Tanzania 2 - Small Islands and Tall Mountains

October 11, 2008 - Narok, Kenya

Swahili Style in Zanzibar

We kind of got "stuck" on Zanzibar Island for 7 weeks. But then again, it is an easy place to get stuck. The beaches are gorgeous, people friendly, culture intruiging and food tasty. In addition, after being on the road for 5 months, it was nice to stay in one spot for a while. Once my parents left us for their flight back to Australia, we met up again with Inara. It was time to leave luxury behind and become a backpacker again.

We spent a few more days in Stonetown behind heading to the beaches up north. We arrived at Nungwi, at the northern tip of Zanzibar. and spent a few days relaxing in a little cottage right on the beach while enjoying the gorgeous sunsets and the freshly caught seafood. I also had the chance to head out for a couple of nice dives in the crystal clear blue waters, and we all went for a snorkel at the nearby Mnemba atoll.

From there we wandered over to another nearby stretch of beach at Kendwa Rocks, where we bumped into Dan, our friendly who we had travelled up from Malawi with, as well as a French family we had met in Namibia and Botswana. It's a small world. With its wide, long white beach, and a chilled vibe, we preferred Kendwa to Nungwi, and decided to spend a few more days here.

Soon it was time for Kendwa's big monthly event - the full moon party. The moon shone bright at the start of the evening, but became impressively eclipsed the shade of the earth soon after. But that did not stop the hundreds of party goers sprawled out along the beach. The competition was fierce on the crowded, sandy dance floor as masais and guys with pet monkeys tried to move in on the girls. But we managed to keep them at bay. We danced and partied the night away into the wee hours of the morning.

From Kendwa, we returned to Stonetown with a plan to stay here for a while, get some regularity, study Swahili and do some volunteer work. We found a comfy guesthouse, ecstatic about the prospect of not having to pick up our backpacks for a couple of weeks, and found some things to keep us occupied.

Through a small NGO nearby, I found some work with the Zanzibar Cultural Arts Centre. The centre, housed in a large, old building in the middle of town, was run by a friendly local guy called Farid. The focus of the centre was to support local Zanzibari artists to make and sell their products, such as cushion covers, carvings, clothing, kangas, paintings and spices amongst other things. In one corner of the building, Fatma and other ladies sit hand-knitting cushion covers, their colourful wares, bright head scarves and wide smiles lighting up the room. While near the entrance, Abu Bhaker, a young orphan that Farid has taken in would sit knitting colourful rasta hats from balls of wool.

The place had so much potential, with its large space and artists working there giving it an authentic feel. My job was to work with Farid to put together a business plan that could make it happen. And on my initial discussions, the way the centre would differentiate itself soon became clear - by focussing on local art made by the local community, and creating an atmosphere where tourists will want to spend time and meet the artists. I spent some time each day discussing the ideas with Farid, who got more and more excited each time. And in the end, we put together a business plan that will hopefully help him achieve these goals. Jo, Inara and I also put together a brochure that was sent out to local hotels to advertise their products. I keep my fingers crossed that it all works out for him and his artists.

Jo, Inara and I also spent a couple of hours each day learning Swahili at a local school. We would sit in a tiny room each day with our teachers (walimu) Hassan and Omar, learning what we could. It was nice to begin to have simple conversations with the locals, who are all so happy to exchange a few simple phrases. It somehow makes Zanzibar feel a little less foreign. But I have to admit, Swahili is not as simple as expected, with strange sounding verbs, seven noun classes, complex adjective rules, object infixes, confusing prefixes, possessives, locatives and polite imperatives. But now I am sufficiently half-assed in Swahili to add to my list of other partailly learnt languages - Spanish, French and Swedish.

Just for reference, I thought I would include out favourite Swahili expressions in this blog:

  • Johanna: Poa kacheezi com ndizi (Cool bananas)
  • Mike: Ninapenda fanya mapensi (I like to make love)
  • Inara: Chupi yangu imepotea (I have lost my underwear)

I have enjoyed wondering through, and often getting lost in, the maze of alleyways that wind through this town of stone. The old, crumbly buildings with ornate, carved wooden doors are charming and picturesque. But what I especially love, is in this maze, local life goes on. Students in bright, white uniforms go to school, muslims pop into the mosques for call to prayer, young men and women chat with each other on the front step of their buildings, and groups of children kick around a worn football. Two or three of the major routes are pure tourist traps, but the rest of the countless alleys are pure local life.

Over time, Stonetown has grown on me. The greater majority of people there are very friendly, happy to exchange greetings of "Jumbo", "Salama", "Habari gani" and "Mambo vipi". There are many great local and western places to eat, and a few nice bars to wash down our tasty meals. I enjoy the town, and the regularity we have in it. In particularly, it has been great to get to know some of the local people. Sometimes it became difficult to walk 10 metres without bumping into someone we know.

On our weekends, we took a local dalla dalla across the island to the beaches of Paje on the east coast. The beach was completely transformed by the tide. At low tide, when the sand stretches out a few hundred metres, the beach is dominated by locals - women collecting seaweed, men fishing for squid and kids helping where they can. But at high tide the tourists make the most of it, bathing and kitesurfing along the shallow waters. We took advantage of the sun, surf and sea, and played football with the local kids.

