Thursday, May 31, 2012


After catching a bit of actual city life in Harare last weekend - African music and a few jam sessions, the works - and not nearly enough bananas on the plantation, I headed out of the city on a crammed minibus around 7:30 on Sunday morning.

Squished in the passenger seat with my guitar and two more passengers, overland it went through the tiny town of Rusape to the even more remote Juliasdale. Apple country! I tumbled out the minibus with all my bags more or less on top of about a dozen ladies trying to sell me bags of different varieties: "Green Apple! Two Dollar! Fuji! Two Dollar!" I fought my way out of apples being shoved into my face, marvelled for a moment at the lush, green, forest-covered hills surrounding the place and crossed the street  to the hotel where I was meeting my next host, Rob. (I had been worried about finding the right place, but in a town that consists of a hotel, a gas station and a tiny supermarket, the hotel is pretty easy to find.)

Beautiful country, flat top acacias 

As it turns out, Rob is running the Ben Gula project, aiming to restore a piece of land in Nyanga to its original flora (rather than the pines and gum trees that have taken over), and more importantly building a de-colonized community organized by tribal principles, rather than European structures. So far, it's just him and his best friend Kevin, both Zimbabwean war vets, living in a stunningly beautiful valley near the sacred Susurumba mountain and getting things rolling - Rob has long hair and a big beard and looks like he came straight from the 70s, Kev just returned three weeks ago after living in SA for 35 years.

Sunday I spent recovering from my journey, with some delicious food prepared by Kevin, a bit of walking on the marvellous rocks, and an explanation by Rob on how he became one of only two white chiefs in Zimbabwe.

Nyanga looks too much like Europe!

Rob on the trampoline
On Monday, I got taken on a tour of Nyanga district. They used to have a flourishing tourism business which is now mostly derelict; we stopped by the recently reopened Rhodes Hotel, Cecil Rhodes' former residence, and were served the worst tea and scones I've had in my life. But they did have a trampoline.
 And Nyanga city had dusty roads, delicious sadza ne nyama for just a dollar fifty, and no other white person in sight.

The next day Rob and I went to explore what he calls the "fort", an amazing assembly of ancient stone structures tucked away between the rocks in the mountains. The vegetation up there in the shade is the most jungle-like I've seen during all of my travels, and the ruins are mysterious and almost magical. Three rings of fortification, filled with circular foundations of something - gold mining basins? Houses? At this point, no one knows.

See the stone rings in the jungle?

Finally I went on a trip to Honde valley with Kevin. Across a mountain pass from Juliasdale the climate is completely different, warm, tropical. Mozambique starts on the other side of the valley, and the rocks are full of gold-carrying veins of quartz.
Crossing the Honde river, note the quartz in the rock
To the Kraal
This is prime banana growing land, and the bananas we bought at the side of the road were tiny and delicious! We came to deliver some wood to the family of a friend of Rob's - they live in a proper round hut up in the mountains, with a traditional kitchen hut next door and a giant turkey gobbling in the yard.

 We also visited the friend's son at his school out there, and  us two white people were the excitement of about 50 little black children - first they kept running off and giggling as soon as we moved, then they got very excited about my camera and all tried to cram into one picture with Kev.

Kevin + a bunch of school kids

While I stayed at Susurumba, in the shaded valley by the river, I really didn't want to leave - it feels like home! I even introduced the community to some of my fermentation projects - the local women will be making Sauerkraut from now on - and started some Susurumba sourdough. Alas, the two of them are heading to Victoria falls this weekend, change of plans, and I'm heading out towards Mozambique tomorrow. This is going to be interesting, my Portuguese will be put to the test for real now.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

H-town and the bush

I spent the last little while between Harare, the buzzing capital of Zimbabwe, and the bush way South near the Botswana border. How did that happen?

