Christmas in Laayoune/ El Aaiún (Western Sahara)

I am only half-heartedly ticking off territories these days, with 47 still to go, (and at least 17 I am not that keen to see), but sometimes I can’t resist visiting somewhere new…. and I found a cheap flight to Laayoune (El Aaiun) in the disputed territory of Western Sahara for Christmas

Disputed between Morocco and Sahrawi Western Sahara is a disputed territory in the Maghreb in North Africa. A former Spanish colony, it was annexed by Morocco in 1975. Since then it has been the subject of a long-running territorial dispute between Morocco and its indigenous Sahrawi people, led by the Polisario Front. A 16-year-long insurgency ended with a UN-brokered truce in 1991 and the promise of a referendum on independence which has yet to take place. The Saharan Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), declared by the Polisario Front in 1976, is now recognised by many governments and is a full member of the African Union. (More here). The United Nations considers the Polisario Front to be the legitimate representative of the Sahrawi people, and maintains that the Sahrawis have a right to self-determination. Morocco have flooded the territory with people and investment since the green march of 1975 and have military and economic control over much of the region.

As far as Morocco is concerned Laayoune is firmly in Morocco, hence why I found myself sitting in the grim domestic section of Casablanca airport at 6.30am on Christmas Day after a few hours sleep at the airport hotel, with a motley crew of Chinese business men and brightly robed Sahrawi women and their families.

Laayoune airport

One of the few strangers arriving ….We landed in Laayoune and almost everyone knew the two immigration officials, and were waved through. Only the foreigners had to stop and have their details registered, and I had a few minutes of questioning as to why I was here – the questions were slightly hard to answer as they didn’t really believe tourists would come here, but given the political situation it would have been a poor idea to say I was here to tick off a disputed territory. I asked for a passport stamp but was refused as I had been stamped in in Casablanca.

It took me a while to find my bag. Uncharacteristically I had checked luggage as am heading next to go hiking so have a tent and pegs which I can’t take on board. Everyone left with their luggage and I was feeling the inevitable sense of dread at my hiking holiday being slightly palled without my gear…… but I took a closer look at some of the intensively plastic wrapped bags, and found my pack which had obviously been diligently wrapped in transit at Casablanca. It was barely recognisable it had so much plastic on it (they clearly haven’t heard of Greta Thunberg in Morocco)

Why pay for a taxi, it’s a nice day for a stroll…..The airport looked like a 20 min stroll from the hotel, and it was a glorious day so off I meandered. Taxi drivers always look so aggrieved when I walk out of airports, it’s like a personal insult. I attracted quite a few stares en route to the hotel, so I changed out of my leggings t-shirt and jacket into a more appropriate but hideous dress I had bought for the occasion – covering all potential vestiges of flesh like a big sack. That helped, but I still had people stop and stare, including a van full of Moroccan soldiers

First up, caffeine…The light was lovely so I headed off for a stroll, not getting far before stopping for a coffee. There were a multitude of nice cafes around the incongruous McDonalds, and I recce’d a few to see if I could find one with a woman inside, but gave up at the fifth cafe full of men, and took a seat in the cafe Lima for two coffees to compensate for my early wake up and four hours sleep.

Grandiose construction……Caffeinated, I started meandering around town, no one seems to move that fast here. The town appears to be a construction zone with grand plazas and gardens being constructed all over the pace with some extremely conformist palm trees. The wiry men who are the labour force, wrap their scarves around their heads to keep out the wind and sand. The spaces are grand but not particularly welcoming.

Place Oum Saad ….There is not much to see – Trip advisor lists four sites (the top two have a huge six reviews each). I started with the Place Oum Saad, which they are making into a football stadium.

The two main sites….I then wandered over to the mosque, which was largely closed and then across town to the st Francis of Assisi cathedral.

Main mosque

I stopped for another tea and then headed down to see the Dait um saad the edge of the desert

Dait um saad

I much prefer the quiet pink alleys with interesting doors and mangy resident cats. The locals were friendly and numerous women smiled and said hello (I pretty much ignore men who smile and say hello, as no well behaved local man would be saying hello to an unaccompanied woman).

The grand place mechouar is vast, and I stopped for a while to enjoy the sun and read a book. The guys cleaning the square were most fascinated and after much discussion they sent one of their number over with some cardboard to keep my butt warm instead of sitting on the marble bench

Looking across to the palais de congress

Tea anyone …..I whiled away the afternoon drinking mint tea and reading a book, watching the local men actively engaged in sitting around chatting. I had a pizza at the recommended La Madone (with my brain not properly engaged it took me a while to figure out what was wrong with the menu – no ham, pepperoni or bacon. It was pretty good though.

McDs as a women’s study group…..I popped into the McDs after (clean loo), and made a surprising discovery. This was the only place I had been in Laayoune where women were eating and mostly in twos and threes. Actually they were eating and studying. 80% of the clients were women and most of the staff. It never occurred to me that McDonald’s could be a safe haven for women to study!

Breakfast with a view…. The sun doesn’t come up early here…. I had a leisurely breakfast (the buffet seemed to consist mainly of cake and pastries) and enjoyed an epic slow sunrise (8am) over place oum saad (no filter or editing)

Wandering….I wandered up to the hotel Massira to check out the mural which I am assuming is commemorating the green march.

After a cursory stroll around the souk and then wandered back to the gardens at place mechouar. I amused myself for a good hour alternating between watching the school kids do their PE lessons and the elderly wandering around the park on their morning constitutionals.

After another stroll around the hood, I shouldered my pack and wandered back to the airport. It was an interesting sojourn. I appreciate coming to random corners of the world not least because it makes me learn more about things I wouldn’t have otherwise – the history here is quite harrowing and I will now start paying more attention to the Sahrawi refugee challenge.

Additional notes

  • Flew to Laayoune via Casablanca with (not so) Royal Air Maroc.
  • There are cheap flights out via the Canary islands with Binter if you want some sun on the way back
  • There isn’t much in the way of hotels in Laayoune, so I stayed at the Emilio Moretti, a relatively new place on the plaza
  • I tried out a new airport hotel in Casablanca- the onomo, which is the same standard but better organised than the atlas sky and the relax. It’s walking distance from the airport (1.5km) in the daylight (there was not much in the way of light or footpaths when I tried walking it late at night on arrival, so I gave up and waited for the shuttle (which runs every 30 mins for free)
  • Not much in the way of travel info on Laayoune is available …. but a couple of good articles here and here

Laayoune, December 26, 2019

Jewellery stores near the mosque
Place mechouar with the tower from the mosque in the background
Water towers
Obligatory selfie

Hanging with hyenas in Harar

Harar is considered by Ethiopian Muslims to be the fourth holiest city in the world (after Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem), and the old city has 88 mosques within its walls (a mere few square kilometres).   Apparently, there are almost as many bars as mosques in the old city, and one of the busiest chat markets in Africa.    I was looking forward to wandering around the old city alleys and seeing the famous hyenas be fed in the evening.    Our flight was markedly different to earlier flights this week, with many fewer tourists and a marked shift from Christians to Muslims.

Landing in Dire Dawa was quaint- a tiny terminal almost overgrown with trees.  We couldn’t find our driver and were grateful for Ethiopian airlines awesome investment in WiFi in every airport, as I was able to contact the agent and track down the driver through WhatsApp.  The friendly guard at the airport did offer to lend us his phone though.

Endale (the driver) located, we hopped in his 4wd adorned with a painting of Che Guevara and headed off into the night to Harar.  Halfway we passed through the town of Awaday – home of the all night chat market.  Traffic was bonkers, headlights on high beam, crazy tuktuks and lots of evening shoppers.   It was like Oxford Circus at rush hour.  We eventually made it to Harar after a bumpy and swervy 90 minutes and checked into the Hotel Winta – it didn’t have great reviews but it was apparently better than the other hotels in town.  The hotel would win an award for the most hilarious bathroom in town – there is a tile painting of a huge tiger in the shower.   The bedroom is fit for a princess – with sparkly pink curtains and a matching bed cover.   We went downstairs for dinner – a choice of omelet or shiro, and a bucketload is cinnamon tea.  We then headed up to try and sleep through the noise of the mosquitos buzzing energetically around the room and the light shining in from the hallway.

Monkeys and marvels
The muezzin kindly woke us up at 5am, and we snoozed until 7.30.  We had an excellent chilli omelette for breakfast and some excellent local coffee.    The plan for today was to visit the largest livestock market in Ethiopia in the town of Babile (cutely pronounced ‘bubbily’).  We drove for an hour, located the town, walked to a walled market where there were a few goats, oxen and cows, but a distinct lack of camels.  Our hapless guide Hamdi seemed quite confused, and said ‘no camels’.  Hmmmmm.  Oh well.  We drove further to the misnamed ‘valley of the marvels’ which apparently has stunning rock formations.   Hmmmmmmm, not so stunning.   However, the road in the marvels was somewhat redeemed by the presence of hundreds of monkeys.  Apparently the locals feed them here, and every truck that went by seemed to throw a load of peanuts out the window.  It was kind of amusing. 

Finally some camels….
While we were there, Hamdi made a few calls and figured out that the camel market had moved to near the Somali refugee camp at Qoloji which is further into the Ethiopian region of Somalia (not to be confused with the country).  I must confess, I was entirely unaware that there was a large scale humanitarian crisis in this region with around 1 million displaced Oromian or Somalian people who have been feuding for many years.   Qoloji is one of many camps in the region.    We found the camel market!  The owners lounge around in makeshift shelters chewing chat while the brokers do the selling.  Male brokers sell camels, women sell goats.   

A maze of pastel alleys
Back in Harar, we strolled around town.  There isn’t much to do except get lost in the pastel maze of alleyways.  We wandered down Machina Girgir -the famous street with old Singer sewing machines were the tailors could whip you up a hijab in a few minutes.  The camel meat market in town was amusing, if smelly, and there were eagles circling overhead waiting for camel scraps.  We dropped by the tomb of Sheikh Abadir – founder of Harar, and had a chat to the local ladies about their kids who are now all living in London or Canada.   After sufficient strolling we went for lunch at the ‘best restaurant in town’ – the fresh touch.  Ordering was fun ‘no ambo, no bread, no eggs, no pizza, no pancakes’.  Steph ordered injera, and I went across the road to find some bread rolls.

