Watery roads and salty pans

On the Monday morning we drove back into Maun to book our trip into the Central Kalahari. We’d planned to stay for 3 nights but the first availability they had for 3 nights in government camps (c30 pula each – less than £3 – compared with more than 10 times that in the privately run camps) wasn’t until Wednesday night. So we had 2 days to kill first. We wanted to see some of the Makgadikgadi Pans which lie further east of Maun, so we decided to head there for a night. We’d been told by the parks department and the camp site we planned to stay at that the direct road just north of the pans was closed due to flooding. The alternative route went to the south of the pans and would have added 450 km to the trip. But we’d met other travellers with 4×4 vehicles who were getting through the flooding and from what they told us we knew the depth of the water, about 500mm, should be fine for the Landy. There were also recovery vehicles working on site so there was a back up if we did get stuck. We went for it.

The road was tar, with some excellent sections but large parts that were badly pot-holed. It’s a real pain trying to dodge a pot-hole in a 2.8 ton vehicle at 50mph! After about 240 km we started to see water at the sides of the road and occasional evidence of recent flooding on the road but nothing now. After another 30km we started to think that maybe the water had receded, but then we saw the vehicles in the road ahead…

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A little bit of surface water on the road…

The road was awash. We pulled up and had a chat with a lorry driver who’s rig was stuck in the middle of the flooded road alongside another truck that had gone too close to the soft edge. There was a third one stranded further along. The tow truck, which was currently on the other side of the 800m length of flooding, wasn’t big enough to pull either of them out so they were waiting for a bigger one which they had been told was on its way. Gareth set off with Slasher to check the depth of the water. He returned just after the tow truck came back. We had a chat with the driver and his mate. The mate told us it was risky. Didn’t we want to use the tow truck? Didn’t we want a driver to take our car through? (At a cost of course). The boss told us we’d be fine. We knew who to believe and having walked it Gareth already knew we could do it.

With various wishes of “good luck” from a group of German tourists who’s coach had just turned up, we set off. 800 metres is a long way to drive through water, especially when the land on either side is also flooded! But the abandoned trucks helped show the line of the road and, taking it steady, we made our way through. It was slightly nerve-wracking but actually good fun. The road surface was solid underneath us and the main worry was that we’d find a deep pot-hole to throw a spanner in the works. We didn’t and made it through without a hitch, feeling rather smug that we’d done it in our trusty Landy, (nicknamed Eningu, which means porcupine in one of the Namibian dialects, on account of the number of things strapped to and sticking up from her roof) whilst some other 4×4 drivers were waiting for the tow truck to carry them across. Smile 

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HMS Eningu sets off on her maiden voyage

After testing the brakes to make sure they were dry and hence working we carried on to our destination, the Nata Bird Sanctuary The lady at the kiosk said we could camp but that the sanctuary was closed. Too much water. They didn’t tell us when we’d enquired the day before. We asked if we could go and see how far we could get. She said yes but that someone had got stuck after 2km the day before. We promised to turn back if it looked too wet.

The sanctuary sat at the far north-eastern corner of Sua Pan, one of the two pans that made up the Makgadikdadis. The pans are the remains of an ancient sea that dried up millennia ago. During the winter months the pans turn into a desert of salt-encrusted dry mud, the top crust thick enough to drive a vehicle on, sometimes. But where the crust is too thin, or the vehicle too heavy, you break through and down to your axles in a thick gloopy mud that sticks you firm. We were told that even with a second vehicle to help pull you out it could be incredibly hard to break free. People die out here, and the pans are so vast and the tracks so variable that it might be weeks or months before someone takes the same route you did… Nevertheless we fancied driving on the pans. Smile

Unfortunately for us, we were here at the wrong time of year to do this properly. It was the end of the rainy season and the pans sometimes do have some water in them. But this year, the late and unusually heavy rains in Botswana and also in Angola, the rains from which feed this area of Botswana, meant there was huge amounts of water. Hence the flooding on the road and an unusually large amount of water on the pans. We headed into the reserve, the tracks of which were actually really firm. We got 6km, not 2, onto the pan until we reached proper water and had to turn back.

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So, we were out on the pan, but this wasn’t the scorched salt pan that we’d hoped to see. Where there wasn’t water there was mostly grass, with occasional areas of dry pan dotted around. It was a beautiful place and we were the only ones out there. Just as we like it. Smile.

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Makgadikgadi Pans – amazing what you can do with camera angles…

A few Wildebeest wandered around and by the water there were plenty of birds including Black Herons, several of which had their wings spread forward in a sort of umbrella shape, providing shade over the water so that they could see their prey. We disturbed a falcon, maybe a Lanner, which dropped its prey, a decapitated wader of some kind.

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Blue Wildebeest on Sua Pan

There was a beautiful sunset. We had finally started getting the stunning colours that we remembered from our first trip to Botswana. Apparently it’s to do with the dust in the atmosphere from dry Namibia, which is west of Botswana.

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A beautiful sunset….

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…is best enjoyed with a sun-downer!

We had a slightly noisy night as the camp site was near the road. With the north road hard to pass it seemed most of the lorries were coming past us, from early in the morning. Tired, we headed back to Maun, this time with Angela driving as she also wanted a go at the water crossing (now that Gareth had shown it was possible… Smile).

