Monday, 29 March 2010

Petrol for Congo

Next time you pull up at the bowser consider the inhabitants of Eastern Rwanda and Congo. Their petrol is shipped overland from Dar-es-Salaam in Tanzania, though hundreds of kilometres of bush into Rwanda and then over the mountains in the Western part of the country, before being driven over the border to the Democratic Republic of Congo. The DRC is a bit of a trades description misnomer because corruption there is so rife you pay less for a litre of fuel there than you do in Rwanda, or even on the coast.
These HDR shots were snapped at a truck stop on the road to Parc des Vulcans - we were en route to see the mountain gorillas there but the trucks were going further to Congo. Petrol has to be shipped here because Congo has no roads venturing into the interior from the west coast.

Rwanda: Walking with Gorillas

The main thing visitors come to Rwanda to see are its mountain gorillas. It's the reason people come to this tiny, landlocked country with a tragic past - but a seemingly bright future. What becomes immediately apparent on arrival is that it's a country on the mend. It's also the cleanest country I've visited in many years. Not a skerrick of rubbish anywhere. Well, nearly everywhere. One of the things I read about Rwanda was that the people have a national clean up day, every month. Everyone gets into it and the result is that the capital, Kigali, and the outlying countryside, all look to be competing in some national tidy town competition. Great.

We arrived at Kigali airport at the un-Godly hour of 3am and were taken to the Milles Collines Hotel - the same one that features as Hotel Rwanda in the Hollywood movie of the same name. Luxurious and comfortable. Next day we were picked up in two Land Cruisers and spent an interesting 4 hours driving north west to the Parc des Vulcans along the border with Uganda and the DRC (Congo). It's here that the remaining 700 or so mountain gorillas live - although they don't take much notice of International boundaries of course. We spent the night at the Gorilla Lodge in Ruahengire, a very cool hotel in a garden of hydrangeas, all surrounded by a pine forest. Next day saw us driving 15 mins into the park HQ where we were split into 2 groups of five - which were padded up to 8, with the addition of a Canadian man and a NY couple on secondment to the UN war crimes commission in Arusha, Tanzania. There are several tourist gorilla family groups in the Parc des Vulcans - groups that have had contact with people, so are familiar with their presence. There are also other groups that are off-limits to all but scientists. You get allocated two guides and a specific gorilla group. Ours were quite close to the HQ.
After sliding left and right up a very rutted, uneven track our 4WD ground to a halt in an axel-deep bog so we walked the last 400 metres to the departure point.
From there you can hire a porter to carry your camera gear (US$10) if you need (a good idea and great value). Walking sticks are handed out (another good idea) and off we went. Ideal clothing is long trousers, walking boots and a long sleeved shirt. Or waterproof jacket. You are only allowed to sit near the gorillas for one hour so, even if it's raining, you'd not be wet for long - although at 8,500 feet altitude, it is a touch chilly. The clothes are more for protection from the stinging nettles encountered in the bush. Stings are quite painful and apparently last for 24 hours in some cases. Because gorillas move a lot in a day looking for food you never know exactly how long the walk to the gorilla location is going to be. We took 30 mins walking through farmland to get to the park boundary, an incongrous dry stone wall and then only 30 mins to the gorilla group. Were were lucky.
The other half of our group had to plough through quite dense jungle for over an hour with the Ak47-armed park rangers machete-ing their way through dense undergrowth and nettles. We found our lot after 30 mins of slipping and sliding through a vast bamboo grove. We spotted two small (baby) gorillas first and were so dumbstruck by their physical closeness that one of the group (no names Janice!) nearly fell over the male silverback, the 'boss' of the small group. The guides make sure that you remain at least 7 metres from the animals at all times. Even so this short distance seems almost frighteningly close. The primates appear to be unconcerneed by the presence of humans. One of the guides 'spoke' to the gorillas, emitting a low grunting noise that was the gorilla equivalent to 'we are friends' and the gorilla responded with the equivalent grunt of 'no worries'. He also grunted to his females to check on them - they had to reply quickly that they were OK too, otherweise the silverback heads in their direction to check. It's amazing to see this actually happening in front of your eyes - and on a couple of occasions, once where a flash accidentally went off (not one of our group) and another when one of us got too close, we had the ranger pacifying this huge 200kg primate with a series of quick grunts.
It also became obvious that these primates were subject to some wicked bouts of flatulance - two of the younger gorillas were hanging about in the upper branches of the bamboo and periodically farted, long and very loud, much to the amusement of the males in OUR group.
We spent an hour shooting from several different positions in light that was next to non-existent: f2.8, 1/30s, using an EF70-200mm f2.8, L USM lens @ ISO 1000 on my 5D MkII.
Top pic by Robin Nichols
Then - Mike CLements
Ian Caldwell
Sue Caldwell and below, close up by Dianne Clements and bottom, Robin Nichols


