Looking around Luanda/affluence in Angola

Angola is hard to get into and blimmen expensive when you get there.  The government are notorious for not issuing visas, and aren’t keen on visitors (unless you are Russians buying their oil).    It was a portuguese colony until 1975 when Agostinho Neto (lots of monuments and pictures of him later) became the first president, and then the country descended into some pretty complicated civil wars that lasted until 2002 displacing one third of the population, with 15 million landmines laid down.   Angola is one of the richest countries in Africa (lots of diamonds and oil) but is a global leader in corruption, and economic growth has been extraordinary since the end of the war – but the benefits only seem to be going to very few angolans.  Luanda – the capital, is a apparently one of the worlds most expensive cities, but more than 3/4 of the inhabitants live in slums.  Africa’s richest woman, is the president’s daughter. Isabel was appointed to head the state energy firm Sonangol in 2016 by presidential decree and she is worth an estimated $3bn.  But the average wage in Angola is just under $2 a day.

The seventh day adventists are everywhere

My friends who had lived in Luanda had told me it was vile, so we weren’t planning to stay long,…. but as is often the way, we had an amazing time and there was plenty to see.  Our new friend Candido drove us around town, making sure we took photos without the police harassing us (you often have to take them from a moving car so the police don’t bother you) and sorted us our our black market foreign exchange (you get twice the value on the street, but get a local to do it for you).

We stayed on the Ilha- a long skinny peninsular with an odd combination of posh restaurants and 4wds on one hand and barefoot fisherman and people squatting illegally in abandoned buildings .  Mornings are lively with fisherman selling their wares and people doing pushups and bootcamp on the beach.  We made sure we went all the way to the end of the Ilha to see the lighthouse and the view back into town.  our hotel offered to loan us paddle boards, but I wasn’t excited about the smell of the sewerage 🙂

Lighthouse on Ilha de Cabo
Advertising rocks now used as sand stabilisers?

We went on a tour round town to check out the wonderful colonial architecture with the central bank being the best example and the cathedral of the sacred heart being quite lovely also.

Central Bank of Angola
Cathedral of the holy saviour

We also liked the palacio ferro – the iron palace, a very groovy yellow building which is made out of corrugated iron.  Apparently it was designed by Mr Eiffel (of the tower fame)

Palacio de Ferro
Palacio de Ferro

The ‘high city’ ciudad alta is where all the glorious parliament buildings were, with more police than you can shake a stick at.

National Assembly
Ciudade Alta

The fortaleza was worth checking out – it felt like every school kid in Luanda was visiting, as well as a bunch of soldiers who were learning their history.    It has stunning views over the Ilha and downtown, as well as lots of guns and cannons.  Part of the view is down into a shantytown, but the government is systematically moving the occupants out to the suburbs (without giving them a choice) as they want the view to be nicer from the fort…. hmmmmm….

Paintings in the military history museum

But my favourite thing in Luanda was the monument to Agostinho.  Apparently it was half built by the Russians in the eighties, and finally finished by the Koreans in the early 2000s.  It is an amazing bonkers space needle type construction, which also serves as the parade ground for the military.   Definitely worth checking out.

Agostinho monument
Agostinho monument

We ate well while we were there, but it wasn’t cheap.  Lunch would have been $100 for two mains, and one dessert and two diet cokes if we had gotten the official exchange rate, but even on the black market rates it was $50.  Good hearty portuguese food!

view of Downtown from the fort

Additional info

  • on the recommendation of friends, we stayed at Thomson Art Hotel on the Ilha. rooms were small but perfectly formed.  breakfast was great.  we booked airport pick ups and drop offs with them also
  • there is apparently a new visa on arrival system – good luck! We used the old system which required a tonne of paperwork and a few elephant tears at the embassy
  • definitely use the street market for changing money – the rate is double the bank rate, and seemed safe (we stayed in the car while someone came to the window)
  • Immigration are some of the slowest in Africa – get to the airport on time on your way out

Luanda, May 4, 2018

Sweltering in Djibouti

Djibouti is damn hot and dusty as all hell. Flying in all you can see is endless rocks and sand. I didn’t have a visa but my sources had indicated getting one was possible on arrival. The only problem was that none of the officers on duty that day had ever seen a kiwi passport. So it took me a good 20 minutes to persuade them in my politest French to let me in. I got a ride to the cheapest of the good hotels in town – the Atlantic. Djibouti is incredibly overpriced!

Waiting for the bus
I wasn’t up to much on day 1 as had arrived from Melbourne and was feeling ropey so promptly passed out for 12 hours. On day 2 I met my guides Omar and Mohammed who were taking me to the desert…. there was no other way to get there without a private car. Best not to ask me how much it cost as sadly I wasn’t able to find another group who were going.

The day started stonkingly hot. Leaving the capital we were stopped twice at police checkpoints…. not for any other reason than they wanted a ride back to base. Before long we had 8 gendarmes in the back, I felt like a VIP. The road was heaving with trucks.

Cigarette vendor
Apparently everything in Djibouti is imported from Ethiopia (water, food, electricity), so in exchange Ethiopia gets full access to Djibouti’s port. As a result there are apparently 6000 trucks per day crossing the border. Apart from some camels and a couple of cars, we saw nothing but back to back trucks for the first hour.

