To DIY Travel or to Not DIY?

There is a definite superiority complex out there for some travellers who enjoy DIY travel. Sometimes DIY travel is lumped in with the vague “authentic travel“, where only the purest, “untouched” places are worth travelling to and there is no chance that could be achieved on an organized tour. Whether or not any of that is true, we’ve all met that bragging backpacker who travels so much better than you because he does it all on his own and only visits “authentic” places.

Back from Canada, eh? photo credit: Pinterest

While our personal preference is to organize most of our travel ourselves, Philip and I have dabbled in organized tours as well.

My last post touched on a cautionary tale for letting go of the reigns when travel planning. Philip and I had a lacklustre, yet very physically demanding experience in the Rwenzori Mountains because we deferred the planning of that part of our trip to a third party, Amagara Tours. We agreed that if we could do it over again, we would research the different hikes in the area and choose which outfitter we would like to use and then pass those preferences on to the organizer. That being said, we do not regret partnering with Amagara for part of our 5 week East African adventure for a number of reasons.

First, while researching options for gorilla tracking in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, we found that they offered the most affordable option. For less than $1000 USD (as of July 2014), you can do a 3-day gorilla safari including transfers from Entebbe or Kampala to Bwindi and 2 nights at the beautiful Byoona Amagara lodge on the superlative Lake Bunyonyi. Keeping in mind that the permit for gorilla tracking alone is $600 USD, this is an incredible deal, so booking with them was an easy choice. They were also very well-reviewed so we decided to reach out to them for planning some of our other activities in Uganda. Our itinerary was certainly ambitious, and Uganda doesn’t always have the best infrastructure for getting around, so having a driver for 11 days helped us make the most of our time there, all for a fraction of the price charged by other tour operators.

*Ugh, Lake Bunyonyi is the worst.
*Denotes sarcasm font.

Second, our driver was also our guide and friend. Bosco explained the local culture to us, had incredible knowledge about the plants and animals we saw along the way and we developed a rapport that made the trip both enjoyable and memorable. He identified birds, found us lions in Murchison Falls National Park and when we grew tired of being dropped off at overpriced tourist traps for lunch, he found us some barbecued pork and fried plantains to mix things up.

Bosco waves at us while we finish our hike in Murchison Falls National Park. 

Third, Amagara has a well-established repertoire of environmentally friendly, community-driven lodging that it uses when booking. Some of which, we likely wouldn’t have found ourselves. Their most famous is without a doubt Byoona Amagara, but we also loved staying at the Boomu Women’s Group Camp near Murchison Falls National Park, Fort Murchison on the other side of the park, Ruboni Camp by the Rwenzoris, and Eagle’s Nest near Lake Mburo National Park which offered incredible views.

View overlooking Lake Mburo National Park from our room at Eagle’s Nest

In the end, we were able to enjoy a jam-packed itinerary that had us moving all over Uganda while enjoying the relative comfort of travelling in a private vehicle versus one of Uganda’s notoriously unreliable coach buses or cramped and sweaty matataus that only leave when impossibly full. We would experience all of those in Uganda; no trip to Uganda would be complete with out it after all, but for those 11 days, we rolled in what we considered style.

Matatau riding, not so much in style. 

That being said, we are not likely to switch over completely to organized tours. There’s a certain satisfaction to be found in arriving somewhere yourself, even if it’s by matatau.  But organized tours do have their time and place, and can be an affordable, efficient way to make amazing memories.

Off the Beaten Track: Coconuts and Cycling in Zanzibar

“All journeys have secret destinations of which the traveller is unaware.” – Martin Buber

Travellers know this to be true: there is a special type of satisfaction that comes with feeling like you’ve “discovered” something. Zanzibar is famous for white sand beaches, calm clear waters featuring fishing boats with romantic white sales, and a lush countryside ripe for growing fragrant spices.

*Swoon*

Many tourists come to this idyllic island to lounge on the beach sipping cocktails and spend their evenings dancing in night clubs. Given my extreme susceptibility to sunburns and inability to sit still for too long, I have never been very fond of lounging on the beach. So I was excited to learn while researching things to do that a lesser known attraction to add to Zanzibar’s magnificence is cycling.

