Swahili Coast Holiday

Sunrise at Peponi Beach Resort, Tanzania

We need a holiday! Ethiopia was full on and packed with sights and experiences so now we want to kick back and relax. We had a taste of luxury and relaxation at the place we stayed at in Malindi for three nights before we visited Lamu, and two nights afterward, but we need more. A day spent in Mombasa where we do battle with traffic and bureaucracy and a late drive south makes our arrival at our holiday spot in Diani Beach on the southern coast of Kenya even more welcome.

We booked our two week break here online and sometimes the pictures and description promise more than they deliver but not this time. We are in a two bedroom chalet in its own grounds and we even have our own swimming pool.

Diani Beach Bliss

A couple of staff look after the pool and grounds of this property and some others and help us with whatever we need. This includes arranging for a local fisherman to visit to provide us with our choice of fresh seafood and going down the street to buy us charcoal for our barbecues at local prices rather than the Mzungu (‘white man’) prices. The weather is hot and humid and there is no air conditioning but unless the power in the town is out (which happens several times), the fans keep the air flowing. Paul has fun getting stuck into some work on his photos and I finally start writing about our time in Ethiopia. And of course we can jump into the pool, and do so, many times each day starting from a pre-breakfast dip. As the day continues the pool heats up so by mid afternoon it initially feels very warm but after lazing in it for a while we feel refreshed.

We’re only a ten minute walk from the beach and we have high expectations of walking in the mornings and evenings most days but unfortunately we fall short of that and spend less time on the beach and more time in the pool than we planned. I guess that’s what a holiday is about. We go out for delicious meals a couple of times but mainly we are happy to be able to cook for ourselves in a real kitchen especially with fresh fish, prawns, octopus or calamari from the fisherman, access to real supermarkets for meat and groceries and a good range of fresh fruit and vegetables from the local stalls. We even manage to find some reasonably priced wine and some good croissants … not easy in East Africa.

When Paul was growing up in Kenya his family often holidayed in this area over the Christmas period. At that time (it was after all a very, very long time ago) the road was a single lane dirt road, there were a few holiday houses along the coast but there was no power or running water and the indigenous forests extended to the beach in most places. Now there are hotels and shopping centres, restaurants and resorts, and lots and lots of people. Its still very nice, and as I said the access to the supermarkets and electricity to run the fan and the pool pump has been very welcome, but we would also like a bit of time at a more laid-back location. After our fortnight holiday is complete we cross the border into Tanzania just 80km south then continue another 100km passing through the sea-side town of Tanga to Peponi Beach Resort. We camped here on our way north through Tanzania more than six months ago and it should be perfect for another week’s holiday before we hit the travel trail again. This coast is much quieter than the Kenyan coast and much closer to the holiday experience that Paul remembers from his childhood. 

The reef comes right into the shore and the tides are big so our view varies from exposed reef for more than 100 metres to water lapping the sand just below our camp. At high tide we can swim in the warm sea water and at other times we can have a dip in the resort pool. Unless it is a very high tide some sand remains at all times and villagers use the beach as their highway. Palm trees line the edge of the beach and a short walk in one direction takes us to a small fishing village where there is always plenty of activity when the boats bring their catches in or when groups wade through the water dragging nets along the channels in the reef. In the other direction a mangrove forest extends into the ocean.

Our camp site on the edge of the beach is perfect! We have a boma (shelter), plenty of shade, a nice pool, power to keep the fridges running so we have cold drinks and food, and a wonderfully peaceful atmosphere. It is so perfect that, at the end of the week, we decide we can stretch our food to stay an extra couple of days. Then, as we are trying to plan where we will be for Christmas, we decide we couldn’t find a nicer place than this so we extend even further and end up staying for two and a half weeks. As a bonus the resort is doing a big spread on Christmas Day so we book in to that and we won’t even have to think about what food we will need to buy to celebrate the day. We do however need to buy more food for the rest of the time so we drive back to Tanga and visit the excellent local market and quite good local supermarket and enjoy a very pleasant lunch at the Tanga Yacht Club. Our second week passes equally easily and we enjoy more idyllic days.

Our Christmas Day is relaxed and easy, tropical fruit and yoghurt with our breakfast, prawns and a crisp white wine for a light lunch then after a few dips in the pool we head up to the restaurant for our evening meal. It is a real feast and we sit at at long table with the other guests. Next to us are Geoff and Sally who own a property a short distance away as well as the new South Africa owners who took on the Peponi property three months ago.

Christmas Feast at Peponi Beach Resort, Tanzania

Finally holiday season is over and we need to travel on. We have less than two weeks left on our Tanzanian Temporary Import permit for the car and we don’t want to spend hours trying to extend it so we will need to pick up the pace. At least we are starting our journey south feeling well rested and refreshed.

Ethiopia Part 4, The Danakil Depression

Sulphur Springs, Danakil Depression, Ethiopia 2018

Sulphur Springs, Danakil Depression, Ethiopia 2018

The Danakil Depression, a place you read about in magazines on a plane going somewhere else, or in brochures in an air-conditioned travel agency. The hottest place on earth and one of the lowest at over one hundred metres below sea level. Weird landscapes that have been transported from a different planet. A place where foreign interlopers are viewed at the same time with disdain, indifference and suspicion. Not just by the people but by the country itself. Not somewhere you are going to go out of your way to visit. A place that sounds like hell on earth.

Active volcanoes with the oldest permanent lava lake on earth with hundreds of thousands of acres of blackened lava beds that are hard on shoes and even harder on car tyres. Bubbling sulphur springs and pools of acid set in an alien, technicolour landscape of bright yellows, lime greens, and gaudy oranges. Dried lake beds of white salt stretching over the horizon, too bright to look at under the noon day sun but, at sunset in the middle of this vastness, a wondrous place to watch the reflected blues, pinks and purples and the yellowing rays of the sun. A sun that, day after day, bakes the earth and everything else around until every bit of moisture has evaporated leaving nothing but salt or desiccated husks.

The Danakil Depression is located at one end of the largest rupture in the surface of all the continents on this planet, the Great Rift Valley. A rupture that will one day, thankfully in the distant future, split the biggest continent in two and the Danakil Depression will disappear under the sea.

Temperatures here regularly reach 50 degrees Centigrade and the average, year round temperature is over 34 degrees. Nothing grows here, nothing! There are enormous, very shallow and very salty lakes but you cannot drink the water. The Danakil stretches west from the Red Sea in neighbouring Eritrea until it runs up against a barren range of mountains over 2,000 metres high. Every pebble, rock and gigantic fold on the eastern side of these mountains is exposed to the desert winds and sun. On the other side of the mountains sits a very different world of farms, villages and towns amongst valleys and mountain ranges that seem to rise and fall for ever into the distant blue haze.

The hills are getting drier as we head toward the Danakil Depression, Ethiopia 2018

The Danakil, a desert of salt lakes, hot sulphur springs and volcanoes, is home to the Afar, a warrior people whose lives have changed very little in thousands of years. They live in small, rounded huts with rough walls of rocks covered over with thin sticks and fabrics. The rock walls fit loosely together leaving numerous gaps designed to let any little breeze through. There are no doors. 