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Back through the water again

The stranded lorries were still there and only as we got towards Maun did we see the rescue truck heading on its way. Africa time…

With all the pot-holes we found that the steering was getting a bit wobbly again. We needed to see a mechanic about a couple of other things so we headed to one that had been recommended to us. He confirmed that the track rod, which we’d had adjusted in Livingstone but had been warned might need replacing, did indeed need replacing. The mechanic knew of someone who was breaking two Discovery 1s so agreed to try to get hold of the part for us. We arranged to return the following Monday, after our trip to the Central Kalahari to, hopefully, get it fitted. In town, we filled the tank and Jerry cans up with fuel, stocked up on water and other provisions, and headed for our camp site en route to the park. We had a lovely night at Drifters’ Camp, a site right on the banks of the Boteti river, and after a fairly leisurely start made our way south.

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The River Boteti

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A lovely spot for a camp site

Next stop, the Kalahari desert.

The rain in Botswana stays mainly everywhere

We crossed over from Zambia via the Kazangula ferry. It was typical Africa – huge queues of lorries (which we bypassed) and a closed gate with many cars and lorries inside and people milling around everywhere and the usual sharks offering Botswana Pula and a quick queue jump. Ignoring all of those, the paperwork to leave was completed (after we spent some time trying to find the scattered and unmarked buildings for immigration, customs and yet more council tax) and we got inside the compound. Just a ferry ticket to cross. Then a guy in a high vis ran to one ferry and came back saying ‘not that one, just for lorries’ and pointed at another one. We pulled in behind another car waiting. Then he talked to the guy on the boat and beckoned us forward. The other car moved as well and we both got on board. Then came the give me money line as he didn’t actually work for the shipping company, so we told him where to go. Him and his even more drunk ‘mate’ didn’t look too happy and we were cursed in English and Zambian, but hey-ho, we’re turning into seasoned Africa travellers now – watch out when we get back home! With 2 cars and one lorry on board, off we listed towards the Botswana side of the river. They are constructing a bridge across the river (paid for by Japan?), which will take the fun out of it in the future Smile

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Border crossing Africa style

The Botswana side was all quiet and serene. No Visa charge – hurrah, but a full years road tax bill – thanks. Off we go to stock up on meat, veg and the other things you’re not supposed to bring across the border (we haven’t had the car checked once in all of our crossings, but sod’s law says it will if we flout the rules).

We stayed just outside Kasane which is just outside Chobe National Park. We met a great guy from Namibia with his family and had a great chat. He asked if this was our first beer, which it was, and ran over with some Jägermeister and gave us a good shot each – down in one.

We left to get some other supplies in Kasane that we couldn’t get the day before. Then onto Chobe riverfront. We spent the late morning and afternoon driving the road roughly parallel to the river. Because of the rains (and the time of day we went in) we were unlikely to see any cats, but we did see the fairly uncommon sable as well as quite a few elephants – one with a small one and some giraffes along with the usual prey animals.

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Sable and young

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Apparently, if they can fit under the mothers stomach they are less than 3 months old

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Do you think he’s a boxer?

It was a nice drive around and we stopped for lunch in the park at one of the unfenced toilet stops. Why they think that animals won’t come near where people are eating is a mystery to me…

The cost of staying in the park is ridiculous in Botswana. Most are $40-50 per person per night for just a campsite – no electricity or drinking water, but with flushing toilets and showers. We chose to stay in Kasane, just outside the park and had a fantastic (I think it was all you can eat ;-p ) buffet in the evening.

The following day we drove down a tar transit road that took you past the riverside route we took yesterday and headed to Savuti camp. We decided to pay the outrageous fees for one night as we’d heard there was a strong possibility of animals in camp. It was also the only way you could sensibly visit that part of the park without a very, very long day’s driving. The road there was part tar, part softish sand and good sand, oh and a bit of water. The plains in the lower part of Chobe had beautiful yellow flowers on them, which the ele’s seem to love devouring. All of the ele’s in Chobe were much more relaxed than we’d seen previously. This is almost certainly down to lowe poaching and human conflict situations. We checked in and then drove around to see what we could find.

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Mice moody shot of some impending rain (I didn’t get out, it was a long selfie stick honest)

Lots of buffalo and some ele’s, zebra and antelope. We very nearly got stuck in some very soft sand on a climb, but just managed to back out and take a different route. Just to the north of the camp was an open area with loads of vultures hanging around in the trees. What are they waiting for, we asked ourselves, so pootled around so we were in between the sun and the plain and waited for a bit. Nothing – oh well – the thrill of the chase (I can’t imagine how those cameramen and women feel sitting in a hide for weeks at a time to film a kill…).

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We imagined them playing cards waiting for the action to happen Smile

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Playing patience I guess…

As we pitched our tent, there was an elephant tearing at the trees about 50m away and fortunately he walked around the camp instead of getting closer. He did this for sometime in the dark which is an amazing noise to hear as you’re sat in your chair eating dinner. We had some big cat, and hyena prints going down to check out our rubbish bin in the morning, but we didn’t hear anything during the night.

Next, we headed for Moremi National Park. We’d heard it was a bit wet, but had to go and see as it’s almost on the way to Maun where we would stock up again. The road to the park is a ‘new’ gravel transit road. Except it was partially flooded and blocked by a mokoro in the road!

