Monthly Archives: March 2011

Third tour starts – new company, new people – jackpot! (ZW)

My night was rough as my prison cell was really hot while it was nice and cool outside. I will definitely only upgrade when there is air conditioning, a private bathroom or I’m sick. At least I got to use my mosquito net for the first time.

 

Mosquitos here don’t care at all about the bug spray I use, no matter which brand it is. 100% deet has not even worked on me yet. They bite me through my clothes, despite the Permethrin treatment. I may get malaria, I won’t be able to prevent it. Let’s hope not.

 

I have met my new group and I’m thrilled: only 11 people (+guide, driver and cook) and so far I appear the youngest or at least among the 3 youngest. Also, it’s mostly men, and I get my own tent. Even the tents seem in better shape. What more could I ask for.
I did hear that starting in Nairobi (where all but 2 people will leave) we will need to cook for ourselves and there won’t be any mats anymore either. We’ll be roughing it, as is the idea of overlanding. I had already wondered why everything so far had been so cushy. However the truck may get fuller then as this particular trip only takes place twice a year or so.
…and who knows if we even get that far. One guy had booked a tour through Libya and Tunisia which is obviously out of the question now, and the two guys who will come to Istanbul with me don’t have their Egyptian and Ethiopian visas yet. Syria may start fighting, everything is possible.

For now I’m happy here and I already made friends with many locals, all of whom wanted my old clothes. I should take some addresses down for my next closet raiding. I even found an 11 year old boyfriend named Moses who claims he’s old enough to know what’s going on. Maybe I can stop kissing frogs now.

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The ‘real’ Africa, day one (ZW)

Okay, I think the “real” Africa has begun. I just ran a few errands. Oh boy. The receptionist gave me a look of disbelief when I dared to ask for a phone. Evidently the entire country of Zimbabwe has already upgraded to cell phones at this point. She even showed me hers and briefly explained its benefits. I asked if the post office has public pay phones and got another look, this time it was pity. I mean sure, I could have guessed that the post office closes at 3.30pm but to expect a phone there…?

I’m in the city “Victoria Falls”. There is a long strip with craft markets and a short strip with more useful shops. I had a look and found about 15 digital printing & photocopies places, many smaller shacks that sell cell phones and other phone related equipment, a pharmacy behind bars, some internet cafes, booking agencies for adventure activities and a bunch of clothes shops. The latter were of the most random variety and in at least one you could also buy batteries for a car…and eggs. Since this is a touristy place there are backpacker lodges everywhere and even some bars that look fairly western. I was followed by people who tried to sell me wooden hippos or other crap, none of them giving up when I politely declined, all of them asking me to give them something, no matter what.
What I realized really quickly was that I would have no chance now of finding an inexpensive alarm clock (mine conveniently died two days ago, right after we no longer visited a shopping mall every day. I can still use it if I want to get up at 6 am but I can’t change the time anymore). To conclude my errands (nothing achieved at this point) I went into the Spar market and this is where the realization hit me that the real Africa has finally begun. The one I had expected from day one and had already wondered if I would ever see it.

Spar is a supermarket chain. We have it in Germany, it’s smallish there and fairly expensive. Here in Africa, so far, it has been a reliable big market that has anything from fresh produce to endless aisles of ice cream, office supplies and even a bakery. Like Mc Donald’s or any other chain store or restaurant it looks the same everywhere.
Well, not here. Here the store is a disaster zone, it uses the Spar logo but nothing about it is familiar. The fresh fruits available were bananas and apples, vegetables were onions and tomatoes, produce was two sizes and three flavors of yogurt. This was followed by “chakalaka” which I believe is mixed vegetables in cans. I saw eggs somewhere, two dozen non- refridgerated at a time, on top of the cleaning utensils. There was no chance of buying sunscreen here and even water proved challenging: two one-liter bottles of “oxygenated water”, the only brand, cost me $4. My yogurt was $1, chewing gum was $2. They still sell coke in glass bottles here and diet coke (Coke Light) does not seem to exist anymore. The supermarket was dirty and looked a bit like panicky shoppers had raided the aisles after a power outage. The few coolers had no chance against the heat. But the worst was the blob of kids that were swarming throughout all the aisles. I felt like a person at the annual bull race in Italy where they unleash the animals onto brave citizens. Wherever I looked there were kids already and if I found an emptier spot they were sure to look at exactly that shelf as well. I couldn’t even make it into the snack aisle and paying was an experience in itself. It was as if I didn’t even exist for the kids, they simply passed me in line, each with at least a chocolate bar in hand. My only explanation could be thatnthe kids just got out of school and were now spending lunch money. They seemed to be the same age and everyone had a dollor bill in hand.

