Backpacking through Africa: Part III

Eastern Africa is a renowned tourist destination because of its famous game parks. You would think that cell phone coverage would be better there than in the rest of Africa. However, western Africa, with its lack of basic necessities, has better and faster data service. In spite of this, my iPhone remained invaluable during this part of the trip.

For example, at one point during a guided tour of the Serengeti, a guide delivered an improbable answer to a tourist's question, I googled the question, got the right answer, and corrected the guide before any lasting damage was done. The guide was somewhat annoyed with me, but he was more cautious with his wildlife explanations during the rest of the tour. I also found myself surfing the Web whenever there was a lull in the action: at the Baby Animal Sanctuary in Kenya, at Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe, and even during whitewater rafting on the Zambezi River. When faced with a choice between adrenalin and curiosity, I am afraid my nerd side often wins out.

Zanzibar: A tropical paradise

ZanzibarZanzibar is sometimes compared to the mythical Shangri-La. An island off the east coast of Africa, Zanzibar was previously a separate country but is now part of Tanzania. Patriarch of the "Spice Islands," Zanzibar's long history and rich culture reflects a sophistication not found in most of Sub-Sahara Africa. The people are of Arab, African, and Portuguese descent. Like all of colonized Africa, resentment towards perceived past transgressions by the occupying country runs deep. Zanzibarians seem to be embracing their history, though time there seems to be standing still. The locals seem satisfied, and what does "civilization" mean anyway?

Sunset on a tropical beach on the island of Zanzibar

For me, civilization in Zanzibar means 3G data service in Stone Town and Extended Service everywhere else.

Serengeti Plain and Ngorongoro Crater game reserves

Lion At NgorongoroTanzania is also the home of the legendary Serengeti Plain and Ngorongoro Crater, two of the most famous game reserves in the world. Here, big animals are plentiful and accustomed to not being hunted by humans. During a 24-hour period we sighted all of the "Big 5" wild animals: lion, leopard, rhino, water buffalo and elephant. It was indeed magical: our safari drove amongst immense herds of wildebeest on their annual migration. Lions, inured to our presence, walked nonchalantly next to our vehicles.

A Lion at the Ngorongoro crater preserve ignores the dominate primates

Wikipedia GiraffeThere was great Internet connectivity on the savannah, and Wikipedia Mobile (free; provided me with interesting information about the wildlife. For example, did you know that up to 94% of observed mounting incidents between giraffes took place between two males…, and at any given time one in twenty males were engaged … with another male?" The other members of our group received this bit of trivia with great skepticism, but I was able to show them the references on my iPhone.

Wikipedia Mobile gave me all sorts of information about Giraffes and their social habits.

MaasaiThe famous nomadic Maasai people live nearby. Always on the move herding their gaunt cattle, the Maasai cling tenaciously to their ancient customs yet still integrate into mainstream African society. They send their precious sons into the modern world to become doctors and accountants. When the young men return home they relinquish all evidence of Western influence and again don traditional attire. Maasai business acumen is legendary—they must be the wealthiest mud-and-stick hut dwelling people in the world.

The Maasai cling tenaciously to their ancient customs yet still integrate into mainstream African society.

Rwanda: Modern capital city with a dark past

The gracefully terraced hillsides lend a somewhat enigmatic air to the setting of the infamous Rwandan genocide that took place here in 1993. Nigau, the capital city, is modern, well-maintained, and bustling—which makes that nightmare scenario of the recent past even more terrifying. As if it was not poignant enough, at the provocative Genocide Memorial I used Wikipedia to find more information that further arrested my spirits. Human nature certainly has its dark side.

Mountain Gorillas: Up close and personal

Mountain GorillasAwaiting us was the perfect remedy to restore my good mood— our much-anticipated trek into Uganda, home to half of the world's remaining 700 Mountain Gorillas. From its border with Rwanda, we drove by minibus through beautifully terraced mountainsides, mist-filled valleys, and lush jungles on a dirt track too dangerous to be termed a road. We reached Camp Bwindi in the Impenetrable National Park where we joined up with two machine gun toting rangers, a porter, and our guide. We journeyed into the dense jungle expecting to hike for hours. Remarkably, within twenty minutes we came upon a group of eighteen gorillas, including the silverback and several playful young. The whole tribe came down from the trees to meet us. I was entranced but still able to make continuous iPhone GPS locks in the Maps app. In rapture, I thoroughly documented the experience with the Notes app.

We got up close and personal with a group of 18 Mountain Gorillas.

Listening to the classics with Speak it!

