25 Aug

Tribes. Ethiopia and Kenya – 18th July 2011

18 Jul 2011

TRIBES – Ethiopia and Kenya

PEOPLE

Our planet, our home.

Sometimes when I travel I get fed up when people ask me where I am from. Where are you from? What is your Nationality? What is your religion? What is your belief? Is it not enough that I am me? I am human. I am a man of the planet. Where am I from? Earth same as you or anyone else you see. My belief is my own and I am from the same origins that you are. Whether we believe those origins to be the same or not it doesn’t matter, one of us is right and therefore we originate from the same. I am only human and so are you.

All around the world people are residing, living. In England people wake up and continue in their day to day lives, they go to work, go to school, and look after the house. They talk to their friends they socialise, they eat food and they go to sleep. I write this to you from Nairobi and in Nairobi the people wake up and continue their day to day lives, work, school, friends, food, sleep and they wake the next day and they do the same thing. In North America the same and in New Zealand they do the same. In New York in Nairobi, in London in Lagos, in Brussels and Belgium and Brisbane, in Manchester and Moscow and Malawi, in Africa in Asia in America in Australia in Antarctica in Europe whether it be carrying your water from the well and collecting your firewood, whether it be sitting behind a desk in an office or patrolling the forests, whether it be saving lives in hospitals or working in lab’s on cancer cures, mankind works. Whether it is sewing, or hut building or cooking or hunting or schooling children learn. Whether it be very little or glutinous amounts people all eat and people all sleep, in beds, king size, double, single, sleeping bag, cardboard box, dirt floor, pipe lines, a prison cell . . . people all sleep. And perhaps the most varied of all in some way or other we all socialise. We talk to others, we look at others; we spend time with friends, family, colleagues, neighbours and strangers. We are a varied and complex species. The ways in which we live our lives all over the world vary from the most ‘extreme’ to the most ‘average’. Every race, every group, every culture, every clan, every tribe, every society, every family, every tradition, every belief, every faith, every religion, every nationality, every man, woman and child is different, unique, not like the other, their own person, individual.

Then why is it that somehow we humans are all the same?

TRIBES

I arrive in Ethiopia desperate to see the tribes of the Omo, so many stories heard, so many photos seen, so many times I have dreamed of visiting them. Third time’s a charm in this country overflowing with so much to see I finally get a lucky break and my chance to visit the unknown and supposedly untouched place called ‘The Omo Valley’ has arrived at last.

In the middle of nowhere in South West Ethiopia the Omo Valley straddles the border with the sparse and baron lands of Northern Kenya, equally as untouched and thought to be uninhabited. Places such as these become difficult for the solo backpacker. With no roads and most certainly no transport system these far and distant worlds become just another place us backpackers can’t get to. But those well-equipped and lucky individuals who drive around in their own off road 4 by 4 vehicle have the world as their oyster. As did the two Kiwis who I hitched a ride with through the Omo Valley and onwards into the wilds of the Kenyan bush!

So the long journey begins and it takes a few days of driving for us to reach the outskirts of the Omo region. There are many tribes within the valley and all are very different. These are often described as the last of Africa’s remaining untouched ethnic groups. Still living by their individual traditions and continuing for the majority, unaffected and uninfluenced by the rest of the country, let alone the rest of the world. Anthropologists have their own descriptions of each tribe and its way of life and label them as Africa’s most fascinating and colourful peoples. Within the tribes themselves each group has a reputation amongst the others for their various practises and many of the tribes still remain sworn enemies with each other. Many of the tribes are renowned for violence and aggression. Keeping their reputations as fearsome warriors is very important as inter-tribal warfare is still a very real aspect of day to day life. The Bumi, The Surma and The Mursi are the three tribes most renowned for violence and fierce stick fighting, and all are often battling each other for various reasons. Many of the tribes practise scarification for cosmetic purposes much alike our western tattoos but amongst these three tribes the scars are a sign of prowess in battle and often dictate how many people a man has killed! So of course with such a reputation how could one not want to go and see these people? (and hope that their ferocity remains directed towards each other). Unfortunately time is of the essence and the chance to visit all three just simply isn’t possible. A decision was made and The Mursi came out on top.

We arrived in the nearby village of Jinka and set up camp for the night, an early start in the morning was needed to get to the Mursi territory so I hoped for a good night’s sleep, but Africa will always remain Africa. The storm hit in the early hours of the morning and the rain was torrential. The thunder was the loudest that I have ever heard and truly shook the ground, my poor tent struggled. We had received warnings from many that we were travelling into the heart of the rainy season and one night’s rain can make all routes in the Omo Valley impassable, not to mention the very real possibility of flash floods, my tent and I wouldn’t stand a chance. We’d heard stories of people stuck for day’s even weeks in tribal territory and vehicles in this region are so rare that help wouldn’t come for a long time. As I felt the water begin to flow under my tent I lay there on my ‘water bed’ and wondered if we would even manage to make it until morning, let alone reach The Mursi. Deep in the jungle of Mago Forest the journey to reach them would surely be a challenge. Another worry to pester my attempts of sleep was the news reports of murder in Northern Kenya. As I’ve mentioned the tribes of Ethiopia have a reputation. And the reputation was adhered to when tribal men in Ethiopia crossed the unmanned border with Kenya and slaughtered a number of Kenya’s nomadic tribe’s people. All over the Kenyan news just days before I ventured into this neck of the woods I couldn’t help but wonder if I was making a huge mistake. As the thunder continued to boom and the water continued to pour I lay wide eyed thinking of the descriptions of the Mursi I had read. “ghost like body paints” “fearsome warriors” “known for their violence and aggression ” “the most ferocious of all the stick fighting tribes” “regularly doing battle” “bearing lip plates of gross proportions” “believed to hold powers of witch craft”. Whether I can blame the storm I do not know, but I must confess I did not sleep that night.

By morning the storm had passed but the rain continued, we left early and hoped for the best. But the vehicle did us proud, we slipped and slid through the mud surrounded by dense forest and looming trees and made our way hours into the jungle to the land of the Mursi. By the time we arrived we were one extra in our party, the mandatory ranger sat next to me with his gun on his lap. Pointing across the car towards me I very much hoped that the safety catch was on. The rangers skirt the outline of the Mursi territories most of the year. A step made by the local councils of the South to ensure the safety of those crazy foreigners who wish to venture into territory that even the local Ethiopians won’t go. Finally we arrive at a small clearing in the trees, a few dried grass huts stand huddled together, soaking in the remaining of the drizzle the storm has left behind. My eyes scan the surrounding area and then I see them, a group of men sitting together under the largest tree in deep discussion over some unknown topic. As the vehicle slows to a stop I get out of the car, they raise their heads and immediately the party has stood looking at us across the clearing. A few elderly women appear from out of the huts and the odd child or so run to their sides and together they join the men in their stare. It’s at this moment you question your motives. Why am I here again? Was this such a good idea after all? What happens now, should I approach them or let them approach me? Suddenly my research into this region felt hugely inadequate and gut instinct seemed to take over. I dopily raise my hand in the hope that a wave of sorts would suffice, and with that gesture one of the men turns to the huts where the women are gathered and shouts something, an older child breaks from the group and runs into the forest and with that done a few of the men approach with the one who vocalised to the child leading the way to us across the clearing. I hold my breath and together we make our way to meet him and I start to wonder over the rangers gun again, maybe it wouldn’t be such a bad thing if the catch was off after all. As he approaches I see him clearer through the misty rain. A piece of material wrapped around his lower body he stands otherwise naked with nothing else but a thick wooden stick in his left hand reaching higher than his head, the top complete with a fist size knot in the wood. An old yet not elderly man he bears large holes in his earlobes where he once wore ear stretches much like my own, though much bigger the flesh now hangs wrinkled and empty. We ask if we can visit the village and take some photos, a few hand signals and a reply in Mursi that I think was a yes it would appear that we made a good first impression. This seemed to be enough for the elderly gents who then turned and made their way back to the others under the tree. The women and children stood, still in position and my mind disappeared to the child who ran off into the forest. Sent to recruit re-enforcements for battle perhaps I thought and my eyes flicked to the trees surrounding us. As I walk towards the huts I notice more people than I had first observed. Maybe they had been in the huts I thought. We approach and their appearance becomes clearer and at first it leaves me a little startled. The faces of the elderly women are streaked with white, ghost like paint indeed shadows their faces and the rain leaves thick streaks through it showing the dark and worn skin below. Seeing earlobes hanging lower than that of the village chiefs I start to look behind the masks of paint. Deep and angry frowns line the foreheads and these women are a far cry from your friendly granny who arrives with sweets and treats. Stern faces and harsh voices meet me and I take in the fact that every member of the tribe must be renowned for their fearsomeness. The women wearing little more than the men have old material and animal skins wrapped around their waist and their top half lies naked apart from the white of the paints. The women are all wearing headdresses, each different but made up of the same thing, bones. Bones of dead animals (I think) and horns, tied into pieces of rope and hide, and displayed of course to put fear into the hearts of the onlooker. I certainly feel that that the Mursi have a reputation for a good reason. The children scattered amongst the women were not many. Wearing paint from head to toe, naked and wet the smeared white created this ghoulish effect and the ornate hairstyles intricately shaven really confirmed the fact that every member of the tribe has to keep the reputation alive, at all times. Again I look around and notice the number appears to have risen again, where have they all come from I wonder, surely not all were hiding in the huts, but then I saw a young woman appear from the trees to the left, then another from the right, slowly people began to gather from all around and it dawned on me that the child that had run into the trees had been sent as a messenger, to tell those out in the forest that visitors had arrived in the village. Young men and women grouped together and the rain had finally cleared. Remaining overcast but with the occasional burst of sunlight they re-applied paints using their hands and fingers to create the desired design. Children were given their discarded head dresses and made to wear them and young men gathered together, sticks in hand and shouted what appeared to be orders from person to person (all the while the elderly men of the village remained under their tree, clearly in discussion about much more important things than a couple of white people and their black plastic machines which go ‘click’). As I started moving around the Mursi taking photographs I noticed that the young men and women had come bearing more than fancy headgear and body paints. Their torsos and backs and shoulders and biceps all bore geometrical designed scars. Scarification within the tribes is achieved using stone, knife or hooked implements. Once incised, ash mixed with saliva is applied to the wound promoting infection and in doing so escalating scar tissue growth. This method is often used amongst women to create a knobbly effect on the skins surface which is considered to be highly desirable to touch by the men. The scars curve around pectoral and shoulder muscles and consist of many small incisions equally placed in line across the skins surface, and they really did look phenomenal. The Mursi tribe really were stunning! What a sight to see all of these people with such a unique and alarming yet fantastic appearance. I continued to shoot photos and at times thought I was going to get a stick to the head judging by the looks in some of the young warriors eyes. During a photograph one of the warriors pointed at my wrist and seemed to be demanding one of my bracelets, deciding for some bizarre reason I wouldn’t do as he ordered I pointed at the bracelets on his wrist and implied he make a trade. He appeared to accept and before long I had traded bracelets with a few men, each of which had found my nipple piercing alongside my very small stretches in my ears rather amusing. If stretch size was a sign of manliness I clearly was less than a woman in their eyes! All the jewellery activity seemed to spur the arrival of the women who bear quite possibly what makes the Mursi so infamous in the eyes of photographers and anthropologists alike. Lip plates. The women of the Mursi make a small slit in the lower lip between the chin and the lip itself and over time stretch the skin using plates made of either wood or clay, the idea is similar to that of ear stretches. The plates are decorated accordingly with different coloured paints, and designs are often influenced by animals and their colourful markings, the polka dots of the guinea fowl being a favourite amongst the Mursi. A number of reasons have been given for the practise of lip plate wearing such as a sign of social status or the animistic belief that it’s a way of stopping evil from entering the body via the mouth, the Mursi still practise Animism. The women stood for photographs, deep frowns of pain across their faces, apparently wearing a lip plate is not the most comfortable of things, in fact it’s meant to be very painful, and I’m not at all surprised. After crawling inside one of their huts with the door no higher than my knees it truly started to dawn on me how basic and traditional the lives of these people were as they continued to exist in this forest within the Omo Valley. But as time went on the Mursi became more demanding and aggressive, ordering us around and crowding us. I got pulled towards different groups of men all requesting things I couldn’t understand and slowly the day became more and more difficult, finally the ranger stepped in and said enough is enough, he took us back to the car and too soon the time had come for me to leave the land of the Mursi behind, though I did so with my fair share of lip plates, ear plugs and other Mursi jewellery that I had traded for food, my own belongings and on one occasion Ethiopian currency. The younger men stood and watched, their interest in us fading as we parted the group and the women and children followed us to the car, the same harsh and demanding tones in their voice. As we drove away I turned back for one last look only to see them all laughing, had I missed the joke? Of course I had, clearly the fact that they had ‘scared us off’ had gone down with humour, for I am certain that they thought they had been nowhere near aggressive, in fact for them I imagine they were just being over friendly. Over the heads of the laughing crowd I strained to look a little further and saw the elder men still sitting there under the thick tree which loomed over their little collection of straw huts. Not even looking this way they were apparently undeterred and uninterested in the whole process. So the car started its arduous journey back out of the forest, and though I tried to get my head around all the events of the day I couldn’t help but feel that I had just had one of the strangest experiences in my life thus far.

