19 September 2009

The perfect campsite

The perfect campsite

We are in Uganda, country number 9, and staying at the Haven, a lodge near the source of the White Nile. It's raining for the first time on this trip, but this place is so fabulous, so comfortable that it could stand as the epitome of the perfect camp site. So here are the ingredients, which I have determined to be necessary for a great camp site after exhaustive research in 9 African countries, encountering the best and the worst that the tourist industry can come up with:

Maasai Mara to Kakamega Forest Reserve - 48

First the basics, the foundation if you will. There should be a lawn, green and fresh, covering the tent pitches, and we should be able to drive our car onto it as we have a roof tent and it's really annoying to have to look at the grass rather than be on it. The pitch should be nice and big, so that we can spread out with our other tent, our table and chairs and general kitchen acroutements (sp?). It helps if the ground is flat so we don't have to navigate back and forth for ages to find a good spot to park the car. It's nice to have a little border to separate us from the other campers, but not too high so we can't meet new friends. This lawn should be dotted with shade giving trees, just big enough to fit the car and the tent under, but without gooey fruit that drop on the tent and make a mess, or worse, without being a monkey sleeping tree as they tend to pee from a great height during the night. If the camp site looks out over an amazing valley, or a lake with gently lapping waves, or a similar view of great stunningness, that is an extra bonus. If we can see fish eagles hunting or elephants crossing the dried up riverbed or hippos grunting the day away, our life is complete.

Nairobi Jungle Junction - 02

Next come the facilities, and this is where many camp sites do badly. Toilets, to get the gross item out of the way first, don't have to be flushing, long drops are fine as long as the smell is under control, they are clean and airy and there is toilet paper. I have to praise Mushroom Farm (Malawi) here, where not only is the long drop nice smelling, but the product is composted and used on the organic vegetable garden. Showers don't need to be hot, although I would not have wanted cold showers in South Africa or Namibia in mid-winter. And most places could manage hot water if they took the Haven as an example, where the owner has installed solar panels for water heating, and even though we are in the rainy season now, there is always enough sun to have lovely hot showers. The thing that is essential with a shower, and often taken for granted, though, is water pressure. You can have as much water as you like, if it dribbles out of the shower head you are not going to get clean. And we have had many a shower lacking sufficient pressure, from Sesriem in Namibia to Aruba in the Maasai Mara. Personally I find good water pressure trumps fresh water, as I was happy to have a slightly salty shower (at Makadi Beach in Tanzania) or one that is a bit rusty (Green View Lodge, Mbeya), but when I am standing naked in the shower and turn the water on I like to see more than just a trickle. The shower room should be a decent size to facilitate getting dressed, although it doesn't have to be a private cubicle for the pitch (as we had in Swakopmund and El Toro, Botswana). It's nice but unnecessary. More important is that there is a good lock on the door and a bit of privacy. There should be no dusty corners where dead flies congregate, nor grubby edges making it impossible to put down my soap, and while on the subject of putting things down, a few hooks, a ledge and a bench outside to keep my clothes dry and my towel in reach are surprisingly often afterthoughts. Also, if there is a tap, it's good to be able to open it, and if the shower head doesn't fall on my head that also helps my cleaning enjoyment. German run camp sites like the Haven are remarkably consistent in providing good quality showers. Maybe it's our history of heavy engineering?

Ngorongoro - 33

Next come the non-essential niceties. That includes water taps dotted round the tent sites, a sink for washing up, a washing line, and - for us most important - a power supply so we can sit and tap away at our laptops to our heart's content. Tables and benches, sometimes under cover, have been a specially useful addition, so we don't have to get our own tables and chairs out. Where there is a bar or restaurant there is often a nice view to sit and compute or capture footage while drinking a cold Savanna, and the bar staff is usually happy to provide us with electricity in exchange for us running up a bar tab.

Lake Bunyoni to Bwindi - 01

Last but not least on our travels we have found security to be most important. It's a sad fact that we have had thefts from our car in two places, and both were not Nairobi car parks, which we have been warned about at great length, but camp sites. A fence and a security guy who walks around at night are pretty standard, although that didn't help on those two occasions. Just being in the centre of the site rather than at the edges seems to make a difference, or just makes us feel safer. Security from wild animals also becomes an issue, as we have had jackals chewing straps off our bags, elephants charging Stuart into the toilet, baboon attacks on our food and nocturnal visits from village dogs.

