Thoughts on leaving Africa 17.02.2013

It’s funny to look back at my first hours in Africa, how paranoid I was. I guess I had read too many reports about tourists being robbed on the airport to hotel transfer that it distorted my perception. Wandering around Kisutu late at night in the most oppressive heat I had ever experienced I was sure that the taxi driver was going to rob us when all he wanted to do was help us find a room. Being able to surf the web and find everything is fantastic but in between all that travel advice are the alarming horror stories from unlucky travellers which add alot of unnecessary `What if……´

It didn’t help that in hotel rooms were posters warning women to be careful when walking due to drive by bag snatching. Shopkeepers kept waving there hands in the air trying to warn me too. This again distorted my perception of Africa as a dangerous place when it fact it isn’t more dangerous that anywhere else. The reason shop keepers and hotel staff were so padantic in their warnings was because a Greek woman had been dragged to her death a few days before I arrived – her handbag was snatched from a moving car and somehow she ended up under the wheels – it was the week´s headline. Walking in Dar es Salaam I was hyper paranoid about traffic but after a while I figured it out. Always stick to the sidewalk and always walk towards the direction of the traffic. Never walk on the side of the street with your back towards the flow of traffic. Be aware of people on motorbikes especially if they are driving on to the sidewalk and stay alert when crossing roads. Once I figured this out I wasn’t worried anymore and could start to enjoy myself.

Africa was interesting, often jaw dropping and always hard work. I never did get that wow factor that I experienced daily while travelling in India. I think it might be because I love ancient architecture and temples which Africa lacks. Africa is more about experiencing daily life, walking through markets, looking at animals and landscapes which for me got repetitive after a while. I noticed that most of the tourists in Africa are over 60’s which was quite surprising considering how uncomfortable travelling around the region is.

indian ocean pirogueA pirogue on the Indian Ocean

The people of Tanzania and Kenya. The most polite people I have ever met in my life. I always imagine myself well mannered but believe me compared to the inhabitants of East Africa i’m a savage. I, ofcourse, met a number of individuals who were rude to the extreme like a customs officer at Namanga who singled us out and made us lug our backpacks into an office to be checked – this man oozed racist out of every pore of his being. His colleagues did apologize though and so did the other people on the bus. On the way back to Tanzania when we passed through Namanga again we never even bothered to declare the things we had and no one came on the bus to check the luggage anyway. Oh, and how could I forget the street hawker who spat through the window at me in Korogwe. He was just a nutter I guess. I never did figure out why East Africans don’t like being filmed. Regarding photography sometimes I felt like a walking ATM machine when people wanted cash on return for their photo being taken – but hey I was in the developing world so I didn’t mind.

maasai1Fake Maasai women trying to sell trinkets to unsuspecting tourists somewhere in the Rift Valley

Another thing about Africa is that everything is possible. Why bother trying to find a safari on the internet when a guy who worked in our hotel arranged a tailor-made safari for us at a fraction of the price as what they ask online. Just tell people what you want and they will make it possible. It was the same with car hire which we arranged through the Tayodea Organization in Lushoto – with no restriction or limits which you might otherwise find with global companies. People are honest and want to show their nations in their best light and try to make your stay there as comfortable as possible. When you book into a hotel tell them you want their best room and they will honestly give you the best one they have.

If you find yourself in a scary or dangerous situation as I experienced don´t freak out but ask people for help. They will help and everything will probably be okay. Don´t worry about Police Checkpoints either as we passed many and never once did an officer board the bus. When travelling overland if the company tell you it will take 6 hours to the destination then just double it and you´ll never be disappointed. Take food on journeys as drivers hardly make reststops. There is no point worrying about reputations of bus companies, they all looked the same and travelling with a reputable name still won´t guarantee you that there won´t be an accident, as I always say ´If something is going to happen then it will happen, there is no point worrying