So it’s a long blog so far and I’m only past the first tribe. So I will continue with only one other tribe from the Ethiopian side (the photos can tell the stories of the others) and then talk briefly of those I met in Kenya. So if you fancy a break now’s the time. Go to work, do that errand you need to do and pick up from where you left off a little later in the day. Or go grab a cup of tea and come back as we continue through the Omo Valley and I enter the lands of The Hamer tribe.

So the Hamer tribe, let’s start with a small introduction shall we? The Hamer are particularly known for their remarkable hairstyles. The women mix together ochre, water, and a binding tree resin before rubbing it into their hair. Then they twist strands again and again to create brown/red coloured pieces of hair looking almost like small dreadlocks locally known as goscha. Having good looking goscha is seen as sign of good health and welfare amongst the women. The men equally have interesting hairstyles, if they have recently killed an enemy or particularly dangerous animal they have their hair shaped into rectangular designs which stick the hair to the head using a special consistency of mud, clay and various coloured ochre’s. The finishing touch is a large ostrich feather which sticks out of the back of the head. This lasts for 6 months and can be remade 3 times during the 18 month period in which the men can keep the hairstyle. The Hamer also highly regard body decoration and, like the Mursi, jewellery and scarification are important parts of this. The older men often wear significant amounts of earrings. Each pair representing the amount of wives he has. The women have many types of necklaces and clothing made from animal skins which are all decorated using cowrie shells. They wear coiled metal bracelets on the upper arm and heavy steel anklets piled one on top of the other on their ankles, worn for the clanking noise they make when dancing. These anklets are welded directly around the ankle consequently meaning that once they are on they won’t be coming off! Married women wear thick, tight fitted double barrelled necklaces. These metal necklaces represent that they are married. If the woman is the first wife she bears a further necklace made from animal leather with a hard metal cap sticking out of the front. Similar scarification patterns to the Mursi are used with geometrical designs curving around the torso and arms. Ceremonial values dominate much of Hamer life and the coming of age ceremony for the boys is an important one for the whole family. The ‘jumping of the bulls’ is exactly what it says on the tin. For a boy to pass into manhood he must first jump naked over a selection of bulls. Up to 30 bulls can make the line and the boy must make his way jumping from bull to bull all the way down the line and back again. Once he has done this four times back and forth he has become a man, falling off is not an option! During this ceremony the women of the family, mothers and sisters etc beg other men from the family to whip them across the back with thick strands of leather and bark, the idea being that the bigger the scars that are left behind the more love you show for the boy in the family during his passage to manhood. Although a fascinating ritual I still think I’d rather celebrate manhood by going down the pub and having my first legal beer when I turn 18! So there you have it, sound fascinating don’t they? And they really were, we shacked up in the tiny village of Turmi (The largest of all the Hamer villages) on market day and it certainly didn’t disappoint. Hundreds of Hamer turned up to sell and trade food and produce and, supporting them, though fewer in number were the nearby members of the Banna tribe, friends of the Hamer. Two tribes at once, what a sight to see, with a lot more children darting about the place and an attitude ten times more welcoming than the Mursi the Hamer tribe really helped in giving us such an enjoyable experience. Many of the women happily asking for photos to be taken and showing off their freshly made hair I couldn’t help but thinking of staying with these guys for a few weeks, would be a fantastic thing to do! The men would come up and shake hands, fashioning their clay hair and ostrich feathers, only too delighted when I asked if I could take photos. Laughing, uncovering their chests so they looked the part, paint designs all up and down their legs and shins they marched around, also holding sticks for fighting and the little wooden stools they make which double up as pillows of all things (yes I couldn’t help myself, I bought a small stool from someone on the outskirts of the village). All of the young girls walked around looking very glamorous, going shy and causing a fuss when photos were requested and posing with their menthol eucalyptus twig toothbrushes hanging out of their mouths. The children were good fun, and dressed just as intricately and overwhelmingly as the adults and would follow us around the market as though we were the ones who looked different! Well, I suppose we were. All around were things for sale or trade, clay pots for cooking, dry grass for hut repair, firewood, wooden pillow stools, animal skins, calabashes filled with honey, chewing tobacco, sorghum, millet, freshly picked cotton and all the materials needed for self-made beehives which litter the tops of the trees in and out of Hamer territory. Yes the market was great fun and most of the day was spent wandering around the village and sitting in the shade, watching the day pass by, talking with the locals and participating in the culture. We watched women do each other’s hair and took photos, they found it so funny they even decided it would be a good laugh to cover the hair on the top of my head with red ochre as well, oh the comedy that caused! The scars were incredible, only a few appeared to have decorative scars but many had obviously had a son or two pass into manhood and as the photos will reveal some of the women really do get whipped pretty badly. As always I couldn’t help myself, I mean when will I ever revisit this place? So a stool wasn’t the only thing I left with, necklaces and bracelets, arm coils and anklets I left The Hamer tribe a little heavier than when I had arrived. The market slowly died out and everyone started making their long journey home and once again I found myself leaving a place and a race I really didn’t want to part with just yet. But the journey must continue, the show must go on and in the days that followed I continued through a few other Omo tribes. The Mursi and The Hamer set the standard and following them were The Banna and The Ari, The Karo, The Arbore, The Konso and The Dorze, we also passed by territories belonging to the Tsemay and The Birale, looked across the waters of the great Omo River at lands belonging to The Bumi and finished by leaving Ethiopia via it’s most Southerly tribe, The Dhasanech. Wow! What an adventure, and that’s not even the half of them! Yes indeed a kingdom of cultures tucked away in Africa’s hidden Valley the tribes people of the Omo really are some of the most interesting and fascinating people I have ever come across. Throughout my trip I have seen and experienced many a place I wish to return to and many places I have recommended as good places to visit. Well I must admit that a return to the Omo Valley in years to come is most simply the biggest must so far! To spend weeks with the people, learning their ways, seeing their true lives would be such an honour that I couldn’t describe, and it’s an experience I shall endeavour to chase within my life time that’s for sure. Do I recommend the Omo Valley to you, the reader? Well, yes of course it is a beautiful and fascinating place but one that in all honesty I feel many couldn’t handle. What’s more, my selfish streak shines through; no you can’t visit those amazing people, because I want to experience them all to myself!

So the blog drones on and we continue across the border to Kenya, a short paragraph or two as Kenya has dominated many a blog in the past! I pass the region of Lake Turkana, or as she is known to many, The Jade Sea. On my route back to civilization I first have to journey through the wilderness of Lake Turkana and its surroundings of Northern Kenya. Coming through this way we meet many tribes including the Gabbra and El Molo though quite easily it is those of the Samburu and Turkana tribe which take the trophy! Again beautifully dressed peoples, especially the women, they make it hard for one to not have the desire to stop and stay there forever. The most important part of fashion here is necklaces, and lots of them! We pass by village after village and hut after hut. The women of Turkana all wearing metal feather earrings in the tops of their ears symbolising marriage and the Samburu with their colourful face paints promoting beauty it’s a fantastic journey South! And people aren’t the only beauty. The beautiful jewel that is The Jade Sea shimmers and shines in the sun and the mountains surround the wild bush, piercing the sky with their summits, and what a temptation that is. The last part of the journey south had to end on a high and the 2050 summit of Mount Poi (also known as ‘Bread Loaf Mountain’ due to its shape) seemed high enough to me. The New Zealanders and I made our final journey together by climbing up Mount Poi and a day’s rest later we parted ways.

So there you have it. Not nearly half of my tribal adventures have been covered by this blog but I’m in the hope that what I have shared has been of interest. The blogs appear to be getting longer and I continue to ponder on how long is too long but with such a lot happening in such a short amount of time I think it would be unfair to all that has been experienced to not do it justice and describe it thoroughly. Certainly my interest has been stirred and my mind races towards other tribes, other countries, other continents and all the possibilities that lie out there waiting for someone, for me, to go and see them.

And once again I find the voice in my head having to remind me, “one trip at a time Sam, one trip at a time!”

25 Aug

The start of “The Journey South” – 22nd May 2011

22 May 2011

The start of ‘The Journey South’

So the journey back down is well and truly underway and with a bit of a stumble at the start I’m now back on track. (The stumble being a medical condition which caused my return to Ethiopia to be one of nothing but rest and relaxation.) An unfortunate circumstance but hey it could have been worse. Ethiopia then, has been and gone and I make my way further south and return to my second home. I’m back in Kenya once again!

Prelude

I’ll take you back to the beginning.

It was about 13 years ago; I walked through the streets of London a soon to be teenager completely unaware of myself, life, the planet or existence in any form. A naive child on a shopping trip with my Auntie and Uncle I wandered up and down the busy streets, plastic bags with various clothes in my hand, another consumer, another blind human abiding by ‘the system’. I saw something which even then puzzled me, a man passed me by and as he did he threw something from his shopping bag in the bin. Long and cylinder shaped it was and at closer inspection it appeared to be a brand new wall poster. Levis was written on the outside rapper. ‘Why throw away a brand new poster?’ I thought. After passing the thought by my Aunt I was informed it was probably free with whatever the man had purchased. “Take it if you want it” she told me. So I did. When I got home I unravelled the poster. In front of me was a photograph of a sandy beach, on the beach burned an open fire of hot white coals and burning wood surrounded by big round stones. In the centre of the page was a man, mid jump directly above the coals. He was bare foot and wearing nothing but a pair of Levis jeans. At the bottom of the poster the caption read.

“Levis – The only risk in life is to take no risk at all”

To this day I still have that poster; fairly beaten and faded it resides behind the door of my bedroom. I’ve looked at that man many times, taking the risk of burning his feet at the thrill of jumping over the fire. It’s something which is potentially dangerous, but worth the risk of the danger for the thrill or the joy the risk can bring (if passed my unharmed). In many ways to live an over protected life is not really living. If you don’t make decisions like these, if you don’t live on the edge, if you don’t take the risk how will you ever know what you’re missing? If you don’t make the sacrifice how will you know if it was worthwhile or not?

Are people trustworthy? Can you take a friend at keeping their word, let alone a stranger at keeping theirs? Or do we take a risk every day at believing those around us? Do we risk being hurt or lied to for the joy of what friendship and companionship can bring? We take the risks of course. And why? Because not taking them would be the greatest risk of all.

When I was in Egypt I met a Danish girl. Her name is Tine. She has travelled through Mexico and been to Australia and most recently she ventured through the Middle East ending in Egypt. She is 21 and I invited her to join me in Kenya, to my delight she accepted the invitation.

So we continue the journey as a duo, strangers at first we take the risk of travelling together, of trusting each other. But you know what they say, the only risk is in taking none, and feel as though I am a bit of a risk taker!

Kenya

So we start in Nairobi! Kenya’s capital and as previously mentioned Africa’s most dangerous city! So dangerous in fact that we travel to the scary, the terrifying, the simply life threatening – giraffe sanctuary! Okay, so it’s not quite as scary as I made it out to be and to be honest, that’s my view of Nairobi, not as bad as the statistics make it out to be. After nearly losing my life at the mercy of the tame and rather majestic giraffes we continue on to The Karen Blixen Museum (I really hope I spelt her name correctly). The museum being nothing more than the house in which the infamous Danish author lived in I spent most of my time lurking in the grounds as Tine viewed the inside. Most known for her book ‘Out of Africa’ (now a major motion picture) if you have not heard of her or at least the film/book I’d be fairly surprised. So with a day or two’s planning (and a spontaneous nipple piercing later) we leave Nairobi and venture further afield.