I paid almost $7 for three things, almost New York prices, and got my 25 cents change in South African Rand and another Zambian coin. There is no logic to the magic of small change. It’s probably best to hold on to single dollar bills.

I decided to spend my evening in the camp restaurant. I can’t deal with the buzz of this town at the moment and as a single woman you’re generally not supposed to go out alone in the dark anyway. The local beer ‘Zambezi’ is not that great but there are about 15 more brands available. Funny, you can’t get cheese in the supermarket but the beer list is international.

Zimbabwe on foot (ZW)

I forgot the best part of the trip yesterday. I was in a mini van on the way to the elephants and this older American couple got on. The JR type from the tv show “Dallas” and his very facelifted wife with a lot of bling on her. Immediately he launched into his life story, he was a soldier in the US army and stationed in Ulm and Augsburg, Germany back in the day. Then he turned around to me and asked completely seriously “Can an old man like still have a Schatzi?” insinuating that in the 60s every man in Germany naturally had a sweetie on the side. Everyone in the van went dead silent and looked at me. I wasn’t entirely sure if this was supposed to be a joke, a proposition or just plain stupidity. Sadly it was the latter. The mortified wife poked him in the ribs before the offended girl from the Netherlands next to me could reply that this is in fact the year 2011 and even Germany would have moved on from whatever warped idea he had of it. He still needed confirmation from me and he didn’t quite believe me.
He then randomly wondered why John Cleese is in a new movie he’s never heard of before but the movie was playing in a “the-Ater” in Windhoek already. When nobody responded he finally shut up.

 

Last night we experienced African dinner serice par excellence again. Big group dinner at a relatively fancy hotel directly by the Falls. All I know is that the two people at the opposite ends of the table didn’t eat until much much later and one of them was me. I had ordered “Spaghetti Bombay” which sounded enticing because of beef in a chili sauce with roasted peanuts. The very first dish that came out was spaghetti with chicken which was shopped around for a while and didn’t find any takers. I could swear that it came back out a few more times. My dish which I reconfirmed dreading the result already was supposedly on its way as well. After everyone was done I ended up with the chicken and I actually needed to convince the waiter that this was not beef nor were there any peanuts. It took more time. The actual dish was worth waiting for in the end though I did think that instead of apologizing 20 times theyncould have just comped my Jaegermeister. When I paid I didn’t say anything when the waiter miscounted my beers in my favor.
Our driver also didn’t get his pizza – because after they had served 12 pizzas to the rest of the group they had run out of pizza dough! Unbelievable.
We asked for a group bill but got separate checks and here is where I always wonder how they get the money for all things consumed as I have yet to see one straight forward transaction in this department. It never adds up. In the end various leftover meals and drinks are not paid for according to them when nobody in the group was actually cheating. Likewise the last person paying could end up with drinks he didn’t consume and that were already paid on a different tab. All I know is that it’s usually best to be of the first to pay and then walk away.

 

This morning I went on a microlite flight over Victoria Falls. I loved it and was scared shitless at the same time. Although I didn’t have an adrenaline rush like I would have had with skydiving it very much felt like it since I was completely free in the air, only loosely strapped to a smallish seat with the pilot right in front of me. We went through the high mist of the falls (turbulence!) and the winds were strong and tucking at the few patches of exposed skin I had. We went over both Zambia and Zimbabwe, Livingstone Island and then some, we saw some elephants as well. I saw the distance I would have to walk between the two country borders with my bags on me and decided to delay my departure until after lunch.
Livingstone Island was pretty much flooded as it is the rainy season here. In dry times you can swim up to the edge of the Falls from the island, afterwards they serve breakfast or high tea depending on what touristy package you booked.
I will probably not have any pictures of the Falls as they are so wet that my camera is guaranteed to break. Google Images can fill in the blanks.

