Orson’s Travel Blog

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Posts Tagged ‘Indian Ocean

Zanzibar

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Once again I managed to escape the yoke of the grindstone and head off to sunny shores, this time to the ancient trading post of Zanzibar off the east coast of Africa.

Zanzibar is an island of contrasts. It is one of the poorest places I’ve visited, yet it also has one of the richest cultures I’ve experienced, with influences from cultures all across the Indian Ocean. After a short flight from Dar Es Salaam, I landed at Zanzibar’s airport. It was a bit disconcerting as I descended the stairs to a tarmac that was almost in total darkness. I thought to myself, this must be what it was like during the raid on Entebe. I smelled the scent of wood fires burning. I liked this place.

A quick taxi ride got me to my hotel in the old quarter of the city named Stone Town, a World Heritage site. Stone Town displays Zanzibar’s Arabic influence in its exotic architecture.

Stone Town alley

As an ancient trading post, Zanzibar was subjected to influences from Arabia, India, Malaysia and even China. While the Roman Empire was covering the Mediterranean with trading outposts, Indian Ocean cultures were doing the same all around its shores. Most notable was the Arabic influence, as Zanzibar came to be ruled by the Sultan of Oman.

Arabic influences seen in the elaborately carved doorways

Freddie Mercury was born in Stone Town and lived there until the revolution of 1964 overthrew the Sultanate and chased his family to England. After the revolution, the new government chased out most of the Arabic merchant community and allowed the poor to take over the lavish homes in Stone Town. Unfortunately, the poor didn’t have the funds to maintain the buildings which led to overwhelming decay. Steps are currently being taken to salvage Stone Town but the country is poor and restoration is lagging. Stone Town’s alleyways are too narrow for cars limiting them to pedestrian and moped traffic.

School girls trade secrets in a Stone Town alley

An old man exits another exquisitely carved doorway

After sleeping the sleep of the dead, I got up the next morning and located a place that rented motorbikes. The guy showed up at the hotel on a Vespa and asked me if I wanted a scooter or a “boom boom”. I said boom boom πŸ˜€ He left for a bit and returned with a Yamaha dirt bike of some sort which I deemed worthy. I then asked him to take me to an ATM so I could pay him, so he hopped on and I hopped on behind him. What followed was one of the scariest thrill rides I’ve ever been on. I’ve ridden the Isle of Man on Mad Sunday and I’ve ridden in Italian city traffic….neither comes close to the experience of riding bitch behind a Zanzibarian local, flailing the bike through narrow alleyways, shooing pedestrians aside with a relentless beep-beep-beeping of his horn πŸ™‚

Yes…we rode through this…

We somehow reached an ATM without taking out any pedestrians. After paying him his money, he offered me some last minute instructions. “Very important…the horn button”, pressing it for emphasis, BEEP BEEP. “Very important”, he reiterated. I nodded my understanding. “And use the back brake. The front brake may make you lose the front end”. Uhmmm….hokeyyy πŸ™‚ :thumbsup: With those last words, I headed out into traffic. Zanzibar is one of those silly places that insist that driving on the wrong side of the road is a perfectly natural thing to do, so I dutifully fell in with the rest of traffic.

One of the wider roads in Stone Town

My first experience was trying to find gas. I pulled into a service station where the attendant said “No petrol”. What do you mean no petrol?? Finally I noticed the signs over the pumps. They all read DIESEL. I had pulled into a diesel station…not a gas station…D’oh! I asked for directions to a gas station, but when I got there, the attendant said,”No petrol. Maybe this afternoon”. D’oh! A little further down the road, I found another station with a line forming. Aha! A line means gas. There were 2 lines on each side of the pump. Mopeds taking the inside lane, with cars and trucks taking the outside lane. After about 30 minutes, I had reached the front of the line and received my allotment.

Lining up for petrol. The tanker truck in the background had just discharged its load.

