Sam Bowker: The Grand Tour Diary (2005 - 2006)

This is the archived journal of a 2005-2006 'Grand Tour' around the Eastern Mediterranean and along East Africa, written by Sam Bowker, whilst in search of his PhD topic.

Monday, January 30, 2006

Tanzania - Zanzibar

Dedicated to the Pursuit of Dreams

After four years, I am finally here. The air smells of cloves, the alleys are light-filled and intriguingly stocked with unusual shops and narrow homes, spectacular and intricately carved doors line the steets. The buildings altrnate between frsh white paint and decrepit moulding black. You can hear and see Arabic and Swahili everywhere. It's everything I wanted it to be, and I've only been here for an hour or two.

A masaai is nonchalantly leaning against the window of the internet cafe. My mates have spread out to tackle whatver they desire d- lunch, photography, shopping, email, mindless meandering, etc. I expect to spend two days here in Stonetown, then maybe another two up on the northern beaches, taking the opportunity to snorkle the Indian ocean.

I'm very happy indeed. And because it deserves a mention, Dar-es-Salaam is not a good place to have a hangover in. Fortunately I was spared the worst of that suffered by some of my mates, but the experience of being stuck in a teribly slow-moving and heavily-laden ferry downwind of the drying fish markets is one that I only need do once. It reminds me of a seaside version of Cairo - chaotic, loud, but with fresher air and a distinct odour of old dried fish.

Malawi - The Inland Sea

Dedicated to Foot Worms

They say that scratching at parasitic African foot worms is better than sex. Fortunately, I wouldn't know. I'm not one of the five people on the truck infested with the freakish moving vein-like buggers. Their curative regime of flash-freezing, soaking in petrol and popping various pills seems to be working now, luckily.

I'm writing this retrospectively from Zanzibar. You'll get another blog for that. There was no chance of accessing internet at all in Malawi. It's the third poorest nation in Africa, and by buying a handful of items I spent more than a typical year's income for the locals. One of the camping sites had just enough electricity to power a freezer, christmas lights, and an ipod-powered sound system. It was one of the best parties we've had so far!

Malawi is centered on the western shores of Lake Malawi, a vast and terribly beautiful expanse of clear flat water. It has tides and builds up into bg waves in the wake of storms. The water is bath warm, laden with colourful fish and populated with fishermem in dug-out canoes. We took the opportunity to ride horses bareback into the water, through villages and forests. On another day we walked 30km up to the Livingstonia mission at the top of a mountain overlooking the immense lake. It was the longest trek I've ever undertaken to reach a museum.

The emerging relationships on the truck are still very sweet. There have been engaging girls on other trucks we've encountered too.

Quickly now, I must tell you about Zanzibar!

Monday, January 23, 2006

Zambia - Raining in Chipata

Dedicated to Truckers ('cause they keep this country rollin...)

I'm half an hour away from the Malawi border, at a tiny Zambian town called Chipata. I think it's a town, at least, as the road was the most potholed two-hour stretch the truck has seen in Zambia. Hamlets of thatched circular houses appear mingled amongst cornfields, lush green shrubs, and mist-capped mountains. Small businesses with grandiose titles like the "Chimpaneke World Trade Centre" flash past on the roadside, and local kids always stop to wave at the truck as it passes by. There are many billboards advertising Church services and raising awareness of HIV-AIDS.

It's also looking to remain as wet as it currently is. "Six days of torrential rain" have been forecast for our stay in Malawi. This sucks as the main events planned there focus on the immense lake, which whips up into a rough and dangerous sea during storms. I'm sure we'll work something out, but it's looking like quite a few postcards will get written (if you're lucky!).

The last couple of days have been spent on the road. Today was peppered with roadblocks of an African nature. The first was a three-truck pile-up that was removed after a fourth and fifth truck brutally rammed the whole mess off the road. The second was on a tight bend after a small rural village, where a copious quantity of glass bottles had been shattered along a thirty metre stretch. Local kids appeared immediately with brooms, asking for payment to clean it up. We used our own brooms to clear the road, and have no doubt whatsoever that as soon as we drove through, the kids "restored" to road to it's sparkling condition. (It's simply an extortionate version of a lemonade stand for pocket money...)

