A Travellerspoint blog

Home Sweet Home

Back home in Brisbane after our year-long journey

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View Map - Three Continents By Land on netandmatt's travel map.

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We made it! One year onwards and we finally made it home. I still can't believe we travelled 69,609km (or 43,255 miles). That's more than one and a half times round the globe! Ok, so we may have flown some of that, but the stats don't lie. We travelled to 23 countries, took 77 buses, 23 trains, 10 ferries, and that's not including taxis, trams, tuk tuks, bicycles, horses, elephants, camels, metros, bamboo train, bamboo raft, cable car, moped, junk, funicular train, Mag-Lev, long-tail boats, helicopter, Cessna 182, Russian Furgon van and the back of a few trucks. Oh, and we might have even walked a few kilometres too.

Now that we're back, the most commonly asked question is, "What was your favourite part?" Frankly, it's too damn hard to answer, so I thought for our final blog entry we could answer questions like, "How many beds did you sleep in?" - 172, but who's counting? So I hope you like it. It's been a pleasure writing this thing. We've loved hearing how people have followed our trip and we don't mind in the least that you've all lived vicariously through us for a year. Hopefully we can all do it again in the future.

1) Top three places?
Matt - Easy! Mongolia, Victoria Falls, Serengeti National Park.
Annette - Too hard so I'm going to cheat. Top three cities - Hong Kong, Moscow, Stockholm. Top three natural wonders - Gobe Desert in Mongolia, Victoria Falls, Mt Everest (seen from 5200m, the highest I could go without dying from asphyxiation). Top three historical sites - Ankor Wat in Cambodia, Great Wall in China, Plain of Jars in Laos. Buy me a beer and I'll tell you more.

2) Most stressful event?
Matt - Getting locked into the airless space between two carriages by the train conductor whilst trying to get an upgrade from Hard Seat to Second Class Sleeper for Annette. Read more...
Annette - Trying to get through a road blocked by landslides in Tiger Leaping Gorge and having to scramble over boulders while being pelted with falling rocks and heavy rain. I realised how totally useless I am in a crisis. Read more...

3) Coolest night out?
Matt - Local Brewhaus followed by a live music venue in St Petersburg.
Annette - Singing a karaoke duet to Aqua's Barbie Girl at our impromptu wedding anniversary party on a Ha Long Bay junk in Vietnam. Read more...

4) Smile moment?
Matt - Playing with a group of 3-5yr old village kids, making toys for out of balloons, sand, pebbles and bamboo, whilst the rest of our tour went shopping for spices (Zanzibar).

5) Laugh out loud moment?
Matt - After our car breaking down for the third time on the way to Kathmandu, fellow traveller Gavin stepped in dog poo then realised that it was most likely human poo. Read more...
Annette - Forgetting to take my US$ out of my passport before handing it to the immigration officer at the Kenya/Tanzania border crossing. "No... I didn't mean...sorry about that..." I said with a crimson face. Shocked but smiling, he handed my $40 back and changed the subject by admiring the hologram of a kangaroo on my passport.

6) Most number of days without a shower?
Matt - Four days in Mongolia.
Annette - Ditto - thank goodness for wet wipes!

7) Most interesting accommodation?
Matt - Mongolian Yurt. See pictures...
Annette - Camping at the rim of Ngorongoro Crater in Tanzania, waking up to screams of a surprised camper as a herd of Buffalo munch their way through the campsite. Read more... See pictures...

8) Worst toilet experience?
Matt - About 7am on a Chinese sleeper train, after most passengers have used the toilet.
Annette - I absolutely agree. I think my worst toilet experiences were in China. Squat toilets in moving trains; I just don't think they thought that through. Also, try using a public toilet with no cubical door.

10) Coolest border crossing?
Matt - Zimbabwe/Zambia border - Walking through the spray across Rhodes' original Victoria Falls bridge which spans the Zambezi river. See pictures from Zimbabwe.
Annette - Changing the wheel bogies of our train, at the China/Mongolian border. We didn't even need to get off. Each carriage was hoisted off its wheels and replaced with wider gauge ones. I saw it happen from the warmth of the carriage, while Matt took pictures from the shed floor. See pictures... Read more...

