Fire Eating and Swimming with Sharks… Life on the African Edge

It’s not every day that you get to arrive at a party on a boat. But a full moon party was happening on the other side of the island, and we organized a dhow to take us so we could arrive in traditional style. We pulled up at a beach lit by bonfires and flaming torches, and waded through the knee-deep water.

The main spectacle was a group of acrobats called the Jambo Brothers, similar to the acrobats we saw at the Bomas of Nairobi. They performed to much wild applause. But the most excitement accompanied the fire eater. He ran the fire over his arms and legs, then put a flaming torch in his mouth and ate the fire. Then he pulled me and about 8 other people up onto the stage. We sat in a long line, and the fire eater sat in the middle of us. A plate of three flaming cotton balls was brought out on a little plate. The fire eater picked up one of the balls, tossed it around in his hands, then put it down. He gestured to me, as I was sitting at the end of the line, to go ahead a pick up one of the flames. I looked to the girl sitting next to me, one of the oasis crew as well. We smiled nervously to each other, then picked up the cotton. It was HOT! But you could keep it in the palm of your hand without it burning, pass it from palm to palm and then put it on the plate, no harm done. Everyone laughed and we passed the plate along the line for everyone else to try.

Then the fire eater picked up one of the balls and balanced it on his tongue. Then he took it out, put it back on the plate and passed it down to me again. The girl beside me chickened out. I was close to but how many opportunities do you get to eat fire? This was a dorothy moment: I certainly wasn’t in North America any more! I was the first one to go. I picked it up, unable to carry it between my fingers for too long, so I tossed it slowly from palm to palm. Then, I popped it on my tongue.

Ahh!

No, it didn’t hurt, but I was so scared that I spat it out onto the plate right away. But I got a big round of applause and passed the plate onto the next girl (also from oasis – we had a bit of a monopoly going) who was able to keep it on her tongue for a long time. When everyone who wanted to (about four out of the eight of us) had had a go, we all stood up and bowed. It was a great start to what ended up being a fantastic night.

Underwater Safari

My time on Zanzibar has been consumed with scuba diving, and so I haven’t had time to relax on the beach. I am fitting a four day Open Water PADI course into three days, along with Sarah and another girl. Unfortunately, Sarah learned on the second day that she is unable to equalize her ears to the pressure when she descends into deep water. The other girl had an unfortunate bout of sea sickness which meant that she was also unable to continue.

Another dhow took Sarah (who was to snorkel) and I out to Mnemba, an island off of Zanzibar with a huge reef surrounding it. The reef is a marine park (an underwater national park, almost) and is known to be home to sharks, turtles, and a wide variety of marine life. Sarah attempted our first dive there, but was again unable to equalize, and so continued her Mnemba adventure on the surface. I descended to 18metres underwater with the instructor, and continued on to have one of the most incredible experiences of my life.

The Mnemba scuba dive was like an underwater safari. Being underwater is a world unto itself, as cliche as that sounds. By this time I had already completed two dives, and was able to concentrate on just enjoying and wondering at the scenery beneath me. A moray eel poked his head out of his hole, gaping at us as if we had disturbed his sleep. A giant Napoleon fish loomed in the distance, his enormous form just a dark shadow in the water until we swam closer, peeked at his deformed face and he disappeared. A pair of bannerfish, which look like giant angel fish, floated past us, close to my arm. And what looked like a shark – but turned out to be a cobi fish – swam overhead. I had to keep reminding myself that I wasn’t in an aquarium – that all I was seeing was real.

We surfaced for a mandatory interval, before diving again in another spot, this time a place well known for sea turtles. We weren’t disappointed. One enormous sea turtle sheltered itself underneath the reef and we swam around for a closer look. Large green turtles have enormous eyes that look like amber gemstones underwater. We spotted another one gently paddling away, so graceful for its size. When we surfaced again, I knew I was hooked. And now, as a certified diver, I am free to go and continue diving throughout my trip.

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A long entry… but what a week

The dust devils spin across the ground in Arusha, Tanzania. Mt. Meru stands guard, dominating the skyline, while Kilimanjaro is a whisper of snow in the background. I am standing inside a Maasai village, where a warrior by the name of Ollie is giving a guided tour. The Maasai children follow us, grabbing our hands. They know the “1, 2, 3, whee” game off by heart and after 5 minutes our arms ache from swinging, often two children at once. Sarah is a natural with children. She has them falling off her arms and on both hips. The Maasai women beg us to buy their jewelry and other wares. It is hard to refuse, and my bargaining skills get a work out.