Afar Village, Erta Ale Volcano, Danakil Depression, Ethiopia 2018

Most of the Afar live in small villages around the edge of the Danakil where there is some water and sparse desert grasses to feed their herds of camels, donkeys, goats and sheep.

These days they carry semi-automatic rifles and there is still a sense of tension although the long-running war between Ethiopia and Eritrea has now ended. There are one or two small towns where there are basic markets and some rough accommodation for travellers, typically a mattress on the floor of a large communal room.

Village, Afar Region, Ethiopia 2018

This is the place we have come to see and it turns out to be one of the highlights of our time in Ethiopia. With some trepidation we decide we want to go there in our own car but no private travellers are permitted in the Danakil. Village chiefs must be paid and armed escorts are compulsory. We eventually settle on World Sun, a tour company in Mekele, who are willing for us to tag along with one of their groups for less than half the price quoted on the web sites.

We leave Mekele just after 9am in convoy with one other vehicle which is carrying our terrific guide, Gere, Joachim from Germany, plus two other support staff. We will be meeting up with another vehicle in the small town of Abala situated below the mountains at the western edge of the Danakil. It looks like it will be a very small group which is great! It takes us a couple of hours to reach Abala and we arrive before the others so we sit and have a coffee in a roadside stall as is the custom in Ethiopia.

The car we are waiting to meet is carrying three tourists so it is a group of six including us, plus Gere, the cook and the drivers. 

We are back on the road before long and we have been given a radio so that we can communicate with the others. The country changes as we move from the foothills east where it levels out and stunted thorn bushes grow. We see the odd herd of goats and camels early on but after a while they are very few and far between.

Old Volcano, Danakil Depression, Ethiopia 2018

After another couple of hours of driving on the tar road which leads to Eritrea we turn north onto a sandy track which takes us to a village where our guide stops to find the local chief. We take the opportunity to let some air out of our tyres now that we are off the tar road.

Afar Village, Erta Ale Volcano, Danakil Depression, Ethiopia 2018

It isn’t long before we are moving again and we are driving across a sandy plain. Plumes of dust rise high in the air behind each car and the tracks fan out so we each end up driving on different tracks keeping an eye on each others dust. Our vehicle is carrying more weight so we are a bit slower, especially when we hit softer patches of sand. We are in four-wheel drive so we make it across these patches quite easily.

Desert Driving, Erta Ale Volcano, Danakil Depression, Ethiopia 2018

After about half an hour of this easy driving across the desert, the tracks converge and we come to the first of the lava fields we have to cross.

The remaining distance is quite short and we can see Erta Ale, the volcano we are here to see, but we are now moving at a much slower pace, between 5 and 10km per hour. The track is easily visible since the tour companies come out here nearly every day but the rocks are still rough and I begin to wonder whether we should have bought new tyres. We will definitely need them after this. After another hour and a half of driving we finally arrive at a roughly made village which seems to exist purely as a place to bring tourists to have dinner and prepare for the trek to the volcano. It is about 4pm when we arrive. We can see clouds of smoke coming from the top of the volcano in the distance.

Erta Ale Volcano, Danakil Depression, Ethiopia 2018

Old Lava, Erta Ale Volcano, Danakil Depression, Ethiopia 2018

We rest in the shade until the day starts to cool a little and then I am up and about taking photos. There are several convoys of vehicles parked around the place and groups of tourists sorting our their gear ready for the walk to Erta Ale. In amongst all of this are lots of camels which will carry mattresses and extra water.

Around sunset we have our evening meal and soon after that we are ready to leave. We are each given two bottle of water for the walk to the volcano. We will need them for the 14km walk! The sun has set but there is still plenty of light for the moment. The first part of the walk is through a sandy gully and across a plain. The sand is a little soft but it is easy going.

Erta Ale Volcano, Danakil Depression, Ethiopia 2018

Maybe I shouldn’t have eaten so much food though! It isn’t long before the path rises a little as we cross a lava plain. Our pace slows a little and I am starting to feel the heat. Even though the sun has well and truly set it is still over thirty degrees and the air is extremely dry. We take small swallows of water and try to conserve it for later on.

The sky is now completely dark and we are using torches to pick our way across the lava fields which are getting higher. We are using a little water to wet some ‘special ‘cloths we carry so that we can cool our heads and drape around our necks. Gere is terrific and he starts to make the rest stops a little more frequent. I certainly need them. The rest of our group is much younger than us and they are very patient. Eventually Gere tells us that we are now starting to climb the volcano. Funny, I thought we were nearly there! I am really feeling the heat and I need more rests as we climb. The temperature doesn’t seem to have changed at all. We are wearing the good walking shoes we bought in Tasmania and we certainly need them on these rough and sharp volcanic rocks. It is the first time I have worn shoes in well over a year and my feet are not liking the confinement at all. My socks are soaked in sweat.

We reach the camp at the top of the volcano around 10:30pm and we are exhausted. Gere shows us where we will be sleeping and says that we can rest for a short while before we go down to the edge of the inner crater to see the molten lava which is another 10-15 minutes walk after climbing down some steep steps in the rocks. Julie decides to rest for longer and wait until the early hours of the morning. I’m afraid that if I don’t go now I won’t make it at all. Julie beds down on her mattress inside an enclosure surrounded by a low wall of rocks. 

I grab my tripod which came up on the back of a camel and the rest of us make our way down to the inner caldera and, on strict instructions, we follow in Gere’s footsteps across the brittle lava. Some of it is less than a year old and still brittle and honey-combed with hollow channels which wouldn’t bear our weight. It is fairly slow going but before long we reach the edge of the inner crater. The breeze is variable and every so often we have to cover our nose and mouth as the smoke comes over us. It is very dark and there is no moon so the only light comes from inside the volcano or from the distant stars. Gere peers over the edge and decides we should move around the lip a short distance which we do.

As I sit on a rock and rest I start to visualise some compositions which I can photograph. I love the red colour of the clouds reflecting the light from below. I take these shots at about 11:30pm. I’m glad I brought my tripod!

Erta Ale Volcano, Danakil Depression, Ethiopia 2018

We wait for a short while but we don’t manage to see any trails of molten lava below us and we are all tired so we head back up to our camp. Gere says that he will wake us at 4:30am to try again to see the lava. I’m totally exhausted when we reach our camp and I bed down as quickly as I can. I need some sleep and I decide to forego the early rise which Julie makes with the others and guess what … they manage to see some of the molten lava. I have a good rest and I take some photos of the group walking back across the brittle lava of the inner caldera.

We start walking back down just before sunrise and our legs are getting more and more wobbly. Well mine are for sure. The walk up took us nearly four and a half hours. It will be a little less going down and we will only need one bottle of water. Nevertheless, we get back to the village a little after 9am and have some breakfast after a rest. 