Heading towards the north end of the island, I stopped to take a picture of this government building. I’m not sure what it was but, I liked its design. I hadn’t noticed the beaming local until after I had taken the picture. Just about all of the locals were friendly with ready smiles.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t find a road map, so I would have to rely on the memory of a Zanzibar map I had seen on the internet a few days earlier. Like Sir Shackleton making his way to South Georgia Island, I would have to rely on dead reckoning. I headed north, trying to keep the west coast to my left hand side. Most of the roads on the island were flat and straight, so they weren’t the best for curve strafing.

Zanzibar seemed to have an inordinate amount of police check points. It was an hour and a half trip to the north end of the island, and I must have gone through 4 check points, each one wanting to see some identification and a driver’s liscence, asking where I was going, etc. Some were pleasant, others were less than pleasant. In the end, they all let me go on my merry way.

I turned off the main road in a vein attempt to find the beach but alas, it dead ended

I must have taken a wrong turn because I ended up going in a circle and coming through the same check point I had been through an hour earlier. So much for my dead reckoning talent. The policeman just shook his head and laughed. I eventually made it to the north end of the island.

Fishing boats stranded at low tide

I found a seaside restaurant and enjoyed a fresh seafood meal. Octopus with a coconut sauce and mango chutney with sweet yams and Arabic bread

I made my way back to my hotel in Stone town in time for cocktail hour. The hotel had a nice veranda bar on the roof that offered a nice view of the old quarter.

The following morning, I repeated the gas ritual and then made my way to the eastern side of the island.

Zanzibar is known as the Spice Island as it produces most of its income from growing cloves, nutmeg and cinnamon. the center of the island is where most of the plantations are. The island seems to have a fairly high rate of unemployment, as everywhere I went, I saw large groups of men sitting around in an idle mode. No one seemed to be starving though. Most people seemed to walk or ride bicycles. A few had mopeds or motorcycles, and even fewer had cars. Traffic away from population centers was minimal.

Returning to Stone Town, I took some time to explore some more. Where did western culture go wrong? When it comes to architecture, the organic beauty of Islamic architecture leaves the west in its dust.

The view from my hotel window.

The hotel roof

More intricately carved door ways

Fishing boats along the Stone Town beachfront.

A heckuva ferry ramp…although there aren’t any tire tracks in the sand, so maybe they were just picking up foot passengers.

The sun setting on my last day in Zanzibar. Many fishingmen used these small, fast sailing boats to haul in their catches.

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Western Cape, South Africa

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February ’04

A South African friend in Saudi invited me to come visit so, I said sure! While there, I rented a BMW 1150 GS & took a quickie tour of the Western Cape Province. You really don’t get the feeling you’re in the “real” Africa while near Cape Town. It’s been so thouroghly colonized by the British that, the feeling is more of being in Australia than Africa. Not that that’s a bad thing. Just different. After a day spent exploring Capetown, I headed towards the wine growing region around Worcester in an early morning fog. In my continuing quest to find a Highway that can top California’s Highway 1, I headed out east along the coast from Cape Town.

Here are some shots of the coastal road from Gordon’s Bay to Rooiels. It has some dramatic coastline. If Highway 1 is a 10, I’d rate this road a solid 8.75, losing out only because its so short in comparison. Scenery-wise, it’s pretty darn nice!

After a nice lunch in the former whaling town of Hermanus, I headed inland towards Worcester. Lots of mountains! Most of the roads were fast sweepers. I’d guess the 80% of the corners I encountered on the trip, I never had to touch the brakes

Here is a shot at the end of the day, near my night’s stay at a wine estate in the Nuy Valley

On the second day, I’d stay in the Nuy Valley again, exploring the mountain passes. The further inland I went, the more barren it became. Here is a picture for those who like those long straight roads. For the amount of mountains I saw, the road engineers laid them out with a minimum of tight twisties. Like I said before, it seemed 80% of the corners were fast sweepers. On the second day, I rode over 7 passes. Not like your passes in the Alps or the Rockies but, nice to ride over

Here are some pictures approaching the Du Toits Kloof Pass. There’s a new tunnel now for woosies but the real fun is on the old road. They have signs warning you not to feed the baboons. Apparently they can get pretty agressive when there’s hand outs to be had. I came across a group & tried to stop for a photo op but, they scattered as if I had the plague.

