Tag Archives: Accommodation Suggestions

Guide to island hopping in the Gulf of Thailand

Haad Khuad/Bottle Beach, Thailand

Islands hopped: Koh Samui, Koh Phangan, Koh Tao

Duration: 2 weeks (May 2008)

Sawadee! (that means Hello! in Thai by the way)

Here is a guide to the islands in the Gulf of Thailand.  So why did I pick the islands in the Gulf of Thailand instead of  the more glamourous Koh Phi Phi or Phuket on the Andaman Islands side? Simply said, mother nature.  Depending on what time of the year you go, either the east or west side of southern Thailand will experience their monsoon season.  On the west coast (or the Andaman Islands), it often rains from April through to October.  On the east side where I visited, it rains mostly between September and December.

I didn’t have enough time to stay at different beaches on each island so I picked one beach on each island after doing some research in advance.  Do research which beaches to stay at depending on what type of experience you want.  Check out this site on a guide to Thailand’s beaches.  With the shear number of beaches and what each have to offer, you can spend weeks on the islands and have plenty of stories to tell your jealous friends back home!

Koh Samui – Chaweng Beach

  • Beach: I picked Chaweng Beach because it is the most developed beach on the Koh Samui and I wanted to be able to experience a mix of tourism and seclusion.  The beach was perfect – white sand and clear blue water.  There’s also enough shade from the palm trees to get away from the strong sun.
  • Accommodation: Jungle Club in Chaweng Beach.  I found this place online through sawadee.com and picked it because of it’s location away from the busy beaches of Chaweng.  Jungle Club is like a posh resort but at backpacker prices – the grounds are beautiful, well maintained and the staff are super friendly.  I stayed in the Jungle Hut which was very new and clean.  The restaurant opens out to a breathtaking mountain top view and there are plenty of places to chill (for example, in the gazebos perched on the edge of the mountain complete with plush pillows and lanterns or the sun chairs surrounding the infinity pool on the mountain edge!).  The staff are very friendly and welcoming and they definitely go out of their way to make you feel at home.  Travelfish.org and sawadee.com have lots of places to stay listed.  If you’re looking for more relaxation and peace/quiet, stay away from the main Beach Road area and out of Chaweng Beach where there is a definite party atmosphere.
  • Activities: beach and sun, do I have to say any more? Chaweng Beach is beautiful but more touristy than most beaches.  But then again, Koh Samui is more touristy than its neighbouring islands Koh Tao and Koh Phangan.  Beach Road, which is the main road that runs behind the beach, is especially busy with many tourist agencies, sunglasses stores, restaurants, bars/cafes and “Armani” suit shops.  Word of caution though: I doubt the store “Armane” which sells “Armani” suits is real.
  • Transportation: flew into Koh Samui from Penang, Malaysia via Firefly airlines.  A very convenient way to get to the islands from the mainland or from other islands is with Lomprayah High Speed Ferries.  This is the most popular company operating between the islands and the mainland.  They are very organized and a convenient way to go island hopping.  Since Jungle Club is perched on the top of a mountain, a 4×4 jeep is the only mode of transportation from the town below.  Within the town itself, it’s very easy to find songthaews, especially along Beach Road.  These go short and longer distances and are the cheapest way to get around (cheap as in less than $1).  If you don’t feel like finding/bargaining your own transportation, most accommodations can arrange transportation to and from the airport and the ferry dock (to get to other islands).
  • Food: Most resorts and places to stay have their own restaurants which have a variety of Thai and continental cuisine items on their menus (depending on the place) .  There are also multiple cafes along Beach Road which serve a mean mango shake.

Koh Phangan – Bottle Beach/Haad Khuad

  • Beach: I highly recommend staying at Bottle Beach for anyone visiting Koh Phangan or the Gulf of Thailand islands for that matter.  It is very secluded since it’s only accessible by long tail boat and has a sense of community since everyone knows each other. Walking down the beach, you’ll be greeted by name by locals and tourists alike.  As for the beach itself, the water is very shallow so good for wading around but be careful of the rocks.
  • Accommodation: Haad Khuad Resort (or more affectionately called Bottle Beach 3) in Bottle Beach.  There are 4 places to stay along the beach – three creatively called Bottle Beach 1, Bottle Beach 2 and..you guessed it…Bottle Beach 3 and are all owned by the same family.  The fourth place to stay is Smile Bungalows which is on the west end of the beach.  All are clean and have a range of accommodation from thatch huts that almost touch the water to larger 2 bedroom cottages further away from the beach.  I picked Haad Khuad Resort just because it was the newest one but walking around, they all seemed the same.
  • Activities: I’m a beach bum so of course, I just relaxed on the beach most days.  There’s also another nearby beach which you can hike to but be warned: make sure you stay on the path or else it’s very easy to get lost in the jungle (I did, which in hindsight is a funny story but at the time was pretty scary).  You should also have some cash on you because there’s a man who charges 20 Baht to cross through his land on the mountain which the path does.  At night in Bottle Beach, it’s a very different story! Each night, there is a poi fire show on the beach with dancers and drunk tourists who think they’re fire dancers.  You can also take part of the communal lighting of paper lanterns and drinking out of the communal plastic bucket of liquor (you do get your own straw though, we’re not savages here!).  And then there’s the Full Moon Party which Koh Phangan is famous for.  I’m not going to go into the details of what this is since I’ve heard and experienced too many crazy unbelievable stories to count so if you don’t know about it, just google it.
  • Transportation: The best way to get to Koh Phangan is via a high speed ferry.  Lomprayah (see Transportation section for Koh Samui above) is the most popular choice.  You can get around the island either by long tail boat, songthaews, taxis or by scooters (but be careful, the number of tourist deaths per year by scooter accidents is alarming).  It all depends on what your budget is and how adventurous you are!
  • Food: All four places to stay on Bottle Beach also have their own restaurant which serve delicious Thai food and ice cold drinks.  All the places are about the same in terms of quality of food so my suggestion is to try all 4 places.  Also, don’t forget to get an ice cold Singha while you’re lounging on the beach.

