Wednesday, March 30, 2011

March 24th – Dakar and Gorée Island

Darkar in Senegal, can be Africa at its most chaotic – the traffic is terrible, the streets are crumbling, and the hassle that you get from the persistent hawkers and street vendors is unrelenting at best and bordering on the aggressive at its worst. It's also a vibrant modern city that's growing all the time, where a well-off elite are doing pretty well, even if the ordinary man in the street has to struggle hard to make a living.

Instead of taking on Dakar's urban jungle, we took a softer option of going to the historic Gorée Island by public ferry. Just walking round the docks from our berth to the ferry terminal was a good introduction to the city – with a non-existent health and safety regime here, we were able to walk in between the huge trucks shifting enormous containers in a non-stop helter skelter of jerky movements. Then, when we got out of the industrial port, we immediately attracted a "guide" who wanted to escort us to the ferry and then around the island. He helpfully pointed us to the incredibly obvious terminal building, and informed us that we couldn't use Euros to buy our tickets, and he knew somewhere to change our money.

The tourist's first rule of Dakar is never to believe a word anyone says to you, so we tried to outpace him on our march to buy the tickets. He doggedly trotted alongside us and was still telling us we couldn't use Euros as we were in the process of paying with Euros – I pointed out to him that this fundamental lack of knowledge didn't do his guiding credentials much good, nor did it make us feel inclined to trust him. He didn't seem to care, and told us that he'd meet us once we got to the island.

As we waited for the ferry, I got talking to some friendly local women in my schoolboy French, which taught us another Dakar lesson – almost anyone you talk to, will try to sell you something at some point. So, it turned out that these women ran souvenir shops and were soon trying to persuade us to visit their shops on the island.

Once we were on the ferry, it appeared that there was a special occasion going on – normally a ferry ride isn't accompanied by the presence of three film crews and lots of well-dressed VIPs. It turned out that today was the day when the Transatlantic Slave Trade was commemorated around the world. They were all converging on this idyllic little island, because up until the 19th century, Gorée Island was one of the main staging posts of the cruel slave trade, when thousands (possibly millions) of slaves stolen from Africa, were corralled here like cattle, before being crammed onto the slave boats bound for the plantations of the Americas.

However, when you arrive at this tranquil little hideaway, it's hard to believe all this traumatic history could have taken place here – it seemed just too beautiful to have witnessed such terrible events. With all the historic buildings painted in beautiful pastel shades and many covered in colourful bougainvillea, the place had more of the feel of a French Provencal village, or a Caribbean island.

Of course, the hustlers and the vendors do their best to take the gloss off the place, so we attached ourselves to one of the tour groups to get beyond the first line of hasslers, and then made a bolt for it in the opposite direction to everyone else. We did well and we weren't followed – later we met a couple from the ship who'd spent the last two hours trying to shake off an unwanted guide.

We visited the historic round fort overlooking the tip of the island, which the French had built on taking the island in the 17th century, and we enjoyed the views from this peaceful haven over the sea to Dakar, its skyline absolutely crammed with buildings jostling for position.

We explored the quiet sandy streets, and made our way to the island's number one sight – the Slave House. This house was one of 28 slave houses on the island, but this one has become a symbol of the evils of the slave trade. As you walk around the dank dungeons on the ground floor were the slaves were held, mostly chained to the wall, it's difficult to comprehend what these poor souls must have felt, snatched from their homes, treated worse than animals, and about to be taken to another world where no-one spoke their language or gave a damn about their welfare.

After this sobering visit, we walked up to the hill at the top of the island to enjoy the views, and had to run the gauntlet of the stall holders on the way up – almost exclusively people we'd shared the ferry over with, who felt that we'd "promised" to visit their particular stall. Even though we're the meanest travellers around, even we felt guilted into visiting the stall of the lady that we'd spoken to the most, and so we ended up buying stuff we really didn't want.

As we waited for the ferry, we had a relaxing drink on the beach in totally idyllic surroundings, as we were serenaded by a constant parade of buskers and yet more people trying to sell us stuff – even they couldn't take away from the chilled out Gorée vibe.

