Thursday, 17 August 2017

Leaving Zanzibar


I’m awake way too early but it gives me a chance to watch the sunrise. No sign of any bush babies, though. After breakfast we’re driven to the public beach in a rickety 4x4 for our sailing trip. The boat turns out to be a Ngalawa, a traditional outrigger canoe, with a crew of 3 led by Simba, who speaks English. It’s pretty cramped and the only place to sit is on the side of the hull. Simba asks if we have any questions and Simon tells us later that he wanted to ask “where are the lifejackets” – instead he asks how long it takes to build the boat; the answer is 3 months. The central hull appears to be carved out of a single tree trunk, the outriggers being lashed on in a way Alex finds ingenious. The sail is clearly hand-stitched and I doubt a single mechanical aid was used in the construction.


For the crew to set the sail, we have to crouch in the bottom of the hull. One of the crew balances on a strut joining the outriggers to the main hull. It’s clear that with 3 passengers on board the manoeuvrability is compromised, as it’s difficult to tack when we have to be made to duck. We sail towards the north side of Mnemba Island but the wind is not favourable for the planned circuit of the island and we turn around and return to the public beach around an hour later. We make the short walk to the private beach and a few minutes later take the scheduled motorboat back to the lodge.

We spend the rest of the day by the pool and we’re ready when our driver arrives a little early to pick us up. It’s a fairly hair-raising drive to Zanzibar airport. The quality of the roads improves as we go, from rocky track to corrugated dirt, to Cuban-style potholed asphalt, smoother asphalt and finally a 2-lane dual carriageway. Our driver approaches them all with a similar level of urgency. There are many obstacles including ducks and hens with chicks in tow, bullock carts and cycles, Matutus that stop and pull out without warning and hoards of schoolchildren looking extremely smart in clue and white uniforms. There are no pavements or road markings and much overtaking, often perilously close. Despite the fact that many of the buildings look barely habitable and everything is covered with a patina of red dust, the schoolboy’s shirts and girls’ headscarves are pristine white.
As we approach the airport, Simon receives an SMS advising that our flight time from Nairobi has changed and that we have been moved to a later flight from Amsterdam to Heathrow. The timings are still a bit unclear, but it will give us longer transfer times than the hour or so we had been expecting. It more or less negates the benefit of having chosen the alternative flights to avoid long night-time waits for connections, notwithstanding the extra time we had at Matemwe.

Zanzibar International is a step up from Arusha, but not much. The flight changes mean that the boarding passes we downloaded are not all valid and we can’t get a replacement boarding pass for the final flight here. When we reach the departure lounge there are only 3 gates, a snack bar with a loudly whining fridge and a handful of shops, mostly closed. The announcements about departures are almost incomprehensible and there is no departures board, but we finally ascertain that our flight is being called and are taken by bus to a Kenya Airways twin-engine jet. Alex is asleep before we take off.
At Nairobi we repeat the now familiar transit security process and arrive at the departure gate to find it so full we can’t sit together. There is a loud hum from something – air conditioner, perhaps? – that sounds like one of those high-powered air hand driers, but Alex still manages to fall asleep on my shoulder. When the flight is called, Simon has to go right down to the gate and indicate by sign language when our seat numbers are called as we can’t hear the announcements over the noise. We arrive in Amsterdam with just enough time to have made our original flight to Heathrow, which of course is no longer possible as our seats were cancelled. We have breakfast and do some shopping instead.

I watch our bags being unloaded while we’re waiting for the airbridge at Heathrow and I can’t see mine … my fears are realised when it doesn’t arrive on the baggage carousel. I file a report at the baggage desk and they confirm that it was left behind in Amsterdam. I’m given a claim reference and a url for tracking and told it will be delivered. On the Railair bus to Reading I turn on my phone and find an SMS telling me my bag was not loaded; it was sent before we landed which I guess is pretty efficient on one level at least. We’re greeted in Reading by heavy rain and a much-anticipated lunch at Nandos on the way home.

