Ile St. Marie and Ile aux Nattes

The first time I went to Madagascar, I only visited the mainland, and only a small part of the south at that. This time around, I wanted islands, and paradise can easily be found in the Malagasy Islands.

the mainland was great for National Parks, like this one, Ankarana

Antananrivo, the capital, is basically in the middle of Madagascar. The road that goes to the east coast is okay until Tamatave, or Toamasina, Madagascars second biggest city. But from there north, the kilometres pass by a lot slower, and the road slowly ends just after the port for Ile St. Marie where the first unbridged river crossing makes travel further north a bit more complicated. You can take a ferry only once or twice a day out to Ile St Marie, if the weather allows, from Soanierana-Ivongo. They say it takes 1 hr and 15 mins, but by the time the ferry is loaded and departs an hour late, the trip takes 2-3 hours.

leaving behind the filth of Tana’s city

Setting foot on Ile St Marie is like arriving to a new world. The filth and clutter or Tamatave seem countries away, and the roads on the island are paved and sealed (for the most part). Tamatave’s rickety cycle carriages are replaced by brand spanking new rickshaws, and tourists wander between the hotels, restaurants and bars. You can travel to the south extreme of the island and take a pirogue taxi to Ile aux Nattes, a place that made even Ile St Marie seem crowded.

There are no roads or cars on Ile aux Nattes, but the occasional scooter gets shipped over on a very narrow, unstable canoe once in a while. The trail through the island can be done in under an hour, and at the end of the road is the very charming Hotel Les Lemuriens, which actually has 2 resident black-and-white ruffed lemurs.

The best place to stay was Chez Sica, a beachside heaven where you can rent a private bungalow for less than €10 a night. The bar is always missing its bartender, and one cook shows up for breakfast, and another can be ordered for lunch or dinner. But surviving on avocados and Three Horse Beer usually worked fine throughout the heat of the day, and we always found a kitchen open for fresh grilled fish and sautéed vegetables in the evening.

Chez Sica

If you ever go there, try to spend all your time on Ile aux Nattes, since you can hotel hop for a whole week. If you do want to stay on Ile St. Marie, try the Libertalia, which has an infinity pool and a dock out to a little island where the snorkeling is excellent. Watch the sunset form L’Idylle beach restaurant with a cocktail, and eat steak at Chez Nath’s, who also has a dock out to the seat that’s excellent for sundowners. But don’t rent a scooter; within the first 5 minutes of arriving I witnessed another fatal accident where our rickshaw drove around a mangled scooter and bloody corpse. This is still Africa.

Great Zimbabwe

I could have backtracked thru Mozambique to get back to South Africa, but that didn’t sound nearly as fun as cutting thru Zimbabwe and having the chance to visit the county’s medieval namesake. Great Zimbabwe is thought to be one of the most advanced civilizations in Africa during the middle ages, and it was continually inhabited until the 15th century with as many as 18,000 residents. Today you can walk around the ruins, the hill top fortress, and wonder what it must have been like to live there in its heyday.

Tess and I in Great Zimbabwe

I was in near the Zim border on the Mozambique side in Chimoio with a Dutch backpacker named Tess, and we wanted to make the 350*km trip in one day. It was a Sunday, which means fewer ‘chapas’ (buses) that don’t fill early, but we were lucky enough to be on the road shortly after 7. The bus we were on said it was going to the border, but stopped one village short of it and shyly asked us to take another bus.

We met an American doctor at our hostel in Chimoio who had been through the same border a handful of times. She had no idea how much the visa would cost, since it ranged from $30 to $80 depending on when and who crossed, but once she got thrown into jail for under-staying her visa. She said she would stay the weekend in Zim, but came back a day early, and they charged her with ‘fraud.’ 20-some odd days later, she bought her freedom from a guard for $5, who simply left her door open and she walked back to Mozambique, without any belongings, or a passport. I’m still not sure how or why something like that happened, or how she got back into Mozambique, but I intended on buying my visa on arrival for the exact amount of days I needed.

sunset from the top of the Great Zimbabwe fortress

We crossed the border 3 hours later, with a $30 visa, and had to make 2 more connections. First we went to the bus station at the border town Mutare, and bought our $8 tickets to Masvingo. It’s strange how much more expensive Zimbabwe is than Mozambique, especially since its one of, if not the poorest countries in Africa (according to the Africa Wealth Report and Global Wealth Report in 2015-2017). Zimbabwe used to be one of the richest countries in Africa, as recently as the year 2000, with tons of gold reserves still unexploited, but after a whole lot of corruption and inflation, the local Zimbabwean money in million and billion dollar notes had to be traded out for the US dollar. They have print money and coins that are different, but it’s the same value, and even the locals don’t trust them so they prefer US bills.

