I awake to my tent collapsing and shouts from the South African; “I'm blowing awaaaaaay!” I peek out, and he indeed is levitating on his air mattress with the tent billowing at all sides. We are wild camping off of Hunters Road, and the wind is relentlessly insane. I struggle to hold down the tent & watch the others do the same. All we can do is wait for a break, which finally comes long enough to get the South African back on land, move the car to break the wind, and find rocks and ropes to further secure our homes. Phew! Although a trip to Oz would really be a highlight of this adventure! We decide to stay another night, with the hopes the wind might die down and we see the wildlife and stars that brought us here. Our site is strategically placed under a giant baobab, with the valley spread out below. It's another windy day, but we still catch zebras, jackal, and antelope not far off. A relaxing day, and the wind seems to have moved on. Just as I'm settling down to sleep that night, I hear what I think is a lion roaring... Back out of the tent I go to ask the others. Yes, it is indeed a pride of lions just down the hill. Quickly back into the tent! I tell myself that lions won't bother us, but it's a futile attempt to relax. I lie there and listen – and here an even closer roar up the hill. Two prides of lions?? One on either side? What luck... I don't think I've ever been this legitimately afraid on Halloween night!
Exhaustion wins over, and I manage to catch a few winks. I awake with all of my limbs but am ready to move on. Off we go to the Makgadikgadi Pans! We choose Sowa Pan for our, a seasonal lake that fills with water in the rainy season but is a vast salt pan in the dry season. Lucky for us it is dry season, and the salt pan is quiet, lonely, desolate, DRY, and simply amazing. After playing with perspective and exploring the pan, we ate like kings over a huge bush fire and went to sleep trying to count the billions of stars. Oh – and no lions! The only life I saw were wild horses that must be waiting for the rainy season. Brilliant :)
As we park the Landie outside of Zambia's customs office, the rain slows and a double rainbow appears in the distance. I get the feeling we are going to like Botswana! Customs are a breeze, and we board the ferry to cross the mighty Zambezi. More rains come but upon arrival at the Botswana side, they cease and the rainbow is back. Excellent. We arrive at Chobe Safari Lodge in Kasane in time for a sundowner by the fabulous pool. It's lovely, & the many rich pensioners that surround us would likely attest. It's a huge property, and one of the nicest places we've camped thus far.
But the lodge is not the main event – we are here to visit Chobe National Park, the 3rd largest park in Botswana with one of the largest concentration of game in Africa. We arrive in the Serondela Area of the park around midday to avoid the morning rush of the commercial vehicles, and stay until sunset. This area of the park has a lush floodplain surrounding the Chobe River, and is teeming with wildlife. We see at least 1,000 buffalo, 1,000 elephant, a lion, sable, many giraffe, carmine bee eaters, lilac breasted rollers, baboon, dazzles of zebra, many species of antelope... and on our way out we encounter a spitting cobra and angry and trumpeting bull elephant! If that's not enough, we are lucky to enjoy the most beautiful sunset of our trip thanks to the persistence and driving of the South African. Elephants were drinking at the riverfront as the sun set behind them. Incredible. Back at our campsite, we enjoyed hippo, tons of birds, warthog, impala, baboon, vervet monkeys, and of course the very fancy pool & sunset cocktails! One of the nights was Aussie #2's birthday, and the South African even managed to bake a delicious chocolate cake over the fire. The crew votes we stay a few days to soak up the luxury before heading off into the bush and to see what else wild Botswana has to offer!
Victoria Falls is a place I've wanted to see for a long time. I love water, and it is the largest curtain of water in the world (not the highest or widest waterfall, but it has the worlds largest sheet of falling water). Pictures and documentaries of it are all incredibly powerful. But those artists don't show it to you in the dry season do they? Well, it is the dry season and Vic Falls is a trickle. What luck! The cliff and rock formations are incredible though, and this time of year the water creates small pools on the cliff's edge. Devil's Pool was a bit pricey, so we went off to find our own cliff side splash pool. Moments before diving into the largest one, a park ranger arrived to kick out the brave and fearless crew. After we all moaned and complained, he gave us 10 minutes to swim. Back in we go! At over 100 degrees, we were all thankful. I'd love to see the Falls in full flow, but its amazing to be able to climb to the edge and peer down that incredible cliff face! After that adrenaline rush, there is also a huge Curio Market where you can pick up all the wooden hippos, elephants, and masks your heart desires. Don't leave for home without your life-size wooden giraffe!
