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.