East Africa 2012
02—17 August, 2012
(Note: Except for a few towards the beginning, all photos are clickable and will give you bigger and better sizes on flickr. I recommend looking at them there because they will look much better. If you just want to look at the photos and not read my rambling–I wouldn’t blame you–, or if you want to see the photos I haven’t included in the post, the flickr album is here.)
Here I am finally, writing down my Africa experience. It wasn’t the Ultimate Experience that I had hoped for and expected, which might be part of the reason why it’s taken me so long to get to typing this up. I still don’t really feel like it, but it’s already been three months since I got back from Tanzania, and if I don’t do it now, I never will. I’m not even sure how I want to write this up; it’ll probably be fairly random and fairly personal, a mix of an actual write-up of what we did and just vague impressions.
It had all started months before, perhaps as much as a year, when my dear friend Kate and I—I don’t even remember how it happened, exactly—suddenly realised we both wanted to go to Africa and didn’t have anyone to go with. Well, hadn’t had anyone until that moment. At first, we laughed it off. I mean, the two of us. In Africa. Ridiculous, right? It was ridiculous. Until it wasn’t. Until we started planning and researching, abandoning our plans, making new ones, and planning some more. We started with an insane route through most of South Africa and some of Botswana and Namibia, all by ourselves in a rented car. But since we were both newbies to Africa (and long-distance travel in general), that plan didn’t really seem feasible. After a while, we stumbled across overlanding tours. We eventually decided on Oasis Overland’s ‘Coast to Coast’ tour, which is a 56-day tour from Nairobi all the way down to Cape Town. Spoiler alert: I ended up only doing a quarter of the tour because I couldn’t sleep and after two weeks was too exhausted to do or enjoy anything. So I will only be talking about the two weeks I spent in Tanzania (and one day in Kenya).
But first, I want to go into the preparation we had to, well, endure, for lack of a better word to make this trip happen, including various vaccinations and hundreds of euros (or in Kate’s case dollars) spent on stuff. I got shots for Hep A, Typhoid, and Yellow Fever, at 130€ altogether. Then there was the clothes that I needed (I hate shopping and only own the clothes I absolutely need, which is mostly jeans and t-shirts), such as sleeveless tops and shorts and light trousers. Finally, some survival gear like duct tape and a pocket knife (that I no longer own, but for that story, check my upcoming London post). And, of course, a trekking backpack (that I also no longer own, but for that story, check my upcoming Ghana post—it’s ridiculous how much has happened in the past three months). Until two years ago, I didn’t own any kind of luggage, which is when I bought a cheap suitcase. But because it was so cheap, there was no choice whatsoever, and I ended up with a gigantic one. That I obviously can’t take to Africa. And I’d always wanted to own one of those fancy backpacks. So Olli and I went and checked out a whole bunch, but I ended up with the first one that I tried on, all the others weren’t as comfortable, and my wallet was another 200€ lighter. Then there was the malaria prophylaxis. I’ll talk more about that later; for now, suffice to say that we both went with doxycycline because it was a good compromise between costs and side effects.
My plans were to go from Cape Town straight to Ghana to visit a friend, so while the visas I needed for the tour were available at border crossings, the Ghana visa was not. Another thing to take care of before our departure, and a rather complicated one at that. Because while the Ghanaian embassy might have a website, and email address and a phone number, the website is never updated, the emails are never replied to, and the phone is never answered. Which, in my case, was a bit of a problem because my visa application wasn’t as simple as Olli’s. The weird thing is that, while it says ’single entry, 90 days’, you’re not allowed to actually stay 90 days, but only 60. And the entry also needs to be within 90 days of visa issue. Which obviously wouldn’t work for me, unless I was willing to risk not getting my passport back in time for my tour to start. And that was the question I wanted to ask; if it was possible for me to just get my visa upon arrival, or if there were any other options. It all worked out in the end, more or less, because the lady simple put a date two months into the future on my visa. So odd.
I’m sure there was more preparation involved; I remember writing millions of lists of things that still needed doing (and spending money on, Jesus Christ…). But I seem to have blanked that out from my memory. Probably a good thing.
Before we left, Kate came from the US to visit me for a week, and on August 2nd, my family dropped us off at the airport and we hopped on a plane to Doha, Qatar. It was my first long flight, as I’d never been outside of Europe before. When we got off the plane in Doha, we were hit with this wall of hot, humid air. Never before had I experienced a climate like that, and it’s made me see that I never ever want to go there. I couldn’t take that kind of heat, and was infinitely glad when we were inside the airport. Air-conditioned and with free wifi. Well done, Doha. It was the last luxury we’d have for a while.
On the second flight, got bumped up into business class, but thankfully asked if she could switch back to her regular seat because neither of us wanted to sit alone for so many hours. Suffice to say, I was infinitely grateful.
It was early morning by the time we arrived in Nairobi, only to have to spend another hour or so at immigration, waiting to actually be let into the country, and another half hour or so trying to find my backpack in the absolute mess (there really is no other word for it) that is Jomo Kenyatta International Airport. We were picked up by a random taxi driver—a very shady deal, what with us being told in advance whoever picked us up would know our names (which the random taxi driver obviously didn’t), but we made it to the camp without any problems. Well, aside from some awful traffic, but This Is Africa, right?
