Posted by: Ele Quigan | November 17, 2014

Nepal & Everest Base Camp trek

Nepal, Kathmandu

It’s hard to explain the world’s apart difference between Nepal and India. I think even after a few days on our own, we were still emotionally and physically exhausted.

That in itself is hard to explain, 7 days in Varanasi – probably the easiest place we’ve been to in India, yet I still woke up on our last morning, viewing the glorious (albeit grey) Ganges, feeling my heart fill of mixed emotions.

The Airport – is modern, the people – still pencil pushers. I think that’s one thing you notice as part of Indian culture, these things that feel to you are power struggles or bureaucracy or being done just the frustrate the ever living daylights out of you – but are not even noted.

An example – you’re checked in, and waiting to get to the “holding pen” near your gate. There are more cafes and shops there – nothing where you are. But you can’t get through.

The main man is reading the paper. The person next to him sitting on his phone. At the search (there’s a lot of physical searching on India/Nepal air travel) are 2 women gossiping, another 2 men looking around the room idly. This lasts for 25 mins. The queue gets ever longer, and we’re continually told to wait.

And then for no apparent reason, no time match, no single person arriving, we’re waved through.

There’s a big sign “No 500 or 1000 rupees to Nepal” – I have no idea why this is but we thought of our left over currency in our travel wallet, politely shook our heads at the question and went through.

The flight, just on an hour. The skyline, amazing. Huge snow-capped mountains peeping above the clouds, beckoning in the blue sky. We dipped through the cloud line to the first moisture we’d seen since South Africa.

We were picked up, driven to our hotel in the weird madness that is traffic in this part of the world. Converging trucks/bikes/cars. No sense of the centreline, no merge like a zip. At our hotel we ducked out of the weather, checked in to our strange room – dark and dull and smelling terribly of cigarettes and naphthalene, the heavens opened.

Big beautiful shiny drops, but of course we’re now worried this weather will follow us up the mountain.

I could have spent months in Thamel, Kathmandu. It’s what I genuinely thought Pargarganj would be like, it’s sort of what Kao San Road is like, but Kao San Road for non-booze/drug/redbull drinking 25+ers.

There are restaurants, (Salads!), wine is on menus, beautiful souvenir shops with thanka paintings and masks and bracelets all over. Hemp bags and strange clothes leftover from the European hippie influx of the late 70s and 80’s. Gloriously warm and soft Yak Wool scarves, which I just adore. Shops full of hiking gear, a lot fake but still good quality, the streets are dripping with puffy colour and North Face.

I could eat my way through Thamel for the rest of my life. Mexican, Steak, Vegetarian. It’s honestly foodie (and winey) heaven. We spent a lot of time at an incredible place just out of Thamel called “Coffee Pasal”. Their food could have stepped straight out of Grey Lynn. It was like Occam, the place where Dan and I had our brunches for several years, great simple ingredients, and even better coffee. I nearly cried with joy at my first decent Flat White since South Africa. Strangely reminiscent of home.

Our first few days there were a lot cooler than the heat of India. Jeans and jackets, boots instead of sneakers trying for one last attempt at wearing in. Days passed in last minute purchases, an extra Naglene water bottle (fake), sock liners, hard wear gloves (fake), polyprop pants (genuine), trekking poles (fake), packets and packets of snacky bits for me to make into daily snack packs. We hired sleeping bags, and a jacket for Dan, reducing our gear to take into one big pack and two day packs, hoping for trekking as light as possible.

Our two trek mates, British both, 50+, GSOH, a little bit less fit than us had arrived a couple of days after us. Thanks to a complete mess from Etihad they were a day late and sans luggage.

Almost left to purchase everything the day we were due to fly to Lukla, we pushed the Trek a day, in the hope their luggage was located. 1 Bag, was in Kathmandu, but as the tagging had changed it couldn’t be located. Amazingly, it was in the “Left behind luggage” storage, a huge warehouse of thousands of bags, unbelievably Terry was able to spot it amongst all the similar other ones, and it ended up being the right one.

The other bag eventually made it’s way to Kathmandu, this time without camera and currency safely stored. Frustrating for Wayne who was now left with his point and shoot for the journey. And I think an extra pair of socks.

Our last night in Kathmandu Terry and Wayne took us out for dinner, to say thanks for us being so flexible around pushing out the trek a day – we went to a steak restaurant, and powered through a chateaubriand and 3 bottles of wine between 4.

Day 1: Kathmandu (1400m) – Lukla (2800m) – Phakding (2800m 70% Oxygen as sea level)

Middle of the night, thudding head, squirmy tummy. This does not bode well. 4am, and I start throwing up.
I’d have these before – I think they’re preservative induced migraines. They’re different to hangovers, the headache is in a different place. I get them from Amstel (thanks Supper Club) and occasionally cheaper wine (no that is not an excuse to buy more expensive no matter how ridiculous that sounds).

5am, 6am, 6:30 I get myself up, out of bed, and try and hold down some breakfast. I have no idea how I manage this, usually I’m written off with bed rest till at least early afternoon.

I look at my arms, I’m covered. COVERED in bites. They’re on my arms, my neck, some further down on my sides. I think its bed bugs. Along with the migraine I nearly cry – apart from worrying they are all through my gear, the idea of walking feeling like I want to scratch my arms/neck/head off is not how I wanted to start our wonderful trek.

We get to the airport – to total, complete chaos. People push to pick up your bag, ours is taken, someone pushing through the queue. We have to join, I just want to sit at the edge and feel better. Past the first security check to a terminal that has seen far better days.

It’s dirty, smelly, chaotic – there’s no clear order. The bathroom smells waft over ever time someone opens the door. People are pushing past you, huge piles of supplies surround you, you’re looking at other peoples gear judging whether they are as inexperienced as you, or a 60 year old who like ready for summiting, ice axe and all. I push down a coffee – sometimes a bit of caffeine can reduce one of my migraines – it actually helps, I still feel the thudding shadow, but the nausea and head swimmingness dissipates. Thank god.

You’re waiting with your luggage till another person who deals with the airline gives you a signal about 2 hours in to take up your bags. Everything is weighed, and you get through the next terminal – which is far nicer. And cleaner.

Another hour or so passes, flight numbers are in single digits – we’re called. My stomach drops.

The airport in Lukla is the most dangerous in the world. Perched on a mountain within the Solukhumbu valley you either feel like you’re going straight into the mountainside or flying off the edge of the earth. Neither is nice.

It’s horribly bumpy, and I spent most of the flight with white knuckles nearly in tears (Els, if you’re reading this, it’s only a 45 minute flight – but if you can’t do that, you can trek up – 6 days). We land with a huge sigh of relief, and I feel like the incredible terraced scenery on the way up passed me by in a glimpse.

Lukla itself is tiny, we have lunch – I choose the first of many fried rice dishes I’m due to have, chow that down with some green Nepalese chilli sauce – and suddenly it’s packs on, trekking poles together, and we’re walking!

We have our guide (Ngatemba) and two young porters – whose names I haven’t a hope of being able to spell…)

Tip 1: Know how to tie your boots and know how to properly hold your trekking poles.

It’s incredible the difference this makes, Terry taught me both, and it made a HUGE difference to comfort across the whole journey. I saved energy, poles felt like a cinch to use, and I never had any problems with ankles or loose feet.

It’s not a long walk to Phakding, you’re passing through trees, waterfalls, farmland, smiling people, Sherpa’s carrying unbelievable loads – over 100 kilos. There are a few ‘rope bridge’ crossings. The first few are okay, but still feel fairly shaky. Laden cows cross, so I’m sure I’m lighter than they are.

There are prayer flags across incredible spaces – between rocks, beside stupas. Seemingly across caverns and valleys, stretched out to the sun. We walk around other stupas in front of us, always clockwise, sometimes with prayer wheels attached. The eyes of Buddha follow us everywere.

The first few hours slide by with a bit of up and down (up into the valley, down to cross the river) and we’re in Phakding mid-afternoon. We remove our boots, set out our bedding, relax in our room with paper-thin walls, have dinner with mint tea, and are in bed well before 8pm.

Day 2 – Phakding (2800m) to Namche (3440m 69% Oxygen as sea level)

Namche Bazaar is a trekking hub more than anything else. It’s grown into a village where I guess similar to Thamel you can get pretty much anything for trekking, for a price. We even saw some genuine icebreaker gear there at $105 USD I was almost tempted, I’m sure it’s twice that at home these days.

It’s warmer than expected; I’m trekking in shorts, leggings and a singlet. Still covered in bites every time it warms up I’m horribly itchy.

Up to Namche is fairly hard going. First there’s a HUGE rope bridge, it feels like it’s 10 storeys up. I basically ran across as lightly as I could – even though I ‘m not afraid of heights, seeing pale turquoise glacial melt surging between huge rocks below made me more than a little nervous.

There’s a long hard vertical trek up from lunchtime (I had Dal Baht – like a simple thali with vege curry, dal and white rice), and it’s mostly straight up. We got our first peek at Everest today – far between the trees. It’s very triangular, and reminds me of the mountain behind the Valley of the Kings in Egypt. I can’t get that thought out of my mind, both sacred mountains, both funerary grounds for many bodies, one with Pharaoh’s one without.

As we continue our push up to Namche we are panting, the air is thinner, but we’re okay. Leaning on poles to help push up the seemingly huge steps, we round the corner to Namche late afternoon with a sigh of relief.

As the usual order goes, we arrive, have tea, decide on our dinner then have a bit of free time.

Tip 2: Drinking mint or ginger tea at breakfast, lunch and dinner is a fantastic way to stay hydrated. You’d easily go through 3 cups at each session and it’s warm and delicious.

Bizarrely invigorated we decide to explore Namche a little, finding an amazing little coffee cart, wandering the shops and woollen hats and jewellery and other random products. It’s cooler as the sun goes down – and we start to feel properly cold for the first time. A strange change from the single layer I’m wearing in the day.

Day 3 – Namche Acclimatisation Day (3,440 m)

If anyone says that acclimatisation days are “rest days” slap them. Both of these were a killer.

The first sign of altitude both Dan and I noticed (apart from a bit of breathlessness when ascending) was lack of sleep. It’s a weird kind of awake too – your brain doesn’t do the usual loops, and my usual brain training wouldn’t settle it (A for apple. B for beetroot. C for carrot). You’re not tossing and turning either.

So on little sleep and a bit of porridge we prepared for a vertical climb, seeing the coloured packs snacking up behind Namche.

First stop – the Tenzing statue behind Namche – what a beautiful site the blue sky, snow-capped Himalayas, we wandered about relaxed, and then started our climb.

The Everest View Hotel didn’t quite have the view of Everest (hiding behind lenticular clouds) but it’s very much a tough climb to get there. Expensive drinks as well – even with two cups of tea and a coffee averaging 9USD.

It was cold, exposed, and the wind would whip round. It was hot as you walked, freezing when you stopped.

We ventured on to Khumjung Village, to visit a beautiful old monastery, with a walk that felt like it would never end. Lunch felt late, and we were all exhausted as we started our trek back to Namche.

On the way we passed Khumjung school – with a huge statue of Sir Edmund Hillary. The school is actually named after him, and it’s hard to really explain how much he is loved by the Sherpa people in this region. It made me so proud to be a New Zealander to see articles in guesthouses, posts like these by the school, and a general warmness you see everywhere something to do with Sir Ed is situated. http://www.khumjungschool.edu.np/?act=donors&pos=1

At 3:30/4pm the clouds seemingly come in, Namche gets shrouded in this damp blanket. It brings the dark with is, and it’s not till after 8pm it clears. I hope this doesn’t follow us up the mountain further…

Back to Namche, coffee first and then ATM (yet there’s an ATM – incredible), then snooze then dinner and bed. And sleep. Thank GOD.

Day 4 Namche (3,440m)– Tengboche Monastery (3,870m) – Debuche (3,770m 61% Oxygen as sea level)

After an incredible nights sleep, and a breakfast of eggs, toast, potatoes and chilli sauce – we started out at 8am.

We went to an amazing little museum just up from Namche, from a small area that was set up like a Sherpa family, to photos of Sherpa life through the ages, through to summit attempts from the first summiting – it was amazing to read all the bits and pieces and see what the area used to be like. http://sherpa-culture.com.np/sonam-photography/act,categories/cid,24/

The trek started a bit easier today, round the side of the range after Namche rather than vertical. The scenery was incredible with Ama Dablam launching into the sky to our right, the white snow so bright even early in the morning impossible to look at without sunglasses. We could see our next major stop – Tengboche Monastery far in the distance, it felt so far away at that point.

The trees and shrubs were still pine and interestingly a type of rose? Lots of rosehips and no flowers, but they were a beautiful dark reddish colour. As we got closer to the Monastery – we ventured into rhododendron territory – sadly we weren’t there for flowering season; I can imagine it would be absolutely amazing to see entire hillsides blooming with magenta and red blossoms.

As we climbed higher some Sherpa women were running down, making our slow pace feel even slower! It’s amazing the speed some of these Sherpa go, beyond the massively heavy weights some of them carry.

Sherpa children are adorable – bright scarlet cheeks, big smiles as you walk past. Sometimes carried sometimes walking, sometimes running in and out of lodges, oblivious to the cold.

Tengboche Monastery is beautiful. Apart from the terrrrrrible smell of stinky feet, sitting in the monastery hearing the monks chant was amazingly peaceful. While there were a few clouds about as we left the monastery, circling it clockwise, spinning the prayer wheels as we walked the skies parted – with the afternoon sun drenching us in the last of its warmth, you could see Lhotse, Everest and Nupste far in the distance.

Down from the Monastery into Debuche is probably one of my favourite walks of the whole journey. The sun as gone soon after you start descending from the monastery. Lichen drips from the trees in huge strings. There’s a lovely dampness to the air that I remember from bushwalks at home. The air is chilled but crisp and fresh, like a glass of iced water. There are gentle steps carved into the rock making the walk down simple and comfortable (and relatively quick). It’s quiet and peaceful, and as you’ve left the monastery with a peaceful soul, this feeling follows you down the hill and long past dinner.

Day 5 Debuche (3,770m) – Dingboche (4,350m 58% oxygen as sea level)

Tough night with little sleep again. I decided to try a Diamox, to see if that helped at all. Surprisingly still no headache, apart from a bit of a shadow, nothing like the mad pounding near migraine I was expecting.

We’re starting to see how trekking develops. People who found their guide in Kathmandu. People who are doing it cheap. People who have paid heaps more than we did. Guides who don’t speak English very well at all. Guides who are fluent in multiple languages.

A Japanese couple we passed were asking their guide to stay at Everest Base Camp. We watched the conversation for a few minutes, it was going nowhere till we stepped in “There’s nothing at Base Camp. It’s the wrong time of year. There is no real camp, there’s no lodge. You stay at Gorak Shep, trek up to Base Camp and back as a side trip, you need to follow the rule climb high sleep low.” Their guide was nodding, gesticulating and smiling, I think had been trying to articulate the same thing, but the language barrier between them was too great. They thanked us and went on – we saw them quite a few times during the rest of our trek up – as you seem to, either staying at the same lodges, or passing them (or them passing you) during the day.

Another two ladies had a guide who seemed very out of place. None of the other Sherpa’s would speak to him in the lodge which was very strange – a lot of them seem like old friends otherwise. He spent the time their reading their guidebook. We couldn’t help but overhearing the conversation they were having at the next table to us to another couple. They were trying to understand their route.
When their guide sat back down one of them said “Yes we agree with your original plan, we want to change the route back to that”.

You can see how things can go so wrong up there, people climbing too fast and getting sick. People trying to speed through routes. People not doing their acclimatisation day hikes. People doing things on their own without guides, without porters.

We saw one guy being piggy backed by a guide, getting him down as low was possible as quickly as possible. Day after day the rescue helicopters would be about, our guide pointing out when it definitely wasn’t a site seeing trip.

It got worse as we ascended.

The scenery started to change more as the day went on, we were almost suddenly out of the tree line, little wind, glorious blue days. While Everest is hidden from view the incredible Ama Dablam is a highlight, more than the thin finger it was initially, with glaciers looking like they have folded snow blankets, of course an avalanche waiting to happen.

The ground is gravelly rather than steps, and far nicer to walk one. Our breath is possibly a little shorter, but I feel amazing. Hiking for 5 hours in this is easy, invigorating. Every morning in the sunshine you want to raise your arms to the glorious mountains and be thankful you’re able to be in this incredible world, and wish that everyone you know could experience the absolute wonder too. (which they kinda can through Dan’s incredible photos…)

Speaking of photos, it’s cold, so batteries can be a problem. I sleep with some of them and my phone in a sock. During the day they’re either in a jacket pocket or shorts, trying to keep them warm.

In bed we have boiling hot water put into a water bottle each, beyond the rickety single beds it’s something to cuddle.

The place we stay in Dingboche is slightly ridiculous, a café with Lattes, cappuccinos and cakes is attached, I felt more than a flashpacker with my coffee and cake in the sunshine. Maybe I shouldn’t have had that caffeine at 4pm in the afternoon…

Day 6 Acclimatisation day Dingboche – (up to 5,000m)

After another horrendous sleep, it was time for another acclimatisation day. Rather than head somewhere specific, Ngatemba suggested we walk up the hill behind us. Pros, it’s a shorter climb, and we would actually climb higher, and could separate if we wanted (Dan and I had been climbing faster all trip, it was to be honest a little frustrating sometimes but I guess in hindsight we did get a lot of rest stops?).

Keen for this, we went outside to start. Something was missing. Dan’s poles.

