Sandbags to Sand Dunes Expedition 2010

40,000km overland in an Land Rover

The final approach to Cape Town

Posted by jamesandpolls on October 26, 2010

From the town of Upington just over the border from Namibia, we drove for two long days across the Karoo of central SA through Middleberg (where we camped in a garage!), Umtata (where we sadly hit a sheep) and finally to Port St. Johns on the Wild Coast which would mark our most Easterly point on the coast and also our starting point for our final approach to Cape Town.

Port St Johns- Wild Coast

Coming down into Port St Johns was quite a drive as we went from the high grasslands of the Karoo to the hot and humid coastline. The grassland was replaced by palm trees, jungle and white sandy beaches, true paradise and a welcome relief from being in the desert for a month. The Wild Coast is the old Transkei, formally a semi autonomous region of the apartheid government and home to the Xhosa. The Transkei was also the homeland of Mandela, Mbeki and the ANC movement. It sits in the Eastern Cape, the poorest region in South Africa and indeed there was little difference between here and some areas of Zambia and Malawi. Small round Xhosa huts sit independently or in small groups on the grassy hillsides painted different colours (mainly blue and pink). It is interesting to note that of all the countries we have been to this is the only place where the idea of a village (ie houses close together with farmland around the village) has not been adopted.

Round Xhosa house dotting the transkei

This is a part of South Africa that the majority of foreign visitors do not see. People say it is the last part of South Africa which is ‘true Africa’, but we hadn’t yet ventured into ‘modern Africa’. The whole coastline has amazing beaches with warm Indian Ocean water, steep cliffs and ocean vista that is never without a pod of dolphins or a school of whales!

We stayed in Port St Johns in a backpacker lodge and enjoyed the slightly different crowd from our usual Afrikaaner camping fellows. The small beach by the lodge had 30% of last years global shark fatalities so we decided, along with everyone else, that swimming was a bad idea! After a very relaxing 4 days which included finding ourselves a private beach, meeting a Shaaman and a night of very serious poker (lost) we upped sticks and headed west along the coast.

Garden Route Coast line, Wilderness

Our next stop was Coffee Bay but we turned our noses up at the campsites (we are quite particular now) and instead headed further on to camp In a seafood restaurant’s garden. We had some of the most delicious scampi/calamari and had a great night with some guys who lived in Port Elizabeth and were there for the bank holiday weekend (called Heritage Day but everyone has renamed in Braii day – what a great country to have a day off for BBQing). From here we headed to Chintsa where 18km of white beach and the best campsite of the trip so far kept us well entertained.

Driving inland

This was the end of our Transkei stay as we headed inland to Hogsback. This is a forested and mountainous region that contrasts dramatically with the dry and flat surroundings. It was a great place for hiking and we spent a good few hours exploring the waterfalls and forests, it felt rather like a fairy land and was said to be the inspiration for JR Tolkein to write The Hobbit (he lived nearby and visited often), and we stayed in a place called ‘Away with the fairies’..

Oysters Galore at the Knysna Oyster Company

From Hogsback we drove to Port Elizabeth (renamed the catchy ‘Mandela Bay City Metro’ but to everyone simpy ‘PE’) to stay with the guys we met at Coffee bay. Dale, Roger and Claire looked after us tremendously well for three days. We were not only fed the most delicious sushi, calamari, oysters and Crayfish ever but were given a soft bed with real sheets and a duvet! The first time in months. We also spent a great night in Roger’s pub/club/sushi bar and came away well fed and watered. Thanks to you all!

We have mentioned before in our blog that the hospitality and kindness of South Africans has been amazing. The record so far came as we were driving out of  Port Elizabeth, we heard a beep and a guy in a car pulled up alongside us as we were driving and invited us to stay in his beach house! He said he had done the same trip a few years ago. We didn’t take him up on his offer as we were heading west rather than east, but this was a real example of the open door policy and friendship towards foreigners in this country. Our next stop was Jeffery’s Bay (or J-Bay), the surfer’s paradise. Unfortunately the famous Supertubes wasn’t supertubing so we didn’t get to practice our Hang 10s. We will have to come back. Just along the coast was Cape St Francis which was the location for the surfing film ‘The endless summer’, another beautiful white sand beach with no one on it.

Forecourt drama

Knysna was the next stop where we treated ourselves to a slap-up seafood lunch looking out over the lagoon. In the afternoon we had our first case on the whole trip of Petrol rather than diesel being put into PAX. The poor guy looked suicidal when he realised he had put 30 litres in already. Luckily land Rovers are so simple we could just drain it out of the bottom and start again!

Having had our fill of the beautiful Garden Route we thought we would head inland to the Wine Route. Outshoorn marks the start of Route 62 (the wine route) and we stayed for a few days to explore the local area. Outshoorn was (and still is) the ostrich capital of the world and prospered between 1880 and 1940 where no self-respecting woman in Europe was seen without an ostrich feather in her hair. Now the birds are more used for their meat and leather but some farms are open for tourists to explore. Unfortunately I was too heavy to ride one but Polls managed to hang on like an expert as the bird pranced along at quite a pace!

Cango Caves main chamber

We also visited the Cango Caves, the largest open cave system in the world. They were incredible, our guide even did some Opera singing for us in the main chamber. Some wine tasting beckoned so we left Oudshoorn and went via Calizdorp to Montegu, a beautiful town surrounded vineyards and fruit farms. From here it was a short hop to Robertson which has 15% of SA’s wine growing area. We managed (by chance) to time this perfectly as it was the ‘Wine on the River’ festival which meant three days of tasting delicious Chardonnays, Chablis, Sauvignons and Merlots, not to mention the Cap Classique, the South African version of champagne. We had also been put in touch with a vineyard (Buitehof) owner, Gideon, and his wife Madeleine whom we visited, not wanting to miss a behind the scenes insight into SA wines.

Boat trip at the Wine on the River festival

As is SA hospitality it wasn’t long before we were sipping the 2008 Buitehof Sauvignon and tucking into some delicious local cheese and homemade soup with his parents, the previous owners of the vineyard. We also ended up going out to supper with Gideon and Madaleine and 20 of their local mates – 16 vineyard owners, 2 wine makers, 2 wine exporters and, oddly, the owner of the local Wimpy! A great night. We spent two days at the wine festival (kept extending our stay!) as the weather was amazing. The highlight was a boat trip down the river over lunch with delicious food and Wine courtesy of the Robertson Winery – thank you so much Barry!

Robertson vineyards

It was great weekend with lots of new friends made and some fuzzy heads after one too many tastings. Suitably pickled we left Robertson and headed to Cape Agulhas, South Africa’s most southern point. On the way we stumbled across a great beach at Arniston and spent the Sunday afternoon recovering from the weekends excesses. It was also on this journey that we crossed the 40,000 km mark!

Cape Agulhas beach

From Arniston it was a short afternoon drive to our destination for the night, Cape Agulhas. We went riding on Africa’s most southerly beach – it has white sand and turquoise water. First time on horses since our ride along the Nile, this time we managed to come away with only a bit of stiffness rather than raw bottoms! Although Table Mountain is the end of the trip, Cape Agulhas marks the most southerly tip of Africa. From top to bottom . . . we had done it!

Most Southerly point in Africa!

The point marks the meeting of the Indian Ocean with the Atlantic ocean. The next morning we continued westwards to Hermanus. This modern seaside resort is famous for its whales and it didn’t disappoint. We saw about 10 southern right whales, as close as 20 metres away, breaching and flapping their tales in the water. We also met the whale crier whose job it is to blow a horn made of kelp when whales come into the bay. He is somewhat famous in the area and we spent a very funny five minutes chatting to him (he can talk for Africa!)

Whale tail in Hermanus

From Hermanus it was a short drive to our next campsite near Gordon’s Bay. It was our last night camping in the roof tent, an emotional moment. The night somehow summed up what it was that has made our camping experiences very special, as well as a little bit of good ‘ol African bureaucracy. Firstly, we had to travel 15km from the campsite to the municipal office in the nearby town to book the campsite that involved three different offices and 15 minutes filling my details into a computer. With a 3 page computer printout in hand for our 1 night stay we drove back to the campsite where another receipt was issued. It was all worth it though as we were the only ones in the campsite and we had a 800m long beach all to ourselves just metres from where we were camping.

James on the beach, final night camping near Cape Town

Packing up the roof tent for the last time was a little emotional although I think we are a little bone weary from the 1 inch thick mattress and looking forward to a proper bed in Cape Town. Before that though we had two nights with my godmother in Simonstown, the naval capital of South Africa, which sits south of Cape Town near Cape Point. We had a great time there, catching up with some lovely wine and great food. There was a fair bit of reminiscing about the last time we were here and when we lived here (23 years ago). We also went on a day trip to Cape Point to ‘tick off’ another extreme – the most South Western tip of Africa. Pax attracted quite a lot of attention in the car park and we now appear in Russian, Brazilan and Australian photo albums!

Cape of Good Hope!

With no excuses for delaying the inevitable we had to face up to the fact that our trip was coming to an end as the next day we headed into Cape Town. It was quite an emotional moment as we caught sight of Table Mountain, our final destination, under a beating South African sun. The Cape Peninsula is just beautiful and we are so excited that we are going to be living here. We are now staying in Clifton, between Camps Bay and the City, with a friend of Kate (Jenkins). In what has become typical South African hospitality, Chris has invited us to stay for a month while we find our feet in the city in preparation for next year when we live here.

Today was The End! This morning we climbed Table Mountain. We took up the last bottle of our wedding champagne, which we had bought with us from the UK (nicely shaken). We toasted the 38 weeks on the road and 41,500 kilometres on the clock. We toasted PAX, our trusty steed who has not once let us down throughout and we toasted each other (yes we are still happily married!), for without the fearlessness, fun and sense of adventure there is no way we could have taken on a trip of this magnitude.

The End

On the top of Table mountain with a bottle of very fizzy champers from our wedding..We did it!

–       Well almost . . .we must finish with the obligatory stats list. . .

No. of kms driven:            41,525km (the circumference of the globe is 40,000km).
No. of breakdowns:         0
No. of punctures:              2
Litres of diesel:                 Over  10,000
Lowest Point:                   -415m, Dead Sea, Jordan
Highest Point:                  4315m, Simian Mountains, Ethiopia
Hottest:                               51°C – Sudan/Ethiopia border
Coldest:                               Frickin’ Freezing in Serbia
Longest Drive:                  17 hours (Bosnia to Bulgaria)
Worst border crossing:  Into and out of Eygpt
Favourite Countries:       So many of them for different reasons
Friendliest countries:     Syria and Malawi
Worst Country:               Err. . . the only one we would not return to in a hurry is Ethiopia, but it beautiful and great to have been                                                    there.
No. of times ill:               Polls – 0 James -1 (often reminded of this fact)
Births:                               James – 1 and proud (a maggot, see ‘A lush loop. .’)
Worst Food:                    Deep fried fish from Lake Nasser, Wadi Halfa, N. Sudan.
Best Food:                        All the delicious seafood in Port Elizabeth.
Football conversations: Lost count around 400

And for all those who have no faith in Africa…:

Crime count: 0
Corruption: 0


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Sand, Stars und Strudel

Posted by jamesandpolls on September 18, 2010

The Tsodilo Hills are a lowlying range of three hills rising up out of the very flat landscape of the northern Kalahari desert. We decided they were worth a visit as although very remote, they are one of the world’s oldest historical sites. Man first inhabited the hills 40,000 years ago and started doodling straight away. They contain rock art in over 50 places – mainly animals. The hills are considered very spiritual by the local san tribe, so we took care in not offending the hills/people while we looked at the art and climbed the highest hill (we heard some bad stories!)


We then continued North West up the Okavango pan handle northwards into Namibia. The border was incredibly efficient, easy and empty, the best so far! To say that Namibia is empty would be to exaggerate its population density. The country is (as our guide book helpfully puts it) 1/3 bigger than Britain and Germany put together! If you cant imagine that try 6 times bigger than Britain! Anyway, with only 1.9 million people in it (and half of those in the capital city), days and days would be driven without coming across any type of settlement. Namibia is also unique in Africa due to its German influence. The Germans colonised Namibia for about 30 years in the late 1800’s up until the first world war when the South Africans, after being nudged by the British, invaded and took over the country. It then fell to the South Africans to ‘run’ Namibia (South West Africa) under a League of Nations mandate until independence in 1990. The result of this is an overwhelming German and Afrikaans ex pat community.

2 giraffe doing the splits while drinking - Etosha

After Crossing into Namibia our first destination was Etosha National Park but due to its vastness this took 3 days to get to, driving on some of the straightest roads imaginable. After the long drives it was fun to camp overlooking the Okavango River with Angola on the opposite bank. Another ‘first’ in Namibia is the quality of the campsites. In North Africa we were happy with some ground (flat preferably), in Eastern Africa we sometimes got a loo, some of them even flushable but here we have our own ‘pitch’, braii area, pool, power points and even our own loo and showers . . . en suite camping can you believe it!! (we are getting soft).

We camped just outside Etoshas eastern gate to ensure we were up early to get the best of the animals (they tend to feed in the morning / evening and the light is better for photos), and the next day, as planned we headed in. Etosha NP is a huge salt pan with a grassy fringe but what makes the game viewing so good here is the waterholes where the animals are forced to come to drink. We spent the next two days driving from one waterhole to another (the park is 4 hours driving across – huge) seeing the best game of the trip so far.

Baby elephants playing by a waterhole - Etosha

Particular highlights were a herd of 60 elephants at one waterhole, playing, drinking and fighting. Two prides of lions, one of them at a waterhole eating a springbok whilst the rest of the springbok herd watched on nervously contemplating going for a drink, and lastly two hyena eating a kudu in a waterhole before being chased off by a herd of elephants. It was fantastic not only for the variety of game but for the sheer volume. A real highlight of the trip.

From Etosha we drove west on some very corrugated dirt roads towards the skeleton coast and the Atlantic Ocean. This three day drive took us through a petrified forest where trees had been turned to stone over the millennia (170 million years old!) and also through some of the most magical vistas of boulder mountains and grassy plains. Reaching the skeleton coast we had a great feeling of accomplishment.

Made it to the Atlantic! Ship wreck in the background

We left the Indian Ocean in Mozambique nearly three months ago and it was great to see the Ocean once again, although this time much much colder! The coast line, as the name suggests, is pretty barren with rock and sanddunes slipping into a rough Atlantic swell. The tough conditions along the coast catch out many ships captains whose boats are now the rusting hulks that litter the coast line. It was to one such wreck that we chose as our picnic spot – The SS Winston, ran aground in 1946 – it sounded promising. As it turned out the SS Winston was pretty much a rowing boat and even that would be pushing it. A little disappointed we continued until we found another, one so recent it did not feature in our book – a huge fishing trawler which made a better spectacle and backdrop for another lunch of SPAR value chicken curry instant noodles!

