Saturday, 30 April 2011

The “Endless Plains”

Back in real life when I went to an office every day and had a regular source of income, I decided to treat myself to Balloon Safari in the Serengeti.  This turned out to be an excellent decision despite the 4.45am start.  Team Canada (Marie, Maria & Pooja) and I were picked up in the early hours to be driven to the balloon launch site, collecting the pilots from their lodge on the way.  I had never been in a balloon before and so it seemed very extravagant to be doing so for the first time in the Serengeti.

There were sixteen people in our balloon and we had to all climb into our two person pods while the basket was on its side.  This seemed a little bizarre (imagine lying on the floor with your legs up on the sofa) but in reality provided an amazing view of the balloon being inflated.  Once the inflation was complete, the basket gently rolled over into an upright position.  And we were off.  We stayed very low at the beginning but gradually climbed higher depending on the wind conditions.  Our ride was just over an hour and whilst we didn’t see any cats, we had an amazing aerial view of a large herd of buffalo moving across the plains as well as two separate families of elephants running.

After a very smooth landing, we enjoyed some bubbles before being driven to a nice spot where a five star bush breakfast awaited us with proper coffee, more bubbles and mango juice.  We enjoyed lots of fresh fruit followed by an English fry up!  We were particularly delighted with the luxurious hand washing set up with clean towels for drying rather than the usual shake.  As we were feeling cheeky and it was Hugh’s 25th birthday the following day, I negotiated to take an extra bottle of bubbles away with us, hamming up the camping angle of our trip.

We had many great sightings during our two days in the Serengeti:  beautiful brightly coloured birds, elephants drinking, an old elephant with tusks down to the floor, necking giraffes, elephants play fighting, hippos yawning and lions sleeping and basking in the sun.  I particularly enjoyed hanging out of the top of the jeep as we drove along.  As Jésus had given me a quick lesson in how to use my camera more effectively (use manual AV/TV and play with the ISO setting), my pictures from these game drives should be much sharper.  I can really tell the difference when looking at my shots of our leopard.

We had spent a lot of time looking for a leopard and our best hope was to see one sleeping in a tree.  Having had a distant view of one, we had technically completed the big five but were still hoping for a closer view.  All of a sudden we were given a tip off. We sped off and soon came to some other jeeps.  As our jeep driver Simon skilfully manoeuvred us into the middle of the other jeeps to improve our view, the leopard decided to come and walk around the jeeps (windows closed, hands inside!).  Suddenly she was sat underneath our jeep and we had to keep very still and quiet.  This is a once in a lifetime experience (our guide could hardly believe it).  She stayed underneath the jeep for a few minutes and then continued her stroll around the other jeeps before retiring to mark her territory under a tree and climb it.

My favourites are still the zebras (beautiful), the giraffes (so graceful and so funny when they chew) and the lions but in terms of performance for the crowd, the leopard really stole the show.

Camping in Africa

Camping in Africa is a unique experience.  There is a common saying around here: TIA – “This is Africa”.  Expectation is everything and that is often the key to the enjoyment of a particular campsite.  If you are not expecting a shower and there is one, suddenly, it’s a fab campsite.  If you were expecting hot showers and flushing toilets but if there is no water, the campsite plummets in the popularity stakes even if it has the best bar.  Patience is a critical virtue.

The purpose of overlanding is to travel great distances through countries and regions and allow you to traverse areas that are normally difficult to reach.  Everything is stored on the truck (don’t upset the driver by calling it a bus…) and so it becomes your home from home.  Our truck has a tour leader, driver and cook.  Many of the cheaper overlanding trips skip out the cook and rely on the passengers but I highly recommend having a cook as your meals will end up far more interesting and varied.  I’m not sure your fellow passengers are going to get up early to make you pancakes or eggs to order.

Hygiene is of big concern in this part of the world and so very strict rules are in place in regards to food and its preparation.  A three bowl washing system is in place for hands – dettol soap wash, dettol rinse followed by normal rinse.  The washing of dishes also goes through a similar process and ends with a boil rinse which requires the use of tongs to protect the hands.  “Tonging” is one of my favourite jobs.  For me it ranks above “flapping” – the art of shaking dishes to dry them.  Although, if planned correctly “flapping” can include a full upper body work out.  Don’t forget to bring plenty of hand moisturiser.

