Friday, August 26, 2011

You... shall... not... PASS!

In the spirit of simplicity, transparency and efficiency, all African countries have come together and adopted a unified border control policy. Streamlined and orderly, the process is an example of African co-operation and organisation. NOT.
Our first real experience of border 'control' was across the Zambezi river from Botswana to Zambia. We crossed close at a place called Kazungula, not too far from Victoria Falls. As we approached the riverbank, the scene that revealed itself to us did not fill us with much hope that we would make it across the river alive, much less negotiate our way off the 'ferry' and through the chaotic scene on the other side. I just used the word ferry, but only in the very loosest sense. If you can imagine a mid size raft, made by a madman, with the skill of a child and a very real desire that anyone who sets foot upon it should instantly sink and drown, then you'll be close. Then imagine seeing a lorry crawl down the muddy bank and wobble it's way forward towards it's inevitable watery demise. Then imagine, in amongst some crazed rantings about money and documents and who (it was clearly no-one) was in charge, being told to follow on behind the lorry. For want of anywhere else to go and infected by the noisy madness of the situation, we did just that and found ourselves balancing on the end of the raft, bumper to bumper with the lorry in front, our rear bumper overhanging the water. The journey was short and we stood outside our car, opting to take our chances out swimming the crocs rather than going down with our very negatively buoyant car. On every third world public transport there are chickens and this was no exception. The chickens and locals smelt potently, but the smell was masked by the noxious soot that was unrelentingly billowing from the motor, a contraption faintly attached to the raft that, with every stuttering vibration, shook the lorry and our car ever closer to the hungry Zambezi.

But we arrived, so ladies and gentlemen, start your engines. We did, the lorry did, and then started to reverse. The continuous blast from my horn wasn't having the desired effect and so Fay leapt from the car and danced her way between the chickens and locals to protest. Frantic waving of arms, gesturing and 'STOP STOP CAR CAR WATER WATER DROWN DROWN!!', was enough to persuade him to make use of his forward gears. A narrow escape from the drink.
Having no idea if we were still in Botswana or had crossed into Zambia, we parked our car and then found we couldn't open our doors. The reason? Every Zambian (or were they Botswanan?) within a 10 mile radius had descended upon our car and were waving bank notes, insurance papers, mobile phones, chickens, bananas or assorted unidentified foodstuffs in a desperate attempt to relieve us of our burdensome cash. We tried to look like we'd done this a million times before. When we finally managed to get enough bodyweight behind the door and wedge it open so we could slide out, we strode off purposefully, in, much to the locals delight, completely the wrong direction. Eventually, after a mind boggling number of repeat journeys between unsigned offices, we emerged and passed through the final control post. We were a few hundred dollars lighter, but we had our road tax, our third party insurance, our visas, our carbon tax and a whole variety of other amusingly named documents designed with the sole purpose of maintaining the world class Zambian roads network. Er, NOT, of course.
After a similar (if dryer) experience at the Tundama border between Zambia and Tanzania, we had a sequence of much more pleasant experiences (although all equally as financially punishing), until we reached the border between Malawi and Mozambique at a town called Mwanza. At all other crossings we had bought our visas at the border without too much aggravation, but as we passed through Malawi we heard an accumulating array of stories about officious Mozambican border staff turning back tourists who hadn't arranged visas in advance. Arranging one in advance would not have been a problem but for two factors. The first was that there was no fuel in Malawi. None at all. The second was that we'd learned that there had been public protests a couple of weeks earlier. A protest during which the police were said to have opened fire and killed 18 people. Another was now scheduled for 18th August and some of the army would be protesting too. If the police opened fire on the army then some feared that there could be violent repercussions across the country. So for those two not unreasonable er.. reasons, we didn't have the time or means to get a ruddy visa. Which is what we should have eloquently explained to the female customs official at the border, but we couldn't, for two other not unreasonable er, reasons. The first was that she was THE most MISERABLE woman I have EVER encountered in my entire life. Her personality was so devoid of any redeeming features, that is she had smiled, the laws of physics would have self imploded. The second was that this was now Mozambique, and, oh yep, they speak Portuguese here, and we, well, don't.
So we waited. And waited. And when that didn't work we tried a bit more waiting. We stood at the desk beside the endless queue of victims as each in turn handed her their papers. Without exception she would pick up the document, flick to the photo page, look up at her customer and snarl. She would then bring down her mighty stamp with enough force to fell a tree and literally fling the passport bouncing back across the desk. Should anyone dare to approach out of line they would be met my a stern rebuke and be sent to the back of the line. Should anyone have failed to fill in the exit/entry form correctly they would be sent to the back of the line, sometimes time and time again. Should anyone smile, they would be sent to the back of the line.  The woman, in short, was born to be a border official.
But in the end we did get our visa, and we did cross into Mozambique where we have spent the last couple of weeks on idyllic beaches diving azure blue seas with turtles and stingrays. We have just one border left to go in Africa, before selling our car in Cape Town and taking that long flight, with heavy heavy hearts back to London Heathrow and to border control at terminal 5. Maybe they won't let us pass? Here's to hoping.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

So-fari, so good.