Brighton beach - seal style

We continued south down the coast, driving in parts along the beach. The very cold Atlantic wind was a shock for our bodies, we have now fully adapted to the African heat. We stopped off briefly at the Cape Cross seal reserve where 60,000 seals choose to live and enjoyed watching them eating, swimming and fighting (it is mating season so the big males were getting quite testy with each other). Ultimately though, the smell drove us off, and so we continued south down the coast, to Swakopmund, Namibia’s second city. ‘Swakop’ is as German as it sounds with German architecture, German cafes, German cleanliness and German efficiency..yes a bit too German. It threw us totally. It was completely incongruous with its surroundings and felt more like a little Bavarian toy-town than an African town but we loved indulging in some delicious Apfel Strudel mit Chokolada. On the way out of the town we bumped into an old Durhamite who now works for Rio Tinto. In our brief catch up we managed to get him interested in PAX so it now looks like PAX may be making the reverse journey next year when Henry returns to the UK!

Namib desert salt pan - Deadvlei

Namibia, Australia and Chile are the three best star gazing places in the world. The combination of  being in the Southern Hemisphere, having high mountains, clean air, and no light pollution mean that in these locations there is even a considerable shadow at night when there is no moon – just from ambient light from the stars. On this trip we’ve become keen stargazers (quite a relaxing sport lying on your back looking up!) so wanted to go into the Brandenburg Mountains where the air is particularly pure and there are guestfarms with telescopes. As it happened a group of physics college students from Germany where staying in the guest farm we went to so we used their kit and the expert knowledge of their German professor to give us a fascinating hour looking into the heavens. We now have (slightly) more of an idea what we see above us every night.

Sanddunes at Sousesvlei

Coming down from the Mountains back onto the plains of the Namib Desert was awesome as we could just make out in the distance the features of our next destination – sand dunes. Namibia has the tallest sand dunes in the world and we spent a very hot but memorable day climbing some (and enjoying more from ground level!) at Sossusvlei – an oasis in a sea of dunes.

From there we carried on South (getting our second puncture of the trip on the way) to the Fish River Canyon, the worlds second largest canyon. Pictures will never do it justice. It was so deep and huge and multicoloured that your eyes could not focus on it all at once – and we were about the only people there. Just when we thought Namibia couldn’t get anymore breathtaking.

Fish River Canyon

Namibia landscape is amazing – probably the most dramatic desert landscapes of the trip. The mountains, coastline, desert, natural geology and the night sky all add up to a ‘wow’ moment at almost every turn in the road. Mostly it was vast and endless miles of desert, mountains or grassy plains, no people but the highest density of wildlife we have seen so far.

We are writing this from Upington, South Africa, having crossed the border (our last one!) from Namibia yesterday. First impressions are good, Polls got a 90 day visa without a quibble and Upington seems a good spot to stock up etc. .  as it is the most modern town we have been to in Africa so far! We are looking forward to the journey to the Wild Coast before turning west on our final leg along the Garden route to Cape Town. But with 4 weeks until we are due to be in CT, there is plenty more to come!

Gemsbok infront of Namib desert, South Namibia

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Okavango Adventures

Posted by jamesandpolls on August 25, 2010

Before leaving Livingstone we picked up a serviced and much improved PAX from the garage. With new tyres, a new windscreen wiper, a new air filter, new brakes, new bushes, new engine oil and with the engine purring we drove the 5 km to the mighty Vic Falls. Armed with rain macs that had not been used since Syria we walked along the escarpment just below the falls. They lived up to expectations – huge, beautiful and very powerful.

Vic falls

The falls were discovered and named by Dr Livingstone (obviously the locals knew it) after the Queen of the time. They are a kilometre wide and sit in the Zambezi, thus separating Zambia from Zimbabwe. After the rains the depth of water at the lip is 5m high for the whole kilometre which is pretty staggering!

Vic Falls is now an adrenaline junkies paradise with all sorts of death defying attractions. Although James toyed with the bungee jumping idea, the extent of our craziness was walking along the cliffs overlooking the falls and getting drenched by the spray.

Looking down to the 'boiling pot'

From Vic Falls, a quick 60km tar road took us to the Botswana border. The Zambezi river marks the border. Namibia, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Botswana all converge here so you can imagine the chaos. Luckily we arrived a few minutes before a stampede so managed to get the car and us stamped out and our barge ticket bought before a huge influx of people log-jammed the customs office for who knows how long. Our luck lasted as we squeezed ourselves onto the next barge (can only hold 1 car and 1 truck) to cross over. It only took 5 minutes to cross the fast flowing river during which time we spent most of our time talking to a local guy who was evidently so drunk that he could hardly stand. We were slightly worried when he started unfastening one of the ramp chains – it turned out he was working on the boat. Full marks to him for even seeing the ramp!

Botswana is one of the most stable and successful countries in Africa. It was never a colony (a protectorate of UK), it is formed of one main tribal group, the Tswana and everyone speaks the same language. The presence of the largest diamond reserves in the world doesn’t hurt and the economy has done very well. It has never been to war, elections are democratic and education is virtually free (to top it off the current President spent a year at Sandhurst!). This relative prosperity and stability could be seen straight away. Customs was a clean and efficient office and as the currency is allowed to fluctuate as dictated by market forces their were no money changes, on top of this when we left customs it was on smooth tarmac rather than the bumpy/potholed variety.

A sausage BBQ at the check point!

After stocking up in Kazangula, the border town and staying a night on the river we headed down towards the Makhadihadi Pans, which would took further two days to get to. As beef is Botswana’s second largest export they are very careful about foot and mouth disease and so have erected huge vet fences around the country to control the movement of animals and meat products. At the first of these gates our fridge was checked by a very austere looking guy who said that our sausages were illegal and we could not take them through the vet fence. There was no budging but there was no way we were going to throw them away, (meat is a treat for us!) so we pulled over, got the BBQ out and cooked them – a sight that others in the queue enjoyed and had obviously seen before from virgin Botswana overlanders!

The pans were a shallow lake but after the lake evaporated thousands of years ago they left hard baked salt flats for us to enjoy (Top Gear fans may remember the episode when they crossed these pans with the Stig following up in a beetle). We bush camped for three nights on the pans, and for three days probably saw less than 5 people. Those nights were spent surrounded by either crazy shaped baobabs or a flat white lunar surface.

On the Pans

As the moon was new we also had the most incredible array of stars. It was magical and slightly strange to be so isolated. The pictures can’t really do it justice (when can they?). Driving on the flats was also great fun. As fast as you want in any direction you like . . . what could be better! Water was our limiting factor and after 4 days away from any water we were driven to a chance find called Planet Baobab, a campsite and lodge just north of the pans. You would not be disappointed to end up here on your honeymoon with its huge pool and very cool bar and our supposed one night turned into three quite quickly as we washed off the grime and salt of the last few days.  It was also here that we found out that we are going to be in Cape Town next year as I have been accepted onto the MBA programme at UCT. Cause for more celebration and another night at Planet Baobab.

Sunset on the the edge of the Pans

So well rested and restored we headed from there to Maun where we were to stay with Kirsty and Grant (although Kirsty is in the UK at the moment  . .  so just Grant). A real treat to have a bed and great company, braiis and local knowledge (at last we have found some gas with which to cook, we have spent the last two months cooking everything by charcoal, thus even a cup of tea in the morning takes and hour for the charcoal to heat up and the water to boil!) Maun is the launch pad for safaris into the Okovango Delta – one of the wonders of southern Africa. The delta is formed by the Kovango River which starts in Angola. Instead of flowing west to the Atlantic the river heads south east and ends up in the low lying area of north west Botswana, where it slowly sinks into the earth. This year the rains were so great in Angola that the river is at its highest for over 40 years.

The delta is safari at its most exclusive and remote. Our plan was to drive into the national park (much of it private land for the lodges) and try and see as much as we could but after talking to a few locals with expert knowledge we realised that we would probably spend as much time winching ourselves out of the mud as we would sightseeing and game watching, all thanks to the unusually high river. Instead we decided to spend two nights in a canoe on the delta, a decision which turned out to be a great one. After a 50 minute James Bond style speed boat ride through the river channels we reached the canoe outstation.

On the Mokoro!

The canoe (or mokoro) is about 15 feet long and a foot wide so it was quite a squeeze once we had got our camping gear and food and water in. Jeeby was our guide and poler, who would be punting us, Venice style, for the next two days. After a three-hour pole through narrow delta channels with long grasses either side we reached our camping spot, about 100m from where we had been watching a huge elephant from the boat! It was on the edge of a small island, which had the big 5. Within about 5 minutes of setting up camp a big snake slithered a few metres from the tent.. we really were at the mercy of wild creatures here, just us and the animals – no gun or anything! We made a fire to keep any curious animals away from our tents before getting back in the mokoro for a sunset trip to the hippo hangout. Watching an elephant shaking a palm tree with its trunk to get the coconuts as the sun went down was a highlight. We definitely felt more ‘at one’ with the flora and fauna and more vulnerable in our tiny dugout canoe than a noisy landrover. Either that or the elephants in Botswana really are three times the size as others elsewhere.

Walking Safari (His 'n' hers Safari gear - not cool)

Jeeby had forgotten his tent, so the next morning we were relieved to see that he hadn’t been dragged off by the lions in the night. We went on a morning bush walk feeling vulnerable as we tripped over massive elephant poo and saw huge lion paw prints. Luckily we just saw animals who ran away from us rather than the other way round. The mokoro ride back was just as magical as the way out, and we saw a big python swimming across a channel. Arriving back at the mokoro station covered in spiders from the grasses and mosquito bites we felt that we had experienced the delta in it’s rawest and wildest form – who needs a luxury lodge?!

Arriving back at Grant and Kirsty’s house, as fate would have it, was Heike, the owner of the Kalahari Flying Club and after a beer and some debate we came to an arrangement where we could go flying over the delta – doing it as a flying lesson for me with Polls in the back.

Spot the white knuckles

The flight was amazing. Not only for the aerial view of the delta and the animals below but also for the hour lesson (that has been recorded in my new pilots log book!). Top Gun here I come! Huge thanks to Heike, surely the best instructor in the world, for giving us such a great flight and for giving us such a good deal. The Kalahari Flying Club (KFC) in Maun is a must stop for anyone wanting a scenic flight over the delta.

Unfortunately our week in Maun must come to an end tomorrow. We feel very at home here, not least because of the amazing hospitality from Grant. We can not thank him and Kirsty enough and are only sorry not to have met Kirsty and the boys (we will have to come back for sure). Our next stop is back into the bush. The Tsolido Hills are an ancient spiritual range of low hills towards Namibia where we are going to camp for a few days and explore the hills which host some of the best rock paintings in the world. It will be a shame to leave the comfort of Maun but nice to get back on the road for the final 6 weeks to Cape Town…

View of the Delta from the plane

Posted in Botswana | 1 Comment »

Livingstone Mania

Posted by jamesandpolls on August 9, 2010

Its been a while since the last blog as internet has been either too slow or non existent . . . as a result this one is rather large so pour yourself a glass of wine, settle back and enjoy . . . . where were we, ah yes, Africa!

After crossing into Mozambique we spent about a week hopping from one untouched beach to another, enjoying the last of the ocean breeze before heading into the interior again. Each stop held its own treasures, golden beaches, lovely turquoise sea, and even a hot shower or two! Our last stop was Illa de Mocambique. This small island, about 3km by 800m was the capital of Portuguese Mozambique from the 16th Century until the 1920s when its small size meant that a move to Maputo became the sensible option. The island is about 2km offshore and is joined to the mainland by a rickety one-lane causeway, which made for interesting driving.

The old Portuguese hospital - Ilha de Mozambique

The right of way belonged to the biggest car – the other one having to reverse up to the occasional lay-by. The town is amazing. The once grand Portuguese capital is now fading after many years of neglect (the locals seem happier to stay in the huts at one end of the island). I honestly think not one pot of paint, screw, nut or bolt has been used here in the last four decades. The result is a faded magnificence. It has an African village atmosphere (roadside markets, football in the streets and pots on heads) but a very European feel as well (tree lined avenues, covered streets, pavements!). Strange but it won’t last long. As a UNESCO heritage site and with new transport links investment is sure to arrive soon.

The oldest European building in the southern Hemisphere

We saw evidence of this already – a few houses are being turned into hotels and more are sure to follow. It was great fun just wandering around the town imagining what it might have been like 100 years ago and trying to understand how and why the Mozambiquese have managed to do nothing to the buildings since the Portuguese left. We also visited the church of Santo Antonio, built in the 16th century, which is the oldest European building still standing in the southern hemisphere. Amazing.

The island was a great end to our beach hopping down the coast and marked our most southerly point on the east coast of Africa before we headed west. A short stop over in a Portuguese owned farm just outside Nampula set us up for a mammoth drive to the Malawian border.

Breathtaking scenery - the road to the Malawian border

The road was dirt and the weather increasingly hot. We have still not found all the holes in PAX so when it rains we get wet, when its hot its always a hairdryer and when it’s a dirt track . . . we become covered in dust. Thus it was two very hot and dusty people who rolled into the border town 500km later that day. We found a rather random place to stay in someone’s backyard which provided great amusement for the children of the family – they looked in amazement as we opened the roof tent!

Crossing the border the next day we felt very pleased with ourselves. Mozambique is well known as somewhere where bribes and backhanders are often needed to get through roadblocks, and we had heard some bad stories… but we had not met a single policeman. As the bridge was so new on the Tanzanian / Mozambique border we had not been able to buy any third party insurance so had travelled uninsured across the country – something a roadblock policeman would have been sure to use as leverage to extract a serious bribe!

View from our campsite , inland Northern Mozambique

However… within 20 minutes of being in Malawi we had had three police checkpoints (luckily we had insurance this time) but the last guy got us. . one brake light was not working! After much tutting and saying ‘this is an offence’ the policeman fined us.  We considered offering him one of the ‘Guchi’ watches or ‘Okley’ sunglasses that we had bought just for this situation but it the fine was only 12 dollars that we decided to keep these potential bribes for later on.

Malawi, (aka ‘The warm heart of Africa’) was an ex British colony and like all ex colonies has had its share of slavery, emancipation, liberation, independence, corruption and incompetence but now seems to be on an even keel and making a slow but steady move to democratic success. In Mozambique the living conditions had been as basic as we had seen since Ethiopia, rarely more than mud huts and as we crossed to Malawi there was a noticeable change as brick houses became the norm and even the occasional two-storey building! After stocking up on supplies (except diesel which is $1.50 a litre) we headed up to the Lake which would form our backdrop for the next 10 days as we slowly headed north again up the west ‘coast’ of this lake. Lake Malawi is the third largest in Africa and feels more like a sea as the other side (Mozambique) is rarely in view. Dr. Livingstone circumnavigated the lake on the last of his three forays into the interior whilst trying to find the source of the Nile. He is a local legend somewhat and his legacy lives on in the names of many towns, villages, missions, beer, cigarettes, water, shopping malls etc. . He would be proud!

Kayaking in Cape Maclear - Lake Malawi

We were very much back on the backpackers trail after the relative obscurity and remoteness of Northern Mozambique. In one place we shared a campsite with 5 overland trucks (about 100 people in total, all having separate parties in fancy dress) which was probably the most white faces we have seen in one place since Europe. Our first stop on the lake was Cape Maclear. It was the original travellers mecca in Africa years ago, and you can understand why, it’s a beautiful bay with beach, beach huts and lots of chilling. We managed to hire a canoe for a day and went snorkelling – the freshwater fish are so colourful.  We apologise for putting ANOTHER sun set photo in but this one, the one at the bottom of the blog, is too good not to. Thanks to the two fishermen who, when prompted, went out in their dug out to pose beneath the setting sun in Cape Maclear.