The next day, the Aussies and I took advantage of a unique dry season opportunity – whitewater rafting the Zambezi! The River was in full force, with up to Class 6 rapids. We took the half day option with Buntu, and paddled 10 gorgeous and exhilarating rapids. We hopped out of the raft for the Class 6 rapid, which resembled certain death. Even the kayakers avoided it! After a morning on the river, we have to take our gear and hike out of the canyon... It's a brutal and dangerous climb, complete with makeshift ladders along some of the cliff faces. It's straight up and at times I'm not sure why I didn't do the full day rafting to take the cable car up! Thankfully, water is waiting at the top, and so is a great view of the river and canyon below. Gorgeous and well worth it.
Now, let's go find out what's happening in Botswana!
On a tip from a local at Croc Valley, we head towards Lusaka via the 'shortcut' road. Which turns out to mean rocks, steep inclines, dirt and sand.... in other words – perfect for the Landie :) A few minutes in, we see wild elephants and impala. Amazing. Further down the road we come to remote villages, more rocks, and some guys walking in the middle of nowhere with no water... Where must you go in the heat of the day? Every time we're on one of these 'back roads', we see someone and it never ceases to amaze me. Endurance! The shortcut doesn't get us to Lusaka, so we camp at Bridge Camp next to the Luangwa River – again arriving in the cover or darkness. A clean, quiet place to rest complete with a refreshing pool overlooking the river. We make it to Lusaka the next day to pick up Aussie #2, pay a visit to the mall to stock up, order some pizzas, and navigate the parking garage with the Landie (amusing). It's a bit overwhelming to be in a capitol city of 1.7 million people after all of that wildlife, but we make it out of the mall in one piece!
A few cold, rainy nights at the Pioneer Camp in Lusaka are enough and the 4 of us – now 2 Aussies (mom & daughter), the South African, and the 2 Americans head to Livingstone. Five hundred kilometers and many hours later we arrive in Livingstone – a historic British colonial city (named after David Livingstone) with about 140,000 people and many tourists who are like to party... Particularly at Jollyboys Backpackers where we pitch out tents. After a long day on the road, we decide to escape the backpacker party and head out on the town for dinner at Cafe Zambezi. I order a local fish dish (2 whole fishes so mind the bones!) and Aussie #1 has the goat curry... complete with the liver. Yes, I'm happy with my order! Post dinner we head out to a local jazz club and catch a 3 piece Livingstone band, then a karaoke bar to sing a tune, and finally we join ½ the town for a lip synching party. Good times, but tomorrow we'll see what we came for – Victoria Falls, or Mosi-oa-Tunya – the Smoke that Thunders!
Lilongwe was a nice place to restock, but there was no reason to stick around. It was a hot day on the road (45 degrees) and we found the Zambia border to be unfriendly and corrupt. We had to pay our visa fees, but the foreign exchange wouldn't buy Malawi kwacha and our fees had to be paid in Zambian kwacha... Very inconvenient. So we're forced to wheel and deal with the guys hanging around changing money for the black-market.... great. Hours later, we finally get some money and hope we didn't get totally ripped off. We cross into Zambia with a bad taste in our mouths – but there's cold beer in the fridge, the road ahead is clear, and the Landie arrives at South Luangwa's Croc Valley Camp just after dark. A nice spot right on the river, complete with bar, small pool, and billiards. During the day we sat at the campsite watching elephants, hippos, crocs, and plenty of birds visit the river to drink. One night we took a game drive into S. Luangwa National Park to look for leopard and pangolin. It was our first game drive with a commercial vehicle, and I felt like a true tourist. The park had zebra, a few small giraffe, some antelope... but the real thrill came just before sunset when we pull up beside 2 male lion. I'm about 5 feet away from those piercing eyes and deadly paws, and I'm terrified. Frozen in my seat. But our guides are chatting, and seem quite at ease. Guess this is another day in the park for them, but I still think a healthy fear is good! After a moment we restart the engine and drive to the riverbed, and I peer down to see at least 10 more lions lazing by the water. Incredible. An older male, females, and even adorable cubs. Two females are also right on our tail – a few feet from the back of the car – and they do not take their eyes off of us. We sit for a while though, and the lions go about their business. The sun begins to set, and it's beautiful – we even see an African Skimmer flitting about. No leopards or pangolin, but the lion sighting was amazing.