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Remember where Clarkson et al build the bridge with the slight angle on it…

The diversion took us to a water crossing. Someone had dumped a few sandbags in it, but it wasn’t complete. Gareth walked through the water (carefully eyeing for crocs) to see which was the best route. Ang wasn’t having any of it, so we turned around to see if there was another way. We bumped into a very friendly guide and he said that water crossing was the only way and he would come and pull us out if we got stick. Through we went with a bit of a splash much to Ang’s relief. One big mud splash later and we came across a fairly narrow bridge that creaked like anything.

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It’s a good job we didn’t pimp the landy with wide tyres!

Then came a final water crossing to get to the North Gate of the park. There was obviously a bridge across the river, but you had to drive through the river to get to the bridge and then again to get off it. We had been following a game drive vehicle earlier, so he must have gone across, right…? There were some locals diving off the ‘bridge’ and they were waving at us to come across, so we did. Blimey! Water on the bonnet – keep your foot down …

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You can just make out the guy about to dive off the bridge.

We stopped to ask what the best way off the bridge was. Straight. OK. This was a bit deeper than the previous bit and Ang said “flippin ek, we’re not going back this way” or words to that effect. We had a round of applause from some local guys sat near the road – perhaps the game vehicle didn’t go this way after all…

We decided to stay the night in the camp near the gate rather than drive all the way back through that lot to get to the community camp. As we were cooking (in the dark again sadly), Ang heard some rustling and a hyena walked past. A flurry of slasher and basher whips was had and we never saw him again (thought we heard him on several occasions though which kept us on our toes…).

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This was stuck in the tow bar even after our big water crossing.

We drove straight to the South Gate and exit in the morning as the roads around weren’t passable. Ang had some fun practicing sand and mud driving on the way. We’re going to be carrying several kilos of Africa with us when we come home at this rate.

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Where’s the wheel gone

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Thankfully there were no pedestrians to splash around here

Then it’s out onto a reasonable gravel and sand road, then tar to Maun, the hub for most of the national parks in the region. We’re stopping here for a few days down by the river, keeping ourselves busy catching up with the blog. We used some of the dry mud from the car to fire with our catapult at the Vervet monkeys that come into camp twice a day and try and steal anything. Their reaction to the catapult is brilliant. If you shout at them they ignore you but as soon as they see the catapult they do a runner. There are also lots of birds in camp, including the very gregarious and inquisitive hornbills. This one took a particular fancy to our car, tapping at the window, mirror and paintwork!

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Nosy (and noisy) Southern Red-billed Hornbill

The plan is now to head for the Central Kalahari Game Reserve as it’s not wet there and we’ve heard stories about lots of lions around the waterholes Smile

The rain in Botswana stays mainly everywhere

We crossed over from Zambia via the Kazangula ferry. It was typical Africa – huge queues of lorries (which we bypassed) and a closed gate with many cars and lorries inside and people milling around everywhere and the usual sharks offering Botswana Pula and a quick queue jump. Ignoring all of those, the paperwork to leave was completed (after we spent some time trying to find the scattered and unmarked buildings for immigration, customs and yet more council tax) and we got inside the compound. Just a ferry ticket to cross. Then a guy in a high vis ran to one ferry and came back saying ‘not that one, just for lorries’ and pointed at another one. We pulled in behind another car waiting. Then he talked to the guy on the boat and beckoned us forward. The other car moved as well and we both got on board. Then came the give me money line as he didn’t actually work for the shipping company, so we told him where to go. Him and his even more drunk ‘mate’ didn’t look too happy and we were cursed in English and Zambian, but hey-ho, we’re turning into seasoned Africa travellers now – watch out when we get back home! With 2 cars and one lorry on board, off we listed towards the Botswana side of the river. They are constructing a bridge across the river (paid for by Japan?), which will take the fun out of it in the future Smile

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Border crossing Africa style

The Botswana side was all quiet and serene. No Visa charge – hurrah, but a full years road tax bill – thanks. Off we go to stock up on meat, veg and the other things you’re not supposed to bring across the border (we haven’t had the car checked once in all of our crossings, but sod’s law says it will if we flout the rules).

We stayed just outside Kasane which is just outside Chobe National Park. We met a great guy from Namibia with his family and had a great chat. He asked if this was our first beer, which it was, and ran over with some Jägermeister and gave us a good shot each – down in one.

We left to get some other supplies in Kasane that we couldn’t get the day before. Then onto Chobe riverfront. We spent the late morning and afternoon driving the road roughly parallel to the river. Because of the rains (and the time of day we went in) we were unlikely to see any cats, but we did see the fairly uncommon sable as well as quite a few elephants – one with a small one and some giraffes along with the usual prey animals.

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Sable and young

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Apparently, if they can fit under the mothers stomach they are less than 3 months old

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Do you think he’s a boxer?

It was a nice drive around and we stopped for lunch in the park at one of the unfenced toilet stops. Why they think that animals won’t come near where people are eating is a mystery to me…

The cost of staying in the park is ridiculous in Botswana. Most are $40-50 per person per night for just a campsite – no electricity or drinking water, but with flushing toilets and showers. We chose to stay in Kasane, just outside the park and had a fantastic (I think it was all you can eat ;-p ) buffet in the evening.

