And so we come to the end of this little adventure, but here’s a small innovation for the last travel blog – a combination of photo gallery and blog post with a couple of video clips thrown in. I hope Yury is happy with the balance between text and images at last? 😉
(Click on the photo to open the slideshow view)
And that is about that. Troopy will be in a box until November and I seem to have brought the rainy season to the South of France. Its been entertaining for me – so until next time, thank you for following!
Steve Cox has joined me on a few little trips before, by way of the Dangerless Sports Club’s bungy jumping jaunts around Europe. This was a bit different though, and I was very happy to have his company, and even more so since he happily and wholeheartedly joined in with the vegan theme. We had a great time travelling around Zambia and Botswana…and he lived to tell the tale…despite some occasionally experimental and less successful cooking!
Over to Steve…
After 24 hours travel I arrived at Victoria Falls international airport, got my visa and picked up my bag. Like a bottle of natural spring water I was looking for a sign with my name on which I was told would be there for my connection to meet Jon. Instead I got an introduction into how things work in Africa, there was no sign and there was not going to be a sign so it was time to head to Maramba River Lodge. The journey was relatively uneventful – I got my Zambian visa, then across the bridge by the falls and into the taxi on the other side of the border. The taxi was genuinely terrifying, I was convinced it would burst into flames or fall apart at any moment and the lack of working seatbelts in the back made me automatically feel much better about the whole situation. #RoadSafetyMatters
At the lodge I have to say it was a good camp site, hot showers and good facilities. Quickly we headed out to Victoria Falls and Jon and Agne did the jump whilst Leo and I watched on with great interest. First night there Jon and Agne and myself had an adventerous vegan meal (their own words) lots of new and exciting things were tried, many of them turned out to be orange in colour which was good because I like the colour orange. Not sure who knocked over the bag of Wasabi coated nuts I guess some things are best left a mystery but I hope the monkeys liked them – I am sure they were a surprise. Agne then headed off to get ready for her return flight and I was getting tired so it was time to get some sleep to the sound of Hippos doing whatever it is Hippos do at 8pm. I slept great that night, from what I can gather Jon also had a good nights sleep, no noise apart from the Hippos*.
* I take it this is a veiled reference to the snoring? 😉
Next day I saw my first Elephants just outside the lodge as we went into Livingstone to get some essentials and take Agne to the Airport.
We waved goodbye to Agne who had a bit of a crappy journey back by all accounts with flight cancellations, d’oh. >.<
Sunday I went to Victoria Falls and got some good pics. Victoria Falls. Very Big. Very Wet. Much Funs.
Got back just in time to head off to Botswana and set off down the road. I say road and this time I mean an actual road, you know with actual tarmac and stuff – something of a rarity on the holiday I later came to realise. One of the nicest things about crossing borders in Africa is the number of people willing to help you get through the organised chaos that is the border, that and the people with the machine guns. After negotiating our way to Botswana, not drowning on the ferry and just about scraping over the line with fees for the car and visa it was onward to our next destination, another nice place where I can happily report I had no problems lowering the tone of with my presence. The beware of the crocodile signs right by our spot right next to the gentle slope down to the river proved to be a highlight worthy of remembrance.
After not being eaten by the crocodiles it was off into the wilds for some 4×4 action and even if I do say so myself, some exceptional map reading and navigations skills exhibited by yours truly. Saw some giraffes on the way, zebra, warthogs and went over some very bumpy sand, some smooth sand, some slidey sand and even some hiding holes in the sand sand. There were probably more types of sand we encountered but there is only so much I can remember about sand in a day. That night we stayed at this place with a bucket shower just outside one of the national parks and had a close encounter with an elephant eating a tree in the dark. I kid you not it was actually eating the whole tree. Think Jurassic World when the troopers are looking for the giant escaped dinosaur and you see the tree and then you realise the dinosaur is in fact the whole damn tree, it was a bit like that…Largest. Elephant. Ever. I won’t deny it – I bravely hid behind the van trying to cast Dispersing Orb.
Over the next few days we saw a fair few new types of sand, experienced new definitions of the word road that I didn’t even know existed and saw plenty from the antelope family, all of the big 5 (including the fearsome African Donkey) but no Lions. We did have an interesting spin round a circuit with a water feature trying to get to a road we wanted to use. Some lake / pond / river thing had inconveniently appeared right where the road was and had swallowed it up, so we went into the water and had a bit of a dip whilst some water buffalo looked on. Oh and we also did a bit of rallying on a large piece of mostly solid road with lots of sand on it which allowed us to get up a bit of speed on the way to Maun. Colin McCray would be proud.
