Saturday, January 7, 2023

What To Know About Visiting Burundi

The green hills of Africa

This is going to be a slightly different format of blog post than usual. Instead of simply narrating our trip through Burundi, I want to structure it in terms of giving some useful travel tips for Burundi, a country which sees very few Western tourists, especially overlanders driving their own cars. (We met precisely zero Western tourists in our five days in the country.) When we were getting ready to enter Burundi, we found little useful travel information available online, so I want to try to plug that gap slightly. Here goes!

Why go?

Burundi is a small, densely settled country, but its landscape is spectacular, with endless lines of steep mountainsides terraced right to the top. When we were there it was the rainy season, and the vegetation was almost painfully green. The distant views from high points are stunning, and at closer range the fields are a striking mosaic of colours. The people are friendly and welcoming, and since it’s a fairly obscure, little-known place, you will always discover something unknown (to you), interesting and surprising. Burundi borders Tanzania and Rwanda, so it’s easy to tack it on to a trip primarily focused on one of these two countries. Besides this, if (like me) you want to visit every country in the world, you need to come to Burundi.

Us with a few big trees, Bururi Forest


Is it safe? Should I go?

In the Lonely Planet East Africa guide which I have, published in 2018, Burundi is described thus: “The entire country is now considered unsafe to visit.” There was continued political unrest starting in 2015 and continuing for several years, connected with a power grab by the then-president Pierre Nkurunziza, who wanted to run for president for a constitutionally forbidden third term. Luckily Nkurunziza stepped down as president before the 2020 election and (less luckily for him, although probably luckily for Burundi as a whole) then died, probably of covid-19. With him out of the way, the country has returned to some semblance of normality, and certainly while we were in the country, we saw no indication of violent unrest or political protest, and the Burundians we talked to stressed that the country now felt peaceful.

Women walking back from market through Bururi Forest

Having said that, the Canadian, British and US governments all advise against travelling to Burundi. They probably know more than I do, but it did not strike me as a country that was teetering on the brink of a return to violent chaos, or even a country where you’re likely to be mugged on the street. It’s up to you; I felt very comfortable travelling to Burundi in a way that I wouldn’t if I were travelling to (say) South Sudan or Mali or Somalia.



In the years of political unrest from 2015 to 2020, tourist visas to visit Burundi were very hard to come by, and I used to read accounts on the Lonely Planet Thorn Tree of people waiting for months in hope of getting a visa, only to be turned down in the end. This is no longer the case at all. We got a 1-month tourist visa at the Burundi consulate in Kigoma, Tanzania, and it could not have been easier. (The hardest thing was finding the consulate, which was in the wrong place on Google Maps!) We walked into the consulate, talked for five minutes with one of the consulate officials, paid our US$90 each (ouch!) in cash, and waited for about 20 minutes. We didn’t even have to fill out a visa form; the official did it all for us. It was all surprisingly quick and efficient, perhaps helped by the fact that we were the only Westerners there (there was one family who might have been Tanzanians, or perhaps Burundians living in Tanzania, who were there when we arrived and who were still waiting when we left).

One of the thousands of loads we saw on people's heads

We met another couple who were overlanding to Burundi, and they went for the cheaper option of buying a 3-day transit visa for US$40. This can be extended in Bujumbura for a month for (I believe) another $30, but then you have to hustle from the border to Bujumbura within those first three days. We didn’t intend to visit Bujumbura, so we went for the easier but more expensive 30-day option.


At the border

We crossed from Tanzania into Burundi at the small mountain-top crossing at Manyovu. There were very few travellers crossing there, and the entire process was very quick. We had to undergo a rapid-antigen test for covid-19, which costs $15, and wait for the results before going through immigration. There the immigration officer seemed genuinely confused by the fact that we had gotten our visas ahead of time, and there were a few minutes of bafflement while he kept asking us what date we had first entered the country, and why we were coming back a second time. We eventually showed him the receipt for our visa at the Kigoma consulate, and the light dawned in his eyes. A quick entry stamp, and we were free to go deal with the car.

A rare motorcycle taxi, fully loaded

Our car is on a carnet de passage en douanes (CPD), which in theory should allow it to enter a country without paying any sort of customs fees. This wasn’t the case in Tanzania, where we had paid US$30 for a Temporary Import Permit (TIP) despite having our carnet, and it proved to be the case once again in Burundi, where we had to pay 30,000 Burundian francs (BFr), worth about US$15 at the official exchange rate and about US$9 at the black market rate. Once we had paid for the TIP, we were free to go, trying to remember to drive on the right side of the road after months of driving on the left.



