Green Malata

After Mulanje, we set off to the rather un-African sounding village of Luchenza. In Casa Rossa, we’d met a Dutch couple. The guy had worked in an entrepreneurial college, the Green Malata, for kids from the local orphanage. After 16, they get booted out of the orphanage and this college was set up by a Dutch lady to give them increased skills. The ones on offer were baking, needlework, welding, IT and renewable energy (Bio gas, solar and wind power). They had some problems with the home made wind turbine they’d made from plans available from the internet and also with a battery charging station and, Gareth being an engineer, we offered to see if we could help. We rocked up on the Thursday afternoon and had a tour around. It was a fantastic place, only a few years old and a really nice environment. We were told briefly about their problems: when the wind was too great, they were cooking batteries because they didn’t have some form of regulator on the output and some of the battery packs that they rent out (cheaply) to local villagers to power phones and LED lights weren’t working. We were given the plans for the turbine and took it away for some bedtime reading.

We were told we could camp about 1km away in the grounds of a building where some of the girls were making re-usable sanitary towels. The grounds also turned out to be the local football and netball pitch for the village. We turned up and the guys from Green Malata pointed for us to park on the pitch whilst netball practice was going on! The girls weren’t hanging back during training with some of them falling over trying hard to get the ball from the opponents. We were surrounded by kids, all staring and smiling.

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The two guys at the back are from Green Malata

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The local boys’ football team kitted up

It was a relatively uneventful night after the women took the kids away, and in the morning we went back to the college. First the battery charging system. There didn’t seem to be a systematic approach to the whole stock control and testing. Some of the batteries were tested using a battery charger, some were dead and some ok. The OK ones left only the charging circuit as the problem. The units were supplied by a Scottish company and we drafted a letter to them asking questions about what they could supply to help diagnose the problems. On the wind turbine problems, we tried to get the guys to say what was wrong and to get them to explore any possible solutions. Unfortunately the way the education system seems to work over here is the kids are told what to do to solve a problem, not to think logically about problem solving, so they quickly switched off and wanted to know what the answer was. It was a bit frustrating.

A doctor, and pretty good engineer as well, was helping out and he’d already had ideas about how to solve the wind turbine spinning too fast – by means of a mechanical system, which might be more Africa-proof then an electrical solution. It was a shame they hadn’t explained that these ideas were already being looked into before we started going down one avenue…

Without staying for several weeks to help them sort out a more systematic process which might help them diagnose any problems, we left our ideas on this for them to follow up and headed into town to buy some footballs. We bought one for the girls for netball and one for the football team. It was a bit embarrassing handing them over as the Green Malata guys made a bit of a deal of it and some bigger guys turned up (obviously worse for wear on a Friday afternoon) wanting their own present. The deal was, the security guard at the building would hold them for the netball and football teams and only for them. The kids’ faces were a picture and there was lots of excitement with the balls and also the pencils we’d brought out with us.

We headed to Blantyre for the night in the hope of finding somewhere to watch the 6 Nations rugby that weekend. It was a bit late when we left the kids and breaking all the rules again travelled in the dark to reach the town. Fortunately Angela spent most of the journey with her head in the guide book trying to find a place for the night. This was a good thing as, from what Gareth says, she wouldn’t have wanted to see the carnage of people and crazy traffic on the dark roads…. The first place we looked at had a guard that was drunk or stoned or both and he put us onto the ‘reception’ guy who was the same. Fortunately he said there was no room available, so with a sigh of relief we headed further afield. We eventually found a hotel and checked in. Not the most salubrious and at $50 for the room, a bit of a rip off. But Blantyre is a large city and we took it on the chin and vowed to get out of town and head north to Cape Maclear to spend some time chilling. Just maybe we could find somewhere there to watch the rugby too.

Tea and touts

From Zomba we headed to Mulanje, about 2 hours drive further south-east. This mountain is a huge granite outcrop that towers 2km over the surrounding plain. It’s a mecca for walkers and climbers alike, although after our trek in Zomba we weren’t planning anything much more energetic than a bit of walking in the foothills. The area is also well known for its tea production and the lower slopes are covered with tea plantations. We were planning to stay with some friends of Sylvia and Mark’s, more Italians, at a small camp site they were just establishing on one of these tea estates just south of the mountain. No restaurant here to tempt us!

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Mulanje and the tea plantations

A tar road borders the west side of the mountain but we decided to take the dirt track to the north, called Lister’s Pass, and then head down the narrow strip of land between the mountain and Mozambique on the east side. The northern track proved to be far rougher and less used than we’d expected but the Land Rover had no problems dealing with the terrain. As the path closed in we stopped to ask some local villagers whether it was passable. They said it was so we carried on, with green hills and granite cliffs to either side. It was a lovely route and we really enjoyed being off-road and in the wilds again. We had lunch without seeing a soul. Sheer luxury in such a highly populated country.

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Lister’s Pass

At the end of the pass we headed south through what the guide book describes as a continuous village for about 30km. A very apt description indeed. There was a constant stream of people and settlement along the road which made the journey very slow.

