At Vwaza Marsh, Things That Go Bump in the Night

Monday, July 31, 2006 | Vwaza Wildlife Reserve, Malawi (map)

Prey aplenty inhabits Vwaza Marsh.
Our packed minibus flew southward down the highway as the sun rose off to the left, highlighting the mountains of Mozambique which sloped up from the far shore of the lake.

Malawi’s own craggy hills jutted upwards to rival them, and we drove along the cliffs' base, passing through small coastal farming and fishing communities. Thanks to its small size, Malawi was able to maintain a network of smooth, well-sealed roads, something that had been very evidently lacking in Tanzania.

We crossed over several streams trickling down the mountainsides. Children were bathing and women washing clothes—two activities in which, like elsewhere in Africa, Malawi’s men seemed to show remarkably little interest. In every country I have visited on the continent, the women carried much of the burden of caring and providing for their families, hefting full water jugs, bales of

Welcome to Malawi

Sunday, July 30, 2006 | Karonga, Malawi (map)

Rural Malawi has a rugged beauty, but is better developed than Tanzania. Unpaved roads are the exception, not the rule.
Saturday morning I grabbed a big tour bus to Mbeya, the transit hub of southwest Tanzania from where I would enter Malawi. Sitting in the rear of the bus, directly over the back wheels, I felt every pebble along the rough dirt road, and soared high off my seat on several of the larger bumps.

Across the aisle, in his mother's lap a baby's cheeks jiggled as we clattered across the region's beautiful, mist-covered hills. After a few minutes of trying in vain to read, I looked back over at the baby in time to see him clumsily grab a piece of banana from his mother's hand as she looked out the window. Then, slowly and deliberately, making sure not to miss any parts, he wiped the banana across the side of his mini basketball hightop sneakers before cramming it, along with most of his fist and a decidedly satisfied smile, into his mouth.

From Mbeya, a minibus sped me toward the Songwe River Bridge, the Malawian border crossing.

MV Liemba: The Floating Circus

Saturday, July 29, 2006 | Sumbawanga, Tanzania (map)

The frenzied process of exchanging goods, animals, and people between the Liemba and local boats.
Overburdened from the start, the aged Liemba chugged away from the dock in Kigoma at 5:30 on Wednesday afternoon. The oldest passenger ferry in the world was hardly the "venerable craft" which Lonely Planet's guidebook has dubbed it, but it floated, and that was enough for me.

While waiting to board, I met Mike and Jenny, a delightful young couple from Colorado who have been on the road for a year, and in that time had traveled overland all the way from Southeast Asia. Extremely jealous, I shared several meals and many hours with them over the next two days, exchanging travel stories as we cruised down Lake Tanganyika (though the exchange was hardly even).

My next acquaintance on the Liemba, my roommate in our cramped first-class cabin, was less pleasant to get to know. A bizarre creature, Steven the Australian oil field engineer from New South

Tanzania's Wild, Wild West

Wednesday, July 26, 2006 | Kigoma, Tanzania (map)

The event that put Ujiji on the map.
On the road, life is always more interesting, so I probably shouldn't be surprised that this trip has gotten off to such a startlingly bizarre start. Sunday, after returning from Rubondo Island and frantically completing the final paper for my Ecology class, I went to an ATM to get some cash for the first leg of my trip. This being Tanzania, you would assume that a bank would give you Tanzanian money, regardless of who owns the bank. Well, I assumed so, anyway, and was proved quite wrong. When I asked the (apparently Kenyan) ATM for 40,000 Tanzanian shillings—about US$35—it instead sputtered out 40,000 Kenyan shillings—around US$500.

It being evening, no exchange bureaus were open, so the following morning at 4:00 AM, my stack of money and I hit the road (shhhh). I'd spent the night packing and hurriedly saying goodbyes to the group, who all optimistically wished me "Good luck... and don't die." (Thanks, guys.) Back in my

The Wild Things of Rubondo Island

Tuesday, July 25, 2006 | Rubondo Island, Tanzania (map)

The density of Rubondo Island's forests makes it easy for even the largest creatures to avoid human contact.
From the minute the boat bumped against the thin strip of white sand beach, I could tell that Rubondo Island is an almost unearthly place. A few paces from the water's edge, a seemingly impenetrable tangle of dark tropical forest began, covering the entirety of the enormous island, which from the water is easy to mistake for the mainland because of its size. Dino and a few of us ecology students would stay at the ranger's camp along the lakeshore, along with a few other groups of travellers.

