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...

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Talbot's Top Ten Tips to train your dog to misbehave...

Out at the camp we have a veritable menagerie comprising about 50 chickens, 3 goats, a dog and the usual population of African bugs, lizards and bitey things.

Our favourite though is the camp dog. His name is Tunza, which is Swahili for 'to keep' or 'to protect'. We found him on a beach at Tunza Lodge on Lake Victoria amongst a litter of flea bitten but otherwise lovable pups.  The camp needed the security beefed up at the time (at least that's the excuse we used) and the dog's owners were only too happy to get rid of at least one pup to a good home.  We picked Tunza by a rigorous selection and analysis process of walking up to the litter and saying 'BOO'.

The one that stood his ground long enough to realise that all his litter-mates had scarpered was Tunza (the chosen one). Hence the five week old flea-bag made his way by private charter flight to his own little paradise (Tunzatown).

His first challenge was passing security at Mwanza International Airport (a large shed with a couple of metal detectors and xray machines). Because he was in a carry bag (it wasn't plastic so don't bother ringing the SPCA), the ever-diligent (well, sometimes not sleeping) security officers there wanted to put him through the X-ray machine.  The resulting (verbal) battle of wits between security and his feisty Scottish 'mum' lasted about 15 minutes but 3 burly security officers were no match for the pocket rocket.  He was eventually carried through the metal detector safely in her arms (sans the empty bag which had to be x-rayed).

At camp however, we have people coming and going all season, including a range of local staff, consulting geologists and local villagers. Not many people in that group have trained dogs before so his first year of meeting strange people on a near daily basis have taught him to cope with uncertainty. The biggest challenge has been teaching his 'pack' (ie. the people in Tunzatown) to be consistent with him.  We recently came up with a cunning plan to offer them some tongue-in-cheek guidance.  Hopefully you might find the following amusing or even useful if you're having similar issues with dogs, kids, spouses, visitors, etc.


Ten tips on how to get Tunza to annoy you (and us)....

Tunza is mostly well behaved and spends a lot of his day lying unnoticed in companionable silence, but he’s still young and silly, so if you want him to annoy you and the rest of us, here are some tips.

1. Train him to jump up on people. He’s a big, powerful dog and loves to be face to face with you, but doesn’t instinctively know to jump up. Best to make it a game and encourage him with high pitched squeals and arm waving.  Whatever you do, don’t knee him in the chest. As mentioned, he learns quickly and this will stop him from jumping up in no time.  As per point 5, being inconsistent is OK though, as that not only confuses the heck out of him but also teaches him to behave unpredictably.

2. Train him that it’s OK to bite people. Most young dogs go through a long teething phase. Tunza has lots of things to chew on around here but the best way to make him annoying is to encourage him to play-bite us or to mock fight with him. He loves this. If you get him really revved up, you could probably get him to draw blood by accident which would not only be inconvenient to those of us who have to dress your wounds but could even get infected which would earn you a gold-star for ‘annoying’. Two gold stars if he bites someone else as a result of your training.

3. Encourage him to hump your leg. This will ensure that he does it to all of us and will teach him to come running up behind you to do it.

4. Teach him to beg for food. It’s really endearing to have him beg at the table and push his nose into our crotches while we’re eating, but he won’t do this unless you actively sneak him food at the table. It doesn’t take much effort – just a tidbit once a week. He’s very trainable and even a small amount occasionally will ensure he keeps harassing us at the dinner table. The worst thing you can do is to ignore him – he’ll get bored and go away to lie down quietly somewhere if you do this.

5. Squeal and wave your arms around whenever he does something you don’t like. He’ll think you’re inviting him to play and he loves to play. You’ll have him jumping on you and play-biting in no time.

6. Get him revved up by playing roughly with him. Once he’s in full mode, all you have to do is stop suddenly when you get bored. This will really confuse him and ensure he’ll keep on doing it after you stop. With luck, he’ll also annoy the rest of us.

7. Be inconsistent. This is the best way to get him to misbehave. Some suggestions:

  • Use different words for the same command. Eg: Instead of saying “No”, try saying “Toka hapa”, “Bad dog”, “Stop that!”
  • Play with him roughly one day then scold him when he plays roughly with you the next day.
  • Use his name when you’re scolding him. “Tunza NO!” sounds really similar to “Tunza come!”, etc so you’ll confuse the heck out of him in no time.
  • Chicken chasing. Encourage him to chase the chickens or goats out of the pantry, then yell and scream at him to stop when he actually catches one.

8. Use the same tone of voice all the time.  Dog’s don’t understand many words but they are really good at interpreting your tone of voice, so if you keep the same tone of voice when playing, speaking, scolding him, calling him, etc he’ll quickly learn to ignore you and will keep on doing whatever he wants.

9. Teach him that being underfoot is fun. Pat him whenever he is in your hut, the workshop or generally just in the way, and he’ll keep coming back. Sadly, being ignored is no fun for Tunza, so if you just ignore him, he’ll will stop coming back and will go find someone else to play with.

10. Feed him outside meal times. Preferably at random times, in different locations by random people. It will not only make him fat but helps him to see every piece of food in the pantry or the kitchen table as being rightfully his.

