stacey (one of our group) negotiated for some of the Maasai from the village to come and dance for us later that evening, which I felt initially uncomfortable with, but turned out to be quite impressive and not as kitsch or exploitative as I had feared. We then had a gorgeous lasagne for dinner (with what is becoming a usual treatment, whereby one corner doesn't have cheese for my benefit) - unfortunately we were to lose the services (after only a few days from my perspective) of Daysha, who had been working with our guides as a trainee and was due to start off with her own truck from Nairobi shortly, and this was her "farewell dinner". Beyond that, it was a pretty quiet night, as people dealt with the after-effects of our little game.

The next day was due to be one of our occasional Long Drives, in this case from Arusha to Dar-Es-Salaam, the largest city, busiest port and unoffical capital of Tanzania. This necessitated one of many 5am or so starts for the trip, before we all piled into White Nile and hit the road again. After several hours of Tanzanian highway, complete with speed-humps whenever we approached a town, along with the usual stops for sambusas (samosas to those of us from the UK) and toilet-breaks, life took an unexpected turn for the more exciting when one of the front windows blew in.

White Nile has a problem with one of her side windows which doesn't secure properly unless jammed in place, and this was tending to blow open as we rumbled along the highways (causing sudden drafts of wind into the truck, waking those of us attempting to slumber). Nobody's sure exactly what happened, but my theory is that the sudden pressure changes that this was exerting at frequent intervals somehow broke the seal around the left-hand front (non-opening) window, and caused it to blow in. Unfortunately, while there are mesh-guards on the outside to protect the windows, nobody had suspected it might blow inward, so there was nothing to stop it flying inward. Nothing, that is, except Jon's nose and one of the seats, temporarily vacated by Laura.

It was something of a miracle that it only struck Jon a glancing blow, and that Laura was out of the way, otherwise there could have been a serious injury. As it was, Jon suffered a minor bruise and scrape on his nose, along with the loss of his glasses. Amy, sitting next to him, suffered a bit of a shock. And we were suddenly driving along at near-enough 60mph without a front window. Cue much screaming through to the front compartment to stop. Which we did, pretty sharpish. There then followed one of the more surreal moments of the trip, as a group of us (marshalled by Barry, one of the two Canadians who I guess are best described as Mature Travellers as compared to the usual 20- and 30-somethings) popped the window back into place (not as easy as it sounds), complete with the seal, and then secured it with gaffer-tape. Yes, I helped gaffer-tape up a truck. I have to confess to a certain childish delight in this, as I hadn't gaffered up anything other than random personal possessions for the last few years, a far cry from my gaffer-obsessed days back in the Union's theatre in Bristol.

And then we drove on again. Interrupted by being stopped by the police for possible speeding. And when a local truck-driver pulled out almost into us and demolished our off-side wing mirrors (in the process sending showers of glass shavings up into the air, some of which came in through one of the windows and got in Amy's eye...). And by Dar's version of rush-hour. And by White Nile getting stuck on the loading ramp for the cross-harbour ferry, which necessitated all of us to get off the truck as she struggled to get on the ferry. By this time, we were hotly debating which particular one of our little company had gotten the curse on them, and when (key candidates, unsurprisingly, were Jon and Amy).

In the interests of readability, I shall terminate this entry in the log now, and start work on the next one (leading onto time on Zanzibar) shortly. Ah, the perils of my over-zealous approach to chronicling. Until then, mes amis, adieu...

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Sunday, June 19, 2005


The trip to Ngorongoro was something of a logistical challenge by this point, as the stricken Land Cruiser from the previous night had not been fixed. Hence, we were trying to pile 25 people into the vehicles that had previously only had 20 in them (note that this is still chronic under-crowding for Africa - I've seen minivans loaded up with 20-odd people on their own). Unfortunately, as mine was one of the stricken vehicles, I ended up in the front seat of one of the landies, which meant I hadn't got any roof access for taking photos - still, at least we were moving.

It was another deadly early start, and still near enough dark when we got moving. Plus, our friends the clouds from a couple of days earlier were down on the crater rim again, so visibility was pretty minimal as we crawled along the crater rim. We then made the vertiginous descent down the approach road into the crater itself, at which point, luckily, the clouds were starting to clear and the light was breaking through. It still made for a pretty muted view of the crater, and one that was almost severely curtailed for me, when a branch flicked through the landie's window and hit me in the face. No harm done luckily, but not really the way I would have chosen to have been roused from my slumber.

