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Not so White Christmas

Well a Happy New Year to you all - may it be a joyous & happy one. Hope Christmas was a boozy time all around...I know it was for me!

So when I left you last, it was mid December 2002, and I was on the Kenyan coast.

Highlights under the water included sightings of sharks, including a massive whale shark - six metres long!! I also did my rescue diver course...and yes, I did arrange to do that course (and pay a deposit) on my return to England...what can I say? I'm too keen/The dive instructors are too good salesmen/I'm easily led/It seemed like a good idea at the time/It seemed like a silly idea, but what the hey!...just insert whichever reason sounds most like me!

Out of the water, I have enjoyed taking walks along the beautiful beach (and taking lots of photos in the process!), wandering around the peaceful Gede ruins - where I spent an hour watching a large troop of monkeys. One night I went with Anne and Mark to a nearby forest reserve, where - as well as guided walks - they have a tree-house where you keep an eye out for elephants and other game. We didn't see too much, but it was still pretty cool.

Well I made it back to Nairobi all right. I was fortunate in that the landlady of the guesthouse where I had stayed was also heading that way the same evening, so she arranged my bus ticket. On our arrival in the capital, she had her regular taxi driver pick us both up. This saved us from having to stay on the bus until dawn (we got in around 0400), like the other passengers - it was most bizarre, we arrived, the lights came on, but almost nobody moved, they all just sat there in silence.

Within the hour, I had been dropped at the campsite - later realising that I had only just missed half of the group, who had been up until 0430 drinking - Natalie was of course amongst them! I crept quietly onto the truck, and tried to grab a couple of hours sleep before people started to wake up. It was actually quite fun being reunited with everyone, and catching up on the gossip - though when I heard that the whinging had reached new and unprecedented levels, I was even more glad I'd taken the break. It's not just that the constant complaining was getting me down, it was that I had been firmly stuck in whinge mode myself, and I think it was only getting away from it all that had shaken me out of it.

We were in Nairobi for a couple of days, where we picked up four new passengers (3 Kiwis & a Brit) . . . the ones that we had been hanging around for two weeks for. We also had the great pleasure of meeting our new truck, and Willy, our new driver. The truck is fine - very similar to the one we had in the Middle East, but with the addition of a fairly comprehensive library. Of course, for reasons mentioned above, people still have petty complaints about it (it gets cold in the mornings with the plastic windows rolled up ????!!!@@@##!), but not me, sunshine - I am happy; I have my view!

On 18th December, we headed off towards Uganda, our base for visiting the mountain gorillas. We arrived at Bujagali Falls, just outside of Jinja. The campsite, Nile River Explorers, was wonderful; it overlooked the Nile, and had showers with only three walls, the one facing the falls missing, so you could get clean and enjoy the view! We were delighted to learn that it would be here that we'd spend Christmas. After one boozy night we were off to Kisoro, near to the border with Rwanda, stopping at an amazingly crap bush camp in a parking lot at the side of the road en route.

We split into two groups to do the gorillas; I went on the first day. We got up early, and by seven were on our way in the back of a pick up, to the Rwandan border. Uganda is a beautiful country, lush & green, hills & outcrops of volcanic rock cover the countryside, on which jungly vegetation grows. The morning was fresh & slightly misty, and the journey just after dawn was a pleasure. We crossed the border - getting a nice surprise, as for some reason the Brits get in for free, saving us the $50 visa that the rest had to pay - and ventured into the Parc des Volcanes, where the gorillas hang out. Once we were at the park headquarters, we were split into smaller groups, and dispatched off to see our three different groups. There are three families of gorillas available for the public to visit, and three more for research. Our family consisted of 17 gorillas, including a silverback. After a drive of about an hour, we neared the edge of the forest, which marked the park boundary. A short walk across fields followed, and then a steep hike through the jungle, with one of our scouts cutting the way with a machete. There are only around 600 of these gorillas in existence, spread between Uganda, Rwanda and DRC (Democratic Republic of Congo), and the ones we visited have an armed guard during daylight hours, to protect them from poachers. Radio communication between the guards and our scouts meant that we knew exactly where to go.

