“Looking Is For Free!”

The journey through Malawi and Zambia to the half way point of our tour, Livingston, was my least favourite stretch of the entire trip (apart from several good evenings in campsite bars.) This was because I found the main highlight – Lake Malawi – disappointing. It’s the world’s eight largest lake, so on paper it should be interesting, but the water was murky, the beaches weren’t anything special, it was a mosquito magnet, and we encountered the largest, most unpleasant and persistent swam of flies known to Man. To my mind,

the campsites in these countries were those that fell into the ‘pointless stopover’ category.

We did however take the opportunity to hone our bargaining skills at local curios markets. I thought time-share reps in Tenerife were a pest until I met the traders on these stalls! They would try to shake your hand, ask your name, engage you in conversation about London (whether you lived there or not), follow you like a shadow around their stall and generously exclaim: “Looking is for free!” The phrase hapana sante – no thank you – came in handy. Some of the wooden carvings and paintings were stunning but surprisingly not that cheap, even after shameless haggling. However, we discovered that they were keen for part-payment in the form of virtually anything Western, from women’s fashion magazines, hairbands, batteries, clothes and pens. I felt like a complete fraud, touting around an old black hairband and cheap blue biro, but sure enough these were deemed worthy of exchange for a bracelet. Baggage allowance permitting, it would have been sensible to pack an old pair of jeans because clever negotiation could swiftly convert these into a beautifully carved wooden table!

Aside from the Lake, it was nonetheless fascinating to travel through the endless stream of rural communities and see the dwellings change from the tin-rooved shacks of Tanzania to the neat, round huts of Malawi. I had hoped to see something of the urban landscapes too, but the Acacia Africa itinerary only included cursory visits to the country’s capitals, Lilongwe (Malawi) and Lusaka (Zambia), namely to upmarket retail parks on the outskirts. These evidently serve as the recreation and shopping destinations of the privileged. Obviously it is debatable how much we could read into our short perusal of the two cities’ retail parks, but I can say that Zambia was the first place where we didn’t feel like fish out of water. We weren’t stared at for once (there were other white people around), the spoken English was easily understandable to us, and there were even some flashy cars in the car parks! It felt distinctly more international. I was naively taken aback to see these complexes awash with familiar brands that I hadn’t realised were so global – Spar, Subway, Nando’s, BP petrol stations (in Zambia) and numerous Barclay’s Bank cashpoints (differing from those in the UK by the presence of a heavily armed guard!)

Zanzibar: A Kind of Magic, innit

Waiting for the ferry to Zanzibar, we had time to wander to a nearby commercial centre to escape the scorching heat and indulge in our first urban retail experience. It was pretty much like a Western shopping mall (with Western prices), including a supermarket (Spa!), pharmacy, various cafes and fast food outlets. It was strange being in a relatively familiar environment in such an unfamiliar culture. Overall, Dar appeared industrial and bustling, and I was glad to get on the ferry bound for the more relaxed shores of the ‘spice island’, Zanzibar.

We arrived in Stone Town and ambled (as best one can with a backpack) through a maze of narrow streets and alleys to our hostel. Zanzibar’s residents look very different to mainland East Africans because the island is predominantly Islamic, so most people wear traditional Muslim clothing and headdresses.

The town appeared quaint in a rather shabby way, with its white-washed ancient buildings and mosques standing alongside bustling bazaars and restaurants catering for the tourists. The food we had on Zanzibar was delicious, mainly Indian which made a change from our diet on the tour so far. The popular night food market on the waterfront was definitely worth a visit, and we sampled chapati, a tasty East African and Indian flatbread eaten with grilled meats and salad – basically a kebab!

Strangely, I was the only one who was excited about being in Freddie Mercury’s birthplace! I managed to find a small window in our hectic schedule to sneak off and visit the house where his family used to live (sad, I know). Disappointingly, it has been turned into a museum totally unrelated to the musical legend and only a cheap plastic notice on the wall outside testifies to the significance of the house! For geeky fans like me, I’m sure they could make more of this marketing opportunity.

