|Wed||24/09/2014||Sydney 9.50am to Joburg 4.15pm|
|Thurs||25/09/2014||Joburg 10.40am to Bulawayo 12.05 Overnight train to Victoria Falls|
|Mon||29/09/2014||Livingston to Lusaka|
|Tues||30/09/2014||Lusaka to Kapiri Mposhi 16.00 Tanzara train|
|Wed||1/10/2014||Tanzara train through Zambia|
|Thurs||2/10/2014||Tanzara train through Tanzania|
|Fri||3/10/2014||Tanzara train Dar Es Salaam to Zanzibar|
|Thurs||9/10/2014||Zanzibar 5.35am to Joburg 11.50am|
Tuesday 23rd September, 2014 Newcastle to Sydney
At the dollies’ house at 5.30am then bring them home about seven o’clock. Mark goes into work – has a lot to get through before we leave on the train to Sydney this afternoon. It’s school holidays so Abi isn’t at preschool. I take them to Gregson Park for an hour then to Woolworths to pick up some food for the train and the plane – potato chips and mandarins. Abi wants to see Pa so we drive into JSA but he’s out meeting someone.
Back home Elkie wants to climb the stairs as usual and Abi has the ipad up in Angie’s room with the door shut. I hear a big bang and she yells out – ‘ebwryfing’s fine up here Ma’. I ask her what the noise was and she says it was Elkie’s high chair. I ask her if she’s been climbing on it – ‘No Ma. It just felled over’ – so cute.
Lauren picks them up about 1.30pm and I get stuck into the housework ready for Al who’s minding the house and our cats while we’re away. Mark comes home about three o’clock and helps with the final packing. We drive both cars to Lauren’s to park in their driveway. We have last minute kisses and cuddles before they drive us to Broadmeadow Station at 4pm. So hard to leave our three beautiful girls. Just hope Lauren is okay.
Arrive at Central Station about seven o’clock then catch another train to St James. From here we cross Hyde Park to Jillian’s then the three of us walk up to the Fitzroy for too many drinks – a good night. Mark and I sleep on the lounge because Tam and Isaac are still living here after their time in Laos. Woken by a cat walking on us and the other one going ballistic on the carpet – pretty funny.
Wednesday 24th September, 2014 Sydney to Johannesburg
Wake at 5.30am – say goodbye to Isaac who’s going for his usual early morning bike ride but Jillian and Tam are still in bed by the time we leave at 6.15am. Walking across Hyde Park this early is really lovely then we catch the airport train to the international terminal. It’s quick checking in our bags but immigration takes a while – lots of passengers going through.
I line up at the Tourist Refund Scheme to get money back for our camera and video camera that we bought a few weeks ago after both of them died while we were in Bali in May. At McDonalds we have breakfast while watching heaps of planes landing and taking off – always busy at this time of day. While Mark minds the bags I wander off to buy two bottles of duty free Bacardi and look at watches for ages but decide I like mine more than any of them and I don’t need one anyway. A nice way to pass the time, though.
We ring Lauren – Abi tells us that she had ‘the most tewible dweam in the whole world’ – all her preschool girlfriends had Elsa capes on but she didn’t have one – a nightmare for a three year old dolly. Lauren is taking them to Westfield today for a Frozen concert so Abi is really excited – Pelkie is too little to know yet. I ring Jackie, my darling sister – she doesn’t like us going away since Mum and Dad aren’t here anymore – I know how she feels. I miss ringing them like I always did at the last minute and at every stop along the way. No matter how happy I am, there’s always a sadness here deep in my heart – my little one and my beautiful mum and dad.
We board at 9.30am and take off a bit late at ten thirty. Because we’re with Qantas for a change we’ve got a bit more leg room than on the budget planes we’ve been travelling on for the last few years. But then Mark’s headrest keeps falling off and the same thing happens to the guy sitting in front of him. Maybe the budget panes aren’t that bad after all. The air steward is really funny but can’t fix them as they don’t have a Phillips-head screw-driver on board – ha ha.
Mark is in an aisle seat while I’m in the middle with a nice young black guy next to the window. I don’t get to talk to him as he has music earphones in the whole trip. We do share chocolates and mandarins though. Lunch is really nice with a champagne for Mark and a Bacardi for me – both pop a Temazapam to get some sleep. No luck probably because it’s a daytime flight and we’re not tired anyway. We do get the odd snooze but that’s it for the whole trip. But because it’s Qantas we have individual television screens so we both watch movies and tv shows to pass the time.
After eight hours we can see thick white ice floating down below us – very spectacular as we’re flying close to Antarctica. A lot of other people are up the back of the plane to look out the windows near the toilets and I chat for ages to a young South African boy called Frankie.
After fourteen hours we land at Johannesburg’s Tambo Airport at 4pm South Africa time. The landing is very rocky which makes both of us sick on the stomach and I’ve got a headache. First time I’ve ever felt air sick but it disappears within minutes. The terminal is a new one since we were here in 2007 – built in a sort of spiral around a central three storey hole. Mark gets money from an ATM (10 ZAR – Rand – to 1AUD) while I confirm tickets for our Bulawayo flight tomorrow.
Now we hang out near the Information Desk as I received an email from Mbizi Backpackers yesterday to say that someone will meet us here at 5 o’clock. We decided to book a cheap place (Mbizi Backpackers) near the airport as we’re leaving tomorrow morning on another flight. Lots of people are standing around holding up boards with passengers’ names on them so I do a continual circuit seeing if anyone has our names written down. Considering the groovy website and the Mbizi name, I’m looking for a trendy black guy with long dreds
But after half an hour I ask the lady on the desk if anyone is here from Mbizi. A young white guy standing right next to me pipes up, ‘thet’s me’ – wtf? How was he ever going to find us and vice versa. He tells us to follow him to the carpark where a pock-faced man called Patrick is waiting in an old car. Apparently the boy is Kevin, his son, who Patrick is training up to look after the backpackers so he and his girlfriend can go on a holiday. Kevin looks unimpressed to say the least – looks like a spoilt preppie type who probably lives with Mummy. So much for getting picked up by a Bob Marley look-alike.
And the drive from the airport reminds us of how much we hated Johannesburg last time. Even here on the outskirts, it’s an ugly, boring, dry city with a shanty town of poor black people just near the airport. Along the way we also see black locals selling badly-made wooden tables and chairs and old tyres fashioned into animal shapes.
Patrick talks the whole way telling us how much he hates the Nigerians – ‘all bastards’ – because he’s been caught with them booking rooms at the backpackers then never turning up. What happens is they pay the 10% deposit so they get a printout to show immigration that they’ve got somewhere to stay but then piss off as soon as they land. Even so, it’s a bit hard to feel sorry for Patrick. ‘I can’t like him’ as Abi used to say.
The backpackers is in the suburb of Boxsburg (even hate the name) and really just a house with a tall electrified fence and on a wide, empty main road. Inside, though, we like it a lot better – painted in the brightest colours – every room different. Our orange bedroom is comfy and the toilet and bathroom is just across the hallway. Patrick shows us where we can make breakfast in the morning and takes us out to the bar/chill-out area in the back. But first we’re starving and, predictably, they don’t serve food here – a crappy place – so we have to walk a mile away to a daggy complex of rundown shops to buy Chinese. The woman serving us is a cranky slllll…ut (as Lauren would say) and the Pinball place across the road has a sign that says ‘No Dangerous Weapons, No Firearms, No Drugs’. Seriously, who’d live in this shithole of a country?
Back at Mbizi we eat out near the bar – food is ok but doesn’t taste like Chinese what the hell is that all about? Mark stays up to have a few beers with Patrick and a few other backpackers but I’m too tired to drink and go to bed. After a good sleep I wake thinking it’s morning but it’s still only 11.30pm – jet lag! Both wake again at 1am – bonk – then again (not the bonk bit) at 5am to the noise of other people leaving.
Thursday 25th September, 2014 Johannesburg to Bulawayo to Victoria Falls
Today is the first real day of our holiday and the adventure starts with a morning flight to Bulawayo in Zimbabwe – formerly called Rhodesia. At six o’clock we have showers and Mark makes breakfast of tea, coffee and toast. The weather is beautiful without a cloud in the sky so we sit in the sun outside. Here we get a text from Lauren showing us a video of Abi singing ‘Let It Go’ on the stage at Westfield. We’re sooooo proud and both cry. Our dear little one. She looked nervous but she sang it right through.
Last night Mark had arranged with Patrick for someone to pick us up at 8.15am to take us to the airport. It’s nice waiting in the sun in the front garden but we finally realise our lift isn’t coming and ring Patrick on his mobile. He stumbles out the door still half asleep – not a good look – and rings his driver. ‘They’re all bloody hopeless’, he says.
In fifteen minutes a taxi pulls up at the gate and we’re soon speeding towards the airport with Matthew, a lovely black man, who tells us that he’s taking over from his friend who couldn’t make it for some reason. He tells us that his twenty-three year old brother was car-jacked and murdered two weeks ago. The police haven’t caught the guys who did it. Very typical of Johannesburg which has the honour of being called the ‘murder capital’ of the world.
At nine o’clock Matthew drops us at Tambo’s departures drop-off area. After checking in our bags and passing through immigration, we wander around the shops then have an orange juice and a coffee. As we noticed last time we were here, it’s black people doing the selling and waiting on tables while the white people are on the cash registers – I don’t think we’re imagining this.
A minibus takes us to our South African Airways plane which is sitting out on the hot tarmac – a friendly group of people. Most of the black men are wearing cheap, daggy suits and the ladies are wearing nylon wigs – must be very hot and a possible reason for the body odour – NOT being racist, just a fact. At 10.50am we take off for the short one hour flight. Lovely hostesses serve us chicken and pasta salad and drinks. There are spare seats so we both grab a window seat to watch the scenery below. Not that there’s much to see, just an endless expanse of dry brown land with a few green farms just out of Johannesburg.
We land at Bulawayo’s tiny airport at noon where we pay US $30 each for visas. We don’t need to get any cash as Zimbabwe uses US dollars which we’ve brought with us. I ask some airport staff about getting into town as we can’t see any taxis outside. They give us blank looks like they’ve never been asked that question in their lives – ha ha. Apparently there aren’t any buses either but Patricia, who works at the airport, says she’ll drive us. Just love it! Definitely in Africa!
Patricia is a plump, pretty Zimbabwean lady who never shuts up and tells us her whole life story on the thirty minute drive into town. She’s divorced and lives with her sister who minds her children. The road is flat and straight with barely another car and we like the look of Bulawayo from the start. The wide streets are lined with Jacarandas luckily blooming their purple flowers right now. There are some nice houses on the outskirts and lots of large stone British buildings in the centre. Even here the main streets are shaded by Jacarandas and we pass pretty parks and markets. There are lots of people around so it has a good vibe.
We’re catching the overnight train to Victoria Falls tonight so we need to get to the station to buy our tickets before we can do any sight seeing. Patricia drives us straight there and insists on coming in with us. We’re glad she does because the guys at the desk can’t speak much English and there seems to be a problem. After much talking between them, Patricia tells us that there isn’t a first class tonight, which we don’t care about, but that we can’t buy tickets yet because the train has just come in from Victoria Falls. Not sure why we can’t just get our tickets now but they keep promising her, ‘very soon’.
In the meantime we put our big packs in storage then wait another half an hour before they give her the nod. She also explains to them that we want to buy the whole carriage as second class holds four bunks and we’d rather be on our own. It takes a while for them to understand what we mean but soon we hand over the super-cheap sum of $30US. Not bad for a twelve hour trip with our own bunks. Patricia gives us big cuddles as a celebration and we give her toy koalas for her little boys.
Now she drops us in town before she heads back to the airport. We’re starving so we eat pizza in a sort of open-sided food hall packed with locals. All the women are wearing the awful nylon wigs and most of them have huge bums that stick right out – just an observation. In the streets men are selling spotty bananas – yes, Jule and Steve – from rough carts. It’s very busy but a nice sized city reminding us of big country towns at home with their wide streets and colonial buildings.
At the market I buy a pair of wooden ear-rings then we wander around a craft shop. Outside we catch a taxi to a restaurant we’ve read about in the Lonely Planet called 26 On Park. Oh, this is lovely. A long shaded driveway leads to a lovely old home with a wide green lawn surrounded by flowering gardens. There is a deep verandah with tables and chairs but we choose a table under the trees – cooler here.
The owner is Greg Friend who comes out to chat with us. He’s a white guy – haven’t seen any others since we flew in – and he gives us a history of the house which was built by Cecil Rhodes. He also talks about the history of Bulawayo and how screwed up the country is thanks to Robert Mugabe. He became president 1980 as the Zimbabwe’s first black leader. This might sound a good thing but he took over all white-owned commercial farms handing them over to the landless black Zimbabweans. But they had no idea about farming and just sold everything off so that there’s only one white farmer left around Bulawayo where before 1980 there were hundreds. It’s why the formerly agriculture-based economy collapsed and hasn’t recovered.
We spend the rest of the afternoon drinking lime sodas for me and about a hundred Hansa beers for Mark. He actually drinks them out of Hansa and has to swap to Mozambique Beer. For a while I hang out reading on a lounge inside and we use the wifi to get onto Facebook. Two obese ladies turn up in a taxi and order huge desserts and laugh their heads off.
Later we have dinner on the verandah as the sun starts to set through the trees. The food is excellent and we pay a lot (US $46) – fish, chips and salad for me and t-bone steak and vegetables for Mark. Bob Marley is playing somewhere inside and ‘No Woman No Cry’ makes me cry for my little one. I think it’s why I always like to be on the move. If I stop to think I get sad – can’t go there.
At six o’clock we get a taxi back to the station. It’s dark driving through town and I feel better and very excited to be catching the train.
At the station Mark gets our bags out of storage then we find our cabin. Very basic but we love it. Local people are walking along the platform carrying bags on their heads to the other end of the train and I chat with a guy who seems to be in the next carriage.
I’m feeling really tired so Mark makes up the bunks and we pull out our blankets and pillows that we always bring with us. Leaving Bulawayo is excellent with the open window keeping us cool and watching the town slip behind us. The train is definitely worse for wear though and is so noisy we can barely hear each other talk.