usambara children2Children in the Usambara Mountains

Another thing I want to mention is the reputation of Nairobi. It is a fantastic city and I felt far safer there than in Dar es Salaam or Arusha. My advice is not to just transit through Nairobi but to stick around for a few days, it’s really cosmopolitan with excellent places to eat. On the other hand it was impossible to enjoy Dar es Salaam due to the heat – someone mentioned that even for Africans Dar is just too darn hot. There wasn’t that much to see in Dar es Salaam either i.e. I was bored! Most days were spent there chartering an air conditioned taxi to drive us around or staying in our airco hotel room. If you want to taste the most amazing veggie burgers go to Al Basha on Bridge Street, another good place to eat was Chef’s Place on Chagga Street but apart from those two places eating out was a let down.

bagamoyo customs houseBagamoyo Customs House

bagamoyo street Typical street in Bagamoyo

bagamoyo road The road between Dar es Salaam and Bagamoyo

Will I return to East Africa? I don’t think so. It was beautiful to see and i´m grateful I experienced it but I didn’t have the fun factor that I had in India. It might also have had something to do with taking the anti-malarial tablets Malarone which made me feel down all the time plus the equatorial sun just evaporated any life I had in me. In India I just needed 1 shot of Electrolite to rehydrate me while on this trip I was having to drink ORS everyday.

Why am I writing this? Probably to let people know that Africa is not scary or dangerous but is something that everyone should try to experience at least once in their lives. I do want to go back to Africa – but to West Africa where street life seems far more vibrant. They say ´Go to East Africa for the animals and to West Africa for the people´- I hope they are right!


The truth about Irente Viewpoint, Tanzania October 2012

The most popular hike outside of Lushoto is to Irente Viewpoint. It’s about 6km from town but we were too lazy to walk and took the jeep. While the road up to Mtae is wild the road towards Irente is surrounded by small villages and the land has been cultivated. It’s still really pretty though. I realised driving towards Irente that i’m not worried about the conditions of the roads anymore, it’s comforting to know that if we get stranded the resilient Tanzanian’s will do their best to help us. Rewind to March 2012 when I was stuck at the side of a highway on the outskirts of Amsterdam with no phone signal and tried to wave down a police car and they pretended not to notice us.

colobus monkeysColobus monkeys on the outskirts of Lushoto

Irente girl This little girl practised her English with me, she was so sweet!!

girl near Irente

On the way to Irente Viewpoint we stopped off at Irente Biodiversity Reserve (which used to be called Irente farm) for lunch. The Swedish owner Anette was lovely and she got some of her staff to make lunch for us. Rye bread, jam, fruit, cheese, passion fruit juice…everything grown on the farm – delicious. Afterwards we drove further to the infamous Irente Viewpoint but nobody had mentioned that they have built a massive resort like hotel on the path leading to the viewpoint. It means that you now have to walk through the hotel where you pay 2 EURO to be able to see the view. I imagined walking through a jungle path towards the viewpoint not seeing a massive hotel with car park. Irente Viewpoint was still amazing though and luckily we could see for miles. Amani told us that the view is often obscured by mist. I thought the views up towards Mtae were far more impressive though.


Towards Irente

Typical view from the road towards Irente

The road from Lushoto to Mtae, October 2012

We decided to go to Mtae which is basically the most northern village in the Western Usambaras. Amani met us in the morning to guide us up there as nothing is signposted. The drive was amazing but at times terrifying. In sections the road had turned to mud and sometimes it was a sheer drop on one side. The villages and scenery are breath taking and the people amazingly friendly, not as reserved as the people in Dar or Arusha. Somewhere north of Lukozi we got stuck in the mud, luckily some villagers actually dug out a new section of road for us and it only took about 20 minutes. In Africa everyone seems to help each other. I was almost killed at one point when the hand brake gave way and our jeep rolled backwards down the road towards a cliff, luckily a broken down truck stopped the car. In the developing world there are alot of hidden dangers that you might not realise as we take everything for granted in the west.

