0

Lake Nakuru: One final game drive

I have a secret to tell. Something that fills me with immense shame. Here it goes.

By the time we reached Kenya, I was kind of over safaris.

It feels good to finally get that out there. Those of you who’ve been with me from the beginning might remember a certain starry eyed overlander who said she would never tire of seeing elephants up close. I stand by that, because even in Kenya every elephant forced me to have to pause and catch my breath. I guess what I’m saying is I just didn’t have the same level of excitement about going our all day game drive around Lake Nakuru as I did way back in Etosha. I’d been spoilt, plain and simple!

Lake Nakuru National Park is famous for its flamingos, and although my friends back home will smile knowingly upon reading that. However, I’ve somehow managed to log 7 months of travels without alluding to my flamingo obsession. This particular game drive drive also happened to be our last real wildlife spotting opportunity of the trip. So with the promise of vast quantities if flamingos, and a leopard sighting still eluding me, I joined the others in the wee hours of the morning and headed off on our very last game drive.

image

Lake Nakuru had experienced some big floods in the lead up to our visit, so a lot of areas were off limits. One of the entrance gates was still actually underwater! But it’s a beautiful park, and well worth a visit no matter how jaded an animal enthusiast you’ve become.

image

image

We didn’t see a leopard, and the flamingos, though plentiful, turned out to be tiny blips on the horizon of my zoom lens. But what we did see was spectacular.

We saw lions, with all their exuding power and pride.

We saw rhino in numbers far greater than we’d been blessed to see this whole trip.

We saw not one, not two, but an entire pack of hyenas. We saw baboons harassing unsuspecting tourists whilst they tried to picnic. We saw some truly unique bird life (we’re all birders these days). We even saw two giraffes, duking it out, crashing their necks together in violent dance. Who needs a leopard when you’ve been lucky enough to see all that?

 

3

Kenya dig it?

See what I did there? Eh? Eh?

Crossing the border into Kenya, I had the very really feeling that this would be our last taste of the Africa I’d so fallen in love with. Ethiopia and Sudan would be unlike anywhere we’d been so far, and I felt the desperate need to latch onto and savour this crazy, colourful, chaos that had become my home.

In the lead up to our time in Kenya there were numerous bombings in Nairobi. Suffice it to say there were a few nervous overlanding parents scattered across the globe. The reality of the mood in Kenya, however, was starkly different to the western media’s portrayal. Beyond the odd metal detector and car boot check as we made our way into shopping centres, there was very little to give away what the city had been going through.

I must admit, I was immediately divided in my opinions of Kenya and whether it would have a lasting place in my heart. I struggled with the blatant wealth divide, which was more obvious here than anywhere else on our trip. Later on in our Kenyan travels we would enjoy a $45 meal right across the highway from the largest slum in Africa and that divide would really hit home.

Kenya’s general affluence means that it’s not a cheap place to travel. It is a playground for wealthy tourists, boasting some of Africa’s premium safari offerings – I’m talking glamping on crack, none of this overlanding business. It lacks, I think, some of the make-do charm of its neighbouring countries. The upside, however, is that there is no shortage of things to do and see. There’s a tonne of fun to be had and I could easily have doubled my time in Kenya without managing to cross off everything on my wish list.

image

Photo by my dear friend Sonja Haeni

 

Our first campsite may have been one of my all time favourites, had it not been the mosquito camp from hell. It was a sweet little spot called Dunga Hill. The aforementioned hill overlooked Lake Victoria, and was topped with a grand old tree decorated in fairy lights. The perfect spot to take in sunset beers and the Football World Cup. Sadly, it was in fact the mosquito camp from hell, so one beer was enough before I scurried to the relative safety of my tent. A lovely, if somewhat itchy start to our Kenyan adventures.

We were warned that it was quite common for hippos to venture into the campsite at night, something which had Lottie and me a little nervous given our last hippo encounter in Botswana (also known as ‘That time we got charged by a hippo and somehow lived to tell the tale’). Fortunately, this overlander had lost any sense of propriety ages ago and had her undies strung up all over the campsite. If that wasn’t going to scare hippos away, nothing would!

image

1

Rwanda: Mountain Gorillas and memorials

It was not lost on me that anyone I met in Rwanda from about the age of 20 onwards had experienced and survived one of the most unspeakably dark events of the 20th century. Was the man driving my taxi a Hutu or a Tutsi? What was his story? Did he lose loved ones? Did he still think about it each day? What did he see? Did he himself kill anyone? It was impossible not to wonder.

