Zanzibar: Beautiful one day, perfect the next

I was originally only going to be on Zanzibar for 4-days.  On my first afternoon I knew that wasn’t going to be long enough… I stayed for a week.

Now in Johannesburg and about to go exploring I’ve been reflecting on what a fabulous week I had on the spice island.

Obviously from my last post, Mnemba Island was the highlight.  The service, the environment, the food; all were outstanding.  The whole experience was completely relaxing and exactly what I needed after 2months travelling on dirt roads, not being able to shower daily and generally being on sensory overload.

Back on the ‘big’ island, Zanzibar continued to impress.  I stayed in Stone Town, taking my time wandering the labyrinth of narrow alleys (going in circles for a while) and poring through curio and craft shops; making up for not having really shopped all year.

I had a traditional ‘Singo’ body scrub by a blind therapist at Mrembo Spa.  Once I got over the initial shock I surprised myself at how much I relaxed despite her vigorous scrubbing of my sea-lice bitten legs and arms.

The Africa House deck before we were overrun by the tour busses

Continuing my daily sundowner tradition I headed to Africa House.

Sitting on a wide balcony overlooking the ocean suddenly we were overrun with Italians.  They milled around talking loudly and calling across the deck to their kids for photo opportunities.

It wasn’t quite the romantic, relaxed sunset experience of Mnemba or the Serena in Stone Town.  Once the tour busses took the Italians back to their resorts Africa House’s chilled vibe returned and the drinks and conversation flowed easily.

I tried a range of restaurants and cafes in Stone Town but the most fun eating experience was definitely the Forodhani Gardens night markets.  Tourists and volunteers mingled easily with the locals, browsing stalls of barbecued meat, fish and all manner of strange

Foodahni Markets

looking pastries.

The Zanzibari pizza had been recommended – mince, egg and some mixed veggies wrapped in a filo pastry and fried.  It didn’t sound or look like any pizza I’ve ever eaten but it was good.  Very good.

While I was enjoying my last Zanzibar breakfast, one of the Muslim schools sang and danced their way through town, right past where I was sitting.  Apparently it was Mohammed’s birthday and they were celebrating.  The music and chanting was typical of what I’d heard throughout my Stone Town wanderings – a fitting end to my time on the island.

 

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Magical Mnemba Island

When I was met with a cool face cloth, fresh lime juice, and someone taking away my shoes, any lingering city stress I’d been holding on to vanished into the Indian Ocean.

Peter - one of the managers of the amazing Mnemba staff

I’d arrived at Mnemba Island, a private island off the east coast of Zanzibar.

Over my three nights at Mnemba I indulged in lobster, sashimi, crab, king fish and all manner of sorbets (including fennel which I wasn’t expecting to like, but discovered was incredibly tasty).

During my welcome briefing, manager Peter showed me where the daily menu was displayed and let me know that if there was anything I particularly fancied just to ask… from simple spaghetti to an indian curry, nothing would be too difficult.

Each morning I looked at the menu and considered asking for vegemite toast just to see if it was possible!  Knowing I had a tube of vegemite in my bag, I kept with the daily specials and was never disappointed.

Banda #2 - my home on Mnemba

The only decisions you have to make on Mnemba are:

  • What time to have tea/coffee brought to your room in the morning,
  • What sort of cocktail you’d like delivered to the beach in front of your banda for 6pm sundowners
  • If and when you’d like a massage or to go snorkelling/scuba diving….

I think the world would be a much happier place if these were the only decisions we ever had to make!

My days on Mnemba started with tea looking out over the Indian Ocean, followed by a morning swim and breakfast of homemade granola, fresh fruit and the most delicious passionfruit butter I’ve ever tasted.  I exercised by walking around the island, jumping into the ocean whenever I got hot on the 20min trip.

By mid-morning it was time to snorkel and try to find the dolphins… yep, I managed to swim with them twice on two separate days!  They are such beautiful creatures and they come so close to you, literally surfacing from below and looking me in the eye before swimming off at an incredible speed to join the rest of their pod.

Afternoons were spent snorkeling on the home reef (a 5min swim from my ‘front door’), working on my tan and doing another lap of the island.