Village in the UsambarasGorgeous little village somewhere on the road up to Mtae

I lost count of the times my jaw dropped to the ground because of the views, it seemed to go from alpine forest to rainforest and then hillsides covered in plantations and then waterfalls and cliffs. Before I went to Africa I done some research on the Usambara Mountains and realised from other peoples blogs that EVERYONE who had ever travelled there had loved it so in a way I wasn’t surprised either that this area turned out to be the Africa that I had been searching for. Okay, the savannah in southern Kenya was beautiful too but this place up in the mountains was stunning and exciting plus the climate was bearable.

chameleon in the usambara mountainsAn artist with his baby pet chameleon

Something I noticed about Africa is that you find yourself in disturbing situations and wonder how the hell you are going to get out of it. I experienced this on the Fasaha bus when I almost flipped out when I couldn’t handle it anymore. It was the same in Mtae. By the time we got there the rain was torrential, the road had turned to mud and were shocked when a car breaked in the village but just slid in the mud hitting another car. We were worried about the conditions of the road and if we would survive the journey back down to Lushoto. What made matters worse was that the road leading into Mtae goes across a narrow ridge with sheer drops on both sides. It was scary.

Usambara Amazing views from the road up to Mtae

baboon Baboon at the side of the road

House in Lukozi

Mtae and Masai Steppe Mtae is surrounded on three sides by cliffs

Masai Steppe This point is about 3km high looking down towards the Masai Steppe



Life in the Usambara Mountains, Tanzania 2012

lushotoTypical scene in Lushoto

My stay in the Usambara Mountains has been perfect. I wanted to fase out the noise pollution of modern life and in those days I couldn’t care less about what was happening in the world. We had a television in our room but it was never switched on, I actually loved the moments when there was an electrical blackout (which happens often in Lushoto) and would read by candlelight under the mosquito net. Sitting on the balcony at night watching the million stars and listening to the sometimes frightening noises from the animals in the thick rainforest.

View from room Morning view from our balcony in Lushoto. Half way up the hill is a blue building – that is the junior school.
Lushoto Mist floating across the hillside early in the morning.

In the mornings I would hear someone banging on a tin (the school bell) on the hillside and a short time later the laughter of children on their way to school. I was happy every morning I woke up in Lushoto watching exotic looking birds in the trees. Every morning I was excited about African coffee – a large glass of hot milk and a spoon of instant coffee. It was delicious. Instant coffee in Europe is awful but their coffee was so great I even bought some tins of it at the airport on the way home.  Breakfast was always the same, omelette, toast, watermelon and jam and as much coffee or tea as you could drink. If you are ever in Lushoto stay at the Tumaini – ask for room 118 as it really is the best room they have.

usambara from roadUsambara Mountains seen from the B1 highway

Lushoto, Tanzania October 2012

Lushoto was a place I instantly loved. Set in a valley surrounded on all  sides by steep hills covered in banana trees and rainforest and the vibe relaxed. As soon as we stepped off the bus some touts surrounded us trying to take us to the best hotels but as soon as we explained we were tired and hungry they left us alone…well, except one. The Rough Guide recommended Safari Inn for food but it was awful and no one spoke English so the tout took us to The Tumaini Hostel. Their restaurant was clean and presentable so we decided to eat there. While my boyfriend went off to smoke a cigarette I asked the girl behind the counter if she had any rooms vacant, I thought we may as well take a look at their rooms before heading to a lodge where we were planning on staying. She told me to go out the back door of the restaurant and cross the courtyard to the other building and ask there. I crossed the most amazing courtyard, it had palm trees and orchids and other exotic flowers. A boy was behind the desk and I asked him for the most beautiful room he had. I wasn’t going to settle for just okay while in Lushoto. He led me to room 118 and that was it, I was in love with Lushoto and instantly decided to stay the whole week. The room was amazing with its own balcony looking towards the hills, everything was perfect.

boy in red

Through the week I did see the other places to stay in Lushoto which were listed in the guidebook and none came anywhere near the perfection of Tumaini. It is also central while the other places seemed either run down or too far out of Lushoto.