We were amazed by just how close to the edge of the park the gorillas were - we had to walk only around 15 minutes, before we were told to stop, be quite, and remove our bags, keeping only our cameras on us. A few more steps and we were in site of a number of these magnificent creatures - and when I say in sight, I mean that we were around five metres away! Closest to us were a mother and baby, having a bit of a cuddle, and a groom. Near to them was an adolescent male, who watched us for a while, before becoming bored, having a bit of a scratch, and stretching out in a most human pose for a bit of a kip! Further away, in the trees were more gorillas, munching on leaves, and in between them and the nearer ones, just out of sight from where we started off, was the silverback. The scouts were great, and made grunting noises to keep the gorillas calm, and farty noises to attract their attention for photos.

We moved gently around - sitting in the canopy ourselves, supported only by branches and bracken - so as to be in a position to see the silverback clearly. The scouts assisted us to move precariously through the branches, and cut back ferns that obscured our view. Locking eyes with a gorilla, only metres from you - contemplating it, as it stares back, contemplating you - was such a wonderful & moving experience, and well worth the high price - most of which is ploughed back into conservation of these endangered primates. All the clichés are true - you really can see the intelligence in their eyes! We got to spend a full hour with them, and before we left, moved position again, to where three babies were play fighting, and beating their chests. A truly awesome experience.

We hung around in Kisolo long enough for the whole group to share this awesome experience, and then hotfooted it back to Bujagali Falls...the wonderful Nile, and welcoming bar - which was so accommodating, that it even provided grass free of charge to anyone who wished to indulge!! We had a couple of early starts to ensure that we didn't drive on Christmas day - which would have been pretty miserable, let's face it - and arrived early evening of Christmas Eve. It was my cook group, and believe me, you have never seen anyone wash up so quick, so as I could commence drinking!

I awoke around 0930 Christmas day, and bumped into one of my fellow passengers on the way back from the toilet. I am very grateful for his suggestion that we head straight to the bar & start drinking before the hangover kicked in...it certainly did the trick! By 1000 I was opening the pressies sent from home...thanks Mum & Dad. By 1030 the punch was being poured...we'd got a bottle of spirits between two, and I still find it hard to believe that we were all still standing by lunchtime! Once the booze was flowing, we got to the important task of 'Secret Santa'. One of our older passengers, Bob, was kind enough to wrap himself up in a Masai blanket (well, it was in festive colours!) and do the honours.

We'd each spent a whole $5 on our gifts, so as you can imagine, there was some pure quality pressies to be opened. I was lucky enough to receive a nice set of real pearl jewellery, and a blue negligee. Natalie got vodka, and perfume named 'Marriage on Titanic'...quite fitting, as we had seen so much Titanic merchandise in Ethiopia. Once the formalities were dealt with, we spent Christmas in probably a similar way to most of you...drinking, eating and then some more drinking! Sound good? Well it was. A damned good day all round.

Boxing Day...as is to be expected...was spent in little more than a hung over daze. We were all raring to go the next day, though, as it was time to surf the mighty Nile! After an early start, & some essential safety info, we got life jacketed up, & hit the Nile in our small, inflatable craft. It was an exhilarating - and scary in places - day. I had to be rescued by the safety kayakers twice - these guys are great, they make kayaking look so easy, and if you are in the slightest bit of difficulty, or look like you are too lazy to swim for the boat, there they are, swooping down to rescue you - super! I made it all the way through the day, including the last, scariest rapid, named the Bad Place - a grade 5 at the end of 6 grade 6s - many people got out before there, including Chicky Sister, ha!! That was one of the occasions where I had to be rescued. I was clinging on to the end of the kayak, trying to catch my breath. Suddenly the kayaker started hitting the water with his paddle in rather a strange manner...nothing to worry about, only a croc!!!!! I climbed so far onto the kayak, I think I nearly sunk the thing!