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By now, as seasoned travellers, we were more or less fluent in the local language, Chichewa. That is to say we’d learnt how to say “Moni! Muli bwanje” (Hello, how are you?) and to respond to the reply “Ndiri bwino zikomo, kaya inu?” (Very well thank you, and you?) with the reciprocal “Ndiri bwino, zikomo”. Just these few words opened a whole new world for us. With so many people on the road we were driving very slowly and with the windows down it gave us a chance to practice our newly-found, extensive language skills. They obviously don’t see many overlanders through here as, almost without exception, we were met with looks ranging from astonishment, suspicion and even a little bit of fear on the part of the children. But as we passed we greeted everyone with “Moni, muli bwanje”. The result was fantastic. The faces of the scowling teenagers and fierce-looking old men and women would break into the biggest smiles and they would ask how we were, and be even more friendly and amused at our stumbling but seemingly comprehensible response. It was brilliant. The little kids had a different response. We would hear loud chants of “a-zun-gu! a-zun-gu!” as we passed, the kids running and laughing towards the car. Mzungu means white person in the local language, azungu being the plural. We weren’t entirely sure that we should embrace this but they were young kids and it seems an almost universal response from them in this area.

Our camp was set under some huge, shady trees on an immaculate lawn (likely to change once they get more campers there!). Our hosts were charming and very welcoming. We had a nice relaxed evening, watching the Trumpeter and Silver-cheeked Hornbills flying from tree to tree, their huge yellow bills apparently no hindrance. In the morning, as we had breakfast, we heard a rustle in the branches next to us and watched a chameleon slowly working his way through the vegetation. He was about 18 inches long, with a rhino-like horn. His eyes worked independently of each other, at first sizing us up to see if we posed a danger and then back to hunting for some breakfast of his own. He moved incredibly slowly, his body waving from side to side as if he was just a branch blowing in the breeze rather than a hungry predator. He would then pause, standing motionless with two feet holding the branch and two hovering in the air as he surveyed the area for a target. He could hold this pose, with nothing but his eyes moving, for ages until he was ready for his next move. What a cool critter!

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Karma Chameleon?

It was the time of the tea harvest and the fields were full of pickers from early in the morning, carrying large baskets on their backs which they’d fill with incredible accuracy by throwing the picked leaves over their heads.They worked about 9 hours in the hot sun.

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Tea pickers at work

We were taken on a tour of the tea fields by one of the camp’s staff, Wilson. He also took us to the local village where we met the chief, who was only 30 years old. We had a really interesting but ultimately rather depressing discussion with them both. The chief was at pains to point out how poor the village was and how the NGOs and the government had failed the people. The people worked for low wages on the tea plantations and there was just one water pump to supply his and the neighbouring village – over 3,000 people. But there had been an election in 2016 and the same government had been re-elected, despite major issues with corruption which had led to withdrawal of direct aid from several countries, including the UK, a few years earlier. And yet the chief had voted again for a government that he felt had failed! He also complained that the party reps didn’t give him the bicycle that they’d promised if he voted for them. The irony of what he was saying seemed to be completely lost on him. It was not lost on our guide, an intelligent and thoughtful young man who gently teased the chief about his hypocrisy. His teasing seemed to go over the chief’s head. Sadly Wilson had lost faith in all the parties and did not vote. I guess we could empathise with him but you’ve got to wonder how corruption will be tackled if not from the people themselves. We left feeling a little depressed.

The following day we headed to the mountain for our walk in the foothills, to try to find one of the many waterfalls in the area. We got to the park gate where the attendant tried to tell us that we needed a guide to walk there. We didn’t want a guide, we wanted to walk on our own. After a bit of discussion it became apparent that we didn’t have to have a guide and he grumpily let us through. But the vehicle was already surrounded by people touting for business, trying to get us to pay them to guide us to the waterfall, look after the car, wash the car or buy walking sticks. They were relentless, clamouring around the car, running after us as we drove to the car park. Their prices came down and down, but we wanted to walk on our own and we we didn’t need the car guarded (except perhaps from them!). They kept on and on. We very nearly turned round and left but decided to head off on our walk and see if they’d leave us alone. Three of them stuck with us for about half a kilometre, disappearing down a side track and reappearing ahead of us several times, but eventually they got the message and left us to it. We had a nice walk, cooling our feet in a pool on the way. We searched and searched for the waterfall, following several side tracks to try and find it but we never did – heard it though. Perhaps we should have taken a guide….

Buona sera, pasta pronto!

From Dedza we made our way south-east to Liwonde National Park. On the banks of the Shire River, the park is well known for large numbers of hippo, crocs and elephants. We stopped at the Baobab Bush Camp, a back packers favourite which was cheap but comfortable, with a great lookout on stilts which caught the little breeze to be found in this low-lying and humid place. With beers in hand we joined several backpackers – a friendly and a little bit too charming Italian who ran his own guest house during the summer and closed up and travelled during the winter, a serious Israeli student, a bubbly Belgian girl who was working for an NGO and her sweet Spanish friend – at the hide and exchanged travel stories and tips as we watched a couple of elephants in the distance. We discovered that access to the park was restricted by high water levels and our $45 dollar entry fee would get us about 3km round. It was hot and humid and we decided to give it a miss and moved on the next morning. At the gate we had the same greeting from the girl who manned it as we’d had when we arrived the day before – “Give me my money”. Said with a huge smile as if she was saying hello or goodbye. We discovered later that this is a phrase that many of the young locals know and use (frequently) to foreigners without actually knowing what it means.