Oh, and I forgot to mention anything of Victoria Falls (Mosi o Tunya). They are utterly sublime, meritorious of extraneous superlatives. They fall in great torrents of white and yellow water, tumbling hundreds of metres below you as you lean out over the slippery cliffs barred only by the odd chain or plank. Luxuriant grasses grow over the precipice, inspiring a new variant of the "extreme ironing" phenomenon - "extreme mowing". You can walk for hundreds of metres along the opposite cliff edge, and new falls keep appearing from the fog. It's truly like something from Lord of the Rings.

I have heard that internet is very unreliable in Malawi. Email me by all means, but you may not get a post for a couple of days. After Malawi, we're heading on to Tanzania, and my most anticipated destination of all, the island of Zanzibar.

Sunday, January 22, 2006

Zambia - Lusaka

Dedicated to the Buff Slush of BC2006

In Lusaka now, the capital of Zambia, and for the first time I'm sending this to you from a supermarket. It's just like typing away in Coles.

On arrival to the spacious but fairly grubby city CBD, with consipicuously more carparks than cars, an Egyptian imam eating icecream with a spoon managed to drive into the side of the turck. No damage was done to us, but we ended up driving around the CBD area in loops following a police car and working out bribes.

We're heading off to Malawi over the next two days, where we shall spend a few days by the inland sea of Lake Malawi. A superb snorkeling, diving, and chair-making site. The truck population has been reshuffled, all great people (although I don't yet know all of them yet). Of the fifteen of us, about six are medical students or young doctors. So we can do whatever we like to the local wildlife, and get an expert opinion on our exotic tropical disease collection! Huzzah!

I've been curio shopping in Livingstone market, barely wider than a corridor, where every vendor knew my name and nationality by the time I reached there stall. Interesting times and friendly bargaining in tens of thousands of kwacha.

Must be off, I need to buy rusks, beer and apples.

PS - The shifty laundry dealers were very popular with my truck mates, seven of whom hefted massive sacks of laundry to them the next day.

Friday, January 20, 2006

Zambia - Black Market Laundry

Dedicated to Martin, the Catholic Cabbie, and Precious, of the Livingstone Museum.

Today was basically a laundry day, Zambian style.

I caught a taxi into Livingstone to deal with a ponderous load of washing, and also to visit the local museum. After swerving the usual potholes along the road from the camp site, Martin the driver parked outside an incongruously tall office building. (Livingstone is a fairly short town, with nothing higher than two stories).

He led me through the imposing security gate, past the main entrance and through a tiny passageway where military men in red berets smiled and chatted to other visitors from behind a desk. We walked up several flights of stairs, passing various businesses established in offices. They ranged from internet cafes, telephony centres, language schools, car hire, several things that looked distinctly military and a few "laundromats". All of these bore the same photograph of the Zambian president in a manner akin to al-Assad of Syria.

The first "laundromat" lay behind a door reading "debt collectors". Three women sitting silently behind desks looked suprised to see me there. A couple of suits hung in plastic bags in the corner, but there was no suggestion of what this business actually did. I noticed a framed "certificate of registration" hanging on the wall had yet to fill in the blanks of what it was registered to do, or by whom.

One lady discussed with me that they could do my laundry, but usually just did suits. She could not give me a price estimate, because the lady responsible for laundry wasn't there yet. She wanted to know how many days I would like to wait before picking it up. All this after carefully and silently emptying the bag of laundry items one by one, writing them individually on a receipt slip. After further resultless debate, it became clear they could not realistically expect to wash and dry the clothes within the day, so I left with Martin to find another.

The second place actually had a lot more clothes hanging about, but consisted of a tiny room with a bench. No sign of washing machines, detergents, or any of the paraphenalia you would associate with a laundromat in Australia. The bloke behind the desk was confident it could be done in three hours, and after weighing up the bag in his hands, reckoned it would cost 40,000 kwacha. This is about US$15. I said that sounded expensive (how was I to know what it should have really cost?) and asked for 30,000 (US$10 ish). He agreed to this sooner than I expected, so I think I may have been extorted somewhat. I left unsure if I would see my clothes again, fearing insider trading in secondhand western clothing.

A couple of hours were spent in the Museum, a proudly aspirational place with a lot more dedication and sense of purpose than funding. The four galleries - archaeology and hominid fossils, a mannequin-populated ethnographic village, a natural history area of obscure taxidermied specimens, and a text-heavy memorial to David Livingstone - combined academic journal passages with artworks prepared by primary school students, and statements of dubious origin. Lots of interesting things amongst them however, and the guide was lovely.

