Zanzibar, and a quick return to South Africa
The following morning, the Kiwis left our shared room early in the morning on their way to Mombasa for their rugby fixture, and a few hours later I groped my way out of the room, and headed towards one of very few camping sites located in Dar es Salaam, albeit on the southern side of the natural harbour, around which the city developed. This was after I managed to track down the name and location of the bar we’d been drinking in the night before, gone there and collected my driving licence and paid my tab. The Mikadi Beach campsite is a very pleasant and cheap ferry ride south of central Dar, and very prettily located, but I was a little shocked that the only running water came straight out of the ocean, and the bottled water they sold was about five times the price of a shop a couple of minutes ride down the road. I wouldn’t be shocked by this through most of Africa, but I was in Dar es Salaam, the capital of Tanzania, with half a million NGOs working all around me. The manager was very helpful, nevertheless, and agreed to store my bags and let me stash my motorcycle under the eaves of one of the few sturdy structures on site, and off I headed the following morning to Zanzibar. This required a hitch back to the ferry and over the river to the main quayside, and a kilometre run upstream to the Zanzibar ferry quay, and an expedited barter session with the ticket touts to get my ticket just in time to board the 10am speed catamaran, getting me in to Stonetown in time to see and do something with the day. My MO to date on such expeditions is to do a little research the night before, particularly when Wi-Fi is available. I have a tablet with me (LG G-Pad 8.3) which has proved to be invaluable throughout the journey, and luckily have various versions of the Lonely Planet, from various years, for almost all of Africa and Asia. Although significantly smaller than the softback paper varieties, the limiting factor you then have to keep on top of is your battery life. A quick Google search will help confirm things if you’re worried the LP info is a little dated. I headed straight to the Flamingo Hotel in the centre of the twisty, narrow, maze-like lanes of Stonetown, and again thanks to the GPS built into my phone, made it there in a cinch. For only $14 I had a delightful double-bed room to myself, with air-conditioning, Wi-Fi, and free breakfast on the terrace, accompanied by beautiful roof-top vistas of Stonetown. I spent just one night there, enjoying the window-shopping at the nearby Spice Market, along with the fish and meat market (not that sort!) and just generally getting a bit lost wandering the streets. The evening food market down by the waterside close to the port is a pleasant place to while away a few hours, more to enjoy the spectacle of young men and boys running and jumping and spinning and diving and flipping into the waters from the stone walls, rather than the repetitive tables of overpriced skewered meats and seafood. It was a little sad to see the young women and girls looking on with longing at the blatant joy and fun that their opposite sex were enjoying, whilst the constrains of their religion denies them any such frivolity. Even sadder, it denied me the chance to check them out in their bikinis and one-pieces ( just a joke, any radicalists reading this!) Passing on the opportunity to party at a Freddy Mercury bar, I opted for an early night and headed off in the morning to the north of the island on a two hour bumpy, but cheap journey squeezed into the back of a mini-truck, fairly resembling a milk truck, to Nungwi. Nungwi has long been a lure for honeymooners and the like for its beautiful white sand beaches and small rocky outcrops fingering into stunning turquoise coloured, bath-warm waters, with good quality restaurants perched on top. After a scout along the beach-side accommodation options I opted for a basic room 100m back for a 10th of the price, and went exploring. My first stop was the Turtle Sanctuary, about a kilometre along the beach to the east, where a natural salt water lagoon has been fenced off to provide a secure sanctuary to the regular number of turtles of all ages that the local fishermen catch in their nets. I was surprised at the $10 reward they give for each turtle handed in, which is more than the fishermen will earn for several large fish, and means that they might well be financially incentivised to intentionally catch turtles as a bonus to their fishing catch. A friend had recommended the place to me, and I have no doubt that they do a lot of good work, helping move the shockingly low survival rates for newly hatched turtles living to adulthood just very slightly in their favour. I couldn’t help but notice just 100m before the sanctuary I had to step over a sizeable flytip dumping site on the beach, clearly used regularly by the local residents to dispose of their refuse. Why, then, would the sanctuary allow this practice to go on, practically on their doorstep, when anyone who’s watched a modicum of David Attenborough knows how human-produced and discarded plastics have a large hand to play in the tragic and avoidable killing of a wide variety of marine life, including turtles.
