Monday, February 13, 2012

Earning the "Crazy Roads" Stripes

OK, it has to be said that the main difference between the previous two trips you have so politely joined me on and this one, is that I was independently mobile for the first two, while I have had to rely on public transport in Tanzania. All that was about to change, as four other people and I haggled over the price of a hire car for the day. We got the price down from US$45 to US$35 using the tried and tested method of pretending we'd had a better offer elsewhere. This cunning ruse secured us the use of a Toyota Escudo (I think...), which was delivered sucking fumes from the empty gas tank. This is the renters cunning ruse: start empty, finish empty, knowing full well that any tourist will have no idea of distances to travel or fuel consumption, thus needlessly over-filling the tank and returning the car with what has now become free petrol for the renter. We obliged by throwing in about 20l of fuel, which was maybe 10l less than we were recommended for our proposed trip. We figured we could always top up en troute if needs be.

My companions for the day were Nanda and Diana again, and an English couple called Chris and Ally who were staying in the same accommodation as N and D. None of us had driven in Africa before, despite Diana, Chris and Ally having spent some considerable time living and working there, so I volunteered for the first stint, both because I'd driven insane traffic in South America and because I wanted to drive the insane traffic of Stone Town so I could legitimately count this holiday under the "Crazy Roads" banner. Insane it may have been - definitely was, in fact - but also not nearly as insane as in Dar, so I felt confident...just so long as all I had to concentrate on was dodging things (livestock/kids/bikes/adults/scooters/ potholes/taxis/the list is almost endless), and leave someone else to worry about where we were acually going.

It started well....ish. I failed to hit anyone/thing and we got on what General Concensus said was the right road. As is often the case, however, the General had no idea what was going on in the trenches, and we ended up at the airport. The turn around to escape was in the short-stay car park and, after a little confusion on the one-way exit route out (which invloved the smallest moment of locked wheels on the slidey gravel, a cheer and much laughter from the watching taxi drivers and a brandished machete from the driver of the 'other vehicle'- in fun, I think, although he was scowling now I com eto think about it), we were back on the road.

Diana - our capable Kiswahili speaker and a person more used to traveling solo and not that keen on group activities (her school report would almost certainly have read "does not always play well with others. Has difficulty sharing her toys" as well as, perhaps, "does not like spending money") was insistent that we should stop and ask directions, which we eventually did. She then chose not to talk, leaving us non-Kiswahili speakers to try and muddle through. Eventually she chipped in, but it was one of those strange situations where the rest of us all kind of looked at each other and wondered what her problem was, seeing as she'd asked for something, been given it and then not seemed to want to help. I wondered if the day was about to degenerate into tension and sulking, but as it turned out this was very nearly an isolated incident.

Finally, we got the right road and we were off. Once out of the densly populated areas, the traffic dried right up and the going was good. Nothing to dodge or swerve around, and only the occasional speed bumps to mark the way in and out of villages, but an observant man (take note, Dear Reader) like myself worked this out and and anticipated them, thus minimising their, quite literal, impact on the trip. We had one standard police check point, at which we were not fined, hassled or inconvenienced in any way at all, and then it was all on for the east coast beaches. To get there, though, we had to go past Jozani Forest, home to the world's only population of Red Colobus monkeys. Now, those that know me will guess that I'd have been up for a short stop to go take a peek, but it turned out that everyone else was running on a tighter budget than me, so the US$8 was too steep a price to pay. No matter, I'd seen monkeys before, and besides it was getting pretty hot and the beach beckoned.

Jambiani beach, like most of the east coast beaches, is vast at low tide. The water recedes a loooooong way, revealing expanses of seaweed that the locals go out to harvest, dry and eat. Unfortunately, it also means that there is no swimming to be had until the sea has made its loooooong way back in again. We arrived at low tide, needless to say, so were able to enjoy a stunning scene, made more interesting by the hive of activity being entered into by the locals, but were unable to enjoy a cooling dip. It was also a bit early for lunch, so a cold drink later at a slightly over-priced resort restaurant, and we were off again (this time with Chris behind the wheel) to take a look at Paje beach, about 5km north. Chris and Ally were to be staying there the following week and wanted to check out their digs and put down a deposit, and we all agreed now seemed a good time for that. It took some to-ing adn fro-ing to find their place, however, and by the time we did, a few tempers were fraying and it had become apparent that Chris was not quite so observant a driver as the previous pilot when it came to speed bumps. Now, perhaps I should have offered some advice, but I didn't want to back seat drive, and besides, I thought I'd give him a chance to work it out before patronising him. Bad (but comical) move.