Now it’s time to drive back to Abala for one night. I have had enough walking for a while. My feet are in a bad way and one toe nail is bruised and I lose another two toe nails a few weeks later. We repeat the slow drive back across the lava fields and then we reach the sandy plain. We have some fun with the three vehicles driving abreast across the sand with the dust billowing behind us. We reach the tar road and turn east towards Eritrea. It is not far to some hot springs and a salt lake where we get out and wade in the lake. In this temperature we are not really interested in the hot springs. After a bit we head back out to the road and we make it to Abala by early evening. We are in the trailing vehicle and we note how the other drivers are very careful when passing the herds of goats along the way. We wonder why the local people have to graze their animals so close to the road.

Back in Abala we find our lodging for the night and Julie and I decide to use our roof top tent. It will get any breeze there is and it is mosquito proof so we should get a better sleep than we might in a window-less communal room. Our group is down to three as the other vehicle has headed back to Mekele but before dark another group arrives that are on their way to Erta Ale. They all hail from Israel and we have a good chat about our travels. One of them is after a Coca Cola which isn’t available in town but I fetch one from our fridge for him. In the morning they return the favour and make us some Israeli coffee. Pretty good!

During the evening there are several people coming and going and we understand that the woman who owns the property is an elder and influential in the town. At some stage a policeman arrives in the compound and we realise that there are some serious discussions going on. I wander across to find out what is happening and Gere tells me that we have been accused of running over a goat on our way back to town. I immediately invite the policeman to inspect our car but he wants us to take it to the police station where it will be impounded. We have already set up our roof top tent and we intend going to bed fairly soon so we are not really interested in this. Eventually the policeman agrees that we can visit the police station in the morning to clear the matter up. We ask Gere what the price of a goat is and he tells us the (obviously inflated) price of a goat and a camel. Over a hundred dollars for a goat and over a thousand for a camel. Hah!

After breakfast the next morning we drive around to the police station with our host and Gere. We park in the street and get out and chat to a few of the policemen around about. We aren’t included in the discussions but we gather that another tour company was originally accused of running over the goat and they denied it and fingered us as the ‘ferengi’ that hit the goat. The discussions continue across the road at a nearby coffee shop. Nobody is bothering to look at the two vehicles that were allegedly involved. The owner of the dead goat is demanding justice. We decide that we need another coffee as well so we sit down across from another group of policemen and we start talking. Eventually they take some phones out and start taking selfies with us but we aren’t allowed to take any … so no photos, sorry.

We have to hand it to Gere. After about an hour the discussions are wrapped up and the two tour companies agree to pay half each for the ‘dead goat’ and we are grateful that, not only were we not involved in the discussions, but we haven’t been forced to pay either. 

We are now free to leave town and we head north along the base of the mountain range west of the Danakil on the road to Dalol where the sulphur springs and salt works are located. The drive through the foothills of the mountains is spectacular and we take some photos en-route.

Mountain Range, Danakil Depression, Ethiopia 2018

We stop briefly in a village for lunch and continue towards our new camp which is a short distance from Dalol. 

After a quick stop there we move on out onto the salt pans which seem to be endless. Our first visit is to some sacred rocks which are about the only thing that rise out of the flats. They are brown and made of ancient salt. The local Afar people eat pieces of the rock when they are sick and apparently it helps with stomach problems.

Nearby is another small hot spring which a few people from another group take a dip in.

Our next stop is for a sunset view beside a salt lake which disappears over the horizon. We drive as close as possible before the salt becomes to wet and before the cars start sinking. We set up tables and chairs and get out the cold drinks and nibbles from our fridge which we are very glad to have with us! The colours are amazing and I have a lot of fun with my tripod, wading out into the shallow lake to get the reflections. 

Our small group is very relaxed and we take some photos of the group before we leave.

We drive back to camp for dinner, arriving a little after dark. It is still very hot and there is a strong wind blowing. The landscape is desolate with rocks covering low undulations and very little grass. We find some shelter behind one of the huts. Our cook is inside with the fire and that’s the last thing we want to get close to. After supper we make ourselves comfortable on some rough beds up against the shack.

Bed under the stars, Danakil Depression, Ethiopia 2018

We are protected from most of the wind but we get just enough to keep us relatively cool. Even so we only need a sheet and it isn’t long before we fall asleep gazing at the myriad of stars.

The next morning is another early one. we leave at 6am to get out to the sulphur springs before the other tour group which is much larger and tends to take over when they arrive anywhere. It isn’t far and it is only 10 minutes walk from the cars. This is the lowest point in the Danakil at around 140 metres below sea level.

What a sight! I’ll let the photos speak for themselves. 

I also get the drone out and take some shots which I am quite pleased with. Some of these have been posted on Whitefella Walkabout Photography on Facebook

Gere has warned us about the slippery rocks and we take care. One of the young women who who was also at Erta Ale, the volcano, slipped and her feet went into one of the pools and they were badly burned by the acid. She had both feet bandaged and couldn’t walk without help, but she made it up to the volcano on the back of a camel. 

We start heading back to the cars just as other people start arriving. We are glad we made it out so early. It is already over 40 degrees when we reach the cars at about 9am. We really want to get our of the sun now and drink some water!

We stop a short way away for breakfast in a small, muddy canyon where the salt encrusted walls provide some much needed shade.

Our next visit is to the salt works which the Afar people have been working for over a thousand years. It is hot, horrible work in temperatures around 50 degrees. The crust of the dry bed of the ancient salt lake is cracked using pieces of wood as levers and then salt blocks of 5kg are shaped by hand using primitive tools and tied into bundles to be loaded onto camels.

Camel caravans still carry the salt to distant markets taking two weeks to get to places like Lalibela.

A 5kg block of salt is worth about 9 Birr here. In Lalibela it sells for about 200 Birr. The salt miners are very loth to change their traditional methods though. They refuse to allow trucks to carry the salt away and refuse to change their mining methods as they fear losing control of the salt and their livelihood.

It is finally time to go and it is good to get back into an air-conditioned car for the drive back to Mekele. We stop again as we drive through the foothills to take some more photos.

Camel Caravan

After that the road starts climbing until we are at about 2,400m above seal level and it is much cooler. What a contrast from the sulphur springs about 2.5km below us and less than 100km away.

We cruise back into Mekele and say goodbye swapping contact details and expressing our gratitude for the care and professionalism of our guide and the tour company. We are very glad we made it there and back. Now if only our tyres will hold out until we get back to Kenya.

Ethiopia Part 6, A Quick Visit to Eastern Ethiopia

Colour, Harar Old Town, Ethiopia 2018

The northern historical circuit and our excursion to the Danakil Depression in northern Ethiopia have all been fabulous and now it is time to explore other parts of the country. We didn’t get to visit the Simien Mountains National Park but we would still like to spend some time in the high country and hopefully see some Ethiopian wolves and other wildlife. One place we could visit which might fit the bill is a bit off the beaten track in the Menz-Guassa Community Conservation Area, south of Lalibela. We’ll need to travel on some rocky seldom travelled  roads to reach it which could be very tricky after rain. The rain begins on our last night in Lalibela and is continuing intermittently so we’ll need to watch the weather and reassess later. It continues raining most of the day and it is slow travelling on winding roads and with lots of slow moving traffic.

