Friday, October 03, 2008

Zanzibar and Kilimanjaro

Upon joining Kees, we learned we'd be delayed a few days while he sorted out some things like money and carnets for the truck to finish off the trip. Since we were on a beautiful empty beach, with warm water and soft sand at what must've been a very nice hotel 20 years ago (like all places in Africa, "maintenance" is a word that doesn't exist here), it could've been a lot worse. I felt, however, that being so close I simply had to visit Zanzibar.
The others were not too keen on the idea so dad and I got dropped off at the ferry terminal in Dar es Salaam and went over ourselves. We've heard a lot about Zanzibar in the last few weeks. It's one of the biggest tourist destinations in Africa and it seems that every European I've talked to has been there at some point. It's an archipelago (but mainly the 2 islands of Zanzibar and Pemba), once ruled by the Sultans of Oman as their main trading base on the east coast of Africa. The island changed hands a few times in history between the Portuguese, British and Omanis and when it finally became independent, it joined into a union with Tanzania. Culturally, politically, historically and architecturally they've done a lot of their own thing relative to the rest of Tanzania and when you enter Zanzibar, even from Tanzania, they stamp your passport again. For the most part most tourists come to Zanzibar for its famous beaches and diving (which are supposed to be spectacular) and a quick run around Stone Town, the Zanzibari "capital".
Since dad and I were only going for 2 days and we've spent considerable time already being lazy by beaches of one type or another, we opted to concentrate only on Stone Town itself and after running the tout gauntlet upon arrival and checking ourselves into a cheap hotel we set about discovering the place. As far as Africa is concerned, Zanzibar is something different. It was primarily built by the Omanis so has a lot of Islamic Arab architecture (complete with arched windows) and also some Indian influence. The sultans moved their capital here completely in the 1800s so there are a couple of palaces, a fort and several nice hotels right on the waterfront. That is also where the touts are hanging out and they can be quite bad at times, but the real attraction of Stone Town is just wandering around the very narrow alleys getting lost and rediscovering some new historic building or perhaps its ornate doorway or balcony. Like the rest of Africa, everything built before is being left to decay but perhaps that just adds to the character.
Because of its strong Omani connection, Zanzibar is almost completely Muslim and there are quite a few descendants of Arabs and Indians living on the island. They of course have lighter skin and the Islamic look of headscarves and little mosques is ubiquitous. I can't really say how much of what we saw was the real Zanzibar though because it was Ramadan, the fasting month for all Muslims, so during the day the locals tend to be more apathetic and business slows down. As we walked the streets most of the shops were closed, there were surprisingly few people walking around and of course you lose the sights and sounds of street food too. It was nice in a way because you could get more breathing space (except for touts, who could never aspire to be good Muslims) and I suspect also that it keeps things just a little cleaner too. At the same time, you lose a lot of the atmosphere and character during the day and since it is still touristy Africa, it's not really in your best interest to go running around much at night either. They do have street food, mostly fresh fish skewers come out at night and that's good, but everything in Zanzibar is geared toward ripping off tourists and is much more expensive than elsewhere. In any case, I enjoyed it, especially the things that reminded me of my time in the Middle East (I actually did enjoy my time there) and a different kind of look to the same old Africa we've been seeing lately.
It takes all of 10 minutes to walk from one side of Stone Town to the other so we did a few laps along the little alleys and contrary to popular tourist opinion, it's quite difficult to get truly lost as it's so small and you aren't really looking for anything anyway. There are a couple of old mosques and cathedrals, an old Persian bath and the stuff on the waterfront but that's about it. If you'd never been to anywhere Arabic before, I suspect it would be a nice introduction but otherwise it wasn't as exciting as I was led to believe. One other interesting note is that one of the cathedrals was built on the site of the old slave market, and Zanzibar was the last slave trading site on the East African coast and one of its busiest as well. It is all well and good to feel guilty that the Europeans were trading in slaves from Africa, but we must also remember that the Arabs were doing it for much, much longer.
After a full night and day of running around we jumped on an overnight ferry back to Dar es Salaam where the others picked us up and we headed straight out of town.
We spent no time at all in Dar, and after talking to numerous tourists and tour guides who told us that Dar is their least favourite city in East Africa, we had no regrets. Our experience on the northern beaches was quite good, and our experience at the ferry terminal and it's very strong hassles left us very ready to continue to our next destination. (Although I am still confused about all these hassles and scams. How hard is it to walk to an office, be it for a ferry or bus or whatever that clearly says "ticket office for such and such company" and buy one there instead of listening to some sketchy looking dude that wants you to go elsewhere to buy one? It's all well and good to go on vacation and relax but if you're going to forget your brain at home leave the rest of your body there too!)
