Sunday, March 11, 2012

Welcome Tanzania! Safari, scuba diving and the sunny beaches of Zanzibar

Jambo! (Hello in Swahelli) As I am writing this, I sit on the beach of Zanzibar Island, a lovely little place with a rich and interesting history including the shortest war ever, 38 minutes against the British. The focus of the trip right now is obviously the beach and aquatic life, but I must return to the mainland to tell how we got this far.

Our last day in Malawi began with us waking up at the Mushroom Farm campsite overlooking the beautiful Lake Malawi, eating a wonderful breakfast from their restaurant, and a little surprise from home. As I was eating, they passed me some salt and things for my eggs, and I saw Bacon Salt! So? Well it is actually a tiny company in Seattle, who's office/warehouse is in the same Cloverdale Business Park as the south shop for my work, Seattle Tree Preservation. I asked how a Vermonter/Swede couple came across Bacon Salt, and was told they had a friend who lives in Seattle and mailed it to them recently. Small world. As we were leaving, we had a little chat with two other campers, a Japanese guy (on a 250cc bike) and a French guy (on a 1,300cc bike) who are riding all over the world. I'm really liking the idea of doing a motorbike trip some day....

The drive back down to the lake was the same rough twisting road as we came up, this time I put my GoPro on and captured the road to share.

The drive leaving Malawi was uneventful. We stopped briefly in Karonga to check out the museum and cultural center which was quite small but gave some interesting history of the region, and tried to use up or remaining Kwacha on food. It turned out there were no good grocery stores in the area, so we tried to get dollars for our Kwacha but that too proved impossible (no surprise).

We crossed the Malawi - Tanzina boarder at Itungi. As is often the case, the boarder crossing was a bit of a hassle. As an American, I had to pay $100 for a visa which is a lot, but on the plus side it is a 1-year multiple entry which is nice. There is no ATM in the area, and in addition to paying for the visas, we had to pay an additional $50 or something to register the vehicle, then buy third-party insurance on top of that. Luckily I had a stash of US dollars, as they ONLY TAKE US DOLLARS, and the others had to change money at the usual boarder loss rates to make up the rest. Just as in Malawi, buying car insurance seems like one big scam. You never know who to trust, who is real and who is a fraud, or how much you should actually be paying. After an extended period of negotiation Weon and Chris returned with out sticker, paying something like $35 for the insurance. The whole time, Jannes and I waited with the vehicle, being hassled by all the usual boarder touts.

It's hard to adequately put into words or even photos, but immediately after crossing the boarder into Tanzania, the greenery became more lush, the farms became larger and more organized, the people looked stronger, we began to see large numbers of motorcycles, shops looked better stocked, I saw more working animals and everything about Tanzania almost screamed how much better off it was than Malawi, the difference was shocking really.

We drove to Mbeya where we would sleep, and stayed at a place called Karibuni Center. We were having a hard time finding it, so eventually we asked a police officer. Her name was Rose, and she climbed in our truck and lead us to the right spot which we all found pretty funny. It isn't a usual campsite, but a sort of missionary place in the city. It was nice though, and after setting up our tents we asked the guard where we could get a beer. He lead us to this little local shack of a bar where we found 500ml bottles of beer only cost about $1 and between that and the fact gas was not only readily available but almost half the cost of Malawi, that expenses would be much less here in Tanzania. Good news. We went on to find a little local restaurant where again we found how cheap food can be in Tanzania, eating a meat and rice dish for around $1.50.

In the morning Jannes and I set off on a mission to buy him a train ticket, and after wandering for a while we gave up and asked a tuk-tuk to take us. I love these things, they have them all over Asia, India in particular, so it was fun to ride in one again here in Africa. Also, this was my first time in Africa using public transport (other than the new city buses in Cape Town) since we are usually getting around in our own truck. We headed to where we thought the ticket office was, however we discovered it had moved years ago, and we climbed on a dalla-dalla, a public mini-bus, for just 300 shillings to the actual train station, than parted ways with Jannes shortly after.

