WE ARE THE WOMEN WHO TRAVEL TO AFRICA (11) FINAL by Mariam Harraz

Booking Rwanda was stressful, especially that I didn't know the length of my stay or how I was going to get to Uganda but I was determined. I hoped to continue my travels by road but unfortunately it was more complicated then that and so i booked a flight. I booked to stay at an art gallery, the walls covered with stories of the artists and a view I couldn't resist, it could also possibly be a way to meet people.

I arrived at 12am at the Kigali airport and I was greeted by a driver the owner of the flat sent. I didn't know what to make out of it except it was an act of kindness, they waited up for me to open the gates and show me around. 

The first thing I noticed when I got to the airport was how developed Rwanda was compared to all the countries we've been through. The roads were so sleek and so modern, the buildings were beautiful, it was extremely clean but also deadly quiet. But most importantly the street lights and traffic lights were working.

As I got out the taxi and put my backpack on I struggled to not fall down considering I couldn't see anything, I waved goodbye at the driver and said hello to my two new friends: a Rwandan guy named JMV and a Canadian women named Ivy, I didn't know how to react so I said hello and as soon as they showed me my bedroom and how to lock the doors I did exactly that, dumped my bag and went to sleep.

I thanked god I no longer had to wake up at 5am but that didn't make a difference I woke up starving for food as well as adventure, I got ready and rushed out to see if anyone was in the gallery I could potentially befriend. I then bumped into Ivy and asked her for advice. 

My dad has been to Rwanda before me and told me many times how much I would fall for it, the first day there and I was curious to go visit the memorial he warned me against, saying it's very emotional and painful to see, but I've already read plenty and knew the consequences. 

Now that I was alone I also had the adventure of getting from place to place and so it began I walked out the gallery to find a 'boda' (a taxi motorbike) The name boda boda was derived from when the border between Rwanda and Uganda was closed, passengers could only take buses to the border and then take a motorbike all the way to the bus stop to where they headed. So the name defined from border to border.

The only two languages I know were English and Arabic so I had to make use with it, but one word I knew was "WAPIIII" (it is said whilst you do flying hand gestures)  and I used it as soon as the boda driver gave me a ridiculous price to go to the memorial even though he was judging me in every way possible whilst haggling he laughed and said alright come on. Waaaapiii said in a loud and humouring way means no in Rwandan slang.

My first experience on a boda in Kigali - also named as the city of a thousand hills was compelling, as we drove up and down and my heart skipped a beat or two every time the driver turned sideways or just missed a car, I still felt free as I have ever been, powerful in a sense that I was alone, I was travelling and I was on a back off a bike in less then 12 hours of being in Kigali.

The memorial was no doubt just as my father and many Google reviews have said, aching yet enlivening how they've moved on , a subject that is no longer been spoken about due to how recent it is and how much it has affected this generation.

My parents always told me how important it was to be able to spend time by yourself, "you have to love your own company to love being around others." And they were right, I learnt it when I first moved to London and till this very day it stuck with me, as I went around the city and spent my lunches companionless and delving into the city by myself I was fulfilled. 

Rwanda's art scene was blooming, recently they've opened many galleries and as I went to visit the best rated gallery in the city, I was guided around by one of the co owners and right before I left I could see in the corner of my eyes a group of girls and guys chatting to the owner, I thought to myself "God I don't know how to do this! How do I talk to people I've forgotten!" And decided to act like I'm taking photographs for a while till I build the courage to talk to someone. Luckily a girl named Sarah came right then and introduced herself, we got talking and before you knew it we were going to meet for coffee in a bit, so I anxiously sat in the cafe facing many hills and greenery pretending to write my very overdue diary until they came. I think I am probably the most socially awkward person to exist.

They were amazing we chatted for ages and laughed and I didn't feel like I wasn't part of their group even for a second and the trip in Kigali continued to be like that, I engaged with the Rwandans and their culture more than any country I have been to yet. I was surrounded by people who have gone through so much and use art to express it. It was astounding, I couldn't see past their peaceful and open hearts and most importantly they saw past my headscarf.

And so it was time to say goodbye and get on a 14 hour bus ride to Uganda on an East African bus company which I would suggest to every sane person out there NEVER to do. When I was buying my ticket the man asked me if I wanted to pay 5 more dollars to be seated in the VIP section. You know what the difference was he said? "Madam you will be able to breathe" how lucky am I that I had that extra 5 dollars to be able to breathe on a 14 hour bus ride.

We picked up strangers and we dropped of strangers, we stopped when the bus broke down and continued even though there was a horrible smell. We watched African TV series and tried to sleep to raggae music blasting through the speakers. We raced with other buses and almost killed a few kids playing on the street (no joke) we drove on the wrong side of the road three quarters of the time and waved at the police when speeding. It was a nightmare as well as an perspicacity into their lives I will never forget. Sorry mama and baba you had to hear the truth through here.

Yet I loved every bit of it, Ugandans were nuts, literally insane, their energy blasting through the streets rubbed off on me.

A good friend of mine was taking care of me there, his family opened their arms as if I was one of their own, his dad boasting told everyone I was his daughter, and provided me with a real Ugandan experience. 

Hot full fresh cow milk with toast every morning for breakfast - the breakfast of men, it without a doubt made my stomach upset. I had to put so much sugar and chocolate powder to make it taste ok but it made us stronger and bigger (hopefully not if you have it only for 8 days.)

My friends family owned a farm and one day we headed there to pick up mangoes and fruits, we got stopped by a couple of police men asking so casually "do you have anything for us today?" I didn't pick up but David answered "no not today" the man then answered so casually saying "well tell the madam we're expecting something soon" and all of a sudden I was reminded by the corrupt government in a country I have fallen for.

But my last day was soon approaching and my trip had to end with a boda boda tour, the best way to venture around Kampala. In six hours I saw Kampala from the apical of Gadafi mosque that has provided Muslims a place to pray, I ate a Rolex; a meal that keeps the working men going, we drove through Nakasero where I discovered that grass hoppers being eaten alive is a luxury and saw Amin's dungeon that once murdered thousands and thousands by locking them up in a dungeon that had no ventilators and caused them to suffocate to death. 

My heart ached every time I thought of going back home, I didn't want to leave, I connected so well with Africa and I was worried because I didn't have that with home. 

And whilst I waited at the airport for my extremely delayed flight back home, I looked back on who I was before this trip, and I patted myself on my back "I survived and I even continued" a place I never imagined I could tackle and come out of it, I thought it would swallow me and my parents would have to come pick me up. I remember leaving and panicking about insects and all the silly stuff which was once the very reason I was struggling to make a decision. I dealt with it all and I experienced it all: loosing my pillow a week in my trip and sleeping without one for 33 days was hell but I got through it, a millipede walked on me with its countless tiny legs whilst squashed in a tent - I got through it, my last pair of clean clothes soaked in the rain because we had to move our tents so it doesn't flood - I got through it whilst wearing my pyjama and colours no one should ever combine, Buffaloes within metres - I got through it, envying my friends wearing shorts and shirts whilst I wore full sleeves and trousers and a scarf in high heat and humidity - I got through it. Walking at night in the wild pitch black to the toilets and praying to God nothing comes at me - I got through it. Being so dirty to the extent that your feet and hands were black and wouldn't come off even when showering and scrubbing - I got through it. I sky dived, I swam in the largest waterfall in the world, I slept under the stars, I camped for 40 days and I endured 40 days of driving from one end of Africa to the other. 

I was proud that the very reasons that once stopped me, I conquered them even if I was crying or laughing or saying the shahdah under my breathe at times, I made it. 

Suddenly my heart was at ease, if I could do this then I can now go back and fight for a place in the documentary world, a world I thought I would never make it in because of my fears. I left with a heart of steal, a thousand tales and a mind blossoming with ideas. 

I never knew I had it in me but one thing you should know: We all have it in us. 

