Archive for November, 2007

November 30th 2007
Cape Winelands

Posted under Africa & South Africa

We rented a car for a few weeks and, with beautiful Cape Town fading in the rear view mirror, headed for the wine country. Stellenbosch, the most well-known wine region of South Africa, is a charming and picturesque university town nestled in a rocky mountain valley. It is only a thirty minute drive from Cape Town so, despite a leisurely mid-morning departure, we spied the first welcoming Stellenbosch wineries before lunchtime. With the eagerness of two kids in a candy shop, we pulled into the first winery, called Spier. The property was breathtaking with perfectly parallel grapevines in varying shades of green and a lush lake surrounded by gently rolling hills and old, sweeping trees.

We went straight to the tasting room and dutifully whet our whistles with our first tastes of the coveted fermented grape juice for which we have grown an almost obsessive fondness. The art of wine tasting is a distinctly pleasurable experience. A line of delicately thin, pristinely cut, perfectly polished glasses just barely bottom-filled with luscious liquid in shades of gold, purple and dark red, sparkling elegantly in the sunlight, showing off the unique personality of each wine fills my heart with vibrant warmth and pretentious giddiness. Every precise step in the tasting process contributes to the perfect overall experience: holding the glass of wine (always by the stem, PLEASE!) up to the light to examine its color and legs; swirling the wine within the glass to open up the aroma; gently inhaling the bouquet, identifying particular fruits and spices, preparing your taste buds for the indulgent climax; sipping the wine, letting those first drops slide across every part of your tongue, taking in the full flavor profile – a combination as unique as DNA. And then there is the requisite discussion because each wine is different for every person, according to his or her taste preferences. Give a group of people each a glass of wine from the same bottle and they will likely each identify a unique combination of scents and flavors. Aaron and I have always enjoyed discovering wines together. When we find a new wine that we both love, it is like finding a hidden treasure. The South African wine regions produce an abundance of outstanding whites, specifically Sauvignon Blancs and Chenin Blancs – both of which we love – but the reds leave much to be desired, according to our big, juicy California red-soaked palates.

After our tasting at Spier, we wandered into their gourmet deli and created our own picnic lunch to have beside the lake. It was a gorgeous sunny Sunday and many locals seemed to have the same idea because the lawn around the lake was full of beautiful blonde families. The scene resembled a commercial for some type of All-American product – little girls in pink Sunday dresses with matching ribbons in their golden hair, children riding miniature ponies, all smiles while smiling Dads looked on and Moms gossiped with each other and fussed over the youngest ones. We ate slowly, happily absorbing the golden sunshine and the wholesomeness of the moment, daydreaming of a future day when we might bring our own smiling children for a Sunday picnic…someday. Places to go, things to see first!

After a brief but leisurely stroll around the lake, we hopped back into our trusty VW Polo and hit a couple more wineries before checking into our hostel. Many of the wineries were closed on Sunday so we spent the afternoon driving through the grassy hills and valleys, exploring the winding, tree-lined roads. The day was so lovely that we decided to splurge on dinner at a trendy Mediterranean seafood restaurant on the cute little main street in Stellenbosch.

The hostel only had availability for one night (which didn’t break my heart since it had communal bathrooms anyway) so we packed up our things the next morning and upgraded to another place on the other side of town. Banghoek Place turned out to be a grand improvement! It was a cozy lodge with tastefully decorated rooms, a modern and well-stocked self-catering kitchen, and a more mature clientele than the grungy twenty-something backpackers with whom we usually co-habitate on the road. We settled into our room, thanked God for the Heavenly bed with the big down comforter (it’s cold here, even though it’s summer), and put on our drinking hats for a full day of tasting!

We headed for the hills north of Stellenbosch, where we stumbled upon wineries in such plenty that we had to pass two or three for every one that tempted us inside in order to keep the loose lips of intoxication at bay. The skies were gray and melancholy but wineries are always filled with cheer and smiling people who all come for the wines and the ambience. Winemakers are a proud breed – it is evident in the individuality and opulence of the settings they create in which to present their prized potions. Each winery has its own personality and you feel a sense of familiarity with the winemaker as you wander, wide-eyed and awestruck, through the magnificent properties. Some are contemporary with metal details while others are rustic, French country or antique but, whatever the style, all wineries and their rolling vineyard backdrops are simply gorgeous!

As the consolidated effect of our morning tasting began to catch up with us, we stopped in to DelVera Cellars in search of lunch. What we found first was a cheese factory which offered cheese tasting! We walked along the chilled cases and tasted about fifteen varieties, all produced on the premises. The cheese was delicious and just what the doctor ordered to soak up some of the vino that was coursing through our veins! We indulged in tastings through the early afternoon when I finally decided that my taste buds were overwhelmed. Aaron, being the young buck that he is, had a bit more stamina so we compromised on one final winery, called Waterford, which boasted wine and chocolate pairings. There’s always room for chocolate!

We sat on upholstered chairs at an elegant round table for two as our cute-as-a-button co-ed sommelier presented the wines. I baby-sipped the obligatory whites in eager anticipation of the sweet finale. A glossy, rectangular board was placed in front of each of us, containing three meticulously placed, thin slabs of embossed chocolate each below a short paragraph describing how the specific flavors of the chocolate perfectly complemented the corresponding wines.

As a general rule, I prefer not to mix sweets and wine. Wine first and, when the wine is completely finished, then sweets but ne’er the two shall mix! These particular pairings, however, shocked my finicky taste buds into a new level of appreciation. The locally-produced chocolates were flavored with unusual spices and flowers, which mimicked and enhanced those flavors in the wines. The first pairing was masala chai dark chocolate with a spicy shiraz with a common flavor of spicy cinnamon; then a rock salt dark chocolate, made to imitate the savory essence of salty meats, was paired with a dry-finishing cab that made my mouth water for a juicy, salty steak; finally, a rose geranium milk chocolate intensified the soft honey and raisin flavors of a sweet port. Our taste buds were singing! We enjoyed the pairings immensely but, with the chocolate, it was love at first bite! The sommelier informed us that the chocolate was only available at the winery and in the small town of Greyton, where it was produced. We bought a bar of the masala chai and ended our day of tasting on a sweet note.