We’d accidentally left them outside in the night, while some of the other Sherpa’s did see them – they didn’t bring them in, and consequently they were taken. Thankfully, Ngatemba gave Dan his single pole, and we started our vertical ascent.

It’s much cooler now. In the mornings I want to cover my mouth to breathe, the air is so dry you feel constantly thirsty.

Tip 3: Chewing gum or a lolly to suck on (Kopiko are actually the greatest lollies on earth) first thing in a chilly morning is an absolute godsend. Helps with the straight up after breakfast ascents, specially steep ones.

Up and up, past stupas, past the first flag – Wayne stopped at this level as we continued our way up. And up. Step and step. Reach and reach. Don’t look down, I started to feel a little ill doing that, I’m unsure if it was the altitude or looking down.

There was barely a path between rocks. We stopped for an altimeter check – still 100m vertical to go. On we pushed for what felt like forever. Ngatember went up to show us how far 5,000m was – he didn’t want us to ascend to the top of the hill – but it felt like it was just in reach.

5,000m felt like more of an achievement than anything yet. We stopped for about 20 minutes, getting pics, catching our breath a bit. And then I looked down.

Worse than ascending on such an incline is descending. Poles are great for it, but it’s still hard on your knees. People smush their toes into the edge of their boots and lose toenails. People fall over.

Tip 4: Find a way to gently descend that isn’t so hard on your body

I developed a weird crouch/squat type thing that reduced the hit on my joints, and hopefully meant for amazing legs and butt by the time we finished the trek. Seemed to work tho, as I barely had any pain at the end.

A few parts were so steep I couldn’t work out my way down. I stopped in parts almost too frightened to continue, inching my way down the mountain. I should have done more squats. More training. More steps. – but there’s not much I could do already up in the Himalayas.

Eventually we got down, speeding up near the end, just wanting to get back to the café where a nice coffee awaited. And a nap, a glorious warm nap.

Lunch was my first hilarious meal of the week, tomato soup with garlic toast. The garlic toast wasn’t the lovely yellow garlic bread I expected, it was literally 2 pieces of bread with smushed raw green garlic in between. I ate it, but it started an “I want ANYthing that doesn’t have GARLIC in it” over the next few weeks.

I think this was where I started to notice some of the weird parts of Altitude sickness. A sort of strange feeling in my joints. A bit of light headedness. Obviously the lack of sleep was a huge one.

Beyond a nap, I had a well-needed shower; my treat after a hard day however the meagre trickle against the freezing background of a room outside with no insulation was little comfort. Being clean after I managed to warm up however felt wonderful.

Still no real aches and no real blisters.

Day 7 Dingboche (4,350m) – (Lobuje 4,930m 53% oxygen as sea level)

Another night of no sleep, starting to feel the lack of oxygen in the muscles, a strange feeling like you know they aren’t getting everything they need. It’s hard to articulate but you and genuinely feel something definitely isn’t right and you’re feeling slow and lethargic when you shouldn’t be.

Diamox (by this stage I’ve had two total) creates the strangest tingles. They’re not like gentle, “oh I fell asleep on my arm” tingles. Imagine you’ve put your hand in a box (Dune readers may remember the Gom Jabbar scene?) hundreds of nails sort of bluntish push into your fingers, 2/3 of the way up. You move your fingers thinking that if you could just pump a little more blood into them it will stop. It doesn’t.

Well, for me, as I didn’t take too much, it would stop after about 30/45 mins of trekking, but it really is a strange experience. Not exactly a nice one.

Trekking now includes a wool hat, full gloves & liners, and 50+ sunscreen but still no proper base layers (beyond the polyprop pants under my shorts)

Tip 5: Wearing near frozen normal sunscreen is the last thing you want on your face in the morning at this altitude sun or not. Buy a sun stick, its awesome & helps with some of the wind burn too.

We’re up well beyond the tree line now; the sky is mountains and blue. You’re up so high that the blue is royal, not pale, but rich. Lapis Lazuli. The air while thin is still crisp.

We passed a huge memorial, incredibly sad – with familiar names (Scott Fischer from 1996), and others not familiar. I searched out for Rob Hall but couldn’t see anything. Lots of Sherpa, other unfamiliar names. One with photos. Sad they have lost their lives in this beautiful place. It’s these things that remind you of the danger.

Prayer flags flap in the wind, primary colours across the landscape. It’s a sad place. While I’m sad to leave it’s peacefulness, feeling the effects of the altitude on my body I’m reminded of the loss of life more than 3km further up. How they push their bodies so hard amazes me. On we trek, making the most the early afternoon light.

We’re near the lip of the Khumbu Glacier, we can’t see it at this stage but I can see where it should be, behind the moraine.

Yaks pass us now, not cows. Their shaggy bodies ladies with supplies. Things are more expensive, Coca-cola less fizzy and at a premium. There are few veges in my fried rice. Dal Baht curry is more potato than anything else.

The worst past of today was a burgeoning cold. A never-ending stream from my nose, constantly dripping. And strangely, I’ve realised I can see strange geometric things in my vision. Blobs dancing in front of me. Maybe I looked too close to the sun, I brush away the thought and the seemingly disappear. I’d move my head and my eyes would feel slow to catch up, things seemed to move at a strange pace.

One girl at the lodge we were at was in terrible shape when we got there. Barely able to move or speak, neither her friends nor her guide doing anything. We asked if she was okay, wondering what tablets she was stuffing herself with. Unsure if we’d see her still there in the morning, or taken to descend below.

Day 8 Lobuje (4,930m) – Gorak Shep (5,160m)– Everest Base Camp (5,360m nearly 50% oxygen as sea level)

I had another Diamox, which guaranteed a good sleep – and started our trek invigorated and excited. We followed the side of the Khumbu glacier, not too much of a steep ascent it felt too easy.

The world felt like a movie set, and as we launched into Gorak Shep for a quick lunch stop I just wanted to keep going. After lunch, I started to feel a bit strange.

We headed out, wrapped up against the wind, and ventured across the glacier. It’s not exactly the white pretty glacier (they never really are) but was covered in dusty rocks, occasionally groaning and moving. An eerie sound that echoes between the mountain faces, dust flying up into the air, a reminder that underneath our feet this glacier is forever moving.

We reach “Base Camp” – only it’s not Base Camp. It’s “Trekkers Base Camp”. Due to the season, and time of year the way through isn’t placed, so we’re stuck on a glacier without the view up the mountain I was hoping for.

I wanted to spot the familiar places I’d read about – the icefall, where the first and second camps are. Feel the vibe of at least an empty Base Camp and get some sense of the scale of the place when summiting season is in full fray.

I was sorely disappointed and sat eating a snickers by myself, contemplating the risk of heading to Base Camp on my own. I stood amongst ads with urls with smiles for photos, trying to resist the urge to remove each rock covered in graffiti. The t-shirt with some stupid restaurant in the states advertised on it. No place is sacred.

We wandered back, slowly, and as we trudged through my mood cleared, I was still in one of the most beautiful places on earth! I was in the sky! The mountains! How beautiful this place is.

You remember the girl from the previous night? We passed her friend. It was 3pm; she was less than a 3rd of the way to Base Camp. She was being physically assisted by her guide and another friend, unable to make each step on her own. “You wont make it before dark, you should be descending”. She couldn’t even make words to reply.

I don’t understand why they kept going, how would they get back in the dark? If she was unable to move of her own accord what about the risk it placed the two others in?

Tip: 6 If you can’t keep yourself going, don’t make yourself a risk for others.

I couldn’t get the image out of my head as we got back to our lodge at Gorak Shep, and things really started to take a turn for the worse for me.

I didn’t eat much dinner; Tibetan bread with a little peanut butter was all I could get down. Dan spent most of the night talking to a Swedish family who we’d met on the trail, while I wondered why I kept seeing patches in my eyes, I was having trouble focussing. My body felt out of place, “I feel body drunk” I said to Dan at one stage.

My stomach started to gurgle, and that awful horrid feeling, and my stomach went to pieces.

I packed myself off to bed in the hope that it was a one of, knowing I had a tough summit in the morning.

Day 9 – Gorak Shep (5,160) – Kala Patthar (5,644) – Pheriche (4,371)

WARNING – this part contains some graphic imagery, do not proceed if easily offended!

In the night, my stomach hit again, this time even worse than previous. Rather than just my stomach going to pieces – my poo had turned into black, tarry porridge. I could barely see as I went to the bathroom, finding it difficult to use the usual crouch-based hole in the ground, in the cold, with just a head torch. But I was desperate to be better so returned to bed in the hope I’d get some sleep.

I was awake before the alarm went off at 4am. I nervously got out of bed, pulling on the layers I wanted to wear, putting some in my daypack. I went down for breakfast. I managed 10 spoons of porridge, and tried to keep on a happy face.

Before we headed up I was given 2 hand warmer pouches, I stuffed them in my gloves in the hope they would give me some warmth and energy on the way up. The mountain looked monstrous and black in the dark, it’s not bathed in beautiful white snow.

The wind was up, you could see plumes off Lhotse face, the mountains behind us and around us. We hadn’t seen wind like this our whole trip. I pulled my hat down in the hope it would cover my ears more, regretting I hadn’t bought something with earflaps.

We started step by step by step. I couldn’t breathe enough air, so rather than cover my mouth with my buff; my face was in the open, gulping air in at each step. After 10 minutes I reached into my pack to pull on my last layer, and could only put the hoodie on my head. I had a kopiko in the hope the small amount of sugar would give me some energy. It did, just not enough.

Step by step. One foot after the other. My torch was off, and I waited for the light – seeing the sun reach the tip of Everest and it’s almighty plume as I continued to walk. My brain was doing flip flops imagining some strange rhythms at each step, making up words to match.

And suddenly, my stomach, my trusty “I never get sick” iron stomach decided, 2/3rds of the way up, to give up again. “I have to go NOW,” I said to Dan and Ngatemba.

I ran across the mountain, in the ever-increasing light in the hope to find a rock. “No over there more” Dan yelled, in the hope I’d find some cover, far from the eyes of every other summiteer.

I had to drop trousers, in -10 / -15 cold on the mountain with even colder wind chill, in the sort of dark, and poo dark black awful porridge poo right on the mountain. They looked like 2 huge cowpats. I cleaned myself up, sorry Kala Patthar but there was no way I was taking those few tissues with me, pulled up my trousers and moved back to where our guide and Dan were standing.

By that time Terry who was generally slower than us had caught up to the team, and was continuing up to summit. Dan said, “No, we’re heading back” so we continued down the mountain. We had a huge trek beyond our summit attempt; we were hoping to then get to Pangboche, another 7 additional hours.

I started to feel cold. Colder than you could ever believe. Cold through to my bones, my eyes, my ears. So cold I could no longer feel my fingers, my toes. My nose that still wouldn’t stop its stream a constant dribble, I was worried it would freeze to my face.

I stopped – unable to move, wanting to just sit down and not move on. Dan ran over “I’m so cold” he ripped open his bag and pulled out a last jacket we’d hired in Kathmandu. He pulled off my gloves to help me put it on; my fingers were an awful shade of blue. Even the hand-warmers weren’t reaching their warmth far enough.

Jacket on he coaxed me gently down the mountain, ignoring my tears of disappointment at being unable to summit. A steep descent that felt like hours, and I was back at the lodge in Gorak Shep, warm mint tea thrust into my hands.

I still made it down on my own steam – important when I knew deep down I had a huge day to go. While I struggled to make the ‘Turn back’ decision myself, I am genuinely thankful Dan did. Who knows how long it would have taken me to summit? What if I’d become worse?

What amazes me is that Everest is another 3.3km vertically up from this. What must your body go through at even less air? At Everest summit there’s 33% of the oxygen that there would be at sea level, and in that last day they summit more than 1,000 vertical metres and back taking between 9-18 hours, beginning at midnight, climbing in the dark, in sub-zero temperatures.

What’s also hard to articulate is the sense of shame and failure I felt (and still feel). As people were returning to the lodge I wanted to shrink further into a corner, frustrated my body let me down. People older than me, less fit than me, smiles on their faces. I just wanted to sit in a corner and cry into my tea; I can’t imagine how it must feel to turn around on Everest. I mean it was just me and my obstinacy up there – no sponsors, not months of training and thousands of dollars.

After an hour and a half Terry arrived, also exhausted. Beyond us was another hour up at least, those last 150m a complete killer.

We all attempted some breakfast (I had a bite of Dan’s pancake), and started our way down. Me still feeling awful and pretty despondent.

That’s the weirdest thing about this trek – after 5-6 hour days, to ascend the last 3 days are a killer, all at least 8 – 9 hours, sometimes passing 3 camps-worth in a single day.

The downward trek was more like a trudge, no one speaking, no one taking photos or taking in the amazing scenery. No one smiling at the yaks, or laughing at children. I didn’t look back.

Beyond the Khumbu Glacier we could see Pheriche our lunch stop, it felt far in the distance. It seemed to never get closer, and getting there at 3pm for our lunch stop, we were almost dreading our last 2 hours to get to our final stop for the night in Pangboche.

Realising we were more than exhausted, Ngatemba suggested we stay there the night – and with some relief we all started to relax, and me finally feeling a bit better as we’d come down nearly 900m in Altitude.

Day 10 Periche (4,371m) – Namche (3,880m)

With 2 extra hours to climb today and the pressure to get to Namche by 4pm we were outside and trekking by 7:30am. I was feeling much better and managed at least more bites of my breakfast before we headed out.

The skies have been dawning blue and clear, but it’s now feeling like a hard slog. Putting dirty clothes on a dirty body with dirty hair – I was physically and emotionally exhausted and ready for it to be over.

Festival day at Tengboche, we saw many Sherpa in traditional dress, the women often with lots of jewellery walking around. Amazing to see – it’s only one day a year.

We were about 2 hours out of Namche (and believe me that’s a huge hike up into Namche) and the cloud descended. A strange cloud, bringing the cold, but somehow highlighting the gentle bells from the various cows carrying their goods along the path.

It made everything surreal and feels like sometimes we were right on the edge of the earth. Getting into Namche was a relief, even with the usual coffee stop we felt lucky to be there before dark.

We pottered in Namche, buying a few things, walking around and had a final tomato soup (again with 5 cloves of garlic in it) with an earlyish night before our next day Namche to Lukla.

Day 11 Namche (3,440m) – Lukla (2,800m)

Another early start, it felt like we were almost bolting down the mountains. Back in the beautiful pine trees, stopping to watch funny red legged guinea-fowl type things under the trees. We were always watchful for red pandas but sadly didn’t spot any.

As we descended the air was warmer. The land changed from trees to grass and crops. More lodges, more signs for places to stop for lunch. More coca-cola more tuborg.

The sense of familiarity was calming. The poles and prayer stones and stupa to walk around clockwise. No Yaks no just cows. More food options on menus, Tibetan bread disappearing.

Even the faces we noticed were different, Nepalese and Sherpa people to look different, and as we descended you see more Nepalese. I was ready for a shower, fresh sheets, a meal that wasn’t Dal Baht or momos or coffee made with milk powder.

Those last steps back up to Lukla felt easy. It wasn’t a final strenuous climb like I saw people struggling with on the way down. No blisters. No lasting injuries. No real aches and pains. We’d done it. We were proud.

Kathmandu

Being back in Kathmandu is like a dream. Like Kala Patthar never happened. Burgers and fresh salad. Coffee. Food that hasn’t been killed with garlic. No garlic soup. No Dal Baht. Friendly people but horns and busyness.

We had booked into a nice hotel and did nothing but hide from the world for a few days. Tried to eat some nice food, keep up some exercise, but not venture too far.
I still wasn’t well – so spent time relaxing, reading, planning parts of our next trip. Skyping our families. Having long hot showers.

I have a sense of sadness – I’ll miss the mountains, but it’s been wonderful to have some downtime in Kathmandu. We’re looking towards India with more than a little trepidation, there’s no scams here. People are honest and want to help you. Men don’t stare, they’re more used to Westerners I guess.

I do hope we come back; I’d love to see the other side of Everest next time, and definitely see some of Tibet.

- Note: I did a bit of post-trek Googling, and it looks like I had a really serious reaction to Diamox. I should have gone straight to the doctor, and probably lucky I didn’t take many of them! You can take up to 4 a day, and I only had 3 in total across our whole trek. Maybe Altitude trekking just isn’t for me.

Posted by: Ele Quigan | October 28, 2014

India Part 1 – Jaisalmer, Bandhavgarh, Varanasi

India Part 1 – Jaisalmer, Bandhavgarh, Varanasi

Jaisalmer
Heat is a funny thing – you can stand it when it’s moderately hot, but when it’s 40/42/43 degrees it changes. You feel sweat in the strangest places; eyelids, backs of knees, the crack in your spine becomes a slow river.

It’s extremely uncomfortable. Nothing feels light enough to wear, particularly with arms, legs covered. Dark colours go dark with wet patches then light with powdery salt residue in only awkward places. Your day is spent sheltering from from the sun at its worst, avoiding the hottest parts of the day (usually mid afternoon) and drinking more water than you thought possible (I think I topped 4 litres one day).

You’re in a weird state of feeling constantly thirsty where nothing will slake it. Cold water in a zone where power is more blippy than anywhere else becomes sought after, cold beer even more so. The beer never really seems cold here, and just below room temp beer in 40 degrees is undrinkable. Air conditioning is always too cold, you’re in a constant state of switch on switch off – made even worse by the overloud fans, in some restaurants shorting out.

Under this heat we ventured to Jaisalmer, a city on the edge of the Thar desert, not far from the border with Pakistan.

