Wednesday, November 17, 2010

"Don't drive out here at night" he said to the guys - then proceeded to do just that...

It's 01:45 in the morning here in Tanzania and I'm sitting in a wooden hut in front of the glow of a laptop. I'm covered in mud and sticky with sweat after a 90 minute conference call. It wasn't the conference call that got me in this state.  I was in fact 30 minutes late for this conference call after a 3.5 hour 4WD trip down to the lake that involved roughly 2 hours of de-bogging, winching and digging plus around 1.5 hours driving of actually driving. Conference call was good but the drive was even better. :-)

Today the last charter flight brought in the wet season caretaker so that we can head off on Friday on a 5 day 4WD trip to Dar Es Salaam and eventually Zanzibar for some diving. A couple of hours after Nic got here we had a request to help a women who was in distress during labor and needed a lift down to the medical clinic 20km away by the lake for a helicopter medevac to the nearest hospital. I suggested that Nic go down to the lake to see it before the roads get cut off.

Four hours later at 9pm we'd had dinner and they still weren't back. Pete & I had a bottle of wine under our belt but there's no RBT here and you can't do more than 15km/h anyway so we grabbed the keys to a Landcruiser, the med kit, satphone and a bottle of water. We figured they'd probably got bogged, had a flat or just slid off the road... A great intro to Africa for Nic lol but at least it would convince him of the futility of trying to drive in the wet season. We ended up all the way to Mgambazi down by the lake and that place is dark by night! It's a village of probably 1,000 people but you could scarcely find the glow of a fire at 10 o'clock at night. With nobody around to ask for directions, we got onto the satphone and rang camp. Turns out the vehicle had got bogged on the way down to the lake and decided to go back to camp by another little used track - the logic of leaving a known track for an unknown track that we hadn't used before on a dark and wet night escapes me but either way, that's what they did.

They'd arrived at camp about 20 minutes after we left so two of the guys grabbed the pickup to drive down and let us know. This was nice gesture but no way were they going to catch us and we'd left instructions to come get us if we weren't back by 2330. As it turned out, if they hadn't come for us I would have been back an hour before my conference call (rather than 30 minutes late). Simple stuff but when I had to reverse out of a bog to have another run at it, Valerian (our senior technician) had the landcruiser pickup right up our clacker and proceeded to reverse sideways and get stuck. Long story and 5 or 6 winching/digging attempts later we managed to slip/slide/drive up the by now very chewed up hillside, that the first vehicle had given up on. Just another day of boys own adventure in Africa :-). Can't believe I get paid to do this. Perhaps one day I'll grow up - but I doubt it...

More importantly though, no-one was hurt and although we haven't heard how the mother and baby are doing yet, at least she got to the clinic before sunset, in time to be evacuated to Kigoma by helicopter. Her home is a farm near our camp where in May this year, her husband hanged himself so hopefully her luck has changed and things will be working out well for her in hospital. We'll find out how soon enough via the bush telegraph and are all keen to have things go well for her.

Friday, October 22, 2010

From Machete madness to spotless streets - a complex land...

I look up from my typing every so often to enjoy the most amazing views. The little Toyota Coaster bus swerves from side to side as it hurtles round hairpin bends, with enough g-force to rotate the screen and keyboard on my iPad. A good reminder if I needed one to stop typing and enjoy the view over this land of a thousand hills. I'm looking out on a green valley surrounded by mountain peaks of massive scale, all impossibly lush. It's hard to believe that only 16 years ago the friendly folk farming the terraces of these steep hillsides were busy chopping each other up with panga's and axes. Reconciliation seems genuine here and they are all getting on with life but the scars must run deep. The war crimes tribunal is still running across the border in Tanzania and many of the perpetrators have fled to other surrounding nations yet I can't help but reflect that many of the people I meet, buy my meals from, or just pass in the street are probably guilty of murder or worse. I struggle to understand how people can behave like that, especially en masse. Frankly I don't want to know, but somehow we need to know and understand such things if we are to be able to act before propaganda, fear and power-mongering repeat such acts in the future.

The Rwandan folk are incredibly friendly, which is not so unique in Africa but what is remarkable is how well the whole country seems to run. Unusually for this part of the world, the place is really well organized. The gorilla trekking, guides and management of Volcanoes National Park were truly world class and that seems to be a reflection of the whole country. In Rwanda, streets are clean. Corruption is low to non-existent. Busses run on time. Infrastructure is in good shape. It's an amazing contrast after 6 months in Tanzania. One of the really cool things that I love about the place is probably summed up in why the streets are so noticeably spotless. The leadership decided early on that even if they had no money for infrastructure, one of the things they could achieve at zero cost was to keep the place clean. So, one Sunday of every month, the people from the President on down, including mayors, farmers, business people and kids all get out and pick up rubbish. What a great thing to do!  So simple yet it makes a huge difference to not only the appearance of the place but I'm sure also the culture.

It's been great to have a chance to visit Rwanda, not to mention to enjoy the fresh food and great cafes of Kigali but more adventures await. We're back on a plane again tomorrow back to Tanzania for a bit of a hike to the 'roof of Africa'. Kilimanjaro here we come...

Thursday, October 21, 2010

In the hall of the mountain king...

My pulse is racing, I'm sweating profusely, oblivious to the hitherto lung busting altitude and in an altered state of complete euphoria. My face muscles will ache later from the huge fixed grin that has been there virtually nonstop for the past 30 minutes. No, I'm not stoned in the Himalayas. I'm...

Right now I'm sitting on a bus in Rwanda catching up on emails and doing a spot of reading (did I mention how great the iPad is for traveling with?) and I still have that huge smile but now it's from my memories of yesterday. We're on the bus back to Kigali after visiting the Susa family in northern Rwanda. The Susa family are no ordinary Rwandan family. They are the largest clan of mountain gorillas in the region a visit with them is quite an experience. Its difficult to describe how emotional an experience it is. I mean, really, they are just big apes right and we've all seen them on television many times. But somehow being in the wild alongside these massive (really massive) but gentle and friendly primates is a very moving experience. It's a rare treat to see them at all, let alone see 20 in as many metres and get within arms length of them. Between the three of us we rattled off 1,000 photos and short videos in an all too short 60 minutes.

If you'd like to see a few of those 1,000+ photos then here is the place to go.

It's been a day to remember and one where we were definitely 'living in the flow'. Everything fell into place far better than we could have planned it. Even the torrential tropical thunderstorm held off until we were back in our hotel. The day started at dawn when our hired car picked us up from the hotel to take us up the mountain to check in at the ranger station at 0630 for a well organized briefing and cuppa before the trek. We'd been told by friends to ask to visit the Susa family because they are the biggest, most active and interesting, hence are the best experience for the hour that you get. The Susa group however live the highest up the mountain - often around the 4,000m mark which puts them 4 solid hours trek through the jungle. There is no formal mechanism for applying to get into this group and the guides just pick the people who look fittest and most experienced for the long hike. We figured out that our worn hiking boots and an air of prepared quiet confidence would help us get into that group but in the absence of any other guidance we were sweating on getting picked for this group. Really, really wanted to visit this family. I'm sure we would have had a great time with any family but everyone raves about Mr Susa and his clan. Unbeknownst to us until later that morning, it's the drivers who recommend people to the park guides. The selection had been made 30 minutes before we had agonized over cup re how to wangle a way into the Susa group. So while we were looking around at the many unfit, ill prepared, overweight or jeans with muffin top youngsters and eyeing off our competition amongst the the fit and well equipped, the drivers were in a huddle with the head ranger round the back. Now, we hadn't told our driver that we wanted to see the Susa family so when Fabian grabbed us quietly by the arms and said in a conspiratorial whisper, "I believe you would like to see the Susa family" we were gobsmacked but wasted no time with our equally conspiratorial and barely restrained nods. He then lead us away to where we joined a Canadian/Aussie couple and waited for three people to make up the eight. We still don't know how Fabian knew we wanted to see the Susa's but never felt the need to ask him. Needless to say we did later feel the need to tip him generously.

