MARIE’S WORLD TOUR: Fifth Installment
Cape Town to Nairobi
By Marie Javins, GoNOMAD TRANSPORTS GUIDE
I eyed the coast of Cape Town from the bridge of the DAL Kalahari freighter ship. Africa! The continent I had committed to traversing from south to north for the next four months! I was excited, but Immigration made me spend the night on board the ship.
The next morning, I headed to the traveler’s ghetto on Long Street. After fifteen days at sea, there was a lot of catching up to do… and I had to go to the dentist three times to boot. After a week of mundane chores, I caught the intercape.co.za/ overnight bus to Namibia. It was time to get started on my grand overland safari.
CRAZY LIKE A KUDU
I joined Crazy Kudu’s (crazykudu.com) inexpensive ten-day highlights of Namibia small group tour in Windhoek. My preconception was that Africa was a tough place to visit, and that Namibia was no exception. I expected a cut-rate camping safari complete with discomfort, a lot of dirt, inconvenience, and trying toilets. I was totally wrong.
When I’d thought of going to Namibia, I hadn’t thought of shopping malls, well-groomed nature reserves, German cities, drinkable water, and pristine toilets. But that’s exactly what Namibia presented me with.
We stopped at a gas to use the bathrooms. Modern, clean, flushing, and no charge! I stuck my nose back in my guidebook, where I learned that South Africa had been given German-colonized Namibia to watch over after World War I.
Namibia had built the same infrastructure and government as South Africa until 1989, when Namibia gained independence as part of the Angola-South Africa war settlement. The campgrounds we stayed in Etosha National Park and Waterberg Plateau were as clean and convenient as the toilets. They were never crowded, scenic, close to the woods, and all had flushing toilets, clean showers, and dishwashing facilities.
My notions of Africa were being severely challenged. I’d have to readjust my preconceptions. Even the dirt roads were graded and fairly flat.
A week later, my preconceptions were thrown out altogether. We’d seen elephants, rhino, hundreds of zebra, giraffe, and gazelles. We’d sat on viewing platforms by waterholes, and seen elephants, rhino, hundreds of zebra, giraffe, and gazelles, all while enjoying a drink and leisurely setting up tripods.
But Namibia’s comforts and ease hadn’t prepared me for the culture shock of stumbling onto a quaint German village in southwest Africa.
Ten of us — Italians, Swedes, Namibians and Americans — pulled into Swakopmund in the afternoon. It was quaint, like a little slice of seaside Europe in Africa. Cute shops sold German coffeepots, high-tech cameras, and African souvenirs. Some of the shopkeepers exclusively spoke German.
Swakopmund also featured upscale restaurants, Alpine-village styled hotels, and adventure sports. Our two Swedes and one Italian opted for shark fishing on our free day in Swakopmund.
One of us went for a walk around town, another skydived, but the rest of us — myself included — went sandboarding down the massive Swakopmund dunes.
“The problem with sandboarding,” an experienced friend had told me, “is not going down the dunes. That’s easy. It’s climbing back up that’s the hard part.”
She was right. Sledding down the giant dunes was a blast, but every time I got to the bottom, I was expected to sludge through the loose sand back to the top.
Our trip ended four days later, after heading first from Swakopmund to the Namibian dunes at Sesriem and then back to Windhoek. Four hours after we finished our safari, I boarded the twice a week bus to Victoria Falls. I liked Namibia and could have stayed there for a month, but it was time to move on to Zimbabwe and Botswana.
CURIOS AND CURRENCY
On the 18th of August, I awoke crammed into a bus seat, just in time to see a bright red orb pop up over the eastern horizon. We traveled on through the Caprivi Strip, across the tip of Botswana, and into Zimbabwe’s tourist mecca, the town of Victoria Falls.
I checked into a crummy backpacker’s hostel and went downtown to submerge myself in the full-on Vic Falls experience. Zimbabwe, as most probably know, is having problems at the moment. And while I wasn’t well-versed in the politics of the country, I was immediately schooled in the local effects of the crisis.