That border was more than a smidge nerve wracking, as Jaisalmer is near an airforce base. Jets were patrolling the border 4/5 times a day – a strange sight against the backdrop of the huge fort.

We stayed in a hostel outside of the main fort – it loomed in the distance like a giant sandcastle. Walking there didn’t take long, back alleys & horns – avoiding motorcycles and cows.

To be honest, it’s sadly a tourist town more than anything else. Shops, a few ancient temples, the famous Bhang shop. Indian kitsch including plastic statues, plastic shoes, traveller clothes, every similar shop selling a similar thing. We ate at the hostel, the well-rated hostel next door, in the fort – the food wasn’t great.

Being a tourist town everyone (well – men as women don’t work in hospitality as much here) is overfamiliar. After the stares and strangeness of Jaipur it feels even weirder in Jaisalmer. I don’t appreciate being called “Boss” or having guys push into my personal space all the time, trying to shake my hand, be my best friend.

India is strange like that – it’s really disconcerting as it makes you instantly uncomfortable in most situations, as there doesn’t seem to be much middle ground as a female. I’ve got to the point that I barely talk to anyone unless I genuinely feel comfortable, which isn’t that often. As Jaisalmer is such a tourist town, and it was so, incredibly hot – I decided to wear shorts for our little walks about, which was fine (for a change!) and unbelievably liberating. I wanted to shout to the ceiling “LOOK world my KNEES are showing but I’m too hot to care”.

It is beautiful, and amazing to walk around a living fort, finding random places to eat, searching out the one place that serves coffee (alongside a scarf shop), avoiding the terrifying bats as I ran under alcoves. The yellow is stark in the overly bright sunlight, the blue sky pale and almost white. Even in my sunglasses it’s so bright it nearly hurts.

Bats, flying rats, strangely scared me half to death. For all the time I’ve never understood a fear of birds – I now get it. I’m totally afraid of bats! Hearing them and smelling them before I see them put me off doing anything near dark in Jaisalmer. I went into one of the famous Haveli, heard them, smelt them, and basically had to go outside before I started to hyperventilate and felt sick! I have NO idea where this fear of bats has come from? I’m weirdly scared of them flying into my hair and face. Gross.

Jaisalmer is also famous for their Camel Safaris, long stints deep into the desert up to 16 days long. Deciding that too long was probably not the best of ideas, we chose a day and a half safari into a quiet part of the desert.

Armed with a couple of cookies from the Bhang shop, hats, light clothing and sunscreen –we ventured out.

Have you been camel trekking before? Well, it’s hellish. It’s uncomfortable – insanely so. Being in 40+ heat & direct sunlight with little shade and a grumpy camel with limited water (I kept running out as I was so thirsty) is basically my idea of hell.

You’re stuck, with nowhere to go, no position that doesn’t really hurt, constantly trying to wriggle into a slightly more comfortable position. You’re leading the other camels so your guides are constantly saying “kick him kick him” to which your camel never ever responds. Someone offers a stick to beat your camel with, but you’re horrified and say no. You realise that the kids with your group are about 10/11, and you’re contributing to the child labour problem in India…

With not exactly a “fat cushion” on my butt my pelvic bone constantly felt close to the skin, forming bruises & discomfort sitting down for days afterwards. My cheap nasty trousers I bought in Delhi for £1 rubbed so much against my skin I got burn marks. In stretching his leg to reach over his camel, Dan split his pants. It was hilarious.

So you get the idea.

We took a “Non-touristic” trek to some dunes that weren’t the usual Sam ones, sadly this meant trekking to a single dune, probably the biggest anti-climax I’ve experienced in a while – until somewhere, out of a village in the distance, a man turns up with cold beer.

Sure it’s a premium, but after that journey it was like cold honey nectar.

We sipped and downed our crumbly bhang cookies, waiting the inevitable 1.5 – 2 hrs for anything to kick in.

It’s a weird sensation, I kept feeling my mouth pull and twist into a smile. Ludicrous things are suddenly hilarious. With a few different people who’d had various amounts of cookie meant for several different experiences. Some people zonked out into their own headspace, some lay in a corner giggling. For me I lay down watching the stars for a while – they looked super bizarre, with halo-like outlines similar to nebula. Turning my head made things drift and seem moving at a slower speed, leaving trails.

Not long after, I was asleep.

It’s cold in the desert, a welcome break from the searing heat. Chai is very welcome first thing, but with an impending dread of knowing that you have to get back on that camel…

On the way back minutes passed like hours. “What animal am I thinking of” (thanks Aaron – we’ve played this more in India!) turned into desperation of “What music genre am I thinking of” and “What New Zealand town am I thinking of”.

I didn’t care about the scenery of dire looking desert farmland. Desert rocks. Powerlines stretching hundreds of kilometres in the distance. Jets overhead.

Getting off the camel for the last time was incredible, (and also bizarre as you’re in so much pain you can’t really walk normally) waiting for our ride, unpleasant. We had two stops on the way back to Jaisalmer. One at an oasis – supposedly safe to swim in, however looked more full of green algae and frogs than anything else. One at a ghost town – people up and left in the night for one woman to avoid a marriage. Not much left but foundations and sand.

The day after we got back, there was a huge dust storm. Bigger and more intense than the one in Jaipur, like a windy fog descended over the city. You couldn’t see far in front of you – so we stayed at the hostel, not really keen to venture out.

I was definitely ready to leave Jaisalmer, but dreading the long journey to get to Bandhavgarh.

Trains beyond the main routes are often late. Someone decides you’re interesting to wants to stare at you on the platform for 10 minutes at a time without a break. Once you get on the train, someone is always in your seat – using up the clean sheets. There’s always a crying baby, an absurdly loud snorer. The manners of Indians totally different to Westerners – there’s burping and farting and talking at full loud volume at all hours of the night.

You’re constantly nudged and bumped if your feet go over the end, while you desperately try to sleep with your daypack as a pillow in the fear that someone might sneak on at a stop in the middle of the night and take passports/cards/money/trainers.

The train rocks and rolls and shudders to a halt for seemingly no reason. Other trains scream past at what seems like light speed while your train never gets above 50kmh. The air while cold is dry, your nose and throat are in a constant tickle – I slept with a scarf over half of my face to try and ease it.

You’re awake every half hour in fear you’ll miss your stop, thank god for GPS and maps, you’d never know which stops are what in the middle of the night.

Train 1, Jaisalmer to Jaipur. Train 2 Jaipur to Agra. We stopped for a few hours in Agra, going back to the hostel we stayed in for a few hours rest, a shower and a good meal, only to get train number 3 7 hours later.

Bandhavgarh

Bandhavgarh is a National Park, near the centre of India – in the middle of nowhere. The closest train station is 1.5hr away, in a tiny village (barely a village) of Umaria. As far as train stops go, it’s a 2minute stop, so you can imagine our nervousness with a train that was nearly 4.5hours late when we got on, when we were due originally to reach Umaria at 5:35am, going straight into our first tiger trek/safari.

Train stations throughout India are varied. Some – well signposted, well lit – some, essentially empty platforms in the middle of nowhere with barely any shelter let alone a huge sign with the station name in English!

Interestingly, we had the nicest attendant of any train yet – who knew where we were going, promised to wake us up and tell us before we got to our stop.

Somehow we made up 2 hours – but only got off the train at 7:15, with the added drive to get to Bandhavgarh – missing the park entrance for our first safari in the end as they close it 1 one hour after entry.

Driving from Umaria to Tala took nearly 2 hours. There’s a single lane raised road in parts of it – massive pot holed roads in others. The landscape a huge change from the yellow desert of Jaisalmer, with lush green everywhere. Tiny small huts metres above the ground are dotted around in small paddocks – villagers sleep in these above their crops to shoo away animals and birds.

The lodge we stayed in was beautiful as well – huge garden, warm sunshine, quiet – it was a wonderful break from the touristy-ness of Jaisalmer, though it wasn’t a break from the intense (now humid and syrupy) heat, or (for me at least) mosquitoes.

Bandhavgarh is open post-monsoon for 9 months of the year, and is one of the few parks that have tigers, and used to be the most densely populated. The park is split into zones, with only set numbers of Jeep allowed into each zone – in the Tala Zone where our tickets were booked, only 16 Jeeps allowed during both sunrise and sunset treks.

The park is stunning, with a natural fort in the centre – and hilly ground making for some exciting forest driving at times. There are small waterholes and man made lake areas for tigers, huge expanses of the park closed to visitors now (only 20% of the park is available for viewing) and sadly, hardly any of the tigers are left.

There used to be 79 in Bandhavgarh, in the Tala zone now it seems there are about 3 that we’re aware of. The ones that used to be there have died or have been killed. I don’t for a second believe there at 1500 tigers left in the wild. A quick google shows that numbers haven’t been updated in decades, at the place we stayed one of the owners mentioned the Forestry Service (who have been given guardianship over the parks and tigers) often get details wrong on which tigers have been killed, and when this is pointed out – have previously refused to change available details.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tiger_reserves_of_India#Population_assessment

It’s devastating to understand the reality of how difficult it will be to save the tigers in India – just a few days ago after a man was killed by a tiger in the buffer zone (A buffer zone is on the edge of the park, outside the fence. Tigers pop in and out of it to find food, and often tiger territories cross over into it). Upset by the death, local villagers went on a rampage, attacking forest staff, setting buildings alight. 29 of them have been arrested. But what’s to stop the villagers going back in at night and attacking the tiger themselves? Nothing.

More info here http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/City/Bhopal/Bandhavgarh-tiger-attack-29-villagers-arrested-for-arson/articleshow/44937769.cms

http://www.hindustantimes.com/india-news/bhopal/tiger-kills-man-in-madhya-pradesh-tiger-reserve/article1-1278636.aspx

Buffer zones aren’t the rainforest, bamboo and isolated zones they used to be. Life and people are always encroaching. Farmers are making fences, taking bamboo and wood out of the park to build them. Villages are trying to find the small spotted deer called Chital for food.

Even within the park things are changing. With a lot of the older tigers who used to be in the park now dead, there is now a lot of empty territory and pushing on territory borders – some of the older tigers have been pushed out of the park by younger ones, and within the younger ones there is a lot of in fighting – no dominant male to provide a sense of control. One tiger was even killed by the Forestry Service. Hit by one of the jeeps at night, that wasn’t even supposed to be in the park.

Also affecting numbers – there’s little food for tigers further into the park, sambar and chital are in limited numbers on the edges, often poached by villagers encroaching on the buffer zone.

After missing our first safari drive, we had 4 left – leaving at dawn and dusk. One of the lodge owners joined our safaris – pointing out birds, understanding bits of what the drivers were talking about and sharing the history of the park, and the truth of what had been happening to the tigers over the years – she’d been there over 20 years.

The park is incredibly beautiful. Huge meadows with toi toi /pampas grass in flower, covered in thousands and thousands of huge dragonflies. Swampy lakes with native cockscomb on the edges, buzzing with the sound of hundreds of bees. Green pools that look perfect for tigers to cool in near summer. Hills strewn with moss-covered rocks, peeking through the various levels of forest some that seem to be made by a single solid rock. Huge, steep mountains ducking in and out of the distance dependent on which angle you looked. Some of it is like a dream – like a movie set, monkeys sitting like humans would, in patches of sunlight just asking for photos.

We heard warning calls a lot – from chital, from monkeys, each time stopping to listen for the sounds, as they give clues to where the tigers were moving. Similar to the lions we’ve followed earlier in our trip tigers like to walk on the parks defined roads. Huge paw prints plodding in the dirt, often fresh. Marks on the roadside not dissimilar to domestic cats, poop and brushed over dirt. Massive lines on trees where the tigers had treated them like scratching posts (or couch ends).

On the first morning we were driving though a gorge, and heard a loud warning cry – it was from another jeep – Tiger spotted!

We drove quickly to where they were, enough to get a glimpse of the beautiful creature slinking through the undergrowth.

They’re huge. HUGE. Their paws the size of large dinner plates. White stark against the greens and browns of the forest. Oranges bright for us as the forest had the post-monsoon lushness, rather than the near camouflage in summer. Mouth open and moving quickly and silently through the undergrowth, almost running to avoid being spotted. And within the blink of an eye he was gone.

We only saw it for the briefest of moments, and it was the only time we saw one. Even then we were incredibly lucky. People have been at the same lodge for 8 days, and didn’t even see a glimpse.

On leaving the park, feeling the sun on my back, watching the forest and listening to the birds I was struck with an intense sadness about the tigers, and even with best efforts I don’t think there will be any left within the next 2 generations unless there can be huge changes around and within the parks.

I don’t think education will save the tigers; villagers who get by on an absolute minimum don’t care about the survival of an animal that to them can cause destruction and death when they’re barely getting by as it is.

I don’t think further intense management & targets will save the tigers – beyond chipping them and watching via gps their exact movements, even more pressure on the parks to save them will cause further mistakes to be made, and with limited ability (or want it seems) to correct them.

From talking to our lodge owner, a push for more food within the park can help, tigers will be more likely to define their territory within the park boundary rather than across the buffer zones, but this would require something like wild cows to be pushed in (more meat than chital, and easier to kill than the large sambar deer), however with cows sacred in Hindu India, this is unlikely.

Increasing the size of the Buffer Zones, and moving the villagers further out would help, but with the amount of time it would take for the forest to regenerate on the edges & costs attached this is also unlikely.

I don’t know. They’re such beautiful animals – and zoos aren’t the place for them, their territories are 10-95 square kms. Putting them in a small enclosure just so there are some left doesn’t feel right to me either.

It’s hard not to come away feeling sad and depressed about what we’re doing to this planet and wondering about the future of the worlds endangered species.

Even in saying that, after 2 ½ days of amazing food, great conversations (thanks Kay) and quiet relaxed bliss – we were back at a train station for another overnight journey – this time to Varanasi.

Varanasi

After nearly 6 hours on the train platform and a 4 hour train delay, we were getting slightly nervous about heading back into the madness of India proper. We arrived at 6:30 am – after catching up at least 3 hours on our train, at Mogul Sarai, a station about 45 minutes from Varanasi proper. Expecting (and hoping) a hotel pickup – we looked and looked, but there was no one there. Knowing that this is always the type of place that travellers get fleeced, we waited for about 10 minutes trying to work out the right autorickshaw driver.

Thankfully the one we found show us the price map of how much we should be paying to get to our hotel, and we agreed on that set price. Phew.

We drove through a huge truck stop for what felt like forever. It was wet, muddy and ducking between brightly painted trucks we reached a roadblock, started by a truck driving down the wrong side of the road, oblivious to the chaos he was causing. Sigh we were definitely back.

Varanasi (or Banaras or Kashi) is on the bank of the River Ganges. Huge ghats (concrete stairs) reach into the water, and behind these is an absolute maze of tiny roadways, barely enough space for a motorbike or a cow to get through.

We crossed the ganges and zoomed behind the ghats, getting to the last one – Assi Ghat where our guest house was. We had decided to stay somewhere a bit nicer, rather than roughing it for 300 rupees a night each, and stayed a bit out of the madness, with a view of the Ganges from our room.

Exhausted, we wrote off our first day, watching life pass by, the river the same colour as the grey hazy sky.

One of the holiest places in the world, the city of Varanasi (Banaras or Kashi and the Ganges is place of pilgrimage for Hindus. It’s a riot of colour, smells, feelings, tastes – totally different to anything we’d experienced.

We walked the next morning, wandering the ghats one by one as workers cleaned the silt of the post-monsoon receding ganges off the ghats. Thick, black, polluted with rubbish and plastic bags and whatever else – we tentatively walked past trying to watch our feet.

Past incredible graffiti. Past people washing. Past Sadhus (holy men) asking if we wanted to take their photo. Past Mala sellers. Past the pumphouse installed by the British. Past areas that smelt like it had been a mens toilet for centuries. Past areas that had the sweet smell of rose petals and marigolds. Past women and men washing clothes – the bright colours and whites stretched across the steps in the sun to dry. Past smoke and burning – at one of the cremation ghats.

It’s strange being able to watch from the steps, seeing bodies lifted on to a funeral pyre and lit, flames reaching high from ghee and straw. Watching wood being weighed for the next cremation. Blinking the flying ash from your eyes and the acrid smell of burning from your nose. Walking past you can sometimes smell putrefying flesh amongst the smoke.

It’s confronting. Insanely so. It’s hard to watch sometimes, but impossible to look away. There’s a real sense of peace there. After the body is laid, lit and alight it’s left alone. Often no one is there, the body crumbling into ash. The workers occasionally stuffing more orange cloth into the fire, moving the body and surrounding wood to ensure it continues to burn. More details on the full funeral rites here http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Antyesti

Each ghat is different from the last. Some have temples within them. Some Yoga places, some Ashrams. Some have hotels. Some look like they’re about to collapse, but people live in them. Some are brightly painted and have families of monkeys fighting for territory.

It’s an amazing place to walk – so many facets of life from birth to death that you see within minutes. People are friendly too – there was no staring, no awkwardness. Some people went out of their way to say hello, to get their children to say hello to us to practice their English, and say “Happy Diwali”.

I felt more confident and relaxed than anywhere else we’d been to – the friendliness isn’t forced or awkward like it was in Jaisalmer, and I didn’t feel unsafe or nervous like I did in Agra & Jaipur & Delhi. I could look up and beyond my feet – and smile at people for a change. It was a wonderful feeling. I loved Varanasi.