Last week I hopped on what they call a "chicken bus", 13 hours from Victoria Falls to Harare. Overnight, with stops in tiny towns, lots of standing passengers and police controls who just smiled knowingly when the driver assured them in Shona that everyone standing up or sitting on the floor was actually employed on the bus. The land here is much more arable, women at our stops began selling bananas and oranges dirt-cheap from baskets on their heads. 
Check out the women balancing boiled eggs on their heads!
The only problem: the strong US-dollar, and the unavailability of coins - you always have to buy a dollar's worth (read: a huge heap) of everything. I was with Norman's cousin Willy, and him and I demolished _a lot_ of oranges on the way.

In Harare I realized I couldn't actually get in touch with my couchsurfer, and for some reason the internet informed me that the only backpackers' hostel in town was all booked... Which is when I met Danei, a 25-year old Harare girl who was sitting next to me in the internet cafe and offered spontaneously to let me stay at her place. She shares a big house in one of the poorer suburbs with only her brother, Bismarck, and took me there on an overfull taxi bus. Here I got to take a sponge bath and clean myself up - there are complete bathrooms with showers and everything, but the water pressure isn't sufficient to actually use them.  
Danei and her house

Bismarck, myself and my kind host in the kitchen
Then they took me grocery shopping, cooked me a full Zimbabwean dinner with chicken, okra, sadza and everything - on the fire, because Harare is haunted with power cuts and the electricity went out just as Danei was about to prepare dinner!

The next morning I went out to meet with Willy and see his much poorer and more rural suburb, Epworth. 
Epworth - almost a township
I was surprised to find his home a proper little family farm, with maize, avocado trees (avocados are everywhere here - I think I've eaten at least one per day since I got here!)and even a few cows. He proudly showed me his rabbits, and all the kids we walked by stared wide-eyed at the white girl in their neighborhood, and started to giggle excitedly when I waved at them.

Willy and the rabbits

Then, after another evening at Danei's house and an impromptu african dance party in their kitchen, I met up with my couchsurfer Chris in the morning and went through a wild goose chase picking up and dropping off stuff for his borehole drilling business all over H., and buying veg at the huge outdoor market, Mbare Musika. 
Pea sellers at Mbare
The evening was spent at Chris's friend Andy's million-dollar mansion on the outskirts of the city, where we invited Danei along for a Braai. Gold-mining magnates and the Shona girl from next door - what a cultural encounter!

American and Zimbabwean miners discussing
The next morning I got to visit one of the guys' gold mines, and then we headed out for a 4-day hunting adventure in the bush. While the guys were hunting, I enjoyed living in a butternut field, eating fresh Impala, coming along for tracking and picking watermelons right off the ground. 
The water delivery

Tracking a wounded animal - much like a sinister treasure hunt!
The place we were staying was "redistributed" by the Mugabe government to a Zimbabwean civil war vet who is running it subsistence-style, with a few butternuts, maize and tomatoes, and a barely working vehicle. 
The farmer and his broken motor
No fences, no management of the game (including leopard and hyena, high-value prey), no profit. Struggling to get enough water for the tomatoes, and to get the squash to market. The white Zimbabweans I was with - who were incidentally travelling with their own domestic, Elliott, who rode in the back of the pickup and took care of making fire, chopping vegetables and cleaning up the camp, in the middle of the bush - kept talking about how in their childhood, the farms were beautiful and actually well-run. Everything has two sides I suppose.

Yesterday we returned to civilization, and after another night at the mansion/lodge and some good soaking in the hot tub I moved over to my new friend Chris the couchsurfer's house. 
Chris at the gate of the president's backyard banana plantation
Actually, it's a little hut in a banana plantation, in one of the most high-rent areas of Harare - who knows how that happened, but it's a pretty interesting place to be staying! He just hit water on his property the other day, and electricity gets cut only rarely, because the president lives three doors down - but there is no running water so far. I'll keep you posted if he gets his internet connection up and running any time soon!

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Zambezi Rain

The last few days in the company of my new friends on the bus Janis are over.

