Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Lost in Botswana

The internet in Africa is slow and unreliable at best and compared to South East Asia it's costing me a small fortune at a very rarely found cyber cafe to write this blog. So please enjoy it and write me lots of comments!

I've spent the last week on a rapid journey across Botswana. As we (me and my group) crossed into the country from Zambia we were held up at the border. There's a river separating the two countries that you have to cross by ferry. It's probably a total of 200 meters in distance, but in traditional Africa fashion, things went wrong and it ended up taking all day. The ferry 'ramp' was actually an uneven piece of dirt that extended out into the river. It was somewhat amusing to watch the vehicles attempt to cross onto the boat, bumping and jostling and almost tipping until they would just sneak over the rise. It was just a matter of time before someone didn't make it. I watched as a large bus got stuck as it's back wheels dropped into a dip in the bank and the rear end got wedged on a higher piece of land. Great. While people tried to free the bus we stood for hours in the simmering sun trying to hide behind vehicles to steal any inch of shade. People came by selling snacks and carvings and other random stuff and most were friendly enough but there was this one guy. . . .I think he was drunk and he was begging for pretty much everything from food to clothes to money. The worst part was he had somehow sliced his hand open and was dripping blood all down his front. In his drunken stupor he waved his hands about as he expressed himself and flung blood everywhere, a droplet even landing on my tour companions white shirt. It was nauseating. I looked hopelessly at the bus stranded on the river bank and tried to keep my distance from Drunk Bleeding Man. And so I stood in the searing midday sun in a dusty lot waiting hours for a ferry ride that would take ten minutes. As you do in Africa.

1% were successful photos, like this one
 We did, however, eventually make it to Botswana. Botswana is a land locked country composed primarily of the Kalahari Desert. It has a high concentration of wildlife and a low concentration of people, with only 2 million in an area the size of France (population 66 million according to Wikipedia). The people that are here are doing pretty good for themselves, Botswana boasts a strong and growing economy. Even health care is free! Our first stop was at Chobe National Park. After a long day at the border we pitched our tents and went to bed early for our 5:45am game drive and afternoon Chobe River cruise. The only word I can use to describe the experience is epic. We saw almost everything you could hope to see including elephants, buffalo, crocodiles, warthogs, hippo, jackal, and even lions, although they were quite far away. What was NOT epic was my camera lens (55-200mm zoom) which was broken. It was a lesson in frustration as perfect, once in a lifetime photo opportunities presented themselves and I failed to capture them knowing all the while that if my lens was working properly it would have been so easy.  I would say 80% of my pictures turned out blurry and another 19% were poorly composed because I was too stressed about focusing to think about composure. The remaining 1% are the ones you are seeing here. It was all I could do to keep myself from ripping my lens off and throwing it in the dirt and jumping up and down on it until it was a million tiny little bits. Since this tour is 99% camping and takes place mostly in the middle of nowhere, I won't be able to replace or repair it until Cape Town when the tour is already half over. This reality has been an extremely hard pill to swallow.

Anna, one of our mokoro pollers
So with a slight chip on my shoulder me and my group moved on to the Okavango Delta. The Okavango Delta is the largest inland delta (not flowing into the ocean but out onto the land) in the world. Very little water actually falls in Botswana. Heavy rains in Angola surge southeast and spread out over the Kalahari Desert turning otherwise parched land into a fertile and green oasis. It also attracts lots of wildlife. We spent several hours by 4x4 and mokoro (dug out canoe) to reach our remote camp site located directly between a hippo pond and a baboon family tree. We were greeted with the standard safety advisories from our guide:
     1. Don't go out into the bush alone, or a lion might eat you
     2. Don't leave your tent unzipped or a venomous snake, spider, or scorpion may crawl in
     3. Don't swim in the Delta without asking first, as there may be crocodiles and hippos lurking
     4. Do wear mosquito repellent, as there are lots of them and they do carry malaria