For the Arabic version: 

http://www.huffpostarabi.com/mariam-harraz/-_5609_b_10052138.html?utm_hp_ref=ar-blogs&ncid=fcbklnkarhpmg00000001

WE ARE THE WOMEN WHO TRAVEL TO AFRICA (10) by Mariam Harraz

I was over the moon heading to north of Tanzania, it kept getting cooler and cooler. I was happy to have more rain without the humidity, even though my rain coat failed me. It was time to make absolutely sure that I had plenty of space on my memory cards and everything was fully charged, the Serengeti and Ngorongoro crater was once in a lifetime experience and I couldn’t risk missing out. 

Meserani snake park was an emotional place to stay on the last few days of the tour, it has been open for 23 years and has had a tremendous amount of people camping there because of it’s location but also its principles. It’s run by a very old couple who help the community with their free clinic and donations to schools. The path to the bar/restaurant doesn’t reflect at all once in there. The walls are overflowing with t-shirts in different languages and in all kinds of shape, the torn, the dirty, the new, the big, the small, not only t-shirts there was even an arabic sign saying “stop” and amazing pictures and belongings. All of them doing their job: affecting everyone who enters that is passionate about travelling and the best place for us in 2 days time to spend our last night with each other.

We split up into three groups the next day, the 6 of us: jasmine, Cait, Jake, Fabby, Sarah and I, whom became so close to me in the past few weeks sharing endless jokes and heartfelt conversations that I couldn't ask for a better group, we even named ourselves “The Serengeti Spaghetti’s.” Serengeti used to be a Masaai Mara region where the Maassai people grazed their livestock. Siringet was used to describe the area which means “the place where the land runs on forever” and in a very short sentimental sentence it describes the vast striking landscape of the Serengeti.

The road from the entrance to the actual park was a lengthy and rugged road, our blood rushing to see the wildlife, we stopped at the highest point to see Ngorongoro crater. Ngorongoro used to be a volcano 2-3 million years ago and when it exploded and collapsed it formed a massive whole in the ground that is 610 meters deep. It's voted as one of the seven wonders of Africa and seeing it from the highest point we can, I am not surprised. The flat expanse which is about 250 km in size is purely and solely the most resonant green I’ve laid eyes on, surrounded by serpentine highlands and clouds sitting just above your head our first pinpoint were elephants and Buffaloes grazing on what is said to be a land suffused in minerals that the meaning of Ngorongoro was ‘The gift of life.’ Africans really do have the best names.

On our decent to the Serengeti we began to spot Giraffes, zebras and many other species, driving past hillsides and curvaceous ridges we finally we got to the entrance and a group picture later we huddled back into the jeeps to see what Serengeti has to offer.

The film 'The Lion King' was illustrated by artists who went to the Serengeti (and other places) and drew the landscape, so it was even more special to me because of how obsessed my family and I are with this film. I heard that the ‘Pride Rock’ was captured from here and so I couldn’t wait, but not long before we entered, Hussain, our tour guide was frantically shouting through the radio phone and all of a sudden sped to stop right by a Kopje covered with bushes on the side, our eyes glued to the binoculars, he slowly appeared. A male lion circling the space with all the confidence in the world, all of us in complete apprehension observed his every movement until he eventually left and so did we.

What we didn't know is that this time of the year was the annual migration of the zebras and wildebeest, two animals that worked together because they benefit each other. Zebras have good memories and can remember the direction of the migration and Wildebeest can smell water and protect. 

However, it felt like I couldn't see the end of it, the land really didn't end, it felt as if the dusky sky and grass were touching, thousands and thousands of wildebeest and zebras approaching from the left hand side shifting slowly and grazing. In every direction I looked and as far as my eye can see I could see infinite amounts of black and white dots covering the vast savannah.

This time we were back to sleeping in the wild and a night filled with weird noises later I woke up to the next day of searching for animals. 

We set off before sunrise and caught the nocturnal animals. There was an instance to this day I’m still extremely shocked by: we parked by a group of jeeps watching a gazelle but then we realised it was staring at a lion about 20 metres away, we then saw two male lions sitting and staring at something, when we came closer to see what they were looking at, it was a man and a women playing basketball about 30 metres away maybe even closer. We sped like crazy to reach them and warn them they were being watched, their response was “yes we know” not even a thank you. A male lion can run up to 25 metres PER SECOND when it’s hunting. 

If I had to describe every instance of the safari trip I would be taking away your imagination but as the day got closer to sunset we arrived at our campsite in Ngorongoro, it was packed with people from all around the world. 

Whilst dinner was being served we saw a male elephant a few metres away from us, nothing to worry about considering we were indoors. Later on our guides set up a fire for us to keep warm before bed, so we huddled around the last camp fire and chatted until we saw something coming towards us, a herd of buffaloes, one of the most dangerous species in the world. Our camp guard nowhere insight and the buffaloes getting closer we began to panic, even fire doesn't scare them. We all anxiously kept looking at Colleen ‘what do we do?” she replied “stay extremely quiet and don’t move.” it was not long before they were a few metres away and she slowly slipped away to find a guard, the rest of the campers standing by the dinner hall flashing their lights and taking pictures. My heart was beating faster than ever and my chest was closing up. When they were about a metre away the camp guard came rushing down with his gun strongly swaying them awayinto another direction. 

When we got back to our last campsite after our adventure at Serengeti, Colleen did one final dinner speech mentioning all the brilliant times we had together, we cheered on for her and Lulu, and unexpectedly my group cheered for me, saying “Thank you for all your insane comments and just the funny things you do.”

The last day was travelling to Kenya and literally being dropped off and waved at. Our goodbyes were probably the most difficult thing I had to do, the fact that you don’t know when you will ever see a person who’s become like family and have shared countless of memories with you is heart wrenching. You see, when you travel you show a very different side of you a side even your family hasn’t seen, one that is so fragile and yet so powerful, a side that shows your weakness and strength, a side where you show your intelligence as well as your stupidity, it’s like being married but constraining that to 40 days. You can really tell how much a person has grown, the people you travel with are like friends you’ve grown up with since the day you were born. It’s a very beautiful and emotional relationship and it left me with tears for days. 

Kenya was merely a place for me to relax and get back on my feet, it was a dream having a bed, internet, pizza and TV for a few days but I was already itching to carry on. This final time I travel completely by myself to Rwanda and Uganda with no plan, friends or anything whatsoever.

For the Arabic version: 

http://www.huffpostarabi.com/mariam-harraz/story_b_9922250.html

WE ARE THE WOMEN WHO TRAVEL TO AFRICA (9) by Mariam Harraz

Days were passing by quickly, we spent more time on the truck travelling then we did anywhere else. We kept slipping in and out of sleep. East Africa was immense it was carpeted with lush greenery and higher humidity. Our new group was great, we were now 14 instead of 22, sometimes it felt as though something was missing. 

We crossed the border into Malawi in the afternoon and soon after we were hit with dirt roads, which meant our heads would be whacking the window’s whilst we tried to sleep.

I don’t know what I expected whilst driving through the poorest country in the world, but wherever we went every house and shop was made of what material could be found, heaps and heaps of rubbish pilled up every few kilometres burning away and kids constantly waving at us. 

Malawi is known for their mangoes, luscious green red mangoes falling of almost every tree you see and probably the best I have ever tried. We were driving on the road once and Lulu suddenly stopped by a bunch of tables topped with mangoes, all of a sudden a group of kids ran towards us to sell their mangoes. Colleen came back with 25 mangoes and you know how much they were asking for? 50 cents. I bought three mangoes in Cairo for $7 once. Yes I got ripped off.

Our first campsite on Kande beach which is part of Lake Malawi felt like a sea because it spans across three different countries, we had to ask the employers if they've seen any crocodiles in the past few days so we can swim and not worry about being eaten alive. 

Our tents were up within a few minutes we ran towards the sea, the sand was so soft, no one in sight we jumped in only to realise how shallow the waters were, but it didn't bother us, the water was pure and refreshing.

The next day we headed for a township tour, we did exactly what the locals do and walked from our campsite for 45 minutes in the extreme heat to reach the town, the only difference is: we had water. We visited a school who has 10 teachers for over 1000 students, and a hospital who deals with hundreds of deaths per month just from malaria because of the lack of mosquito nets (which costs $10 and protects a whole family) it was extremely difficult to see and imagine how many hearts have been broken.

