The Felucca Trip from Hell

There were a few warning signs, but we chose to ignore them.

Felucca trip Egypt
Felucca trip Egypt

I had always wanted to do a felucca trip up the Nile, I knew people who had been and it seemed like it would be one long slow party in the sun. Sure the felucca is very basic, a flat wide traditional boat with just enough height at the front to squeeze our packs under the ‘deck’, and just enough space to roll up on the deck at night in our sleeping bags. It’s the traditional way to travel and no self respecting backpacker is going to do it any other way.

Just in case you have the same romantic vision of the felucca ride, here’s my list of 8 warning signs that maybe you will get the felucca trip from hell instead.

Felucca trip Egypt
Felucca trip Egypt
  1. When it is cold and windy. Egypt is generally known for hot weather, so even though February in Egypt is winter, we were expecting it be fairly mild. If you hear the words “coldest winter in decades”, and it is cold and windy outside, and it snowed last week, you might want to reconsider. You won’t get a suntan, you’ll be shivering in the breeze instead.
  2. When only one felucca in the whole of Aswan is prepared to go, and the captain tells you it’s a large felucca that can take all nine of you instead of the usual six. Don’t believe this just because it has a cool name like “Kiwi Magic”. All feluccas are the same size. No-one else is leaving because the weather is not good.
  3. When your cook is able to tip over the portable gas cooker and set fire to the wooden boat – twice, on your first afternoon. You will then get to watch bucket loads of Nile water being thrown over your packs (although that is better than seeing them go up in flames too). You will see your dinner, in its early stages of cooking, going over the side as the cook ditches it to use the saucepan to get water to put out the flames.
  4. When you find find nine people in sleeping bags having to fit into a space designed for six. You will top and tail, and all nine of you will have to turn over at the same time. No, make that eleven of you, your crew will try and squeeze between any two girls they can, even though they have their own sleeping area.
  5. When you wake up to find a WATER RAT RUNNING ACROSS YOUR FACE. This will make you yell and will wake everyone else up, who will be annoyed. You won’t care because you can’t possibly go back to sleep now anyway. You think that maybe you don’t want to sleep in the open air, at the waterline, tied up to a riverbank again.
  6. When your captain casts off pre-dawn into a thick fog. For a few minutes it is an amazing feeling floating along with the current along in thick fog. Until a huge Nile cruise ship appears out of the mist about 100 metres from you, heading straight at you and seemingly unaware of your existence. You will have the excitement of screaming, paddling wildly with your hands and grabbing any poles you can find, to try and keep your boat a mere couple of metres off the side of the monster.
  7. When your captain is stoned and still capable of getting aggressive. After a wonderful time exploring Kom Ombo and a relaxing lunch on a river bank, our captain challenges the only other felucca we have come across to a race. After we have won the race, the captain of the other felucca turns his boat into us and rams us at speed, putting a large hole in the hull. We start to take on water. Our captain is incensed and proceeds to try and ram the other boat.
  8. When your captain carries a foot long knife and a large leather strap to sharpen it. Not content with ramming, our captain pulls his knife, jumps onto the other boat and starts slashing at the competing Captain. The two of them leap backwards and forwards between the two boats while wildy flailing the knives around within inches of our heads, as we cling to the deck. Our captain is now frothing at the mouth in anger as we all watch our felucca sink closer towards the waterline. We are wondering if it is better to drown or die from a vicious knife cut. The cook eventually separates the two of them and gets us to the riverbank to carry out some repairs, but our packs, (and sleeping bags), under the deck are soaked through again.

By this point we decide that when we make our evening riverbank stop, which will be at a village, we are going to get off the felucca and find our own way onwards to Luxor, even if we have to walk! This is not an easy thing to announce to an angry captain who is still sharpening his knife. Luckily for us, when we reach the village, the matriach of the captain’s family hears what has happened, and offers to put us up for the night in her compound of mud brick houses.

We have a great dinner and enjoyable evening with the extended family. Because they have to squeeze us in, three of us are given a room with a frail looking double bed and mattress – no problem, more topping and tailing! The door to our room is unattached to the door frame, so we just lean it over as best we can, and are ready to sleep. As we nod off, the bed collapses beneath us. We decide we don’t care and sleep on the mattress on the debris of the old bed frame.

As the sun comes up next morning, about thirty chickens wake up in the compound. The rooster crows, and then the chickens find the gap at the bottom of our door frame and push their way in to say hello. As we sit up we scare the chickens who start flapping their wings and dropping chicken feathers and poo everywhere. We start laughing and can’t stop, rolling around in chicken feathers, trying to shoo them out of the room until breakfast is ready. We decide we really like Egypt, and we are ready for another day.

My Top Ten Tanzanian Safari Moments

Cradling my camera carefully as we bounce along the corrugated dirt track and wishing I’d worn a serious sports bra, I’m getting painful bruises under my arms where I am clinging to bits of the open roof of the 4-wheel drive. We are coated in a potent mix of suntan lotion, dust and sweat, and are grinning maniacally as we lurch to a stop as we spot a family of elephants just emerging to our left.