One of the (only) must-do’s in Zanzibar is the Spice Tour, which is a guided bus tour of the island’s highlights. For me, the most interesting part of this was visiting a spice plantation and seeing how cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon and ginger are grown. You know that things are a little desperate when a tour is padded out with such ‘sights’ as a windblown tree! We trailed around a few other supposed landmarks but really Stone Town is the cultural centre and other than that, beaches are what draw people to Zanzibar. Just a shame the sun wasn’t out!

Actually, our guide himself was rather more memorable than the tour itself. We had a sinking feeling as he introduced himself as ‘Ali T in the Bus’, and launched into a bizarre half African, half Ali G routine, peppered with rhyming slang and ‘innits’. His disconcertingly dead pan delivery gave a few of us the giggles (well, me anyway) which was a bit embarrassing, especially in a church we visited. I’m sure the Zanzibar tourism authority wouldn’t be best pleased at the guide’s description of the Sultan of Zanzibar having frequent “comfortable times” with twelve different “Me Julies”! This surreal tour was topped off by his sidekick hissing random questions about Britain at me - “Manchester United, they’re from London, right?”

The Contrasts of Tanzania

Dar Es Salaam
The diversity of Tanzania is phenomenal. As if the abundance of wildlife and national parks weren’t enough, the country also boasts Mt Kilimanjaro, superb beaches on the mainland plus the exotic island of Zanzibar. But before we reached the first coastline of our tour, we had to traverse Dar Es Salaam – giving us a glimpse of yet another facet to this remarkable country.

Traffic-clogged Dar was one of the biggest culture shocks so far, especially after having been off the beaten track for a while. We were warned that it could take a couple of hours to drive through the city, and sure enough the urban sprawl seemed to extend for miles before we even got anywhere near to the centre. Driving in Dar requires superhuman hazard awareness skills.

The moment the traffic slows down sufficiently, street vendors converge on the cars and dodge in and out of the lanes, tapping on windows and trying to sell their wares. Our elevated position on the truck put us out of their reach, so we were thankfully removed from the dizzying scene below. One major crossroads took us at least fifteen minutes to cross, with four lanes of hooting vehicles seemingly ignoring the lights as well as the ineffectual traffic officials.

Furniture for sale on the pavement!

Just as our driver was about to take his chances and launch into the chaos, we were horrified to see a beggar with no legs start to drag himself across the tarmac in front of the revving traffic. The second he emerged from the front of our vehicle, we thundered across the junction and could only hope he got across all lanes safely.

It was a relief to reach our destination that night. We camped on a fenced off section of beach, ready for our ferry crossing to Zanzibar the following morning. It was a beautiful and tranquil bay, but we were given a gentle reminder that you just can’t walk around on the beach alone (as a white foreigner anyway). I’m pretty sure that this was the first time in my life that I had ever camped on a beach and fallen asleep to the soothing sound of waves breaking on the shore.

Life as An Overlander

With our East African safaris over, it was time to become properly acquainted with our nomadic life on the road. It transpired that there were only eight of us (the hardcore!) who were travelling the entire route down to Cape Town, and we would be joining a new group as well as changing trucks and tour leaders at the half way point - Victoria Falls in Zambia. I was actually quite pleased about this, as three weeks is quite a long time with one group (no offence, fellow overlanders) and two separate tours would make my time in Africa seem longer.

Everything we needed was carried on board the truck. Camping and cooking equipment was stowed in the sides, and we each had a large locker on board for our backpacks. Keeping lockers tidy and organised became an art form (that I never properly mastered) so that we didn’t have to take our backpack off the truck every night. Being a ‘participation’ tour, we were divided into teams and had a daily rota of duties - cooking, washing up, packing and truck cleaning. One of the tour leaders did all the driving, but they shared responsibilities for food purchasing, meal planning and general organisation.

