Tuesday, December 21, 2010

North to Nkhata Bay - Malawi

Hi all, I am now in Zanzibar so it is time to recap on my last few weeks in Malawi. I left Monkey Bay on the Ilala - a 50 year old ferry that does the lake run from Monkey Bay to Chilumba in the North. I decided not to take a cabin as the prices were pretty high and I had my sleeping bag for dozing on the deck. At first the ship was not too full and the weather was good for nearly the whole trip. When we arrived at Nkhotakota the ferry was unable to dock due to a build-up of sand by the jetty. The lifeboats were lowered to ferry people to and from the shore and small boats from the beach came out to join the madness.

Soon the boat was significantly fuller with people, huge boxes of fish, a bed and two sofas. After about five hours we were off again to repeat the process at the next port on the coast of Mozambique where this time the transfers were done in darkness. The top deck was never too busy however so it was easy enough to sleep and I was woken up by the sunshine slowly roasting me on day two of the boat trip. Food was the usual Malawian fare of either chicken, beef or fish with a choice of rice, chips or nsima and prices were reasonable. We stopped at two islands in the lake - Likoma and Chizumulu - that are Malawian although they sit on the Mozambique side of the lake and then it was time for the final stretch to Nkhata Bay. We docked at a jetty this time and I soon found my way to 'Big Blue Star' backpackers and booked my dorm bed for 700 Malawian Kwacha (4-5 dollars).

The next day I went exploring and soon found that counter to all the advice I had found, there were actually banks with ATMs in the town. Walking in town was a riot of colour activity as it was market day with people selling all sorts of clothes and grains as well as the usual fare of mangos, drinks, Usipa (small fish a bit like whitebait) and Batala or Butterfish as many know it. I found the dive centre 'Aqua Africa' and booked myself in for the PADI open water course starting the next week having recently met Jakob from Germany who was travelling with his Polish girlfriend Ola and was in the middle of doing the course himself. The dive instructor was a Canadian called Rob being assisted by Sam, an English dive master in training.

Having completed my 'work' it was time to settle down for some well earned relaxation so the next few days were spent meeting travellers and locals, and checking out the bars in the area as well as finding out which places had the sattelite channels for watching football. On the Friday I had a bit of a shock as I ran a fever all night and was sweating heavily for an hour followed by some intense shivering the next. This continued all night and by morning I was asking the advice of Sarah the proprietor who figured she had malaria and I was suffering from the same. That day was better but I found myself lethargic to a degree I have never before experienced. I wandered over to the hospital but it appeared there was no-one who could help me that day so a return to Big Blue was on the cards where I munched on some mangos and practised my Bau game. That evening was similar to the last as regards the fever so the next day an American Peace Corps worker called Greg recommended I head over to a nearby private clinic. Once there the test came up negative but I was advised that my anti malarial drugs could be masking it. Regardless, the doctor asked me to leave it one more day after which he could get me what I needed to treat it. I had another non-day at Big Blue where the only excitement was when a crocodile decided to swim by on it's way south prompting a mass exodus from the water as people realised. I asked around and it appeared that it was the first croc spotted in the area for many years.
The next day was much better and while still tired I regained my appetite somewhat making me very glad as the dive course was due to start the next day. Thanks mum and dad for the genes, as if it was malaria I appear to have kicked it in record time!

On the Monday was dive day one so it was off to Aqua Africa where it turned out four other people had signed up - a couple from England, John Moon from the US and Bianca from Canada. Visibility was 7-8 metres and the lake water was a lovely 27 degrees. The week flew by and by Friday Bianca and I had decided to continue with the advanced course over the next week. Saturday evening was our first night dive with the couple who had been on our course. As part of the advanced course we did some navigation where you swim off in a direction counting fin kicks and using a compass for orientation - we did make it back but I have to say the few minutes where we could not see any torch light had me quite nervous. During the night dive we also did some pass throughs where the rocks formed small tunnels and we saw dolphin fish which are great fun.

They like to follow the torch beam and woe betide any cichlid that gets caught in your beam away from the shelter of the rocks as they get snapped right up. The next Monday the advanced course continued with our deep dive where we went to 30 metres and tested out the effects of nitrogen narcosis - this is when divers go past twenty four metres and generally results in the diver acting as if he/she is drunk. Obviously awareness of these effects is pretty important and I highly recommend NOT attempting maths problems at such depths! Other parts of the course included navigation, peak performance and buoyancy (swimming through hoops) and finally search and recovery which was fun and immensely satisfying when we found the anchor and returned it using a lift bag. Hey presto we are now advanced divers wooohooo!

