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Tanzanian Trekking

Posted on 14 December 2010 by Amateurs

One of East Africa’s most established tourist destinations, Tanzania is the country that brings you the postcard pictures of Africa that you’ve always imagined. Whether it’s getting up close and person with the animal kingdom on a safari, the charm of the Masai, the allure of Zanzibar or Mount Kilimajaro it becomes apparent pretty quickly Tanzania more than lives up to it’s reputation.

Tanzania
Capital: Dodoma
Population: 44 million
Economy: GDP (PPP) – $53 716 (84th); Per Capita $1416 (156th)
Human Development Index: .531 (151st)
Exchange Rate: USD$1 = 1500 Tanzanian Shillings
Sporting Trivia: Tanzania’s only two silver coloured Olympic medals were won in the 1980 Moscow Olympic games on the track. Their football side hosted Brazil in the lead up to the 2010 World Cup, going down 5-1 in a friendly.

>>> Traveller Information: You’ll find an abundance of travellers in Arusha, all ready to head off into the Lion King style Africa that we all imagine. Tanzania is pretty tourist friendly, cheap prices, low value currency and incredibly friendly local people. Another great thing is that there are plenty of opportunities to socialise (drink) with locals and other travellers, which is a great opportunity to find out more about Tanzania and get some inside secrets. Zanzibar has all sorts of tourists and all of the ferries are packed daily as Zanzibar is incredible and is set up to cater for the regular influx of tourists with beautiful resorts and also small lodges in the heart of old town.

Visa Requirements: We didn’t want to travel thousands of kilometres to Tanzania without a Visa so we headed to their embassy in Maputo, Mozambique. The original visa we required cost $50 but after issues changing money, as the embassy didn’t like old US notes, we short changed it for a much cheaper transit visa. We rolled the dice on the Tanzanian visa in the end but we managed to enter the country twice on this visa and didn’t have to pay anything on top of the $30 visa we got, despite a thorough inspection on the second entrance. Win.

Learn the Lingo: English is the european language that is spoken here. One of the greatest things about Tanzania is that locals challenge you to speak their largest local language, Swahili. Spoken by 50 million people and it’s probably our favourite language we came across. It’s the language of ‘The Lion King’ and you’ll become accustomed to phrases like “Mumbo Jumbo” and talking to your friends ‘Rafiki’. Our advice here is to get out there and greet as many people as you can and you’ll share many a smile with Tanzanians.

@ Mbeya
The transport hub of Southern Tanzania, Mbeya is packed with two things – trucks and bars. We arrived pretty late, watched some football and took off first thing in the morning so we didn’t really get much of an insight into this city.

How did we get there: A long day coming up from Nkhata Bay changing mini buses a couple of times. We had some major dramas at this border crossing with money changers ripping you off. We got across the border hot and frustrated with the bus up to Mbeya taking about 2 hours – standing room only. We arrived pretty late to a hectic bus station where you’ll find plenty of touts who will help you find accommodation and we reckon it’s probably best just to choose one dude and get a hand, especially if like us you are wrecked after a long day of travel. Afterall, bus stations and transit points are not the nicest places to be loitering around in after dark.

Where did we stay: We followed the lead of a rasta tout to a place directly across the road from the bus station as we were taking off super early the next morning for Arusha. The three of us grabbed a two bed room for incredibly cheap, about $10 total a night.

Getting a feed: For not much more than $1 we were able to grab some local rice and meat off the main strip.

On the town: This was our location for the World Cup Final. We found a good local bar and for some reason the owner loved us and shouted us copious amounts of beers.

Learn from us: When crossing the border into Tanzania from Malawi do not swap any currency on or around the bridge. It’s no man’s land and there is an elaborate system of hawkers working together to systematically offer tourists varying rates of exchange before eventually stealing your hard earned cash never to be seen again. Yep, we got stung and we’d like to think of ourselves as some pretty hardcore hagglers.

@ Arusha
Arusha, is the gateway to the safari sights of Tanzania. Situated close to Serengeti, it’s home to many Masai and as a transit point for tourists, Arusha is a great place to find your feet in this incredible part of the world. You’ll be greeted with open arms by people all over town in Swahili, so make sure you brush up on the basics.

How did we get there: A lazy 20 hour bus trip from Mbeya on a big coach was the option we went for. This bus did cost a bit more than a few other options but was reliable and considering the distance of the journey it is probably worth the 45000 Shillings ($30) as it’s the most direct and fast option.

Where did we stay: A late night arrival left us at the mercy of the touts at 11pm. We jumped in a taxi who took us to the hostel but it was a bit too pricey. We then got dropped off at Michel’s Place which got us a 3 bed room for 15000 ($10) a night. This was a pretty basic place amongst the back streets but did the trick for the three of us. We had a bit of a heated disagreement over prices with the taxi driver but it was all sorted in the end – always keep your cool.

Getting a feed: There are plenty of samosa stands throughout town and most of the bars around town will also sell good meat and pap dishes to suit your taste buds for not more than $3.

Out on the town: There is a distinguishably up market area of town where you’ll find most of the tourist offices and a few nice hotels. This isn’t where we went out, instead, we chose to hang out with locals in bars along the bumpy backroads. Picnic Bar might look seedy but at least it doesn’t disappoint in delivering on its seedy charm and a night out here wouldn’t be complete without a few beers in Shivers just across the street which is a mix of live music, beats and all sorts of dancers.

Difficulties: Getting rid of old US notes was hard here. It seems to be the case across East Africa, any US notes before 2000 are pretty hard to get changed into local currency. So have a good look at any notes you exchange to make sure you don’t get stuck with anything prior to the year 2000.

@ Dar Es Salaam
Dar, as it’s often known is the largest city in Tanzania and despite no longer being it’s capital is home to much of the nation’s administrative infrastructure. It’s the place to fly into from most international destinations and is your gateway to Zanzibar.

How did we get there: A 9 hour bus ride from Mombasa got us here. We then jumped across town and onto a ferry to get us to the place we were staying 5 minutes across the bay.

Where did we stay: We took the ferry from Dar which costs about 30 cents to get across the bay to the strip of beach resorts and tranquil camping places. The Mikadi Beach campsite we ended up at came highly recommended with BYO tent and other accommodation options . It was also a place that numerous safari vans stop at with their groups. The driveway is rather long and dark so be aware of your own security and just jump on a moto or taxi right at the gate just to be on the safe side.

Getting a feed: As soon as we got off our bus from Mombasa we were on the hunt for food and we stumbled across some cheap chicken and chips for 4000 Shillings ($3.30). We’re not going to lie, the street food here is pretty special to be honest combined with the charm of the outdoor setting friendly faces running the stalls.

Unfortunately, we tried to recapture the magic on our final night but most stalls was closed for some reason on a Tuesday. There are plenty of street side restaurants that will give you the normal Tanzanian specials at an unbelievable price.

Out on the town: Our night here was spent at the beach backpackers across the bay and then our final night in Africa back on the mainland was spent getting a haircut, grabbing a feed, a few final Kili’s (the nickname for Kilimanjaro – a local Tanzanian Beer and yes it’s good) and then a night stay at the airport.

@ Stone Town (Zanzibar)
This is definitely one of the gems of Africa. Zanzibar is a much heralded idyllic island and it’s reputation as an island getaway is much deserved. This is an island paradise you must get to, the mix of African and Arabic cultures is something to behold. The tranquillity of Arabic cobbled streets and the groove of African culture meet here to give you an amazing experience.

How did we get there: There are reasonably cheap flights but the best way to get a feel for Zanzibar is to cross the beautiful waters by ferry from the mainland. There are about 4 each way daily, the trip will set you back USD$35-40 for the 2 and half hr trip. There’s not really any point trying to negotiate the prices, you’ll see they are unfair but we got nowhere after numerous attempts and countless hours.

Where did we stay: We rocked up without accommodation. Don’t panic, although year round accommodation is close to fully booked here, the touts will find you with a room. We followed one though the charming alleys of Stone Town to a pretty good place for the 3 of us where we scored a 3 bed room for about USD$12.50 each after a bit of negotiation. Zanzibar is known for high priced rooms so we were happy with this and came with breakfast.

Getting a feed: Where do we start? This place was an island paradise for our taste buds. The daily staple has to be the ‘Zanzibar mix’ which is a spicy soup with some vegetables, spices and meat thrown in. As night falls comes the real challenge at the seafood markets, which are designed for the tourist market. It has a great energy and is a lot of fun with all sorts of seafood available and sales techniques on display. The prices vary a lot and is a whole lot more than what you’d pay at most other local spots. Sample a few treats and take some great photos, but if you are up for a bit more movement on prices head back late at night to try pick off a few bargains as they close up. Across town is a great local market, with sting rays getting cut up on the ground, spices and whatever clothes you might need or just get for the sake of it.

Out on the town: Zanzibar’s drinking spots come in all shapes in sizes from luxurious bars stocked with patrons sipping champagne watching the sunset over the water, to the to local bars stocked with Kili beer, bottles of spirits and patrons still watching the sunset over the crystal clear water. You’ll find some interesting characters around town, but it is definitely a good night out here and the island lifestyle gives life to a pretty relaxed atmosphere to drinking at least at these establishments.

Difficulties: No, you can’t negotiate the ferry price. Despite a thorough search it is pretty hard to do. The tickets are divided into local and foreign classes.

>>> The Amateur Low Down
Highlight: We can’t go past Zanzibar and everything that goes with it. What a way to finish our African experience. We begun in the Arab north in Agadir so it was fitting to finish up in the Arabic influenced Zanzibar. Zanzibar comes with breathtaking beaches, a unique culture and charming cobbled stone streets. Zanzibar posses a culture that is quite different to many on mainland Africa, it’s a place where Arab traders never left, and it was pretty hard for us to take off as well.

Around every corner is a postcard worthy photograph and if you’re like us and love the challenge of getting a bargain price, you’ll find plenty of chances to hone your bargaining skills here.

Biggest Surprise: How much safaris cost. Well it wasn’t a total shock, but it’s the sort of thing you hope you can get for much cheaper when you get there and get locally sourced in the formation. To Tanzania’s credit they have an organised tourism board that ensures environmental and social standards are kept up and give a decent living to locals.

