How to write this blog post has been bugging me for a while, hence the delay.
Our time is Africa was immense. Not only in the distances we covered in such a short amount of time, but the cultures we experienced, the sights we saw, the animals we encountered in their natural environment, the range of landscapes we stared in awe at, the extremes of cold and the hot/wet and dry, the bush to the city and so on. I will never do it justice, but I can give you the faintest of ideas.
A good starting point is what I thought of Africa before we landed in Nairobi.
Watching the news for as long as I could remember, you could imagine that everyone in Africa is either a victim of famine, a refugee of war, living under a blood thirsty dictator or worse. Regardless of how it is portrayed in the press at home, Africa has always had an almost magical place in my mind. It is the birth place of humanity and it is one of the world's richest landmasses in terms of natural resources, precious and valuable minerals, flora and fauna. It is the home to some of the wonders of the world such as Victoria Falls, Mount Kilimanjaro, the Sahara Desert, the Nile river, the Pyramids and Table Mountain. It also has fascinating relationship with its people who live there. Nearly all of the people who we met said they were both African and Kenyan or Namibian, for example. The continent of Africa is actually something that people who live there identify with alongside their country of birth. I have not come across that anywhere else so far. People in Thailand are Thai, not Thai and Asian or South East Asian. Chinese are Chinese. I don't know too many people who regard themselves as European as strongly as people in Africa. There is definitely something special about this place.
We had 8 weeks in total in Africa, 6 of those were spent on a overland tour from Nairobi to Cape Town, taking in Kenya, Tanzania, Zanzibar, Malawi, Zambia, Botswana, Namibia and South Africa. 11,000km, 42 days, 7 countries with 95% of the time spent under canvas.
'Mind blowing', 'awe inspiring', 'once in a lifetime' were a few of the phrases that came out of my mouth on just one morning on a game drive in the Serengeti. To see animals that I have only ever seen on TV or in a zoo, in their natural environment just wandering about was amazing. Not an exhaustive list, but here are some of the animals we saw; lions, elephants, leopards, rhinos (black and white), water buffalo (the big five), cheetahs, hyenas, zebra, wildebeest, giraffes, hippos, gazelle/impala/springbok, flamingos, ostriches, storks, baboons, monkeys, kudu, oryx, alligators. The Serengeti was the most amazing place to see animals. It is where the Lion King was based and is a vast expanse of savannah landscapes, where the great animals of Africa can roam free. You genuinely feel that you are the animals guests here; they are held in such high regard. The only signs of human intervention are the dirt roads carved through it allowing safari trucks to move about. The rest looks like I imagine it has since the dawn of time. Something else struck me whilst in the Serengeti. I remember the state of Montana being described as 'Big Sky' (it maybe their state slogan). Until now, I thought it was pointing out the obvious as of course the sky is big. On the plains of East Africa, when the horizon in every direction is as flat as the ocean, looking up in to clear blue skies all around you is staggering. It is hard to explain, but because of the lack of development and the inability to see a lot at ground level past your immediate vicinity, the sky becomes mesmerising. It's sheer scale and vastness is incredible. It is the biggest 'thing' you will ever see.
We all known they are always there. Hiding somewhere behind the clouds, smog and light pollution of our cities. I have seen Professor Brian Cox encouraging us to get out in the garden at night and wonder at the night sky. The concept of what is out there in space is completely mind blowing, let alone what is visible to the naked eye. But when I looked up, sitting around the campfire in the Serengeti, I was transfixed. Never before had I seen so many stars, and so bright, in my life. You could see the Milky Way, the Southern Cross, and thanks to someone's iPhone app, we could identify most of the south hemispheres constellations.
Keeping the sky theme going for a little while longer, something I ticked off the bucket list was sky diving. We waited until Namibia to do this, in one of the oldest deserts in the world, where it meets the South Atlantic Ocean. I thought I would be a lot more nervous than I was. Only at the point where I was hanging out of the plane did the nerves kick in, then it was far too late to do anything about it. 0-220kph in 3 seconds was a blur, then the 30 seconds freefall felt about 10 seconds. The distance you are from the ground is too much to comprehend, and as you look down you don't seem to be getting any closer. Incomparable rush, followed by 7 minutes of parachute descent. As soon as we both hit the ground, we wanted to go straight back up in the plane.
Probably my favourite country we visited in Africa, mainly due to the landscape. We spent a night at Spitzkope, a huge rock formation in the middle of the Namib desert. After watching the sunset and eating a campfire meal, we took our sleeping bags up on to the rocks and slept under the stars. The heat being released from the granite throughout the night felt like an electric blanket. The moonlight on my eyelids kept waking me up, then I would lie there for a few moments looking at the stars then fall back asleep. Probably the best night's sleep I had in the whole of Africa. Namibia has a very strong German influence, and parts feel very much like a frontier town in the pioneering days of the colonisation of mid west of America. It is a harsh, dry, arid environment that man is trying his best to make habitable. But it is a challenging environment, which attracts a certain sort of person. Especially Swakopmund. The whole place felt like it was out of a Malboro Country ad. Lots of great meat, beer, pickups, wide streets, single storey buildings and dust.
