Tuesday, 2 August 2016

Peace, Out...

The transformation is complete. It may have taken six months, but the restless flibertigibbet with dangerously excessive levels of nervous energy has finally mastered the previously elusive and most complex art of relaxation. And not before time; with a return to reality, inclement weather patterns and new employment looming ever larger on the horizon, I have one final opportunity to exercise my newly-honed skills. Gone therefore are the exploratory market visits and national park hikes, the first encounter bar chats with newly-arrived backpackers and the languid beach strolls: it is time for action, and the action is inaction.

The crucial breakthrough discovery in this slow metamorphosis came in the unexpected realisation and understanding that it takes a specific kind of psychological dexterity to do absolutely nothing for an extended period of time. As with every new art form or skill acquired through nurture rather than nature, mine has been a gradual improvement. Every new attempt sees the addition of an extra ten or fifteen minutes to the previous record of horizontal inactivity, and a directly proportional increase in the satisfaction at achieving a heightened state of idleness.

It is with great fondness that I recall the exact moment I knew that I was finally on my way to dolce farniente nirvana, on that momentously sunny morning at Cape Maclear. Walking out onto the beachfront patio deck of my backpacker hostel at 11am and sensing something special immediately. There, directly across the reception area from where I was standing: a beautiful sunbeam cutting through the gap between two parasols, hitting the hostel's prime rattan lounger in a joyous arc of solar perfection. But as I moved towards it, my concentration was disrupted by a barely audible call from someone I had met the previous evening, sitting at a breakfast table on the other side of the deck. I focused again. 'Be the cat, I thought to myself. Be the cat, JMK.' Without breaking stride, I feigned deafness and homed in on my target, lowering myself into the by now well-rehearsed position of horizontal glory. Another fine performance.

So I am now a master of the game, and in Malawi I have found the perfect playing field. As the self-styled 'Warm Heart Of Africa', this is a country where slow is good but stop is better - a state of consciousness confirmed and reinforced by the omnipresence of Rastafarian culture and an almost permanent waft of hemp plant derivatives. When tourists are stopped in the street, it is out of genuine curiosity and concern for wellbeing rather than any ulterior motive, a welcome change from the walking-wallet-mzungu perception across the border in more touristy Tanzania. With a per capita GDP of $226.50 in 2015 cementing its continued presence on the podium of the world's poorest countries, the reverse of the old adage of wealth not buying happiness appears to hold true in Malawi. And smiling, relaxed locals make for smiling, relaxed backpackers.

Malawi, a little jewel of a country making a very late dash up my African country charts, with incredible mountain scenery, stunning national parks and the recent reintroduction of lions once more completing the famous five band of beasts. So much to see in such a comparatively small package. But to me, it is all about the lake. This is where the final leg of the journey begins, and ends: at, along and above the shore of this breathtakingly beautiful body of water. With each day book-ended by the dreamy pastel hues and reflections of both sunrise and sunset, and the interim daytime hours a sequence of sun-kissed naps, siestas and slumbers, this is the only fitting way to wind down an African quest that has truly delivered on every count that matters.

And if Malawi is the culmination country of this unexpected journey towards inner peace, then my current location is its apotheosis. Hanging onto a steep mountainside jutting up 1,000m directly opposite the northern shore of the lake, the Mushroom Farm permaculture eco-lodge is a beacon of off-grid serenity, the ultimate peaceful escape from the reality of the world beyond its perimeter. With mellow African music playing on the beautiful ethnically decorated terrace, weak WiFi only available for one hour a day and the most incredible vegetarian cuisine (there, I said it...) created with produce sourced on its on grounds, my only dilemma is deciding the order in which to use the site's three precipice-overhanging hammocks. At night, the entire gathering retires to bed no later than 10pm, full, content and without a care in the world. In the dormitory, we lower our mosquito nets and make sure the double doors are wide open. In a little under eight hours, the world's most natural alarm clock will gently rouse us from our sleep and another wonderful day will begin. My trip may have another two weeks to run, but it is here that it has ended. Mission complete.

 The breakthrough moment


 ... or sunset?

This is harder than it looks...

6:10am - the view from my dorm bed. No hitting snooze when this alarm goes off...

Mood song: Don't Worry Be Happy - Bobby McFerrin
Mood food: the Mushroom Farm open faced breakfast sandwich


Sunday, 24 July 2016

Backpacker Life [iv] - The Transport

A grand total of more than 21,000km travelled on public transport across an entire continent was always going to generate individual journeys that were more momentous than their eventual destination. Here are six of the best, and worst of this African Odyssey...

1: It can't be done,they said. Meh, I said. Hitchhiking 800km in one day from Windhoek to the Okavango Delta through one land border, two deserts and three national parks felt like the ultimate backpacker accomplishment, not least because of the 40c heat and near total absence of traffic. The absolute highlight and a ride committed to transport Valhalla involved crossing the legendary Kalahari Desert in the back of a Ford pick-up truck with three local Batswana bushmen, listening to music from tinny speakers and revelling in the rush of the wind as we sped towards our destination. Blue skies, endless desert and high speeds on an arrow-straight road: here I was, living my Kerouac moment. Possibly the single best day's travelling I have ever experienced.