Philip and I attempted to contact a cycling tour operator in Nungwi that we heard about on Trip Advisor prior to leaving Canada, but weren’t able to firm anything up. When we asked for information, the company rep mailed us a brochure and told us to come find them. Once we arrived, we attempted to call the number on the brochure but it was disconnected. We were starting to feel like our cycle trip may not happen. 
Luckily for us, Nungwi is a small enough town that we very quickly got our bearings and went toward the turtle aquarium to try to set up a ride. We had read that the cycling tour operator was located there, so that’s all we were going on. Once there, the ticket window attendant seemed confused when we asked about bikes. He checked with his friend, who checked with a friend while we waited for a long time, as it often goes when travelling in East Africa. Eventually someone began leading us toward a small shop back on the beach. The shop sold fair trade items but didn’t seem to say anything about cycling, so we would never have found it on our own. There we met Machano, who would become our guide for the afternoon. He provided an overview of the tour and had us pick out our bikes. 
The bikes were in better shape than other bikes I have ridden, but still could have used a good tune up and the selection of helmets was almost comical. I chose a pink, child size beauty while Philip got something a little more subdued, and Machano rocked a camo helmet. We took off through the village toward our first destination: a cave with “crystals” in it. 
Meandering through the village provided a much different perspective than Nungwi’s beach front which is developed for tourism. Villagers were going about their business uninterested in our passing through, except for the children who ran behind us singing “jambo muzungu!” as if we were celebrities. 
Eventually, we ended up on the same narrow highway that we had rode in a taxi to Nungwi from Stonetown a few days earlier. I had to chuckle to myself a bit because Philip had remarked, “can you imagine cycling along this road?” and now we were.

We definitely thought this through
After a short but tense ride along the highway, we turned off onto a road that seemed like little more than two tracks in the dirt. I began to have difficulty keeping the bike upright and eventually it tipped over to one side. Machano seemed worried so he advised us to leave the bikes where they were and continue to the cave on foot. After a brief jaunt walking with our bikes, we were at the mouth of the cave which our guide said had only been opened to people the year before. Two men were waiting for us with flashlights, as well as two teenage boys in their school uniforms. Together, our expanding posse continued into the cave. Our guide pointed out certain features and some lovely spiders, while the more outgoing of the teenage boys practised his English with me. We walked a short distance underground and made it to this strange “crystal” that was in the cave near its exit.

I asked Machano if he knew what the crystal was made of, but he said he didn’t and was hoping to get a geologist in sometime to confirm. For now, all he could say was it was probably some kind of stalactite. 
From the cave, we worked up quite a sweat while heading to little village to see a blacksmith. After trying the bellows and learning how the men melt down the metal to make the nails for the iconic fishing ships that pepper the coastline, we asked cautiously if we could have a fresh coconut to drink. 
Trying out the bellows while the pros look on. 
We were visiting Zanzibar during the month of Ramadan.Given that Nungwi caters to tourists, it hadn’t really affected us until then. Now in this small village, we knew we should ask permission to eat or drink  in front of others. Machano interpreted for us and the villagers said it was fine. So fine, that pretty much before I finished the word coconut, a young boy was halfway up a tree. 
He made it look so easy
He began throwing down coconuts for us when the blacksmiths started yelling at him and some villagers joined in too. We thought maybe we had been out of line by asking for a coconut but Machano told us they were telling him that he was picking the wrong ones. Eventually it became so heated, that another lad ran up a different tree and threw a few more down from there. Once the villagers had decided on which two coconuts were the best, they hacked them open for us and let us have the freshest, most satisfying coconut ever. This ended up being our favourite part of the day. No one seemed to mind us eating and drinking except a little girl who told our guide that she wasn’t Muslim so she could have some coconut too which made him laugh out loud. We all admired her courage though.

Again the village kids made us feel like celebrities by running behind us repeating “bye bye” and jambo” over and over until we reached the highway. Then we peddled to the last site on our tour, some Portuguese ruins and an inland salt water cave. It took me a bit of courage to jump in the water but I was glad I did. The water was cool enough to leave us refreshed for our approximately 8km ride back to town.

After dropping off our bikes,we walked back along the beach instead of taking the same way and enjoyed a quiet section of the beach, bathed in golden twilight, where I was able to take this incredible shot of some village boys playing football between the boats.

National Geographic feel free to contact me about this.

Cycling through the villages ended up being one of our favourite experiences in Zanzibar and we were eager to promote the excursion to other travellers we would meet afterwards. We also still chuckle about the villager’s enthusiasm toward selecting the best coconuts too.

A few months after our visit as I write this, it appears that Zanzibar Cycling Adventures is who guided our cycling tour and the company has since improved their web presence. It looks like a lot of people have been enjoying cycle tours with them since our passing through, which is fantastic as they are a great tour operator, and we are glad to see their business grow. Zanzibar is indeed so much more than a beach and we were happy to discover that for ourselves.