Greetings from Africa!
The Africa story starts with the six-day ordeal it took to get here. I had planned a three-day stop in Singapore on my way to Tanzania, but I never realized until the last minute that my ticket also included a day and a half layover in Bangkok, which was then supplemented by an unplanned overnight in Addis Ababa, the capital city of Ethiopia. Singapore is a very first-world city, clean and modern, with great restaurants and hotels (which I could not afford), and as long you as don’t get yourself thrown in jail for chewing gum on the street you can have a pleasant stay there. I, however, managed to check myself into a backpacker’s hostel that had urine stains on the walls and rat turds under the bed, where I shared a double room the size of a closet with a drunk Canadian man who snored like a dump truck, so I did not have a pleasant stay. I did go to the night safari, however, which is the world’s only nocturnal zoo. They bus you around in a trolley to see Asian animals that are only active at night, and I got so close to a couple of bats that one of them peed on my foot, which was the highlight of the trip.
In Bangkok, I recovered from the travails of Singapore by staying in a nice hotel that would have cost a couple hundred dollars in the US but was the equivalent of about $36 in Bangkok. I ordered room service, had a masseuse come to my room, and generally pretended that I was not a budget traveler for a day. I didn’t bother getting out and exploring much, because I will be back in Bangkok again in March.
Then the trouble started. A late flight and missed connection landed me in Addis Ababa for the night, where State Department travel warnings caution Americans not to visit due to the civil war, although I have to say that I did not see any cause for alarm there. My flight leaving Addis Ababa was even more of a problem, since it did not exist. I had somehow been issued a ticket on Ethiopian Airlines to fly to a Tanzanian city that Ethiopian Airlines did not fly to, so I was routed through Nairobi, where I was late and was sent alone out on the tarmac to run up to several parked airplanes frantically and ask them if they were going to Arusha. Third world airlines are a little more interesting than ours, to say the least–no one seems to care if you stand up in the aisles during takeoff and landing, and the highlight of my Nairobi flight was when the guy in front of me got lunch in his lap because his tray table broke off the back of the seat.
I finally arrived at Kilimanjaro International Airport in Arusha, Tanzania, on December 21st. I was very excited about this portion of the trip, which had been booked almost a year ago (back when I actually had a job) with a very expensive American tour company, because I was meeting friends: Pam and Audrey from Washington, DC; Mark & Martina from Atlanta; Julie from Boulder; and Ley from LA. They had all arrived earlier that day, along with nine other folks, mostly Americans, who were part of our group with Mountain Travel Sobek. Our group was very interesting, and included such fascinating characters as Paivy,a very wealthy Finnish woman who lives in Beverley Hills and Palm Springs, travels for a living, and had a different hat for each day of the tour, but actually turned out to be a hell of a mountain climber and lots of fun.
Our agenda was to spend a week on safari, and a week climbing Kilimanjaro. Sobek is very high-end and uses expensive eco-lodges and something Pam calls “gourmet camping” for accommodating their guests. Our first two days of safari, after leaving the Dik-Dik Lodge in Arusha, were in Tarangire National Park, where we camped for two nights and did game drives during the day. For the game drives, we would split into groups of four and drive around sitting on the roofs of Land Rovers with our lead guides, Unesmo and Ben, and several driver-guides who taught us useful Swahili words. “Semama!” we would yell when we saw an elephant or giraffe and wanted to stop for pictures, and “Twende!” when we were ready to go again. I tried to get Ben to teach me some swear words in Swahili too, but he refused. During those first days, we saw giraffes, dik dik (very small antelopes), impala (larger antelope with curly horns), vervet monkeys, zebra, waterbuck, buffalo, guinea fowl, hartebeests, wildebeests, vultures, saddle-billed storks, hyenas, lions, and countless interesting birds. We drove very close to a family of lions on the second day, close enough to make me slide down off the roof of the jeep and cower inside, and the lions roared at us in annoyance because they were guarding a kill.