The cost to go on ‘safari’ at Ngoro Ngoro, Serengeti, Masai or any other parts will generally start at USD $160, the disappointing thing is that the daily cost doesn’t seem to drop on longer tours. We didn’t make it out on safari in this part of the world, we had seen the wildlife in other parts of Africa, and along the road, our dodgy cameras didn’t justify another trip out there. If it’s the thing you want to do there are plenty of reputable places to get on a safari when you arrive, just do a bit of shopping around and ask some questions.

One thing you can do to break down a barrier: Ok, so we couldn’t go through this whole time without mentioning one of the biggest shocks in Africa. Albinos in Africa. It was something we never expected and you’re probably reading this thinking we are having a joke. Albinos face discrimination on a number of fronts, some traditional beliefs still mean that Albinos are killed for their body parts. This practice is now outlawed but it remains a major issue for the hundreds of thousands of Albinos in this part of the world. There are an estimated 200,000 Albinos in Tanzania who still suffer from discrimination, although promisingly we also during our time in Africa saw a few on TV as members of Parliament.

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East Africa’s Heartland – Kenya.

Posted on 12 December 2010 by Amateurs

It stands out as one of the symbols of Africa, it’s Kenya and it’s not only the economic engine room of East Africa but it’s lined with some incredible beaches, delightful foods, incredible people and inspiring wildlife. Kenya is a must for any African adventure.

Kenya
Capital: Nairobi
Population: 40 million
Currency: Kenyan Shilling – $1 – 60Ks
Economy: GDP (PPP) – 60 410 (81st); GDP Per Capita $1570 (145th)
Human Development Index: .541 (147th)
Sporting Trivia: For Kenya, it’s all about the running events. We were there when Nairobi was gearing up to host the African athletics championships. In this place, athletics news and track and field stars replace the football champions on the billboards and in the local newspapers which is something refreshing.

>>> Traveller Info
Entry Requirements: The visa cost has been reduced since the political turbulance of 2007. The visa will cost US $25 and is available at the land border with Tanzania. You can also travel to other countries that are part of the East African Community without needing a multiple entry visa. Keep a close eye on developments here as the East African Union is working towards developing a one Visa fits all program, which will be sensational for travellers.

Learn the lingo: 85% – Kenyans speak great English and in big centres like Nairobi you’ll hear it spoken alongside the local tongues like Swahili.

@ Nairobi
Getting there: We stumbled across the shuttle service we ended up taking when we were inquiring about the price of safaris. We got a shuttle from Arusha, Tanzania and the 6 hour trip set us back 22500 Tanzanian shillings ($20). Even the public buses were costly and the road to reach the border doesn’t have a great deal going for it aside from the excessive dust. It is however a pretty cool trip though as you do get to see a lot of Masai herding their cattle across the plains and of course Mt Kilimanjaro as a side setting.

Where did we stay: Nairobi International Youth Hostel. It’s just outside of town up the hill past the park. This place is pretty busy, it comes with the normal ‘generic’ hostel feel which is a bit of a downer, but they have everything you might want – internet (albeit overpriced), food and even a hairdresser if you are in need of a trim. A room in a dorm will set you back 600Ks. It is a pretty good place but the walk up the hill breathing in the toxic fumes of traffic congestion will give your lungs a work out, that is of course is you don’t pass out.

Getting a feed: Central Nairobi delivers on the food front. There is an abundance of restaurants serving chicken, burgers and chips. You can get a pretty massive feed for around 100-120 Ks ($2). The only downer to these places is that they have watered down the sauces to the extent that they are barely sauces anymore and are more like flavoured water. Nairobi also has some stylish places near Westlands if you want to live it up. You will also find a lot of Tusker supermarkets around to stock up on anything you might need.

On the town: It’s pretty great to be honest. Nairobi boasts perhaps the most developed and enjoyable nightlife scene we came across outside of South Africa. Head to the Westlands and you’ll be impressed by it’s lounge bars like Havana where locals rub shoulder to shoulder with expats. After warming up there the only option is to duck around the corner to Black Diamond which is one of the best nightclubs we have come across in Africa. This is also a favourite place for prostitutes, but from our experience, they’ll be all drinking Heineken so it doesn’t take much to work out who they are (we’re pretty sure they are supplied free by the bar). Either way they are nice enough and naturally are up for a chat. This place is a must when in Nairobi as you can dance and down quality Kenyan beers until your hearts content.

Traveller scene: There were plenty of people coming through Nairobi whilst we were in town. You can easily tee up any sort of organised African Safari you’d like. There were also a number of conferences on whilst we were there, including the scouts, and also a number of Africans from other parts of the continent in town looking for work in this economic hub. If you happen to meet any expats, make sure you ask for some local knowledge, the guys we met pointed us in the right direction and a few free beers never goes astray when you’re on the road.

Highlight: Have we mentioned we had fun in Nairobi? It was less about the sightseeing here for us and more about getting amongst the nightlife after a long couple of weeks on the road and in more remote places – Black Diamond for it’s total diversity is something that we’d say is a must.

@ Kisumu/Kodiaga
Getting there: It was an early morning bus from Nairobi for us to Kisumu. This was about a 6 hour journey and cost 1000Ks ($14). A pretty smooth ride through the Ruhr Valley and then up through the tea field lined hills.

Where did we stay: We stayed in an incredibly cheap hotel on the back end of town. It was so cheap we’re not even sure if it had a name to tell you about. You can get a double room for under 1000Ks here and it’s in the quieter part of town, walking distance to the shared taxi rank.

Getting a feed: Is this part of the world, can you go past 5Ks samousas? Fried crisp thin pastry loaded with anything ranging from beans to beef – So good.

On the town: Kisumu has a few good places to have a bit of fun and get on the beers. There is a great rooftop bar run by a couple of Dutchies where you can relax for a few and watch the sun come down over Lake Victoria. It’s slightly overpriced but that’s because it’s where you’ll find any tourists in town.

Traveller scene: Pretty quiet. Kisumu acts more as a gateway between Kenya & Uganda than anything else. There are a few people around in transit but most foreigners you’ll come across have been working around here and are involved in volunteer projects, which means if you want to get involved – here’s a great place to start asking questions.

@ Mombasa
The jewel in Kenya’s crown, fastly becoming one of the most sought after tourist destinations on the East African circut.

Getting there: It was all aboard what is known as one of Africa’s best train rides. We splashed the cash and went for a 2 person sleeper ($51) to make this overnight journey. The real draw of the train was the fact that it goes through a National Park where you can hope to catch some wildlife as the sun comes up. We didn’t but we did see the smiles of locals along the way. If you take this train – please don’t do what some others did on the trip and just throw lollies at the children. It is one of the more disappointing things you come across, as it is unsustainable for local communities and dis-empowers these communities by undermining social structures.

Where did we stay: We spent one night beachside just north of Mombasa where you can go fishing amongst the picturesque mangroves of the area. The Beach (Mtwapa Beach) is a nice relaxed place but is a bit far from everything. Although the guys will get you on a moto to the main road for 50Ks (80cents). Our second night we moved into Mombasa itself and came across Mombasa Backpackers. Now this is a cool backpackers in a massive building and run by a great bunch of guys (It’s not a pub joke – a Swede, a South African and a Peruvian). We paid 600Ks a night here ($9) and its definitely worth it, these guys will go the extra mile for you and it really fosters a great relaxed atmosphere amongst the guests.

Getting a feed: Cheap Samoosa came up trumps for us again here in Mombasa. At The Beach Lodge we also tried some traditional masala chips and challenged the locals to spice them up – they failed. We’d mention Palm wine here as well, yes we know it’s a liquid, but sheer volume of bugs and body parts constitutes at least for us, a mention in the food category.

On the town: We were hanging with some Dutch girls who had managed to woo a local, who was obviously a big spender and enjoyed a bit of a party. It may have been midweek but a few of the places we came across here were absolutely massive and you could tell draw a crowd every time the weekend rolled in. Mombasa Backpackers also sold beers so you wouldn’t go without.

Traveller scene: It’s Kenya’s busiest tourist city. Mombasa’s city life and its accessibility to nearby beach are the big draw cards here. There were a lot of people around, again many who had been doing volunteer work in the vicinity and were putting their feet up for a while and would could blame them – the water is crystal clear and the weather is amazing.

>>> The Amateur Low Down
Highlight: For a genuine experience it has to be our time spent out with one of our good friends in western Kenya in a small village. Spending just a few days in this small village was a great chance to get an insight into life in a small African community and also see first hand some of the work that NGOs do in conjunction with locals. Out here we saw the start of a school building happen, watched a local soccer tournament, found a pub with no beer, ate seven thousand samoosas and hung out with our African brothers enjoying every moment on the local taxis down the local laneways.

Biggest Surprise: Kenya has a reputation for being one of the most popular tourist destinations in Africa, and for good reason. The majority of these though still come through on organized tours. So Kenya, despite it’s place as one of the most visited destinations is still a surprisingly big challenge for independent travelers wanting to travel on a budget. So be prepared, it won’t be easier than other places in Africa as you might expect, but that of course for us is part of it’s charm and we invite you to do the same and take up the real challenge.

One thing you can do to break down a barrier: Our visit out to Kisumu and beyond was all about seeing the great work an old mate was doing with the local community near the Ugandan border. We’re in the process of putting together a video to show what a difference you can make to the lives of some of the most impoverished communities filled with the most amazing people. There’s no greater reward you can ask for then the smiles that accompany you on a daily basis wherever you go. We also met the crew from World Youth International who had organised a football day to bring communities together whilst also beginning a discussion about the risks of HIV/AIDs.

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Making tracks in Malawi

Posted on 18 October 2010 by Amateurs

Nestled between East African giants, Malawi might be small on the map but don’t be fooled into thinking it’s one to miss. Situated on the one of the largest lakes in the World, Lake Malawi this place is big on heart and this place has plenty of things to keep you busy.

