Journal 4

"We shouldn't judge a country by its border"

September 2005

Baskets on a bicycle - Malawi.

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After the friendly border crossing between Namibia and Botswana we headed south to the Okavango Delta. One afternoon was spent lazing along the side of the river on the panhandle. We decided to get lost in the Makgadikgadi pans. These used to be huge lakes but due to world climate changes the water has gone, leaving behind immense saltpans. We planned to visit Kubu Island. Eventually we arrived at the baobab covered rocky island surrounded not by water, but glaring white saltpans. It also claims to be the site of Iron Age ruins. We set up camp and were enjoying a glass of wine when a snake decided to come and visit us. An hour or so later we returned to the island and reset up camp at a different site. The silhouettes of baobabs beautifully complimented the sunset and the night sky that followed was just as amazing.

Salt Pan Snake Baobab
 Salt Pans Salt Pans  Snake Baobab at sunset.

Via the Kalahari we set off to Maun to sort out our Okavango adventures. We booked a Mokoro (dug out canoe) trip for two nights and a flight over the delta. The days before were spent in the nearby Moremi National park. Here an elephant trumpeting past the campsite sent us running for the cover of the car. No one else seemed concerned and we felt a bit silly. Rather foolishly perhaps I let Andy drive us through some water. There was no way I was going to get out to test the depth of the water as we had just driven past several sun bathing crocs. So we set off through the water, which came up to the bonnet, but thankfully we didn't get stuck or sink, although it was quite scary.

Our guide for the Mokoro trip was called Jet, an old guy who had trouble walking due to polio. We were poled in our mokoros for about two hours, and it was relaxing apart from when we were pushed through the grass when lots of what looked like leeches would then get brushed onto us. I couldn't help thinking that Jet was doing it on purpose for a laugh. On the walks we were shown tracks and poo of lots of different animals, Jet getting particularly excited over some fresh giraffe dung, trying to get us to feel its texture and warmth….nice. We sighted some elephants, which were hammering at a palm tree to get its coconuts. We were supposed to be with four Italians, but when they lost one of their tents on the way to the delta and then one of their mokoros leaked we managed to lose them. Although we did bump into them again later, or at least we heard them first from half a mile away… one of them sat at the hippo pool with a fag in his mouth showing no interest in the hippos as the guide told us a story about hippos and crocs. They didn't look very happy and I was surprised they and their designer sunglasses and stilettos survived the trip.

Next was up towards Zambia via Chobe National Park. The best area of this park is northeast along the river. We arrived at the camp just before it was getting dark and the campsite was full, but thankfully they let us stay as we couldn't drive out of the park in time. Along the river we spotted so many animals, kudu, vultures decorating the trees and elephants taking their dusk drink.

 Cheryl in Mokoro

Just before leaving Botswana we filled our car to the brim as there were reports that there was no diesel in Zambia. With enough tank capacity to hold about 200l of fuel, we should just be able to get through the country. The Botswana departure was easy and then we headed to the ferry where we would cross the Zambezi River to Zambia. This was a bit chaotic with trucks and people all over the place. First we were accosted with moneychangers, then a white guy drove up and asks if we wanted an African drum. He says the Botswana customs will not let him in with it as it has an animal hide and there is no way he is giving it to the Botswana customs guy, we then arranged to drop it off at a lodge in Zambia for him. We then drove on to the ferry with at least 4 people still trying to change money for us. The border post is situated on the meeting point of four countries, which was evident form the frenzy of people wandering around.

At the immigration office we handed our passports over and said we needed to pick up our visa waiver forms (The Zambian tourist department set up this system for tourists as the hefty 130 US Dollars visa was damaging their industry). "Oh that is not valid if you are transiting you must pay"…. This was not true as we had checked this out…" We have no form, so you must pay". I called the lodge, they definitely had sent the paper. The border officials gave us a pile of papers "See it is not here, you must pay". Cheryl managed to wear them down, going through the papers again and again until after 2 hours miraculously the paper appeared from under a pile of old newspapers. One couldn't help feeling that if we had paid, the money would have gone in official's pocket and our waiver form found and filed. We then had to get 3rd party insurance, which apparently it is just a tax and you cannot claim against it if you have an accident. Anyway the person selling the insurance tried to rip us off with the exchange rate.