The only way to travel

2: The behaviour of local people towards the standard of driving is usually a good indicator of the safety of the journey, so the white knuckles, saucer-sized eyes and silent screams of our three co-passengers confirmed that death was indeed imminent. As our shared taxi driver negotiated the treacherously winding mountain roads from Kisoro to Lake Bunyonyi at speeds generally associated with touring car test tracks and with an equal appreciation of both lanes, my travel buddy Alex and I actually considered taking a smiling selfie together so that our friends and family would be left with a positive lasting memory of our lives rather than the charred and mangled remains at the bottom of a Ugandan ravine.

3: What started out as a shared taxi of convenience between five strangers needing to get from Lalibela to Mekele turned into an epic road trip culminating in a traditional Ethiopian dinner at the driver's house. A bright student, two lunatic local women and a jovial chauffeur with a permanent smile were my companions in the unusual luxury of a Toyota Landcruiser. For once the majestic scenery took second stage as eight hours were spent singing to Ethiopian music, swigging honey wine from plastic canisters, an injera food fight, countless roadside coffee stops and trying to prank each other out when sleeping. Saying heartfelt goodbyes as we reached our destination felt like an African travel version of the final scene in The Breakfast Club. A perfect example of Ethiopian hospitality - I paid for nothing other than the ride - and how much fun travelling with strangers can be.

The Landcruiser crew

4: Equating the one hour departure delay in Addis Ababa bus station to an eight position Formula 1 grid penalty, our coach driver to Bahir Dar channelled his inner Lewis Hamilton and proceeded to horn blast goats, pedestrians and all motorized vehicles off the road in a nine hour weaving frenzy to make a Bangladeshi sweat shop worker envious. With each new pothole hit at 80km/h threatening to add us to the International Space Station's dinner guest list, my Ethiopian neighbour's certainty that I was a devout Christian with Tourette's deepened. We arrived on time, but with my nerves as shredded as the front two tyres of the bus and a new personal resolve to never sit in the front row of an African coach again.

5: Driving in six inches of water across a vast salt lake with the pale early morning sun reflecting spectacularly off the crystalline whiteness would generally be enough for a journey to attain travel greatness, but doing so on the roof of a 4x4 singing French 80s rock songs with two backpacking companions ensured transport immortality. For a little over two hours, we enjoyed the otherworldly scenery of Lake Asale in the Danakil Depression from a vantage point so unique that our cheeks threatened to split from our uncontainable delight: when we talked, we smiled; when we sang, we smiled; when we said nothing, we smiled. A rare but winning combination of sleep deprivation and spontaneous decision-making.

"Je rêvais d'un autre monde..."

6: Whilst all previous boda-boda adventures had been exhilarating affairs, none had been in the chaotic evening rush hour traffic of Kampala. Following two near collisions and an actual bump with a car trying to fit into a gap no wider than a broken windshield wiper, the moment came when only a lightning reaction to lift my left leg prevented a premature end to my nascent running career, and its unnecessary transformation into uncanned corned beef. My relief at getting off the motorcycle in one piece was only short-lived as I replaced near-amputation with self-immolation by incinerating my right calf on the the exhaust pipe. I walked everywhere in Kampala after the incident.

Another ride survived...

Mood food: biltong and popcorn

Friday, 15 July 2016

Cash Converters

24 - 24 - 14 - 24 - 24 -85 - 1.33 - 14 - 949 - 2,907 - 991 -  4,475 - 134 - 29 - 8 - 12*

One of the great masochistic pleasures of multi-country travel lies in the complex intricacies of currency conversion and the arithmetic pitfalls that accompany the process. The frisson of excitement at holding alien notes and coins when entering a new country is equal only to the short-term dementia contracted when attempting to adapt to their monetary value. The above sequence of numbers is the conversion rate of the currency of each of the sixteen countries of my African voyage against the formerly great pound sterling, in the geographical order my route has followed. Apart from the false dawn of the continent's southernmost region, where three of South Africa's five neighbours have tied their currency to the relatively stable rand, the last six months have been a return to the childhood traumas of long division and multiplication tables.

Had I visited Zimbabwe in 2008, at the height of its vertiginous hyperinflation, the 1.33 from the above sequence would have been replaced by a figure beyond the decimal display capacity of all but the Pentagon's most powerful supercomputers. As the government attempted in vain to keep up with the spiralling devaluation of its worthless currency by printing ever larger denomination bills, each successive zero meant fewer slices of bread in the shopping basket. At the one hundred trillion dollar mark ($100,000,000,000,000!), the folly finally stopped and dollarization ensued. Today, as these paper relics of a failed economy are touted as souvenirs to tourists at Victoria Falls, the country has again run out of physical money and is in the grip of a wave of industrial action across all sectors of the economy.

For the humble and cash-conscious backpacker, the downside of dollarization means spending real money. Gone is the casual frittering of tens, hundreds and even thousands of spectacularly-named currencies ("That'll be thirty-two kwacha please...") and with it a carefree attitude to expenditure: every dollar counts. I happily splashed out $65 on a half-day's snorkelling on an everage Mozambican reef with little sealife when I was paying in thousands of meticais, but cried foul play when asked for $10 to visit a world heritage Zimbabwean national park with unique geological features and breath-taking mountain scenery. I am now choosing to walk 2,5km with all my luggage in the midday sun rather than pay $2 for a local taxi, when I couldn't throw enough Monopoly-like shillings at a Nairobi taxi driver to drive me two blocks. Welcome to the absurdity of misguided perceived wealth.

