Ethiopia / Out Of Africa / The End

27 Aug


Addis Ababa

Our passage through Africa so far hadn’t brought any enormous contrasts from country to country – the weather, the social attitude, physical appearances of the people and local dress had varied a little from nation to nation, but not markedly. However, having spent a lazy morning enjoying the sunshine and open friendliness of Uganda, the difference on arriving in Ethiopia later that afternoon was the greatest distinction between countries we’d noticed since we flew from Cairo to South Africa.

Stepping off the plane we immediately needed to put on more layers, making us feel like we’d been diverted back to Blighty. We later discovered Ethiopians to be friendly, warm and kind, but their friendliness isn’t so obvious as the big friendly welcoming grins you get in southern Africa – you have to get to know Ethiopians first, so first impressions of them make them seem colder than they are – perhaps a little like the British. Ethiopians are also probably the best looking bunch of all the Africans on our trip – talent spotters for supermodels should post themselves here, as there are high-cheek-boned, slender and elegant women everywhere.

We got what we perceived to be an overpriced taxi into Addis Ababa, only to later find that it was a normal price – taxis in Addis are just expensive. We checked into Martin’s Cozy Place, the nearest to a backpackers hostel we could find, where there was no sign of Martin and it wasn’t particularly cosy, but it was fine and we settled down to have our first Ethiopian beer in the covered outside communal area, appreciating how the cold grey drizzle was doing a good job of preparing us for home in a couple of weeks.

The next morning we walked further into the city to see if we could afford to buy a flight for one leg of our route around the northern historical sights, which would save us a day’s travelling on a bus. On our way to the Ethiopian Airlines office we struck up conversation with a stern but kindly man heading in our direction who confirmed we were going the right direction. Within a few moments of chat we got our first taste of Ethiopian kindness and hospitality – and their direct approach to both.

Coffee ceremony in our host’s appartment

‘You will come to my house now, and drink coffee, and then I shall take you to Ethiopian Airlines’, he demanded. It seemed rude to refuse so we obeyed as he seemed like a respectable middle-aged man, but a little part of us couldn’t help but wonder if we were walking into a scam. We followed him to his small ground floor flat in a block of flats on an estate that wouldn’t look out of place in Peckham. We were whisked straight into his living room where we were seated and introduced in a very polite and formal manner to his wife and two kids. We realised that this was no scam, but just a kind and proud man welcoming foreign strangers into his house to sample some Ethiopian hospitality. He explained that it is tradition to welcome new friends into their house and to look after them.

He showed us a couple of photo albums of his 33-year career in the army, from where he had recently retired as a Colonel. He had served in Sudan, Eritrea and Somalia – three places that I’m sure most soldiers would dread going to, but if you’re in the Ethiopian army they are the obligatory big three that you expect to be posted to. His sternness made for amusing photos – he never smiles in any of them, but strikes a serious and stoic face that reads ‘I’m a Colonel, and I don’t mess about’.

We were then treated to our first Ethiopian coffee ceremony. Ethiopia prides itself in being the home of both the human being (‘Lucy’  – great name – is the oldest humanoid fossilised skeleton is from Ethiopia) and of coffee. When Italy failed to colonise Ethiopia, they did manage to steal a few coffee secrets.

First of all, the coffee beans are roasted in a small pit of hot coals (or in our abridged version, on the hob) in an iron dish, like a Balti dish, and then presented to the guests who have the smoke wafted in their faces to appreciate the aroma. His daughter then came through with the rest of coffee ceremony set, which includes a nice smelling but pungent incense burner, a tray of small handless coffee cups and a traditional spouted coffee jug which is also usually heated on the hot coals. The end result is an unfiltered espresso-sized cup of wonderfully fresh coffee, which was excellent.

He made a loose offer of inviting us back for dinner another night, which we weren’t sure whether to take seriously, and then accompanied us to the airline office. The Ethiopian Airlines flight for the final leg of our trip back to Addis was bargainous – £30 one way. We then went to buy a bus ticket for the first leg – from Addis to Bahir Dar, on the shores of Ethiopia’s biggest lake, Lake Tana. Alas, the preferred bus company was sold out so we instead went their rivals who told us the same. It meant staying in Addis another day, and getting the bus the following morning, which was disappointing as we hadn’t yet much taken to Addis.

First of many injera-based meals – this one with baby diarrhoea

However, after our first delicious Ethiopian meal of injera (huge sour pancake, upon which your main course is dumped, and then eaten with the right hand – no cutlery) and the best beer yet tasted in Africa, we felt more up for embracing the city and headed off to its most important cathedral, the Holy Trinity Cathedral. It is designed in a mishmash of European styles, but with classic Ethiopian Orthodox Christian iconography adorning every wall. It is also the final resting place of Emperor Haile Selassie.

Cathedral of the Holy Trinity

Haile Selassie’s tomb, and the priest we had to tip for showing us the thing we were already stood next to looking at

As a result of being one of the few sub-Saharan African countries to have pretty much avoided colonisation (Italy, at the second attempt, conquered parts of the country for just five years before us good’ol Brits helped kick Mussolini out), they have a proudly unique character and tradition. Their religious art is one such unique characteristic – slightly cartoony characters with the big dark eyes and high hairlines, two generalised features that can still be seen in most of their people.

There are beggars aplenty in Ethiopia, and also a fair few professional ‘hanger-onners’, who will sidle up to you and after a few exchanges declare you as their new friends (‘friends’ repeated several  times to reinforce the point). It is also expected that you tip almost anyone that does you the slightest favour. As such I started to designate my left pocket as my begging/tips pocket, from which I would try and keep a ready supply of easy-to-grab one- and five-Birr notes to give (although never to kids).

As we left the cathedral we experienced our first daily downpour – a ferocious tropical storm that drenches the city at around 5pm each day during the rainy season. The next day with a day to fill before our bus to Bahir Dar we went to the local university which houses the country’s finest museum, the Ethnological Museum, and also the former palace of Haile Selassie. The museum was very interesting and brought home how utterly different Ethiopia is to any of the six previous African countries we have visited.

We then wandered into Haile Selassie’s palace, which – if we saw it as it was when he lived there – is a fairly modest pad. Ras Tafari, as he was known before being crowned Emperor, became a reluctant figurehead of the Rastafarian faith, for which he is still worshiped. But seeing how highly regarded he is today in Ethiopia it is hard to believe that his tenure turned so sour in his latter years (a bit like Simon Bolivar in northern South America).

Rasta bog: the former bathroom of former Emporer Haile Selassie (formerly known as Ras Tafari)

We ate that evening at a recommended Ethiopian restaurant, with more huge portions of top-notch injera with vegetarian dishes and a lamb dish called tibs. When eating, we were still finding it quite hard to restrain the left hand from helping the right to rip small tears of injera off for scooping up the sauce.

The next day wasn’t a fun one. We awoke a little after 4am to get the bus to Bahir Dar, but as we stepped out of our room at 4.45am we discovered that there are actually two downpours a day in the rainy season. We also discovered that the hotel man hadn’t booked the cab he’d promised us. After spending our last few waking minutes the evening before trying to dry with Lucy’s hairdryer the socks we’d hand-washed so we’d have a clean and dry pair to wear, we were completely soaked to the skin and shivering cold within minutes of stepping out onto the morning street to try and hail a cab. In the pitch black darkness of the Addis streets we eventually got one, but with the pounding rain slowly infiltrating our rucksacks we weren’t in a position to negotiate hard on the overpriced fare. it didn’t help that the driver stunk of booze and hared it along the empty soaked roads, swerving from side to side. We were glad to get to the bus company office in one piece, but then found that the bus hadn’t arrived so we had to stand in the rain for another 45 minutes getting more and more soaked in the darkness.

The area we were waiting in is famous for being where keen amateur long-distance runners train at 5am each morning, along the stone steps of an old amphitheatre that overlooks a large bus and taxi space. It is here that the budding Olympic gold medallists start getting noticed, and the space is surrounded by gigantic billboards with some of Haile Gabreselassie’s many adverts.

Budding Ethiopian Olympians training under the gaze of Gabreselassie (well, the products he endorses)

The bus ride took us through some beautiful green rolling countryside, where it becomes noticeable how vastly populated the key connecting roads outside the cities are. The main rural roads are lined with thousands of people going about their lives; almost all swaddled in white blankets, the men with bare legs and feet and carrying large staffs, all looking like they’ve just walked out of a psalm of the Bible.

Gorge-ous: On the way hup north

After about five bumpy hours our bus couldn’t take any more potholes and its suspension gave up the ghost, and frankly I couldn’t blame it. We ground to a halt in a tiny hilltop village where a big bus breaking down seemed to be the most exciting thing that had ever happened, as hoards of people came to watch. But for the kids, the unusual happenings were about to increase further when they would get what appeared to me to be their first glimpse of a faranji (me). As I got off the bus to stretch my legs and see how bad the damage was about 15 kids just stood round me in a crescent and gawped open mouthed. All were barefoot and most were in rags with encrusted snot smeared around their lower faces.

A few of the kids

We were transferred to a minibus, which took us for another few hours before we were told it was an enforced lunchtime and we’d have to transfer to a third bus for the final few hours. We were still cold and wet, and arrived in Bahir Dar at 6pm, four hours late.

Bahir Dar

Bahir Dar is best known for the many monasteries that are dotted around the neighbouring Lake Tana. It’s a bustling place with a few boulevard-type main roads and lots of crumbling streets off them. It’s also much cheaper than Addis, and our slightly grubby and slightly smelly en-suite room cost just £2.50 each a night.

We booked up for a boat trip the next morning around ‘three or four’ monasteries. First stop was the Ura Kidane Meret Monastery which was a late 16h Century hexagonal mud and wood building, with three concentric sections. The outer ring is where the congregation kneel, with women in their own section, segregated from the men. The walls are covered with fine depictions of Biblical stories, with a few lesser known stories about Mary, and with a now-familiar painting of their Patron Saint and ours, George, spearing a dragon through the face (although this dragon was so small he could have stamped on it). The middle section is for the Priest, who presumably has to slowly rotate to speak to everyone around him. In the central section is a secret and hidden copy of the Ark of the Covenant, the original of which –legend has it – is in a church in the northern historical city of Aksum.

These boats are apparently unsinkable. But they also seem to not be completely floatable either

Exterior of a monestry in Bahir Dar


The Ark of the Covenant is one of those annoying religious myths that is taken so seriously but without any good reason. Nobody except the official keeper can know exactly what the Ark is, although legend has it that it’s the Ten Commandments engraved on stone tablets that God gave to Moses on Mount Sinai to bring to the people. The keeper spends his life guarding the Ark and when he dies another guardian in found. Tradition states that a copy of the Ark is held in all Ethiopian Christian Orthodox churches – nobody except for the priest in each church gets to see these copies but they are held very sacred and paraded around hidden inside a box at religious ceremonies.  No-one knows for sure whether the Ark actually exists – except the guardian. However to create the copies, surely at least one copier must have seen the original? And he, or they, might just have let it slip? Sounds like nonsense to me, but it keeps the pilgrims – and tourists – coming. In fact the Ethiopian Christians take it all extremely seriously and would be appalled to hear anyone questioning the Ark’s authenticity.

Monestry interior and art

Our second monastery wasn’t entirely different from the first, and soon we were off to our third. Although we weren’t, as our driver just took us back but no one could be bothered to complain. In the afternoon, encouraged by our cheap flight we’d booked in Addis, we bought two more £30 flights that would save us enough time to allow us to get to another of Ethiopia’s most important historical cities, Aksum, as well as Gonder and Lalibela.

In the evening we ate for the second time at an excellent restaurant called Wude Coffee that was full of trendy and affluent locals, and yet was unbelievably cheap. Two huge meals, two first-class beers, a big bottle of water and a generous tip for under £3 – it makes Nepal seem dear. We then took a tuk-tuk with three lads from our boat trip – a Brit and two South Africans – to a Balageru Club, which turned out to be one of the most fun nights of entertainment we’d had in Africa.

Balageru clubs are where the locals let their hair down, have a few drinks, a sing-song and a laugh. The size of a small pub, everyone is crammed in, sitting wherever they can, while the entertainment is performed in a tiny slither of space in the middle of the room. A drummer on traditional cow-skin drums beats out dancey rhythms and man with a single stringed violin-type instrument with a cow-skin body walks around playing, while the hostess improvises a sung stand-up routine, taking the piss out of members of the audience to howls of infectious laughter. The second part of the fun is when the stringed fiddler and the drummer play and semi-professional dancers strut in the middle of the floor, inviting the audience (and especially us as the only faranji) to have a go. It was so packed that Lucy and I had to stand behind the bar, and so I got away without being dragged out to dance, but Lucy and the rest of the group took the humiliation for the team.

Balageru club and hands-on-hips traditional dancing

The Ethiopian dance is called itekta and is the most extraordinary dance I’ve ever seen – quite unlike anything else I can think of. In a way it is the opposite of the Irish river-dance, which is hands-on-hips but is all in the legs. The itekta is also usually performed with your hands on your hips or by your sides, but it is the torso that that does all the work. The shoulders, pecks and tummy all convulse and pulsate at great speed and rhythm as though an electric eel is trying to get out. It looks much easier that it is, as Lucy and the others discovered. All Ethiopian pop videos use this dancing, usually with the performers in traditional outfits stood in damp fields that look like valleys of Wales, but the videos make for compulsive viewing. Here’s a few of short clip offs of YouTube to give you a taster: and and

The wonder of Gonder

We headed four hours north around the lake to Gonder in a shared taxi / minibus, where we later discovered we’d paid over the odds for the ride again. Gonder is home to some incredible 17th Century castles, palaces and churches. It’s a big city of over 200,000, with plenty of young hustlers on the street who will follow you, trying to spark up conversation and ultimately to ask you buy or give something to them.

The Royal Enclosure is the pearl in the crown of Gonder; a walled enclosure housing grand castles, churches, banqueting halls and other housing for the Royal entourage. The biggest buildings look not unlike British castles, and have been well maintained.

Castles and palaces at Gonder

As we were leaving we happened upon a pop video being filmed in front of the biggest castle. We had seen in cafes and bars at least another couple of videos set in exactly the same spot, so they clearly felt there was appetite for one more. The music is quite good – a bouncy bass and dancey beat, and is somehow melodic without having any discernible tune.

Pop video at Gonder castles being filmed

We then got a tuk-tuk out of town to the Debre Berhan Selassie Church, one of Ethiopia’s most famous. The tiny church has displayed some excellent religious art and the ceiling depicts one of the country’s most famous paintings, which adorns posters, t-shirts and postcards – around 135 cherub faces, painted in the traditional Ethiopian manner.

The ceiling of the church

And soon our time was up in the city and we were Gonder to the northern town of Aksum, right near the Eritrea border.




Aksum, on the whole, was a quieter city that felt a lot less hassle to wander about than the previous places we’d so far visited in Ethiopia. Despite this we were still given the hard sell by the guide at our hotel to do a tour of the sights in a day-trip for an extortionate 1200 birr (£43). We got him to knock a third off his price but then cancelled altogether when we discovered that it would cost just a few quid each to find an independent guide ourselves.

Aksum abounds with historical mystery and intrigue. Not only is it meant to be home to the Ark of the Covenant, which resides within the St Mary of Zion church compound – the home of Orthodox Christianity for Ethiopians, but it was also meant to be the Queen of Sheba’s home. Its most famous sites, however, are magnificent granite stelae columns, which date back as far as the 4th Century.

We began our visit at the stelae field, which at first glance looks slightly odd and underwhelming, surrounded by local houses and the general hustle and bustle of everyday life. Our guide soon brought them to life though by taking us on a tour of the monoliths that range from 1m to 33m in height, with more than 120 located in one field. He explained that although their history and meaning were still not entirely clear they dated back to pagan times and most marked tombs.

Stelae field at Aksum

The stelae themselves were carved with amazing skill to feature doors and windows – almost like an ancient tower block. They looked strangely modern, but the granite used to make them came from a quarry 4km away and they would have been moved by rollers and elephants – no mean feat.

Three stelae stood out: the first was 33m high but had collapsed and broken into pieces during erection, and still lay as it had fallen, on top of an impressive tomb not unlike those in Egypt’s Valley of the Kings. The second, King Ezana’s Stelae at 24m, had amazingly been used by pagans as an altar for making sacrifices but had also since been embraced by the Orthodox Church for use in their celebrations. The third, the Rome Stelae, at nearly 25m had been shipped to Rome on Mussolini’s orders when Italy briefly and fairly unsuccessfully tried to colonise Ethiopia in 1937, but it was then returned in 2008 was reinstalled in time for the millennium celebrations. No, I’ve not got my sums wrong but a bizarre quirk of the Orthodox Christian calendar in Ethiopia is that they have a 13th month of 5-6 days each year so they in fact are currently 7.5 years behind the Western world, and are slipping further behind each year. This weirdness made buying bus tickets quite confusing as they were dated for 2004 – meaning we’d already missed them by 7.5 years!