That’s a microlite in the middle of the picture

I was back at the camp early with no plans for the day other than crossing the border into Zimbabwe by myself and talking to nobody for a while. Strangely I was in no hurry though so I watched the world fall apart (Japan tsunami, etc.) on Sky News for a while at the pool bar and then had lunch there with some folks from the old group. Some folks were going to bungy jump from the bridge over the Falls and I shared a cab with them as that’s also the bridge I need to cross to get into Zimbabwe.

Conveniently I had waited until the hottest time of the day – 1pm – I was sweating bullets already on the 100 meter walk from the cab to the Zambian border for my exit stamp. I did however decide to walk across the bridge regardless, great views, and you couldn’t stop on the bridge if you were in a car anyway.

Unfortunately it was still a 10 minute walk from the bridge to the Zimbabwe border post. A rikshaw driver tried everything to get my business; he asked for anything from money in any currency to clothes, food or even a book. We heard this at the Zambian border already, clearly the people here are poorer than elsewhere but if you want to help where do you start… So I kept on walking and sweating, saying hi to a bunch of loiterers on the way who were probably wondering what the F I was doing to myself, and getting a funny “welcome to the very hot Africa” greeting from an equally sweaty local with a suitcase.

The folks at the border were extremely friendly. The first lady got a kick out of me as she clearly thought that I had no idea what I was doing. For one I first said that I’ll be staying in Zimbabwe for 10 days, then changed it to 8. She asked where I am going next and laughed at my pronunciation of “Tanzania” – stress is not on the second A but on the I. For years I thought it was strange that English speakers say “TanzAnia” but finally changed my own pronunciation as well and this is what I got. I had been right all the way.
Turns out the right answer would have been “Malawi” anyway…ooops, next time I should check the itinerary first I guess. In general the 3 people I ended up speaking with at the border were surprised that I would travel through Zimbabwe at all without any intentions to return to Zambia or Botswana. But I guess claiming that I’m overlanding it but didn’t have a truck with me didn’t really help clarify this either.
The visa fee was $30 today – I gave her $55 according to the visa fee list posted directly in front of me and she went “how did you come up with that?”. Ummm…
While my visa was processed directly in front of me people came up behind me and tried to get their passport stamped as well. It’s fascinating how little personal space means here. I was also offered the now defunct Zimbabwe money – “50 trillion dollars” bills etc. Nobody at border posts throws these people out.

I cabbed it back to the new camp ground. It’s not as nice as the place in Zambia, but it is right by shops and the overall action which is great. Not sure if $5 for a 3 minute cab ride were a ripoff or not but I didn’t care at this point.
I am staying at a chalet, two single beds and a fridge, the room is spacious but has the charm of a prison cell. Actually, a prison cell comes with a toilet, my chalet does not, but it’s ok, I just wanted to sleep in a bed for one night. Tomorrow I will move back into a tent. The Dragoman group is already here but I am in no rush meeting them.
This will be another internet and book reading day, it’s nice to do nothing for a while.

More elephants in Livingstone (ZM)

Because I love elephants so much and the ongoing roadside stream of them is not enough for me I booked an elephant ride today. It was fantastic. We sat on those giants with three people including the guide who basically trains them with a short plastic tube and some nibbles.

All elephants were tame but that didn’t stop them from occasionally heading towards the bushes and tear down entire treetops. In those situations we were supposed to hold on tight…I mean what else is there to do.

After the ride we could feed them again. For that we sat on their front leg as they were kneeling. These elephants are the largest in Africa and they have to meet you half way.


I spent an extensive time playing with the trunk of our giant, and with the 2 year old orphan who at 300kg was regarded as “tiny”. I was in heaven.