After the course I moved into a friend's house in the bay - a simple afair with no electricity or running water where a new daily ritual evolved. First act of the day was filling our buckets with water from a tap at a nearby house, followed by going down to the lake for a wash and to say hi to everyone who would either be doing the same or washing clothes at the shore. Next came a trip to the shops in order to find fish, charcoal and any other necessities.

Then was the day's cook up generally consisting of Batala, nsima and some vegetables followed by a visit to Big Blue to see what was happening that day. Sagi, the Israeli barman at Big Blue told me one day that it was Chanuka so I nipped off to find some candles while he made a Chanukiya and Eshkar (an Israeli girl who also got stuck there) made Latkes!

I stuck around a little longer having switched from learning Chichewa to learning Chitonga - the main language of the villages around Nkhata Bay area. After four weeks at Nkhata Bay I finally decided I was settling in a little too much and the time came to move on up to Tanzania. A shared taxi got me to Mzuzu, the third biggest city in Malawi, followed by a bus up to Karonga and another shared taxi to the border. I arrived quite late and not finding any place to stay I wandered over to the border post even though I knew it was closed. There I was told by one of the security staff that I should cross the border anyway and come back in the morning to stamp out and get my visa. Being in need of a bed I did that and after a 200m walk taking me over the Songwe river I was finally in Tanzania.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Monkey Bay in Malawi

Hi all, long time no see for the usual internet reasons. I am now in Nkhata Bay so will try to sum up the last month before I start forgetting important details. When I left Blantyre it was time for the usual Combi van ride up north to Monkey Bay. The ride took about eight hours getting me there after dark but a quick call to the Malawi Volunteer Organisation (MVO) people got me picked up at the main road and I was at my new home for the next month by around 9pm. The power was off but as I arrived the lights flickered back on to a big cheer from the resident volunteers. . not a bad start!

I arrived on the same day as Shawn from Switzerland and the next day we were given a tour of the relevant schools, villages and Mangochi (the nearest big town with ATMs and internet - about one and a half hours away by matola). The matolas are very interesting, technically they refer to any unofficial form of 4 wheeled transport but most commonly refer to flatbed trucks that fit as many people as humanly possible on to the back, including their possessions, fish, goats etc. Luckily for me a previous volunteer had bought a Chinese made 50cc bike and left it there complete with insurance for any driver so I was able to cruise around the local area on my very own put-put even if it did overheat regularly and then needed a few minutes breather before it would go again!

The next day the honeymoon period was over and it was time to work. I went off to MVO primary school where I was to assist a great teacher by the name of George in his standard seven class - normally aged from 11 upwards. Starting time was about 7am with the learning commencing by half an hour later. I took over the maths and English lessons with George explaining how to do my lesson plans and before long I was really enjoying myself. The eagerness to learn shown by these kids blew me away and some of them were so bright, understanding the concepts rapidly and then churning out answers just how I had hoped. The main test for me was in dealing with the slower kids as I quickly found that while explaining concepts a third and fourth time, some of the class would start to get bored. Once the lesson was over I was torn between being flushed with the success over the clever kids and figuring out a way to get the less academic ones to understand their maths. Overall teaching has been very satisfying but the sheer size of the classes (45-50 in mine) is an obstacle in itself.

The volunteer group had several other projects that we worked on in Monkey Bay. There was a wound clinic for anyone in the area where help was provided to a local doctor in assisting with all manner of ailments including the usual gashes and scrapes gained in the course of physical labour in the area. We also would do talks in several of the villages within a 20km radius on medical topics of their choice. This was always well appreciated and sometimes brought up some very interesting local beliefs. One that always stuck in my mind was brought up during a briefing I gave on epilepsy - one of the ladies was convinced that if an epileptic releases gas during a fit, anyone breathing in the smell is at risk of becoming epileptic! These little meetings were one of my favourite things to do while at Monkey Bay as they gave a chance to meet many local people and chat with them at length.

One thing we were advised by in our guide books was the risk of Bilharzia, a parasite that lives in the lake near areas where there is a certain snail that lives in the reeds. In itself it is not particularly dangerous although repeated and untreated exposure over a long period of time can lead to some liver damage eventually. Luckily the treatment is simple and cheap in Africa - simply get the right tablets from the chemist and take them six weeks after last exposure to the water - so job done!