Our destination was Lamu Island on Kenya’s northern coast. But on the way there we first had to stop off at my hometown of Watamu. “Henry Kigen!!” After visiting all my old friends and colleagues for a couple of days we continued onwards to the Island.

A predominantly Muslim island Lamu most definitely has a mind of its own. A sort of ‘island life meets Muslim culture meets narrow corridor streets inbetween tall very old falling apart buildings and donkeys’ is a close description to what experiencing Lamu was like. Definitely an island like no other we thoroughly enjoyed days walking up and down the little streets getting caught up and lost in all of Lamu’s nooks and crannies. Every turn held another hidden trader or a new artist’s workshop. The streets themselves are towered by the tall age old buildings, dating back to slave trades and colonial powers, the upkeep of these buildings has been non-existent. Almost mistaken as war torn these crumbled structures shed their dark and faded shadows over the varied mazes that make up the islands streets. Crowded by a mixture of people and rubbish and copious numbers of donkeys depositing their own rubbish the street floors certainly leave something to be desired. This doesn’t appear to bother the islanders however, who walk the streets barefoot, soaking in the muggy air and island sun. I however chose to keep my flip-flops on and after around a week on the island we made our way back to the mainland, leaving with fond memories and our fair share of memorabilia.

A few days regrouping back in Nairobi we head back out for a busy few days. First stop Naivasha Town and then a short visit to the fresh waters of Lake Naivasha. The following morning we left for Hell’s Gate (no it’s not somewhere from Lord of the Rings). Hell’s Gate National Park really was fantastic and was the inspiration behind the setting of Disney’s “The Lion King.” Unguided walking safari in the middle of nowhere, gorgeous landscapes and wild animals on either side, what’s no to like? I partook in a bit of scrambling in the gorge and then returned to town (passing by one of Osama Bin Laden’s old hideouts). Next stop Nakuru Town and the salt water shores of Lake Nakuru. Formed by old volcanic activity, Lake Nakuru’s pink flamingos and hundreds of pelicans amongst other wildlife was a very colourful way to spend 6 hours. Continuing north to the friendly town of Eldoret we visit the cheese factory there, much to the delight of my cheese loving companion and by this point in the trip, someone I was in the beginnings of a serious relationship with. From Eldoret we journey on west to the little town of Kakamega and spend a night and a day in Kakamega Forest Reserve. Lacking in animals but overflowing with diversity of trees and other flora we bid farewell to the forest and made the long stretch back to the capital of Nairobi once more.

After a few days in Nairobi spending time together the realization that our four week adventure had come to a close becomes very apparent and it is with much sorrow that we now part and Tine returns home to Denmark as I continue on and return to Ethiopia for a third time. But as previously mentioned in this post taking no risks is risky and you most certainly haven’t heard the last of Danish meets English on this African adventure. So keep your ears to the ground people, for Denmark is only a plane ride away after all . . . . . . . .

25 Aug

Saharan Africa. The Sudan and Egypt – 7th May 2011

7 May 2011

Saharan Africa – The Sudan and Egypt

Before I begin I have a confession to make. I write this to you from Kenya, far beyond the fringes of the Saharan Africa that I visited. So now I find myself having to search within my poor excuse of a memory to find the trials and adventures that made my time in Saharan Africa the unforgettable experience it was. I hope my continuously lengthy blog posts do not bore you too much. Mostly I hope I can remember enough to give the countries the justice they deserve.

The Sudan

The Sudan, it sounds so cool doesn’t it? The Sudan, The Sudan! I don’t know if you have to add the ‘The’ in front of it but it just seems so right don’t you think? Sudan is Africa’s largest country, covering 8% of the continents surface, it’s also one of the most ethnically diverse countries with nearly 20 major tribes and well over 100 languages. But as many of you may well know these statistics are about to change, and why? Because Sudan is about to split in two. For hundreds of years now those of the South have continually battled the North in their desire for freedom and many lives have been lost in the process. With issues ranging from claims to Egyptian heritage, tribal conflicts and borderlines to farmers land rights and extreme environmental differences the struggle has been a deep one. With some of the biggest problem topics being borderlines between North and South and access to The Nile and her bright blue waters the struggles are hard enough. But then with the main cause for conflict being access to the black blood of the continent, known to many as oil it’s not surprising it’s taken so long for North and South to come to some sort of mutual agreement. So finally, the referendum has been passed and on the 10th of July 2011 the peoples of The Sudan shall be internationally recognised as either Sudanese or South Sudanese. If only the colonialists of the past had listened to the people of Africa in the first place, perhaps this long drawn out war could have been avoided. The West strikes again and I sadly inform you that in this case when I say The West, I mean Britain once more, Rule Britannia indeed!

History lessons aside I enter Sudan with an enormous sense of pride. Don’t ask me why because as in most cases I find it very hard to explain myself but there is something about Sudan that seems, well I don’t know but it seems to take a hold of you somehow. Sudan, land of mystery, land of the forgotten and land of the unexplored. It is so vast and holds so much, it has such a small population most of which reside in the capital city, which in itself holds a sense of splendour in the name alone, Khartoum. With so few people and so much space it’s hard to not experience the wonderful feeling that every day holds a whole new adventure, a brand new discovery is waiting to be found. Entering from the highlands of Ethiopia the country seems to become even more flat even vaster than I had been told it would be. As I travel along the smooth tarmac roads and look at the lunar landscape, the desert scenery, the dunes, the random mountains in the middle of nowhere, the sky bigger than you can fathom and the continuous existence of sand beyond sand I find my mind wandering back to my much loved Namibia once again. The comparisons between the 2 are similar on many levels. The landscape, the size, the population, the climate, it’s no wonder Sudan became so appealing to me the more the days passed. I spent mornings watching the sunrise over the dunes, I camped in the desert, I spent time with the locals, I smoked the shisha pipes, I learnt some Arabic and I haggled in the markets. I chased deadly scorpions and caught nocturnal geckos. I climbed the desert dunes and walked the Nile’s banks. I reached the red sea and stared at her turquoise blue waters, I climbed holy mountains and visited temples, I saw my first hieroglyphics, and I went to the first, the oldest and largest collection of Pyramids in the world, made by the ancient Nubian Egyptians. But I know I still didn’t even scratch the surface of this amazing majestic country! I lived in the wild and I stared into the horizon, I felt the sand beneath my feet and the dusty breeze in my face and I watched the shadows form as the sun set over a beautiful and thought provoking place, my kind of place, and I thought of you Chris.

I will be one of the last. One of the last to enter Sudan as a whole, Sudan as Africa’s largest country, and as one of the last I feel truly privileged. Having travelled no further than what will soon be called North Sudan I leave the south for another day and simply marvel at the North. Sudan is beautiful, an oasis after a hectic Ethiopia and before a busy and bustling Egypt. Sudan was simply one of the best visited in this my South to North adventure. It was the penultimate country and one that I was very reluctant to leave. Sudan has the history and the beauty and is without all the hassles that its age old sister Egypt suffers with. So I urge you to visit Sudan. So much to offer, so much to experience and so much to see that most surely and as definitely as I sit here and write this, one visit here simply won’t be enough!

My blog post on The Sudan is dedicated to Chris Rampe 4/10/2010.

Egypt

. . . . it’s hazy in the dark, I can’t quite see it, others are also straining to see. They flank me on my left and my right. Not too close to the edge now, you don’t want to fall in. Is it there? Where? No, we’re not there yet, wait I can see the lights, look they’re reflecting on the water. Where? I don’t see them. Ahhh, there! Wow! Silence, darkness. The slow flow of the water as it moves under the boat, the moonlight reflecting off the water. The people all leaning over the side of the ferry clinging onto the cold steel rail, all trying to getter a better view, all trying to see what I am trying to see, and there it is. In the moonlight, floodlit and facing us as we flow along the infamous Nile River, the ancient Egyptian site of Abu Simbel stands tall and proud, looking down on the people with its hundreds of years of wisdom and experience. I took the passenger ferry that would lead into my next country and as I did so the pharaohs of Abu Simbel sat, watching me in the darkness of night from beyond the grave. And here started my first night in Egypt.

So the Tunisian Revolution was the start of a worldwide uprising of ‘the people’ wanting freedom at long last. Countries all over the Arab world stood up and fought (and are still fighting) for democracy, for the freedom of choice, the freedom to live their lives the way they CHOOSE to live it. Freedom. The reasons for my love of travel are endless but the word freedom is certainly somewhere near the top of the list!

I arrived in Egypt during the time of its Revolution, Mubarak had just announced he would step down. I found myself in a country filled with people who had triumphed in obtaining there long withheld freedom. What a fantastic time to visit the country. When the trials in Egypt hit the headline news around the world I had many people contacting me telling me I shouldn’t go. “It’s not safe!” they exclaimed. Well I must say that this seemed a bit over dramatic to me. Egypt’s unrest was one of the people, not the visitor. Tourism in Egypt is one of their biggest industries, and though they were fighting for freedom, by the time I had arrived in Cairo a new fight was beginning. The fight for their livelihood depended on the money that tourism can bring, and unfortunately the tourist industry had come to a standstill. So all those considering visiting should know this, I felt 100% safe throughout my time in Egypt, and even safer when in Cairo itself!

So let’s face it, Egypt isn’t exactly new to suffering with trials and tribulations. Egypt is the oldest civilization of mankind, the first in fact! If Egypt can suffer with all its plagues, its many ruthless pharaoh’s, it being taken over and conquered by Europe and Persia and whoever else decided it wanted it. If Egypt can last the thousands of years that it has lasted I’m sure it can cope with a few weeks of kicking Mubarak out the door! Now, if truth be told Egypt is one of the biggest tourist destinations on the planet and is home to arguably the top of the list of the world’s 7 wonders. The Sphinx and pyramids of Giza attract more tourists per year than the rest of Saharan Africa put together (apparently). So who on earth gets to go to there without it being jam packed full of people? Who on earth can say they gazed in the eyes of the sphinx with no other person in her eyesight?

When I watched the sunrise over the pyramids of Giza, the Sphinx lay coolly in the morning breeze; I stood there watching over the sleeping city of Cairo with the largest pyramids in the world standing above me. When I stood, surrounded by the Great Ancient Egyptian Pyramids I was the only person there! Empty, the whole place, I must admit I felt incredibly lucky to see such a thing in the peace and quiet of only my own presence. I mean, when in history is the last time that those pyramids stood with only one man present.
I visited other sights in Egypt and the story stayed much the same. None were as empty as Giza was but many were close to it. Abu Simbel in the South, and all the sights of Luxor, the Valley of the Kings and it’s ancient tombs, the Tombs of the Nobles, Ramses Temple, the Coliseum, The temple of Hatshepsut, Luxor Temple and the very impressive Temple of Karnak! Finishing with a trip to The Egyptian Museum I felt well and truly like a tourist, but wow! I never used to be a museum person but now I’m converted!
So, after taking part (accidentally) in a couple of protests in Cairo (seriously they grabbed me as I walked down the street, put their arms around me and taught me some celebratory songs) the time finally came for me to leave Cairo, but I’d done it. I had made my way through Africa from bottom to top and east to west, and what an experience it had been.

Cape Town in South Africa to Cairo in Egypt and Mozambique’s Maputo to Namibia’s Swakopmund.
The African continent.
South to North and East to West.
The half way mark.
The first half of my epic journey across Africa had come to a close and I looked back at my time spent in 15 of Africa’s countries.
Lions in Zimbabwe and storms in Malawi. The world’s highest bungee jump in South Africa and white water rafting in Zambia. Hippos on New Years Eve and summiting Kilimanjaro, Africa’s highest peak. The world’s oldest desert in Namibia and endangered mountain gorillas in Rwanda. Ethiopian churches, the Sahara desert and the pyramids of Meroe and Giza. What an adventure it’s been.