As we drove further north the weather changed from hot, to baking hot. And as the temperature rose, my temper boiled and my tolerance plummeted. We were ever thankful when the sun dropped below the horizon. The cooler evening also meant only one thing, a thing that we'd travelled the entire world before finding it. That thing was 'The Fringe', an American sci-fi TV series that someone had copied 3 series (or seasons as they like to say in the US) of to our computer a few months before. It had lain there dormant, like a sleeping behemoth, before being unleashed with a mighty fury that had Fay and I watching like two junkies for hour upon glorious hour, evening upon guilty evening. It is, like this blog, both wildly inaccurate and at best only mildly entertaining, but it must have sated some unmet desires in both Fay and I and whilst at the end of every evening I sincerely promised myself that 'that was it' and 'no more, this time was really the last', we couldn't help ourselves and when Fay or I started watching again, the other would, as sure as night follows steaming hot day, be lured in.

It got hotter. We took a passenger ferry from Dar Es Salaam for a mini holiday within a holiday.  Zanzibar gave some temporary, windy reprieve. Not just from the heat but also from the car which had been our home, and increasingly an albatross around our necks for the last two months. Especially in the early stages, we were reluctant to leave the car unattended, and this meant many a time when I would go and buy another new sim card or negotiate the price of some market tomatoes and Fay (poor Fay) would be left to swelter in the hot tin can. As time has gone on, and we've discovered that Africans are generally more honest and trustworthy (if much more chaotically unorganised) than Westerners, we've managed to let go and leave 'Rhino' to her own devices whilst we go about our business.

One of the foremost reasons we left on our travels was Fay's desire, seeded when she was in her early teens, to see Africa, and more specifically, the Serengeti and the Masai Mara. Arusha is the main base town for both trips into the Serengeti and also to climb Kilimanjaro. Not having the time, money or inclination to climb Kili, I did manage to persuade Fay that climbing Mount Meru would be a good idea. Often used as an acclimatisation climb prior to attempting Kili, it is a great mountain in it's own right. At 4500 metres it's difficult enough, and the route is varied and at times spectacular. You are obliged to take an armed ranger/guide should the resident buffalo or mountain elephants take a dislike to you. We found a ranger at the gate called Jeffrey and he arranged for his friend with an unpronounceable name (whom I re-named 'Pen') to carry some of our equipment and food. The climb takes three days and on the third morning we set off at 1am and arrived at the summit to see the sun rise from behind Kili and cast it's imposing shadow over the clouds beneath us. What I won't say here is that despite my having to encourage Fay to attempt the mountain, it was her who had the much easier time getting to the top, my routine bouts of altitide sickness making life pretty tricksy 'up, up in the atmosphere' as they say in Mary Poppins. Jeffrey and Pen, were very patient as I had to take things very 'Pol-e Pol-e' (slowly slowly). We reached the bottom the following day and flicking through the comments book, I found the entry which best summed up the experience. Carlo d'amato thought the mountain was 'frickin' sweet'. How had he recorded his nationality? 'Eggplant' of course.



After Mount Meru we made our way to the Serengeti Plains and from there into Kenya and the Masai Mara. There are a million hoofed beasts that roam the plains in search of fresh grass. We were in the Tanzanian part of the park and with luck on our side we managed to view thousands of them crossing the Mara river. The power of ants comes from their working as a seamless organisation. To look at them as if to watch a single entity, each constituent part instinctively knowing it's job and performing it without question. The wildebeest seem to work in almost exactly the opposite way. So whilst we watched one group brave the currents and the crocs of the Mara River, we were simultaneously able to watch another, crossing at the same point, in the opposite direction.  The spectacle was fascinating to watch. The Wildebeest gather in ever greater numbers on the banks of the river. Time after time you think they are about to GO, but time after time they DON'T, and slowly disperse before gathering again. It's only occasionally, when one specifically suicidal beast makes the initial dash that it begins and thousands plummet   

frantically into the water, jumping over or standing on each other in their bid to get safely to the other side.


From the Kenyan side we had a different experience. We arrived at a point famous for Wildebeest crossings, and there were hundreds there. Although present, they were also very much dead, bloated and stinking of death and decaying flesh. They had attracted the morbid attention of an equal number of vultures and other scavenging birds to this corpse banquet and the sight was as harrowing as it was unexpected. We later found out that the unfortunate dead had either drowned or been stampeded to death. I can't imagine there's a better advertisement that the 'grass is not always greener' anywhere in the world.