Koh Tao – Haad Sai Daeng

  • Beach: I picked Haad Sai Daeng after looking through Travelfish’s guide to accommodation.  It is less busy than most of the beaches in Koh Tao and the one thing that attracted me was their close proximity to Shark Island where you can scuba dive with reef sharks.  There are only 2 resorts in Haad Sai Daeng so it is very peaceful.
  • Accommodation: Coral View Resort.  The resort consists of multiple island huts and villas tucked in a little cove along the water.  I stayed in the Traditional Island Hut which was rustic and still very clean but not as spotless as the huts on the other islands.  If you have the cash and are sensitive to noises (especially from crickets and geckos), splurge for the villas.  The main positive was the dive center – Coral View Divers.  The dive instructors are all very friendly and the groups are small so it’s more personalized.  In fact, I was the only student with the Dive Master, Robert, who was super nice and patient since it was my first time scuba diving.
  • Activities: Diving, diving, diving! Koh Tao is known as one of the best places in the world to dive so if you have the chance, go diving! Most resorts have their own Dive Center who can arrange everything for you.  They offer a variety of courses and dives ranging from those who have never dived before to pro-star divers.  If you’re still uneasy going scuba diving, you can also see lots just by snorkeling.  Most resorts can either arrange a snorkel trip for you or rent out snorkel gear so you can swim around to your little hearts desire.
  • Transportation: Coral View was very helpful in arranging transportation for me after being herded off the Lomprayah ferry from Koh Phangan.  There was a driver waiting for me at the pier holding a sign with my name on it even though I never told them what time I would be arriving.  I can’t comment on getting around the island because I mostly stayed in Haad Sai Daeng and got around on foot.
  • Food: Delicious as usual.  The green curry at the restaurant inside my resort was amazing! And as always, accompanied by a mango shake.  The view from the restaurant also drew in tourists who weren’t even staying at the resort.  There are lots of places to eat around the pier in town which serve a variety of food if you’re all Pad Thai-ed out.

So there it is, a quick guide to the islands in the Gulf of Thailand! For more information, don’t forget to check out travelfish.org or look through the many travel guidebooks out there (my personal fav is Lonely Planet)!

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South Africa’s Transkei: Fear and Loathing in the Wild Coast

Coffee Bay, Wild Coast, South Africa

So as a way to procrastinate for job hunting, here’s another blog entry from 2 months ago.  Enjoy!

Although it was hard to pry myself away from Neville’s hospitality and comforts in Southbroom, the scenery in South Africa’s Wild Coast or Transkei was definite worth it – they don’t call this the Wild Coast for nothing!

I hoped on a Greyhound bus for the 6 hour journey and found it very comfortable.  The further we got into the trip, the less populated the outside world was.  After chatting with the hyperactive child sitting beside me, I finally got a chance to look up and enjoy the ride.  As I looked out through the front-of-the-bus-second-level window, all I saw were rolling hills covered in green grass everywhere, dotted with small palm trees and indigenous shrubs and forests.  Scattered throughout the hillside were small villages of brightly coloured concrete houses and rondavels.  There were cattle and sheep and goats being herded by children and men.  Also, all along the road, there were people hitchhiking holding signs with acronyms on them.  I got “PE” for Port Elizabeth but what or where is “XB”? After being dropped off at a gas station on the side of the road, I met Rob the driver from Coffee Bay who herded myself and a bunch of grimey backpackers who had just arrived on the Baz Bus (**more on that here) into a small minibus for the 1.5hr ride to Coffee Bay on the coast.  Thank god I got to sit in the front and chat with Rob.  I mean, one of the backpackers was walking around the gas station barefoot playing a ukulele! And the conversation in the minibus highlighted everything I don’t like about backpackers.  Yes, they are the most laid back, fun and interesting people you’ll ever meet.  But occasionally, you get a bad apple like those backpackers who brag about how “hardcore” they’ve been traveling, all the drugs and alcohol they’ve been ingesting and how little money they’ve been able to live off of.  I was just happy to be sitting in the front talking to Rob about his family while he taught me about his people, the Xhosa.  When I first heard him speak, I was so amazed! Remember when Russell Peters made those jokes about Africans speaking in clicks? Well, he probably met a Xhosan because “Xhosa” is actually pronounced *knocking-click sound*-sa and the birthplace of Nelson Mandela is Qunu but pronounced *click*u- nu.  The road into Coffee Bay was windy and up-and-over the hills – it was beautiful! The only thing that detracted from the beauty was the truck in front of us with young men sitting in the flatbed.  One of these comedians saw a van full of foreigners, decided to drop his pants and moon us.  Welcome to Coffee Bay!

