A Tribute From Ethiopia

Day 82: Leaving Africa

Just before leaving Addis Ababa, I found out that my Sudan visa was denied by the Sudanese embassy in Ethiopia. Sudan makes it very difficult for Americans to visit and we need special invitation from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to get a visa, unlike every other nationality. It took me four months to arrange an invitation, until my Sudanese visa sponsor screwed up and forgot to send the paperwork to the Sudanese embassy in Addis in time. My only hope of getting a visa was to try at the Sudan-Ethiopia border and charm the Sudanese border officials; otherwise my trip across Africa would’ve been over.

Unexpectedly, my trip to Africa is officially over today, prematurely and short of Cairo. My father, Dr. Kevin Gohar, passed away in his sleep last night in Los Angeles. He was 77 years old. He was healthy and happy, and was out gardening in the afternoon in his lush hillside garden, when he slipped on the steps and hit his head. He had some neck and head pain in the afternoon and went to sleep it off in the evening with some normal pain medication. But he never woke up. He probably had a brain hemorrhage and didn’t even know it. He was a doctor, but never bothered to follow up with doctors regarding his own pain. At least he passed in the night in peace. Sadly, I had a dream a few days ago where I saw my family crying, but I thought nothing of it, even though my dreams often come true. I should’ve known better.

My dad loved gardening more than anything else, and it reminded him of his childhood on a farm in Iran. He was always happy pruning, picking, and tending to his garden, and getting his 3-year-old golden retriever Sunny to chase after the invading squirrels.

He lived a full life, with many ups and down. But I’m pretty sure it ended in an up. He was born in Iran in 1933, the eldest of five sons, one of which died in early adulthood from leukemia, and another in childhood. He worked night and day and paid his own way through university and medical school in Tehran, and came to the US in the early 1960s to do a medical residency in orthopedic surgery in Albany, New York. He married an American woman, Nancy, with whom he had a son, Amir, but they divorced a few years later.

In 1967, he moved back to Iran, met my mom Victoria, married and settled down to have my brother Kourosh and sister Kathy. He had a very successful medical practice in Tehran, and took frequent vacations to Europe with the family in the 1970s, and even visited the Soviet Union in 1972 as a medical expert. He was offered a role in the Shah’s regime, but he turned it down because he didn’t want to be involved in politics. He was a highly regarded doctor in Tehran, and offered his services pro bono to many poor patients who couldn’t afford his surgeries. In return, they gave him pets, goats and vegetables to thank him.

In the turmoil of the Iranian Revolution of 1979, he kept the family safe, even though we were well to do and a target for the revolutionaries. In 1981, he was drafted into the Iranian Army as a surgeon, and was sent to the front lines of the Iran-Iraq war to treat Iranian soldiers injured in the war. In 1982, recognizing that post-revolutionary Iran was not the secular, free Iran in which they grew up in, my parents became determined to emigrate to America, in order to provide us with the same freedom of opportunity that they experienced as youngsters in pre-revolutionary Iran.

Leaving Iran as a family was near impossible in the immediate aftermath of the revolution. The Islamic regime would not give passports to any citizen, rightfully fearing they would escape the country. When a group of doctors went abroad on a medical conference in 1981, all thirty of them traveled on one Iranian passport, with all their names attached to it so that none could defect with proper documentation. Imagine that! But my dad somehow managed to get all five of us our own individual passports – a near impossible feat!

But if leaving revolutionary Iran as a household was difficult, obtaining American residency for an entire Persian family was hopeless in the aftermath of the American hostage crisis. So we separated. My father defected to the US when visiting Chicago on a medical conference at the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons, and then went on to New York, my sister accompanied my ailing grandmother to California for hip replacement surgery, my brother started boarding school in Paris because he was denied an American visa, and my mom and I shuttled back and forth between the various locations. Ultimately, my dad moved to Los Angeles – home to a growing émigré Iranian community – and studied to successfully pass the American medical licensure exams in his early 50s and settled down again, back in America after 15 years abroad. He worked terribly hard to build a new life from scratch, having brought nothing with him from Iran, often working at four or more hospitals at a time. He built a successful medical practice in Lakewood, California in the 80s and 90s, and we settled into a normal suburban American existence.

However, despite building a new life from scratch in America, my dad’s American dream was short-lived. He lost his practice as a result of workplace discrimination in the mid 90s, and the ensuing legal battle proved costly, both financially and mentally, and he suffered health-related problems with his hand that would sideline him from practicing surgery ever again. He lost his house and practice, again, and declared bankruptcy in his mid-60s, just at a time when people begin to retire and enjoy the good life. He started anew, for the third time in his life, separated from my mom, and developed a modest medical advisory practice in semi-retirement through his 70s.

In his later years, he was very involved in charitable organizations in the US: he helped start and led an Iranian-American Doctors Association in the 80s; he co-founded IMAN – an Iranian-American charitable religious organization; he was instrumental in fundraising for building an Iranian-American cultural center in Los Angeles in the mid-90s; and he was active in his local Rotary Club. Over the last ten years, he had a very popular television show on an Iranian-American channel in Los Angeles, where he would advise patients on their medical problems. People would even call in to his show live from Iran to ask him questions. He was held in high repute in his profession and throughout his adopted community in the US and back in Iran.

Though the last 10 years of his life was difficult financially and professionally, I can honestly say that he was happiest during this time. He had achieved a sort of inner nirvana, reading extensively about spirituality and philosophy, both eastern and western. After having lived half his life in America, he was more American than Persian, and often got along better with Americans because he cared less about Persian social norms and more about being happy personally, regardless of the social consequences in the Persian-American community. I admired him for that.

I learned a lot from him – namely, how to persevere to find solutions to roadblocks, to think spiritually and find personal happiness. He forced me to stand on my two feet at a young age, but he always wanted me to be happy and told me to do whatever that made me happy in life.

We had our differences, and he wasn’t perfect, but we reconciled in the last two years and we developed the best relationship we ever had. I’m grateful that I got to know him in a different light and saw life from his perspective, and I will always be thankful that he led me to find truth in my life – he changed my life, literally. He was a very honorable man who tried his best to provide for his family and for me, in very extenuating circumstances, and for others in his community. I’m incredibly thankful for the special role he played in my life, and he knows that, and knows that he was loved and appreciated, and I know that I was loved.

I’m flying back to the US tonight from Addis Ababa. I suppose it was fate that I never got a Sudanese or Egyptian visa. It just wasn’t meant to be, for now. I’ll finish the trip north to Cairo some other time. Ethiopia wasn’t my favorite country in Africa anyway, but it was very unique and interesting, and this certainly wasn’t how I expected to leave it, or Africa.

I’m not going to leave a lot of commentary on this blog about my travels since Addis Ababa 10 days ago, as I’m sitting at an airport in Mekele, in northern Ethiopia waiting for a flight to connect to Addis and then back to the US for funeral services. The church bells of this university town are ringing, so I find it fitting to leave you some pictures of the rock-carved churches of a beautiful 12th century church town named Lalibela in northern Ethiopia, a world heritage site and the 8th wonder of the world.

Dr. Kevin Gohar is survived by his children, Kourosh, Kathy, Kian and Amir, his two brothers, and my mother Victoria. He loved life, and in the end, he was happy in his garden, and that’s all that matters. May he rest in peace.

14th Century Church Terrace

14th Century Church Paintings

Lalibela Monk

Orthodox Christian Mass in Lalibela

At Prayer

Guarding our shoes at church entrance

Lalibela Nun

Lalibela Nuns

St. George Church in Lalibela, the most famous site in Ethiopia

Crossing into another realm

At Prayer

Lalibela Prayer Boy

Lalibela Prayer Boy

Lalibela Church Windows

Lalibela Church Windows

Lalibela Church Window

St. George Church Windows

St. George Church Windows

Holy Trinity Church, Addis Ababa

On the way to Lalibela

Northern Ethiopia Countryside, next to Blue Nile

Blue Nile Gorge

Monastery at Lake Tana

Blue Nile Falls

Blue Nile Falls

Eucalyptus trees all around Addis Ababa. My dad loved eucalyptus leaves.

Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Incense Prayers. Rest in Peace dad.

Posted in Ethiopia | Tagged , | 3 Comments

The Last Tribes of Africa

Day 73: Leaving Addis Ababa

Samburu Tribeswoman, Northern Kenya

I’ve spent the last three weeks traveling from Nairobi, Kenya to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Internet is nearly nonexistent in rural Ethiopia, and where it is available, it takes 45 minutes to download one email. Hence the lag since my last blog update.

On my last day in Nairobi, I found out I was denied an Egyptian visa by the Egyptian embassy in Kenya, even after intervention by the American embassy in Nairobi! What trouble could I possibly cause in Egypt? Don’t answer that. One would think Egypt would be begging foreigners to come visit now after the revolution. But I guess the Egyptian embassy in Nairobi still hasn’t got the memo that Egypt is free and a new, more open regime is in power. Oh well, I’ll have to try my luck at the Sudan-Egypt border and get an Egyptian visa there – that is, if I get into Sudan! The Sudanese embassy in Addis never got my visa application, which I sent to the Sudanese Foreign Ministry nearly 4 months ago (along with a payment via Western Union to Khartoum, which sounded sketchy to me at the time, and my suspicions have now been proven correct!). So now I’ll have to try my luck at the Sudan-Ethiopia border in three weeks.

Unfortunately, because of the political troubles in Libya, I have had to cancel the expedition I was planning to Tripoli from Cairo. So Libya will have to wait until another trip to North Africa – Cairo to Marrakech, anybody?

The Road North from Nairobi

As we drove north from Nairobi through Kenya, sub-Saharan Africa was slowly coming to a close: the lush greenery gave way to dusty desert roads, churches gave way to Mosques, zebras gave way to camels, and modern facilities evaporated as we neared Ethiopia.

Northern Kenya

Crossing the Equator

On the way to Ethiopia, we had several stops in the Great Rift Valley of East Africa. The Rift Valley is where Africa is literally tearing itself apart – two different tectonic plates have been pulling apart from each other for hundreds of millions of years, creating volcanoes and lakes, and separating eastern Africa from the rest of Africa. The Great Rift Valley starts along the Israel-Jordan border, then slips into the Red Sea (which itself was created by the two tectonic plates pulling apart from each other and separating Africa from the Arabian peninsula), down through Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania and finally into Mozambique and the Indian Ocean. In a couple hundred million years, this entire region will separate itself from Africa and fall into the Indian Ocean as a huge new island, just like California will fall into the Pacific!

