A Travellerspoint blog

Hot Times on Spice Island



It's Easter so naturally Colin and I find ourselves on Zanzibar - the island known for it's spice, sand and sultans. Fortunately the sultans have gone out with the tides and with them their perchant for doing a bit of the ole slave trade. Yes, Zanzibar is also known as the former trading post for slaves headed from Africa to the Middle East before our guy Stanley Livingstone decided it just wasn't cool and led the charge in snuffing it out. A dark time indeed for this sun drenched island. But let's not dwell on that, shall we? There are spices to try and seas to be swum and Christ to be risen. Yes, this has been one fabulous beach break for two people who were never meant to dwell on a beach (okay, one person - Col actually tans).

We arrived in Dar Es Salaam, a large city on the coast on Tanzania, after a long drive from Arusha. As Skanky both pointed out and continually demonstrated, you just need to step out of the AC for 2 seconds in Dar and you are drenched in sweat. And trust me, a sweaty Skanky is not a happy Skanky (or happy Mar and Col) so we stayed in the AC as much as possible.

We made our way to Zanzibar by ferry the next day - a lovely way to see the city of Stonetown upon your arrival. Stonetown is different from many of the African cities we have visited due to it's rich history (see sultans and slave trade comment above). Like Dar, Stonetown is primarily Muslim and the architecture resembles that found in northern Africa and the Middle East. The narrow alleyways reminded us of India (minus the sheer volume of people, cows and vendors) and the waterfront is lively and attractive. We spent the evening sipping our Kiliminjaro lagers on the rooftop of the Africa House Hotel and watched dhows drift by on the water and the sun sink into the sea. Sigh.

The next morning Col and I woke up early to search for Easter eggs...well, that's what we wanted to do. Alas, being a primarily Muslim island it was somewhat difficult to find a Catholic church let alone a chocolate bunny or Cadbury egg. Faced with the reality that this might be a non-traditional Easter, we asked ourself the always insightful question: What would Jesus do? The answer was quite clear. Jesus would pay $20 and go swimming with the dolphins. I'm certain if we examine the Bible a bit closer you'll see that this is what he did immediately after making his rounds post-rise from the tomb. I'm sure Aunt Mar and the Adrians will back me up on this one. So we headed to the western part of the islands for yet another wildlife encounter.

Again I find myself comparing the experience we had in Africa to one I might have should I do the same activity in America. In America we most likely would have headed out to sea with lifejackets secured, full instructions, lecture on the importance of staying a certain distance from these wild creatures, etc., etc. Yeah. Not so much in Zanzibar. Here we were tossed flippers and a mask, whisked onto a long row boat with a motor and shuffled out into the ocean with two young men who spoke about 5 words of English. These five words? "Go jump now see dolphins." So we did.

After about 15 minutes of driving around looking for our bottlenosed friends we stumbled upon a family of about 8 dolphins. When they would come to the surface our drivers would utter their five words and we'd toss ourselves off the row boat and into the mix. The whole process was somewhat stressful but incredibly rewarding once you entered the water. I recalled my friend Jana telling me about swimming with the dolphins and she was right on - it's amazing. We were lucky enough to swim right in the middle of the family - dolphins on either side- and hear them making their sonic noises to each other. Occassionally they'd slip to the bottom and we'd swim above them. The whole thing was somewhat surreal. Elephants? Check. Lions? Check. Dolphins and assorted sea life? Check and check.

Following the dolphin excursion we took a taxi north to Kendwa - a small town (meaning they have a mini-market and one place for chapatis) with several beach resorts. We spent our Easter evening strolling along the white sands and enjoying the fresh catch of the day. Being a fisherman we agreed that this too was something Jesus would do. It was a lovely Easter. We hope you all enjoyed your ham and cheesy potatos (admittedly something that would have made the day even better). We are spending today just relaxing on the beach and contemplating a beginning scuba class for tomorrow. After that we'll return to Dar and make our way south to Selous game reserve. So I'll sign off for now and head off to get a cocktail (or cold Coke but cocktail sounds more beachy) and just kick back for a while. Hope all is well and we'll blog again soon.