Chobe sunset

River cruise
After the Chobe cruise, we headed for the Zimbabwean border. Norman and Servius are both from Zim, and prepared us for some of the peculiarities of our next stop: there are three currencies in use at this time, the Botswana Pula, the SA Rand, and the US Dollar. Prices are in USD, and then you can pay in whatever currency you like, at more or less favorable exchange rates - and if they don't have proper change, they'll give you candy instead.

Greeted by a warthog - Pumba! - at the border crossing, we headed to Victoria Falls.
Country of Pumba
These falls are nothing short of amazing. The native word for them means "smoke that thunders", and they are about 100 times as awe-inspiring as the Niagara Falls. They are permanently surrounded by clouds of rain that gets propelled up in the air by the gigantic amounts of water falling down, and standing on the rocks in that rain is considered a ritual cleansing by the local tribes.
At the falls
Standing there, on the slippery outmost point called Danger Rock, with the deafening roar of the Zambezi in my ears, river water coming at me from all sides, the sun a dim light somewhere on the other side of the clouds and surrounded by rainbows I did feel like some sort of cleansing must be happening... the closest to spiritual I've felt in a long time.
Eddy from Holland capturing the view
In the evening we had the last dinner with the overland people, an amazing buffet at the Kingdom hotel. I ate Sadza (pap) and yorkshire puddings in the same meal, and impala stew (the most delicious game stew I've ever had) as well as a bit of stir-fried crocodile on top of my salad (tastes like fish-flavored chicken meat, very interesting).

Then I had a great night out with Norman and Ines, the translator of the accommodated tour running parallel to us - drinking Castle Pilsener at the local bars, meeting just about everyone who works in the tourism business in Vic Falls and watching blonde and blue-eyed Ines getting hit on constantly. One guy kept telling her he was an ostrich...

Yesterday I traded everything I had in my backpack and didn't need anymore - a worn-out pair of trainers, a smelly shirt, and a broken phone - for yam-yam lucky charms made from the serpentine of the river benches, bracelets and jewellery at the local market. In the process I met Simba, who took the phone from me and gave me about a pound of yam-yams, twenty copper bracelets and an elephant tail ring for it - we're great friends now! As I was walking away without shoes or phone, and telling people I had neither money nor goods left to trade, one of the marketeers told me to sit with him and learn how to make a leather bracelet, and gave me one as a gift afterwards. And some marimba players waved me over and made me play with them (until my trusty companions from the bus got bored of watching the spectacle).
Gifted bracelet

Finished the day with a glass of Pernod on the terrace of the super-fancy Vic Falls hotel - best secret ever: 3$ for a drink buys you hours of lounging on a beautiful terrace overlooking the falls! And on the way back the added bonus of stumbling across a few elephants that had wandered into town and were snacking on some bushes just about 2m away from us.
Vic Falls Hotel terrace

Today I said goodbye to the last members of the group, and will be travelling solo from now on. Norman's cousin is joining me on the night bus to Harare tonight.

Beef is cheap in Botswana

The last time I managed to connect was in Maun, Botswana, with news from Etosha and lots of wildlife stories. My first night in Botswana, after the overland truck almost crashed into one of the many cows roaming the streets freely even after dark, I spent sleeping in a traditional bushman hut made from reed. Turns out these insulate a lot better than our tents, and I wasn't freezing for the first time in ages! The same campsite that had these huts also showed a traditional bushman dance in the evening, but that whole experience seemed a little bit contrived... lots of Germans sitting around a group of very small indigenous people doing a "trance dance" for their audience.

After the bushmen however we moved on to explore the majestic Okavango delta. Without the big overland bus, just with our tents and transported by members of the local tribe who pushed us and our luggage in gondola-like little boats through labyrintine canals to a remote campsite. A hole in the ground as the toilet, and elephant poo thrown on the fire as mosquito repellent (surprisingly, that smells more like incense than like excrement). The real thing.
I went for a swim in the Okavango water, and on the second day I was commisioned to cook dinner for the whole group - and pulled off a pot of chili and, more amazingly, a lovely loaf of bread cooked over the campfire! It didn't look like it was going to work out at first, because I had never done it before and the bread wasn't cooking properly and I was getting really nervous we weren't going to eat... but then it miraculously worked out :)

I also saw some hippos in their natural habitat - they are scary creatures, and make sounds like giant pigs. And when they get mad, or try to impress each other, they do backflips in the water; quite something to watch! At night little frogs sounded like an orchestra of tiny brass bells all around us.

