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When Mum and Dad came to South Africa for a visit, we first spent a glitzy weekend living it up in Cape Town. I managed to get a SANParks cottage up on the slopes of Table Mountain with great views in a plantation within the National Park. After a week of enjoying the vineyards, penguin beaches, mountains and fish and chips of Cape Town, we flew (with Kulula – possibly the funniest airline in the business) back up to Joburg to begin our epic campervan journey of Southern Africa.

Heading first to Kruger National Park, we barely stopped to catch our breath and entered the park in Phalaborwa. Within the first hour, Eagle-Eye Patricia had spotted rhinos, elephants, buffalo, a million impala and a wide variety of other bits and bobs. Glad we brought her.

We stayed with friends in the park, and after a couple of days of night drives, dawn walks and game drives in central Kruger, we started heading south. After a lot of very good sightings (even a cheetah with cubs on the last morning – almost never seen in Kruger) and about 5 indicator fuses later, we headed out of the park near the Mozambique border. We tried to get the indicator problem fixed to no avail at the Komatipoort border town, and headed straight into Swaziland.

Swaziland came as a very pleasant surprise (apart from a little enforced roadside dancing by local children) with it’s rolling hills and very friendly people. The insane roadworks in Mbabane weren’t the most relaxing though, but we soon navigated our way south and back to South Africa to head down to the coast.

We took a couple of days in St Lucia to see the wetlands and coastal birds. After a trip up the estuary for about as far as we could go, we took a drive up into the park to see the white rhinos, hippos and hundreds of cool birds. We stayed nearer Durban for a rather soggy night on the coast before doing the long journey north (and up) to the mountains of Golden Gate National Park (hooray!).

Mum and Dad’s time at my home in the park were taken up with horse riding, walking, a day trip into Lesotho, fancy meals in the very swish Clarens and visiting the bits in the park I wanted to share with them. The section ranger took us on a very hairy 4×4 route (Mum had her eyes closed for the sheer-drop bits!) to see the most amazing sights of thousands of animals (eland, springbok, zebra, hartebeest, black wildebeest and little antelopes like duiker and rhebok) all hiding from the world up in the mountains. Amazing sights – like something from a certain Disney movie…

One highway blow-out later, and after a night on the edges of Joburg, I left Mum and Dad the before their flight back to Europe and flew up to Zim. The flight was amazing – there were enormous towering thunder clouds over the savannah in central Zimbabwe, and the pilot was swooping left and right to dodge them. There were just incredible views of the stacked clouds and scenery all around. The $50 visa was taken by a very friendly official, and I was in Zimbabwe! I headed straight for Vic Falls Campsite, and spent the following day seeing the falls, and exploring the overpriced touristy town on the Zim side. There are heaps of adventure activities to do at the falls – none of which I could afford, so I stuck to the free stuff and enjoyed the roar of the falls.

The next day was the start of the organised bit of the tour – we headed through the border into Zambia with about 20 of us on a big overland truck. Everyone was really friendly and up for fun, and the first few nights in Zam were on a big houseboat on Lake Kariba, an enormous man-made reservoir. We slept on the roof and awoke to amazing sunrises on the lake both mornings. We could also see lots of game like hippos, kudu and impala on the shores. I even woke up in the night to see the shadow of an elephant drinking at the shore right by our mooring.

Entering Malawi was a big change – very friendly people, and much higher poverty. After a brief stop for internet and money changing in Lilongwe, we headed straight for the lake for 2 nights on the shores with amazing views across to Mozambique, and with a beach bar and wide open sands to enjoy. The location was amazing, and it was great to be able to swim in fresh water after sitting on the beach! It was a bit nasty to see the columns of hatching lake flies towering above the middle of the lake before blowing in though. When they got to the coast, the air was thick with them for just a few minutes before they invaded the forest on the shore and disappeared.

We travelled up the coast to another beach campsite for 2 nights over Christmas. We met up with few more tour trucks for the festivities: 2 were from a company called the Pink Caravan – a Swedish company using old pink coaches to ferry Swedes around the continent. At around midnight on Christmas morning, we headed across to their campsite to have a good singsong and have a bit of a competition (needless to say, the non-Swedes won hands down!)