On the third day, I would head farther inland to the town of Oudtshoorn, the “ostrich capital of the world”. They have more ostriches than people. This section reminded me of southern Arizona. I saw 4 other touring bikes on this stretch, all of them on BMW GSs. I also 3 cops but, they didn’t even flinch as I went by at about 80 mph

The fourth day I headed back to Cape Town. I went through some nice wine growing regions & even some mountain passes with pine trees. I wanted to hit the same stretch of coastal road while the sun was shining so, I rode it again in the opposite direction.

Robinson Pass between Oudtshoorn and Mossel Bay…lotta fun on this road.

Heading back towards Cape Town on the coast…

My last day with the bike, I headed down to the Cape of Good Hope. Even though it was a Saturday, it seemed as if I had the roads to myself. This is one of those “edge of the continent” places I get so attracted to. It kinda reminded me of Point Reyes. Here is the road going down the west side of the cape along the Indian Ocean.

The end of the road. I saw some ostriches down here too. They were right along the beach road. I slowed & let the bike coast. They were startled by the sound of the engine & took off running alongside me. For a few seconds I was recreating in a bizarro sort of way, that scene in Easy Rider where the horses galloped alongside the bikes πŸ™‚

Here’s a shot of the end of the continent, the Cape of Good Hope looking south towards Antarctica

The Cape of Good Hope.

Ostriches in stealth mode sneaking up on the GS near the Cape…

From the Cape of Good Hope, I ended my trip by taking the fabulous Chapmans Peak Drive along the Atlantic side of the cape. What a dramatic stretch of coastline! Too bad it was so short. Still, it was a wonderful end to the journey.

I was never out of sight of mountains for the duration of my short trip. What surprised me was that, for all the mountains, there were relatively few tight twisty roads like in California or the Blue Ridge Mountains. I did manage to find a few mountain passes that were tight & twisty but, for the most part, the roads I travelled were fast sweepers. I can only guess that the mountains are spaced far apart, allowing road engineers to bypass the steep parts.

That said, South Africa is a large country, roughly twice the size of Texas so, I hardly got to see but a small portion of it. I’m sure there are many excellent roads I didn’t get to ride. All told, I made about 2500 km / 1600 miles in 4 & a half days.

The weather can be described as mediterranean. Quite mild. For being the middle of summer down there, I was surprised at how mild it was, only about 80 degrees during the day. I was expecting Texas like heat.

The people were very friendly, everyone waved…kids, adults…even teenagers. I passed a highway crew tidying up a roadside rest area & gave them a wave. Immediately 10 hands shot up into the air as if shot out of cannons, waving back at me. Try getting that reaction in the states or Europe πŸ™‚ Rather than saying,”you’re welcome”, a thank you would elicit a charming,”It’s my pleasure”.

Here is one last picture of Chapmans Peak Drive…

Reunion Island

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Recently, a co-worker of mine had talked about living on Mauritius, an island in the Indian Ocean. Intrigued, I decided to do some research on the subject. I googled a map of Mauritius, when I noticed another island nearby. I discovered that it was Reunion Island. Why hadn’t I noticed it before? I had read vague references to Reunion, but had never paid it close attention. Why was Mauritius relatively well-known and Reunion under a veil? The reason is that it is a French possession. It is a French overseas Department just like French Surinam in South America.

Reunion is a volcanic island that has been compared to the big island of Hawaii. Apparently, the French don’t appear too keen on sharing their version of Hawaii with the English speaking world, thus they have thrown a cloaking device over the island. I’ve always been impressed by the quality of French road system and a Hawaiian-like island with French maintained roads seemed too good to pass up.

