Posted in travel

Breakfast with Werner Herzog on a Volcano in North Korea

Last year I visited North Korea to run a half marathon on Mount Paekdu, in the remote north of the country. Most people correctly think of North Korea itself as a “remote” destination, so just imagine how far into the middle of nowhere you are in the north of the country, miles from Pyongyang.

To get to Mount Paekdu required a flight from Pyongyang’s wonderful new airport to the less impressive Samjiyon airport, which was an airstrip with a shed beside it. The tiny, ancient airplane made a very bumpy landing, barely skipping over the tree tops of the endless forest around us.

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Then came a long, bumpy drive through the mountains to Paekdusan. The roads in North Korea, it probably won’t surprise you, are far from smooth. They are in awful disrepair, and driving along we could feel every pothole.

At Mount Paedku we were unfortunately not able to see the spectacular views due to being in the clouds. It was freezing, too. I hadn’t anticipated the cold and wore only shorts and t-shirt, as in Pyongyang it was very hot and humid. The altitude was causing problems, and people – myself included – struggled to breathe.

After a heavy lunch (not well-prepared considering we were about to run 21km), we drove down to 2,000 meters and began the half marathon. I was caught off guard and didn’t realize the race was about to start, and sprinted the first 500 meters to get near the front. After 1km I was in 6th place, and stayed there for the next 20km. I finished well behind the 5th place runner and well ahead of the 7th.

What amazed me about this race – my first ever half marathon – was that I was totally alone in North Korea. There were no guides, no observers, no police. Just the runners, and even they were too far ahead or behind me. I was free to enjoy the clean air, the beautiful countryside, and the amazingly friendly locals waving from fields. I passed a troop of soldiers who all said “hello” and groups of farmers who cheers and shouted friendly greetings. I even danced with some old ladies. I was glad to be doing the marathon, but I would have loved to stop and spend longer with these people. It is so incredibly rare to spend time with normal North Korean people.

After the race we were taken to Kim Jong-il’s supposed birthplace, Paekdusan Secret Camp, which was beautiful, but no one was in the mood for tourist stuff. We were all nursing blisters and aching muscles. Here, we met kids on school trips, and other random people from around North Korea who’d made the pilgrimage – a real privilege in their eyes – to such an important historic location.

Then we went to the Pegaebang Hotel. We’d been warned in advance to bring flashlights and expect little in the way of water or electricity, and indeed, when we arrived, there was neither. The electricity would come on periodically throughout the evening, but mostly we were in darkness.

Dinner was less than impressive, but who can complain about quality of food in a country where people routinely starve to death? The locals I’d seen from the road and from the bus were painfully thin. We drank North Korean beer (excellent) and soju (not so excellent). The night ended very drunkenly with one of our tour guides. When drunk, they spoke candidly – one moreso than the other – and I won’t repeat facts that I learned here in case they could be traced back and the guides punished.

In the morning, breakfast was as unappetizing as the previous night’s dinner. In fact, it was a potato. As I sat looking over my sad, lonely potato, prodding it and wondering if it was even possible to eat such a depressing-looking thing, I noticed another man at the opposite side of the room. His face was familiar, but that didn’t strike me as unusual. In North Korea, there are few tourists and few tour companies, and we are all taken to several of the most important locations, so you start recognizing people, even if you never speak to them.

Still, though, he looked more than familiar… He, too, was sitting alone, staring at a boiled potato, rolling it around his plate. He seemed melancholy.

I left my potato on the plate and checked out, had a walk around the hotel, and then our tour bus took us to Rimyongsu Waterfalls. They were spectacularly beautiful. Not spectacular like the Victoria Falls, but in subtle, gentle, way. Again, we met more North Korean people travelling around their country on special permission from the government. They were so happy and playful, and seemed amazed that there were foreigners here. When my friend and I took a photo together, a large group ran over to get in the photo with us. Just as in rural China, everyone wanted a photo with the foreigners. One man, sadly, broke my toe as he jumped enthusiastically into the shot.

Passing the through the countryside, we saw the real beauty of this country, but also the deprivation. People looked very emaciated. The homes and businesses were simple, yet looked comfortable. All the trees had calculus written on them so that children could study as they walked to school (or, perhaps, went to work in the fields).

We saw a few more tourist spots and met lots more North Korean tour groups, then flew back to Pyongyang to watch a football game. On the way to the “airport” at Samjiyon, our English tour group leader, who was usually off with other groups, said, “This is been a great day. I got to meet one of my heroes.” We asked who, and he said, “Didn’t you see him in the restaurant this morning? It was Werner Herzog.”