Weekends here are time off so the whole volunteer group tended to head up the coast either to Venice Beach or Cape Maclear where we could simply relax in the sun and if lucky we might even have an internet connection available at times. Drinks were somewhat expensive by normal standards but that didn't stop me being introduced to some very crazy drinking games. The favourite tended to be 'Ring of Fire' a game I first played while in Vic Falls which invariably leads to some very funny nights!

Watching football is always fun in Africa (results notwithstanding) and I soon found all the TVs in local villages where people would congregate for the match of the day. Access tend to cost all of about 30MKwacha (about 10p) and the atmosphere was always good for the Liverpool matches. Yeah the results have sucked but at least we are crawling away from the relegation zone now and lest I forget - IN YOUR FACE CHELSEA ;P

After four weeks my stint was over and I am now free to explore Africa to my heart's content with no timetables or planning. Nkhata bay is the next stop where I hope to do my PADI diving course before heading up to Tanzania with Shawn who finishes on the project two weeks later. My plan is to take the Ilala to get to the north as it should make a nice change from the usual buses and matolas.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Leaving Zim for now

Apologies for the long break since I last wrote, internet supply has been spotty at best but I am now in a hostel located in Blantyre, Malawi and about to head north to Monkey Bay for the teaching project.

The last few weeks were spent in Mkhosana, a small township outside of Vic Falls staying with some friends I made. The place was a lot more relaxing than town as the hassle factor was virtually nil. Most people who spoke to me wanted to simply strike up conversation and my greatest hardship was trying to remember everyone's names! I developed a taste for Masese locally known as Scud (the name for the containers it comes in. The stuff can be very mild but at times when you get an older one is pretty strong too, very filling though - almost a food as well as a drink!

Mathew was a local carpenter who helped me greatly by translating whenever I wasn't getting the Shona being spoken. Up until then I had been pretty happy with the limited vocabulary I picked up in Shona and Ndebele, but after a while there I began to hear the small differences between the way locals say things and the sound I was making when trying. An example would be with my click sounds: q (pulling tongue down from roof of palate), c (a tsk sound made by front of tongue on the teeth) and x (made by side of the tongue against the roof of the mouth): I was fine with those sounds alone but in language they are often combined with 'n' or 'ng' before making a subtly different noise that I find hard to reproduce.

I was introduced to Mofu by Mathew and Tito one day, a local Imbira player who took to me and came over a couple more times so we could all head out to the bush and he would play a little. The songs were traditional tribal ones and Mofu took effort to explain many of them to me, one that stuck in my mind was a tune meant to psyche up the men before going out hunting and also to celebrate a victorious return with meat :D. I ate sadza a fair few times while in Mkhosana but found it a little heavy so I would make rice whenever possible.

While in Hunters Bar in town one day I found myself talking to Aron Ndhlovu, a local teacher in Chinotimba Primary - a school of some 1800 children. We discussed my upcoming volunteer stint in Malawi and he invited me to visit the school one day and see the day to day work of teaching the kids. When I went over the head teacher was lovely and she invited me to go round the different age groups and sit in on some lessons. The experience was very useful as I had forgotten some of the techniques used to teach me when I was a child, especially at a very early stage of education when pictures and songs are incredibly useful. Books were in low supply as were materials for the children to be able to write themselves, but this place was in great condition compared to Monde Primary a few kilometres away where chalk and paper are nowhere to be seen at times. The main other issue as all over Zim was the one of pay. These teachers were obviously in love with their job as wages seem to be around $100-150 a month, which near Vic Falls barely pays for a place to stay.

Eventually visa time was up, and having five days before the Malawi volunteer program was to start, I headed off to Harare. There I visited the Mozambican embassy to enquire about visas as my guide book stated they were hard to get at the border. I was advised that it would set me back $110 which made me even consider flying to skip it. The advice was that no visas were being issued at the border which I found hard to believe as I just cannot see people being turned away from these frontiers unless there is a really big problem. Eventually I decided to just go without one and sort it at the border - even being turned back and having to use Zambia would still prove cheaper. After some more bus trips I was at Nyamapanda border post and filling out the forms for my visa. I had my passport photos at the ready and asked the official to hit me with the price. It turned out to be a lovely $27 which I handed over quickly and within 20 minutes I had my shiny 30 day visa for Mozambique (sadly I only used two of those days but I may be back).

