Thursday, August 28, 2014

Traveling to Mdonya River Camp in Ruaha National Park

We used another single-prop plane to fly from Steiger's air strip in Selous Game Reserve to Ruaha National Park, using yet another airline but the same drill as with our previous flights.  I was seated up front so I had a great view of the pilot's dials as we climbed steadily past 10,000 feet, then leveled off except the ground was slowly coming toward us:  Ruaha is higher than Selous, from a half mile to a mile above sea level.  As we approached the airport, which was near the Ruaha River,  I had a great view of the plain below with a large number of baobab trees scattered around it.

Again we were met at the airport by three game drive vehicles – one for our bags, and two for our party of ten.  Here we would be using the more open sort of vehicle that would make viewing and photography easier - but would we be more exposed to dust and danger?

It was quickly apparent that our travels through Ruaha would entail much closer contact with the wildlife than at Selous.  We were driven first to a place where we could have lunch, a small enclosure with a rood but no walls that was part of what appeared to be a facility connected with the national park.   There were a pair of elephants hanging around the facility

Lunch was served from several tins containing a pasta salad, some meat, a curried peas dish, and rice, as well as bottled water, sodas or beers, but here, all drinks except bottled water would be charged extra.

An elephant approached us as we ate, and one of the drivers stepped outside and  clapped loudly.  The elephant stepped back temporarily but came back, charging toward us and turning over one of the large plastic food coolers, grabbing a bunch of bananas.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

A Game Drive and Walking Safari in the Selous – Lions, Impala and Birds, Oh My!

We rose after our first night in our luxurious tent at the Serena Selous Luxury Camp.  Awaiting us at breakfast was this tableful of cereals and juices (note the little doilies, weighted down with beads, keeping the juices covered); we could also order eggs in whatever style, and breakfast meats.  

Surely “passion juice” was an appropriate concoction for such a  popular honeymoon venue

After breakfast, we left for a day long game drive.  The vehicles seated about six people plus driver and guide, who sat up front, and had windows all around – to get a completely clear view (and photograph), we had to stand up and peer through the opening created by raising the roof (which was done before we reached the vehicle); standing up quickly sometimes proved to be no mean feat when the vehicle was bumping along forward.  Although the shorter travelers among us could see over the edge, they could barely see. Perhaps, though, this sort of game vehicle was appropriate for a pair of vehicles traveling in tandem, considering the trail of dust left by the front vehicle

It was at least an hour of driving over the bumpy roads before we started to see interesting game, such as these warthogs

and a pair of water buck

We passed a tree with an eagle sitting on top; Francis said it was a tawny eagle, but Joe, having looked carefully through his binoculars and compared it to the Birds of East Africa that Francis passed back to us, thought that it was likely a crowned eagle (the light is wrong to get a good sense from this photo)

Then we saw a panorama of the Rufiji River, on which we had traveled the day before; today, though, we were going much further from our camp

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Our safaris begin – traveling to the Serena Luxury Camp in Selous Game Reserve

We woke up early Thursday morning, because we had an 8 AM flight from Zanzibar’s airport to the Selous Game Reserve.  Our reliable touring service director, Hassan Ali from Jojoba Tours, had told us that we needed to arrive at 7 for an 8 AM flight, because arriving at late as 7:30 could mean not getting on the plane in time.  Given how small the Zanzibar airport is, I found that pretty surprising, but Hassan had the tendency of being right, so we planned to do as we were told.

We arrived shortly before 7 and I could not figure out why in the world we had to arrive early.  Our flight was not departing from the main part of the small terminal but from a separate building for those flying on single-propeller planes; there, we saw no security line, no metal detector. We did have to be “screened” for security, but that just involved having to open the main compartment of each suitcase at the behest of a large woman who patted the top of the contents, asked “clothing?” and, on receiving an affirmative answer, let us close it up; then she ran a wand superficially around us and waved us through despite beeps.  Passengers began checking in for earlier flights, but there wasn’t even a representative present from Zan Air, on which we would be flying that day.  Representatives from other airlines that had departures around the same time were checking in their customers, and the waiting area was filling up.