Lac Assal
We turned off the main road to head to Lac Assal – the lowest point in Africa at 155m below sea level – a crater lake surrounded by extinct volcanoes and still mined extensively today for the salt. I had a swim – or more accurately a float, and wished all my swimming races were in water this salty, it was a breeze to swim in, and stunningly beautiful.

Lac Assal

Salt crust on Lac Assal
Then it was back to the main road to head to Lac Abbe, pausing after two hours for a proper European tourist lunch in the town of Dikhil. I love the African interpretation of what westerners eat, and the tuna salad, chicken and chips, and Nutella crepe were pretty good.

Camel roadblock on RN1 – the main highway
After Dikhil we had three hours of off-road (endearingly referred to as a 4wd African massage) to reach camp. In the two days we were out there we saw one other 4wd. Weirdly just when you feel like you are in the middle of nowhere with only the swirling dust devils for company you pass a couple of kids with a herd of goats, or a dromadaire with his camels, or a rectangle marked out with stones which is obviously the nomads meet up point for a regular match. The desert is stunning and full of life, but the heat shimmering up from the stones makes me exceedingly grateful for Mohammed’s speedy driving….it provides free air con with the hot wind blasting through the window (better than no wind) as the 4wd doesn’t have any AC.

The grand chimney at Lac Abbe
After three hours of ‘massage’ we arrived at the famous chimneys of Lac Abbe. All of this area was under 50 meters of water 30000 years ago, so the rock formations are like a weird form of coral. They are known locally as chimneys as with the geothermal activity there is smoke belching out the top. And you have to watch your feet as there are some boiling hot springs and quite a few areas of quick sand!

Cows wandering home with the chimneys in the background
It’s so hot that in spite of drinking 5 litres of water since we left town, I have peed once…. that is a miracle as I have a Kmart bladder.

Chimneys at sunset
We arrived at camp, which was pretty basic, and I was the first guest for a week or so. Spring isn’t tourist season with the temperatures in the 40s and no one comes in summer! I sucked back another two litres of water with some electrolytes thrown in and went for a stroll as the sun went down. I came back to another substantial euro meal of salad, spag bog and fruit.

Kids taking their goats home
It was finally cool outside with endless stars so I was hoping for a blissfully peaceful night turning in at 9. The goats were making a bit of a racket so I preemptively put the earplugs in, and then retired to my traditional afar ‘tent’ made with palm leaves. I think it would have been better labelled as a sauna, as it was as hot as all hell in there, so I eschewed the mozzie net and dragged the mattress outside into the wind and went to sleep. Sadly the wind dropped at 11pm and the mozzies arrived. Not just any mozzies but world champion, bloody noisy, aggressive biting mozzies of the like I have never seen (and I come from the home of the sand flies). I lay there half delirious trying to decide if I wanted to die of mozzie bites outside or die of sweating inside the tent under the net. I went with the net. In hindsight I should have skipped the tent all together and rigged up a net outside (definitely possible), but at midnight I wasn’t really alert enough to think this through. Oh well, the mozzies won that round and I didn’t get much shut eye.

Chimneys at dawn
I gave up trying to sleep and got up at first light and went for a walk. Then the guides joined me for a ‘hike’ through the small chimneys and out to the lake. Omar (27) challenged Mohammed (35) and I (43) to a run to the lake edge.  He took off like a shot and so did Mohammed. I am old, so stopped and did my laces up, then set off at a slow jog given the heat and hoped like hell the exuberance of youth would fail him after a km, and my hopes were rewarded.

Mohammed and Omar warming their hands at the hot springs
It was probably about a 2k run, Mohammed stopped  at about 300m and Omar collapsed on the ground at 1km….and I sailed pass at a slow jog to take the race by at least 500m – so proud! On the way back we strolled until I told Omar that he would always beat me over a short distance given his youth and speed so at about 600m from the car he took off again. Fortunately his youthful exuberance led him to think the race was done 5m from the car where he stopped just in front of me and so I sprinted past and hit the car first. Old lady 2: young dude 0. Oh, the lake was stunning btw…. but that probably won’t be my highlight memory of the day 🙂

The chimneys near one of the few water sources

The cracked surface of the mud near the lake

Me at the edge of the lake, having won the race
After a ‘light’ breakfast of what appeared to be deep fried naan bread with a side of Nuttella, we headed off back to Dikhil with four extra passengers, including a frail 71 year old lady who had a gorgeous wrinkled face. I was summoning up the courage to ask her for her photo before we arrived at the village, but unfortunately the bumps in the road were too much for her and she started vomiting. I offered up my front seat but they weren’t having any of it.

Chiefs house

Our poor vomiting passenger
We stopped in the village to visit a friend of Omar’s. As always these visits are a huge reality check. Home for ‘Chief’  was a one room ‘tent’ with a bed for five and a small hearth and a few possessions hanging from the wall – a pot and a empty tin of powdered milk. No electricity, no running water and the nearest water source was at least a km away and was probably hugely unreliable. And it was baking hot outside (in the 40s) and hotter inside! I can’t help but be hugely grateful for my cushy life.