By this point we had all the proof we cared for that we were in the flow but just in case we were in any doubt, we found out at the pre-trek briefing that once a year the gorillas come down the mountain to eat the fresh bamboo shoots. Apparently the shoots are alcoholic so not only is it their happy, active time of year but they are only an hours hike from the nearest vehicle parking area. We came prepared for 8 hours of hard hiking above 3,000m but in the end after a 40 minute drive and 60 minutes rapid climb from 2,500m to 3,200m that left us gasping in the thin air, we were in the jungle and gasping with joy at the sheer magnificence of these 300kg mammals. Stuart was the first to see a gorilla hidden in the dense undergrowth and Lynne snapped a great shot of his face with an expression that clearly said "WOW" and then it was my turn to walk past this dark hairy mass in the lush undergrowth. We could have watched transfixed for ages as the gorilla just 2m away ignored us and continued eating but Dee, our guide was in radio contact with the trackers and had other ideas. With another minute hiking under the trees, scrambling between vines and bamboo, brushing past stinging nettles and slipping on leaf covered lichen, we emerged into a clearing where 20 gorillas were playing, feeding, grooming, lazing, picking their nose, scratching and generally just doing their thing. They seemed barely interested in us and certainly unfazed. Fromtheir perspective I guess we were just another daily visit and an event that the young ones have never known life without. The big Silverback kept a lazy eye on us to make sure we weren't overstepping our welcome but he was clearly king of the roost and not at all concerned by us. This park borders Uganda and the Congo and where we visit is in the area where Diane Fossey did her research and conservation until she was murdered but her work has gone on with only a couple of years break during the genocide. Its a slick well oiled machine now and a credit to the Rwandan people not to mention a life saver for the last of the mountain gorillas.

We were treated to all sorts of antics as he gorillas went about their day, largely ignoring our presence other than our quiet conversation and regular "wow"s the main noise was from the guide who has a few words of gorilla which he calls out to them to let them know we are coming or to reassure them. You are supposed to stay at least 7m away but it is ok if they come to you. Most of the time we were only 2 or 3m from the nearest and when one of the young males did a mock charge to within a meter it was very cool. Behind us we watched a male build a nest by progressively breaking branches in a cluster of small trees until he had a platform about 3 meters in the air. His raw strength was amazing, as was his casual air as he effortlessly knitted them together. After about 20 minutes of lying in it and posing for the cameras he either got bored and rolled to the edge or decided to come down. I'm still not sure which but with a mighty crash he rolled off and somersaulted backwards, landing with q thud on the grass where we had been standing two minutes earlier. A bit of a shake of his head and he was off into the midst of the grooming, sleeping, playing, scratching clan to feed on the young shoots. We could have watched them for days.

All in all, yesterday was one of my top ten lifetime experiences and a contender for number one (if i could ever pick a number one :-).

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Busy times by the lake…

I’ve been a tad remiss in blog updates lately so (much like the main character in the film Memento) the blog is missing bits of history and being written like a series of short adventures, not necessarily in chronological order. But hey, that’s how my memory works anyway.    My tardiness is due to a mixture of work, fun, friends visiting and adventures being had, but after the Serengeti trip then a few big weeks back in camp I’ve found time to scratch myself again - and even to blog a bit.

Meanwhile... Life is going well here in Tanzania. I’m still feeling like I’m herding cats some days but also still living in a ‘boys own adventure’ novel. Lynne is out here now along with a couple of Aussie mates from Cambodia and a team of consulting geos so it’s all very social.  Rob & Stu (my mates) are out here to do some metal detecting, gold prospecting and general adventuring.  They’ve been out digging up rusty nails left and right but no nuggets yet. There’s definitely lots of gold around though and a couple of areas out here are unknown to the big companies but teeming with artisanal miners. We visited a local prospector/miner who has been raking it in for about seven years. He showed us his mine (complete with 20m shaft, ball mill & sluice) and a few ounces of his gold so we’ve seen lots of gold already (albeit sadly not ours lol). 

In the spirit of getting paid to play and the excuse of providing an area induction for a new geologist, we went down to Mgombazi on Lake Tanganyika one Sunday not so long ago. Lynne cycled down while most of the crew travelled by Landcruiser. I took the XR400 which was an absolutely brilliant way to spend an afternoon. Rob, a very experienced offroad driver, came back with the biggest grin after driving there and back, saying “now I can see why you like it here so much”…   It’s only 25km but it’s a rough old track which takes 90 mins in a 4WD - or 30 mins on the XR - and all the local guys seemed to think it was too far for a mzungu - especially a mzungu woman! – but Lynne loved the trip down and had a blast despite nearly coming a cropper on a rocky downhill section. With no protection other than a t-shirt and shorts, it would have been a long trip to A&E.

As for Lake Tanganyika - It’s bloody enormous! Longest lake in the world, second deepest and largest by volume of water. Basically you’d be better off thinking of it as a freshwater ocean than a lake and it generates its own weather.  The trip turned out to be a great day out, not least of all because we found a bulldozer parked down there which had just cut a new road from Kigoma, the biggest port on the lake and a relative metropolis.  
Our Sunday trip and conversations with the locals inspired us to see if the road was actually drivable so the following Friday we set off back down to Mgombazi but kept going north to Kigoma.  It’s election year here so a bulldozer has been busy upgrading what used to be a bicycle path for most of its length into a dirt road.  It used to take 5 days walk but is now 5 hours drive and it traverses an amazingly beautiful bit of decent coastal track.

We were lucky enough to pull into one village on a hill with perfect timing just as the ferry, a former WW1 German destroyer called MV Liembe was picking up passengers in a bay. A unique boat and quite spectacular - you’ll have seen it if you’ve seen the boat that played the German destroyer in ‘African Queen’.  

Another ferry that we found along the way which was less appealing but had to use was the MV Iladala – a floating wreck of a river ferry on the one major river crossing. It was hard to believe it was only 5 years old but the official plaque of commissioning by a local dignitary was dated 2005.  As usual, we had to wait for it to zig-zag it’s way across the river to pick us up then for the ragtag crew to position some logs in place of where they had torn off the tip of the loading ramp.  The logs weren’t even necessary for us in the Landcruiser but still we had to wait for them to faff around. When the engine started we realised why it zig-zagged across the river… The engine on one side had failed so they navigated by using a mixture of forward and reverse movement on one side.  It seemed like the crew had long since become used to this as standard operating practice but even so the landings at each side were hardly a magnificent feat of seamanship.
After a bit of a navigation exercise for the last bit we got into Kigoma and checked out a couple of mzungu hotels which were pretty boring but have now found our favourite accommodation in Tanzania. A guest house with private cottage and camping sites with two private beaches on the crystal clear waters of Lake Tanganyika. We BBQ’d a sunset dinner with cold beer on an huge deck on the hill overlooking a pristine ocean (aka Lake Tanganyika) watching the fishing boats coming out to dot lights across the horizon.   All this for $15/person. Beats the $100/night at the mzungu hotels hands down!

The next morning after a late start caused by a lingering brekky on the same deck, we spent a few hours shopping (always an experience of ‘no hurry in Africa’) then drove back to Mibango.  The trip with 5 hours of great scenery sure beats the 7 hours drive over bone jarring roads to dusty old Mpanda, which used to be our main supply town (until we discovered this new road to Kigoma). Bonus that there are also commercial flights from Dar so it has potential to cut our travel costs dramatically – at least so we thought that day. 

The road was so good in fact that it looked like we would have a new supply town and easy access to flights to Dar Es Salaam.  But nothing is that easy in Africa...  We had to drive back to Kigoma 6 days later to pick up a technician and equipment that had missed a charter flight only to find that a tiny amount of rain down the track had washed away some of the creek crossings.
We managed to 4WD around 3 massive washaways (just) but had to dig/build/adapt 5 of them including 2 that would have been big enough to swallow the landcruiser, never to be seen again. Luckily there’s always abundant affordable labour at hand but even so two of the washaways took half a dozen of us about 40 minutes eahc to refill with logs and loose dirt enough to make for some interesting 4WD'ing.  
If you'd like to see what I mean by interesting 4WD'ing, have a look at this link. 

In the end although it was great to get to Kigoma again and to swim in the waters of Lake Tanganyika, I foresee that was our last trip this year.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Herding Cats...

Two trucks, 4 Landcruisers, 10 Tanzanians and 1 Talbot notionally in charge of this rock show of a 6 day convoy across Tanzanian. Breakdowns, bribes, bad fuel, bad food, bad police, bad roads and big fun… But first before we get to that I’ve been a bit tardy with my blog entries but I’m happy to report that is isn’t lack of adventures to write about. On the contrary, it’s due to being too busy doing stuff worth blogging about to have time to actually blog it but here are a few highlights of a :
  • A month in Cambodia catching up with good friends including a few who dropped in from Australia including few days in Siem Reap and wandering (also wondering) about Angkor Wat. It’s an enormous, enormous complex that had a million residents when London was a town of 50,000. Mind bogglingly big and fascinating to visit
  • Also had a pleasant few days in Sihanoukville on the coast and got out to my favourite beach resort to laze in hammocks and swim on a private beach of an island paradise
  • Shopping and driving the length of the UK to visit relatives in Somerset, dropping into Surrey to start a company in Gibraltar and picnicking at sunset at Lands End
  • Seven days hiking the Rob Roy Way in Scotland. The original plan was to give a presentation at a conference in Lisbon then hike a few days on the coast of Portugal but the volcanic ash cloud put paid to that idea. RRW was a great alternative though. Stayed at pubs and B&B’s along the way and Scottish pubs would have to be some of the best in the world
As for Tanzania and the convoy to Mibango… Frankly it was like herding cats most days. Sometimes very frustrating but a wonderful adventure. You do your best to make things work out and the military experience definitely helped but most of the time you just have to keep your cool and roll with the punches. Valerian had the quotable quote of the journey when we were chatting about the lack of progress in yet another long queue for yet another accident when he said “If you want progress in Tanzania – you’ll just get hypertension...” So true. After 6 days on the road I’ve learned all sorts of things about myself, life, Tanzania and things that I’d do differently (mostly send someone else lol – just kidding). Long, long days though with 16, 11, 15, 12, 11 and 6 hours on the road respectively including driving through till midnight a couple of times. Not that we’d planned to drive after dark – just the opposite. The first day took till 4pm to get a truck loaded and then 8 hours to cover 200km (don’t ask – the blog isn’t long enough to cover the events and laughs of that day but trust me - if you don’t own a large chunk of patience you’ll find one or burst in Tanzania lol).