Posted by vandewme 23:02 Archived in Tanzania Comments (3)

The Fabled Serengeti

Encounters with wildlife... and Maasai marathoners

It's been almost a week since we've come across an internet connection, so there's quite a lot to report.

I think we left off at Arusha, Tanzania, which is where most Serengeti safaris depart from. Our first night in Arusha was spent at a campsite in Maasai country. The Maasai are local natives who you see everywhere tending their cattle in distinct red robes and ornate jewelry. Really, we expected our interaction with them to consist only of watching them curiously from within our 4X4 as we drove past them, but that did not end up being the case.

As we enjoyed a Kilimanjaro lager at the campsite bar, three of these tribesmen walked in (many of them guard the perimeter of the campsite) and promptly began playing darts. We watched curiously for a few minutes until Mary simply could not resist going over and joining the fun. It was only a matter of minutes before we were high fiving, dancing, trash talking, the whole nine yards. When one of them would miss the bullseye Mary would even say "warrior? really? I don't think so" - which really heated up the competition. Mind you these guys are adept at thrown spears and shooting bow and arrows - it really wasn't much of a competition. Anyway, it turns out that these three Maasai were not guarding the site, but were guests there while they trained for the London marathon on April 15 as a way to raise funds for water for their village (insanely, they are running the entire race WITHOUT water as a way to call attention to their cause). They were at the campsite with a British filmmaker who was filming a documentary about their journey to the UK, which would be the first time they'd traveled anywhere outside their area. So we chatted with them about their trip between high fives, and one of them had a total crush on Mary. Whenever he would hit a bullseye (which was frequently, as these guys are accustomed to handling spears and arrows), he wouldn't pull it off the board until Mary had seen it and approved in the form of a high five and a "Woohoo!" Hilarious! We have pictures, and hopefully we can get them up on the blog sometime soon. If you have access to the London marathon on tv you should try and catch them in action. We dubbed them the Maasai Six and I promise it's worth the watch.

After this very unexpected encounter, the next day we headed out for the Serengeti... definitely one of the things we were most looking forward to on our Africa trip. The first thing we came across were the fabled Serengeti plains. Really, without seeing any wildlife at all, they would have been impressive on their own. Flat golden plains as far as the eye could see, it was quite a sight. Note to all fans of the song "Africa" by Toto: Kilimanjaro does not, as they claim, "rise like a leopardess above the Serengeti" - disappointing. It's actually several miles from the Serengeti. Come on, Toto, get it together.

It wasn't long into our plains drive that we starting seeing the wildlife: the first thing we saw was a hyena chowing on a bloody carcass of some poor animal. It wasn't clear what it was or how the hyena got it, but it was pretty gruesome. And there were five or six vultures just hanging around for the leftovers of the leftovers. Nasty creatures.

Then we saw gazelles and zebras by the hundreds. They were seriously EVERYWHERE. With this much prey around, we had high hopes of seeing a lion, leopard or cheetah. But before seeing any of those, we drove right by a herd of about a dozen elephants, which were all walking across the plains while protecting a tiny little baby that couldn't have been more than a few weeks old according to our guide. Very cool. Further on into the park we caught sight of our first lions, a pair of them sleeping underneath a tree. As we slept at our campsite that night (completely out in the open), we could hear the roar of the lions closeby. The next morning we learned that the roars were from a group of seven of them who were in the midst of taking down a water buffalo about a quarter mile away! Wow.

On our way out of Serengeti NP that next morning, we had a lucky break. Our car broke down, which our driver fixed in about 15 minutes. But as were waiting, we saw a crowd of vehicles gather across the way. Once the car was fixed, we drove over to find five lionesses hanging out by the side of the road with a baby cub amonst them! We were able to pull around and watch them from a distance of about fifteen feet for a good twenty minutes or so. Amazing. Again, we hope to get pics up at some point.

