A Travellerspoint blog

May 2009

Dratted Somali's. Let me get my boat


View Zanzibar to Nairobi on Gelli's travel map.

Mombasa has always held a kind of pull for me, based, I think, almost solely on the fact that it has long been one of the largest and most important ports in East Africa, and as a non-flyer, such places are always of interest. I think I have always believed that i would, almost inevitably, eventually end up taking a freighter to or from Mombasa. The fact that we came on a coach (and left on a train) hasn't really ended that expectation either, although admittedly some of the Somali pirates are doing a good job to make it harder for me to do so in the reasonably near future.

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Fort Jesus

Mombasa was scorching hot, and exotic sounding. The old town was pretty and refreshingly un-touristy, although that of course mean't that the hawkers and homeless people had nobody else to prey on but us. I would happily return and spend a bit longer exploring in depth, and hope to do so soon. But for now, time was rapidly coming to an end, even with a 2week extension on Maaret's flight.

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Mombasa Old Town

And so we took whistle stop trip to the beach. Unknown to me – i'm really not a beach person – Mombasa's local environs are apparently home to some of the worlds best beaches, and Maaret had long wished to visit one. Picking a place at random (Tiwi, one of the less developed Southern resorts. We later discovered that Tiwi is not recommended at all by the local industry due to “security concerns”. Hmmm) and because it was somewhere that allegedly had cheap accommodation, we took a tuk-tuk to the Likoni ferry, crossed with the baying hordes and then a matatu south.

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To me, Tiwi was not desperately exciting: out of season mean't few people around and so the hawkers had very few targets and whilst it was undeniably pretty, the beach was covered in seaweed and other assorted flotsam and jetsam (I like writing flotsam and jetsam, and this blog entry pretty much serves no purpose except allowing me to write it) so not the pure white sands promised. The same seaweed mean't that even at high tide, swimming was not particularly good, even for those who can actually swim. Add in the fact that it wasn't anywhere near as cheap as we had been led to expect, and you can pretty much conclude that it wasn't one of my life's (or even trip's) highlights.

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And with that, and by now feeling even sh1ttier, it was back to Mombasa to find a train.

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As with the previous entry, thanks for Maaret for photos as I took even fewer around Mombasa than I had in Zanzibar, so an even higher percentage of these are actually hers. It's useful to travel with a talented photographer who gives you all their photos, isn't it?!

Posted by Gelli 00:57 Archived in Kenya Tagged round_the_world Comments (0)

Such a pretty name


View Zanzibar to Nairobi on Gelli's travel map.

Vladivostok. Karaganda. Pondicherry. Outer Mongolia (I know, I know). Samarkand. Jokkmokk. Yokohama. Timbuktu. Aylesbury*. Zanzibar. Some places have attracted me since I was young for no other reason than I like the sound of the name, which I think sounds so wonderfully exciting and exotic. Though Timbuktu remains the number 1 destination for me on name alone, i have no illusions about how it will actually be should I ever make it there. I expect it to be a veritable dump. Over the years, I have often (but not always) found that places which you hold in such high mental regard sadly fail to live up to expectations, and so I have to admit that my hopes for Zanzibar were not overly high.

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Loading the boat in Dar-es-Salaam

So I was pleasantly surprised. Sort of. Six hours on a cargo boat later and we had covered the 35km to Zanzibar Stone Town, and i loved it. Parts of it reminded me of Fes, parts of Qom and parts of another Middle Eastern city that I cannot quite place. Lots of narrow pathways and alleyways heading off in all directions, with brilliantly evocative – though in some places a little bit too neglected – architecture and, especially, doors and doorways throughout. Unlike Fes, for example, most of the alleyways were through passages, and with Stone Town surrounded by water on 2sides of it's roughly triangular shape, it means that it was hard to ever get truly lost (although I accept that getting lost can be one of the best experiences of such places).

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We spent a happy few days wandering the town, browsing the shops and stalls, and eating as much seafood as possible, including lots of skewers from the excellent outdoor evening bazaar by the seafront. From there it was up north, past the endless police checkpoints and roadsigns with oddly specific distances (19.3km, for example) to Nungwi, to do something that I rarely feel any great need to do: sit on a beach for a couple of days.