Once again, we were on the road (which was in good shape by the way) when we reached an area of construction. The whole thing was a disaster. They were redoing a short section of road, but the bypass they had built was not good enough and trucks were getting stuck left and right. As we watched, they attempted to compact the section, regrade it, add more gravel, all while the backups were getting worse. Not only that, but the other direction was facing uphill and the road had become covered in slick mud, meaning every heavy truck had to be helped up using heavy machinery. We sat in this mess for almost three hours, trying to figure out how to get through. Somehow we had become stuck in this no-mans land sort of in the middle of it, and we made fast and small advances when we could. No one was really in charge of this construction site and we could tell people would probably be stuck here overnight. Somehow we managed to get past the heavy machines, the trucks that were stuck in the shoulder, and the other associated mess, freeing ourselves from the quagmire and celebrating our escape.

Due to the mess, we arrived at camp in the dark, set up camp and went to bed without doing anything else. The next morning, we had a fantastically scenic drive down a winding mountain road, full of lush greens, a river and what seemed to be broken down trucks every kilometer.

We had a short drive the next day, arriving at a place called Tan Swiss, a lodge/camp side just outside of the Mikumi National Park. The park is a small one and one of the much lesser known parks but that usually means lower prices and we were lucky enough to get onto a half day safari with two other guys, so we split the vehicle/guide cost. Still, it was around $50 a person for a half day safari, PLUS the $20 park entrance fee. National parks here in Tanzania are NOT cheap... (but it was worth it) On a side note, if you do go on safari, know what vehicle you will be in. A Land Rover like this one with elevated seats is the best. We saw people going through the park in packed buses, and I know they were not able to see half as well as we could, and probably were not having nearly a good a time.

Right away we began seeing wildlife, and the place is packed.

Impalas are probably the most common animal.

Lions! Lions are my favorite animal, ever since I was a little kid. I still remember the sweet lion sweatshirt I had in pre-school, which it's tail on a string so it swung around as I walked! To get to see lions in the wild was a true thrill for me. We saw these two females sitting under the tree and got within probably 6 meters. As we watched, the guide noticed a cub hiding in a bush and we got to see the little cub walk around as well. Now I feel like I'm really in Africa, haha.

Zebras are just funny looking.

Giraffes were everywhere as well, easily visible from long distances across the flat center of the park.

We saw many elephants as well.

A quick stop at a huge bayobab tree. As a tree guy, I find these especially amazing and had a great time climbing around in it.

The last thing we did as the sun was going down was to visit the hippo pool, where we observed hippos play-fighting in the waters.

I swear tipping over trucks is a Tanzanian hobby. I've never seen more crashed, broken and tipped trucks in my life on the road... Anyway, we kept driving on the roads that continued to be quite good, stopping at local places for lunch.

Weon had gotten word from a woman he had met at Tan Swiss that this place called Peponi in the far northeast of the country was a good place to leave our truck and get to Zanzibar from, so we headed out there to check it out. It is a nice South African run place on the water, full of nice bungalows and more importantly for us camping for around $5 a night. All of us were ready to chill for a while, and we ended up spending four nights here, taking time to recharge our batteries, do much needed laundry and plan our next step.

Between reading the excellent Dune Trilogy which I found in their book exchange, I would use the neighboring lodges wifi (free if you had food/drinks, I think this is the first free wifi I've experienced in Africa but MAN it was slow) and wander the beach. This was a nice mangrove tree full of crabs along the beach.

The fishing village down the beach. Most of the fisherman here use nets, but as both the lodge owners and a local boy told me, one group is doing dynamite fishing and this is rapidly destroying both the reef and the fish stocks in the area.

Two crabs fighting.

We packed up early in the morning, organizing our bags with just what we' need for Zanzibar, cloths and our dive gear, stashed our truck under a palm tree for FREE and told them we'd be back in three weeks or so. We'd worried about what to do with the truck while on Zanzibar, and Peponi worked out perfectly, so they get a special shout-out: thanks, it is really helpful for you to allow us to store our vehicle with you!

Anyways, we took a taxi to another town, and boarded a dhow to the town of Nungwi on the northern tip of Zanzibar for $30. It turns out the ferry from Dar es Salam only costs $35, and you get nice chairs and can watch movies rather than a leaky boat as we had, but oh well, we had a safe (and free) place to leave the truck, and that was critical.

