Thursday, October 13, 2011

African Finale

 "We're not bad people."

A cold chill runs down my spine.

"We are professionals.  This is our JOB."

Sasha and I are in trouble.

"Give us everything.  If you don't we'll kill you."

Of course.  It all makes sense now.  How could we have missed the obvious signs?  Our new friend William was so chirpy, so charming, so... charismatic.  It had to be a scam.  All that bullshit about his art studies and his mother.  The way he was so keen to help us out.  How the 'shared taxi' heading to the Dar es Salaam airport in Tanzania, where we were to pick up our friend Pip, just happened to drive past so conveniently at that very moment.  The sinister-looking guy jumping in next to us in the back seat soon afterwards.  And for only 5000 shillings?  How could we have fallen for that!?  Sasha had seemed a bit nervous about it all, but I just blithely went along with these dudes, even when they turned off the main roads and went along dodgy unsealed paths through the poor suburbs.  I'd even felt proud that I was getting over my incipient cynicism of the locals.  And now look at where we are - getting mugged while locked in a car with three vicious men.  What a joke.

"Do you not understand me!?  Give me your fucking bag!!"

Reluctantly we hand over our gear.  They demand our wallets.  I try to take out just the money, but they want everything.  The gaunt, angry guy next to me, who up to that point I'd thought was just a random blow-in, meticulously goes through my bag picking out all the valuables and leaving the rest.  My camera, my ipod and, after some deliberation, my ereader - the one that had chased me from backpackers' to backpackers' around India and Iran - are deemed valuable enough to keep, while my GoreTex jacket and ancient-looking GPS are left alone.  Sasha and I plea for the ereader by telling them it can only display Australian newspapers but they're unconvinced.  Luckily our passports were left at the hotel.  Back in good-cop mode, William, sitting in the front passenger seat, takes out the SD card from my camera and gives it back to me.

"Memories are important," he tells me calmly.

But this doesn't last long.  He's taken the three bank cards from our wallets and waves them in front of our faces.  Shit, I think.  So this is where we're headed.

"Write down your PINs.  I'm going to take 100,000 from this one, 100,000 from this one and 100,000 from this one."  Neither of us believe that - that would be less than $200 in total - of course he's going to clear the accounts.  Each one is stocked with well over a thousand dollars.

"That one's not an ATM card," Sasha interjects.  "It's a credit card - it can only be used at restaurants and things."  Thanks, Sasha: the card she's pointing to is actually my loaded debit card.

"Okay, just these two then.  You'd better not be fucking lying to me or I swear I will kill you."

"I'm not lying - why would I lie about that? I just want to get out of here."  Sasha's good at this.

"You!  Where's your card?"  William has noticed that only Sasha has written down PINs on the tissue he found in her bag.  I think fast.

"We're married.  We have a joint account and she carries the card."  Phew.  Just saved myself $1300.

We're driven into a bank car-park.  William gets out and operates the ATM.  I mouth 'help' to the security guard standing next to him.  He looks at me, then away.  'This is not my problem,' the gesture conveys.

William is back and is furious.

"You've tricked me!"  He yells.  "This is the wrong PIN.  Give me the right PIN now or I will stab you with my knife."  He doesn't produce his knife and we doubt he has one.  Still, he could really mess us up - we're completely in his power.

But Sasha is adamant.  She's forgotten her PIN.  She gives them four possibilities and they try them at another bank.  This time it's our friend sitting next to me who goes to the ATM.  While he's out, William politely asks us about our trip.

"Which country are you going to next?"

"Malawi," I answer as monosyllabically as possible.  I cannot contain how extremely pissed off I am.  Our bald, bulbous driver eye-balls us through the rear vision mirror with a look of penetrating contempt.

Our silent friend is back, his pockets bulging with cash.

"When does your friend's flight arrive?  We'll drive you to the airport,"  William offers politely.