11) Most interesting scam?
Matt - The Mongolian traders sharing and getting dressed up in designer clothes to cross the Mongolian/Russian border on the Trans-Siberian. See pictures from Russia.
Annette - The Russian system of visa registration. How much money did we fork out? Pay for the 'Invitation Letter', then for the visa, then pay a 'Registration Fee' in each place you stay more than 72 hours. Hook, line and sinker; everyone was benefiting except us. Read more..

12) Most bizarre food?
Matt - Mopane worms in Africa
Annette - Sweet chilli crickets (just kidding, I couldn't do it)

13) I couldn't have travelled without my...
Matt - Lipton Tea!
Annette - Wet wipes!

14) Most interesting person?
Matt - Hennie, the South African exploration driller working on a copper seam in Botswana.

15) Lessons learnt?
Matt - Sit halfway between the front & rear axles of a public bus in Africa. Read more...
Annette - Among others, I learned to ask myself, "What's the worst that can happen?"

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More of my travel stats and photos click on the links.

Posted by netandmatt 20:10 Archived in Australia Comments (1)

A photo diary of South Africa

Apparently I write too much...

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View Map - Three Continents By Land on netandmatt's travel map.

Well, we may be down to our last few pennies, be camping in people's back yards and living off 2-minute noodles, but we made it. Nairobi to Cape Town in four months! We sat in the hostel yesterday chatting to an American couple about to embark on the same journey in reverse and I couldn't believe the stuff I was coming out with. "Now, when choosing a seat on an African bus you're gonna want somewhere between the two axles to avoid hitting your head on the roof when you launch up over the speed bumps. And you're gonna want to choose a seat that is nailed down and stays upright, next to a window that opens AND closes, 'cause there's nothing worse that spending six hours out of ten getting drenched or sweating your backside off. Oh, and don't whatever you do take the front seats because, other than having to share it with a bunch of other people's luggage and animals of the bird variety, at the speed they drive you really won't want to see what's coming." Was I making them excited or was I scaring the living bejesus out of them, I'm really not sure myself. Sometimes scary, sometimes stressful, but always fun, Africa has to be seen to be believed.

We've had five weeks in South Africa and we've crammed in a lot. We hired a car in Pretoria and we've been pretty much on the road every second day. But instead of telling you what we did (cause I know many people just scroll through) I thought I'd put up some photos that Matt has taken and let your imagination run wild.

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Click here for more pictures and descriptions

Posted by netandmatt 08:25 Archived in South Africa Comments (1)

Beautiful Botswana

From elephants in Chobe and the Okovango to lions in the Kalahari

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View Map - Three Continents By Land on netandmatt's travel map.

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The two things on the list to see in Botswana were always going to be Chobe National Park and the Okavango Delta. As our ferry crabbed its way across the fast-flowing Zambezi River that acts as the border between Zambia and Botswana, we knew the waters of Chobe would not disappoint. We based ourselves in Kasane, which is at the gate to the park. With no backpacker options we camped out the back of a 4-star lodge on the river bank. The little dome tent we found in the cupboard of our Barnsley house over Christmas would be essential to avoid the $250/night lodge prices. This place is so raw we heard hippos laughing and lions roaring at night. Needless to say I didn't get much sleep, even with a guard on duty all night. The scenery was spectacular and we arranged two safaris for the very next day. First we spent a half day out on the river cruising past bloats of hippo (yes that is the collective noun for a group of hippos - I had to look it up) and elephants drinking at the water's edge. Botswana, and Chobe in particular, is famous for its elephants and during our game drive we saw plenty. Herds of elephants, as many as 50+ in each, were a sight to behold. The driver warned us not to make big movements and keep within the frame of the vehicle as they can do some damage if they think you're too close. Apart from about 200 elephants in a stretch of 3 hours, we saw impala, warthogs, baboons, giraffe and different animals like kudu and gemsbok. In fact, as this picture shows, we didn't even need to go into the park to see elephant herds. Again, another close encounter with these giant animals in their natural habitat. I don't think I'll ever go to another zoo in my life as nothing can compare.

