A Travellerspoint blog

September 2010

Week 74, 24.July.10 - 30.July.10

Colombo, Sri Lanka to Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka

View Week 74 on rd wrld1yr's travel map.

Colombo, Sri Lanka
Svenja and I are heading to dinner at our new hotel in Colombo - much nicer, better location than the last 2 nights place (uh.. and a lot pricier). Today we went back to the city center, picked up a guidebook to figure out what and where we'll go over the next 4 weeks. Headed over to Galle Face Green where the locals were flying kites and blaring music by the seaside.

Kandy, Sri Lanka
Svenja and I are about to turn in, on our hard-as-rock bed in the pretty nasty and small room in our very cheap hotel, here in Kandy. We're dealing with ittle tiny bugs or mosquitos (not quite sure), flying around our room now. Which, after our unexpected cockroach dinner guest last night munching on the bread ("uh, yes waiter, we're finished, thank you."),

is actually not so bad, as far as insects go. Got a late start this morning (4 flight jet-lag still rearing itself), then took a crowded city bus to the train station, bought our tickets for the 15:35 train. While waiting in the ticket lobby for the train, I proceeded to make a baby looking at me cry by trying to make a funny face (the mother didn't seem amused). The train ride was really nice - beautiful landscape changing from the coastal area inland to the hill country,

and photogenic spectators along the way.

A few guys played daredevil hanging from the outside, ducking and dodging past trees and signs.

Arriving in Kandy, instantly felt the relief of cooler air.

I'm afraid I may not eat a decent meal the whole time in Sri Lanka - just returned from dinner where my chicken teriyaki with rice was dry, small and not too tasty. This was following chicken pad thai made with instant noodles for lunch. Oh, well. Today, we spent some time walking around the man-made lake from 1807 - lots of ducks, egrets and other birds with temples and dagobas all around, providing a nice background.

We visited a cultural center for the obligatory "traditional" song and dance show. Well, I've been to plenty of these shows and can say this wasn't the greatest - the "Pooja dance" with their singing was forgettable, to say the least.

Although, the drum-balancing "Raban dance"

and fire-walking finale - awesome!

Heading to the pub for dinner - and hoping for my second good meal in a row (lunch at an Indian restaurant finally broke the bad meal curse). Today Svenja and I started the morning at Sri Dalada Maligawa, Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic, and one of the most important sights for Buddhists.

Supposedly, so the story goes, a tooth was taken from Buddha during his cremation in 483 BC, kept in India but eventually smuggled into Sri Lanka during 4th c. AD. The temple itself and ceremonial puja, or offering, with drum and horn procession were entertaining,

but the tooth itself is hidden in a golden stupa, so couldn't tell for sure if Buddha suffered from cavities.

The surrounding shrines,

Sri Dalada museum, Audience Hall, and Raj Tusker Hall (shrine)

were also nice. The whole area had impressive details liked carved Buddhas and guard stones on the stairs,

and moonstone carvings on the ground.

After, we took a tuk-tuk up the mountain to visit the 1925 former Hanthana tea factory, now a museum filled with 100+ year-old machinery used for processing tea leaves into a commercial product.

Learned about Thomas Lipton's stop over here to begin harvesting the household brand-name crop. One the top floor of the museum, in the cafe, while the telescope wasn't working so well,

the catwalk was open, and working (and, a bit frightening!).

After exploring, we got our free cuppa Ceylon tea.

Our tuk-tuk driver next took us to Udawattakelle sanctuary where we strolled on "lover's walk", past huge trees filled with monkeys.

Unfortunately, along the way I was attacked by an ant who managed to crawl up to my upper thigh. I had to drop my pants to get the darn thing! Svenja was nice enough to capture the moment...

Back in town, we stopped for a juice (where we discovered woodapple is not tasty, even with sugar added), then to Kataragama Devale joint Hindu-Buddhist temple (this apparently is normal in Sri Lanka) filled with tacky neon flashing signs, but pleasantly without any other tourists.

A monk gave Svenja and me a safety/peace prayer chant, sealed with orange string bracelets to be worn for 1 month.

It was actually very nice, and worth the 10,000 rupee donation.

This morning, after visiting a fantastic juice place for breakfast (2 "cereal in a glass" and 2 fruit salads for under US$4!), Svenja and I visited the uninspiring and overpriced National Museum - a couple humorous displays like a palanquien, or chariot, from 18th c. ("Ancient tuk-tuk", the museum guard called it) and gara yaka, or demon, mask with the silly expressions.

We then took the train to nearby Rambukkana, and grabbed a tuk-tuk with our coconut snack (stupid driver spilling most of it when opening) over to visit the Pinnewala elephant orphanage - where abandoned/orphaned elephants are looked after.

They were very tame and approachable, allowing you to feed it some tree stalk.

The babies were obviously cute, but we were moved by the disabled/injured adults as well. One had one foot blown off by a land mine, one had some injuries who spent seemingly all day hosing himself down.

We exited the orphanage, then saw the procession of elephants being led out of the orphanage to the river, stopping traffic (ala Beetle album cover),

for an afternoon dip -

some were completely submerged, others donning a mud layer. One became was trying to get frisky with several of the other elephants!

While spending time there, we ordered tea at a cafe where I had my palm read, despite not requesting it, by some guy (who dressed conspicuously the same as the waiters in the cafe, allowing him to more easily approach tourists). Apparently I'll live to 90, no, 98, and be very wealthy and have 2 children. But, one prediction he got the wrong, thinking I would give tips to uninvited, self-proclaimed fortune tellers...

Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka
Long day on the bus from Kandy to Anuradhapura, just checked in to a hotel straight out of "The Shining" movie set, with beds long enough for anyone to sleep comfortably on... provided you are 5' tall.

Just returned from a long day bicycling around Sri Lanka's ancient capital city of Anuradhapura, on 2 very ancient bicycles.