Rift Valley at 8000 feet, extinct volcano on upper left

Closer to Cairo than Cape Town!

Our first stops heading north from Nairobi were at Lake Naivasha and Lake Nakuru. Lake Nakuru is famous for its flock of 30,000 pink flamingoes.

Lake Nakuru

These Rift lakes are very famous for their abundant bird life, as they are soda lakes (full of sodium), which bread algae and other food for bird life.

An African fish eagle grabbing a fish out of the water

Tea Time!

A Jesus Bird Walking on Water

Twin Storks

Lake Nakuru Storks

I’ve seen so much wildlife so far, that I have a new wildlife viewing policy: “cats, kills, or sex.” That is, I only stop to see big “cats” (lions, leopards, cheetahs, and the occasional pussy cat), “kills” (anytime a predator has killed, or is about to kill, a prey), and animal “sex.” Anything else, been there, seen it, so don’t wake me up for it.

No I didn't skin this zebra, though I was tempted...

But to be fair, I had to make an exception to my wildlife viewing policy as we unexpectedly saw 3 black rhinos in Lake Nakuru. This was a special treat since they are quite rare in the wild compared to white rhinos.

A Rare Black Rhino

Black rhinos very close to civilization...

Oh and then there was the baboon sex…lots of it, on and on, nonstop…

We were incredibly fortunate to spend a night in a Samburu village in northern Kenya, right next to Samburu National Park. The Samburu are one of the many tribes of Kenya; they wear bright orange and red to scare off the wildlife. The contrast of colors and the desert makes for amazing photography.

Samburu Warrior Stud

Samburu Tribe in Northern Kenya
Samburu Women at Village Market

Samburu Mother

The Samburu live in circular villages fenced with dense acacia bushes with 2-inch long thorns to keep out lions and other wildlife, which live right next to their villages. Inside their villages, the Samburu have circular pens where they keep their goats – also fenced with dense acacia thorn bushes.

Typical Samburu Home

We were welcomed by the Samburus like royalty – they are incredibly warm and hospitable, and much friendlier than the more famous Maasai tribe of southern Kenya. We went for an afternoon bath in the nearby river with them – boys on one side, girls on the other, and lions on the other bank! We had a few friendly races – whites (“mzungu” in Swahili) vs. Africans. Guess who won? Hint: The Kenyas are Olympic distance running champions…

Samburu River

Mzungu vs. African

Yippee! Celebrating the victory

In the evening, the Samburu put on a magical show for us around the campfire, as a warm breeze blew through the desert. The Samburu warriors perform a dance before they go to war with other tribes, and we had the good luck of seeing it live. The men stand in an outer circle surrounding an inner circle of women. The men jump up and down, while moving around the circle in a conga line, humming to a rhythm, clapping, and chanting “hey” in a very deep bass. The women shake their shoulders, swaying their necks, making their dozens of necklaces clink against each other and giving off a soothing metallic sound complementing the men’s chanting. We were invited to join the dance, and it was absolutely magical, mystical and trancelike. This was by far my favorite ethnic cultural experience in Africa so far, and it was a privilege to experience it, even for someone not so keen on ethnography.

Samburu Warrior Dance

There is very little light pollution in northern Kenya, so we were also privy to a magical light show of a thousand stars in the dark sky, where we could easily see the Milky Way, Orion, and both the Big Dipper and the Southern Cross as we were still relatively near the Equator. Of course, given how dark it was that we could see so many stars, it was also incredibly dark when we had to go outside the protected village fence in the middle of the night for a bush pee. We saw elephant and lion tracks on top of our bush pee spot the morning after… scary but thrilling! Can’t do that in Los Angeles!

The Big Dipper

The Milky Way and the Southern Cross, at bottom left, look for the 5 stars that look like a kite, with a red star inside

Orion, on the right, look for his belt of 3 stars

The morning after our visit with the Samburu tribe, we went into Samburu National Park on another game drive. We saw a couple interesting new animals, for example the highly endangered Grevy Zebra (which has very thin stripes compared to the more common Berchal zebra), and the Gerenuk – which is an antelope but likes to think it’s a giraffe because it has a long neck. The Gerenuk is the only antelope in the world that stands up on its two legs to eat leaves off trees. Go figure! Speaking of animals eating off trees, we also saw a tree-walking lion! Lions don’t usually climb trees (unlike leopards), but they do in Samburu National Park! Very bizarre!

Multi-headed Palm Tree at Samburu National Park, Kenya

Endangered Grevy Zebra

A Gerenuk Antelope

Look closely, there's a lion walking on the tree branch!

Samburu Lion

Who you looking at?

As we were leaving the national park early the following morning, we were treated to a rare viewing of 4 cheetahs — right next to the Samburu village where we slept outdoors a couple nights earlier and went for a bush pee! We’ve been chasing cheetahs throughout Africa, so it was a huge bonus to see them again, and so very close. They are incredibly beautiful cats!

Can you see the cheetah camouflaged in the bush?

Giraffes and cheetahs, living side by side in harmony...

We left Samburu and had a three-day trek north to the Ethiopian border, through one of the harshest climates on Earth. For nearly a thousand kilometers, all we could see was dry desert and thorny bushes. There wasn’t another car in sight for hundreds of miles. To call what we drove through a “road” would be generous. The bone-crushing dirt track was more like a series of interconnected series of potholes with a little bit of dirt stretching from one lava field to another. We averaged 20km an hour for about two days through endless Sahel and scrubland. The punishing northern plains of Kenya really felt like the bones of the Earth, incredibly dry and hot, and appropriate for a region where the world is tearing itself apart.

The Desolation of Northern Kenya

The "Road" to Ethiopia

This area of Kenya is ethnically Somali and right next to the border with Somalia. There have been lots of pirate raids into Kenya from Somalia, so we hired two army guards with AK-47s to come along with us on the three-day drive to the Ethiopian border, and protect us in the event of a Somali pirate raid. Given how slowly we were traveling, we were easy targets for a pirate raid. Thankfully, nothing happened and we arrived at the Ethiopian border safely, although drenched in sweat and dust after not having showered for three days trekking through the world’s bumpiest dirt road.

Maybe we should alert the US government of the secret Taliban hiding spot?

Eight days after leaving Nairobi, we finally arrived at the Ethiopian border, and entered an entirely new world: the least developed country I’ve ever visited. Ethiopia works on its own time zone — no, not a couple hours before or after GMT. They have their own system of measuring time: 1am is always considered sunrise (so how we would calculate 6am roughly per normal East Africa time); 6am is always noon in the rest of East Africa; and their 12pm is 6pm in the rest of East Africa. It’s impossible to figure out what time it is in Ethiopia, so I’ve stopped trying. I just show up when I feel like it, much like many Africans.

We spent the next five days in the Lower Omo Valley in southwestern Ethiopia, which is almost impossible to visit during the rainy season when roads are washed out (we were fortunate to beat the start of the rainy season by 2 days). It was incredibly hot in the Lower Omo Valley – one of our lunchtime day hikes felt like a death march, it was 110 degrees in the shade! And the wind factor made it feel even hotter!

Descending down into the Lower Omo Valley

The Lower Omo Valley

Dug-out canoes on the Omo river, very wobbly!

The Lower Omo valley is full of various ethnic tribes, many of which hadn’t even been explored by westerners until about 15 years ago. The Omo valley tribes are literally the last tribes of Africa. They lead very pastoral lives, raising goats and cattle, and are entirely devoid of modern civilization. Visiting the Omo valley felt like the end of the world and a throwback to the Stone Age. All of the tribes live in mud and thatch roof huts; if they’re lucky, they might have some plastic bags to cover their roofs (in other parts of Ethiopia, a rich house has a tin roof).

Hamer Tribal Women, they grow dreads and color them with clay

Anklets on young unmarried women, can only be removed by their husbands on their wedding day, sounds like a shackle

Bumi tribal women's skirts, made out of beads

The Omo tribes don’t send their kids to school even though the Ethiopian government provides basic education. The tribal elders feel it’s better to let the kids take care of the goats rather than educate them. Amongst the Hamer ethnic tribe, only 6 people out of a total of nearly 50,000 have even completed high school! While the Omo tribes seem very happy in their lifestyle, I would get out of the tribal areas and head to the nearest big city as soon as possible if I were born into this society. The tribes lead an incredibly harsh existence – I don’t understand why people would choose to continue living like it’s the Stone Age.

Bumi Dance Ceremony

Entertainment for the lucky ones

Walking miles to get some water for his family

The Omo valley tribes constantly fight and pillage each other’s villages for camels and goats so that they can raise enough “bride price” to pay for weddings – it’s not uncommon for a bride’s family to demand 30 cattle and hundreds of goats as a bride price to be paid by the groom’s family (sort of like a reverse dowry). These people are incredibly poor, and so instead of waiting and saving for years, it’s quite common for the various tribes to fight each other and pillage. And EVERY woman is circumcised (what we call female genital mutilation in the West) — they WANT to be circumcised — otherwise they may not be able to find a suitable husband.

Teenagers

While it was interesting to photograph the last tribes of Africa, I had very conflicted feelings about visiting the Lower Omo Valley. There are phenomenal photo opportunities, including the famous lip-plated Mursi women. But begging is common – kids, adults, grandparents, everyone begs for money and demands payment for a photo. They actually even demand that you take a photo so that you then have to pay them! Clearly, the local tribes are trying to make a living out of tourism, and I understand that. But to me, it really felt like a human zoo – westerners coming in, taking photos of locals striking a pose, and the locals demanding money to be viewed. It was a put-off for me, and I didn’t take many photos because I didn’t want to participate in the human zoo.

Working it at the market!

The most amusing experience in those five days in the Omo Valley was trying to take a bath. Given how remote the Lower Omo Valley is, there clearly isn’t a shower within a couple hundred miles. After 3 days of not showering in the incredibly hot and dusty climate of driving up from Kenya, I decided to do what the locals did and bathe at the local water pump in the dry riverbed. I started washing my hair as a few local girls pumped some water for me, but halfway through my wash, a herd of donkeys and goats showed up and wanted to bathe with me! I was in the midst of scrubbing myself out of a water bucket, and a couple goats kept trying to drink out of my bathing bucket! I kept shooing them away, but no luck, they were stubborn and kept pushing their heads into my water bucket. I shoved a goat on his forehead and he just dug in and pushed back against my shove – stubborn goat! I had a good laugh about it with the local girls, and then walked away, half lathered up and only half clean. What luck! It certainly made for the most amusing shower I’ve ever had!