"Look.  Don't drive us to the airport.  Just let us out."  He sees the logic in this and, before directing his driver to a side street, hands us 40,000 shillings to pay for a taxi - about $30 of the thousands he's taken from us.  Helpfully, he gives us directions and tells us how to save money by sharing a tuk-tuk.

"But don't get into a dodgy one or you'll get robbed again," He warns.

We're told to get out, walk to the main road and not look back.

After getting over our shock and relief that it's now over, Sasha and I decide not to go back to our hotel, but to continue on our quest to get to the airport to meet Pip - this time we take the bus.

At this stage we were still pretty shaken up, but I think the adrenaline was keeping us going.  When we met Pip at the airport it was hard to give her the welcome she deserved for coming all this way to see us.  Very nervously we took a taxi back into town to spend the afternoon waiting in queues and filling out forms at the Dar es Salaam police station.  We could tell the policemen in charge of doing something were inwardly laughing at our naive belief that something would be done.

In the end it didn't turn out so badly.  Sasha only got one of her accounts emptied and even managed to get it completely refunded by the bank.  Together we lost over $500 worth of cash, but at least the muggers gave back Sasha's ancient phone and all my memory cards; and gave me an undying feeling of pure detestation at these characters' livelihoods.

The police were no help.  Standing around filling out forms and waiting for paperwork for about six hours, being laughed at for not being able to write down our religion ('No religion' is not an acceptable answer in this part of the world), all the while Pip hanging around in the reception for support.  In the end we gave up (my insurance wouldn't cover it anyway), submitted our heathen reports and left for Zanzibar.

Changing locations changed our demeanors.  A few hours on the fast ferry and we were transported to the mysterious other half (literally) of TanZania.  Our arrival was greeted by historic waterfront buildings, acrobatic beach boys bouncing on the sand and narrow alleys twisting around crumbling colonial facades; the hot sea air blowing through this labyrinth and washing away our feelings of crushed personal violation.

Or that could have been Steve.  Our good friend Steve, previously famous in the metaphoric pages of this blog for accompanying me on the Spitti Valley cycle tour in Northern India, had flown into Zanzibar directly bringing with him a healthy sense of perspective about the whole affair.  Sure we'd lost some stuff, but it wasn't as if the universe was about to not have ever existed.  Also, we should stop beating ourselves up about the stupidity of the ordeal - our mistake was to be too trusting, which isn't really such a bad thing to be in general.  This comforting advice was absorbed along with a few beers on the bar balcony perched above the beach in the glow of a spectacular sunset whose splendour was debated for the rest of the evening.

A few days spent in Stonetown, interrupted briefly by an intriguing spice tour (they grow spices here), and the four of us were off to the beach.  We took a public minibus but never completely shook ourselves of the fear that we'd be driven into the bush while the other occupants transformed themselves into cash-hungry Somali pirates.  We were landed at Matemwe on the other side of the island, a large, empty, Rastafarian beach resort greeting our arrival with cheap rates and an enormous poster of Bob Marley presiding over the bar like the Virgin Mary.  Other than beering it up on the foreshore, playing 500 and being apologised to by the tripped-out manager for requiring recompense for his generous hospitality, we achieved nothing over our three days here.  One exception was an awesome day's snorkeling around an off-shore island in which we marvelled at the copious colourfully clad sea life through water so pristine I got vertigo from mistaking the wet plenum separating me from the sea-bottom for empty space.  Another exception was a late-night skinny-dipping game of Marco Polo - inaugurating both Sasha and Pip into the liberating past-time.

After unraveling our trip out back to the Tanzanian mainland, and annoyingly, Dar es Salaam once again (whose main excitement this time came from Sasha locking herself in her own hotel bathroom for an hour), the next excursion was a three day hike through Udzungwa National Park.  For this we commissioned the mandatory services of a guide and ranger, the latter proudly brandishing a machine gun that looked more at home in a ruthless civil war than a pristine environment famed for its biodiversity.  Examples of such biological exuberance were a couple of chameleons changing colour at cartoonish alacrity, enormous elephant prints through the jungle that belied the impassable undergrowth and an Oxford entomologist sporting an impeccable Etonian accent with incongruous Asian ancestry.  On our return from Udzungwa peak (gazetted 500m taller than its reality) we bathed at the bottom of a 75 metre high waterfall and drank in the vertiginous views from the top.

