Last month, after spending most of my winter in Sri Lanka and Japan, I returned to China. When I had left, in early January, I was sick of the place, yet when I arrived back I was curiously happy to return. So it goes. China can be a frustrating place to live with its pollution and censorship and the constant stupidity and filth everywhere… But it’s of course not all bad. I wouldn’t have spent most of the last seven years here if it was.
This was to be the first extended period of time I’d spent in Huainan without working. I had more than two weeks at home. This was no accident. For two years I have been working on a book about Allen Ginsberg. Well, actually I have been intermittently researching it for two years. Now it was time to finally sit down and write. The words, thankfully, flowed. In two weeks I wrote some 20,000 words.
Aside from the Ginsberg book, I spent my time watching the local stray cats. My university campus is normally home to some 20,000 students, but during the holidays it is all but empty. This was my first time living on campus during the holiday, and I was delighted to see that there were cats everywhere. I spent time photographing them, feeding them, and sometimes even playing with them. In particular, there was one small ginger cat – probably just a few months old – who caught my interest. I was torn about attempting to catch him. It is unfair, though, to take a cat in if you cannot commit to looking after it indefinitely.
It was nice, also, to see the campus minus the hordes of students:
Eventually, the students returned to campus in dribs and drabs, and along with them came the other teachers and an assortment of old people who seem to live there. My peace and quiet dissipated, and the cats went into hiding. Leaving my house meant being stared at by every slack-jawed halfwit around, and there were now many thousands of them. Moreover, from morning to night came the noise of people outside my window. You might not think that’s a terrible thing, but the average Chinese person can make more noise than a doom metal concert just walking to his car.
I came to an important decision: it was time to move house. I’d been living in a tiny apartment on campus for almost three years and it had proven pretty comfortable, albeit basic. But now it was time to move someplace better – to gain more comfort, more space, and more peace.
My girlfriend and I began looking around for places listed online, and after a few days we began to book viewings. It was interesting to me that in China people would never dream of cleaning or fixing up an apartment before trying to rent it out. Every place we saw had potential, but its owners had obviously taken that Chinese philosophy of chabuduo (“close enough”) and not bothered to do anything. The real estate agents, too, made no effort really to sell the properties. It never fails to amaze me how literally everything in this country is done so half-assed.
Another weird quirk was that all the apartments have a windows between the toilet and other rooms, as well as clear glass doors. This is also true in every hotel room in the country. One element of Chinese culture that I will never – to my dying day – understand is their desire to watch each other poop. Public toilets usually have no doors and sometimes no walls, and most people prefer just to go outside anyway. Most apartments we saw had windows from the kitchen looking in on the toilet, which I found deeply unsettling.
We kept looking, hoping for an apartment that wasn’t a pervert’s palace, and eventually found a beautiful big place above a supermarket. However, as we stood talking to the owners, a train careened by the window some thirty floors below, shaking the building and just about deafening us as its horn blared. They do this at night time, too…
We ended up finding a nearly perfect apartment, whose only fault was that it was a little out of the way. It was more than three times my old apartment’s size, quiet at all times of day and night, and had a beautiful big study for me to finish my Ginsberg book – if I ever find the time to do so. It was, of course, filled with crap, but we convinced the owners to move out their stuff. With two bedrooms, two bathrooms, a living room, dining room, kitchen, study, and big rooftop balcony, it somehow only cost $200 per month. Despite everything, sometimes China is fantastic.
We have been living here for two weeks now, and enjoying it very much. It feels like another part of the world entirely. Downstairs there is a market street, which is lined with little old ladies selling the most amazing collection of crap – but only between 16:00-18:30 for some reason. You can buy fresh fruit and vegetables (more than you could ever carry for $1), decidedly less fresh meat (especially heads, feet, and testicles), all kinds of weird eggs (including those chemically cooked in lime, which I’m told are very dangerous to eat), plants, plates, pants, pots, pans, and a plethora of pickled vegetables. You can get a massage, have your ears dewaxed, get your feet scraped, or have cobra venom used to cure your acne.
On my ninth day in Sri Lanka, I set out from the Guillet Beach Homestay, heading for the Matara bus station. It was a long, dusty walk in a blazing hot sun, but I soon arrived and people pointed me to my bus. In Sri Lanka, people are usually shy but very, very helpful. Some old men told me I could get a bus directly to Hikkaduwa, but after asking a few of the bus drivers, it seemed I would have to change buses at Galle instead.
The ride along the coast was beautiful, and more than a few times I regretted taking the bus straight to Hikkaduwa, thinking instead that I should stop off at the little fishing villages and port towns along the way. But it was a relatively short hop from one place to the next, and I knew I could always take a bus back down the coast if Hikkaduwa proved to be unpleasant.