A fallen stele

Ethiopian time is also very unusual. Their time is represented by however many hours it is past sunrise or sunset, so if the sunrises at 6am and it’s now two hours later the times is 2am. And if the sun sets at 6pm and the time is 10pm it is 4pm in Ethiopian time. Luckily for tourists they tend to write bus tickets and the like in western time.

After the excitement of the monoliths and tombs we dropped into to a small museum which helped bring the whole story to life. However, what really made Aksum even more engaging for me was a trip to the St Mary of Zion church complex to see the transition of worship from the times of the stelae and pagans to modern day fervent Christian Orthodoxy. Seeing how the move from one to the other when Christianity reached Ethiopia in the 4th Century, and how it’s still such a hugely significant part of the daily life of Ethiopians today, is quite overwhelming. When we arrived at the church complex mass was taking place and there were hundreds of worshippers around, kneeling and kissing the floor and the gate, asking for alms, and generally looking like they could be on a film set as extras in an Old Testament classic. For the people in the church there was no doubt in their minds that the Ark of the Covenant was housed in their town and it had genuine meaning and relevance to their daily life, it wasn’t just some sort of historical fable.

Inside the church complex there was one old church which men only could visit (frustratingly a few of the religious sites weren’t open to women in Ethiopia) – I saw Marcus’s photos and it looks incredibly underwhelming inside; as with most Ethiopian churches their best features are external. A newer church was built in the 1960s by Haile Selassie which was impressive, although more for being so well used than for being an amazing building with fantastic art. There was also the Chapel of the tablet that houses the Ark of the Covenant, which only the guardian priest is allowed to enter.

Illuminated manuscript inside the new St. Mary of Zion church (the man makes his living from the tips received for opening the book)

The Ark of the Covenant is apparently in this building

We topped off our visit with a trip to a local eatery that was hotly tipped by some friendly Americans. From outside it looked like a butchers, but after viewing the meat you could walk round the back and sit under a tin roof on little chairs and enjoy a draft St George beer and some fresh tibs (lamb or beef grilled over charcoal in a clay dish and served on a hot-coal burner with a spicy sauce and of course injera). The rain hammering onto the shack roof and the bloody apron of the butcher/waiter, fresh from cutting the meat, made for an atmospheric dinner that was also some of the best local food we’d tasted.

Tibs and beer straight from the butcher



The cheap flights enabled us to reach Lalibela from Aksum in just over an hour, instead of the 1-2 day trip it would have taken by bus. Lalibela is home of Ethiopia’s most famous attractions, and the most important must-see place on any tourist’s trip. We drove from the airport through beautiful and lush fertile green fields, climbing higher and higher up to a plateau where the town sits at 2630m.

The town was nothing like we imagined – we were expecting a large town swarming with tourists and with plenty of businesses pandering to tourists’ needs. But it is in fact just a small and normal Ethiopian town, which just happens to have in and around it some of the most incredible and religiously important  buildings ever constructed. Being at relative altitude Lalibela suffers more from the rainy season than elsewhere we’d visited, and most days it drizzled between the ferocious downpours; only occasionally we were treated to some glorious warm sunshine that gave some clue when the clouds cleared as to what the stunning scenery that surrounds it is like for ten months of the year.

Lalibela – seemed always to be raining or wet from the rain

Lalibela is also the hassle capital of Ethiopia and you can’t walk for two minutes without a teenage boy sidling up and trying to engage you in a conversation that you will find yourself repeating almost identically ten or more times a day. The conversation always starts either with a cheerful ‘Hi, can I help?’ or ‘Hi, where are you going?’. They will then follow you and ask the same well-rehearsed questions, and will just talk over you if you are deep in conversation. The chat always then ends with the a request for something: money for a football, money for a dictionary, spare clothes, a tip for showing you to where you were going anyway, or come to my house for coffee and bring us a present.  I began to just provide in one long stream the answers to the questions that would inevitably come: hello my name is Marcus and hers is Lucy we’re from London England I support Man United my favourite player is Giggs and yes Rooney is great we’re in Lalibela for three days and in Ethiopia for two weeks and both are very nice. That would usually work. Or another popular opener is them offering to name the capital city of any European country, as they know them all. Except for Montenegro, Macedonia and Liechtenstein, I found to my delight.

We bought our 5-day pass for the historical church sites but the torrential rain, and the fact that oddly the sites close at lunchtime for an hour, meant we didn’t get much site-seeing done.

In the evening we met up with a couple of nice guys from Tottenham who we’d met at the airport.  One works for our local council in London and explained that he could be a useful contact once we’re back in Harringey, and the other was his brother-in-law who was Ethiopian but had lived in London for years. We met in the local tej house, which is the Ethiopian take on a pub – but one that specialises in tej, the homebrew honey-wine. The tej is sold in three strengths, and is pretty good – not too sweet, but one science-lab flask full is about enough. As there were so few people it was inevitable that we would be dragged up to dance badly and be laughed at, and that the wag wandering about playing the musical instrument (the masengo) would crack a few gags at our expense. 

Flasks of tej

Look – Lucy is actually taller than someone!! But can’t shake her shoulders quite as quick

We tried to get round more churches the next day, but again the rain and the resulting slipperiness of the cobbled and muddy streets, meant that our enthusiasm levels weren’t peaking and we once again didn’t see as much as we could have. However we got to see enough of the eleven churches to understand why it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and one of the most important Orthodox Christian sites in the world. The churches are amongst the most amazing structures I have ever seen – they are completely, gob-smackingly incredible feats of engineering and workmanship. Rather than take the easy and customary option of building a church on the ground with bricks or stone,  they instead seemed to have considered what the most problematic and challenging way of building a church could be, and so decided to chisel their churches deep into the granite bedrock as vast underground monolithic caverns.

Interior of church dug out of the ground

Steps of a church

The churches are almost a thousand years old and due to the durable nature of granite are generally in very good nick, with the detailed carving well preserved, although the interiors have none of the grandeur of the exteriors; the insides of most of the churches look like un-kept church halls, with badly laid carpet and Christian paintings of varying quality propped up on the floor looking like they are waiting to be hung.


We went back to the tej house the next evening, this time with a bigger group of people we’d met including an American couple who we’d met in Aksum. The bar was packed, which meant that attention from the comedian/musician was diluted amongst the crowd, but it also meant that when the comedian came over to crack few jokes about us as the only faranji in the house he brought the house down with roars of laughter from the audience. You can only grin and bear it, not having a clue who or what the joke was about. Only Lu got picked on this time to dance, and dragged up in front of everyone – and I think was beginning to get the hang of it by now.

On our final day in Lalibela we made sure we got to see the remainder of the monolith churches, and were blessed with much more favourable weather – bar just the one huge downpour. We had left the best til last – the Church of Saint George (their Patron saint too) was the last of the eleven churches to be built, and is the most impressive. In the shape of a cross, the building is dug 30-meters deep, and has no barriers – rope or otherwise – between you and the drop down to it’s surrounding trench. There can be little doubt that tourists at some point have taken a step back too far for a photo and fallen, or toddlers or dogs have wandered off the edge and perished, but there are no danger warnings at all. The church’s surroundings are also the most impressive, and even the late shower couldn’t reduce appreciation of its stunning setting.

St. George’s church

St George’s church – dug and chiseled out the ground from above

Church-goers leave a service



The fact that we would be home and back to reality in a matter of days had been looming over us for a while, but we still didn’t seem to have time for it to properly sink in or effect us. We were still savouring every day, and appreciating how Ethiopia – almost more than any other country we’d visited – has so much to take in and is so different to normal UK life that you can’t help but value each day, even if it was largely spent shaking off beggars and hasslers, and sheltering from the rain.

We flew back to Addis the next morning and checked into our final hotel of the whole trip – and the last of probably 150 or more places we had stayed. It was a significant one too – Addis’, and possibly Ethiopia’s, oldest hotel. It was over-priced and was clearly trading off its historical tag, and even though it was our final night we hadn’t lose the relative value of things, and when they tried to mess us about by upgrading us to a room with three beds we asked instead to be downgraded and ended up in a simple box room with a broken telly and a stinky bathroom with no toilet seat. It somehow seemed fitting for our final night.

The hotel is in the central Piazza district, which has a great buzz about it. We headed off with a Kiwi girl we’d met to do some last-minute shopping, and stopped by the country’s most famous and best coffee shop to sample and buy their best coffee. Needless to say, the coffee was outstanding – and still dirt cheap compared to UK prices.

Addis: with Jay-Jay the Kiwi girl and our self-appointed guide who followed us round for the afternoon (before asking for a tip)

Our hotel’s best feature was its restaurant, which attracted (wealthy) locals as well as tourists, and although it was three times the price of everywhere else we still had to remind ourselves that its filling and delicious meals were still only £3 each. They also served all the missing beers I’d not yet managed to try, which helped confirm Ethiopia our our world champion beer country.

To our pleasant surprise the American couple we’d met in the historical sites turned up out the blue and so with them, the Kiwi and a few others we watched the opening ceremony at 11pm, although we needed to get up at 2.30am to fly home. It was too mesmerising a ceremony to leave but by the time the Guam team had appeared for their procession, at around 1am, we decided to try and get 90 minutes kip before our cab was due to pick us up. I set our alarm and tried to sleep, but realised I just wouldn’t be able. However after a while of lying awake I just remember having the clear realisation thought that it felt like more than an hour and a half’s time had passed. I checked our clock and we’d somehow slept through our alarm by an hour.

The Last Supper: a chicken wat (‘ a chicken what?’ i hear you ask) with a boiled egg

Watching the Olympics opening ceremony an hour and a half before we needed to get up for our flight

It meant that the final moments of our eight-and-a-bit months away were spent in a panicked flap, stuffing things into our rucksacks for the final time and running out to find our cab had come and gone. He returned ten minutes later, and once we were speeding through the dark, damp and empty streets of Addis at 3.30am I felt confident that we’d make our flight, no problem. Lu’s demeanor suggested she thought otherwise. We arrived at check-in with a little under an hour to go, and although the check-in lady gave us a ticking off for being late it meant we could coast through with no queue to the boarding gate and still had plenty of time to spare – there’s a lot to be said for being very late -but not too late – for an international flight.

Homeward bound…

The emotion of it being the end of the best eight months of our lives only really hit home once we landed. But thankfully all too soon we were preoccupied with meeting Lu’s parents and me trying to comprehending how a bus from Heathrow to Cambridge can cost £35 one-way. Within no time and everything that happened on our trip became memories.






Gone to Uganda

4 Aug

We arrived in Uganda’s main airport town Entebbe late at night and bedded down in a dorm for a night’s sleep ready for the excitement of a new country. I began my first chat with a fellow dorm-mate in the usually friendly fashion – where are you from?, where have you been? etc but had a response that was a change from the norm. He was an Indian soldier working as a UN peacekeeper in South Sudan. Suddenly in comparison the story of how we’d spent our last seven months seemed a little less worthwhile.

Entebbe itself is a pleasant if unremarkable town so the next morning we jumped in a minibus for the 40km trip to the capital, Kampala. The city has a nice buzz and people are friendly, although it isn’t at all pretty. We wandered through the office workers as they headed for a drink or home on a Friday night, before catching Murray win the Wimbledon semi-final in nail-biting fashion. Then next morning we caught the 7am Post Bus, which delivers not just post but passengers as well, to Kabale – the gateway to Lake Bunyonyi.

Bus-window traders jostle for business

Lake Bunyonyi

Another early start and a long ten-hour bumpy journey and we were in Kabale where we shared an overloaded taxi with four Germans to the lakeside. We caught a slow motorboat over the eerily still lake waters, passing isolated farmhouses on the steep green surrounding slopes,  to a little island called Itambira which would be our home for a couple of days.  The Byoona Amagara lodge was a beautiful place – ‘geodomes’ (basically open-fronted wicker huts) looked out over the stunning lake and it was all very ethical – all electricity was solar-powered, there was a library and education centre for locals kids, eco-friendly compost toilets, a restaurant/bar serving fresh local food including crayfish from the lake, and dugout canoes you could rent for the day to explore the surroundings.

Dugout canoeing on Lake Bunyonyi

Open-fronted Geodome rooms, with private balcony

The atmosphere was quiet and chilled. The wildlife made fantastic company – the birds were exotic and tuneful and the insect noises rose to a crescendo as the sun went down. Even the showers were open-topped and afforded stunning views across the lake.  It was like staying in a plush eco-resort but at the budget price of a tenner each a night. We took advantage of the peace and quiet to make plans for the rest of our time in Uganda.

View from our Geodome room of Lake Bunyonyi

Finding gorillas, and avoiding guerrillas

Before arriving in Uganda we’d already decided that, although we’d love to, tracking mountain gorillas was beyond our budget because $500 a permit was probably too much, but the new price of $750 was definitely out of our reach. We had also heard that July was peak season so as there were less than 60 permits available per day these were snapped up months in advance.  However, after chatting to a few people we heard that the price had only gone up to $750 in Rwanda, but we also were told so many positive stories from other travellers who had done it that we thought we’d put in a call in to the Wildlife Trust to just check it was impossible.

With a stroke of luck we managed to get two cancelled gorilla permits for five days’ time, and suddenly it seemed too good an opportunity to refuse. We just had the small problem of finding $1000 cash and travelling to Kisoro, at least 2.5 hours away before they were sold to someone else – we hadn’t realised just how tall an order this would prove to be. The challenge was also made a bit more risky when we chatted to some American volunteers who told us that the town we had to collect the permits from was only 5km from the DRC border town that had just been conquered by Congolese rebels who had overthrown the DRC army – and they’d heard gunshots from the town a few nights before.

More than a little hesitantly we left our island by boat before sharing a taxi to Kabale. Next we tried five bank’s ATMs before discovering that the only one working would only give us about £60 each a day. The newspaper articles discussing the DRC conflict just across the border made it seem too close for comfort, however, we still decided it was worth doing by resorting to Western Union who offer ‘money in minutes’ – but obviously at an inflated cost. Unfortunately the ‘minutes’ turned to hours so we had to spend a night in Kabale before we secured the money the next morning.


The next morning we travelled to Kisoro by shared taxi with an enormous wodge of cash in Marcus’ money belt for the permits. It wasn’t a surprise to find that we were to squeeze in the normal-sized car with six others – four in the back and, more concerningly, four in the front with a passenger sharing the driver’s seat. There were also giant sacks of maize hanging out of the boot, and the combination of all this overloading unsurprisingly led to a puncture and a half hour delay while the tyre was replaced. Marcus said the tyre they removed was the baldest and most cracked he’d ever seen, which just brings home how dangerous road travel is in Africa.

Four in the front, four in the back

Worse still was the police stop where we learnt that on the road ahead there was a serious road traffic accident where one of the coaches carrying the refugees from DRC into Uganda had crashed, and that they expected numerous fatalities.

As we neared the crash site I hid my eyes but the locals who were sharing the car wanted a closer look so we made a 20min stop for them to ogle at it. They joined a crowd of a couple of hundred all battling for a good view on the hillside. A little later we passed the convoy of refugee coaches coming the other way – a convoy that was one coach fewer than when it left. It made us feel massively uncomfortable, being in a dodgy overloaded car driving along bumpy mountain lanes, and then later on the outskirts of Kisoro we felt even worse as we passed a huge refugee camp housing thousands of Congolese in white tents.  It seemed a bit in bad taste to be a tourist so close to people who were suffering so much.

Crowd gathers on grassy bank to watch bus crash

Refugee camp

We paid for the tickets in Kisoro then jumped straight back into another shared taxi to head back to Kabale – this time the journey was luckily less dramatic and we made it back an hour quicker. We had a quiet evening in Kabale then the next morning headed back to Lake Bunyoni for 24-hours of R&R, ready to return to Kisoro once again the following day to collect our gorilla permits. I spent the whole time being obsessed about not getting a cold that could be passed on to the apes – if you’re ill, you’re out; not only that but you only get half of your money back.

Pineapple bikes in Kabale

Gorilla tracking

On the morning of our trip to Bwindi Impenetrable Rainforest to meet our distant relatives we were up at 5am in the dark, after lengthy power-cuts the night before and a shower with bare wires that gave electric shocks as you turned it on. We grabbed some breakfast and got a bone-rattling taxi along a rocky ascending track for just under two hours as the sun slowly rose above the dramatic scenery of mist-clad mountains and valleys that looked a bit like I imagine the hills in Transylvania. We arrived in Rushaga where we received our briefing from the national park guides and met the six other gorilla-trackers as well as our armed guard (for the aggressive Mountain Elephants that roam the rainforest, not the gorillas) and the professional trackers who kept tabs on the gorillas’ movements each day and went ahead to find them.

