A Travellerspoint blog

Roof of the World pt. I

How to get into one of the unique countries in the world in style!

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Basotho Cowboys

Basotho Cowboys

People travelling a lot tend to look for the unique. Places and countries that don’t resemble anywhere we have been before. It sounds spoiled, but it’s easy to get numb visiting numerous cathedrals or waterfalls. Not that it doesn’t continue to be fun, exciting and insightful, but some of the excitement dies down when you’ve been visiting ten waterfalls in twenty days. Or when every single town thinks their church is a glories landmark, but you have just been to the region’s most elegant cathedral. I think you get what I’m getting at.

Lesotho is one of those unique places on the globe. A mountainous highland that by historical coincidences happens to be independent of South Africa that otherwise wholly surrounds it. Lesotho is a place full of African cowboys (and sheepboys) with scenery more at home in the Himalayas than Africa. The fact that Lesotho has the highest lowest point in the world, at 1,400 metres above sea-level should help drive home the point that the country is the Roof of Africa.

Lesotho Border Post

Lesotho Border Post

The fact that I’ve found Lesotho cold, wet and miserable for most of my time here isn’t enough to dissuade me from absolute adore the place. Driving through the rain clouds, stopping in random villages to warm myself in front of the dong-fired stoves and the locals’ hospitality if probably my favourite way of being uncomfortable. Especially, when the local herders, wrapped in their characteristic blankets, Seana Marena, and their faces covered from the cold, regularly send greetings my way from the roadside.

Sani Pass from Above

Sani Pass from Above

The fact that I’m actually driving my bike around Lesotho wasn’t a given, however. Coming from the South African east coast, the only way into the country was through the Sani Pass. This is an overland’s dream challenge, and the pass is justifiable famous for its impossible assent. It’s about 30 km of decent dirt road to the foot of the pass, which beings as the South African border post. From there it’s just 8 km to Lesotho’s border post on top of the pass. However, in those 8 km, the road climbs 900 metres, making an average incline on 11 percent. That’s more than any mountain in the Tour de France – just for reference.

On top of that (pun not intended), there’s no road to the top. There’s a washed-out dirt mess of large rocks and loose gravel. This is no road for my little scooter. Regardless, up we went. A guy on a big overlander motorbike, filmed me grinning as he was driving down the pass (he and his buddies hadn’t dared driving up). A, seemingly, local white guy – also driving down – just stared at me with a disapproving, almost angry, look while shaking his head. “You’re no fun” was my only comment as I struggled past him. Luckily, the times I struggled the most getting up the pass, no witnesses were around to see my almost fall down, almost drive over the edge, and almost having to get off the bike and push. Somehow, I manage without having to get off the bike once.

Scooter on Top

Scooter on Top

Having driven the glorified scooter this far south of Tanzania, the most frequent reaction I receive is surprise and disbelief. I got the same reaction when I bumbled over the last rocks and around the last switchbacks just below the top of the pass. Not from the Basotho border officers and one of the guides making regular tours up the pass. People have done crazier shit than me, apparently. A couple of years ago a group of Italians drover there Vespas up the pass after having driven the down here from Italy. But for everybody else, the feat and the bike seemed utterly incomparable. To the degree that members of various online fora for overlanders and bikes wanted to take my photo. Seemingly to have at hand every time someone bragged that they had gotten their purpose-built dirt-bike up the pass.

The best thing about Sani Pass? Someone had the insane idea to build a pub on top. Claiming to be Africa’s highest pub, I could conveniently celebrate with my first taste of Basotho beer once I got up to the 2,874 m summit. And that is the way I prefer to enter a new country!

Posted by askgudmundsen 12:20 Archived in Lesotho Tagged mountains travel overland motorbike lesotho southern_africa sani_pass Comments (0)

Sharktastic

Why diving with sharks is fantastic and why we should do more to protect them

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Shark in the open

Shark in the open

As we swam closer to the cave, one of the seven or eight Ragged Tooth Sharks in there decided the attention was too much. It came straight at us, peered off to the left and disappeared. Probably looking for another cave where curious divers wouldn’t disturb its rest. The rest of the sharks continued chilling, with a few of the bigger, braver ones closest to the cave opening. About two metres from us. Those were not the first sharks of the dive. Earlier, another cave had revealed two enormous sharks, reaching 3 metres in length. In between the caves, I and our lead divemaster had basically bumped into one about the same size turning a corner of coral rock.

Let me get this out of the way early. Sharks are not vicious monsters whose favourite hobby is to slay humans. Regardless of what pop culture has taught us, through masterpieces like Jaws and abominations like the Sharknado franchise, sharks aren’t protagonists. If anything, we are (I’ll get back to that). Rather, sharks are marvellous, intelligent and timid animals. Yes, timid. Most sharks, when they encounter boats, divers or the like, prefer to swim in the opposite direction. Just don’t splash around in the surface, pretending to be a seal.