Eventually we hit the Nwetwe and Sua Pans and stayed at Kubu Island camp. This place was literally in the middle of no-where but the pans were awesome to see, a desolate dry huge lake bed for miles in every direction, worth taking a snap or two of that one. At night it was pretty impressive although I think Jon got the better view as he did some paramotoring there so it probably looked pretty awesome from up there.
If you do ever go to Kubu Island and find a blue towel hanging up somewhere at one of the camps please let Jon know it’s probably his.*
* Yes, and also about 5 pairs of shorts/swimming trunks at various stops down Africa!
Kubu Island out of the way we headed ever onwards and looked around the area, more pans some more camp sites which looked pretty good but it was too early in the day to stop so it was onwards to the next location. En-route we had a new passenger, one of the rangers in the parks who control the entry and exit points from various places, he got a lift to the town and we had a chat to him about his job and how things were going in Botswana. Dropped him off at Nata and then headed down to a camp site that had an artificial river and a lot of elephant activity at night. Stayed up and once it got a bit dark there were elephants all over the place, herds of elephants coming to the river to get the fresh water all hustling and bustling, bathing and interacting with each other.
We then headed back north toward Chobe and stayed at this place with an amazing view across the Chobe river, stunning it was. I took one of the paid safari tours through Chobe National Park for the late afternoon / evening tour and got to see loads of animals. There was lots of everything but the highlight was the lions, we saw them waking up from their day napping in the sun and after a bit of yawning and saying hello to each other they all got up and headed off to catch their dinner.
The journey back to Zambia was much faster as we passed through the same border point again – as we had an idea of how it worked!
With one last night at Maramba River Lodge I hired out a Doom Tent (maybe they meant dome tent, I don’t really know) to stay for my last night which had a fold up bed. A bed. AN ACTUAL BED! So shower and real bed that day felt good and a beer where I met somebody who lives not 20 miles down the road from me. Small world.
So last day arrived, an uneventful journey back to Victoria Falls airport just some walking in the sun dodging the guy trying to get me to sit on his bike with him so he can pedal me to the other side of the border and charge me whatever it was he wanted to charge. After a long journey I was finally back home and that 5L mini-keg of black cherry beer which had been waiting so patiently for me got my full attention.
Overall I had a great time on the trip and hopefully Jon enjoyed the company a little bit too. I wasn’t even bothered by the vegan diet. Although I will confess to missing milk with my coffee in the morning but aside from that it wasn’t really that bad once I got into the swing of it, didn’t really notice much of a difference. That’s not to say knowing it was only going to last for two weeks wasn’t a factor. 🙂
Thank you Steve! Glad you had a good time – thank you for your company and masterful navigationing, and for getting into the spirit of it all! Where to next?
Last time I talked about vegan meals on the road, we were crossing from Malawi into Zambia. The more south we have gone in the last couple of months, the less we have gone out to eat and started cooking more and more in the car. There are a few reasons for this: firstly, there are better stocked supermarkets; secondly, there isn’t as much traditional foods to try, but rather a mix of different cuisines, mostly meat-based; and thirdly, the places we have been staying in lately have “game” on the menu, basically the animals we see running around wild end up on people’s plates. No thank you.
When we got to Lusaka, I thought I got rid of yet-another-illness of the stomach and we got some tomato juice and pickles and celebrated with a Bloody Mary. A day later I ended up going to the hospital (unrelated to the drink) and found out I have multiple infections in my digestive system and got put on yet another platter of pills, so Jonathan had to drink all the consecutive gin&tonics and Bloody Marys for a few weeks.
While in Lusaka, we had gone out to eat twice (not counting chips). The first meal was at the mall, and we ate in an Indian fast-food place, which was alright and even good by mall standards. The second time we ate at a backpacker place where we had gone to check out the wifi and the bar. Jonathan ordered a veggie burger, while I opted for the beans and rice; the food was quite yummy despite taking about an hour to make and driving us into hunger-induced bad tempers. I found the “veggie burger” option in a few places actually, which is a nice addition to the usually predictable chips.