Hyenas and the Quran 
After a relaxing siesta, we headed off in the dark to see the Hyenas being fed.  This is apparently the highlight of any visit to Harar, though there is something incongruous about driving down a dirt road to join a line up of tourist vans pointing their headlights at a man feeding semi rottten camel meat to 30 or so hyenas.   The tourists took it in turn to feed the hyenas, who were surprisingly docile and afraid of humans.  I know hyenas are supposed to be ‘evil’ but I find them quite adorable.    After that Hamdi took us back to Sheikh abadir’s tomb to see the Thursday celebrations.  We spent a blissfully relaxing hour listening to 20-30 people chanting melodically from the Quran while chewing methodically through their bags of chat.  I was most amused by the haughty cat who strolled around the mosque like she owned it.   The worshippers were all pretty zen and didn’t seem at all offended by the presence of three random faranjis who didn’t know any of the chants.  Apparently they chant well into the night, using drums from about midnight to keep them awake.   It was quite a treat to sit there and enjoy the locals.

Museums, my favourite!
I have managed to avoid visiting museums in most cities, but we had kind of run out of things to see.  First up, the Haile selassie museum.  Haile selassie was born near Harar and he was the last emporer of Ethiopia.  The museum was full of pretty random artefacts but it killed an hour while Isiah the enthusiastic guide explained every item. Then we wandered to the Rimbaud centre – not actually where the famous poet lived and as far as we can tell it was built after he died.  But it was a beautiful house and we whiled away some time sitting on steps watching the eagles soar above us… the locals feed them leftover camel meat from the meat market.    

House of Haile Selassie
Rimbaud centre

The best coffee in the world?
We then went to the coffee factory and bought 2 kg of coffee, which made us thirsty so we wandered up to the Mermaid cafe and had two cups of the best coffee I drank in Ethiopia – zebras, as they are black and white.  Outstanding! It’s busy in town today, its ethiopian good Friday for the Christian minority and Friday for prayers for the Muslim majority.    The beggars are out in force, lining the streets in the shade chewing chat and hoping for alms from those en route to the mosque.  We stopped by the local pool hall and cinema – a dank large room with broken plastic chairs.  The enthusiastic audience were watching Bollywood on the tele while they waited for the 1pm screening time.  A group of competitive old men where on the terrace playing rapid games of dominos.  We had a chat – the whole group are Man United fans, which made Jess very happy, and there was a lot of debate about who was going to win next week.  Football definitely is the universal religion for most of the world.   

Chat, Kyat, Kat….
We retreated from the heat to the Res Hannan hotel for an average lunch in the shade, and then made our way back to Diredawa via Awaday – where the chat market was still very much in full swing.  Locals were buying and selling, men were chewing, and the goats were eating the leftovers.  Side note – I was shocked to learn that it takes 500 litres of water to irrigate enough chat for one persons daily consumption.  Apparently 40% of the water usage in Yemen is for chat irrigation – it’s an ecological nightmare.

Additional notes

It was my first visit to Harar and it was fascinating but honestly wouldn’t put it on the top of my travel list. We stayed at the Winta hotel which was away from the old town but good and clean and friendly – though read the trip advisor reviews, some people have had issues with their bills. We rented a car and driver for the time we were there, honestly that wasn’t necessary. just get a cab from dire dawa and sort arrangements when you arrive.

Dire Dawa, 26 April 2019

Facing old demons in Tigray

The Tigray was one of my favourite regions in Ethiopia.   Rock hewn monasteries perched on top of steep mountains, to be closer to god and protect from invaders.  I was looking forward to revisiting the lovely monastery of Maryam Korkor and also managing to visit Abune Yemata – I didn’t make it last time, but more on that later ..

We were met at Mekele airport by Zaray our guide, and our driver Fish.  As coincidences would have it, Fish had been my driver last time I was here (he was brilliant then, and has aged well though his English hasn’t improved one bit).   We popped by to see Dawit, the owner of covenant travel, who had organised my last trip here as well, several years ago, and had treated Tamara and I to his house for lunch with his family).  And then we headed a couple of hours north to the Gheralta escarpment, passing through towns that were quite unrecognisable.  The area is growing, half built hotels and office blocks were sprouting in Wikro Agula and there appears to have been an explosion in tuktuks- apparently several hundred thousand have been imported from India in the last five years – you can tell.   

Fortunately the landscape hadn’t changed, and it had retained its spaghetti western qualities, made more moody by the storm clouds and the humidity.  We had arrived early evening, and driving at nighttime is always a bit dicey anywhere in Africa.   No one really understands (or follows) road rules here, passing is at will, and headlights are largely optional, though if you are going to use them, you must remember to high beam all oncoming cars.  On the bright side, the Chinese work crew I saw on my last visit had clearly done their job and the road from mekele to hawzien was now entirely asphalted.  On the downside I saw at two dead goats and one dead dog who obviously didn’t understand the road rules. 

We would be spending three nights at the Gheralta Lodge – the first ‘boutique’ hotel in Ethiopia, I had stayed here years ago and it was lovely. Set up by an eccentric Italian, they grow their own veg and make excellent pasta.  The rooms are lovely but the organisation was and still is chaotic (an interesting blend of Italian and Ethiopian organisation).   Dinner was hearty and delicious and I got mildly drunk on the honey wine (the upside of barely drinking is that I can get drunk on half a glass of anything).   

Conquering old demons at Abune Yemata
After a leisurely lie in until 7.15, and one of the best showers I have had in Africa, we had a healthy breakfast of eggs, homemade bread, apple cake, and homemade guava jam.   Zaray, Fish and Dawit picked us up and we bumped along the gravel track to the entrance to Abune Yemata (see a great BBC video about it here and another sweet video here

Abune Yemata is a high monastery carved into the top of a rock pillar.  I have terrible vertigo and last time I was in Ethiopia i weighed significantly more than I do now, and I was too frightened to climb up the cliff face with toeholds.  This time I am fitter and stronger, but if anything my vertigo has gotten worse with age.   But they do now have a harness and a rope on the hairiest part of the climb so that was something.   Well I made it.  I tried to turn back once half way up the rock face but the scouts blocked my way.   And then I had a moment when I climbed onto an exposed flat rock with steep drop offs on all sides and I lay on the stomach and the poor scout had to say ‘stand up’ four times before I could get up.  And then I bottled it on the ledge inching along to the entrance.  But I made it.    

The priest was adorable and is clearly used to freaked out faranjis (foreigners) arriving at the door.  The paintings are stunning and ancient and worth the trip.   And Dawit (our local Tigray guide) assures me no one has died here (though people have fallen).   

Hiking up to Maryam Korkor
Feeling triumphant, we decided to head straight over to the climb to Maryam Korkor.   We acquired another volunteer scout as we headed off and just as well as I was in the mood to go fast.  Dawit told me it would take fit people an hour and 20 minutes to get to the top so I decided to try for 30 minutes.   We started off too slowly, but I got my new friend Gabriel Giorgis the scout to jog the flat bits, so we made it up in just under 31 minutes (Strava here).   Steph wasn’t too far behind in 54 minutes, but in fairness he was handicapped by stomach pains from last nights chilli.  Gabriel was most amused and asked Dawit the guide when he arrived if I worked in sport.   The view out across to Abune Yemata was fabulous.

The church of Maryam Korkor is lovely but the highlight for me is the tiny monastery of Daniel Korkor which is carved out of the cliff face and accessed by a narrow ledge.  It has stunning paintings, and an outstanding view.
For entertainment (and to the annoyance of the tourists coming up hill), Gabriel and I decided to try and beat our time down the hill and so we ran down in just under 21 minutes pretending we were airplanes.   He was fun and apparently I was the first tourist who had jogged down with him.   
After that we retired for a lazy afternoon in the lodge, hubby drinking lots of mirinda to deal with his ailments (it is his miracle cure).    And yet another substantial Italian dinner and a good night sleep 

Visiting the Danakil depression
I had wanted to visit the Danakil for years, but last time it was off limits due to safety concerns.   Several groups of tourists have been shot or kidnapped over the years (always blames on the Eritreans).  Things have settled down some (the last incident was in December 2017), and the local afar tribe have now made an industry out of tourist security.   Everyone is obliged to have an afar escort in the territory and it isn’t cheap.   The Afar are the local people who have carved a living out of the desert hacking out salt and transporting it on camel trains to Mekele. It’s a tough region, temperatures average 35 degrees and the ‘depression’ is 100m below sea level (the lowest spot in Africa).  This is one of the poorer areas in ethiopia.  The roadside huts are built of plastic and branches, and are far from any obvious water or sources of food.  The afar have a challenging relationship with the Amhara and it feels more like Djibouti here than Ethiopia. 

One advantage of visiting now is that there is now an asphalt road most of the way to Dallol (thanks to the Chinese) so what once would have taken 5-7 hours now took 3.5.  The drive was stunning, leaving the yellow rock of the Gheralta, descending down through the lush green gorges around Agula, arriving in the black moonscape of Berhile and then finally the stunning white salt plain of the Danakil.    

We stopped in Berhile to do some paperwork, and then again closer to Dallol to pick up our ‘guards’.   One of them was young, with a serious face and a battered Kalashnikov.  The other was much older and only had the use of one eye.  I was assuming that the ‘toughness’ of our guards correlated with the potential of any actual danger, and wasn’t expecting anything much to happen.

A large group of camels and men were hard at work on the side of the road, hacking salt from the earth in the same way that the locals had done for centuries.  Big blocks of salt which they took on long camel train to Mekele, each camel would have 30 slabs of salt (c.200kg) and in total each camels load would be sold for c. 500 birr (under $20)

Not far away from the camels were the main reason people visit the Danakil, a spectacular geothermal area with incredible pools of sulphur in amazing colours.   The guard matter of factly informed us a German tourist had died on the site a few days ago, falling behind the group, fainting and slipping into the sulphur.   We were pretty careful with our foot placement after that.   

The area is stunning, we stopped by some incredible, if phallic rock formations and also the large shallow salt water lake.  The landscape is very similar to the Bolivian altiplano, but much hotter with the temperatures reaching 36 degrees before lunch.   