Yesterday I got slightly more energetic and decided to challenge the island’s ocean swimming record… circumnavigating the island at high tide, the women’s record came tumbling down when I finished in 35min!  Not bad for what I think is about a 1.5km swim.

After such strenuous days I highly recommend a massage.  Mnemba has a full-time therapist on staff. Claire looks like a South African angel but she has hands of a demon… amazing, and my mountain climbing, weary legs felt kilos lighter after she’d worked her magic.

First night sundowner in front of #2

Evenings on Mnemba start with sundowner drinks watching the sun set over the Indian Ocean and then continue in the lounge, where the guests are hosted by two of the staff.  Casual, friendly and completely relaxed, drinks are an opportunity to chat to other guests and pick the brains of the staff about which fish you’d seen snorkeling earlier in the day.

If I’d wanted a romantic dinner for two, it would have been all too easy to stay in my banda and have dinner brought to me.  Then I could have eaten under the stars by the light of a small bonfire and hurricane lamps.

Being here on my own I always opted to eat with the hosting staff and other guests, still under the stars but happily in the company of others.  One of the couples chose the romantic option and so I at least got to hear about the experience… they loved it!

Just as I was finishing my poached mango and vanilla ice-cream last night one of the other guests came up to Peter and offered him his baseball cap.

baby turtle like the ones we saw last night (photo from Mnemba)

Inside was a tiny green sea turtle they’d found wandering towards their bedroom.  Excited it might be a nest hatching we grabbed torches and headed to their room.

Strangely it wasn’t a “hatching” but we did find one other misguided baby turtle also travelling in the wrong direction.  We turned both turtles around and set them in the right direction. Watching them swim frantically in the shallows and then being swept away by the tide.

Turtle’s lay around 100 eggs in a nest and they typically hatch all at once, creating mass movement of babies towards the sea.  These two individual hatchings were very out of the ordinary and I was incredibly lucky to have seen them.

My luck continued on Mnemba when at 2am this morning I was woken by dive master Jason saying a female green sea turtle have come up to lay her eggs. Grabbing my torch

turtle tracks to her nest

and heading down the beach again I got to see her lay the last eggs, fill in the burrow with her rear flippers and then bury her nest with powerful strokes of her front flippers.

The whole process takes around 2hrs (I didn’t stay for it all) and the turtles are measured and tagged on their way back to the sea as part of the conservation program.  This lady was 109cm long and 102cm wide… a fairly large female according to Jason.  It was an amazing sight to see.

So after four days of this stressful existence I’m back wearing shoes in the real world.  I didn’t have windows or doors, a key or a phone on Mnemba and I didn’t miss any of them.

Back in Stone Town for another two nights reviewing different hotels and restaurants it’s going to be a tough call for anywhere to come close to Mnemba.

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The unexpected in Uganda

I spent almost a week in Uganda, the self-proclaimed “pearl of Africa”, and was constantly surprised.

As a landlocked country with so much dust and dirt that very little remains white for long, I’m not sure why they chose a pearl as their symbol.

Irrespective, Uganda is full of surprises such as:

  • Walking down the main street of capital city Kampala I had far fewer marriage proposals and people trying to sell me things than in any other large African city I’ve visited this trip
  • I was expecting to see one or two gorillas, I saw eight and two of them were silverbacks, another two were babies… and they were really less than two metres away
  • There are loads of people doing independent volunteer work. For example, the 64yr old Dutch surgeon who’s been going to Kisoro for 2-3mths every year for the past 4years and the German woman (Marliese) who doesn’t have children of her own but has sponsored over 150 children from the country’s south-west
  • Golden monkeys move really quickly… they’re very tough to photograph. I’ve now got a whole new respect for anyone who has managed to take a great shot of them
  • Duty free shops in the airport that have more than just chocolate and cigarettes and are open so people can buy things… who knew that’d be good retail practice??
  • During the week of an election locals were talking freely about how much they dislike the current (and re-elected) president and openly voicing their concerns about government power, corruption and greed
  • At the Sanyu Babies Home in Kampala, despite being at maximum capacity of 50 babies the “mamas” working there were still smiling after the morning snack chaos
  • Finding some of the best Indian food I’ve ever eaten in Kampala

I’d like to go back to Uganda to see some of the other sites (Murchison Falls, the source of the Nile, Mt Elgon etc)  as well as reconnect with many of the people I met.  It’s the sort of country a volunteer could go and feel like they were making a real difference in an environment that is safer and less confronting than some of the others I’ve seen in Africa.