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The next stop was the Okavango, but getting there turned out to be more difficult than expected. The bus to Maun, the gateway to the park, either didn't come or left early on the day we wanted to travel. So we headed in the direction of other local travellers to the hitching point on the edge of town. In this case being white with backpacks helped and we got a ride quickly but only a fraction of the way; this was going to be a long day indeed. The second hitch got us to a foot and mouth checkpoint close to half way. We had a great chat to a policeman on guard and he agreed to help us with the next hitch. An overland truck heading to Johannesburg was stopped by our policeman friend and an argument ensued. Clearly the driver's paperwork wasn't in order or he was in breach of some phantom misdemeanour, so the policeman thought. His penalty? "Instead of me giving you a fine, you will take these people" - he said pointing to Matt and I - "and they will not pay," hey yelled still waving his finger, but winked at me when the driver turned his back. Result! African police corruption working in our favour. Two buses later we were in Maun, the gateway to the Okavango.

Okavango is not really a sinlge place but a whole corner of the country and the only way to get a sense of its size was to see it from the air. So we took flight in a Cessna 210, a six-seater light aircraft, and guess who got to sit next to the pilot - ME!! We were in the air for an hour flying over the massive inland delta spotting elephants bathing, hippos, crocs, zebra, buffalo and plenty more. Whenever someone would see something the pilot would dip the wing to give everyone a view. My favourite bit of the flight, other than seeing the delta and the animals, was when the pilot took us down to just above the tree-tops for a low-level pass. We both were a bit green when we landed but you couldn't wipe the smile off my face.

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When our nerves and stomachs had recovered we headed to the hostel bar where we got chatting to some South African guests. It turned out that they were exploration drillers currently drilling for copper in the Central Kalahari Game Reserve; they were having a few days off in the big smoke of Maun, heading back the following day. We got chatting and the next thing we knew we were in the back of their bakkie (ute) heading the 250km to their camp. We got to see how the 24-hour drilling operation worked, some of the samples they were pulling up, and generally step into a day-in-the-life of these guys living and working deep in the bush. A highlight was going game-spotting out in the bakkie and as we rolled back into the camp we spotted a leopard not 50m from their cabin front door. As we followed to get a closer look we then spotted two lionesses on the prowl too. To top it off, the next night we heard a lion roaring so close. It was like a scene from the Brady Bunch as we all poked our heads out the door, none of us daring to step outside. Then there it was again, not 10m from the door, you could feel the vibration deep in your chest as this great big male lion belted out another deep roar. Un-freakin'-believable. We had a great time guys, thank you.

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Stay tuned for our final few blogs as we make our way through the last country on our list, South Africa.

Click here for more photos of Botswana...

Posted by netandmatt 06:19 Archived in Botswana Comments (0)

A journey into Southern Africa

Exploring Malawi and Zimbabwe

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View Map - Three Continents By Land on netandmatt's travel map.

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Even though it's been four weeks since my last blog, I'm sure all my faithful readers will forgive me when they learn why. I am always at the mercy of internet cafes so when countries charge the equivalent of AU$8/hour or when the connection speed is so slow it takes 45 minutes to send one email, I just get so frustrated I often give up. What can I say? TIA - This is Africa.

So where have we been these past weeks? After we disembarked the MV Liemba in Tanzania we hopped several buses to the Malawi border. We spent about two weeks moving down the western coast of Lake Malawi (which runs almost the length of the country), but the scenery didn't make us reach for the camera all that much. In fact, I think we took only twelve pictures. In defense, the only reason is that the environment and geography is almost identical to that of Lake Tanganyka, which we'd experienced the week before. When I think of Malawi now, weeks later, what comes to mind is not the lake but the number of volunteers we met. We met so many volunteers working for all sorts of foreign projects and agencies all across the country. When asked why Malawi, they generally cited the same reason: "Malawi is one of Africa's true democracies." When we talked more about the logic of the answer, many thought that democracy equals safety for foreigners. While Malawi did seem like a safe place, it's debatable whether you could call Malawi a true democracy given the corruption we saw on the streets. Road brides were commonplace, we saw foreign-donated clothes (including a shirt with a Brisbane City Council logo on it - no joke!) being sold at local markets, and we heard the President spent February's fuel allowance on maintenance for his private jet which lead to a nationwide fuel shortage. That aside, many volunteers we met were nurses or doctors staying between one month and two years (most stayed 1-3 months). Among other things I asked about the incidence of HIV/AIDS they'd witnessed, and to my surprise it was as high as 40% (compared to the government reported 12%). Many volunteers were in their early twenties and would pay high-end prices on the tourist scene because they'd "saved so much money in the village". Some confessed that a stint in Africa was good for the C.V.. Others, usually older and a little wiser, were revisiting long-term projects and were dejected at the lack of progress. It was a real eye-opener to the business of volunteerism is Africa and it left a lasting impression of Malawi.