Just Passing Through

There were some awfully long days spent on the truck. I knew that there was a lot of ground to cover – that is the definition of an overland tour, after all – but sometimes we couldn’t help but feel our destination was a little pointless. This was especially the case between Tanzania and Zambia where several sites were simply stopovers on our journey to the next ‘highlight’. We looked forward to the locations where we would be spending a couple of nights, or at least arriving by midday, so that we could do some activities and feel more settled. Physically the tour wasn’t really demanding enough, but psychologically it was unexpectedly so.

One of the stunning campsite locations
That said, it was constantly fascinating to see the changing landscapes out of the window. After leaving Tanzania, the scenery became arguably less diverse and spectacular until we reached Southern Africa - Namibia - which was stunning and so totally unlike anywhere I had seen before. Although we didn’t have long at most of the sites, one of the great benefits of overlanding is that the itinerary is well planned and stops are often in fantastically remote, tranquil and breathtaking locations.

Most journeys proved eventful in some way or another. Those dozing in the truck were frequently awoken by our driver hooting wildly at animals in the road – or indeed locals. We got lots of shouts and waves from children as our strange truck full of white people passed through their community. In Malawi, we wondered what was happening when an entire village appeared to be sprinting along the main road towards us. Apparently another overlanding truck that stowed its luggage on the roof had somehow shed some mattresses on the road and this was like manna from Heaven for the villagers, racing to claim the goods. Sometimes the tour leaders bought provisions from stalls by the side of the road in rural areas – such as firewood, potatoes etc – and a feverish scramble would break out as the vendors fought to secure the business of lucrative bulk-buying overlanders!

In East and Central Africa, it was generally getting dark by the time we arrived at our campsite so the first task was always to put up our tents and grab our mattresses from the truck before light disappeared. Usually there was very little time to ourselves once we arrived, especially if we were on cooking duty as everyone would be hungry (we built up a surprising appetite whilst sat on our backsides!) It became a feat of timing and organisation to fit some hand-washing and a shower into the evening, leaving enough time for socialising around the campfire or in the bar. Our first question at the campsite was usually “Is there hot water?!” but often the electricity was sporadic, or the fire to heat the water wasn’t lit, so we braved cold showers.

Food on the tour was excellent and surpassed all my expectations. If anything, some of the meals were over-ambitious and it might have been quicker and easier to opt for less complication creations. Aside from braais (BBQ over a fire), we had lots of meat and game dishes served with pasta, rice or a local staple such as the aptly named ‘pap’ in South Africa. In addition, a great selection of side dishes were on offer, like roasted squash and salads. Highlights included a delicious kudu stew (a type of antelope) concocted by tour leader Blessed, roast chicken with cauliflower and cheese sauce, lasagne (created by Fiona on the BBQ, incredibly) and homemade butternut squash soup. We were also introduced to a few ‘overlanding specialities’ such as cabbage with peanut butter and a bizarre dish of banana, tinned peas, mayonnaise and condensed milk - which we suspected was a way of using up ingredients rather than a recognised recipe!

The most talked-about dish of the trip - for all
the wrong reasons

Up, Up and Away!

I had not done a hot air balloon flight before and decided that the Serengeti was an ideal location to try it. So I treated myself and booked a sunrise flight along with a few others in our Acacia group. We had to get up just after 4am and my first surprise of the morning was being told by one of the group that there was a herd of buffalo loitering in the darkness right near the ablutions block. Nothing like a buffalo in close proximity to get me moving quickly in the morning! We were picked up from our campsite and taken to the hot air balloon centre where we were briefed on ‘boarding procedure’ in time for a sunrise take-off.

I had never seen a hot air balloon close up and didn’t realise how big they were, or that we had to climb into our allotted two-man compartment with the balloon on its side! As you can imagine, it wasn’t an elegant procedure but I ended up successfully wedged in, arm muscles killing me as I held on for dear life, and making small talk with a stranger to whom I was getting far closer than I’d have liked! After what seemed like an age, a roaring sound indicated the flame was lit above us and we were deafened and singed for a few minutes before the basket jolted, shook and began to lift upright.