About 20 minutes later, there was finally a Zan Air representative, who looked at our passports, found our names on his list, and then hand-wrote us in on the flight manifest.  Luggage tags were placed on our bags, then shunted aside, in no discernible order so far as I could tell; after a while, they were gathered by a second staff member and shifted around in the room and then out into the main hallway of the charter building.  The small print on the ticket had said that passengers were responsible for keeping track of their own luggage, so I was a bit nervous about this and followed the bags.  The fellow moving them whispered loudly “tip!  tip!” and I took the hint and handed him a 1000 T shilling bill (roughly 60 cents).  This same fellow, when the rest of our party which had been staying elsewhere arrived later, uttered this classic line in demanding separate payment:  “If you are not cheap, it will be no problem.”  There were two planes going to Selous, and we were assigned to "Selous 1"; but so far as I could tell, all the bags for Selous were being assembled in one place, sitting on a luggage loading cart out of sight in the main hallway.

But the rest of our party was not there at 7:30 and I was getting worried, because the security line was suddenly long, and moving very slowly because our lackadaisical inspector had been replaced by a team of three men who were going through luggage contents with a fine toothed comb, making people take things out of the suitcases, in some cases making people open their eyeglass  cases to make sure there was no forbidden matter.  Finally, I saw my brother Dan in line (it turned out there has been a problem with the water in the private home’s guest house where they had been staying).  They barely made it into the waiting area and got their names onto the boarding manifest before 8 AM; but the plane did not quite leave on time so it turned out not to be a problem.

Finally, it was time to fly, and our names were checked off on the flight manifest as we left thw waiting area.  Then we were directed to the carts full of luggage, out between the two planes that would be taking us; we were instructed to indicate which bags belonged on "Selous 1," and which on "Selous 2."   Our party of ten was divided between the two planes (the later arrivals were on "Selous 2"), and as we flew, I learned why there were two planes.  There were a couple of passengers on our plane who had to be dropped at the Dar es Salaam airport along the way.  Although it turned out that there were three for Dar – the fellow who was sitting in the front seat next to the pilot, who, I had assumed, must have been a co-pilot, was actually another customer who had been taking up the last available seat on the plane! 

After Dar, we flew off toward Selous, and I got another small surprise:  the pilot turned to us and asked who was going to which camps?  Apparently, there were multiple airports in the Selous Game Reserve; I had not memorized the name of the camp where we were staying, but luckily, at the last minute, I had pulled the travel folder out of my suitcase and put it in the pack, so I was able to check and give the pilot the right information about where we were to be dropped.

When our plane arrived at the right location – just a simple landing strip, called Stiegler's, with an open-walled hut for waiting and a small bathroom hut

the rest of our party were already  sitting in one of the three safari vehicles that had arrived to claim us.  We boarded one of the empty vehicles, and a young English couple who had been on our same plane got into the third (we did not see them again until we reached camp late that afternoon).  The English couple were a honeymooning pair; in fact, every one of the other guests at the Serena camp while we were there were honeymooners from England.

It was about a thirty-minute ride from the landing strip over some pretty rough and bumpy roads to our camp.  As we drove, we encountered a number of areas showing signs of burning as well as blue and black flags

We learned that the camp and regularly engaged in controlled burns of grassy areas to limit the tse tse fly (here pronounced “tseh-tseh,” not “tsee-tsee” as I had always assumed).  The flags are doused in insecticide to help kill the lies; and they are designed to attract the flies which are, oddly enough, attracted to those two colors:  disheartening news because I had brought along two very nice shirts, one bought recently at Adams Morgan Day and one just purchased in Stone Town, that featured black backgrounds and blue and green patterns. 