And as for the roads… They just got worse & worse every day. Starting with Dar traffic (diabolical) at 15km/h average and ending with 4WD tracks (bone jarring but fun) at 15km/h average speed… In between, Tanzanian roads are dangerous places and especially so at night. Overtaking on blind corners is the standard practice and every km or so there is a pushbike or vehicle without lights popping up out of the darkness as yet another semi-trailer speeds towards you with lights on high beam. In the first 15 hours we saw the remains of 7 truck accidents that wer so recent the wreckage was still fresh. The first was typical - 2 large trucks, 1 car: 5 fatalities. Very messy. It had happened only a minute or two before we arrived on the scene and we waited for 3 hours before we finally drove out past the oncoming queue which was over 10km long and occupying both lanes of a 2 lane highway. It’s a crazy place. Tanzanian traffic is crazy dangerous. Not as chaotic as Cambodia but far more dangerous. I drove the entire 6 days as I trust my driving above most others but it absolutely pays to keep your wits about you. Absolutely. The highways are good in eastern Tanzania but life is cheap and driver training obviously expensive.

Our truck drivers were a law unto themselves - or at least so they thought. A complete pain in the arse frankly. We hired two trucks to transport 5,000 litres of fuel plus startup supplies for the season. One driver in particular always whinging for more money. Too many tales of woe from that eedyit to bore you but no matter how generous we were with him he still wanted more... And more... And more... Trucks were also slow and police cash-points (they call them ‘check points’ - aye... Checking your wallet!) were ridiculously common. Had problems with fuel from Franko the friendly Oilcom man again in Mpanda. I shouldn’t have been surprised really - 3 out of last 3 refuels there have been contaminated, hence why we brought in 5,000 litres of diesel and petrol all the way from Dar. On top of flat tyres, recalcitrant truck drivers, corrupt police and accidents, after filling up on Franko’s fuel, we had to stop every 30 minutes to clean out blocked fuel filters which meant that it took us 9 hours (instead of the usual 3) to drive from Mpanda to Mwese.

We arrived at sunset in time to spend 2 hours unloading which made us waaaaay too late to drive the 4WD tracks to Mibango. They are tough in the daylight but in the dark – not even worth thinking about. Valerian pulled some rabbits out of hats though and we were all housed and fed by 930 that night. Mwese is up high at 1,400m ASL and the skies are crystal clear. So many stars that I was transfixed looking at them. If it wouldn’t have given offence to the homeowner who had generously offered a bedroom, I would have slept outside under their canopy in the cool clear air.

I bought myself an XR400R (dirtbike) from a mate in northern Tanzania and we travelled with it on the back of a pickup for 5 days as far as Mwese. At Mwese we’d already been on dirt roads for 2 days but the track gets even worse so we happily waved goodbye to our whinging truck drivers and their helpers (albeit with their usual demands for more money). We took the bike off the pickup and loaded stuff from one of the trucks in it’s place as well as onto the back of another landcruiser pickup that met us from camp. Making room on the truck was my justification to ride the last 53km through some great tracks with all sorts of terrain. Hills, rocks, mud, ruts, sand, river crossing and fast open sections – you name it, our main supply route has all of it. Took it slowly (at least relatively so) as I wasn’t wearing any armor or bike boots plus had to keep stopping for the convoy and have a 14 minute nap on the track every 15 minutes while waiting for the convoy to catch up lol. We’d already had lots of work done on the tracks so they were in much better condition than the last time I drove them in the wet season but it still took an hour longer than the usual 3 hours it takes.

I had a hoot on the bike though. Took it through one river which was up to the tank and we handled it fine. The last river just a few km from our camp was chest deep though and in full flood. Normally it’s knee deep and placid but at the tall end of the wet season – not so. Hence we loaded the bike onto the local ferry (a dugout canoe) but after 10 minutes of trying to balance it across the canoe, the whole thing looked likely to end in tears if the canoe actually left the bank. Eventually we decided the smart move was to unload a pickup at camp and send it back to ferry the bike across the river on the back of the 4WD. About 10 of the locals & staff came back from camp with the pickup to say hi and to watch the spectacle - and to help, so it turned into the usual gaggle of good clean fun. I rode the last 5km to camp from the river and gave it a good fang which was fun, fun, fun :-) Took it for another wee blat the following day to check the airstrip and am loving every minute on it. I’ll find an excuse every day to get on it including mapping some tracks and doing my visits to the flycamps.

Last Sunday I took the bike down to Lake Tanganyika (about 25km away). Some of the guys wanted to go down to pick up some fresh fish so we had 2 4WD’s and the new expat geo came along on the camp’s XL125. He’d just spent a year motorbiking India so was good company for a fellow bike nut and we had a ball. There was even actually a work related reason for the trip. We went down to buy some fish for the camp, check and the repair the track and do some driver training as well as area familiarization for our newcomers. Lokoma is out nearest point on Lake Tanganyika and is a stopping point for the MV Liembe ferry which is (among other places) the quickest way to Kigoma, the capital of our district. The catch is that the ferry only runs once per fortnight and is often chartered for weeks at a time by the UN to run refugees across the lake from whichever neighbouring country is most in need. Apparently it’s a great trip to do and in a past life it was a World War I German warship. The Germans carted it in pieces, rebuilt it and then sunk it at the end the war. The British refloated it and it’s been basically in service ever since. Michael Palin reckoned it was a highlight so that’s good enough for me even if I don’t have a film crew to carry my bags lol.
We’ve decided that every second Sunday will be ‘adventurous training’ as a kind of ‘day off’ but also to practice casevac, winching, mapping, driving, etc, etc. Us expats are gradually learning Swahili as well and basically living the dream in boys own adventure land :-)

Just as an aside, after I bought the bike I got our local fix-it man in Dar to transfer the rego but the hilarious part is that the Tanzanian Revenue Authority need me to have 3 names. I only have two. So Gerald took the initiative and gave them three names for their records. The bike is now registered in the name of “Julian Talbot Tim” lol lol. Just gotta laugh sometimes.

Picking the bike up from the truck that brought it down to Dar was also another great yarn. The nearest that the semi trailer could get to our offices was a few km away so I had to go collect it from a service station at an interchange. John, the guy who escorted it down for my mate almost wiped out a crowd of bystanders in spectacular fashion that morning before I’d even ridden it. It’s probably not really funny but no one got hurt and I’m still cracking myself laughing at the memory of it. I brought our medic with me to drive the car back from Ubungo but he seemed a bit averse to driving and said he’d prefer to ride the bike so I thought to myself “why not?” When he got on the bike though and had to say “so this is the clutch?” and “is this the brake?” the hairs on the back of my neck were standing up. Bear in mind that the XR400 is an absolute beast of an enduro bike. Big, powerful and fast. When Bernard had stalled it 3 times just trying to get 20m to the fuel bowser I decided that I’d be riding the bike and he’d be driving no matter how he felt nor how bad he was at driving. Meanwhile John had jumped on to restart the bike and decided to ride it over to the bowser. Well....... He let the clutch out with a bang and promptly endo’d the bike in spectacular fashion, landed it upside down, clipping a couple of the bystanders who’d gathered to watch the mzungu and 2 locals faffing with the bike. Another 15 of us leapt for our lives as he managed to keep hold of the handlebars and with it still running, bounced the back tyre off a huge metal sign which sent a few more people flying for cover as he did a perfect 360 donut before he pulled the clutch in and brought it to a halt. Quite spectacular really and very impressive if he’d meant to do it. Lol lol. Anyway, no-one was hurt and the bike is fine. I think he was a bit shaken but kept it together well. The crowd loved it anyway.