First Day in Hikkaduwa
After a brief stop in Galle, I arrived in Hikkaduwa and made my way to my next accommodation – Chami’s Place. It’s a small hostel in the middle of town, near the railway tracks, which had high scores on all the booking sites. I tried to check in but there was some confusion. The staff were incredibly friendly, and eventually I ended up sleeping in the shared staff room with an English bargirl and two Sri Lankan kitchen porters.
I set out to explore the town, walking up and down the beach and the main road that cut through the middle of Hikkaduwa. Oddly, everywhere I went there were Russian people and signs all in Russian. Big fat, classless, red Russian men and busty Russian women crowded the beaches at certain places. I’d seen this throughout Southeast Asia – they all tend to visit the same one destination in a country or province, and there congregate at the one or two restaurants or bars tailored to Russian customers. These places are, generally, well-worth avoiding.
Walking south, making my way between the sea and a wall, I was hit by a huge freak wave and totally soaked. Actually, the wave only got the bottom of my shorts, but it hit the wall and exploded back, covering me quite literally from head to toe in salty water. Thankfully, my camera was in a somewhat waterproof bag, and I was able to yank my phone from my pocket and add it to the camera bag before the water soaked through. But otherwise, I was drenched.
I hobbled to a nearby bar and sat drinking the local beer until I’d dried out sufficiently to walk back home. In the evening I ventured out and explored the nightlife a little, delighted to find that here in Hikkaduwa, there was no shortage of alcohol, unlike all the other towns I’d visited on my journey. It was a tad pricy, but it was plentiful, and that’s all that mattered.
Snorkelling on Hikkaduwa Reef
When I awoke in the morning, I was completely covered in mosquito bites. It had been a bad night’s sleep anyway, as the staff had woken me up inadvertently when they finished their shifts at the bar, but also there had been a swarm of mozzies chewing away at my flesh for some seven hours. Annoyingly, there was a mosquito net over my bed, but when I went to sleep I really didn’t think there were any mozzies in the room, and it seemed so unnecessary that I hadn’t bothered unravelling it.
I checked out and walked to the nearest ATM that would accept my Chinese bank card, and withdrew more money. I wasn’t sure if I’d need it, but on holiday it’s best not to worry about these things. Then I hiked down the road a kilometer to my new accommodation – Surfing Beach Hotel. This was a little guesthouse on a beach that has grown very popular with surfers due to its huge waves. I checked in and was greeted by a big, friendly shirtless man. He only had two or three misshapen teeth, and his brown belly protruded enormously. He bore more than a passing resemblance to a walrus. He showed me to my room – an old, utterly filthy place where I knew I couldn’t spend more than one night. I actually enjoy bad hotels because they have so much character, and I love travelling around places like Vietnam and Cambodia and Laos seeing the old French colonial buildings that haven’t been cleaned since the fifties, yet somehow maintain their antique charm. This place really lacked any such redeeming qualities. I noted the following in my travel journal after arriving:
An unsteady ceiling fan circulates warm air in a dingy, dirty hotel room. Two small beds have been placed side-by-side and advertised as a double. The walls are thinly painted and plaster seals big cracks in the concrete. Makeshift metal and plastic and scrap-wood furniture litters the room haphazardly. Everything is brown and yellow with dirt. The towels and bedsheets are the only items that seem to have been washed, and even then not thoroughly… and they are riddled with holes. The ancient windows are hard to open, and look out on construction work in the next door building, spilling dust into the room. The bathroom… you don’t even want to know about the bathroom.
After checking in, I immediately set out to find the next day’s accommodation so that I wouldn’t have to worry about being stuck at Surfing Beach Hotel any longer than necessary. Fortunately, I did, only three hundred meters down the road at Sunny’s Guest House. It was a far superior room.
In the afternoon, I went snorkeling on the Hikkaduwa coral reef. This required a long walk up the beach because the seas were too choppy at Surfing Beach. At barely more than ankle depth there were already large fish swimming around, and by the time I was knee-deep, I was surrounded with brightly-coloured sea life. Sadly, however, all the coral was more or less dead. But that is true for most of the world and in a few years we’ll be lucky if there’s anything left anywhere on this doomed planet.
I swam about in the warm waters, but it was a little difficult. No matter where you go, the waves are strong and the tides push and pull you. When hovering over coral, that’s less than ideal. I didn’t want to damage the coral, and I certainly did want the coral to damage me. I spent two hours swimming around, and saw a whip-tailed stingray and some other interesting life. However, at a certain point the waves were churning up so much sand that visibility was terrible. I wanted to swim out and find sharks or other large animals, but I knew I would never see them.
Despite the poor visibility, however, I managed to spot a few large turtles grazing on sea grass. It was difficult to get any useable photos, even though they were docile enough to swim beside me for a good twenty minutes.