We were having such fun exploring the winelands that we made a reservation for one more night in a neighboring wine town. The next day, we were surprisingly fresh-faced, considering our recent exploits, and drove into the charming little wine town of Franschoek. It has the same storybook appeal as Stellenbosch with Old Dutch architecture and almost as many four star guest houses as residences. We had booked a night at Otter’s Bend, a family-owned property with lovely wooden guest cottages built on the edge of a shallow river. Our cabin was basic but romantically secluded. The best part, however, was the common area – a large, open wooden shed with a wood-burning fireplace, a long rustic dining table, and fully-stocked kitchen. There was a bar area in one corner, cut from a huge, oak wine barrel and a working cast-iron wood-burning stove. Antique workmen’s tools hung from the walls and big steel skillets dangled from a metal rack above the stove.

After a relatively short day of exploring the Franschoek wineries, we had a casual, early dinner in town and retired to Otter’s Bend for the evening. With about an hour of daylight remaining, we took a walk along the dirt road that separated Otter’s Bend from the neighboring properties: a vineyard, a horse property and a white-washed, Dutch-style, four star bed and breakfast, all set against a mountain backdrop. The views were spectacular and we walked until we ran out of daylight. We spent the rest of the evening in the common area of the lodge, which we had all to ourselves. Someone had already placed kindling and logs into the fireplace so we stoked up a blazing fire, boiled two cups of steaming hot coffee, lit a Cuban cigar and pulled out the dark chocolate bar from Waterford. We succumbed to the trance-like enchantment of the crackling flames and felt like the only two people in the world, wrapped in a cocoon of warmth against the crisp, cool wilderness outside our door.

The next morning, we were off again to Wilderness National Park, on the southern coast, to begin our drive along the famous Garden Route. As we’d been looking at the map the previous evening, we noticed that a stop in the town of Greyton (where the chocolate was made) would require only a small deviation from our route to Wilderness. The owner at Otter’s Bend had given us a hand-drawn map of a scenic back road route to Greyton that promised spectacular views and, as the master’s of our fate, we made a command decision to take a little detour for chocolate!

The sun was shining in a cloudless sky as we drove through the jagged mountains surrounding Franschoek and onto the back country roads, which were alternating stretches of dirt and black top. We passed hidden vineyards, sprawling farms, glassy lakes and meandering streams through fields of gold and green. There were tiny towns along the roads with as many horse drawn carriages as cars. Almost every farm and town advertised a bed and breakfast and we could have stopped in any of them and gotten happily lost for a few days if not for our gluttonous mission.

We found Greyton easily and drove slowly along its single main street, keeping an eye out for Von Geusau Chocolates. We found instead a small tourist information office, where a friendly woman pointed us in the direction of Le Petit Chocolat, an adorable corner coffee and sweet shop that sold the coveted chocolates we were after. There were several more varieties than we had seen at Waterford and – God Bless Greyton – samples! Aaron is the only man I’ve ever met who is a bigger chocoholic than I am and we are a dangerous combination in a sweet shop! The kind-faced woman at the counter must have thought we were absolute pigs as we stacked one bar after another onto the counter, all of them obviously for ourselves. With six bars of gourmet chocolate, a couple of hand-selected truffles, and a package of cookies in tow, I felt my pig snout growing as we pulled away from Greyton and headed toward the coast.


November 25th 2007

Posted under Africa & South Africa

Next time you’re bored at work and surfing the internet, do a Google search on “Seal Island” and see why we couldn’t pass up the chance to cage dive with Great White sharks off the coast of South Africa. A friend of ours from Fort Worth had emailed us a link to Seal Island before we began our trip and our jaws literally dropped! Maybe we’ve seen the Jaws movies too many times…or maybe not enough. But the idea of getting into a floating metal cage in close proximity to one of the world’s most fascinating and feared animals is definitely at the top of the ultimate thrill charts. We had to go for it!

We departed by minibus just before five a.m. for the two hour drive southeast to the coastal city of Gansbaai. “Shark Alley” is located approximately 10 km off-shore where there is a shallow channel that runs between Dyer Island and Geyser Rock; it is known worldwide as a premier location for viewing Great Whites. The islands are home to African penguins, numerous bird species, and a huge colony of Cape Fur Seals, which are coincidentally a white shark dietary staple.

On the way to the harbor, we faithfully downed our Dramamine in preparation for the rough open water waves and the corresponding seasickness that awaited us. But as we began our voyage to Shark Alley, we met a picture-perfect sunny day with calm seas and exceptional visibility. Our captain said that this would be one of the finest days of the year. We continued to our destination – a spot of shallow, open water near Shark Alley, where we anchored and began our safety briefing. The deck hands began “chumming”, dumping a mixture of fish parts, sea water, and scented oil concentrate overboard to create an oily “chum slick”, an aromatic highway which would lead the white sharks to the fish head bait dangling from our boat.

Shark cage diving is not for the faint of heart. For those (Tina) who detest the cold in every way, shape and form (except for Christmas and skiing, of course), the magnitude of physical discomfort can almost equal the thrill of the experience. It’s certainly intimidating to get into a five-person steel cage with 5-meter man eaters swimming around but that’s just the beginning. The water is absolutely frigid, about 57 degrees F, and the cage, tethered to the boat with a couple of ropes, thrashes up and down in the rolling ocean waves. We each wore 7 mm wetsuits with hoods and boots, but that kept the chill away for all of about 30 seconds. As soon as we hit the water, the shivering would begin and it only subsided when a white shark would swim by, inciting a massive release of adrenaline.