Ready for sharks

Ready for sharks

Sharks do unfortunately sometimes injure or kill humans. In the last decade, six people have been killed worldwide by sharks annually on average. That’s six people a year across the globe. To put this in perspective, that’s less than lightning (1,000 deaths/year); drowning while bathing (20 deaths/year); while taking selfies (350 deaths/year); and being left-handed (2,500 deaths/year from using products made for right-handed people). In the United States alone, two people are crushed to death by ATMs annually. I would argue you should be as scared of drawing out money as of sharks.

58 % of the people killed by sharks are surfers because sharks tend to mistake them for seals. Once the shark realises its mistake, it will just about always spit out the poor surfer. The tragedy is that these deaths and injuries can be avoided. Durban has cut shark incidents to near-zero by installing shark nets on the city’s beaches. Shark-related injuries in South Africa now happens where there are no nets.

Shark Cave

Shark Cave

My dives off South Africa’s east coast aren’t my first shark encounters. I’ve dived with sharks in the Red Sea and the Caribbean as well. Always without incident. The depressing fact is that diving in shark “infested” waters bring me close enough to see the injuries we have done to sharks. Scars, cuts and disfigurements are clear signs of sharks being caught in nets and as by-catch of fishing vessels looking for a smaller catch. Often though, it’s much worse. Illegal finning – the act of removing sharks’ fins for human consumption – is a billion-dollar industry. An estimated 73-100 million sharks a finned, mutilated that is, annually. Sharks exhibit slow growth rates and low reproductive rates, and can not keep up with the pace of such an industry.

Less severe, but worth considering for the travellers out there, are the legal industries. South Africa is a mecca for cage diving. It’s a multi-million-dollar industry. While most outfits brand themselves as conservationists broadening knowledge about sharks, looking into it these outfits, too many have little to show for their claims. Sure, most outings will include a briefing, information of sharks’ threatened status, and the horrors of finning. But baiting sharks with fish chum, possibly smearing the cage in it, I would argue, doesn’t really work. Showing people in a cage, hunting and angry-looking sharks is not my idea of doing anything good for the images of sharks.

Baby shark

Baby shark

Then there’s the whole question of the baiting of sharks change their natural behaviour. Critics argue that baiting make sharks more likely to associate humans with food and distort their natural migration patterns. The scientific evidence seems to be inconclusive. Not surprisingly, the most vocal supporters of baiting are from the cage dive industry – just like the most vocal arguments for the practise increasing threats to humans often comes from surfers. Personally, I have the option of diving with sharks without needing a cage or bait. It will probably mean that I will never see a great white and only if I’m insanely lucky will I see a tiger shark. But I’ve seen plenty of other sharks, so ditching the cage dives and an industry I neither like nor trust is an easy choice. If you, on the other hand, don’t dive and dream of seeing sharks, all I ask is that you vigorously research the different outfits before you book your dive.

Individually, these are difficult problems to deal with other than the obvious. Don’t eat shark fin and consider whether to do that cage dive. That said, most of you are probably entirely on par with this. But awareness is the first step in the right direction, and I hope anyone reading this has, at least, become a little more enlightened. By all means, go back to watching those scary shark movies now – just spare a thought to Bruce, the friendly great white from Finding Nemo, once in a while.

Posted by askgudmundsen 05:26 Archived in South Africa Tagged diving travel overland sharks motorbike shark dangerous south_africa southern_africa deaths baiting cage_dive finning Comments (0)

The Lonely Roads

A hermit on wheels’ confessions

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Lonely Roads

Lonely Roads

I’m simultaneously trying to avoid two cows that have stepped onto the road and wave to some very excited children, who insist I should give them more of my attention than the cows. For some obscure reason, this is the moment my brain decides to come up with the perfect comeback to a discussion I lost at a meeting six years back. Welcome to the lonely life of riding a motorcycle through Africa alone.

Those damn cows

Those damn cows

Driving a motorcycle across half a continent is invertible a solitudinous undertaking. Hour after hour, often day after day. Alone on the bike. Without a radio, let alone human company. While it can be tedious, it’s also something I’ve come to quite appreciate. It’s undoubtedly not for everybody, but before I move to a cave somewhere to become a troglodyte (i.e. hermit), I might share a few of those dull hours on the road.

Naturally, a lot of the time is spent on the actual driving. While I’m pretty comfortable on the bike after having driven it for more than a year, there are still a ton of things to keep concentrating on. Cattle crossing the road, near-invisible speed bumps, children who need a wave or thumbs up. Then there are the outright fun parts, especially when the road’s winding down mountains and hills. On these, I can keep up speed and slalom my way downhill as if I was a racer – it’s about the only time the glorified scooter drivers fast. Not much time for daydreaming if I want to stay on the road.

Mountain road

Mountain road

Elsewhere, on the long straight roads, there’s plenty of time for daydreaming and enjoying the view. The beauty of being on a motorcycle is the perceived vicinity to the nature around you. Not protected by a car’s chassis or windshield, the full force of the wind is a stout reminder. So is the sun’s baking rays warming up the leather jacket. More importantly, there are no blind angles. On the bike, I have an almost 360-degree view of my surroundings – depending on how much I twist around.