We arrive back at camp to find the trailer moved and dented. An inspection reveals elephant tracks and droppings ... we've had visitors! Chuck Norris fended them off, though, and is still in tact. Those elephants better find another trailer to mess with! The sound of braying hippos lulled me to sleep, but an Australian whisper shouting 'Maggie! Maggie!' wakes me up shortly after. I open my eyes and just outside my tent is the biggest elephant I've ever seen – or maybe that's because it's almost sitting on me! There are two, and the Aussie is also eyeing one in it's giant behind. They are back, and enjoying our shade trees. Not quite sure what to do, I sit still and hope they wander off. Just as they begin to go, campsite security decides to come clamoring over shouting and waving their wind-up flashlights... grrreat. Now there are 2 angry elephants within stomping distance! The elephants are not happy, but luckily they storm off in the opposite direction and miss us on their way out after the guard. Phew! An angry German wakes me the next morning, complaining to the guards about the elephant droppings near their car. Guess they don't realize these are the wild elephants they came to see, and they should be thankful they didn't stomp them in the night or dent their precious rental! I'm grateful to have all my limbs, but am ready to head to Lusaka!
From Mangochi we decide to head back to the Lake for a night, via Mua Mission. You wouldn't guess it from the road, but a few km up the hill is quite an establishment. Mua Mission was the first missionary camp in Malawi, and now it's a campus teeming with people. It also has a nice museum highlighting the histories and traditions of the three major tribes in Malawi (Ngoni, Yao, Chewa). The masks are incredible, and there is a story behind each one. I recommend it if you can find it!
The four of us arrive in Senga Bay by sunset, and already I'm missing the charm of Monkey Bay. It's a much larger, dustier town and the beach is not so inviting; there are people bathing and washing their clothes, cattle roaming around doing their thing, and loads of trash. Cool Runnings is a lovely spot though, complete with a grass lawn (a rarity), nice breeze, and a bar with a lake view. The owners are very active in the local community as well. We stay 2 nights to see the full moon rise over the lake. Plus, we've run into “Uncle Paul”, his wife Maria, and Monty – their giant overland truck. They are true adventurers, travelling nearly 25,000km through 22 countries in the 10 sq metre truck. This time around they are headed to Ethiopia from Jeffrey's Bay over 6 months. He's got cancer, his wife nearly died on their last trip, he's been married thrice, but has more energy than most 30 somethings I know. This guy is a living legend with no shortage of tales to tell. Check out their website and this article for inspiration. Good times at the Cool Runnings bar. Two nights breeze bye, and it's off to Lilongwe (the 'big' city) to restock!
One more dip in the lake and we're back in the Landie headed south toward Mangochi & Liwonde once again. Tonight we'll spend the night on the MV Mangunda – an overnight river cruise safari on the Shire River in Liwonde National Park. Running on Africa time, we drop off the Rasta and arrive a bit tardy. No worries – the beer is freezing cold and lunch is ready! Delicious and served on the observation deck. What a gorgeous boat – on the bottom deck there are cabins, second level is a kitchen and dining area, and on the top a shaded game viewing deck. We spend the day meandering along the river watching for croc, hippo, kingfisher, goliath heron, squacko heron, blue heron, black craic, african skimmer, open bill stork, little egret, great white egret, cattle egret, elephant, fish eagle, bee eaters, Africa jicana, weavers, warthogs, albino hippo, fishermen, waterbok... and more. For sunset we hop into a smaller boat with our sundowners and go exploring among the reeds. Crocs and hippos galore. On top of all that, it's a full moon – what luck. It's tough to steal away from moonlit game viewing, but real bed #3 awaits... Being rocked to sleep was delightful, but breakfast and game viewing await at sun up. We cherish every last minute on the boat, but by 10am we're back ashore and the dream has vanished. Guess we have to go back to Lake Malawi to recover :)
All I did was hit the restroom, but I emerge and the crew is gone... hmmm.... I wander past the Mufasa Rustic Lodge sign and see it – Lake Malawi, and happy friends far off in the distance diving from rocks. My clothes are dirty anyway... In I go. Oh man – we've found a gem. Six days and 800 swims later we are still there. What a place. Lake Malawi is the world's deepest freshwater lake, and definitely one of the largest at 375km long, 52km wide, and 1,200m deep... also called “Calendar Lake”... get it? There are thousands of colorful cichlids (think the fish they sell you at the pet store); snorkeling is on the itinerary. As are sunsets, sunrises, Carlsburg (Malawi's 'National' beer), chomba somba, sailing on air mattresses, and too much relaxation. It's pretty easy to get stuck in this place. And that we did. We stayed long enough to lose the Scot (she stole off in the cover of darkness in a fit of rage) and the Brazilian (who left kicking and screaming to go back to work). Shame. But we did add a Zambian Rasta to the mix for a bit to change up the pace. Ebbs & flows... In town, Emmanuel the Tailor made some fantastic new clothes with our Malawain fabrics, children played soccer anywhere and everywhere, and the pace was slow and steady. Monkey Bay, I'll be back.