lukoziChildren outside a house in a roadside village

So that was it, the start of the most amazing week we had in Africa surrounded by mountains and cool air. We hired a jeep as there was no way we were ever going to step inside an African bus again if we could help it. We were interested in two organizations who ran Cultural Tourism Programmes in the mountains. One was a posh organization with a glossy brochure and the other was a badly photocopied A4 bit of paper by an organization called Tayodea  – run by unemployed youths. Ofcourse we chose Tayodea, anything to help unemployed kids. Our guide was called Amani, a really nice soft spoken guy whose job it was to sit in the jeep and tell us which roads to take to the villages we wanted to see. The mountain people are the sweetest most polite people I have ever met, they seem shy. I’m very impressed with the people of Tanzania, they are proud of their country and want to show off it’s best features and they are aware that they all are ambassadors for their nation. I love the Usambara Mountains and the Shambaa peoples who live there.

Savannah to Rainforest, Kenya & Tanzania 2012

I had been too ambitious in my plans to cover vast swathes of eastern Africa with limited time. Nobody told me that travelling in Africa is exhausting. Firstly you have to be at bus stations at 6am which means waking up at 5am on travel days. For some reason intercity buses only leave at 6am or if your lucky 7am. So there you are lugging around a backpack in a scary bus station trying to find the right man to sell the bus ticket, don’t even think about trying to eat breakfast or even get a coffee. The freakiest place of all was in Arusha. A guy we met in Nairobi called Nelson arranged our travel back to Tanzania but it kind of felt as if we had been kidnapped.

town in tanzaniaTypical street scene in Tanzania

rickshaw tanzania

We were met from bus stations by men with our names printed out on A4 sheets of paper who would insist we got in unmarked cars where other men were sitting shouting to each other in Swahili. It was really confusing and I kept mentioning that they should at least invest in something as simple as a name badge with company logo as it was impossible to know who was who. Anyway, I didn’t like Arusha at all, there were too many touts and the place had quite a sinister rundown feel to it so we just spent the night there. I was too wrecked to try and find a place to stay but remembered the name Arusha Backpackers from my guide book so we told the kidnappers to take us there. The rooms were nothing special but the roof terrace we amazing and so was the food – I was in heaven talking to French people, the first westerners we saw since arriving in Africa. The men who had “kidnapped” us even went and arranged our onward journey to Lushoto, the 6am Fasaha V.I.P. Executive Travel.

African savannahThe savannah

I have to laugh now when I think of it. I imagined reclining chairs and maybe someone who brought around drinks and snacks on the bus. It was H-E-L-L. An old over crowded battered bus with narrow chairs and tiny windows which no one would be able to crawl out if anything happened. I realise things now about travel in Africa. There is a driver who smokes and chats on his phone while going way over the speed limit and he is surrounded by a gang of men who you could see as the mob. Once we are out in the middle of no where it’s as if they think they are gods. In the 8 hour bus journey from Arusha to Lushoto they only stopped once for 5 mins in some bushes where we were expected to go to the toilet. Every now and they they’ll let on a group of people who are selling snacks, the mob can take which ever snack they want for free as payment. Public transport is about money and speed.

eafrica maasai villahe

The bus was crammed, at times I had elbows in my face, it was horrible as i’m claustrophobic. Somewhere half way I could feel a panic attack coming on and all I could do was cry quietly to myself while looking out the window while we raced through bush fires, deserts and some of the most harrowing poverty you could ever imagine. Avoid Fasaha if you can. Another bus company called Chokito also leave for Lushoto from Arusha and their buses looked slightly better although not much. The lowest point of the bus trip and infact the lowest point of the whole trip to Africa was on that Fasaha bus in the middle of no where when I was sitting in tears as the middle aisle was crammed full of people and people were banging on the glass from outside trying to sell you things you would ever need. It was horrible – the heat and chaos – the thing that made me snap was someone getting on the bus with a double mattrass which was then passed along across the heads of everyone to the back of the bus.

