African Diaries—Into Zambia

African Diaries—Into Zambia

First, travel plans for this year ground to a halt in early March. Then came the realization that it could be well into next year before it may be reasonable to begin dusting off my passport. That’s when Africa started calling me – again. But memories will have to do for now.

South Luangwa National Park

On approach for landing in Mfuwe.

My love affair with Africa began well over a decade ago in the South Luangwa National Park, a 3,500 square-mile (9,050 square-kilometer)  stretch of pristine wilderness hidden away in the north-eastern corner of Zambia. After years of yearning, months of planning and a mind-numbing 48-hour succession of flights that had taken me from Houston to the tiny airport of Mfuwe, I was bouncing in an open-top land-cruiser, on a rocky dirt trail heading deep into the park.

The valley draws a rich concentration of game.

Its eastern border follows the Luangwa River as it makes its convoluted way toward the Zambezi River, leaving behind a patchwork of oxbow lakes and lagoons. This remote valley, with its ruggedly varied landscape of savanna and forest, is considered by experts to hosts one of the richest concentration of game in Africa.

 

Comfortable bush camps are nestled along the banks of the Luangwa River.

Unsurprisingly, this has led a few of the most reputed safari operators in the country to develop a number of small seasonal bush camps in close proximity to the river. Over the next couple of weeks, I was to visit several of them. Each had a unique character, influenced by its location and the wildlife it attracted. I credit the exhilaration of this first experience for my a lifelong passion for the African bush.

The demise of the giraffe is a bounty for a hyena.

Into the Wild

The hyena’s cub intently takes in the scene.

The two-hour drive to Kuyenda, the camp where I was to spend the next two nights, might be long forgotten by now if not for a couple of images forever imprinted on my mind. First came the breathtaking blood-orange sunset that briefly set ablaze the endless African sky before the entire landscape faded to black. 

Then sometime later, a dead giraffe. My driver detoured off-road into the brush, lights muted, explaining that the carcass of an old male had been reported here earlier in the day, and would I mind if we checked it out? I wouldn’t. The still relatively intact giraffe was sprawled across a small clearing, and a hyena had beat us to it.

Behind her, her cub was peering tentatively out of the shadows. “This is the circle of life in the bush,” my companion commented philosophically. “Within a week the scavengers will have it all cleaned up,” he added, doubtless to assuage my tourist’s sensibilities.

 

Kuyenda

Phil has been active in the valley for over half a century in various wildlife preservation capacities. He is considered one of Zambia’s most respected naturalists.

Kuyenda was a classic African bush camp: four cozy wood and reed private guest rondavels (circular huts) under thatch, with open-air en-suite bathrooms and overhead drum showers, clustered around a spacious open-walled dining and lounge area. This is where we congregated at dawn over a hearty cooked breakfast, four guests from various parts of the world and our host, the resident camp manager and guide, Phil Berry.

Open top land-cruisers are the limousines of the bush.

Game watching meant adapting to the rhythm of the sun and the moon, as the wildlife has since the beginning of time. But the wonder of a pristine new day was well worth the ruthlessly early wakeup call. We settled into the land-cruiser, with Phil stopping to point out every new animal or bird sighting. A herd of skittish impalas snapped to attention as went approached, while baby baboons roughhousing in a tree didn’t even grant us a look.

 

My very first elephant sighting ever!

Then we came upon a venerable bull elephant, standing within twenty feet of our truck, apparently still half asleep himself. My very first elephant in the wild! I’d see many more in the days to come, but that first sighting remains unforgettable, even though he gave us only a perfunctory glance before turning his attention to the foliage of a nearby Mopane tree (an elephant favorite treat) for his breakfast.

The magic of a Kuyenda dusk.

The instant that sealed my fate as a hardcore safari enthusiast came that evening, as we were sipping our Sundowner – alcoholic (or not) beverage of your choice (make mine Gin and Tonic, thank you), usually enjoyed while watching the sun set over an especially scenic vista. We were stopped in the dry, sandy bed of the Manzi River, taking in the the perfect stillness of dusk, when we spotted a pair adult male lions unhurriedly making their silent way across our line of vision.

 

Chamilandu

A family of pukus drops by for a morning drink near the camp.

Chamilandu was the most intimate of the camps I visited on this trip: three spacious tree-houses with outdoor showers, perched on ten-foot high platforms. Each was fully open onto its private deck with a startling 180 degree view of the Luangwa River and the distant the Nchendeni Hills. This privileged riverfront location ensured outstanding game viewing at camp as well as on walks and drives nearby.

An hippo mother and young calf emerge from the river at sunset.

A pleasant morning walk offered an excellent close-up view of the abundant water-fowl population. A sundowner drive took us to a nearby cliff to observe a large pod of hippos as they emerged from the river to browse, and afforded us the treated of a colony of Carmine bee-eaters nesting into the cliff. On the way back we got the added excitement of sighting a leopard stealthily on its way to its nightly errands.

 

Kudu bulls sport impressive spiraling horns.

Other favorite memories of Chamilandu? The ready access to water repeatedly brought herds of elephants to the river, and a varied population of antelopes, among them the majestic spiral-horned kudus. This abundance of antelopes meant predators weren’t far behind. We came across an especially regal male one night, who seemed quite offended by our intrusion.

 

Chindeni

Dawn over the Chindeni lagoon.

Tucked in the shade of ancient ebony trees at the apex of a permanent oxbow lagoon, Chindeni was a verdant oasis in the parched immensity of the park when I visited in the final weeks of the dry season. The four tented guest accommodations were raised on wooden platforms at the edge of a bluff overlooking the lagoon. As was the panoramic lounge, cleverly arranged around the trunk of a giant ebony tree that contributed both a sculptural quality and cooling shade to the structure. It was the perfect spot to enjoy an early pre-drive breakfast while contemplating the dramatic sunrise over the hills.