Our group on foot safari
 Is there anything out here that won't kill you? The best part of this trip is that all the safaris take place on foot, so instead of having a jeep between you and some of the most dangerous animals on the planet, you are down there on the ground on an entirely even footing. Now this is my kind of trip! I must say our guides went out of their way to keep us safe and no one perished while on the delta. We did have a close encounter with a male hippo, however, who didn't like us trespassing around his pond. His posturing was enough to send us all running, except the guides, who watched us laughing. We also saw herds of zebra and elephants in the grasslands surrounding the Delta. A solitary giraffe peaked at us from behind the shrubs. The baboons played next to our campsite. The sky is big here and the sunset didn't just come to the horizon, there was 360 degrees of pinks and oranges and yellows and blues. At night we were serenaded to sleep by chirping frogs and bellowing hippos. It was slightly terrifying to get up in the night to pee not knowing for sure what was lurking in the shadows.

On our final day in Botswana the plan was to take the morkoros then the 4x4 back to civilization where we would drive the bus to the Namibia border THEN set up camp once we crossed. As usual, it went wrong. As the sun dipped below the horizon we had yet to make it to the border. Our driver couldn't see the dilapidated road signs in the dark and before we knew it we were lost, winding our way through a maze of tall shrubs and sandy gravel roads. It soon became clear that the border was beyond our reach for that evening and once we figured out where we were we'd have to bush camp. Damn. . . .Guess that's day # 4 without shower access and with all toilet business taking place behind a tree. We eventually found a spot on the side of the road to camp which was basically a semi-bare patch of sand. We set up camp in the dark and collapsed into our sleeping bags. The next morning we awoke to a stray cow with a very loud bell that had wandered into our campsite. We fumbled in the pitch black to tear down our tents, eat some food, and pack up camp. Finally, just as the the sun was creeping back into the sky we made it to the Botswana-Namibia border and safely crossed.

The next blog will be about Namibia.

Bonus Photos:

Frog in the reeds

Guide and mokoro poller, Rogers

Me trying to drive the mokoro...Not that easy!

Friday, April 15, 2011

From Asia to Africa

Now that I've left Indonesia, I've decided that the experience was mixed. I felt Bali was a bit of a let down. I might be the only person in the world that didn't like Ubud all that much. Sure it was pretty. . .But all the hype, all the 'eat, pray, love' images. . . It didn't live up. I rented a bike and tried to find the famous Ubud rice terraces that everyone raves about. I rode for hours and just got lost in a maze of urban sprawl. Maybe I should have done the actual organized tour you pay money for and they bring you to the terraces. But after they informed me they drop you at the top of the hill so all you have to do is coast down I didn't do it. I could not bring myself to pay $30 for something so un-extreme. So instead I spent way too much money on massages and wandered around bored.

Kuta Beach on my last night in Indonesia
Kuta is definitely no paradise, with sleazy hawkers at every turn and little boy pickpocketers that get close to you under the guise of selling bracelets and then before you know it half your life is missing. I know more than one person that got robbed at or after the clubs. The beach is busy and trashy. There's an over abundance of young drunk Australians and fake tanned Europeans. . .Actually, I think they may outnumber the Balinese. Sound like a tropical dream to you? Meh it is what it is. Cheap, tasty food and drinks and all the low price merchandise you can buy. Well, 'low price' as long as your bargaining skills are well practiced. If not they'll take you for all your worth and won't bat an eyelash over it.

I liked Lombok and wish I could have spent more time there. I would like to go to some of the more remote islands as well, to find that real tropical paradise. I think the key to Indonesia is to get off the severely beaten (and in some cases ruined) track. I guess if you are just on a short holiday and want to get hammered and have a massage and buy some cheap shit, Bali may just be for you. If you detect a hint of cynicism, you're probably correct. Coming from India and Nepal where the culture is so raw and intact to Indonesia where they've bent over backwards to do everything our way was great for about 3 days. Then it got old, fast. For me anyway.

