Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Intrepid Travel Gorillas & Game Parks - Day 4

Oh yes, two mattresses are the business. What a shame we had to get up at 5.30 this morning for our long drive into Uganda. We’re already so well schooled that we were all packed up and on the bus heading out of the gate five minutes early, just before 7am as the sun was lighting up the spectacular flowers of the campsite’s flame tree.

Then it was the mixture as before: that is, an endlessly fascinating literal roadshow of African life as we trundled towards the border, today’s destination the city of Kampala in Uganda. Everything seemed in hi-def, the colours intense: red soil, green trees, brightly painted buildings and signs, kids in smart uniforms heading to school, even the coffins at a roadside stall, gaudy purple and bright blue. There was the usual cast of characters along the way, not just people but animals as well, like the donkey hitched to a little wooden cart plodding along quite unsupervised, as was a pair of oxen ditto.

Then we got to the border, a narrow muddy river crossed by a ramshackle bridge crowded with trucks and pedestrians. The actual immigration process was very straightforward and I had time to notice on the TV on the wall that the All Blacks have chosen their fly half for the upcoming game against South Africa at Twickenham. It was a bizarre contrast with all the notices on the walls warning of terrorism and identifying possible bombs.

The countryside changed almost straight away: greener, lusher, wilder, more rural. Even the cattle are different: lots of Brahman-types, suddenly. There were crops spread out to dry on the ground, people filling water containers, children skipping with ropes… it felt less developed.
Once we got to Lake Victoria, though, and crossed the Nile, everything was suddenly big and new and smart, with neat gardens and no photography allowed. The police carry automatic weapons and are not to be messed with.

We carried on, looking forward to getting to an actual hotel for tonight but suddenly something awful happened. I looked out of my window to see an old black station wagon trying to overtake us and just sitting there, for far too long. A car coming the other way had to veer over onto the roadside. Then, just as I glanced away, there was a loud crash and a scream: an oncoming small truck had collided with the station wagon as we kept going, not seeing the actual collision behind us but knowing it was not going to have a good outcome.

It was shocking. We all felt stunned and anxious, but there was nothing to be done. The traffic was so thick we couldn’t get back if we’d stopped, so we just carried on. A good half an hour later, an ambulance passed us, siren blaring.
So we were a bit subdued when we finally arrived at Red Chilli, where we had actual rooms (without ensuite - this is Intrepid Basix) for the night – already a novelty for us. There was beer by the pool, there were mosquitoes, there was spaghetti bolognaise for dinner, and finally there was bed: very late for some, but early for the sensible ones (me, natch). Tomorrow breakfast is at 5.30am ahead of a 9-hour drive to Kalinzu - and chimpanzees.

Monday, October 30, 2017

Intrepid Travel Gorillas & Game Parks - Day 3

It was cold last night, and the mattress that Intrepid supplies was thin, plus there was jetlag – but at least it turned out that the greatest danger in having to go for a nocturnal pee was encountering another camper lurking behind the tents, rather than something with more legs. Turns out 2am is a common wake-up time for many bladders.
We were up at 6am (wet-wipe wash in the tent – there was no water running in the toilet block), busily stowing tents away before breakfast by the still-burning campfire. As we ate,we were watched at a distance by a troop of baboons who descended on the site as soon as we left it, checking for crusts.
Our game drive back out of the park, completing the circuit around the lake, was less productive than yesterday, but we did get close to some very elegant giraffes and zebra; and it was a revelation to some of us just how glamorous an African starling can be. Think iridescent blue.
We lunched again at yesterday’s stop, a great fascination to the local children who took huge delight in mirroring the Intrepid ritual of post-meal plate-flapping (to dry them after washing). Then we hit the road again and it was the story as before: vivid, vibrant glimpses into people’s lives – and that of their animals. Donkeys, chickens, goats, sheep, cattle, hens; shops and stalls; forests, fires – and phones. Though the people are poor, that giveaway bent neck is visible everywhere.
And truly, they are so poor, and have to work so hard to scratch a living, leaping forward to the truck when it slowed for traffic or a speed bump, smiling widely and holding up all sorts of goods to sell, some of them the essence of optimism, like cabbages. So many people have nothing to do all day but sit and wait for time to pass. It seems a terrible waste of potential talent, and of life itself – but maybe that’s just a Western view. It’s a superficial observation, but they mostly did seem nevertheless engaged, and cheerful.
Finally we arrived at Eldoret, to a lovely campsite run by an even lovelier lady. There were hot showers (this style of travel means you can’t take the hot bit for granted) and rooms to upgrade to for those who wanted to pay extra – which meant that the frugal types (me, natch) were joyfully able to double-mattress for the night.

