Africa

July 5, 2009

Here’s a quick summary of our last few weeks in Africa.

After four flights over two days, we made it back to Arusha, a town in Northern Tanzania, which was the base for our next two weeks. We met our friends from Canada who came to join us on vacation (Werner, Henny, Kevin, Dave, Cliff, Adam, and James) at the Kilimanjaro International Airport, with a sign reading Black Chicken Climbing Team (derived from the name of our cycling club) in a safari vehicle complete with a cooler full of beer. We spent the next six days on an amazing safari to Lake Manyara, the Serengeti, and the Ngorongoro Crater. Some of you may know one of our friends, who by now are back in Canada, in which case you’ve already heard more than we can write here.

Some highlights were:

  • the first morning when we were awoken by a lion roaring inside our campsite
  • the annual wildebeest and zebra migration (did you know that the wildebeest and the gnu are the same animal?)
  • watching two female lions stalking a herd of zebra
  • an early morning safari where the roads were so slippery and flooded that keeping the vehicles upright was a challenge
  • seeing a pride of lions sitting on a raised outcropping of rocks looking out over the savannah (just like in the movie ‘The Lion King’)
  • amazing sunsets
  • the Masai people, with their traditional villages, livestock, and clothing
  • watching a dust tornado on the savannah
  • experiencing the amazing wildlife, including ‘the big five’
  • our group’s lion and wildebeest vocal impressions
  • the night that we almost ran into an elephant on the way to the toilet!

After a day of rest in Arusha, our group started a seven day climb of Mt. Kilimanjaro. At over 19,000 feet, Kilimanjaro is the highest mountain in Africa. We attempted the Machame route and were fortunate to have very good weather.

At midnight on the fifth day we left our high camp to head for the summit. We climbed for six hours through the night, arriving at the top just before sunrise on June 11th, which was Patrick’s Mom Doreen’s birthday.

Everyone made it to the top successfully, experiencing only the usual symptoms of high altitude (headache, nausea, and in Patrick’s case vomiting near the summit – tales of which have no doubt been exaggerated by those who’ve already returned to Canada). Highlights included:

  • the amazing views from Shira campsite
  • climbing the Baranko wall, called ‘your cold breakfast’ by our guide Dismas (not sure about the spelling)
  • toasted sandwiches for lunch on the day of our summit attempt, and french fries the day before
  • seeing the porters carry huge loads
  • special treatment for married couples (our gear was always placed in our tents, but the single guys had to get their own)
  • our head guide Brendan singing as we climbed through the night
  • the ‘queen cakes’ in our packed lunches, which should only be eaten with butter and a gallon of water
  • warm soup with every dinner!

We spent then next few days relaxing on the island of Zanzibar, the famous ‘spice islands’ off the coast of Tanzania in the Indian Ocean. Despite some rain, we had a good time. We went on a terrific snorkeling trip, even though the number of people on the boat and the weather at the start initially indicated that it might be otherwise. Cliff couldn’t get over the fact that huge beers were under $3 Canadian. The seafood was terrific, as were daily happy hours (2-for-1) at Che’s. We spent our last two nights on Zanzibar in Stone Town, an amazing historical city. Here we saw our friends off to the airport and then flew back to Nairobi where we spent our last two days in Africa with Diane’s Aunt Norma and her family, and Diane’s other Aunt Beulah who was also visiting from Canada.

Our last four months in Africa have been incredible. We visited nine countries, if you don’t count Egypt (which felt more like the Middle East). The sights and activities were amazing, but it is the people that we met along the way that we’ll remember the most. We also want to say a special word of thanks to our Canadian friends that came to join us for a few weeks in Tanzania and to Norma and Wayne (Diane’s Aunt and Uncle in Nairobi) for hosting us during our time in Kenya.

Advertisements

Whatever happens, don’t run

May 20, 2009

Our train ride took us to Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, the nearest city to Matabo National
Park, known to the locals as ‘Matopos’. This park is home to one of the best collections of San rock paintings, many of which are over 20,000 years old.