Red-tailed monkey, Bururi Forest

At the border we changed about 70,000 leftover Tanzania Shillings into 60,000 Burundian Francs. We had looked up the exchange rate online, and this seemed to be a fair exchange rate to us. It wasn’t until later that day, when I tried to change some US cash at a bank that I discovered that Burundi has a vigorous black market for foreign currency, particularly US dollars. The bank manager with whom I spoke told me that he couldn’t in good conscience exchange money for me at the official rate of 2040 BFr to the USD, when the black market rate was between 3300 and 3500. We tried to find a black marketeer in the first couple of towns we passed through after the border (Mabanda and Makamba) but failed miserably. We did manage to exchange some dollars eventually in Bururi, albeit at a very poor rate (2500), with a guy running a mobile phone money office who knew that we were desperate. A few days later in Gitega we got 3300 BFr to the USD, which let us tank up with diesel (some of the cheapest we’ve found in Africa if you use the black market rate, at just over 1 USD per litre). There are no ATMs that work for foreign cards (at least not that we could find), and since they would use the official rate, it wouldn’t be in any tourist’s interest to do that. We saw no evidence of credit cards being accepted anywhere: everything is in cash, or mobile money.



We bought a Burundi SIM card in Mabanda, the first decent-sized town north of the border; we tried at the border itself, but couldn’t find anyone selling them. The cards were inexpensive, and gave us 9 GB of data for about 10,000 BFr, which was a great deal. The cellular data network is extensive and has excellent coverage (since there are people living everywhere!), and when it works it’s really fast, but it was constantly going on and off during our time in the country.



RN 17, a supposed "highway"

There are a lot of newly paved tarmac roads in Burundi, and they are a joy to drive on, very smooth and with essentially no traffic at all. Most of the main roads (the Routes Nationales) are in this category. However we hit two sections of RN that were not just unpaved, they were barely driveable tracks, heavily gullied and really only passable on motorcycles. These stretches (from Makamba to Bururi on RN 17 on our first day in the country, and from Kampezi to near Gitega on RN 16) were truly dreadful, requiring carefully picking our way at 20 km/h in 4WD low-range, trying not to bottom out or damage our vehicle. There was no warning of these terrible stretches, and we couldn’t find any information online about which roads were in this sort of deplorable state. Luckily we were on pavement for most of the rest of our time in the country, but it would have been nice to know ahead of time when we were going to be on these pistes.


People and the Economy

Most of Burundi's population gets around on Shank's Pony

Burundi is one of the five poorest countries on earth, according to the World Bank and the UNDP, and it shows. It is visibly much less affluent than any of the other countries we have passed through on this trip. One easy measure of this is the number of motorized vehicles on the roads; there are almost no private cars to be seen in Burundi, and only a small number of motorcycles, most operating as moto-taxis. Most Burundians walk to get from point to point, with a few lucky enough to have a bicycle. We watched prodigious loads of bananas, sugar cane and wood (not to mention human passengers) being pushed uphill by wiry, sweating velo-taxi drivers, while even more people walked, often with big loads balanced on their heads. Some areas of the country, particularly just south of the new capital of Gitega, are even poorer than others, with most children in rags and houses in a dilapidated state.

A young entrepreneur lugging his wares back to his village

This poverty brings about a lot of begging; we saw more begging, and more persistent beggars, here than in any other country that we’ve driven Stanley through. Whenever we stopped by a roadside, children and adults would hustle over to hold out their hands and say some form of “Muzungu, give me money!” It got tiresome, particularly if we stopped in a village and dozens of young men would cluster around the vehicle, staring through the windows so thickly that we couldn’t see out past them. It became psychologically challenging to deal with this, although we had a lot less of this in towns such as Bururi and Gitega, the new national capital.

When we got to talk to Burundians in less trying circumstances, we found them friendly, curious about the outside world and willing to talk about politics and the dreadful political violence that has wracked the country since independence in 1962. Our guides in Bururi Forest and Ruvubu National Park were both intriguing, clever, inquisitive young men who felt trapped in a system that would likely never have any real opportunities for them. We spent an evening dining and drinking beer with some older retired gentlemen in Bururi and really had quite an entertaining and enlightening time. Most people speak French, although a handful also spoke some English. Speaking French definitely made interacting with Burundians a lot easier for us!



We stayed indoors most nights in Burundi, partly because it was hard to find places to camp, partly because it was pretty rainy, and partly because indoor accommodation was very reasonably priced. We slept one night in a cheap and not very nice hotel in Bururi (the Hollywood) for 12,000 BFr (about 4USD at the black market rate), and another at a more upmarket hotel in Bururi (the Moonlight) for 30.000 BFr (about 9 USD at the black market rate); this one had the downside of being the local watering hole and possessing a loud stereo which made sleeping a bit of a challenge. In Gitega we stayed at the Tamotel for two nights at 25,000 BFr (about USD 7.50), and it was by far and away the nicest place we stayed: roomy, comfortable and quiet, in lovely grounds full of birds and flowers. Finally we camped in Ruvubu National Park, which cost us about 20,000 BFr (USD 6); facilities were fairly basic and decrepit, but we were told that it was about to undergo a much-needed renovation. The place was perfectly quiet, peaceful and full of the sounds of the African bush, so we were quite happy to stay there.