Roadside vendor

A couple more hours of African roads and dodgy overtaking and I was back in the capital city, where I swiftly made for my room and pumped up the AC and lay in a heap until it got a bit cooler in the afternoon.   I eventually roused myself for a walk around town, and visited the cathedral – probably the nicest thing to see in Djibouti!

Djibouti cathedral
The highlight of the afternoon was watching the young Djiboutians hanging out in the main square – boys on one side, girls on the other – it was just like a high school dance!

A lovely few days and off to Somalia tomorrow!


May 3, 2017, Djibouti City, Djibouti


p.s apologies to regular blog readers for the delay since the last post…. I have been busy engaged in an unusual activity called work!

Packing for five weeks on an overland truck (in under 8kg)

I am heading off on a trip with Overland West Africa from Sierra Leone to Ghana (via Liberia, Guinea and Cote d’Ivoire), and then I am heading solo onwards to Nigeria (through Benin and Togo).   This is my first time ever on an organised group trip, and a lot of my friends are taking bets on how long I will last travelling with other people.   I will, of course, be blogging as I go, but given my packing posts are some of the most popular, here is the list…….. brace yourself it is more than I have ever packed.

Everything packed into their respective organising bags
the pack

So, this time, I need a slightly bigger pack than my standard, and much beloved, travel companion – the 30L Tortuga Air, as I have to take a sleeping bag and Thermarest.  However, that doesn’t mean I need a huge bag!  And in fact, I don’t want a big bag.  More stuff is more to carry, and more to organise.  I can easily fit everything into a carry on bag, so am trialing a new bag on this trip – the Lowe Alpine Flightlight 45 litre. This pack weighs in at 800 grams and doesn’t look too dorky!.


I have hacked it mildly to keep my stuff in place where I want it to be  – by adding some velcro patches to my cable and toiletries bags to hold them on the bag lid.

the bag packed


I will also carry a little north face pack for when I need a day pack.   I have used the sea to summit ones before but I keep putting holes in them.  This flyweight one is a big heavier, but more robust and still lightweight (200g)


*note I considered buying two other cool bags for this trip, but while both of the alternatives were pretty groovy – the tom bihn hero’s journey (a 45l backpack/duffel with a 15l convertible backpack/shoulder bag that attaches and is configurable in multiple ways) and the Alchemy Workshops very beautiful AEL008 carry on – both of these two options were too heavy and expensive and over-engineered for West Africa

sleeping arrangements

Most of the time we will be camping, so i will be packing for a variety of temperatures, taking

  • Silk sleeping inner for hot nights – this Rab one weighs 130g
  • a 30 degree short Z packs sleeping bag which I love and will keep me warm if I need it (350 grams and compresses down to nothing)
  • my thermarest  – indispensable mattress, but will be taking tape in case of punctures 330G
  • a big luxury – rather than my blow up sea to summit pillow, which is terrific for 3-4 nights camping, I am taking a more luxurious thermarest compressible pillow which is more like an actual pillow 58cmx41cmx10cm (340g).  I will see if it is worth the additional 280grams but I suspect it will be worth it for 5 weeks of a happier neck.  If it is not worth it, it will get discarded en route
the big luxury experiment – a new pillow

All my sleeping gear is packed together into a granite gear air zipsack so i can pull it all out together when i need it, except the pillow


Here is where most people overpack….. I am taking more than usual as want to make sure I don’t have to run in really stinking running gear and we won’t have access to running hot water that often to wash clothes.  I could make do with one less of everything (I have before).  I always swear by icebreaker as you can wear it for days and it won’t stink!  The following is more than enough for all temperatures and all occasions

i love these t-shirts. I have worn one of these shirts for at least 60 days this year – on the GR5 and the kungsleden for over 10 days in a row on each, and they are still holding up great

Clothes are packed in three small compressible eagle creek packing cells.


The biggest difference with overlanding is I won’t be able to rely as frequently on hotels for shampoo and soap, and chemists for when I need anything.  So I am packing slightly more than normal (but still not much)

all my toiletries!

Wet toiletries 

  • Moisturiser, 25 g decanted in a pot
  • Sunscreen (10 hour), – Riemann’s once per day P20 ( lotion), 50mls is plenty for 5 weeks as I only do my face
  • Lipgloss, I use blistex– both the lip balm and the medplus conditioner
  • Antiseptic savlon – 15 ml
  • 100ml of hand sanitiser (normally I don’t bother, but this will be useful for 5 weeks on a truck)
All packed in airport security compliant Muji bag so I don’t have to use a ziplock bag
this soap will clean anything!