Contrary to popular belief, white sharks have very little interest in humans and they are often difficult to lure close enough for viewing, even with fresh meat bobbing on the surface. Most of the encounters we have with sharks are accidental and the shark bites that occur are simply a result of an interested shark trying to figure out whether we would make a good meal or not. Ninety-nine percent of the time, white sharks move on once they’ve determined that we are not a part of their diet, leaving the stunned (and probably maimed – look at the jaws on that thing!) surfer or swimmer to return to shore for medical attention. White sharks regularly devour Cape Fur Seals in under a minute so it seems reasonable that if they really wanted to eat us, they would. However these facts do little to quell the fears of my wife, who grew up obsessively and repeatedly watching all of the Jaws movies ensuring that her fear of sharks, and the ocean in general, was deeply ingrained in the depths of her psyche. Somehow, as an adult, she has become a fearless scuba diver and less tentative ocean swimmer, and it was her initial prodding that led us to participate in this crazy excursion.

Tina was one of the first people in the cage. Someone else might interpret her eagerness as courage or excitement, but I knew that she was dreading the cold water and that if she didn’t get in immediately, she might lose her nerve and decide to remain in the relative comfort of the windy, rocking boat. About three-quarters of the cage is submerged and each diver is fitted with a mask and a weight belt, to counteract the buoyancy of the wetsuit and salt water. Almost immediately we sighted a shark, and as I watched from the boat, Tina and the other four people in the cage were instructed to submerge themselves for as long as they could, hold their breath, and watch as the shark swam within arms-length of the cage, investigating the bait dangling down from the surface. Just before the shark reached the dangling fish heads, the deck hand would yank the bait away, thereby luring the shark into a mouth-open lunge right outside the cage! Not knowing how many more white sharks, if any, that we would see, I quickly slipped into my own wet suit and got into the cage next to Tina. The water visibility was exceptional and each time a Great White would swim by it was amazing to watch the power and agility with which the giant creature maneuvered through the water.

Since Tina immediately established that her hands were too cold to function in the water, I dutifully assumed the task of trying to photograph these elusive animals as they randomly appeared and then disappeared in a span of about five seconds. The deck hands would spot a shark approaching and yell for us to get down in the cage; I would hold my breath and submerge myself by pulling on one of the handles below within the cage. I would hurriedly begin locating the shark on the LCD camera screen, trying to avoid the external bars of the cage, and wait for the right time to snap a picture knowing that the 2-second delay for my camera to reset would likely mean that I would only get one shot.

We use a Canon Digital Elph camera with an underwater case, which has enabled us to capture most of our amazing underwater adventures. But like most point-and-shoot cameras, it has a processing lag that is infuriating when trying to capture multiple images of a moving object. For the first round of cage diving, each participant stayed in the cage for about fifteen minutes to ensure that everyone got to see a shark. After that first round, we were allowed to stay in the cage for as long as we could stand it over the next two hours. Determined to get a good shot (and because one shark continually appeared every five minutes), I stayed in the water for more than 45 consecutive minutes while almost everyone else remained on the boat. When I finally emerged from the water, I was completely numb! During our four hours at sea we had at least twenty white shark sightings! It was incredible!

With all passengers bundled up in warm clothes, we sped over to Seal Island and watched as hundreds of Cape Fur Seals frolicked and played in the shallow water and sunned themselves on the island. The seals were safe in this area, according to our guide, because the water was too shallow for the sharks to get under them and attack from below. With a seemingly carefree attitude the sleek-bodied seals flipped and dove in the water, curiously swam up to our boat, and let out their official Chewbacca growls – yes, that famous Wookie rattle is the sound of a seal growl! Who knew? One thing we didn’t realize about seals until we were right on top of them is how intensely awful they smell…like a thousand toilets! The guide suggested that we intentionally take in one strong whiff at the beginning, which would supposedly help us stand the stench. I don’t know about anyone else but it didn’t work for me. We lurked around Seal Island for about thirty minutes and that was twenty minutes too long!

We didn’t catch any sharks springing into the air with seals in their jaws but the overall experience was phenomenal nonetheless. The chilly discomfort would preclude us from ever doing it again but, after swimming with Jaws, we feel an even greater sense of fearlessness. Cage diving with Great White Sharks…check! What’s next?


November 23rd 2007
Thanksgiving in Cape Town

Posted under Africa & South Africa

From our first moments in Cape Town International Airport, it was clear that we were no longer in Africa, at least not the Africa that we have come to know. We were greeted by shiny marble flooring, brightly lit storefronts, and an unfamiliar odorless environment. Driving from the airport to our hostel felt like any major highway in the U.S., minus the traffic. Late model cars, including many expensive German-engineered models, cruised along the immaculately paved thoroughfare. It seemed strange that our driver wasn’t dodging pot holes or swerving to avoid oncoming traffic. The ride was pleasantly uneventful.

Cape Town bears an uncanny resemblance to San Francisco. A constant cool breeze pushes inland from the bay and whips around the hilly, narrow streets. Tall downtown skyscrapers are surrounded by modern waterfront shopping and tourist malls, newly constructed sea view condominiums, and historic buildings restored to their original Victorian architecture. Our hostel is on Long Street, a lively, cosmopolitan area in downtown Cape Town with an eclectic variety of restaurants, cafés and jazz bars catering to every taste and persuasion. Our third-story room overlooks the busy street below and the sounds of raucous revelers can be heard throughout the day and into the wee hours of morning.

