Tuesday, 25 September 2012

Continental Round-Up

So after four solid days and zero solid stools aboard Mozambiques finest roadworthy buses I have finally arrived home. South Africa's dual carriageways opened up in front of my eyes like the Red Sea. Goat numbers dwindled and road rage quadrupled as Joburg's rutted skyline came into view. Ponte's neon lights have never looked sweeter. And South Africa has never seemed more developed.

Reflecting back on the last nine months I suppose the only universal truth about Africa is that there are no universal truths. Every country had some amazing people and every country had some royal turds. But in general the people were great. Some countries are on the brink of economic explosion, like Mozambique while others are on the edge of ruin, like Mauritania. But in general it seemed the economies were on the up. Some countries have remained politically stable, like Senegal, others have crumbled into anarchy, like Mali and in others, no one actually has a clue whats happening. Like Ethiopia. But in general there seems to be trend towards stability. So for all the negative press out there of wars, famine and disease it seems to me that the future is not all skinny children with flies on their faces.

Here are some of the stats:

Final Mileage: 26,607kms

Money raised to date for the Key School: R43,500

Countries visited: 14 (Morocco, Mauritania, Senegal, Mali, Burkina Faso, Ghana, Ethiopia, Kenya,      Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, Tanzania, Mozambique, South Africa)

Modes of transport used: 16 (train, bus, minibus, truck, scooter, car, donkey, horse, cattle, camel, pirogue, ferry, dhow, speedboat, steamboat, feet)

No. times sunburned: >30

No. long drops used: >200;  Successfully: 4

Longest beard hair: 13cm

Couchsurfing success rate: 4%

Illnesses: 8 (food poisoning X 1, dysentery X1, tummy bug X5, flu X2, ringworm X9 months)

Items stolen: 0

Bribes paid: 0

And some quick awards...

Favourite country: Ethiopia

Least favourite country: Ethiopia

Most Forgettable Country: Burkina Faso

Most Hirsute Country: Mauritania

Best Food: Morocco

Worst Food: Ghana

Most People Fitted into Standard Minibus: 41 (Southern Tanzania)

Country Most Likely to Get Drafted into Religious Cult: Ghana

Country with Most Overzealous Imams: Senegal

Best Beer: Primus (Rwanda)

Worst Beer: Everything in Tanzania

Best Moment: Summiting Mountains of the Moon in the midst of a blizzard

Worst Moment: Summiting Mount Kenya in the midst of David Cloetes foreskin

Country Most Want to Return To: Mali

Country Least Likely to Return To in This Lifetime: Mali

And finally just a quick word on the funds we raised for the Key School for Autism. The Key School has had a tough year. Many of their sponsors didn't pull through for them and they have been fighting to stay afloat for most of 2012. Their future is uncertain at this stage, however, the money that many people so kindly donated has gone a long way in ensuring that their doors have stayed open in 2012. So a massive thank you to everyone who gave of themselves for this very worthy institution! All we can do now is hold thumbs for them.

So thats it from me - Ive had a lot of fun writing this blog so another thank you for taking the time to read it. Its nice to know its not just my mother who has been checking in on me. Its quite sad its all come to an end. But its very nice to be sleeping in a bed again. And having hot showers.

Tuesday, 11 September 2012

On Ancient Winds

"Things have not got off to a good start." This was the thought going through my mind as I lay huddled in a cement storage room - a table barricading the door from the Friday-night bedlam outside. Weekends, it seems, are jovial in ports worldwide. Even in the sleepy town of Palma in far northern Mozambique. I was lying and waiting for the winds to die down and the tide to come up so we could launch our dhow for the voyage through the Quirimbas archipelago to Ibo Island, 250kms south. And mother nature - that crafty old wench - just wasnt playing ball. At 3am conditions at sea were more favourable and in the port were less combative, so I met my crew. I didn't know whether to be terrified or enthused by the fact that our Captain, Seriji, had clearly spent too much time at sea. He talked to himself, wore a zebra skin cowboy hat night and day and insisted on taking his pants off for every launch. This first one was no exception. So with the moonlight glistening off Captain Seriji's bulbous scrotum, we raised anchor and were off.

There was the creaking of the mast. The flap of the canvas sail. The gentle keel of the deck. The musty odour of damp wood. The same has been experienced by thousands of sailors over a millenium on this coast. The dhow design hasn't changed. The means to sail them hasn't changed. The only things that have apparently changed are the cargoes and the crews. The cargo: now instead of awealthy Eastern merchant and his Chinese porcelain they carry a pastey white man and his beard. The crew: instead of a team born and raised as one with the ocean, they have Captain Seriji - unable to catch so much as a sardine in the most abundant waters on the planet. And still attempting to do so with his trousers off.