So the next morning it was time to move on, stopping at a town called Eldoret, where it was established that another of our number had succumbed to malaria...oh, did I forget to mention? Jade had not felt well enough to come rafting with us, and on our return we found out that he had malaria. So anyway, now two have it (although as I write this, our driver has also come down with it...which could prove to be a problem!). From Eldoret we drove to Nakuru, where most of us entered the National Park there - which was great. We saw rhino & flamingo and water buffalo (in no particular order, this is) and waterbuck, and zebra and giraffe and just heap-loads of stuff! OK, so we also got bogged for seven hours the next morning, and were in danger of tipping over, but how cool's that? We got bogged in the middle of a National Game Park?! Some of our number weren't impressed, but I had a great time!

Once we'd freed ourselves (with the help of a tractor, a land rover, a couple of jacks, a whole heap of bailing out muddy water, etc.), we headed into Nairobi, where we picked up yet more passengers - now totalling 31 peeps on a 30 seater, hmmm. December 31st saw us up early, and cleaning the truck...even more in need of a clean after the previous day's bogging activities! Once the mundane was done, it was off to Tanzania...another country and another year!

We drove on down to the border with Tanzania, which was negotiated without incident. I could tell straight away that I was going to like Tanzania (me of the snap decisions!) as it was stinking hot, and the scenery as we drove away from the border was stunning, and shrouded in a slight haze, giving it an enchanting air. As we drove to Arusha, we honked the horn (well, the driver did) and had a drink (just us - not the driver), as the New Year began in various time zones Down Under. On our arrival at Snake Park campsite, Arusha, we hastily set up camp and lined our stomachs before settling down with the serious business of drinking, drinking and more drinking!

I think it is fair to say that a good night was had by all. There was drinking ('cept for those with malaria) & dancing on the bar & much merriment. The party was still going strong at 0300, when somebody mentioned that it had just gone midnight back home in Blighty. At the same time, I saw Ma - who owns the place - behind the bar with a 'phone in her hand, which I borrowed, and had a wonderful New Year's chat with my Mum & Dad, which was really cool. Managed to party for another couple of hours, before making my way back, through a sea of tents, to mine - accompanied by the loud sound of the 27 (that I counted) guinea fowl, squawking nosily.

As was probably the case all over the world, the next day was spent in a bit of a hung over blur! I did manage to stir myself to go and have a look at the snakes, birds & crocs in the snake park (hence the name). Thought it a bit strange that they had a cage full of guinea pigs, which you couldn't quite see in to...until someone explained to me that they were dinner for the snakes! We also spent the day watching videos - first one of our party had recorded the previous night's shenanigans, which made for most entertaining viewing. We then watched tapes covering the whole trip, since Egypt, which was really nice - though we had all forgotten just how noisy the old truck was - the engine just drowned out any footage shot on there.

We had an early start on the morning of the 3rd, being up at 0500 for our safari to the Serengeti and Ngorongoro crater. There were six jeeps in all to ferry the lot of us first to the Ngorongoro National Park. We paused along the rim of the massive crater, and looked down in awe. Through binoculars, we could clearly pick out elephants - just tiny dots to the naked eye. After lunch we continued to the Serengeti itself, seeing hoards of wildebeest (though instead of 'sweeping majestically across the plain', they were just grazing on the plain), loads of zebra, impala, & Thomson's gazelle.

I was pretty stoked that we saw some giraffe, hyenas & jackals, but the best had yet to come. We entered an area where the great, flat plains were broken up by odd heaps of boulders. On one of these rocky piles we saw two male lions, proudly sat on top. As we watched in wonder, one of the lions came down from the rocks, and walked some of the way toward our jeeps, ignoring us, but just sniffing the air, and looking around like owned the place. He just sat for a while, while we snapped away, until our drivers told us we had to go to reach camp before dark. It was an awesome first sighting (for me at least) of lions - they seemed so in their rightful place, if you know what I mean.