On our first morning, we woke to gray skies, wind, and rain, which thwarted our plans of exploring the city on foot. We decided to rent a car and drive down to Cape Point and the Cape of Good Hope. Tina conveniently forgot her driver’s license at the hostel so I was the designated driver while she acted as navigator. Driving in South Africa is quite different from driving in the U.S. – everything is backwards! Cars drive on the left side of the road and the driver’s seat is on the right side of the car; there are different road signs, traffic circles instead of stop signs, and kilometers instead of miles. To complicate matters, our rental car had a manual transmission which, of course, required shifting with the left hand. There was no initiation – no question as to whether I’d ever driven backwards before; I had an English language driver’s license and a credit card so they gave us a car. With a map and a prayer, we pulled onto the street and headed out of town.

Soon we merged onto the rain-soaked coastal highway and felt that marvelous sense of freedom and control over our own destiny that comes with a car, a full tank of gas, and an open road. The drive was beautiful even in the thrashing rain. Huge waves crashed against breaker walls protecting the sleepy seaside towns which dotted the coast. We arrived at Cape Point and braved the wind and rain to hike up to a lighthouse lookout over the sea where the Indian and Atlantic Oceans collide. We backtracked a few kilometers to the Cape of Good Hope, where we battled the elements and the tour groups for a quick picture at the southwesternmost point in Africa. The views of the cape peninsula from all angles were stunning. Tall, rocky mountains with sheer cliff faces, covered in a lush green flora, jut into the sea while the cold waters of the Atlantic and the warm waters of the Indian Ocean flow seamlessly into each other and crash angrily onto the shore.

On the way back to town, we spotted signs for an African penguin colony so, of course, we had to stop. We’ve seen lions, giraffes, cheetahs, and rhinos. We’ve seen elephants, flamingos, hippos and dolphins…but we hadn’t seen penguins yet! We entered the outdoor observatory and walked along the path toward the penguin habitat. The wind and rain had intensified and, while our Gore-Tex jackets protected our upper bodies, our pants quickly became soaked much to the dismay of my warm-weather wife who began letting out whiney squeals with each gust of wind. I knew that our time with the penguins was limited. There were at least a hundred of the sleek-bodied birds flocked around three large boulders, shielding themselves from the wind. They waddled around in their natural tuxedos, forming little social circles and flapping their wings. Our close proximity to the birds – about five feet – didn’t seem to bother them but rather piqued their curiosity. They seemed to be wondering what we fair-weathered humans were doing outside in such nasty weather. We bid the penguins farewell and headed back to town. The rain continued nearly uninterrupted throughout the evening and through the night.

Thanksgiving day in Cape Town began with rain once again. But by noon, the skies had cleared and we ventured out to the Victoria & Alfred Waterfront to do some shopping and sightseeing. The Waterfront is a huge master planned complex on an active wharf with over 400 shops, including a modern shopping mall, numerous restaurants, and tourist offices advertising excursions around the bay and to nearby Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned. We browsed bookstores and shops, gawking at all of the luxurious items we would have once considered buying when we were gainfully employed. We spent the afternoon basking in the sun on the deck of the Paulaner Brewery, guzzling half-liter Hefe-Weizens and enjoying the unseasonably cool South African summer. We returned to Long Street for a wonderfully decadent Mexican Thanksgiving dinner: nachos, fajitas and margaritas!


November 22nd 2007
Zambia Part II: “The Smoke That Thunders” & The Mighty Zambezi

Posted under Africa & Zambia

The transfer from Kabwe to Livingstone was surprisingly smooth and we settled into Fawlty Towers Hostel around 6 o’clock. The hostel was centrally located in the tiny town and we walked down the road about five minutes to a restaurant called Funky Munky and shared a pizza. The food was decent and the sodas ice cold, but the place itself was a hot box with only an industrial fan battling the heat waves from the sun and the pizza oven. We decided to use the next day to relax and regroup so we stayed around the hostel and spent time making plans.

Livingstone is your basic underdeveloped African shanty town with a big international attraction: Victoria Falls. The Falls were officially discovered by a British explorer named David Livingstone, who named the incredible natural wonder after Queen Victoria. The enormous waterfall flows through the Zambezi River which divides Zambia and Zimbabwe, and is one of the world’s premier locations for extreme sports. Just a few of the adventures that adrenaline junkies can sink their teeth into include bungee jumping, skydiving, rides on zip lines and gorge swings, abseiling, microlight and helicopter rides, and world class white water rafting on the Zambezi river. On Zanzibar, we had spoken to a few people who had personally experienced the rafting on the Zambezi. Their descriptions were all the same: it was the scariest thing they’d ever done and someone had perished in the violent rapids during or around the time that they were there. In Lusaka, we happened to walk by a display window in which a television was showing highlights of the Zambezi rafting. Every raft flipped like a pancake, throwing all of the helpless riders into the white, rushing water.

All of these data points lead us to swear off the rafting even before we arrived in Livingstone but we eagerly browsed the menu of activities and booked a few others: the sunset booze cruise, a day of unlimited gorge swing/abseiling/zip line/flying fox, and a visit to Livingstone Island in the middle of the Zambezi, at the edge of the falls. We also booked flights to Cape Town, South Africa after determining that overland travel would have involved forty hours on sweaty African buses. We’ve become greedy with our time lately and relished the idea of a full month in South Africa.

We woke the next morning with vigor and vitality, energized by the excitement of our upcoming adventures. The hostel offered a free shuttle to the Falls at ten a.m. so we decided to check it out. We entered the park and walked along the scenic, winding path with lush greenery and sweeping tree branches creating an arbor above. Victoria Falls is known as Mosi-oa-Tunya in the Kololo language, meaning “The Smoke That Thunders” and, as we rounded a curve into a clearing, we discovered why. From the park entrance, you can hear a low, thunderous roar of rushing water. Just as the Falls come into view, you begin to feel a cool mist on your skin from across the wide ravine. The velocity of the water is so high that a thick cloud of mist rises above the edge and hovers in the air, and this was at the end of the dry season when the Falls’ water levels are lowest. An almost constant rainbow glitters above the pool at the bottom as mist and sunlight collide.