Over turquoise waters. Over pristine reefs. Through mazes of mangroves. Through bouncing shoals of flying fish. Through phosphorescense sparking around the dhow like flint. To the Swahili fishing village with the worlds hottest peri-peri. To jack-russell-sized coconut crabs. To fishing ports soaking in the crustiest of sailors. To deserted beaches. To deserted five-star resorts. To city-sized coconut groves. To horizons serrated by a hundred sails.

The dhow was the link between all these things. It, and Captain Seriji's animated conversations with himself. Mine were just a few of the infinite experiences carried on those ancient trade winds and in those ancient dhows. None-the-less mine felt pretty unique. I'm pretty sure I ate less fish. And had a lot more full-frontal nudity.

Monday, 27 August 2012

In Stanleys Padded Slippers

"Dr Livingston, I presume?" Words immortalised as much for their meaning as for their smugness. Dr David Livingston - arguably Africas greatest explorer wearing inarguably its greatest moustache - was sent into Africas heart one final time to solve a riddle apparently very important to the tea-swillers of nineteenth century England: where was the source of the Nile? He didnt find it. What he did find was malaria. And dysentery. So he holed up with a motley crew of Arab slavers in the town of Ujiji on the shores of Lake Tanganyika, taken for dead by most of the outside world. The editor of the New York Herald sniffed a great story and sent a new and cock-sure journalist to try find him in the off chance of landing an exclusive - possibly even one with a punchy catch-phrase. This journalist was Henry Morton Stanley. He wound his way across the wild interior of modern day Tanzania, found Livingston and no doubt botched the delivery of his most famous line. Or maybe even made it up later, as an after thought.

Our journey across Tanzania followed the reverse footsteps of Stanleys famous journey. With only a few small differences. While those haughty gentlemen favoured this method of transport:

We were forced into other less romantic kinds:
Sea ferry which has spent more time under the sea than Sebastian the Crab.
Train with all the breathing space of a Turkish sauna.
Ninety nine year old steamboat. It has sunk twice and seems on the cusp of a third.
Lake taxi where the only thing in shorter supply than life-jackets was horse-power.
Land taxis where the only thing in greater supply than the people riding inside were the people riding outside.

And our end-point, while it probably wont coin its own catch-phrase, was still no less enticing...

 Stanley, Shmanley.

Wednesday, 15 August 2012

The Shameless MV Liemba

The MV Liemba cannot be trusted. Kinglsey Holgate told me, and who am I to argue? A 99 year old ship with a history as chequered as hers needs to be watched very carefully. She has many faces. Not all of them pretty. Her true colours were belatedly shown to us - but by that stage it was too late.

She came from inauspicious beginnings. A humble upbringing in the blue-collar factories of Munich, she sailed in pieces to Dar es Salaam, took a third class carriage across to Lake Tanganyika where she found employment for her efficient and timeous German employers gayfully ferrying sauerkraut and brockhorst from port to port. With the advent of World War One she signed up for military service, her ride was pimped with some serious heavy artillery and she became the thorn in the side of the Allies dreams of arbitrarily controlling the lake at Africas heart. No one was more bleak than the Congolese, who were forcefully made to lug tons of dismantled ship through their sweaty jungles to reassemble into the vessels to rival the mighty Liemba. They did rival her, and she was scuppered to the bottom of the lake where she tried her hand at being an aquarium for eight rusty years. She then flipped allegiance - resurrected by the British after they were given German East Africa as their spoils of war - she shamelessly did their bidding. Two-faced. And smug.

Her flag was changed at Independence; she relocated entire villages as part of Nyereres disaterous socialist experiments; she embraced capitalism - ferrying tons of Tanganyikas dried and smelly gold (Kapenta fish), distributing it to the hoards of tiny vessels that swarm around her like bees too 99 year old honey. She even tried her hand at humanitarian work - skuttling around the refugees of the areas interminable conflicts.

The side we saw of her, however, was a very different one. It began with a rendezvous with Kingsley Holgate - an explorer as famous for blazing trails through Africas hinterland as for felling a litre of Captain Morgans in under 30 minutes. It was the last of these two attributes that the Liemba introduced us to. To the point where, arm on shoulder, I was begging him for the secret as just how his beard has so much body. Tough Guy, meanwhile, was brainstorming with him about starting a Royal Geographic Society of South Africa. He recommended himself as President. Kingsley could be his MD. My sister Claire forms the backdrop to all this - sprawled out bizarrely over three different backpacks. A empty bottle of rum clinking around at her feet.

So it was the next day that we saw the Liembas true colours. Keeling from side to nauseating side she is, first and foremost, an emetic. Shamelessly. I knew from the start she couldnt be trusted.