Despite the racket, we fall asleep pretty quickly but then we’re woken at 8.30pm by someone banging on the door – ‘tickets please’. The ticket guy is also accompanied by a funny guy hiring extra pillows, sheets and blankets so we pay for one set – only US$4.
We also ask about buying water as we’ve only got about a third of a small bottle left between us. Again we get a bewildered look and ‘water? No’. wtf? Hasn’t anyone ever wanted to buy water on this twelve hour trip? A definite opportunity here for someone to make a bit of money. And anyway, holy shit, we’re going to be dying of thirst by morning.
I take the top bunk because the lower one is wider for Mark. The temperature drops in the night but we’re cosy with all our blankets. I get up a couple of times to use the horrid loo. No water in the taps and I’m a bit scared that someone will grab me and throw me out the open doorway. I should wake Mark but he’s taken a sleeping pill and wearing ear plugs.
Later I wake up and can’t get back to sleep so I read by torchlight. We do have little lights above each bunk but predictably they don’t work.
Friday 26th September, 2014 Victoria Falls
We’re both awake at 5.30am so I squeeze in with Mark – more bonking – not easy on a rattley train. The sun is just coming up and we’re pulling into the small station at Dete. We’re due to arrive in Victoria Falls in about an hour so we start getting our stuff organized. After half an hour we pull out of Dete only to return ten minutes later. The word goes out that we’ll be here till 9am as there’s a derailment just ahead.
No worries – we chat with a lovely black lady called Sylvia who is carrying her nine month old baby Cassandra on her back and a French guy called Floyd in the next cabin. Our water is gone but there isn’t anything to buy at the station. We ask if there’s a shop in town but they say ‘no’ – anyway we’re not game to walk over to the houses in case the train leaves.
Soon we leave Dete again, returning half an hour later. Apparently we’re just being shunted from one track to another so other trains can pass going in the opposite direction. The word now is that we won’t be getting to Victoria Falls till three o’clock this afternoon – eight hours late! Oh well, we’ve got plenty of time up our sleeves so there’s no great hurry to get there.
We sleep, read and talk to Floyd until we leave Dete for the last time. The scenery is constant – dry brown grass and spindly trees, round grass huts with pointy thatched roofs, cows pulling carts, antelopes and Mark even sees a group of people dancing in feathers and skins in the middle of nowhere. We see signs for elephants but only see some poo on the side of the track. Without any water my mouth is definitely tasting like elephant dung.
Later we stop at a station where we’re told to close the windows because the baboons will jump in and steal whatever they can get their little hands on.
Here we also say goodbye to Sylvia and where we see a tiny kiosk up on the embankment. They don’t sell water and the only liquids Mark can buy are two bottles of coke. No use to him with his diabetes though. I wander over to some village houses for a look where I see a local lady rushing towards me calling out ‘you want mineral water?’ – very happy to see that she’s carrying bottles of cold water in a bucket. We grab a couple each and I give the cokes to two young girls from the train.
At 2.45pm we pull into Victoria Falls, almost eight hours behind schedule. The station is cute with the grand colonial Victoria Falls Hotel just across the road. Seeing warthogs grazing around the grounds reminds us of Swaziland. We’d love to stay here but it’s way out of our budget. Anyway we know there are a few good backpacker places here with Shoestrings at the top of our list. Floyd from the train is planning to stay there tonight as well.
An old man is waiting on the platform and asks if we want a taxi. The main township isn’t far but our packs are too heavy so we jump in. We like the look of a couple of big hotels – very ‘African’ with soaring thatched roofs – but the shopping area is pretty ugly and the rest just souvenir shops. Every second place is a tourist agency advertising safaris, walking with the lions, helicopter rides, sunset cruises, rafting … You could spend a fortune in this place because nothing here is cheap.
Anyway, we jump out at Shoestrings only to be told that they only have dorm rooms left. We decide to try somewhere else first so we stop at the Victoria Falls Rest Camp where Julie and Steve stayed with Intrepid. Apparently this is popular with tour groups and they’re booked out as well.
Now our driver says he knows a better place – very clean and cheap. We drive way out of town to pull into a messy driveway with religious scenes and slogans painted all over the walls of the guesthouse. We don’t like the look of the white owner but say we’ll look at a room until he tells us it will be US $80 – no way!! ‘I can come down’ he whines – fuck off!!
It looks like a dorm at Shoestrings will have to do unless we can get a room at the Victoria Falls Backpackers. It’s a bit out of town but then town looks like a shit-hole anyway so we don’t need to be in walking distance. And joy of joys, they have a room and this place is lovely – very compact with cute cabins, an open-air kitchen, a chill out area and a pool. We’re soooo hot and can’t wait to get into the water.
A guy called John greets us and I ask about sunset cruises for today. He says we’ll need to be ready to get picked up at four o’clock so we’ll have to hurry. He now shows us the Zebra Room – very cute with a few even cuter outside bathrooms to choose from. Someone has gone to lots of effort to decorate the whole place and we feel very ‘on safari’. The reception is in a round hut with a tall pointed roof and just outside our room is a low stone wall surrounding a fire pit. And our room has two fans with mosquito nets – no air-con so we need to get in the pool fast. Yes I’m very happy. The water is perfect but we don’t stay in long as I want to wash my hair before we leave.
Right on four we meet a small van outside with only one other passenger – a strange little Australian guy wearing a hat and a scarf in this sweltering heat. He’s a sort of Aussie version of Mr Bean and we feel sorry for him. We drive for about fifteen minutes further out of town to the edge of the Zambezi River where a small group of dancers are waiting to greet us. They’re all garbed out in grass skirts and playing traditional instruments. We get dragged in for a dance and photos – fun!
On the wooden wharf we have to pay US$10 each entry fee to the national park to add to the US $40 each for the cruise. But then we get any drinks we want and food as well – pretty cheap especially if we see some animals. The boat is wide and flat bottomed with plenty of cane tables and chairs. Mark and I grab a table right at the front next to the water where we’re presented with ‘welcome drinks’ – a lovely red and yellow colour and tastes good. Eventually the rest of the guests arrive – about thirty people in all – a table of French idiots, a big group of elderly Japanese (all little) and a lovely Canadian lady called Cheryl. She sits with us and is heaps of fun.
Besides the tourists, there’s a staff of eight including the captain who gives us a welcome talk before we set off. A few other boats are out on the water already – a couple of bigger two storey ones and some very little ones. Mark soon spots a white water bird and we imagine that this will be the extent of the wildlife.
But then suddenly we’re speeding towards the south bank where we can see an elephant down by the water. Now we’re speeding off in the other direction – hippos this time. A family of four with a couple of bubbas. Then we head towards the falls where more hippos are bobbing around. But the highlight is an elephant who comes down from the Zambian side and swims right across the river in front of us – great excitement!
Meanwhile we’ve been having free drinks and served lovely finger food. As the sun sets in a golden sky we have cups of tea and hot scones. I feel very Agatha Christie!
Before we disembark we have a ‘thank you’ talk from the captain who hints that we might like to give a donation for the crew – another $10. We talk to the funny Aussie guy on the way back then get dropped off at the Rest Camp in the dark. We want to have dinner at In Da Belly Restaurant which is inside the Camp and recommended by Lonely Planet. It’s a nice open-sided place with the usual thatched roof but horrible orange plastic chairs inside – a definite design flaw, ha ha.
The whole place is filled with tour groups which makes us glad to be on our own. For $18 we have a horrible crocodile curry (Mark) and tomato soup (me) with two beers and a coke. While we wait for our food we use their wifi and see photos of our girls at Oakdale Farm.
At the main gate we ask about getting a taxi so one of the guys takes off on a pushbike into town to find one for us. Both exhausted, we’re in bed by 8 o’clock. We wake at 2.30am so I ring Lauren – 10.30am at home.
Saturday 27th September, 2014 Victoria Falls to Livingstone
I can’t get back to sleep after talking to Lauren so I read till 5.30am then wide wake again an hour later. Mark has been up already – showered and shaved and looks especially handsome.
Before breakfast we ask John at the desk about booking a helicopter ride later today and about getting to the Falls this morning. He organizes a flight for 2 o’clock costing US$130 each. This is very extravagant for us but we’ve never been in a helicopter and this is probably one of the best places in the world to do it. And it’s on our ‘bucket list’ as well.
Now for breakfast around the fire pit. There aren’t many people around as most have already left for safaris etc. We order tea, coffee, toast, tomatoes and eggs and talk to Dennis the white owner. He’s an engineer and was born here in Zimbabwe. He’s rightfully worried about the economy and the political situation.
To put it mildly, the country is fucked. There’s rampant inflation, critical food and fuel shortages as well as terrible poverty and unemployment. And with dickheads like Mugabe running it there won’t be any relief from more political troubles. Makes our politicians look okay – jokes, but okay.
Later Dennis introduces us to Dufus, a strange long necked figure carved out of wood and supposed to be Dennis himself. He takes photos of us with our camera and asks us to put it up on you tube or something – not!
Now, because we’ll be leaving for Zambia this afternoon, we have to check out of our room and leave our packs near reception. John calls us a taxi and now we’re off for Victoria Falls!
At the entrance we pull into a car park lined with market stalls selling the same, same wooden giraffes, elephants etc. A group of men in animal skins and carrying spears are doing a native dance and baboons are going mental bonking each other in the trees opposite.
Mark pays the US$30 entry fee each then we read some of the info and maps on the walls inside. Now we set off through the trees where we can hear the roar of the Falls. Our first glimpse is amazing with even better views as we walk to all sixteen viewpoints along a network of paths that allows us to see them from every angle. The Falls are an incredible 1708 metres wide – the world’s largest curtain of falling water.
The paths are through a true rainforest with the heat and humidity intense. We’re both wet caused by the ‘rain’ sprayed from the Falls twenty four hours a day even in the dry season. It’s almost the dry season now so it must be extra amazing during the wet months from February to May. But apparently because there’s so much water crashing over the edge, the spray is so thick you can’t even see the Falls.
On opposite bank of the Zambezi are the Zambian viewpoints but we’ve read that we can see most of the Falls from the Zimbabwean side so we probably won’t bother. In some sections the sunlight passing through the spray creates beautiful rainbows and we can see people way, way down below doing the very popular white water rafting trips. It’s supposed to be very dangerous here so we’re glad to have the excuse of leaving this afternoon.
Back near the entrance we find a tall statue – Mark says ‘Dr. Livingstone, I presume.’ This is what Henry Stanley said to David Livingstone after he’d been searching for him for four years. Info is that Livingstone disappeared while looking for the source of the Nile – he didn’t find it, by the way. But what he did find was Victoria Falls which is why his statue is here – get it?
Near the main gate we sit in the open-sided Rainforest Café for cold soda waters then find a taxi in the car park opposite to take us back into town. We want to check out the main township but we don’t think we’ll be there too long – looks small and very touristy.
As it happens, we’re right. Just shop after shop selling souvenirs and tours but nice enough anyway. We find Mama Africa in a little dusty side street which is a restaurant we’ve seen recommended somewhere. It’s a colourful, laid back place and very ‘African’. We sit on a side verandah overlooking the little outdoor area. The temperature outside is stinking hot but it’s nice and cool in here. And the food is great – a spicy African hotpot for Mark and a club sandwich and salad for me.
Now we catch another taxi back to the backpackers where we set ourselves up in hammocks under the trees. We read, doze and have cold drinks for a couple of hours while we wait for our helicopter guy to pick us up. At two o’clock he’s on time and we meet another passenger called Greg, a very serious, macho looking guy in safari clothes who looks like he wrestles wild animals for a living.
We drive for about twenty minutes out of town through the dry savanna that we’ve become used to seeing by now. We bump our way along rough dirt tracks to the heliport which we’re hoping isn’t an old shack in the bush run by a couple of black guys. No offence but Mark said if it’s a black pilot he’s not going. We’re both worried about the flight no matter who’s flying it and we mouth ‘I’m scared’ to each other.
Very relieved to see that the heliport is new and impressive which should probably mean that the helicopter is also new and well maintained. We’re also relieved that the guys running the show are white and so is the pilot – British actually. Again no offence to black people but safety doesn’t seem to be a high priority in most third world countries and we don’t want to die just yet.
Inside we’re greeted by a sweet girl who gives us forms to fill in – you know, scary things like ‘next of kin’ – wtf? We also meet Sally and Elizabeth who’ll be our flying companions. Glad to hear that they’re helicopter virgins as well and look suitably as nervous as we are. One guy comes to whisper that we’ve all been up-graded to a twenty two minute flight but not to tell the people waiting for the next one. I’m not sure if getting an extended time is a good thing or not.
We‘re given safety instructions and told to run in a sort of squatting position to the chopper that’s revving up on the helipad. We all put on headphones so we can hear our driver who introduces himself as Ben. Funny to find out that macho Greg is also a helicopter virgin and looks shit scared – ha ha.
The lift-off is surprisingly smooth and we’re soon flying over the town and the Falls. It’s the only way to really understand the amazing river system.
Looking downstream we can see the zigzag of the gorges and upstream the wide Zambezi River as it meanders towards the huge drop. The river itself is dotted with hundreds of islands and we can see elephants in the national park.
The flight takes us over the Falls several times in both directions. The pilot banks the helicopter as we circle so we can see right into the chasm. It’s all very interesting but I start to get bored and still a bit worried about crashing so I’m glad when it’s time to head back.
Sally and Elizabeth return to town with us and we drop them off first. Next we drive way out of town in the opposite direction to take Greg to his lodge – a very creepy safari looking place perched on a hill sitting in the middle of nowhere.
Back in town we ask our friendly driver to stop at an ATM then on to the Victoria Falls Hotel where we plan to have high tea – one of the must-do things here.
The hotel is a grand Edwardian place built in the early 1900’s when Cecil Rhodes famously attempted to link Cape Town to Cairo by rail. The entrance is surrounded by tropical gardens, lily ponds and century-old shade trees. And there are warthogs grazing around just outside the main door. Here we’re greeted by a tall, black doorman wearing badges all over his jacket. He’s a natural comedian and promises to store our bags and arrange transport to take us to Livingstone in an hour.
