Zambia was what I was looking for in Africa. A red soil dotted with dry thorny trees, acacias and baobabs, where animals roamed freely. Birdsong filled the trees. Women wore their hair in elaborate braids swirling around their heads making them look regal. Taxis came in every make and model of car, their unifying characteristic a secondary aqua blue paint job. Monkeys were everywhere. Baboons hitchhiked on cargo trucks and scampered around in the streets like comedic vagabonds. The gray vervet monkeys with their quizzical eyes and pointed moustaches approached fearlessly stealing food, shoes and other unattended items from inattentive owners.
A country known in the western world for having one of the most horrible genocides in recent history blew my expectations out of the water with its beauty, cleanliness and infrastructure. Plastic bags, the long-lasting litter of the ‘third world’—and much of the ‘first world’ as well—have been outlawed in Rwanda. Plain and simple: plastic bags are illegal. In the city and along the country roadways the ground is free of the heaps of trash so commonly seen littering the landscape.
In the heart of the Kalahari Desert live a small, strong people with slanted eyes, wide noses and caramel skin. Their slender bodies are adapted to moving through this arid yellow land. Women gather nuts, fruits and roots, knowing what each plant has to offer: food, medicine, dye, building material. The men hunt, mostly antelope, with poison arrows in multiple day pursuits: stocking the animal until they are close enough to shoot, then running after it as it flees, arrow lodged in its body, for days until finally the poison sets in, slows the animal and it can be sacrificed.
We arrived with a big swell that had the surf town buzzing with excitement. As a cherry on top, offshore winds were also predicted for the entire swell.
The drive from Cape Town to Wilderness took us through beautiful countryside that resembled a cross between California’s 101 and red rock country; wine lands and red mountains. We stopped along the coast for Dave to surf a picturesque right point break called Mossel Bay.
Doha is a dusty city, monotonous and tan. Our taxi driver tells us that the downtown, across the bay has all been built in the last two years. After sleeping in the lobby for an hour we get into our hotel room and sleep for another half hour before our desert tour picks us up.
I could not have asked for a better day to celebrate turning 26. I received the best birthday present I could have asked for: Duct Tape. The fiber optic cable connector for my strobe arrived faulty so I have been unable to use the brand new strobe I got for the trip. Over delicious cinnamon ice coffee and a banana pancake, I was able to jerry rig the fiber optic cable to the camera housing with duct tape.
Off southeastern Bali lie the small islands of Nusa Lembongan and Nusa Ceningan and their much larger neighbor Nusa Penida whose landmass is bigger than the bukit peninsula off southern Bali. We are staying in the town of Jungutbatu on the western side of Nusa Lembongan in a villa right on the water and directly in front of two beautiful waves: Shipwrecks and Lacerations.
Most of the local people are sea weed farmers. Roughly three inch thick branches are sharpened on one side by hand and stuck into the sand in the shallows inside the barrier reef. Two parallel lines of these branches are set out with rope hanging in between for the seaweed to grow on. These dark rectangular plots make a patch work in all the inland waters and shallow protected coastal areas. The locals go out at low tide to harvest the sea weed, plant more and maintain the plots. They push motorless boats along with long poles, gather sea weed in vast baskets and in the bottom of their slender boats. When the tide gets exceedingly low the area inside the outer reef looks more like an agricultural field than a beach.
Imagine a flat, green island ringed by white sand beaches with views of blue mountains across the water. A warm, clear sea laps quietly at the sand, its color ever changing from aquamarine to deep turquoise with the light. Beneath the waters lay outcrops of sea grass waving gently in the shallows, and mounding stoney corals swarming with vividly colored fish. Narrow walking paths criss-cross the island and intersect with a circular one that outlines the circumference and takes a mere 90 minutes to walk at a leisurely pace. Most everyone walks. The only ‘vehicles’ are carts painted bright blue and pulled by small horses.
Dynamite fishing has been a problem in the Gili Islands and the evidence underwater is overwhelming. Huge sections of the reef turned to vast graveyards of shattered corals, virtually absent of life. Pocketed amongst these battle zones are rare oasis of corals that were missed by the bombing.
We took a taxi to Padang Bai, where we boarded a boat that brought us across the channel between Bali and Lombok over to the Gili Islands. Off the north west coast of Lombok lie three tiny dots of islands known for good diving, beautiful beaches and a wonderful atmosphere—the Gilis. Each of these islands is supposed to have its own ambiance, Gili Trawangan is the party island, Gili Meno is the locals island and Gili Air is the romantic quiet island. We had heard about the surf of Gili T so naturally that’s where Dave wanted to go.
The boat ride skirted the beautiful Bali coast, crossed the channel and pulled up along the equally beautiful coast of Lombok then over to Gili Air. As we pulled towards the white sands of Gili Air, a wave and a few surfers caught Dave’s eye.
“Honey look.” The swell was down so we weren’t expecting to find waves on Gili T.
“Should we get off here? Does the wave look like something you’d want to surf?”
It did, so we made the instantaneous decision to jump off the boat.
In their journeys, from rugged slopes to the salty embrace of the sea, rivers pass through dense forests, narrow canyons, open plains with long vistas. Riding on their waters can bring you into an otherwise inaccessible landscape, into the thickest forests, through tall walled gorges filled by rushing water, and let you pass unnoticed by the banks where wildlife come to drink. Add to this the thrill of a turbulent ride and the exhilaration of navigating rapids, and you have my love of river-rafting. And so, in the crowded heat, laying under a ceiling fan, I signed Dave and me up for a white water rafting trip down the Ayung River.
Uluwatu is a truly special place. The volcanic cliffs in this area are tall, and entrances to the beaches below are through steep slots in the rock. It was low tide during our first trip down to the beach at Uluwatu. We took a series of steep stairs down the cliff, between rocks that are flooded sea caves at a higher tide, out onto a small section of sand, beyond which stretched the reef, now partially exposed by the tide. The reef at low tide sectioned off various pools in which children splashed and adults waded. Beyond the pools, lay the reef crest and then the waves. Big beautiful lefts traced the edge of the reef, peeling along perfectly. Dave was enthralled, like a kid in a candy shop.
We hiked up the stairs. The path took us through the town of Uluwatu—shops of collaged materials are tucked on top of one another along the cliff face. Tourist souvenirs, surfboard rentals, cafés, laundry, mini markets and a place advertising showers and a toilet. Narrow footpaths make their way between the shops and up the cliff.
At the top of Uluwatu village lays perhaps the most beautiful ocean vista I have ever seen. The cliff point in the distance is covered in lush green vegetation, and gives way to a vertical black face. Below is a series of waves. The lone left in the distance, nearly inaccessible, peels perfectly along the point. A series of reef breaks fire off in between the far point and Uluwatu, which is below us. Ulus is big and practically perfect, the type of wave you become mesmerized watching.
We had dinner at our new favorite restaurant, Single Fin. Fins is at the edge of the top of the cliff. From the balcony you can watch the waves from the far point and see Ulus wrap around the point below. We dinned, drank unbelievable fresh juices and watched the sun set on the day, leaving the clouds first yellow then pink.