Wednesday, February 22, 2006

I am slightly annoyed with the internet.

February 22nd, 11:37

CAPE TOWN, South Africa

Okay this was going to be a much better post, but I have now spent more than 4 hours writing various posts that have for one reason or another, been erased during, or immediately following their writing. I just had about 5 pages of stuff and it all got erased somehow. Additionally, I can't get my pictures those some point be up...until then...


Therefore, the previously well written post that you were about to enjoy, which had funny descriptions of things I've done and places I've gone is now replaced with a slightly less comprehensive picture. Sorry folks, blame the media.

Here are the countries that I have been to since I last wrote:

South Africa

I have now tried to type up my experience on the safari about 4 separate times, only to see all of that writing lost, destroyed or otherwise made inaccesible. The trip was fantastic and as soon as I get to a computer that 1. won't crash constantly on me and 2. can load pictures, I will have some great stuff to share.

Until then, I will try to recount the last week or so as to what I've been doing.

Currently, I am in Cape Town, South Africa, which, if you have been watching the news, is experiencing city-wide blackouts pretty much every night, for the entire night. This has made life very interesting (read: difficult) for everyone from grocery store owners to tourists who can't use ATM's. Still, Cape town is beautiful, which is of course why I'm leaving.


This is a beautiful, wonderful country and I wish that I could have spent more time there. The people kick butt and when they aren't trying to sell you the Fanta that they were just drinking, or telling you to give them the boots that are tied to your pack since you are already wearing a pair of shoes, they are great. (actual conversation that I had with a Zambian kid:
Kid: hey, give me your shoes! (referring to the boots tied to my pack)
Me: no! I need them
Kid: no you don't! you're wearing shoes
Me: (mouth hanging open at his flawless away!)

My time in Zambia was mostly spent in a town called "Livingstone" (as in "Dr. Livingstone I presume?") I ended up staying about 3 days longer than I had planned, mostly because of the superb place that I was lodged at, a friendly hostel called "Jolly Boys" which is run entirely by women...known locally as the "Jolly Girls." Without boring everyone with the lazy days that I spent in hammocks, by their pool, in their crows next which overlooked the spray from Victoria Falls and the huge cushioned reading area in the center, suffice it to say that the place was spectacular. The town, and the sister town across the border of Victoria Falls town, are essentially set up as tourist centers. Thus any crazy adventure activity where in you can fling yourself from great heights, ride down nearly unnavigable rivers and do things that generally make people gasp in fear and astonishment can be booked on a near-hourly basis. I ended up rafting the "Mighty Zambezi!" (quotations and exclamation point courtesy of the Zambian National Parks comission), the adventures of which will be written about at a later date (I promise).

A quick note about it though: In my rafting group was a clusterf*ck of 16 year old Irish students (and yes "clusterf*ck" is the appropriate way to refer to a group of high schoolers) who, if possible, are harder to understand sober than they are when drunk. I have no idea how anything ever gets accomplished on that island. Also, coming from an island surrounded by freezing cold water did not make our Irish friends very accomplished pirates, as several near take-overs of our boat, followed by an absolute massacre/boat flipping of their boat proved.

Victoria's very large

Same view...but vertical!

A sideways rainbow. What do you say to that kermit?

While in Livingstone, we were fortunate enough to witness what you can only experience in about two other places on earth: a lunar rainbow. This occurs only during a full moon, and is made possible because Victoria Falls are so high, and the pressure of the water landing below is so great that it throws up a near constant spray over everything. Standing in front of Victoria Falls is exactly what it would be like if someone were to hold you upside down during a massive thunderstorm. The water breaks on the cliff in front of you and then comes up, causing it to rain up at you. Anyway, this spray is highly reflective, so on a clear night with a fully moon, you can see a complete rainbow, colors and all around midnight, which we did. Now, they like to charge you 12 dollars to get in, but being the savvy and world-experienced travelers that we are, we met a guy in town who worked at hotel near the falls, who snuck us in to the park through a VERY small window, so we were able to see this phenomenon for free, and away from the other gawking hordes.

