Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The Last Gua Gua Home

The island of Tenerife lies about 250 kilometres off the coast of Morocco.  It sits in the North Atlantic, way south of the latitude of Marrakech.  If one was to row due east to the coast of Africa and then keep walking you'd see nothing but the sands of the Sahara Desert until you reached the Red Sea.  The island is Spanish territory, yet it's about 1000 kilometres from Spain.  It is the most spectacular of the Canary Islands.  Essentially, being Spanish, the island is European.  Geographically it is African.  Scenically it is neither really.  Although many of it's best tourist beaches consist of millions of tons of sand shipped from the Sahara.  Tenerife's natural beaches are black volcanic sand thanks to the huge now extinct volcano - Pico del Teide.  At 3718 metres (12198 feet) it is the tallest mountain on Spanish Territory and it's snow capped peak can be seen from almost anywhere on the island.

Most Europeans know Tenerife as a package holiday destination; somewhere to escape the drudgery of the northern winter for a couple of blissful weeks.  However you may know it as the scene of what is still the world's worst air disaster if you don't count 9/11, which let's face it, was no accident.  On a foggy day in March 1977 two Boeing 747s, one from KLM and the other from Pan Am collided on the runway killing 583 passengers.  Only 61 survived.  The greatest tragedy is that neither planes were supposed to be there.  Both had been diverted from Las Palmas due to a bomb scare.  This happened at Los Rodeos airport and by the time I flew there in 1983 the main international airport had been moved to a less fog prone location.

Still, that night, as my plane bumped and jolted through a flashing thunderstorm on the final approach I couldn't help but be a little tense, and it was with rather sweaty palms that I finally undid my seatbelt  when the aircraft pulled up at the terminal. I walked and walked during my week in Tenerife.  I've always thought it the best way to get to know somewhere.  You meet people, you  see things that you'd miss flashing by in a vehicle, and you smell things too, and that for me is the most evocative sense of all.  A whiff of freshly baked bread can transport you to your favourite Parisienne patisserie in no time at all.  And so that first morning I walked from my accommodation in central Puerto de la Cruz to La Orotava a few kilometres away perched on a great green sloping plateau.  Initially there was a fine, soaking drizzle, but before I reached my destination this cleared away and was replaced by a watery blue sky and warm sunshine which made the wet road steam eerily.  There was mile after mile of banana plantations.  Each tree hung with it's heavy bunch of green unripened fruit, while fresh raindrops on the enormous leaves sparkled like diamonds. Giant palm trees grew along the roadside too, 20 or 25 metres tall, each with a great green explosion of fronds at the top, and each filled with a profusion of chirping, squabbling sparrows.  Back home in frigid Britain it was only two weeks before Christmas - hard to believe, surrounded as I was by the warmth and lush flora of the sub-tropics.

By the time I strolled into La Orotava it was siesta and everything was closed except the odd bar.  Scrawny dogs snoozed in patches of cool shade and leathery skinned old women swathed in shawls sat on faded balconies sewing, or simply staring out of the endless Atlantic Ocean.  The whole town snoozed while I explored its streets and charming parks.  It only woke when it was time for me to return to Puerto de la Cruz and it wasn't a gradual awakening.  Suddenly I was surrounded by jostling hoards of people and steady stream of traffic.  The shops reopened and the kids came out to play.  Siesta was emphatically over.

The next day I sampled the delights of the local public transport - privately owned mini-buses called "gua-guas."  Each gua gua driver is hand picked by the boss for his psychopathic tendencies and unbridled aggression.  It was in the company of one of these lunatics that I drove to the island's capital Santa Cruz.  The buttock clenching trip ended with in swooping glide down a steep hill amidst a forest of Hong Kong - like high rise, which I have to say was unexpected, but the town was a disappointment.  It was dirty and decaying and the fact that heavy grey clouds began to gather and sprinkle cold rain did not improve my impression of the place.  And so it was back on the dreaded gua gua for the nerve jangling ride back to the more pleasant Puerto de la Cruz.