At night, it was gourmet camping. We slept in double tents furnished with cots and real linens, candle-lamps, a toilet seat perched over a hole dug in the ground, and a shower! Porters would come to fill a bucket of water each night that hung over the shower tent, and it was actually enough to take a full shower with. We had a mess tent and a separate cooking tent, and the food was very good. A family of noisy baboons took up residence in a tree near our camp and entertained us with their territorial antics, and elephants moved slowly by our campsite during dinner. Late at night, we heard lions roaring. On the third day, we went to another park called Lake Manyara, which was lush and green after the hot dryness of Tarangire. Manyara is famous for the thousands of pink flamingos on the lake, which were beautiful. We also saw warthogs, and golden jackals, which were stalking the flamingos. Then we went on to our headliner safari destination, the Ngoro Ngoro crater, where animals roam in the confinement of an extinct volcanic crater and are very easy to spot. We saw a rhino there, which is rare, and a python, which is even rarer. We also saw Grant gazelles and Thompson gazelles. For these three days, we stayed in very upscale eco-lodges run by an African company called Serena, where we ate way too much and spent hours scrubbing the dirt off ourselves every night. One night we were entertained by a traditional tribal dance of the Masai tribes which call Ngoro Ngoro home. The Masai are cow herders, and they wear long red robes and many nose- and earrings, and still practice ancient traditions such as male and female circumcision as a rite of passage. Our lead guides were of the Masai tribes, and we winced to hear Unesmo tell us about the experience of being circumcised at age 14. He told us that a Masai boy who cries during the ritual brings shame upon his family and may even be killed by his father for it.
After the safari, we had a transitional day to shop for African crafts in Arusha (where I got stuck in a bathroom and was not rescued until I had shouted for help out the window for ten minutes and fallen off the toilet seat I was standing on to reach the window), and then returned to the Dik Dik Lodge to prepare our gear for the climb. We were to spend six days and five nights on the mountain, the longest some of us had ever camped or gone without a shower. Kilimanjaro is not a technical climb, but it is 19,340 feet, so a slow pace in order to acclimatize is essential. Most of the group had decided to take Diamox, a drug that helps to prevent altitude sickness, but I decided not to because it would be my first time above 14,000 feet, and I wanted to know if I would get sick.
Our route was called the Machame route, one of three popular routes on the mountain, and a less crowded route than the well-known Marengue route. Our expedition was an incredible production; for a group of 16, we had seven guides, ten cooks, and 81 porters! We were like a parade moving slowly up the mountain every day. Our first four days were short, with only four to five hours of hiking, and there was always an excellent lunch set up for us along the way. The cooks would go on ahead of us and by the time we arrived at our lunch spot there would be a table and little stools set up, tablecloth and all, with a spread of meats and cheeses and fresh vegetables and fruits. Then when we arrived at our campsite in the afternoon, the porters would already have set up our tents and put our bags inside, and would bring us little bowls of water for washing. In the morning, they would wake us by rapping on our tents with a tray of tea and coffee. Julie and I joked that climbing fourteeners in Colorado would never be the same again.
On our fourth night, we camped at 15,000 feet, and rested for a few hours after dinner for our summit attempt, which was to begin at midnight. It was very cold, and we broke out the down jackets and heavy gloves. Africans do not seem to have grasped the concept of switchbacks, and we moved very slowly up the steep trail in two groups. I did not get sick until we reached 18,000 feet, but when it hit me, it hit hard. I had a pounding headache and thought I might throw up for the rest of the climb. Interestingly, I also had mild hallucinations and felt like I was on a low-grade LSD trip. Now that I know what acute mountain sickness feels like, perhaps I’ll be a little more sensitive to visitors who get sick in Colorado.
My group reached the summit just as the sun was rising, and it was truly magnificent. We skirted a volcanic crater at the top to reach the highest point, Uhuru peak, from which we had panoramic views of the glaciers on two sides of the mountain, a layer of clouds below us, and the sun rising over the valley. For some reason, five of the six in my group actually cried when we reached the top (yes, I admit to being one of them). I never figured out if it was really that moving, or if we were all just really sick at that point, but it was an incredible experience.