We spent a week driving up the coast of the lake. If not on the road, our days were dominated by swimming and sun bathing, reading, walking around the villages and shopping in the markets. The road up the lakeside was beautiful, passing through huge rubber plantations and forests. Another joy with driving in Malawi is the roadside food. Everywhere else in Africa the roadside fast food mostly consists of very cold, oily and hard samosas but in Malawi they have chicken and chips! These are deep fried in make shift deep fat fryers on the side of the road and made great elevenses. Yum! Another highlight of our trip along the lake was hearing the news of the birth of a new little Bond Girl – Polls’ brother Tim and his wife Anna had little Zoe Kate in Delhi on 19th July, we can’t wait to meet her!

With Janey, Leo and Tom in Lilongwe

After going up as far as Nkhata bay we headed south again to Lilongwe, the capital of Malawi, taking the inland road. Lilongwe feels like a regular small sub-Saharan African town rather than a sprawling capital city, but it had a Shoprite (big SA supermarket that is found in major cities all over Africa) so we could stock up on supplies. Just as we were leaving our campsite we gave a business card to Janey the owner – she then raced up after us and said that her maiden name was Townsend-Rose! It turns out that she is my second cousin, we had only met a few times before but hadn’t recognised each other! Her and her husband had bought the backpackers two years ago and had just had a son called Leo, a new family member!!

Our memories of Malawi will be dominated by the friendliness of the locals and the fun we had with other travellers. It was, for the first time in a while, an area where we have sat round the fire with interesting people chatting over a Mossi or 2M or whatever the local brew is. Someone who deserves a particular mention is Lucky Mike, who we met in Lilongwe. During his 52 years Lucky has been a Navy diver, sailed around the world, been a game warden in South Africa, owned a bar in Antigua before a hurricane blew it away, skippered a yacht for 5 years, lived in the London underground, been a professional skydiver with over 2000 jumps, has been a public speaker and energy healer in the US and has written two books and is on his third. (‘Dancing on Raindrops’– his first book is available from Amazon). Lucky (he changed a name after surviving a lion attack in the bush) was a fascinating and uplifting person to talk to and as you might expect had some pretty good stories to boot. We met a retired couple from Minnesota cycling around the world on their pension – hats off to them!

Our camp spot overlooking the Luangwa River - Amazing

From Lilongwe we crossed the border into Zambia and headed straight up (along a very bumpy road) into the South Luangwa National Park. The Luangwa is a huge river that feeds the Zambezi and we spent the next four days camped on its shores, watching the hippos, crocs and elephant as they played and drank from the river. The setting was truly awesome. On one of the days we headed into the park itself, which in terms of beauty tops the list of parks we’ve seen so far. The diversity of the vegetation and geography meant that no ten minutes were the same, we saw tons of wildlife and could have spent four or five days in the park and only have seen 20% of it – it is huge. It also has the highest concentration of leopards in any park in Africa (or so they say) but unfortunately this multitude stayed hidden during our 24 hours of searching!

Polls and Lucy outside Mfuwe Lodge, Zambia

A particular highlight was watching a lion eating a hippo which was still in the water. The skin was so tough that the lion had gone in the only way possible – up the derrière, and was, when we saw him, pulling snakelike strands of gut out of said orifice. Fascinating and smelly in equal measures! It was also great to see Lucy Milburn, sister of Paddy and great Northumbrian family friends of the Bonds. Lucy works in Mfuwe Lodge, one of the nicest lodges we have seen so far. It was great to have sundowners and talk of Africa and home as the sun set over the river.

The lion after its Hippo feast - South Luangwa Zambia

From South Luanga NP we headed to the capital of Zambia, Lusaka, but the distance meant that we had to stop halfway. After heading into a campsite we saw a chap in a very ripped suit jacket, holey trousers and no shoes. Thinking he was the gardener we said ‘hi’ and continued to the reception only for him to follow us. . as it turned out the man was the owner/manager of this little pit stop campsite. We were the only punters that night. Lets hope he uses our money to buy a new jacket! On leaving the campsite towards Lusaka our odometer clocked 30,000km mark – Pax still going strong and Polls and I still talking – not bad!!

Lusaka is a lot larger and busier than Lilongwe and there is clear evidence of diamond and copper wealth. Dual carriageways and shopping malls put this city a step above, in modernity terms, anywhere else we had been to since Dar.  We could tell we had been in the bush for too long as we felt in awe of the ‘modern’ city. We were pleased it was a Sunday though as there was very little traffic as we stormed down Cairo Road, the ‘high street’ and out the other side to our site for the night. We have found that unlike their Arabian counterparts, big sub-Saharan African cities, although offering us the delights of Shoprite and other goodies, offer little else. That night we camped just outside the city and met some great Afrikaners, they gave us lots of pointers for South Africa, some delicious cheesy sausages and offered us a bed for the night if we pass through their little town in SA. We have been blown away by the generosity of all the South Africans we have met so far, and already have a growing amount of friends in Cape Town!

Us with the Zambezi river in the background

From Lusaka we drove south to the Lower Zambezi. The River Zambezi, one of the great African rivers, is probably mostly famous for its waterfall, the Victoria Falls but where we were, about 500km downstream of the falls, it was magnificent as well. The river here is a huge expanse of water with islands dotted amongst the stream. The animal life is prolific with hippos and elephant drinking at its banks and eagles and tiger fish above and below the waterline. We actually stayed on one of the smaller tributaries of the Zambezi, the Kafue River, but at over 50m wide, it was more than enough river for us! We couldn’t believe our luck; the campsite had a swimming pool overlooking the river – all for 10 dollars a night. From there we headed upstream, following the river west to Siavonga and Lake Kariba.

Not bad for 10 dollars a night - Zimbabwe in the distance

Lake Kariba was formed in 1960 by the construction of the Kariba dam, which blocks the River Zambezi. At the time it was an engineering marvel and continues to provide a large proportion of the power to Zimbabwe and Zambia. For us it formed the perfect backdrop to a couple of nights on the lakeshore. Although no swimming here as crocs and hippos are aplenty.

After a couple of nights exploring and staying on lake Kariba we headed on south towards Livingstone. A brief stopover at a campsite was a welcome break from a very straight 600km drive through the bush from Kariba to Livingstone.  Zambia is huge, there is so much space here, most of it bush. Livingstone is the adrenaline capital of Africa. Last night we parked up set up camp in a bush campsite, very peaceful apart from the constant helicopter/small plane and micro light noise – Victoria Falls is about 300m from our camp!

PAX is currently being serviced, he is leaking a little and the steering wheel shudders so hard it feels like it is about to come off (one to many potholes at speed I think). He is staying in overnight so we are camping in our ground tent tonight in a backpackers lodge, using internet and treating ourselves to some TexMex food! Tomorrow we are going to go to the falls where we will spend a few nights after which Botswana beckons!

Mozambique, Malawi and Zambia our 19th, 20th and 21st countries on the trip so far have been really interesting, for the coastline, the history, the people, the animals, and for the amazing landscapes. There is so much more exploring to be done here, especially Mozambique and Zambia, which seem to be endless miles of bush with only a few villages dotted along the road. I am sure we will be back.

Sunset over Lake Malawi, Cape Maclear

Posted in Mozambique, Malawi, Zambia | 1 Comment »

Serengeti to the Swahili Coast

Posted by jamesandpolls on July 8, 2010

After the emotional day at the genocide memorial museum in Kigali our spirits were lifted when we spent a morning with Hope and Homes for children’s Country Manager Vianney. It was interesting for us to compare the operations here to those we learnt about in our previous visit to the charity in Bosnia. H&H in Rwanda supports children including genocide orphans, AIDS orphans and children who are head of their household at a very young age. The charity has made a large impact on both the lives of orphaned children in Rwanda and also the communities in which the children live.

With Vianney outside Hope and Homes Office

With a small yet highly trained and efficient team Vianney supports 300 families across Rwanda ensuring the children have the support they need to have a full and happy life. It was truly an inspiration. Something that has not gone unnoticed to many NGOs in the country who have asked H&H to collaborate in their efforts – something they are rightly careful to do. It once again reinforced how great it is to be raising money for this charity. Please see our website for more information and the opportunity to donate.

The next day we started our short journey from Kigali to the border. Rwanda had been a emotional country, such despair and devastation only 15 years ago has now turned into hope and speculation of a great future although one gets the sense that the genocide is still a ‘black dog’ on many shoulders. It is, by far and away, the cleanest country in Africa, something that it is justifiably proud of. This together with the fantastic scenery and very kind people make it a must visit country in Central East Africa.

The border between Rwanda and Tanzania is marked by the Akanyaru River, which flows into Lake Victoria. After a few photos of the waterfalls underneath the bridge we drove into our 18th country of the trip. The vegetation quickly turned into dry savannah from the lushness of Uganda and Rwanda. The far north west of Tanzania is little visited by tourists, and apart from a few small villages and a Rwandan refugee camp there is nothing for miles. Our first night was spent at an old German Fort (Boma) built in 1904 in a dusty town called Bilharamulo. It was like being back at an old English boarding school  but we had a great time with a Mexican couple who had driven up from Angola.

The next night we camped at the run down yacht club in Mwanza on the shores of Lake Victoria – it is a hot and sticky gold mining town with a great fruit and veg market (although one guy came up to us and told us we were in danger being there!) before heading with anticipation towards the mighty Serengeti.

Wildebeest migration in the serengeti

We were lucky to hit the Serengeti bang on migration time, and within 5 minutes of entering the park, with the Lion King tunes ringing out, herds of wildebeest and zebras were crossing our path and stretching for miles into the distance. The animals head towards the Grumenti River before going up into the Masai Mara. We drove up to the river and saw the giant crocodiles awaiting their prey – they are enormous, so prehistoric looking and we were terrifyingly close. Even saw some fighting over a head of a poor wildebeest who had been the unlucky one that morning. Groups of up to 20 hippos huddled together in pools along the river and monkeys played in the trees lining it.

Giant croc a bit to close for comfort

We drove through this spectacle for 6 hours and were blown away by the sheer volume of animals everywhere. There are a few campsites in the park, and we thought we were onto a winner – only us there and the sounds of the animals. Unfortunately at 6.58pm (2 minutes before the campsite shut for the evening) 2 overland trucks pulled up and spoilt our bush camp.  When all fell silent however the lions roared us to sleep. We were up at 6am raring to go for our morning game drive, and we saw a lion sitting on a rock Simba style, very cool.

Lake Natron

After leaving the Serengeti out of the northern gate near the Kenyan border (so we didn’t have to pay $200 to drive through the Ngorogoro Crater reserve) we took the bad but very scenic road to Lake Natron through Masai villiages and plains with jewellry clad warriors in bright red kangas watching over their cattle. It was like being back in Northern Kenya again – tribal people everywhere, this time though they were Masaai rather than Samburu. Lake Natron holds some of the most breathtaking scenery of our trip so far.

El Doinyo Lengai - Northern Tanzania

The most active volcano in east Africa El Doinyo Lenyai towers over a highly Alkaline lake which is no more than 60 cm deep. It is the breeding ground for millions of flamingos, who get their pink colour from the algae in the lake. Like the Turkana tribe, the Masaai people of this area have adapted to the harsh living conditions of the lake. We stayed one night then raced to Arusha to prepare PAX for the arrival of Lou and hetti the next day.

After a hectic morning of spring cleaning, filling the car up in Arusha, stocking up with supplies at the Shopright Supermarket and refilling our gas bottle, we managed to look calm and collected for the arrival of Hetti and Lou. These two friends would be with us for the next two weeks and after 4 days of luxury in the Serengeti they were ready to rough it a bit and get into the overlander vibe. It was pretty much straight into the deep and as we had 350km to cover that first afternoon. PAX is not designed for 4, and has no back seats, so we had fashioned two back seats from boxes and cushions. Contribution from Hetti:

Above the clouds looking over the Masaai Steppes

Arriving at a campsite in the town of Arusha to find Jimbo and Polls there to meet us was a pretty surreal moment! Apparently Arusha, a small town which serves as the gateway to many safaris, and expeditions up Kilimanjaro, is the half way point between Cairo and Cape Town – so we had literally met them in the middle of Africa! We had been dropped there by our guide at the end of our four day safari. Now we were to be part of ‘T-R Tours Ltd’, as we soon named them! It was fab to see them both – looking so well, if a little thinner, but evident that life on the road was definitely suiting them! Jimbo sporting a ginger beard that led many people we met along the way to believe he was a Scandinavian, much to our amusement!
Once greetings and hugs were done, Jimbo was keen to find out what ‘goodies’ we had brought out with us. I had been given a very important consignment – Jimbo’s South African passport which he was longing to get his hands on…  It was quickly handed over and Jimbo became the proud owner of a new nationality. He was soon telling many who we met that he was an African too – they weren’t convinced, funnily enough. They were also very keen to get their hands on the nearly week old edition of the Times that we had carefully carried with us and, of course, the selection of magazines we had brought. The copies  of Hello and Private Eye became their most prized possessions, before long.

T-R Tours Ltd had already made a plan for the day so, after a speedy lunch, we hit the road. They had cleverly made two seats in the back of PAX for us – there was plenty of room albeit that a bit of swapping around was needed to avoid cramp and numb bums! As you can imagine, on the trip from Arusha to Lushoto we talked non-stop – us filling them in on all the gossip from home whilst we were also longing to hear, first hand, about all their adventures and of course the ‘nightmare of Ethiopia’. The route had been set on the GPS. I, rather disparagingly, suggested that following Sat Nav wasn’t really travelling – surely it took some of the adventure out of it?! I take it all back! There is plenty of opportunity for adventure without having to find one’s route too. It’s an amazing piece of kit, least of all because it not only means that Jimbo and Polls can stay on schedule rather than driving round Sub-Saharan Africa in circles but also because it means there are never arguments over the map reading and divorce is therefore avoided!

Mt Kilimanjaro

On the way, we passed Mount Kilimanjaro, just seeing its snowy summit above the clouds. We were heading for a campsite somewhere in the West Usambara mountains, apparently it had amazing views. Unfortunately we arrived after dark but it meant we had something to look forward to in the morning! On arrival the T-R team kicked into action. It entertained us to see that the division of labour had fallen upon traditional male/female lines. James does the driving, charcoal and petrol buying, fire lighting, baggage loading type jobs whilst Polls does the food buying, clothes washing, cooking jobs etc. Jimbo is also responsible for the morning cup of tea – an aspect we’d slightly failed on as we hadn’t managed to bring the requested two boxes of lapsang souchong with us – I’d told Jimbo that it was girl’s tea, anyway. We did ask Polls why she did not do any of the driving – she said it was because Jimbo was such a nervous passenger that it was no fun. Apparently, every time she touched the brakes Jimbo would quickly look up from his book or whatever he was doing! It is also amused us to find out that, prior to our arrival, they had had a massive spring clean as they thought we would find them, and all their stuff, very grubby! Not at all. However, Lou and I decided that we had gone slightly urban soft since our gap years – we needed to get used to being covered in dust from head to toe and quickly embraced the daily routine of a cold shower with the water pressure of a pissing ant!

