Jun 1 2010

Rwanda – diary 2010-05-22 to 2010-05-30


The drive to the Rwandan border was about an hour and a half from the Mocray Motel. The road was in relatively good condition and was surprisingly quiet for a national road and main border crossing. We passed through the Tanzanian side without any delays and were elated to find out that South African passport holders do not have to pay for a Rwandan visa. With the carnet and passports stamped we were free to explore Rwanda for 30 days.

Once we were on the road there was a little bit of confusion as to which side of the road we should be travelling on. We were in a French speaking country again and we had a suspicion that we should be driving on the right hand side but were struggling to figure it out until we saw a truck ahead of us which confirmed our suspicions. The drive to Kigali was really beautiful. The terrain is mountainous and covered with intensively cultivated crops. The different colours of green on the hillsides resembled that of a multitude of green, gold, yellow and brown patchwork quilts. The Rwandans were happy and waved gaily at us as we drove by. As we approached Kigali we were once again astounded at how different it was to what we had imagined. We could have been driving in Durban with its skyscrapers, modern buildings, green botanical gardens and water fountains. It far exceeded our expectations and we were amazed to see how swiftly Rwanda was moving forward after its gloomy history. The main reason we were visiting Rwanda was to do the Gorilla trek in the Volcanoes National Park in the north so we hastily located the ORTPN Office to enquire about availability and costs. The office was just about to close so we were lucky enough to be allowed in to ask a few quick questions and find out the cost of the Gorilla Trek – $500 per person. We said we would return in the morning to purchase our permits after deciding on when we would like to do the trek.

After a stressful money changing experience (I am a little paranoid now since our Zambia incident) we made our way down to the Gisozi Genocide Museum. It was an informative and emotional exhibition that drew attention to the build up and ongoing genocide events that occurred between the Hutus and Tutsis since the 1960’s. The most heart rendering part for me was the children’s memorial where photographs of deceased children as young as 6 months old were on display with information about their hobbies, likes, dislikes and characters printed below their portraits. Tutsi women and children were the most targeted as the Hutu soldiers wanted to eradicate the next generation of the Tutsi. There were various other displays of hundreds of bones and skulls that brought shivers down my spine. It was a morbid way to spend the afternoon but we felt it was important to be educated on Rwanda’s history. The mass killings occurred only 16 years ago and what amazed Kirk and me was how quickly the country has picked itself up, put the past behind and moved on to create a country that is attracting more and more tourist each year as well as developing at a rapid pace.

We popped into a bar cum restaurant called Executive Carwash that allows camping on the extensive green lawn behind the building. The owner, Francis, is Kenyans and started his business many years ago. The name is peculiar but well suited as it is situated right next to a car wash and when middleclass folks are getting their cars washed, they pop into Executive Carwash and have a few beers and watch the latest sport. We were happy to see that they were screening the Super 14 Semi Final and then the European Cup Final. We secured a good table, ordered goat brochettes with fries and salad and enjoyed the atmosphere. The open air setting meant that we didn’t feel claustrophobic as the place filled up. More and more tables were shimmied into any available space. The Schol beer promotion of ‘buy one get one free’ ensured that the customers were happy and in high spirits. We made our way to our tent after a very cold shower and listened to the crowed in the restaurant celebrate their teams win. Kirk had unfortunately stubbed his toe on his way back from the gents and was feeling quite a bit of discomfort.

After a good nights rest we enjoyed a good breakfast of avocado on toast and made our way to the ORTPN office. We had deliberated the cost of the Gorilla Trek but settled on the fact that it was a once in a life time opportunity and that we simply had to do it. The only concern was Kirks’ toe and whether or not it would have healed in time. We made the booking for Thursday so that he had 4 days to get it sorted, popped into Simba Supermarket to stock up on supplies for the next few days and headed towards lake Kivu for a little bit of relaxation time.

The drive took us through the most splendid scenery. The road followed the contours and took us into the valleys and up the spurs. The cultivation was again staggering with numerous banana trees, wheat, sugar cane and corn. When we reached the top of the mountains we were afforded sweeping views of Lake Kivu, a huge crater lake forming the border between Rwanda and the DRC. It really was a stunning drive and we were in no hurry to get to our destination. As we descended the mountains we came across masses and masses of tea plantations. Rwanda is renowned for its tea and coffee and we were in the heart of it. We arrived at Paradis Malahide just after 4pm. They don’t really have a camping area but we were happy to camp in the parking area as the setting was lovely and right on the lake.

The next 2 days were not really used for resting. The laundry bag was overflowing and it took a full day to hand wash and hang everything out to dry. I was absolutely shattered at the end of our 1stday at Lake Kivu but we managed to enjoy a couple of hours chilling on the sun loungers, overlooking the lake in the afternoon but were not able to stay up much later than 8pm. The following day was much the same with Mvubu and the bedding getting a wash, a little bit of tidying and eventually spending the afternoon relaxing playing Igisoro (a Rwandan board game) and sipping hot Rwandan coffee. Kirks’ foot was not doing too well. He had suffered from Gout in Ghana, form an abundance of red meat, and he feared that it had returned as he could hardly move his big toe. It also happened to be the toe that he stubbed but that seemed to have mended quite quickly.  We were supposed to be doing the Gorilla Trek in 2 days time and it was not looking too promising.

