Tuesday, 9 December 2008

Brief Encounters at Beit Bridge

Through the window, I watched the other drivers hunched over their steering wheels, enveloped in their own thoughts. As our truck etched towards the border inspection point, a passenger in one of the cars parked by us noticed my gaze and turned his head. I took a chance, smiled and waved at him. He scowled and drove off as the barrier lifted.

Welcome to Zimbabawe I thought.

A country that once upon a time was known as the breadbasket of Africa, with its hugely productive farms and buoyant economy, is today rife with hyperinflation, political corruption and crime.

Years of misrule from its leader Robert Mugabe, whose lust for power and fondness for bribery completely destroyed the country, has left Zimbabwe on its knees.

On March 29th this year the Movement for Democratic Change won the parliamentary elections but the party fell short of gaining an outright majority, which meant a presidential run off took place on June 27th. During this election period, the country has been rocked by violence, which has escalated day by day as the elections approached. Mugabe and his followers have used every means possible to suppress, torture and even kill Morgan Tsvangirai’s supporters.

In order to avoid any further bloodshed, Tsvangirai pulled out of the presidential race, leaving Mugabe as the only remaining candidate and making the whole affair even more of a farce.

Given this political disaster that was unfolding, arriving in Zimbabawe in the first week of April was possibly not the wisest of decisions, but the lure of the country proved too strong for us to resist.

Driving up from Jo’Burg, South Africa, we stopped at Musina for some last-minute food and drink supplies and made sure we had sufficient fuel for any unforeseen circumstances.

Crossing the border at Beit Bridge was most certainly an eye-opener. Unlike many other borders, which consist of no more than a cattle fence at times, the Zimbabwean border with South Africa is separated by the high-security fencing, but also the Limpopo River that runs alongside it. The police at this border post are extremely vigilant at the best of times, and this week they were even more so.

Everywhere we looked there were vehicles packed to the rafters with food, furniture and people, as well as many other citizens walking around wearing pro- Tsvangirai t-shirts (an attitude I admired, though thought rather brave given the recent back-lash from Mugabe’s followers).

As we queued up to get our passports stamped, a gentleman turned round and asked us what on earth we were doing crossing into Zim. Very good question. As we looked across at the other passport counter, the number of people trying to cross over into South Africa was considerably higher, that is without taking into account the many petrified souls who every day chance their life by illegally smuggling themselves across the border, attempts which often end in death.

Even the slightest hope of a successful escape drives many hundreds of Zimbabweans doing this every day. That and the hope that “Bob” (as he is ‘affectionately’ known) dies. According to our new found acquaintance, this is something most Zimbabweans have been wishing for the last 84 years. Here’s hoping.

After the lengthy rigmarole of passport checks and queuing for what seemed an eternity, we were then told we were standing in the wrong queue for British nationals. Not surprisingly we were then ordered to pay an extra fee for our temporary visas – oh the joys of border crossing! This is not to mention the last minute attempts by one of the supposed officials to try and con some more money out of us. Eventually we managed to crawl our way onto Zimbabwean soil.

With our destination of Simuwini rest camp in the Mabaluta Province of the GonaRe Zhou National Park in mind, we hit the bumpy road. Though the camp is only about 30kms from the border, it took an age to get there, given we were trying to dodge pot holes as well as the odd stray donkey. In the vicinity of our lodge we were greeted by herds of fleeting impalas and boks, and two rather nonchalant looking elephants as they meandered down to the river at watering time.

For our first game drive we woke up for sun rise, and though not usually a morning person, I was rewarded when we came across a hyena darting in and out of the bushes, and spotted vultures and crimson herons circling above our heads.

When it was suggested to test out the 4x4’s 'true capabilities' and head down into the dry river bed on the look out for some wildlife, we should have known that this ‘adventure’ would end in disaster. As predicted, both cars got stuck. Well schooled in the principles of risk management, we diligently collected as many large boulders as possible to build a solid surface under the tyres to act as a ramp out of the sandy swamp, and then we sat back and watched as the boys struggled to sort out their mess!

Given the ongoing political unrest, travelling into Zimbabawe, was arguably not the wisest of ideas. Fearing for our safety and with the added worry of running low on fuel, we were initially hesitant about making this trip, however it was one of the most exciting and exhilarating trips I have even ventured on. Being able to see the Big 5, amongst others, in the wild, away from the tourist trap that the Kruger sometimes can be, was an experience not too easy to forget.