In a welcome display of recognition from the gods of backpacking, however, the months of mental gymnastics and mathematical comparison are about to pay dividends, and in the unlikeliest of locations. I celebrate my return to civilisation after a fortnight of backwater life with a cheeky Nando's in downtown Bulawayo. As I finish picking the last morsels of flesh from what had been a satisfyingly plump poulet, a cursory review of my receipt reveals the equivalent total in the other currrencies accepted as legal tender. The USD 5.00 cost of my quarter peri-peri chicken equates to ZAR 77.52, EUR 4.63, BWP 65.00 and crucially GBP 3.25, a rate of USD 1.54 = GBP 1.00 - when today's official rate is actually a measly USD 1.27 = GBP 1.00. Suddenly my brain whirs into action for the first time in months. It can't be, surely, can it?

My heart skips a beat as I call for the manager in order to ask what I hope will come across as an innocent question borne of simple curiosity. Bingo! International accounting protocol at the world's finest mass rôtisseur dictates that currency rates can only be updated every fortnight, meaning that the GBP value is STILL AT THE PRE-BREXIT RATE and I can get an extra 21% chicken for my pound!!! It is a magical moment and undoubted highlight of the trip. As I march triumphantly back to the till brandishing my debit card like a winning national lottery ticket and accompanied by an imaginary squadron of Red Arrows, the cashier looks at me with both surprise and amusement. "Did you enjoy the chicken, Sir?" "Oh yes, I reply solemnly, but not as much as I will enjoy the next one."

Now where's that abacus again?

"Just the Twix, Sir? That'll be $5,011,050,000 please." 

Life status: winning

Mood food: 1/4 peri-peri chicken, immediately followed by a 1/2 peri-peri chicken (-21% discount)
Mood song: Money For Nothing - Dire Straits

* South African Rand - Namibian Dollar - Botswana Pula - Lesotho Loti - Swazi Lilangeni - Mozambican Metical - US Dollar - Zambian Kwacha - Malawian Kwacha - Tanzanian Shilling - Rwandan Franc - Ugandan Shilling - Kenyan Shilling - Ethiopian Birr - Sudanese Pound - Egyptian Pound

Monday, 11 July 2016

Orange Counting

"Get in, quickly. The convoy is about to leave." As I haul myself up and into the passenger seat of the truck cabin, my excitement at being able to enjoy today's lengthy journey from an unusual vantage point is quickly dampened by the sight of a bullet hole in the windshield, at head height and directly in front of me. "Ah yes", explains Aboubakar, Mozambican long-distance truck driver and saviour of the moment, "We were shot at by the Renamo rebels two weeks ago. Luckily I was alone that day." Lovely. Seeing a chasm-deep frown on my forehead and an instinctive clenching of my day pack tighter to my bosom - cunningly placing both a 762 page Lonely Planet and my laptop between any opportunist bullet and either of my heart's ventricles - he smiles and reassures me unconvincingly that lightning does not strike twice at the same windscreen.

Despite having officially given up any political hope of seizing power after the Mozambique civil war ceasefire more than two decades ago, some of the more militant factions had not given up their weapons and were still popping up sporadically with a shooting here and a kidnapping there. Capitalising on my visit and unintentional magnetism for civil unrest and minor revolutionary activity, Renamo had recently taken control of a swathe of land in Sofalo Province, including a 100km stretch of the very traffic artery that was to expedite me towards the Zimbabwean border. With the only reputable bus company suspending services indefinitely, my only option other than a five day detour back down and across into South Africa was to hitch a lift with one of the fifty heavy goods vehicles in a convoy allowed safe passage through the lawless strip every day at 9am by virtue of a heavily armed military escort.

Aboubakar had descended from his driver's seat to buy some fruit for the journey just as I was alighting from my hostel tuk-tuk at 5:20am, and had immediately agreed to give me a lift. As a Muslim still fasting despite Ramadan having ended, I clearly understood that he had to eat enough in the forty minutes before daybreak to keep him awake and vigilant during the 12 hour drive he had to Beira; but unless Mozambican citrus fruit was periodically laced with amphetamines, I was at a loss to explain his bulk purchase of twenty-six oranges. Once we are settled inside the cabin, he proceeds to line them all on the dashboard, creating two neat lines of imperfect, gnarly oranges on the inside of the windscreen. Unable to hide my consternation any longer, he answers the unspoken question with a rueful smile and a curt "You will see."

As the convoy prepares to start its journey, a military jeep pulls alongside us and the soldier in the passenger seat stands up to engage Aboubakar in conversation. Picking up the words proteção and contribuição from the short exchange, I am not surprised to see a one hundred meticais note ($1.30) dexterously pass from driver wallet to soldier pocket in a sleight of hand manoeuvre worthy of David Copperfield. When this action is followed up by the removal and transfer of three oranges from the dashboard to the soldier's eager hands, the penny finally drops. With the protection racket secured, the jeep slots in ahead of us and leads the way into the rebel-held area. "Actually, I would rather they didn't drive in front of us, the rebels are more likely to shoot if they see soldiers. The soldiers are useless anyway. But we had no choice", Aboubakar hisses with undisguised contempt. This is brilliant: we have actually offered bribery money and fruit to a corrupt and underpaid military squad that is giving us a higher chance of getting targeted by their mere presence.