Finally we reached  our accommodations,  the sign at the entrance really said it all:

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Our Last Day in Stone Town – an expedition to Jozani Forest

For our last day on Zanzibar, our group had decided on an excursion to Kizimkazi, the site of a 12th century mosque, and to the Jozani Forest, which claims to be notable as the one place in the world where visitors can be confident of seeing red colobus monkeys (on checking later, though, I learned that there are several species of red colobus monkey; the red colobus that can only be seen on Zanzibar is just the Zanzibar red colobus). As the time approached, however, enthusiasm had waned for spending the time needed to travel to Kizimkazi, especially because several of our number wanted one last chance to do souvenir shopping in Stone Town.  Once again, we had turned to Hassan at Jojoba Tours, who had arranged our safaris to come as well as our tours and transportation to locales outside Stone Town; and he, in turn, assigned Juma, the same guide who had taken all of us on our Stone Town and spice tours as well as the trip to Prison Island.  When he came to pick us up, he disabused us of the notion that we could skip Kizimkazi, go straight to Jozani Forest, then head back to Stone Town for an afternoon of shopping.  The monkeys, he said, generally head to the tops of the trees at midday and are obscured form view.  We agreed, therefore, that we  remain in Stone Town for the morning, have lunch, and meet for the trip to Jozani Forest in the afternoon.

Nancy and I had very little in the souvenir buying to do, but we enjoyed browsing in various craft stores and I ended up buy a couple more kangas at a women’s cooperative.  We had a nice lunch at Buni Café, sitting outside on a small porch.  I particularly enjoyed a drink that theretofore had been unfamiliar to me:  called ginger juice, it was a combination of freshly squeezed pineapple, ginger and carrot juices.  Nancy and I shared a kebab of tuna and prawns that was quite nice.

At the appointed hour, the group gathered for the one-hour drive to the Jozani Forest.  Juma had barely paid the admission fees when he led us back to the road we had traveled to reach park entrance where several red colobus monkeys had gathered on a pair of trees by the side of the road; after a few minutes, they scampered down the trees and across the road to some bushes where they munched on some attractive food.

One of the monkeys was carrying a baby which can be seen here, peeking out near its mother's elbow

A beach vacation at Kendwa Rocks

The entire wedding party spent the two days after the wedding unwinding at a pair of adjoining  beach resort near the northern end of Unguja, the main island of Zanzibar.  Most of us stayed at Kendwa Rocks; most of the bridesmaids, who had procrastinated in making their reservations until Kendwa Rocks was fully booked, stayed at a place next door called Sunset Bungalows, the next resort up along the beach – and the beach was line with resorts, one after the other with no space in between. 

Kendwa Rocks was a nice place to stay even if a bit funky and disorganized.  When we arrived, it became apparent that the place had failed to keep proper track of our reservations; they maintained several different records of reservations but ultimately they are coordinated by being entered, by hand, on a large chart showing the various rooms and dates.  Although I had reserved two bungalows – one for Nancy and me and one of Joe and Avita, only one of those reservations was noted on the master chart.  Considering that the place was fully booked (thus the bridesmaids’ need to stay next door), we were rather alarmed.  Only after the staff, at our insistence, went through their outgoing email did they have to acknowledge that we had made two separate reservations for two separate bungalows; they said that we had not perfected the reservation because we hadn’t made advance payment as required (which I was certain we had done, although I did not have access to our charge card records); I remembered dealing with this issue while we were in Brazil, having just returned to Internet access in Salvador.  Somehow, the staff managed to shoehorn us into two separate bungalows (and, when it came time to check out, they agreed that we did not have to pay for the rooms, only for meals and drinks, because, they said, they rooms had been prepaid).

There was a wide range of different accommodations available – an apartment block on one side of the property, some thatch bungalows at beach level, directly facing the dining area and the beach, and then a series of stone and thatch dwellings along a set of steps rising toward the road

Our “coconut wooden” bungalow — just to the left of the steps  in the photo above — had walls made out of vertical logs, except for the bathroom area in the back which was made of concrete, with a thatch roof.  The bathroom was fine although we couldn’t get hot water for our showers.  The location could not have been better – ours was the closest to the beach of all the bungalows, and completely separate from all the other bungalows so that there was a minimum of noise from other accommodations (a serious problem for others in the group, we heard).  From our porch, which had both recliners and chair,  we looked over an expanse of sand toward the dining area and the beach beyond.

Dan and Chingchai’s bungalow, directly behind ours and a few steps up from the beach, was also the next step up in comfort — made of concrete, with pretty tiled bathroom and decorated beds and mosquito nets.