Camped at Ruvubu National Park



We ended up spending 70,000 Tanzanian shillings (about USD 25), plus USD 130 which we exchanged on the black market, plus USD 40 for chimp tracking. All up, we spent about USD 195 for 5 days and nights in the country, including chimp tracking in Bururi Forest, a night in Ruvubu National Park and four nights in various hotels, plus meals, lots of fruit, beers and a good dollop of diesel for Stanley. It was easily the least expensive country so far on Stanley’s Travels!



Our lone male chimp, Bururi Forest

For us the highlight was definitely hiking for several hours through the atmospheric Bururi Forest Nature Reserve in search of habituated chimpanzees. Compared to the cost of exactly the same sort of activity in neighbouring Tanzania, Rwanda and Uganda, it costs a pittance: USD 20 per person, less than 10% of what it costs in Gombe Stream in Tanzania or in Kibale Forest in Uganda. We saw three chimps, two of whom ran off almost immediately, but one of whom (a big male) sat and watched us carefully from up a tree for 15 minutes or so. Unfortunately, about five minutes after arriving we were drenched by a tropical downpour that soaked us to the skin, making it a less enjoyable experience than it might have been. Still, the ranger who accompanied us was a fascinating and enlightening character, and the forest itself is fabulous, full of birds, enormous old trees and various species of monkeys (we spotted red-tailed monkeys beside the track). We would highly recommend this to anyone visiting Burundi, especially as it helps support a very minimally funded conservation effort. Bururi Forest is located on the outskirts of Bururi Town, and you certainly don’t have to worry about getting a reservation, as they only seem to have a couple of visitors a week, judging by their visitors’ book.

Terri points towards the Nile and I toward the Congo basin

The very furthest headwaters of the Nile

We also found the Source of the Nile to be well worth a visit. We drove there from Bururi and although it has cheesy elements to it (like a fake Egyptian pyramid built up on the ridge that forms the Nile watershed, and some white ceramic basins that catch the infant Nile waters as they emerge from the soil), it’s actually pretty interesting and moving to realize that here, south of the Equator, you are already feeding the mighty Nile River and that this landscape ultimately drains into the distant Mediterranean. For 10,000 BFr (about USD 3 at the black-market rate) it’s a must-see.

The same can’t be said anymore for the Muhweza hot springs just a few kilometres from the Source of the Nile, which were said once upon a time to be very pretty, but which had all its surrounding forest cut down to make charcoal, leaving the pools exposed, clogged with debris and surrounded by smouldering ruins. It was pretty grim.

We skipped the Karera Waterfalls as the admission price was pretty steep and the pictures looked underwhelming. Another attraction that we skipped was the Drum Museum outside Gitega which looked interesting in videos, but again was quite pricey.

Our final attraction was Ruvubu National Park. It was a pretty non-descript little park, with a few waterbuck and some baboons and monkeys and buffalo, but it was nice to see that the country is trying to rehabilitate a park that was completely devastated during the years of conflict. Plus it was nice to get away from the densely packed population that fills every square kilometre of the country outside the national park.

Baboons, Ruvubu National Park

We never visited the former capital and main city of the country, Bujumbura. Partly this was because of a lack of time, and partly it was because we were loth to lose all the hundreds of vertical metres we had laboriously gained on the way from Kigoma, and partly it was because we had seen plenty of Lake Tanganyika already and were more interested in the highland parts of the country.

For me the biggest attraction in the country was the landscape, the impossibly convoluted contours and mountain ridges of a country that mostly sits at more than 1600 metres above sea level. I found the pattern of farm fields on the steep slopes mesmerizing, and the endless vistas of serried ranks of distant ranges were strikingly beautiful.

Typical Burundian landscape



Aside from the staring and begging, we didn't really encounter much in the way of serious annoyances. We weren't really ripped off very much, and the police (about whom we'd heard mixed reports) never once tried to shake us down for money. We found it an easy-going country that didn't raise our blood pressure very much at all.

Final Verdict

I am very glad that we made it to Burundi. Even if its attractions don’t measure up to those of Uganda or Tanzania, it’s still worth seeing. It can be a bit depressing, as not much seems to work well, and there is no real sense that the country is developing in any meaningful way. The lives of the people we drove past are really, really hard, and the lives of their children and grandchildren will likely continue to be equally difficult. Still, the smiles on people’s faces, the exotic birds and misty mountain slopes, and the feeling of being on the Roof of Africa make it all worthwhile.



Wednesday, January 4, 2023

2022: Looking Back at the Year

Lake Bunyonyi, Uganda


Somehow the ellipse has (more or less) closed on itself after 365.24 days of orbital motion and we are once again at the end of a year. As the years go by, I am sometimes startled by the numbers of the years: surely I’m not that old, am I? The end of 2022 marks 23 years since I welcomed in the millennium with my family in Cuzco Peru, and an unsettling 36.5 years since I graduated from Hillcrest High School (now sadly no longer operational as a school, transformed into condominiums). I am far closer to the end of my working life than to its start, and presumably well over halfway along my mortal coil. With these thoughts in mind, it’s time to summarize what I got up to during the past 12 months.

