Lilongwe to South Luangwa National Park

After more than a week bouncing around the shores of Lake Malawi, we headed to Lilongwe from Kande Beach. Some will tell you it takes 4 hours, others 6, but really it takes about 10 if traveling by local buses. These ‘matolas,’ small 14 seater buses, will actually squeeze in more than 20 people, and stop to drop off and pick up people as long as there’s space to sell one more passenger in, including whatever cargo they may have with them (ie. live chickens, 25kg corn flour sacks, or smelly dried sardines). They’ll tell you they’re going to Lilongwe, but really they’re just going to the next big town where they can buy you into their buddy’s bus, which goes to the next town, and 3 bus exchanges later (if you’re lucky), you’ll actually get to Lilongwe.

Goodbye Lake Malawi

In Lilongwe we stayed at Mabuya, a backpacker friendly hostel and camp site, but with the early arrival of the rainy season, decided that sleeping outside in our hammocks was a bad idea. We were short on kwacha, but they accepted visa once in a while, and this was one of those nights. It poured from the moment we arrived until we went to sleep, so the $12 splurge on a dorm bed was well worth it, although we missed out on enjoying the swimming pool.

A warm welcome to Zambia

The next morning we left at 6:30, and took a local bus to the bus station. From there, we found a bus to Machinji ‘border,’ which doesn’t go to the border, but takes you to Mchinji town (2000 kwacha, 2 hours). Another 1000 kwacha in a shared taxi took us the last few kilometers to the border, which we walked across, and bought a single-entry Zambian visa for $50US (NB: the coop $30 Zambia/Zimbabwe visa is not available at this border).

Our first sunrise in Mfwue, just seconds after the baboon perched on our picnic table ran away

From there, it was another shared taxi to the next town, Chipata 30km away. The atm at the border didn’t work, no one exchanged shillings or pounds, and after our unexpected visa fees we had no extra dollars. But the shared taxi took us to a Barclays in Chipata, where we had to wait in a long line to use the atm (it was down for the first 15 minutes) or get special permission from the manager to change pounds. I’ve heard Zimbabwe is bad, but this was still worse than I expected. It may have been because it was the first of the month and a Friday, but it was still surprising how difficult it took for us to get local kwachas.

Zebra crossing on the way to South Luangwa

Now it was 12:30, and the taxi had waited an hour for us, but he still only charged us 50 Zambian Kwacha and then dropped us off to the Chipata bus station, where we could get a bus to Mfuwe. We had heard shared taxi’s also do the route, for the same price and a lot faster, so after talking to a few drunkards and some taxi drivers, we finally found out they were waiting somewhere else 3 km away.

Even a lying down giraffe is tall

We were off by 13:30 in a shared taxi, for another 50 kwacha where they say they only take 4 passengers, but a 5th one was always rotating in and out during the 133km journey to Mfwue. We arrived at the doors of Croc Valley, 2 km outside of South Luangwa Park’s gates, just before 4. We checked in for a 2 night, 2 safari, 4 meal deal and slept in our hammocks the first night.

Lazy cat

Even though Croc valley isn’t technically in the park, there are no gates or fences, so the shallow Luangwa river didn’t stop hippos from coming up on our side. After asking permission to sleep in hammocks, and being assured it was safe, we were told there was a small chance some grazing hippos might show up in the middle of the night, and we had to just stay calm and quiet. Sure enough, around 3 am, a large, chomping, snorting hippo decided to nearly graze me he was grazing so close.

Sunrise from Croc Valley

The next morning, after a game drive, the manager of Croc Valley told us we weren’t allowed to sleep in hammocks, since crocodiles also roamed around freely, and “a hyena might come and bite your face off.” So after that kind of warning, we moved into the canvas tents, especially after seeing the size of some of the spiders and avoiding a snake as we took down camp.

Bushbuck antelope are loving the new greenery after the first rains

The place was seething with insects as soon as nightfall came. All sizes and shapes of insects I’ve never seen, and a lovely bunch of mosquitos, plus thieving baboons and monkeys to avoid. A gecko pooped on me while doing yoga on the patio, and the swimming pool had a warning sign advising “please make sure there are no hippos, snakes or crocodiles before swimming.” We managed to eat our meals in peace, since the waiters carried slingshots to threaten any monkeys away, and took a sunset safari in the park to see pukus and zebras who truly have only white and black stripes (that carry on all the way under their bellies). After running into a few more grazing hippos on our way home after dark just outside of camp, we were relieved to sleep in our bush tent, especially once the thunder and lightning started up.

