Thursday, September 1, 2016

The Wonders of Northern Zambia

Livingstone, Zambia, September 1st

Terri and Stanley at Nsobe
Of all the countries we have visited so far on our southern Africa loop, Zambia is the one that most feels as though we have left the shadow of the developed world for the bright sunshine of “real Africa”, whatever that means.  And in Zambia, it is the area northeast of Lusaka that best exemplifies that feeling of falling off the map.  It was for exploring precisely this sort of area that we bought Stanley in the first place, allowing us as much freedom as possible in terms of travel and independence.  Our swing through that area was one of the biggest highlights so far of Stanley’s Travels, and reliving this trip while writing this blog post has reminded me of how wonderful some of these places are; perhaps it will inspire some of you, gentle readers, to explore northern Zambia on your own.
The Road to Muyombe:  Paved with Good Intentions?

We entered Zambia on Tuesday, July 26th, fresh from our fabulous sojourn on the picturesque Nyika Plateau.  The road to the border on the Malawian side had been miserably corrugated and potholed gravel, deteriorating sharply in quality as we approached the curiously one-sided border post where the Malawians had a presence (albeit a young woman who was filling in for the real border official, and who had to phone for assistance in how to stamp foreigners out of the country), but the Zambians had nobody.  We drove into the country along a track that left us puzzled by its frequent unsigned bifurcations; we ended up stopping and searching for locals to ask “Is this the road to Isoka?”.  We were frequently skeptical of the answers, as the jeep tracks closely resembled footpaths, but local knowledge proved to be accurate as we made our way downhill towards the town of Isoka, some 240 km from the border.
The M14 superhighway
We had no real intelligence about the quality of the track, although we suspected that it would be poor.  This, to put it mildly, was an understatement.  This “road”, graced with the title of the M14, is little more than a cartographer’s cruel practical joke.  It may well be the worst road I have ever driven a vehicle on (although I have cycled on tracks of equal misery in places like Pakistan, Tibet, China and Chile).  Since almost no motorized traffic comes this way, the paths are mostly made by pedestrians and cyclists, who need only have one narrow path for their wheels or feet, rather than the twin paths needed for a car.  The result, given the tremendous erosion and utter lack of maintenance, is a series of deep gullies separated by one, two or even three narrow tracks of compacted red laterite earth that may or may not be the right spacing apart for a vehicle’s wheels.  We crawled along at walking pace, Terri at the wheel, frequently stopping to get out and inspect a particularly hideous stretch of track, cursing the road and the engineers who didn’t maintain it and the mapmakers who pretended that it was a driveable path.  It took absolutely forever to make our way 50 km down the road to the tiny village of Muyombe, one of the few actual settlements along the road.  There were not many villages at all, and those that existed were about as poor as any place we have seen so far on this trip.
Lungu election T-shirts and maize flour--the Muyombe road
We knew that we were approaching a centre of some slightly augmented significance when we spotted the cyclists sporting new Edgar Lungu election T-shirts and carrying bags of famine-relief corn flour on their luggage racks.  Terri and I were just discussing where we would ask for permission to camp (at a village school?  A chief’s house?) when, completely unexpectedly, we came across a sign to a new lodge on the outskirts of Muyombe, Mama Wuyoyo’s.  We followed the sign and soon found ourselves in a newly-constructed compound run by Collins, an articulate Livingstonian who had moved to the sticks a few months before to help start a new hotel built by a local woman made good who wanted to share some of her good fortune with the village she had left behind years before.  The lodge was actually full of district medical staff doing a one-week course, and Collins said that it was the first time in three months that they had had more than a tiny number of guests.  We camped in the garden and had a sundown Mosi Lager before having a meal of extremely muscular chicken in the lodge restaurant and collapsing into bed, utterly spent by the rigours of driving 128 kilometres.
Collins and Terri at Mama Wuyoyo's Lodge, Muyombe
We had heard (or perhaps we had hoped we had heard) that the next day we would hit asphalt after 60 kilometres.  Terri was at the wheel again, as she usually is when the road gets tough, and was bound and determined that she was going to drive us as far as the tarmac before handing over the wheel.  We ground on, past hundreds of people in President Lungu campaign T-shirts and passing several fancy 4WD vehicles speeding the other way.  We finally asked the driver of a passing campaign truck that was grinding its way painfully along the track what was going on.  “President Lungu is coming to Muyombe for a campaign rally today!” we learned.  We asked whether he was driving along the appalling joke of a track, and were not surprised to hear that he was flying into Muyombe in a government helicopter; only his minions had to endure the perils and potholes of the road.  Maybe if he had to drive like everyone else, the road would get repaired sooner?

Sixty kilometres of bad road came and went and there were no signs of asphalt, so after 75 kilometres, I finally convinced Terri to stop, have a sandwich beside the road and change drivers.  There were signs of a new road that had been started a couple of years earlier but then abandoned when the government ran out of money for the project.  We would drive along a few kilometres of smoothish gravel, laid atop a properly drained roadbed with concrete culverts, only for it to come to a crashing halt and leave us back on the horror of the old M14.  Eventually, almost 110 kilometres from Muyombe, we hit asphalt and raced the following 80 kilometres along completely smooth, utterly empty highway at 90 km/h.  Just to remind us of how bad it could be, the final two kilometres leading to the main T2 highway were unpaved again, full of rocks and deep gullies and general unpleasantness.  Once on the road, we had to figure out where downtown Isoka was (it turned out to be about 8 km north of the main road) and search for the immigration office.  Immigration was housed in a tiny, unmarked office that was unmanned, but the police gave us the number of the immigration officer so that we could set up a passport-stamping appointment for the following morning.  Downtown Isoka offered little more than diesel and a disappointing little not-so-supermarket, so we retreated out of town to camp at a little campground just north along the main road.  We negotiated the price down to 70 kwacha (US$7) for the two of us, cooked up some supper and turned in to sleep quite early.  Just as we were about to go to bed, President Lungu’s election truck, the one we had met along the track in the morning, arrived at the campground.  It turned out that Lungu was going to attend a rally the following morning in Isoka.

We managed to get in and out of the Isoka immigration office the next morning quickly, before the Lungu roadshow closed the downtown area, but getting our car formally admitted to the country proved to be impossible.  The police told us that there was no customs office in Isoka, but that we could either process the car in Nakonde (100 km northeast, on the Tanzanian border, in the direction opposite to our route) or else in Chinsali, 100 km southwest.  We got a letter from the police saying that we had tried and failed to obtain the CIP (Customs Import Permit) in Isoka, just in case we were asked for the CIP at a police roadblock, then set off just as the police started closing roads in the downtown core. 

We roared down the highway, covering as many kilometres in an hour as it had taken almost an entire day two days previously, revelling in the ease of driving.  After 100 km we turned off into Chinsali and passed a series of new government buildings under construction.  It looked promising in terms of finding a good supermarket, refilling our LPG cooking gas cylinders and obtaining our CIP.  The promise was not fulfilled; Chinsali was one of the poorest, least well-supplied cities of our trip; we looked around hardware stores for something as simple as a washer (to help hold our battery in place) and failed utterly.  Chinsali was so poor that we didn’t spot a single Indian-owned shop, a single real supermarket or even a shop that sold beer.  LPG was out of the question, and the customs officials told us that they couldn’t help us get us a CIP, but that in Kapiri Mposhi (some 400 km towards Lusaka) we could certainly obtain one.  We got another letter for any police roadblocks, then gave up on Chinsali and drove south towards Shiwa Ngandu, our first sight to see.  As we headed out of town, we ran into President Lungu’s election caravan for the third time in two days, with huge crowds lining the road to cheer the big man.