Polls cooked up some superb food – bbqs of lamb/chicken and roasted veg generally being the order of the day. Lou and I were incredibly jealous of their tent – such a luxury not having to put it up every night and to have duvet and pillows. After our breakfast (eggs and toast – another aspect of Jimbo’s role is chief toast maker which is done on the barbeque) we went to see the view that we had driven 260kms, in the dark, to see. It was certainly worth the effort – we were about a kilometre above the plains below, with some clouds floating below us – mind-blowing. We set off on our way to the coast – stopping at a market to buy more bananas (not sure we’ve ever eaten so many bananas). I narrowly avoided getting a black eye from a local woman when Polls persuaded me to try and take a photo of the local scene. On the road again the landscape began to change. I had been surprised by, on arrival in Tanzania, its greenness. Naive, maybe, but I was expecting the dusty plains of the savannah. Instead, in many areas it is green and jungly with glorious rich terracotta coloured earth. As we travelled towards the coast the landscape changed – it became flatter and with endless palm trees. We also drove through vast sisal plantations – we never managed to quite work out how rope was made from plants which look slightly like giant pineapples – answers on a postcard please.

We arrived at our beach side campsite, about 17km north of Pangani. It was probably the best hotel I’d ever stayed in for the budget breaking US$4 a night. With all the kit, camping is a dream! Not sure that Lou entirely agrees – in an attempt to escape the heat she thought she’d sleep outside however one bug too many and the crying of a bush baby and she was soon back in the safety of our tent.
The important date in our calendar was the next England match. It was the only reason we were keeping track of the days of the week. Kate had sent out some face paints and an England flag so that we could really get into the patriotic spirit. We got all dressed up and painted (much to the disapproval of the retired Englishman running the campsite who had made it clear he was more of a “rugger” fan) only to discover that they were showing the USA match. Some attempts were made to find an alternative venue in the village but to no success so we had to watch the USA game in our England colours – slightly embarrassing.

After two blissful days on the beach we set off again in the direction of Dar es Salaam which is not, to my surprise, the capital of Tanzania. Good trivia knowledge – the capital is actually Dodoma which is slap bang in the middle of the country. A little something which is worth mentioning here – on our brief trip with Jimbo & Polls Lou and I listened in on various conversations with other overlanders. Once in camp, more often than not, people come over to chat about the route that Jimbo & Polls are doing, their experiences and adventures. Lou and I felt like imposters sitting there as it was assumed that we were on the adventure too – something that I wasn’t quick to dissuade our visitors of as it’s far more exciting than admitting that you’re a lawyer with only 2 weeks out of the office. One of the usual questions is whether they have had any trouble with the police or at borders. Others often have stories to tell of fines paid or routes blocked by uncompromising officials. Not Jimbo and Polls. The reason for this, Lou and I were sure, was because Jimbo and Polls greet whoever they meet with smiles, laughter and perhaps a bit of chat about the World Cup. Within about 30 seconds the locals are also smiling and laughing. It was admirable how they never once lost their cool and were always polite and no doubt the reason that they have had so little trouble. I’m pretty sure that I would find it difficult to be so smiley all the time when asked, yet again, for a pen or sweet.
Our drive to Dar nearly came to a premature end when Jimbo, being a little rash, ignored a petrol station as the needle was heading towards empty. First question from me, when the next petrol station didn’t appear, “Obviously you have some jerry cans?”. “Ah, no” came the answer. Spot the ex army officer?! So we stopped in a village on the road. Within about a minute Jimbo had found someone with some fuel and a crowd of about 20 eager locals had gathered. One gets the feeling that if you stopped in the middle of an African town and asked for anything someone would have it, or know of someone who did. Price negotiation completed with the trademark smile and banter and we were on our way again. (with slight trepidation, praying that it was diesel and not petrol).
Polls had managed to organise for us to stay with an old school friend’s family in Dar. Sadly Mbwana was not there but we were made to feel so welcome by his brother, sister and mother. We were treated to a veritable feast of Tanzanian cuisine and looked after so well. Thank you Mama Alliy.
Next day to Zanzibar. This was the start of a real holiday for Jimbo and Polls, leaving their 4×4 home behind. Lou and I were very sad to say goodbye to PAX too – we’d had such a fun time. We had felt very honoured to be part of the adventure, albeit for a tiny part. Thank you Jimbo & Polls for having us to stay!

Our Zanzibar experience was split into three parts: Party time in the North, Stone Town shopping and cultural exploration and East coast relaxation. All were great fun in their own way. We watched the US v Ghana game in Kendwa after which there was a full moon party. Africa as a continent had really got behind this little country so you can imagine the celebrations when they beat the world’s super power! The atmosphere was amazing, and pogoing  with a Maasi on the dance floor is a particularly vivid memory. It was also my birthday that night and was pleased to be breaking it in at a full moon party – more 19 than 29 but who cares!

Not a bad way to spend a b day

After the North we headed back to Stone Town where the girls hit the shops and I hit Africa House, the old British Club for some sundowners. Stone Town is an incredibly atmospheric maze of Arabian houses and alleyways which made for great rambling throughout the day and night with only the Muezzin breaking the silence. We continued our wanderings into the evening and ended up at the night market where we feasted on BBQ fish and seafood, followed by chocolate ‘pizzas’.

After a little more shopping to satiate the desire we headed to the South East of the island for two days of utter relaxation. We were the only ones staying at the Sun and Sea view resort and had almost the whole beach to ourselves. The last two days raced by and all to soon we were back in Stone Town and parting ways, Hetti and Lou back to the UK and us back to the mainland. Zanzibar doesn’t need a hard sell. It is a magnificent tropical island mixed with tremendous history with beached to party and beached to relax. A ‘must do’ for any visit to Tanzania.

It had been great to have Hetti and Lou with us. We were fully up to speed with UK gossip –  from the UK elections to Ashley and Cheryl Cole splitting up. We had fresh supplies including, most vitally, sun cream and Lapsang Suchong and we had thoroughly enjoyed their company and sharing our adventure with them.

East Coast Zanzibar perfection!

It wasn’t always as luxurious as I think they hoped but it certainly was an adventure and I hope they enjoyed their stay! After a rather hurried yet emotional goodbye in Stone town we rushed to the ferry port to catch the passenger ferry back to the mainland. It turned out to be a very rough crossing with lots of people being (very loudly) sick, some in the sick bags and unfortunately some not. Back on dry land we were but a short taxi ride away from Mama Alliy’s house. It was another incredibly hospitable welcome and we left the next morning absolutely stuffed with delicious food. Huge thanks to the whole family for their help and hospitality, not to mention being the guardians for PAX while we were on Zanzibar!

After saying our goodbyes we motored south through the notoriously clogged up Dar. Our target was Kilwa. Kilwa, a small islandoff the mainland was the earliest European settlement on the E African coast. Settled by the Portuguese in the 16th Century, it acted as a base for trading gold, diamonds, ivory, spices and slaves. We were staying on the mainland just of the island and could see the old battlements of the colonialists across the 2km stretch of aqua marine water. We stayed here for three days recouping from our Zanzibar holiday (I don’t know why but both of us felt like we needed it!). Here we also met two intrepid British overlanders who have been travelling the globe for 12 years and at over 70 (we guessed)!

Tanzania had been a fantastic country. From the game in the Serengeti and the austere beauty of Lake Natron to the beaches of Zanzibar and Stone Town steeped in history, this is a country with a little bit of the best of everything Africa has to offer. And it was an added bonus to be able to share the whole experience with friends.

Fully over from our mysterious fatigue we carried on towards the Mozambique border. This used to be a ‘car ferry’ which in fact was two dug out canoes attached to each other with an outboard motor on one – costing a cool $450 US, which would cross the Rio Rovuma, the river that separates the two countries. However as of last month a bridge now spans the 400m wide river courtesy of, you guessed it, the Chinese! They have been good enough to build a sparkling new bridge and about 1km of tarmac road either side, plus a very chic customs building on both banks but not the road to join the bridge to anywhere.We stayed the night at the customs post on the Mozambique side, the border is too isolated and new to have attracted the moneychangers and other ‘fixers’ usually associated with an African border, and we had a great view back over the Rio Rovuma to Tanzania.

Women wear beauty facemasks in Northern Mozambique

Mozambique is a fascinating country. Colonised by the Portugese since the 15th Century it has been wracked by war both civil and with its neighbours for much of the last 100 years. It is consistently in the bottom 10 poorest countries in the world and yet has everything that a country needs to flourish. It has natural resources in abundance it has great transport links with sea ports to the Indian Ocean which also serve as the goods gateway to several inland African nations (Zim, Botswana Zambia, Malawi etc. . ). It has some of the best tourist potential in the world with the best beaches and huge areas of untouched bush for safari. This potential has not been ignored and the South Africans (and the Chinese!) are investing heavily in infrastructure, agriculture and tourism, especially in the South of the country. Up here in the North we are still as remote as one can get. Travellers rarely make it up here as it’s too much of a hassle on public transport from Maputo, the capital, and few travel south from Tanzania (we were the 16th foreign vehicle to cross the bridge in 2 months). As a result it feels like the back of beyond. The reward for those who do come here are some of the best beaches imaginable with the whitest sand and bluest water. It is the Bounty advert for real!

Pangane paradise posers

We have been hopping down the coast in the North for three days now. Savouring the last of the beaches and sea before we head inland to start crossing the bottom of the continent. Next we head to Malawi, Zambia and Botswana, hitting the coast, the Atlantic this time, in Namibia, before our last move South to South Africa. It feels like we are nearly there, indeed South Africa is the Southerly neighbour to Mozambique but the scale of these countries is so large that we are still over 3,000km as the crow flies from Cape Town and probably 10,000km with the route we are planning. We are over 5 months in and have a little less than 4 months to go. Spirits are high, we are still healthy (certainly at our ‘boxing weights’ though) and are relishing the adventures before us through Southern Africa.

Posted in Tanzania | 6 Comments »

A Lush Loop – Uganda and Rwanda

Posted by jamesandpolls on June 13, 2010

Our last night in Kenya was perhaps the strangest. It was near Eldoret, right in the West of Kenya, and was a ‘resort’ that looked like it had been taken straight out of ‘Africa World’ in Florida and dumped in the real Africa. The resort was owned by a rather strange Indian Kenyan with a mullet who thought that fake statues of elephant and gazelle and a bar called ‘the Safari Bar’ would bring in the punters, strange when the real deal is just around the corner. The warning bells immediately start ringing in a place like this when you see that row of international flags on white flag poles, so out of place in the bush, which I can only assume mean, ‘these are the countries that stay away.’ One man who it appealed to though was Bill Gates, who stayed for a night in December 2009. I know this because there is a plaque as soon as you enter, in pride of place, telling you this, and that lucky you can now stay in the ‘Bill Gates’ room. By the way the richest man in the world gave a $20 tip at the end of his stay. Even though we felt like we were in Florida we found a lovely camping spot by the pool and fake waterfall just next to a river (real). We were promptly reminded of our real location by a big (in all senses of the word) black Kenyan having his daily bath in the river . . .  Polls averted her eyes of course!

Patrick and Julie riding on the roof - Western Kenya

The next day we were into Uganda. We took two Canadian passengers with us, Julie and Patrick, whom we had picked up at Lake Baringo. The LR only has two seats so from Lake Baringo they were on the roof, but for the border and main roads we thought it safer they lay on a mattress in the back  – far comfier than travelling by matatu! The Kenya/Uganda border was the usual affair, money changers, touts, ‘fixers’ who cant fix all after the Muzungu custom. After telling them that I had not one Kenyan shilling left they were less interested and we left Kenya with little hassle. The Ugandan side was a lot more chilled, a character trait that we would continue to see throughout the country. The money changers wore uniform and withdrew if refused custom, one chap even asking me to remember him in case I returned, well money changer No.3, we promise to come back to you one day.

Uganda was immediately greener, lusher and agriculturally more intense than Kenya. Lake Victoria spreads almost up to the border here meaning that the ground is quite marshy. We passed paddy fields as we drove. It also seemed a bit better kept. Neater. Less rubbish. Jinja was our destination. It sits on the Northern tip of Lake Victoria and marks the start of the River Nile as it exits the Lake. It was great to get back in touch with this river, which we first met in Cairo and which had shaped much of our travel since then. We had been to the source of the blue Nile on Lake Tana in Ethiopia and now we were at the source of the major tributary, the White Nile, which takes a meandering course through Uganda before emptying into a huge marshland in Southern Sudan where it continues before meeting the Blue Nile in Khartoum. As well as holding the position as the world’s longest river, its impact on the countries it flows through cannot be underestimated. Without that regular supply of fresh water Egypt, Sudan, Ethiopia, Uganda would struggle for power and irrigation. It is a water source that is so important to these countries that a treaty has been signed dividing rights to the water, the majority going to Egypt.

X-treme rafting on the Nile!

Jinga no only marks the start of the White Nile but also the Bujagli Falls, which rival the Zambezi for white water rafting. We managed to camp literally right in front of these falls with no one else around, apart from on Sunday when the whole of kampala came and had pic nics around us. The Indian Ugandans were especially taken with us and spent most of their day taking ‘snaps’ of us with different members of their family! Our day of rafting didn’t dissapoint , we had an incredible day with 5 australian guys going down grade 5.5 rapids, spending as much time out of the raft as in..

Our team

It was also here that we met Agnes. Agnes was about 18 and pregnant, and come up, very brazenly, to our tent one afternoon and introduced herself. She seemed much more interested in me than Polls, indeed so interested that she had to stroke my leg and push her boobs in my face. Polls and I, feeling quite disarmed, left the table and pretended to busy ourselves with something or other. Agnes didn’t get the hint and just sat at our table for about 10 minutes not saying anything or doing anything. Eventually, without a word, she stood bolt upright and marched off. . phew. Later I went off to do some emailing. Agnes, bold as brass again, walked up to Polls and thrust a letter into her hand ‘Give this to James’ she demanded. Quite taken aback Polls looked at the scrap of paper and read it. . . ‘You do know I’m his wife don’t you?’ was her reply. ‘’Ugh’ said Agnes and stomped off. It reads. .

“Hello my name is Agnes. I am 18 years old.
How are you now I am humble for
Your self I could be with you.
My favourite colour is yellow.
I wont a friend with a sex my friend goodbye.

She almost had me at ‘Yellow’ but not quite. (a bad Jerry Maguire pun) Good luck to Agnes as she tries to leave Jinja by whatever means!

After the falls we said goodbye to our Canadian friends, who had managed to find a charity to work for in Jinja for a while, and headed onto Kigale. Good roads and lush forest, almost rainforest on either side. Weirdly masses of butterflies lay on the road in some stretches, like lemmings, waiting for passing cars to squash them. They are so numerous in places that it is not unknown for cars to skid and crash on dead butterfly juice! Kampala is a safe, modern African city, which is reinventing itself after a difficult period in the 70s and 80s (see Last King of Scotland). The political situation now seems stable and economic investment the buzzword of the day. Shopping malls are now popping up next to the slightly grubbier local markets (good thing or bad thing – you decide) and we started to see more of a South African influence here in shops and businesses. After being kicked out by Idi Amin, Indians have now returned and are noticeable in many areas of commerce. This was the first capital city since Damascus where we did not have a home to stay in so we had to find a place to camp.