Christmas day was spent relaxing on the beach and enjoying a spit-roasted pig for Christmas dinner. Fantastic! The next few days were spent zooming up through the hills into Tanzania and heading straight for Dar es Salaam. We took the ferry to Zanzibar and arrived in Stone Town just in time for dinner (this is the point in the story when my camera packed up). This involved a night market where you take a plate and barter for your dinner from the many stalls. We took a spice tour and historical trip the following day – spent the day chewing on fresh cloves, figs, lemon grass, ginger and drinking fresh coconut milk on the farms of central Zanzibar. Obviously, after all that excitement, a few more days at the beach were required, so we headed to the northern tip of the island and relaxed once more on the powder-white beaches of East Africa, deciding between snorkelling, turtle spotting, swimming and drinking in the beach bars. Sometimes, decisions can be tough.

New Year was spent on the beach (surprised?) in Dar es Salaam on the mainland again. After barely sleeping (and after loosing my headtorch somewhere on the beach when I took it off to swim), we got up before dawn and headed inland for a long drive to Moshi in the shade of Kilimanjaro. We saw a fair bit of the mountain, but most of it is generally in cloud. Got an idea of the size though. We headed into the Serengeti and Ngorongoro Crater for a few nights safari. The Serengeti is just amazing, with the most enormous herds of animals (although I suspect many were computer generated) and some of the most incredible scenery possible. I also managed to see my second leopard in Africa – and it was in a tree! Just where I wanted it! The crater was just as incredible, and quite breathtaking as we headed down the steep sides and were able to see herds of elephant, buffalo and antelope even from the rim. Wow.

Heading north again, we crossed into Kenya and I spent my first night under the Kenyan skies. The following day was the one where the most ground was covered: we headed up from the border to Nairobi, I left the group there and headed to the airport where I caught a flight to Mombasa, and was picked up by the GVI staff and taken down to Shimoni, back on the Tanzania border. Quite a day with lots of hassles, but I arrived safe and sound. I had my first trip to Mkwiro village on Wasini Island the following morning, and after taking a couple of days of getting over the trip (with some intensive sleep and exhaustion!), the 21 new expedition members (EMs) arrived on base.

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Into the forest…

I went out into the forest last week. The expedition is split into 3 focal areas – the community (ordinarily my bit – teaching English, orphanage, fundraising etc), marine research (dolphins, turtles, whales when it’s the season) and coastal forest biodiversity research. All of the staff on the expedition have experience and training in one of the areas, but we try to make sure that everyone is able to cover the others.

So, as part of my forest training, I went out into the Shimoni forest for 2 days with the dedicated Forest Officer, Jake, who came to the expo at the same time as me in January 2007. The forest is on the Shimoni peninsular and is under threat from ‘development’. It also is home to the Angolan Black and White Colobus monkey, Sykes monkey, Yellow baboon and (pesky) Vervet monkey. Previous expeditions have cut 6 transects into the peninsular from west to east, and from the edge of the forest at Shimoni village to the coast on the opposite side of the peninsular.

On Thursday, we took Transect 3 from the edge of the forest (where GVI has a cottage – our mini-mainland base) right through to the coast. This encompasses 32 sections – each 50m long. Jake and I went into the forest armed with machetes, clipboards, plenty of water, reference books and the all important packed lunches. Thought I spied the Temple of Doom through the trees at some times, but, alas, no. It did feel very Indiana Jones to be hacking through thick forest with a machete in hand, thick boots on in case of snakes (did see a bark snake – a new one for our biodiversity list), and flicking the army ants and ticks off our clothes before they got anywhere unpleasant! I always thought that having ‘ants in your pants’ was quite a funny expression – not a very amusing reality though, let me assure you!

