This is Africa

Mozambique is as frustrating as it is beautiful.

Frustrating:

In order to enter the country, I needed to secure a visa – the government doesn’t issue visas at the border to Canadians or Americans, although Brits can sometimes secure one on site…unless the power is out as it was when we arrived at the border.

So I filed the requisite paperwork before I left for Mozambique, and received in the mail the most expensive, hand written sticker I’ve ever owned  C$546. Why did it cost the Germans €45? The Brits $150 US at the border? No one can explain. It’s like we Canadians rained on some Mozambique parade and in retaliation they decided it should cost us a fortune to come visit.

And so begins a mantra I keep in mind for the next 11 days…this is Africa. It both explains everything and nothing.

After entering the border area, the bribes come fast and furious. Get through the border stop without having the bus completely unpacked?  You need to pay “insurance money”. You didn’t pay enough “insurance money” to the last guy.

It quickly becomes clear the visa is only the first payment.

Mozambique looks much more like the Africa I remember. Rough and tumble around the edges, it’s poor but not poverty stricken, with pockets of prosperity.

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The country’s civil war ended only a short time ago and Mozambique, with its endless corruption and lack of infrastructure, has been struggling ever since.

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Main roads are fairly new (some built by the Chinese) and basically well-tended, but dangerous to drive at night because of the lack of lighting, and the danger of both animals crossing (MASS –mobile African stop signs) and the possibility of being held up.

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And although Mozambique is being touted as the next “new” place to visit, it’s a country that is only just beginning to understand tourism and is not particularly well suited to the independent backpacker. South Africans with their own vehicles are the most common visitors, followed by international travelers with tour groups like ours. The public transportation system is over worked, inefficient, inconsistent and unsafe.

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The distances between the major “tourist” centres are long, and lodges that meet even the most basic international standards are often far off the main road.

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Ordering in a restaurant is an exercise in patience. From order to food on the table has taken anywhere from 45 minutes to 2 hours. Restaurants often run out of items – we are told with regularity they are out of filtered coffee, white wine, peri per sauce (the main condiment in Mozambique cooking) and various other basics, or they simply forget to bring the order all together.

Africa is a place where patience is learned and refined.

Beautiful:

But once you manage to negotiate the road less travelled, Mozambique has some of the most beautiful sandy, undisturbed beaches and small islands in the world, as well as reefs teeming with iridescent fish.

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I dove with Peri Peri Divers in Praia de Tofo. The cost of a one tank dive was about $50 and lasted about 50 minutes underwater while we explored the Salon de Fingers Reef in the Indian Ocean.

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We divers, with the assistance of a tractor, hauled the Zodiac into the water. The ocean was rough, but not the worst I’ve experienced. When we arrived at the insertion point, we were told it would be a negative entry – my first. You begin with no air in your BCD so when you roll backwards into the water you don’t float on top but immediately start of descend. It’s a bit disorienting and I had problems equalizing the pressure in my ears. My weight belt must also have been slightly too light because I found it a struggle to get to the bottom…a maximum depth on this dive of 14.5 m.

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Moses, our guide, pointed out so many beautiful and colourful fish I’ve never seen before—it was truly like being immersed in a gigantic salt water aquarium.

I started with only 200 bar of air in my supply – and on other dives it has always been 300. Because it took quite some flailing about to actually get to the bottom, I was certain I was powering through my air supply and I would have to be one of the first to surface. As it turned out, I was one of the last to surface (with 50 bar left in the tank) and one of the only divers to see the giant green turtle.

When we surfaced, I looked around the choppy Indian Ocean waters and …no boat! Because I was with the dive master and didn’t think the captain would leave him behind, I inflated my vest and bobbed along with the waves until the Zodiac appeared from out of nowhere.

I thought I’d just seen Mozambique at its most beautiful from beneath the surface. Little did I know it had even more on offer to come…

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Z is for Zebra

Swaziland is a tiny Kingdom surrounded on all sides by South Africa. Ostensibly independent from South Africa, it relies heavily on its neighbor for tourism, interchangeably uses the Rand as its currency and, last week when it ran out of money (after the King purchased himself a new airplane of course), government loans. Last week’s cash infusion from South Africa totaled $21,000,000 Rand

The Kingdom is ruled by absolute authority by the King, depicted in art and sculpture as the Lion, and his Mother, depicted as the Elephant. The current King of Swaziland has 8 wives, all of whom have their own royal residences, so it makes perfect sense that rather than having to choose between 8 wives, he rules with his mother. The ultimate mama’s boy, really. Think Cersi from Game of Thrones.