Thanks trevor.

Moving on...

After meeting two Candians (eh?) who were traveling the same way that I was, I crossed over into the Zimbabwean side of the falls.

Zimbabwe will also be an additional post, because it is a very strange, interesting place. It is almost as some shadowy cabal of evil...maybe...the US government (?) decided to see exactly how badly a country could be run, and then on top of that, decided to make it so poor that it will take decades for it to ever get back to a semblance of normalcy. If that had happened, you would get present-day Zimbabwe.

Because of that infrastructure...I was a millionaire for Valentines day, with nary a valentine in sight. Zimbabwe's currency is such that if you are "in the know" as I came to be, you can exchange your 1 monstrously powerful US dollar for 140,000 Zimbabwean dollars.

This represents about 2 days worth of money in Zim

Let me try, if I may, to recount for you the experience of getting these buckets of money. For reasons of security for a number of parties, I will be using pseudonyms (I'm not joking, I could actually be putting people at risk).

First, upon entering Zimbabwe, you have to find a place, which we will call "Shady-dealings zone" at which you can find a person who is, as discussed before, "in the know (INK)." Upon finding this place and person of that sort, the person INK calls, uses smoke signals, or otherwise gets the attention of another person who we'll call "money-bags-mcgee (MBM)." When MBM arrives at the shady-place, both you and that person (whose gender pronoun will also remain anonymous) retire to a quiet back room, at which point MBM produces an enormous satchel, literally stuffed to overflowing with cash. It should be noted that in Zimbabwe, the money has expiration dates, because apparently, sometimes they just decide that the money that you were formerly holding is no longer worth anything...not that it was really worth anything anyway.


MBM lights up a cigarette, and as you produce your single 20 dollar bill, MBM heaves an enormous sigh, gives you a look, then pulls out a calculator. After much button-pushing, the cellophane wrapped bundles of money come out and the counting begins. Much time later, after the last bit of ash gets tapped off of the cigarette, I emerged back into the bright sunshine, which practically blinded me as I'd been in the dark so long. MBM slunk off through a side door from the "shady-place" and I had to do my best to conceal the bulges in my pockets.

Not exactly a trip to the ATM...

If you have never walked into a movie theater, after paying 80,000 dollars for a ticket, and then had to count out another 80,000 for popcorn, leaving yourself another 7.8 million dollars in your pocket, well then you haven't lived. And yes, I had upwards of 8 million dollars on me throughout most of my time there, not much more than 40 dollars.

And this is fairly standard.

One or two other little things about Zimbabwe:

Apparently, in Zimbabwe, the guys who drive the trains don't like to move at consistent speeds, so the train ride from Victoria Falls town to Bulawayo took 13 hours, a trip which I have subsequently learned takes about 4-5 hours in a car.

Rodney and Prosper, my righteous Zimbabwean travel companions on the train.

Bunk on the train. Kendra, fast asleep.

If you live in Zimbabwe, it is well worth it to 1. live with at least one other person 2. have an enormous, frightening, electrified and barbed wire fence around your house and 3. have an armed security service on constant alert should anything happen to you. Of course, none of that is very helpful, when, as my friend Jenny experienced, the woman who was her housekeeper told her uncle all about her security arrangements, leading him and his friends to break into her house with machetes, knives and guns, tie her up and rob her of everything that she owned. Her only commentary on the events were "at least they didn't rape me, so it wasn't so bad." This is not an unusual occurence in Zimbabwe.

Still, I greatly enjoyed my brief time there and will try to go back someday.

After Robert Mugabe dies.

There is something very strange and exciting when you are at a bar, and you wish to speak about the current political situation of a place, and before you start, everyone involved literally scans the room for several seconds to be sure that noone is listening, and then leans into your ear and speaks very softly to be sure that noone will come to your house in the night and kill you. A very interesting country indeed.