The bus ride back to Dar es Salaam, a city now beginning to taint our sanity like the inescapable odour of an office coworker, to meet Sasha's childhood friend from France, Marine, was notable for being both a form of cheap speed-safari with elephants, zebras, gazelles and warthogs whizzing past within gawking distance, as well as an horrendous road carnage extravaganza of burning buses and overturned trucks littering the highway (I'm not sure if those phenomena were related in any way).  Marine turned out to be an extremely amiable young French-woman and, after a quick tour of the uninspiring city, she accompanied the four of us to Mbudya Island north of town.

This island sucked.  It rained the whole time, the drenched beach where we went snorkeling bobbed with rubbish and buzzed with stinging jellyfish - even the otherwise deserted 'beach resort' where we stayed on the mainland had to be staked out by five lurking security guards 'for our safety'.  On the other hand, we managed to salvage a good moment observing a gigantic tree-crab, suspiciously reminiscent of our own nation's notorious drop-bears.

Taxiing it back to Dar es Salaam yet again so as to wave goodbye to Pip and wish her well for her new Swiss life, and after yet another interminable bus ride, we were back in Arusha from the previous blog and meeting yet more of our excellent friends: Rob and Clarissa and their hangers-on Rachael and Krishna from the UK.  This meeting presaged a morning of scrounging around desperately for cash before embarking on one of those classic tourist activities of Africa that everyone assumes the entire continent revolves around: a safari.  Three days in the Serengeti, one in the Ngorongoro Crater.

As cynical I was about this mandatory expedition to watch large animals tear each other apart from the comfortable cocoon of human technology, I must admit to being quite impressed by what nature had to offer.  Conversely, my respect for the patience and serendipity of documentary photographers dramatically diminished - these animals were, like, right on the side of the track!  Elephants herds protecting their young, giraffes letting us walk alongside their spindly legs, hyenas slinking through the grass with bits of zebra hanging off their faces, enormous gnu migrations spanning opposite horizons, British backpackers freaking out about potentially unfixable flat tyres at nightfall, lions basking in the sun, or in trees, cheetahs with cubs continuously scanning the horizon and hippos just not giving a crap about anything.  We had it all.  I loved the way all eight of us mutually decided we were too stingy to stay in lodges and so were directed to open campsites.  These had zero protection against all the lions and leopards we'd seen during the day but our guides calmed us by saying, "You'll be fine if you don't get out of your tent at night.  At all."  Righteo...

Our guides, almost certainly with the prospect of large tips inscribing dollar-signs on their foveae, took out all the stops to please our lust for megafauna action.  One driver even drove over the tail of a lioness to get the best reaction out of her and the accompanying lolz.  For our part, we spent the time debating the relative educational merits of our guides who managed to provide the passengers of the two vehicles with exactly contradictory information on the animals we were viewing.

Our safari nearing an end - via a spectacular drive and camp at an enormous volcanic caldera that seemed to have trapped in a bunch of animals soon after it cooled down - we were driven back in Arusha, having said our goodbyes to Sasha and Marine as they flew off to a fancy Zanzibar retreat, and Steve, who was to make an abortive attempt on nearby Mount Meru.  The rest of us chilled our heels at a natural history museum and bar where we were to accidentally re-meet our Canadian/Barbidian friend Chris of Kilimanjaro fame.  All was right with the world.

But at last, it was time to part ways.  Splitting up back in Dar after briefly looking for William to punch his face in, we went our separate ways.  Sasha had arrived back and together we took an old rattly train to Malawi, the royal wedding transfixing the station crowds.  As expected, I greatly enjoyed this train ride - trains are so much better than buses.  Although, after ingesting an anti-malarial Doxy on an empty stomach I found myself throwing up in the toilet.  From the train we watched the sun set over the Tanzanian highlands as we punched our way back through Udzungwa and shared our tales with a couple of Europeans also on their way to Malawi.

