Archive for the ‘Africa’ Category

The heart of Africa

Posted: December 16, 2010 in Africa
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We’ve now spent 3 months in Africa and have packed a lot in. During our time we have had a lot of experiences, some good, some bad. This blog tries to put into words how Africa had made us feel and what we think about the places we have visited and the people we have met.

Before you read on, I just want to point out that our opinions are not intended to be judgmental, rather observational. The fact is Africa has divided our thoughts – on the one hand we have loved being here, on the other we have been left frustrated and jaded. However, overall it has been an incredible experience and one we will not forget.

The Africa we love

* Warm friendly people who stop you in the street to say hello and ask how you are – they don’t want anything from you, they are just genuinely interested

* Beautiful smiley children – the innocence of kids is a beautiful thing and they get really excited at the sight of white skin, especially in smaller villages

* Pole Pole (slow slow) – most people are so chilled they are practically asleep and the rhythm of life is much more relaxing than the grind of London (though big cities are the exception)

* If you stop and speak to a stranger, then the vast majority will make the effort to help you even if they don’t speak English – the polar opposite of London where people distrust strangers in the main

* The scenery is breathtaking, words can’t describe how beautiful this continent is – what has struck us the most is the variety of the scenery and just how vast each country is

The marmite effect – the Africa we don’t enjoy

*The endlessly cruel poverty gap that traps millions of Africans in squalor and a standard of living that would make grown men and women cry – yes we have social and economic problems in the UK but they pale into insignificance compared to the quality of life people endure in the slums/settlements/townships (edit at will).

* Crazy selfish drivers who don’t look where they are going and are as erratic as a dog with rabies

* Deep, dark, choking pollution flowing in waves of cancer inducing clouds

* Scammers, schemers, liars and thieves – every major town has its share of disreputable rogues and white people stick out like sore thumbs here

* Liar Liar – the inability to tell the truth, instead telling you what they think you want to hear e.g.”Is the bus leaving at 8am?”; “Yes” – then the bus leaves at 11am

* Lack of control and organisation – nobody takes charge, nobody knows who is running the show and it’s often every man for himself

* The mind numbing tedium of bus journeys that drain your will to live – too many baggage handlers compete to have the loudest voice yet nobody has any sense of order or structure, so bags are loaded, then unloaded, then reloaded differently, then too many passengers are allowed on board, so more bags have to be rammed into already full baggage compartments. The end result is an angry driver tooting his horn (not a euphemism!) but doing nothing and passengers waiting in a sweat box for one of the baggage handlers to have a eureka moment.

* The love of being officious – some men here love the feeling of importance and power, even if it is simply being able to wear a suit to work, they love to demonstrate their elevated position to the everyday man on the street; the favourite is a schoolboy obsession with multiple pens in the shirt pocket a la 80’s.

Parting thoughts

Africa has been described by some commentators as a sleeping giant. I think hibernating giant is more apt. There are too many people who are content to sit back and let someone else take responsibility, so decision making is slow and often inconsistent. It would take a sea change in mentality for the majority of people to bring much needed structure and co-ordination to the huge energy you can feel in all the countries. It would be churlish to accuse African people of laziness; just that their energy is often misdirected.

Of course there are many intelligent, often highly educated, men and women who are working tirelessly to improve Africa’s global influence. Organisations such as EADC which brings together countries like Namibia, South Africa, Botswana, Zambia and others in economic co-operation are the start of a move to greater participation and tapping in to the collective potential. However, the layers of rotten government where corruption and violence prevail first need to be peeled and systematically confined to the past. Just take a peek at the recent election chaos in Cote d’Ivoire and the quick exit of the opposition parties in Egypt’s first round of elections.

What saddens me most  is the negative role that Europe has played in the past of many of the African countries we visited. The colonial powers of England, Holland and Portugal (and others) plundered resources and then following independence back in the 1960s, pulled out and left behind chaos (undoubtedly on purpose to ensure they can retain influence and economic control over Africa).

The contribution of Europe to Africa is bizarre – on the one hand Victorian Britain fought hard to rid Africa of the despised Arab dominated slave trade, yet in the same breath it exploited the land and left behind a chaotic administration that lacked the skills to effectively handle independence. The result is a hibernating giant that is only now showing signs of emerging from the darkness though it will surely take multiple decades before Africa takes its rightful place in the world.

We really hope that the African people are given the chances we take for granted in the west and that privileges such as education don’t remain the preserve of the wealthy and lucky few who find a benevolent sponsor.

Thanks

james & muneeza x

And so with Kazakhstan as the sacrificial lamb, we hopped on the 07.15 bus to Dahab and the Sinai Peninsula. Sinai is the great and terrible wilderness of the Bible across which the Israelites journeyed in search of the promised land having been saved from the Egyptian army by the alleged parting of the Red Sea – that crafty old God. The Sinai Peninsula has been a place of refuge and conflict for decades, with Israel and Egypt at times both controlling the land. Israel was ‘encouraged’ to hand Sinai back to Egypt in the 1982 following the 1979 peace treaty. This had followed several wars, the last being the 1973 October War which the Egyptians won after extra time. Even now Israeli visitors have to show their passports at every road check whereas we can sit back and smile content with the fact the Egyptians love the English.

Inmo house

We had called ahead and booked a room at the German owned Inmo Divers Home and a Hungarian we met on the bus, Demas, decided to tab along. Inmo is a very cool yard – the buildings surround  a pool and drinking area with a wooden rooftop terrace built around the courtyard offering stunning views of the Gulf of Aqtaba, part of the Red Sea. In a rare bid to save money we checked into the backpackers room instead of the standard double. Slightly smaller and with no bathroom, for only 20 euros per night (including a huge buffet breakfast) it’s  a snip. The Egyptian dudes who run the place are all lovely and one of them was delighted when I asked for the free literature they have on Islam. Perhaps he thinks I’m a convert in waiting.

Snorkeling delight

Day 1 we opted for the chill session. A few hours of adoring the sun god followed by 2 hours of snorkel action on the house reef. To access the reef all we needed to do was walk out the back of the courtyard onto the beach and wade out for about 15m over the rocks. The reef is not bad. It is alive and you can see different colours of plant and fish swanning around, carefree because it’s not a mass tourist spot. Luckily there are no beaches along the house reef so there is no sign of the bus-in/bus-out crowd. We lucked in and spotted 2 rays gliding along in the depths by the reef. The water is so clear that you can easily see 20m down, which makes diving down and then looking up at the ceiling of water quite an experience.

We took an organised snorkeling trip on Tuesday to the popular Blue Hole (not a brothel much to my chagrin) but were left very disappointed. First we were delayed 40mins by 4 Israeli blokes who were coming along because they couldn’t be bothered to get up on time. Then we arrived at Blue Hole, after a cool drive along the Red Sea coast, to discover it is a teeming mass of shipped in tourists. Full of Russians, the place feels like a resort. We don’t really like resort atmospheres and having to watch out for selfish idiots thrashing their flippers in our faces (plastic flippers, they weren’t some weird human-fish mutant though many of the men looked it) took the shine away from the location. It annoyed us further when Muneeza saw one of the Ruskis chucking a stone at a fish whilst walking all over the coral. Unfortunately some people are just ignorant idiots, doesn’t matter where you put them. I was praying for the Sharm shark to make an appearance….

Muni jani samples diving

Muneeza has talked about wanting to give the PADI course a shot ever since we got off the plane in Namibia but was saving it for the cheaper shores of East Asia. I spotted that Inmo offers a intro dive for only 40 euros with 1-on-1 instruction. I suggested to Muneeza that it made sense to try diving before committing to a 4 day course, so she jumped at the chance.We headed off at 9am on Monday with her instructor Saleem, a lovely local dude who made Muneeza feel very relaxed (look into my eyes…)

I tagged along to do some snorkeling, resigned to the fact that I’ll never dive because when I tried the PADI in Honduras I really didn’t like being deep deep down with all that kit on me. After the essential briefing session, Muneeza disappeared off into the water. I opted to stay beachside so as not to distract her. She emerged about 45mins later with a big smile on her face and a blocked ear. Luckily she loved the experience and they had dived down to about 11m and seen an octopus. I think she got the bug immediately so will now give the PADI course a crack when we get to Thailand.

It’s funny that when we snorkel together, my jani doesn’t like the open water when she can’t touch the bottom whereas I’m as happy as a pig in the proverbial, diving down and looking around. However, when it comes to diving, I’m too claustrophobic to cope yet Muneeza took to it like a fish to water.

Mt Sinai and St Katherine’s Monastery

A trip to the Sinai Peninsula is not complete without a visit to St Katherine’s Monastery and Mt Sinai, where Charlton Heston received the 10 Commandments from the omnipotent one with dazzling 1950s special effects. Sinai has a barren interior where jagged red-brown rock mountains interchange with endless sandy desert. It is enclosed by palm-lined coast of the Red Sea which runs into the Gulf of Suez on the left side and the Gulf of Aqaba on the right. The journey from Dahab took us up the coast and then inland for just over an hour, so we got to see both aspects of the landscape and wonder at the remote bedouin settlements en route.

