Monday, May 16, 2011

Rift Valley Wandering

I begin my tale on board the Trans-Asia Express - the train from Tehran to Istanbul. Apart from continuing to freak out a little about Iran's rather distasteful treatment of their guests, I enjoyed three long days comfortably seated and bedded in a four-berth compartment while watching the bleak, snowy Iranian landscape transform into verdant views of Turkey.

When I say they were long days I was being literal. Crossing the twenty degrees of longitude while travelling west, I gained almost half an hour per day – I was effectively on Mars time. Not since the perennial droning of the cargo ship on the Arabian Sea had I felt more like I was preparing for interplanetary travel.

During the interstices experienced between powering through kilobytes of ebooks and hearing megabytes of podcasts, I got to know my berth companions, all Iranians visiting family in Turkey. Their ring-leader was a burnt-out cop called Hassan who, to my infinite annoyance, purposefully put on a southern American drawl to be 'cooler' and spent much of his time listening to his own podcasts on how to emotionally damage women so they can be more easily controlled.

The highlight of this smooth slide across the Near East was when the train's carriages were packed up and floated across the icy Lake Van on a ferry during the night just after crossing the Turkish border. The next evening, after all the Iranians on board were sure of their departure from the motherland, the partying kicked off. Head scarves were thrown in the air, alcohol was poured freely and rambling unsolicited political opinions were proffered as a guitar was passed around the dining car. I could completely empathise with their palpable sense of relief.

At last, emerging from the mountains during the night, we arrived at the Istanbul terminus - conveniently located within ten metres of the Bosporus. After triumphantly receiving a wad of cash from the first ATM I'd used in over a month, I stepped lightly onto the ferry next to the station with my bike and left Asia for Europe.

The transformation was immediate: narrow cobbled laneways, trams squealing around tight corners, the annoyingly high density of fascinating ruins from Classical times – all my ignorant stereotypes of Europe come true!

After spending almost two months without alcohol in Muslim countries I hit the backpacker party scene hard, usually finding myself with groups of American exchange students eager to dance the nights away. During the day I visited all the standard tourist fare: the Hagia Sophia, the underground cisterns built by Justinian, and a museum room filled with statues of fellow-traveller Alexander the Great. However, six days spent hovering at the precipice of Europe, not quite daring to plunge into the ease and cost of this civilised continent, I jumped on a plane (my first since Bali) and headed south to Kenya. Also, it was snowing in Istanbul. None of that, thanks.

That’s right – it was a new era. I’d abandoned my continuous travelling at the airport as I’d abandoned my bike at the post office (it was to arrive back in Melbourne twelve days later). My mechanical companion had taken me 9,998 kilometres across Asia and the Middle East (excluding side trips and city excursions) and needed to see the Australian bush once more.

The Qatar Airways flight stopped off overnight at Doha on its way to Nairobi, allowing me to rest my weary head whilst straddling four brightly lit, hand-rested chairs at the airport. Upon my arrival in Africa I was met by my buddy Sasha, the first of five friends from home with whom I’d be travelling during my two-and-a-half months in the continent. Sasha had been here a few weeks already, the beginning of a seven month African interruption to her Commerce/Arts degree.

Africa was a sudden shift for me. I’m not just talking about the abrupt climate change from snowy to tropical; nor the wild landscape and unique humanity-adapted biota; nor even the freedom of dress (widening my eyes as I walked the streets after over a year in culturally conservative countries). I am, of course, speaking of the powerful gravitational difference between the heavy high latitudes of Turkey and the centripetally leavened equator. No wonder the locals grow so tall here.

Sub-Saharan East Africa is certainly a land of extremes. The human genetic diversity is immediately apparent for one thing, as is the large range of megafauna no-one’s managed to kill off yet – some of these Sasha and I checked out at the Nairobi National Park, a morning spent giraffe spotting and spying on wild lions yawning by the road beneath the incongruous modern skyline of the metropolis – but some of the biggest extremes are found in people’s attitudes to foreigners.