Lionesses are settling in for their siesta.

While the overall variety of game viewing in and around the camp was impressive, my Chindeni experience is forever associated with lions – a major pride of them! We first spotted them at the end of a morning drive, several females of various ages and a couple of adolescent males, all looking sated and ready to settle down in a shady glade for their afternoon siesta.

Tree-climbing lions are an extremely rare sight.

We returned to the area to look for them at the start of our late afternoon drive, and were rewarded with a startling sight: a tree full of lions! The entire pride was draped high in the branches of a huge winter thorn tree, having climbed there, doubtless in search of a cooling breeze to relieve them from the heavy afternoon heat. Now they were gingerly starting to stir, contemplating the challenge of every treed cat in the world: how to get down?

The Mfuwe Lodge

Elephants are a constant sight at the Mfuwe Lodge.

Although time seemed to stand still during my enchanted stay in in the park, sadly, it hadn’t. With a morning flight out of Mfuwe to start the long journey home, I spent the last two nights of my visit at the Mfuwe lodge. With 18 guest chalets and all the amenities expected from a luxury full service hotel, the Lodge was a good way to ease myself back into the “real world.” Although located within the park, it was a mere five-minute drive from the main gate and 45 minutes away from the airport. As in the camps I was still able to enjoy a day’s worth of game drives.

Elephant and hippo are having a territorial disagreement.

A tiny elephant calf is learning to manage a mud hole.

But the highpoint of my stay unfolded right in front of my chalet. From my balcony overlooking the lagoon, at the time reduced to a series of puddles, I spent an entertaining afternoon watching a mud fight between a hippo and a breeding herd of elephants. The hippo had laid claim to the patch, and in spite of all the persuasion the matriarch elephant could muster, it wouldn’t be dislodged.

The two contestants ultimately pretended to ignore each other, and the pachyderms made the best of whatever slime they could appropriate. 

 

I reluctantly left Zambia, promising myself to return. And so I did, the following year. My main destination was the Zambezi River this time, but I couldn’t resist starting my visit with detour via the South Luangwa National Park.

 

 

Nkwali

Nkwali offers a spectacular view of the park and the river.

I opted to stay in the Game Management Area this time, immediately across the river from the South Luangwa National Park. Discretely tucked into a grove of soaring ebony trees on a prime vantage point of the eastern bank of the Luangwa River, Nkwali coupled the casual atmosphere and intimate proximity to wildlife that only a bush camp can offer with the indulgent amenities of a boutique safari lodge. Its six guest chalets and lounge area offered a spectacular view of the steep far bank of the river and the acacia forest that constituted the boundary of the park.

The private pontoon is an picturesque way to access the park.

For all its superb isolation, Nkwali was less than an hour away from Mfuwe Airport. Access to the park was either via a colorful hand-cranked pontoon near the camp or across the Mfuwe Bridge, 10 kilometers away. Game activity was intense in the Game Management Area as in the park itself, and the the pontoon crossing gave us the unique opportunity to witness at close range the sudden eruption of a domestic argument within a pod of hippos floating nearby.

First close range sighting of a leopard!

The splendid cat indulged me with a photo opportunity.

It was exciting to reconnect with all the familiar wildlife of the bush but the most exhilarating moment came when we began tracking a leopard. I had casually mentioned to my guide, Joseph, that on my previous visit I had only managed a night-time glance at one, and I that I was hoping to get a proper look this time. He made it a matter of professional pride to grant me my wish. Locating the elusive feline took cooperative efforts of Joseph and one of his colleagues. They engaged in an extensive radio dialog to direct us to the appropriate location. They were assisted by the terrorized screeches of a troop of baboons who had apparently just lost one of their own to the feline.

Then suddenly there he was, glaring defiantly at us through a jumble of grass, a magnificent adult male, his spotted coat still showing tell-tale red shadows. He seemed to weigh its options for a while, before strutting nonchalantly out of the brush and across the clearing, and fading once again into the high grass. Definitely the ultimate memory of my visit to Nkwali!

From my chalet at Nkwali, I spent a blissful siesta time watching a herd of elephants wade their way out of the park, across the Luangwa River.

Good to Know

  • Getting there—Because of its remote location, the South Luangwa National Par is not as readily accessible from North America and Europe as other better known southern Africa safari destinations. This isolation naturally limits the number of visitors, which enhances the authentic bush experience.
  • Staying there—Chamilandu, Chindeni, Kuyenda and the Mfuwe Lodge are properties of The Bushcamp Company. Kuyenda and Chamilandu are open June to November, Chindeni is open May to December and the Mfuwe Lodge is open year-round. Nkwali is a Robin Pope Safaris property. It is opened year-round

A view from the pontoon – A bloat of hippos sunning themselves on the bank of the river.

Location, location, location!

Mfuwe, Zambia

Mythical Marrakech – The Majorelle Garden

Mythical Marrakech – The Majorelle Garden

It took French painter Jacques Majorelle (1886-1962) four decades of dedication to create the enchanting botanical wonder now known as the Majorelle Garden at the edge of the Ochre City” of Marrakech.

The vision of Jacques Majorelle

The Garden Majorelle is home to a unique collection of cacti.

When aspiring French painter Jacques Majorelle was sent to Morocco in 1917 to convalesce from a serious medical condition, he promptly fell in love with Marrakech. Fascinated with the vibrant colors and the picturesque street life of the city, he eventually decided to settle permanently there. In the early 1920’s he purchased a plot of land in a palm grove at the edge of the city, Over time, he gradually expanded the property to four hectares (10 acres), and commissioned  a French architect to design a cubist villa on the site, near his original Moroccan-style house.

A variety of colorful water basins dot the garden.

An ardent amateur botanist, as well as by now an established Orientalist painter, Majorelle de- voted himself to creating the luxuriant exotic garden which would become his most dazzling work. Over the next four decades, the fame of Majorelle’s garden grew to the point of surpassing that of his paintings.

