All the way to Machu Picchu in a hanging basket

Fancying ourselves intrepid adventurers with wanderlust galore, my husband and I chose to explore Peru by motorcycle – on our own, with no guides, just a vaguely accurate map. From Madre Dios, where the Amazon is born, through the remains of the mysterious Incan empire in the heady heights of the Andean mountains, to the even more mystical giant drawings in the sand left by the ancient Nasca, who conquered one of the the driest deserts in the world; the masses of gull and penguin guano in Paracas; the life threatening – or affirming, you choose – traffic of Lima; and finally, Machu Picchu. Continue reading All the way to Machu Picchu in a hanging basket

Riding the rickshaw taxis of Delhi

Jantar Mantar Road was a favorite venue for street demonstrations in Delhi. I discovered this fact when I took a room at a guest house situated in this corner of Old Delhi, not far from such monuments of the former British presence as the Imperial Hotel and India Gate. Out on the street, a permanent living theater unfolded in front of me. One could walk onto the road at any hour of the day or night and find free entertainment. Continue reading Riding the rickshaw taxis of Delhi

Gabon to Namibia, Part II: Through the Congos to the midnight encampment in Luanda

As a couple of readers may have figured out by now, I recently completed a big wandering trip through Africa, where I slept on the floors of immigration posts and the like, engaged in pitched battles with insects the size of softballs, and ate over 1,000,000 kilograms of spaghetti, all while writing about it each week in a semi-polished 750- to 900-word newspaper column. Wow, it was an amazing feat, let me tell you, and now it’s all here, the whole unvarnished yarn from Tunis to Tangier to Dakar to Cape Town to Nairobi and the vast betweenity. Or most of the story anyway. Some bits didn’t make the cut, actually – details too persnickety or vulgar to put into print. Continue reading Gabon to Namibia, Part II: Through the Congos to the midnight encampment in Luanda

So you want to go from Cameroon to Namibia on public transport? Here’s more than you’d ever want to know

This post is for hard-core overland travel geeks only. The following text is actually a modified version of an email I sent to my friend Luke Aldred, who followed Roger Ward and I down the west coast of Africa from Cameroon to Namibia in February 2011. We’d started in Tangier (actually, they started in London, I in Madrid) and ended in Cape Town, traveling on land — and the occasional boat — the entire way. This post contains practical tips for people attempting the same route, most of which is not covered in any published guidebook. The prices, exchange rates and travel times mentioned here were accurate at the time of travel and may, like everything, be wildly different by the time you read this.

Continue reading So you want to go from Cameroon to Namibia on public transport? Here’s more than you’d ever want to know

Crossing Angola overland: visas and more

Let’s say you’re crazy enough to want to cross overland from west or central Africa (Nigeria, Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon) to Namibia and South Africa. Heck, you may even wish to do it on public transport. First off, don’t be put off by the ignorant hysterics who tend to populate online travel forums saying it’s practically impossible. Thisroute isn’t for everybody, but it’s perfectly doable.

Continue reading Crossing Angola overland: visas and more

Does that horse come with Tartar sauce?

The Savage Blog is reactivatied! Scott Spires took the train a thousand miles from Moscow to Kazan, once home to Bulgars and khans, now capital of the semi-autonomous Russian republic of Tatarstan, a place with its own Kremlin — and where horse stomachs are served in a variety of styles. This is the kind of story that reminds us that the world is indeed still a big place; I myself knew virtually nothing about Kazan before I read this travelogue from his 2007 trip.

Continue reading Does that horse come with Tartar sauce?

In the end, it was nothing special

I saw a lion today. In eight months in Africa, I’d yet to see a single lion. Now I can go home.

I’m writing my final “Around Africa” column from inside a tent in Kenya’s Masai Mara Game Reserve, where I’m on a three-day safari, the sole purpose of which, from my point of view, is to see lions in the wild. I’d resolved not to leave Africa until I’d done so, and today it happened: a rather skinny lioness, mouth agape, lazily stalking a mother buffalo and her calf until she decided it was too much bother and she’d rather lie down and enjoy the sunset. Frankly, she looked a lot like they do on the Discovery Channel.

Reflecting on the past eight months, I come back to a quotation from Shunryo Suzuki, a Japanese Zen master: “As a Chinese poem says, ‘I went and I returned. It was nothing special. Rozan famous for its misty mountains; Sekko for its water.’ People think it must be wonderful to see the famous range of mountains covered by mists, and the water said to cover all the earth. But if you go there you will just see water and mountains. Nothing special.”

