Sunday, September 30, 2007

Dar es Salaam and Stone Town

We spent a requisite night in Dar es Salaam, the capital of Tanzania, before catching the ferry to Stone Town, Zanzibar. Like most other African capitals, Dar is a large, unattractive and seemingly soulless city, but at least Gil had the good fortune of winning a ticket to the upcoming Nation's Cup qualifying match between the Tanzania and Mozambique national teams from Serengeti Lager while we were there (to the displeasure of the locals, of course).

For being so close in proximity, Zanzibar seems much more vibrant than Dar. The unique Swahili culture that originated in this and other nearby islands still holds strong. It's had a lasting impact on the rest of East Africa as well, from providing a unifying regional language to initiating the spread of the Islamic religion.

Stone Town's narrow, winding streets are lined with white coral buildings that shuffle back and forth between Arabian, African, Indian and European architectural influences. Although decaying from years of neglect (the local museum placed the blame on Tanzania's experiment with socialism when most private property was seized for common public use), their cracked and blackened exteriors only seem to add to the beauty and exoticism of the city.

The people reflect a similar amalgamation of cultures, from their many different skin colors to the etymology of the words that compose the Swahili language they speak. Other evidence of this melting pot of societies include the Islamic dress of the Zanzibarian women, whose brightly colored head scarves and embroidered dresses are a far cry from the traditional black-as-night attire worn by the women in Egypt and Middle Eastern countries.

While Zanzibar has a thriving tourist industry, Stone Town retains much of its traditional charm through features such as the local fish market. In how many other places can you see a 100 lb. swordfish and buckets of sardines being auctioned off to the highest bidder? There are also many artisans in residence in there, continuing the crafts of the wood carvers and "tinga tinga" painters who came before them. We even got to enjoy a concert of local students learning to play traditional Zanzibarian instruments and music.

Perhaps less authentic, but certainly as enjoyable, is the nightly queue of vendors serving up grilled seafood to hungry tourists. From barracuda to shark, you can get pretty much anything you desire for dirt cheap (no, unfortunately they haven't caught on to the idea of sustainable fishing yet). After enjoying a sunset beer and having some fresh grilled seafood we watched the local boys try to out do each other diving from the docks and performing acrobatics on the beach.


We weren't able to get a seat on the bus from Arusha direct to Dar es Salaam, so we ended up stopping in Moshi on the way. Moshi is a bustling little town at the base of Kilimanjaro, Africa's highest peak. It's home to the local Chagga people, but also has a strong Asian influence, as evidenced by the Hindu temple and many mosques in the center of town. The streets are filled with men and women sitting behind antique sewing machines crafting brightly patterned cloth into dresses and suits and there is a colorful market in the town center. It was a nice place to pass the day, and although we didn't climb Kili, we did enjoy its name-sake beer at sunset within its view. Close enough.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Arusha, Tarangire, Ngorongoro Crater

We made the journey to from Nairobi to Arusha by bus, crossing over the Tanzania border mid-day. It was a lovely trip through the golden countryside, passing by rounded hills covered in Masaai huts and steep snow-topped mountains. When we reached Arusha, a small, tourist city set at the base of Mt. Meru, we arranged up a 2-day safari to Tarangire and the Ngorongoro Crater. We picked Tarangire because of its large elephant population and baobab trees and the Crater because we had repeatedly heard "there is no other place like it on earth!"

Our day in Tarangire was a real treat. We had the safari van to ourselves (thanks, Jackpot Safaris!) and were able to take our time enjoying the wildlife and baobab-studded landscape at our own pace. We watched several families of elephants playing in the mud or munching on the last of the green foliage that had not yet succumbed to the heat of the dry season. It was particularly enjoyable to see several baby elephants up close, drinking milk as their mothers eyed the van with suspicion.