The following morning marked no improvement so we packed up our belongings and visited the doctor at the Primus Brewery. We were treated to 1stclass medical treatment with both Kirk and me getting Malaria tests, Kirk’s uric acid level checked as well as his white blood count. The Malaria tests were negative, Kirk’s uric level was better than normal but his white blood count was high. He had picked up an infection in his foot from when he stubbed his toe. After an anti-inflammatory injection, a prescription for antibiotics and a letter from the Doc explaining Kirk’s situation, we were on our way. I was now forced to drive…after 7 months of not driving I was now in a position where I had to drive this huge vehicle on the wrong side of the road. It didn’t last very long as I was uncomfortable driving in a foreign African country on the wrong side of the road. Kirk assured me that the injection had worked and that he was now capable of driving. I relinquished the driver’s seat without hesitation and found comfort in the passenger’s seat once again. We drove the 80km to Rhungheri where there was another ORTPN Office. The terms and conditions on the Gorilla Permits stated that a refund would only be issued if you couldn’t walk due to illness after reporting to the departure point. We didn’t want a refund; we wanted to postpone it for 4 days so that Kirk’s foot could get better. The ranger, Justin was super helpful and after a few phone calls to the head office in Kinigi and Kigali, we successfully moved it to Sunday. We hadn’t really rested at Lake Kivu so we decided that we were not going to do any form of admin whilst waiting for our Gorilla trek; we were going to use the time to read, take slow walks and enjoy the solitude of the volcanic mountains that surrounded us. We stopped at the local agricultural market to buy some fresh vegetables ad made our way to Kinigi Guest House where we set up camp in the car park. Nestled 2000m above sea level on the slopes of a volcano we were feeling the chill in the air. The surroundings were breathtaking with mountain ranges of volcanic peaks encircling us. We were at the foot of the setting to Dianne Fossey’s biography ‘Gorillas in the Mist’. It was magical knowing that we would be walking in the dense forest in search of these enormous primates in a few days time. Excitement and anticipation was growing but we had to be patient and hope that Kirk’s foot would be well enough to endure the trek.

Kirk’s foot healed very quickly. We moved the walk forward a day and would now be trekking on Saturday. We placed a request that we see the Susa family, the group of gorillas that Dianne Fossey habituated. We had been forewarned that big tour companies get in early and take the best groups so we planned on getting to the head office at 6:30am. When we arrived on Saturday morning, bright and early, the front lawn of the head office was teeming with anxious gorilla trekkers. As luck would have it, few people were feeling fit enough to do the Susa group trek. We ended up with only 6 people on our group and were elated that we had been awarded our request.

We drove for and hour and fifteen minutes until we reached the Bispoke Parking area to start the climb. We walked up a steep volcanic slope occupied by intensive agricultural crops and small primitive huts that were occupied by the farming communities. The views of the valley were spectacular and we were welcomed by happy children and women going about their daily chores. We reached the wall to national park which stretches for 72km crossing enclosing a national park to protect the last of the mountain gorillas in DRC, Rwanda and Uganda. We took a short break before submerging ourselves into the thick bamboo undergrowth in the Volcanoes National Park. We walked through the dense jungle where evidence of the gorillas was fresh. The previous nights nest was 40 minutes up the hill and when we reached that we knew we were close. We met the trackers shortly after that and they guided us in the right direction. The first sighting of these magical creatures was surreal. They were spectacular. We were instructed that we should keep a 7 meter distance between ourselves and the primates but this proved null in void when we got there as these gentle giants were so inquisitive and chilled out that at times we would be a mere meter from them. The Silverbacks were majestical in their size and stature. They were evidentially the guardians of the family and kept a close eye on the 6 tourists that were clicking away madly with their cameras. The baby of the group was highly entertaining with his abundance of energy and the numerous roley poleys he was doing. He enjoyed imitating the silverback with his attempt at a chest beat and was the apple of the chief silverback’s eye. The females were very relaxed and went about their daily ablutions and pruning of the younger gorillas. It was a privilege to be afforded the opportunity to watch these great animals and share an hour of their day with them

The Susa group is one of the only groups to have a set of twins. Most twins do not survive due to the demand that it places on the mother. The similarity between humans and gorillas is frightening. Their actions, facial expressions and anatomy are so much like you and I that it is difficult not to believe in evolution. The hour that we spent with the Susa family has been one of the most wonderful experiences of the trip. It was worth every penny and if you have any inkling to have such an experience in your life I would say go for it without hesitation!

We reluctantly left the Susa Family saying goodbye and making our way back down the volcano. The experience will stay with us forever.

We visited the market on the way back to Kinigi Guest House where we purchased 2kgs of beef fillet and an abundance of fresh fruit. The variety was incredible as were the prices. The northern region of Rwanda was rich in agriculture with fertile soil and an abundance of land to farm. Our stay had been wonderful and we were sad to be leaving the following day but time was ticking by and we still had other places to see.

Rwanda surpassed both kirk and my expectations. It was the cleanest country we had visited, seeing that plastic is illegal, and the natural surroundings were spectacular. The people were super friendly and welcomed us into their country without prejudice. It is one African country that I would personally recommend for a trip to Africa. The gorillas are obviously the highlight but it also has so much more in terms of the crater lakes, the cities, the national parks and its history that they have moved on from so swiftly. We were impressed and filled with hope that Africa can move on from its dark past.[book id=’26’ /]

Jun 1 2010

Tanzania – diary 2010-05-14 to 2010-05-22

2010-05-14 to 2010-05-22

We crossed into Tanzania at 4:30pm which was a fairly hassle free process. We paid $50 each for our visas as well as $25 for Mvubu to drive on the Tanzanian roads as he was a foreign registered vehicle. After all formalities were over we adjusted our clocks, we had gone forward one hour, and made our way towards the northern shores of Lake Nyasa (Lake Malawi) where we had been told that a new camp was in the process of being opened called Crazy Crocodile. The road there was rough and definitely off the beaten track. We drove through rice paddies and wheat fields that were giving off the most gorgeous light as the sun set behind us. We arrived in the town of Matemba where cries of Mzungu (white man) trailed after us as the children ran excitedly from their homes into the road to wave at us and welcome us into their village. We followed the red Crazy Crocodile signs and eventually arrived at the site of the new camp. Darkness had just fallen so e were feeling a little bit disorientated, furthermore, Thomas, the proprietor was not back from his meeting in Dodoma and so nobody could give us certainty that we were able to camp on the lake shore. Thomas was eventually reached by mobile phone and he was more than happy to have us but he told us that there were no facilities as they were still in the process of building the showers and the toilets. The wind had picked up and rain clouds were looking ominous above us so we decided it was probably better to camp at the established Matemba Beach Lodge and to visit Thomas in the morning.