I’ve always enjoyed driving, regardless of which of the two types of road mentioned above. But flying through the developing landscapes on a motorcycle, sitting in the elements is second to none. I’m happy spending a lot of my day merely driving, with a smile on my face. It’s a little like sitting on a dark and stormy evening, looking into a fire. It’s mesmerising. Nothing else is needed.

Younger me

Younger me

The many hours alone are also a perfect time for self-reflection and, frankly, self-improvement. Something I’ve always insisted should be part of any form of travel. Different thoughts or episodes from the past tend to pop up if there’s nothing else to occupy my mind. Whether it’s finder the perfect answers to those “I should have said” episodes from years’ back or becoming better at accepting dumb things I’ve done in the past that comes back to haunt me from time to time. I don’t per se need to be on a motorcycle to do this, but it does provide me with ample opportunities to deal with the ghost of the past. To phrase it in an overdramatic way.

Plenty of impressions

Plenty of impressions

Other than the driving and the self-reflection, I obviously use much time thinking about what to write home about. Small quirky impressions from the road. I keep coming up with all these fantastic, witty and clever paragraphs or new ideas for this blog. Alas, I can’t write them down, and I simply don’t have the time to stop constantly, get out pen and paper, and write it down every time I come up with something new. So inevitably, once I’ve arrived at my destination and open my laptop, I’ve long forgotten all the Shakespearesque brilliance I’ve come up with during the day’s drive…

Lastly, it should not be understated how similar singing while riding a motorbike is to singing in the shower. It’s pretty must a must. Though practising one’s singing while riding do have the added bonus, for talentless people such as myself, that the helmet will muffle all the terrible tunes I release upon an innocent World that, frankly, do not deserve me adding to the ongoing horrors.

Posted by askgudmundsen 00:59 Archived in South Africa Tagged reflections travel overland lonely tanzania malawi zimbabwe motorbike south_africa southern_africa loneliness Comments (0)

The Kingdom of Eswatini

A one-page summary cannot do a country justice – regardless, here it is

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Barberton Drive

Barberton Drive

Driving up through the Barberton Mountains on the border between South Africa and Eswatini—formerly known as Swaziland—was a humbling experience. The mountains are some of the oldest in the World, standing at 3.2 billion years of age (Earth is 4.5 billion years old). I ended up having lunch next to a piece of ocean floor, 1.600 metres above sea level. It was also brilliant in both a traveller’s and a driver’s perspective; panorama galore all the way.

Pastel Houses

Pastel Houses

These mountains are excellent hiking spots, with small colourful villages dotting the landscape. Someone had apparently decided that the village houses here should be in pastel colours. Clouds, however, drifted in on my days here, so I didn’t get to take advantage of the hiking possibilities. Instead, I opted for a visit to the World’s oldest known mine, where San people excavated an iron ore paint as early as 43,000 years ago. The mist again obscured the views but did give the whole excursion a rather Silent Hill kind of feel to it.

King at Incwala

King at Incwala

Eswatini is as intriguing as an African kingdom sounds. The Barberton Mountains in the west gives way to valleys surrounded by mist-covered peaks. Home of the royal family, of which the Queen Mother and King are the two most influential figures. These valleys are the most important cultural and spiritual part of the country. It’s also where the country gathers twice a year for the massive traditional dance festivals, the Incwala and Umhlanga. And once a year for the more modern Bushfire Music Festival.

Sibebe Rock

Sibebe Rock

For travellers, one of these valley-framing mountains, Sibebe Rock, is of particular interest. It’s the World’s largest granite rock. A massive builder, formed in a prehistoric volcanic eruption. It’s also the World’s second-largest monolith after Uluru (Ares Rock) in Australia. The Eswatini version is a lot less visited, though also less spectacular as other, more ordinary, mountains surround it. That didn’t stop me from climbing it. I good hour’s scramble up the steep cliff. The way down on the backside was a lot more relaxing.

Further to the east, the country’s sloping continues downwards into more traditional African Savannah and grassland before turning completely flat towards the South African coastlines. This is the usual scenes associated with Africa. Zebras, Rhinos, Hippos, et cetera. Except the rains running down from the mountains make everything pleasantly green, rather than dry Savannah-yellow found further to the north.

Zebra Family

Zebra Family

A few of the parks here allow you to stroll around on your own. Probably because there are no large predators. Crocodiles, hippos and half a dozen poisonous snakes are around, so tread carefully. For a city-boy like me, unfamiliar with any animal larger than medium-sized dogs, this is still pretty wild. I feel an urge to remind all the rural folk currently laughing at me that buffaloes, antelopes and cows have sharp weapons sticking out of their faces (casually referred to as horns, as if that should make them less deadly). And zebras injure more American zookeepers on an annual basis than tigers do. Just saying!