We spent two days in Chitimba also on Lake Malawi which was the two most peaceful days of the trip, I took over a couch in the cafe that looked out to the beach and all i did was sleep, read and sleep some more. 

But now we had to wake up earlier then before: 3am we had to leave the campsite. Tanzania was no joke with traffic and distance, the police sitting on plastic chairs enjoying their time on the side of the road stopped us for going over the supposed speed limit by a digit or sometimes just for fun. Of course you can haggle your way through but the stops were endless. 

The Tanzanian border crossing at Kusumulu was a bit of a joke, Colleen and Lulu have mentioned to us that they do the best samosa's and I couldn't wait, we also had to exchange money with a man who would be sitting on the table in the truck and one by one we would go into the truck and exchange money and leave. The whole scenario still makes me laugh. 

We travelled from Chitimba, 500 kilometres all the way to Iringa and went through all the seasons too. Iringa was up in the mountains and going from sea level all the way up meant going from 40 degrees to 15 degrees in the evening. It was one of my favourite campsites everything was so clean it almost felt great until we decided to sleep outside under cover to avoid packing up our tents again. 

The next day driving to Dar al-Salam was the ride from hell yet it was hilarious, we woke up at 2am and literally walked right into the truck in our sleeping bags and fell asleep in there. Till about 5am, we were passing through a valley named “Truckers graveyard” we were warned not to peak out the windows if we cant deal with blood. The definite twisting valley that had just enough space for the truck to turn right and left that costed people’s lives was how it got it’s name, it’s the only way to get to Dar al-Salam from Iringa but also costs lives. 

There was something contradictory about it, as we haltingly drove down the valley every one of us in complete stillness, the sun was rising in the distance behind the mountainous lush greenery, it’s colours glistened so fiercely whilst we were on the brink of death as we drove we passed by trucks that have just toppled over to the side. We sighed when we reached at the bottom of the valley and after witnessing the vast baobab trees we went back to sleep. 

Dar al-Salam was swarming with people, people buying and selling, people yelling, some just relaxing, military men and women exercising, every inch of the road had something going on. Then there was traffic, our worst enemy, we spent 4 hours driving for 30 kilometres, we had to stay away from liquids because there were no toilets so our only option was ice cream and pray to god we don’t faint from the heat. A 16 hour drive later we finally arrived at our campsite by the sea for an appetising dinner.

Zanzibar was awaiting us, the next morning our tuc tuc's plunged through the bustling city to get us to a boat that gets us to the ferry that will get us to Zanzibar. We got to experience the daily routine of workers trying to get across the city on the boat, cramped in a tight space like herds of sheep, and I can now confidently say by 9am in the morning even though we were on the boat it was as if we swam in the sea.

Zanzibar was ruled by a Omani Sultan the culture reflected on the buildings, the precarious streets lead us to vibrant market stalls, cafes, and mosques. I eagerly waited for dinner, we were venturing to the night market and I couldn’t stop dreaming about the Shawarma’s Colleen told us about. I had three, until I could no longer breathe. The morning after we drove to the most beautiful beach I have ever been to: Nungwi beach. The pasty sand stood out amongst the contrasting shades of royal blue and ultramarine, the water was so translucent I could see the sea life clearly. The last few days of tranquility and a bed. 

I went through various moods in one day, one minute I would be like “I don’t want to go home” the next minute I would be like “just put me on a plane back home” and a few minutes later I would be fully and emotionally enjoying myself. I felt mentally I had to constantly battle myself, I was ready to leave but I wanted to stay, I knew all I wanted was just a bit of comfort in the end but I missed eating whenever I could, I missed my belongings, I missed my family and friends, I missed the cold and I missed looking nice. 

But that aside I was ready for the final part of our 40 day trip, we were now back to the wild - literally. Serengeti National Park and Ngorongoro crater was our next stop known for the annual migration of over 1.5 million Wildebeest and numerous zebras and this time we were back to sleeping with the wild with no protection whatsoever.

For the Arabic version: 

http://www.huffpostarabi.com/mariam-harraz/-9_1_b_9838990.html

WE ARE THE WOMEN WHO TRAVEL TO AFRICA (8) by Mariam Harraz

Kasane is a town in Botswana, close to Africa's 'Four Corners', where four borders meet: Botswana, Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

We arrived in Kasane late afternoon just in time to rest and go on the river cruise. Bostwana’s atmosphere was pure joy, we were all in high spirits, enjoying the nature and the locals. Our tents became easier to put up regardless of the weather or the sand. 

Before we knew it we were at Chobe river which is located on the Northeast of the Chobe National park. Similar to Etosha National park, it’s a major spot in the dry season to see animals for the reason it being a place to cool down and drink water and also most concentrated in wildlife. 

Literally a minute after we left we encounter a family of monkeys surrounding the trees cautiously watching us from every view point they can get. Chobe river was broad and curvaceous, the sky was so blue that the river reflected it’s colours, and the suns gleam shimmered the rivers crest. 

The boat was two levels, the lower level packed with seats on each side, separating us from what seemed like our ‘rivals’ another group that told us off every time we were too loud. The upper level completely open with no seats allowing you to see a higher point of view.

Chobe riverfront was a mix of floodplains, forest thickets and vast woodlands. It was as if the river divided it, the forest thickets on the left and on the right the open woodlands with a few floodplains. 

It was our first time seeing a Hippo so close up, three quarters of it’s body laying in the water and the other quarter including it’s ears and eyes just above water keeping an eye out, but a Hippo had nothing to worry about being one of the most dangerous and deadliest animals. Not far from the river there were a pod of Hippo’s and each of them had a bird or two right beneath or next to them. The reason for that is because there are so many flies that are encircling a Hippo which makes it easier for the birds to feed, it’s quite funny because the size of a Hippo in comparison to a bird is amazing yet they work together to benefit each other.

After an enjoyable cruise spotting different species and enjoying each other’s company, we went back to our campsite to have a delicious dinner and an early night.

The next day we were heading to Zambia, finally we would have wifi and four days in one campsite which meant we could sleep past 4:30am and relax for a few days. Except it started off badly (for me quiet funny). Zambia is known for the Victoria Falls, known as the largest waterfall in the world, which spams across Zambia and Zimbabwe. In the dry season it meant that the river on the Zambian side would be extremely dry but if you were to go 20 minutes down from our campsite you would be in Zimbabwe and would be able to see the wet waterfall. So as we were told that it was possible to get a uni visa to enter both countries, allowing us to see it from the other side and spend a day in Zimbabwe. 

When we arrived at the Zambian border (which normally doesn’t take us more than 30 minutes for us to cross over) we waited an hour until Colleen came to talk to us to inform us of the change that they no longer provide the uni visa that was only made yesterday! She was waiting to speak to the manager, because of course things work very differently in Africa. 

In the midst of us boiling to death, we had locals nagging us to buy anything. Woulter who I would describe as a very odd person, but odd in a great way, his sense of humour was very different and always made us laugh. He stood shirtless his elbow leaning on the wall and a man came to sell something to him, he appeared disappointed, frustratingly he looked at him and slowly trying to not shout under his breathe said “why will I buy something from you, when your government won’t even let me in your country.” It was hilarious because even when he was angry it made us laugh, proving to us that at times he was the light in the midst of the darkness.

As I went in to the office to check on Colleen (secretly I was just trying to get some air-conditioning) she threw her hands on the counter laughing but quiet agitated she said “Mariam! Your father just called me!” Needless to say all fathers are worriers but my father is a different story. My phone hasn’t been working for a few days and as I mentioned to him several times, there will come times when I have no signal or battery but will try to message whenever I can. Apparently that wasn’t enough and when he called, Colleen thought it was the manager who she was patiently waiting to receive a call from who was asking to speak to the immigration lady at the counter (her name was extremely similar to mine). Colleen misunderstood and passed the phone over to the immigration lady who spoke to my father and got him even more distressed because of the language barrier making him think I couldn’t get into Zambia and there was a really big issue. They finally both understood that it was my father and shut the phone without confirming what was going on, all my friends found out and till this day I am reminded of the day my father spoke to the immigration lady in Zambia, some never spoke to their parents for weeks. 