When I finally arrived at Sugar Loaf Backpackers, I was given the best welcome ever – a sundowner (yummy cocktail drunken at sunset) by 2 old drunk Afrikaan men and a lesbian couple who run the place.  Again, welcome to Coffee Bay! The rest of the night was spent eating a delicious dinner at the dining table and talking with Wilson, Vernon (the 2 old men), Linda and Joet (the lesbian couple).  Wilson and Vernon told us stories about the apartheid and how they were conscripted as police or army men.  Talking to them was very interesting and like other older generation Afrikaans I’ve met so far in South Africa, there are still traces of racism and racial tension.  The whites still blame the blacks for their country’s problems and vice versa.  The next day, I wondered around the small village of Coffee Bay.  There are only about 20 huts scattered along the hillside and one paved road that runs through it.  After relaxing on the beach and chatting with a bunch of backpackers who just arrived on a big yellow school bus from AfrikaBurn (it’s like Burning Man but in South Africa), I grew tired of their “Burn stories” of partying and drugs.  I never thought that I would meet people straight out of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas! I should’ve known – apparently Coffee Bay is a drug and backpacker haven because it’s so secluded.  I started hiking up Sugar Loaf Mountain and didn’t make it very far when a little local boy started following me and kept on asking “Do you want to sing?”.  I thought it was some sort of slang for drugs but he actually started singing and dancing over my tired, out-of-breath heaving while hiking up this mountain.  Although it was a tiring hike, the view was amazing! There were huge cliff drops into the ocean all along the coast and behind me were rolling hills for miles, all dotted with brightly coloured huts and rondavels.

Sadly, I had to leave the next day to keep moving or else I’ll never make it to Cape Town! I was planning on changing up the scenery and making a stop in Hogsback up in the mountains.  Along the way, I met a fellow backpacker, Henry, from South Africa who was moving across to Cape Town.  And I thought I was traveling with a lot of stuff – Henry was traveling with 2 backpacks, a duffle bag, a mountain bike, a kayak and paddles! Along the way, Henry pointed out some very interesting sights like Mandela’s hometown of Qunu and a house he built near the freeway which is a replica of the cottage he lived in during his house arrest.  Henry also pointed out the Execution Rock where they used to throw people off and that the Transkei (Wild Coast) region used to be its own country until the end of apartheid.  We finally started moving away from the beautiful coast line and rolling hills to a more wooded region closer to Hogsback.  The small town nestled between the mountains is named Hogsback after the unusual shape of the surrounding mountains which, ingeniously, looks like the back of a wild hog (or a warthog).  The mountains were quite impressive – with tiny waterfalls scattered about and indigenous forests blanketing the mountainsides.  It actually reminded me a lot like Canada and definitely reminded me of the Canadian weather.  It was freezing in Hogsback – not freezing in the Canadian winter sense but cold for Africa.  I think I’ve been spoiled by the fact that I haven’t had to wear a sweater or long pants for the last couple of months that anything under 15C is considered cold now.

Hogsback resembled the Shire from the Lord of the Rings (yes, that’s a geeked out reference) and had capitalized on this fact by setting up stores called the Ring Shoppe, Hobbiton Shoppe and Fairie Sculptures (the fact that their shops are all “shoppes” makes it fancier in itself).  I stayed at a hostel called Away With the Fairies which is comprised of small cottages along the cliff.   After putting on layers of clothing, I wandered around the garden and discovered a bath tub on the edge of the cliff overlooking the mountains.  How awesome is that?! I would’ve definitely taken a bath in such a unique location except for the fact that I would have to heat up the water by building a fire.  That just seems like too much work for a bath – that was my laziness flaring up again.  I hiked along this trail (in flip flops, not a good idea) and stumbled upon a ladder attached to a tree only to look up and find that attached to the ladder was a tree house 15m up.  Maybe I’m just getting old but the climb up and down that ladder almost gave me a panic attack.  However, the view from the well-built tree house was worth it.  You could see the mountain range, the valley below and just trees for miles and miles.   Once it got dark, it was dinnertime! I was starving so when the chef told me tonight’s dinner was going to be warthog and kudu (like a deer), I didn’t hesitate for a second before saying yes.  The warthog and kudu was surprisingly very delicious – although I tried my hardest not to think of Pumba or Bambi while chowing down.   After dinner, I chatted with 2 guys from Texas who were traveling/working in Africa.  One of them turned out to be an engineer (we’re everywhere!) working in Gabon.  Now, traveling in Africa may be a bit adventurous but working in Gabon is downright ballsy.  Paul, the bartender, was super nice and didn’t look at me funny when I introduced him to the best drink in the world – apple juice and Malibu (Tina and I discovered this and always had both stocked in our apartment).  We traded traveling horror stories (he won with being in a bus crash in Peru where the bus flipped over on the side of a mountain and the driver ran away) and gave us free shots of something called “Shit in the Woods”.  It was disgusting but just being able to tell Tamara that I had a shit in the woods was worth it.