Sunrise on way to see gorillas in the mist

We set off, climbing up a steep hillside, then hit the park boundaries where the vegetation changed suddenly from agricultural land to a rainforest with thick vegetation. At first there were paths to follow – albeit quite testing ones at steep gradients criss-crossed with tree roots. But, after we’d been walking for nearly three hours our guides got a radio message from the trackers. They’d located the gorilla group! So we took a turning off-piste and our guides hacked through shoulder-high vegetation with their scythes and machetes as we tried to keep upright, struggling against the uneven ground, the vines that wound around your ankles and biting safari ants that stung to buggery. Luckily it only took about 15 minutes of off-road hacking before we were told to get ourselves prepared, leave all bags and were reminded never to run if the gorillas charged – just stand upright and still and do not let the animals sense fear. Easier said than done.

Getting closer…

There’s one!! Oh no, it’s just an unshaven Marcus

The presiding feeling I had when I first came face to face with the gorillas was how surreal the whole experience was. It was bizarre to be in close proximity to such amazing animals in their own habitat, so much so that it almost seemed not to be a real experience. I couldn’t stop thinking of the man in the gorilla suit in the Cadbury’s advert playing Genesis on the drums, and realised that his gorilla suit was very lifelike!  I was expecting the gorillas to all be on the ground but the majority were sat on branches up in the trees. The more you looked the more of them you could see – from huge ones that looked like they would break the branches with their weight to baby ones too cute to be true. Some of the funniest sights were watching the gorillas slide down the tree-trunks like they were fireman’s poles, grabbing on with their long furry arms with bark, leaves, branches and moss flying off at all angles as they slid.

I can see you!

The Silverback is much closer than he looks!

You only get to spend an hour with the gorillas, which near the end is counted down minute-by-minute, as though you are renting a pedallo. The most impressive sight was the giant silverback who we edged ever closer to but he soon got annoyed and moved away, and on two occasions he lost his patience and let out a spine-chilling gigantean roar (which was rather like an amplified dog dark). I think my fear must have been visible as the guide whispered at me to stand still and relax. To be honest when a 220kg mass of seething male gorilla stands up and raises his long arms and roars at you it’s not that easy to relax. I also found it a bit unnerving that the guides knew there were 28 gorillas in the group but as we all starred at the giant silverback we weren’t really watching out for the others – what if they crept up behind us?

It was all over far too soon and we began the hard trek back. Luckily in our group were a British couple who had been living in Dar es Salaam for a couple of years so the interesting conversation, as well as the stunning scenery, helped the time sail past. We didn’t even get that much rain in the rainforest – just misty views of green lush hills, slightly reminiscent of Nepal but without the snow-capped peaks.



Kisoro to Kampala to Entebbe

Our primate encounters had only just begun – we were due to head back to Entebbe to volunteer in a wildlife sanctuary on our final full day in Uganda. The following morning we took a big bus back to Kampala – a ride that was meant to take eight hours but took 11, not helped by several police stops – and had lunch from traders selling ‘maize’ (corn-on-the-cobs), samosas, nuts and water through the bus window. The maize looks much more appetising than it tastes – it’s grilled straight onto hot coals without boiling first so it’s chewy beyond belief and leaves your jaw muscles aching.

We met a nice young chap called Godfrey on the bus who had spent the whole journey reading the Bible. He helped us in Kampala weave our way through the Indian-esque busy streets from the bus terminal to the minibus terminal, which is just a huge bumpy expanse of dirt with thousands of minibuses packed in with seemingly no space to move. It was the last we would see of Kampala, a surprisingly enjoyable city – the nicest of all the African capitals we’ve visited, and also the safest. Godfrey probably saved us a good hour by finding us our minibus, but the bus gods were not on our side, and the short 45-minute hop took over double that. After a posh and excellent Indian meal we had an early night ready for our early start as zoo keepers.

Lucy, Godfrey and a stranger in Kampala

Volunteering at Entebbe Wildlife Education Centre

A Swede we met in Mozambique said he’d had his most enjoyable experience in Africa (more so even than gorilla tracking) volunteering to be ‘Keeper For The Day’ at the Entebbe Wildlife Education Centre, a world-class wildlife sanctuary where they rescue and rehabilitate wild animals and educate visitors about animal conservation and the like. It is quite different from a zoo as the animals have huge fields to run about it, and cages are only used for a few of the animals when feeding and at bedtime. The cost of volunteering was $150 each, but I explained the gorillas had rather blown our budget, and asked if we could do it for $100 each, which they thankfully agreed to.

We were asked to arrive at 8am, and caught a boda-boda (motorbike taxi) to arrive bang on time. Unfortunately it seems that the centre is run on ‘African time’, and the place hadn’t even opened when we got there. When staff started rolling up it didn’t seem anyone was expecting us. While we waited we got chatting to an English medical student who was volunteering in a hospital in Uganda, and she said that African timekeeping was even the norm in hospital where doctors would regularly turn up an hour or more late for surgery, and would take their tea-break on cue even if a patient is waiting for pain relief.

Boda-boda ride

Eventually someone arrived who knew that we were coming, and once we were decked out in zoo-keeper overalls we were put under the command of one of the nicest people we have met in Africa, a gentle and very interesting man called Nicholas. We were prepared to do some dirty work, and so dirty work we did – our first job was to shovel rhino shit and rake their bedroom cages clean. More shit-shovelling followed, this time the big cats. They have one lion, two lionesses, a leopard and a couple of wild cats. Each lion was moved along a cage while we cleaned each vacated cage, hoping that Nicholas had properly secured the connecting gates. We scrubbed their cages clean of poo and fly-infested meat remnants as they watched on occasionally making their ultra-deep bassy growl. The male lion’s cage is next to the hyenas’ field, and one of the hyenas seemed to enormously enjoy winding up the lion nose-to-nose through the fence, which brought fantastic full-on roars of anger from the lion.

Shovelling rhino shit

My interest in this on-going neighbourly tiff prompted Nicholas to suggest we next clean out the hyenas’ drinking pond, and he just opened the gate and walked into their field. We asked if they weren’t going to be moved to a cage while we worked, but apparently these hyenas –although capable of biting through a human thigh-bone – are scared of humans and so they kept their distance. It was an unnerving experience having deadly wild animals running loose just metres away, but Nicholas exuded such infectious calm that it wasn’t at all scary. However, Lucy didn’t trust the hyenas, which she counts as her least favourite creature in the animal kingdom, and so edged back to the gate at the first opportunity.

In the hyena cage

After chopping enormous mounds of veg for the herbivores, grabbing great wodges of raw meat from the freezer for the crocs and big cats and long grass rhinos we jumped on the back of the tractor trailer and set off to a big field occupied by giraffes, ostriches, buffalos and antelopes. As we unlocked the gates and drove into the field, the animals started to follow first slowly and then picking up to a jog, until we arrived at their feeding station, where visitors on the other side of the fence can observe the feeding frenzy. Before we had ground to a halt the enormous ostriches were already trying to peck at the supplies, and the giraffes arrived soon after sniffing round us. Nicholas encouraged us to let the giraffes feed from our hands, which was a strange and unsettling experience as their big, wet, dark pointed tongues, like aliens’ tentacles, flick around your palm picking up up every last pellet. Even more disturbing was letting the giraffes eat a banana from our mouths and Lucy took a few goes before trusting the giraffe enough not to give her a big hairy kiss on the lips.

Lu’s uneasy as giraffes home-in on their grub

The face says it all (Lu’s, not the giraffe’s)

Feeding banana from the gob

We moved on to feed the White Rhinos, who were surprisingly tame – apparently only because they knew it was feeding time. They just got an unappetising pile of long grass and tree cuttings, but it seemed to be a tasty feast to them. After that was a field with more ostrich, zebra, water-buffalo and warthogs. Seeing the latter close up just confirmed that they must surely be the ugliest creatures on Earth. To end the morning we then scattered chunks of carrot and other veg for a range of antelope, including the Ugandan national animal, a kind of antelope.

With white rhinos

Over a very traditional lunch in the staff canteen of posho (mashed-potato-esque ground maize), matoke (mashed plantain, and the superior of the two mashes), pureed beans and chicken stew, we had a very interesting chat with Nicholas about the state of Uganda today. Nicholas seemed to have analysed very clearly the faults and problems facing the country and what needs to be done to remedy them (in a nutshell, start to eradicate the culture of corruption, and invest in education), and so we ended lunch trying to encourage him to go into politics. Unfortunately he’s probably just too nice a guy to succeed in African politics – a shame as the country is most definitely missing out.

The afternoon was much more like a behind-the-scenes tour than work, so we saw Lauren the crocodile, who had been captured after eating seven people, who refused her food as her pool water had been changed, which upsets her temperature. We then went to meet a 250lb boa constrictor, who was big enough to eat a human. As a crowd gathered at the glass screens I was invited into the enclosure to drape the snake around my neck, and then after a five-second briefing was told to grab the beast by the throat, but to be sure not to let it face me or it would bite my face off. The power and strength of the snake was incredible – as it moves in your arms and tries to constrict you, you can feel the rippling muscles contract through its cold scaly skin like a champion weight-lifter trying to give you a headlock.

With Robert, boa constrictor and Nicholas

We visited the chimps next, who are the most interesting creatures of the lot. They have a large island to lark about on (they can’t swim due to having no body fat, and so won’t breach the moat), and are just incredibly watchable. My money-spinning idea is to launch ‘Chimp TV’, with 24-hour live footage of a bunch of chimps chimping about.

Observing them interact it’s easy to believe that they are our closest living relative – that is until feeding time. They know when it’s time, and gather round the gate before being let along a fenced tunnel to a huge concrete-walled cage where they find an assorted array of vegetables and eggs spread around. As they get in the cage the most ear-piercing racket erupts as they fight for the food. The frenzied and manic screeching, screaming and rattling of the cages, all echoed and amplified by the concrete walls, brings home how big a difference those few percent of DNA that we have different to them can make.

After feeding the lions and giving the rhinos their dinner we were off, having had one of the most interesting and rewarding days of the whole trip.


The following morning we visited Entebbe’s botanical gardens on the banks of Africa’s biggest lake, Lake Victoria. At one point I encroached a little too close upon group of blue-bollocked vervet monkeys, and with a flash of facial signals to each other they suddenly ganged up around me, with about six or seven of them surrounding me and making grabbing motions at my legs. I was very concerned about getting a scratch off one and having to fly home for a rabies jab, and so tried to fend them off with a flip-flop and some shouted industrial language. The little buggers were only a foot tall, but were menacing little devils who properly got my adrenalin pumping. However, I slipped out a gap in their circle and retreated to my oblivious girlfriend who had wandered off and was wondering why I was now sweating.

Blue-bollocked monkey

Tall palm trees (see Marcus as scale)

Then it was time to leave Uganda, probably our favourite African country so far. The people are so genuinely friendly and cheerful, and the country is beautifully lush and green, not to mention packed full of rare and fascinating primates. As we left we saw a tourism advert for the country that proudly stated that Lonely Planet has apparently named it ‘tourism destination of the year’. And so say all of us!


For more photos of Uganda click here.

For beer reviews of Uganda click here.

Topping up tans in Tanzania

29 Jul

First of all, it seems all other nations except for us Brits have got the name of the country wrong – it’s not Tanzania, but Tanzania.

As a condition of me getting an emergency passport we had to nominate to the High Commission in Malawi a maximum of five countries that I can visit on the passport, and give an itinerary with flight confirmations. This required us to plan, for the first time in Africa, a strict onward schedule, which also made us realise that we didn’t have much time left, and our relaxed travelling through the continent so far meant we would have to prioritise our last few weeks and rush them a bit too. Tanzania isn’t cheap to travel around, which helped force our hand and made us prioritise Zanzibar as our sole destination for the country.  The Serengeti and Kilimanjaro would have to wait.

Mzuzu to Mbeya

Our journey from the Mzoozoozoo Backpackers Hostel in Mzuzu, Malawi, to Mbeya in Tanzania took 10 hours in two minibuses but was only 360-ish kilometres, so we travelled at an average of 36kmph. And it wasn’t for slow driving – quite the opposite, some of the time – but was just due to the occasional breakdown and long and multiple stops picking people up and tying their random goods to the roof or, when there seemed there was no more space, squeezing more sacks of maize or boxes of fish under passengers’ feet. The second mini-bus ride was significant only because it was the first time in all of our time in Africa, over many dozens of mini-bus rides, that fellow muzungus (white people) had boarded the same bus as us.

Mbeya to Dar

Our arrival in the dark at the bus station of Tanzania’s third largest city Mbeya brought about one of the least pleasant experiences of our trip so far. Darkness in Africa is particularly dark, as there are virtually no street lights, and our guidebook had warned us to be careful around Mbeya’s bus station. As soon as the driver switched off the engine a group of dodgy men approached all offering ‘help’ to find us somewhere to stay or for bus tickets to Dar es Salaam for the next day, both of which we needed. We said we didn’t need help as we had somewhere nearby in mind to stay but they followed us there and stood in reception as we discovered it was full and, when we didn’t know what to do, led us to their ‘friend’s’ place nearby, where they clearly would earn some kind of a cut.

It was an absolute hole – possibly a brothel – and the men even followed us into our room, still giving the banter about what a nice place it was. We just needed a moment alone to think but they wouldn’t get out, so I actually had to feign the need for a poo, just so they would leave the room for a moment.  After very short consideration we decided to leave and went back to the bus station – with all the men surrounding us – to ask a taxi driver to drive us to a recommended hotel, but the men jumped ahead and spoke to the taxi man first who then told us he’d never heard of the hotel. Realising that even the taxi man was in on whatever scam we were being subjected to, we felt pretty helpless. It was getting late, so we tried another hotel nearby but again the men ran ahead and said something to the landlady, whose mood instantly changed and she indicated she didn’t want us there.

We decided instead to turn our attention to the bus ticket to Dar for the morning, which just made matters worse. Each of hanger-on men said that their friend’s company was the only reputable one and that the other actually only goes half the journey even though they tell you the bus goes all the way to Dar. We couldn’t tell who if anyone was telling the truth and we couldn’t move away to chat in private as the men kept re-congregating pressed up against us, grabbing us and babbling in our ears. We realised that aggravating the men – a few of whom stunk of booze – wasn’t a good idea, but we had to restrain ourselves from using the strongest form of industrial language to tell them to go away.

We gambled on one bus company, bought the ticket and then resigned ourselves to going back to their recommended shit-tip guesthouse in the knowledge that we would be out of there in seven hours to get the bus. Nothing electrical in the room worked and there were indescribable horrors smeared up the wall. It was however technically en-suite, but the bathroom with a hole-in the floor toilet had no light and a cold shower. Needing food, but not wanting to venture back to the bus station yet again, we bought some rather good hand-cut chips off the street, which are fried over a wood fire. The most shifty and drunk of the men later knocked on our door to ask for a tip (for harassing us for two hours?), which I was happy to give him to get rid of him. So before sleep we ended up sitting on the edge of the bed in our dank dark room eating chips out of a small plastic carrier bag with the background noise of drunk Rastas stumbling and shouting in the corridor. We double checked that our door was double locked.

On awaking at 5am we realised that the scammers may have had the last laugh as we saw our tickets were for a 12.30pm bus and not the 6am one we’d asked for. We got on the bus anyway and hoped for the best, and somehow we weren’t once asked to show our tickets the whole journey. We got the last seats on the back seat of the big bus and so bumped our way for 14 uncomfortable hours to Dar, sometimes bumping so high as to leave our seats completely.

The views along the way were stunning though, travelling through the dramatic Southern Highlands and then several hours later straight the way through the Mikuni National Game Park. The Park is one of Tanzania’s finest, and we saw dozens of giraffes, zebras, water buffalo, warthogs and antelope just at the side of the road. It was a like a frustrating safari: excellent Big Game, but conducted at 100kmph. Our driver only slowed down for the ten minutes or so that followed passing each road traffic accident, and there were many. One we passed had ended with a car on its roof in the middle of the Game Park – it’s never nice to roll your car, but it’s especially bad when there are lions, hyenas and elephants in the vicinity. Another accident held us up for nearly an hour, but as we passed the wreck of the car that had collided with a lorry I could see that onlookers/looters had completely stripped the inside of the car of everything– even the seats and steering wheel had been taken.

When we first arrived in Africa we couldn’t help but notice how women gracefully carry almost anything on their heads, hands-free – usually firewood, water, crops or shopping. But after a few weeks, so common is the sight of carrying things on heads that you begin not to notice. However, on arrival in Dar’s bus station we saw several women with nothing in their hands carrying their wheely-suitcases on their heads, perfectly naturally and perfectly balanced.

On the bus we had befriended a very kindly Afrikaans pastor called Pastor Gert (pronounced somewhere between ‘gert’ and ‘hurt’), who gave us a recommendation for a hotel in Dar right by the bus station. It was a good recommendation too, and with him and his Tanzanian business consultant, Godpeter, who was helping him buy a smallholding in the south of the country, we went out to grab some cheap street food.