We were off at 0630 the next morning, to get the most out of our game drive. We saw tons of stuff, including two lion sightings - first three adults, then three cubs - lots of beautiful giraffe (which I think are probably my favourites, followed by zebra...big cats aside, anyway . . . and I do have a soft spot for warthogs), around 30 odd hippos, half submerged in a pool. On the bird side, we saw crested crane, Malibu stork, secretary birds and loads of vultures. We were also lucky enough to spot the most elusive of the 'big 5', the leopard! OK, so it was at quite a distance, up a tree, and you could only make out the markings with the aid of binoculars, but it was a sighting just the same, and meant that my personal 'big 5' count was up to four (lion, leopard, rhino & water buffalo), with only the elephant to go.

We stopped for lunch, & to pull down our tents, and then drove back the way we had come, out of the Serengeti & toward the crater. Lots more wildlife was to be seen as we left the park, and drove through the plains. As we left this area behind, we entered beautiful meadowland, which smelt so sweet. It is here that some of the Masai keep their cows and sheep, at the end of the rift valley, surrounded by picturesque old hills. As we neared the campsite at the top of the crater, the vegetation changed. Moss dripped off the trees and the lush greenery made me think of prehistoric times. We set up camp, ate, and had an early night in preparation of the next day's adventure.

It had rained most of the night, but stopped a little before dawn, leaving a damp morning, and a crater full of fog. We drove along the rim, to a road that zig zags its way down to the crater floor. We descended into the atmospheric mist, past bizarre vegetation feeling like we were entering the lost world. As we sunk into the fog the sun grew weak, and cacti appeared out of nowhere alongside the truck. It all felt very mysterious. Once we'd reached the crater floor, we drove through trees a short way before spotting our first elephants!

We saw three loom out of the hazy mist to the right of the road, picking up branches with their trunks. As we watched, they came closer to the road, and as the mist lifted, we spotted four more behind them, one cleaning its tusks on a log. One of the first ones crossed the road, just in front of the foremost truck. We watched them for a while in awe (and I may have taken a photo or two, ahem!) before driving on out of the trees.

We drove on through grassland as the air cleared, seeing many guinea fowl, ostrich, cranes and other feathered things. As the day drew on, becoming sunny and clear, we saw so much, including a new-born gazelle, estimated at being a mere 10 minutes old! We noticed that the behaviour of the Wildebeest - such bizarre looking creatures - differed to that of those in the Serengeti, which had appeared very skittish, racing off the moment the truck drew near - here, in the relative safety of the crater - they were happy just to stand and stare at us as we stared at them.

We watched more hyena, and jackal - both black and silver backed! - and saw a lion up a hill. A bit further on, we parked about 10 metres from a male lion, which we watched for a while, before realising that on the other side of the road, were a pair of lions - which kindly shagged so we could take photos. Most obliging - though it was over in seconds. We also drove to a lake, which was covered in flamingos. It was just so amazing, being in this enormous crater, surrounded by the rim. Probably one of the most documented places of the natural world - and we were there. What a start to the year!

We headed back to Arusha that afternoon, and stayed there the next day, before heading off toward Dar Es Salaam. We had a really gruesome bushcamp at the side of the road, and then went straight to the ferry port the next morning. After a horrendously bumpy four hours (bloody sea cats!), we arrived in historic Stone town, and were driven the short way to the digs for that first night. I was well impressed with the clean dorm room, with nice, tiled en-suite bathroom - it's strange the things you get excited about when travelling.

We went out to a place called Africa House, rumoured to be the site of the best sunset in Africa. Well clouds along the horizon obscured the view somewhat, but it was still pretty cool to be there; the place had a distinct colonial feel to it, and I'd image Raffles not to be dissimilar. The next morning most of us went off for a spice tour - a bit of a must, when in Zanzibar! We went around a farm, and saw many spices in their raw states. I can now reliably inform you that ginger is an aphrodisiac for men, whilst nutmeg has a similar effect on women!