As we reached the base of the approach road, we saw a pack of hyenas feasting off to one side of the road, then two lions in the distance the other side. Up ahead were a herd of wildebeest, with zebras off to the left. And this pretty much set the tone for the day. Due to its topography and the fact that it has food and water year round, Ngorongoro supports a large resident population of herbivores, which of course attracts the corresponding carnivores. It also has a large alkaline lake in the middle of it, which gives off an ammonia-like smell that reminded me somewhat of Rotorua in New Zealand (that delightful rotten-eggs smell). Obviously nothing drinks from it, but the flocks of flamingoes that live in the crater feed from it.

So we drove on across the crater, and within about an hour struck the jackpot - a whole pride of lions lounging right by the road, with four immature lions (bigger than cubs but not full-grown) in a playful mood. To the point that they were pawing against the side of one of the cruisers ahead of us, and later one decided to muck about with the spare tyre on the back of another vehicle. This was both fantastic and slightly unfortunate, as the only pose whereby I could get photos of anything from where I was seated was to hang out the side window. Deciding that the lions seemed perfectly content with the other car and I'd have time to react, I ended up perched out the side to take a few photos, which apparently nearly gave some of my travelling companions heart-attacks. And is probably giving Mum one as she reads this. They are almost certainly the best photos I've taken so far, though.

This good day of viewing got even better when we saw a black rhino - although I'd seen a white rhino last year, when I was in South Africa, I'd never seen the black ones at all before! They have a much more prominent double-horn, which makes them very distinctive. They're also apparently far more grumpy and aggressive, so I was relatively glad we only saw it at a distance (especially as I was hanging out the landie to take piccies again). Still, that's now 4 of Africa's infamous "Big 5" spotted so far - only the pesky Leopard to go, which is apparently usually the hardest to see.

I'm going to have to hurry this along now, as I only have a few minutes left. We saw more of the usual (elephants, giraffes, etc) as well on the game drive, then made the amazing ascent back up the exit road (very sensible system - separate roads for up and down, with no opportunity for the usual African games of chicken between oncoming vehicles). Another (somehwat delayed) lunch up at the campsite, then we broke camp, loaded up the vehicles (including our stricken cruiser - though Jon was ever so slightly perturbed to see that part of the jury-rigged repairs to get us back to Arusha involved some cardboard...) and headed back down the road. The road between Arusha and Ngorongoro, it has to be said, is one of the best I've been on so far in East Africa - apparently it was surfaced by the Japanese government. Bizarre. Time for a few more souvenir stops en route home, then back for a slap-up BBQ dinner at the Snake Park. And a night of moderate carnage, but that'll have to wait for another time.

Until then, mis amigos, adieu!

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More Ngorongoro Photos

More puddy tats
One particularly playful moggy
All these tourists are just far too tiring...
One of the flamingoes that inhabit the alkaline lake in the centre of the Crater
The World's Biggest (and possibly Dumbest) Bird
My obligatory Pumba photo
Two jackals getting frisky
Yes, it's a rhino
One of the more impressive creatures I saw on the trip
A hyena resting during the day (honestly, this was in the middle of the day, it was just seriously overcast)
I'm ready for my close-up now...
This little fella was an absolute media-whore, posing for pictures for everybody
Looking down into the Great Rift Valley on the way back to Nairobi
And again

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Saturday, June 18, 2005

More Serengeti photos

Vicky, Amy,Pat, Heetan and Jon. For those wondering, the strained expression is due to having got about 2 hours sleep the previous night...

