Video: kalimba player in Malawi

One thing that consistently amazes me while traveling in Africa is how the people are able to create musical instruments out of just about anything. Take the kora, for example. This West African stringed instrument is made from a gourd and fishing line.

Another popular instrument is the thumb piano, or “lamellophone” for all you musicologists out there. It’s a small wooden plate or box with strips of metal of different lengths on it. These are plucked with the thumb to make different notes. A bit of scrounging in any African town can get you the parts for a thumb piano in less than an hour. Because they’re light and easy to make, they are popular with the griots, Africa’s wandering troubadours. They’re also popular with kids because it’s easy to learn the basics.

The thumb piano is called different names by different people, like kalimba or mbira. In Ethiopia, where I saw them being played, the instrument is called a tom. I bought one for my kid when he was five and he loves it. In fact, it was the first instrument he learned how to play. Unlike the recorder, which he’s learning now in school, nobody taught him how to play the tom, he simply figured it out for himself, and that’s much more fun.

Check out this video of a kalimba player in Malawi, who’s so good a bird starts singing along with him! I’d love to know the words to his song.

New Book celebrates 10 years of the Tour d’Afrique

The Tour d'Afrique celebrates ten yearsThe Tour d’Afrique is a legendary cycling event that runs from Cairo to Cape Town on an annual basis. Covering more than 7500 miles, and requiring four months to complete, the Tour is a popular “bucket list” item for adventure travelers and cyclists the world over. This year, the Tour d’Afrique commemorates its tenth anniversary, and to celebrate, the company behind the epic event has released a fantastic coffee table book entitled 10: Celebrating Ten Years of the Tour d’Afrique Bicycle Race and Expedition.

The book begins with a forward written by Tour founder Henry Gold. A decade ago, when he first pitched the idea of a bike ride across Africa, Gold was met with skepticism to say the least. Many thought that it simply wasn’t possible for an event like this one to exist and he was regularly told he was crazy for even considering it. Ten year later, Gold has turned his idea into a yearly event, and his adventure travel company produces similar cycling tours in a host of other locations across the globe.

10 is filled with stories from the road, as riders share tales, quotes, and anecdotes of their own experiences from the Tour. For some, it was a life altering experience for others an adventure of a lifetime, but no one who has taken part in the journey has come away unchanged. Their words are likely to inspire readers to want to join Tour as well, and even if you haven’t been on a bike in years, you may find yourself dreaming of pedaling under African skies. The book doesn’t try to hide the challenges of the ride, which range from oppressive heat to unexpected downpours, not to mention ever changing road conditions, but the amazing beauty of Africa and the camaraderie that is formed amongst the riders, will have a universal appeal all the same.

If the words of the riders don’t inspire you than perhaps the amazing photographs contained in this book will. 10 is a visual love letter to cycling, adventure travel, and most importantly, Africa itself. The 252 page volume is packed with breathtaking images that have been compiled over the past decade and capture the spirit of the Tour very well. Not only do those photos show the day-to-day experiences of the ride, but they also manage to convey a sense of wonder at the countries and environments that the riders pass through, as well as the people that live there.

If you have a cyclist or adventure traveler on your holiday shopping list, than this book is sure to be a hit. Just be warned, after reading it, they may feel compelled to join the ride themselves. Africa is most definitely calling.

Enter the Put Foot Rally for an African road trip adventure

The Put Foot Rally promises to be quite an African adventureAdventurous travelers looking for a unique road trip this summer may want to checkout the Put Foot Rally, which is scheduled to get underway in June. The event begins in South Africa and promises to send teams on a 7000km (4350 mile) long odyssey through the wilds of Africa.

The 17-day rally will kick off at two separate starting lines, one in Cape Town and the other in Johannesburg. Once underway, competitors will navigate on their own, and are free to take any path they like, but are required to reach certain checkpoints along the way by certain times. For instance, the first checkpoint is located at the Andersson Gate, just outside Etosha Park in Namibia. How you manage to find your way to that destination is entirely up to you, but you’ll certainly want to get there on time, as each of the checkpoints will play host to a party as well.

Subsequent CP’s will be located on the Okavango Delta in Botwsana, in Livingstone, Zambia, and on the edge of Lake Malawi in Malawi. From there it is on to Inhambane in Mozambique before proceeding on to the finish line in Swaziland. All told, counting the starting and finish line, there are seven checkpoints, and seven parties, in all.