We walked the length of the path, pausing at each vista to marvel at its unique view. It was a romantic, leisurely stroll and our moods reflected the peace of our surroundings and the perfection of the day. As we rounded the path, we met the Zambezi for the first time and caught sight of some rafters floating along the green river which snaked through the picturesque Batoka gorge and under the Victoria Falls Bridge. We watched silently as the three rafts bounced through a rapid and then looked at each other with reciprocal devilish grins. “Are you thinking what I’m thinking?” he asked. “Yep!” I replied. And that was that. Gorge swing was out. Rafting was in.

The best views of the Falls are supposedly from the Zimbabwe side but that view would have cost us two Zimbabwe visas, two more park fees on the other side, plus a new visa to re-enter Zambia since our initial $100 visa fee (extortion!) only bought us a single entry. Needless to say, we decided that a view from Zambia would suffice.

The Victoria Falls Bridge is an orange bridge which spans across the canyon from Zambia to Zimbabwe – bungee jumpers cast off from the center of it – and we thought we might be able to walk onto it without leaving Zambia. The walkway ended near the end the bridge but the entrance was fenced off. We learned that there was a separate entrance which was controlled by Immigration. As we were turning back, a young man on the other side of the fence beckoned us across, offering to guide us onto the bridge while avoiding Immigration…for a small fee, of course. We considered it for a brief moment and then decided that, since we’d already been busted by Immigration once, we would be best not to push our luck. We opted to head back to Fawlty Towers to rest up for the booze cruise.

Around four-thirty, we were picked up from our hostel and shuttled to the Waterfront Hotel for the cruise. Our ride had arrived almost thirty minutes late so we were the last ones on the ship and the bar was already rocking! We climbed to the upper deck, ordered some cocktails, and melted easily into the crowd, some of whom were already “three sheets to the wind”. Most everyone was going for fruity vodka cocktails, which slipped down a little too easily. My target intoxication level lay on the border between “just drunk enough to calm my nerves about our newly scheduled whitewater rafting trip the next morning” and sober enough so as not to have a hangover.

As our ship slowly cruised along, we admired the tree-lined river banks, spotted a few elusive hippos, munched on some pretty sad but sufficiently salty appetizers, and unwittingly slid over the target level of intoxication as the vodka kept flowing and conversations became increasingly animated. Dinner was served buffet-style on the lower deck just as the sky began to change to a foreboding shade of gray. Some of the crewmembers distributed plastic ponchos, which we good-humoredly donned during dinner. A heavy shower poured down as we continued our silly antics on the lower deck. The bars were upstairs so we were only exposed to the elements as we refreshed our drinks. The cruise came to an early conclusion due to the weather, which was probably for the best.

In my muddled state of mind, I somehow convinced my only-slightly-less-intoxicated husband that we needed a night cap at Hippos, the bar conveniently adjoined to our hostel. After a quick round of cold, local beers, we stumbled to our room and fell into our terribly uncomfortable hostel bed with the big dip in the middle. As I lay there, my head slightly spinning, I could already feel the beginnings of a hangover. Damn! But it was too late to do anything about it at that point. A wave of nerves suddenly washed over me and I began to have paranoid delusions of getting eaten by crocodiles, swallowed by the Zambezi or smashing face-first into a jagged river rock. I tried to imagine what it would feel like to drown. Would it be painful? How long would I suffer before losing consciousness? All of these crazy thoughts swirled around in my brain, working my nerves into an anxious frenzy. I tossed and turned for hours, marinating in my own apprehension and sweating like a pig on account of my racing heart, the hot breath of a Zambian summer panting upon us, and my peacefully sleeping husband absorbing every whisper of the fan. As I gradually breathed through the panic and calmed myself down, the fear gave way to guilt over the prospect of dying and leaving my puppy motherless. What kind of a mother was I to take such extreme risks?

Yes, I realize that some of the thoughts that pass through my mind are vividly imaginative and borderline crazy but if you plant thoughts of death inside anyone’s head – anyone who truly loves life – and take away his inner monologue, I suspect that you will discover another ticket holder for the crazy train. In any case, I must have eventually dozed off because I woke to the alarm on Aaron’s watch, heavy-eyed and dehydrated, a shadow of my former self. Half-dazed, I pulled my clothes on, brushed my teeth, and staggered into the kitchen for a steaming cup of instant coffee – the only kind you get in Africa. Without my morning caffeine fix, it would walk through life in a zombie-like state. The older I get, the stronger the addiction becomes. Caffeine: the means of producing twice as much on half the sleep!

I never thought I’d hear myself say this but I think that having a hangover actually worked to my advantage. Throughout the shuttle ride to the rafting office, breakfast, safety briefing and subsequent shuttle to the ravine, I was too busy feeling like shit to feel nervous. In my deflated state of being, I simply followed the crowd and did what I was told.

The safety briefing was humorous and informative; we all signed the waiver form, acknowledging that we were well-informed of the probable risk of injury or death and promising not to sue in either case. Blah, blah, blah…you have to sign it or you can’t go. What struck me about the form was the bold-faced definition of Class 5 rapids: White Water Rafting on the Zambezi River in Victoria Falls has been classified by the British Canoe Union as Grade 5 – “extremely difficult, long and violent rapids, steep gradients, big drops and pressure areas”. Translation: Pretty F—ing Scary!

After the briefing, we selected our gear – helmet, paddle, life vest – and hopped into the shuttle. As our vehicle neared the park entrance, I began to notice a transformation from Hangover Hell to adrenaline-fueled excitement! We were dropped off at the edge of the cliff and had to hike down to the river – a steep, slick, and jagged descent – which left us breathless and perspiring in the morning sun. The inflated rafts were waiting for us at the bottom and, before we knew it, we were climbing aboard – seven rafters and our captain, Sanka Man.