The San are better known as ‘bushmen’, the same ones found in the Kalahari Desert (which covers much of Botswana), and featured in the movie ‘The Gods Must be Crazy’. The San are a small-statured people, who traditionally lived in the brushy flat landscape that extends across all of Botswana. They are nomadic hunter-gathers who speak in a distinctive sounding language that utilizes lots of clicking sounds. The San have lived in this area for tens of thousands of years, and often dwelled among the many large bounders that litter the landscape. In many of these sites, they painted amazingly accurate pictures of animals and people, which have persisted to this day among the sheltered areas.

We came to Matabo to see the rock paintings, but we got more than we bargained for. Because the park is fifty kilometers outside of town and requires a 4×4 to get around, we made arrangements to go with a guide named Andy from Black Rhino Safaris. Andy is Zimbabwean, born and raised. His family lives in Zimbabwe, and they have survived the recent hardships that have devastated the country. Andy is a self-declared ‘professional hunter’. These days he is primarily a guide on photographic safaris, rather than hunting safaris, but he has killed at least one of almost everything there is to kill in Africa.

In addition to the rock paintings, the other reason that people come to Matabo National Park is to see the rhinos. Andy said that he could take us, ‘to see some rock paintings in the early morning, then once that was out of the way, we could go looking for rhino’. It sounded like a good combination to us, but we really hadn’t anticipated what was involved.

Just before noon, Andy stopped the vehicle, and called us out to look at the dirt road. He showed us where there were fresh rhino tracks. You could see the pattern from their skin imprinted into the soft sand. He told us that, ‘Several of them laid here during the night or early morning.’ At this point, he got his binoculars and rifle from the truck, and we set out on foot, hunting for rhino.

Andy was an impressive tracker, following sometimes imperceptible tracks on soft and hard ground, through the grass and the bush. He turned and twisted, gesturing with his arms as he followed the smallest of indicators. He showed us how to tell the difference between white rhino and black rhino tracks. He stopped to feel their dung and told us how old it was (based on how crusty and how warm). He could tell the age of a rhino track by assessing the overlapping tracks from other animals, and whether these other mammals, birds, and bugs were nocturnal or not. This guy was a real African bush man, right out of the old safari movies.

As we entered the brush, he stopped to whisper the only safety instructions, “Walk in single file, don’t talk, and whatever happens, don’t run.” That was it. Patrick wondered whether this should perhaps have been discussed previously, allowing time for a few questions. But Andy was hot on the track, so that was all we got.

After about twenty minutes, we heard a noise, and peering into the dense brush, Andy said that there were two white rhino in there. We saw only leaves and branches. Nothing resembling a rhino. He signaled us to wait while he went ahead to investigate. Before he left us, he whispered, “If things go really wrong, climb a tree”. Diane looked around, and noticed a severe lack trees that looked both climbable and rhino-proof. Patrick wondered how he was supposed to get to a tree without running.

From fifteen meters away, making signals like the Special Forces, Andy indicated that there were four rhinos, and that we should follow him. We circled around the rhinos, trying to find a vantage point where we could see them through the foliage. We found a spot with a good view of one rhino, about twenty meters away. The others were somewhere in the bush, and we kept looking around and behind us just in case. Presumably Andy knew where they were. Andy indicated that Patrick could step forward to take pictures of the visible rhino.


Here is the only rhino picture that turned out. In case you’re wondering, the rhino is facing the left, and its head is obscured by foliage. Although you can’t see it in this picture, Patrick was surprised at how long and sharp looking its horn was. Apparently the horns of rhinos in captivity get worn down, but in the wild they can be up to 4 feet long!

When Diane adjusted her stance to get a better view stepping on a twig in the process, the rhino snapped his (or perhaps her, we have no idea) head up to stare straight at us. After a few seconds, the rhino started to run directly towards us, accompanied by two others that appeared from nowhere.

We stepped back, and Andy started to yell. As the three rhinos closed in on us, his volume level increased. There was the slightest hint of desperation in his voice as he reached his crescendo. He also shouted to us, “Don’t Run!”, which was perfectly timed, as that was exactly what we wanted to do. Andy raised his rifle and removed the safety. Diane melted into bush beside us, trying to get very small. The rhinos were running at us full speed, and were within twenty five feet. At what seemed the last possible moment, they swerved around us to our left.

