Sunday, August 24, 2008

In search of the big five

The friendly South African couple looked perplexed.
“You are touring southern Africa, but you are not going on safari?” asked the astonished husband.
“I came to meet people, not see animals,” was my glib, but honest response. “But if I bump into an elephant I will be sure to say hello.”
Nigel on the other hand had a hankering to see at least one of the big five – though we had to admit that we weren’t really sure what constituted the big five.
“Lion, rhino, hippo, elephant and giraffe?” speculated my husband.
“Not sure, but are we really going to spend £1000 we don’t have on three nights in a luxury tent in the bush so you can pretend to be David Attenborough?”
“I suppose not,” was his muted reply, but I could tell he really wanted to see at least one big animal.
As it turned out our first sighting was purely by accident. We were on our way to Mukuni village, on the outskirts of Livingstone, when I saw three elephants by the side of the road, enjoying a late lunch.
“Oh, there are some elephants,” I thought, as if spotting elephants on the roadside was a daily occurrence.
“Oh my god, there are elephants, look Nigel elephants…oh my god, they are huge,” I screamed when I fully realised what I was looking at.
Nigel was ecstatic, and I have to admit I was rather taken with the lumbering beasts.
Walter, our guide (more from him later) explained that they had probably wandered over from Livingstone’s small game reserve, or even Chobe National Park in Botswana.
“They eat all day, every day,” he said. “There are so many elephants in Chobe that they have eaten all the trees, so some come cross the border to feed.”
We were so taken with our accidental encounter with the biggest of the big five that we signed up for Walter’s game drive the very next day.
The fact that it was only $90 for two people and ten minutes drive from our guesthouse also helped make up our mind.
“And I have always wanted to see a giraffe,” said Nigel, revealing a deep desire he had managed to keep hidden until now.
Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park is tiny compared to reserves such as the Serengeti in Tanzania but it was big enough for us.
We soon forgot the early morning cold as we gazed in wonder at a solitary old elephant demolishing a bunch of saplings, laughed at the baby baboons baring their backsides and speculated on whether warthogs are uglier than wildebeest.
Groups of graceful impala rushed everywhere, cheeky ververt monkeys provided us with a floorshow around every corner and Nigel couldn’t resist shouting “zebra crossing” when one wandered across the path in front of us.
And there were giraffes. We watched mesmerised as the ungainly, dinosaur-like creatures lumbered across the ground in search of more trees to chew on. Even I was impressed. Nigel was ecstatic.
We didn’t spot the park’s remaining rhino – poachers had killed its companions last year and our only sighting of hippos was the top of some heads as they floated in the Zambezi river.
But that didn’t matter. We had seen a giraffe enjoy its breakfast. 

PS The big five are, according to my Google search, the lion, leopard, buffalo, elephant and rhino. One out of five ain't that bad...

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Simai Faki Simai

Mr Simai Faki Simai is a taxi driver extraordinaire. In the hour it took for him to drive us from Stone Town to the east coast of Zanzibar he managed to give us a full briefing on the island’s political history, a run down on its agricultural industry and for good measure throw in some juicy gossip about organised crime – mostly run by Italians according to him.
By the time we got to Paje we felt we had known him for years, so we were relieved when he said our hotel was “very good”.
It turned out he was only being polite. When he arrived to pick us up after our four-day chill out by the Indian Ocean, he whispered: “how was your hotel?”
“Not so good,” shrugged Nigel.
“Yes, yes,” responded Simai cheerfully. “It is bad hotel, you would have much better staying at the Beach Bungalows next door. This one has too many Italians, sometimes they wear nothing on the beaches.
“We have to hide our eyes,” he ended with a flourish and a grin.
“But why didn’t you tell us it was bad?” I asked, somewhat surprised at his reticence, given that he had told us everything about his island, his family and a few other things beside.
“You told me I had a reservation,” he said sadly, “I thought it was too late to change it.”
And he was right. We were mugged for 360 dollars for four nights accommodation as soon as checked in, so we were forced to stay put, stranded in the midst of a gaggle of noisy beach bunnies, served by staff who couldn’t care less and kept awake by DJ Marvin Gaye Junior. Great name, terrible play list.
But the surrounding scenery more than compensated for the shortcomings of our “funky” beach resort.
The East coast of Zanzibar is so beautiful it stunned me into silence. There are no adjectives to describe the shades of blue in the sea, colour that is alive. The sand is white, so white it burns your eyes and nature’s final flourish are the tall palm trees which fringe the coast and provide a modicum of shade in the midday sunshine.
But even beauty palls after a while and we were mightily relieved to return to the calm oasis of the Abuso Inn in Stone Town.
As we headed into the town, the island’s only fire engine went screaming past us.
“By the time it is filled with water, it is always too late,” said Simai solemnly. “I wonder where it is going?”
The Paje Beach Bungalows, we later discovered. Five minutes after we left our hotel, next door to the bungalows, they caught fire and were razed to the ground.
As we headed out for our final morning coffee before leaving Zanzibar, Simai appeared from nowhere.
“I wanted to say goodbye,” he said breathlessly. “Thank you for coming to our island, and I hope to see you again soon.”
And thank you Simai, for showing us your beautiful island. And for the green coconut milk. It really does “clean out your kidneys”.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Zanzibar siesta