Snorkelling Hikkaduwa Reef
Snorkelling Hikkaduwa Reef
Lots of fish
I went out snorkeling again the following day, with the same results – some interesting fish but an overall unsatisfactory experience due to the poor visibility. I saw more turtles and stingrays, but I couldn’t enjoy it while being thrown about on the waves, coming perilously close to being ripped apart on the corals.
Whale Watching from Mirissa
At 5am on the twelfth day of my trip, I was picked up by a tuk-tuk driver outside Sunny’s and driven south to Mirissa. It was a long, cold ride and again I had to wear my winter clothes that I’d brought over from China. It was just getting light as we arrived at the harbor and I was shepherded onto a boat with lots of people of various nationalities, including many Chinese – who were already hiding beneath giant sun hats. As we departed around 7am, the guide informed us that they’d seen blue whales on the previous thirteen consecutive days, so we had “a 90% chance” of seeing one today.
I was excited as the boat chugged out of the harbor and into the Indian Ocean. I’d wanted to see a blue whale for as long as I could remember. Of all the amazing animals I’ve had the privilege of seeing in my life, no whale was among them. I snuck up to the bow and stood there for the entire journey, being hit in the face by waves every minute or so. The seas were typically choppy and people were being violently sick back inside the boat. I was determined to keep my eyes fixed on the waters to get that first glimpse of a whale… but also I knew that looking out at the sea would prevent me, too, from getting seasick.
It was after about an hour when the call went out. One of the guides on the boat had spotted a water spout and, although it took a while for my eyes to pick between waves and waterspouts, I also found it. I couldn’t tell you the distance as I’m not familiar with doing such things at sea, but it wasn’t terribly far away. A dark shape would emerge briefly from the water and a huge white explosion of water would dissipate in the air, and then nothing as it slipped quietly back under. This happened several times before the grand finale as it raised its mighty tail up into the sky and then went down into the deep.
A great roar went up from the deck of the boat as we saw very clearly that iconic image of a whale’s tail above the surface of the water. Of course, I had my camera, but I was too mesmerized by what I saw to even bother taking it from its bag. I just stared stupidly at the ocean, where the whale had been.
This happened again and again. Incredibly, we saw the whale (or other whales – I don’t really know) six or seven times. Sometimes we’d just see a tiny flicker of a tail as it suck down into the ocean, and sometimes its tail would seem to hang there in the sky between huge waves, lingering before it disappeared. The image was burned into my consciousness, but although I eventually pulled my camera out and started shooting (which wasn’t easy with the giant waves and rocking of the boat) I never did get a good picture.
On the way back to harbor, we passed a whale shark. I’ve wanted to see one of these animals for many years, and been to many places where I expected to see one, but this was the first time I had. From a distance all we could see was a seemingly black fin protruding above the surface, very much like an orca, but as we got close we could see the unmistakable colours and pattern – the pink and purple and blue of its mighty back. This would have probably been a more forgettable experience had we not just seen a blue whale – one of only a handful of creatures from the entire history of this planet that could dwarf a giant whale shark! Again, although I could see the animal clearly, I could not get a single decent photograph. And, again, I didn’t care. My apologies to readers of this blog for not better illustrating what I saw, but on personally level I was just delighted to see these amazing animals. I will make sure to get better photos next time.
Then, as we approached the harbor, another cry went out. What was it this time – an orca, a dolphin, another whale or whale shark?
It was something else that I had never seen before – two large sea turtles mating. I’ve seen more than 100 sea turtles in this past year alone, but never have I seen them copulating. The boat drifted alongside them as they awkwardly propagated their species, before eventually the dozens of voyeurs made them uncomfortable enough to stop, and they went their separate ways off into the dark waters.
Final Days in Hikkaduwa
Later that day, as I sat having lunch, I met a middle-aged English man whom I’d encountered the previous day. He had a strong accent and kept referring to the country as “Sreeee Lankaaaar,” and told me he’d been coming here every year since 1992. In fact, he wouldn’t shut up – a common trait among bored alcoholics who spend their holidays in Asia.
After that annoying lunch, I went out snorkeling on Surfing Beach. It was to be a stupid mistake that put an end to my snorkeling for the holiday. I quickly realized as I got into the water that I was being pulled out to sea, albeit not very fast. I had been caught in a riptide in Mozambique a year before, and this was not as terrifying, but it was disconcerting. The tide pulled me out some distance and then seemed to more or less stop. However, when I tried to swim back to shore, I couldn’t. I tried not to panic, and instead made a continual effort to get back to shore, but it was futile. The more I tried, the more I became exhausted.
Eventually, looking at the surfers and trying to figure it out logically, I came to the conclusion that I should use the waves to get back and save my strength. However, the waves seemed to pull me almost as far as far as they pushed me, and soon they were holding me under water to almost the limit of my lungs, and I began to fear that I would drown. As things began to get dangerous, a huge wave caught me and threw me deep under water, ripping my snorkel and mask off my face, though at the time I barely noticed. Fortunately, my GoPro was tied to my wrist and impossible to lose.