Officially, 55 Zimbabwe dollars were worth one US dollar. The government had made this the rate, in an effort to prop up its ailing currency.
Unofficially, one US dollar equaled 250 to 300 Zimbabwe dollars. The rate changed daily, and there was no shortage of people anxious to trade with me.
“Change money, change money?” came the furtive whispers from young men on the street, interspersed with occasional “safari” and “gange” calls.
Zimbabwe was, not long ago, the model African country, a real success story. But the Mugabe government’s attempts at land reform had produced disastrous results. It wasn’t the actual land reform concept that was the problem — it was the execution.
Fair compensation for returned land — originally seized during colonial times — had been given lip service but had not happened; the end results were violent. International businesses pulled out of the country, followed by a hard currency crisis that brought on fuel shortages. No doubt food shortages will follow, as many of the season’s crops were lost.
I stopped by the internet cafe to check my e-mail. Access in Zimbabwe was painfully slow, and the girl sitting next to me was reading a book concurrent with checking her mail.
Then it was on to my Zambezi Trails horse safari. I was an intermediate rider, and went off solo with one guide. Dozens of novice riders were taken out separately. I found it odd, and wondered why I wasn’t going along with the beginners. We followed elephant tracks down to the river, and spotted an elephant on the opposite bank.
“Look, he’s thinking about crossing the river,” said my guide. The elephant studied the lay of the water. He walked in. The river got deep in the middle and the elephant nearly disappeared. He swam to the other side and then reached a shallow shelf. He hauled himself up by the front legs.
“C’mon,” said the guide. “I know where he’s going.” I followed the guide downriver. We stopped and waited. Along came the elephant. He was huge — African elephants are gigantic — and his tusks were long. I aimed my Canon. Then, the elephant spotted us. His face changed. He looked angry.
“He’s spotted us,” I said. Then, “he’s running.” The elephant charged. But the horses were well ahead of him and me. They knew instantly that a pissed-off elephant was chasing us, and broke into full gallops. I help on tightly and looked back.
I had never seen such an awesome, terrifying sight as a charging elephant with me as its quarry. The horses ran like hell. The guide was laughing, so I suspected that we weren’t in any serious danger, and we weren’t.
The elephant, convinced that he’d scared the daylights out of us, turned away and slowed. We trotted a bit further and slowed to a walk.
“Wow,” I said. “Now I know why you take novices out separately.” Novices were not taken as close to animals and were certainly not deliberately placed in front of elephants. Intermediate riders were expected to hang on better. I tried not to wonder what would happen if one fell off.
I spent a few more days in Vic Falls, and then headed to Botswana with an overland truck from Nomad Tours (nomadtours.co.za). We headed first to Chobe National Park to view some of Botswana’s 65,000 elephants from a boat safari. Next, it was off to the famed Okavango Delta wetlands. I left the group at Maun’s Audi Camp for a stopover back in Windhoek, before heading back to the Zambia side of Victoria Falls for some rest and whitewater rafting.
I’D TURN BACK IF I WERE YOU
I caught a bus to Lusaka, and a minibus/taxi combo to Lake Kariba, Zimbabwe. Shearwater was taking me on a four-day canoe/camping safari through Mana Pools National Park. I met my fellow canoers at reception. We were loaded onto a 4×4 that pulled a trailer full of canoes, and drove to a grocery store for last minute supplies.
Two Cokes, some film, and one Snickers bar later, we drove the two hours to the put-in point at Chirundu. I watched the signs from the Mana Pools turnoff. On the return trip, I’d have to hitch forty kilometers to get to the border.
Put-in involved loading everything off the canoes, dragging them into the water, and reloading them. We were assisted by several enthusiastic local boy helpers, and one of my fellow travelers thanked them with a Polaroid photo of themselves.