The heavens opened in Kampala

The first, on the East of the city, gave us such an unfriendly welcome (something that has not reached many in Africa is customer service) that we decided to take our business elsewhere. Probably not a cause for concern to them when we are paying about $5 a night to camp but a statement nevertheless. The second spot was on the West side, this meant crossing the incredibly busy city. It was also at this time when the heavens opened and we had one of those once a month tropical storms where the rain comes down in torrents. It was not long before the roads became streams and we had got lost in a one way system (going the wrong way) surrounded by mutatus (minibus taxis). To make matters worse the windscreen wiper that had first broken in Dover and had never been reliable then had chosen this moment to come of entirely, this meant I also had to drive leaning over to my left looking through Polls’ half of the windscreen that was now clear with Polls giving some helpful hints to avoid people, cars etc. . We were saved by the rising water, which soon got to about a foot causing all traffic to either breakdown or get stuck behind a breakdown. This carried on long after the skies cleared and meant that a 5 mile journey took the best part of 3 hours, although I have to admit it was all quite fun.

The ‘Kampala Backpackers’ proved to be an oasis of calm and we found a lovely spot to camp on. Our fellow campers were mostly gap-year NGO volunteers  and charity workers who were in Uganda on short missions to save the country from starvation, disease, HIV AIDS, abuse (donkey and cow included), orphanages etc. . a list that has been the same since Ethiopia. It was not until about 1100 that we realised that these volunteers were also absolute ravers and our oasis of calm turned into the Oasis nightclub for the next 5 hours. The next day, rather exasperatingly, was dedicated to applying for an MBA in Cape Town, which meant completing the application and application essays, finding somewhere to print and photocopy them, finding somewhere to bind it all together and DHL-ing it to Cape Town. It took all day. We await the results with anticipation! That night we were meeting Peter, a Ugandan who was bought up in Uganda and the Sudan, who went to Dulwich College and Bristol Uni and is now back in Uganda running a company which provides a regular bus link from Kampala to Entebbe, the international airport, and also a haulage firm. He was a fountain of knowledge on all things Ugandan and clearly is doing sterling business. We also met lots of his friends; both Ugandan and ex pat NGO workers who treated us to a delicious curry in a rooftop restaurant – thanks Pete!!

Ugandans travelling light

The next day we were out of Kampala and heading West towards Fort Portal. Perhaps the best roads in Africa so far, built by the Ugandans meant three hours of tarmac smoothness (amazing how this matters so much). It was obviously a proud achievement as every kilometre there were two signposts, one on each side of the road, saying that Ugandans had built this road. This was every Km for the 180 km to Fort Portal – we got the message! We were staying on the rim of a crater lake surrounded by agricultural land and other crater lakes. It made for a fascinating stroll through the countryside and swimming in the lakes (No hippos, crocs or bilharzia – the three point checklist before swimming). It was rather strange to be walking in maize fields, miles from anywhere that can conceivably be called civilisation, watching some men scything grass with machetes, to be assaulted by the dulcet tones of Leona Lewis from a workers’ radio. It is a small world.

Through Fort Portal the next day we headed South to the Queen Elizabeth National Park (the name was changed after the Queen’s recent visit). It is a savannah national park nestled in between the two huge Albertine Rift lakes and sports many lions, elephant, buffalo, hippo etc. . We have had to be quite careful over the parks we are going to as they are very expensive. This was going to cost us $150 for 24 hours. After visiting the Visitors Centre we followed a track which our GPS showed went into the park. Only this track didn’t go through one of the gates where you had to pay! We kept driving expecting a gate but it didn’t materialise and we found ourselves on a free safari! A bit cheeky but an absolute result! There was a huge amount of game scattered around the savannah and we ticked off many game species, including our first lions.

Polls 'on safari' having morning tea after (free) game drive

After 2 days in the QENP (to get our moneys worth) we headed south towards the Rwandan and Lake Bunyoni. We stayed yards away from the beautiful shore where we could watch the sun set every night. It had been formed by a lava flow blocking a river which then formed the lake and is reputed to be the cleanest lake in Africa and also one of the deepest (4000ft deep). We hired a dug out canoe on one of the days ($2) and, with a picnic lunch packed, spent a very happy few hours exploring the many islands that are dotted around. After three days at the lake we crossed the border into Rwanda, saying goodbye to Uganda after an excellent 10 days . Before this trip I would not have been able to put a pin on a map and say for sure where Uganda was, but after our time in country we both felt we knew a little more about this little African country, right in the heart of the continent.

Sunrise in QENP

The border was a joy. A very rough dirt track led us to the Ugandan gate where we got ourselves and PAX stamped out. The 20m drive in no mans land being the only excitement as I went head on into a truck (Uganda drives on the left, Rwanda on the right – where does one swap over?) after a bit of reversing and gesticulating we arrived at the Rwandan border. The visa was FREE for the first time and we had to ask someone if we could change some money – no money changer hassles here. The visa guy was so friendly he invited us into the back office where we had the obligatory Premiership chat (he supported Liverpool and seemed to have a crush on Steve Gerrard) finishing off by telling me I look like Peter Crouch – for the 100th time since leaving.  Throughout our trip we have been asked if we are driving to SA for the World Cup, the whole Continent is talking about it. Still, at both the Ugandan and Rwandan borders we got asked. “It starts in 2 days!” was my reply. Blank faces. I wonder when this question will stop getting asked. The visa chap was 6”7 at least which immediately made me think that he was a Tutsi, and I wanted to ask him, but not sure of the post genocide etiquette on tribalism, I held my tongue.

Exactly half way in no mans land the dirt track had changed to pristine tarmac, a sure sign if ever there was one that the country ahead was more developed, in transport terms at least and it is true that Rwanda has had a lot of investment over the last 10 years. As we drove away, the differences, as is the norm, hit us straight away. Rwanda is full to the brim with people and every inch of available land is farmed. The roads, (of the pot hole free, butter smooth, empty of cars, tarmac variety) was teeming with people. The Ugandans had been clever. They had built a 5m hard shoulder on both sides which people used to walk along and herd their animals, the Rwandans had not. The road was a teeming mass of humanity, walkers with huge loads on their head, cyclists with massive bunches of bananas perched precariously on handlebars and seats, schoolchildren, all in yellow, wandering back home clutching a small bundle of books. The clothes are brighter here than Uganda as well, bright pattern prints of all colours are wrapped around the women, all set off by the amazing green patterns of well irrigated fields. There is also much more ‘head-carrying’ here. We have seen all manner of things perched atop peoples heads, to name a few – a handbag, an umbrella, a watering can and a small oar! Comedy.

Rwandans are amazing at head carrying...!

We passed Ruzengori which is the most often used base camp for gorilla trekking.  At the start of this adventure we thought we would see the gorillas but we have had to have a budget realignment and at $500 each for just 1 hour, we think it is something that can wait.  We have spoken to many who are here to see them, from as far away as Australia and the US, all who say it is worth it (hardly likely to say otherwise considering the effort they have gone to!) so I think we will have to come back. With no natural resources Rwanda is treasuring this source of income and gorilla numbers are now the highest they have been in the last 20 years. There is still time to see them.

Rwanda is tiny, half the size of Scotland, so on the day we entered we drove all the way to the very West of the country, Lake Kivu. Lake Kivu marks the boundary with the DRC and from our camp spot we could look across the lake and see Goma and the mountains behind. A historically turbulent border, all seems quiet now and if PAX was allowed we might have nipped in, just to say we have been there but not this time. Having read Tim Butchers Blood River I think of the DRC as truly the darkest country in this Dark Continent, and have a fascination with the place which I know will take us there one day!

Polls by Lake Kivu, Congo in the background

After three nights in two separate spots on Lake Kivu, truly one of the most beautiful camping locations so far, we headed for Kigali, which lies at the centre of this tiny country. It only took us two hours, on the way we passed some of the most stunning scenery so far; there really are vistas here, which minus the banana trees, could be Switzerland in summer or Italy.  On our way we passed a cavalcade of about 20 luxury Merc 4x4s with police outriders, this was for Paul Kagame, the President of Rwanda. We wondered what his people thought of their president as he raced through their villages in the most bling way possible as they struggle to feed themselves! Another case of the ‘Big Man’ in charge?

James' little friend..

If you are squeamish, look away now…No trip to this continent can be complete without some strange medical affliction and here was mine. What I had thought of as a mosquito bite on my shoulder had not disappeared since Uganda and was now quite swollen, we thought perhaps it was a spider bite or insect sting. What it turned out to be was a Tumbu Fly which had laid an egg under my skin. The egg had hatched and a maggot was growing inside the ever-growing ‘bite’. We found this out because as I squeezed the ‘bite’, along with a large amount of yellow puss, the wriggling maggot came shooting out. Gross!!

We found a campsite in Kigali (a Japanese NGO which has let us camp in its car park) and after the maggot episode we had a quick bite before heading to the local bar ‘The Executive Carwash’ to watch the England v USA match.  Being the NGO capital of the world there was no shortage of westerners, although the US outnumbered the Brits 20 to 1. A great crowd livened up a disappointing match and I am looking forward to the next one, I think we will be in the Serengeti. (While watching the match a local, after I had told him what we were doing, asked if we were driving to the World Cup! “You are watching the bloody thing with me in Kigali. . . .” When will it end?)


After getting over the effects of  the night before we headed to the Genocide Museum in Kigali. For most people, genocide is what immediately pops into their head when they think of Rwanda and perhaps rightly so. The scale of it was immense. In a nutshell Rwanda was colonised by the Belgians. They separated the population into Hutus, Tutsis and Twa depending on rather arbitrary things such as nose width and height. Identity cards were issued. The result: A Hutu majority mainly occupied in agriculture. A Tutsi minority, used by the Belgians to run the country, civil servants etc. . Education and privilege heavily biased towards Tutsi.. Just before independence, in an effort to right the wrongs the colonisers reversed their policy putting Hutus in charge. 1962 Independence. It was a country divided. After some violence and killings during the independence era 135,000 Tutsis left Rwanda, a three year old Paul Kagame amongst them. Over the next 30 years tensions rose between the two tribes, vying for political power and recognition. 1990 Paul Kagame took over the RPF, a militia of 12,000 Tutsi exiles, and continued making raids across the border. April 1994, Rwandan and Burundi presidents shot down near Kigali airport. Within hours the killing began. Moderate Hutus and Tutsis were the target. In total, over the next three months, 1,000,000 people would be killed, mainly with machetes.

The UN had a peacekeeping force in Rwanda at the start but after 8 Belgium soldiers were killed withdrew most of them, leaving a measly 250 to protect the peace. On 30th April, 20 days after the genocide started, the UN had a debate about the situation. Much of the time was spent deciding what ‘genocide’ means and the difference between this and ‘acts of genocide.’ The US had been stung in Somalia (Black Hawk Down) and was reluctant to get into what it saw to be another African mess. The European powers had their minds focused on the Balkans. The killing continued. It was up to Paul Kagame and the RPF to end the massacre and in July, after fighting their way across the country they took Kigali and declared peace. Looking closely at the statistics it is staggering to imagine the effect of such a massacre in such a small country. 70% of people saw someone get killed, 90% saw dead bodies, 40% saw rape 99.9% experienced violence. Maurice, the manager of the hotel in Lake Kivu, was one of these. He was 11 at the time and saw all his family hacked to death in front of him. He escaped. Most do not talk about it, Maurice was an exception. There has been a significant amount of ‘forgiving and forgetting’ here. After this reconciliation many Hutus were allowed to return to their villages to live amongst the people whose lives they had ruined. This is why Maurice does not want to go back to his village. The men who murdered his family are now back. It has, undoubtedly, shaped the country as we see it today. It is still very raw in everyone’s minds.

The museum was fantastic but incredibly harrowing, Polls and I were exhausted by the tales and pictures of slaughter. Out of the mess have come some good stories. One of these we are visiting tomorrow. Hope and Homes for Children is one of the charities we are raising money for and we are visiting their Rwandan centre tomorrow. We are thoroughly looking forward to it and if our visit to them in Bosnia is anything to go by, it will be fantastically uplifting. If you enjoy reading these blogs then perhaps you might consider giving to one of the charities. You can do it through our website and click on the ‘Charity’ tab.

We only have a few more days in this country before we head to Tanzania. It has been both beautiful and disturbing in equal measures. We are both very pleased that we made the effort to do the Ugandan / Rwandan loop around Lake Victoria when going directly from Kenya to Tanzania would be a much easier (and more often travelled) route.  For now it’s back to the bush, the Serengeti, then to the coast and, leaving PAX behind, a few days ‘backpacking’ on Zanzibar (well, lying on a beach really). We feel we need a holiday from this holiday!

Good old African Sunset

Posted in Uganda / Rwanda | 2 Comments »

Crossing the Equator

Posted by jamesandpolls on May 28, 2010

It’s hot. Again. We are camping on the shores of Lake Baringo, one of the Rift Valley Lakes in North West Kenya. We are parked about 7m from the lakeshore, and from where I am sitting I can see right around the far rim of the Lake and also Baringo Island. About 5m away, on the reedy shore, is a wooden sign that says ‘Hippos and Crocodiles are dangerous’. Duh.

This sign was meters from our tent..!

Last night we had 6 hippos in the camp and they spent all night chomping their way around our tent. It was fantastic fun to get the torch out and watch these killer cows only 2 metres away, all the time feeling very safe in the tent. Birds fly amok, insects scurry, there is life everywhere here. At light sleeper would not get to sleep at night with the chomping hippos, the chirping cicadas and the chorus of other unidentifiable animals. Baringo marks our penultimate stop in Kenya, or Keen-yah, before we head to Uganda. It has been a fantastically diverse three weeks; some utter luxury and home comforts and yet the worst roads imaginable and the most dangerous! A contradictory journey that reflects Kenya as a country.

Readers of the last blog may have noticed some negative feelings that Polls and I had towards Ethiopia and the Ethiopians. (Polls actually toned down my bitterness for the final version!) Looking back at it now from the shores of Lake Baringo, it does seem like a bit of a bad dream, but perhaps one that was overstated. On reflection I think the bad roads (and road habits of others) and particularly me getting ill tainted what could have been a pleasant journey. We were wrong to let the begging get to us but of course this is easy to say from here.

The stay with Sam in Addis had been a godsend. We had recouped, I had finally got better, PAX had been looked at and given the all clear and we had had the opportunity to eat some good food. We also had a fascinating visit to the Ethiopian National Museum where ‘Lucy’ is displayed. Lucy was found in 1974 in Hadar, in the Danakil Depression, a barren desert area in Eastern Ethiopia (also where the famine of the 80s/90s occurred). Its discovery was the ‘missing link’ between our tree dwelling ancestors and bipedal man and proved that this happened much longer ago than previously thought – about 3.5 million years ago. Equally delightful was the visit to the Lemon Tree Café, an expat hangout where we stuffed ourselves on the kind of things we had not had since leaving the UK . . delicious! Thus it was with lighter spirits and a better mentality that we left Addis for Southern Ethiopia, the border and Kenya. The road down from Addis was great. As we dropped down from the Addis plateau to into the Rift Valley a string of lakes stretched out in front of us like a pearl necklace. This string of lakes would continue all the way through Ethiopia, Kenya and into Tanzania. As we were at a lower altitude the vegetation changed. A country that we had already thought of as lush became almost tropical. It started to look like ‘Africa’ with acacia trees and banana palms along the roadside.