Three oranges and a buck thirty do not buy you much, however, and our escort pulls away after ten minutes in search of the next contribution to their five-a-day. So much for protection, I think, but good riddance to them anyway. As my sleep-deprived brain struggles to compute what has just happened, a new jeep appears to our right, overtakes our vehicle and flags us to pull over in the exact middle of the rebel-controlled strip of highway. My face registers absolute disbelief and Aboubakar's glum resignation as a carbon copy of the first bribery exchange takes place once, twice, three more times over the course of the disputed 100km. That we get through the danger zone without any incident is almost of no consequence with the corruption charade that has played itself out. Even my tub of Mentos chewing gum is sacrificed for the cause as one soldier spots it in the drinks holder, viva la revoluciòn!

During the remaining four hours to Inchope, where Aboubakar is to drop me off before heading back towards the coast, we are stopped a further eight times by both transport and regular police, bringing to an incredible total of twelve the number of extortion attempts on our vehicle in the last six and a half hours. A truck windscreen that was practically vitrified vitamin C when we left Pambara now has one single mangy orange sitting in its recess. Just as I prepare to bid Aboubakar farewell and express my sincere gratitude for providing both a ride and a spectacular insight into the absurd underworld of local officialdom, he takes the last orange and peels it, passing me alternate segments as they are freed. We share the fruit in silence, a nutritious symbol of our eternal bond and righteous consecration of the absurd gangster parody we have just experienced.

 Bullet In The Head

 My ride: a truck towing a car trailer with two dudes on the roof

Hard currency on show

Mood song: Orange Crush - R.E.M.
Mood food: orange segments, what else?

Thursday, 23 June 2016

Backpacker Life [iii] - The People

And so it was that the last night of my second African chapter was spent in a Cairo dive bar in the company of a Ghanaian/Egyptian IT technician and a Kuwaiti prostitute. Both were off duty, unfortunately for me as I was rather hoping to get a minor bug fixed on my laptop before flying home. Both were also excellent company though, as Gamal explained how it was none other than Colonel Nasser who convinced his racist grandmother to allow her pale-skinned daughter to marry a West African who was darker than the night itself, and Jenny regaled us with sordid tales of the behind-closed-doors sexual fantasies of Gulf State nobility - real freak sheikh speak, if you will. But tonight's company was no more unusual than most of the people whose paths my own has had the privilege to cross on this trip.

Backpacking for an extended period of time is comparable to flitting between a continuous series of social Venn diagrams, with colliding lives sharing a common experience for but a fleeting moment. As with most things in life, you never forget your first, and this trip's was an unexpected peach. There isn't a significant amount on paper or papyrus that a nineteen year old medical administration student from northern Germany and an unemployed forty-one year old multicultural mongrel salesman would have in common, but Johannes and I formed a solid Cape Town alliance, cruising the downtown grid by day and frequenting rooftop cocktail bars by night in effortlessly enjoyable company. It was a great sign of what and who was to come.

From the French army girls based in Djibouti to the South African cannabis smugglers; from Yasir, the Sudanese government official sourcing passport-making materials to Thor, the twenty-one year old Norwegian fitness centre owner, via bipolar Maria and timid Timo: everyone had a life-enriching story to share and a starring supporting role in the film of my voyage. Helen, the English ophthalmologist about to study a rare eye disease in a rural Ethiopian village, made an excellent city exploration and trail running partner in Addis Ababa. And how could I forget Andrea, the crazy Mexican human rights lawyer living in Switzerland, whom I met in a German resort in Namibia and nearly married in Zanzibar?

And then there was Jeff. I have to admit that I had a soft spot for Jeff. Jeff, the Frenchman from Avignon and his trance-like permanent hand-sculpting of his inseparable walking stick. Choosing the only sensible solution to a troubled life situation in which friendship, love and employment complications had all come to a head simultaneously in a spectacular psychological meltdown, he had decided to follow in Jesus' footsteps - spiritually at least - and disappear into the Ethiopian wilderness for exactly forty days. The candour with which he discussed his evolving state of mind and raw soul-searching, and his burning desire and childlike enthusiasm in embracing all things Ethiopian made him a delight to travel with for six days and provided refreshingly different human interaction from the typical backpacker fare: this was method travelling of the highest order.

A more than special mention must go out to the wretched souls who actually chose to share their travel time with me for more than the cursory dormitory conversation or random night on the tiles. It remains to be seen how easily a friendship with my two longest-serving travel buddies in Africa (Patrick - 18 days; Alex - 10 days) would be cultivated in our normal everyday social circles, but I would join forces with them on the road again without a second's hesitation. It was easy, it was fun, and most importantly we travelled well together - at least once Alex and I agreed to close our gin-infused cricket versus baseball debate. In a solo travel world of ephemeral relationships and frequent solitude, it is a pleasure to occasionally be able to construct a friendship with a little more substance. My Rwandan and Ugandan memories will forever be intricately associated with Alex, as will Ethiopia and Egypt with Patrick, such is the intensity of sharing remarkable experiences with a near complete stranger.

As I prepare for the third and final round of this African odyssey, I cannot help but smile at the thought of all the unsuspecting travellers quietly going about their backpacking completely unaware that their circle is currently moving inexorably towards mine. Whether the collision takes place in a hostel dormitory, on a bus or at a beach bar is yet to be decided; all that matters is that I can look forward to having some more hookers, ophthalmologists and passport-makers in my life very soon.

The very first night, celebratory shot with Johannes and... one of the many that shall forever remain nameless

Alex and I in three countries at once, and conquerors of Mount Sabinyo

Me, Patrick and Jeff: volcanoes, mountains and Ethiopian nightclubs...

The backpacker, the IT technician and the hooker...

Mood food: anything and everything...