We carried out a colobus monkey survey in the morning, watching their behaviour and assessing the troop numbers and locations. After getting all the way to section 32 (at the coast), I hacked away a bit of bush to get a glorious view of the sea for us eat lunch at and take a well-earned rest from sweating and clambering through spiders’ webs (the disadvantage of being the tallest in the forest – more cobwebs up here!). After sarnies and samosas, we started the long trek west to get home. On the way home, we were measuring canopy cover and height at 10m intervals – quite time consuming, but got some good data which we can use to assess the conditions of the primate troops. Also, managed to find poo and footprints that could be from an aardwolf – a very exciting theory, but in need of a bit more evidence!

On Day 2, we carried out a few sections of bird surveys, but due to transfers over the channel, we didn’t get into the forest early enough to get to see many. Heard some sunbirds, African fish eagle and a couple of mystery birds (and saw a few black kites on the way back to the cottage), but had a great morning of sitting quietly in the forest listening to the sounds of the bush.

Back on the islands now, writing this on the base computer so I can upload it next time I’m across. Just had a threat of a thunderstorm here – got myself quite excited, as we use rainwater to drink (there is no freshwater on the island, so we bring it across in jerry-cans) and rain stocks up our tank. It got windy, thundery, there was lightening… but there wasn’t any rain. Not really surprising for the dry season, but it was a nice thought!

Got the volunteers coming back to the island after the weekend tomorrow. On Tuesday, it’s half way through the expo, so there is a bit of a change around in volunteers. Hard to believe that time is going so quickly already!

The Orphanage

Wasini Island has 2 main villages on it: Wasini village is the bigger of the two and has been the focus of ‘development’ on the island probably due to a good safe harbour; Mkwiro village, where our base is, is the ‘forgotton village’ and has considerably less in the way of tourism and infrastructure. There are no cars on the island, and the entire place is made of coral rag – great for snorkelling offshore, but also quite good for causing injured ankles and cut feet on the island…

Mkwiro village has an orphanage where 30+ boys live at the far side of the village from our base. There are 2 caregivers and a couple of cooks who feed the boys. The money for all this comes from Islamic donations from around the coast, but as the orphanage has expanded, budgets have been stretched. Currently, GVI’s Charitable Trust wing is donating money to them for the essentials, but a big chunk of that goes to fund a clinician for the local dispensary (vital in Mkwiro – remember that coral rag?! Also, there is no other medical care without having to take a boat to the mainland – not an easy proposition for the sick). The remainding money has gone into buying some beds for the boys (who still top-and-tail, but its better than the floor!), mozzie nets for all, cementing the floor so that they dont sleep and live on the bare coral, plastering and painting the walls and buying shoes for the boys. Much more is still needed, but that’s what my job is for!

I visit the boys 3 times a week with different groups of volunteers from the project essentially just to spend some quality time with them, have a laugh and give them some attention and fun for a couple of hours. Last night, all the boys were waiting for us to get there – we had taken pens and paper to do some drawings and some books so that could read to us. Although reading is normally a firm favourite, that plan went straight out of the window within 5 minutes! The boys were all a bit hyperactive (Friday afternoon!), so we started hiphop dancing and I showed them how to Moonwalk. Within seconds, it was dance-off time! Orphans vs. foreigners! These kids are seriously flexible, and came up with some of the most funny and imaginative moves! The boys, the volunteers and I were all in tears with laughter for most of the evening!

Needless to say, I ache quite a bit today!

I’m just spending the weekend on the mainland today – some well-deserved running water and fresh-water showers! Also, doing some research for grants and stuff so that I can find a way to keep funding the dispensary – looks like we might lose the clinician after 3 months unless I can find the extra cash to suppliment his pay when he gets his promised pay-rise…

More soon!!

The first post on ‘Where on earth is Alex?’! Thanks Carl, Helen and Eleanor – hope it helps you keep track of me! Today, the answer to the eternal mystery is: Mombasa! I took a matatu (minibus taxi) up here this morning because I have a first aid instructors course on the beach up here tomorrow – quite the adventure getting here though. The matatus go when full – pretty standard for a minibus taxi anywhere – however, Western ‘full’ and Kenyan ‘full’ dont dovetail as perfectly as you might imagine. At one point on the journey, the matatu (roughly the same size as those 12 seater minibuses they use for soccer teams in schools) managed to hold 34 people plus driver and conductor. 4 people were hanging out of the door, 2 were holding on the back and i was sat in the corner by the window with a big smile on my face for getting a good seat early!

