Saturday, August 11, 2007


Written by Lynn

Morocco is an interesting country in that it is less than an hour by boat away from Spain, and as such has a heavy European tourist influence. But there is no mistaking the fact that you are in an Islamic country the minute you land at the airport. Most of the women still wear full dress in the form of djellabas when they go out, a loose fitting, hooded gown. The call for prayers will echo through the streets five times a day and there are camels weaving through the traffic of downtown Marrakech. All the larger towns and cites have a walled medina (or old Arab quarter) in the centre built of reddish coloured sandstone. In general, it would be pretty hard to think you were still in Europe.
One thing that you do have to be very careful of, as a woman travelling in Morocco, is your state of dress (or undress as they would think). While they are very used to seeing Western women clad in shorts and tank tops, to do so is to invite harassment and comments from men. Even wearing pants can be provocative, so buying a long skirt, carrying a scarf to cover your shoulders and your hair and walking with a man can help make your visit more enjoyable. In one city I was wearing shorts when I walked to an ATM by myself just after we got off a bus and had some kids throw rocks at me!
Our very first impression of Morocco was that it was bloody hot! July is not the optimum time to visit this country (notice the thermometer reading on the upper part of the watch), with the average tempurature in Marrakech hovering around 38 degrees celsius. Rooms in general were fairly expensive, but if you wanted an air conditioner so you could sleep at night, costs double. We put up with no air conditioner for the first four nights, then realized that we really weren't going to get any sleep unless we splurged, so went all out every 3 or 4 nights after this.

Our first stop was Marrakech. We went out that night to enjoy the live entertainment at Djemaa el Fna, Africa's largest square. During the day there are a few juice stands and some sellers, but not much else. At night the place is jammed packed with a series of open air restaurants that seem to spring up out of no where and a variety of street performers, everything from snake charmers to story tellers and traditional dancers. There are, of course, an awful lot of pickpockets and beggars out as well, so keep a good hold on your wallet. And, if you're Gilles anyways, you will be having to constantly turn down offers of "top quality hashish", or "Vitamin H" as one enterprising young gentleman termed it. Morocco is actually the world's largest exporter of cannabis, most of which is turned into hashish and seems to be readily available everywhere. I would like to point out that I was not offered drugs once on our entire travel (I'm not sure if I should be offended about this or not), though Gilles must look like a real pot head to the dealers, as they didn't seem to believe him even after he turned them down a few times and would trail after him on the streets trying to convince him they had good stuff to sell!

Morocco is, however, a teetoller country and it is very hard to find any alcohol for sale, except in some of the more upscale restaurants that cater to tourists. Instead of bars there are cafes everywhere that are filled with men drinking gallons of "moroccan whiskey" or mint tea flavoured with mounds of sugar. While there are no Moroccan females present, they don't seem to mind a Western woman sitting down for a drink, probably because they don't really consider us proper women anyways. Just as well they don't drink as the younger Moroccan men seem to spend all their time hanging out together at these cafes, from early morning until late into the evening. Women you actually don't see that much of as you will not find them working in any of the shops, restaurants or cafes.

The other cool thing about Marrakech (and most other big Moroccan cities) is their souk, or market place. Marrakech has one of the biggest souks, split up in to a confusing array of alleyways and tiny little nooks. If you're looking for something specific you can ask for directions to the Souk Bradila (pitchers), Souk Smarine (clothing), Souk Kebi (leather) or Souk Zrabia (carpet) to name a few. Just be prepared - if you ask someone for directions, they will usually insist on taking you there themselves, then will demand an outrageous tip for the "help". Sometimes you will even just be walking in the same direction as someone who has come up to you on the street and pointed in a direction with no prompting, but will then claim they "guided" you to a mosque, souk or street corner. Having said this, Morocco is famous for its hospitality. Often this will take the form of being offered mint tea when you go into a shop, though at times this ploy is used to make tourists feel obligated to buy something (and the shop keepers certainly know how to lay on a guilt trip, be ready to just walk away from them, and sometimes even get nasty as the occasional place can be very aggressive about insisting you buy things). We did however have several great encounters with locals, who invited us to lunch with them, showed us around the Kasbah area of Marrakech and didn't pressure us to buy things from them. We usually did out of politeness sake anyways, but felt that even if we were overcharged a bit it was worth it for the opportunity to talk to local people without having to undergo a big sales pitch.

The food here was great, a welcome relief, and is likely our favourite "new" food type with chicken tajines (chicken cooked over charcoal with vegetables, spices, olives and marinated lemons in a conical earthenware pot) eaten with fresh bread coming in at the top. As well, fresh sqeezed orange juice, excellent cappicinos and, of course, mint tea, meant that most meals were a pleasure to enjoy.
After Marrakech we took off to Rabat to go to the Canadian Embassy. I wanted to double check that my passport would be good enough to get through three more countries - Spain, Egypt and London - and possibly get a new one. Unfortunately it takes at least 4 weeks to get a new passport, time we didn't really have, and the embassy seemed to think I would be okay. It was good that we stopped in, though, because Gilles actually saw an old Canadian friend, Jan, who had married a Moroccan woman after converting to Islam. He offered us some advice on places to go and see, plus it was good to see a familiar face.