Often people are overwhelmed with curiosity about us and generously hospitable. Others, however, seem resentful towards the wealth disparity on display. This will extend to not only charging us several times the local cost for something, like any efficient capitalist with an eye to the capabilities of the market, but sometimes they even use price as an instrument of punishment for our relative wealth.

“You have the money, therefore you should pay what I want”, Is one prevailing attitude, much to their financial detriment in the face of alternatives. We encountered this a lot, even when we knew the much lower local price – bargaining was not an option. This ‘suck the tourists dry’ attitude culminated in an unpleasant mugging as we arrived in Dar es Salaam – but I’ll get to that later.

One of the main activities Sasha and I had decided we wanted to do in this part of the world was to climb Kilimanjaro, for the awesomeness points if for nothing else. In the few days before our trip was due to begin we headed for the hills to prepare with some Rift Valley volcano trekking – the mini-Kilimanjaro, Mt Longonot. Annoyingly, after spending the day buying food and local-minibus-hopping to arrive at sundown, we were informed by the ranger that camping in the park would cost us a not-insignificant thirty bucks. Our indignation rising at this special ‘foreigner price’, we stormed out to find a spot to stealth-camp at the park boundary. This moment confirmed exactly how compatibly stingy Sasha’s and my travelling styles were. Sadly, our superior sense of self-satisfaction at stymieing the system was sabotaged by the consumption of cold chow – we’d brought a stove, but no matches.

After a somewhat sleepless night reassuring Sasha that the occasional rustlings outside her tent were neither angry buffalos nor violent tent-invaders, we emerged at dawn to find ourselves amongst a grazing herd of gazelles and a... stand?... of giraffes. The park ranger in the morning gave us the strangest look on learning that.

Mt Longonot itself was climbed and circumambulated during the day, affording us spectacular yet sweltering views of the deeply sunken caldera and the sunlit plains extended of our ancestors’ old stomping grounds.

And at last, after a day raiding Nairobi for proper camping gear to survive the freezing heights of Kilimanjaro, the success of which was celebrated by storming a local pub at the dodgy end of town – only to discover that the sexes were segregated (hey, how am I supposed to notice the womanlessness of pubs after spending half a year in India and the Middle East?), we were on a bus across the border to Tanzania.

The next day, standing at the Kilimanjaro park entrance with eager trepidation, Sasha and I met the rest of the group travelling with us up the mountain. This consisted of one person: Chris – a Canadian/Barbadian ex-champion sprinter, a ‘black muzungu’ in the local lingo (‘muzungu’ being the Swahili word for ‘outsider’, lobbed with varying degrees of derogatoriness). After a brief introduction, this young professor of Black Identity at a nearby university soon began extolling the virtues of stuffing a tampon up one’s nostril when suffering from the effects of a nosebleed. Up to this point Sasha and I had been worried we’d be joined by humourless midlife-crisis cases.

We were treated well on this trip. Too well. The three of us required the services of three guides and seven porters, each porting all our gear, food and tents, plus the gear, food and tents for those doing the porting. In the evenings, after a civilised four-hour slog, we had buckets of warm water brought to us, tents pre-erected upon our arrival at camp including one ‘dining tent’, and meals that got more extravagant by the course. Initially, I was a bit miffed that the national park mandates this excessive and expensive luxury for tourists, but soon I was complaining about the diminishing supply of milky hot chocolate and the failure to provide a table-cloth. A decent foot-massage would have gone down well too.

Kilimanjaro is a monstrosity of a mountain. Disfigured as it is by side eruptions in the style of a man who wakes up one day to discover he is merely a mole on another man’s face, it looms over the surrounding plain as though it were the rest of the universe. The neighbouring 4.5 kilometre elevation micro-protrusion, Mount Meru, sits beneath Big K’s bulk like a cowering little brother, and Sasha and I spent much of our second day scoffing at our good friend Steve’s later intention to ascend it.