We only spend one night in Swaziland, and spend it at the Mlilwane Wildlife Reserve. The first reserve to be established in the county (there are now several), we are led on a bird and wildlife walk by Sonnyboy. Yes, that’s his name and not a mistake.

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Our Swazi Accommodations

Turns out birding is not my thing. Especially difficult without binoculars or a camera with a zoom lens, Sonnyboy spots birds at every turn, encouraging us to identify the colours of their heads, backs, throat and eyes (!), as well as the shape of the beak or tail until he identifies them by name and then shows us the photo in his well-worn ornithology book. The first 30 minutes of the walk covers less than 400 meters. I begin to think this will be a very long 3 hours indeed.

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Male Waver bird preparing his nest. Building to impress his future mate.

It shortly becomes clear to Sonnyboy that our group is not made up of keen birders – he just doesn’t get the enthusiasm from us that he’s expecting – and he begins to veer off into identifying trees and large animals.

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Clearly we’re all here for the zebras because when we finally spot a harem of zebra, we begin to show the enthusiasm Sonnyboy has been searching for all along. Our group of 3 Brits, 2 Germans, 2 New Zealanders and we 2 Canadians take about a million photographs between us.

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Crocodiles lazing in the sun, impala (identifiable by the “M” shaped markings on their bottoms – Lion McDonalds, says Sonnyboy and laughs), springboks, and warthogs are amazingly all around us. In fact, a family of warthogs joins us later by the fire and bury in close to the glowing embers. This is no typical Canadian campsite where the biggest invader is a chipmunk. Chipmunks steal your snacks but they rarely sink a tusk into your leg…

DSCN1723Termite mound. 1/3 of the mound is above ground, 2/3 of the mound is below.

As a result of the warthog invasion, the evening’s entertainment is moved to a spot farther away from the fire. It’s a traditional dance of some sort, but the performers don’t really seem into it…perhaps it’s because their costumes are sparse (one poor guy has only a springbok hide around his waist) and it’s really, really cold. We watch politely for a while, but when it becomes obvious they basically have one signature move – a clap behind a raised, outstretched leg, we drift away from the dancing and back to the fire and the sleeping warthog family, who are infinitely more interesting. It’s not a terribly good review of the performance.

All the fresh air and walking has made us tired so we return to our accommodations and turn in for the night. Because there are no windows in our hut, it is surprisingly, and welcomingly warm inside.

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And although we don’t actually see them from our cozy Swazi hut, we fall asleep to the sounds of hippos snuffling outside our door.

Spring Time in Soweto

Soweto… short for Southwestern Townships… is the second largest township in South Africa and home to 1.3 million people, or 1/3 of the population of Johannesburg, who live in an area of 200 sq km. Created as an offshoot of the apartheid system, blacks were forcibly moved to townships surrounding Johannesburg proper in order to separate the races.

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Soweto has a long and complex history of political resistance and was home to not one but two Nobel Prize recipients – Nelson Mandela (his former wife Winnie maintains a home there) and Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

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Freedom Square

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Once an area that was both off limits to outsiders and incredibly dangerous, since the early 1990s, Soweto has undergone (and continues to undergo) a renaissance and revitalization with neighborhoods that range from affluent to middle class to traditional match box style houses (4 rooms, very square and small) to public housing to barely held-together tin shanties.

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The township is also embracing cultural, historical and adventure tourism and encouraging travelers to get the Soweto experience. I mean, you know some invisible barrier has been crossed when a former coal generation plant is now a popular bungee jumping attraction.

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We hired a private guide, once a resident himself of Soweto, to take us through the township and give us the Insider’s viewpoint of life in this densely populated, evolving neighborhood. In the presence of our guide, we were able to wander the streets, markets and squares of Soweto and dive into the history of the place. I’m fairly certain, however that it’s still not a place where independent travel is encouraged.

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Johannesburg itself is a city of about 4 million, and after just two days there, I know for sure it’s not one I need to return to. It’s not particularly beautiful, the architecture isn’t compelling or very interesting and it’s gritty reputation for petty, and not so petty crime and violence well deserved.