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Food in the night bazaar in Zanzibar Stone Town

Sadly time was not on our side, and after a week, we had to leave without getting to the East or South of the island. We also had to leave with my stomach unsatisfied. I had seafood everyday, yet with the exception of a few of the skewers from the bazaar and the last meal I had in Nungwi, I was almost universally disappointed with the seafood that was served. It was all edible, and none of it was bad, but on a small island with a deep fishing history and large amounts of truly fresh fish to use, I was surprised at how average the seafood was. I was also disappointed by the locals: Whilst there were some very friendly and helpful ones, many were not. In Stone Town in particular, it is easy to 'collect' followers (normally younger men, and especially when you have several women in the group) who are near impossible to shake off, believe you are best friends if you have exchanged 3words or asked a simple question/direction, and can then get very abusive when you try and actively get rid of them. People are also actively trying to conn you: short changing you which happened so often that it obviously was not accidental, not fixing – or even causing - problems (like no water in a hotel room) and the inevitable need to haggle for everything – on our return to Stone Town we (5 of us) agreed on 4000 Schillings each for a taxi, but had to promise not to say how much we had paid to 2 others in the taxi who had paid 10usd each, or about 12500 Schillings. I know it happens. I know it's normal. I know you have to fight for a decent price. But it can be tiring, especially when you are already feeling really, really sh1tty.

  • No. Not really.

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Nungwi, a beach resort on the north of Zanzibar Island, me doing an uncharacteristic not allot (with Fred, of course) and fishermen heading out for the nights fishing

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more images from Zanzibar Stone Town

Thanks to Maaret for many of the photos in this entry. For reasons that I have forgotten, I took few photos, and so have since decided to shamelessly steal hers instead

Posted by Gelli 16:54 Archived in Tanzania Tagged round_the_world Comments (0)

Duh? What? No? Oh... Dar.


View Tazara on Gelli's travel map.

And so to Dar (of the '-es-Salaam' variety). Which I loved. Although i'm not a true big city person like some, I have always enjoyed being in cities: especially those which are proper, lived in, energetic and slightly chaotic. And for someone who has spent the past 7months on a boat, an island (population 4008), in the desert and assorted middle of nowhere places – plus Lusaka which doesn't really count – arriving in Dar, a real city, was wonderful.

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I can't say that we actually did that much in Dar: rather, we completed a few chores (woohoo! the parcel has finally been sent) and just spent some time wandering. The old city of Dar is not actually that old, and doesn't even really contain any of the narrow winding streets and alleyways that I love. But what it was was a condensed semi-grid of constant action, bustle, sound and smells. Jamestown it isn't, and I was in city heaven. Such exotic extravagances as shops were viewed, and, inevitably, searches for specific Ice-cream parlours undertaken. We even got the fun of having 2 electricity transformers explode near us: One of which, just outside our hotel around midnight, went on for 30mins in a veritable display of sparks, flashes and big bangs. Not good for those with a nervous disposition.

And perhaps of even more relevance, there was Indian food. Good Indian food. And lots of it.

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I almost feel like I am being back in the real world. Then, in a not so good way, that was confirmed to me. A couple of days after we left for the second time, a munitions dump in the city blew up causing all sorts of chaos, and making the city and its inhabitants extremely jittery as it remembered the terrorist attack of 1998.

Posted by Gelli 23:29 Archived in Tanzania Tagged round_the_world Comments (0)

37km/h? Meh. You get there eventually!

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View Tazara on Gelli's travel map.

Oooooh. A train. And not just a train, but a long one as well. 22 carriages worth. And an alleged 44hour journey. I've always quite enjoyed long train journeys, but even then it is still reasonably infrequently that I get to spend a full calender day on a train. I was actually looking forward to it.

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But it was also a return to the good (bad?) old days of chauffering 3girls around, except that this time I didn't actually have to do any chauffering and the girls were not all Finnish. I'm still not entirely sure how, but to much screaming down a phone a week or so previously we had gained two Polish friends of Maaret's. At least it cut down on 3way foreign yabbering, but instead left me with 2way foreign yabbering (and 3way excitable English discussions which, to my ears, were pretty much yabbering anyway) which was not necessarily an improvement. But it was most definitely back to 3 foreign beauties to travel with, and I can't help feeling that as an ugly mutt, my luck must be rapidly being exhausted. At this rate, I kind of expect to spent the next month or so traveling with a lawyer, a politician and the head of Aylesbury's tourist information bureau. Then there was the delayed departure from Lusaka by bus, and the wonderful nun's – I think I may have found the happiest person on the planet - showing off their school before feeding and provisioning us in Kapiri Mposhi. And by provisioning, that does include enough bottled water to float the Ark

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The train, to my utter amazement – and almost accidental failure to be on the damned thing when it moved – left promptly and without fanfare at all, and the proceeded to rattle and bounce it's way across North-East Zambia for a day or so. Eventually at the border, we we're welcomed to Tanzania and continued to roll Eastwards. Sadly, my SIGG water bottle – as opposed to the 33plastic bottles we had started with as part of the provisioning act of New Kapiri Mposhi - decided that it didn't want to visit Tanzania, and jumped out of the window on one of Northern Zambia's bouncier sections. Currency was exchanged at the border, and prices all changed from Kwacha to Schillings. But not with any great logic: the restaurant car had a printed menu with prices in both, but they had not been uniformly converted: Meals of 12,000kwacha, for example, came out at 2500 or 3000 schilling at random.