We retreated back to the car, blasted the air con and still sweated buckets (apart from Fish who was as cool as ice and was still wearing his sweater)….. it was an hour or more before we started climbing out of the depression and we finally opened the windows.  It was a long day, almost 8 hours of solid driving but totally worth it.    It’s our last night at Gheralta – more pasta for dinner and a big nights sleep before heading to Harar tomorrow 

Hawzien, April 23,2019 
Additional notes

Celebrating Palm Sunday in Lalibela

I am back in Ethiopia for the fourth time. I love it here!  I am not sure why but (apart from when in Addis) I feel utterly chilled whenever I am here.  Ethiopia has stunning landscapes, friendly people, pretty decent food, and some amazing heritage sites.   I have company this time, hubby and Jess have been persuaded to come along.
Landing in Addis it was the usual chaos.  The terminal upgrade, due to complete last year, is late, and hubby and Jess looked pretty sceptical when I made them cross a muddy construction site to transfer to the domestic terminal rather than wait for the shuttle.   Hubby blagged us an invite to the business lounge so we had coffee and then hopped on the flight to lalibela.

Loving Lalibela….
Lalibela is one of my favourite places in the world.  A quiet village perched high in the hillls with some spectacular churches hewn our of the rock 900 years ago.   Tourism has come to the region, but if you time your visit well, and also get up early you can largely see the main sites without any tourists, just the locals
We arrived around 11 and headed straight out to see the first cluster of churches.  It’s lent, with Ethiopian Easter a week away (although it was good Friday on our calendar).  As luck would have it, all the tour groups had already passed through, and we were treated to groups of smiley men praying melodically in every church, leaning on their sticks).   I am not religious but I find services here both joyful and soothing, it is something in the tone of the sung prayers that chills me out instantly. 

Rock hewn churches
We saw all the spectacular churches in the first cluster and wandered up the hill for an excellent injera biyenot and shiro wat lunch at the seven olives hotel in the shade of a tree.  Fortified by a couple of cups of the excellent local buna (coffee), we headed back out to view the rest of the churches.    By this time it was 3pm and it was hot and the tourists had all come back, so it was a slightly sticky and overcrowded afternoon.  The highlight was scaring the pants of Jess as we walked through a 75m pitch black tunnel (said locally to be the literal hell).  

 I was delighted to see Bet Giorgis again – the most stunning of all of lalibela’s churches and the last one king lalibela built.  However, it is less lovely with large groups of German tourists, which we were blessed with that day….so definitely worth visiting more than once if you can.    We hiked back to hotel (it is good exercise at 2500m and up a steep hill – we had told our guide Melese that we weren’t tuktuk people everytime he suggested us getting one :-)).  

Top of Bet Giorgis

I allowed everyone a luxurious hour break for a shower and a rest, and then we went to Ben abeba for dinner.  It’s the most famous restaurant in lalibela given its weird architecture and nice view but the food was rubbish and the service was worse.   So retired to our lovely hotel (the top 12) and had ginger tea on the terrace before passing out at 10pm

Dawn services
We got up at 5.30 and headed down to Bet Giorgis, wandering through town by the light of the moon watching the town wake up.   We were the first tourists at the church (and only a couple arrived in the next half hour) so we had a blissfully quiet time enjoying the sounds of the men praying.    

Wandering back to the hotel, we passed Golgotha church which was hosting a very well attended mass, with a few hundred devotees standing on the surrounding rocks. It was extraordinarily peaceful being surrounded by people listening to the prayers through the speakers.  We hiked back up to our hotel for breakfast- marmalade and sweet Kita (homemade local bread kinda like a crumpet), eggs and coffee and enjoyed the astounding view out over the mountains.  

Yemrehenna Kristos 
Our plan for the day was to head 40km our of Lalibela to go to the Bilbilla market and also see some of the more ancient churches that predated Lalibela. Heading out past the town of Bilbilla, we passed hundreds of locals walking tens of kilometres to market, with chickens and goats and mules.  It is the last big market day before Ethiopian Easter, so important to get all the shopping done. First stop, Yemrehenna kristos, a lovely chocolate box cave church about 1100 years old predating the churches at Lalibela.   There are the eerie remains of pilgrims bones in the back of the cave.  The priest and I have both aged since I saw him last but he is still smiling.

Yemrehenna Kristos

Returning to Bilbilla, we deviated for steep hike up the hill to a more ancient 5th century cave church Bilbilla Giorgis, famous for its holy honey.  Locals come from miles around to be healed by the honey (made by bees in the walls of the monasteries) when modern medicine has failed them, and they apparently stay for months.  

The monk and his honey pot

Saturday market at Bilbilla 
Strolling down the hill into Bilbilla town, it was ram packed.   The chicken market was hilarious, loads of people sitting under a tree holding my on to their chickens with no space to get through, let alone view the merchandise.  We picked our way through trying not to stand on the heads of the chickens for sale.   The spice, fruit, sugar and goat sections were equally hectic.  The usual hierarchy applied, women and kids do chickens, younger men do goats and the old wizened ones sell the cows.  The odd man was wandering around with an ancient Kalashnikov.  The trend of the region is to adorn your jacket with buttons – it’s quite fetching.

We stopped for buna and injera biyenenot in a dirt hut in Bilbilla, the cups were washed in the corner in a bucket of river water, much to jess’s horror.  I got bored of the Ethiopian reggae on the satellite tv so went and  played outside with the friendly village kids who were pretending to be Messi and Ronaldo (football is the universal religion)

Lalibela market
Lalibela was a bustling metropolis after Bilbilla, so we went to check out that market – more cows, goats and an impressive array of plastic Chinese shoes.   

Climbing to Asheton Maryam
After a relaxing hour in the shade, we rattled out of lalibela in our aged minibus and picked our way through the potholes up to Asheton Maryam. At 3000m it has impressive views of the surrounding hills.  We had to hike the last 800m of path and made it just before the rain started torrenting down.  The priest had twinkly eyes and an impressive array of icons.   We ran the path back down to the amusement of some local girls who chased me back to the van….
The return journey was somewhat perilous, the rain has turned the dirt to slippery mud and there were steep drop offs on both sides.  We spent over an hour stuck behind a huge truck…..inching down the mountain side.  In hindsight it would have been faster to run down

More dawn services
Another early morning start to head down to mass at Bet Medhane Alem and Bet Maryam, the last mass before Ethiopian easter Friday so it was very crowded but lovely.  The atmosphere was somewhat ruined by a group of shouty Chinese tourists who were shoving their cameras in peoples faces and ignoring requests of the locals to stop taking pictures. I told a particularly shouty man to shhhhhh, and his guide sidled up to me afterwards to thank me for telling him off.    

We resisted the urge to annoy the locals with our cameras and sat down at Bet Maryam and enjoyed the atmosphere, taking the odd picture but mostly playing with the local kids and watching the worshippers make rings out of woven palm.   The ladies around us were lovely and we ended up amusing their daughters by taking photos of them and showing them to them…. at one point hubby looked like a kindergarten teacher surrounded by kids.  Bliss! 

Monastery of Nakuta Laab
After breakfast, more excellent kita and coffee, we made our way to the monastery of Nakuta Laab – the last king of lalibela.   What the monastery lacked in architectural splendour it more than made up for with views out over the valleys.   Mass was still underway, with the deacons translating the morning mass into Amharic.  Lots of beautiful locals in white headscarf’s peacefully sitting in the sun, greeting us and their neighbours and enjoying the service.  Quite lovely.   It was a bit of a wrench to leave, but we are off to the Tigray so we said goodbye to Melese our guide and left for Mekele.
Lalibela, April 21, 2019

  • Additional notes
  • there are lots of nice basic hotels in lalibela – we stayed at toptwelve this time.  About usd 50 per night
  • Food is fine in lalibela but nothing amazing.  Best to stick to local food.   I like the view from Ben abeba but not enough to tolerate the shoddy service, below average food and highest prices in town.  Seven olives and unique are better bets.  
  • Guides are easy to get – like last time we used the guy who picked us at the airport, we negotiated us 40-60 per day depending on the day length.   Drivers and cars are extra, for a full full day rental it is about usd 100 (from 7.30-7.30).  Our guide Melese was very good

Loving Libya

Planning a business trip

Getting into Libya isn’t easy, the government stopped issuing tourist visas many years ago, so the only way in is on official business. If you know who to ask, you can sort yourselves out an official business invitation, and if you pay an extra fee or two (what might be referred to in common parlance as a bribe), you can eventually procure a business visa from the Libyan embassy in London. At €650, including invitation letter, it was the most expensive visa of the 197.

The visa sorted, I then had to arrange flights. I managed to get to Tunis via Paris without too much drama. There are multiple flights a day from Tunis to Tripoli, but you are only allowed to book a flight to Libya if you have a resident’s permit. Hmmmmmm. It turns out there is a way around this also, which involved meeting a man at Tunis airport and handing him a wodge of cold hard euros. After that furtive cash exchange in the corner of the airport, I waited for my friend Evelthon to arrive. Side note: Evelthon and I have known each other for many years, and a few years ago we realised we were both trying to visit every country, and have been trying to visit a country together ever since. He is at 184 and I am at 195 (from 197), and we finally got our act together to come to Libya together

An amusing detour to Sidi Bou Said

We had a few hours to kill before our flight to Tripoli, so we tossed a coin to decide between the souq and the lovely Sidi Bou Said (its like the Aegean in Tunisia). Sidi won, so we went for a stroll and a cup of ultra sweet mint tea and almonds, and admired the views of the sea and the blue doors and windows.

Safety first on the wings of Libya

Back to the airport, Evelthon helpfully reminded me that I had forgotten to declare my currency coming into the country, so I had to stash the cash down my bra to avoid it being confiscated…..happily I managed to pass through immigration without any questions and with my cash intact.

At this point in my travel career, having been to many of the worlds ‘dodgiest’ countries, I can tell a lot about the state of a destination by the passengers waiting in the boarding lounge. It is bad news when it is only men, worse news when they are all in military fatigues. Fellow passengers on todays flight gave off surprisingly good vibes – while still mostly men, there were lots of families and smiling faces. A few people asked us why we were going to Libya (business of course), our neighbours tried to make us board before them, and everyone seemed delightful.