After breakfast, we headed over first stop to the Mirisavatiya Dagoba, built by Dutugemunu, where we were greeted by a police officer looking for some sort of tip (didn't happen).

After picking up our pricey "Round Ticket", for the Cultural Triangle (other ancient sites in the region), headed north to Ruvanvelisaya Dagoba for our 2nd stop. We weren't sure where the entrance was exactly, so parked our bikes and hopped over a fence to get inside. I really liked this dagoba, from 140 BC, with the hundreds of elephants circled around guarding it, lined shoulder to shoulder.

We left and bought a large thambili (king coconut) for a refreshing drink under the blazing hot sun, then continued on. Third dagoba, Thuparama, dates from 3rd c. BC - one of the oldest in the world - and surrounded by crooked pillars

Next, after greeting some friendly locals,

went to Ratnaprasada monastery, which were essentially ruins.

Then, after following some pretty confusing maps and locals all pointing in different directions, located the Samadhi Buddha - regarded as one of the finest in Sri Lanka (I thought it was fairly average).

We next rode over to the Kuttam Pokuna, twin ponds that looked like swimming pools.

The next dagoba, Abhayagiri, was completely covered in scaffolding, so not too impressed. We literally rode in circles trying to find the nearby yet elusive Mahasena's Palace - unsuccessfully - before cutting our losses and riding to the Abhayagiri museum, which, while not covered with scaffolding, didn't have the most friendly museum staff (closing the place while we were still inside). I enjoyed seeing the ancient artifacts like moonstones, guards and Buddha footprints.

We next headed to the (unnecessarily) heavily guarded Sri Maha Bodhi tree, said to be the "oldest historically authenticated" tree in the world. Not quite sure what that means, but do know that it has been guarded uninterrupted for over 2,000 years. In fact, probably tighter security than at US airports. The tree itself wasn't as awe-inspiring - nor as big - as I would have predicted.

But the story, that the tree seedling came from Bodhgaya in India by Princess Sangamitta (sister of Mahinda, who introduced Buddhism to Sri Lanka), was pretty cool. Due to the overprotective roadblocks, we were unsuccessful in making a visit to nearby (about 100m away) Brazen Palace, as the detour route would have been a few kms at least. So instead, we went to the new town for dinner at a guidebook recommended restaurant. Well, not only was the guidebook map completely wrong about the location (most locations today, for that matter), the food was certainly not memorable in any way. Riding back in the dark in the streets with barely-functioning brakes on the bicycles was an interesting way to end the day.

Posted by rd wrld1yr 06:56 Comments (0)

Week 73, 17.July.10 - 23.July.10

Sessfontein, Namibia to Colombo, Sri Lanka

View Week 73 on rd wrld1yr's travel map.

Sessfontein, Namibia
This morning the Namibia crew packed up and left the Skeleton Coast, headed inland toward Purros - but not quite making it. Somewhere along the drive, we got a flat... and unfortunately, Marie-Line was driving on it for quite a bit ("Pull over, we have a flat!" I had to call out), so the tire was smoking and sidewall all tore up. I got down under the car and jacked it up, using a screw driver as a lever (the one provided didn't work), until that broke, then switched to one of Alf's tent pins... improvising at its best.

We threw on the spare, I called the car rental place to let them know we needed a new tire, the flat was definitely not repairable (good thing we bought the extra tire/windshield insurance). The woman told me there were no affiliated repair shops in Sessfontein, but there are 2 in Purros where we're heading tomorrow. So, instead of trying to make it the 109 km distance on the "D" road this afternoon, and considering we still have the extra spare, we've set up tents at a campsite here in Sessfontein for a couple nights.

Back in Sessfontein and about to get a fire going in our campsite. Today, well, we made it to Purros. The 109 km "D" road took over 4 hours (good thing we didn't attempt yesterday afternoon). Arriving in the dust bowl town, not only were there no tire repair shops the rental car company told us about, there wasn't a petrol station either. We went to the tourist "office" (shack), it was closed. So, we pulled up to a small shop and asked the locals where to find the traditional Himba village, and had a local climb in the back seat with the others to show us the way. Arriving at the village ~9 km from Purros, saw some cool mud hut homes in a fenced-in area,

the the "authentic" feeling ended there, what with the "Traditional Himba Village" sign, in English, out front of the fence, and the N$30 entry fee to see the homes and souvenir shop. Still, it was interesting to see the women, who rub the red mud into their skin, showering only with perfume (their entire lives), and the crazy mud braided hair.

We were becoming a bit concerned about gas, so headed back to Sessfontein and luckily made it, along with all 4 tires intact.

Twyfelfontein, Namibia
Setting up my bed at the campsite here in Twyfelfontein - meaning, pulling out my sleeping bag and reclining the front passenger seat in the 4x4. I am not able to endure another night in Alf's small tent, which is now falling apart with broken pins. And being rolled into during the night on the rocky ground, I can do without! So today, the first thing we did was stop by the lone petrol station in Sessfontein - only to find they were out of petrol (or closed/deserted, not quite sure). Well, the next town to (potentially) have petrol was about 100 km south, and our gauge was already close to "E". After a brief discussion, we decided to risk it. Well, actually the only other option would be to remain in Sessfontein and wait to see if someone shows up with extra petrol... not good odds. I took the most consistent fuel management highway speed I could maintain - around 90 km/h, over bumpy dirt road we bounced around quite a bit. I didn't want to use extra gas downshifting/braking, and several kms were coasted in neutral downhill. The light went on and we kept going for what seemed an eternity, but we eventually did run out and stall. Not exactly sure how close to the town we were, but estimated around 8-10 km so figured we could try hitching, or, worse case we could walk. Alf began looking out for approaching vehicles to hitch. Then, after a few minutes I decided to give the engine another crank. Well, it worked, so I everyone inside, we drove on and fortunately made it to the town (it turned out to be only a couple km further), stalling again right as the 4x4 pulled up to the pump. "Fill it up" never sounded so good...