Meanwhile we're sitting in the senior mess as I write this. We've just finished dinner and I’m writing this as the sounds of the night and the quiet hum of the generator provide background to animated discussion at the table. I’m being rude and finishing this blog so my colleague Tim Sharp (senior geo)  piped up that I should write that he “thinks MapInfo is a piece of shit and is about to put a geologists hammer through his laptop” so just for you Tim – as requested. Tim’s actually a pretty placid guy and he said it with a laugh. Just one more thing that takes longer than you’d otherwise expect. TIA (This Is Africa) after all. Tim is typically more interested in looking at rocks of sampling fine red wine than messing with IT stuff but he’s spent the afternoon wrestling with a (still unresolved) ‘undocumented feature’ of MapInfo so perhaps some residual frustration from the day on the computer showing through. Good glass of red cured that pretty quick though.

Matthias who was our cook last year is now a geo-technician this season so we’ve got a new cook (Laurencia) who used to cook at Mahale National Park and she’s a fundi for cooking mzungu food. Peter the new geo is expecting an email from his mother any day now with her best banana cake recipe so the great food is probably only going to get better. Pete is a pom (a good bloke though so we don’t hold that against him) and has been going crazy this afternoon trying to set up the pay-for-view satellite television system so that we (he especially) can watch the World Cup when it starts tomorrow – but it’s no simple task and I could write a blog entry about his escapades today alone. Hilarious and frustrating. A comedy of errors and his ‘helpers’ have been helping him to make the job harder lol.
Setting up the camp has been an all consuming task for most of us and 5 of us have been down with malaria this week, myself included. It’s no fun but luckily 3 days of tablets and some long nights sleep has sorted it out. We’ve also been doing lots of training including first aid and driver training especially. I’ve been labelled a fundi camba (rope expert) for my knot tying lessons just for showing the guys the figure 8 and truckies knot. Basic stuff but lots of fun. They freaked out at first when I got them to tie the knots blindfold but we had a good laugh and everyone managed to do them blindfold – just as well coz late at night in the African bush on the side of a hill having to tighten down a loose load without a torch is not that far fetched a scenario. Doing river crossings and handbrake starts on a steep hill near camp was another fun day so despite the long hours and challenging training we’re having fun.

We’re off on Tuesday to scout out some flycamp locations nearby which will mean a night out camping in the scrub which we’re all looking forward to. Fireside chats and jaffles for dinner after a long day hiking up and down hills ‘kicking rocks’ (a technical term for what geologists do), scouting tracks and picking a location for a 2 month flycamp base for soil sampling later this month. Should be another fun day out…

Lot’s more to write in due course but I have to save some stuff to write for later.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Travelling light and... buying the right pack

 I bought a North Face pack here in Phnom Penh last year.  It’s not a ‘real’ North Face of course but it’s a pretty decent copy with lots of features and the latest aircell frame for ventilation.  It worked well and I’m still using it but by the end of 4 months in Africa the frame was poking out through the seams.  Despite getting it sewn up at the local tailor back here in Phnom Penh, the writing is on the wall and the tear is still slowly getting worse. Can't say I blame it as I’ve lugged it through some tough going and to be fair, it was only $10.  

In the end though, you get what you pay for.   I was using my 25 year old Karrimor pack the other day to carry groceries back from the supermarket and reflected on the value of buying quality.  This pack is looking a bit tired now and is a bit frayed around the edges so not really up to 24/7 travel usage but is still going strong for day to day stuff.  It has a tiny tear at the strap seams which I put on there last year when I used it for a month as my only bag and loaded it up with 15kg to travel for a month through Asia, US and Australia.  The tear is probably my fault because I prefer travelling with only carry-on luggage so was swinging it around ultra-casually in front of the airline check-in clerks to make it look like it weighed more like 7 kg than the 17kg it actually weighed.  I used to wonder about the strength of the overhead lockers in planes but now I know – they are plenty strong lol. 

You may be wondering how I manage to avoid having the bag weighed and having to put it into the hold...  Well, I did get caught out many years ago but since then I have perfected the craft with a sentence. "You're welcome to weigh the bag but most of the contents are going to be handed over to a friend who is meeting me here a the airport." And if in transit in the secure area "I'm meeting a colleague on flight XYZ to give him back his laptop and some documents" (having glanced at the arrivals board on the way to the transit desk). They know you're lying of course but not much that they can do about it (but shhhhh... don't tell anyone else this trick OK?).

At any rate, it’s become apparent from comparing my original Karrimor to my North Face pack from the Russian Markets in Phnom Penh that spending $100 on a pack that lasts 25 years is better value than $10 on a pack that lasts 6 months.  Hence I’ve going searching for a replacement quality day pack to use as my primary travel bag.  And I think I’ve found it.  The Osprey Atmos 35.

I’ve been a fan of Osprey packs for a while now and my number one hiking pack is an Osprey Aether that I bought new on eBay a few years ago.  There are a number (a small number) of companies that make truly high quality packs but none better (IMHO) than Osprey.  Hence when the time came to go looking for a travel pack I went back to eBay.  I woke up this morning to find that I’d been the highest bidder on a secondhand one in mint condition. GBP70 delivered which is about 20 quid cheaper than I could get one delivered new from the US or UK so I’m pretty happy with that.   I’ll report back later with a field report when I’ve had a chance to load it with 20kg and put it into an overhead locker somewhere.

The Atmos is a worthy successor to the Karrimor but in many respects they are chalk and cheese.  The Osprey is a state of the art lightweight daypack with a fabulous frame and lots of features.  The Karrimor is an ultralight nylon sack with 3 outside pockets and two basic shoulder straps.  Years ago I replaced the original frame by cutting down and folding over a foam sleeping pad which made for a great backing and gave me an insulated sleeping mat in emergencies.   I love how simple and light the Karrimor is but I can also appreciate the benefits of a decent harness and some extra features.

In terms of travelling light, I think I can pretty much claim to have got the hang of it. I can travel now indefinitely with just carry on luggage and in any climates.  The blue bag in the second picture is my Karrimor in Bangkok airport at the end of a month of travel.  Even with laptop, camera, business suit and four changes of clothes that was all I carried for the month.  The camera case is there beside it for comparison. The size of bag is pretty typical of how it was for most of the trip with the camera case inside but when the picture was taken I’d stocked up on nuts and seeds to bring back to Cambodia so although it fitted inside OK, I was was carrying the camera separately.

So what do I carry in a bag that size?

  • Toiletries in a plastic ziplock bag including sample size toothpaste tube which I refill and a 20ml bottle of shaving oil (which works better than shave cream and only needs 2 or 3 drops
  • Business suit
  • 2 x business shirts
  • 2 x ties
  • Columbia zip off trousers (‘Titanium’ range - perfect for travel as it dries in hotel bathroom overnight)
  • Columbia longsleeve shirt (Titanium)
  • Shorts
  • hat
  • Walking sandals or running shoes
  • 2 x polo shirts
  • thermal t-shirt
  • thermal pants
  • thermal longsleeve t-shirt
  • ultralight down jacket
  • Goretex paclite raincoat
  • 15” Macbook, cables, powersupply, gadets, ipod etc
  • Canon 5D MkII camera
  • 4 x socks
  • Book(s)
Jeans, cotton business shirt and black elastic sided riding boots (which go with suit or jeans) are the standard travel attire.   If I left out the suit, laptop and DSLR camera the load comes down to well under 10kg but frankly I’d rather leave spare clothes behind than travel without the MacBook & the 5D.
I often carry less than that and could write more on this but a guy called Tynan has already done a great job.  His list isn’t exactly how I’d go but it’s got some great ideas

The suit I happily leave behind whenever I can. In fact, I usually avoid ‘urban camouflage’ at all costs.  Not that they are uncomfortable – on the contrary they are very comfy but all that dry cleaning and pressing is not for us nomads.  I was at Phnom Penh airport recently waiting for friends to disembark and watching businessmen getting off the plane  wearing suits into 35 degrees and 100% humidity.   It could be just my biases and maybe they are happy as Larry but I felt sorry for them.  Frankly, if you had any other option at all, would you choose to fly into Phnom Penh in a suit? Perhaps they had good reason but in any case I somehow had to wonder if they were trapped by their jobs or even just their own lack of imagination.  A bit like me thinking that I need to wear suits to give a presentation eh?   I guess I just need to work on my limiting beliefs a little more :-)

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Back in the Penh...

The sun’s coming up over a Phnom Penh skyline and the sounds of the city are starting to stir.  Soon the noise of beeping horns and traffic will become constant background but in the early morning light the air is cool, clean and relatively quiet.  It’s my favourite time of day and somehow restful to gaze out over the skyline from my bedroom window. I scratch and yawn with arms outstretched as I look down on a few passing pushbikes and a scooter crossing the intersection down the street.  Other than a security guard outside a building site and an old woman sweeping in front of her shop, the street is deserted.  That's not uncommon at this time of day but is such a contrast to what I know is coming.