This ugly beast, whose real name I can't recall, but I know it is known as the Undertaker Bird, was hanging around our lunch spot at the campsite on the Ngorongoro crater rim

A view from the rim down into the Ngorongoro Crater, and the alkaline lake in the middle of it

One of the "landies" in our little convoy, heading along the main track into Serengeti. Spending much of that trip hanging out the top of our vehicles accounted for a fair bit of our "Serengeti Tan" dust coating

A wildebeest. Somehow, I can never see these creatures without thinking of Spitting Image

One of my (many, many) pictures of sunset over the Serengeti Plain

(Cue many excited shouts of "Pumba!" from Lion King fans)

The best advert for not swimming in African rivers or ponds

The second-best advert for not swimming in African rivers or ponds (and the smell, which cannot be conveyed, is grotesque at this point)


Yes, I had to get at least one obligatory photo of me in our trusty steed (one of the Land Cruisers, rather than a Land Rover, for much of this trip)

Part of the herd of zebras we came across at a water-hole. Some of them would stand still, while a few ran around the whole herd, making a noise somewhere between a bleat and a bark

Yes, this was what we'd been wating for for a while. Several big puddie tats, including the only big male I can recall us seeing.

Probably my favourite shot of a lion (or, in this case, a lioness)

This one's for those of you who may have thought I took all of these at Windsor Safari Park or something..

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Lions and Tigers and Bears, oh my!

Hello again,

First off, no I haven't taken leave of my senses, and am not claiming that you will find Tigers or Bears in Africa. This actually refers to a running joke between my little sub-group for the Serengeti/Ngorongoro tour (Ian and Emma, Jon, Heetan and myself) and our Land Cruiser driver, Daniel. He asked us what we wanted to see when we drove out of Arusha (Meserani) that first morning, and Ian brightly informed him we wished to see "everything". Before cheekily adding that he was particularly looking forward to seeing a Tiger. When Daniel said this was not possible, we asked about bears (polar or otherwise), kangaroos and various other creatures not particularly famous for their associations with East Africa. Not exactly world-class wit, but it helps to pass the time.

Most of the first morning was spent trying to find a comfortable position to curl up in in the back of the Cruiser, as I attempted to top up the ludicrous 2.5 hours or so of sleep I had ended up with as a result of my over-exuberant celebrations earlier that morning. This was broken for a quick stop at a viewpoint overlooking Lake Naivasha ("the only place in Africa where lion rests in trees", as 1,000s of T-shirts proudly inform the visitor), notable for the great view and for having decent toilets. If travelling here in Africa has taught me one thing, it is that the comforts of a decent toilet should not be taken for granted - much of the continent uses the squat toilet, the "long-drop" or that tried old favourite, the hole in the ground, so a clean western style toilet (possibly even complete with toilet paper!) is something of a blessing.

Lunch was taken at the Simba campsite (Simba being the Swahili for "lion", for those not already familiar with just how unimaginative Disney can be), up at the rim of the Ngorongoro Crater, where we would be spending the following night. Unfortunately, at this point it was basically inside a cloud, which was only slowly burning off, so the views weren't great. We were also introduced to a slow food service from our guides (subcontracted again) that was to become depressingly familiar. But the food itself was okay, when it arrived, so we headed off that afternoon down into the plains of the Serengeti in high spirits.

Serengeti comes from the Swahili word siringit and roughly translates as "the place where the land goes on forever". Once you arrive there, you really do see what they mean. The savannah grasslands drift away into the distance, with only the occasional kopje (rocky outcrop) to break the unending vista. Across this lonely panorama wander hundreds of antelope of various types (impala, haartebeest, topi, elands, gazelles, wildebeest, etc), along with zebra, elephants, giraffes, a few rhino and the hordes of predators that prey on them all. Oh, and swarms of Land Rovers, Land Cruisers and the ever-present minivans (though luckily we aren't quite into the crazy season yet). It all makes for an interesting environment.

However, it was one through which we were forced to hurry, as we were headed furthr north than had originally been planned. This was, we were told, to allow us to get closer to the migration. Yes, for those of you familiar with the erengeti area, we're talking about that migration: the one involving around 2 million creatures, 40-odd% of which are Wildebeest, crossing between the Serengeti and Maasai Mara. The main movement tends to happen from around July, but our presence there in June coincided with the gathering of some of the herds. After a fun drive along the roads across the Park, during which we saw hippos, jackals, baboons and elephants as well as the myriad hoofed beasrs, not to mention another pair of cheetahs, we approahed the camp just after sunset travelling near enough through the middle of one of the herds. Oh. My. God. You can scarcely imagine it, being in the midst of hundreds, maybe thousands, of bleeting wildebeest, and they're only the ones you can see through the underbrush that remains, and there are thousands more zebra all around them. It's the kind of thing that tends to stick in your mind.