Before the painful exercise of pitching our tents (a jumble of mismatched poles and bundled canvas which our guide company was happy to provide us with) at and shortly after dusk, we took a brief walk through the forest. Walking along the trail, peering into the undergrowth, I was reminded of the mornings in my childhood when my sister would wake up and come downstairs, her long hair in a

A Plan to Laugh at Later

Wednesday, July 19, 2006 | Mwanza, Tanzania (map)

Above, a signpost in Mwanza. I've got three weeks to see as much of East Africa as I can.
When I purchased my tickets for this summer in Tanzania exactly a week before my departure, the only return flight available was for August 15, two weeks after the program end date. "I'll travel or something," I assumed, and so I booked it, then spent the past six weeks turning plans over in my mind about how I would spend those last precious days in Africa.

Plan One was an overland extravaganza, leaving from Dar es Salaam by perhaps one of the world's longest trains, a three-day marathon to Zambia whose length is likely only bested by the Trans-Siberian Railway. Ultimately, after a few more bus rides, I would arrive in the town of Livingstone, in southern Zambia, at the most famous section of the thundering Zambezi River, Victoria Falls. A slower, more circuitous return to Dar with stops in Zambia would round out the remaining days.

Plan Two was a coastal adventure, heading south from Dar to the ancient Arab ruins of Kilwa

Reflections from the Serengeti & Ngorongoro Crater

Tuesday, July 18, 2006 | Ngorongoro, Tanzania (map)

The frequency with which one sees incredible animals like these lionesses makes Serengeti unlike anywhere I have ever traveled.
At a minimum, there is at least one element of Serengeti National Park and the nearby Ngorongoro Crater which no number of IMAX and National Geographic documentaries can convey: the parks are bursting with animal life. Yes, the films show the incredible diversity of the wildlife which used to freely roam this entire region. However, it is only by visiting that one can really sense just how densely concentrated the animals really are, and how rich the environment which supports them is.

I estimated that in two days we would probably be able to see most of the large mammals which inhabit the parks, but not all, and not very frequently. These expectations were based upon the fact that it was the dry season, and on my only previous experience "on safari" in Africa—a day in Uganda's Murchison Falls National Park. However, the richer volcanic soil of the Serengeti and Ngorongoro, coupled with Tanzania's far less turbulent past in comparison to Uganda have allowed

The Women of Adilisha

Friday, July 14, 2006 | Mwanza, Tanzania (map)

Women come to the water's edge each morning to barter with fishermen over the daily catch, which they will sell in the local market.
One component of our program here in Mwanza is time spent volunteering at a variety of local NGOs. Charlie and I recently spent our first days at Adilisha, a small organization founded in 1999 to promote responsible parenting practices and healthy families. In sub-Saharan Africa, perhaps the greatest threat to the healthy physical and mental development of children is HIV/AIDS. Thus, Adilisha's mission of helping families has, over the past several years, increasingly meant focusing on providing assistance to families affected by this illness.

In Tanzania, such families are numerous, though exactly how numerous is never certain. While the official infection rate is quoted at around 9 percent—and is, as in many countries of the region, likely much higher than the rates reported by governments—it is known to be even higher within certain groups. For example, in hospitals, pregnant women are always tested for HIV, and in recent

The Birds and the Bees, the Flowers and the Trees

Sunday, July 9, 2006 | Mwanza, Tanzania (map)

Dino displays a classmate's catch
Our ecology class enjoyed an exciting first week. Each morning a few of us joined Professor Dino on an optional morning walk, which consisted of us walking for an hour or two down one of the dirt roads around the university, pointing to birds, bugs and plants and making Dino tell us the fascinating story of each one.

Early on we spotted red-breasted sunbirds, black kites, pied kingfishers, mousebirds with their long flowing tails, red-cheeked cordon bleus and numerous other birds.

Later we happened upon a colony of safari ants, known as siafu in Swahili, and learned from Dino that this dangerous species has been known to occasionally eat babies, and is even capable of significantly harming adult humans—particularly drunk ones who pass out along the roadside late at night and wake up eye-less the next morning. Upon finding such prey, the ants climb stealthily into

Mwanza: Back to School in Hyena Country

Thursday, July 6, 2006 | Mwanza, Tanzania (map)

The shore of Lake Victoria, just a few minutes' bike ride from the university.
Though not the smallest puddlejumper in Africa, the plane we took from Dar es Salaam to Mwanza last Saturday still looked to me like a small-scale model of a real airplane. Nonetheless, it shuttled us from the metropolis of Dar on the Indian Ocean coast to the bolder-strewn shores of Lake Victoria without incident. We passed above the plains of central Tanzania and descended toward Mwanza in late afternoon as the sun illuminated the region's corn fields and unusual, gravity-defying rock formations (called kopjis, a Dutch word pronounced like "copies"). The lake sparkled, dotted with islands and the day's last fishing boats.

The one-room airport, wholly devoid of any security apparatus, proved an apt introduction to the laid-back, small-town atmosphere of Mwanza, Tanzania's second-largest city after Dar es Salaam—and a distant second to be sure.