Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Mtwara - Take two

I am back in Mtwara. I had a bit more time to explore and I made good use of it. Exploring the local beer is something I did during my last visit as well, so I knew what to ask for to go with the lobster I had. This time however I did more than just eat and took the time to dive one of the coral reefs at Shangani Beach with a friend. I am sure that this is not the best spot to snorkel in the area or the best reef to explore, but despite that it was quite an experience. I immediately realized that my knowledge on tropical sea creatures is a bit limited, so I will have to read up on the new topic. Secondly having an underwater camera or at least a waterproof housing is a must, so I will have to look into that too. The time has also come for me to do a proper scuba course, so that might be my next objective set for 2012. Today I have seen things that I have only seen in pictures before. It was quite an experience and I can just see how a new interest is forcing itself into my life....

After the dive we took a walk to the local fish market. I promised myself the last time that if I ever come to Mtwara again, that I will bring my SLR with me. Unfortunately I lied to myself. The place is absolutely a haven for good pictures. I am still a bit cautious when taking pictures around the locals, so I will need at least a Swahili speaking friend with me if I really want to capture the real beauty of this part of Tanzania without feeling like an intruder. The dows and little mokoros on the water looks like something from a postcard. The fish market was really an interesting place, but we did feel a bit awkward being there. No-one really made us feel uncomfortable, but we stood out like sore thumbs, looking like tourists not knowing where we wanted to go. I think we were a bit scared trespassing or venturing into areas we were not allowed to be. It was in any case a wonderful experience to see the market with all the fish and the place where the local "cooks" prepare food for the little stalls. Here I guess you will find the cheapest meal in Mtwara coming straight from the ocean. I really fell in love with Mtwara. I cannot wait to discover more.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Kruger National Park - Gallery Two

Kruger National Park - Is it possible?

After seeing the Big Five yesterday in a record time of 5 hours, I was rather pleased with my visit to the Kruger so far. I don't know how much luck one person can have, but today I was hoping to see at least another leopard. But, who is fortunate enough to see three leopards in one visit? There is obviously much more to the Kruger National Park than leopards, and anything I was about to see today would've been good, but a leopard is just so special. There are plenty of animals and birds that are just as beautiful and amazing I guess, but they just never get so much attention as the Big Five does. Anyway, this morning we were heading from Skukuza in a southerly direction. Apparently coming from the ones who know, in the southern part of the park you find even more animals than in the north, with your chances of seeing the Big Five a little better.

After about 4 hours on the road with nothing more than a few Impala and Kudu, it was clear that today was NOT going to be a good day, let alone a Big Five day. We saw one or two rhinoceroses, but far away from the road, and even some lions, but also too far to take good pictures. One thing that is absolutely certain is that the Kruger National Park is not a zoo. You might pay to see animals, but you have absolutely no guarantee that you are going to see the "ones you came for."  Another gentleman in a car mentioned that since yesterday he had only seen two elephants, so I refrained from telling him about my Big Five in an effort not to spoil his day even further. After 5 hours on the road we had breakfast in the bush and headed back in the direction of the Numbi Gate where my brother-in-law was leaving the park to go back to Johannesburg.

We were driving for kilometres with absolutely no game in sight when something amazing happened. Right in front of us, appearing from absolutely nowhere, a cheetah emerged from the grass, walked a couple of meters down the road and then disappeared again on the other side of the road. It didn't take him 60 seconds to appear and disappear. Is this pure luck or what? I hardly had enough time to grab my camera and take a picture. According to the statistics there are about 200 cheetahs and 400 leopards in the park, so seeing a cheetah is probably a bigger event that seeing a leopard, with 50% less chance of course. What is so amazing is that just when you think that your whole day is ruined, then one of the most beautiful animals appear from nowhere and lift your spirits even higher than what is was the previous day.

After my BIL said his goodbyes at Numbi Gate, we headed back to Skukuza camp. We took one or two dirt roads which were just as "dead" as the roads from the morning. Except for the cheetah incident of course. We saw more rhinoceros, elephants and lions, along with some other animals and birds of which I have no clue what their English names are. Eventually we started feeling better, but none of the animals we saw were as close as the ones from the previous two days, so I didn't even bother to take pictures. At around 3pm my son got a  bit agitated after spending a second full day in the car and we took him back to the camp.

My father-in-law felt that with still 90 minutes to go before the gates close, there was still enough time to go search for more animals. I joined him and we did a small circle route aiming to be back in the camp just before 5:30 when the gate closes. The sun was already starting to set and even though we weren't expecting to see much, we were quite amazed by what one still could see in such a short time; a couple of elephants from very close-up, baboons, Kudu, Impala, Waterbuck, Warthogs....and yes, we even saw more lions. On our way back, 3 kilometres from the gate and 7 minutes before it closes, something weird and wonderful happened. Another leopard was lying on the side of the road, hidden behind a thorn bush. It was just unbelievable. Not only did I manage to see three cheetahs in three days, but also three leopards. I tried to take a picture but my zoom lens made it very difficult as it was focusing on the grass and thorn bush branches instead of on the leopard. I realized that I still have to work on my manual focusing skills, but there was no time to start working on that now as the gate was about to close and we had to get there as soon as possible. I managed to get proof at least.