My top list of camp sites so far, in no particular order:

Mahangu Lodge, Namibia

Guma Lagoon, Botswana

The Haven, Uganda

Jungle Junction, Kenya

Makadi Beach, Tanzania

Naukluft, Namibia

Track and Trail, Zambia

Mushroom Farm, Malawi

Fat Monkeys, Malawi

Abiqua, Namibia

Look at these!

Stuart took some incredible photos in the Maasai Mara. Take a look: http://www.flickr.com/photos/fiverlocker/tags/kenya/


The strangely named Pap cafe on Parliament st in Kampala is out current favourite hangout for food and wifi. And lovely it is indeed.

18 September 2009

Before and after

Man, we drink a lot of tea on this trip and our mugs bear witness to that. On the top is my mug in its normal state after many early morning cuppas and on the bottom is Stuart's mug, which Merryl took the scrubbing pad to so that it looks like new. We bought these in Maun one monts into the trip and they already lost their handles. Oh well.

15 September 2009

Views from the road

There is a big Muslim community in Tanzania, but the main language spoken is Swahili. Useful Swahili phrases: Karibu - Welcome
Habari - hi, how are you?
Asante Sana - thank you very much
Any number of things are sold by the side of the road.
That includes garden plants.

14 September 2009

Doing the Maasai Mara crush

Kenya = Maasai Mara, the famous game reserve that spans the border to Tanzania where it is called the Serengeti. Full of animals and home to the Mara river crossing featured in countless wildlife documentaries, where thousands of wildebeest and zebra throw themselves across the river trying to evade the waiting crocs and lions. Land of empty open plains swaying with grass, the odd tree decoratively breaking the endless horizon, where vast herds of exotic animals graze, from zebra to impala, gazelles of every variety alongside elephant and giraffe, eland, reed bucks, topi and kongoni; where predators roam looking for easy pickings, lions, leopards, cheetah, hyena and fox, a place to go at least once, although it would be hard to think we will never return.

I had heard many stories before we came, had a picture in my mind of how it would be, and it all turned out exactly like that and at the same time completely different. Access to the park is unlike any other we had been to, the road up to the first gate was terrible and only got worse as we pushed on to Aruba Bush Camp, whose owner, a Bavarian lady, we had met at Jungle Junction in Nairobi, and who promised hot showers and clean toilets at her camp site. Due to the bad infrastructure, the lack of signage and bad tracks in the park we had been told to take a guide, so Daniel, a local Maasai, hopped in the car with us in the morning. This turned out to be an advantage as well as a drawback. Daniel knew the roads, so he took us into the park through a shortcut. He was also on the phone a lot, for reasons of navigation, it turned out, as the mobile was the communicator for those guides not belonging to a lodge (their cars are equipped with two way radios). So in order to find out where the game was he called and was called, and he promptly took us to a spot where we could see a cheetah. A cheetah, wow! These guys (or often gals, as the females are extremely territorial and keep all males out of the way) are pretty hard to spot, as they are very shy and spend most of the day in hiding. But there it was, all lean and elegant, if panting a little from the heat, a real live cheetah in the wild.

Unfortunately that was also our introduction to how things work in the Mara and the drawback of having a guide in the car with us. There were three other safari cars around, each of them nudging in to see the cheetah better, taking turns to close in, overtaking and cutting each other off, in the process pushing the animal to move on just as it had found a shady spot to rest. It was looking increasingly harassed and when we told Daniel that we didn't want to approach any further he looked at us, mystified, and carried on encouraging us to go even closer. It took some will to refuse, but we could as we were driving ourselves. A side effect of all this jostling was that all the cars went off the main track, crunching over the vegetation and churning up the dry soil. It hasn't rained here yet, the Mara is the driest it has been since the 50's so the environment is very fragile, and I was shocked to see that all through the day not only did big 4x4 Landrovers and Cruisers drive on the lesser used tracks, which cut across the plain all over the place, but in the search for a better view they would drive into thickets, reverse over shrubs and pull up right on the river bank, making new tyre marks that would then be used by other cars. Part of the problem is of course that there is no established road system in the Mara such as we are used to from other parks, whether that be Kruger or Etosha or South Luangwa. Even when the signage was bad, there were always clear road markings and offroad tracks were blocked by stones and Do Not enter signs. there is nothing of the kind here, and I have yet to even see a map of recommended routes.