We took the tarmac road to Zomba, the old colonial capital of Malawi which sat in a stunning location at the base of the Zomba Plateau forest reserve, whose green slopes rose steeply above the town. We found Pakachere, a backpackers lodge that had been recommended by Alex, the Italian traveller. It was a good recommendation, with a nice atmosphere and set in a beautiful location on the edge of the town. The young Israeli, Ulaav, had beaten us there and was setting up his tiny lightweight tent. We met the Dutch manager, Kieran, who told us they were having a pub quiz that night and we arranged to join his team. It was a brilliant evening, with beer and wine flowing and lots of revelry. The room was full of teachers, volunteers and NGO staff. The quiz master was a professor from the local university. Our team came a respectable 3rd (apparently the best score Kieran’s team had ever got!) and bed came late (very late for Gareth).

After a ‘civilised’ start the following morning, with Angela’s tummy still a bit dicky and Gareth’s head slightly thick, we headed up to the plateau, giving Ulaav a lift. This entailed Angela squeezing on top of the fridge again. Not the most comfortable drive in the world and probably illegal too… We dropped him at the camp site he was planning to stay at and paid a nominal fee to park the car there. After convincing the locals that we didn’t want or need a guide (which took quite a bit of doing) we headed up for our planned two, or at tops three hour walk on the plateau, passing the appropriately named “Williams Waterfall” on the way. Although the pic doesn’t show it, this place was absolutely heaving with people, mostly kids screaming and laughing as they tried to negotiate the pools without falling in. It was great to see them having such fun but we moved swiftly on!

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“Williams Waterfall”

We followed the river uphill through a small area of native ‘rain forest’, which was rapidly being depleted by illegal felling. We could hear axes and chainsaws throughout the woodland. Very depressing as not only is the natural environment being destroyed but there is a huge knock-on effect on the people as deforestation leads to a range of problems from soil erosion to siltation of rivers and flash flooding. But the people need firewood for cooking and heating so they continue to fell the trees. We’d seen it in Dedza and, with such a large and poor population, will continue to see it across Malawi.

As we walked up we passed Alex on his way down, riding with panache (as all Italians seem to do), on the back of a dodgy-looking motorbike taxi. We also bumped into Ulaav several times as we followed a similar route to the top. Our reward for the trek up was the most amazing view over the town and surrounding landscape, from a place once visited by Haile Selass and hence named the Emperor’s View. What a beautiful place.

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The Emperor’s View

We decided to push on to another view further round the mountain. It took longer than we’d thought and our months in the car (probably not helped by the excesses of the night before) stated to show. Legs ached and old twinges returned. A nerve in Angela’s hip started to hurt and Gareth was struggling with ‘museum hip’. We made it to the view point, had a rest and headed back, taking the shorter side of the loop back to the car. The path started out ok but slowly became more and more overgrown and rocky. We missed a side turn which was barely more than an animal track, and by the time we realised we’d headed a fair way down a difficult path. We had to retrace our steps, by this time Angela limping badly and dragging her leg and Gareth also struggling and absolutely knackered. The final path was almost totally overgrown, steep, rocky and with deep slippery ruts caused by erosion.

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The view that nearly broke us

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Yes, there really is a path here….

By now Angela’s hip was screaming and her knee, taking exception to two hours of twisting and dragging of the hip, also joined in. We were sipping our water to conserve it when we really needed to drink more. We finally reached to car nearly six and a half hours after we’d left it, immediately downing a litre of cold water each from the fridge. Aaaah, that was a good drink.

We wearily headed down the mountain to our planned destination – Casa Rossa. Although we’d really liked Pakachere we’d been told about this fantastic Italian restaurant (yes, really, in the middle of Malawi) and wanted to give it a try. They also had camping. Perfect! And indeed it was. The owners, Sylvia and Mark, were a charming Italian and her Italianised Russian husband. They’d left Italy 6 years before, spending 6 months back-packing in Africa before buying this place, with no previous experience of running a restaurant! They were great company and she particularly enjoyed teasing us and the Americans about recent political decisions at home and in the US, humorously saying “we’ve had to endure years of ridicule over Berlusconi – it’s nice to be able to get our own back”.  We gorged on homemade pasta, Panzarotti, steak fillet in peppercorn sauce, fried custard (if, like Ange, you love custard you really have to try it) and the most delicious home-made ice cream. This was usually after shovelling down the complementary plate of guacamole and toast (not very Italian but very much in season and very delicious) supplied to every table, and was all washed down with very reasonably priced South African wine (Italian would have been way too expensive to import) and good conversation.

We loved the place. Breakfast was included in the ridiculously cheap US$5 per head charge for camping and the food was so good we didn’t feed ourselves once. We walked (hobbled) around the local lanes and explored the town, getting the occasional taxi to help our aching limbs heal. We could quite happily have set up roots there but, to protect our wallets and our waste-lines, we finally dragged ourselves away after 3 contented days. This was not before we had to reluctantly evict a unwanted tenant that had built the most amazing little nest on the Landy roof rack. A solitary wasp of some kind had built a structure, perhaps 1 cm across, which looked and felt just like a tiny little clay pot. It was beautiful. In it she’d laid a single egg. We felt bad removing it but, considering Ange’s work on pests and diseases back home, we didn’t want to risk taking it somewhere it shouldn’t be. Sorry Mrs Wasp.