Paje was very similar to Jambiani, and although the tide was coming in by now, it was still not swimmable. Another beer for me (not driving at this point, of course), and no food despite the now appropriate hour (we decided to look for something "cheap and local") and we were off again, Chris once again in control - well, he'd only done a few kms. It turned out that Chris was something of a speed freak, pushing the pain threshold of the local vehicle in unknown condition to its limits on the flat. This also made it hard for him to spot the speed bumps (and we're talking double the normal height bumps here, at least), especially as he apparently hadn't made the village = bumps connection yet, so the poor car was given the thrashing of its long and poorly treated life. Again, I gave him the benefit of the doubt, but eventually felt it would not be too fussy to drop into conversation the suggestion that the bumps by the villages must be used instead of the absent speed limit signs, to ensure that people slow down as they go through. We all agreed, even Chris, who then continued to hoon over the bumps, power through the middle of the villages and then get thumped by the bumps at the other end as well! I gave up, figuring there is only so much help you can give some people, and resolved that if he broke the car I'd not be chipping in to fix it. In my book, damage caused to a joint rental car due to driver error is on the driver. If I were to break it on my shift, I would not ask for contributions, so I was not going to pay up on someone else's shift. I just hoped the situation would not arise when I would have to make my stand.

As luck would have it, part of our route to Pongwe beach (the only low-tide swimmable beach on the east coast) took us on a rough track. On our return run we found the tarmac road, but for now, off road it was. Bumpy and slow, perhaps, but the car appreciated the gentler bumps I'm sure.

Pongwe beach was amazing. One of the few good beaches on Zanzibar not yet surrounded by resorts, like hungry vultures around a fresh kill, it was a smallish bay rather than a long beach, which kept the water further in at low tide. The village was small and wobbly, like all the villages, and after rejecting the very exclusive Italian resort, we opted for the normal priced but equally pleasant Santa Maria for lunch and another beer - and a swim this time. Despite the now reasonable prices, Diana abstained from spending money once again, but everyone else ordered food and went for dip until it came.

The water in the bay was like a bath. It was so warm it was not even close to being refreshing, but that was of no importance, as the setting was once again idyllic, Zanzibar pulling out the stops all over again. Flocks of waders exploded from the sand, did a quick lap of the bay, flashing dark then light as they wheeled about in perfect, rippling, synchronisation, before settling back on the sand. One of my favourite sights in nature, and one that I see all too rarely, put on for me at a beautiful beach on a beautiful island. This place just seemed to know how to make a good impression.

As 4 o'clock rolled around, we decided to head back to the west coast for the sunset. I took over the driving once again, as much to protect the suspension of the car as to calm my rattled nerves, especially as we'd have to go back into Stone Town again, and I'd rather have been in control of the vehicle than suffer the fear of being a passenger. We made it across the island, in and out of Stone Town, and up the coast to Bububu beach, the site of Sunday's introduction. We found a gated resort to park in to protect the car, with a view over the bay set off by anchored dhows and swimming locals, and watched yet another Oscar worthy sunset. All that was left for us was running the gauntlet of the drive back into town, only this time it would be....IN THE DARK! I took the reins once again (I don't think Chris minded at all - he seemed nervous about town traffic for some reason...) and with some navigational advice, we got back to town in one piece. We had, at Chris's insistance while he was driving, put an extra 5l of fuel in the car part way through the day, so the renters ploy paid off handsomely, as we handed over a car with a fuel gauge showing 1/4 full. I tried to get the guy to repay us at least something, but he insisted there must only be a couple of litres left. I was tired and weary from the slightly stressful driving in town, and got a bit shirty with him. I told him if he didn't want to buy it that was fine, but he shouldn't try and bullshit me by saying it was nearly empty when we both knew it wasn't. Water of a ducks back for both of us, and quickly forgotten.

Once again, Zanzibar had provided the goods and come up trumps. All that was left for the day was to grab a cheap feed at the local market, pack for the trip to Kendwa up the north west coast on the morrow, and meet up later for a celebratory beer at Livingstone's. The only other event worth noting was the local guy Nanada met on her way to the bar, named Lawrence but self-nicknamed Mimi (Swahili for 'Me' because, in his own words "wherever I go, I am ME!"). I was convinced he was off his tree on something, so massively happy about everything was he, and talking so fast and incessantly it was almost impossibe to get a word in, but I met him a few days later too and, not only did he recognise me and remember my name, but he was just the same hyperactive person, and I was with someone who knew him of old and confirmed he was always like that. The guy was high on life it seemed, and was actually hilarious to talk to. Another local encounter that went to show that Zanzibar is a remarkable place indeed. Next on the list was some diving and quality beach-slothing. Time was running out, but the last fw days were set to be good ones. And now I shall leave it there. I have hogged the free Dubai airport internet for long enough, I fear. I may bet another one away from Bankok if time and facilities permit. Otherwise, it will be a round up from back in NZ. See you all later :-)

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