And a quick by the way:

-Border crossings suck big time. Trying to get three huge busses full of people from countries all over southern africa, with different entry requirements for each, through a border post manned by people who are going to be there all night and couldn't care less how long you are there, is somewhat taxing on ones patience.

Which brings us, roughly and with great omissions, to today...

As it turns out, when I tell people how many days that I have left in a place, with each day that passes, you should say that you have one less. Unfortunately, I have neglected to do this. Therefore two weeks ago, when I told people that I had three weeks left in Africa, I may have been correct. However, by never updating this number, now, when I have...oh, say 10 days left, the three week mark is a bit inaccurate.

Having met some interesting blokes, we have rented a car and will be careening wildly up the coast of South Africa, stopping along the way to test our luck ( least one of ours) at the worlds highest bungee jump, and then with a stop over at a place called "the wild coast" which could range anywhere from awesomely extremely wild, to fairly wild. It remains to be seen.

Monday, February 13, 2006

Part 1: Seserim, Soussuvlei and the wild south of Namibia

For those of you who are particularly bored at work today, this should effectively occupy a good amount of your time.

In other words, I have a lot to say here. I have now spent nearly 3 weeks in Africa, and since I haven't posted a single picture with a story yet, there is going to be quite a bit here. As such, I have broken this post up into 3 parts. Part 1 is from my first 5 days in Namibia, specifically the southern part and is up today. Part 2 is of my next 5 or so days in the Northern parts of Namibia and will be up later in the week. Finally, Part 3 covers Northeastern Botswana, and Zambia and I have no idea when that will happen, as much of my next week will be consumed with traveling.

Additional note: The pictures are simply taking too long to upload, as soon as I get to a place where I can either 1. use internet for free or 2. get really cheap, fast internet, the pictures WILL be up.

Here we go.

Windhoek, Namibia

Chameleon Guest house:

When I first arrived in Windhoek, it was hard to know what to make of it. It seemed like a fairly normal small town, and it, cool.

Without dwelling too much on my time in Windhoek, suffice it to say that I spent a good deal of time, on a comfortable bench, in a thatched roof hut next to a swimming pool, sipping a variety of cold beverages, watching it intermitently pour rain and be beautiful. During my two days there, I spent a great deal of time with a bloke named Dan, who was (and I suppose still is) Australian, and worked there. I'm not sure if there is some international code that all people who work in hostels have to have long hair, wear board shorts and be from Australia, but I have yet to find an exception to this rule.

With Dan, I began to learn the intricacies of the game of cricket, as ridiculously bizarre seeming a game, I was assured, as baseball seems to the rest of the world. It is surprising how into a game you can get and can scream things like "get that wicket you stupid ozzie bastard!" about a game that you could barely understand how the scoring worked two hours before. Good times all around.

I had bought some food for myself, but two lovely ladies named hannah and kristy allowed me to join forces with them, and we created quite a culinary masterpiece...okay it was pasta...but it was masterful pasta.

Dan, Kristy and Hannah, enjoying our pasta

The next day, I took leave of my gustatory companions and set out with 7 other hearty souls named, in order of me thinking of them, which has absolutely no relevance to anything: Frank (canadian...but I forgave him for this by the end), Ben (scotsman, hobbies include "hill walking"), Tihana (infectious disease specialist, she knew lots of scary stuff), Paul and Tracey (Australian couple who knew their wines and were never shy about buying me a freezing cold beer...second quickest way to my heart), Sam (our guide...awesomer than a pound of chocolate full of diamonds) and Benedictus (assistant guide, threw better "thumbs ups" than anyone I've ever met.)

We hopped into our sturdy four wheel drive thingy and off we went, down through the south west of Nambia, to a village, but really more like a designated place in the desert, called Seserim.