From Masvingo, we took a shared taxi the last 25 km to Great Zimbabwe, and though we didn’t expect great things for accommodation, the so-called ‘hostel’ they had there resembled more closely a prison bunk. The bathrooms were fitting to the theme; the toilet stalls had no doors, but I did walk thru a spiderweb to get to it, and the showers were simply pipes that opened from above. I couldn’t brush my teeth in the sink because 3 massive bugs that looked like a hybrid of queen bees and swollen termites were still scrambling for their lives to get out of the slippery basin.

the secret passage

Great Zimbabwe itself was, to my relief, still worth the trip, even with the shanty accommodation. Tess and I watched the sunset from the fortress, shared with a group of animated baboons, and got back up at sunrise to explore the various ruins and relics many-hundreds of years old. I remember going through the secret passage in the Great Enclosure and wondering out loud, ‘if only walls could speak,’ then all the gaps of time and decay could be filled with stories of what Great Zimbabwe once was.

The ups and downs of Mozambique

Traveling in Madagascar was what I imagined Mozambique to be, but now Mozambique has developed an entirely different identity. I don’t know why, but it threw me when I left Swaziland and entered a place where the default tourist language was Portugese. I tripped over some kind of Spanglish, and had to smile to see these Africans speaking like native Brazilians, and eventually I got used to it. The UN named Mozambique the 4th worst in the world for human development in 2011, and Mozambique is still one of the poorest countries in Africa (according to GDP per capita), yet everyone I know has been or wants to travel there.

can’t get tired of this

The tourism appeal is huge – endless Indian Ocean coast, with whale sharks and coral reefs to dive, waves to surf, and the interior full of forests and elephants to trek. The country is also huge – it would take weeks just to travel thru Mozambique from South Africa to Tanzania, and heading inland to Zimbabwe or Malawi adds another few weeks. The roads were fine in the south, with a selection of buses, chapas, shared taxis and 4×4’s to hitchike. In central Mozambique, an unstable place declared to have been ‘at war’ until just recently (apparently December 2016 was the end), the only road connecting the north and south has been overtaken by potholes, and the burnt-out, rusted skeletons of cars and buses still stand on the side of the road throughout a stretch of a few hundred kilometers.

the wonderful ladies that made my trip unforgettable.

I hitchhiked this section of road, since buses havent yet started carrying passengers between Vilankulos and Chimoio. I had a Dutch friend with, and we lucked out with a local that could explain the conflict and what it was like to travel through the area the last few years. Apparently people would wait on the side of the road, closest to the worst potholes or largest speedbumps, and ambush the slowed down vehicles. People were shot, cars were lit on fire, and bridges were controled by bribes. We still had to bribe a few ‘official’ soldiers at these checkpoints, but noone tried to shoot us, even though they were all armed. The driver said there was a fire just 2 days ago, and pointed to a freshly abandoned bus still partly on the road, but ‘it must have been an accident.’

sanddunes on Bazarutu Island

Traveling by bus was always a fun challenge. The price was always set and I never paid more than anyone else, but negotiating the best seat in the over-stuffed mini van was never in your control. The departure time was always unclear, since they just left when they were full, and the travel time depended on when and where passengers wanted to get out. The first few km’s would always go quickly, but the closer you got to your destination, the more the bus started stopping, and the last 2 or 3 km’s would always take the longest – unbearably slow to the point it sometimes made sense to get out and walk.

Tess cramped into her bus seat

Maputo wasn’t anything worth staying for, though all sorts of travelers and guide books seem to rave about it as one of the best African cities. African cities are never the attraction, just large, crowded, filthy, smelly and often dangerous areas of countries with much more to offer. I headed straight to the beach – Tofo and Vilankulos. Nearby was always an island or two, and the most amazing coral reef off the coast of Bazarutu island I’ve seen since the Great Barrier Reef. I saw more types and colours of corals I knew existed, and a strange type of starfish called a Harlequin –  a ferocious little star-fish eating monster.

a tidal island in Inhambane bay to go shell picking

Mozambique was also full of disappointments. We went on an Ocean Safari in Tofo to see whale sharks, but spotted no whale sharks (even after taking the journey 2 or 3 times since the sighting was meant to be ‘guaranteed). We went to Flamingo Bay and saw no flamingos. We went on a Seahorse safari in Inhambane bay and saw no seahorses. Finally, we went elephant trekking near Chimanimani National Park and succeeded in finding only foot prints and day old poop. Mozambique was full of monkeys, baboons and macaques, and definitely wins for largest mosquitoes. I would actually feel the mosquitoes land on me before they managed to bite me, so luckily I left with few bites, and no malaria.