After two nights, and at least two of the girls in our group freaking out utterly and completely about the presence of spiders and insects in their lives (one of them couldn't sleep at night because of it), we headed back. Unshowered, tired, smelling like elephant poo smoke. On the truck ride back from the boat station we were greeted with cans of the local light beer, St. Louis, at around 10am in the morning. It absolutely hit the spot - apparently people here consume those types of 3.5% beers like soft drinks all the time.

From here, on to the last stop in Botswana, a place called Planet Baobab. It has, well, Baobab trees - I wasn't too imressed. But they have a very nice bar, and we met up with another tour going the same direction. Their translator Ines, Norman, myself and a few other Nomad people spent the evening practicing Malaria prophylaxis by Gin and tonic between enormous tree trunks, on chairs made from cow furs. And took over, oh luxury, one of the little chalets with proper beds in them instead of our usual tents, for a refreshed start on to the Chobe river the next day.

Chobe was great - the last stop before the Zimbabwean boarder, a big trans-frontier park between Botswana, Zimbabwe and Zambia. I decided I really needed to do all my laundry here. By hand. Norman says I'm now ready to become an African wife, and he'll get lots of cows for me... I just know I'm never doing that again. Aside from this life-changing experience, we also went on a sunset cruise of the Chobe. Proper African Safari - close close close views from comfortable seats of hippos, elephants, crocodiles and the most spectacular sunset. Lots of great pictures, and a little bit of solace.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Shumba means Lion

In the promised land last week, my tour picked up another three Germans who actually need a translator - it's great, because now I get to transfer all my guide's tales and stories into German, and have a purpose in life. Other than washing dishes.

After my last update we headed up North to the Spitzkoppe mountains, and a remote bush camp. No showers, and what we call Plumpsklo in German. The night sky was spectacular, and the mountains stored the day's heat well enough that I decided to sleep outside. I was rewarded with the first moonset of my life, and the most brilliant view of the milky way and Southern sky I've ever seen.

From there on to a traditional Himba tribe village. A project for orphaned children, it's a proper old-school collection of dung-and-termite-dust huts around a cattle kraal, and the women look like out of a history book. They color their skin with ochre to protect it from the sun, and their lower front teeth are knocked out at age 12, because it's their tradition. Makes one appreciate being born in a place like Western Europe. They were friendly though, and bombarded us with questions (in Himba, translated into English by a male guide who went to a regular school and spoke English). About our age, our relationship status, our country of origin. Much to the shagrin of a young American couple on our tour who at the time didn't seem all too sure about their own relationship status...

At the Himba camp, I was advised not to sleep outside unless I wanted goats to lick my face, or mischievous jackals to steal my shoes. So I resorted to my tent. Our main guide Norman on the other hand went and slept on Janis the bus's roof - neat solution.

After a stop in Outjo, a tiny Namibian village with a German bakery, proper pudding Plunder and internet at the premium rate of about 10USD per hour, we headed on to Etosha national park. From my two Zimbabwean guides I learned the Shona words for all the animals we saw - shumba the lion was definitely a highlight, and so were the mzou akanaka, the beautiful elephants we saw mud-bathing at the water hole at night. Plus gnus, zebras, and springbokke galore. Steinboks are actually tiny and look a lot like rabbits, and the birds here have the funniest names. When Norman told me about the African Hoepoe (pronouced "hoopoo") I thought he was kidding, until he showed me the hoepoe's entry in his little birdwatching book.
And giraffes are the funniest sight when they try to drink - they have to sort of spread their legs and slooowly lower their heads; it takes them about 23 seconds to even reach the water!