tanga villageTypical rural Tanzania

I was fuming and I must say I hated Africa in that moment and never wanted to come back EVER!!!!!! Every now and then the police stopped the bus for over speeding but what is the point of traffic police when you can just get rid of them with a bribe?

kilimanjaroLast glimpse of Kilimanjaro

Then again I was in one of the world’s poorest countries so what was I expecting The Orient Express? I thought it was just us suffering but I noticed a woman getting off the bus in Soni who collapsed onto the ground in tears so it was hell for everyone. Once we got into the Usambara Mountains my spirits lifted, the driver put on music which I’m guessing was the music of the mountain peoples and everything got amazing. Gorgeous mountain villages with the women dressed in vibrantly coloured kangals, views that went on for miles, waterfalls, rainforests, monkeys, cooler climates, no dust. After the hell of being in Arusha and the hell of travelling across the Masai Steppe in a bone shaker it was like arriving in paradise!

Into Africa 16.09.2012

So, summer 2012 and things have been really hectic with my work and living in such a crazy city as Amsterdam. I’ve been having alot of fun going to art exhibitions and discovering new places to eat although it kinda sucks that I haven’t been able to travel as much as i’d like to. Reality bites I guess. The good news is i’m in the minority who can say that they love their job and sometimes working is more amazing than what the rest of reality has on offer. Find something you love doing and then find a way to get paid doing it!

Africa Africa. I can’t go through life without ever visiting. I had planned to go back to India but my boyfriend put a stop to that saying we should go visit other regions and not go back to Asia for a while. Uhmmmm, ok. Perception is a funny thing – throw two people into the same situation and they’ll both have completely different experiences. My boyfriend chose Africa.

I’ve always wanted to go there myself so it worked out for both of us. We were naturally drawn to Mali and Burkina Faso. We both agreed that for us those countries seemed to fulfill our ideas of Africa….sandy towns, mosques made of mud, the Dogon and Bozo tribes, vibrant markets, canoes on the Niger River. It just seemed right. I watched a (sometimes boring) film called “The Sheltering Sky” where some of it was filmed on location in the Sahel. Wow!…. then everything came crashing down as people fled Timbuktu and fighting broke out on the streets of Bamako. We scanned the rest of the continent. Senegal seemed like a dream…but only if you were fluent in French and was way over priced. Guinea Bissau had a coup. Amazing stories about the landscapes of Guinea but a nightmare logistically – add to that Liberia and Sierra Leone. One of my ancestors is buried in Sierra Leone, he died of Malaria in the 19th Century so that was somewhere with an emotional connection. The reviews about Ghana were equally as enticing until you read the requirements to get a travel visa – that killed it instantly for us. Nigeria seemed unstable. Cameroon again paradise on Earth but far too expensive for an extended trip. Ethiopia…how could you ever not want to go experience the Lower Omo Valley with it´s Mursi and Hamer tribes? Until you realise to get there involves renting a jeep and a ranger with a rifle from a number of companies who have a monopoly. $2200 per person per week? I think not.

Then came the southern African countries. South Africa, we had to decide long about this country. I’m not attracted to it at all as it seems far too western but it does have stunning landscapes and tribal villages and there are the nearby mysterious countries of Swaziland and Lesotho. Some of the photos of Johannesburg  just looked like London on a rainy day. Mozambique again fascinating with it´s Portugese looking towns but difficult logistically.

In the end we chose Malawi and East Africa. The attraction being the Rift Valley, the biodiversity, the transport infrastructure and the wildlife. The major cities don’t seem visually appealing but the people definetly are. Travel visas were easy to get and it’s possible to re-enter Uganda, Tanzania and Kenya on a single entry visa – that is if you are coming from one of those three countries mentioned. Another attraction will be the contrast between the fusion of the African-Arab Swahili coast and the journey towards the more Central African Christian regions. I will add videos and photos when I get back. I might update this blog from an internet cafe along the route, you never know. Until then…upendo maisha!