In a low, raspy smoker’s voice (though we never saw him smoke), Sanka Man familiarized us with the various commands and guided us through some preliminary drills, including one in which we all jumped into the water. The water temperature was refreshingly cool and, despite the crocodile thoughts in the back of my mind, I thought that it might be okay if I fell out of the boat a few times.

Of the twenty-three rapids on the Zambezi, three are Class 5 and the first half of the course is comprised of Class 4 and 5 rapids. After faring well through our first patch of whitewater, Sanka Man said, “Okay, guys, you can go for a swim if you want.” We all looked at each other, trying to discern whether he was joking, but Sanka Man ran through the center of the boat and dove off the front end. A second later, we were all in the water, floating along the current, all smiles as we enjoyed the beauty of the canyon.

There were about five rafts on the water along with ours as well as a first aid team and several rescue kayakers if you washed up too far from the raft. We’d been told during the safety briefing that, if we fall out of the boat, we should try like Hell to keep hold of the “Oh Shit rope” along the perimeter. That was one piece of advice that I intended to heed.

We braved the first few rapids with wild excitement and surprising ease. Between the rapids was a lovely calm during which we could regroup, reposition ourselves, and enjoy the sunlight sparking off the canyon rocks. Our team worked well together and, by the third rapid, we had begun to paddle to an unspoken cadence. From the moment that Aaron and I had stepped into the raft, we loved everything about it and kept exchanging ecstatic looks. We couldn’t believe that we’d even considered skipping it!

As we paddled into a Class 5 rapid, called Gulliver’s Travels, the longest and most technical rapid on the course, the right side of the raft sailed upward, holding the raft almost vertically, and flipping me, heels over head, into the drink. I managed to keep a one-handed grip on the “Oh Shit rope” and held on for dear life as the rushing water pounded my face. I’d barely had a chance to get my bearings before Sanka Man valiantly pulled me back onto the relative safety of the raft. It was my first spill and it was exhilarating! We reached the calm between rapids 7 and 8 and our captain called us in for a huddle. “Okay, guys, the next rapid is called ‘Midnight Diner’ because you have a menu of choices. The right side is called the ‘Chicken Run’ – it’s a Class 3 and it’s for the chickens. The middle run is the salad; with that one, you have a fifty-fifty chance of making it through.” Then he paused and smiled mischievously. “The left side is called Star Trek – it’s the steak. If you choose the steak, you have an eighty-five percent chance that the raft will capsize and dump everyone into the drink. Now you need to decide among yourselves which way you’re going to take me today.”

We hesitated for a moment, gauging the courage on each other’s faces. Four of us almost immediately called for the steak while the other three more timidly expressed their preference for the chicken. After a brief discussion, we called for a vote. One of the chickens swayed to the steak side to impress her carnivorous boyfriend so it was decided by a 5-2 vote to bring on the beef! I did feel a bit sorry for the two chickens on board for it was plainly obvious that they were uncomfortable with the group’s decision. On the other hand, one probably shouldn’t endeavor to raft a river known for its Class 5 rapids if he has left his steak knife in the drawer. That said, we paddled toward the steak with racing hearts until we heard the captain’s command to “Get down! Hold on!” The raft flipped so fast that none of us even knew what happened until we watched it on video at the end of the day. All I remember is holding onto the “Oh shit rope” with one claw like the hungry hawk that stole my sandwich and suddenly being submerged in a rush of whitewater. Even with a hold on the raft, it was difficult to breathe with the water thrashing on all sides and I coughed and choked a bit. Suddenly, Aaron surfaced beside me, grabbed my life vest and lifted me above the rush and I knew that everything was fine. Sanka Man had already recovered his position atop the raft and was pulling us up, one by one. The adrenaline rush from the spill was truly spectacular and Aaron and I later discussed that we definitely see how serious injuries and deaths can occur from such rapids as these – some of them are intensely violent and you have no control over which way the water throws you once you are in its clutches. However, it is that exact powerlessness, that total surrender to the will of nature, that makes it so thrilling!


The ninth rapid, Commercial Suicide, is a Class 6 rapid so they don’t raft it. After recovering from our spill, we docked just before #9 and walked across the rock ledge to the right of it. The rapid was a narrow passage between jagged rocks and had a huge drop in the beginning – it looked positively fierce! We rode #10, an easy run in comparison with the first nine and took a break for lunch.

The second half of the day was a series of Class 3 and 4 rapids but no fives. They were fun but a bit like riding the kiddie coaster at the amusement park after you’ve spent the morning riding the scariest ones. By the twenty-third rapid, we were ready to conclude the adventure. We disembarked and climbed a third of the way back up the steep ravine wall, where a cable car lifted us over the remaining distance. We had drifted twenty-four kilometers along the river and an open-air bus drove us back to the lodge with a cooler full of ice cold beer, water and sodas.

The company that organized the trip, Safari Par Excellence, did an impeccable job – we were so impressed with every aspect of the experience from the expertise and professionalism of the staff to the precise coordination of events. Their operation is top notch and we highly recommend them. And, for that matter, we seriously recommend Livingstone, Zambia as a destination for the adventure traveler. The Zambian people are easy-going and friendly and Livingstone offers enough action-packed adventure sports to entice even the most experienced adrenaline junkie. We didn’t stay long enough to quench our thirst for action and we will undoubtedly leave wanting more!

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November 17th 2007
Zambia Part I: Charitable Cheese

Posted under Africa & Zambia

Fate is a funny thing. At times in my life, I have fought shamelessly to change mine – often chasing adventures of the rather “unconventional” sort – while at other times, I have faithfully relented to the will of the wind. I have been rewarded, slapped, blessed, and cursed. I have risen and I have fallen. I believe in fate but I believe in my ability to change it.