Make no mistake. Africa is full of wonder and amazement. Suzuki uses “nothing special” as a metaphor for a state of mind said to be achieved by daily practice of a certain type of zazen meditation, but it applies quite literally to the traveler seeking extraordinary experiences. Before you achieve it, you think it must be something amazing, but once you have it, you see that it’s nothing more than what was right in front of you the entire time.

The unnamed Chinese poet isn’t let down by what he sees, no more than I was by Africa. The mountains and lakes are as beautiful as he’s heard. But if he came seeking an inner transformation, something that changes the way he perceives and interprets the world, the poet realizes he’s been scratching at the wrong itch.

SOMETHING BIG. When I set out to travel around Africa overland in October 2010, I wanted to push myself to do something big. The overland route down the west coast of Africa isn’t a well-trod path like Cairo to Cape Town or Istanbul to Kathmandu. I’d taken long overland trips before, but never such a distance: tens of thousands of kilometers through 21 countries, traveling almost entirely by bus, train, taxi and boat, never going anywhere near an airport check-in desk from Madrid down to Cape Town and up again to Dar es Salaam. In sections of this route, the logistics of public transport are undocumented by any guidebook. Yes, I admit it: I felt special doing it.

Traveling overland yields a view of the landscape, both cultural and geographic, that I would have missed flying city to city. From Morocco, a land whose tiled courtyards, fountains and riads seem to have stepped out of a Taschen coffee-table book, the route crosses the Atlas Mountains and the Sahara, hitting the noise and color of sub-Saharan Africa at the Senegal River. The red dust of the Sahel then gives way to rainforest overgrowth in central Ghana, and from there southward, around the great bend in the African coast, the jungle grows in great patches interspersed with savannah and grasslands. The track becomes rough, and with tourists few and far between, the conversations become warmer and less geared towards trying to sell you something.

At the Congo River, the geographic progression reverses itself: baobabs make their reappearance midway through Angola, the land becoming drier, culminating in the twisting red lines of the Namib desert dunes, until finally, in the Cape’s monied winelands, you’re back again in style-book territory.

AFRICA ON THE MOVE. But if the journey itself was extraordinary, most of what I found along the way was more striking for being so commonplace. You already know the visual clichés: cackling child soldiers, baring white teeth and waving AK47s, shaking you down for bribes; the Congo described as a “river of blood,” a wound that never stops bleeding. Some people come looking for the opposite, like a dimpled orphan that opens their eyes to the precious beauty of all humanity. But in the end, it’s just you. Plain old you again, the same nervous ticks you had before, the same songs stuck in your head.

Granted, there were a lot of cute children. None of them had guns. No blood, save for a few scrapes of my own. Almost no bribes. I did, however, find a continent on the move. Most Africans hardly think twice about sitting 10 hours crammed into a bush taxi to visit relatives. I rode countless vehicles packed with housewives carrying sacks of onions and bundles of plantains from town to town, small-scale merchants commuting to sell electronic goods, and some who spend a entire day getting to a nearby village only to attend a work colleague’s mother’s funeral. Through a sustained experience of the unglamorous, it’s easier to go beneath the surface strangeness, to see that even in the most seemingly alien parts of the world, people have the same basic needs, loves and foibles as anywhere.

There’s your Chinese poet’s epiphany. Somewhere along the way the strange became approachable. In Africa, as anywhere, bread gets moldy and milk goes bad, mothers die and babies giggle and hearts are shattered into a million pieces and, yes, some wounds heal and some don’t, and it’s wonderful, it’s horrible — but most of all, it’s nothing special.

This is the 31st and final installment of “Around Africa,” a weekly column in The National of Abu Dhabi.


<– PREVIOUS IN THE SERIES: Across the mighty Zambezi from Zimbabwe to Zambia




Across the mighty Zambezi from Zimbabwe to Zambia

In the glow of the taxi’s headlights, a guard appears from behind a gate. He opens it and lets the car into the darkened driveway. Power’s out in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe’s second city. The streets are pitch black. So is the guest-house compound.

Inside, a receptionist sits at the kitchen table, lit only by a candle, across from a man, probably her boyfriend, listening to music played from a mobile phone. She introduces herself as something like Ida, but I can’t tell if she’s pronouncing it with two syllables or three.