The next morning, I decided to leave Hogsback because it was just way too cold and headed towards Tsitsikamma in the Garden Route.  I’m halfway through South Africa and already, I want to move here!

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South Africa’s South Coast: bunny chow, beach and braai

Southbroom, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa

Wow, this post is waaay overdue – yes, I got too relaxed and even lazier than I was before if that’s even possible.  But seeing as it’s a gloomy day in Toronto, I thought that reliving the warm and sunny days of Africa would cheer me up.  So here goes, blog posts from 3 months ago….

I finally landed in South Africa and all I can say is “holy civilization!”.  It’s actually the little things that reminded me of how far removed I was from what we call western life.  Signs that actually light up in the airport, soap in soap dispensers, paying the amount on price tags or even price tags for that matter and being the most vagrant/hobo-dressed person around.  After a brief pit stop in Johannesburg to stock up on amenities like English books, pens and most importantly, activating my BlackBerry messenger (I was literally smiling for the first hour after finally being reconnected), I quickly bought a flight out of there to Durban on the South Coast.  Word of advice: exchange all your local currency before leaving that country.  I learned this lesson the hard way when I tried to exchange all my random UAE Dirhams, Kenyan Shillings, Tanzanian Shillings and Mozambican Meticais at the money changer and found out 1. no one accepted most of those currencies and 2. for the ones they would accept, it was worth so little that I would have to pay them to exchange it!

Once I landed in Durban, I made a beeline to buy a pair of closed-toe shoes since it’s the beginning of winter in South Africa and everyone on my flight was wearing boots and wool jackets.  Here I was, the ignorant Canadian, wearing shorts and a T-shirt thinking that Africa was hot all the time.  I was pleasantly surprised when I stepped outside and it was 20C! Clearly, South Africans have not experienced a COLD -30C Canadian winter.  Back to shorts and T-shirts! Took a quick cab ride to my hostel in Durban and took in the night time sights – it’s a lot like any other western city except there’s no one walking around on the streets (a common theme in South African cities).  The hostel, Gibela Traveler’s Lodge, is the cleanest hostel I’ve ever stayed at hands down.  It’s a beautifully decorated Tuscan house with vibrant walls and African artifacts and is immaculately clean! So clean that I walked around barefoot – I don’t know if that can be attributed to the cleanliness of the hostel or the decrease in my hygiene standards.  Elmar, who runs the hostel, was very helpful with not just Durban but South Africa in general.  For the next few days, I wandered around Durban – had a relaxing afternoon in the Botanical Gardens while trying to avoid hormonal teenaged couples hidden amongst the flora, went shopping (had to satisfy the habit somehow!) and hiked up and down the steep residential streets.  Like most major South African cities, all of the houses and buildings have intense security measures.  There are barbed and electric fences, alarm systems, pin code entry pads, guard dogs and many signs with skulls and crossbones warning of imminent death if anyone so much as accidentally steps on the property.  I heard that crime in South Africa was high but some of the security measures in place probably cost more than the house itself.  For dinner, I wandered along Florida Road which has some of the swankier restaurants and settled for a small Indian restaurant for a local Durban dish, bunny chow (curry in a bread bowl).  Although Durban has the highest Indian population in all of South Africa, it wasn’t the same as the food in India but I guess I’ve been forever spoiled.

After a very peaceful sleep, I packed up all my stuff and boarded a mini bus to Margate further along the South Coast.  When I first heard the words “minibus”, I had a PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) flashback to the horror of the Maputo-Tofo ride in Mozambique but I was ecstatic when I saw this brand new, air conditioned, 1 person per seat minibus pull up.  It was so comfortable that I had to keep myself from falling asleep so I could take in the scenery.  All along the highway, there were small towns on the right and just miles and miles of beaches to the left.  In Margate, a very nice man named Bruce picked me up to drive me to the hostel in Southbroom 20 minutes away.  Turned out that Bruce is a friend of Neville, who owns the Southbroom Traveller’s Lodge, and he told me about Southbroom and all the comings and goings.  Southbroom is a actually small resort town filled with millionaires and their mansions.  There’s even this one ginormous mansion perched on the top of the cliff worth R55 million or $8 million USD.   To be able to stay at a backpackers place in this town was so amazing but even better was that Neville runs his backpackers as if it’s like staying at a friend’s house!  I had the dorm room to myself and the ensuite bathroom even had a bath tub! The common room was actually the living room stocked with comfy couches, hundreds of DVDs and magazines.  Neville, Bruce and I chatted all afternoon and played with the dogs (a bull mastiff mom and her puppies).  When dinnertime came around, Bruce made delicious spaghetti bolognese and fettucine alfredo.  We all sat down around the dining table so it was like eating dinner with friends.  We also had conversations like the ones I would have at home with my own friends – politics, movies and UFO sightings. 🙂

