Antelope Park

I sit here at the computer and have no idea where to start. The past few days have been exhausting and wonderful. After the beach weeks we had at zanzibar and lake malawi, it is difficult to get back into the swing of major activity… but by god, we did it!

Harare was hair-raising. There may have been an arrest involved, but I assure you it wasn’t me involved. The full story will be told after we leave Zim. But I will say that everyone is now safely back on the truck, if a little shaken up.

We stopped at Antelope Park (outside of Gweru, Zimbabwe) for four nights. This is where all the true action takes place. Antelope Park is a 3000-acre private game park with a focus on lion conservation. There, we booked our days solid with activities. I swam with elephants which was terrifying and hilarious. Hilary (a fellow Canuck) was my partner and we were the only girl pair to stay on! The elephant tossed and turned in the water at lightning speed but we clung for dear life. After that, I went on a game ride on horseback. Unfortunately what used to be quite a strenuous and exciting ride had been tamed down because of some recent accidents on horseback. But we managed to steal a few canters, and got incredibly close to zebra, wildebeest, impala and ostrich, amongst others. I also got couple of brutal looking scratches on my arm from speeding past an acacia tree (acacia thorns can pierce car tires!) Sore but full of adrenaline, I went right from a horse ride to a lion walk. We walked with three nine-month old cubs, getting to stroke and play with them along the way. Needless to say the pictures are unreal. I will try desperately to get them uploaded, but it’s an exercise in futility at the moment.

The next day I arose early for a morning lion walk. These lions were almost a year old and much bigger. It was quite intimidating. Then we watched some elephant training and got to interact with the elephants. Here Sarah and I got hugged by an elephant and hung off its tusks… so much fun! We also went to cub viewing together, where we rubbed the tummies of some of the most adorable lion cubs. Did I mention that I was sick through all of this? Yes, unfortunately my doxy (malaria pill) didn’t go down properly and was burning my throat… imagine 48-hour heart burn… not pleasant. But there was no way I was missing this day. I rested until nightfall, when I went on a lion stalk. Three of the older lions (between 2 and 3) were released into the game park and we followed them over bushes and anthills as they stalked game. It was one of those surreal true “African” moments. It took an hour and a half before they managed to pull down an ostrich. We watched as they gorged on the poor animal – as these lions are still ‘learning’ to hunt, they didn’t kill their prey before they started eating it. The goal of these night stalks is to teach the lions to hunt on their own so they can be reintroduced to the wild. But the scariest part was yet to come. As the lions have to be put back in their enclosures, the trainers had to pick up the kill (the ostrich) and return it to the cage. Armed solely with dustbin lids, the trainers banged at the lions until they leapt away, at which point another trainer grabbed the ostrich and threw it into the truck (yes, the same truck we were in). The trainers were tense – three lions are hard to keep track of (normall ythey only deal with two). Luckily everything went well and we drove back to the enclosure while the lions followed.

Once they were safely in the cage, we waited for a few seconds in the pitch black. Then began a symphony of roars as all the other lions realized there was fresh meat about. It was the most magical experience so far in Africa. I seem to say that every week. But it is true. It just gets better.

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The day I became a multi-millionaire

(This post was written approx. 5 days ago)

This past week has seen me in three completely different countries: Malawi, Mozambique and Zimbabwe. It is difficult to compress all the experiences and impressions I have had this week, but if I had to sum it up in one word, it would be: overwhelming.

Truck Travel
So far I have said little about life on the Oasis truck, but this week is as good as any to start off. Four out of the past five days have been drive days. First of all, there is no such thing as “clean” on the truck. The seats all face each other, like facing pews in a Church. All of our bags fit under the seats, and there are overhead lockers to store our day-to-day items. There is an elevated area right behind the cab of the truck called “The Beach,” where we are allowed to sunbathe and stick our heads out of the roof. Some people are beach worshippers, and spend hours just baking in the African sun as the miles pass us by. Anyone who knows me will know that I am not one of those up on the beach all the time, but it is very comfortable up there.
The windows on the truck are covered by a large “clear” plastic tarp – it’s supposed to be clear, but it is most definitely not. Most of the time the tarps are rolled up so that the windows are open to the air (there is no glass). This is where the dirty part comes in. Wind and dust blows through the truck sometimes with gale force — there is just no saving hair in that kind of situation. Most of the time I put my hair back into a ponytail when the truck is moving… and when I take the elastic out at the end of the day, the hair is frozen in place. It’s like hairspray but better! Dustspray! Without the sides up
though, the truck starts to bake like a sauna.