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Incredible but unwanted lodger

And finally, we never did find out whether people from Zomba are called Zombies….

Dedza, where art rocks! (sorry…)

After Lilongwe, we headed south-east to the small town of Dedza, which sits in the foothills of its eponymous mountain. The hour journey took us through some beautiful, rolling countryside. We couldn’t believe how green it was – the emerald season indeed. Malawi is a small country with a large population and this showed in the land around us. Almost every square inch was cultivated. Most of the crops were maize but we also came across fields of tobacco. Alongside these were the drying ‘sheds’ – open thatched barns with rack upon rack of leaves hanging out to dry, with colours ranging from the fresh green of newly-picked leaves to the soft pale brown of the dried.

The population was also reflected in the number of people walking and cycling along the road. They certainly know how to load a bicycle in Malawi! Whether it’s the wife and kids, half a dozen 4m lengths of planking, a sheep, a pig, huge bags of charcoal, you name it, they stack up their bikes with it and peddle or push (depending on the weight of the load and the steepness of the slope) their way along the road, dodging the speeding mini-buses as they go. The latter are the main form of local transport between the towns, with bodies, luggage and the occasional chicken and/or goat wedged in way beyond the ancient, and probably unroadworthy, vehicle’s capacity. Small ‘fines’ allegedly change hands behind the bus at the police checkpoints to avoid the larger official fines for overloading. We’re told by some of the backpackers we’ve met that they’re great fun to travel in, although with our own transport we are unlikely to experience it.

As we climbed towards our destination we had an incredible view across the rift valley to the southern tip of Lake Malawi. This is part of the same Great Rift Valley that runs through Kenya and Tanzania and it was absolutely beautiful. Such a change from most of Zambia where the landscape we’d seen to date had been fairly flat.

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Beautiful Malawian landscape

We stayed at the Dedza Pottery, which had camping and a nice restaurant. Fed up with using plastic mugs for our breakfast cuppa, we invested in some from the pottery which to us was remarkably cheap. We also hired their guide, Peter, to take us to see some of the rock art the area is well-known for. We’d read, correctly, that we wouldn’t find the better caves without a guide. The rock art was several km away up a forest track so we offloaded some of our gear, Angela clambered onto the water tank box in the back (we have no rear seats since we converted the car for the trip), Peter into the passenger seat, Gareth driving, and headed up over the rough and bouncy road. We crossed this rather unsafe-looking bridge which our guide assured us was “very strong”…

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Over 2.5 tonnes of Land Rover, one small wooden bridge… Smile

As we crossed we were watched by some mischievous-looking little tykes from an adjacent tree. They, and the other kids on our trip were fine and Peter obviously said something to them to get them to behave:

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After an hour or so we left the car for the 15 minute walk up to the caves (more a large overhang) and a look at the rock art. We passed several kids on the way up. Rather than being at school they were tending their families sheep. Quite a few of the rural families do this rather than letting their kids go to school, which obviously isn’t ideal for their future growth. They followed us up and sat in silence watching as Peter talked us through the symbols.

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Ancient red-oxide pigment rock art thought to depict rain. The sun is depicted by concentric circles

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More recent rock art depicting animals or zoomorphic figures

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The stunning view from the top

Peter proved to be a mine of information. Originally from Zimbabwe but in Malawi for the last 30 years, his English was excellent (unlike our Zimbabwean or Malawian!) and we asked him question after question about the history, culture and politics of Malawi. We discovered that the average wage for Malawians is MKW25,000/month. That’s less than £30. Nearly half of this goes on rent and power. Prices in the supermarkets do not reflect this and most local people get their day-to-day needs from local markets. We visited a couple, one with Peter, and bought some lovely fresh produce – cabbage, carrots, onions, tomatoes, aubergines – all for less than a pound. Crazy for us, essential for the locals. We also learnt that he got none of the money we’d paid to ‘hire’ him. That all went to the owners. Also that, despite the low prices we thought we’d paid for our mugs, the workers couldn’t afford to buy the products they were making. It left us feeling not a little uncomfortable.

We stayed at Dedza for 3 nights. It was a nice spot but, more importantly, Angela had been nursing a dodgy tummy since Lilongwe which had got into full flow (we were surprised we had gone this long without any kind of travellers trots). It could have been much worse and happily she’d managed not to redecorate the inside of the tent, but she was keen not to travel too far away from relative ‘safety’. But after 3 days and with the help of Imodium (other brands may be available) we headed off again to travel further south.