For each day we climbed The K, the landscape, the biota, the scenery and the weather all shifted so dramatically it was hard to escape the conclusion that we were actually ascending into different continents, and, later, onto different planets. Lush, dense rainforest sporting monochrome colobus monkeys gave way to alpine grasslands replete with hardy ferns and awkward-looking penis plants. This soon evaporated into a desolate wintry boulder field punctuated by plagues of scavenging brown mice whose main amusement factor derived from their ability to transform Sasha from rugged mountain conqueror to squealing damsel in distress. Chris also kept up my morale by suffering acutely from the main side effect of the Diamox altitude sickness suppressant: frequent urination.

Each morning we awoke to clear skies, the sunrise over the cloud-tops and an ominous underview of the mass ahead. But inevitably, just after setting off, it would rain, or snow, for the rest of the day, forcing us to clamber over streams and through waterfalls as we climbed: the monsoon, right on time. Finally, we arrived at the highest camp, getting to bed early for an alpine start to the summit of... 11pm.

Arising at a time in which, if in Australia on a Saturday night, I’d be getting ready to get off my arse and go to that housewarming in the eastern suburbs, we wrapped up our bodies with every single item of clothing our packs contained, and initiated the ascent. Our spirits were lifted wildly by the sight of a massive thunderhead wafting along next to us, and as we climbed above it we witnessed one of the most spectacular storms we’d ever contemplated seeing – although we were also pretty keen to get above it so we wouldn’t get electrocuted. This keenness to ascend was exacerbated by our discovery that there were several groups ahead of us. With a single nod, Chris and I understood at a fundamental male level that we had to beat them. And to Chris and my collective amazement, Sasha was not only up for the challenge, but led the charge up the hill.

And soon we were at Stellar Point, the confluence of all six Kilimanjaro routes (we’d come up the scenic and somewhat hardcore Machame way), and, after scoring many victims of our immense speed, we were now in the lead. At this stage we’d long since lost all feeling in our fingers and we were being exhausted by the low altitude (not to mention all that climbing we were engaging in).

The final hundred metres to the summit was brain-liquefyingly difficult, clomping through snow and passing unappreciated glaciers and epic views. But at last we got to the summit sign: 5,895m, the highest elevation I’ve ever been on land (and the fastest I’ve ever travelled with respect to the Earth’s core). And we were first – Sasha in particular. Immediately upon reaching the top I keeled over in nausea, spending the next half hour waiting for the sunrise to vomit over the scenery while holding my stomach and groaning – although it wasn’t enough to stop me celebrating Port on the Hill, our highest yet.

Much to my annoyance, Sasha didn’t experience any altitude sickness at all, and thus took all the good photos of the world-burning sunrise over the ocean of cloud beneath us. As we descended in daylight we came across dozens of other walkers struggling up, some, literally being carried by their porters, sporting twisted expressions of altitudinous agony, our guide boasting ‘Kwanza!’ to his counterparts: ‘First’.

But at last we were back at camp. Of course, having got up at 11pm that ‘morning’, reached the summit at sunrise, and descended until 10am, we still had four hours of walking to do to get down to 3,000m. I can tell you I slept pretty damn well that night. Beyond that, it was only a matter of unwinding the biota levels back to rainforest, sorting out the extremely fraught and terribly awkward experience of mandatory tipping, and re-adjusting to normal oxygen levels down at Moshi.

In the following days, the two of us jumped on a bus to neighbouring Arusha where we socialised with a local friend of a friend of Sasha’s, re-acquainted ourselves with Chris for an evening and finally allowed Sasha to clean her nine pairs of underpants. But at last, after a demonic fourteen hour bus ride that disintegrated the back seats next to us, we were onto our next adventure: Lake Victoria.