Now we follow him to the Stanley Terrace overlooking a wide lawn with a panoramic view of the Victoria Falls Bridge. And the high tea is perfect – only $30 for the two of us. We have bite-sized sandwiches, an assortment of little cakes and tarts and, of course, scones with jam and cream. I cock my little pinky finger to drink my tea – another Agatha Christie moment.
Afterwards we walk around the gardens then check out the hotel itself. In the lounge area a local man wearing a white suit is playing a grand piano to add to the posh atmosphere. The décor is very traditionally English with brocade lounges, fringed lamps, potted palms and animal heads on the walls.
Outside we’re met by a sweet man called Oliver who will drive us to the border. Passing through the outskirts of town we now come to the famous Victoria Falls Bridge which crosses the Zambezi River just below the Falls. As the river itself is the border between Zimbabwe and Zambia, the bridge links the two countries and has border posts on the approaches at both ends.
First we go through immigration at the Zimbabwe post where we’re tested for the Ebola virus that’s currently sweeping through West Africa. It’s already killed thousands of people so all African countries are on high alert. One of the symptoms is a temperature so we all get zapped by a sort of laser on our foreheads to see if we’ve got a fever. All clear so we jump back in the van with Oliver to cross the bridge.
On the Zambia side we have to go through their immigration which also means paying $50 US each for visas. Here Oliver hands us over to Nyambe who says ‘You can call me God’. We move our packs into our new van as a warthog wanders across the border.
God is another funny guy and keeps us laughing all the way to Livingstone which is only about a fifteen minute drive. On the way he stops so we can walk down to the Zambezi which is looking lovely as the sun drops towards the horizon.
Arriving in Livingstone we can see that’s it’s a much nicer town than Victoria Falls. The main street is extra wide with a few attractive Edwardian buildings lining the road. We head straight for the Jolly Boys Backpackers where I’d booked a room this morning. It’s a ‘jolly’ looking place behind a tall, bright yellow brick fence. Guards on the gate let us through into a pretty leafy area. This leads to the pool which has sun lounges and wooden picnic tables under shady trees. This is amazing! There’s also a bar where we can buy food and a couple of chill-out areas where young backpackers are lounging around on floor cushions. Everyone is on their ipads which means wifi! The reception is colourful with two young girls booking people in – very glad that we booked ahead.
Our room – the Rhino Room – is excellent – very African with our own bathroom and a verandah outside – perfect except for the single beds and no way can we push them together.
Now Mark wanders downtown to find an ATM while I transfer photos from the camera to the laptop. We can’t be bothered going anywhere tonight so we order food from the bar and, of course, lots of drinks. All very nice except for the never-ending Jesus music and sermons that are blaring all over town – shut the fuck up!!
Hang out getting pissed in the chill-out pit then bed at 8 – a great day!!
Sunday 28th September, 2014 Livingstone
Wake at 2.30am – still out of whack with sleeping times – then fall asleep till eight o’clock. Mark has been up since 6.30am – showered and reading in bed. We eat breakfast – baked beans and cheese on toast, tea and coffee – sitting at one of the long picnic tables then hang out on cushions on the verandah. We manage to upload lots more photos onto Facebook and see pictures of Lauren and our bubbas – they make us soooo happy.
The girls at the desk tell us how to get to the bus station as we want to book tickets for Lusaka tomorrow. We also book a safari for 2.30pm since we’ve decided to stay here again tonight.
Now we head off past the church – still singing and broadcasting sermons at full blast – while lots of people in their Sunday best are milling around outside. And, because it’s Sunday, the streets are quiet and all the shops and businesses closed. It’s more lively near the bus station with lots of stalls selling drinks and food for the passengers. Mark lines up to book two Business Class tickets for Lusaka at eight in the morning. The Business Class tickets are $25 for the two of us for the six and a half hour trip.
From here we walk past the market selling fruit and vegetables, dried fish, blankets, horrible clothes as well as the awful nylon wigs all the ladies wear. We notice that every second shop is an auto repair place – not surprised considering the state of the cars.
At a supermarket across from the backpackers we buy drinks, chips and a Magnum that’s so melted I literally have to drink it from the pack.
Back at Jolly Boys we spy Floyd from the Bulawayo train and give him a wide berth. He’s holding fort with some other poor backpackers – will talk their ears off. We rest in the cool of our room after the long hot walk then lie around on the verandah cushions to order lunch – chicken wraps. We’re still hot so we have a swim in the lovely pool then get ready for our safari.
At 2.30pm we’re met by a smiling man called Oliver who takes us to our open-sided ‘safari’ truck. Luckily we’re the only passengers so we pick good seats which will give us the best views of all the ‘wild amiyals’, as Abi would say. We fly out of town getting almost blown out of the truck then turn off after five kilometers. We stop first at a lovely resort right on the Zambezi River where we follow Oliver upstairs to pay for the safari. Now we’re on our way to the Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park, itself running alongside the river. Because it’s only sixty six square kilometers there aren’t any predators – big cats, that is – because they’d eat all the other animals.
Oliver tells us all this at the entrance gate and promises he’ll do his best to find us lots of animals. Firstly we see a family of warthogs then antelope, impala, bush bucks, baboons, zebra, giraffe and elephants. Oliver tells us that a few years ago in Zimbabwe, someone poisoned a waterhole and four hundred elephants died. Their tusks were hacked off and loaded onto trucks before anyone knew about it.
He also tells us that because there aren’t any predators in the park, the animals are really relaxed so we can get very close to them – manage to get some great photos. Later he stops at the river where we walk down to the edge to see a hippo just disappearing under the water. It’s a lovely time of day to be here.
We also stop at a little cemetery which was the original site of Livingstone. People were dying in droves from what they called ‘black river fever’ which we now know was malaria. It’s why they moved the town away from the river in 1905 to where it is today. In those days the country was called Northern Rhodesia eventually becoming the Republic of Zambia on 24 October 1964 – just a bit of interesting info for me to remember.
Now Oliver tells us that he can take us to see some rhinos. He’s not really supposed to but because there’s only two of us he can sneak us in. We’ll have to give the guards a tip but this is too good to pass up. We drive for a few kilometers to a sort of checkpoint where rangers wearing full camouflage are lounging around a hut where they obviously have turns of sleeping. There are three guards watching over the rhinos 24/7 while the others ‘live’ here. Oliver tells us that the Chinese send poachers in to kill the rhino to get their horns that they think gives them super sexual powers – fuckers!
We pick up one of the rangers who’s carrying a rifle and drive for about twenty minutes to a remote place to meet three other guards. They’re also wearing the full camouflage and carrying rifles. On sunset we follow them in single file through the long grass till we get to the rhinos. There are three here grazing, oh so close. We can’t believe we’re seeing this!
One of the guards whispers that the big one is a mum called Louise and the two babies are her daughters, Light and Hope – so cute! Apparently the park was given four rhinos a few years back but the poachers killed them within weeks so now they have this super tight security. Now there are nine in all so it’s obviously working.
Back at the truck we line up for photos with the guards – so funny making us all laugh. We give them a $20 tip to share and they’re stoked. Heading back Oliver stops on the side of the main road where we can see lots of broken glass. He and the ranger get out to check for blood in case it’s been caused by a vehicle hitting an animal.
As we drive through the park the sun is almost set – very surreal. We feel super high after our unexpectedly amazing time here.
Back in Livingstone at dusk we see lots of locals coming back from church – is this all these people ever do? – and it’s dark by the time we pull into Jolly Boys. We give Oliver an extra $10 for being such a lovely guide – he’s very happy.
Dinner again by the pool – a barbeque happening tonight. Steak, chips and salad – is all good but the guy on the barbeque has cremated the steak and we can barely swallow it. We upload more photos and see Floyd in the same spot and still chewing the ears off the same people. Two German girls next to us are freaking out about a huge spider that they saw over near the kitchen. I go over for a look and can barely see it – don’t think they’d handle Australia’s creepy crawlies.
Oh, and the church music is blaring again – bed at 9.30am.
Monday 29th September, 2014 Livingstone to Lusaka
No need for alarms when we’re on holidays – awake at 5.30am. More bonking, showers and packing then breakfast at seven o’clock outside near the pool. Mark has a healthy yoghurt, muesli and banana while I have scrambled eggs and bacon. I get a call from Lauren – Josh has been a prick and she’s a mess. Fucking great! I talk to her for ages and she seems a bit better but I feel helpless. I’m so worried and wish we could go home earlier but I know we won’t. She can talk to Doug and hopefully he can help her sort it out – won’t hold my breath – another fucking useless prick.
We catch a taxi to the bus station which is typically chaotic with lots of buses lined up and ready to go. Some have their itinerary printed on a piece of cardboard taped to the side so we grab seats on our Lusaka bound bus before wandering round the market. We’re travelling with Shalom Bus Service and it looks in pretty good condition. Apparently the trains to Lusaka are unreliable and the rail line is dodgy so buses are the recommended way to go.
We’re supposed to leave at eight o’clock so we jump into our front row seats. We’ll have good views the whole way. The bus is full so it’s a bit smelly (body odour) but should improve once the air-con starts up – or will that just blow it around? For the thirty minutes before leaving we have to put up with a psycho preacher who’s screaming out verses from the bible as he marches up and down the aisle – wtf? After he finishes each of his rants all the God-fearing passengers pronounce with great enthusiasm, ‘amen’ – fucking brilliant! We hope he doesn’t do this for the whole trip and fortunately he gets out as we start to move and jumps onto another bus.
Driving through town we see how much busier it is today – lots of people with everything starting to open for business. Like in Zimbabwe, we haven’t seen any white people except the odd traveler so I don’t know if any live here at all.
The rest of the trip – 482 kilometres – is mainly through open countryside – the same brown dry landscape we’ve seen the whole trip. Now and again we see thatched roofed mud brick homes and people sitting on the side of the road selling vegetables or firewood.
The bus stops to pick up and drop off passengers in the small towns of Zimba, Kalomo, Choma and Batoka – mainly women with babies strapped to their backs. Other women carry things on their heads and at one stop our driver buys a live chicken through the bus window.
And while all this is happening we have very loud gospel music and videos playing on the screen right above our heads. It never lets up for seven whole hours! And every town is full of churches and Christian signs of some sort – St Mary’s Hospital, St Christopher’s School etc. Hate Christianity!!
The best thing is that the road is surprisingly good and our driver is very safe but the air-con isn’t working properly and it’s stinking hot. Of course, this means that the body odour is rife and is getting worse as the day wears on. It seems that deodorant isn’t a part of life here in Africa.
We pass lots of people just sitting in groups under trees, herds of tiny goats, cows crossing the road and trucks packed with people standing up in the back. With the beautiful weather, we really enjoy the whole trip.
At 3.30pm we finally reach Lusaka and the craziest bus station we’ve experienced for a long time. Men are swarming all over the passengers as we get off – some are taxi drivers after a fare and others try to grab our bags from under the bus to put them on their trolleys. Mark fights them off and we run the gauntlet with a taxi driver we’ve agreed to go with.
Outside is still the busiest place we’ve seen on the trip so far. Apparently, Lusaka has become something of a boom town with new buildings going up everywhere with many chain stores and shopping mall springing up all over the sprawling suburbs. The capital was moved to Lusaka from Livingstone in 1935 because of its more central location and its position on the main rail and road links. It really does have an optimistic air of a town on the rise, the perfect example of what economic liberalisation has done for Zambia compared to the mess in Zimbabwe.
And in the eyes of rural Zambians, Lusaka is the glittering capital which still persuades many village people to migrate to the city in search of jobs and dreams. Tragically over sixty per cent of the country’s two million population are unemployed, but with surprisingly few beggars or major theft and most people try to make an honest living selling their wares or services.
But back to the diary. The place we’ve chosen to stay is the very unoriginally named Lusaka Backpackers and is close by. Once we get away from the main streets, we find ourselves in a leafy, quiet area with tree-lined laneways. And the backpackers is nice with a pool and a simple bar under a bamboo shelter. It’s nowhere near as appealing as Jolly Boys but we’re only here for one night.
The guy on the desk is helpful and we ask him about using their computer. Just as we came into Lusaka, Mark had noticed a billboard advertising cheap flights to Dar Es Salaam. He’s not overly fussed on the train trip so we spend an hour looking up different airlines but with no luck. We’d needed to have booked weeks ago to get the cheap deals. Anyway, I want to do the train thing and we’re both happy that we looked into it anyway. It might have been nice to have extra days in Zanzibar but I think we’d kick ourselves later for bailing out on the overland journey.
And talking of the train, the guy on the desk tells us that we have to book at Tanzara House tomorrow morning as it’s too late today. If we can’t get train tickets we’ll end up having to fly anyway – very confusing but exciting. Love travelling like this.
Our room is a little log cabin in the back yard – simple to say the least with two tiny windows and a slate floor. We have single beds again – this time with black mosquito nets hanging from bamboo contraptions attached to the ceiling. The showers and toilets are just a stone’s throw across the grass with outdoor basins to clean our teeth. Not too bad for $40 a night
It’s getting dark by now and we plan to have drinks/dinner at the posh Taj Pamodzi Hotel in the heart of Lusaka’s business and government district. So all poshed up ourselves, we find a taxi driver outside in the laneway. His name is Patrick and he’s a real sweetie – very happy and chatty. He’s impressed that we’re going to the Taj so our expectations are pretty high.
And, of course, whenever that happens you’re sure to be disappointed. Even though it is part of the famous Taj chain of hotels it isn’t one of the magnificent historic buildings like the Taj in Bombay where we had cocktails in 2005. This Taj was probably built in the eighties with typical eighties décor – now just daggy but in a way we like it. Set amongst tropical gardens, the entrance has the usual circular driveway and we pull up like royalty. Inside we wander around checking out the two restaurants then head straight for the Marula Bar.