 

Adventures in South Africa

I kind of ended up accidentally in South Africa. After my 30th birthday in Mauritius, country #201, I had only a few one-way options out. London, Dubai, Johannesburg, or one of the Indian Ocean islands I had already been to. It wasn’t nearly time to go home, so South Africa was an obvious choice, even though I’ve already been there twice.

up close and personal with a Kruger elephant

I flew into Johannesburg, where I had a couchsurfing friend I met 6 years ago in Rwanda to stay with. Thru the wonderful world of facebook, I realized two Latvian friends, who I know from Iceland, had also just arrived in Johannesburg. They had rented a bright yellow VW we nicknamed ‘Lil’ Miss Sunshine’ and spontaneously left for Kruger the very next morning. There we spent 2 days on a self-drive safari, saw 4 of the Big 5, and nearly got trampled by an angry elephant bull three times the size of our Lil Miss Sunshine (I don’t think they like yellow).

me and the Latvians at Berlin Falls

On the way, we stopped in Nelspruit, where we couchsurfed with a woman, all her cats and one Jack Russell Terrier I had to share my couch with. Her boyfriend is part of the band Minanzi Mbira, and we watched one of their rehearsals in a storage garage late at night, joining in for the precussion bits with drums, triangles and shakers.

the orphanage

We roadtripped past waterfalls, swimming holes, the Bourke’s Luck Potholes, and thru the Blyde River Canyon, taking countless selfies from all the panoramic views along the way. Later we went to Durban, visiting the valley of 1000 hills. We visited an orphanage, ate Indian food that tasted even better than food in India, and then went our separate ways, I, to Lesotho.

the chain ladder up to Tugela

Later I roadtripped with my South African host to Golden Gate National Park and the Drakensberg, where we frolicked inbetween and ontop of mountains, with stunning views down to the Irish-green valleys. The chain ladder up to Tugela Falls nearly gave me vertigo, but it was all worth it once we got to the top and went skinny dipping in one of the frigid pools above the falls – the world’s second highest.

On top of Lion’s Head, with Table Mountain in the background

I spent a week in Cape Town, including a day of wine tasting in Stellenbosch. I stayed in SeaPoint, and one of the roomates there had a horse we could giddyup. We spent our days beaching, or hiking at Newlands Forest and Kirstenbosch Garden. There was a swing dance festival kicking off my last night there, and lots of great coffee, wine, and food everyday.

My base for all these adventures was Johannesburg, which I had never really thought of as more than just a base. Its reputation for being a big, sprawling, dangerous city really changed when I got to spend a few weekends tieh locals, exploring the restaurant and nightlife scene. Neighbourgoods Market was a major highlight, a Saturday food and beverage festival where an old fried from UBC randomly sat across the picnic table from me. After giving eachother long, awkward glances (neither of use could remember eachothers names or just where exactly we knew eachother from – or if we were just doppelgangers), I finally asked where he was from, and answered ‘Vancouver’ in a perfect Canadian accent. Then our worlds collided as we remembered all the stories, friends, and parties from Totem, our residence dorm, 10 years ago. Small world, eh?

The Kingdom of Swaziland

Swaziland is a little land-locked country, surrounded on all sides by South Africa and Mozambique. Besides being the only absolute monarchy left in Africa, I didn’t know much about Swaziland, other than it has (at least had) the highest rate of HIV positive people per capita in the world. Someone in Johannesburg told me I should visit in winter, so I could go skiing, but after arriving and asking when the ski season is and being laughed at, I learned there’s never any snow in Swaziland. Someone must have confused it with Lesotho.

To my surprise, Swaziland was a much safer, more peaceful part of southern Africa. As soon as I crossed the border from South Africa, everyone felt more at ease, and no left-over apartheid feelings of racial separation seemed to exist. I could walk the streets alone at night, and even hitchiked my way around Ezulwini Valley. I felt really at home at a hotspring called the ‘Cuddle Puddle’ which was actually a big, beautiful, warm pool where you could BYOB and order take away pizza.

safari on foot at Mlilwane

Ezulwini valley was a sort of tourism center in Swaziland, and there was more tourism than I expected. There was a handful of backpackers and most hostels were associated with an adventure company or game park. At Mlilwane Game Reserve, there are no predators, so you can actually go on a walking safari, and get up close and personal with lots of zebras and little horned antelopes and ‘beests.’ They had other game parks, one personally belonging to the king, where you could see lions, elephants and rhinos a lot easier than Kruger National Park, which is 1,500 square kilometers larger than the entire country of Swaziland.