With a great deal of effort, I managed to get myself back to the beach and collapsed on the sand. I was angry with myself for having gone snorkeling somewhere that I knew was not suitable, and annoyed that I had lost my snorkel gear – which I’d only used three times since buying. I had another day and a half in Sri Lanka, but my snorkeling time had drawn to a violent end.
Leaving Sri Lanka
Instead of snorkeling for my last few days at Hikkaduwa, I drank beer on the beach, read Ernest Hemingway’s Islands in the Stream, watched the surfers, and saw the sunset over the Indian Ocean for the final time.
Snorkelling had been a big part of my plan for the holiday, but even without the unfortunate end to that, conditions had not been ideal. I was probably not going to see my shark. And besides, I could not complain about a lack of exciting wildlife. I had seen a blue whale and a whale shark! I was never going to get better than that.
Reflecting upon my time in Sri Lanka, I concluded that it had been a thoroughly successful holiday. Most importantly, after a long and tiring semester’s teaching, not to mention numerous writing and editing projects on the side, I had managed to relax and avoid doing anything resembling work. I had seen a new country, eaten new food, met lots of new people, experienced a new culture, gotten out into nature, done lots of hiking, taken some great photos, seen leopards, elephants, crocodiles, whales, and whale sharks.
I awoke on my second day in Sri Lanka at the Backpackers’ VIBE hostel in Kandy. On my first day I had seen all I wanted, and it was time to move on to someplace new. I decided on Ella, which lies about 140km south of Kandy.
Walking through Kandy in the early morning, I noted how many people were up and about already, walking quickly to work. Everyone was well-dressed in either traditional or modern attire, and most people took time to turn and bow to the various Buddhist deities that dot the little city.
I found the bus terminal, which was busy and confusing. There were so many buses, and only half had the names of their destinations in Roman script, while the rest were only in Sinhalese. I could see none that were going to Ella. Eventually, I asked a few people who pointed me towards a bus heading south to Badulla, with the promise that from there I could transfer to Ella.
As I sat waiting on the bus, numerous vendors came on board selling mangoes, soy beans, samosas, oranges, ointments, and spices. It was getting crowded when a middle-aged Austrian woman took the last remaining seat – the one next to me. She told me that she was relieved because Sri Lankan men could be quite inappropriate. There are some things you never have to worry about as a male traveler.
The bus took a long, circular route to Badulla, taking almost five hours, but there was a curtain blocking out the harsh sunlight that also obscured my view of the scenery, so I simply engrossed myself in a book I had been given by a friend. All I could see when I tried to look out the window were mountains, and I was sure it was a beautiful scene. On the bus, we were packed in like sardines with absolutely no room to breathe, and right in the middle of an aisle a man beat a tambourine and sang sad songs.
At Badulla we changed to a new bus heading towards Ella. While waiting in the bus station I tried some sort of curry wrap, which I was then convinced was the greatest thing I’d ever eaten, though I never did learn its name. The final leg of the journey only lasted about thirty minutes and the bus was only half full. This time I could see out the window as we passed mountains and valleys and forests and rivers, with great fields of rice and tea. In the middle of one rice paddy I saw a huge peacock standing with its tail feathers fully displayed.
We arrived in Ella, which I was slightly disappointed to find was a very touristy little town. In fact, it seemed every business was entirely devoted to providing for foreign travelers. I set out east for Izuru Homestay, following the map on my phone. Very soon I was out of town, following a windy road through the hills. It seemed that the walk took forever, even though it was only 2km. The heat was intense, despite this being high in the mountains. Eventually, I found the house at the end of a long dirt track, surrounded by tea fields and forests. It was totally isolated.
I settled in and soon met all the family. Like most Sri Lankans, they were very shy and quiet, but friendly. The owner works for the government, but the place is mostly run by other family members, including his elderly parents. All of them would ask questions in broken English and then hurry away in embarrassment. They brought me cups of tea, papaya juice, and biscuits as I read on the veranda, looking out on a peaceful hillside that was disturbed only by birds and squirrels and chipmunks.
Trekking Ella’s Train Tracks
Despite being tired and having sore feet from walking so much over the previous days, I set out to find a local landmark called 9 Arch Bridge. On a map it looked like it was close, yet in fact the convoluted route that I took wound its way over many kilometers of hillside. I got lost once and a small child guided me through dense vegetation and a few backyards to a road, and soon after I found the train tracks. In Sri Lanka, it is common for people to walk on the tracks as trains move very slowly and noisily, so there is little chance of being hit.
At the 9 Arch Bridge, there were too many tourists – both Sri Lankan and foreign – and although it was a pleasant enough sight, I quickly continued my way, aiming to follow the train tracks back to town, carrying me in a long circle through the middle of Ella to the homestay. Just before dark, I arrived at Ella train station, which is a charming, picturesque little building that even has a friendly station cat. Flanked by a cricket field, it could well have been somewhere in England rather than Sri Lanka.