After hours of waiting at the border post we finally entered with a visa only to Zambia and in such despair sat in the truck patiently waiting to reach our campsite in Livingstone. We were told now that we were going into East Africa the chances of withdrawing cash is basically close to nothing, and all of a sudden we had the worry of taking out a large sum of money within 3 days for the next three weeks.

Zambezi waterfront campsite was exactly what we needed. Two pools, one situated next to the open restaurant/cafe that was right by the river and the other between the trees. Our tents finally were set up on grass, but a day later that was no longer a good thing for us, it poured down rain like never before, the air still so humid and our tent windows shut, I thought I was going to suffocate at one point.

The next day Wouter, Jasmine and I decided to sort out our cash issue first then head to the waterfall, thinking it wouldn’t take us more then 30 minutes to go into the city and withdraw money from an ATM machine. We were wrong, it took us more than three hours, every ATM we went to had a queue so long that the wait was more than an hour or two, apart from that they weren’t even working. The system has either failed or the banks didn't have cash. Another reason it went awfully is my bank card got blocked so I panicked even more over the course of two days trying to sort out how I’m going to survive for the rest of the trip. The day before we left I finally cleared it all up.

I forgot to mention that half the group was leaving, there were only 8 of us from 22 people who were continuing all the way to Kenya, so we spent every minute we could together. The morning of the day they took off we went to swim in Devil’s pool, an infinity pool on the edge of Victoria Falls. I was extremely anxious, for me it felt even more terrifying than skydiving, until we got there. The most eliminated, rich rainbow I have ever seen, so close, standing right by the waterfall it made every second I was frightened, wonderful.

We swam till we got to the edge of Victoria falls, the water rushing pushing us so hard but thank god for the rocks, we were allowed to lay stomach down at the edge of the fall to look down as the water plummets vigorously downhill, my heart raced. I left whilst every inch of my body was shaking.

Saying good bye to friends I have gotten to know so well during three weeks of adventures was the hardest goodbye yet, some I don’t know if I’ll ever see again but I will forever cherish our memories.

Next stop Malawi, the poorest country in the world yet one of the most beautiful. After 4 days in Malawi we would be at our last stop for the trip: Tanzania. And just like that 40days were almost going to be over.

For the Arabic version: 

http://www.huffpostarabi.com/mariam-harraz/story_b_9737270.html

WE ARE THE WOMEN WHO TRAVEL TO AFRICA (7) by Mariam Harraz

Suncream stopped doing its job at this point, my face was turning purple from how dark I was becoming. I could see my tan lines from my scarf and the colour change was as if it was black and white.

Talking about black and white, Botswana’s national animal is a Zebra and on their national flag they have a stripe of black and white. The story behind it is beautiful and I can’t promise I can tell you it just as I heard it but I will try anyway.

Seretse Khama was born into one of the powerful families when Botwana was Bechuanaland Protectorate. He studied abroad in United Kingdom and when he returned he was married to a British white women which at the time there was a ban against interracial marriage under the apartheid system. Khama was forced to leave back to United Kingdom with his wife and exiled from Bechuanaland in 1951. After many protests and evidence of racism they were allowed to return in 1956 as private citizens. A few years later Botswana gained its independence in 1966 and Khama was elected as first president. The reason the Zebra is the national animal is the very same reason the flag has black and white, to signify the unity of colour, black and white and interracial marriages, at that point colour was no longer an issue and the country was proud of being the first country in Africa to not be divided based on colour. 

Twenty kilometres after the border we noticed signs telling us to be careful of Elephants in the area, and it soon became the norm to see herds crossing over causing traffic or grazing on the side of the road.

You could tell we were heading East because of the greenery in sight. Botswana is capped in savanna, amber and olive grassland dispersed with shrubs and oddly spaced trees as well as wildlife everywhere grazing wherever they can. I couldn’t make much out of it yet.

Botswana was small, yet, it took us it took us a day and a half before we reached Muan, our campsite right by the Delta. Time passed by quick, we spent the last two days playing games (our favourite game was Monopoly, it caused so much competition that at times we had to stop playing), napping when the heat wasn’t extreme, catching up on laundry and just relaxing. I panicked over leaving my clothes out to dry as there were so many monkeys at our campsite, they would grab anything they can and god knows what they do with it all I knew is I wasn’t going to get it back.

The morning we were heading into the Delta came and I was certainly not looking forward to it. We were told the night before that any movement on the Mokoro (a type of canoe which was our mode of transport) would land us in the water, and to avoid moving suddenly considering that we would be surrounded by flying insects, water snakes, fish and animals.

We packed a small bag with only the basics: pyjama’s, swimming suit, a 5 litre water bottle, a shirt, suncream and of course for me a packet of wet wipes and all my camera equipment. 

Layers of suncream slathered on us we drove through a deserted place which in winter the river flows through. It was extremely dry and you couldn’t hear a sound not even the 4x4 behind us.

When we arrived at our departure point, Jasmine and I went with Mama Julia (Mama is used a sign of respect in Africa) who projected her confidence in silence. 

Jasmine and I had our differences in the beginning, but we came to understand each other, I understood her anxiety of being in groups, I was once like that, and it was just a matter of time before she opened up. Something she caught on was my fear of the wildlife, and as much as she laughed about it, she in a way also tried to protect me, and I admired her for that. Just like when going on the Mokoro she sat in front because I panicked about being attacked by the insects whilst going through the bushes. She showed me it was fine, I had nothing to worry about.

The delta was unbelievable, our Mokoro was shaped in a way that when we were sitting in it we were levelled with the water, the reeds were raised over us. The water was somewhat clear covered by the plants and leaves growing from beneath. The pearly water Lily’s that rose just above the water surface stood out amongst the cobalt delta and the olive savannah. We glided through the water and reeds in absolute tranquility, experiencing every sound any species makes, seeing frogs, snakes, fish and even insects swimming right next to us. Two hours of canoeing in the delta was amicable. 

There was a moment when an elephant was grazing on the edge of the delta and as we passed right by it so low in the water it towered over us. Leaving us all in such awe. I realised how much I loved it, even though I was extremely afraid being here, I loved every moment of it, the nature bewildered me it gave me a sort of peace I have never had before. 

When we finally arrived at the island we got off the Mokoro’s and it was as if we went swimming in the water. Sweat dripped down our faces and our shirts and trousers stuck to our bodies. We moved everything off the Mokoro’s onto our camp area, hardest bit accomplished. The Polars dug a whole to act as a toilet and told us how it is to be used. We camped in an area filled with trees and bushes our tents were slightly slanted because of the ground. 

Within a few minutes after lunch, Colleen could no longer stand the heat and jumped in the delta with her clothes on to cool down, we all ran in after - I was finally not afraid anymore of what was in there, it didn’t matter in the heat.

The Polers (the locals who were operating the Mokoro) were a mix of men and women of different ages, apart from canoeing through the delta they were taking us on a walking safari and helping us with camping. They were such great company. The delta was so refreshing, we swam for ages and played a few games of tag. After we got out (it only took Colleen about an hour before she was fully dry again) and changed we headed to do a safari walk in the island. 

We were briefed to be extremely quiet to not disturb the animals and to walk in a straight line so they don’t see us as a threat, so the only thing we could do is giggle. The island was sensational, we walked for two hours and managed to see Elephants, Zebra’s, Baboons and a Hippo. Walking amongst them was different to sitting in a truck besides them, nowhere to escape and seeing them from a lower level.

When we got back dinner was served and this time the women had to serve the men getting down on one knee to present it just the way they do it in Botswana. I of course refused to do it. 

After dinner the Polers lit up a fire and started singing their beautiful national song. I don’t know what it is about African music but it brings out an emotion in me I can’t describe, all I know that it makes me feel very content. Maybe it’s the authenticity in their songs, their voices well composed together and their tenderness when singing. It shows you how they don’t need the music industry we have right now to be satisfied and enjoy what they do. We sang and danced around the fire until we no longer could, going to bed feeling the harmony that surrounded us brought to us by the beautiful Polers.