Walking behind the ghats is like chaos. While there are small signs directing you places, if you miss the next one you’ve missed where you’re going. Shop owners are kind enough to point you in the right directon – there’s no google maps here, GPS doesn’t work correctly. Shops aren’t exactly pinpointed. There’s hundreds of shops dedicated to deity replicas. Ganesh and his mouse. Shiva and his bull. Radha and Krishna always together.

It’s hard to find food – there’s not really many restaurants, so often we either ate at the hotel (the food was amazing there), at the village behind Assi ghat (cold coffee at one place, fantastic food at a tiny restaurant called “Cozy Corner” another). We tried a few international meals for a bit of a break, but it’s hard to get the clean-feeling Japanese or traditional Korean food (bibimbap) right.

We had some snack food tho – a Papaya and banana Lassi for 60 rupees (£0.60p) which was more like a meal in a glass. I dragged us to Ksheer Sagar a famous sweetshop (Varanasi is famous for sweets, traditionally given and shared during Diwali), oh my gosh they were amazing. One like Shortbread. One pistachio and rose petal. One fig and pistachio – not too sweet either!

Early one morning (so many 5am starts!) we did a boat trip. Rowed from our hotel, to see the early Ganges. Lots of the people living close by had neither a toilet or bathroom, so you get view of the real india.

The massive area before the Assi ghat is a public toilet. The smell of human excrement is offensive, yellowybrown plots all over, people in bare feet trying to avoid where someone went last.

Further down it’s for washing. Women in full saris immersing themselves in water, washing their hair. Men barely covered, Brahmins obvious by their side strings across their body. Dead cows, blown up pass by. People collecting water at the edges – in takeaway see through bottles, murky and brown.

It’s an incredible sight – like nothing we’d ever experienced. I think that’s what I enjoyed most about Varanasi – the ability to just watch the world go by in a totally different world that you’d ever experienced.

Some of the best parts of Varanasi were at night. I’d planned our trip to culminate in Diwali, festival of lights. In the days running up to it kids were letting fireworks off all times of the day. A huge BANG when you’d least expect it. At night a veritable chorus trying to our do each other in volume.

Before Diwali night we did a boat trip from our guesthouse to watch the ganga Aarti (worship to fire) – hundreds of people on the steps and boats watching, on the sides of the ghats small terracotta pots being lit with fire.

We ventured into the hotel district for a few drinks (it was Will’s last night with us) and when we stepped out at nearly 11pm it was like WWIII.

Fireworks were going off every second. HUGE bangs nearly hitting us within the Auto Rickshaw we took back to our guesthouse. The sky searing open with coloured blooms, reds, sparkles. Kids yelling and smiling at each other, people were saying “HAPPY DIWALI” to us from all over. We’d brought earplugs with us, as some of the fireworks were uncomfortably loud – it’s amazing that people have their hearing with the volume of some of the fireworks, and don’t even get me started on overall firework safety.

It was the most surreal driving experience of my life as I barely held on to the side, eyes to the sky, watching for every brightly lit shower. Back at our room we could watch the full stretch of the ghats, and the fireworks went on till midnight – and petered out after that.

Our last few days few by, we headed to Sarnath – where Buddha taught for the first time. Not much is left bar a large, beautifully carved stupa, covered in goldleaf from pilgrims (ignoring the “No Gold Leaf” sign).

Varanasi assed in a blur. We said goodbye to Will. We walked the ghats more. We had more cold coffee. We started to get nervous, realising that our next flight would take us to Kathmandu, then to Lukla and from there – to Everest.

Posted by: Ele Quigan | October 13, 2014

India Part 1 – Delhi, Agra and Jaipur

Taj Mahal

Taj Mahal
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India – Part 1 Delhi, Agra & Jaipur

It’s taken me a wee while to pull this post together. India is crazy on a whole new scale. It’s different to anywhere else we’ve been, busier, dirtier, stranger – there’s no real sense of familiarity here.

Delhi
Flying in from Egypt was strange, beautiful planes, terrible airports. We were fairly exhausted when we arrived, I’d booked a nicesh hotel to start with, I wasn’t quite ready for the 500 rupees a night backpacker budget that we’re working with now.

The rich, multi-layered smell hits you first, within the hot soupy air. Then the sound of constant horns. People seem almost oblivious to the constant loud screeches, and the driving styles visually crazy, but from the confines of a car fine.

The car that picked us up wasn’t air conditioned – outside of the fairly dry heat of Egypt & Jordan we were melting. The driver had hooked up a small fan even that little airflow helped.

We stayed in the backpacker district of Parharganj, which felt like the epitome of city madness in itself. A riot of colour and smells both good and bad, our white, clean, new hotel felt like an oasis from the start.

We had a bit of a rest before getting out and about, when we really started to get a feel for India. We got into an autorickshaw – similar to a tuktuk if you’ve ever been to Thailand. “Connaught Place” – at least that’s where we thought we were going. Tired and jetlagged, we were taken to an “International Tourist Bureau”. We went in, and exited immediately.

This is a known scam, taking tourists to fake tourism shops to tie them into overly expensive tours, bus rides and train journey. We were even followed by our rickshaw driver, “No, you go in there. International tourist”. We just walked, trying to find Connaught Place, and a familiar brand – Starbucks, appeared like sun on the horizon after the rain. Two cold coffees, and we ventured out again. Accosted.

“Where are you from, what’s your name, how long have you been in India for, where are you going now”

A constant set piece that just doesn’t stop. Men pushing us, following us, trying to get us into rickshaws to go to the “Tourist Bureau”. A man with “ID” saying “Here you need to go this way”. I just kept my mouth shut, ignoring the constant questions and push to get to a tourist bureau is the best way to handle it.

For a first timer, it’s absolutely bewildering. Exhausting. We walked to a park just to sit, take it all in and relax.

Trying to find food can be harder than you think. Places have everything in Hindi (obviously), but even the English names often aren’t familiar. There’s few restaurants as we’d know them, and feeling new to India, and conscious of our potentially sensitive tummies we didn’t dare start with street food.

We finally found a place that looked busyish, was a bright, clean looking restaurant, and it had an English menu. And cheap prices. 2 x Masala Dosa (think a big flat crepe with spicy potato in the middle) & Fresh Lime Sodas, and we were feeling like we’d climbed to the top of a mountain.

We ate for two for less than £5. It is unbelievable how cheap you can eat here, and when it’s good – the food is amazing.

Delhi passed in a similarish blur. Will (a friend from NZ) joined us after a few days, so we moved from our lovely comfy bed, to a 2 bed place deep in Parharganj (rather than on the edge) in a narrow alleyway. Past a public urinal. Past several sleeping stray dogs (they’re in their hundreds here. No cats tho). Past the guy who always said “G’Day Cobba”. Out into messy, busy Delhi. We’d get almost nervous leaving our room to venture back out to get constantly harassed, and find something new, and quiet.

We saw the Museum, RajPath & India Gate (think Arc de Triomphe in Paris) Qutub Minar, Humayun’s Tomb, Red Fort, Lodhi Garden, Akshardham Temple… Trying to get around on a mixture of auto Rickshaw and air-conditioned metro.

The sites, while grand, are in some ways disappointing. There’s rubbish everywhere, in the gardens, right through the Red Fort. In fact, the Red Fort is in such incredibly bad condition, it’s not even worth seeing. Places like Akshardham temple were quieter than others (and beautiful, the elephant stories on the base are beautifully carved and interesting!), and going to Delhi just in festival season made everywhere even busier.

The day we went to the Red Fort is the busiest I have ever seen anywhere in my life. Getting past people is a huge effort; the streets are full of autorickshaws, cycle rickshaws, cars, sandwiched together, no lanes, everything at all angles, nothing but horns blasting. The street was essentially stopped as we tried to move through, trying to avoid Pan spit, cow poo and stray dogs wherever you step. I got squished by a car, he drove into me while I was crossing, pedestrians don’t have right of way as much here, and vehicles don’t move around you (as they do in Vietnam).

Heading back to the hotel and backpackers always came with a sense of relief, quiet after nothing but noise for hours. Passing through Parharganj smells like a mixture of piss, incense, occasional cow (or oxen, with their strange lumpy backs), marigold flowers and exhaust fumes. The smell of India seeps into your skin, I exude spice in my sweat, and I can’t seem to shake sandalwood from my hair.

We had fresh mango juice every morning, tentatively tried pakora and samosa from the street side, tried to find restaurants that were simple enough to order from or at least we could have a beer.

It’s too hot to eat a lot, so we’ve found ourselves often having 2 meals a day, it’s just easier.

My clothes while perfect for Africa, aren’t quite right for here. . The itchy wool of icebreaker is awful in 35deg + humidity. Having knees out means nothing but stares. I need to be more covered, finding skirts and floaty trousers in Parharganj market has helped, but shirts are impossible to find. After a day out everything has white powdery lines from salty sweat.

Sending post was a bizarre experience, gifts & things for ourselves we’d bought from Africa & Egypt to try and get home. Post offices are few & far between. We went to the main one, thinking it should be a relatively straight-forward experience…

We had nothing to pack our items in, so were directed to a kiosk outside, across the road. For a fee, these gentlemen helped us wrap our items in cardboard, then sewed them in linen, also supplying relevant customs forms as well.

Getting to post was even more of a challenge, no credit card facilities (yet I was continually offered card facilities in most shops in Parharganj!) so Dan had to run to find an ATM 10 mins before closing. Of course he was given the wrong directions…

Thankfully he got back and even though the counter had closed they still let us pay and delivered tracking tickets. Tracking tickets that don’t say a thing. Some said when we checked online “scanned delhi”. Some said nothing at all. It’s been a nervous wait as things were delivered.

I only hope the large box gets to mum & dads, I’m not so worried about scarves and a few bits and pieces for family, more about my handwritten journal – covering 3 months in Africa.

The best thing we did in Delhi was a food tour. Through old Delhi, trying Lassi in terracotta pots, dal & aloo (lentil & potato) samosa and kachori, kulfi still made the traditional way with salted ice (no freezer) with the most incredible rich flavours of Pomegranate & rosewater, saffron & pistachio. The massive spice market – 3 storeys of chillies – enough to make you sneeze. Cycle rickshaws through Chandni Chowk, we were the only western tourists we saw. My favourite were Pani Puri, small puffs filled with cubes of potato served with spicy sour water (tamarind and chilli) eaten as a snack to cool you down throughout India.

One of the most interesting parts was a visit to a Sikh temple, Gurudwara Bangla Sahib. They feed hundreds of people for free a day, and we toured their volunteer kitchen – walking barefoot in front of huge woks for making curry, thousands of servings at a time.

Tragedy hit on the food tour – after a few issues we’d had with Dan’s camera we got fixed in Knysna, South Africa it finally gave up with a stuck shutter. Thankfully we both have the same camera, so I’ve given up my camera to Dan. Sadly this means no more pics from me (except what I’m occasionally getting on my iphone). ☹

After a visit to the real international tourist bureau to finalise our PNR numbers (and crazily, everything is done by hand. Each booking number is hand written into a folio, which were copied by hand on to our ticket) we were looking forward to getting back out and about, travelling by train to Agra…

Agra
Of course there’s a scam as soon as you enter the train station. Someone in plain clothes demanding to see your ticket, telling you that you don’t have the right info, that you need to go urgently to “international tourist office in Connaught place”. And for Will, “WS means you’re on waitlist” when questioned “Window seat”. I said that’s completely incorrect we have the right detail “Are you questioning me? Are you questioning MY India railways?” “We have PNR numbers, we know this is our platform” and we walked off.

Our train was okay – on time, breakfast available. The trains are crazy. It looks like they overbook the cheap tickets, people leaning out windows, out doors, I’m so glad we’re in relative comfort as well as with AC.

Agra is relatively small, but such a huge tourist point, it still feels busy. When we were there it was a holiday week, meaning there were hundreds and hundreds of local tourists, rather than international ones. The streets packed tight, hundreds of rickshaws vying for business.

We stayed in a basic guest house/backpackers with a fan, AC that worked occasionally and WiFi in our room.

We’re taking it easy through India, rather than a day here a day there we’re staying in places for a few days at a time, with 4 days in Agra. We still managed to fill them.

Our first evening included a nearly sunset, side view of the Taj – across the river. Busy with streams of people circling in both directions, with street kids next to us tugging at our arms for attention. As with a lot of these World Heritage sites and other tourist places we’ve been across the world, I’m disappointed in the lack of support and infrastructure put back into the nearby communities. The village we past had no sanitation, no water, no housing. How must it feel to see tourists pass by every day spending money that never trickles back down.

Feeling a little tired of fighting through traffic and people, we ate at where we were staying the whole time we were in Agra. It was just easier; the food was good, breakfasts included (with a fantastic masala chai – spicy tea).

For drinks however, we decided to take it up a notch, and headed out to the Oberoi hotel for a few margaritas. We never stay 5 star. If you’re just sleeping somewhere, we’re of the opinion that a bed is a bed is a bed – and if you’re paying £300 per night, what’s included that makes that so much more expensive than our £5 place. For a drink however, count me in.

I had a fair few margaritas, the boys had a mix, from gin & tonic to old fashioned to various others. It was so nice for a change to be somewhere quiet, relaxed (except for the Indian EDM blasting through tinny speakers throughout the complex).

The walk to the Taj at dawn, making our way in the dark with a small torchlighting our way. Huge bats flying through the air, snacking on insects before dawn. Not sure why but I found them completely disturbing, and was glad as light started to filter through and there were less and less of them.

We didn’t have to queue long for tickets and then entry, and being there first thing in the morning before the heat and crowds was definitely the best choice.

The Taj? Sure it’s a big white building not too dissimilar to a wedding cake. The semi-precious inlaid stones are lovely, and the gardens, simple – but I think I was again disappointed by the amount of rubbish. Plastic all through the waterways/canals, bins tipped over with rubbish streaming everywhere.

More amazing was Fahtepur Sikri, about an hour from Agra (2.5 hours with a driver who didn’t go above 60kmh. “Tourist Speed” is something we’ve started to notice throughout India).

Sadly we got scammed a bit, but we were all a bit tired, and the mix of aggression that you get when you spot a scam and push back makes it a tiring experience.

We’d booked a car through our hotel, who drove us not to the entrance, but to another “International Tourist Office”. For 600 rupees (£6) we got a guide and transport. Smelling a rat I said no, got up to walk away – similar to last time, our English speaking liaison got aggressive “you can’t walk, you don’t have transport, you can’t go to the palace”. Sometimes you lose more arguing so we just shook our heads and went with it. In the end we were out £3, but it’s just enough to feel you’re constantly being scammed everywhere; you can’t trust anyone in these places.

Fatehpur Sikri is a palace complex, with areas built for 3 wives, one Hindu, one Christian and one Muslim, so the architecture was a mix of all three. More art and colours in the walls had stayed within this site – I think I enjoyed it more than anything we’d previously seen.

The most famous feature is a giant gate & beautiful white mausoleum, separate to what we’d paid to see, is open to the public. Sigh next scam.

We were taken out behind the sculpture to a man in front of some cloth. We are showed “ID”. And told these cloths you buy for babies. And only by buying this cloth can you see the mausoleum. First it’s 1,500 for the first one, 1,000 for the second one and 500 for the last one. Then you’re told dependent on what you buy you get to tie wishes to the mausoleum. I stood up and walked off, saying this is a scam I want no part of. The fabric wasn’t even the type of cloth for babies, not even scarf material. No detail on the charity, at least 15 more people looking like they do the same thing.

Our “guide” followed me – “Don’t you like charity?” “Not when it’s an obvious scam. I’m not stupid”. He didn’t say much else, and rushed us to the gate, trying to walk us past the mausoleum. I walked off wanting to see it for myself. Of course you didn’t need to buy anything to see it.

As we walked out he asked if we enjoyed the tour. Seeing he’d scammed us for £4 (not an official guide – we could have got one at the entrance) and tried to scam us for more I said “No being scammed is not right – I want no part of this”. He never responded.

It’s hard as you think “Oh it’s only £4” but it still sours your experience here, you feel like no one can be trusted, you can’t speak to anyone, everyone is out to get you. Couple that with being stared at constantly (I’m primarily looking at my feet as I hate that they wont look away) – it’s just not a nice experience.

We got stuck in the most ludicrous traffic jam on the way back, cars were stretching 5, 6 lanes across the narrow road, trying to push into any gap. You’d move forward a metre and a motorbike would zoom into any allowable space, making it worse.

People got out of their cars trying to direct traffic. Trying to make space for themselves. Eventually we got free,

While we loved where we stayed, we were pleased to get back on the road to Jaipur.

Our train to Jaipur was a similar time, early morning. The train was a sleeper, so 4 berths to an area, with a thin curtain separating the corridor. So no, nothing like the veritable bliss of “The Darjeeling Limited”.

If you’re on the top bunk, it’s below freezing. If you’re on the bottom is warm, but the beds are quite short so your feet can hangover the end, getting bumped as people walk past.

Everyone wants to get the most of everything in India. Queuing doesn’t exist in the same way. In traffic everyone pushes through rather than waiting for space. There’s a culture of pushing to get whatever you can, however you can; and it’s the same in the trains.

There was a man in the top bunk when we arrived, sitting with the sheets and blankets. We said our seat numbers, he nodded and didn’t move. I sat down on the bottom bunk. He moved from the top bunk to sit close next to me.

It’s hard to explain what this is like, but it’s UNCOMFORTABLE. I sat there for 1 stop. Two Italian girls popped their heads in, mentioned their seat numbers – that guy was never supposed to be there in the first place!

So much for the clean sheets and blanket I was hoping for. I curled up on the top bunk for a snooze, for our 3 hr trip to Jaipur.