Tunza doesn’t belong to anyone in particular here. He is a member of the camp and it’s up to all of us to treat him as such.  If you don’t want him to be here, you’ve got two choices: find him (or yourself) another home or; confuse him so that he starts behaving unpredictably, annoys everyone, gets in the way and if you’re really successful, becomes aggressive towards strangers so that he has to be put down.

Meanwhile, I think we've figured out why the goats don't want to play with him...
"It wasn't me...  He was like that when I found him - honest."

"I don't care if you goats don't want to play, I've a new friend just like me..."

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Talbot's top ten tips for building the most dangerous roads in the world...

Years of travel in Asia, Africa and various parts of the world have helped me gain an insight into the minds of the people who build roads there. At first I was appalled by the traffic carnage, but very quickly, I learned to love the thrill a minute chaos that keeps you appreciating a life lived on the edge.

Lately though, I've seen another perspective.  If you wanted to build a road system to throttle commerce and increase fatalities, there are some well established design principles to help you do so.

  1. Change the meaning of VCP's from Vehicle Check Points into Vehicle Cash Points.  It's simple really. Just pay your police so little that they need to take bribes to feed their family. It makes it much cheaper for road users to pay off a police officer than say, fix a bald tyre, get a drivers license or repair a broken headlight.
  2. Don't do any road maintenance. Let's face it, that's just dead money that could be used to send your kids to university in the US - after you siphon it of by awarding a maintenance contract to your brother-in-laws road construction company (you know, the one that doesn't own any road construction machinery or have any employees). Don't forget to do some roadworks in the weeks leading up to the next election but other than that, best to let those potholes grow and the road surface wash away until at least three vehicles have had fatal accidents on that bend.  Fixing these 'death zones' will win you votes and for sure, there's no cheaper way to do targeted maintenance. 
  3. Get your roads built by foreign aid. When the donor country awards the project to one of their own major corporations, who then come in and build it by awarding it to the lowest bidder, the road will deteriorate within a couple of years and you'll get to ask for more aid to rebuild it all over again. Just think of the employment that will create.
  4. Remember to build roads that suit vehicles that you don't have many of. For example, if most of your people travel by bicycle, be sure to build major highways that are barely wide enough for two trucks to pass and never, ever, put in cycle paths or extra space that might allow a bicycle to travel with some relative safely by day, much less at night.
  5. Encourage a culture of risk taking. Be sure to build major highways with blind corners, minor roads entering from behind bushes. Be sure to never fine drivers who break the law (don't forget though to put in place some relevant legislation so that you meet the requirements of aid donors and the World Bank loans officers). The police will in any case, provide some percentage of errant drivers with an on the spot fine, but it will be self-limiting because a) they will stop when they have enough money to buy lunch and b) you haven't given them any speed cameras or vehicles to actually enforce the law.
  6. Don't whatever you do, regulate signage beside the road. It's best if drivers are regularly distracted by oversize garish advertising signs. Better yet if those signs obscure their vision when pulling out into traffic. It teaches them to be more vigilant in life anyway.  The only exception to this rule...  you should make road safety signs as small as possible and preferably use cheap paint so that they fade quickly.
  7. Make sure there are plenty of unemployed youth to become touts and roadside sellers. While they are weaving through traffic or jogging beside a moving bus, trying to sell oranges to the passengers, at least they are getting good cardio exercise and are too busy to be out robbing your house. Those few who slip under the wheels will be quickly replaced and let's face it, they didn't have a real job anyway.
  8. Do your best to mingle pedestrians, motorcycles, bicycles, animals, hand-carts, tuk-tuks, cars and heavy trucks - preferably in multiple directions.  Everyone will love you for providing them with complete freedom of movement and to be honest, dodging traffic helps to keep the populace fit.
  9. Driver testing - don't do it.  Consult with a few friends to design a system that allows people to bribe officials to be issued a drivers license without sitting a test. Let's face it your roads are so congested by now that it would take four hours to do a 5 mile driving test anyway.
  10. Last but not least, you'll need bureaucracy.  Keep the paperwork for registration, insurance and drivers licenses so complex that it takes forever to become compliant. And when most people are in compliance, introduce new measures such as fire safety inspections for vehicles (at the very least, it will help fund your already bankrupt fire brigade - particularly when they get to pull up vehicles and levy their own 'on the spot fines'). Be creative - after all, it could be your job that is saved by needing huge public service organizations. Best example I've seen yet for creative bureaucracy was getting a drivers license when I had to go to three different locations on three opposite corners of a congested city to get a) a police clearance, b) a license application form, c) eyesight test and then head back to a) for the driving test, then return to b) to have the license issued. Lucky for me the ever helpful public servants at a) and b) accepted cash so I didn't have to go past point b) to have my license issued on the spot. Counting the time taken to drive from the office to their offices and back, this business model of relative efficiency took a mere four hours to negotiate the gridlocked city.

Hopefully these tips will help you, gentle reader, in the event that you should ever become the ruler of a small (or large) near bankrupt nation where over-population is a significant problem.

On a serious note... Sadly, I find all of the above and more systemic issues in way too many places. Sometimes it really does seem as if the nations leaders set out from scratch to create the most dangerous road system in the world. OK, I know it's not easy running a country and I can safely say that I haven't had to try it. It's still a sobering exercise to think about the root causes of the millions of deaths annually on the worlds roads.