The day after we were going for a cruise in Chobe river to end our incredible 5 days in Bostwana and face what I didn’t know yet - the four worst days of our trip in Zambia.

By Mariam Harraz

For the Arabic version: 

http://www.huffpostarabi.com/mariam-harraz/-7_4_b_9689920.html

 

WE ARE THE WOMEN WHO TRAVEL TO AFRICA (6) by Mariam Harraz

We entered Etosha National Park early afternoon and drove through the park to reach our campsite. Our first safari trip. No more dunes, but in the distance salt pans, the flat rocky sand seemed endless and large patches of trees with animals evoking every inch of shade they can get. 

The reason why the dry season is the best time to go is because of the heat, even though Etosha has fragments of shade, and the vast openness allows us to spot animals easily, it’s still very difficult. Within 22000 square kilometres they can be anywhere, so there are waterholes that prompt the animals to cool down and drink by the water. 

The truck was filled with commotion. We were on edge not letting our guard down even for a second, camera’s were ready and binoculars attached to our necks, every single one of us staring out the windows anticipating any movement that could be an animal. 

Our first spot, an impala herd gathered by a tree, a few minutes later 6 different species either walking towards the waterhole or surrounded it. A female giraffe first, so close you could compare it’s height to our truck, it stood towering over facing it’s side to us and when it noticed us it turned around grouchy.

Amongst it there were zebras. Their chalky dusty stripes blended in with the colour of the stoney sand. 

Then there was the wild desert elephants with tusks the size of my arm, galloping all the water he could gulp. The animals were just like us, every movement alerted each one of them, it kept them on edge, on the brink of escaping if need be. 

However, Etosha national park was noted as a park that animals roam freely with nowhere to hide, making it more difficult to hunt. Hence when they are by the waterhole it’s less likely for them to attack their prey.

A few of the Oryx gathered in the water and it was as if the animals had a silent agreement between each other, they were safe, for now.

I know I speak of the heat a lot, and having lived in Dubai during summer, which is known to reach 50 degrees, I can definitely say Etosha was so much more worse. When we reached our campsite the only place to cool down was the swimming pool but I opted to cool down with all the ice-cream I can get. After lunch Beth and I sprinted to see the elephants on their way to the waterhole, we could catch them if we were to stand by the fence on the edge of our campsite. 

We stood anxiously waiting for them, and unexpectedly we spotted them walking haltingly in the distance wary of any move. A few minutes later they were literally 5 metres away from us, our only protection was the half broken fence. Two wild male elephants stood right in front of us blocking any light we can get, their presence was momentous. Beth and I stood completely still, not moving an inch as they looked right at us, we held our breathe to seem like we’re objects and the moment they realised we weren't a threat to them they treaded heavily away.

We strutted back to our campsite stunned. Everyone seated in the truck we headed out for a second round not managing to see much in the evening. Nevertheless the waterhole by our campsite was more than enough, it was surrounded by benches giving us the perfect view of the animals approaching from afar to drink water and the ones that already surrounded it. At night everything changes, the atmosphere became more deadly, all ready at the brink of escaping.

We were told the moment we wanted to sleep we were to head back to our tents. Last year a man fell asleep whilst watching the waterhole and a lion jumped over the fence and ate him. Since then they have put electric fences to keep them away, just incase. 

Even though I knew the fence provided us with some sort of protection, my heart raced when I was awoken by the boisterous roar of the lions, the rumbles of an elephant and the cries of many other species, it felt as if they were right by my tent. I refused to even open my eyes.

We woke up before sunlight to catch the Nocturnal animals. There was no sunrise or sunset in Africa that goes by without bewildering us with its beauty. The sky is filled with a gradient of tangerine, gold and rose which bounces of the trees and elephants we spot, altering their colour for a few seconds.

After 10am we didn’t see anything, and being in the backseat hidden from everyone I shut my eyes. Yes I did, on a once in a lifetime safari trip I couldn’t help but sleep. After a few minutes I woke up to realise my friends laughing at the pictures they took of me, teasing me, who sleeps whilst on a safari cruise in the third largest park in the world? Me. And a few hours later, so did everyone else.

As we observed the animals by the waterhole I began to catch on (as silly as it sounds) their personalities. The lions scrutinising the area walk back and forth, the elephants drinking water alongside each other, you sense their bond between the herd. 

It’s difficult to describe Etosha, the breathtaking animals and scenery you see, because it’s very different from what we are used to. Being in a habitat that belongs to other species, the wilderness, was serene even though I woke up to screams.

The morning after it was time to take off to Windhoek the capital of Namibia, and to say goodbye to two dear friends, Hannah a British lawyer who I enjoyed chatting and complaining to, and Sybille a peaceful and warm hearted swiss girl who we dubbed as swisssssssss for 2 weeks. Even though goodbyes were hard I was excited to welcome three new friends.

As we packed up our tent in the morning, I made note to put my phone in my pocket so I could message my family the moment I got internet. So me and jasmine packed our tent and after breakfast I realised my dilemma, I packed my phone with my tent. I hurriedly ran to the truck seizedmy tent and began to unfold it, my friends stared at me confused. “Mariam, what’s going on?” There was noway I was going to be able to get away with my clumsiness this time: “I packed my phone in my tent” I declared. Everyone exploded into laughter and ran to grab their camera’s to record another moment of my abnormality. Finally with the help of Denis I safely and exhaustedly managed to get my phone out of my tent with just a small crack. 

The way we looked when we arrived at the five star hotel was priceless. Dressed in floppy safari clothes covered with dust, our feet and hands practically black from the dirt and our faces red and sweaty. We stepped into the reception helping ourselves to the drinks being served and the air conditioning. It seemed as though it was out first opportunity in days to shower and to have a sip of water. 

I eagerly sat and caught up with my family, calling them one by one and how I have missed hearing their voices. I found out a very close friend, practically my sister had given birth and at moments like these, I missed being home. 

We went out for a delicious dinner in which we had the pleasure of meeting new people and saying goodbye to two dear ones. We had a waitress who memorised 27 peoples food and drinks order by heart without a pen and paper. It was pretty impressive.

We went to bed when we no longer could stay awake and 5 hours on a bed again felt rejuvenating. 

Tomorrow we were crossing the border to Botswana and within a few days we were heading deep into the Okvango Delta, bush camping amongst the wild on a remote island. 

By Mariam Harraz

For the Arabic version:

http://www.huffpostarabi.com/mariam-harraz/story_b_9631776.html

WE ARE THE WOMEN WHO TRAVEL TO AFRICA (5) by Mariam Harraz

I knew if I told my parents I am jumping of a plane in a few minutes they would book a one way ticket back home right away, so I messaged my sister nervously when I got to the lodge stating “Going to skydive in a few minutes” making sure it wasn’t a question, rather a statement. Her response: “Are you sure?” 

Are you kidding me? There was nothing more I was sure of. On my 18th birthday I said I would do it. It’s been 5 years now and this was the perfect time, right above the Namib desert with the view of the Atlantic Ocean. It was Colleen’s birthday and Lulu set up a surprise for her to jump. There were 12 of us and the thrill was running through our blood. The fact that we were finally staying in a lodge with beds for a few days, added onto our high spirits.

When we got to the Ground Rush Adventures, Andres, Anna and Beth were fully dressed in their diving suit and heading off. The music was on, the cold air was hitting our faces and it was as if you could feel the energy blasting through the speakers. Every time someone left we cheered them on and every time they came back down we waited in a line to applaud them. 

It was finally mine and Lynsey's turn to go. I headed into the room to be instructed and to slip on the diving suit, except there was an issue that my instructor pointed out, “take off your scarf please.” My head jolted towards him with my eyes and mouth wide open, shocked that this wasn’t even a question. “No I am not taking off my scarf” I replied feeling the agitated lump in my throat grow. He responded : “your scarf won’t stay on if you sky dive, nothing stays on, you will have to take it off” Lynsey could see the colour change in my face. I have known many girls who wore their scarves to sky dive with no experience of it flying off. I calmed down and explained that I have got pins on my scarf holding it in place, plus the eye glasses it should be fine. 