Malawi
Capital: Lilongwe
Population: 15 million
Currency: Malawian Kwacha. AUD$1- 130K
Economy: GDP (PPP)- $11 394 (137th); GDP (PPP) Per Capita- $885 (172nd)
Human Development Index: .493 (160th)
Sporting Trivia: We arrived in Malawi to the sound of football on the radio. It was an international match down the road in Lilongwe as part of the country’s Independence Day celebrations. The Malawian side kept the home fans happy with a 2-1 win over Lesotho on this occasion celebrated with the sounds of vuvuzelas filling the sky across the capital.

>>> Traveller Info
Malawi was a welcome break after the transport tribulations of Mozambique and you need to look no further than a spot by the Lake if you’re after a place where you can recapture the vibe after a tough week of overland travel on the road.

Visa Requirements: One of the easiest African Visas to get your hands on – Victory. Most western nations don’t require a visa to enter Malawi and getting into the country is a pain free process, you’ll be done within about 5 minutes and on your way.

Learn the Lingo: 75% English speaking – Malawi is pretty easy to get by in with English alone, however, you’ll learn a few of the basics in some of the local languages, which is something that is certainly appreciated by Malawians.

@ Lilongwe
Lilongwe beats in the heart of Malawi, a mix of all the good things that come with a big city and unfortunately the all too familiar downsides as well. If you head to Old Lilongwe, you’ll find the nicer areas in town, but across the town is where you’ll find all the action and the hustle and bustle of city living in East Africa.

How did we get there: From Tete in northern Mozambique we took a shared taxi to the small border crossing. If you want to head east first, there are far more taxis heading to the border crossing at Bilantyre, however you will need another van to the border from there. After clearing immigration, we boarded what we would consider an illegitimate wagon which took off in a cloud of smoke to escape the border post patrols. Immediate departure and an hour long trip to the capital set us back 400K ($3).

Where did we stay: Mufasa’s Backpackers Lodge. You can’t go past this place simply on the basis of its name. The place was actually full when we rocked up as it doubles as home to US Peacecorp volunteers in town. The hostel and the volunteers were good enough to let us throw down a few mattresses in one of the dorms for 1300K (AUD$10) a night. It’s a pretty nice place in Old Lilongwe which has a few bars around and a cool atmosphere and plenty of the basic facilities such as the Net café next door.

Getting a feed: Cheap meals proved difficult to find in Old Lilongwe amongst the expat scene, and for any local street food or produce you’ll need to get in early before the sun sets. Our advice is if you are over in the main side of town satisfy your hunger while you can and you’ll save a fortune. If like us you arrive late, you’ll find some value amongst local Indian flavours – naan and chapati which were by far the cheapest snacks we could find on any menu – 200K ($1.70).

Out on the town: A little place called Diplomat Bar is the main hangout in the area. Midweek you’ll find a crowd at the hostel which has a pretty chilled little bar with fair priced drinks at 160K ($1.40) for Carlsberg.

Traveller scene: We were smack bang in the middle of the expat part of the town, which continues to grow. Lilongwe is one of the fastest growing cities in Africa in terms of population and it is beginning to show with many new businesses opening and the local infrastructure coming under pressure to cope with increasing demands.

Learn from us: You need to be on your toes at the Lilongwe transport centre – we were picpocketed trying to salvage our bags amongst the confusion but thankfully recovered the sum. The area around the bus stop right in the heart of town is pretty hectic and can be fairly dodgy so rather than wander aimlessly just try grab a taxi to get wherever you need to go.

@ Nkhata Bay
One of the better known spots along the banks of Lake Malawi, Nkhata Bay is a great little stopover as you head north. If you want to get a feel for life in small village, go for a paddle in the lake and just relax, then this place is a must.

Getting there: Despite the recommendations (AXA or National Express) we opted for Restoration Express service from Lilongwe for 100K cheaper than the others. The 1200K ($9.20) trip took a while to get going and it’s a longer trip than anticipated – longer than you’ll get told. For spiritual folk you also have the joy of a bit of a biblical sing alongs and then the awkwardness when the hat gets passed around. This bus takes you as far as Mzuzu and from there amongst the darkness, despite what some overly eager taxi drivers might say, shared taxi’s do still run (the last around 7pm) and you can grab one to Nkhata Bay for 400K ($3) for an hour trip.

Where did we stay: Big Blue Star Backpackers. This is a pretty special place, the location itself is something else. Add to this professional staff who will do anything for you along with cable tv, free wireless and the extras of free canoeing and snorkelling and you’re set for a great stay. There is camping, privates and dorms available – dorms set you back 700K ($5.40).

Getting a feed: All accommodation offers some food options. Some of them expensive, others have reasonable value. One of the best things about Nkhata Bay is how close the town is so you can wander in and eat with the locals. Right across Malawi, you can’t look past the street food of choice – Chips/French fries with salad. A plate will set you back 100K (80cents) and we won’t lie – it‘s a real treat. It can be slightly hard to find a great deal of variety so if you want to knock up your own sandwiches you can buy massive avocados and fresh produce for almost nothing at the markets in town.

On the town: Follow the locals to the bars, although perhaps don’t follow them too closely as many of them are more than merry by 9pm. It still remains a bit of mystery as to how this happens as you don’t actually see much alcohol consumption. Part of the answer though lies in the ‘shake shake’, an alcoholic mix you’ll find packaged in a milk carton style box. It was described to us as warm lumpy milk which tastes like vomit – but something you have to try. Naturally we shaked and baked and we can safely say the vomit description is pretty apt. Nkhata Bay has a handful of good local spots, the biggest expat bars are those in the local hostels depending on the night. All the hostels have small bars and reasonably priced beers if you just want to chill.

Learn from us: Our canoeing skills were terrible, either take the proper wooden canoes or make sure the canoe is fully blown up. We were spinning around in more circles on the lake than a washing machine cycle.

>>> The Amateur Low Down
Highlight: The tranquillity of Lake Malawi gave us a chance to relax before the final stretch in Africa. It provides a perfect backdrop if you just want to relax on its shores or alternatively get out there on the water for a spot of fishing with locals or dive under for some snorkelling. The varieties of tropical fish found in freshwater are truly incredible and something not to be missed.

Biggest surprise: Malawi is a great place for a few beers and even better you’ll be joined by locals. Be prepared though the locals will have gotten a head start and will be pretty jolly by 9pm. A mixture of beer and shake shake seems to do the trick quite nicely. It’s a great atmosphere here, so head out for a few beers, you’ll be surprised and have a great chance to talk with the locals.

One thing you can do to break down a barrier: Malawi faces many significant issues and it’s people are on the whole desperately poor. It is a country though that you get the feeling that things are heading in the right direction in terms of development and social projects.

One issue that continues to be ignored is on the front of human rights. Homosexuality remains illegal in Malawi, and many are still jailed for their sexual orientation. Recently as a result of a large public campaign for their freedom, the Malawian President pardoned two people from life imprisonment due to their sexual orientation. However, the spectre of harassment remains for this couple and many other Malawians are still forced to hide their personal lives for fear of imprisonment.

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Mozam-to-the-bique

Posted on 10 August 2010 by Amateurs

Mozambique struggled for nearly 20 years with a bloodly civil war, the scars of which are still evident in some parts. Today, though Mozambique is a growing destination for tourists particularly for its golden beaches, incredible coastline and water activities.

Mozambique
Capital: Maputo
Population: 23 Million
Currency: The Metical is the currency. The conversion rate is $USD1- 35M or $AUD 30.
Economy: GDP (PPP) $18 600 Billion- 121st; Per Capita (PPP) $934- 170th
Human Development Index: .402, 172nd
Sporting Trivia: Maria Mutola is was the gold medallist in the 800m women’s race at the Sydney Olympics in 2000. At the 2008 games she became only the 4th track & field athlete to appear at 6 games. She is the only person to win any medal for Mozambique, she also picked up bronze in 1996.

>>> Traveller Info
The traveller scene is booming after the World Cup, predominately in the south of the country. Venture north to navigate the sheer size of Mozambique and you’ll find it pretty difficult as the roads still require a lot of work. A few days travel here can easily turn into more than a week long adventure as we experienced first hand.

Visa Requirements: It may just be the largest visa in the World, you’ll need 2 full pages. Most nationalities can get this on entry and coming in from Swaziland this only took us about 20 minutes along with 1 passport picture and 380M ($13).

The Lingo: Speaking English will get you around about 50% of the time. It was colonised by the Portugese so a few lines of Portugese will go a long way when you are trying to buy some seafood or ask for some peri peri sauce around town. In Maputo you will be able to get away with English but elsewhere in the country it is definitely more than useful to read up on the basics. Swahili, and Makhuwa are the most spoken indigenous languages of Mozambique.

>>> @ Maputo
The beating heart of Mozambique has a cool vibe wherever you are. It is clearly the most ‘western’ city in Mozambique and you can live it up whilst in town. This metropolis offers much more than the normal city sights but also serves as gateway to a number of golden islands. It is a must do if you are in the east of Southern Africa to feel the difference between this former Portugese colony and the rest of the region.

How did we get there: Shared taxi from Manzini (Swaziland). The trip took about 5 hours and cost 70R ($10). You will be offering plenty of opportunities to get rid of any Swazi currency you have, this is the sort of currency you don’t want to be left with.

Where did we stay: Fatima’s Place on Mao-Tse Tung Avenue. This is a pretty well known backpackers in town and has a self catering kitchen. There are private rooms and a dorm room will set you back 400M ($14). Yep – it’s overpriced.

Getting a feed: We were ready to be knocked over with peri-peri chicken and seafood. The stuff is available but you will really struggle to find any street food. The best value we found was a small take away place selling ridiculously large beef burgers for 25M (70cents)

On the town: In a word – Coconuts. This place has to be one of the greatest nightclubs in Africa. That’s right this is where the rich and famous hang and you’ll see why. It is a massive complex which holds easily over 1,000 party goers, has 3 seperate dancefloors, a pool complete with swim up bars and blasts beats all night right on the beach. It’s open Friday and Saturday nights and it’s where you need to be.

There is a great jazz/karoake bar Gil Vicente that draws a big crowd all through the week. Why? Because you can jump on stage and jam with the guys with a reggae jam session on Saturday and Tuesday night it’s home to Mozambique’s biggest Karaoke night.