Before leaving Lusaka, we found a little Indian shop that sells Indian snacks, so of course we had to buy some. The most bizarre looking one ended up being the insanely oily but addictive one, whereas the others left us mostly indifferent. They are good to munch on before lunch, but they are so oily that everything in the front of the car gets oily as well.
After Zambia we headed to Zimbabwe, and in Harare went out to eat the first night – to the Holiday Inn restaurant. They had a buffet which surprisingly had quite a few (accidentally) vegan options. On top of that, they apologized tremendously that they didn’t have more for us, and only charged us the price of one meal. Incredible? We had some salads and then some sadza (maize meal) for the first time on the trip, and I wasn’t impressed. I know it is a staple in many countries but it was just a bit bland and reminded me of baby food – or kindergarden food.
The other amazing thing about Harare of course was that we visited V Delights – the Vegan Friendly Products (read interview here) restaurant, which is completely vegan. There are many items on the menu, all catered for different kinds of people, some are vegan African dishes, some more Western ones, then there are a whole lot more “healthy” options, and then again more options suited for new vegans or transitioning vegans. The pies and the cookies we had in V Delights were just out of the world. If you are ever in Harare, you have to stop by there!
While staying in Victoria Falls, we went to one restaurant twice – and had some tapas. There were a few vegan options (I had maize again, this time with some spinach things inside) but the second time we came the food quality had dropped significantly. Their gazpacho was too salty, their toasted bread was soggy, but overall it wasn’t so bad I guess.
The last place I want to talk about (before mentioning that we are going to check out the Ethiopian restaurant here in Windhoek!) was called La Marmite in Windhoek. We accidentally stumbled upon the place in the “Zoo” park in the center, thinking we would only have drinks but then saw the menu and decided to try out the vegan options. The food was pretty good, and the dishes are supposedly variations on Western African cuisine. I had a stew with okra, Jonathan had another stew with groundnut sauce, and we also shared spring rolls and salad. Windhoek has a lot of places to eat and drink, and I am sure traveling vegans would have no problem finding food here.
The rest of Namibia – not so much. In Botswana and Namibia a lot of expensive lodges (where sometimes we end up staying because they do cheap-ish camping) the menus pride themselves on having extravagant game steaks – gemsbok, springbok, kudu, oryx, and so on. The first place we stayed in Namibia, in Gobabis, was one of those places. I think I already mentioned how awful the service was in a previous post, but let me add that the menu was incredibly un-vegan, and when we tried to get something altered, it came as is, so I ordered potato wedges, asked for “no mayo” and they still brought mayo. Trying to ask for some olive oil instead of creamy dressing turned into another ordeal. This is sadly the way it is in most places where expensive guests are catered for. We had another buffet experience, this time in the Etosha Park, and I ended up eating sad salad and boiled rice with mustard. Only after we paid we were told “oh yes there is a separate thing for vegetarians” like the waiter couldn’t have told us earlier or figured something was wrong as he saw a pile of sad rice with nothing on it on my plate. Oh well – I was just getting my cold then and I was already in no mood for food anyway.
As for us cooking our own meals, we have come up with some real highlights lately. We have been buying leeks because I personally love them and Jonathan makes a really nice potato leek soup. Sadly one day I decided to make it, with a special twist (pickles) but I didn’t manage to achieve the taste I wanted, which was a shame. Otherwise we’ve had a lot of curries and chillies, there was a particular evening meal I remember well. We bought a box of white wine, which was quite fancy (by our standards) and I wanted to make a few dishes. I made a stew / chilli with cabbage, cauliflower, potato, beans and so on. I also made guacamole (the avocados are good again) and Jonathan toasted some brown German bread as we had no tortilla chips to go with the guac. It was truly magical, the whole combination!
And then just the other night Jonathan made one of his coconut curries which was supposed to be very good for my sinuses, as I was really ill at this point. There was chilli sauce and ginger, and many other ingredients, and they blended so well together that we had to restrain ourselves to leave some for the next day’s lunch.
A word about chakalaka: what is it? where does it come from? It is a tasty canned mixture of tomato gooeyness with some veggies and curry flavoring – and quite spicy too! It has an unforgettable taste and smell, I mean I recognized somebody else having it in our campsite yesterday. It can be put on bread, it can be used in stews and sauces and curries. We mostly put it on bread, but sometimes we also use it in sauces. They even make chakalaka packet soup! Which we had once as well, it didn’t look like much but it was spicy and it was better than tomato packet soup.