I walked for miles yesterday just exploring some new streets on the way to a couple of coffee shops that friends had recommended.  I like working from coffee shops and luckily for me, Phnom Penh has an abundance to choose from. My local is only 150m from my apartment but peregrinating is my favourite way to traverse this bustling but relatively small Asian city.  The search for great coffee and new places to do some writing is my pretext to explore and get a bit of exercise.  With only 2 million people, the streets of Phnom Penh are busy but unlike Bangkok and Jakarta with 20 million occupants, this place is still pedestrian friendly.  Not that you’d want to take anything for granted here.  The traffic comes at you from all directions and is probably the most chaotic, least organised and self-regulated I've come across anywhere.

Motos, bicycles, cars and rickshaws move in both directions on both sides of the road.  And I mean that literally.  For all intents and purposes there are no road rules. Most traffic drives on the left hand side of the road but by no means all of it.  You drive on whichever side of the road suits your purpose at the time. Stepping off the pavement to cross a road or get around the frequent obstructions requires looking in both direction before you put so much as a single foot into the road.  Failure to do so has a high likelihood of leading directly to a hospital visit.

So far as I can tell after my months in the Penh, there are only two rules for driving or walking in this city.  Rule number one: maintain situational awareness and eternal vigilance whether driving or on foot.  Rule number two is probably the most important rule however: be predictable.   You could (I suspect) walk blindfold in complete safety throughout the streets of this city crossing roads at random so long as you follow rule number two. If you step out in a predictable steady fashion and don’t make any sudden changes in speed or direction, the traffic will adjust and flow around you.  As simple as that.  

Rule number two is what enables traffic to flow in this city, and flow is the operative word.  If you study an intersection for any length of time, you’ll see the vehicles flowing around each other like leaves floating around rocks in a river.  Effortlessly and with rare pause.  Not that this is a silver bullet for survival here. Rule number one is important also.  I’ve seen more than a few accidents, bingles and injuries on the road.  Occasionally scooter vs scooter or scooter vs pedestrian but more typically scooter vs car. Sometimes, as happened to a friend who forgot rule 1 recently, you’ll be unseen by a car driver (who can more safely disregard rules 1 & 2) until they hit you.  In my friends case, the driver was either wealthy or well-connected enough to not feel the need to get out of the car after knocking her off her scooter.  The driver did at least drive around her rather than over her but such is the absence of rules 3 or higher including details such as stopping at the scene of an accident...   

Cambodia isn't all motor traffic accidents and great cafe's though.  Life is pretty easy here for an expat.    In the first 24 hours I caught up with 3 friends, made up for lack of sleep after 27 hours in airports and planes, and revisited some favourite haunts.  Last night was a pleasantly and typically relaxing evening after churning through some emails and taxation matters during the day at Gasolina cafe. 'Hurt Locker' DVD: USD$1.60, vegetable thali delivered to my door: USD$3.50, 2 glasses of Penfolds CabSav: $4.50.  Quiet evening at home: Priceless...  :-)


Tuesday, February 23, 2010

A great town called Glasgow...

I’m sitting in a great little café in Glasgow called ‘Where the Monkey Sleeps’. It’s an appropriate name given the brass monkey weather outside and I’m enjoying a respite from the chill (cold today even by Glasgow standards) wind outside with a great coffee to the tune of classic Led Zeppelin pumping out nice and LOUD. I’m listening at the moment to “When the Levy Breaks” and it’s reminding me how much I love and miss LedZep. This basement café comprises an eclectic but welcoming mix of nooks, crannies, armchairs and vivid album art wall coverings. Grace Jones, Parliament, Talking Heads, Iron Maiden and a hundred other record jackets stare down at me like reminders of a bygone era, asking why we have forsaken the great music of the LP era.

It’s such a contrast from last week in 35 degrees in Dar Es Salaam. Scotland is having an unusually cold winter and although I’ve missed the worst of the snow and sleet, the hills around are still snow capped and it struggles to push much past zero degrees each day. Fortunately it’s mostly sunny which makes the chill surrounds quite beautiful and I’ve enjoyed a bit of hiking in the hills near Perth and the coastline of Carnoustie so far. Scotland is such a mix of urban sprawl, rolling hills, farmlets and ancient villages that it defies summary. The urban sprawl has it’s own problems and is hardly beautiful but you can’t help but fall in love with the countryside and hamlets here. It’s especially seductive on a sunny day but I’m not fooled into thinking (however much I might like to) that it is always like this.

I’ve been meaning to write about my 5 days in Serengeti, Ngorogoro Crater and Lake Manyara but it’s been OBE’d (Overtaken By Events). Suffice to say it was brilliant! I spent 5 days in a modified Landcruiser Troopcarrier standing up through holes in the roof like the turret of a tank. I had been thinking of just driving through the parks myself but you see and understand so much more with a professional guide. African Scenic Safaris ( were great and I’d give them a big thumbs up if you’re looking for a great way to see the Serengeti. It can be pretty full on experience though. Who would think it could be exhausting each day just sitting in a 4WD but the 5 of us (plus driver/guide and cook) managed to collapse into our tents exhausted each night after our pre-dawn starts and sunset finishes. The entire trip was great but highlights in particular included:
  • dawn balloon ride spotting animals from the air drifting 50 feet above the vast, vast plains of the Serengeti
  • sunset over the Serengeti and sunrise over Ngorogoro
  • seeing the sheer abundance, density and diversity of animal life in the region
  • watching Wildebeest being born
  • being mesmerized for ages just watching lions and cheetah hunting
  • seeing lion cubs suckling beside our vehicle

Biggest highlight for me though was being alone on foot with a 5 tonne bull elephant at the Ngorogoro Crater campsite. After watching him skirt the campsite for a while, eating his way through a swath of vegetation just outside the campground I wandered down about 40m past where the sensible people had propped to photograph him and positioned myself where he’d have to walk by. He ambled along to about 20m away and we held eye contact for 5 minutes or more which was amazing! One of those moments like motorcycling or abseiling. Words fail me but the feeling is something like being suddenly reminded of what it means to be truly alive and present in the moment.

Elephants I’m told will tell you when they don’t want you any closer. Apparently the body language starts with ear flapping, goes on to trunk raising, moves through trumpeting and a 45 km/h gallop, before ending (should you still be stupid enough to be within range) with you being trampled into pink squishy mush. As you can imagine, I was paying particular attention to the body language of my newfound friend but to be honest it was pure conjecture on my part. I’ve learned in life though to trust my instincts and they were saying that I could have gotten much closer, perhaps to 5m even. I was sorely tempted to do so and the internal debate raged. In the end I reflected that if Anton Turner, a professional guide, armed with 15 years experience and a high velocity rifle, could be tragically killed by a bull elephant the week before I was due to meet him then it would be a good risk management decision for this unarmed biped with precisely zero experience to exercise caution. Hence, after 10 minutes I moved back to our campsite with a huge, huge grin, some amazing photos and a determination to learn more about elephants in order to do it again. It was a rush that left me feeling very tranquil but also very alive! A special moment in life and my personal highlight of many highlights.

Since then I’ve spent a few days in Dar, swimming and planning for next season in Tanzania. I managed to get pulled over and ticketed by police for the first time in Tanzania just a few hours before the end of my 6 day drive. Strangely enough, I was pulled over again for the second time in Tanzania about 10 minutes later. The fee for not having a registration certificate with me was 20,000 TSH (~USD$15) for which I demanded a receipt and duly received one. The second time I was stopped, I was offered the choice of paying 40,000 TSH “with receipt” or “20,000 without receipt”. Seems like you can in fact negotiate it down to 10,000 and a bag of cashews if you don’t need a receipt though. So it goes in Tanzania and much of the world I guess. When in Rome...

I’ve been in Scotland for 5 days now and the cold weather is a huge difference but the least of the differences from my past few months in Tanzania. One of the things that I love about travel is that vague confusion that comes from frequent changes of location - waking up in the morning to different lands, environments, accents, languages, weather, cuisine, culture and more. The slight disorientation, vague and subtle though it is, somehow pleasantly frees you to see the world (and yourself) anew again. Eventually it fades as you get used to your surroundings but I’m enjoying it while it lasts.  In a moment I'll savour the experience of soaking in the sights and sounds of Glasgow as I head back to the train station along the darkening streets at sunset.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

A night in Moshi...

It’s 1130 am and I’ve just finished breakfast in the rather pleasant Kili-Java coffee house after getting back to the hotel around 0300. I made short work of the rather tasty omelet but am still enjoying the coffee while I write this.

Yesterday was an altogether busy but social and serendipitous day. Serendipity ( the occurrence and development of events by chance in a happy or beneficial way) is fast becoming one of my favorite words and definitely a preferred lifestyle choice. Synchronicity is another favorite word (the simultaneous occurrence of events that appear significantly related but have no discernible causal connection) and my life seems to be increasingly one of serendipitous, synchronous peregrinations. This is after all, what I wanted from life so I’m more than happy to live such a life. Living ‘in the flow’ is perhaps how the Taoists would put it.

