Tag Archives: Africa

Morocco, April 2015

Marrakesh: a warm night. Nor stifling, but warm enough to sit out in listening to the sunset call to prayer and cicadas and palm trees creaking in the wind. So just right.

This place and this week: there has been magic in the air all over the place. Marrakesh has something of a reputation for touts and hustlers, but either they’ve gone to bother someone else or the addition of children makes them melt away, and puts something else in its place. A sort of kindness and compassion that puts the kids at ease and leaves them free to concentrate on having their eyes out on stalks.

A man drapes a snake around George’s neck.

A gaggle of ladies in headscarves festoon Winnie with kisses.

Harry instantly negotiates a 100% discount on the price of an ice cream by bursting into tears when his father declines to pay the fee asked.

People have been coming here to have their horizons expanded for centuries and we have been no exception. As ever, back on African soil the urge to keep going is contagious, to climb over the High Atlas, through into the Sahara and on and on, to the green lands beyond, to turn your back on Europe and flee.

Not that anyone else would be much keen on that, though Imogen and I can dream. A little adventure after breakfast suits the boys down to the ground, then back to our villa, cool and quiet, where there’s a tennis court to play rallies and football while Winnie sleeps suits them and understandably so. They’ve been unfazed by the noise of the souks, the constant hum of mopeds and the smoke of sundown in the Djemm al-fna. The great meeting place in the heart of Marrakesh remains incredible, and if it can endure the modern world may well last in something like its current state forever.

The clamour on visiting the square starts instantly, a mighty throng of people with strange music, merchants and general naughty boys everywhere. It is the orient of anyone’s dreams, no matter how many tourists are in there they are diluted by locals out for a bite to eat and the weight of atmosphere. Like the pyramids, old Aleppo (or what’s left of it), the back streets of Pera, the magic here runs very deep.

If the Djemma al Fna has an epicentre, we may have found it. I thought I’d read that no 31 does a mean merguez sausage and as we approached a row of seats came available and we sat down. Sausages, chips, squid and some veggies were ordered and arrived blissfully instantly, seconds after bread and dipping sauce. When you’re travelling with kids and food arrives fast you feel like kissing the waiters, and when they’re wolfing down what’s just landed it can feel like divine intervention.

The boys enjoyed it so much they demanded a return visit this evening, and chomped through the same again with smoke from the grills and old women homaging Winnie (who was awake this time) for company.

Everyone should bring their children to stall 31 in Marrakesh and order some merguez.

Dinner bill both nights? £15 for five.

What else? More food. Fantastic eating! Marrikshi pancakes are half pancake, half roti, best eaten off paper with a little honey while strolling along. Or if you’re feeling flush, in the cafe at the Jardins Majorelle with tagine-baked eggs and loads of mint tea. The sun came out while we were scoffing this lot.

Wonderful rambles round the medina: towards the Badli Palace from the square, and from the ramparts towards the Medressa and Marrakesh Musem, wonderful buildings. George’s best building? The arcade which contained Table Football and Virtua Striker.

A drive into the mountains to a giant man-made lake, snow-capped peaks poking over the top. Tuscan scenery, potholed roads, another planet.

Back to earth soon from outer space. Where next?

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Eritrea’s amazing cableway

If you haven’t been to Eritrea then you’re not alone – but you are missing out.

The tiny Horn of Africa state hasn’t been a country for very long. It gained independence from Ethiopia, after a protracted insurgency, in 1991, cutting its former landlord off from the Red Sea in the process.

Where is Eritrea?

The few visitors who have ventured to this remote corner of Africa are tempted by tales of Asmara, the country’s enigmatic capital. The Italian occupation of Eritrea from 1890 to 1941 left behind a rich and astonishingly complete legacy of Modernist architecture. If you can’t get there Edward Denison’s Asmara: Africa’s Secret Modernist City is a wonderful compendium of the wonders that await. It’ll probably make you go, by the way. That’s no bad thing.

There’s more to Eritrea than this, including excellent diving and vague archaeological sites you can have all to yourself, but Asmara was what drew me here. After a day or so of strolling around laid-back streets, sipping macchiatos in old-school cafes on Harnet Avenue and joining Asmarinos on their nightly passegiata peregrination around the city I was ready to explore further. There was another reason:  I fell over in Cinema Impero while trying to make my way in pitch blackness to a seat. Two vintage Modernist seats gave way. It was time to leave town before I broke anything else.

I offered to pay for the breakages but they wouldn't let me

There are two options for getting to the coast at Massawa, a bombed-out Zanzibar with a similarly timeless atmosphere. One is to club together with a load of railway enthusiasts and charter a train. The more usual one is to hop on a minibus which gets loaded with people, shopping and the odd goat for the seventy mile, 2000m descent to the coast.

It wasn’t always like this though. One other legacy of colonial rule was one of the most unusual forms of transport: the cable-car system known as the Teleferica Massaua-Asmara. This strange and very long system of cables, way-stations and goods carts was the fastest way to shift goods from the port to capital, and as you can see from this photo the odd passenger snuck on board.