Jaipur

We stayed in a little guesthouse out of the tourist district, thank goodness. Jaipur is larger than Agra (4.something million people), busy, loud, full of buses, brightly painted trucks with “Horn please” on the back. Autorickshaws with phrases like “Good girl make bad boy good” & “No girlfriend no tension” painted on them and motorbikes zipping in and out. All tooting their horns making a constant, deafening, cacophony that made every trip out and about a bit of a challenge.

Pigs (some with lots of little piglets), goats, cows all over the road everywhere. Skinny, mangy dogs avoiding you as they saunter past. Piles of rubbish, some burning some not – all trying to be avoided as we walked around. Cows living off plastic and cardboard. Street kids grabbing your arms asking for money and food. India isn’t very pedestrian friendly – there aren’t footpaths, no defined walkways – so a lot of the time if you do want to walk you’re half on the road.

The Snehdeep guesthouse has been around for more than 20 years passed on to a son by his mother, who now runs the place. It was like staying in a homestay, the family around, plus Indian tourists and us.

We talked to the owner Manoj a lot, learning bits and pieces about Jaipur, eking out titbits of Indian culture, learning about the food, how he’d built his business, what else he was interested in – he’d worked hard to clean up a lake near the city, showing with care of the environment, removal of rubbish, introduction of fish – you can bring hundreds of species of birds back. It was an ethos that resonated with all of us, and we genuinely enjoyed our stay there and would recommend it to anyone.

Other people within Jaipur were on a different level to Agra (that may be because we didn’t head out and about too much) and Delhi. I was stared at everywhere I walked. The one day I wore travel shorts down to my knees & a short sleeved shirt (it’s about 36 degrees and 30% humidity here) I got kissed at, stared at, yelled at more than anywhere else. The stares are strange, they just don’t stop. There’s none of the western embarrassment when you catch someone staring at you. Consequently I spent a lot of time in Jaipur just staring at my feet as it was more comfortable. (Alaina if you’re reading this – HOW did you travel India on your own!!).

It is a beautiful city though. The Pink City interior is like a huge market, but rather than stalls, lots of shop fronts in various groups. This might be the cookware section or the jewellery section or the brass statues of gods section.

The Palace and surrounds are incredible. Rather than the plain walls and ceilings of Agra & Delhi, ceilings are delicately painted, walls within the palace like frescoes showing vases of flowers.

On of my favourite areas was the Hawa Mahal. It’s a 5 storey red sandstone wall with 950 windows. In older times these windows allowed women to peek out without themselves being seen, and observe goings on below. It’s a beautiful structure, just a pity that it’s right on a crazily busy street, so hard to take pics of.

The interior of the Palace, well it was full of people and I couldn’t really be bothered pushing myself through. Jantar Mantar was interesting – HUGE instruments to measure the movement of objects in Space, felt like an oversized play area.

The actual Amber fort that Jaipur is famous for was best of all. It’s huge, with a bit of a drive out of the city to see it, perched on a rocky hill, overlooking a man-made lake with long walls reaching out from it. The interior has Islamic styled gardens, a room of mirrors, delicate artwork within the palace gates, all with the yellow ochreish colour warm against bright blue sky.

A few drinks on the rooftop, looking out across Jaipur, watching leftover Dusshera fireworks, relaxing. All well and good until Will got sick.

We chilled out for a day, hoping it might be something that would pass, Dan & I venturing out to find some medication (our accents making this a bit difficult, even with the exact medication we needed to find). We ventured further, to a market to find elusive toilet paper and bits and pieces. These strange experiences so foreign in comparison to what we were used to, even in the depths of Africa we still seemed to find western supermarkets.

Dan and I took the next day as our own to leave Will time to recover. We went looking for an old step well, down from the Amber Fort, stumbling across beautiful, ancient Buddhist temples on our way. We lunched at a Western-Style lunch place, having our first salad in weeks. Shopped in the hand-printed fabric shop next door. Stopped for sunset at one of the oldest temples in the region, high on a hill overlooking the city.

One of the biggest, oldest step wells in India was a bit of a drive away, about twice/three times the size of the one we saw near the Amber Fort. As we felt we’d seen a lot of Jaipur it was a good chance to get out of the city a bit, see a bit more of rural life.

The step well itself was massive, with a temple at its base. Built in the 9th century, definitely older than anything else we’d been seeing. We were directed by a “guide” – not a real one, someone just making a few hundred rupees at the gate.

We were asked to tip when we left as well – I refused, these are people sitting within a free to visit monument trying to scam tourists out of an extra a dollar or two. It feels like everyone is out to get something out of you here, creaming their commission off the top, I’m hoping this gets much less once we get out of the golden triangle part of India.

About an hour past the step well we ended up a place that wasn’t really sign posted, and old city called Bhangarh. Less busy than most other places we’d been, just a few local tourists and locals that lived near by. It’s like an old city, (I kept thinking of Ephesus, though nowhere near as old) with a huge now destroyed palace at the back. Temples were overgrown, cows walking around everything, the palace reduced from 7 storeys to 4. It was unbelievably hot & humid, we were all soaked after 10 minutes walking around.

It was nice to see something that wasn’t completely overcrowded. After what felt like longish drive and bit of a wait in the afternoon, passing by a windy sandstorm, a final meal with Manoj, and we were back to the train station – ready for our overnight train to Jaisalmer.

Africa Part 6 – Egypt & Jordan (Jordan not technically being part of Africa)

Flying into Cairo you realise that it’s mostly desert in Egypt more than anything else. Rocky desert with roads snaking to nowhere, and then the emergence of a huge, unbelievably huge city.

Cairo has over 20 million people, immediately obvious as you go into the mire from the airport, Visa purchased by the many bank offices before customs.

The road from the airport to the hotel was strangely quiet, but the roads and driving more than terrifying. There’s no road markings. The median barrier broken in most places. Rubbish piled up on the sides of the road. Between buildings. Cars scream past, donkeys pulling carts on the side.

All the apartments look half finished, most appear empty. Colours on the sides of some external walls to make some differentiation between the sea of red brick and grey concrete. The unfinished ones have no glass in them, it’s like a final interior design feature.

Some buildings have these beautiful ornate balconies that remind me of Paris. But I’m definitely not anywhere near there.

Friday (similar to Sunday in a muslim country) we arrived during afternoon prayers, going straight to our strange hotel.

We were joining a tour with a company we’d been on a few tours before, their initial hotels always a little unusual, but we wanted to get in a day early just in case we had any issues with flights etc.

The dry heat was intense, the sun overly bright, with a bit of a snooze we ventured to the pool, which was more the temperature of a bath than any kind of refreshing.

We wandered the hotel, looking for the advertised rooftop bar, internet area, Italian café – all closed and dusty, like it hadn’t been available for years, making for a slightly unnerving first part of our trip.

Eating at the hotel buffet reminded me of how much I love food from this region. Pita & baba ganoush. Tahini & Halva. Falafels. Kebabs. I should have been in foodie heaven!

Strangely our timing was totally out – Our flight, phones all mentioned that the time was 1hr later than it actually was, so we missed the group meeting and first dinner, making for a slightly awkward start to our first day. Being pointed out from a dear friend of ours (thanks Monique) meant our tour leader Sam already knew who we were, ha!

These tours are really different to our previous one. Most of the tour leaders are guides as well, meaning you get a deeper experience around whatever you end up seeing from both a historical and general country culture perspective.

Day1: Sakkara, the oldest pyramid in Egypt. 2700 BC. That’s nearly 5,000 years old. The age of everything in Egypt still blows my mind. Here in India (where we are now) looking back puts it in an even more incredible light. These places are treasured, the people proud, and you get an amazing sense of scale and almost disbelief at seeing these places you’ve read about.

The more famous pyramids (Cheops et al) tower over you up close. They seem small from far away, especially with the backdrop of the huge city that edges close, through the pollution and heat haze their huge blocks don’t shimmer, but stand out, angular in the sunlight.

We couldn’t get travel insurance for Egypt, it’s still classed as incredibly dangerous, and the consequent effect on tourism there is obvious around the pyramids. It felt like we almost had them to ourselves, maybe 5, 6 busses – where at the height they would have 80 at a time.

It makes the associated tourist hawkers & shops desperate to sell to you. Scarves, ornaments, all kinds of plastic kitsch with no one stopping to buy.

The sphinx is sort of strange. Yes smaller than you think it will be after the awe-inspiring pyramids, and almost impossible to photograph within the angle you’re standing, but still a beautiful sculpture carved out of a single piece of rock all the same.

On we journeyed to Hurgada – the Russian resort part of Egypt.

The drive was bizarre – again through check points, absolutely crazy drivers, there’s no passing rule except to speed. All well and good until we slowed down in one part, passing a burning tyre out the window. I thought it was the prelude to something far worse, but was a truck, lying on it’s side – a huge crash.

Tired and likely still a bit jetlagged and stressed, you can’t even imagine what this place was like, surreal and bizarre are the only way to describe it.

Young women walking around dressed to the ABSOLUTE 9’s, 4 inch heels, skirt/dress lengths finishing above the mid-thigh, drunk strangely unattractive men watching and accompanying

The place was all inclusive, and of course had the odor of sickly sweet vomit everywhere. Free booze or not, I couldn’t be bothered drinking – the rest of our group went out till all hours at a foam party.

Lunchtimeish we left for Luxor, old Thebes – probably the centre of tourism and tourist sites within Egypt.

It’s bizarre being in some of these places, beyond the Colossi of Memnon, to the Valley of the Kings, which is surprisingly small, with some of the tombs almost crossing over each other.

You can’t take photos which is a bit disappointing, and they close some of the tombs to ensure they get a break from the constant moisture from every tourist breathing.

We had a ticket for 3 tombs, and I’m definitely regretting not paying the extra to go into Tutankhamun’s tomb as well.

Our 3 tombs were http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/KV6 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/KV7 & http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/KV9 and amazing to really see them. They’re bright, coloured, deep – it’s had to put into words the feeling you get as you descend deeper, 5-pointed stars painted on the ceiling to represent souls, each pharaoh’s name in cartouche surrounding the walls. The paintings are bright, the colours incredibly vibrant, which I think will be my lasting image of Egypt. While it looks like it’s still disputed exactly how ancient Egyptians created the paint, minerals and egg solution have been suggested – I think it’s amazing that we’ve been essentially making paint the same way for thousands of years.

Some of these tombs had 10s of people, some of them 2 or 3 plus us. Previously you’d have to wait 15/20 minutes in the hot sun to get into the tombs – tourism is so low these days we pretty much had them to ourselves..

The afternoon was dedicated to Hatchepsut’s temple, almost arrogantly placed next door to the Valley of the Kings, she presented herself as a man to rule as Pharaoh. It’s actually a really interesting temple, particularly as her son tried to erase her from everywhere. The wall colours are bright, inscriptions and carvings incredible. More about her and the temple and Hatchepsut herself here! http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mortuary_Temple_of_Hatshepsut http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hatshepsut

Luxor to Aswan, for an early night and an incredibly early start the next day to get to Abu Simbel.

Security is tight in Egypt. There are checkpoints everywhere. At one stage we took a “non-tourist bus road” and had to close all the curtains on the bus to ensure we weren’t spotted. We had an armed guard on our bus at some stages, nowhere was this more prevalent than our journey to Abu Simbel.

You have to join an early convoy to ensure all the buses go together, it’s nothing bus desert out the window – if you breakdown (as we did) you at least know there will be another tour bus that can hopefully pick you up. It’s disconcerting seeing nothing for miles and checkpoints of men with massive assault weapons.

But Abu Simbel is beautiful. Incredible that they shifted the entire structure due to the damming of the Nile for the High Dam & creation of Lake Nasser. 4 huge figures of Ramesses II loom at the start of the temple. The sun is too bright for them to cast much of a shadow, but as you walk between them you really do feel in awe of these great god-like figures.

The interior is stunning, impossible to photograph. The original was built to let light into the temple on October 21 & February, illuminating 3 of 4 sculptures (the 4th, God of the Underworld was left in the dark). An incredible feat of planning, structure design and building to exacting measurements. I always find these structures more incredible than buildings in modern times with modern tools, especially considering how terrible I am at mathematics myself.

As far as sculptures and the internal art goes, I actually preferred the smaller temple, dedicated to Hathor & Nefertari (Ramsses II chief consort) it’s not that it was smaller or more delicate, it seemed brighter in some way.

The journey to-from Abu Simbel is long. 6 hours. We were picked up in smaller vans to venture on to Philae temple, crossing the river Nile by boat to a small landmass in the middle.

Again 20/30 completely empty boats, we had the entire complex to ourselves.

That afternoon I started to feel a little sick. I’ve got what I affectionately call and Iron Stomach, didn’t get sick at all on our Kenya – South Africa leg, and rarely get stomach problems at all. I’m more of a headache/migraine type, so be struck down with a terrible case of travellers illness was the last thing I expected.

I skipped our delicious Nubian dinner, and battled with tummy cramps and nausea (and everything else) for about a week before I was finally convinced to take something for it. (Which of course is over the counter antibiotics that aren’t legal to take anywhere, it sure as hell cleared me up within a day tho!)

Apparently Egypt has terrible food hygiene so after a few discussions with everyone, most people had been effected in some way. Gah.

On our felucca trip I was still feeling pretty average so spent the whole time pretty quiet, either chatting to people, playing a combined crossword with everyone, and generally snoozing, lying about and the odd swim in the Nile. It’s a much more fast moving river than I expected – only a few metres out from the bank and you’re pulled into the flow, much much harder to swim against than I thought! To risky for me thanks, so I huddled closer to the felucca, trying to stop my legs getting tangled up in weeds.

Usually the Nile would have been full, but it was mostly our two Felucca, zig zagging down the Nile.

Our last morning we went back to Luxor, seeing Edfu and Karnak temples, and Luxor temple from the road. It’s hard seeing so many cultural sites in such a short amount of time. They start rolling together, and even looking through photos it can be hard to discern the differences.

I wish I’d understood more about the gods, the death process, and image representations – sure our guide points out a lot, but I’m sure there’s interesting subtleties we miss that would make the temples even more inspiring.

A very very long road back to Cairo, trying to stay warm under the constant air conditioning, our bus, again, puttered out.

On the side of a hill, on a road in the dusk, with crazy drivers left, right and centre.

Our bus was pulled to the side of the road, but still mostly on it – rather than slowing down to check something wasn’t coming the other way, cars and trucks were speeding up and pulling out to pass. I swear one crash was down to mere centimetres, we all thought we were about to see another huge accident right in front of us.

Thankfully the only issue was dirty fuel, within 10 minutes we were back on the road (of course not before a truck full of people yelled “Welcome to Egypt” out the window).

Somehow Cairo was a bit cooler, but again we stayed at this strange half closed hotel, and ventured out earlyish to head to the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities, which is situated on Tahrir Sqaure.

Razor wire and tanks greeted us. It’s likely much more secure than we felt, but it added to the overall feeling of security stepped up a notch we felt right across Egypt. I don’t think tension is the right word for it? But knowing Syria was still facing civil war, Iraq imploding again, and the suddenly ever present word ISIS I was almost thankful for the extra security.

So, the museum. It’s old, not that well cared for. Hot, dusty, and these old type written infocards within every exhibit – but in all of that it’s absolutely wonderful.

Busier than anywhere we’d been, we saw statues with rock crystal eyes, that seem to follow you as you walk around, pupil spot included. Sarcophagi richly inlaid with lapis lazuli, carnelian and turquoise, of course with bright gold. Jewels and necklaces, canopic jars, mummifiedfish, statues and papyrus. It was (like the rest of Egypt) hard to take it all in.

The most incredible section of course were the treasures of Tutankhamun. Huge gold plated coffins inside coffins inside coffins with sarcophagi inside sarcophagi. Jewellery like you couldn’t believe. And not just the famous funerary mask we all know but several, each more ornate than the last, with the final one of solid gold having pride of place in the centre.

Sadly you can’t take photographs inside the museum, we saw an older gentleman get caught snapping the funerary mask on his phone, he was pulled aside by guards, and made to delete all his pictures.

Even tho it was a bit extra, we decided to see the mummified kings and queens. Death and reverence of death is interesting to me – and standing amongst the kings and queens whose temples I’d visited was so strange. They were short. Hair and fingernails intact. Hatchepsut was only discovered to be her recently, when they found a tooth in a canopic jar that matched the mummy’s missing tooth space.

One mummy was nearly destroyed in the Arab Spring uprisings, 50 items within the museum went missing, only 25 returned. 2 mummy’s completely destroyed.

You couldn’t otherwise tell, but I’m glad the as many of the museums treasures were protected and saved as possible, but there’s no gift shop. No restaurant. Big empty rooms gathering dust as you exit. Empty bookshelves and display cases.

The afternoon was a quick visit to the hanging church (one of the most amazing displays of Coptic Christianity in Egypt) Khan el Killi tourist market (2 scarves for less than £5 thanks!) and a last dinner with all of our tour group (23 people and I still didn’t know everyones names) before heading to Dahab on the red sea the next day.

Through the Suez were more tanks and armed guards than even Tahrir Square. The Sinai has become a prime training camp for ISIS sadly, and even with all of the check points and all of the guards I still felt a little nervous.

The red sea is actually pretty blue. Bluer than I remember the Mediterranean being. With the backdrop of the bright blue sky, rocky desert cliffs at the waters edge, Saudi Arabia just over there – it all makes for a pretty awe inspiring sight.

First day was a snorkel in the Blue Hole. After my last experience snorkelling with a mask that didn’t fit, and awful fins, I was dreading this a little, but as we wanted to go diving later that day, it was actually the best thing to do to get a little water confidence back.