We arrived at Matemba Beach Lodge and the rains started falling. We set up our tent and sought shelter under the overhang that it provided once we had opened it up. When it came time to shower we were awakened to the fact that we were back in the land of squat toilets and cold showers! We stepped into the shower gingerly, scrubbed up and climbed into bed.

The sun was out the following morning which dried the tent and prepared us for the hot day that was to come. We popped in at Crazy Crocodile where Thomas was there to meet us. He gave us a grand tour and explained the plan he had for the piece of land that was perfectly situated on Lake Nyasa. After a good hour of visiting we said our goodbyes, visited a nearby pottery market and then took a slow dive to Tukuyu. The drive was exquisite and took us through subsistence plantations of coffee, tea, bananas, cocoa, rice, cassava and wheat. The altitude increased from 500meters to 1400meters taking us through a winding dirt which bypassed numerous crater lakes which held much historical importance during World War I. Before reaching Tukuyu we passed a truck loading thousands of bananas to take to the market. We stopped to enquire about the price and came away with 3 avocados and about 20 bananas all for less than a dollar. The beauty about rural Africa is the availability of cheap fresh fruit and vegetables. We settled in at Bongo Camping for the afternoon and evening. It was a community run camp that had basic facilities (cold showers and squat toilets) and a wonderful gaggle of local village children who were immediately intrigued by the mzungus who had just arrived. The afternoon was spent teaching the Tanzanian children how to throw a Frisbee, doing cartwheels and watching them play. When night fell some of the children dissipated and returned to their homes but a few of them stuck around but seemed to congregate around the florescent lights with long sticks. At closer inspection it became apparent what they were doing… catching grasshoppers, a Tanzanian delicacy. They each had an empty 500ml water bottle that was filled with unfortunate grasshoppers. Kirk and I crept off to bed only to be woken by the same grasshoppers that had sought refuge in between the fly sheet of our tent. They were making the most horrendous sound that was reverberating off the canvass. A few vicious bangs on the tent seemed to get rid of them and we were once again able to enjoy a peaceful night sleep.

We didn’t have very far to travel the following morning so we packed up slowly and Kirk was coaxed into the grasshopper hunt. One of the smallest and youngest boys, Augustine, had taken a liking to Kirk and with repeated please of Mzungu Mzungu and a pointing finger, to show Kirk where the grasshoppers were hiding; he managed to fill his bottle up in no time at all. After a good hour of grasshopper hunting we left Bongo Camping and made a slow journey to Mbeya. The drive was once again spectacular with many of the hills being cultivated and giving off an array of different shades of green. We were pretty much restricted from venturing further afield as we didn’t have many Tanzanian Shillings and the banks would only be open on Monday. We stopped off at the BP garage to find out how much a new brake line would cost as we were a little uncertain about the repair job that had been done on the original one after the welding machine nicked it in Livingstonia. The guys at the garage were super helpful and in 3 hours we were all set and ready to go again. Because of our lack of Tanzanian Shillings they were trusting enough to let us go and return the following morning to pay them for their services.

We spent the afternoon exploring the town centre in search of bread and then ventured further afield to Utengule Country Hotel which was set amongst the hills of a coffee plantation owned by some very rich Tanzanians. Their prices were extortionate and even a coffee would have set us back enough to buy bananas for a week. We returned to Mbeya where we camped at the Karibuni Centre in Mbeya. It was a peaceful church yard that again had basic facilities but very friendly people who were very helpful in giving us advice on the roads up north.

We had decided to take the road less travelled towards Tabora which cut through the middle of Tanzania avoiding Dodoma. We did all the necessary admin such as changing money, paying our friendly mechanics buying the odd few groceries and hit the road. The GPS did not recommend the road that we were about to take but we had been assured, the previous evening, that the road was I good condition. The roads were dusty and very rural. Again we were treated to spectacular scenery of undulating cultivated hills and small rural settlements. The road took us to the top of the escarpment offering us sweeping views of the East African Rift Valley. The view was magnificent! The valley was luscious and green and dotted with the odd rocky outcrop and acacia tree. We continued north and drove through many more villages where the people waved frantically and called ‘Mzungu’ to get our attention. We found a great bush camp 220km south of Tabora and 10km north of Rungwa. The setting was idyllic with acacia trees surrounding us and the bell of the grazing cows tinkling in the distance. We made a fire to cook our dinner on and as we were sitting enjoying the solitude that this setting had to offer a herder started playing his pennywhistle, oblivious to the fact that there were 2 mzungus camping a little way from where he was, providing us with a melodious tune and completing the ambience that this tranquil place had to offer. It was just too beautiful.

As you do with bush camping, you rise when the sun does and you hit the road as soon as possible. We were literally in the wilderness as was evident by 2 little Black Back Jackals that were scavenging in the road and decided to run ahead of Mvubu and eventually dash off into the bush. The bird life was also impressive with massive birds of prey perched on the top of trees. We were hoping to see some elephants as there was fresh evidence that they had been on the road that night but they had moved on and were sheltered by the thick vegetation of the savannah. We arrived in Tabora just after 11am where we bought some meat, tomatoes and beer and pushed on to Mwanza, a port town on the shores of Lake Victoria. We were utterly exhausted when we arrived and the camping options were non existence and so we treated ourselves to a little bit of luxury and stayed at Isamilo Lodge. It was a relatively new hotel complex that was perched on the hillside offering great views of the lake from the hotel room balcony. We enjoyed our dinner of Indian curry under the stars on the restaurant terrace as well as the luxury of having TV, air conditioner and hot water in our room. It was a real treat and one that Kirk and I relished every moment of.