There doesn’t seem to be a ‘happy hour’ but two white wines each only cost $20. The lounges are all taken with middle class Zambians – mostly business people – and a few European couples. For dinner we choose the fanciest restaurant with white linen tablecloths and the waiters in white uniforms. It has a soaring thatched ceiling and open on one side to the pool and gardens. And we even have a band all decked out in red uniforms. I form a crush on the singer who is a dignified, older man wearing a sort of Canadian Rockies hat. He also has a wooden arm with the wooden hand sticking out the end of his sleeve. He’s strangely appealing with a very high voice and he smiles through every song. They make me think of my beautiful Mum and Dad – ‘Irene Good Night’, ‘The Cucaracha’ and everyone’s favourite African song, ‘The Lion Sleeps Tonight’. I love it and sing along – the two wines have gone to my head already. Poor Mark.
The food is very good – we have calamari for an entree then Mark orders a huge rump steak with olive mash for a main while I have spinach and cheese cannelloni. Dessert is a chocolate pudding with ice cream presented perfectly as a posh restaurant should. And now we’re totally stuffed!
While Mark is trying to pay the bill with his credit card – machine doesn’t work – I chat with the singer and the drummer who are outside having a fag. They’re soooo nice and tell me how religious most Zambians are – you reckon??!!
We finally pay at another counter, the grand sum of $58 – so cheap! Outside we try to ring Patrick but we can’t get through so we walk out onto the main road. Doesn’t take long to get another taxi and we’re back in our little hut by ten o’clock.
Our plan for tomorrow is to get a bus from here in Lusaka to Kapiri Mposhi about three hours away where we’ll hopefully board the three day train to Dar Es Salaam. It will all depend on whether we can get tickets in the morning.
Tuesday 30th September, 2014 Lusaka to Kapiri Mposhi to Tanzara train
My darling crawls into bed with me at six o’clock – bonking then shower together – a good start to the day. I wash and dry my hair then we order breakfast from a tiny lady in the funny little kitchen. She’s wearing a white coat and a tall chef’s hat – hilarious. We have to pay her but she doesn’t have any money to give us change.
We wait by the pool till she brings out rubbery eggs for me with a side of chili sauce – ‘sorry, no tomato’. Mark’s breakfast of muesli, fruit and yoghurt is better but our tea and coffee come out much later – cold and in chipped cups – cute.
The weather is perfect again with clear blue skies and already getting hot. We find Patrick outside in the laneway and ask him to drive us to Tanzara House to buy our train tickets. He stops first at the very modern Levy Shopping Centre so Mark can find an ATM. Tickets have to be bought in cash.
Now we drive past the mad bus station through clogged streets and the endless road works. At Tanzara House, Patrick waits in his car while we try to find someone, anyone. We knock on all the doors but no answer. We go back downstairs to ask the man on the desk. ‘Lady not here, come soon. You wait’.
Finally two men arrive and tell us that the lady who books the tickets isn’t here because her kids are sick. Apparently no-one else can sell us tickets – wtf? One of them finally rings her and she says that she’ll come in. We wait for an hour, sitting on a ripped lounge in the shabby hallway till she turns up at ten o’clock. A bit of a shemozzle but no worries!
And the good news is that we can get sleeper tickets – first class at $60 each – super cheap for three days and two nights. She’s actually quite impressed with us because Zambia’s vice President is a white man called Guy Scott – she wonders if we’re possibly related? (By the way, by the time I’ve typed up this diary, Guy Scott is now the acting President after the sudden death of Michael Sata, on 28 October 2014 just weeks after we were there). She also tells us that we should get a bus to Kapiri as soon as we can as they usually take a lot longer than the supposed three hours.
So now Patrick races us back to the guesthouse where we quickly pack. Off again, we stop at the shopping centre to stock up on food. In a sort of Woolworths, we buy fresh sandwiches and salads for the bus as well as drinks and chips for the train. The people here are lovely and I keep bumping into a nice man who lets me get in front of him at the check-out.
The bus station is even more chaotic than yesterday if that’s possible. Touts rush us to buy tickets for their particular bus but luckily we’re used to this and don’t get frazzled. We try a couple of different companies but finally get a bus that they assure us is ‘leaving now’ – a fib for sure. Anyway, we make a dash for the bus that, naturally, doesn’t leave for half an hour.
Most of the seats are already taken so Mark is sitting up the front while I’m down the back next to a shy young girl. I’m lucky to have a young woman with a fat baby boy on her lap sitting just across the aisle and there are lots of other little ones who are all sneaking looks at me.
And like yesterday we’ve got a religious nut with us – a woman this time – standing in the middle of the aisle preaching more Jesus stuff. It’s made even more chaotic as hawkers squeeze past her yelling out whatever they’re selling – drinks, food, mobile phones, school books and shaving machines.
Off at last, it takes us over an hour to get out of Lusaka because of all the road works. Gospel music is playing again but not as loud today. With no air-conditioning it’s very hot even with the windows open.
Being in an aisle seat I keep myself occupied with checking everyone out around me. The ladies are either wearing the dreaded nylon wigs or have plaited their hair in corn rows. The men usually have shaved heads but some just keep it cropped really short. The lady opposite breast feeds her little boy a few times and just leaves her boob hanging out afterwards. I ask how old he is – ‘one year’, she says. I give him one of the toy koalas we’ve brought with us and he soon comes over to play with the strap on my bag – dear little one.
All the way we need to stop at a series of police check points – we can’t work out why. We see people burning off the grass alongside the road as well as the usual mud brick and thatched homes, people selling wares under trees and little dusty villages. An accident between two old vans slows us down but no-one seems to be badly hurt.
After a couple of hours the bus stops in a small town so we can use the toilets and buy something to eat. We’re starting to get worried about reaching Kapiri Mposhi in time to catch the train. If we miss it today there isn’t another one till Friday – oh shit!
A Polish man who’s been on the bus with his wife and two male friends asks me if I know how far we have to go because they’re also booked on the train. I find the conductor who tells us that we’ll be there in forty five minutes.
We finally arrive at 3.30pm – almost five hours since we boarded the bus. Never trust timetables in these places. The Kapiri bus station is much smaller than Lusaka but we still get swarmed as we get off the bus. We’re in a desperate hurry as the train is supposed to leave at 4pm and we’re not sure how long it will take to get to the station. No worries – we’re there in five minutes and the train hasn’t left. The taxi driver and his mate insist on carrying our bags even though Mark tries to wrestle them away.
The train is very long. Apparently, it consists of three first class sleepers, three second class sleepers, three third class seats cars, a second class seats car, a restaurant car, a bar car, a first class lounge car and a couple of baggage vans – yes, very long.
It’s optimistically named the Mukuba Express – not sure how ‘express’ it is because I’ve read that it’s always running at least half a day late. We’ll see what happens with our trip. And The Man In Seat 61 website gives more info – ‘the Tanzara line is 1,860km long and was only opened in 1976, built with Chinese funding and assistance.’
On the platform, Mark finds the carriage marked on our tickets. Standing next to the doorway we’re met by Marjorie, our first class hostess dressed in a pale blue railway uniform. She’s a strange looking young woman, very made up and looks a bit like a tranny. I love her immediately.
Marjorie shows us to our first class sleeper cabin. It’s shabby and basic with two double bunks on either side compared to three on either side in second class. The only problem with first class is that men and women have to be segregated. This isn’t in the plan.
Now we meet a young couple called Maggie and Terry who also don’t want to be separated. We’ve decided that the four of us will bunk in together which shouldn’t be a problem. Marjorie is okay with it but then says we can have a cabin each as some people haven’t turned up.
By now it’s four o’clock when we’re supposed to leave and guess what? – we do! Watching the scenery as we pull out of Kapiri we feel that we’re on a true adventure. Till 6.30pm we read and snooze then Marjorie shows us that we can lock the door to our cabin which means we can ‘go out’ for dinner.
The train jumps sideways and up and down so it’s a very wobbly walk through two other sleeper carriages, the bar car, then three more seats-only carriages to get to the dining car. It’s as basic as our cabin, with about ten small tables on either side of the aisle and open windows letting in the night air cooling us down after the hot day. The food is super cheap and tasty – a beef stewy thing for me and a chicken stew for Mark both with white rice, tomato and a spinach mash.
Maggie and Terry turn up so we plan to meet in the bar afterwards. I stagger back to our cabin to dig out my duty free Bacardi then stagger back to the bar. The guy behind the grungy bar is busy talking to a couple of other guys leaning on the counter while playing very loud music.
We spend the next couple of hours getting to know Terry and Maggie. She’s from New York and Terry comes from London – really good company especially Maggie who has the gift of the gab but not annoying like a lot of Americans. They’ve been travelling for a month through South Africa and Zambia so they have a lot of stories already.
I absolutely love this night and I love this train. Sitting in the bar next to the open window trundling through Zambia makes me sooo happy. We head back to our cabin at 9.30pm and check out the toilets. I don’t want to imagine what the third class toilets are like because first class has a lot to be desired. No running water anywhere but just a huge plastic drum of water next to the pan (so big we have to squeeze in through the door). A plastic bottle with the top chopped off is used as a scoop to wash the wee wees and poopedys down onto the tracks.
Into our cosy bunks at 10pm after taking a Triazapam each – we might need it with all the noise the train is making. Another brilliant day!
Wednesday 1st October, 2014 Tanzara train through Zambia
I wake at six o’clock, put on makeup and use the horrid toilet. Mark sleeps till seven then has a ‘shower’ which translates to finding a tap with water. I can’t find my favourite red glasses and think I must have left them in the bar last night – will probably never see them again. No worries because I’ve brought along a spare.
After cleaning our teeth with bottled water we head for the dining car for breakfast. In the next carriage we stop to say hi to the four Polish people who’d been on our bus yesterday from Lusaka. They seem to have brought along all their own food and are having breakfast in their cabin.
In the dining car we both order a ‘Full Breakfast’ for 15 Kwacha ($3) each. Two overly cooked eggs, two slices of toast, beans with tomato and a sausage (I’m so hungry I could eat a sausage on a Zambian train) plus tea and coffee.
The waitress has zero people skills – slams down the menu, salt etc – no smiles and reminds us of Helga the waitress who hated us in China when were on an overnight train with Jillian and Eddie in 2006. But this little waitress gives everyone the same treatment – needs to go to hospitality school or maybe her life is just shit.
Back to our cabin we lounge around all morning watching the world go by. We stop for hours at a small station where the local ladies walk beside the track selling drinks, peanuts and bananas all carried on their heads. Ragged little ones play on the tracks and we think how lucky our little bubbas are at home. Some little girls only about six years old have a baby strapped to their back – must be a baby brother or sister.
At another station a lot of women are walking past the train carrying bundles of sticks on their heads and others balancing plastic dishes filled with rice or grain of some kind. One lady is selling live chickens and someone near us buys two from their window.
At one stage we hear a commotion and everyone has their head out the train watching two women have a punch-up. One seems to be very drunk and the other looks like she’s trying to drag her home. A crowd soon surrounds them and a couple of men try to carry the drunk one but she gives them a left hook as well – funny at first but tragic really, poor lady.
Later Marjorie comes in for a chat then we go to sit in her empty cabin. She shows me photos of her eight year old daughter, Marie. Marjorie had married a man from the Congo but when he wanted to take a second wife, she left him. We swap Facebook addresses and Mark comes in to take photos of us all.
Now we read, sleep and I take heaps of photos and videos – so many amazing things to see especially at each station. At 11.30am, Marjorie comes in to say goodbye as we’re about to arrive at the border at Nakonde. We have to leave the Mukaba Express and get on the Kilamanjaro which will take us through Tanzania to Dar Es Salaam on the coast. This supposedly will be another day and night – thinking positive. We’re already three hours late getting here so it doesn’t look good for a 3.25pm arrival tomorrow in Dar according to the timetable – love how precise they are.
We’ve already packed our gear – I found my red glasses – and ready to get out at Nakonde to jump straight onto the Kilamanjaro – just kidding because, surprise surprise, it isn’t here yet! We’re hanging out on the platform with Maggie and Terry and the Polish crew not knowing where to go.
A man wearing jeans and a red shirt keeps telling us to follow him but he’s not wearing a railway uniform so we don’t trust him. He becomes angry with me – ‘you go over there with those people’ he says in disgust as he points to the big cement station where the local people have to wait.
‘You don’t remember me from the train?’ – he scowls in disbelief but sorry I don’t because we met so many people. Finally we realise that he does work for the railway and let him take us to a separate building with a few bench seats. This is apparently where we ‘white people’ are to wait for the train. Soon two local ladies arrive from immigration to stamp our passports out of Zambia.
Meanwhile Maggie and I are both tending to matching wounds on our left forearm where a piece of tin sticking out of the gate ripped into us. Maggie has medicated wipes and I remind myself to add them to our travel list.
Now Mark and I mind all the bags while Maggie and Terry go for a walk. The train won’t be arriving any time soon so we’ve got plenty of time to explore. An hour later we swap and Mark and I set off past the station. A row of very basic tiny businesses with hand painted signs lead down to the dirt track behind the main building. A hairdresser, a bottle shop, a grocer and a restaurant are primitive to say the least but probably very modern here.
We pass mud-brick family homes along red dirt paths before coming across a sprawling market. It’s nothing like the markets of Asia – very dry, dusty and hot without any shade at all and not a blade of grass to be seen. Most of the ladies are shading themselves with hand held umbrellas and I wish I had one too.
One woman is stirring a big pot of boiling entrails but quickly covers it with a lid when I ask to take a photo. In face no-one here wants their photo taken so I just click away with my camera down near my hip.
More ladies are selling peanuts, dries fish, tomatoes, cabbages, red onions, eggs, potatoes and horrible clothes that have to be wrapped in plastic because of all the dust. We don’t buy anything.
Back at the station waiting room, Marjorie comes over for a chat. She has her friend, Eunice, with her who I’ve already met in our carriage. Marjorie has been cleaning our old train ready for the return journey to Kapiri once the Tanzania train gets here. She tells us that she’s heard that it will arrive about 3 or 4 or 5 – very helpful!