After two days caged in the back of the truck from 5am through until well after dark, finally crossing the border and pulling into our Rwandan campsite was a moment of pure elation. Though possibly not for our poor cook group who had to pull dinner together at 9pm in the freezing cold rain.

Entering Rwanda that morning instantly brought back memories of our early days in Guinea – the people were just so friendly. They could not have made us feel more at home. The big beaming smiles and waving arms were in stark contrast to the welcome I’d expected, given Rwanda’s history.

Making friends and as always, drawing a crowd

We arrived at our campsite at 9pm at night and had our Gorilla trek booked for the crack of dawn the very next morning. We were cutting it a little fine, but we made it. Malaria cases and emergency crew changes be damned!

The gorillas were something we’d been talking about since day one, so we’d had a good six months to build up the experience in our imaginations. Turns out they were every bit as incredible as we’d hoped. We trekked for about two hours to reach Amohoro, our gorilla family, named after the Rwandan word for ‘peace’.

The trek itself was no easy feat. We walked about two hours each way in the intermittent rain, the whole time either ankle deep in mud or pushing our way through stinging nettles. The gorillas are tracked all day every day, so our guide knew exactly where to take us, and before long it was time to leave the trail and head down the mountain. That meant another half hour of trying to balance from tree root to tree root like the graceful gazelles we are not, trying desperately not to slip and break an ankle.

There are few things in this world worth braving stinging nettles for, but seeing an entire family of Mountain Gorillas is definitely one of them! We had 45 precious minutes to sit, observe, and try to pick our jaws back up off the floor, as we watched these beautiful creatures go about their day to day business. We saw a baby tumble turning, up and down the mountain, crawling all over her elders before eventually having a nap on a mate’s belly. We watched as the big silverback, more powerful in person than I could ever capture in my photos, stirred from his sleep and took his place in the middle of the family. We even got a romantic display of…ahem…affection from one of the silverbacks and his lady friend who didn’t seem to mind an audience. Every single moment was incredible.

I left the Amahoro family on a high, breathing a quick sigh of relief that my $900 had been well spent.

Our time in Rwanada was shortlived and after the gorillas we had just one more night before we headed to Rwanda. We headed into town for a long night and morning of dancing in a local club, we discovered a little cafe with real coffee and the best mushroom soup I have ever tasted in my life, and we browsed the local markets delighted to find rosemary among the otherwise standard assortment of African fruit and vegetables. Africa is yet to really truly embrace the herb in its cooking repertoire, so you can understand why a little sprig of rosemary would cause a cook group so much joy.

Our final stop before heading to the border, was the Genocide Memorial in Kigali. A place to learn, to try and understand, and to remember what happened in 1994. What I find truly remarkable about Rwanda is that Rwandans as a whole have not allowed themselves to become victims of their past. Whether it’s in spite of or because of the genocide, Rwanda seemed to me to be a country that doesn’t want to forget, and yet refuses to have their future defined by the past. A country of one people, one nation.

0

The Curse of the Tran Africa: a lesson in anti-malarials

When your driver gets recurring malaria driving down West Africa, you think that’s pretty unlucky.

When your TL gets Typhoid with a side of malaria, you think that’s getting really unlucky.

But by the time your East Coast driver gets malaria, it’s almost getting comically unlucky. Though I’m sure poor Nick could thing of a few other choice words to describe the experience.

And so it was, with our third crew victim down and out, that the curse of the Trans Africa 2014 became legend.

We left Snake Park for the Rwandan border like a bus load of excited school kids. And with good reason too, we were off to see the Mountain Gorillas! We only got as far as the Shoprite in Arusha, however, when it became pretty clear that Nick needed to get to a doctor ASAP. He’d been unwell our entire time in Arusha, but had twice been cleared of malaria and had put it down to a bad flu.

Third time tests must be the charm though because this time, not only did he test positive for malaria, but his counts were so high he was told he might not have made it one more day without treatment.

We managed to pin the time of infection down to the dress up party in Lake Malawi, where Nick was coerced into sporting this little number:

Great for showing off those pins. Not so great for mosquito protection.

Great for showing off those pins. Not so great for mosquito protection.

A lot of overlanding crew living in Africa choose not to take anti-malarials because long term use isn’t exactly good for liver and kidneys. But then again, Nick doesn’t exactly walk around dressed like a tramp every night either.