Gert, as you might expect from a pastor, was deeply religious – blindly so, perhaps. I asked if living near Jo’burg ever made him feel in danger, and he said his wife did and took every precaution necessary, but he had ‘God on his side’ and so never felt at risk.

The four of us went to a street-food shack near the bus station and had some excellent barbequed beef kebabs and a kind of chip omelette, all of which was delicious and criminally cheap. After the meal we explained we needed to get to bed as we had another 5am start, and so Gert said a prayer for us before we left. It was one of our more unusual moments of the trip, as we sat heads bowed holding hands in a ring around a cheap plastic table in a food shack by Dar es Salaam’s bus station with a South African pastor asking God to look after Lucy and me for the rest of our trip. I was tempted to stop Gert half way through and say, this is too good not to document – I need a photo – and to ask another customer to get a snap. At least we don’t any longer need to be vigilant about our safety, as God’s been instructed to look after us.

Godpeter, Pastor Gert and Lucy in food shack by Dar bus station

Stone Town, Zanzibar

We were up before 5am the next morning and were surprised and touched that Gert had got up as well to see us off. We headed off to the port and got the 7am ferry – a nice and fast one – and arrived in Zanzibar two hours later. Stone Town, the heart of Zanzibar Town, is a maze of tall, thin roads and alleys that wind around each other like a pile of spaghetti, making it perfectly easy to get completely lost within minutes of leaving your abode. Its people are predominantly Muslim, so most men wear full length cotton smocks with decorative round hats, and the women are clothed head to toe, sometimes with faces covered too – yet some of their outfits are so sequinned, bright and bling that they almost look inappropriate.

Streets of Stone Town

Zanzibar has, for hundreds of years, been an important Arab trading point, and after Portuguese and then Omani rule became a centre of slave, gold, wood and ivory trades. It then became a British protectorate for a hundred years, then got independence for just six months before finally becoming part of Tanzania. With Arabic and European architecture, mosques, churches and a significant population of Indians who started arriving 400 years ago, as well of course as Africans, the island has a fascinating mixed culture and atmosphere unlike anywhere else I’ve been.

Wandering randomly through the streets and soaking up the spicy smells and the Afro-Indian-Euro-Arabic influences is brilliant and absorbing fun. The place isn’t as polished as similarly-structured towns like Cartagena in Colombia – many of the roads and buildings are in a state of disrepair, and there are great contrasts too; plush $1000-a-night 5-star hotels next to beggars sat under crumbling buildings. It was also the first place we’d been since Colombia where there were as many holidaymakers as there were backpackers.

On our first evening we went down to the seafront to eat at their famous night food market. Dozens of food stalls offer seafood and meat kebabs, ‘Zanzibar pizzas’ (a cross between an omelette and a pizza) and crepes, each selling similar produce and thus hawking desperately for trade. Everything is par-grilled and then displayed, and so you just pick up what you want and they then finish off the grilling job. Not the most hygienic system perhaps, but it cuts down the waiting time. We just went to the busy stalls where they had a quicker turnover of food, and survived without any tummy trouble. Freddie Mercury is Zanzibar’s most famous son, and so we honoured him afterwards with a couple of drinks in Mercury’s Bar, whilst listening to Queen songs on loop.

Seafood heaven – night food market

We were befriended by a local Rasta called Fisherman George, who at first described himself as a successful entrepreneur in the tourism trade, but we slowly discovered he was just a chancer, a low-level fixer for tourist trips. We allowed him to fix us up with a trip the next morning to Prisoner Island, only to then discover he’d slightly ripped us off, such is his job. After the buildings were finished, but before it actually became a prison, the island was used by the Brits as quarantine for people with the plague, cholera and other nasty tropical diseases. The prison building is now a restaurant, hotel and venue, with cells that have now become toilets, and toilets that have now become viewing platforms of the exquisite crystalline turquoise waters.

Site of the former prison toilets that dropped into the sea

The island’s most famous residents are now around 50 giant tortoises, which were a gift to the British from the Seychelles hundreds of years ago and subsequently bred on the island. Their numbers dwindled as people kept stealing them, presumably to show the gentry back in Europe what bizarre creatures exist in the Dark Continent, but they have since become protected within this sanctuary. They are very tame beasts, and instantly likeable. If you get your head – or camera – down to their level they will stroll over and have a look, with a funny old-man grin on their wrinkly faces. If you stroke their necks they stand up tall on their legs and stick their head up in thanks. The oldest resident is a 155 years old – their ages are helpfully painted on their backs – and he was a whopper; probably the size of a fairground bumper-car.

Giant tortoise on Prison Island

We then got dropped off at some decent coral for some snorkelling for an hour, and I got chatting to an English lady who teaches at a school in Dubai owned by the Royal family. She teaches Sheikh Mohammed’s kids, including his unofficial half-Filipino ones…

We headed back to Zanzibar for some lunch with an English couple of a similar age who were great company and were also taking a career break to go travelling. The fella, Chris, was a former youth team footballer with Newcastle United and England Under-17s, and we met up again later that night for rooftop drinks and dinner where I quizzed him about his time at Lileshallschool with Owen, Gerrard and Wes Brown.

On the way home we heard cheering by the seafront right by the old fort, and found that a large crowd of a few hundred people had formed along the road and were watching boy-racers taking it in turns to speed down the road and do handbrake turns, skids and wheelies on motorbikes and cars. They weren’t very good, and it was hard to see what the fuss was all about so we left them to it and wandered home though the maze-like streets having had an excellent Zanzibarian Saturday night.


We headed north the next morning to the beaches and to the supposedly young-people’s party place of Kendwa. We stayed in a backpackers place called Kendwa Rocks, which consisted of almost a village’s worth of huts, rooms and dorms, with the restaurant and bar on the beach.

Kendwa beach

The sand was probably the most powdery and white I’ve ever run my toes through (although it didn’t have the strange phenomenon of squeaking when you walked on it like in Tofo, Mozambique), and the water, whilst not as warm as the Philippines, was clean, turquoise and perfect for swimming.

We befriended an English girl called Amanda who was a diving instructor and had come to Zanzibar indefinitely, looking for work. The following day we had what I think is the only day so far on this trip spent entirely on the beach, lounging about, reading and sunbathing – and basically feeling like we were on holiday. In the late afternoon the beach is patrolled by Maasi people in traditional garb, who carry big sticks and look like they’ve walked out of a Bruce Parry documentary.

Maasi beach guards

We went with Amanda the following day on a snorkelling trip round the northern headland of Zanzibar to a tiny paradisiacal island called Mnemba, where you’re not actually allowed to set foot on solid ground unless you’re a paid-up resident of the private island’s $1400-a-night hotel. On the way we were accompanied for a few minutes by a shoal of dolphins (or are shoals just for fish?). A couple of them did the best out-of-water jumps and flips I’ve ever seen outside of Sea World.

Mnemba Island


The coral and fish were excellent, although we did get a few nips from small jellyfish (or ‘sea lice’ as they’re apparently known). Not everything on Zanzibar is perfect though, as three fellow passengers explained to Amanda; they had been mugged and the two girls groped at knife point the night before, in a small patch of unlit darkness on the beach.

Our nice and chilled boat people then barbequed a big tuna fish on the stunning beach of the nearby mainland, and then it was back to Kendwa where Lu and I went for a sunset jog to try and shake off our beach-bum lethargy.

Stone Town again

The next day held great significance for Lucy – July the 4th – as it is Independence Day for Americans, and she has once been to America. I later discovered it’s also her birthday. So we headed back to Stone Town the following morning and enjoyed a final day of more getting lost around the narrow alleys and shopping, before going out for a nice celebratory Indian meal in a posh hotel’s rooftop restaurant.

Stone Town fort

Roof-top bar in Stone Town

Then, all too soon, our time in Zanzibar and Tanzania was up. We were heading to Uganda on our first African flight. We had travelled thousands of miles overland by public transport through Africa, but with the end of the trip in sight – and the fact that my emergency passport wouldn’t allow me through Kenya by bus – we splurged on a flight to save two days travelling.

The taxi ride through Dar demonstrated what ‘gridlocked traffic’ really means. It means not moving for so long that everyone turns off their engines, and sits it out. Our flight took us via Rwanda for a few hours where they annoyingly confiscated all my batteries – and I had a lot of them. Batteries! How are you meant to hold up a plane with a AA Duracell??

Anyway, Uganda waits…


For photos of Zanzibar click here.

For beer reviews of Tanzania click here.

My, oh my, Malawi

15 Jul

Malawi to Tanzania

We awoke on our first morning in Malawi to prepare ourselves for the minibus trip to Zomba, and its main attraction, the Zomba Plateau. It was another bumpy, dusty and cramped ride and the few hours it took were interrupted by at least three police road-stops, one resulting in a hefty fine/bribe for over filling the bus, which sent the driver and his assistant into a gloomy silence for the rest of the trip. If the Mozambican police bribed every chapa for overcrowding they’d be millionaires!

Zomba struck us as a fairly non-descript dusty town on arrival. We turned down a taxi man’s extortionate quote for a ride to a place to stay on the plateau and then ignored his advice that to walk to a backpackers place in the town would take 40-minutes and a payment to him. We walked it ourselves in 15 minutes and befriended a couple of Belgian volunteers on arrival. Before long it was time to head for one of the few local bars to watch England play France. The Belgians tried to be interested, but weren’t really into it, however it was interesting to hear about their volunteering experiences, working in social projects including setting up chicken farms in local communities and working with locals to run backpacker lodges like the one we were staying in. Of all the travellers we’ve met in Africa, somewhere between a third and half are volunteers who are on a weekend break or short holiday. However, later in the evening the idea of volunteering suddenly seemed less appealing when a group of Dutch girls arrived at the lodge telling us a masked man wielding a machete had robbed them at their home in the community where they were volunteering. Luckily they escaped unharmed having lost only one bag of stuff.

Next morning we set off to trek up the Zomba Plateau, following the locals’ ancient Potato Path. It was steep, overgrown and we’d been warned of baboons on the path, but we arrived at the top to stunning views. A local guide, whose fees reflected his name – Cheapo -, gave us a tour of the highlights of the plateau for £2.50; waterfalls, shady fir-lined paths, a reservoir and viewpoints where we could see for miles. Before long darkness was setting in so we scrambled back down the path in half the time it took us to ascend.

Climbing Zomba Plateau

Cheapo and Marcus in the Afro-Alpine forest

Zomba kids

Next morning we set off north for Liwonde and Malawi’s most famous National Park, the Liwonde National Park. As the minibus pulled up in the tiny town we were picked up by people from our lodge in a great open-air safari Land Rover, only to then be dropped at a local bar whilst they did the shopping for dinner. Marcus seemed more than happy to have an excuse for a cheeky local Kuche Kuche beer and a chance to watch a replay of a Euros match. An hour and a half later they picked us up and we travelled out of the town and deeper and deeper into the African bush, becoming more and more remote, through villages where children waved, shouted hello and chased after us, until we arrived at Bushman’s Baobab, our safari lodge.

Kids chasing our jeep through the bush

The lodge was almost deserted of guests, but was a picture perfect representation of how I imagined an African safari lodge. Huts and shelters made from cane, reed and grass, showers and toilets without roofs so you could shower (or wee) watching the stars, wicker and carved wooden African furniture, a camp fire under the open starry-sky, no electricity (oil lamps after dark) and a wood-fire-heated boiler. Its owner was a very eccentric white Malawian guy with a posh British accent who started boozing at 10am and had a million interesting stories about light aircraft crashes he’d survived and near death experiences with elephants and hippos.
Our Liwonde experience made me feel like a colonial explorer – days spent on canoe and jeep safaris, spotting hippos, elephants, warthogs, baboons, antelope and kingfishers, before showering in the open air. Then gin and tonics around the camp-fire followed by a proper formal three-course dinner with the other three guests and the owner, served in the open air restaurant – some of the best meals we’d eaten in months, including a roast leg of lamb.

Liwonde National Park


Jeep safari

Impalas having a tender moment

From Liwonde we were to head north to Lake Malawi, but first we were given a lift by a lovely honeymooning Italian couple to a tiny town between Zomba and Liwonde where we’d been advised we could buy a traditional Malawian carved wooden ‘chief chair’ at a fraction of the coast of elsewhere in the country – we just hoped we could afford to post it home. Once we’d bought the chair and a small table we lugged it all onto another typical bumpy African bus ride – long, uncomfortable, but an experience etc etc. We arrived in Monkey Bay at the Lake in failing light just in-time to scramble aboard a rammed pick-up truck to make the final hour’s journey to Cape Maclear.

Waiting for a minibus

Waiting with Chief Chair for a minibus

Cape Maclear is a beautiful place, white sand, perfectly clear lake waters and a lazy relaxed atmosphere, it was just a shame that the soundtrack to the place was a constant chorus of ‘give me money’ from the local kids on the beach. The small dusty town is certainly on the tourist trail, but being Africa the tourist trail doesn’t have that many tourists, and so Cape Maclear is very much an African town with tourists, rather than a tourist town.

View from our beach hut door

Cape Maclear ducks

We spent three relaxed days strolling around the town and sitting on the beach, and we took a boat trip to snorkel with the brightly coloured endemic fish of the lake. It was strange to snorkel in fresh water, where there is no coral and little in the way of lake-bed dwelling life. However, presumably because there are no predators, the fish are amazingly tame. We even got to feed sea-eagles.



Hair today, almost completely gone tomorrow

I hadn’t been looking forward to having my hair cut in proper ‘black Africa’ (my last one was in Jo’burg by an Indian). The barber had a tiny cane shack where the floor was just an extension of the sandy road, and I realised my fears were warranted when I noticed the barber had to scissors. He looked lost and mystified with my strange hair as he just electrically clippered the whole lot, giving me an uneven brutal squaddie hairdoo with tufts sticking out here and there that Lu had to try and even out later with scissors. At least I’ll have time to grow it out.



leaving Cape Maclear

The few tourists we did meet were great company, including a Dutch/Swiss couple cycling their way around Malawi who we watched the Holland v Portugal match with and a group of three English girls and guy who joined us on our search for Bilharzia medicine once we learnt the idyllic lake actually harboured a dangerous parasite that could cause us kidney and bowel problems up to 30 years after leaving.

We meant to get up early to make the only ‘big bus’ to the capital Lilongwe so that we could post the chair before heading up to the north of the Lake. But we only managed to get the pick-up truck to Monkey Bay at 8.30am – Marcus’ laziness was costly, as it meant we spent a couple of hours waiting in Monkey Bay while locals (with vehicles) told us we had no choice but to take a taxi to the junction of the main road to make any onward journey. After an hour or so the wait got slightly more interesting as we got to see the entourage of the new president Joyce Banda, drive past after a meeting with her cabinet and the World Bank at the Malawian equivalent of Chequers. Eventually a matola (pick-up) arrived and took us to a junction where we got on a second one. Three minibuses and eight and a half uncomfortable hours later we arrived in Lilongwe and bizarrely, within minutes of arrival, we bumped into our Belgian room-mate Karlien from Zomba and Liwonde, who luckily pointed us in the right direction for our hostel.

On the back of pick-up truck number 1

Lilongwe isn’t a horrible place, but it hardly counted as a capital city – a clutch of banks, supermarkets, a bus station and a nature reserve seemed to be about it for the city. We thought we would be flying through but unfortunately we instead ended up staying for four nights, with time spent sending our chair back to the UK and then hanging around the British High Commission sorting out an emergency passport for Marcus, whose passport had no empty pages left, which would allow us to travel to Ethiopia. The only highlights of the visit were meeting up with Karlien who cooked us dinner and helped cheer on England to beat Ukraine and a trip to an animal sanctuary. The sanctuary housed rehabilitated lions, leopards, baboons and alligators including a one-eyed lioness called Bella who was saved from a Romanian circus and now enjoys lazy days sunbathing and eating whole chickens chucked to her by the staff.



Malawian politeness

A very noticeable trait of southern Africans is their extreme politeness when making acquaintances, but Malawians are the champions of being exceedingly polite. Even if you are just passing a complete stranger in the street, instead of just saying ‘hi’, you have to launch into a ‘hi how are you?/very well thanks, and you/fine thanks’ routine before you say or ask anything else. If you forget to say the full spiel, perhaps if you are dashing into a shop to ask directions and you just say ‘hi’ before launching into your question, they will always respond ‘fine thank you’ as an automatic reflex, as they expect a more formal greeting.

In Malawi even people trying to scam you are polite in doing so – ‘Hi how are you/fine thanks/there are no mini-buses today, just my taxi’. There was one man in Lilongwe who made sure he kept bumping into us, and he would follow us for a while and then would spring up having eavesdropped on our conversation and try and offer a service – for money – based on what he’d heard: ‘Hello, how are you?/fine thanks/so you need an emergency passport? My friend has a passport, he may be able to help – let me give him a call for you’. Or an offer to help buy some batteries, or find the minibus that you’re standing right next to. But after a while the formal politeness becomes automatic and natural, and makes life just a little bit more pleasant.