Shiwa Ngandu and Kapishya Hot Springs:  Bathed in Loveliness

Stanley at Shiwa Ngandu
It took us another 140 km of great pavement to reach the turnoff for Shiwa, and then another 13 km of reasonable gravel to reach the utterly unexpected sight of an English country manor house transplanted to the wilds of northern Zambia.  It was the life’s work of a remarkable man, Stewart Gore-Brown, a classic upper-class Brit with a taste for remote places, very similar to Wilfred Thesiger.  He arrived at Shiwa Ngandu in the 1920s and tried to make a go of a commercial farm there.  It never really paid for itself, but Gore-Brown ended up falling in love with Zambia and feeling very attached to its people.  He ended up as one of the leading politicians in pre-independence Northern Rhodesia and favoured black rule, unlike many of his fellow white politicians.  He ended up befriending Kenneth Kaunda, the first post-independence president of Zambia, who said of Gore-Brown that “you have a white skin, but a black heart.”  We drove into the estate, now run by Charlie Harvey, Gore-Brown’s grandson, along a ceremonial driveway of towering eucalyptus trees, and wandered around discreetly, peering over the fence at the main house, an imposing brick baronial pile.  There are guided tours of the main house, but they are in the morning, so we were outside visiting hours and contented ourselves with looking from afar.  My friend and former colleague Nathalie, at whose house we stayed in Lusaka, is related to the family by marriage (Charlie’s wife is her aunt) and has visited several times.  I read most of Black Heart, Joseph Rotberg’s biography of Gore-Brown, during our stay in Lusaka in early July and was motivated to get out to see the place.
Local children at Shiwa Ngandu
We bought some fresh beef and some impala from the farm shop, then drove another 20 rutted kilometres to Kapishya Hot Springs, our home for the next three nights.  On the way we ran into yet another Lungu rally (although the president himself wasn’t at it), and finally managed to score a pair of election T-shirts for ourselves.  Kapishya was part of the original Gore-Brown estate and is now run by Charlie Harvey’s brother Mark, a well-known figure in Zambian wildlife tourism.  We fell in love with the place almost immediately because of its riverside campsite, its feeling of remoteness, its birdlife and (most importantly) the hot springs themselves.  I have visited many, many hot springs, both in Japan and in a dozen or more countries around the world, and these are the first ones outside Japan that have rivalled Japanese onsens for class, cleanliness, setting and beauty.  A big outdoor pool with a sandy bottom has been dammed in a small stream, with hot water bubbling up from below into the pool.  Terri and I spent hours lounging in the springs in the mornings, late afternoon and evening. It was a great spot for birdwatching, with lots of birds swooping across the opening in the trees above the hot pool, and for stargazing after dark.

It was hard to put our finger on what felt so good about lounging around in Kapishya.  Part of it was the old-world charm of the gardens of the lodge (next door to the campsite).  Part of it was the feeling of great remoteness, of being well and truly out in the wilderness.  Part of it was the people whom we met, both the other travellers and the staff at the lodge, including a couple of volunteers who were working there for a few weeks or months.  One of them, Zega, a 23-year-old Belgian, was a Zambia connoisseur, having explored almost every corner of the country over the course of half a dozen family trips to Zambia.  We also met a Kiwi couple with a South African friend who had lots of tips for us for our future travels. 

Ross' turaco, Kapishya
We were almost out of LPG, so we cooked almost exclusively on the open fire while we were at Kapishya.  There were some efficient cooking stoves designed by an NGO that made simmering a stew much easier than on an open fire.  We concocted an amazing impala curry one night that was one of the best meals of our trip so far, and made some great pancakes as well.  Gazing out over the river, watching birds soar overhead as food cooked on our fire, we felt like we were right where we wanted to be, deep in the heart of South-Central Africa.  We didn’t see any large game (there are probably too many villages in the area for there to be too many animals close to Kapishya) but the birdlife was excellent.  Our favourite of the birds we spotted was Ross’ Turaco, a spectacularly-coloured bird that hangs out in the gardens of the lodge, although the palm-nut vulture was another big, spectacular bird.

We went for runs both afternoons that we were in Kapishya, out through the scattered miombo woodland that covers so much of Zambia.  We didn’t see any wildlife, but it felt good to be out in the woods, and to see some of the villages in the surroundings.  Both Kapishya and Shiwa Ngandu employ quite a few local people (particularly Shiwa) and support local schools, but these villages are still pretty poor in material terms, with some not-very-fruitful subsistence agriculture and large families.  I attracted lots of kids who tried to run along with me, but luckily I was faster than them in the long run and eventually left them behind.

Kasanka:  In the Land of the Sitatunga

Terri shopping in a roadside market
All good things must come to an end, and after our third night, on the morning of Sunday, July 31st we decided to push on towards our next destination, Kasanka National Park.  We retraced our path back to the T2, where we bought prodigious quantities of fruit and vegetables from roadside vendors for about US$ 7, along with diesel, beer and a bottle of Teacher’s whisky.  We then drove down towards Lusaka, past the turnoff to Mutinondo Wilderness, a destination that sounds wonderful, but which we decided to leave for our next visit to Zambia (sometime in the new year).  We made it to the junction of the T2 with the big north-south highway (the D235), turned right and headed north a further 55 km to the gate of Kasanka National Park, where we paid for our park permits and headed into the park.

Puku, Kasanka 
Kasanka is a small park that was once, like many Zambian national parks, essentially abandoned.  In the early 1990s a private organization of Zambian wildlife enthusiasts,  the Kasanka Trust, took over its management and has since completely rehabilitated it, building up wildlife numbers and its accommodation facilities.  We drove to the Lake Wasa Lodge, where we paid for our camping (very steep at US$20 per person per night) and watched some of the waterbirds that were gathered on the lake, including some new species for us:  the spur-winged goose, the coppery-tailed coucal and the yellow-billed kite, all of them to feature again and again over the next 6 days.  We drove past the Fibwe Hide, described in our guidebook as the best place to see sitatunga antelope, but utterly bereft of them this time.  The hide is high up a large mahogany tree, necessitating a long climb up a rickety wooden ladder.  Fibwe is really used in November and December to observe the world’s largest bat migration when some 7 million large fruit bats gather for 6 weeks of feeding and mating before dispersing to parts unknown.  This bat gathering is the biggest attraction of Kasanka, and it is when visitor numbers are highest.  When we were in the park, there were two other groups of tourists other than us, so we essentially had the place to ourselves. 
Kasanka puku

Stanley camped at Pontoon Camp, Kasanka
We stayed at Pontoon Camp, the best-known of the four campsites in the park, and it was a great place to sleep, as it should have been given the price! As soon as we arrived, camp attendants appeared to kindle two roaring fires (one for cooking, and one for sitting around) while, across the water of a small pool, some sitatunga antelope, one of the shyest ungulate species, emerged from the shelter of some papyrus reeds to graze.  In most places sitatunga will flee at the first sight of people, but here at Pontoon Camp they more or less ignore humans.  They are dark animals, richly flecked with white, with impressive spiral horns on the males.  Some puku, another antelope species rather reminiscent of the impala (although stockier in build and with heavier horns), also came by to graze along with a family of cute little bushbuck, while waterbirds such as jacanas, egrets and yellow-billed ducks completed the wildlife picture.  We had a spectacular sunset over the water, and I realized that Venus, Mercury and Jupiter were all visible close to the horizon after sunset, while Mars and Saturn were directly overhead.  We have been watching the intricate dance of the planets ever since, observing how their relative positions shift, quite rapidly in the case of Venus and Mercury, night after night.  It was a warm, pleasant evening and we sat outside after a three-course meal listening to cicadas, monkeys settling in for the night, sitatunga calling to each other, hippos grunting contentedly and, in the not-so-great distance, an elephant.  It was one of our absolute favourite wilderness campsites, and felt very primeval and far from modern city life.
Sitatunga doe, Kasanka
The next day we got up at 6:15 and had a quick cold breakfast while taking photos of sitatunga in the morning mist.  I really liked the white highlights on their dark bodies:  their ears, tail and the tips of the males’ horns.  I also ran into a shy duiker who ran off as soon as he saw me.  By 7:30 we had pulled Stanley’s roof down and set off on a game drive.  Kasanka is a small park, but has quite a lot of variety of plant life, from dense miombo grassland to seasonally flooded grassland plains (dambos, in the local parlance) to dense papyrus thickets lining the rivers.  We drove off towards a dambo, Chikufwe, where we had been told a herd of sable antelope, a species I had not yet seen, lived.  We bumped along a pretty rough track through the woods until we emerged onto a flat short-grass plain lined by a profusion of short, thin termite mounds; apparently the termites build these to have a dry place to retreat to in the floods that arrive with the November rains.  We saw lots of puku grazing contentedly, but where were the sables?  We got out of the car and scanned the horizon carefully until Terri spotted them, a couple of kilometres away on the other edge of the clearing.  We counted at least 30 of them, but as we drove around the edge of the dambo, they saw us and got spooked, running into the woods and out of sight.  Search as we might, the dense bush hid them completely, and we eventually gave up the search. 
Sitatunga buck, Kasanka
We drove off to Luwomba Lodge, in the northwest of the park, hoping to do some canoeing.  Both the canoes were out being used by the Czech group who were staying next to us at Pontoon, so we sat and cooked up some tea, eggs over easy and toast to go with the avocadoes and tomatoes we had bought the day before, using up almost the very last dregs of our gas in doing so.  It was a pretty place to wait, looking out over a sizeable river frequented by herons and kingfishers.  By about 11 am, the Czechs were back and we had scored the only real bargain of Kasanka, the use of a canoe for 3 hours for a mere US$10.  We paddled up the river, deeply incised into the sandy plain, watching for kingfishers.  We were not disappointed, spotting malachite, pied, African pygmy and grey-headed, the last two new species for us.  We also saw a profusion of Bohm’s bee-eaters, a riot of primary colours in the trees.  It felt very wild, and we enjoyed the freedom of being away from the sound of car engines, the only noise the sound of our paddles slicing into the water.  The light through the trees on the water was beautiful, a dappled mix of sun and shadow, and we floated contentedly back downstream, happy with our quiet commune with nature.