Our visit to St Katherine’s was a bit odd. We had been told it was closed due to it being the day after the Muslim New Year. So we had expected to look from the outside at this 4th Century AD monastery built by a Roman Empress and dedicated to St Katherine, the legendary martyr of Alexandria who was beheaded for her Christianity (oh those pious religious folk do know how to get along). However, general confusion reigned because, along with the Aussie couple on the trip, we spoke little Arabic and our supposedly ‘english speaking’ guide was no more conversant with our mother tongue. We were told that for a little baksheesh we could persuade the monks to let us in for a peek, of interest mainly because inside is the burning bush from which God first spoke to Moses. We were handed to another ‘english speaking’ guide who took us to the entrance then simply walked away with no explanation! Non-plussed we walked through the narrow entrance and carried on with the pleas for ‘money, money’ fading behind us.

Inside we were clueless. No guide, no explanation and to be honest a big disappointment. Inside the main chapel a service was being conducted so we didn’t want to intrude. Surrounded by surly looking Greek Orthodox pilgrims and worhsippers, we awkwardly strolled down to where the burning bush now rests. It’s not burning anymore and judging by its foliage has made a complete recovery since Moses tripped out in the desert.

So we exited stage right and sat down in the authentic 4th Century AD cafe outside the main building where, with true religious generosity, we were royally fleeced for some poor coffee and chocolate bars. Satisfied we had furnished the Lord’s minions with sufficient cash to build a new monastery, we headed off on the climb of Mt Sinai, led by our guide whose idea of guiding was to walk ahead and not speak to us the entire climb.

Luckily, the Aussie couple, Richard and Tamara, were lovely and shared our warped humour. The climb up the Camel trail (not a reference to the local women…) isn’t too arduous and the scenery is awesome, so we took our time absorbing the sights. The view from the top (2,285m) is fantastic looking out across the Sinai Peninsula and across to Gerbel Katarina, the highest peak in Egypt. The only issue is the handful of bedouin stoners hawking goods, though not intrusively as they are too stoned to summon the energy or willpower.

At the top we had intended to wait for sunset as that is what people generally do, but after an hour of soaking the views and talking to the stoner bedouin, Tamara suggested we head down before it got dark. This turned out to be a wise decision because we took the alternative route down, the 3,750 Steps of Repentance. The original steps are reputed to have been laid by a monk as a form of penance but judging by the current slabs, it has been tarted up somewhat by a large army of people. It was dark as we reached the bottom but the path would have been dangerous after sunset as it is very steep and slippery with plenty of options for limb breakage. The climb down was punctuated by discussion about the alleged biblical events and we all agreed that it was more likely that Moses, dehydrated after days without water and starving through lack of food, had simply hallucinated, seen a comet, heard some voices and decided it was God communing with him. The rest is history. I could clear up the mysteries of the bible in one chapter, no need to thank me.

We celebrated our physical endeavours with a slap up meal at Mrs Miggins pie shop, followed by the obligatory sheesah and few cheeky ales. I was comatosed on the floor cushions, more relaxed than George Bush writing about committing human rights atrocities.

Cairo bound

And so with a heavy heart we bid farwell to Dahab and head back to Cairo ready for our flight on Friday to Kathmandu, the start of the Nepalese adventure. We’re both amped to be going to Nepal and can’t wait to get stuck into an entirely different culture.

Take care and thanks for reading, still!

love james & muneeza x

It has often been written that Egypt is Cairo and Cairo is Egypt. Cairo is the semi-mythical capital of the Arab world and a city of sprawling confusion. Home to some 16m Egyptians and the “city of a 1,000 towers”, modern day Cairo resonates faded decadence and shabby charm. It’s not a pretty city – taken at face value it is a throbbing metropolis of chaos. Dirty streets adorned with swarming flies and rotting rubbish piles, incessant honking of car horns, hustle and bustle, ill-looking stray dogs and cats, half finished buildings and the random detritus of human life; these are all symbols of the city that really never sleeps. However, to judge Cairo on its surface beauty is to under-estimate its charm. The city contains a wealth of culture and history and hidden gems are waiting to be found provided you have the patience to get under its skin and ignore the grime.

Having long ago decided we needed to calm down the journey times and spend more time enjoying each destination, Muneeza and I agreed that we would focus our shortened stay in Egypt on Cairo and give ourselves the chance to get a feel for its pace and culture.  The plan was to spend each day in a different suburb of the city and go everywhere on foot whenever possible and open ourselves to the approaches of the local people.

Islamic Cairo

Situated to the East of Downtown, where we first stayed in the Berlin Hotel (run down budegt building with clean, basic rooms but noisier than a gaggle of teenage girls with a nude picture of Orlando Bloom), Islamic Cairo is an incredible part of town with over 800 listed monuments. Street signs are not the forte of Egyptians and our grasp of written arabic is poor to say the least, so navigation is by landmarks and basic Lonely Planet maps.

It was Muneeza who wanted to see this part of Cairo and I’m very glad she took me there. It is a crazy, messy, fly ridden area but the architecture is fascinating. Influences from the Ottoman empire, from Greece, from the Arab world, all shape the skyline. Our plan had been only to visit the renowned Al Azhar Mosque, founded in AD 970 and the oldest mosque in Egypt. However, we were hijaked by a local old man called Fathi who, having insisted he wasn’t a guide and didn’t want money, persuaded us to follow him on a tour.

We spent about 30mins being guided through the back streets that no tourist ever ventures down. We met lots of local people. We had the history of buildings explained, from mausoleums to madrassas. We had Egyptian tea in his small museum, a garage off the street that contains a haberdashery of items from all round Egypt collected over the years of trading with the Bedouin. We read his guest book that has entries from people from all over the world who, like us, followed his hospitality. After tea and his indulgence in sheesha, he walked us back to the mosque and we said a fond farewell. Oh and we bought a wooden elephant before we left!

We walked back to our hotel through the winding streets and bazaars of Cairo. It was an amazing experience and showed that hospitality was often the greatest in the poorest areas. Islamic Cairo at street level is not pretty as it is ridden with flies, stray animals, broken pavements and dirt. However, the people are quick to smile and ready to help a visitor and the frequent greetings of “welcome to Egypt” put smiles on our faces.

Zamalek

Nested on a small island in the middle of the Nile to the West of downtown, Zamalek was described as being slightly more affluent. We walked as usual and experienced the standard traffic chaos and dirty roads. In Zamalek we headed south towards the Cairo Tower and shelled out a steep LE70 (8GBP) to go to the viewpoint at the top. Despite the high cost, it was worthwhile because the tower offers a 360 degree panorama of Cairo. It’s a marmite view – spectacular vista but the entire city is enveloped in a fug of smog and pollution, so the skyline at building level is yellow/brown and it only gets blue when you get way above the people. Despite the depressing reality that we were inhaling death air, we loved being able to look across the city and down the Nile and picture how much fun Cairo must have been before the pollution took over.

Old Cairo

Once known as Babylon (but not in the David Gray sense..) and locally known as Masr al-Qadima, old Cairo incorporates the whole area south of Garden City down to Coptic (Christian) Cairo. We took the tube to cut the walking time as it was hot hot heat and got off at Mar Girgis, directly opposite the Coptic Museum. We had a lesiurely walk around the museum and the various Christian churches, which whilst interesting, where spolied by the tourism police security quadron that barred us from going further south. We spoke to a local shop owner and asked why we couldn’t as we had walked everywhere else in the city and he simply told us that the police are stupid!

Frustrated, we headed North and opted to walk the whole way back to the hotel, about 4kms in total. The walk was intriguing. The Coptic area is in good condition, polished for the bus-in/bus-out tourist conveyor belt. The Old Cairo directly north, which is a Muslim enclave, is once more ramshackle. In Garden City where street markets flourish, we walked past steaming rubbish tips, crumbling buildings, dead animals, swarms of flies and even a homeless man with elephantitis of the legs and supurating wounds. It was a depressing site. Then as soon as we crossed the aqueduct of an-Nasr Mohammed it was as if the poverty was alleviated by a spell and, whilst by no means sparkling, the cleanliness improved.

We got back to the hotel hot and grimy but having enjoyed the walking experience once more. I got in the shower and realised just how dirty this city makes you – brown water pourred off me and left a trail of dirt in the shower. I have no idea how people live this way day in, day out without suffering from chronic illness.

The Pyramids at Giza and Saqqara

The legendary pyramids, one of the must-see tourist attractions in Egypt. Cairo is not a Pharonic city, dating instead from around AD969, but the Pharoahs dominate popular history and the pyramids at Giza are the most well known.

We knew that it was a tourist trap and we would be inundated with tacky hawkers trying to flog anything under the sun but what we hadn’t bargained for was just how shocking the encroachment of mankind is on the beauty of the ancient world. How the Egyptian Governments and cultural leaders have allowed the sprawling mess of modern Cairo to reach within 200 yards of the great pyramids is beyond our comprehension. Added to that, every step you take you are hassled by someone wanting baksheesh for adding no value to your experience. Security police, intended to help protect the site, encourage you to cross security cordons to “touch the pyramid, sure sure, no problem” and then extract baksheesh even though they tell you it doesn’t cost. Camel riders kept trying to re-tie Muneeza’s shawl in the Arab fashion, then insist on a photo and charge baksheesh. We lost track of ther number of times we told them “la shukran” and then in English emphasised that they would get nothing from us. And nobody got a dime from us.