Photo

Zambia (ZM)

We crossed the shortest border in the world today; Botswana to Zambia, via ferry. It’s only 70 meters apparently. As always we were prewarned about the border crossing. Bring a book, a drink and sunscreen, it can take hours. The visa fee depends on the mood of the person working at that time, and the ferry is known to break down and not be in use for days on end. For the Africans this isn’t increased waiting time but more time to relax. As always we were lucky, 30 minutes max for the Botswana exit stamp, ferry ride and waiting time for the Zambian visa (50 US$ today). The ferry pier, basically just a muddy hole, was packed though. There were plenty of trucks waiting in line already and tons of people with and without goods were hanging out in the heat but without further frustration it seemed.

Our driver walked right up to someone and I imagine he bribed him because before we knew it our truck bypassed all others and so did we, on foot. The ferry holds exactly two trucks only, yet nobody seemed to be upset that this group of white folks nonchalantly walked on and none of the waiting people got on instead. TIA – This is Africa. Efficiency is not their thing, but at least they don’t care either.

According to our tour guide ‘the real Africa’ begins here. So far everything seemed pretty civilized and easy if you had the time to spare. My first roadblock was encountered at various ATMs – they only take Visa cards here and I have 3 Mastercards. As a result I am now paying for my water bottles in US$ and I get local change back, who knows what rate they are using.

We are staying at a campsite approx 8 km away from Victoria Falls. Pretty much everything is 8 km away and you need a cab to get to places but that is normal here. You can see the Falls in the distance, they are huge. We had the opportunity to upgrade to real rooms again but since I am not sick of the tent yet I will skip that and save the money for the various not cheap activities. Also, I am alone in the tent for the next two nights – it looks like a bomb went off in here. I decided to do laundry tomorrow, i.e. drop my stuff off rather than handwashing it, and it’s an equivalent price to what I would pay for 10 lbs of laundry in Brooklyn, but evidently it’s the last time the clothes can be machine-washed and not shredded for a while.

We booked a booze cruise for the evening. First I didn’t want to go, but I’m here for 5 nights in total and I was told that the food would be included and good. I anticipated drunk British people pestering the bartender and I was right. Unfortunately we already left at 4.30 pm and not at 7 pm which I find a more appropriate time for this. Then again we are not in Manhattan where everything is lit up at night and no elephants roam the bushes.
The food was mediocre and we didn’t spot animals but that’s partially because I eventually also bought into the original idea of the booze cruise; drink your weight in alcohol. Still, I made it back on two legs with all clothes on me and with the good mind to fill up on water afterward. Most of the others are letting it rip on the dancefloor now and it’s not pretty.

This campsite is run over by vervet monkeys. If you don’t pay attention for a second your stuff ends up half chewed on a tree.

Chobe (ZM)

As this current tour comes to an end we are now at Chobe National Park, home to the largest elephant population in Southern Africa ( about 120,000 of them). The city is called Kansane and it is at the borders of Namibia, Zambia, Zimbabwe and of course Botswana. On the drive here we already spotted random elephants next to the road. They are like my buddies now and I have so many pictures of them. Fascinating animals!
The drive was a bit wearing as we’ve reached the point where some people are getting on each others nerves, also most of us were badly hungover from last night. People were sleeping in the aisles and on the coolbox and there was less room on the truck than ever. That combined with muggy weather and eventually a heavy downpour added to a general foul mood that carried on to the sunset game cruise on the river.
Luckily within thirty minutes we were rewarded with animals again. Elephants of course, plenty of them of all sizes. One was lying down to play in the mud. Fish eagles, small monitors and a crocodile, a buffalo, some kudu and springboks, baboons, water snakes, impala and at least 50 hippos frolocking in the river with mouths wide open. I first assumed that the constant game viewing would become repetitive but I can’t get enough of the animals, they are so beautiful.
Photo

 

Whoa!!! wireless! (BW)

Unexpected free wireless service for an hour means I’m not ready to publish the latest updates yet…because I was in the bush for three days and didn’t write them… I’m alive though. More to come soon.