“Like the opera?” I ask. “How do you spell it?”

“I-D-A-H.” She’s got skinny arms and legs and a gap between her two front teeth, and she laughs even though I’ve not said anything terribly funny. It’s eerily quiet here. “What does it mean?” she asks me.

“What does what mean?

“My name.”

“What does your name mean,” I reply, putting it as statement, not a question. “In English it means Idah. You.”

She peers at the form I’m filling in by candlelight. “Scott,” I say. “In English, my name means Scott.”

The guard leads me to a dorm room behind the main building. There’s nobody else in it, and since I lost my flashlight months ago, I return and ask Idah for a candle. I light it, place it on one of the beds, lock the door and absorb a feeling I’ve missed while traveling with others these last few months: the aloneness – not always loneliness, but sometimes, yes – of travel, a feeling that’s at once banal and overpowering. I soak in it, a stranger in a strange place, Zimbabwe, with nothing now connecting me to the rest of my world, no left messages or postcards, neither internet nor mobile phone, nobody except Idah knowing exactly where I am at this moment, staring at a candle in a dark, empty room.

I snap back to it when the power finally comes back on, noticing I’m not alone at all. There are ants covering – and I mean covering – whole sections of the floor. They’re crushed under foot and crawl up my ankles when I stand up. I decline Idah’s offer to spray the room and sweep them out the door, but like those beads I tried to throw into the sea, they return. I finish the night watching African music videos with Idah and her boyfriend.

AT VICTORIA FALLS. I’m rather more delighted when people I met earlier in my travels start creeping back into my life. In Victoria Falls, I run into a Dutch-Belgian couple I’d met months ago in Cameroon. They’re still making their way south to Cape Town in their own car, coming from Namibia in the west; I’m heading north and east. It’s a chance meeting, and we head to the Falls together.

The Zambezi River, I’ve heard said, is higher this year than at any point in the last 20. The spray from the cascades is so heavy that it’s effectively pouring upwards, and what goes up comes down again upon us. There’s therefore more frolicking than viewing on the Zimbabwe side, for at the lookouts opposite the main falls, there’s nothing to be seen but a great white mist.

I’m rarely alone from here onwards: Across the river in Zambia, I meet another travel writer, Marie Javins, who’s inadvertently been following in my footsteps down the west coast of Africa. We’d begun swapping stories online after Marie found my blog, and we soon discovered we’d have a one-day overlap in Livingstone, the town named after the purported discoverer of the Falls. Later, in Lusaka, the Zambian capital, I hang out with an American veterinary student studying Zambian chickens. We’d met briefly at a hotel in Togo. In Lusaka, we end up at an Indian restaurant in a posh hotel where a one-armed singer with a wooden hand serenades us with easy-listening classics backed by a band of musicians stiffer than the undead. I remark that it feels like we’ve stepped into a David Lynch film.

Finally, the Tanzania-Zambia Railway, or Tazara, built in the early 1970s with Chinese investment, a two-day journey on a rattling train that cuts through national parks and reserves, including Selous Game Reserve. My cabin mates spot an elephant and a giraffe. Buried in a bad Norwegian crime novel, I see only impala and wildebeests. The terminus is Dar es Salaam, the port and main city of Tanzania, whence I catch a 20-minute plane ride to Zanzibar, the first time I’ve left the ground since flying from Tunis to Madrid in October. I’m here on the island now, staying with a resident I met on a camping trip in Namibia two months ago.

BACK IN ZANZIBAR. In a few days, I’ll head up to Nairobi to meet another friend from a faraway place, from a different life, who just happens to be in East Africa at the moment. We’re planning a short safari, for in eight months in Africa, I’ve yet to see a single lion, and I refuse to leave the continent until I do so.

Here in Zanzibar, I’m essentially back to where I began in Africa last summer, on the Swahili Coast, having circumnavigated three quarters of the continent almost entirely by land. I’ll probably feel thrilled about that some day, hopefully soon, but as I sit on the beach gazing at a languorous Zanzibar sunset, I can only recall the words of one of the two teenage British volunteers with whom I’d shared the train cabin from Lusaka. I’d already put my feet up on the berth as they boarded the train. “Wow,” one of them said. “You look really tired.”

This is the 30th installment of “Around Africa,” a weekly column in The National of Abu Dhabi.

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… because the world is still a big place