After the summit, we came back to our camp at 15,000, had lunch and a short nap, and then moved to a lower camp. On the following day, we hiked back out and returned to the Dik Dik in Arusha, where we celebrated our climb by drinking way too much wine and champagne (we had slept through New Year’s Eve the previous night, after all) and staying up later than our usual 8:00 pm.
The tour was over, and I said sad goodbyes to all my friends with the exception of Julie, who was staying with me for an extra week. Unfortunately, however, what we thought was purely altitude sickness turned out to be a flu for Julie, who discovered herself to be still sick when we got to lower altitudes. Our original plan had been to climb Mount Kenya during that week, but we decided to go to the island of Zanzibar off the Tanzanian coast instead. This turned out to be a good idea, since not only was Julie sick, but several days later I caught the bug too.
We took an eight-hour bus to Dar Es Salaam, the largest city in Tanzania, and then a ferry to Zanzibar. After being so sheltered by Mountain Travel Sobek, stepping into the “real Africa” was both shocking and rewarding. It was terribly hot, and nothing was easy; touts followed us wherever we went, trying to sell us fake tickets or take us to hotels where they were commissioned, and I lost my patience several times and yelled at people to get away from us. Julie always stayed calm, somehow. But along with the hassles came some interesting conversations with friendly locals, like the high school students who kept us company while we waited for our bus and practiced their English, and I was glad to spend a week on our own.
Zanzibar has a fascinating history. It was once the Sultan of Oman’s territory, and the Persian influence is still very evident, especially in the architecture. It is populated almost entirely by Muslims, and at night and in the morning you can hear the mysterious singing chant that calls Muslims to daily prayer coming from the mosques. We stayed the first two nights in a hotel in the historic old Stone Town, where the streets are narrow alleys too small for cars and the women are all draped in black and wear scarves on their heads. Zanzibar is particularly famous for its doors, which are heavy and ornate, with brass studs and intricate carvings. On our second day, we took a spice tour on which a local named Mr. Omar took us to spice plantations to show us the trees and plants from which the world gets menthol, anise, ylang ylang, vanilla beans, cocobeans, nutmeg, henna, mace, and iodine. I was attacked by the biggest, meanest killer ant you ever saw, and he drew blood and had to be forcibly removed from my toe by one of the guides. We also visited some ancient Persian baths and had lunch in a poor African village, where we took off our shoes and sat cross-legged on the floor of a barren stone hut, eating a traditional Swahili dish of rice and vegetable curry.
The problem with Stone Town, however, was that it was too hot, so after two days we hired a driver named Ali to drive us to the beach resorts on the east side of the island. That turned out to be a mistake, since Ali spent most of his time trying to pick poor Julie up. On the way, we stopped at Jozani Forest, the only habitat of an endangered species of monkey called the red colobus monkey. Then we spent two nights in a very rustic locally-owned beach village in the town of Paje, where we had a little bungalow on the beach, and lazed under a thatched roof shelter on rope chaises during the day. We rented some clunky one-speed bikes to ride on the beach and ate simple local meals for three dollars each in the village’s little beach restaurant.
After returning to Stone Town, where it was still so hot we splurged on an expensive air-conditioned hotel, we spent our last afternoon on Zanzibar taking a sunset tour in a tandem sea kayak with a guide whose name we couldn’t understand, but who had a crazy laugh and appeared to enjoy the hell out of his job. We paddled to a couple of small islands off the Zanzibar harbor, and on Snake Island we saw a squid attack and carry away a live crab, in shallow water only a foot or two from where we stood. We must have dallied too long because the sun began to set while we were still far from the harbor, and a small wooden motorboat driven by locals from Prison Island showed up to tow us back in.
When we left Zanzibar, we flew to Nairobi, in Kenya, and spent a day wandering around the city center. We attempted to take a bus to a place where giraffes are reported to eat out of tourist’s hands, but the bus broke down and we gave up. Nothing is easy in Africa, did I mention that already?
Julie left to return home yesterday. I will be in Nairobi for another day and then will leave for India on Friday. Stay tuned for my India newsletter, which will be in two or three weeks, and will hopefully report on the fascinating religious and spiritual sights of Uttar Pradesch.
Makuna Matata! (That’s “don’t worry be happy” in Swahili).