The Put Foot is accepting just 50 crews for the inaugural 2011 rally, and as of this writing they are about halfway to filling that quota. A crew can consist of as many people as you want, but they all have to fit inside one vehicle. Speaking of which, you can also drive any type of car, truck, or SUV you want, as long as it gets you to the checkpoints on time. You can even elect to ride on a motorcycle if you prefer. Organizers of the rally estimate that about 95% of the route can be done on paved roads, which means a 4×4 isn’t necessary to compete. But part of the fun will no doubt be getting off the beaten path and finding interesting ways to reach the checkpoints. Just don’t take a wrong turn and end up in a country you weren’t expecting!
While the rally is going to be great fun, and will certainly provide plenty of opportunities for amazing travel experiences, it isn’t being run just for the adventure. The Put Foot Rally organizers have joined forces with the Bobs For Good Foundation to raise funds and awareness of that charity, which focuses on providing shoes for underprivileged African children. Many of those children might not ever own any kind of footwear under normal circumstances.

If you’d like to put your own crew together and enter the Put Foot Rally, you can register for the event, which gets underway on June 22nd, by clicking here. Be warned though, this is no organized jaunt down the well marked highway. It is instead a self guided safari through some of the wildest places in Africa, and if you’re not prepared for the challenges you could find yourself in real trouble. That said however, if this sounds like your kind of adventure, the rewards could be amazing as well.

Personally, I think Team Gadling would rock this rally!

American explorer to cross Africa on foot

Explorer Julian Monroe Fisher will cross Africa on footAnthropologist, explorer, and member of the Royal Geographical Society Julian Monroe Fisher is preparing for an epic expedition that will see him cross Africa completely on foot. The journey, which is set to begin this spring, will cover more than 4000 miles, crossing the continent east to west, in an effort to raise awareness of the Mines Advisory Group (MAG), an organization dedicated to removing land mines and other small arms from countries that were formerly plagued with conflict.

Julian’s adventure will get underway on April 26th of this year, when he sets out from the town of Pemba, located on the coast of Mozambique. From there, he’ll begin traveling west, crossing through miles of difficult and varying African terrain, before eventually ending in Lobito, Angola, which falls along that country’s Atlantic coast. Along the way, he’ll pass through the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Zambia, and Malawi as well.

No stranger to long distance travel, Monroe spent much of his time on the road between 1996 and 2003, crossing through more than 90 countries on five different continents. He has written two books about his travels and was an early adopter when it came to writing about his adventures on the web as well. Last year, he even opened an anthropological research station in the Bunkeye Cultural Village, located in the DRC, which this expedition will help raise funds for too.

This 4000 mile journey is sure to be an amazing adventure to follow, and Julian will be posting updates to his Facebook page along the way. But what he really hopes to do is draw attention to the amazing work that MAG is doing in countries across the planet in helping them to remove old land mines, un-exploded missiles, mortars, grenades, and other small arms that have been left behind following a major conflict. The organization operates throughout Africa and South East Asia, where it saves lives and limbs simply by doing away with old weapons that still litter the landscape.

For me personally, Africa remains my favorite destination, and traveling on foot is truly a unique way to see the continent and interact with its people. I’m sure that this will be quite the adventure when Julian and his team get underway in a few months time.

Malawi to ban farting?

malawi ban farting

Malawi doesn’t make it into the news often. The relatively small southeastern African country, close to Honduras in size, has a population of around 15 million. According to the International Monetary Fund and the CIA World Factbook, Malawi is one of the world’s five poorest countries in terms of per capita income.

All that should change for the next week or so, however, due to the ban on farting currently under debate in the country. Yes, you read that correctly, and I’ll repeat. The adoption of a bill prohibiting farting is under consideration in Malawi.

Or is it? There seems to be some disagreement over what the bill would actually prohibit. The BBC reported this morning on a feud between two government officials over the bill, which would aim to turn pollution of the atmosphere “in any place so as to make it noxious to the public” into a misdemeanor. Justice Minister George Chaponda has interpreted the bill to extend to farting, while Solicitor General Anthony Kamanga insists that it should be interpreted as referring exclusively to pollution.

It would be a shame if this scuffle were to derail Malawi’s growth as a destination for tourists. The country’s profile as a tourist destination is currently rising and it’s not difficult to understand why. Malawi boasts beach lodges along Lake Malawi and national parks teeming with wildlife, with Liwonde National Park in the south of the country and Nyika National Park in the north particularly noteworthy.
[Image: Flickr | frankdouwes]