We cashed in on the free internet access and spent the following morning updating blogs and sending e-mails after our delicious continental style breakfast. We left Isamilo Lodge just after lunchtime and made our way towards the Serengeti National Park. We had not intended to enter the park on the same day but when we arrived at the gate and made enquiries about the cost and accommodation options in the park it made sense to enter straight away as the park permit was valid for 24 hours. We managed to wangle our way out of paying $200 for Mvubu as we claimed that he weighed less than 2 tonnes and so we got away with only paying $40 for him. The remainder of the costs included $50 each for park entry and $30 each for camping in the park. All in all a grand total of $200 for 24 hours but a magnificent saving of $160! It was 3:30pm and the gate warden assured us that we would reach the designated camping area before sunset which is when all cars were supposed to be off the road. The camping area was 180km away and with sunset at 6:30pm we had quite a distance to cover. The amount of animals on the plains was amazing. The Serengeti most certainly lived up to its name with us bearing witness to herds and herds of zebra, giraffe, impala and warthogs. The migration was still in its early stages with the wildebeest and zebras moving up from the southern sections of the park towards the north. We had entered through the western corridor and bore witness to thousands and thousands of Wildebeest grazing, playing, dancing and butting heads on the lush green plains. It was a spectacular sight. At about 5pm the heavens opened and we were treated to an African savannah storm which turned the clay roads into an ice rink. We were sticking to the speed limit of 50km per hour but alas on 2 occasions we lost control of the car and spun out once. It was a hair raising experience and my nerves were shot by the second episode. Because of the slippery roads we were forced to slow down and made our way into camp at 7pm. The camps were unfenced and had 3 caged dining areas that had been occupied by the tour groups which had arrived earlier in the evening. Kirk and I resorted to cooking and eating our dinner in the open at the back of Mvubu as we normally did. We were in no danger of being mauled by a lion or hyena because the noise levels were enough to chase any intrigued wildlife away. It had been such a whirlwind day that when silence eventually fell and the sounds of the nocturnal predators filled the air, it eventually sunk in that we were in one of Africa’s most eminent national parks and we had the following day to see what it had to offer.

We were up before the crack of dawn and were on the road at 6am. The suns rays had still not touched the earth with its warm rays and we were able to explore the park in darkness for the first 20 minutes. Seronera is the area of the park where most of the animals are concentrated with various other granite outcrops to explore that are home to leopard, cheetah, rhino and lions so we decide to head towards that direction. We had until 11am to search or these elusive animals before having to make our way back towards the gate that we had entered through. The morning started off well with the sighting of 2 big buffalo right outside the camping area as well as a Serval cat running for cover. This seemed to be the 1st of our luck because not long afterwards we spotted our 1st leopard. Next on the list was a pride of lions relaxing in the sun after a hard night of hunting followed by 2 cheetahs stalking and playing together. We were having a wonderful time and were feeling very fortunate but luck seemed to be on our side because not long afterwards we saw 2 hyenas and an abundance of elephants. The Serengeti was most certainly living up to its name and we were elated with our fortune. We had seen 4 of the Big 5 in less than 2 hours and now only needed to hunt for one of the 33 Black Rhino that were in the SNP. We didn’t have much luck with the sighting of a Rhino but we were instead privileged enough to again witness the masses and masses of Wildebeest that were on the march and walking in a westerly direction. We actually needed to stop the car in order for them to cross the road in their droves. We made our way back towards the western gate and were lucky enough again to see a mother and cub leopard in a tree. We were elated with our good fortune. We left the park feeling satisfied that we had made the most of our $200 and vowed to return one day but to do it the luxury way…an all inclusive 5* package. Wouldn’t that be great!

We didn’t venture too far from the Serengeti that evening and camped on the shores of Lake Victoria where fishing Dows were buoyant in the distance and the waves created by the windy conditions lapped onto the sandy shore. The reality of the day took time to sink in and both Kirk and I went to bed content and happy with our recent adventure.

Kirk had checked the welded diff the previous evening and found that it was leaking some oil and so we decided that we should head back to Mwanza to have it checked out by a Toyota mechanic. When Mvubu was on the ramp and we were able to inspect it more closely it was discovered that there was only a very small hole that was not going to cause much of a problem. We left the mechanic without paying for any unnecessary work and instead stopped off at Total to change the oil. We were on the road by 11am heading towards the Rwandan border where we stopped at Morcay Motel to spend the night before crossing into our 20th country. We enjoyed a meal of tough chicken, rice and a tasty tomato sauce at the adjoining restaurant and a couple of beers at the adjoining bar. It was Friday night and everyone was out on the razz. It was lovely to soak up the local atmosphere of Tanzania before leaving it the following day.

We had only spent 8 days in Tanzania but would be returning in a month and a half to climb the infamous Kilimanjaro and explore the coastal region. We were pleased that we had seen a large part of the country that not many overlanders explore and we had managed to visit the Serengeti at a fraction of the cost that it would have been if we had entered through Arusha. We look forward to our next visit.[book id=’25’ /]

May 22 2010

Malawi – diary 2010-05-02 to 2010-05-14

2010-05-02 to 2010-05-14

Malawi, ‘The Land of the Lake’ and ‘The Warm Heart of Africa’ was African country number 18 for Kirk and me. Malawi is known for the expansive mass of fresh water that is enclosed by sheer mountains on either side forming a large section of the Great African Rift Valley. Edged by palm fringed white sandy beaches it was certainly a destination that we were eager to get to. Malawi exudes serious warmth with its bright blue skies and sunny days as well as its friendly locals who make anyone feel right at home.