Fried mice and Malawi

Our trip to the border was good. We were tempted by some of the beautiful fresh produce being sold at the side of the road – ripe tomatoes, shiny red onions, avocadoes and the brightest orange fungi you have ever seen. We’d seen a lot of the latter being sold from baskets along the road and enquiries at one of the lodges revealed that they are good to eat. They grow in termite mounds and are chucked out by the termites, presumably when they take up too much room. We’d been tempted to try them but now we were heading for the border we didn’t dare buy any fresh produce as you are not usually allowed to take such food across. Sadly this included the fried mice on a stick offered to us as we passed one vendor. I guess we could have eaten them en route but we’d already had breakfast. Shame…

We passed another of the several signs we’d seen in Zambia for a tile manufacturer. It was by a police check point so we decided not to take a photo but they are worth sharing. They are emblazoned in black on orange, in very visible locations: outside a school, coming into town, the police checkpoint, etc.. “A roof without Harvey’s Tiles is like a school without teachers. There will be illiteracy!!!” or “A roof without Harvey’s Tiles is like a country without a council, police, education, agriculture and forestry departments. There will be lawlessness!!!” and “A roof without Harvey’s Tiles is like a marriage without friendship. It might not work!!!” They tickled our fancy anyway.

We passed quickly out of Zambia and ran the usual gauntlet of money sharks on the Malawian side. We nearly managed to do a deal with one who realised just in time that he’d offered us his buying rate, not selling rate! We declined his revised price and, despite his insistence that we needed Malawian Kwacha for about half a dozen payments before we could pass through, we went armed just with US dollars, hoping that the advice at the lodge was correct. It was indeed and the crossing was easy, albeit done in African time. Just out of the border town there was the mandatory Police road check – our first in country. He was fairly brusque but friendly and when we’d shown him our COMESA 3rd party insurance he said in a deadpan tone “Go away”. With that we did.

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The road to Lilognwe – so much for our plan to leave the rains behind

Our first destination was the capital, Lilongwe, and we hit town at 5.30pm on a Friday. Not great timing. The traffic was appalling and a bit of a culture shock. It was made worse by a crane that had broken down on the main road in, causing carnage. After lots of queuing and playing chicken with the other cars on a large and near grid-locked roundabout we got to our campsite, the main reason we’d headed straight for the city for our first night in Malawi. Lilongwe is effectively split in two by a large park / nature reserve, with the old town to the south and the new, shiny modern part to the north. Our camp was on the edge of the reserve, effectively part of it, and was safe, quiet and secluded. It was attached to a lodge run by a Malawian-born Indian who had spent 24 years in London. Consequently they served really excellent Indian cuisine which we or course had to sample. It was some of the best we’ve had. Fortunately we’d got the tent up before the skies opened and we watched the torrential downpour from the safety of the restaurant. It had stopped by the time we headed to bed and the tent had done a remarkable job of standing up to the rain.

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One downpour in Lilongwe

We visited the old town, perused a couple of markets and caught a ride home with the local equivalent of a tuck-tuck. Good fun and just in time as the heavens opened for the customary afternoon downpour! It hammered down. The day we’d arrived there had been bad flooding in the city with two children rescued by army helicopter and two others thought drowned. We weren’t affected and in fact didn’t realise until we did a bit of internet surfing a couple of days later.

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A leisurely drive through the capital city

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You can buy just about anything along the side of the road with your:

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Loadsa money Malawian kwacha (these are worth just over a pound each)

The Six Nations rugby had kicked off the previous weekend and this Saturday England and Wales were playing each other in the fantastic Millennium Stadium in Cardiff (sorry, can’t bring myself to call it the Principality Stadium, after the new insurance company sponsors). We’d seen Wales play, and beat, Scotland there last year and it was a really brilliant atmosphere. We managed to find a bar that was showing the game and rocked up to catch the end of the Ireland-Italy match. Ireland thrashed Italy, much to the joy of most of the crowd in the bar which included a number of Irish and an assortment of ex-pats from various corners of the world including Australia. With the exception of a few Italians, who’d left before the end of their match, they all stayed for the Wales/England game. This was great for Gareth but not so good for Angela, who found herself the sole but vocal supported for England, bar one pathetically quiet man in the corner. It was a great game, both teams really going for it and the score reflecting that, first favouring one side then the other. Both of us were twitching in our seats, shoulders clenched and shouting at the screen. Talk about stressful. Remind me why we watch sport? At 75 minutes it looked like Wales had it and the room was cheering, but an England try at 78 minutes stole it away from them. With the exception of Angela the bar went quiet. There’s really not a lot of love for England out there. Gareth was gutted but magnanimous in defeat and is still talking to Angela, just about. Now that game’s over we can go back to supporting each other’s teams for the rest of the tournament… right Gareth? Hopefully we can find somewhere to watch it again.

We stayed for a few days in the campsite, then decided we’d better see the rest of Malawi before our visas run out.

Heading East

We headed east from Livingstone with the aim of visiting South Luangwa NP and it’s all-weather roads before we pop over the border to Malawi. This involved driving through the centre of Lusaka, the capital, and we were told it was best to do this on a weekend as traffic there is horrendous. As the road conditions were unpredictable we’d decided to stay over in Monze to break up the journey. The campsite was nice enough and we had a morning wake up of 4 really well-kept horses running around the campsite. No damage done, apart from the night before the internet coverage there was very intermittent which meant we had to look at a slow-to-update website to get the first match of the six nations.