Mark lies down on the cement floor to try to cool down and have a sleep. Meanwhile I write in the diary then wander outside. I meet a young mother with a cute toddler so I go back to get my bag so I can give him a toy koala. Later two men turn up with Ebola testing lasers. This time we have to open our mouths very wide so they can point the laser at the back of our throats. A sign on the wall describes the symptoms of Ebola in pictures – fever, headache, red eyes, stomach cramps, vomiting, farting, etc
The Kilamanjaro finally pulls in at 4.30pm and the guy in the red shirt comes to get us. When he thinks I can’t hear, he asks Mark, ‘Is she your wife? I think maybe she is hard woman’ – ha ha. But even though we board at 4.30pm we don’t leave till 5.30pm – lots of shunting and loading on water and supplies. By the way, we’re now nine hours behind schedule.
Like our last train, it seems that we’ll have our own cabin and so will Maggie and Terry. A few minutes after pulling out of Nakombe, we stop at Tunduma Station which is on the Tanzanian side of the border. Here we have to fill in forms, hand in our passports and pay $50 each for visas.
It’s dark by the time we leave but there’s been lots to see at the station. Soon one of the train guys comes along to tell us that we’ll have to share with Maggie and Terry as more people have arrived. No problem really and we’re soon settled in.
We all have dinner together in the dining car which is much the same as the Mukabar. The new waitress isn’t much better and just leans on the table and stares at us like we already know what’s on the menu. She brings a dish and a jug of soapy water for everyone to wash their hands – I like this idea. Food is good – chicken, chips and a coleslaw looking thing. Drinks with our mates till 10.30pm then bed with a Triazapam each – sleep really well.
Thursday 2nd October, 2014 Tanzara train through Tanzania
I wake at six to use the toilet then jump back into bed till eight o’clock. Mark and I clean our teeth then wander down to the dining car with Maggie and Terry. Today breakfast consists of toast, an omelet and two tiny cold frankfurts with tea and coffee as usual.
We decide to have turns of using our compartment so Mark and I go first. We have a sort of wash with baby wipes but then Mark finds a tap with water coming out of it – luxury! We change into clean clothes then swap with Maggie and Terry.
Again today we love looking out the window as the train trundles along. Sometimes we don’t appear to be going any faster than walking pace as we slowly creep and crawl over the Southern Highlands but at other times we really hurtle along. There seems to be a lot of damaged railway wagons alongside the track, presumably the result of previous derailments and crashes.
Later we hang out in the first class car – sounds very grand but it’s just as seedy as the rest of the train including a few threadbare lounges with broken springs and stinking of body odour. This might be bearable but it’s full of men watching a very loud, very violent video so we head back to our bunks to read.
Maggie and Terry read books from their ipads while Mark and I have our usual paperbacks – a generation thing. We’ve brought our favourite page-turner murder mysteries – all good ones this trip – then dump each book when we’re finished for someone else to read.
One that I won’t dump, because I want to keep it, is Swahili For The Broken Hearted by Peter Moore – specially bought for this trip as it covers his journey from Cape Town to Cairo – he even catches this exact train! Also very appropriate as we’re heading for Zanzibar – very Swahili!!
The countryside has changed today from the brown barren landscape of last week to green hills and trees. We even pass through a number of tunnels but still stop at every station for an eternity. Here we enjoy hawkers selling their usual wares and Mark buys bananas and peanuts from a lady with a baby on her back.
Despite the change in vegetation, we still see the same mud huts, vegetable gardens and herds of pigs and goats. Children wield sticks to herd the family cows and always give a big wave – not much other excitement for them I imagine.
Lunch for Mark is beef and rice while I have chicken and rice – 4,000 TZS (Tanzanian Shillings). Sounds a lot but the exchange rate is !AUD to 1,500 TZS so it actually costs around $2.50. After lunch we upload photos onto our laptop in the bar – more blaring music and stinking hot. Miraculously on the way back to our compartment we pass a door where we can hear what sounds to be someone having a shower. We check it out later and can’t wait to get in. This is heaven after sweltering like pigs for the last two days.
Afterwards I chat to Eunice (Marjorie’s friend) who tells me that she’s heard that there’s been an accident near Dar and we might have to get off and go the rest of the way on buses. Oh God, what a nightmare! By this time the train, which was already very long, has almost doubled in length as we’ve picked up lots more carriages along the way. There are now hundreds of people and getting everyone on to buses would be chaos.
Okay, so now it’s mid-afternoon and according to the schedule we should be just about be pulling into Dar. We know we’re waaaay late but are still hoping that the derailment rumour is wrong and we’ll get there sometime tonight.
Maggie and Terry spend the rest of the afternoon in the bar so Mark and I have the compartment to ourselves. Buy more peanuts and bananas out the window and read and doze. Outside is very green with date palms, banana trees and even bamboo. Surely we must be getting close.
At six o’clock we still haven’t heard anything so we head for the bar which is now over-flowing with drunks and loud music. What a scream but could be a bit scary if someone got out of control so we move to the dining car with Maggie and Terry.
Maggie has a satellite phone which she needs to stick out the window and point to the stars. She sends a text to her Dad in New York to track where we are. Unbelievably he replies that we’re only half way from the border to the coast! We ask the waitress and she says ‘tomorrow morning’ but another guy says ‘no, tweleb o’clock’.
The only thing is to get pissed then have a good night’s sleep.
Friday 3rd October, 2014 Tanzara train through Tanzania to Dar Es Salaam then Ferry to Zanzibar
At 6am we’re all woken by a lady who wants our pillows and bedding. This is a good sign. No way to find out the update on the derailment so we all decide to just get dressed and pack ready to go. Mark and I clean our teeth then have another cold shower – heaven again.
At the next station one of the train staff tells us that we’ll have to change trains and pay an extra 18,000TZS each – ah, we don’t think so! Maggie then gets other news that the train swapping thing is an hour away and then it’s only another hour to Dar – whatever!
Anyway we don’t even leave this station till 8.30am but finally stop half an hour later where we can see the collapsed bridge ahead of us. This is not a good place to disembark. A narrow rocky path runs next to the rails with bushy banks running steeply downhill.
Because the land falls away so quickly, it’s a long drop from the train steps to the ground so we all help each other. The nice thing is that everyone is smiling despite struggling to carry all the shit we’ve all got with us – backpacks for us tourists and for the locals, sacks, chickens, bunches of bananas and bags of vegetables. Most ladies also seem to be carrying a baby on their back as well as balancing a sack of something on their head.
In single file we scramble down the hill where we come across the burnt-out derailed carriages at the foot of the ravine. Apparently they’d been carrying sulphur which caught alight as the train hit the bottom. Far into the distance we can see people, who’ve already passed the derailment, walking along the track towards what we hope is the waiting train. It’s an amazing sight!
We only walk about a hundred metres along the ravine before climbing back up the embankment. Going up takes much longer as everyone struggles with their load.
At last up on the tracks again we follow the rails towards the not-waiting train. From here we can see that a lot of people have set up camp trying to make some sort of shade out of anything they can find.
Of course, it’s about a hundred degrees by now with the sun at full blast. Mark thinks that a couple of low straggly bushes near us might make a good place to shelter if he spreads my sarong over the top but the land slopes away very steeply so it doesn’t work. Other people, though, like his idea and some are sitting under jackets in the long grass.
Mark finally breaks off a couple of long thin branches and strips them of leaves to use as props for the sarong. It works perfectly giving us both enough shade to hide from the sun while we squat on the rails. The Polish people now set up something similar but Maggie and Terry decide to walk back to sit under the bridge.
Later some of the male passengers are handing out cold drinks to people without water. Apparently they’ve been looting the train and a few of the train staff members are after them and a couple of minor fights break out. Luckily we have plenty of water with us for a change.
We sit here for two sweltering hours till we happily hear a ‘toot toot’ – the rescue train! It doesn’t give us much time to scramble off the tracks as we try to throw all our gear as well as Maggie and Terry’s stuff out of the way. I seriously almost get hit by the stairs that are jutting out from all the carriages. Mark drags me backwards but then I lose my balance on the embankment and start to slide down the hill on my belly. Mark grabs my hands and pulls me back up – only a few scratches but scary for a second.
Meanwhile one of Maggie’s bags had been dragged along under the train splitting it open to deposit all her undies along the track – how’s that for bad luck! We grab it all and stuff it back in so she doesn’t get embarrassed.
By now we think that she and Terry should be coming back from the bridge but we can’t see them at all. Everyone is madly throwing their gear onto the new train which could leave any minute for all we know. Mark climbs up into one of the carriages while I pass the bags up to him through an open window.
All along the tracks people are loading big bunches of bananas, live chickens and whatever else they’d been carrying on the earlier train. We still can’t see Maggie and Terry so we’ll just have to take their gear with us even if they get left behind. We can always wait for them at the station in Dar.
Finally Mark sees Terry in the distance with Maggie rushing right behind him. We wave madly out the window so they can find us. All good in the end because they’d actually walked all the way back to the old train to pinch cold water and soft drinks for the four of us.
In no time we’re all aboard and with a sudden jerk we’re off and on our way. The whole train is ‘third class only’ which we prefer for a short trip – hard-backed benches with open windows and a wide aisle. I love watching the locals, most of who are dozing after the tiring train-swapping experience.
The one hour trip is fun as we pass through Selous Game Reserve then the outskirts of the city. These outer areas look very tropical and we feel excited to be heading for the coast and Dar Es Salaam. This is Tanzania’s largest city and the country’s financial centre although it’s no longer the capital. For some reason, it lost its status as the official capital to Dodomo in 1973.
At Tanzara Station we fight our way onto the platform amongst the hundreds of other passengers disembarking. We lose Maggie and Terry but find them again outside. They plan to head straight to Zanzibar today but we’ve decided to stay here for a night and head over in the morning.
Strangely, there aren’t any taxis or tuktuks anywhere so we all walk out onto the busy road outside the station. This is chaos so we say goodbye to Maggie and Terry – we figure we’ll catch up with them in Zanzibar. Right now all we care about is escaping the heat to a hotel in the city centre. We eventually find a tuktuk to stop but the driver has never heard of Libya Street where we plan to stay and he speeds off.
Walking down to the corner where the traffic is even more hectic, we wave down another tuktuk guy to pull over and he nods that he knows where it is. Of course he doesn’t and stops three times to ask directions. Mark has already worked out where we need to go from our map and tries to tell him but our clueless driver just keeps going around in circles.
But finally we arrive in the Arab quarter and it looks amazing! This old area has been influenced by both sultans and Europeans which means a great atmosphere of chaotic markets and historic buildings.
The streets are narrow with local life being played out on the footpaths and open shop doorways. The hotel we’ve chosen from the Lonely Planet has been recently pulled down so we ask directions to the Safari Hotel. This is along a winding alleyway with a daggy, but interesting, Arabic foyer. The guys behind the desk are eager to please and $35 for a double room isn’t bad.
While Mark books in, I check out the lounge area behind the foyer. A very hairy-faced man in white robes is watching the Haj on the television – looks super-boring but he’s definitely engrossed. Dragging our bags up two flights, our room looks okay so I unpack while Mark strips off for a shower. It’s been four days since we’ve been really clean so he can’t wait.
At the same time I try to set up the camera charger and realise that we don’t have power. I race back downstairs to tell the manager. ‘Sorry, no power’, he smiles. Okay, so can we change rooms? ‘Sorry all rooms no power”. What the fuck?!
Back upstairs to pack and check out. The manager looks quite hurt that we’re leaving – does he really expect us to stay? – ha ha. We’ve decided that we might just have time to catch the last ferry to Zanzibar and tell our taxi driver to ‘step on it!’. The ferries leave from the old port area on Sokoine Drive just across the road from St Joseph’s Cathedral.
Not surprisingly, the ferry area is chaos and plagued with touts who bang on our taxi roof and swarm around us so we can barely push our way out the doors. By now we still haven’t had a shower and feel extra hot and sweaty and we’ve both got headaches. We shoo the touts away because we’ve read that we should only buy tickets directly from the ferry companies in the tall building with shiny blue windows.
Inside we find our Polish friends who are also trying to get to Zanzibar today – no sign of Maggie and Terry though. Apparently all the tickets have been sold but we can put our names on a stand-by list. If we miss this ferry we’ll have to wait until 7am tomorrow morning. This means finding another hotel here in Dar Es Salaam and we’re just not up for it.
Soon a young woman approaches handing us our tickets ($40 each) but our Polish mates have missed out. We feel a bit guilty because they were here before us but only two spare tickets are available and they need four. They’re disappointed but are sweet about it – we like them a lot.
But now we need to make a dash for the boat. Down by the water there is more chaos as we join a mass of desperate people funneling into a narrow doorway leading to the immigration area. No politeness here as everyone pushes and shoves while young men scramble a barrier to get to the front. Not sure what all the madness is all about because we doubt the boat will leave without half its passengers.
Can’t see Maggie and Terry at all and, in fact, we seem to be the only westerners here. At last inside, our bags are scanned and we board the Azam Marine Ferry.
We’ve bought First Class tickets which means that we sit in a large air-conditioned cabin at the top of the boat with big comfy seats and a television. A guy in uniform stands at the door to tell the inevitable gate-crashers to bugger off. At first we’re separated but then the kind man next to me says he’ll swap so Mark and I can sit together.
For entertainment, a Charlie Chaplin movie is playing on the tv at the front. Neither of us has ever seen a silent movie let alone a Charlie Chaplin one. It’s surprisingly good and really funny.
The side walls of the cabin are full length glass so we watch Dar Es Salaam slip by as we make our way up the coast before crossing the waters of the Indian Ocean to the Zanzibar Archipelago. The Archipelago is actually made up of three main islands (Unguja, Pemba and Mafia), plus a few smaller ones. Unguja is the biggest and is what most people talk about when they refer to Zanzibar. The capital of Unguja is Zanzibar City and the most well-known section of Zanzibar City is called Stone Town. So now we all know.