The plane looked fine, though Evelthon had also reminded me that morning that Libyan Wings were banned from flying in the EU. I consoled him by pointing out the natty hats on the stewardesses – style has to be worth something as a trade off for safety.

Time to look like a business person

I put on a headscarf before leaving the plane, and all the women in the bus to the terminal pointed at me and told me in broken English that Libya was modern, and they were not like the Saudis, and I didn’t need to wear the headscarf if I didn’t want – I do love finding feminists wherever I go.

We queued behind four people in the foreigners line for about 30 minutes while the entire Libyan contingent from the plane cleared immigration. We eventually got to the front, he took our passports, eyebrows were raised, managers were called, and eventually they stamped us in. But 10 metres later an angry man took our passports again and we had another 30 minute wait – not helped by the fact that our driver was late – if you are foreign, your local contact has to come and collect you from immigration. Assas eventually made it, but we had been struggling to come up with sensible answers to ‘who are you meeting?’ We were still mostly zen, the worse that can happen is they send you home…. and Assas eventually sorted it out with vehement assurances of our authenticity and we finally got out of the airport.

Dinner and bed

We drove into town to the Victoria hotel, which was better than expected. Our guides Salem and Youssef were there to meet us and they took us out for an astoundingly good Turkish dinner. We rolled home after the kebabs and passed out after our early start.

A sad wake up

As I was eating breakfast and listening to the prayers from Mecca at max volume on the tele, the news popped up on my phone that a terrorist fanatic had killed 49 people in two mosques in Nz. We pride ourselves on being a multicultural diverse nation. As a Maori, our commitment to manuhiritanga is at the foundation of who we are, noone on our soil should ever not be safe. Sitting in Libya this morning, one of many Islamic nations I have visited where I have pretty much always been made to feel welcome (in line with the very strict Islamic code of hospitality) I am ashamed that such a thing could happen on our soil. Our guides arrived to pick us up and I found myself with tears in my eyes and my voice breaking as I explained that we hadn’t done a good job of looking after their fellow Muslims in Nz. Moe mai ra. Heartbreaking! I hope this moves us to rise above and be better human beings.

Feminism and Islam

We headed out of Tripoli to Leptis Magna. The road was lined with bombed out buildings, or half constructed buildings from the gadaffi era. The police were out in force with check points eyeballing us as we drove by (youssef calls them staring points as they stare more than check). It’s Friday so things are pretty quiet.

We had a lively debate in the car about religion and feminism, and Islamic factions in Libya. My favourite comment from Youssef (of the many amusing and unrepeatable comments from the car) was that women do all the work and men just show up, get paid and are actually disguised unemployment. The rest of our lively debate I am not going to publish, but suffice to say our guides are probably not typical Libyans. Salem’s nickname for Youssef is ‘many talk’, which is apt, he was hilarious!

Leptis Magna

First up Leptis Magna, once the largest and greatest Roman city in Africa – dating from 7th century BC. I won’t bore you with the history, as I wasn’t really paying attention to the detail, but the ruins are amazingly well preserved. The site is pretty big and was populated with Libyan families picnicking.

The locals are super friendly, and lots of people said hi and welcome to Libya! It reminds me a bit of Iran where people were surprised and happy to see foreigners. It was an amazing few hours. The theatre was my favourite and I couldn’t resist doing my ‘rocky impression’ running up the stairs (‘we’re the best around’) much to the amusement of some of the kids watching.

We then drove over to my favourite part of Leptis – the amphitheater – both Evelthon and I went to the bottom separately and roared like lions eating infidels. The acoustics were unbelievable. Salem and Youssef has bought a thermos of Arabic coffee so we had a coffee in the sun, enjoying the view and had the entire place to ourselves.

More food

We stopped for a ‘light lunch’ of soup, salad, bread, Lamp chops, Fries, Sauté vegetables, Tagine couscous, chickpeas and onions, and tea and fruit and Halva to finish. It was amazing but we could barely move afterwards. The young waiter was desperately looking for a way out of the country, our guide suggested I could take him as a second husband – am sure husband no. 1 would be delighted.

Villa sileen

After that we went to see Villa Sileen – the remains of a complex of villas for the elite from 1st century AD. It is quite stunning and on the sea, but the restoration activities are probably a good example of what not to do with mosaics.

We then popped into gaddafi’s old rest house for a cup of tea before heading back to tripoli.

More food and some negotiation

Apparently there aren’t many restaurant choices in Tripoli. We weren’t excited by trying the Indian so we went back to the Turkish for more excellent kebabs. We ended up having an advanced negotiation over dinner about our itinerary – Salem was very reluctant to take us to Sabratha (we found out later he doesn’t like the hassle he gets from the people who work there). Youssef won an award for being the UN negotiator, and we agreed the solution as I was finishing my baklava….. we were going to Sabratha in the morning.

It was a lively night in tripoli with horns honking all night, and then the muezzin woke me up around 5…. and I eventually managed to get motivated to eat breakfast at 8 and we were off to Sabratha by 9

Sabratha – the largest Roman theatre in Africa

It took just over an hour to get to the town around sabratha … most of the buildings still show significant scars from the tribal wars in 2014. The site, however, was remarkable! Sabratha is home to the largest Roman temple in Africa, and while some of the renovations are clumsy it is still stunningly beautiful with the turquoise blue of the Mediterranean in the background. If you squint a bit you can also block out all the trash the locals leave behind when they come for picnics.

The Punic temple was also quite lovely with incredible lions. The most amusing part of the visit was watching Salem and Youssef argue like an old married couple…., Salem likes to go fisa fisa (quickly), and Youssef likes to take his time and take a lot of photos. The more Salem tried to hurry him, the slower Youssef went – to the extent of stopping us to give us riddles about the location, including a particularly long interlude about the testicles of Hercules. It was worth the negotiation to get to visit!

Janzour museum – 2000 year old painted tomb

On our way back to Tripoli, we stopped by an unassuming house with no sign, which was the janzour museum, where a farmer found a series of tombs in the 50s. The highlight was a beautifully painted tomb. It was worth the stop

Shop till you drop

I couldn’t resist a visit to the high end shopping street. I work for a leading UK retailer and we have a number of international franchise operations. We have two stores in Libya, which no one has visited since 2011 at the earliest. I couldn’t resist swinging by to check it out. The stock in our store I imagine hasn’t been on sale in the UK for a while. The prices were 2-3 times higher for the same product assuming you had bought cash on the black market – at the official rate the product was ten times uk pricing. Apparently people still buy stuff, but it must be cheaper to fly to London to go shopping (assuming you can get a visa)! There was even a BHS shop on the street – but BHS went out of business many years ago.

More food

We had lunch at a fried chicken restaurant with an extensive menu – but they didn’t have any items on the menu available. After an extensive exchange in Arabic, we were given the choice of chicken or lamb, rice or couscous! Somehow we managed to over order again and got way too much food, I will likely need to be rolled onto the plane.

The old town

After rushing us around this morning, Salem let us have a pause for coffee…. and then we went for a wander around the old city. First up the Marcus Aurelius arch and then down a few alleys. Youssef was careful about which ones we went down as some quarters are controlled by militia. We saw the Massjed Gurgi, the Greek Orthodox prison and the Anglican Church of Christ the king. And then we wandered the alleys chatting to a lot of friendly locals, but most of them were not keen to have their photos taken (it’s haram). We ended up in moneychanging alley which was full of scary looking dudes with wodges of cash in their hands, and young runners with blue wheelbarrows full of bags of cash.

Staring in the souk

We wandered the souk, making friends with people, the stalls were hilarious and some of them were legitimately like Ali babas cave, and they were not souvenir shops as there are no tourists here. I was causing quite a stir as I kept smiling at people, and I started feeling sorry for Evelthon as we were pretty sure all the local men were wondering why he couldn’t control his wife and stop her smiling and laughing. (I asked Youssef about this and he said in Berber wisdom ‘A loose woman is not all bad!!!!’. He also reckoned that I could have definitely picked up a couple of extra husbands in the souk, as the gossip that day was about how foreign women were quite something – charming!!!)

We made it to martyrs square and then weren’t really allowed to take any more photos as there were too many police – it’s a recipe for trouble to point a camera in public (at best it leads to a lot of questions about why you are taking photographs and whether you have permission, and at worst you get to enjoy the police hospitality for an extended length of time). After that, a brief wander around the new town and then an awkward wait in a large outdoor shisha cafe for Salem where I was the only woman, and men were legit standing up to stare at me. In spite of the assurances of my feminist sisters on the plane, I would have felt quite out of place not wearing a headscarf here…. I didn’t see one woman with an uncovered head outside of the hotel in four days.

And more food….

We went to a fresh fish restaurant for dinner and ate too much again! Restaurants here are pretty utilitarian! Bright flicking fluorescent lights! Food comes out haphazardly and of course there is no alcohol so everyone is drinking Miranda. We had fun listening to Salem and Youssef in full riff moaning about Salem’s wife who is like Nato (and spies on him), about Youssef’s four wives who are exhausting him (as far as I can tell he has one wife), and them generally teasing each other. Honestly Youssef should have been a stand up comic!

airport bureaucrats and the lack of Id

Up early for the flight, and I hadn’t slept much as there were fireworks going off quite a lot of the evening. Exiting the airport was eventually ok, though I did have a 15 minute interrogation and a persistent demand to see company ID from a fairly aggressive young man. He shouted, I smiled. I was disappointed that the special effort I had made to be fully ‘abbayed’ and ‘hijabed’ hadn’t paid off. In most countries this type of interrogation is just an extended warm up for a bribe demand, but I had been warned here that the fundamentalists weren’t interested in bribes and genuinely thought most foreigners were spies. Eventually I got my driver on the phone (who had actually escorted me right through immigration, I got stopped just after he left). After a five minute heated phone conversation between the driver and the angry bearded man, I was sent on my way. I didn’t actually relax though until I got on the plane, as had read stories of other travellers being hauled back from the boarding gate for further questioning! I did my usual dramatic rip off of the headscarf and abbaya when I got on the plane, much to the amusement of the two women behind me 🙂 – and exhale! Adorably, I was seated in the middle of a group of Libyan red crescent workers (the Islamic equivalent of the Red Cross), and a couple of them had never been on a plane before – so cute watching them work out how the tray table worked!

