...images from planet Earth
South Africa, 1 October - 20 December
We spent the first ten weeks working at Edeni game reserve monitoring the animals on the reserve, which included lions, leopards, cheetahs and wild dogs. Half way through we had a week off and we spent three days at Kruger national park. When the expedition finished on 10 December, a number of us flew down to Cape Town.
On my first visit to Cape Town, almost three years before, I only had four days and didn't want to leave so soon. This time we had a week to take in the sights and to simply absorb the atmosphere and surroundings of what I think is the most beautiful city in the world. On the first couple of days we just went around trying to sort out flights, visas etc, then we went to some places I've seen before (eg Robben Island, Kirstenbosch, Table Mountain) but also to Signal Hill for sunset, spent more time in places like the Company's Garden and made more of an effort to sample the different foods; Thai, Moroccan, Italian'but the best for me was definitely the fish at Ocean Basket!
After a week, we picked up a hire car and drove down to Gansbaai to see the white sharks, despite being out of season. It was an easy four hour drive down to the harbour from where we boarded a boat for the long ride to 'shark alley'. I'd planned to get into the cage but, true to the warning, I got sea sick and could hardly stand, let alone get in the ice cold water. We could see the sharks from above though. They weren't monsters; only about 2-3m, and none of them breached so it wasn't like you see on TV but definitely a worthwhile experience. Later we went past Geyser Rock and Dyer Island and saw literally thousands of seals on the rock and on the water. That afternoon, we drove west along the coast to Hermanus, a pretty and very affluent coastal town, where we settled into a really nice B&B. The next day we drove through several more pretty coastal towns, such as Betty's Bay and Pringle Bay on a road that for most of the time overlooked the bright blue ocean below. We passed the large beach resorts of Gordon's Bay and Strand and got stuck in some heavy traffic on the way to the Cape Peninsular but we made with enough time to see both Cape Point and the Cape of Good Hope. Was a bit disappointed; this place seems to be famous for the significance of the location rather than its natural beauty. Was well worth it though and glad to have seen it. Was surprised to see bontebok antelope there, as well as the more common baboons and dassies. I was amazed how quickly we got to Table Mountain from the peninsular. We had a bit of time so we drove to Camps Bay before going to the airport for the late flight to Jo'burg.
Malawi, 21 - 27 December
On the morning of 20 December, we rushed to get to City Park bus station in Jo'burg for 9am, only to find our Malawi bound bus wasn't there. It arrived at 10:30 and departed three hours later. At 10pm we reached the Zimbabwe border. Formalities there took a couple of hours. At 11am the next day we reached the Mozambique border, then the Malawi border at 4pm. From here we took a minibus to Blantyre because we couldn't be bothered to wait two hours for everyone's luggage to be searched. The driver was a nutter but got us to Blantyre at 7:70, and we checked into the popular Doogles hostel. Was a nice place with a buzzing atmosphere, dim lights and loud music and busy with locals as well as tourists.
We spent the next day in Blantyre, and did quite a bit of shopping. The handicrafts at the street markets there were probably the nicest we'd seen throughout the whole trip. Early the following day we got on a local bus to Monkey Bay. It was supposed to take four hours but it stopped frequently and for long periods. It became really hot and crowded and when it began to rain it leaked though the windows and even the ceiling. It was one of those times where the phrase 'only in Africa' came to mind and, despite it being probably the worst bus ride I've ever done, I couldn't help finding the whole thing funny. I have to mention the latest fashion, which seems to be guys wearing shirts with footballers, actors and even politicians printed all over. The weirdest was this guy with Saddam's grinning face all over his shirt. We finally got to Monkey Bay nine hours later.