South Africa
Swaziland
Mozambique
Zimbabwe
Botswana
Namibia
Zambia
Malawi
Tanzania
Kenya
Uganda
Rwanda
Ethiopia
The Sudan
Egypt

My time in Egypt ended in The Sinai Peninsula. First off I went to Sharm El Sheik, meeting up with my parents on their annual holiday and then on to Dahab. Dahab is a very funky, red sea coastal town with a great amount of diving, climbing, Bedouin Tea and Shisha pipes. Missing out on the diving I had much shisha and tea and climbed Mount Sinai to the summit. There were some amazing vistas from the top. It was a very surreal feeling standing on the summit watching the sunrise as pilgrims from all over the world stood together and sung songs of worship. The moment seemed to conjure up something in me I hadn’t felt in a long time, it was a fantastic experience. I kept an eye out for Moses but I must have missed him. I kept hearing voices at one point and passed this bush that was on fire but apparently that’s a normal occurrence in this neck of the woods so took a few photos and made my way back to Dahab.

I left Egypt contemplating life, Africa, travelling, my trip thus far. So much happened, so much to think about it’s a good job I’ve got a few more months to go! So now I start my journey back down Africa. Retracing old steps and making new ones along the way. Revisiting much loved countries and exploring new countries that I am so far yet to set foot in. Seeing old friends and making new ones . . . speaking of making new friends some of you may have heard I left Egypt with a little more than contemplation. What can I say, Danish girls are very pretty!

Well there you have it. Almost up to date. I left Egypt on the 9th April and with a new companion. Ethiopia along with other destinations has been and gone already and I’m currently residing in Kenya once more. And I’ll tell you all about that some other time!

25 Aug

Ethiopia. Heights, history and hassle – 9th April 2011

9 Apr 2011

Ethiopia – Heights, History, and Hassle

Ethiopia, an introduction.

Ethiopia is one of a kind, of that I’m sure. The country is a gateway, a ‘star gate’ between 2 different worlds. Africa or at least Africa that I have grown to love is what is known to many as Sub-Saharan Africa. North bound from Ethiopia and from the southern fringes of the Sahara Desert up is what is known as Saharan Africa. At the time of writing this Ethiopia blog I was in The Sudan and I can see why the 2 halves of this continent are often spoken of as 2 separate places. Many people around the world consider parts of Saharan Africa ‘The Middle East’ and I assure you anyone living in a Saharan African country certainly does not consider themselves to be African. And this I was told by a friend I had made in the capital of Ethiopia.
“Africans are black, people from the Northern countries (Middle Eastern countries) they are not black, they are Arab”
So there lies the difference plain and simple, the difference seen by the local peoples of Ethiopia that is. But sure enough, the more people I meet and ask the more agree and state the same opinion, ‘In the North they are Arab, in the South they are black.’ This way of thinking is arguably one of the major contributors to Africa’s largest country finally splitting in two, but we’ll touch more on that within the next blog entry to come.
So it was established that, however politically incorrect it might be, black meant African and Arab meant Middle Eastern, but that wasn’t quite good enough for me.
“So what does that make you?”
I ask my Ethiopian friend, thinking I had found a flaw in his statement. “If Northerners are Arab, and Southerners are black, where do you fit into things?”
“Ahh . . . . ”
He knowledgably replies.
“I am neither. . . . . . . . I am Ethiopian!”
And that’s Ethiopia for you, one of a kind, not ‘Arab’ not ‘black’, neither north nor south. I can’t say I quite agree in all of my friend’s opinions but I also can’t deny that Ethiopia appears to be a middle man between the two, the gateway between my known Sub-Saharan Africa, and the largest deserts Saharan Africa.

Ethiopian Heights

Ethiopia is different to the rest of the continent in more ways than one and it’s fair to say (with the exception of little Lesotho) that as a country, Ethiopia is Africa’s roof. If you were to look on a geographical map of Africa you would see immediately that Ethiopia is covered, from border to border with mountains, highlands, peaks and pinnacles, summits and rooftops. It is the land of high altitude and the journey through it really was one with ups and downs. Ethiopia does not just stay high. There are lowlands amongst the highlands and a drive around Ethiopia will take you from sea level one minute to 3,500m in just under an hour or 2. Days on the road proved breath taking not just from the lack of oxygen in the high altitude but from the beauty of the landscape as it changed so dramatically at every turn. As many of you will know, Ethiopia is not the richest country in the world and this could not be more apparent than in the countries roads. The man-made structures of bridges and tunnels are non-existent here and the roads are not the smooth tarmac you readers have just driven on to get back from work in the Western World. No, the dirt track is the only way here, and the dirt track on the edge of a 3,500m high mountain is one that’ll put your heart in your mouth. Bumping and swaying from side to side you climb higher and higher, all too often when looking down below you see the overturned lorry or burnt out petrol tanker, fallen from the dusty tracks above, left there to rot and rust. These vehicles are not unlike the many rusted and ragged army tanks we see on the side of the road, forgotten, abandoned, now a climbing frame for the millions of kids this country has. Speaking of heart in the mouth experiences I sit here with another tale to tell. Ethiopia is home to many churches, of which I will discuss later. I decided to visit one of the lesser known churches of Ethiopia, found in the mountain tops. The rock formation that houses it is known to the locals as the ‘Geralta Cluster’. After a few hours driving into the Ethiopian dry lands I felt I had been whisked off to another far away country. I passed rock formations and plains that brought to mind Arizona and the Grand Canyon regions of the United States. The heat of the day baking away as the horizon became a mirage; the views that can make you believe you are on another continent continued. Finally I arrive, the cluster in full glory just a few k’s walk away. The 3 pinnacle cluster reaches a little over 2000m’s at its highest peak, piercing the sky in a land of plains and desert. I met my guide and a few other ‘assistants’ along with the priest of the church and we began our walk to the base of the cluster. I had been warned previously that the climb would be difficult but in my naivety or perhaps ignorance I believed I knew best and felt I would be fine to attempt it alone, however the decision was made that I could not do this and we left together. The first hour of the climb was fairly simple, and more a scramble hike than a climb, but then the shear face of the highest pinnacle met me and laughed. A complete cylinder all the way around I began to struggle to see any means of going further. No steps, no path, just the sand stone rock showing all its years of various layers compacted down, showing me it rates much higher in age and wisdom than I do, saying to me, ‘you don’t know what you’re dealing with’. I started the ascent, my hands and feet ushered into position by the ‘assistants’ whom I was then only too happy to be guided by to the hand holds and crevices. Very different to my rock climbing in the UK, I preceded up the vertical tower, rope less, without harness, in fact, with no equipment at all. After another hour of climbing we had reached the ‘holy’ part of the mountain, where the people are blessed before continuing and in respect you remove your footwear. Barefoot and barely containing my new found fear of heights I completed the last part of the 2000m giant and found myself at a small ridge, and stood there with my back flush against the last part of rock, trying to hide the fear in my eyes, we had reached the top. I looked around, a single very withered looking tree stood there, accompanied by my entourage of local men. At this point I was shown the small cave hewn into the rock at eye level, it was a dark crevice that I was prompted into photographing by my entourage, I did so accordingly. After taking a couple of shots, seemingly oblivious to the contents of the cave the clouds above me moved, allowing a little more sunlight to shine down and reveal to me a very clear, unmistakeable decomposing foot. I took a closer peak into what I now know to be a pilgrims burial chamber and laid eyes upon all the past pilgrims who have journeyed to the church and in doing so lost their lives in the process. Carried back up the formation by their fellow pilgrims the bodies are laid to rest under the church hewn into the pinnacles peak, thousands of meters up in the air, just that little bit closer to heaven. Above the grave lay my destination and I climbed above a few metres to a ridge circling the tip of the pinnacle. With no more than a foot and a half of rock ledge under my feet I began to circle the ridge, slowly shuffling my way around, my view, a 360 degree angle of everything. Arizona in full view, the thousands of meter drop below me shining bright in the mid-day sun the sweat was trickling of my nose and plunging down to the plains below. Finally I had arrived, a small dark hole in the rock surface behind me called to me, and I left the bright hot ledge and entered into a small room the size of a closet in the hewn pinnacle. Dark and cold I wait for my eyes to adjust and ahead of me lay a small door in the rock, the entrance quite possibly to one of Africa’s highest churches! The church was really interesting, I spent some time there, listening to the stories of the priest, seeing the dark and old walls painted with stories of men from thousands of years ago. As the story unfolded the reason for the churches placement was revealed. Believed to be built not long after the times of Noah the church is a haven to all those who know its existence should God ever feel the need to flood the world again. With the story of the churches purpose now told my time here had finally come to an end, and all that lay ahead was the journey back down.
Yes indeed, this is a country full of many things that add to its uniqueness, and the heights of ‘Africa’s middle man’ are one of the top!

Ethiopian History.

Every country has its history, and even more so every African country has its history, whether its colonialism, civil war, apartheid, independence or genocide each country has a story to tell. For Ethiopia its history is its religion. Its religious beliefs, traditions and festivals are what make up everyday life for the everyday Ethiopian. Ethiopia pours out religion, whether it be the strong Muslim influence, the equally strong Christian influence, or the infamous birthplace of the Rastafarian movement from the time of King Haile Selassie, Ethiopia seems to cover it all. The mosques that play an everyday role for the locals here seem to get forgotten however because one of Ethiopia’s fames is not the mosques but the churches. Christianity hit Ethiopia centuries ago and many Ethiopians believe that theirs, is the holiest country in the world. Argued by Pilgrims and religious fanatics worldwide Ethiopia is commonly regarded as one of God’s chosen children and the well-known city of Lalibela is described as the world’s 3rd holiest city, Third only to Jerusalem and Mecca. As the story goes it all started in Ethiopia with the arrival of King Solomon. It is believed that King Solomon was the founder of the country. Back before the times of Christ King Solomon situated himself in Ethiopia, descended from Adam and Eve Solomon’s arrival ensured the continuous overwhelming Christian influence that Ethiopia’s past, present and future will hold.
The Rock-hewn Churches of Lalibela are most likely to be Ethiopia’s greatest asset and most certainly this UNESCO World Heritage site is at the top of the list for tourists. I arrived at the most famous of these churches first, and as all you patriarchal Brit’s will be proud to hear it was the church of Saint George! 6am and mass had not been on for long, hundreds of men, women and children dressed in white. The first day of lent, this mass was a special one and the people came from far and wide. Walking towards the church in the early morning mist I encompassed my surroundings. The cobbled streets, the haze of early morning in the air, the trance like Christian chanting over the church tannoy’s (much like those songful prayers that cry out from mosques), and the many white hooded and cloaked figures walking around you, kneeling in the street and kissing bibles, crosses, holy tree’s and buildings. It was an interesting day, passing from church to church. Walking along the small ‘city’ (more like a village) streets you would not notice any churches at all if you didn’t know they were there. Carved because of the demands of King Lalibela himself these churches were hewn into the rocky ground way back 900 years ago. Believed to be a ‘new Jerusalem’ these rocks were carved down into the ground until they started to take shape. Slowly chipping and carving their way down into the rock bed about 20 metres a cube shape would finally become visible. Then from the hewn rock a large door shape was carved into the front of this cube of rock. From the door entrance the rocks were hewn inward and the cube shape gutted, leaving behind a hollow square, a church, buried in the rock, hidden from view, only accessible by walking down the windy rock hewn paths, leading to entrances deep into the ground.
It’s difficult to describe the churches of Lalibela and I think it’s another blog entry that could do with some visual guidance. I hope to post pictures someday, honestly. All in all I must have visited over 50 religious sites and churches within my time in Ethiopia and every other person I met would ask me “Hey you! Are you Christian?” Names are not offered first, your religious beliefs are what make you who you are here and it’s something that is shared and, most importantly it is something that is willingly accepted. Whether you are Sunni, Orthodox, Tigrayan or Rasta, Christian, Muslim, Jew or Hindu you proclaim your religious belief, and the reaction of those around you is placid.
A land of acceptance and a land of people Ethiopia has one of the highest populations of any county in Africa. It’s amazing that so many people with such diverse belief systems can live together as one and live on the whole, peacefully. There are many countries all over the world I can think of that cannot say the same thing.