Silent Hill

Silent Hill

I did survive my park walks though, and a very short sniff to Eswatini was finalised with a rather uneventful drive to the South African coast. Returning me to the Indian Ocean that I haven’t seen since I left Dar es Salaam two months ago. As a little side note – while Eswatini is a Kingdom, it doesn’t avoid the usual problems associated with too many African leaders. Shortly before my arrival, the King bought 120 BMWs and 19 Rolls-Royces for more than 17 million USD. He blew another 25 million USD on his 15 wives. That at a time where both bread and fuel prices have risen for ordinary citizens. And public servants haven’t had their salaries price-regulated in the past three years, despite substantial inflation. Bro, if you’re trying to create a republic, this is how you create a republic.

Posted by askgudmundsen 11:05 Archived in Swaziland Tagged hiking travel mountain overland king safari mining motorbike southern_africa swaziland monolith eswatini incwala walking_safari sibebe Comments (0)

The Michelin Guide of Travelling

Travel inspiration can come from anywhere – some of mine come from the UN

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Mask dancing

Mask dancing

Whether you mean to or not, travelling is a learning experience. About foreign lands and cultures, and about oneself. Even the laziest of package tour tourists, regardless of how much of their time they spent at the pool or beach, will have some new experiences. If for nothing else, because their tour company will inevitably have arranged some kind of cultural night with local food and some sort of cultural entertainment. Probably a local dance show. A big part of my love for travelling is my enjoyment of learning about and getting to know the world.

Mapungubwe

Mapungubwe

Earlier on this trip, I almost took a 2,000 km detour to visit the Island of Mozambique, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Had I had a week or ten days more to complete this trip, I would probably have done it. Instead, a couple of days ago, I settled on a mere 140 km detour to visit the Mapungubwe Cultural Landscape in the far north of South Africa another World Heritage Site. I somewhat happily paid 15 US$ to enter a national park I wasn’t allowed to drive around in on my motorcycle, only to spend another 5 US$ to visit a museum with a viewpoint. Just because this place is on some fancy list?

Mozambique

Mozambique

Most seasoned travellers have an idea about how many countries they have visited. Many keep count vigorously. And just about everybody who’ve visited more than 50 countries like to brag about it. However, the utmost travel-nerds, people such as myself, counts more than countries. One friend of mine needs to visit one more Federal State in Germany before he has visited them all. I, and quite a few other travellers, count UNESCO World Heritage Sites. I use it as my personal Michelin Guide.

To be clear, the real Michelin Guide is essentially an effort by a tire manufacturer, to go out of their way to visit restaurants. Go figure, a company selling tires want people to drive longer and use up their tires quicker. The definition of Michelin Stars awarded to a restaurant is, for two stars, “excellent cooking, worth a detour,” while three Stars are for “exceptional cuisine, worth a special journey.” UNESCO doesn’t offer starts to their sites, though.

Cave Paintings

Cave Paintings

What United Nations Educational, Scientific & Cultural Organisation’s World Heritage Committee does do, is to pick-out already-classified landmarks for their unique geographically or historically significance. Places that in some way or another constitutes a remarkable accomplishment of humanity serve as evidence of our intellectual history or are worth conservation for posterity. Thus the sites vary hugely. All those you would expect are there: The Pyramids, Acropolis, Great Barrier Reef, Galapagos, even the Statue of Liberty. Then there are the obscure ones: A Scottish bridge, Dutch pumping stations, unknown cave paintings in the middle nowhere and a seemingly random house in Buenos Aires.

Vic Fall's on the List

Vic Fall's on the List

Nobody needs a random UN-list to travel out of their way to visit the Pyramids or Great Barrier Reef. Like most people, I’d happily take a long detour to visit the Galapagos Islands, cost and time allowing it of course. But why would some of us, weird people, go out of our way to see a bridge in Scotland? I even dragged my friends along. UNESCO Sites, especially the obscure ones, is a chance for me to learn something new about the world that I would not have discovered otherwise. How the Dutch reclaimed prodigious sways of their country from the sea with the pumping stations.

Tiny rhino

Tiny rhino

The random plains and cliffs of Mapungubwe turned out to have been the home of what is largely thought to be Southern Africa’s first organised polity – that is, its first proper kingdom – trading gold and ivory as far afield as China. It’s one of the first evidence on the continent of hunter-gathers and farmers living side-by-side. They also produced adorable tiny rhinoceroses of gold. The World Heritage Sites, particularly the lesser-known, are fantastic opportunities for anyone travelling to emerge themselves in what travelling is inevitably about. Learning about those bits and pieces of our world and history that we never knew we didn’t know.

And let’s not forget that it gives me a niche bragging opportunity towards my fellow travellers. By Christmas, I’ll have mapped 108 countries and 210 UNESCO sites. Then again, the World Heritage Committee adds around 20 new sites every year, and with the current number standing a 1,121, I won’t run out anytime soon.