Dry toiletries (no airline limits on size)

  • Salt deodorant stick – it works and weighs little
  • Insect repellant – in block form, lasts longer
  • Toothpowder – less than 20g is enough for five weeks
  • Multipurpose soap – Dr Bronners will clean me, my clothes and my hair, and this is more than enough for 2 months
  • Drugs – Sleeping pills/stilnocht (for overnight flights and snoring tentmates), painkillers/nurofen, anti diarrhoea/immodium, dicloflenac, and doxycycline for malaria, 2 packs of rehydration mix
  • Compeed and a couple of plasters for cuts and blisters
  • Earplugs (most important thing in the pack)
  • Razor blade (just one replacement blade, don’t bother carrying the handle)
  • Toothbrush
  • Nail clippers (tiny)
  • Tweezerman tweezers (tiny)
  • Some cotton buds
  • Hair ties
  • Safety pins –  always indispensable
huge weight saving in toothpaste 🙂
all the toiletries in ‘wet’ (airport security compliant) and ‘dry’ bags
  • Garmin watch and  charger
  • iPhone and charger
  • flip belt for runs
  • platypus 1l soft bottle
  • standard money belt, leg money belt, bra money stash
  • macbook (under 1kg) (not shown in pictures)
  • solar charger (helpful to not have to fight for the plug space on the truck), 280g
  • petzl head torch and a few spare batteries
  • an ultra light spoon – always helpful for when i want yogurt or baked beans
  • large quick drying towel ( i have taken the handkerchief size one on trips in the past, this time I have space and desire for a bigger one that will actually cover me up coming and going from communal showers) (135g)
Fully loaded, excluding what I am wearing (shorts, sneakers, t-shirt, hoody), it weighs in at 7.9 kg – easily a weight I can wander around town with for a few hours if I need to, and I have more stuff than I need.  My standard weight is about 6kg, so an extra 2kg of sleeping gear, additional toiletries and a few extra clothes isn’t terrible.
Side note on carry-on weight limits – in the event that the check in staff want to weigh your luggage and have a limit of 6-7kg, my standard tactic is to put a few extra items of clothing on (down jacket and waterproof  – even if just tied around my waist), stick my cables and toiletry bags in my pockets (i have big pockets in the icebreaker hoody), and then put my laptop down the back of my trousers.  Without fail this reduces the pack weight by 2 kg and gets me past any checks.
Everything I am taking with me, except my computer, running shoes and hoody which I forgot to put in the picture
post trip review

So, I am now done with the trip, and a couple of thoughts on the packing.

I wouldn’t take these things again

  • Sleeping bag – I used it three times, but two times were because we couldn’t figure out how to turn the aircon down.  I would have been fine using my down jacket with the sleeping silk liner those few nights it was a bit brisk (and I needed the down jacket and warm hoody for returning to London, so while I didn’t use them, I would still take them)
  • Sunscreen and sunhat – I was too lazy to put the sunscreen on, and it was too hot to wear a hat
  • Waterproof jacket – when it pisses down here, it is still warm, so you can use the rain as a free clean water shower, and you will dry quickly afterwards

I didn’t use any of the drugs or first aid stuff, but would take them again.  I also picked up a cheap course of ciproflaxin for $2 in Liberia as a back up, but didn’t use them.

Next time I would take an umbrella – good for wandering around in the sun and for the torrential rainfall, and take or buy a fan – helpful in the sweltering days.

Apart from that I probably could have done with one less top and one less pair of shorts, but it was nice to have some redundancy.

Places to Return to – Botswana

I never understood why people wanted to go on Safari.  Surely it was just like going to the zoo, but perhaps a bigger zoo with fences that were more spread out.  What was the point of spending huge wads of cash to go to a zoo?   But after the first safari drive that we ever went on, we were totally hooked.  We had a magical experience and got to see two lions mating (no rude jokes please!!).  Since then we have been going whenever we could summon up the cash

Elephants in the Okavango
Elephants in the Okavango
where to go on Safari

You can go on Safari all over Africa.  South Africa is terrific for self organised safaris, it is good value, the food and wine are amazing, and you can drive yourself everywhere!  I would highly recommended Kruger for Safari virgins and there are tonnes of good places to stay.  Namibia is also good, very safe and easy to drive around.  Kenya and Tanzania are good too, particularly in the Masai Mara, where you are almost guaranteed to see the big five in your first hour on a safari truck.  However, the downside is that Kenya and Tanzania are crowded with cheap package tourists, so while you are watching the cheetah kill the gazelle, sixteen other safari trucks drive up to watch it too.   So, if you can afford it, I would highly recommend visiting Botswana at least once.  The wildlife is as good as anywhere, but you will likely be the only people you see on your safari drives and that makes it a magical experience.

Yawning hippo
Yawning hippo

For a control freak like me, a safari is the perfect holiday!   The daily routine is fixed – get up for coffee and a snack, drive for three hours, come back for a huge breakfast, sleep for three hours, eat a huge lunch, nap again, drive for three more hours, eat a huge dinner.    And it is utterly utterly relaxing to have nothing to think about apart from what sundowner drink you want on the truck that evening.    The animals, also, are totally outside of your control.  You can’t dictate what you will see when.  Of course the rangers are world class, so you can let them know what you are more interested in seeing, but the leopards aren’t going to turn up where you want them to, so you have to be patient.

Botswana_2012_2641 copy
Cute but hungry cubs (apparently their mother hadn’t found any food for three days)

There are lots of good places to stay in Botswana, some cheaper, some outrageous.  My most memorable experience is our stay at Chiefs Camp on Mombo Island.  It was incredible.  I was going more upmarket than usual as had hubby in tow, together with his parents.  We had gifted them a trip to celebrate their 70th birthdays.   While the lodge was divine and the food was good, it was Mombo and the cats that really stole my heart.   Some memorable moments….