I probably don’t have to mention how exhausted we were. We fell into our beds pretty much immediately, right after wolfing down some soup and bread, and slept through most of the day. By the time we got downstairs and met some of the other people on the trip, it was evening. I don’t actually remember who we met then except for Louise, Emily and Sharon. And the ‘tour guides’, of course—Grace, our group leader; Malcolm, the (main) driver; and Garreth, the trainee driver. (Usually, it’s just two ‘guides’.) We probably met some other people, too, but I was still so tired that I don’t remember. I do remember the amazing chips we ordered for lunch. Priorities. And we talked a bit about who we were and where we’d already travelled to.
It wasn’t until the next day that we met everyone else. All in all, we were fifteen people, not including the guides. Louise, Emily, Anne-Marie, Charlotte and Rebecca, Anna and Andy, Kevin and Yvonne from Ireland, Jamie from the States, Sharon, and the Czech couple Jan and Lucy. And we met our truck, Jozie. Our home for the next however many days we had booked. (Most of the group was only there for the trip from Nairobi to Lilongwe, some had booked to Vic Falls, and only very few were going to go all the way down to Cape Town.) After a breakfast and a short introduction to both the truck and the other people, we each claimed a seat. And off we were on the adventure that was overlanding in Africa.
From left to right: Anne-Marie, Rebecca, Sharon, Charlotte, Jamie’s head, Emily, Louise, Jan, Yvonne, Kevin’s knee.
Day 1: Nairobi—Arusha (04 Aug)
We spent most of this day on the road, crossing from Kenya into Tanzania and then making our way to Snake Park, Arusha. The truck was actually pretty comfortable, probably because we were only fifteen people in a truck made for twenty-four. Enough space for everyone and all our stuff.
The roads were surprisingly good in retrospect; actual, proper roads compared to some of the ‘roads’ in Ghana, for example. And everywhere around us were trees and bushes and grassland, and the occasional donkey. Once we got close to the border, the soil started to turn red; the kind of red that you’d expect in Africa.
Having been born into the EU and never having lived anywhere else, I grew up without any real border controls. I vaguely remember something about crossing the border into Austria and Italy (and back) on our yearly trips, but I was a wee little kid back then and didn’t have to worry about anything. And by the time I was old enough to do my own thing, the EU had abandoned any kind of border controls except for the occasional walk-through on a train or some such nonsense where you’d have to show your ID to the police. Africa is, of course, the exact opposite, at least if you’re European. This was the first time I ever had to get a visa anywhere, and although the stamps do look nice in my passport, I’d rather not have to pay so much money just to get into a country. But I suppose it’s no different for non-Europeans travelling into the EU.
Anyway, the border crossing wasn’t as scary as I’d thought, but it was still annoying to have to queue for a visa stamp and make sure to put your camera away so nobody will even think you might be taking photos of anything. And the most surprising thing was that we had to walk over the border. Well, borders, I suppose. There was the Kenyan border, then there was a strip of nothing, and then there was the Tanzanian border. All in that red soil that stained our shoes and trousers in a colour we’ll probably never forget again.
The drive continued on uneventfully, but just looking outside was enough excitement for me. Not necessarily because it was Africa, but just because I love looking out the window from a moving vehicle. Any moving vehicle, really. I could spend an entire holiday just sitting in a car, driving places. Which I suppose is what this trip was mostly about. But the landscape didn’t actually look all that different to me. It reminded me a lot of Italy, actually; the dryness of it, all brown and orange, interrupted only by the occasional green tree or bush.
One of the more exciting moments of that leg of the journey was when our driver made the announcement that we would see Mount Kilimanjaro out the left side of the truck any minute now. We all took our cameras out and got ready to spot the famous mountain. Only we’d learn later that night that Malcolm had actually screwed up, that it wasn’t Kilimanjaro at all. But it was still a mountain, so. Close enough. For that screw-up, though, he got the dummy for the day. (You’ll see in a second.)
I spent most of the drive sitting in the back of the truck on what was called the ‘library’, a little shelf that held some travel guides and novels. From there, I had great views both towards the left side of the truck, especially once we rolled up the window tarp, and out the back. But since we were driving rather speedily, it was freezing, and I had to put on more layers. I ended up sitting there in my old hoody-cardigan, with my sunglasses on because I didn’t want to risk an eye infection or whatever it is you get from being in the draught the entire time. And because it was really, really windy even inside the truck, I had to secure my sunglasses by tying them to my cardigan. Must’ve looked interesting, but whatever.
It was already dark by the time we got to our camp at Snake Park. Nomen est omen; they apparently have a bunch of snakes living in the camp. No, not in the wild, they are fenced in. But before we even saw those (and by ‘we’, I don’t mean me), we got to start what would become our daily evening routine—set up our tents, set up the cooking gear, help cook something, etc etc. If you’ve done an overlanding trip, this won’t be news to you, but for those who haven’t, let me just explain how it works.