Another problem are the tourists who push the guides to drive ever nearer to the animals, and since most guides are dependent on the tourists' goodwill and their tips, they are happy to oblige. I felt that Daniel considered this just the way things are and since there is no penalty for bad behaviour and no immediate impact he is happy to carry on and satisfy the tourist wishes. Of course there is a long term impact on the environment and - through stress - on the animals. I wonder if the guides were paid a wage, or if they got ranger training so that they could gain an understanding of the impact of their actions combined with the confidence to be guardians of the landscape rather than collectors of tips, if better infrastructure and more policing of visitor behaviour would help here. I am sure many people have already thought of solutions to the problem, but it's sad to see that not a lot seems to get implemented.

Our stop to watch the river crossing became another ambivalent event. The Mara river had slowed almost to a trickle anywhere else, but here there were still rapids, and they were crowded with a dozen patient, scaly, and hungry crocodiles. There also floated the carcass of a wildebeest, horn stuck on a rock, slowly bobbing in the stream, apparently too smelly to still be interesting to the pre-historic beasts hanging around for the next victim. Along the bank a herd of wildebeest was crowding at the edge of the river, bumping and retreating until one took the - literal - leap into the water, and then they were all running, jumping and leaping over each other, pushing from behind, at the point of no return until they - on reaching a deeper channel - had to swim a way to reach firm ground again and stream up the other side to safety. Somehow this time they all made it across, maybe because after a large group had crossed the throng suddenly screeched to a halt and the rest of the herd stumbled back up onto the bank to find another crossing that was not quite so croc infested. Another flow of bodies took place out of our sight, but we soon realised that this one hadn't gone as well as the last. As we watched, a sleek brown body came floating round the bend, legs akimbo, occasionally a horn popping up from the water. Too slow, or maybe a stumble, a bump at the wrong moment, and a wildebeest had become a victim. The carcass was surrounded by crocs, who, pushing and snapping and twisting, tried to take a bite, jostling each other not unlike the ungainly Landcruisers when lining up for a photo of the evasive cheetah earlier in the day.

Unfortunately the ridge was lined with up to 20 cars, all heads sticking out of the roof hatch, 1200mm lenses cranked up to get that perfect shot, pink snappy cams next to pro level camcorders, all facing the iconic sight. Lodge cars were arranged as in a car park. When the spectacle was over they vanished round the corner in expectation of an even better view - and then, to our luck, most of them disappeared. It was lunchtime at the posh lodges.

13 September 2009

Finding Jungle Junction

What's the most elusive thing we've encountered on this journey? Not cheetahs or leopards, not the endangered fish eagle or the malachite kingfisher, the nocturnal hippos or the tiny lion ants that hide in the ground and wait for their prey, no it is Jungle Junction, the much-praised camp site in the middle of Nairobi, which every long distance overlander waxes lyrical about, with its acclaimed showers and copious internet, and not least of all its accommodating and generous host Christoph. The problem is, it advertised itself with a latitude and longitude only, even a Google search didn't yield any more detail (such as a street name, maybe) and, having entered the co-ordinates into our GPS, we still struggled to find the entrance gates in the whirl and commotion that is Nairobi on our first day. We drove round and round the block until a kind stranger pointed out the black iron gate with the large double-J cut into it. Ah, there you are! The problem with Jungle Junction is that it's just so easy to stay there. When you arrive you have usually just come from the wilds of either Ethiopia or Tanzania, and you are ready for some civilisation. But Nairobi is overwhelming, the biggest city in East Africa, so you also need a place to hide out from where you can occasionally venture out into the crazy city to sort out your visa or buy that thing that broke, but where you can retreat and pretend you are in another place, a calmer place, an organised place with no surprises. Jungle Junction provides normalcy, sofas in the lounge and reliable internet, a clean kitchen and fixed prices for washing, dinner and drinks. It's really just a big family house with public spaces downstairs and some guest rooms upstairs, camping on the front lawn and showers in an outhouse round the back. the front door has a reception added to it and houses a large fridge filled with drinks dispensed on the honour system. Internet is fast and free, so fast that I feel like I am back home, and that's such a comforting feeling. Yes, there is the problem of only having electricity during the day every other day, but at least he's clear about this up front, and it's just as he says, power returns every evening at 6pm. Then there are the notice boards, fantastically useful and split out to list accommodation on one, Nairobi info on another, there's a board holding restaurant info in the kitchen and a free for all where visitors can leave their cards and photos by reception )I had no idea there were so many overlanders with business cards).