We stop for the night in the town of Dessie and consider our options. The dirt roads up to the conservation area will be tricky and camping in the high country in the mud and rain is less than appealing so we decide we’ll skip it and instead visit the Bale Mountains National Park in the south east of the country later. Before that though we decide to travel into eastern Ethiopia and visit the old Islamic town of Harar. We take the road east from Dessie to the southern end of the Danakil Depression. If we continued east we would be heading toward northern Djbouti and Eritrea which both sound fascinating but not on this trip. Instead we take the Djbouti Road south into eastern Ethiopia. We had thought it might be a dirt road but there is brand new bitumen and the only other traffic on this road are some trucks which are heading for the coast. The borders to Eritrea have only recently been opened and the traffic is light and the road flat and straight so we make good progress. We are back in camel country and while there are signs of recent rain it becomes much less as we head south and the temperature rises once again.

Unusually wet for camel country, Ethiopia 2018

Our good road finishes at Awash and we turn east and are back on one of the main highways to Djibouti. Our progress is much slower. We are heading back into higher country so we have lots of winding roads and hills, the road conditions deteriorate and there are regular pot holes, and much more traffic. This is the main road east from Addis Ababa and there are lots of trucks. There are also lots of villages and local traffic and animals so we need drive carefully, not a bad thing as the views along the way are worth slowing for anyway. Numerous wrecked trucks show that they don’t always take the appropriate caution, I imagine there are other vehicles in accidents as well but as they are lighter they are easier to remove. One truck in the middle of a village has us wondering.

Your guess is as goods ours, Ethiopia 2018

After an overnight stop along the way we reach Harar. The old walled town is World Heritage-listed and has 368 alleys squeezed into its 1 sq km. We find a hotel just outside the old town and after lunch we wander inside. Like many other places in Ethiopia its history is imprecise. It was founded somewhere between the 7th and 13th centuries and in the 17th and 18th centuries it was an important centre of Islamic scholarship and was almost never visited by Europeans. 5m high walls surround the old town and there are 6 gates including one which admits vehicles which was added in 1889.

Entrance to Harar’s old walled town, Ethiopia 2018

As we walk in the old streets we are surrounded by people wanting to guide us or just wanting a hand out. It is immediately off-putting and we are reluctant take photos even if they are of the street and buildings and not of people. We wander down some lane ways, not as relaxed as we would like because of the continual attention we are getting. 

 Colourful robes and Peugot 404 cars catch our attention as do the frequent bhajaj. When Paul was growing up in Nairobi they had a Peugeot 404 station wagon for a while and they were popular at the time because they had won the East African Safari Rally three times in a row. They still seem to be popular here, perhaps because we are very close to Djibouti which was a French colony.

We visit the museum dedicated to Arthur Rimbaud, a famous French poet who lived in Harar for about 10 years. It is interesting to speculate about the life he led and what brought him to this place which must have seemed completely remote and cut off from his life in France.

Other alleys lead us past the tailors shops and small houses to the butchers area where black kites line the roof tops hoping for some meat. Tourists are encouraged to buy a little meat and hand feed the kites which swoop down to take it.

We had planned to stay at least two nights in Harar but in the morning we decide we are not really enjoying the atmosphere in Harar, the lane ways are not particularly scenic and the attention from the people is intrusive and sometimes aggressive.  There seems to be a different sense of personal space here and we feel crowded. Kids hold our hands or just hang on to our clothing, its sort of cute for a little while but then gets a bit much and we decide to continue our travels. We  return along the main road we came here, it is still busy and people still clamour around us whenever we stop so we just keep going.

Eastern Ethiopian Town, Ethiopia 2018

We make good time and reach Awash where we spend the night in a delightful old French colonial rest house which used to be the railway station which is run by an Italian-Ethiopian woman. We had two flat tyres on or way to Lalibela and had them repaired with plugs. One of the repaired tyres is flat again so we try again in the morning before we leave town and we also get a temporary fix to a leaking fuel pipe. We spend the day driving south along a minor road toward the main road which leads to the Bale Mountains. Once again the minor road gives us a much better run than highways. For the first time in Ethiopia we are travelling across fairly flat land which receives good rainfall and we see agriculture on a much bigger scale and the use of heavy machinery including large tractors and harvesters. It is such a contrast to the terraced slopes in the mountains where all work is done by hand.

Patchwork Fields, Southern Ethiopia 2018

The day begins hot and dry in Awash but as we continue south the clouds build and before we reach the end of this road it is fully overcast and rain is threatening.

We stop over night in the town of Dodola where we enjoy their take on ‘traditional tibbs and enjira’ then travel east to the Bale Mountains the next day. The road climbs and then travels along ridges providing great views to the valleys below. The land is green and there are lots of scattered villages throughout the valleys, it is a highly populated area. As the road climbs further we enter the clouds and are surrounded by mist and drizzle.

In the Clouds on the way to the Bale Mountains, Ethiopia 2018

Through clear patches the scenery is stunning, great escarpments are on one side of of the road and gentler hills on the other. The road takes us through a part of the national park, the Gaysay Grassland and we are slightly lower here and below the clouds. This is supposed to be a good spot for wildlife but we don’t expect to see any next to the road. We stop to adjust a latch on the car and to our surprise a large male kudu is grazing less than 20 metres from us. It is still early and we could continue up into the high section of the mountains today but at more then 4,000 metres high it will be very cold so we spend the afternoon and night in the town of Goba. We’ll leave very early in the morning and have our breakfast at the top of the mountains, hopefully watching Ethiopian wolves.

Ethiopia Part 3, The Tigray Region

Stunning Succulents, Gheralta Area, Tigray, Ethiopia 2018

After we leave Aksum we continue our journey east passing through the town of Adwa. It was in this region that Emperor Menelik II inflicted the biggest defeat ever on a colonial army in Africa, thus saving Ethiopia from colonisation by Italy. Before we reach the next big town of Adrigat we begin our detours to see some of the amazing landscapes in northern Tigray. Scattered sharp peaks rise into the sky out of a sandy, rolling semidesert and perched amongst these peaks are 120-odd churches. These are carved from cliff faces, built into pre-existing caves or constructed high atop some improbable perch. 

Many of the churches are open to tourists, provided you have a guide to find the church and pay an entry fee. Often you also need to pay somebody to find the priest to open the door, you may also need to tip the priest as well as paying the entry fee and you are frequently surrounded by kids begging for money or sweets or pens. On top of that many are very hard to reach and can involve climbing sheer rock faces with or without the aid of ropes. With all that in mind we have decided to take in as much of the scenery as we can by driving around the area and to visit just a few churches which we can find on our own.

The road to Debre Damo Monastery is reputed to be a contender for Ethiopia’s most beautiful drive so we take the detour to the north of the main road. Here we are close to the border with Eritrea and as far north as we are going to be on this part of journey. The scenery is every bit as good as we hoped and we have a lovely few hours wandering along the dusty road stopping frequently to take in the views and to take photos. The monastery is perched high on a rocky mesa and we’re sure there would be even more amazing views from there but we give it a miss. For a start it is for men only and then there is the ascent which includes scaling a sheer 15m cliff. Even with a rope to pull yourself up and a rope around your torso so the priests can help haul you up it would still be an extremely strenuous and nerve wracking climb.