Exhausted, we then had to charter a minibus to get to Cape MaClear. We weren't that impressed at all; there wasn't the atmosphere we expected and the beach wasn't nice. The village was pretty though and it was nice to watch the locals go about their morning activities on the lake shore, washing their clothes, pots and pans. We decided to leave for Nkhata Bay the next day. This also meant we'd be able to catch the Ilala ferry, which only runs weekly, instead of doing another nightmare bus journey. We were dropped off at the port and bought first class cabin tickets for 90USD. At 12:30 the Ilala slowly began to make its way northwards to Nkhata Bay. On the first day I thought it was a nice experience, watching how the locals travel, boarding and disembarking on the small boats, watching the loading and unloading of huge sacks of maize, or just standing out on deck breathing in the fresh lake air (but avoiding the diesel fumes). But the journey lasted two and a half days, Christmas Eve till Boxing Day. At each stop it would dock for several hours due to the many trips the boats would make to load and unload the sacks. It seemed to be more of a cargo ship than a passenger ferry. It would zig-zag across the lake stopping also on the Mozambique side. On one such stop we witness a huge Christmas Day celebration, where hundreds of people in colourful clothes, singing and cheering, run down from the village to the lake, before finally diving in enthusiastically.
At Nkhata Bay we were met by touts from the local lodges. Mayoka Village was recommended to us so we chose to go there, a short ride away on a kayak. It turned out to be one of the best places I've ever stayed at. Perfect location right on the shore of the lake, with the spacious and comfortable wooden huts looking right over the water. There was a nice atmosphere there too, good music, excellent food and very friendly staff. Although it was fully booked that night they went out of their way to help us; they make a point about not turning people away.
At this point we were conscious of the fact that we were rushing through Malawi. We had originally planned to spend New Year's Eve at the lake but because we didn't spend much time in Blantyre or at Cape MaClear we'd got to Nkhata Bay a few days early. We weren't interested in going hiking or going to any national parks because we'd already done that. Because of the weekly departure of the Tazara train through Tanzania, we'd only be able to spend two days at Nkhata Bay before heading up to Mbeya on the other side of the border. Two days was not enough but nine days was way too long, but we made the most of the two days we had - relaxing, snorkelling, swimming and lots of games of pool. We met some really nice people there, the local boys were very friendly and always willing to help. It was sad to leave.
On the morning of 28 December, we walked up to the village and squeezed into a minibus to Karonga. I thought that bus was crowded but I hadn't seen anything yet. We got to Karonga at 4pm so decided to go all the way to the border today, in case there were any problems. We boarded a minibus, and were assured that four of us would be the only passengers and that we would leave immediately. Too good to be true, obviously! We spend the next hour driving in circles in the pouring rain looking for passengers until we were all squeezed in like sardines. Then, during the long drive north, we picked up several more passengers. When we though we couldn't get any more people in, they would stop and a passenger would bundle into the back. I couldn't imagine how they'd fit or what position they'd be in; I didn't want to know. When the ticket collector was half hanging out the window, that's when the limit was reached.
Tanzania, 28 December - 11 January
We got to the border at 5pm and going through customs was hassle-free. We then boarded a minibus to Mbeya. Everything was going OK, then after an hour we stopped, seemingly in the middle of nowhere. Apparently there were not enough passengers wanting to go to Mbeya. So were stranded for a while, pleading with various drivers to take us to Mbeya so we wouldn't have to spend the night in a place we didn't know. They told us one of the other minibuses was going so we boarded it before being told it wasn't going anywhere. Out of desperation, the four of us decided to charter a bus, 20,000 shillings all the way to Mbeya. It was a small price to pay for an express service and 30 seats all to ourselves. We reached Mbeya at about 10pm. Was one of the longest and most difficult days of the whole trip.
The next day we enquired about buying tickets for the express Tazara train to Dar es Salaam for tomorrow. It was supposed to leave at 12pm but it was running late. The next day we went to the station at 8pm only to be told it would be arriving sometime tomorrow morning, so we spent the night at the station. It finally turned up 25 hours late but I thought it was worth the wait because the views from the train were amazing. There's something about travelling by train that is unique and special, maybe the routes are different to those taken by buses but there's something else too. Maybe it's the excited reaction of village kids who only see a train once a week, or simply the moving window on rural African life; women tending the field, children playing. When we passed Selous NP we saw large numbers of impala, giraffe, wildebeest and monkeys, albeit through heavy rain.