We caught a train from Rabat to Fez and decided to actually pay for an official guide to take us through the medina in this city. Fez has an impressively ancient and confusing medina which is considered the largest car free urban area in the world. It is a veritable warren of streets and a guide is highly recommended so that you can get your bearing. Official guides in Morocco have to be licenced and the tourist police will check any local taking you around for an identification tag that proves such. This is because of all the problems that tourists had with "unofficial" guides robbing them, and getting them lost in the medina, then demanding outrageous sums to get them back out. The guides are generally quite inexpensive (we paid about $20 for a 5 hour tour) but only because part of the tour involves them taking you into a variety of stores where they get a commission when you buy something. It is always better, if you are really interested in purchasing an expensive item, to go back the next day on your own as guides can get as much as a 40% commission, which is, of course, passed on to the consumer. We were very upfront with our guide saying we had no intention of buying anything, but that we'd be happy to go to a carpet makers, leather workers overlooking the tannery and an antique store just out of curiosity. I don't think he really believed us, as by the end he was kind of upset that we really hadn't even shown interest in buying anything. Still, it is interesting to see how the handmade carpets are produced and learn how to tell a good carpet from a bad one. The tannery was an experience, and a really smelly one at that. It is fascinating to see that they are still using the vats that were built here centuries ago. The stiff, foul smelling skins from goats, cows and camels are soaked in vats of pigeon dung and urine to loosen the hair and soften the leather. Then all the excess flesh and hair is scraped off the skin and they are dyed a variety of colours or dried and softened into a natural shade. The job here is considered one of the lowest on the social ladder and is a hereditary position, passed on from father to son. We also saw the University of Al-Karaouine, the world's oldest institute of higher learning, established in 859 AD. There was also mosques, an ancient water clock and impressive mosaics to visit.
After Fez we proceeded onto one of our main destinations in the country, which was the Sahara desert. In spite of the heat we felt we would be remiss in not taking the opportunity to do a camel trek in the desert (after all, when are you going to get the chance to do so again). We proceeded by bus to the town of Merzouga where we negotiated a deal for a 3 night stay at a really nice hotel right on the edge of the desert, including breakfast and dinner, an overnight camel safari and (thank god) an air conditioned room at night. The hotel luckily had a pool, because we managed to record a high tempurature of 54 degrees celsius one afternoon while hanging around outside. The camel trek itself was fascinating, if incredibly uncomfortable (not recommended for those who think riding a horse is tough, this feels a hundred times worse). I think they call them the ships of the desert because you can get sea sick riding one. The camp we had was set amongst the sand dunes with small tents made out of hand woven carpets. Since we didn't leave until after 5PM the tempurature wasn't too bad, but we did encounter a pretty viscious sand storm, meaning that there was grit everywhere - in the food, your hair, under your clothes. Interesting yes, comfortable no...........

We begged a ride back to the main town of Er Rachida from a couple who had a rental car at the hotel. From here we planned to catch the bus back to Marrakech. Unfortunately we had missed the only bus in the early morning, so were forced to stay overnight. This turned out okay as we met some great guys who, upon seeing Gilles carrying his guitar, insisted we go to a cafe with them. They called a few of their friends out, including one guy who was a fabulous musician. He kept us amused for hours playing everything from traditional Berber songs, to the Cranberries, to little spoof songs that made fun of the people wandering around us. In return Gilles gave him his electronic LED tuner that he had found incredibly fascinating (and he outright asked for, there is no shyness about the Moroccan men).
In Marrakech we caught a bus to Essaouria. We had almost a week left in Morocco and were getting VERY tired of the heat. Essaouria is on the coast and is boasted to be one of the world's best places for wind- and kite-surfing. It also happens to be at least 15 degrees cooler than anywhere else in the country. Without the need for an air conditioned room we managed to get a cheap place to stay and wandered around for several days. I indulged in some shopping, which I had held off doing for most of the trip, too lazy to carry anything, and we hung out at cafes and watched the large local population of stray cats make themselves at home. You tend not to see stray dogs as most Muslims consider them dirty (if a dog touches something you have to wash it 7 times for it to be considered clean again), but have no problems at all with cats, though after one pissed on my backpack while we were at a cafe I tended to disagree. We actually managed to find a small restaurant there that had a satellite dish and would allow Gilles to watch a little of the Tour de France, which is his annual July ritual.
So three weeks in Morocco made us appreciate cooler weather, less aggressive touts and beggars, a glass of wine with dinner and cheap accomodations in Asia. On the other hand, the shopping was fantastic (as long as you know how to bargain), people once they realized you weren't going to buy stuff from them could generally be pretty friendly, and it was like no where else we've ever been. So come on out, just make sure you don't visit in summer unless you really enjoy hot weather, and you may want to bring padded pants for your camel ride.....................