A couple of days later I dragged myself from my bed at 4am determined to walk to the summit of Pico del Teide - a 100 kilometre round trip.  I was super fit in those days as well as super stupid.  I brewed some tea and went out onto my balcony and there in the distance peeping out from behind the dark foothills was the snow capped peak glowing in the moonlight.  It was the first time I'd seen the mountain.  The road took me once more through La Orotava.  The streets were as dark and silent as the banana plantations and nothing stirred as I left the town behind and started climbing towards the mountain.  I was well beyond La Orotava when dawn broke and every cockerel on the island seemed to be celebrating.  Dogs barked and each village was blessed with the aroma of baking bread.  Then suddenly I was stopped in my tracks.  There in front of me was Pico Teide.  It loomed from behind a jagged ridge as pink as a giant strawberry icecream in the sun's early glow.  It was stunning.  I thought I had never seen anything so beautiful. 

At three thousand feet it began to grow cold and everything was coated in a glistening layer of frost and my breath hung in the air.  At five thousand feet the road was covered in a layer of ice wherever the rising sun had not yet reached and I found myself in the midst of a heavily scented pine forest where the thinning air was fragrant and intoxicating.  Beyond the tree line was a moonscape of red and black rocks, and great orange volcanic crags bit huge lumps from the blue sky.  At 8000 feet the peak seemed close enough to touch, but clouds moved in rapidly and a stinging squall of sleet began to fall.  By the time I reached 11,000 feet I was in the midst of a full blown blizzard and I realised that any chance I had of reaching the summit had gone.  Disconsolately I walked back to the nearest village and warmed my hands on a mug of hot chocolate, fortified with a healthy slug of brandy.

It was almost dark as I staggered back into the straggling suburbs of Puerto de la Cruz.  I'd been walking for almost sixteen hours and had covered almost a hundred kilometres.  To say I was a little tired is like saying that Mount Everest is a little hill.  Three kilometres from home I gave up and risked what remained of my life in a gua gua.  I slept well that night.  I dreamed I'd reached the summit of Pico del Teide and could see Africa from her summit, the unforgiving sands of the Sahara stretched out in oceanic waves of dunes far to the east.  Impossible of course, but a pleasant dream anyway.  

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Special Samburu

Half a day's scenic drive or a short flight north of Nairobi lies Samburu National Reserve.  The drive takes you along some reasonably good, smooth roads and some pretty horrible dusty ones, but it's all worth it.  On the way you squeeze between the green Aberdare mountains and the towering twin peaks of Mount Kenya.  This is Africa at it's spectacular best.  You'll stop at the equator on the way, where you'll have the chance to hop from one hemisphere to the other.

Samburu itself is a place of hippo and crocodile filled, broad rivers and vistas of tall, rounded, rocky hills which glow like hot coals as the sun sets.  It is also a place of unique species of flora and fauna.  There are stand of doum palms, the only palm with a divided trunk.  There are also some birds and animals that are found in very few other places.  There is the beautiful/ugly vulturine guinea fowl - a chicken sized bird with the plumage of a bird of paradise and the head of a vulture.  There's the Grevy's zebra - a handsome creature, much bigger than other species of zebra.  It has beautiful fine stripes and large, round Mickey Mouse ears.  But most amazing of all is the gerenuk - an extraordinary antelope that looks like the love child of ET and an impala.  They stand on their hind legs and extend their amazing necks to incredible lengths to reach the most succulent leaves of the thorny trees that thrive here.

Nearby are Meru National Park and Kora National Reserve - the old haunts of George Adamson of Born Free fame.  Elsa - his most famous lion is buried at Meru National Park.  YouTube star lion Christian was also rehabilitated by George at Kora National Reserve.  This really is great big cat country.  George was appropriately known as "Baba ya Simba" (Father of Lions) by the local Swahili speakers. 

No visit to Kenya would be complete without a visit to Samburu and Ucango Travel's Rosemary McTeigue is leading a small group tour of Kenya which spends two nights there.  The group will also visit Amboseli National Park, Ol Pejeta Conservancy where you can pet a black rhino and visit a very special chimp and bonobo rehabiltiation centre.  Lake Nakuru and the wonderful Masai Mara National Reserve are also on the agenda.  Then after this twelve day safari you can relax with three nights at Zanzibar where you can enjoy the beautiful Indian Ocean beaches and the fascinating history of Stone Town.

You'll be very well looked after by Rosemary and (Don't tell anyone I told you this.) you can help her celebrate her fiftieth birthday during the trip.

For further details double click on the adjacent lion photo or contact Rosemary at Ucango Travel on
07 5451 8600 or 1300 822 646.

