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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Mauritius, country #200

I came up with the goal to try and visit 200 countries before I turned 30. I arrived in Mauritius, country #200, 3 days before my birthday, and 9 other friends from around the world. Without sharing too much incriminating evidence, here are a few pictures and stories from the best birthday week I’ve ever had.

one of those lazy beach days

Most of my friends are from Europe or North America, so I had originally chosen Laos as a more ‘central’ meeting point. But my best friend Ursula from Washington D.C. said there had to be a beach, and booked her flight to Mauritius even before I did. She knew it was a new country for me, and thought it would increase the number of people coming, despite it being much further away in the middle of the Indian Ocean.

La Cambuse beach

There were supposed to be twelve of us, but one friend from Australia who is a pilot for Qantas couldn’t use his standby tickets because of some schedule changes. My best friend from Canada, who recently married an American, got scheduled an immigration interview for a date exactly in the middle of her already booked vacation, so since Green cards don’t last forever and Donald Trump exists, she had to cancel.

But, there was the Lebanese entertainer from Paris, the German horse-back rider from Munich, the Belarussian couple from Minsk, my study abroad roommate from Washington DC, a couchsurfer I met in Italy from Pennsylvania, an emergency doctor from New York, a professional dancer from LA, and Iceland’s best chef. We were 4 girls, 6 guys, half of us couchsurfers, and nearly no one had met eachother before.

the 4 ladies of the group

The week went flawlessly. I could never imagine putting a group of 10 strangers together, traveling and staying together in a foreign country without any hiccups, but it was perfect. Everyone got along, the rum was never-ending, and the beaches and sunsets stayed beautiful no matter where we were on the island.

sunset at Flic en Flac

We spent our first 4 days in Blue Bay, 3 days in Flic en Flac, and 2 days in Trou aux Biches, near Grande Baie. Our only errands every day were to refill the ice bags and fill them with wine, then walk to the beach and work on our tans, or burns, in some cases. In Le Morne we swam with wild dolphins in the open sea, and our personal taxi-van carried us from A to B and showed us some of the touristic sites on the island. We passed towns with the names of Suriname and Yemen, and saw endless fields of sugar cane backdropped by Jurrasic park-like mountains.

Tea party at the Bois Cherie tea plantation

We visited a rum distillery, a tea plantation, a Hindu temple, and some waterfalls and park areas, but the beaches were by far the most memorable. The water was always warm, and even under dark and stormy skies stayed bright and crystal blue. We had a few rain showers, but went to the beach anyway, and missed the cyclone that hit after we left. We danced at some live music bars, drank with some locals who were friends of friends of friends, ate brunches with bottomless mamosas and cooked dinners together at the various airbnb’s we stayed at. It’s a miracle no one got hurt or lost or left out or too claustrophobic, but this group of people made my 30th birthday a most unforgettable party. I’ve also never traveled in such a big group, but after visiting 200 countries and experiencing Mauritius the way I did, I kind of wish some of those people would carry on traveling with me.