Tuesday, 31 May 2016

River Life

It was love at first sight. I had already met her parents and seen both where she was conceived and born; I had stalked her relentlessly for more than 1,800km, following her shapely curves from nearby, though she remained oblivious to my presence. Now, we were finally about to consummate our relationship in the most intimate of manners. At nearly 6,900km in length, the river Nile is not only the world's longest waterway, but its most alluring. Having visited the two lakes in Uganda and Ethiopia from which its White and Blue tributaries originate, and observed their underwhelming confluence in Khartoum, the river has been a defining geographical feature of the last third of my journey. Now in Lower Egypt, where it begins its voyage towards the Mediterranean, I was finally seeing it in all its majesty from the only vantage point to do its beauty true justice: sailing by wind and current on a felucca from Aswan to Luxor.

With the Egyptian tourist industry decimated by years of political unrest and all too recent terrorist attacks, my travel buddy Patrick and I had the pick of the dozen or so feluccas moored riverside in central Aswan's Corniche-an-Nil. As touts vied for our business, the only trade currently in town, we inspected vessels for seaworthiness and vetted skippers for compatibility. In the end, it wasn't the captain's uncanny resemblance with Rimmer from sci-fi comedy Red Dwarf, or even the spotless and spacious nature of his felucca that seduced us into committing to three days of river life, but its name: we would be sailing on a felucca named Bob. On a pier awash with corny African Queens and pretentious Nefertitis, the good ship Bob stood out like a beacon of down-to-earth reliability and unassuming modesty. Bobs don't sink or run aground, Bobs get you to where you want to go to, with minimum fuss and maximum enjoyment.

Equipped with the universally recognised maritime survival essentials of 2kg of fresh fruit, 6 litres of water and 24 bottles of local lager, we tacked slowly out of Aswan harbour shortly after lunchtime. With a total distance of under 70km in a little over two days and with the substantial deck space covered in comfortable mattresses and cushions, it became immediately clear that this was my golden opportunity to do something that had hitherto proven impossible on this trip: sweet nothing at all. As the real reason for our vessel's christening became apparent, with a Jamaican flag hoisted up the mast, the opening bars of I Shot The Sheriff playing on a small set of speakers and Captain Mostafa lighting up a cheroot of herbal relaxation the length of the ship's hull, I lay down and let the world go by in the most complete tranquility.

As minutes, hours and eventually two entire days passed by in a satisfying repetitive panorama of ochre sand dunes occasionally poking their rounded peaks above the riverside fringe of irregularly linear palm trees and attractive whitewashed village houses, I could have been forgiven for focusing my reverie on the shore. But the penultimate leg of the entire voyage was only ever about the river; gone was the uninspiring murkiness of Khartoum's urban river junction, this was an intense dark blue with an almost viscous and impossibly still sheen, one that demanded and obtained attention with the reflections of the rising and setting sun, and every moment in between.

An unfortunate direct comparison with my erstwhile daily commute on South West Trains notwithstanding - I also wanted to throw myself from that method of transport - this was the routine travellers' dreams were made of: drifting in and out of sun-kissed consciousness in between leisurely meals shared with the crew; feeding bonfires of crackling dried palm fronds on shore at nightfall; going through morning ablutions waist-high in crystal waters. All this whilst gazing lazily at the most beautiful fluvial expanse I had ever seen with a crisp lager within arm's reach: life was simple, life was good.

If the multiple interminable motorised journeys throughout Africa had thrown up a number of unexpectedly profound musings on life (what am I really to do with it?) and miniature epiphanies (preferably lie in a hammock with a continuous flow of piña coladas, forever), then the soothing flapping of sails and seemingly aimless drifting achieved quite the opposite. For forty-eight abnormally peaceful hours, I thought of absolutely nothing as body and brain worked together in unaccustomed partnership, understanding and appreciating the importance of the context. I lay on my back, again, with a mind as empty as I had ever known it, its only preoccupation trying to remember to sip my cold beer every so often. How beautiful denial was.

Sail away, sail away, sail away...

The real Nile blue

The struggle is real

 Well played Nile, well played...

Not Upper Halliford station

Bob - a boat you can trust

Mood song: Could You Be Loved - Bob Marley
Mood food: Mussad's stew, pasta and salad

Saturday, 28 May 2016

Jewel On The Nile

Salvation came in the shape of a cattle truck today. I had just gone over the critical half an hour mark with my thumb in the air standing by the roadside in the middle of the Nubian Desert, the point when frustration at not having been granted immediate deliverance slowly turns into disillusion and doubt. Most of the vehicles that had gone past were either buses that were full, private cars with female passengers or heavy goods vehicles with multiple trailers thundering past. It was 11:30am and although my water supply was ample, the sun was almost directly above me and my legs were no longer being offered respite from the 40c+ temperature by the shadow of my upright backpack.

 Yes, here will do, please drop me off in the middle of the desert...

Just me, my backpack and some pyramids lost in the sand

 As the cattle truck approached, I changed tactics and joined my hands in silent and desperate supplication. To my great surprise, the ploy worked and the truck stopped alongside me. As the driver moved to the back, ostensibly to fold down the tailgate and allow me into the straw-floored enclosure, he looked at me and scolded me in a mildly reproachful tone: "The desert is a dangerous place, you know. Here, have a cold bottle of water." I smiled in agreement and jumped into the back with all my luggage. I don't even know why I was surprised, this was the Sudan, after all.

The real cattle class...