Now, when you think of dusty, maybe you think of dust being blown up in your face from an air conditioner, or being out in a city and coughing, sneezing etc. Well, I no longer can possibly think of dusty as anything less than our first hour in Seserim. I was wearing a white shirt, and in 20 minutes it was the same reddish-beige color as the sand. The wind was blowing the sand straight out of the desert and into my skin at about 60kph. It wasn't exactly pleasant, but hey, I was in Africa!

Once the wind died down a bit, Sam (guide) drove us out to set of sand dunes about 5km away. We got out, and he asked if anyone wanted to climb them. Of course we did! Okay, and does anyone want to walk back to camp? Of course we do!

"Great" he said "see you there."

No problem right? Right?

1. I was not in as good of shape as I assumed
2. Walking up sand dunes. is really, really hard.
3. Walking 5k in the dark, across an open field, with two flashlights for 6 people and only a small pinpoint of light as a guide, is...ummm...challenging.
4. On our drive over, Sam had pointed out some sprinkbok to us (smaller antelope-ish type things) as they grazed in the field that we would eventually walk back over, and made a brief comment or two about how predators couldn't get them there in the day because they could see them coming, but that if they stayed at night the predators could get them...and then we walked across that the dark...on my 3rd day in Africa.

I'll let that one sink in...

My first dune!

The whole shadow form...spooooky!

After about 2.5 hours climbing those damn dunes, Ben and I made it to what we considered the "top", which was essentially when we both decided to stop climbing. Thats how you define "top" dammit and don't tell me otherwise.

One of the nicest suprises about being no this safari was that the food was, not just superb, not just outstanding, but was more like superbstanding. Sam and Benedictus cooked up lamb, sweet potatoes and all manner of other good stuff on a tiny campfire. Without listing every meals attributes, suffice it to say that I ate extremely well.

Early to bed, and then disgustingly early to rise. We awoke at 4AM in order to hop into the car and drive about an hour to the very reason that we ventured so far out into the wasteland: Sossuvlei. It is a word in a language, that much I am sure, however what language is beyond me. Either way, it is a horrifically ironic name as it translates to "A valley or pan where water gathers," the irony being that it is one of the driest places on earth filled with some of the tallest sand dunes on earth. Soooo, not so much a pan or filled with water...but hey!

The road to get there was one of the roughest that I'd ever ridden on (until later in Botswana). It took two weeks for my kidneys to re-descend back into their proper place. I'm fairly certain that my spleen is still AWOL.

We arrived at the dunes and were informed of our options: we could either climb "big momma" or "big daddy." Big Daddy is, disputably, the largest sand dune on earth at about 250 meters give or take.

I'll spare you, gentle reader, the obvious conclusion that we drew.

Climbing this thing was one of the most physically challenging things that I've ever done. Ever. Harder than getting out of bed on a Sunday afternoon to walk to 7-11 to get ice cream. Harder than trudging the 10 minutes to work in the mornings. Harder than turning down third helpings of pie. Yeah, it was that hard. Basically for every three steps forward that you managed, you ended up about two feet from where you started. It was almost entirely a vertical climb, and largely in the dark.

Big daddy, pre-sunrise

The start of the walk. The big one at the back is the top

A not-terribly-attractive picture of me...but THE TOP!

The path up

However, the top, as you can see, was worth it. (sossuvlei pix)

We spent about 2 hours on the top, watching the sun change the landscape from deep blue, to orange, to brilliant, glimmering red. To be able to see everything below you in a 360 degree panorama, light reflecting off of the undulations in the sand and making everything seem to nearly move but hold still was one of the most incredible sights I've ever seen.

And then there was the getting down. Sam pointed to a nearly vertical wall of sand and said "lets go." Confused for a moment, I watched as he started running, at about...oh...maybe 3 million miles an hour straight down a vertical wall of f@()!@)(# sand!!! So we followed. I'm still not certain how I didn't tumble to my doom, but the faster you ran, the less your feet dug into the soft sand below you, and you just kept accelerating...straight down...the tallest sand dune on earth. It took about 5 minutes running top speed to get to the bottom. When I got to the bottom and turned around to look back up...and nearly broke my neck trying to crane it far enough back to see the top, I decided that what had really happened was that I had passed out from dehydration at the top and had been gently carried down, because that seemed much more likely than having come down something that steep.