We headed onward and arrived here in Twyfelfontein early - strange for this trip, to be checking into a campsite at noon (let alone before dark). After getting checked-in we headed over to the park with rock carvings - 6,000 year old rock carvings! It was really cool to see these carvings of giraffes, lions, rhinos, etc.

Our guide was not the most enthusiastic (to put it mildly), but interesting sites nonetheless. We next drove over to the burnt "mountain", which was really just a small hill made up of volcanic igneous rock,

then over to the "organ pipes", vertical slates of granite resembling... well... organ pipes.

Neither of these two sites charged admission, which was a damn good thing because they were not even worth the petrol it took to get there from Twyfelfontein!

Spitzkoppe, Namibia
We have eventually arrived here in Spitzkoppe, the "Matterhorn of Africa", but not before sunset, so no time to hike around this area on our last night of the trip. And, after nearly 7 months, my last in Africa... hard to believe! This morning back in Twyfelfontein we had a leisurely and relatively late start, considering we had a fairly short distance to drive and only one sight to stop and see on the way - the petrified forest. This place had pieces of fossilized wood dating back 260 m.y.a. - damn!

It took only about 20 minutes to see, and still being early enough, stopped for lunch and some souvenir shopping at a stand on the side of the road run by Himba and Herero women.

Then, driving along, Alf calls out something was wrong with the truck - that something being, our 2nd flat of the trip. Not having yet replaced the other flat, we had to get the 2nd spare from under the bed. Well, the guy at the car rental place demonstrated the crank and made it look very easy to lower the spare, but we were spending A LOT of time trying to lower that sucker. I called the rental company and spoke with Bettina, who lectured me on remembering to call the rental company as soon as we received a flat, as they're able to find those affiliated repair shops that carry replacement tires. Well, I didn't bother mentioning that her colleague gave me 2 bogus places to visit in Purros - I was more concerned with understanding how to lower the spare. She told me it just turns easily once the crank is seated properly, but despite being seated, wasn't turning easily. I was definitely not going to force it, concerned about breaking the crank, but while giving it another go, Alf flagged down a similar 4x4 pickup truck passing by and asked the driver if he knew how to release the wheel. The other driver hadn't lowered his own before, but was willing to take a shot - and did it in about 2 minutes! I guess he wasn't as concerned about forcing it, as it took quite a jolt initially to start the crank. We thanked him profusely, and changed the tire (Alf's turn this time).

We headed to the next town, Uis, where a partner service station was located, according to the list provided by the car rental company. Bettina, from the rental car company, was supposed to phone ahead to the station to ensure the correct size tires were available, but unable to reach anyone. Well, we arrived and found the station, but they didn't have the exact size, but did have similar-size that we were told could be used. We phone Bettina back, to let her know the delemna, but she was telling us the tires must be the exact size to be reimbursed. WTF!? This was the second place on their "partner" list that we've stopped at (first in Twentlefontein) that did not have the correct size tire, not to mention the 2 places which didn't even exist in Purros. So, we are just supposed to drive around the last day with no spare, after already having 2 flats so far, I'm wondering? Or buy a spare tire at our own expense, despite having the supplemental insurance? Jerks. Fortunately we didn't have to find out, as the shop owner located the correct size after all. We got the new spare tire, then made our way here after dark and spent a while just trying to locate a camp site in the dark. Next, the campsite bar!

Windhoek, Namibia
Back in Windhoek, at the airport and preparing myself for the next four flights to get me to Sri Lanka (ugh). Up this morning back in Spitzkoppe for the sunrise, got to see some great views and hiked a bit on the large granite boulders.

We packed up, made our way back to Windhoek, fortunately without further flat tires, and dropped the car off at the rental place. I bid farewell to the crew who were continuing on in southern Namibia, then got a shuttle ride here to the airport. Some screwup with my reservation surfaced, despite having reconfirmed prior to heading out camping for the week. Good thing I was extra nice to the agent checking me in, as she basically overwrote the glitch by manually writing up a boarding pass to get me on the fight!

Colombo, Sri Lanka
I'm on the way to Colombo, about 30 minutes before landing. I'm really looking forward to seeing Svenja again, and very much looking forward to not taking another connecting flight - the Jo'burg-Dubai and Dubai-Bangalore flights were fine (pleasant, actually, as I cashed in on the Emirates free drinks). But arriving in Bangalore, although upon deplaning I saw a transfer desk before the immigration booths, it was unmanned. I spoke with the airport officials on where to go for connecting flights, but since I didn't have an Indian visa, there was a lot of confusion at immigration, and proceeded to wait 70 minutes to get some notarized letter explaining I am a transit passenger. I know Bangalore may not be the largest airport in the world, but find it hard to believe that international connecting flights are that uncommon here, people!! Anyway, I was able to still make it to duty free in time before the connecting flight, which is all I really cared about!

Colombo is soo damn hot and humid! After arriving at the airport last night where Svenni was waiting, we got a taxi to our hotel in Dehiwala suburb south of the city center. Ordinarily, of course I'd prefer to stay in the center but of course arriving so late last night, had to book a reservation online in advance. And of the limited selections available under US$100/night, this was the best rated. Today, after getting caught up on sleep to account for the time change, we wandered a few blocks in Dehiwala looking to buy some groceries, and instantly were sweating up a storm. We took the city bus into the center, wandering the Pettah neighborhood. Had lunch at a local diner, where we were introduced to Colombo's answer for dirty dishes - lining plates with plastic wrap.

Headed to Main Street, traffic crazy in both directions,

and stopped to admire the red & white striped Jami-Ul-Alfar mosque

and nearby Sri Ponnambalam Hindu temple - both very interesting.