The weather wasn't particularly nice when we arrived on Zanzibar, but the water was warm, the beach white and the lodges and restaurants spoke of a truly international travel destination.

We are staying at a place called Jambo Brothers, which is as far as I've seen or heard the cheapest option here in Nungwi by a fairly wide margin. We are paying 10,000 shillings each (about $6.30) per night to share a three-bed room with a bathroom which is good, but the place is weird and sort of unfriendly. They have a big restaurant/bar area, and plenty of travelers coming in and out, but it's like they make no effort at having it be a nice comfortable place to hang out. Instead of having a bar where you can buy beers and comfortable places to sit and hang out with others, it looks out of business except for the group of 8 or so local guys who play pool from nearly sun up to sun down, every day. It's not all that nice and one has to wonder why they don't do more to bring it up to where it could be, something that would also bring in more money for sure. Anyways, I just felt like mentioning that...

Once we had a place we walked down the long beach all the way to a place called Kendwa Rocks, a 45-60 minute walk down the beach, a walk that is impossible at high tide by the way. You have two options at high tide: take a taxi for 8-10,000 or walk on the road that parallels the beach behind all the resorts. It's a long and empty road, but it does get you there. Also, recently there has been a big increase in crime on the beach here, with people getting robbed while walking on the beach or road at night. With that in mind, the best option is to take a taxi and share the price with a few people.

As we were checking out the place, we saw Jannes who we had parted ways with a few days before and the two other South African guys he was traveling with and said hi. We met up later that afternoon to play volley ball, then went out to dinner together.

The first of many sunsets here on Zanzibar.

The next morning Chris and I needed to get some cash and Nungwi doesn't have any ATM's. There is a shop or two that will give cash from a card but gives horrible exchange rates and takes something like 10%. Rather than support that kind of thing, we spent the 2,000 shillings to take the dalla dalla all the way to Zanzibar town, an hour and a half away. As usual, it was a crowded and bumpy ride, and we got a flat tire, but they changed that in less than five minutes.

As long as we were in Zanzibar Town for the day we set off to explore Stone Town a bit, a interesting and unique place of narrow maze like alleys and old buildings in every direction.

Another mission for the day besides the ATM was the pharmacy. I'd still been having problems with my ears, because the infection from Malawi hadn't gone away completely. Just like Malawi, it was easy to get drugs that would be prescription in America, but they were much more expensive, I paid about $15 for antibiotic pills and ear drops.

This is the Old Fort, built by the Omani Arabs around 1700, and the Beit El-Ajaib, built in 1883 by Sultan Barghash as a palace. It was nice to see places like this, because unlike in Asia where there are ancient cities, huge stone ruins, or 300 year old Buddhist temples seemingly everywhere, in Africa you don't have very many old structures to visit at all, enjoy those that exist!

Getting a little street food. It was chicken, but I couldn't tell you what part of the chicken I was eating....

Walking the streets of Zanzibar Town just people watching and checking out the shops. In much of Africa the farther north you get, the more Muslim it becomes. While we've passed countless mosques and Islamic people, this is the first place I've been where you commonly see women in the full burka, as these two in black are. My favorite one is the tye-dye burka however, which you can see a tiny bit of in the corner of the photo. I'm guessing they don't know the hippie culture tye-dye came from!

Once we'd finished up in Stone Town and rode the dalla dalla back into Nungwi we were walking to our room when we saw a large gathering of people. Intrigued by what was going on, we walked up to watch for a few minutes. It turned out the local soccer team was going to be playing a game on Pemba, the island just north and they were having a big ceremony/party to ensure good luck in the game. I didn't get all the details, but the team captain was sitting on the ground with a cloth over his head while people danced and played the drums around him. When it came to spectators, men and women, boys and girls stayed completely segregated, the only time I saw any mixing was this one older couple dancing.

For a while now Chris had been saying he wanted to get his hair cut, but kept putting it off. The day before he went for a buzz, he said he was going to grow it out, but I knew he wouldn't and I was proven right!