So freakin' steep! This was taken with the camera on the ground

I simply could not get a picture to convey how tall/steep this was

We spent the rest of the day back at our campsite, trying to keep the sand out of the cracks and crevices that human bodies seem to be rife with. The only benefit of all of the wind and sun was that when I washed my shirt, shorts, and towel, they were dry, if not coated in sand, in about 2 minutes. Of course, being sandy again negated the washing, so I believe that I owe the government of Namibia about 10 gallons of water. as I stubbornly repeated the process several times. I'll get right on that.

Relaxing at camp. This is only slightly more comfortable than it looks.

The next day, we drove out to the canyon that Seserim got it's name from. "Seserim" (again, a language that I can't identify) means "six leather thongs," which though sexy sounding, actually refers to thongs as belts, and that was the number of standard calf-skin belts that were needed to be tied together to get the water out of the gorge. Very cool...and practically named! It's sort of like going to a grocery store that knows how much food you always need, named "3 bags." It's kind of like that, but not really.

Did I mention that deserts are hot? Or that I sweat a lot? Or that we had African air-conditioning, that is, opening the windows and driving? Well if I haven't, read the following without the question parts and you'll get an idea of the situation. And mind you, this is from someone who spent months in Israel during a heat wave.

It was hot. 'Nuff said.

We packed up the camp, and headed up to a town called Swakopmund, which is Norm-speak means "town where one can do many fun things that can kill you with little-to-no-supervision."

IMPORTANT CULINARY NOTE: Before we got into Swakop (what all the cool kids in the know call it) we stopped on the side of the road to make lunch.

Norm: Sam, whats for lunch?
Sam: Soup!
Norm: Oh great, like gazpacho?
Sam: (confused look)
Norm: Like cold soup? With vegetables?
Sam: (big grin) No! Hot minestrone!

Remember what I said about how hot it was? Yeah, still that, and then Sam made piping hot minestrone. Which was, admittedly, delicious. Nice change of pace but holy hell it made one sweat.

Once in Swakop, my illustroius Qubecquois (i don't care that I spelled that wrong) partner and I signed up for the 3 hour sandboarding and quadbiking trip.

All systems go! In my speed racer helmet! I am a huge nerd!

How bad-ass do I look here? ( Please submit chocolate cake in lieu of answers)

In a nutshell, sandboarding involves going out into the middle of the desert for about an hour on a quadbike, strapping on a helmet, elbow pads and thick gloves, then being handed your "super advanced speed machine", which was pretty much a piece of thick cardboard with a shiny side. Once positioned on this, head first, you are launched down sand dunes of increasingly greater height, reaching speeds of just about 80kph.

As it is the low season in Namibia right now, there are not many tourists around. This allowed our quadbiking guide a certain amount of...shall we say latitude in his usage of speed, the size of the sand dunes that we rode, and the angles that we took coming in and out of them. I was convinced that I would need to make quick use of my travel insurance at least 5 separate times, not the least of which was when, after stalling out briefly, I decided to try and get up to the top of a hill that the guide had gone up a different way, and promptly accelerated off of a 10 foot drop, landing almost completely off the bike, but managing to stay on by hooking my foot through the gear shift lever and only slightly bruising the rest of me.

See that tiiiiiiiiny little speck coming down the dune? Thats me. 200m dune. 110kph.

Good times.

After we cleaned up from that little adventure, I got the opporunity to see one of those beautiful, graceful, intelligent springbok up close that we had been seeing all trip...

...on my dinner plate. Springbok is delicious.

Also, should you ever be traveling in Swakopmund, and happen to eat at the "Cape to Cairo" restaurant, I can highly recommend the crocodile appetizer. Springbok and crocodile, not my usual fare back home, but, I suppose, sufficient...

