November 25, 2005

Malawi Movie Stars

Bargaining for souvenirs in Malwai is often a friendly but slow process, made slower still by the relaxed pace of the locals and their tendency to name themselves after movie stars.

It's about 600 billion degrees outside. Our campsite is situated at the southern end of Lake Malawi and the afternoon cloud has failed to arrive. Instead of cooling off a little the mercury continues to rise and what little joy is brought from a swim in the lake is quickly erased once on dry land again. The sun just saps your energy away.

With nothing else to do we go shopping.

Just outside the campsite at Kande Beach a row of bamboo huts have sprung up to offer carvings to the tourists. They are differentiated by hand written notices dubbing the merchants with names like "Samuel L Jackson", "Mel Gibson" and "Shaggy". It takes some digging to find their real identities but that's half the point - spend a little time, no need to buy, just have a look. The shade is welcoming at the very least.

A few of the gals pick out some quality carvings and get down to bargaining. The average statue seems to sell between $US1 and $US5, depending on your ability to close a deal and your preparedness to walk-away if the price isnt right. But dont take too long. This age old interplay between buyer and seller can be derailed without warning, when shopping on a Malawi beach front, should the proprietor take off to smoke some weed!

One minute we're negotiating a price for a handful of carvings and the next minute Mr Gibson has disappeared to the back for a quick puff. "I'll just be a moment", he tells us and proceeds to inhale a reefer that releases more smoke than a bee-keeper collecting honey. We wait while the happy moment is shared with a few of his mates, and then he lights a second one. We're not sure if he'll be returning at all.

His friends take a seat at the back of the shop and stares blissfully across the street at nothing. They have stopped blinking. I try to get their attention but am too late, they wont be back for days. Our man returns to continue bargaining and we're pretty hopeful of getting to the real price soon. Surely we have the upper hand now?

He looks at all of us, smiles a few times, and asks us what we want to buy. We're back at square one.

Holding aloft the same collection of carved wood that had previously been debated to $10 he gives us a few more smiles each, smiles are free, and declares the carvings to be worth $19. It seems we are caught in his time warp, the negotiations have become bogged down. I wonder if this problem is what keeps peace elusively at bay in the Middle East? Mr Gibson is pretty convinced we are wealthy enough to meet his price, but we are pretty convinced the guy next door will sell for $7. We move on.

Mr Jackson looks like he's selling more weed than souvenirs so we pass. Next shop along and we catch Mr Shaggy before his next session with the jazz cigarettes so we get a good deal on some quality carvings. We didnt sit and chat this time, just exchanged basic greetings and told him what price we'll pay. In and out in 3 minutes.

On the way back I walked past Mr Gibson, still smiling and still convinced we will pay $19 for his carvings. Maybe he fogot to share his joint with us before entering the bargaining?

November 22, 2005

Zanzibar Dhows

The sunny side of Zanzibar is filled with pearl white beaches, delicious seafood, and a fleet of fishing vessels that are as distinctive as they are charming.

On the northern tip of Zanzibar the heat of the afternoon sun is cooling down a little and the fisherman are getting ready to head out to sea. The water is crystal clear, reflecting torquoise blue off the pale white sand below. Zanzibar is famous for it's unique sailing craft, the Dhow. These yachts feature a low mast and a single lugg poled sail that varies subtly from the Asian lanteen rig. The rigging is very flexible. Once the lugg is lofted to the top of the mast the sail is let out for running downwind or footed in at the bow to point into a breeze. They are majestic little craft of beautiful proportions and exotic flare.

A few Dhows come in late in the afternoon with a load of sardines. The fishermen use very small nets and snorkels to corral and bundle schools of sardines. Occasionally they hit a big school and the Dhow is filled to capacity upon returning to shore. As the vessels slip into the shallows there is great yelling and men and children flock to unload the catch. Tubs are filled to the brim and carried off one by one. The fish just keep coming. Children clammer for a share of the spoils and the fishermen oblige with small allocations in return for assistance to offload. For a good 30 mintues it's pandamonium. People are shouting and calling and the fish just keep coming. The scene is repeated several times.

The majority of the fleet heads out in the middle of the sardine bonanza. They are seeking larger catch such as tuna, kingfish and swordfish. They will head a long way out to sea during the setting sun and continue catching through the night. They drift with their lines out and hope for clear skies on moonlit nights. The return journey to shore is completed by 6am and the fish are sent directly to market. This is the catch that will be served on restaurant tables that same night, fresh and full of flavour as all good seafood should be.

Further south along the shore are holiday beaches and hotels that cater for a relaxed style of tourist. The sand is soft, white, and gently washed by the clearest of water. Between each stretch of beach the restaurants provide decking out over the water and a magnificent view of the sunset. Dhows come and go while the sun fades behind the horizon. Some carry tourists out for a joy ride, others are simply a little late as they head out for the fishing. Food and drinks are cheap. Seafood is the pick and the spices of Zanzibar feature proudly on the menu too. The combination is indulgent! The local drink is Dawa - gin, vodka, lime juice and honey. Pick a bar with african beats to accompany the scenery and let the Dawa slide on into the night.

November 12, 2005

Africa in a Week

There are two big advantages to 'small group adventure travel'; making new friends and packing the most experiences into your time as humanly possible. Our small group travelled for a week in Kenya with GAP Adventures and set the bar to a whole new level.