 Our 1st stop was Lilongwe, the nation’s capital city. We had passed through a very easy border crossing, where the Malawian officials welcomed us to their country with bright smiles and warm handshakes. The scenery was predominantly made up of 80kms of rural farmland and small villages made up of mud huts and thatched roofs. Malawi was beginning to resemble rural Africa again and we were somewhat at ease with this idea. 

Lilongwe was an unusual place. It is not very grand for a capital city but it had the bare essentials to keep the residents happy; a great big Shoprite, fuel stations, clothing stores and restaurants. We made our way to Mabuya Camp where we settled in for the evening. It had been a long day of driving, all the way from South Luangwa National Park in Zambia to Lilongwe in Malawi. The campsite was the hive of activity with a big overlander vehicle and 4 independent overlanders including Kirk and myself. One of the vehicles was a 1955 fire engine which had been converted into a fully contained ‘house’ that had driven all the way from Germany by a family of 4. Johanna and Marcel and their 2 daughters were stuck in Lilongwe as their vehicle had encountered some mechanical problems and they were in need of a mechanic. We chatted to them in the evening and obtained some useful information about our trip up north.

We departed the following morning with the intention of getting to Cape Maclear on Lake Malawi. The road wound up the Rift Valley Mountains and took us to a height of 2000 meters. When we emerged from the valleys we were treated to our first view of the lake, a sapphire blue shimmering mass of water nestled between 2 mountain ranges…it was spectacular! We made our way to Flat Monkeys Camp which was situated right on the beach just outside of the small village of Cape Maclear. We found that Okkie, Ansie, Bettie and Jannie, South African people we had met in South Luangwa National Park, were camped up in the camp ground and so said hello before rushing off to enquire about SCUBA diving courses run at another camp further up the beach. We settled in for the evening and enjoyed the 1st of many sunsets over Lake Malawi.

The next day was full of ‘tourist’ activities. Jannie and Okkie had booked a boat to take them snorkelling, fishing and Fish Eagle feeding and asked Kirk and me if we wanted to join them. We accepted, packed some lunch into a cool box and headed out onto the lake. The snorkelling was surprisingly very good with an array of little inquisitive Cichlids (mbuna rock fish) swimming amongst us and feeding frantically off the bread held by Okkie. The water was crystal clear and a balmy 26 degree celcius. We boarded the boat again and made our way a little bit further along the lake when the local boys on the boat started whistling to attract the Fish Eagles. They threw small fish onto the surface of the lake and we waited for the Fish Eagles to swoop in and collect their lunch. The Fish Eagles call was in abundance and there were up to 6 birds circling ahead at one stage. They are magnificent creatures and their call will always be associated as the call of Africa. The boys tried their luck at fishing but were only successful at catching a great tan. We returned to the shore just after lunchtime where we enjoyed a relaxed afternoon. Kirk and I took a stroll back to the dive centre and booked ourselves on a dive for the following day. We hadn’t dived in over 2 years and thought that a freshwater dive in a lake would be a good refresher and prepare us for future dives in East Africa.

That evening, we all descended upon the beachside bar for sundowners. It had been a magnificent day and we were rewarded with the most sensational sunset over the mighty Lake Malawi. The wine from Jannie and Betties wine farm, Skilpadvlei, was flowing and resulted in us having to postpone our 9am dive to 2pm as we were feeling the effects of it the following morning.

The dive was refreshing and we welcomed the pure air into our bodies! We explored some caves, saw an eel and an abundance of Cichlids and descended to 20meters. The water had cooled down and both Kirk and I surfaced 45 minutes later feeling chilled to the bone and so welcomed the warm sun onto our bodies. The dive was not as spectacular as we were hoping for but we were pleased that we were able to refresh our skills and become familiar with certain procedures. That evening we enjoyed a chicken potjie with our South African friends and an early night.

Most people set off the following morning. Kirk and I had decided to stay until Friday and so after saying farewell to the people we had spent the last 3 days with we went for a walk through the village and enjoyed a village tour. Cape Maclear is a beautiful place with an exceptionally chilled vibe. We enjoyed the tourist activities and found the villagers’ peaceful, friendly and so welcoming.

We left Cape Maclear on Friday having spent 4 days in paradise and headed south towards Mangochi so that we could exchange money and stock up on a few basics. We popped into Sun n Sand, a resort 29km north of Mangochi where Yolla’s (a very good friend of mine) sister is the manager. Upon arrival she welcomed us with open arms and told us that we were to stay until Monday. She put us up in a VIP suite and instructed her staff that we were to pay for nothing. We were taken back by her generosity and when we said that it was far too generous and that we couldn’t possibly stay until Monday for free she would hear nothing of it and insisted. We were treated to wonderful food, a very comfortable suite, stunning views of the lake and Kirk’s ultimate favourite…Super Sport. He was able to catch up on some Super 14 action and with the Sharks beating the Stormers he was a very happy camper! We used the time to relax and plan our onward travels. Time was ticking by and with careful consideration as not to offend Bella; we decided that we should leave on Sunday as we still had a vast distance to travel. We thanked Bella profusely for her hospitality and she sent us on our way with a big bag of gifts from the resort gift shop. We were deeply touched by her immense generosity.

Liwonde National Park was our next stop. Malawi is only 840km long from north to south and is nowhere more than 160km wide so distances are easy to cover. Liwonde was an hour and a half drive from Mangochi and we arrived at the park in time to do a game drive and spot various different animals such as elephant, antelope and crocodiles. Liwonde is rumoured to have the big 5 but with lions only being spotted once in the last 2 years and leopard residing in the thick trees covering the mountainside it is very difficult to see all big 5 in one stay. We set up camp in Chinguini Hills, a camp and lodge situated in the heart of the National Park. Essentially you are camping in and amongst the animals and this was evident that night when we were awoken by the loud chewing sounds of elephant who were literally right outside of our tent. They were having a feeding frenzy, tearing leaves and branches off the nearby trees. When they decided that they were done grazing around our tent their feeding sounds were replaced by that of a whooping hyena. It was spine chilling but an awesome experience.