Watching a leopard kill an impala

Ok, so I know it is gruesome, and I did use to struggle to understand why people actually sought out ‘kills’ on safari drives (I never had).  But it was fascinating, visceral and thrilling to watch a lone and hungry leopard take down an impala. We would have missed it entirely if our guide hadn’t noticed the assembled audience of baboons checking out the action (hoping the leopard would do the work and they could steal the impala afterwards).  The whole process took at least half an hour and it was enthralling

The baboon tree viewing gallery
The baboon tree viewing gallery


Suffocating the impala
Job done!
Job done!
Following a pack of wild dogs

In over twenty safaris, I have only seen wild dog once.  There are apparently less than 1500 adults still alive in Africa, and they are common on the menu for Lions.   It was a real treat to find this pack waking up from their afternoon naps (they are tough to spot as they blend into the grass very well), have a few yawns and then head off to go hunting

Waking up in the grass.... big yawn
Waking up in the grass…. big yawn
Botswana_2012_1394 copy
the leader figuring out which way to go

Botswana_2012_1369 copy

getting to follow the same animals over a few dayS

The interesting thing about staying in the same place for a few days is you get to see the same animals more than once.   My favourite occurrence of this was two young male lions.  We met them one evening, and they were hungry and grumpy….. you can see they were hungry by the size of their stomachs!  And then we found them again the next morning, and they had obviously found something tasty for a midnight snack as the tummy was bursting.

Before: Hungry and grumpy
Before: Hungry and grumpy
After: Bloated and sleepy
After: Bloated and sleepy
Additional tips
  • Safaris are expensive.  Shop around.  Going direct to the lodge is often not cheaper as they have to guarantee not to undercut the agents they use.   See if a UK outfit with a bundled flight offer is cheaper.  Also don’t move between lodges too much as it takes time away from seeing the wildlife and the internal flights are expensive
  • Don’t expect to take decent photos with your iPhone or digital camera.  It just won’t happen.  We had a decent canon digital SLR (EOS 5) but more importantly rented a serious kick arse zoom lens for the week.  It was worth it.  The lens would have cost $10,000 to buy, but we rented it for $400 (with hefty insurance).    If you like photography definitely consider renting at least one decent lens

Botswana_2012_2366 copy

Off the Beaten Track – Sudan

The trip got off to an auspicious start.   I was on an Lufthansa flight from Munich to Addis Ababa with a stopover in Khartoum.  As I tried to disembark in Khartoum, the hostess blocked my exit and double checked my boarding card.  “Are you sure you want to get off here?????, I am ok if you want to stay on until Addis, as I really don’t think it is safe for you here!!!!”.   In her defence there were only about 10 other people getting off and they all looked like wealthy local business men!!!        Sudan definitely has a reputation, but it was probably one of the most interesting and friendly places I have been, and there was lots to see.  Highlights of the trip were!

Pyramids of Meroe

Meroe has more pyramids than Egypt!  And I didn’t see a single tourist the whole time I was there.  I barely saw any people, just the guardian, and an opportunistic young boy who wanted to sell me some jewellery.  I actually bought some too as wanted to applaud his entrepreneurialism.   I had a glorious two days wandering up and down the ruins here.  The light was magnificent in the evening and the morning, and it was a totally different experience to seeing the pyramids in Egypt.  Blissful solitude, just me, the sand, and the pyramids which were tombs to the Nubian Kings and Queens.

0U0A9684 copy0U0A9626 copy

0U0A9697 copy

I treated myself to a night at the tented camp at Meroe.  I was the only guest.  Apparently they occasionally get Italian tour groups http://www.italtoursudan.com/en/.  The food was great (enough for four people), but it wasn’t cheap.  Worth staying though, as unless you have your own camping gear, this is the only place near to the pyramids, and they are worth seeing at sunrise and sunset

Whirling Dervishes at Omdurman on Friday

Head to the  Sheikh Hamad-al Nil Tomb in Omdurman to see the whirling Dervishes – Sufi Muslims who wear patchwork robes and dance to the beat of drums twirling and stamping their feet until they go into a trance.    Apparently the dancing helps them communicate with Allah.

0U0A9730 copy
Lead drummers

I had a blast here talking to locals, enjoying the ambiance.  No-one bothered me, though a few of the women came for a chat.

0U0A9725 copyThis lady here really wanted her photo taken, so I obliged.   0U0A9739 copy

Temples at Naqa

These temples are the largest archaeological sites outside of Meroe, and are still being excavated.  It is a bit like going to luxor, but before it was excavated and without any tourists.   I had all of the temples around Naqa entirely to myself, and the only humans I saw were goat herders sleeping under the trees.  I am not sure I would make a special trip to see these, but they were lovely, and they were en route to Meroe