When we entered the camp I mentioned to my FIL that I had nearly seen the Big Five again today. All that was missing was the Buffalo. Strangely enough we didn't see any Buffalo today. It just shows you that you can visit the park and not even see one of the most common animals. Anyway, still chuffed with ourselves, we stopped at the bungalow where my wife and my son was just returning from a walk alongside to the river. Obviously interested in what we have seen, we told her about the leopard. Pretending also to be interested in what she had seen at the river I asked her the same question. "Oh, just some Buffalo", she replied. Needless to say I left everything in the car and ran down to the river just in time to see the last Buffalo disappearing into the grass on the other side of the river. The Big Five two days in a row! What a privilege. 

Monday, July 18, 2011

Kruger National Park - The Big Five in one day

It doesn't happen every day that one sees the Big Five on the same day, let alone in under 5 hours. Today the 115km drive from Mopani Camp to Satara really made my trip to the Kruger Park not only worthwhile, but also very exciting. We left Mopani at 7 this morning. The one Big Five member that any visitor to the Kruger is about a 100% sure to see was the first on my list. The Elephant is not only abundant in the Kruger, but they are also very easy to spot due to their size. Sometimes you find a loner strolling around and when you are lucky you might find a herd of over 20 or more together. Really an amazing sight.

Second in line were the Buffaloes. To me they are nothing more than cattle on steroids, but I wouldn't climb out of the car when one is near. It is quite an amazing feeling when a herd of over a thousand crosses the road in front of you car. You are also very likely to come across Buffalo on your first day in the Park.

The third on the list is the Rhinoceros. If you are in the southern parts of the park, your chances of seeing them are also good, but they are much less in numbers than the Elephants. You don't normally find them in in the northern parts and they usually walk alone. It does occasionally happen that they are three or four together, that is considered a good "sight". There are two types, the more common white rhinoceros that eats grass, and the very scarce black rhinoceros that eats leaves.

The last two on the Big Five List is the highlight of any visitor to the Kruger Park. Your chances of seeing lions are relatively good, because everyone is looking out for them. Getting a close-up picture of them is not always that easy. I actually had a very close encounter today, but I would admit that it was a foolish encounter. We stopped at three lions that was lying in the grass next to the road. Because they were on the other side, I lifted myself through the window to get a better picture not thinking what might be behind me. In The Kruger you are not supposed to do something as foolish as that, and I was not thinking. All of a sudden someone hooted and when I looked behind me there was a female in the grass behind me, staring at me like I was nothing more than a dumb tourist. I jumped back and still tried to get a picture, but my camera that has been giving me trouble since the beginning of the day froze on me. The lion walked around the car and joined the other 3 on the other side of the road. In total we saw about 16 lions today, in three different places. It is always nice to see lions, but they are very hard to spot in the grass.

If you get to see the fifth member of the Big Five, call yourself lucky, extremely lucky. The shy leopard is not only very hard to spot, but is also not keen on standing around for a photo session. Last night we saw one lying between the Mopani trees. I was driving and couldn't get a picture, so when we ran into another one this morning, I was really glad. Two leopards in two days is fantastic. Unfortunately when we came around the corner the leopard got a fright and quickly walked out of sight. By the time I got hold of my camera it was too late to focus. At least I have some proof that I saw it. We waited a while but the leopard lied down just behind an ant hill where we eventually left him.

What an amazing day seeing so many amazing animals. I am here for another day, I hope I get to see at least more of the last two again.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Friday, July 8, 2011

Mtwara in Pictures

Mtwara, where there's no rush

After my previous experience in West Africa, today it was rather pleasant to see the other side of Africa again, literally and figuratively. I left Dar-Es-Salaam this morning on a 1-hour flight to Mtwara which is situated a few kilometres north from the Tanzanian border with Mozambique. Precision Air stayed true to their name and the flight was executed with precision. We landed at Mtwara 10 minutes ahead of schedule. Mtwara’s claim to fame was the groundnut industry from many years ago (read about this on wikipedia, quite funny), but today it is nothing more than a town where time literally stands still. The driver was on time at the airport, but that was where his precision ended for the rest of the day. It seems that there’s absolutely no rush in this part of the country and when you see the place, you realize that there is no need for it either. This is the Africa I love, the one where everyone is keeping themselves busy with their own business and greet you friendly with a big smile when you walk by. When I landed I was even brave enough, despite the fact that there were a couple of military guys standing around with machine guns, to take a picture of the airport building which interestingly enough says “Terminal Two”. There wasn’t any indication as to where one would find Terminal One, as there is only one small building which functions as the arrivals halls, departure hall, check-in, lounge, carousel and "your last-minute shopping" store . The guys with the machine guns turned out to be a security company collecting cash that was send to Mtwara via air. No-one even blinked an eye when I took my pictures.