The year started in Tuatapere, New Zealand where Terri and I were exploring the South Island in our tiny Nissan Elgrand van named Edmund. We would spend the first two months of the year hiking and camping our way around that spectacular island. Highlights included Stewart Island (even if we failed to see any kiwis), hiking in the Mount Cook area, spending five days tramping the fabulous Rees-Dart Track, climbing up to lovely Angelus Hut in the Nelson Lakes, ambling through the coastal wonderland of the Abel Tasman Track, and finally strolling along the Queen Charlotte Track, eating fresh green-lipped mussels while we intersected the path of Captain Cook two and a half centuries earlier.

Near Mt. Cook/Aoraki

On the Rees-Dart Track

The view from Angelus Hut

From there we spent three weeks on a victory lap of the North Island, visiting friends and family and staying indoors rather more often than we were used to. All too soon my time Down Under was over and I was on an airplane winging my way to Switzerland, into a world in which covid-related travel restrictions were just a memory.

My mom and I above Leysin

I spent nearly four months in Leysin, my old stomping ground. My sister Audie and her husband Serge had taken their daughters Malaika and Ellie on the trip of their young lifetimes, through South Africa and Botswana up to Livingstone, Zambia, where they volunteered at Olive Tree Learning Centre, the community elementary school that Terri has been nurturing for the past 15 years. This trip, for which Serge had requested a six-month sabbatical from his teaching job, had been planned before my mother came to live with them rather suddenly during the pandemic in 2021. My sister Saakje spent February and March in Leysin before handing off to me. My job was live with my mother while the family was in Africa, and it was a pleasure to be back in my beloved Alpine village with a car, a bicycle and skis at my disposal. I did a tiny bit of skiing at the beginning of my stay, and then rode Serge’s racing bike all summer up and down the passes of the Swiss Alps, taking time to play a bit of tennis here and there as well (as well as going to my first live pro tennis tournament in six years, in Geneva in May), and to see my first-ever live stage of the Tour de France as it rolled right past the Leysin area.  It was an idyllic way to spend a summer.

Jonas Vingegard in the yellow jersey

The reason that I had to keep an eye on my mother was that she had entered a period of cognitive decline during the pandemic, while she was living alone and none of us were visiting her. When Saakje finally visited her in late 2020, it was obvious that she was going to need some assistance in the coming years, which was why Audie volunteered to have my mother come live with her beloved grandchildren. While I was there, it was pretty easy for me to make sure that my mother was fine; I cooked delicious meals to encourage her to eat enough, and played cribbage and watched movies with her. The signs of decline were obvious, but not debilitating. All that changed the day before I flew out of Switzerland, when she fell getting into bed and fractured her hip. Audie has been doing a heroic job of looking after my mother since then, but it has become a much more all-consuming duty than when I was there. It was a precious period of time to spend with my mother while she was still very much her old self.

I spent all of August in Lipah, Bali, which has become the closest thing that Terri and I have to a home base during our global peregrinations. It was an idyllic time, spent kayaking, diving, swimming, snorkelling and hiking in our little corner of northeastern Bali, as well as getting ready for the final part of the year’s journey: a return to Stanley’s Travels, which had been on hold for the previous two pandemic-blighted years.

A yawning rhinopias scorpionfish

A rare paddleflap rhinopias scorpionfish

I never get tired of this view from our terrace!

In early September I flew to Cape Town, where Terri joined me a week later. We spent a couple of weeks getting Stanley back into driving shape after four years in storage, and then drove out of Cape Town on October 2nd, headed (we hoped) for Switzerland, up the east side of the African continent. We set a quick pace north to the Kalahari, stopping to look at meerkats and other wild creatures in the Kgalakgadi Transfrontier Park, and then heading up to northern Botswana to visit Drifter’s Camp, Planet Baobab, the ethereal Makgadikgadi Pans, amazing Elephant Sands and finally Chobe National Park. We then crossed to Livingstone, Zambia to spend three weeks working with Olive Tree Learning Centre, the first time Terri had been there in three years (and the first time I’d been there in five and a half!).

At the southernmost point of Africa


Stanley in the Makgadikgadi Pans

Elephant Sands

One of our star OTLC students

More OTLC students with new bookbags

The time flew by in Livingstone, and before we knew it our time was up and we were driving north, visiting two favourite spots of particular loveliness from our previous travels (Kasanka National Park and Kapishya Hot Springs) and one spot new to us which made us both fall in love with the place (Mutinondo Wilderness). Kasanka let us see the massive bat migration (the largest mammalian migration on earth), Mutinondo gave us the opportunity to hike, canoe and swim on our own in African miombo woodlands, and Kapishya was a great place to relax and catch up on our video editing endeavours.