Posted by askgudmundsen 09:38 Archived in South Africa Tagged culture history travel overland unesco motorbike world_heritage south_africa southern_africa learn list learning lists reasons Comments (0)

Rafting the Victoria Falls

White-water rafting below one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World

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Rafting the Zambezi

Rafting the Zambezi

I paused and looked around. Everything was a green mess of fast-flowing river water. I was pitted up against a corner of an underwater rock formation. Or more precisely in a corner underneath a rock formation as a rock above kept me below the waves despite the best efforts of my lifejacket. The water flow was too strong for me to make my way back out to the middle of the river. I was pretty well stuck. As I paused, I estimated that the one breath of air I’d gotten just before being sucked under, would last me another 30-40 seconds of hard work getting myself free.

The Zambezi Gorge

The Zambezi Gorge

Victoria Falls is not only one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World. It’s also the adventure capital of Southern Africa. Helicopter rides, lion walks, crocodile cage diving, bungee jumping, white-water kayaking and a whole range of wilder-than-normal safaris. I opted for river rafting, one of the things on the list that I had yet to try. Particularly, as Vic Falls allegedly has some of the world’s best river rafting during the dry season. This might be a good time, to let everybody know that the raft doesn’t actually go over the falls – the rafting starts just below, in the Zambezi River Gorge.

Flipped

Flipped

Navigating 32 km of the Zambezi River, our raft would make it through 19 rapids. That is, we would make it through the first 17 without incidents. Throwing caution to the wind, I, despite my rookie-status, had picked one of the two front seats in the raft. Because why the hell not. It worked out perfectly well. I stayed upright, paddled when paddling was needed, and did rather well with all the massive waves rolling over the boat. Until rapid number 18, where our raft flipped 90 degrees, throwing just about all of us into the river. Everybody except an American girl, who was thrown straight up into the air, only to come straight back down into the raft, from where she laughingly asked what all the rest of us were doing down in the water.

Waves

Waves

I paid too much attention to the snarly remarks instead of making sure I stayed in the middle of the river. Thus I quickly was sucked into the fast-flowing water next to the rocks on the one side, sucked under, popped up again to get a single breath of air in before being sucked under some rather large rocks, bumping my helmet on them a few times. Fast-forward a few seconds, and we’re back where this blog entry started. I’m getting pushed into an underwater rock formation and trapped in a corner.

Having scuba dived a lot, including working for a short while as a divemaster, I’m pretty comfortable underwater. Back when doing my training we, the instructors and divemasters, would regularly turn off each other’s air at 30 metres depth as a kind of practical joke. So once I got stuck in the rocks, the most natural instinct was to pause and estimate the situation. 30 to 40 seconds of air might not sound like much, but try timing it. It’s possible to do quite a lot in 30 seconds.

Flying High

Flying High

Given that I couldn’t get back into the middle of the river with the open water, my best option seemed to backtrack by pushing myself off the rocks. This, I only had to do for about 30 centimetres before I was free from the worst overhanging rocks, and my lifejacket did its part and shot me to the surface. Gripping a couple of stones not to go down again, I could reasonably easy make it to a small side-pool where our rescue kayaker had parked himself looking for me. “I thought you went under,” he said. “I did,” I replied with a grin, “where did our boat go?”. He shook his head at me. All-in-all, I’d probably not spent more than 10-20 seconds underwater, most of them before having to been caught.

The raft, it turned out, was several hundred metres down the river, and we still had some pretty hairy part of the rapid to get through before we got there. I lodged myself on the front tip of the kayak and hoped that the guy wouldn’t crash into any big rocks on the way back to the boat, which he, luckily, didn’t do. Back with the group, it turned out that everybody else had simply been washed down to a quiet bit of the river and crawled back into the boat. Apparently, I was the only one who’d been sucked out to the side. Probably fair enough, given that I had been all cocky about us making it through the rapid as we approached it.

Also, the Victoria Falls are really pretty and should definitely be on most travellers’ bucket list.

Victoria Falls

Victoria Falls

Posted by askgudmundsen 08:49 Archived in Zimbabwe Tagged travel overland zambia rafting zimbabwe motorbike southern_africa victoria_falls zambezi white_water river_rafting Comments (0)

Among Hippos and Crocs; Canoeing the Zambezi River

Spending four days with just a small canoe separating me from some of the world’s most dangerous animals

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Posing hippos

Posing hippos

The hippo suddenly appeared about ten metres in front of our canoe. It lazily yawned and showed off its four big canine teeth. It looked like it could swallow the first half of the dugout in one gulp. That half of the canoe I was occupying. “Hippo, straight ahead!” I yelled, with me and our lead guide in the seat behind starting to paddle backwards frantically. We’d clearly awoken it, to a lot of discontents. Snorted angrily at us, water spraying from its nostrils like it was a small whale. We slowly took a wide bend around the morning grumpy animal, and it stayed put.