The next day, I pried myself away from the TV (oh how I missed TV) and wandered down to the beach.  The beach is amazing – so clean, soft and spotless! I was so amazed that I even sent my engaged sister some photos as a possible wedding destination.  I was just so content walking along the beach, hearing the huge waves crash onto the rocks in the distance that I didn’t realize until afterwards that I had not encountered anyone else on the beach for the past 2 hours.  After some more walking, sitting and book reading, the sun started setting so I started walking back to the backpackers but because the houses are hidden from the beach behind sand dunes, I actually got lost wandering around on the beach! Who gets lost on a beach?! I finally made it back by following some locals and was greeted by the barking dogs (I don’t know if it was a greeting or more them protecting the property but I took it as a greeting).  For dinner, Bruce started a braai (BBQ for us North Americans) and South Africans sure do know their bbq-ing! We had steaks, boerewors (sausages) and lamb chops – compliments of Bruce the chef.

Although many people say South Africa is “fake Africa”, my first glimpse into this country has been unbelievable – such hospitality and beautiful scenery.  If this is any indication of what the next 3 weeks will be like, it’ll be difficult to move onto the next country!

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Mozambique: a little Portugal of minibuses and palm trees

Tofo, Mozambique

Ola from Mozambique! All that hard work learning the basics of Swahili and now, I have to learn Portuguese.  I’ve noticed that I now speak horrible English – kind of a mix of broken English without pronouns.  I guess that’s what 4 months of travel does to you.  I left Dar Es Salaam and boarded a flight to Maputo, which is the capital of Mozambique.  The flight was expensive since there’s only one airline in all of Mozambique – monopoly at its best! On my flight (which landed and took off 3 times before arriving in Maputo!), I chatted up a man from Washington who’s working for an infrastructure development company in Mozambique linked with USAID.  Hmmm, maybe that’s my next career move – yes, I haven’t forgotten that one of the goals of this trip is to figure out what to do with my life.  I think about that between lying on the beach and spotting animals.

At the airport in Maputo, I waited on the curb for a taxi and thankfully, a nice policeman helped me pick through the legit taxi drivers and the “taxi drivers”.  Everyone here is so nice that a bunch of policemen helped me flag down a taxi from the road.  Thank god they were there or else I would’ve jumped into any car since in Eastern Africa, taxis aren’t marked and can literally be anyone.  I arrived at the Base Backpackers late in the night and settled into my dorm room.  Since Tamara’s gone and my budget is disappearing before my eyes, it’s time to slum it again in a hostel.  Surprisingly, I had one of the best night’s sleep in awhile – totally passed out from my long day of traveling.

The next day, I set out to explore Maputo and was shocked at the city life.  It’s still slightly dirty and the sidewalk breaks occasionally but I couldn’t believe how cosmopolitan the city was.  Everywhere I looked were people in business suits driving fancy cars.  It’s also quite a multicultural city – there were Africans, Portuguese, Indians and even the occasional Asian person! Every time I walked by an Asian person, there was an unspoken nod of “Yay! Another one!” I stopped by a sidewalk cafe and using the little knowledge of Portuguese I have and hand gestures, ordered breakfast.  It was so nice to just sit and watch the busy life pass by – really reminded me of an European city (I guess it’s the Portuguese influence).  There are trees all along the road and little cafes where you can people watch.  I walked through residential areas and stumbled upon an art gallery called Nucleo de Arte.  Pretended to be interested in buying the very nice art on display but I think my eyes bulging out when I saw the price tags gave away my vagrant/nomad-ness.  All of the houses here were very pretty and large but the odd thing was that there’s major security around each of them – even if the house looks less valuable than the security system.  On top of the 12 ft concrete walls, there’s barbed wire, electric fences and CCTV with huge warning signs displaying skull and cross bones.  I didn’t feel that unsafe walking the streets but this show of security measures made me a little uneasy.  Maybe it’s just the culture here.

The next day, I woke up super early and took a minibus up the coast to Tofo.  All I have to say in OMG! The 11 hour bus ride is probably up there in terms of backbreaking and interesting with the bus ride from Lamu to Mombasa in Kenya or the bus ride from Goa to Mumbai in India.  We first stopped by the local bus station and waited for an hour for the bus to fill up with passengers.  And I’m not talking one person in every seat, I’m talking FULL – like every-sit-able-space-has-a-body full.  On a row of 3 seats, there were 5 and even people sitting on the door steps.  It was like human tetris trying to get everyone to fit – skinny people move here, bigger men move there etc.  Through my ever-shrinking window seat, there were so many people buying/selling random things like loaves of bread, sandals, toilet paper and even a woman selling fried chicken out of a tupperware container! It was also very interesting to see the system of filling a bus.  So there’s a driver but also a guy who attends to the bus and it’s his job to get bodies in seats (like a bus hype man).  But he doesn’t do it alone, he has other men on the ground who help him by spotting anyone with luggage who looks like they want to travel and hustling/swarming/hassling them until they agree on a price.  In return, the hype man gives them a commission which was another spectacle in itself.  Men complaining they were getting jipped, trying to reason with the hype man and then eventually swearing and waving their arms around until someone gave in.