 

 

Splashes of Majorelle blue enhance the exhuberant landscape.

But the glory of the Majorelle Garden is not just about its exuberant landscaping that brings together plants from around the world, or its water basins and lily pond, but that it is also home to a unique color. Throughout the property, walls and architectural elements are painted in a distinct blue so unique that the color has become trademarked under the name of Majorelle blue. Although this intense blue has gone on to inspire artists and designers around the world, nothing beats experiencing it in the place of its genesis.

 

The Inspiration of Yves Saint Laurent

Yves Saint-Laurent fell in love with the garden’s vibrant colors.

By the time of Majorelles death the garden had fallen into disrepair and would ultimately have disappeared, but for French fashion icon Yves Saint-Laurent and his life-long companion and business partner, Pierre Bergé. On their first visit to Marrakech in 1966 they discovered the now deserted garden and fell in love with this oasis where colors used by Matisse were mixed with those of nature.” (Pierre Bergé, 2014, Yves Saint Laurent, a Moroccan Passion), They visited frequently, and the garden became a source of inspiration for Saint-Laurent’s couture collections.

Saint-Laurent restored the original garden and villas.

Then in 1980, they learned that the Jardin Majorelle was threatened by a real-estate development project. To rescue it from demolition, they decided to acquire it and set about restoring it. Committed to maintain the original vision of Jacques Majorelle, Saint-Laurent and Bergé oversaw a restoration project that not only revived the garden but expanded upon it. Automatic irrigation systems were installed; a team of 20 gardeners was put in place, and the number of plant species was increased from 135 to 300. Today, the colorful water basins and fountains are nestled within a dense fabric of mixed trees, flowers, and shrubs that fill the majority of the site.

When Saint-Laurent died in 2008, his ashes were scattered in the rose garden at Jardin Majorelle. Two years later, the street in front of the garden was renamed in his honor. In 2010, ownership of the property passed to the Foundation Pierre Bergé – Yves Saint Laurent, a French not-for-profit organization.

Homage to the Berber Culture

Jewelry is an especially important sign of Berber tribal identity.

In 2011, the Berber Museum was inaugurated on the bottom floor of the villa, which was once Jacques Majorelle’s atelier. This small but remarkably well curated museum offers a rich overview of the creativity of the Berber people, the most ancient in North Africa.

More than 600 objects from the Rif mountains to the Sahara desert, collected by Bergé and Saint Laurent, demonstrate the richness and diversity of this still-vibrant culture. Everyday and ceremonial objects attest to the know-how, both material and immaterial, found in the Berber culture. The collection reflects all the elements of Berber identity, including tribal costumes, weapons, weaving, carpets, decorated doors and musical instruments. Jewelry, an especially important sign of the social status of the woman wearing it, plays a central role in the collection.

The Saint-Laurent Legacy

The entrance of the recently opened Yves Saint-Laurent Museum.

Just a stone throw away from the Majorelle Garden, the Museum Yves Saint-Laurent Marrakech opened its doors in October 2017. Designed by the French architectural firm KO, the 4000 square meter (4300 square foot) the building consists of cubic shapes of terra-cotta bricks, con- crete and earthen-colored terrazzo that blend harmoniously with their surrounding. Arranged around a central atrium open to the sky as befits a traditional Moroccan home, the museum, in addition to a 400 square meter (4300 square foot) permanent exhibition space showcasing Yves Saint-Laurent’s creation, includes temporary exhibition space, a 130-seat auditorium, an elegant gift shop and a restaurant opened onto its own terrace.

The museum features an exquisite boutique.

As in its sister-museum in Paris, the permanent exhibit traces the development of Saint-Laurent’s unique style over the four decades during which his iconic designs revolutionized 20th century fashion. His pea coats, trench coats, tuxedos, pantsuits and safari jackets that became an integral part of women’s everyday wardrobes are all represented here, as well as his sublime evening dresses with their many artistic references. Overall a vivid reminder that Yves Saint-Laurent was the last of the grand couturiers that dominated the extraordinary post-World-War-Two epoch of French haute couture.

Good to Know

  • The Majorelle Garden, Rue Yves Saint Laurent, Gueliz, Marrakech, is located just a 20 minute walk or a five minute taxi ride from the Medina. NOTE — the garden and related museums are now one of the most popular tourist destinations in Marrakech. Unless you are prepared to face hours-long lines at the box office, it is imperative to reserve your tickets well ahead through the Majorelle Foundation official ticket site . Plan at least one month ahead, more if possible, to secure combined tickets for the garden and museums for the date and time of your choice. The website is slow and rather clumsy, but with a bit a patience and determination, you shouldl be able get the desired results.
  • The Garden is open daily from 8:00 am to 5:30 pm from October 1 to April 30, 8.00 am to 6:00 pm from May 1 to September 30 and 9:00 am to 5:00 pm the month of Ramadan. However, both the Berber and Yves Saint-Laurent museums are closed on Wednesday.

 

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

Jardin Majorelle, Marrakech

Mythical Marrakech – The Great Palaces of the Medina

Mythical Marrakech – The Great Palaces of the Medina

Marrakech was in turn the capital of both the Almoravid (1056 to 1147) and Saadi (1509 to 1659) dynasties. While we owe the very existence of the city to the Almoravid rulers, very few actual structures remain of their legacy. The Saadian, on the other hand, left us one of the most unique architectural treasures in the city: an opulent palace for the dead.

The Saadian Tombs

The older eastern mausoleum (right) was built against the outer walls of the Kasbah Mosque.

The final resting place of the Saadi dynasty is a vast necropolis housing over 200 tombs spread throughout a shaded flower garden anchored by two major mausoleums.