Later, when walking down the beach I was approached to take a dhow ride with snorkelling included, and since I hadn’t used my mask and snorkel for a while, and I bartered him down to $15 for the three hour excursion, including some food and drink, I agreed to go. A bit of shambles later, and I found myself on-board said dhow with four attractive young Dutch girls enjoying a sunset cruise, but sadly the enticing snorkelling was a figment of the middleman’s imagination. It was still a pleasant experience, seeing the sailors manoeuvre the rather cumbersome looking vessel around with the unusual Dhow sailing rigging. A number of people I’d spoken to that day had informed me about a big party going on that night at one of the many large resorts along the coastline here, and this one happened to be just 15 minutes walk away. In mixed minds I impulsively decided to head along, not really knowing anyone who would be there, but in the end very glad that I did. It was a few dollars to enter and inside I was quite surprised to find the vast majority, by around 95%, were local Tanzanians, and not all white tourists. It consisted of a large enclosure, the central building of which was an enormous barn-like structure, but well equipped and fitted out with mezzanine bar and DJ levels. The dance floor was packed with enthusiastic dancers and I was welcomed along by one and all. Particularly one enthusiastic male dancer who danced just a little too close to me, and constantly reassured me that this was perfectly normal in Zanzibar. A quick quiz of other Tanzanians that evening confirmed my suspicions that he was definitely interested in more than just dancing with me. I don’t remember what time I tripped home down the dark and rutted rocky lanes, but I managed to dance off whatever I had drunk as I didn’t feel too bad in the morning, as I made my way back to the milk-trucks.
I had to travel via Stonetown in order to get to the southern end of Zanzibar and headed on to the kite-surfing Mecca of Paje three-quarters of the way down the east coast. Dropped on the side of the road and using my phone GPS to orient myself, I found the beach side resorts, only to discover that the vast majority of them were closed, including all the kite-surfing shops. It turned out that I had arrived in Zanzibar at the one time of the year when there is zero wind, meaning anyone in Paje involved in the wind-dependent tourist industry takes this opportunity to have a holiday themselves. Finally I found the perfect dorm room – perfect as I was the only occupant of a 20 bed dorm – and settled down to enjoy a day of rest and relaxation from the stresses and strains of daily motorcycle riding through Africa. The evening was only slightly marred by a dodgy king prawn in my evening meal, which when I went to suck the remaining meat from the large head did I discover how rancid the head stank. I had to bring this to the attention of the Chef, I had literally nearly emptied my stomach when the fetid stench hit me. It was a small restaurant tucked away in the usually busy streets around the large empty resorts, and the Chef was barely apologetic, agreeing that it was certainly off, but that the prawns travel all the way from Dar es Salaam, sometimes further, and this was an unavoidable consequence. My stomach started making angry growling noises as I settled myself down to bed and I prepared myself for a long night with little sleep. So I was delighted when I awoke in the morning having had a long and restful sleep, and I felt perfectly well. My earlier meal in the day had been some street food amongst the locals of Paje, some sliced up and fried potatoes and an interesting vat of boiling bones and weird cuts of meat which produced a strange and yet tasty bowl of broth. In general, for culturally explorative as well as economic reasons, I tend to always eat the local food with the local people, and although my expectations are that periodically I will have to suffer the occasional bout of food poisoning, this was a small price to pay, and in the meantime the exposure might help improve my stomach flora and help make me a little more immune to such bouts. However, in reality, I hadn’t suffered a single upset stomach yet, and the one time I came close to it was in a more “touristy” restaurant, eating curried king prawns.
