For all my African photos, check out the Africa Galleries.
My travels started with a flight from Sydney to Johannesburg on June 11, then eventually on to the next flight by which stage I was so tired I fell asleep with the food tray (mostly empty of it's contents) in front of me and didn't wake up till we landed in Harare.
After a few days finding my feet in Harare, I travelled by train overnight to Bulawayo. There I joined my first safari in Matopos National Park, including a visit to Cecil Rhodes' grave at World View and a lesson in British Imperialism. Talks with the people in Harare and especially the locals I met on the train provided my first insights into the craziness of President Mugabe, the situation in Zimbabwe and the impact of AIDS.
Back in Harare, I met up with an astronomy friend Matt Bell who had flown down from Qatar to join me for the solar eclipse and six flat tyres in Mana Pools National Park. We had plenty of interesting discussions with our local guides about their thoughts on the situation in Zimbabwe and how a traditional Shona marriage works (the guy needs to have plenty of cash or cows).
I travelled with Matt into Zambia, through Lusaka and onto Livingstone (the Zambian side of Victoria Falls). The amount of water thundering over the falls is incredible and the spray falls back down as rain heavier than a tropical downpour, provoking various means of coping with the deluge from ponchos to swimsuits.
We crossed over to the Zimbabwe town of Victoria Falls, which is not a particularly pleasant town, since it is now the only Zimbabwe town with any tourism left, so it attracts all the bad elements. I had missed my planned bus to Namibia, so ended up by train back to Bulawayo, then bus onto Pretoria and a night with the locals where I said goodbye to Matt and was back on my own.
An early start and 24hr bus ride from Pretoria to Windhoek (including a 3 hour breakdown proving that even 'western' South African buses still break down). There I started a Chameleon Safaris 7 day tour of the Skeleton coast and visited a local Himba village (plenty of food for thought about the impact of tourism and westernisation in general). Namibia provided plenty of rugged and desolate terrain, although often changing quite rapidly.
From Windhoek bus terminal (a large car park) our InterCape bus drove straight to the bus depot for some repairs, before we properly began the trip back to J'burg (including another pleasant late night border crossing standing out in the very cold wind). In J'Burg I joined some other southerners, and we watched Rafter lose Wimbledon and visited the Australian Film Festival (ie. We watched 'My Mother Frank' for free - an excellent movie, if only the South African next to us didn't laugh so loud!)
Acacia Overland Tour
I met my Acacia tour leaders Buks and Chantelle and companions (Aussies Jenny, Sharon, Andrew and myself, Irish Suzie, Scottish Laura and American Ben & Heidi - some of the nicest American tourists I met - but then they had just spent a year in Australia!). We began our long 3 week journey, which was really a Nomad tour in all but name. We were very glad that there were only 8 of us for the huge distances we covered in our converted truck 'Freddy'.
A few days in Chobe National Park in Botswana, my first lions, and a very enjoyable cruise on the river was the first highlight of the tour. Botswana is also one of the most stable and economically strongest African countries with good control of its tourism and mining resources. However, it has one of the highest AIDS rates.
Then we were back in Victoria Falls, which was still awesome even though the river level had dropped since I was there a few weeks earlier. This now meant you could actually take your camera out for a picture without it getting soaked. Out of many possible activities, I joined Ben & Heidi for white-water rafting and riverboarding on the Zambezi (flipping a raft is not so scary once you've done riverboarding). Whether it was food, exhaustion, a bug passing through the tour members or swallowing too much of the Zambezi, I was pretty crook that afternoon and very weak the next day. Apart from that, I remained pretty healthy for the rest of my trip.
We travelled on through Lusaka and into Malawi, a night in a Pine Forest then a few days on the shores of Lake Malawi, a tropical resort that might as well be beside the ocean (even later flying back over it in the plane I couldn't see the other side - it's huge). A few of us opted for a bit of strenuous exercise by climbing up to Livingstonia and another spectacular waterfall.
We moved on through Tanzania, marred by witnessing a road accident. We continued on to Dar-Es-Salaam, a port city with a lot of character, and a ferry across to Zanzibar for a few relaxing days at a real tropical beach resort. Apart from long walks along the beach, and my first rain for a long time, I also tried Scuba Diving which I will definitely do again - it's not so hard!
Then we headed inland again, passing a cloud covered Mt Kilimanjaro, to Ngorongoro Crater. There we experienced more unreliable African cars and plentiful game viewing. Driving back up to the Snake Park at Arusha, we got a clear view of Mt Meru (4500m).
Then it was through yet another African border crossing (just one of many quintessentially African bureaucratic processes) and into Kenya, arriving in Nairobi for the end of the tour where the group very quickly went its separate ways.