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Home of the FIFA 2010 World Cup

Downtown, or at least the City Centre/Financial District we stayed in, is not a place for wandering freely. And I hate that in a city. I want to be able to get out and explore, not feel hemmed in by fear and threat of safety. Throughout our time in Johannesburg we are warned to keep our valuables in the room safe, we are given a guide to go three blocks to nearby Gandhi Square when all we want to do is find a corner store and purchase waters and cokes. Walking anywhere at night is out of the question. When we go out we hire an Uber or ask the establishment to call a taxi for us. This of course makes Johannesburg an unnecessarily expensive city.

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Jo’ burg skyline

Also, in fair warning, Johannesburg in August is cold. Toronto is currently 35 degrees, Johannesburg is 13 degrees and windy. Central heating is non-existent. People where their outerwear everywhere — in restaurants and in bars –and layering is a necessity. I am more than a little grateful for my pashmina scarf.

On the upside, the water in the city is completely safe to drink. In fact, Johannesburg prides itself on the quality and cleanliness of its water.

Overall, Johannesburg is a good place to start an African adventure, but there is little reason to stay.

 

 

 

Come Sail Away with Me

As I drift off to sleep under the million stars on Rendezvous Caye, I realize no one who knows me in the world knows where I am right now.

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Twenty-two passengers and four crew set sail from Caye Caulker, Belize for a three day adventure with Raggamuffin Tours that would take us about 300 km down the Belizean coastline to Placencia. Our boat – the Raggamuffin Empress – an elegant white catamaran with plenty of space on board to lay out and a net over the water on which to chill, cut through turquoise waters on all sides so clear the bottom was almost always visible.

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For three days our motley crew unplugged from the outside world, our only companions the others on board. We didn’t wear shoes…a major concern for the oldest passenger and a source of ongoing amusement for the rest of us… basked in the sun, snorkeled up to four times a day on deserted reefs, and let our stomachs guide us as to the time of day, all to a background reggae beat. If heaven exists, I hope it looks a lot like this (if I’m invited, of course…).

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Captain Ish, crew members Shawn (a budding reggae artist and all around good time guy), Marvin (filet master of all catches of the day), and Linton (chef and on-board medic who tended to the giant blister on my foot by pouring hydrogen peroxide on it and, when I winced, telling me not to be such a baby…he was right of course) took us on an adventure that ranks among the top highlights of my travelling life.

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Day One
Flip flops confiscated, we boarded the Raggamuffin Empress with only our day packs containing everything we might need for the next three days. Turns out, it isn’t much. Since there won’t even be showers until we reach our second night accommodation, all pretense is immediately thrown out to sea and we find ourselves content with the most basic of necessities.

We sailed for a few hours, absorbing the warmth of the sun and for me, setting the stage for the deepest tan of my life…healthy, not likely…amazing, totally…until we came to the first of four snorkeling stops. The crew dove into the water with spear guns in hand, divided us into three groups and lead us on an underwater guided tour with stops for spearfishing for our dinner.

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After stop one, barracuda was definitely on the menu for the evening. As we pulled up anchor, Marvin got out a giant knife and a hammer to fillet our dinner as we all watched (barracuda has a thick spine that can’t be severed without the force of a hammer on the knife). Brutal but very satisfying…and ultimately tasty…work.

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Midway through the first afternoon, one of the passengers we nicknamed “The General” felt a strong tug on his fishing line and Captain Ish relinquished the wheel to help reel it in. Much to everyone’s surprise, including the crew’s, The General snagged a mah-mahi! A round of cheering took over the boat…Ish said in the 9 years he’s been doing the tour it was the first mahi-mahi ever caught.

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The rum punch flowed freely, but only after the day’s activities were through. This was the kind of adventure that could easily turn into a dreaded booze cruise, but the vibe was chill and relaxed and even after we landed on Rendezvous Caye for the evening, no one overindulged.

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Rendezvous Caye…what can I say…a beautiful white sand, totally deserted (except for one caretaker) beach. We erected our tents on the soft, white sand, pausing to watch the sun go down, and tucked into the most fantastically fresh and satisfying meal of my life. The sea air, the fresh fish, the miracles that came out of Linton’s tiny onboard kitchen…unbelievable.

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Day Two
We set sail early to avoid a cruise ship excursion that would soon take over our tiny private island. Three hundred people were expected to descend on our paradise…I can’t even begin to imagine what the might look like…

Much as the previous day, we lazed on deck, snorkeled often, watched the crew spearfish, ate pringles and cookies at ridiculous hours of the morning and afternoon and let the digital detox truly set in.