Sat overlooking Nyala’s river bed for the last time, I was reading through the not so well-thumbed visitor book that Robert the Camp Manager had given us to sign. Given that they don’t receive many visitors, many pages were still blank, though one entry particularly stood out to me: “We will pass the word on to others that if they haven’t visited this place, then they do not know Zimbabawe yet”.

There are one too many treasures that this Park has to offer and it is a great shame that as time goes on, many people won’t get to experience this first hand because of the trail of violence and destruction that Mugabe continues to leave. But until Mugabe is removed from power, people will still miss out on visiting this wonderful country, although this loss does not compare to the tragedy felt by the people of Zimbabwe.

Wednesday, 29 October 2008

Book Review - "Once While Travelling: The Lonely Planet Story" by Tony and Maureen Wheeler

Once While Travelling: The Lonely Planet Story, follows Tony and Maureen Wheeler’s progression from penniless travellers to the brain children behind the world’s largest independent travel publishing company.

An honest, heart-warming account, detailing the day-to-day tribulations of working long hours to achieve a much desired dream, coupled with the occasional financial and relationship glitch along the way. Whilst largely autobiographical, the book portrays an honest take on the day-to-day life of a travel writer on the road, alongside giving the reader a sound understanding of the corporate background, including the reasons why in 2007 they sold the majority stakehold to BBC Worldwide.

What transpires throughout this book is the Wheeler’s passion for travel and their determination to succeed, whilst maintaining humility and modesty in living the kind of life that most people dream of living.

Thursday, 9 October 2008

Real Travel Magazine - November 2008: book review of 'Blood River' by Tim Butcher

Book review for the monthly travel magazine Real Travel :

For as long as he can remember, the Congo has been Daily Telegraph correspondent, Tim Butcher’s zahir.
Eager to trace his mother’s footsteps through the deepest part of the Dark Continent and to re-live the same experiences as fellow Telegraph correspondent Henry Morton Stanley, in 2004 Tim embarked upon the journey of a life time crossing the Congo, the heart of tropical Africa.

Over the course of 44 days, he covered hundreds of kilometres over land and via any form of water vessels available, including a dug out canoe!

Every detail is described so vividly, from his encounters with the UN aid workers and locals along the way, to his fears and doubts as he discovers more of the history of a country that has suffered at the hands of outsiders. As Tim so simply states “the Congo represents the quintessence of the entire continent’s colonial experience”.
Interestingly he comments that this is one rare place that fails the coca-cola test – something quite rare, as even in some of the remotest parts I visited in Zimbabawe, I still managed to find Coca-cola.

Butcher’s impulse to follow his dream, against all advice, is something that I truly admired. The more I carried on reading, the more jealous I became, as I yearned to experience once again the excitement and inquisitiveness of challenging the un-known.

Blood River is an extraordinary and gripping account of a one man’s journey across a country plagued by years of atrocities. A must read for anyone wanting to read a first hand account of modern day Congo.

Thursday, 11 September 2008

New writer for Travel Dive

I have recently become an accredited writer for Travel Dive.

Travel Dive is a proud member of the 9Rules Network and publisher of high quality diving articles to a world audience.

Here is a link to my profile and to my first contributed article for the site - "Diving in the Rainbow Nation"; no doubt there will be more to come in the upcoming months!

Wednesday, 20 August 2008

Lonely Planet - Travel Writing Competition Win

At the end of 2007, I submitted an article via Lonely Planet’s Facebook group, recounting the tales of my travels in Peru. With in excess of 500 applicants, only five lucky writers got the opportunity to be published and I was one of them! The winners’ stories have been included in the free Lonely Planet guide, “Monster Around the World Trips”, which is full of information and tips to help plan trips and is available in all STA shops across the UK as well as online.

“The opportunity ran on our Lonely Planet Facebook page as a chance for wannabe writers to sink their pens into the travel world” said Aaron Lamb, Editor at Lonely Planet Publications “The ‘Your name in print’ opportunity was run to inspire travellers to see the world with Lonely Planet and STA travel. We received over 500 entries and Daniela’s piece was a stand out entry. Lonely Planet prides itself on telling it like it is and Daniela was able to get to the heart of her story and convey an epic adventure in a humorous and succinct manner that not only had us laughing but drew us into her world and her experience.”

Thursday, 1 May 2008

Diving in the Rainbow Nation

“Now remember there is no need to panic. Just remember to keep breathing and what ever you do, stay close to your buddy. Now let’s go down and enjoy every minute of it!” These were the last words of wisdom Gabby shared with us before we went down on our first dive in the Indian Ocean. We were told this was going to be a life-changing experience, one beyond our wildest expectations, but no matter how many books I read and photos I trawled through, nothing could have quite prepared me for life deep-down in the Ocean.

