Author Topic: The Depths of Africa: Something Fishy's Insane Off The Beaten Path Adventure  (Read 9590 times)

Offline Something Fishy

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Sao Tome
Part 3

Woke up on our second day in Sao Tome for more locals fishing for breakfast in the ocean below our cliffs:



Today we're heading all the way to the southern point of the island, through villages, jungle, and incredible landscapes.

Leaving town:





Washing machines? Yeah, nah. Not in Sao Tome.

Every river we passed was packed with women and girls doing laundry:











The rivers were also full of little boys running around wearing nothing more than their birthday suits, but I'll spare you those pictures.

A typical house around here:





Red-winged Bishop along the roadside:



Another river...





Collecting water at the communal tap:



Bringing dishes to be washed:



Further south, getting wilder and less inhabited:





One of the most famous landmarks in Sao Tome is Pico Co Grande, a 1275-foot tall thin volcanic plug pointing up needle-like from the surrounding jungle, often draped in mist:



As we were standing there waiting for the mist to lift a bit, a sudden flash of color caught my eye. I suspected I knew what it was, so I ran into the jungle on the side of the road to try to locate it again. After a merry chase, I was able to get a good look - and a good enough picture to confirm what I thought I saw:



Just a tiny, unassuming little bird, right?

Not so fast. This is a Sao Tome Weaver, and is endemic to this island - meaning it is found nowhere else on earth. When I saw it, less than 400 sightings have ever been recorded of this bird. For a B1RDNERDTM such as myself, this was an incredible treat.

Sao Tome, being an isolated island, has 19 endemic species - one of the most in the world. In fact, for its size, Sao Tome has the most endemics on earth. I ended up seeing 5 of those, which, considering I wasn't actually birding properly, made me more than happy.

Earlier that morning I had seen - but unfortunately not photographed - the endemic Sao Tome Sunbird. This ultra-rare bird has only been recorded 116 times!

Anyways, enough about birds.

Continuing on, Pico Co Grande popped out of the clouds for a moment:





Did you know that bananas grow upwards? I always imagined them hanging down as a bunch:



A pair of Common Waxbills:



We finally got to the bottom of the island, to the bustling metropolis of Porto Alegre. The entire "town" is a bunch of hovels grouped together on a small beach:



Traveling through Africa you'll notice two common types of people. In most places - especially in the cities and rural areas - pretty much everyone you see will be working and hustling. Farming, building, shlepping, selling all sorts of wares and trinkets. Even the cripples are dragging themselves around the streets begging industriously (this is not an exaggeration; seeing these guys is not something you forget easily).

On the other hand - and I've seen this the most around small towns - are the professional loafers. People sitting around all day, every day doing absolutely diddly squat. They sit by the dozens and by the hundreds. Sitting, sitting, and sitting.

Look at this picture: two dozen men (and a couple of children) doing absolutely nothing:



Now I'm not judging; in a town like this, in a country as poor and undeveloped as Sao Tome, there can't be too many great career opportunities. But the fact remains that this sort of scene is exceedingly common across Africa. And in many cases, these loafers loaf right next to people working hard. Just to the right of the above scene were a group of people working on fishing nets and preparing to head out to sea:





Not the most amazing of careers, but people working hard to better their lives a bit. And truthfully this is the case for the overwhelming majority of Africans, including here on Sao Tome.

So why are we at this God-forsaken little village in the first place? Because across a couple of miles of open ocean lies a miniscule island called Ilhu das Rolas, through which passes the equator.

Now let's find a boat to take us there!

Looks good enough to me:



Right away we say this wasn't going to be a picnic... as soon as we hit the open ocean the wind and waves kicked up and our tiny boat was kicked around by the tempest:



...And then our motor died.

After a few minutes of tinkering (which consisted mostly of pulling the starter cord and banging on the motor), it coughed back to life. Until it died again.

Waves, engine dead, banging, engine on, waves, engine dead again... over and over.

How did we feel about all this? Pretty good, actually. We knew exactly what we had signed up for and were getting it in droves. My friend literally pulled out a bottle of champagne from his backpack and popped it during one of our many unplanned stops in the middle of the ocean.

This boat was actually considered a "ferry", and so we had another passenger on board: a woman with an infant strapped to her back. Throughout the entire journey she didn't say a single word or show any expression. She just sat there quietly and took it all as it came.