And then we arrived at the campsite. Which was unfenced, and about 2km down the road from the hordes we had passed through. Where we put up our tents, basically in the dark, and sat around to drink the inescapably warm refreshments we had brought along, whilst sitting around a campfire and waiting for our dinner. And listened to the faint honking noises coming in on the wind from the gathering multitude of wildebeest. Unfortunately, though, this didn't totally appease a few of the lasses on the trip, who were still suffering from a more severe version of the anxiety I had about camping out in the middle of a National Park, with no fence, no guards, and all manner of unpleasant beasties alongside the cute ones. Intellectually, I knew that the presence of so much honking lion-fodder nearby rather precluded any likelihood of the neighbours popping by for an unscheduled visit. Emotionally, I was still dealing with the spectre of a lion hanging around outside my tent. And some of our group winding up our more sensitive fellow-travellers wasn't really the nicest thing to do in these circumstances.

A lion-free morning therefore came as a relief. Well, I say morning, it was actually still pretty much during the night when we woke up at 5:30am, as it was still dark and really quite chilly. And we did hear a hyena yelping some way outside our camp. It therefore wasn't that much of a surprise when one of the first creatures we saw on our dawn game-drive was a hyena. Very odd-looking beast, the hyena - like a dog crossed with a stoat or something, it has a very long neck, and a weird rocking gait when running. It sort of bobs up and down like a mobile, predatory nodding-dog. Following that, we also saw some jackals, then more hyenas, but that was unfortunately it on the predator front for the morning. Obviously, these were interspersed with frequent spottings of zebra, wildebeest and impala, but it was generally accepted by now in our Cruiser that these "didn't count". Unless they were being eaten, obviously (sorry Mum and Zaz!).

[Those of a sensitive disposition may want to skip the next paragraph]

What we did see, though, was the biggest accumulation of hippopotami I had ever witnessed. A big, stinking great pool full of hippos. And I mean stinking. Apart from jostling with each other for underwater space, they don't move much in their pool. So, when it comes to getting rid of some of the mountains of grass they consume each night, well, it just kind of all ends up in the pool. Where it gathers at the edge and festers somewhat. Possibly the most disgusting thing I've seen in Africa (even beating some of the vile excuses for toilets) was one of the hippos letting rip, while its tail performed windscreen-wiper actions, spraying all its neighbours. Totally grim. And they're noisy beasts, too - a kind of weird mixture of honking, mooing and oinking,which tends to start with one and then get repeated by various of the others in a budding cacophony. All in all, not necessarily the place you want to stop for half an hour or so on a hot sunny day, but them's the breaks you get. I at least went up and observed the filthy beasts from a viewpoint up on some rocks -we had some of the group almost lying down at "water"(I use the word advisedly here) level for extended periods, whilst photographing or filming. Yeeeurgh.

Anyways, soon after this we headed back to the camp for lunch, and to break camp. Unsurprisingly, the latter took much less time than the former, but after we eventually finshed we reorganised the vehicles somewhat, as some people wanted to visit Olduvai Gorge, and some didn't. Olduvai Gorge is one of the "cradles of humanity", a place where finds vital to the fossil record were found. Unfortunately, the prospect of a walk up a creek and a possible memorial was not really that much ofan incentive for me, so I elected to swap into one of the Land Rovers which was not planning to go there, jumping in with Glen, Kiri and Ginnie (contrary to previous entries in which I called her Jenny, I've just found out yesterday that one of our Kiwis is actually a Ginnie). And possibly the maddest driver of my time in Africa.

Before we get to the joys of his driving skills, though, we might as well cover the other drama of the afternoon for me, which revolved primarily around a flat tire. Now, I don't know about any of you, but I can certainly think of much better places to end up with a flat than in the midst of a park in which you are on a game drive, trying to find lions and the like. Still, that's life. So, in an effort to make my clothes even more dirty, I ended up helping change the tire of the Landie. We'd just finished this when one of our other vehicles pulled up, to inform us they'd just seen lions about 5 minutes' drive away, and reckoned the male might be in the kopje behind us. This obviously helped my mood. So, off we went, and in due course found said lions. Hurrah! Never mind that they were a fair way away across the plains, dozing under a tree, these were the proper Big Bad Puddie Tats. We were happy.