Despite only staying in the country for seven days, I have lost count of the number of random acts of generosity I have been fortunate to experience in this wonderful country: bus fares paid for me by complete strangers unable even to understand my thank you of appreciation; bottles of water, fruit and sweets offered to me by street sellers and market traders; even the omnipresent security police smile when returning my passport and wish me a pleasant stay, after ascertaining that my travel permit is in order, of course. If Ethiopia has the favourite country accolade nailed on, then the Sudanese are making a late, great bid for the friendliest people in Africa.

In an all too rare but wonderfully welcome change to stereotypical global perceptions, it helps to be British in this country. The majority of Sudan's industrial infrastructure was conceived and implemented by colonial Blighty, including the entire railway network; the tax and salary systems are of the same origin, although they apparently work in Sudan; even the country's largest market and source of employment for thousands, Omdurman Souq, was built by Great Britain. As news filters down the market aisles that one of Queenie's subjects is in the 'hood, I am treated to the fruit and vegetable world's equivalent of a tickertape open top bus cup-winning parade. As each successive stallholder waves hello or shakes my hand, I can only offer a regal wave in return and comment on the superior quality of British girders and rivets.

For all the kindness of the Sudanese people, though, the country's travel conditions are unforgivingly brutal. Long gone are the pleasantly sunny days and cool nights of the Ethiopian highlands, it seems I have now taken temporary residence in the world's largest live-in incinerator. With all the country's ancient historic sites situated slap bang in the middle of hostile desert wilderness  and only seven days to play with until the weekly ferry across Lake Nasser to Abu Simbel in Egypt, I must move fast, far and ridiculously early every day if I want to see everything this country has to offer.

With mid-morning temperatures already exceeding 40c in May, only a dawn wake-up call will allow two hours of archaeological exploration in mild overheated discomfort rather than feeling like a walking funeral pyre. To add to the fun, single night stays in each locality mean that backpack, daypack and kit bag must accompany me everywhere - across desert flats and up, down and around every single scorching dune. Once my daily two hour dose of self-imposed Marathon Des Sables is over, I am able to spend the rest of the day on public transport reflecting on my decision to take five black t-shirts out of a packing quota of seven, and to second-guess what Rorschach patterns their salt stains will deliver each evening.

Is it a duck or an ice cream cone?

The reward for my masochistic endeavours and near-certain death by perspiration comes in having an entire country's 4,000 years of history all to myself. Even as I laboured across the two kilometres of desert from the road where my bus had dropped me off to the incredible site of Meroitic tombs at Bejriwaya, over sand and stone, and under the relentless desert sun; even as I cursed myself, every Nubian and Egyptian god, and even the poor camel skeleton I nearly tripped over; even then my smile and enthusiasm did not waver, for I could see the perfect soft apricot-coloured dunes a short distance away, indented into a misshapen Toblerone bar silhouette by one hundred majestic pyramids sprouting into the sky. Waiting for me to take temporary but exclusive ownership. How could I possibly get annoyed or frustrated in this wonderfully unexpected jewel of a country? Especially when you can be sure that salvation is just around the next bend.

 Those Meroites were certainly very handy with trowel and plaster...

How fertile is the Nile?

Mine, all mine...

Ruin with a view...

Mood song: A Horse With No Name - America
Mood food: falafel and fuul

Tuesday, 24 May 2016

Bufala Soldier

Lady Luck has many ways of manifesting her formidable presence. For some, it is an unexpected slice of chance that occurs following a somewhat obscure series of events mostly of one's own doing - this is self-made luck; for others, it is a simple set of numbers that tumble into sequence against the most improbable of mathematical odds, often a literal lottery - this is blind luck; the ultimate manifestation, however, is when an opportunity presents itself on a silver platter in a perfectly crosshaired alignment of the space/time continuum, in other words being in the right place at the right time - this is the luck of the lucky bastard.

Walking out of my hostel on the evening of my first full day in Khartoum to head to a restaurant recommended to me only that afternoon, I followed Google Maps down a road that curved around an enormous walled compound when I suddenly but unmistakably heard the opening bars of Italian 1980s crooner Toto Cotugno's cheesy nationalistic classic 'L'Italiano' being covered by a live band. In Khartoum, Sudan. Confused and amused, I recognised the omen of impending good fortune and walked quickly around the wall to the main driveway. As I had hoped and suspected, the familiar tricolore and national coat of arms confirmed that this was indeed the Italian Embassy. All right, ragazzo, I thought, how are you going to play this one?

"Buona sera!"Casual, confident and looking directly at the two uniformed guards manning the gate as I walked towards them. "Buona sera, prego Signore..." they replied, motioning me inside, into the gardens of what appeared immediately to be a luxurious estate far removed from my own $3.50/night lodgings. As I ambled towards the source of what was clearly merriment of Italian volume, I was stopped dead in my tracks by the sight of a dozen or so people in black tie dress code. Quickly assessing my flip-flop, punk band t-shirt and safari shorts ensemble as perhaps not reaching the necessary sartorial standard, I made to turn back towards the gate only to bump into a jovial looking gentleman in tweed jacket and jeans. Having been staying in the right part of town, on the right day, and left to go to dinner at the right time, I then met exactly the right person for the mission to be successful.