The following day we drove down a tar transit road that took you past the riverside route we took yesterday and headed to Savuti camp. We decided to pay the outrageous fees for one night as we’d heard there was a strong possibility of animals in camp. It was also the only way you could sensibly visit that part of the park without a very, very long day’s driving. The road there was part tar, part softish sand and good sand, oh and a bit of water. The plains in the lower part of Chobe had beautiful yellow flowers on them, which the ele’s seem to love devouring. All of the ele’s in Chobe were much more relaxed than we’d seen previously. This is almost certainly down to lowe poaching and human conflict situations. We checked in and then drove around to see what we could find.

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Mice moody shot of some impending rain (I didn’t get out, it was a long selfie stick honest)

Lots of buffalo and some ele’s, zebra and antelope. We very nearly got stuck in some very soft sand on a climb, but just managed to back out and take a different route. Just to the north of the camp was an open area with loads of vultures hanging around in the trees. What are they waiting for, we asked ourselves, so pootled around so we were in between the sun and the plain and waited for a bit. Nothing – oh well – the thrill of the chase (I can’t imagine how those cameramen and women feel sitting in a hide for weeks at a time to film a kill…).

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We imagined them playing cards waiting for the action to happen Smile

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Playing patience I guess…

As we pitched our tent, there was an elephant tearing at the trees about 50m away and fortunately he walked around the camp instead of getting closer. He did this for sometime in the dark which is an amazing noise to hear as you’re sat in your chair eating dinner. We had some big cat, and hyena prints going down to check out our rubbish bin in the morning, but we didn’t hear anything during the night.

Next, we headed for Moremi National Park. We’d heard it was a bit wet, but had to go and see as it’s almost on the way to Maun where we would stock up again. The road to the park is a ‘new’ gravel transit road. Except it was partially flooded and blocked by a mokoro in the road!

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Remember where Clarkson et al build the bridge with the slight angle on it…

The diversion took us to a water crossing. Someone had dumped a few sandbags in it, but it wasn’t complete. Gareth walked through the water (carefully eyeing for crocs) to see which was the best route. Ang wasn’t having any of it, so we turned around to see if there was another way. We bumped into a very friendly guide and he said that water crossing was the only way and he would come and pull us out if we got stick. Through we went with a bit of a splash much to Ang’s relief. One big mud splash later and we came across a fairly narrow bridge that creaked like anything.

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It’s a good job we didn’t pimp the landy with wide tyres!

Then came a final water crossing to get to the North Gate of the park. There was obviously a bridge across the river, but you had to drive through the river to get to the bridge and then again to get off it. We had been following a game drive vehicle earlier, so he must have gone across, right…? There were some locals diving off the ‘bridge’ and they were waving at us to come across, so we did. Blimey! Water on the bonnet – keep your foot down …

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You can just make out the guy about to dive off the bridge.

We stopped to ask what the best way off the bridge was. Straight. OK. This was a bit deeper than the previous bit and Ang said “flippin ek, we’re not going back this way” or words to that effect. We had a round of applause from some local guys sat near the road – perhaps the game vehicle didn’t go this way after all…

We decided to stay the night in the camp near the gate rather than drive all the way back through that lot to get to the community camp. As we were cooking (in the dark again sadly), Ang heard some rustling and a hyena walked past. A flurry of slasher and basher whips was had and we never saw him again (thought we heard him on several occasions though which kept us on our toes…).

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This was stuck in the tow bar even after our big water crossing.

We drove straight to the South Gate and exit in the morning as the roads around weren’t passable. Ang had some fun practicing sand and mud driving on the way. We’re going to be carrying several kilos of Africa with us when we come home at this rate.

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Where’s the wheel gone

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Thankfully there were no pedestrians to splash around here

Then it’s out onto a reasonable gravel and sand road, then tar to Maun, the hub for most of the national parks in the region. We’re stopping here for a few days down by the river, keeping ourselves busy catching up with the blog. We used some of the dry mud from the car to fire with our catapult at the Vervet monkeys that come into camp twice a day and try and steal anything. Their reaction to the catapult is brilliant. If you shout at them they ignore you but as soon as they see the catapult they do a runner. There are also lots of birds in camp, including the very gregarious and inquisitive hornbills. This one took a particular fancy to our car, tapping at the window, mirror and paintwork!

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Nosy (and noisy) Southern Red-billed Hornbill

The plan is now to head for the Central Kalahari Game Reserve as it’s not wet there and we’ve heard stories about lots of lions around the waterholes Smile

Zambia revisited

We were told that the road to Chitipa, the border town in the far north-west of Malawi, was bad and they were partially right. The road in the National Park was very rutted and rocky in places, but no traumas. It was a nice leisurely drive to the town. Angela was driving and when we stopped at another police post we raised our sunglasses and put on our customary smiles. They always talk to the driver but not this time. The officer only spoke to Gareth. “Who are you sir?”. Then, pointing to Angela, “And who is this?” He was obviously not going to talk to a woman at the wheel. Comical if a little sad. Papers duly produced and with a wave of the hand (to Gareth) we were on our way again.

There were limited options for camping, so we stayed in a very cheap hotel which was about $5 for both of us for the night. It didn’t have a restaurant so we cooked in the car park. The room was fairly grotty and hadn’t seen much cleaning recently. We spread our towels over the rather grim pillows. Sadly, we didn’t get to see the rugby but had a plan for the final, super Saturday weekend!

The immigration officers to leave Zambia couldn’t have been more miserable and off-hand; it didn’t seem like they wanted anyone to leave. Eventually we got through that and the customs official was very helpful, though inexperienced with the carnet, so we led him through it. They obviously don’t get that many overlanders crossing here; most people go further north and cross into Tanzania. 