Finally - miracle of miracles - we made it to dry land. Our co-passenger climbed out of the boat without a word, collected her belongings, and literally just strolled off into the bushes:



The state of the "town" on the island is indescribable. Just amazing that people live their whole lives in conditions like these:



Daily life:



The equator runs through the village, but there's a short hike to an overlook with an elaborate marker just on the other side of town.

In the jungle, locals were felling a tree with machetes:



The hike was maybe 10-15 minutes through the jungle, with no one but this 6" venomous Red-headed Centipede for company:



Location: equator!



Latitude 0.000000:







Our guide having fun:



As we prepared to leave, another endemic bird made an appearance - the Sao Tome Pigeon:



The return crossing was a lot better - our driver has evidently fixed the motor and the waves were quieter. Approaching the main island of Sao Tome we had good views of its smaller, lesser-known volcanic monolith, Pico Co Pequeno:



Approaching the town again:





At least the pigs are doing something...:



Heading north again:



One more view of Pico Co Grande, complete with an I♡NY t-shirt, of all things:



By the time we got back to our apartment it was time for a short rest and dinner, and a final look at the incredible views:









And then it was time to say goodbye to this incredible country.

The airport is shall we say, not the most modern:



We were off on TAP Portugal's flight to Lisbon via Ghana, but today we're actually getting off in Ghana.

The flight was short but they actually served a KSML - some weird flatbread and fruits:



We landed in Accra about 9:30pm, good and tired. But will Ghana allow us entry? All evidence showed that they will not.
« Last Edit: March 08, 2023, 02:51:24 PM by Something Fishy »
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Offline Moshe123

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wow!

Offline Yehoshua

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That looks like a cool place to visit, at least the equator part. However, I think I'll stick with the Ecuador spots if I want to go. That boat ride to get there is a hard pass for me.

Offline SuperFlyer

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Excellent TR is an understatement.
Based on the itinerary, I'd say it  is clear where you got your initials from... #LAWYER
Just as a side note, I had someone painting my place from Sao Tome, and I'd say his breath must have ranked 7th worst in the world... ...hopefully he was the ugly bird, and you didn't experience more of that. The turpentine smell kept me alive...
Awaiting the continuation of your story!

Offline srap

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Loooots of research, talking to guides and feeling them out, speaking to people who've been there, and a good dose of experience. I also rely on my gut to eliminate options - I have lots of red flag indicators. BH it's very rare that I have a guide I wouldn't be happy to use again.
Fascinating adventure! You are reawakening the travel bug in me.
What are just a few of the red flag indicators?

Offline Something Fishy

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That looks like a cool place to visit, at least the equator part. However, I think I'll stick with the Ecuador spots if I want to go. That boat ride to get there is a hard pass for me.

There are plenty of other places to visit the equator of course. But this was just such a crazy experience.
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Offline Dan

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There are plenty of other places to visit the equator of course. But this was just such a crazy experience.
When's the trip to Null Island?
Save your time, I don't answer PM. Post it in the forum and a dedicated DDF'er will get back to you as soon as possible.

Offline Something Fishy

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When's the trip to Null Island?

There's a limit to how far I'd travel in a boat like that lol
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Offline Traveler718

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Fascinating adventure! You are reawakening the travel bug in me.
What are just a few of the red flag indicators?

Apparently the lack of a reliable working motor to traverse an open body of water is not one of them. Imagine what the guys who didn't pass the test had to offer :)

Offline Something Fishy

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Ghana

Origin: a place nobody goes to #1.
Destination: a place nobody goes to #2.

Needless to say, getting from here to there was going to take a while.

The only place to go from Sao Tome with any hope of connecting to the rest of Africa was Accra, Ghana. But this was easier said than done: a visa to enter Ghana takes a few weeks to process, and according to their embassy U.S. citizens are not eligible for a visa on arrival. Considering that this whole trip was finalized only a week or two before departure, we knew that we will not be able to enter Ghana.

All this meant that our flight options were now severely restricted. The only flight from Sao Tome to Ghana was on TAP Portugal, so we had to connect to a Star Alliance partner in order to have or bags checked through - otherwise they'd be unloaded in Ghana and we'd be stuck on the wrong side of the border. Thankfully Star Alliance partner Ethiopian operates the biggest flight network in Africa, so we were able to book Sao Tome - Accra - Addis Ababa (their main hub) - Nairobi (the first country we can easily enter) on a single award ticket (34,500 miles if I remember correctly). Now our bags can be checked all the way through from Sao Tome to Nairobi, and we wouldn't have to enter Ghana.