 At the eastern end of the site, the oldest mausoleum adjoins the southern wall of the ancient Kasbah Mosque (circa 12th century A.D.). It was built between 1557 and 1574 by the second Saadi sultan, Moulay Abdallah al-Ghalib, to honor his father Muhammad al-Sheikh, the founder of the dynasty, who was killed in 1557. Abdallah himself was later buried next to his father in 1574, as were his two successors.

Archway to the tomb of Lalla Mas’uda.

However, what makes the Saadian Tombs one of the most visited monuments in Marrakech is the western side of the necropolis, build by the last of the dynasty’s ruler’s Sultan Ahmed al Mansour Ed Dahbi (1578–1603.). He first commissioned the mausoleum of his father Muhammad al-Sheik and his mother, the concubine Lalla Mas’uda, and then later on his own after-life palace.

Crowds file by the entrance to the tombs of Muhammad al-Sheikh and Lalla Mas’uda.

 

Muqarnas archway entrance to the Chamber of the Twelve Columns.

He spared no expense, especially for the latter, importing Italian Carrara marble and gilding honeycomb muqarnas(decorative plasterwork) with pure gold to make the Chamber of 12 Pillars a suitably glorious mausoleum. And he applied a definite pecking order even in death, keeping major princes close by in the Chamber of Three Niches while relegating to garden plots some 150 chancellors and members of the royal household.

While al Mansour died in splendor in 1603, a few decades later the Alaouite dynasty succeeded the Saadian, and the new ruler, Sultan Moulay Ismail was eager to remove all traces of the former ruling family. He ordered the necropolis sealed, leaving only one concealed entrance, a small passageway through the wall from the adjoining Kasbah Mosque. And the Saadian Tombs faded from public awareness until they were “re-discovered” by the French in 1917. The site was subsequently restored to its original frandeur and opened to visitors who now descend upon it in droves.

El Badi Palace

Storks stand guard over the ruins of el Badi Palace.

Another of al Mansur’s grand commissions, el Badi Palace didn’t fare so well. The immense complex that once boasted 360 rooms now stands as a magnificent ruin. The first thing that catches visitors’ attention when entering what remains of the palace is not that its design was influenced by the Alhambra in Granada, but rather the number of storks nesting on top of its ramparts.

 

El Badi Palace remains an imposing ruin.

Paved in gold and turquoise tiles and decorated throughout with Italian marble during the reign of al Mansur, el Badi was at the time the most impressive palace in the western reaches of the Muslim world. But in 1690, Sultan Moulay Ismael stripped it bare to adorn his own palace in Meknes, some 350 kilometers (220 miles) northeast of Marrakech. Today, the vast courtyard with its four sunken gardens and reflecting pools can only hint at its former majesty. Although now a mere shell, el Badi still overwhelms with its massive proportions.  And steep stairways still lead to the top of the ramparts, offering unique views of the roofs and towers of the Medina and the Atlas mountains.

The Bahia Palace

The Bahia remains unique for its specacular courtyards.

When Si Moussa, the powerful Grand Vizier of Sultan Hassan I, built the Bahia in the 1860’s, he envisioned the grandest palace of its time. A lofty goal that only came close to fruition with Si Moussa’s son, Ahmed ben Moussa (a.k.a. Ba Ahmed) who rose to even higher prominence than his father, serving as Grand Vizier and regent of Morocco during the reign of the child Sultan Abd al-Aziz. 

The Bahai Palace is a maze of harmonious  interial passages.

Ba Ahmed expanded upon the existing palace, bringing in a renowned architect and some of the finest craftsmen in the country to create a lavishly decorated 160-room palace to house his four wives and 24 concubines. Spread across some height hectares (20 acres), of landscaped gardens and lofty courtyards, the complex still still impresses with its magnificent decor, and is considered one of the finest examples of Moorish-Andalusian architecture in Morocco.

The Bahia Palace has retained its elaborate interior fittings,

 After Ba Ahmed’s his death in 1900, however, the palace was looted en masse. His concubines swiftly took their share before Sultan Abd al-Aziz (the former child Sultan) carted off all the remaining furnitures and removable contents to his own palace. However, by looting standards, it was all fairly restrained, and the buildings themselves were undamaged. Although the royal family still occasionally uses the Bahia for official occasions, most of it is now open to visitors. The public rooms remain empty, which only allows the splendor of the palace to come through all the more.

Dar Si Said

Dar Si Said features a lovely internal garden.

Located just north of the Bahia Palace, Dar Si Said, also now known as the Museum of Moroccan Arts, was formerly the residence of Ba Ahmed’s brother Sisi Said, The collection of the museum is considered one of the finest in Morocco. It includes jewelry from the High Atlas, the Anti Atlas and the extreme south; carpets from the Haouz and the High Atlas; oil lamps from Taroudant; blue pottery from Safi and green pottery from Tamgroute and leatherwork from Marrakesh.

Thr painted ceilings are some of the best in the city.

The lovely central garden is laid out in classic Moroccan styel, and the carved and painted ceilings on the top floor are considered the finest example of painted ceilings in the city. The museum also features some fine wooden screens and frames recovered from the Bahia palace.

The sprawling el Badi complex has retained its four sunken gardens.

 

Good to Know

Marrakech is located in central Morroco, in the foothills of the Atlas Mountains and a few hours away from the edge of the Sahara desert.

  • Getting there — Marrakech has a modern, well organized international airport with direct scheduled flights from Paris, London, and a number of other major European cities, as well as Casablanca, Morocco’s largest city. The airport is located about six kilometers (4 miles) from the medina, and taxis are readily available throughout the day – but it is prudent to clearly set the fare with the driver before getting into the cab. A better option is to arrange for a pre-paid pick up through your hotel or riad.
  • Getting around— there is only one way to fully explore the medina, and it’s on foot
  • Visiting —The Saadian Tombs are open daily from 9:00 am to 4:45 pm. El Badi  is open daily from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm. The Bahia Palacei s open daily from 9:00 am to 4:30 pm and  Dar Si Saild is open daily Wednesday through Monday from 9:00 am to 4:45 pm. Closed on Tuesday.