On the 2nd of September, Ramadan began, and the atmosphere changed on the predominantly Muslim island. The streets became more quiet with fewer tourists and locals. Most restaurants closed during the day as the locals fasted, as the ones that stayed open tried to hide their infidelity behind curtains, and some of our favourite night spots closed as well. Most of the locals followed the rules of Ramadan in earnest. During daylight hours, they did not eat, drink or smoke. Soon after call to prayer, the streets would be empty and the mosques overflowing.

But a more important date rolled around soon afterwards - the 8th September, my 34th birthday. Another year older, but not much wiser. We went down to Menai Bay at the south of the island for a cruise out to the small Nianembe Island. The small, uninhabitated island had an amazingly spectacular sandbank that stretched out towards the west. I ran straight out to the sandbank, and was soon joined my Jo and Inara who got busy at work burying me in the sand. The covered my from neck to toe, and expertly sculpted ample breasts, a beer gut and a long schlong. Amusing stuff - 34 and still as mature as ever.

We spent the rest of the day on the island swimming, snorkelling, relaxing and enjoying a tasty seafood lunch. Back in Stonetown that night, we ventured back to our favourite restaurant, Beyt al Chai for a delicious meal. The staff came out singing "Jumbo wana" with a birthday cake, especially organised by Jo. We then continued on for a few drinks at our regular, and lit a sky lantern which floated off into the night sky. A memorable birthday.

Before leaving, we took care of some of our souvenir shopping for Africa - first buying a ornately-carved chest which we filled with goodies and sent to Sweden. I then spent a few days on the nearby Pemba Island enjoying the diving on unspoiled coral reefs in clear blue waters before heading back for one final night in Stonetown. It was finally sad to be leaving Zanzibar after having discovered the heart of the community.


The Big City

Back on the mainland, our ferry touched down in Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania's biggest city. We ended up staying with Eric, a friendly and outgoing Tananian guy we had met in Zanzibar. While in the city, Eric took us around to some of the nicer places in town - the yacht club (which would not have been out of place in Sydney), sushi and Ethiopian restaurants, the local Irish pub (where we sang our lungs out at karaoke and came third in Trivia), and a couple of cool clubs. It all felt extremely civilised.

On the not so plesant side of Dar, we were once followed by a group of young kids asking for money. They followed us for 10-15 minutes, persistently and monotoously chanting "give me money". Then one started wailing and sobbing "help me", putting on a real show. It was a nerve-racking experience, and so sad to see.

But on the nicer side, we made a couple of trips to the nearby Coca Beach. This was a much more local scene. Families would take a walk along the beach while kids would splash around with friends on inner-tubes or fly kites over the sand. It was pleasant to sit at the bar and watch life go by. The rest of our days there were spent simply relaxing at Eric's apartment - thanks mate!


Killing Kilimanjaro

After Mount Mulanje (in Malawi), we had decided not to climb Mount Kilimanjaro. But for some crazy reason (I think there was alcohol involved) we had committed it to doing it again on one crazy night in Zanzibar. And once we got to Moshi in the north, the time had come. After some rushed preparations, it was time to make our ascent.

Mount Kilimanjaro, at 5895m, is the higest point in Africa and the highest free-standing mountain in the world. What were we thinking??? We had decided to take the Marangu route, also known as the Coca Cola route due to its popularity. Allowing for one extra day to acclimatise, we were to walk 68km over 6 days, sleeping in 3 huts. No mean feat. Supporting us along the way would be a crew of 8 - our guide Abu, his assistant Awazi, a cook and 5 porters.

Day 1: Marangu Gate (1980m) to Mandara Hut (2750m). Status: Feeling strong and confident on this pleasant walk.

Right after we checked in, and before the gate, Inara broke the world record for the earliest injury up Kilimanjaro. She tripped over the stairs past the check-in office, grazing both her knees and twisting her ankle slightly. But we managed to patch her up and begin the hike up the mountain. The first leg took us through a lush green forest up a small incline. It did not feel long until we reached Manadara where we set ourselves up in a cost hut. We spent some time admiring the striking black and white colobus monkeys jumping gracefully between the trees.

Day 2: Mandara Hut (2750m) to Horombo Hut (3780m). Status: Happy and confident - so far so good.

The lush forest turned to flowery bush, as we greeted more and more overloaded porters coming the opposite direction. As we greeted them, a chorus of Swahili greetings echoed behind us - "Mambo? Poa. Habari yaco? Nzuri. Salama. Jumbo." Their heavy burdens on their shoulders did not deter them from smiling when we greeted them in their native tongue. We began to see the views of the peak, our target, off in the distance. But as we continued, we became swamped by mist, and once we reached Horombo Hut, made the area look like a refugee camp. But the view out overlooking the sea of clouds remains beautiful. That night, I got very little sleep - one of the symptons of altitude.

Day 3: Acclimatisation day up to Zebra Rocks (4100m) and back. Status: Feeling tired, nauseas and losing my appetite.