I was happy to leave the Omo valley after five days of visiting the human zoo. Our next tribal visit was with the Rastafarians. Did you know that Ethiopia is the spiritual home of Rastafarians? Nor did I. Apparently, when Jamaican preacher Marcus Garvey started his “Back to Africa” movement in the 1930s, he was in so much awe of Ethiopia (as the only African nation not to be colonized by Europeans), that he started a new religious movement called “Rastafarianism” based on the name of Ethiopia’s then Emperor Hailie Selassie (whose birth name is “Ras Tafari”). This is no joke! Ever wonder why the three Rasta colors are yellow, red, green? They are the colors of the Ethiopian flag! And the lion seen in many Rasta art? It’s the Ethiopian royal lion! We visited Sheshemane, which is home to the first church of Rastafarianism, and while we didn’t see many guys with dreads, we were offered a lot of herbs!  Surprise, surprise. We passed, but we did get a chance to visit a thermal hot springs where I got the best massage of my life for about $8.

The First Church of Rastafarianism

We spent the next three days in the Bale Mountains, at around 10,000 feet, exploring the national park and mountain scenery. We went from incredibly hot 100+ degree weather, to below freezing in one day! We literally wore all we had to bed because it was so cold. We stayed at a mountain lodge that felt like an abandoned ski chalet with a working sauna, freezing cold water and no heating but a fireplace! But it was the perfect weather for smores, campfires, barbeques, and bad Ethiopian honey wine.

200 year old Ethiopian farming terraces

Rare mountain Nyala antelope in the Bale Mountains

Orphanage Field Trip to the Bale Mountains

Begging, even at 14,000 feet

The scenic highlight of Ethiopia so far has been visiting the Sanetti plateau in the Bale Mountains. We drove our truck up to around 12,500 feet, then trekked to the top of the mountains near 14,000 feet where you could see for miles on end, if you didn’t first freeze! In the rainy season, the entire Sanetti plateau is covered in snow. Thankfully the rainy season doesn’t start, oh, for a few more days! The Sanetti plateau is a flat escarpment on the roof of Ethiopia, and is home to the very rare Ethiopian wolf (only 400 exist, of which we saw 11!). The Sanetti plateau is beautiful because it’s desolate, incredibly remote, and totally peaceful. It’s been my favorite place in Ethiopia so far.

Rare Ethiopian Wolf

The Sanetti Plateau in the Bale Mountains

100 year old flowering cactus at 13,000 feet

My favorite place in Ethiopia atop the Sanetti Plateau at 13,680 feet. There's my truck!

We left the Bale Mountains and headed to warmer climates at Lakes Abaya, Abiata and Ziway, where we got to thaw from the freezing weather of the mountains. All three are a series of lakes that go north to south down Ethiopia’s Rift Valley.

Lake Abaya Sunrise

Penthouse suite at the Raffles Lake Abiata, with a view!

Jostling for non-existent shade at Lake Abiata

The Raffles at Lake Ziway

Ethiopia has been very different than the rest of Africa so far, in three principal ways. First, the language is quite challenging as not many Ethiopians speak English (besides referring to westerners as “you, you, you!”) largely because of its lack of colonial heritage. No European power conquered Ethiopia, so neither English nor French is spoken like much of the rest of Africa. Ethiopian Amharic is a Semitic language, so it’s unlike any language I can understand.

You, You, You!

Local villagers entertained by our flash dance rendition of "Can't Touch This"

Second, begging is definitely a way of life across Ethiopia. I suspect it’s because of thirty years of foreign aid and handouts to a population that now comes to expect it every time they see a white westerner. Man, woman, child, senior citizen – almost everybody in the rural countryside – puts out their hand when then see a westerner, even at 14,000 feet! Instead of saying hi first, it’s a common sight to see people put their hand out asking for food or money. Yes, Ethiopia is poor, but so is much of Africa, and I’ve not seen this much begging before. They are unfortunately conditioned to handouts after so many years of foreign aid.

I’ve seen more foreign aid agencies in Ethiopia than anywhere else in Africa so far. It’s made me think that aid has not really helped Ethiopia. If anything, aid has made the country expect more aid, which is a downward spiral and an unsustainable economic model. It’s quite sad, as aid agencies have lofty values in mind when they come to help, but I think many of them are continuing the cycle of poverty. No country is going to develop unless they prioritize education and sadly, that doesn’t seem to be a priority amongst the very poor in Ethiopia.

Traffic Jam, Ethiopian Style

Fixing Daphne

The third difference – and my favorite! – is that the entire country maintains a vegetarian fasting diet for the 55 days of Lent leading up to Orthodox Easter. This means no meat at all! While my travel mates are miserable and missing meat, I’m in seventh vegetarian heaven! Usually it’s very difficult for me to eat in the meat-heavy diets of Africa, but Ethiopia has been super easy as a result of the vegetarian fasting food. And very conveniently, our entire 5-week trip in Ethiopia happens to coincide perfectly with the fasting period of Lent! I’m a happy boy.

How dinner is cooked in the bush!

Shopping for Food at a Local Market

Hmm, which rope should I get?

A city of 10 million people, Addis Ababa is hilly and cool. It’s not quite modern, but represents Ethiopia well. Addis is host to the UN’s economic secretariat for Africa, and the Organization for African unity, so many consider it to be Africa’s diplomatic capital and so there are tons of western oriented places to shop and dine, at a price, of course.

The city is full of old Soviet Lada cars, which are used as taxis – the graveyard of communist manufacturing! The Chinese presence here is very strong – they have built Addis’s ring road, and there seems to be a Chinese restaurant on every corner. In fact, I’ve seen more Chinese businessmen here in Addis than white foreigners. China is pouring money into East Africa like no tomorrow, leaving the US and Europe behind in terms of influence.

We’ve been in Addis Ababa for the last two days and after many strong Ethiopian coffees, we’re heading up north to the mountains of northern Ethiopia tomorrow where I get to play Indiana Jones in search of the lost Ark of the Covenant. My hair has grown out way too much in the last 7 weeks, and given how hot I expect the Sudan and crossing the Sahara to be, I’ve shaved it off again today for $1.75, including a shave and a scalp massage. Feeling the breeze on a bald scalp is liberating! I’m off to a nap!

Posted in Ethiopia, Kenya | Tagged , , | 6 Comments

The Lion Sleeps Tonight

Day 50: Leaving Nairobi

After leaving Dar es Salaam ten days ago, we headed for northern Tanzania and the Great Rift Valley —  one of the most amazing places on Earth. Words can’t describe how spectacular the Serengeti is, so most of this blog will be photos — the only way to do it any justice. The temperature cooled significantly as we climbed into the highlands of the north, which was a welcome relief after Dar. The vegetation became increasingly lush and green. It’s shocking to believe weather can be this cool just 3 degrees south of the equator.

Northern Tanzania

On our first day in the north. we came across beautiful Mt. Kilimanjaro, the highest mountain in Africa at 5896m (almost 19,000 feet). Ernest Hemingway wrote a short story years ago called, “The Snows of Kilimanjaro.” I’ve always wanted to see Kilimanjaro before the snow melted due to global warming. And while it’s true that a lot of Kilimanjaro’s glaciers have shrunk dramatically in the last twenty years, the mountain’s still got it! Kili is a trekker’s paradise; it’s an old extinct volcano that can be hiked up relatively easily in about 5 days. The only difficulty is altitude sickness because the air is so thin up there. I didn’t have time to climb Kili this time, but I hope to do so later in my trip.

Mt. Kilimanjaro

The Snows of Kilimanjaro

We next headed to the Ngorongoro crater. The Ngorongoro crater is an old volcano that collapsed on itself (called a caldera) about 1 million years ago. In the process, it spewed billions of tons of ash into the air and leveled the surrounding region into an endless dusty plain, which the local Masai tribe call the “Serengeti.”

Ngorongoro Crater Walls

The Ngorongoro crater is 30km wide, and is home to roughly a quarter of a million animals! Everywhere you look, there is a herd of one thing or another!

Ngorongoro Crater

Driving through the Ngorongoro Crater

Ngorongoro crater -- I wonder if this is where Microsoft got the Windows desktop photo?

30,000 Flamingoes!

Hello Moto!

Cohabitation in the Ngorongoro Crater

We were incredibly fortunate to witness the birth of a baby zebra. The baby zebra started walking as soon as she came out, albeit very wobbly and barely able to stand up. Many animals in the bush have to start walking as soon as they are born, otherwise they are prey for larger animals. Look closely at the first picture of the mother zebra, you can still see her umbilical cord attached between her legs!

Gorgeous Bird

Lazy female lions in the Ngorongoro

No good lazy male lion!

Butterfly harassing a gazelle, look between his legs!

Big Boy Elephant

While having my lunch under a beautiful tree in the Ngorongoro, I suddenly felt something very sharp on my hands. I couldn’t figure out what it was because it happened so fast, so I ignored it. One second later, I went to have another bite of my sandwich, and I felt the pain again. I was being attacked by birds! These yellow-billed kite birds are huge and have very sharp claws. Freaked out, I yelled, “The Birds! The Birds!” and threw my sandwich in the air and ran! I looked back to see about 10 birds fight over my sandwich and destroy it in a split second, including the aluminum wrapping! It was scary, but they just wanted my lunch, not me. My friends told me I ran away like a girl, but I wasn’t exactly focusing on style points running away for my life! Sadly, I had no lunch that day…

Attacked by birds while having lunch under this tree!

Birds may have stolen my lunch, but not my dignity!

The Captivating Serengeti

Zebra Migration

The Serengeti is an endless flat, dusty plain that is home to millions of animals. Having visited most of the major game parks in southern and eastern Africa, I can say that the Serengeti is the most phenomenal and deserves its reputation. It’s home to the last great animal migration on Earth – the wildebeest and zebra migration from the Serengeti in Tanzania to the Masai Mara in Kenya, and then back six months later. It’s a cycle of life that happens every year, starting in Feb/March in the Serengeti and peaking in the Masai Mara in July/Aug. We were lucky to see the beginning of the migration, with the zebras leading the way, since the wildebeests are clueless animals.