One of our two Zimbabwean guides, Bono, gave us a canoe safety talk. “There are four things to watch out for on the Zambezi. One: crocs. Don’t stick your hands or feet in the water. Two: hippos. they have four-inch teeth. Let them know you’re here like this.” He tapped his paddle loudly on the canoe. “Three: visible tree stumps. Avoid them. Four: tree stumps below the surface. You can identify they by the way the water flows on the surface. Okay?”
He demonstrated paddling with three strokes on each side. We all applied sunscreen, put on our stupid floppy hats and sunglasses, and positioned ourselves for push off. Ten minutes later, I was clumsy, sweating, and wondering why I hadn’t realized that a canoeing safari would involve physical exertion. To make it worse, I was getting nowhere for all my rowing. I had no power, and dripped water all over the boat every time I switched hands.
We rowed for a few hot hours, ineffectively using a lot of energy for each movement. Finally, we stopped for a quick lunch. A table, some plates, two washing buckets, and sandwich fixings came out of a canoe. We were treated to a traditional camping lunch of pink meat and cucumber sandwiches — something I never imagined myself eating, but now consumed without complaint on a regular basis.
Post-pink lunch meat, everything went back on the canoes and we were off again. I was a little less clumsy now but still struggled. Finally, we stopped to camp — on an island, far from lions. Bono issued some more instructions.
“After dark,” he said, “don’t go anywhere near the riverbank. That’s when the crocodiles hunt. And at night, if you need a toilet, don’t go more than ten meters from your tent.”
The sun turned a dramatic orange before plopping down behind the horizon. Bono made us a dinner of rice, chicken stew, and the ubiquitous African gem squash I’d taken to. Everyone was exhausted and asleep on our Shearwater sleep mats by nine, in spite of the possibilities of man-eating wild animals.
The next morning, the wind was with us and we were more experienced. I managed to not make a mess of mud and water all over the bottom of the canoe, and we started to have fun. About a half-hour after pushing off, we encountered a huge pod of hippos stretched across the river’s narrow width.
Watch out for Hippos
I was in the lead boat with Bono, and had thought this advantageous as Bono was the man carrying the loaded warning pistol. Now, as he carefully led the way through the hippo pool, I realized that being the first to surprise a hippopotamus was less than ideal. Hippos are grass-eating vegetarians, but they are also timid and don’t like to be seen or surprised.
Every time we approached a group of hippos sun-bathing on the bank, they’d turn bright pink with shame at their out-of-water nakedness and flee for the safety of the water. The hippos we now approached were already in the water, but it didn’t make them less fearful.
To intimidate us, they emitted their very un-hippo-like ominous roar — it sounded like the disembodied Jolly Green giant — and seemed to warn us away.
“Ho ho ho,” said the hippos. “I’d turn back if I were you. That’s what they’re saying,” I thought. Bono slowly paddled us into the middle of the pod. He kept tapping his paddle, making noises to let the hippos know we were coming. “Stay close,” he said to the rest of the group.
Then, we cleared the first line of defense and looked at the water before us. Hippos were exploding out of the water – here a hippo, there a hippo. They can stay under water for five to six minutes and when they come up suddenly, the result is a massive expulsion of air and water followed by a surprised, possibly annoyed pair of eyes and a snout.
I was wondering if Bono was lying to me about the hippo that could bite a canoe in half when he started issuing instructions to the others. “Follow me,” he barked. He’s been aiming right for a hippo and now suddenly cut directly across the river.
“Paddle left,” he told me. And I did. I paddled furiously on the left. If we didn’t make it in time, I’d be the first one bitten by the unhappy hippo. Our trip went something like this. Paddle. Paddle. Paddle. WHOOSH HO HO HO Paddlepaddlepaddle! Paddle. Paddle.
We made it in spite of my feeble contribution, as Bono was much stronger than I was and was well-versed in the twists and turns of the Zambezi. We were never really in danger, but it sure felt like we were. Now, I understood the appeal of the Lower Zambezi canoe safari.