Tonight, chef OT had to correct my julienne technique for the carrots, which was chastening. Dinner was pumpkin soup and beef stew. I shared mine with a most unusual animal to see in Africa – a cat. Honestly, they are rarer than rhino in my personal experience. 

As the group gels there is beginning to be a shade less *cough* travel skiting and more actual conversation; and the dynamics are sorting themselves out. The roles, for example, of the Loud one, Most irritating person and the Know-it-all have already been taken – coincidentally, all by the same person. Tonight there was singing to a guitar accompaniment. I didn’t take it too hard that one of the songs was a personally apposite Beatles number (that’s all I’m saying).

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Intrepid Travel Gorillas & Game Parks - Day 2

We started as Intrepid means us to go on: up early and away by 7.30am, getting introduced to the truck we are to spend so many hours and kilometres in over the next two weeks. It is a Mercedes, but it’s mainly a truck: there’s nothing fancy about this vehicle. Its main purpose is to be functional, sturdy and reliable (or so we all hope – time, and distance, will tell). The interior would make Jetstar look like Business class. It’s a bit battered and dusty, and there is no air-conditioning – but this is Intrepid Basix after all, they never promised luxury, that’s why it’s cheap. What was immediately irritating though, and will become more so as the trip progresses, are the windows. Apart from apparently ingrained grime on the outside, they’re arranged in two horizontal panes, the top one sliding down for ventilation and for viewing. Fine – except that where the two panes overlap there is not only metal edge, but also a bar along the outside, both of them exactly at eye level. So to see out you have to either slump and do your back in or sit up exhaustingly straight (or perch on your rolled-up sleeping bag like a booster seat).
It’s especially frustrating because what’s rolling past outside is like a medieval cavalcade, in Technicolor, with a cast of thousands. It’s totally absorbing: life lived right there by the road, so vibrant, busy, cute, horrifying, real. Sweet little kids with big grins waving, sheep and cows tethered by one leg, women bent under huge bundles of firewood or straight-backed with a container of water on their heads, men chopping at the soil with mattocks. And lots of people just sitting, watching the world go by; or sleeping on the grass. Litter everywhere, much of it inevitably plastic (though bags have recently been banned in Kenya); roadside stalls with fruit and vegetables piled up in challenging pyramids; ramshackle shops with inspirational names (Open Happiness, Starring Stars, Kinyozi Wisdom); houses and huts of wood or brick or concrete or tin.
We headed out from Nairobi and along the Trans-Africa Highway that crosses from Mombasa to Lagos, though we'll be following only a small section of its 6,000+ km length. Our first stop was at a viewpoint over the Great Rift Valley - huge! visible from space! - where, to be honest, I was more struck by the cheerful man whose job it was to break rocks by hand with a hammer.
It’s Sunday and most people seemed dressed up, the women elegant, the men smart, the little girls in party frocks. There are churches of all sorts everywhere and, at our lunch stop, in a small hall nearby women were dancing and singing, loudly and without a break for a long time, shrill yet tuneful, their only accompaniment a drum.
It was our first proper Intrepid meal, and it boded well. Cook OT is professional, confident, organised and most definitely in charge: those of us rostered to be his kitchen hands meekly followed his instructions, chopping vegetables for salad, slicing meat. We ate our sandwiches in a vast souvenir shop, surrounded by huge ebony rhinos and buffalo, painted leopards and giraffes, art and jewellery.
Afterwards we saw the animals for real, or some of them anyway. Nakuru National Park is best known for its birdlife - notably the gorgeous crowned crane, as featured on the Ugandan flag; but we saw most of the usual suspects, apart from elephants. I was, of course, most thrilled to see white rhino, with calves – not indigenous here, unlike the black rhino, but introduced and in good numbers. We’d already seen zebra grazing along the road – the Great Trans-African Highway, from Cape Town to Cairo – and there were more here, with impala of course, warthogs, hyena, jackal, giraffe, eland, gazelle, water buck, buffalo, baboons and, at the lake, masses of flamingos parading noisily in the water.
We did the classic game drive crawl through the park, stopping frequently, winding up eventually at our campsite for the night, complete with snoozing buffalo bull less than 150 metres from our site. Having just heard all about how aggressive and dangerous they are, it added a frisson of excitement to setting up our tents, which are heavy but simple-to-erect dome tents. Then the campfire was lit, sundowners partaken, dinner prepared and eaten (sweet potato soup and chicken curry) and, after instruction to attend to nocturnal number ones outside our tents and to call for an escort (some chance!) to the loos for number twos, we went to bed in a silence broken only by the nearby waterfall.