We also stopped for juice drink (I asked for "no ice", but I think was a bit too late... hopefully, it won't come back to haunt me) before heading back to the hotel to call it a day.

Posted by rd wrld1yr 09:13 Comments (0)

Week 72, 10.July.10 - 16.July.10

Windhoek, Namibia to Skeleton Coast (Terrace Bay), Namibia

View Week 72 on rd wrld1yr's travel map.

Windhoek, Namibia
Today I spent some time visiting the sites here in Windhoek.

First stop after buffet breakfast at the hostel (nice... for sure got my money's worth!), went over to the Alte Feste old fort.

Dating from the 1800's and Windhoek's oldest surviving building, had a pretty decent display of artifacts, dating from the time of the town's founding.

Passed by landmark Christus Kirche from the early 20th c.,

then over to the Owela museum, which I really really enjoyed. Very informative and colorful displays on Namibia's natural and cultural history,

with information on the endangered animals here. Later, I met up with one potential travel mate, Marie-Line from France, and planning to meet a few others tomorrow to help share the 4x4 costs.

Hard to believe, but I'm about to watch the FINAL game of the World Cup, and quite likely the last soccer match for a while. After 6.5 months with the Africa's Cup of Nations, then European League Championships, then World Cup, its going to be weird not having a match to look forward to. Well, its just the same, as I'm head out to the Namib desert for 9 days beginning tomorrow. Today I met up with Marie-Line, and the other travelers - Alf from USA, and Berbel and Mika from the Netherlands, to organize hiring a 4x4 together. The only problem, as we soon discovered, was all rental car companies were sold out until the end of the month! Being a Sunday, we weren't expecting to resolve the issue today but got lucky with a phone call to someone who knew someone who worked at a car rental place that had one 4x4 left. We high-tailed it to the place, the woman Bettina was nice enough to come in on her day off to reserve the vehicle for us. Tomorrow, we're off to see the "real" Namibia.

Sesriem, Namibia
Day one of the tour got off to a semi-hectic start. The group agreed yesterday to meet in central Windhoek at NWR (Namibia Wildlife Resorts), agency where the national park camp site reservations must be made (a completely inconvenient policy, considering we had to provide arrival dates at each site for the entire 9 nights), at 08:00. Well, the Dutch girls and myself were right on time, Alf about 10 minutes late and Marie-Line showing up at 08:30. OK, a little late start not so bad - except for the fact that we had to still pick up the 4x4, Dutch girls needed to buy a tent, Alf had to check out of the hostel, I needed to get money from the ATM that worked yesterday but for some reason not today. This was on top of getting online to rebook a future flight due to the original reservation on a German-based consolidator website not understanding my English follow-up email and canceling the reservation, plus reconfirm at South African Airways office for my next flight immediately upon returning from the desert, due to American-based consolidator website's inability with providing me a reservation code... whew! Well, we loaded up the pickup truck (to the gills),

made it out of Windhoek and into the vast arid Namib desert, off paved road onto gravel where I drove pretty fast to make it here to Sesriem just before the gate closed at sunset. Just wrestled with the whipping wind to set up Alf's tent I'm sharing with (2 person design, but seems a bit small with his 6'7'' frame). Now, heading over to cook some dinner before turning in.

Swakopmund, Namibia
Up at the crack of dawn this morning (before dawn, technically) and drove over to Soussusvlei - vast area of mammoth sand dunes. Got there to watch an incredible sunrise: the first major dune, #45, was already filled with loads of tourists that climbed up the soft sand to the top for views of the morning light filling up the landscape.

Myself, I ran up, and down, for the first 5 minutes

and then, after becoming entirely too winded, decided to wait for Alf and more casually walk up to the top.

Absolutely breathtaking views of the dunes, with the colors changing as the sun rose higher.

As the winds picked up, often times had to deal with piles of sand blowing into my camera, eyes, mouth, nose, etc.

So, Alf and I headed back down to meet the rest of the group. We put the truck in 4WD, and headed onto Deadvlei where we parked and had breakfast - joined by some hungry and completely unintimidated birds.

Deadvlei was more desolate desert of dunes and dead trees.

The contrast in colors here were also amazing - fire-red sand, cobalt-blue skies, emerald-green shrubs, and pale-white mud ground.

After getting the truck un-stuck from the sand dune (not even 5 minutes after Marie-Line's began driving), we headed back to camp site to pack up the tents then made our way over to Sesriem Canyon for a hike around. More incredible views here - enormous boulders teetering on the edge of the canyon walls.

We spent a good amount of time here - actually losing one another for a while in the several km-long canyon - then, driving out in the endless stretches of flat desert,

made our way over here to Swakopmund, checked-in to a campsite and now off to bed.

Today was just a bit crazy. Up early this morning, the crew drove down through Walvis Bay toward Sandwich Harbour; had a bit of difficulty in actually finding it. We took the road south to the salt flats,

saw the turn-off to Sandwich Harbour, but only saw some worn-looking paths, no continuing "road". Back to the salt mines and after getting some directional help with a hand-drawn map, back to the turn-off and paths. Did a little dune driving, requiring 4WD (and a bit of nerves!).

After a while, made it past "the border" fence and onto the beach. Lowered the tire pressure, drove onward until we came up to the narrow strip of sand flanked on one side by near-vertical dunes, and the other by the Atlantic Ocean.

The trick of passing through this ~5 km or so stretch is to understand when the tide is low enough to cross. Trickier than it sounds, as you need to drive close enough to the water on the harder wet sand, obviously not too close, but not so far away as to get stuck in the softer dry sand toward the dune. We got out and assessed the situation,

felt it was good enough to go for it, so I punched it and made it safely (and fairly easily) to the harbor.