Oh, and there's Christoph's motorbike workshop. He is a former BMW engineer and seems to be the go-to man for servicing bikes in the region - i.e. Eastern Africa (he fixed up the Long Way Down bikes when they had a problem in Tanzania). But Christoph is not just helpful for bikers, he has knowledge of everything, from computer repairers to solar panel suppliers, all neatly stored in a set of business card books, each section labelled for easy reference. And really, it's Christoph who is the biggest asset of Jungle Junction. He has created an oasis of calm and organised peace, a quality that propagates to employees and guests alike. Everything is immaculate and cared for, from the big cushions on the sofas to the crockery in the kitchen, nothing is flashy, but everything is looked after by all, and there is an orderly and considerate spirit around the place. There are reminder lists posted on the walls to clean up after yourself, to use water sparingly and to refrain from leaving stuff around (e.g. "Monday is fridge day, everything not labelled will be chucked out"; "Don't leave food on the surfaces, put it in the cupboard", etc), long enumerations spiked with creative spelling and apostrophe crimes, but I suspect that it's really Christoph's calm presence, his open helpful manner and uncynical attitude that makes everyone want to behave well here. I know it worked for me. And for your information, Jungle Junction can be found on Amboseli Rd in Lavington.

12 September 2009

Tanzania roundup

I guess I promised to do country roundups so I will do one for Tanzania, too. But it's hard. I have so few good memories that I am struggling with the decision to write, even. It's ironic, when we were hanging out in Malawi we worried that we wouldn't have enough time in Tanzania, due to the visa limit that required us to leave on September 10th. As it turned out, we were there for less than 12 days, and left on the 7th, and gladly.
Tanzania is big, so that meant that we really only drove through it. Add to that the fact that we stayed in Dar Es Salaam and Arusha for a few days each and you can imagine that there were a few long driving days. So why did we rush through one of the best regarded tourist countries in the East of Africa, a place many people go to for a holiday of a life time, with such romantic and famous locations such as Zanzibar, Ngorongoro Crater, the Serengeti and Olduvai Gorge?
Dar Es Salaam was interesting as the biggest town we have been to since Lusaka, although it certainly was not as organised or developed. We stayed a few days by the beach there, I think we were hiding out from Tanzanian reality under the palm trees. We did go into town, always fun as we had to cross on a short ferry journey, to see the museum and get the car fixed up - again and do some shopping. After that we made straight for the Serengeti and Ngorongoro (via a night at the foot of the invisible Kilimanjaro), but unfortunately had more car trouble and had to return to Arusha after a visit to Ngorongoro instead of crossing the Serengeti and heading to Rwanda. A three day stay in Arusha finished off any lingering sympathy for Tanzania and we headed off to Kenya. Coming from Malawi and Zambia we had gotten used to a very easy and pleasant life style. There were cheap and comfy camp sites within reasonable driving distances, nature reserves with reasonable entrance fees, more or less available shopping locations, with fresh food on the roadside and small but useful supermarkets just prior to running out of supplies completely and most of all people were friendly even at tourist locations, even when they were trying to sell us stuff we didn't want, even though we would sometimes get overcharged. Not so in Tanzania. Tanzania was mzungu (white person) prices and being mobbed when shopping for pineapples by the roadside; it's an overpriced hotel room with no hot water or electricity, which isn't fixed because "you didn't complain enough"; it's being charged US$480 for a day in Ngorongoro crater, and then told we'd have to pay an extra US$20 for the guide; it's signs at the Dar Es Salaam campsite: "inside camp=safe, outside camp=unsafe" and Merryl harassed while walking on the beach; it's the sight of corruption and the resulting neglect of every public piece of infrastructure, except for the government part of town; it's being stopped by traffic cops for speeding using dubious equipment and then finding that the fine is less if there is no receipt; it's money