It was just you and nature, face to face. And while the danger did exist, it was easy to minimize it with a qualified guide. Enthusiastically, I quit telling myself that it mattered if I paddled, and took it easy.
I took as many photos as I did strokes. We were ahead of schedule anyway, and Bono told us to slow down. Slow down we did, observing more hippos, some evil-looking crocs, elephants, egrets, and carmine bee-eater birds that lived in muddy holes.
We continued on at a leisurely pace, camped to the roaring of lions on the opposite bank, and started up again in the morning. At lunch we indulged in some more pink meat and cucumber treats. Everyone else wandered off, and leaving me scribbling in my diary. Then, they all came scampering back, wide-eyed and agitated.
“Ellies,” said an Australian traveler. Aussies like to shorten words, and what they meant here was that elephants were headed towards us. I noticed that Bono had the pistol in his hand, and Cambell had the shortwave radio. He had turned it on. Everyone had left their possessions on the bank, fleeing with just the clothes on their backs.
“If an elephant charges,” instructed Bono. “Stand still.” We looked at him like he was mad, but there was no time to argue. The elephants approached. It was hot out, and they were headed straight towards our canoes for drinks and showers. The elephants inadvertently herded us.
“Everyone over here,” said Bono, motioned us further on, out of the elephant’s way. The elephants had a good long look at us and seemed to decide we were not worth their time. They stalked on, to drink and splash about while we cowered and snapped our once-in-a-lifetime photos. Finally, the elephants left.
High on adrenalin, we reclaimed our possessions. But it wasn’t totally over. Five more “ellies” approached, shaking the berries off acacia trees as they walked. This time they approached directly, driving us up onto the bank. We were cornered, our only out a leap into the croc-infested river.
But the elephants didn’t care about us. They only had eyes for the cooling effects of water, squirted onto their backs by their pendulum-like trunks. The most amazing thing about the African elephant was not the size of its enormous ears, which flap to provide elephant air-conditioning. It was their sensitive, delicate step. They avoided our canoes and possessions without so much as a glance.
Finally, they left the water’s edge and moved away, intent on tormenting more acacia trees. Buffalo wandered up next, along with waterbuck, a type of antelope/deer thing. Both had the sense to keep a fair distance away from us.
We canoed for another day, and then left me alone at the border to Zambia, to get back to Lusaka while the others returned to Kariba.
EAST AFRICA EXPRESS
I caught the TAZARA train to East Africa. It was one of the shabbiest trains I’d ridden all year. In short, it was a filthy, boring ride. But I enjoyed my interactions with the women in my gender-segregated car.
Riding the train with African women turned out to be a different experience than any of my previous train trips. First, the women had all brought their pajamas and hair nets.
On the Trans-Siberian and other trains, people had just worn the same clothes non-stop. Second, the Zambian women made a great production of their morning routines. They stripped, and slathered various creams all over themselves.
They dressed in smoothly-pressed outfits and applied makeup meticulously. They did all this at the slowest imaginable pace, while I waited for them to quit bustling about and let me down off the top bunk.
On the second morning, one of them opened the door. The other stood naked from the waist up, and a man walked by outside the open door. The women covered her chest with crossed arms and stood proudly. Everyone giggled.
“In your culture,” she said to me, “the breasts are private.”
“Yes,” I agreed.
“In our culture,” she explained, “the breasts are not such a big deal, but here is very private.” She motioned to her thighs. I laughed. “Where I come from, that’s private too.” The women looked at me doubtfully. They’d probably seen Hollywood movies that suggested otherwise.
The train entered Selous Game Reserve, and we spent hours staring out the window looking for animals. Giraffes, startled by the strange iron animal that was roaring down on them, would gallop away, leaving us giggling at their lankiness. The train — no surprise — ran late and our trip clocked in at 53 hours by the time we stepped, dizzy and stinking, onto the platform in Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania.