Nkhata Bay

Thankfully before too long we were back on the road, Marcus with smart cream-coloured faux leather emergency passport in hand, on a direct coach (we got up at 5.30am to ensure we couldn’t miss it this time) to Nkhata Bay. After waiting (a record for us in Africa) two hours for the bus to fill up, we eventually set off and arrived 11 hours later. At Mayoka Lodge we were greeted by a team of smiley Malawians and shown to our delightful reed hut built into the cliffs of the bay. Our new home was complete with mosquito-net clad four poster bed, wicker sofa and balcony hanging over the crystal clear lake which we could hear lapping rhythmically below. It was like a little piece of paradise and only $20 a night.

Nkhata Bay

Mayoka not only had great rooms and setting but also had a bar/restaurant that was one of the most picturesque we’d seen on our travels. An added bonus was that we arrived on Friday to a barbecue buffet night where we paid the equivalent of £4 to stuff ourselves full of kebabs, chicken and delicious organic salads made from veg grown using the product of the compost toilet on site. We showered under the stars in open-topped stone-walled showers and enjoyed cold beers and the barbecue and a comfortable night’s sleep.

View from restaurant bar in Nkhata Bay

Fish drying in Cape Maclear

We lazed around on our first day soaking up the relaxed atmosphere, enjoying a lazy breakfast and snorkelling with the bright blue fish. Day two we ventured further afield to walk to a local village. We were aiming to loop round to another beach but instead got a bit lost and so spent a pleasant four hours wandering through rural hilly villages and chatting to the locals. It reminded us of our off-the-beaten-track trek in Myanmar, as people – especially kids – would come running out of their mud and cane huts at the sight of muzungus and either try out their English or just follow us til they got bored. Most rural people in Malawi – and indeed southern Africa – are subsistence farmers, and seeing first-hand and up close how they live was an eye-opener, and felt like we’d seen a genuine slice of real Malawi, where very few tourists go.

Patrick is an orphan who is now looked after by the village chief Anthony. He really wanted a photo doing a moody pose

Kids in the hill villages

In the evening we took a rowing boat for a trip along the coast and a sun-set swim in the crystal-clear waters of the lake. Day three was spent in similar enjoyable fashion, although an over-ambitious rowing trip left my arms aching after four hours of hard work and was further marred by England being knocked out of the Euros by Italy on penalties. Even the England defeat was easier to bear when watched in the local sports bars. Entrance cost 11p and it was packed with the locals on tiny wooden benches, drinking cold beers at less than 40p a bottle in a carnival-like atmosphere.

Nkhata Bay

Our time at Nkhata Bay had to end eventually so we began our overland trip to Dar es Salaam, the Tanzanian capital, well aware that it was going to be slow going and tough on the bottom. The days of Asia and South America where a long trip meant a single cheap, clean and comfortable coach ride all the way from A to B were long gone. In Africa there are many more proverbial letters between A and B.

Stage one was the easy bit, a minibus to Mzuzu, capital of the north of Malawi and a transport hub. We stayed in a simple place called Mzoozoozoo where we enjoyed some great Korean food cooked by the South Korean hostel owner and chatted to a retired teacher who was cycling from Dar to the Namibian coast and had told his wife to expect him back ‘sometime in September’ – an impressive feat and an equally impressive understanding wife. We hit the sack early to be up and on the road.

Next step on the journey was a minibus ride to Karonga – the town closest to the border. It was a white-knuckle ride to begin with, hurtling along at record speeds, but as more women boarded the driver calmed down slightly and we arrived at the town after about four hours later. Next stage was a shared taxi for an hour to the border. We exited Malawi and walked about 500m to immigrate into Tanzania, where we were met with slight bemusement over Marcus’ emergency passport but very friendly immigration staff advised us what to pay on the bus to Mbeya – good job as the locals tried to charge us double. We walked with our backpacks about a kilometre in the baking sun to the bus stop, and then had a very scenic trip, which was made less enjoyable from a breakdown which doubled its duration to six hours. Probably a third of all our bus rides in Africa have featured some kind of breakdown, and I don’t think we’ve ever been in a bus without a cracked windscreen.

Unfortunately our introduction to Tanzania was pretty awful…




Mozambique to Malawi

26 Jun


Having extended our stay in Vilankulo to four days, and feeling we had to at some stage move on we tried to buy a bus ticket north but were told there were no buses the next day. It meant staying by the pool and our beach chalet for yet another day, which didn’t seem too much of a hardship. We had a night out with a bunch of Portuguese and sampled a proper Mozambican night club, where decent Mozambican pop sadly merged as the night went on into shit western R’n’B.

Beach boys in Vilankulo

The next morning, feeling slight fuggy headed, we eventually got ourselves ready to head north towards Malawi. However an amazing African wedding, which was on its second of three days of celebration, moved from next door to our lodge’s pool just as we were leaving. The Mozambicans really know how to party – the previous night we had heard their music pumping until 6am and just three hours later everyone was singing (beautifully), and dancing by our pool looking immaculate. The wedding seemed like a genuinely joyful celebration and it was a shame to have to leave in the middle of it.

Wedding ladies singing round the pool

The road to Malawi

We discovered late on that our bus north actually left from 28km away (there are no bus websites or info lines to call – everything is word of mouth), and thinking we might miss the bus we grabbed a cab to the waiting point on a dusty junction. Our fears of missing the bus were allayed; the bus eventually pulled up an hour and a half late, but as it turned out to be the poshest bus we’d on in Africa we didn’t mind.

We had reluctantly decided not to head to the northern island and UNESCO World Heritage Site of Ilha Mocambique, on the basis that the roads were so bad in the north that it would be a 5-day round trip for a 2-day stay. Instead we were planning to edge our way north-west to the Malawi border, on a journey that we estimated would take at least two and a half days, as some buses on our trip only depart once a day.

However we were due a few strokes of luck, and we got chatting on our bus to a Mozambican missionary man and three Portuguese girls volunteering for him. They said if we hopped off the bus with them earlier than we were planning they would give us a lift to the town of Chimoi, where we weren’t expecting to get to until the following day. So Lucy squeezed into the cabin of his pickup truck and I lay on the luggage in the open back, staring up at the bright starry sky as we cruised through pitch-black countryside to Chimoi.

The missionary man had saved us 24 hours as we were now able to get the once-a-day bus to the town of Tete a day early. But he then went out of his way to find us cheap(ish) place to stay in Chimoi, and we thanked him warmly before heading off to buy bus tickets to Tete for the next morning. We went to bed at 11.20pm after watching Portugal v Germany in the Euros, and then awoke four hours later to get a 4am bus to Tete. As we were waiting to board by the bus in the dark some local lads came stumbling out of a nightclub, swaying down the street towards us. I was willing them not get on our bus, but they did and were soon swigging more rum and beer, pissing into water bottles and stumbling up and down the aisle shouting and singing and mentioning in some kind of context ‘mizungos’ (white people – i.e. us). Before the bus driver stopped and told them to behave or get off, Lucy’s bag had managed to get a soaking from what we hoped was beer and not a water bottle with a loose lid.

In Tete a lad showed us the way from one bus depot across town to another for a small fee, and we got on a final mini-bus to the Malawi border. From there we squeezed onto another packed minibus, on which I drew the short straw and managed to get one of the ‘4th seats’, which is the non-existent space on a row between two proper seats and the third flip-down seat, which means sitting on a few inches of metal hinge for 6 hours. On mini-buses/chapas/kombis in Africa the rows of seats are so closely bunched that there isn’t enough space for me to put my knees out straight ahead, so when space allows I have to splay them in a V-shape, but when buses are full I either have to rest my feet on a sack of maize or clothes beneath me or leave my feet in a tip-toe position and put my knees up near my chest. This puts all your weight on the bony part of your bum, meaning that one’s buttocks are throbbing with pain by the time you eventually get off the bus.

As our minibus pulled up at the border, young men frantically approached waving huge wodges of cash and shouting over each other to change cash with them. They fought to stick their heads through the window but before I could get up from my seat five of them had barged past people to board the tiny bus and were tossing their bundles of cash onto my lap, inviting me to count it. I fought my way off the bus only to be surrounded by even more money changers, all thrusting their cash into my hands so they got the business. I changed all the Mozambican Meticals I had and discovered on the internet the next day that we’d somehow got the exact official exchange rate, seemingly not making the changers any profit. We weren’t quite sure how that was possible, but weren’t going to complain.

Once we were through the Mozambican immigration, there is a bizarre 6km stretch of no-mans land, within which there are a couple of villages and life goes on as normal, but without the people living in one country or the other. The gap between the countries is too far to walk with rucksacks and so we had to negotiate a price for a ‘taxi’ to take us along to the Malawi immigration building. The young driver who just does shuttle runs through this no-mans land managed to get two people into the passenger seat and five of us along the back seats of his battered old car, making a tidy little profit.

Once through the Malawi immigration we started to look around for a minibus to the country’s biggest city, Blantyre, when a car pulled up and a man offered us a lift all the way – a 2 hour journey, which in a minibus would have been double that. He was of Indian descent, and of Mozambican nationality, but had moved to Malawi during the Mozambican war and had liked it so much he’d lived there ever since. He dropped us at our very nice hostel, Doogles, run by a chain-smoking Irishman, and we settled down to watch his country lose to the Czechs on our first Malawian night.


Blantyre, Malawi

We got up on our first morning in Malawi and prepared ourselves for the minibus trip to Zomba, and the main attraction the Zomba Plateau. It was another bumpy, dusty and cramped ride and the few hours it took were interrupted by at least three police road-stops, one resulting in a hefty fine/bribe for overcrowding, which sent the driver and his assistant in a gloomy silence for the rest of the trip. If the Mozambican police bribed every chapa for overcrowding they’d be millionaires!


Malawi blog will be continued…

For more photos of Mozambique click here.

For beer reviews of Mozambique click here.

Moseying on over to Mozambique

17 Jun

The morning after the Bushfire Festival we were up at 6am to catch a kombi to Swaziland’s second ‘city’, Manzini, where we transferred to another kombi for the cheapest international travel of the trip so far – £5 for the 3-and-a-half hour trip to Maputo, capital of Mozambique. Kombis don’t move until the 13th and final seat is taken and we waited for an agonisingly long time with just one seat spare until eventually someone arrived to send us on our way.


Once again the border crossing was very straightforward and an hour and a half later we were dropped in a small kombi depot in one of two possible kombi terminals on our map in Maputo. We weren’t sure which we were in but the only English speaker we found wasn’t interested in letting us know, but was very keen to ensure his friend gave us a taxi ride to our destination, Fatima’s Backpacker Lodge. Without local currency to hand, and not knowing where we were, we realised we were paying well over the odds.

His friend wasn’t a taxi driver but had an empty kombi and with his assistant tried to find their way to Fatima’s. It took an hour to travel a ten minute journey because the driver and his assistant were frankly just thick. We were staying on Avenida Chairman Mao, in a district of streets named after 20th Century communist icons, and eventually found the right road after half an hour. But whilst we were doing U-turn after U-turn I was trying to explain that the numbering on the street was sequential and not completely random and so we could be quite sure which direction we needed to go in. In the end we managed to direct him to our destination and he looked pleasantly surprised and relieved when he saw that we had somehow predicted that the right numbered address was where we said it would be.

Having lost an unnecessary hour we headed straight out to see the sites of the capital that Lonely Planet describes in such glowing terms. Maputo is much as I’d expected an African capital city to be – very, very poor and completely dilapidated in many areas. It’s not really the ‘charming’ and ‘Mediterranean’ boulevard-strewn metropolis we’d read about. From our trip so far only Kathmandu comes close for sheer poverty, but for me it had nowhere near the interest or excitement of the Nepali capital. Like Kathmandu, it is filthy and squalid in most areas, with makeshift rubbish tips around every corner, and a palate of aromas that ranged from stale piss to heated sewage.

The old town hall in Maputo

I think we would have enjoyed the city a whole lot more if we’d been shown around by a local, but after strolling around its best sights for a few hours, which to be honest I think Grimbsy could rival, it really just felt like a big city with an interesting buzz about it where people were just trying to get along as best they could. Our hostel had a whole wall of advice with maps about areas that were dangerous and areas that were very dangerous, and so we stayed local for the evening. We would have had a very early night were it not for a lengthy conversation with an Italian and an Egyptian/American who were offering advice about what I should do with my passport/visa issue (I have no blank pages left). Bribe border customs people to put the sticker over some stamps, was the Italian’s advice.


We awoke the next morning at 5am to get a 5.30am chapa (a Mozambiquan kombi) to the bus station where we then sat on a slightly bigger bus waiting for it to fill so we could head north to the beach town of Tofo. After about an hour we were on our way, and an hour or so after that the hardness of the seat began to tell on my delicate buttocks. Another few hours into the ten-hour journey and my bum was in great pain and I spent the rest of the trip shifting my weight from one buttock to the other and listening to my ipod to take my mind off it.

We checked into Fatima’s Hostel’s Tofo branch, which was a collection of wood and cane walled huts with grass roofs spread along the back of a lovely wide stretch of white sandy beach. Tofo is a town crying out for a tofu restaurant, or perhaps a toffee shop, but without them to hand we ate at an excellent restaurant, which hadn’t even attempted a pun, called Tofo Tofo. We tried the Mozambiquan dish of matapa, which is made from cassava leaves and peanuts and is very tasty. We were then approached by someone from Peri-Peri Diving who tried to convince us to snorkel with whale sharks the following morning. We were too tired to decide and so said we’d think about it.

With bracelet seller, ‘Johnny Cash’ on Tofo beach

During the course of the evening we befriended a young Mozambiquan artist called Viller, who claimed to have his work hanging in the British Museum and a series of shows lined up in Europe. He was good company and promised to take us to the market in the morning to buy some fresh lobster, fish and seafood to barbeque the next day.

Before I could go to the market we were approached at breakfast by someone else from the diving company who said it wasn’t too late to sign up for the whale sharks. The Dutch man at the next table said he’d been out eleven times to see them, and on the twelfth time – yesterday – had at last seen one, and wanted more so he had signed up again. I did admire his blind optimism for hoping to see one after eleven failed attempts. Lu decided she might not be up to the snorkelling but I was persuaded at the last minute to do it because for this trip only they had hired a shark-spotting expert in a micro-light plane to fly overhead and spot them for us. The implication was that it was a nailed on certainty that within an hour I’d be swimming with sharks (and they are sharks, not whales – I did have to check).

Hunting for Whale Sharks, and finding Manta Rays

The first excitement was the spotting of manta rays, and we pulled up beside them and jumped in. All I knew about rays was that Steve Irwin had been killed by a sting ray, and I hadn’t had time to ask anyone whether mantas were dangerous or not, so when I suddenly found myself face to face with a huge one 5-metres across I did a little involuntary snorkel-yelp. We went on to have about five or six snorkling sessions with the mantas, which were awesome creatures.

A little later a radio message came through from the plane that whale sharks were ahoy. The experts on the boat started whooping with excitement as we sped off to their locale. Unfortunately when we got there they were gone, and we then spent the next two hours zigzagging around trying to find them. We got in the water once more when we spotted dolphins, but they’re not creatures to hang around so we didn’t see them underwater. It was an expensive trip, but made worth it for the mantas. We met a honeymooning Irish couple who went out the next day and spent three hours on the boat getting cold and wet with spray who saw nothing at all, so I had been partially lucky.

Meanwhile Lucy, Viller the artist and a Scot called Rebecca had been to the market where Viller had negotiated bargain prices for four lobsters, ten giant tiger prawns, a huge fish the size of a laptop computer and a bag of clams.

In the evening, under Viller’s expert guidance, we washed, gutted, prepared and barbequed the seafood by the beach, which was an amazing meal. We then headed into the town to some local bars (ie a tin shed with corrugated iron roof selling booze) and then backpacker bars, before returning to the beach where the evening ended on a rather sour note as the inebriated Viller started abusing a perfectly nice German fella for no reason, so we called it a (very late) night.

Night out in Tofo, with Viler

The next day we had a bit of lie in and lounged on the beach, and then took a walk to the next bay along, Tofinho (‘little Tofo’) – a beautiful and empty stretch of beach with surf that is apparently world class.

It was too easy to keep on extending our stay in Tofo, as most backpackers had the same story of aiming to stay for two or three days but ending up there a week, won over by the picture perfect scenery and chilled out, friendly atmosphere. We therefore had gotten to know quite a few of the backpackers in town, as well as the western volunteers working there and some of the locals, so the place became more homely and familiar day by day. We couldn’t step onto the beach without a few boys who sell bracelets approaching us, but their sales patter wasn’t annoying so they became familiar and we ended up buying a few bracelets we didn`t want or need, just because they were only 40p each and the kids were almost in rags. The bracelet boys and all male locals we met under the age of 30 greeted us with a range of elaborate handshakes, which we became quite adept at by the end.