Terri canoeing in Kasanka National Park
We drove back via Chikufwe again, but this time the sables were nowhere to be seen.  We headed to Kabwe, having heard that Cape clawless otters were to be seen there, but when we got to the camp, the park ranger said that we had been misinformed.  We drove back to Pontoon from there along a narrow strip of golden grassland full of puku.  We were back by 4 o’clock and Terri created a delicious lentil curry on the open fire while I showered and sat watching the rich birdlife on the river and its banks:  jacanas, glossy ibis, yellow-billed ducks, blacksmith lapwings, pied kingfishers, red-necked spurfowl, reed cormorants and African darters.  The late afternoon light was magical, as was the sunset over the reeds.  We admired the planets again and then I sat out learning how to enter GPS waypoints into our car navigation system and playing guitar under a canopy of brilliant stars. 
Water plants, Kasanka
Tuesday, August 2nd began with an early getaway, almost without breakfast, as we headed back to Chikufwe for one more try at seeing the sable antelope up close.  It was a futile effort, but we realized that in the previous 18 hours since our last visit, a rampaging elephant had torn down at least 10 large trees along the track, eventually forcing us to turn back.  Back at Wasa Lodge we talked to Harry, a young Brit from Kasanka Trust who was glad to receive intelligence of the whereabouts of an angry, injured elephant whose trunk was painfully caught in a snare; that very day a vet was flying up from Lusaka to tend to it.  We also learned that Shoebill Island Camp, the place we had planned to stay at the Bangweulu Wetlands, was in the process of closing down, but that we would be able to camp nearby at Nsobe.  We drove back out to the asphalt of the D235 a bit unsure of what we would find out there at Bangweulu.

Bangweulu Wetlands:  Livingstone’s Grave and the Land of the Shoebill

White stork at Bangweulu.
We drove 10 km north, then turned right and onto a gravel road that led 25 km through densely spaced villages full of begging children to the final resting place of David Livingstone.  The great explorer had expired here in 1873, 18 months after his famous encounter with Henry Morton Stanley at Ujiji on Lake Tanganyika.  Livingstone was trying to untangle the river systems of Central Africa and was trying to figure out whether the Luapula River which flows through the wetlands flowed out into the Zambezi, the Congo or even the Nile.  He died in this remote spot leaving the question unanswered, which was the reason that Stanley came back to Africa to settle the mystery of the Luapula.  It seems strange to me that as good a geographer as Livingstone would have thought that there was any chance that the Luapula flowed into the Nile, but Stanley solved the problem by following the Luapula downstream for months and showing that it became the Congo River.  His trip was desperately difficult and dangerous, and it led indirectly to the establishment of the Congo Free State and all the horrors that King Leopold inflicted on the region.  I wonder how history would have been different if Livingstone had survived long enough to do the Luapula trip himself.
The forbidden fruit:  Livingstone Memorial from afar

After 25 uneventful kilometres we arrived at the monument, a simple stone marker that shows where Livingstone’s heart and internal organs were buried before his faithful followers Sussi and Chuma pickled the rest of the body and carried it all the way back to the coast at Bagamoyo.  I was looking forward to a bit of quiet communion with the spirit of the great man, but it was not to be.  The grave has been declared a National Monument, meaning that the price of admission is US$15 per person, a huge price for something that takes about one minute to see.  We argued the point with the ticket lady who was not impressed when we turned on our heels and returned to the car rather than pay up; she pursued us, berating us for being cheapskates and ostentatiously taking down our license plate number.  We drove away, unimpressed with the grasping behaviour of the Zambian government and cursing the ticket lady.

The "road" to Bangweulu
We had planned to drive as far as Lake Waka Waka, a handy place to camp before the long slog to the Bangweulu Wetlands the next day.  We made our way along a deteriorating dirt track, through a series of villages in which all the children ran to the road to beg and eventually ran into a grass fire that had us beating a rapid retreat until the flames abated.  No sooner had we gotten through the fire than we encountered a boggy river crossing, just short of Lake Waka Waka.  We didn’t get out to scout the crossing, and this turned out to be a serious error, as we promptly dropped a fairly long way off the road and got ourselves completely mired in the mud with our undercarriage firmly anchored.  We tried to drive out but only succeeded in digging ourselves in deeper.  We got out the high-lift jack and the spade and set to work trying to excavate ourselves, but the more we dug and jacked, the less we got ourselves free of the bog.  Finally, after several hours of effort, we did what we should have done immediately and Terri cycled off on her bike to the camp (which we knew from the GPS was only 3 km away), while I stayed with the vehicle.  It took a long time for her to return, and in the meantime the sun set.  I kept trying to get out, but futility still reigned.
Our rescue squad at Lake Waka Waka
Finally Terri came back in the pitch black, followed by 5 locals armed with a pickaxe and a wood axe.  They set to work with alacrity and in about an hour and a half we had managed to jack Stanley’s rear wheels up high enough (using a nifty jack extension that Etienne, the former owner, had been far-sighted enough to buy) to put a lot of logs underneath; the axes came in handy in trimming the logs to fit, while the pickaxe and spade were used to excavate under the car.  Eventually Terri climbed into the driver’s seat while the rest of us pushed mightily and Stanley roared free of the mud and out the other side of the crossing.  We cheered mightily, gathered up all the bits and pieces of equipment we could find (except for a rubber mallet that disappeared mysteriously) and set off for the camp, giving lifts to a couple of our helpers on the running board and in the cramped confines of the back seat, while the other three rode bicycles.  We were bone-tired when we got into Lake Waka Waka campground, but we still managed to heat up some stew and rice over the fire, acutely aware that we had barely eaten since we had gotten up.  We paid each of our rescuers 50 kwacha (US$ 5), grateful that we weren’t spending the night in the swamp, and they seemed satisfied with the money.
Terri and Jackson at Nsobe Camp
We slept well and woke up to beautiful scenery the next morning, with nice light on the lake surface and lots of birds.  We paid 100 kwacha per person, rather excessive for the limited facilities, had a decent breakfast and set off by 9:30 after repairing the damage of the night before (we had knocked a hinge on a back compartment door loose, and had to remove the broken rivets and replace them with zip ties) and washing the horrible-smelling mud off all our rescue gear.  Terri drove us along a track that veered from wonderful to horrific and back again; there was a section in the densely settled middle which had been properly graded and engineered, while other bits more closely related the M14 to Muyombe.  By 2 pm we had traversed the last of the endless series of villages with their begging children (who also tried to jump up on the back of Stanley, much to our annoyance) and emerged from the woods into the endless flat short-grass plains.  We parked Stanley at Nsobe campsite, a bargain at 50 kwacha per person per night, then got on our bicycles and rode over towards the wetlands conservation office at Chikuni to find out what the deal was in terms of going to look for the shoebill, the rare and prehistoric-looking bird for which the wetlands are famous.
Bangweulu smoke-aided sunset