On our first day in the Serengeti, we saw almost 20 lions! It never gets too old to see big cats in the wild, and I never get tired photographing them. They are simply spectacular!

Mufasa!

At sunset on our first night, we saw a herd of 25 elephants walk through our camp. They were very peaceful and we gave them enough space to roam around, but it was pretty special to see them right next to our camp.

Snuggled up in my sleeping bag that night, I could see the entire Milky Way and the Southern Cross through the roof of my tent – stunning! At 2am, I heard hyenas just outside my tent sniffing and screaming their characteristic “whoooooop!” A little later I heard a lion outside my tent lapping up some water. Simply amazing to be in the middle of it all! I huddled into a ball, hoping that they couldn’t smell me, but they’re not interested in humans! At 4am, we heard a lion roar nearby, and then the shriek of an animal falling prey. It’s the circle of life!

On the hunt

Waiting Patiently to Pounce

The next day, we stumbled upon an amazing lion hunt. We ran into a pride of 9 lions – 8 females and 1 male – stalking a herd of zebras, inching ever so slowly closer in a pincer movement. There were three lead female lions (the females do the hunting) – we nicknamed them Esther, Mary and Suzy. There was a herd of about 200 zebras around, and they could smell the lions nearby, and they would run fast past each lion trap, kicking their back legs up in the air to frighten the lions. We watched for almost an hour, as the 3 lions closed in on a zebra that had gone astray from the herd, surrounding it in a large circle. The zebra ran around, kicked up its legs, and Mary jumped prematurely out of the grass, revealing her position. The zebra saw a hole in the lion circle and ran right through it and escaped. The three lionesses stood up, frustrated that they had missed their opportunity to kill and wasted an entire hour! They walked sullenly back to the rest of their pride, ashamed that they had gone home empty handed that night! We didn’t see the zebra get killed, but watching the hunt itself was riveting!

So close, yet so far away!

Later that day, we got to see something incredibly rare – a leopard kill a reedbuck in broad daylight! Leopards hunt at night, so seeing it hunt in the day was just pure luck. We had heard that a leopard had been spotted in a certain region of the park, so we drove over and waited near a tree that the leopard likes to call home. Suddenly, we saw the leopard, low to the ground, on the prowl through the tall grass on the hunt for a reedbuck (a small antelope). We lost sight of the leopard through the grass, but a split second later we saw a reedbuck get thrown into the air with the leopard pouncing on it mid-air, wrestling it to the ground, and slashing the reedbuck’s jugular vein. It all lasted one second, and if you blinked, you would’ve missed it! We just happened to be looking in the right direction at the exact right time.

Having killed its lunch, the leopard dragged the reedbuck to a tree, had a bite, and then hid the rest of the dead animal in a hole in the ground for later consumption. It then went for a walk right passed our truck! Maybe it was bloated and needed to walk off its lunch! The leopard is the most unpredictable and shy big cat, so for it to walk down a dirt road, in plain view of a dozen safari jeeps is remarkable. The safari jeep drivers were incredibly aggressive with each other, each inching his jeep closer to the leopard as it walked down the road, jostling for position with the other jeeps, and trying to get the best viewing position for his customers. It is the jungle after all, and only the strongest survive, including safari guides! The leopard walked down the road for a good 5-10 minutes and we followed it until it went up another tree for a nap!

Leopard on the prowl

Look closely, you can see the killed reedbuck's leg in the grass upside down!

Post lunch nap in the tree!

Time for a walk after lunch!

An exhibitionist leopard

Don't Move!

Gorgeous Leopard

Serengeti Trees at Sunset

At the end of our last day in the Serengeti, we finally saw a family of cheetahs – a male, female and two cubs. Cheetahs are the fastest animals in the world, capable of running up to 70 miles per hour for up to 300 meters while hunting prey. They are part of the cat family, but they resemble greyhound dogs. Cheetahs are also incredibly elusive, and a highly endangered species, with only 15,000 left in the wild. On our two-month road trip driving up from southern Africa and going to numerous game parks in every country, we hadn’t seen a single cheetah. So to see them on our last day at the park, at sunset, was awesome. We were on the dirt road observing them when they decided to cross the road. Instead of walking across, they jumped over the entire road in one fell swoop! They were so fast I didn’t even have time to get a picture, but I’m grateful we finally got to see them.

Cheetahs, at last!

Sunset in the Serengeti

On our final morning in the Serengeti, a few friends and I decided to do a sunrise balloon safari. I’ve been on hot air balloons before, and the views from up high are simply spectacular, so I couldn’t resist seeing the Serengeti from a new angle up in the sky. I love hot air ballooning, and am now tempted to get my pilots license when I return to California. Ballooning is such an incredible way to see the ground. Words can’t describe the gorgeous sunrise over the Serengeti, so I’ll just let the images below capture your imagination. Too bad I can’t share with you my post-landing champagne breakfast!

Sunrise over the Serengeti

Lift Off!

Serengeti from the sky

Pumba the warthog running away from balloon shadow!

Touchdown

My new hobby

Champagne Breakfast! Just my style

Sunrise Breakfast

This is how I've been eating every meal in Africa. Not!

After leaving Cape Town almost two months ago, and driving 9300km through southern and eastern Africa, I’ve made it to Nairobi, Kenya. Nairobi has a bad reputation as a dangerous city (nicknamed by many, “Nairobbery”), but I found it to be a very nice, clean, green, lush, well-kept, professional, and friendly city. At 5200 feet, the weather here is quite cool – even though Nairobi is on the Equator. After months of heat in the rainy season in Africa, I’m happy to have a few cool days of weather in Nairobi, lounging by the pool and relaxing.

I’m halfway up the continent from Cape Town to Cairo, and it’s been an incredibly interesting and educational trip so far. We’ve left our old truck Claudia behind in Nairobi, and changed her for a newer more reliable one nicknamed “Daphne.” We also have a couple new drivers, but for sure I’ll miss my two previous drivers (and chef!), and some of my friends who have finished their trip in Nairobi.

I’m off towards Ethiopia tomorrow for the next five weeks!

Can you see the man in the clouds? The Serengeti is surreal, just like Magritte!

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The Road to Zanzibar

Day 40: Leaving Dar es Salaam

The road to Zanzibar from Zimbabwe runs through Mozambique, Malawi, Tanzania, and lots and lots and lots of driving.

After leaving Harare, we drove two hours to the border between Zimbabwe and Mozambique, expecting a brief visa stop, which is usually a simple formality. Apparently though, I wrote the wrong date format on my Mozambican visa application, and when I crossed it out and put the correct one on, the Mozambican border guard decided that I had nullified my form by crossing it out, and had to pay for a new form. So I said, “How much? Five cents?” I figured that would be a reasonable amount to pay for a blank piece of paper, but the border guard had a different take on it and wasn’t amused. “No, you must pay the visa twice.” That’s $30 for the visa, times two. No way was I going to pay that, simply because I put the wrong date on my application form. So I complained that it wasn’t my fault the instructions weren’t on the Mozambican visa form. That didn’t go over too well either with the border guard, and he said with a scowl, “If you want your visa, you wait outside. Now. GO.”

And I waited outside. For five hours. In 40 degree Celsius heat.

I stopped keeping track of time after the second hour. Finally, after His Highness’ finished his two-hour afternoon siesta, we got the visas and were about to cross the border into Mozambique, when a different border guard insisted on seeing all of our yellow fever vaccination certificates. For God’s sake, if we had known that earlier, we would’ve spent the previous five hours digging through our luggage – buried deep in our truck’s trunk – for the paperwork. We threw up our hands and started to search through our bags for our vaccination cards, when one of our guides had a brilliant idea: let’s just bribe the border guard. What do you think about bribing a border guard – good idea or bad? Usually I think it’s a bad idea, but this is Africa…

Mozambique, Tanzania and Kenya insist travelers get a yellow fever vaccine before entering, and the vaccine costs several hundred dollars per person. So how much do you think it costs to bribe a Mozambican border guard to let us skip showing him our yellow fever vaccination cards? $20? $50? $100? Nope. A can of Pepsi. One bloody can of Pepsi. And that’s why Mozambique is the way it is. Corruption for a bloody can of Pepsi. What do you get when you combine Portuguese efficiency and African bureaucracy? Mozambique. Gotta love it.

Mozambique Tete Corridor

Delayed by five hours at the border, we finally entered Mozambique. After another 12 hours of driving through bumpy and dark roads, we finally pulled over to sleep for the night in the Tete Corridor (pronounced just how you think). We woke up to see a country very different than the ones we had just seen in the rest of English-speaking southern Africa. Mozambique is a very poor country. Unlike Namibia, Botswana and much of Zimbabwe, Mozambicans walk on the side of the roads because there is no public transport or infrastructure at all. And most are usually carrying very heavy loads precariously balanced on their heads. As bankrupt as Zimbabwe appeared to be, it was first world in comparison to Mozambique!

Payless Shoe Source

We left Mozambique after one day and headed straight for Malawi, reputed to be the “Switzerland of Africa”: hilly, peaceful, green and friendly. We drove into Malawi’s capital, Lilongwe, to spend the night before heading off to the beaches at Lake Malawi for 3 days. Unfortunately, our trusty truck – Claudia – finally died on us. We had to spend then next two days importing and replacing her clutch. In the meantime, we wandered around Lilongwe, which is a nice, sleepy, leafy, little town. It was obvious we were getting further north in Africa as we started to see Muslim mosque minarets and more non-Africans like Arabs and Indians around town.

To make matters worse, there was no fuel anywhere to be had in Malawi. The country’s reserve bank was bankrupt and couldn’t pay to import fuel, so hundreds of oil tankers were stuck outside Malawi’s borders, refusing to enter the country until the country paid up its foreign debt to importing oil companies. Switzerland? Malawi was more like Africa’s Greece!

Two days later, we finally sourced some fuel on the black market. The only other option was to drive to the Zambian border, and fill up canisters of diesel from a border gas station and bring them back to our truck in Lilongwe. That would’ve taken another day, so instead we decided to pay double the normal price and get the diesel on the black market. Sometimes you have to get creative in Africa.