I set out to try to organize an expedition. It proved to be harder than I thought. The only direct flights to Reunion come from Paris or South Africa. Any other flights had to be made to nearby Mauritius, where a puddle jumper could fly you over to Reunion. They weren’t going to make it easy for me. Hotel reservations sent via the hotel’s web page went unaknowledged. The same with any bike rental web sites. Not to be deterred, I finally found e-mail addresses and sorted a room and a motorbike, and everything was arranged.

A six hour flight south out of Dubai got me to Mauritius, where I boarded a small prop plane to Reunion. Arriving in the capital city of Saint Dennis around noon, I made my way to my hotel and rested until the following day when I would pick up the bike. I had arranged to rent a BMW GS 650, the same type of bike I had used on Madeira a few years ago. Herve was the owner’s name who ran a one man operation out of his house. Why people would want to rent out bikes to people who are going to thrash them is beyond me, but I’m thankful for them πŸ™‚

While Reunion has some nice beaches, it’s the island’s interior that stand out. The island’s geography is dominated by three calderas, created when an ancient volcano collapsed. The collapse left huge natural ampitheaters with stunning scenery. I made my way south along the west coast of the island towards the first caldera known as the Cirque de Cilaos where I had booked my hotel for the night.

Tropical cyclone Lola was close enough to the island to lash her with scattered showers, so under the threat of rain, I found a suitably twisty line on the map and headed south along the west coast of the island.

Heading south:

The main road around the island hugs the coastline and is fairly crowded, but I used it for a bit in order to make some time.

At the town of Saint Louis, I turned inland and started to make the climb towards the town of Cilaos. You masochists who love switchbacks would love this road as it was packed with them.

Looking back down at where I’d been:

Continuing the climb to Cilaos, I was impressed by the island’s mountainous terrain

The little beemer proved to be well suited for these roads. My impressions of the GS are the same as the ones I had from my previous rental. The single cylinder engine could use a few more ponies, but the wide bars and the comfy saddle make for a good combination of a touring motard, nice and light to flick thru the tight stuff.

I found my hotel and settled in for the night. Sugar is one of the island’s biggest crops and with that comes rum. One of the favored spirits on Reunion is rhum arrangΓ©. This is rum that is left to soak in a variety of fruits. Every establishment seems to have their own concoction which they insist is the best and you feel obligated to try some, which is served straight up like a brandy. In the interest of impartiality, this reporter took it upon himself to sample some at every occassion and was particularly in favor of the orange-pineapple blend πŸ™‚

The following day, I set about exploring the narrow roads inside the Cilaos caldera

By noonish, the clouds had descended again, and I began to feel rain drops. In the interest of staying dry, I cut short the explorations and made my way back to the hotel for more rhum. While reading my guide book, I noticed a section that mentioned,”Avoid travelling to the cirques during times of typhoons, as frequent landslides occur from the excessive rainfalls, causing the towns to be sealed off for days.” A little too late for that now! Reunion Island is known for its prodigious amounts of rainfall, holding world records for 12 hours, 24 hours, 1 week, 1 month, and 1 year totals.

The morning of the third day, I awoke to the sound of the pitter patter of raindrops on my window. I decided to tough it out and head for the coast, hoping to find better weather. It was a 1 hour slog thru a misting rain back down to the coast, but fortunately, the weather began to improve.

I headed south along the shore towards the island’s remaining active volcano, the Piton de la Fournaise.

Unfortunately, team orson’s photographer decided to store his camera in the front pocket of his jacket during the rain, and the camera started to malfunction. I honestly don’t know why we keep the idiot around. So, there are no pictures of steam arising from the lava fields on the south coast of the island.

Instead, here is an artist’s depiction of the road cutting along the coast thru the laval fields with steam rising

Fortunately for team orson’s photographer, the sun began to work its charms and the camera began working again. Banana trees and mountains. Typical Reunion island scenery.

Heading up the eastern coast to the town Saint Andre, I hung a left and made my way up into the hills to the second caldera known as Cirque de Salazie. The word awesome has been severely overused in today’s lexicon, but the road heading up to the town of Hell-Bourg is truely awesome.