FOOTNOTE:

Our trip was the Explore Worldwide Family Serengeti Safari, booked through Putney Travel. In place of the standard flight package, Charlie at Putney Travel secured slightly more humane flight timings resulting in around 36 hours extension to the holiday and a £100 saving on the brochure price. This was a fantastic introduction to East Africa for anybody who has never been on safari before, and I would highly recommend it.
Some top tips for Tanzania:

·        If you’re flying to Kilimanjaro Airport from Nairobi, ask for a seat on the left of the plane for a view of the mountain

·        On our trip, we could have managed quite easily with just US Dollars which are accepted pretty much anywhere. If you do want to change cash into TZ Shillings, you get a slightly better exchange rate for $100 and $50 dollar bills, and the worst rates for $5 and $1 bills.

·        My most useful piece of kit was a snood – good for keeping dust out of your mouth and nose on dusty dirt tracks as well as keeping your neck warm when you get up early for game drives and it’s still chilly (also keeps long hair out of your eyes when it’s windy!)

·        Unless you are a very serious photographer, there’s no need for ultra-long lenses – my 16-300mm lens was perfect for 99% of shots and meant that I didn’t need to keep changing lenses or lug around a huge camera bag. Do put a UV or daylight filter on your lens, though, to avoid it getting damaged by the dust, and take a blower brush.

·        We took a while researching the best photo-sharing site when we got back, and recommend Shutterfly which allows a private website to be created where you and your fellow travellers can share your photos at full resolution and with no storage limits and a promise to never delete an image.

Wednesday, 16 August 2017

And then there were three

I get up around 6.30 and put a couple of bananas outside in case of bush babies. I’ve heard them during the night but none materialise – I suspect I’ve left it too late but after so many early mornings I didn’t want to set an alarm. At breakfast Sharon tells me that the Batley teens left a banana out overnight and heard a bush baby in the morning but could be bothered to get up and look. The banana had gone, though …

The Batleys are the first to leave and we all wave them off. We grab some pool time before seeing off the Georges at noon. We get the keys to our new rooms soon after – our bags have already been moved for us. Our new room is elephant themed, so clearly it was destined to be mine all along! We’ve booked a sailing trip for 8.30 tomorrow morning, which means we will have to be packed and ready to check out before we set off. We can keep one room to shower and change before we leave.
This afternoon, we borrow masks and snorkels and attempt to go snorkelling from the beach below the lodge. It’s not a success – the sea urchins are everywhere so it’s hard to see where to put your feet and the water is very shallow quite a long way out.

After dinner Alex and I lie on the loungers on the jetty to look at the sky, which is clear and bright with stars again. We both see shooting stars.

Tuesday, 15 August 2017

... and relax

I wake early and sit on our terrace with a coffee, watching tiny birds sip nectar from the flowers and listening to the sound of the fishing boats passing by. Breakfast is tightly wrapped in cling film to thwart the many flies and wasps – more than we’ve seen all week. Coffee is the most disappointing thing at this lodge, being drip rather than push, and the cooked breakfast includes chewy tinned mushrooms but the proper bacon compensates. Having overhead the manager telling somebody that putting bananas out sometimes tempts the bush babies to visit, I take a couple back to the room.


We spend the day in and around the pool, watching the boats go by and reading. The wind gets stronger in the afternoon so we retreat to the scuba training pool which is more sheltered. We find out that there has been a room allocation mix-up. We were supposed to get the rooms occupied by Mervyn and Chloe, because of our extra night’s stay, and have been asked to move tomorrow. Since those room are right on the water’s edge we don’t make too much fuss.


We’ve booked a table for 10 so that we can all eat together tonight as the Batleys and Georges both leave tomorrow – the former to another resort and the latter home. We have an extra night and most of an extra day thanks to Charlie’s efforts – and a £100 saving too! It will be sad to see the others go when we’ve shared so many amazing experiences together.
It’s relatively late (10.15!) when we walk back to our cabin and above us the Milky Way is clearly visible along with the most and brightest stars I can recall seeing. Alex observes that the scale of the universe messes with his head when it can be seen that clearly, and I’m inclined to agree.







 
 

 

Monday, 14 August 2017

To Matemwe

Although the Tembo Hotel was a lovely place to stay, I’m not sorry to be leaving Stone Town. After the gentle kindness of the people we encountered in Tanzania I found the constant hussling here wearing and the disrepair of its attractions was the worst I have encountered. It’s depressing to see a place with such a rich – if controversial – history being left to fall into disrepair when so many livelihoods depend on tourism.