When we arrived, we were given yellow wristbands to show that we were guests at this particular resort, although it was not clear to me what function they played, because guests form any of other resorts up and down the beach were plainly welcome to drink at the bar,

dine at the restaurant,

or hang out at the resort’s beach. 

There was certainly a strong show of security:  there was a uniformed security service patrolling the steps and the beach; other resorts had Masai posted in their traditional garb – throughout Zanzibar and Tanzania, we saw Masai used as guards.   I was told that they were appreciated both for toughness and awareness.

Lodgings came with breakfast, but it was the weakest breakfast we had during this vacation— instead of a fruit buffet, we would be handed a plate with three pieces of fruit, and we had chance to place an order for eggs fried, boiled, scrambled or omelet, but only a plain omelette.  If we wanted an omelette with contents, that was extra, as was French toast (and it was the spongiest, least tasty French toast I can recall).  Along with the egg order came a small piece of tomato, beans, a small piece of pancake and a hot dog (called a sausage).  There was also spiced chai and hot water into which we could either place a black tea bag or a spoonful of instant coffee (but instant coffee was pretty common in Zanzibar), as well as juice.  Other meals, and well as drinks at the bar and indeed other goods and services the resort, could be had either for cash or charged to a card that was issued with each room upon registration.    Apparently, the card system was used to prevent employee theft, and this was taken to the point of metering the alcohol that was added to drinks – an electronic nozzle, connected to a computer, was placed on the bottle of alcohol before it was spritzed into a mixed drink.

Among the services that could be paid by the card was wi-fi access, also very carefully metered – it could be purchased only for various periods of hours, the maximum being 20,000Tshillings for a 24- hour period; we would be issued a simple user name and one letter password, but access could not be shared with someone else, and a new username and 24 hours of usage  could be bought after the first 24 hours expired.  And, considering how expensive the Internet access was – $12 per day is pretty exorbitant – the wifi was disappointing in that it was generally not accessible in rooms, but only out in the common areas.

Apart from the weak breakfast, the food served in the dining area was reasonably good (perhaps a response to the fact that lunch and dinner, unlike breakfast which had a captive audience, were sold in competition with all other resorts up and down the beach).   Still, it was a fairly limited menu and we got restive for some variety after the first day.   For lunch on our second full day at the resort, we walked up the road into Kendwa town itself for a nice seafood lunch;

 for our dinner that day, we hired a boat to take us to Nungwi, the town, the next town to the north.  Some of the party enjoyed diving off the upper deck of the boat into the water,

we enjoyed a pretty view of the setting sun from the boat

After we arrived in Nungwi, we had trouble finding a place where our large group could sit together, but we finally a table at the Amani Bungalows that was apparently served by two separate restaurants, the Marina Restaurant and the Sunset Grill. The food was quite good but it took an unusually long time for it to come, and they apparently mixed up their orders because some food came that nobody had ordered, and some people never got to pay.

The biggest problems came at the end.  We were running low on Tshillings and we wanted the opportunity to pay with a credit card and get cash from the others present, thus supplementing our cash supply for the rest of the trip.  After the waiters had added up and presented the bill, and we figure out how much each person’s total came to and a collection was assembled, I went to pay with one of our credit cards.  The owners, though, decided that the bill was not large enough for our group so they discovered some dishes that they said had be added to the bill. And then it turned out that although the place advertised itself as taking credit cards (there was a prominent VISA sign), the restaurant itself was unable to take cards because of a problem with its credit card machine; presumably, it was a problem similar to what other places on the island were facing – the main bank on which many merchants had relied for credit card services had been closed for undue links to an organization on the US list of terrorist groups; merchants were scrambling to find new banks to handle their credit card transactions; and those banks, in turn, simply did not have the bandwidth to handle so mush new business. 