Monday, February 7, 2011

How Safe is Africa?

"Is it safe?"  That's the question I am most frequently asked when fielding enquiries from clients considering an African safari.  The answer is emphatically YES.  I know, I would say that wouldn't I?  But it's true, you're not going to be shot as you get off the plane at Johannesburg Airport.  You're not going to be mugged as you pick up your luggage from the carousel at Nairobi.  The fact is that as tourists you're more likely to be attacked in Sydney's Kings Cross, Brisbane's Queen Street Mall or the Gold Coast's Cavill Avenue.

Most Aussie tourists in Africa are met at the airport by reputable ground operators contracted by Australian companies.  They are driven by cheerful, pleasant drivers safely to their hotels and are picked up from that hotel by their tour operators.  They are not left to their own devices in a strange city - certainly my clients aren't.  If people want to do their own thing from their hotel I advise them to chat with the concierge.  If there are places that one should not go (And let's face it, they exist in almost every city in the world except maybe Singapore where the greatest crime is to take a durien into your hotel room.) the concierge will advise you.

In any case the bulk of your African safari will take place in wilderness areas where you are probably safer from attack than in your own home.  In thirty five years of travel through Africa I have never witnessed, must less be a victim of a violent crime.  I once lost some money from a hotel room safe, but that was a case of petty theft that could have occurred anywhere. I get very frustrated with some South African expats living in Australia.  They seem to compete with each other to see who can come up with the most horrific experience they had when they lived there.  I know bad things happen, I'm not that naive, but there is a huge difference between visiting a country as a tourist and living there.  It's a shame that so many expats are prepared to bag their own country.  It's as though they feel that they have to justify themselves for abandoning the nation once the apartheid system collapsed.

It's also quite amazing how many people think that Africa is just one country.  Africa is a vast continent made up of over fifty nations.  Deciding not to go to Botswana because there is a problem in Egypt is like not going to Disneyland because there's a street demonstration in Buenos Aires.  Ridiculous, most people would agree, but that's they way some of us think unfortunately.

In the end it would be a tragedy to miss out on an uplifting and life-changing  experience like an African safari because of a few unfounded fears.  Africans are kind, warm and generous of spirit.  They are anxious to please, proud of whatever country they are from and want to show you that country in the best possible light.

We are all subject to certain fears when overseas, including myself.  I once took a short cut along a lonely bush track from Victoria Falls to the township.  I was about halfway there when a large African man appeared in front of me.  As he approached, he reached into his jacket and I thought, Oh God!  Here we go, I'm about to be mugged at knife point.  I watched as his hand slowly withdrew from his jacket clutching...............a large ebony elephant.  "Wanna buy it?"  He said.  I shook my head numbly and was rewarded with a huge white smile.  "No problem sir." He said, and loped off towards the falls in search of someone more appreciative of his handiwork.        

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

The Palace of the Lost City

You're into the last few days of your African honeymoon and you've just flown into Johannesburg from Victoria Falls.  You collect your bags, clear customs and immigration and in no time you emerge into the very impressive arrival hall.  You've organised a private car transfer to Sun City and there standing in front of you is a broadly smiling African clutching a board with your names on it.  It's always a relief to see your driver waiting for you when you arrive in a strange city, but by now you are no longer surprised by the efficiency of African tourism operators.

It's a hot afternoon, but your car is new and air-conditioned.  The journey is comfortable and scenic and in under three hours you are pulling up at the main entrance of The Palace of the Lost City.  You wanted to stay at one of the cheaper hotels there - Cascades, The Sun City Hotel or the Cabanas.  (Not because you're tight fisted but.......Okay then maybe your are a little.)  However your travel agent persuaded you to spend your two nights at The Palace.  Now you can see why he recommended that if you're going to the trouble of driving to Sun City you have to stay at The Palace.  You make a mental note to buy him a bottle of Penfolds Grange when you get back to Australia. The building glows with an inner golden light in the late afternoon sun and the it's many green domes stand out against the tawny hills behind.  At the centre of a roundabout in front of the entrance is a magnificent copper sculpture.  A pair of cheetahs are chasing a herd of leaping impala across a shallow pool of reflective water.