The Oasis group are camped out at the Meserani Snake park. As the name suggests, there are hundreds of snakes about (behind glass, of course). I get to see a black mamba – the animal that had me intrigued about Tanzania from Roald Dahl’s “Going Solo”. I am much happier to see it behind glass than under my feet. It is one of (if not <B>the</b> most dangerous reptiles in Africa. The snake park owners push the feeding of the snakes early for our viewing pleasure, and we watch tiny chicks fight unsuccessfully for their lives. The morbid sight keeps us so enthralled that we nearly miss our own dinner. Thankfully we jog back in time for bangers and mint-flavoured mashed potatoes. Ah, the camping life. Only 54 more days to go of it.

I know I haven’t yet recounted the meet-up with the Oasis truck (and 22 new people!) However, since I have been many many days without internet, this entry will be long enough without all the boring travel details. Suffice to say that so far the group gets along really well, and that everyone we have met so far have been fantastic.

Ngorongoro Crater and Serengeti

The jeeps fit 8 people plus the driver, so it is a tight squeeze. I sit up front with Dave (the driver), but mostly I stand on the chair and pop my head up out of the enormous sun roof. When all our heads are up, we look like meercats peering out of their burrows. Ngorongoro Crater is my first ever true game drive.

An anomaly of nature, the crater formed over 200 million years ago when a massive volcano – three times the size of Mt. Kilimanjaro – collapsed in on itself. Now, due to the presence of an enormous lake, animals flock to the crater in the dry season. People flock there too, and we are far from alone on our safari.

Driver Dame gives some of us in the jeep nicknames. Sarah is “giraffe” (“because she is tall like one”), Jason is “teacher” and I am “ma-china,” which is a Swahili word meaning “Chinese.” This is after he inquired about my heritage. It is a common question over here, as if the guides and locals I meet are infinitely curious about the past and family background. A boat driver in Lamu thought I was Arab – he himself was from Oman. Driver Dave could have sworn that I had African heritage – hwere he gets that from, I have no idea.

We pass by two black rhinos in the distance.

“Ma-china,” says Dave, “do you want to shoot a rhino?”

Well, you can imagine my reaction to that. But when I looked over at him, he was grinning from ear to ear.

“You would get much money from a rhino horn. They are believed to give men sexual virility. For the men with many wives.”

This and many other interesting facts are distributed in a similar, wayward manner throughout the day.

From the Ngorongoro Crater, we drive to the Serengeti. We do a brief dusk game drive before setting up camp. It is the most isolated camp site that we have been to so far. We are right in the middle of the Serengeti; a giraffe strolls by metres from our tent, while in the dark of night we can hear the cackling of hyenas and the roar of a lion. The night comes quickly in Africa. It surrounds us, engulfs us, until we can see nothing but the moon and sky. The sky is resplendent with stars. Sarah, Jason and I sit outside in our sleeping bags – covered in mosquito repellent, of course – and search for shooting stars. We see them. It is magic.

We are up at 4:30am for a sunrise game drive. Our most spectacular sightings so far happen within these short hours. Water buffalo trundle across the road in front of us. A leopard leaps out of the grass and snatches a bird out of the air. A hyena’s den is just off the roadside, and we see the babies suckling. One curious hyena approaches the side of the truck, so close you could almost reach out and touch it. But most spectacular of all, three male and one female lion sit right next to us, yawning and growling while patiently having their pictures taken. Lions are such posers.

We have seen all the Big Five in two days: water buffalo, rhinos, elephants, lions and leopards.

From the Mountain to the Coast

Another 4am start, and we are all fast asleep in the truck. Stu, the truck driver, pulls over and Stu, the tour guide (confusing, I know), shakes us out of our reverie.

“Mount Kilimanjaro,” he says to the confused and sleepy faces. “The sun is rising over Mount Kilimanjaro, and there are no clouds.”

It is a first for our tour guide. The view is spectacular. We are all wide awake to whip out our cameras and we shoot the mountain with the sun rising in the corner. The snow is visible at the top. Then we all pile back into the truck and fall asleep – 13 hours of driving left to accomplish before we reach Dar-es-Salaam and more importantly, Zanzibar Island.

The resort that we are at on Zanzibar Island is called “Paradise” – and the name states the obvious. Crystal clear blue water laps up onto white sand beaches. Our hotel is on stilts up out of the water and when the tide is in, as it was during dinner, the waves lap beneath our feet. The seafood here is delectable, and I have been dining on prawns, king fish, red snapper and all sorts of wonders.

Sarah and I have decided to get our PADI scuba-diving certification while we are here on the Island. Today was packed with theory – and a trip to a 5-star resort to use their swimming pool. If ever I found a perfect honeymoon destination, that 5-star resort could very well be it. Our Paradise hotel is housing us at $15/night. I can only imagine what it costs people to stay at Ras Nungwei (the 5-star) but whatever it is… it can only be worth it. After wiping the drool from our chins, we completed all our closed water dives in one long and exhausting morning.

Tomorrow will take us out on our first real open-water dive, and then onto a beautiful marine park. Scuba-diving is half terrifying, half relaxing. I’ll tell you which half after the break…

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