Mantenga Falls

I went on some other hikes, one to a cultural village and waterfall, and another to a granite cave. You wouldn’t think those activites were thrilling anywhere else, but because I hadn’t expected any adventures, I laughed my whole way through the 200m of cave tunnels we had to squeeze, bend, crawl and climb thru. We went to a soccer game to watch the beloved Swallows, one of the better teams on all of Africa, play surrounded by an enthusiastic local crowd. We were the only foreigners in the stadium.

at the football stadium in Ezulwani valley

I met an American film producer who used to work for National Geographic and had been making a new tourism commercial for Swaziland, and got sold on visiting Swaziland yet again. I ended up staying a few days longer than I expected, but still left some things undone, and was glad I didn’t visit for only a weekend as I had originally planned. I was lucky to leave at all, since I learned at the border exit that I had been illegally visa-free in Swaziland the entire time. So for any other Icelanders being sold on visiting Swaziland anytime soon, make sure you get your visa on arrival, even if they let you in and stamp your passport without one.

DV Follow-up story: “Katrin Sif reached her goal: visited 200 countries before 30”

Here’s an English summary of an article published yesterday on DV by Bjorn Thorfinnsson. See the online version in Icelandic here.

Katrin Sif reached her goal: visited 200 countries before 30; planned a week long birthday celebration in the last country, Mauritius.

page 12 of DV March 21, 2017

Three days before her birthday, Katrin landed on the island of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean. There she had reached her goal, to travel to two hundred countries before she turned thirty. After sharing her final list and recounting, it turned out Mauritius was country #201, but either way she had made it. Katrin, the adventure woman, was located in Lesotho when DV reached her, another new country, where she was about to go horse back riding.

It’s easy to say that Katrin Sif is one of the most traveled, living Icelanders today, and she had already been interviewed by DV at the end of 2016 where she shared a bit about her travel lifestyle. At that point, she had been to 197 countries and only had a couple of months to reach her goal. Her 30th birthday was fast approaching.

Katrin saves money from her summer job as a tour guide in Iceland, and then flies out every winter and travels around the world. She’s an active member of couchsurfing, where she gets free accommodation in each country. She believes its not just about the couch to sleep, but to be able to experience a country with the help and insider tips of a local. Katrin usually travels alone, so she can travel freely as she pleases.

The Goal was reached accidentally in the Seychelles

The last 3 countries Katrin had decided to visit would be in the Indian ocean: Reunion, which is a part of France, the Seychelles, and Mauritius. She flew from Paris to Reunion and stayed there a week, which happened to coincide with a new volcanic eruption at the Piton de Fournaise. From there she went to Madagascar, and finally to the Seychelles where she explored paradise for a week, unknowing she had already reached her 200th country. She stayed the first few days couchsurfing, but also allowed herself to enjoy some luxury at the Hilton hotel for her last nights.

Katrin then went on to Mauritius, what she thought to be country #200, and held a week long birthday celebration with 9 friends from across Europe and North America to celebrate with her. Included in that group was a Lebanese entertainer from Paris, a German horseman, a Belarussian pair, her college roomate from Washington, and the Icelandic Culinary team’s chef Thrainn Freyr Vigfusson.

“Not even close to stopping”

“The week was amazing, and I couldnt have imagined better people to spend it with. We were happily traveling around the island and were especially pleased with the beautiful beaches, and never ran out of local rum” says Katrin. On her blog, Nomadic Cosmopolitan, Katrin speaks about the fun they go up to. After a week in Mauritius, she went to South Africa and planned to visit Lesotho and Swaziland, both new countries for her list. After that, she’s headed to Mozambique for the first time. “I’m nowhere near close to stopping” says Katrin.

Country Count disclaimer

Its difficult to say how many countires there are in the world. According to the UN, there are 193 recognized country states, plus the Vatican and Palestine. Katrin also counts a few others. For example, Greenland and the Faroe islands, despite being under Denmark, are considered separate states. She also counts separately England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, though they are all considered the same country by the UN. With these exceptions and others like it, Katrin has the possibility to visit more than 230 countries. Thus, there’s plenty left for this traveling Icelander to keep exploring.