The Bangweulu wetlands are pretty dry this year, thanks to the epic drought, and it was easy riding over a flat, dry plain.  Pretty soon we spotted shapes on the horizon which soon resolved themselves into hundreds of black lechwe, another antelope species which we had never seen before.  They were magnificent creatures with big sweeping horns on the males, and they were massed in huge numbers around us; it was faintly odd cycling through such a huge herd of animals.  We also spotted ten white storks and got some good photos of them flying.  At Chikuni we met Carl, a South African biologist working for African Parks, another private organization rehabilitating wildlife areas in Africa, and found out the deal.  For 200 kwacha per group (US$ 20), we could have as many guided tours into the swamps as necessary to find the elusive shoebill.  We arranged that we would be back the next morning and cycled back across the plains, scaring up clouds of pratincoles.
Black lechwe, Bangweulu

The view from camp was magical and a little alarming, with huge grassfires raging on the horizon, filling the sky with smoke and making us wonder what would happen if the winds shifted and sent the fire in our direction.  The campsite at Nsobe is widely spaced, so that we were barely aware of our neighbours.  Each campsite is on one of the huge ancient termite mounds that rise slightly above the plain and provide a spot for big shade trees to grow.  Again we had a big open fire to cook over, while another wood fire provided hot water for showers for all the campers.  We watched an impressive fireball sunset, made more dramatic by all the smoke on the horizon, then ate and sat out under the infinite dome of the night sky, sipping whisky and listening to the nearby yelps of hyenas.  If Pontoon Camp at Kasanka was a perfect waterside campsite, Nsobe was a perfect open plain campsite.  We went to bed excited about the prospect of seeing shoebills the next morning.
People silhouetted against grassfire smoke, Nsobe

Shoebills are weird-looking, rare, hard-to-spot birds that rank high on the list of must-see species in central Africa for keen birders.  I had first heard of the bird while reading my Lonely Planet guidebook, and a subsequent conversation with our Lusaka friend Vicky heightened our desire to see this bird.  We looked up the shoebill in a YouTube clip from a David Attenborough nature special and were captivated (and slightly repelled) by what we saw.  We knew that we had to see this bird in the wild, and hence the long (160 km) slog off the main road to Nsobe. 

Terri and a reed fishermen's shelter, Bangweulu
We were excited on the morning of Thursday, August 4th as we woke up early and got on our bicycles for the 8 km pedal across the plains to Chikuni.  Once there we realized that we were sharing the trip with a South African couple, Ben and Suzanne, who had arrived at Nsobe the night before.  It took a little while for them to pay and do the paperwork for the trip, but by 7:45 we were walking away from Chikuni in the company of two guides from Nsobe campsite towards the spot where one of the two resident shoebills had been spotted the day before.  It was a long walk to get there, mostly across short-grass plains, but eventually the path led to the papyrus marshes on the banks of a small river.  As we walked along, there were dozens of other bird species to be seen, including various species of kingfisher, heron and egret and lots of Bohm’s bee-eaters.  We splashed across shallow streams and balanced on mats of floating vegetation to get across deeper water.
Poling through the reeds, Bangweulu
Yellow-billed kites beat across the marshes, searching out easy prey, as we trudged deeper into the marshes, past the simple reed shelters built by local fishermen.  It felt very timeless; we could almost have been characters in a scene carved in an Egyptian Old Kingdom tomb, out fishing and birding in the Nile marshes.  We asked directions from a group of fishermen and they gladly dropped what they were doing and splashed out to join us.  They were fishing for boba, the primitive lungfish that lives in some profusion in the Bangweulu Wetlands and both provides a valuable export for the local community (well over a million US dollars is exported from the nearest village to the DRC every year) and constitutes the staple food of the shoebill.  They claimed to know the whereabouts of the shoebill, and we followed them on an obstacle course of tiny mokoros (dugout canoes), floating vegetation rafts and tall reeds.  At one point we encountered another group of fishermen and a long animated discussion ensued, with much head-scratching and casting around in various directions.
Fishermen's family, Bangweulu
 It turned out that the second group had scared away the shoebill from its usual roost in the hopes of earning tips from tourists (ie, us) by guiding us to the new roosting spot.  We had a few false starts in various directions before the joint efforts of the two parties of fishermen brought us to the banks of a broad pond.  We stared off into the distance, trying to make out a shoebill on the other bank, and suddenly there it was!  A huge grey bird stood half-concealed in the papyrus thicket, looking like a pterodactyl, its bill huge and its eyes creepy with their opaque eyelids. He was hard to see, buried as he was in the reeds.  Two of the fishermen waded across and tossed a fish in front of the shoebill, enticing him out, and after a few minutes he walked a few steps forwards into the light. We stood there for a quarter of an hour, studying the bird through our binoculars and taking photos with our telephoto lenses.  It was exhilarating to see the bird, one of fewer than 10,000 in the world, but we were slightly too far away to take decent pictures.  Was it possible to get closer?
We put the question to our guides, and they agreed that we could wade across.  Terri and I went first, wading thigh-deep through the water and then trying, with varying success, to float our weights on the floating mats of interlocked vegetation.  I sank through a couple of times, but managed to stay upright and keep the camera dry.  Eventually we came to a halt only 20 metres from the shoebill and paused to take much better close-up photos.  When we looked back, Suzanne was following in our footsteps, wading through the reeds and making it successfully to where we were standing.  Ben, being a big man, was dissuaded from following as he was certain to sink through the reeds to the bottom.  We stood looking at the shoebill, feeling like time travellers back to the Cretaceous period, watching him blink and turn his bill in various directions, trying to capture the perfect image. 

Boba lungfish, Bangweulu
Eventually it was time to return.  It was a long wet slog back to where we had left Ben and some of the fishermen, and then a much longer walk along a different route back to Shoebill Island Camp, featuring a mokoro crossing of the river made more complicated by the fact that there was only one pole in the boat.  Eventually we made it to Shoebill, where we found a truck and lots of Kasanka Trust employees packing up everything in the camp, including the toilets and the kitchen sinks, onto a huge truck to take to another national park.  We hitched a lift back to Chikuni, where we picked up our bikes and rode back to Nsobe.
After a tasty lunch of corn fritters, we were tired by our early wake-up call and the 10-kilometre swamp walk, so we took a little siesta up in Stanley until 4 pm.  When we got up, we showered and then Terri created a tasty lentil stew on the open fire.  As we were out of beer, I created whisky sour cocktails to mark the sunset, another dramatic smoke-layered fireball, before we tucked into the lentils with gusto.  After supper we went across to Ben and Suzanne’s campsite for champagne and conversation with them and with Carl, the African Parks biologist.  We sat around the campfire, watching the southern stars dance overhead and swapping stories late into the night.  We went to bed satisfied and content after a perfect day of wildlife watching.

Campfire pancakes
The next morning we slept until 7:30, tired by our late night and long day.  We got up, made pancakes on the open fire, did laundry and then set off on bikes to pay for an extra night at Nsobe at the Chikuni office.  It was a great bike ride across the huge plain, scaring up clouds of collared pratincoles.  We bought some delicious local honey at the office, watched a massive martial eagle swoop down in pursuit of the rangers’ chickens,  then biked off towards the treeline in search of the elusive tsessebe.  We struck out on tsessebe, but ran across a group of ten wattled cranes, a species that is very rare in much of its range but thrives in the Bangweulu Wetlands.  I got great shots of the cranes in flight and then biked back to Nsobe in high spirits to try our hands at baking using an open fire.  Jackson, the boss of Nsobe campsite, had excavated a small hole in the clayey soil to act as an oven and found a couple of sheets of scrap corrugated iron,   We stoked up the campfire and then transferred the coals, along with some charcoal, to the hole to heat up our bush oven, covered with the corrugated iron and another layer of coals.  The oven worked brilliantly, and Terri was able to cook up an exquisite lasagne in it. 