This left us the Sunday to make it through Lusaka which was a bit of a breeze, though it was a bit weird to have that many cars around us and it was the first roundabout for 2 countries! We popped out the other end and headed on the Great East Road towards the border town of Chipata. This was a very long journey and we stayed at a campsite called The Bridge, near a bridge over the Luangwa River. It was a bit run down and could do with a bit of freshening up and some re-thatching and the price of the beer could do with dropping by 66%. It was also the first time we’d really felt the change in humidity from the drier west, as despite the temperature being lower we were dripping.

We crossed said bridge in the morning and were stopped by an Army guard. He was asking about us helping him out with water. Gareth pretended to mishear and thought he said he needed help with a matter. We said all of our matters are in order and pulled out our documentation pack and preceded to show him tax, insurance, etc, at which point he got a bit bored and sent us on our way. We’re sure that ‘water’ was the first in a long line of things he’d need help with…. This had been our first incident of an official wanting ‘help’ when they stopped us.

The scenery in this part of Zambia was very nice and very green. A bit like the Welsh Valleys, they’re green for a reason and that’s why we’re heading out of the country for a while until the rain calms down. We got to Chipata and ran the gauntlet with the money sharks again, this time trying to sell us Malawian Kwacha (MKW). As we weren’t crossing the border yet we palmed them off and stocked up for some days in the national park. We did stay in Chipata that night as it was getting late and the road to the park was described on the website of the lodge we were heading to as ‘an adventure’ so we thought we’d start it in the morning. We asked our hosts at the campsite about the border proceedings (and were told that we didn’t need MKW, so we could wait to get it from an ATM in country).

The road to South Luangwa turned out to be good tarmac and an easy trip. The side road to the lodge was a bit more exciting due to the heavy rains, with a couple of big pools of water, but we saw the relatively fresh wheel marks going in and out, so took a breath and went for it – no problems there either. The lodge and campsite were on a large bend in the Luangwa, and we were right on the water’s edge, but 10 foot up from it which was useful as there are crocs and hippos all over the place Smile

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Look left from the tent

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Look right from the tent

We decided to stay for a few nights to sort ourselves out before crossing the border and to enjoy the park. The campsite does have many furry visitors (and not so furry ones as hippos and elephants have been known there). There was a family of about 30 banded mongooses, that had a den with young babies not more than 15m away. They were always running through camp in the morning and evening.

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Cue little critters aren’t they

We had a troop of vervet monkeys one day and they were making a hell of a racket and breaking branches off in the trees as they ran through. We also had baboons in camp, but these were remarkably mellow compared to others we’ve encountered and spent most of the time just using the furniture much like us.

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Relaxed baboon taking in the view

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Perhaps there was a reason they were a bit relaxed!

We did a night drive with a couple of guides from the lodge and saw the hippos grazing up fairly close and one elephant really close towards the end of the drive – as it was dark we didn’t see it round the corner and almost ran into it with their Landy. Needless to say he wasn’t very happy and told us so, and the guide sitting on the bonnet with the spotlight wasn’t that much happier either! We also watched a couple of male elephants (about 20 years old) sizing each other up and wrestling in a mock fight. You could hear the clash of ivory from about 70m away.

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Boy elephants practicing for the big fight one day

We drove ourselves around the next day and once again the maps of the park were shocking considering how much it was costing to get in, so Tracks4Africa GPS came into it’s own again. We were in pretty early again for us, leaving the campsite by 6:20!! hoping to see the elusive African Wild Dog or lion or leopard. We saw one lioness from a distance, but none of the others on our wish list.

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One rather ill member of the big 5

We have always thought of ourselves as sympathetic drivers around game, stopping some distance away, switching the engine off, etc. This day proved you can do all that and still offend some. The some were most of the elephants we came across today. If you make sure they see you (not easy as they don’t have the best eye sight in the world) and then move slowly if you plan to pass than all is usually fine. If you come round the corner and surprise them, they let you know. This happened with a juvenile bull and he flapped his ears and shook his head, all in silence, until we had passed, then gave out a big trumpet as if he’d chased us off – boys eh?

On one of the tracks we’d taken the night before, we went a little further down it and came across this chap fairly well hidden in a stream, all 4m or so of him.

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He did look much more camouflaged in reality

Getting towards the end of the day when we had to exit the park, we thought we’d do one last loop looking for anything. We met a mother elephant with a small calf and gave them space and they were fine and relaxed and carried on walking as normal. We spotted another elephant behind them and moved slowly to it. Sadly we startled it a bit and heard another trumpet as we continued. The track got very greasy and we eventually got to a place where we had to turn back. Back towards the elephant herd then… While we were turning around we saw a spotted hyena walking as casually as you like. It didn’t seem to mind our presence one bit. It laid down for a bit, we got a bit closer and took this:

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One casual hyena

Time was ticking on and we had to get back through the elephants yet, so we started our way back. As we pulled away from the hyena, one patch of the track was a bit sticky and we drove with our wheels either side of some deep, wet ruts, but we got a bit close to the edge and the front wheels went in one set and the rears in another – shit – floor it. Thankfully this (and quickly putting diff-lock on) got us through. Didn’t really fancy trying to dig ourselves out of the mud again with a hyena and some surly elephants around!