Being on Zanzibar we don't have our vehicle, stove, or food boxes, so that means we have to eat restaurants. While the tourist places on the beach are cheap by American standards, good dishes around $5 or $6 at many places for example, we save money by eating at local restaurants inland from the beach most of the time. Usually, you can eat local food for $2-$3, such as this meal of ugali, a fish, beans, sauce and spinach.

Out for a beer in the evening.

The next day it was time to do some snorkeling. While I wanted to do it just for fun, what I really needed to do was test out my ears because of the infection. They had been feeling good, but I had to go underwater a few meters to test how well I could equalize them for scuba diving. It turned out I was still unable to equalize my left ear so diving would have to wait a little longer, but it was fun to look around at the aquatic life in the area.

These are razor fish, quite strange because they swim in groups of 4 or 5, and always in that vertical position.

The star fish here are incredibly colorful and psychedelic looking.

The local soccer game that takes place every evening. I swear it's a game of 20 on 20, with no uniforms or anything, I have no idea how they know who is on what team.

Most mornings I walk into town and just get a piece of bread (about 35 cents) and 10 bananas (about 65 cents) for breakfast. I'm not sure what the girls here are doing it for, but they were carrying buckets of sand from the beach. On a side note, it seems only the women in Africa dress in any sort of traditional manor, where as probably 90 of males are wearing second hand western cloths...

Another day of snorkeling. Here are two lion fish, one of my favorite.

A blue spotted sting ray hiding under a rock.

Every Saturday night Kendwa Rocks has their 'big party' and Chris and I went to check it out. Due to the distance, you will probably end up taking a taxi there, they you have to pay 10,000 shillings to get into the door, then drinks are more than most other bars. It had a fair amount of people, and it was fun to dance a bit but honestly I wasn't that impressed. I think you are better off going to the Tuesday or Thursday parties, which are not so far away, have no cover charge and are just as much fun if not more.

Once again, it was snorkel time! I know both Chris and Weon think snorkeling is pretty boring, and maybe I would if I'd done as much diving as they have, but I still really enjoy it. It's like an underwater treasure hunt, and especially fun when you have a camera. On this day I found my ears were finally better, as I had no trouble equalizing and that meant I could start scuba diving tomorrow!

In the meantime I was enjoying my long snorkel outings just off the beach, here is one of the neat star fish and a moray eel.

This is a peacock mantis shrimp, one of the most alien looking things underwater I think.

As I was out snorkeling and photo hunting, I found myself surrounded in nets at every turn it seemed. Right off the beach the locals were doing their fishing, and while it was interesting to watch I saw a lot of damage being done. It's certainly true that these guys are not getting a large percentage of fish like the big factory boats are, but they way they fish with weighted nets that drag on the bottom is destroying the coral at a fairly rapid pace. I've been talking about it with other people on the island, and am told that the coral was so much healthier just a few years back, and that where sharks used to be common, today they are a somewhat rare sight in these waters. This seems to be the story I've seen all the way up Africa so far...

I forget the name of this fish, but when I showed this photo to Chris he got quite jealous because he's never seen one himself, and I got a great photo just snorkeling!

The next day Chris and I went diving. He worked out a deal with Divine Diving and Yoga Center over beers one night, one of the smaller dive shops on the beach, and we planed to do a hand full of dives over the next few days. I was still working to finish up my PADI Advanced, so for this dive we just went off shore and did some drills, then just looked around at the fish until it was time to surface.

A cuttle fish after changing from it's camouflage appearance into swimming mode. (speaking of modes, my camera was in the wrong mode so the color is off here...)

Some beautiful shellfish and small soft coral.

In the evenings you can sit on the beach and eat all the delicious seafood you want, but after seeing how some of it is being caught and the damage it's doing to the reef, it does make me pause a bit. I'm not sure how to improve the situation. I doubt tourists will give up eating these kinds of fish when coming to Zanzibar, and I don't know if the fisherman just don't realize the damage being done to the ecosystem, if they don't care, or if they feel they have no other choice... But it is something to be aware of, make your own choice when you come here I guess.

While, that's about caught up. Up next is more diving, a bit of a group shift, and probably a return to the mainland, so check back later!