With these new companions we crossed the border after it had closed by pleading with the immigration staff - but sadly found our entry into Malawi forbidden until morning due to this side being on a different timezone.  Staying illegally in a hotel deep inside Malawi for the night, we 'properly' crossed the border in the morning and then had to tackle the issue of money: the official exchange rate was shocking.  The solution?  We set up a, err... black market exchange at a very competitive rate right outside the Forex bureau - after a few minutes we had crowds of African itinerants clamouring for our business.

That day we made our way down to the eponymous lake of Malawi.  While awaiting the slow Ilala Ferry on the banks of the town of Karonga we sat under a gnarly tree sprawling onto the sandy bank of the lake and over the clear blue water.  After a few hours waiting for the ferry we saw a woman start a small beach fire and cook some fish with ugali (the omnipresent starch they eat here).  When she'd finished she offered it to us, taking little for herself.  We tried to pay her and even just help with the washing up but she refused both.  Sasha and I were shocked at this vastly different attitude towards foreigners here compared to Tanzania, where an undercurrent of resentment and entitlement seemed to be pervade every interaction.

Travelling with others can often be like living in a backpacker bubble.  It's much easier to feel submerged in the local culture when you only have locals to talk to.  That said, Sasha and I did manage to osmoticaly absorb some African zeitgeist.  Naturally, a lot of this came through being forced to watch movies and listen to music on interminably long bus rides.  The movies were made cheaply and locally and focused on hot-button social issues such as polygamy and witchcraft.  The music, I found, was divided into three distinct categories: droning gospel music (except live in churches, where it was cheerful and upbeat); American hip-hop wannabes, like our favourite, 'Mr. Chocolate', and actual African music that seemed to celebrate the local ideal of communal kinship.  The ferry we took for the next five days played a CD of this latter stuff on repeat, and I couldn't get enough of it.

It was well after dark when this ferry whisked us away for its long meander down the lake.  We pitched Sasha's tent on the deck to protect us from the ravages of storms and sunny weather.  During the day we set up deck chairs and consumed a few books while watching the steep jungled hillsides slide past like a non-repeating rotisserie of green delicacies.

Once we'd docked at Nakarta Bay, however, the Ilala broke down.  Typical for Africa, the spare part was driven up from the bottom of the country, found to be the wrong shape, driven to the top of the country to be bashed into shape, and eventually installed after two-and-a-half days.  We spent this idyllic time meeting new backpackers embarking from the small town, jumping off the side of the massive ferry into the pristine piscine waters, and sneaking on shore to watch a local soccer game and procure cheap beer.

I'd just lost a game of shithead - that ubiquitous backpacking card game - and was employing the services of a bamboo branch to pole dance in the main street in celebration of my humiliating defeat when the Ilala horn sounded.  Instantly the entire town emptied and raced to the dock for boarding and witnessing the departure of that fixture of the landscape.  Some backpackers had to come from a neighbouring town over a kilometre away and barely escaped in time.

Two days later, after emerging from idyllic Mozambican waters, Sasha was pulling the horn cord for the ferry's disembarkation at Monkey Bay.  Here, at the southern-most end of Lake Malawi, we stayed at a supremely backpackerish hostel before booze-cruising it up to Cape Maclear over a sunny, beery afternoon jumping from the roof of the barbeque equipped boat.  The following few days at Cape Maclear mainly revolved around snorkling and kayaking through the cychlid-stocked waters.  Sasha and I turned out to be particularly unco at paddling it around the off-shore island, even before we discovered it was infested with crocodiles.  As it happened, we managed to escape unharmed except for a little light toe-nibbling from some surrounding tickly cychlids.