It was a chance conversation with my cousin Gabby that led me to diving. In fact it took no time or effort what so ever for her to convince me that I would have a holiday to remember. All I needed to do was raise the money for the trip, but where there’s a will there’s a way, and I wasn’t going to let that stop me!

South Africa, is known as the adventure capital of the world, with its breath-taking landscapes that rule the region, its natural beauty and wildlife that will leave you awe-struck, the invigorating mountain and ocean air, but above all South Africa is home to some of the friendliest people you will ever come across.

After 24 hours of travel we finally arrived in Johannesburg extremely excited. Coming from an Italian family means that nothing is done by halves and our welcome party certainly was testament to this! We were greeted with a typical South African braaii (BBQ), much wine and a whole bunch of people eager to meet the infamous poms! This was to set the bar for the rest of our stay. We were warned that South Africans knew how to party, but nothing could have prepared us for the next three weeks…

Gabby, along with her partner Simon, are both qualified PADI scuba diver instructors running their diving school, Sandton Scuba, a PADI 5 Star Instructor Development Centre in the northern suburbs of Jo’burg. Sandton Scuba is much more than a diving school and shop; it is a way of life bringing together an astonishing mixture people of all ages and backgrounds. When you think of diving centres, you immediately think of beach huts scattered along the coast, and in many cases you would be right; however more and more diving centres are opening inland, offering competitive packages to divers of all levels wanting to enjoy the underworld whilst not living by the sea.

Within days of our arrival and as soon as the jet lag had subsided, we were chucked in the pool to begin our PADI Open Water course. What with the drinking and the altitude (Jo’burg lies at 1,753 metres), the swimming tests and theory lectures proved to be somewhat testing to begin with, but we soon got into the swing of things and were happily learning how to piece together our scuba equipment without tripping over our cylinders!

However my relationship with wetsuits was one that I did not relish for the duration of the trip. Trying to get into a wetsuit in 28 degrees of heat is something I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy! Suffice to say that the daily procedure became a source of entertainment for all as I swiftly lost all dignity and grace, as I struggled with this particular item of clothing.

We were warned that every time we made a mistake or didn’t pay attention, we would be forced to drink tequilas as penitence (obviously once out of the water). From the first time I put my wetsuit on back to front, to finding it funny to knock the regulator out of the girls’ mouths to swimming off from the group following a strange-looking fish; I can safely say I forged a strong friendship with Jose Cuervo.

After much training in the pool, getting used to breathing under water, discovering the beauty of making bubbles and learning the basic scuba skills, we were ready for the next big step, our first open water dives in the Indian Ocean at Sodwana Bay (meaning “little one on it’s own” in Zulu).

So a week after landing in South Africa, all in convoy we start our journey towards Sodwana Bay in order to qualify as Open Water scuba divers. From Jo’burg it takes around 7 hours to drive there, so to break-up the journey we decided to spend an evening in Pongola at the Country Lodge.

Pongola’s location is ideal, positioned on the main route between Swaziland and KwaZulu-Natal, home to the indigenous Zulu and Tonga communities. It is situated in the valley of the majestic Lebombo Mountains and is an area rich in Anglo, Zulu and Boer history. One of the jewels of the Zulu Kingdom, the area boasts the first ever game reserve in Africa, proclaimed by President Paul Kruger in 1894.

The next morning, with a slightly hazy head, but much excitement, we hit the road for the last couple of hours to reach Sodwana. After a bumpy ride along some of the richest red soiled tracks I have ever seen, we arrived at Sodwana Bay Lodge, kicking up a trail of dust.

Sodwana Bay lies hidden amongst the coastal dunes at the Northern Edge of the St Lucia Wetland Park on the infamous Elephant coast line. The dive sites of Sodwana Bay represent the most southerly hard coral reef systems in the world; an underwater paradise less affected by global warming than reefs further north. Located at the centre of a vast marine reserve, Sodwana Bay is widely recognised as the scuba diving Mecca of South Africa.

The reef systems of Sodwana play host to a myriad of tropical fish, with over 1,200 species of fish in addition to a wide variety of marine life.

There are humpback whales, ragged tooth sharks (also known by the locals as ‘raggies’), whale sharks, tiger sharks, manta rays and giant morays.