You are relieved of your luggage by a smartly uniformed porter and you tip your driver generously.  The romance is really getting to you.  You follow the porter into the reception hall and stand aghast at the towering dome above you decorated by a da Vinci-esque fresco, while the polished marble floor beneath your feet is covered with African animal scenes.  Everywhere you look is opulence.  In Las Vegas it would be tacky, but here somehow because of the quality of the art it is simply delightful. As you are shown to your room you pass more stunning works of art.  There are sculptures, statues, paintings and frescoes - all depicting African scenes and wildlife.  Your room, although the most reasonably priced is huge with what seems like a tennis court sized bathroom.  There's a huge king sized bed and a double spa bath.  That'll come in handy you both think.  That evening after a relaxing bath you take a walk in the gardens.  Looking back at the The Palace you are amazed to see flames from huge torches at the top of each domed tower.  It's eerily atmospheric, like something straight out of an Indiana Jones movie.

The next morning is beautiful, warm and sunny, cloudless and low humidity.  After the most sumptuous breakfast you've ever had (and you've had a few) you decide to have a good look around the gardens in daylight.  Here you find a precipitous waterslide and "The Valley of the Waves" - an enormous wave pool with a real sand beach.  You spend most of the afternoon here, alternately relaxing in the sun and cooling off in the pool.  You think next time you'll bring your golf clubs and have a bash around one or both of the two golf courses which have real Nile crocodiles in the water hazards.  Now that's what I call a hazard!

That evening you visit the casino where you break even - about the best you can expect in a casino, but it was fun anyway.  You also see a show and have a wonderful meal before strolling back hand in hand to the Palace through the fragrant garden with the awesome shape of the Palace of the Lost City with it's flaming towers as a backdrop.

The following morning after yet another tummy tingling breakfast you are transferred by private car to Madikwe Hills Lodge in Madikwe Private Game Reserve.  You have never been game viewing in Africa before and have no idea what to expect.  Your travel agent recommended this particular lodge and before your stay is over you have decided to upgrade his gift from a bottle of Penfold Grange to a full carton.

The lodge is set on a kopje (hill) of house sized boulders and the rooms are enormous.  Nights here can be chilly and there is a real log fire in your room that is always miraculously blazing when you return to your room after dinner.  In the morning, when it is even chillier you are more than happy to discover that there is underfloor heating to keep your bare feet nice and toasty.

Your first game drive is the evening you arrive.  You wander up to the restaurant and are met there by the other guests, your ranger and your tracker.  They run through the safety procedures - a few dos and don'ts and then you climb into the open four wheel drive vehicle.  You are amazed to see that the African tracker sits on a seat bolted to the bull-bar.  You are even more amazed at how close you get to the animals and at how still and cool the tracker remains as a large lioness sniffs his boots.  Before the end of the first game drive you have already seen the "Big Five" - elephants, lions, buffalo, a pride of lions and later as you drive back to the lodge in the dark with the tracker wielding a spotlight, you see a leopard.

And so over the next couple of days you settle in to the gentle, hypnotic routine of life in a really good game lodge.  At five-thirty in the morning there's a wake up call and you wander up to the main building for coffee and biscuits before heading out on your morning game drive.  Then after a couple of hours you stop in a particularly scenic spot for coffee and muffins before continuing for a further hour or so.  By ten you're back at the lodge for a huge brunch.  Then the rest of the day is yours to swim, read, have a massage or do whatever people do on their honeymoon.

At about three-thirty in the afternoon you return to the main building for high tea.  Sandwiches, quiche, samosas and cakes and then you're off on your afternoon game drive.  Right on sunset your ranger pulls up and he and the tracker break out the drinks for a sundowner.  You sip your excellent chardonnay and chew your biltong as you hold hands and gaze at yet another breathtaking African sunset.  Then it's more game viewing and finally back to the lodge for a magnificent gourmet dinner of equal or greater quality than you would expect from any top notch city restaurant.

So after three days of this you are transferred by your ranger out to the Madikwe airstrip, seeing more game on the way.  You waddle to the eight seater aircraft wondering how long it will take you to lose the weight you've gained in the last three days but not regretting a single gram of it.  Then as the plane climbs away towards Johannesburg and your international flight back to Australia you see a herd of elephants trundling towards a waterhole, kicking up little clouds of dust as they go.  To your surprise a tear springs to your eye and at that moment you know for sure that you will both return.