Debre Damo Monastery, Northern Tigray Region, Ethiopia 2018

The land is dry and dusty with rocks scattered everywhere. Houses are constructed from carefully selected and laid rocks and the roof is covered in soil and grass, great insulation. Slopes are terraced and ripe yellow wheat creates patterns between the dusty brown rocks and scattered green shrubs. The road winds through the hills and we pass deep gorges, scattered settlements, haystacks perched on bare rocky slopes and churches on top of rocky hills surveying the scene below.

After hours driving around that magical area we finally reach the town of Adrigat. Its not a very interesting town but 4km south of the town there is a nice lodge on a hill top and they allow camping out the back of the rooms. We enjoy a sunset drink looking across the valley to the next ridge where there is yet another church with a commanding view.

Adrigat Sunset, Northern Tigray Region, Ethiopia 2018

South from here are hundreds of churches and a couple of choices on which road we take to continue. The scenery south of Megab sounds particularly interesting and there are a couple of reasonable sounding accommodation options in that area so we are headed that way but first we want to visit the Medhane Alem Kesho Church. Its not far south of the turn we want to take and is fairly easily accessible so we think we can find it without a guide. Once we leave the main road we pass stone huts, some with goats grazing on the roof, flat pastures and terraced slopes. After a couple of wrong turns on the rocky side roads and several offers of help from local ‘guides’ we find the 4WD track which leads close to the church.

At the top of the track there are Orthodox Christians wearing their traditional white robes streaming down the hill from the church and joining more than one hundred others sitting below a large tree or gathering in groups to chat. We find out a funeral has just finished and that is the reason for the big turn out on a Monday morning.

The path to the church is very clear and with the service just completed we know the priest will be around and the church open but that doesn’t stop several young guys very insistently offering their services as a guide and following us all the way in the hope we will give them a fee. After a ten minute walk up the hill we pause to admire the view over the country below us then walk the remaining few minutes to the church which is hewn out of the rocky hilltop.

After we pay our fee we are allowed to enter the church. Daylight shines through the doorway and windows to a narrow entrance hall but once through the inner door there is very little light apart from our torch. The interior is also roughly hewn but there is an elaborately carved coffered ceiling.

 Back on the main road we make our way through Hawzien and Megab to the Gheralta area. Here we find another lodge who will allow us to camp and best of all they are perched on a hill with awesome views. Paul will be able to take sunrise photos and I won’t even have to get out of bed!

 

Pre-sunrise colours from Korkor Lodge, Gheralta Area, Tigray, Ethiopia 2018

Later in the afternoon we head out for some exploring. We find a small track leading into the heart of a range of hills and we follow it to see what we can see. We are more than happy with the wonderful scenery and views of rural life.

We tour around the area extensively the next day capturing more views.

Naturally Paul finds the light and colours best in the late afternoon and just after the sun has set so we are late returning to the lodge. As often happens we can stop the car and there is nobody around but within a very short time there are people clustered around the car or intently watching Paul while he is taking photos. 

Luckily we had arranged to have dinner in the lodge so we join the other guests and the owners at the table and share stories of travels and sights in Ethiopia. As we are leaving very early in the morning we say our farewells to the hosts after dinner, they didn’t charge us for staying so we just need to settle up for our meal and drinks. We see the sun rise as we are leaving and just a short distance down the road we reach a spot Paul has seated for an early morning panorama.

Early Morning Panorama, Gheralta Area, Tigray, Ethiopia 2018

It is still early and we don’t have far to go today so we backtrack to Hawzien as they have their weekly market today. Its a bustling place with lots of colour and activity.

Back on the road south we pass the white painted church of Dugem Selassie before we reach the last of the Tigray churches we plan to visit, the 10th century church of Abraha We Atsheha. Its a large cruciform shaped church with cruciform pillars and well preserved 17th and 18th century murals as well as a wonderful wooden door.

There will be more churches further on in our journey but in the meantime we are heading for the Mekele, the capital of the Tigray area and a busy university town. We, and many others, are here to arrange a tour to the Danakil Depression, our next adventure.

Uganda

Dead Dutchmen Falls, Uganda

Dead Dutchman Falls, Uganda

Border crossings are almost always a drawn out affair what with the processing through immigration and customs for the country we are leaving and for the country we are entering, plus any add-ons  for third party insurance and local taxes. In our travels so far we have been able to get our visas at the border without any hassles but the paper work takes time. Visas are usually paid for in US$, which we do carry, but fees for a Temporary Import Permit for the car, or for road taxes, or for any other thing the country decides we need, have to be paid for in local currency. This means we also need to find an ATM or a money changer at the border. To do all this we figure a straightforward crossing is likely to take two hours so we are pleasantly surprised when we get through the Busia border crossing from Kenya into Uganda in less than one and a half hours. Hopefully its a good omen for our visit to Uganda.

We are still travelling with Jared and Jen and for our first night in Uganda we are headed for Jinja, the town on Lake Victoria located at the source of the White Nile. Well actually we are headed for a camp site 15 km down river so we are able to miss the traffic in the centre of Jinja but get stuck in the traffic snarl where the ring road crosses the Nile and roadworks are in progress around the construction site of the big new bridge. 

It is late afternoon when we reach The Haven River Lodge and it is probably one of the nicest camps we have stayed at in Africa. We have grassy sites overlooking the river and rapids, shade for us and sunshine for Jared and Jen … which are our respective preferences. Power and WiFi are available at the camp sites and the very clean showers have plenty of space and hot water. Complimentary glasses of orange juice are delivered to our sites on arrival and if we don’t want to walk the short distance to the bar and restaurant we can ring to have coffee or drinks delivered to us. The views of the Nile and the rapids, Dead Dutchman Falls, are fantastic. Its no wonder we end up staying almost a week.

The sun rises above the hills opposite and early morning is also a good time to watch the fishermen putting their nets into the river above the rapids.

As well as wonderful views of the rapids and the river we also have good views of the Plantain-Eaters which are a large Turaco. A Fish Eagle often perches in a nearby tree and hundreds of egrets roost on the trees above the falls. An inquisitive blue lizard watches us from a nearby tree.

Red-tailed monkeys scamper through the trees, they are a shy animal and don’t approach the camps so our food is not at risk from them. 

We travel into Jinja one day to complete a few chores and to visit the source of the Nile. Unfortunately we picked a Friday and traffic is even thicker and slower than when we arrived in the area. We get our new sim card and buy a few supplies at a supermarket, not as much as we hoped as the choices are very limited. Then we find a Mexican restaurant and Jared and Jen are very pleased with the food and declare it the best Mexican style food they have had since they left the US. 

After lunch we cross the river and drive down to some gardens where we can walk down to a monument to see where the White Nile starts its journey to the Mediterranean. There is some argument as to whether the Nile or the Amazon are the longest rivers but there isn’t much in it. 