He shrugged and carelessly said “it’s your decision but don’t get mad at me when you come down with a missing scarf.”. I hurried to my friends and nervously explained the situation. They began to think of various ways to make sure my scarf stays on. It was at this moment in time that I felt proud of my friends. I boaldly walked back to my instructor to tell him he has nothing to worry about. While a thousand emotions ran through me I realised that I was probably the first girl with a hijab to sky dive with them. It was for this reason that I could understand that their incomprehension with the whole situation.I had to prove them wrong. I am not limited by my scarf. 

40 minutes and 10000 feet later, I was suddenly lurched to the edge of the plane where my legs shifted forcefully underneath the plane; my chest tugged back and my hands crossed over my chest. I was told we’re not going to jump without a smile on my face but I glanced down frightened. I thought to myself “there's no time to be afraid”, that was the moment I left everything behind that troubled me and accelerated forward for 13 minutes of freedom. 

The free fall is exhilarating, speeding at 200 miles per hour for 3 minutes before you pull the parachute. In the midst of my screaming, for a second I panicked over the possibilities of the parachute not opening (a bit too late now) and just when it did I felt a sense of relief. We were hauled right back up until the air filled the parachute wide open, we stopped moving. A moment of tranquility and stillness. Emptiness surrounded me, not one noise, not one building, no confined space, nothing but the sky. Down below were the bronze dunes and beside it were the contrasting cobalt ocean with strands of darker blue, representing the waves.

There was no time and before I knew it we were making our way back down with black flips and 360 degree turns. I came down shaking and startled from adrenaline. I just jumped off a plane.

Later that day we went out for a lovely dinner in the dead small town we were staying in: Swakompond. 

Even though I slept very late I got up at 7am to pack my bag, I got used to the routine. The day passed swiftly, I slept so much and ate so much that I woke up at 5pm alarmed that I missed my one chance to have cake, and went right back to sleep. Clearly it didn’t bother me that much.

I forgot one thing, a story which till this day I am reminded of. When we arrived at Swakompund I went into the pharmacy to buy malaria tablets, I was directed to a till to pay for them. Let me point out Namibians are the friendliest people I have ever met. The lady at the till was dark skinned, wearing a blue bandana that complemented her skin and her jawline shaped her face gorgeously. She smiled and said “I like the colour of your skin”. I looked at her perplexed but flattered and said “oh I really like the colour of your skin too” she suddenly stared at me in awe and said “I said I like the colour of your scarf”. Embarrassed I answered “I still really like the colour of your skin.” That’s when everyone figured me out.

Ninth day in and time flew by. Before we knew it we were on our way to Spitzkoppe but first a township tour in Mondesa which was made for blacks working in Swakopmund when the Germans invaded. 

The Herero tribe (one of the biggest tribes in Namibia), are cattle herding who rank each other by the number of cattle they own. Their traditional clothes are inspired by Germans, it’s a constant reminder of their history and a reassurance that indeed they are the powerful ones now. The traditional clothes are worn from the moment they are married. Their wide hats that are shaped like horns represent those of the cattle.

The women are only to be married with their uncle’s approval. A man could have up to 4 wives. However, if the man wishes to marry another women, he must seek approval from his first wife and she decides on who he is allowed to marry.

The Town is filled with different ethnic groups all finding multiple ways to survive. Some of which includes discovering herbs that treat diseases and ways to cook food without gas or electricity. It’s a weird feeling when you see how life challenges you to survive. Having the basic necessities makes me realise how fortunate I am. A real eye opener.

We arrive late afternoon in Spitzkoppe; a group of granite peaks which is 1700 metres above ground. It is said to be 150 million years old. The massive peaks are dusky and smooth. Below it, small boulders provide you with a path to hike up. The sand beneath it on ground level and the tree barks made me realise the shades of brown surrounding us. We dashed to grab shade underneath the tree to camp. The hot humid air drove us crazy at the same point everyday when we had to set up our tents. This was the first time we didn’t have showers, at this point none of us cared. For some bizarre reason I decided that today was the day to catch up on my water intake. I avoided drinking so much because it was only on rare occasions we had proper toilets. Not realising that we only had long drops (which is a hole deep in the ground topped by a seat) so you can imagine all kinds of insects were buried deep in there. Needless to say I had to visit it a lot.

A game of cricket just before sunset showed us that Lulu was the only one who could throw a ball. After dinner was served the big talk began on our next stop : Etosha National Park, a park thats 22,270 square kilometres, home to hundreds of species. 

This time we were briefed of the dangers we face camping in the wild. Our campsite was only a few metres away from a water hole that provides water to lions, rhino’s, giraffes, elephants and many others. My heart skipped a beat.

By Mariam Harraz

For the Arabic version:

http://www.huffpostarabi.com/mariam-harraz/post_11443_b_9581878.html

WE ARE THE WOMEN WHO TRAVEL TO AFRICA (4) by Mariam Harraz

Some days felt packed with activities and some didn’t but it was only the fourth day and the only thing I could make out of it, was how shattered I was.

I felt as though my days had more significance waking up early. Sleep was more beneficial than a shower, but I had noticed that no matter how clean I try to be, packing up a tent in the desert would take me right back to the feeling of discomfort. I had to live with it. Putting my scarf on before even washing my face became galling. 

I cautiously unzipped my tent making sure no baboons were in hindsight. Yesterday night I could feel things jumping on my tent and rocking the poles. The electricity cuts off at 10pm so there was no way I was going to step outside. 

A smaller canyon, Sesriem, was awaiting us before we head into the desert. Sesriem means six belts, the name comes from when people had to tie six belts together to lower the bucket into the river and fetch some water. The river has dried up since then because of the lack of rainfall in Namibia so we were allowed to delve into the insides of the canyon. 

What I noticed most whilst travelling was the different textures of the mountains we saw. Sesriem was a combination of sand, gravel and pebbles all deposited into the canyon whilst the river flowed through. Sesriem was formed by the river so the rock formations were mesmerising, the lines engraved on the rocks flow through most of the canyon. We were directed by the path of the canyon; every time you think it will end you realise that there’s another narrow curve. Walking on the stones made me realise my lack of balance, I am more worried about breaking my camera than injuring myself. We reach a small pond which indicated the end to our path. We turned around and made our way to the starting point. 

On our drive to Sesriem campsite the backdrop is scattered with small mountains that are composed of rocks and gravel. Amongst the dried bushes we spot Mountain Zebras. The first of many animals I see in the wild, but this time it’s special. The Zebras are facing us with their striped bottoms; the moment we stop they turn to the side to show us their endangered beauty- their white bellies. Mountain Zebras are only found in three countries in Africa, a threatened species. 

Colleen and Lulu dumbfound me with their extensive knowledge of the wildlife. We stop in the middle of a highway to cross the road and observe the social weevers. Social weevers entwine their nest by collecting stiff grass to form a nest. More than a dozen birds every minute appeared with grass in their mouths to construct their nest. The amount of nests on this tree is incredible. They carry on for years until the tree can no longer handle the weight and collapses.

A few hours later and we are in Sesriem camp, we are officially in the Namib desert encircled by golden orange sand dunes from a distance, which afterwards influenced the sunset’s colour. 

That evening we were advised to leave the tent at night only when necessary and to take with us a bright torch. They instructed us to face our torch in front of us rather than on the ground. Considering we could walk right into an Orxy’s horns that would go right through us. Fun, right?

A 4:30am beckoned us to start climbing Dune 45 before sunrise. Dune 45 happens to be 45KM from the start of the desert. It is 90 metres high and probably one of the most difficult things I have done. My Go Pro was fully charged and strapped to my head, we began to run up barefoot. The dune was a dark orange-brown with flickering glitter. The sand was cooler then the air surrounding us and soft as flour caressing my toes. Running up was a lot worse then I thought and to reach the peak felt out of reach. My Go Pro video consists of 30 minutes of me gasping for air and looking down conceding “I can’t do it anymore.” 