I had a great time in Libya and would highly recommend it. I am looking forward to coming back to visit Ghedames and the sights around Benghazi, inshallah, when things calm down some more. Hada mumtaz!

2 more to go….

Additional notes

  • Given the security concerns and our creative entry plan to Libya, feel free to send me a message on the contact page if you want to any details of how to visit
  • A headscarf is recommended but not required
  • I would advise against bringing a big camera if you don’t want extra hassle at the airport on the way out

Tripoli, March 17, 2019

Bouncing around Bangui, Central African Republic

Another full day of flying…

Another day experiencing the delights of West African airlines.   Taking off from Niamey at 7am, and eventually landing in Bangui at 17.30 via Ouaga, Lome and Douala.   Happily, I only had one minor hiccup which involved a sprint through Lomé airport to get the Bangui flight, if I had missed it, the next one was two days later.
The flight to Bangui was relatively full and most people on the plane were from the UN or a NGO.  The friendly Malian chap next to me was probably not the ideal companion as he spent most of the time telling me that Bangui was incredibly dangerous and that the locals would ‘kill each other like animals with hardly any reason’.   Hmmmmmm!

A deserved place at the bottom of the development index?

In fairness, Central African Republic undoubtedly deserves a reputation for violence and chaos – hence the number of UN and aid workers. In a continent of mad dictators, CAR has had some good ones –  most notorious was Jean-Bédel Bokassa, who took the power by force on 31 December 1965, and then declared himself Emperor of the Central African Empire. He was eventually overthrown in a coup.   More recently war broke out in 2014 between the Muslim Seleka (largely nomads) and the Christian anti – balaka’s (largely agriculturalists).  More than 20% of the population of 5 million have been displaced (thats the highest displacement ever recorded globally in a conflict).  Now the country is largely partitioned with the christians in the south/west and the muslims in the north/east.  While the government is in Bangui, it is obvious they are not in control of the country, and by all accounts, they are barely in control of the city.  There are now at least 14 armed rebel groups active in the country as both of the major factions have splintered and criminalised – which makes peace negotiations pretty difficult.   The UN have 14,0000 troops here, but their mission is at best perceived as ineffective.  Worse, there have been signifiant allegations of sexual abuse against the peace keepers.  The going rate for a prostitute is a 1000 CIFAs for the UN peacekeepers (about €1.50, enough to feed the children given there are few other options to earn)  CAR is the country rated lowest on the global 2015 UN development index (188 out of 188), it had the lowest GDP per capita (at PPP) in 2017, it is estimated to be the unhealthiest country and the worst country in which to be young….Its not an optimistic outlook. 

DRC embassy

National museum – apparently it has been looted and there is hardly anything left to see

Arriving in the poorest place in the world

Arriving in Bangui airport there are tonnes of UN planes and a decent military presence.   The immigration procedures are as chaotic as you would expect  and I was forced to give a minor manners lesson to a guy with a UN passport who tried to shove me out of his way at the visa desk (my manners lesson combined my sharp kiwi elbows with some appropriate French questioning about how his mother would feel about him shoving a lady).   Formalities complete I was let out of the airport by the UN soldier and met by the lovely Benjamin to go to the guesthouse who assured me that things were relatively calm at the moment.

Boganda monument

Post office

Getting lucky with the guesthouse

I had gotten lucky, after months of persistent email communication I secured a reservation at the Karakandji guesthouse, which is the best place to stay in town, but normally booked up with long term guests.  The other alternative is the Ledger plaza which at Usd300 per night is highway robbery given the AC barely functions (and when it does it pumps mould spores in the air) and most people who stay there get food poisoning.   In contrast the Karakandji is a reasonable 70 USD per night, and is actually inside the Norwegian/Swedish consulate and owned by Charlotte Mararv – the Consul -her family have lived in CAR for 40 years and she was born here.
The guesthouse is simple but lovely, and my room was in one of the houses with shared bathrooms.  The advantage of staying in a place like this is that you meet more interesting people than you do in a posh hotel.  My housemates were a wonderful collection of strong women from around the world (Niger,Haiti, France and America) and we had a wonderful evening discussing politics, men, life and Africa.
I went to sleep with the rain hammering down on the roof and it was still going strong in the morning.  I eventually roused myself out of bed, made a coffee and wandered off to find some breakfast.   One of my housemates was worried about me wandering around as everyone else gets cars everywhere, but I decided to give it a go.  Again the most problematic issue here is petty crime, which I am fine with.

the guesthouse – and the swedish and norwegian consulate

The ‘streets’ of Bangui

Navigating the ‘streets’ required some of my trail running skills, but I managed to submerge my foot in the red mud within two minutes of leaving.   I don’t think street maintenance is high on the agenda here

School – called toast and chocolate

typical bangui street

First stop the grand cafe for a pain au raisin (which amusingly contained three raisins) and a terrible coffee.  After that more wandering.   Everyone here seems reasonably friendly, although a bit surprised to see me walking around.   People are staring.   Though the polite ones (normally a bit older) follow up the stare with a bonjour.  The atmosphere feels pretty relaxed, tonnes of vendors and some excellent African beats pumping out from various stalls.   I like this place.



I stopped off at the patisserie capitole in a vain attempt to get a decent coffee.  Fail!  And then wandered around the cathedral which is pretty lovely.  I sat outside for a while watching some local girls practise some sort of hip hop dancing – no photos though, they were camera shy.

Cathedral of Immaculate Conception

Cathedral of Immaculate Conception

Cathedral of Immaculate Conception

Then a bit more aimless wandering as I had already ticked off the main tourist site on trip advisor (the cathedral).  No 2 was a beauty salon with two reviews.  And no.3 was PK5 – the Muslim District which is a no go area given recent tension and gun fighting.   I found a posh supermarket and bought some lunch and wandered some more and then went back to the meditative gardens of the guesthouse to read a book!

UN harassment and a nice arse

In the afternoon I headed out for another long stroll which was significantly less tranquil.  It started well with another swing by the cathedral and then a stroll round the government buildings.  The guards at the central african bank were polite when denying my request to take a photo of the very groovy building.  Unfortunately the UN guards at the presidential palace were less polite and two of them pointed guns at me… oh well!  You will have the check out the palace for yourselves – its a very cool art deco building.

Roundabout at PK0 – kilometre zero

Peace and national concord for development

I then wandered into town, where I was yelled at by an officious looking man for filming, which I wasn’t.  And then a lovely young man (not) followed me for about 5 minutes telling me I had a nice arse (‘jolie fesse’)…. which is ironic, as I have no arse to speak of, and the women here have magnificent backsides.  To round out my stroll, on the way back to the guesthouse, the road was blocked by about 50 angry folk all yelling and brandishing fists, with some police at the scene.  I figured out it was a car vs truck accident (the car lost), but everyone decided to weigh in to the melee.  I backtracked and came home the long way round.

Friday night in Bangui

Some of the lovely ladies at the guesthouse had offered to take me out for the evening.  We went to the Oubangui hotel and watch the sun set over the Ubangi river – with the DRC on the other bank of the river (apparently there are always men with guns on that side so none of the pirogues cross over).   And then we went to the very low key Escale to have an outstandingly good maboke, which is a mild fish curry, made of capitaine, cooked in a banana leaf and served with plantains.  It was excellent, and the best meal I have had in this trip.   More gossip ensued, though I had an easier run this evening as we were mostly in frenglish, rather than french.   It was a delightful way to end the day.

Ubangi river

Ubangi river

Housemates from Karakandji at La Escale

Only two bribes

The lovely Benjamin was bright and early to take me to the airport. Just as well as the battery was dead in the 4wd and he had to run around the corner to the consul’s dads house to borrow another one. The streets were already lively at 6.30 with the street side stalls opening up. The airport was a typically chaotic west/Central African experience. My bag was searched a full six times! I was however mildly concerned about their standing on the corruption index, as I was only asked for two bribes….. I expected more. They clearly need to up their game. Note that I do occasionally pay bribes but it’s rare and I need a good reason to do so. These guys were all fine when I said I had already spent my last local money and sadly didn’t even have enough for breakfast. Amazingly we left on time! Next stop Casablanca where I have a layover long enough to visit the art museum, have a nice dinner and a sleep. Onward to Gatwick tomorrow morning
Four more to go
Bangui August 25, 2018

Side note

Our flight back from Casablanca to London was delayed by five hours as one of the pilots didn’t show up! It was interesting to watch the crowd….. there was outrage, shouting, threats of solicitors and frequent demands to see the airport manager. Quite a few of the passengers were moaning like it’s the end of the world. Having just left CAR which is a war zone where women prostitute themselves for €1.50 to feed their kids, it is hard to get upset about a flight delay in an airport where there is air con, WiFi and a Starbucks. That is the gift of travelling in Africa, it makes me more grateful for everything I have. And yes we eventually got to London six hours late.

the no.2 attraction in bangui according to trip advisor

Sacrificing sheep in Niamey, Niger

Six airports, six countries (four not on purpose), five flights, 14 hours from A to B ….. where A to B was only 90 minutes of flying time apart

Getting to Niamey wasn’t as easy as it should have been! In theory, Niamey is about 90 minutes flying time from N’djamena. Unfortunately there aren’t any direct flights, or even any indirect flights. I had booked a route leaving N’djamena (Chad) at 7am that was supposed to arrive in Niamey at 17.45, after four consecutive flights (via Douala (Cameroon), Lome (Togo) and Ouagadougou (Burkina Faso)). West Africa being the fun place it is, I got a surprise bonus country, as we also ended up going through Abidjan (Cote d’Ivoire). Apparently one of the Asky planes was broken, so they just shoved us all on one plane and added a drop off in Abidjan – but they didn’t tell us that until we had boarded. Note I had already spent a lot of time in each of those four countries previously, so there was no upside to revisiting their airports. On the bright side I only had to get off the plane in Lome, and they had wifi in the terminal. I had contemplated going overland, but it would have been three days in a bush taxi and it wasn’t particularly safe at the moment with Boko Haram.

