Friday, September 23, 2011

Africa for beginners...

"Ah, Namibia... Africa for beginners" said Oddvar when I told him we were heading there on the next break. "Will be easy for you guys, but you'll love it." He was right. It is 'Africa for beginners' and we did love it. It's an easy and fun place to travel. For starters, the roads are brilliant - even the dirt roads are regularly graded and
have views to inspire any photographer.

Top that off with big skies,

great roads,

highly trained medical practitioners who are skilled in a variety of ailments,
great campsites dotted all over the countryside,

with brilliant views,
not to mention, magnificent deserts,

and heaps of wildlife,
which turn up everywhere.
And the signs don't lie...
Luckily the heffalumps are friendly and have a mission (eat everything in sight) which keeps them too busy to bother with us mere humans.

One of the highlights was a two hour flight a couple of hundred feet above the Sossusvlei (a salt and clay pan surrounded by high red dunes) located in the Namib-Naukluft National Park.

The Namib Naukluft abuts the dunes of the Skeleton Coast and you can see how that piece of coastline got it's name.

If you were a shipwrecked sailor here who couldn't walk 100km of sand-dunes and desert, your chances of survival were slim.
For the more fortunate among us (ie. NOT shipwrecked sailors), the Skeleton Coast is perfect for sand boarding and photography,

scenic flights over amazing dunes,
and four wheel drive camping.

Basically, we picked up a 4WD at the airport, then spent 11 days four-wheel-driving, hiking, lazing and camping.  In between that we did some white water rafting, paddling inflatable canoes down a crocodile infested river,

camping under the stars, and coming eyeball to eyeball with elephants.

Two weeks in Namibia just wasn't long enough and it's official! Namibia is now our favourite African country by a long shot.

Etosha National Park is also the favourite national park (so far) not just for the animals but for the quality of the campsites and value for money.  Serengeti and Ngorogo were great but if you are thinking of visiting a national park in Africa, Etosha in Namibia is definitely the place. Not only do they have wildlife and plains to rival the Serengeti

but you get it to yourself

and the campsites are resort quality. Great places to chill by the pool after the dawn patrol.
If, after a few beers by the pool, you can't be bothered going out at dusk, they have been kind enough to put the campsites beside waterholes where you can simply sit and watch the animals come to you.
It looks pretty remote but basically, the waterholes are simply great places for the rhinos, leopards, deer and their mates, to take turns watching us humans have a glass of wine at sundown...
As for the rest of Namibia, the infrastructure is simply grand, with great facilities and zebra crossings scattered everywhere.
Usually the zebras are pretty laid back

but best you don't try to jump in front of them at a queue as they can be a bit cantankerous...
Who'd have thought they'd bite?

Even the lions don't seem as aggressive and will bring the entire family to be photographed at the sight of a camera (bloody attention seekers that they are).

It's hard to describe just how special the place is. Pictures can't do it justice. Suffice to say, a return visit for 3 or 4 weeks next year is being planned!

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Ikabulu School...

Although our reason for being here is exploration, we're mindful that we are just guests in the local community and the company as well as staff like to contribute where we can. There are limits of course, but we take on activities which a) are supported by the local community and b) don't rely on perpetual ongoing support.

For example, we run a first aid clinic three days a week for the local community, have transported a number of critically ill patients to hospitals, paid medical bills for a number of people, train up a lot of the locals in skills such as driving, mechanical skills, computers, etc and help out the local schools where we can. The company supports this and pays for all of the above activities although most of us have chipped in funds along the way as well.

Last weekends project for example is in the pictures below.

If you'd like to help by volunteering out here or help with cash, please let us know. We're also looking to provide shoes for the local kids who attend school at least 30 times in the next two months and raise funding to build accommodation for a Community Nurse or Doctor at Lubalisi village not far from here. The local community have agreed to contribute a lot of labor and just need some cash to purchase the building materials.  Will keep you posted on this.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Mountain biking in the footsteps of Livingstone...

"If we don't find this track soon, I'm going to cry" said Lynne, looking to me for reassurance.  "If we don't find the track soon I'M going to be crying right alongside you!" I replied, at which we both broke out laughing.  We'd been off track for about an hour, moving NNW to meet a track that we should hit 30 minutes ago but which resolutely refused to appear.  We were exhausted, scratched, bleeding and black with soot after dragging our bikes through burnt out bamboo thickets, across gullies, up hills and over log jams.

Yes. It was one of the best days of our lives.

Tanzania is mountain bikers paradise!  You can find single-track, bicycle track, no track and dual track (aka 4WD wheel ruts) for social riders.  There are even heaps of great serious downhill section – perfect if you want to add extra spice to life by being at least 10 hours from a hospital. Oh, and you need to bring your own bike… The nearest mountain bike shop is in Johannesburg, 2,500 km south of here.