Tanzania is a world-class spot for seriously impressive animal spotting, which is why we are all standing upright and clinging on for hours on end in the heat – we don’t want to risk missing a second by sitting down.

Tanzania safari Lake Manyara hippo
Tanzania safari Lake Manyara hippo

On my previous visit to Tanzania in 1992 I traveled through the Serengeti, Ngorongoro, and Mikumi national parks. This time I am visiting Tarangire, Ngorongoro and Lake Manyara, and it strikes me that animal numbers in the national parks appear to have increased dramatically in the intervening years, which is very encouraging. We have quickly determined a pecking order of what gets our attention. We have seen so many monkeys, antelope and wildebeest that we barely stop any more – it’s the elephants and giraffes and any big cat, hippos and rhinos that get us excited now. Here are a few of my favourite moments.

    1. The Hippo Pool at Lake Manyara. We are pinning our hopes on the promisingly named Hippo Pool in Lake Manyara, and boy does it deliver. Dozens upon dozens of hippos resting into a series of shallow pools, climbing in and out of the pools, lolling around in the mud, with a backdrop of hills and zebras and great colonies of storks. And then one right in front of me does a huge yawn and I am as happy as a hippo watcher can be.
    2. The large herds of Elephants in Tarangire. We are awestruck watching a column of elephants come towards us through the tree line, 50 or 60 in number, about a third of them young ones, striding three or four abreast. They tower over us as they cross the track just in front of us, ignoring us. Over the next hour we see at least three more herds of similar size, all within a few km of each other. One herd is running, stampeding (luckily not in our direction), and we watch them steer and protect their babies as they thunder by.
    3. Spotting a Leopard in Tarangire. Just on dusk, on our first evening drive in Tarangire, Peter pulls up and points to a large acacia tree, two or three hundred metres away, and says “leopard” . At first we can’t see a thing in the waning light, but as I extend my zoom lens and follow his direction – up to the first large horizontal branch sticking out to the left, pan along it, suddenly it comes into view. Magnificent, stretched out along the branch. We joke that it’s a stuffed toy planted by the guides to fool us, as the leopard hasn’t moved. Right on cue, it stands up, stretches, moves a couple of metres further out on the branch, and lies down again. It’s a small spot in the distance, but as we assess the size of the tree and the relative size of the leopard, we start to realise it is indeed big, it has to be at least two metres in length, and we stay there and stare at it till it is just too dark to see any more.

      Tanzania safari Tarangire leopard
      Tanzania safari Tarangire leopard
    4. The very self satisfied teenage lions in Ngorongoro Crater. The epitome of self assured adolescence – nine or ten teenage lions and lionesses having an afternoon seista on a sunny hillside. One male sits to the side as a very casual guard, the remaining males are all flat on their backs, limbs spread akimbo, baring their contented bellies to the sun. The lionesses are similarly napping, albeit in a slightly more conservative pose. We get the very strong message that these lions don’t have too many worries at all.
    5. The sole Rhino sighting in Ngorongoro. I can’t help wondering is it is still the same rhino that I saw in the same place eighteen years ago, I like the idea that it might be. Last time I saw it a lot closer as it charged our jeep (which had stalled). This time it doesn’t charge anyone, and while I tell myself that is a good thing, I am secretly a little bit disappointed.

      Tanzania safari Ngorongoro rhino
      Tanzania safari Ngorongoro rhino
    6. The black and white beauty of the zebra. We see what seems like thousands of zebra. We also see  what seems like thousands of wildebeest and quickly get bored with them, but the zebras remain fascinating. Even though they tend to turn away from us when they hear us approaching, so we end up seeing a lot of zebra arses. Its the contrast between their funny donkey-like shape and the graphic beauty of the black and white markings, no two ever the same.
    7. The soda lake pink flamingos and the soaring storks. I’ve never been a bird watcher when I travel, but even I am impressed when there are huge flocks of birds. A solid pink carpet of flamingoes  in a lake in Ngorongoro, or vast flight of storks forming intricate synchronous flying patterns, soaring around in aerial displays by Lake Manyara.