Fueled up, we finally left Lilongwe and drove 12 hours straight to beautiful Lake Malawi. As we were driving on the national highway, we got pulled over at a police road-stop. The policeman approached our window and said, “What do you have for me?” As in, “What kind of bribe will you give me so I will let you go on your way?” I never realized corruption would be so blatant in Africa. We had heard that Malawi policemen like girlie magazines like Cosmopolitan and Vogue because of the scantily clothed fashion models (whereas genuine porn magazines would be too taboo for them to carry in this conservative country). One of the girls on our truck had a girl’s fashion magazine and we gave it to the policeman at the roadblock. He grinned from ear to ear, said “Thank you!” and let us go on our way – another successful African bribery!

We drove through the night on our way to Lake Malawi, and stopped at around 10:30pm for some soup on the side of the road, knowing that we would get to our destination too late for some real dinner. As we were making soup, I pulled out my wind-up radio trying to get a local Malawian radio station to keep us entertained in the pitch dark. And guess what I heard? Britney Spears singing, “Oops, I did it again!” We all cracked up laughing.

Lake Malawi

Lake Malawi is one of the largest fresh water lakes in the world, created in East Africa’s Rift Valley, and surrounded by lush mountains on either side. As we had spent the last several days either driving 12-15 hours a day, fixing trucks, looking for fuel, or negotiating with border guards, all we wanted to do was relax for a day at the lake, and that’s exactly what we did.

Hammer Time!

 

Lake Malawi Sunrise

The next morning, we crossed the border from Malawi into Tanzania without incident (my friends forced me to be extra nice to the border guards). As we drove further north into central Africa, the scenery became increasingly lush. In southern Tanzania, the 2000-meter high mountains surrounding the Rift Valley are amazingly beautiful. The rolling hills are full of pine forests – yes, pine forests in central Africa! I would never have guessed southern Tanzania to look like Colorado and be as cool as Switzerland.

Tanzanian Highlands

Tea Farms in Tanzania

This temperate weather would not last though, as two days and 24 hours driving later, we arrived exhausted, in dusty, dirty Dar es Salaam, Tanzania’s commercial capital. Dar is a bustling city, teeming with people and poverty. It’s hot, it’s humid, and it’s heaping with rubbish. Situated on a natural harbor, the putrid smell of drying fish overwhelmed our senses instantly as we entered Dar es Salaam. Even Harare – which is the poorest capital city in English-speaking southern Africa –  was luxurious in comparison to Dar es Salaam.

Dar es Salaam Harbor

Dar Ferryboat

East Africa is MUCH poorer than southern Africa. East Africa doesn’t have the mineral wealth that southern Africa does, like gold and diamonds. Most Tanzanians live in simple cinderblock brick structures – whose outside walls are plastered with politicians’’ posters or painted with international brands like “Pepsi” or “Airtel” (which pay for the paint) – or they live in mud huts with thatch roofs. In the countryside, there are thousands upon thousands of unfinished brick homes, because people can’t afford to finish building them once they start, so they lie dormant for years until they save enough funds to put up a roof, or another wall.

Tanzania is the first country we’ve been to where English is not the predominant language. The official language is Swahili, which has developed over hundreds of years through an amalgamation of Arabic and local African tribal languages. “Safari” comes from “safar” in Arabic, which means “to travel.” Remember Rafiki from “The Lion King?” “Rafiki” comes from “Rafik” in Arabic, which means “friend.” And “Hakuna Matata” really means “no worries” in Swahili! And my favorite by far is “Jambo,” which means, “Hello!” To which one responds, “Mambo!” I wonder if that’s where “Mambo Jambo” comes from?

We spent the night on the beach in Dar es Salaam and left promptly the next morning for Zanzibar – the mystical Spice Islands off the coast of eastern Africa, reputed to have some of the best beaches in the world. I was excited to see Zanzibar. After a two-hour ferry, we arrived in what we imagined to be an Arabian Nights land of minarets and mystique. Unfortunately, that’s where the fantasy ended.

Stone Town in Zanzibar

Zanzibar’s main town – called Stone Town – is quaint; full of old mosques and Arabesque architecture. But it’s no Shangri-La. Granted, I was a bit under the weather in Zanzibar, but Stone Town is not what I expected for a major tourist destination. It’s run down with neglect, decline and apathy. It’s not at all gentrified or cleaned up for tourism, and doesn’t have the feel that such a glorious name conjures or could attract with such lure.

There are two speeds at which service is delivered in Zanzibar: Slow or Stop. And while this can be charming for a while, it gets frustrating when you’re waiting for dinner after having ordered three hours earlier. This was mitigated by the fact that we were dining on the highest rooftop in Zanzibar, feeling the sea breeze, lounging on cushions, and listening to sultry Arabesque lounge music. Now if only I had my magic carpet, it would be perfect…

Zanzibar Harbor

Zanzibari Sunset

Long part of the Arab sphere of influence, Zanzibar used to be the epicenter of the East African slave trade throughout the 19th century, with mainland black Africans being enslaved by Arab Zanzibaris and then sold into slavery across the Middle East. Slavery is a very unfortunate part of Zanzibar’s history, but is what the island’s spice wealth was built upon. Freed Africans returned the favor to the Zanzibari Arabs after independence from Britain in 1963 by slaughtering thousands of them and kicking the sultan and most Arabs off the island.

Zanzibar Former Slave Market

Visiting a Spice Plantation

Coconut Climbing Butterfly

Spice King and Queen

After a day of wandering around Stone Town and visiting a spice plantation where they grow cloves, cinnamon, and other spices, we spent the next three days on the beach in northern Zanzibar, getting a bit of rest and relaxation. Unbeknownst to me, Zanzibar happens to be a Mecca for Italians to vacation, and all the locals kept speaking to me in Italian thinking I was from Italy. Not the first time that’s happened. Zanzibar is a conservative Muslim island, and most women are covered head to toe. Not that this stops foreigners from taking most of their clothes off on the beach. It’s an interesting blend of extremes and civilizations living side by side each other.

Heresy?

or heresy?

While Zanzibar’s beaches were beautiful and the water crystal clear and warm, Zanzibar as a whole was a bit disappointing. For sure it has tremendous potential for the future, but I wanted it to be so much more alluring, charming and mystical than it is. Instead, I got Italian Club Med crossed with run down infrastructure and slow African service. Oh well, this is Africa. Can’t have it all!

I’m off to the Serengeti for the next week in search of cheetahs!

Jambo!


Posted in Malawi, Mozambique, Tanzania | Tagged , | 2 Comments

Great Zimbabwe, A Poor Trillionaire

Day 29: Leaving Zimbabwe

Victoria Falls

The last week in Zimbabwe has been nothing but spectacular. Zimbabwe is a beautiful country, and there are so many reasons to visit. Unfortunately, this country – once the breadbasket of Africa, the “land of milk and honey” – has been utterly decimated by the policies of its autocratic president Robert Mugabe. Unemployment is near 90% and average life expectancy has plummeted from one of the highest in Africa to a mere 37 years (thanks to malnutrition and AIDS, which afflicts 25% of the population).

Zimbabwe has the world’s fastest shrinking economy, and the standard of living is now half what it was in 1980. Inflation over the last few years has been extravagant, so much so that the country switched over to using US dollars as their main official currency in 2009. Before the change, 100 trillion Zimbabwean dollars equaled about 50 US cents! Imagine carrying around a wheelbarrow full of cash to buy a coke! Prices are out of control — $10 for a kilo of bananas, $10 for a cart of 24 eggs. Fresh groceries are very difficult to find, the supermarket shelves only have wilted lettuce.

Even though USD is the official currency, it’s very difficult to get access to it. It took me 3 days to cash some traveler’s checks. All this, while the government spends money on its friends and family: the local police have brand new 335i BMW sedans, while the people starve for work and food. 70% of the black middle class has fled, largely to neighboring countries, and an estimated 25% of the country’s population has emigrated in the last five years.

Victoria Falls Hotel

 

We arrived in beautiful Victoria Falls in the northwest of the country after traveling through Botswana. We were greeted by an a cappella group of Zimbabwean men singing “In the Jungle”. It was a great flashback to my college a cappella days and made me feel right at home. We were staying at a local lodge next to the Kingdom Hotel and the famed Victoria Falls Hotel. The Kingdom has a brand new casino inside, but it was totally empty. Not a single gambler inside due to lack of foreign currency in the country!

Dr. Livingstone, I presume?

Victoria Falls is one of the largest waterfalls in the world, where the Zambezi river falls 108 meters down into a narrow cliff gorge, creating one of the best river rafting experiences in the world. We went out on a day-long paddle, assured that we would experience class 5 rapids and have the time of our life. Never did I think they really meant it!

It was a gorgeous day as we started our paddle down the mighty Zambezi, surrounded by 250 meter high cliffs. We had a relatively easy warm up with class 3 rapids, but as the Zambezi roared through a narrow gorge, we came face to face with a class 5 rapid aptly called “Terminator.” I was sitting in front of the boat and as we climbed a massive wave, I was convinced we would crest it with no problem, just like the others. But I was wrong.

Suddenly I heard our guide – a member of the Zimbabwean river rafting Olympic team – yell “Oh Fu*$!” And then all I remember is seeing the sky and getting catapulted 15 meters away from the boat head first. We had capsized into the river and suddenly became the “Zambezi Swim Team.” I came up for air immediately, but as luck would have it, we got pushed through a class 6 rapid called “Terminator 2” and we all got sucked down into the next set of waves, where I lost my sandals. We literally had to swim for our lives. Our kayak rescue team kept screaming, “Swim or die! Swim or die!” Deep under water, all I could think of was to grab a breath of air every time I surfaced so that I could have some air before I got hit with another massive wave and got sucked under again. I was pretty calm under water, held my breath and just went with the flow of the river, knowing that to resist it would be futile and would just exhaust me. A couple of my friends, however, were not as lucky. They got stuck in deep whirlpools (the Zambezi is 90 meters deep!), and they couldn’t get any air as they tumbled through the class 6 T2 washing machine and almost drowned.

The Zambezi Swim Team

Thankfully we were all wearing life jackets, and they did their job – every time we got sucked under, they eventually popped us back up to the surface. It took a massive rescue effort by a crew of experienced kayakers to get us all out of the river safely, but those 10 minutes were pretty hairy. A couple of my mates thought that they were about to drown and saw their lives flash before them and were in tears afterwards in the rescue boat. Oh and did I mention that the Zambezi is crocodile infested!? We all made it out OK and celebrated that night with many, many thanksgiving drinks to have survived one of the most challenging rapids in the world.