Hassle

The children of Ethiopia! If you didn’t like kids already then by the time you leave Ethiopia you will do. Rude, demanding, shouting, ordering, nuisance filled little trouble makers, in Ethiopia you really can’t avoid these irritants. Making up 50% of the population the children here will hassle you forever and then hassle you some more.
“Give me pen”
“Give me money”
“You you you!”
“Money money money”
“Give me one birr (4pence)”
“Give me t-shirt”
“Give me plastic, you you you”
You you you, gimme gimme gimme, pen pen pen! These children do not stop, they grab at your pockets and crowd you in the hundreds, you push them away and they push you back! They come bearing the attitude that everything you own is there entitlement, whatever it is you clearly don’t need it and they do so they have come to collect it. The mountains, the valleys, the cities, the villages, the national parks, the monuments, the mosques and the churches, nowhere is safe. You cannot escape them, children are there! Children are Ethiopia and without them its past will be all what’s left, because it is these that make up the future of the country.
I can’t help but think that this attitude of Ethiopia’s younger generation is somehow the responsibility of the western world once again. Influenced so heavily by the huge amounts of aid that the west poured into Ethiopia during their time of need the country must have developed a reliance on the ‘hand that feeds them’. However, this seems to have reached a point now where aid isn’t asked for, or possibly even needed, but instead it is demanded of, thought of as a right not a privilege. With all the amazing geographical locations and fascinating history one would have thought that the Ethiopia today would be a tourist’s dream destination, pouring millions of pounds into the country’s economy. But it would seem that the label Ethiopia was given all those years ago is yet to wear off, and with the attitude of the new generation Ethiopia’s future seems anyone’s guess.

So there you have it, 3 very different topics but 3 things which very much describe the countries culture, the countries environments, and the countries people. The adults of Ethiopia are a friendly, laid back, religious, and hassle free bunch. My fear is that somehow the next generation has been moulded differently and what effect this will have on the traditions and culture of this unique country is a harrowing thought. Just as this blog post is unlike my others, for me Ethiopia is certainly a country like no other. Randomly placed on a continent that does not appear to be of its own choice, Ethiopia remains individual. If you like the hidden gems, the diamonds in the ruff, the land of mystery and history then go to Ethiopia. It may not be what you expect, but it definitely won’t disappoint.

I have passed through Africa’s gateway, I now turn my face to the North.

22 Aug

Mountain gorillas, the genocide and Ethiopian visas – 14th February 2011

14 Feb 2011
Mountain gorillas, the genocide and Ethiopian visas

Rwanda – Mountain Gorillas and the Genocide

Rwanda has been added to the fast growing list of my African favourites! What a great little country it is, very beautiful and very clean! The green hills of this little country with their permanent low cloud surroundings really add to the mystery. Reminiscent of Madagascar the hills are littered with terraces, tea and banana plantations fill the valley floors and the 11 million people which make Rwanda one of the most densely populated countries in Africa always look amazed to see people visiting their country. This amazement quickly followed by big smiles and waves all round.

Rwanda. The word alone is one that is known worldwide, and known for one reason only. When I say Rwanda is the genocide of 1994 the first thing that springs to your mind? If not then I’d be surprised, the only other thing the country is known for is that it is home to the 400 remaining endangered Mountain Gorilla. My first official stop in Rwanda was ‘Parc National Des Volcanes’ and a 6 hour mountain trek with the world’s most famous gorilla was one I will never forget. A 7am departure was the start to my day with the gorillas. After a drive to the headquarters I met my guide, and a second drive to the base of the volcano range and I was ready to head into the central African jungle in search of these elusive primates. Diane Fossey’s ‘Gorillas in the mist’ filtered in and out of my mind as I made my way up the muddy face of the volcano. The mist, the low lying cloud was so thick at that time that I could barely see a few feet infront of me. Three hours of hiking through thick forest vegetation, up, across, down, up some more, across again, up some more, down a bit. The occasional call on the radio of the trackers would tell us that the gorillas had moved again, and our direction would change accordingly. Finally we peaked the steepest part of the climb and I found myself walking through the undergrowth of some very high bamboo vegetation, and this is where the trackers greeted us, both parties damp and tired but smiling as we each shook hands. “Just through there” whispered the head tracker, and my guide continued to the other side of the bamboo, and I followed. . . before me, in what I thought to be a small clearing stood a tree trunk, very tall, and forked from half way up. Much of the bark was missing, and there had clearly been no branches or leaves for a long time, the tree had become smooth in places where it lacked bark, and was patched in a dark red colour where the bark remained. The tree was all that was visible, the background was just mist, I looked around wondering where they were and then I saw it, at the base of the tree sat my very first mountain gorilla. He sat there, a young male, eating the bark he had just peeled off the trunk with his teeth. He turned to sit more comfortably holding the bark like a child with a chocolate bar, and ate. He looked up and saw me, I was maybe 10-15 feet away. He paused for a moment, as if to ponder over my arrival, and then turned back to the tree and started at the remaining bark again. Within 20 minutes I had seen over 10 gorillas arrive. Some climbed to the fork in the tree and joined in the bark removal, other just sat and gave me that same pensive stare. That stare, that human like gaze. It was that which intrigued me the most. At one point the mist had turned to a heavy drizzle and I took myself off away from the group under a tree to get out of the rain. As I stood there under the big leaves I thought about the gorillas I had just seen. I stood there staring into space in deep thought, a few moments had passed before I realised what I was looking at. Opposite my tree with the big leaves stood another of the same tree, and underneath its big leaves, staring back at me, trying to keep dry was a juvenile mountain gorilla. It was a strange feeling, we both just stared at eachother, I was amazed that I had acted in exactly the same way as the gorilla infront of me, both of us had taken shelter under the same type of tree for the same reason and found ourselves almost looking into a mirror as we watched our counterparts with interest. As I crouched there and wondered what on earth was going through the gorillas mind it occurred to me that it might be asking itself the very same question, what on earth is that human thinking right now? My memory of my time with that gorilla has stayed with me ever since. Throughout my total of about 100 minutes with the gorillas I saw a family of 17, including one massive silver back and leader of the group, showing his dominance by chasing off a younger male who was trying it on with one of the silver back’s females. My time with the gorillas was awesome and yet another tick to my African adventure!

Rwanda’s capital Kigali is a very small and quaint city, one of the smallest if not the smallest capital city I’ve come across in Africa, or perhaps anywhere. Walking around cities like Kigali and Musanze I look into the eyes of the people around me and try to take myself back 16 years and imagine what it was like. Many people ranging from their 30’s and older walk around with the aid of crutches or fashioning prosthetic limbs. The 1994 genocide still a very present part of day to day life for many people. I won’t go into details for I think they may be a bit much for many readers, maybe one day I will write about the Rwandan genocide but I feel the time and place may not be here or now. What I will say is that Rwanda is a beautiful and safe country that is desperate for tourists! The Rwandan people are striving to ensure that such atrocities can never happen again. The slogan ‘never forget’ is now a very large part of Rwandan vocabulary and elephants take pride of place as the countries chosen animal as they are renowned for having a good memory. Rwandan citizens are now encouraged to be just that, Rwandan. No tribes, no Tutsi’s, no Hutu’s, just Rwandan’s, all one in the same, all equal. If you ask me the rest of Africa should look into this, if they can truly pull it off Rwanda might be onto a winner there! My time in the capital consisted of visiting Rwanda’s genocide museum and going to ‘Hotel Milles Des Collines,’ known to the western cinema as ‘Hotel Rwanda’. Seen the film? Well I visited the hotel, a very strange feeling when all things are considered but a must if you visit Kigali. The museum was very interesting. The full version of the story alongside the detail of Rwandan history informs you of all the important parts that the western media chose to miss out. If anyone is interested in the genocide side of things more feel free to message me with any questions you may have, it’s a topic that interests me greatly and have done a lot of extra reading into the details surrounding it. All in all I’ve liked my time in Rwanda, so much so that I’ve arranged to re-visit the country on my so journey back down. And I urge anyone who is interested in visiting a slightly ‘different to the norm’ African country, make it Rwanda!

Ethiopian visas

So as you know my plans for Rwanda were to continue further south after the genocide museum and visit the genocide memorial amongst other things. Unfortunately the bureaucracy and red tape of border crossings into Ethiopia have changed all that. Within the last few weeks the Ethiopian government has taken it upon itself to stop issuing visas on any of its borders. Yes, that’s correct, after years of being able to buy your visa when you arrive on the border they have now decided that it is no longer possible. The intellectual officials (take note of my sarcasm) have also decided that the visas can be applied for nowhere else other than the Ethiopian embassies within your own country. Meaning that I cannot pick up an Ethiopian visa in the Ethiopian embassies of Kenya, Uganda or Rwanda, all of which I will be passing through, no, I will have to send my passport back to the UK! The only exception to this new and bizarre rule is if you fly into the country. If you fly into Ethiopia you are issued a visa with no problem (other than the £100 they are now charging per visa at the airport). The issue for me of course is that I cannot fly in as I am travelling overland and on a very tight budget. So I am currently residing in Uganda, my passport somewhere in the world, I hope on its way to the Ethiopian embassy in London. The thought has crossed my mind that my passport has to get through African postal systems both ways and the odds of it not disappearing are not the most reliable, but there ain’t a lot I can do about it. I need to go further North, to go North I need to get into Ethiopia, to get into Ethiopia I need to send my passport back to the UK and to do that I need to take a risk . . . . . we’ll see if it pays off or not. So the mad rush to get back to Uganda to send the passport off from the capital Kampala meant that my wish to continue in Rwanda has crashed and burned. Unfortunate, but TIA strikes again. The other issue now is that once your visa has been issued you only have 10 days to get across the border using your visa or it will expire. So whenever the passport arrives back in Kampala it’s going to be a mad dash through Uganda and northern Kenya to get to Ethiopia in time before the visa expires and I have to go through the process all over again! What a nightmare, but to be honest border crossings so far have been a doddle and it was always going to be a problem the further North I go. Not to mention the situation in Egypt right now which I’m sure is splashed across the western media, something about an ‘Arab awakening?’ Plus the spilt in Sudan between North and South due to take place soon – July 9th I believe it’s sure to be an interesting journey ahead. To make things even more exciting Uganda holds its presidential elections in 6 days and it would be really handy if I were back in Kenya before all that kicks off!

So there you have it, the future at this moment in time is fairly uncertain, and the date I’m writing this is February 10th. I hope that things run smoothly over the upcoming weeks, it’s only 7 weeks to go now before I reach Cairo and the second part of the trip begins.

22 Aug

Going back in time (Mount Kilimanjaro) – 10th February 2011

10 Feb 2011
Going back in time

Tanzania – Mount Kilimanjaro

So I left for Arusha on 11th January, Arusha being the start off point and well-built town for anyone choosing to climb Kili! After a long bus journey and a miscommunication in meeting my tour operator I finally arrived at the Arusha tourist inn and got my pack ready for the first day of the climb. I was not alone though, oh no, I embarked on this epic adventure with 3 trusty friends, all of which have travelled with me in Africa. We were 4 in total, the American’s – Teri and Mark from Wyoming, the Kiwi – Dave, and of course me, the Brit from not so sunny England. After meeting our head guide a little later we sat and discussed the following days and were informed of the crew travelling with us. For the 4 of us to travel the mountain we had our head guide and leader of the expedition Mushak! Mushak in his 40’s had an assistant guide, 62 year old David. Along with David came the cook for the entire group, 30 year old Daniel, and after Daniel there were Simon and Dismuss our two head porters! Then there was Ishmael, Jonathan, and the rest of the 13 porters! So all in all a 16 man team, all were local Tanzanians and experienced Kili climbers, we certainly felt we were in more than safe hands.
January 12th – Day 1 – Up and ready by half seven I was ready to drive to the base of the mountain and start the climb. But East Africa being as it is lead to much delay, stalling and running around in a very slow manner. So at Midday I finally arrived through the gates to Mount Kilimanjaro National Park and started my ascent of the world’s highest free standing mountain! The first day consisted of a 4 and a half hour hike uphill through the forest which circles the bottom most slopes of the mountain. A lot of moss and lichen smothered the trees creating quite an eerie effect, along with the odd group of Black and White Collobus Monkey which would come to stare at us as we walked through their territory. With long wispy white hair it was often hard to decipher in the low light of the forest where the moss ended and the monkey began. After a long hike in the hot sun we arrived at our destination, Mandara camp 2700 meters. Close to the camp is a famous crater in the mountain valley, formed in a time of a more active volcanic Kilimanjaro. With the trees in the surroundings plagued with the ghostly moss the area seemed almost other worldly. The temperature had also dropped dramatically and I stood there in woolly hat and 7 layers feeling like some explorer discovering a new inhabitable planet! After a hot meal back at camp I spent the last few hours of the day chatting to Dismus, the better half of our 2 head porters. We had long discussions about snakes, venom and the medical treatment of snake bites, so as you can imagine it was one that I was happy to partake in well into the night.