Bangweulu fisherman
We sat around drinking our last beer and some leftover corn fritters while the lasagne cooked.  I downloaded the photos from my camera to my laptop and suddenly saw a strange error message.  By the time I realized what was happening (a virus was eating up my photos one by one), all the photos from the previous two days were gone:  the shoebill, the wattled cranes, the black lechwe herds, the white storks.  I was devastated, and sat there in saddened shock for a long time.  As we ate our lasagne, we talked about what to do.  We decided that we would go out in search of shoebills again the following morning before we drove out of Bangweulu.  We went to bed saddened by the technological failure, but excited to go out in search of the shoebill again.

Cormorant, Bangweulu
The following morning, Saturday August 6th, we got up early again and this time we pulled down Stanley’s roof and drove to Chikuni.  This time there were no other tourists, and with only Terri and I in the party, we moved pretty quickly out towards the shoebill.  This time the guides had a pretty good idea where the bird was going to be, and it took only an hour and twenty minutes to get to its hideout, almost exactly where it was two days previously.  We got even better photos this time, with the shoebill walking and even flying briefly, and by 9:40 we were on our way back to Stanley with two separate photo cards of images of the iconic bird.  By 11:00 we were in the mokoro across the river to Shoebill Island Camp, and by 11:30 we were in Stanley driving across the plain in search of wattled cranes and white storks.  We got great pictures of the huge black lechwe herds and of the white storks, along with a few wooly-necked storks, but we struck out on the wattled cranes.  By noon we were back in Nsobe, saying goodbye to Jackson and the other Nsobe staff, and headed back along the track, exultant at having seen the shoebill a second time.

Guide, fisherman, Terri and assistant guide (in Lungu T-shirt)
The retreat to the D235 was remarkably straightforward.  We took turns driving, and since we knew what was coming up, it was much easier driving than on the way out.  We managed to make it the 160 km back to the main road without incident, driving smoothly through the mud wallow that had swallowed us whole on the way out.  We even found the missing mallet beside the mud hole, its wooden handle blackened by a grassfire that had swept over since we had last passed.  We got to the main road before dark, even after stopping to reflate the tires that we had deflated on the way out to handle the sandy stretches.  We weren’t sure where to stop for the night, but an inspired guess saw us stop at the Kasanka National Park gate and beg for a place to sleep.  The guards let us camp for free just behind the park gate barrier, and we slept deeply, full of leftover lasagne and tired by another long, fulfilling day.

Black sparrowhawk, Bangweulu
The following day, Sunday August 7th, saw us drive a long but uneventful day along the deliciously smooth asphalt of the T2 into Lusaka, past the closed customs offices of Kapiri Mposhi, to the familiar confines of Nathalie’s house.  It felt strange to be leaving behind the wilds of northern Zambia where we had seen so many wonderful wild animals and unforgettable landscapes and sunsets, and we were acutely aware that we might never pass that way again.  It had been a wonderful 12 days in northern Zambia, and while we looked forward to the creature comforts of the big city, we already missed the wide-open spaces and perfect campsites of the north.

Terri cycling in Bangweulu

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Malawi: Stanley following in the Footsteps of Livingstone

Livingstone, Zambia, August 25th

Once again I have tarried a month since leaving a country before writing the blog post; I should do better, but I always say that and then always end up late the next time.  Now that we’re resting up and working a bit on Terri’s educational project here in Livingstone, the Olive Tree Learning Centre, I am trying to catch up on my delayed writing projects.

On the way uphill on the Skyline Trail, Mt. Mulanje

My previous post, about our Zimbabwe travels, ended with us leaving Zimbabwe on Monday, July 4th and being shaken down by the customs officials in a combined Zimbabwean-Zambian operation.  It took hours and was very unpleasant (and fairly costly, with $40 in bribes, $27 in fees to touts, $73 in customs fees/carbon tax/third party insurance/road tolls and $160 for two double-entry visas).  We finally drove into Zambia late in the afternoon and scrounged around in the dismal little town of Chirundu for food, phone credit and beer before driving 8 km along a rough dirt track to the campsite at the Gwabi River Camp.  I’m sure that most of the time this is a wonderful place to stay, right on the Kafue River, with nice sunsets, good birds and some peace and quiet.  Unfortunately, it was a four-day weekend in Zambia and half of the white population of Lusaka had descended on Gwabi to party.  The campsite was full to overflowing with huge groups of drunk whites racing around in powerboats, shouting and playing music at full blast on their massive sound systems.  It was a terrible shock to the system after the perfect peace of Mana Pools.  We slept poorly as 1980s pop duelled with Bollywood film scores in the night air.

The next morning saw us have a quiet morning while the campground emptied of yobbos in various states of hangover.  Once everyone had left, it was a pretty place and I went for a long run and did some yoga before we packed up Stanley and drove to Lusaka.  Aside from some construction near Chirundu, the road was in good shape, fairly empty of traffic and running through some pretty hills.  We climbed back up from the Zambezi at 500 metres above sea level to the plateau at 1300 metres that makes up much of the country, passing through pretty savannah and scrub forest and the occasional town.  We entered the sprawl of Lusaka and were pleasantly surprised at the wealthy suburbs and newly-built malls that line the southern approaches to the city. We were staying at the house of my friend and former fellow LAS teacher Nathalie; she is now teaching in Lusaka, and we had to meet one of her relatives to pick up the house keys as Nathalie was already away on summer holidays.  We picked up the keys at a very fancy shopping mall from Fran, her cousin’s girlfriend, and had a good discussion over Italian gelato about life in Zambia as one of the small white community.  Unlike in Zimbabwe, the Zambian government has not been evicting white farmers from their land, and has in fact been recruiting Zimbabwean and South African farmers to come establish new commercial farms in the country.  The mall was full of white faces, most of them long-time (or life-long) Zambian residents, and it felt not unlike South Africa or Zimbabwe.  We did some grocery shopping and then headed back into the city centre to Nathalie’s place, where she lives in a pleasant compound with other teachers from her school.  Her neighbour Vicky, whom we had met in Livingstone back in March, was home and we had dinner with her that evening.

We spent three days in Lusaka, running errands, using Nathalie’s wi-fi and getting some repairs done to Stanley:  replacing the battery clamp that had broken on the Mana Pools road, changing oil and air filters, getting our cruise control fixed and trying (unsuccessfully) to get our reverse lights working again.  We also tried unsuccessfully to buy a COMESA yellow card insurance policy (good for all the COMESA countries, from Zambia to the Sudan) so that we didn’t have to buy new third-party car insurance at every border we crossed.  We were told that it is impossible to get a yellow card these days unless your car is registered in one of the COMESA countries; I don’t know if this is true, but we gave up trying.  We also got some decals printed and put onto Stanley’s back hatches and along the roofline, trying to personalize the car.  The decals didn’t get installed until 8 pm on the night before we left town, but they were worth waiting for, as they really changed Stanley’s look.

On Saturday, July 9th we bid farewell to the creature comforts of Lusaka and drove a long day down the Great East Road all the way to the major eastern town of Chipata.  The pavement was exceptionally smooth, except for a short section of horrible gravel road right after I put Terri into the driver’s seat; it really was a coincidence!  As we neared Chipata, the countryside became more densely settled, with lots of cotton and tobacco being grown, and trucks piled high with bags of cotton.  We arrived at sundown and had difficulty finding Dean’s Hill Lodge, as our GPS sent us to a vacant lot about 200 metres from the right place.  When we got there, we found a cheerful, pleasant place to stay run by Andrea, the young French-Italian who has managed the place ever since the tragic murder of Dean, the previous owner.  There were lots of interesting people to talk to:  a South African couple just back from camping in Malawi in their 1974 Land Rover; Andrea himself; Luca, a young Italian cycle tourist; Mike, a young coffee enthusiast from Chicago; a couple of older Italians who had just built a new pizza oven for the kitchen; and a group of young American missionaries who were living and working near Livingstone but were scouting out possibilities for working in Chipata.