Werner Herzog! Of course! I was furious with myself. I’ve always loved his movies and actually spent two years trying to get an interview with him for Beatdom. I couldn’t believe I’d sat and watched the man muse over his breakfast potato, knowing his face was familiar, and not realized.

The guide showed me an hilarious selfie he’d taken with Herzog. “He was so nice! He told me he’s here shooting a film about the volcano nearby.”

I’d had a great trip to Mount Paekdu and the surrounding regions, but I was heartbroken to realize that I hadn’t gotten a chance to speak with one of my heroes. If I’d been anywhere else in the world I would’ve canceled the flight back and stayed another few days to hopefully run into the man and speak with him about his movies (apparently he’d been incredibly friendly and spoke at length about his movies). Alas, this was North Korea, and you did what you were told.

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Posted in travel

Simon’s Town Penguins

With my time in Africa running out, I found myself in Cape Town with only a few days and yet so much to do. Fortunately I’d done so many things on my trip that I could have no regrets, but I wanted to make sure that I saw as much as possible.

Cape Town is a cool city. I honestly don’t like cities and even supposedly nice ones like Durban had been pretty disappointing for me… but Cape Town was incredible. There were simply too many things to do there, and so I picked one almost at random – the penguin colony at Simon’s Town.

Getting there requires a train from the central station. It’s a long ride, but after a while you’re out of the city and running along the coast – Table Mountain National Park rising up to the sky on one side, and False Bay’s azure waters on the other. It really is a stunning ride.

I saw many places along the way that I thought would be perfect to get off and explore, but I stayed on until my destination – Simon’s Town – and explored from there. Simon’s Town is a charming, quaint little place filled with old buildings. There are lots of cafes and souvenir shops if that interests you.

I bought some fish ‘n’ chips from a little harbor side cafe and then walked south to find some penguins. On a random, hidden beach I found six penguins just sitting around. I was surprised how close I could get.

I walked on until I found the actual penguin colony – the protected one intended for tourists. I paid to get in but was disappointed to find it crammed with Chinese tourists. They acted just like they do in China – pushy, noisy, and rude.

Still, there were an abundance of penguins to see. Most of them, at this point, were nesting. They seemed unperturbed by the aggressive hordes of Chinese, but were sometimes attacked by giant seagulls. In one case, a seagull pushed a penguin off its egg and flew off with the egg, only to land and attempt to smash it repeatedly on a rock. Nature is merciless.

After strolling along the short boardwalk filled with Chinese people, I wandered off in search of something a bit more interesting and found part two of the protected penguin colony – a beach where you can actually mingle with the penguins. I was able to swim alongside some of them in the icy cold water. Thankfully, because it was shallow, the water was nowhere near as cold as it had been while doing the shark dive.

By a huge coincidence, I met a girl I’d stayed with in Victoria Falls – neither of us knew the other intended to go to Cape Town. She and some friends had rented a car and offered to drive me back to town. I had a return ticket for the train but scrapped it and rode with them instead. On the way back we stopped off at Fish Hoek and Muizenberg to see the beautiful white sand beaches and the scores of surfers.

Back in Cape Town, I headed home to my hostel (Once in Cape Town) and my friends to theirs (91 Loop). Both places are wonderful – although to be fair most hostels in South Africa seem ridiculously good. Then we headed out to Jimmy’s Burger for dinner and the Beerhouse for beers.

Posted in travel

Shark Cage Diving in Cape Town

If you’ve been following this blog then you’ll have read about my adventures in Mozambique, Swaziland, South Africa (at Kruger, and around St. Lucia), Zimbabwe, and Botswana. It was, to say the least, a hell of a trip. Starting in Mozambique, I mostly hitch-hiked or travelled by combi through thousands of miles of the greatest scenery on earth, seeing the most incredible wildlife up close. I couldn’t have been happier with the journey.

Yet, one thing was missing… The reason I’d gone to Southern Africa was to see a Great White Shark. I love sharks, and I’ve always wanted to see a Great White up close. I decided to go to Cape Town to go cage diving and the rest of the holiday unfolded as I did research into killing time between shark dives… I had no idea it would turn out to be such a brilliant part of the world.

Unfortunately, upon arriving in Africa, I found that the sharks had disappeared, and it had been a long time since anyone had spotted one. Someone said that a pod of orca had come into the area and chased them away. I never did find out the real reason. I even went to Durban, where they always have sharks, but visibility was zero because of the weather. It seemed I was doomed not to see any sharks.

But I’d come all the way to Africa for this one purpose, and even if it was going to be a waste of time and money, I’d give it a shot. So I booked a trip with SharkDiving.co. I was repeatedly warned that they never see sharks any more, and I got the impression that they’d put up with a huge number of pissed off tourists. But I was willing to take the risk.