As I explained my travelling background and fortuitous timing with an inhibition very unbecoming of a supposed conman backpacker attempting to blag a free feed, Taha El-Roubi, owner and head DJ of Khartoum's only exclusively western radio station, looked at me very simply. "Are you Italian?" he asked. "Yes, I am", I replied, telling only three quarters of a lie (bless my Sicilian grandmother, how she would have loved this). "In that case, you are home. Come inside." Inside turned out to be a stunning two storey villa with underlit pool, marquee bar and gala dinner outside table setting with bandstand stage and dance floor, and this was a charity event for the Sudanese Diabetic Society hosted by His Excellency, the Ambassador of Italy, and sponsored by an Italian pasta producer - naturally - who had flown both food and celebrity chef over for the occasion.

It seemed as though Taha was well connected, judging by the number of people who came to greet him enthusiastically, and it wasn't long before most of the gathering had the story of the wandering Italian hobo who had chanced his luck and crashed the party, so much did Taha enjoy telling it. "How perfectly Italian!", he would repeat with great gusto. "Ey, izza watta we do!" I would reply in my Ferrero Rocher advert faux-Italian English. Just as I was about to excuse myself in an attempt to get out of the spotlight (and head to the bar), he delivered the cherry on the torta. "Fabrizio, Fabrizio! Come, there is someone I want you to meet!" As a suave and clearly Italian gentleman came over smiling, as if used to Taha's theatrical geniality, it was clear to me where this was going.

"Gianmarco, this is Fabrizio, the Italian Ambassador in Sudan. Fabrizio, this is Gianmarco, an Italian who just gatecrashed your party." As the story was recounted for the fiftieth time, a smile spread across the Ambassador's face. He made polite conversation, assured me I was more than welcome, and invited me to the Italian national celebrations on June 2nd, before shaking my hand warmly. "A pleasure to meet you Gianmarco, enjoy the rest of your travels. And enjoy the food here tonight." "Grazie mille!" I responded automatically, without immediately understanding the true implication of his sentence. Enjoy the food. The food? I had forgotten all about the Italian food!!!

As I turned to discover the buffet for the first time, there it was staring at me: an oasis of some of the world's finest cuisine after a desert of African backpacker culinary poverty. Fearing a mirage, I pinched myself with the tiramisù tongs before ploughing giddily into too much goodness to even attempt to list, for the following two hours. "Have another Chianti!" Taha would say whenever we bumped into each other. "Va bene, Taha, iffa you saya so!" And so I ate for all the hungry backpackers in Africa, and drank for all the thirsty ex-pats in teetotal Sudan. It was the least I could do: one must share one's good fortune, after all.

My buddy Fabrizio the Ambassador bottom right...

 Helloooo buffet!

Free bar by a pool? Yes please...

You're really spoiling us, Mr. Ambassador...

More Chianti and vitello tonnato?

Mood song: L'Italiano - Toto Cotugno
Mood food: all of it, the entire bloody buffet porca troia!

Thursday, 19 May 2016

The Great Depression

The natural born pyromaniac in me edges closer still, despite the increasingly unbearable heat emanating from the pit directly in front of me. If it feels as though I am a willing co-voyager on Jules Verne's Journey To The Centre Of The Earth, about to descend deep into the earth's bowels, then it is probably because I am as close to experiencing life in the planet's core as I ever will be. I am standing on the very edge of the world's longest-existing permanent lava lake, drawn like a moth to an incandescent pool of bubbling magma. An unwitting smile spreads across my face as my immediate unconscious reaction is to think of the first company to offer me gainful employment: once a lava lover, always a lava lover.

 The Danakil Depression in Ethiopia's northern Afar province contains some of the most inhospitable terrain on the planet and justifiably earns the accolade of hottest place on earth, but it is also home to two of its most astonishing geological features: Erta' Ale volcano and the Dallol sulphur springs. In a mixed eight vehicle convoy of intrepid adventurers, experienced guides and armed guards to deter potential bandit attacks near the disputed Eritrean border, I set out to visit what every single backpacker encountered in this stupendous country has enthusiastically and convincingly described as the highlight of their Ethiopian trip. They were not wrong.

Given the somewhat unconventional nature of our destination and the potential security hazards involved (hello voided travel insurance policy!), it is no surprise to note that the vast majority of the group are fellow battle-hardened travel veterans: a French couple in their sixties whose first trip in 1971 was to drive a 2CV from Paris to Afghanistan; a German retiree who set off for Africa from Munich in his Landrover four years ago and is still bouncing around the continent after thirty-five countries and sixteen broken gearboxes; a veritable plethora of long-term round-the-world backpackers; and yours truly, the self-styled lucky bastard escaping the clutches of the real world for as long as possible. The four hour nightfall hike to the volcano summit passes by in a flurry of excitable exchanges of travel anecdotes, but as a subtle orange glow finally comes into view in the dark somewhere in front and slightly above us, so does the conversation fade into an expectant hush.

Whilst there are a number of active volcanoes globally plying their molten trade, Erta' Ale is the only active lava lake this ridiculously accessible. Cresting the ridge in what is now full darkness, we pause to catch our breath and allow the stragglers to catch up and anticipate what we are about to witness. If the lookout above the crater plane with a glowing lake in its centre were in the United Kingdom, this is where we would remain: behind a barrier one hundred and fifty metres from the bubbling crater and with only a faint glow and barely discernible eruptions to appreciate. With Ethiopian health and safety regulations being as non-existent as its reliable WiFi, we descend into the pit and walk the short distance across the Quaver-like crunchy texture of a fresh lava field to the very edge of the volcano.