We’ve had a lot of snacks, most of them quite unhealthy, so instead I am adding a picture of me snacking on tomato paste, something I do quite often. We are done with our adventure for now, excited to try out the Ethiopian restaurant in Windhoek(we really miss Ethiopian food) and overall it hasn’t been hard being vegan on the trip at all! I do realize we have the option of cooking for ourselves, which a lot of times saved us, but in reality everywhere will have at least rice or maize and some vegetables. However, Ethiopian food has been the most memorable by far on the whole trip, both in terms of availability and quality of taste!
It has been quite an eventful few days since we last updated. It starts with a hospital in Lusaka and ends in a hospital in Victoria Falls. Both times it has been me, the unlucky vegan warrior stumbling across the African plains.. no, not quite so dramatic.
One of the main reasons we remained in Lusaka for a few nights was actually because I was sick and we needed to see a doctor. I won’t go into details, because they are not very pleasant. But in Lusaka we found a nice private clinic, I saw a doctor, then did a bunch of lab tests, after that we waited for a very long time, but finally the results came in: no scary parasites, no weird diseases, but nasty fungal and bacterial infection of the stomach, intestines and who knows what else. I was instructed to take 8 pills every day, and that is not counting Doxycycline for malaria! My body was feeling rough, having been ill for a few weeks and having to pollute it with more medication. On the bright side however, we got to stay for Zambia’s 50th anniversary of independence celebrations, in the capital city!
There was a parade I believe, but we missed it. We walked around the city, the streets were quiet without traffic on some of the major roads, and people wearing clothes made out of Zambian flags, the country’s national colors, and some men wore national football jerseys, some specifically made for the 50th anniversary. Lusaka’s center is small compared to other capital cities, but it is lusciously green and didn’t seem too dirty. On our first night in the city, we went out for a beer (that was before the clinic visit and 8 pills) and on the way back encountered an entourage of scantily-clad women hanging out on the corner of a posh street with embassies. We read about the Zambian night-walkers in this part of town, so we didn’t really want to hang around and hurried home. On the way back I stumbled upon uneven ground and fell on my knees and palms, with deep scrapes on the latter. I am unlucky! What I also noticed in Lusaka was the amount of foreigners, or expats, hanging out in the center and the shopping mall. Probably comparable to Nairobi, or even more. We also managed to find the Indian corner, as we have done before in African capitals, and bought Indian snacks: some were bland, some were good, and some just downright addictive and greasy.
After a few days in the capital we headed for Lake Kariba. We decided to stay one night somewhere on the beach, and the next day continue to the Zimbabwe border. The place we found on the lake had a campsite right on the beach and was completely overrun with people! We haven’t seen so many people, especially not foreigners, anywhere in Africa to be honest. There were a lot of Zambian families, either on the lake as a day trip, or staying in cottages for a few nights, and even a few camping in tents. The camping spot was beautiful, with the full view of the manmade lake, the islands, the red soil underneath the water (colored my hair a bit after a swim), but the facilities were unpleasant, and herds of goats came foraging in the trash in the morning.
Crossing into Zimbabwe we had to drive on the dam from one side of the lake onto the other. This border post was very strange, it was merely a big tent with a long table and three or four guys sweating inside in the semi-darkness. The strangest thing perhaps was a little short stout man who was half-murmuring to himself (or to us) as we passed him on our way to the tent, but we just thought he was one of those money changers or whoever else hangs out around borders in these parts. The immigration officer sent us first outside behind the tent – and who do we meet, but the same stout man disapprovingly shaking his head at us. It turned out he was the health check person (they have those at some borders too, mostly checking yellow fever certificates or temperature for ebola). He was so upset we didn’t follow what he said to us as we passed – apparently he told us to go with him! He accepted no apologies, but made us stand there reciting everything we know about ebola, like two dirty schoolchildren who have just misbehaved and are now made to stand in front of the class and recite the rules. What a peculiar man, and even more peculiar was that he made us ink our thumbs and only then sent us on our way. The inky thumbs stayed with us all day.