Zambezi River from the plane with Vic Falls
And now I'm going to Africa, first stop Livingtstone, Zambia. As I was flying over the African plains I wondered what to expect from these lands below. I honestly had completely no idea. The difference between now and when I arrived in India is that I feel so much more empowered. My confidence in my ability to go into a new and foreign place, totally alone, and handle myself is tenfold what it was. I'm not panicking this time, I'm looking calmly at the unknown continent below thinking I can handle whatever presents itself.

I arrive at the Livingstone airport and pay for my visa and gather my belongings. I follow the crowd of middle aged and retired tourists into Zambia. I am the only backpacker type. . . .God I'm the only one under the age of 50. . . is this a bad coincidence? We wander out into the tiny airport. There's a row of drivers and tour organizers waiting with signs for their clients. Of course, none of them say my name. I watch as every single person on my flight  meets their pre-arranged pick-up. Oh. . . .Maybe I should have booked something? That's ok, I'll just take a taxi. I walk confidently outside into the warm Zambian sun and. . . .There's no one! There's a field with some trees to one side, some birds chirping from the other, an empty parking lot. Maybe this is a first hint that Africa will be nothing at all like Asia. Where are all the people fighting for my business? Where are all the rickshaws, the tuk-tuks, the scooters, anyone?!?! Hmmm. I wander back inside looking and feeling a bit lost. In the tiny airport an official notices and approaches.
   "Is your ride not here, miss" he asks in a deep African accent.
   "I don't have a ride," I said "do you know where I can get a taxi?"
   "Well yes, I can get you one," he motions to another man and says something in a language I don't understand. We stand quietly for a moment and he seems to sum me up. I wonder what he is thinking about me.
   "Where are you from?" He asks.
   "Canada," I reply. His eyes light up with my response.
   "Ahhh!" He say, "Zambians like Canadians.Very nice! Welcome to Zambia!" and he outstretched a slim, dark hand in my direction. I shook it and smiled. Ok I thought, I'm making friends already! This is good.

Victoria Falls
Shortly after I was passed off the a taxi driver. And here comes the part that I hate the most about arriving somewhere new: The first drive. When everything is unknown to you, you have no reference for how much things should cost, whether to barter, or how honest the drivers are. This is when there is a 99% chance you will get ripped off. It's basically inevitable and you should just accept it as a extra travel cost until you get your bearings.
   "How much to town? And please, just give me the honest price," I said.
   "Well that depends," he replied, "whether you are kind and would like to give me a little extra so that I can have a drink tonight." I sighed. He launched into a sob story about how much gas costs, and the airport charges him, yadda, yadda, yadda. So this is how it's going to be. I'm not getting an honest answer out of him. We settled on $15, which I'm pretty sure it should have been about $5. But what can I do? He is my only ride. Like I said, extra travel cost. He took me to my hostel safely without hassle, so it was worth it, I GUESS.

I checked in and gazed out the hostel window. It's not what I expected at all. I thought I would see dusty roads and shabby, decaying buildings and ratty looking children running about. There are none of these things. In fact, there's a modern looking strip mall across the street. Slim, tall, and well dressed Africans walk the evenly paved sidewalk. I gather some courage and push myself out into the world. I wander over to the grocery store and enter while trying to keep my mouth from gaping open. It's exactly like home! Well almost, except my pale skin is the minority. But there they were, normal people buying normal food at a normal grocery store. Of all the images fed to us about Africa, good or bad, none of them ever showed anything like this!

But I can't pretend to understand how everything works yet. How white and black people view each other here, I have no idea. Everything seems peaceful on the surface, but I sense and undercurrent of something that I can't yet describe. Is it hostility or resentment? Or maybe it's the whisper of the HIV epidemic that hides in 1 of every 7 adult Zambians. You can't see it in their faces, in their smiles, in their smooth, dark skin. If someone hadn't told you, you wouldn't even know it's residing there amongst these normal people doing normal things, just like home. The setting is the familiar, but maybe the difference is they have to live with a disease that has in some way touched every one of their lives. It's scary to think.