I told you before that we didn't really know what the plan was after meeting with Kees. Well, as it turns out, he had suddenly decided that since he was here, he wanted to attempt the climb up Mt. Kilimanjaro. I would never've guessed he'd say that, especially after his hatred of Mt. Cameroon but he wanted to try so off we went north to a small village called Marangu at the base of Mt. Kili just below the start of the most popular route up the mountain. Mt. Kilimanjaro is the tallest mountain in Africa and is unique from most tall mountains because it stands more or less alone and not as part of a large mountain range like the Alps or Rockies. It's summit is at roughly 5900m and can be reached without any technical climbing necessary making it the highest point anywhere that you can easily trek up to. Thousands of people of all ages climb up it every year and the word is that in a few more years there will be no more glacier on top so if you want to see snow on a tall mountain at only 3 degrees south you better go soon.
The drive out to the mountain was quite pretty, at times through land that looked very wet and tropical and at other times looked more like the usual dry African savanna. The most notable thing that happened on the drive up was that dad got his first speeding ticket in the truck. Kees had been caught in Tanzania before we met up with him so now all the drivers have a round of tickets under their belts. The buses in Tanzania drive like total maniacs and nearly ran us off the road all day passing us and the traffic cops don't really seem to make any headway on that problem. You can really tell that there is a seriously bad driving problem in this country because the local villagers really run way off the road when they see us coming. Driving at night is already banned for commercial vehicles in Tanzania because the drivers are so terrible and constantly go off the road and in Mbeya when we were buying our bus ticket to Dar there were touts advertising their buses as safe because "we don't let our drivers drink alcohol". Oh joy.... Anyway, the cops do have radar guns, but after two experiences with this in Tanzania, Kees is convinced that they use the radar gun on someone to get a high speed and then use that speed for everyone else and pull over whoever they feel like. We weren't going THAT fast. The good news is that all things are negotiable (since we have no idea what the real fine is anyway and it started at a different price both times) and we ended up getting away after forking out less than $10.
Back to Kilimanjaro.... Well, we checked into a a hotel that some overlanders had recommended to us for camping and it was pretty obvious why. It is a nice place, a converted coffee plantation with lots of space, very quiet (when Bindhi was not trying to attack the owner's dogs) and hassle free. They also give tour leaders in each group their own room (when available) at the price of camping. Camping is about $5, a room $100 and since I am usually the tour leader and checking us into places I ended up with my own room for the 5 days we were waiting for Kees :)
Early on we'd scrapped the idea of us going up the mountain too. The cost has become completely prohibitive and in my opinion the whole mountain has become a tourist trap. A standard 5 day climb will cost about $1000 now with mandatory mountain park fees of $525 and then the fees for your mandatory guides and porters for your tour. We ran into one guy that went up the mountain "alone" and as part of his package had a guide, a cook and two porters. They are obviously trying to employ as many people as possible but porters only make $35 for the entire trip. Somebody else is making a killing. Speaking of which, dozens of people (I've heard as high as more than 100, but it's not really something they want to talk about) die every year trying to go up Kili, usually from altitude sickness and we met one guy who told us that someone had died the day we arrived. Anyway, I'd rather spend a couple of months in Nepal for that kind of money and from the bottom we could see the whole mountain and apart from the fact that it is the tallest in Africa, it is not very exciting. It has a rounded top with a little bit of snow but there are much more impressive looking mountains in Africa as many experienced climbers are quick to point out. We enjoyed our time at the bottom being lazy again and didn't accomplish very much other than reading and cleaning.
Kees came down very exhausted but happy that he'd made it to the top. Apparently there are 2 tops. The very top top and the top that most people go to at the edge of the crater at the top. Of the 7 in Kees' group only 3 made it to the top top (Uhuru peak). His report was much the same as many others, it was really tough, especially on the last day, when they start climbing at midnight to reach the top for sunrise. The altitude gets to everyone to some extent and loads of people are throwing up all over the trail at the end. Mmmmm.... The ones that didn't go to the very top made it to the lower peak too soon and then were too cold to actually wait for the sunrise and started back down right away. As they were going up, the people that couldn't make it because of altitude sickness were sometimes brought down on something resembling a one-wheeled stretcher and seeing someone ill being run down the mountain by a handful of guides has got to be bad for the confidence as you are going up. He was happy he made it though. On to the next set of adventures....
On a more personal note, I decided that I'd had enough and have finally cut all my hair off. Perhaps it's the first step to becoming a respectable citizen again....


At 9:34 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...


Next it will be the clean shaven look, suits, ties, badges...naaaaawwww.

It was great to red your blog, and hear how you are doing. I'm getting the feeling tht Africa has been a dichotomy of nice views, frustrating corruption, and rip offs. At least you keep finding warm places to go. What now?

Hey Maggs, about time you got off your duff and sent out a blog yourself!!!

Hope the journey continues well.
Love and Bear Hugs
The Big Bear

At 1:11 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

CUT YOUR HAIR?!!! I don't believe it! What's next... a job perhaps!, maybe a mortgage! (perish the thought)!... Tee hee. I enjoyed your blog on this one. My sister is leaving for Mt. K. on Oct. 16th (well leaving Vancouver on Oct. 16th). I can't wait to hear her stories and impressions. I was going to get her to read your write up, but maybe not. Take care!


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