The next day, my friend Linda and I had a face-to-face encounter with lion cubs at a lion reserve. Words and pictures don’t do justice to the amazing experience of sitting next to lions, petting them and taking them for a walk. While these cubs were only 8 months old, these little guys had sharp teeth and claws and could easily do some major damage to you. But they were very chill – they had just been fed and all they wanted to do was to sleep – so we got to play with them, grab their paws (massive!) and shepherd them through the bush. A little later, we got to walk with their 15 month old siblings. This sister and brother couple was HUGE and they could easily kill you with a swipe to the face. It was exhilarating to share their environment, even for a little bit. They are very classy animals.

That same afternoon, Linda convinced me that we should do a tandem jump off the Zambezi gorge, plummeting 70 meters down the side of a cliff into the Zambezi. I’m terrified of jumping off things from a bad memory during childhood – which is why I would never bungee jump – but Linda said that she had done this sort of jump before in New Zealand and that it was much tamer than bungee jumping. She told me, “you sit in a harness and they just drop you like a roller coaster.” How hard could that be? It sounded fun, so I agreed.

The Zambezi

Well, Linda was totally wrong. This jump was nothing like the jump she had done previously in New Zealand. This was in fact, JUST LIKE A BUNGEE, except the rope was attached to a harness to your waist, as opposed to your feet. You had to jump off a plank off the side of the cliff, just like a bungee. They harnessed us in together, each holding the other’s waist. Suddenly, I started to panic.

Linda made me do it!

 

As a kid, we lived on the 33rd floor of a building – the same building where the first scene of “Another 48 Hours” was filmed where a woman jumps from the 33rd floor balcony to her death. Growing up, I was always tempted to jump off this same balcony and copy her move, but obviously my attempt would prove fatal, and not cinematic. To this day, I am terrified of balconies, and I grip balcony rails tightly, fearing that my subconscious will one day tempt me to somersault over the railing, just like the lady in the movie.

Jump down into this? Are you crazy?

On the plank, I suddenly felt the urge to go to the bathroom. I told Linda, “if I pee on you today, it’s not my fault.” We started our crawl towards the edge of the plank, and I couldn’t believe I was about to jump off this cliff – my worst nightmare. The jump master kept pushing us closer to the edge, starting the countdown “ 5, 4, 3…” and then I lost it. I started yelling at the jump master, “Don’t f#&*ing push me!! Don’t f#&*ing push me!” I wanted to back out, but I was harnessed in to Linda, and there was no way back. It would’ve been too shameful. Linda kept reassuring me that it would be OK, despite the fact that she too was now getting scared – the same person who yesterday almost drowned in the Zambezi. I took a deep breath, looked at the horizon and…

5

4

3

2…

Oh crap...

I jumped off the plank, hurtling down the side of the cliff, accelerating towards the great Zambezi river until I suddenly got yanked by the rope and started swinging across the river like Tarzan. It was just like skydiving, but much scarier for me. Now I know what it would be like if you hurled yourself off a cliff to your death and saw your life flash by you. As soon as we jumped, we tumbled upside down and ended up going down head first (Linda screaming all the way down) – instead of feet first as we intended. All I remember is the side of the cliff accelerating past me as we rushed towards the whirling waters. As we roared across the river, I finally laughed and exhaled. It was the scariest thing I’ve ever forced myself to do. But I’m glad I did it, because it pushed me to my boundaries, but I can’t say I exactly enjoyed it or would do it again. I liked skydiving much more. Afterwards, I told Linda that it would be her fault if I was found dead one day on the ground, after overcoming my fear and jumping off a balcony…

After several near death experiences in Victoria Falls, we left for Hwange national park (pronounced “Wankie”) to go on a game drive. Hwange is on the border of Botswana and Zimbabwe, on the edge of the Kalahari desert, but is almost totally devoid of tourists and people, except for 46 bushmen. You could tell how badly the tourism industry has suffered here; we went to a lodge where only one room out of 101 were occupied, and the lodge was only being kept open on government orders to create a pretense of normality for potential tourists like us. The tourist infrastructure in Hwange used to be excellent, almost like South Africa, but there haven’t been any tourists here for almost 5 years because of Zimbabwe’s political turmoil. Things are rusting and falling apart, and the bush is slowly growing back. If the government spent some money on a minor paint job of these facilities, they could welcome back tourists by the truck loads. Unfortunately, Uncle Bob’s misguided policies continue to wreak havoc on this beautiful country.

Hwange National Park

Who's there?

We had a couple safari drives in the afternoon, evening and early morning. The highlight was a night drive where we got unexpectedly surrounded by a herd of elephants. They were incredibly quiet and we had no idea they were walking around our parked jeep, until we turned on the spotlight, imagine the fright we all got!

After Hwange, we drove to Bulawayo – the second largest city in Zimbabwe – where we spent two incredibly educational days. Bulawayo is a beautiful, leafy, colonial, tree-lined city, with manicured gardens, unlike most other southern African cities. In fact, the gorgeous trees reminded me a lot of Shanghai.

This is what Bulawayo and Harare look like

We stayed with a white Zimbabwean family who had a lovely campground and took us on a game drive the next day around the Matopo hills. The Matopos are a rocky outcrop estimated to be the oldest mountains in the world. Bushmen have occupied them for over 100,000 years, and they have left their imprint in numerous caves through detailed rock paintings. Our bush guide was incredibly passionate about Bushmen – he has studied them for 30 years and speaks their click language fluently. It was refreshing to see someone so passionate about something, and reminded me that one of the things I want to do in Africa is to rekindle my interest in things I’ve been previously passionate about.

30,000 years old!

Bushman cave

The Matopos

The most fascinating thing I learned was that these Bushmen are the original inhabitants of southern Africa. The Bantu (black African) people migrated from central Africa to southern Africa starting in 1000 AD, displacing the Bushmen. White Europeans started arriving around 1650 AD. Over the last fifty years, many African politicians have claimed “Africa for the Africans” as a slogan to take away political and economic power from the whites. Some politicians have claimed that whites should leave Africa because they invaded black lands. Interestingly, they don’t even know that they too were invaders of another people’s lands – namely the Bushmen, who were the original inhabitants of southern Africa. There are literally hundreds of situations where black politicians have conveniently forgotten this fact in pursuit of their own agendas, and it continues to happen to this day in Zimbabwe with Mugabe’s government. Just goes to show that things aren’t always what they appear to be on the surface.

One afternoon in Bulawayo, we went for a walk in the bush in search of rhinos. There is massive rhino poaching going on in the Matopos, mostly because of unemployment in the surrounding region. Each kilogram of rhino horn can earn $50,000 on the black market thanks to demand from China and Japan. Considering each rhino horn is 10-12 kilos, one can understand why rhinos are in high demand – each horn can fetch $500,000-$600,000! In January alone, 27 poachers were either caught or shot in Matopo-Rhodes national park. So obviously, we weren’t about to go rhino sighting without guards armed with AK47s (which you could buy for $5 with the right contacts!).

Whatever you do, DON'T run!

We walked for hours and hours in the bush, in very tall grass in search of rhinos and were about to give up as sunset was setting in. But on our way out of the park, we suddenly ran into the “terrible twins”. We jumped out of our jeep and started sneaking up to the twins to get a close up look at them. We had to crouch down so as not to startle them, otherwise they could charge us. If that happens, the worst thing you could do is to run! You have to stand still, or behind a tree and hope that the rhino doesn’t get you. They run MUCH faster than humans, so running is no use. We got as close as 10 meters away from them and sat down to enjoy their stunning presence. It was an amazing feeling to be so close to these giants – until they got fidgety, made a false charge at us, coming as close as 5 meters, and then ran away. I often have wondered over the last few weeks why people would want to live in Zimbabwe given all the turmoil of recent years, and I figured it out on this afternoon. It’s such a special place; you can’t but be happy in this beautiful environment!

On the prowl

The Terrible Twins

That evening, we went back to camp where I had a fascinating conversation with our host – a white Zimbabwean businessman – in the middle of a rolling power outage. He is heavily involved in opposition politics with the MDC (the Movement for Democratic Change), and for his safety I will keep his identity undercover and will just refer to him as Nick.

Nick was a former military officer in the Rhodesian army during the 1960s and 1970s. Since independence in 1980, Nick has been threatened several times by black Zimbabwean “war veterans” who wanted to take his land. In 2003, the wife of Bulawayo’s ex-mayor fancied his property and she placed an eviction order on his place, but Nick fought it successfully in court arguing that his place was in the city limits, and no property in city limits could be appropriated. Boy was she pissed. Since then, Nick has been bullied and threatened repeatedly, but he refuses to leave because he was born in Zimbabwe and he feels Zimbabwean.

Nick joined the MDC because he thinks it has a long-term policy for the country’s development, unlike Mugabe’s ruling ZANU-PF party which has an entirely short-term view to power. Unlike in South Africa, where the ruling African National Congress party tried to keep whites in the country after the end of white minority rule to help blacks with training and long-term development, the ZANU-PF in Zimbabwe just kicked out all the whites from managerial roles without training up the black population. The result? The country went from one of the most prosperous in Africa to one of the poorest in just a decade. In 1963, Zimbabwe’s GDP was nearly the same as South Korea. Forty something years later, South Korea’s GDP is over a hundred times that of Zimbabwe’s.

Nick is a local polling agent for the MDC, which Mugabe has tried to ruthlessly repress. His job is to go around his community to make sure things are calm, get his fellow party members to the voting booth, and make sure violence doesn’t erupt. Very recently, a couple 23-year-old thugs stood up during a local community meeting and threatened to kill anyone who supported the MDC. Nick stood up and said that violence had no place in a free society, and that while they could voice their different political opinions, no one wanted violence. The crowd of 200 black people started cheering and ululating for a white guy who stood up to local thugs. The one thing that Robert Mugabe has unintentionally done is to bring about black and white unity – racial unity in the face of oppression by the state towards all Zimbabweans by the Mugabe regime. As a whole, Zimbabweans are tired of violence and political instability. They want peace, they want to make a living, they want what we all want. Nikes.