At last, it was time for us to head to Zambia.  En route was Lilongwe, Malawi's capital, where we found ourselves the only guests at a surreal 'Shining'-like hotel near the bus station.  The hotel manager seems to have only bought one satellite TV subscription so our TV watching withdrawal was at the behest of the whims of the reception's set.  At one point during the night a frightened hotel lacky knocked on the door demanding I see the man in charge.  Afraid he was going to extort more money or kick us out onto the street, I soon realised the corpulent rambling manager dressed in a dressing gown was demanding only to see some Australian television.  I pointed him to MasterChef.

In the morning we launched ourselves towards the Zambian border in the well-oiled transportation concatenation only African road networks can offer, immediately arriving at the Zambian capital Lusaka (marking the first time I'd ever been in two nation's capitals on the same day).  At the end of a long trip there's no time for mucking about.  A short night in Lusaka, one of the most modern and western looking cities we'd seen in Africa, and we were off to Livingstone for my trip's final tourism destination - Victoria Falls.

Staying at a vibrant hostel ten kilometres from the descending water, Sasha and I made the most of the enhanced westernisation of Zambia, buying up stocks of icecream and normal-looking vegetables from a supermarket that would look entirely at home in any Australian city.  We spent much of our time here steeling ourselves for the trip's finale: bungee jumping off the bridge over the Zambezi River next to the falls.

I really had no idea what to expect from leaping off a 111m high bridge.  I guess I didn't really take it seriously until my feet had left the platform (although it helped that Sasha went first - her long, high-pitched squeal dwindled off into the distance like a Saturday morning cartoon character).  When it came to my turn I was strapped in at my feet, counted down, and practically pushed over the edge - once I was horizontal and facing the tumultuous river far below me, experiencing the longest period of zero-G in my life, it hit me.  For a few good seconds there was no way to convince myself that I was not about to die.  It's almost embarrassing that of all my various adventures through crazy countries over the previous nineteen months - the wild roads of India, the icy deserts of Iran, an abduction by a repressive regime and a mugging in a desperate continent - it was a tourist gimmick that made me feel the highest degree of terror.  Still, it didn't stop either Sasha or me from jumping off a second time, although feet first and lashed together.

Running out the remaining couple of days in Zambia we mucked about at the top of the falls (largely invisible through the mist); tried to sneak into Zimbabwe (but they were too crafty for us); and walked away with a ten trillion Zimbabwean dollar note, one of only two souvenirs I took away from my trip.  Over the next couple of days Sasha and I both made for the exit.  Sasha to continue her trip for another two months with her family on the west coast, and on her own in South Africa, and I to take the bus back to Lusaka, for a final taxi to the airport the next day.

Getting on the plane at Lusaka was quite a strange feeling.  The three air-legs from there back to Dar es Salaam again (where I had to physically restrain myself from getting a one day visa to punch William in the face), back to Qatar airport (where I was forced to spray myself with my entire supply of deodorant to get it on the flight without wasting it), and finally back to Melbourne after a night watching the Tron movies - they all passed in a blur of fluorescent terminals and desiccated aircraft cabins.  But at last I was on home soil for the first time in over a year and a half.  My parents and brother met me at the airport and were instantly delighted to see that I'd bought some duty free grog for them.

I probably would have been more philosophical and reflective on the conclusion of my epic trip around the Indian Ocean, if I didn't have a massive 28th-birthday/returning-home party to prepare.


  1. So good to read this trip I've been part of !
    Sasha pushed me the link and she was right about how good this blog was written.
    I hope you're doing well and you enjoy being back to the Australian life.


  2. Thanks Marine! Settling back into Australia now - it's been four months after all.

    By the way, for photos, go to:


  3. At last my long wait is over and I am no longer in suspenders. You have coped well with another incredible adventure.
    We look forward to seeing you all at Christmas, and thanks for the hint of Dances' preferred gifts.
    Thanks for the blog Felix. Over and out

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  5. Hey mate, my coworker Tim Carter pointed out your blog. I like your style and think we actually write similar travel blogs.
    What was your second souvenir?