Learn from us: In this part of Africa the currency of choice is the US Dollars. This is what you want need to use to pay at embassies. There are plenty of change officers around just make sure you get notes after the year 2000. Nobody wants anything to do with a any note that is pre ‘99. This applies it seems all across the east of Africa.

It is a requirement to carry your passport with you at all times. We do not encourage breaking the law, but if for some reason you forget, or don’t want to take your passport for security reasons then calling an interested police officers bluff and saying let’s go the station seemed to do the trick when we were stopped for money.

Traveller scene: Maputo was packed with travellers of all descriptions. A lot of people had come up to check out southern Mozambique after the World Cup. You can head out to the major spots and find travellers along with plenty of expats working in Maputo.

The highlight of a trip to Maputo is heading down to the pulsating fish markets. Their are a bunch of touts here and you will pay more than at a more local place, nonetheless it is a cool experience buying some prawns at the market and taking it to a restaurant to get cooked up in delicous local sauces.

>>> @Tofo
Boasts beautiful beaches, and chilled out beach vibe what more can you ask for. Unfortunately, this beachside paradise was spoilt by local police officers. Our most horrific story. Hence, we got out of the place as soon as we could bound for destinations further north. We hope this problems with local police corruption can be soon fixed to ensure this place gets the tourist attention it deserves to ensure people get to see Mozambique at its best not its worst.

How did we get there: Fatima’s runs a minibus for travellers at 5.30am to Tofo. The trip took us about 9 hours, including wasting about an hour on the edge of Tofo as the police decided to check every single bag. The cost was 600M ($20). You can do it cheaper by getting a mini-bus to Inhambana and on to Tofo but it might be a slightly more comfortable experience for a bit extra to do what we did.

Where did we stay: Fatima’s, yep we were lazy as we got dropped off there. There are other places that are more highly recommended just up the beach. A dorm will cost you 400M ($14).

Getting a feed: Walk into town and you’ll an amazing assortment of fresh foods at the markets. We tried to put together a few basic ingredients but as it turns out this doesn’t really work – it’s more expensive than iheading to a local take-away store. Africa doesn’t really encourage you to cook in when you can find such cheap and normally tastier options on the street. Fatima’s has a reasonably priced restaurant serving cheap sandwiches and salads.

Out on the town: Tofo is home to full moon parties that draw big crowds, although without the Thailand style craziness. We weren’t there for this so normally Dino’s is the bestside bar with the most to offer, unfortunately it was a Wednesday. Fatima’s bar has a bit of a dancefloor and nearly everybody from the surrounding area drops in. Security seems a major issue here and we were part of a major incident that went down this night.

Learn from us: Don’t get there on a Wednesday, for some reason it’s the only night ever that Dino’s is closed.

Traveller scene: Plenty of tourists make the trip up here from Maputo and it’s about as far north as most travel in Mozambique. There are also plenty of South Africans who were enjoying the longer winter break by the beaches.

>>> @Velenkulo
It’s another 8 hours north of Tofo. Velenkulo comes packed with fishing boats, golden beaches and friendly faces with a busy village vibe.

How did we get there: From Tofo we jumped on a shared taxi to Inhambane for 25M (75cents) for 20 minute ride. Then jumped across for a ferry across from the peninsula to Maxixe. We anticipated a ferry service but instead had the more genuine experience on board a small boat to get across the shallow inlet. This was 20M (66 cents) each including the baggage. In Maxixe you’ll find taxi’s bound for Velenkulo and for the most part roads for most of the journey are alright. In saying that, it took us about 7 hours to make it up there.

Where did we stay: Boabab Backpackers was our destination. The international staff here dominate. It’s on the bay where you can walk 20m to purchase the day’s catch and cook it at the in house kitchen. Boabab has privates, camping and some big dorms so take your pic. More impressively there is a good bar area, with pool, local cocktails and local cuisine. Best of all – it’s cheap.

Getting a feed: The markets are a pretty cool spot to get whatever fresh produce you’re after. You’ll find some real bargains if you venture off the main street and combine that with fresh seafood in the afternoons and you’re set.

Out on the town: Our two attempted to get north to Beira at 4am meant the boozing was reduced here. The backpackers had a good bar set up and it’s a good place to start before finding the infamous Afrobar. Make it there and out alive, well, it’s a wild night out.

Learn from us: Book your tickets the afternoon before if you want to head north. Get the information beforehand, as the buses don’t necessarily leave everyday to Beira. So save yourself a 3.30am wake up, get the info right and you’ll only be doing the death early morning walk once.

Traveller scene: Velenkulo, whilst not teeming with tourists draw a crowd. There are 3 or 4 backpacker style options here. When we were there massive groups of Dutch and South Africans making the most of the coast. It’s cheaper than it’s southern rivals and with the village backing onto the backpackers it’s pretty much ideal.

>>> @Beira
Mozambique’s second largest city isn’t exactly known as a tourist destination and nor should it be. It does have a lot of expats working at the city’s large port along with volunteer projects. It serves as a stop on the way to the northern extremities of this country, there isn’t a lot to do here but if you know some people here you’ll have a pleasant stay.

Where did we stay: At a local volunteer’s place who is working with a local school and involved in improving rural literacy on the outskirts of Beira. Accommodation is a problem in town but you’ll have no problems finding ex-pats or local families to put you up.

How did we get there: It was horrific. We took a mini bus. The drive shaft snapped after 2hours in the middle of the desert on the highway. There was a mechanic on board who said he’d never seen anything like it, needless to say nor had we. Not wanting to wait 3 days we hitchhiked on a bus decked out with beds. It was weird and expensive but after 7 hours we made it to the edge of town before getting into the back of a dump truck for the last 5km.

Getting a feed: Head into town, just next to the market and find the best bargain chicken in Mozambique. 50M ($1.70) for a 1/4 chicken and chips with of course peri-peri. We found the best and worst of service here. The next day we just wanted a plate of chips which ended up taking over an hour served icy cold.

Out on the town: Local bars. Cheap beers. Every street. Take your pick and enjoy the Portuguese banter.

Learn from us: Can’t go past 20M (66 cents) for a plate of chips? Neither can we, but be warned this could take over an hour. Luckily enough we had some outrageous Brazilian TV game shows on to make the time fly by. What do they watch in Mozam? Think trans-sexuals, beautiful women, football shoot outs and bad acting and you get the picture.

>>> @Tete
We never anticipated stopping here in our ambitious effort to reach Malawi in a day, however Tete was a pleasant surprise. Set on the banks of the Zambezi River, Tete stands out as a city with a lot of develpment and opportunities for future growth across the board.

How did we get there: We jumped on a bus from Beira at 6am. This leaves every 2nd day so don’t just get up the morning before and think you can just show up. Head to the bus office the afternoon before to grab your ticket. It is a pretty nice bus, although a 2 hour breakdown stopped our progress. It cost about 350M (AUD$12) for the journey. Let’s be honest – transport is not Mozambique’s strong suite.

Where did we stay: Paradise a hotel under renovations adjacent to Sundowners on the highway into to town. A room here will set you back 1000M ($33) for a twin room.

Out on the town: After 10 hours travel where can you find a place to relax? Sundowners as the name suggests is the perfect place to relax with one of Mozam’s finest beers on the banks of the Zambezi as the sunsets. The staff here have relocated from Zimbabwe and jump at the chance to speak English so play your cards right and they’ll even share their dinner with you!

>>> The Amateur Low Down
Highlight: We wanted to like Mozambique, but the police corruption and transport difficulties made it hard. We have to admit we were very relieved to make it to Malawi and exit Mozambique.

In all fairness though, Coconuts nightclub has to be one of Africa’s best and the chance to try out some basic Portugese is something new for us in Africa.

Biggest surprise: To be honest it has to be how hard it was to find peri-peri chicken that is so famous from these parts. Apart from the outskirts of Maputo, street side peri-peri chicken was hard to come by. You can of course grab peri-peri anywhere.

One thing you can do to break down a barrier: We had direct experience with police corruption and crime in Mozambique so it is important we raise this as a key issue holding Mozambique and its citizens back at the moment.

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Our Battle at Kruger!

Posted on 22 July 2010 by Amateurs

It might have been made famous in recent times by YouTube and the battle of Kruger but for the first time in Africa someone actually let us hire their car. Naturally we decided to take it off road and chase Elephants.

This is our battle at Kruger in search of the big 5!

Facts not Fiction
To this point, we’ve shown parts of Africa that people don’t know much about. One thing everybody knows is that Africa is home to spectacular wildlife so we couldn’t miss the big one – Kruger National Park. It’s 20 000 square km’s in size and the brochures like to say about the same size as Israel. It’s the world’s oldest National Park opened in 1898 and it’s home to the ‘Big 5’ along with almost every other animal under the sun.

Forget all the fuss – what’s actually there?
Pretty much everything but as always we arrived unprepared – driving around with no map or directions in a hire car for the first time in Africa. Never ones to miss an opportunity we cut a deal at the gate and managed to get a few hours of aimless dirt track driving in before sunset. Of course we also returned the next morning for a sunrise session.

A gigantic warthog was up first and although he didn’t sing Hakuna Matata he got us into the safari rhythm. 5 minutes down the road and we were amongst monkeys, deers and zebra but we were here for one thing the Big 5 (Lion, Elephant, Buffalo, Leopard & Black Rhino). We didn’t think Buffalo were that exciting so we opted to search for the elusive Giraffe instead on our list of must sees.

So did we have any success?
“Is that a big (insert obscenity here) Elephant?” was how we marked our first sight of one of kings of the safari plain before slamming on the breaks on the dusty track in awe. We know – we’ve all seen an elephant either at a zoo or ridden on one somewhere in Asia but to see one in the wild for the first time – well, it’s definitely one of those amazing moments you’ll never forget. The sheer size of the African Elephant up close and personal is mind blowing and they wandered across the road in front of the car like no bodies business creating the most impressive road block we’ve ever come across.

A few kilometres down the road there’s a tribe of Baboons making the most of the paved road and amongst the vegetation of the savannah standing tall amongst the trees were Giraffes on sunset. Saving the best till last – two Rhinos jostling for 20 minutes as each blow sent sounds thundering through out vehicle.