But we were running late. Our 24-hour access to the Park was drawing rapidly to a close, and our driver was determined not to miss the deadline (probably due to the incredible cost of park fees for kizungu in Tanzania - about 20 to 30times what they are for locals). So we sped. Just a little. The park speed limit is supposed to be about 50km/h. We were up to about 85 pretty quick, bouncing along dirt roads at one hell of a pace. At this point, the lack of seat-belts in the back of the landie began to seem less of a harmless anachronism, and more of a potential deathtrap. I'll skip over the irate encounter with a Ranger (checking paperwork),to the point where we skidded to a halt next to a roadside waterhole, to be confronted by a pride of lions. Not hiding in the long grass. Not miles away across the plains. Right there. Right in front of us. Lions. Cool! Except that we could only stop for about 3minutes before speeding off again, in our desperate attempt to outrun time on our way out of the Park. D'Oh!

It then turns out that this was just our driver warming up, as we ended up doing near enough 105 km/h (yes, that's about 60mph) on our way out to Ngorongoro, with our driver seemingly determined to do his best Colin McRae impersonation. Not far short of terrifying. And the evening just got better and better. We were, unsurprisingly, the first vehicle back to the camp, but this was of little use to me, since all my stuff was on my original vehicle. Which was the last in. And not just the last in. It got dark. They still weren't back. We sent out one of the landies to look for them. Clustered around the desultory campfire (our esteemed guides had not brought any firewood, and we weren't allowed to go gathering it, so we had to resort to the "grey market" to acquire some...), we looked up eagerly as any new set of headlights entered the camp, only for our hopes to be frustrated. Finally, they crept in, the Cruiser under tow - it had broken down (problems with axle bearings) on the road up to the crater rim, and they ended up being towed up the hill by a garbage truck. Relief. And a certain amount of guilt from me, as I was originally supposed to be on that vehicle...

Our guides also surpassed themselves by taking until 10pm or so to sort out dinner (nobody much to help the chef, as several of them were out looking for the little lost cruiser), which contributed to everyone's good cheer. And then, just to really make my night, we're sitting around the campfire when Jeff looks over my shoulder and says "Isn't that a pig...?". I turn around and there, about 6' behind me, is a bloody great bushpig. This, understandably, causes me some mild consternation (i.e. I jumped up, issuing profanities) and led to Ginnie and Jeff chasing the offending porcine interloper away, while Leonie (who has some kind of phobia of pigs...) informed us that she'd told us all so, and now we were going to get eaten by the pigs. To be honest, it was all just a little bit surreal!

The following morning saw us up at crack of dawn again, this time ready for the trip down into the Ngorongoro Crater. It's the world's largest intact volcanic caldera (remnants of a collapsed volcanic cone) and stuffed full of animals. But I will have to tell you of it another time, as our bus is almost ready to leave for the trip back to Stone Town. So I will leave stories of more lions, the road-trip from hell, fixing a truck window with gaffer tape, off-roading on Vespas, diving, beachlife and last night's (this morning's?) Full Moon Party until another time. Which hopefully won't be too far down the line.

That's all for the moment, folks.


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Thursday, June 16, 2005

Into Tanzania (and some beer reviews...)

Going back to where my last extract trailed off, I was in Nairobi, ready for the trip down into Tanzania. Staying at a campsite a little out of town, in what has become a familiar pattern (bit of a change from my usual environment of city-centre hostels). Nice little bar there, though, which was used to good effect in getting to know a few more of my companions a bit better, and sampling the local brews.

Ah yes, the beers. Long-time aficionados of my travel diaries will possibly have been surprised at the lack of beer reviews so far, but worry no more: most Kenyan beer is pretty average cooking lager. Tusker is the ubiquitous main brand, in its yellow bottles, but is absolutely nothing special. They make a slightly more tasty one, called Tusker Pure Malt, as well. In addition to this, Kenya Breweries also produces Pilsner (drinkable), Pilsner Ice (pretty minging) and another, truly nasty, concoction which my brain has actually now blanked from my memory. So stick to Pilsner or Tusker most places in Kenya, unless you can get Tusker Pure Malt.