We took off at speed and soared above the Serengeti as the sun rose. It was a beautiful, tranquil sight and I felt privileged to see the day breaking from this marvellous viewpoint. The pilot talked us through how the balloon was controlled and deftly slowed, accelerated or dipped to vary our flight. Seeing the vast plains stretching away to the horizon in every direction certainly made us appreciate the scale of the Serengeti. We spotted several giraffes below us and also startled a herd of elephants which started stampeding away from the balloon. I particular enjoyed sweeping down so low that we were clipping the tops of trees!

The morning was topped off by a delicious champagne breakfast served under (a very apt) Acacia tree. The fresh fruit platter and cooked breakfast at waited tables was our first taste of extravagant luxury in a while, and made our balloon experience even more worthwhile!

Roughing it in Tanzania

Following the Mara expedition, we returned on the
tortuous roads to Nairobi and finally boarded the Acacia truck that would be our home for the next 6 weeks. As we began to get used to truck life, we headed towards Tanzania where our safari experience was to continue in the Serengeti and Ngorongoro. Tanzania immediately felt distinctly different. The scenery became more spectacular and varied, and although the rural settlements were still visibly poor, it didn’t seem to be on quite the same scale as Kenya.

To cross borders in Africa, we had to get out of the truck and go into immigration offices to have our passports ‘stamped out’. Then we walked across a weird no-man’s-land into the entry country and be ‘stamped in’ (and sometimes pay a visa fee). This process usually involved lengthy waiting around in queues, unexplained delays and being hassled by dodgy-looking locals claiming to be currency exchange dealers. The Malawian border made the others look civilised though. A local man accosted one of the guys in our group, explained he was seeking a wife, offered his fleet of tractors in exchange for one of us girls and started choosing his ‘favourite’!

We were all looking forward to round two of game viewing, and were excited to leave the truck in Arusha and set off again in small groups to the Serengeti and Ngorongoro. The former is a region that encompasses many national parks and game reserves, and the latter is a Conservation Area which features a 100 sq mile crater formed millions of years ago when a volcano collapsed. I found the Ngorongoro Crater a magical place, with its amazing diversity of terrains including forests, canyons, grassland plains, lakes and marshes.

But it was our arrival into the Serengeti that became one of my most memorable moments in Africa. We drove deep into the plains at sunset and came across a misty lake with the low
sun reflecting in the water. On closer inspection, we realised that it was full of hippos
wallowing in the water and lazing on the banks.  It was an almost mystical scene as we took in the vastness of the area, the beauty of the sunset and the eerie silence punctuated by hippos splooshing as they submerged.

Unexpected Visitors

Overall, this trip was a different and more raw experience than the Mara. The regions are less touristy, although the reserves themselves are more regulated. Drivers had to stick to the wide tracks, meaning that wildlife was often a great distance away. Powerful zoom lenses and binoculars were certainly the order of the day. Wildlife seemed more abundant in the Mara, however we did see more lions in the Serengeti and overall I preferred the wild, expansive and more natural feel to the Tanzanian reserves.

Our camps in the Mara had not been fenced but they had been guarded by rangers, whereas here we were at the mercy of East Africa’s wildlife – and it was making its presence felt! When we first arrived at our campsite, we found some unexpected visitors in the shape of two large elephants.

They had evidently got hold of some foam mattresses (not belonging to our group thankfully) and were tossing them over their backs. It was an intimidating sight and we left on our evening game drive hoping they would disappear before we got back. During the night it was best not to think too carefully about what might be happening outside! When we awoke, we found a herd of zebra making their way through site and all stood still patiently until they were gone.