After Malawi we transited through Zambia to get to Zimbabwe. We couldn't rely on the travel forums to give us any up-to-date information on Zimbabwe, but we went anyway with an open mind. I had no expectations but Matt had visited Zimbabwe in 2000, when the land reform and the mass exodus of farmers had begun, so he was keen to discover the state of things eleven years later. My initial opinion was that Zimbabwe stood out as being much more developed than East Africa. There were street lights, pizza places, Nando's and ice-cream parlours - all leading me to believe that the power supply must be more constant than where we'd been. The ATMs dispensed crisp US dollars and the supermarkets were full of goods. The buses looked pretty old but on most journeys we could at least choose between luxury or 'chicken'. The more time we spent there though the more we learned that this appearance of stability and wealth was a falsehood. Zimbabwe seems to have gone back in time, back to subsistence farming under a corrupt government, similar to that of other developing African nations. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

The plan was simple: stay one week and travel from Harare to Masvingo (Great Zimbabwe Ruins), Bulaweyo (Rhodes's Grave and San rock art), and then up to Victoria Falls. What actually happened was we met some really interesting people and simply lost track of time, which I love about this type of travelling. Our first detour was out to the Eastern Highlands of Zimbabwe, almost on the Mozambique border, to stay with a couple who were introduced to us by a fellow traveller. Immediately I was stunned by their hospitality. Not only did they invite us to stay in their home, but they took us sightseeing into the nearby Nyanga and Bvumba National Parks (taking days off to do so) and introduced us to their friends like we were part of the family. Having the opportunity to hear personal accounts of the life of Zimbabweans under Mugabe, I couldn't help but ask questions. This is when my first impressions of the country were shattered by reality. We learned that much of the goods in the supermarkets are imported from South Africa when as few as ten years ago Zimbabwe was the bread basket of Africa. We learned that fuel shortages are common most days and the price has skyrocketed to the equivalent of AU$1.50/l (often it's dirty fuel too). We learned that food aid is brought in by the truckload every day to feed the starving poor. And we learned about the farmers being forced from their land; to see their crops felled for fire wood, their animals die of thirst or hunger, their tractors stripped and left to rust, and their houses gutted. In fact, during a lunch with one ex-farmer from Bvumba, she fielded phone calls from a friend in her eighties who was at that moment being threatened and forced to leave her farm (a corrupt government MP wanting the land for himself). Clearly, something the international community thinks of as an historical event still continues today. Zimbabweans are leaving the country in droves but there are a determined few who remain, inspired by the beauty of the landscape and the kindness of the people just waiting for the day.

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We left the Eastern Highlands, saying goodbye to our new friends, and hopped a bus to our next destination Masvingo. The bus made it half way (150km) and broke down. We'd experienced bus breakdowns in the African bush before and usually the driver performs some magic with his hammer and gets us going again. This time the driver just sat under the tree with his passengers; we knew we weren't going anywhere. In this neck of the woods, as in the east, people were so surprised to see tourists that almost everyone we spoke to offered us help in some way and it wasn't long before we got a ride with a lovely man heading our way. And again we were in luck when we arrived in town; a young family invited us to stay when they found out that the local hotel was charging US$40 for a room with no electricity or water. As with our friends in the Eastern Highlands, this young family opened up their home to us and introduced us to their friends like we we'd known them forever. (We found out later they were crocodile farmers - scary for them or scary for us hey?) We were invited to a braii on the Sunday with a group of their friends and I swear you could have picked up the entire scene and planted it in any Australian back yard. From the pool, pool table and dart board, to the men sitting around the BBQ with beer in hand talking rugby. It felt like home and I began to understand why so many Zimbabweans choose to emigrate to Australia. Again, we were blown away by their hospitality and kindness and hope to one day repay the favour. Oh yeah, the Great Zimbabwe Ruins were pretty cool too.