Driving to Matemwe there’s a chance to see the contrast between the landscape on Zanzibar and in mainland Tanzania. It’s more lush and green, tropical vegetation and many palms. Homes are similar apart from the apparent absence of Maasai villages. Ox-carts are the primary means of personal transport here, and cattle roam freely in ones and twos, unlike the Maasai herds. There are local minibuses, known as Matutus, adapted from pick-ups with bench seats along the sides and a simple roof; most are tightly packed, sometimes with somebody hanging on the back. Sloping wooden structures made from tree trunks, sometimes with a simple roof, appear to be bus stops.
We follow a tarmac road for about an hour before taking a dirt track to Sunshine Marine Lodge which is located north of the village of Matenwe. We are greeted with champagne flutes of tamarind juice. Emily thinks it tastes of stewed apple, and I agree. We have arrived earlier than expected and not all our rooms are ready, so we are taken on an orientation tour and then wait by the pool.

After a week of fabulous lodges in stunning locations, this manages to top them all. The two storey cabins are set in lush tropical gardens and there are 3 pools including an infinity pool overlooking the ocean. When we get to our room we find the bed has been sprinkled with bougainvillea blossoms.



The lodge is located at the top of a small cliff and there’s only a tiny strip of beach below, accessible at low tide. But it has a private beach just up the coast that can be reached by road or boat in 10 minutes; it’s also possible to walk or borrow a mountain bike at low tide. There’s only a simple bar there but we can order food here and they will drive it down for us – Zanzibari deliveroo!

We decide to have lunch there and Mervyn and Chloe join us. We’re advised to wear diving shoes due to sea urchins; the 25 minute walk is mainly rocky with pools containing fish and crabs as well as the sea urchins. It’s a stunning piece of coastline with rocky outcrops eroded to form exotic shapes and small caves, fine white sand and picturesque boats. On the horizon is Mnemba island, an exclusive resort.



We reach the private beach and have a drink at the bar while they prepare our table; our food follows around 30 minutes later. We don’t stay long as we have to get back before high tide. The afternoon is spent by, and in, the pool before unpacking and getting ready for dinner. I wander back to the jetty to look at the view and notice a crowd has gathered; Chloe tells me some people got stranded by the incoming tide and had to be rescued and now it seems there may be somebody in difficulty in the water. I go back to get my camera and use the zoom lens as a telescope – there is somebody clinging to an upturned boat on the reef. We watch and worry as a boat approaches and somebody swims out with a lifebuoy, but the boat can’t approach to pick the people up because of the reef. Eventually it speeds off and returns on the right side of the reef, and the rescue is accomplished. Two scuba divers are brought to our lodge and wrapped in towels. They don’t appear to be especially traumatised, but it’s a reminder that this beautiful country is still wild enough to be dangerous.


Before dinner we sit in the gallery above the bar and admire the view. The restaurant has open sides and heavy hardwood furniture; we’re surprised by warm focaccia with balsamic vinegar and olive oil. The menu includes pasta and salads as well as the normal chicken and chips and features surprising touches like home-made feta.

Sunday, 13 August 2017

In Stone Town

I’m awake early enough to hear the rainstorm that occurs just before dawn. Breakfast includes some exotic dishes and juices like milk fruit and tamarind, and there is local coffee which is spiced similarly to masala tea.

The oldest part of Zanzibar City is known as Stone Town, because it’s built of stone on an island where most buildings are either mud or wood.



The stone is actually coral, because the island was pushed up from the seabed by seismic activity.  We have a tour of Stone Town this morning, led by Wilfred who is an engaging guide with a disconcerting habit of ending every sentence with “understand?”. He explains something of the history and culture as we walk through the medina, where the streets are too narrow for cars but we have plenty of cycles, motorbikes and hand carts to negotiate.

He explains the origins of the spikes on the doors, which were introduced by Indian immigrants who were accustomed to using them for protection against marauding elephants – they are redundant here as there are no large mammals on the island, but they were retained as a status symbol. We pass various landmarks including the Catholic cathedral, which is adjacent to a mosque; Wilfred explains that although the population is primarily conservative Muslim, there is no religious conflict here.
We reach the Anglican cathedral, which has Islamic-inspired architecture, and Wilfred tells us how it was built on top of the slave chambers as a gesture of reconciliation after slavery was abolished. We visit the slave chambers which are claustrophobic spaces where most of us can’t stand upright. Then we visit the museum which traces the history of the slave trade in Zanzibar. It’s shameful to think that the British were complicit in slavery, and it’s sobering to read the accounts in the museum’s exhibits.