What an amazing place - huge dunes overlooking a harbor filled with hundreds of pelicans, flamingos and other types of birds I couldn't name. Only 100 m or so away, a lone jackal roamed around, occasionally stopping to look at me, but then carried on in search of food.

I climbed up the dunes for a better view,

the rest of the group probably had enough from Soussusvlei so stayed on the ground below.

After a bit longer of looking at sea shells, dead crabs,

and birds we were ready to head back through the pass - only, no Marie-Line. We waited around 20 minutes with no sign of her, and started to mark the sand to measure the tide... it wasn't looking good, waves passing over and erasing the markers as the tide kept approaching. Finally we spot her, but she's wandering around back and forth, not returning. So I honk to remind her we're not interested in spending the night! She eventually wanders to the truck, mentions she was searching for her phone that she dropped somewhere in the harbor - great. Well, phone or no phone, we knew that the timing was cutting it close with the tide, so we all agreed to head back. I roll along ok for maybe the first couple kms, then got into some very soft sand. I was looking further on down the strip and, although not entirely certain, but the water appeared very close to the dune wall. Then.... we got stuck. I tried reversing a bit, but the tires started to dig into the sand. The group jumped out and began digging around the tires, and I'm watching the waves come up right next to the truck - yikes. I yell out the window for them to hurry up, this was no drill! I try not to panic, and eyeing the sand closer to the water, figure that was going to be the only chance so tell them to push from behind, and as the next wave receded into the ocean, I gunned it forward and swung around, hugging the next upcoming wave and accelerating safely back toward the harbor. The group followed behind, and we breathed a collective sigh of relief. For now. We began again marking the tide, figuring high tide will come soon and then begin to recede. In the mean-time, went back to try and find Marie-Line's phone. Some time later a couple big desert safari Land Rovers pull up, filled with tourists busily snapping photos. One of the drivers tells me we better get moving back through the strip, high tide's coming in. I explain the tide's already too high to pass through, so we'd have to wait it out. Well, come to find high tide wasn't due for another 1.5 hours, so we'd have to wait until around 18:30, then drive back through the small dunes in the dark... not a great thought, but the only other option would be to drive over the large dunes and go around the strip. "How much experience do you have dune driving?", he asks me. I tell him I've ridden over humps way back in 2000 on Frasier Island, but certainly not the virtual mountains he's pointing to. Then he and 2 others check out the engine, discuss the size and determine it could handle the big dunes - they believe. My question was, who's driving?? Fortunately, although only 2 tour vehicles were there, it so happened there was an extra tour representative in one of the vehicles, sitting in the passenger seat. He has dune driving experience, but they were quick to point out they'd assume no liability for any damages to our rental... well, of course I'm wondering exactly what could happen (roll over? stuck? both??), but the alternatives - trying again to go through the strip before high tide (no way), or wait out the tide and try to make our way back in the dark, was a lose-lose situation. So, I hand over the keys. As the pickup needed the least amount of weight possible, the rest of our crew loads into one of the tour vehicles with empty seats (another lucky break), and I hop in with "Paolo" and we take off. Of course, the 2 tour groups paid for 1/2 day dune driving so we weren't able to just head straight back to the main road; rather, we followed the much-more-suitable-for-dune-driving vehicles leading the way. I remember some tense moments riding through the Khor Al-Adaid in Qatar, but those were small hills compared to these mountains and I was downright scared - as we skirted down the steep slopes, holding my breath for a minute at a time... but it didn't stop me from snapping photos!

Maybe an hour or so we're driving up and down dunes that I'm sure this rental pickup has never seen before.

Paolo had the engine screaming for most of the time, and once there was such a vertical dune that I felt the running boards actually rest momentarily on the peak before teeter-tottering forward and down the slope. We could hear the sand rumbling under the truck because of the tire friction - sounded like an avalanche. The man certainly knew what he was doing! And the bonus part - in addition to receiving a free dune ride (normally costing somewhere around N$850), Paolo was giving me tips on how to dune drive. When we finally finished, we stopped off to test physics in the quicksand area,

then the crew joined back up. Following the tour operators out to the main road, they apparently wanted to see if I paid attention to the lessons - they rode up a real dune. Certainly not as big as the ones just driven on, but pretty damn big nonetheless! Making it up to the top, the two tour vehicles then showboated a bit by reversing down the other side of the dune... alas, no lessons on that one, so I settled on heading down driving forward. Back on the paved road (with a non-functioning air compressor, we weren't able to re-inflate tires)

passed by Walvis Bay filled with flamingos as the sun was setting - very nice.

Returned to Swakopmund, and now meeting up at a bar to buy Paolo all the drinks he wants!

A fair bit of drinking has commenced here in the hostel campground's kitchen - thanks to Alf purchasing two bottles of liquor and handing out shots to unsuspecting backpackers who wandered into the kitchen, not giving them the choice to refuse ("Hey man, rules are rules"). This morning I got up and booked a sandboarding tour - figuring since I hadn't been snowboarding in a long time (3 seasons I think?), may as well go ahead and sign up for a good substitute! They used real snowboards, so the equipment at least was familiar (minus the snow hat, gloves, pants, jacket, 2 sweatshirts, etc.). It took a couple runs (sand is much softer to fall on than icy Vermont mountains, I discovered), but I got the hang of it and was soon carving down the dune.

Actually, it was more difficult to go slow, as you tend to just sink. After a few more runs I took a shot at the lay-down version of sandboarding, used for the inexperienced snowboarders. Actually, it was kind of misleading as it wasn't really sandboarding, but rather sand-sledding. Well, novice tool or not, these things were flying down the slope... it was actually scarier to ride this than the sandboard! Head-front, laying face down - your face mere inches from the sand at 73 km/h (they had a speed gun... the fastest run of the day was a girl who was clocked at 76). After safely making the runs (slight elbow burn was the extent of my injuries), we had lunch - deli sandwiches and beers, all you can eat and drink. Needless to say, with me there, there weren't leftovers. Back here in Swakopmund, wandered around the heavily German-influenced town a bit.