The List of Countries Katrin has traveled to:

Afghanistan, Albania, American Samoa, Andorra, Anguilla, Antarctica, Antigua and Barbuda, Argentina, Armenia, Aruba, Australia, Austria, Azerbaijan, Bahamas, Bahrain, Barbados, Belarus, Belgium, Belize, Benin, Bolivia, Bonaire, Sint Eustatius and Saba, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Botswana, Brazil, Brunei Darussalam, Bulgaria, Burkina Faso, Burundi, Cabo Verde, Cambodia, Canada, Cayman Islands, Chile, China, Colombia, Cook Islands, Costa Rica, Côte d’Ivoire, Croatia, Cuba, Curaçao, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Democratic Republic of Congo, Denmark, Djibouti, Dominica, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Egypt, El Salvador, England, Estonia, Ethiopia, Faroe Islands, Fiji, Finland, France, French Guiana, French Polynesia, Gambia, Georgia, Germany, Ghana, Greece, Greenland, Grenada, Guadeloupe, Guam, Guatemala, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Guyana, Haiti, Honduras, Hong Kong, Hungary, Iceland, India, Indonesia, Iran, Ireland, Isle of Man, Israel, Italy, Jamaica, Japan, Jordan, Kenya, Kiribati, Kosovo, Kuwait, Latvia, Lebanon, Liberia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Macedonia, Madagascar, Malaysia, Mali, Malta, Marshall Islands, Martinique, Mauritania, Mauritius, Mexico, Micronesia, Federated States of, Moldova, Monaco, Mongolia, Montenegro, Morocco, Myanmar, Namibia, Nauru, Nepal, Netherlands, Netherlands Antilles, New Caledonia, New Zealand, Nicaragua, Nigeria, Niue, North Korea, Northern Ireland, Northern Mariana Islands, Norway, Oman, Pakistan, Palau, Palestine, Panama, Papua New Guinea, Paraguay, Peru, Philippines, Poland, Portugal, Puerto Rico, Qatar, Réunion, Romania, Russian Federation, Rwanda, Saint Barthélemy, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, Saint Martin (French part), Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Samoa, San Marino, Saudi Arabia, Scotland, Senegal, Serbia, Seychelles, Sierra Leone, Singapore, Sint Maarten (Dutch part), Slovakia, Slovenia, Solomon Islands, Somalia, South Africa, South Korea, Spain, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Suriname, Svalbard and Jan Mayen, Sweden, Switzerland, Taiwan, Tanzania, Thailand, Timor-Leste (East Timor), Togo, Tonga, Trinidad and Tobago, Tunisia, Turkey, Turks and Caicos Islands, Tuvalu, Uganda, Ukraine, United Arab Emirates, United Kingdom, United States, Uruguay, Vanuatu, Vatican City State, Venezuela, Viet Nam, Virgin Islands, British, Virgin Islands, U.S., Wales, Western Sahara, Zimbabwe

Riding in Lesotho

Lesotho is a tiny, land-locked kingdom, surrounded by South Africa on all sides. There aren’t many road borders in or out, but you could easily walk into the country by accident. There are some beautiful mountains and National parks on the north side where South Africans can see Lesotho just across the valley, including the Drakensberg and Golden Gate National park, places I visited to flirt with the idea of Lesotho before arriving.

on the road in Lesotho

I found couchsurfers to stay with, a household of Filipino sisters and brothers and cousins. They’re all working in various businesses, from textiles to furniture and a car garage. We ate breakfast and dinner together every day, with a few other guests, and at one point I was in Lesotho singing Karaoke with 9 Filipinos drinking South African wine and couldn’t imagine expecting a more random experience to write home about.

bumpy road ahead

I borrowed a friend’s car from Johannesburg and drove to Lesotho. The roads on the South African side were excellent – and also filled with tolls and speed cameras. Once entering Lesotho, I didn’t see a single traffic police officer or camera, and only one traffic light, and the roads were full of potholes, where they were paved, and one big pot hole where they weren’t. I was driving a Ford Fiesta, not the greatest off-road car, and it took hours just to drive 80km, but I managed to get deep into the countryside and find some horses to ride.

riding off into the Lesotho countryside

Lesotho has an alive and kicking horse culture – people still travel by horse, shepherd on horse back, and use horses to work their fields and transport goods. I found a camp called Malealea where tourists can go on multi-day treks, up to 28 days, and basically see the whole of Lesotho from the back of a horse. I rode for only one day, barefoot because I didnt have proper shoes and it was too hot, and left my guide in the dust everytime I asked him if we could go for a gallop. We visited a waterfall, a cave, and some ancient rock art paintings, and by the end of the day I realized I should have stayed a week for this. But oh well, there’s always a next time. And next time I’ll bring riding shoes.