Goats settling in for the night under Pax

One thing that was surprising here was the selling tactics of the roadside sellers. Everything is for sale on the side of the road from bananas to charcoal to water to wooden curios and they are all sold in one stretch of the road thus there would be a charcoal stretch where nothing other than charcoal is sold, and then a banana stretch and so on. On each 2km stretch everyone would come into the road and try to sell you their wares (this is not a village but a main road so we were going 60/70 km per hour). This created a sort of human slalom effect. What surprised us was that the last guy on each stretch gave it as much enthusiasm as the first as if it had taken us 2km of say, banana sellers, to decide we wanted a banana. This admirable enthusiasm for commerce was repeated with all manner of produce and kept us amused for our trip to Shashemene.

Polls and Hailu with 'Africa in Banana Leaves'!

Shashemene sits in an area of land that the last Emporer of Ethiopia, Haile Selassie, had given to the Rastafarian movement and it is now considered their spiritual home. On arrival we found ourselves out of Ethiopia and dropped into Jamaica, with dreads, reggae music and the red, green and yellow stripes of the religion adorning anything that was wooden or concrete. To be honest the place is a bit of a dump and we had heard stories in Addis of disaffected Jamaicans leaving wife and family in the Caribbean to return to their ‘Holy Land’ only to find that Ethiopia is perhaps not so nice as Jamaica but not having the money to return, are forced to stay there ad infinitum. We visited the ‘museum’, which is more of a private art gallery together with some Ethiopian campaign medals and old magazines on display. It is owned by Hailu, a Rasta from St. Vincent and the Grenadines who has been in Shashemene for the last 20 years. As you might imagine, after a 40-minute private tour of the museum from Hailu we were the proud owners of some of his banana leaf art – a picture of Africa. Excellent.

We camped in a hotel (which had been Haile Selassie’s holiday house) car park in Wondo and cooking for ourselves after even only 2 nights of Ethiopian food since Addis was a grateful return to the norm. there very (very) hot springs nearby, so we swam in Haile Selassie’s private swimming pool, so hot it was exhausting to swim even one length (or maybe that is our lack of fitness). Now you would think that election fever would not reach Ethiopia, but think again. After plenty of BBC World in Addis we were clued up on the manifestos and the debates and looking forward to the results with as much anticipation/dread as you in the UK. The next morning we were up early and forcing the restaurant to put on the TV while everyone was having breakfast, we spent a very enjoyable three hours watching the results come in.

The drive to Yabello our next stop, was fast, tropical and empty (most Ethiopians must live in the North) which meant that we could have a private pee when required – simple pleasures! Yabello is the gateway to the Omo valley and the home of the  tribal people famous for the cow running on Bruce Parry’s series. It is possible to cross the border into Kenya through the Omo valley, we decided against this for a few reasons. The rain had been so bad in the valley that some overlanders had had to turn back just a week before us due to the state of the roads, we had also heard that the effects of tourism on the valley had far from genuine results. Villages would now charge $50 – $100 dollars just to enter the village and individuals would charge per click of the camera as you took a picture of them. This experience would, therefore, probably give us some amazing pictures but would lack any sort of authentic interaction between peoples, being more akin to a zoo, and would also seriously lighten our wallets.

Rift Valley Lake

Yabello was therefore just a pit stop before heading onto Moyale and the border. Like all border towns so far Moyale is busy, crowded and has a hint of ‘dodgy dealing’ about it. Luckily we headed straight to the border to see what time it would open the next day (Sunday) to be told that it did not open till lunchtime (which is a very loose term in Africa and can mean 4pm or even never) but we could stamp out today. A few phone calls later and the customs man was roused and the passport man summoned and we were officially stamped out of although physically inside of Ethiopia for one more night. The reason for this hesitation to cross the border was the long drive the next day over a notoriously long stretch of crap road, and with the recent rains we were expecting the road to be even worse. As a result we were out of Ethiopia at 5.55am to get to the Kenya border at 6am when it opened. It is with a hint of a smile that I say, and I promise, that about 5 metres before no mans land started a boy aged about 12 shouted “gimme . . ”, our final farewell from Ethiopia. I think he must be a Government employee, put on the border to give ferengis an Ethiopian send-off, and it made us laugh.

Straight away we saw the difference between Kenya and Ethiopia, the border post here is an efficient and ordered affair where offices have been arranged in neat concrete rows with a semblance of common sense that we had not seen since the Bulgarian / Turkish border crossing. It only took us 20 minutes therefore, to get out of there and on our way. Before we left we met a South African father/daughter team who had been intending to drive from CT to Cairo however they had been denied entry to Ethiopia which had stymied their plans. After some fruitless negotiation and a futile trip back to Nairobi by road (something you would not wish upon your worst enemy) they had resolved to go back to CT via a different route. It seems, with impending elections, that overland tourist visas to Ethiopia have been stopped. We must count ourselves as very lucky then for missing this new rule by only a couple of weeks.

A North Kenyan road leading into a rainstorm

Selfishly their loss was our gain as we went in convoy for the next day over what can only be described as a road in the loosest sense. Trucks had turned a mud track into a Somme like quagmire of ruts and puddles, our average speed for 10 hours of driving was about 15km per hour. This is the only stretch on the London-Cape Town route, which is unavoidably off road. Needless to say the Chinese are busy building a road from Isiolo in the South up to the border so in 6 months or so, you can get in your Ford Cortina and head to Cape Town on beautiful tarmac all the way! This stretch is also known as ‘the bad lands’ where until recently armed Army escorts had to take convoys of civilians South from the border. This was not the place to break down and get stuck overnight and it was comforting having the South Africans with us.

We arrived in Marsabit hot and tired as the hard but exceptionally stunning rocky desert drive had been exhausting. We stayed ‘Swiss Henry’s place’ ,which was great. Swiss Henry had married a local Kenyan and set up this very remote campsite, which also had a bakery, a cheese farm and chickens, so we feasted for the next day, which we took as a rest day. We shared the campsite with Peter and Toni, the South Africans as well as four Germans who were doing the same trip but were hoping to be in CT for the World Cup. Stories were shared around the fire (mine getting better and better and more untrue as the months go on), lots of laughs and many Tusker beers sunk. The next morning we woke up to find the site had been invaded by a grasshopper swarm – millions of the things everywhere – luckily we were leaving!

Our arrival at Lake Turkana

Lake Turkana (aka the Jade Sea) was West of Marsabit, the other side of the Chobi Desert. From various sources we heard that both routes, the high and the low one, were flooded from the recent rains and impassable. This region being the most remote in Kenya we were strongly advised by Swiss Henry to instead head straight south to Nairobi. Taking the Swiss peoples historical propensity towards neutrality and therefore safety we thought we must give it a go, the North or South road being our only conundrum, a decision which eventually took 5 minutes before we left, pretty much on a whim – the more direct south route. The ‘road’ was fantastic fun. Soft sand tracks through the bush for 60/70kms where we could absolutely fly followed by a dry riverbed for more of the same. It did get wet, for about 10km, and the desert turned to mud and swampy marsh, which took some navigating but was part of the fun. Admittedly it was with some relief though that we made it to the shores of lake Turkana and Loyangalani, where we would stay the night. Lake Turkana (as seen on The Constant Gardaner) is enormous and stunningly stark. The shores are barren and rocky as the lake is too alkaline to support plant life, but on the up side though (depending on your viewpoint) it does house the biggest single population of crocs in the world, although we didn’t see any!

Turkana woman

It is both the ‘Jade Sea’ and the people of Loyangalani that makes this trip worthwhile. This is the area of the Turkana, Samburu, Gabbra and El Molo tribes and they are magnificent. They are very tall and statesmanlike in their appearance and adorn themselves with bright jewellery and beads on their necks, ears and hair. The warriors (men) all carry spears. They drink a blood/milk mix as a substitute for water to keep them hydrated for longer, and water is seen as such a valuable resource that they are not allowed to drink it alone. It was incredibly alien and exotic to us as to see these tribesmen wander through the village seemingly unaware of how beautiful and magisterial they looked, it felt like we were in a different world. To say that the modern world has not reached here however would be a lie, a new phone mast and a fetish for mobiles has put this region well into the influence of Nairobi and Western ideals, it is not uncommon to see a Samburu warrior in full regalia, with a spear in one hand and a Nokia 6220 in the other, checking his emails! We left Loyangalani the next day after adopting a over excited ‘guide’, a guy called Michael, a local who was overflowing with chat about the Constant Gardener (he had been an extra in the film) and his new best friend Ralph Fiennes. He took us to the lake shore through the town and to a fish market.

We had two long days of driving south first to South Horr, where the tribemen were brighter than ever, then Maralal, a town surrounded by a nature reserve where we saw our first zebras by the side of the road. We set up camp in the rain at the Yare Camel camp, reflected on our last week of adventure, probably the most intrepid of the trip yet. No electricity/running water had become the norm, and we felt very removed from the outside world as no internet since Addis!

Breakfast by the river with Kit and Al

Our next stop was the start our Keen-yah experience which would see us staying with friends or friends-of-friends on and off for the next two weeks. Our first visit was to Loisaba Lodge, a safari camp that was run by a friend of a friend. The lodge was about 2 hours drive south of Maralal We were hoping for a place to camp in the Manager’s garden and as we drove into the Lodge entrance I joked to Polls “I Cant’ wait for the hot towels and the welcome drink!” As we turned the corner. . .voila. . one of the waiters with a basket of towels and a freshly squeezed orange juice each to knock back.

Elephant in the Loisaba reserve

As it turned out the lodge was empty as it is the low-season and we were to stay for the next two nights in a guest room – a luxury in itself to have a sit down loo and a comfy bed! Game drives, sundowners and breakfast by a swollen river made our stay truly magical and we must thank Kit and Alastair so very much for their hospitality. And next time the tennis cup is ours!

From our sejourn in Loisaba we continued South to Nanyuki which was the first good sized place since Addis and our first big Kenyan town. What struck us the most was the amount of signs everywhere – the modernity was giving us a culture shock! Even in this relative backwater there was a big supermarket that would not look out of place in the UK, hardware shops, good butchers where the meat is not hung above a sewer feeding the flies, tarmac roads and internet cafes. It was probably the most modern town, excluding capital cities that we had seen since Egypt or even Jordan. We stayed with Gill Littlewood, a friend of Polls’ parents just outside of town.

We've made it to the Equator!

Gill and her family are woven into Kenyan history. Gill’s father had been one of the original farmers and was well respected as one of the pioneers of farming in this wild frontier in the 30’s and Gill had spent most of her life in the country. She ran a fine dairy herd in Nanyuki and was a font of all knowledge on all things ‘colonial Kenyan’, we loved hearing her stories of Kenya old and new and of course meeting her faviurite cow ‘Queeny’. Just a few kilometres north of Gill’s house was the equator. We were now officially on the other side of the world. Although we will be wiggling North and South of it again as we head West to Uganda and Rwanda!


Next was Nairobi or ‘Nairobbery’ as we were led to believe – ‘windows up, car doors locked, hold onto your wallets, guns at the ready.’ Indeed second to Jo’burg, Nairobi has the highest murder rate in Africa and it was with some trepidation that we drove slowly through the outskirts of northern Nairobi (slowly because the Chinese are building a 6 lane superhighway and the roadworks have driven this area to an absolute standstill). The reception was placid though, a white face being much more common here than anywhere in Ethiopia. We shared the jams with Safari Company 4x4s, executives in their BMWs and Government workers in their Mercedes and certainly didn’t feel that we stood out enough to demand attention.

The suburbs of Karen and Langatta are an expat area with good restaurants, supermarkets and prep schools more often found in Berkshire than the bush. We were staying with Angus and Justine Douglas-Hamilton (cousin of Saba) and their children Siana and Billy. Polls had stayed with the family on her last visit to Kenya, 12 years ago and obviously had not made such a bad impression as to prevent a return visit! The quality of life they have is great -this is not easy living though, it is still Africa, water is scarce and electricity fails, the roads are bad, the traffic is crazy, there is some crime – everyone has guards and gates.

A Chameleon after a free lift in Nairobi!

We were in Nairobi for a week, as I had to do my final revision for my entrance exam for business school (the GMAT). I had been planning to take it in Amman, then Cairo and finally, not being able to put it of any longer, I chose Nairobi. The outcome would determine whether I do an MBA next year or not. So it was mentally out of Africa and into Algebra for the next 4 days of hard study. Luckily, or due to good preparation and natural intelligence (but I doubt that) I think I did reasonably well and await the final mark to be emailed to me in a week or so.

Unfortunately due to the exam we did not explore much of Nairobi but feel that we will be back one day so it doesn’t matter too much. We did have time to have a night out with James Armstrong, a Northumberland friend of Polls’ who was on a business trip to Nairobi, and also managed to stock up on all the food and supplies that we were missing. We had run out of gas in Ethiopia and after having bought a bag of charcoal from one of the charcoal sellers on the side of the road (the last one in the charcoal stretch – I made sure of it). We were having to BBQ every meal. This is fine except for morning tea. One of us had to get up 40 minutes early to light the BBQ to boil the water which was a little tedious, so we were relieved to be now back on the gas. Humungous thanks go to Angus, Justine, Siana and Billy for having us to stay. After all the scare stories we had heard about the city, we felt slightly relived to be leaving Nairobi with all our limbs in tact and still in possession of our car. This together with the fact that the exam was over meant that we returned to the road with high spirits ready for our trip to ‘the lakes’ and onwards to Uganda.

Our first stop was Lake Naivasha. Fisherman’s Camp, we think, is the best campsite so far. Shady, grassy, quiet, cheap, a great bar/restaurant with internet, a tremendous view of the lake and its resident hippos. It had it all. It was also now much easier to cook for ourselves. There were fresh fruit and veg stalls everywhere selling top notch and varied produce at very low prices. Most of the lakeshore here is covered in greenhouses, being the flower capital of the world. Chances are those out-of-season Roses on your windowsill started their life here. The same goes for your M&S ready to cook vegetable stir fry.

James in the lunch queue!

From Naivasha, where we spent a relaxing two days, we headed to our last home-stay. We were staying with Yoyo Vetch who lives in a very remote but wonderful house on the Soysambu (Lord Delemere’s estate). After entering the estate it took us a further 45 minutes to reach her house passing Lake Elementitia on the way. Yoyo’s house is overlooked by nothing and nobody except some distant hills, the tranquillity is absolutely complete. Occasional buffalo and giraffe wander past and leopard are sometimes seen around the house. Yoyo gave us an ‘African Welcome’ (a new phrase I am coining which includes selfless generosity, hospitality, great food, lots of booze and a lot of fun). As the time of our arrival coincided with sunset it was straight into the pick up with table and chairs and a cool box of beers and wine and off to another remote part of the estate for sun downers with friends and neighbours (including Lord Delamere’s son Tom recently released from his incarceration in Nairobi) for stories about life in Africa and life in general.