We set off as early as possible to fit in another game drive before we departed for Nyika Platea. The grass was still very thick from the late rains and game viewings were pretty much hit and miss. We did however have a lot of entertainment when about 20 tsetse flies entered the car. Kirk and I were flapping madly trying to get rid of these sleeping sickness carriers and eventually had to resort to a can of doom. When we were satisfied that no flies had survived we spotted a roan and sable antelope, our first sighting of this type of antelope. We were still in search of a buffalo as we still had not been fortunate enough to bear witness to one as yet but we left empty handed and headed back towards Lake Malawi and the town of Chintheche.

Our arrival into northern Malawi had put us back into rural Africa. We had bought tomatoes from a street side vendor and bought some street food for lunch. We were back into the bartering groove and realised just how much we had missed it!

We descended upon a lodge called Nkhwazi Lodge which was nestled between 2 coves. The sand was white and the blue lake water was lapping onto it gently. The manager told us that the owner was looking to sell the lodge as he was not well and needed to get out of the business. This had Kirk and me thinking what we could do with a place in a prime location such as this lodge. We spent the better part of the evening dreaming about future investments and what life would be like living on the shores of Lake Malawi. All we can do is dream…we still have our initial dream to complete and we were thoroughly enjoying every minute of it.

The bright orange and purple hues woke me up the following morning where I bore witness to the best sunrise I had ever seen in my life! Lake Malawi was full of surprises and our positioning meant that we hadn’t had a spectacular sunset the previous evening but this sunrise most certainly made up for it. We were up and on the road by 9am and headed up the Rift Mountains and onto the Plateau. We drove past some rubber plantations and through the towns of Mzuzu and Rhumphi where we eventually reached the gates to the Nyika Plateau National Park. We had debated whether or not we should visit this park as it didn’t really have much to offer in the form of animal viewing but when we arrived we were pleased with our decision to drive for 5 hours because it was spectacular. The scenery resembled that of the Drakensberg Mountains in South Africa with emerald green undulating hills running as far s the eye could see. We took a slow drive along some of the safari tracks which took us through pine forests and 3 dams that were stocked with trout. The game was sparse apart from the numerous Roan antelope and impala. We made our way back to the camping area and set up our tent for the evening. The temperature plummeted and we enjoyed our dinner in front of a roaring log fire. The atmosphere was grand and thoroughly enjoyed the contrast between the biting cold air and warm caress of the open fire.

The cold air had subsided during the night and we awoke to find that a thick mist had engulfed the hills. As the sun got warmer the mist lifted and revealed the green and gold undulating hills that spread into the valley. The hills were scattered with zebra and Roan antelope, a perfect view to enjoy our coffee and rusks.

Trout fishing was on the agenda for day and so we booted our feet in our hiking boots, which had not been used since Mt Cameroon, and took a leisurely walk to Dam 2 where Kirk tried his luck with his fly fishing rod. The setting was magnificent and we felt as though we were the only 2 people in this beautiful highland setting. The sun was shining and drying up the dew sodden grass and even better, the fish were biting. After a good 2 hours of me lazing on the lakeside and Kirk casting his fly we took a stroll to Dam 1 which was situated right in front of the camp reception. We enjoyed a modest lunch of chicken mayo sandwiches and juice on the banks of the dam and then tackled the 2km uphill walk back to our campsite. We had thoroughly enjoyed our morning stroll but were made aware of the fact that we were both very unfit and in desperate need of some serious training before we even think about taking on Kilimanjaro! The afternoon was spent relaxing and by 4pm the chilly air had settled upon us and so we lit a huge fire and spent the better part of the evening huddled close to the flame reading, eating and enjoying a descent bottle of red wine. We were certainly becoming civilised campers!

The rain was coming down when we awoke the following morning which prompted us to get a move on and pack up with haste. We were on the road by 8am and making our way back towards Lake Malawi. The road took us through some meandering roads and we came upon a pass that descended from 1200m to 500m in a series of sharp hairpin bends. The view of the lake was once again spectacular. The northern part of the lake is a lot more wild and undeveloped which means that the water is unspoilt and still used primarily for fishing. Once we reached the lake shore we prepared ourselves for another ascent. We had decided to visit Livingstonia, a village perched at 1200m at the top of the mountain. We read the warning in the Bradt guide to Malawi which warned travellers not to attempt the ascent in their own vehicle unless it was a high clearance 4×4. We had this and so thought ‘why not’? We started the incline slowly and we climbed and climbed and climbed from 500m to 1200m in 16 kilometres of steep dirt track and a ridiculous number of hairpin bends. We eventually reached the first of the lodges, Mushroom Farm. We drove down the steep driveway and parked in the parking area so that we could enquire about costs. When I got out of the car I noticed a huge oil leak. The Front diff was losing oil at a rapid speed and upon closer inspection; Kirk noticed that the radial arm bracket that is usually attached to the front axel had broken off and had exposed a hole which was where the differential oil was leaking from. We were in a pickle as we were literally in the middle of nowhere and we had a precipitous 16km decline to make before we could get to civilisation. We were told by some local guys at The Mushroom Farm that there was a mechanic at the hospital who may be able to help us. We were in need of a welding machine and this was our closest option. We set off, very slowly and cautiously, in search of the infamous hospital mechanic. We were pleasantly surprised when we arrived at the hospital and saw a descent looking garage but still had to find the mechanic that was going to save us. We asked at one of the clinics in the hospital and they pointed to a corrugated tin roof house that was covered in green moss. This was the house of Lovemore the mechanic.