Back on Track, Day 2 – We hung out with hippos, got a glimpse of Leopards relaxing in the trees on the edge of a lagoon and were amazed at the size of the Buffalo. For a highlight it was hard to go past hearing the sounds of bones snap as an Hyena relentlessly devoured the carcass of an unlucky Antelope. Of course we saw herd of Duke, varieties of Antelope, incredible birds, flamingo like stalks and other animals that we didn’t even know the names of.

We should also mention the countless herds of Elephants, additional Rhino’s, Hippotamous, types of Baboon’s and most other things made famous by the Lion King but that’s just Kruger and that’s just what you’ll see driving around aimlessly any time of day – so we won’t bore you with that.

There was slight frustration though, as the search for the King of the Jungle continues. Try as we might, we just couldn’t find the big cat. We followed the river, went to spots where there had been reported sightings but it wasn’t to be. We will have to try our luck in Tanzania and Kenya to find this beast but we can tell you – they are there somewhere.

Why don’t you just do an organised Safari?
In a sentence we don’t like to spend money. You might think not seeing the king of the jungle gives enough reason to jump on board an organised safari, but there is still no guarantee you’ll see the big 5. Of course you will be with people who know the park well so you’ll have a better chance, but there are boards at rest stops in the park dotted with the day’s sightings.

It might be worth it if you do a bit of research and can stay in the park for a few days which would be incredible but as usual our bank accounts said no. It is about 500-600R ($80-$90) for these safari’s on top of the entrance at 160R ($26). One tour that would probably be worthwhile would be the night time safari which would undoubtedly be an unbelievable experience. For us though, there is just something a bit special about being able to cruise around on your own, with a map and see what you can find.

With no real research after an hour in the park we were driving alongside Elephants and for a couple of amateurs we think we did pretty well for our first crack at this whole wildlife thing so if you’re out there and know a Cheetah or a Lion let them know we’ll be hot on their trail.

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The Swagger of Swaziland

Posted on 10 July 2010 by Amateurs

Traditional, small and nestled somewhere near South Africa is about all most people know about this tiny Kingdom. Swaziland has managed to maintain many traditions but it also has the unwanted record of having the highest rate of HIV/AIDS in the world. Don’t let this put you off, this is It is one of those up and coming stars of the tourist trail with a remote allure and when you’re down in southern Africa it’s a must.

Swaziland
Capital: Mbabane
Population: 1.2 million
Economy: GDP (PPP) $5 874 billion- 145th; Per Capita $5709- 107th
Human Development Index: .572- 142nd
Sporting Trivia: Have only ever recorded one victory in World Cup Qualifiers defeating Togo 2-1 in 2008. Three of their national team play in the South African league the rest turn out for clubs in Swaziland.

>>>> Traveller Info
Swaziland is home to a number of NGO’s and volunteers and combining this with it’s location landlocked between South African and Mozambique you’ll find a great mix of travellers from all over the World – there’s plenty of fun to be had.

Visa Requirements: Gold medal performance, fast, simple and easy. Basically Swaziland’s requirements are the same as South Africa’s, if you can get into South Africa no worries then you’ll be able to enter Swaziland.

Learn the Lingo: 85% It’s an English speaking country so you should have no hassles here getting around but if you learn a few words of Swahili they’ll go a long way with the locals.

@ Manzini & Lobamba Valley
Cruising in past the sugarcane lined roads of the north you’ll feel the tranquility across Swaziland. Manzini is the economic heart of Swaziland and it’s surrounded by a towering mountain range and valley. You can hike in this area and also head off the beaten path and get an insight into traditional Swazi lifestyles and game reserves.

How did we get there: We came in from Kruger National Park in South Africa and it was a pain free crossing. Somebody actually hired us a car – so crossing with a vehicle set us back 50 Rand ($7) in fees. The drive from the border crossing here is pretty straightforward with decent road conditions from to Manzini or Mbabane. If you’ve got a hire car you’ll have to drop it off at the airport just southwest of Manzini. It’s not easy to find so keep an eye out for the tower on top of a hill nestled in the Valley.

Where did we stay: Lidwala Backpackers Lodge. Situated in just off the main highway through the valley. In a word this place is – epic. It’s one of those places where people come for a night but stay for 5. The kind of hostel that’s got that vibe and it’s a winner for budget strapped backpackers as it’s BYO food and drink. There’s always someone in the common area and the local staff bend over backwards to help you out. If you’re there on a weekend the guys run a shuttle to and from the region’s best nightclub – jackpot. In terms of accommodation, there are a variety of options, we went for the dorm option which is basically just a big undercover tent for 120Rand ($18).

Getting a feed: If you’re on a budget head to Shoprite supermarket. We don’t need to tell you what you can buy at a supermarket, but in this part of the World supermarkets have an impressive array of hot foods ready to go at their deli’s.

Out on the town: Superior for Southern Africa. You’ll need to ask around but there is a pretty special tiered nightclub somewhere between Lombamba Valley and Mbanbane. Yes – it was so good we rejoiced in mass celebrations and can’t remember the name. If you stay at Lidwala they’ll know the one and you can almost bet the entire hostel will jam into a taxi with you to get there.

Learn from us: Give Swaziland some more love than we were able to. We could only give it a day of our time before we had to hit the road. It is the sort of place that you could easily see yourself enjoying at a leisurely pace away from the hectic nature of its larger neighbours South Africa and Mozambique and as for the people, well, they’re incredible.

>>>> Amateur Low Down

Highlight: Can’t go past our one and only night in Swaziland. For a backpacker there isn’t much better then when the dynamics at a hostel just work. Collectively the decidion is made to go large and it’s on? This is Africa so what other way to make new friends than to cram into a minivan on route to a random club in the middle of nowhere. Beats in the club and songs outside it’s just one of those nights you’ll always remember ending as it began with boisterously songs such as “The Bonny Bonny Banks of Loch Lomond”.

Biggest Surprise: From most of the main highways you’d be forgiven for thinking you were in North Queensland with the copious amount of sugarcane lining the road. The marketing of Swaziland suggests a completely traditional society, these traditions from our small glimpse remain strong but the Swaziland we encountered was also modern in many more ways that we expected.

One thing you can do to break down a barrier: In Swaziland it is impossible to ignore the impact of AIDS. A driver we spoke to mentioned it as the biggest issue facing Swaziland and he listed a number of people he knew who’d lost their battles with it. This indiscriminate killer threatens Swazi’s and the very social structures that make this the place that it is.

The HIV/AIDS prevalence rate here sits at a heart wrenching 26%, the highest rate in the world. Swaziland sits next to the country, South Africa where nearly 6 million people live with the AIDS. It’s a global killer and every day more than 7000 people contract HIV. This pandemic has torn apart many African communities.

Support the global effort to fight AIDS at World Aids Campaign and demand that our leaders keep to their commitment to stopping AIDS. The focus of this year’s World Aids Day – December 1 is ‘Light for Rights’ to keep the draw attention to HIV and its impacts on human rights.

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The Gabonese Getaway

Posted on 08 July 2010 by Amateurs

If you’ve been in West or Central Africa, you’ve probably only stumbled across this place if you’re in transit but if you get out and stretch your legs, you might find more than a few surprises. Gabon is home to probably some of the richest rainforests in the World and its sunsets would rival any on the West Coast. It’s a favourite for Francophone expats and if you’re in Libreville you can live it up.

Gabon
Capital: Libreville
Population: 1.5 million
Economy: GDP (PPP) $21 106 billion – 102nd; Per Capita (PPP) – $14 318 – 44th
Human Development Index: .755HDI, 103rd
Sporting Trivia: The Amateurs favourite English team, Hull City may have been relegated. One of their strikers over the past few years was Gabon’s Daniel Cousin. Cousin has now moved on to Larissa FC in Greece on loan.

>>>> Traveller Info
There are plenty of expats around town so you’ll have no problems getting by. The accommodation prices are proof that this place is not made to cater for backpackers. If you are travelling through West and Central Africa it’s a good place to have a bit of fun if you’ve got the coin.

Visa Requirements: First of all, wear something decent to the consulate otherwise you’ll be like us filling out your visa forms out on the front on the street. The 1 month tourist visa cost us 50 000CFA (80 Euro) and takes 3 days to get back at the embassy in Yaounde.

Parlez- vous Francais? 35%, our last French speaking country in Africa. English is not commonly spoken here as French is the language of choice. On the occasions when were trying to find something we came across somebody who spoke a bit of English after the efforts in French were in vein.

@Libreville
It’s the capital and it’s where you’ll find everything and everyone. Gabon is sparsely populated so there’s no doubt you’ll find yourself swinging by the big smoke if you’re in the country.

How did we get there: We came from Yaounde, first of all grabbing a shared taxi to the border city for 3000CFA (4.50 Euro). During this trip we navigated many a request for ‘fees’ (by fees we mean money/goods for corrupt officials) from 5 checkpoints, dodging and weaving our way to earn the respect of our fellow passengers for not paying a cent.

Once we made it into Gabon it was a 15000CFA (23 Euro) overnight bus to Libreville taking about 13 hours. This ride gets off to a frustrating start with many longwinded police stops – basically one every 15 minutes for the first 2 hours. It is then a rally race through some pretty good roads in intensely lush forest with a heavy fog.

Where did we stay: It’s the thing that kills you about Libreville, the accommodation costs. It is expensive and difficult to find somewhere for a bit of value. Eventually we conceded the battle and went to Hotel Somotel on for 30 000CFA (44 Euro) a night for a room.

Learn from us: We went searching for the place with the cheapest listing – Hotel Liebermann, but to no avail. Lugging backpacks in the humidity didn’t make for a fun experience trying to locate this mysterious hotel. We asked many people around the Carrefour Leon Mba we got nothing but empty looks about this hotel that was apparently located right where we stood. We even phoned them numerous times so if you can find it – please let us know.

Getting a feed: Fortunately, Libreville still delivers on the cheap street food front. A Burkinabe lady was astounded to hear we’d been to her homeland as we downed some generous helpings of her African meals. Whether it’s tasty bread rolls, rice, or beans you should be able to satisfy your appetite for under 1000CFA (1.5 Euro) with some of the best subway like sandwiches on the West Coast.