The ‘purpose’ (in the loosest sense of the word) of stopping here was to visit the school where a mutual friend of Polls’ and Yoyo’s, Victoria Knyvett, has worked on and off over the last year. The visit to the school was eye-opening, emotional and immensely rewarding. A dozen or so rickety concrete huts stand in a field of grass where 8 classes of children from 3-11 (although some are 14) are taught by 5 teachers. Now you don’t need to be a maths wiz to work out that 8 classes and 5 teachers does not compute but the remote nature of the school (at the geographic centre of the Estate) means that they have trouble recruiting and retaining teachers. We visited the classrooms and spent time with all the children, had lunch with them and then played with them afterwards. The gender stereotyping crossed borders with me being surrounded by the boys playing football and generally manically running about and polls skipping and singing with the girls. It was an absolute laugh. The children, despite some obvious signs of abject poverty, were fit, healthy and willing to learn. This is due to a feeding programme, set up by Tori, which means that every child is fed a cupful of porridge at lunchtime whereas before there was no food or water from dawn till dusk – hardly conducive to learning!

Fisherman in dugout canoe - Lake Baringo

Being on The Delemere Estate put us in the (perceived) heart of ‘British’ Kenyans. (‘British’ because the current constitution does not recognise dual nationality. Some have taken Kenyan nationality over British although their parentage is British – these people are included in this). Out of all the millions of British expats in the world it must be this small population that gets the most publicity; that has its own corporate identity. ‘Happy Valley’ is a place that sums this up. Images of waifish women in chiffon dresses cocktails in hand discussing the latest scandal, the men, titled, naturally, hunting down that trophy elephant to stick in the billiard room, the fast cars, the faster living, wife swapping and huge estates with vast tracts of land with huge herds; these are all images of the colonial era and also the images that the modern press (or is it just the red tops that I read?) still have us believe when white Kenya pops into the news. Although there is a good deal of harking back to the good old days, and living here here is still very fun, life for the modern British Kenyan is now more in line with the real world albeit at quite a high standard of living!

Yesterday we left Soysambu for Lake Baringo, our last port of call in Kenya. It has been a great three weeks. From meeting the colourful tribesmen in the far north, to enjoying the safaris and sundowners in Loisaba, from the intensity of Nairobi to the vastness of the Soysambu Estate; it has been as diverse a set of experiences that we have ever encountered on this trip. The only constant, I would say, from the North to the South of Kenya whether it has been from a Kenyan or a Keen-yahn is the famous African Welcome.

Soysambu School children on PAX!

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Planet Ethiopia

Posted by jamesandpolls on May 4, 2010

We have been in Ethiopia now for just over two weeks and have made it to the capital, Addis Ababa. The last two weeks have been incredible, taking us to the biggest highs and lows (both physically and mentally) of the trip so far. It has been nothing like either of us have experienced before . . .

 The most obvious difference between Southern Sudan and Ethiopia is the natural geography. Ethiopia is almost entirely a highland nation, with the majority of the country at over 1500m high. Sudan had been universally flat. After leaving the Sudan-Ethiopia border where the mercury had pushed to its highest so far (51°C), the land started to rise steeply and soon we were winding up sharp S bend turns. It was also getting cooler, cloudier and greener! We had been so used to the drab colours of desert towns that we had been experiencing since Syria that the green lushness of the Ethiopia was a technicolor assault on our senses. Trees, bushes and green fields stretched out as far as the eyes could see.

We have driven to the source of the Blue Nile!

Tukuls are the dwelling of choice in Ethiopia. Small round or square huts built of vertical wood branches with a thatch roof. If the family are wealthy enough the gaps in the walls will be filled with hardened cow dung/straw and the roof will be corrugated iron. The dress is different is different to Sudan; no dish-dashes here, instead western clothes in various stages of disrepair which hang off their bodies and accentuate their poverty.

Crossing the border we also noticed a major population density change. In Sudan we could go for hours without seeing anyone as we crossed a desert. Here most of the population lives in the countryside, and the villages are teeming with people. In a house that you would think would hold 5 people, 20 will be squeezed in. A pub (there are many of these) will be full to the rafters. 15 guys will be crowded round the village table football table, 30 around the ping-pong table.

Pee with a view!

If we stop a huge crowd immediately surrounded us. This was not a problem for the majority of the time but when we were desperate for pee it presented us with difficulties. You have no more than 20 seconds before you are spotted and children seep out of the surrounding land.  We have mastered the ‘quick-pee’ although there are normally a few interested bystanders by the time we get to ‘the shake.’ For obvious reasons this is harder and more embarrassing for Polls who has not yet mastered the use of her ‘shewee’.

 After spending two nights on the shores of Lake Tana, we headed up towards the Simien Mountains for a bit of trekking. En route we had a stopover in Gondar, where we spent most of our time in cafes drinking machiatos – (the coffee is incredible here) and were introduced to Ethiopian history of which they are extremely proud. The underlying pride towards their history is based on the fact that they have, bar a short period in WWII, never been occupied/colonised by a European power, which makes them unique in Africa. For a few hundred years Gondar was the capital city of the Ethiopian (Abyssinian) Empire housing a line of Emperors who could trace their blood line back to King Solomon. Each Emperor built a palace when they came to power, all within the same compound in Gondar which was fascinating to visit.

Palace in Gondar

The road up to the Simian mountains in the pouring rain gave us a little taster for the state of the roads to come. PAX was seriously put to the test, but managed to get us to Debark, the entrance to the national park, where we picked up our scout Mular (pronounced ‘moolaah’). He was quite a character with a questionable smell (aka ‘Eau de Moolaah’). Although we had been told at the park office he would bring his own food we ended up feeding him army rations and provided him with our brand new ground tent. His two words of English were ‘OK’ and ‘Doudch’ which we never found out the translation of. He carried a .303 rifle and 5 rounds, all of which he polished religiously (I didn’t want to draw his attention to the plug of dirt in the barrel though). 

On the summit of Bwahit 4430m

We spent 3 nights and 2 days in the park, trekking up to a peak of 4430m. We saw lots of Gelada baboons and Ibex which are quite rare. The views were fantastic, looking down steep escarpments to the valleys below.

A Gelada baboon with a great barnet

Next it was the notoriously bad road up to Axum – the 9 incredibly dusty, bumpy, hot and long hours lived up to expectations.  In Axum we relaxed, sat on the Queen of Sheba’s grave stone and drank lots more Macchiatos, it’s a great town, a really relaxed atmosphere and tree lined streets was a far cry from anything else we had seen.

Covered in dust after long road up to Axum

 HISTORY BIT (skip to next paragraph if not interested!). In 1868 my great-great-great-great grandfather, Lt Herbert Borrett, was part of Sir Robert Napier’s force who had been sent from India to Abyssinia by Queen Victoria to save two British diplomats and some Protestant Missionaries who were being held captive by Emperor Tewodros II at Magdala. It was Herbert’s regular letters to his wife, Annie, which have given this immense journey and the ensuing battle the colour and historical accuracy that we know today. After sailing from India the force of    had to cross 400 miles of very mountainous terrain lacking roads and bridges with hostile locals. Emperor Towodros tried to negotiate and even ended up releasing the hostages but Napier pushed on, eventually attacking Magdala. Towedros eventually killed himself – giving himself to God rather than man. Job done, the British withdrew, and, according to our guide, took many treasures with them back to India. Our route from Axum to Lalibela would largely follow this route, albeit in a LR rather than mule/on foot. But it was exciting to know that my GGGGGrandfather had come this way all those years ago.

Breathtaking scenery of the Simien Mountains

It was following this route that I became ill. Now many of you will know what travellers diarrhoea entails so I will not go into details but needless to say it was not pretty. What made it worse was that the hotel we were staying in was probably the worst ever, playing non stop ‘fairground music’ at full volume in the courtyard below (apparently it was Classical Ethiopian music) which literally drove us insane! Polls made an excellent nurse by preparing rehydration drinks by the bucket load and as soon as I could manage it we high tailed it out of there to Lalibela.

Women by the road

It was on our way to Lalibela that we witnessed quite a nasty road accident. Tarmac roads are a relatively new thing in Ethiopia and the natives have not quite got to grips with it. The fact that a 2 tonne vehicle travelling at 50km/hr will cause some damage if it hits you or an animal does not seem to register. Because of this they cross the road without looking, herd animals along the road-often blocking the entire width resulting in the drive being a stressful affair avoiding everything. To be honest I was surprised that we had not witnessed an accident before this but it was quite a shock nevertheless. An old man walked out in front of us without looking (and we were going quite fast fast), at the last moment he saw us, panicked, and ran straight across the road into the path of an oncoming truck that was also going fast. I saw him fly off the road in my rear-view mirror and thought he was a gonner. We stopped and reversed up to the man, he was unconscious but breathing lightly. He had a severe head injury and was bleeding badly from many cuts. The truck driver was panicking (in Ethiopia the driver is at fault no matter what). After patching him up with our medical supplies as best we could we got him into the truck and he went of to the nearby hospital. It was quite a wake up call. We continued our journey and nearly killed a woman who stepped out without looking – luckily her friend pulled her back.

The more typical road users!

It is here I also want to talk about begging and our general reception in Ethiopia, which has perhaps been the largest cultural shock. As we drive along the roads almost every child below the age of 20 (and there are millions of them) will shout either – pen, Highland (a brand of water), money, China, farangi, or ‘you!’. It is perhaps the last of these that is the most annoying. Driving through a village with a cacophony of ‘You, you, you, you’ shouted hundreds of times at the top of their lungs is not conducive to a pleasant journey. Almost invariably waves from people in the countryside will turn to hands out, expecting something. At first Polls and I laughed it off, wandering which git had travelled through this country distributing pens to the loudest shouting children thus cementing the fate of the rest of us, but soon it started to wear thin. There seemed no pride and it completely prevented us from interacting with them in any way. Anything we asked for was followed by a beg, just giving directions had a ‘going-rate’. One kid tried to spit through my window as we drove past. It started to piss us off. The lowest point was that while we were patching up this man on the side of the road we were also fending off cries for money and pens. What is worse is that the adults do nothing to stop the children doing it. In a country where a large percentage of GDP comes in the form of foreign aid you would have thought that there would be at the most, appreciation at the least, indifference, but not this open hostility. Perhaps the abundance of foreign aid is the cause of our continual harassment..

Priest praying in a church in Lalibela

 Arriving in Lalibela we had a few days of travel weariness. I was still not well, the traffic accident/begging scenario had been a shock and we were thoroughly bored of the harassment – Ethiopia was proving to be tough. Crap food, crap roads, crap hotels because we could not camp (too much hassle from the Ethiopians) crap service. We were in a funk!

 Luckily it didn’t last long – Lalibela is the one ‘must-see’ tourist sight in Ethiopia. It is a village, high in the mountains, which sports 14 rock hewn churches. These churches, some over 11m tall have all been carved out of the rock. They were fantastic, but what was more amazing was the lack of tourists and the fact that the churches are all still mainly used as they were intended, for worship. As we wandered around the tunnels and catacombs with our guide it was not necessarily the rough workmanship which had carved out these monoliths (apparently it was the angels who created them anyway!) which was astounding but more the dedication of the locals in their daily prayer. We felt honoured to be there. Our guide invited us to a wedding on our final morning – he said to call him at 3.30 as the service started at 4. As the Ethiopian clock is six hours behind us, we presumed, no questions asked, that he meant 9.30. Unfortunately, it turned out that he was talking English time, so we missed the service – it started at 4am! Only in Ethiopia would you get married at 4 in the morning!!

Bet Giyorgis church

The road to Addis has some of the most stunning views you can imagine but it was another long drive. We invented some new games to pass the hours. Small pink plastic bags of sick get thrown out of the bus windows from car sick passengers and we would keep a tally as to whose side of the road they were on. It is surprising how quickly we reached 20! We would also choose a favourite shout from the children. For the first round I had ‘You’ and Polls had ‘Highland’ and we would count the catcalls. We lost count at about 130 – 115 after 10 minutes. Our route to Addis was also the first time we saw aid being handed out. In two separate towns huge crowds gathered to pick up their wheat, in one town the EU was the benefactor, the other USAid. I don’t pretend to understand the issues here but we were surprised that in a land that was so green and fertile and after so many years of aid, bags of wheat were still being handed out.

We are now sitting on a very comfortable sofa, catching up on the UK Election issues on News 24 in Addis Ababa. We are thoroughly enjoying the hospitality of Sam who works in the British Embassy here. We met Sam in the police station in Wadi Halfa in Northern Sudan and he generously invited us to stay – a much needed respite from the rigours of travelling in this country. We will stay here for three days, hiding in these modern surroundings before venturing south. We will hopefully cross into Kenya just a few days after leaving Addis then head across to Lake Turkana (The Constant Gardener) before wiggling our way over the Equator to Nairobi. The Sub-Saharan adventure starts and we can’t wait.

Ethiopia has been a challenge; we have been truly taken out of our comfort zone. We have had the worst roads, the worst welcome, the worst food but the best scenery. It has been the most different. You only have to look into the puzzled stare of an Ethiopian as you drive past to see that your lives cross at so few points to make you almost different species.  The massive poverty, dirt, degradation and begging are enough to bring out what we have never felt before on this trip – immense pity and sadness. The sweeping views from almost every mountaintop (and there are many) make a Swiss vista pale in comparison. It really does seem like a different planet. Will we be back? Don’t think so. Do we regret coming here? Absolutely not.


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Scorching Sudan

Posted by jamesandpolls on April 20, 2010

The weekly ferry from Egypt to Sudan was everything we had expected (and secretly hoped for). Chaos and frustration in equal measures turned to joy as the whole mess turned out, in the end, to come together in a semblance of a result.

To put the whole episode in context you must understand that this small passenger ferry and separate vehicle barge is the only link between Egypt and Sudan, two of the bigger and more populated countries in Africa. There are no roads connecting them (although one is planned for the future – built by the Chinese of course). So, every week passengers, overlanders, and a huge amount of boxes and electrical goods purchased in Eygpt for resale on Sudan make the 18 hours crossing.

Accompanying us was a large group of Spaniards making a documentary, desperate to get to the World Cup after a start full of delays, our Australian friends who we first met in Palmyra, Frederick and Margareet who we had met in Cairo and several times since and Tim, Natasha, Nick and Lana, a US / SA team who were also in Foleys Landrovers and were heading to Cape Town to do Charity Work and also had the deadline of a world cup match.

The day started with a customs official after a quick buck, telling us that for the equivalent of about £10 we could pay him off not to search the vehicle. On principal we declined which meant that he grumpily chose our two largest and most unwieldy bags which we had to get x-rayed. This meant joining the scrum of businessmen and traders who were trying to get all manner of things from boxes of batteries to fridges and wide screen TVs through a single x ray machine. We decide to put Mark (good Aussie muscle) on point while I was on rear guard as we tried to barge in. To call it a scrum is doing a diservice to rugby, there were no prisoners, elbows and fists were allowed and several fights broke out around us as goods were passed overhead or around people who had been in ‘line’ for hours. This was a scene we had not seen before and in retrospect maybe paying the customs offical would have been a better plan! Then followed some classic Egyption bureaucracy, going to get tickets stamped, passports verified, stamped, restamped, countersigned, counter countersigned etc. . all in various offices around the port area. Luckily we had a fixer who we all followed like little ducklings in a stormy, very hot pond.