I asked Nick what he thought would happen when 86-year-old Robert Mugabe finally dies, and he thinks total chaos will reign, as no one is being groomed to take his place. Morgan Tsvangirai, the MDC leader and current prime minister, is seen as a good speaker and rabble-rouser but not as a good administrator, which is what the country badly needs. After the stolen 2008 presidential election, Mugabe has finally caved into a power-sharing government with the MDC after intense international pressure by the SADC (Southern African Development Community). The national unity government is working on a new constitution – due mid-year – that would limit the power of the president and create a more democratic political arena. Once the new constitution is finished, it needs to be approved by a national referendum, and will be immediately followed by a presidential election, likely this fall.  So given that there will be an election year, Nick thinks that violence is sure to erupt again leading up to the election, as Mugabe’s thugs try to intimidate the people to vote against a new constitution and continue his autocratic reign.

The following morning, we left for Masvingo, where we camped to see the ruins of Great Zimbabwe, Africa’s version of Machu Picchu. Great Zimbabwe was built between the 12th and 15th centuries, and at its peak was the largest city in sub-Saharan Africa during the middle ages. The city started a steady decline in the 16th century and is now just a shell of its former self. While the ruins were interesting, I was astounded that we were the only visitors that day to this world heritage site – one of the greatest wonders of the world. Just goes to show how much tourism in Zimbabwe has been decimated by Mugabe’s policies.

Great Zimbabwe ruins

On the 9th, we entered Harare, the Zimbabwean capital. We walked around town for a few hours, strolling through the botanical gardens and the national gallery – rife with political art critical of the regime. Harare is a refreshingly nice city, much like Bulawayo, with grand, leafy avenues, and art deco architecture. There is a lot of buzz around the city, but you can tell that the economy is not doing well. It’s almost impossible to find any imported item.

Oh the irony in Harare...

Harare

In the evening, I went to have dinner with a friend of a friend who lives in Harare. He is a very prominent local black Zimbabwean who has studied abroad and won numerous international awards for political journalism. I will nickname him Bob to protect his identity. Bob has been banned several times in Zimbabwe from covering presidential elections, but he continues to work undercover and make magnificent documentaries highlighting the state’s repression.

We went to northern Harare, where the estates were as grand and as lush as those in Beverly Hills. I was astounded to see so much wealth in a country that has collapsed economically. Most of the wealthy are friends of Robert Mugabe or serving in the government. Driving around town, we were repeatedly stopped at numerous roadblocks, and the policemen were surprised to see a white guy and black guy in the same car as friends.

Bob had a fascinating perspective on the state of events in Zimbabwe. He felt that it was impossible for Mugabe to give up power and that the only hope for change was for him to die. He did say that he – along with many Zimbabweans and Africans – are disappointed in President Obama’s policies towards Africa – or lack thereof, really. Bob thinks that it would be quite easy for 200 American marines to take out Mugabe’s regime, since the Zimbabwean army is so weak. Obama could be a loud voice for democracy and anti-authoritarianism in Africa. But Africans are disappointed that Obama has done little to help oppressed Africans, even though he himself is half-African.

Like Nick, Bob also thinks that 2011 is likely to be a tumultuous year for Zimbabwean politics. Once the referendum for a new constitution gets into full swing, he thinks the government will pull out every card to stop any chance of reform in the country. After already taunting the white community for the last 10 years and blaming all of Zimbabwe’s ills on the whites in order to win previous votes, Mugabe has now turned to a new tactic. His party, the ZANU-PF, has just forced a new law through the rubber-stamp parliament that requires all foreign-owned businesses worth $500,000 or more to be 51% owned  by Zimbabweans. This too, is another tactic to distract the people and win votes in the upcoming election. On Monday, half of Harare was empty as a group of nearly one thousand thugs poured into town to beat up Nigerian and Chinese owned businesses. Whether this tactic will work again is to be decided; Bob reassures me that Mugabe’s ZANU-PF party has virtually no political support amongst the people, and if a clean, fair election were held today, Mugabe would lose in a landslide. The only people who support Mugabe are the military folks who have gotten rich off his largesse. In such an environment, it’s no wonder that the economy has collapsed and foreign direct investment has dried up.

Most interesting, the Zimbabwean government is getting increasingly cozy with the Iranian and Chinese regimes – two other autocratic bullies. Iran has built a brand new multimedia center for the Zimbabwe state broadcaster (the only allowed channel in the country) and Iranians are training the state broadcaster on censorship and propaganda techniques. Iran’s version of Al Jazeera (called Press TV) is the only other English language international news channel allowed in the country, though that too is full of propaganda. And the Chinese are buying up Zimbabwe’s diamonds and minerals left and right. The Chinese foreign minister was in town earlier this week with a $10bn investment package for Mugabe, promising to press the international community to remove sanctions against the regime. With friends like these, who needs Obama?

Zimbabwe has been the most fascinating place I’ve visited in Africa so far. I highly urge you to visit, it’s people are begging for tourism, even if the regime is an ugly toad. I’m off to Mozambique tomorrow as I wind my way up East Africa. Ciao for now!

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In the Middle of the Night

Day 21: Welcome to Zimbabwe

First off, thanks to all of you who have emailed me about the crisis brewing in Egypt. Rest assured that we are monitoring the situation, and we will make sure it is safe before we get there in 3 months. I’m still a LONG way from Cairo… trust me, I know – we have just reached Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe, which is 5165 miles from Cairo…

We’ve spent the last two weeks trekking through northern Namibia and Botswana. The harsh dry desert of central Namibia has given way to an endless savannah and bush climate. It’s still incredibly hot, but much more humid and lush, like what one imagines descending upon the heart of darkness in central Africa.

Sealed with a kiss in Namibia

The Caprivi Strip, northern Namibia, near Botswana

Africa overpowers the senses. It has a very distinct smell; smoky and stifling, but invigorating and clean at the same time. The sunsets and sunrises are absolutely unreal, without any interference from air pollution.

Spitzkoppe, Namibia

You can see a thousand stars at night, including the Milky Way. The noise from the bush is incessant. In the early morning and afternoon, it’s a symphony of bird calls: egrets, geese, the go-away bird (whose scream sounds like “go away!”), African jacanda birds (aka the Jesus bird because it walks on water) – every bird plays an instrument that together sounds like a symphony of nature, something that is totally unavailable in the urban west. In the evening, the birds are quiet, but the crickets and frogs come out to chirp in full force. Plus all the other bugs of the night, and there are LOTS of bugs here in the bush. It’s never quiet in Africa, and you’re never alone, as I found out one night…

On our first night bush camping in the Okavango Delta in Botswana, I had an unexpected encounter with a few wild creatures in the middle of the night. I woke up at 2am and I really had to go to the bathroom (#1). The bush toilet was far, and I wasn’t about to trek through the bush to get there in the dark, in case I ran into some hippos, which I could hear all around my tent since we were right next to the river. So I decided I would just go outside my tent and do my business quietly. As I was about to open my tent zipper, I suddenly saw three sets of eyes glow in the dark and walk towards my tent. I freaked out a bit and quickly reached for my red light headlamp to see better, but the eyes just kept getting brighter and closer. Scared to go pee outside in the presence of unknown animals, I decided to do the only sensible thing I could. I peed in a small water bottle. In the dark. Trust me, it’s hard! I only stopped because I got scared when I heard a lizard rustle somewhere in my tent! In the middle of the night, I surely wasn’t about to go walking in my sleep!

Crossing into the Okavango Delta

The Okavango Delta in Botswana is the largest inland river delta in the world and a World Heritage Site. It’s an amazing place to see hippos, crocodiles and other large game. We went for a bush walk in the delta, but the monsoons had drenched the delta, so we had to take makaro canoes to wade through the delta, then wade through 6 feet high grass to search for game. Our bush ranger told us not to worry about the cobra snakes which live in the delta, because the black mamba is much more lethal and we should watch out for those instead – it’s poison kills you in 8 seconds! Great…

Watch out for the black mamba!

Heat exhaustion

World's Smallest Frog

In the Okavango Delta

One afternoon after our morning bush walk, it suddenly started pouring. I got in a hammock under a veranda at the camp bar, drink in hand, listening to Shakira’s famous

Waka Waka

song “Waka Waka, This Time for Africa” (theme song for the 2010 World Cup), and thinking, “Wow, this is Africa.” It was probably the best moment of the entire trip to date and a memory that I will cherish. There aren’t enough moments in life to slow down and eavesdrop on the torrential raindrops hitting a tin roof. Try it as much as you can.

I’ve totally lost track of days, I have no idea what day of the week it is unless I ask someone. It’s a remarkably liberating experience. All I think about is what I’m doing that day, and my biggest dilemma is when to eat my next meal, how I can get online, and whether I should nap before lunch or after. Although I will admit that after camping in the bush seven days in a row, I was incredibly happy a few days ago to go to a proper grocery store in Rundu, a Namibian town on the Angolan border. It’s such a great feeling to get access to modernity and shopping after having to cook our own food and wash our own clothes by hand.

My home away from home, "Raffles"

Thank god for modernity, but there are a lot of people out in Africa without access to modern conveniences and it makes one grateful for having the easy comforts of basic civilization that we take for granted.

Smuggling beer across the Zambezi river

Everyday involves lots of driving in Africa. The distances are vast, and the roads not altogether good, or even paved for that matter, so driving can be an exhausting experience. The summer rains started coming down hard a few days ago, washing out many roads and flooding plains. A trip that would ordinarily take 2 hours is now taking 6 hours. Of course, it hasn’t helped that our trusty truck Claudia has broken down several times and we’ve had to push it free from the mud on numerous occasions. Some roads have been so inundated that we’ve had to get off the truck and take canoes to reach our destination.

Over the last week, we’ve gone to Etosha National Park in northern Namibia and Chobe National Park in northern Botswana to see wildlife. The scenery has been absolutely stunning and picture postcard perfect.

An Oryx in Etosha National Park, Namibia

Bambi

Impala Beach, Chobe National Park, Botswana

Kissing Hippos

Stork on a tree

Impala Tete-a-Tete

Grandpa

We all do it

The highlight of the game drives has been seeing a dead hippo on the side of the road, being fought over by a lion and a pride of hyenas. This hippo had its tusk cut off, along with its 4 feet, so we guess that it was the unfortunate victim of poaching. The lion and hyenas had come in for the dead meet and when we pulled up, the lion was tearing off the hippo’s head and eating away. A couple hyenas came up for a nibble, but the lion wouldn’t have any of it and jumped on top of the hyena to scare them away. The hyenas started laughing in unison to scare the lion off, but she was bigger and won the right to eat away. In the bush, might makes right, and natural selection is the name of the game.