With an $8 pp per day budget for food, the cook (Emmanuel for the first two weeks and now Simon) requires ingenuity.  Our favourites have been the many avocado salads for lunch, the African goat stew and the regular fresh passion fruit and pineapple for dessert.  The cook uses local markets and supermarkets as we travel along.  We are hoping to take over the kitchen for a day in Malawi or Zimbabwe and go shopping and put together a feast of our own.

The tents on this trip are unexpectedly large (a pleasant surprise).  As they are all two man tents, one of the most important decisions for the solo traveller to make is that of a tent companion.  Helen and I made a beeline for each after the introductory meeting – we both recognised that we were the sanest solo travellers on the trip.  This partnership is proving to be a great success. We have a hitting policy in place for snoring and, excluding week one’s 53 year old Taiwanese lady, are the fastest at getting our tent up and down.  Our tent is also the best equipped with double layer mattresses, bug spray and air freshener.

The best campsites have warm showers, sit down toilets and a bar with wireless internet.  Preferably we also arrive before dark and can shower without battling the mosquitoes.  As much as it sometimes feels irritating to be constantly putting the tents up and down, I have had my best sleeps in the familiarity of the tent rather than some of the basic hotels.  That would exclude the beach bungalow in Zanzibar as Helen and I appeared to have been upgraded – yippee!

Camping is a great way to reduce one’s alcohol intake.  You have to consider whether or not you fancy a middle of the night excursion or two… bad enough on your average campsite but a little more concerning when you are camping in hippo territory, or in the middle of the Serengeti…, or on the one night in every couple of months when the river flies come out to play.

One aspect where I do not excel is hand washing clothes.  However, I have seen the future and it is not garlic bread – it is laundry service!  There are often locals who will happily do your washing for a few bob and this saves spending your free afternoon elbow deep in dirty clothes.

All in all, camping in Africa requires a sense of humour, patience and willingness to adapt and get involved.  You can also make life easier for yourself by buying the crew a round of drinks every couple of days.  Goodwill goes a long way… all the way in fact, to a beach bungalow.

Tuesday, 12 April 2011

Mzungu in the Mist

One of the main highlights of the first section of “Africa Encompassed” is tracking the gorillas in the Volcano National Park.  Over the last week, we have been gradually making our way through Kenya and Uganda into Rwanda.

Mountain gorillas live in both Uganda and Rwanda but for a variety of reasons, it is felt that Rwanda is the better location, not least because you are not required to trek through the Bwindi “Impenetrable” Forest.

There is much written about tracking the gorillas and it all leads you to believe that it will be an arduous journey climbing through the dense, humid forest on your hands and knees with hazards at every turn.  As such, much preparation is needed: as much skin covered as possible and double layering to prevent the spiky needles from making an impact on your arms and legs.

The experience begins at the visitor centre where you can enjoy delicious Rwandan tea and coffee.  As you will only have bush toilets for the next 4-5 hours however, you should consume this in moderation.  After a briefing from your guide (ours was Oliver), you set off to your chosen group of gorillas.  Only eight people a day may track each set of gorillas and there are currently eight groups living in the forest.  The permits come in at a hefty $500 pp for non-residents but as we discovered, it was worth every penny.  We were allocated to the Sabyinyo group and so we set off in a rather crowded jeep to get to the starting point for our tracking.

This is a very professional operation.  In addition to our main guide, two experienced gorilla trackers had already been out since sunrise tracking the gorillas to help us aim for the right spot.  Each day these trackers follow the gorillas from sunrise to sunset when the gorillas go to bed.  As they will never move more than about 40 minutes away from where they slept the previous night, the trackers know where to start their task each morning.  Once they find the gorillas again, the radio through to the guide so that he can adjust the trekking path as necessary.  We also employed the services of a local porter to carry our non-essentials (food, waterproofs, suntan cream etc..) and his machete proved to be very useful in helping to clear our path through dense areas of forest. He will also be there to give you a shove if you are struggling to get up a tricky bit of the climb!  And last but not least, at the front and back of the group, there is man with an AK47… apparently to fire into the sky to scare away any aggressive forest elephants or buffalo but if you look on a map you’ll see just how close we were to Congo and so I think you can draw your own conclusions as we did.