Now being unexpectedly stranded in strange places for days is just a regular part of the Trans, and at any other time we would have welcome the extended visit to Shoprite and free wifi at the ice cream store, but on this particular occasion we had mountain gorillas to see and we only had a few days to get there!

Overlanding family to the rescue! While oasis flew emergency driver Gareth in from Uganda, Acacia Africa lent us one of their own to see us back to Snake Park safely.

With a whole day of travelling lost, we spent two straight days trapped in the back of the truck trying to cover as many miles as possible. We’d wake up well before sunrise, and set up camp well after dark. But we made it!

Poor Gareth. Not only was he thrusted into leadership of our group of riff-raff who’d already been travelling around Africa for over six months, far longer than any of his east coast tour groups. He also copped a never ending barrage of pre-emptive malaria jokes for the two weeks that followed. So imagine how bad we felt when we got word just after he left us that he too was a victim of the Big M. Crew member number 4.

The Trans Africa 2014 curse. Turns out, it’s a thing.

0

Arusha: Riding in buses with goats

When you’re standing on the bus, feet straddled either side of a stranger’s knee, your bag of groceries in the care of a Mama Africa you’ve never met so that your hands are free to hang on for dear life, stooped over with no choice but to your head resting on your neighbour’s shoulder, a rogue elbow resting on your own shoulder because personal space schmersonal space, the back of your neck thumping against the roof of the bus with each speed bump (and believe me there are many), and the flustered cluck of a chicken from the seat below you. This my friends, is when you know you’re in Africa.

And such was my daily experience in Arusha.

Arusha is one of Tanzania’s main hubs, where thousands of tourists converge to tackle Mt Kilimanjaro or to try their luck at game spotting in the Serengeti. Having opted to do neither of the two, I found myself with 5 nights to kill here.

We stayed at a campsite called Snake Park, another time-honoured tradition on the African overlanding circuit, and for good reason. Snake Park supports a life saving snake bite clinic which provides free medical care to approximately 1000 Tanzanians a month. Proceeds from the bar go directly to the clinic, so getting drunk here almost feel honourable. Any wonder all the overlanders make themselves at home here!

Being about 20 minutes out of town, I got very well acquainted with the local bus system. The easiest way to get to Arusha from Snake Park is by Dala Dala, essentially a beat up mini bus decorated in either rapper, football teams, or bible quotes. They’re cheap, they’re easy to figure out, and as a tourist you’re a guaranteed novelty so the locals are generally eager to help you out with directions and stops. Sure you might have to share the back seat with a farm animal, but it’s either that or pay $30USD to catch a taxi (I’ll take a goat over that any day)!

Driver Nick tasked us with trying to use up as much of the truck’s food stores as possible during our time at Snake Park, so we decided a party was in order. A surprise, children’s birthday themed, farewell/congratulations party to be exact. We were saying goodbye to Lottie and Carolyn who finished their journey with us in Arusha, as well as celebrating Carolyn and Helen’s mammoth feat of making it all the way to the top of Mt Kili without dying. If they didn’t deserve to eat all our truck reserves of powdered hummus and sweet onion pickle then who did?

We went into full party planning mode and every day was spent busing backwards and forwards into Arusha tracking down party food and decorations. We made streamers, donned party hats, and we even managed to make a cheesecake! I should probably be ashamed to admit that we spent approximately $25USD on cheese so we could have cheese and pineapple sticks, but I’m not. Those cheese and pineapple sticks were good.

The party was a hit, and despite a few bittersweet tears the girls were absolutely stoked. Not as stoked as Nick, the winner of pass-the-parcel, who now had a Mills and Boon to keep them company at night.

As for me, I was just looking forward to riding goat free in the back of the truck again.

 

2

Oh Zanzibar, way to steal a girl’s heart

 

image

A warm coastal breeze, crystal clear water, and palm fringed beaches. There’s nothing quite like it to inspire a girl to switch off and pretend she’s not an overlander for a few days.

After living on our truck for six whole months, I could think of no more perfect way to escape than lying by the pool, strolling down the beach, and sipping cocktails by sunset each night. It’s not that I didn’t love the truck. I did. It’s just that sometimes you need a real holiday.

Zanzibar was our holiday.

We’d been talking about it since just about day one, how excited we all were, and it didn’t disappoint.