I started out yesterday with best intentions of doing some work on my book and getting the front end on the Landcruiser looked at (it still has a nasty vibration in the 50 to 60km/h range) but somehow got sidetracked. Did some meditation and exercise in the morning which is always a good way to start the day then drove the 10 mins into town for a café breakfast in the garden courtyard out behind “The Coffee Shop”. I actually did a bunch of writing and emails (albeit unsent as there is no wireless there) before I got talking with a pommy guy who’d just come back from hiking Kilimanjaro and his local mate. He’s ex-navy and makes his living as a photographer so apart from the connection there, I also picked his brains about Kili. He’s set himself the goal to do the seven summits, something which I have to admit is of more than passing interest to me. Heck I’ve already bagged one summit – Mt Kosciusko in Australia. I’m chuckling at this because in case you didn’t know, Kosi is a day walk and despite being the highest summit in Australia it is a mere hill at 2,200m and not at all in the same league as Mt Kilimanjaro which at 5,900m is a week long trek – and I might add, probably the easiest of the summits after Kosciusko. He was off to do Mt Meru in a few days and it sounds like it’s an even nicer trek than Kili as it has lots of wildlife. It also sounds like the perfect way to get some altitude acclimation before Kili so I might build that into the Kili itinerary as a precursor in October. Stay tuned.

As we were chatting another mate turned up. I say, mate, but we’d never met till yesterday. He’s an Aussie guy working in Moshi and is a friend of a friend so we’d swapped a couple of emails and were going to meet up that evening for a drink at the local waterhole. He’d just walked into the Coffee Shop for a spot of lunch and picked me straightaway. He reckoned that he can pick an Aussie a mile away but I’m somehow thinking it may have had something to do with my picture being on my website. Anyway the three of us (the local guy had headed off by then) had a longish chat about pretty much everything, not least of all motorcycles as we all own bikes and the topic can be extended into hours of entertaining chat for us addicts.

Eventually we all headed off and I downloaded/uploaded emails in the internet shop next door. I had planned to go catch up with a couple of American Jehovah’s Witnesses in another café where they were meeting some people at 3pm. I’d been chatting with them in the Kili-Java the day before. Yep, I’ll chat to anyone - and clearly so will they. Apparently despite large numbers of mzungus in Moshi, there are no decent bookshops here for English language books and I’d asked them what they did for light reading as they’ve been here for seven months. Turns out they had plenty of spares and one of the lasses offered to bring a couple along to meeting they were going to in another café the next day if I wanted to drop by. Sadly, I got there a bit late when an article I was emailing to a mate took forever to complete and they were gone. Moshi is a small place though so perhaps I’ll run into them again but either way it’s just another example of the kindnesses of strangers.

I did some more writing, had a haircut, wandered around the tarmac streets of Moshi (definitely not used to tarmac anymore – 298 out of the last 300 towns I’ve been through recently have been more like sets from Deadwood than anything else) and then headed off to ‘The Waterhole’ at 6 to meet my Aussie friend-of-a-friend. We’ll call him Bruce in order to protect the guilty (everyone knows all Aussies are called Bruce anyway). ‘The Waterhole’ is a great pub and his directions were spot on but you’d never find the place without directions. It’s about 2 km out of town on the highway then down a dirt road and is surrounded by 8 foot high masonry perimeter fence that seems to run for a couple of hundred metres. The only ‘signs’ are blue lights on the gate posts. Following Bruce’s directions I pull up at the gate. No-one comes out so I honk the horn. A bloke soon turns up and not recognizing me, comes out to see what I wanted. About this time, I’m wondering if I’ve got the directions wrong and have pulled up at a bikie-den, prison or drug-dealers hangout but no, turns out that yes it is ‘The Waterhole’ and yes, it does sell beer. Perhaps it’s an illegal speakeasy that sells beer without licensed or they’ve had troubles with armed holdups? Too late to back out now and the watchman opens a pair of gates that wouldn’t have been out of place in a Dracula movie and I ‘park to the left’. I’m the first one here but it’s a great place to chill on the verandah with the river babbling below about 20 feet down the slope. I order a beer and pull out my laptop to do some writing but have hardly started when Bruce, his Canadian wife and infant son arrive. Over the evening a few more of their friends arrive and I learn more and more about Tanzania, Africa and generally have fun chatting to a bunch of expats and locals. It’s the 40th birthday of the guy who runs the place and I end up talking with him for a while also. He’s an interesting chap. Born here from a Tanzanian mum and German father, he grew up in a village and now runs the waterhole, safari tours, dirtbike trips and hunting trips. The Waterhole is incognito because he wants to keep it a bit exclusive at least in terms of being family friendly and not having the vibe shaped by obnoxious drunks or bar-girls as is common at many bars in Africa.

I get talking to him about his other businesses including the big-game hunting. I enjoy shooting targets as a skill but wouldn’t shoot animals unless I needed to eat them. I just don’t get the need that some people have to come to Africa and put a bullet into buffalo, elephants or lions but already know enough about the setup in Tanzania to realise that the hunting benefits the place enormously. Companies with hunting licenses pay huge bounties to the government for annual permits with specific numbers of specific animals which they can cull each year and I’ve been surprised to find out that the more I find out about this business the more I support it. Shoshi tells me a bit more about how it works. He’s well used to hearing complaints from urban dwelling tree-huggers about his killing animals but tells me that over the years he has come to the conclusion that without the hunting, there would be far less animals. Each hunting operation is required to provide anti-poaching patrols and a government ranger goes out with them to make the arrests. It’s dangerous work and most of his vehicles have been machine-gunned or at least shot up at some point or another. The poachers can net about $4,000 from the meat of a single giraffe and in a country where the daily wage is about $3 to $10, that is a big, big incentive. Apparently poaching is every bit as big a business as you’d expect and the benefit from someone who flies out to pay between $5,000 and $50,000 to shoot an animal is far reaching. One of the things that I’m learning to realise is that companies such as his operation not only protect the bulk of the wildlife but invest heavily in community support and wildlife conservation. In many respects being more effective than the government and a lot of NGO’s. On a recent project for example, they spent $42,000 to build a school for a village. Hunting big-game is only an ethical dilemma for about 10 seconds when you consider that if a couple of already aged animals have to die to provide education, jobs and infrastructure to help the community and protect the rest of the wildlife it is overall a good thing.

I also get chatting to an American couple out here for a few months. He is a Landrover fundi and she is a dermatologist so by and by, I tell her about Shela, teh lass we sent to Dar to get treated for a skin condition. The doctors there don’t seem to have any real idea so I loosely organise to send Shela up to Moshi if we can wangle it. Finding a US trained dermatologist in Africa is a rare and serendipitous thing so an opportunity not to be ignored. Her hubby and the bar owner meanwhile give me the heads up on the best tyres and shock absorbers available in Tanzania. The landcruiser needs a full service including tyres and shocks next week so meeting them is another happy accident.

It’s getting on and people are starting to leave. By now I’m chatting with a bunch of people including some locally born Pakistanis and Indians. They are a hoot and some great conversations flow. I get persuaded to relocate with the group to another place called the ‘Glacier Café’. Waterhole is apparently unusually quiet tonight with only about 15 people there so when half of us leave it must have become a very quiet place. Glacier is the opposite. It’s a big outdoor garden pub closer to town and there are about 100 people there. I didn’t meet any in person but at the Glacier Café, Bruce pointed out a group of about 20 people sitting in a circle in plastic chairs like a séance circle who have all paid to come volunteer in Africa. They pay $4,000 each to come out to Moshi to do volunteer stuff for a month(?). Interesting concept and apparently it’s quite common. I don’t think it would work for me. They pay $4,000 and still have an 11pm curfew every night – which means they must be getting ready to leave not long after we arrive. From what I hear there is also a local mafia of people and businesses skimming that $4,000. Not sure if it is extra or included but apparently the volunteers (is it still volunteering if you are paying for the privilege?) are paying 22 Euros per night to share a 4 person dorm room (even in Moshi the going rate should be about 5 Euros for a dorm bed). I only have this on hearsay and will check out my facts but am not surprised at all if it’s true. My thinking, personally is that anyone who really, really wanted to make a difference in Africa should take that $4,000 to a remote village and put in a bore, small solar power system and some educational materials. There are probably 20,000 little villages in Tanzania which have none of those things. Moshi by contrast is a veritable New York in terms of infrastructure and education. Still, to each their own and better that they come than not at all. As in Cambodia, there seem to be 2 stratas of aid workers. Starry-eyed 22 year olds who have all the answer and are going to change the world in 6 months. If they are still around in a few years, they inevitably turn into the other type. This latter group of people still work hard to make a difference but accept that the system is immensely flawed, that they may make only a tiny difference and have no illusions about the issues but overall somehow manage to retain their sense of humor, do their best and manage to keep their sanity while living and working in some of the toughest conditions for years on end.