Back at the hostel, the crew met up at a beach bar for sundowners before heading back here to the hostel campsite and continued with the cocktails.

Skeleton Coast (Terrace Bay), Namibia
We're in a desolate stretch of northern Namibia named "The Skeleton Coast", dubbed so by early Portuguese sailors who traveled down this perpetually foggy coastline, causing many shipwrecks. And if the crew didn't go down with the ship, the outlook was not any more favorable on land - hundreds and hundreds of km's of sand, nothing else. This morning we left Swakopmund and headed north, stopped for photos of our first shipwreck view - certainly this mostly intact boat was not from the Portuguese in the 16th c.

Continuing up the coast, stopped in Cape Cross. There was a small cemetery where the first Portuguese explorers to visit this area were buried,

but the main attraction were the thousands of Cape Fur Seals in the area - very funny personalities and sounds from them, but also a most putrid smell - I don't remember it being that bad in the Galapagos!

We spotted a jackal who just took out one of the seals - I ignored the sign telling visitors to remain on the walkway and moved up on the beach for a better view.

We continued up to the Skeleton Coast proper,

stopping off at another shipwreck - much older, but not sure from what era.

Then onto Terrace Bay to our campsite. This place is about as remote as it gets. I'm not sure where the workers actually live, but they obviously stay here at the camp while working as it is a long long drive to the next town of any size. We were assigned the private VIP house, and - despite the abundance of cockroaches - was very plush. We each had our own room, I called dibs on the "Flagship" with king-size bed, ocean view and private bathroom... definitely one of the nicest places I've stayed in on my travels (better than Alf's tent for sure!). Now, enjoying the beautiful sunset while munching on popcorn and drinking a beer - nice!

Posted by rd wrld1yr 07:14 Comments (0)

Week 71, 3.July.10 - 9.July.10

Bulawayo, Zimbabwe to Windhoek, Namibia

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Francistown, Botswana
Watching the World Cup from the t.v. in my "real" hotel room (with real hotel price), in Francistown, just over the Zimbabwe border in Botswana. This morning I took a minibus from Bulawayo that surprisingly only stopped a few times on the way to the border, then passing through immigration and the foot-and-mouth shoe cleaning station, waited a while for another bus on the Botswana side. My first impressions of Botswana - people here actually use the garbage cans! I see very little litter on the ground in Francistown... I asked some local about this, and it seems there is a hefty fine for littering, so people don't do it. Now, if that logic could be spread across the other 50 countries on this continent... well, Rwanda being the exception. No real interesting sites to speak of here in Francistown - in fact, seems to be too many modern strip malls and fast food places - but, having paved sidewalks instead of dirt is a pretty welcome change!

Maun, Botswana
I'm technically not in Maun, but rather Matlapaneng up the road - this camp site I'm staying in is about the cheapest option around (but not that cheap). Maun is certainly not geared toward independent travelers backpacking without tents/personal transportation, as each campsite is a couple km's spread out! I took a minibus this morning from Francistown here to Maun, then crammed into a local minivan minibus to the camp site. Wouldn't you know, they don't organize trips to Okavango Delta. So, I was referred to another camp site about 6-7 km further down the road. Fortunately a Dutch couple with a car happened to stop by, also inquiring about trips to the Delta, and gave me a lift over to the site which organizes tours. Booked a tour for tomorrow, then jumped in the minibus and made it - barely - to the supermarket before it closed, to stock-up on food for a couple days. Now heading next door (meaning about 1 km away) to the sports bar for dinner and a 4th of July celebratory drink.

Okavango Delta, Botswana
I'm roasting marshmallows while swatting away mosquitos sitting by a campfire here in the Okavango Delta, beneath about a billion or so stars (and equal amount of frogs burping). This morning, unable to get a minibus to stop, I walked the 6 km or so - backpack, daypack, and groceries - to the campsite I booked this trip with. Staged my pack and had maybe 10 minutes to charge my camera battery, before the Dutch couple and I took the motor boat trip down Boro River to where all the makora dugout canoes were staged, along with a lot of locals and their luggage. While tourists pay top dollar for a poler to "drive" (as they say) us around the Delta in the makora, the locals still rely on them and the river Delta for a reliable method of transportation. As the polers navigated the makora through the reeds, the tourists (in the front) were being covered in spider webs and minute flies - this is certainly a swamp land! Arrived here on one of the few permanent islands in the Delta, pitched tents and then back out on the makora to the other side of the island to look for wildlife. But, other than lots of birds, mosquitos and spiders, not many animals can be seen during the flooded season. Fortunately, there are pretty sunsets to compensate...

Maun, Botswana
Back in Maun (Matlapaneng), but this time staying put at the more convenient campsite river lodge where the tour I was on, originated. This morning in the Delta we got up early and headed out on the makora to a different part of the island.

Very peaceful and tranquil feeling cutting through the reeds in the Delta, with pretty water lilies all around.

This time, there was a bit more wildlife we were able to spot, like kudu deer and elephants - sometimes getting uncomfortably close!

We headed back to the camp, rested a bit, packed up and went back to the makora "taxi" station where we waited for our motor boat transfer. While waiting for the transfer, our poler volunteered to take the Dutch couple and me on a tour of the village. We were introduced to shake shake, the local fire water,

and got to see the local houses made out of recycled beer and pop cans - bizarre!

I'm enjoying a nice sunset view over the Okavango River from my camp site lodge.

Earlier today, I wandered around a bit in the small town of Maun - the local minibus I took from the river camp site lodge expertly avoided running over the many long-eared donkeys spread out all over the roads and in town.

I stopped by the Nhabe museum expecting to see exhibits on the history and cultures of the Delta. Well, instead I found a shop selling crafts... what the heck, like I don't see enough of this already?? At least some permanent sculptures were still on display.