Monday, 6 August 2012

A Taste of Burundi

Rows of French baguettes. Perfectly soft custard puffs. Black-and-white-chequered floor. Credence Clearwater Revival. Creaky overhead fans. Wafts of fresh roasted coffee. Burundi. Sure.

The country does seem like the fat  kid never invited to the party. The ugly third sibling of Uganda and Rwanda - East Africas triplets of micro-states. Ridiculed. Ignored. This may be due to its ongoing ethnic tensions and low-level civil war. Or it may because a tourist visa is harder to come by than a whiff of Bob Mugabes underpants. Three days is all we were granted. Enough for just the tiniest taste. And most of it was spent doing just that: tasting. A patissorial explosion of baked treats - as far removed from the deep-fried sop of its neighbours as it's military is from allowing real democracy. The last country in East Africa with a lingering Franco-Belgian legacy, it sometimes feels like the abandoned movie set of a French silent movie. And then a mattress-laden cyclist, towed by a petrol tanker, careens suicidally past at 80km/hr just to remind you it isn't. A croissant on a Normandie-like beachfront. Followed by a military patrol hurtling by in vicious pursuit of nothing in particular.

With hints of French, whiffs of African and a pervasive texture of craziness, a taste of Burundi was a tiny but intense sensory experience. And like all great tasters, it only whet the appetite for more.

Monday, 30 July 2012

The Ghosts of Rwanda

Rwanda is like an onion. Or a parfait. It has layers. Arriving in Kigali is like arriving in an African parallel-universe. In this universe everything is ordered. Everything is clean. The scooter drivers wear helmets. The military wear smiles. There are no goats. But beneath this welcomed veneer of the perfect African capital lies something a little more sinister. Peel it back and everyone and everything has a vicious skeleton in the closer. The truth is: the ghosts of the genocide are really running the show.

The parish we stayed in, for example, hid two thousand Tutsis for months on end and saved their lives. The St. Famille Church next door was less fortunate and thousands were massacred there in a matter of hours. To escape these thoughts we went to the Hotel Mille Collines for a beer - only to find it was the hotel immortalised in the film 'Hotel Rwanda' for housing Tutsi refugees and expats escaping the bloodshed. Our own escape was difficult. Even at the taxi ranks, dismembered beggars mill about as an uncomfortable reminder that everyone in this country over the age of eighteen has either committed or witnessed the worst atrocities of the twentieth century.

The countryside is magnificent but is home to no less ghosts than the urban centres. The epic Virunga Volcanoes in the north: the area where the Tutsi rebels came in to Rwanda from to end the genocide. The azure waters of Lake Kivu: where a million fleeing Hutus formed the largest refugee camp in history. The perpetual blue haze that floats around Rwanda's thousand hills is like the aimless drifting of souls in limbo.

And yet, in spite of all this, the miraculous has occurred. Rwanda has pulled itself back from the abyss and has thrived since 1994. From being the WHO's Worlds Poorest Country where not even a single type-writer remained in the civil service it is now the site of huge development projects and a booming economy. A people that tore themselves to shreds have somehow reconciled and moved forward together. The ghosts still linger in every household and in on every street corner. But eventually they too will find some rest.

Monday, 23 July 2012

East Africa Round-up


Our first leg through East Africa is done. Its been extreme in every sense. We've experienced the 52 degree blow-dryer heat of the Danakil Depression to the minus 8 blizzard on the peak of Mount Stanley and pretty much everything in between. We have dodged bilharzia and over-confident donkeys on Africas biggest lake in Lake Victoria. We have climbed shear cliffs to visit churches emerging from solid rock. And then been pelted with rocks emerging from childrens hands. We've had our bowels rocked by Ethiopias bizarre concoctions and had them soothed by Ugandas chapti and beans.  Ive had my bus fare paid for by an elderly local in dungarees. And Ive torn my beard out in frustration more times than i can count.

It hasnt always been roses and potpourri. But its certainly never been boring. And hardly ever thermo-neutral.

Here are some of the stats:

Mileage to date: 16444km

Funds raised for the Key School: R40,000

Peaks: 4 - Abuna Josepf (4300m), Mt Kenya (4950m), Mt Stanley (5109m), Mt Gahinga (3600m)

Troughs: 2 - Danakil Depression (-116m), David Cloetes naked arse (sags -1,5m)

Times vomited on while in transit: 2

Times been crapped on by poultry while in transit: 1

Chapatis eaten: >400

Prostitutes encountered in Kenya: 52

Prostitutes hitting on Tough Guys father:  52

Prostitutes hitting on Tough Guy: 0