From there on it was back to the small combi vans to get to Tete and then on to Zombue at the border with Malawi. The first one was packed pretty impressively with a grand total of twenty two people and their assorted bags but nothing could have prepared me for the one I piled into at Tete while trying to get to the border before nightfall! The conductor managed to get twenty eight people in here as they had fitted an extra 'bench' before the front row :D. Eventually we got there although the ride slowed down drastically near the end as people were jumping on and off every few kilometres. On the way it seemed that all of Mozambique was ablaze and I must have spotted at least 14 forest fires in the dark. It was too late to move any further so I decided to sleep before heading on to Blantyre in the morning. On to Malawi (no visa required - hurrah!) and my final and rather spacious combi ride to Blantyre. The landscape became much greener and before I knew it there were rainclouds in the distance. So here I am. . Fare well Zimbabwe, I will be back!

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Last week in Victoria Falls

Well it seems I am still here in Vic Falls, this place is just hard to leave! I went on a day trip to Chobe National Park in Botswana last week, probably one of the best places in Africa to get a safari 'fix'. It cost me $175 which seems a lot cheaper than most safaris and was well worth every penny.

The itinerary involved a pickup at 0715 after which we were taken to the Botswana border (Kazungula). The drive there was great fun as I was sat talking with an elderly South African couple and on the way we had quite an exciting front tyre blowout. Before we knew it we were driving on the rim with black chunks of tyre flying off in every direction (gogo North Korean chingmai deathmasters). The driver did pretty well controlling it and no sooner were we stopped and looking at the mess that was left than another minibus pulls up and offers to take us on to the border about 50ks away (TIA man, TIA).

We were dropped off at a very upmarket lodge where the first part of the day, a boat run down the Chobe river was to start. I met Ted here, an American photographer who I added on Facebook. He kindly helped me clean my camera lens which was a bit messed up still from the spray of Vic Falls, and gave me a few tips on taking nice pictures. After the boat ride we all ate at the lodge and were then picked up for the game drive in the afternoon. By this time it was pretty hot so most of the animals we saw were close to the water although there were a few camera shy Sable Antelope further inland. Although pricey it was a really nice day out and you dont just see animals there, many species cluster in pretty massive groups - especially the elephants.

Later that week my time on the Lion Encounter project was finished, quite an emotional day for me as I had time to bond with the big kitties in my two weeks with them as well as making very good friends and meeting some truly inspirational people. One guy who deserves special mention is Jabulani (JB), a Man Utd fan who you may notice couldn't resist leaving me a memento of the scoreline versus Liverpool in one of the group photos I took!

He was always ready with well informed comments on the lion project and I had some very interesting conversations with him about life, the universe and everything. Another person who left a lasting impression on me was Norman, an ex teacher with a smile that never left his face. He spoke to me at length about the history of Zimbabwe, starting with Shaka Zulu and one of his men who effectively defected by the name of Mzilikazi (the birth of the Ndebele people), onwards to present day politics and the tribal structure of Zimbabwe. There are too many other awesome people working at Masuwe to mention but I leave with very fond memories of the project and a little wiser about this region of the world.

Since then I have been taking it pretty easy and having a holiday from my holiday. I like Vic Falls even with all the craziness and have made many friends in the surrounding areas of Chinotimba and Mkosana, so much so that I have started staying there instead of at hostels. Total cultural immersion is awesome and I crack up whenever I walk to town in the mornings as all the kiddies who see me wave and never tire of shouting "Kiwa! Kiwa!" as I go by. I think I will hang around just one more week and then it is time to head up to Malawi, but I can't help feeling I will be back to Victoria Falls in the future.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Victoria Falls part 2

It has been a very busy week and I have simply not found the time to write anything. My Lion encounter project finished yesterday (a sad sad day saying goodbye to the kitties and all the awesome people I met there: you know who you are!), so now I am back to the hostels although now it is camping time instead of using dorms. Too many things have happened to recount them all so I will try to stick to the highlights only. Also the internet and phone network is shoddy beyond belief, feels like major congestion at all times, even the most basic webpages can take several attempts and that is on the few occasions that it works.