Fishermen carry back their Barracudas

We were planning to head further north to Vilankulo but couldn’t resist staying in Tofo just one more day. I and the Scotch girl we’d barbequed with hired surf boards for an hour, which was long enough for us both to be able to confirm that we can’t do it. I managed to catch a few waves but as soon as I got onto my feet I’d topple off. We also squeezed in our third evening jog along the beautiful, empty beach – which sure beats running in drizzly chilly London.

Surf dudes


The Tofo holiday had to end so we went to take a chapa to the capital of the region, Inhambane, half an hour away. The chapa driver tried a trick to get us to pay top-dollar for a private ride, by asking everyone waiting in the van to get out before speeding off with just us. We shouted for him to stop and went back to another chapa into which everyone had moved. But that driver tried the same trick, telling everyone except us ‘brancos’ (whites) to get out and setting off with just us. We jumped out again and eventually ended up back in the first chapa with everyone else and after a few breakdowns eventually were on our way. Along the way we could see typical rural Mozambican life, where people live in small huts made of cane walls and dried grass roofs and kids roll old tyres along with a stick for a game.

Inhambane is described by guidebooks as one of the highlights of Mozambique and as the nicest town in the country. It was an important Portuguese port in its day and has retained some of the old colonial charm, but only some. It has a couple of wide, tree-lined boulevards and two or three old buildings, but it seemed to be over-sold by Lonely Planet once again. It is a very chilled town at the best of times, but as we discovered on Sundays it is a ghost town.

Boulevards in Inhambane


The following morning we hopped on a little ferry over the bay to the scruffy town of Maxixe to catch a bus north to the beach resort of Vilankulo. We began to confirm what seems to be a Southern African trait, which is that when you ask someone directions in the street, if the person doesn’t know they would rather guess than admit they don’t know. As such we lost half an hour wandering from one end of town to the other with our big backpacks trying to find the bus to Vilankulo. Everyone we asked where to get the big bus said that the only one had already gone and we should ride in their chapa, and when we eventually gave in and squeezed into a chapa in we were of course passed at great speed by a big bus within no time.

Chapas have 12 seats, including those in the front, but officially have a capacity of 15 as four people are squeezed onto each row of three seats. But the number of people carried can increase to at least 23 people once the chapa starts picking up along the way. It ends up so cramped that it is impossible to get up to give up a seat so mothers with their baby slung to their front just get squashed in with everyone else. People will get on with any and all kinds of luggage, including livestock, and on the way to Vilankulo I had a lady next to me with two chickens in a battered cardboard box. Every now and then the chickens seemed to have a panic attack and would try and make a break for it by bursting out of their box and flapping madly, sending the dust from their dried shit into the air and up my nostrils. From what I know of bird flu, I understand it is passed on to humans through inhaling this shit-dust, which I had more than a lung-full of.

Another overcrowded chapa/kombi/minibus

Vilankulo is the jumping off place for a stunning archipelago which is so expensive to stay on that all backpackers just stay in the town on the mainland. There are two tarmacked roads in the town, the others being sand or dust, and it is spread along a 5km stretch of white sandy coast. We headed for a recommended backpackers place called Zombie Cucumber, and bedded down in a round dorm made from cane and grass. It was built in a tradition style, which meant the walls didn’t reach the ceiling and there was no door, allowing the mozzies free reign to attack us.

Vilankulo street

We booked ourselves onto a snorkelling tour of the main islands for the next morning, and were sped off on a diving boat at 8am to the island of Magaruque for our first stop. The island is a barren stretch of white sand, with sweeping dunes that drop into the crystal clear azure waters. The islands are fringed by several sand spits and islands that only appear at low-tide. Within minutes the heavens opened and for some reason we ran for shelter in our wetsuits, despite getting ready to jump in the water.

Magaruque island

We then were dropped at a reef where the snorkelling was the best I’ve ever experienced. I had thought when we were in Palawan, Philippines, that the snorkelling couldn’t be beat. However, the snorkelling here has all the colourful coral, starfish and other seafloor dwellers, but it is the abundance, variety and size of the fish that makes it so astounding. The fish were at least five times bigger than any other tropical fish I or any of the experienced divers in our boat had ever seen.

We were then dropped on the main attraction, the desolate island of Bazaruto. Before we could make it to a lovely stretch of empty natural beach, it began to chuck it down again and with a spritely Swedish lass, Iben, we took shelter in a tiny grass fisherman’s hut at the back of the beach. We spent the afternoon playing about on the highest dune, jumping off its steep drop-off. On the way back we stopped by half a dozen or so dolphins who followed our boat until our skipper felt the storm behind us was catching us up.

Dune on Bazaruto

Our lodge was deserted and so we moved with Iben to a livelier place along the coast the next day, and spent the day lounging on the beach and exploring the town. The beach in Vilankulo isn’t the beach-bum paradise of Tofo, but its long low-tide shore and blue waters dotted with tatty fishing boats made it an equally stunning place to slump and chill. We upgraded once more for the third night to another backpacker place and got our own room for the first time in an age – an en-suite beach chalet for half price as the hot water didn’t work.


For more photos of  Mozambique click here.

Beer reviews for Mozambique are not ready yet, but will be as soon as web connections allow.

Into Africa: Swaziland

9 Jun

Getting over the Swazi border was a doddle. On the bus we befriended a German lady called Sandra who lived in Swaziland and who told us about an unmissable music and arts festival called Bush Fire that was happening the following weekend. We were sold on the idea and started to plan extending our stay before we’d even arrived.


We were soon in the capital Mbabane – a funny little place that more resembles somewhere like Harlow in the 1980s than Africa. The Brits switched the capital from Manzini to Mbabane when Swaziland became a protectorate of the UK before being granted independence in 1968, as the cold-blooded Brits preferred the slightly cooler climes up in the hills.

Mbabane high street

Swaziland, despite a name that sounds like a theme park, is a stunning and tiny little kingdom 80 miles wide by 120 miles long and with 1.1m people, about a third of which are HIV positive (the highest rate in the world). As a result, life expectancy is just 31 years old.

One quickly notices that Swaziland is clean and has surprisingly good roads and infrastructure. Despite the slightly bonkers king buying himself aeroplanes in times of national drought, the country must be one of the wealthiest per capita in Africa. When they’re not buying aeroplanes the royal family are generally liked, and the Swazis were particularly fond of the previous king who fathered 600 children by 100 wives.

The Swazi people are generally very friendly, but some have a disconcerting manner of only glancing at you fleetingly in the eye when they are talking to you, which we were told is not them being rude or shy but just an expression of respect.

We had decided to stay in Mbabane because we felt it’s always worth spending some time in the capital, but having checked into our guest house we then read that tourists don’t bother staying in the capital as it doesn’t have much going for it for foreign visitors. After taking a stroll into town we were able to confirm that there are absolutely no other tourists in town, and also that the reason we’d heard why is true. However, it made for an interesting trip, as we were able to get a taster for how the average Swazi lives.

In the evening we got more than a taster of how Swazi men go out and get absolutely shit-faced at the weekend. It was the European Cup Final with Chelsea v Bayern Munich and so we headed to one of only four bars we had spotted to catch the match. It was rammed with extremely pissed men, strutting, swaying and stumbling around to loud music, and generally letting their hair down. Everyone turned to stare when we walked in, and we were very shortly befriended by the most inebriated man in the bar, who had a big scar on his cheek and was barely comprehensible. He also seemed rather unpredictable, as if his mood could change in the sip of a drink, and it was difficult to gauge at first whether we were friend or foe. He was South African, and we did manage to pick out from his mumbles that usually when he sees white South Africans it makes him want to ‘fight them’, but we were alright as we were his friends. Erm, great…! He also explained that his mum worked for the ANC but recently died of AIDS. He wasn’t interested in watching the match and I couldn’t watch the match with him mumbling one inch from my face, so when we made our excuses (on great terms, swapping Facebook addresses!) and left for another bar.

Once again all eyes were on us as we walked into the slightly less intense second bar, where everyone was at least all watching the football. Everyone except one very drunk Mozambiquan man who wanted to befriend us and badger us for a drink. We bought him a drink and with one eye on the football we listened to him explain that his mum had been killed by ‘soldiers’ in Mozambique. We asked which soldiers and he shrugged, ‘just soldiers’.

We were all cheered up by a rare English (well, kind-of English) victory over the Germans, but as we left the bar various other drunks wanted to come and speak with us, some of whom looked less than friendly. Our drunk and slightly weird Mozambiquan friend advised us that we were in danger, and suggested we stay at his house, which didn’t much appeal as a solution to the situation. However, a respectable looking passer-by then concurred that it might well be dangerous for us to walk the 10 minutes home, so persuaded a random man parked in a pickup to drive us home for £1.50. It had been an interesting and generally fun night out, but not a very relaxing one, although it was hard to tell how much danger we were actually in.

Ezulwini Valley

We moved by kombi (the African Collectivo, a little minibus) to a recommended backpackers eco-lodge the next day, which was 30 minutes out of town in the picturesque Ezulwini Valley (pronounced Zilwini). It was the perfect kind of ‘lodge’, made entirely of wood, with landscaped gardens overlooking the beautiful valley. We were staying in the cheapest accommodation, a safari tent that had four proper beds. It was freezing at night, but good fun.

Our safari tent dorm

The lodge is at the foot of a famous mountain with the fantastic name of Sheba’s Breasts, which we climbed the following morning. There are indeed twin peaks, which someone at some point must have said looked like the breasts of Queen Sheba, the Ethiopian wife of King Solomon (he of the mines). The hike was a good one, and got progressively steeper until the summit, in the middle of Sheba’s ‘cleavage’, from where fantastic views are offered over the other side and towards another nearby peak called ‘Executioner’s Rock’ (where in the olden days people who done-bad for witchcraft and the like were apparently shoved off).

Lunch on the way up to Sheba’s Breasts

Moving a rock out of our path

View from Sheba’s cleavage

We were keen to explore more of the country and so tried to plan a drive around the northern perimeter, but we first had to get our visas for Mozambique from Mbabane. It was straightforward enough, thanks in the most part to three Pakistanis who gave us a lift from the High Commission to the bank where you have to pay, and back again to pick them up. Once we had our visas I checked my passport and noticed that the visa sticker had used up my last blank page, and the repercussions of this slowly began to dawn on us over the next few days as we realised that I wouldn’t be able to go to any more countries where a visa is required for entry.

On the way back from the High Commission we were to experience one of the most incredibly generous gestures we had ever received. We were waiting on the roadside to flag down a kombi when a 4WD pulled up and a middle-aged South African man called Dries wound down the window and asked us if we wanted a lift. We got chatting, and we explained that we were heading to the Bush Fire Festival at the weekend, but we’d just heard today that all the camping tents were taken, and so we had nowhere to sleep. We had only been chatting for five minutes when he suggested we stay during the festival at his house near Mbabane. We thanked him for the generous offer but said that it would be quite difficult to get to his house each night from the festival as it is about a half hour drive away. He quickly rang his wife to square it with her but said that he’d be happy to pick us up from the festival on the Friday and Sunday nights, but that they were going away for Saturday night and so they would leave the keys for us to let ourselves in! We had only met this very nice but complete stranger five minutes ago, and now he was not only going out his way to give us a lift to our lodge, but he was also offering to ferry us to and from the festival and give us the keys to his house!

As it turned out, the camping people at Bush Fire (after a bit of lobbying by a lovely lady who works at our lodge) contacted us to say that a tent had become available on site and so we didn’t take up Dries’ kind offer.

We were learning quite quickly that it is difficult to arrange things in Swaziland – and possibly southern Africa – because people don’t answer emails or phones (often because phone numbers change). So our plans to explore the rest of the country were delayed another day. We were also discovering that Swaziland is not cheap. Most accommodation is pretty posh and expensive, and those labelled as ‘backpacker’ accommodation are few and far between.

We visited a ‘Traditional Swazi Village’ the following day, an hour’s walk away. It was certainly traditional, but it was difficult to tell how genuine it all was. We got the impression nothing modern that might disappoint the tourist had been allowed to be on view. The village consisted of a number of ‘beehive’ grass and wood huts, which were inhabited by one family – but of a man with (just) two wives, and thus sort-of two families.

Swazi man in traditional dress in his village

We were given a tour around by a lady in traditional dress who explained some of the traditional customs of the Swazi people. She explained that around 12% of the population (so about 120,000+ people) still live this way. Tradition dictates that parents often suggest good marital matches unless you find someone else you think could be a good match, and if the married couple further down the line find they’re not suited, rather than divorce, the man can just take on another wife. And if that one starts to nag, you just get a third, and so on. However, you must be able to afford a new wife, who must be given ‘at least’ 17 (why 17?) cows as payment from her new husband for her lifelong commitment.

After a tour of the village we walked to a nearby waterfall where young volunteers staying at our lodge dived in and swam, and we paddled (the water was so cold it was actually painful).

Sunbathing near waterfall

We then ate at a surprisingly good restaurant onsite, before the grand finale of the traditional dance was performed for us and our four fellow tourists. The singing and dancing we saw is usually used for weddings and other ceremonies, and was surprisingly good and actually felt authentic. The girls were less adept at hiding their boredom of performing the same thing for a small bunch of tourists day after day, whereas the men seemed to get much more into it and had a laugh with each other, trying to out-strut one another in their fur and loin-cloths.


Hlane Royal National Park

A smart lady from Affordable Car Hire, who presented us with each document with a kind-of double handed presentation combined with a mini head-dipping bow, delivered our VW Polo the next morning. It was a bargain at £48 for two days, and was worryingly new and unblemished. We drove east to the only Swazi National Park to accommodate lions, as well as three other of the ‘Big Five’ game animals. The drive was pretty smooth with tarmacked roads and little traffic and it was good to witness the rhythms of everyday Swazi life. We arrived about four minutes before our allotted slot and drove up to the gate to be immediately faced with an elephant. We gave a lift through the elephant section to a park worker who was scared of the elephant who can apparently be quite aggressive and unpredictable. A promising start to our wildlife spotting.

We jumped on board our safari jeep with our guide who had the wonderful name of Napoleon, and set off into the wilds. It wasn’t long before we were at the watering hole of about 10 White Rhinos. It was amazing to witness the rhinos relaxing in the sunshine and tending to their kids looking like pre-historic creatures that belonged in a film.

Baby White Rhino having a snooze

Next we drove a little further and came up to a giraffe; it was quite extraordinary to see such a magnificent and beautiful creature so close. Little did we know that a few minutes down the road we’d meet the wife and two kids grazing together just metres from the jeep. They looked straight at us, aware we were watching but completely un-fazed at having an audience.

Mum and baby

To be honest, at that point I thought we’d had value for money for the £16 ticket and I didn’t expect to see much more. The guide’s excitement at spotting four giraffes up so close made us feel we’d had lots of luck already. We drove on and saw many antelope, monkeys, guinea fowl, wildebeests and interesting exotic birds including white-headed vultures. Next we headed towards the area the lions hung out in.

We drove around for about 20 minutes not seeing much at all, and keeping our eyes peeled for any movement or a flash of fur, as the sun was slowly beginning to set. It was getting close to the end of our 2 and a half hour tour and we’d pretty much accepted that the lions weren’t coming out to play, as we were warned that they preferred the night and were not as forthcoming as the other animals. Just as we were about to admit defeat, like a scene from a film we then we drove right up to an amazing scenario of a lion and three lionesses lazing in the late afternoon sunshine. Nothing could really prepare you for being just a few metres away from these powerful, magnificent creatures who were staring us straight in the eyes.

The mane man


I suddenly felt a bit vulnerable sat in a window-screen-less jeep with only meshed string sides keeping us from them. I whispered to the guide that it felt like we were a little too close and he said it was fine, as they recognise the vehicle and are not bothered by it. It was just the three of us and the four lions, and although they were obviously watching us, they also seemed pretty relaxed. We’d heard from others that the 15-year-old male was spotted quite often, but apparently the reason we were treated to three females as well was due to it being mating season. Between the yawns and lazing the lion also attempted half-heartedly to mate with a female but she shrugged him off pretty easily.

Our time ticked away, we could have sat and watched for hours, but we’d already had about 10 minutes longer that our time slot allowed so we had to unfortunately bid the lions farewell. Just as we were blessing our good fortune at having such a lucky safari we came across an elephant.

Smile for the camera

Apparently elephants and lions co-exist as the only animals lions are scared of are elephants, so they just stay out of their way. The guide also explained that lions have also come off second best to giraffes, who can kill a lion with a single kick to the face. We had plenty of time to view our slightly elderly male elephant up close as he grazed on his dinner, another amazing sight, before we zoomed back to base – a truly incredible experience.