As the amateur and professional photographers within the group prepare tripods and time-lapse settings, we mere mortals stare disbelievingly at a scene we are unlikely to ever see again. Random pockets of angry red cracks split through the soft black caldera surface and burst into spectacular sporadic eruptions of lava. It is as mesmerising as it is cauldron-hot, as beautiful as it is unpredictable. Every so often, a particularly violent spit of liquid fire casts furious embers close to the circle of excited onlookers, pushing us back temporarily in a burst of fireworks worthy of the 4th of July. But we quickly return, aware of the limited time we have here. When we are finally gently cajoled away from the spectacle by our patient guide, back towards our mattresses under the stars not one hundred metres away, it is only with great reluctance that we consent.

The following morning, we return to see the sun rise over the volcano pool. The ever-brightening dawn light brings new contrasts and photographic angles, but the same cooings of delight. Again the temperature is skin-crispingly intense, a wall of searing heat of such proximity that it defies and fries the senses. With the stellar combined travel CV of our group, it is testimony to what we are witnessing that we are all in agreement: this is awe-inspiring in the most literal sense of the meaning. Rising in the sky with a hint of potential jealousy, the desert sun quickly reminds us of its own potency and it is time for the long walk back down the volcano, but with more than one last longing look over our shoulders.

Let the show begin...

Just wow...

As spectacular a sunrise as one can get...

Not where lava lamps come from...

Feeling the heat...

Mood song: Ring Of Fire - Johnny Cash
Mood food: boiled rice with peas and pineapple, midnight volcano summit camping fare

Saturday, 7 May 2016

Screw The Destination, Give Me The Journey...

I may be a little odd. You see, I really rather enjoy spending upwards of twelve hours at a time going nowhere fast in cramped, hot and often unhygienic conditions on third world public transport systems. Sometimes I even wonder if I don't actually prefer it to reaching the destination itself. Despite knowing that I will be visiting awe-inspiring wonders of both human and natural making on my longitudinal schlep across the African continent, the reality is that my primary source of enjoyment was always going to come from the travelling itself.

It wasn't always this way. There was a time when the mere thought of spending more than a couple of idle hours on a plane, train or automobile would fill me with a dread that often bordered on anguish and despair. My great Australasian trip of 2000-2001 was filled with never-ending journeys, veritable beasts of double digit hourage that I struggled to endure despite the spectacular scenery that unfurled itself before me. I particularly remember a thirty-seven hour bus journey in Western Australia that left me so horrifically scarred for a number of days that I briefly considered... Never. Travelling. Again. How the thought makes me chuckle today.

Looking back, I can actually recall the exact moment I made my peace with, and embraced wholeheartedly a universe that is totally unavoidable when one is infected with terminal wanderlust. The great Trans-Siberian adventure of 2007 went a long way towards curing me of my transportation neurosis, as it proved once and for all that onward motion and personal enjoyment were not mutually exclusive. It wasn't until the Balkan escapade of summer 2008, however, and a seemingly innocuous Albanian minivan journey from Tirana to the Ottoman town of Berat that I conquered my fears and learned to master the art of travel.

I was feeling the habitual tedium and annoyance at another frustratingly arduous plod over unsealed roads in rural backwaters when I happened to look out of the window and actually comprehend what I was seeing: idyllic mountain countryside in stunning summer weather, there simply waiting for me to appreciate. At that very moment, a song played on my iPod that made the moment perfect. I felt a weight lift off my shoulders and enjoyed the following two hours as I had never done before. This was my travel epiphany. For a person as impatient as I am, and with nervous energy as potent as my attention span is short, I had finally found my inner sanctum of peace and serenity. I have not looked back since and and can now only ever look forward to the next interminable journey witnessing breathtaking scenery with unbridled delight.

And nowhere has this masochistic love of long-distance commuting and infinite rolling landscape been better requited than here, in Ethiopia. Despite my original excitement for the country having been tempered by an unexpectedly lengthy stay in the capital, it only takes two hours of mountainous country roads and the jaw-droppingly winding descent into the Blue Nile Gorge to rekindle the bonfire of expectation: this is the big country of endless skies and wide open spaces that I have been waiting for on this entire trip.

With each successive journey superseding the previous, I realise that I am running out of Thesaurus-sourced superlatives to describe what I am witnessing: if the Grand Canyon were a country, this would be it. The landscape is so scandalously dramatic that all other countries should throw in the towel, immediately, and it is all I can do stop myself from blaspheming, swearing and even drooling at the window as we wind up, around and down bucolic mountain villages with children in traditional Amhara dress waving us by. Never before have I looked forward to leaving a place as soon as I have arrived, only to be able to keep on feeding my senses with a panoramic drama mini-series on a seemingly continuous loop.

The clear and definite reality of the situation, whatever day or location it happens to fall on, is that I can commit these snapshots of aesthetic perfection to my physical memory only, rather than digital. It is a relief, and perhaps the explanation for my pure, unadulterated enjoyment of these prolonged labours of love, that all I can do is immerse myself in the moment, for hours on end. I had been concerned about the time spent travelling between each Ethiopian point of interest, but I needn't have worried: this is a land that is made to be travelled overland, not despite but because of the vast distances. A land made for me.

Addis Ababa - Bahir Dar, up in the clouds... 

 Bahir Dar - Gashena

 Lalibela - Woldia

Sugar cane: the messiest travel snack in town...

 Blue Nile Gorge*

Blue Nile Gorge*

Mood song: Wide Open Space - Mansun
Mood food: fresh, hot broad beans and sugar cane sticks

* Images 'borrowed' online as mine do the subject no justice