Sunday before last I was at Vic Falls - Mosi-oa-Tunya (the Smoke that Thunders) to have a look. The falls themselves are almost impossible to show in photos so I cheated and took a photo of a poster too so as to give some perspective. It is 1708m wide and falls for 108 metres so kinda hard to photograph in any
meaningful way - check the wikipedia page linked for amazing shots and videos). Other than that a lot of time was spent with the lions getting to know them better. Jalani and Jabari were the easiest to get closer to, so much so that by the end of my time with them I felt better not using the stick for distraction. When they turn towards you and might be wanting a nibble (><) you just push the head away with your hands. It feels a lot nicer as there is a physical level of communication there that cats
seem to appreciate - they feel the forcefulness of the push while there is also a gentleness that they can understand. Anyway enough about cats as it is making me misty eyed!

On the project we spent our Saturday afternoons at the local orphanage with some absolutely awesome kids. As we arrived they were all at the gate and sung a song to welcome us, cue cuteness overload. We played some games with them and then served them their lunch - Pap (mealie meal) with some meat. Next were more games - the girls had made up some dancing game and some of these kids can really bust some moves! Then it was back to the rest camp for dinner and the volunteer group went out for 'some' drinks. This went on until about 4am as we went around discovering every watering hole around Vic Falls. Most nights like this start in Shoestrings, the partying backpacker place followed by Hunter's bar on the main street. Next was Explorers, a crazy place mostly frequented by the white section of the population here, probably as the entrance fee of 5$ keeps the hasslers out. After that Blue Zulu - a dance club which is full of locals and then me being me I ended up in the Chinotimba Sports Bar, a much more basic affair where all the young people of the area hang out. By this time I was the only white guy in the place but even though there are always people who will try to take advantage and get free stuff from the rich westerner I have a good group of local friends who look out for me. I have been there a few times since and as people get more used to seeing me I much prefer drinking there to the absolute alcohol fuelled madness of the places the tourists visit.

I am taking time off now to relax a few days and try to decide what is on the cards next. The options are to go to Namibia via Botswana and check out the desert, or maybe check out Zambia - the main factor is Visas as they are a great drain on my resources, about 55$ per country. I spent a day in Botswana already to check out Chobe national park but I will cover that next post. On the way back I had to get a new Zimbabwe visa so I went for the double entry one (70$) in case I decide to come back. Off now to relax - internet is dropping every few minutes and writing this with pics has taken 4 hours!

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Lions baboons and warthogs, oh my!

It is now the end of a very busy week and it is now time to try and recap. Our day at the volunteer centre starts at 0630 and normally ends around 1800 with dinner provided back at the rest camp half an hour later. The first day began with the usual client walk and I was one of the clients (having no experience with the lions yet, new volunteers are allowed minimal contact). We were walked off into the bush and some of the handlers and other volunteers showed up with a couple of the lions. The group then walks behind them for about half an hour followed by an opportunity to get some photos taken kneeling behind one and stroking it. Then followed breakfast and I was off for my first lion handling lesson with Jalani and Jabari, a pair of 16 month old cubs. We were shown ways to establish dominance, how to distract the cubs when they get that look in their eyes, how to punish them (read hard slap to the chops - just like mummy lion would do it!), taught when to show affection and last of all how to keep a balance between these. The idea is that the cubs learn that you are a dominant member of the pride thus minimising risk. These two cubs are pretty much softies but there is always the chance they will want to 'play' with people which with their strength and claws could be a disaster.

Later that day I met Mvuthu and Monde the stunning 9 month old cubs. They have a lot more attitude and clients are not allowed near Mvuthu the male as he cannot be trusted. Monde has the habit of straying off the path whenever she can so as to stalk us. This is sometimes allowed as it is good training for her future life on a larger reserve but we make sure she is always in sight so that her mood and intentions can be monitored. Other than the client walks there are various other activities we will be on such as meat preparation, snare sweeps, enclosure cleaning and lessons on local language (Ndebele) as well as visits to the nearby village of Monde, the local Chinotemba orphanage and also an elephant sanctuary.

At lunchtime there is the option to return to the rest camp for a few hours rest or cub sit (giving some lion handlers a break). Cub sitting allows the lions to bond with us much more as there are no clients to distract them. At these times they may play fight each other or after being fed, when they are lazy, they will enjoy getting
their bellies rubbed and lie in the sun - cats will be cats I guess!