Cards are played while the sides are down, but we have lost many Jacks of Hearts out of the windows so playing is treacherous most of the time. I spend most of my time reading (surprise!)… actually, I think a few people on the truck are scared of me, I finish a book or sometimes 2 a day. There is some good reading on the truck, ranging from Out of Africa to Asimov to Kathy Reichs to Arthur Conan Doyle.
The most popular past time of all is sleep… often drive days mean 5am wake-up calls, so a lot of catching up is done on the truck.

Lunch takes place on the side of the road. Stu, the driver, pulls over at an appropriate spot (with shade if we are lucky) and we open the side of the truck to get at the food inside. Each day there is a designated “cook group” of about 3 or 4 people. They will have prepared lunch the night before, which generally consists of a medley of cold pasta, tuna, canned sweetcorn, beans and onion. The truck also stops for ‘pee breaks,’ which also take place on the side of the road.
We take lighters to burn the toilet paper after use. You learn to squat. You learn to get over stage fright.

There have been two nights of bush camping so far, and one of them took place in Mozambique. After being terrified by stories of how we were camping in one of the most landmined countries in the world, we set up our tents. It gets dark here by 6pm. The night is pitch black. Even the stars hide until later in the evening. Dinner prep takes around 3-4 hours, as we cook over open flame. By the time we finish eating, there is little left to do and we retreat to the tents.

Zim-millionaires
After Mozambique, we continued along our journey to Harare, Zimbabwe. Again I was shocked by how different two neighbouring countries can be. Mozambique (or rather, Tete Corridor, which is the part of Mozambique that we visited) is dry and dusty as hell. Zimbabwe is lush. We drove past gorgeous ranches that spread over acres of land, lined with white picket fences and filled with horses. We drove into
an industrial city, with tall sky-scrapers and beautiful architecture. We also drove into a country in turmoil. You can tell the wealth that was once here. But it isn’t any more.

I changed $100USD. The official exchange rate at the border is 1USD:35000Zim dollars. The exchange rate that we got on the black market was 1USD:350,000. I became an instant zim-millionaire! The exchange rate fluctuates every day, prices skyrocket, inflation soars. How they survive, I have no idea.

We visited an orphanage that Oasis supports in Harare. The children were just finishing up a cricket match with the bats that the last Oasis group had brought them. All we brought with us was food. Lots and lots of food. Rice, maize flour, sugar, milk powder and lots of canned meat. The cook was in tears of joy. She laughed with us, hugged us, and said “We were almost starving, and then the Lord came.” Many of the people on the truck wanted to buy toys with the money that we had donated. But once we got there, we knew that food had been the right choice.

I am now in a multilevel shopping centre in Harare, on internet that is 60cents/hour or 200,000 Zim dollars/hour. It is beautiful here, and I love it. We have two weeks in Zimbabwe altogether. I will let you know how fast I spend my millions of dollars.

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Lake of Stars

The Lake of Stars festival is a melange of African and Western music held on the shores of Lake Malawi. We went on the final, apparently most frenzied day of the festival. It was so much fun.

Our first impressions of the festival were of sand and too-cool-for-school travellers jamming to guitars on the beach. It seemed highly low key and a litte unorganized: most of our group trouped off to find a TV where they could watch the rugby (the rugby world cup is the truck obsession… it is hard to get away from it, and when the all blacks lost… there may have been blood lost on the truck as well, we shall never know). Who would pay $20US to watch rugby? So a few of us sat by the main stage, waiting for action to start. We weren’t disappointed. A British band called “Niche” came to the stage and thrilled us with truly excellent music. After she finished, a not-so-good South African group hit the stage, and we moved to the back where there were some food and souvenir stalls.

On the way up to the food, I made awkward eye-contact with a guy sitting on the grass. I nudged Sarah (who was now limping thanks to an unfortunate boating accident, see “It could only happen to Sarah” for details), and asked her if she recognized the guy. She didn’t, but apparently the guy recognized me as he got up and came over. He was part of a group we had met up with on Zanzibar Island — and he had followed us all the way to Lake Malawi! Okay, not quite true, it seems like all travellers were pulled in this direction, as we saw many people that we had met previously all congregated together. But the interesting thing about this guy, Mike, was that he knew the band, Niche, who had just played. We got to meet and interact with the band, including their really cool female leader singer Zeb.