Giant crocodile

Giant crocodile

Following in the footsteps of Livingstone, a couple of other white silly explorers and generations of local fishers, my sister and I have decided to brave some of Africa’s wildlife in its element by booking a four-day canoeing adventure on Africa’s fourth-largest river. Probably mostly my idea, but by this point, borderline crazy ideas constitute a badge of honour I happily wear on my travels. It did feel full-on crazy when we stopped our canoes mid-river on a shallow spot to take a quick bath just minutes after being chased by a hippo. That, however, was the guides’ idea, not mine.
The crocodiles turned out to be surprisingly timid. They are sliding down into the water and under its surface before our canoes got close. They are opportunistic animals, so they don’t bother much with the big canoes. However, better watch the water closely when walking down to the shoreline from camp to wash hands or clothes. The last thing you want is a croc snapping out against you without warning. So we made sure to stay well away from the water’s edge after dark.

Hippo City

Hippo City

The hundreds of hippos we passed turned out to be a little trickier. Hippos are the animal in the world responsibly for killing the largest number of humans on an annual basis. They’re very territorial and short-tempered. Not only can they pop out the water without warning—they like to rest on the river button—they also rush around in the water at the sight of a canoe to get to the securest possible position. Hippos don’t like being exposed, standing on land or in shallow waters, but prefer the deeper bit of river, for a place to hide and defend. Knowing this, and which parts were the shallow river we could stick to, we could zigzag our way through the dozens of ‘hippo islands’ and lonely, aggressive singles that dot the entirety of the Zambezi.

Close encounter

Close encounter

But not everything on the river is so heart-in-mouth – through the adrenaline of being chased by an angry hippo is a rush of the wilder. Antelopes, elephants and buffaloes are relatively untroubled by the silent, slow-moving canoes make for close wildlife encounters that are more relaxing than those with the hippos. Granted, sitting in a canoe on the water’s surface, elephants look very big when they are standing towering over the dugout to get a sip of water. Such encounters are possibly as thrilling, and a lot nicer, than those with the hippos.

Stuck Buffalo, Waiting Vultures

Stuck Buffalo, Waiting Vultures

Nature being nature; not everything is rosy. We didn’t see any predators other than the crocs, though we heard plenty of rows from lions, hyenas and spotted dogs during the nights. It was making falling asleep somewhat of an exciting experience. The vultures, however, did still have a feast. Extremely high temperatures and droughts hit the area around the river. As our visit coincided with the end of the dry season, everything but the river was dry to its bones, and plenty of weaker animals had succumbed to the harsh conditions. The most notable sight on our trip was a buffalo that had gotten itself stuck in the mud on the river bank. Unable to get out of its sticky grave, it was left to die of thirst and hunger, just metres from the river. While it was still alive, a handful of vultures were already sitting above it, waiting for its demise and a feast — the situation straight out of the cartoons I used to read as a kid.
Such were just a few of the impressions after four highly recommendable days on the water, should you ever find yourself in this part of the world. There're more photos in the gallery on the right side for more inspiration.

Posted by askgudmundsen 22:06 Archived in Zimbabwe Tagged river adventure africa safari zambia zimbabwe travelling roadtrip canoe southern_africa zambezi Comments (0)

The Joy of Overlanding… and Breaking Down

Sweating over a bike for hours on end in a sizzling hot workshop isn’t exactly what people think of as the good of travel-life. Neither do I.

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Refueling

Refueling

I’d decided to push my glorified scooter to its limit. There weren’t any gas stations for a 185 km anyway before rolling into Bulawayo, Zimbabwe’s second-largest city. So despite having plenty of spare fuel, I wanted to figure out how far I could go on one tank of gas. Multiple sites online insisted that running out of fuel once in a while wouldn’t really hurt the engine.
To my surprise, I actually made it to the outskirts of Bulawayo, where the gas stations, of course, did not have any fuel because of the shortage. Instead, I ran out about 600 metres before another station a little closer to the backpackers I had planned to stay. They didn’t have any fuel either. Having now thoroughly run dry (I later figured that my four-litre tank does 183 km when full – which is pretty decent mileage), I took out my spare fuel and poured a couple of litres in the tank. That should get me going again. It didn’t.

As it should look

As it should look

Instead, my bike started to choke, splutter and spew heaps of smelly, white smoke. Not only from the exhaust, but from the engine too. Not good. Not good at all. About the only thing I know about engines is that white smoke is better than black. Normally. So I pressed on given that I was only a couple of kilometres from the guesthouse, where I planned to spend the next three or four days. Plenty of time to find a mechanic. Somehow my little scooter managed to get me all the way there. How? I don’t know. I decided to let it cool down for a few hours before trying to do anything else. Maybe it was merely some reaction to being driven dry. Better give it a rest…
Two hours later, there were no smoke, no splutter and no choking. Unfortunately, there was no other sound other than the electric ignition going chuk-chuk-chuk, without the engine actually starting. The kick-start didn’t work either. Nothing I could fix myself. Luckily, Adam, the helpful owner of the place, knew what allegedly was the best-equipped motorbike workshop between Jo’burg and Nairobi. The bike was swiftly put in the back of Adam’s pickup, so was I, and off we went.