I arranged another expensive 7 day African safari, starting with a few days in the Masai Mara where the number and scale of the zebra and wildebeest herds was incredible. We saw more lions and my bird tally was also climbing with the help of a keen Dutch biologist.
In typically African style, my safari itinerary was modified on the fly and we seemed to do a lot of going nowhere as our experienced guide helped everyone else out of trouble. With a new guide and new American tourist companions (not ones I will remember fondly) we headed up to Lake Nakuru, with huge flocks of flamingos and pelicans and a beautiful encounter with a lion taking its morning stroll along the shores of the lake.
We ended with a few days in Samburu National Park and a dodgy Coriolis force demonstration as we crossed the equator. On our last evening in Samburu, we saw a lion pack hunt kudu down by the river. To avoid the lead lion, the kudu was forced into the river where it was killed by a crocodile. The lions were clearly upset, but eventually and very cautiously managed to steal their prey back from the crocodile in a very tense duel. To finish the evening, we (and every other safari van in the park) saw a leopard in a tree - the only leopard I saw in two and half months in Africa.
I have long since run out of suitable adjectives to describe many of my African experiences, especially Mt Kenya, suffice to say it was the most beautiful, spectacular, cold and challenging hike I have ever done. A more detailed description of the Mt Kenya hike is here.
I spent a few days wandering around town, buying some last souvenirs and enjoying feeling somewhat more confident in African cities than I had previously. I was still very much on my guard and well used to shrugging off endless numbers of beggars and traders.
I had sworn I would never be stupid enough to fall for an African scam, however a quick walk into the park to see the view of the city over the small lake that all the postcards showed proved to a be a costly and very disappointing way to spend my last full day in East Africa. I was the victim of a very elaborate, scary and well executed scam, involving apparent Zimbabwean political renegades and Kenyan Police. Thankfully I woke up to what was going on before they got too much out of me, but the full story will have to wait for another day...
After that, I just holed up in the hostel, not too sad to be getting out the next day. I caught my flight back to Johannesburg, with a great view of Mt Kilimanjaro on the way. I had a quick overnight in the hostel then a bus ride via Durban to Cape Town (although not quite the route I intended).
I had just three nights in Cape Town, but it was a place I really wanted to see. I spent the first rainy day walking around town and the Victoria & Alfred Waterfront. The following day I joined a tour of some of the black townships, where the speed and scale of social reform and basic infrastructure development being implemented by the ANC government was staggering. However, the challenges facing South Africa are even more daunting.
In the afternoon, I was supposed to be on a ferry to Robben Island, the prison where Nelson Mandela was incarcerated but in typical African style, that didn't work out. However, with the weather surprisingly clear, I managed a trip up the cable car to the top of Table Mountain. The views from the top were spectacular, more so of the rugged Cape peninsula and the surrounding terrain than of Cape Town itself.
The following day I caught the 24 hour train back to J'Burg. My companions in the train compartment were a self proclaimed 'coloured' Sidney and 'white' Johan, although Johan was the poorer of the two and obviously struggling to make ends meet - he was travelling to another town where he had the hope of a new job at a higher wage. Johan and Sidney got along famously, swearing that they never normally drank, but proceeding to drink heavily until they fell asleep by early afternoon. This gave me a respite from their endless stream of wisdom and declarations of eternal friendship and brotherhood which began a few minutes into the journey.
While 'coloureds' were treated badly by the apartheid government, that these two got along so well is partly attributable to the 'divide and rule' tactics the regime used to make 'coloureds' feel above the blacks and closer to the whites, despite still being subjected to appalling conditions. While Johan professed that they all belonged to the one god, there was obvious tension at the amount of assistance the black townships were receiving. While there is terrible and increasing crime in many areas, generally the blacks show incredible tolerance to the whites and even warm friendship to the tourists.
I will be following the fate of many southern and eastern African countries closely for some time. Zimbabwe, Zambia and Kenya all have presidential elections in the next year, where popular opinion is heavily against their dictatorial governments, but the challenge to actually get rid of them and replace them with something better is also incredibly tough.
South Africa also has an amazingly challenging future ahead of it. At the same time it has to play a very important role in leading the whole region forward.
Superimposed on all the political and social changes and challenges is the devastating impact of AIDS across the entire region. Already the death rate is appalling, but by all accounts it will get much worse. While there are billboards in some countries raising some awareness, generally it is never acknowledged that someone died of AIDS. Rather, people die of 'pneumonia, an ear ache or liver problems at age 30'. Thus there is no acceptance of the problem, let alone any serious approach to dealing with it.
It is all an incredible reminder of how lucky we are to be in the safe and healthy societies we call home.