Going batty in Kasanka

Mutinondo Wilderness

From Kapishya we have been on the move steadily northward towards the Equator. We drove up the west side of Tanzania, paralleling mighty Lake Tanganyika and visiting the outstanding Katavi National Park; it was a return to a country that I called home in 1981-2, although we were far from my former town of Morogoro. Then we raced through the tiny countries of Burundi and Rwanda, seeing chimpanzees in the wild and grinding Stanley over endless steep mountain slopes. We arrived in Uganda a week ago and have so far stuck to the southwest corner, at Mgahinga National Park and Lake Bunyonyi. We plan to move northward up the west side of the country, visiting as many national parks and nature reserves as possible, before turning east to Kenya.

Lioness in Katavi

Mighty Lake Tanganyika

A wild chimpanzee in Bururi Forest Reserve, Burundi

At the southernmost source of the Nile, Burundi

The green hills of Rwanda

Lake Bunyonyi, Uganda

2022 has been an outstanding year in terms of travel, although strangely I have only added two countries (Burundi and Rwanda) to my life list. Terri and I have had the chance to see plenty of nature, do lots of hiking and other active travel pursuits, and set a leisurely, sustainable pace for our journeys. We also launched our Stanley’s Travels YouTube channel (if you haven’t yet subscribed, please do so! You can follow along our journey through the wonders of video.) We are looking forward to an action-packed 2023 as well, continuing on our way around the African continent, either up the east side or (if Ethiopia doesn’t change its new customs regulations for cars) back to South Africa and then up (or down) the west coast of Africa.

I hope that you, my faithful readers, have had a successful, healthy and satisfying 2022, and that 2023 is even better. I will post again soon about our African trip in more detail, and in a year’s time I will once again try to summarize the year that was.

Peace and Tailwinds!!


Thursday, December 1, 2022

Zambia: A Journey of Two Halves


Kapishya Hot Springs, Zambia (completed at Lake Shore Lodge, Kipili, Tanzania)

Terri and I are sitting between a swiming pool and a river here at idyllic Kapishya Hot Springs, one of our favourite spots from our 2016-17 edition of Stanley's Travels. We are planning to spend a couple of days here before starting the drive north to Tanzania, and it seems as good a place as any to take stock of our time in Zambia so far, which has been sharply divided between almost three weeks spent in one spot (Livingstone), followed by a couple of weeks of moving northward and seeing sights along the way. 

Our Livingstone Interlude

Our time in Livingstone was not at all focused on travel or seeing the sights. Livingstone is familiar territory to me, and even more so to Terri, who has been coming to Livingstone regularly for the past 15 years. She first came in 2007 to scout out the possibilities of running a service trip for students from Kumon Leysin Academy in Switzerland (KLAS), the school at which she was teaching. She found a worthwhile project, at Olive Tree Learning Centre (OTLC), and brought students from KLAS to OTLC almost every year for a decade. The students would spend much of the academic year fundraising and preparing for the trip, which was a very intense week-long immersion in the reality of building up a school in one of the most impoverished neighbourhoods of Livingstone, the township of Ngwenya. For many of the Japanese students on the KLAS team, it was a life-changing experience, opening their eyes to the hardships and challenges that children in much of the developing world face.

One of our young stars

I was on the final KLAS student trip to OTLC in 2016, and have visited several times since then. When KLAS stopped sending student trips, funding the school became a much bigger challenge which has occupied a great deal of Terri's time and energy and focus over the past six years. Because of the covid pandemic, it had been three and a half years since Terri had last been to Livingstone, so there was a lot of catching up to do. The school has expanded steadily since its inception as a pre-school with 15 pupils, and in 2021 it graduated its first grade 7 class, sending most of them off to high school, an outcome that most parents would not have dreamed of a decade ago. OTLC now has 420 students, and is in constant flux, building new classrooms, hiring new teachers and trying to incorporate technology into the classroom. It's a constant struggle finding funding, although this past year has seen a big uptick in the number of people from around the world willing to sponsor an OTLC student for US$10 a month (click here if you might be interested in joining them). 

Class performance of poetry

This time around both Terri and I were struck by the maturity and eloquence of some of our students, especially compared to my first visit six years ago. It's gratifying to see that all this effort and fund-raising is paying off in terms of successful outcomes for our young learners.

Wonderful Zambian flag outfit

We also had a team of visitors from the United States drop into OTLC, bearing some welcome educational supplies. Brian Bohne, the team leader, is a friend of ours who has worked in Leysin at the LAS summer school several times, and who visited us in Georgia back in 2018. He brought three of his high school friends from Minnesota, along with his son Bryce and a Zambian friend, and the OTLC students and staff pulled out all the stops to give performances of song, dance and poetry. It was a high-energy, memorable day, and left our visitors with unforgettable memories.

Brian Bohne and his team of volunteers with some OTLC folks 

Our time in Livingstone flew by, and before we knew it almost three weeks had passed. There were a lot of bureaucratic steps to be endured to bring the school's structure up to date with the Zambian authorities, new classrooms to be commissioned, meetings with the school's headmistress and business manager to hash out future plans for the school, and a long-simmering deal to buy another piece of land for the school's future development. When we weren't scrutinizing budgets or making sure that sponsors were receiving reports on how their children. were doing, Terri and I managed to get out to a local gym fairly regularly to do some weightlifting, or visited 10th the Royal Livingstone Hotel to enjoy sunset over Victoria Falls. 