Diving and snorkelling in the Red Sea is straight off the beach, weird to be walking slowly through water with all your kit!

The blue hole in Dahab is famous for being the deadliest dive site in the world, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blue_Hole_(Red_Sea) but it’s actually a wonderful snorkel.

You enter on one side through a narrow crack called “The Bells” (so named for the divers that bump the sides with their tanks), floating around the side of the reef until you get to “The Saddle” which is a dip in the reef where you can enter the Blue Hole. It’s really disconcerting as you can only see blue, and it feels like you’re heading over an ocean cliff into an abyss.

One of the people we were travelling with started to panic as they approached the saddle, I rescue swam him back to the beach. Sort of bizarre experience really, I’ve not had to do that before, but okay. Oh heh I forgot to mention that Dan and I were the eldest by quite a long shot on the trip, so we were affectionately termed mum & dad. Definitely made me feel old hanging out people as young as 23, and interestingly most of the people one our trip were on their way home from living in London.

It was windy and waves were getting higher, but the snorkelling was the best I’d ever seen. Corals like giant lettuces, parrot fish sneaking about, little clown fish ducking between fingers of anemone, angel fish floating, triggerfish darting between the rocks the constant scratch scratch sound you can hear of fish nibbling at the reef. Incredible. Dan even saw a massive octopus!

We finished about 11:30am, had a quick bite and we were off to have 2 dives in the afternoon.

Our last experience diving was certifying, and being still quite new to it we were both approaching these dives with a lot of nervousness. I still haven’t got my breathing control down pat, and Dan manages to suck air through like nothing else.

I’m sure it will come with time and experience, but we still stepped in with a bit of trepidation.

Our first dive in the Coral Garden site we saw a turtle, huge! Gracefully swimming just beyond the reef. Huge corals, fish everywhere. It was a gentle step back into diving, we both loved it.

Second dive was into a Canyon, down to 30m. I struggled a bit with my ears not equalising, but still managed to get to the bottom. When you look up and move on a little it’s like a fish bowl. Hundreds of curious glassfish surround you, moving as if one being as you swim near them. As you exit the canyon, you can see air bubbles exiting bits of the canyon, like the ocean was a glass of champagne. Beautiful.

On our exit & safety stop, our guide leader saw a stonefish. Pretty creepy really, as they are the most venomous fish in the world – very glad no one got injured.

Exhausted, we got back to our hotel a little late, but was amazing to see the pictures we’d got under the sea.

The next morning was sort of an early start, crossing the Red Sea by boat into Jordan.

Jordan is much smaller than I realised, with a population of only 6million. An evening in Wadi Rum, what used to be an ocean millions of years ago and now are amazing rock formations with a deep desert.

We stayed at a Bedouin camp, with cats and a lot of relaxing, a jeep drive to check out some of the rocks and see them in the afternoon light, pinks, reds, oranges glowing in the sunset light.

I was also troubled by little lumps on my legs, like a weird rash. It was itchier than anything I’d experienced, and I think coral rash. My normal itchy bite cream would work, and it jut put me in a bit of a grumpy mood for a couple of days. It wasn’t massive, on my calf and a bit over, and while I do sort of remember something going into my leg I don’t remember brushing up against coral. Blurgh.

Next up a full day at Petra, a bit of a drive and a long day on my feet! Rather than the stone buildings I found the colours within the rocks more amazing. Blues, whites, blacks, yellows, alongside the pinks, reds and oranges.

The buildings or at least frontages are interesting. They take elements from Egyptian, Greek and Roman architecture (theatre for entertaining travellers, Corinthian columns, Nike statue) while it doesn’t feel like a cultural mish mash, it definitely is quite different from anything else we’d seen before.

We did the 800 step walk up to the monastery, exhausting in the heat – especially with the odor of stinky donkey and horse poop all the way up!

Petra is a huge site, we only saw probably less than half of it, and scrambled around the rocks for a different view point,

Our last meal in Jordan was amazing. Similar to food from Egypt with a few additions of fattoush salad & tabbouleh, and a thing they call “hot salad” which is cucumbers, tomatoes and mild to spicy chillies – I was in heaven. Their food hygiene is much better than Egypt’s apparently, so I happily chowed down.

Back to Dahab, random rave in the desert (where I managed to have a bit too much to drink and fell asleep. Fantastic). And then back to Cairo on the worst drive of the entire trip.

We picked up a Police escort, who decided to talk on his phone very loudly until 2:30am. The airconditioning was freezing, I covered Dan in one of my scarves as he was only in a singlet. At 3:30 the music suddenly went on, I assume to keep our driver awake.

We arrived back at the hotel I think about 7ish, and I proceeded pretty much straight to the pool to find some shelter in the shade to have a snooze.

Our last drive out to the airport was last, pleased to be out of the traffic; even the airport was complete madness. Getting on our next flight was a kind of peaceful bliss, knowing for the first time we were going to be on our own again for a few days in another crazy country – India.

On a side note – Egypt is desperate for tourism. If you’ve ever thought about going, it’s so quiet there at the moment, I’d really recommend going now. The sites are empty in comparison. Hotels are cheap (outside of Cairo). The people are friendly. It does feel a little tense – the day we left the Sinai peninsula there were 6 beheadings. The road we drove is no longer across the centre of the peninsula, but the long way round the edges. While we never felt specifically unsafe, I think the region in general still has concerns, and I genuinely hope for Egypt’s sake that it doesn’t get any worse.

Posted by: Ele Quigan | September 22, 2014

Africa Part 5 – South Africa

Africa Part 5: South Africa

Writing this 6 weeks later I’m only starting to realise how exhausted we were both physically & emotionally as we finished the overland part of our trip.

While we didn’t do it for as long as others (I can’t even imagine how exhausted they were), arriving in South Africa was a strange shock between extremes, mostly between total familiarity and total unfamiliarity.

Crossing over the border from Namibia suddenly the roads were again improved. While the vista was rocky, the roadside was covered in planted wild flowers.

Heading into the wine valley of Citrusdaal, I felt like I was back home where I grew up, in the wine region of Marlborough. It was so bizarre.

Our last night was a few wines, and a later last breakfast and straight through to Cape Town, almost felt like the longest journey yet – 4 hours or so, the view of Table mountain slowly looming larger.

The first sense of culture shock was the huge township we passed by, after all the excitednesss on the truck – there was suddenly silence. It seemed to go for miles and miles, satellite dishes out, toilets on the edges, power lines strung across.

After all the villages in Africa, it was nothing I expected to see – but we zoomed past, onward to our drop off point.

Even the drop off was strange, everyone rushing out, desperate to get off the truck we’d lived in for 3 months (or 6…), finding luggage, speedy goodbyes and suddenly we were on our own.

We almost didn’t quite know what to say to each other. Entering a small flat with all the room to ourselves for the next 5 days. We dropped out bags, had long showers, and ventured out to find dinner, back to where the truck dropped us off.

Cape Town is full of people sleeping rough, against the backdrop that could easily have been Wellington, and as we walked back towards Kloof Street (which is pretty similar to Ponsonby Road) to have a burger and craft ale, strange these trends that have followed us from Auckland to London to Cape Town (and even Jordan, but that’s for another post). They even had sweet potato fries.

On checking the weather when we arrived back to our apartment, the next day looked like the best for our Table Mountain climb – so early to sleep as it was destined to be an interesting hike.

Adding an extra hour we decided to hike from our apartment. At some stages the streets feel almost vertical – a bit of a hint of what was to come. We’ve never been hikers previously, but with our Everest Base Camp trek looming in our nearish future, we’re conscious of walking as much as we can.

It was a lot harder than both of us realised, hiking from Tafelberg Road (straight outta Wellington) across the side of the mountain (Contour Path) up through Platteklip Gorge, which at some stages felt more like climbing massive rocks than a nice easy walk…

Table Mountain is covered in varieties of Protea, half of these in flower – making for an amazing backdrop to our hike. Looking across Cape Town it could have been home.

All up it was about 1 hour from our apartment to Tafelberg road (where the cable car is) then 2 hours across the Contour Path and up Platteklip Gorge. We got to the top, started looking around, amazed at the little clouds swarming. Then the little clouds turned into big clouds, and while we were at the restaurant snacking on lunch (a pie. What else but a Pie!) and within 10 minutes the entire mountain was covered. The wind was up, and it was freezing.

We kept seeing people who had obviously come up on the cable car, teeny shorts and singlets and jandals – shivering. You can’t even imagine the smug with my hiking boots and puffy jacket.

We’d originally planned to head down on the cable car, but on our way up we saw a few people saying it was closed? So we headed down to find it, and thankfully made it on, and given the weather change might have been one of the last ones for the day.

The rest of Cape Town is a bit of a blur, a desperate hunt for Havianas (Africa, destroyer of Havianas, I’ve gone through 2 pairs already) unbelievably I paid the equivalent of $30 USD for a pair. Incredible Wine and cheese at our apartment, mostly purchased from Woolworths, basically M&S Food rebranded. Amazing Biryani in a little food court (not a patch on yours Divina x), a search for a post office (only to find a 3 week protest in Jo’burg thankfully our post still arrived back home within 2 weeks), a last dinner with friends from our tour, clothes shopping in Kloof Street, wandering around Long Street and V&A Waterfront – and suddenly it was time to leave.

First stop – Cape Point / Cape of Goodhope.

Not much to see here really. It’s not even the southern most point of Africa… but leaving, past Simonstown we saw 3 Southern Right Whales – just 50m off the beach.

These huge graceful creatures are amazing, flapping with their fins, poking their heads a little out of the water, snorting air with a large belch, diving and showing their glorious tails – we stayed watching for over an hour, before they starting swimming further out to sea. Amazed they were so close, seemingly unafraid of the trains passing, or people standing watching, probably unaware of their captive audience.

Second stop – Stellenbosch.

This was even more like Marlborough, and I developed a weird sense of near homesickness and desire to go back and live there. Blue sky as clear as can be, the air crisp and sweet, vineyards for miles – but before then you’re hit with a township stretching for miles and miles. Khayelitsha. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Khayelitsha

They’re a shock to see I guess if you’ve not lived in South Africa. There’s search lights not street lights. South Africans outside trying to flag down rides. People walking for what looks like miles to jobs. You can see little shops within, and places where people have kept their place inside with a huge sense of pride. But of course you wonder where’s the social mobility for the people inside. If you’re born within poverty of that scale – how can you get out? Sure Education you may say, but I’m sure the other side is more complicated. Transport to education. Items needed these days for education (uniforms, computers, internet access), jobs available post-education.

This is very much an outsiders perspective, I don’t know at all enough to really comment, but with 1 and 4 New Zealand children living in Poverty it’s enough to make you much more aware of the different facets of poverty. And while New Zealand’s poverty isn’t as in your face as this (in fact I’m sure it is in some areas), it makes you question more of your worldview, and understanding of your (yep here it comes) privilege of being born white & essentially middle class.

So to turn that again on its head (and I am well aware that it’s almost hypocritical), our first night I’d booked Dan and early birthday dinner, Rust en Verde. For a 6 course degustation & matched wines. We’ve been lucky enough to eat like this all over the world, and this was definitely our best meal in Africa.

While the wine matches weren’t really inspired at all(I’m a little bored of the standard Manzanilla, then Sauvignon blanc, then Pinot, some other red varietal then Late Harvest), the food was incredible.

I’m definitely going to make Smoked Tomato tortellini when we get home, and the most unusual item on the menu (and partially because neither of us speak Afrikaans, “Boerenkaas? Must be a regional thing) was a cheese Panna Cotta. It was rich & smooth served with a pickled ginger sorbet – seriously one of the most inspired and genuinely creative courses I’ve had since heading to Story in London (full menu here http://rustenvrede.com/rv/menu-type/six-course-wine/ and for my London-based friends here’s a link to Story http://www.restaurantstory.co.uk/ it’s second only to The Fat Duck in my opinion)

We loved Stellenbosch so much we decided to stay an extra day – heading out the next morning to their Slow Food Market. Again I was transported home, the Jazz, the local products, artisan cheeses, craft Ale, and wine. Oh the wine.

South Africa is the cheapest place on earth if you’re even an iota of a foodie (and winey). Good quality glasses of red for 50 Rand (£2.70, $5.50NZD), open, freshly made steak sandwiches for 80. We stayed at the market for 5 hours, taking everything in.

The next morning with flat-white cured hangovers, we drove on to Mossel Bay, about a 6 hour drive. Past a flock of Crowned Cranes flying, almost floating in the sky, close to the ground, oversized but somehow still in the air. They’re the most graceful birds we’ve ever seen in flight. Past fields of gold (canola flowers), vast numbers of windmills.

Mossel bay is fairly small, going in the low season was an inspired choice. It’s like a small fishing town, hikes close by, fresh fish on the menu at most restaurants. The next morning we hiked the St Blaize trail, essentially a walk around the sides of the cliffs close by. http://www.visitmosselbay.co.za/adventures/st-blaize-hiking-trail

All was fine (even a few more whales) until the last couple of hours, as we came across a HUGE snake. It hissed at Dan ahead of me, who jumped back. Watching snakes glide into the undergrowth is disturbing. They seem to disappear into the earth, hidden in the shade. Later we found out it was a puff adder. Super venomous, super scary. I not sure what we could have done if Dan had been bitten. I’m not strong enough to carry him very far, and the trail was completely deserted.

Next stop: Plettenberg Bay

Larger than Mossel Bay, “Plett” as the locals call it was a great second to last stop. Lots of little shops, amazing beach, excellent food, warm sunshine (29 degrees in their “winter”)– I think this will be a lasting piece of Africa I’ll always hold close. Just like the cat in the B&B. Seriously this cat made my day. Even got a little evening snuggle.

South Africans are really friendly. Everyone who talked to us was so pleased that we where in their country, mentioned they rarely see Kiwis, and that we hope we were enjoying our stay. In Plett even more so.

Next and last stop: Port Elizabeth

Port Elizabeth – which we didn’t even see, just drove along the garden route – was our last South Africa stop. The Garden route is strange, I was expecting something different (key word: Garden.) It’s mostly treelined roads, and what roads. You can drive up to 120kmh – beautiful, wide, well looked after roads, I’ve not seen anything like it anywhere we’ve travelled. As that’s the speedlimit you can image at what speed some people are passing you, slightly frightening in our little rental car that sort of seemed to struggle at 4000 revs on 110.

Crazy to think this part of our trip was all coming to a close, from Nairobi to Port Elizabeth, Gorillas to Whales, from tropical to desert and everything in between. From village food and ugali to degustation. From instant coffee to flatwhites. And Nandos in at least 3 countries.

At the end I’m still exhausted. Emotionally and Physically tired. Still in a weird state of culture shock mixed in with a feeling of home that’s strange and foreign after all we’ve seen.

But on we go to Cairo – for the next part of what is more of an adventure than anything else either of us have done before.

Book reviews and truck days part 2 – the search for more books.

Again it’s been another month of long drive days, with music this time which has helped!

City of Djinns – William Dalrymple (prob about 300 kindle pages)
Reading this about Delhi has just made me more excited about India. I read it super quickly as it’s an easy read, he’s written a heap more so will probably try a few. I’d like to see a few of the places he mentions, but I’m unsure since the 80’s if these places are around or destroyed.

Cyber sexism: Sex, Gender and power on the internet – Laurie Penny. (about 200 pages)
This is a must read for anyone working within Digital/social or has passing interest in Online communication dynamics. She cops a lot of flak but I really appreciate Penny’s writing and columns, even if I don’t always agree with her. (Kate Butterfield & Bec – def a book for you two)

For whom the bell tolls – Ernest Hemingay (409 pages)
Incredible book that is roughly a fictionalised version of his time in the Spanish Civil war. Shocking, sad, incredible, made even more interesting by the version I read that had all the swearwords marked as “unprintable”. One of the most interesting accounts of war I’ve read.

The girl who saved the King of Sweden – Jonas Jonsasson (420 pages)
Similar to his other one (the hundred year old man) I didn’t really enjoy this, even more fantastical than the last. I got more and more frustrated by the story, but still managed to finish it…

Heretics of Dune (5th Dune novel)– Frank Herbet (508 pages)
After hating the 4th one, this one starts to make it all make sense again? It’s building up to a massive finale. Incredibly complicated (I still feel half lost at times with it) but a tale on the scale of Lord of the Rings really.

God Emperor of Dune (4th Dune novel) – Frank Herbert (421 pages)
I HATED this. Hated it with a passion. Nothing was explained, there seemed to be no reason for being. I got more and more frustrated by it. Blrgh

The Husbands Secret – Liane Moriarty (402 pages)
A sort of strange read really – reminded me of The Slap from a few years ago? Close families with stories that cross and weave together. Again unbelievable in some ways, but written well and I did enjoy it. In fact couldn’t really put it down.

Live at the Brixton Academy – Simon Parkes (421 pages)
This is one of the most fun books I’ve read on the trip, a history of the Brixton Academy, one of my favourite London venues. A lot of it quite surprising? And really shows the change in the music scenes in the UK & how the Dance scene really was below the surface. Made me miss London… Any Londoner who has been there should read it!

Perfect- Rachael Joyce ( 386 pages)
This took me by surprise, it was a book club book that I attended the event for but hadn’t read. Incredibly sad it imbues a loneliness or a coming of age that’s dark and genuinely sad. It’s surprising too? A lot of anger bubbling below the surface across all the characters interwoven throughout.