We set off the next morning fairly early and got to the Malawi border sooner than expected.  It was a mercifully easy and quick process to get stamped out of Zambia and into Malawi, although the US$ 75 visa fee that Malawi started charging recently was a rude surprise, as the visas were free a couple of years ago when our Lonely Planet was written.  In less than an hour we were driving down the road into Malawi, my 128th country, with our Temporary Import Permit and our third-party insurance policy in hand.  Malawi is noticeably more densely populated than Zambia, with lots of slow going through villages and towns.  It’s also noticeably poorer than southern Zambia, with almost no vehicular traffic (except for vehicles driven by white NGO workers, of which there were quite a few).  Everyone seemed to be on bicycles, although we soon realized that most of the bicycles were used as taxis, with taxi license plates and padded seats on top of the luggage carriers.  It was good to see bicycles used so extensively, even if it is more because of lack of means to buy cars than because of a love of cycling. 

We drove along a well-paved road into the outskirts of Lilongwe, where we stopped to buy groceries before continuing south towards Mt. Mulanje, our first major destination in the country.  It was a very pretty drive, across a plain lit up starkly by the late afternoon light with a backdrop of high, isolated mountain massifs.  We didn’t have enough daylight left to get there in one day, so we looked up a place to stay on our GPS and ended up at the Dedza Pottery Village, a big community project set up by an American woman that employs over 100 people at a small lodge and restaurant, a big pottery workshop and gift store and a tour guiding outfit.  There are San hunter-gatherer rock art sites in the hills behind Dedza, but we were too late to see them that afternoon, and we had heard that they weren’t as impressive as what we had just seen in Zimbabwe, so we elected to give them a miss the next morning despite their UNESCO World Heritage designation.

Mulanje is an absolute riot of colourful flowers
It was a pleasant place to spend the night, although we awoke in the morning to cold drizzle.  Over breakfast we chatted with the only other guests, a British couple (Anna and Joe) who had been living in Malawi for several months while Anna did a stint working as a doctor in a hospital in Blantyre.  They gave us good tips about Mulanje as we shivered in the cold morning drizzle.  We bought a couple of new wine goblets and whisky shot glasses (if something made of pottery can be called a glass) to replace ones that we had broken over the previous few weeks, and then headed off down the road towards Mulanje.  Again the views across the plateau were stunning, and we caught our first glimpses of Lake Malawi far below.  The road ran right along the Mozambique border, and we could see the difference between the sparsely populated Mozambican side and the wall-to-wall cultivation on the Malawian side.  We stopped in Blantyre for groceries and upon returning to the car, we found that one of Stanley’s windshield wipers had stopped turning.  I tried to tighten the nut attaching the wiper arm but was put off by the sound that it made, so I gave up and we drove in search of a garage.  A service station attendant solved the problem for us in about 30 seconds with a wrench (I had been too gentle with my attempts earlier) and we paid him 1000 Malawian kwacha, about US$ 1.40, perhaps the best repair bargain of the trip.  
Mulanje massif overview
It was just as well that we got the wipers fixed, as it started raining hard as we approached Mulanje and we drove the last 10 km along a dirt track in dense fog and rain, barely able to see, before camping at the foot of the mountain near the forestry office.  It was a cold, wet night and we were glad that Stanley is as rainproof as he is.  Unfortunately the waterproofness didn’t extend to the back door, as it doesn’t seal very tightly and allowed rain to run down the inside of the door, soaking some groceries and most of Terri’s clothing.

Our guide for Mt. Mulanje, Aubrey

We woke up on Tuesday, July 12th to no rain and clearing skies.  By the time we staggered out of bed, a would-be guide was waiting outside for us.  In fact, the night before another prospective guide had run along with Stanley for the last 2 km of the drive, offering his services, but he was nowhere to be seen this time around.  We cooked up breakfast, then decided to hire the young man, Aubrey, for the princely sum of 9000 Malawian kwacha a day (about US$ 13 a day).  After waiting for Terri’s clothes to dry, we locked up Stanley, engaged another young man to keep an eye on Stanley in our absence and set off uphill, ready for 3 days and 2 nights on the mountain.  The path led first through a huge clearcut at the base of the hill.  Commercial timber was being sawn by hand from big pine trees, while the offcuts were being carried downhill on the heads of hundreds of women, destined for cooking fires in the village.  It looked like desperately hard work, harder than hiking uphill in stout hiking boots with backpacks on our backs.  Above the clearcut the path headed fairly steeply upwards along the flank of a river valley, looking across at some impressive rock faces on the other bank.  We sweated uphill for 900 vertical metres along the Skyline Trail, most of the way under a disused cablecar that had been used to transport logs down from the Chambe Basin.
Mulanje's forest walking down the hill as firewood.

Once we reached the top of the climb, the landscape changed utterly.  The Chambe Basin had once been full of pine plantations, established at the cost of stands of native Mulanje cedars, but these plantations have been clearcut over the past few years, allegedly so that the cedars can be re-established.  Wandering through a clearcut along old logging roads and firebreaks was less scenic than I had anticipated, but luckily the high rock ramparts and sheer cliffs of Chambe Peak loomed on one side, while the rugged peaks of the centre of the massif dominated the skyline on the other side, so we had something prettier to look at.  Cape robin-chats, clouds of queleas, ravens and several species of sunbirds flew around the basin, while there was a wealth of pretty wildflowers to beautify the desolation of the clearcut.  By 3 o’clock, four hours after setting off, we were settling into the wonderfully situated Chambe Hut, watching the afternoon light play on the cliffs of Chambe Peak.  We were the only guests in the hut that evening, and the hut-keeper stoked up a roaring fire for us to cook up our steaks and potatoes.  We retired early, ready for a big summit day the following day.

Chambe Peak in the afternoon light

July 13th started early, with a 5:30 wakeup call and a 6:30 departure after a quick cereal breakfast.  We marched through more clearcuts in the cool of the morning, finally entering small stands of native hardwood as we toiled uphill to Chitepo Hut, which we reached by 9:00.  We paused for an hour for some instant noodles and tea while Terri dried some of her clothes, before heading for the summit of Sapitwa Peak at 10:00.  In retrospect this was a silly idea; as the highest point of land between South Africa’s Drakensberg and the mountains of northern Tanzania (It tops out at 3001 metres above sea level), Sapitwa collects clouds every afternoon, and this day was no exception.  Although skies were clear at 9 when we arrived at the hut, we departed under rapidly lowering clouds an hour later, and were inside their moist embrace by 11.  The climb was steep, and involved a fair bit of rockhopping, so the moist rocks made climbing treacherous.  Much of the path leads inclined slabs of rock that require a fair bit of grip to stay on, so at times we were reduced to climbing on hands and knees.  As we got closer to the summit, the weather really socked in and mist turned to actual rain.  
The soggy retreat from our summit bid
Eventually, at 12:50, we decided that the summit, only 100 vertical metres but apparently still 40 minutes away, wasn’t worth going to as visibility was nil.  We were also acutely aware of how miserable a descent in the dark would be, as we had met a party that had come down in the dark the day before, and so we wanted to be down before sunset. 

Morning clouds rolling in over the massif
The descent was a bit hair-raising, with long sections of scooting downhill on our backsides rather than risking falling from a standing position on slippery wet rocks.  Terri was unhappy with our situation, and was very relieved when we popped out at Chitembo Hut by 3:45.  We cooked up a pot of lentil curry over the fire and retired to bed early, legs tired from the long descent and mentally fatigued from having to think carefully about every step of the way.