Gift, one of the sixth graders

We also nipped over the border to visit the Zimbabwean town of Victoria Falls, which I had never seen before. We stayed with a Zimbabwean friend, Courtney, who showed us the community development project she is running, the Jafuta Trust; Terri and I were envious of the resources available to them to create a state-of-the-art community centre, with adult education, sewing and welding workshops and a well-engineered children's playground constructed largely out of old tires. 

We camped in the grounds of the Tabonina Bis guesthouse, a stately spot full of mature trees. Most of the time it was quiet, although it was used as a base for long rafting trips and was a hubbub of activity inbetween for a few days. We got used to our base in the middle of Livingstone, and it was hard to pry ourselves away from it on November 10th.

Back on the Road

We drove out of Livingstone mid-morning on Thursday, November 10th, and in retrospect it would have been a good idea to leave earlier in the day. It was a fairly uneventful trip most of the way, through dry, sparsely-inhabited countryside at first, but eventually passing through greener, more agriculturally productive areas until we joined the main road from Harare, Zimbabwe. At this point traffic got a lot heavier and we crawled into town slowly in a mass of heavy transport trucks. As we got into the city the roads got more and more congested and we were stuck in the worst traffic jams of our trip so far. It took hours to crawl through town and out the other side to our guesthouse, and we arrived in pitch blackness, tired and irritable from dealing with big-city traffic. We ordered a pizza and were in bed very quickly.

We spent all of Friday running errands in Lusaka, and much of Saturday morning as well. We were successful in most of our tasks, with the major achievements being obtaining COMESA car insurance for all the countries north of Zambia, and getting our malfunctioning solar power system diagnosed and repaired. It turned out that there was a short circuit between the solar controller and the battery which had burned out the controller. We had a new controller installed and finally saw our solar panels start to recharge our battery, a relief as we will have mains electricity less and less frequently as we head north, leaving us dependent on our batteries.

We finally tore ourselves away from the prosperous shopping malls of Lusaka by mid-afternoon on Saturday, November 12th and drove north along a horrible highway. It was clogged with endless lines of heavy trucks headed north to the copper mines of the Zambian Copperbelt and of DRC's Katanga Province. The trucks had, over the years, deformed the road with their tires into a series of long ruts separated by high ridges, making for challenging driving. We were headed for Kabwe, but the heavy traffic slowed us down and we arrived in the dark, after a futile search for a camping spot on a local farm that we never found in the dark. The night was full of millions of flying termites who had erupted from the soil with the recent rains, and it made for eerie driving. We finally found a room at a roadside "lodge" (more of a motel) next to a truck parking area, gobbled down some goat stew and were in bed early, glad to be under a solid roof as a titanic downpour raged all night.

We awoke to find Stanley covered with discarded termite wings. We drove off, with less traffic but still the same terrible road surface, stopping from time to time to stock up on vegetables being sold beside the road; I was particularly excited by enormous mushrooms being sold by young children which we ended up grilling that evening. We also picked up 1.5 litres of delicious honey near Kapiri Mposhi; we had bought honey there six years ago and had spent years reminiscing about how good it was. I'm pleased to say that our memories were completely accurate: it's some of the tastiest, most floral honey I've ever had! At Kapiri Mposhi the road split, with truck traffic continuing north while we headed west on a blissfully smooth and open road. Just past Serenje the smooth pavement came to an end in a series of immense potholes, bringing progress back to a crawl. It was a relief to turn off the truck road and north towards Kasanka National Park, where we camped on the park boundary at the Community Education Centre.

Batty About Kasanka

I think this is a light-coloured sitatunga doe

We had spent time in Kasanka back in 2016, and had really enjoyed it. Kasanka is a small park lacking in lions and the rest of the Big Five, but rich in more obscure species such as the sitatunga antelope and the puku antelope. It also has some great campsites, and is small enough to explore thoroughly in a couple of days. We were excited to be there at the right time of year to witness the migration of millions of straw-coloured fruit bats who gather from all over Central Africa every year between October and December.

The bats seemed to rise from the horizon

We spent a while at the Wasa Lodge, birdwatching from their back terrace which overlooks Lake Wasa, before proceeding to our campsite at Kabwe. We set up camp, had a big lunch and then set off to see the bats. We had been told that they started to leave their roosts around 4 or 4:30 pm, but this proved to be untrue; the first bats started to fly overhead at around 6:00 pm. The initial individuals and small groups rapidly swelled, and within five minutes the sky, already losing light since the sun had set twenty minutes earlier, was further darkened by millions of bats flying overhead in unimaginable numbers. It seemed unreal, a trick of computer graphics, with bats seeming to rise out of the earth at the horizon in an infinite stream. It was an awe-inspiring spectacle, and we spent a long time just staring up in silence, before remembering to take photos and videos. The bats were mostly silent, but we could hear the wind over their wings, as they weren't that high above us. Just as we were reaching sensory overload, the numbers began to dwindle, and by 6:25 it was all over. A guide told us that GPS sensors attached to some bats have shown that on the average bats fly 50 km from the 1-square-kilometre Fibwe bat forest every night to feed, returning 50 km in the pre-dawn hours; some bats have been recorded as flying twice as far in a night. We drove back to camp in the dark, trying to spot some nocturnal species as we drove; we had to be satisfied with an elephant shrew.