It grew dark as we drove along the 40 mins to Siteki and our bed for the night, Mabuda Farm. We drove through the stunning valley scenery and into a town that looked like it didn’t see many tourists. The farm was down a 2km dirt track and we were shown to our room in the backpackers block which was surprisingly cosy and nice, a pleasant change from staying in a dorm room. Annoyingly the supermarket was already shut so we had to drive out again to eat. Just as we ordered our peri-peri chicken and rice there was a town-wide power-cut. We were brought a candle so we could just about make out the room in the dark, where we waited worrying if the chef could actually see if the chicken was cooked in the darkness. Someone explained that the powercut was one of many intentional short blackouts that the government inflict on purpose, just to keep electricity costs down.

Waking up on a farm yard was a lovely experience – animal noises, streaming sunshine through the windows, fresh air and beautiful scenery. It was a shame not to be able to stay longer. We got back in the car and head off to Manzini to meet the nice lady from our lodge who had wangled us a camping slot for Bush Fire, and who had also kindly promised to lend us some of her own blankets for our camping. It took us a while to find her without the convenience of mobile phones, but we did eventually and she took us to her homestead where we met her mum and brother too, before setting off on the road again.

Women carrying grass for roofs in Pigg’s Peak

We were under a bit of time pressure to get around the route we’d planned, but cut north through the countryside and up to the northern border with South African before driving through Pigg’s Peak – swathes of timber forests and picturesque mountains then lakes and damns, before finally reaching the capital Mbabane at about 4.30.

Western Swaziland

This should have been perfect timing but we spent a frustrating next hour trying to navigate our way out of the city and back towards the Ezulwini Valley and our hostel, eager not to miss the last kombi to the festival which started at 6pm. We got directions from about five sets of locals and eventually found the way back, quickly dumped our big bags and were ready for the big festival.

All public transport in Swaziland usually finishes as soon as the sun sets, so it was a long wait for a kombi to take us half our journey. We eventually squeezed our bag and blanket on between the many people in the darkness, before transferring to another kombi and arriving at the festival a couple of hours later than anticipated.

The campsite was pretty, organised and clean and tidy, a refreshing change from places like Glastonbury. The bathrooms, though small, had a 24-hour cleaner and hot showers. Our tent was spacious, with mattress and pillows provided. We settled in and then decanted some of our wine box into a flask to bypass the security check on the way into the festival before exploring the site. It was kind of like the best parts of Glastonbury but condensed into a small version – it had the artiness, the big sound system and stage and a beautiful indoor amphitheatre which was in an existing music venue called House on Fire. There was a craft market selling products from co-operatives in Swaziland; weaving, honey, art, batik and the like. There were food stalls from Swaziland, South Africa and Mauritius, and a vibe that suggested lots of people were up for a good time.

With Sandra

We didn’t spot Sandra the German and her friend, however saw a few familiar faces, but mainly enjoyed the varied music, relaxed atmosphere and a few local Sibebe beers as well as the wine we’d smuggled in. Before we knew it it was 1am so we head back to our cosy little campfire (it was bloody cold at night despite our many layers!) snuggled up feeling very grateful for the loans of a big furry blanket, and slept ‘til late the next morning.

With our new friend Richard E

We awoke with slightly fuzzy heads to find our Germans pitched in the next door tent as they’d kindly switched the labels on the tents to give us prime location next to them. We grabbed a delicious breakfast of a bean wrap at a café that was run to help the local community with agricultural and land management skills then set out into the sunshine to explore the music, art, lectures and everything else on offer. Giant marionette puppets from Mozambique were followed by a silent conductor leading an audience of a few hundred to make great music with plastic tubes, followed by other interesting artists from South Africa and Swaziland.

The atmosphere was relaxed with lots of kids enjoying the fun too. Our German friends made for great company, having been to Swaziland plenty of times and planning to stay indefinitely they had lots of interesting insight into the place. The day was topped off when we spotted Richard E. Grant, the most famous of Swazis, and more famous for ‘Withnail & I’ as well as being patron of Bushfire. We had a lovely chat for five minutes about where we were staying and where we’d been. He was a lovely guy and was happy to pose for a photo with us. Another late night ensued before we finally hit the sack.

The joy of waking up with a slightly fuzzy head at Bushfire each day was that we knew we were doing it in a good cause, all profits went to the charity Young Heroes, who helped kids with health, education and food. Amazingly around 12% of the population are orphaned kids, as a result of the life expectancy of 31 years brought about by HIV/AIDS.

Easy like a Sunday morning

Sunday was a day of more chilled out music enjoyed in the sunshine, a wander around the arts and stalls, and a chance to watch a chat with Richard E. Grant which made me like him even more than I already did after our encounter the day before. The lovely Germans dropped us at a place to grab some food on the way home. There was no public transport back from there so we set off on the 25min walk in the dark but were grateful when a passing South African offered us a lift back to our hostel. All in all the festival had been one of the most enjoyable experiences on our trip.


For more photos of Swaziland click here.

For a review of all of Swaziland’s one beer, click here.

Intercontinental interludes

28 May

Post-South America

Our last full day in Colombia was the 13th of May and we didn’t reach our first intended destination in Africa until the 19th. The time in between featured two interludes in New York and Johannesburg, plus an unexpected minor one in Cairo, but was otherwise spent travelling or waiting to travel.

New York

The 13th was predominantly spent flying from Bogota to New York with an hour’s transfer in Orlando. After landing in JFK we made our way straight to my Uncle Lucien’s amazing new apartment in Tribeca, where we met Alex, and together with Steven and a couple of their friends we went to a very nice restaurant just around the corner. As with our stopovers from our Asian leg in Singapore, it was a strange but very welcome feeling to be in an English-speaking first-world country – and at the height of sophistication – after five and a half months of third-world countries and foreign lingos.

At Grand Central with Alex

After a top-class meal we caught with Alex a commuter train an hour out of town to his enormous new rented house in Westport near Connecticut, and bedded down in one of the biggest bedrooms we’ve slept in on this trip.

We spent the next morning with Sarah and baby William in their mansion sorting out internet chores before posting home a package of South American things from the post office, and then heading back to JFK to start our 30+ hour journey to Africa.


Our first 12-hour leg ensured we arrived in a very tired state in Cairo, and as we descended we were treated to spectacular aerial views of the city. The man behind us pointed out the Great Pyramids of Giza, but we didn’t realise that we would soon get much closer to them.

We were dreading the 11 hour wait at the airport for which we were anticipating having to bed down on the hard floor behind a pot plant or a stairwell. But to our delight and surprise we were approached by an Egypt Air man who explained that our transit visas would be with us shortly. We enquired why, and he explained that because our transfer was longer than six hours, the airline would provide a 5-star hotel for us and free meals in its restaurant. We couldn’t quite believe it at first; it’s the sort of thing you might say to each other after nine sleepless hours on the hard floor of the airport – ‘ahh, what I’d do to be in a 5-star hotel bed’ – and then one was being offered to us, for free!

However, the Egypt Air man wasn’t finished there and asked as it was our first time in Cairo whether we wanted to go on a private tour of the Pyramids. It would mean less time in our 5-star hotel bed, but for £30 each we felt it was an opportunity too good to turn down.

After our transfer visas were sorted we were collected by our driver in a people-carrier limo and picked up our guide on the way to the Pyramids. We managed to stay awake simply through trying to appreciate the rather bizarre circumstances in which we found ourselves – being driven through the bustling streets of Cairo on the way to see the sole remaining Wonder of the World, at a time when we were expecting some of the most uncomfortable few hours of our whole trip, lying on an airport floor.

Our guide explained a bit of the history of the Pyramids, and the most gobsmacking thing is just trying to comprehend the stats of the biggest Pyramid: created from 2 million blocks, each weighing two tonnes, moved and lifted into place by 10,000 slaves everyday over twenty years.

Sphinx and a pyramid

There are nine Pyramids in Giza, three biggies for the kings, and six little ones, for their kids. We were then taken into a tomb, and climbed through a small gap deep into the main chamber where I didn’t see the sign for not taking photos. Whoops.

Our driver then took us up to an area behind the three big Pyramids where he encouraged us to strike some predictable and silly poses. We then visited the Sphinx, who looks like she needs a bit of a nose job, and all the time we were treated to a little taster of the hassle provided by the sellers of postcards, camel rides and trinkets. The one phrase that would be useful to learn in Egyptian is “…and the same to you too!”, in response to the clearly discourteous parting comments in mumbled Egyptian given by the sellers as they eventually walk away after you’ve said “no thanks” for the fiftieth time.

Trying to walk like an Egyptian

After the Pyramids we were taken to someone’s shop who clearly was a friend or acquaintance of the guide. It was billed as a factory of concentrated scented oils made from flowers using ancient traditions and techniques. But it was basically a perfume shop. For 30 minutes we listened to the silver-tongued salesman who claimed to be a medical Professor (I was so tempted to press him on the matter, but let him off), and left the tick-box menu of perfumes we were given blank. Seeing the man’s face when we walked away without buying anything was almost worth the half-hour lost from a 5-star hotel bed.

Back at the 5-star hotel (have I mentioned before it was 5-star?) we feasted on free grilled meat, dips and salads before a lovely hot shower in our enormous bathroom and we eventually grabbed a few hours deep sleep. On awaking we were still full from lunch, but managed to force down us some free dinner, just because we could.


The flight to Johannesburg took over eight hours, and we’d treated ourselves to a night in a posh guest house at our destination so that we could fully recover in comfort from the 32-hour trip. However, our airport pickup from the guest house was more than an hour late, so we were almost falling asleep standing upright in the arrivals hall by the time he arrived. We eventually collapsed in a very comfy bed before heading out to explore the neighbourhood.

Brekkie in Jo’burg

We were staying in a nice area of the city which fittingly was a namesake of the area we both work in in London, South Kensington. It was hard to make many informed judgements of Jo’burg in a couple of days when we didn’t move from the one area, but it did strike me that in all the restaurants we passed and ate in it was black people serving and white people dining. Maybe I was being naïve or perhaps it was just the posh area we were staying in, but I’d slightly expected things to have evened out by now. The other noteworthy point was that each of the three days we were in Jo’burg, despite it being winter and pretty chilly at night, there was glorious sunshine and blue sky every day. Apparently the city enjoys 300 days of sunshine each year, which must go some way to explaining the locals’ general cheerfulness.

Because South Africa is huge, expensive and well worth spending time to see, we had decided not to see it on this trip and to save it for a separate holiday, as our budget and the time we had would not do it justice. So we were keen to get to our first African destination, Swaziland, as soon as possible. However, there is now only one bus company that goes all the way there from Jo’burg, and the daily service has just eight seats in a people-carrier. It was unfortunately, but perhaps not surprisingly, sold out for the next day, so we booked for the subsequent day and decided to move for the night to a much cheaper guest house round the corner to help get our budget back on track. But when the boss of our posh guest house heard we were moving just to save cash, he offered our room – which was already on special offer – for the price we were going to pay elsewhere, basically getting it for half price. Very nice chap, and not atypical of ‘Saffers’ from what we could tell from our two and a half days in and amongst them. So we spent our remaining time using the guest house gym, shopping for essentials and planning our time in Swaziland as well as taking full advantage of the lovely deep in-room bath.

It is worth noting that we were not in South Africa long enough to warrant the serious undertaking of a proper beer review for such a huge country, but the three or four beers we sampled in our short time were very good – with an average so high that they might well have claimed top spot in the coveted Beer Review Country of the Trip League Table.

For a few more photos of this part click here.

¡Ay, Caramba – goodbye Colombia!

18 May


The next day we relocated to a nearby fishing village called Taganga, and checked into a 6-week old hostel that had clearly modelled itself of the Dreamer hostel, however they hadn’t yet signed up to the hostel booking websites so we had the pretty much the whole place, including the pool, to ourselves. The village has become a backpackers haven and so now has a number of nice little bars and restaurants and is a pleasant place to chill for a couple of days, although the main beach is just a dirty strip of gravel which looks a bit like a carpark.


We had long been told by other backpackers in Colombia of a secret travellers’ haven – a kind of travellers’ Promised Land, right off the beaten track with untouched villages and where desolate desert meets beaches of such mesmerising beauty that it was a wonder it wasn’t overrun with tourists. The fishing village of Cabo de la Vela and the desert area of Punta Gallinas are in one of the country’s most inaccessible areas right in the north of not just the country, but the whole continent. Our guidebook explained that it was almost impossible to get there without an organised tour, but the prices of the tour were so expensive we thought we’d give it a go on our own.


Cabo de la Vela

We set off at 8am to catch a hot and stuffy bus with no ventilation or aircon on the first leg of our adventure, before switching to a collectivo in the town of Riohacha. Negotiations on the collectivo took a bit of time and involved getting out of a moving car whose driver refused to give us our luggage from the boot when we opted to switch to a different collective who was leaving earlier and would give us a better chance of catching the last pick-up for the final leg of the trip. Once we’d departed we were treated to some of the fastest and scariest driving on our trip as the driver stood on the accelerator and overtook on blind corners. It was a relief to finally get to Uribia, a markedly different town from those we’d encountered so far that was full of markets and local women dressed in traditional colourful, embroidered tent-like dresses. It felt more like Africa than Colombia.

We were bundled onto a pick-up truck by a Colombian who bore a striking resemblance to the late Pete Postlethwaite (but with a tan), thinking that as we had to squeeze into the final spaces we would be soon to depart. Unfortunately we had to wait to squeeze at least double the amount of passengers on before that could happen – about 12 adults, six kids and much associated shopping, until everyone was about as uncomfortable as possible. We then endured one of the most uncomfortable three hours I’ve ever had, speeding bumpily through a desert wasteland, being blasted in the face by sand and trying to occasionally move a limb from under a big box of fish to circulate some blood. There were regular stops, not comfort breaks for the passengers, but allowing the driver’s buddy (and probably the driver) the chance to buy another Venezuelan Polar beer. The proximity to the Venezuelan border was clear and apparently illegal trade and smuggling of cheap beer and cheaper petrol were rife in the area.

Pick up truck with Wayuu women and mud hut houses (after dropping off 13 people)

We finally arrived at our destination at about 5pm, feeling a little the worse for wear and were grateful when one of the ladies on the truck offered us a room at her place to save us the hassle of searching out a place to stay. Cabo was a one road town, albeit one that continued for about 3km, along a calm bay, slightly bleak but with a strange kind of desolate charm. All the buildings were made from thin strips of cactus wood that was like kindling you’d use for a fire place, bound together with wire, and with glassless holes for windows. At least we had a proper bed though, and electricity from 8pm until 6am from a generator.

Our cacti wood room in Cabo de la Vela

The town was quiet, so we wondered along the beach, witnessed a stunning sunset, then had fish and rice for dinner – no menus and only a single option, but still delicious and good value. Then it was time for an early night in this weird location that felt like the end-of the-world rather than just the tip of the continent.

One of Cabo’s famed sunsets

Next morning we tried to arrange transport to Punta Gallinas, an even more remote, smaller village in the far north where we would see this supposedly stunning sand-dune-meets-beach scenery, but we failed. Without an organised tour you need a willing fisherman to take you in his boat, or a local to drive you off-road in a jeep. The price was extortionate (£100 for the two of us for the 8-hour round trip), but we could only find someone going the day after we were due to leave.

We instead witnessed one of the heaviest downpours of rain I’ve ever seen, whilst chatting to a German journalist as we sheltered. The guy had visited Colombia 30 times and specialised in writing articles for nature publications on a few of the 90+ Colombian indigenous tribes. We learnt that that the long-haired, white linen clad young men we’d seen in Tayrona, were from the Kogi tribe, one of the first tribes the Spanish encountered when they came to colonise South America, who still today live a traditional tribal lifestyle. In Cabo de la Vela we were staying with Wayuu people, another indigenous group renowned as fearsome warriors who were the only Colombian tribe that the invading Spanish couldn’t  conquer. They are also know for their astute business skills, hence them branching into eco-tourism and putting us up for the night.

When the rain began to break we walked for about an hour and a half in a very muddy, prickly and wet dessert to a nearby deserted beach. With rough waves, red and green rocks and dramatic rocky outcrops it looked more like a mixture of the Algarve and Ireland than Colombia.

Coast near Cabo

Wayuu family at 4am in returning pick-up

After we walked back we were forced to eat lobster for dinner as it was the only dish on the menu – what a damn shame! It was delicious; one and a half grilled meaty lobsters each served with rice and salad only set us back about £8 a dish. We hit the pit early again ready for a 4am(!) journey back the next day. Apparently the pick-up truck always leaves at that time each day to get people to market in Uribia, so we were up in the dark and back on Pete Postlethwaite’s dirty, smelly truck speeding through the bumpy desert in the dark.

By the time we arrived in Uribia, as well as the many interestingly dressed humans packed into the back, we also had a live goat and a sheep with their legs tied (destined to shortly be someone’s lunch), an assortment of dead rabbits and a bag of stinky shrimps, as well as assorted market paraphernalia. The goat eerily seemed to keep eye contact with me for most of the journey, occasionally shrieking with terror, as though he was asking me to help. As more people piled in the back the poor goat just became a foot rest for people sitting above him.