On Wednesday I visited the local primary school where I helped with a few lessons, incredibly hard work when many of the children did not speak English much, if at all. At one point the teacher needed to pop out to deal with something so there I was with my first ever class of 21 three to five year olds. I had a go at teaching them numbers and it was an interesting experience; some of the kids had their numbers written down within seconds and so were let out to play while I concentrated on those who had trouble writing the numbers down. I had to wrack my brains to find a way to explain myself and resorted to a join the dots method which seemed to work quite well with the younger children. It was very funny to have the class crowded around me all trying to show me their papers at once while shouting, "Sir! Sir! Sir!". The whole experience was very humbling and I hope that I can learn basic Chichewa quickly in Malawi as it seems I will need that and a little more preparation if I am to do anything useful in my four weeks there.

I have managed to learn some very basic Ndebele while here so at least I can now greet locals in their tongue. My clicking is finally coming along much better so I can now pronounce words such as Ixoxo (means frog and each x is a click made by the tongue on the roof of the mouth). I need a lot more practise but the guides and lion handlers enjoy helping me while we work and always answer questions with incredible patience.

Vic Falls is a very strange town based almost entirely on tourism. This in itself would not be too weird as I have recently been in such places, however the tourists that come here are normally very well off which is in contrast to the abject poverty in which most locals live. This leads to people in the street coming up to you and almost immediately pointing out that they like your shoes, t-shirt, hat etc and could they please have them! I then have to explain that I am a backpacker who arrived on a bus, not some loaded tourist who just flew in and is about to spend thousands of dollars doing helicopter rides or bungee jumps or one of the many other ridiculous money sinks that people have come up with to part people with their dollars. I am down to three T-shirts now after losing one and giving two of my Liverpool shirts to guys who work at the lodge (deserving Liverpool fans of course), and if I give away my shoes I don't see myself getting to Thailand somehow!

Chinotemba town is where many of the locals live and wandering around there is very safe and easy as well as people not hassling me for anything. I do any shopping I need there to avoid the inflated tourist prices and today was invited to watch Angry Lions FC U17s play the local Zim police team by one of the guides who helps run the team for kids who would otherwise be wasting their time on the streets. It was a great experience as I was allowed in for the pre-game preparations which were all very serious as the police team consists of adults who play the the local division two. After a brief tactical discussion we headed off for the warmup sadly without the team having had their lunch as it had not arrived for some reason. The team played out of their skins and scored a stunning goal leaving the fuzz a bit shell shocked. Just before half time I decided to nip off to the market and found a truck stacked with bags of oranges which I brought back for half time so the boys could get some energy in the scorching heat. Soon they were back on the pitch but I sadly had to leave for a scheduled trip to the Falls - tomorrow I hope to find out the final score from Jabulani who runs the team in his spare time - Go Angry Lions!!

To be continued . . .

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Buses and sore bums

Travelling is so much fun! Woke up at 7am to try and find some transport to Zimbabwe as all the main bus firms were fully booked until the 6th. David, one of the Brown Sugar drivers was very kind and advised me that he was off work but would be in town and could help me find some otherbuses that run straight to Bulawayo. I got a lift down to meet him and we went to a smaller bus depot two blocks away from the main station. The companies (Revivo and Senatar) were not listed on the internet so I was quite intrigued as to what I would find. The compound was small and packed with people and their bags with two older buses idling in the corner. David got me a ticket for just 250 Rand and by 1130 the bus was as full as it could possibly get and so we began the long journey north.

We had soon left the city behind and the landscape became brown and barren. It was mostly flat with some interesting large and smooth rock outcrops that looked pretty ancient. The fields were dotted with small termite mounds but otherwise there was not much to see. After about four hours we stopped for a break and foolishly I only bought a soft drink. The next stop after that was five hours later at the Zimbabwe border! By this time the landscape was more forested and mountainous. Suddenly we were there and all shuffled off welcoming the opportunity to stretch our legs. Being the only non Zimbabwean on the bus I ran around wanting to be certain I was in the correct queue as I knew I would need to get a visa. I met Brian from Bulawayo who held my spot in the queue and we chatted a while about the IT industry in Europe. Once stamped out of South Africa we boarded the bus for five minutes and then we were in Zimbabwe!

Everyone got off again to queue for the passport stamp and then I spotted the visa counter, got my forms filled in and 55$ lighter I now had my visa for 30 days. After two hours we were finally done and able to head off to Bulawayo. On arriving at about 1am I was told there was a bus to Vic Falls at 0530hrs so I dozed in the station for a couple of hours and soon I was off again! This second trip was another slow run up but at least I could now watch the landscape change again. The weather was getting much warmer and I noticed the termite mounds were now huge, some several metres high. On arriving at Vic Falls I found a backpackers called Shoestrings and went for a well earned sleep in order to get in contact with the lion project early the next day.