The road from the airport to the hotel was typical remote African style. Money is pushed into the major centers and the small towns hardly see any of it, except the cash that was on the plane earlier, but I’m sure that was not to repair the roads. The stretch from the airport to the president’s home of course is tarred, but that’s about it. The rest is gravel and/or potholed. Most people live in mud huts but funny enough each with its own satellite dish. One can only wonder what these people do for a living, because they seem to be loitering around town with no sense of direction. Yet they all seem to be well-fed and happy.

I am staying in the only hotel in Mtwara, The Msemo Hotel and Tours LTD. My hotel room is literally on the beach, and during low tide I took a stroll on the coral to see what the locals were picking up from the rocks. It turned out to be anything that is either edible or beautiful, especially the sea shells you normaly see on these tropical island holiday brochures. They sell a shell the size of your hand for less than 1 dollar, but I didn't really want to encourage their business. I don’t know yet what effect the removal of dead shells have on the ecosystem of the sea, but soon they will be selling them for 10 dollars a shell and starting to kill them to keep up with the demand. I took some pictures on the beach, but an old lady was mumbling something in Swahili and didn’t look impressed with me taking pictures there. I guess that is just a general African thing then.

At the hotel for lunch I tried one of the local fish species, Changu. It was a bit dry, but not to such an extent that I had to swallow it down with anything. The restaurant wasn’t very full, but it nearly took an hour and a half for the food to arrive. But that is how it goes in Mtwara, there’s just no rush. The Stoney Ginger beer was cold and in this heat it was really all I needed.

Later the afternoon I went for a walk along the beach and really regret leaving my proper camera at home. There are just so many things to take pictures of, and the place is beautiful. At some point I was cornered by a man claiming to work for the Port Authorities who asked me why I was taking pictures. His English was very good and it wasn’t difficult to explain to him what I was doing. He later said that there’s no need to worry, that I am welcome in his country and that I should enjoy my stay. A little bit different from the guys who tried to rob me at the airport in Libreville last week. Somehow I just feel safe in this country. Maybe it is because most people can communicate in English, but I guess it is more an attitude thing. I think the French really pissed off the people on the West Coast of Africa many years ago and the locals still blame them for everything that’s wrong, taking it out on anyone that looks like he or she might have some colonial connections from the past.

My stay in Mtwara was really one of my good experiences in Africa and definitely a place where I will go back again and make better use of the time. There seems to be plenty of it in Mtwara anyway....

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Ex Springbok Supporter

I remember when I was a kid, I never missed a single Springbok rugby match. I was a proud supporter, but those days there weren't all these green and gold supporter wear that you find today. You looked for newspaper clippings and pictures of your heroes and stuck them up against your wall. Then things changed. People realized that there is money to be made out of something most people did many years ago for the fun of it. Sports. That was more or less the time that my support for the Springboks started dwindling...and for good reason.

I am at Oliver Tambo International Airport at the moment, and just walked out from one of the so-called "duty free" shops. My 4-year old son is looking for a Springbok soft toy, like the one in the picture above. I thought that I would get it cheaper at the duty free, although I've known for many years that "duty free" is another marketing strategy where you fool  people into believing that they are paying less for something that you would normally find cheaper in any other shop if you had gone through the effort of not leaving your last minute shopping until...well... the last minute. The friggen toy which is the  hardly bigger than the size off my gall bladder, costs R195. Oh sorry, at duty free is it something like R184. When I looked at the same toy in Cape Town it was R175, VAT included. OK, so I was right about the duty free bullshit, but let me rather get to the other shameless robbery you have to face if you want to support your local team.

I've been looking around Cape Town for a Springbok shirt to wear. I mean, I am a still a Springbok supporter in my heart, but if I have to pay R680 for a friggen shirt just because it has a Springbok emblem on it, then I rather support the local school's netball team. Everyone is shouting not to buy pirate goods from the street corners, but do you have any choice if you want to support your national rugby team in something that closely resembles a Springbok jersey? 

I also remember the days when the Springsboks were winning each and every game, we just watched to see what the final score was going to be. Today we are rather surprized when they beat any country, but they expect their supporters to fork out half of their monthly wages to support them while the Springbok players earn salaries which make the average South African looks like a charity case. Besides, how many South Africans can really afford to pay R680 for a friggen shirt?

Common guys, I want my son to be proud of The Springboks, I want him to wear his Springbok shirt to school and to show off his little Sprinbok soft toy to his friends even if I know they are going to kick it around in class. But I am NOT going to let him kick around a R185 toy for a team who flies Business Class around the world but cannot win two games in a row....