Now, heading to the bar for another World Cup match.

Gobabis, Namibia
Well, I'm in Gobabis, in eastern Namibia. Just had quite a hike here to my rest camp, the sign said 1 km from city center where I was dropped off from my pickup truck ride (yeah, right!.. more like 3 km). The town is similar to those I saw in Botswana, in that it is about as spotless as far as African cities go... trash cans all over, and people use them! This morning back in Maun, I went to the bus station for the relatively late 08:30 bus to Ghanzi. We passed a random checkpoint along the way for a foot-and-mouth shoe cleaning stop(?), and after arriving, changed to a minibus for the ride to Mamuno at the border. During the ride, passed through the hot, dry and dusty Kalahari desert.

When the minibus dropped us at the border, I checked out of Botswana and walked about 2 km to the Namibian border post - helping the local lady with her luggage along the way. When I asked the immigration officer where to catch a connecting bus to Gobabis, I was told there were none, only hitchhiking! Well, I didn't count on that, but - unsurprisingly - soon found vehicles serving as shared taxis pulling up to the border post, a pickup truck carrying a few women dressed in the traditional Herero outfits,

were crossing from Namibia into Botswana and dropped off at the border, so the woman with the heavy luggage and I hopped in the back of the truck and took it back into Namibia 150 windy km as the sun was setting - glad I had my jacket and winter hat available!

Windhoek, Namibia
I'm here in the capital city Windhoek, cooking up the traditional backpacker dinner - pasta with marinara sauce. This morning in Gobabis I checked out of my inconveniently located camp site and grabbed a shared taxi to Windhoek. Not surprisingly, the driver tried to quote me double of what I know the rate should be. Once I got him down to the correct rate, along the way he tried to change the negotiated price, saying I needed to pay more.. yeah, right! Didn't happen. Arrived in Windhoek, got checked-in to a pretty decent hostel, then started making some inquiries about joining up with other tourists to rent a vehicle - the only real way to see Namibia's classic sights other than booking an expensive tour, as no public transportation seems to exist here. I posted notes looking for other travelers in both mine and another hostel on the other side of town. Then, spent a little time walking around the touristy areas of town, like Post St promenade with the famous meteorite display. Tonight, predictably, will be at the bar for World Cup.

Posted by rd wrld1yr 04:40 Comments (0)

Week 70, 26.June.10 - 2.July.10

Livingstone, Zambia to Bulawayo, Zimbabwe

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Livingstone, Zambia
Just finished watching a very disappointing USA World Cup round of 16 loss against Ghana. Well, I guess Americans can go back to ignoring soccer for another 4 years. Earlier today, I spent quite a bit of time getting caught up online with the sister hostel's free wifi (such a luxury!). Wandered around Livingstone a bit, checked out the museum, then grabbed a cab back to the Falls - full moon tonight, which causes a once-per-month lunar rainbow to rise above the falls. It was quite spectacular and worth the second admission ticket!

Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe
I'm alternating from washing some clothes with a bucket out by the deep sink, and watching the Germany-England World Cup match at a bar in my Victoria Falls (Zimbabwe) hostel. This morning I took the Livinstone hostel's free shuttle back to the Falls, but instead of entering the national park for a third time, walked across the bridge to Zimbabwe. Visited the ATM across the border to withdraw Zim's legal tender, U.S. dollars (guess the 10,025,000,000,000 old Zimbabwe dollars I picked up in Mozambique won't get me too far).

It was only a couple km walk from the bridge to the Vic Falls town center, but I was thoroughly peppered with touts trying to sell wood carvings or said disused Zimbabwe Million/Trillion notes along the way. And, I was surprised not necessarily by their persistence here (I have been in Africa now 6 months, after all), but rather the sense of desperation - the willingness to trade my clothes for some of their souvenirs. I guess there are poor African nations, and then there are poor African nations. I politely told them I didn't have very desirable clothes after backing 16 months straight. I got checked into this party-time hostel where people were already going strong late morning at the bar (I wondered if I'll get any sleep tonight with the bar located just outside my dorm room!), and wandered around town a bit. Certainly being a Sunday makes most African towns a bit quiet, but Vic Falls seems downright ghostly and depressing compared to its sister city Livingstone across the Zambezi. I had lunch at a grill spot, then stopped in colonial-era ritzy Victoria Falls hotel

for a beer and views of the falls from their bar... about the only thing I could afford at that place!

Next I wandered away from the small town, up river a bit... I was curious to see what landmark my guidebook referred to as "big tree" - turns out, it was just that.

Other than the evidence of elephants nearby (their droppings being all over), it was really desolate. As I was looking for hippos by the river, a couple guys with wooden carved animals approached me. I was thinking, it was probably a good thing I left my wallet back at the hostel locked up. And, considering how desperate the locals seem, was still a bit concerned seeing no one else around. But, even with their failed sales/barter efforts, the guys turned out to be really friendly, and interesting to talk to about the local culture here. I think even after all this time traveling, it is good I can still be pleasantly surprised now and then by the locals.

Bulawayo, Zimbabwe
Here in Zim's "second city", Bulawayo, and heading from my hostel in the middle of nowhere next door to the sports bar to watch - what else - World Cup. Got up around 04:00 this morning back in Vic Falls to take a taxi to the bus station. It was too far to walk and, according to the locals here dangerous in the middle of the night... not because of potential muggers, but rather the wild elephants around. Well, the 05:00 big bus I was expecting to take never showed. There was a minivan bus parked at the bus station which was heading to Bulawayo at 07:00, with the driver and conductor asleep inside. The taxi driver knocked to wake them and asked if I would stay inside until they departed. Well, climbing in the pitch black minivan failed to see the rusty metal headliner support bar hanging down - until I scraped a good chunk of skin from my scalp on it. Dug into my pack to fish out the old trusty Q-Tips and antibiotic ointment that I've become a bit too familiar with recently. Rested (as best one can with a new gash on the noggin'), and then woke as we took off surprisingly close to on-time (meaning around 07:25). Pulling into Bulawayo was greeted by a big billboard announcing a cholera alert. Ah, yes... just the sort of warm reception I was looking for.