About 5.30pm we approach Unguja and here is Stone Town picturesquely spread out along the shoreline – no surprise that it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site. And it’s looking all gorgeous and mystical in the soft golden glow of late afternoon – exactly how we’d hoped! It’s an exotic mix of Arabic, Portuguese and British architecture and, in front, traditional dhows sailing lazily past with their iconic lateen-shaped sails.
But now at Malindi Port it’s time to disembark. I’m swept along with the crowds to be deposited on the wharf while Mark has to fight his way through a crazy mob to retrieve our backpacks under the mountain of luggage.
We know that shortly after independence in 1964, Tanganika and Zanzibar merged to form the nation of Tanzania. So it doesn’t seem to make sense that on our arrival in Zanzibar we foreigners need to show our passports and complete immigration cards, even though we did the whole border crossing thing when we entered Tanzania on the train from Zambia. No-one seems to know the reason why but at least there aren’t any fees and no need for a new visa.
Next a temperature laser is beamed on our foreheads to test for Ebola then we try to pass through customs with the usual pushers-in – not just men, everyone – seems to be the thing to do here.
Outside is more commotion so we make our way out onto the narrow road in front of the beautiful Old Dispensary. We quickly find a taxi and ask our driver to take us somewhere cheap but in the centre of Stone Town. He drives along the water’s edge and past the impressive Old Fort. Through the Portuguese Arch we veer away from the harbour to pull up at Mazsons Hotel, apparently once the home of Sheik Abdallah and one of the oldest buildings in Stone Town. In front is a peaceful garden complete with a fountain, an ornamental pond and date palms. Even better is the backdrop of a two storey Portuguese house complete with faded wooden shutters – oh, yes!
Inside we find an elaborate polished wood paneled foyer and think ‘we can’t afford this”. But Mark manages to bargain the guy down to $85 which is a lot more than we usually pay but we’re happy to have a bit of luxury after three nights on the train.
Our room is on the top (third) floor and we’re very impressed. Our window looks out onto a small square and we have a huge bed, air-con, a television, a day bed and our own bathroom.
Of course, having a hot shower is at the top of our list then we quickly change and head back outside to explore. There seems to be lots of places to eat and drink and we know we’re going to love this town.
Our first stop is Fodorhani Gardens just across from the Fort and right on the waterfront. Each evening street vendors set up their stalls, selling seafood and meat kebabs, samosas, fruit, grilled maize, Zanzibar pizzas and sugar cane juice.
Apparently it’s always packed with tourists and locals and tonight is no different. It’s an interesting place but seems a bit of a tourist trap – the seafood is overly expensive and the vendors are sleazy to say the least – ‘you will be supporting the children’ – liars!
We really can’t be bothered with this bullshit so we set off to find Mercury’s Bar named after Freddy Mercury of Queen fame. And besides that, we really, really want a drink!
Mercury’s is only a five minute walk along from the Old Fort, past the Sultan’s Palace and just after the Big Tree, on the ocean side of the road. The night is beautiful – warm and calm and we couldn’t be happier.
Inside Mercury’s, Queen music is playing and the bar walls are decorated with posters of Freddy. The menu tells us that Freddy Mercury was born here in Stone Town as Farookh Bulsara in 1946. Although he spent most of his childhood in boarding schools in India, Zanzibar is definitely claiming him all for herself.
Neither of us have ever been a huge Queen fan but Mark does occasionally like to launch into the operatic part of Bohemian Rhapsody. We sit on decking above the beach to catch the cool sea-breeze and to watch the dhows sail past – a great setting. We share a seafood pizza and a calamari salad and get stuck into beers and Bacardi.
An early night after a tiring but wonderful day. Can’t believe that this morning we were still on the train – so much has happened!
Saturday 4th October, 2014 Zanzibar
It’s 5.30am in Zanzibar. We’re woken to the sound of the call-to-prayer from the nearby mosque then fall back asleep till six to the patter of rain on the roof. Normally this would worry us but after being on the move for the last week, it’s a good excuse to lie in.
At 7.30am we’re up showering and Mark is washing our clothes, absolutely filthy after the train trip. Later on the roof we find the dining room where breakfast is part of the cost of our room. With only one other person eating, there’s more staff that guests – maybe we’re early.
Four beaming staff members wearing crisp white uniforms all stand to attention behind a long buffet table. We feel obliged to put things on our plates even though we don’t really want them. The guy on egg duty is thrilled when we ask for a Spanish omelet each. We also manage toast, cereal, watermelon, tea and coffee – we leave the pastries behind. It’s all very innocently cute.
And funnily, a television in the corner is showing an endless line of bearded, robed Arabs lining up to kiss the hand of a very old, bearded, robed Arab – don’t think we’ll be watching that in our room.
The good news is that from the balcony we can see that the clouds are breaking up with patches of blue peeping through. From here we look out over the rooftops and church spires to the sea. It looks wonderful and we can’t wait to get out there.
Our plan is to wander around to get our bearings and decide what to do depending on the weather. Back to our room, we ring Lauren at Bluey’s – she hates it as usual – then upload our recent photos onto Facebook and find gorgeous pictures of our dollies that Lauren has put up. Oh, how we miss our three girls!
But now we do what everyone else does in Stone Town – get completely lost in the maze of narrow alleyways.
Zanzibar is often described as a cultural melting pot because of all the different peoples who’ve settled here over the centuries. In one way or another they’ve all left their mark on the island – architecture, customs, food, beliefs, religion and on the people themselves. And Stone Town is where it all comes together. We wander through dark winding alleys, some lined with souvenir shops, cafes, coffee shops and other smelling of the spices the island is famous for.
Because Zanzibar is predominately Muslim, we women need to keep our knees and shoulders covered – no problem for me because I always wear long skirts or trousers anyway. Showing my legs is something I thought was a good idea to leave behind years ago.
Everywhere we walk, people call out ‘jambo’ (hello) and ‘karibu Zanzibar’. Most men wear long white robes and kufi caps – round brimless hats with a flat crown. A few wear western t-shirts and long pants but the most interesting are the Rastas with their long dreadlocks wrapped up in knitted caps in the typical Rastafarian colours of red, green and gold.
The women all wear full length, colourful kangas, Zanzibar’s traditional garment. It’s basically a long piece of material looped over the head and wrapped around their waist. Some wear the hijab, a black veil that covers the head and chest, and some even wear a niqab which is an extra bit that covers the face as well.
Of course, this all makes for brilliant photo opportunities and we take heaps of video footage as well. Down by the water we buy ice-creams and mingle with the locals in Fodorhani Gardens.
With a local map, Mark now works out how to find the Emerson Spice Hotel. I accidentally came across a photo of this place when I was searching through travellers’ blogs about Zanzibar and it looks amazing. Famous people have stayed here, like Matt Damon and Juliet Binoche, and it’s described as ‘a feast of the senses’ for people who don’t care about useless shit like minibars and televisions. I doubt we’ll be able to afford it but I just want to have a look anyway.
Zigzagging through the passageways behind the Fort, we eventually find it tucked away in a small square and looking like something out of The Arabian Nights.
The hotel was originally an old merchant’s house and once home to the last Swahili ruler of Zanzibar. But now it’s been beautifully restored by an American man called Emerson Skeens who’s lived here in Zanzibar for over twenty years.
It literally takes my breath away – built in the Swahili Arab style, it has soft, washed-out mauve/blue walls, ornately carved wooden balconies, hanging lanterns, arched windows with louvred shutters, studded Zanzibar doors, potted palms and even a handsome robed doorman standing on the steps.
In the courtyard in front, two men in kufi caps are selling vegetables on the ground and a veiled woman walks past. It’s like a film set for an old Arabian movie!
I can’t wait to see inside to check out the foyer. No disappointment here – I feel like we’ve been transported back in time to the days when Sultans ruled the island.
An English man at the desk introduces himself as Russell and is happy to show us around. We follow him up bare wooden staircases from room to room all built around a central atrium with a mosaic tile fountain at the bottom.
Russell tells us that Emerson, who sadly died in June this year, had been a film and camera fanatic, so the building and the rooms are like stage sets. Each one is completely individual, inspired by movies, books and operas but all have the same fantasy feel of exotic Africa.
No two rooms have the same interior design, either, unlike the generic five star hotels that all look exactly the fucking same no matter what country you’re in. The Kate Room has a bathroom with two huge stone baths while the Aida Suite has a lounge area, bathroom, bedroom and another room upstairs.
What all the rooms do have in common are lush fabrics, intricate latticework, vine covered balconies with open-air showers and stone baths, richly painted walls and gorgeous four-poster Swahili beds. I take lots of photos so I can drool over them later.
Back downstairs we ask Russell about the best place to go for a beach break. He recommends Pongwe on the east coast or Nungwi on the northern tip. He also tells us that while the rooms cost between $200 and $250 a night, if we turn up on Tuesday when we get back to Stone Town we can have one for only $150. Mark says we can’t pass this up – a lot more than we’ve ever paid but this is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Really excited now and even happier when Russell takes us up to the open-sided roof-top restaurant.
Moe latticework up here around the roof which is lined with silk hangings and furnished with rattan chairs and wooden tables. And here is Stone Town spread out below us. We have three sixty degree views of this mystical old city and the blue waters of the Indian Ocean beyond. It’s still only eleven o’clock so we easily find a table for lunch.
Our waiter is a jolly, very black-skinned man wearing the usual white robes and kufi cap. The menu is amazing – mostly seafood and all of it looks good. Drinks first because we’re so hot – lemon sodas, iced tea and chilled hibiscus tea – then lunch of lobster salad for Mark and salt and pepper squid for me. It’s all cooked in the tiny open-air kitchen in one corner.
The food is perfect and colourfully presented on bright blue plates – very ‘tropical island’. Not like me to rave about food and I even take photos. This place has absolutely nailed it all!
On a real high now, we decide to check out some of the historic buildings and head straight for Beit El-Ajaib opposite the Fodorhani Gardens. You can’t miss it – it’s the biggest building in Stone Town.
Like most of the old buildings here it was once a sultan’s palace. Incredibly, the sultan kept wild animals chained up for display on the front lawn and had the main door made wide enough so that he could ride an elephant through it!
Not quite so outrageous today after being converted to a museum but, with a dhow in the central courtyard, it’s still very impressive. Beit El-Ajaib is also locally known as the House of Wonders for an unusual reason – Zanzibar actually had electric lighting before London and was also the first building in East Africa to have an elevator!
Outside sit a couple of old Portuguese canons used during the Anglo-Zanzibar War in 1896. And, did you know that this was the shortest war in history – only lasted two days! It was actually a question we had at trivia a few months ago – Mark was naturally the only one who knew the answer.
Nearby we visit the Sultan’s Palace, Beit El-Sahel, which today is another museum, this one dedicated to the Zanzibar royal family. The furnishings are all still here – like a time capsule. We see the biggest crystal chandeliers in the world (maybe), stained glass, Persian rugs, Zanzibar beds and antique furniture. The rooms are huge but still seem very homey. The wide verandah on the top floor looks out over the water – like a painting. We like this place.
From here we keep walking towards the port where the ferries come in. We pass the ‘Big Tree’, a massive, old landmark fig right next to the Old Dispensary. It’s a popular meeting place for locals and where tour guides wait to pounce on tourists getting off the boats. We ‘promise’ one nice man that he can take us out to an island tomorrow but I think we’re going to head for the beach instead so I hope he doesn’t wait for us.
But right now we want to visit the Old Dispensary – a grand, four storey building with decorative balconies painted white and a soft pale green. This is the first building you see as you leave the ferry and it couldn’t be more perfect – it just screams ‘Zanzibar’! It’s said to be one of the most finely decorated buildings in Stone Town, with large carved wooden balconies, stained glass windows, and neo-classical stucco adornments (guide book info meaning ‘really fancy’).
Originally intended to be a hospital for the poor, the owner died while it was still being built and his widow didn’t have the money to finish it. Later in colonial time it was sold off and the new owner decided to use the ground floor as a dispensary with the upper floors turned into apartments. It fell into disrepair in the 1970’s but thankfully restored about twenty years ago.
Inside we climb the carved, walnut staircase to the middle floor then sit on the balcony overlooking the waterfront. Two musicians wearing white robes and red kufi caps are playing traditional instruments and try to teach us a few words in Swahili. They tell that when we enter a house or shop, someone will say ‘karibu’ (welcome) and we should answer ‘ahsante’ (thank you). We give them a good tip.
Meanwhile we order lime sodas and capirinhas and watch all the action in the street below and across at the port – touts, hawkers, cars blowing horns and lots of containers being unloaded. This is the perfect end to our cultural activities for the day.
Now we return to the labyrinth of the old city looking for Mrembo, a traditional spa that I’ve read about on the net somewhere. With his good map reading skills, Mark finds it easily and I’m in love again. It looks very unpretentious, tucked in amongst tiny souvenir shops, cafes and local businesses.
Very old thick stone walls washed in a pale green with a gold coloured stone floor keep it cool as well as creating a very Arabic atmosphere. Mrembo is apparently big on natural ingredients so that only locally grown flowers, herbs and spice make up all the ingredients used in their treatments.
Inside we’re greeted by a pretty Swahili lady wearing all-white except for a baby pink wrap on the head. She asks us to sit in one of the adjacent rooms decorated with antiques, old lamps and a wooden screen. Mark decides to head back to the hotel but I book in for a half hour back massage – $25.
I’m shown to a very dark cubby-hole sized section divided off with a white carved screen. A fat lady wearing dark glasses (what’s that all about?) gives me a wonderful oil massage while traditional music is playing with the mysterious smell of Udi incense wafting around me.
I’m soooo happy but now I have to find my way back to the hotel. I set off in the right general direction and just when I think I’m lost, I actually pop out from an alleyway directly opposite Mazsons. Now we have time for showers and for me to give myself a manicure and a pedicure while we watch Sex and The City on television.
Just on sunset we set out to experience the town at night which translates to ‘finding a bar’. Leaving the hotel, we turn right for a change and come across the water on the opposite side of the promontory. It’s so nice here – very quiet and a lot cooler in the calm evening air. We wander through the foyers restaurants of gorgeous Arabic-style hotels occupying once derelict Portuguese buildings. Some are over $350 a night so we won’t be booking in. Through a pointed Islamic doorway we see a dhow out on the water with a backdrop of a pink twilight. If it sounds idyllic, well it is!