The sun began to rise when I was a only a few metres away from the peak yet it was magnificent. In a few minutes I witnessed the sun ascending behind curvaceous bronze dunes. The tangerine sunlight gleamed on the glittering dunes, casting patterns and colours. When I reached the top I spent a few minutes amongst the serenity of the dunes with people I had already grown to enjoy their company.

The reason why Namib desert is ranked highly is because of the minerals in the sand that allows you to witness such beauty. 

It’s hard to wrap my head around the fact that only 4% of the desert is sand dunes, considering the distance we drove to get to our next stop: Deadvlei. By 9am it had already hit 40 degrees with extreme heat intensity. Our hiking boots were back on because of the spike in temperature and we got off at a spot the 4x4 can no longer drive us past. 

As we are dragging our heavy boots through small sand dunes, my mind wonders off to the condition the Bushmen had to live in the past and even now. A striking fact is the Bushmen in the desert had to leave either the youngest or the eldest when they no longer have food or water to provide for them. Seeing as they are the weakest and are the most difficult to take care of, the Bushmen leave and never look back. 

Deadvlei is a clay pan which is surrounded by Big Daddy and Big Mama. Yes that is indeed their real names. They are the highest dunes in the world. The clay pan was formed after rainfall when the river flooded creating shallow pools. Namib desert has seen drought for years and the dunes slowly moved towards the pan which prevented water flowing through.

The clay pan is a blend of bronze and ash, it is vast and surrounded by the tallest dunes. From the small dunes we walked on before to the flat pan we are on now, the place is one of natures creations that astonishes me. There is a fascinating pattern on the pan, that are formed by various shapes. In-between there are rifts revealing the dunes colour along with a few odd trees. The 900 years old trees have fully dried out setting a haunting ambience. 

When the heat hits a point we can no longer handle we head back to drive to ‘Desert camp’. It’s in the middle of nowhere. I didn't see anyone else there except for us and some Zebras in the evening. 

We all struggle to leave the truck, trying to avoid the heat and the small amounts of water we are allowed to use. Finally in the evening, just before dinner, I sit with Beth- an English girl who worked for two years in order to afford travelling for a year. I don’t know much about her, but she’s keen to know about my religion. It was the first time someone asked me about it, it felt comforting that she was curious to learn about me and my religion in a non-judgemental way.

Tonight we were sleeping under the stars, literally. We put 20 mattresses side by side, I made sure to sleep in-between the girls and in a place which I figured no insects or animals can reach me. They couldn’t reach me anyways because I had a mosquito net on my head. It was the only night we were allowed to sleep under the stars and although I had to sleep with my scarf on (along with layers of clothing to keep me warm) I was grateful. I laid my back onto my mattress. I looked up to a scene I can only pray to see again. A sky filled with stars, not one snippet of the sky was empty. They shined and every time I wanted to blink I tried to avoid it, for if I was to miss out on a shooting star I would miss out on a once-in-a-lifetime chance. Truly there is nothing as magnificent as that was. A moment I am grateful to be travelling. 

As everyone falls asleep, I lay awake for hours, not wanting to dream of anything because I can’t imagine it would be more captivating. I realise tomorrow is the first time I would be able to talk to my family but not only that- I was going to jump off a plane 10000 feet high. 

By Mariam Harraz

For the Arabic version:

http://www.huffpostarabi.com/mariam-harraz/story_b_9530744.html

WE ARE THE WOMEN WHO TRAVEL TO AFRICA (3) by Mariam Harraz

Day two began with a 5am start. I begrudgingly unzipped my sleeping bag thinking to myself how I had spent months mentally preparing myself for dealing with nature: the various crawlies etc. (don’t judge I am a city girl), but not for the 5am starts. It was dark and bone-chilling cold outside. I forced myself to walk over to the showers still feeling weak in the stomach after a bout of food poisoning and heat sickness. The shower stalls were empty. I looked around disheartened, it seemed I was the only who had fought that little voice in my head telling me to get back into my sleeping bag. 

Today would be our first border crossing, driving over a 180 kilometre green stretch of land from our campsite to the golden sands of Noordoewer, Namibia. South Africa was only a meet up point and from there we would make our way across East of Africa. Despite the border control, the scenery itself marked a stark change in lands; from deep lush green to parched bushes and rocks. That wasn’t the only thing I noticed: the humid air clung to your skin. It felt incredibly hot. One more country added to my travel list, I cheekily added.

At the passport control we are given papers to fill out. As I hand back the papers to the immigration officer she sharply points out “what is your occupation?” I lean over and whisper “unemployed.” Her face distorts into further confusion and asks again louder, this time I turn red and attempt to raise my voice “I am unemployed.” The rest of my group queued behind me burst into laughter. It seemed it was a first for most of us to fill in the box as “unemployed”.

A 30-minute drive later we arrive at our second campsite and right in front of us is the Orange river. The 900 kilometre long river separates South Africa and Namibia but what is most stunning about it is its surroundings. 

Our campsite sat on a higher ground just a few metres above the river. We were all thrilled at the breath taking view encompassing our tents. The river seemed to snake endlessly, majestic mountains lining it. 

As I set up the tent, pulling and frustratingly attempting to hook the tent on to the poles, I silently list all the things I am looking forward to doing on this trip for encouragement. As I step back satisfyingly looking over my tent someone shouts “let’s be immigrants guys.” I look over at the river.  My immediate reaction was, no. I had bought an islamic swim suit for the trip from a Malaysian website, but since I was buying it last minute the size turned out to be three sizes smaller. I was nervous about wearing it and how I would look in it more so how I would be seen by others for wearing it. I tried to encourage myself it looked no different to a wet suit. Then my mind began to wander over my other fears - swimming into unclear water. I wasn’t ready to wear it just yet that was one of the main reasons for this trip; to face my fears. I determinedly put on my swim suit and ran across our campsite diving into the river hoping to avoid any attention. 

The water was murky but cool and refreshing. A sense of relief washed over me. I overcame my fear. Making my way to the centre of the river I could get closer to the mountains and South Africa was only a few metres away. I felt motivated now, we swam there and back. I made a mental note to return the next day and film it all with my GoPro.

An hour later a game of flunky ball, devised by the tour guides, broke the ice between us. Fabby, Jasmine and I headed out to discover more of the area and catch the sunset. As the sun slowly descends the shadows of the mountains flicker on the river and cloaks its surroundings. Every minute that passes I grow more in awe of the landscape. The colours mirroring and bouncing of the grass, the sand and the water. The hazy sunset makes me appreciate being here. And so it suddenly dawns on me the difficulties of waking up early, packing/unpacking a tent and dealing with all sorts of challenges is worth it when I get to see this.

After dinner I was sitting with a few Germans, from our group, who were discussing the war in Syria and the refugee crisis. They spoke about the implications that will follow in their country, from the influx of the refugees, but also how proud they are of their government agreeing on allowing the most refugees in compared to other European countries.

It’s what I enjoy about travelling not only seeing different places but also meeting people from different backgrounds possibly seeing the world in a different way. Travelling allows you to see more. 

It’s the third day now yet already my body clock is set for its regular 5am except today we end up leaving the campsite at noon. I decide to go for another swim this time I will be able to film it. Just before we go in we see a snake in the river right by our feet and flying fish rippling the water.  Andres jumps in with us and a few minutes later we both struggle to keep up and decide to head back. I have to pause here and explain to you who Andres is as to the group he was one of the most valuable people. He’s a big guy, with a distinctive Danish accent that makes me giggle, who’s been travelling for a few months with his girlfriend. A 25 year old sailor, he is used to strict timings and a disciplined schedule. At the start I didn’t know what to make of him, he turned out to be one of the kindest people I have met who not only enjoys socialising yet he also pushes us to face our challenges. He never hesitates to try new things and encourages himself to achieve the most he can while travelling. Throughout the trip Andres continues to push me to my limits. 

A couple of hours later, after a shower and brunch, we are on our way to Hobus campsite which is by the Fish River Canyon. We look miserably through our windows to the last bit of tarmac road before we hit the unpaved dirt road for the few weeks. It was the hardest goodbye yet. 

I may be stating the obvious here but setting up our tents on the sand was far harder than on the grass. Still we were near the Fish River Canyon, the largest canyon in Africa. 