We decided we had to block out the scum of human greed from our minds and focus on absorbing the sights. When you make this mental leap, all you see before you are the 3 great pyramids of Khufu, Chephren and Mycerinus (grand father, father and son). The scale is mind blowing. When you then consider that these edifices, the tallest at 146m high, were built in approximately 2,500BC and that each limestone block (weighing 2.5 tons) was hand hewn from rock and transported down the Nile then hauled to Giza, the imagination of the Pharoahs is brought into sharp perspective. The Great Pyrmaid of Khufu (Cheops) comprises over 2.3m blocks. And what I discovered is that the depth of the rock face at the bottom is immense – it’s not just a few surface blocks, the blocks continue back a long, long way making the pyramid almost inpenetrable. That’s way the attempts of Saladin’s son Malek Abdel Aziz to dismantle the smaller pyramid of Mycerinus in AD1186 proved futile. After 8 months he gave up and the scar in the north face is testament to his failure and the Pharoah’s incredible architecture.

The pyramid and necropolis at Saqqara, dating further back in time that Giza, is a similar story. The experience of walking in a city that was built around 2,650BC by Pharoah Zoser’s chief architect Imhotep (later deified for his acheivement) is wonderful. Surrounded by the desert plateau you can let yourself imagine what it must have been like in those time and how exciting the discovery of the ruins in the 19th Century must have been for the French Egyptologist, Auguste Mariette. However, the crowd of hungry student guides and Bedouin Arabs won’t let you enjoy the site in peace – you can’t walk into a temple without being f0llowed and a garbled explanation in Arabic offered before baksheesh is demanded. I’m a polite person usually but I could happily have given them the good news.

We opted to head back to the hotel after Saqqara and miss out on Memphis. The decision was based on the fact that despite the natural beauty of the pyramid complexes and the fascinating history surrounding us, we weren’t given any time to soak up the experience. Modern day Cairo has been allowed to encroach on Giza far too easily and you can hear the city noises as you walk around. Add to that constant harrassment by people wanting to get money from you for nothing, the litter strewn across the sites, the copious amounts of horse and camel shit and you get a picture of utter disappointment. Furthermore, generation after generation of shoddy builder has raped and pillaged the Giza site to strip the pyramids of their polished white limestone casing (mercifully now prohibited) for use in the palaces and mosques of the select few. All this has achieved is the acceleration of decay of the wonderful pyramids.

The Egyptian Government and people don’t appear to value what they have and the constant drive to make money takes precedence over the beauty of the ancient world. We wonder what the Pharoahs would think if they could see what has become of their pyramids?

Heliopolis

I took a little afternoon tour all by myself as my poor jani had been struck down by a case of the Pharoah’s revenge. The book described Helipolis, if it were to stand alone in its own right, as a gem of North Africa. Granted that was written in 2003 but I have no idea what the writer was on, perhaps a mesculin fuelled binge. The Heliopolis that I saw was a confused mess like the rest of Cairo.

Amidst the noisy traffic and bustling streets there are some beautiful buildings and intriguing architecture. The arking esplanade of Ibrahim Laqqany throws up interesting oriental inspired stone buildings but it’s still just another shopping mecca. The most intriguing buildings, the basilica designed to be a miniature version of Istanbul’s Aya Sofia and Baron’s Palace, a hindu style temple in honour of the Belgian Baron Empain who founded Heliopolis, are both closed to the public and paraded by security officers. What is the point?

I took the tram back to Midan Ramses, the main square near our hotel. The tram system is dilapidated and slow, oh so slow but a snip at LE 0.5 (about 6p). It took forever to come and I got home rather later than expected but I was glad to have made the effort to see Heliopolis even if the reality is not quite as seductive as the literary review.

Dirty pretty things

There are lots of negative aspects to the western world but having experienced this city in detail, I can safely say that I am hugely thankful for the quality of life and level of cleanliness we have in the UK. We both loved Cairo but would never want to live somewhere so crazy and dirty. It really is a dirty pretty thing.

We have also changed our travel plans. The trip to Kazakhstan would have led to a super expensive flight to Nepal, so I’ve sacrificed the Aral Sea dream and we’re flying direct from Cairo to Kathmandu, giving us an extra week to enjoy Egypt and head to the Sinai peninsula and go meet Moses.

Ma’a salaama Cairo

love james & muneeza x

Prone to bouts of wonderful stupidity, it took Muneeza to point out to me that Alexandria was connected to Alexander the Great. After I had abused her for mistaking poor Hollywood blockbusters with ancient kingdoms. We took a day trip to the eponymous city from Cairo as I was determined to soak up some culture and history in a place described by the Lonely Planet as “an easy city to explore and mercifully free from touts”. The train was surprisingly comfortable for 2nd class and only LE37 (approximately 4GBP) but the weather was a miserable mix of fog and pollution so we saw none of the Egyptian landscape.

Alexandria is a city of great standing and historical importance, home to one of the 7 wonders of the ancient world, the Pharos Lighthouse supposedly built by Ptolemy I, Alexander the Great’s main General. The lighthouse was completed in 283BC to provide much needed guidance to the ships in the Mediterranean because the Egyptian coastline was a dangerous mix of shallow water and rocks. Initially it had no flame but served as a daytime navigation aid, then when Alexandria fell under Roman rule a beacon was added some time around the 1st Century AD. Having withstood centuries of floods, tidal waves and winds, the lighthouse was toppled in 1303 by a brutal earthquake that rattled from Egypt to Greece. A century later Sultan Qaitbey quarried the ruins to build the fort that now stands on the original foundations. A wonder of the ancient world confined to the role of submerged spectator, another example of mankind putting prestige above preservation. Fort Qaitbey is a beautiful old fort building adorning the quayside with lovely views of the Med but it could never be as impressive as the original lighthouse and we felt rather saddened that the ancient world is simply quarry fodder.

We took a horse and cart (after 5mins of tedious haggling with the young manager who wanted to impress his elder relatives by demonstrating his business acumen) south west to the Catacombs of Kom Ash-Suqqafa. The catacombs are found amidst the sprawling chaos of modern day Alexandria, a charmless and dirty city that is made interesting by its friendly people. Dating from the 2nd century AD they are reported to be the burial chambers of Roman dignitaries and their entourage. Descending into the main tomb is a rather macabre but fascinating experience and the musty smell evokes a bygone era. The main chamber is described aptly by the Lonely Planet as “a prototype for a horror film set” – the approach is down a flight of steps about 30m below ground level into an antechamber with 2 pillars adorning the chamber with carved figures representing Anubis, the Egyptian God of Death, dressed as a Roman Legionnary.

We decided to walk the rest of our time in Alexandria through the myriad narrow streets and alleyways. Egypt is one of the friendliest and safest places to walk at any time of day and it opens up so much of the towns which is a pleasant change from southern africa. On every street people greeted us in Arabic and English and the children were excited to find foreigners in their midst. The tourists just don’t venture down the dark and dirty side streets, so were something of a novelty and people were actually thanking us, especially when we spoke our basic Arabic. One man stopped to say hello and told us he worked in New York but lived locally and wanted to offer Egyptian hopsitality – this means sitting down and having a cup of hot sweet tea and a chat. We had time to kill so thought it would be rude to say no. We spent about 30mins having a 4 way chat with him and his friend, who didn’t speak English, and learned a lot about “Egyptian hospitality”. There was no angle, no ploy, no attempt to solicit money or make us buy anything, he just wanted to welcome us to his home town. We left buoyed and really glad to have had such an experience.

We decided to find an Internet cafe to let the parents know we were safe in Egypt but this is no easy challenge in Alexandria where few people speak English and there are no obvious signs of Internet cafes. After 20mins of fruitless toil, we bumped into an old man, mouth full of fruit, who mumbled something in Arabic about helping us. I mumbled something in very poor, broken Arabic and he grabbed my hand and nodded. I looked at Muneeza perplexed. Off we walked, no clue what was going to happen. The old man walked very slow and kept going into offices to ask for a computer – we started to think he was off the sunshine bus. However, at the point of making our excuses, he turned the corner and pointed a nice bright shiny Internet cafe. My judgement had been too hasty (surely a first!) and this kind old man had taken us around the streets to find what we wanted. As a thank you I gave him some baksheesh (tip) and waved a fond farewell.

We left Alexandria delighted at our experience and amazed by how open and friendly all the people we met were. Yes there is a tourist hard sell angle in the more open areas but the real people, those who live and work away from the tourist destinations, are the most welcoming people I have ever met. The Muslim culture gets a poor press in the west, we only get to hear of the negative, of the extremism and terrorism. However, Egypt is predominantly a Muslim country and in the muslim areas we have walked, we’ve felt as safe as anywhere in the UK. How many people in London would stop and invite strangers in for tea and then offer them a lift to their next destination without asking for anything in return?

Still no bloody sign of Colin Farell though…..

love james & muneeza x

I warn you this is a long blog – I’ve had 9 days to sit and compose this in the hotel business suite (not as nice as its name suggests) fuelled on Tusker beer……

So our plan to stop in Nairobi for 5 days and then have a long stay in Egypt were curtailed by the ever expedient Indian Embassy – it takes 5 working days to process visa applications for non-residents. After a quick grump from both of us we decided to make the most of our elongated stay at the Kivi Milimani Hotel. First we had to contact STA and reschedule the flight for Monday 22nd – this brought our second dose of bad news because the earliest flight we were offered was on Sunday 28th but when we emailed to confirm, the tool at STA informed us the 28th was no longer available because she forgot to hold the seats. So, we were staring at a flight on Tuesday 30th November, leaving us now only 4 days for Egypt so plans were scuppered.