I’m still not sure if any of this makes Uganda a “pearl”… but it’s definitely a gem that with a little polish could really start to shine.

Here are a selection of photos to give you a taste of the unexpected country.

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Gorillas in the Moutains

Kisoro, Uganda is 10km from both the Congo and Rwandan borders.  The 10hr drive from the capital Kampala weaves through banana farms and past cattle with metre-long horns.

volcano Mt Sabyinyo (3,669m)... the name means "old man's tooth" in Englishmeter long horns.

 

For the final hour of the drive the bumps and hairpin bends even started to make my cast iron stomach churn.  Local residents told me that if I make good my promise of returning in a couple of years, the road should be much better… I hope so!

At the foot of the Virunga volcanoes, nights are cool in Kisoro (it’s just over 1,800m) so on arrival I settled in front of the fire the Travellers Rest, the main tourist hotel in town, with a large gin and tonic.

Managed by Dutchman Jan, the Travellers Rest has to be the best small town hotel I’ve stayed at in Africa so far.  The staff are attentive without being overbearing, the food is delicious and varied (and they make a special effort to cater for vegetarians), and there’s plenty of solar hot water to make you feel clean after a day climbing in the surrounding volcanoes.

Most visitors to Kisoro come to see the mountain gorillas, and my fellow Travellers Rest guests were no different.  Over dinner Jan took great pleasure in telling me about a group of tourists the week before had left the hotel at 6am and didn’t return till 1am.  Wet, exhausted and relieved to be back, it was a hot shower rather than the joy of spending an hour with these highly endangered primates that was top of mind of fellow Travellers Rest guests.

tracking along buffalo trails

After almost 2 weeks of climbing mountains my legs weren’t super excited about the thought of a potentially 19hr hike!

Lucky for me I was tracking the oldest, habituated family who live in Mgahinga Gorilla National Park about an hour drive from town through corn and potato fields on what might just be the worlds roughest, defined road.

I’d come to Uganda thinking I was going gorilla trekking.  In our briefing at the wildlife service office, guide Uallan told our group of four that it was indeed gorilla tracking… there’s no knowing where the gorillas are each day.

Our guide Allem and gun-toting assistant guide led me plus a young Swiss couple and

our fabulous guide Allem

Dutch mother of two for just over an hour and a half along buffalo trails and through thick rainforest undergrowth till we found them.  Much shorter than the 19hrs I’d been expecting and all four tourist trackers were over the moon!

The Myakagezi Gorilla Group has 3 silverback males, 2 adult females, 2 black back males and 2 infants (1 male/1 female).  We saw all but one of the silverbacks (Bigingo).

The guides know each gorilla intimately having spent 3 months observing them from 7am to 5pm before they can even become a tourist guide.  Allem loves her job and I can understand why… I’d happily spend 90-days with these amazing creatures and getting to know them.

Black back Mdugutse is 12 and will become a silverback next year

Clearly comfortable in our company black back Rukundo even pulled the vines shielding him from my camera lens away so I could get better photos.  The infants (who haven’t been named) were having fun spinning in circles and falling over dizzy or climbing over their dad Mark, the largest of the silverbacks at just over 200kg.

Yep, I really was there!!!

Time with the gorillas is restricted and the hour I spent there was one of the fastest hours I’ve ever experienced.  After hacking our way out of the undergrowth and back onto a buffalo trail where we could see the ground the adrenalin started to abate and I could think about what I’d just seen… even now, 2 days later I’m still pinching myself to check that it was real.

Back at Travellers Rest, everyone was talking about spending time with the gorillas being a “once in a lifetime opportunity” but it’s definitely an experience I’d be happy to have time and time again.

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Pampering post Kili

After climbing Africa’s two highest peaks in two weeks I was in need of a little pampering.  I’d read about Giraffe Manor… a boutique hotel, set in a 1930’s building right in Nairobi that’s home to 9 Rothschild giraffes.