During the long days driving from one place to another, I thought it would be a good time to use my iPhone to listen to classic books from past masters. After investigating the available text-to-speech applications in the App Store, I found Speak it! ($1.99; It had excellent voice quality and the best computer generated British accent I have ever heard. Unfortunately, there was no pause feature in the app. You had to listen to the whole thing, which became rather tedious. I decided to send a quick note to the publisher using the iPhone App Store's "Report a Problem" feature. Within two weeks, there was a free update (V1.2.1) that added what I needed. How's that for listening to feedback! For the rest of the trip, I was able to catch up on some old classics—including Huckleberry Finn and Bleak House—oblivious to the passing time.

Biodiversity on Madagascar

MadagascarIf biodiversity and strange and wonderful creatures are what you are looking for, Madagascar is a better destination than the Galapagos Islands. It is home to 5 percent of the world's plant and animal species, and 80 percent of its creatures are found nowhere else in the world.

SMadagascar-lightly larger than France, Madagascar is one of the few places that boast jungles, deserts, white sand beaches, and volcanic mountains—all on the same island. It hasn't even been properly mapped yet. Important sections of the country are only connected via the national airline, Air Madagascar. But be patient— their planes leave when they want and arrive sometime after that. Madagascar is part of the African continent, but the Malagasies are ethnically Malaysian. With all the unique attractions, anthropologists and biologists alike should be flocking to Madagascar. It has everything the Galapagos Islands have plus good Extended Service for iPhone users.

80% of the species on Madagascar are found nowhere else in the world.

Ethiopia: Africa's Camelot

EthiopiaEthiopia shatters American stereotypes. Far from the desolate desert of starving refugees as portrayed on charity-centric television appeals, Ethiopia is one of the most modern, well run, comfortable countries in Africa. Addis Ababa, its capital, is home of the world's most famous anthropological artifact—our evolutionary progenitor, "Lucy." The local wine, Tej, is made from honey. Whereas many of the people in Africa wear old clothes donated from the West, the people of the Ono Valley still maintain their colorful and authentic native culture. In fact, the women dress like the old pictures in National Geographic magazine. Unfortunately, cell phone service is sporadic and data service non-existent, and locating your position via GPS is a bit haphazard. Finally, Ethiopia uses a different (13 month) calendar and has its own unique method of counting time (midday is at 6).

Ethiopia has a number of medieval castles that look like they belong in the English countryside.

Ethiopia is where the Emperor Haile Selassi (a.k.a., Ras Taferi) lived. He was the patron of the homonymously named Rastafarian cult, although a lot of the people in Ethiopia practice the Coptic Orthodox form of Christianity. This is an ancient sect whose practitioners wear headscarves and chant every morning over loudspeakers from spire-adorned churches that look much like mosques. Interestingly, the Coptic Church is several hundred years older than the Muslim religion. As you can see in their art and religious practices, the Copts, as they are called, seem to have not evolved much past the era of the crusades. Coptic monks live in cylindrical churches hidden away on isolated islands (where not even Extended Service is available). The country is also home to medieval Moslem castles that look like they belong in the English countryside. In fact, the Alem-Seghed Fasil complex in Gondar is colloquially known as "Africa's Camelot."

GPS Log Export to Google Earth

I was able to save our entire journey, including pictures and videos, from GPS Log ($9.99, free "Lite" version also available; using the "share" function, for a fly-by in Google Earth. In fact, several free updates of GPS Log came out while we were on the road, with general improvements to functionality and user interface (V2.2.1). I contacted its programmer, William Denniss, via the "Contact Support" button in the "Settings" menu of the app for help using the export functions. He responded immediately, even offering to create another release of the program to make things easier. Fortunately we were able to manage the massive amount of data I had accumulated using the current version of the app. You can use GPS Log to e-mail either GPX (log points only) or KML files (which includes photos, notes, and tags) to yourself and then put them somewhere on the Internet for others to open. To keep the e-mails manageable, I had the "Photo Size" set to "Medium." Even then, the file size was still many megabytes so I selected export ranges of log entries and sent them separately. Upon receipt of the e-mails on my laptop, I simply clicked on the attached ".kmz" file which launched Google Earth, clicked the Play button, and the journey replayed itself. (Unfortunately, Google Earth on my iPhone did not respond similarly when I clicked on the attachment.) With hundreds of GPS locations, thousands of pictures, and dozens of videos, the experience is like being there but without the diarrhea and bugs. You too can fly over our entire route in Google Earth on your laptop or PC by opening

Some of the best times of our lives!

Touring Africa while it is still wild is fantastically inspiring. The eight months we spent in Sub-Sahara Africa were some of the best times of our lives, and the iPhone made our journey even more enjoyable. As an infophile, constant access to the Internet is a must. Luckily, data service and even 3G are becoming prevalent throughout the so-called Dark Continent. If you are planning a trip to Africa to see firsthand how Tarzan lived, go there now—the asphalt laying machines were right on our tail.

My iPhone comes in handy among the lions In Tanzania, to learn about giraffes, and when face to face with Mountain Gorillas.
Sept/Oct 2010
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