Finally, we were off! The landscape in Mozambique is quite different from East Africa – there aren’t any mud huts (well at least not on the road we were on) and most people live in small towns and villages of buildings made out of concrete.  The weird thing is there would still be people randomly waiting on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere – still don’t know how they got there.  Every time someone got off the bus, we would pick up 2 more people and this continued on the 11 hour ride.  At one point, there was a small boy sitting on my lap! Other than myself, there was one British girl from the hostel but she’s lived in Mozambique for the last year.  Her boyfriend is Mozambican and every time we would stop, he would come back on with a new food item – loaves of bread, fried chicken, bananas, a pineapple! It was so funny, I couldn’t stop giggling and would anticipate when he got back on the bus just to see what he bought.  By the time we arrived in Tofo, they had the entire produce department at their feet.  Late in the afternoon, I finally arrived in Tofo and was picked up/driven down a sandy road to Bamboozi Beach Lodge.  The Lodge is hidden amongst palm trees behind sand dunes that line the beach.  The grounds are very nice and the people working there were super welcoming.  I guess it’s low season because I had an entire 6-bed dorm hut to myself! One of the waiters told me that there’s only 10 tourists staying in a place that could easily sleep 70.  I settled in and walked up the dunes to the restaurant perched on the top.  The view from the restaurant was amazing! The beach below with turquoise waves crashing along a crescent-shaped cove was awesome to see.  Also, there’s no debris, development or people on the beach so it was very peaceful.  All of the resorts are hidden behind the sand dunes so it really seems like you’re in the middle of nowhere.

For the next 5 days, I bummed around on the beach trying not to itch the massive mosquito bites I received in Maputo.  I swear, it looked like I had spikes on my shoulders or leprosy – either way, I was just glad I didn’t get malaria.  Every morning, I would start my day with breakfast perched on the sand dune, then would walk all along the beach all while trying to avoid the jellyfish scattered along the beach.  The jellyfish were so awesome to see – they’re transparent and slimy looking with a hint of blue veins.  I met some German ladies who had this awesome 4×4 jeep with tents on the roof and talked to the employees who were always super friendly even if there was a major language barrier.  One night, while walking back from another restaurant down the beach, a stray dog started viciously barking at me while on the phone with my mom.  She probably freaked out because all she could hear was barking.  I don’t know what the dog was barking about or even what it was trying to guard because there was nothing around but I seriously thought I would get bite and then my next thought was “Great! The only shot I didn’t get is for rabies.”  However, I again turned to all those hours watching The Dog Whisperer and stayed calm and assertive as the pack leader and the dog stopped barking after awhile.  On my second last day, I decided I needed to get some exercise in and went for a boat snorkel trip.  It was kind of a flop because we were looking for whale sharks and manta rays on the boat before jumping in but didn’t spot anything.  The cool thing was riding full speed on an inflatable boat over the waves and spotting dolphins a couple meters from the boat.  Also, the beach changes dramatically once out of Tofo and there were all these rock caves along the coast with huge waves crashing upon them.  When not trying to look for whale sharks, I spent the rest of the time trying not to barf from the crazy waves throwing us around in the choppy Indian Sea.  After 1.5 hours of boating around, we decided to just jump in to get some sort of snorkeling done.  It was pretty cloudy because of the waves but I could make out small fish and starfish.  Definitely not one of the best snorkeling experiences but then again, I’ve been spoiled by Maldives.  Trying to get back into the boat was another feat! Basically, one of the other snorkelers had to haul me up and over the boat which ended up with me splayed out on the boat floor laughing.  I really need to learn how to gracefully get back into a boat since that’s the second time that’s happened (another time rafting in Costa Rica).

The next day, I said goodbye to everyone at Bamboozi and drove to the Inhambane Airstrip which is in the big town nearest to Tofo.  The airstrip itself is so primitive – no computers or technology so all boarding passes were hand-written and the security check was by hand.  Waited around for a bit and then boarded my 3 hour flight (via Vilankulos) to Johannesburg, South Africa.  Although Africa’s been amazing so far, a welcome break of Western civilization in South Africa sounds nice after 4 months of traveling!

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Ngorongoro Crater: sharing a bathroom with zebras

Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania

After a nice uneventful stay in Dar Es Salaam, Tamara and I decided we should torture ourselves and take an 11 hour bus ride across the country to Arusha for our safari to Ngorongoro Crater.  Although the bus ride was not as bad as the one from Lamu to Mombasa in Kenya, I did end up with only 1 flip flop at the end of it and a bruised spine from being jostled around in the back of the bus.  But all uncomfortable-ness aside, the views along the way were worth it! The landscape in the interior of Tanzania is so different from the coast – there were huge mountain ranges with red soil peaking out through the palm, coconut and bobao trees.  There were also trees with huge trunks that reminded me of the Avatar mother tree (continuing on with the movie references, I think there’s been one in every blog post so far!).  There were farms all along the roads surrounded by tiny mud huts and there were even farms high up on the mountain faces! What an ordeal for farmers to hike up and down everyday to tend to their crops.  Other than looking out the window, we passed the time by watching the religious soap operas, religious movies and religious music videos on the bus TV.  It was horrible acting but the drama was awesome (love triangles intermingled with possessed ex-boyfriends who used black magic and summoned the devil to put hexes on rival suitors).  We stopped at a rest stop half way through and everyone jumped out to line up for, of course, fried chicken and fries.  Tamara was seriously tempted to try it until we saw the chickens in the BBQ.  First of all, she said they looked like human torsos and secondly, there’s no bathroom on the bus.  The second rest stop, to our amusement, was just the side of the road and half of the bus got off together, walked into the bush together and peed together.