I spent the evening in Ella, walking around and eating curry at a small restaurant. As it is a tourist town, everything is grossly overpriced. In Badulla, my little lunch had cost 30LKR, but in Ella I could find nothing less than 300LKR, and most menus listed items around 1000LKR. After dinner, I walked back along the now very dark road, and sat on the roof of the house looking at the stars. After the choking pollution I’d endured in China, it was a huge relief to sit out and see the galaxy through the clear mountain air.
Hiking the Mountains and Valleys
The clear mountain air could also be surprisingly cold. Although Sri Lanka has a tropical climate, at night temperatures can get pretty low, and when I awoke in the morning I was glad of the few items of winter clothing I’d brought with me from China. I sat on the veranda reading and watching the shadows cast by the sun move across the valley, and the light hitting Little Adam’s Peak to the south. Occasionally, beautiful, colourful birds flew about, sometimes coming very close to where I sat. One was a grey hornbill.
A young man brought me my breakfast – a large pot of tea, six pieces of toast with butter and jam, fried eggs, bananas, papayas, watermelon, and roti. It was probably the biggest breakfast I’ve ever encountered, filling the entire table in front of me. Did all Sri Lankans eat this way, or was this just put on for tourists, I wondered.
At 9am, I took a much needed walk to recover from breakfast. I didn’t really know where I was going, but I decided I’d walk until I could walk no more, and hopefully see as much of the beautiful countryside as possible. I started out eastward, heading away from the town, and ended up at the Newburgh Tea Plantation. It seemed you could get a tour of the factory, but I wasn’t interested. Instead, I took a nearby winding road and ended up walking through tea fields for a few hours, where little old women with leathery brown skin worked on the steep tea-covered hillsides, wearing potato sacks for clothes and filling hemp bags with tea leaves. I followed winding paths down through the tea fields and between small houses where women bathed children from buckets and shy, skinny dogs lazily slept in the shadows.
Eventually, I turned and climbed back up the rather large hill to where I had begun, and from there set off for a hill known as Little Adam’s Peak. This refers to the more famous Adam’s Peak, which is further west and a renowned Buddhist pilgrimage point. Little Adam’s Peak looks similar but it is much smaller. I climbed quickly to the top, but found there were many tourists here. After the peace and serenity of the tea plantation and adjacent valley, I continued moving along the top of the mountains to where the tourists had given up, and found three empty peaks that I could call my own. I lazed in the sun for a few hours, acquiring a bit of a burn, before realizing that I was not entirely alone. There was a family of black-faced monkeys (which Google tells me are, in fact, gray langurs) occupying one of the only tall trees on the hillside. They seemed very afraid of me, despite there being a big distance between us, and any time I moved nearer to take a better photo, they seemed ready to flee.
I spent most of the day on the top of the mountain, enjoying the fresh air which allowed me to see for miles in every direction. To the east, and far down below, was Ella’s Gap or Ella’s Pass – a steep, winding road running between Ella Rock and Little Adam’s Peak, and behind it a giant waterfall. Elsewhere were forests and tea plantations. To the south the land flattened out with just a few small hills rising here and there. Just about everything you could see was green, despite there reportedly having been no rain for several months.
On my way back down the hill, I found a small shack selling coconuts, and stopped to buy one and speak with the owner. He was friendly and full of advice. I told him I was going to go to Yala National Park soon, and he warned me not to go. “Too many tourists,” he said. “You never seen any animals. All the people come here and complain, ‘Yala is no good!’” He went on to tell me that I should instead go to Udawalawe, where he said you are practically guaranteed to see an elephant.
With that in mind, I continued my walk back to the homestay on tired legs. Along the dirt path, I saw an old man sitting cross-legged and looking very disheveled. He shouted at me, “Hey, look here!” and opened a little wicker basket. I stopped only momentarily to see what he was doing, and saw as he slapped his hand into the basket, withdrawing it very quickly as an angry cobra emerged. It reared up, hissing loudly and striking this way and that, before the man pulled out an instrument called a pungi, and played his song, putting the snake into a trance. It was clear he wanted me to take a picture of him (he was sitting carefully so that Ella’s Rock was visible in the background) and of course to pay him for the privilege. I immediately continued me walk and tried not to make eye contact, for I felt very conflicted. My initial reaction was amazement. Snake-charming is something I’d only ever seen in movies and on TV, and I had associated it with the exotic setting of ancient India. It filled me with a bit of boyish excitement, even nostalgia for a time I’d never experienced. Yet, another part of me was keenly aware of the cruelty most probably involved. Although I’m no expert, I was pretty sure it was common practice to defang the snakes, or to drug them. In any case, the snakes probably don’t much care for being confined and slapped on the head, and I would give no financial assistance to anyone harming an animal.