The trip was also more ‘natural’ from a sanitation point of view. We had been warned that there would only be longdrop toilets and no showers for 3 days (unless you wanted to pour a bucket of cold water over yourself) but hadn’t grasped quite how filthy and cold we would get. In fact, my feet and clothes haven’t been quite the same since. At night, all food and (bizarrely) toothpaste had to be locked away in the vans because they attract animals like bushpigs (which we did hear snuffling about during the night). Panic and giggles broke out in my tent as Gayle and I found a rogue packet of peanuts when we were getting ready for bed! I had to make a quick run to the vans to dispose of the potential bait. Overall though, roughing it in the Serengeti was an incredible experience – and also helped the group bond in our mutual struggle for sleep, sanitation and sanity!

Easing into Camping

In theory, our Mara trip should have eased us into camping as we stayed at a permanent tented camp with catering. We had camp beds and even a toilet and shower in a separate ‘ablution’ compartment at the back! This sounds civilised but for some reason I found it more of a struggle than our later bush camping escapades. Partly this was due to my inbuilt aversion to early starts, as the trip initiated us into getting up before sunrise (from 4.45 onwards). It is never a joy to stumble around a tent at this time, using a head torch, in the cold and under constant threat from mosquitoes!

This was the first time I had ever slept under a mosquito net. 

My tent mate Gayle modelling the mosquito net
Either there was a hole in the net or the mozzies had been on the attack at dusk, because I awoke on the first morning to find a large bite on my ankle. Clearly I needed to ramp up my anti-mosquito precautions! My tent mate Gayle, who I was to share with for the next 3 weeks, had to endure my evening ritual of applying a concoction of DEET products, from body spray (an interesting aroma) and DEET impregnated wrist and ankle bands (an attractive look) to an electronic mozzie zapper balanced on my pillow! Nothing quite like a toxic halo of chemicals to send you off to sleep. I think I won the battle though – mosquito bites were thankfully few and far between from that point onwards.

The Mara experience also taught us to get moving very quickly in the mornings (getting up even earlier obviously wasn’t an option!) Nobody wanted to be the one keeping the group waiting, so mornings tended to be a very minimal and rushed affair. Huddling in our warmest clothing, muttering reminders to each other to take our anti-malarial tablets, we would pile half-asleep into the safari vehicles and set off to witness the splendour of sunrise over the savannah.

On return to camp in the evening, we were introduced to the ritual that would become very familiar on our African travels - setting up chairs around a campfire and enjoying our evening meal together by firelight.

The Mara - Simba and Friends

I chose an organised tour for the majority of my time in Africa. After much deliberation, I had opted for a 43 day ‘overland’ tour with a company called Acacia Africa, which would take me from Nairobi in Kenya to Cape Town in South Africa. In between, we would travel through Tanzania, Malawi, Zambia, Botswana and Namibia. ‘Overlanding’ is the budget version of a group tour – it involves camping most nights, cooking together and covering long distances in a purpose-built truck that can ‘off road’ for authentic travel experiences!

I was really excited about starting the tour. Around 20 of us convened early the first morning at a hotel in central Nairobi, where we met our two tour leaders - Fiona and Blessed - and were briefed on the first few days. We wouldn’t board our truck just yet, instead we were setting off in minibuses to the Masai Mara for a full-on East African wildlife safari.

To get to the Mara, we endured hours of hideously bumpy roads in our minibuses that were ill-suited for such terrain. Thankfully it was worth it once we arrived.

We went out on an evening game drive and were overwhelmed at the abundant wildlife we saw within minutes of entering the Mara gates. I won’t forget out first sightings – zebra wandering along next to the track (they seemed elegant, beautiful and timid creatures), a giraffe ambling along in the distance, and then a herd of elephants right next to our vehicle.

We learnt to look for vultures as they indicate that a lion kill has recently taken place, and sure enough we came across a flock swooping down to devour some vile and stinking offal! The ripping and tearing noises that accompanied their scavenging were truly repugnant.

However, it was incredible to witness such awe-inspiring creatures at close proximity.
Over the following days, we ticked off the revered Big Five – lion, leopard, elephant, buffalo and rhino – and even had the dubious honour of seeing the Ugly Five! - vulture, spotted hyena, wildebeest, warthog and marabou stalk (known as the Undertaker).