Afterwards, Andy asked if we were OK. He apologized and said, “That’s not what normally happens.” He also said, “Another two steps closer and I would have fired a warning shot.” Looking back, Patrick seriously doubts whether there was enough time to warn the rhinos, and still get off another shot with his bolt action rifle if they didn’t stop. Andy surmised that these white rhinos, which are typically more docile, felt trapped between us and a creek behind them (that he wasn’t aware of), and perhaps couldn’t see us clearly enough to know where we were and how many of us. Rhinos apparently have poor eyesight from straight on, with eyes located on the sides of their head and large, especially pointy looking horns blocking their forward vision. Andy then said, “I think this would be a good time to go for lunch. We can track some more rhino in the afternoon.”

We had lunch overlooking a hippo pond, surrounded by a troop of overly bold baboons. After a short drive, we again started walking to find rhinos. Diane was definitely torn. On the one hand, she hoped to see more rhino, but she was thoroughly afraid to do so. Perhaps we could find some well-behaved white rhino and view them from a distance?

Andy explained that we were heading into an area frequented by black rhino. They are smaller, faster, and much more aggressive than white rhinos. Andy said that if the rhinos that ran at us in the morning had been black rhinos, he would have needed to shoot. Apparently when black rhinos feel threatened, they charge first, and ask questions later. Actually, they don’t ask questions. Patrick wonders which of the three he would have shot, and whether the other two would have noticed before they impaled us.

We were walking up a dry creek bed. Andy said, “We’ll circle around through the rocks on the right. That’s where the rhinos often sleep”. Patrick was hoping that they slept there at night, and not during the afternoon, assuming that black rhinos would be even more aggressive when woken prematurely from their afternoon nap.

Andy stopped and said, “Can you smell them”? He then loaded another two gigantic bullets into his rifle, and said, “I always like to have a couple extra in the magazine when I’m going into black rhino territory”. Diane and Patrick looked at each other with raised eyebrows. We wove between the closely spaced rocks and trees, and Andy showed us the flattened places where the rhino rest. The terrain was gradually narrowing, and we dropped back down to the river bed. Later Andy told another guide that he was pretty sure the rhinos were there, but didn’t feel safe proceeding into such close quarters.

So we walked back to the vehicle and drove a short distance to an open area filled with eight foot high grass. Does grass even grow that high in Canada? We pushed through the grass following the path of least resistance, where other animals (presumably rhino) had passed before. Patrick was thinking of a joke:

Q. How do you find a rhino in the tall grass?
A. You know it when you feel it.

We didn’t find any rhino in the grass, but afterwards Andy said, “I hate walking in that tall grass. You never know what you’re going to find, until a rhino tears you a new anus”.

Unfortunately and fortunately we didn’t find any more rhinos in the afternoon. But we did have the most exhilarating day of art viewing we’ve ever had.


Things never work out quite the way we planned

May 20, 2009

We arrived in Zambia about a week ago, and spent the first five days in South Luangwa National Park. Like many of our stories, this one started off with a transportation challenge. South Luangwa is about 120 kilometers from the small town of Chipata, and there isn’t any regularly scheduled public transportation to the park. There is often one minibus that covers the rough dirt road per day, but it leaves when full, which can take many hours. Some friends from Holland boarded this minibus at 8 AM, and waited until 4 PM for it to depart! Hitchhiking is the preferred alternative, and the one utilized by most locals. In more remote areas of Zambia, hitchhiking is an accepted form of transport, with many routes having established rates. Unfortunately, you often end up riding in the back of a pickup or on a flatbed truck.

We left Chipata in the early AM and were waiting at the side of the start of the road to the park at about 8 AM. We got a ride three hours later, in the open back of a small truck. A number of local people shared the ride with us, including a woman, her mother, and her two- year-old child, sick with malaria and on the way to the hospital. The road was rough, and once again we were struck with the double flat tire and only one spare scenario, so we waited in the heat of the afternoon by the side of the road, battling the flies. The driver and another guy took both flat tires and started rolling them down the road, heading for the nearest village, which may or may not have had the facilities to repair the flats. The mother and sick child had no water, so they asked and we shared ours.