changers at the border who are seriously good cheats; it's street vendors and touts who really won't take no for an answer, rude to the point of insult when we show no interest in their rip-offs; it's being charged for parking even though there is no signage indicating official involvement anywhere in sight; being charged for guide fees for a guy who uninvited trundles after us; it's neglected camp sites and neglected museums and neglected streets and neglected parks...; oh, and it's the loudest mosques we have encountered anywhere, including Egypt, Jordan, Dubai or Malaysia - and it's Ramadan, so the Imam is on the loudspeaker from 4.30 am to 10pm at full blast, turning even the locals off.
I'll stop with the negative now, you get the picture. On the other hand, there have been small moments of pleasantness, kindnesses from strangers: the Indian shop keeper, an elderly gentleman, who made sure we counted our change and printed out a receipt so we could be sure we had paid the right money, he saw us for the insecure visitors confused by yet another new currency that we were; the Maasai guards on the beach at Mikadi, looking all haughty and unapproachable in their strange clothes and clinking jewellery, but who always had a cheery "Mambo Poa" for us when he passed, jauntily flicking his cow tail to keep the flies away, jingling with every move; the gate keepers at Ngorongoro crater, who decided that we didn't need a guide after finding out that I am German (one of the guard's brother in a Roman Catholic priest in Cologne, with the improbable name of Innocent), although still concerned we would get lost - it's a crater, for Pity's sake, it's got walls all around it!; and finally Mussadiq, the awesomely helpful suspension dealer in Arusha, who gave us back our faith in the place after all the crappiness - he found bushes for the suspension, let us park in his back yard, negotiated with the annoying parking attendant and refused to take any money on the basis that he didn't have the exact right parts we needed - what a guy! And then there were, I have to admit, incredible views in the Ngorongoro crater, Baobab valley demands a return visit and Dar was a cool melting pot, which makes it a potential place to live for a little while.
Still, glad to be in Kenya now.

09 September 2009

Meryl's Latest Missives

Oh, and you HAVE TO read Merryl's latest - a bit behind the trip, as these are stories from Botswana, which I personally can barely remember, but they are the funniest nevertheless. Read and make sure you are not drinking coffee at your computer at the time...

08 September 2009

Change of Plan

If anyone actually follows our calendar (at the bottom of this blog page) they will notice that we are in Nairobi, not at Lake Victoria on our way to Rwanda as planned. We are still trying to get to Rwanda, but had to miss out on Olduvai Gorge and the Serengeti due to our repeatedly failing shock absorbers. Very boringly this has happened twice now (previously in Zambia), both times on very bad roads, and we have decided to go to the East African capital of Nairobi, where it is possible to buy anything, to have the suspension looked at. These problems should not occur on a freshly installed system, so we are concerned to get it set up for the much worse roads of Northern Kenya.
Long story short, we are now in Nairobi for a few days and then hope to head off to Maasai Mara and on to Uganda. We will be doing things backwards from the planned route, and will have to retrace our steps later, but this way we are safe - and get to spend some time in a real metropolis again. Yay for cinemas, Apple dealers and broadband internet!

And now for Tanzania...

And here are the photos from Tanzania. Despite being a kind of crummy place, we saw beautiful things, so take a look:

Finally broadband = pictures!

Here finally, after crossing all of Tanzania without a decent internet connection, are the best photos of Malawi, our favourite place so far. We are now in the famous Jungle Junction in Nairobi (more on that later), where we are slaughtering the bandwidth, so hopefully more pictures from Tanzania next. Enjoy:

06 September 2009

What's wrong with this picture?


I really like this style, it's loud and witty and cool. I wish more street artists would take it to heart, rather than copying out endless pictures of dancing women.

That's what I like to see

Parking at the local Landrover dealer in Arusha. Didn't stop the Landcruiser from pulling in later, though.