Of course, any relaxed vibe disappeared immediately, as soon as we set foot in Dakar's sweaty streets, so we did a little exploring in the chaos, before we returned to the serenity of the ship for some peace and quiet.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

March 19th – São Tomé

São Tomé is a tiny island nation off the coast of West Africa – it's also just about the hottest and most humid place I've ever been to. Just by the time we'd got onto the rocky tender, we were dripping with sweat, and even when it started to rain briefly, it scarcely cooled down at all.

São Tomé is a place that's hardly seen any development since the Portuguese ended their 500-year rule here in 1975, but thankfully it isn't a place where crime and disorder have taken a hold. So, we felt quite safe as we wandered the crumbling streets, shouting "olas" to the cheerful groups of barefoot children, and soaking up the generally relaxed tropical atmosphere.

We first went to the old 15th century Portuguese fort overlooking the bay, and did a "guided" tour of the national museum inside. Our "guide", in his tattered shirt, seemed to feel that his job was mainly to keep the group together and shout at anyone who veered off his allotted path, and to repeat continually his "no fotos" mantra – being a non-conformist, Tracy delighted in disobeying both of his rules.

We then went into town, and sought out the market. As we walked the empty streets, we kept remarking on how few people there were, but once we got to the incredibly busy market, it was obvious where they all were, crammed into the narrow paths between the stalls. The market was a complete assault on your senses – people shouting, music blaring, fish stinking, and shoppers shoving. We must have looked pretty bewildered by it all and were constantly getting in someone's way – there was so much going on that you didn't know where to look.

Different stallholders were talking to us incomprehensibly, children were demanding that we take their photos and show them the results, and a mentally deranged man with ulcerous legs attached himself to me, mumbling manically. Fortunately, a couple of the ladies shouted at him in Portuguese the equivalent of "bugger off", and he finally left us alone. Just as we were getting into the swing of things, and as Tracy was taking photos of the mayhem, one lady on a fish stall took complete exception to her photography, and started screaming at us, her eyes utterly bulging with rage. Seeing as she was holding a big chopping knife, we didn't hang around to apologise for any unintended insult, and we made a hasty retreat to the ever-so-slightly cooler air outside.

For a break from the chaos, we walked around São Tomé's wide bay, surveying all the rusting shipwrecks in the water, and looking at the decaying houses on the waterfront – this would have been prime real estate back in colonial times, and it probably still is now, even though it's hard to appreciate.

Our next task was to find somewhere for lunch – somewhere that we'd be happy to eat in. This wasn't our most successful search, because all the places we were heading for had either shut down, looked dodgy, or were unfindable. We did thankfully find one shop with air-conditioning, so we hung around in there for a while to reduce our core body temperatures down to just below boiling point. It was interesting to see that this must have been the most upmarket food shop in town – you knew that because it had a security guard virtually asleep outside, and everything was kept behind counters, so every single thing you wanted, you had to ask someone to get for you. Anyway, once we'd chilled down a bit, we settled on a deserted café that sold cold beer and a doughnut – an odd combination but strangely satisfying in the circumstances.

Suitably fortified, we spent the next couple of hours just wandering the baking streets, leaving a trail of perspiration behind us, ticking off the main historic sights (not too many in a small town of 50,000 people). So we went to the Cathedral and walked over to the Presidential Palace, where we watched the most laid-back changing of guard ever, as a troupe of loose-hipped soldiers sauntered up vaguely marching in jaunty step. As we admired the Palace, a big soldier with an even bigger gun came up to us. "What's your problem?" he demanded unsmilingly. The best I could come up with was to stammer out, "I like your Palace". Then it became obvious why he was talking to us, "If you want photos, you must pay me". He obviously didn't realise that we'd surreptitiously been taking photos from across the road, so we said thanks but no thanks, and pretty much ran away before he could shoot us.

Being a Saturday afternoon, the whole town seemed to have shut down completely, and the only people we encountered were either over-heated cruise passengers, or the really desperate street hawkers trying to sell us poorly-made necklaces. That most of them were talking to us in French, seemed to point to the fact that they'd come over from West Africa, and they were certainly a lot more aggressive and less friendly than the other people we'd met (leaving aside the ulcerated lunatic, the knife-wielding fish saleswoman, and the gun-toting soldier).