There are so many fantastic hotels around here, big and small and all with stacks of atmosphere. Darkness creates a secretive feel as we meander through the tiny streets, although we never feel nervous – maybe being a bit naïve. In no time we end up back around near Fodorhani Gardens but we head for Livingstone’s instead.
This is housed in the old British Consulate building and still has the original, wide sweeping staircase in the bar. Outside we kick off our shoes to sit at a table and chairs on the sand while we order ‘happy hour’ cocktails. This finishes in ten minutes so we order two each – margaritas for me and caipirinhas for Mark. This laid back atmosphere is what we love about travel in these exotic countries – just picture candlelit tables under trees decorated with coloured string lights, feet in the sand, good music and a stone’s throw from the water
But we can’t stay long as we’re hoping to catch a dance show at The Fort. Luckily this is only a five minute walk and next to the House of Wonders. The Fort was originally built by the Omani people to defend against the Portuguese but now it just contains a few sad little curio shops, a basic restaurant and a small amphitheatre used for performances and festivals. At the entrance we pay the small price of $10 for the show and a drink each.
We’re happy to find that the whole thing is very amateurish and doesn’t seem to be an over-priced tourist trap at all which we thought might be the case. We’re the only people here except for a few local families and a couple of German girls who we chat with before dinner. One of them has been teaching in Zanzibar for a year so she knows her way around. We ask them about the best beach place we should head for tomorrow.
The food is good. We share a seafood salad and Food de Mare pizza and order more drinks from the waitress who reeks of body odour – feel sorry for the poor little thing. The show begins with one guy playing hand-made drums while another guy sits on the ground hitting a long tin instrument. Then two ladies and two men dance while another man plays a strange, long trumpet thing. One pretty woman pulls me up to dance – fun except that I must look an idiot next to the very rhythmic Swahili ladies.
Later we walk back to Stone Town Café near our hotel. The waitress is wearing a veil so we should have realized that this is a ‘no alcohol’ place but we just order a couple of diet cokes that we sneakily top up with my Bacardi. Another hotel nearby looks amazing with an indoor swimming pool in the foyer but they don’t sell alcohol either – ‘goodbye!’
But we’re in luck with our next choice. This is the very popular Africa House Hotel in a lovely one hundred and fifty year old building. We stroll around the entry and some of the lounge areas set up with floor cushions and shishas – very Arabic! A wide deck looks out over the sea which is just a black blob at this time of night but we’ll definitely be back to watch one of Zanzibar’s glorious sunsets. Reggae music is playing and Mark dances with the bar staff. I think it’s time for him ‘to go home now!’
Sunday 5th October, 2014 Zanzibar
As usual we’re woken by the pre-dawn call of meuzzins echoing from loudspeakers in every direction. There are over fifty mosques in this small area of the island so there’s no way we could sleep through the call-to-prayer. Breakfast upstairs is the same ritual as yesterday then we pack our bags in preparation for heading to the opposite side of the island.
A taxi driver called Georgie is washing his car outside the hotel entrance and says he can take us to Pongwe for $45 – expensive but he says that the roads are very rough so it takes a long time. There isn’t any type of government-owned public transport on Zanzibar so, besides taxis, the only other option is one of the privately owned daladalas. These ramshackle trucks are a bit like the songthaews in Thailand so there’s no real timetable – when they’re full, you go!
But then we find out that today is a special holiday in Zanzibar and that everyone will be moving around the island or heading for Stone Town. This means that getting a daladala will be almost impossible so we decide to take a taxi to Nungwi at the top of the island which will be a bit cheaper at just $30.
But typically this isn’t just a matter of jumping in and off we go. The Zanzibar police require that our taxi driver must pay a permit that has to be shown at various checkpoints along the way. We can’t seem to find out why and Mark thinks that the drivers don’t even know themselves. Probably just another corrupt money-making scheme dreamed up by the police that we’ve seen in lots of other third world countries.
So from Mazsons we bump along rutted backstreets to Georgie’s office. This is a tiny, grubby place with two old chairs and chickens scratching around the door. It looks like it might be a good day to head off to the beach because most businesses will be closed anyway because of the public holiday.
Georgie explains that this is called Eid-al-Adha which, after the famous Haj (the pilgrimage to Mecca), is the second most important celebration for Muslims. He says that it will be four joyful days when everybody is out and about celebrating. In Stone Town partying will take place in lots of open area with all the villages turning into festival venues.
While we wait for the permit, we watch as women and children move from house to house visiting friends and relatives. Everyone is wearing their best clothes – girls in bright veils and boys in long white or cream robes and kufi caps. The little ones look so cute!
After an hour we’re ready to go and we have a new van and a new driver called Bashiri. Past the Darajani Market on the edge of Stone Town, we drive through Zanzibar Town and out into the green countryside.
The road hugs the coastline so we pass through lots of small fishing villages and the island’s largest fish market. Ducks, chickens, goats and cows – it’s a nice drive except that the rain has started and the wind has picked up as well. Everyone seems to be heading to a village festival or waiting for daladalas on the side of the road.
After an hour and several police checkpoints we pull into the very uninspiring Nungwi. This was traditionally the centre of Zanzibar’s dhow-building industry, but now it’s just a ramshackle fishing village that’s been sidelined by guesthouses, bars, shops, restaurants and backpackers.
Unlike villages on most tropical islands, this is dry and barren with rocks everywhere – looks like a building site except that nothing seems to have been repaired here for years. I take an instant dislike to the whole place except that the weather has improved – sunny and no wind on this northern tip of the island.
Bashiri drops us off at the end of a laneway near the beach where we hope to find some cheap accommodation. We decide to have lunch first on the wide verandah at Mumma Mia – carbonara and penne tomato – overlooking the sand.
While Mark mind our packs I wander off in search of a room. Right next door I like the look of Barrack Bungalows so we check in. Fifty dollars is pretty good for our own air-conditioned bedroom with Zanzibar beds and a hot-water bathroom. Our bungalow has a tall thatched roof and sits in a pretty garden overhung with coconut palms.
After settling in we wander up the beach where I buy necklaces and woven cups from Marie, a friendly young woman with a cute, four year old daughter – oh Abi, we want you little baby!
So okay, the sun is shining, the sand is white, the water is turquoise, thatched restaurants and bars line the water’s edge and I’m still not getting it – the vibe just isn’t happening for me – a nutcase, for sure!
Later we sleep and read then walk along the sand to the Copacabana for sunset drinks. The wifi isn’t working so we move back up to Barrack Restaurant where we sit at a table on the sand. But just after ordering prawns and tuna, I feel terrible on the stomach and deadly tired. I can’t eat a thing and rush back to our room to be sick while Mark has to eat it all.
Monday 6th October, 2014 Zanzibar
It’s raining! I want to get out of here today but Mark wants to stay. At Mumma Mia for breakfast we have toast with scrambled eggs, fruit, juice, tea and coffee – very ordinary! The only really good thing about Mummas is the fast wifi so we upload photos and talk to Lauren.
Then because I don’t want to be here, I take refuge in our bungalow and sleep till noon while Mark goes exploring. Coming back, he tells me to stop sulking and drags me out of bed. The rain has gone and I know he’s right anyway so we set off towards the point to have lunch at an interesting café built out over the water. It’s busy with good people-watching and good food – a seafood pizza and a Zanzibar dish to share.
Further on we meet Michael, a very tall thin young man who wants to show us his shop. We need to start buying a few gifts for home anyway so we follow him up a short, sandy laneway. He’s very happy when we spend $105 on necklaces, masks, wooden animals for the dollies, an elephant for Jack’s collection and earrings.
On the way back, Mark has a massage supposedly for $20 an hour but it’s all over in forty minutes. Meanwhile I’m back in the room reading – very lazy.
On sunset we head off for dinner and drinks. I like the look of Mang’s Bar and Restaurant – a basic place with a low thatched roof just near Michael’s shop. We really like the atmosphere with lots of interesting westerners and good music playing. The slow, steady rhythm of reggae seems to beat continuously around here and of course Bob Marley is king.
Across the wall behind the bar is a hand-painted sign reading the ubiquitous ‘Hakuna Matata’ whish we hear everywhere on the island. It literally means ‘don’t worry, be happy’ – a good philosophy that I promise to take on board just as soon as we get back to Stone Town – ha ha.
The food here is excellent as well – chicken, chips and salad for me and beef with rice for Mark. A group of Masai walk past all dressed in traditional colourful sheets and carrying long sticks – very impressive.
After waaaay to many drinks we head back towards our place but stop at another beach bar and chat with the barman – no-one else here. A trapeze thing is attached to the vaulted roof and he swings as we talk. Later two Masai men stop for a chat then it’s off to bed – a much better night.
Tuesday 7th October, 2014 Zanzibar
Up at 7.30am for a shower together then a walk along the beach before we leave. Outriggers and dhows are bobbing in the shallows and a few are being repaired on the sand. Three ladies wearing colourful kangas with scarves wrapped around their heads are each carrying a bucket and a spear. They wade out up to their thighs looking into the water for fish. I try to be friendly and take photos but they give me filthy looks and shoo me away. Yes, I hate it here.
Further along past a herd of cows on the sand we meet our Polish friends sunbaking right on the water’s edge. They’re going home tomorrow and if I were them I’d be spending it in Stone Town and not in this shit hole. But I suppose if you come from Poland you’d probably think this place is paradise. Go to Thailand!!
Back at Barraka we have breakfast – pineapple juice, watermelon, banana and pineapple with tea and coffee – on the sand because the kitchen has been demolished since yesterday. We arrange for transport back to Stone Town and we’re on our way by 9.15am.
The van’s windows are tinted so I ‘can’t see a fucking thing’ as Mum used to say when her eyesight was failing – ha, ha, she was so naughty! Okay so now I’m getting pissed off even more because I can’t take photos or video. Mark tells me to chill out – o-kaaaaay!!
On the outskirts of Zanzibar town we stop at a bank to withdraw more Tanzanian Shillings then ask to be dropped off at the Darajani Market. Like most central markets, its bustling with people selling everything you’d expect from an East Africa market – food (bread, meat, fish, spice, fruit and vegetables), clothing (kufi hats, shoes and kangas) plus the inevitable spices.
I’m soooo happy to be back here especially when we once again thread our way into the exotic labyrinth of the old city. We’re heading straight for the Emerson Spice and here it is, right in the heart of Stone Town, surrounded by the hubbub of local life and the comings and goings of the neighbouring mosque.
Russell is at a meeting but we tell the man on the desk about Russell’s offer. Luckily he’s okay with it so we follow him up four flights of stairs to the lavish Turandot Room. This is decorated in red and gold with a dark polished floor and a stone bath in the corner. A modern toilet is hidden in a small curved room with a carved wooden door. Moroccan stained glass and brass lights hang from the high ceiling and a Swahili four-poster bed is draped in a white mosquito net trimmed with gold satin. Everything reflects the opulence of what this place once was and the luxury of the lives the people led here. We’ll just pretend for a day.
And, by the way, this isn’t a reproduction, all the furniture and lights are antiques collected by Emerson from the island itself. Another great thing about the hotel is that while everything looks other-worldly, all the room are equipped with an air-conditioner, fan, great wifi and hot water – all you get in a five-star hotel except for a television which we don’t want anyway.
But what we love most about our room is the balcony. Palms and climbing plants keep it totally private as well as having a sort of carved wooden pergola complete with swing. In the corner is an outdoor shower and cement tub hand painted with flowers – we jump straight in to cool down and just to get it there anyway.
And because our room is on the third floor we have a good view of Stone Town rooftops as well as the verandahs of surrounding buildings. We’re so close that we can hear children plying and watch women squatting on the floor either cooking or washing.
Back outside we set off to look for lunch. On the way we buy a few more gifts then come across the Emerson on Hurumzi, the second and more recent hotel restored by Emerson Skeens. This is just as exotic as the Emerson Spice but more of an understated elegance – white stuccoed walls, dark polished wooden ceilings and beams, chandeliers, a black and white chequered marble floor and antique lounges covered in maroon velvet.
The friendly man at the desk takes us up a wide polished wooden staircase to the restaurant on the roof. Each level is more intriguing than the last with the top level opening into a watermelon-pink foyer sparsely decorated with antique side-tables and potted palms – I can’t believe we’re seeing this!
From here we climb a steep ladder-like staircase to the roof. I’ve read that this Tower Top Restaurant is supposed to be one of the most romantic restaurants in the world! Not sure about that but it does look brilliant!
And because Emerson on Hurumzi is the second tallest building in Stone Town, the restaurant has even better views than the Emerson Spice. From up here we can see not only the minarets of the many mosques but also Hindu temples, Christian cathedrals and churches all sitting side by side. It shows the eclectic mix of faiths that have blossomed In Stone Town because of the tolerant Swahili attitude.
With only a couple of tables and chairs, most of the area is covered in Persian rugs with floor cushions and low carved tables. The roof has the same silk tent ceiling and the kitchen is behind a low screen – can’t believe they manage to cook in this tiniest of spaces.
We sit on the floor near a funny English family – the mother has the best giggle – I love Pommies! I want to laugh at everything she says. The waiter demonstrates how to fold the napkins into funny shapes and we all have a go.
Soon our Arab host dressed in a cream robe kneels in front of us to explain the menu – all very upmarket but cheap. After lime sodas, I have a calamari salad while Mark has a tuna and beetroot salad followed by two traditional Zanzibar desserts – very sweet with honey and cardamon.
While we’re eating our desserts, our host comes over again for a chat. He explains the history of the building which was built by the British. They built it this high so they could keep an eye out for baddies on the harbour then, after freeing the slaves, the Arabs moved in – the reason why we sit on the floor.
Later we weave our way through the narrow alleyways packed with street vendors and buildings, grey and weathered, all huddled together. Different areas reveal different cultures – Shanghai’s fancy mansions, Kiponda’s old gold markets, Vuga’s European villas and the palatial towers of the sultans. The residents of historical Stone Town must have lived a life of luxury that we can only dream about.