Private Peaceful – Michael Morpurgo (185 pages)
Yes this is a “youth” book, but mum suggested I read it after we went to War Horse last year. Being a bit of a softie this left me in buckets of tears (embarrassing to try and hide on a truck of 25 people…) A slightly different view of WW1 warfare, and the horrors of war. Speaking of which if you haven’t seen the INCREDIBLE memorial at the Tower of London “Blood Swept Lands
and Seas of Red” – check it out. http://poppies.hrp.org.uk/about-the-installation/#section–video

Siddhartha – Hermann Hesse (about 300 pages?)
An interesting “spiritual book” in the same sense of The Way of the Peaceful Warror and a few more – how not to find life in the pursuit of wealth, or I guess how you’re in control of your own journey to inner nirvana. Interesting, a good book to read on the backdrop of travelling really.

A tale of time being- Ruth Ozeki (422 pages)
I LOVED this. Such an interesting read, so sad in parts – and incredible intertwining story lines. It’s a particular style of Japanese fiction that name escapes me (“I fiction” is a near translation I think). It’s beautifully written, again sad, but honestly the best book I read on this leg of the trip.

We need new names – Noviolet Bulawayo (276 pages)
I read this soon after leaving Zimbabwe – which put it in a bit more perspective. Sadly it does feel full of a lot of messages or even cliché – trying to acknowledge every single point which sometimes felt a bit forced, but I still loved it.

I have tired 100 years of solitude again but had to put it down, I just find it SO frustrating. It’s turning into another War & Peace frustratingly.

whoops forgot one – Into Africa – The epic adventures of Stanley & Livingstone – Matin Dugard 377 pages.
I really really really enjoyed this, and want to read more about both. What an incredible journey in the hardest region to travel within, with both different backgrounds and hugely different personalities!

– damn another one – The Testament of Mary – Colm Tobin – 104 pages.
This is the view of the death of Jesus from his mother. I dunno, it’s not a story that hasn’t been told? I didn’t really think it was worth a booker nomination – I’ve read far more interesting and in my opinion better books than this? Fairly disappointed to be honest.

So in this 30 days that’s been another 15 books & 5130 pages – across the full 72 day journey 16457 pages & 32 books – a book every 2.25 days…

Posted by: Ele Quigan | August 25, 2014

Africa Part 4 – Okavango Delta Botswana & Namibia

Africa Part 4 – Okavango Delta Botswana & Namibia

Okavango is a strange place. Given how wealthy Botswana is, the place is incredibly poor. We are allocated a poler for our time there, who essentially is not dissimilar to punt through the venetian canals, except this time through reeds & surface water.

It’s a clear morning when we embark; the only noise is the swish swish of the reeds and the drips & splashes of water as the pole gently breaks the surface pushing us through the water.

We pass reddish underwater forests, flat, nibbled lily pads with white lilies poking above the surface, reeds that look similar to toitoi from home. The most bizarre thing are the water spiders.

There are thousands of them, bodies less than half the size of a 5p piece (or the old New Zealand 5c coin), but with legs splayed they’re about half the size of my palm. They skate across the skin of the water incredibly fast, ducking out of the way. Their webs catch in your face if you’re not careful, and some of them are huge seas of white in between reeds. Even for a non-arachnaphobe the’re a little disconcerting.

There are huge dragonflies, electric blue & fluoro green, black and yellow, bright orange, whizzing past in the morning sunshine.

There’s not that many animals about, but we make camp in time for lunch, to relax the afternoon away.

I perch myself on a stool by myself in the sunshine, kindle and camera in hand, planning to sit with amongst the dragon flies and jumping crickets. This is all fine, until I hear a shhhhh shhh sound. I look at my feet and try to stop myself screaming, a little brown snake is under my legs.

“Dan dan dan dan dan dan dan snake snake snake snake” I lift my legs, & try hold myself together. We don’t get snakes in New Zealand, they sort of creep me out, and as a few people come over to see what’s up, the sneaky snakey turns around and looks at us as he slithers into the undergrowth.

No harm done and I don’t think he was poisonous, but still for my first snake moment it was enough. He was about 1m long & as round as my thumb & forefinger touched together.

The next few days passed in with walks and more mokoro (dug out canoe) afternoons, elephants coming to visit our campsite at one stage, just a few metres away. I heard them first, the crack crack crack of them eating branches and pushing around trees now familiar after our night visit.

Again a “Dan dan dan dan I can hear something I think it’s elephants”. It’s strange having them so close, you’re nervous but excited, wishing they would come even closer. You peak between the trees and see legs and trunks. They’re attracted to the smell of our oranges.

On our walks into the Delta we didn’t see much, zebra, elephants shaking for palm nuts, huge birds in the distance, the gorgeous lilac breasted roller (national bird of Botswana)

Early the last morning, we were pulling down our tent in the dark, and after my previous experience I decided to shake out our tent bag in case of creepy crawlies. Out dropped something the size of a dinner plate.

A snake.

Again I had to swallow a scream – “Snake Snake Snake Snake” (This trip has been nothing if not repetition). I actually think it was the same one, we’d managed to camp in/near his home – I feel a little bad, but at least we didn’t kill him accidentally.

On the last night they sang for us. You hear a lot about African harmonies, call and response as a way of story telling, but to see it like this was incredible. We tried to sing ourselves, “Give me a home amongst the Gum Trees, with lots of plum trees” I sang with the Australians. “In the Jungle”. Why couldn’t we find something half decent everyone would know?

The way back through the delta was probably my favourite part. Again mostly silence as we were punted through, sun beating down on our shoulders, sky blue, reeds green and reddish.

We pass through the village in Maun where our Polers live, they have nothing. They didn’t take much into the delta, rice, potato flakes, a small amount of meat. They eat our leftovers, and as we left I saw one woman keep 4 slices of dry stale bread.

I found this the hardest part of the poverty that surrounds us, our lovely cook Samson told me a couple of days later how it works for them in their village – to ensure they all get a chance for food it’s run on a rota system, each person has to take their turn at being a poler, making the most of the small tip they get, and food if it’s available. Some groups don’t share their leftovers. I wish we’d shared our meal.

This type of travelling is exhausting. Truck days, personalities, early starts, high GI carbs, it feels like whole days have past in a blur of books, music and sometimes barely seeing one day from the next. My joints have a constant ache. I want to sleep all the time. I’m drinking far less as our “pee stops” are few and far between, and feel like I have the constant shadow of a dehydration headache every day.

We’ve ventured into the really driest parts of Southern Africa, mostly desert and dust, through D’Kar and on to Namibia it’s a stark change from the lush rainforest in Uganda, it hasn’t rained since that first week.

The border from Botswana into Namibia is one of the starkest changes we’ve seen on the trip. Namibia feels western, but western a few years ago. Decades ago even. We’re amongst malls, fancy cars, a rooftop bar. A department store with $20 can openers. Safari shops everywhere. It does remind me of home though. Things are cheap, shampoo for $2. Wine for $6.

The road is dry and dusty, and we head to Etosha. I’m exhausted, my joints ache, I barely want to talk to anyone let alone get up at 5am to put my tent down every morning. The journeys passing in sleep and reading, I’m desperate for a break.

The drive into the park is dry and hot. For the first time we see Oryx, their sad clown faces, huge horns, long busy tails – they’re amazing creatures. Their grey hides blend into the dusty landscape. Springbok are around too – I hope to see them springing – wanting to scare them out the window.

Where we are staying in the park has a huge waterhole – and being dry season this is used a lot of the time. When we get there it’s giraffes, the elephants. It’s lit at night, making for an evening of night watching, cheap wine in hand.

Post-dinner I head to the waterhole straight away, and soon after I sit down, the roaring starts. The ones I heard in Zimbabwe were nothing like this. These roars were otherworldly. Close by. All the hairs stood up on the back of my neck, I shivered.

The biggest lioness we have seen this trip crept up. Muscles standing out as she moved past. Stopping for a drink, she moved off quickly. The roaring continued. I waited and waiting, hoping a huge male would present himself, but the roars went off into the distance.

More animals joined, Rhino, elephants – I was too tired to stay late, 10pm I went to bed.

Still exhausted, and me still aching, we decided not to join the next days game drive – and had the whole camp pretty much to ourselves.

We spent ho all oerurs at the waterhole, watching animals take their drinks in shifts and groups, occasionally being frightened by nothing and running off. Hundreds of zebra, kudu, springbok, elephants, giraffes, oryx – it was incredible.

Even at night we saw 7 different Rhino (including a baby one), and one with the biggest horn we’d seen, probably about 75 cm, curling up over his head, reflected in the water.

We felt so well rested after a day to ourselves. No uncomfortable seats, no dusty air, no shoving/pushing for a photo on either side. We did however miss a Leopard in a tree, but one photo isn’t worth what we’re both affectionately calling a “mental health day”.

The next days again passed in a blur of incredible scenery and a bit of a break, Spitzkoppe, Swakopmund, Sossusvlei.
It’s desert and sand dunes, the iconic dead valley with reddish orange sand dunes as the backdrop, patchy blue sky.

There’s only a few days till Cape Town now, we’re counting down, longing for a proper shower, a washing machine to wash our clothes, no more 5/6 am starts. No more high GI carbs. It’s sad as no longer is this experience “fun” or “exciting”, it feels like more of a drag and frustrating that we’re not on our own. Small annoyances become big ones, little frustrations and being sworn at by awful people has become what my handwritten diary remembers, not the landscape or what we’re seeing as much.

This leg (Victoria Falls to Cape Town) has been particularly difficult – a few of our good friends left this leg, we’re all missing them dearly. Only a couple of the replacements are young, changing the dynamic significantly.

We’re not doing as many things to break the trip up which is part of it. We’re now heading to the Orange River, with only Citrusdaal and then Cape Town – I’m repacking our packs today, realising that I could have bought so much more, I handful of bracelets, 2 necklaces, a hippo dish and Chitenge – we’re travelling light. Hopefully not too expensive to post.

I left rocks behind. I didn’t buy anything made of wood. None of the cheap garnets from Swakopmund or even the tourmaline I looked longingly at for hours. The only purchase regret is that I didn’t buy the fabric animals I last saw in Uganda, thinking it was something I’d see all through the rest of the country.

Onward to Cape Town, table mountain and fresh fish, the garden route and time on our own, seeing two huge oceans collide, wineries and bed and breakfasts. That’s the only thing keeping me going these days.

Posted by: Ele Quigan | August 18, 2014

Africa Part 4 – Zimbabwe and Makgadikgadi Pans Botswana

Africa Part 4 – Zimbabwe and Makgadikgadi Pans Botswana.

Vic Falls is a strange place. It’s touristy (as you can imagine) but there’s darker sides to it. “1 billion note” someone whispers through the fence behind our tent. Everything is for sale.

As we walk to a hotel “big 5” someone says trying to push carvings into my hands. “I’ve already bought from the curio market”. He gets aggressive. “You should buy from me too”. “No, I already have something but thank you”. “You are TERRIBLE tourist. You should buy from me not there” – I’ve not experienced Africa like this, unbridled anger. “Go back to where you came from terrible tourist”. It’s not very nice.

In a similar sense we’re stopped on our way out of Vic Falls, not 30km past. The police view our truck, fined for a small infraction. Our tour leader hops out, having none of this.

After some discussion and pointing, she moves to get back in, telling one officer we’ve had the okay – he’s having none of it. It seems like such a corrupt scheme, $15 pocketed here and there, 2 receipt books so even the receipt isn’t genuine. While limited, it’s the most obvious thing we’ve seen yet in Africa.

On the back of the political climate it’s still strange to be in Zimbabwe. Houses are behind barbed and razor wire. People seem different, again limited smiles, but it seems like we’re suddenly in a very western version of Africa. There’s no more bright kitenge, it’s all malls and nicer cars.

Two national parks are the reason we’re here, Hwange & Matopos (also known as Matobo).

Hwange is known for its population of elephants, so it’s incredible to see them at a waterhole in huge numbers. Different families, young males fighting, little tiny babies with trunks they can barely control being herded by brothers and sisters a little older. Other young males trumpting and mock charging. It’s such an unusual experience.

There are elephants in the tens of thousands in this park, it’s a surprise to see they have enough food, but it’s getting to the point where they need to start culling them, to the disdain of the international community.

Our guide was the best we’d had by a long shot. Andy, who had been a hunter for several years before becoming a guide. Pointing out animal prints, answering questions, but with such a sense of fun we all haven’t laughed that much in forever.

Elephant prints look like circles of wrinkles in the dust, their foot expands as they place it, assisting with the limited noise they make moving about. Lion tracks are in pad shapes, similar to a domestic cat.

As we landed back in camp, we heard a sound. A low sound, not a hoo but a ho. Deep. You’d hear it in bursts. Lions roaring.

It’s totally different to what you think it would be? And with the backdrop of loud birds, hyena, it’s almost hard to pick out. It suddenly stops.

We did another night drive, but with our guide this time it was way more interesting. Everything is so much louder, from baboons doing their baboon thing to bids calling. Again the most interesting thing was the elephants.

Nothing but shadows, a glance of a foot or a movement behind a bush, the dark camouflages them more than in the day time, even with them right next to us. I’m reminded of our terrifying night visit from the elephants while we were in our tent, I feel far safer in the confines of our 4×4.

They’re much louder at night, pulling branches down, chewing loudly, stomping indelicately through undergrowth. They make sounds that almost sound like a stomach growling, and sounds that our human ears can’t hear. When they stop – they all stop together. And start – all starting together.
It was freezing at night in Hwange, for the first time all our layers come out, merino on merino. Too cold for jandals for the first time in a while, but we’re up at 5 for our dawn game drive.

The sky is clear.

As I get older I’m recognizing more and more of my mother in myself, and within that mostly a love for the world around us, an innate curiosity about plants and rocks, and a passion for the stars.

For the first time in years Orion is bright in the sky. The first constellation I learned, I can spot Orions belt before the Southern Cross, before the pointers, Scorpio, Pleiades.

With a flood of unexpected nostalgia tinged with homesickness, I’m reminded of nights being wrapped up warm late at night, torch covered in red cellophane trying to map a page in a book to the sky above. Squinting through binoculars, looking for clusters and planets.

For the first time these groups of stars are presenting themselves as pictures. It’s not 3 stars, it’s a belt. That star is the tip of a Pegasus wing. I’ve never seen stars as bright, colours standing out, even the star shape more obvious than ever before.

As the sky glows on the horizon before the sun rises slowly the stars fade out. I’m left with a strange longing for home that I haven’t felt in years.

We move through the park, our guide spots lion tracks “5 or 6, these are this morning. Look, here is where they lay down for a bit, this one turned around, and they kept walking. These are the ones we heard last night”. This is more exiting than our other game drives, it feels purposeful, following these glorious cats.

We come across them, a group of 5 young ones. Their eyes a bright amber in the morning light. They move on quickly, deep into the forest, hopefully to hunt, they were looking a bit skinny.

Back at camp we moved on to Bulawayo. Out the window I’m still struck by the razor wire. For me seeing too much security makes me feel unsafe. It’s strange. Streets are barely lit. Our campsite is surrounded by walls. But the showers are hot,

The next morning is another day out in a National Park, this time Matopo Rhodes.

This park is like nothing we’ve seen. Huge rocks and formations make the park, fluorescent green lichen covers some of them, with reddish and greenish lines through the formations.

It’s such a change from the near flat we’re used to in both Kenya and Tanzania, the riverbeds and trees of Zambia, the red, green and gold trees of Malawi, and jungle of Uganda and Rwanda.

We climb over rocks with a full view of the park, trying to spot Rhino, which we do.

Tracking animals on foot is now my favourite experience. Following tracks (rhino have 3 toes, they have such weird looking “feet”) and poo, our guide pointing out the different types (females just drops theirs, males poo in a big lump, and scrape it to spread their scent further).

Different to the swap of Ziwa, the dry undergrowth and stunted trees make it easy to spot. A mother and 3 year old, another group of 7, it’s a strange day given how many we see.

I never thought I’d see such a large group, some with stubs where their horns are (they cut them off to make them less of a poach risk). They’re hot in the bright sunlight, relaxing under trees, some standing on watch, some with their big backsides to us. They’re beautiful in an odd way, hard to imagine that their value is just going up, 560 rhinos have been killed for their horns in South Africa this year.

Our guide is vocal on his opinions about the various solutions – nothing seems to be working. “Put money into building hospitals” (a Vietnamese politician puts his cancer cure to Rhino horn), “creating a market by farming them wont work”, “pay the guides, the rangers a proper salary – make it a prestigious role to guard rhino”. There’s 80% unemployment in Zimbabwe. The economy isn’t recovering. It’s easy to understand the $$$ motivation behind poaching. Or the people who share where the rhino are. The customs people who are bribed to let things pass. The Government officials who don’t take a stand. Brings to mind our corrupt cops, I’m sure that fine was pocketed. Money talks more than anything else, and it’s easy to see how money talks in Africa.

The most interesting thing we saw in Matopos for me was the cave paintings. They’re not as old as the ones in France, or others around the world – but I still loved the story they told.

In an open cave a few minutes climb up some rocks they’re bright – you can see people with spears in them, the patches of giraffe, and zebra lines etched into the stone walls. A shadow painting of a woman hidden until shown – unable to be captured by a mere camera. The story of the wall isn’t obvious – is it a hunt? Or a dance? Something spiritual? It hasn’t been uncovered, but it’s an amazing place.

We close our afternoon watching the sunset, high amongst the rocks, the sky turning them red.

From Zimbabwe to Botswana, which again is another border shock. Stopping at a mall for lunch we both feel like we’ve stepped into early 2000’s New Zealand. An open mall, western clothes, sport shops, Nandos. The best part was the icecream we had.