The downside of all this was that we'd be arriving in Accra 9:30pm Wednesday night, and the first flight to Addis Ababa wasn't until 12:20pm the following day. Since we weren't able to enter Ghana, this meant a veeeeery long overnight stay in the airport. There were some great-looking 24-hour lounges available, so not the end of the world, but still far from ideal.

So..... it's Wednesday night, 9:30. We landed in Accra, take the turn for connections, and head for the lounge. Or not!

Leave it to West Africa to come up with this genius move: anyone whose connecting flight is not within 4 hours or so must wait in a transfer pen. You have a 14-hour layover? HAHAHA look what we have for you! A room about 30x30 feet, hard plastic chairs along the walls, no food or drink, and absolutely packed with humanity. People on every seat, people sleeping all over the floor, people standing in every available space, and people hanging from the rafters (okay that last one was not true).

We took one look at this room and NOPEd out of there faster than a deodorant salesman. I don't know how, but we're getting into this country and finding a normal place to sleep.

We turned around and headed for immigration.

"Visa?"
"Nope"
"Would you like to buy a visa on arrival?"

Wait, what?

"Hell yeah we would!"

At this point some dude walks over and says he can help us streamline everything. Normally I stay far away from offers like that, as more often than not these people accomplish nothing except getting a tip out of you. This guy however had an official airport ID stating "Joseph, Customer Liaison". Considering that the visa was just a small part of the picture here, and having enough experience with African bureaucracy I knew that he might prove to be valuable. In the end it took us over 3 hours (!!!) from this point till we were on our way, and he was worth every penny of the tip he got.

I quickly set about booking a place to sleep while Joseph began filling out our visa paperwork. We paid $100 each for the visa, got our receipt, and went back to the immigration counter.

"Do you have a Covid test?
"Sure, here's a PCR taken in Sao Tome yesterday."
"This is worthless. You must get an antigen test here."

This is gonna be fun.

Joseph leads the way to the testing area, and we each become $150 poorer, which I guess explains why the PCR tests were not good enough all of a sudden.

Now we just have to wait for the results. And wait. And wait. And waaaaait. Joseph goes back and forth, and finally succeeds in getting the results after shouting at a bunch of people.

Back to immigration, and finally get stamped in to Ghana. Mazel tov!



Remember how our bags were checked all the way through? Yeah..... Well, now that we're entering Ghana we kinda needed them. Off to baggage claim, wake up the napping agent, and explain that we need to pull our bags from the transfer pile. She clearly had no idea how to do any of this, and began stonewalling, Africa style: bureaucracy and paperwork. Joseph jumped in at this point and said cut the garbage, just take them to the back room so they can take whichever bags they need.

Now this was a language she understood, and so we were led into the bowels of the airport baggage area (which was actually quite fascinating, but I wasn't going to risk a Ghanaian prison by taking pictures). We grabbed what we needed, got through customs with no further drama, and were finally officially out of the airport - more than 3 hours after landing.

Throughout this entire time I was trying to make some plans - we may as well see a bit of the city now that we're in it. Joseph suggested a friend of his to be our driver during our stay, and we went with it. Again, not my typical style of doing things, but at this point I was beyond tuckered out (remember this is all coming after a crazy full day in Sao Tome) and convenience won out.

Joseph waited with us outside until his friend arrived, gave me his Whatsapp number in case I need any sort of help, and got his well-deserved tip.

I had booked a beautiful apartment for all of $60, and we could finally go to sleep. Here's the view out the window - no matter how nice the apartment is, Accra is still a pretty gnarly place:



After a great - but short - night's sleep, we were up fairly early; we only had a few hours and we wanted to explore a bit.

Morning views:





My friend had very much wanted to do a jungle walkway somewhere, but we couldn't fit it into our itinerary. This would be a perfect opportunity, and a quick Google search led me to Legon Botanical Gardens right in the middle of Accra, complete with a jungle canopy walkway.

Traffic in Accra is legendary, but we didn't mind; as long as we kept an eye on the time this was a great way to get a feel for the place.