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Intrepid Travel Gorillas & Game Parks - Day 1

Watching nature documentaries, I've always marvelled at how birds especially seem to live such difficult lives, apparently choosing to make things hard for themselves - flying over the Himalayas, for example, or the length of the Pacific, or across the Sahara. But leaving Dubai airport and heading south-west, it's clear that some humans do the same thing, living their lives in stark, bare, barren and hostile environments. Leaving all the architectural fantasies of Dubai, with its bright green parks and avenues standing out even within the city against the basic background of sand, almost immediately that's all there is. Dry, empty, and no apparent reason for any sane person to choose to live there - but still there are roads, scattered houses, even little towns. Amazing.

Kenya, by contrast, each time I pressed the button on my Emirates 777-300 to raise the neat little shutter inside my window, was green, rolling, with trees and solar farms and clearly full of good reason to live here. As we all did, kind of - it's the literal cradle of humanity.

And now I'm in Nairobi, my anxiety about not having pre-bought my East Africa visa a total waste of energy as all it took was a 20 minute wait in a queue (and USD100) to get me all set, There seemed to be a sense of camaraderie amongst the passengers queuing for entry and waiting at the luggage carousel - a fizz of excitement, of setting off on a real adventure.

And then straight away we were into Africa as I remember it: so many people everywhere, walking along the road, sitting under trees, clustered around roadside stalls, minding cattle grazing along the verges, driving somewhat erratically down the highway into the city. "Sometimes there are zebra grazing along here," the Intrepid driver said. "They wander in from the National Park," I'd seen it as the plane came it - right up against the city boundaries, and the airport, a huge natural-looking area of low green hills, trees, a few waterholes. No herds of wildebeest or trails of elephants, but clearly a taste of things to come, hooray. And statues of some of them anyway, along the central reservation of the road leaving the airport.

Remember Lt Uhuru, in Star Trek? Her name means Freedom in Swahili, and there's a park here called that (full of people sprawled under the trees, naturally) to mark a momentous development in Kenyan history of which I - as yet - know virtually nothing. That will change. First facts: Nairobi is a city of 4 million; the country has 40 million occupants.

Edwin, our Intrepid Game Parks & Gorillas tour group leader, with a good sense of humour and a brilliantly white smile, welcomed the dozen of us (three still to arrive) at our introductory meeting here in the hotel - so far mostly Australians, mostly women, mostly middle-aged, mostly Africa newbies and all of us excited and eager and focused on the gorilla experience. We went to bed after dinner here in the Kenya Comfort Suites Hotel (goat ribs for me) lightheaded with fatigue but fizzing about getting started early tomorrow on our adventure.

Friday, October 27, 2017

Into Africa

Relentlessly innumerate, as ever, I am unable to work out if this year my birthday will be longer or shorter than normal. I begin this trip on the day before, and then fly westwards to Dubai, so that means delaying the click-over, right? But when I exit the plane’s space-time disconnect, and the airport clocks show that it’s really early on my birthday, my next step then is to fly to Nairobi which is an hour behind. So do I get more birthday, or less? More, right?

It’s all academic, anyway. It’s only me who knows, unless I strike a particularly alert check-in clerk. So, a touch melancholy, you’re thinking? Nah, not when you’ve had as many birthdays as I have now, and when the travel that’s consuming this one is taking me to see GORILLAS!

So, this is what’s happening: I’m currently on an Emirates A380, descending to Dubai after a 16+ hour non-stop flight from Auckland, most of which I have spent luxuriously prostrate in my walnut-veneered little pod with all its hi-tech bells and whistles. Lucky sod that I am, this is about my fifth (complimentary) business-class flight with Emirates, so the novelty of the stand-up bar at the back, the comfort, the service, the excellent food and wine, all that, no longer has that thrilling novelty. So I shook my head at frequent offers of champagne, skipped most of the dinner, didn’t have a single cocktail at the bar, and mainly slept. I KNOW! What a waste, eh?

Especially since the next couple of weeks there will be no such comforts to enjoy. No, on my Intrepid basix-level overland camping trip there will be long days in an un-aircon truck with fold-down windows to let in all the dust from the unsealed roads. There will be a tent with sleeping bag and a yoga mat, now and then a dormitory, rarely a hot shower, chores to take turns at with cooking and cleaning, and full-on contact with 21 other guests.


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So now that I’m ensconced in one of Emirates’ Business class lounges at the huge and futuristic sprawl that is Dubai airport, I’m making the most of what luxury still remains. A shower, Bircher muesli for my birthday breakfast, and a proper coffee. It’s busy here, despite the early hour, cosmopolitan, sophisticated, wired-up, comfortable, efficient. Everything that the next couple of weeks will most definitely not be. Bring it on!