We got to Dar at about midday, took a taxi to the port and caught the 2:30 ferry to Zanzibar. It was a relief to be on it because we were doubtful we would make it to Zanzibar in time for NYE, but we arrived there just before 5pm on 31 December. Finally we were in a place we could relax in for a few days, no more long journeys! That night we went with some people we met at out hotel to Africa House for drinks and then to a club next door. It was a good night and we met some very interesting characters that you could only find in an African night club.
We spent the next four days in Stone Town, relaxing, walking through the narrow streets, shopping etc. Every evening I would go down to the beach as fishermen brought in their boats for the night and teenagers did backflips and various exercises on the sand. Then I'd watch as the sun set, the fishing boats in the foreground providing an idyllic postcard scene.
Five days after we arrived we took the tourist bus to Nungwe village, where the best beaches on the island are reported to be. It was really beautiful, bright white sand with a turquoise sea. If it wasn't for the odd pieces of seaweed and the receding tide in the middle of the day it would have been perfect. The fish there was really good and almost every day I would have kingfish for lunch and dinner. Days were spent relaxing at the beach or at the restaurants overlooking it. On one day I walked to Kendwa beach, 30 minutes away. It had a very different atmosphere, it was quieter there with a bigger stretch of sand separating the sea from the beach huts and restaurants. On another day I did a snorkelling trip to the nearby island of Mnemba. There were two stops, the first place was amazing. Visibility was good (due to the effects of the tsunami it had been quite bad a few days earlier) and I was often surrounded by hundreds of colourful fish. At one point, the reef suddenly dropped down and several metres below there were even more varieties of fish. In the evening we would go to one of the bars where we would pay pool with the locals, with the sound of the lapping waves coming from the shore. One marathon session lasted till 1am when they had to turn the lights of to make us leave.
Three days later we were back in Stone Town, where I did a bit more shopping. I fell in love with the artwork here and in Zanzibar, especially the abstract images of African dances and of Masaai. I couldn't help myself and bought a few, in addition to the 'batiques' I bought in Mbeya. One evening I had an unexpected surprise when I was walking down one of the backstreets. An elderly woman and two others got out her drums outside one of the hotels and began playing and singing. Apparently she was quite well known and had made a CD. It was amazing and I stood and watched as about 30 people, most of them children, gathered round.
Before we went to Nungwe, we hired a taxi one day and went to Jozani forest. It was very nice but we didn't see the red colobus monkeys for which the park is famous. We didn't have a guide and didn't know about the area where the monkeys hang out. When I returned to Stone Town I decided to do an organised tour, which combines a dolphin watching trip down near the fishing village of Kizimkazi on the south of the island. I was amazed at how quickly we found the dolphins and it was nice to see them porpoising. But diving in and trying to swim after them was almost impossible. By the time you get in, they swim away, usually deep below the surface. I only got one brief glimpse of them under the water as they disappeared in the darkness. Later, at Jozani forest, our guide amazingly managed to spot an elephant shrew and a tiny frog. We also saw several monkeys on the main forest trail. Later we went to the place where the monkeys have become used to people, on the other side of the road. There was a large group of them, swinging on trees, rolling about playfighting on the ground. They were so close and one tried to touch me. The third part of the tour involved a walk on the boardwalk through the mangrove forest and a talk on its significance.
A couple of days later we caught the ferry back to Dar, spent one night there and were back in London on 11 January.
* Driving along the coast, South Africa
* Nkhata Bay, Lake Malawi
* Riding on the Tazara train, Tanzania
* Snorkelling at Mnemba island
* Watching the red colobus monkeys in Jozani forest