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On the second night we set up camp on Tobacco Caye, a much more populated island with an island bar and a couple of tiny “resorts”. Not nearly as pristine as Rendezvous Caye and occupied by others, it didn’t have the same magical appeal as the previous Caye, but sleeping on a beach under the stars really never gets old.

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Day Three
I was keen to leave Tobacco Caye the next morning (it was sort of run down and had kind of a lot of ocean and island trash laying around) but sad to know it was our last day and that our group, who despite our varied ages, nationalities and backgrounds, got along so easily and with the kind of familiarity that comes with being slightly grimy and very laid back, would be soon torn apart.

Just as I was beginning to feel slightly maudlin, a cheer once again rose, this time from the front of the boat…a dolphin had come to play in our wake! For the next 20 minutes, we were transfixed, watching it breech and dive, totally putting on a show for us. I don’t think I will ever get tired of seeing that.

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We arrived in Placencia at about 5 pm and Pandora from the Anda di Hows hostel (say it out loud…it’s patois) was at the dock to meet me. She had several available beds in her lovely 10 bed hostel, so three of us made our way there. Having two of my travelling companions with me made the transition from the laid back vibe of Caye Caulker and the Raggamuffin to the hustle of Placencia less abrupt.

Belize was never high on my travel list. I came to Belize because I wanted to get my scuba and I could get a decently priced flight from Toronto. It’s also one of the more expensive countries in Central America, but as I boarded the Tropic Air flight home, there’s one thing I know for sure…the people I met, the adventures I had…Belize will forever hold a special place in my travel heart.

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The only person on the flight!

The only person on the flight!

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You’d Better Belize It

Taking a tiny plane…one where I can literally reach out and touch the pilot…across a body of water teeming with sharks (okay, nurse sharks, but still…SHARKS) and manatees and rays and who knows what else, wasn’t actually as terrifying as I’d imagined.

When the Tropic Air gate attendant asked me to follow him on to the tarmac, I realized I was the only passenger boarding the Cessna in Belize City. Wow, I thought…they sent an airplane just for me! The fantasy of being the only passenger on a plane was totally destroyed when I realized there were already other passengers onboard from various other destinations. Ah well….

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I’ve never been on a 10 seater plane before. I’ve never before been on a flight where I could reach out and touch the pilot…I mean, not that I did…it’s probably against the law….I’ve never flown so low over a body of water that I could see the sea life below. I was totally transfixed for the entire 5 minute flight…after which I was the only passenger to get off in Caye Caulker, an 8 km long island that is to be my home for the next week.

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Caye Caulker is a small island off the coast of Belize. There are 3 main roads and a few side streets. Population about 1,000 full time residents. The only motorized transportation is via golf cart, otherwise residents get from place to place on foot or by bike.DSCN0002

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This is DEFINITELY a place where everybody knows everybody’s business.

The main attraction of this small…ok, tiny… island is the Belize Barrier Reef. The Belize Barrier Reef is the second largest in the world, after Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, and is one of the healthiest reef systems in the world. The Great Blue Hole is part of this system, a site made famous by Jacques Cousteau who called it one of the top ten scuba diving sites in the world.

While I won’t be exploring the Great Blue Hole as it’s only for experienced divers, the plan for my Belize adventure is to get my open water scuba certification. I signed up with Frenchie’s, one of the oldest diving establishments in Caye Caulker and, much to my delight, was my dive master Dominick’s only student. Patient and very calm, Dominick took me through 3 days of scuba lessons in 2 days.

By the end of the first day it was all I could do to get myself back to my hostel room and pass out on my super soft, back-destroying bed. I had no idea breathing could take so much out of me. I consider myself fit, so I’m not sure how anyone who is out of shape can do this.

Hot and humid the first day, so much so the short wet suit was a burden to wear in the sun, the second day was the complete opposite…I needed a long sleeved wet suit and huddled in the boat as soon as I surfaced from my lesson.

But what an incredible experience! We saw rays and sharks, stone fish, groupers and fish I can’t even describe, lobsters and crabs, eels and sea urchins. No pictures…I’m not good enough yet to both breathe under water and take photographs. That’s totally next level….

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Best of all…now I can dive anywhere in the world!

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