We knocked sheepishly on the door of Lovemore’s house and we were welcomed in by his wife. Lovemore was stretched out on the couch watching Days of Our Lives. We explained our situation to him and he was more than willing to help. He took us over to the garage and set about preparing for the repairing of Mvubu. The latest of equipment was pulled out of an office and the best welding equipment was part of it. During the 5 hours that it took to weld the radial arm bracket back onto the front axel we learnt that Lovemore had done his training at the local technical school but had also spent 3 months in Scotland where he was taught how to weld. We had a lot of confidence in this well educated mechanic and he did an excellent job (apart from a minor mishap when he managed to knick the brake line during his last weld). We were so grateful for Lovemore’s help and we drove away confident that Mvubu would last the rest of the African journey. We were a little bit apprehensive about the ‘repaired’ brake line as we had a very steep 16km descent to make the following morning and we were praying that Kirk’s makeshift repair using Pratley’s metal solder would do the job.  We made our way down to Lechwe Camp where we were welcomed by a very surprised owner. Not many people choose to drive up the pass in the dark and he was surprised to see us arriving well after 7pm. We explained that we had been up at the hospital fixing Mvubu and that we had in fact done the ascent at 2pm. After a couple of beers we retired to bed thoroughly exhausted and very hungry.

The rain was falling when we woke up from our slumber the following morning. Both Kirk and I were ravenous given that we hadn’t eaten since breakfast the previous morning. We made a scrummy fry up and relished every morsel. Livingstonia is famous for many historical things but its geographical fame is that of a 250meter high waterfall that falls from a gorge into the valley below. Lechwe Camp was a gorgeous campsite which was completely eco friendly with the best smelling self composting toilets I have used. The owners have really put their heart and soul into maintaining the facilities and improving it at any given opportunity. We spent the morning sitting on the deck, which overlooked the valley and Lake Malawi, reading books and taking in the view. When the rain subsided we took a stroll to the waterfall. It was a brisk 25 minute walk through organic vegetable gardens and natural vegetation until we reached a viewing point for the falls. They were really impressive and with the recent rains their power was exacerbated as they plummeted onto the rocks below. Livingstonia was a really lovely place to visit and we would have stayed longer had we not been on a tight schedule. We made a move just after lunch and headed for the Tanzanian border.

Malawi was one of the most beautiful countries we had visited. It really did live up to all of its given names. One thing that amazed me the most were the pedal bike taxis. Young and old extremely fit men transport people on the back of their bicycles to neighbouring towns. It is not only people they transport, they also carry sacks of rice, wheat, maize, tomatoes, sugar cane, planks of wood, cages of chickens, you name it they transport it! I was in complete admiration of these men who used pure pedal power to make a living. Malawi really did get us back into the African groove and restored our energy to continue with the rest of our African adventure.

[book id=’24’ /]

May 19 2010

Zambia – diary 2010-04-24 to 2010-05-02

2010-04-24 to 2010-05-02

We crossed into Zambia via the Wenella-Sesheke border post. All went smoothly at immigration but customs proved to be very expensive. We were told that we had to pay ZK112 500 for insurance, ZK200 000 for Carbon Emission Taxes (there are so many trees and so few industries in Zambia my mind still ponders the reason for this tax), KZ92 500 for Transport and Safety Agency and the last straw was the KZ31 600 for community tax. This all amounted to KZ436 600 or €70 all to drive a vehicle in Zambia So with many Euros out of pocket we headed towards Livingstone in the hope of seeing Vic Falls and possibly doing some sort of  wild activity that the area is famous for. The drive there reminded us that we were in Africa! We couldn’t help noticing just how rural Zambia was in comparison to Namibia. We had a feeling of gratitude as Zambia would be a good reintroduction into the African way of life, but not in a harsh way, as we would still have the luxury of shopping at Shoprite and other westernised stores.

We drove through the town in search of a Foreign Exchange Bureau only to find that all of banks and exchange offices were closed. Our only option was to use the dodgy black market guys who park themselves conveniently outside the closed Forex offices. We should have taken the guide books advice and given these guys a wide berth because as it turned out they managed to scam us out of £100 by their fast fingers and sweet talking. Kirk called off the deal when they decided to change the rate at the last minute and when they returned our cash which hadn’t actually left Kirk’s hand there were 5 £20 notes missing. After driving down the road for 30 seconds and counting the money we realised what they had done. Kirk gave chase on foot. He managed to catch one of the perpetrators who claimed he had done no business with us and was making such a noise that he was beginning to attract a crowd. Kirk thought that it was probably in his best interest to leave him and get the help of a military man who too was coming to investigate what all the commotion was about. Kirk returned to the car and we went in search of the other 2 assailants who we managed to spot but they managed to out run Mvubu. He certainly was not made to pursue criminals at high speed and narrow roads. There was nothing we could do; we had just lost £100 due to our own stupidity and carelessness.

Our spirits were definitely dampened. It was our 1st negative African experience and harsh realisation of just how complacent we had become. With our tail between our legs, we made our way to Livingstone Safari Camp where Kirk fixed the starter solenoid and I did some washing. We were in no mood to do anything touristy and so stayed in the campsite in the hope of an improved mood in the morning. We spoke to the owner, Tjiss, who was very helpful in assisting us with our future travel plans in and around Zambia.

The following morning was a gloomy day and started with rain. We decided to treat ourselves and headed into town to the local coffee shop where we enjoyed a Full English Breakfast. We then found a great little restaurant that had Wi-Fi where we spent the remainder of the day drinking tea, updating the blog and reading magazines. It certainly was a very lazy day which was just what Kirk and I needed. We certainly were not yet ready to give up the luxuries that the western world has to offer. We had spent the last week driving every day and we were in need of a bit of R and R. On the way back to camp we stopped in at the viewing point for Vic Falls, took some pics of the spray and settled in for the evening.