We then drove on to the Ngorngoro Crater nearby, which has the highest concentration of wildlife around. Here we saw MORE lions, this time on the hunt! They actually crossed right in front of us (about five lionesses with two cubs) on their way to stalking a group of wildebeests and zebra! Talk about intense... the zebras were all standing in a line, huffing and puffing... a sentinel wildebeest was running around in front of the lions trying to scare them off... and the lions just kept strolling forward slowly, heads held low, eyes ahead. Unfortunately they didn't strike, as a truck with a Canadian film crew annoyingly kept getting sidling right up next to them, clearly foiling their hunting strategy, but it was still very cool to see. Darn you Canadian film crew! (No offense to our Canadian friends Wendy and Tammy). Definitely something we'll never forget.

And on our way out of the crater, we had another amazingly close encounter: this time with an elephant. We drove by a couple of them nibbling on trees about 20-30 feet from the road, which was great. But then an enormous one emerged out of the bush and proceeded to start munching on an acacia tree about a foot from our truck! Literally, Mary could have stuck her hand out the window and grabbed the tusk. It was unreal. And he probably stayed there for a good five or ten minutes, so we got a great look at him... almost TOO good.

Our friends Mike and Jill Buhrfiend had prepared us well for this leg when they shared their Serengeti video but nothing can truly prepare you for the reality of the experience. We did do a tribute to their trip, however, when we realized that packed lunches can be quite dodgey and resorted to a strict Pringles and Coke Light lunch diet. Mike, you were definitly with us in spirit!

On to Zanzibar for some serious beach time!

Posted by cmgildea 22:59 Comments (0)

Patty's Day Tanzania Style

Which basically means playing the Pogues while we wave at Masai tribesman as we drive by.

sunny 77 °F

Happy St. Patrick's Day everyone! We hope you had a fine weekend parading and celebrating in true Irish fashion. We can't say that our weekend was as Guinness filled as previous years but we feel getting married in Ireland only eight months ago was suffice in that department. Today we rolled into a lush Tanzania and we hope to raise a glass of Tuskar to our favorite patron Saint tonight with long-time friend of the Irish, Skanky.

Last we blogged we were heading out of that emerald non-isle, Uganda and back to arid, western Kenya. As fate would have it, our trusty guide Skank had to attend his best mates wedding in South Africa so we were assigned a temporary guide, Andrew, for this last leg of Kenya. We had met Andrew briefly when we camped on his family's farm in Nakuru. This was indeed a fortunate turn of fate's hand. Andrew rules. He has lived in Kenya his entire life - his great grandpa and great uncles coming down from Europe to survey the land for the Brits. He knows the entire history of Kenya, every tribal ritual, every name of every flora and fauna and has a story for just about anything related to his native land. Even more of a bonus, Andrew spent most of his young adulthood as a photographer and videographer of Kenyan wildlife. He's the number one guy that movie producers and documentarians ask for when shooting here. He had great stories of working on Survivor: Africa, "The Long Way Down" with Ewan McGregor, taking care of Woody Harrelson when he wanted to tour the area (Andrew's definitely not a fan) and being on numerous sets for German, French, British and American filmmakers.

The Van De Walles are long time Survivor fans (shout out here to my Leahy cousins and Blake who also wear the buff) so I really appreciated his tale of how Mark Burnett (the producers) wanted to shoot an elephant trumpeting and giraffes running parallel to the Survivors car as they entered Samburu country. He made us feel less guilty about our love affair with the show when he told us they only had one chance to get the shot - it had to be done in real time. I always thought they'd do multiple takes until they got the shot but according to Andrew "it had to be filmed in real time or it wasn't considered authentic and therefore not used in the show." Using his knowledge of animal behavior and skills as a videographer Andrew was able to time the car so that it got between a mother elephant and her baby right as she reached the road. Cue trumpet. He also knew how to spook a herd of traditionally lazy giraffes into running right by it on their way to graze. This is just one of the hundreds of interesting tales we heard as we rambled through the countryside. Another claim to fame...he wrote his university thesis on how the traditional wildlife film should evolve to focus on the host vs. the actual wildlife. A producer from Discovery wanted to test his theory so they gave him a small bonus to film a show on snakes. In his search for a good host he followed a lead from a friend who had met a guy in Australia that knew a lot about snakes and was really charismatic. Andrew hired him and Steve Irwin (aka: The Crocodile Hunter) stepped in to the spotlight. You think this might be the first thing someone would say upon meeting you - "Hi, Andrew Nightengale here. I discovered the Croc Hunter" but no. It casually came up about three days into travel. The guy just ruled.

