Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Memories of Mali

Isn't it funny how the memory of one's travel fades with age like a favourite old snapshot. It was 1985 and I remember leaving Mopti and arriving in Djenne quite clearly and yet I can recall virtually nothing of the journey with the exception of driving across a long causeway across the Bani River floodplain at the confluence with the mighty Niger River as we approached the ancient town of Djenne. It was hot and hazy, that much I do remember - 45 degrees centigrade and being May, just before the rains it was also very humid. There had been a sand storm and the sky had a weird orange hue. I wandered the dusty, narrow alleyways and markets, peering into darkened doorways and gaping in amazement at the gleaming gold jewellery dripping from the local women. Each earring looked as though it must weigh at least a kilo. It was a wonder that the women weren't tripping over their earlobes.

I joined in a game of football with some ragged kids who were scuffing a battered, deflated plastic ball about the market place amongst the equally ragged chickens and skinny donkeys. Another memory which remains sharp is that of a mud brick goldsmith's building deep in the depths of one of the alleys. Crouched over a blazing crucible filled with molten gold was a dessicated old man of who knows what age. Pinned to the wall behind him was a poster of Madonna, scantily clad in a little lurex number. But here's the thing.......the poster was upside down.

Of course the highlight of any visit to Djenne is the Grande Mosque. It's hard to describe. It has an alien, almost organic appearance - like an enormous sandcastle topped by several rounded spires, each one decorated with an ostrich egg. Inside it is dark and deliciously cool and provides sanctuary from the heat for the elderly and infirm who are found comfortable corners of the interior and are tended to by the mosque members. It is a very humane arrangement.

The town site itself has been inhabited since 250 BC. The first mosque was built there in the 13th century, but the current structure dates back to 1907. In 1988, three years after my visit this ancient city was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site. It remains a pretty tough place to get to. As it is, Mali is not exactly a mainstream tourist destination and Djenne is remote even by Malian standards. It is about 350 kilometres southwest of Timbuktu which is widely recognised as being the world's most isolated town.

These days it's a two hour taxi ride from bustling Mopti, which has a pretty impressive mud mosque of its own as well as a fascinating river port. Or there are buses once a week if you're lucky. The best way to see this part of the world is with one of the overland adventure tours that operate in the region.

From AUD $4,925 Countries Visited: Mali
Duration: 13 days
Valid until 30 June 2012

For more information call Peter Emery on 0449 689 447
or email peter.emery@ucango.com.au

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Mrs Thatcher's Handbag

In southern of Tanzania lies a wild and woolly place called Ruaha National Park. You can drive the 600 kilometres from the capital city Dar Es Salaam, but take my advice – don’t. There’s a pretty good chance you’ll hit a stray elephant (not good for your car or the elephant) or be side swiped by one of the many overload local buses. (Not good for you. The bus driver probably wouldn’t even notice – even if he was awake at the time.) No, far better to fly. You’ll be there in 2 hours. In any case it’s a very scenic flight in a light aircraft, culminating in an exciting landing on a gravel bush strip within the National Park itself.

At 10,300 square kilometres it is huge – Tanzania’s second largest park. Much of the wildlife activity is centred on the Ruaha River – a wide, meandering waterway that attracts some of the best birdlife to be seen anywhere on earth. My favourite lodge within the park is Ruaha River Lodge. It has 48 bandas (lovely stone houses) strung out along the river. All have large ensuite bathrooms and verandahs.

It was in Ruaha National Park that I met Margaret Thatcher – not the strident, handbag wielding ex-Prime Minister of Great Britain but an even more formidable lady with wrinkled grey skin, big flappy ears and a trunk. The guides had named her Margaret Thatcher because she had a tendency to take exception to people for the most insignificant of reasons.

Our guide Josephat – a softly spoken man with the gentlest of natures had stopped our open game drive vehicle so that we could observe a small herd of elephants emerging from the scrub. It was a peaceful scene, half a dozen females with a couple of smaller juveniles. They contentedly munched on branches and rumbled to each other as we watched from about fifty metres away. Enter Margaret Thatcher. She pushed her way through the scrub and trumpeted crossly the moment she laid her piggy little eyes on us. Almost immediately she raised her trunk to smell us and then mock charged, spreading her ears, kicking up dust and stopping after a few metres. We all relaxed and continued to watch the herd for a few minutes.

Then Mrs Thatcher charged again. This time for keeps – silently and with her trunk tucked in. She came on at an amazing speed. Simultaneously the three of us the back of the vehicle yelled “Go! Go! Go!” at Josephat who was watching a troop of yellow baboons crossing the track ahead. Fortunately he’d left the engine running and after a second’s hesitation it dawned on him that several tons of angry pachyderm was bearing down on us and he gunned the engine and we shot off down the track spraying Mrs Thatcher with stones and grit.

Needless to say this did little to improve Margaret’s mood and she sped up. My wife Jacky and I were sitting in the back seats and therefore had the best view of the elephant’s tusks as they approached our rear ends. Josephat casually turned his head. “Has she stopped?” Our collective reply almost deafened him. “No. Go! Go! Go!” Six feet from the rear of the truck Mrs Thatcher was keeping up her shuffling sprint. At that point I was very glad I had opted to wear my khaki trousers. I swear I could smell her grassy breath.