We’re subdued on the way to the local market, where there are separate halls for fish and for meat, both stinky and fly-ridden. It’s a relief to move on to the fragranced halls where fruit, veg and spices are sold. I pop back in with Sharon, Andrew and Emily for some shopping and pick up a souvenir spice pack and 2 packets of saffron for $5. Spices are the primary trade here and along the narrow streets there are often spices laid out to dry in the sun.

We continue to the small square where political discourse takes places and, perhaps not coincidentally, English Premier League matches are shown. Then we go to look at the House of Wonders – a former sultan’s palace that served as the National Museum until a partial collapse closed it. Next door is the fort and in front the Forodhani Gardens which were refurbished with a grant from the Aga Khan and in the evening hosts a popular food market.


We return to the hotel via Freddie Mercury’s house, which is now apartments under the same ownership as our hotel. We’ve said goodbye to Wilfred before I remember that tipping is now our responsibility (on the mainland, Isaac had tipped everybody from a group kitty).
We sit by the pool with cold drinks and plan the rest of the day - pool for the boys, and a bumble around Stone Town for me, then Ethiopian dinner. I walk down to Ethiopia Maritim to book a table then we set off along the beach in search of lunch. It’s much quieter beyond our hotel. Even here in Zanzibar, Maasai stride purposefully in their robes but seem out of place on a beach when they are so much part of the landscape of the bush. There are a couple of beachfront cafes but it doesn’t feel like full advantage is being made of the waterfront.


We return to Kenyatta Road (not that there are any signs to identify it!) and dodge the traffic, walking up towards Ethiopia Maritim and stopping at an Indian restaurant for lunch. Service is slow but the beer is cold and its relatively cool inside. Although there’s not much seasonal change near the equator this is the cooler season but the humidity makes it feel hotter. After lunch we stop at a shop called Hellen’s for a fridge magnet and are offered paintings done by the lively proprietress. Some are excellent, especially watercolours of the town, but we decline.

I drop the boys at the hotel and walk towards the Palace Museum. It costs $3 to go in and I’m offered an official tour guide who I share with a South African woman. There are dusty cabinets containing records about the sultans and some of the original furniture is still in place on the upper floor, but the palace has an institutional feel and seems pretty Spartan given that it was last occupied within my lifetime. There’s a fantastic view from the terraces though.


I visit the fort, which is in a poor state of repair with crumbling towers and has been given over to a souvenir market. I get the sense that there’s little investment in preserving Stone Town, despite its Unesco status and the tourist dollars it attracts. I wonder where the money goes? Is there a rich and powerful elite here that is sucking the money and power out of the government? Those vehicles cruising around last night would seem to support that premise.

In Gizenga Street I stop to look at some spices and the stall owner begins to pressure me to buy, finally quoting a price that is so hugely inflated I can’t be bothered to make him an offer. I’m hot, tired and beginning to have a sense of humour failure. I’d forgotten how much I hate bartering. I decide to leave and the price magically drops to a level that I know is still inflated but closer to what I paid this morning. I pay up and leave.
Close to the hotel I stop to buy some Baobab candy from a handcart run by some youths. I ask the price which is TS1,000 and pay up happily – so much easier and the price seems fair even though it’s probably still “tourist rates”. A scruffy man with dreads approaches me with shell necklaces – he claims he’s homeless and makes them himself. I don’t really believe his story, and balk at the $15 dollars he’s asking, but he’s very persistent so I offer him TS10,000 and tell him to keep the necklace. He gives it to me anyway.