More arm twisting starts happening and around midnight I’m convinced by the main ringleader (a jovial and pleasantly dodgy Pakistani guy) that we should all go to “The Pub”. There are no road rules regarding drink driving, much less seatbelts or passengers in the back of the tray but by this time, I’m drinking water. More talking, laughing and even some dancing ensues with lots’ of laughs and some interesting insights into Tanzanian culture at the pub. Each place is even more ‘local’ in character and by this time there are perhaps 5 mzungus and 90 locals scattered throughout the 3 or 4 areas of the pub. The music is pretty dreadful 90’s hip-hop club music but everyone’s having fun and it’s just background noise really. Moshi is well cemented by now as my favourite town in Tanzania. It’s a pretty happy sort of place by day and by night.

I’m lugging my backpack around all night and couple of people suggest leaving it at the bar but I explain that it has laptop, camera, passport and credit cards in there. They not unreasonably ask me “why did I bring them out at 2am?” and I can only answer that I’d been to the bank, been doing some writing and taking photos during the day. My Aussie mate, said we’d be out for a drink at the waterhole at 6pm then it would be an early night as he had a young son. His wife, did in fact head off with his son at 7:30 and he headed off around 11:30 but as I’m learning, you need to stay flexible in Africa...

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Bush days and Mibango nights...

Well, I’m out of Mibango now and upon reflecting on my three months there, can say it was challenging sometimes but overall a great experience. Although it was a bit isolated and even lonely at times, that in itself was character building and good for me in lots of ways, not least of all to get to know myself a bit better. I did lots of writing and although mostly on Skype, I also started a couple of books and am 3/4 of the way through to final draft on the main one. Having complete control over my day (apart from breakdown repairs to gensets, pumps or internet) I got into a regular exercise routine plus did a bit of a detox program with January being free of alcohol, caffeine, sugar and anything remotely junky. I was making great vegie and bean soups and curries, plus enjoying breakfasts of one of the best muesli’s that I’ve come across in a long time. It did get a bit monotonous, inventing different meals based on the same ingredients every day and it’s not the perfect diet I’d have to add as I’m cooking tinned food in aluminum saucepans over a kerosene stove but all in all, not bad. Definitely no pollution from traffic, off-gassing plastics or air-conditioned recycled air, etc that we accept as part of in our lives normally so on balance a good detox. And I brought my belt in two notches which is a good thing plus toned up in general so all in all, a darn good place to go for a fitness camp experience.

I’ve also read some great biographies about Africa from the small library there plus some fiction and technical risk books (research for my books). Between writing, reading, watching occasional movies on my laptop, and troubleshooting the electrical or mechanical stuff here the 95 or so days passed pretty quickly.

I’ve also become a fan of (“ideas worth spreading”) which has great 10 minute presentations which I often watch while preparing or eating dinners. Can’t wait to get to some decent bandwidth internet where I’ll be able to watch them in real time rather than keep pausing them…

Also had lot’s of 'boys own adventure' hiking, 4WD’ing and even playing a little on the mighty XL125 dirtbike. The wet season was pretty limiting in terms of how far you could go really and I can see why the pushbike is the preferred form of transport. Early on in the piece I went on a ‘shopping trip’ to see if we could buy some fresh produce (eggs, mangoes, bananas etc). In the dry season there are 25 of us here and the locals come to the gate twice a week to sell their home grown vegies etc. With only 4 of us here during the wet season their visits become more random events, unpredictable in both timing and selection. And I can understand why. In the wet season, it is a 4 hour round trip walk plus a canoe ferry across the river to sell a bucket full of goods to 4 people. Their produce can be a bit erratic at this time of year and it’s rare to have enough eggs, mangoes, spinach, etc all available at the one time to make it worth the round trip.

At one point, after 9 days without a visitation from the local farmers, I decided to head out with an esky and some Tanzanian Shillings to see what I could find. I took along Kauga the security team leader as translator but in the end having a translator made no difference. I can understand body language and 'humna' (nothing) when they respond to my basic questions for Embe, Ndizi, Mayai, etc. The river is impassable except by dugout canoe ferry so that meant most of the farms weren’t accessible without at least an hours hike on the other side. After we visited all 3 farms on this side of the river we decided not to bother with the hour’s hike as no-one on this side had any produce to sell – not so much as a spare egg. They are truly subsistence farmers here and other than an occasional surplus which they sell to buy things they can’t grow such as cooking oil or dagaa (dried fish from Lake Tanganyika), their farms produce just enough to keep them alive - and that’s about it. It was a good social interlude but that was about it. That is at least, until we tried to get back.

We got back covered in mud, soaked through with sweat and pretty much knackered after getting stuck on a hillside on the way back. Erosion and mud made the track basically impassable and after sliding down the camber into the washaway we spent 2 hours digging with tyre levers and panga (machete) then jacking and winching to get up the hill we call ‘the obstacle’. Yes, that’s the same one that Valerian got stuck on at the start of the wet season. The rain turned a couple of small holes into washaways big enough to swallow a Wildebeest (OK, a small Wildebeest I'll admit…). In the dry the track is easy enough but in the wet… We slid into one of those holes like an eight ball finding the corner pocket till the Landcruiser was resting on its undercarriage with a calm dignity and poise which we couldn’t match. All good fun though and we got it out in the end but at one stage it was looking like a walk home… A few weeks later, six of us spent half an hour with mattocks and spades rebuilding that track to the point where you could get up it - so long as it hasn’t rained in the past 12 hours - but that’s about as good as it gets.

In a typical AWA (Africa Wins Again) experience, we got a short notice call that the aviation inspector needed to inspect Mwese airstrip to recertify it. That meant we had to pay for his charter flight so we decided to fly in another small genset as the only one still running used too much fuel. Valerian had brought in another small one after it was ‘repaired’ but it was the worlds worst repair job with the casing screws stripped or missing, case held together by wire and burning engine oil like a 2-stroke (it’s a 4-stroke motor). Needless to say it failed by day 4 back at Mibango. In any case, after much last minute rush, Tim sourced a genset in Dar and Valerian managed to cajole the locals to slash the strip in Mwese in record time. Mibango strip however was so overgrown that we had no choice but to hire everyone who was available in the area. In the end 20 locals managed to slash the 70cm grass on the 1,500m strip in 5 days and paint the markers just 48 hours before the inspector was due to land. We should have guessed it was going too smoothly. The inspector rang at 9:30pm the day before to postpone his visit till 28FEB – by which time it will need slashing all over again. So it goes… AWA.

Anyway, I’m in a surprisingly nice guest house in Nzega now on the way to Dar via the Serengeti and Valerian is in Mibango with the security guys for the next three months. In a weeks handover we had some good laughs together and I taught him how to ride the motorcycle in case he needs to get to Mwese or the lake a bit faster than pushbike. You forget how tricky motorcycles are to ride in the dirt and mud when you’ve been riding as long as I have but his learning experience reminded me how much I take for granted. He’s a fast learner though and doing fine with it. Plus he has a great sense of humour which will stand him in good stead for the inevitable falls and stalls. I also showed him how to troubleshoot the internet connection, send attachments with emails etc but most challenges will be more mundane than that. In any case, he is a local boy so Mibango is like home for him and barring meteorite strike he’ll do just fine I think.

On the road again...

I’m enjoying being in Moshi (at the base of Kilimanjaro) after three months in camp followed by five bone rattling but wonderful days on the road. Moshi is a great little town and so nice to be enjoying good coffee, smoothies, change of scenery and mzungu company. Not so much that they are mzungu as that it’s been great to converse with native English speakers. The locals are great and super-friendly but away from the towns their English is on average only slightly better than my Swahili which is pretty darn basic. Hence I’ve not had too many in-depth conversations in the past 2 months that didn’t involve electrons lol. As ‘luck’ would have it, the first Mzungu I came across after 2 months was a Frenchman who either didn’t speak English or preferred not to. Judging from the monosyllabic grunt I got in response to my warm hello and barely a glance before returning to photos on his laptop, I suspect it was the latter lol. The next morning though, I met 2 Canucks and a Pom so we had some laughs and long conversation over a leisurely breakfast. The Pom in particular was a serendipitous meeting as he has set up an local NGO to help schools with infrastructure and volunteer teachers, train farmers, teach English to teachers and has set up a training farm. All things that we plan to do next season out at camp albeit on a more modest scale and he was keen to help out with advice and/or trainers. And he’s a great bloke of terrific character. I know this because his name is also Julian lol.