As our launch boat left the shore for our first dive in the open water, we clung on for dear life to the sides, as our skipper Prince, fancied himself as the Renegade of the Seas, literally riding the waves with the boat at a 90˚ angle. After what seemed a life time, we arrived at our first dive site, Anton’s Reef.

We started to get our scuba gear ready, turning on the air to our cylinders, ‘accidentally’ hitting each other with the fins, trying to untangle our bikini straps from our very uncomfortable wetsuits, the usual rigmarole for any diver, we presumed. Then out of the blue we were told to ditch the gear and get straight into the water with our masks and snorkels. We obeyed.

If you have been there you know, if you haven’t, then it is difficult to describe the feeling of sharing the water with a whale shark, the biggest fish in the sea. More like a whale than a shark, these fish are right at the top of most divers ‘to see’ lists and contrary to popular pre-conceptions, they are not intimidating in the slightest and are more like gentle giants.

So you can imagine how honoured we felt when jumping into the water on our first ever ocean dive, to be lucky enough to experience the presence of the king of the mystical sea world!
Like magic as soon as we entered the water a whale shark was leisurely swimming a couple of metres below us. It was quite an experience to see such an animal covered in a beautiful pattern of whiter spots and lines. I paused, mesmerized. It took a moment to process the sight of an eight metre long whale shark in all its spotted glory, lingering just a few kicks away.

The experience took my breath away. Luckily there were eight tanks of oxygen ready for such moments. Then I realised they were floating 20 meters away inside a slippery dinghy, so I had to make do with the occasional breath of half sea water half air coming through my snorkel, which seemed to be acting as more of a funnel for the increasingly rough sea than as an air supply!

We were to find out later that there are people who have dived for years who are yet to come across a whale shark – which made the experience all that more special, as we realised how truly privileged, yet spoilt we had been.

Over the course of the following few days we continued to dive and my eyes were opened up to a whole new world. After completing our skills on each dive, we were free to go exploring the multitude of reefs that lay on the ocean bed. It was like being in a scene from Finding Nemo, except better because we were featuring in it! Hovering over reefs spotting nudibranchs (colourful sea slugs), playing hide and seek with a very cheeky honeycomb eel as he darted in and out of the dens in the reef, playing with the tropical ‘Nemos’ (clown fish – for the geeks), whilst trying not to get my fingers bitten by them as they swam in and out of the anemones. Swimming off from the group, much to Gabby’s dismay, I followed emperor angel fish, clown trigger fish and Moorish idols to name but a few. Swimming through a school of fish and then having one of them come up to your mask and stare at you is quite something.

It was on our last dive before qualifying, with not long to go before surfacing, that we came across the most gorgeous leatherback turtle swimming proudly over the reefs. We were lucky enough to get some great photo shots.

On my final ascent just before I hopped back on to the boat a white-tip shark swam just under my feet. That’s the great thing about the ocean; you always have to expect the unexpected. Within minutes I was taking off my fins, while my fellow divers laughed hysterically at me as I managed to expose more than desired whilst battling to take-off the wetsuit. Two juxtaposing worlds.

So that was it – we were now fully qualified Open Water divers and completely over moon! Who would have thought that ten days before I was staring at Gabby completely perplexed as she handed me a BCD (Buoyancy Control Device) jacket and told me to get in the pool!

To celebrate we decided to head out to Lake Sibaya, a crystal beauty hidden just north of Sodwana. We packed the car full of celebratory beverages and with a fantastic collection of 80s ballads and classic ‘rock’ tunes, we drove off into the sunset to go and spot some more wildlife.

Lake Sibaya is the largest natural fresh water lake in South Africa with an area of 60 to 70 km2 and the only source of permanent water for birds and mammals in the region. It also contains the second largest population of hippopotamus and crocodile in KwaZulu-Natal. Crocodiles tend to sunbathe during the midday heat, so we too late for them, but as the sun was setting we spotted two hippos peaking their heads over the water. Such magnificent and grand creatures.

Returning back to Jo’burg felt quite surreal after having had five amazing, breath-taking days. Now we had to get ready for our trip up to the North in the Kruger Park and Gona Re-Zhou National Park in Zimbabwe.

Scuba diving offers utterly unique experiences amongst the serenity and sublime tranquillity of the underwater world. As you go under, everything turns calm and peaceful. All is forgotten but the steadiness of your breathing and exploring the under-world and its inhabitants.

Diving has opened my eyes to a whole new world that I yearn to know more about. There is something addictive about being so deep under water. It leaves you completely mesmerized, wanting to re-live the same experience time and time again.

My next challenge will be bracing the cold waters of the UK in a dry suit!