On the town: The strip along the beach is the place to head. With a number of cool spots in prime positions. We were only there during the week so nothing really escalated but if you are a Libreville local or spent some time there we’ve heard good things so let us know where’s the best spots in town.

>>>> The Amateur Low Down

Highlight: With police checkpoints it takes a while to get going but the rally drive we had to enter the country on an overnight mini-bus was a true highlight. The trip has some great windy roads through picturesque forests and you feel like you’re next to Colin McCrae (a former world rally champion) for around 50km as the drivers battle deteriorating roads, sharp bends and blinding patches of fog. For this stretch sit back, relax and watch the drivers for the most masterfully navigate the potholes through thick fog. Alternatively, it’s probably best to close your eyes and hope you wake up.

Biggest Surprise: The level of development here is reportedly much higher than many other parts of Africa. Whilst the coastal strip reflects a lot of development, evidence of the country’s relatively high per capita income, there still remains a large number of Gabonese without access to basic services. The main road from Libreville to Yaounde is for the most part in good condition but there have been many questions about the siphoning off of funds allocated to fixing this transport route and one 77km section which is unsealed.

One thing you can do to break down a barrier: Deforestation of the world’s forest continues at an alarming rate. We were lucky enough to drive across this nation endowed with wonderful rainforests, covering 85% of the country. 11% of the country has been designated as National Parks. When we flew over it during the day and you can’t help but be struck the sheer scale of the forest below. Across the globe the rate of deforestation is growing due to increased agricultural use, timber products and building. The Billion Trees campaign is just one of many aims at reversing the increase in deforestation and getting decision makers to realise the importance of preserving our forests for local communities and to avert dangerous climate change.

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Cameroon

Posted on 28 June 2010 by Amateurs

This is a land where the jungle meets the beach and English meets French and this is a land full of amazing people, places, nightlife and unbelievable foods.

Cameroon
Capital: Yaounde
Population: 19 Million
Economy: GDP (PPP )- $42, 550billion – 91st; GDP (PPP) Per Capita – $2147- 142nd
Human Development Index: .523, 153rd
Sporting Trivia: Cameroon, probably Africa’s best known football team, like the country itself its football team embodies all that is Africa. Cameroon also boast one of Africa’s biggest stars, Inter Milan’s Samuel Eto’o. The Roger Miller led 1990 ‘Indomitable Lions’ surprised the world when they made the World Cup Quarter Finals, the sort of success that this year’s crop of Lions will be trying to emulate in 2010.

>>> Traveller Info
It’s a place you couldn’t spend enough time – Cameroon stretches from the dust of the east, to the golden shores of the Atlantic and reaches up into the sky with the Mountain of Thunder, Mt. Cameroon. Its economic heart beats in Douala, but Yaounde is where political power is held. Head to Cameroon to chill by the beach with a few beers with reputably Africa’s best beer drinkers, catch a glimpse of jungle as dense as you’ve ever seen and check on your language skills in this bilingual beauty.

To see what it looks like for yourself here’s the Video.

Visa Requirements: Yep it’s expensive. We secured ours at the Cameroon Consulate in Calabar, Nigeria. You can get it on the same day, just spend a few hours watching TV at the consulate with Cameroonians but first you’ll need 17000N (90 Euro), 3 passport photos and a few details about where you’ll be staying in Cameroon.

Parlez-vous Francais? 70% – Cameroon is one of the few countries in the world that bridges the Anglophone and Francophone divide. The country is officially bilingual, although except for a few towns such as Limbe, it’ll be French that you’ll want to bust out when buying a baguette. This interesting mix makes for some controversies, but watching a newscast alternate between two presenters and languages is something pretty cool to see.

@ Limbe
If you’re like us you’ve just come off a rough 5hr ferry ride after a hectic week battling everyone and everything in Nigeria. Thankfully, Limbe is ready made to get you back into the travelling groove, relax and just soak up one of the most picturesque parts of Africa. You’ll find it right on the beach under the shadows of Mt. Cameroon and it is one of the few Anglophone cities in Cameroon which if you don’t know basically means – they speak English.

How did we get there: We got some ferry action. The Endurance ship by Fakoship, the company has had a chequered history but there current model is pretty flash and seems prepared for the waters. It cost us 9500N (47 Euro) for the journey. Yes, it is a bit expensive but there’s bascially no other way to get there and we didn’t want to think how much another Nigerian trip to the border was going to cost us.

Our tip though would be to have a few plastic bags ready as the waves may test your stomach.

Where did we stay: Up a dirt track near the roundabout as you enter town from the immigration point is Victoria Guesthouse. The place has rooms with a bathroom and fan for 7000CFA (10.70 Euro) a night. It doesn’t have any internet as it had been advertised. Frustratingly, one person per room gets free breakfast, worth 700CFA, but you end up wanting more so this going without and hitting the streets for breakfast will probably still be better value. The staff are nice enough, although the bloke wasn’t too keen when he saw the small amount of washing we wanted him to do.

Getting a feed: For breakfast and snacks we can’t go past Mt Cameroon bakery right on the roundabout it’s probably the greatest bakery in Africa with all the sweets you would want. Even better for us was the array of savoury snacks in store which got us through the days.

Without doubt the place that stole the show was Cecile’s fish out the front of Futuris near the Mile 4 Junction in town. Neither of us can think of when we’ve ever had better fish in our lives. For a bit over a Euro you can pick out your freshly grilled fish, and get a plate with onion, sauce and fresh homemade pasta in banana leaves – absolutely delightful. What’s better there is a bar right behind here so you can do the beer and fish double no worries. To be totally honest, we don’t even like fish – seriously, it was that good.

Out on the town: Limbe has plenty of nightlife options, streetside bars pop up everywhere around Mile 4 Junction as the sun goes down. We went to Dreams Dance Bar for a few midweek drinks with background beats and some NBA. Just past the roundabout are a few more bars including Atlanta End and Bula which are noisy but have a good vibe for a few lazy ales.

Traveller Scene: We didn’t come across any other travellers. There were a few other expats around the town. It’s wet season so numbers would be down, we were the only occupants at our hotel.

Difficulties: The clouds of the wet season meant we didn’t don the hiking books and take on West Africa’s highest mountain – Mt. Cameroon. The views for filming wouldn’t have been great so we gave this giant a miss and our fitness level probably wouldn’t have gotten us to the first level you can do in a day. If you want to head to the top of West Africa and you’re here at the right time it’s definitely something that you should do in this area.

Learn from us: You can get internet around town for 300CFA (45 Euro Cents) an hour, this won’t be at speeds where you can get much done. If you need some real internet action then it’s worth forking out for 800CFA at Bifunde Internet Café. You can also connect your laptop to the network here.

Highlight: In 1999 Mt Cameroon erupted, evacuating nearby Buea and much of the surrounding area as lava spewed out and left a trail of volcanic destruction. Our moto driver mentioned how much money he made back then selling volcanic rock, an event still ingrained in the consciousness of locals. The stretch to the west of Limbe is littered with majestic beaches. Just before Mile 11 Beach you can see first hand the path of the lava, here there is a small eco-tourism spot where you can climb up and be struck by the impact of the flow on the surrounding landscape, turning jungle into a path down the mountain of volcanic rock and fresh shoots of growth.

@ Kribi
It has beaches galore, some great value street food and gatherings of locals by the beach every afternoon it’s Kribi and it’s worth a look. We hit it at the start of wet season so things were a bit quiet on the tourist scene but come summer it would be out of this world.

How did we get there: Coming from Limbe we had to go via Douala which is 1300CFA (2 Euro) in a mini bus for an hour and a half journey. You then will have to get a taxi across Douala, you’ll get hit up hard but try and not pay more than 1000CFA across town to Central Voyages. Central Voyages have the honour of being the first form of transport we’ve had in Africa to leave on time, an 11.30am departure meant an 11.30am departure. It cost 2000CFA for the 3 hour journey to Kribi.

Where did we stay: The cheapest place in town the Hotel Panoramique, right next to the market on top of the hill. It’s 6000CFA (9.50 Euro) pretty basic and while we were there their was no running water so it was bucket action. It’s like you’re stepping back in time to the old nursery thyme except neither of us are named Jack or Jill, there’s only a slight hill but you will have to fetch a pail of water.

Getting a feed: There a great street feeds here and for some amazing value. You can get a baguette with 2 eggs, some salami, a bit of vegetables for 350CFA (50 Euro cents) down on the beach or for slightly more on the main road.

Out on the town: The area just near the market has a number of good spots to get on it. We only had one beer at it, but you can’t go past a bar named Tunnel Action III. Down by the beach are also a number of places after about 8.30pm let us know. You’ll have no worries getting a good nights sleep here.

Traveller scene: The end of May is when the place moves into wet season, but there were still some tourists soaking up some last rays of sun. The Lobe Waterfalls was still swarming with touts and with local and foreign tourists getting a glimpse of this special site.

Learn from us: We are still working out drinking habits here. Most waterholes are packed during the late afternoon and early evening. They seem to clear out nearly completely between 8-9pm. Only to refill again come 11pm on a weekend evening. Locals do seem to like to get an early start.

Highlight: The Lobe Waterfalls are a pretty top spot. It is one of the few waterfalls in the world that fall straight into the ocean. After failed negotiations with moto drivers we managed to get a taxi driver to take us the 10km and wait for a bit under an hour for 4000CFA (6 Euro). The taxi option is probably best as it’s a pretty long trip along some bumpy roads. The Lobe Waterfalls are free to explore, with a bit of a beach where the river way meets the ocean. Touts will offer to take you upstream to see ‘Pygmies’, going to ‘see’ people seems bordering on exploitative so we gave that a miss. A quick trip on the Pirogue to get up close to some of the larger waterfalls would probably be worth the money.

@ Yaounde
It’s much more atmospheric than steamy Douala and there’s more happening here than slightly sleepy Kribi. Yaounde seems to get the balance right. We had to grab our Gabonese visa here and for this reason didn’t have our passports with us for a few days. As a result, we laid low for most of our time in Yaounde, but we can tell you every street food spot around Carrefour Nlongkak.

Yaounde is a pretty sweet city. It has a lot to offer for a traveller- cheap, plenty of places for cheap food, bars and a more relaxed atmosphere than many other African capitals. The temperature here is probably more to your liking, definitely a few degrees cooler than the sticky coast.