After lunch we headed off to Nuweba, at the north of the island. We stayed in lovely beach bungalows a mere minutes walk from the sea. I bunked in with one of the lads, as Natalie had made alternative arrangements (nudge nudge, wink wink, say no more!!). The two of us were the first to hit the sea, within three minutes of our arrival. I'm not even going to bother to mention the fact that I had again twisted my ankle, within half an hour of arriving at the beach, because it is getting extremely boring now! (It's not too bad, and the swelling has pretty much gone down now.)

The strip of beach was lovely - fine, white sand, met by the froth of gentle waves. The sea near to the shore was a pale, milky turquoise, and beyond that aquamarine, followed by a deep blue. The light blue sky had mauve strip, just above the horizon - presumably caused either by pollution or far off cloud - and its reflection fell in silky puddles between the waves close to shore. Beautiful. I've hopefully got some good pictures, but there were a few I missed, like the oxen and cart, trotting along the beach, with the multihued sea in the background.

My time on Zanzibar was spent sunbathing, swimming, swinging in my hammock . . . generally relaxing - and avoiding the rest of the truck where possible, anti-social creature that I am! It was a wonderfully lazy three days, but all too soon it came to an end, and we were on the minibus, back to Stone town. I am relieved to say that the fast ferry back was smooth and painless, and within two hours we were back on the mainland. We were met at the ferry terminal by two very poorly people, namely Willy (our driver) and Jade (our tour leader). Both had been hit by malaria, and hit quite bad.

Megan, one of the Australian nurses, took first one, then the other into hospital, coming back with neither. Both had high counts of malaria, suggesting they had had it for some time. The next morning, Megan took her friend Mullet in; he had a fever, and was feeling lethargic, but had put it down to over indulging on Zanzibar. Again she came back alone. Mullet's count was the highest yet, but more worrying was the news that Jade was suspected of having cerebral malaria. The three were in for several nights, so regular trips had to be made to the hospital, to supply food, as no meals are provided in there. Natalie also went in to be tested, as she'd had a cough & cold, & wanted to be on the safe side. She was malaria free, but does have bronchitis!

The rest of us settled in to our camp, here at the Silver Sands Hotel, 25km north of Dar. We're on the beach, there's a bar, and yesterday we went to 'Wet & Wild', a few km away, and had a fun day in the water, & on slides, so we've been pretty much happy. The three patients have now been released. It was pretty scary to see them - they all look so thin & wan. Willy & Mullet both had some meat on their bones, but now look skinny. Jade, who is tall and thin anyway, looks like he's just got out of a concentration camp - the image enhanced by his short crew cut. It was apparently the quinine (which is currently effective again over here) that had been pumped into them that has made them look quite so ill, but it has been a sobering experience for us all.

After a further day of recovery, Willy thinks that he should be fit & well enough to drive us tomorrow, so the plan at the moment is to head off early for a long driving day, putting us not far from the border with Malawi. The next day we should cross the border, and head to Chitumba, on the shores of Lake Malawi, where we shall stay for two nights before heading up to Kande Beach - a popular stop with overland trucks, and the scene of dressing up & debauchery, by all accounts! It is also renowned for its fearsome malaria-ridden mosquitoes, so keep your fingers crossed for us all, folks. We've just been in to town, and stocked up on some repellent called Peaceful Sleep, which the locals swear by, and according to Megan (who's done a similar trip through Africa before) creates an exclusion zone for mosies, who just hover around you instead of landing and biting. Let's hope it does the trick!

Well this has turned into another epic, but I must leave it there. We are told that there will be no internet facilities for the next fortnight, so do not assume the worst if you do not hear from me for a wee while. May I take this opportunity of wishing you all a super 2003, I hope it brings good things all round.

So for now farewell, from deepest darkest Africa. I shall write again when I have a) the opportunity to & b) some more good shit to gloat about!


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