Lake Kariba was next on our itinerary and with the prospect of possibly doing some sailing we headed towards The Houseboat Company only to find that they were no longer in business. After further investigation it became apparent that we were not going to be able to hire a yacht for a couple of days and so had to change our plans yet again. We drove a further 80kms along the lake shore and arrived at Kariba Bush Club, a beautiful lodge set right on Kariba with stunning views of the lake. We stayed for 2 days and again used the time to relax, do car maintenance, and plan our stay in Zambia. Mvubu has had bad luck with his tyres. We found that the rear right tyre had not one but two nails in it resulting in a slow puncture. We also found that the rim was also leaking again!

 The late rains had caused havoc with out travel itinerary and after speaking to the manager of Kariba Bush Club it was certain that many of the things we wanted to do in Zambia were impossible at this time of year so after careful consideration we decided to give the Lower Zambezi National Park a miss and head on to South Luangwa National Park. We stopped off in Lusaka for one night to sort out a Yellow Card for insurance and camped at Eureka Camping where we met our 1st Overlander Truck group as well as some other independent overlanders who had been travelling for 1½ years through West Africa and were now tackling the East.

Our trip to South Luangwa took 10 hours from Lusaka but took us through the most beautiful scenery. Zambia was looking healthy and green after the abundant rains they had received. The sugar cane fields towered in height and the wild flowers were in bloom. There are many farming programmes being initiated in the rural areas with Sunflower seeds being one of the easiest crops to grow and maintain. With the sunflowers in full bloom it was impossible to feel glum. We arrived at Flatdogs Camp, a safari camp right outside the gates of the National Park, when the heavens opened and Zambia received yet another douse of late rain. Our spirits were not dampened by this and with the prospect of seeing leopard, elephant and lion in the park we made our way to our campsite. We were instructed to be very aware of our surroundings as the hippos like to come out of the Luangwa River and into the camp at night to graze. Kirk and I were filled with a renewed sense of adventure and we were now faced with being in the real wilderness with the prospect of wild animals entering our personal space at night!

The sunshine the following morning gave us the opportunity to explore our surroundings that would be home for the next few days. Flatdogs Camp is set in the most beautiful setting; right on the Luangwa River it affords you the opportunity to spot hippos and crocodiles during the day and if you were as lucky as Kirk and me, a bull elephant drinking and eating on the opposite side of the bank. We hadn’t even entered the park yet and were already getting glimpses of the wildlife that existed there. Our days were so peaceful and the silence was only disturbed by the grunting of the hippos, the cheeky laugh of the monkeys and baboons and the sweet chirping and singing of the birds.

On our third day at Flatdogs Camp we were blessed with the most incredible sighting. A bull elephant had entered the camp and had ensured that everyone staying in the campsite knew of his presence. He trumpeted through his trunk and munched noisily on the leaves of a nearby tree which was followed by a very unusual action.The elephant decided to take a nap and actually lay himself down supporting his hefty body by resting it on the roots of the tree that he had been grazing on earlier. This was a very rare sighting and we were fortunate enough to capture this moment on camera. Our elephant friend was not bothered by the movement of people around him (we were being exceptionally quiet and kept a safe distance) and proceeded to fall into a deep sleep accompanied by snores and grunts. At 4pm after tea, coffee and a peanut butter cookie we set off on a night drive in the hope of spotting some leopard. The previous evenings’ night drive had seen leopard and lions so we were very hopeful.

The park was just stunning. It had huge aesthetic appeal and the recent rains had ensured that the vegetation was lush which showed that the herbivores were thriving in these conditions. The elephants were in abundance, there were parades and parades of them. It was a treat to be able to observe these magnificent creatures at such close proximity and watch how they shelter their young from any possible danger. The antelope were also on their best behaviour with 2 male Waterbuck locking their horns and giving us a display of typical animal behaviour and the Impala raising the signal by whistling through their noses. It really was an education and a privilege to be submerged into the wilderness to observe the animal instincts. Our game ranger had got wind of a pride of lions up ahead and was desperately trying to get us to witness them before sunset but with so much to see he was finding this a near impossible task. We reached the pride of lions during the golden hour. They were waking up from their afternoon slumber and were going about their daily ‘ablutions’ before setting out for a night of hunting. They were magnificent. Ginger, a male lion in the pride, was a sight to behold. The game rangers named him so because he has a somewhat distinctive coat which is much lighter than that of a usual lion. The lions set off to catch their dinner and we settled on the bank of the Luangwa River for sundowners before our night drive began. South Luangwa National Park is one the only parks that allows for spot lit night drives. This was a perfect opportunity to spot some of the nocturnal species that hunt at night. We saw an abundance of civet cats, hyenas and bush babies but unfortunately no allusive leopard! We returned to the camp satisfied with our game viewing and turned in for the evening.

We decided to cut our time in Zambia short. We had really enjoyed South Luangwa National Park and Flatdogs Camp and would have loved to have ventured further north but the weather was not playing ball with us and we didn’t want to be disappointed by not being able to access many of the location due to flooded plains or inaccessible river crossings. We decided it was best to head east, towards Malawi, and perhaps visit Zambia another time to explore the more remote areas.

We enjoyed the drive back to the main road which took us through traditional villages and subsistence farming land. It is always a novelty to watch the local people carry out their daily activities; the women busy in the villages plucking the corn from the cob and drying them on grass mats, the children playing football with home made soccer balls and shouting ‘Hello! Hello!’ when we drive by and the men either sitting under a tree or riding their bicycles that are laden with sacks of dried corn. It is a basic life that they live out here in rural Africa and the thing that amazes me the most is that they always have a smile on their face and seem so happy and content with life.

[book id=’23’ /]