We knew we weren’t going all the way to Harare in one day, so we tried to stop at Karoi, but the only accommodation they had was a run-down $80 hotel. We pressed on to Chinhoyi, but just outside the city we saw a Chinhoyi Caves National Park with a pretty decent cheap campsite. In the morning we set out to Harare, got there pretty quickly and checked in at the newly built N1 hotel – we needed wifi for several things and it was nice to relax in a real room for the night.
After getting settled in, we walked around the city for a few hours. It was really quite magnificent: long wide straight roads, the center divided into squares, sidewalks, mostly cleanliness, and the park was lovely as well. The buildings were glistening in the sharp afternoon sun, clean and tall, and some with very unique architecture as well. Definitely unlike any African city we’ve come across so far!
The next day in Harare was somewhat of a let-downer, and then a steep slope up. We had set up a meeting with the people behind Vegan Friendly Products and V Delights. We were very early, so we drove by one of the campsites in the city, thinking we might stay the extra night and camp there instead of the expensive hotel. As we rolled up to the campsite, and parked just outside the gates, we got approached by three guys, two in nondescript uniforms, and one in normal clothes, claiming that we ran a red light and would have to go to the police, have our car confiscated, and so on and so forth. Looking at it now, they were just regular con artists, but quite intimidating, and we were almost running late for our meeting, so what could we do but give them some money and drive away?
Afterwards we met the lovely vegans, Louisa and her family, but that is going to be in yet another interview post later on. For now let me just say we now have baobab powder, and the most amazing local herbal tea, which I am drinking as I write this.
After the “police” incident in Harare we decided to drive away instead of staying the night. We got as far as Lake Chivero, and found a nice place called Kuimba Shiri which is also a bird sanctuary as well as a lodge and campsite. Unfortunately, they were experiencing a dramatic power cut, but the scenery was magnificent and we got to fly some owls! Barn owls are the cutest, I swear.
We were told the road from the lake to Victoria Falls, our way – was going to be bumpy and unpleasant. On the first day’s drive all was well – we passed some decrepit national parks, dry forests, dry rivers, small villages. It was clear that no foreigners pass through these parts – and even not so many Zimbabweans. We couldn’t find a single place to stay – no campsites, no lodges, no guesthouses, so we decided to try our luck at bush camping once more. We followed a small dirt track through the dry wiry forest for few kilometers, then turned onto another, even less used path, and finally came upon a little clearing overlooking a small valley, and decided to stop. We were spooked immensely – people say Zimbabwe is dangerous, not just the people but the wild animals – lions, wild dogs, snakes, elephants, who knows what else. We heard human activity down in the valley and tried to stay as quiet as possible, but had no trouble whatsoever. We rose with the sunrise and packed up, passing only one man on our way out to the main road. Soon after we encountered the bumpy dirt road, and it was really quite awful: potholes, corrugation, big inconspicuous holes, rough gravel, and so on. But eventually we found tarmac again, and proceeded to drive all the way to Victoria Falls. On the way there we encountered a few police road blocks, but the one that got us was because we apparently needed reflective white tape on our car – and had to pay a fine. It was infuriating that literally every road block was catching out the tourists for money. Thankfully we only had one thing wrong according to their rules, and rolled into Vic Falls annoyed but satisfied to have made it here.
We booked a few activities right off the bat, rafting for the following morning and bungy jump and zipline for the next day after that. Later, we walked down to the tapas restaurant, where the food was quite delicious (enough vegan options too!) but at the end of the night the mood turned sour. To understand Vic Falls you have to view it as a complete African package holiday for many people who come here: you have your waterfalls and all the activities to do in the gorge and on the river, you have the national park with all the famous African animals, and you have other more uncomfortable things, such as the “African dances” being on offer every night everywhere. If we were in the bush and encountered a tribe, where a dance was going on, then that would be magnificent. But these were probably college kids, or just locals working a more “exotic” job than selling tourist souvenirs, clad in freshly laundered outfits, and the authenticity is quite spoiled by the women wearing obvious bras and coming up to the stage with backpacks. It was just a bit of a cheap touristy show and we didn’t care much for it. The worst though was an old man (“a fat old git” as Jonathan put it) who was clearly trying to secure one of the dancing girls for his table, and later perhaps for his bedroom as well. It was sickening the way he went about it, and it was sickening that the owner of the restaurant allowed this to go on, and even encouraged it, at least from where we were sitting it seemed that way. Profoundly disgusted, we went to bed.
Now onto what happened today. We got up bright and early to go rafting – I’d never been, wasn’t scared, and was really looking forward to it. Our path lay through 18 (I think?) rapids, some of them rapid V’s (aka very scary and forceful). We had a long meeting with all the other rafters and the guides, they explained the safety, the proper way to paddle, and so on. Finally we got on a truck-bus to the bridge, and from there descended for quite a long time into the gorge to the water. We had seven rafters in our group plus the guide. I sat in the back, Jonathan in the front, with someone in between us. Getting wet, paddling, shouting instructions, it was all great fun, until we came upon a very tricky twisty rapid, where the current either forces you into the narrow rocks, or hits you in the face with full power. What happened next I am not quite sure: I got thrown off the raft immediately as we met the first current, then I spent a fair amount underwater trying to get out but failing, swallowing a lot of the river in the process, and finally clearing the rapid and coming up to the surface, having difficulties breathing. I found my paddle, quickly grabbed it, and was rescued by another raft, with the main guide whose business name is Colgate. It was only after I climbed into the boat I realized my left leg was in a lot of pain. In fact, there was a bleeding gash on the knee with white stuff sticking out, and the ankle down to the toes was a shooting pain that made me think my foot was broken.
They covered my wound as best they could using a first aid kit, but then the problem arose of how to get me back. The gorge is massive, and getting back up is only possible by walking – which I seemed unable to do at this point. Eventually everyone agreed that I should go through the next rapid with my original raft, and then I would be rescued by two guys, who would somehow miraculously take me up the cliffs to the car, and we would drive to a hospital. By the time we cleared the next rapid and I was stationed on the rocks, I lost it a little bit. I had a little sob and a few tears, I was in so much pain and didn’t understand how the hell I was going to climb up this gigantic cliff with a non-working leg. But I told myself to pull it together, and with the help of a few able-bodied men I was able to get to the car – most of the journey I was on the back of Brian, the poor young man had to sweat and struggle through a dangerous path of hot rocks and slippery soil with me hanging on for dear life. Not the easiest thing to do in the blazing 40 degree weather going uphill! I have the utmost respect for the guys who do these rescue missions. Out of everyone who helped me this day, I think to these guys I owe the most.
When we got to the hospital, I was introduced to the funniest doctor I’ve ever met. He seemed so interested in the whole ordeal, like an overly eager intern at the hospital or something of that nature. He explained in detail, and (showed us the gory details inside the knee!) what was wrong with the knee – ruptured patella tendon, gaping hole through which you could see the inside of the knee completely, and a scraped kneecap. He stitched the tendon together, which was quite painful as he had to go digging inside the knee to find the loose end. Then he stitched the tissue, and finally the skin. I am going to have a lovely scar to remember this trip by!
The worst is that I can’t really bend my knee, and I am not allowed physical activity for 6 weeks at least, which puts a few questions as to what we are going to do for the rest of the trip? Just drive everywhere, no walking or climbing for me? No swimming for sure… It’s all up in the air right now. I guess I was lucky to escape without further injury! Rafting is fun but I am never doing it again.
I was worried that this post was going to be all a bit samey…we’d travelled around Lake Malawi and stayed in some lovely places (and some only slightly less so), but enthusing about the beautiful scenery of lakes and mountains and the friendly people of Malawi didn’t seem to have a story to grab the reader. Then we crossed into Zambia and spent a couple of days and nights surrounded by the sights, smells and sounds of wildlife in all its forms, and we have tales to tell. So the delay caused by the scarcity of any usable internet has turned out for the best I think – but apologies anyway!
That isn’t to say our travels through Malawi weren’t worth reporting – a country we went through as a result of a late change of plan after not getting into Mozambique turned out to be a highlight of the trip. Its just that I feel a little as if it was too nice, and we spent lots of time in swimming in the clear (though Bilharzia afflicted) waters, snorkelling and watching the multicoloured fish and crabs. We spent a couple of nights up on the escarpment overlooking the lake at an eco-campsite, eating excellent vegan food (see Katana’s food blog on that) and visiting Malawi’s highest waterfalls.