We had lunch by the bend in the dwindling river that feeds Lake Manyara , which gave us the opportunity to watch many animals (zebra, wildebeest, waterbucks, giraffes and more) refresh themselves in the mid-day heat. It also gave Gil the opportunity to get up close and personal with nature when a band of hungry baboons attacked our table and tried to steal his lunch box. He fought with the leader and punched him in the face getting back all but his yogurt and a bag of peanuts!

The Ngoronogoro Crater also held up to its reputation as one of the world's most amazing places. We skirted along the crater highlands - which consists of alternating rain forest and Maasai grazing land - for several kilometers before descending down a steep, windy road to the crater floor. The crater has one of the highest concentrations of wildlife anywhere in the world, owing in part to the wide variety of habitats found in the 20 km area, including swamps, forests, lakes and savanna. We saw many of the same animals we had seen on our previous safaris, but they seemed even more spectacular than before against the backdrop of the steep crater walls. Highlights included seeing a female lion stalk a warthog drinking by the river, watching several hyenas feeding after a kill, enjoying lunch by a hippo-filled lake and practically touching an old, male elephant that crossed by our van.

Safaris in Tanzania aren't cheap, but they are certainly worth it.

Mt. Kenya

In an effort to do something a little more active than sit in a minivan, we decided to hike Mt. Kenya. After a short stop in Nairobi to stock up on ramen noodles and tuna fish and to exchange our very cheap tent for a slightly upgraded cheap tent, we headed to Nanyuki, the closest town to the Sirimon trail head.

Together with a nice Italian chap, David, whom we had met on one of the many legs of our Masai Mara safari, we hired a guide and headed out for the first stretch of the journey. We made it to our first camp (Old Moses, 3,300 meters) just as it started to rain, and were feeling pretty positive about the hike ahead of us until we met up with several groups on their way back down from the mountain who were making comments along the lines of "hardest thing I've ever done in my life" and "I cried on the final hike to the summit". They all had porters and cooks and were staying in beds in the huts, whereas we were carrying our own packs and food and sleeping in tents, so it made us a little apprehensive about what we had gotten ourselves into. Still, the sky cleared up and the sunset over the valley was glorious, so we had faith the views would be worth all of the hard work.

The next day we trekked over the first pass to the Liki Valley (3,900 meters). The trail cut through some beautiful alpine landscapes, and although it was a bit wet, we made good time and arrived early enough to set up camp before the afternoon rains started. Unfortunately, we discovered that our slightly upgraded cheap tent was not as waterproof as the package had promised, for we soon had a several rivers flowing through it. We took refuge in the tiny hut by the river, a box no larger than 6 feet by 10 feet with missing floor boards and several furry and feathered friends calling it home. For the next 8 hours we sat in the hut and stared out at the rain, rejoicing when it eventually turned to hail with the hope that our tent might fair better against solid precipitation. It finally cleared up around sunset, which gave us a little time to take in the beauty of the glacial valley. It was a very special place, made even more memorable by the fact that we were the only hikers at the camp - in perfect seclusion from the rest of the world.

We spent the night huddled together inside the little hut, desperately praying for the below freezing night to pass quickly. The next morning we got off to a bit of a slow start, as it took time to thaw out our frozen bodies, as well as our hiking boots, which had turned into icy rocks. In the cloudless early morning hours, we got our first views of snow-covered Pt. Lenana, our final destination and the third highest peak on Mt. Kenya. It looked down upon us ominously and we climbed excitedly to the top of the next pass to get a better view.

The landscape we passed that morning was magical - an icy wonderland of still waterfalls and crystalized rocks gave way to a scene straight our of a Dr. Seuss book, full of cartoon-like plants and furry trees. The altitude was wearing on us and the last push up to Shipton's Camp (4,200 meters) was tough, but on arrival we were rewarded with clear skies and amazing views of the highest peaks. We treated ourselves to a warm bed in the hut and our guide, Charles, scavenged a hot meal for us from the other groups, so we were able to rest well that night for the summit and long return back down to Old Moses the following day.