At the smaller Zambian border post we managed to convince them that we didn’t need to pay the carbon tax and road fund as our ones from before hadn’t expired. They still stung us for the ‘Council tax’ though – 100Kw this time, rather than the 30 we’d paid coming in from Namibia. They couldn’t stamp the carnet though, so we had to go to the main Zambia/Tanzania border up the road. Well, we say up the road. Along some track that wasn’t on our gps device or google but it was in the right direction, so we went for it. It was rough as hell, with deep ruts and wash-outs. The only other vehicles using it were motorbikes ridden by locals, who could get through on the ridges between the ruts. But for most of the journey it was dry and so passable. We finally joined our gps road and continued to the border again.

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On the final stretch there was a bit of rain and some large puddles were a little deep, but ok, but one section of the baked mud track going up a hill had returned to gloopy mud. We waited near the bottom as a local motorcyclist with a big load had come off. No one was helping, so Gareth got out to help move the load from the track. He slithered back to the car and we took a run up at the slope. We slid a little bit, but made it up past another motorcyclist waiting at the top who didn’t seem phased by nearly 3 tonnes of Landy sliding about in his general direction.

When we were nearing the border, we came across another road block for council tax. We showed him the one we’d paid for not 3 hours earlier, but he said that’s a different council and ‘you still have to pay’ – another 100Kw. His army mate with a gun was looking on, so begrudgingly we did. If we’d gone on the much longer route via the tar road,  we would have missed this point and wouldn’t have had to pay. Nice one minister for tourism – really trying to encourage people to come. Anyway, after a 4 hour drive we finally got to the second border post. We waded through the usual sharks who were a little confused that we didn’t want to buy Tanzanian shillings and any other of their services. Carnet stamped, let’s get out of Dodge.

We headed for a campsite about 40 minutes from the border. It was a nice little one, but not really set up for rooftents, so we pitched in a lane. An American couple called Margrit and Russ had pitched their Landy in the car park. We had a great discussion with them. They run a fund called Nikela, that helps people over the south of Africa that are looking after the wildlife. Take a peek on www.nikela.org

There were also a team of 3 British entomologists supported by 4 locals who were on an insect-collecting jaunt. This meant they ran a generator all night to power the light traps for the moths, as the camp is solar powered which wouldn’t run the lights all night. Both the Americans and us decided that one night of genny was enough and decided to travel to the Kapisha hot springs campsite near to Shiwa N’gandu, a big Manor House built by (Sir) Stewart Gore-Browne in the 1920’s.

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Rather English looking avenue on Shiwa N’gandu estate

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Huge caterpillar (or guinea pig?) on the estate road

The hot springs were fantastic and we took an early morning dip in the clear, bath-warm pool. The camp was a bit expensive, so we bid farewell to Margrit and Russ, who were also heading off, and did a 500km drive to a site north of Lusaka.

On the way we stopped to buy some potatoes from a stall at the side of the road. I think she thought we were born yesterday and asked the equivalent of £4 for one potato. Mzungu prices. She came down to £3. We moved swiftly on and found another seller who gave us a much more sensible price (although still slightly inflated). As Angela was paying her friend, who had the stall next door, came over. The stalls were stacked with spuds, sweet potatoes and squashes. She put her hand out and said “give me some food”. Ange pointed at the huge stacks of veg and said “but you’ve got food!”.

At our next camp we met a British guy cycling from Cape to Cap – Cape of Good Hope in South Africa to Cap du Nord in Norway! Mad fool. His wife’s one stipulation was ‘don’t die’. We had a good chat in the evening and morning and said our farewell and headed south to get through Lusaka before the evening rush hour. It wasn’t that bad for an African capital, and we made our way to a place shown on a website called I-Overlander just south of the city.

On the way we got pulled over by the police after a level crossing which we had checked for trains but not fully stopped at. The police were sat some way after it up the hill, so we couldn’t go back and easily check for the stop sign they said was there but we were pretty sure wasn’t. None of the locals had stopped at the crossing and, funnily enough, none of them had been stopped by the police. A £30 fine and a spurious receipt later and we were ranting for miles afterwards and finally resigned ourselves to the fact this is Zambia and they ‘mostly’ stop for all level crossings (although no one had for this one – don’t get me started).

It turned out the information about the camp site was wrong and it was just a bar and restaurant by the side of the road that were in the process of building a conference facility. But it was 6.30pm and the next camp site was 2 hours drive away. The owner was great and let us camp round then back. We ate at the restaurant. The food was simple but really good but we got overcharged by the waitress who made up some ridiculous reason for the extra charge.

By now we were getting pretty fed up with people asking for stuff and inflating prices all the time. It was almost like a reflex when a white foreigner went past. Sure, we are incredibly privileged in comparison with most of the people we meet but the truth is that we have become more and more jaded by it all and are reconsidering the amount of time we spend out here and visit somewhere else instead. Watch this space.

Still, back to the trip in hand. In the morning we watched a beautiful Lilac-breasted roller preening and sunning himself near the car. We have seen hundreds of these stunning birds on our trip but they are usually too quick or far away for a good photo. This one was just taking its time getting ready for the day and we snapped at leisure.