Applying the mountaineers credo "Go high. Sleep low", we walked up a steepish climb to Zebra Rocks, and admired the view before heading down to Horombo Hut. I came back feeling somewhat weak and cold.

Day 4: Horombo Hut (3780m) to Kibo Hut (4700m). Status: Feeling weak, cold and breathless.

The wind picked up and vegetation disappeared as we continued up the dustry, winding track. As we stopped to chat to other climbers, a young, unconscious man was brought down the hill on a stretcher - a sobering sight. We kept going despite weakening legs, and felt exhausted once reaching Kibo. Desparate to get some sleep, we went straight to bed while breathing heavily. But the noise and cold kept us all wide awake.

Day 5: The Big Push. Kibo Hut (4700m) to Uhuru Peak (5895m) and back to Horombo Hut (3780m). Status: Absolutely exhausted and freezing cold.

We started at midnightwith 7 layers of clothing and a head torch for our final push to the top. With our guides, the five of us walked in a line up the steep, rocky mountain. We passed, and were passed by, other groups of climbers, but tried to avoid looking up to see the lights of the early starters shine high above us. Instead, I focussed on Johanna's feet in front of me, trying to stay one step at a time. But as we continued upwards, the incline became steeper, the gravel more slippery, the weather colder and our legs weaker. We could not stop for long, as would become freezing cold and our legs would stiffen. Even a drink of water would not help as it began to turn to ice.

But more than anything it was a mental battle. Our bodies exhausted, our legs turned to jelly, we desparately wanted to turn around and head for the nearest bed. But there was no way we were going back now. At the steepest part, we started using our hands to clamber over rocks, but finally reached the crater rim at Gillmans Point (5680m). We hugged each other in relief,but knew there was more to come.

Walking around the crater rim, we were ecstatic when the sun finally began to rise behind us. I think it is the happiest I have ever been to see the sun rise in the hope of the warmth it would bring. With light, the enormous glaciers of Kili became illuminated in front of us, and we could see into the depth of the crater on our right. Everywhere we looked the view was amazing, but there was not time to stop and enjoy it.

After a long walk around the crater we finally made it to the sign marking Uhuru (Freedom) Peak - the highest point in Africa. What a relief. We did it! But feeling the symptoms of the altitude, and the cold wind at about -10 degrees, we did not want to stay long. We quickly hugged each other, took some rushed photos, and got the hell out of there.

The walk back to Gillman's Point was easy enough, our legs feeling suddenly lighter. From the point, we could practically "gravel ski" downhill, rushing downas plumes of dust rose behind us. By 9am, we arrived at Kibo Hut, and after a short rest and meal continued our walk back to Horombo Hut. After 12 hours of walking up and down hills at altitude, it was easily the most physically challenging day of my life.

Day 6: Horombo Hut (3780m) to Marangu Gate (1980m). Status: Very smelly, blistered feet, stiff muscles but so relieved.

The long final walk took us back the way we came, with a stop at Mandara Hut for lunch. It seemed to go on forever as my blisters started to get blisters of their own. But we laughed with relief when we finally got back to the gate.

Climbing Kili was easily the tougest physical challenge of my life. But when I reflect back on it, I smile for two reasons: 1. I did it! Not bad for a 34 year old. 2. I'll never have to do it again - thank God!


Leaving Tanzania and Inara

Back in Moshi, we had one of the best showers ever, and boy did we need it! We then spent the next couple of days recovering, walking around like geriatrics with our blistered feet and stiff legs. We also joined up with our guides Abu and Awazi for a final meal together, and said our goodbyes.

On the 2nd October, it was finally time to say goodbye to both Tanzania and Inara. We had spent about 4 months travelling with Inara through Tanzania and Malawi. We had a great time together. and it was sad as we pulled away on the bus as she waved from the sidewalk. Thanks for all the fun chicky.

We have spent about 3 months in Tanzania, more than any other African country, and had seen it from many perspectives - from rural towns to big cities, from its national parks to its tropical islands, and from its deep lakes to its tall mountains. We had learnt the language, worked with its people and travelled its lands. And it has all been fantastic! It has been great to know a part of Africa more than just skin deep. And like an old friend, it has left us with many good memories and warm feelings.


Photos updated on the blog under "Tanzania Continues" - order back to front... woops. Enjoy!


Welcome to Swahili school
The good students
Jo working at the Arts Centre
Mike and Farid at work


rouky debelak:
October 12, 2008
well done doods,but you must be a bit crazy to go through this climb. oh well to each his own.loved the feet pictures, looks very sore. what is the next challenge ? Hope you will have a good rest in egypt. enjoy !!!!!!!!
October 13, 2008
Congrats on your climb! I'm not trying to burst your bubble, because climbing Kili is a feat, but Mount Kilimanjaro is not the 4th highest mountain. It IS the 4th highest mountain of the seven summits and also the highest freestanding mountain (not part of a range). Nearly all of the highest mountains in the world are in Asia.
rouky debelak:
October 13, 2008
so which ones are you climbing in asia?????
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