Anyway, we decided it was time to relax and just accept what ever happened, so we started to make some plans to get the most from our time in the city. Here’s a daily account because we’ve packed so much in (if you have a low attention span, skip to Monday 22nd as that’s the best day):

Wednesday 17th

Having discovered that the Indian embassy was closed for a national holiday (we wondered why it was so empty!), we checked into the hotel and spent the afternoon pool side, soaking rays. The pool is the best thing about the hotel – 20x10m, really clean and well looked after with a 2.5m deep end that encourages diving action. We sampled the hotel food for dinner and discovered the chef could actually cook, so we went to bed happy and collapsed into our king-size bed and slept like babies.

Thursday 18th

Embassy day. We were told by Muneeza’s friend Anoop to expect chaos and weren’t disappointed. We queued outside from 8am waiting for it to open at 09.00 – people start queuing about 07.00. By 08.45 chancers were trying to push to the front and the queue broke into a free for all. Those of us who had been there waiting patiently grouped together to elbow the hustlers out and to the back. Some complained to the security guard whose job it is to keep order but he was oblivious and completely uninterested.

Once inside the chaos descended into farce. There was a mad scramble to get to the visa office on the 4th floor. Some took the lift, which wheezed into action reluctantly, others ran up the stairs to jump ahead. Nobody from the embassy had any control. On the 4th floor, the queue was already snaking down the hall and into the stairwell. The lift was stupidly right opposite the visa office, so newcomers tried to push in which increased the anger levels. Raised voices were forcing people to observe the queue because the security guard was oblivious.

Once inside the office, the queuing system was unique. There were rows of seats from front to back and instead of giving people numbers, you had to take a seat and then move to the next seat each time someone was called. Of course people tried to push in. There was nobody to stop people coming in and going straight to the front to the kiosks. After 10mins of rising tension, an English woman in the queue had had enough and verbally admonished each person trying to push in and told them to get to the back. She grabbed the security guard and told him he needed to control the situation, which he feebly attempted to do. In the end we all took over and blocked the aisles so nobody else could push in. Anyone trying was shouted at by the mob!

Eventually we got called and then found out there was another form to fill in because we were non-residents, even though that wasn’t explained on the website when we downloaded the forms. That set us back 10mins but finally we had the application forms ticked, a receipt issued and we were on our way. We’d been talking to an elderly Indian couple in the queue who live in both England and Kenya and the man kindly offered us a lift to the Bank of India where we had to pay the visa fee and get our receipt stamped. This saved us hassle as we had no idea where it was, so we were able to get back to the hotel for lunch and then spent the afternoon chilling and swimming to recover from the stresses of the Indian chaos.

We hooked up with Muneeza’s friend Anoop and his wife Nixi in the evening. They are a really cool and lovely couple who made us feel instantly welcome. They took us out to Harndi, a highly rated Indian restaurant. The food was really good and after a few cheeky sherberts, I needed to be rolled out the door. Anoop and Nixi insisted on treating us as their guests which was an incredibly kind gesture, especially as they also chauffeured us around.

Friday 19th

My laziness was becoming apparent to my jani. After a fat boy breakfast (the breakfasts at the hotel make it worth the extra money – included in the room rate, choice of cereal, cooked, fruit, pastries, toast, yoghurt etc and I’m tucking right in!) we made our way pool side. I’d decided that whilst we were here I’d make the most of the facilities and have a health kick with swimming. Starting with 50 lengths, my plan was to increase by 10 lengths per day until I was swimming 100 lengths daily, 2km. You can’t beat self indulgence and I love basting in the sun, then jumping in a cold pool for a swim.

The only sortie for the day was a quick trip to town to check the post office for costs of sending stuff home and take advantage of cheap internet and calls. Walking into central Nairobi involves running the gauntlet of tour guides and touts (or tourist information guides as they like to call themselves). They target me, so sometimes I pretend to be French to avoid hassle – works like a dream. Every block somebody thrusts a business card in your face and then they look crest fallen when you politely decline. I spoke to one chap about organising cultural tours instead of safaris as we’d done the safari thing to death in Tanzania, but after 10mins of assuring me they did that, he then showed me info on safaris. We’ve noticed that in Africa often people don’t really listen or don’t really understand and just tell you/give you what they want to. This is best demonstrated in restaurants where waiters never write down what you ask for, then bring something completely wrong and look in disbelief when you point this out. For example, I ordered a steak medium rare and repeated the medium rare bit twice to be safe and the waitress nodded – the steak came out incinerated. We’ve also learned there is no point arguing or sending it back – you won’t get what you want unless you can realty speak the lingo. After a while you just get used to it and sit there and laugh.

Saturday 20th

And so the routine continued. The morning and afternoon passed by quickly pool side with yet more swimming and some pilates thrown in for good measure. In the evening we went out with Anoop & Nixi again. This time they sent their driver to pick us up – we only mix in the best circles don’t you know! We realised how successful Nixi’s family business was when we drove up their driveway past the 6 security guards. Her parents house is huge, I mean really huge. On the grounds there are 2 other houses, 1 of which Anoop & Nixi live in which is a 2 bedroom flat and stylishly decorated. It seems a double edged existence to be rich in Nairobi – on the one hand you can enjoy the perks of being able to afford to go to the best places, on the other hand you are an constant target for the criminals of which there are many and they are also quite brutal.

They took us to a local restaurant called Smokey’s which is an outdoor bbq place where you cook your own food, they supply the ingredients. Nixi’s sister Amrita came with us and some of their friends also pitched up. We had a cracking night and I got battered because Amrita kept ordering me double whiskeys and I was too gone to notice, so nailed them without thinking. We got back around 01.30 and I passed out into a drunken coma before the lights went out, giving Muneeza the night of her life!

Sunday 21st

Hangover day. I had to force myself to breakfast and then into the pool to try to wrestle some sanity from the bowels of pain and misery. We met up with Anoop & Nixi at lunchtime and they took us to an awesome restaurant overlooking the national park. To reach the restaurant, you have to walk across the only original wooden suspension bridge in Kenya. The back drop is the national park and on the way back we spotted some giraffes. We stopped by a Christmas market on the way home for Muneeza to buy the obligatory jewellery. The rest of the day was spent lying in bed, recovering and doing as little as possible.

Monday 22nd

To save money, we decided to organize a local day out instead of a trip to the national parks ($60 entry per person per day). We booked our reliable hotel taxi driver to drive us for the whole day for $80 which may sound steep but we were packing in the miles.

The first stop was the David Sheldrick elephant sanctuary that rehabilitates orphaned elephants (and now rhinos). The trust is highly successful and integrating keeper dependent orphans with wild herds to help release as many as possible back into the wild. Words can’t describe what an incredible place it is. For 1 hour daily they bring the orphan elephants to a play area and feed them and you can watch. The elephants walk right up to you and you can stroke them. The smallest, a 6 week old female, stopped right next to us and started to grab my hand with her trunk, pulling it to her mouth to suck my fingers because she is teething. You can’t believe how human elephants are up close – the way they interact, their facial expressions, mannerisms etc. Watching 10 baby elephants play was hilarious, just like kids – some are clam, some stir the others up, some just want to mess around and play in the mud. What’s funny is that when they get too boisterous, a quick clap from the keepers puts them straight back in line. With elephant poaching once more on the rise in Africa, driven by human/animal conflict and the influx of Chinese labour and helped by the poor attitude to ivory trading by authorities worldwide, trusts like this are a beacon of hope in protecting this wonderful animal.

We left elated and headed to the Langate Giraffe Sanctuary where we spent 45mins hand feeding Rothschild’s Giraffes. The centre protects this endangered species and helps breed them to release into the wild when possible. It was a truly bizarre experience. The male won’t let you stroke him. The female will if you feed her but if you stand close without food, she head butts you. One guy put the food pellet in his mouth and let the giraffe take it out with her very long grey tongue. What was disgusting was that he came back and did it 4 more times, each time getting more saliva in his beard. I think he climaxed.

The last stop of the day was the animal orphanage where we had arranged with Joe the taxi to be allowed into the cheetah cage to meet the cheetah orphans. Before we went we had the impression this was a place where rescued orphans were looked after and, we hoped, rehabilitated into the wild when possible. However, within 5mins of being inside we realised it was more like a glorified zoo and we were dismayed. I’d vowed never to set foot in a zoo again after my Lima experience in 2001 and this felt too close for comfort. We just wanted to get out but had to endure the tour before we could be allowed in the cheetah cage as the keeper had to wait for the managers to leave. Eventually they let us in but Muneeza was too upset by the caged environment and stayed outside. I thought, sod this I’ve come all this way, and went in. The next few minutes are the most amazing I’ve ever had with animals (no dodgy gags please!) – being up close with 3 male cheetah cubs, only 1 year old, and stroking them whilst they looked into my eyes was spine tingling. My excitement was matched only by my fear, the realisation that despite having been in captivity since being orphaned these were wild cats at heart and they could attack.

Tuesday 23rd

Eat, swam, sun bathed. Went to a Maasai craft market – Muneeza spent all our money. Ok, not strictly true or fair but we did buy 2 unique hand carved wooden masks (not gimp masks…).