My fourth and final night on Zanzibar was going to be spent back in Stonetown, enjoying the best of the sights, sounds and smells I had discovered on my initial explorations. Whilst waiting on the side of the road in Paje, however, I bumped into an older fellow with a distinctive face I recognised from the beach side campsite where I had spent my first night on the shores of Lake Malawi. He recounted the story of his morning, walking along the side of the road, from some accommodation around 7km further south of Paje, where he was accosted, bounced around in a circle and robbed by a group of seven men. Sadly they had taken almost all he had, including computer and phone and cash and cards. He had a few pennies to his name, his clothes, and a credit card somewhere back in Dar. It was a bit of an alarming story, reminding you that there is a lot of poverty all around you, and understandably desperate people, and that this occurrence could quite easily have happened to me or anyone else. We made our way back to my favourite Stonetown hostel and he put a plan together, involving getting his sister to send him out some more money. The rest of his day was spent with the police in Stonetown recounting the story, there being no closer police station to Paje. I went shopping for spices and vanilla and baobab seeds, and headed back to the mainland the following morning.
The next week involved a return to South Africa in order to attend a good friend’s wedding in Cape Town, provide a few more much needed English lessons, and crucially, obtain a visa to enter Ethiopia. Ethiopia is the first thorn, and possibly main thorn, in the side of any Overlander taking my sort of route. For some reason, known only to themselves, they will not provide visas to non-Africans arriving at their land borders, but have no problems whatsoever in providing one if you fly in to Addis Ababa. Furthermore, you cannot simply get one from the capital of the previous country you are travelling through, such as Nairobi if you are coming from Kenya. In fact Nairobi, Kampala, Kigali nor Dar es Salaam Ethiopian embassies will provide you with a visa. What you are supposed to do, by their own instructions, is apply from your home country, i.e. from London, for your Ethiopian visa. What I have heard many Overlanders do is DHL or FED EX their passports back home and get a loved one to apply for their visa on their behalf, before sending it back to them in Kenya. This is not only quite risky, should your passport go missing, but also illegal, I think, to post your passport internationally, and also time consuming and expensive. Since I was going to South Africa anyway it certainly seemed like a good idea to see if I could kill two or three birds with one stone. As with most seemingly small beaurocratic hurdles in Africa, this turned into a debacle, the beginning of possibly the greatest risk to my completion of this adventure!
I arrived in Johannesburg late on a Wednesday night, stayed with a friend of a friend in Pretoria, and made my way directly to the Ethiopian Embassy first thing on the Thursday morning. This little excursion to South Africa had begun with an inauspicious start. I spent an hour winding through the horrible Dar es Salaam roads on the way to the airport wearing only what I was prepared to take with me on the trip plus a small backpack. Once at the airport I discovered that they must be one of the few airports in the world that has no carpark. No carpark at all! There is nowhere for people to come and leave their vehicle when they fly somewhere for a weekend, or a week, or a month. Everyone else in the country is probably well aware of this peculiarity and hires taxis or get friends to drop them before their flights. I arrived, without an awful lot of time to spare, and had a series of arguments with various officials until I finally understood the lay of the land. The carparkless lay of the land. The best idea anyone could come up with was for me to ride my bike a couple of kilometres around the airport perimeter to the local police station and ask them nicely if they would let me park there, with an offer of a small contribution to the local Dar es Salaam Airport Policeman’s Ball. I’m not too sure how well they understood what I was asking, but my flight was leaving shortly, and I hoped things couldn’t ever get that bad, leaving your motorcycle parked at a police station? I left my bike in the shade of a tree, helmet locked to the bike helmet locking mechanism, and the keys left with the station Sergeant, with all my personal details written down.