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Mozambique and Swaziland

Written by Lynn

As a break from all the hustle and bustle of our wildlife viewing in Kruger National Park we decided to go Swaziland and Mozambique. This plan was fraught with danger. Not because of internal strife, civil war or guerilla activity, but rather because I was running out of pages on my passport. South Africa requires that you have 2 completely blank pages when you enter the country, and I was a long way from that! But with plenty of blank corners in the passport, the knowledge that if all else fails bribery was an option, and the strong belief that no one at the borders actually cares, we decided to risk it.

Our first break involved going into the incredibly friendly, relaxed country of Swaziland. This land locked country is one of the smallest on continental Africa, and is ruled by a monarchy whose roots stretch back to the beginning of the 19th century. Traditionally the king rules the country in concert with his mother, the Indlovukai or Great She Elephant. She is considered the spiritual leader of the country, while her son is the administrative leader. Succession is a bit of a complicated affair as the king himself does not choose who will take over the throne once he passes. Instead the royal family elects one of his wives to become the Indlovukai and her son automatically becomes king. The new monarch must be the only son of a royal wife of upstanding character, who is not one of the "ritual wives" (spouse assigned by the government to a newly elected king, born of one of the two main royal lines). Once a king is crowned he has virtual autonomy in the country and puts in place his own Prime Minister as well as most of the cabinet. The present king, Mswati III, has been heavily criticized for living a luxurious lifestyle in a very poor country.
Swaziland's main export is cane sugar, and the country actually has one of the highest GDP's per capita in Africa. Unfortunately, over 40% of the land in Swaziland (and the majority of the arable property) is owned by foreign investors, leaving most native Swazis existing on less than $1/day. As well, Swaziland has the dubious honour of having the highest rate of HIV infection in the world, standing at 38.8% of the population being positive for the virus. In an attempt to control the spread of HIV/AIDS, King Mswati imposed the rite of UMCHWASHO, or chastity ritual, in 2001. According to traditional belief, during a period of umchwasho unwed maidens are supposed to wear coloured tassels denoting their status as virgins, and are to stay such for the next 5 years. Those under 19 years of age are to have no contact at all with males, while those over 19 are restricted from having sexual intercourse only. Should the rite be broken, the girl's family would be fined, usually the outrageous sum of 1 cow. Due to the outcry from young women who said that their suitors would be unwilling to wait 5 years for them, the ban was lifted one year early in 2005. There was also a bit of a scandal when the king, in 2004 broke the ban himself by taking a new wife, though he did make sure to pay up with a nice bull calf for the honour.

King Mswati, at the present time, has 11 wives and 2 fiancees. His latest fiancee was chosen during the 2004 UMHLANGA (or "reed dance") festival. During this festival, held usually in the month of August, 20,000 to 30,000 maidens voluntarily participate in a 3 day ritual that ends with a dance in front of the king, local Swazis and, these days swarms of tourists. The king will give a "state of the union" speech prior to the dance, and has the option of choosing for himself a new wife from among the maidens present. King Mswati's father took full advantage of Swaziland's tolerance of polygamy, having accrued more than 70 wives in his lifetime, many of them chosen during the reed dance ceremonies.

Regardless of whether or not you agree with polygamy and an absolute monarchy, it is hard to not appreciate what Swaziland has to offer tourists. As soon as you cross over the border it seems that everyone is smiling a little more and is a little more welcoming. The land changes almost immediately from wide open lowveld plains into rolling, majestic hills. As you drive through the country you pass many roadside stands offering a variety of handicrafts, and often vendors will attempt to draw you in by having young children dancing on the sides of the road.