Location, location, location!

Medina, Marrakech

The Gem of Morocco – Mythical Marrakech

The Gem of Morocco – Mythical Marrakech

While the foothills of the Atlas Mountains in what is now central Morocco were inhabited by Berber farmers since Neolithic times, it was not until the 11th century A.D. that Marrakech began, first as little more than an oasis Kasbah (fortress) founded by the local Almoravid ruler. But it quickly prospered into the region’s most important trading settlement for camel trains coming across the Sahara Desert from Timbuktu on their way to the coast with their precious cargos of gold, spices and ivory.

Jemaa el-Fnaa Square has been the hub of trade and entertainment since the 11th century.

The Medina (walled city) soon developed into a center of commerce and culture, and the imperial city of several successive ruling dynasties. A sprawling labyrinth of riads (traditional homes), and souks (covered artisan markets) spread in the shadow of its opulent palaces. 

In recent decades, Marrakech has also gained the distinction of being the country’s most popular tourist destination, with a million travelers flocking there each year. And it’s easy to see why: with its centuries old fusion of Arabian, African and European influences, the gem of Morocco fascinates with its exotic allure.

Finding Your Riad

The Medina is a warren of narrow back alleys.

The best way to soak in the unique atmosphere of Marrakech and discover its historic and cultural treasures is to stay in the Medina. To this day, its ancient  riads, the secluded, traditional houses built around inner courtyards, remain home to about 200,000 people, a fifth of the city’s population. They also seem to host the same number of tourists. In recent decades, with over 800 riads restored to modern hospitality standards and now registered as guest residences, the word has become synonymous with boutique accommodation.

The terrace at Dar Habiba overlooks  neighborhood terraces.

Most properties are small – just six to eight rooms, usually with an inviting rooftop terrace. Nearly all offer personalized service and an ideal way for tourists to get in touch with Moroccan culture. They are also very much in demand, so it is prudent to plan well ahead. One of the fun parts of planning this Marrakech escape was finding our riad. While it took several tries, we ended up with just the right one for us.

The House of Friends

Life at Riad Dar Habiba is centered around a serene patio.

Concealed behind a typically unassuming doorway at the corner of one of the many culs-de-sac of the quiet Mellah, the old Jewish Quarter originally created in the 16th century, Dar Habiba (Arabic for friend) was a serene retreat centered around a large patio, complete with white marble dipping pool, gurgling fountain, and an inviting bhou (lounging nook). Our upper-floor rooms opened onto a gallery overlooking the patio. Decorated in contemporary Moroccan style with pale plaster walls, Berber accent pieces and throw rugs on the terra-cotta floor, our rooms were a haven of tranquility just a short walk from all the chaos of the  major attractions of the Medina.

Only donkey carts and motorcycle can make it beyond the entrance of the Medina.

But what turned our stay at Dar Habiba into a superb Marrakech experience was the unfailing attention of the staff to our every needs and comfort, which began even before we checked in. We had pre-arranged with them a transfer from the airport. However, cars can only get you as far as official drop-off points at the edge of the Medina. It’s on foot after that through back alleys only wide enough for motorcycles and donkey carts, and with few discernible street addresses. Mercifully, a porter had been dispatched to meet our cab. He piled our luggage onto his hand cart and took off at a trot through the pandemonium, trusting us to keep up. Which we did, aware that he only had a clue as to where we were going.

At Dar Habiba, the bhou is our favorite gathering spot.

We reached Dar Habiba within minutes, a bit dazed and winded, to the warm welcome of Rashid, the onsite manager. We were immediately settled within the plump pillows of the bhou, and over glasses of freshly brewed mint tea, introduced to the details of life at the Riad and the bewildering city beyond its thick sheltering walls. After settling into our rooms at leisure, we reconvened at the bhou, which instantly became our favorite perch, for another round of mint tea. Then, pleasantly mellow and armed with very explicit directions from Rashid, we were ready to jump into the bedlam we’d only glimpsed at on the way in and head for the legendary main square, Jemaa-el-Fnaa.

Jemaa-el-Fnaa

Jemaa el-Fnaa is the pulsing heart of the Medina.

No one is sure of the precise meaning of the name Jemaa el-Fnaa, the vast triangular square at the entrance of the Medina. It could be “Place of the Vanished Mosque,” or the favorite contender,  “Assembly of the Dead,” since justice was once meted out here, and heads of executed criminals were set on spikes as a warning to others. What is certain is that “La Place,” as the legendary square is known to Marrakechis, has been the hub of trade and entertainment since 1050 AD, the frenzied best and worst of Marrakech.

Fresh-squeezed juice sellers are a constant feature.

It was afternoon when we reach it, the time when it was morphing from its daytime marketplace activities into its nigh life persona. The sellers of cheap trinkets were folding their blankets. The henna tattoo ladies were putting away their syringes and laminated folders of patterns. The herbalists touting potions to heal all ills and the itinerant dentists sitting on plastic chairs behind displays of dentures and saucers of the teeth they’ve successfully pulled were closing shop. The reedy whine of the snake charmer’s flute was beginning to fade. Only the fruit carts were standing firm, still doing a brisk business of delicious, fresh-squeezed orange juice at a mere 10 Dirhams (one U.S. Dollar) a cup.

The spice market occupies a corner of Jemaa el-Fnaa.

Now, young men trundled across the square to set their up their portable kitchens, plank benches and trestle tables. Soon the smoke rose from hundreds of barbecues, and countless food stalls began doling out a steady stream of kebabs, filling the air with the mouth-watering aromas of this immense open-air eatery, while Gnawa (North African spiritual music) musicians, acrobats and fortune tellers entertained the crowds. We enjoyed the show for a while before drifting off. As frequent visitors to Africa, we have long learned to keep questionable street food out of our travel menu. We headed instead for the nearby Koutoubia Mosque.