Wednesday 24th

We took another day trip. First stop was the crocodile farm which was excellent – got to see a lot of gnarly male and female crocs as well as little hatchlings. The good news is that they do release the crocs back into the wild when they are older – apparently despite being bred in captivity, they adapt very quickly to the wild. In the afternoon we went to the Bomas of Kenya, billed as a glimpse into traditional Kenyan tribal villages where you can watch tribal music and dancing. Little did we know this took place inside a purpose built modern auditorium so the authenticity we had hoped for was shot. The villages themselves are a tacky tourist attraction with mud huts in small clearings but not a person in sight. Basically, you walk around and try to imagine what village life must be like. The music was superb (the highlight being the school kids dancing) but the place was cheap and tacky and we left quickly. My advice – if you come to Nairobi, avoid the Bomas, arrange a tour to an actual village where people live.

The good news of the day is that we managed to find a flight on the 26th to get more time in Egypt – it is costing us $120 each but we’d just have to pay for a reschedule to our next flight anyway if we flew on the 30th.

Thursday 25th

Indian visa collection day, the day of reckoning. The will they/won’t they question had loomed over us like a dark cloud since last week. Waiting again in the chaotic queue another English girl told us how she had been waiting for 2 weeks to get her visa because they lost the telex form from London. Panic levels were rising. However, the Malawian good luck bracelet must have been working because we got in, were handed our visas and left within 10mins. We shared a big, relieved hug in the lift and the adrenalin rush of finally sorting the visa was immense. It also meant our travel plans were in tact and the Asian odyssey was ready to rock. Muneeza called her parents to tell them the good news so they can now try to get visas and meet us in Delhi.

We went out with Anoop & Nixi for dinner to celebrate and despite our best efforts to treat them, they insisted on getting the bill again. We ate at a Tepanyaki restuarant and then retired to Casablanca so the ladies could indulge in a spot of shisha. I nailed the JDs again and rolled out the bar. We’ve never experienced hospitality quite like it, they have been incredibly kind and generous to us and made our stay in Nairobi highly enjoyable. They’re also very cool people to hang out with so we’ll look forward to returning the favour when they visit the UK.

Leaving Nairobi

We’ll actually be sad to say goodbye, especially as now we leave Kenya. Nairobi has a bad reputation for crime and aggression, yet we’ve found it a cool city to kick back in. Provided you avoid the no-go areas near the slums and broken society, the city can be a lot of fun. However, the traffic is nuts and the pollution is crazy. It has been fun seeing the sights but if we hadn’t had the luxury of a good, clean hotel, our impression might have been very different. Sometimes it pays to avoid the backpacker traps, especially in big cities where the quality is shocking. For only $20 more per night we lived like kings.

love james & muneeza x

Oh Kenya Where Art Thou?

Posted: November 20, 2010 in Africa
Tags: , ,

The exit from Moshi summed up our disdain for bus journeys. We arrived at the Raqib office as instructed at 08.00 for the alleged 08.30 departure. Bien sur mes amis the bus was not in sight at 08.30 and we stood there shivering in the cold, cold rain. Just before 09.00 a rickety old shack stuttered up to the stop, looking nothing like the pristine vehicle the manager had pointed out in the photo above his desk when we bought the tickets. Oh the shameless rascal.

Anyway, we wanted to get to Kenya so hopped on and eventually about 09.20 the rusty engine broke into song. The journey to the border was surprisingly quick, just over 1hr and we got off and did the usual immigration chores. The pleasant surprise that the Kenyan visa cost only $25 each was tempered by Muneeza’s discovery that one of the Raqib baggage handlers had tried to get into our big bags and had stolen Muneeza’s handbag. Luckily there was nothing in the bag as all our vitals are kept on us at all times but the rudeness of the theft irked us majorly.

The faded glory of East Africa

And so on to our first stretch of Kenyan highway. And what a shock. I had expected Kenya to be one of the more reliable countries for infrastructure given its past as part of British East Africa and its place as a tourist and safari haven. However, the road from the Kenya border post was a shabby mud track followed by the most pot-holed excuse for tarmac we’ve ever seen. It took 2hrs to go little over 50kms and it felt like my back had been split in two by a Bolo Yeung special.

Anyway, you’ve heard enough of my bus moaning, so I’ll skip to the arrival in Mombasa on Friday 12th November late afternoon. Mombasa is where Muneeza’s Dad went to school so we were intrigued to see the place of his childhood. The modern Mombasa is busy. It’s like London without any of the control. The traffic is insane – roundabouts are a free for all and crossing the street requires a leap of faith. Pollution is off the scale – each step consumes a hearty meal of smog and gasoline. We headed straight to the New Palm Tree Hotel that had reasonable online reviews and found the place to be friendly and welcoming.

After a quick refresh we took the hotel’s recommended taxi driver, Osman, and went to the station to book our tickets for the overnight train to Nairobi on Tuesday (apparently it gets booked up well in advance). Osman tried to persuade us that we needed to use his services to go everywhere in Kenya because it was dangerous and the matatus (local shuttle buses) were unreliable. Sales pitch over, we arranged for him to take us to a local street-side BBQ restaurant he knew to avoid the over-priced tourist fare.

To be fair to Osman, the food we ate was amazing, some of the best we’ve had in Africa. The restaurant was an outdoor BBQ run by local Muslims next to a mosque. There were long benches by the pavement on which we all sat and ordered direct from the grill. I think a few of the locals were surprised to see a muzungo (white boy) at a local shack though Muneeza blended in well as Mombasa has a large Indian population, throw back to the old colonial days.

Malindi bound

Early Saturday morning Osman dropped us off at the bus stop to pick up the matatu to Malindi, a beach haven up the coast midway between Mombasa and Lamu. Having been warned that the buses are painful and we’d wait for hours, within 15mins the bus left and it was good quality for once. We put it down to the fact the driver was female and her driving skills were much more reliable than the kamikaze men.

We got to Malindi and hopped on a tuk tuk to our hotel, the African Pearl. Although it sounds like a location for an adult film, it’s actually a gem. Run by Jeff, a chilled and muscle ripped Kenyan dude, the place is huge. Sprawling grounds full of palm trees give shade to the outdoor bar and sitting area. There’s a decent size pool with awesome spring loaded diving board (I got obsessed with it). The rooms are huge with large beds and big balconies overlooking the gardens. At only $40 per night it was a bargain.

Our time in Malindi was super chilled. The first night we got battered watching the football with Jeff and his mates. They then took us out to a local club, though we didn’t last long as we were both in a mess. The next day, me with blinding hangover, Jeff organized a snorkeling trip for us in the Malindi National Park. Thought the coral reef was hugely disappointing, the location was stunning – endless sandy beaches and clear water of the Indian Ocean. We also found a cool Italian run restaurant (the mafia have taken over a large part of Malindi) to enjoy fresh fish and eat healthily.

We left Malindi Monday morning sad to leave the beach but ready to get to Nairobi and start the tedious process of applying for an Indian visa.

All aboard the night train

Ah the infamous Mombasa-Nairobi night train, much beguiled. The old station in Mombasa looks like it is a graveyard to the past. The buildings barely stand and nothing moves, not even the wind. We checked in at the crumbling ticket office and one of the baggage handlers helped us to our seats. Even though we booked 1st Class I was expected rubbish old seats and little comfort. I was pleasantly surprised to discover we had our own cabin with two beds, a small sink and storage cupboard. Granted it was no dream but it was enough to keep us comfortable for the 14hr journey.

We met some lovely German people on the train, one couple we sat opposite at breakfast and they have been taking this train for 20yrs. It used to much nicer apparently. The couple we sat with for dinner were locals but one of the men used to be a woman and looked a bit odd. His/her hands freaked me out, I was glad to get back to the cabin.

After a disrupted night’s sleep (every bump on the line can be felt in your bed) we arrived safely in Nairobi only 20mins later than planned. We were met at the station by the hotel driver and set off to start our Indian visa odyssey.

The next blog picks up the Nairobi story.

Love james & muneeza x

We are now safaried out! The day after our Kili climb was painful, with Muneeza heading for a massage to relieve her knee and foot pain and me moping around the hotel with an increasingly sore throat and heartburn. We opted to book a 3 day safari to give us some serious relaxation and headed off early on Monday with our guide Elia and cook Viktor. On the Sunday we had briefly tasted what it felt like to be millionaires, albeit in Tanzanian shillings where TSh1,500 = $1.

Having discussed the options during our climb, we had decided that a 3 day safari taking in 3 different national parks would give us the greatest chance of spotting a wide range of wild animals. Akaro Tours planned the itinerary based on our preferences, so we took flight on Monday for Lake Manyara National Park, home of the elusive tree climbing lions.

The journey was interesting. We passed though the bustling streets of Arusha which took forever to pass. Arusha is located at the foot of the attractive Mt Meru, standing at over 4,000m and adorned with lush vegetation and soft, wispy cloud. However, despite the idyllic location, the city itself is grimy and hot. Paved roads give way to pothole ridden dirt tracks that make your back feel every bump and twist. There is a constant movement of people scurrying to and from shacks to buy and sell all manner of goods. Despite the seemingly random order of things, there is a natural rhythm to the trade.

What is most intriguing about Arusha is that it marks the start of the Masai region in Tanzania. We didn’t realise that the Masai were in Tanzania as well as Kenya, so it was a pleasant surprise to see Masai people amongst the Arushan throngs. The convergence of old and new is bizarre as Masai tribesmen walk around in traditional woolen robes (the bright red checked numbers you will see on TV documentaries, unmistakable) with mobile phones in one hand and wooden walking poles in the other. As you pass through Arusha into the countryside and through small villages, you see the same people in identical clothes but quietly tending cattle. It is a unique experience to see how such a traditional people has progressively entwined itself with modern Tanzanian urban life.