Anyways, getting back to the travelogue, Nairobi to Arusha was basically a long day on the road. Unfortunately, due to the near-total absence of signposting on Kenyan roads, and the fact that our driver hadn't done the route before (and was following a shortcut suggested by someone at the campsite), we took the wrong road at one point. We also had the joys of my first ever African land-border crossing, involving waiting around while someone decides whether to let me in the country now I've paid him 50 bucks. Beyond this, it was our first experience of the particular type of "feeding time at the zoo" that occurs whenever an overland truck full of kizungu (that's the plural of mzungu, which is Swahili for "white person" - apparently derives from a word for wandering around aimlessly, and comes from the same root as their word for drunkenness!) pulls up anywhere. Street traders, conmen and every other Tom, Dick and Harry turn up and cluster around the truck like a school of piranhas, waving things up at the windows, and yelling out prices. Sometimes this can be handy (you get much better deals here than in the Nairobi markets or the tourist-focused souvenir shops near the National Parks, for example) but other times it's really annoying. And it gets even worse when you get off the truck, and get nearly mobbed by people trying to sell batik prints, Maasai spears, necklaces, bracelets, drinks, advice, etc etc etc.

Anyways, we made it over the border with no real issues, and carried on down across the plains to Arusha (note that this was actually the second time I'd been on Tanzanian soil, as we went down to the border in the Maasai Mara reserve, where it abuts the Serengeti, and walked over the line there with nary a border patrol-man in sight...). There we had an even more extreme case of feeding frenzy, and a bit of a wild-goose chase trying to find an ATM that was both working and accepted Visa-type cards. In the end, who should ride to the rescue but Barclays? In the last month or so, I've seen their ATMs in Spain, Portugal, Kenya and Tanzania, none of which I would particularly have expected before organising these various trips. We also made a visit to a big Tanzanian supermarket, which was depressingly similar to a big European supermarket (and at the same time, made a nice change from bargaining for everything and worrying about getting totally scalped...). Then it was on to our campsite, actually 20kms outside Arusha (we're applying the Ryanair principle of where you're allowed to claim something is) at a place called Meserani, and co-located with a Snake Park.

Yes, a Snake Park. Well, actually a Reptile Park (they've got some crocs and an iguana as well) but it's branded as Meserani Snake Park. It's one of what I am coming to realise are a very common string of campsites catering principally to the burgeoning Overland trade in Africa - when we arrived there, there was another (northbound) Acacia bus there, along with a couple of other companies' trucks whose inhabitants were in residence and four more which were parked up there while their members were out in Serengeti/Ngorongoro. For that is the raison d'etre of Arusha - it's the main base for the "northern circuit" of national parks in Tanzania, of which the two most famous are Serengeti National Park and Ngorongoro Conservation Area, and that's where we were headed the next day.

First though, we were introduced to the joys of the Meserani Snake Park bar, which, with four trucks in residence, was humming. The whole ceiling is covered in flags, rugby shirts and T-shirts donated by guests over the years, many of them signed, some of them in visible stages of disrepair, but it certainly has that "travellers' bar" vibe. This is not a place to go if you want a "genuine African experience". This is a place to go to meet other backpackers and get drunk. Which is what many of us did, culminating in a few arguments between we White-Nilers (our truck is called White Nile - all Acacia's are named after African rivers) and the crew of the Limpopo, who were on the final night of their northbound trip up to Nairobi, having already done their Serengeti thang. All fairly good-spirited, though one particularly loud-mouthed young lady (wearing a veil, rather confusingly - apparently a custom off the Limpopo) tried to pick a fight with me at one point in the evening. In the end, we final stragglers (including my tent-mate Jon and me) made it home around 4am. With a 6am start to come. Oh dear.

And that's where I'll sign off this instalment, to aid reading. More to come soon, featuring Serengeti and Ngorongoro.


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Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Hakuna Matata!

Yes, I know, it's a cheesey title, but it is actually Swahili - for "No Worries", which generally seems appropriate for me.

I'm currently in Nairobi, having just returned from 3 days in the Maasai Mara. We've seen elephants, giraffes, hippos, crocs, elands, haartebeest, wildebeest, buffalo, vultures, jackals, hyenas, gazelles, cranes, storks, and a whole shedload of goats, cows and donkeys. Oh yeah, and some lions and a pair of cheetahs. So, a fairly uneventful few days.