Given their unpleasant feeding habits, these five appear to be rather short on personality as well as looks! I could forgive a hyena its snarling appearance if it perhaps had other appealing qualities – but its vicious whooping and shrieking early in the morning is pretty fearsome!

Mostly the animals seemed surprisingly oblivious to the numerous safari vehicles hot on their heels – sometimes over ten would be tracking a pride of lions – but the Mara appeared woefully unregulated. Vehicles were driving off the tracks and into the grassland, stopping only a few feet away from the animals (hence my pictures of lions right next to our vehicle) and drivers would radio each other about animals’ locations. In some cases we even saw drivers revving engines to startle the animal into a performance for the tourists.

How the Other Half Live

I spent the first morning chatting to people in the hostel – many of whom were also waiting to start an overland tour, like me – but soon realised that there was no way I was going to stay within these gated confines for another full day. The guidebooks had hinted that there wasn’t exactly a plethora of traditional ‘sights’ in Nairobi. However, studying the activity book in the hostel, I was impulsively drawn by the idea of a visit to the local slum, Kibera. In for a penny, in for a pound! More than a quarter of Nairobi’s population live in this neighbourhood – an estimated one million people – despite the area only covering 2.5 square kilometers! So I recruited a couple of other travellers from the hostel, and we arranged for a guide to pick us up the following morning.

Kibera, with the new housing in the background
that residents don't get because of corruption
Having feared the very thought of coming to Nairobi, Day Two saw me stroll out of the fort-like hostel compound and towards Africa’s second largest urban slum. No taxi to take us there – we would be walking in with the locals. Our guide was an inhabitant of Kibera and assured us that we would be safe as long as we stuck with him and didn’t take pictures of people without asking. Still, I was surprised at the casual nature of this visit. As we ambled down the road from our hostel, we joined a steady stream of locals all headed towards Kibera, some in suits and carrying briefcases, some in rags without shoes. Looking at the residences we were passing, it became clear that living inside fenced and alarmed enclosures is obviously the norm (for the middle and upper classes). We passed gated apartment blocks that would not look out of place in smart suburbs of London and neat, colourful bungalows with beautiful gardens but fronted by high barbed-wire fences.

It turned out that Kibera was a mere ten minutes walk down the road (which might explain the tight security measures in the area). I don’t remember reading that on the hostel website! The road soon changed into a wide dusty track, lined with people selling all manner of goods on make-shift stalls or tarpaulins laid out on the ground. They were flogging anything and everything – from grilled corn-on-the-cobs, gigantic avocados and mangoes, potatoes, coal, Manchester United shirts (!) and a range of what might generously be described as bric-à-brac (the most random selection of electrical items!). As Kibera opened up in front of us, the paths became muddier and we gazed at the filth and squalor of our surroundings. The housing consisted of stand-alone mud huts with tin rooves or corrugated iron shacks in terrace-like formations. We were walking on rubbish and sewage – layer upon layer of rubbish that forms the community’s foundations.

Amidst the evident poverty, we were surprised by the presence of electricity pylons and televisions, and even in an African slum you cannot escape the global craze for mobile phones, ringtones and accessories. There also appeared to be an obsession with Manchester United, Chelsea and Arsenal – which I later found out is not just confined to Kenya! As we trudged deeper into the heart of Kibera, I was struck by the way that people were simply getting on with their daily lives around us. There was hustle and bustle everywhere – people doing washing, preparing food, selling goods etc – and music blared from stalls or bars, creating a certain vibrancy. The adults mainly ignored us (apart from the odd shout of ‘hello white woman!’), and young children in filthy clothes ran up to us in hoards, wanting to hold our hands and screaming “’Ow are you!”. Only one child begged from us, but we were under strict instructions not to give handouts that “perpetuate the begging culture”.