0U0A9598 copy

0U0A9567 copy

Additional tips
  • The best (and only) place I would ever stay in Khartoum is the acropole. http://acropolekhartoum.com  These guys were amazing, they sorted out my visa, had a fixer at the airport to help me navigate immigration and they sorted out a driver and all the permits tourists require to take me to Meroe.  It ain’t flash, and it isn’t that cheap either, but it is good.  They also serve a decent dinner, where you will meet lots of other crusty travellers, archaeologists and aid workers.
  • There are no ATM or credit card processing in Sudan.  Take cash!  lots of it!  I ran into an american couple who had had an accident, and they were stuck without anyway of paying their hospital bill, and they couldn’t leave the country without payment.   Eventually they worked out a solution of wiring money to the foreign account of a third party and getting cash – but it was complicated and took weeks!
  • Its hot here!  really hot! As I was travelling alone with a male driver, I started off wearing a headscarf and sitting in the back seat of the car.  I gave up on the headscarf on day 2, and moved to the front seat (closer to the aircon) after a bout of heat stroke of day 1.  Would still bring light loose clothes and keep your legs and upper arms covered.
  • I am not the only one who liked Sudan, check out this guardian article http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/dec/09/-sp-sudans-tourist-gems-pyramids-gaddafi-bin-laden

Visited November 2013

Places to Return to – Ethiopia

May 26, Castelsagrat, France

I am spending the bank holiday in our house in France.  Our second home here is in a wonderful sleepy village, surrounded by baking fields of sunflowers in the summertime, and the biggest thing that is likely to happen when we are here is a gathering of hearty eighty year olds on the village petanque field right outside our front door.   Coming here for a holiday is like putting on a warm and familiar pair of flannel pyjamas.  Our routines are comfortable and effortless, from popping down to get a morning croissant at the bakery, to driving to the local market town to see our butcher.    The smells, sights and experiences from here are clearly etched in my memories and bring me comfort even when I am not here.   It has made me think about places in the world I have visited that have left similar indelible impressions on me.  Places I felt incredibly comfortable and would like to go back to to spend some more time.  So, this week, I am going to share with you a few of the special places in the world that I can’t wait to (or already have) revisit (ed).  Amazing places which fed my soul (and most likely my belly), and that I would highly recommend you put on your to do list.   Today – Ethiopia!  There are lots and lots of things to do in Ethiopia, including hiking in the Simiens and seeing the Danakil Depression, but my favourite places are…..

visit Bet Giyorgis Church, Lalibela at Dawn

Lalibela is a relatively sleepy high altitude town surrounded by small mud hut villages with a surprising surfeit of ‘barack obama’ gift stores.   The town is famous for the most incredible rock hewn churches.  Unlike normal churches where rock is excavated and a church is built, here they have dug the churches out of the ground!  It is hard to describe without seeing them.  For those of you who have been to Petra, think that but 10 times more impressive.     I have vivid memories of visiting the church at 6am to hear the amazing chanting from the white robed monks.  The music was haunting, the smell from the incense pervasive, and sight of the worshippers in the dawn chill is indelibly etched on my brain.  Spend a few days in Lalibela to visit all the churches but also head out to Yemrehanna Kristos which is a beautiful chocolate box church in a cavern about an hour or so from Lalibela.  I loved Lalibela and can’t wait to go back (stayed at Tukul Village, picked up a decent guide on arrival at the airport)

Bet Giorgis from above
Bet Giorgis from above
Woman worshiping at Bet Giorgis (not allowed inside)
Woman worshiping at Bet Giorgis (not allowed inside)
Yemrehanna Kristos
Yemrehanna Kristos
Do the dawn procession in Axum

Axum is apparently the home of the Arc of the Covenant at the Cathedral of Tsion Maryam, though no one ever gets to see it.  Apparently it is so sacred only the guardian gets to see it, and that job passes down when the guardian dies.   The Cathedral is worth a visit but isn’t wildly interesting.  There are also some extremely famous stelae (pillars), which are mildly interesting and the reason most people come to town.    Axum town itself is a boring strip of poorly built glass and concrete buildings with none of the charm of Lalibela.  So, why come?  Two reasons, a) it is the gateway to the Tigrai – more on that later, and b) the Wednesday procession at dawn where pilgrims walk around town paying homage to the churches.   We joined in, (sporting the obligatory big white scarfs) and it was a wonderful experience……  (stayed at Sabean Hotel which was basic but fine, and hired a guide and driver from Dawit tours – travelcovenant@yahoo.com)

End of the dawn procession
End of the dawn procession
Climb to the monasteries in the Tigrai
  • If you have a head for heights and are comfortable rock climbing in bare feet, definitely hike up to Abuna Yemata.    I bowed out as am petrified of heights, but my feisty companion Tamara made it up with some rope and some help.
  • If you have a penis, definitely head to Debre Damo.  Again, this is a rope climbing effort, but sadly only men are allowed to visit (apparently women aren’t clean or holy enough)
  • I did make it to Debre Maryam Korkor, which was at 2,500 metres.  I thought I was climbing well until I was overtaken by three nuns who were in their seventies, bare foot, and carrying all their food and water – very humbling!!!!   While up there, pop round the corner to visit the monk at Abba Daniel Korkor (he had the most amazing face)
(Stay at Gheralta Lodge in the Hawzien region if you can penetrate their useless reservation system, we hired a driver and a guide as there is very little public transport anywhere in the Tigrai.  Dawit from covenant tours sorted this for us too)
Monk at Abba Daniel Korkor
The barefooted nuns overtaking me climbing to
The barefooted nuns overtaking me climbing to Debre Maryam Korkor
Some additional tips!
  • Apparently the attendants on Ethiopian are often asked if there will be food in Ethiopia.  Yes there definitely is food!  and the food is actually pretty good, provided you stick to the vegetarian.  The goat and the chickens were the toughest things I have ever eaten. However, injera (ethiopian bread made with teff) and vegetarian food is pretty delicious.  Favourites are shiro wat, kik wat and shira tegamino!
  • Addis is a crap hole!  the hotels are overpriced, its dirty, and the taxi drivers are what you would expect in Africa.  Get in, get out as fast as you can
  • The kids here have been ruined by overly generous foreigners.  If you stop your car in the middle of nowhere to pee, you will be overrun by kids within three minutes.  Pee quick!  Apparently kids don’t bother to go to school in some places as they don’t want to miss out on begging from foreigners
  • Ethiopia is extremely traditional.  Neither Fish nor Teddy (our driver and guide) thought women could drive a car.  After much persuasion Fish did let me take the 4wd for a spin around the desert and he was most impressed that I knew how to use reverse!  Ladies – keep your expectations for equality low!
Church Guardian Hawzien
Church Guardian Hawzien
Church Guardian
Church Guardian