January 13th – Day 2 – A long slow walk today which started at half eight. My legs had the slight ache of a long hike the day before and a headache of either high altitude or dehydration was starting to set in. You could start to feel the air becoming thinner the higher you went, and as it was only the second day my apprehension as to what the summit day would be like nagged in the back of my mind. To make things even more looming we were passed by a man in a stretcher mid climb. The porters move so swiftly down the mountain we barely had time to look at him but I noticed his leg looked like it had seen better days. Although the group starts as one at the beginning of the day (minus the 11 porters who take off half an hour early every day to have things set up for you by the time you reach camp) throughout each days climb you begin to separate as others take a slightly different pace, or stop for more breaks etc. I remember walking up the Mooreland slopes with everyone scattered around, I found myself walking alone, somewhere in the middle, taking in the vast contrast of landscapes that you enter as you climb higher and higher. My second mountain diary entry for today was written from the confines of my sleeping bag in my hut at Horomobo camp at 3720 meters. I write of feeling warm and headache free at the end of a 6 hour hiking day, not all was well within the group though as one of the 4 of us was struggling with severe altitude sickness due to marching off to fast on the hike today. The key to climbing sickness free is speed. ‘Pole pole’ (slowly) is the only way and with one porter struggling too I decided that I may be jumping the gun with my feelings of contentness and now remain cautious of the upcoming day, in fact I think I’ll get an early night.

January 14th – Day 3 – At 07:45 I sit down for breakfast feeling colder than I have in a good many years. The thought of wearing long johns is now no longer a foolish image in my mind, in fact I regretted never having owned a pair before. With a rented pair on my legs along with hiking trousers on top and waterproofs over those I remained cold. Long sleeve t-shirt, vest, t-shirt, another vest, thermal long sleeve top, jumper, fleece and windproof jacket. To top it all off a scarf, hat, and gloves and as my mountain diary reads “I’m still bloody cold!” It was over breakfast with Mushak that morning that he informed us the next camp is even colder still. No surprises there then. The next camp is dangerously lacking in oxygen and the windows and doors of our hut must remain open for the entirety of the night to ensure that the very little flow of oxygen remains at its highest. “I have a very strong dawning that the worst is nowhere near yet to come and will arrive with one fatal blow”. The good news for me was as I prepared myself for the days hiking I saw many people around camp that were suffering from more than cold. The height of these strugglers was a girl in her 20’s. The disillusioned, oxygen starved girl walked out from the toilet block, slurring her murmured words as she went. She proceeded to walk to a rock near a group of people, pull down her layers of trousers and underwear, and sat naked from the waist down one the rock and began to urinate! I last saw her with her head in her hands as strangers called out to ask if anyone in the near vicinity knew the sick girl, I never saw her again after that. I assume she was taken down the mountain to safer altitude very quickly! There were many of these; after the incident with the young girl I call them ‘head in hands’ climbers. You see them at camps, on route, sitting on rocks, the path floor etc. You never see them twice, they don’t make it up the mountain. . . .
Today is our acclimatization day, which means we return to camp at the same place as we did last night. It’s all down to speed, take a day to acclimatize and your statistics of reaching the summit soar! Today was the first time in my life I could see the top of the infamously shy Mt Kilimanjaro. Most of the time she retains herself in mist and cloud and every day since arriving in Arusha she was hidden by the white haze. I went out after breakfast to look at the sunrise below us, the white clouds below parting slightly so the view of Africa could be seen even if just for a moment. It was as I stood there looking below that I felt a tap on my shoulder from behind. “You are looking the wrong way my friend” I turned around to the man who had spoken to me and he repeated himself and looked at me with a big grin, “you should be looking up there” and that’s the first time I saw the summit. Today, above the clouds I saw her, the white tip still white, though much less than the old photos above my bed way back in ‘sunny tunny’, but still, it was there. Years and years ago I dreamt of seeing the top for real and there I was looking at the roof of Africa, the top of a continent, my continent. I didn’t know how to feel as I stood there looking at my destination, I turned back the the man to thank him but there was no one there, I was alone on that mountain, for those few minutes it was just me. My time looking at the summit revealed that the glaciers of Kili are melting, and fast and I stood there looking at her white frosted peak knowing that in a couple of years no one will ever be able to do the same.
The day continued with our acclimatization and a familiar camp, along with the sudden inability to digest food and a dull background of a headache which I can only hope is dehydration I end day 3 with a new sense of purpose.

January 15th – Day 4 – “07:26am I haven’t felt my feet in days, they are beyond numb. Writing is hard as I can’t feel my hands or fingers. My nose keeps freezing inside and bleeding, then refreezing again. My headache is back, I haven’t washed in days.. . . . . outside, everything is covered in ice and frost, the temperature has dropped considerably. Soon I think even my beard will freeze. The ink in this pen keeps refreezing and I have to put it in my mouth to get it to work again even my cameras have frozen and stopped working in the cold. My lips are split and dry. Things are slowly staring to become a burden . . . . ”

As you can see in this extract from my mountain diary things have started to get difficult. Today was the longest hike, over 6 hours of hiking, and tonight would be the night we started our ascent to the summit. But, having said that, the day went better than I had expected. “14:45pm I feel great! Tired and legs starting to ache, otherwise all good. I am shocked!! I truly believed that the altitude would beat me today, but still I feel nothing, it’s great, it’s given me an extra buzz. I was first to reach camp and appear to feel better . . . . .”

We gathered around the dinner table at 17:45pm. Mushak gave us a debrief of our summit attempt which lay only a few hours away. The idea is to leave at midnight so as to reach the summit at 6am – sunrise. In hindsight I think the reason they make us do it in the night is so that your final ascent was in darkness and that way you did not see the route ahead of you, for if you had, I think many would turn back and admit defeat before even attempting it. But I sat blissfully unaware of what lay ahead, listening to the debrief. “Breathe through your nose, not your mouth or your lips and even your tongue may begin to freeze. But your nose will warm the air before it enters your lungs. Walk pole pole (slowly) and in single file so as not to fall off the scree slope and plummet to the rocks below.” Our guide did not hold back, “your headaches will pound more than you’ve ever experienced and you may feel you want to vomit. The best thing to do at this point is vomit.” I sum up my feeling well in my mountain diary “Yes, I’m apprehensive as the worst, the hardest, the most challenging is yet to come, in fact, it’s knocking at the door as this pen moves between my fingers this very moment.”

January 16th – Day 5 – Awake an hour before the day started, in the darkness of the night I packed my bags and prepared myself for what lay ahead. At midnight on the dot, my rucksack on my back, boots on my feet and head torch switched on I started my ascent, the dark sky looming, the moon and stars watching over me, twinkling in bemusement at my upcoming challenge. Slow and steady wins the race. Other summit attempters were above, I could see the head torch lights bobbing along, they had left 30 minutes – 1 hour ahead of us, they had been eager, raring to get going, though, as you will see, their eagerness would turn out to be their downfall.

“1 hour, 1 hour and a half, 2 hours and a half, 3. We’d already passed four groups of other climbers, but we had stuck to the same steady pace the whole way”

” . . . . I’m doing okay, minor headache, one foot after the other, step, step, step . . . . ”

After 3 hours we had overtaken most of the other climbers, it seems they had left before us they were concerned they would miss the sunrise, this concern however is not something you want clouding your judgement when reaching the summit is your goal. They were walking too fast, and in the end, it was this that slowed them down. Finally we hit William’s Point, which leads to Gilman’s point. The stretch between these two points is infamous for being the toughest part of the whole climb. The scree on this part of the mountain is at its most dangerous, hundreds of metres of loose rock and debris which just falls out from under your tired, heavy feet. With every step you slide back down a third of the distance you just moved. You continuously drill the phrase ‘one foot after the other, step by step’ in your mind. And with every step the oxygen gets thinner and thinner, and you start to lose focus of what’s reality and what’s not.

“I disappeared a lot in my own mind, all sorts of bizarre thoughts and memories came and went. It’s strange what dusty recess’ in the corner of your mind come to haunt you when you reach a mental state where you have no self-control over your thoughts . . . . . . . . . .It’s almost like dreaming, you know your dreaming but you have no control over the context of the dream . . . . ”

I don’t remember a lot of that part of the climb. I remember hallucinating at different stages and thinking I could see a handrail which I failed in trying to hold onto on more than one occasion. My headache became a problem as the climb continued as my diary explains.

“My headache became worse, no, worse is an understatement. It felt as though some chemical reaction had taken place in the frontal lobes of my brain and at any moment my head would explode and my forehead burst open.”

“I remember passing even more groups on the scree . . . . . . . I remember the cold being unbearable.”

Finally I made it to Gilman’s Point, from here you are left to face the crater rim, from the crater rim you outskirt the remaining glaciers and then there’s the final strip of the ascent to the summit.

“Glaciers and ice and frozen snow all around, the rim is an hour and a half hike in the freezing cold. At this point I was oblivious, oblivious to all around . . . . . . . . . . . now I’m on the top of the crater rim, you can see into both Kenya and Tanzania all around but I HAVE to keep on walking. My head is about to explode . . . . . . . . . . . darkness all around, my head torch has frozen and stopped working, I can’t see, where are the rocks, where is the ice, I WILL keep walking!”

“My nose is frozen, my buff has frozen to my mouth, my bottle of water has frozen, the moisture in my beard and moustache has frozen. The corners of my eyes are beginning to freeze and I have no feeling in any of my limbs, I stumble on, blindly in the dark. . . . . . . I trip, I fall, I curse the rocks, I curse my failed headtorch, I blindly search with my hands . . . . . . .”

With 20 minutes left to go I continue to chant to myself ‘just keep walking, just keep walking’ and the sun slowly starts to rise in the distance, no time for photographs, just one foot in front of the other.

“15 minutes pass by, over a mound in the path and there it is. No breath left to be taken away I saw it, the peak, the signposts that signify the summit. A rocky outcrop amongst the glacial giants, the end, the reason for it all, the top! How many years? How many years have I wanted to stand where I stood at that very moment? A few more steps, and there I was . . . . . I had made it. I had climbed and reached the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro, Roof of Africa, Highest Free Standing Mountain in the World, The height of Africa herself.”

It was 06:45am, 10 minutes had passed since reaching the summit as though it were 10 seconds. I stood by the signposts for a photo, cold and exhausted. Any longer on the mountain and our bodies would start to shut down, we had stopped moving when at the mountains coldest point. If we didn’t get going soon we would be in a very dangerous predicament indeed.

“We had done it. I had done it, and now, it was time to go!”

The descent was hard and long, 2 days in length and the last thing you want to do when you have pushed your body to the limit and have nothing left but fatigue. The day of the summit hike, including a hike part the way back down totalled in an over 10 hour hike day! The night before our final descent Mark and I took the role of paying tips out to crew. 16 men lined up in front of us and we paid them all accordingly, it was a strange feeling, I was younger than nearly all of them. Then before I knew it 24 hours had passed, one day of final descent had been and gone and I made it back down the mountain.

“As the vehicle pulled out of the car park we exited through the main gates of the Mount Kilimanjaro National Park and I had to wonder if I was ever going to return back through those hard iron bars. A lost world to me now, maybe it’s better that way. Kili, she never disappointed, she never gave up her mystery. Even after reaching her highest peak I still don’t feel like I know her, never really saw her. A small glimpse of understanding and appreciation was all I was allowed. But one thing I can say with true meaning no matter how corny it may sound, it was an experience like no other I’ve ever had.”

22 Aug

Malawi, Tanzania, Kenya, and now Uganda, it’s been a while . . . . – 22nd January 2011

Brace yourself it’s a long one!

Malawi, Tanzania, Kenya, and now Uganda, it’s been a while . . . . . . .