Somehow I had imagined the slums to be ‘no-man’s-land’. But our guides spoke of paying rent and utilities. Apparently, after Kenya gained independence in the 60s, Kibera was declared an illegal settlement but it continued to expand nonetheless, and the landowners started renting out dwellings to a far greater number of tenants than legally permitted. These days, there are supposedly slum ‘upgrading’ initiatives run by the Government to improve housing and sanitation, and of course organised aid work. Actually we saw scant evidence of this. There was a brand new toilet block (paid-for facilities that apparently nobody can afford to use) and on the horizon, cranes indicated the construction of modern housing. But our guides said that corruption is rife and the rich landowners simply take the new houses.

We were invited into the house of one of the residents –  a man in his 30s with HIV. Our guides told us that around half of Kibera are HIV-positive (although that doesn’t seem to tally with online reports that state around 20% – a shocking statistic anyway). We squeezed through the jagged iron door into a dim, small room with a bench, bed and curtains partitioning them from their neighbours. As we sat there, it was unnerving to hear the noise of their neighbours through the curtains going about their daily lives. With his wife and baby next to him, the man told us briefly about his life, which was a depressing tale of various diseases, going blind, not being able to work, eating only one meal a day and being ostracised by his family because of HIV. Despite his situation, he frequently stated defiantly: “I do not have AIDS – I have HIV and I’m on the tablets”. Our guides told us afterwards that there is a huge social stigma attached to HIV despite the vast number of people infected, and also denial about how it is spread.

It seemed we were expected to ask questions, but like my experience with the Rwandan man on the plane, we simply felt uncomfortable. For instance, I didn’t know whether the residents referred to their own community as a ‘slum’. Sadly it was a relief to leave their hut. We began to make our way out through the mud and filth, and I remember thinking it was strange that we hadn’t encountered any animosity as we were so obviously out of place. But I was very glad to have seen an area so far off the tourist track, and it would be interesting to compare Kibera to the townships we would see later in South Africa.

Karibu! Welcome to Africa

The first culture shock that hit me when I arrived at the hostel was the security. We pulled up outside a massive fortified wooden gate where I expected to be dropped off, but we were driven through this and right into the hostel grounds. I was slightly taken aback to make out a high perimeter fence surrounding the whole place, and centry-like guards on the main gate. Clearly the security risk that I had heard so much about was very real.

On that first night, it was so cold that I wore virtually all the clothes I had brought with me including gloves to go to bed! In my room, the next African reality presented itself – the light switch didn’t work. The following morning it was explained to us that there is strict power and water rationing in force because Kenya is officially in drought. From Day One in Africa, hot showers and electricity became luxuries.

This was also my first experience of staying in a youth hostel, and definitely surpassed my expectations. It had nice facilities – especially given the circumstances beyond their control – and a friendly atmosphere, with everyone having recently arrived and seeking the company of like-minded fellow travellers. It proved easy to meet people, chatting over breakfast or in the dormitory. Even though I wouldn’t be doing much independent hostelling for another six weeks, after the end of my organised trip, it was a very promising start!

Nairobi – Please Drive Carefully

As the plane began to descend, I felt my nerves return and was inexplicably unsettled by the fact that it was dark outside. Coming from mid summer in Britain, somehow I hadn’t considered that nightfall would be at 6 o’clock in Kenya. It crossed my mind that this would make my forthcoming camping trip a rather different experience to what I had imagined, and was thankful for having packed my torch! At customs, we had to sign various declarations that we were swine flu-symptom free – which inevitably brought on a coughing fit! – and over an hour later we emerged through Arrivals and stepped onto African soil. Immediately another myth was dispelled – it was downright cold!

I was relieved to spot a driver holding a sign for The Wildebeest Camp - my hostel - and I got into the taxi with a young French couple. The driver swiftly taught us an essential word – Jambo! Hello in Swahili – and then we sped off into the darkness of Nairobi. My abiding memory of this journey is the driving, which proved to be a good introduction to the anarchic situation on the roads in East Africa. The region has the highest number of fatal road accidents in the world and it is not difficult to see why. As we approached a major roundabout with cars criss-crossing haphazardly, some without headlights, five young men pushing a broken down jeep ploughed into the traffic to much hooting and shouting. A couple of days later, I was to see the aftermath of a horrendous head-on collision in the early hours of the morning, where a Mercedes had somehow ended up on the wrong side of the road and had smashed into a lorry coming the other way.