It was our first hike on the trip and temperatures were soaring in October. It was over forty degrees celsius no one was allowed to hike in the canyon so instead we hiked around it. That day was one of the most difficult days for me. I was wearing my headscarf from 5am until midnight. I felt how much I had taken for granted living in a cold country. 

The scenery distracted me from the heat. At every few metres the canyon would look different. The photos does not do it justice. 

Then the heat would distract me from the scenery.

As the sunset draws in we sit around with cheese and drinks to enjoy our earned stunning panoramic view of the canyon. It was so serene watching the sun set in such a magnificent place, it left us all in such high spirits.

I couldn’t wait to take my scarf of the moment I got into my tent. It suddenly dawned on me that this would be another struggle - keeping my scarf on for long hours in this heat. Yet throughout the trip it only strengthened my faith. I felt I had to fight to keep it. I was the only person in the group who was covered. I was praying in my tent at parching temperature levels as well as running back and forth to the shower block at night, all along the way keeping an eye out for baboons hanging around our campsite.

That night was the first night we were warned about the baboons at the campsite and to be extra cautious if we were to use the bathroom at night. My heart raced at the thought of getting attacked by a baboon as I raced to make it to the toilets. 

Another night I zipped myself into my sleeping bag anxious of the extreme heat that faces us as we go deeper into the desert yet exhilarated to see the Namib desert that I have dreamed of seeing. 

By Mariam Harraz

For the Arabic version:

http://www.huffpostarabi.com/mariam-harraz/-3_10_b_9484196.html

WE ARE THE WOMEN WHO TRAVEL TO AFRICA (2) by Mariam Harraz

South Africa's beauty was beyond what I imagined. I avoided looking up any pictures to not expect anything, my blood was rushing with excitement and nervousness I was finally going to meet my tent partner and the people I would be travelling with for the next 40 days. 

I arrived at the hotel quiet early but the first thing I needed to panic about was my malaria tablets - in the midst of all my injections and planning I bought the ones that give you nightmares and anxiety. I wasn't willing to have that for 40 days, so I checked in and got all the hotel staff running around with me trying to find the right malaria tablets. After dropping off my bags I looked around the hotel's reception, trying to identify what my fellow backpackers would look like, as if they had a description: "scruffy hair, ripped clothes, maybe a person who looks like they haven't showered in days? Possibly?". I asked one of the members if the girl sitting on the couch was from my tour group. He gave me a frustrated look and replied "yes, she's been sitting here since 10 in the morning using the Internet, what is this new generation?!" I laughed awkwardly and went right up to her confidently - at least what I thought seemed quiet confident - saying "hi! are you from the g adventures tour?". Because of her accent, I immediately recognised that she was from Australia, and after talking for a while she invited me to join her and her friend to see Table Mountain. I grabbed my bottle of water, all my camera equipment and chocolate as if that was so important but I had been running on a weird energy of not having slept for two days.

Jo - the other girl I met - had just come back from shark diving. Her story sounded insane, but Jo was exactly that type of girl - one who sought adventure wherever she could. She had travelled to over 50 countries, and Lindsey (the Australian girl) was the polar opposite - an introvert who was relaxed, appreciated her surroundings and enjoyed her personal space. 

Table Mountain is 1085 metres high and the queue seemed more or less that amount of people in its length. It took us ages waiting to go up to the point that when we reached the top point we had about 5 minutes together before we had to take turns to queue to go back down to get to our first group briefing and meeting. 

It hit me when I was up there: I'm finally here, I'm finally travelling, I'm finally away from everything and I'm on my own, no family and no friends to rely on. Little did I know how close you can get to a group of people you just got to know in a few days. 

After making it back down the mountain my heart raced - I would be meeting the rest of the group in a matter of minutes. As I arrived at the hotel I met my tent partner, a 18 year old girl from Canada. My initial reaction was that I would be sharing a tent with a girl that's the age of my younger brother, but I suddenly realised my first faux pas: judging someone without knowing them. Whilst travelling, age and appearance does not matter - we are all here for a reason, and that's because we want to travel and experience new things, that's the base of our friendship. 

When we were briefed I noticed that I was the only one wearing a scarf and hoped that no one would judge me. We were asked to introduce ourselves on the spot. I just said the truth, that I was here to see wildlife and do some photography - Wildlife wasn't exactly the top on my list but maybe it would be at the end of this trip!. 

I managed to scan the room with the corner of my eyes when I first sat down and later on focused on them during introductions. We were all different ages ranging from 18 to 35, after all it was a 'you only live once' tour. There were couples who quit their jobs to go travelling, couples who have been travelling for the past few months. Friends who met on previous travels and the rest of us on the beginning of our adventure. We were 14 girls and 7 boys. It was a diverse group: germans, australians, Austrians, Swiss, British, Canadian, Americans, Danish and then there was me, the only Egyptian in the group. My initial thoughts were "where are all the Asians" I wasn't expecting any arabs but asians where are you out? I spotted a girl who looked so quirky that I thought right away, I am definitely going to to get along with her. 

Colleen our tour guide is South African, Lezinda our truck driver is Namibian. Their accents are very similar and I enjoy listening to them. They both have very similar ways of dressing: shorts and t-shirts, their body posture and the way they talk comes across very confident and slightly manly. I feel proud and not one bit worried that there are two women touring us through Africa for 40 days.

I felt anxious that the group could be split into smaller groups. 

Briefing was long, with many rules. Any form of discrimination would not be tolerated. This was a rule that put my heart at ease. 

The next day we woke at 6am, our routine was: tents down, backpacks in the truck, breakfast, pack up everything and back on the road again. 

We met Augustus, our truck. I pictured 'him' to be much smaller than this - probably half the size - I didn't even realise there would be so many compartments: a compartment for our luggage, one for our tents, and the rest were for kitchen utensils and food. 

We left the hotel at 7am and were out of Cape Town within the hour. We headed to Highlanders Vineyard run by a kind man called Sparky, his wife and their two sons. The scenery was incredible on our journey, just miles and miles of untouched landscape that seemed to go on for infinity.

For the first time, we are taught how to set up our tents and boy are these things heavy! It took time and a lot of practice to get it right, thank god we were camping on grass and not sand. 

I was the only one walking around with my hiking boots in the heat. I am not really keen on walking bare foot on the grass, but the least I can do is put on some flip flops which would make me feel much cooler and comfortable.  After lunch a few of us decided to go on a hike. It was midday and boiling hot - in hindsight I regret this decision! I was the first one on the first day of the trip to already be sick. Not a good start...! 

One thing that stood out to me were the showers: they were beautiful! It was basically a square a hole: as if it was a window with no glass. As a consequence, when showering, you have the most amazing and clear view of the mountains and scenery. It was incredible. I even end up showering twice just to feel better and have that view. We were told that these are probably the nicest showers we will have. I miss them already. 

That evening, Colleen and Lulu set up a fire for us as the temperature dropped and gave us a briefing of what was going to happen the next day. Our day would start from 5am! After dinner we got closer to the fire and had marshmallows and then there was the moment we all had to say something funny about ourselves along with a casual introduction. 

I panicked over what to say, everyones stories are hilarious and very personal and when it came to my turn I panicked a little and said: "Hi my name is Mariam, I hate camping, I hate the heat, I hate insects and to be honest I am terrified of animals, but here I am in Africa for 60 days." I was slightly embarrassed but I heard people burst into laughter which is always good sign. Frankly that line couldn't be more me. 

Before bed I look up to the sky and realise this is the first time I see this many stars. What have I been missing out on? I head for my first night in the tent in my sleeping bag that was meant to keep me warm in 0 degrees which I can say now, it doesn't keep me warm in 10 degrees. As I zipped myself up in my sleeping bag, I realised that this was officially the beginning of my adventure and the first day was already over. I couldn't wait to see what else comes my way.

By Mariam Harraz

For the Arabic version: 

http://www.huffpostarabi.com/mariam-harraz/story_b_9420042.html?utm_hp_ref=ar-blogs&ncid=fcbklnkarhpmg00000001