The rest of the evening progressed smoothly, with tons of entertainment and some of the best music I’ve ever heard live. Everyone was there to have a good time, and it showed. After what seemed like hours of solid dancing under the stars, my friend Hilary turned to me and said: “What time is it?”

I looked down at my watch. I almost couldn’t believe what time it read. I checked it again. “18:50.” It wasn’t even 7pm yet, and we had already been having the greatest time. It had been pitch black since 5:30, and time had just disappeared from underneath us, moving quickly and slowly, as if we were caught in a whorl.

This is Africa time, baby.

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Wherethemalawiarewe?

It is hardly a secret that I relished the constant mental challenges of academia. Challenge is part of the reason I felt drawn to Medieval and Anglo-Saxon literature. There is something a little beyond the norm about that field, the extra language hurdle that offers insight into the words I am writing right now. I hope to reenter the university world eventually, whether in further Medieval studies or creative writing, to approach these challenges again.

It is part of this love of a challenge that led me to fear travelling before I left. It would be easy for me to treat these next nine months as a highly extended vacation. And while I am relaxing and appreciating all that these next few months have to offer me, I promised myself one thing: to continue to stretch my mental and physical limits as far as they can take me, to search out challenges and to approach them head on. I feel a little closer to that goal after this week.

Travelling itself, perhaps especially in Africa, is a mental challenge. There is so much culture colliding with us head on. Every transition from country to country brings a different perspective. I find myself right now on the shores of Lake Malawi. Malawi is one of the poorest countries in the world, and yet in many ways the average person seems better off than in Kenya. The border crossing between Kenya and Tanzania was like light and day. In Kenya, the roads are pitted and pot-holed, almost impassable except by the most manic of drivers. In Tanzania, the roads are better than Canadian – smooth black tarmac with neatly painted yellow and white lines. They say that roads are the pathway to civilization… and a fine indicator too, of a country’s wealth.

Yesterday, in Chitimba, Malawi, I fulfilled part of my promise to myself. I hiked from Chitimba to Livingstonia, a town dedicated to Dr. David Livingstone and his Christian mission in Malawi. The hike left at 7am. Only four of us – Eric, Ben, Tania and myself – decided to take on the mission. I don’t think any of us realized just how physically taxing it was going to be on our systems.

The Malawian sun is relentless. At only 45 minutes into the trip – the walk to get to the mountain, let alone the mountain itself – I was ready to give up. What was I thinking? I did not voice this concern aloud, but rest assured it was going through my head. Then I remembered that promise to myself. How about my vow to conquer physical limitations as well as mental? I bucked up and put one foot in front of the other. And then we reached the mountain.

Without the support of the other climbers, I’m not sure I would have made it up. Through the steepest part of the hill, I took it one section at a time, taking plenty of rest in between and convincing myself to go forward. PMA: positive mental attitude became my mantra. It was worth it indeed. The first part of the hike took us to a beautiful waterfall, and then a watering hole where we swam and tried to gain back our energy. There we met a couple, one of whom is a DJ at the Lake of Stars festival that I will be attending tomorrow. We then hiked further up to the town of Livingstonia, where a museum dedicated to Dr. David Livingstone has been set up. From the very top, Malawi spread in front of us like paradise. Lake Malawi is a giant glisten of water in the far distance. Bright greenery is beneath our feet, lowering into dusty red earth and sand. In Livingstonia, we encounter a chameleon, a poisonous snake and tall pine trees that stretch toward the sky. It is more that worth the climb.

By now it is one o’clock, and it has taken us 6 hours to reach the top.

We break for lunch at a little restaurant in Livingstonia. Ben asks the owner of the restaurant: “Do you have a menu.”

The answer is curt. “No.”

“Then what do you have to eat?” I step in.

“Chicken.” There is a pause. “And rice.”

“Anything else?” Tania is a vegetarian, and hopeful. The rest of us have not seen chicken in weeks, and it is a welcome, if forced, change.

“No.”

So chicken and rice it was.

The problem with hiking is that once you go up, you must come down. The way back down was much quicker, but much harder on the joints. My knees and legs ached with a dull throbbing pain that I knew would intensify over the next few days. But we were all exhilirated and happy. It was the first real exercise of the trip and we felt satisfied, healthy and above all – that we had experienced some “real Africa.”

It seems I cannot have a day of relaxing, for the next day I went scuba diving in Lake Malawi. It was a totally different experience from the Indian Ocean, but just as worthwhile.

Now I’m getting into rugby and England have just won against Australia. Let the celebrations begin!

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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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