We finally arrived in Arusha – the safari capital of Tanzania – and was greeted by our safari guide who then dropped us off at a nice budget hotel called Flamingo Hotel.  It’s in a dodgier part of town but the staff were so helpful and even walked us to the Indian restaurant 5 minutes away that we wanted to try.  On the way back, we asked the restaurant to have someone walk us back for a small fee (hotel staff said it wasn’t safe walking alone at night) and they found us this old man with a giant stick.  He looked like the sort of person we would need protection from, not our chaperone for the walk home.  But he ended up being super friendly and even made sure we got in the front door OK.

The next morning, our safari guide, Becka, drove us out to Arusha National Park to go for a walking safari.  Becka is super nice and friendly and was not annoyed by our many questions ranging from “how did you meet your girlfriend?” to “how many babies does a giraffe have?”.  At Arusha National Park, we first drove around and immediately saw herds of giraffes, zebras, buffaloes and warthogs.  Apparently, warthogs and buffaloes are usually found together because they have a symbiotic relationship.  Buffaloes can’t hear that well so they depend on warthogs to listen for predators and in return, when warthogs hear a predator approaching, they run into the middle of a buffalo herd and the buffaloes use their size to protect the warthogs.  Isn’t that cool? Also, there’s only 1 alpha male in a herd of buffaloes and younger males constantly challenge the alpha since only the alpha breeds with the females in the pack.  Player!

We drove along the park and the landscape was so different to anything we saw in Masai Mara National Park in Kenya.  There was actually a jungle! There were huge trees and so much undergrowth that we couldn’t see the ground.  Since it was early in the morning, mist covered the canopy of the jungle and the green tip of nearby Mount Meru. We finally met our walking safari park ranger, Mbotu and he had on the most awesome park ranger outfit! He wore a forest green park ranger shirt and trousers, a forest green beret tipped on the side of his head, rubber boots, had a thick mustache and to top it all off, had a wooden rifle slung over his shoulder.  Immediately I asked him if he had ever shot anything with his rifle and he said a couple of buffalo and an elephant! Apparently buffaloes become unstable if they’re alone because they aren’t as confident as they would be in a herd so they may charge at you.  Also, if you are faced with an angry elephant, you should either find a large tree to climb up (one that is strong enough that the elephant can’t push it over) or run in a zig-zag because elephants smell with their trunks so they may lose your scent.  We walked for about 50 meters across a small stream and was immediately face to face with a herd of giraffes! They were so friendly that we could walk within 10m of them and they wouldn’t move.  Interesting facts about giraffes (that Mbotu told us in his commanding manner), giraffes are pregnant for 16 months and baby giraffes are born weighing up to 1.5 tons! Also, they can suckle from any mother – how liberal of them! We walked a bit more and then Mbotu showed us the Sodom Apple plant.  Maasai use the leaves to numb toothaches and wean babies off breast milk.  It tastes so bad that mothers rub it on their nipples and the babies hate it so much they never go back.  Mbotu then asked us how we wean babies in Canada and to us, it seemed simple – make them take the bottle – but to them, they couldn’t comprehend how we could just do that.  Maasai also use the plant to ward off maggots from their cowhide beds because if they don’t, the larvae can burrow into their babies’ soft skin – sick!

While we were walking, we saw piles of dung scattered all along the ground – some small pebbles, some huge mounds (again being immature, Tamara and I giggled at every single one of them).  Mbotu explained to us that the small pebble dung was from an animal called a dik-dik (again giggles from us).  He asked us “do you know what a dik-dik is? did you see any in Kenya?” and at this point, I couldn’t keep it in anymore and just burst out laughing.  All immature-ness aside, dik-diks are small deer-like animals the size of rabbits and they are very territorial.  They poop along their territory to mark it and when they have a offspring and it’s time for them to mate, they smell other dik-dik families’ poop in the area to see if that family has a boy or girl.  If it matches, they place their respective offspring at the boundary of their territory and let them mate.  Kinda like arranged marriage for animals! We then walked to a waterfall on the side of Mount Meru and Mbotu explained to us the fever tree.  It’s called a fever tree because when the mzungus (whites) first arrived in Africa, they set up camp near the rivers under these trees (since the trees mostly grow by water supplies) and they contracted malaria from the mostquitoes but blamed the trees, hence fever trees.  Mbotu made a corny joke and said that they should actually be called clever trees because when they are small, they have thorns on their branches to prevent animals from eating them and when they grow larger, their trunks are rough and bumpy so animals can’t tear off it’s bark for water.  Another interesting tree (who would’ve thought trees would be interesting!) is the fig tree.  It’s a parasite tree that wraps it’s roots around a host tree until it dies and then takes it’s place.