Sunday morning arrived and while walking around town I stumbled across the project offices and wandered in to see if there was any way I could drop in a day early. Nathan Rabinovitch the Project Organiser was there and said I could move over to the rest lodge they use immediately if I liked. Off I went and was overjoyed to find nice two person rooms with hot showers in each building and a nice swimming pool in the gardens! One of the organisers introduced himself as Ed and told me the volunteers were going over to a 5 star lodge to watch the sunset above a watering hole (nice start!) so I hopped in the pickup and off we went to an awesome place with incredible views. There were some Marabou storks and a kind of very small antelope drinking so I snapped a few shots and had a drink while meeting some of my fellow volunteers and finally starting to relax properly. After sundown we headed back for a good nights sleep and thoughts of what it would be like to meet a lion.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Durban and Johannesburg

The bus to Durban was surprisingly cheap - 120 Rand (about £10-11) but again I arrived at night just before the weekend making it quite hard to find a backpackers with space. I found a place called The Happy Hippo where I could get a dorm bed for a night and met two German girls who had been in Knysna at the same time as me. We went out to find some food and then all had an early night as we had to find another place for the Saturday.

The next morning I checked out the beach and Ushaka marine world before moving across town to Banana Backpackers. I was put in a dorm with some guys (Noel and Johnny) researching to develop their project to provide bicycles to people in rural areas. The idea seemed to be along the lines of encouraging people to plant trees in their area and as they did so points would be accumulated towards a bike that would be freely given to them. They were progressing the project to the point of trying to get bikes of a hardier design than those seen in the west as they had observed that brakes and gears are not a good idea - they tend to break and are then never repaired/replaced anyway.

Another guy in the dorm was from Nairobi, Kenya and went by the name of Kalpesh. He was full of advice for my trip north and insisted I check out the Couchsurfing website as a way to get free accomodation in some cities. At this point I realised I had a cold so decided to hunker down in Durban until it was over. A couple of days of sniffles went by and it was now time to head to Jo'burg on my way to Zim.

Jhb felt more intimidating at first than the other two cities although some of that may just be down to the constant horror stories that were trickling down to me about people getting conned or mugged etc combined with the vulnerability you feel when loaded down by 25kg of fully loaded backpack. The Brown Sugar Backpackers provided a free pickup from the station and soon I was in the lap of luxury - This place was not cheap but I figured I could do with a nice stopover for now.

I met quite a few interesting people at this stop. First were two Americans from New Orleans who were about to head to Namibia for a hunting trip, Matt was an Australian who had just finished a six month stint in the Congo looking for copper deposits, and Erin was a student from Edinburgh (woohoo!) who had been diving in Mozambique and is close to finishing her marine biology course at University. Between us we cleared out the bar two nights in a row and spent hours discussing everything under the sun.

I went to the Apartheid museum on Tuesday and I would strongly recommend it to anyone who spends any time at all in the area. The tour was heavy going but seemed to give a very well balanced account of the history of the country through to the present day. There were many things that I was surprised not to have heard about before and I definitely came out of there with a much deeper respect for Nelson Mandela. It seems so sad that after all the sacrifices made by this man that those who followed him seem unable to live up to the standards that he set.

Following such a serious morning we wanted something fun for the afternoon and found ourselves at the SAB World of Beer. It was great fun learning about the amber nectar and the Homer Simpson quotes were flying freely by the time we got to the end! We checked out a local market selling some meat, sweets and cigarettes as well as one stall which had cooked caterpillars. Myself and Ryan the American chap had to buy some (mostly so we could gross out the girls) and we munched on them when back at the backpackers. They were dry and I suppose I could only say they tasted a bit like bran! One of the employees at the backpacker from Zimbabwe was quite keen on them and advised that they were a lot better when fried with chilli so I can add one more recipe to my tiny cooking repertoire - Take that Delia Smith!

Tomorrow I hope to catch an overnight bus to Bulawayo, Zimbabwe where I should be able to catch a train up to Victoria Falls for my first volunteer stint. I cant wait as it will be a nice change from being in cities the last week or so. South Africa has been absolutely awesome and any fears I had have been unfounded. Granted, in the cities you simply avoid the truly dodgy areas, but other than that nearly every person I met has been very welcoming and kind. Minibus taxis are by far the most fun form of transport with most people happy to chat with complete strangers and the rates are among the cheapest going. People walk around everywhere with the same serious face as westerners do, but all it takes is a smile and 'howzit' to get most people to open up and chat about just about anything. I know I will be back to this beautiful country one day, I simply have too many things I didn't have time to do and a few places that merit a second visit.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Coffee Bay the closest I got to paradise yet!