Koutoubia Mosque

The Koutoubia Mosque is especially spectacular at dusk.

Towering 253 ft (77 meters) over the Jemma el-Fnaa, the Koutoubia Mosque is the most important in Marrakech and the unmistakable point of reference of the city. Built at the height of the Islamic Golden Age, is it exceptionally ornate. Originally completed during the Almovad Dynasty in the 12th century, it is the oldest and most complete structure remaining from this era. Designed in cooperation between Marrakechi and Andalusian architects, it is a prototypical monument of Moroccan-Andalusian architecture – and a twin of Seville’s Girarlda. Like all mosques in Morocco, it is closed to non-muslims, but visitors are welcome to walk around its vast gardens.

A hearty Tajine dinner on the roof terrace is a delicious end to our first day in Marrakech.

Now that we has found our bearings, it was a mere at 15-minute stroll from here back to Dar Habiba, along the lively souk of  Rue Riad Zitoun el Kdim. A table had been set for us on the rooftop terrace and our delicious pre-ordered lamb tagine (traditional dish slow-cooked in conical clay pot) meal with all the trimmings awaited. Afterward, we lingered long into the evening under the starry velvet sky, enjoying the view of the rooftops of the Medina in the moonlight, and the occasional strains of Gnawa drifting on the spice-scented night air.

Jemaa-el-Fnaa is the traditional hub of trade and entertainment in Marrakech.

Good to Know

  • Getting there – Marrakech has a modern, well organized international airport with direct scheduled flights from Paris, London, and a number of other major European cities, as well as Morroco’s largest city of Casablanca. The airport is located about six kilometers (four miles) from the Medina, and taxis are readily available throughout the day – but make sure you clearly set the fare with the driver before you get in. A far better option is to arrange for a pre-paid pick up through your hotel or riad. 
  • Getting around – the only one way explore the Medina is on foot. But beware of bicycles and scooters that zip around the narrow alleys as though they have been granted exclusive right of way. The surest way to get where you want to go is to ask direction from the person in charge at your riad.  (n.b. Rashid gave excellent directions.)  Still, expect to get occasionally lost while you meander through the confusing labyrinth of the Medina, constantly distracted by the bustle of Marrakech’s everyday life. It’s what you came to experience, so keep meandering and you will soon find your bearings again.
  • Staying – Dar Habiba is ideally located in the quiet Mellah neighborood, within a fifteen-minute walking radius of all the main Medina historic sites (La Place, the Koutoubia Mosque, Saadian Tombs, Bahia Palace, El Badi Palace, etc.) and a mere five minutes away from the souk of Rue Riad Zitoun el Kdim. We chose it for its location but will return at the first opportunity for the comfort of its accommodations and most of all its attentive personalize hospitality.  Contact info : tel. +44 20 7570 0336 (or toll free from the US. + 1-800-845-0810), e-mail: Reservations.

 

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

Marrakech Medina

Journey to the Edge of Africa – The Damaraland Experience

Journey to the Edge of Africa – The Damaraland Experience

After the featureless desolation of the Skeleton Coast, entering Damaraland feels like emerging onto another planet. Under an improbably vivid sky, a prehistoric landscape of massive conical granite kopjies and mountaintops flattened by an eternity of erosion rises from barren gravel plains to an endless horizon.

Life in the Desert

Damaraland-Kudus

Kudus manage to exist on the sparse vegetation.

Yet occasional patches of dusty vegetation hint at water somewhere below the parched ground. In a land that receives less than 150 millimeters (5.9 inches) of annual rainfall, and sometime none at all, camel thorn acacias outline the bed of an ephemeral river quickly absorbed into underground aquifers for storage. Beneath the trees, a family of kudus methodically munches on the sparse shrubbery. Further on, we come across clumps of euphorbia, their spindly grey stems toxic to all living things except oryx and rhinos. Then Jimmy Limbo, our outstanding Wilderness Safaris guide, points to something that has to be one of the most bizarre plants on the planet.

Damaraland-Welwitschia.

The welwitschia plant traces back to Jurassic times.

At first glance, it looks like an old tire blown to shreds, with rubbery red berries growing out of it. It’s the welwitschia, two strap-shaped leaves growing from a woody center (or caudex) to reach up to two meters (6.5 feet) in length. Like blades of grass, the leaves grow from the base, so that they can keep going even when their tip gets worn off. The oldest living specimens are estimated to be between 1,500 and 2,000 years old. Long before the plant, which traces back to the Jurassic period and is endemic to Damaraland, was “discovered” in 1859 by Friedrich Welwitsch, it was known as onvanga (desert onion) to the Herero people.

Mountains of Burnished Gold

Namibia-Damaraland

The colossal sandstone ridges are ablaze in the setting sun.

We have been driving for a couple of hours, Jimmy unerringly stirring our custom-built land cruiser through the unchartered immensity of a scenery that keeps getting ever more dramatic. The setting sun is turning the mountains into a colossal backdrop of burnished gold by the time we reach our small, semi-permanent private camp of domed tents tucked within the spectacular boulders of a sandstone ridge. After dinner, a braai (southern African barbecue) under a canopy of stars, a spectacular full moon rises, as if on cue, over the ridge.

Damaraland-giraffe

Angola giraffes have adapated to the arid rockly terrain.

Morning comes early, and most of the day is spent bouncing on the back of the land cruiser, tracking rare desert-adapted elephants through an ever-changing scenery of rock and sand. Incredibly, this sun-baked land is able to sustain small populations of creatures who have adapted their life-style to survive in these almost waterless conditions. We sight small herds of springboks, oryx, ostriches and even the occasional zebra and giraffe, as well as desert squirrels and birds.

Damaraland-Desert squirrel.