After a nice cool morning hike on the Zomba Plateau we are ready to head for the markets and Liwonde. But first, “special chicken” and “special fish” at Tasty Bites. “Sir, what's the difference between the special chicken and the chicken?” The waiter looks up, thinking.... “Nothing”, he says. “So it's just more expensive”. “Yes”, he replies. And so it goes. The food comes out in Africa time, and I wait even longer. Nonetheless, we enjoy a restaurant meal and even get some chocolate cake :) Off to shop at Zomba market, the nicest market I've seen in Africa so far. There are only the vendors selling you things – no touts or “friends” following you, and at times you have to wake a vendor up to check out their wares. So laid back and wonderful. The fabrics and wood pieces were incredible, fish and fresh produce were laid out beautifully, and we also picked up some fresh spices for the campfire kitchen. I left impressed and a few kwacha lighter.
Liwonde National Park was impressive from the start. We arrived at sunset and Mvu Lodge overlooked the Shire River, so hippos and crocs were the stars of the show. Clean campsite, pool (yay!), riverside bar, and friendly staff. Each night we were visited by migrating elephants in our camp and each day we had great game drives through the park on top of the Land Rover. Beautiful birds, impala, warthogs, bushbok, waterbok (highest concentration in the world), hippo (2nd largest concentration in the world), 74 mammal species, 460 bird species, and over 1,125 plant species – not too shabby. Baobabs also thrive in the park, and we found a giant baobab at which Livingstone camped, & has been a prison, a slave trading center and a post office. Today it is a ferry point. At more than 2,000 years old it has seen staggering change but there it stands, beautiful and proud.
Turns out Malawi was a muse for Tolkein; the Ents came from the baobabs, the Hobbits came from the Shire River, Lake Molombe (means baobab) was a crossing point. Fantasy geeks unite! Baobabs are pretty incredible too. Each meter of growth represents 100 years on the planet – and in Malawi we saw one that is 3,800 years old. Its seeds have been used as a substitute for coffee, and the fruit is rich in omega 3 and vitamin c (make juice or jam). The bark is used to make ropes, material, or paper. And since they grow to be hollow, you can also call it home. Perhaps that's where I'll end up next. It was tough to leave the wildlife, friendly staff, and refreshing pool of Mvu and Liwonde, but Lake Malawi was up next...
Dawn came early after our night out in Vilankulos... but it was well worth it check out some local music. Leaving the cool ocean breeze was tough, but there was much to see and Malawi was calling. It was a long drive to Gorongosa National Park, and due to the political unrest we had to catch up to a military convoy by 9am. We were running late.... but we made the checkpoint around 9:30 – late but were waved through behind a tank. Nerve wracking, but just 1Km into this convoy, we are waved around – then dodge a few large trucks, and that's it. No more military all the way to Gorongosa – no worries! Gorongosa is a lovely and clean campsite with a cute camp dog. :)
Next morning – off to Malawi! Crossing the border was a breeze – only after waiting on a "ferry" to be fixed (aka metal barge on wires...) - but it was a fun checkpoint with many children again wanting to sing and dance :) It's pitch dark and 18 hours later we are nearly to Blantyre and the Landie comes to a puttering halt. We are out of gas. Two “24 hour filling stations” happened to be closed. Luckily we were at a police checkpoint, and they happened to arrest someone selling diesel illegally a few days back that lived nearby. So we send the South African to track him down... 2 hours later – by midnight – he trudges back with a can full of diesel. A trooper! We arrive in Blantyre by 1am, and hit the sack – real bed #2! Zomba Plateau is our first stop after stocking up in the big city. We arrive late again, and must wander through the mountain in the dark searching for the Trout Camp. Wrong road #1, wrong road #2... back up, turn around, don't fall off the cliff.... and then finally we see a sign and a man appears out of nowhere to point the way. It was a bit creepy at night, but we awake to a jungle paradise. A forest hike revealed lots of deforestation in the surrounding area – depressing but it was nice to see there was a small piece of jungle remaining, and you could drink straight from the cool stream. Delicious. But there is more to see, so off we go! Next stop? Liwonde National Park for more wildlife!
Combining a passion for travel, the desire to make a difference and a love of maps, MaggieMaps was born. A place to share stories, resources, and a way to inspire and support others in realizing their individual travel dreams.
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Unless otherwise noted, all prose, poetry, maps and photography posted on this blog are Copyright 2013 Maggie Maps
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