In any event, I was directed the hotel’s reception office to pay.  There was another family ahead of us, paying for their own accommodations and having one credit card after another rejected; finally they agreed to try to deal with the problem the following morning.  Then it was our turn, and try after try, the credit cards were rejected.    Finally, Aisha and Nafisa participated in the discussion, pointing that the restaurants had advertised themselves as taking credit cards  and then demanding cash was unfair, but also, perhaps more important, making clear that they had local ties.  Finally, the hotel’s night manager said he would call the bank to try to get clearance for the credit card transmission; he came back a few minutes later and miraculously the credit card approval came right through.  Given that it was 10:30, I confess that I wondered whether the hotel staff had actually spoken to somebody, or had simply decided to out the transaction through.

These troubles aside, the two nights and three days were pleasant and relaxing.  We lolled on the beach, went swimming in the Indian Ocean, looked at souvenir wares and bought a few things, mostly kanga’s for a few dollars each.  There was a volleyball court and the play was almost non-stop from after breakfast until dark,  but the standard of play was so low that I couldn’t bear the thought of participating.

 In the late afternoon, boys and young men from the neighboring towns could be found playing soccer all along the beach

Nancy and I strolled down the beach past several other resorts, some considerably fancier, and some accessible only by stairs that were posted to discourage access by the hoi polloi.  Many of these resorts were owned by Italian operators and directed specifically at Italian tourists

A number of resorts featured local shops offering crafts, although some were labeled in imitation of well-known European brands.  One place offered works by the Picasso of Zanzibar; looing at a different sign, I wondered whether IKEA had visited Kendwa to enforce its mark

One resort had a very fancy dining area build on stilts in the water

The young folk in the bridal party spent some hours smoking shisha, pleasant for them but disappointing to me – after our children did so well avoiding the blandishments of the tobacco industry that they wouldn’t even consider picking up a cigarette,  that evil empire has managed to get its hooks into the next generation by persuading them that it is cool to smoke tobacco so long as it is embedded with flavor and filtered though water. 

For our final day, we arranged with a nearby PADI-certified dive operation, Scuba Do, for a joint snorkeling diving trip, in which Dan and Chingchai, recently certified divers, would get spend an afternoon dive, a few others of us would take the “discover diving” course in the morning and then dive in the afternoon, and the bulk of the group would ride on the same boat but only snorkel in the same general area.  We agreed to hold one of the rooms for an extra day so that everybody could shower and change after coming out of the salt water.

The trip, however, was disappointing.  Everybody but me who was planning to participate in the “fun dive” passed, deterred in part by the need to get up in time for a 9 AM class; and I myself came down with the runs early that morning and the dive instructors declared flatly that if I wasn’t feeling well they didn’t want me for the class because diving could be risky.  In the end, my loose bowels were fixed by lunchtime, but I had blown the diving opportunity tio which I had been looking forward for a year.  Several of the wedding party who had agreed to go snorkeling with us decided to go with a cheaper option after local guys using a wooden boat underbid the PADI-certified snorkeling price, offering a high-powered speedboat to reach the same destination, by nearly two-thirds.

And the snorkeling itself, off the far side of Tumbatu Island (known locally for witchcraft) was disappointing.  Although certainly more varied than the snorkeling off Prison Island a few days before,  the corals were the same pale yellow and greens that we had seen there; and although there were some brightly  black and white striped fish and a few pale blue ones, there was nothing of the brightly colored corals and fish that I remembered from diving off Barbados a few years earlier.  Nafisa had told us that we should aim for diving and snorkeling off Mnemba Island, off the eastern side of the island, but Dan and I allowed ourselves to be persuaded by the head guy at Scuba Do that we would find the reefs more pristine and less crowded with boats and divers (not to speak of not nearly so far a boat ride to reach).  Next time, though, I expect we’ll insist on Mnemba when we are diving or snorkeling off Zanzibar.

We returned to Kendwa and took showers; it was dark by the time we finished paying for the incidental purchases that had been recorded to out debit cards, and we boarded a pair of minibuses hat has been ordered to return us all to Stone Town.  There being no regular gas stations at this end of the island, the busses  stopped at a small shop along the road shortly after leaving the resort; the staff at the store brought out large containers of fuel, which were poured into the gas tanks. 