Overlanding 101: The truck has everything you need. From tents over cooking utensils to canned food. You will get put into a cook group that cooks for everyone every few days. And every few days, you also have to buy food, otherwise there won’t be anything to cook. Each cook group is responsible for doing the washing up on the day they’re cooking (although everyone is encouraged to help out with that), and for providing breakfast and sometimes lunch the next day. The day after that, the group (superficially) cleans the truck. Other than that, you do your own thing. Two people share a tent; if you don’t have a tent buddy already, you’re paired up with somebody, and you’re responsible for setting up and taking down your own tent. Trucks will usually have a safe hidden somewhere. In our case, there were two separate keys for it that the guides gave us on the first day, saying they wouldn’t have anything to do with it. So we switched ‘key duty’ every day, and nobody ever had both keys. I was worried about this before the trip, how I’d keep track of all my money, but that system (and the amazing group in general) got rid of that worry immediately.
I think that’s all, really, so not very much to learn. You have to remember, of course, where stuff is in the truck, but if you forget (which happened frequently to all of us), chances are somebody else will remember, so just ask around. All of this was explained to us over the course of this evening and the next few days, and we also learned about the deal with the dummy. Apparently, our guides have this game where whoever does something really stupid or embarrassing will get nominated at the end of each day, and then the group decides who did the stupidest or most embarrassing thing, and that person has to wear a dummy around their neck for all of the next day. And if they get caught without it, they have to buy the person who catches them a drink. After three times of holding the dummy, there is another rule about having to put on a weird piece of clothing, but I forgot that one. Another game was that if you use the word ‘mine’ at any point, and somebody calls you on it, you have to do ten push-ups right there and then, no matter where. Thankfully, neither of those things happened to me. I mean, I did use ‘mine’ on occasion, but I was mostly around people who weren’t too excited about that game, so we let it slide.
Day 2: Lake Manyara (05 Aug)
After a rather bad first night in the tents, getting up early wasn’t easy, but had to be done. Because day two was already the start of one of the ‘optional activities’, i.e. things you have to pay for there and that aren’t part of the regular tour price. Most things you do on these tours are optional, so you can choose while you’re there what you are and aren’t interested in. Kate and I had decided beforehand we’d do only two of the three days of this optional activity, because the third day was a safari in the Serengeti at $200-ish, but I had looked up migration patterns at home, and the internet said that most of the animals wouldn’t be in Serengeti that time of year, but rather in Mara. Which is also what the people who did do Serengeti told us in the end, so it was a good thing we skipped that and saved money.
But day two was Lake Manyara day. We said goodbye to our tour leaders for a couple of days; they stayed behind at Snake Park with the truck and our stuff. We only packed what was strictly necessary, i.e. mostly our cameras and tents, and headed off with local guides in two large safari vehicles. After a long wait because some of the paperwork wasn’t done right, we finally made it into Lake Manyara National Park. And it was amazing.
We saw a whole bunch of animals, including all kinds of birds that I wouldn’t be able to identify if you put a gun to my head, monkeys, herds of zebras, wildebeest, giraffes, and, my personal favourite, elephants. Our first encounter with one of those went something like this: Driving through the bush, not seeing much, chatting with each other, driving through the bush, turning a corner around a tree, and suddenly, there it was. An elephant, just standing there, completely unexpected. But my favourite encounter wasn’t until later, until after we’d seen an entire family of elephants eating near us and strolling right through the gap between our two cars. After that, we suddenly saw this guy here, who not only posed for the camera like a pro, but also left once we were done taking photos, even though there were lots of cars behind us, waiting to get the same shot.
I’ll just let the photos say what I can’t.
One of the best moments was when we were taking a break and having lunch and Kate was looking towards the shores of the lake that you can see in the background of the following photo. She suddenly said that she’d seen giraffes on the beach. I only have a very blurry photo of this, so I can’t show you, but there were indeed two giraffes just walking along the shore. As apparently giraffes do.
After the break, we made our way out of the park again and to our camp for the night. As part of the cost of this optional activity, the local guides would cook for us and set up our tents. So when we got to the camp, our tents were already set up and we only had to throw in our thermal mats and sleeping bags. The food was also very good, if I recall correctly, though I don’t remember what we had. I had put ‘vegetarian’ with my booking (I’m not 100% a vegetarian, but I don’t like most meats, and I’d rather not have any meat than have meat every day), and apparently, I was the only one, which meant that I got a huge pot of whatever it was we were getting just for myself every day. And I don’t even eat much! But the others always tried my food, too, so that was good. Not as much gone to waste.
Day 3: Ngorongoro Crater (06 Aug)
The second part of the optional activity was Ngorongoro. We got up veeery early for this one, quite a while before sunrise, and were just taking a short break while the guides sorted out the paperwork at the entrance of Ngorongoro Conservation Area when the sun started rising. We then drove into the ‘crater’ (which isn’t actually a crater, but a caldera) while the sun came up. Took a short photo break, and then we were off to the bottom of the caldera. It took quite a while, definitely longer than I expected, and on the way down, we saw some Maasai huts and a bunch of giraffes! That was very exciting. And once we reached the bottom, we realised just how good a choice it had been to get up so early. We were quite literally the first two cars in the caldera that day.
The place began to fill up quickly, but for a while, we were almost alone with all those animals. More wildebeest and zebras, more birds, a warthog, gazelles, and finally some lions. The first one we saw, a lioness, was slowly stalking her way towards us, probably because we were on the road between her and the waterhole where a lot of wildebeest and gazelles stood. She came closer and closer, and it was a bit scary, but a lot awesome. Her plans must have changed, though, because by the time she reached the road, a few more cars had arrived behind us, and she laid down right in the shade behind one of the cars. Poor girl was probably just looking for a cool spot.
The day had started out incredibly cold, but once we had reached the bottom of the caldera, it had started to heat up so much that I had to take off most of the layers I was wearing (which were a sleeveless top, a t-shirt, a cardigan, a jacket, a pair of shorts and a pair of long trousers on top). So I’m guessing the lioness was just as hot as we were.
More photos for you to look at:
Oh, and proof that I was actually there:
A few hours later, we made our way out of the caldera again and had lunch at the edge of the crater together, before splitting up. The four of us (Emily, Louise, Kate and I) who had decided not to do Serengeti were loaded back into one of the safari cars and dropped off at Snake Park. There was no trace of the truck or of our guides, so we did our thing for a while until they came back from town, and then threw some dinner together and had a quiet evening that was only made exciting by my first spotting ever of Milky Way.
Day 4: Snake Park (07 Aug)
For the four of us, that day was a quiet one. While we waited for the others to come back from Serengeti in the late afternoon or early evening, we did our washing (first time I ever washed anything by hand; dear lord, I hope I never have to do that ever again), cleaned up our things a bit, etc etc. I think we also went to a Maasai market for a few minutes, but my memories of that day are a bit hazy because I had gotten myself sunburnt pretty badly in Ngorongoro, so I spent most of the day in the shade, not doing much. I wanted to go into town to check in with my family at home, but nobody else did, and I don’t think I would’ve done well on my own. The others went to visit a Maasai village nearby and rode a camel.
I believe that was the day that I discovered importing my photos onto my newly bought external hard drive via Kate’s Macbook no longer worked. Something about the Nikon software apparently isn’t compatible with Mac… I ended up borrowing Jan’s SD-card reader which worked really well. It would’ve been fine either way, at least for a while, because I’d bought two gigantic SD-cards just for this trip (64GB and 32GB respectively), but I felt better knowing the photos were on my external.
Later that night, once everyone was back, we spent some time in the slightly odd bar where some of us played darts for a while, and then we all sat down somewhere out the back and played ‘mafia’. All in all a very quiet day for me.
Kate playing darts.
From left to right: Jan’s leg, Anne-Marie’s forehead, the Spanish girl we didn’t understand, Sharon, Charlotte, Rebecca, Grace, Malcolm, Garreth, Emily.
Day 5: Arusha—Marangu (08 Aug)
Our second drive day. We left pretty early, and after a while of driving, a few pee stops*, and one food stop, we got to our Marangu camp, which is near Kilimanjaro Base Camp. We couldn’t actually see Kilimanjaro because it’s usually shrouded in clouds, so we set up our tents, had something to eat, and then spent the rest of the evening at the very cool bar there. (They had soda for 800 Tanzanian Shillings a bottle, which is less than 40 €-cents.) Playing, of course, more ‘mafia’. At some point, three Spanish people joined us, even though only one of them spoke English and nobody in our group spoke any Spanish. With a lot of gesturing and translating, it worked out, though. And for whatever reason, Garreth the trainee driver had suddenly changed his name to ‘James’. Very suspicious, that, so you can imagine how often he was accused of being a killer in the game.
It was going to be my cook group’s time to cook the next day, so while we were in town, we had to buy ingredients for everyone. Now, I am not a good cook. Trust me when I say this. I never do any of the cooking at home; I leave that to my boyfriend because he enjoys it and I really don’t. I’m more for baking, and I did suggest making something sweet for dinner at some point, but that seems to be more of a German than an English thing, so the idea was shot down. I was lucky, though, because I ended up in a cook group with Lucy and Jamie, and these two really knew what they were doing. But more on that later. Anyway, I had planned on finding an internet café and finally skyping with the family, but I barely had time for that, what with how long it took to find all the stuff we’d need. And when I did finally log on, nobody was there to skype with. I already wasn’t feeling very well that day, and that kind of did me in. Not the best day, although the quiet of just sitting together in the evening made up for the rest a bit.
* Oh, on the subject of pee breaks: This is obviously not like in Europe. You don’t stop at a service station and find yourself a nice, clean toilet. No. You stop in the middle of the road and find yourself a nice, secluded spot in the bush. Literally. Thankfully, Kate and I had remembered to bring some toilet paper because we definitely needed that. But let me just tell you, it sure is a weird experience to crouch down to pee while at the same time making sure you’re at least somewhat covered by a few bushes and, more importantly, you don’t get bitten by snakes or insects. Because that is not a place where you want to have an injury like that.
Day 6: Marangu (09 Aug)
This was the point where I started getting sick. I already woke up feeling faint and knew I’d never survive either of the two optional activities for that day, which were to either walk to a little waterfall (I really wanted to do that) or trek up to Kilimanjaro Base Camp (didn’t care so much about this one). So I, along with Rebecca, who also wasn’t feeling well, stayed at the camp and washed almost all my clothes. Afterwards, Rebecca and I sat near the pool for a while, not doing anything, until the Spanish people showed up again and wanted to play UNO.