Every building is part of Zanzibar’s colourful history – slavery, colonial rule, royalty and the spice trade. Even the famous Zanzibar doors tell the history of the house inside. When a house was built here, the door was traditionally the first part to be erected. The greater the wealth and social position of the owner, the larger and more elaborately carved his front door. I take photos of Arab and Indian doors to post in a blog on my Spice website when I get home.
Back to the Emerson Spice for another outdoor shower, a ‘snuggle’ and a read under the ceiling fan. We actually sleep till five o’clock then head for the water.
Because the Eid-al-Adha celebration is still happening, there are literally thousands of people at the Forodhani Gardens. Women and children are sitting in family groups on blankets and the playground is packed – so cute seeing tiny veiled girls lining up for rides. Kerosene lamps light up the food stalls and we say ‘sorry, already eaten’ about a hundred times. On the harbour wall, young boys do acrobatic dives into the water with crowds cheering them on.
Later we wander up to the old Post Office which has been converted into a series of trendy restaurants. A wide verandah runs the length of the top floor so we choose a table overlooking the cobbled laneway to watch all the action while we eat. We’ve chosen a tapas bar with fabulous food once again – meatballs, octopus, meat skewers, fried cheese and bread with balsamic vinegar. Drinking beer and Bacardi, we love this place.
We walk home along the water where there are even more people than before. Back at the Emerson Spice, I head for bed while Mark has a few more beers on the roof.
Stone Town is awesome!!
Wednesday 8th October, 2014 Zanzibar
Our last full day in Zanzibar. We want to make the most of it so we’re up at seven to shower (outside, of course) and pack, ready to change hotels. We want to find somewhere cheaper for our last night.
Breakfast is on the roof at eight o’clock with blue skies all around us. An interesting bunch of guests make for good people-watching and the food is predictably top quality once again – a fresh fruit platter each, mango and pineapple juices then eggs, tomato, eggplant and onion with toast and tea. The temperature is warming up already so we’re prepared for another hot day.
Downstairs we ask the man on the desk if he could recommend a cheap hotel nearby. A Swedish lady wearing a long kaftan seems to work here as well and offers us a room at Emerson on Hurumzi for $100!! Of course we’re ecstatic and jump at the chance. (More about the Swedish lady later because I already have a girl crush).
We head straight there so we don’t miss out. Here is the same guy on the desk that we met this morning. He calls to a handsome man in a white robe to show us a few rooms. Again, each one is distinct and the furnishings are all antiques. Add to this large stone baths and open air verandahs with views across the city, old Zanzibar beds, glass chandeliers and hand-painted window panes – you get the picture.
They’re all amazing but we choose the Rose Room for its gorgeous rose pink colour and the sun flowing in through the open windows which overlook the lively Peace of Love Square. Hyped up again, we set off towards the market to look for the Anglican Church.
Because the laneways are so narrow we can’t see past the overhanging rooftops. So at times we see the church spire through a crack in the buildings but then when we seem to reach where we just came from – it’s the weirdest thing.
Also strangely, the skies have suddenly opened up and we’re caught in a terrific downpour. We’re both drenched in seconds and the cobbled alleyways are already flooding. We visit a couple of gold and silver shops mainly to escape the rain but I’d also like to buy some silver jewellery. Bad luck, there isn’t anything I like but I’m not bothered in the least.
This area of Stone Town is just as amazing as the rest with endless photo opportunities, as they say – weathered but beautiful buildings with flowering vines trailing down from upper floor balconies, coconut palms surrounding an old well still in use and a man carrying long lengths of sugarcane on his shoulder.
Eventually we stumble across St Monica’s Convent and the Anglican Church next door. The convert is a colonial beauty, painted a brilliant white with Arabic archways along the balconies on both floors. The tropical gardens in front are shaded with date palms and coconut trees and the path from the stone fence is lined with clipped hedges – love that colonial/tropical mix.
Next door at the entrance to the church we shelter from the rain, which is still coming down in buckets, with other tourists on a verandah near the ticket office. Beneath here is where the slaves were kept before being shipped off to other parts of the world.
Zanzibar was at the forefront of the slave trade during its peak in the 19th century when men, women and children were captured on the mainland, then brought here to be auctioned at the slave market outside. We pay $5 each then an old man takes us down stone stairwells to the dungeons below. These are incredibly small considering how many poor people they jammed in here. There’s only a small opening at one end for fresh air so that lots of them died before they were even sold.
Upstairs our guide shows us a painting of Reverend Spears, a British man who was responsible for freeing the slaves here in Zanzibar. He also built St Monica’s and the church on top of the slave chambers. Inside the church we have a quick tour then visit the slave memorial outside – a sad place.
Weaving our way back through the laneways, now ankle deep in water, we check out of the Emerson Spice and check in to the Emerson on Hurumzi. The sun is out again and pours in through our three arched windows. The room is huge with a four-poster bed draped in sheer white curtains, antique bedside tables, a lounge and chairs upholstered in green velvet, a black and white marble floor and a mirrored wash stand. But this is just one of our rooms – we also have another bedroom and a bathroom! And as finishing touches, our bed is sprinkled with red rose petals and there’s a bunch of fresh flowers on a table in front of the lounge.
The room also opens up onto a private courtyard packed with tropical plants and vines growing up a latticed trellis. The hotel seems to have lots of these secret little nooks and crannies everywhere. Unbelievable that we’re only paying $100 for all this gorgeousness!
After a quick unpack, we check out the nearby Hindu temple then spend ages buying gifts for home from a nice Indian couple. From here we wander down towards the water and settle in for lunch at the interesting Tempo Hotel. This is just another of the many fabulous hotels right on the beachfront. We have yet another perfect seafood meal – lobster bisque, calamari salad, shrimp salad, hot chips and lime sodas. Meanwhile we watch kids playing down near the water and dhows sailing slowly past.
Back to our hotel where we pay for our room, confirm our Kenya Airways flight for tomorrow, order a taxi to pick us up in the morning and ask for a 3am wake-up call. We spend the rest of the afternoon reading on the bed then about 5pm we spend ages in an antique shop that Mark came across earlier. It’s an Aladdin’s cave, jammed with great stuff but too expensive.
As the sun starts to set we climb up to the roof for sundowners. Mark orders a beer while I’m happy with my Bacardi and coke. As we watch the sun disappear into the ocean, the Islamic call-to-prayer adds to the Eastern ambience of Arab-style pillows, small tables and hanging lanterns.
Great people-watching too as the Swedish lady from the Emerson Spice has turned up and is greeting a group of friends. She’s about my age but very classy – not in a ‘wearing expensive label clothes’ way but confident in who she is. With her long hair, ethnic jewellery and black kaftan she has the bohemian look I love – it’s says culture and travel, being yourself and not giving a flying fuck about the latest fashion or fad – going to chuck out all my dopey ‘corporate’ clothes when I get home.
After the sun sets across the water, a full moon rises over the rooftops of Stone Town – nice. In the dark, we set off for Fodorhani Gardens. Like last night there are thousands of people eating from the food stalls but mainly they just seem to be hanging out. Everyone is dressed in their most colourful finery especially the ladies and little girls. The local boys are again running and launching themselves off the harbour wall into the sea much to the delight of the crowds.
Livingstone’s is just a short walk along the sand which is also packed with people. While we order more drinks we watch everyone having a riotous time with the usual dhows sailing close to the shore. Dinner is spaghetti bolognese for me and lobster for Mark. A lovely end to our amazing time here in Zanzibar.
Bed at 10pm for our early start.
Thursday 9th October, 2014 Zanzibar to Nairobi to Johannesburg
The alarm wakes us at 2.30am and we’re ready and packed by the time the guy from the desk knocks on our door. We follow him on foot through the dark lane ways as the taxi has to park way over near the mosque at the waterfront. It’s always exciting getting up this early with no-one around and the temperature a lot cooler.
The airport is about half an hour away and very small and deserted at this early hour. It’s pretty dingy too and the staff hasn’t a clue. One guy checking in his bags ends up going behind the desk and getting on the computer to sort out whatever problem is they’re having. The rest of the staff is standing around chatting and laughing. No-one is in a hurry but we’re finally pointed to a bus that takes us to the plane revving up on the tarmac.
After all the slowness, we actually take off twenty five minutes early – pretty funny. The plane is nice and we end up with two seats each. Breakfast is served with tea and coffee. We’re flying AIR Kenya so instead of heading straight for Johannesburg we have to fly two hours north to Nairobi first – love that we’re going to another country even if we’ll only see the airport. And no real problem especially as we get to fly past Mount Kilimanjaro – Africa’s highest mountain, in case you didn’t know.
At Nairobi’s Jomo Kenyatta International Airport we hang out in transit for an hour and a half having something to eat and getting onto Facebook. I give Lebo’s Backpackers in Soweto a call as we’re hoping to stay there tonight. They do have a room and she tells us to give them a call when we land and they’ll have someone pick us up for $40.
The five hours to Johannesburg goes quickly with individual screens to watch a movie. While we’re waiting for our bags to turn up on the carousel, I ring Lebo’s Backpackers. No-one is available to come and pick us up so we’ll just have to get a taxi. The drive is forty minutes past the horrible city and towards the south west. Ugliness is everywhere – shrivelled, dry, dust and windy – with a backdrop of huge hills of dirt – hideous scars left over from the gold mining.
And reaching Soweto is no improvement although it’s the last thing you’d expect anyway. This is where the poor blacks were dumped when they were brought here to work in the mines. Now there’s supposed to be a sort of middle class here with some nicer areas but it all looks horrible. Our driver keeps ringing people on his mobile as he obviously doesn’t know where we mean although he keeps saying ‘Yes. I know’. If it was the Amazing Race we’d be eliminated! And it’s already showing $70 on the meter – fuck that!
Finally we pull up at Lebo’s, a colourful place with a green park opposite. This is the most attractive place we’ve seen anywhere around here. Across the road are a few guys hanging out under the tress and bicycles are lined up for the daily bike tours they arrange here. I can tell right now that I won’t be doing that – too fucking lazy.
Inside we meet the lovely Mary who shows us our room – $40 for a small, basic bedroom with a shared bathroom next door. The eating area is right outside our door and all the girls who work here are having something to eat and having a riotous time.
We check out the rest of the place which is really tiny but very cutely African. We get talking to an Aussie couple who are having a wine and a beer in the courtyard. Rob and Helen are in their late fifties and we get on like a house on fire from the start. They’ve been in Ethiopia for a month and on a truck safari for six weeks. It was a bit of a disaster with a lazy guide and really old people in the group and they say they’ll never do one again. We plan to meet up again for dinner and drinks later.
We’re stuffed after our early start and decide to have an afternoon nap. On dark we have dinner with Rob and Helen as well as Elody, a young German girl, and Dan, a young Swiss guy. Elody is working in a women’s centre helping victims of domestic violence and she’s been here for six weeks already. Dan has been to Namibia and so we’ve all got lots of travel stories to swap. Besides the great company, the food is excellent. The lovely cook reminds us of our hostess at Legends Backpackers in Swaziland – very second word is ‘Ayaya’ with a huge smile.
We have a lovely salad, coleslaw and baked fish with ice cream and cake as dessert. More drinks afterwards by the fire with very loud music. I go to bed later leaving Mark and Rob drinking the bar dry.
Friday 10th October, 2014 Johannesburg
Breakfast is with all our mates from last night – Rob, Helen, Elody and Dan. While Elody goes off to work and Rob and Helen plan a bike ride around Soweto, Mark and I pack for our afternoon flight home. We book a car to take us to the airport then set off to walk to Nelson Mandela’s house. We visited it in 2007 but really it’s the only thing to see in walking distance of Lebo’s, so we’re told by Mary on the desk.
The’ easy walk’ ends up being over an hour through an ugly, barren suburb with a hot wind blowing in our faces. Fucking hell!! The only greenery is weeds growing in the gutters and most houses look like building sites with piles of dirt and rubbish filling the front yards.
At first there aren’t any footpaths at all but the closer we get to Mandela’s the better the road, the sidewalks are paved and there are even a few trees. This is along the tourist bus route so things have been spruced up.
We know when we’re almost there by all the cars and buses but we’re still surprised at the change in the area. Since we were here seven years ago, Nelson Mandela’s house has been ‘fixed up’ – this translates to ‘fucked up’! A wide concreted area has replaced the dirt footpath and a tall fence surrounds the old house that you now enter through a sort of ticket office. The authentic atmosphere is gone with the little house now sitting forlorn amongst modern cafes, restaurants, souvenir shops and market stalls.
Very thirsty, we find an outdoor table under a tree for drinks to order lunch as Lebo’s doesn’t provide it. From here we watch the locals dressed in skins and feathers milling around waiting for their next street performance – a bloody circus!
We decide to escape back to the backpackers but, guess what, no taxis. All the tourists seem to turn up in bug tour buses – huge, air-conditioned things that drive rich people around the sad streets so they can gawp at the poverty.
I hate the thought of the long walk back in the heat and the wind and I keep looking behind hoping to see a taxi or a bus heading our way. Actually only a couple of cars pass us the whole time and the only person we see is a little boy trying to get money out of us. This place is like something after the apocalypse – a slight exaggeration but I hate it anyway.
Very glad to arrive back at Lebo’s and start getting ready to leave. Rob and Helen still haven’t returned from their bike tour so we can’t say goodbye. While we wait for the car we sit outside with Rob and cool down with a soft drink each. He’s an interesting young guy who’s spent the last month in Windhoek in Namibia so we enjoy our last hour here at Lebo’s.
Not sorry to be leaving Soweto, though, and definitely not sorry to be leaving Johannesburg or the whole bloody country for that matter. Past the slag heaps, the boring suburbs, the ugly city, we’re happy to escape to the airport terminal.
A late afternoon takeoff means a night flight and after a Temazapam each we sleep away at least some of the fourteen hour trip back to Sydney
Saturday 11th October, 2014
Home to our beautiful family
Final thoughts – the most adventurous and probably best holiday we’ve ever had. Loved it all!!!