I returned to find the laundry had in fact been done, all items accounted for. It was still slightly damp and some items were not as clean as others, but a spell in the sun fixed those faults. I think I may now be the only person on the truck with a complete set of clean clothes.

Speaking of the truck, we've upgraded machines and joined a mob of nine new people who will travel with us to Nairobi. Haven't yet met all of them, but they seem like fun.

Tomorrow we'll be setting off for Victoria Falls. I can see the "smoke that thunders" from the camp site, and microflights fly overhead regularly offering tourists joyflights over them. I'm particularly looking forward to this, as one of my Honours Thesis travelling artists, Thomas Baines, was the first person to bring images of the Falls to European audiences.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Zambia - Canoeing the Zambezi

Dedicated to Dad

I'm writing from Livingstone now, the town near Victoria Falls on the Zambian side. It is raining almost constantly, but it's warm, the forests are lush, and the ambience is great. This camp site is known for hippos wandering about at night, so there are big "Do Not Approach the Hippos" signs everywhere. Likewise for crocodiles resident in the pools.

I have spent this morning canoeing a 15km stretch of the mighty Zambezi river, well above the falls. Three bold yellow canoes set out with two guides, myself and a young English couple, here performing voluntary work for a year in a beekeeping project. The sky was grey and interestingly clouded, and the water colour changed through dark navy blue to light green and almost orange-brown. It was warm to the touch, and much cleaner here as we are closer to its source. The rain was cool, and made wonderful speckling patterns on the flat water.

Hippos eyed us cautiously from the other sides of the river, and crocodiles slid off the sandy and grassy banks. We parked only a couple of metres from a fairly big one - the customs officer of Zimbabwe. The Zambezi marks the border between Zambia and Zimbabwe, so I took the opportunity to smuggle myself across the border, just so I could say I have. The Chobe river also forms the border between Zambia and Botswana, as I learnt when we ferried across with the truck yesterday.

Speaking of things I've learnt, did you know the Chobe river actually reverses it's flow when the Zambezi floods? (The Chobe flows into the Zambezi) Does anyone out there know of any other rivers able to switch their direction?

Whitewater rafting may be cancelled for tomorrow, due to a massive group booking, so I might head off the see the Victoria Falls instead. I'll try to get another post sent tomorrow because Internet is reliable here.

Monday, January 16, 2006

Botswana - Bushbaby Biltong

Dedicated to the Truck Mob

I'm writing from an incredibly slow and unreliable internet cafe by the road in Botswana. Myself and three truck mates beat two other Overland truck groups to this place and we've locked ourselves in place - we're the only ones able to get even a few minutes of email! Huzzah!

Botswana is incredibly flat - the entire country varies in altitude by only a hundred metres. It's covered in scrubland right to the horizon so far. Elephants and giraffes wander across the road and vanish smoothly into the forest within seconds of emerging.

There've been lots of game drives and big animal sightings. Of the Big Five, we've only seen two - Buffalo and Elephant, still waiting on Rhino, Lion and Leopard. But fortunately I've seen them before as a child in Kenya. Plenty of others too - impala, kudu, waterbuck, bushbabies, pythons, vultures, yellow-saddled storks, innumerable exotic birds, servals, hares, mongoose, etc. We had our truck charged by an angry male elephant in musk, who insisted on nonchalantly blocking the road for twenty minutes. Exciting stuff.

And the in-jokes and nicknames are forming rapidly amongst the ten of us on the truck crew. Too many to list here - suffice to say the nickname Doc has stuck for me, and I'm pleased not to suffer the unfortuante titling of Nipples, Sleazy, Dopey, Snorty, or Mr Helen that have been dubbed on others.

Next post hopefully from Tanzania, possibly Livingstone, which is said to be something of an adventure tourism capital.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

South Africa - Johannesberg

Dedicated to Humanity

OK, I go ahead and dedicate a five-mintue post on a tragic internet conection to something as overwhelming as That. Too bad - this is all I can muster, and it may be all you'll here for some time.

First, All's Good Here!!! Totally safe. Hostel surrounded by razorwire tumbled beneath scenic garden, huge walls everywhere, but feels like Yarralumla aside from that. Toured Soweto shantytowns and the Apartheid museum so far, fantastic places, need a bigger post to do them justice. Have met the ten people I'll be trucking with to Nairobi over the next month, quite a good mix of nations, all twenty-something. Look like it's be awesome.