Once the others came back from the waterfall—nobody had wanted to go to the Base Camp—, it was time for my cook group to do our magic. Well, Jamie’s magic, mostly. I think it was her who did most of the actual cooking in the end, with Lucy helping loads, and me just standing there looking helpful. No, just kidding, I did help. I cut up vegetables and all that, but the actual cooking was too much for me. I think we did have the most complicated dish of the first cook week, though, or at least the tastiest because everyone loved it. It was marinated meat skewers (or a sliced up zucchini, in my case) put on the barbecue, with sweet potatoes and salad. I think. And everybody loved it. It was my first time trying sweet potatoes, as we don’t have those in Germany (or at least not in my part of the country?), and I have to say that I can definitely live without them. I’ll take regular potatoes over those any day. But it was nice to finally be able to see what everyone always goes on about with sweet potatoes.
This is a photo of our truck ‘kitchen’. From left to right, the red thing is the gas bottle that we use for cooking. The green basket contains cleaning stuff, above it is the stove with a kettle for tea and/or coffee. Some spices next to it, along with some boiled eggs that are randomly lying around (I assume not everyone wanted one for lunch, so they got left behind). The rest of the table itself is actually already clean again—this was after lunch and our dinner preparations—, except for the Tupperware boxes on the right that contain the cutlery (one box each for forks, knives, big spoons and little ones). And the container behind those boxes was once full of biscuits. The bowls on the bench are for doing the washing up. From left to right, they’re a) a blue bowl filled with water where you just rinse your dirty plate and cutlery, b) a blue bowl filled with water and dish fluid plus a sponge to actually clean stuff, c) the green bowl filled with water and disinfectant where you rinse your now clean stuff again. And the tiny blue bowl following that is for washing your hands. Next to those, you can see the little thingy on which you can let stuff dry—except for when it’s late in the evening and everything has to be packed away, then everyone has to help dry stuff, and not with a towel, no. You have to pick something up and ‘flap’ it through the air until it’s dry, from cutlery over plates and cups to the gigantic pot and kettle. Funnnn… Anyway, last but not least, you can see the chopping board and our garbage. And not to forget the big canisters in the front, of course, which contain treated water. (Tastes awful unless you heat it up and put a tea bag in it.)
To the right, which you can hardly see anymore because it’s out of the frame, is another table and bench, on which you’d find another one of those things where you can leave stuff to dry, and on the other side there should be two large boxes that hold the plates and cups, respectively. All metal, all not very pretty to look at, but rather useful. That’s our little kitchen. I’m sure there’s more that I’m forgetting now.
The most exciting thing (to me anyway) happened before dinner, some time in the afternoon when the others were just filing back into camp. We saw Kilimanjaro! It was still a bit smoggy, but the clouds were high enough to be able to see the mountain. So exciting. I took a bunch of photos, and then we even got to watch the sunset.
Day 7: Marangu—random camp (10 Aug)
We were told we’d be leaving this camp fairly late in the day because the drive to the next one wasn’t very long and the next camp would be more or less awful, so the plan was to get there as late as possible.
Jan and Lucy had decided to go into town, and because I had missed everything the day before, I really wanted to go, too. But I was so ill by that point that every movement was exhausting. And of course Marangu ‘town’ was at the top of a hill. You can imagine how I felt once I finally made it there. Jan and Lucy were super nice about it, though, and I got to sit down and have a drink while they did what they’d come to do (Lucy wanted to have a skirt made), and then Jan even went to find a place where they sold tissues for me. I needed those rather badly at that point. Except, apparently they don’t sell tissues in Tanzania, because wherever we went, it was either toilet paper or napkins. So I settled for napkins and that was fine.
Once we got to the camp that was somewhere between Marangu and Dar es Salaam, we realised just how shitty it was. It wasn’t a proper ‘camp’ per se, it was just an empty spot behind a motel. We did get the keys to one motel room so we could use the toilet and shower there, but I have never in my life seen anything that disgusting. And everyone else agreed, it was awful. I purposely didn’t drink more than a small soda that evening so I wouldn’t have to pee more than once. That’s how bad it was.
Most of the excitement of that evening came about when Anne-Marie fell and did something rather nasty to her ankle / leg. I was on aforementioned toilet when I heard a scream from outside, and I was slightly panicky because I thought somebody had seen a gigantic spider or snake. But when I came out a minute later, a few people were carrying Anne-Marie to a chair. Not so fun, but we were hoping it would be better the next day. Coincidentally, our group leader Grace had injured her foot the evening before we left Nairobi, getting out of the truck. So now we had two people limping in our little group, and Rebecca still wasn’t better either.
Anyway, I did some stargazing after dinner, my cook group had to clean the truck, and then we were off to bed, knowing we’d have to get up extra early the next day.
Day 8: random camp—Dar es Salaam (11 Aug)
My birthday! I’d been looking forward to celebrating my birthday in Africa for months, ever since we’d first booked the trip, but from the loose calculations I did, I had hoped we’d be on Zanzibar on that day. I certainly hadn’t expected to wake up in the shittiest of camps. But we did leave more or less straight away, and everyone had put balloons into the truck for me. It was very sweet, and definitely made the start of the day better.