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Ania and Beata buying fruit through the window at a random station in Tanzania

Tanzania was glorious: we passed mountains – always a favourite of mine - and snaked down off the side of the the Great Rift valley down onto the plains of south-central Tanzania and then into the Northern edges of the Selous National Park: Elephants (my first in Africa), Zebra, Giraffes, Wildebeast, Monkeys, Boks and much else were spotted and gazed at for the next few hours, before we then slowly finished our decent to the coast.

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By the time we got to Dar-es-Salaam over 50hours later, we were 6hours late and had been traveling at a stunning rate of just over 37km/h, yet to me it did not matter in the slightest.

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Posted by Gelli 20:28 Archived in Tanzania Tagged transportation Comments (0)

Kuomboka

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And so to the mythical ceremony of Kuomboka. Happily, it wasn't even mythical. It was a real ceremony. We even turned up on the correct weekend. Will wonders never cease?!

Partly because we had no firm information about, well, pretty much anything, we arrived in Mongu a day early in order to give us time to find out exactly what was going on and where. In some ways we lucked out: though not exactly idyllic and with prices raised by many hundred percent just for the ceremony we discovered that our “hotel” had a glorious view across the Zambezi's flood plains, was right near the start of here we needed to be and had magical sunsets. Pushing our luck just that bit too much, on the first day wandering into town for the hell of it, we were picked up by a passing policeman, Mr. Manda, and taken on a tour of some of the key places which included the palace at Limulunga, but of more importance (to Mr. Manda, at least) was a local slaughterhouse where an associate of his, Mr. Phiri, was in the process of buying a cow. The police have to eat during such ceremonies, after all. By now alone, and the guest, I had the pleasure of feeling up the cows innards and deciding whether it was a worthy cow. Yay.

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Kuomboka – which literally means 'to get out of water' - is a traditional ceremony during which the Litungu (the Lozi king - Lozi being one of Zambia's 73-ish tribes) moves from one palace to the next in order to escape from floods of the Zambezi: At this point, the Barotse flood plains are over 50km wide at the end of the wet season, as it was now. Part of me wondered – and still wonders – exactly why he chooses to wait until the end of the wet season to move: to my mind, if you are going to move to a palace on higher ground, surely it makes sense to go at the start of the wet season, and not wait until the end when the water levels then start to fall.

In fact, he hadn't. Well, he kind of had. But he had actually moved a couple of weeks previously, and just come back a few days earlier in order to take part in the ceremony. So to recap, we have the most important traditional and tribal ceremony in all of Zambia delayed at short notice for a week just to suit the president's whims, whilst the whole reason for the ceremony had actually already occurred earlier still, rendering the whole thing pretty much nothing more than a money grabbing tourism and publicity stunt. Hmmm.

It wasn't bad, though.

At 6am the following morning, we were up, had joined forces with a group of American volunteers and were at the harbour. The feeling of excitement was obvious rising. And we still had no idea where we were supposed to be going. We watched a couple of boats shoot out, curiously almost entirely full of white tourists. Much faffing and waiting later and eventually we were allowed to get on our boat, although cunningly, we weren't all allowed to actually sit down before we got pushed off. A couple of panicked sittings by some Americans later (read: they fell into the bottom of the boat and stayed there), some impressive rockings as the over enthusiastic crew tried to capsize us and my idly wondering just how good the lifejacket I had been given actually was, and we were on our way.

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The main problem was that I just could not get the Hawaii 5-O theme tune out of my head for the next 12hours or so.

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This guy really is on a canoe and not walking on water with a pole, honest

Traditionally, tourists die by drowning pretty much every year here, and heading out through a weedy, semi-swampy river which was currently wider than some countries that i've lived in, despite my impressively renowned abilities as a swimmer* I had no desire to experience the water first hand. And so it was that we discovered that we were on pretty much the slowest motorised boat in Zambia, taking a route through the fauna that mean't that we couldn't even use the motor much of the time, heading a long way from anything resembling land, and in a boat that, as those Americans who had fallen on the floor and not moved (for fear of capsizing us) were rapidly discovering, was not quite as water tight as perhaps it could be. And we still had no idea where we were going.