But again I’m getting ahead of myself – our first experience of Lake Malawi was in fact in Tanzania, just before the border. We camped on a sandy beach under the shade of a tree at the Blue Canoe Safari Lodge at the end of a long day’s drive from Songea – the last 50km in the dark over dusty, rough, stoney roads filled with bicycles, pedestrians, goats and oncoming headlights. We even got bogged in soft sand 2km from our destination – requiring the full 4WD capabilities of Troopy to get unstuck, and leaving us with the front hubs stuck in Lock position as a spring had slipped off inside preventing release. This was the first use since the repairs at Toyota Kenya…so I have suspicions! Its OK now though – I dismantled and reassembled the locking mechanisms in some quiet time further down the lake. But anyway, we spent 2 nights at the Blue Canoe, spending a full day there swimming in the lake and cleaning Troopy inside and out – and maybe having a luxury G&T on the veranda of the lodge whilst watching the sun set. It was an easy place to linger, and the bananas we bought in the village (Matema) were the tastiest I’ve ever had – short and fat, with a hint of pineapple.
On our second morning, we packed up and headed for the border – the rough road was a lot easier to drive in daylight! Apart from a slightly eye-watering fee of $100 for Katana’s visa (my entry stamp cost nothing), the formalities at the border were pretty painless and we rolled into Malawi not really knowing what to expect.
I like Malawi a lot. The people are friendly when approached but not intrusive – even the boys who wanted to ‘guide’ us around the waterfalls got the message that we wanted to just chill and experience the natural environment so left us alone. The lake has the clearest waters I can remember, showing off the multicoloured (and unique) fish that inhabit it, along with some big and colourful crabs that I was surprised to find in a freshwater lake. Away from the lake the forests were dry and dotted with forest fires, but these didn’t seem the result of land clearance rather than random dry-season events. We didn’t venture into the National Parks, but saw plenty of smaller wildlife (and larger spiders!).
Our first night in Malawi was at Chitimba at a campsite frequented by commercial overland trucks – a strange way to travel I think – the trucks we have seen are not particularly adapted to rough terrain or anything (no 4-wheel drive or rugged suspension for example), but they carry lots of camping equipment and it seems a popular way to see the continent. The passengers do seem a little jaded on arrival, though I guess the same could often be said for us after a hard day on the road! We swam in the surf on the lake with a mixture of local kids and western travellers – quite a bruising experience in the morning after the wind had created quite a swell on the sea-sized lake.
We then made the short drive up 15km of rocky track hairpins to The Mushroom Farm, an eco-campsite where we looked down on the lake, swinging in a hammock in the forest. It was from here we walked up the hill to the waterfalls with a classic view of water pouring off an escarpment over a lush forest with vine-bearded trees.
Leaving there we took the back (dirt) road through the hills – mixed forest, fields and banana plants – back towards the lake at Nkhata Bay. On the way we checked out the slightly strange world of Livingstonia – a mission settlement that was established by the Scots up in the hills away from the malaria-ridden lakeshore. It is little more than a hilltop village, but alongside the rather British-looking church it now has a university – I suspect studying here is a different experience to most!
After another couple of stops camping by the lake, it was time to head West, possibly without a wild swim until we hit the Atlantic! We’re getting used to these border crossings now, so we had little trouble though some annoyance getting into Zambia – the usual currency touts and a few extra charges were little more than an irritant. After a stopover in Chipata, where we picked up a couple of backpackers who were heading our way, we made the trip to South Luangwa National Park with the aim of seeing some big African wildlife. We were not to be disappointed. Slightly terrified, but not disappointed.
As we set up camp at The Wildlife Camp on the banks of the Luangwa River, just outside the park proper, we were already treated to hippos lounging in the water and a variety of antelope heading down for a drink. Later on, elephants appeared out of the bush on the far bank, crossed the river and passed by the camp just 20m from where we watched. Baboons and monkeys caused minor mayhem as usual and we were told stories of elephants rolling cars over after smelling oranges inside. As more elephants passed behind the camp, something made a fearsome growl from the pond – a hippo had taken up residence and objected to the elephants intrusion…a sentiment I was to appreciate myself, though I’m not big enough to risk or be able to growl like that – it sounded like an angry lion.
That night, we slept to the sounds of hippos booming and munching grass, elephants rhythmic rumblings, and a loud chorus of frogs. In the morning we wondered why the backpackers we had given a lift had moved their little tent across the site and under one of the thatched shelters. It turned out that an elephant had brushed passed their tent in the night, and they had thought better of the instruction to stay in your tent on the basis that it was a tiny tent that an elephant could easily tread on and squash them without noticing. This was just 20m from our camping spot in Troopy, and I thought that was quite close enough, even if a little disappointed to have missed seeing it.