Must go - don't hold your breath for the next post!

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Egypt - Dashing out the Door

Dedicated to the Sibling Exchange Program

"Lions and Tigers and Bears, Oh My!"

Moments left before I leave this country. As Dad always firmly states, everything gets frantic before you go abroad. A few seconds ago I was on the phone to Australian and Egyptian people I shall miss for the next month. A last-minute banking crisis was suddenly eased by a deu ex machina with a taste for dramatic timing. At least the final farewell dinner was leisurely and delicious, with great company that I am sure to miss.

Deepest darkest Africa beckons like a neocolonial fantasy. I don't know how reliable my internet access will be. I'm expecting very little indeed. Subsequently, I will try to get at least one post per nation (seven in total), but I can make no promises. The diary will be extensive, as will my photographs.

Bring on the third major phase of the GT!

Monday, January 09, 2006

Egypt - Preparing for Africa

Dedicated to the Excitement of Admin Days

Today and yesterday have largely been preparation days in advance of the journey across south-east Africa. They've been busy, but who really wants to hear about the hours spent on Lonely Planet's Thorn Tree Forum and the complications of banking during both the Egyptian Eid and the Australian weekend? I'm a nice blogger, I won't bore you with that.

The backpack has been packed, and it's mostly empty. I discovered that everything I've been carrying around before actually fits in the day pack alone - the size of a schoolbag - leaving the big bag empty for stuff!! Very excited, and I have subsequently been studying the quarantine regulations for Australia with serious collecting in mind.

And on another note relating to shopping - now that the Africa leg of the GT has been budgeted and paid for, it looks like I was able to afford the Grand Tour. No debts have been entered, and there's enough money left over to not only cope with an emergency here, but be stable in Australia for renewed savings. Collectively, it has been the most expensive thing I've ever paid for in my life. I'm very pleased that I was able to save for it in full before leaving Australia too.

(If that's all too vague, so far it has cost me as much as my HECs debt is worth. HECS is still unpaid, and it shall stay that way until my taxes deal with it for me)

I'll post once again before leaving Egypt - about 30 hours to go.

Friday, January 06, 2006

Egypt - The Camel Markets

Dedicated to the Bronze Medallist of the Egyptian Camel Marathon

The Camel Market lies a couple of hours beyond Cairo. It's slightly past the outlying farming areas, before the desert begins, and way past the Giza pyramids. The morning light is golden, perhaps more so than usual due to the persistent city smog.

You drive along a dead straight rural road adorned with street stalls selling mandarins, strawberries and unusually coloured carrots. There are also regular signs for the "Wiseness" Language School, and an elaborate theatre set of giant autumn leaves abandoned by the roadside. Donkey carts and industrial machinery slow down traffic, but we still see a number of amazing near-misses from other vehicles moving at high speed.

The camel market itself is not a tourist destination, and it's hard to find. It's in a walled enclosure about the size of a pair of city blocks, end to end like a street. The only hint is the odd camel you might see loitering about the entrance.

I have never seen so many camels before in my life. As we drove in, and continued right through to the far end, they reached out their sinuous giraffe-like necks, gurgled borborygmically and hobbled about on three triple-jointed stilt-like legs. It was like a mammalian version of Jurassic Park.

Men from across Northern Africa wore long flowing dark galabeyas and plain white kaffirs amidst the clouds of dust set drifting by stomping megafauna. They paid little attention to us, and periodically moved their charges about with exclamations in Arabic and the odd thwack with a long stick. This truly didn't seem to bother the camels, who barely flinched and seemed to speak as much Arabic as me. I was suprised by the lack of serious maltreatment of camels there - almost all seemed free from injuries or disease, as you might expect from beasts being prepared for sale, and there were vastly different regional varieties. Somalian camels are tallest and thin, like animated origami stilt puppets, whilst Morrocan camels are dark and luscious. Every camel bore markings indicating its origin, be they painted, tattooed, branded, or strategically shaved.

They are staturesque and graceful creatures. The women I was travelling with would say the same about some of their herders - all beings present possessed striking large eyes, thick lips and sun-tinted skins. Everything moved with an elegance of purpose and assumed immaculate picturesque stances without a second thought. The smell was actually more pleasant than many farms I have visited elsewhere - a faint horsiness, like fermented cut grass, and whiffs of strong black tea.