Lake Manyara National Park

We arrived at our campsite at midday and wolfed down a quick lunch from Chrisburger, the local burger god (it actually tastes pretty good and they throw in some fruit to balance the sin). We left Viktor to sort out the tents for the night and headed to the park with Elia for our first game drive.

Unfortunately, the early afternoon is one of the worst times to spot animals as they all retreat to the shade because the sun is so fierce. This means the big boys are awol. Despite this we had a really enjoyable afternoon being driven around the park which is a stunning place to see.

Lake Manyara is, unsurprisingly, set around a huge lake, even though the rain has not fallen convincingly for 4 years so the water line is beating a hasty retreat. The forest and lake sit at the foot of the southern Rift Valley, a huge geographic trench that stretches 6,000km from Syria to Mozambique. The landscape couldn’t be painted better. The drive snakes through dense forests out into open plains and along the lake before returning to gentle scrub and scattered trees. All the time you have the backdrop of the rock face of the Rift Valley so you can imagine the scale of what we could see. Sometimes I forgot we were on safari and stared, transfixed by nature. That may sound a bit indulgent but Africa can take your breath away with its natural beauty.

We were on a mission to see the lions but lucked out. The elusive blighters reamined elusive to the end, a rather apt moniker. We were lucky to see elephants, hippo, giraffe, wilder beast, impala, zebra and many other smaller mammals including the lesser spotted zebra mongoose. As the sun set we left the park contented and enjoyed a chilled dinner before crashing ready for an early start the next day.

Ngorongoro Crater

We left the campsite at 6am to drive to the much vaunted Ngorngoro Crater where we had been told by other tourists you were ‘guaranteed’ to see lots of lions. From experience we know that people exaggerate and talk a lot of rubbish, yet we were as excited as a litter of puppies with a bag of Winalot.

The drive from the park entrance to the crater rim took about 25mins and the treat that awaited us was incredible. The Ngorongoro Crater lies in a topographical paradise, entombed on both sides by the rift valley and descending from the cloudy rain forest into an open bowl where the weather has its own micro-climate. From above it truly looks as our guide described it, another world. At the top the weather was cloudy and drizzled rain but in the crater we could see sunshine.

As we set off for the 1hr descent along a bone shattering mud path, we saw our first animal – a large male elephant emerged from the bushes to the right and ambled its way across our path, disappearing moments later into the dense bush (all puns welcome). We picked up a local Masai chap and dropped him off, then made our way to the crater floor. On the way down we could see a group of vehicles crowded together which meant one thing – cats. On safari the only time you see the vehicles in one place is when cats have been spotted.

We drove over and could see 2 male lions lying in the thick grass, casually sowtting flies with their tales. Unfortunately, they were too well camouflaged for us to get a clear view and we had made a school boy error again- we forgot to get binoculars from the tour company so had to rely on our own eyesight!

Encouraged but disappointed we drove on and started our day long quest to see cats. We were soon rewarded as we saw another long line of vehicles clumped together and turned to corner to see an adult male lion asleep by the side of the road. We waited patiently then had our turn near the beast. It was a beautiful sight and incredible moment – he sat up and stared right at us. Seeing a lion less than 10ft away from you is a heart thumping moment – they are just awesome creatures. We didn’t want to leave but decided he deserved his peace and drove off.

The rest of the day was a pleasure. The crater itself is a beautiful place with such a diverse landscape you are constantly surprised. We drove across barren tundra, around a hippo pool surrounded by lush green plants, encircled a shimmering blue and yellow lake, ambled through trees and then snaked through the animal village which is a mini forest. The crater itself would be well worth a visit even without animals.

During the day we had several treats but the best by far were the cats. In total we saw at close range 6 lions and 5 more at distance. We stumbled upon 2 cheetahs lazing in the grass. We saw in the far distance 2 black rhinos, incredibly hard to find. There were all sorts of other animals including a small herd of elephant that came within 3ft of our faces and gave us a little scare.

We left the park tired and very content. The view as we made the ascent back to the crater rim was stunning and it truly felt like we were leaving behind another world.

Tarangire National Park

And so to our last chance saloon to see the last of the Big 5, the reclusive leopard. Leopards are the hardest to spot of the cats bcause they shy away from people (can’t blame them) and generally hang out in landscapes that make it very difficult to see anything other than bushes and branches. If you were to organise a giant game of hide and seek in the African wilderness, the leopard would be that irritating kid who is never found.

We made it to the park entrance at 06.40 and headed off with the roof up for maximum animal spotting opportunity. Tarangire is what I consider the classic African safari wilderness – endless open plains with light scrub and long grass in which anything could be sitting and you would be lucky to see. The landscape was mesmerising with mile after mile of pristine animal heaven. Running through the park is the Tarangire river which is currently mostly dry as the rainy season is in its infancy. The river breaks up the barren plains and provides a contrast of colours and animals, mainly the bountiful selection of birds on offer including eagles.

I’ll spare you the detail because one safari is much like the other in regards to the animals. The highlights were (1) Spotting 5 young lionesses relaxing in the shade of a tree near the river, staring intently back at us (2) Watching 4 different families of elephants converge on the river for mud rolling and bath time – we just sat there and watched for about 30mins as an endless line of ambling oiliphants rocked on down to the water without a care in the world (3) Stepping out the vehicle at watch points and toilet facilities fully fuelled with the fear that killer cats could be anywhere in the surrounding bushes – I’ve never weed so fast in my life.

We left the park just after midday satisfied at having seen some incredible sights and crashed on the long drive back to Moshi. As we got to Moshi we were greeted by the wonderful sight of the two peaks of Kili, Kibo and Mawenzi, rising out of the cloud, once more snow clad. It was a fitting end to an unforgettable experience in Tanzania.

Come on safari with me

We’ve learned a few things about how to get the most out of your safari, so here are our tips for anyone else planning a trip to check out the animals:

1) Research your guide carefully and find someone who is experienced at tracking animals – all the guides can tell you about the animals but most aren’t skilled at reading the signs and following the tracks so spotting is more luck than skill

2) Bring or hire a high quality pair of binoculars – you will need them

3) Visit different national parks – variety is important as you can soon tire of the same surroundings and this gives you a better chance of seeing more animals

4) If you really want to see 1 species up close and personal, you will need to pay for an experienced tracker and/or take walking safaris which can be intimidating

5) Set realistic expectations – it is not guarnteed you will see any of the big animals, this is the wild and they don’t operate like a tourist attraction and you can drive for hours without seeing anything so enjoy the scenery

6) You are the boss – you have paid a lot of money for this priviledge so don’t let the guides dictate how and what you do – take their advice but make sure you make the decisions, especially regarding what time to get into the parks

7) The best time to see the exciting stuff is first thing in the morning and late in the evening – most animals retreat into the abyss during the hottest hours of the day to seek shade

We hope you have enjoyed reading about the animal adventures. Whenever we find an internet cafe that uploads photos without giving my camera a virus, we’ll share some pics.

love james & muneeza x

So finally we arrived at the offices of Akaro Tours in Moshi for our pre-climb briefing and to meet our guide for the 6 days. Our guide, a local chagga called Jimi, explained what was going to happen over the next few days and checked our kit. Once he was satisfied, we said our goodbyes and headed off to Marangu Gate and the start of our trekking odyssey. In the car we were excited but equally nervous.

We opted to take the Marangu route, also known as the Coca Cola route because it is the most popular. Whilst it is reputed to be the easiest route to the summit, there is no easy climb to 5,885m above sea level. We decided to be sensible and give ourselves the best chance of reaching the top so we had an extra day for acclimatisation. I’ll break down the trek into each day as there is so much to talk about.

Day 1 – Marangu gate to Mandara hut

After the usual faffing around at the start of any trek, signing in and filling out forms, we stepped through the Marangu gate and onto the start of the Marangu trail. Our porters and cook took a separate path and we walked with our guide, Jimi, whose English was really good.

Day 1 is a gentle climb from 1,800m to Mandara hut at 2,700m. We walked very slowly because Jimi wanted us to adjust gradually to the altitude. The route ascends through lush forest and dense foliage but the path is easy as it has been made by man. In fact, we were surprised by how well structured the path was, with trees cut and the branches used to border the mud path.

We spent 4 hours getting to know Jimi and learning about the local area and wildlife. We were lucky to spot both types of monkey that are indigenous to the area, blue monkeys and black & white columbus monkeys. We arrived at the hut just before 5pm and managed to secure ourselves a private room (rainy season has just started and today was the day after the presidential election, so many tourists stayed away given the violence after the last election). The rooms are basic wooden cabins with 4 single mattress in each. As we had expected Mandara hut to be one big hut that everyone shared, we were pleasantly surprised to have our own room, no matter how basic.

After a quick face wash, we headed to the communal food hall to have dinner with the other climbing groups. We opted for the veggie menu for the climb, not wanting to risk illness from dodgy meat, and tucked into a very tasty vegetable stew with pancakes. We retired to our love shack with our appetites satisfied and ready for sleep. It took me some time to fall asleep, probably due to the nervous anticipation, and then I woke up in the middle of the night freezing cold. It was a schoolboy error at that elevation to pass out in just a pair of boxers and it killed my sleep as I stayed awake for most of the night. Not a great start to a 6 day climb when you need all the energy you can get.