Time has suddenly stood still. I am in Zanzibar, the spice island. I had not planned to visit here when I started this adventure, yet I am now loath to leave it.
So much so that our week long stay has slid into a second week. We spend our days wandering round the alleys of Stone Town, stopping for coffee – wonderful coffee – and to stare at the amazing buildings, all 1700 of them, that were build by at the height of the island’s trading power in the late 19th century.
At night we eat fresh fish and drink passable but expensive red wine before falling into a deep sleep, enlivened by vivid Malarone induced dreams.
I have started dressing like a 21st century hippy, floppy trousers, flip flops and beads. I have stopped blow drying my hair and no longer get withdrawal symptoms if I don’t check the BBC and Scotsman news pages every day.
Even when I do log on, it takes so long for a website to open that by the time the headlines show up, I am already bored. Scotland seems a very long way away.
And yet it is not. I am sitting in a beach side bar, facing the Indian Ocean. It serves great food, good coffee and has free wifi. It is also the exact spot where David Livingstone’s body lay while waiting for a ship to take him home for the final time.
Tomorrow we head to the island’s east coast. I may be gone for some time.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Happy birthday Mr Senator

Happy birthday Senator Obama, - forty-seven today. Let’s hope he celebrates his forty-eighth birthday in the White House.
I was amused to read that John McCain and his mongrel attack dogs are attacking Senagtor Obama for being the world’s biggest celebrity.
Given that his staff put Britney Spears and Paris Hilton at number two and three respectively, I think we can safely assume that McCain’s assertion that Obama is number one is nothing more than the political panic of a desperate old man.
Everyone knows that Madonna is the world’s biggest celebrity, and that Paris Hilton is only famous in the over-heated world of celebrity magazines. Even there she is running well behind silly Sienna Miller and her tangled love life.
Senator Obama is huge in Africa however – and for all the right reasons.
“Obama, he’s in my blood sister”, a young Tanzanian man greeted me the other day when he spotted my limited edition Scotland for Obama t-shirt.
A Swahili magazine charting his rise to global prominence has just hit the streets of Dar Es Salaam and the newspapers in Malawi and Tanzania carry stories of Obama’s campaign every day.
The prospect of a son of Africa becoming the President of the United States of America has energised this continent, just as it has excited the rest of the world.
Sorry Mr McCain, but we all want someone who understands the world as it is, not as it was, nor as it is viewed by the readers of People magazine.

Foodie heaven

A few months ago I would happily spend a three figure sum in Waitrose every Saturday afternoon, then go back to the nearest Marks and Spencer food-hall on Tuesday evening to forage for treats, as there was “nothing” in the fridge for dinner.
I admit that much of our supermarket bill was wine – decent Fair-trade red for weeknights and a bottle, or several, from the fine wine section for the weekend, but even taking into account our alcohol habit, we spent an obscene amount of money on food.
But organic baby plum tomatoes, cold pressed extra virgin olive oil and fresh Parmesan are now tastes and textures from a different world.
Since coming to southern Africa we have dined almost every night on chips, cheese omelet and “cut” tomatoes. If we are feeling adventurous we will sometimes opt for a Spanish omelet and have even been known to splash out on vegetarian spaghetti, but most nights it is cheese omelet and chips for two.
Our staple meal is washed down with a glass - or two - from whatever box of South African red is available, and followed not by a Gu chocolate pot, but by either a Bounty or bar of Dairy Milk. Both are made in Kenya - like many of the products on the fancier supermarket shelves.
We start the day with toast, honey and indifferent coffee and for lunch we usually have…chips.
We are drinking far too many bottles of Coke and Fanta, have re-discovered our taste for salt – how on earth did I ever eat chips without salt – and have realised that life doesn’t come to an end if we don’t have our daily fix of Green and Blacks.
Far from feeling deprived, food has once again become a necessity rather than self-indulgence. A treat now is not a night at Martin Wishart’s eating rhubarb foam, but an in-season, unadorned avocado from a street market.
However, this might all be about to change because on Wednesday we leave for a few days in Zanzibar, the spice island.
I hadn’t realised, or more likely I had forgotten that Zanzibar is also the birthplace of Freddie Mercury. According to our guidebook, Freddie guides the menu at Mercury’s bar and restaurant in Stone Town from his dressing room in heaven.
Mama mia, mama mia, let me go...omelet and chips a la Freddie. Not even Anthony Worrall Thomson could dream that up.