These things used to bug me when I started travelling, now i feel like 12 hours of travel on five flights with free food, aircon and loos is better than 12 hours in the back of bush taxi smushed between sweaty passengers. I wasn’t even that bothered by the extra two hours going to Abidjan…. in Africa, I am just grateful to arrive :-).

Relaxing evening – steak frites

I finally arrived at Niamey at 19.20 just in time to watch the sun setting over the river as we landed…. 12 hours since the 7.15am departure from N’djamena. There were twenty of us disembarking – 4 chinese workers (all of whom had tried to get off in Ouaga by accident), one lebanese guy, 4 african business men and three women with an assortment of children. We really are at the end of the world.

Mr Amadou was there to pick me up, and i was surprised by how lively the streets were, and how many motorbikes were going past with live sheep on them. He explained that I have arrived just in time for the festival of mutton – Tabaski or Eid el Adha (the festival of sacrifice) – in celebration of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son. Apparently everyone has to slaughter a lamb, give one-third to the poor, one-third to friends and neighbour’s and have one third for your family. That would explain the flocks of sheep road side, and the sheep on the moto -taxis, its a bit like being back in NZ

I arrived at the lovely Tabakady restaurant and hotel to be greeted by the lovely Ida from Togo and the lovely Moroccan manager. Its nice to meet some women. This place is one of the best restaurants in Niger which also has a few basic rooms attached. I highly recommend it. I have said it before, and i know i am repeating myself, but the upside of french colonisation is that you can get an excellent steak frites with sauce au poivre in the unlikeliest of places. It was an excellent dinner! Off to bed to get some sleep after my 4.40am wake up call, i needed too rest up for the lamb festival.

I woke up freezing – the air conditioning had two settings – ferocious or off. I decided to drag myself out of bed to get going before it got too hot. After an excellent breakfast of omelette, croissants and Bissap juice I headed out to stroll around town. Apparently Niamey is famous for muggings rather than kidnappings, and I’m ok with mugging so was happy to walk. Kidnappings I am less cool with! (note I did avoid the two main mugging spots of town, I am not a complete fool.)

Wandering the streets

It was a sleepy morning for a Wednesday, and it turns out the the downside of the sheep festival is that pretty much everything is closed. The upside is that the smaller streets were full of friendly locals preparing for a feast. I do love walking around African cities. Locals aren’t used to seeing toubabs (white people) walk – toubabs are a species normally spotted in 4wds. As a result most people are surprised to see you and are keen to say hello. I also get optimistically chatted up by all manner of young men, who seem to be using me as a good excuse to try out their pick up lines….. am pretty sure most of them would run screaming if i appeared mildly interested.

First stop the perpetual lady of succour – the main cathedral. It was an interesting brutal concrete building with natural air con provided through the designed holes in the brick work. It was sleepy and lovely.

Niamey cathedral

Niamey cathedral

Crying in the zoo

After that, I went to the national open air museum. It was officially closed but an entrepreneurial guard let me in (i.e. in return for a modest bribe). All the pavilions and shops were closed so there wasn’t much to see. I hadn’t realised the museum also had a zoo, and by accident I ended up near the animals. I hate zoos in general, but this was awful. Tiny filthy cages. I started crying when I saw the chimps and then the lion cage. It was vile. Poor animals. I decided it was time to move on.

Dinosaur at the zoo

Zoo pavilion

Zoo pavilion

Coffee and the NationalAssembly

I stopped into Amandine cafe to fortify myself with a coffee and take advantage of the air con. It was 10 am and I was already drenched in sweat. Its not technically that hot here – probably 35, but it feels like 45. Properly restored I headed out to continue sweating and walking. I saw the National Assembly (and the guard gave me permission for a photo), and also checked out some of the other government buildings.


Main square

National Assembly

Hotel du Ville

Rubbish in the grand market

I then headed around the Grand market. The actual market was closed today but there were a few stalls open. When open, there are 5000 stalls in the main market, but it has burnt down more than once given the closely packed quarters. The rubbish was depressing!

Grande marches entrance

Grande marches entrance

When closed the vendors leave most stuff there but cover it up

Blood in the streets

After that I meandered through the streets strolling the few kilometres to the Ghadaffi mosque. The small streets had become abattoirs with blood literally running in the streets. They weren’t joking when they said that it was a festival of lamb sacrifice – i gave up counting when I had passed 100 slaughtered lambs. There are clearly no butchers here with nicely vacuum packed cuts of lamb. Groups of men with sharp knives were slaughtering, skinning and gutting the sheep every few metres along the streets. It was extraordinary. The small kids were digging holes to bury the entrails. The young boys were sent off to buy sticks to skewer the whole lambs. Other family members were building fires. If i was ever going to become a vegan again, today was the day. On the bright side, it was quite nice to see men actually doing physical work, typically its women in Africa who do all the work. Today the ladies were in their finest clothes and observing proceedings from afar.

These men were butchering street side – it was a continual bloodletting

Later in the morning, butchering done

Later in the morning, butchering done

Now time for cooking

Ghadaffi’s gift

I eventually reached the Ghadaffi mosque – which was gifted to Niger from Gadaffi. Prayers had finished for today so I was invited in to take a look around. It was a stunning mosque, with beautifully intricate tile work, and unusual yellow tiles. After having a gossip on the steps with the custodians, who were trying to persuade me to go and buy them a lamb, I summoned up the energy to stroll back to town.

Ghadaffi mosque

Ghadaffi mosque

Ghadaffi mosque

Mosque guardian

It was sweltering by the time I got back to the hotel so I opted for a laze by the pool with a Diet Coke, and a chat with the wait staff who gave me some free lamb to eat (honestly it was pretty delicious).

Another wee stroll, some more energetic exercise catching a huge cockroach in my room, and then a quiet pizza by the pool. And so ends my amusing time in Niamey. Another early night as have another 5am pick up

I was up early this morning, earlier than my driver so had an amusing ten minutes hanging with the security guards outside the hotel who were fully kitted our with laptops and phones and watching Nigerian dance videos – hilarious. And now am loving the airport, after two nights of dial up speed, the high speed WiFi provided for free by the Chinese corporation at the airport is amazing! Also reinforcing my view that we are at the end of the world, there were only 10 passengers on the flight with 50 spare seats.

5 more to go, next stop Bangui
Niamey August 23, 2018

Additional notes

  • Stayed at Tabakady – a restaurant with a few rooms and a nice pool
  • Flew in with Asky and out with Air Burkina when asky cancelled their flight ; RAM might be a better choice though

Negotiating in N’djamena

I am on the final count down to my list of 197 – just 7 more to go.  Most people quickly figure out from that number the implication is that the remainder are largely sketchy countries.   And they would be right.  This week we have a trifecta of UN development index winners.  There are only 188 countries on the UN development list (out of 193 UN sovereign states some like Tuvalu, San Marino and Monaco are too small).   And this week I get to visit no.s 186,187 and 188 respectively.  It will be an interesting week.

First stop N’djamena, Chad

The flight from Casa seemed unusually touristy, with a lot more pale folks than I am used to going to central or west africa.  Turns out the flight was bound for Nairobi, and only 40 of us got off at N’djamena.  The airport was clean and lovely, and staffed with more people than passengers.  The men here are charming and I was asked out twice before i got out of the terminal (they must have a thing for grubby backpackers with wrinkles and grey hair).   The lovely Toide picked me up and bought me to the Hilton – an extraordinarily lovely hotel that I had found a cracking deal on for 90 euros a night.
After a good night sleep and an excellent (if absurdly over-priced) buffet breakfast – I headed out to see the ‘sights’ of N’djamena.   It is a little tricky to take photographs in town as the police are quite sensitive, so I had decided to go with a guide as at least that way I was less likely to get stopped, hassled and bribed. (At least two of the nutters facebook group have had probs with the police here, so i come forewarned)

Bustling street life

The streets are bustling… and N’djamena is wealthier than I expected.  There is plenty of money in this town – lots of lovely hotels, new buildings going up, and vast numbers of shiny 4wds…. though undoubtedly the wealth is in the hands of the minority.  The main avenues are broad and wide, with lots of commerce on the street, including a lively sheep market

Street life

Street life – this place has an odd name thought – the buvette (cafe) of Wembley from the centre of greenland – someone’s geography is a bit off

Street life

Fossils in the museum

We headed to the national museum of Chad.   Museums are never top of my list of things to do, but as trip advisor will indicate, there isn’t a long list of things to see in ndjamena.   Honestly I get bored in the V&A so there was limited likelihood I was going to be enthralled by this museum.  The museum was small but enthusiastically kept.   There isn’t a huge amount to see but some of the Jewelry and fossils were fascinating.    There is a bonus exhibition about independence from France, which consists of about 20 pictures of politicians, it was riveting.

Mother Africa

Chad museum

Kuran slates at the Chad museum

Kuran versus at the Chad museum

Chad museum

Organised chaos at the grand Marche

Next up, my favourite thing to do in Africa – head to the markets.   N’djamena’s grand market is true to African form – it seems chaotic but is incredibly organised.   Each quarter serves a defined purpose – second hand clothing from Zara and mango piled high to be picked through, pharmaceuticals tended by white robed Muslims, women from the villages with fruit and veg, and the obligatory Chinese plastic tat which you find worldwide.   We wandered round for half an hour soaking up the vibes and avoiding the kids asking me for cash.







A war of attrition with the souvenir stall holders

Honestly, I try and avoid visiting souvenir markets, but apparently there wasn’t much else to see and we had some free time (yes we have all heard that one before and I fell for it willingly).  Business was probably pretty slow, so the fifty or so stall holders were pretty happy to see me.  It was exhausting to be 1 tourist with 50 vendors, and it was a war of attrition I had no hope of winning.  It is rare that I buy souvenirs, but some of the masks were lovely, so my pack is now weighed down with two more plus a very groovy comb.  I would like to think that i held my own in the negotiations, but these days I am a lazy old tourist of the type I despised when I was backpacking around Asia at 20 hustling everything down to the last rupee.  Now I don’t really care what the price is provided it isn’t daylight robbery…..