I went in for the roof-sleeping the first night in Etosha, climbed up the bull bar and made my bed under the stars. Fantastic! Except for the honey badger that made a huge commotion trying to break into our camp site's trash can right around midnight. First I thought it was some drunkard stumbling about, then I realized what was going on, and I started making noise from above until the wild beast decided to give me some peace.

From two nights in the park we headed on to a welcome rest in Windhoek, the pretty tiny and dead capital of Namibia. The biggest highlights were the beds we got to sleep in, the pool at the guest house we stayed at, and the most delectable extra-extra-rare Kudu steak I had at Joe's beer house. Oh, and of course the Schoefferhofer Weizen one of my German passengers, Gert from Dresden, bought for all of us at dinner. Die hat so schoen geprickelt in meine Bauchnabel!

Now we've reached Botswana, a very poor, arid and deserted country full of shrubby trees, cows and donkeys. We're about to head into more or less complete wilderness in the Okavango delta tomorrow morning - hopefully there will be another update soon thereafter.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Walking with Nomads in Namibia

The first week of my trip as a translator on a Nomad truck is coming to an end. Crazy shit.

Before I left CT I couldn't sleep because I was so freaked out - now I'm sleeping great! As it turns out, in tents.  Exactly one week ago I headed to the mother city for the last time, for a lovely lunch at the Ethiopian cafe with my now-ex flatmate Emma. From there to the office of Nomad, where I met my two fellow crew members  and the bus, Janis. Slept at the backpacker's on Long Street, and left early early the next morning!

In South Africa we saw !Kwa Ttu bushmen presenting about indigenous plants, and long stretches of road leading North. And realized that the desert - the Namakwa, in this case - is bloody cold at night, and you need extra blankets even if you have a down sleeping bag. I picked oranges off a tree in Citrusdale and went for a swim in the Orange River, with a break on the surf boards marking the SA-Namib-boarder.

At the boarder crossing my whole plan about cancelling my study permit upon exiting fell through, which means I may not be able to re-enter SA before the end of June... fuck bureaucracy. From here onwards through, yes, Namibia! Long rides through dusty deserts, sandwich lunches under the sole tree within a 100k radius, pee breaks with "the ladies in the back, the gents in the front of Janis" (remember, Janis is the bus). Cold, cold nights. Fish River Canyon - the second biggest canyon in the world - one sunset, sunrise over a giant red sand dune the next morning, Sesriem canyon and the dead, age-old riverbeds with acacia trees from centuries past in the afternoon.

After all that sand, we arrived on the coast at the "promised land"Swakopmund the day before yesterday. A sleepy holiday town, it is eerily reminiscent of a small town somewhere in Germany, complete with Konditorei, Buchhandlung and newspaper "auf gut Deutsch". Crazy! Here we stayed at a little hotel, slept in beds, showered a lot and enjoyed the civilized life. With real coffee. I went for two long runs to make up for all the bumpy but sedentary busrides. And made friends with the local fishermen to obtain a beautiful Kabeljou straight out of the ocean - I had some trouble preparing it properly (for lack of experience - only the second fish I've ever made in my life!), but once it was finally done it was spectacular. Oven-roasted, with some ginger, garlic and lemon slices. And while we're on the food, I also tried Oryx, Springbok and Zebra the other day - smothered in some sauce that made it impossible to distinguish the three. Schade.

Finally, I went quad biking in the desert! Absolutely awesome. Dunes, dunes, dunes, our super-fun guide Fillomon from Angola, fast turns on steep slopes, views of the ocean bordering the desert. And I only got stuck in a dune once, so bottom line I think I did well :)

And just to stress me out a little bit along the way, my beautiful ex-employers decided to not go through with the travel arrangements they had originally made for me, so now I'm trying to sort out transport from Cape Town to Dusseldorf with hardly any access to internet or phones - oh what fun! But the beauty of the place makes me forget about all that nonsense, most of the time.

(For the same reason, photos will be delayed until the next place where we have internet. Should be about 4 days from now.)