We came across the herd again and it was bigger now with the mother and calf on the right hand side and the one we offended on the left of the track. We stopped and waited to see if they would disperse, but they didn’t and with exit time getting ever closer, we crept forward. Most of them were mellow as before, but the older male hadn’t forgotten and feathered up once more, so we had to move ‘slightly quicker’ to pass him and this spooked another big female that was behind him. Just as we were passing her we hit more sticky ruts and with slightly irate eles next to us we had to apply some beans to get through. Not ideal. We left the clearing with what sounded like a full brass section behind us. Finally, as we got to the main exit track a huge bull elephant walked into the middle of the path. He was also starting to get a bit offended by our presence and we really thought we’d pushed our luck too far this time, but slowly, slowly we crept past and got out of the park ok. Phew.

Dusk at the camp gave us some spectacular lightning and thunder shows:

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Fortunately this one didn’t come our way

We really enjoyed our time in the park and the campsite, but now on to another border, different money and new mobile phone numbers – Malawi here we come.

Hello Zambia – Water falls, white rhinos and fried worms

After much reading up on what we needed to cross the border, we headed for it. It was pleasantly easy to leave Namibia and then we had a short drive to the Zambia buildings. Almost immediately we came into the cross hairs of the money sharks near the border. We knew that we needed local Zambian Kwacha (ZKW) to pay some of the taxes and there are no ATMs at the border, so we had to start somewhere and decided to ask them what their rate was. All transactions with the border sharks are done through the car window as we can make our escape should we need to. After a brief bit of haggling, the price they offered was ok, so we agreed a deal. We checked the money they gave us and, surprisingly, it was 100 ZKW short. After they’d given over the agreed amount, we gave them some dollars and headed on our way.

The immigration and customs with the carnet were easy, if slightly longer than they should take – but hey it’s Africa. Then there was a carbon tax to pay in ZKW and 3rd party insurance to buy. There was an insurance desk at the border and we got hit for 552 ZKW for a month which at the time we knew to be expensive, but as they were the only ones there we had no option. We later expanded our 3rd party with a COMESA certificate and extended the date, so it is now also valid in Malawi, Tanzania, Zimbabwe and Swaziland for only a few hundred more ZKW. The guy we bought this from (in Livingstone town) said very emotionally ‘those guys were robbers – it’s a fake charge’. He was furious that they’d ripped us off and would make visitors think Zambia was expensive. As he worked for the same company he took a photocopy of the border docs and was going to follow up. It should have cost us 278 KWA for 6 months cover. Live and learn and it’s not a staggering amount of money.

All that done, there was one more check point to pay the local council tax – what for I don’t know other than they can, so we did – again only a small amount. Right we’re off.

From our honeymoon drive, when we were heading in the opposite direction, we remember the last 70km of road to the border was grim, but in the intervening months the road has taken a huge turn for the worse. The potholes were horrendous and sometimes it was better driving off the road where we could. Occasionally we’d get a good bit of tar and, lulled into a false sense of security, we’d pick up speed, only to find a huge pothole in our path. It was appalling.

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These pictures don’t do any justice to the state of the road

We had arranged to pop into Waterberry Lodge where we got married and say hello to Michael, the Manager, have a spot of lunch and hopefully see our witnesses again. What should have taken 2.5 hours, took us 4.5 due to the state of the road. Apparently the EU and France in particular are looking at laying new tarmac down. It’s not before time.

The Lodge was closed for renovations (new thatch roofs amongst other tweaks) during the low season, so we’d been invited to the farmhouse next door. We thought this was just their offices, but it turned out to be a very exclusive rental with no-one there (the owner was arriving the next day to spend some time) and a fantastic view over the ‘Mighty’ Zambezi. Lunch was a fantastic club sandwich, exquisitely prepared salad, jenga chips and a glass of wine, all of which Michael gave us on the house. Not what we had planned, but it was a fantastic gesture especially after all the effort they had gone to with African bureaucracy to get us married there in 2015. One of our witnesses had moved on but Webster was still there and still had the same massive smile when we saw him again.

We then made our way to Livingstone to stay in slightly less expensive digs – the Jolly Boys Campsite, a backpackers haunt 10 minutes walk from the town. We spent 5 nights there, chilling, exploring the town and seeing the very interesting Livingstone museum. We were also adopted by the camp’s cat, Jezma, who made himself very at home and gave us slight pangs about our own cats who are now living it up in lovely new homes. Hello Rose and LJ. Smile

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Jezma preparing for his first driving lesson…

The town is the hub for Victoria Falls, probably Zambia’s biggest tourist draw. Known locally as Mosi-Oa-Tunya – “the smoke that thunders” – the falls are a stunning natural feature, caused by fault lines across the route of the Zambezi on the border between Zambia and Zimbabwe. The river plunges 100 metres down the sheer face of the current fault line, squeezes through a narrow gap in the rocks below and then roars along a deep gorge which zig-zags its way downstream along a series of old fault lines. Each of the zig-zags were themselves once the site of the falls before the river cut its way back into the next fault line. The same process continues today as a new fault line is opening up at the Devil’s Cataract on the Zimbabwean side of the river.