How did we get there: Frustration! We have no problem waiting for a sept-place or tro tro to fill, but frustration sets in when a company markets itself as having a ‘set’ schedule stuffs around and leaves two and half hours late. Don’t worry, they won’t let you know when it’s leaving so you’ll sit crammed in for the whole time, steaming up. These guys had assured us after we asked numerous times buses leave on the hour every hour – lying is just not cricket and nor is turning a 4 hour trip into an 8 hour day – for those reasons we can’t recommend Transcam. Travel with Kribienne Bus company instead. The prices are the same 3000CFA for a 4 hour trip.

Where did we stay: We went to the cheapest place in town the Foyer International – Presbyterian Church will has beds in dorm rooms for 3000CFA (4.50 Euro). This is still in a pretty good location, but the main problem as is often the case with this sort of accommodation is a 10pm curfew. We then moved down right on Carrefour Nlongkak to Ideal hotel, where the location does match the name. Basic rooms come for 8000CFA (12 Euro) with TV, fan, bathroom and small balcony. Everything revolves around the roundabout, all sorts of food, bars and plenty of transport right on your doorstop.

Getting a feed: You won’t have a shortage of options, if you get chicken just get it whole rather than hacked up as you can have a better idea of which bit you are eating. Our favourite place was a small place just off the roundabout next to Le Buffet where two Sudanese guys will be happy to speak English and go out of their way to get you whatever food you want. While they don’t have a great deal of food and didn’t know how long they’d be there, if you get a chance to talk about the issues they face as refugees it’ll blow your mind.

Back to the food and for the full assortment at the best price – the best feed you’ll find is in front of the pharmacy – look for the guys with the salad spread. For a 1000FCFA you’ll get a massive plate of salad, spaghetti with sauce and some baguette.

On the town: Again, it was all about Carrefour Nlongkak for us. There are plenty of streetside bars. The biggest one we went to is Complex Le Bunker which has all you could want really, outdoor seating, lounges, food, live music, TV’s and a nightclub. So you have plenty of options of where you want to take your night.

Difficulties: The biggest difficulty would have to be the battles we faced to watch Australian Sam Stosur take on the Italian Schiavone in the French Open Final at Roland Garros. We started first at a bar with no problems before station only dropped out mid match. We saw Stosur up 4-1 in the 2nd so we made the mad dash down to the Hilton Hotel. Yes, we were in the Hilton in the executive lounge where we can tell you the views were pretty special but as we know now for Australians the result wasn’t quite so.

Learn from us: Markets. Yes, we’ve seen many a market across West Africa but our budgets have meant for the most part we haven’t been part of the bartering. Head out around Mile 4 Junction, have a chat, look around and test out your negotiations skills to get decked out in a new pair of boots.

>>> The Amateur Low Down
Highlight: Limbe, its surrounding are and everything in it. Limbe, is where we got our groove back after a rough week in Nigeria. Limbe is lovely and relaxing during the day, but lively at night. The humidity may leave you sweating but you know the atmosphere is super cool.

Biggest Surprise: How we managed to beat the calls for bribes on 4 occasions at roadblocks on one day? We told the guys who wanted beers to let us through that it was their shout and we’ll give marks for creativity for the guy who asked for money for his equipment at the office. At the very last hurdle we thought we’d met our match, when one officer said he’d go inside and we could call Yaounde. Let’s say we called the bluff and said let’s go talk.

The phone call never happened, we reiterated the importance of receiving receipts to show our government back home and after 10 minutes we were back on the road and into Gabon. We earned the respect of the bus during the day when we answered zero to money paid. The hardest thing was hiding a smirk as you wait to see what way it’ll be asked for and how much patience you’ll need to move on without touching your pockets.

One thing you can do to break down a barrier: At a street stand in Carrefour Nlongkak we met two Sudanese from Darfur who jumped at the chance to speak English. They spoke of the difficulties they faced crossing borders, dealing with locals who themselves have so little, their exams at school that would go missing or weren’t marked on occasions and the daily struggles that exist.

We’ve met a number of refugees, displaced persons and the stateless along our road in West Africa. Whether it’s Liberian refugee still living in Ghana, Zimbabweans in Togo or Sudanese in Cameroon the plight of displaced peoples is evident in many African countries. Some countries are both recipients of people seeking refuge and also the source of refugees, such is the complexity of the issues facing Africa.

Often people will talk about African refugees ’swarming’ our rich developed Western countries. Talking to refugees here is a reminder that issues cannot be simplified as ‘African’, but rather different situations in different parts of the continent need different humanitarian approaches. There are millions of untold stories of tragedy, unheard of atrocities that force people to flee their countries, divide families and break down community structures. You can break down barriers across borders with courageous desperate people whose quest for safety for themselves and their families have no barriers.

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Nigeria – Oh, Nigeria.

Posted on 05 June 2010 by Amateurs

Nigeria, we don’t know what to say to you.

You are truly a beautiful country with lush landscapes, an economy booming on the back of oil production, but you make it difficult for us to like you and get to know you better. Your country is plagued by corruption, negative environmental and social consequences of this oil industry and as a tourist you feel you are in a constant battle to avoid being ripped off.

Nigeria, a country where you can get nearly anything (for a price), it’s definitely a destination that gives you many things you won’t get in other countries in Africa and it’s for the adventurous.

Nigeria
Capital: Abuja
Population: 150 million
Economy: GDP (PPP) – $315 401bill – 37th; GDP Per Capita (PPP) – $2400 – 145th
Human Development Index: .511- 158th
Sporting Trivia: The Nigerian Super Eagles attained their highest FIFA ranking in 1994 when they rose to 5th place. This year they also made their first World Cup appearance.

>>> Traveller Info
You’ve earnt your stripes if you make into and out of Nigeria. When you talk to other travellers and locals they are normally nothing but excited when you describe your upcoming overland adventures. That is until you mention the N word – Nigieria and this excitement turns to horror stories and pleads to avoid it. As usual, we wanted to prove it wrong. That proved difficult.

This place will try hard to break you – please stay strong and beat it.

Visa Requirements: We teed ours up in Accra (Ghana), as it is meant to be one of the smoothest places to get it. It cost $50USD, along with a bunch of documentation. You need photocopy pictures, travel insurance information, photocopy of your Ghanaian visa, photocopy of Yellow Fever vaccination, onward travel details (we made up own timetable – thanks MS Word), hotel reservations (you can dodgy this up by just printing up the screen for a hotel before you actually book anything). A brief mention of the World Cup didn’t go astray. We got our visa within 48 hours.

You’ll need to play it smoothly with the security guards there as well, they’ll want your numbers and gifts and they’ll want to take them back to your country. It was pretty random – thank you nervous laughter.

Some of the officials didn’t like that we did not get the Visa in our country of residence, so if you can get it wherever you are living then that’ll avoid some hassles with officials once you are in Nigeria. The embassy itself did not raise this as a problem.

Parlez-vous Francais? 85%. It’s English speaking and that means at least one less thing to worry about. Sometimes you’ll have to explain things twice, but the languages barriers are minimal and you can get your message across when you need to.

>>> @ Lagos
A giant of Africa, a true mega city, 6000 people move to Lagos every week. The economic hub of Nigeria, and a place after a long, frustrating day entering Nigeria that we were quick to get out of.

How did we get there: We battled to put it simply. An absolute struggle once we got about 1km into Nigeria. You can get a shared taxi to the border from Cotonou (Benin) for 1000CFA, we wanted to get moving so just paid to have the taxi 6000CFA (9.20 Euro). Then a couple of moto’s took us to the border, we don’t recommend this considering the time you have to wait at the border sorting out stuff and then when you are done demand an exorbitant amount for driving you about 500m – we eventually got it for 400N (2.20 Euro). Then the taxi to Lagos was 1000N (5 Euro) which is a 90 minute journey.

That’s just the beginning though, to get to Lagos Island, which admittedly is right across this sprawling city, our driver took us for 3000N (15 Euro) each. You can get a taxi cheaper, but after the frustrations of the day we didn’t want to stuff around again finding and negotiating another lift.

Where did we stay: Ritz Hotel, names can be misleading, no we didn’t splash out on a flash place by any stretch of the imagination. This place on Lagos Island has very basic rooms with a tv, fan from 3000N, we went for a slightly better model for 4000N (21 Euro). By slightly better we mean the room’s wash basin wasn’t smashed in, the air con was falling through the window and the bath tub was stained brown – oh actually yes it was.

Getting a feed: This is the one thing we still found cheap in Lagos, street food. You can get small meat pies for 150N (80 Euro cents). Best of all as always is meat, beans and rice mix for 300N (1.50 Euro).

Out on the town: Next question. We had struggled all day so once we had eaten we ventured back to the hotel. If you have some cash to burn Lagos has some massive nightclubs where you can do your thing with a sizeable expat community. Our night was spent watching Nigerian news, Nollywood and Miss Nigeria contestants.

Difficulties: Numerous. Let’s move on, when we work out how best to put it – we’ll let you know.

Learn from us: Lagos Island is a fair bit more relaxed than the other parts of Lagos we saw, but still busy. Maybe you’ll settle in to the hectic pace better than us, our introduction to Nigeria was like nothing else we’ve come across in Africa. Give yourself at least an hour to get anywhere if you’re crossing town.

>>> @ Calabar
The capital of Cross River State, also referred to as the environment state, it is clear that the local governments have done a lot to enhance their environmental credibility in recent years. Interestingly also, moto’s are no longer an option to get around Calabar, they have been banned as a form of shared transport and replaced with the safer option of blue taxi’s now plying the main routes. Calabar certainly is a pretty cool city, and if you happen to spend a night at its port before grabbing a ferry you’ll have a blast.

How did we get there: Escaping from Lagos we got an early morning bus with ABC Transport. We booked the afternoon before at a booking office of theirs located in a shoe shop in Falomo Shopping Centre on Lagos Island. Unknowingly, we got their ‘Sprinter’ service which is in effect a mini van that just doesn’t stop anywhere, this cost 4750 (24 Euro) and still took us more than 12 hours. The normal buses are a bit over 3000N and stop along the way so to hazard a guess it’d be closer to a 15 hour hike.