In fact, most of our journeys in the coming weeks would be marked by shockingly bad roads – some under construction as we drove on them! - overturned lorries, pedestrians walking into the road or refusing to move out of it, cyclists swerving into us – enough hazards even without jay-walking animals!

One of many crashes we saw en route

My First African Experience

I was still excitedly waggling my feet in the acres of legroom and ransacking the freebie bag when an imposing African man plonked himself down beside me. He leaned over me (in what I couldn’t help considering a clear violation of my personal space) and loudly introduced himself as a humanitarian fund-raiser from Rwanda. A very surreal and uncomfortable conversation ensued. He fired a startling array of questions at me, as if I were the oracle of all things British - from the constitutional status of Scotland to the origins of Greenwich Mean Time! I ploughed on valiantly but harboured an uncomfortable suspicion that this educated and well-travelled man was purposely trying to expose how little the average Brit appreciates their history and cultural origins…certainly he couldn’t have done a better job.

He referred frequently to Europe’s complacency about living in peaceful times, with many of us taking for granted the personal freedoms and opportunities in our daily lives. Just as I was feeling increasingly uneasy, he mercifully turned his attention to his homeland. This was a real wake-up call for me about the reality of Africa’s recent history. He talked passionately in a mixture of English and French about Rwandans’ daily struggle for survival, in a country still healing and rebuilding after years of civil war. I have only hazy memories of TV images from the genocide in 1994 in which an estimated one million people were slaughtered within a three month period. Faced with somebody who has lived through such unimaginable horror, I struggled to know what to ask without sounding crass. This was the first of many such instances in Africa where I realised I had no point of comparison and no idea what might be appropriate questions.

Despite Rwanda’s dark past and huge challenges that remain, I was in awe at this man’s sense of national identity, commitment to the future of his homeland and his compatriots. The comparison to the way I had falteringly attempted to convey a sense of British identity was striking. I began to feel less aggrieved by his implication that most of us remain oblivious to ‘how the other half live’ and thought how self-indulgent and carefree my life must seem to him. Our conversation was an apt reminder that I must make the most of this trip that my Western lifestyle has afforded me.

I’m also glad to have provided him with one anecdote to add to his international fund-raising speeches. It transpired that the amount of money BA had offered me to fly the following day was the same amount required to build a house in Rwanda for 10 people – a sobering thought.

Aug 6 - From Norwich to Nairobi

I admit I was nervous as I waited for the shuttle bus from my hotel at Heathrow. Nervous about leaving my job, my house, my friends and family, about embarking on this trip of a lifetime on my own, nervous about flying to Nairobi….so nervous, in fact, that I ate my way though the breakfast buffet as if it were my last meal, totally lost track of time and ended up being late for check-in!

When I did finally make it through the doors of Terminal 5, lugging my shiny new, full-to-bursting backpack, the official at the BA check-in desk appeared more flustered than me. It seemed that every other passenger on the plane had checked in online – rather humiliating. Combined with my lateness, they had drawn the conclusion that I was a ‘no show’ and had re-allocated my seat! My rising outrage swiftly turned to surprise as the BA man proceeded to offer me 600 Euros plus money for a hotel room if I agreed to travel tomorrow. In hindsight, this would have been a very sensible option given that I was worried about having spare time in ‘Nairobbery’. But having meticulously planned this day for weeks, I insisted on boarding the plane, so after much tut-tutting and paper-flapping, he turned back to me and muttered: “Ok – you’ve been upgraded. Don’t try this again.”

So with slapped wrists, I found myself lounging undeservedly in Business Class, congratulating myself on this auspicious start to my journey to Africa. And if I’m honest, I did briefly consider whether I should adopt this check-in strategy for my entire trip!