There are a couple of pools – Angel’s and Devil’s pools – right on the top edge of the falls and in which you can swim; possibly the most extreme example of an infinity pool that you can imagine. We’d hoped to swim in one but Zambia was experiencing more rainfall that normal and the water levels were up so the Devil’s Pool was already closed. They wanted more than $100 dollars each for a visit to Angel’s Pool so we gave it a miss. Instead we just decided to visit the falls and walk around the viewpoints, as most sane people do. There are several good view across the falls, some of which look along the top to see the water thundering over the edge. There is also a bridge, called the Knife Edge, built across the downstream channel which, in theory, gives you a superb face-on view of the falls. We’d experienced this 2 years ago when the water levels were lower and it was stunning. But the spray formed by the plunging water rises up the opposite face of the gorge and, when the waters are high, pretty much obscures the view. The mist then literally rains back down over the bridge.

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You can just about see the bridge behind the spray in the background

We needed waterproofs 2 years ago and even then got pretty wet so, as we wouldn’t be able to see the falls anyway, decided to give the bridge a miss and avoid an unnecessary soaking. The wet weather had settled into a pattern of dry mornings with heavy rain in the late afternoon / early evening so we headed off at about 10am for our trip, deciding to leave our waterproofs behind. Big mistake. Huge…

We got to the site, paid the entry fee and headed for the upper view point, passing the various stall holders renting out waterproof ponchos on the way, smiling and telling them “thanks but we’re not going to the bridge so we don’t need them”. Oh the irony. Even up there the spray obscured much of the falls but what we could see was still impressive. Then we heard the first rumble of thunder and saw the dark clouds approaching. The rain started slowly at first and in the warm, humid air it was really quite peasant. It got a bit heavier so we took refuge under a small tree, but as the thunderstorm took hold that soon proved futile. We got wetter and wetter until we were absolutely and utterly drenched. We couldn’t get any wetter and didn’t really want to be on top of the falls in a thunderstorm so decided to leave the viewpoint, sharing a grin and a shoulder shrug with the poncho salesmen on our way. We headed for the ‘Boiling Pot’, a huge whirlpool near the base of the falls where the river hits the facing wall of the previous fault line. The path runs down over a series of well-made but steep steps though a jungle-like valley to bring you right out by the great swirl of water. As more rain fell the water found its way down the easiest route in the valley – the steps we were using. They became a waterfall themselves and at times we were up to our ankles in running water. All we could do was laugh and keep going. We felt like proper adventurers!

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One very wet Gareth. Anyone got a towel?

A taxi driver was mad enough to take us home. We obviously weren’t the first wet tourists he’d picked up at the falls – he had a plastic sheet to protect his seats all ready in the back of the car.

We got dried up and changed (although our clothes took days to dry out in the damp humidity) and popped into town for lunch. We found a nice cafe, Cafe Zambezi, that served local food including a Zambian platter, which we ordered. This turned out to be a huge plate of food with beef stew, chicken stew, a really nice goat stew, rice, nshima (maize flour ‘porridge’ same as mealie pap in Namibia) a couple of local veg dishes and a local favourite – caterpillars. These fried Mopane worms are a high source of protein and nutrients and highly valued by the local Africans. They tasted a bit like well-fried chicken skin – those slightly puffed-up crispy bits on your Sunday roast. We gave them a go and they were actually ok if a bit grainy, although I think it’s fair to say we enjoyed the goat stew more… On the walk back from town we got asked for a job by a lady with a young baby! Must look like locals now we’ve eaten Mopane worms.

While in Livingstone we took the car to Foleys Africa, a Land Rover specialist linked to a garage in the UK, and had a good chat with Nick the owner about a few niggles. His advice was “I’d leave them and live with it, if I were you”. This is what we’d been doing for many miles, so are still doing. We did get him to grease the UJ’s and tweak up the wheel bearings – much easier on a ramp than scrabbling around on the ground.

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Here she is being fettled

We needed our exhaust welding as well, as we had a hole in the flexi part of the pipe. For this we went around the corner to Ferdie’s place. We met Ferdie on our honeymoon as he was the off–road instructor for Safari-Drive (the company who’d organised that trip) and we had a good chat with him and his wife Kate who also works for Safari Drive and, back then, had briefed us on the car and the route.

Ferdie is a fabricator by trade (I think the off-road training was a side-line) and an expert welder amongst many other things. A new flexi pipe was sourced by one of Ferdie’s boys, (who knew where to find all the small traders on the local markets and back streets) and they did a great job of welding that on and welding a new rear step for us as we’d rather trashed the old one on some rocks back at Van Zyl’s Pass.

After the car was finished we headed into the Mosi-Oa-Tunya National Park. We saw a selection of animals but we’d also heard that they had white rhinos there. We approached a guide with a Kalashnikov to ask about it. For a small understanding he climbed into the passenger seat, with Angela sat behind, wedged between the fridge and the roof, and took us to a couple of his colleagues, who led us in a single line – a guide in front and at the rear – to see 4 out of the 12 rhinos they have left in Zambia, 9 of them at this park. They are protected by these armed wardens night and day and we managed to get within 10m of them on foot – a bit of an unforgettable experience. They were so mellow and didn’t seem to mind us being there at all.

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Awesome bush walk

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The Etosha anti-poaching squad finally catch up with Angela…

As Zambia is having more rains than usual and the majority of the parks are inaccessible, we decided to head for Malawi, stopping at South Luangwa NP as it has some all weather roads, on the way. We’ll be back through Zambia later in the trip.