Dead Dutchmen Falls, Uganda

The Source of the White Nile, Jinja, Uganda

Finally we decide that, although we would like to stay at the Haven for a while longer, we only have a limited time in Uganda and plenty we want to see so we better move on. We are heading toward Kidepo National Park in the far north east of the country. Its a long trip and we need at least two stops along the way. The first is at Sipi Falls in the foothills of Mt Elgon. We stay at Moses Camp and find level spots with fantastic views over the plains below and with just a few steps to a great view of the falls. Facilities are far more basic but we can still get warm showers as they heat the water then carry it to waterbags in the showers. The staff are very keen to make us comfortable and we relax and our one night stay extends to three before once again we feel we need to cover more territory.

A longer drive the next day gets us to Kotido deep into Karamojaland. This used to be a very dangerous area to travel through but since the people were disarmed in 2011/12 when 40,000 AK-47s were confiscated it has become safe for tourists to travel through. Now it is an interesting drive, reasonable roads for the most part and lots and lots of villages and people. Many of the Karamoja men wear hats with a feather stuck in them and Paul’s Akubra with his collection of feathers gains lot of attention and admiration.

We spend the night at the Karamoja Cultural centre where they have an area available for camping next to a small primary school. There are three young girls near the spot we will camp in when we arrive and they come and introduce themselves with the oldest shaking hands and the two younger girls executing perfect curtseys … wonder where that custom came from.

Its an easy drive next morning to the national park. While park fees are cheaper in Uganda than in Kenya or Tanzania they are by no means cheap. Here we have to pay $US40 per person per day plus $US50 for the vehicle entry so we are limiting our visit to the park to just 24 hours. Luckily the camping fees are cheap at just 15,000 Uganda shillings per person ($AUD5.50).

As we enter the park one of the rangers asks if we’d like to see a Cape Cobra which is a short distance up the track partly in the bushes. We get a reasonable view but then it slides back into the grasses, that’s close enough for me and I’m quite happy not to see any others but I think Paul would have liked a closer look. As we drive toward the main camping area we start to see some wildlife including zebra, buffalo and plenty of Jackson’s hartebeest. We have been driving through so many villages and small farms that it is nice to be back in the bush looking over plains to the mountains beyond. Some of the mountains mark the border with the DRC (Democratic Republic of Congo).

At the main reception we have the choice of camping there or at a bush camp. We always prefer the bush but its also nice to have some amenities and when we find out the bush camp has showers and flushing toilets it makes it an easy choice. We follow a side track toward the bush camp seeing more game along the way and when we reach the camp we are very pleased with the location. It is on the top of a hill with 360 degree views over the valleys and plains.

Kidepo National Park, Uganda

Great Campsite in Kidepo National Park, Uganda

We pick our spots near the top of the hill and Jared and Jen drop off the trailer and we head out for a game drive. Paul has his camera mount on the side of the car ready for more game viewing and we see more of the same animals and also eland, duikers and elephants and Abyssinian Ground Hornbill, a new one for us.

We complete a loop track near our camp then decide to head for another track on the other side of the valley. When the track becomes muddy and appears unlikely to reveal many animals we decide to turn around and head back by another side track. This track shows little sign of recent use and as we go further it gets narrower and narrower and with more and more signs of mud. Before long it is obvious we can’t get through this way but it is too narrow and too wet along the sides to turn around so we have to reverse to the junction of the two tracks and retreat the way we entered the area. Oh well, its far better than getting stuck.

We head out for another game drive in the morning with high hopes of spotting some lions but no such luck, we have to make do with more of the same animals and beautiful views as yesterday, not such a bad thing at all. After an early lunch we need to make tracks for the park exit to ensure that we are out within our 24 hours. 

Paul’s cold has eased a bit but he now has a tummy bug so its a short days drive and we stop for the night at a guest house and small camping area not very far from the southern gate of the park. Next day we have a longish drive across the north west area of Uganda to a camp site just north of the Murchison Falls National Park. By now Jared, Jen and I are all starting to feel the effects of the dreaded cold so we have a rest day the following day before entering the park. Its a very pleasant place to spend our down time with extremely friendly staff, good facilities and giraffe and cob (a type of antelope) wandering through the property.

Once again we will only be in this national park for 24 hours and the main attraction we are here to see is the waterfall so we book a place on the afternoon boat trip and head south toward the river. Its a good drive with interesting scenery and game scattered along the way and there are plenty of tracks we could explore but we have just enough time to drive slowly to the river where we have lunch while waiting for our boat trip.

Huge baboons wander through the busy picnic area where people are either waiting for the next vehicle ferry to take them across the Nile or have just arrived from the south side on the last ferry before their lunch break. The baboons are big and confident, they rummage through rubbish bins and one hops into the open top of a safari vehicle and finds a banana before being chased out. They can be vicious and are very strong, I would not be at all keen on getting too close to one or trying to chase it away if it didn’t want to leave.

Our boat trip is on a two level open boat and although it is nearly full with people who have boarded on the other side of the river we manage to get some good seats at the front of the top so we have great views going up river. Its not long before we are seeing wildlife along the banks. The giraffe here are a much darker variety and the older they get the darker they become.

Hippos and crocs share the river and its banks and buffalo and waterbuck graze on the green grass.

There are scores of Pied King-fishers hovering above the river, there must be abundant fish, and darters rest on the branches after their morning fishing.

Murchison Falls, also known as Kabalega Falls, is not the highest or widest of falls but it is spectacular. Above the falls the Nile is 50 metres wide and it is then squeezed through a 6 metre gap in the rocks and it crashes through the narrow gorge with unbelievable power. Our boat stops a safe distance away where we are sheltered from the strong current by a small island so we can get some good views of the falls before we turn and return to the ferry crossing with more crocs, hippos and other animals being seen along the way.

Uganda - 11

Murchison Falls, Uganda

When we get back to our vehicles we are lucky to get on to the vehicle ferry to cross the river with very little delay as we are all weary after the day’s activities and I for one am still suffering the effects of the nasty cold. We make our way to our campsite which is downstream on the banks of the river and all happily elect to eat in the restaurant rather than cook our meals. It is a delicious four course meal and a very pleasant end to the day.

In the morning we head south to Masindi then south west to the town of Hoima. This side of the country is heavily populated and there are lots of roadworks so the trip takes most of the day. We find a space to stay overnight and then plan our future travels. My cold is not getting better and Paul is also not 100% so we decide to stay in a BnB until we are completely recovered so we can enjoy our travels. Fort Portal is a town further south in the direction we want to go so we book a place in that area but about ten kilometres out of town in the countryside so we can recuperate in peace. Jared and Jen are travelling south when they leave Uganda and they want to visit Kampala so they turn east from Hoima toward the country’s capital. They will meet us in Fort Portal in about four days time.

Our drive toward Fort Portal takes us along more country roads ranging from narrow dirt roads to wide busy roads. Once again there are lots of road works and we decide Uganda probably has the most and biggest speed humps in Africa. Shortly before Fort Portal we leave the main road to reach our destination passing though the middle of tea plantations along the way. Our BnB is basic but very suitable for our needs. We are 11km from Fort Portal so we can pop in there if we need to but we are in a very quiet location just outside the tiny village of Kasiisi.