Bats filling the sky

We had a lazy morning in camp the next day. Our campsite had a nice view out towards the Kasanka River and we could see dozens of puku, their reddish-gold coats shining in the sun. An elephant wandered by in the middle distance, but we couldn't see any of the shy and reclusive sitatunga antelope that are a Kasanka specialty. We went for a game drive in the afternoon and didn't see any sable antelope (our target for that day), although we saw lots of puku and an assortment of interesting birdlife, including a lovely African cuckoo, a woodland kingfisher, a racquet-tailed roller, some wooly-necked storks and a few saddle-billed storks. We were back in camp early, in time for sundown and a delicious steak dinner, before hitting the sack early in order to see the morning return flight of the bats.

Puku buck in full flight

Our alarm went off at 4:00 AM and by 4:18 we were driving towards the hide. The first light of dawn was already in the sky (sunrise was at around 5:15) and as we approached the bat forest, we realized we were too late at 4:50; the last bats were flying overhead as we were in the car, and by the time we had parked and walked to the viewing area, it was all over except for a few stragglers. It was disappointing (we should have gotten up at 3 AM, not 4!), but at least it gave us lots of time to look for sitatunga, the shy and hard-to-spot semi-aquatic antelope who are Kasanka's other attraction. We had seen two on our previous visit in 2016, but this time, driving along the Kasanka River, we saw two dozen or so. Most fled once they saw us, bounding into the water and hiding in the dense reeds, but we saw a number out grazing who didn't seem too bothered by us. We were able to see enough individuals that we could appreciate the wide range in coat colour from dark brown (almost black) to Bambi-coloured. The males are impressive with their twisted horns, while the babies we watched were amazingly agile, leaping through the water to keep up with their parents. We returned to camp satisfied with our sitatunga, if not our morning bat-watching.

Dark-haired sitatunga parents and their light-coloured offspring

Marvellous Mutinondo

From Kasanka we drove back south to the main truck route and its vehicle-swallowing potholes and incessant heavy-goods traffic. The road led through small roadside clusters of truck stops and bars, some of the poorest and most unappealing places we had yet seen in Zambia. Thankfully it was only 125 km or so before we turned off and found ourselves on a well-maintained dirt track leading to our next destination, Mutinondo Wilderness; it was so smooth that we didn't even bother to lower our tire pressures, which we do on almost all dirt roads for a smoother ride. Much sooner than expected we pulled into a lovely campground, popped up the roof and started exploring.

Sweeping views out over the plains from the top

Mutinondo was a place which I had heard a lot of good things about back in 2016, but we had been in a bit of hurry and hadn't visited then. It turned out to be a case of good things coming to those who wait. Mutinondo is a fabulous place to stay for anyone who likes the outdoors and either hiking or mountain biking. Started in 1995 by Lari and Mike, a Zambian couple who fell in love with this area and secured a lease on a huge block of wilderness. The area is covered with pristine miombo woodland, dotted with dambos (marshy open spaces) and granite monoliths that rise steeply above the forests, and dissected by pristine streams that carve through the landscape in a series of pools and small waterfalls. Lari and Mike have established some 60 km of signed walking trails that allow travellers to explore the area on foot completely independently. The forest is full of plants and birds; Lari has co-authored a two-volume book on the plant life of Mutinondo (a highly impressive labour of love), while it is also a bird- and butterfly-watching hotspot. There are no lions or leopards in residence, but there are lots of antelope, including roan and sable, as well as klipspringers who bound up the steep granite walls at the first sign of humans.

Atop a Mutinondo monolith

We ended up spending four full days at Mutinondo. It was a perfect spot for us to get some exercise after a week spent doing a lot of driving. We ended up climbing eight of the ten monoliths nearest the main lodge; they were steep and hard work in the humidity, but gave sweeping views across the landscape, which seemed to be an unbroken carpet of virgin forest, with almost no signs of human settlement. Mutinondo is part of a long wildlife corridor stretching from the Bangweulu Wetlands south through Kasanka towards Mutinondo and beyond to the wildlife meccas of North and South Luangwa National Parks. We felt privileged to have the chance to spend time in such a beautiful landscape, so little touched by human activity. 

Mayense, the highest of the Mutinondo peaks

In addition to hiking 15 km a day, we also spent some time paddling an old canoe along a long level stretch of river, through reedbeds and under overhanging trees, looking for kingfishers and other birds. When the light was right, it was almost painfully lovely, and we floated along in a haze of sensory overstimulation. We also ended every hike with a dip in one of the many swimming holes, adding to the sense of perfection.