It was a fairly long drive day, but it didn’t feel that way because the landscape kept changing. Still not feeling well, I spent most of the day up on the ‘beach’, though; the part of the truck where up to four people can lie down and look through the little front window or, when the weather is good enough, can even fold back part of the roof and lie in the sun. The weather wasn’t very good, though. In fact, this was the first time I’ve ever seen one of those famous ‘tropical’ downpours. We were on our way, just driving, when suddenly the rain started so ferociously that I wasn’t sure we wouldn’t drown. And it was over again just as quickly. By the time we got to the coast, though, the weather had gotten much better. Sunny, blue skies, not a cloud in sight. And the entire landscape changed as we were driving, from that dry red soil to palm trees and tropical swamps and then to coastal vegetation. So great.
The camp in Dar es Salaam was really nice. It was right at the beach, had a fancy bar, a pool, and most importantly, working wifi. I wish we could’ve stayed there longer. But I was just so happy to be able to skype home on my birthday. I had a bunch of birthday messages and got to talk to my mother and baby brother! Olli was out all day, so I didn’t get to talk to him, which was really upsetting, but at least I had something.
Dinner was amazing that day, too. The cook group had made burgers, and I got veggie ones. They were so good. I don’t really have much vegetarian food at home; I usually just get whatever everyone else is having, only sans the meat. That can be so tiring, but on the trip, everyone really made an effort to make proper food for me, too, and I appreciated that so much. The veggie burgers definitely were the highlight. I even ate one and a half, despite being absolutely full after the first one already.
At some point, Grace took a taxi with Anne-Marie and Rebecca so they could both get checked out at the hospital. Rebecca got antibiotics and fluids, and Anne-Marie got a cast for her broken (!) foot. But they both took it in stride, much better than I ever would.
The evening was slightly weird. I spent an hour or so by myself on the beach because I needed some alone time. I tried to take some star photos, was homesick for a bit, got sand all over my camera, and sat in a hammock while watching a group of German tourists set up a bonfire. But when I rejoined the rest of the group, Emily (who had just finished training to be a hair dresser) was in the process of cutting Garreth’s hair. Which is apparently a thing you do on overlanding trips? Told you, it was weird. But hilarious, and I have video evidence to prove it.
Everyone went to bed fairly early, but because I didn’t want to go to sleep at nine on my birthday (and because I already knew I wouldn’t be able to sleep anyway), I stayed up a while longer, talking to Garreth. He wouldn’t be joining us the next day when we were off to Zanzibar; instead, he’d be staying with the truck. So we talked about what he had planned in the time we were gone, and about a lot of random things.
Day 9: Zanzibar (12 Aug)
Another early morning for us, as we had to catch the ferry to Zanzibar, the second big optional activity. The sea was calm and the 2 1/2-hour trip didn’t feel that long. They were playing ‘Karate Kid’ on the boat, one and a half times in a row. We were picked up at the ferry port by a local guide; our two ‘guides’ were on holiday for Zanzibar just as we were.
We drove in a little bus for quite a while, until we reached the Northern Beaches. We had actual hotel rooms there, our tents still being in Dar es Salaam, and that was a very nice change. Although I was scared shitless of spiders the entire time, much more so than in the tents. But the hotel itself was really nice, if a little shady at times. At some point, we heard about a tourist being robbed on the beach in front of the hotel in broad daylight, and the hotel refusing to call the police. Veeeery shady, that. Thankfully, nothing happened to any of us.
The hotel rooms were located in two largish buildings and a few smaller ones. The couples had double rooms in proper little huts, and the rest of us had twin (or single, for those who were willing to pay a little more) rooms in the larger buildings. It was a bit of a walk down to the beach from the big buildings, and in the dark that walk wasn’t something you wanted to do by yourself. But the restaurant and bar were down at the beach, so we didn’t really have much of a choice.
In the afternoon, when most people were already lying in the sun, Jamie and I took a walk along the beach. That was so nice, just to see that turquoise water and the white sand. You really can’t compare the Indian Ocean to the Mediterranean or even the Atlantic. It’s beautiful. As was the sunset later.
Day 10: Zanzibar (13 Aug)
This was not a very good day. We had booked (but not yet paid for, thankfully) a snorkelling trip. We were picked up after breakfast and loaded onto a dhow. It was all of us sans Anne-Marie, so we were sixteen people on a fairly small boat. Worked just fine. After a while of sailing near the beach, we ‘docked’ again, and the snorkelling guide made us get out to get the equipment we needed. Except, the whole thing looked a bit odd. Not only did we have to wade through more than hip-deep water with our cameras and such, no. The place that lets you rent the equipment was also completely overrun and didn’t even have those flipper things you put on your feet in everyone’s proper size, so people had to wear ones that were too small or too big. Not very professional.
While we were waiting to get our equipment, other people were getting on our boat. Also odd, but I thought they’d waited here for the next boat, and that we’d get on another one in a few minutes then. It would make sense. But no, we were all supposed to go on the same boat. And then we asked for life jackets for all of us, as did the mother of a few kids who had gotten on the boat there. We were told there were only six or so life jackets. For what was now probably close to thirty people all crammed on one boat. Some of us said we wanted life jackets for everyone, otherwise we wouldn’t go, but it was clear that the boat owner really didn’t care, and neither did any of the other people working at the equipment rental place.