I join the boys for pool volleyball and then go to the beach to take some photos of the sunset. The local youths are doing acrobatics again, this time with music. Simon and I walk down to the Park Hyatt for a drink and Alex meets us there for the short walk to Ethiopia Maritim. It’s beautiful inside, with incense burning and a carpet of bougainvillea flowers. They seat us at a table containing a massive covered basked shaped like a tagine, and the waiter removes the cover with a flourish to reveal a laminated sheet explaining how the food and culture. We work out what to order and settle down with our drinks. Time passes. It sprinkles with rain. More time passes. We watch a woman video herself complaining that she’s been there over and hour and they’ve only washed her hands.
The waiter comes over to tell us that the salad we ordered isn’t available, then they wash our hands. Finally the soup arrives. It’s good – lamb broth with vegetables – and there’s plenty of it. We wait some more. Finally, the main course – a large stainless stell platter covered by injeera – a flatbread with the consistency somewhere between a pancake and a thin crumpet. The bowls of meat and sauce are tipped onto it in heaps - the idea is to scoop it up with pieces of injeera. It’s tasty, with a mild but complex heat, but the chicken dish consists of a leg, which is difficult to share when your only implement is fingers, and we’ve all gone past being hungry.

Saturday, 12 August 2017

To Zanzibar

I have not slept well. A noise that sounded like the crunching of bones kept me awake and I had assumed it was some kind of birds romping on the corrugated iron roof – at first light I go outside to check and realise that it’s a thorn tree scratching at the roof in the breeze.

Our 8.15 departure is delayed by the absence of Chloe’s bag which, it transpires, has left with an earlier group. An anxious Isaac gets on the case and a few calls later manages to locate it and arrange to pick it up en route. We stop twice at souvenir shops on the way to Arusha – first at a modest roadside shop where I buy a rosewood elephant. The wood grain is beautiful and I’m reluctant to beat the seller down too much but feel that honour demands at least a token effort at negotiation. He offers it for $25 dollars and we settle on $20; anything less seems mean given the relative wealth of our countries. The second shop is much more grand, a gallery with some breaktaking works of art and sculpture and prices to match. I pick up an Ngorongoro fridge magnet here for $5 and Isaac picks up Chloe’s bag. We continue towards Arusha and as we approach, Mount Meru fills the windscreen.

We stop for lunch at Arusha Coffee Lodge where an excellent buffet is served in a tropical garden. We say goodbye here to Yvonne and Courtney who are flying home early, and give Isaac and Goodluck their tips as they are not coming with us to Zanzibar. After a group photos, they drive us to the airport almost opposite.


Chaos reigns here – there’s a simple wooden counter for check in, no computers or baggage drop conveyors. We’re issued boarding passes bearing just our first names and told to pile up our bags. They are weighed and then moved to another pile, then a third, before being put on a trolley and pulled towards the runway. A sign warning that concealed firearms are not allowed accompanies the normal sign about liquids and plastic bags, but Mervyn is allowed to take a bottle of water through. The departure lounge is a lean-to with a corrugated iron roof and there are no displays or announcements. Our departure time of 2pm comes and goes before somebody calls out the name of our airline and we are led to our plane.
The ascent is a bit bumpy but it’s a pretty smooth flight and we pass from land to calm blue sea and finally some small islands ringed by white sand. It looks idyllic. The tightly packed single storey buildings of Zanzibar city come into view and we land on a runway flanked by them. We are asked to fill in landing cards which are collected by an official who barely glances at our passports. Our bags are carried one by one from the plane, as an earlier flight is using the single trolley.
We are met by a rep who hands out chilled bottles of water and outlines the itinerary. There’s some confusion as each family will leave separately and the Georges are down from 4 to 2. It takes only around 10 minutes to drive us to the Tembo House Hotel and I’m delighted when it turns out to be the building whose architecture I had just been admiring. It’s a traditional building with a pool in its central courtyard, beyond which is the busy public beach. Our room overlooks the pool and has a small terrace with a sea view; our shower has a Moorish arch.



We go and sit by the pool with cold drinks and talk about dinner options – I’ve found a restaurant nearby which serves local food and tonight is live music night. The other families like the sound of it too so Simon walks down to book a table for us all. Alex has fun in the pool with the other teenagers. It’s going to be great for him to have people his own age to spend time with here.


The noise level from the beach increases and I go to investigate; a small crowd has gathered and youths are demonstrating their acrobatic skills by tumbling along the beach. We don’t get much of a sunset because clouds have gathered, but it’s still a spectacular view.