Nancy and I and Joe and Avita headed back to the apartment in the Victoria Flats; it was pretty late by the time we got back.  For dinner, Nancy and I chose to eat at a place very close to the apartment that was alternately called, on its various signs, Spices Rendezvous or Le Spice, serving Indian cuisine.  It was a delicious dinner.

From family sources comes news of a disastrous fire at this resort. 

Learning About Spice Horticulture in Zanzibar

On the evening after the first wedding luncheon, we were at loose ends for dinner and eventually settled on the Abyssinian Maritim restaurant (we took a look at Africa House but the “party” made it too darn loud).  We had a nice meal sitting on a patio near where we were staying in the Vuga neighborhood.  Ethiopian cuisine is a bit different here; not the same array of vegetables set up around the injera, you just get what vegetables you pay for, and the injera seems different; we wondered if it was made with tef or with wheat.  There was a fascinating coffee ceremony that involves smoking the beans before making the coffee, and it seemed to be served with popcorn; but nobody wanted coffee so we did not get a close-up view. 

On the way to Sea Cliff Resort for the final celebration of Sam and Nafisa’s wedding, we took a spice tour, the one nearly obligatory tour for visitors to Zanzibar.  Once again Jojoba Tours -- our reliable mainstay for touring in Zanzibar and indeed for our safaris on the mainland later in our trip -- assigned James as our tour guide, although we learned that his actual name is Juma, which means Friday in Swahili (he was born on a Friday).

Along the way, we learned about about Zanzibar’s socio-economic conditions; over the next fee days this information was supplemented by talking to some others.  Literacy is high and some 50-60% speak at least some English as well as Swahili; but the population  suffers from 30% unemployment.   There is a national minimum wage of 80,000 Tshillings per month, which comes to 4000 per day or about $2.50 per day in American currency.  The wages paid to government employees (and government is by far the largest employer) starts at 100,000 Tsh per month. Juma indicated, though, and one good source confirmed, that Zanzibaris are employed neither by the government nor by private companies, but rather are self-employed, thus placing them outside the minimum wage and social security umbrella.   And the minimum is so low that it gives one pause to quibble over prices for an advantage of a few thousand shillings, knowing what it means to local people (not that my competitive instincts did not take over when in bargaining situations).  During the course of our drive this day and the following day, when we headed up to Kendwa, we got a glimpse of roadside conditions reflecting the degree of poverty in which many Zanzibaris live. 

For the first several miles out of Zanzibar City, the roads were lined with shops of various kinds, with housing behind.  Although there were certainly cars on the road, most people were walking or riding bicycles, sometimes loaded with goods behind

We saw a number of horse carts in use between Stone Town and Sea Cliff,

and as we got further into the shamba, there were more bullock carts than horse carts.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Two Zanzibar Wedding Celebrations: first traditional, then western style

On August 8 and 9 were the capstone events that brought us to Zanzibar – the wedding celebrations for Sam and Nafisa. 
The Wedding Lunch

First, on Saturday, was a traditional lunch at the Bwawani Hotel, the first five-star hotel in all of East Africa although currently, under government ownership, my impression is that the hotel part of the facility has rather gone down hill – indeed, the review sites suggest that the hotel is a real dump.

But the party facility behind the  hotel has long been used for official receptions and receptions held by officials, and it continues in that function because the staff are used to the necessary security precautions.  At many Zanzibari parties among the well-off and well-connected, the tradition is to include entrance cards with invitations, and it is necessary to show the card to gain entrance through a gate at which a security guard is stationed.

The wedding reception actually consisted of two separate lunches, one for the men, held under tents outside, and one for the women, held inside.  Generally speaking, the men were not allowed to come into the women’s luncheon, but they had music throughout, which was piped outside on loudspeakers.  ALL the men wore traditional attire – canzu’s, a sheath covering the shoulders and arms and dropping to the shoes, over which the men wore a western-style suit jacket, with a kofia on the head — a hat with straight sides, no brim, and creased at the top so as to form a shallow bowl on top — and sandals rather than western dress shoes.  I had brought two suits for the two wedding events, but it turned out that I only had need of one.  But I had never owned a canzu or kofia, so I was taken on an emergency shopping trip the day before (discussed here); here is how Sam and I were attired for the day: