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.

Advertisements

Victoria Falls, Zimbabwean Style

Even though it only took 2 flights to get from Iceland at the top of the world to the very bottom of Africa, it still took 3 flights to get from Cape Town to Botswana, and then another hour drive to get to my actual destination, Victoria Falls on the Zimbabwean side. I flew with Mango Air from Cape Town to Johannesburg, then Air Botswana from Joburg to Kasane, connecting in Maun, in very tiny 40 passenger planes. Mango Air was your typical budget airline, but Air Botswana was a delight – their idea of an airplane lunch snack was biltong (dried meat similar to beef jerky) and beer, even though the flight was only 45 minutes long at 11 in the morning. Now that’s my idea of airplane hospitality in a world of increasingly stingy airlines – Icelandair doesn’t even feed you peanuts on the 5 hr flights to North America anymore.

The original plan was for me, Steve and 2 other friends from Berkeley to meet in Kasane, but we weren’t meant to meet until the following afternoon, so when I made it all the way to Kasane (the north eastern-most park of Botswana) and Steve didn’t (he flew threw Windhoek and had flight delays), I made an opportunistic plan to somehow make it to the border Botswana-Zimbabwe, only 15 km away, and onward to Victora Falls for my spare 24 hrs. Luckily there were 2 Americans on the plane who had befriended a British/Zimbabwean tour guide, and when they also befriended me, explained that the tour guide was driving straight to Victoria Falls and I took the generous offer to catch a lift. On our one hour drive we saw warthog, monkeys, baboons, kudu and elephant all from the road. He escorted me through both borders (you have to exit Botswana in one building and 50m away enter Zimbabwe in another building), and drove me straight to the doorstep of the main backpackers in town. It’s called Shoestrings, a super cozy, inexpensive ($11US/night/bed) hostel/camp ground, with a pool, hammocks, 2 resident Great Dane/Irish Wolf hound crosses (BIG dogs), and it’s all open-air except the bedrooms.

Likey and his leaf brrom, with the waterfall spray soaking our path

Likey and his leaf brrom, with the waterfall spray soaking our path

I was really looking forward to paying billions for everything, but just in the last year Zimbabwe’s official currency has been changed over to the US dollar. The economic transition seems ongoing, and I get the feeling US dollar bills are still few and hard to get your hands on, so when you do get an actual bill in your hand, they’re often well-used, tattered, dirty pieces of paper. Even though Shoestrings wasn’t nearly at capacity, later that evening a ground safari tour bus full of drunken Aussies, Americans, Canadians and Brits showed up and completely emptied the $1.50/beer bar. The last thing I was expecting on my impromptu trip to Zimbabwe was to party with a whole bunch of young westerners, but I can’t say I didn’t have fun. I also met one local white guy, a middle aged Trohpy Hunter guide, so if that didn’t make him seem odd enough, he took to expressing his feet fetish to me by sniffing and biting the ends of my toes to ‘inspect how well-traveled I was.’ Even though I wasn’t supposed to go to Zimbabwe on this trip, or at least I hadn’t planned on it, I really wanted to see Victoria Falls since I’ve had somewhat of a waterfall theme going on in my travels as of late. I made it to Iguazu Falls in Argentina in January and Niagra Falls in March and had been daydreaming about Vic Falls (and Angel Falls in Venezuela) ever since. The next morning I finally fulfilled that curiosity, and spent all morning at the water fall. I walked in shortly after sunrise with just enough money to pay the slightly expensive $30US park fee and my waterproof camera, and all the staff and street sellers tried to convince me to get an umbrella or poncho.

the bridge to Zambia

the bridge to Zambia

I decided even if I got wet, it was hot enough to air dry in minutes, but after walking around for a few hours, I literally got rained on from all directions, with waterfall spray hitting you from below, sideways, and above, in big heavy raindrops. One of the ground keepers found it amusing and decided to follow me around the park, pretending to sweep the path with his broom made from tree branches full of leaves. For every leaf he swept off the path, he put another 2 on the path, so Im not sure if that was really his job or if it was, that his job was actually productive, but I let him walk me around anyway. He told me all about his family, the falls, the resident butterflies, the impala that we saw in the forest, and a beautiful piece of bee hive that had fallen to the ground. He explained that you could eat it, and after putting a piece of perfectly symmetrical hexagons into his mouth, admitted it just tasted like wax, not honey. His name was Likey, and if you’re in Vic Falls anytime soon, look for the teenager spreading leaves all over the walkways and ask him to show you around. He definitely gave the best tour of the park, and for sure costs less than the hired tour guides who won’t give you that type of one-on-one attention. The similarity of Vic Falls to Iguazu was astounding since I really felt like I was having déjà vu. In both places you have the river and a massive waterfall accessible by two countries, and a little to the east, another border and a small community trying to be a gateway town to the falls tourism. For Vic Falls there’s Zambia a stone’s throw away to from Zimbabwe, and the Caprivi strip of Namibia nearby, and in the same orientation, Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay all huddling around Iguazu. Both places had similar ecosystems, luscious greenery and thousands of butterflies fluttering around, but I guess they had slightly different feels since Iguazu didn’t have elephants…

Cliff under the 'entering Zambia" sign

Cliff under the 'entering Zambia" sign

In the afternoon I walked across the bridge to Zambia, just for another view of the falls and to contemplate whether or not I had the guts to bungee jump off the side into the Zambezi River. I didn’t, but I did make another friend called Cliff who again politely asked to walk with me. We were hassled by all his friends trying to sell me copper bracelets or wood craft souvenirs, and one finally struck a deal when he offered to trade a bracelet for my old, dingy scarf. I did really like it and wear it a lot, but I naively thought he must have liked my scarf a lot and wanted to give it to his girlfriend or mom. After sealing the deal, Cliff later explained he was just going to resell it to someone else. If I had known that I might have kept my scarf since it was worth much less than his copper bracelet and I certainly wasn’t trying to rip him off, but I guess I’ll just pretend he did really like it and I did him the favor by trading.

Links: http://www.shoestringsvicfalls.com