When I got back, the old woman made me dinner – a huge spread of curry, dhal, pickles, poppadums, rice, and roti. Sri Lankan food, I decided, is among the greatest in the world.
Last night I was able to watch the supermoon from the roof of a tall building in the middle of Huainan. The location was not ideal, as the city gives off both light pollution and air pollution, but the sky was unusually clear, and the moon was right overhead between 8pm-10pm. This will likely be the closest the moon comes to earth within my lifetime, and I was glad to shoot a couple of pretty clear shots. I’d ordered a tripod on the 11/11 Chinese shopping holiday, but it hadn’t arrived by yesterday, so I ended up just trying to keep a steady hand as I zoomed in on this rock, which was about 221,500 miles away…
Earlier this year I posted a photo I took in Southern Africa of the night sky. To some of you, seeing the stars at night – and I mean thousands of stars – is probably something you take for granted. And yet, for most people on this planet, they are disappearing. If you live in or near a city, chances are that your night sky looks pretty dull. Perhaps, on a clear night, you may see a handful of stars.
Yet this is not what we are, as a species, accustomed to. Since long before we knew what a star was, we have wandered the world, looking up and navigating by the stars, speculating upon their role in our world, making up stories about them… They are a part of us, and we are losing them to light pollution and smog.
In Eastern China, where I live, the stars are a rarity. Granted, this year, with government efforts to reduce pollution, we can see more than in the previous five years, but nonetheless it makes for pitiful viewing. As I wandered the plains of Africa last winter, I marvelled over the incredible number of visible stars, and lamented the fact that I know so little about them. In the Philippines, many years ago, I remember floating out at sea in the middle of the night, drinking rum and being circled by curious thresher sharks, staring up into the innumerable stars as a bright blue lightning storm exploded on the horizon. The whole Milky Way seemed visible. Years later, I stared up at the stars from a mountaintop in California with the coyotes and cougars and bears… The stars seem paradoxically part of this natural world, and yet they are so alien that they captivate me whenever I’m lucky enough to see them.
On my trek through Southeast Asia this year I paid attention to the skies and even used an app on my iPhone to learn some of the constellations and star names, and was surprised to find that from most rural locations, at least several planets were visible. Bobbing on the sea at night in a small boat, I experienced the incredible sensation of being surrounded by stars from horizon to horizon. Then, on Gili Trawangan, I finally managed to shoot a decent photo of the Milky Way – something I’ve wanted to do for years. Hopefully you will be able to zoom in on this photo like I can on my computer (unfortunately, the mobile version of this site doesn’t allow for that) and see more stars than you could ever count.
After seeing Victoria Falls, there were various activities on offer in the surrounding area. Everything was pretty expensive, unfortunately, but I was keen to see some more wildlife and try some new things.
Everywhere I went, people kept trying to sell me tours, but as I was enjoying my stay at Shoestring Backpackers, I decided to book through their in-house travel agent. They set me up with a canoe trip on the Zambezi River and a Lion Walk – which is, as the name suggests, a walk with lions.
I didn’t know what to expect from the Lion Walk. Its premise was pretty simple, yet utterly unbelievable – walking with lions. It cost $150, and I didn’t know whether my money was going towards looking after lions or exploiting them. In any case, out of curiosity, and with the assurances of the travel agent (whatever that’s worth) I went along one afternoon to find out.
Fortunately for me, as with other parts of my trip around Africa, there weren’t many people on my tour. There were only three of us, in fact. We arrived at a little hut in a National Park and were given a run-down of rules. These included not touching the animals’ heads, not standing in front of them, and not wearing anything that dangles. There were actually a lot of rules and I struggled to remember, but assumed that rather than have a tourist eaten by their lions, the guides would remind me from time-to-time.
Alarmingly soon, we were on our way into the lions’ den. There were no fences – the guide informed us that there was a stream that more or less marked the lions’ territory. There was a man with a gun ahead of us, whom we were told was there to shoot any buffalo or other (non-endangered) big game which might wander into our surrounding area. After only a few minutes we came upon two lions.
It should probably go without saying that walking through a forest and meeting a lion is breath-taking, even when you expect it. They were babies, at only 22 months old, but nonetheless massive and majestic animals. They lay sleepily in the shade, on cool grass. We were told their names (one of them was called Belezulu and I don’t remember the other) and that they were siblings.
Soon the lions were on their feet and we walked them around a well-trodden path. The three tourists took our turns walking beside the lions as they wandered hither and thither, pouncing on dragonflies and chasing guinea fowl. The guide gave strict and constant instructions of where to stand and what to do in order to not get eaten.
It was a wonderful and surreal experience. At the end we were again given information about the cause and allowed to ask questions. It seems the lions are taken in as babies and raised by rangers. They are exposed to humans until 24 months, after which time they have absolutely no contact with people. They are, however, monitored for about three years, before going truly into the wild.