The desert squirrel uses its bushy tail for shade.

 

The elephants, although they have left a number of clues of their recent passage, keep eluding us. These pachyderms, who can travel up to 70 kilometers (over 40 miles) per day in their quest for food and water, seem to have headed for the hills. But Jimmy will not be stymied. We follow their uphill tracks onto a rocky terrain that lends a whole new meaning to off-road driving, to the base of a ridge where we abandon the car. It’s on foot from here on. I stumble my way to the top in his wake.

Damaraland-Desert elephants.

Desert elephants are constantly on the move in seach of water.

By the time I have caught my breath, a small line of elephants are moving toward us on the path below, three adults and three calves in various stages of maturity, bronzed with desert dust. Even from up here, they appear visibly leaner that their brethrens of the savannah, and with longer, thinner legs that enable them to travel long distances to reach a water source. They browse sparingly, without tearing off the trees like elephants living in higher rainfall areas. From our perch, we observe them for some time in detail, until they continue on their ponderous way up and vanish over the opposite ridge.

An Uncertain Spring

Damaraland-Twyfelfontein Valley.

The sandstone valley of Twyfelfontein holds one of the largest concentration of petroglyphs in Africa.

The next day, we visit Twyfelfontein (or Uncertain Spring in Afrikaans), so named by a settler, David Levine, who bough land there in 1948 in hope that the spring on the property would provide sufficient water for his family and livestock. Today, the name, along with a couple of crumbling walls from his tiny homestead, are all that remain from his twelve-year experiment.

Damaraland-Twyfelfontein engravings.

The engravings include a diversity of animals and foot prints.

However, the Twyfelfontein valley, has been inhabited by Stone-age hunter-gatherers, the first Damara people, since approximately 6,000 years ago. Then 2,000 to 2,500 years ago came the Khoikhoi herders, an ethnic group related to the San (Bushmen). Both groups used the valley, then known under its Damara name of |Ui-||Aes (or jumping waterhole in Bushmen click language), as a place of worship to conduct their chamanist rituals. On the slopes of the sandstone table mountain that flanks the valley, these early Damara left us one of the largest concentration of petroglyphs (rock engravings) in Africa. All are chiseled in exposed locations on the massive rock face of free-standing boulders. The Khoikhoi also produced some rock engravings that can be clearly differentiated from the earlier ones. In all, over 2500 engravings have been identified so far, making the valley one of the oldest and most important open-air art galleries in Africa. UNESCO declared Twyfelfontein a World Heritage Site in 2007.

Damaraland-Twyfelfontein Lion Man.

Twyfelfontein’s most intriguing figure is known as the Lion Man.

The images depict an astonishing diversity of animals, elephants, rhinos, giraffes, oryx , kudus, zebras and more, as well as foot prints. There are also a few instances of animals that do not occur in the area, such as seals and flamingos. Did some of these hunter-gatherers come from the coastal area more than 100 kilometers of arid desert away? Some graphics are also believed to be maps showing the location of waterholes. Originally, the theory was that people simply depicted what they saw around them and the game they hunted. Could they have also served an educational purpose? Today these engraving are thought to represent the transformation of humans into animals, an important aspect of the belief system and shamanist rituals of their authors.

One of the most notable is the Lion Man. This lion is represented with a prey in his mouth, five toes on each foot (whereas lions only have four), and a very tall tail that ends with a six-toed footprint. Could this deliberate combination of human and animal features indicate that this shaman has transform into a lion? All these unanswered questions only add to the magic of Twyfelfontein.

Damaraland-Vista

Prehistoric Damaraland vista.

Good to Know

  • Twyfelfontein is easily accessible by road. From the main (paved) road C39 betweem Sesfontein and Khorixas, take the secondary (gravel) road D3214 for approximately 20 kilometers (12 miles) to the site. The visitor Center is open from 8:00 am to 5:00 pm daily, with last admission at 3:30 pm. The engravings can only be visited with a local guide following a predetermined itinerary. Admission is N$ 50, or approximately $ 4 US, guided tour included.
  • Wilderness Safaris is a major ecotourism tour operator with a significant presence throughout eastern and southern Africa over the past three decades. They offer private access to some 2.5 million hectares (six million acres) of Africa’s finest wildlife and wilderness areas. While they do not take direct bookings, they work with a global network of destination specialists, including Wild about Africa, who I selected to arrange this journey around Namibia.
  • Wild about Africa is an established destination specialist focusing on moderately-priced, solo traveler-friendly small group safaris (maximum 7 participants) in Bostwana, Namibia and Zambia. Wild about Africa, 10 & 11 Upper Square, Old Isleworth, Middlesex, TW7 7BJ, U.K.   Contact: e-mail enquiries @ wildaboutafrica.com, +1-800-242-2434 (U.S.), +44 (0) 20 8758 4717 (U.K.).

Location, location, location!

Twyfelfontein, Namibia

Journey to the Edge of Africa – Walvis Bay and the Skeleton Coast

Journey to the Edge of Africa – Walvis Bay and the Skeleton Coast

The ocean mist that hovered over Swakopmund when we arrived yesterday has lifted this morning. The sun is shining over the quaint pseudo-Bavarian seaside resort on the Atlantic coast of Namibia, just the right preface to an early harbor cruise. Unfortunately, by the time we reach Walvis Bay, the country’s main deepwater commercial harbor 30 kilometers (20 miles) to the south, the fog has rolled in again. The horizon is an eerie line of black shadow ships fading into an uncertain curtain of gray gauze.

A Morning on the Water

Walvis-Perican lighthouse.

The Pelican Bay lighthouse emerges from the morning fog.