In the end, four of us (Jamie, Kevin, Yvonne and I) got out, the mother and her kids got the life jackets, and nobody else really cared? We were rather upset with the rest of the group, especially Grace and Malcolm, because this is not the way it’s supposed to be. Even if they’re technically on holiday, they still have the responsibility for us. And just saying ‘we’ll do it anyway’ when it’s not safe just encourages that kind of behaviour from local businesses. We had to walk back to the hotel, which was okay for a while because we were walking along the beach and the sun was shining, but then we got to what was quite literally a stone wall. We’d either have to swim around it, now that the flood had arrived, or walk around it on the other side. Swimming wasn’t an option because all of us had cameras, and walking didn’t work because we were apparently on that part of the beach where all the really expensive hotels with private beaches were. So we had to beg to be allowed through one of the hotels and for them to call us a cab.
There was a snorkelling school right at our hotel, so once we finally made it back there, we asked them for details, and they said we could go snorkelling the next day in the morning, and that they would have life jackets for everyone. They looked much more professional than the others before, so we said yes. Jamie then took a cab to a butterfly sanctuary of some kind in the south of the island, Kevin and Yvonne went to the beach, and I fell asleep in one of the hammocks because I was so exhausted.
When I woke up, everyone had come back, and we went out for dinner together that evening. We had two more people—Hannah and Rob—join our group then, except they weren’t actually new. They had, if I remember this correctly, done the ‘add-on’ that comes before Nairobi, namely Gorilla-trekking in Rwanda, and then climbed Kilimanjaro, where Rob had proposed to Hannah. To celebrate their engagement, they had gone straight to Zanzibar, and were rejoining the group for the rest of the trip there.
Now, I don’t know if it was the food at the dinner place we went to, or my own stupidity the past two days (I had been drinking fruit juice with ice cubes in it, completely forgetting that is the biggest no-no in Africa), or just side-effects of the doxycycline, but I spent most of the night in the bathroom in various positions, mostly sitting in front of the loo, trying not to throw up, or lying on the floor, trying not to die.
Day 11: Zanzibar (14 Aug)
I barely noticed Kate getting up that morning, but I did manage to ask her to tell the others I wouldn’t make the snorkelling trip. And then I spent literally the whole day in bed.
At some point, Kate brought me some soda, though I don’t actually remember that, I just remember waking up, running back to the bathroom, and finding a bottle of Sprite when I came back. I had forgotten just how nasty throwing up really was. And I was so upset that I didn’t get to go snorkelling; I had looked forward to that from the beginning.
Wait, I think I actually dragged myself out of bed for a few minutes, walked down to the restaurant to ask when we’d have to be ready the next day, but left again when everyone was ordering food because the mere thought of it made me sick.
Day 12: Stone Town (15 Aug)
I probably would’ve spent that day in bed, too, if we hadn’t had to leave. We were picked up early in the morning with all our stuff, and then went to Stone Town, Zanzibar’s biggest (and only proper) town, where we checked into a hotel that looked more like a (former?) prison than a hotel. We had a single and a double bed in two rooms that were separated by not only a door but also a window-like hole, except that instead of glass, it had huge metal bars. Weird.
Most of our group went on a spice tour that I would’ve loved to have done, but again couldn’t because I was too sick. Anne-Marie obviously wouldn’t be doing much walking either, so we teamed up and sat down in a quiet little place together, the only restaurant that was open during the day because it was Ramadan while we were there, and the Tanzanian coast, including Zanzibar, is strictly Muslim.
I finally managed to find an internet café and got to talk to email my mother and talk to my boyfriend. We mostly talked about me going home early because I still couldn’t sleep at all and was sick all the time. It was all very depressing.
All of us met up for pre-dinner drinks at sunset, except it didn’t work the way we wanted it to. Every place we found either had too many stairs for Anne-Marie to climb, or didn’t serve alcohol (which I don’t mind, since I don’t drink, but the others apparently did). So we ended up at a fairly bad Italian restaurant so we could just watch the sunset. After sunset, though, when everything starts up again at Ramadan, we went to a food market. Even though I couldn’t really eat anything and most of the food was seafood (that I don’t eat anyway), it was such a great experience. The one thing I did eat was what they called a Zanzibar ‘pizza’. It was a bit like crêpe dough, I think, but you’d get banana or mango on it, and then some nutella, and then it would be wrapped up, a bit like a calzone. I don’t like having fruit and chocolate mixed, so I asked for just nutella, and it was heavenly. Although I knew I’d regret eating anything later. I just couldn’t resist.
Kate wanted to go back to the hotel fairly early-ish, but I convinced her not to, so we went with the rest of the groups to have post-dinner drinks instead, at a place overlooking most of the town. It was really nice, even though everyone laughed at me for ordering tea while they all ordered whiskey and whatnot.
Day 13: Dar es Salaam (16 Aug)
The day I went home. I knew Dar es Salaam would be my last option to go home before Namibia, as the flights from there are still sort of affordable whereas they’d be more than 1000€ from Lilongwe onwards. So Olli booked me a flight, and I said goodbye to everyone once we got back to Dar es Salaam.