The next stop on this ever-expanding tour of Zimbabwe was Bulaweyo, to see Rhodes's grave, San rock art sites and the Motopos Game Reserve. When we found out the exorbitant prices ($120pp) of a day trip to these sights, we made a plan and hitched a ride with a fellow tourist instead. The scenery was spectacular, with giant boulders sitting precariously on top of one another, the exposed surfaces covered with a layer of fluorescent orange and green algae. The game park was a disappointment though, there's no doubt about it, and I was glad we hadn't paid full price for entry (we fooled the guard into giving us the local price instead of the foreign price of $30pp). In 440 square km we saw a troop of baboons, two hippos, and four impala. We heard later that the family of rhino had been poached this December and that game numbers had suffered over previous years because of food shortages and the currency debacle. It was a real shame to see.

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The final stop on our route was Victoria Falls. We caught the overnight train from Bulawayo which cost a whole $10pp for a private cabin. The train was a little run down but the linen was fresh and the bed was comfortable. First on the list of touristy things was to go to High Tea at the posh Victoria Falls Hotel. You can picture Matt enjoying his tea and miniature scones, but what you may not see is us sitting at a table looking down into the canyon, the famous bridge in the distance and the spray of the Falls towering 600m into the air. It was absolutely breathtaking! It was a bit lardydar but sometimes that's nice. The next on the list was to walk into the park and see the falls up close. The beauty of the Zimbabwe side is that you can stand on the opposite side of the canyon and see it drop off the cliff. We got soaked! It's like walking in a downpour - it was so much fun. I opted for the attractive momo-style raincoat while Matt went without and ran around like a kid in the rain. The only activity we chose to do was a helicopter ride over the Falls and I was so glad we did. To see the Zambezi River, almost 1.6km in width, drop into a crack in the earth and continue down a canyon that's only 100m wide, it's easy to understand why it's a wonder of the world.

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Zimbabwe was a surprise in every way. The scenery was spectacular and the people so warm and welcoming. But lying beneath the surface is a menace that has been crippling the country for ten years. While many feel voiceless, the Zimbabweans are tenacious and strong and they are just waiting for the day. I want to thank the people who invited us into their homes, you know who you are, and you are welcome in our home anytime.

Click here for more Zimbabwe photos...

Posted by netandmatt 10:06 Archived in Zimbabwe Comments (2)

"Africa time" on Lake Tanganyka

An amazing journey from Kigoma to Kasanga on a one hundred year old ship called the MV Liemba

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View Map - Three Continents By Land on netandmatt's travel map.

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It was a perfect example of a term we heard often repeated - Africa time. "Turn up at the office on Monday and we'll tell you if the boat is running," was the response from the office lady at Marine Co. in Kigoma. From what we could gather (through responses from various information bureaus, hotels and travel websites), there was a ferry operating a now fortnightly service up and down Lake Tanganyka. Could we buy tickets? When would it leave? How long would the journey be? We learned we could buy tickets in Kigoma right up until departure, that it would leave sometime Wednesday, and arrive hopefully Friday. Africa time - I loved it! We thought, "Take as long as you want; we have no time pressures."