And so am here, adjusting. I knew Africa would not be like Asia and it's not. It's extremely difficult and expensive to get from A to B. Food is expensive. Activities are expensive. Accommodation is expensive. Everything is expensive! You can throw your $30/day budget out the window! So for this leg of my trip I'm joining a tour to keep the trip feasible, safe, and my budget in check. But until I start that, I'm out and about exploring on my own. I've made it to Victoria Falls, the biggest falls in the world! You can tell. It's just after the rainy season here and the water thunders over the ridge and ricochets up and fills the entire view with mist. At some points it's literally like getting hit with a monsoon rainstorm! I got soaked! I managed to get some pictures from off to the side, but I'm not sure the pictures do the sheer volume of these falls justice. I would have loved to be able to afford one of those fancy flights to see the whole thing from the air...But it cost $200 for 15 minutes. I think I'll spend my money on safaris instead! I did see some baboons at the falls, and they were scary! They were quite large and they would walk really close to you and glare you down. Some of them were fighting and I didn't want to find out what one could do to me if they wanted! 

So tomorrow I head off with my group to Chobe National Park in Botswana. This park has one of the largest animal concentrations in all of Africa. I'm super excited and hope I can get my broken camera lens to work good enough to capture some wildlife! Wish me luck!

Sunday, April 10, 2011

The "Vacation" from my Vacation

Gili Trawangan
Indonesia was supposed to be my break from hard travel. To relax, lay on the beach, do nothing. The vacation from my vacation. So far I've surfed, shopped, scuba dived, socialized, and trekked but I haven't spent a single day lazing the beach. Oops.

After Kuta I got on a boat to Gili Trawangan, a small island off Lombok that's known for it's diving, beaches, and backpacker scene. I arrived homeless and directionless, the boat literally dumps you and your belongings on the beach. As I walk up the shore a mob of local men converge on me shouting "accommodation!" or "transport!" and trying to thrust business cards in my face. Jesus, let me get my feet on solid ground at least! Fending off the bombardment I made my way to the main road and picked a direction. Right seems nice. So off I went down the dirt path, dodging fast moving pony carts packed with tourists. There are no motorized vehicles on Gili Trawangan, which is fairly tiny, only bicycles and pony drawn carriages. So cute! It turns out it's not so hard to find your way on Gili T., I managed to have my dive course and accommodation worked out within 30 minutes.

I had to ride a bike a long way for this solitude!
Now let me tell you a thing or two about Gili Trawangan. An island paradise perhaps, with glimmering blue waters and corally white sands. But the local guys? What a pain in the ass! Constant attention from male Indonesians trying to shake my hand and not let go, wanting to know my name, what I'm doing, trying to sell me drugs, trying to GIVE me drugs, prompting me to party with them. I'm sure some mean well, but come on, let me walk down the street in peace on occasion! I got the impression that a unique Gili T. trend has formed where a lot of the local guys depend solely on tourists to fulfill their. . .needs.  The local culture is mostly Muslim and quite conservative. Outside of marriage I don't think all these single young guys were getting laid . . . ever. And then, somewhere along the line boat loads of liberal Western girls showed up on their shores wearing practically nothing and wanting to party. A pattern formed and now, years later, I'm paying the price. I came here to DIVE dammit! I don't want your weed, I'm pretty sure Whistler is the weed capital of Canada, this is not new or exciting to me! Mushrooms? Fun, but not worth getting tossed in Indonesian jail for, that's not on my travel itinerary. And finally, yes, I'm all alone, boo hoo, but I'm not some sad, love starved traveler. I will be staying in my own hut tonight, thank you. I mostly laughed it all off, the harassment was in no way aggressive or scary, just a constant annoyance for those of us not interested. I've heard similar reviews from fellow female travelers, even some with male partners with them. So when you hear about the friendliness of the Gili Trawangan locals, yah, it's true, but they're just a little too friendly.