So we rolled around Kenya, Andrew took us through another part of Eldoret - even more war-torn following the violence - and we managed to snap a few unassuming photos of the damage to show you when we get back. Like all the places we've been in the Rift Valley, the locals were incredibly welcoming and warm and all the campsites were eerily empty. We went down into the valley for a stay at beautiful Lake Baringo. Lake Baringo, to those in the know, is famous for it's birds, crocs and hippos. Long time birdwatchers, Colin and I were in heaven. Okay, that's a total lie. Col and I can appreciate a good bird every now and then but we certainly won't be going to a Twitchers convention any time soon. We were more interested in the crocs and hippos. With Mr. Wildlife at our side we were able to get frighteningly close to the crocs. Like 2 or 3 feet close. Apparently the lake is riddled with fish so our prehistoric pals weren't craving a side of white legs. The hippos, which gaze right there at the camp site, keep to the water by day and come up by the tents at night to graze. That's right - COME UP NEXT TO THE TENTS TO GRAZE.

Now, some of you (Sinead Gildea) might recall the Time magazine article of a few years back that said Hippos are the second most dangerous animal to man. I certainly recalled this as Colin and I sat in our tent, eyes wide, listening to the various grunts of numerous hippos outside. Andrew made sure we knew what to look for should we need a bathroom break at 3am. He pointed our flashlights at a couple of big beauties just grazing away. Yeah, I think we'll hold it until the morning. Thanks. Needless to say these hungry, hungry hippos stuck to grazing and didn't add us to their death toll. I think Peter, our travel bud, and Col and I were all extremely relieved when daylight finally arrived and the hippos retreated back into the Lake.

That morning Andrew took us to his favorite spot on the Lake where we engaged in a little bird and hippo watching amidst reeds and lilypads. We purchased a few tilapia from local fisherman (there were approximately four on the entire lake) for breakfast. Again, a lie. We actually used them to lure the fish eagles - basically an American Eagle that enjoys fishing. The boat driver would wave a tilapia, the eagle would soar over from an island, the boat guy would launch the fish and the eagle would swoop down and grab it. I could have killed an entire morning with this simple game but the eagles soon had their fill and we needed to move on as well.

Next stop - Lake Naivasha. After a delicious lunch of sweet and sour pork we made our way to the next campsite. If you like monkeys, you'd enjoy a stay at the Fisherman's Camp on Lake Navasha. Monkeys galore. Anyway, Lake Naivasha is right next to Hell's Gate National Park - a natural geothermal spot where you can rent bikes and ride into the gorge. Sounds good...until 15 minutes into the ride when you realize it's called Hell's Gate for a reason and you are riding mountain bikes that really have no gears or seat padding. Makes for a long time in the gorge. On the positive side you are right there amidst the wildlife (sans large predators) and we were pretty much the only ones there so it was rather peaceful. When we reached the gorge we hired a local guide to walk us through it. Attention movie fans: This is the gorge that was a) used as the sketching place for the scene in The Lion King where Mufasa is killed and b) featured prominently in the movie Tomb Raider. It's also home to many flash floods so we did the shortened version of the tour.

Our guide, another amazing guy, was from the Northern Somburu tribe (sorry for the spelling) and was another one of those "holy cow" stories. Twin brother shot by cattle ranchers, forced to quit school to watch the cows, started teaching younger children by a tree while the cows grazed, raised money for a school, made his way to Navasha, started this guide thing, funded another school there, stopped his sisters from being married off and is paying for their schooling himself, saw 8 of his friends brutally murdered in the recent conflict, working towards changing attitudes of men regarding how they treat women. And he's only 22! Sean - you are 23 - let's pick up the pace pal.