Monday, October 2, 2017

Case closed

Will you believe me now? That there's no such thing as coincidence? Or at least that it's a regular, everyday, perfectly normal occurrence and very far from something to be gasped at as if it's a kind of marvel?

Of course, the horrific events in Las Vegas, still unfolding as I write, are also very far from marvellous. Is it a good thing, or not, having been to the scene of a crime, so that it's that much more vivid and awful?

When I was last in the city, three years ago - which I was only writing about in my previous post, ie yesterday - I stayed at the Mandalay Bay hotel, behind those golden windows. I walked dutifully all over the property, not much interested in the casino but diverted by the Lazy River and the beach. I ate complimentary striped chocolate strawberries in my room (which was on the 32nd floor, where the shooter fired from), was a bit sad about the fish in the Shark Reef aquarium, and started on the tasting menu downstairs in Aureole with great gusto but was soon overwhelmed, although it was delicious. It was a very pleasant hotel, and I was pleased to be staying there. I wonder how this ghastly event will affect future business?
I was in Vegas to write a story about Kiwi entrepreneurs succeeding there, and, as I wrote yesterday, one was Ed Mumm, who started Dig This - which has begun operations in Invercargill just today - and another was Genghis Cohen (real name) who is now working with Ed but then had a separate business. Which is called Machine Guns Vegas, where you can go and work through the whole gamut of firearms in his indoor range, shooting at paper targets with real bullets. Here is a bit of what I wrote about it:

For me it’s the Sauer pistol first, black and sinister. It’s unnerving to hold a real gun, loaded with real bullets, and point at the life-sized outline of a person, but I’m still pleased to get all of my 10 bullets through its chest. A 410 shotgun is next, chosen for its low recoil, and I rip large holes through the heart of the green man plus one through his head for good measure. I’m a bit more haphazard with the spray of bullets from the M4 machine gun, but all of the holes from the seriously military SAW — Squad Assault Weapon — are contained within the incongruously pink figure of my last target.

Jackie, who’s been at my shoulder with advice and encouragement, nods with satisfaction. “Right on the money,” she says, and I glow with pride. If ever I need to defend myself with a pre-loaded weapon against a paper person less than 10 metres away, I now know that I have what it takes...

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Inver-vegas

Invercargill: New Zealand's southernmost city, known for being cold, quiet and (sorry, Southland) dull, its most notable features being its I-don't-care-where-as-long-as-I'm-mayor front man Tim Shadbolt (who it was my job to censor, when I was 15*) and a surprising number of tuatara [ancient-origin don't-call-it-a-lizard dinosaur descendant, can live up to 150 years, likes the quiet life, hence, cough...] in its museum.
Las Vegas: against strong competition, the US's most spangly city, known for bright lights, night life and unwise indulgences. Not much in common there, you're thinking? Until this month, no - but tomorrow is when the first local version of Dig This will open down south. 
It's a brilliant operation dreamed up 10 years ago by Kiwi Ed Mumm and it has a couple of incarnations in the US, most notably (simply because I've been there, done that) the one in Las Vegas. What makes it remarkable is that, after only a short demonstration with a toy digger in a tray of sand - plus extensive waiver-signing, naturally, this is the US after all - you're let loose in sole charge of a 17-tonne digger on an empty lot in the city. There is, don't worry, a calm and humorous man giving instructions through headphones, and he has the all-important kill switch - but that's just reassurance, it doesn't sap the excitement one iota.
I dug a hole and filled it in again, spun in circles, piled big tyres up, and then delicately plucked basketballs off the top of road cones and dropped them into another tyre. It was huge fun - plus, I got to wear a hi-viz vest.
And now you can do that in Invercargill - but wait! There's more! What's new since I did it in Vegas, is that you can actually batter a car to death if you like. There, it costs US$650 but it will be much more affordable in Invercargill, only $180, because in a typical Kiwi 'Yeah, nah, help yourself' scenario, they'll be getting their cars for free from the wrecking yard. Plus there will be bulldozers, front-end loaders, and mini-diggers for the kids. When I was there in July there wasn't yet anything to see, but plenty of enthusiasm for the new operation, which is part of Transport World. 

Truly, it's worth going down there for. Not convinced? Remember: it's Southland, they have cheese rolls!
* Working in my first job, as an assistant on the NZ Books counter at Whitcombe & Tombs, I was tasked by the straight-laced department boss with the careful placement of the price-sticker on every copy of the then young and bolshy Tim's new book, to avoid customer offence. 

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