Don't Try This At Home

I’m looking forward to more adventures in Zimbabwe!

San children in Botswana

Posted in Botswana, Namibia | 2 Comments

Don’t Try This At Home

Day 8 (of 141): The last seven days have been epic, very fun and totally unexpected. I came into this trip without any expectations, and that’s how I plan on going for the rest of the trip, because it’s always more fun without expectations.

After departing Cape Town, we headed north to the Namibian border. There are 7 of us on the trip all the way to Cairo, and an additional 11 to Nairobi, plus two guides and an amazing chef named Charles from Kenya. I suspect I won’t be losing weight on this trip thanks to Charles’ cooking. There is strong representation on the trip by Aussies, Brits, Kiwis, Canadians and a couple Californians including myself. We caravan in Land Rovers and safari jeeps for local drives, and we also have a beautiful expedition truck nicknamed “Claudia” (after Claudia Schiffer) for long distance drives. Claudia is basically our home, our kitchen, our storage locker, our best friend, until she breaks down and cries… and then we have to push her to start, which we’ve had to do several times already when she gets stuck in the mud… it’s going to be a long drive pushing her to Cairo…

Claudia

Stuck, over and over again...

After eight hours of driving on the second day through the harsh Kalahari desert, we finally crossed the Orange river which demarcates the border between South Africa and Namibia. Unfortunately, the Orange river had flooded our campsite and burst its banks because of massive rains in Gauteng province in northern South Africa (near Johannesburg), and it all came swirling downriver. We saw a snake swim in the river right next to our pool, and as soon as we found out that it was a Cape Cobra snake (one of the most poisonous), we all jumped out of the gnarly green pool we were wading in since we couldn’t see the bottom! Thankfully, we weren’t staying in the cottages that were under water with cobras swimming all around! This was one time I was happy to be camping, in my own tent.

Fish Canyon

On our first full day in Namibia, we went to Fish River Canyon, which happens to be the second largest canyon in the world after the Grand Canyon (yeah, who knew?). It’s over 350 million years old. We had a couple sundowners at sunset and returned to basecamp, where it must have been 42 degrees Celsius in the shade at sunset (well over 100 degrees Fahrenheit). During the day, it was easily 50 degrees Celsius (122 Fahrenheit). It’s pointless to shower in the desert in this heat because you start sweating 5 minutes after finishing your shower. And when you’re bush camping, sometimes you go days without showers and have to rely on wet wipes.

What do you think? Hot or Not?

I couldn’t take the heat anymore, so I decided to shave my head entirely. The local barber was hesitant at first, but then he really liked it at the end and asked me if I wanted to shave my eyebrows too. Funny. It’s unbelievable how much cooler one feels without hair! It’s actually downright chilly and draughty some mornings!

Our second night thankfully brought some relief from the heat, but only because we were stuck in a massive sandstorm with more than 50 mile an hour winds and tornadoes all around! Setting up a tent in 50+ mph winds is NOT easy, trust me! Sand, sand, sand EVERYWHERE! At night, you could still feel the heat of the desert radiate from the ground we were sleeping on. It’s so hot that all of my 6 month supply of chapstick melted. I guess the Namib is a good precursor of how things will be when we cross the Sahara in April.

On Day 5, we woke up before 4am (you know how much I love these) to go see a sunrise over the sand dunes of the Namib desert – the oldest and driest desert in the world. This had better be one spectacular sunrise for getting up so early! We got to Dune #45 just before sunrise, and after what seemed to be an eternity (i.e. 45 minutes) we finally made it to top of the 450 feet sand dune for a stunningly gorgeous sunrise over the Namib desert. We ran down the side of the dune and went to breakfast near Deadvlei – a former desert river oasis now cut off by new dunes. Deadvlei still has trees on it that have been dead for more than 600-900 years! It’s a hauntingly beautiful, yet eerie oasis. These trees have not decomposed because of the lack of humidity. The desert is so dry that it preserves all life for eons – a banana peal will stay intact for 30 years, while an orange peel will stay intact for more than 80 years!

Deadvlei, dead for 600-900 years!

The highlight of this first week was camping in the bush and learning from our bush ranger about the desert. The desert is not dead at all like we think it is; on the contrary, it’s teeming with life! The desert hates the rain though, because it makes the sand hard and animals can’t escape into the soft sand underneath where they live in the top 30cm of the sand. The animals can breathe underneath the sand because there is oxygen pockets between the sands, and they have smaller nostrils than a grain of sand which lets the oxygen in, but not the sand! Nature is amazing.

Because there is so little water in the desert, animals get their water by eating each other. Spiders eat ants, lizards eat spiders, snakes eat lizards, and snake eagles eat snakes. This is how water gets totally recycled in the bush! Last year there was 2mm of water in the Namib. Some trees and shrubs go between 5 and 25 years before drinking any rain water! For example, the acacia tree has roots that are 80m deep to get underwater drainage water from rains that came 5 years ago! And some animals, like the oryx can, go their entire lives (25 years) without every drinking any water!

Do you remember watching your favorite Roadrunner cartoon as a kid where Wile E. Coyote would sneak up to the Roadrunner in a walking bush? Well, we owe this ingenious and ridiculous idea to the Bushmen. Bushmen had to sneak up to their prey because their poison darts only reached 5m. So sometimes they would have to sneak up to their prey carrying a bush for cover, and the early European settlers in Africa called them Bushmen for that! And you thought it only happened in cartoons… Apparently, they were so feared by the Europeans (and blacks too) that the Europeans settlers had license to kill Bushmen until as recently as 1918 and it wasn’t even considered murder!

After living for 30,000 years in the Namib, the Bushmen developed a yellow skin to blend in to the desert. Obviously, a black lion would stick out in the yellow desert, so it makes sense that natural selection preferred the yellow skin gene after thousands of years. A Bushman’s first lesson in life is to identify his mother’s footprint in the sand. This is how they identify where their families are in the desert in case they are out in the bush and get lost. Can you imagine having to track down your parents by the tracks of their shoes? The Bushmen are the real survivors of the desert; they’re ingenious and we have so much to learn from them. Unfortunately, their way of life has been totally decimated by modernity, and the 30,000 or so left now live in impoverished shantytowns in Namibia and South Africa. 

 

 

On day 6, we drove to Swakopmund, the extreme sports adventure capital of Namibia, on the Atlantic ocean. We crossed the Tropic of Capricorn and I wanted to take a fun photo underneath the sign. Suddenly, I saw a tiny little snake crawling next to my foot. It slithered away very quickly and hid under a rock. I was about to move the rock when my guide told me that it was a very poisonous Viper snake and that removing the rock would likely make it recoil and attack me. Bad idea. It’s a long way to Cairo and I don’t want to play Russian roulette so soon…

We finally arrived in Swakopmund after taking the trans-Kalahari highway and had an early evening in a simple lodge (a bed for the first time in 7 days!) Though I must admit I‘m getting better at camping and enjoying it more and more as the days pass, there are fewer bed bugs and mosquitoes to worry about than the basic lodges we stay at. What I don’t like about bush camping is that we have to air dry our utensils, plates and cooking pots by flapping them individually in the air with our hands until they dry. We can’t use dishcloths to dry them because that would leave bacteria on the plates, and over the course of several days, that’s likely to give us all the stomach bug. So, dishcloths are illegal on this trip and we have to air dry them, which takes quite a while every breakfast, lunch and dinner. It’s a funny sight to see a group of people all flapping plates at the same time, it’s sort of like a cross between doing jumping jacks and Chinese Tai Qi.

Swakopmund lived up to its reputation as the extreme sports capital of Namibia. Yesterday, I jumped out of a plane at 10,000 feet over the Tropic of Capricorn and the Namib desert! Jumping out of a plane wasn’t scary at all! Thankfully I didn’t have vertigo anymore, even though I’m scared to bits of heights. I did a tandem jump with a jump master who is in full control of the parachute, and has jumped thousands of times over the last 10 years. Even though the plane doesn’t have doors on it, it’s a very calming experience to climb over the Namib desert and Atlantic ocean. 30 seconds before the jump, we got in position with our jump master, and before I could get scared about what I was about to do, we’ve hurtled ourselves out of a flying plane at 10,000 feet and are doing somersaults and backflips as we reach 300km per hour in about 3 seconds! Beat that Mr. Ferrari. The first second is the proverbial “oh shit” moment, and then you fly like a bird! We free dove for 30 seconds before we pulled our parachute and floated down while doing super fast spins for another 5 minutes until we reached ground. I must admit that skydiving was INCREDIBLY fun! All you can do is laugh! I now understand why people say skydiving is addicting (much more so than kiteboarding), I would do it again in a heartbeat!

Yeeha! 300+km an hour over the Namib Desert

We also sandboarded down some desert dunes, but it wasn’t as much fun as jumping out of plane, even though you’re speeding down a sand dune at 70+ km per hour, face first. The part that sucks is climbing back up the sand dune after every run while wearing snowboard boots in 100+ degree whether. Trust me, the repeated treks up the dunes were harder than a heavy Cindy Crossfit workout.

72 km per hour!

Flying Over the Namib Desert

In the afternoon, we went on a township tour around Swakopmund. Townships are where the non-white population was sequestered during apartheid when South Africa controlled Namibia. They are shantytowns and middle class black neighborhoods all in one, and are the heart of African urban life. We met a beautiful village chief who is 86 years old, and then were entertained by a group of super fun kids singing and dancing for us while we ate dinner (roasted caterpillars!) at a shabeen (a local bar). A couple 12 year old girls had a crush on me (they couldn’t decide if I looked Mexican or like Kumar) and wouldn’t let me go until I gave them kisses on the cheeks. The other kids also wouldn’t leave me alone (I don’t think it had ANYTHING to do with the fact that I was passing out stickers). The kids had incredible personalities, and will go far in life with education; they had so much spunk and were full of smiles, even though they lived in poverty. Goes to show happiness doesn’t come through material possessions. It’s a good lesson to learn from Africa!

Village Chief, 86 years old

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