All we did know is that we had been told that it would take about an hour and that the ceremony probably won't start until about 10am. As we had now been on the boat for close to 2hours, and it was 10:20 with no other boats in visible range in any direction this started to be of vague interest.

But we need not have worried. Well, not much. A short-ish while later and we arrived at Lealui. Not so much an Island, as a small clump of slightly higher land with a few houses which hadn't flooded: Even better, it was where we were actually supposed to be. After ambling around for a while (well, wading around) we discovered the palace, and crowds of people who were not quite as large as i think i expected and were at least half composed of foreigners. Hmmm. We then waited. The '10am absolute latest start' was by now well past 11:30, and we were being 'entertained' by some guys on a microphone, who pretty much spent their time telling us where to buy souvenirs, apologizing for the lack of traditional dancing and music (apparently there was too much water...) and for the delay in the ceremonies start, for which they had no idea whatsoever and were obviously trying to make up plausible sounding excuses on the spot..

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The King's barge waiting for events to begin in Lealui

Then at midday, after a sudden burst of drumming, a group of people strode rapidly out of the palace gates and disappeared down the path to the harbour. It was so fast that I didn't even realise who the king was. The crowds all rushed after him with chaos ensuing as some people ended up rushing into water slightly deeper than expected...

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A quick wade back to the harbour was required, though at least we chose the drier path

At the harbour, to great fanfare, the Kings barge - the Nalikwanda – a large barge featuring a central superstructure with a large elephant on the roof – was loaded, and the paddlers (150ish strong local men, all veterans of previous Kuomboka's) prepared. Though things are slightly more civilised now, the previous king used to insist that any paddler who was struggling or not pulling their weight got unceremoniously dumped over the side and left to drown.

And so the vast barge slowly heaved off. It was followed by another 9 official barges, including that of the Queen, caterers and baggage (no, not the same barge), plus any number of smaller private vessels and dugout canoes full of enthusiastic Lozi's (and some tourists). And with that, part one was over. Not having a boat to follow the King, and no huge wish to spend the next 6hours in the searing heat in a dugout canoe, it was time to head back to Mongu.

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Canoeists waiting for their guests to return before following the King to Limulunga

It was at that point that we discovered our boat was missing. Hmmmm. Some waiting and calling later with no news, we found space for 6 on another boat and sent 6 on their way. The remaining 3 of us then started haggling and eventually talked our way onto another small boat. It was a drier journey back, though not without a few almost capsizing moments. And we still made it back first.

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A few hours later, and we loaded into a minibus and headed over to Limulunga, where Mr. Manda had taken us yesterday, and the destination of the Royal barge. It was here we suddenly discovered the crowds. And the locals. It was absolutely heaving with cheering locals and Lozi tribes-people. But it was also depressingly commercial. Tickets needed to be bought to get to the harbour, and the whole event was sponsored by mobile phone companies and Barclays bank, amongst others.

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Not a minute too soon, and after 2 scouting canoes had appeared the Royal Barge arrived to rapturous cheers. The elephant's trunk was moving up and down, and the oarsman chanting. The Royal barge moved in and out of the creek 3 times, the oarsmen showing off their skills and greeting the crowd, before finally docking, swiftly followed by the rest of the flotilla. I got talking to locals, and amongst much else had 3 requests to be my friend, 4 for photos, 2 from people offering booze, 2 offering drugs and 2 whose hands seemed to want my wallet. Sigh. The king disembarked, went to his throne and then made a speech. This was followed by speech by President Banda, which, I later discovered, barely mentioned Kumoboka or the Litungu, and instead was a not even vaguely disguised political attack on his opponent. Such class.

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And with that, the meaningful sections (for us, at least) of Kuomboka were over. Much milling around and, for some, shopping, followed before we made our retreat. Proving that our luck had indeed been all used up in the first day or so, we then spend ages in a traffic jam getting back to town, whereupon we went to a restaurant with some of the worst and most incompetent service I have ever seen (that episode in itself, is worthy of a whole blog entry, though I have no desire to recall it) where amongst much else i got a bad case of food poisoning. That was topped off with a less than savory incident back at the hotel, and ended the evening with my stepping knee-high into a hole of raw sewage whilst trying to find a hedge to vomit in. What fun, what fun.

And i can confirm that raw sewage is not a good thing to step into when there is no water at the hotel to help you wash it off, and you have to leave early the next morning.

Despite that, I would certainly recommend Kuomboka to anybody that happens to be in Zambia at a useful time, though possibly won't be making desperately urgent efforts to go back myself next year...

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  • I can't swim. Heck, i cant even float. But I can go down/sink with hugely impressive speed and not return.

Posted by Gelli 17:07 Archived in Zambia Tagged events Comments (0)

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