This was a truely amazing road reminiscent of the Norweigian fjords or Yosemite. While the road itself wasn’t the best, the scenery more than made up for it. It may not a match for Norway or Yosemite, but it was purdy darn close.

Waterfalls dotted the landscape:

and sprinkled the roadway

Looking up towards the Piton des Neiges, the extinct volcano that is the island’s highest peak at 10,069 feet.

Looking back towards the coast. The road to Hell-Bourg comes up the canyon and around the bend

After securing a room in Hell-Bourg, I took advantage of the clearing skies to take some more photographs during the golden hour. This would be my best day on the road as I rode all the way til sundown enjoying the spectacular views.

Another look at the Piton des Neiges.

Hell-Bourg isn’t named after hell itself, but rather Monsieur Hell, who was a French government official overlooking the island during the 1800s. On the morning of Day 4, the skies were clear and I took a look around the town. The Creole architecture of main street with the Piton des Neiges in the background.

Hell-Bourg has been called one of the most scenic French villages and rightly so.

Many of the homes were designed in what is known as Creole style. Notice the huge ferns in the front yard.

Heading back towards the coast…yet another waterfall

Ok ok ok…another waterfall…we get the idea…sheesh

Many of the peaks would be veiled in clouds by midday, as if to say,”Foolish mortals, do not tread here, for here lies the lair of the skid demon”

All that rum has to come from somewhere. Sugar cane fields stretched for miles and miles, resembling Hawaii.

All the signs in towns were in French and few people spoke any English, putting my high school French to the test. In the town of saint Andre, I came upon a Hindu temple and my brain did a backflip. It had to take a few seconds to figure out where I was. The South Pacific? India? France?…oh right, I’m on Reunion Island. It was a strange place in that way. The people were a mixture of French, African, Indian, Malaysian and Chinese. I have to say, I never encountered any of the French gruffness that sometimes seems prevalent on the continent. Everyone I came across was pleasant and smiling.

Perhaps due to the copious amounts of rainfall, almost all the secondary roads had big water channels along side them with no guardrails. Woe unto the motorist who loses his concentration for a moment.

Clip that apex, just don’t clip it too close!

There is only one road across the center of the island, and a great riding road it is! In the highlands, the temperature dropped into the high sixties and the terrain began to look a lot like the north of England. Again, my mind had to stop for a moment and remind me that I was on an island in the Indian Ocean.

Now that the weather had turned to mostly sunny skies, I decided to return to the Cirque de Cilaos to get some more pictures.

The road heading up to Cilaos:

Inside the Cirque de Cilaos

Morning dawns in the town of Cilaos on Day 5:

Heading back down towards the coast:

Approaching the coast, the terrain turned to gentle hills dotted with palm trees and sugar cane fields.

I headed back up the east coast back towards the capital of Saint Dennis

Stopping for a plate of Creole barbeque. No I didn’t finish it all, but I tried!

The food was a mixture of French, Indian and Malaysian. Boy, did I eat on this trip! Some of the meals had 6 courses. Only the French could invent a mini dessert placed between the apperitif and the main course. A small portion of coconut ice cream swimming in a bath of…you guessed it…more rum.

On the sixth and last day, I would return the bike to Herve, but not before checking out some of the Creole architecture in Saint Dennis:

I had a great time riding through some amazing scenery. While the roads may not have been up to the standards of the French roads on the continent, the scenery more than made up for any deficiencies. The little beemer again proved to be a perfect bike for riding tight island roads. Hopefully I’ll be able to test the new BMW 800 GS soon. I would have to grade Reunion as a solid A as a touring destination. Friendly people, challenging roads, good food, and stunning scenery.

Recap:

Time: 6 days
Distance: approximately 1000 km
Gendarme sightings: 2 (both times on motorbikes, both times going faster than me.
Puckers: 0
Bee stings: 1