Africa has always been an exotic choice for the budget backpacker. They leave behind the world of hostels and bus schedules in favour of months on end living on a truck, cooking over woodfires and sleeping in a damp tent. I have heard the stories from my friends who travelled the continent from end to end, returning to civilization after a journey that is measured in months instead of miles. It's slow going in Africa. There is a lot to see and very little to make travel easy.

My first experience in Africa was a gentle introduction - just one week and just one country. Kenya seemed as good a place to begin a journey as any other and is relatively easy to fly into and out of. GAP Adventures offer a seven day loop that takes in safaries in the Samburu Reserve, Lake Nakuru and the Masai Mara. Several things made this journey a stand out experience - the exceptional knowledge of our drivers, the experienced and tested itinerary that allowed us to fit everything in, and the most stunning array of wildlife and scenery we could have imagined. Toss in a few visits to local villages and you have a perfectly balanced adventure that leaves you wanting nothing.

Our support team were two drivers and a cook. We had two vans for nine people which left just enough room for luggage to be stowed and day packs to sit at our feet. My first impression of the vans was disappointing, but later in the journey it became clear why they are the best choice. Your transport is used for travelling between towns, into the parks, and for the safari around the reserves too. We saw groups on the big trucks and they had much greater storage for camping gear - but they took a lot longer to drive across country and were cumbersome platforms for viewing the animals. Our little vans by comparison could make time on the open road, travel the smaller tracks around the parks, and get us right in close to the action when the opportunity arose. The roof of the van pops up to convert our passenger space to a viewing deck with shade, and the two-way radio communications between the many local operators ensured that every bit of action in the park was quickly shared amongst the drivers and everyone gets a chance to observe.

And we saw everything. In Samburu we got our first taste of the sleepy lions, a lazy leopard, the graceful giraffe, zebra and their stripes and the remarkable sight of herding elephants. Impala and dik-dik were sighted every day as well as the beautiful collection of birds that fill the morning air with song at our campsites. We were completely overwhelmed by our experience at Lake Nakuru. The sight and sounds of the mile-long flamingo flock and the dancing antics of a baby rhino went well beyond our expectations. The setting itself was enchanting with the broad wetland plains the sweep up to the wooded hills provide a grand landscape for grazing animals and birdlife. We thought Nakuru would be a filler to break up the drive but it turned into a highlight - how could we ever top this?

We started our Masai Mara safari with a baby elephant. He had been abandoned by it's mother and was about to be transported to Nairobi where it would be nurtured and raised. On it's way into the truck it stood on my foot. I was fine, but I could tell the little one was intensely sad and suffering greatly in the absence of it's mother. We drove on and took in buffalo herds, wilderbeasts, zebras and more zebras, masai giraffe, topi, gazelle, hartebeasts and warthogs. We stopped for a few more elephant herds during our drive but eventually arrived at an open field with a single tree giving shade to a cheeta and her five cubs. This was special. The cubs were adorable and even more so in numbers. We got a walking tour of some hippo families along the river, had lunch, and then watched a lion having his. The king of the jungle was ripping into the rump of a zebra, the sound of bone and flesh yeilding to those powerful jaws was broken only by the clicking of SLR cameras. The buzz around the vans was electric as we processed the reality of what we just saw.

Our last sighting as we headed out of the reserve was yet another cheeta with her cubs. I lost my cap in the wind as we drove near the cheeta and the second van stopped to collect it. They were not aware of the predator up ahead at the time. Minutes later as several vans gathered to observe the family of cats we were treated to a live kill. The mother demonstrated to her cubs the stalking technique and timed her attack to perfection. A young topi was brought down and with a piercing cry the mother called over the cubs to enjoy the bounty. We finished the day with a visit to a Masai village and then back to camp for a wood-fired hot shower and dinner.

The morning of our last day we awoke at 4:30am to drive back into the park and take a balloon ride. This is not a standard part of the trip and the additional cost is not cheap. Having seen the procedure for the balloons however, I can see why it costs so much. My budget didnt stretch to this optional inclusion so I came along to photograph the launch. It seems a family of lions also enjoy the launches and there was a 'simba' alert in effect when we arrived. In the headlights of someone's land rover you could see the male lions gazing at us from the edge of the launch site. Pilot Pete, who has been working for the UK based Balloon Safaris for over 10 years, was running the show on this occasion - he had one spare seat in the basket and generously offered to give 'our photographer' a flight and breakfast. What can I tell you from this point on? The experience was sensational, the views magnificent, and there simply is no other sight of the Masai Mara that will compare. We drift along towards the picnic site and drop low above the wildlife and rivers. A few bursts of the burner and we climb higher and enjoy the peaceful immersion. The landing was a peach and we were driven a short way over to the champagne picnic to enjoy the best meal we had seen in a week.

The rest of the day was spent driving east to Nairobi and we got back to the hotel in time to shower off the dust and head out for a feast at Carnivores. This is a unique dining experience that appeals to tourists but still retains plenty of exotic flavour to make it a must-do finale to a great trip. We ate ostrich, crocodile and camel - and plenty of other more familiar meats. They walk around with great skewers of grilled meat and cut slabs directly onto your plate. A more fitting end to this safari would be hard to imagine.