The application process for the Ethiopian visa was going swimmingly, even after rushing off to find an ATM mid-way through, and only began running into difficulties as I was about to walk out the door. On a whim I thought I might just confirm whether this one month visa I was applying for would begin from the day I enter Ethiopia, as I assumed would be the case, or might, quite unusually, actually start counting down those 30 days from the moment the stamp makes contact with rapidly dwindling untarnished paper in my passport. Lo-and-Behold this visa obtaining process is made more complicated by the latter. I rapidly explained that I wouldn’t even arrive in Ethiopia for another month, first having to make my way through the rest of Tanzania, Rwanda, Uganda and Kenya, before knocking on the perimeter gates of Ethiopia. The only solution: double up the cash, and get a two month visa. Off I went, back to the ATM, which I should mention was around 2 kilometres away, and finally I managed to confirm my application for a two month Ethiopian visa. I would be back on Monday, and I confirmed, not only with the girl dealing with my application, but with her boss, in the back office, a large, suited man, who seemed remarkably helpful for a man of some beaurocratic seniority, that their office was open on Monday, and I would definitely be able to collect my passport.
Two hours later on I was aboard my Mango flight from Johannesburg to Cape Town, sat next to a glamorous woman in her fifties, who was, by all accounts, a successful business owner, and learning that Monday was a bank holiday in South Africa. Back on the ground I was straight on the phone to the Embassy to discover that indeed they would be closed on Monday, and my flight back to Dar es Salaam flew out on Monday evening! When you first move to Africa, in my experience, the discovery of this sort of scenario, being burdened with problematic situations because of misinformation from people who should know better than anyone, is a constant hair-pulling, stressful, experience. Slowly, but surely, you kind of get used to it, and become better equipped to not waste your energies getting too worked up about it, but adapt to find the best solution to the latest kerfuffle you find yourself in. There was no two ways about it this time though, I had to get in touch with my generous host of the night before, and persuade her to visit the Embassy the following afternoon before they closed and collect my passport, as if she didn’t have better things to do with her time. Of course I also had to speak to the Embassy again and explain the situation, and ensure that they would have my passport, with visa safely stamped with it, ready for collection the next day, Friday. A very pleasant wedding weekend later, I was back in Pretoria, rendezvous-ing with Gherdy, and collecting my passport. A quick check confirmed that my Ethiopian visa was indeed stuck in place, taking up a whole page. It was only two weeks later on, when arriving Rwanda, that I discovered that the Ethiopian embassy in Pretoria, after all that, had only given me a one month visa – not the much needed two month visa! This is not the end of this story, but I’ll need to pick it up again later on….
I took Gherdy out for something to eat as a small thank you for all her help, and kept a careful eye on the time, needing to take the Gautrain down to the airport from Pretoria in plenty of time for my flight. I had confirmed what time the Gautrain stopped working, and left in plenty of time, only to discover once on the train, that although the train does run until 10pm, the section that connects to the airport, for some unknown reason, stops running an hour earlier. The closest I could get was a station called Marlborough, a good twenty minute drive away, and also about to close for the night, with nothing open in or around the fairly isolated station. So it was, ten minutes later, with the help of a complete stranger working in security at the station, calling a contact of his, that I found myself in a private taxi, with the driver and two other strange men, driving around fairly unsafe areas of Johannesburg at night time. In somewhat security stressful situations like this, I have a habit of subtly removing my most important bank cards from my wallet, and secreting them elsewhere on my body, along with my passport. This is all in the hope that I may lose many valuables if things all turn bad, but all won’t be lost if I can retain the bare minimum of essentials, and my life. Since you’re reading this you can probably guess that I made it safely and with all my personal belongings to the airport: one of the other two men was dropped off en-route, and as we progressed I checked on my GPS to confirm that we were at least heading remotely in the correct direction. I flew through the night, arriving in the very early hours, and made my way back to the police station, delighted to be at least visually reintroduced to my motorcycle. I had a very long wait though for the station Chief to arrive. Many hours later, in his wood-panelled office, he began the negotiations on how much I might wish to contribute to the station, for the burden of looking after my bike. I won’t bother going into too much detail, it was quite a palaver though, but wasn’t all unpleasant, and at times we got on fairly well. In the end he let me go without having made any contribution at all, which wasn’t actually my end game, so that was a pleasant surprise.