Morning view from Chitepo Hut
We slept in until the late hour of 6:30 after a night of heavy rain; we were both very glad that we hadn’t been out on the mountain in that kind of downpour.  We had a leisurely breakfast of cereal and toast before donning our packs and heading back towards Chambe Hut at 8:30 under clearing skies (although fresh clouds were already wreathing Sapitwa behind us).  The descent was slow at first until we reached a four-way trail junction after an hour and a half.  From here it was finally possible to walk quickly and fluidly, and it was a very enjoyable walk across moorland until we reached the Chapaluka River and its pretty pools, waterfalls and rapids.  Finally, around noon, we got to the pretty swimming hole known as Old Men’s Falls, where I had a cold but welcome dip and leap off the cliffs; Terri elected to stay warm.  We were fairly close to our starting point, and a couple of parties of tourists arrived while we were there on short day trips up to the falls.  We strolled back to Stanley, paid off Aubrey (not without some attempts on his part to wheedle extra money out of us) and started driving towards the Zomba Plateau. 

Mulanje massif with waterfalls above and tea plantations below
The scenery, now that we were driving in sunshine, was very pretty.  A series of tea plantations encircle the base of the Mulanje Massif, carpeting the land in lush green bushes, while up above high waterfalls cascade down the steep rock faces below the peaks.  The land (as everywhere in Malawi) is densely settled, and the roads were busy with bicycles transporting firewood or paying passengers, along with hundreds of women carrying huge loads of firewood on their heads.  We both commented on the fact that few women seemed to own bicycles; men transported loads of wood on their bicycles, while women were left to lug almost equally huge quantities of firewood on their heads.  It didn’t seem fair.  We stopped off in Mulanje Town to eat a hard-earned and delicious pizza at Mulanje Pepper, the restaurant that seems to be the centrepiece of expat life in Mulanje, before heading north towards Zomba.  Overall I was very pleased with our hiking on Mt. Mulanje, even if the summit try was several hours of soggy misery.  I love overnight hiking trips, and spending so much time in a vehicle on this overland trip makes liberation from internal combustion engines all the more welcome.  The scenery is pretty, the views down across the lowlands are endless and the huts are excellent (and amazing value, at MK 1000 (US$ 1.40) per person per night!). 

More Mulanje flowers

It took much longer to get to Zomba than we had anticipated, and while it was nice to see Mulanje and other isolated mountains in the late afternoon light while driving, it was fully dark as we got to Zomba Town.  This made finding our campsite up high on the Zomba Plateau challenging, especially as our GPS was hallucinating and had no clue what the road layout actually was.  Our destination, the Ku Chawe Trout Farm, was unsignposted and looked abandoned, but was actually in operation as a campsite, even if the trout had all died.  It was a wonderful place to camp under the trees, and we chatted with the only other guests, a party of British sixth-form students on a humanitarian service trip under the auspices of an outfit called Inspire Worldwide.  Terri was intrigued by Inspire and we exchanged contact details with the trip leaders, hoping perhaps to get a British school to come out and do a trip to Olive Tree Learning Centre, the school that Terri has been nurturing for the past decade in Livingstone, Zambia.  Between our late arrival, our tiredness and chatting, it was 10:30 before we got to bed, glad to snuggle into our down sleeping bags in the damp chill of the air up at 1500 metres.

Somehow, despite getting up at 7 am, we didn’t get moving until nearly noon the next day, putting paid to our idea to go hiking around the forests of the Zomba Plateau.  Instead we ate pancakes, cleaned and packed and showered and suddenly looked at our watches in alarm before setting off for Cape Maclear.  We stopped off in Zomba town for perhaps the most dismal supermarket shopping of the entire trip at a Shoprite U-Save that was utterly bereft of anything that didn’t come in a packet or a can.  We tanked up on diesel, took out another couple of instalments of MK 40,000 from the ATM (only about US$ 57, the maximum that the ATMs can dispense at one time, given that the biggest denomination bill is only 1000 kwacha) and headed off north.  It was frustratingly slow going through the endless succession of densely-populated villages that make up rural Malawi.  Eventually we turned off the main highway towards the southern end of Lake Malawi.  The villages in this area show much more Muslim influence, with mosques and Islamic charities replacing churches and Christian NGOs.  This is apparently a legacy of the slave trade that played such a big role in the 19th century during the time that David Livingstone was undertaking his epic voyages. 

The Rift Valley floor, at 500 metres above sea level, was noticeably warmer than our surroundings for most of the past week.  The driving was flat and fairly quick until we reached the Cape Maclear turnoff, where a few kilometres of rough dirt suddenly gave rise to perfect new asphalt halfway to Cape Maclear (right at the boundary marker for Lake Malawi National Park; perhaps the UNESCO World Heritage money has been spent on the road?).  We watched sunset as we drove, and drove into town in the gloaming.  We had heard good things about a backpackers called the Funky Cichlid, so we parked Stanley in their parking lot and settled in for the night.  We ate freshly-caught cichlid fish for dinner and then retired to Stanley for a restful night’s sleep. 

Stanley camped at the old Golden Sands Hotel in Cape Maclear
This didn’t work out quite as planned.  It was Friday night, and the backpackers of Cape Maclear arrived en masse at the Funky Cichlid to party.  The music levels got louder and louder and festivities raged on until 2 am.  We slept very, very poorly, and decided that we had needed to find new digs the next morning.  We pulled out our folding bikes and went exploring, finally settling on the abandoned Golden Sands resort up the beach inside the Lake Malawi National Park, where we negotiated a deal for camping and park admission for three nights for MK 35,000.  It was an idyllic spot, away from the main village, and we settled in for three days of rest and recreation. 

Cape Maclear sunset
Lake Malawi is famous for its profusion of fish species, particularly colourful cichlids, and we went snorkelling that afternoon around the corner from our campsite.  The water level in the lake was low, as we could see from marks on the boulders lining the shore; the El Nino-fuelled drought has hit Malawi particularly hard.  The snorkelling was lovely, comparable in terms of colour and variety to a reef in the tropical ocean, although distinctly chillier.  We had a spectacular sunset over the waters of the lake and ate a ridiculously tasty beef stew that Terri had concocted.

The next day found us renting a sea kayak at the Cape Maclear Eco Lodge to explore the offshore island that lurked invitingly just off the mainland.  We paddled out to the nearest point, hauled the kayak out and had another excellent snorkel around the rocks through a rainbow of fish before exploring further along the coastline.  It felt really good to be under our own power and away from the bustle of the village, out in quite a pretty landscape, with azure lake waters and an island full of small baobab trees.  Pied kingfishers, fish eagles and hamerkops circled in the air, and we enjoyed the illusion of being out in the middle of nowhere.  We returned to shore, ate some delicious French fries whipped up by a roadside vendor calling himself McDonalds and returned to the Golden Sands for another beautiful sunset and some fried fillets of freshly caught chambo fish that we bought from a local fisherman.

Chambo fish being filleted on the beach
On our third day we got up earlier than usual and cycled back to the Eco Lodge to go diving.  It was just the two of us and the dive instructor, Addie, an interesting young American aspiring marine biologist.  The dive was pleasant, with lots of cichlids, but we weren’t lucky enough to spot any of the large kalambo catfish that lurk in the depths.  We all got cold, so we surfaced after 40 minutes with lots of air left and all had a brisk shivering session to warm up.  It was only my second dive (out of a total of about 280) that I’ve ever done in fresh water, and while it was fun, it was cold enough that we didn’t feel the need to do a second dive.  We had a delicious lunch back at the Eco Lodge while talking to Addie’s family who had just arrived for a visit from the US.  I found her brother interesting; he is a “budding” entrepreneur in selling grow-your-own hydroponic systems to potheads in the newly decriminalized cannabis states such as Colorado.  That afternoon I went for a long, slightly meandering run up into the hills behind the lake before supper and a bit of blog post writing that didn’t get very far before I had to turn in, tired.

Graves of early missionaries at Cape Maclear
On our way out of Cape Maclear the next day (July 19th), we stopped in briefly to visit the graves of two early Scottish missionaries who had followed hard on the heels of David Livingstone in establishing Livingstonia Mission at Cape Maclear in 1875.  One had died in 1877 and the other in 1880, both in the late rainy season, both of malaria.  The mission was soon relocated up the lake twice, ending up eventually in the current town of Livingstonia, much further north and perched 500 metres above the lake in a much less malarial area.  I saw a sign from PSI, a big international NGO for which two friends of mine have worked over the years, stating that they were supplying antimalarial mosquito nets to the area today, so I hope that it’s less malarial today than it was in the past.