Thursday, 25 March 2010

Zanzibar: Final Slideshow Critique

Here are the final shots from our photo critique sessions. This is the 'best of the best' from the remaining few days spent cruising round Zanzibar. Bearing in mind that few of us have had the time to anything other than skim the thousands of images we have shot over the last 18 days, the results are very encouraging...

Wednesday, 24 March 2010

Zanzibar: the iconic Dhow

Even if you have never been to the island of Zanzibar you'll probably be little familiar with the photo above. This is a traditional African or Arabic Dhow, a small, light sailing vessel used to ply trade up and down the coast of Zanzibar, and further afield on the mainland of Africa and around Djibouti and into the Arabian Gulf. I have been lucky enough to see them being hand-built in Sur (in Oman) and I`m sure there are places along the coast here in Zanzibar where these classic trading boats are still assembled. 
Traditionally these boats are made from teak without the use of any fixing devices such as nails and screws. It`s an art that is probably all but died out - certainly in the Middle East all the boatbuilding is now completed using Pakistani labour.
This was shot off the coast in Stonetown - the boats come in quite closely to the beach so you can get some great pictures using a regular 300mm lens - this was shot using a Canon EF100-400mm lens on my 5D MkII.

Zanzibar: Spice Farm Tour

Zanzibar, lying just off the coast of Tanzania is famous for spices.

As you walk around the cramped streets of this island's capital, Stonetown, you do get a waft of various herbs and spices emanating, for the most part, from tourist shops. On our first full day on the island we took a trip about 25 km north of the capital to check out a spice farm. One thing that struck me immediately is how poor everyone appeared to be. Houses are quite ramshackle, people and literally living in mud huts, even as state schools exist in the most basic form. And for some reason I imagined the people of this exotic, tropical island was somewhat wealthier. The trip into the hinterland to visit the spice farm takes about 30 or 40 minutes depending on how many off-road adventures you have to avoid roadworks and diversions. At some point it felt like we were on safari again! The farm itself is a collection of mud huts and rattan structures hidden from the road among some banana palms and other assorted bushes.

To a city boy these all appeared very similar in size and type. To someone who knows about herbs and spices it was an income. We spent more than two hours in the Plantation, stopping at different plots to sniff the crushed leaves of each different spice plant, taste its fruit and then try to guess its name. all of us in the group were a little bit sceptical when we first started because the operation, such as it was, appeared very flaky. However, having tasted our way through a variety of spices, eaten our way through a pile of tropical fruit, and drunk half a litre of fresh coconut, all done while wearing handmade hats, neckties and frog pendants (all made from palm leaf) we decided that we'd had a thoroughly good time. Not only have we learned a lot about what these almost commonplace spices looked like in natural habitat but we learnt a lot about their commercial value too. It was a thoroughly interesting and value for money afternoon.