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Lilac-breasted roller

The final leg and we made a dash for Livingstone again. We went back to Jollyboys campsite again and got talked into staying in one of the dorms as they were reseeding the camping area. It was only a dollar each extra per night and as we were the only ones there we had the 4-bed dorm to ourselves. The camp had DSTV and let us watch the Super Saturday of the 6 Nations rugby – Wales v France and England v Ireland. Boo on both counts – what was going on in France?! Congrats to England, who won the championship despite losing their final game. It was a great 5 days (apart from the rugby), just chilling, getting the car serviced and generally not doing much.

After the police ‘fine’ and more discussions, we decided against visiting Zimbabwe as they are notorious for huge numbers of police checkpoints (e.g. every 15km on some roads) and multiple opportunities to ‘fine’ tourists. It felt like it would be more of the same and take the edge of things. Botswana here we come then, even though we’d heard they’d had a lot of rain….

Thieving Hyenas

We wanted a final night on the lake and taking a careful look at the shore line found a lodge that we thought might have clear water. Sangilo Sanctuary was in a private cove and was a lovely peaceful place. We got on really well with the owner, a fellow Brit who had run an overland company for a number of years, taking groups of travellers for long trips through Africa. He had some great stories to tell. We planned to stay for 2 days but ended up staying for 3 and had a nice relaxed time. The water wasn’t as clear as we’d hoped but we still went for several swims which was a chance to cool down and at least to get some exercise!

Back at Cape McClear we’d seen huge plumes of what looked like smoke over the lake. These were in fact clouds of flies, millions and millions of them billowing up into the sky and drifting across the lake. Sometimes they come ashore, when apparently they are collected and made into patties or a relish by some of the local tribes people. A good source of protein. Yum. They came ashore whilst we were at Sangilo, thankfully not in the numbers we’d seen over the water but still enough to make small clouds. However, we stuck with steak and curry.

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Anyone for a fly pancake?

After three days we uprooted ourselves for the long journey to the Nyika Plateau National Park, stopping at a small town for bread on the way through. The first half of the journey was on reasonable tarmac but this changed to dirt for the trip up the west side of the mountains and into the park. Much of it was actually pretty good but, as usual, the closer we got the the National Park the worse the road got.

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One of the better sections of road

But it was so worth it. The plateau was unlike anything else we’d seen in Malawi. You could be forgiven for thinking you were in the Brecon Beacons or some other part of the UK.

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The beautiful Nyika Plateau

It was raining and cold when we arrived. At around 2,000m the climate up here is different from the hot and steamy lakeside and we definitely needed our coats. We had an incredibly friendly welcome into a cosy room where we were given a complimentary cup of tea in front of a log fire. Then we were directed to our camp site which had a great view over the hills and individual lapas to provide a bit of shelter from the elements. We joined a fellow traveller, Bjorn, who we’d first met a few days before at Lukwe. He was a lovely guy and a bit of a kindred spirit and we got on really well with him. He had driven all the way from his home in Holland, down through Greece, crossing to Egypt and then coming through Sudan before hitting Ethiopia ad the countries further south. We’d been too nervous to try the full trip from home because of driving through these countries but he had done it all on his own. Doffed cap. The camp site was quite exposed and we all huddled around a fire that the staff had lit for us, keeping warm and chewing the fat. He headed off in the morning and we explored the plateau. We had the park to ourselves. The weather moved in a all we could see at some of the view points was fog but lower down there were still spectacular views across this unexpected highland park. 

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We promise we haven’t sneaked back to Wales…

Due to the rains, some of the park was inaccessible and even the tracks that were open were wet in places. Most of the day was uneventful but as we headed home we had a nice few tests in store. Our chosen track led down to a small river crossing with a bridge made from steel girders and wooden planks. Unfortunately several of the planks were rotten. We got out to have a look and poked them and the rotten wood fell away into the stream below leaving large holes in the bridge. Great! We had a really good look at the steel structure and found that the girders were about the same width apart as the Landy wheels, if you squinted. As long as we went slowly and straight it would be ok. Angela was driving and so Gareth guided her across. Shame we didn’t get a photo of Angela’s face – it must have been a picture as it was a bit nerve-wracking! We got across ok, although as the bridge was at 90 degrees to the track it meant that getting a straight line was pretty much impossible and the wheels were somewhat closer to the edge of the girders than would have been desirable…

Then the track wound back up the valley side, hugging it closely. It was narrow and the slope dropped away steeply in places. Just the kind of driving conditions Angela loves! Not. At one point the car bogged in a very wet hollow and the back slid out towards the edge. More steam Egor! A blip on the throttle and we were out. Phew. Then another bridge, stone this time, which was only just wide enough for the car and again was on a bend. Some more guiding by Gareth and we were over safely. Finally, we came round another corner to find the inside of the track washed out by rain water. This had produced a nice little cross-fall into a steep bank. We gingerly crept forward, the car sliding sideways towards the bank. We were right on the cusp of the car’s balancing point. Rolling into the bank would not be a good end to the day, although at least it was sliding into the hillside not down the slope! Slowly, slowly we drove forward barely breathing as the car teetered on the slope. Gradually the track levelled out and we could breath a sigh of relief. Where’s that wine-glass of gin when you need it…?

A nice herd of Roan antelope gave us something to relieve the pent-up tension on the way home. They are quite rare, although there are plenty at Nyika. Brilliant looking animals. Surely JK Rowling had seen these before creating the character of Dobby?