Day 2 – Mandara hut to Horombo hut

After a hearty breakfast cooked by Amiri and served by Hamezi, one of the porters, we set off up the path with Jimi. The target was Uhurumbo Hut at 3,700m and roughly 6 hrs by foot.

The climb started in the forest, surrounded by monkeys, and soon ascended to a plateau where the tree line fell away to reveal small shrubs and never ending peaks and valleys. We snaked across the base of the Kili range, covered in cloud and with no site of the mountain we had come to climb. After 1hr of walking the cloud darkened and the rain started. The rain got heavier and heavier and within 20mins we were soaked. Muneeza sensibly had her waterproof trousers in her day bag, I had left mine in the stuff we gave to the porters who were now at least 30mins ahead of us and stopping for nothing.

Silence ensued. I was cold and uncomfortable and had to focus on my breathing as we adjusted to the altitude. After 4hrs of freezing rain we saw the hut on the horizon. I was relieved to reach reception and sign-in to discover we could have our own room again. Having unsheathed the wet clothes and hung them up with the vain hope of them drying before the morning, we tucked into dinner before retiring early to bed.

In the camps at this height, there is nothing to do in the evening after dark. It is also so cold that all you want to do is climb into your sleeping bag and find warmth. The night proved colder than the previous and we had to keep getting up to go to the toilet – to cope with the altitude, we had to drink a lot of water to get more oxygen into the blood, so the side effect is a bursting bladder when you least need it. Each time we woke for a toilet trip, we struggled to get back to sleep in the cold. We were starting to feel the effects of the climb.

Day 3 – Acclimatisation

An easy day. We had a late breakfast and set off at 09.00 for Zebra Rocks at 4,000m to help adjust to the altitude before heading to the summit. Unfortunately the battery on my camera was playing up and showing as empty, so we had to leave it in the hut and save the limited juice for the summit.

For the first time since we arrived in Moshi we could see the snow capped peak of Kili with Mawenzi, its older relative, alongside. As we climbed, we took in the surroundings and bathed in the sun, happy to be free of the cold for a while.

We reached Zebra Rocks within 2hrs. The rocks are a natural outcrop in the middle of the saddle, the tundra like plateau that joins Kibo (Kili) with Mawenzi. The rocks are streaked with black and white from the crystallisation caused by wind, rain and sun. The other groups were behind and would reach this point soon, so we asked Jimi if we could go higher to help prepare for the summit. He was happy to oblige and guided us for another hour up into the higher climbs of the saddle to 4,250m. Here we sat and stared in awe at the silvery snow lined valleys of Mawenzi. At 5,160m it is much lower than Kibo but it is actually more beautiful to look at from a distance because of the colours.

Such a shame the camera was out of action as the climb took us through some beautiful scenery and the view of Mawenzi was breathtaking. The word ‘inspiring’ is rather cliched but it applies to so much of the landscape up here.

We returned to camp for lunch and then spent the rest of the day relaxing and taking in the views now that the cloud canopy had dispersed. We went to bed early again but I had another frustrating night’s sleep disrupted by the cold.

Day 4 – Horombo hut to Kibo hut

The business end of the trip had begun. We set off early at 07.30 for Kibo hut at 4,700m elevation, nested into the side of Kibo. Luckily the weather at this height is pretty reliable in the morning, so we were gifted with clear skies and sunshine as we ascended to the saddle and made our way across the valley between the two peaks.

The saddle is much more arid than the slopes, with limited plants and a dusty brown hue. The saddle is set between the two snow capped peaks which makes for a barren but awesome sight.

We stopped for lunch at the last toilet station before Kibo hut. The toilets here are grim – a basic wooden shack with a deep hole in the ground leading to a fermenting cess pit of sin. People just don’t care about others and the floors are covered in all sorts of human detritus. We beat a hasty retreat.

The weather here turns quickly and dark clouds set in before we had finished eating. Wrapped in all our wet weather gear, we set off for the final climb to the hut. We could see Kibo hut in the distance but it never seemed to get nearer. The weather was getting worse and we were getting colder. To make maters worse, the final ascent to the hut is steep and at this elevation breathing is hard, so progress slows to snail pace. The view of the hut is a big tease and we struggled to reach it.

Finally at the hut we checked in and found our beds for the rest of the day. Kibo hut is a series of 5 dorms of 12 beds each. The rooms are small and cold and you are thrown in with other climbers. Whilst the atmosphere is friendly and inclusive, it makes for poor rest.

The ascent to the summit was due to start at 23.30 so we had to bunk down and rest during the afternoon. However, people kept coming in and out of the room and the constant need to go to the toilet meant sleep was impossible. To make matters worse. the medical team from the big Deloitte party (50 climbers) was based in our room so we were disrupted by their consultations and treatment of the walking wounded. We didn’t resent it because some people were in a bad way but it was frustrating as we knew we needed sleep to save energy for the climb.

The hours dragged by and sleep deprived we were ‘awoken’ at 23.00 by Hamezi our porter with a cup of tea and biscuits. After some rapid and nervous packing, we headed outside where Jimi waited for us with his most experienced assistant, Rahim. Just after 23.30 the 4 of us set off to start the summit ascent and attempt to reach Uhuru summit at 5,885m. The time of reckoning had arrived.

Day 5 – Into the lap of the gods

And so it began – on the 5th day God gave us pain. We set off just before midnight as slowly as possible, leaving from Kibo hut in a long procession to reach the roof of Africa. Our first destination was Gillman’s Point, the first summit on the Marangu route at 5,680m. It was pitch black and the sky was lit with a stunning array of stars and planets. Occasionally a shooting star would grace our presence but looking up to the sky would make us dizzy so most of the time we kept our eyes firmly on the ground.

The sight back down the mountain was amazing – a long procession of headlights against the black of night created a hypnotic vision and the sound of singing broke the silence of night. For the first few hours we simply walked and enjoyed the calm of night, focussed on walking sensibly up the mountain. Progress was slow because Jimi took us on a snaking path to take some of the incline out the climb. Kili has a very steep summit so you have to walk a long route to avoid zapping energy too quickly.

And then it all fell apart. After about 4hrs of climbing, I started to feel bad. We had both had a headache for 24hrs, probably due to altitude and lack of sleep, but mine was getting worse. Then my stomach started to grumble – in the thin air my heart was beating much faster than usual and my body was burning energy too fast. The meagre breakfast we had been given was simply not enough. My legs were weak and my head dizzy. Within minutes I had to stop and take a break. The next 2 hrs passed by so slowly. Every few minutes I had to stop because my legs had no drive. I could hardly manage the next few steps. My headache was getting worse and it was cold. I wanted to give up and my mind told me to close my eyes and sleep. I was exhausted and mentally fatigued. I really wanted to give up but Muneeza and Jimi encouraged me on.

I can’t accurately convey just how hard the final part of the ascent to Gillman’s Point was. It is the worst physically and mentally I have ever felt and that is not an exaggeration. My mind shut down temporarily and it was only the insistance of Muneeza and Jimi, along with the help of Rahim carrying my bag, that got me through the ordeal. Every step hurt and my emotions were running wild. I’m not too embarrassed to admit that I broke down into tears on a few occasions at the thought of having to give up. I consider myself to be mentally strong when the going gets tough but it was Muneeza who was the strongest and she spurred me on.

We reached Gillman’s Point just after 6am, slightly later than planned due to my physical exhaustion. I was relieved to be able to sit down on the rocks and catch my breath and take on fluids and food. After 15mins of recovery, I was able to look up and take in the surroundings. It was an incredible sight – a view over the saddle to the lower peak of Mawenzi and over my shoulder, the winding peak that makes its way up to Uhuru, the highest point in Africa. I had resigned myself to stopping and heading back but Jimi insisted I could make it to Uhuru. At that point I wanted to shout at him but something told me that I couldn’t feel any worse and would regret not making the extra effort.

So we headed off. The route to Uhuru winds up and down across the summit slopes and is a tough climb. The sun was starting to wake up and the heat was rising. My legs were shot and Muneeza was starting to feel weak. The further we walked, the further Uhuru seemed. The views distracted us from the enormity of the challenge. To the left was a huge glacier, rising over 40ft from its base to adorn the side of Kibo. The colours of the glacier are spectacular, rich hues of blue, white and green that sparkle in the morning sun. And still we pushed on. Within 100m of Uhuru summit, now surrounded by exhausted climbers, Muneeza broke down and collapsed on the floor. The mental demands of the climb got to her and she said she could not go on. Now it was my turn to lend a supportive hand, ironic given my physical state, and I told her she could do it. With a remarkable turn of strength, she got up and hobbled the last few yards with me. When Jimi took our picture at the summit signpost we were both too blown emotionally to speak. You don’t need words when you have gone through that experience together.

Our time at the summit was brief as we were encouraged by Jimi to get down quickly before exhaustion and altitude took over. On the way back to Gillman’s Point my dizziness hit home and my legs finally gave way. I collapsed and nearly slipped down the ridge which would have been a painful and dangerous fall. Luckily Rahim was watching me closely and caught my arm. I couldn’t get back up and had to be walked by Rahim and Jimi for 30mins back to Gillman’s Point. I pointed out to Jimi that the problem was lack of blood sugar and tiredness so he gave me some glucose powder. I wolfed down drink and biscuits and then decided we had to get down quickly before my legs went again.