Getting a ride

Getting a ride

We arrived at Bikes & Boats just fifteen minutes before they closed. Worse, this was Thursday afternoon, and the Zimbabwean government had decided to make Friday a public holiday in protest of sanctions imposed by the EU and USA. Shortly told, the EU and USA have imposed sanctions on a few of the previous regime’s leaders for being murders and thieves. We’re talking Mugabe’s henchmen here. Now, the current government blames these sanctions for the country’s dismal economic situation. Having worked for the EU just a few months ago, I know for a fact, that the EU sanctions are against only four persons after Mugabe himself recently died. Regardless, the government is forcing thousands of citizens to take to the streets in protest of sanctions against a few of government’s friends. While at the same time cracking down hard on opposition protests.
As it might be obvious, I have no patience for African politicians (any politicians, really) who are busy stealing the wealth and lives of their own citizens. However, with most local (as well as the EU and USA) knowing well that this holiday is a load of BS, it was difficult not to laugh about it. The workshop being closed down over the weekend; I couldn’t get my bike fixed until Monday. At least this protest holiday screwed over one EU employee…

Stripped bike

Stripped bike

Having suffered a bike-less weekend, Monday morning, I finally went back to the workshop. Me and two mechanics spent all morning taking the bike apart. Finding plenty of dirt where there wasn’t supposed to be dirt, plenty of airlocks where there wasn’t supposed to be airlocks, and a lot of other needed adjustments. Thinking we had solved the problem, we fixed a few other routine things that were due. “Chuk-chuk-chuk.” Still nothing. My initial thought was a very lough F-word, followed by a lot of different words that this blog’s moderators don’t allow me to write.

Bikes mostly

Bikes mostly

That until one of the guys working on the bike accidentally stuck his hand in a puddle under the bike. “Smells, like diesel,” he said, which is strange because it’s not a diesel bike. It turned out that the spare fuel that I had bought on the black market because of the fuel shortage wasn’t petrol. Whether maliciously or by accident, I had been given two litres of diesel. Which I had then, unknowingly, poured into an empty fuel tank — no surprise the engine didn’t like driving on that stuff. We emptied the tank, re-did all the cleaning excises from that morning and refuelled the bike with petrol. ”Chuk-chuk-vroom!” It started first try.

Back on the road

Back on the road

It probably had still needed the cleaning, but the chances are that had I been handed the right fuel, I would have had no problems running the engine dry. Nevertheless, I drove out of Bikes & Boats on my bike, which has probably never been riding more smoothly, but 150 dollars poorer — almost haft of my estimated fuel cost for this entire trip. But so are the risks when forced to deal with the black market. At least now, I can distinguish the smell between petrol and diesel…

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Posted by askgudmundsen 12:42 Archived in Zimbabwe Tagged travel overland zimbabwe motorbike broken southern_africa fuel repair break_down mechanic Comments (0)

The Ancient Civilisation of Great Zimbabwe

Too many associate Sub-Saharan African civilisations with primitive mud huts with straw roofs. That’s a misconception.

sunny 35 °C
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The the Mountain Castle

The the Mountain Castle

Walking up the cliffside in 35 degrees’ heat, it wasn’t difficult for me to understand why the medieval kings of Great Zimbabwe only walked down into their capital city once a month to address their thousands of subjects. It was gruelling walking up to the castle, built on top of a giant monolith. It’s much easier to have the people come up to you than having to walk back up here all the time. After all, it’s supposed to be good to be king.

The Watchtower

The Watchtower

Everybody knows about the Pyramids and temples of Egypt. The biggest stone structures in Africa (and possibly in the world). What’s less known is that ancient and medieval stone cities were built all over the continent of Africa before European colonialists’ arrival. The biggest of these gave its name to the modern country of Zimbabwe.
I’m not trying to write an academic thesis here. But for me, having travelled through much of the African continent, the lack of knowledge and the idea as Africa as a civilisational backwater is disconcerting, to say the least. The idea of Africa as primitive stems from Western colonialists’ ignorance and lies, not from historical facts. Visiting the ruins of Great Zimbabwe thoroughly shatters such a perception, and standing below the eleven-metre-tall walls here is as impressive as visiting the medieval castles of Europe.

Loropéni Ruins, Burkina

Loropéni Ruins, Burkina

Remnants of a walled city, at least 2,500 years old, has been found in Chad, and even older ones in Ghana. Medieval civilisations build stone cities in Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, Tanzania and Zimbabwe. Greek-like city-states flourished as well in both Western and Southern Africa at various points in time. Mud-buildings have been preferred for some civilisations, e.g. in Mali, and in rural areas because of its availability, costs and cooling effect. Not because the peoples inhabiting them didn’t know how to make stone buildings.