Camels retail here around 2500 Egyptian pounds minimum, which is around $500 Australian. Most of those at the market were destined for butchers around Egypt. The most prestigious specimen we saw was a velvety chocolate-coloured Morroccan virgin, who was affectionate and loved having her head cradled in our arms. She wore a unique bone tablet around her neck marking out her status. (She wasn't for sale).

Becky and I rode a racing camel around part of the street-like enclosure. He was perhaps the least attractive beast there - lanky, aggro, howling like a wookie and easily nine feet tall. The most awkward part of camel riding is the mounting and dismounting. They'll make it easy for you by lowering to the ground, but the extension of their legs is like unfolding a wonky deckchair. Once up, high over the terrain, it feels very regal. You cross your legs across to one side, and hold the front and back of the saddle with either hand. Serious riders sit differently - the jockey launched our camel into action a few times, showing us a few tricky maneuveres - but this was fine for us.

Our afternoon was spent at the fascinating Australian archaeological dig at Helwan, near Maadi, where we saw the excavation of 1st through 4th-Dynasty tombs, and the illegal encroachment of hastily built apartments by local residents, obliterating priceless archaeological remains in the process. This would have been worth a blog post in itself, but I thought you might like the camels instead.

I have been busy with many other events over the last few days as well, mostly involving long walks and talks around Cairo with Beck. We'll be heading off in different directions over the next few days, but it's all been good fun, and I haven't regretted a moment.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Egypt - The Western Deserts

Dedicated to Becky

There is a seemingly infinite road that flees the congestion of Cairo for the barren Western Deserts.

It is even more featureless than I imagine the Nullarbor Plain to be. Unlike driving into the Sahara through Libya, the landscape simply does not change for most of the journey. It is despairingly horizontal, showered with tiny dark pebbles, and pursues a dead straight path to the horizon. Many, many horizons. It is a continous deja vu, and an agoraphobe's nightmare.

This form of landscape induces a meditative state of mind, and it makes the large logs of petrified wood exposed by railway and road construction all the more exciting. The unnamed truck stop (deep in the middle of somewhere) is a lively centre of activity, bearing a great similarities to an Antarctic scientific research station.

Eventually we met with a border into the Great Sand Sea, where the dunes rise like oceanic waves, threatening to break with all the gusto of a glacier. A slow curve in the road marks a site where we stop to stretch our legs by collecting fossilised nummalites from the sand beside the road, little orange spirals like archaic coinage. These are the single-celled creatures that the Pyramids of Giza are made from.

We reached the oasis town of Bahariya in time to change cars. The three-car 4WD convoy set off into the White Desert to reach our camp in time for the panoramic and luridly intense sunset.

The White Desert is divided into two parts - the Old and the New, determined by the ease of accessibility that came with the introduction of 4WD vehicles. To drive through these deserts is to glide over sand through fields of surreal chalk monoliths resembling icebergs. It looks like a spawning ground for Sphinx, lunging forth from the earth. The air is misty from the fine particles carried by the slight breeze, and the marks of tyres are prominent. There are many campers, attracted by a prospect of New Year's in the desert, but they are all well spaced and there is no litter.

There was an excellent evening under the spectacular array of stars, with great company and hearty hot food. It reached 2 degrees that night, but who would notice when sleeping under a heavy camel hair rug?

The next morning was blindingly white, and revealed the fresh tracks of gerbils and foxes. We found expanses of fascinating specimens of iron pyrites, shaped like nails, flowers, spiky walnuts, figurines, phalluses, and fragile lattice bowls. There were hills made entirely of shimmering quartz crystals, with those at the summit as long as your forearm, crumbling into sands thick with tiny translucent shards. The Black Desert is a landscape of hills created by magma flows and wind erosion over 30 million years. It is a silent and timeless place.

An afternoon was spent seeking out old doors and interesting faces in the oasis town of Bahariya. Quite an album of photographs was taken, but we fear the unique painted door we originally sought has now been destroyed. It is a conservative community that places value on the nearby deserts, which is undoubtedly the source of all revenue from tourists, but has ignored its local cultural heritage to a disappointing extent.

2006 was welcomed upon the hotel roof. We had sought a private place, away from the din of the parties below us, to lie back and watch for shooting stars in the heart of the oasis. It was a romantic and understated beginning to another promising new year.