At last after what seemed like several minutes, Mrs Thatcher began to tire and we pulled away from her. She finally stopped in a cloud of dust and trumpeted in either triumph or frustration – I’m not sure which, and then turned away to rejoin the herd. We all grinned a little insanely at each other and laughed – albeit somewhat nervously, realising how close we’d come to a damned good handbagging.

For more information on Ruaha River Lodge contact Peter Emery
Phone 0449 689 447
Email peter.emery@ucango.com.au

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Paul The Psychic Octopus

So, the final whistle has blown at the FIFA World Cup. The crowds are heading home and at last the sound of vuvuzelas is fading from our bleeding ears. And……wait. Is that the smell of octopus being stir fried with chillies, sweet basil and a hint of sauerkraut? I do believe it is. I bet Paul the psychic octopus didn’t see that coming!

There can be no doubt that South Africa’s World Cup has been a resounding success. What a shame Bafana Bafana (The Boys) didn’t progress beyond the group stage. Never mind, considering their pre-competition form they did pretty well to come out with a win, a draw and only one defeat. In the end the only African team that won anything was Algeria – officially voted the ugliest looking team at the World Cup. For those of you who are interested, Wayne Rooney was voted the ugliest player. Frankly I’m surprised that anyone noticed he was there!

My sincere hope is that all the positive exposure South Africa has received over the past month will entice people to visit this exciting country and her neighbours – Botswana, Namibia, Mozambique and yes even Zimbabwe which still has a lot to offer and is improving all the time. There’s never been a better time to visit the region. The vuvuzelas are finally silent, the football fans have vacated the hotels and prices will have returned to sanity. You’ll be blown away by the scenery, adore the animals and be charmed by the people.

South Africa Surprise Double Deal
15 Days including airfares
First Person - $3,995
Second Person - $3,675
An unforgettable 15 days in one of the world’s most exciting countries! Our tour takes in the best of South Africa — it will surprise you with its variety, fun & adventure.

For more information call Peter on 0449 689 447
or email peter.emery@ucango.com.au

Thursday, July 8, 2010

The Smoke That Thunders

The locals call Victoria Falls “Mosi oa Tunya” – The Smoke that Thunders. It’s well named too because at peak flow in May/June the spray rise three hundred metres or more, and looks for all the world like a huge plum of white smoke. It can be seen from miles away and is pointed out by the airline pilots on their final approach to either Livingstone or Victoria Falls airport.

The Zambezi River plunges into a deep gorge and forms a spectacular demarcation between Zimbabwe and Zambia or for those of you old enough to remember – Southern and Northern Rhodesia. The falls are best seen from the Zimbabwe side, especially towards the end of the dry season in September/October when pretty much all you’ll see from Zambia is the dry gorge wall. In May and June there can be sooooo much water that you might as well be standing in a tropical thunderstorm. It is incredible, you would not get any wetter if you actually fell into the Zambezi. Fortunately you can hire wet weather gear at the entrance to Victoria Falls National Park and the tour operators will usually supply it free of charge, though it can be a bit smelly.

There’s heaps of stuff to do there apart from admiring the falls. You can take an elephant-back safari, walk through the bush with lion cubs or have a seriously fattening high tea at the historical Victoria Falls Hotel. Then for those of you who are of somewhat doubtful sanity there is bungee jumping from the Victoria Falls bridge, grade five white water rafting and ultra-light aircraft flights over the falls. Call me a chicken if you like but there’s no way you’ll get me into something that both looks and sounds like a lawn mower with wings. Anyway, if you like flying lawnmowers its there for you. Personally I prefer the more conventional “Flight of Angels” in a helicopter.

Then there’s canoeing, game drives, game walks, day drips to Chobe, the list goes on.
Sunset cruises on the Zambezi are a great way to spend a couple of lazy hours. You drift down the river on any one of a couple of dozen vessels of varying size, all the while being plied with finger food and beer or wine. You watch the sunset – invariably a stunning show in this part of the world, and you observe the elephants bathing in the shallows and the hippos wiggling their ears with just their heads protruding from the water. There are crocodiles here too – big ones, up to seven metres in length. It is estimated that there is one every ten metres in this part of the river.

Many of the lodges have other activities and cultural shows that you can attend too, and one of my favourites – The Victoria Falls Safari Lodge on the Zimbabwe side has vulture feeding every day at one ’o’ clock. The vultures know it too. At twelve thirty hundreds of them can be seen spiralling on the thermals near the lodge. Hundreds more can be seen perched in nearby trees – all looking at their watches and waiting for their lunch. Then at the appointed hour one of the lodge’s guides appears with a chopped up sheep carcass and all hell breaks loose in a flurry of beating wings and a thick cloud of dust. One word of advice – don’t get too close, or if you do at least take an umbrella if you get my drift.

3 nights in at Victoria Falls Safari Lodge from $AU620.00 per person twin share.Price Includes: 3 nights accommodation, all transfers; breakfast daily, sunset cruise, dinner at the Boma and dinner in the Mukuwa-Kuwa restaurant in Victoria Falls.

For more information call Peter Emery at 0449 689 447