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Dobby-esque Roan antelope

We returned to camp as the weather closed in again. It was cold and damp, misty and drizzling. We had dinner under the cover of the lapa, leaving our firewood bag, braai rack bag and roof tent cover under the shelter to keep them dry over night and headed for the warmth of our tent for a good night’s sleep. We could hear hyenas calling, their rather eerie and plaintive “Whooooo-oop” carrying across the valley. They were not far away. At about midnight Angela was half awake and trying to put off the need to go to the loo. There was a funny sound outside, like something being dragged. It stopped, then there it was again. Something being dragged. Plastic maybe. It was coming from near the lapa, just to the side of the tent. Then the penny dropped. Oh shit. “Gareth, I think the hyenas are stealing our tent cover”. Gareth, who had been fast asleep, woke with a start. “What?”. “The hyenas, I think they’re trying to steal our tent cover”. All was silent outside. We unzipped the tent door and peered out. It was pitch black. In our head torch light we could see the tent cover. It was untouched. But one of the bags seemed to be missing. “What are we going to do?” Hyenas are large, powerful animals. You do not want to mess with them. “I need the loo, so maybe we go down and see?”. “Okay”. We cautiously climbed down the ladder, shining our torches all around. By now the second bag had also gone and in the torch light, about 5 metres behind the car, there was a pair of shining eyes. They were joined by another, then another. Three hyenas. We searched around. No more eyes. Two of us, three of them. The odds seemed reasonable…

They had one of the bags and started dragging it up the hill again. “Oi, tschhhh! Get away” we called in a whispered shout (we didn’t want to wake up the other campers…). Needless to say that had absolutely no effect at all. Gareth grabbed Slasher, one of our trusty anti-snake and baboon sticks, from the car. Slasher is thinner than Basher and makes a great sound when whipped through the air. The hyenas backed off. We grabbed Basher and moved forward, swishing and whisper-shouting. Bit by bit they backed off, but didn’t run off, all the time facing and watching us. We got the first bag and then looked for the second. Gareth found some of the spilled firewood and threw it at the hyenas. They backed off further. We picked out the bag in the torch light, a little further up the hill, and cautiously retrieved it. I think it’s fair to say we were, in the colloquial vernacular, “bricking it”. The slashing kept the hyenas at bay. We threw the bags and the untouched tent cover onto the roof. But Angela still needed a wee…

The ablution block was about 100 metres away. No-one else was awake, including the camp guard! We made our way over, keeping a careful eye on the hyenas as we went. As soon as we started walking they started heading back towards the car. Shit. We made it to the loo and shut the door behind us. Necessities over, we pondered our next move. Having shut ourselves in we couldn’t see outside so we had no idea where the hyenas were. “Well, we cant stay here all night”. Hearts pounding we inched open the door and, torches flicking all over the place, crept back to the car trying to look as fierce and fearless as we could. There was no sign of the hyenas. We quickly clambered back into the tent and, after a few more shared expletives, reflected upon our encounter. We weren’t convinced we had acted wisely in taking the beasties on but hey, it had worked out ok and that’s what mattered now. We tried to go back to sleep but every little noise, of which there were many, had us holding our breath, listening. Was it the hyenas coming back? How high could they jump? As you can imagine, not much sleep was had for the rest of the night. But eventually morning came and we had no more carnivorous.

It was a tired Gareth and Angela that left the park that morning, with our rescued firewood and braai bags intact if a little chewed. After much deliberation we had decided not to go north and into Tanzania. Amongst other places, we had wanted to visit the Serengeti and Ngorogoro Crater National Parks, iconic wildlife areas that we’d love to have seen. But, as foreign tourists, it would have cost us $350 per day to get into the parks and that didn’t include camping fees which were also high. With visitor numbers down, the government had the great idea last year of putting the prices up by 18%. That’ll fix it, eh? Anyway, it was too much for our budget so we were heading for the border with Zambia to make our way south again.

Livingstonia

Our trip north took us via a camp at Nkhotakota, with an interesting bridge to cross en route.

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Unlike Cape McClear, this part of Lake Malawi was affected by the sediment carried by river run-off and the water was a murky brown. Not very inviting so no swimming here.

The next night we stopped in Mzuzu. A fair-sized town with good facilities, it was our main chance to stock up with food and fuel before heading further north. We stayed at Macondo camp, another place run by Italians! What is it about Malawi and Italians? Anyway, it was a nice site but we didn’t meet the owners and, fortunately, didn’t get the same vibe as we had in Zomba so saved our wallets and waste-lines and moved on the next day.

Our destination was Livingstonia. Named in honour of the great Scottish missionary and explorer who has left such a lasting legacy on this part of Africa, this is where the missions finally established their base in the country. It is on the edge of the Nyika Plateau, which we will be exploring ourselves in a few days time, and has a fantastic view down over the lake and the mountains of Tanzania on the far shore.

But first we had to get up there. The road was a 15km ascent over a very rough track through over 20 hairpin bends. Why build a mission in such an inaccessible place? Originally it had been on the lake shore but so many of the missionaries had died of malaria that they moved the mission up the mountainside until they found a less mosquito-infested site. What this meant for us was one of the most beautiful 4×4 drives we have ever done. The track was fairly narrow and the hillside dropped away steeply in places, but not enough to be worrying or dangerous. The views were just beautiful.