From the top: 
Nutmeg peeled
Nutmeg fruit
African 'lipstick' spice
African 'lipstick' spice applied
African 'lipstick' spice applied on one of the farm boys
Vanilla beans on the vine
Ylang Ylang flowers
Peeling ginger root
Peeling local oranges
Green peppercorns
Cardomons at base of tree
Cinnamon bark 

And finally, Alan Stern looking distincly native after too many coconut cocktails, your truly shooting someone else with a wacky hat and chewing a bit of sugar cane. Very nice!
(more pics to follow once I get them from the group.)

Great lunch place in Zanzibar

For a long time in its history, has been the centrepiece of the spice trade. You can see it in the advertising at the airport, smell the spices in the streets of Stone town and taste in its food. If you're wandering around the historical part of Stonetown, as we were today, you`ll get hungry! We had spent about three hours wandering into alleyways and markets and ended up at a restaurant called the Silk Route just next to the tunnel on Forodhani - you can`t miss it because there's a uniformed guy standing on the footpath at the front complete with turban. 
You have to climb three floors to get to the restaurant but this gives you the right to sit at the table and watch sailing dhows drift past in the afternoon breeze right in front of you. The view is pretty good, the breeze coming onto the terrace even better and the food, we all agreed, was fantastic: described as 'Indian fusion', most of our group tucked into vegetarian dishes that were presented immaculately by very polite staff. 
If you like extremely well presented, affordable and tasty Indian food, in attractive surroundings, we couldn't recommend the place more highly...

Monday, 22 March 2010

Walking with a Ranger

National park rangers in Tanzania are usually recruited form the military - apparently having one year's training in the army is quite desirable. Candidates then join the ranger or guide service for further training - this time in animal identification, habits and characteristics. They conduct short walks or longer hikes into the bush if you want a better African experience. You can even hike into pygmy country around Ngorongoro crater and go hunting with a bow and arrow.
The guide's name was Idi and he told me quite a lot about the life of a Ranger. Their job consists of monitoring the impact of humans on the park life as well as monitoring the animal life and its general well-being. He carries a gun chiefly to make a noise and scare off any animals they may encounter, and mostly Cape Buffalo and perhaps lion. I asked him how many times he had used his weapon and he replied ' many many times', mostly I gathered in order to scare off some of the larger predators that he encountered in his walks. I was asked about how many people were killed by predators not expecting a reply. He told me that only last year to Maasi men were mauled to death, presumably by lions while they were trying to get home. He did at that both men had been drinking heavily and had probably fallen asleep somewhere in the bush so represented an easy target and the animals. I got the impression from him that although many of these animals are in fact quite dangerous, if you treat them with respect and avoid any direct encounter you're likely to come off quite safely. Because you're never quite sure  of the whereabouts of these animals at any one time the local farmers, the maasai bring their livestock back into the family compound every evening. You can hear the clinking of cowbells always through this area as the boys herd there animals to greener pastures and then bring them back again in the evening. For the entire three hours that we were walking over shadowed by several local Maasai boys asking for the usual school pen or dollar notes. They didn't get any. They were also very curious as to why we were taking pictures of landscape, especially when I set up my tripod to do some HDR shots on the rocky sea in the bottom picture. The lake you see in the background is 50% salt water and 50% freshwater and provides a unique environment that Tanzania's last remaining pygmy tribes. I didn't meet any of course but a trek in that direction to experience their way of life sounded like a cool thing to do if we had more time.

Arusha Best of the Best (so far..).

Here's the best of the best from our third slideshow/critique session held at the luxurious and very relaxing Arusha Coffee Lodge - if you visit Tanzania, I think all of us would recommend it as a cool place to hang for a couple of days.

From the top: 
Matthew Baker
Ian Caldwell
Sue Caldwell
Kimie Kato
John Patrick
Glyn Patrick
Lucie Loane
Ralph Hilmer
Fraser Burdon
Dianne Clement
Kerrie Stern
Peta Blake
Mike Clements
Fay Burdon