On arriving at the Wild Coast it was immediately apparent that this was different to all the places I had been so far. The main road passing through this region is inland and it was in this area that a young Nelson Mandela was born and spent his childhood. The land was dry as we drove through (most of the rain comes in summer here) and most of the buildings were now round thatched huts made with clay bricks. The bus dropped us off at Mthatha where we got the shuttle bus down to Coffee Bay. It was about another two hours before we got to the coast and were dropped off near the backpackers.

There are two hostels on either side of the track down to the river and this was where I met the most people. Bomvu (where I stayed) was a nice quiet place so I got to know all the people working there during my stay as well as a few regulars who were around. The Coffee Shack was more the party place it seemed with a fair few young backpackers there and a couple of the local tour guides who kept the party going. The pool table there was free and a fair few evenings were spent trying to empty their well stocked beer supply!

The next morning I found the local shop and got my onion, tomatoes and a kilo of rice. There didnt seem to be much else of interest so happy with my harvest I went off to explore my surroundings. On the way down to the river I spotted Amber - one of the Bomvu dogs - she wouldnt come back but kept looking at me and then towards the rocky beach. I followed her past it, down a path and then over a small hill to see the proper bay, a deserted sandy beach protected on each side by outcrops of black rock. . Good dog!

Over the next few days I met quite a few locals who spoke very good English. Sipo was a 19 year old lad who guided me around some of the local area (I cant really call it a village as there are round houses every hundred metres or so for as far as the eye can see) and took me down to some sacred rock pools hidden away in a small forested area between two hills. Apparently the Sangoma (witch doctor/shaman) do their rituals there sometimes and you could imagine it easily with the utter silence there only broken by the odd bird.

Another guy I met explained a lot about how life worked for people there was Tokosa, a night watchman for Bomvu who had previously been a tour guide hiking up and down the coast to Port St Johns. He was from Mpande which is just up the coast. On the third day there I went with him to the Shebeen where locals get their booze. I tried some Ijuba, fermented god knows what, that they get in what looks like a milk carton. Not to my taste but I would say it is probably about as strong as wine.

That day I also had one of my high points when I stumbled across a small shop which had a freezer and in it. . .some mincemeat! No idea what animal it was and I guess I didnt care - It was time to put the curry powder to good use! That night we ate well and I got to know some of the guys staying there a little better. John had been a lawyer who jacked it in 14 years ago to travel Africa and never stopped. Amanda was an ex horse showjumper with some vet experience, who cycled the length and breadth of South Africa and did odd jobs for the animals of people she met around. Anneka had been at Bomvu a few weeks and was helping paint some parts that were being renovated.
There were two guys working the bar and doing surf lessons locally, slightly mad Afrikaaners enjoying life to the full while they could!

That evening it poured with rain which was good of course as it replenished the water storage of each house but the power in the bar kept shorting out so we closed up early and I popped over to Coffee Shack for a few games with my now regular pool partner John, one of the local guys who had formed a decent team with me. The table was old and the pool cues a mess which led to some very funny games. Easy straight shots would go horribly wrong yet bouncing a ball off two cushions seemed to work fine remarkably often! Strange moment of the night went to the two guys from Capetown who came in with some very nice pool cues and challenged a couple of the local guys to a game. They seemed to take it way more seriously than was necessary and promptly lost after some seriously bad play. They then packed away the nice cues and left without having a drink leaving a few of us scratching our heads.

Eventually I did get itchy feet as I wanted to get used to the local transport more before hitting Zimbabwe after having the luxury of the bazbus. I got a local minivan taxi to Mthatha Shell Ultra City (its just a petrol station, awww. . ) and that was awesome fun. What side of the road did he drive on? The one with less holes of course! As he drove past buildings the drive would whistle and honk stopping every now and then to drop people off or pick up some more and at one point it felt like we were racing another Minivan! This trip was faster than the incoming one and soon I was at the Shell waiting for my bus to Durban (120 Rand by the way - that's about eleven Pounds). On to the cities - bleeurgh ;P