      Tanzania safari Ngorongoro flamingos
      Tanzania safari Ngorongoro flamingos
    8. The teenage giraffe argy bargy. It is so hard not to endow animals with human behaviours and motivations. As we do when we see three male teenage giraffes, two of them engaged in a bit of friendly pushing and shoving, for all the world looking like a couple of footy players trying to establish a pecking order, the third giraffe looking like the try-hard hanger-oner
    9. The Masaai village. It’s easy to imagine the Masaai get really annoyed with us for treating them like just another animal sighting – pointing our cameras at them, wanting to capture their ‘colour’, wanting to look into their life’s. Imagine if a horde of tourists descended into your house and workplace every day doing the same to you.  To control this, near Ngorongoro, in the Serengeti, there are a number of Masaai villages which have been built specifically for tourists to visit, for a fee. Here we get welcomed with traditional dances, get shown into traditional Masaai huts, visit a school room, and have the opportunity to buy some of their intricately beaded jewellery. And we are allowed, indeed encouraged to take photos of everyone and anyone. That’s because these are ‘theme’ villages, the Masaai only work there during the day, and go home to their real villages in the evening. This is a job for them, and they get paid for it. Some tourists object to paying an entrance fee, object to it not being a real live village. I wonder when we decided we have the right to invade peoples lives and expect them to perform on demand for us for free, in their own homes. Good on them for setting up a cultural performance, of finding a way to manage the interest in them and earn an income off it, while putting a boundary around their real lives.
  1. The monkey that tried to steal my lunch. Sometimes I get a good reminder that I can be a dumb tourist. This was one of those days. After an early start and a full morning in Tarangire I am looking forward to our packed lunch. We’ve stopped in an official picnic spot, sitting at the tables under the trees, a river valley teeming with zebra, wildebeest and giraffe below us. A few cute little monkeys playing on the fence yonder, one a mum with the tiniest baby monkey clinging on to her under her belly. I start pulling out items from my lunch box – sandwich, samosa, juice, chocolate bar – with a big loud “yum”. One of my fellow travellers yells “watch out”, and out of the corner of my eye I see the mother monkey with baby still attached  doing a giant leap through the air from fence towards my unpacked lunch box. My brain flashed ” oh no, you’re not getting my lunch” and I somehow managed to sweep all the contents into the plastic lunchbox and slam the lid on in a split second, just as the monkey’s claw grabbed one corner of the box, about 2 mm from my hand, and yanked hard. I yanked back and pulled it out of her grasp, the plastic breaking off into her claw as it went – she sat back and snarled at me, looked like she was considering attacking me, and then turned and retreated back to her fence. Only then did I remember that I’d decided I wouldn’t need a rabies shot before I came on this trip, that her claws had been only 2mm from me and strong enough to rip a plastic lunchbox and that any sane person would’ve just let her take the sandwich.


Zanzibar, the most exotic island of all?

An ancient, crumbling, Arabian nights fairytale island, surrounded by the brightest turquoise water. Once a major trade capital for spices, silks, slaves and more, it’s the original melting pot, mixing ancient Africa, Arabia and India, with the Chinese and then the Portuguese following in later centuries. It’s a very visceral history that you can see, smell and feel in the air around you.

18 years ago, while doing an overland through east Africa, I arrived in Zanzibar and fell for its many charms. In three weeks time I will finally return, and I am wondering how much it has changed or not? Here’s my memories from the first time.

Getting to Zanzibar.

The ferry to Zanzibar from Dar es Salaam was not the most reliable, or safest. We’d booked the morning ferry, it breaks down, we wait a few hours and catch the mid afternoon one, a four and a half hour trip sitting on our packs on the deck, in the bow of a very full boat, towels over our heads to ward off the intense sun. Then there was the mad scramble to get off the ferry, through immigration and pound the streets to find a room – $15 a night for four to share, with very dodgy mosquito nets. My notes at the time said “the Sambusa, down an alley, past the rubbish dump – nice little room though.”

Prison Island.

We took a dhow out to Prison Island, a tiny island with a little sand bar beach, just a few meters wide, extending out into the true blue water. There’s remnants of an old prison, and a small population of very old, very huge giant tortoises, who in spite of being very wrinkly, are very adorable. We sunbath in the hot sun and cool off in the water until the wind comes up and starts scouring our skin with sand. We head back to Zanzibar in a choppy sea and get drenched in very salty sea spray, and need a very good warm shower on our return.

StoneTown, Zanzibar.

We explored the Byzantian alleyways, the old fort, the sultan’s palace – the architecture was amazing, but most building were run down, worn out, peeling and in need of some renovation. We spent more time wandering the streets and alleyways than we did on the beaches, it was just so fascinating. We dined cheaply but well. Beers at Africa House, fresh coconuts on the beach, calamari for dinner at The Dolphin, and back for omelettes for breakfast. Freshly cooked seafood straight off the stalls in the marketplace, and calamari stew at the Floating Restaurant next to the market. Fish coconut curries and banana milkshakes at Caymur’s. I wonder if any of these places still exist? – apart from the markets, probably not!


The Beach, Zanzibar.

We grabbed a ride in a jeep to Jambiani, a popular beach a two hour drive to the opposite side of the island to StoneTown. On the way we stopped off to see the endangered red colobus monkeys. What is surprising is that we didn’t also do a spice tour, to one of the spice plantations, given Zanzibar’s fame as a spice island – having grown up on farms in NZ we didn’t see anything interesting about visiting a farm. The beach was stunning – when we arrived the tide was out about 500m, and by late afternoon it was right back up the beach lapping our toes. The local kids were busy selling us papaya and coconuts, and were just gorgeous to watch.