I originally thought a little optimistically as it turned out, that I’d get here in 3 or 4 days. It actually took me 5 days, pausing for a few punctures and repairs on the way but spending about 40 hours behind the wheel to cover around 1,400 km. I’m not sure what the roads would be like in the dry season but in the wet, it’s pretty slow going and the first 600km took me 2.5 days or just over 20 hours behind the wheel, which works out to an average of 30km per hour.

As for Valerian’s first ever trip in a plane and my planned stopover at Mwese strip.... You’re familiar with AWA perhaps? (Africa Wins Again). I was originally going to be stopping at Mwese for a night to put up a windsock with Valerian and meet the aviation inspector for the airstrips annual certification inspection. Valerian would have then flown back to Mibango but the inspector cancelled 3 days before he was due to fly in so I got to leave 2 days early and got Mpanda on Saturday afternoon which was OK with me.
The other good news is that Valerian will still get his flight but now it will be in late February. He’ll ride the motorcycle to Mwese, meet the inspector and then fly back into Mibango. I sometimes think I’m almost as excited for him as he is (and he’s pretty excited!). I still remember my first flight at the age of 7 and all the ones in small planes and helicopters since then. Somehow I think it will be a memorable experience for him to say the least.

It was good to have Mongo Mongo (yes, that’s his real name) and a chap from the Crying Village hitching with me on the first day because we had to stop and repair a couple of creek crossings on the way to Mwese and having 3 of us made for light work. The track is pretty bad in places especially and I needed low range with diff-lock a few times to get through but it’s still passable (just). The elephant grass is higher than the cab of the Landcruiser after 2 months of rain and I was driving by brail in some places trying to feel out the bumps. Luckily the grass between the wheel ruts is slightly lower - only just higher than the bonnet of the Toyota - so you have an idea of where the wheel tracks are or were.

Despite driving theoretically solo, I was rarely alone. In fact, I think of the 40 hours, it was probably less than 4 hours that I didn’t have between 1 and 10 people with me. 10 people was great actually as it meant that the one-tonner with 10ply tyres rode much more smoothly with 800 kg of people in the back. It also helped that with the first puncture I had 5 blokes with me to help. One of the guys looked to be a dead ringer for a young Forest Whittaker. Hard to believe he wasn’t in fact – apart from being probably 20 years younger now. Giving people lifty’s as well as being a good thing to do also helped me practice and learn a bit of Swahili. It reminded of course, just how little Swahili I know but at least left me encouraged that I know a lot more than I did a few months ago. With the second puncture a couple of days later, I had one woman who sat and watched but I guess it was good to have a companion. In any case a Police ‘Special Ops’ patrol stopped by to see if I needed a hand and there were cars or trucks regularly pausing to check if I needed a hand.

After each puncture, we pulled in at the first fundi we could find. I say ‘we’ because usually it was my hitchhikers who could navigate me in the direction of the fundi’s. Few if any businesses have signs in the back blocks. You just need to ask the locals where the fundi or duka (shop) or hoteli or whatever you need is. That being said, I’m getting pretty good at spotting the ‘sign’s now. Tyre repair fundi’s can usually be spotted by the pile of old tyres dumped at the side of their shop or more prominently sometimes, a 1950’s style hand cranked petrol air compressor with a water bottle and rubber hose providing coolant to the compressor motor. Nobody (fundi’s or I) seem to have air pressure gauges to check tyre pressure with. I was asked each time by the tyre fundi’s if I had on (mental note to self to put one in the glove box at first opportunity) so they would simply patch the tube and then use a tyre lever bounced off the tyre as an improvised air pressure gauge. Speaking of improvised tools, it’s amazing to watch how they adapt lumps of metal or old car parts to make bead breakers, tyre levers, and even hammers from scrap. The first puncture was fixed with a side trip off the main track into little village called Uvinza which is worthy of mention. It is a one-horse town by any standards with salt mining seeming to support the community but it rests on the banks of a decent size river and has a certain quiet charm. Worth a stopover for anyone who is cruising slowly through.

All told it took 9 hours driving to Kasulu on that second day and I’m not sure what it was like when Pete and Tim went through there 2 months ago, but I can safely say that Mpanda to Kasulu is only suitable for high clearance 4WD in the wet season. I found a hopelessly noisy hotel at Kasulu where the TV blared in the courtyard below my room till 9 minutes past midnight then came on again at 0555 with a vengeance. At 0630 when I went down to leave, the TV was still screeching with the squeal and static of tortured speakers pounding out a local MTV hit to an audience of… precisely no-one. Not even a staff member in the courtyard. I don’t know what it is about Tanzania but it must be full of former artillery soldiers. Music? TV? “I don’t care what you play SO LONG AS YOU PLAY IT LOUD!!!” Oh how I love the quiet or the birdsong and crickets of Mibango. Almost in some reaction to the quiet of the bush, the rest of Tanzania is noise incarnate. And almost universally the music systems and TV speakers seem to have the squeal and crackle of speakers repeatedly pushed beyond their limits.

I made up for the stay at the clean but noisy Kasulu Highway Hotel the next night though by staying at a surprisingly great guesthouse in Nzega called the Forest Inn Hotel. What a gem. USD$18 for a 2 room suite with hot water showers in a quiet location with a great garden setting. I had a sleep in and leisurely breakfast before seeking out a Fundi (mechanic) for the Landcruiser which had developed a severe wobble above 60km on the way into Nzega. The last 3 hours driving into Nzega at 40km/h wasn’t as bad as it might sound. Despite cruising on a modern tarmac highway of world-class standards, the trip is never so quick. There are villages every few kilometers and the Tanzanian method of controlling speed is to put 2 or 3 or more speed bumps at each village. A few speed bumps are quite benign but most are so severe as to bottom the suspension of any vehicle approaching at more than 30 km/h and even a few so high that I wonder how a regular car could get over them. Coupled with the fact that they seem to have all manner of markings, coloring and signage and sometimes no markings whatsoever, vigilance is required and daydreaming not an option. The worst are the unpainted tarmac ones on tarmac road in a 100km/h speed zone. As a friend is prone to saying, “remain vigilant” is not just a nice idea – it’s a necessity.

After a good nights rest at the Forest Inn, I spent 4 hours the next morning exploring the town and watching the fundi’s work on the Landcruiser. It turned out the front wheels were out of balance and the steering rod damper was shot. I’m not sure if it was it was the final gasp of the steering damper or perhaps high speed running on tarmac threw the lead weights off a front wheel but in any case the fundi’s fixed those problems plus replaced the side mirrors, adjusted the brakes, put the rear number plate back on and a few odd jobs like that before I headed off about 12.

What looked on the map like a short trip to Babati on tarmac took me about 8 hours and I got in about an hour after dark which was challenging as the road from Singida is all dirt (what a surprise lol). All in all, I’ve covered something like 1,000km on dirt roads and 400km on tarmac. The dirt road is tough going as they are rough, rough, rough in a 1 tonner and it’s frustrating watching the 5 door Landcruiser go flying by in comfort about 25 km/h faster than me as I bounce and rattle along. Despite this, it’s still really rewarding and my preference to be travelling on the dirt roads as they wind through the back blocks and dusty villages that make up a fascinating part of Tanzania.

It’s an interesting driving experience in Tanzania. Not for the faint of heart but not that hard either. You just need to get used to some different ways of doing things. Lots of poorly marked and faded boomgate roadblocks, washaways, and near invisible but severe speed bumps. The police seem to have boomgate across the minor roads at regular intervals to inspect the trucks. Regular cars and 4WD’s are just waved through but even so the un-signposted and sometimes unpainted metal poles lowered across the road seem invisible at first but eventually when you know to look for such things under the shadow of trees even in 100km/h speed zones, somehow ones visual acuity becomes critically enhanced.

On day 5 (Wednesday) I hit Moshi at last. A very decent Café Americano (long black in Australia), a biscuit – yes, a biscuit. My first in 2 months. Followed by a mango/banana/yoghurt smoothie then chips and burger for dinner. Yum! The road from Babati was as I’ve come to expect, unpaved and rough as guts. The Landcruiser trayback would have to be perhaps the world’s best production 4WD for the rough off-road stuff. The worlds best in case you’re curious, is IMHO the without peer RFSV (Regional Force Surveillance Vehicle) used the three RSFU’s of the Australian Army. But then again, you’d expect it to be pretty good with 49 distinct modifications from the 110 Landrover you can buy in the shops. In any case, I had been thinking that when the time comes to spend a couple of years driving across Africa, the Landcruiser trayback would be the ideal vehicle but after doing 5 days just covering the distance on mostly dirt roads, in a trayback, I’m leaning towards the Troop Carrier or 5-door for the simple reason that most of Africa is dirt roads rather than hard core 4WD and they are both still pretty darn good in the rough. I’ll keep you posted on how that evolves.

Meanwhile, a few days R&R to chillax here and then 5 days in Serengeti, Ngorogoro Crater and Lake Manyara before I head for Dar next week. Life is tough. Allegedly…