A slick catamaran, the Silvermoon, pulls up to the jetty, and we are off. A trio of white pelicans make their characteristic wobbly landing on the roof of the cabin and invite themselves for the ride. We pass oyster farms, a delicacy for which the area is famous, on our way to Pelican Point, the sandy peninsula that protects Walvis Bay from the assault of Atlantic Ocean. Next to its landmark lighthouse, a 34 meter (112 foot) high cast iron structure built in 1932 and still in use, the point is home to a resident colony of Cape fur seals estimated at 60,000.

Walvis Bay-Cape fur seal.

Cape fur seals put on quite a show near our boat.

Beyond the point, we sail toward a line of ships and oilrigs that have come from the offshore drilling fields of Angola for maintenance and garaging. This is a unique opportunity to get a close look at one of these giant drilling platforms. The tour ends with a copious tasting lunch of fresh local oysters (yes, they are delicious) and other regional seafood specialties as we return to port.

 

 

Walvis Bay-Lagoon.

The Walvis Bay Lagoon is host to thousands of flamingos.

Back on solid ground and with the sun now high overhead, we stop by the Walvis Bay Lagoon, one of southern Africa’s major coastal wetlands and migratory bird sanctuary, where thousands of flamingos are busy feasting on crustaceans.

 

 

 

 

The Skeleton Coast Experience

Skeleton Coast-drilling wreck.

Not all wrecks came from the sea. Deep in the dunes, this is all that remains of an aborted attempt to drill for oil.

We head north the next morning. Within a half hour from the center of Swakopmund, all signs of life fade away. Ahead of us is an endless dirt trail between rolling dunes and pounding surf. This is the West Coast Recreational Area, the southern end of the windswept strip of desert that covers the 500 kilometers (300 miles) of Atlantic coast from Swakopmund to the Angolan border, now known as Skeleton Coast. Long before it got its sinister moniker from the bones that once filled the shore, remnants of the whaling industry’s heydays, early Portuguese explorers were referring to the area as “the Gates of Hell.” Enough said. Today the skeletons that remain are most likely to be those of twentieth century ships that fell victim to hidden rocky outcrops and blinding fog.

Namibia_Skeleton Coast_Zeila,

The fishing troller Zeila, stranded on 25 August 2008 just south of Henties Bay.

An hour into the trip we stop to check out one of these skeletons, the Zeila, a rusting fishing trawler stranded in 2008. Now just another convenient perch for passing seabirds, it is slowy disintegrating under the relentless battering of the ocean. Moments later, we come upon the incongruous sight of a town in the middle of nowhere. It’s Henties Bay (population 8,000), which owes its existence to the discovery of a rare fresh water source there in 1886, and its prosperity to current day anglers who find it a bountiful fishing destination. We stop just long enough for gas and continue on to Cape Cross.

The Cape Cross Seal Reserve

Cape Cross-Seals.

Cape Cross is home of one of the largest Cape fur seal colonies in southern Africa.

Some 50 kilometers (30 miles) north of Henties Bay, the Cape Cross Seal Reserve is home to one of the largest breeding colony of Cape fur seals in southern Africa (150,000 to 210,000, depending on who you ask). Either way, it’s a hugely impressive sight, and an aggression to other senses. The stench of guano hanging over the site is overwhelming, as is the din of continuous bleating from this enormous herd of sea mammals. Cape Cross owes its name to the first European known to have set foot on the Namibian coast in 1486, Portuguese navigator Diogo Cão, who erected a stone cross on the spot. The original cross found its way to Germany 1893. It can be seen today in the New Hall of the Deutsches Technikmuseum in Berlin. An exact replica was erected in 1980 on the spot where the original once stood.

Skeleton Coast-Dunedlin

The British cargo-passenger liner Dunedlin stranded on 29 November 1942 south of the Kunene River.

After a windblown picnic lunch on what has to be one of the longest beach in the world, contemplating the remains of the Dunedlin Star, a British cargo ship stranded in 1942, , we enter the Skeleton Coast National Park at its southern Ugab Gate. Said gate is actually a double portal emblazoned with giant skulls and crossbones, a none too subtle “don’t say we didn’t warn you” message. We continue on, undaunted. After another two hours of empty sea and sand, we take a sharp turn to the east, to emerge at the Springbokwasser Gate onto an alien planet of cone-shaped mountaintops, brushed with copper by a relentless sun. After the Khomas Highland, the Great Dune Field, and Skeleton Coast, I had been wondering what our awesome Wilderness Safaris guide Jimmy Limbo could possibly do for an encore? We’ve just reached the answer. We are about to enter surreally magnificent Damaraland!

Good to Know

  • Where to Stay – The four-star Hansa Hotel, 3 Hendrik Witbool Street, Swakopmund, Namibia. An historic building in its own right, it is ideally located in the historic center of town and within a few minutes’ walk from the waterfront. Contact: e-mail reservations @ hansahotel.com.na . Tel: + 264 64 414 200.
  • Wilderness Safaris is a major ecotourism tour operator with a significant presence throughout eastern and southern Africa over the past three decades. They offer private access to some 2.5 million hectares (six million acres) of Africa’s finest wildlife and wilderness areas. While they do not take direct bookings, they work with a global network of destination specialists, including Wild about Africa, who I selected to arrange this journey around Namibia.
  • Wild about Africa is an established destination specialist focusing on moderately-priced, solo traveler friendly small group safaris (maximum 7 participants) in Bostwana, Namibia and Zambia. Wild about Africa, 10 & 11 Upper Square, Old Isleworth, Middlesex, TW7 7BJ, U.K.   Contact: e-mail enquiries @ wildaboutafrica.com, +1-800-242-2434 (U.S.), +44 (0) 20 8758 4717 (U.K.).
  • Catamaran Charters depart every morning from Walvis Bay Waterfront, Atlantic Street, Walvis Bay, Namibia. All their catamarans feature on-deck seating as well an a large interior lounge. All their tours are led by experienced local guides. Contact: e-mail dolphin@iway.na, tel. +264 (0)64 200798.

 

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

Skeleton Coast

Walvis Bay