The planned outfit worked a treat and I returned bite and sting free: thermal leggings, walking trousers, thick walking socks (trousers tucked in), long sleeve t-shirt, long sleeved shirt, neck scarf, thin skiing gloves (gardening gloves in the porter rucksack as a back up!) and cap.  You are given a walking stick to assist your progress and this proved essential.  The tracking started at an altitude of 2,400m (we reached about 2,600m) and depending on where the gorillas are hanging out, it can take you anywhere between 30 mins and a few hours to reach them.  In our case it took about 1 ½ hours of enjoyable walking through a mixture of open fields and light and dense bamboo forest.  We were walking in the footsteps of forest elephants and buffalo and some of the earth was fairly wet and churned up (it is rainy season here in Rwanda).  I’d like you to think that I was gazelle like in my ascent and descent through the forest but overconfidence and a more hippo-like walking style resulted in some very mucky boots!

Finding the gorillas was a very special moment.  You leave everything apart from your camera 100m away with the porters and AK47 men and pay very close attention to the guide’s instructions.  The gorillas are generally very relaxed in the presence of humans but the ideal scenario is to remain at least 7m away.  The guide and one of the trackers kept us all together as a group and were alert to the arrival /movement of any particular gorilla.  The Sabyinyo group contains 12 members including a three week old baby.  There was a slightly scary moment early on when the main Silverback ran across the guide but we were assured that he was just playing Oliver has been tracking the gorillas for twelve years so they are firm friends.

We moved up and down through the forest and watched these beautiful creatures at incredibly close range.  A 7m distance isn’t necessarily possible in dense forest especially when the gorillas decide to move and come closer!  We generally watched one gorilla at a time but also saw a couple of mothers with their young babies.  All the gorillas were busy feeding themselves from the vegetation in addition to general lounging around and much bottom scratching.  It is worth noting that many of these gorillas do seem to be playing to their audience – lying down on their sides with their backsides to you or lying on their backs eating and covering their faces.  For the last ten minutes, we were with Silverback no 2 who was eating away just 2m in front of us.  It seemed as though our guide had communicated with him (lots of funny grunting) and and so he humoured us whilst focussing on the important task of leaf eating.

When around the gorillas there are strict rules about no eating, drinking or bush toilet trips and absolutely no flash photography.  As such, when tracking the gorillas in dense forest (some groups can be found in open fields), photography can be tricky.  Quite a few blurry photos had to be deleted but the dappled sunshine was kind at times and some wonderful shots taken.  You have to be careful at any rate that you don’t spend all your time viewing the gorillas through the lens of a camera but take the time to just watch and enjoy.  Whilst the photos can be challenging, the very clear advantage of the forest is just how close you can be.  In an open field, the 7m rule will always apply.  Oliver always kept us in a tight group and when a gorilla decided it was time to move on or approach, we were kept away to ensure our and the gorilla’s safety.  If Oliver was relaxed then so was I.  I even trusted him when a gorilla was moving around above my head in a nest in a tree!

In the end, the trekking was not arduous but very enjoyable.   The layering was necessary but we were very lucky with the weather and had no downpours.  What a privilege to interact so closely with these fabulous animals.  I'll add some photos once I have a stronger WiFi connection.

Saturday, 2 April 2011

Africa Encompassed

If you're not sure where I'll be over the next couple of months, this is the link to check:

The trip runs something like this:
Start in Kenya, into Uganda,Rwanda (gorillas), back to Kenya, to Tanzania, out to Zanzibar, down Lake Malawi, through the Tete Corridor in Northern Mozambique into Zimbabwe, into Botswana, Namibia and finally arriving Cape Town on the 31st May. Phew!

The truck will look something like this, blending right in, ha ha:

I doubt I will have regular access to WiFi (!) but you can keep texting my UK mobile as phone coverage should be widespread.

Rooney scores again

There were two slightly concerning aspects to my journey from Amman to Nairobi: Egyptair only had 1 hour to get my luggage from one aircraft to another and I had booked an airport pickup via my agent in London for my 3.45am arrival into Nairobi.  Egyptair did me proud on the luggage front but alas there was no driver to meet me at the airport.