The Great Enclosure

The Great Enclosure

The biggest of these stone cities, in fact, the biggest stone structures in Africa outside Egypt, is Great Zimbabwe. Built a thousand years ago in the 11th century, it was the capital for the Shona people for four hundred years, housing almost 20,000 inhabitants. Despite the city falling into decline long before the first Europeans hearing about it, the white government of Rhodesia manipulated everything from museum displays to school books in the ’60s and ’70s in an attempt to hide the fact that a black civilisation had built Great Zimbabwe. No surprise that this name was chosen for the country as the black majority gained political power.

Khami Ruins

Khami Ruins

The word ‘Zimbabwe’ itself comes from the Shona dialect of the Bantu language meaning big ‘Zi’, house ‘mbab’ [of] stone ‘we’ – Zi-mbab-we. The denominator ‘Great’ comes from the fact that Great Zimbabwe is the largest of more than 200 hundred total Zimbabwes. That is, more than 200 cities or “Big Houses of Stone” were built throughout Southern Africa in South Africa, Botswana and Mozambique, though the most significant remnants are to be found in Zimbabwe. Not only Great Zimbabwe but also sites such as the Khami Ruins, which will be on my itinerary for the coming days.

Posted by askgudmundsen 08:51 Archived in Zimbabwe Tagged overland africa zambia medieval ancient zimbabwe motorcycle south_africa civilization southern_africa mozambique civilisation great_zimbabwe khami Comments (0)

A World of Perfect Vistas

Another corner of the African continent that no-one knew offered world-class hiking, fantastic views and a new exiting landscape at every bend of the road.

semi-overcast 25 °C
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Rough Road

Rough Road

By far the worst part of driving a motorbike through a national park is all the glorious sights, vistas and animals that you miss out on. Navigating the damn thing across the gravel roads, around potholes and sharp rocks, take away most of your concentration. There’s almost none left to enjoy the views. This is a particularly annoying problem in Zimbabwe’s eastern highlands, where everything looks fantastic no matter where I look. It’s also very dusty, muscles get sore, and under the African sun, I get absolutely cooked in the leather jacket. But all this I knew setting off, and your sympathies should be limited to missing out on the views, which is the real tragedy.

Hiking Bvumba

Hiking Bvumba

Three national parks, Nyanga, Bvumba and Chimanimani, compete for travellers’ attention in Eastern Zim. I ended up exploring the two former, mostly due to lack of time. In both, I quickly forgot I was in Southern Africa. Instead, the landscape reminded me of Scottish Lowlands with its rock formations and rolling hills; or Central Germany with its massive pine forests. The temperatures weren’t far off either, and especially the evenings and early mornings were cold. As a Dane, I might not be the one to make those comparisons, but fellow travellers from both places confirmed my suspicion.

Stories by the Fire

Stories by the Fire

The cold wasn’t a massive problem in Bvumba, where I headed up to an old lodge with two Scottish travellers I’d met the day before. The evenings were spent in front of the burning fireplace, sharing beers and travel stories. Plenty of both, you’d imagine. In Nyanga, however, I camped. Most people who know me will probably be surprised by that fact. I’m not exactly the camping prototype. And as expected, I didn’t particularly enjoy the cold mornings, the ants or the fact that I had to cook over the open fire. Somehow, though, I managed just fine. Somewhere back home, a lot of people will be shocked that I cooked over the open fire for three days straight – let alone managing to get the fire burning in the first place.

Exciting Walk

Exciting Walk

Camping, however, was out in Nyanga was definitely worth it. The park is home, not only to some lovely winding roads that make driving the bike a joy (though it’s still very slow going uphill), but also to Zimbabwe’s tallest mountain, Mount Nyangani, and tallest waterfall, Mtarazi Falls. The falls are allegedly 762 metres tall over a couple of drops. The wibbly-wobbly suspension bridge hanging 380 metres above where the falls’ largest drop crashes onto the rocks was just the adrenaline kick I needed. The 90 metres’ bridge felt well too short, but I could imagine many other people would rather stay as far from the edge as possible.

On the top of Zimbabwe

On the top of Zimbabwe

In general, the highland is full of fantastic views and vistas, that can’t be justified through mere photos. Hence my frustration at the beginning of the blog entry. Few of the views were better than from the top of Mount Nyangani. 360 degrees of the valleys and hilltops. At 2,592m it’s not the tallest mountain in the world, but it still took a good 1,5 hours to scramble to the top (and a couple of hours on terrible dirt roads getting there and back). Usually, it would be dead quite. However, I happened to climb the mountain on a Saturday. So I had to share the quite summit with weekend-visitors from Harare and 100+ churchgoers who were very busy shouting ‘hallelujah’ and ‘aaaaamen’ from the top of their lungs (pun intended). You can imagine my joy of sharing this otherwise moment of zen with these guys…
Regardless. Should you find yourself in the vicinity of Eastern Zim, I can’t recommend these places enough. But maybe go on a weekday ;)

Posted by askgudmundsen 08:56 Archived in Zimbabwe Tagged hiking travel mountain overland waterfall hike motorbike southern_africa zimbabe nyanga bvumba Comments (0)

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