The system was dismantled by British administrators of the area when the Italians w ere overwhelmed in 1941 but some traces do remain.

On the journey from Asmara to Massawa the road plunges through hairpin after hairpin, and if you can take your eyes off the road which is much easier going up than down you start to notice huge concrete blocks dotted along the route, These are the bases for the pylons that carried the cable way. Have a look at the Trainweb link at your leaisure. It is another rich source of information, reproducing a brochure produced at the time lauding the cableway, and gives you a good idea of how different the landscape would have looked with this audacious creation in operation.

This picture’s caption notes that it was taken, by John Brantley, while stationed in Eritrea at the Kagnew station in the 1940s. It’s a Wikimedia Commons image and I am indebted to him for posting it.

There have been, astonishingly, other cableways of similar long lengths. The COMILOG cableway ran between Gabon and the Republic of Congo for nearly fifty miles between 1959 and 1986. There’s fun to be had around the web finding out more.

You should visit Eritrea but you may not wish to rush. Power cuts and shortages marked my visit and those who have been more recently suggest that travel permits are widely required. It is a beautiful and friendly country but not without troubles. I didn’t do it for you by Michala Wrong is a vivid and readable history.

Cableways are cool and Eritrea is a unique place.

The doomed ducks of the Tsiribinha River

This article originally appeared in Zine Magazine, translated into Norwegian.

Who would be a duck on a river safari in Madagascar?

Animal lovers, look away now.  The story I am about to tell you is a sad tale. As many of you will already know, once you get outside of Europe, North America and Australasia the world’s culinary tastes change quickly. Food becomes spicier and ingredients get more exotic. Unusual beasties get coated in batter and deep fried. Eating sometimes becomes less about fine dining and more about winning the battle of mind over stomach.

Not that any of this is usually a problem in Madagascar. Here you find the best possible colonial legacy: a fusion of French recipes combined with rich tropical flavours and a dash of Asian invention. The Malagasy people, after all, trace their roots to South-east Asia rather than Africa. Nowhere else on earth are fresh baguettes baked in straw-roofed huts in the shade of Baobab trees.

This wasn’t the only reason my wife and I had decided to come here on honeymoon. We’d long dreamed of visiting and with flights proving expensive and the world’s fourth largest island needing several weeks to see properly this seemed the perfect opportunity. While researching the trip we ended up, somewhat unusually for a honeymoon, throwing out any ideas of luxury resorts and opting to tackle one tough adventurous journey after another. My wife has yet to fully forgive me. A week in a five-star resort, however, would not have come close to being as memorable as what we ended up doing.

After a visit to the idyllic Ile aux Nattes, where during summer months you can stand on a golden beach and watch whales breaching from the shore, we flew back to the capital of Madagascar, Antananarivo. We took a bus on to the country town of Antsirabe, and then another on to Miandrivazo, a quiet riverside town. From here three-day rafting trips down the Tsiribinha River begin, passing through seriously remote areas, rural villages and troops of lemurs drinking at the waterside. Which all sounds very idyllic. It was, unless you were a duck.

Our party numbered six, twelve if you count our guide, cook, two paddlers and two random ladies who’d been invited along for the ride. In this way, Madagascar was very much like Africa. Our rafts groaned with our backpacks, people and supplies, and the low water meant that we kept getting grounded. It didn’t matter much, cruising on the river was serene, camping on the beach at night under an incredibly starry sky was a wonder and there were lots of lemurs and the odd crocodile to look at.

Unfortunately it soon became apparent that our guide had never organised a river trip before and had underestimated how long it was going to take and how much food we’d need. This information had not been received well. On the third morning, when it had just been announced that it was not to be our last morning and there was nothing for breakfast, I noticed something moving in our boat. I poked the object with my paddle. A duck poked his head above the pile of bags it appeared to have been snoozing under since we left Miandrivazo. This nice duck was not long for the world. In a bid to soothe the anger of a group of tired tourists who had not washed for the best part of a week and had just been told that not only were they late, but that they would not see several of the promised sunset at Baobab Alley at the end of the expedition, he was unceremoniously cooked up that night and served in a Canard du Tsiribinha stew. And jolly nice he was too. Sorry, Donald.

Desole, Donald

A day and a half later we limped into Morondava, way behind schedule, and sat down to what was probably the best meal of my life: chicken in a coconut sauce served with very French pomme frites. The next day my wife was taken ill with food poisoning, as were several other people on the trip. The duck, or possibly the river water used to cook him, had his revenge. The trip then went from bad to worse: our guide had offered by way of compensation to pay for us all to stay at a fine hotel in Morondava, which we had accepted. He had then, it seemed, skipped town without paying the bill. On a search for medicine for my wife in the back-streets of the town I bumped into him, and marched him back to the hotel to settle up, which he did under protest.

Baobab Alley near Morondava

We spent a few more days in town and moved on to elsewhere in Madagascar. We ate some more fine meals, saw many more lemurs including the Indri, the biggest of the lot, and even stayed in a top-end hotel or two. Madagascar remains one of my favourite places, but I tend to pass on the duck cooked in river-water stew.