Successful vendors

Successful vendors

Successful vendors

Celebration of ‘independence’

We headed to see the Place du nation.  African nations do monuments to independence well!  This one was a treat.  The highlight for me was the world globe, mostly because NZ was actually on it!   Taking photos here was a sensitive manoeuvre – we were only allowed to face in one direction with the presidents palace behind us.  God forbid someone take a photo of the presidents palace.   Idriss Deby is a model of African democracy…. he has been president since 1990, and he removed the term limits to enable himself to be ‘elected’ five times.   He doesn’t hold the record – I think that is still Equatorial Guinea with 38 years of the same ‘democratically’ elected guy.

Place du Nation

Place du Nation

Across from the palace is the cathedral which is sadly closed for renovation.   It was tricky to get a picture given the proximity to the palace but eventually a vaguely official looking dude in camouflage gear said it would be ok.  I imagine it was lovely and will be again.


“No tourist card no photo” at the Mosque

We passed by the grand mosque and stopped to see if we could take a photo.  The ‘friendly’ militia were adamant that I couldn’t take a photo without a tourist card – irrelevant that such a thing doesn’t exist.  Oh well!  Apparently I could be boko haram scoping it out for bombing (and they have executed suicide bombings in ndjamena numerous times).  It isn’t the nicest mosque in the world in any case, but have popped in a picture from google images for your edification.

picture from

Sunning by the river

After that back to the hotel for a couple of hours sunning myself next to the river.  Its incongruous hanging out in the Hilton in N’djamena, as I don’t really feel like I am in Africa.  The guest list of the hotel was on display as i was paying this evening, and half the US consulate appears to be living here…., its not my typical African experience.    Heading to Niger tomorrow at the crack of dawn, and normalcy will be restored as I am staying at one of the cheaper guesthouses I could find.   I will be looking forward to a bed of any description after four flights with Asky tomorrow (N’djamena to Douala to Lome to Ouagadougou to Niamey),  🙂

View of the river from the hotel

View of the river from the hotel

6 more to go
N’djamena 20 August 2018


  • I stayed at the Hilton N’djamena.  It was lovely, staff were delightful!  Shop around for a deal
  • I cut a deal with the hilton driver to take me around town, you can contact Toide on or +23566471272.  he speaks english and french.

Side note – i still hate flights in africa

Travelling in Africa is never boring.  The flight times are loose guidelines versus actual commitments.  Getting to three of my last four countries in Africa was never going to be easy given the limited connections.   I had constructed an optimistic flight booking through Casablanca to ndjamena, then on to Niamey (the neighboring country)  via Douala, Lome, and Ouagadougou, then back to Bangui via Ouagadougou, Lome and Douala (don’t ask, I tried to do it in the other order but it didn’t work), then back to London via Casablanca.   Things had already gone a bit pear shaped with Asky cancelling the first leg of the Niamey to Bangui leg a few weeks ago, but I had found an exorbitantly priced ticket on Air Burkina to replace that leg.   And I was unsurprised when I got to Gatwick this morning to find my flight was delayed an hour.  Given my connection time was originally only 75 minutes, I was not wildly hopeful I would make it with just 15 minutes.  I did a dead sprint across the airport, smiled my way to the front of the security line and made it to the gate with one minute to spare!  Happy to have done so, as the next flight to N’djamena wasn’t for two more days.   Fingers crossed the rest works out….., I don’t expect it to, ….but thats part of the joy of being in Africa…., you are pleasantly surprised when stuff actually works.

Waterfalls in Zambia and Lesotho

Who says weekends need to be ordinary?!?! When I was a relentless corporate warrior in my thirties I used to use weekends for laundry, chores, sorting crap out, catching up on tele, sleep and email. Hmmmmm. Not that much fun.

Now I squeeze as much enjoyment as I can out of life! So, I have figured out you can have some pretty entertaining weekends, travelling or hiking, provided you get creative. Courtesy of some BA miles and a free companion ticket, hubby and I were off to Zambia to revisit Victoria falls (I love it) and then heading up to Lesotho (country 190/197) to check out Maletsuyane falls. I left the office late Thursday and would be back at my desk Tuesday morning.

Seeing the falls in Zambia

An overnight flight to Johannesburg and then a quick transit through to pick up the flight to Livingstone. Jo’burg airport puts European and American airports to shame. It’s clean, functional, has excellent shops and good food.

We landed in Zambia after a quick flight full of posh South Africans, and after a long wait for an inept visa process, found a luminous purple taxi with a soccer mad driver to take us to the hotel – David Livingstone safari lodge (it wasn’t bad as we got a half price deal on



We revelled in the African sky. I love the sky in Africa, it’s so close you can almost reach out and touch it, whilst simultaneously being so vast it goes on forever. We had a lazy afternoon lounging in the sun enjoying the view of the mighty Zambezi flowing past and watching the clouds lazily floating by and being entertained by the monkeys trying to steal our food. It’s a tough life.

Victoria falls

Hubby at the falls

Up early, we headed down to the falls. It’s easy to visit both the Zimbabwe and Zambia sides of the falls but we had already been on the Zim side. I liked the Zambia side and got a better appreciation for the geography of the falls…. the wide falls with torrential flow narrowing from a width of 1700 meters, falling 108 meters, to become a fast flowing river through a narrow gorge. It’s an easy stroll to the view points and the baboons are entertaining. Everyone else hired ponchos, but we just enjoyed the soaking :-).

Victoria falls

Border bridge between Zambia and zimbabwe

Knife edge bridge

We headed back to the airport for the afternoon flight to joburg. Sadly given schedules we weren’t able to get to Lesotho in one go, so had to overnight in JNB. If you ever need to, I highly recommend the city lodge at the airport. The service sucks, but the rooms are clean and you can’t beat the location

Jo’burg from above

Landing in Lesotho – the rooftop of the world

Up early, I availed myself of the airport shops to pick up a puffer jacket. In true last minute form I hadn’t checked the weather in Lesotho before leaving the UK. I had packed for sun. But the temperature in Lesotho was max 12 degrees and below freezing at night.

Lesotho is a landlocked country surrounded by South Africa. Famous for being the only country in the world which is entirely above an altitude of 1000m, it’s lowest point is 1400m… hence the nickname the ‘rooftop of the world’. Lesotho became independent in the sixties and was lucky that it was under British rule at a key point in history and avoided being subsumed into a larger South Africa. That said, Lesotho is heavily dependent on South Africa for currency and 60% of the working population cross the border to find jobs.

Lesotho near Roma

The flight to Maseru was on a tiny plane with 40 seats. The airport was tiny, and as is so often the case in tiny countries. We picked up a car and headed out on the long mountainous drive to semonkong.

Heading through the high passes to Semonkong

The landscape was at once completely empty but full of life. The countryside seems totally barren, no electricity wires or signs of life, there seemed to be no one but if you looked there were people everywhere with their cows and sheep, every inch of the land is being farmed or grazed.

Endless highway en route to semonkong

The mountains and high valleys were stunning. The road was a miracle of engineering, although I wouldn’t have driven it at night as it was windy and hadn’t been well maintained after some recent rock slides. The highest point passed thabia putsoa at 3096m, with the road at 2750m. The photos don’t begin to do justice to the vast open spaces.

African sky

Bustling village

The people are as unique as the landscape. Everyone is dressed in a Basotho blanket. The men wear them as capes and balaclavas and look stunning in them on their horses. The women wrap them around their waists like sarongs to keep their bums warm. It is pretty cold here – sunny and up to 12 degrees during the day but minus five at night. We feel like we have been transported to gaucho land in Patagonia, except we are in Africa! Horses and ponies are the main stay of life and even now are how most goods (including quite a lot of beer) gets transported to remote villages.

Semonkong pub

Another semonkong pub

Espresso stop

We drove 2.5 hours to semonkong. We stayed at a rustic lodge, miles from anywhere. When we arrived, we couldn’t quite figure out how to get our 2wd car down the steep rocky ‘road’, so left it at the chiefs house and walked the last 100m to the lodge

They gave us room 4, an old stone rondavel, which is apparently where the king sleeps when he stays (and no it wasn’t that flash).

The waterfall at Maletsuyane – the highest in Southern Africa

We set off to hike to the famous Maletsuyane falls. Going up hill at 2300m isn’t that easy, but we managed to overtake at least one donkey and two horses. It was a glorious walk, exchanging greetings with the locals as we wandered by. The villages and huts are simple but well kept, and there are lots of latrines (pretty unusual on Africa). There were also plenty of corrugated shacks serving as shebeens, even a ladies one, and I got a hearty ululation when I greeted them.

Locals heading home

First sight of the gorge

After about 30 minutes in a high valley we spied the beginning of the gorge. Strolling along the cliff side we eventually saw the falls. South facing, much of the waterfall was frozen, and probably would be for a while. It was lovely, but I imagine it looks even more spectacular in the summer with lush green foliage.

Maletsuyane falls

We hung out in the sun for a while, and then at 4, the sun dropped behind the mountain and the temperature plummeted. We headed back, enjoying the sounds and smells of the locals heading home for the night, looking after the animals and cooking dinner.

Donkeys at work

The sun dropping behind the mountain

We had an enormous dinner of local bread, aubergine chips, steak and malva pudding, sitting next to the fire warming up and playing with Butternut the lodge cat (for sure the happiest cat in Lesotho). but we also dreaded going to bed, as our rondavel was freezing! There was a small fire going in our room when we got back, but it didn’t seem to shift the temperature. We both went to bed fully clothed (and I had a hat and a puffer), and it took me a while to get feeling back in my fingers. Eventually the mountain of blankets seem to start working and I warmed up and fell asleep.

Hubby and butternut – the lodge cat

There was no electricity from 10pm to 8 am as it runs on hydro and they turn the dam off, so I decided to skip a morning shower once I figured out it was ice water. I headed back to the lodge and was delighted they had a fire going, which warmed us up while we consumed a huge breakfast. It was a delightful lodge! Highly recommended

Checking out the bars and shops

We meandered back to civilisation, taking tonnes of pictures as we went. We did pick up a Hitchhiker when we went to get our car from the chiefs house, and in a country where transport probably isn’t cheap it seemed churlish to refuse the young lady’s request for a ride, so we took her with us.

The chiefs house in semonkong

There isn’t much in the way of traffic on the roads, probably saw two cars, four minivans and a couple of 4wds in the first 60km after leaving Semonkong. However we did have to deal with a few horse and sheep obstructions – horses in particular have the right of way here over all traffic – mechanical or otherwise.