The trip started very early because, apparently, the boats launch not from Cape Town, but from Gaansbai, which is several hours away from downtown Cape Town by bus. It was a long journey, and everyone seemed a bit down at the prospect of not seeing any sharks.

We arrived in lovely Gaansbai – a town that seems to exist due to the shark diving companies that operate from there. At least when we arrived the only people in the streets were either waiting to go dive, or working for the dive companies.

In the office, we signed release forms and were told over and over about the no refund policy for when we inevitably would go home disappointed. The guide was friendly enough, but had obviously gotten fed up with the lack of sharks lately. He joked: “Gaansbai is the only place in South Africa where the Whites still have power.” There were some awkward laughs.

Soon we were waiting on the dock for our boat. People came and went, and the boat before us brought good news: a shark had been spotted! Or maybe it wasn’t good news… Did they see our shark? Were they the one boat that day which would get to see a shark? By now I was nervous. It had been a long journey just to see a shark, and I wouldn’t get another chance.

The boat ride out was choppy. I used to get seasick and I could feel it coming on a little, but thankfully it never set in. About half of the people on the boat, though, soon became violently sick and were vomiting over the side into the sea.We had been warned to bring medication but I hadn’t brought anything. I just stared out towards the horizon, hoping to see something.

When the boat anchored at the dive site the choppiness worsened. The boat was positioned to block the waves from hitting the diving cage, and it rocked tremendously. We were told to suit up, which was difficult while rocking back and forth so violently. The crew chummed the water and tossed a large tuna head on a rope out as bait.

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When they asked who wanted to get in the cage first, I didn’t say anything. I assumed that it would be a few long hours of waiting, and that whoever got in first would see nothing, then stand around cold. There was a rotation system – four or five people in the cage at any given time. I went to the top deck to look down…

And there it was. A Great White Shark. The call came just seconds earlier. One of the crew spotted him and he exploded out of the water, crashed into the cage, and swam off back into the deep. I saw him clearly but couldn’t get a photo. My camera was too slow and wouldn’t even take an unfocused shot. A few minutes later he came back again, and again I got no photos, except one of his tail as he returned to the deep. What should have been a happy moment was one of frustration.

I was annoyed that a) I wasn’t in the water to see the shark, and b) I had no good photos of the shark. Given that it was incredibly unlikely to see one, I should’ve just been happy to see the damn thing, but I felt robbed, because I couldn’t imagine the shark would come back again.

I went to the lower deck to stand by the cage. I wanted to get in the water, but I was too late, and the next group got in. From here, though, I did manage to shoot some photos of the shark with my iPhone, which was far faster to focus than my camera.

Eventually it was my turn and I was certain I wouldn’t see the shark from the water. Maybe it was because my luck in spotting wildlife over the trip had been too great. Anyway, by now I was happy because I’d seen the shark several times and gotten some reasonable photos on my phone.The captain had already warned us that from under the water it’s pretty difficult to see anything.

I jumped into the cage and was immediately left winded by the cold. It was the coldest I’d ever been. Even the waters off Scotland aren’t that bad. The wetsuit helped a bit, but it was nonetheless an incredible and painful sensation. I tried dunking my head under the water to see, but it would take only a seconds to get a splitting headache from the cold.

By now, the people who’d been in the water didn’t want to get back in, so the cage wasn’t so crowded. I tried to look around above and under the water, but occasionally got a lungful of seawater when a wave hit me, and I was in a great deal of discomfort from the biting cold – particularly in my hands.

Then the shark came back. And again. And again. And again.

I could see it far better from the boat – under water it was mostly a grey blur – but that’s not the point. The raw power was what struck me. While I was in the cage the shark managed to move so fast that it ripped the bait from the line, as the crew hadn’t seen it in time. It was just a massive explosion of pure prehistoric violence – a predator so perfect it has remained unchanged since before humans came into existence. To be in the water with it, even protected by a solid steel cage, was a privilege.

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As we sailed back to the harbor, I tried to reflect upon my luck, but the cold was too much. I had stayed in the water for about an hour and it had been too long. But when I finally got back and warmed up in the sun, I was able to appreciate our fortune. It had been a long day and we’d been warned that we wouldn’t see anything. Indeed, no one on the other boats had seen a shark while we were out.

Fortunately, since then the sharks have returned. Our shark – a young male – was one of the first to reenter the area. Hopefully they continue to thrive off the coast of South Africa and elsewhere. Truly the are among the most amazing creatures on this planet.