Cooking in our potjie over the fire in Mutinondo

One our last full day in Mutinondo, we didn't try to hike too far or up too many peaks. Instead we broke out Terri's new guidebook to reading the signs and tracks of African animals. Using it we were able to identify tracks of sable antelope, the droppings of sable, roan, baboon, civet, white-tailed and yellow mongoose and klipspringer, as well as the diggings of mongoose and aardvarks. The forest floor was scarred by enormous numbers of aardvark dens and feeding sites where these nocturnal excavating machines had demolished termite mounds in search of food. It was an eye-opening experience and made us feel (for a few minutes) like experienced game trackers!

The campsite was well-designed as well; although there were a few other campers in residence, we were barely aware of their existence, sheltered as we were by trees. We watched the sunset almost every afternoon from the deserted bar perched atop a west-facing rock outcrop, and cooked on wood fires in our campsite, sitting out afterwards to sip wine and try to spot nocturnal birds and creatures (we managed to spot no fewer than four bushbabies (lesser galagos) on one memorable night walk). It was hard to pull ourselves away in order to continue our onward journey; Mutinondo will live on in our memories as one of our favourite spots in all of southern Africa.

A perfect swimming hole for the end of a hike

Hot Spring Haven at Kapishya

Our last major destination in northern Zambia was another old favourite from 2016, Kapishya Hot Springs. We drove our final stretch of the infernal truck route, dodging Tanzanian fuel tankers driven by homicidal maniacs, stopping for fuel and supplies in the small city of Mpika. We hadn't tanked up in Serenje when we had the chance, and had watched our needle steadily heading towards empty as we drove on through a long stretch of road devoid of gas stations; good thing that Stanley's fuel tank holds 150 litres of diesel! From Mpika we turned off onto the Old Great North Road, with fewer potholes and almost no traffic, before turning onto a rough track that leads 45 km to Kapishya.


Kapishya is a great place to camp, with good facilities (like electrical power, lacking at Mutinondo) and the bliss of hot springs in which we immersed ourselves several times a day. It's also a wonderful place to birdwatch, with Ross' Turaco the most spectacular species. Mostly, though, we took a few days to edit videos for our YouTube channel, trying to get several weeks ahead of the game and use the decent wifi to upload our finished products. It worked well, as we are now a month ahead and are getting into the groove of editing.

Running For The Border

From Kapishya, from which we pried ourselves after four nights, it was time to get serious about reaching the Tanzanian border before Terri's visa ran out (I had extra days from going to Zimbabwe one day for some money-changing, and having my visa reset for another thirty days). It was a long slog back to the Old Great North Road and then north to the major city of Kasama for some resupplying (it even had a Shoprite supermarket, something we hadn't seen since Kapiri Mposhi) before carrying on to the final town in Zambia, Mbala. We stayed indoors at a small lakeside lodge (Lake Chila Lodge), then set off the next morning for a 20-kilometre rumble along a gravel road to a tiny border crossing at Kasese. We were nervous at the crossing since we had recently discovered that both of us had had our most recent yellow-fever vaccination more than ten years ago. In theory this meant that we could get rejected from entering Tanzania, but we were in luck: the immigration guy checking health records only looked at the outside of our little yellow booklets and of our covid vaccination records, checked our temperatures, and then let us go. Phew! We now need to find someplace to get another yellow fever jab since we probably won't get so lucky at future border crossings!

Final Thoughts on Zambia

So much of what we did during our five weeks in Zambia was revisiting familiar haunts, although Mutinondo was a wonderful new revelation. Zambia is always fun to visit, although it's definitely more expensive than the countries further south like Botswana, Namibia and South Africa. Parts of the country are quite prosperous, especially along the central transport corridor running from the Zimbabwe border north to Lusaka and continuing towards the Copperbelt; big commercial farms are interspersed with smallholder plots who all seem to be prospering growing for the market. Lusaka is a thriving city (with terrible traffic jams!) that has so much more prosperity than anywhere else in the country. Livingstone seems much less thriving in comparison, although Ngwenya township is definitely less desperately impoverished than it was when Terri started working with OTLC fourteen years ago. Northern Zambia is still noticeable less developed than the rest of the country, but it also hosts jewels like Kasanka and Mutinondo. 

The new government of Hikainde Hichilema (HH) seems to have turned the mood of Zambia in a more positive direction than the tired old corrupt regime of Edgar Lungu, but life is still a struggle for many poorer Zambians like the parents of OTLC students. 

One thing that we would love to see would be a concerted effort to repair the asphalt highways which have been systematically destroyed by the pounding of truck tires since our last visit in 2017. Driving the main highway from Lusaka to Tanzania is a miserable and dangerous experience, and we were overjoyed to escape from it to cross the border at Kasese rather than the main border post at Nakonde.

We might well be back in Zambia in a few months unless Ethiopia changes its crazy rules about driving one's own vehicle into the country. If so, we will visit the one great attraction that remains on our Zambia to-see list: South Luangwa National Park. We shall see; much can change in a few months.