Tropic of Capricorn
As a geography student I obviously spent many a Friday night at uni salivating over maps. There are four major horizontal lines on the world map…the equator, the tropics of cancer and Capricorn and the Arctic circle. It is a very geeky thing, but as we didn't get to stand on the equator when crossing in to the southern hemisphere as we were in the air, standing on the tropic of Capricorn in the middle of the desert in Namibia marked a shift in zones in the world. After spending the first half of our trip in the tropics, we were heading in to the lower part of the southern hemisphere.
On the way in to South Africa, we stopped at a camp site in the torrential rain. Once inside the bar, we got stuck in to a range of wines they produce at the vineyard a few miles down the road. The first taste of South African wine was one to remember. From Chenin Blanc through to South Africa's own Pinotage grape, and rooibus tea infused vermouth, it really cheered us up. An open fire, cheap wine, a roaring fire and a load of over landers on the last leg of their journey doing a truly international version of the okey-cokey. It was a memorable night.
This is the first place on our trip that we both have said we could realistically live. We arrived toward the end of their winter, and the days were sunnier and more consistent than our summer. The city is beautiful, a number of bays act as the suburbs of the main city, each with their own character, small community feel and beaches. A lot of the inhabitant lives are spent outside, enjoying the sea, the beach, the peaks and mountains in the same range as Table Mountain. In the surrounding areas of the cape, you have Cape Point/Cape of Good Hope (where we saw a humpback whale), Simons Town (home to a large colony of South African penguins), and the Garden Route heading east. Add to that great wines, food and a relaxed way of life, it really surprised me how much i liked Cape Town. Having not seen my parents for six months, it was great to spend two weeks with them, catching up, relaxing in the house they rented, cooking nice food (a treat having not been in a kitchen for six months) and sleeping in very comfortable beds.
This deserves it's own mention. Nelson Mandela is so highly regarded in South Africa it is amazing. Especially as he is still alive. This sort of praise is usually reserved for the dead. Robben Island was where the Apartheid regime kept their political prisoners, all of whom were regarded as the most dangerous prisoners possible. The conditions weren't inhumane, and it was nothing on S21 (in Cambodia), but the thing that moved me the most was the reason they were locked up in the first place. This is one of the major things I noticed in Africa. Moving from East Africa, through Central Africa to South Africa you noticed how the population changes. Kenya, Tanzania, Malawi, Zambia and Botswana are what I expected Africa to be like, mainly consisting of Black Africans. Moving in to Namibia and South Africa, it is very different. There are a lot more White Africans there and as a visitor it reminded me of the sad history of South Africa. Even though apartheid is over, we spoke to older people who would very happily go back to those times now. There is still a two tier society; most of the money is, from what I could see, held by the white population whilst the black population seem to work in the lower paid and less skilled jobs. I don't want to appear overly harsh. South Africa has come so far, but still has a long way to go. If only some people at home could be as forward thinking as the younger generation in South Africa.
Our overland tour
We had our tough moments like waking at 5am after five hours sleep to take your tent down, grab a quick coffee then jump in to a freezing truck to drive 600km on African roads for 12 hours. But, however cold the showers were, or however much sand you found in your tent after the sandstorm, nothing could taint the amazing experience of it all. Eating amazing food cooked over a campfire by our guides Jay and Helette (homemade pasta & lasagne, homemade bread, steaks, all the comfort food you would want) under the stars will always stick in my memory. The fancy dress party on the banks of Lake Malawi with clothes bought for a few dollars from a Malawian market was memorable. So thank you Everidiki, Gherder, Katie, Steve, Tilly, Lucy, Mia, Anka, Charlie, Mohammed, Vanessa, Tony, Rita, David, Gemma, Emma, Jay, Helette, Genevieve, Michelle, Lisa, Haide, Jen, Paul, Naomi, Becky, Pete, Emily, Hannah, Tim, Rosie, Louisa, Rainer, Johanna, Lady Jay, Richie, Belen and Itzy.
Having left Africa now, it has left a very strong impression on me. The first world in the west is a funny place. It teaches you all sorts of things. It reports the world in such a way. When you get out there, you realise how different it really is. Africa is beautiful, the people we encountered are wonderful. Their lives are not materially rich, but they are rich in so many other ways. In Malawi, there is the strongest sense of community I have ever seen. The villages we walked around, ate in, played football against have the sense of commune we have lost in the west. When people know more about others they have never met, but chat to online, than they do their neighbours who live their lives right next door, you have to wonder what went wrong. The villagers in Malawi really were only interested in the people that were physically close to them, strong blood and friendship bonds are the most important thing to them.
Africa will always hold a special place in both our hearts as it is where we got engaged. Gabby has, for some reason beyond me, agreed to marry me. We got engaged on the top of Victoria Falls, literally overlooking the edge. The happiest day of my life so far, and looking forward to spending the rest of our lives together. Celebration drinks when we get back!