Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Travels with my husband....

Mr Nielson, better known as Sid has asked me to arrange a holiday for the two of us.

He asks this of me with more then a little impatience, having spent years in resigned witness to my procrastinations.Mr Nielson, better known as Sid has suggested an adventure of an African kind and this gets me to thinking of our last sojourn into Africa which was very adventurous indeed...

In a strange way, those of us who live in the manicured suburbs of South African cities, exist in a kind of parallel universe. A twilight world of middle class oblivion. Just beyond the tidy streets and city lights are the townships and shanty towns that garland the city like an African crown. Sometimes visitors from abroad who join a township tour see more of the real face of our city then 'we' do.

Knowing how cordoned off my everyday life is from Africa-ness I felt a real sense of possibility as we boarded a plane bound for Tanzania; A great expectation that something beautiful and essentially African was about to be revealed.

We spent our first night in Arusha, amidst the verdant coffee fields, before boarding a small plane bound for the Serengeti but not before Sid had made enquiries about tanzanite: Those pesky little purpley blue stones so prized by tourists. In fact, before flying out to the great plains the next day, Sid visited the Arusha hotel to procure a few small beauties for his store back home!

We flew over quilted fields of cultivated flowers towards the great endless African savannah where we were met by our personal safari guide. This was Africa, rock-star style. A tented camp accomodating just twelve guests with a butler to each tent. Said tent,a swarthy linen affair complete with chandelier and en suite bathroom. When you wanted a shower, the butler was summoned to fill the 'bucket' system with boiling water.

At night you supped on elaborate and delectable cuisine beneath an impossibly starry sky, in the company of interesting people from all over the planet.

And the days... out there on the plains was an ancient, timeless spectacle of primal expanse. The tented camp is a mobile one that takes five days to erect, complete with flushable toilets. As the migrating herds move across the plains, the camp is lifted and moved every six weeks so carefully, as to leave nothing but flattened grass a s evidence of it ever having been there.

From our signature green cc africa landrovers we sat quietly enthralled by the extraordinary scale of the herds. Great parties of Wildebees and Zebra numbering in their tens of thousands surrounded the vehicle, magnificant in their eccentric partnership.

After the splendid winter rains the grass was tall and fortifying so that for the patient predators the herds grew fat and ready for the taking. It is a phenomonon perculiar to the serengeti that its lion population, apparently made uncomfortable by the early morning dew that deposits in the long grass, have taken to trees instead!

Like spoilt, rich kids they laze about in the accomodating acacia trees as if to the manor born. Sid and I watched in fascinated horror, as after an endless queue of buffalo had politely made their way past a tree of disdainful lion, one cat made its way down from the tree to take a closer look. And then, almost casually brought down one of the buffalo. The pride was still replete from an earlier feast so the successful hunter simply dropped her now lifeless prey, and ambled up the tree to rest before the next meal.

Our next destination was the Ngoragora crater. The lodge designed by Sylvio Rech and Lesley Carstens for cc Africa is a sensual,luxurious melange of African Baroque. There is an interplay of European gilded luxury alongside bold African craft and design. We were welcomed by an entourage of singing staff and even if it sometimes seemed a little theme-parkish, it is for the most part a quite extraordinary experience.

After a game drive in the somewhat zoo-like caldera, we return to find that a hot bath has been prepared by an ever-helpful butler, with rose petals scattered on the floor and floating in the bath. Candles shimmer and a fire burns brightly in the hearth! Romantic bliss.

On our return to Arusha, Mr Nielson better known as Sid once again went in search of Tanzanite. He discovered the Arusha cultural village, where the owner sold him a few well-priced little beauties. Sid could already visualize the gorgeous pendant he would create with a pair of matching ear-rings.

And so it was, that as we made our way to the airport to return home, Sid was happy in the foolish belief that his little holiday purchase would eventually finance what had been a wonderful vacation...

This was not to be. As we walked across the tarmac towards the waiting plane Sid was surrounded by a possey of suited, airport officials and his 'minerals' were confiscated. A permit costing $20 should have been purchased to allow them to leave Tanzania!

Sid called the owner of the Arusha cultural village from the plane, to inform him of our plight and was assured that tens of thousands of stones had been sold by him, over the years and a permit had never been a requisite.

We landed in Dar es Salaam where airport police boarded the plane and arrested my husband! I had to climb into the hull of the plane to retrieve our luggage. After several hours, during which a hand written statement was drawn up, we were transported to the Tanzanian Revenue Authority where we were asked to sign a confession declaring our attempt to 'export' minerals without a license! This offense was punishable with the confiscation of goods, a $5000 fine and/or up to five years in prison!

Naturally, Sid refused to sign the 'confession'.

And so with undue haste, Sid was incarcerated in a holding cell at the airport police station. It was by now, late at night. As I drove to the local Holiday Inn, along streets darkened by an electricity black out, the Muslim taxi driver gently comforted me, his weeping passenger.

At daybreak, I went in search of English speaking assistance and returned to the prison along with a prisoners take-away meal and an enthusiastic lawyer! After hours of African-style negotiation the officials stubbornly refused to release Sid, and insisted we return to the Moshi district for him to stand trial.

The following evening we flew to Moshi with our police escort, and were met at the airport by guards armed with automatic rifles. Once seated in the back of the open top, army Bedford I admonished the soldiers, requesting that they turn their rifles away from me. They assured me that the weapons were an ugly necessity on the Moshi highway, renown for its 'shootouts' with Bandits! Sid and I laughed and laughed until we cried at the utter absurdity of the situation.

It was like being in a B-grade movie, one that we hoped would have a happy ending.

Of course, (but only after a week of prison officials, expensive lawyers and a vain attempt to see Mount Kilimanjaro) it did! We returned home to our relieved family. Happier, wiser and without those troublesome Tanzanite!
Although Sid was given an absolute discharge and the court ordered the return of his stones, the TRA appealed for their confiscation. And so more then three years later we are still awaiting their rightful return.
As I plan our next trip, it is with the reassuring knowledge, that Mr Nielson better known as Sid will not be making any purchases this time, at all!