 
Simon and I stroll down to the Park Hyatt with Mervyn for an aperitif (our hotel is alcohol-free) leaving Alex and Chloe in reception with the wifi. We listen to the sea as we drink and chat; Simon goes on ahead to the restaurant as Mervyn and I haven’t finished our drinks. When we follow we’re accosted near our hotel by a tout who is determined that we should eat in his friend’s restaurant, and when we explain that our families are already at Monsoon he claims he can show us a short cut. We doubt his motives and refuse to follow him, rightly as it turns out because Monsoon is practically opposite!


No tables were available inside, so we are seated on the terrace under a pergola at a regular table. Inside the dining room where the band is playing it’s more traditional, sitting on the floor at low tables. The food is ok, although my King Fish is dry and seems overcooked. We’re on the coast road and there’s a fair bit of traffic, a significant proportion of which is large and new with blacked out windows. Vehicles often stop and the occupants open the windows and appear to check who’s out before driving on. I find it faintly sinister.
We’ve been invited to go inside and listen to the music after dinner but service is a bit slow and everybody is ready for bed when we finish eating. Back at the hotel, Simon and I got to the raised sundeck to see if we can see the Perseid meteor shower which is visible this weekend; although it’s a clear night we can’t see anything unusual.

Friday, 11 August 2017

Ngorongoro Crater

A slightly later start today, so we breakfast at the lodge before leaving for the Ngorongoro crater. We’ll pass through the Serengeti on the way, with more opportunities for game spotting. We’re quite blasé now about hippos, zebras, giraffes and antelopes – we’re on the hunt for spotty things, a better leopard sighting or a cheetah. Alex spots a spotty thing and Isaac manoeuvres the truck towards it – it’s a serval cat, small and very shy, and soon retreats into the grass.


Isaac drives us to a family of lions, the male lying a little apart from the females and having a good wash just like a domestic cat. He’s entirely undisturbed even though we drive to within a couple of metres of him. There are three females, one of them suckling four cubs which are surprisingly dark in comparison and look quite young.



We don’t stay long as there’s talk of a cheetah, which turns out to be correct – it’s perched atop a mound watching the world go by and, once again, doesn’t seem to mind our presence at all.  A short distance away there are two more, which we approach even closer. They are magnificent, and a fitting finale to the Serengeti.

 
The Ngorongoro crater has a lot to live up to, but we start strongly with a lioness and our first hyenas. We stop to let a herd of wildebeest pass on its way to a waterhole and then continue towards the “round table” – an elevated point where we will stop for lunch.


By another waterhole Isaac spots more hyenas (his favourite) and a couple of white storks and then a hippo ambles out of the water.


We also see some warthogs grazing on bent knees and a ground hornbill. We are about to stop for lunch when Isaac realises that there is a carcase of a recent kill below us, and we drive down to take a look. It’s the remains of a buffalo, being feasted on by spotted hyenas, a jackal and some vultures. It’s pretty gruesome and a bit smelly, but also fascinating.

 
After lunch we get up close and personal with a herd of zebras and spot a kori bustard and a pair of black crowned cranes, and pass a tree absolutely full of weaver bird nests. 


We leave the plane and enter the forest, looking for the elusive rhino which is the only one of the Big 5 we haven’t seen. We find some elephant, but there is no sign of rhino – then we spot a group of vehicles and pull over to see what they’ve found. It’s a caracal, a rare and elusive cat, but we don’t have a great view. Then it stands up, stretches, and walks straight past us.



We haven’t found a rhino but it’s time to leave the crater, which has one last surprise in store for us. As we ascend the track to the rim, we meet a massive bull elephant which first poses for a photo beside the panoramic view of the crater and then follows us up the road.

We’re staying at the Karatu Simba Lodge tonight, which is on top of a hill in countryside that looks more like rural France than Africa, among neat fields of crops. The rooms are neatly arranged in rows and Alex’s rondavel is opposite our “tent” – a permanent structure with canvas walls, patio doors along one side and a stone-built bathroom, all under a corrugated iron roof. It’s another eco lodge and I manage to trip the electrics by using a hairdyer, having missed the instruction not to do so because we arrived in the second vehicle. The altitude makes it chilly here at night, so it’s a welcome treat to find a hot water bottle had been placed in our beds when they turned down our mosquito nets.