So, an enjoyable day in a fascinating country, that's not scored too high on Tracy's "I could live there Index", but would be great to explore in more depth.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

March 15th – A Walk On The Wild Side in Namibia

When the alarm went off at 5.45 am, I was beginning to regret volunteering to go on "The Living Desert" tour. At least at that early hour, it wasn't too hot, but once we'd got into the desert in our 4x4, it soon started to heat up.

Our guide was a straight-talking Afrikkaner, Francois, a bear of a man who'd been brought up next to the desert, so he knew all the best places to find the desert's hidden wildlife. Initially, when you drive into the vast empty spaces of the open desert, you'd have thought that this wilderness couldn't support much life at all, but Francois knew exactly where to look to find a remarkably varied array of flora and fauna.

We'd be bumping along the desert sands, when he'd stop the car abruptly, hop out of the car and start running up what looked like an empty dune. He'd then start burrowing into the sand with his hands, and come back to us, with a hidden present.

Our first gift was a little lizard – as I was the escort on the tour I became his stooge, so he first got it to clamp onto my finger with its jaws. Not being a great fan of creepy crawlies, I gritted my teeth and bravely took this in my stride, so he upped the stakes and told me that he was going to stick him to my ear. So, with my heart nearly beating through my chest, he got this baby dinosaur to clamp onto my ear lobe as I attempted to look calm in front of the passengers. Somehow I managed not to scream when the lizard fell off and almost went down my shirt.

Next, we found a fearsome-looking but thankfully small sidewinder snake, and fortunately, seeing as these can give you a nasty bite, Francois didn't feel the need to hang him off any part of my body this time. Somehow, he also knew where to dig down to find a beautiful gecko that lived underground and only came out at night – he had to show us the gecko in the shade, because if the directly sunlight fell on him, his skin would immediately have blown up into blisters.

Our final close encounter was with a chameleon – how Francois spotted this expertly camouflaged creature in the undergrowth of a remote desert bush, I'll never know. We began to get the feeling that he'd spent the night before hiding these creatures strategically around the desert. As we admired the chameleon, it was immediately plonked on my unsuspecting hand, its tiny claws digging into my skin to grip on. As you stare face-to-face with a prehistoric-looking chameleon, it's a bit unnerving as one eye fixes your gaze, while the other eye swivels round independently to look at something else. And at the same time as I was holding him, his skin slowly changed colour from the dark green of the shade of the bush – unfortunately, in his palette of colours, he didn't have a bright red to match the colour of my red face.

By now, we had become experts in animal tracking, so as we dove over the soaring dunes, we were spotting lizards, beetles, hyena tracks, and snake trails – it's amazing how much life there is in this most bleak of environments if you just know where to look. A great tour.

March 14th – Walvis Bay, Namibia

As we sailed towards the port of Walvis Bay, you got a sense of how the whole town is totally surrounded by the golden sands of the vast Namib Desert. Seeing this remote oasis of port cranes and low-rise buildings encircled by empty dunes, it feels like the inhabitants of Walvis Bay must feel pretty isolated from the outside world.

Namibia is a rarity in Africa, as one of the few ex-German colonies, so here there was an intriguing array of German colonial buildings to discover in the town of Swakopmund, about 20 miles north of the port. The town was founded by the Germans in the 1880s, and was the main colonial town on the coast until the Germans were ejected from Africa during the First World War, so there were many typically German-looking buildings dotting the town. If it weren't for the piercing African sun and the desert at the end of the streets, you could easily be in a Bavarian town, as you walked past the gabled houses and half-timbered buildings.

Maybe because of the charming historic atmosphere and the relaxed way of life here, this part of the world has become a favourite holiday destination for Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt – in fact, they had their daughter, Shiloh, in Swakopmund. In Namibia's post-apartheid constitution, it's a criminal offence for anyone to restrict another person's movement, so Brangelina appreciate the fact that the local police will arrest any paparazzi who get in the way of their most famous visitors.