We spent our first three nights at a quiet beach resort in Nungwi, a little beachside village at the northernmost part of the island.

Once we’d been handed our room keys there was nothing else for it but to kick back and relax. We had three nights here and I became quickly proficient in the art of doing absolutely nothing. Floating between the pool, the cocktail bar, my bed, and the beach. It was perfect.

Our final night in Nungwi also happened to coincide with our 200th night of the trip. 200! Can you believe that? It only felt like yesterday that we were celebrating day 100 at the Presbytarian Mission in Cameroon with cold showers and a rather endearingly misshapen campfire cake. How far we’ve come! I have no idea where the time went, but in spite of my concern at such a massive amount of lost time, it was an awesome excuse to get dolled up, leave the comforts of the resort, and head out for dinner with my truck family.

After three nights of pure bliss, we begrudgingly packed our bags and boarded a mini bus back to Stone Town, stopping along the way to do a spice tour. The spice tour was unexpectedly awesome. We learnt about all kinds off spices and tried all sorts of things that I wouldn’t have even though edible. Towards the end one of the local guides showed off his climbing prowess, scaling an entire coconut tree barefoot to retrieve fresh coconuts for us to drink. I was far too anxious about how high we was to truly appreciate the skill involved, but looking back at the pictures…what a DUDE!

Stone Town, with it’s winding alleyways, brought back memories of Morocco. I went for walk hoping to find some tacky souvenir stores and ended up spending an entire afternoon getting lost and navigating my way back to the hotel. That one orienteering class at Uni really paid off! As it turns out I didn’t get anywhere near the souvenir store side of town, but I saw the women nursing babies and playing games with chalk on the stone pavements outside their houses, the men coming and going from hidden away mosques, and the children playing with discarded VHS tape. I felt like I saw the real Stone Town rather than the quaint white washed buildings they chuck up for us tourists, and I loved that.

It wasn’t an easy place to part with. After all, Zanzibar is paradise. But we had safaris and gorillas and all manner of things to look forward to in the coming weeks, and so we took off the bikinis, put our overlanding pants back on, and headed back to the truck with fresh sun tans and a renewed zest. I have a feeling it won’t be my last trip to Zanzibar.

3

Welcome to Tanzania! Don’t mind if we rob you first?

In my opinion, nothing says welcome to the country quite so much as a merry band of black market money changers robbing the living day lights out of you and your friends on the border. So as far as welcomes go, I’d say Tanzania’s was tip-top.

I wanted to fall in love with Tanzania immediately, not in the least because two of my favourite west coast passengers hailed from the country, but also because it’s home to Zanzibar, the Serengeti, Mt Kilimanjaro, and all manner of other fun sounding places. Sadly, it was not to be (don’t worry though because things do get better in the next blog instalment).

Driver Nick had warned us prior to the border crossing not to change money on the border because the black market changers there were, and I quote, “dodgy bastards.” We took that with a grain of salt figuring that all money changers are generally dodgy bastards but if you make sure to count everything twice you’re generally okay.

Looking back, I cannot emphasise enough just how high on the Dodgy Bastard Scale the Malawi-Tanzania border money changers really are.

I got off lightly, only losing the equivalent of about $8 when my money changer ran off with my cash. But not before wrestling a much larger sum of my money out his hands. Wanker.

Darren actually came out better than he started when he decided to chase his guy. The money changer had run off with all of Darren’s money. Darren found him hiding behind a bush, crash-tackled the poor unsuspecting crook into said bush, and snatched his euros back, incidentally grabbing more money in the process. He had accidentally come back wearing the money changer’s flip flops (both blue, they’d gotten mixed up mid-fisticuffs), and he was covered in scratches from the bush, but he was pretty smug in the end having just acquired the world’s best exchange rate.

Dennis, at the sprightly young age of 68, also came back covered in scratches after chasing his money changer down the street.

Em was the worst hit though, quite literally losing hundreds of dollars. She’d been changing not only her money, but also food money from our local payment while Driver Nick was sorting out the truck in customs.

The moral of this story, though I’m loathe to admit it, is that sometimes (i.e. most of the tim) your TL tends to be right.

And so, if ever you find yourself at the border from Malawi to Tanzania, slightly bored because let’s face it, African immigration processes tend to be more than tedious, don’t change money. Unless you are prepared to crash tackle a man into a bush and then wear a strange man’s flip flops for the remainder of your journey, just wait until you find a Forex.