Me and my dive instructors
But I must say in the bubble of my dive school, run almost entirely by Westerners, I've totally enjoyed myself. I loved diving! My instructors said that I was very comfortable and capable, and I felt like it too, it's not hard and it's so rewarding! The best part was rolling backwards off the boat for the first time. Letting the tank weight tip me from the edge I began to fall. Then, with a crash I was born into a new blue world in which I could see nothing but bubbles and the surface up there somewhere glittering in the light. It's a little disorientating, but then I realized YAY, I can breathe, and YAY, I can see, and YAY, I'm not going to sink like a rock with all this heavy stuff strapped to my back. FUN! On the way into the depths you are taught how to equalize to get that ouchy feeling out of your ears...and then there is a whole new world to be discovered! Over my 3 day course I saw 8 sea turtles, some over a meter long, flying effortlessly through the water or just chilling on the bottom munching seaweed. I saw octopus and cuttle fish that could change their skin colour so quickly they appeared to pulsate with blues, and reds, and grays. I saw rays and lobster slinking along the bottom or hiding beneath the corals. On my deepest dive, to a depth of 22m (deeper an open water diver is supposed to go, but my fast learning and comfort was rewarded), we saw white tipped reef sharks! And all this is set amongst a forest of multi-textured corals of every shape and colour. The fish that inhabit this seascape come in the billions, ranging from massive, rainbow-coloured schools to tiny individual Nemos (clown fish) that hide in the anemones. Now I'm addicted and want to see more! It isn't a matter of if I will do my advanced dive course, but when.

After I completed my dive course I finally had a few days with no plan. Time to do nothing and finally get that beach time? Wrong. It seems my type-A travel personality got in the way, and I signed myself up to hike Ganung Rinjani. Quite possibly the STUPIDEST thing I have ever volunteered and paid money to do. Imagine a ginormous, active volcano nearly 4000m above sea level. Indonesia's second highest peak and of course I just HAVE to climb it. So much for my Indonesian vacation from my vacation. So off I went to the island of Lombok to climb Rinjani 4 days after they opened it for the season. That means 4 days ago it was considered too gnarly and dangerous to reach the summit. Like I said, stupid. . . . .

Above: Our crew and guide          Below: Very stylish poncho
As we drove across Lombok I was impressed, it is gorgeous and largely undeveloped. Tropical greenery bursts out of every available space and there are emerald rice patties rimmed with perfect swaying palms. Me and my fellow climbers, 3 Dutch friends and a German couple, arrive at the Rinjani base at Senaru ignorant of our upcoming test of wills. That morning we began our ascent through a steamy tropical jungle. The air was so humid it was hard to tell if the moisture was accumulating on us as we walked or if it was the sweat flowing from our pours, but regardless we were soon soaked and dripping. . . .And then it started to rain. It was raining so hard cats and dogs don't even begin to do this downpour justice. It was raining horses and cows, ok? My guide supplied me with the most ridiculous child's size poncho that was fluorescent pink and yellow with cartoons on the chest, AND the head hole was too small so I had to rip it to get it on. Stylish. And we walked, in the pouring rain, up a mountain, wrapped in unbreathable plastic (poncho) in the thickest humidity ever (not comfortable!). Not to mention it was steep, and muddy, and the trail was completely rutted out by rushing water. Why, exactly, did I sign myself up for this?

Above: First view of the cone through the mist                   Below: The "trail"
After and uncomfortable, damp night in a tent perched on uneven ground we set off at 5:30am. It was very steep uphill as we stumbled past the tree line and up to the rim of the crater. When we finally reached the top at 2641m  above sea level we strained our eyes to see the view and . . . Mist. Damn. Not so inspiring. But, no time to waste, now that we had climbed over 2000 vertical meters, it was time to descend down inside the crater to the lake, over 600m below us. You'd think going down would be easier, and maybe it would have, if there was a proper trail. But everything was so overgrown, unmaintained, and crumbling we literally had to pick our way, step by step, foot by foot. And then it happened. The clouds began to part revealing the most surreal view I'd ever seen. Rising from a giant lake, with a backdrop of forest clinging to the outer crater, was the inner volcano, a large, barren cone with hardened lava reaching out in a star formation from it's base. It oozed steam into the atmosphere. It was stunning, and all at once, the hardship so far was worth it. Once we reached the crater lake we were rewarded with the most amazing hot springs, located directly beside a large, gushing waterfall. Only a few boulders held in the hot water that trickled directly from the rocks. Awesome! We all eagerly hopped in, soaking our poor, tired muscles. I took turns rotating from the cold river to the hot pools and it was soooo good. But soon our guide was urging us on. We'd only covered about half the ground we needed to that day. And lucky us, now that we'd climbed all the way down inside the crater, we now had to climb back out on the other side to base camp at 2639m. You do the math. I can tell you personally it sucked, big time.