Next up was a canoe trip on the Zambezi River, run through a company called Wild Horizons. This began early morning with a game drive through Zambezi National Park. We spotted plenty bird life and some big game, but nothing spectacular. I didn’t mind because I’d had some great safari tours so far on the trip, and was looking forward to the canoeing.
When we arrived at the river there was a crocodile immediately in our path. It was just a little one, but it was right beside where we intended to launch the canoes. Our guide informed us that the crocodiles weren’t a big problem. He said crocodiles aren’t particularly dangerous when canoeing and that we really needed to worry about hippos, which are bad tempered and could flip or destroy a canoe with ease.
After being given a lot of guidance in how to react during the rather likely event of a hippo attack, we set out onto the river and it was surprising how slow the current moved. We very gently let the current carry us along. I was in one canoe with the guide while the two other tourists were in another canoe behind us.
From the canoe we saw numerous impressive birds and dozens of hippos. We stayed clear of the hippos as much as possible, but now and then they’d just appear from nowhere.
After two hours were went through a small rapids and emerged almost on top of three large hippos. My guide, who was steering from behind, banked hard right and we paddled for an alternate route, away from the giant animals. Soon we slowed right down and let the current take us once again.
After a few seconds, however, my guide, who had been unflappably calm throughout the whole trip, flipped out when there was a sudden bump underneath us, and he started shouting: “A big croc! A big croc! Go! Go! Go!” I thought it was some sort of joke and paddled towards the shore; however, when we got there and turned to look back, there was indeed a massive crocodile where we had just come from. The old English couple behind us paddled unwittingly past the croc to the bank and got out.
I stood and watched the crocodile, listening to the guide as he calmed down. He’d hit the crocodile accidentally with his paddle and it had come up under our boat and hit us. It was hardly a “croc attack” but it was a nice exciting story to take away from another otherwise relaxing and pleasant trip down one of the world’s great rivers.
The next morning, having spent altogether far too much money, I hitched a ride to the border with Botswana – the start of a long, long hitch-hiking journey throughout Zimbabwe’s neighbor to the west.
After leaving St. Lucia, I took a mini-bus to Durban in the hopes of doing some cage diving with the sharks at nearby Aliwal Shoal. While there I stayed at Banana Backpackers, which is hands-down the worst hostel I’ve ever encountered. If you’re a fan of rats and cockroaches, by all means check it out. Otherwise, stay clear. Unfortunately for me, the currents were strong and visibility was down to nil, so the diving was cancelled.
I was not wildly impressed by Durban, mostly because I’m not a city person, so, after only one night I took a Greyhound bus to Johannesburg, and on to Zimbabwe. Mercifully I was only in Jo’burg for a few hours as I waited for a bus transfer. It seemed like hell on earth. In the short journey through the city on the bus, I saw numerous people being arrested, and countless others should should’ve been arrested. At the station I was constantly being approached by scam-artists – many of them who actually worked for bus companies.
Needless to say, I was glad to be on my way to Zimbabwe. However, at the border we encountered a delay. We arrived at 5am and it took until 7am for me to get my passport stamped. What was the cause of the delay? Oh, nothing. There’s just no rush in Zimbabwe… I was furious and thought that I’d miss my bus, but when I returned it was still waiting. “That’s lucky,” I thought.
I took my seat and waited… and waited… and waited.
When eventually we took off from the border and headed towards Bulawayo it was almost three o’clock! That’s more than nine hours waiting at the border!
Although the scenery on the way to Bulawayo was quite pleasing, I was too annoyed to enjoy it. Yet as we pulled into Bulawayo I couldn’t help but feel my heart lighten a little. It really is a charming little town. Bizarrely, it is reminiscent of both old Britain and old America. Trees everywhere, wide boulevards, old manor houses… It is an odd place, but very pleasant.
When we stopped, I got out and followed my iPhone’s directions to the nearest hostel. It was about two kilometers. A few taxi drivers tried to get me to ride with them but I said no. Amazingly, they politely accepted my refusal. What a nice change.
I walked to the hostel and got a reasonably priced bed for the night. The hostel had obviously fallen on hard times, and had a sign outside reassuring me that it was, in fact, open. I went in and the nice lady in charge seemed desperate, offering me a rate that was much cheaper than advertised, as well as an instant room upgrade. I went outside to find food and got a steak in an American steakhouse for $18. Given that my daily food budget had been about $3 until this point, it was quite a splurge.
The next day I book a daytrip to Matopo National Park, famous for its balancing boulders. Whereas in South Africa the parks had all been surprisingly cheap, here it seemed things would be much more expensive. My daytrip ended up costing $100 and didn’t even include a guide – just a driver.