Managed by hospitality superstars Giles and Jessica, my one night at Giraffe Manor wasn’t nearly enough.  I’m definitely going back!

Speaking to Giles as I was leaving this morning, he told me that they get quite a few Aussie visitors over the Christmas period and this year there have been a number of writers.  I can see the appeal of sitting on the lawn, watching the giraffes and warthog’s feeding less that 10m away while penning the next best seller…. ahhh, I’ll keep dreaming!

The setting, the weather, the decor were all amazing and in less than 24hrs I managed to take over 160 shots… here are just a couple so you can get a feel for what it was like.

 

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I climbed Kili for a cure… and made it!

When I signed up for the Cure Cancer Mt Kilimanjaro climb 10-months ago I had no idea what to expect.

Climb for a Cure crew leaving for the mountain

Climb for a Cure crew leaving for the mountain

The planning, fundraising and adventure clothes shopping was loads of fun, but all pale in significance compared to watching the sunrise at Gilman’s Peak after 6hrs of hiking (from 4,700m to 5,681m) by moonlight and at -15C.

After Gilman’s, it was another 1.5hrs to reach the summit (Uhru Peak) and then 5hrs back down to where we started.

After raising over $55,000 for Cure Cancer, our group of 9 Kili climbers spent 7 days on the mountain looked after by a crew of 37 Tanzanian’s (mostly men) as we puffed and stumbled our way up Africa’s highest mountain.

When I interviewed everyone in team post climb, the stand out best memory was the

The 8 of us that made it to the top!

feeling of having made it to the top of Africa.

When I asked what one thing they’d change, the overwhelming response was the weather.  Yep, it was cold.  We were hiking in 10-15cm of snow and stopping for a bite of chocolate or to blow your nose turned our fingers and toes to ice.

Our guides told us that the weather was unseasonal… I couldn’t help thinking this might just be another example of the effects of global warming.  That thought was reinforced when guide Hubert told me that the glaciers were about twice their current size when he started guiding 8 years ago.  The towering shelves of ice still dwarf the glacier on Mt Kenya, but I do wish I’d been crazy enough to try this climb years ago to see them at their massive best.

Connie, dwarfed by the glaciers at the top

Taking the recently re-opened Rongai Route up the mountain our group got different answers from different members of our local support crew when it came to the total distance we walked.  I do know it was less than 100km, but how much less I’m not sure.

On the final day alone it was 20km – descending from the alpine region into lush rainforest, complete with monsoonal downpour.

Steph & Nadia at Gilmans Point with the view back to Mawenzi Peak

Reaching the summit was more emotional than I would ever have expected.  We all shed tears… and not being much of a crier, I do admit to having blubbered most of the way from Gilmans Point to the very top Uhuru Peak (5,895m).

From my personal perspective, putting my body through such a physically demanding experience is nothing compared to those that have undergone cancer treatment.  At the top I felt exhausted, relieved and incredibly lucky to have been able to undertake such a challenge.  Without wanting to single anyone out or needing to make a big deal out of it, each day all of us on the trip all spent a moment thinking about who we were walking for… Jane (& the Worthy family), Mike (& Lou), Laura and Nana… there were days up on that mountain that were all about you.

The better part of 2010 was planning for this trip.  6 nights in a tent (3 of them in snow), more eggs than I’ve eaten in my life, and a number of yellow bruises from uncoordinated falls on the way down and it’s all over.  I said goodbye to my fellow trekkers yesterday – most of them heading home to Australia while I’ve still got another month of African adventure.

At the top of Africa!

Giraffe Manor in Nairobi, trekking with the mountain gorillas in Uganda and relaxing on Zanzibar are next on my agenda. I’m excited about the next phase of my adventure but I’ll miss the new friends I’ve made… it’s amazing how quickly you bond with people over toilet paper supplies, wet mattresses and a common goal – reaching the summit!

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Mt Kenya photo album

While I’m busy climbing Mt Kilimanjaro, I thought I’d put up some of the pictures from my ‘practice’ trek up Mt Kenya.

Some of the plants were unique to Mt Kenya… the ostrich plume has got to be the most strange.  It looks like a cross between Cousin It and an Ewok.

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