Just found the best shop in the world as well – its called Nakumatt, and sells literelly everything. Everything. There is even a whole department of kitchen sinks, just to add credability to the old adage.

Before I get carried away with Nakumatt though, a little about the island and the new job! Wasini island, just a stone’s throw from the historic village of Shimoni in southern-most Kenya has 2 villages on it. Our base is on the edge of the smaller, forgotten village called Mkwiro (meaning drumstick – as in ‘for hitting drums with’, not as in ‘for deep-frying’). On one side of the base is the village school, and on the other is a dive shop (with a bar!). The sea is to our front, and forest is the the back. I have a nice little room in the staff building (complete with more pets then I will ever be able to identify. The best is our pet black and white cat called Charlie though! He’s meant to eat the rats, but gets fed a bit too much fish…), and the expedition volunteers have a big house with bunk beds, some squat bogs and a little office for our equipment. We’ve a generator and solar power (currently duff) for our electricity needs, we use the steps at the dive shop to fetch salt water for washing and showering (unless you just do it in the sea – better), and we carry jerrycans of fresh water from the mainland (unless its rained – hasnt happened for a while though) for washing food, drinking and nothing else on account of the weight. As there is no plumbing, the drainage water from the kitchen and wash sinks gets collected and used to flush the squat toilets. A very imaginative 100% use of water.

The expo is split into three bits – forest; focussing on monkeys and other primates, marine; which looks at the dolphins and whales in the area from one of our three boats, and community; (my main bit) which involves teaching english to the kids in the school next to base, the adults and also getting the orphanage up to scratch. The orphanage contains 30 boys, no fresh water on site, about 13 beds (top-tailing in all beds, the rest of the boys sleep on the floor), no concrete floor (coral rag in most rooms), no plaster on walls, no kitchen, not always enough food, not a lot of contact from caregivers, not enough clothes, very few shoes and more spirited grins and excitement than you would ever believe. An amazing project to get involved in, and suddenly I’m going to be the one in charge of helping them improve it with no money! Time to start the begging letters…!

No photos yet – camera started adding its own bits in the form of little white lines on Zanzibar (i’ll write up that adventure soon!), so i’m forumating a plan to get a new one at the moment. Got to run – the guy who is running the course tomorrow is about to arrive. More soon!

So to make it easier for you to keep us all informed, for Christmas we’ve bought you a website, webmail and blog! You’re in full control (so I’d suggest you delete all of this once you’ve started!) so here’s all the good stuff you need to know:

You now own the domain ‘www.whereonearthisalex.net’.

Your new email address is alex@whereonearthisalex.net

You can check your webmail at:
http://www.whereonearthisalex.net/cpanel/

Your username = whereone , your password = all my initials, followed by all your other brother’s initials, followed by one number indicating your month of birth, followed by the name of the last dog Mum & Dad owned (all in lower case, no spaces). We suggest you change this to something a bit easier to remember! You can also check using POP3, but you can look for yourself in the help panel if you want to set that up – you’ll probably know more than us about it!

I’ve set up your homepage at www.whereonearthisalex.net to redirect here – if you need to you can also store files on your homepage using http://ftp.whereonearthisalex.net, using your username and password. We figured a blog would be easier for you to use, rather than trying to faff about authoring webpages, but you can use the website as you like, using the control panel. We thought it might be handy to have some spare online space to dump stuff. The blog uses http://www.wordpress.com online editing software.

You can log into your blog by going to the wordpress home page to log in. Your username is: whereonearthisalex , your password is the same as your webmail password.

We thought this would be a different sort of present, easy to wrap, and might even be useful for you! We hope you like it! We’re all missing you, and hope you have a wonderful warm Christmas while we’re all stuck back here in the gloom.

With loads of love, Carl, Helen and Eleanor