Of course, they’re probably not such majestic creatures from the perspective of these guys, who thoroughly enjoyed the Great Whites’ absence.

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Posted in Photography, travel

Into the Okavango

In Maun I was staying at the Old Bridge Backpackers largely because I’d read online that they operated community-run mokoro trips into the Okavango. As a child, I grew up watching BBC documentaries about African wildlife and, it seemed, half the time those documentaries were shot in the Okavango. It was a place I couldn’t have pointed out on a map, but whose name was etched into my brain; a place synonymous with beauty and wilderness.

I got up early one morning and was driven by jeep way out to a small village right on the edge of the Okavango Delta. I met my guide, a lifelong mokoro poler, who pushed us out onto the waterways. He was very quite, almost alarmingly so. But then, so was the world around us. We were miles from the nearest road, miles from the nearest town, and heading further into the wild.

From the offset, we were surrounded by wildlife – namely birds. I don’t know much about birds but they were stunning, as they had been all through my African trip. Some of them were like pterodactyls – impossibly large creatures beating the air violently with their massive wings.

I lay on the mokoro – a small, dugout canoe, as he stood, pushing us through the water. We spent about two hours travelling through the shallow channels of this bizarre inland delta, birds all around us. Occasionally the guide would tell me to stand up and we would see zebra or wildebeest beyond the reeds.

Eventually we arrive at what would be our camp for the night. It was only late morning by this stage, but we were to spend the afternoon hiking. First, though, the guide wanted to take a nap. Fair enough – it must have been tiring pushing the mokoro in heat approaching 45 degrees.

While he slept, I walked out into the wild to explore. I didn’t go far, but far enough to find myself walking across plains, surrounded by zebra, wildebeest, and one elephant. It was thrilling. There is no better word. Everywhere I looked there was wildlife that until recently I’d only seen on TV or, sadly, in zoos. The long grass was lion-coloured and I couldn’t help but imagine I was being watched.

A huge storm came in quickly and I soon found myself sheltering from thunder and lightning and torrential rain, which the parched lands badly needed. I went back to my tent and sat watching the lightning all around, and listened to the rain on the tent.

After a few hours my guide awoke and we set out on a 15 km hike through the surrounding area. We tracked animals on foot, coming upon a few lion kills (and even a dead lion), and getting close to a few elephants, dozens of giraffe, and some smaller game. The feeling of walking through that incredible landscape was humbling. This is how humans felt thousands of years earlier, walking through the landscape as a vulnerable speck, hoping a lion doesn’t come running from the treeline.

At night we made a fire and watched the stars. They were so bright and innumerable, and shooting stars shot across and over the horizons.  I walked around in the dark, flashing my torch to see if eyes would shine back in the night. Giant catfish flopped about in the shallow water.

In the morning, I awoke at 5am and watched the sunrise over the baobab trees and mist hang in the long grass over the waterways. We set out walking again – 20+km this time. My boots soon filled with water from the dew. On this walk we saw much of the same as the day before, but got altogether far too close to a large elephant, which charged at us and sent us running. Thankfully, it was a warning charge and it chose not to pursue us further into the trees.

I wish I could have had more time to spend walking through the Okavango. There really is no place I know of which is like it. It is the wildest place on earth and, I think, the experience of simply walking there – even over a hundred or so meters – puts so much into perspective. You feel so small and insignificant on that great landscape, so much at the mercy of the world around you, yet entirely filled with awe at its power and beauty. And that is how life should be lived.

Posted in travel

Hitch-hiking Through Botswana

After a few days at Victoria Falls, in Zimbabwe, I set out for the Botswana border post. I walked west from the town until I came to the cross roads of Livingston Way and Kazungula Road, then hitched a ride to the border. When I passed through into Botswana, which was a hell of a lot easier than getting into Zimbabwe, I found I couldn’t go anywhere. I’d planned to walk to Kazungula and then, depending on what I found there, either hitch-hike into Kasane or head south towards my ultimate destination – Maun. Unfortunately, though, there was a girl working at the border who told me I couldn’t walk to Kazungula.

“You can’t walk,” she told me.

“Why?” I asked.

“It’s too far.”

“It’s ok. I walk a lot. Besides, it’s only a few kilometers.”

“There are wild animals there.”

“I’m not afraid of wild animals.”

“Well, you can’t go.”

“Is it illegal?”

“Yes.”

So she called me a taxi and rode with me. Later, I realized she might have just tried to score a free taxi ride, which she got. In any case, soon I was in Kasane, waiting for a bus to a town called Nata. I was told that from Nata it would be possible to hitch-hike west to Maun.