Our destination was the Mlilwane Wildlife Sanctuary. Not for the wildlife viewing which, quite frankly in comparison to Kruger, is very sparse, but for the Sondzela Backpackers. This much talked about hostel has the well deserved reputation of being one of the most relaxing places on earth to hang out at. The staff is all from the local village, just outside the borders of the sanctuary, and are immensely pleased that you would consider driving so far off the tourist track to visit them. Every night they make a traditional feast over the outdoor fire pit and invite guests to join them. Our first night we had impala stew with roasted squash, beetroot salad and rice. Surprisingly, impala tastes pretty much like what I remember moose is like. The young man running the "front desk" (you actually just kind of wander onto the site and look around for someone who would be willing to take your money, there are no locks on the huts so theoretically you don't really need to pay) was very interested in hearing about the types of animals we hunt and eat in Canada. He didn't think that garbage eating black bears were to his taste, however. After dinner you can relax by the fire, play pool in the open air bar area, go for a swim or just wander back down to your rondawel that is set overlooking the Mhlanbanyatsi Valley where warthogs seem to rule supreme. It is strongly recommended you don't leave any food lying outside your hut as the hogs are pretty pushy about stealing what you don't watch carefully.
We did spend one day at the Mantenga Cultural Village where you enter the traditional living area by shouting out "yebo nkosi" so that someone can come an ritually welcome you to their home. We were treated to a tour of the village (which people still live in) by the chief, Albert and then took seats in the ampitheatre to watch a traditional story dance performed by the local youths. In it a young girl who was betrothed to an evil old man falls in love with a handsome warrior who saves her from a lion. Torn between love and honour, she turns her back on the handsome warrior to fulfill her obligations. But in the meantime the old lecher has caught wind of the two lovers and has accused the young girl of infidelity. The witch doctor steps in just as the girl and the warrior are about to be executed and uses magic to prove their honesty.

Beyond this we really didn't do much, a few short walks in the park (no lions or other dangerous animals, so very safe to wander around inside the gates as opposed to Kruger) and a whole lot of watching the world wander by. Refreshed after a few days we returned to South Africa (no problems at the border) and spent a few more days in Kruger Park before the rental on our car ran out.
The hostel we were staying in outside of Kruger, the Kruger View Backpackers, is only about 5 minutes from the Mozambique border. So we had our host, Dave drop us off at the immigration office. Our reason for going to Mozambique was simple - whale sharks. Apparently Mozambique has some of the largest concentration of whale sharks in the world. These guys are the largest fish in the ocean. The peaceful creatures are actually filter feeders, sucking up tons of nutritious plankton a day. It's a good thing they have not an aggressive bone in their body, because these guys are HUGE! The largest recorded whale shark was 41.5 feet long, but there have been anecdotal reports of them ranging up to one 75 foot monster that dwarfed the fishing boat that pulled up beside it. Their mouths stretch open to over 3 feet, and are filled with 300 to 350 small teeth. They are actually very tolerant, and apparently sometimes even playful, with human snorkellers.
All sounds great, really cool, a "must-do". This is, of course, easier than it sounds. We had to get to Tofo Beach in Inhambane, Mozambique. The first challenge was crossing the border, where line ups during the week can take at least 3 hours, double this on the weekends. So we did something we had never done before and played the white tourist, paying someone to hustle us through immigration. He also put us on the right mini van, loaded to the gills with locals, heading to the capital, Maputo, 2 hours away. By the time we got there our butts were pretty numb from having been shoved in the back of a van with our backpacks resting on our knees. Our next challenge was getting to Inhambane, which consisted to a 6 hour bus ride to the town of Xai-Xai the next day, then a ferry crossing to the town. Then another mini bus had to be caught to Tofo Beach, where whale shark snorkelling tours could be had. Whew, another exhausting day. We stayed at a nice hostel called Fatima's in a grass hut with no floor and only mosquito nets protecting the beds (no bedding actually provided, which was too bad since it was winter and we had no sleeping bags). Tofo Beach is a quiet, idyllic stretch of sand where, apart from diving and snorkelling with the whale sharks, there isn't much to do. It seems that an overabundance of young, 20-something Europeans were hanging out there, which led to an awful lot of late night partying and drinking for two old timers like us, who retired almost as soon as the sun went down.

That's okay, though, we were here for only one reason. The next day we were off in the zodiac boat in search of whale sharks. The dive centre gives everyone a snorkel, mask and fins. They zip out in the tiny boat amongst 10 foot tall swells. When they see a large dark shadow just below the surface they yell "out of the boat" at which point you foolishly obey and throw yourself into the ocean. Close to drowning due to his inability to swim (not really sure why he went in the first time, I think we forgot he was a land lubber), Gilles managed to have a close encounter on his one and only time out of the boat, almost landing on top of the hapless whale shark as he enthusiastically plunged into the ocean. After this we managed to find another 3 whale sharks and have a reasonable time viewing them. My advice, however, to all would be whale shark snorkellers is to not go with a boatful of teenage boys. They just couldn't seem to understand that if they dived around the whale shark trying to touch her, she would just sink down away from us to avoid contact. So sadly, my visions of spending half an hour lazily paddling along side one of these bohemoths didn't come to fruition, but it was still an incredible experience.

Anxious to avoid another night in Maputo we left the hostel the next day at about 4AM and headed back to South Africa. Luckily it's a lot easier to get out of Mozambique than it is to get in, so we managed to be back at our favourite hostel, Kruger View, by supper than evening. With only a few days left in South Africa, we decided to rent another car and spend our last bit of time doing what we loved best - safari driving in Kruger Park.