Hot springs in the mist
That afternoon we scrambled our way, in the rain, up the sheer crater's edge to base camp. It was freezing up there, and being so hot everywhere else I'd been up until that point I hadn't packed enough warm clothes. That night I froze, but at least I didn't have to suffer long . . .our wake up call came at 2:30am. No that's not a typo. 2:30am is the time you need to get up to reach the summit by sunrise, and you have to be there by then because shortly after the humidity rises from lower elevation and shrouds the entire view in mist. So by 3:00am we were on the side of the mountain climbing, in complete darkness, with only our flashlights for guidance. And it was no walk in the park. The volcanic soil was loose here and it's extremely steep. More often than not you had to scurry on all fours while your feet slid out from under you and your hands clung to the gravel while you hoped to God you wouldn't slide away into the dark abyss. The wind howled at what seemed like 100kms an hour. I'll tell you right now, we didn't all make it to the summit. In fact, a whopping 4 out of 6 of us were conquered by Rinjani that morning and had to turn back.


After 3 hours of climbing in the dark I noticed the sun was just bringing it's first hint of light to the horizon. For the first time, I looked around and realized how high I was, climbing a steep, gravel-coated ridge no more than a meter in width. It dropped down on either side into what looked like oblivion. I began to hyperventilate. Suddenly the wind felt like it was going to whip me right from the mountainside. I was all alone in the dark, with everyone either far ahead or behind me. I laid my stomach down on the earth and clutched the gravel in my hands and tried to breathe but I was panicking. This is so stupid, no mountain peak or pretty view is worth my life! Tears began to pour down my cheeks, right there, as I clung to the windy ridge. I wanted anything and everything familiar then, to be warm and dry and safe. I looked back down the trail and thought about turning back. . . .But did I? OH HELL NO. I made it to the summit blood, sweat, and tears and all. I'm not one to do things halfway. Just as I was about to have a panic attack the sun came and there was my guide, maybe 100m behind, sitting to watch it rise. He was alone, everyone else had gone back. I could see the peak high above my head and slowly I sat, then stood. I dug my feet in and continued into the wind for the final ascent. On the top was the most spectacular view I'd ever seen. The skies were open and you could see for miles to the Gilis in the northwest and Sumbawa in the east. The crater lake and cone was below us in full view, looking unworldly. Us two survivors had a celebratory high five and took turns snapping photos of one another. I was all smiles and couldn't believe I made it!

View of the lake from the Rinjani summit, just after sunrise
Ubud sculpture
And I will end the tale there. Just a side note, the real story still included another 7-8hr descent back to the nearest village at Sembalun, over 2500m below the Rinjani summit. I fell, I bruised and scratched my arm. My flip flops made a guest appearance as they so often do. I had to make my way all the way back to Gili T. that night, find a place to stay, book my ticket to Ubud the next day, collect my big pack from the travel agent's. By the time I collapsed into my rented bed for that night I think I was the most exhausted I'd ever been. That trek was extremely challenging and made Nepal look like child's play.

I'm now in Ubud spending way too much money on food and massages. Only one more day now until I am off to Zambia!

....Below are some monkey pictures that really weren't relevant to my story....They just hung around camp during the trek looking for handouts....But they were too cute so I had to include them :)