Basically, the plan was to do an anti-clockwise loop around Tanzania, visiting the various lakes on the way, before meeting up with our other buddies at Dar es Salaam. From the port city of Mwanza, we took a ferry across to the island of Ukerewe after spending an hour trying to shake off a ‘helpful’ local demanding cash for his unnecessary directional assistance. Now out at ‘sea’, Lake Victoria’s lake status became irrelevant as we took in the sweet marine air. After our arrival, we spent an idyllic couple of days dining beneath a sporadically electrified thunderstorm, riding bikes from the ‘Melbourne’ to the ‘Darwin’ of the island (during which we enjoyed the incorrigible company of curious local kids) and finally rehydrating ourselves on the minutely malt-flavoured water Africans call beer in the presence of littoral ugly-stick stricken marabou stalks – I’d been abstaining from my beloved stout so my good friend Rob’s would be my first since Hong Kong.

Our next lake was that of Tanganyika, of Livingstone fame, to which we arrived after a 5am to 5pm bus ride. Here the plan was to catch a ‘water taxi’ from Kigoma to the Burundi border and come back the next day in time for the weekly train to Dar. This was a train we were destined to miss.

Boarding this water taxi – a large, open, motorised wooden boat crammed with about 100 people, much like the ones seen in Australian Liberal Party leaders’ wet dreams – we were met with a scene of beauty we hadn’t anticipated. As the afternoon waned and nightness descended, the steep jungle loomed menacingly out at us like a frozen tsunami of trees and baboons. Even more menacing, however, was the distant opposite shore of the DRC – Conrad’s Congo. You could almost hear the martial drumming.

At the end of an evening covering ourselves in tarpaulin for protection against the rain, helping to bail out the rising boat water and being the subject of our new friends’ bets over whether we’d donate to them our shoes, the sun at last set over the ominous opposite shore. The spectacular sunset and then eerie fishing lights of the lake reflecting the brilliant star field above shielded us from the realisation that we were now on a wooden boat at the Congolese border, at night and with neither accommodation nor any road access for at least fifty kilometres inland. If we’d put our minds to it we would have recognised this state of affairs as bad news.

Luckily enough, Sasha employed her French speaking skills to chum up with the local Burundians and found us a home to stay in at the tri-corner border between Tanzania, Burundi and the aquatic part of the DRC without even getting us knifed as we were led deeper into the jungle than either of us felt particularly comfortable about. In the end, though, it all worked out fine. Other than being constantly asked to fund frivolous medical expenses by our young host, Isaac, and discovering we were stranded in their border village for a day (Sundays are serious in this part of the world).

This forced stay ended up being well worth it, I must say, despite missing our train. We swam the crystalline waters of Lake Tanganyika, drank in a dank pub beneath the daily thunderstorm, attracted derision for our poor stone-skipping ability but destroyed the local team at successive games of pool. The highlight, though, was gaining permission to cross the border for a beer in Burundi where we watched colourful dancing Muslims glide past the bar on their crowded, wooden festival boats. At last, however, we bid our generous (yet rather mercurial) host goodbye – at 4am – for the water taxi back to Kigoma.

The thirty-hour bus ride from Kigoma to Dar es Salaam, my second-longest yet, was all the more interminable for its unnecessariness. It didn’t help me that my usual Celebrity Heads adversary had contracted something on the lake and was thus dead to the world for the duration. However, two days later we were safely back in a civilised-sized city and about to meet our excellent friend Pip from home. we walked excitedly into town to find a local bus or taxi to take us to the airport to greet her arrival and we were soon met by a charismatic young local who was eager to help us out. Within no time we were happily on our way, sharing a taxi with our new friend – a man calling himself William – and another hop-on squished in next to us.

And then they all turned around to face us.


  1. w00t! Great stories, Felix. It's nice to be able to connect all the disparate fragments of the narrative that I received aurally with a nice written matrix.


  2. That Chris guy with the tampons and peeing all the time seemed like a real oddball, lol. If I didn't know him personally, I woulda thought you made him up for comic relief.

    Great trip up the mountain and great company, my man!

  3. For gods sake, Felix, dont keep us in suspenders! What happened next?
    Auntie Pam