As suggested we arrived on the Monday and in true compulsive style we were the second group to buy tickets for the MV Liemba sailing on Wednesday (leaving "sometime" around 4pm). Matt was so excited to go on this boat, I can't even tell you. Wednesday came and we headed to the port to find a flurry of activity; clearly the loading had started hours earlier. As the boat no longer takes cars there was a long line of tray-back utes and small trucks filled to tyres bursting with weird and wonderful shaped sacks and boxes. It was amusing to see how things were packaged too. They seem to make the bags fit the contents; for example, if you can't fit the contents into one sack, don't start another one, just sew on part of another sack to make a bigger one. Then there were pineapples by the hundreds, not in delicate boxes or crates like they would be at home, but transported loosely from the ute to the boat in baskets then rearranged into piles on the deck. Almost all the cargo was carried on the backs of men in 40 degree heat; watching these tired men, dressed in tatters, walking bare foot, was a sight indeed. While the ship was being loaded we walked the gangway and found our cabin (we'd gone for a first class cabin for $65 pp which gave us two bunk beds, a sink, a fan AND a window). Forget staying in the cabin though, the most interesting place was standing on the upper deck watching the action on the cargo deck below.

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We set sail a few hours late but we didn't care - Africa time. We drank warm beer from our backpacks as the sun set over the Congolese mountains and watched the lower deck passengers secure their open-air sleeping spot next to (or on top of) their cargo. The engines were humming and with no waves on the lake we settled in to the knowledge that this would be a restful and uneventful journey. After dinner of standard beef stew and rice we retired to the cabin and read to get away from the growing crowds on deck. Suddenly, at around 11pm the peace was broken. Men were yelling and some people were even screaming! We're going down, I thought. We both jumped out of bed and looked over the railing into the darkness and saw about 15 small to medium sized boats, some with people, some with bails of wood, one of which was now submerged with his wood cargo floating away in the current. We had no idea what was happening. It seemed like chaos but we weren't sinking. We were apparently at our first stop, but instead of mooring up at a jetty, the boat seemed to be idling in the middle of the lake and the passengers and cargo had come out in small boats to meet us. When our eyes adjusted in the moonlight, we realised that no one was hurt and this was very must a routine stop, albeit not for the unlucky captain of the now submerged boat. After 15 minutes of chaos everything and everyone was loaded and unloaded, the ship's bell rang and we were off. As the boat steamed off we craned back to see that the man in the troubled dugout had managed to refloat his boat and the bails of wood he'd lost were now tied together floating in the water nearby. Only in Africa.

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This scene was to be repeated throughout the night and for the following two days. We even became accustomed to the chaos and sometimes helped out by tying a rope to the railing of the upper deck. For hours we watched and, not understanding the language, tried to figure out what was going on. We figured that the Liemba would no doubt be making a loss each trip given the amount of people who just climbed aboard and disappeared in the crowds. As for the cargo of wood, oil and fruit arriving by small boat, we guessed that since no one seemed to accompany the goods, passengers were either buying it ship-side then selling it a few stops later for a profit, or 'minding' it (for a fee) until someone collected it a few stops later. What we learned was that due to the lake's shallow shoreline the boat would usually have to hold her engines in the current as far offshore as 200m. For disembarking passengers, they'd have as little as 10 minutes to clamber onto the first run-down boat that jostled for position at the lower cargo door. There was no love lost between boatmen either in the race for primary position. Whoever got to our boat first scored the passengers or the cargo, or sometimes both if it was big enough. It was hard to judge of the shouting men who were actually Liemba crew members, but Matt did find one resting between stops who spoke English. He said that the boat was indeed running at a loss and had reduced its service from weekly to fortnightly. This was astounding because the boat was at capacity yet there was no one collecting fares. When Matt commented on the chaos of the boatmen at each stop he replied that it was completely normal, adding that often boats were overloaded, some even capsize and that most don't maintain their engines so regularly break down.

This was by no means a luxury cruiser but the little efforts made by the operators, like clean sheets and running water, were welcomed. I suppose that for a one hundred year old ex-German naval ship it's in pretty good nick as a passenger ferry. Built during WWI and to be used by the Germans to control the Lake, the ship was transported from Europe in parts by rail and assembled lakeside. At the end of the war though, she was scuttled to prevent the Allied Forces from taking her. When she was resurrected in 1924 the British converted her and she's been ferrying passengers and cargo almost nonstop ever since. It was an amazing journey, one which we won't forget any time soon.

Click here for more photos of Tanzania...

Posted by netandmatt 07:32 Archived in Tanzania Comments (1)

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