After our exhausting ride we returned to camp, freshened up and made our way to Elsamere - home of Joy and George Adamson of Born Free fame. Had some tea and small cakes (that would be a cookie, right Dad), looked at some pictures of their life, agreed that yes, we are all born free and basically called it an afternoon. Good times. The next day Andrew took us on a tour of Nairobi and dropped us off at our campsite to wait for Skanky. It was a sad goodbye. If ever you need a tour guide through Kenya call Andrew. I promise you won't be disappointed.

We reunited with our guy Skanky and we're now officially back on track with him...which is quite a different track indeed. Unfortunately Peter had to make his way home to Britain so we said cheerio to him last night and headed off for Tanzania this morning. I'm currently sitting in a bakery in Arusha, full on meat pie and Coke, waiting for Skank to do whatever it is he does when he wanders off. Tomorrow Col and I head off to the Serengeti and Ngorogoro Crater for some full-on wildlife action (as seen in the Buhrfiend's award winning video). We will be camping in the bush for two days so we won't have any access to email. Supposedly camping "in the bush" is a lot like camping in Baringo... only any animal can wander up to the tent. Gazelle, giraffe, lion. Yeah, should be a fun one. We are just hoping the honey badgers take a pass. Don't know what that is? Perhaps the scariest animal in the bush in our opinion. Look them up. They are about the size of a small Labrador and can take down a Cape Buffalo. Awesome.

Well, have a great St. Paddy's Day! Next we blog we'll be on our way to Zanzibar - Spice Island! Quick shout out to our niece Annie who just turned one. Happy Birthday, Annie! And a couple shout outs to our blog suscribers: Rich, Elizabeth, Josh, Uncle Norm and Lauren. Way to go the distance with us.

And we're off.....

Posted by vandewme 03:05 Archived in Tanzania Comments (4)

Caught between a rock and The Bad Place

Lake Bunyoni & Rafting the Nile

sunny 80 °F


The Gorilla Trek had the feeling of the climax of the Uganda section of our trip, which it probably was, but the days following it have certainly measured up.

The day following the gorilla encounter, we headed a few hours west to Lake Bunyoni, hailed as "Uganda's Switzerland". There was not a Swiss Army Knife nor a block of cheese to be found (unfortunately for Mar), however we could see what they meant. The lake itself was enormous - it took us a good hour just to drive halfway around it - and it was surrounded on all sides by mountains. Stunningly beautiful. We were greeted by a two hour downpour (hello early rainy season), but it ended in time for us to walk around to the nearest village, see some of the local kids do a traditional dance, and we even managed to get a free boat ride back to our camp from some Slovenian missionaries (I think they liked the fact that we had been to their home country).

The next day we made the long drive to Jinja, long beloved by limerick writers needing a place that rhymes with "ninja". Not too much to report that day, but the following day we had perhaps our most thrilling day of the trip so far - white water rafting on the Nile River. Having little to no rafting experience, we were quite surprised to find that we would be tackling a number of Level 5's along the way. But we went along, and despite flipping the boat a few times, we survived with just a few scratches and a solid sunburn. Thankfully our guide decided to skip the Level 6 rapid known simply as "The Bad Place"... good call. So we had a fantastic time along a beautiful stretch of the Nile, and we met some great people. We even thought about heading back out today, but decided to relax, read, and nurse our sunburns with some cold bottles of Nile Beer instead. A wise choice, I think.

The pictures above are of Lake Bunyoni and rafting - Colin's in the back with the black helmet and Mar is the one near the center of the boat cowering in fear of losing a contact lens. And scroll down to see some more photos we uploaded today.

Tomorrow we leave Uganda to back to Kenya. It's 3 or 4 consecutive camping days ahead, so it may be a while until our next post. We hope all our family and friends are doing well... take care!

Posted by cmgildea 05:24 Archived in Uganda Comments (2)

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