From Dar to Zanzibar and Beyond...

Trip Start Jun 19, 2005
Trip End Jun 19, 2006

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Saturday, September 24, 2005

When we last wrote we were headed from Mbeya to Dar es Salaam. In another installment of "getting there is half the fun," we passed on the 9-hour bus ride and opted instead for a 29-hour rail odyssey that wound through a national park, affording views from the '50's style dining car of grazing giraffes, lumbering elephants and various antelopey things. Needless to say, we had plenty of time to stoke our anticipatory fears of the Big City looming in the distance, and to remind ourselves that we have dealt with African metropoli before, and will do so again. With the confidence of now-seasoned independent travelers, we disembarked and found ourselves once again pleasantly surprised by the ease with which we negotiated the taxi (the original price was literally 10 times the eventual fare), found a hotel and settled in. Dar turned out to be a vibrant and very manageable city. We walked everywhere and really enjoyed the mix of African and Middle-eastern influence as well as a (compared to the countries we've been visiting up to now) sophistication and infrastructure that allowed us to get some errands (banking, email, travel arrangements etc) taken care of, and most importantly, to drink some real coffee! Having had our fill of urban exploration, we bid adieu to the mainland and headed for Zanzibar. Our small guest house was tucked into a corner of ancient Stone Town, with its labyrinthine alleys and old-world Muslim flare. The history of slave trade and spices infuse the atmosphere with mystery and seem to make time stand still. We wandered during the day and took in the awe-inspiring sunsets at the sea-view bar of a beautiful colonial era hotel. At night we dined at the open-air night market, where H gobbled fresh lobster, crab, marlin and other seafood delicacies, and Mike filled his belly with delicious Zanzibar pizza, all cooked over charcoal fires before our eyes for just a few shillings.
Then there was the diving. H was in need of an event-free, confidence building underwater experience, and was less-than-thrilled with the idea of descending more than 30 meters to explore a 150 year-old navy tanker wreck, but Mike assured the dive master that despite our novice status, we would be fine. And we were, until we rounded the corner of the sunken ship and found a previously unseen diver looking a bit out of sorts as she sat on the ocean floor, flailing with her regulator floating beside her. While our dive master attended to her, Mike did his best to interpret H's unique brand of underwater communication. Unsure of whether the scene unfolding before her was real or a figment of her nitrogen narcotic brain, H used her index finger to trace small circles in the clear water beside her head, followed by a thumbs up, making it known that she was done with this dive. The calm and collected dive master helped H chill out, assessed the group's remaining air and escorted us all to the surface. The dive master assured us that we had witnessed a rare event, and we decided not to tell her that we had encountered a similar drama every time we had entered the water wearing SCUBA gear. Could it be us?
We had a delicious lunch in the sun while our captain took us to the second dive site of the day, a shallow reef aptly named "Aquarium." Much to her credit, H got back on the horse, and this time enjoyed her dive immensely. The corals and fish were spectacular and in the absence of any underwater incidents everyone had a great time. Chatting up the highlights on our way back to shore, someone mentioned in a benign, by-the-way tone, "Too bad about those divers on Pemba (an island just a few miles north of Zanzibar known for its diving)." It was then that we learned about the Canadian woman and her two adult sons, a man from Belgium and their very experienced dive instructor who disappeared during a dive there last month and, despite a massive search effort were never seen again. We decided that it was preferable to have learned about this after the dive, and if H has her way we will not step into another swimming pool without a transceiver, inflatable orange marker and flare gun.

As if Stone Town wasn't relaxing and idyllic enough, we headed to the east coast of Zanzibar island for a few days of complete r&r on a remote beach near a town called Bwejuu. A steady, warm on-shore breeze shifted the silky white sand beneath our feet and gently rocked the hammocks where we read and dozed the days away - paradise! We finally admitted to ourselves that we needed to get a move on, and before we knew it were back in Dar. Discussing the upcoming Tanzanian presidential elections with a man in our hotel, we learned that in addition to a deep knowledge of local politics, he also had a friend in the safari business. Usually skeptical of this kind of set-up (everybody knows somebody who has something for sale), we decided to hear the guy out, and ended up being very impressed. Having hooked up with a young(er) British couple to improve our bargaining power, we all agreed that Elephant Adventures was as good as our budget was likely to get, and just like that we were headed on safari.

As we've said before, we're pretty convinced that the benefits of independent travel far outweigh the drawbacks, not despite but rather because of the fact that we often have no idea what we're doing and spend much of our day arranging and then enduring sometimes-brutal travel conditions. It is during these times that we have the opportunity to interact most directly with the people who live here. That said, there are times when it is REALLY nice to be whisked away on a tour and have the details taken care of - safari, here we come!