As we drove through the desert on our way back from Swakopmund, we called in at the imaginatively-named Dune 7 – the area's highest sand dune. Tracy and I boldly attempted to climb the steep dune, but with every sweaty step, the sand gave way and you sank back to almost the same spot. After 10 minutes of thigh-burningly hard climbing, we were only half way up, and we collapsed in a heap on the sandy slope to enjoy the fantastic views over the majestic dunes stretching as far as the eye could see. Fortunately, coming down was A LOT easier than going up, so we slid down on our behinds, gradually scooping up most of the desert into our pockets (and other parts of our bodies too).

Once we were back to the ship, we just about had time for a quick shower to wash the desert off us, before we were picked up to go back into the desert again, for one of the highlights of the cruise, a complimentary "Silversea Experience" of a night under the stars. After a very bumpy trip into the middle of nowhere, we pulled into a gap between the dunes, and emerged into what seemed like a mirage – a huge marquee in the middle of the desert, with the surrounding sand dunes magically lit up by candles as the sun went down in the distance.

We were greeted by Herero ladies in their colourful local dress, and by a fantastic local choir who serenaded us with their catchy African rhythms. After a magnificent dinner (quite how they got all this food and drink into the desert, I'll never know), we were treated to a hypnotic fire-dance performance and yet more fabulous singing from the choir, underneath a bright blanket of shimmering stars.

This was another of those wonderful occasions where you have to pinch yourself to confirm it's all real – a truly magical and unforgettable night!

Thursday, March 17, 2011

March 12th - Cape Town

Today, we did the tourist ritual that almost every visitor to Cape Town has to do – catching the Cable Car up to the top of the awesome Table Mountain. There can't be many cities with a more spectacular natural setting than this.

From the port, it was actually cheaper to get the open top tourist bus to the mountain than to get taxis there and back, so we had an interesting city tour on the way. As you explore Cape Town's cosmopolitan and historic streets, it's not difficult to see why this is one of the most desirable cities in Africa to live in.

Then, we had the main event, Table Mountain itself. Whatever angle you look at it, you can't help but be impressed - it's spectacular from the bottom, breathtaking half way up its sheer sides in the cable car, and then simply awe-inspiring from the top. The views over to the city centre on one side, then the beaches and the Twelve Apostles on the other, were unbelievable. Apparently the mountain had been covered in the "Tablecloth" of cloud for the previous three days, so we were particularly lucky to have a clear day.
While we were up there, we walked on some of the trails around the flat-topped massif, its rocky ground covered in hardy fynbos bushes, and kept an eye out for the Mountain's most famous inhabitants, the Dassie. The pretty little dassie looks like the love child of a badger and a groundhog, but it's supposedly the nearest living relative to the elephant – hard to believe this cute little bundle of fur is a cousin of the huge elephants we've been seeing on safari.

By now, it was time for lunch, so we took the bus to the beautiful beachside suburb of Camps Bay. With a brilliant white sandy beach on one side of the road, and a line of trendy bars and restaurants on the other, this has got to be one of the best beachside locations in Africa. So, we joined the beautiful people of Cape Town and settled in for the afternoon – me with an ostrich burger (very tasty and no cholesterol), and Tracy with an uber-healthy salad.

After this, we headed off on the bus again, to see more of Cape Town's upmarket suburbs overlooking the ocean, and returned to the port again, to join the ship and start a new 18 day odyssey around Western Africa, up to the Canary Islands.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

March 10th - Elephant Hunting From Port Elizabeth

Today was Tracy's turn to experience a safari – and right from the start, her day didn't look like it would be full of sightings. The weather was grey and overcast and there had been plenty of rain showers before our arrival – perfect weather for animals to go into hiding. She visited the Addo Elephant Park, which was a 1.5 hour drive from Port Elizabeth along the bumpiest road ever, in what seemed to be a local school bus that had been substituted at the last minute. She knew it wasn't top quality transport when the guide had to keep risking her life, attempting to shut the door which kept flying open whilst they were travelling at 60mph.