Pony roadblock

I couldn’t help but admire the numerous pubs and shops along the roadside.

Vatican fast food

Public phone box

Rural gas station

Thabo Bosiu – Moshoeshoe’s fortress

We headed up to Thabo bosiu – fortress home of moshoeshoe – the former kIng of Lesotho. It’s also the best place to view the ‘sharp hat’ rock, so named as it resembles the famous Lesotho hat, so ubiquitous it features on the license plate. There isn’t much to see at the site – some restored huts and some gravestones – but it was a nice walk.

Thabo Bosiu

Hubby on moshoeshoe’s seat

View of the sharp hat from Thabo Bosiu

Is there any gas in Maseru?

After that we headed to the airport, but we’re slightly delayed by having to go to three gas stations. The first two had run out of fuel. No one was sure when they would get more – ‘maybe today, maybe tomorrow’. Such is Africa.

I loved the shack on the right made of empty cans

Bros and sons

‘sharp hat’ on the license plate

The airport is hysterical. Four flights a day max, with 40 passengers max. There were probably 40 people working there. The checked bags got hand wheeled to the departure gate and put on a trolley. The sole immigration guys computer didn’t work, so he just jotted down our names. The sole scanner was powered by a frayed extension lead hanging from the ceiling. The lounge was full of mismatched old sofas. I bought some chocolate at the bar but had to return it, as it was well past it’s best before date. On the bright side, we didn’t quite have enough money for what we wanted to buy, so the barman gave us a discount

Lesotho was amazing. The landscape, the horses, the friendliness of the people. We will definitely be back, though probably in the summer. For runners there is a great ultra trail in November

Extraordinary how much of a holiday you can have in four short days! It was brilliant!!! Now back to work. Seven more to go

July 9, 2018, Maseru

Chilling in Sao Tome

Arriving in Sao Tome (especially from Angola) is like having a balm applied to your soul. The immigration guy was so friendly he even gave me a big thumbs up. No visa required here for under fifteen days, so nice relative to many African countries. Nunes was there to pick us up, and we cruised down the island in the languid evening heat listening to local beats. And breathe out…….

We are staying at a ridiculously lovely Airbnb. A typical Sao Tome stilt house perched on the edge of the cliff above the pounding waves in Santana. We passed out almost immediately on arriving (it was 1am and we hadn’t slept for 40 hours) lulled to sleep by the breeze and the sound of the water. Delightful!

Santana- view from the villa

Santana- view from the villa

After a slow wake up, we got our rental car – no insurance, no license check, and a general request to put some Petrol in it at some point- and headed into town. The capital (a word I use loosely) has some amazing examples of crumbling Portuguese architecture. It always amuses me the sheer audacity of the colonists who turned up in Africa and expected through force of will to-recreate their homelands and religions in the African jungle! The religion has certainly endured with pretty little churches on almost every corner. The architecture is lovely but hasn’t endured so well, but for me that is a lot of the charm.

Seventh Day Adventists

Praca Amizade

One of the oldest cathedrals in Africa

We meandered around town, ooh-ing and aah-ing as we turned every street corner at the buildings. It was a relaxing few hours taking in all the main squares and streets, with an obligatory espresso break (the coffee is pretty good here). The locals are friendly, but the guys can’t help but give you a smile and a bit of a wink. I am sure if I was alone I would be getting whistles, it certainly makes a difference having hubby in tow, though here the whistles are more opportunistic than threatening.

Sao Tome town – tiled building

Sao Tome town

Sao Tome town – health centre

we wandered our way through the cultural quarter and the parque populaire and eventually made it to the fort and the national museum. We sat for a while on the top of the fort being amused by the kids laughing, doing back flips and paddling on makeshift paddle boards. It started raining, but even the rain here is relaxing – plopping gently down, just enough to cool you down and not enough to make you wet and cold.

A good looking french man at the fortress

Fisherman’s church Sao Tome

Sao Tome harbour – boats and litter

We found a restaurant serving local food and got stuck into some calulu and feijoada! (Delicious salty fish stews with breadcrumbs!!!)

Calulu and rice

While eating I started reading the Bradt guide on my phone, I never really read it until after I have seen everything. Fun fact – I am in the middle of the world – Sao Tome is the closest land mass to where the line if zero longitude(Greenwich) crosses zero latitude (the equator). After eating, we needed another coffee to get moving. Everything here is leve-leve, easy pace, and no need to rush, and we are fitting right in. I love it here, all the groove and spice of west Africa without any of the hassles :-).

Sao Tome town – coffin maker

Sao Tome town – retail

Sao Tome town

Sao Tome town

Sao Tome town – main market

We meandered back along the coast road to Santana stopping at the local market to try and buy provisions for the next day. Steph was tempted by the flying fish, but I wasn’t super keen for a fishy breakfast – so we got some fresh eggs and some bread rolls that were so dense they should keep us going for a few days

High quality taxi

Sao Tome town – school

Back to the villa….. aaaaaah….. nothing to do but sit and watch the waves roll in. I feel like I have been here a month and want to stay another. After an hour the skies opened up and entertained us with a stunning rain storm. It must be a kiwi thing but I find the sound of rain on the roof immensely reassuring. What a way to spend the afternoon.

Even better we had asked Yves to sort out dinner for us, so we were delighted when this three course feast arrived at 7.30. The local cat arrived at the same time and managed to commandeer a decent share

yum – dinner

After a wonderful 8 hours of sleep, I woke up to the waves. The friendly cat hadn’t left (we couldn’t lock him out of the open air house) and the minute we opened the bedroom door he made himself right at home in the middle of the bed. I put up with it until I saw the fleas…. and then he got evicted

It was a glorious sunny day so we set off to drive down the island at a relaxed pace. You couldn’t go too fast, it’s Sunday, and clearly laundry day, with all obvious surfaces covered by laundry including the sides of the main road. And it’s a communal industry, I even saw some men chipping in

Our first stop was the Roca Agua ize. Apparently it is still a working plantation, and it was the first cocoa plantation on the island, staffed with 50 Europeans and 2500 contract workers. It’s not obvious it’s working today, but it was Sunday. We checked out the old hospital – am amazing ruin with a fab view. And then wandered around the streets of the small town which would have been built for the European workers. The pastor wasn’t having a great day, with less than ten in attendance. But the rap beats were pounding out from a variety of industrial speakers.

Roca Agua Ize – workers houses

Roca Agua Ize – workers houses

Roca Agua Ize – hospital

Roca Agua Ize – Palm Oil Factory

Roca Agua Ize – Palm Oil Factory

After that we stopped by the boca de inferno – the Mouth of hell – and watched the spray come up through the blowhole

Boca de Inferno

Then more slow driving, avoiding dogs, laundry and kids using the big hills as a skateboard ramp as we headed south down the island, admiring the intermittent views of the pico- an unusual rock formation sticking up like a needle in the middle of the island

Cao Pico

We made it to the idyllic restored plantation at Sao Joao and wandered round the grounds checking out his art gallery and sculptures. We wandered around town too, to work up a bit of an appetite – as apparently this is the best restaurant in the country. It’s a beautiful shady terrace with a lovely breeze and an outstanding view over the sea.

Roca Sao Joao plantation house

Roca Sao Joao art gallery

Lunch turned out to be a 14 course degustation of local flavours! I felt quite impressed with myself for accidentally organising a lovely lunch for my hubby (who is being a very good sport this year and accompanying me on some bonkers trips with no complaints when the travel arrangements all go tits up at the last minute). The food was excellent, great fish, herbs and plenty of local flavours of coconut, mango and vanilla. The swordfish and manioc was excellent as was the cerviche, and the salted cod with with palm oil and banana was amazing. The chopped squid with a fried rice ball might have been the best but hard to judge. The chef/owner/artists came round during some courses and explained the local provenance of the food – it was quite a performance, he was almost singing.

Roca Sao Joao- squid and arancini

Roca Sao Joao- pickled tuna and green papaya

Roca Sao Joao- aubergine and fried swordfish

After lunch we cruised back up the coast….. and had a well deserved siesta before heading to the airport for our flight home (a vile three flight red eye a day early given taag’s uselessness – see why below). I loved it here! We will come back but next time will definitely pop over to Príncipe for a few days. If you want a lovely easy leveleve African experience, come to Sao Tome!

Roca Sao Joao- church – jesus is love

9 more countries to go…..

Additional info

  • Definitely stay at divine ocean villas or one of Yves other properties at Santana, they were amazing
  • Yves can arrange a rental jeep for €40 a day and it gets delivered to the door and you can leave it at the airport
  • Definitely eat the degustation at Sao Joao

Side note 1 – I hate flying in Africa

Due to the vagaries of African airlines (and European airlines that don’t rate their African clientele) this had been a hell of a trip. BA cancelled our flight two days before departure and made no effort at all to find us an alternative (and as yet haven’t refunded me). This necessitated a last minute, very expensive purchase of an indirect flight to Luanda. The next leg from Luanda worked fine to Sao Tome (albeit on the crappiest plane I have seen in years with seats as hard as rock). But then we figured out (by accident) that TAAG had moved our return flight forward 18 hours, so instead of a civilised flight out with a good connection to our BA flight, we were now on a 3am flight with a 17 hour layover in Luanda, and as we were using different airlines in and out of Luanda we wouldn’t even be allowed out of a transit room until four hours before the next flight (apparently there’s no food or water in the transit room), and we couldn’t clear immigration as it takes weeks to sort a visa. Crap!!!!! Oh well, that’s what credit cards are for, and we have found a faster route home, with bonus stops in Accra and Lisbon, but the downside is we only have two nights and days in Sao Tome! Sigh!

Art at Sao Joao

Side note  2 – hubby to 100

It turns out hubby has been keeping a track record of his country count. He’s at 70 which is pretty impressive for someone who is not trying to visit lots of countries. The amusing thing is that he has been to Bhutan and Mauritania and Sao Tome (and is coming to Afghanistan later this month) but he has not been to Germany or Ireland and a bunch of other ‘normal’ European countries! We have decided next year we are going to do a dinner date in a European city each month to at least tick off the main countries in Europe :-), as would be nice to get him to 100

Sao Tome, 6 May 2018