Have now been with my tour group for those 3 days, and all seems okay. It's pretty much the Commonwealth Club, though, as we're Brits, Aussies, Kiwis and Canadians, with SAfr guides. 24 of us, so still getting to know people, though I've at least got all the names etc down now.

I'm on a bloody slow net connection, so not sure how long I can make this (I will pause for the sighs of relief out there), but I'll try and cover at least a little ground.

Got into Nairobi on Friday night, went to hotel, grabbed some food and beer, and crashed out. Went out on Saturday and got scalped by the market traders in Nairobi. Have had to learn to be much ruder about just saying "No". Met up with some of the group in the evening, though about 1/3 of them had not yet arrived (getting in late off the flight from LHR). More surprisingly, nearly half the group had already been together for 2 weeks, going into Uganda to see Gorillas, so there was a teeny bit of awkwardness to start with as the old hands and the newbies settled in. Seems to be ironing out, though.

Sunday morning we went off to the Mara, though in minivans rather than the Truck (this section is sub-contracted out to a local Kenyan safari company). Kenyan roads are what you might call variable. Starting off from average, going through mediocre and on to downright shocking, but you get used to it. We've even got to the point where we can sleep as we head over the bumps, using it to "rock us to sleep".

These first few nights were in a tented camp, with things set up for us already. We newbies have been advised to enjoy this while we can - today, back in Nairobi, we were introduced to our tents, and shown how to put them up (they're bell-tents and piss-easy). I must admit to having never encountered a tent with a toilet in before, which means I won't forget the Sunshade Safari Camp in a hurry!

That afternoon we headed off to our first game drive, and almost immediately saw buffalo and elephant. So that's two of Africa's "Big 5" we'd seen inside about half an hour! We were still in the Nissan minivans (they are absolutely bloody EVERYWHERE!), but with the roofs popped up. This led me to spend a good deal of the next couple of days standing up with my head out the roof, doing my best "dog in a speeding car" impression. I've also already churned through 100-odd photos, even after getting rid of some of the duff ones, so backing up will be necessary at some point. Ah well, better that than having seen nothing. The highlight of Sunday's drive was either when an old bull elephant decided to cross the trail between two of our vans, or when we came across a pair of cheetahs eating after their kill. We could actually see them ripping into the stomach...

Yesterday we had an uber-long game drive, heading down to the Mara river, where we saw the crocs and hippos. On the way was also when we saw the lions, though they were bloody hard to pick out to start with, hidden in the long grass (as it's just pre-migration up here, the grass is really long - when the wildebeest and zebra arrive in their 100,000s in the next coupel of months, then it'll get trimmed back). This was also our first real experience of the "pack mentality" of the minivans - because people radio in when they find something exciting (e.g. a lion or ten), they come in from all over the neighbourhood, to the point where there were about 14 minivans clustered around the lions.

Unfortunately, I had forgotten my hat that day, so have a sunburnt scalp as a reminder, but I'll get over it. This morning, we went out for an early game drive (leaving at 6:30...) and saw more elephants, giraffes, etc. Highlight of the day, though, was when we flushed a couple of hyena from cover. Evil-looking creatures. We actually had a hyena come sniffing around the camp on the first night, but the guards scared it off (apparently by shooting it with a bow-and-arrow!). By late morning, we were back at the camp and had packed up, ready for the long drive back to Nairobi. Which is where we are now. So I shall sign off, until the next time I am near an internet cafe (possibly in Arusha after we got to the Serenh\geti Plains and the Ngorongoro Crater).

Hope all is well with all of you! Take care and have fun,


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Monday, June 13, 2005

More Maasai Mara Photos

One of the monkeys from our campsite just outside the Maasai Mara NPHeffalumps
Another pic of the cheetahsAn Acacia tree as the sun heads towards the horizon Sunset over the plains Lovely looking birds, aren't they? Smile for the camera The Kenya-Tanzania border (I think I'm in Tanzania!) A better Giraffe pic A Jackal in the early morning Buffalo The most maligned of beasts, the hyena And, just to close off, one of Kenya's ever-present donkeys. No sign of Shrek, though.

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