We then spent a pleasant bazillion hours driving back up to Windhoek, where I spent the night again hanging out with Dan (again) and another interesting group of people, drinking various cold beverages (again) and eating enormous paper bags full of "chips" (french fries for you Western Hemisphere type folks) which were so greasy that when I tried to pick up the bag it fell apart in a greasy, staining mess in my lap. I also (as I was very hungry) ate a burger, which earned me a round of mocking from a French guy who was staying at the hostel. I gave him a menacing look and he promptly surrendered Paris to me, which I accepted with grace and aplomb.

Next post...Part 2: Etosha national park, and the lush, unbelievably vast yet well paved roads of Northwestern Namibia.

Friday, February 03, 2006

Impressions of Africa

(this post is being written on 28 minutes of internet time, thus no pictures, not too long, and no editing. I simply had to get some thoughts out into the ether while they were fresh in my head)

February 3rd, 6:42 PM


Leaving our campground at 5PM, we head due West on a single track gravel road that drives straight into the horizon, a dusty brown gravel kicking up around us. The top of the 4X4 is open, and I lean back on the roof, letting the 40kph breeze kick my hair around, whilst keeping my eyes peeled for the variegated flora and fauna that this drive is supposed to reveal to me. I see a springbok (antelope type thing) a herd of giraffes, blue wildebeest, ostriches, jackals and gemsbock. We see flowers that only bloom in the extremely short, yet crucial rainy season that I am currently traveling in. Our guides point out to us the ways in which the entire ecosystem in Etosha is based on things which don't need much water. A sprinbok, I am told, can survive for nearly 4 years without drinking a drop of water. I am astounded.

The further East we drive, the more intense is the rainbow that we head towards. Thoughts of leprachauns and found riches distract me briefly, but my thoughts are inevitably drawn back to the lush greenery that surrounds me.

I have been told that most of the time, this is an arid, dry land. It is a land that is harsh to live in, and even more harsh to travel through, yet all around me there are rare flowers in bloom and the smell of fresh rain on dry land is intoxicating.

We come to the end of a small lane and turn around, it is beginning to cool off and dinner will be soon. As we head back, I am struck by the angry blue-grey clouds which hover menacingly in the West. I can feel the wind coming from them, and know that the nearly horizontal sheets of rain will soon be driving through the corrugated steel and tin sheds of the shanty towns that we passed on our way here. I can't help but think how the people living there will stay dry tonight.

The sun is arrested in the sky, far enough above the horizon that I just have to tilt my head to see it. Slyly, the afternoon sun has directed a burst of light here and there through an imperfection in the upper cloud layer. Of course, the clouds are nothing to be trifled with, and upon discovery of the deceit, the spy hole is once again covered and that spot of land becomes again, shady.

When you view it as a whole, the earth here seems to be covered in a vast green carpet, like a lawn that you may find in a well manicured garden. But, like an impressionist painting, if you are to look but a bit closer you will see that the grass is not full and lush, but is instead comprised of three and four strong stalks of grass, masquerading as a whole. The trees peform a similar illusion, in that while glancing out over the roof of our moving vehicle, you would think that you were in a rainforest. But the clever acacia trees with their biting thorns and delicate flowers have filled in much less space than you initially realized, and to view them closely is to see more of the contrast that this place epitomizes.

My attention is later drawn to a patch of turqouise which asserts itself through the dense fabric of rainclouds. There is such a powerful contrast between the blue-grey thunder clouds and this small robins-egg patch, that it feels like some great magician has drawn back a curtain just a little bit, to let you in on just how much you are missing.

If this is any indication, I am missing worlds.

As we approach our campsite, the horizon seems to stretch out forever. There aren't words big enough to describe Africa, and even if there were, they would be nothing but poor qualifiers, inadequate to descibe all but the most basic of thoughts that this continent evokes.