Vehicle traffic on this road is limited, and we flagged down every vehicle that passed. One was a USAid non-governmental organization (NGO) vehicle, that wasn’t allowed to take any passengers that were not employees. Another was a car with five young men, all drinking heavily, who insisted that we could both squeeze in. We passed. After two hours, a vehicle from Land and Lakes safari company came by, and we pleaded our case. Luckily, they had two empty seats, and one of the passengers was a young Canadian woman from Vernon, who saw the Canadian flags on our backpacks standing in the back of the pickup. They gave us a lift to the park, and we ended up staying at the riverside camp called ‘Croc Valley’ where some of them stayed. In fact, we ended up spending the next two days with them, going on daytime and nighttime game drives, and sharing early morning breakfast and mid-day brunches.

The park was terrific, and we saw a wide variety of wildlife from our open safari vehicle. The driver Godfrey was very good, and he did his best to manage our expectations while catering to our preferences. We had good luck, and saw everything we wanted to. I’m saving the pictures, so as not to spoil things for my friends who are coming to meet us for a safari in Tanzania in a few weeks. Here’s a picture of us on safari.

By staying an extra day in the park, we were able to catch a ride back to Chipata with the same group. Unfortunately we arrived too late to obtain onward transport to Zambia’s capital city of Lusaka, so we headed back to the guest house run by the municipal government where we had stayed previously. The young woman from Vernon (Chloe) and her traveling companion from England (Mark) had only a few days left on their trip, and were pressed for time, so they caught a cab to the edge of town at about 3 PM to try to hitch a ride for the eight hour trip to Lusaka. We briefly considered joining them, but thought that hitchhiking with four people would be difficult. We met up with them two days later in another city, and they told us their tale.

They waited at the side of the road with a local man, and all three got a lift in the sleeper compartment (behind the driver and passenger) of a semi-tractor pulling dual gasoline tankers. Their ride was fine for the first two hours, until they stopped for food. After about 45 minutes, the driver and front seat passenger returned to the vehicle, and had been drinking. In addition, they brought a bucket of beer with them. By now it was getting dark, and they were in a truck stop in the middle of nowhere in Zambia. They decided to continue, but spoke to the driver, and asked him not to drink any more. He only had one or two more beers while driving, but the passenger was downing them rapidly, and had about eight or ten. This was OK because he wasn’t driving. About 11 PM, after a long day, Chloe and Mark nodded off. When they awoke, the passenger and driver had switched places! In what appears to be a case of seriously bad logic, they had switched places so that the previous driver could also drink (without driving). Amazingly, they arrived safely in Lusaka about 2 AM.

This was one ride that we were glad that we had the better judgment not to take!


Roughing It In Africa

April 3, 2009
Our first two weeks in Kenya have been tough. Food is scarce, and we spend much of our time scavenging. Local food is barely palatable, and Western food is rare, even in the cities. Accomodations are basic, cramped, and noisy. We are keenly aware of the need to protect our valuables, and end up carrying most of our belongings everywhere. By the time we find food and a safe place to stay, we’re typically exhausted. NOT!

In fact, to-date, Kenya has been just the opposite. The time we’ve spend with Norma and Wayne has been rather luxurious.

When Patrick left for a quick side trip to Tanzania, Diane promptly spend all day at the spa with Norma. After her manicure, pedicure, facial, hour long full body massage, and hair wash with scalp massage, she was barely able to face another day.

In Kisumu, Diane had her hair coloured at a salon specializing in Asian and Western hair, which will allow her to face the next six weeks.


On Norma’s birthday, we went swimming at the Panari Hotel pool, followed by a light lunch in the café. Later that day, for dinner, we went to the Mediterranean restaurant, a terrific Italian restaurant in Nairobi.


We spent 2 days at the Lion Hill Lodge in Nakura National Park. We stayed in individual chalets, with floor to ceiling mosquito nets around king sized beds — very romantic.

Elaborate buffet meals are served three times a day, including fresh fruit juices like passion and mango, fresh baked breads, and several varieties of grilled meat. So much for our ‘African diet’. Tea is served every afternoon, and before dinner there is a performance of traditional African dancing and drumming.

Rondo Retreat in the Kakamega Forest Reserve is set in a beautiful park-like setting in the middle of a tropical rain forest. The grounds are ornamented with trees and flowers, cared for by a staff of gardeners. Birds sing constantly from the forest, and Blue and Colubus monkeys visit every afternoon around tea time. At sunset, the crickets and frogs sing in a riotous chorus. Lunch, tea, and supper are served at 1PM, 4PM, and 7PM respectively, in the British style.

Other than these hardships, things have been manageable in Kenya.