Next leg of the journey we joined two other passengers in a collectivo bound for Riohacha, all surprisingly smooth, although the eight ‘Hail Marys’ the driver did before we sped off put me slightly on edge.

By the time we reached Taganga at lunch we were shattered so only managed to while away the rest of the day making the most of the pool in our hostal and lounging around. We also squeezed in the most delicious cocktails I’ve ever had. We’d already become wise to the fact that in Colombia fresh juices cost about £1 max and come in flavours that we’ve never heard of (lulo and guanabana are just two of the fruits I’ve never seen in any other country) and are all universally delicious. Mixing them with some alcohol only made them better!

Next day we headed for a beach a 30 minute walk away, although had a third consecutive day of tropical downpours so cut the visit short. It was still pouring with rain as we headed to the bus station to make our 13 hour overnight bus trip via Bucaramanga to San Gil, as we edged closer to Bogotá and the end of our Colombia travels.

San Gil & Barichara

The scenery from the bus as we approached San Gill was spectacular; steep canyons covered in lush, green vegetation. We got to our lovely, quiet hostal at about 10am after scaling one of the steepest residential hills I’ve ever seen – I was surprised that I reached the top upright, carrying my 20kg rucksack. Our helpful host gave us a run through of the many activities and places to see in the area then we signed up for some white-water rafting that afternoon. In the meantime we checked out the town and created one of our many guacamole-based lunches, making the most of the ripe, cheap avocadoes that were sold by market vendors everywhere around the country.

Steep road in San Gil

At 2pm we were picked up for our white-water adventure. I’d been promised the river was only level 1-3 (5 being the highest level) but then as I discovered that much of the area, and in fact much of Colombia, had been receiving record levels of rain, it became apparent it may be a bit more challenging than I was expecting. I’d thought we’d be a group of at least six in the raft, meaning less necessity to paddle and a bit more bulk to weigh us down, but it was just the two of us and an instructor who spoke no English.

Getting ready for the white water in San Gil

The instructor quickly mentioned the important instructions for ‘paddle’ and ‘stop’, and before Marcus could finish asking to clarify which of the two similar-sounding instructions was which, we were shoved out into the rapids and went smack straight into an enormous wall of rapids that enveloped us, drenching us and taking our breath away. It was a real challenge to make sure we stayed in the raft. The first 20 minutes were exhilarating, fairly constant and big rapids, then for the rest of the hour they got a bit more spaced out and less scary. It was great fun and for about a tenner each, great value too.

We continued the bargainous theme into the evening as we headed for a few Club Colombia beers at 60p a bottle in the main square and a 3 course dinner for £3.50 that included a fresh lemonade, in a restaurant Lonely Planet claims is one of Colombia’s finest.

A 45 minute bus journey from San Gil is a beautifully preserved colonial town called Barichara, so we headed there for a day trip the next day. We’d read that Barichara had a great hike out of town where you walked two hours to a pretty village called Guane along the picturesque Camino Real, and that it was famous for its great restaurants, especially a local delicacy of fat-bottomed ants. Our plan was to do the hike then enjoy a delicious ant-based lunch.

Central plaza of Guane

Unfortunately things didn’t quite go to plan, the walk was beautiful but for the final 30 minutes it started to pour with rain (again) so we arrived back in town, drenched, ready for our restaurant experience, only to be told the road to the best ant restaurant was impassable due to the rain.



We had to go for one of the only places open instead where Marcus ate goat, served with a sort of stuffing made from all its innards and blood (after looking into a dying goat’s eyes on the pick-up truck in Cabo, I opted for chicken instead). We both drank the local chicha, a sort of weird home brew beer/milkshake made from maize, but sadly didn’t get to try and ants.

Villa de Leyva

Time was running out for us in Colombia so we’d hardly managed to see San Gil and Barichara before it was time to hit the road again and head to Villa de Leyva, another beautifully preserved colonial town. Another five hours by bus and we were checking into yet another hostal, before checking out our new location. Villa de Leyva was another pretty town of picture-perfect white buildings with tile roofs and cobbled streets, but it also had the draw card of having the biggest town plaza in the whole of the Americas. The plaza is vast, and looks rather odd and oversized for such a small town, as its solitary feature is a single fountain in the centre of an area the size of several football pitches.

Biggest plaza in the Americas, Villa de Leyva

On our second day we pulled on our hiking boots to do a two hour hike behind the town to see a bird’s eye view of it. Unsurprisingly it was raining yet again, and the overgrown path and off piste route Marcus chose to take made clambering up the slippy rocks along the way pretty tricky. We got there in the end and then wandered back to town for a quiet rest of the day.

View of Villa de Leyva from mountain peak


Two nights in Villa de Leyva and we hit the road for the final time in Colombia, Bogotá bound. Last time Marcus had visited Bogotá he was 19 when Colombia was a much more dangerous and he said he’d been too scared to leave his hotel room. We knew things had improved dramatically but the city’s slightly edgy reputation meant we were both not quite sure what to expect. On first glance as we headed into the city centre it looked a bit like a rough bit of Lambeth. The North of the city seemed to be where all the affluent people lived and where the smarter hotels and restaurants were. We’d opted to stay in the La Candelaria neighbourhood, where most of the budget hostals were but also near the museums, main square and colonial buildings.

Plazoleta de Chorro de Quevado

It took our very patient cabbie about 20 minutes of circling the same few blocks to locate our hostal as the street planners had kindly decided to change the numbering of the roads. Our hostal was full of character though and conveniently located a stone’s throw from a pretty little square called Plazoleta de Chorro de Quevado which had lots of tiny bohemian bars and restaurants and winding passages filled with young people enjoying a few drinks on a Saturday night. We head out to join them, glad that we didn’t need to walk far to get back at the end of the night. We enjoyed some candlelit beers in tiny little atmospheric buildings filled with music and then had a rather bizarre meal at a specialist mushroom restaurant called Merlin, filled with weird wizard themed memorabilia and a live guitar/flute duo. We ended the night in a rock bar that was a bit like a six-form common room before a chat with some locals in the square, and then bed.


Our last day in Bogotá began badly as we witnessed the kick-off at 9am of the last day of the Premiership season. After internet streaming broke we luckily found both the Man Utd and Man City matches on TV, although in retrospect perhaps it wasn’t such a good thing. Especially when Man City’s amazing last gasp win was accompanied by celebrations from the Man City supporting South Americans in our hostal.

Bolivar plaza, Bogota

The rest of the day was spent wandering the sights of central Bogotá – namely the Plaza Bolivar and surrounding area. It was Mother’s Day in South America and it was surprisingly enjoyable to amble around soaking up the local life, grabbing lunch in a busy locals’ grill restaurant and enjoying some delicious beer from the Bogotá Beer Company, a microbrewery who made some tasty European style beers. We left Bogotá feeling a lot more warmth for the place and were sad to be leaving both Colombia with its friendly people, diverse landscapes, beautiful scenery and fascinating culture, as well as South America as a whole. However, a new continent was beckoning.


For photos of Colombia relating to this post click here.

For Colombian beer reviews click here.

Continuing On To The Colombian Caribbean

12 May


Having awoken at 3am in Bolivia to get our flight we arrived in Colombia’s second city, Medellín, rather tired, to say the least. Our hostel, Black Sheep, run by a Kiwi and situated in a posh neighbourhood, was one of the better ones, and after a snooze we ventured out for our first taste of Colombia.

Medellín (pronounced ‘Medejyhin’) has a famously perfect climate. Its altitude of 4,500ft combined with its equatorial positioning means that the unmuggy temperature mostly bobs around the 26C mark and is still warm in the evening. Its 2.5million inhabitants are spread across a wide valley, over the sides of which, probably a few miles from the city, there seems to be nightly electrical storms that we could see but not hear or feel. On the first night we thought it was a faulty flickering street light outside our hostel, but after a few nights began to enjoy the nightly lightening.

In the 1980s and 90s Medellín was the murder capital of the world, registering an average of 15 murders a day, due in the most part to its most famous resident, former drug baron Pablo Escobar, who lived and operated his multi-billion dollar business from the region. The city has now cleaned up its act and the El Poblado area, where we were based, is amongst the wealthiest neighbourhoods and has recently become the hub of the city’s nightlife. We could only stay awake long enough for a brief stroll around the trendy bar area, which mainly consists of American-style sports bars, before hitting the pit.

The next day we headed back to the sports bars for the purpose they exist for, and settled down to watch Chelsea amazingly beat Barcelona in the Champions League semi-final. We then ventured into the city centre where the sense of edginess and poverty that the city became known for still hasn’t yet fully disappeared. The centre of the city is dominated by large and amusing sculptures dotted around the main plaza by the city’s famed sculptor and artist Botero. The bulbous, rotund figures and animals are Beryl Cooke-esque and do a good job of cheering up what might otherwise be a slightly dodgy city centre.


The following day we caught a collectivo to the town of Guatapé located on the edge of a network of incredible lakes and islands. It looks rather like somewhere of stunning and lush rolling hills that has been flooded to create a millionaire’s playground of mini-bays and islands. Our first stop was some kind of geological phenomenon (that can’t have been covered on my course!) – a 100-metre high lump of black rock protruding oddly out the ground.

649 steps up El Penol granite monolith

After a few hundred vertiginous steps that got Lucy’s knees wobbling, we got to the top which afforded us incredible views over the region. For as far as the eye can see there is an amazing span of luxury lakeside homes, with perfectly groomed hilly lawns and private jetties that back onto the water’s edge. From way above it had the look of a Postman Pat toy-land set amongst Swiss lakes – in the Norwegian fjords. It is somewhere we will one day buy a holiday home, as Pablo Escobar did, just as soon as our lottery numbers come in.

Lakes of Guatape with luxury private homes and islands

The region’s only proper town, Guatapé, is a picturesque place of cobbled streets and colourfully painted terraced cottages set around a quaint plaza. Just before we got on the bus to leave I had a quick go on the zipline that stretches over the nearby lake, alongside bars and restaurants and moored tour boats, but it didn’t go nearly as fast as I would have liked.

Guatape town

Guatape and its tuk-tuks


We then took a winding and sleepless overnight bus to Colombia’s biggest tourist draw, Cartagena, on the Caribbean coast.

We had our first of many police stops on the way. There are police everywhere in Colombia, many of them looking like they are just out of school – locals say the huge numbers are just to keep unemployment figures down. But now there that is much less crime in the country there doesn’t seem to be much for the police to do, so there are police checkpoints everywhere and our buses and taxis were regularly stopped for no reason at all. The police just come onto the bus and collect up ID cards to check, although it’s hard to see why as members of FARC are unlikely to announce their membership on their ID. Us tourists get off lightly though, and most police don’t even bother looking at our passports.

We thought we were mentally prepared for the climate of the hot and humid coastal region, but it still came as a shock as we stepped off the air-conditioned bus just how stiflingly hot and humid it actually was. It’s like stepping from an English winter’s evening into the tropical greenhouse at Kew, and within moments we were both drenched in sweat.

Cartagena is much larger than I was anticipating, and now is home to over a million people. The outskirts of the city, where the bus arrives, are about as far from the postcard image of the city as you can imagine – dirty, poor and bustling, but this is what real Cartagena is like to almost all of its citizens. The touristy central historical part of the city was built in the 15th Century as a fortified city in need of protecting itself from the Spanish, and it is only this part that most tourists see – on the sea front, with cobbled streets and two-storey colonial houses with wooden balconies jutting out over the road, covered in brilliant pink and purple exotic flowers. Around every few corners you’ll come across a shady plaza and a church, with fruit and fruit juice sellers dotted about, and also sellers of delicious hot cheesy corn patties (arepas) catering to the peckish.

This is the popular postcard view of Cartagena

It is one of the most stunning cities I’ve ever been to, or at least one of the most stunning parts of any city I’ve been to. It’s a place that is easy to get lost in – and not just metaphorically. On our first night, having been robbed of any sleep at all by the overnight bus ride, I ventured out alone to buy some water, but after meandering randomly through the grid-like streets I eventually stepped out of a shop with a bottle of water only to feel like I was lost in a maze. Each picturesque cobbled street begins to look the same when you’re sleep deprived.


The following afternoon, after a morning of further exploring, we joined a small tour group to one of Colombia’s strangest tourist experiences, the Volcan de Lodo el Totumo. About an hour from Cartagena, situated by a lake, stands a mini ‘volcano’ (it is not strictly a volcano, though it is volcanic) that you can climb up to the top and step down into the actual vent, which is full of slowly bubbling liquid mud. It’s one of the oddest experiences you can imagine, mainly because there is no bottom to the mud bath, however the liquid mud is so buoyant that you can’t sink. In fact quite the opposite; if you lie flat you find that only about an inch or two of you is under the mud. Men then massage you for a couple of minutes as you float, and once they are done they just give you a little shove and go skidding along the surface until you hit someone or the edge. The masseurs have an unusual way of earning a living – spending their working life floating upright and chest-deep in a volcanic pool of runny mud whilst massaging giggling tourists.

Mud volcano

Floating in a bottomless pit of mud

When you try and stand up it’s quite difficult at first to balance, and most people toppled forward or back at first attempt. If you try and plunge yourself completely under the surface, you just come bobbing back up before your head is anywhere near being under. It was brilliant fun, and everyone just giggled for the entirety. When time was up, we all headed down to the warm water of the lake where waist deep in the water ladies were waiting whose job it was to wash the mud out of our hair and scrub us clean for a couple of quid – quite disconcertingly this involved them whipping off your swimwear too.

In the evening we treated ourselves to a drink (just the one) in a very fancy bar nestled in one corner of the city walls, and people-watched the wealthy Colombians as they supped UK-priced drinks and danced salsa (not at the same time).

The next day we visited the Convento & Iglesia de San Pedro Claver, an impressive 17th Century Jesuit convent built around a beautiful courtyard, which has now become a museum. The building is where a monk Pedro Claver lived and died. Known as ‘the slave of slaves’, he was the first person to be canonised in the New World for his work caring for the black slaves of the cruel Spanish rulers (and for brainwashing them with the ideals of Christianity).

Santa Marta

You could easily spend a week in Cartagena and its surrounding area, but after 3 days we headed 5 hours north to the city of Santa Marta in search of the Tayrona National Park. Santa Marta is a fairly large city and is South America’s oldest, although it’s almost impossible to tell – it mostly now just looks like any old bog-standard Colombian city. We stayed in a first-rate hostel called Dreamer, 10 minutes out of town, which has a nice pool surrounded by a communal area with a bar and pool table, and with the young crowd of backpackers it was a nice place to lose an afternoon.

Pool in Dreamer hostal, Santa Marta

The timing of the title-deciding Manchester derby slightly dictated our itinerary and we delayed going to the National Park for a day so we could watch the match poolside in the afternoon. We filled the morning by visiting the house were the liberator of northern South America, Simon Bolivar, lived out the last few years of his life. His house is a large single-storey villa set amongst vast gardens that have now become a botanical garden. After seeing the room and bed in which Bolivar died (of three different illnesses, poor bugger), we were walking around the garden in the furnace like heat when we suddenly saw a huge iguana, at least 3ft-long just on the path in front of us. Unfortunately he disobeyed my orders to remain still while I reached for my camera, and scurried to the top of a big tree before I could get a clear shot.

Simon Bolivar’s memorial garden

To relieve our slovenliness of lying round the pool, and the disappointment of the United defeat, we paid £1.60 each to use a gym around the corner with lots of pink lycra clad Colombians before retiring to bed early.

We headed off to the Tayrona National Park in the morning and after queuing for half an hour to pay our expensive entrance fee to the French(!!) company who run the Park we walked through the jungle for a few hours until we were saturated with sweat. Once we got the coast we walked along the amazing beaches, where contradictory signs next to each other explained that either 100 or 200 people had drowned in the sea here, and so not to swim. However many it was, we got the message.

Tayrona jungle

After a while we came upon incredibly picturesque bays of white sandy beaches, palm trees and gentler turquoise waters, before reaching our home for the night – a rip-off camping site where we had to pay £7 each to sleep in a hammock! We were paying the same amount for an air-conditioned room in the Dreamer hostal. We were allocated our hammocks under a grass-roofed shelter, where the hammocks are packed in nice and tight so the French company can squeeze as much money out of tourists as possible for as little effort as possible. We had brought our mozzie nets (which just ensured thoske mozzies inside Lucy’s net stayed there and enjoyed an Egerton feast throughout the night), but neither of us slept a wink, not so much from the mozzies but because it was hot, humid and the air was completely still. There was no point lying in, so we got up early and lay on the stunning beaches, which were almost of Filipino quality.

Night night – don’t let the mozzies bite

Beach in Tayrona

Neighbouring beach in Tayrona

After a beachside lunch of freshly caught fish and freshly squeezed orange juice, we made the sweaty trudge back through the jungle and back to the Dreamer hostel.


For more photos of Colombia click here.

For reviews of Colombian beer click here.