Life is like one of those “choose your own adventure” books that I used to read in elementary school. At the end of each chapter, there is a choice to make, an adventure to be chosen, each with its own path and its own ending. Naturally, after reading through to one ending, I would have to begin again to find out the “What if?” of the other choices. Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, in real life, we do not have the luxury of turning back time. Some of the choices that I’ve made in my life have been downright idiotic but they have been my choices and I cannot regret them for they have eventually brought me here, to this time and place, to this crazy dream coming true before my eyes. My favorite poem is one by Robert Frost, written in 1920:

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I-
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

As it turns out, fate has stuck her nose into our plans and called us home for a wedding at Christmas. Our original itinerary would have put us in Asia around then but we decided instead to take the opportunity to spend more time in Southern Africa. While the extra expense of this unintended trip home falls far outside the sanity border of our budget, it has bought us two very positive perks: Christmas in Iowa, which is on par with the best experiences that life has to offer, and a more thorough exploration of Africa.

On Zanzibar, the hands of fate pushed two lovely New Zealanders into our path, Jerry and Hayley Field whom we met while swimming with dolphins. They help to run a farm and cheese-making operation as a mission project in Kabwe, Zambia, and they invited us to be their guests for a couple of nights.

We had planned to take the fast ferry from Zanzibar to Dar es Salaam and make arrangements from there to take the two-day train to Zambia. However, due to such motivating factors as insufficient information online (a chronic problem in Africa), lack of reasonable access to a travel agent, our negative first impression of Dar (from the one oppressively hot night we spent there in a seedy neighborhood with no A/C), the rumored unreliability of the train (supposed to take two days – could take up to four!), and that peaceful, easy island feeling, my dear husband suggested air travel instead and I enthusiastically concurred, mostly because it bought us two extra nights on Zanzibar! Coincidentally, we met Jerry and Hayley at the Zanzibar airport. They were on both legs of our flight to Zambia so the four of us traveled on together, spent a night in Lusaka, and then caught a bus to Kabwe.

As I’ve mentioned before, bus rides in Africa are always interesting, particularly at the “bus stations”, and Lusaka was no different. The four of us had shared a taxi to the bus station and, before it had come to a complete stop, the car was surrounded by young men, shouting and shoving each other to try to sell us bus tickets. It is an uncomfortable feeling to be swarmed by such vocal locals but we have grown accustomed to it. What still bothers us, however, is the physical nature of it. They tend to grab you by the arm, push you in one direction, or try to pull your bags out of your hand. The swarming I can deal with – the grabbing is unacceptable!

As our taxi rolled into the parking lot, one of the men reached through the open window, grabbed my arm, and started pulling on it. Instinctively, I shrieked, “Don’t touch me!” and yanked my arm away. This seemed to get everyone’s attention and the three leaches crowding my door apologetically retreated to let me out of the car. We collected our bags from the trunk in a hailstorm of flailing arms and simultaneous shouting and let Jerry make the bus arrangements.

With our packs stowed in the luggage compartment under the bus cabin, we grabbed four seats in the back. Most of the buses in Africa do not leave according to a schedule but rather when they are full, meaning every narrow seat is filled and the aisles are clogged with overflow passengers and parcels. In Lusaka, we waited in the sweaty bus for a record two hours before embarking on our ninety-minute journey. While we waited, I kept an eye on the luggage compartment. There are always many men standing around the buses with no apparent function or purpose and you feel compelled to keep one eye cocked whenever your bags are out of your immediate possession to ensure that the bags don’t depart before the bus does.

We arrived at the farm around six p.m. and easily settled into Jerry and Hayley’s spacious two-bedroom house with cozy loft above. They were the most gracious hosts and we immediately felt at home. Hayley has an herb garden in front of the house and there is a lovely patio and a large backyard. On her first night home, after a ten-day island vacation, Hayley put together a delicious lasagna, made with Swiss cheese produced in the cheese factory. A bottle of South African red wine complemented the meal perfectly and we talked late into the night.

The Fields have been on the farm for a year and are more immersed in the local culture than we could ever hope to be so we enjoyed hearing their perspectives on some of our observations thus far. We’ve noted on several occasions that the children seem incredibly well-behaved in Africa. On long bus rides, babies hardly cry. A girl of about six years sat on the floor of one bus – she didn’t have a seat – and didn’t make a peep for ten hours! This is without a single material item to keep her attention – not a book, a toy, or a crayon; she didn’t sleep but just sat, idle and quiet, the entire time! It seems unbelievable but this is a phenomenon that begins in Africa at a very young age. Because of the culture and/or the poverty, babies are not stimulated. There are no toys and no books. Children are left to their own devices at an early age because their mothers live hard lives and cannot be bothered with them. We’ve often seen young children sitting in groups in the dirt or being tended by other children who are not much older themselves. Jerry shared his observation that even the local school curriculums are devoid of creative and cognitive thinking exercises and gave the following example: If you give a group of Western children each a toy truck, they will play and collaborate with each other. If you give the same-aged group of Zambian children each the same toy trucks, they will look awkwardly at them for a few seconds then hide them under their shirts. They seem less inclined to play or to imagine.

We have observed the direct, long-term results of this unfortunate phenomenon in all of the African towns that we’ve visited, where streets are literally lined with young men sitting on ledges and benches for hours at a time, just staring, with nowhere to be and nothing to do. We’ve seen village women with the same blank stares and idle tendencies. As business-minded Americans, we immediately see opportunities that are not being exploited while hundreds of able-bodied men and women sit idle, with neither the foresight nor education to capitalize on them. It does not surprise us then that a culture such as this remains saddled with the sort of hard labor, low-wage jobs that will unlikely bring a nation out of poverty. This is Africa.