But first, let me talk about the ferry trip back. I’m not somebody to get sick on boats. Not that I’ve been on many, but the time that I took a tour from Hamburg and the weather was awful, instead of throwing up, I just fell asleep on the boat. And maybe having been sick so much the days before and thus not eating anything actually helped. Because the sea was very rough that morning, and at least half the ship spent the entire 2 1/2 hours vomiting. Which is not something that makes the trip feel quicker than it was; on the contrary. It was horrible. At least they kept the boat freezing cold, so the air was always fresh and you didn’t have the horrible smell, but some of our group were so violently ill that they looked like death incarnate. Of course, most people who were sick made the mistake of staying inside, closing their eyes or just looking at the floor. Which is the exact opposite of what you’re supposed to do. So everyone, if any of you ever feel sick on a boat, go outside, if you can, and look at the horizon. If you can’t go outside, at least find a window to look out of, and try to move with the boat and waves instead of staying stock-still. Just some friendly neighbourhood advice.
I sadly didn’t have much time afterwards to say goodbye. Malcolm organised me transport to a transit hotel near the airport (because my flight out wasn’t until the middle of the night) while Grace had me sign some paperwork, and then I had to quickly pack up my stuff. And because most people were getting their own stuff together or trying to find a toilet or something to drink, I didn’t even really get to say goodbye to anyone but Kate, Jan and our two guides. But I knew it was the right choice the minute I sat in the cab on the way to the hotel. I instantly felt relieved at the thought of being able to sleep again, if nothing else.
The hotel was pretty nice, if also really expensive, so I at least used everything I could, including the shower and all the towels. I felt reborn afterwards. And then I went to their ‘restaurant’ (that barely deserves the name, but it wasn’t like I’d be eating a whole lot anyway), where I met Anthony, who was there for a night before going to Zanzibar. We talked for quite a while about our Africa experience so far, about photography, and about his plans for the next few months. It was nice not being alone, and when we eventually did go to our rooms, I only had a few hours left to kill.
Before we even left Germany, I had read Kate most of my lonelyplanet Swahili Phrasebook. The part that I found most fascinating was where it said that not only is there, of course, a regular time difference to other time zones, but also there is something called ‘Swahili time’. Because apparently, people in Swahili countries don’t always use the regular time system, but rather start their day at sunrise (our 6am), and start their clock from there. So our noon would be 6am for them. In a way, it makes much sense, because ‘mid-day’ in regular time isn’t actually mid-day, especially in countries far away from the equator where you have different sunrise and sunset times, depending on the season. But that concept made it rather difficult to have a cab show up at 1am (regular time) so I’d be at the airport by 1.15. (I had purposely left a rather large gap; my flight wasn’t until 3.45 or so.) I tried to explain to the lady at the counter when I got there that I’d need the cab at 1am. She thought I meant 7am the next day. I said no, 1am at night. After midnight. She wrote it down, and I went on my way. Later, there was another lady there, and I asked her again to make sure. She had 9am written down, and that I’d be out of my room by 8am. I again explained to her that I had to be at the airport at 2am and that I wanted a cab at 1am, an hour after midnight, even told her how many hours from that moment on it was. I really didn’t know how else to explain it. But she looked like she had understood it. Of course, when I was still getting ready and putting all my stuff where it was supposed to be for the flight, the phone rang, informing me my taxi was there. At midnight…
The taxi waited, though, and when I got out of my room at 1am, it was still there. The airport was visible even from the hotel, but I was told to absolutely not go out on my own. So I guess Dar es Salaam is also not a city you want to be in by yourself, especially not at night and especially not as a woman. Anyway, the drive took only five minutes or so, and the airport was almost as much of a mess as the one in Nairobi. I eventually found my gate, but I have to say the security was very lax. I wonder how useful all our airport security in Europe and American can even be if African airport security is this lax…
Everyone was trying to sleep while waiting for boarding to start, so at least it was fairly quiet. As was the flight itself, and I was exhausted enough to at least doze on and off.
Kate’s and my flight to Nairobi was with Qatar Airways, and they were amazing. The food was good, the entertainment system was pretty cool (even if none of the headphones seemed to work properly), they even had games that Kate and I played, and the crew was nice. My flight back was with Turkish Airlines, and they weren’t very nice, but at least the food was good. I didn’t have much time in Istanbul; just enough to grab something to drink, and then I was just waiting to finally, finally get home.
My mum, a friend of hers, and Olli picked me up, and I proceeded to sleep for several days straight. And still couldn’t really eat anything. But more on that once I write up my Ghana trip.
So, this was it, my very first trip to Africa. Definitely not what I had imagined. And while I don’t regret going home early (because I know I would’ve ended up in a hospital at some point if I hadn’t), I am sad that I missed so many things, even on the leg of the trip that I actually went on, just because I was sick so much. I do, however, not miss the awful showers, lack of proper toilets, gigantic spiders that I thankfully didn’t see many of myself, the ice cubes you’re not allowed to have, the constant feeling of not being entirely safe, and last but definitely not least, I don’t miss not being able to sleep.
I got to talk to Kate a few times on the rest of the trip, and a few more times since she got back home, and everything she told me sounded amazing. While I still feel like a jerk for leaving her alone on the trip we had planned together, I am so happy that she at least got to do all those wonderful things. And I really do need to see Botswana and South Africa at some point. Maybe I will. And go back to Tanzania so I can do all the things that I missed.
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