This all took quite a few hours but eventually we were ready to load up the vehicles and get on the ferry. PAX was to leave on a separate barge carrying 3 other Land Rovers which was due to leave that night but which takes an extra day. After beating the crush to get onto the ferry (one poor woman didn’t see the gap between the side and boat and fell in) we found that the deck was already full of boxes and bags marking off areas of the deck leaving no space for us. This called for action, and what can only be described as colonial enterprise the combined force of 2 Brits, 2 South Africans and 2 Americans were put into effect -first of all eeking out a small territory before pushing out and marking the new borders of our empire by putting up a tarpaulin. Soon we had electrical goods, food containers, blenders etc piled high around us. We had managed to commandeer a large enough part of the deck without touching prayer mats or annoying too many people to ensure shade and horizontal sleep and were suitably pleased with ourselves! It was with a mixture of joy at finally leaving Egypt, trepidation as we headed towards Sudan (we had lost the Sudan guidebook in Eygpt!) and downright nervousness as we left PAX on the barge, that we sailed of into the horizon on Lake Nasser (for the geographers amongst you, Lake Nasser is the largest man made lake in the world and was created by the building of the Aswan High Dam which increased Egyptian electricity production by 50% when it was built in the 70s).

Sudanese man travelling on the ferry

The ferry was a laugh. Cramped as we were under our tarp we had food, water and great company. Perudo also made its first appearance which was hotly contested and would become a regular feature as we tried to while away the hours in Sudan later on. Bar the prayer times when the deck became crowded and bustling (especially enjoyed the 5am prayer), the throbbing of the engines soon lulled everyone to sleep. A particular highlight was seeing Abu Simbel from the lake the following morning. Abu Simbel is a tomb that was built by Ramses II and would have been swamped by the lake waters had it not been meticulously cut up and moved piece by piece to its present location on the shore of the lake. The mountain was even sculptured to look like the original – all at a snip of $30 million.

Abu Simbel Temple

A few hours later we decamped and made to leave the boat to finally set foot in Sudan. On arrival we quickly learnt that the barge which had PAX on had been delayed and so we would be in Wadi Halfa for three days waiting for it.

The old Wadi Halfa which is the Sudanese ‘port’ on the south of Lake Nasser is now under water so to compensate the locals a ‘New Town’ was built. This is a dusty outpost about 5km was our home for the next few days. Wadi Halfa gets a bit of a bad rep from many overlanders and true, without the ferry, the town would probably disappear into the sand, but we liked the place. It had quite a buzz about it and two small cafes to while away the time playing more Perudo.

Our hotel on the other hand was not so nice – our 6 man room had the distinct smell of cats pee so we decided to take our beds outside and sleep under the stars – along other Sudanese ferry passengers who were due to get the once-a-week train from Wadi Halfa to Khartoum the next day. The next day was taken up with registering with the police, buying a photo permit and climbing a hill for sunset. The barge eventually arrrvied on Thursday morning – it took some tricky driving to get off the boat and onto the pontoon all the while being watched and ‘helped’ by about 50 other people. After some more waiting in customs we were off!

The Landrovers make it to Sudan!

The Chinese have taken a different approach to African investment than the West. They do not quibble with politics or internal affairs of the nation, they just build a massive great road and then, I guess, make the deals later. Thus a road now runs the 850km from Wadi Halfa to Khartoum, shortening a previously 5 day dusty bumpy journey to 2 days of ‘Top Gear’ tarmac heaven. We drove through incredible desert/mountain scenery and no traffic at all, and came off the road at regular intervals to travel the old dust road next to the Nile (which is still enormous), taking us through small Nubian villages of houses with pretty painted doors and windows. We also decided, rather than follow the huge S bends of the Nile to cut across 2 deserts, a days driving each, to get to the tourist sights of Meroe to the NE of Khartoum.

Polls with the sudanese family

This route also took us past a Sudanese service station (2 small huts with a jerry-can of fuel) where we had an appointment. In Luxor, Egypt, we had met a couple of cyclists who had stayed at this service station overnight, taken some photos of the family who ran it, developed them and gave them to us to deliver. You can imagine their faces when, 1 month after seeing the cyclists, some other white people rock up and deliver photos of them. We had a lovely cup of chai with them, played some great language charades, took more photos (which no doubt they are expecting in a month or twos time with some more travellers!) and went on our way. Each night on the 6 days to Khartoum we bush camped in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by desert or huge boulder mountains, which we loved. We were forced to drive until late as the only respite we got from the heat was to drive with the windows open (no aircon) – this felt exactly like opening a pre heated oven just before putting the food in – a continuous blast of hot air. Thank god for the fridge though as we average about 7 bottles of water per day!

Camels and Pyramids of Meroe

The only attraction en route other than the experience of camping in the middle of nowhere and the amazing scenery were the Pyramids of Meroe. About 100 (although we couldn’t count more than 30) brick pyramids built in the Kush Empire to house the dead stand on a ridge surrounded by drifting sands. All the tops of the Pyramids have been lopped off by an enthusiastic Italian who thought there might be treasure hidden at the apex, he was lucky at the first try and found some gold but 99 pyramids later he was no richer. The highlight was taking a camel ride the next morning and getting the camels to ‘run’– Polls won the race.

After 6 incredibly hot and dusty days on the road in 43 degrees we finally made it into Khartoum where we spent 4 great days. It was election time but all was very quiet. Most of Bashir’s opposition had pulled out. On our arrival we headed for The Blue Nile Sailing Club, which permits camping in their car park. Sadly, although it has a beautiful position overlooking the Nile, it is very run down. The place has so much potential though with a strong membership, both young (there were some Optimist lessons going on there at the time) and old (seems to be the drinking hole of Khartoum every night– even if the date moonshine is drunk out of plastic bottles!). The club also has one of three of Kitchener’s gunboats that he bought up The Nile to face the Mahdi at the Battle of Omdurman.

Sunset in the desert

 Polls managed meet a yoga teacher there and go to a class along with some girls working for the UN before we’d even set up camp. The next day was spent cleaning the piles of sand from PAX and ourselves and enjoying the delicious juices that were sold from a nearby juice bar. I also managed to persuade a member of the Sailing Club to let us sail his Khartoum One Design on the river. As the sun went down many onlookers watched us as we rigged up and sailed the rickety boat out into the river, getting stranded on the sandbanks several times before getting into the main stream to the amusement of the turban clad men on the bank. The fact that this guy let a stranger take out his pride and joy with no qualms is an insight to Sudanese hospitality, something that we thoroughly enjoyed throughout our stay in Sudan.

Riding by the Nile - these horses will be ridden to Cape Town

We were invited to stay with Matt and SJ Nelson who we had been put in contact with through a friend of Polls. Their generosity knew no bounds and we were thoroughly well looked after for the next three days and nights in their lovely house. Through them we met other expats living in Khartoum, including Billy and Christie who were en route from Turnsia to Cape Town on Horseback! They have been in Sudan for nearly three years whilst they readied themselves and their horses for the next leg. They kindly invited us to ride along The Blue Nile at sunrise the next day, such a great experience and worth the stiffness and a raw bum I now have! We were also lucky enough to be introduced to Ian who is a land rover pro and spent a few hours servicing PAX for the next leg of the journey.

On our last evening SJ and Matt took us to see the Whirling Dervishes in Omdurman. This religious practice has tempted us since Turkey but I am pleased we waited until now. This was not a tourist show but a real ceremony which takes place weekly. A few hundred people gather by a Sufi Mosque, the drumming starts, then the suffi’s get in a circle and start making scooping movements with their arms, chanting. About 20 guys in the middle of the circle start pacing around, with big smiles on their faces – most of them quite elderly, but a few young people.

Whirling Dervishes

The chanting of ‘Allah’ then gets louder, the drumming stronger and more rhythmical, incense gets wafted around and they start free styling in the middle, some hopping, some spinning around, others dancing, whistling or waving sticks in the air, a few looking pretty psycho but all loving it (bit like a trance party for oldies). About two hours later, as the sun descended, they all went to pray. It was incredibly powerful to watch.

We left Khartoum very well rested with clean clothes and fresh energy to enter country number 14. The drive to Ethiopia was a long one, following the Blue Nile south west. After 8 gruelling hours driving with 45 degree winds blowing into the car we camped off the road about 100km from the border in the desert. The next morning, we picked up some roof passengers (hitch hiking policemen!), which was a laugh. The desert gives way to dry grassy plains, and the Sudanese mud brick square roofed houses we’d seen throughout sudan changed to round African style huts with thatched roofs. We really felt we were entering sub Saharan Africa. The border town of Gallabat is a dusty bustling town with both Sudanese and Ethiopian people (they can cross the bridge into the town with no passport, but can’t go any further) There are goats, cattle and donkeys wondering the street, and we would have missed the customs office if it had not been for some guys who started pointing towards the building set back from the road. These were our fixers, we had three in total who for the next two hours took us from one office (or hut) to the next. The process went pretty smoothly, which was lucky as the temp reached 52 degrees! Polls guarded the car and tried to stay cool by chatting to the local men about football under the welcome shade of a tree.

Almost straight away the road starts climbing into the green hills of Ethiopia which was a welcome relief from the stifling heat of the desert. We had been warned about the children in Ethiopia running after the car as you drive through villages and they didn’t disappoint. It is strange as the children get so excited, wave and shout Feranji (foreigner), but the adults seem pretty nonplussed. We drove to Lake Tana (the source of the Blue Nile) and camped at an idyllic spot on its shores, where a Dutch couple are building a small guesthouse/camp. There are beautiful birds everywhere, and a lovely cooling breeze. Tomorrow we head into the Simian mountains to start a three day trek.

Apologies for the lack of photos. We will add some in Addis as the internet is truly snails pace here in Gondar. Well it is 2003!

Posted in Sudan | 3 Comments »

Ma’a Salama Egypt

Posted by jamesandpolls on April 4, 2010

Happy Easter to all!

I am writing this in Aswan, which marks the end of our month in Egypt, Arabia, and the start of something new – Sudan. The last two weeks have been fascinating and we are both very pleased that we have spent this long in Egypt, which has allowed us to really get under its skin.

After our last blog entry we headed to the Valley of the Kings on the West Bank of the Nile near Luxor. We got up early and crossed the Nile on the public ferry. Once across we found a bicycle rental shop and rented two very rickety bicycles, which were probably older than Tutankhamen himself and made our way past the plethora of other temples and tombs up towards the Valley of the Kings (VoTK).  For those amateur Egypt enthusiasts Luxor is the modern name for Thebes, the capital of ancient Egypt for most of the time and as a result has the highest density of ancient sites to visit. The West Bank is literally littered with 2-4,000 year old monuments to Gods, Pharoes, Nobles, Queens etc . .

4000 year old Hieroglyphics

The VoTK is about 8 km from the Nile and Polls and I both felt pleased that we had decided to drive to Cape Town as supposed to cycling. Sweaty and sore we arrived in the very airless and oppressively hot valley that is the site for about 30 separate tombs. To make sure that they are not overcrowded you are only allowed to visit three on any one visit which is actually plenty as one tomb pretty much looks like any other (there I said it).  They are incredible though. The effort that went into the making and concealing of the tombs was incredible and to see the hieroglyphics in the tombs depicting great feats and conquered lands was a real spectacle. The story of Tutankhamen makes his temple the most popular in the VoTK. Although a great story it is by no means the most spectacular tomb and is often overcrowded so Polls and I stuck to the tombs that were the furthest away from the entrance to the valley and therefore the most empty.

The Temple of Hatsheput

On our way back to Luxor we stopped at another temple (Hatsheput) which looked like it was built yesterday, certainly more modern than many of the Russian haircuts that were being sported along with a spattering of beer bellies and bikinis (some with both) courtesy of the Hurghada tour buses that coincided with our visit.

Weary after the cycling and temple/tomb visits we retired to the pool in our campsite for a well earned break where luckily we bumped into an ex REME mechanic who took a look at PAX, who has been leaking engine oil, and gave him the all clear, at least till Nairobi.

We left Luxor and headed North East across the Eastern desert to the Red Sea. Passing the concrete monstrosity that is Hurghada we arrived at our destination, Al Gouna, where we were going to stay with a friend, Bex, for 4 nights. Al Gouna is a closed, purpose built resort town with 10 or so 5* hotels and anything else you might want for a luxury holiday. It was quite a culture shock. Road verges were green and manicured, men at every junction act as pointless traffic signallers, supermarkets are stocked with Western produce, yachts grace the waterfront and the air has a strong smell of money.

Chilling out in El Gouna

If you listen hard you can hear the private jets from Cairo bringing the Egyptian elite to this seashore paradise. It was SO different to the rest of our Egyptian experience – affluent not effluence, that it took us a few days to get used to.On our first night there the ex President of Pakistan, General Pervez Musharraf was at the next table enjoying his steak frites and glass of Chardonnay, but probably not as much as we were. We would both like to thank everyone in El Gouna for their hospitality, Bex let us treat her home like ours, and others (Edward and Bex in particular) who allowed us to enjoy the opportunity to the maximum, something our rather meagre budget would not have allowed. Thank you so much!

So with clothes washed, roof tent cleaned and PAX looking sparkling we ventured out into the Egypt that we love but had forgotten.  We spent the next two nights on the Red Sea Coast, camping right next to the sea, and buying fish to BBQ each night, before heading back across the Eastern Desert to Aswan, which marks the end of our Egypt adventure.

Dive boats heading out to sea - Marsa Alam, Red sea coast

Aswan is a great place. Nubian in its historical origin there is a much more relaxed vibe here. With fewer tourists the locals are nicer and less pushy and the lack of campsites means that we are enjoying a couple of nights in a bed. (and enjoying the roof top pool that this hotel has!). Luckily, when we arrived we went straight to see the ‘ferry guy’ who, as it turned out, had forgotten that I had called in Luxor and had not written our names down. We got the last place on the car barge, something we feel extra lucky about as 6 other vehicles who arrived after us and did not book will have to wait for another week before they can get the next ferry to Sudan.  Instead of hanging around in Aswan we took a felucca for 2 days and two nights on The Nile, which was fantastic.

Slightly more relaxed than the Sydney -Hobart..

There is not much else to do other than watch the bank drift slowly by reading a book and enjoying the feasts that out skipper, Captain Jack Sparrow, cooked up for us three times a day.We had a great group of people from all corners of the world and had a good laugh.

Felucca Sunset

We have now been back in Aswan for two days (which is enforced so that we can do all the necessary paperwork to get the ferry which we board tomorrow). As the temperature soars into the mid 30s we have had time to reflect on our Egyptian experience. There is no doubt that the remnants of the ancient Egyptians are a marvel, it is incredible that they had the time, money, energy and inclination to build such edifices to themselves and their gods and one wonders if they might have survived as an empire had they built more ‘useful’ monuments such as defences or irrigation/sanitation systems or something with a financial return.

Nubian man by the Nile

The Egyptian people are great, welcoming, warm and friendly but remember that they are fighting to make a living in this overcrowded country. They certainly don’t let you forget as they ask for baksheesh or tips at every opportunity.

Feluccas on the Nile, Aswan

This is also the end of Arabia and it marks a distinct shift in the feel of our journey. We have enjoyed the region and the peoples but are relishing a change. We enter Sudan in exciting times. The elections, the first for over 20 years, are due to take place next week and in a country which has been dogged by civil war, where ethnic and political rifts are the norm, who knows what will be thrown in our path.

P.s – we were in the Egypt Daily News last weekend –  for the article click here

Posted in Eygpt | 2 Comments »