Malawi was brilliant! What a great little country, 20% of it taken up by the country’s biggest attraction and most useful of resources, Lake Malawi. Known to the locals as the Lake of stars it certainly lives up to its name. My time there was short, yet another country I strongly feel a return visit to is a must. But the nights I spent in the different areas of the lake were amazing. Camping on the shores whilst most definitely understanding why it is so aptly named, the stars are brighter than anywhere else I’ve seen them!

During my time in Malawi I embarked on a crazy boat trip to ‘Lizard Island,’ which lead me to understand that although it is a lake it may as well be its own sea. The 3rd largest lake in Africa, Lake Malawi has its own currents, tides and eco system. The storms that come and go across the lake are just as tormenting as any at sea and the infamous lake fly here is not one to be laughed at. After the storms the flies are attracted in there millions, to this day scientists are still unaware as to why they congregate at such times in such numbers (perhaps it is fly larvae being disrupted by the rough waters which sparks of a mass hatching?) The average fisherman taking advantage of the lakes biggest resource can find himself trapped in the swarms that appear after the storms. Such thick clouds of flies have led to many deaths by asphyxiation due to the sheer numbers covering the mouths and noses of whoever gets in their path!

So I left the shore and headed for ‘Lizard Island’ with a boatful of locals and tourists in calm and beautiful weather, and on arrival snorkelled with the indigenous fresh water fish population and started a mini excursion with a few others to the islands highest peak at the top of a giant boulder. The closer we get to the boulder the darker the sky became, but the sky did not sparkle like the previous nights. The wind picked up and the further I climbed I very nearly got blown off the rock. We had barely made it to the boulders top with the wind in full force now when cries from the captain of our little motor boat down below reached us and we knew it was time to leave, and leave fast. After much running around through the jungle to and from across the island we finally reached the boat. The wind was howling, rain pouring hard and the lake had turned into a raging ocean. There were many scared faces on that journey back to shore, screams and tears from fellow passengers accompanied by hysterical maddening laughter from the locals who were trying to convince us, and themselves, that everything was going to be okay. I’m not surprised at the reactions of our little boats inhabitants, the lake is not small and we were far from home (well, the shore which bore my tent). Crashes of waves into the side of the boat came again and again, the small motor doing nothing against the direction from which they came. Water poured over the threshold and another mighty wave broke off a section of the side of the boat throwing 2 people from there seat to the floor along with the splinters of wood from the vessels injury. I fastened my grip as I stood at the boat’s edge and my mind was racing, I was only then starting to realize the severity of the situation. Another crash like that and we were done, capsized into the waters below, but the little boat held strong (for now) and we continued for land. Nearer the shore the waves became more aggressive and the boat nearly flipped itself, so many waves and so many times we only just managed to break over them. I could see land now, at last we were close to the shore so I jumped. I had already questioned how the boat was planning on mooring with waves still bounding the beach and I was done with this boat ride, I certainly knew my swimming ability was good enough if things went sour. I plunged into the raging tide and felt my feet hit san underneath. Local men had jumped in from the shore now and together we pulled the boat as far as possible inland for all to be within swimming distance of the sandy beach awaiting us. Moments later and all were on land and safe, though some still suffering from mild shock.
What a hectic journey, but one that tells me lakes, and weather are not to be underestimated. In the days that followed more beach time and craft markets calmly brought Malawi to a close, and quicker than you can say Hakuna Matata Malawi was gone and I was back in Tanzania again, after 6 years.

Tanzania for me this time round consisted of one thing, Mount Kilimanjaro. As it is when traveling my sense of date and time had long since been forgotten and though I had tried desperately hard to find time for as much as possible I was disappointed that I would not have time to visit the Serengeti and the Ngoro Ngoro Crater before making my attempt at Kilimanjaro’s summit. However all was not lost as I have done both already during my first visit to Tanzania at the age of 18. The real loss though was that I would not have time to see Zanzibar too, a real blow to me but an even bigger excuse to revisit Tanzania for a 3rd time when I make my way back down through Africa after reaching Cairo.

Climbing Mount Kili was epic! It was unreal and I hardly have time to do it justice amongst this post, therefore when I get time I will do an individual post for my time there. Apologies to all those eager to hear about it, I’m afraid you’ll have to wait just a little longer. What I will say was that I made it to the top, and the journey in getting there and back was one that I won’t forget in a hurry.

The day after I descended Kili I barely had time to recover as Tanzania was the past and Kenya became my immediate present! Kenya is fast becoming my favourite country in Africa. The difference between Kenya and Namibia is that in Namibia there are no people, well, very few. In Kenya there are many but they, in my opinion, are some of the most relaxed, easy going people you’ll ever meet. No worries, hakuna matata, land of the Swahili language (along with Tanzania) I feel so free and unburdened with the tourist label when chatting to the locals in their own language. I’ve never been good at languages and the fact that I can speak Swahili creates a real link within me to East Africa!
In Kenya my journey into the real Rift Valley begins. The Rift itself stretches from the red sea on Egypt’s eastern border all the way down to Mozambique and covers 6000km (I think that figure’s correct?) The famous rift valley presides mainly in Kenya and it’s along this tear in the earth’s surface that I travelled as I pushed on towards Uganda! Freshwater lakes and soda water lakes litter the valley floors and often the roads lead me down to sea level, then up to 2000metres plus and then back down to sea level again in just a few hours as they weaved in and out of the rift herself. Nairobi was an interesting stop over, after half a dozen previous visits it certainly does not get boring. Nairobi is renowned as the most dangerous city in Africa (nicknamed ‘Nai-robbery’), beating its counterparts of Jo’burg in South Africa and Lagos in Nigeria. With the highest rate of street muggings in East Africa and home to the continent’s largest slums you can understand why the city has the reputation it does. For me I have been lucky, either that or streetwise, or maybe it’s an aspect of both because the worst I’ve ever endured there is the fact that prostitutes don’t understand the word no! Even when it’s said as the word ‘Toka!’ meaning ‘piss off!’ they still seem to think that it means ‘ask me again and I might say yes’. Alas Nairobi does not disappoint and it wasn’t the prossie’s that gave me problems this time! A matatu is a small campervan sized vehicles and they are the countries equivalent to small buses. These vehicles are quite possible the most dangerously driven in the world and I say so with a heck of a lot of experience. Armed to the teeth with tinny 6 by 9 speakers and tacky disco lights the vans owners cover their interiors with bright tacky plastic and tear around the streets with bumper stickers saying the likes of ‘god is with us’, and boy should they hope he is! Matatu’s are of course the most responsible vehicle for road collisions and once again the statistics of Nairobi’s road death rates are some of the continents highest. I stayed in Upperhill Campsite once again (which I highly recommended), in southwest Nairobi, situated on a corner of the main road. The other morning I was standing on the inside of the front wall by a truck chatting with a friend, after a while we left the area and went back to the tents. Exactly an hour and a half later a Matatu collided into the wall at over 80kmph, smashing down the wall, a tree and the front gate of the compound to obliteration. The drunk driver stumbled from the vehicle, fell onto the pavement, and was dead before the engine even exploded (yes, the engine exploded!) After the explosion every passenger who could still move fled the scene, and when the sound of the police sirens came any others left with injuries to great to be able to flee unaided were dragged off by friends/strangers/passers by, anyone who could help them escape the corrupt police officials who would surely try and charge them with being responsible for the crash (or if not force them to pay a hefty bribe) before allowing them any medical treatment. I stood there, looking at the scene in front of me, knowing that only the concept of time had kept me alive. The front of the matatu had hit the back of the truck, right where I had been standing. Had I still been there I would have been crushed between the two . . . . . . . however I wasn’t, and a man died, actually 2 men died in that crash. Life, death, time, they are all fascinating and interesting concepts, I have pondered over their many complexities many a time in the past, and find myself doing so again now. As my mind floats back to the present the phrase TIA (this is Africa) springs to mind once again and I remind myself, this is Nairobi after all. The campsite owners later informed me that it was the 3rd Matatu in a year to hit that wall and not the 1st death. Like I said, Nairobi has a reputation for a reason. But once again, I highly recommend Upperhill Campsite, just give the front wall a wide birth! Most of my time in Kenya has been in transit however and other than some interesting off the beaten track road trips I’ll save the real Kenyan experience for when I come back after Uganda and Rwanda.

Uganda. Uganda has been interesting thus far with huge positivity and acceptance from when I entered in the east, to dislike and even aggression as I continued south with the border to Rwanda. I am currently residing on the shores of Lake Bunyoni, Uganda’s largest lake. It’s a very beautiful lake in a tiny hidden corner of the valley, the surrounding cliffs rising to over 2000m all around. I went out this afternoon for a wonder in the hills and got chatting to two local boys, brothers in fact, who walked me to the top of the hills for some amazing panoramas of the lake and its surroundings. On the walk back down they asked if I’d like to see where they live, and I of course said yes. On arrival I was introduced to the family and very quickly found that the family of 18 had an interesting story to tell. The 17 children in total had all lost parents due to AIDS, and the auntie and uncle of the two brothers had over the years (since the brother’s parents died of the same cause) taken in children orphaned by AIDS. A week before my visit the uncle had passed away due to cancer leaving his wife the sole provider for all 17 children. The small shack the 17 lived in was in very poor condition, and the grave of the uncle was just behind it. A few chickens, a couple baby goats and a rabbit lived with them and the 6 children under the age of 4 all had the swollen bellies you associate with malnutrition. But I was unsurprised to be greeted by a sea of smiling faces and after being invited to sit down with the auntie (and the youngest girl of 2) songs and dancing soon followed. It was a brilliant afternoon, and I participated in a lot of dancing and singing and ended up shattered by the end of it. I donated some money to the auntie before I left. I would have preferred to have donated food or livestock, but time was limited and it was an unplanned event, so it was money or nothing. It was an interesting day and I long questioned whether giving money was the right thing to do. In any case I have no regrets, and wish the family all the luck in the future, their story is one of the sad realities of Africa, though the smiles and dancing and happiness is another reality which brings hope and far outweighs the other!

Today is the 22nd of January and tomorrow I will cross over into Rwanda where I will be spending time with 2 very interesting primates – mountain gorillas and chimpanzees! These visits will coincide along 2 other visits that will be interesting in a whole different way – the newly revamped genocide museum in the capital Kigali and the old unknown genocide memorial in the South near Butare which still has intact many preserved bodies from the 1994 massacre . . . . . . . . . . I will say no more. The gorillas I do within an arranged group of tourists as is the law, but the rest I will partake alone in a separate week long excursion dedicated to studying the genocide and why it happened. We’ll see how that goes I suppose.

I think that about brings you up to date, I apologise if I’ve missed anything and I will type up my Kilimanjaro blog as soon as I can.

18 Aug

Namibia, a decade past – 1st January 2011

1 Jan 2011
Namibia – A decade past
Re-entering Namibia has definitely been the best thing on this trip so far, to be honest it’s probably the best thing I’ve done for a long time!

Ever since leaving Namibia the first time I have always raved about it, always spoke of it as the country that captured the Africa lust lying dormant in me. For nearly 10 years I have had pictures of Namibia above my bed, I still have postcards of the mountain ranges I climbed sitting on my shelf amongst the other bits and pieces of Namibia I returned with the last time.

When speaking of Africa people often ask me “What’s your favourite African country?” The answer I give is never a one word answer, but before the conversation is finished at some point I have always claimed it to be Namibia (amongst others). * EDIT ’amongst others’ added on June 4th 2013

I said I would return, I promised, when I left all those years ago I thought barely a year would pass before my return, the desires of a naïve teenager I suppose. Returning to the continent on more than one occasion and to over half a dozen African countries before Namibia once more is something I would not have believed back then.

In the not so distant past I have questioned my claim of Namibia’s intense beauty being far above the rest and pondered the idea that it is all just the hazy memories of a besotted teen in a ‘new way of life’ experience. I almost became concerned building up to my return that I would be let down by wrongful memories or perhaps even that the country would have changed, and the Namibia I once knew was no more, destined to remain only as distant blur in my mind.

And now, nearly a decade past I have returned, and one thing I can say for certain, I have not been disappointed.