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We stopped at a fantastic camp called Lukwe. It was an eco-friendly camp owned and run by a Congo-born Belgian. He’d built it himself, including a fantastic permaculture garden that he’d created on the mountain-side. The bar / restaurant was in the most stunning position imaginable (unless, that is, you don’t like heights…)

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Bar with a view

We set up camp, having a great chat with a lovely Dutch nurse who was on an internment in the hospital at Mzuzu and up here for a few days r&r. Then we headed for the bar. “Two gin and tonics please”. Off the barman went, returning with a brand new bottle of Malawian gin which he handed to Angela. (No comments about ‘old soak’ please). Slightly perplexed we tried to explain that we needed some in a glass. He returned with two wine glasses literally full to the brim… with neat gin. Now we might be known to enjoy a tipple or two but a whole glass of gin each is a bit much even for us. Eventually his colleague came to the rescue, explaining that he was new, and showing him how to make a proper G&T. We joined a group from the British High Commission who were up there hiking for the weekend and spent a nice hour putting the world to rights and trading travel stories, before leaving them to order their dinner and heading back to make ours. 

The area had some interesting residents. As anyone who has ever listened to Angela knows, there are no spiders in Africa. Not quite sure what this fella was doing there then… Fortunately they weren’t that big, maybe 2.5cm wide.

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Kite Spider (but don’t tell Angela)

In the morning we went for a nice walk through the gardens and found a great lookout rock, with a very sheer drop, from which to see a pair of waterfalls at the top of the valley.

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This is a shot especially for our mothers…. Smile

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We then drove up the final 6km to Livingstonia which, as a collection of colonial buildings, was quite interesting to have a quick look around but no more than that. Although we wanted to go onto the plateau itself, and the campsite we planned to stay at was only a few kms from here, there was no road, only footpaths. We would have to drive the 6 hour trip down and around to the other side of the mountain to get there. Still, it gave us the chance to tackle the long and fun twisting descent to the lake shore again. Smile

Lake Malawi

After a ‘complimentary’ but fairly shonky breakfast in the grubby hotel in Blantyre we filled  the Landy up with fuel, refreshed our supplies at a large supermarket and topped up our phones. We then fled the city lights and made our way to Cape McClear on the southern shores of Lake Malawi. It must have been water melon season as a section of the road was lined with stalls stacked to the brim with the mouth-watering fruit.

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Juicy melons

For the first time in what seemed like weeks we started to see some wildlife. Malawi is a small country with a relatively large population that seems to have cultivated every bit of land that it possibly can.  As we approached the lake the land became wetter and hence less suitable for cultivation and the difference showed. No large mammals but lots of wetland birds.

Cape McClear, known locally as Chembe, is on a sheltered outcrop in the south of Lake Malawi. En route we quizzed our guide book for places to stay and places we might be able to watch the rugby. A couple of phone calls later and we had two in one. Fat Monkeys was a backpacker lodge with fairly cheap camping on the beach. What’s more they had DSTV and were happy to put the 6 Nations on for us. We were the only campers and we set up camp under a large shady tree overlooking the beach and the lake. It was beautiful.

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View to the right…

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View in front (who needs Horseguards?…)

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View to the left…

The staff were really friendly and despite the fact that there were several football matches on (mostly UK – we were surprised how many people out here support Chelsea, Man U and Liverpool, until we were told that they tend to support whoever is top of the league at the time…). We watched the Wales game on Saturday and England on Sunday. The results went our way, along with several bottles of the local beer.

Lake Malawi, and this part of the lake in particular, is renowned for its diversity of fresh water fish, notably the huge variety of cichlids. Gareth’s brother and his wife, Huw an Helen, have several varieties of these beautiful fish at home and had told us that the fish in the lake are supposed to be the nearest you can get to the colour of tropical marine fish in fresh water. They weren’t wrong. We went snorkelling at places such as Otter Point and The Aquarium. Sadly so otters but the fish were fantastic and the Aquarium lived up to its name. There was almost a wall of fish in so many different colours – electric blue, orange, silver, black and gold, you name it they were there. Stunning. We were amazed to find that they followed us and wondered if they felt secure near a human but later were told that the guides feed them to attract them for the tourists. Hey ho.

A nearby lodge offered PADI accredited SCUBA diving courses, which is something we both wanted to do. The prices here were fairly cheap so we decided to go for it. First we had to get medicals. We went to the local clinic and spent 2 hours in the queue with the locals, metaphorically fighting to make sure we didn’t lose our place in the ramshackle queue. We felt slightly unworthy as most of these people were there for real medical issues whilst we wanted to be signed off to go diving. Our consciences were salved by the large sum we, as tourists, had paid for our time with the doc. At least 50 times the local rate. Gareth was signed off but the doc, a young Brit, was not happy with Ange’s mild asthma, advising her not to do the course and not signing her off. We were really disappointed. The doc told us that, if it was any consolation, he couldn’t dive either, due to a pierced ear-drum. His diving mates had told him that you can actually see most of the best stuff near the surface anyway so snorkelling was sometimes as good as diving. Well they would wouldn’t they…

We consoled ourselves with a kayaking trip and more snorkelling. In the morning we left to head north, but not before we had our breakfast stolen by a very cheeky Vervet Monkey. We knew they were around but turned our backs for a few moments and lost a slice of toast straight off the toaster! He was way too quick to stop him. It must have been burning hot but it didn’t bother the monkey one little bit.

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Vervet Monkey enjoying our breakfast