PSI at work at Cape Maclear
We mused on the lives of these early missionaries as we drove north along an excellent road, distracted by our GPS trying to send us down non-existent roads and by Stanley’s engine losing power occasionally for a few seconds at a time.  Our destination for the day was Senga Bay, only 200 km down the road, where we were camped by noon in the genteel surroundings of the Steps Campground, attached to the poshest hotel in town.  It was a wonderfully relaxing place to spend the afternoon reading, cooking, swimming, running and playing guitar before another lovely sunset and a delicious dinner of baked pasta.  I finally finished up the Zimbabwe blog post sitting outside in the perfect evening temperatures under the stars.  Senga was just an overnight stop for us, but I could easily have spent a few more relaxing days there, although I imagine (given its proximity to Lilongwe) that it fills up on weekends and school holidays.

From Senga we put in a 300 km day to get to Nkhata Bay, our most northerly stop on the lakeshore.  It took longer than expected as the previous day’s power cuts in Stanley’s engine continued with greater frequency.  We finally diagnosed an electrical fault and discovered that the battery had come loose from its new clamp and that the clamp was in contact with one of the battery terminals when we went over bumps, setting up a short circuit.  An assortment of gas station attendants helped us repair the problem in a small roadside town, where we also met a distinctly dodgy South African guy living there whom everyone seemed to distrust and dislike. 

We rolled into Nkhata Bay in the mid-afternoon.  This place is a major stop on the overlander circuit and its lodges are pretty expensive by Malawi standards.  As well, for campers such as ourselves the hilly topography of the lakeshore makes it difficult to park a vehicle somewhere both scenic and flat.  We looked at a few places before settling on Butterfly Space, the cheapest and friendliest accommodation in town.  We camped at the top of the sprawling complex, under shady trees, and spent the next three nights there.  Butterfly Space is an interesting concept, with many of the guests volunteering on various community projects around Nkhata Bay. Daniel, an Irish guy helping to run the place, was great to talk to, full of information and stories about local goings-on.  Daniel told me that when he told a friend of his, a former Africa correspondent for the Guardian, that he was coming to Malawi, the friend told him that “there are more white elephants than grey elephants in Malawi”, alluding to Malawi’s status as a darling of the NGO and foreign ODA community and the lack of major results in improving people’s lives despite the billions spent over the past few decades.

Bicycle taxi man in Mzuzu
Nkhata Bay is pretty, and we had fun for a couple of days, swimming and running and paddling around in canoes and kayaks and even a stand-up paddleboard.  Because the lakeshore is hilly and heavily indented, it somehow feels a bit like a corner of the Mediterranean dropped into Central Africa.  There is a bit of an edge of locals trying out various scams on foreigners, and the town itself is rather unprepossessing, but I liked Butterfly Space and the various travellers I met there, including a Spanish couple cycling from South Africa to Rwanda, Daniel and a couple of Belgian mathematicians-turned-vagabonds.  The sunsets were pretty, while the moonrises over the lake (it was full moon when we arrived) were stunning.  For reasons that I can’t quite make out now, I didn’t take a single photograph during our stay at Nkhata Bay.

Malawi taxi service

I made up for that lack of photographic effort at our next and final stop in Malawi, the Nyika Plateau.  We drove up to the plateau on Saturday, July 23rd, through the up-and-coming town of Mzuzu and its well-stocked Shoprite supermarket.  While there we talked to a bicycle taxi man about his business model.  While he owns his own bicycle, he is in a distinct minority; he only moonlights on weekends to supplement his regular job and has enough money to buy his own bike.  Most bicycle taxi drivers don’t have the US$ 100 or so needed to buy their own bike and instead rent one for MK 1000 (US$ 1.40) a day from a wealthy businessmen who owns an entire fleet of bicycles.  Rides are priced depending on distance, with MK 150 (about US$ 0.20) a good average price.  Drivers can usually earn MK 2000 a day (about US$ 3), but if they are renting, that gets cut in half to MK 1000.  Not a horrible wage in a country like Malawi, but not enough to ever save up much money. 

Bushbuck, Nyika Plateau

From Mzuzu the road up to the Nyika Plateau rapidly deteriorated from excellent asphalt to heavily corrugated and potholed dirt, and it was a long, slow slog up to the park gate and then on to the campsite at Chelinda.  The road climbs steadily from Mzuzu, eventually reaching an altitude of 2300 metres above sea level.  The last 15 km or so the scenery opens up to a huge rolling grassland plateau that stretches out to the horizon.  We got to the campsite just in time for a lovely sunset and settled in for three nights’ stay. 
Nyika plateau zebras

I loved the Nyika Plateau.  The scenery is quite unlike anywhere else I have been in Africa, sort of “Serengeti meets Mongolia”, with lots of open grassland full of interesting herbivore species.  There are lots of roan antelope, one of the prettiest species around with their bold facial markings, along with plenty of zebra, common reedbuck and even a few eland.  We took a lot of photos of roan and eland, and peered into the patches of bush in the hope of seeing one of the local leopards.  We went for a long bicycle ride on our folding bikes one day, and a long walk the next day along a slightly ill-chosen path around a pine plantation that is said to harbour leopards, but which offers next to nothing in terms of birds or scenery.  My favourite spot, though, was the campsite.  On the first night we had the whole place to ourselves, while on the next two nights we shared with three other groups.  The sunsets over the plateau were magical, as were the morning views of zebra and bushbuck wandering right past our camper.  It was distinctly chilly as soon as the sun went down, but the campsite attendant busied himself keeping our campfires going and heating water for hot showers.  Sitting at our campfire staring up at the stars, or watching eland passing in the late afternoon golden light, I felt as though I was in some sort of hunter-gatherer idyll.
Roan antelope 
Eland, Nyika Plateau

Sadly all good things must come to an end, so on Tuesday, July 26th we bid a sad farewell to the wonderful atmosphere of Nyika and retraced our steps to the park headquarters, stopping in a vain attempt to spot the bar-tailed trogon in a patch of forest just over the Zambian side of the border; we did spot Livingstone’s turaco and several species of sunbird.  It was when we turned off towards the Zambian border that the track really began to deteriorate.  We could barely find the right track to get to the border, and at times I felt we were driving along a footpath, but eventually we got to the Malawian immigration post where a startled part-time employee had to phone Mzuzu for instructions on how to stamp us out of the country.  It was one of the most informal border crossings I have ever done, a feeling augmented by the fact that there is no Zambian border post; we just drove into the country with a vague instruction from the Malawian official in Mzuzu to do our immigration and customs formalities in Isoka, 200 km away.
Roan antelope, Nyika Plateau

We had been in Malawi for 16 days and covered 1850 km.  I rather liked Malawi, although I found the high population density and obvious rural poverty a bit sad, especially given the number of white expats driving around in fancy NGO Land Cruisers.  The landscape is lovely, with the Rift Valley escarpment and the isolated massifs of the south a real highlight.  Lake Malawi is very pretty, with the feeling of the ocean about it, and I enjoyed snorkelling and swimming and diving there.  From the point of view of outdoor activities, Malawi was perhaps our most active destination so far, with cycling, running, hiking and various watersports in the mix.  The flip side of its poverty is that it is by far the least expensive country in the region in terms of food and accommodation, which may explain part of its appeal to backpackers.  Although I enjoyed our time there, I don’t think I would go out of my way to visit the country again, especially given its awkward positioning for overland travel now that accessing it through Mozambique is problematic.  However it should certainly feature on any backpacker's or overlander's travels through southern Africa.
Common reedbuck, Nyika Plateau

My next post will be about our adventures in the wonderful north of Zambia, and with any luck (or tenacity on my part), it will be posted within a week.  Stay tuned, and I hope you enjoyed reading this!

Terri and I at Old Man's Falls on Mt. Mulanje