My first stops in Namibia were the places known as Sossusvlei and Sessriem on the central/south Western coast. On the other side of these stands the Naukluft Mountain range, and beyond lies nothing but barren desert for as far as the eye can see! The mountain range being all that separates the desert to the vast plains of inland Namibia you would think that such a desolate place holds nothing for the lowly traveller, well you’d be wrong. The Namib Desert is the oldest desert in the world, much older than its neighbour the Kalahari and its larger cousin the Sahara. It appears to harbour nothing, but hidden amongst the dunes lie the deserts diamond in the ruff, Sossusvlei and Sessriem

Sessriem holds claim to the Cessriem Canyon, a huge rip in the Earth’s surface which use to channel the rain waters which once fell in the region. Now just a large canyon I thoroughly enjoyed a day of free climbing up and down the canyon walls, finishing with one last climb to the top to watch the sunset!

Sossusvlei is a hidden region in the desert which is where the Sossusvlei and Deadvlei pans lie, amongst others. Compacted limestone clay over the years have formed these strange ‘vlei’ areas, the constant blow of wind always ensures the sand is swept free from the surface and all that’s left is a message from beyond the grave. The petrified trees from millennia passed by still remain, blackened silhouettes in the blazing sun embedded in the white clay for eternity. Orange dunes surround them and as you stand in the centre and look around you feel like you’ve stepped into a world far from this. Liking to the minds picture of the planet Mars this area really cannot be described, explained or understood. Even the photos I hope to upload at some point I know won’t do it justice, all you can do is go see it for yourself.

Whilst in the area I climbed both Ellem dune, the second highest, and also the infamous dune 45, a dark red sand dune giving the most panoramic sunrise from the top you have ever see. And I should hope so too after a 20 minute power run up there in the dark to try and beat the sun to the top!

Next stop was the West coast, a far cry from the beaches of Mozambique which we left only weeks ago. Swakopmund, Namibia’s second largest city and southern Africa’s adrenalin junky central! I spent my time here visiting all the old hangouts from when I was 16, the lighthouse restaurant, Fagen’s Bar, and the market place amongst others. During my time in Swakop I also thought it only fair, being adrenalin city and all, to partake in a sky dive. So after jumping off a bridge with only a cord around my ankles a few weeks earlier I found myself in the smallest plane I’d ever seen, of which I threw myself out of whilst hurtling at who knows what speed towards the ground! It was great!

Heading further North I visited other sites and must see’s, Twelyfyfontein, one of Africa’s largest rock art sites, and Spitzkoppe mountain range! (Another one of the old hangouts). On my climb up the highest peak of Spitzkoppe I couldn’t help but ponder over how strange a thing time really is. To think that I had walked these steps before, a different person, in a different world, these were thoughts I cracked open and peered into for the majority of my time in the solitude of the mountains.

Onwards and upwards further north to Etosha National Park. This was the furthest North I had been in Namibia on my previous trip. More game drives and animal sighting followed until I ventured still further North all the way to the Caprivi Strip, a long thin part of Namibia that is shaped so bizarrely one wonders how it ever came to exist at all. I must admit this part of the journey was one I had been looking forward to for no other reason than on the map, it looks cool. 2 days on the strip brings my time in Namibia to a close. I have much to think about after revisiting Namibia and feel that things will only get more interesting as the journey continues, but these thoughts and feelings shall for now remain unspoken.

Zambia next, Christmas and New Year definitely won’t be the usual mistletoe and minced pies!

18 Aug

A lot to catch up on – 17th December 2010

17 Dec 2010
A lot to catch up on
First off apologies for not writing for a while and secondly apologies to all those who are emailing and Facebooking me and not receiving any reply. My internet use is limited and hard to find at the moment, I hope to get back to you all by the new year or sooner!

Zimbabwe was definitely an excellent part of the journey so far, spent a couple more days in Zim doing a rhino trek amongst other things, we got really close on foot, just a couple of feet away from a group of 5 females. And in true Africa style it wasn’t without excitement! At the start of our rhino trek we had a safety briefing from our guide. “Whatever you do, don’t run” he explained to us. “Someone always does it, but it’s normally the biggest mistake they’ll ever make!” Whatever the situation is you must never run from a rhino as it creates a sort of instinct in the rhino to chase, and there is no way you can out run a rhino. Best thing is to back up slowly. So our guide marched off into the bush and I went next, closely followed by the other tourists in my group. After a while we found tracks, the guide changed course and we continued our march, eventually we saw some bush that had been torn apart and it appeared we were getting closer, a few minutes later we saw them, a group of rhino, all female the guide informed us. We were at the edge of a clearing with the rhino out on the grassland in front of us, bit by bit the guide walked us out towards them. In single file we crept closer and closer until finally we were right up next to them. We stood there for a few minutes watching them, photographing them, then coming from behind us there was a strange noise and one of the tourists whispered to the guide “Um, excuse me but is there supposed to be one behind us as well? I turned around to see a massive male rhino looking straight at us and stamping his back feet on the ground. I realised he was the owner of this group of females and we were between him and his girls which he was not too happy about. I turned back towards our guide to find out what on earth we were supposed to do next and that’s when I saw him, meters away from us all legging it out the way! Never run he told us, never run and now he’s doing a runner, well I didn’t need any more excuses, I ran after him and the rest of the group swiftly followed! Fortunately we all got out the way in time and it seemed this was satisfactory enough to the male. Moral of the story, when with a guide, do as he does, and not as he says!!
When in Zimbabwe I also visited a traditional Ndebele tribe, all in traditional clothes and weaponry etc. They performed ritualistic dances and shared stories around the campfire. It was a very interesting experience and if I had the time I would have liked to have filled you in with more detail, like the story of the tribal chief He fought off a leopard with his bare hands until another member of his family threw him a spear which he used to kill the cat, he still had the skin which he brought out for special occasions such as this. He saved the village and became chief the next day! But alas time is short, and I have to be moving on with my own story.

Botswana! My time in Botswana was much shorter than planned unfortunately, just 4 or 5 days, and my first stop was a disappointing one. The great salt pans of Botswana are infamous and beautiful! If you get the chance Google image them! But I had arrived at the beginnings of the rainy season. I had hoped I would have been early enough but alas the rains arrived early themselves. The pans were flooded with water, mud and vegetation, not the sort you want to see when there! So I left disheartened to my next destination, and where weather makes one environment impassable it spurs another to thrive. The Okavango Delta is at its highest right now than it has been in over 40 years and I had a fantastic time there. 3 days camping on the islands of the delta whilst travelling by dugout canoe during the day! An awesome experience, 45C heat and swimming in the clear fresh water pools of the delta was just great fun. A good way to finish my short time in Botswana – sorry, but I’m rushing through the days!

And then, at long last, after nearly a decade, I was in Namibia once again. There is no way I can or want to rush through an explanation of Namibia so far. I have been here for 6 days already and so much has happened! So I will make you all wait till I’m next on the net and then will fill you in on all my time in Namibia with one long entry!

My time is up, gotta dash. Till next time.

17 Aug

Mozambique’s whale sharks and Zimbabwe’s lions – 8th December 2010

8 Dec 2010
Mozambique and Zimbabwe

Mozambique

Finally, well it’s been a while due to dodgy internet so let me fill you in. So I left the capital city and headed to Tofo Beach further up the coastline. White sands, clear blue water, you know the usual. The first full day there I spent snorkelling with the whale sharks which was incredible! I was swimming through the water looking around unable to see the world’s biggest fish when out of nowhere a whale shark around 5 or 6 metres long was coming straight at me. Bright white polka dots all over it, big open mouth. It was hard to get out of its path and it ended up passing me so close I could have reached out and touched it. There’s something very calming and tranquil about being in the presence of the largest fish in the world, it was definitely a high point of the trip so far!

After more beach time and seeing some manta rays during more snorkelling I headed up the coast some more and spent a couple of days at Vilanculo Beach. Not as nice as Tofo but nice mangrove forests and local fishermen out and about. That pretty much brings us to the end of Mozambique.

Zimbabwe

Well, what can I say about Zim, I imagine most of you at this point are thinking of all the news hype surrounding Mugabe and all of the country’s political problems. Putting all that to one side Zimbabwe is close to being if not is my favourite country so far. The people of Zim are the friendliest group of people I think I’ve ever come across. Everyone, I mean everyone is so so happy that we are visiting their country. After years of bad press and bad government the average citizen is desperate for outsiders to realize that they are more than welcome in Zim! Even the police pull us over continually, not for bribes, not to cause a problem, but to ask us our story and welcome us to the country they love so much! Now from previous travels on this continent I can tell you that that’s something special!

After 2 days on the move I have settled into Antelope Park arriving yesterday afternoon, and I couldn’t help but jump straight into a night time safari, and I have a good story to tell.

At 7.30 last night in the pitch black 2 open backed 4 by 4’s set off into the bush, myself being on one of them of course. With no headlights or torches so as not to scare the wildlife we made our way through the dark with one hand held infrared light. As we left the gates we heard the first mighty boom of thunder. Entering Zim at the peak of its rain and storm season is challenge enough in my book, but discovering that night that Zimbabwe is the second most lightning struck country in the world really ups the ante don’t you think? So we follow the infrared, one truck behind the other, when through the noise of the rain and thunder we hear something . . . something different . . . . . shadows start moving next to the vehicles but it’s too dark to see. Dark shapes, the glint of eyes . . . . a low rumbling which is not thunder this time. The shapes fade and the rain starts for real, pouring down so hard we get drenched to the bone when the thunder starts again, and this time continues booming across the dark wet African plains. The shadows in the dark emerge and scuffling sounds come from by the side of the truck, we hear a roar just us the thunder booms and then lightning strikes across the sky lighting up the plains, lighting up the sky, lighting up the vehicles, the people, the rain drops, and the four adult lions walking just 3 or 4 feet from where I sat on the edge of the truck. Then as quickly as the light came we plunge into darkness again and the lions lurk in the night. With no roof or sides to the truck you start to realise how real the situation is and how close you are to the king of the cats which are now completely hidden to your eye. Harder rain and more lightning and the 2 male and 2 female lions are still prowling around our slow moving vehicle. Darkness falls to the dead of night, the glint of the cats eyes are all we have, something moves, smaller eyes, roars from the lions and they’re on the move, running shadows, more thunder, a chase is under way, but who are they after? Lightning again and you see the impala (an antelope) make a break for freedom before the lions have chance to pounce. Darkness falls again the direction of the lions change and we follow, blindly. The tension is in the air, heightened by the dark, the rain, the heavy storm which has barely got underway. A voice in the dark cries out, something happens, we jolt around in the vehicle and for a minute I think I’m going to be thrown out, the 4 by 4 stops and tries to reverse. Unaware of what’s happened I strain to see into the darkness, infrared reveals the truck tipped at an angle, stuck with its left rear wheel in a pothole, the back of the vehicle is low to the ground, we are now almost level with the ground and the lions are somewhere in the darkness. Calling breaks out between the guides, torches flick on, people are running between the vehicles, Minutes pass, or was it only seconds? The vehicle is pulled to freedom with a sigh of relief from all, and the lions are nowhere to be seen. Lightning strikes, lights the bush, nothing, we drive faster, rain falling harder than ever when we see a female, infrared leading the way we see the other 3, more eyes glint ahead, the females suddenly drop to the ground, something moves, they spring to life, all give chase, moving shadows, flashes of light, a scuffle in the dark, we proceed closer as another flash reveals a female lion with her jaw gripped around the throat of a wildebeest with another female on its back. The males arrive and the beast is taken to the ground as the thunder booms and the lions roar in triumph and blood rage over their kill. We can do nothing but watch. Nature at its most pure, at its most deadly, at its most raw! Nature can make something ugly beautiful and I don’t think I can explain that or justify it, it just can. We watch, there’s no need for description, we watch, now just a few feet from the pride, the small pride who are now oblivious to all else around them. We watch until the end, our eyes transfixed, all now standing, all silent, the rain, the thunder, doesn’t make a dent now in what has become a point where time seems to stand still. The end arrives the wildebeest is no more, only the lions, with mane’s soaked by the rain, and the blood. Red rain drops drip from their mouths as they turn back into the shadows they once were. They roar as the thunder booms. Are they still lurking near us? Is that a lions roar or is the thunder playing tricks with us? The lightning has subsided, the infrared has run dry. The rain has reduced to a small drizzle and we are left alone in the darkness, the storm has passed and all evidence of the night is washed away with it.

Hope you liked the story. I’m now in Botswana, so hopefully will write again soon filling you in on the last couple days in Zim and Botswana so far. Speak soon.