Bright Hope International bought the farm and pre-established cheese-making operation in 2005 with the goal of teaching local Zambians how to support themselves while maintaining a self-sustaining, profitable business. The farm is run by a group of volunteer Kiwi missionaries in conjunction with a local Zambian foreman. The operation employs 25-30 local citizens and supplies cheese to local businesses. They produce cheddar, emental, Gouda, Swiss, parmesan, feta, gruyere and mozzarella, and cream cheese, just to name a few. They currently have about 200 freesian cows. We enjoyed the privilege of touring the farm and cheese operation and learning about the cheese production process.

Cheese 101: I have always naively assumed that all cows produce milk, all the time. Not so. Only females produce milk and only while they’re pregnant, which makes perfect sense, of course. On many dairy farms, such as this one, the farmers employ methods of artificial insemination to keep the female cows as perpetually pregnant as possible. Twice daily, at four a.m. and four p.m., the cows are milked using a milking apparatus, which channels the milk fresh from the udder to a canister in the milk room. Next, most of the fat is siphoned off into a separate bucket and is later used to make butter and cream cheese. The skimmed milk is taken directly to a large vat in the cheese room, where it is mixed with cultures (which acidify the milk) and rennet (which coagulates the milk into curds and whey). The proportions of these two ingredients determine the texture, density and flavor of the cheese. When the milk has curded into lumps and the whey has fallen away, the lumps are wrapped in cheesecloth and pressed into molds, where they sit overnight in the cheese room. The cheese is then removed from the mold and moved to a refrigerated room to age at least three months with the exception of mozzarella, which matures in only three days! Inside the refrigerated room, the cheeses must be rotated at least once per day, throughout the aging process. Certain cheeses, such as feta, must spend time in a bucket of brine. When the cheese reaches maturity, it is cut and packaged for distribution.

The operation employs a small local sales force to solicit the orders, mostly from businesses catering to tourists, and the deliveries are made in the farm’s cheese truck. The volunteer administrators manage every facet of day-to-day operations, including accounting and reporting, product quality control, personnel, developing and repairing infrastructure on the property, and fixing the vehicles when they break down. The missionaries work pro bono, bless their hearts, so any monetary donations benefit the local operation directly. The project requires a group of multi-talented and uniquely skilled individuals but, even with all of the required resources, running a business in Africa still has its own set of challenges.

As the four of us visited, Jerry quoted Leonardo DiCaprio’s character Danny Archer in the movie Blood Diamond. “T.I.A. This is Africa.” It is a blanket response to the many nuances of Africa that seem bizarrely backwards and for which there is no logical explanation. Whether you have to wait at the petrol station for 40 minutes while a shift change takes place or you walk another kilometer to the fourth ATM that you’ve tried because the first three were broken, Africa has a way of slapping you in the face, constantly reminding you where you are and by whose rules you are playing. African commerce requires unlimited patience, especially from Western-minded individuals. Tasks are completed at a snail’s pace; what would take twenty minutes to accomplish in the States can take weeks in Africa. Something as seemingly simple as opening a bank account can entail four or five trips to the bank, submitting redundant forms and resubmitting previously submitted forms which were inconveniently (or incompetently) misplaced. This is Africa.

In the resorts on Zanzibar, we observed the frustrating pace of the African service employee. We would walk up to an empty bar and order a drink from the bartender. Twenty minutes later, we would look up at the still dormant bartender, who hadn’t even begun to make our drink and he would meet our eyes with a look of realization that he was supposed to be doing something and “What was it that you ordered again?” When we tried to order an item in a restaurant with a slight variation from the standard preparation or ask a clarifying question about a menu item, we were met with blank stares. It is partly due to the language barrier but there is definitely a larger disconnect there. Customer service and overachievement seem foreign ideas to these men and women. Aaron compounds the frustration by asking detailed questions about menu items and, when it is clear to everyone at the table (usually just me) that he’s not going to get an answer, he tries harder to clarify his question, thereby intensifying the look of total confusion on the face of the server. Just order the damn burger! But this is Africa and Africa requires patience.

An estimated thirty-five percent of urban Zambians are infected with the HIV/AIDS virus – a maddening statistic that has lowered the average life expectancy of a Zambian to only thirty-three years! In the local culture, however, the subject is still very taboo. When someone dies of the virus, people say that he died of Tuberculosis or malaria, but NEVER AIDS. There are local clinics which dispense free medication to infected persons. In towns where the clinics reside, locals will go to another town, often much further away, to collect their meds so as not to be seen by anyone they know. The meds work to fight the symptoms of the virus so the patient starts to feel mentally and physically better at which time he starts having sex again and spreading the disease. We wonder whether the Western-sponsored drugs are doing more to help or hurt the pandemic which has left thousands of Zambian children orphaned or living with grandparents who are too elderly to support them. This is Africa.

What impresses us most about the farm project is that it is teaching the local people valuable skills as well as providing jobs. There is a Chinese proverb that says, “Give a man a fish and he will eat for a day. Teach a man to fish and he will eat for a lifetime.” This kind of hands-on educational gift empowers and teaches self-reliance, initiating positive change. An educated and skilled population will thrive.

On our last night with Jerry and Hayley, we were treated to a cheese tasting! We tasted about five varieties, of which my favorite was the Swiss and Aaron’s the emental; they were all delicious! After that, it was steaks, more wine and a rowdy game of Settlers of Catan, a board game which we will be sure to purchase in about sixteen months. Our stay on the farm was short and sweet but definitely one of the highlights of our adventure. We are so appreciative of the Fields’ hospitality…especially the use of their washing machine! They are doing remarkable work and we admire them for their commitment. We are fortunate for the twist of fate that crossed our path with theirs. Fate is a funny thing. Sometimes you just have to go with it.

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