Lynne and I have just come back from two days in the bush outside Mahale National Park. It’s not far from Lake Tanganyika – a mere 5 days hike across the Mahale Mountains. That is to say, it’s basically in the middle of nowhere…

The drive to the start point is worth a story in itself. Suffice though that it's seriously tough 4WD country (even for an ex-Pilbara boy). It took 5 hours to drive, crawl and bounce the Landcruiser 70km down off the escarpment where we camped for the night on the banks of a secluded river.  The next morning we set off early, bouncing the 4WD a few km to the tiny village of Ungalaba where we left the car and headed off on mountain bikes.
The purpose of the visit was to traverse the network of local bicycle tracks and find a route that would let us take 4WD’s into the region to do some soil sampling. Easier said than done. Even armed with topo maps and the trusty Garmin Oregon 550 (which is a superb piece of kit btw), it’s still easier said than done. The topography varies from impossibly steep and gullied to near flat open country but the bicycle tracks meander with a rhythm known only to the locals. On second thoughts, I suspect even the locals don’t really know why the tracks meander as they do. Farms come and go, entire villages move and cattle farmers stop/start using tracks depending on the rainfall and grasses.
We only had 20km to traverse as the crow flies but that day we managed to cover about 40km and still end up 6km short of the target. Along the way we managed to end up completely off track, hauling the bikes over and through bamboo thickets, up the side of gullies and through dried out marshland. Luckily it’s the dry season and we could mostly navigate through burned out patches of bush which we could often cycle without a track.  But mostly we meandered down cycle tracks, flipped coins at junctions, crossed sadly dried river beds and stopped to chat with local farmers who seemed to have nothing better to do than wait for two crazy mzungu’s to appear at their farm on mountain bikes.

After seven hours we made our way back to the Landcruiser for the four hour drive back up the escarpment. We were hot, sweaty, covered in cuts, eaten by tetse-flies, filthy and exhausted… But we were wearing smiles from ear to ear, had found a way into Ngalamuso and...

... we had mountain biked where no mzungu has been since Livingstone. :-)

"Oh, the Places You'll Go!"

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Winter holidays in Africa...

Just back from 2 weeks of very lazy beach time on the African coast. We'd planned a host of adventure activities for our 2 week break including diving with great white sharks off Cape Horn, visiting friends in Capetown and beach fun in Mozambique.  In the end though, after 70 days without a day off, we decided that itinerary with it's 6 days in airports with mid-winter diving in the southern oceans wasn't the best idea we'd ever had.

In the end, 2 weeks on the Pangani coast of Tanzania, chillaxing by the sea was a perfect recipe for recuperation.  For anyone who is reading this and thinking of a beach holiday in Tanzania, read on. In a diversion from usual practice, I've included a few tips for beach holidays at Pangani. Without a bit of insider information, planning a beach holiday in Tanzania can take a research so here 'tis.

For the rest of you unfortunate souls not planning a beach holiday anytime soon... Time to go back to surfing the web, skip back to the previous blog entry or check out some highlights inspired by the road trip to Pangani. Hiring a car to drive up to the beach was a relatively cheap and easy affair. Driving on Tanzanian roads on the other hand is a thrill a minute affair. Don't quite need the concentration levels of a formula one race, but plenty of examples along the way of drivers who lost concentration momentarily...

Beaches in Tanzania. 
Skip Zanzibar unless the mystique of the name is enough drawcard, or you're happy with touristy party places. Great beaches but very touristy and not the best value for money you'll find.

Head instead for Tanga, then Pangani and in particular Ushomo Bay...  We spent 5 days at Peponi Beach Resort and liked the place a lot. 
Beach is so-so but overall good value for money. USD$85/night for 2 people in a banda (cabin) including brekky & dinner. Even better value is the camping at $5/night. Bargain! And friendly owners as well, although to be fair, I'd have to say that the owners and managers at every place we checked out or stayed at were some of the nicest people you could hope to meet. Must be something about people who choose to live/work at a beach resort.  Peponi meanwhile is rustic but relaxing and it has an abundance of hammocks. 

Capricorn next door to Peponi is even nicer and has 3 self-catering bandas with a deli where you can buy the food. It’s also the only place along the coast where you can get capuccino/espresso coffee. More expensive than Peponi but then again nicer also.

We had a look at Tulia, Emayani, Tides and Beach Crab at Ushomo bay. Ushomo is definitely a much nicer beach. Lots of seaweed last week due to some storms offshore but apparently October/November is the best time of the year for water clarity and lack of seaweed. Beach Crab is about the same price as Peponi but didn’t have an empty banda and their ‘tents’ didn’t appeal. Although nice, it felt to us a bit like “we’re in Lonely Planet now and always full, so we don’t have to try too hard” feel about it. Maybe that's just us, but first impressions and all that. 

Tulia is next to Emayani and owned by the same people. It's nice and reasonably priced but basic, and the bandas (huts) only had single beds. Tides is nicest place around and not as expensive as the website suggests but it's still the most expensive place around. If you fancy a splurge though, the Tides is very, very pleasant and not bad value if you ask for local rates.  It probably also has the best beach in the area, right in front of it.