Our safari guide met us at the Arusha bus station in an army green Land Cruiser and promptly plucked us out of the fray. We were happy to leave behind the chaos of the Arusha bus stand where a man who we assume is employed by the bus companies to protect passengers was busy beating back taxi drivers and porters clamoring to (literally) grab our business. Our driver/guide, Junior and his sidekick Buga briefed us in the lobby of our guest house and early the next morning we headed out of town to the nearby Arusha National Park. At the foot of Mt. Meru, this small and scenic park is home to giraffes, wildebeest, zebras, tons of monkeys and antelopes, all wandering around their lush natural habitat as we stood in our safari vehicle (the roof lifts off in two sections providing unobstructed 360 degree views). We hired an armed guide to escort us on a short stroll through the jungle (no choice here - that's part of the deal to walk in a national park), and stood just feet away from giraffes as they nibbled the leaves off the treetops. Before the day was done, a pink cloud of flamingos flew overhead to escort us out of the park. We made our way back to Arusha town, collected supplies and drove a couple hours under a spectacular sunset to an isolated campground on the outskirts of Ngorongoro National Park.

Driving through the arid pastureland between our camp and the Crater, we passed crimson-clad Masai warriors tending their cattle. It's difficult to describe this scene, and we have no pix - the Masai, who distinguish themselves as the only tribe in eastern Africa to retain their traditional ways, don't like to be photographed (unless you pay them - that's part of our traditional way of life they seem to have embraced). The Masai are almost without exception tall and lean, their ebony skin taut over angular faces. The red of the traditional blankets they wear as clothing has over the centuries become a deterrent to lions, as a result of the Masai tradition that requires adolescent males to kill a lion in order to become a man. They carry sticks for herding cattle and are often seen walking alone through windblown terrain with the stick over their shoulders, arms perched on either side as if in crucifix. The women are adorned in ornate silver chains and bracelets, and seem almost always to be balancing absurd loads of cargo atop their shaved heads - the whole thing is just so National Geographic.

The Ngorongoro Crater is an awe-inspiring site, both from the rim where we marveled at its massive expanse, and from within, where the dense concentration of animals and oases of lush foliage amidst miles of arid landscape create a prehistoric scene. This was safari-ing at its best, close encounters with hippos, elephants, herds of wildebeest and zebras, rhinos and cheetahs in the distance, and best of all, the lions.

Under a broiling mid-day sun we came upon a group of 4 or 5 other safari vehicles stopped in a group - always a good sign. A pride of lions had gathered to make use of the vehicles for shade. As you'll see in the pictures, these giant cats were seriously close, and their proximity became really serious when one particularly assertive male decided that our gawking eye-contact was a bit much. He backed up, crouched down and gave us the evil eye like only the king of the jungle can do, and something very basic in each of us made our driver's warning to "be quiet and get down" completely unnecessary. There was a collective gasp and hush from the other safari-ers as we performed a flawless synchronized fall into our seats and held our breaths, hoping the lion wouldn't leap into the car through the open roof. Needless to say, we lived to tell the tale, and it was the highlight of the safari - until the next day's brush with the elephant.

You'd think we would have learned our lesson, but when we saw the enormous elephant lumbering down the hillside in the Tarangire Park the next day, we insisted that Junior take us in for a closer look. He had warned us that due to the fact that elephants sometimes wander out of the park and into the path of poachers and licensed hunters, they have come to associate our vehicles with danger and can sometimes be aggressive. Whatever. We left the riverbank where we were watching elephants play in the mud next to water-walking baboons and lounging antelopes and made our way to destiny. The size of this male elephant is hard to describe, except to say that as he approached our car, our driver reminded us that the Landie weighs about one ton, and the elephant was pushing seven. Once again our hasty descent into our seats proceeded our driver's hushed command, and this time the fear endured as the elephant stood by, looking as though he was deciding what to do. When he finally walked off, Junior let us know that we had actually been at some risk, and that the last time something like this had happened, the elephant inserted his trunk into the roof causing a customer to wet her khaki pants. Dry and alive, we drove around for a few more hours until the heat and post-adrenaline exhaustion finally took its toll, and we headed back to town. The three days were more than we could have hoped to ask for, and you might think we'd have had our fill of animal adventures, but...

We're now in Uganda, after a 22-hour bus ride that was an adventure of its own, and are trying to decide whether we should visit the mountain gorillas here, or in neighboring Rwanda. Rwanda is especially appealing to us now, as we had an opportunity in Arusha to sit in on a morning of the U.N.'s Rwandan War Crimes Tribunal. The lawyers all wear old-school black robes and white wigs and use the most high-tech A/V equipment we've ever seen to navigate the language barriers and length of time that has passed since the 1994 genocide. We are told that Kigali, Rwanda's capital city, is a great place to visit, as are some of the lakeshore resorts and Volcano National Park, so, having spent the day wandering around Kampala, we're headed that way tomorrow. We plan to spend a week or so in Rwanda before coming back to Uganda to brave the whitewater at the source of the mighty Nile River, then back to Nairobi to catch the flight that we have extended by two weeks in hopes of reducing our mounting despair at the thought of leaving Africa. That's it for now - we're off to see what other trouble we can find, and will report back in a couple week. Until then...
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