We said good-bye to Mbotu, took some pictures (I asked if I could hold his rifle!) and then drove to the Ngorongoro Crater Conservation Area.  Along the way, we passed by small towns and for some reason, there were towns with 20 male hair salons! At the gate to the Conservation Area, there were a bunch of baboons trying to open car windows to get food.  One tried to get into our jeep and Tamara valiantly tried to scare it off (as we’d seen other people do with success) but this time, the baboon ran after her! She screamed while I started laughing (still laughing writing this) and a ranger came and chased the baboon away.  After that terrifying attack (I really don’t like animals with fingers!), we drove to the rim of the crater 2400m above sea level.  The view was breathtaking – the crater is massive and the clouds reflecting on the small lakes below was so peaceful.  We drove to our lodge and around a turn, we saw a pride of lions drinking water from a puddle on the side of the road! It was amazing and so surprising to see! After the nice welcome from the lions, we arrived at our lodge and watched the sun set behind the crater rim.  It was beautiful – streaks of orange, pink and purple in the sky – and when the sun finally set, we could see a crazy lightning storm beyond the rim.

In the morning, we woke up super early for our game drive.  On the 60m descent down into the crater floor, it was so misty and foggy outside that we couldn’t see more than 10ft ahead.  There was dew on everything and so cloudy – very eerie! All I could see were silouettes of fever trees in the mist shrouded by fog.  We stopped at a checkpoint and out of nowhere, Maasai boys showed up selling their wares.  It was like a zombie movie! Once we got down to the crater floor, the view was even more beautiful than from the rim.  All around us was the crater rim and there was fog slipping over the rim like beer foam over a pint glass.  And since we were below the clouds, the air was so crisp and refreshing! The landscape was different as well – no more jungles – and instead, there were plains, small lakes and hills.  The cloud hanging over allowed the sunlight to peak out and cast rays of light on the crater floor.  There were herds of zebras and wildebeest (I’m talking hundreds of them).  Wildebeest are kinda ugly with long brown beards, hunchbacks and weird strides.  We also saw a bunch of male African elephants with huge, long tusks (at least 3 ft long) and they looked so sharp! They oddly rubbed themselves all over with mud – maybe some sort of weird facial or exfoliating regiment? At the small lakes, there were thousands of pink flamingos intermingled with animals drinking water.  We also saw a pride of lions (2 males, 2 females) by the side of the road – they were bigger than the ones we saw in Kenya but just as lazy and were just sleeping and yawning.  Not far away were hyenas looking for bones to hide in the water (apparently this way, they can eat the bones at a later time).

So as Mike (and Tamara now) know, I have a small bladder and need frequent bathroom breaks.  Well this morning’s tea mixed with the cold, bumpy ride standing in the jeep did not help so by hour 3 of the game drive, I had to pee.  Badly.  There were no toilets for miles in either direction so Becka stopped at the side of the road and I used the Crater as my own personal bathroom.  There was just something so serene about being in the open, at the bottom of an ancient crater, in Africa, with the sun shining down on me, in a field dotted with yellow flowers, being surrounded by wild animals.  Tamara was laughing at me the entire time and I’m pretty sure Becka was mortified.  I’m confident that I mooned a bunch of zebras but in the end, who else can say that they’ve left their mark on Ngorongoro Crater? Thank god we stopped where we did because not even 50m down the road, we saw a cheetah in the grass! She was just chilling there, not hidden or anything, mewing for her babies.  The markings on her face and body were so vivid and contrasting – I especially like the tear drop markings on her face.

After the game drive, we drove back up and over the rim and started our journey back to Arusha.  Along the way, we saw a car filled with bananas! They were everywhere – in the backseat, sticking out of the trunk, piled high on the roof! I just hope those cheeky baboons don’t get near that car! Along the drive back to Arusha, we saw people all along the road appear out of nowhere.  There was no trace of civilization for miles so they must have walked far! There were Maasai tending to their herds and barefoot school children walking to and from school.  We also had some excitement in the car when a huge bee hit me on the face and an even bigger wasp jumped into Tamara’s lap (that’s twice in 24 hours that’s she’s been attacked by animals – only in Africa!).  Back in Arusha, we said goodbye to Becka and boarded the bus from hell back to Dar Es Salaam.  The upside to the terrible ride was that we saw Mount Kilimanjaro! Its peaks are covered in snow and the ridge is so long, you have to turn your head all around just to take it all in! It really is majestic and massive – I can’t even imagine how all those people climb it! A peculiar observation we saw was the variety of wares that men would sell at the side of the road when buses/cars stopped.  We saw: sunglasses men, watch men, boiled eggs men, cashew nut men, cookies/candies/chips men, produce/fruit men, poster men, pants men, tie men, religious painting men, towel men, car accessories men, ice cream men, newspaper men, bootleg DVDs from China men, sandals men, plastic buckets men and my personal favourite, small grandfather clocks men.

Back in Dar, we treated ourselves to some luxury and stayed in a hotel! Our bodies may be broken, face wind-burnt and hair looking like a rat’s nest but in the end, it was all worth it!

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