We spent the day watching wildlife from the camp – more elephants came and went, and hippos plodded back and forth between the trees and the river. But to see lions, we went on a night drive into the park. Check out the photos for week 19 – we saw leopards close up, more elephants, and lions hunting zebra. It was quite a chilling experience to be amidst big cats in the wild, wandering around and occasionally glaring at us as they woke up and prepared for their night’s hunting. Then it absolutely chucked it down with rain and we were glad of the canvas roof over the open top landrover we were in, even though we still got drenched.
Back at camp we settled in to sleep. Not for long. The unmistakable stomach-rumbling communication of elephants came closer, and we were aware of a big old tusker wandering up the gulley into the camp. We heard the shredding of leaves and snapping of branches as the elephant devoured the nearby trees. Then it was right there outside our mosquito net – this was actually really scary after hearing the stories of wrecked cars and break-ins to storage rooms. We felt extremely vulnerable in the canvas and plastic roof platform we sleep in, just a couple of metres from and at the same level as a big elephant’s backside. Katana was particularly glad it didn’t have to take a leak…we would have drowned. We held our breath and tried to calm our heartbeats…and in the end it moved slowly away and on past the end of the campsite as we watched, now more excited than scared. Another big elephant and a little baby one then came the same way, and by now we were only slightly terrified and hugely in awe. What a fantastic experience?
So as we drove around the park the next day, taking Troopy to see the wildlife (and glad we did because some of the tracks were now very soft and muddy, or just plain wet), we had a slightly different feeling about the big grey silent giants. We saw lots of wildlife, including giraffes which we hadn’t seen since Samburu in Kenya, but couldn’t track down any more lions. Afterwards we camped at another campsite just outside the park gates – I figured we’d try a spot in the middle this time, away from the trees since one close encounter with an elephant was quite enough – unforgettable, actually awesome, but quite enough thank you. So we parked up by a thatched camp shelter and went for a swim in the pool overlooking the river – not bad accommodation for $10? Obviously, an elephant then wandered through camp and went to work hoovering up acacia pods from around the raised pool area. I could have reached out and patted him on the mud-caked head.
So – enough with all the elephants you think? Not quite. The closest, scariest experience we saved til that night. As it turned out, we had camped on the very spot where the previous night some elephants had come raiding the camp and found a metal storage box of food securely locked up. They had smashed it, and used the plastic (sealed) rubbish bins to bang on a car roof. I almost decided to move…
I woke from a deep sleep for some reason. Something moved on the thatched roof outside Katana’s mosquito-net window…oh hell, baboons I thought and made shusshing noises and waved at it. It jumped onto the side of the car and ran down the outside of the canvas. Shhhoosh, get off I whispered and leant over to swat at it. As my hand made contact, I woke up another notch and thought, “That’s not a baboon…”. Baboons are not so dense and heavy feeling, nor are they 6ft long and grey. They also don’t have big, white curved tusks. All those warnings about being quiet, not moving and not startling elephants came rushing back. This could end very badly.
Fortunately, it seemed to take the hint and backed away. I looked out on 2 adults and a young elephant wandering round the back of Troopy. Then a trunk appeared, sniffing at the back window as I struggled out of my sleeping sheet. Then there was a loud tearing noise and a clang of tusk against metal and I had visions of the roof being ripped off with one easy swing of an elephant’s head. I might have slightly lost it at this point and despairingly shouted at the intruding grey face. It seemed to work, or the big old softy felt sorry for me, or didn’t like how I smell (most likely, I hadn’t brushed my teeth) – but all 3 elephants turned and walked off to look at the next camping pitch, and then off the site followed by the 2 night-watchmen and their torches.
There was no damage – the tearing was the velcro of the mossie-net windows being pulled apart. We pulled the roof down and slept downstairs…with just the sound of wild dogs or jackals, hippos and frogs to add to the intermittent alarm calls of the birds. We left the next day, fully satisfied with our wildlife encounters, though I am still rather embarrassed to have mistaken an elephant for a baboon and slapped it on the trunk.
Vegan travels around the world in our off-road camper van Troopy.