A nice taxi driver called Patrick spotted me and asked if I needed help.  I explained that I was to be met but when his passenger didn't appear, he came over again.  Kindly he rang my hotel for me and after putting me onto the lady at the hotel, she told me that they had no record of an airport transfer but that Patrick worked for a reputable taxi company and that I should travel there with him.  Patrick was very impressed with my surname - he had a Rooney 10 shirt hanging in the front of his car.  Despite being a Man Utd supporter, he was a big Steven Gerrard fan and so again, football smoothed my passage.  The English Premier League is like an additional religion in this part of the world.

A ventured tentatively into Nairobi during the day to visit the bank.  Arriving from the very safe Middle East (in the sense that street crime/theft is largely unheard of), I was overly aware of the need to be far more alert.  I felt relieved to make it back to the hotel with all my errands achieved and rewarded myself with a swim in the pool.  I started chatting to a couple of American/Canadian girls and arranged to go out again with them later on. We had planned to visit a market but by the time we left it was too late and so we decided to walk into town and promised the hotel staff that we would take a taxi back!  It would be silly to be wandering the streets here after dark.

As the girls live in dry Kuwait, we chose a restaurant with a balcony to enjoy an early evening beer.  Searching for bottles of water, we heard some lively music coming from upstairs and decided to pop our heads into "Steak 'n Ale".  Turns out that we had stumbled into the locals Friday after-work drinks pub!  The waiter sat us at a table with a gentleman who was waiting for someone.  He didn't seem overly impressed and we wondered if he was waiting for a date which we were about to ruin...  In the end he wife arrived and was absolutely charming!

Am having a quiet day at the hotel today, catching up with sleep and trying to organise my photos and get them online.  I'll be meeting my fellow travellers later this afternoon and heading off on the "truck" tomorrow morning.

A month in the Middle East

After a month in the Middle East, that Monday morning Eurostar seems life a lifetime ago.  The journeys seemed to provide many of the talking points, but the destinations were also impressive.

I fell in love with Syria very quickly.  With Jordan it took a little longer, but by the end I was mentally plotting future trips.  In both countries the common phrases to be heard were simply "You are welcome", "Welcome", "Welcome to Syria/Jordan".  Unlike Marrakech or Istanbul, there was no hard sell to follow up the welcome.  Whilst visiting the sites is important, it is your interactions with people (both local and fellow travellers) which make or break the trip and encourage you to come back for more.

So, which country would I recommend and why?  Both for different reasons.  Syria still feels as though it is many years away from mass tourism and so you can enjoy a less organised experience and luxuriate in having entire sites to yourself (just avoid Fridays!).  There is no sense in ticking off boxes and you can travel around by the efficient local transport or by hiring reasonably priced drivers (they know the best places to eat!).  When wandering the souk you will get more kudos for being an individual traveller than as part of a group.  I'm not really sure why exactly but a couple of theories would be a) money is more widely distributed when people control their own spending, or b) you must feel that you are safe and can trust the people if you are willing to travel there alone.  You can eat wonderfully well either from stalls in the road (shwarma, felafel, baklava filled croissants...) or by enjoying delicious mezze and meat in the exceptionally cheap restaurants.  The fresh mint and lemon drink is incredibly refreshing and "shai" to be enjoyed as often as possible.  Obviously the political situation in Syria has changed since I left so maybe this is a trip best saved for next year :-)

Jordan, with no major natural resources, has staked a lot on tourism and is suffering greatly due to the troubles in the region.  Organisations such as the RSCN are working hard to build sustainable tourism in Jordan and protect their nature and history for generations to come.  Their endeavours are well worth supporting.  Petra, whilst very busy, lives up to the hype and there are trails you can do to get away from the big tour groups.  The 4 day hike arriving into Petra from behind the monastery (see Dana post) would be how I would wish to arrive in any future visit.  For a different type of trip, focussing on the national reserves will provide a unique holiday - a paradise for hikers, photographers and nature enthusiasts!

Jordan is a small country to navigate and whilst most people I met travelling in Syria were using the local transport network, everyone in Jordan had hired cars.  Providing you drive during daytime hours and are not too attached to lane markings, then this seemed like a very practical way to travel around.  I wouldn't have swapped my bus journey for a car though :-)

As a solo female traveller, I was baffling to many but welcomed nevertheless.  Only one marriage invitation and sadly no camels offered.  Maybe I should have explored the offer further and I could have written "Married off on the bus" to compete with "Married to a Bedouin".

If you need help with an itinerary for either country, just let me know :-)