Thwarted Thatcher Coup…

May 14, Ibis, Malabo, Equatorial Guinea

Before visiting all I really knew about Equatorial Guinea was the thwarted coup attempt against President Obiang funded by Margaret Thatcher’s son in 2004 (a.k.a the Wonga coup), for which he pleaded guilty (eventually) and was given a four year suspended sentence and a $500k fine in South Africa.  British mercenary Simon Mann didn’t fare so well, and spent 5 years in the notorious Black Beach prison in Malabo as part of a 34 year sentence, from which the president eventually pardoned him.  Mr Mann is apparently doing fine now as he made a killing on his book deal

President Obiang is still in power (37 years so far) and the government are keen to improve their image, which is hard to do in a country where  the per capita wealth is higher than Britain, but much of the country live on less than a dollar a day.  (Guardian article).  He is still clearly working on his image as there are huge billboards of him all over town!!!

IMG_3816 copy
President Obiang

Equatorial Guinea isn’t covered in the Lonely Planet Africa guide as apparently not enough people visit to make it worth their while.  There are only four sights listed on TripAdvisor (one of which includes the new sports stadium), and I dutifully wandered around town to visit these, clocking up 12km of walking and sweating several buckets.  Compared to Douala, this place is paradise – huge big clean buildings, level footpaths (though no-one appears to walk anywhere except for a couple of kids I saw), and ultra modern highways.  Its a little bit like an African version of Turkmenistan – you can really see where they are spending their oil money!

Malabo Catedral
Malabo Catedral

After exhausting the tourist sites, I wandered round the markets and chatted to some old men in my appalling spanish.  I also tried the supermarkets but they were pretty sad compared to the ones in Cameroon and Gabon, and I couldn’t even find any dark chocolate to buy (#firstworldproblems).

IMG_3815 copy
Mercado Central

Sticky, icky and frenetic

May 12,  Star Land Hotel, Douala, Cameroon

The Lonely Planet aptly describes Douala as ‘sticky, icky and frenetic’. True dat.   I would also add ‘ cacaphonic’ (not an actual word but an apt descriptor), as there is a constant background honk of horns.

Arriving at Douala airport, I was impressed by the levels of filth and how badly it smelled.  I was less than impressed by the immigration official who called me Mami…. he got a bit of a dressing down as I told him I wasn’t his Maman or anyone else’s.   I also feel like my youth has now clearly departed if total strangers think it is acceptable to call me Mum!.  Exiting customs into the carnage of the arrivals hall, the hotel shuttle driver was (of course) not there, so I found another ‘ reliable’ taxi driver to drop me off, and was entertained by his 15 minute monologue on his sexual energy and then politely declined his offer of a dinner date.

I spent three hours walking around today to see the ‘sights’ .  Again – there were only two – the Espace Doual’art and the cathedral.   I loved the Espace Doual’art which was a small but perfectly formed contemporary art space.  The Hako Hankson works on display were terrific!!!

Hako Hankson


Hako Hankson
 The cathedral was less impressive, but I quite liked the creative use of shipping containers to create retail space adjacent to the church.
IMG_3796 copy

It was a hot and sticky day, and I was dripping with so much sweat I almost wished it would start raining.  Fortunately most of the locals were sweating too!

I was cautious in my wanderings to keep my photos discreet, given my fellow adventurer Evelthon was detained by the police here a few weeks ago for ‘tourist offences’ for taking pictures of the cathedral.   There isn’t much point arguing with the authorities here!.   Fortunately no-one bothered me apart from a couple of dodgy playboys.

Following the dictator theme – as an fyi, the Cameroon People’s ‘Democratic” Movement party and the leader Paul Biya have been in power since 1982.  Love democracy in action.

Next bonkers dictatorship – Equatorial Guinea! – here I come

Potentially the worlds greatest wildlife destination, but I wasn’t going to find out…..