Note: You really should travel in chartered transport with legitimate companies like ABC – they aren’t stopped at any of the hundred or so checkpoints. In Nigeria if you aren’t stopped you’re not going to be stitched up.

Where did we stay: We went to Nelbee Executive Guesthouse, just near the Watt Market, where we got a pretty nice room with air-con, bathroom and tv for 3000N (15 Euro) per person- this was after some negotiations as the room is normally 8500N. This was a bit too much for our budgets, so we moved across town to Jahas Guesthouse, in a much more chilled area and the more basic room came for a more chilled price of 1750N (8 Euro) each. This place is heavily reliant on a generator and during the day they ease up on the power so by about 9am the fan will likely die, so you’ll need to be a morning person and get out and explore.

Getting a feed: You’ll find packet noodles with a twist everywhere. The cook will throw together 2 packets of noodles, an egg, some onion and peppers for 200N (1 Euro) and that’ll keep you going. We funded our trip by eating 2 minute noodles so naturally we lived off them here.

Out on the town: You can’t miss watching the UEFA Champions League final in Africa so we went to Genny’s which was packed out for the event. The best local beer is Gulders which you can get for 350N (1.70), but our beer of choice is Guinness Smooth for 250N. There are many bars around Jahas Guesthouse which are all worth a look.

Difficulties: Don’t really worry too much if you don’t have great information about the ferry to Limbe. Just head down to the port while there is still light on a Monday or Thursday afternoon, find out more about the departures the next morning (Tuesday or Friday) and either spend the night hanging around the port along with hundreds of other people or find some cheap accommodation nearby.

Learn from us: We searched high and low for a decent net connection. We eventually succeeded after some local advice at the Channel View Hotel which has both wireless options (although we couldn’t connect with our laptops) and a reliable net café. We had trouble connecting to wireless at a number of hotels around town.

>>> The Amateur Low Down

Highlight: Our final night in Nigeria filled with noodles, port-side beers and meeting people for the first time from Sao Tome & Principe. The atmosphere was pretty electric, a surreal experience of camping out on the docks till dawn. The ferry to Cameroon takes off early in the morning from the port, so everybody rocks up the night before.

We slept for a couple of hours in the ferry company office, there’s a first time for everything right? There are plenty of people around and if you are up for it you can power through until the 6am ferry with a few beers with some of the more hardcore locals. A tip though, the rough ferry ride might mean a night on the beers wouldn’t sit too well. Regardless it’s a great way to say aidios to Nigeria and gear yourself up for Cameroon.

Biggest surprise: The cost of Nigeria. It was like nothing we’d come across during the trip so far. Locals insisted it was because we weren’t with somebody, this may be the case but we hadn’t been ’with’ somebody in any country beforehand. Even listed set prices were far greater than what we had seen in the previous 10 African countries. Food was the standout as still being affordable, but whether it was transport or accommodation you have to try pretty hard to reduce your expenses here. Otherwise, like us you’ll see your balance soon has a Nigerian sized hole in it.

Nollywood! We have to also mention this.
Yep – you got it – it’s the Nigerian version of Hollywood only to a foreigner like us far more hilarious. It’s a massive industry and you’ll find Nollywood films across West Africa. I wouldn’t want to spoil the plot of any movie in particular, but basically there are only a few stories lines played out in hundreds of films.

Without doubt our favourite would have to be husband and wife – husband eventually cheats – terrible things happen – someone dies – a lot of yelling and screaming occurs – then they reunite and swear by god they’ll never do it again. Opps, we’ve already said too much.

One thing you can do to break down a barrier: In the backstreets of Calabar, not far from Genny’s and Jahas Guesthouse, follow the dirt roads around to the left and you stumble across some of Africa’s most endangered primates in a wonderful wildlife centre.

The Calabar Drill Ranch, is one part of a conservation effort being run by the NGO – Pandrillus. We got our zoology lessons about the habits of the colony of Drill Monkeys here, the threat that they are under from the bush meat trade and what is being done here to help these endangered animals to keep going.

We took our camera and headed along. Here’s the full story.

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Benin – Our rough guide

Posted on 04 June 2010 by Amateurs

Words that start with B – Big, bold and brash – Thankfully Benin is none of these and you’ll find it amongst words like brilliant and beautiful and it’ll probably blow you away.

Benin
Capital: Porto Novo
Population: 7 million
Economy: GDP (PPP) – $13, 014 billion – 133rd; GDP Per Capita – $1468 – 165th
Human Development Index: .492 – 161st
Sporting Trivia: Benin are grouped with heavyweights Cote D’Ivoire, along with Rwanda and Burundi for qualifications for the 2012 African Cup of Nations.

>>> The Traveller Scene
Benin, known as the home of voodoo, but even more for us it was the home of the greatest selection of street food we’ve come across. Moving beyond our stomach, it‘s no mystery why Benin has such a good reputation. Whether it’s the strangely calm and chaotic scenes of Cotonou or because it’s home to some of West Africa’s best wildlife parks in the north – it’s not only shaped like a chicken drumstick but it’s a chicken drumstick with all the herbs and spices.

Entry Requirements: At the Benin border you can pick up a 2 day transit visa for 10 000CFA (15 Euro). Unless you’re just passing through the south this won’t be enough, you can get it extended by a month for another 12 000CFA in Cotonou if you want to see more of this amazing country.

Parlez-Vous Francais? Our 2nd last solely Francophone country, Benin, like Togo, has numerous English speakers if you’re in a bind. People appreciate the effort of speaking French and a few lines of the local tongue wouldn’t go astray if you’re staying more than a few days.

>>> @ Cotonou & Ouidah
Cotonou, yellow shirt wearing moto drivers are the most common site on the streets. They’re hectic but pound the pavement and you’ll find out what this place is all about. Just 40km away is the historic city of Ouidah which once was the point of departure for millions of slaves from the region once dubbed ‘Slave Coast‘. It also happens to be home to some of the most significant spots for voodoo traditions, including the Sacred Forest and the Temple of the Pythons.

How did we get there: We arrived via a shared taxi from Lome, which took us around 3 hours, including the border crossing. A shared taxi should set you back 4000CFA (6 Euro), you march across the border crossing yourself and meet the taxi on the other side. Your larger backpack will get checked by customs whilst you aren’t with the car, so make sure any valuables are with you.

Where did we stay: Maison de Passage De Allemands, its in the Haie Vive area, a few hundred metres from the roundabout. Throw in a few lines of German here if you can if you want to fit in, this place was set up to host German aid workers on the move. It’s secure, simple and decent enough for a few nights. This area is has a bit of buzz with plenty of good street bars and internet cafes within a few minutes walk. If you’re after some local beats to take with you, drop into the net cafe across the road in the restaurant, slip the local lad a few CFA and you’re away. Back to the accommodation – we got a room with 2 double beds for 10000CFA (15 Euro) a night.

Getting a feed: Amazing. Cotonou is perhaps street food heaven. Trust us – we’ve eaten our fair of food from the street. If you’ve been in other African cities where the street food is great, albeit with limited variety, then Cotonou is a chance to give your tastebuds a tickle. How about thick avocado with onion, sausage and sauce on a baguette (400CFA), or a plate full of vegetabes, spaghetti and sauce (300CFA)? For those playing at home, both are lucky to cost you a dollar.

Out on the Town: As good as Castel or Flag might be, it’s time to shift gears and get on board the Beer Beninoise. The local stuff is pretty tasty, and for 400CFA (75 Euro Cents) it’s hard to say no to a third and fouth. Cotonou has numerous street side bars, where plastic chairs get rolled out as the sun is coming down for a night of relaxed beers to the tune of some great African beats. It’s one of the best things around with music blaring a the best seats in the house for some top notch people watching with the Beninoise – good luck finding anyone walking past who doesn’t stop for a bit of a boogy as they pass by.

Difficulties: We made the journey out to Ouidah from Cotonou with a shared taxi for 650CFA (1 Euro) to learn more about the mysteries of voodoo. Clearly we’re no Holmes and Watson – it still remains a mystery despite a guided ‘Franglais’ tour through the Sacred Forest and having pythons drapped around our necks at the temple.

The Temple of Pythons is 1000CFA entry and 2000CFA for a camera. It’s overall an awkward experience. The Sacred Forest is 1000CFA, 2000CFA per camera and we gave our bloke 1000CFA for guiding us through. It would be incredible during the Voodoo festival and it’s only recently been opened up to outsiders.

As mentioned above Ouidah was also the scene where around 12 million slaves were sent away from their communities to all over the world, this important historical cite – the Rue des Esclaves – is worth checking out, along with the town’s museum to gain a better understanding of the impact of the slave trade.

Learn from us: Benin boasts some impressive wildlife in its northern national parks. Pendjari and Du W are something you should do if you have a bit of time in Benin. It is something we definitely had on the cards at the beginning of our adventure, although not expensive by East African standards the trip up there, the guide, the need for a car, coming in at the end of season, and a matter of time all made this something we had to cut out of our adventure. Locals and tourists rate these places highly, but we’d love to hear from anybody who has made it up there on their experiences to make the Amateur guide complete.

>>> The Amateur Low Down

Highlight: Sitting at one of Cotonou’s streetside bars having an honest conversation with locals in a democracy about the issues facing Benin. It was truly inspiring to hear about their work, discuss the challenges they face, but most refreshingly was the optimism about Africa’s future and pride in what they have.

Biggest Surprise: Our day in the ‘home’ of voodoo didn’t lead to any real answers about voodoo. The mystery remains as to these animist traditions. The Sacred Forest and the Temple of Pythons didn’t unravel any mysteries for us. Rather it left us with more questions, the best way to gain a better understanding of this culture would be to try and coincide your visit with a festival.

One thing you can do to break down a barrier: African communities face an uncertain future due to the impacts of climate change on their livelihoods. Young Volunteers for the Environment is a group that is taking the lead in engaging with local African communities in tackling the biggest environmental issues the area faces.

We were lucky enough to meet some people who work with another organisation, Junior Chamber International which helps young people build partnerships in their community, one of the key projects being teaching young people skills for social entrepreneurship so that they can build sustainable businesses and create opportunities to be leaders in their communities.

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