My driver soon showed up and took me to Matopo. On the way, we were repeatedly stopped by police. It seemed that they were stopping everyone, hoping for some excuse to impose a fine. In his case, the driver was simply unlicensed to be taking people to the park. He managed to talk his way through each stop, though.
At the park, we drove around, seeing the main attractions. My driver spoke good English and obviously remembered much of what the guide had said, so he acted as a guide for me. However, he had no idea what any of the animals were, and so when it came to wildlife, I was the guide. He was also super-Christian (like most Zimbabweans seemed to be) and didn’t really understand much about world history. So he’d ask me things like, “Why did God make those rocks like that?” and I’d have to gently explain the finer points of our planet’s history.
We first visited the grave of Cecil John Rhodes, who is now a very controversial figure, with his statues being removed in the West due to rejection of our colonial past. In Zimbabwe, however, he seems more fondly remembered. Politics aside, his gravesite was well-chosen. While there, my guide and I saw a leopard fighting a pack of baboons down below.
After that we continued to a number of caves, where we saw ancient cave paintings. These really impressed me. I’ve attached some photos below, but due to Chinese internet problems I can’t attach as many as I’d like.
After the park, my driver took me to the train station and I got the train back north to Victoria Falls. I shared a cabin with some railway staff who were travelling for free on their work pass. One of them told me that they hadn’t been paid since December, 2014! He cursed the Mugabe government for its corruption and failure to lead the country. They continue to go to work each day, hoping to get paid, while receiving food from their families to keep them alive.
Once I’m done going through all these African photos I’ve been posting lately, I’m going to start working backwards and uploading older photos and travel stories. Next up is North Korea.
Last summer, I visited North Korea to run the Mt. Paekdu half-marathon. It was one of the most amazing and eye-opening trips of my life, and changed my attitudes towards politics and the world.
On that trip I got to see inside a country that few others ever have the chance of visiting, and saw into the lives of the people who lived there. You often see stories in the Guardian and elsewhere that sensationalize it, but these are filled with bullshit. People write stories and post misleading photos in order to make sell their article. I’m not trying to say my experience was more “authentic” or anything like that, but that these other photographers and journalists aren’t interested in the true face of humanity.
In North Korea I met real humans… That shouldn’t be remotely surprising, but it is for most people. When I posted my photos and stories on Facebook, the response from people – intelligent people – was one of total shock at how life goes on in North Korea. Of course, a tour will never take you into the gulags and ghettos, but you do see far, far more than you’d ever expect, and you do meet people from all walks of life in that forgotten country.
Every time I see North Korea come up in the news I feel sadness at how we treat them. There are so many countries in this world with terrible governments – so many who are worse than the Kim dynasty – and yet we single out North Korea for our own political reasons and we sanction them and isolate them. In the end, we want to use their people as a tool. We want enough people to starve and suffer that the population rises up and overthrows the government…
Then we’ll have shown that they were always going to fail. That their way isn’t as good as our way. It’s artificial. It’s a contrived situation. I’m not a Kim apologist. I hope that one day he is overthrown and punished and that the people know some measure of happiness. But we are making them suffer through our actions and we call ourselves goddamn humanitarians for doing so.
After leaving Tofo I travelled south to the capital of Mozambique, Maputo, via a small combi bus. This was the first of many combi trips on my African journeys, and a gentle introduction to the concept of “African Time” – the slow paced life that is common throughout the continent, where nothing leaves on time and no one likes to be rushed.
In Maputo I had some big problems as I couldn’t access any of my bank accounts, and there seemed to be no internet connection. Up north I’d had no internet whatsoever, and just trusted that I could get online in the capital. Alas, I was mistaken.
I managed to get a combi to the South African border for $1 and walked across on foot, following the Maps.ME app on my iPhone to a guesthouse in Komatipoort, just a couple of kilometers from the Ressano Garcia border crossing. The place was called Kruger View Backpackers, and true to its name I could see Kruger National Park from the decking on the second floor. In fact, in the day I could see kudu and impala, and at night I could hear hippos in the Crocodile River.
I stayed a few days and during that time they helped me book a day tour of Kruger. Luckily for me, no one else booked the trip and so I got a personal tour of the park. The above photos were taken by me during that day. You can see that it was raining, which was very rare during this especially dry season. The rain seemed to bring out the animals, and I saw four of the Big Five – everything except a lion. I was lucky enough to see a leopard, although it was hard to get a photo of him.
Kruger is one of the best protected and most impressive parks on Earth, yet even they are losing rhinos to poaching at an alarming rate. According to my guide, we have about six years before they’re all gone. The night before I arrived, on a full moon, poachers shot dead two rhino near the Crocodile Bridge camp before anti-poaching teams could be dispatched. Fortunately, the poachers were all killed or arrested, except for one. However, for as long as rich people want rhino horn, there will be poor people highly paid to do this despicable act. I felt privileged to see these beautiful animals up close in the wild. If I ever have children, they won’t be so lucky.