The morning of September 11, I caught a catamaran to the island of Zanzibar. Who put the “Zan” in TanZANia? It’s the “Zan” in Zanzibar. The rest is from the ex-British colony of Tanganika. Zanzibar is East Africa’s “spice island,” and was the port that had access to Africa, the Middle East, and India. Much of the population is of Arabic or Indian ancestry.
I splurged on a gorgeous room at Emerson and Green Hotel (zanzibar.org/emegre), an atmospheric hotel dubbed “one of the best small hotels” by London’s Sunday Times. My plan was to enjoy a few days of R&R. Obviously, it didn’t work out as planned.
I stopped in at an internet cafe, checked my mail, and walked out to the main lobby to pay. The TV was on. CNN was on. Two familiar buildings were on TV. They were on fire. It was a rhetorical question, really. I just needed confirmation that I wasn’t insane.
“Is that the World Trade Center?” I asked shakily. The two kids who worked at the internet cafe nodded and giggled. They thought it was funny that two giant skyscrapers were on fire.
“A plane hit it,” they said with apparent delight, and then noticed my expression.
“What’s wrong?” asked one of them. I had probably gone pale.
“That’s an office building,” I said. “Lots of people work there.”
The kids quit giggling. “How many people?”
“Thousands, THOUSANDS,” I replied. People from all over the world stared at CNN with me, shook their heads, and grieved over the loss of innocent lives. Local Muslims were as distressed as tourists. There was no anti-American sentiment this day — that came later — for the moment, nationalities were forgotten and we were all simply human.
I’m from Lower Manhattan, and my friends all reported in with horror stories of watching the buildings collapse, or watching people covered in soot streaming northward up the avenues, of lining up to give blood only to find out that few made it out with injuries.
My financial advisor, staring up from next door, had to evacuate by feel, unable to see through the debris and thick air around him. For the first time, my mother e-mailed me that she was glad I was in Africa and not in New York.
I stumbled around in a worried daze for a few days, and one day found myself sitting in a restaurant by clear, aqua-colored seas. There was no enjoying Zanzibar while I was worried about my home and the terrifying ramifications of September 11th. I was miserable, and changing locations wouldn’t help that.
But at least if I was going to be moping about, I could do it somewhere cheaper, where I could get comfort food and watch CNN. I’d go back to Dar tomorrow. I’d be closer to the airport in case things went horribly wrong, and there would be fewer men saying “jambo, blondie, what are you doing tonight?” A week later, starting to come out of my daze, I headed to Arusha to go on a safari.
CAMPING TANZANIAN STYLE
Erasto and Wilfred, our driver-guides on our Guerba “Comfort Camping” Safari, met us at Arusha’s Impala Hotel. We packed into two 4x4s, one a Land Cruiser and the other a Land Rover. Our luggage went in a separate truck, along with the cook, the baggage handlers, and the tent erectors (“comfort camping” was a whole new world for me).
Our destinations were Lake Manyara National Park (home of tree-climbing lions), the Serengeti, and Ngorongoro Crater. Lake Manyara was a washout. Having seen no lions — tree-climbing or grass-sleeping — we moved down the bumpy, dusty, potholed roads, lined with young Maasai boys in traditional “coming-of-age” painted faces. They were hoping to make a buck by posing for a photo.
Tanzania was, I’d discovered, fraying around its tourist-infrastructure edges. I’d been lulled into a sense of ease by the modernity of southern Africa, and was surprised to find that East Africa’s popular and more famous tourist facilities were shabbier, having been rundown long ago.
I was now in the haphazard, deteriorating Africa I had expected to begin with. On the third day, our route took us west towards the Serengeti. Children dressed in red tribal Maasai blankets waved as we passed by.Invariably, their waves turned to ghost-scribbling motions. These children were used to getting pens thrown to them by tourists.
Our next stop was a Maasai village. The Maasai are the famous nomadic cattle-herding tribe of Kenya and Tanzania, well-known for their adherence to traditional lifestyles within the context of modern Africa. They still dance and guard against lions, but now some of them do it for tourism.