We’re sleeping amongst giant baobab trees, their finger-like branches reaching into the sky around us.

Rather than a game drive, we embark on an afternoon trip via the Kalahari desert to see the salt pans and Meerkats.

The Kalahari is unusual. The grass is yellow, and looks soft like Golden Retreiver fur, moving gently in the wind as we go past. The trees are deciduous, some with red leaves they still haven’t dropped, it’s an eerie landscape, completely unexpected. The trees give way to thorny shrubs as we venture further in.

We come across a huge natural spring, it’s full of wild horses, cooling off in the afternoon sun.

The meerkats have split into 3 groups, while I’m disappointed we’re not seeing a massive group, I’m still amazed that we’re able to get as close as we do.

One immediately starts digging, and he’s digging for the just about the whole time we are with them. Another one behind him is nervous, crouching and running if we get too close, tail high in the air.

When they stand (like expected) they look so small against the huge expanse. They make funny noises to each other, not quite a mew, and their round ears perk up.

We continue to watch the one digging, and slowly the little on creeps up – but we can’t look at him, every time we do he stops! He suddenly runs when he realizes that the digging one has caught something.

The digging one has caught a huge yellow scorpion, crunching it loudly, I think the little one wanted some of it as he runs past, through our legs, but they’re expected to fend for their own.

They eat about 10 scorpions like that a day, and with the tunnel dug about a foot long it must be a huge effort to find that many every day!

We move on to the salt pans, a huge expanse of greyish white, tasting salty as expected. We take the usual perspective photos, Dan on my head, me on his hand, and attempt to walk around blind folded, all disorientated.

There’s not much to see, with no water there’s no reflections – they sky is grey from bushfire smoke, concerning after 2 years of drought in Botswana. As I write now on our way to the Okavango Delta the sky is dulled from the smoke in the air.

Night comes cool and fast, the red globe dropping below the horizon like the many sunsets we’ve seen, we’re back on the 4×4 quickly to get back to camp, hungry for dinner.

Africa Part 3 – The Zambezi; Canoeing & White water rafting & Victoria Falls in both Zambia & Zimbabwe

There’s something like a relaxing few days on a canoe, camping on islands in the middle of the Zambezi, starting from Zambia.

The start of canoeing

The start of canoeing

Elephants, the gentle giants that they are, at the waters edge. Crocodiles, the giant gnashing teeth the have sunning themselves. Hippos, grunting at each other, splashing about, giant heffalumps…

The first day was incredibly windy, making it a bit tough heading into wind even with the strength of the current behind us. The Zambezi is wide but with islands throughout, and smaller channels where the water speeds through, various places where the current suddenly speeds up, or eddies and whirlpools where if you get stuck in you’re pulled straight into the bank.

Canoeing takes a bit to get used to; you need to be a bit instinctive about it. There were more than a few cross words between the two of us while we got used to it.

It’s hard to explain what it’s like, huge big birds flying in formation. Hot African sunshine beating down from a blue sky. Hippos talking in their funny honkhonk, looking at us from their sunken selves with just their eyes, nostrils and squidgable ears visible. Being closer to elephants than we’ve ever experienced, while they trumpet at us as we canoe past.

The wind picked up all day, so we had a siesta of about 3 hrs after lunch. Strange to be snoozing next to an elephant, on an island, in the Zambezi.

The afternoon had the most incredible sunset we’d seen in Africa. Red, orange, yellow – but the whole horizon rather than just a single shining disc in the sky. The night was clear too, making for hours of stargazing, stars are bright blues and yellows it’s so clear. As the night goes on the obvious constellations aren’t as obvious, you can see more stars here than I’ve ever seen in my life, planets even brighter.

The next day dawns grey and windy, not the most auspicious start for what is going to be a long slog. People have open blisters from paddles the wrong size. Sore backs and arms and shoulders – strangely I’m fine – no pain, no tension, so I keep quiet and commiserate with those in pain.

It was such a hard slog – I got soaked and cold, no sun to warm me up, braving white caps and waves into the canoe & mostly into my face rather than at the back.

The wind kept rising, so we kept having to stop, lest we start losing canoes from too much water.

The afternoon we waited and waited till the wind died down, and from 3:30 onwards it started to drop. It was white caps to nearly flat in just under an hour.

It was a cold windy night, but with another 6 hours of canoeing I was exhausted, dreading the 4:15 alarm.

Cold and cloudy, our early start with our tent down & everything packed by 4:45 as I was on cook group.After breakfast we waited for our pickup. And waited. It got colder. And windier. By the time they arrived I was freezing.

The Sunset

The Sunset

But the boat journey back, was probably the highlight of the trip. The Zambezi was like glass, and we zipped past while the clouds parted and the sun was finally up, speeding past hippos, past crocs, birds – it was the nicest part of the two days.

At the Zambian side of Victoria Falls you can hear the falls before you see them, even smell them. There’s suddenly ferns, and more jungle like forest, different from the dry tree laden dusty ground of Zambia.

I didn’t know what to expect, but they were awe-inspiring. The sheer power behind the Zambezi is incredible. After being in a canoe and feeling how fast we were being swept along in some stages you can understand how these falls have such power.

It’s 1km cross, a crack in the earth where the falls drop. You can feel the spray like rain on your face, jackets a must. Both sides (Zambia on one side, Zimbabwe on the other) offer different vistas from the boiling pot below, to the famous bridge. When the sun is up there are strong rainbows, a cheerful part to what is essentially a breathtaking experience.

The backdrop sound and power of the water makes you want to raise your arms to the air and laugh and smile. It’s excitement, it’s earth, you feel like you’re a part of this planet just by being there. Mosi-oa-Tunya, I raise my arms to you and bow down in awe of your glory and power.

Happy Canoers

Happy Canoers

We’re camped not far away now in Zimbabwe, and I can hear them (alongside the helicopters hovering for 15 minutes at a time), the falls being the backdrop of the most peaceful white noise I’ve ever heard.

We booked for an activity, white water rafting – which I hadn’t done before, and I’ll probably never do again.

I was a little ambivalent about it, it was expensive ($150 USD each), and Dan was keen, and while I wasn’t really bothered either way, the last thing I wanted was to be left behind, so I decided to go along.

I was impressed by the quality of the gear, brand new lifejackets, and wet suit vests in case you got cold (I put one straight on, the Zambezi wasn’t too warm at all), did the long precarious walk down the near vertical gorge walls to start our ride down the post-falls Zambezi river.

We were with a Dutch family, which made me slightly nervous, the other full boat with our friends from our trip couldn’t fit the two of us (there were 9 of us rafting), so we volunteered to join the other.

We learnt the usual instructions – “Left Back”, “PADDLE FASTER”, “Get Down!”, “All out”. Jumping into the cold Zambezi with a life jacket pulled so tight you can’t quite breathe shocked me into starting to realize what I got myself into.

The first couple of rapids were a bit nerve wracking. Still high water, we started at number 11 “Overland Truck eater”… Faced with huge white-capped waves, boiling whirlpools, and a massive amount of volume pulling in from all sides, I started to feel nervous, but there’s no time for that on the water, we pushed through, soaked trying to paddle and get down, the raft hitting the waves.

It was a bit nerve wracking, but kind of fun at the same time. I got my confidence together, tried to send Dan a watery half smile (he was at the front of the boat, I was at the back on the other side) and continue.

We had a couple more “freebies” and I felt my confidence rise, but I was still nervous, we got through “The 3 Sisters” and then hit “The Mother”.

I’m not afraid of things, I’ve bungee jumped, jumped out of a plane, been gliding, wanted to hang-glide for years now. I’m not an “adrenaline junkie” but I’m not really afraid of anything. Except Earthquakes, but that’s another story.

We approached this rapid, paddling, not holding on, and suddenly I was gone.

I tumbled underneath the water, pulled this way and that totally out of control. My head bobbed above water, I was far from the boat, I started to cry. I was pulled under.

It’s hard to explain what it’s like under there. Seconds turn into hours. The awesome power of the water pulling and pushing. boiling under me, hopeless to even think about what to do with my feet, and being pushed up to surface again. I spotted the boat even further, oars out of reach, panicking more than I thought I ever would and I was under again.

I keep seeing a visualization in front of me of Dan holding out an oar – and I can’t reach it, the water is taking me further and further away as I watching crying out. It’s a day later and I can’t stop seeing it.

I’ve never been so frightened in my life. Utter terror, I can’t put it into words. Rolling under the river, wondering if I was ever going to make it out. I swallowed more and more of the brown water water and felt heavy. My shoes were on, I should have been sinking. Thank god for the lifejacket, with trainers on and no ability or strength to fight against the waves and water, I think it genuinely saved my life. The rapids felt like forever.

The safety kayak was trying to get to me; and somehow (I honestly have no idea how) I still had my oar in my hand. In such a panicked state, he couldn’t pick me up (for safety reasons they can’t let someone who is panicking on a kayak, as it risks the kayaker), I tried to calm myself down for a few moments. I held on, trying to kick, still feeling at any moment that I’d be pulled off down stream.

I was pulled into the boat in a complete state of shock. I couldn’t stop crying.

Unbelievably, we moved on.

I wasn’t pulling myself together, I wasn’t calm, tears wouldn’t stop streaming down my face. I picked up my paddle, tried to stop my insides from screaming, and kept going.

A couple more smaller ones, and then a bigger one approached. I started to hyperventilate. I couldn’t stop, we moved through.

Looking back (I’m actually tearing up as I type this) I should have been pulled off. I should have walked the rest around the rocks. (which probably wasn’t possible) I was shaking and crying, with a bunch of strangers who didn’t speak my language and who offered no support, and with Dan at the front he couldn’t move down for a cuddle or a pat, and knowing it was the start, I was terribly frightened of what was ahead.

Each one we moved through terrified me further. Tears and shaking wouldn’t stop, our guide didn’t mention any more levels. A mere mention of the next set of rapids I would go further into shock, shaking, unable to breathe, tears coming faster. I wanted to be sick, but I’m not sure if that was the volume of water I swallowed.

Another one approached, I started to shake. I couldn’t breathe. I started to see Dan in the same position as me, drifting away. I was in a complete state of panic.
I thought we were okay as we moved through, but a huge wave pulled into the side I was on, and the boat flipped.

Somehow I ended up next to Dan, again unable to hold on to anything, floating away again, crying like I’ve never cried, in a total state of shock. Someone managed to get me. I think the only reason I was able to cope when we flipped the boat was because Dan was there. The idea of putting my head underwater and getting lost again terrified me.

The rest of the trip is a haze. Our friends would come close – their boat seemed to go an easier route, no flipping, no people involuntarily out.

I wish our guide had told us when the hard ones were over, I was in a terrible state, I just wanted it over.

And suddenly it was.

There were beautiful parts to the trip, the wide Zambezi River, full of rafts. The sharp sides to the gorge, Lion rock.

But as I slowly walked up the steep steep walk, I was still wondering how I manage to survive. Seeing an oar I couldn’t reach, my husbands face as I again was under the water – over and over and over and over.

Later that evening, we reviewed the DVD of a couple of the rapids. Interestingly it included the one I came off and the boat flip. On the first one, something had come up from below and tipped me (and the woman opposite me) off. I’d done a complete somersault, and went into the water backwards & headfirst. No wonder I panicked and was disorientated.

Our full boat flip had happened before the rapids really started, we moved through them, me starting to drift away again, somehow collected back to the boat.

I don’t know how I feel about it. The boat our friends were in didn’t flip, I’d like to say they had a much easier ride from reviewing the DVD, but maybe that’s me trying to explain to myself it was okay to be frightened.

A few of them said “Oh you had your life jacket you were fine” or “It wasn’t so bad, our boat didn’t even flip!” I started to feel ashamed of my fear, embarrassed that I’d completely lost the plot for a few hours.

After such a tough day I didn’t want to talk to anyone, so back to camp we ventured in search of coffee, which with icecream, totally soothed my soul.

Here’s a breakdown of the rapids and their levels if you’re interested:

“Overland Truck Eater” # 11: Class 5: A big barrel for about two weeks in the year during the transition between high and low water in mid January and early July. Watch out for the hole, eddy line and whirlpool. This is the first rapid on the “high water” run.

“Three Sisters” #12A,B,C: Class 3/4: 12B is the famous Zambezi surfing wave for kayakers – surfs best between August and December with two windows and a massive green shoulder and a big eddy. Rafters prefer the term “three little pigs”.

“The Mother” # 13: Class 4/5: A massive wave train at its best, first 3 waves super fast.
Rapid # 14: Class 3: Big S-bend in the river. Center chute to be avoided at lower water levels.

“Washing Machine” # 15: Class 5: Simple wave train but un-runnable in the middle because of a huge crashing hole – go left or right into the eddy.

“The Terminators I and II” # 16: Class 4: A massive wave train and trough at higher levels, not much when low.

“Double Trouble” # 17: Class 5: A simple wave train but un-runnable because of 2 large holes – also known as “The Bitch”.

“Oblivion” # 18: Class 5: Three waves make up THE rapid on the Zambezi.. The 3rd crashing wave is responsible for more raft flips than any other in the world – only about 1 in 4 attempts succeed! This rapid marks the end of the “low water” one-day run.

Rapids #19 to #25: Class 2/3: Easy runs at the end of the day. Rapid #23 is the last rapid on the “high water” one-day run.

Posted by: Ele Quigan | July 26, 2014

Africa Part 3 – Malawi and Zambia

Africa Part 3: Malawi & Zambia

After the relative wealth of Tanzania, Malawi has been a shock. One of the poorest countries in the world, I don’t know what I expected, but it was a really tough country to be in.

It’s beautiful, hilly, but not like Rwanda, which was steep & terraced, this was empty, but almost tropical. The hills were rolling, gentle, not sharp & severe. We drive through valleys of trees, lush with reds, greens and gold, the first deciduous trees we’ve seen.

The people look different, their foreheads are large, their chins just with an underbite. And there’s a bit of aggression. Kids are more demanding, fewer waves from truck windows. Pens, money, sweets, it’s different to previous times though. We had things thrown at our truck windows as people took photos. Kids pulling the finger as we drive past. I can almost understand why, but it’s hard. In being here we’re bringing money into the country, but you can see that it doesn’t filter down to where people need it most.

There’s no bright advertising here. No painted shops – there are much fewer of those too. The huts are red brick, but with window spaces and no glass, glass is too expensive. There are fewer hand pump wells, fewer lines of agriculture, and far fewer cows.

What do people eat? There’s not the smaller markets with buckets of onions & potatoes. Tomatoes are in single piles of 8 or 9, not on whole tables of tomatoes.

We pass villages not towns. Hardly any cars. Chief and churches the best buildings again.

The site of Lake Malawi is incredible. The sun setting behind the sky cools what looks like a grey sea, it’s hard to differentiate between the sky – they’re the same colour bar a single line.. The beach is a golden; dusty sand, a huge difference from the stark white of Tanzania. The sides of the hills are lines of rock, and the trees more temperate than what we’re used to. There’s no acacias here.

When we move on we stay in Kande beach for 3 nights. A break for washing and relaxing. It’s windy season so the beach is rough and loud – it’s hard to believe it’s a lake next to us. We want to snorkel but it’s too rough while we’re there.

We visit a village, and how simply the locals live really hits home. A school with 100 kids in each class, school journals and text books from New Zealand, that I remember learning from more than 25 years ago.

The medical centre with a small birthing centre attached is harder. Women are given a mosquito net when they get pregnant to try and reduce malarial deaths. The room where women give birth is a shock. It’s not white and sterile; it’s a bare room with no way to sterilize instruments. Knowing a friend is waiting at home ready to pop makes me wonder what she’d think of such a place.
We can’t help but donate a little, unsure if it really goes anywhere we feel obligated to do something. We buy from the young men who walk with us, practicing their English, selling paintings and carvings, making a living 500 kwacha at a time.

Back at the lake we swim away the shadow that followed us from the village. The water is warm, and sparkles with suspended particles in the light – like someone has sprinkled the water with glitter. We don’t see any fish.

Our days there are quiet. Relaxing. Swimming. Frisbee. Bao (local 2 player game)- I feel unwell for part of it and rest out of the sunshine. Our campsite has walls on the sides, the village and poverty hidden.

Another excruciatingly long truck day as we venture into Zambia. A quiet border, gone are the 3.5 hr crosses (I hope). And it’s suddenly busy. Cars everywhere, full houses. The wealth increase is obvious just a few kms into the country.

While there are still mud huts, still villages, the people here seem to have more.

We’re in South Luangwa National Park, as I write this from the campsite the river flows in front of me, hippos sunbathing, talking to each other. Monkeys are everywhere, one cheeky one stole an apple of my plate this morning – they’re not afraid of people, and can escape with scraps.

The park is laden with trees, more so than we’ve seen in any park yet. They’re bushy, perfect for hiding leopards, which this park is known for. At our dawn drive this morning we spot 3.

A mum in a tree, all I can see is a long, thick tail. Her young one at the base, hidden in the undergrowth, with a hyena lurking behind.

One is curled up in a dry riverbed. We creep close. It turns to face us.

Their coats are brighter than I expected, more cat-like than cheetah. You can imagine them slinking at dusk, looking for prey. Their eyes are golden, ears sort of round, sort of pointed. Long whiskers. I like them more than the lions, they’re more elusive.

We’re here for 1 more drive at dusk and one more night, before we venture on to the Zambezi River for 2 days canoeing before we cross into Zimbabwe to Victoria falls.

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