Vendors selling all sorts of stuff in the middle of the road:





Some epic-looking scams being advertised here:





I had to come all the way to Africa to see some common sense about Covid:



Local transport:



If you ever need a toilet puller, I've got a guy for you:



I don't even know:



Botanical gardens entrance:




Rate sheet:



Fees not shown due to a lack of space:
  • Sitting in the shade - 10
  • Taking a cell phone picture - 15
  • Breathing heavily (per oxygen molecule)- 25
  • Using the bathroom - 25
  • Using a tree instead - 10
  • Getting pooped on by a bird - 50

For the record, 1 - or Ghanaian Cedi - is worth about 8 cents so the entrance fee was all of $1.22.

Also note not one but two signatures on the bottom. Without them the rate sheet is simply a useful piece of information. Now that it's signed - presumably by the garden's Superintendent and Long Dead Head Gardener (judging by the state of the place) - it's OFFICIAL and PAPERWORKY and a DOCUMENT and now everyone is happy.

After paying the entrance fee (nobody asked what we were planning on doing and so we avoided about 300 extra $0.13 charges) we went straight up:









And here you have it: a botanical garden, Ghana-style:



The gardens weren't lousy; they were simply absent. Nothing in that place could pass for a garden unless you were Helen Keller. However, the canopy walkway was fun and there were lots of birds about so we actually had a great time.

Dozens of Little and Cattle Egrets nesting:



Yellow-billed Shrike:



Splendid Sunbird:



A monitor lizard trying to steal some egret eggs:



After a while it was time to get back to the airport, which in contrast to last night was a complete non-event.

Off to Nairobi via Addis Ababa, and goodby to the West African coast!

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Offline EliJelly

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Having a ball reading these, keep'em coming!!

Offline Yehoshua

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Nice trip to Accra. Knowing now what you know about the city, would you do it again like that?

Offline SuperFlyer

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Amazing off course.

Offline Something Fishy

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Nice trip to Accra. Knowing now what you know about the city, would you do it again like that?

Certainly not. It was perfect for what it was - overnight and some 3 or 4 hours to do stuff. But Ghana has so many incredible things to do, I'd love to spend a good 3 days there at least one day.
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Offline Something Fishy

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Ethiopia and Kenya

After Ghana our next major stop was Malawi. To get there we flew Ethiopian to Addis Ababa and on to Nairobi, then switched to Kenya Airways for the final leg to Lilongwe, the capital of Malawi.

I've flown through Addis Ababa countless times by now and am still blown away that there is a full-fledged shul in the middle of an Ethiopian airport:



This was in November, but the shul was apparently still in kapporos mode:



After davening maariv in the shul we spent a short time in the lounge, and then on to the next leg to Nairobi. Since the last leg was on a seperate ticket (Kenya Airways is in SkyTeam, not Star Alliance), we had to enter Kenya to collect our bags and recheck them. We had a long enough layover, so it wasn't the end of the world (although we did need to pay $51 for a transit visa).

Entering Kenya, all hand baggage gets scanned at customs. I had known this before (I've been to Kenya in the past), but had forgotten that drones were extremely illegal in Kenya. As it turns out, one of the main reasons they x-ray hand baggage is to look for drones, and they quickly discovered mine.

And so I found myself at two in the morning sitting in a dingy customs office in Nairobi, trying to explain to the officers that I'm just in transit and they should stop dreying a kup. I finally convinced them to have a customs officer walk me to immigration with the drone and make sure I'm safely out of the country with it...

Good idea of course, but this is Africa! So there I sat for over an hour, while form after form after form was filled out. When they were done with the forms, out came a gemarah-sized ledger and the paperwork began all over again.

When they were finally satisfied (I think their pen must have run out of ink), I was escorted to check in and immigration and officially stamped out of the country along with my dangerous contraband. At least my escort had the benefit of skipping all the lines, so there was that.

Off on the final leg to Lilongwe, flying past Mt. Kilimanjaro:



Intra-Africa 2-hour flight, and a full Hermolis KSML. Very impressive:




Next stop: Malawi!
« Last Edit: March 12, 2023, 06:48:47 PM by Something Fishy »
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Offline Moshe123

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I love your writing style.
I have to root now for more travel mishaps. Lol

Offline Something Fishy

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I love your writing style.
I have to root now for more travel mishaps. Lol

ALOL thanks. I'll try for some more mishaps.
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Offline Lou Bob

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« Last Edit: March 12, 2023, 06:56:11 PM by Something Fishy »
Always use an Amex, you'll thank me one day.

Offline Dan

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Save your time, I don't answer PM. Post it in the forum and a dedicated DDF'er will get back to you as soon as possible.