Walked over a couple kms from city center to the suburbs and checked into the city's only hostel. After checkin in, I headed back into the city center, wandering the streets lined with really beautiful old colonial buildings. One of the buildings itself, housed a National Art Gallery.

Not so impressed by 90% of the photos/paintings having the World Cup theme, but a couple older sculptures were photo-worthy.

Tomorrow, making my way to Great Zimbabwe.

Masvingo, Zimbabwe
Well, there isn't a heck of a lot to see in Masvingo. The Civic Center & Gardens park in the town center had some old steam engine relics which was actually pretty cool, maybe more for the park atmosphere with folks sitting around picnicking than the items themselves.

I arrived at around 12:00 today, barely caught the 07:00 bus this morning back in Bulawayo waiting for a taxi to pick me up from the hostel and take me to the bus station - caught it at 07:15 as it was pulling out. For once the delays with African bus schedules pays off! When I arrived here in Masvingo and checked into the cheapie (and dumpy) hostel, the women working here advised me to visit Great Zimbabwe in the morning. So after wandering around to kill some time, now sitting with a bunch of locals and one other backpacker watching the world cup - good thing there is a generator backup!

Harare, Zimbabwe
I am having my beer for dinner at the hostel here in Harare - nutritious! No supermarkets/restaurants are open nearby past 20:00, and since the hostel is on the outskirts of city center and would cost US $10 for a taxi ride into town and return, I said 'no thanks' and ordered a beer from the bar. Side note, it seems a majority of hostels I've stayed in Africa, have been located outside the city center - essentially being stranded unless willing to pay for a taxi with jacked-up nighttime fares, or risk getting mugged by walking. Anyway. Earlier this morning back in Masvingo, caught a minibus to the Great Zimbabwe ruins - awesome collection of stone ruins dating from the 13th c. It had been a while since I'd wandered around ancient ruins, but these were worth the wait and did not disappoint. Started over at the giant Great Enclosure, housing the famous and mysterious (no one still understands what it was used for) conical tower.

Visited the Eastern Ridge Enclosure teeming with baboons, down Eastern Valley past Western Valley and up the narrow and steep Ancient Path,

to the incredible Hill Complex - mix of stone buildings built into natural boulders clinging to the cliffside.

Had spectacular views of Great Zimbabwe below to one side,

and Lake Mutifikwi and the Beza mountains on the other.

Spent a few hours in total at the ruins, then made my way back to Masvingo and caught a really slow (despite what the traffic officer woman told me) minibus here to Harare. While on the ride, sat up front next to a very very large woman (seems most of them who I sit next to on busses are), and watched as she devoured a fried chicken leg - meat and cartilage, stripped it clean. But then, I hear crunching and look over - she started chewing the bone. Uh... bon appetit! Once I arrived, it was not exactly easy finding this hostel - city minibus from the bus station to the general area, but no one heard of the road or hostel that I was asking about. No street lights work in Harare - literally, not one light was on and it was already pitch black at 19:00... I'm thinking to myself, "Seriously, does Mugabe actually WANT people to get mugged here??" But, eventually found the place and despite my beer being a great dinner and all, will be anxious to eat breakfast tomorrow morning!

Today was spent wandering Harare - I like this city! After an overpriced breakfast (what choice did I have after not eating for about 24 hours??), took a local minibus down to Harare Gardens (their "Central Park"),

then the National Art Gallery (second one I've hit in Zimbabwe!), with a very good collection of paintings and sculptures.

Headed down First Street promenade to Robert Mugabe Road, it was too good to pass on the photo opp. Although, selecting someone who looked honest enough to be trusted with my camera from across the street took a little bit of searching... finally settled on the guy selling juices out of a cart, I paid for 2 but only took one juice in exchange for the photo... figured he wouldn't be going anywhere too quickly, anyway!

Then, after an unsettling meat pie for lunch (ugh), headed back up to Chancellor Road where the Presidential Palace is located. Well, as soon as I reached in my pocket to get my camera, I noticed a soldier - camouflage fatigues with semi-automatic weapon drawn. Not slung over his shoulder, but drawn and pointing out to the road. Back in the pocket went the camera! In fact, all along Josiah Tongogara Road, I noticed more well-hidden guards (soldiers), and from what I've read, they're given an open order to shoot any trespassers on site without warning. Therefore, I wasn't about to provoke any trigger-happy Mugabe guards -- just kept my camera in my pocket and barely looked toward the well-fortified presidential palace as I walked down Chancellor Road. This road is closed between 6 pm - 6 am - not even pedestrians may walk down the sidewalk during this period - so I figured I'd better get a look now while its still legal (and safe). Walking back to Chancellor/Josiah Tongogara intersection, I stepped back behind a tree concealed from the guards and braved a quick photo of the warning sign... it came out blurry, but there was NO WAY in hell I risked taking another!

Bulawayo, Zimbabwe
Back in Bulawayo - hadn't planned to stop here, but the realistic view should have been predicted once I left Harare at a very late 10:30 - no way I was going to arrive in time to transfer to another bus. Sure enough, the minibus from Harare stops every few kms, coupled with my favorite: minibus gets "hired" for a different route and ends up dumping all passengers at some stop to wait and switch to another minibus... got me into Bulawayo around 19:00. And this ride I had to exercise particular patience with the 5 kids I got stuck with crammed in the back of the minibus... good thing there's a bar next door!

Posted by rd wrld1yr 17:54 Comments (0)

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