May 9, Royal Palm Hotel, Libreville, Gabon

In the next of a series of mad dictatorships – welcome to Gabon.  Omar Bongo was president for 42 years from 1967 until he died in 2009.  The reins were taken up by his son Ali Bongo who has been in power since, ‘winning’ the 2009 election with 42% of the vote.  Highlights of his time in office include apparently paying Lionel Messi £2.5m for visiting and laying the foundational stone for the Africa cup of nations stadium for 2017, and cutting the size of the Ministry.  The leader of the banned ‘opposition’ party, Andre Mba Obame died of unknown causes last year.

The airport worked and no bribes were solicited.  I got a taxi to the hotel, the windows didn’t work and there was no door handle, but the driver played terrific african samba music and serenaded me in between outlining his run-ins with over-enthusiastic police officers and government officials.  He also only overcharged me relative to the locals by about 50%, such a kind heart.

The streets are lined with big new 4WDs and some gleaming buildings – this is a town clearly awash with oil money.  The highlight of which is the presidential palace.  I have been warned not to take photos of anything, especially the presidential palace, as the police don’t like potential spies.  So I don’t have my own photo – but you can check it out on google.

I set out to visit ‘all’ of the tourist attractions (the lonely planet guide to Libreville lists two :-)).  Saw the presidential palace, and tried to visit the arts museum but it was closed.  The only other tourist attraction is the folk sculptures along the waterfront, which were relatively interesting.

Beachfront sculpture
Beachfront sculpture
Beachfront sculpture probably inspired by the presidents investment in the Tour d'Africa which is suppose to rival the tour de France
Beachfront sculpture probably inspired by the presidents investment in the Tour d’Africa which is suppose to rival the tour de France
It was a good albeit sweaty 10k walk there and back, and the locals were surprised to see me walking, everyone takes shared taxis everywhere.    Feeling a huge sense of achievement at having completed the tourist activities I retired to the pool for the afternoon.   I had contemplated the beach in front of the hotel, until on closer inspection I realised it was actually the rubbish dump.
Didn't inspire me to sunbathe
Didn’t inspire me to sunbathe
Note on ecotourism .  Gabon is unique amongst African nations, as the president created a 13 park network in 2002 which cover 11% of the country in 2002 (the highest percentage of land conservation in the world).  This kicked off a spate of investment in ecotourism and camps.  However, most of the investors in eco tourism have subsequently exited,  citing corruption and bureaucracy issues that were making it impossible to run businesses.  I had originally planned to visit Loango national park – a much heralded wild life destination with gorillas and surfing hippos.   However, it proved impossible to do so in any reasonable way as an independent traveller, but if you have a group together you might be able to get the logistics sorted.   Check out loango-safari.com.

The other Congo!

May 8,  Mikhail’s Hotel, Brazzaville, Republic of Congo

A lovely day wandering around Brazzaville in the Republic of Congo – the formerly french one, a.ka. Congo Brazzaville (not to be confused with the Democratic Republic of Congo – the formerly Belgian one, historically called Zaire).

It was weird arriving here yesterday, the flight was 40 minutes early, and I had to wait in the arrivals area for the hotel shuttle.  I waited in a crowd of people, and not once did anyone harass  me, offer me a taxi, or try and sell me anything……,  truly weird and totally unheard of in any African airport!  I commented on it to a couple I met on the plane when they came out, and they wryly noted that there are some benefits of visiting a totalitarian state where the president has been in office for 26 years, people are too scared to cause any trouble.    This was reinforced today in a 4 hour walk around town!  I did have some friendly locals say hello as everyone was out taking their Sunday walks, but in the same way as they would in NZ.  The only two people to bother me the whole time were two kids asking for money, and they were promptly despatched with some shouts from a security guard at the gas station I was walking past.     I am not sure I am in an African capital city!!!

There are not a huge amount of tourist attractions in Brazzaville.   As it was Sunday, I popped in to see the Basilique Sainte Anne of the Congo – a modernist church built by Roger Erell.  While it was nice, I was more impressed by the local ladies in their colourful finery.

Basilique Sainte Anne
Basilique Sainte Anne

Then a nice walk along the corniche for 6k watching all the other locals (including a ladies walking club) out walking, jogging and cycling.  I stopped by the  Memorial of Pierre Savorgnan (the founder of Brazzaville, pic above). Then kept walking over the new 15 August 1960 bridge which has just been finished.

Newly completed bridge
Newly completed bridge

From the corniche, you can see across the mighty Congo river to Kinshasa.  – historically proudly referred to as “Kin La Belle” (Kinshasa The Beautiful) but now dubbed “Kin La Poubelle” (Kinshasa the rubbish bin) given how dirty it is.  Brazzaville and Kinshasa are only 1 mile apart, and you can go between the two on an easy ferry ride, with a lot of paperwork.

View of Kinshasa on the right and Brazzaville on the Left
View of Kinshasa on the right and Brazzaville on the Left

Finally, a bit of retail therapy to top up my food supplies, with a visit to the Geant Casino hypermarche.  I love that in all the former french colonies, from Vanuatu to Senegal, you can always find a french supermarket with brioche, rillettes and poulet roti.   The humidity and 35 degree heat defeated me by lunchtime, so back to the hotel to do some laundry and take a nap.

P.s spoke too soon!  the officials at the airport didn’t let me down when I was leaving – they were back on corrupt form, asking me to buy them cokes in exchange for clearing my bags through security!!!!