Awakening before 5 am, we started our ascent to Pt. Lenana (4,900 meters) in the dark. The trail was steep and relentless and it took all of our the remaining energy to push to the top. The 360 degree views from Pt. Lenana were truly inspirational - certainly ranking high on our list of the most beautiful sights we've ever seen. We could see Mt. Kilimanjaro to the south and the last remnants of an ancient glacier spilling down the mountainside. Glossy, blue-green lakes and deep, dark gorges infiltrated the expanses below us. It seemed that we were millions of miles away from civilization- exploring an undiscovered land or visiting a far away planet. That was, until the phone rang. Our guide got a from his cell phone right at the summit! Oh, technology... I love you, I hate you.

The trip back down the mountain was less enjoyable than the journey up - we covered almost 30 km the day we summited and it was cold and raining for much of it. On our 5th day we finished up the final 9 km and headed back to Nanyuki for a much needed hot shower and some deep, deep sleep.

Saturday, September 1, 2007

Masai Mara & Lake Nakuru Safari

We headed back to Nairobi and lined up a 4 day safari to Masai Mara and Lake Nakuru. Our trip got off to a bit of a rocky start when we were supposed to be on the road at 9:00, but instead found ourselves sitting in our tour operator's office listening to yet another promise that we'd be leaving "soon, soon" at noon. After a hair-raising ride through the beautiful Rift Valley, we made it to our campsite and then on to the park gate just in time for an incredible downpour that turned our first game drive into a very brief affair. Luckily, we were able to see a cheetah devouring a very unlucky wildebeest in that short time period. Also unlucky that evening was our driver, who was fined for driving off the road to give us a closer view. It's was a difficult lesson, but probably for the best - the park is in pretty rough shape from overuse and the following day the drivers seemed to be showing a little more respect for the rules.

Our trip appeared to be continuing down the same bumpy path the next morning when our driver told us that his minivan was having electrical problems and we'd need to join another group for our safari. Fortunately, our surrogate guide was a genial fellow and the group of Germans we imposed upon were very welcoming. We got to see an abundance of wildlife, from countless wildebeest and zebra that had recently migrated from the Serengeti in Tanzania to several lions, including a male and female lion away from the pride on "honeymoon" and a young male that decided to lay in the cool shade of our van to escape the mid-day sun. Alas, fate threw us another curve ball when our van got stuck in the mud, requiring us to push it out - but, I suppose that just added to the experience of being in the "bush".

While the animals are amazing to view, perhaps even more interesting to watch are the Maasai people who live nearby. The Maasai are only one of East Africa's many tribal groups, but are known the world over for being one of the last tribes to hold on to their traditional customs and pastoral way of life. You notice the Maasai immediately, as the men are draped in plaid cloth of reds and purple and the women wear beautifully patterned dresses - both of which stand out vividly against the burnt yellow savanna. Adding further color, they adorn themselves with beaded necklaces and shiny silver earrings that hang from their stretch their earlobes, and sometimes even stain their skin or hair with the bright red earth. It was fascinating to watch the young boys tending to the cattle with their warrior spears or the women repairing the roofs of their mud huts. But, it is clear that this way of life is under serious threat. Both tourism and the competition for land are impacting the Maasai's ability to continue with their traditional way of life unaltered.

After several unexpected vehicle changes, we continued our safari at Lake Nakuru, one of the many lakes formed by volcanic activity in the great Rift Valley. The park is relatively small and, because it's a sanctuary for the endangered black and white rhinos, is surrounded by an electric fence. This means there are plenty of animals congregating down by the lake at all times, including thousands of flamingos that frost the edges of the lake in pink. It made for a stunning and somewhat surreal backdrop, particular when viewing the rhinos, which are quite strange and wondrous creatures in their own right!

Despite the logistical problems we encountered, we had a great time on safari and wish you all could have been there to experience it with us!