“Take as many photos as you like,” said Erasto. “They’re free.” Or sort of free. We were entering the nebulous world of “tradition meets commerce.”
In ’91, I went down the Amazon on a converted steamer. We stopped at a tribal village, where the tribe obligingly changed out of shorts and t-shirts, put on grass skirts and beads, and did a dance. Members of the audience were (as usual) pulled up to participate, and then bought trinkets before the tribe members changed back into their t-shirts.
In 2000, Intrepid (intrepidtravel.com) took me into tribal Laotian villages. No one performed, but they welcomed us and let us take photos. In exchange, our leader brought them sacks of salt and flour. No one tried to sell us anything. The Intrepid approach guaranteed a more “authentic” experience, but it was a slippery slope. How long before the village equated visitors with sacks of flour, and then realized they could get money instead? And was that necessarily a wrong thing, to begrudge a tribe’s commercial development?
“Starfleet’s” prime directive of no interference in developing cultures is impossible to maintain. You can’t show people a culture without expecting it to influence them.
Our Maasai village was, at least, the real thing. It was a collection of small, circular mud huts — over a dozen — encircled by a round, reed fence. We’d seen plenty of Maasai nearby, all dressed in traditional bright red and black checked blankets, so we knew the Maasai still dressed the part and were not changing clothes for our benefit.
One villager invited us in. He wore giant metal earrings, which dangled from quarter-sized holes in his lobes. He followed us into the enclosure — a “Road Warrior-esque” Maasai world in the middle of the plain — and the girls of the village chanted while the boys jumped their Maasai dance. All were technically men and women, but seemed very young in spite of already having spouses and children.
“The Maasai,” explained our host, “can have several wives for one man. But each wife gets her own house.” The host took three of us inside his tiny hut. It was cool inside, but way too small for a family of four — which is what lived there.
Afterwards, the Maasai tried to sell us trinkets, while the children asked for pens and coins. And several Maasai inquired about America.
“What will America do?” They asked excitedly. “Four airplanes, right?”
We left the village/theater behind us and moved on to Olduvai Gorge. Mary Leakey had made a groundbreaking discovery of a skeleton named Lucy at Olduvai Gorge. I vaguely remembered learning about it in elementary school. As usual, the Clintons had beaten me there. Photos of Hillary and Chelsea adorned the walls.
A group of Tanzanian schoolkids were at Olduvai Gorge on a field trip. One of them, a girl in a Batman baseball cap and school uniform, ran by me and the Hillary Clinton photo. She boarded the schoolbus with grafitti scrawled into the dust on the back.
“Look, he’s become some kind of Robin Hood,” I said, pointing to the grafitti. The rear window read “OSAMA OSAMA,” and the bumper said “I (HEART) OSAMA BIN LADEN.” Us tourists watched silently as the bus pulled away. Too late, we remembered our cameras.
The next morning, we were off on a crack-of-dawn game drive, to hunt for lions. It didn’t take long to find one. “That lion is in a tree!” exclaimed our usually calm guide, Wilfred. There was an older male lion on a tree branch, shifting his weight uncomfortably. Below him was a herd of what looked like a hundred buffalo.
“They’ve got him trapped,” said Wilfred. “The buffalo are taking their revenge. A lion is no match for that many buffalo.”
How funny that we’d spent all of yesterday searching for tree-climbing lions and now we had stumbled across one in a park where lions just don’t climb trees. He wasn’t, in fact, a proper tree-climbing lion. He was just a normal lion in a desperate spot.
“Look, there’s more!” Two lionesses stood across the road, hidden in the large grass. They were clearly outnumbered and didn’t know what to do.
“Which one do you identify with, the lion or the buffalo?” asked Carl, a psychiatrist from Los Angeles. I thought about it.
“The buffalo,” I said. “I can’t help but root for the underdog, and I’m not the king of the jungle.”
“Now you understand that Osama bin Laden grafitti.”
Indeed I did, and it was very troubling.
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