On arrival the park rangers confirmed the downbeat news that there was little chance of seeing Elephants because it was so wet and windy - so with low expectations, everyone trundled off in their open 4 by 4s. Luckily, however, no-one had told the elephants that they weren't expected, so they happily came out of a hiding with a desperate need to eat, wash and play so she managed to get up close & personal , which left me off the hook after all the amazing wildlife experiences I've had over the past 3 weeks!

Saturday, March 12, 2011

March 8th – Durban Regeneration

Durban is one of those cities that on the face of it, seems to have it all – a gorgeous beachfront, historic buildings, and a cosmopolitan mix of people. However, the reality of modern Durban is that there are many parts of the city that you just wouldn't want to be wandering around on the streets on your own; so today, we did everything by cab.

We first went to the gleaming new Moses Mabhida Stadium, which was built for the 2010 World Cup, and is a symbol for Durban's urban regeneration. The stadium's main feature is an enormous arch that sails over the top of it – you can get a cable car up to the top for some great views over the city and the waterfront. It was pretty windy up there, and I felt fairly sorry for the trembling girl who came up in the cable car with us, about to do a bungee dive off the top.

Some people have told us that the stadium is a great white elephant, because the crowds who come to watch the domestic football here number around 5,000 (in a 55,000 capacity stadium), while much more popular rugby matches are played at the Kings Park stadium just across the way. However, the manager of the cable car operation told us that the stadium could stage no matches or events and still turn in a profit – just because of the addition of that arch. At peak times, 7,000 people a day will pay to get the cable car up to the top. Very clever!

Next, we went to the KwaMuhle Museum which uncovers the story of Durban's black population during the days of the dreaded "Durban System" and the hated Pass Laws. In colonial times, the indigenous population were clearly only considered good enough to do the manual labour, but the white population didn't want to share the city with them; so the labourers were forced to live in hostels around the edge of the city, and weren't allowed to be in the city without a valid pass.

The administration of this pass system, was ingeniously (or more accurately, deviously) paid for by creating a monopoly on the production and sale of sorghum beer, which kept the African men compliantly sizzled, and at the same time making them pay for the system that kept them downtrodden. When you see the history of exploitation and suppression of the majority of the population, it's not difficult to see why Durban has so many obstacles to mending its broken society.

To cheer us up, we went down to the beachfront to stroll along its glorious promenade. As we watched the surfers, we chatted to an African guy who's part of a project to teach township children how to surf, to give them an alternative focus in life, and hopefully lead them away from a life of crime. He was such a kind, dedicated and earnest young man, that it gave you real hope that Durban can have a more prosperous future. Let's hope so.

Friday, March 11, 2011

March 8th – Sunset Safari

For this sunset safari, we went to the Zulu Nyala Game Reserve, where we got the closest I've ever been to a wild rhino. Covered in mud, it lumbered past us, scarcely seeming to notice, so we just followed it at a respectful distance – we must have been about 3 metres away from this prehistoric-looking beast, but whenever we got too close, he'd mark his territory with a jet propelled spray of urine, just to remind us who was boss.

As we drove around, our guide could see that a distant herd of impala was clearly upset about something, so we left the road to have a look. Then we spotted a freshly killed impala calf lying on the ground, and skulking in the undergrowth, a proud looking caracal (a smallish wild cat with pointed ears). Our guide got out of the jeep to investigate and the caracal came bounding over to him like a long lost friend, and it rubbed itself against his legs just like a housecat would. It turned out that our guide had hand-reared the caracal and it had only just been returned to the wild last week. This was its first ever kill, and it was difficult to see who was more pleased, the caracal or the guide.

Other close encounters included bumping into three elephants who were happily demolishing some trees until we came along. When we got quite close, it became apparent that one of the elephants wasn't too happy about our presence – it turned towards us, stamped its foot and flapped its ears angrily. As it started to charge us, I just about suppressed a scream and we reversed rapidly away.

Next we saw a giraffe having a drink at a waterhole. It hadn't occurred to me that a giraffe's legs are so long that they virtually have to do the splits with their front legs to get low enough to dip its head into the water – hilarious to see.

At the end of a fantastic game drive, as the sunset over the hills, you get the feeling that there can't be too many more beautiful places in the world than this; and to cap things off, we were approached by a semi-tame giraffe who wanted us to rub his nose – another great day.