The first part of the descent is demanding, straight down 300m of sheer rock face. I had to keep my wits about me whilst also worrying how Muneeza was coping. After the rocks came 600m of loose scree that required you to sky down using your legs and backside. It was steep and my legs were again giving way. At the bottom of the scree, as the path started to level out, I collapsed again. One more I was helped and carried for another 30mins until we were in sight of Kibo hut.

From there onwards I struggled back, barely able to stand. We reached the hut physically and mentally exhausted. We collapsed for 1hr to get some rest before we had to make the 4hr walk back to Horombo hut where we would stop for the night. After 11hrs of climbing, having to walk a further 11km is torture. We got back to Horombo in silence and were elated to use our portable shower to be clean for the first time in 3 days. After dinner we collapsed and passed out into blissful oblivion.

Day 6 – Back to Marangu gate

Finally we had slept well. We passed out instantly at managed to get 8hrs sleep ready for the final descent.

Before we set off we asked Jimi to gather our team of porters so we could thank them personally. You only meet a few en route and we wanted them all to know how grateful we were for their support and incredible hard work. We gave a genuine, heart felt speech and said our farewells and set off on the last stage of our epic adventure.

Muneeza really struggled the entire way down thanks to her bad knee. She was in agony but struggled on, even with a few bouts of grumpiness! When we reached Mandara hut, nearly 2 hrs later than planned, Jimi arranged with the ranger for the rescue vehicle to meet us to drive Muneeza back to the main gate. After another hour we were picked up and driven the last 500m of descent – it couldn’t have come soon enough for my darling who was in serious pain.

We were met at the gate by the Akaro Tours manager and taken back to the office in Moshi with Jimi and our porters. The final action of the day saw us tipping the crew and thanking them for all their effort and helping us to realise our dream of climbing Kili and reaching the summit – these guys are awesome and deserve every penny of their tips, the work they do is exhausting and hard. We got back to the hotel and enjoyed a long dinner with an Irish dude who had just finished his climb on a different route, then slipped into deep sleep.

Musings on the roof of Africa

It is difficult to describe an experience like that in words. We have run through so many contrasting emotions in the past 6 days but overall we both feel elated. There are certain things that you do together in a relationship that bring you irreversibly closer, and this is one of them. I have learned just how much mental strength Muneeza has when she wants to – it is quite incredible what she has just achieved and I respect her immensely. Watching my fiancee crouch behind a rock at 4,700m with her she-wee will be forever etched in my memory.

We hope you enjoyed reading about our climb.

love james & muneeza x

We made a not so swift exit from Mozambique, taking a painfully slow chiappas bus from Ilha back to Nampula. We had planned to take a private taxi, already arranged with one of the chaps who worked at our hostel on the island. Unsurprisingly he wasn’t on time and given the unreliable nature of transport, we opted for the safe option and took the first available bus. My bus anger raised its ugly head (4hrs to go 120km) but calm was restored when we checked into the hotel in Nampula and found a super king-size bed awaiting! We rose early the next morning and headed straight to the airport to pick up the flight to Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.

The flight to Dar took less than 2 hours and the scenery was amazing, again. We flew up the Mozambique coast, endless deep blue lagoons and beautiful beaches. We landed ahead of time (incredible for African travel!) and took a taxi to our overnight stopover, Econolodge. What a choice – a sweaty, run down dive run by Indians (lots of Indians in East Africa in a large part due to colonial days) that sat at the crossroads of one of the most hectic parts of downtown Dar. Hustle, bustle and heat.

We had a few hours to kill so decided to go on patrol. We wanted to change the leftover Mozambique money and found a street tout offering a reasonable rate. We had to head back to the hotel to pick up the notes, so got back to the place just before dark.

Now this is where the naivety kicked in and looking back, I can’t believe how stupid I was. The tout (bear in mind this is quite a common thing in border towns and major cities with people on the street doing quick money exchanges) asked for the money and said he’d be back with the Tanzanian notes. He left us with his colleague so I stupidly thought it was kosher. He then reappeared at the corner and his colleague told us to go and get our money. As soon as walked over, the tout ran away and as we turned round, his colleague disappeared down an alley. Mr Naive stood nursing his wounded pride. Luckily we lost less than $30 but I was livid at having been stupid enough to trust someone I didn’t know – at least it has given me a wake up call.

To help me get over the grump, we went to a tasty looking restaurant called Garden City that we had seen on our walk. We ordered our own bodies’ weight in food and then reeled in horror when we tasted how bad it was. To make matters worse, our waiter had an inferiority complex and kept mocking how I pronounced the dish names (all in Swahili) – he even corrected Muneeza on how to say “biriani” which made us laugh. We left without finishing and needless to say, we didn’t tip.

We woke early again on Sunday morning and took a taxi to the bus station to catch the 07.30 Dar Express to Moshi, our base for the Kili trip. The bus was ok with basic air con and the crew were friendly. After 9 painful hours driving at full tilt over speed bumps (Tanzania has more of these than anywhere else we have ever been), we arrived in cloud soaked Moshi. The manager of Akaro Tours, the company we booked our Kili trek with, was waiting and whisked us to Buffalo hotel. Although the hotel had seen better days we crashed after a surprisingly good Indian meal and got some much needed shut-eye before the big day, the start of the climb.

Our next blog goes into more detail about Kili so stay awake!

Take care

love james & muneeza

On Tuesday 26th October we skipped merrily to the aiport knowing we had avoided 2 days of bus and train challenges. A few hours later we were gripping the handrests with sweaty palms as the plane buffeted through what the pilot described as “light to medium turbulence”. Both myself and Muneeza are nervous flyers when it comes to choppy wind (oh er!) so we were delighted when the plane touched cloth and we were once more on terra firma.

We met a friendly French dude at the aiport who was heading to Pemba and needed to hit the central bus station like us. As he spoke good Portuguese he saved us from being stung for an expensive cab ride, so we returned the favour and let him jump in for free. We managed to find a chiappas bus to Ilha de Mocambique within seconds of getting to the station but this is when it all turned sour. The bus was rammed and still they crammed us in. We had to sit right at the front, Muneeza squashed between Big Mama and even bigger Papa. I had to perch on pathetic cushions behind the driver’s seat that apparently constituted a seat. My legs were jammed between the people facing me on the real seats. And still they packed more people in. After 20mins we departed and within 10 more I couldn’t feel my right leg. Now, I have a healthy paranoia about DVT and was convinced that 2.5hrs sat like that would kill me. My only option was to stand. So for what turned out to be an elongated 3.5hrs (thanks to officious police stops – officials here love to take their time, oblivious to the discomfort of passengers) I had to stand in a semi arched position with my feet rooted in one place and my head and neck twisted to cope with the curved roof. Needless to say we arrived at Ilha de Mocambique with me spitting bricks.

Unfortunately, due to the delay, we arrived after the last light of day had seeped away over the horizon so couldn’t explore the town. We headed straight to our hospedaje, Escondinho, that had been recommended by the French dude. It turned out to be a great recommendation – the rooms were big, we had a really cool external private bathroom and there was a large pool. The building is a classic old Portuguese colonial structure with a large open interior courtyard surrounded by terracing, in which now sits the pool. We were too worn out to explore so settled in to the restaurant at Escondinho and were pleasantly surprised to discover the food was delicious. I tucked in to the best tuna steak I’ve ever tasted and though at $8 it is more expensive than most local restaurants, the quality was worth paying for.

We spent the most of the next morning dozing in the humid heat. We then explored the old stone town. The island is roughly divided into two parts; the macuti (reed) town dominates the southern part where families live in basic mud & reed houses, crammed in below street level, and the old stone town lies to the north where the heart of the Portuguese East Africa capital once lived. Conditions range from basic to desperate (crumbling, leaning walls). Amongst this poverty you discover the occasional modern gleaming building where someone who has money has restored the property and lives in comfort.

Surrounding this ramshackle town is pristine Indian Ocean. The sea is clean, the sky clear blue and fisherman stretch out as far as the horizon in small wooden canoes. Looking out to see and then gazing back on the crumbling, broken town, you can imagine the splendour that this island once offered and just how incredible a place it would have been to live at the prime of Portuguese rule. You then rue the impact that the swift exit of the Portuguese in the aftermath of independence has had on the infrastructure and the people.

We have had 2 days on this island and, as with most of Africa, my experience is divided. On the one hand I love ambling along aimlessly, relaxing to the gentle rhythm of the Mozambique locals. In this heat you have to go slowly. Strolling through broken ruins, then stumbling across groups of children playing with a distant echo of the Green Mosque calling people to prayer can be incredibly evocative and calming. However, the fact that this place has such incredible poverty and lack of options also serves to slightly unsettle you and give a sense of the macabre. The old colonial buildings would have been incredible at their prime but they sit empty and forlorn. It just feels that the island has been left to its own devices and there is no plan or purpose. Perhaps it is not a priority for the Government to repair and restore but it is sad that something so beautiful could be left to fall apart like a house of cards. If this island was a song it would be Bittersweet Symphony.

So as our time on Ilha de Mocambique draws to an end and we retire to the veranda to sup on a cocktail as the colonial Portuguese would have, we prepare oursleves for the next challenge which is the 6 day climb of the mighty Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. We leave tomorrow, Friday 29th, for Nampula and then take a flight to Dar es Salaam on the 30th. Our climb starts in Moshi on November 1st. We’ll be 6 days without Internet and 6 days in a mental and physical battle to make it to the top and respect the mountain as we climb.

Take care, catch you on the flip side.

love james & muneeza x