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Yosemite National Park

I went to Yosemite last week, and going this late in October was a little worrisome because of fall arriving, possible cold nights, and services shutting down as the tourist season draws to a close. Instead, we discovered that it couldn’t have been a more perfect time to visit since the recent heat waves in the Bay area were also giving Yosemite valley the most glorious, sunny, warm weather imaginable, and with summer winding down and tourist numbers lessening, it was like we had the whole park to ourselves.

what a beautiful place 🙂

Yosemite covers around 1900 square kilometres of protected wilderness in the Sierra Nevada of California. We drove in through the Big Oak Flat entrace, winding past beautiful big oak trees, and hiking into the Tuolumne Grove of massive, giant, thousand-year old Sequoia trees. We only paid a $20 park entrance fee for the car, and $20 for one nights accomodation in the maintained Crane Flat campground, but discovered that the tourist information centres distribute free wilderness permits that allow you to hike and camp basically anywhere you want, as long as you’re a mile away from the nearest road or trail. We decided to hike out to the now-closed May Lake campground to sleep with the most spectacular view at 9,400 feet.

May Lake

We spent alot of time in big, open meadows that randomly and unexpectedly opo out of this heavily forested, mountainous terrain. We were lucky enough to see mule deer a handful times from a very close distance, lots of chipmunks and squirrels, but only saw droppings as evidence of the many brown bears that roam around and often get warned off by bear bells and loud screaming – we heard alot of that too, and late at night it was a bit unnerving.

the giant, over-sized pinecone of an ancient Sequoia Tree

We also spent a day in Yosemite valley, where tourist services were all still running and the area was bustling with families, RV’s and rangers. In the valley you are surrounded by the most breathtaking, mountainous peaks you can imagine, called epic names like El Capitan and The Cathedral Ranges, as well as the more famous Mt Lyell and Half Dome (the highest peak and the most popular, 12 hr hike – respectively). Then there are some very large, majestic waterfalls fed by melting snow and glacier run off like Yosemite, Bridalveil and Ribbon falls, that tend to dry up by the late summer/fall, so we were only lucky enough to gawk at Bridalveil falls.

hiking down to Lukas lakeYosemite ValleyYosemite Valley

River Bed Camping

Leaving Etosha and roadtripping for a week was not only an awesome camping trip, but an absolute blast because of our roadtrip crew. We had me, Steve, a city-girl from New York, and 2 australians that literally had beers in their hands from the moment they woke up. We had dance parties in the car despite barely fitting in the crew cab and squished all our stuff, food, and water for your week-long bush camping.

There is a river that feeds into the northern boundary of Etosha called Ekuma and we spent a night there capturing jackals surrounded by the receding riverbanks. It was so strange to see this abundance of water, both because Namibia is an extremely arid country, and also because it flows into the completely dry salt pan. Since there were so many water points, animals were scarce and we only ever saw a couple honey badgers and some antelope horns far off… and a jackal skull, but that doesn’t really count as an animal sighting.

A pretty fresh jackal skull

A pretty fresh jackal skull

our nightly campfire

The next night we camped in the dried out Ugaub river bed which only flows for a short time during the wet season. It has a sandy bottom so made tent pitching easy. It was another beautiful camping location, with the most amazing backdrop of a river path winding its way through big, red, boulders and rocky mountains. The next morning we decided to drive back to the main road by following the river bed west, but somehow made a full circle return to the same road we had been driving all along, but didnt realize that til we turned around, drove the riverbad back to our original camp site, and drove along the road just to see the same spot we thought was east of us.

trying to figure our way out of the river bed with the help of some herero locals

It would have been annoying except it was just exciting to actually drive the hilux in low 4-wheel drive, although only Griffo managed to really manage with the deep sand.

lots and lots of stinky seals

lots and lots of stinky seals

In the afternoon we made it to a huge seal colony in Cape Cross on the skeleton coast, with thousands of seals just lying around moaning and playing and fighting… and pooing. They stank. But, they were very cute and entertaining, and I was so relieved to see and smell the ocean after my 6 weeks in dry Etosha.

yummy salty goodness

yummy salty goodness

As we drove south towards our next destination, Swakopund, we passed the spookiest ship wreck ever, just barely seeing the mast of it from the road in the thick fog. Along the way we could stop for a salt lick from raw blocks of salt being sold on the roadside, since a handful of salt factories were pretty much the only form of civilization we saw for our hours of driving along the Skeleton Coast.

one of the many shipwrecks claimed by the skeleton coast