Our initial booking was for five nights but we extend several times and eventually stay for nine nights. Jared and Jen join us for three nights and leave one day earlier than we do. We make a couple of trips into Fort Portal to visit the small supermarket and have a look around. An excellent find is the Duchess Restaurant which not only serves nice food in a pleasant setting but also sells bread and cakes baked on the premises, cured meats including salami and chorizo, a range of locally made cheeses and also yoghurt.

When we are both feeling fully recovered and we are finally ready to move on we begin our trip with a visit to the market and a third visit to the Duchess for more goodies. While we are in town we get a message that Paul’s Mum is unwell and in hospital. Initially we are not sure whether to make the trip to Johannesburg and, if so, whether we should drive or fly. While we are waiting to hear more detail we continue south toward Queen Elizabeth National Park. When we get more news later in the day we decide to fly to Jo’burg. By now the quickest way is to continue a little further south then cross from the west of the country to the east via Mbara to Masala then up the highway to the airport at Entebbe which is south of the capital of Kampala. We overnight in Masala and continue on early in the morning.

When we entered Uganda we got a 3 month visa but just a one month Temporary Import Permit for the car which we need to extend because it will expire in a few days. After several attempts to find out where and when we can extend it we finally reach somebody on the telephone who advises that the office in Kampala is open today until 6.00pm so we decide to get that sorted so we can fly out very early the next morning.

The trip is smooth until we approach the outskirts of Kampala when we begin to strike some heavy patches of traffic.

It then eases again until we pass through the centre of the city and then it becomes totally chaotic. There are cars, motorbikes and people moving very slowly in one gigantic snarl.

It looks as though we will arrive at the Customs office at lunchtime so we decide to have some lunch first but when we arrive at the office at 2.00pm we find that they have just closed.

This could be a huge problem for us. We could be up for a sizeable fine when we try to take the car out of Uganda with an expired TIP. After wandering around and speaking to a few people the head security officer approaches us and he goes out of his way to help us after we tell him why we have to fly to South Africa. He gives us a photocopy of our Temporary Import Permit and takes the renewal fee off us, promising to get the thirty day renewal of the TIP processed while we are away. We can get the official paperwork when we come back from South Africa and we promise to be away no more than two weeks. It helps that he has a relative living in Australia.

Everywhere we have travelled we have found almost all the people to be friendly and helpful but here in in Uganda they have, if anything, been even more welcoming and helpful than elsewhere.

We drive south to Entebbe and to a hotel near the airport. Once again the people are very helpful and are happy for us to leave our car in their secure carpark while we are in South Africa and also to plug it into power for no charge. On top of that they provide a free airport shuttle so we can easily catch our 3.50am flight to Johannesburg via Nairobi.

We are in South Africa for a week and a half. Paul’s Mum is in hospital for most of that time but returns home a few days before we are due to leave. Since she has been home she has begun to improve and she is doing better now.

Unfortunately while we are in Johannesburg I receive news that my mother is not well so I make arrangements to return to Australia, leaving South Africa a day before Paul is due to leave. He has to return to collect the car from the hotel in Entebbe, collect the new TIP and travel to Nairobi to get our freezer fixed so we can continue our travels later.

Although our visit to Uganda ended rather abruptly, with a two day dash from the western region to Kampala and Entebbe, we have loved the people and been amazed by the diversity and fertility of the country. Massive rivers, lakes and wetlands as well as mountain ranges, forests and savannahs in the north. If you have a chance to go there then do so. It is a beautiful country.

Entering East Africa

The Great Mosque, Kilwa Kisiwani

Heading north from Ilha de Mocambique we follow the bitumen north toward Tanzania. Although we would like to see more of the coast the highway curves inland and there are significant detours involved if we want to visit the coast. We narrow our options down and decide to make a side trip to Pemba. The trip is easy and the roads are much better here than in central Mozambique. The land around us is green and as we travel further into the tropics there are more and more people around. Certainly more than in the drier parts of the country.

We take the turn east toward Pemba and shortly before we reach the main part of the town we follow our map and turn toward the camp site we have chosen. After following a dirt road for a while we take a left turn onto a smaller track which gets progressively narrower as we go. Soon we are following tyre tracks which don’t exactly follow the tracks we have on either of the maps we are using. We see some locals and they happily point us in the right direction and we arrive safe and sound at Ilala Lodge. None of our mapping apps seems to handle some of these small, remote towns. George, the French owner, tells us that there isn’t officially any camping allowed here as only Mozambique nationals are allowed to set up camp grounds but we are welcome to stay for free and just pay for wifi if we need it. What a nice guy and what a lovely spot to stay! He shows us an area just at the back of the beach and a little away from the chalets used for other guests and we settle in for a few days. George says we can stay as long as we like. Very tempting!

The tides here are large and the sea is quite shallow as far out as the edge of the reef about 1 km away and there are gentle sand banks before that. Swimming is good at high tide and the water is very warm. Otherwise the main activity is watching the activity of the locals. When the men return to shore after fishing in their dhows they sit on the shore and clean their catch and later the women arrive and wade through the shallows with nets to capture the small fish.

Early morning light at low tide at Pemba in Northern Mozambique

We follow George’s directions that takes us along a much simpler track to return to the highway and we follow the bitumen as far north as it goes. It runs out at Palma and we then have just a short distance on a good dirt road to reach our final stop in Mozambique in the village of Quionga. Here we camp in the yard of a South African missionary, Andreas. There is no fee but a donation is welcomed and we have a peaceful night camping under a huge tree. Andreas is able to give us valuable information about the track north to the Ruvuma River and what time we should leave to catch the ferry as it only operates once per day near the high tide. We don’t need to make an early start and Paul is out taking photos of the village in the morning. He soon attracts a following of young children keen to get into the photos.

We set out in plenty of time to go through the Mozambique border post and then travel a few more kilometres to reach to the ferry. We know the road will be rough and we figure we can have lunch while we wait on the bank of the Ruvuma River.

Rough road on the way to the Ruvuma River, border of Mozambique and Tanzania

Well that plan didn’t work out to well. The road as far as the border post was rough and not muddy but after the border post we descend toward the river and the track becomes more treacherous. We successfully get through a couple of muddy patches then are confronted by a huge mud hole. There appears to be a track on the left side but it looks a little narrow and if we don’t fit along there we could tip over. Next to it is a smallish mud hole and we try it and get stuck but manage to reverse back out. The mud hole on the right is way too soft so we don’t even consider it. By now a couple of locals have stopped to watch the action and one appears to suggest the middle large hole is the way to go and we decide to give it a go.

North Mozambique 08

Hmm, which way?

Not the right choice as it turns out. While we are still unsuccessfully trying to extract our vehicle a small crowd of local guys has gathered and they offer to push us out for $50USD. We try to negotiate but they don’t budge and when we agree they try to raise the price to $100 but we manage to avoid agreeing to that. They decide the water is too deep and bail it out laboriously then dig soft mud out from under the diff.

North Mozambique 09

#*#^! Not This Way #*#^!