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At the bus depot, I got into an awkward conversation with a few workers. They were arguing over why white people travel more than black people. Two men said that their country’s government had failed them by not providing a higher income level for its population, while the other said that black people (specifically Africans) prefer to spend their money immediately, and are inherently bad at saving. They were friendly but very intensely arguing, trying to win me over to their respective sides. I agreed with the two guys about their lack of income, but didn’t want to take sides, so I just nodded and listened for a while. They were, like almost everyone I met in Africa, incredibly friendly and helpful.

Soon I was on the bus to Nata. From the window I could see giraffes and elephants walking along the road. We had to stop to go through various checkpoints, and stamp on some wet mat. I never did see the purpose of all this.

At Nata I got off the bus at a service station. Soon the bus left, and I was waiting for another to take me to Maun. But it never arrived. I waited about forty-five minutes, and still nothing.

There was a Swedish girl, too, waiting for this phantom bus. Eventually we gave up and looked around for a hotel. I had Maps.Me working on my phone, and it led us to a little guesthouse near the Nata River. There wasn’t much to see in Nata. Only a few houses, a few tin shacks from which people sold food or drinks or haircuts. There were cows and donkeys roaming the streets. It was just a dusty crossroads in the middle of nowhere.

We found a “Zambian Liquor Restaurant” and had dinner – beef and cabbage and maize – and a lot of beers. After a month in Africa, I finally got stupidly drunk. I would wake up the next morning with a brutal hangover.

 

The next morning I set out to find an ATM, because I didn’t have enough money to pay for my room, and they didn’t accept cards (despite a sign outside claiming the contrary). Luckily I was able to withdraw a small amount for a large fee.

We went back to the cross roads and gave up on the idea of ever finding a bus to Maun. “Let’s hitch-hike,” I said. Johanna said she’d never hitch-hiked before, but I told her I’d hitch-hiked many times in many countries, and said that we should definitely do it.

We sat at the side of the road to Maun, talking. She said that it would be two hours before we go a ride on account of the fact that there were absolutely no cars travelling along this road. I said I bet it would be twenty minutes.

Twenty minutes later, exactly, a beat-up old Toyota Corolla pulled up beside us. I’d written “MAUN” on a piece of paper and stuck my hand out. The car was more or less full but we managed to squeeze in. Roaring off into the great barren expanses of central Botswana, I was filled with enthusiasm, thinking, “I’m the greatest hitch-hiker in the world!” What luck to have found a ride so quickly on a desolate road.

After Johanna commented on my luck, I told her that I wasn’t always lucky in travel. In my life I’ve been in a plane crash, numerous car crashes, several motorbike crashes, two bus crashes, on a train whose engine exploded, and on a boat which sunk.

Shortly after saying this, the car’s back right tire exploded and we veered off the road.

After standing by the side of the road in the brutal African sun for half an hour, hoping a lion wouldn’t come out from the bush and eat us, a car finally passed. It stopped and they tried to help us replace the burst tire. Then another car passed, and another. Soon everyone was laughing and joking by the side of the road. This is what I loved most about Africa – the people. Such warm, friendly, decent people.

We got back on the road, now driving in a convoy. The radio blared and people sang and danced in their seats. But after twenty more minutes, the back left tire burst. The convoy stopped and we replaced another tire.

Soon we had to stop again and the driver turfed us out. We weren’t entirely abandoned because another car in the convoy took us, and we set out once again. I regretted having mentioned my awful luck with transportation…

This car broke down four times on the way to Maun, each time due to the engine overheating. I wouldn’t say it was entirely my bad luck – the driver seemed intent on pushing the car to and beyond its limits, driving at breakneck speed through the Makgadikgadi. The road and the heat were unforgiving, and the cars hardly built to withstand such punishment.

Eventually we arrived in Maun. Through all my travels in Africa I’d learned that “just” going a few hundred kilometers would take a long time, and this was another fine example. It had taken almost a full day to get from Nata to Maun, and two full days to get there from Victoria Falls. I’d been naive to think it could’ve been done in a day.

From town we had to take a taxi out to The Old Bridge Backpackers, which sits at the northern end of Maun, on the edge of the Okavango Delta. This was one of my goals in Africa – to see the Okavango. I’d grown up watching BBC documentaries and its name was burned into my consciousness. I had planned out a camping trip, sleeping under the stars amidst the greatest collection of wildlife on the planet.

First we checked into the Old Bridge and I booked a mokoro (a small dug out canoe) to venture off into the wild the next day. It would prove to be one of the greatest and wildest experiences of my life.

 

Photos coming later this week. Follow this blog for updates.