We ended up staying at Emayani for 5 days where the beach is not bad, the bandas are nice and (sad for the owners but good for us) we were the only people there for most of the 5 days, so had the run of the place. USD$145/night for half board for 2 people (residents rates) so it was a bit of a splurge but well worth it. There’s a dive shop on site and you can hire kayaks. Managers name is Jan, Diveshop couple are Wym and Kirstin. All nice folk. 

Overall, Peponi and Beachcrab are where most people head and they are roughly as nice as each other. Peponi is nicer place but lesser beach and Beach Crab vice versa.  Capricorn, Emayani and Tides at double the price are still good value though if you’re looking for somewhere nicer. 

Best lazy holiday for ages...  Read 12 books between us and still had time to eat, sleep, chillax and even do a couple of dives.  Next break in September is looking like being slightly more active: probably dirtbiking in Ethiopia, Namibia or the like but stay tuned.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Back in Africa...

Been back in Africa since the beginning of May and it's good to be back in the warmth. Always a pleasantly disorienting experience to go from a wintery but orderly place like the US, to the heat and chaos of Africa. Must be something about me that likes the chaos over order.

That being said, I'm not a fan of dusty Dar Es Salaam, the chief port and former capital of Tanzania. Its Arabic name means “haven of peace” but it would have to be a candidate for 'most inappropriately named city in the world'.  Despite a population estimated at a 'mere' 1.4 million people, the traffic congestion is on a par with a city of 20 million. To be fair, the complete lack of maintenance and anything approximating a motorway, contributes to this but each individual driver seems relentlessly committed to creating their own mini-gridlock (and their own mini trail of mayhem). Dar and the countries roads in general, would be worth a dedicated blog entry, but that's for another day.

Meanwhile, other than the three weeks in Dar buying supplies, and five days convoy drive out to camp, we spend most of our time out bush and it's a great place to be.  The first few weeks were spent repairing wet season damage, rewiring the electrical systems at camp, conducting driver training (a mission in itself - perhaps another blog, one day...), inventorying what remained from some wet season mayhem and generally getting set up to go exploring.
Along the way we rebuilt a few tracks, parted way with a few wayward staff, been bogged/de-bogged/re-bogged and generally managed to pass hours, days and weeks in a blur of activity.
We've even had a yippie-shoot delivering weapons refresher training to the security staff, which is a great excuse to go out and make loud but otherwise pointless noises and accompanying holes in tin-cans.
Not that we needed them that day (in hindsight, perhaps as much good luck, as anything else) but medical facilities out here are few and far between. We operate the best stocked first aid clinic in the area and provide free treatment or free transport to the nearest hospital for the local communities. It's only a drop in the ocean but at least it's something. 90+% of our treatments fit into one of four categories so we don't actually need to keep that much stuff in stock. It's almost always one or more of the following:
  1. Intestinal parasites
  2. Malaria
  3. Respiratory tract infection
  4. Fungal infection
Four of us have basic to advanced first aid and medical skills, but when in doubt, our 'bible' out here is "Where There Is No Doctor", a handbook for village medical care in remote locations. And when all else fails, a lift to the nearest hospital (a days drive away) is the next option. Local medical clinics (a mere day's walk away in either direction) are so poorly equipped that typhoid patients often sit in corridors on concrete or dirt floors waiting for IV solutions that simply aren't available. We regularly end up donating medical supplies to typhoid or malaria sufferers. It's a fine line of course, as we won't be here forever so we walk the line of supporting, not supplanting their medical care.

We've been conducing actual exploration and collecting soil samples now from far and wide for about a month (which is after all the reason we're here) but along the way, we've been riding dirtbikes and mountain bikes, hiking and four-wheel-driving all in the cause.  The dirtbikes and mountain bikes actually have a business use - many of our geological targets are only accessible via bicycle trails. To really get in and sample an area, we need to build 4WD tracks and set up a flycamp in the area for a few weeks. Figuring out which bicycle tracks can be converted to a 4WD track (and indeed whether or not the prospective area is er, worth prospecting) means we need to get in to have a look.  Hence, we've finally figured out a way to be paid to ride enduro bikes and mountain bikes - without having to actually be good enough to turn pro.

We've done a couple of mammoth trips lately to open up areas including an overnight 4WD camp that needed mountain bikes to get us into the target area the next day. A great excuse for Lynne, Pete and I to go camping in lion and elephant country. OK, perhaps I exaggerate... (so what's new). We didn't see any lions, rhino's or elephants at all and never came closer than 10km to Mahale National Park boundary where the animals allegedly reside. 'Twas still great fun camping in a bamboo thicket by the river then mountain biking the next day.   Pete and I have also done a couple of day long dirtbike rides down some of the gnarliest trails we've ridden for a long, long time. Bouncing over logs on the edge of precipices and hauling them, wheels spinning through boot-sucking mud creeks probably doesn't sound like fun to most people... But it does to us :-)

Don't tell the boss, but despite the crazy times, remote supply lines and sometimes near overwhelming frustrations, I still can't quite believe I'm getting paid to do this stuff...