A couple of attempts have been made to push us out and they don’t even look like succeeding and I’m starting to envisage a night trying to camp in the middle of the mud hole when oncoming traffic heralds the arrival of the ferry from Tanzania. The first vehicle is a 4WD with some American guys who are working in the area, possibly also missionaries. They were stuck here a while back and are happy to help us out so we attach our winch to the front of their land cruiser and we pull ourselves out. Thank goodness!

While we are doing this we see the rest of the traffic, including some 2WD vehicles, take the high side of the track and pass the mud without any problems. We sure got that decision wrong. Even though the local guys didn’t manage to get us out of the hole they have worked extremely hard in trying to help us so we hand over the cash we had agreed on. We’re now not sure we’ll make the ferry but apparently one of the them has rung ahead and the ferry is waiting for us. It is a great relief to get on to it. This wasn’t the type of exit from southern Africa than we had planned on but it is all part of the adventure.

The river is wide and the crossing takes about twenty minutes after which we head for the nearest town of Mtwara. Its a rough road but much better than the road on the southern side of the river. We go through the Tanzanian border post with no problems but it still takes about two hours. It is late afternoon before we reach town. There’s no camping in town and we’re too weary to go further to find a camp so we find a place to stay out of the centre of town opposite the beach. The Cliff and Garden Resort is quite run down but still charming. The owner is an elderly Dutch lady who appears unable to get around much and it appears that things have been let go a little but it suits us. We have a big chalet with a dining room/kitchen as well as bedroom and bathroom and we can park directly outside. Most of the kitchen equipment, ie fridge and stove, doesn’t work but we can bring our own inside and at least we have power, water, a sink and somewhere to prepare and eat food. We order a meal from the restaurant on our first night and are offered a choice of fish and chips or chicken and chips except they don’t have any fish. The serve of chicken is a half a chicken so we decide to share just one meal and it proves to be ample. We want to get a service on the car and have a few ongoing electrical issues looked at so we end up staying three nights.

As well as getting the work done on the car we get a Tanzanian SIM card and data, eat at a great Indian restaurant and visit the local market. Because we don’t have our car for much of the time our travel is a mixture of walking in the hot and humid weather and catching a bijaji. These cost between two and five thousand shillings per trip ($1-3) and are similar to the south east asian tuk tuks.

Our next stop is to be the village of Kilwa Masoko as we want to visit the Arab ruins on the island of Kilwa Kisiwani which is just a couple of kilometres off shore. There are lots of villages along the way and we need to slow to 50kph going through them. The maximum between the villages is 80kph and sometimes the gap between the villages is only a matter of a few kilometres or less so its a slow trip. As well as trucks there are lots of large and small buses on the road and it is a relief to leave the highway and head for the coast.

After a quick look around the village we find a spot to camp at a lodge on the beachfront. We have a nice shady tree to camp beside and although we are just in front of the restaurant there is noone else around so it is very quiet. The owner is very hospitable and makes sure we are comfortable and the restaurant has great reviews so we decide we will dine in it at least once.

The reef here is a kilometre or two off the coast and the tides are huge. We have great views of the activities of the locals as they follow their daily fishing routines.

Kilwa Kisiwani translates as “Kilwa on the Island” to distinguish it from Kilwa Masoku, which is a small town on the mainland, and the largely abandoned Kilwa Kivengi which is about twenty kilometres north and is where the Germans built their “boma” during their brief tenure of the colony of German East Africa in the late 19th and early 20th century.

To visit Kilwa Kisiwani we pay for a permit at the antiquities office and also for a guide and a boat to take us the three kilometres across the bay from Kilwa Masoku. We leave camp in the cool of the early morning because we know that we will be walking for several hours on the island. We clamber over rocks beside the wharf and step onto our boat which takes about twenty minutes to convey us to the island. Our guide, a young Swahili woman named Jamili, describes our rough itinerary during the trip.

A small village of Swahili people still live on the island and they make a living by fishing and growing what they need to eat. Apart from a primary school, a couple of very small shops and the villagers huts  there remains the extensive ruins which have been partially excavated and are all that is left of the chequered history of the sometimes prosperous town of Kilwa over the last eleven hundred years.

Dhows are used for travel and to bring supplies to and from the mainland as well as for fishing. At low tide they are marooned on the mud flats.

The earliest ruins, some of which were simple walled encampments, date back to the 10th and 11th centuries. They, like all the other buildings, were built from coral rock, which was almost certainly taken from quarries on the island. The walls are one to two feet thick and the later buildings were rendered with lime. Where the rock is exposed it is easy to find places where the patterns of the coral organisms are discernable. The same method of building was used in Zanzibar which was also settled by the Omani Arabs and came to prominence after Kilwa’s decline.

While the earliest ruins in Kilwa were quite simple later buildings were very elaborate and with the latter ones being quite luxurious. Gereza, Kilwa’s Fort is the most complete structure. It was originally built by the Portuguese but most of the existing structure was rebuilt by the Omani Arabs.

We visit the remains of three mosques, the Great Mosque, as its name implies, is the most impressive but the small mosque which was mainly used by the Sultan and his family has a wonderful atmosphere as well.

At one end of the island is Makutani, “the palace of the big walls”, where a very large palace and the remains of other buildings are enclosed within a defensive wall.

The final structures we visit is Husuni Kubwa, a magnificent 14th century palace. It is huge and very complex, a splendid royal residence which was only occupied by one Sultan. After exploring it and marvelling at the lavish life style which would have been enjoyed by the regal family we descend the stairs to the mangrove flats and pick our way out to the boat for our return to the mainland.

We are enjoying the relaxed atmosphere at our camp at Kilwa Masoko so we decide to stay an extra day. After we make our decision our host informs us there is a group coming in later and they are likely to be noisy. She sure was right. An extended Indian family occupy most of the chalets and after a communal dinner they sing and dance. It is nice to listen to and it would be great to be a part of their festivities. They aren’t too late with their songs though so we still get a good nights sleep.

We are now just a days drive from Dar Es Salaam. We are planning a week long visit to the island of Zanzibar so we need to find a place to stay for one night then a place to safely leave the car for the week. The electrical work we had done in Mtwara doesn’t seem to have fixed everything so we look for an auto electrician and find one who says they can do the work and will be happy to store the car for the week. The city is big and busy and has a reputation for being a tough place to stay so we are happy to find a place on the internet which is on the outskirts of the city and looks very laid back.

So much for plans. We are using two apps to help us navigate but neither help and we end up at a loss as to how to get there. We ring and follow the hosts suggestion of asking a bijaji driver to lead us to the right road and eventually, after crossing a river and climbing up and down some very basic tracks, we find the place. It doesn’t live up to expectations though because we can’t get our car off the road and the facilities are way more basic than we expected. We decide to go for plan B and head back to the main road and before long we reach the Safari Lodge in a suburb north of the city. Here we find secure parking with an overnight guard, a comfortable room and very pleasant staff. They offer to let us leave our car here for our week on Zanzibar and, after checking out the auto electrician and deciding they look less than reliable, we take them up on their offer. It sure shows that when things don’t work out the way you expect they can work out even better.

Looking forward to our time on Zanzibar.