Happy at last to leave, we then remembered the African drum. Paranoia set in and Cheryl said that we maybe should not carry the drum through customs, it seemed the perfect place to hide contraband. I had been so stressed about everything else I had not even thought about it. The idea of a Zambian jail did not appeal, so we gave it to some locals who were walking through the border. I am sure it was genuine and there was nothing in it but not worth the chance. Anyway the guys we gave it to were really happy and saw us off with a tune. If it was filled with drugs they will be even happier!

On the way to Livingstone we get stopped at a police checkpoint and are asked to pay K5000 for a tax. We argued and were shown a tatty piece of paper that says according to government regulations we must pay, all the local cars are going past without paying. Cheryl then noticed that the disgruntled border officials have only given us one-week visa - we had planned three. Whilst arguing with this official another car coming the other way was stopped and he told me "it only gets worse"! We finally paid the guy as it's only 65 pence.

We arrive at our campsite, which is a haven and sit by the pool with a cold beer and watch an elephant on the other side of a small river. There are warnings all over reception not to walk into town or to the Victoria Falls as there have been muggings on the road. So we drive to the viewing place and my, what a sight it is, worth all the hassle to get here. The falls are immense and it's not even the wet season when the falls at it's greatest. We then head back to the campsite quickly down load our pictures and get collected for our helicopter flight over the falls… definitely worth the money.

Victoria Falls, Zambia  

We then head east to Lake Kariba and on the way we had our 7th puncture. This one happened right outside a shabeen and a middle aged man in bright trousers staggers towards us, smelling of beer with a joint hanging limply from his long backwardly bent fingers . While I loosen the bolts Cheryl gets the high lift jack, suddenly Cheryl shouts a warning that the pissed guy has picked up a rock. Luckily I have the wheel spanner ready and am about to beat him over the head with it when he kneels down and puts the rock under the back wheel (he is just trying to help). Well any formula one team would be impressed at our wheel changing speed and we soon arrive at Lake Kariba. We have a swim in the campsite pool no crocs or hippos and hire a canoe with paddler for an hour booze cruise. We filled our water bottle with G and T. (I felt like the Russian divers we had on our dive boat who would sneakily drink vodka out of water bottles). We then met a couple from USA and Norway and went out for a really nice meal. I could easily have stayed on the lake for a few days but we had to get a move on.

On the way to the Lower Zambezi National Park I developed an excellent method of getting through roadblocks. All you do is slow right down as if you are going to stop make three checks: 1. the policeman does not have a gun 2. there is no car or motorbike in sight and 3. they have not closed the gate across the road. When the policeman puts up his hand to stop you, wave back smiling cheerfully and accelerate through the roadblock. We never got stopped again in Zambia.

We camped just outside the gates of Lower Zambezi National Park, the river here must be over a mile wide and it flows as fast as you could run. We could not get to the toilets as there was an elephant eating a tree there. Anyway the next day we drove to the park which involved driving through a river. We were told there were no maps but keep going east until you reach an air strip then 7km after this is a turn off that takes you out the north of the park. After several sight seeing detours (thank god we had a GPS) when we saw a hippo really close up and lots of elephant we finally found the airstrip. We would have missed it if it hadn't been for the plane just coming into land. After 7km we could not find a left turn so we drove on for another 2 km and turned around. On our way back we saw a small road that could be our turnoff. There were several trees in the road that had been knocked over by elephants so we had to literally drive through the bush knocking over a couple small trees. The road then started to head up the side of a mountain, according to the GPS we were going in the right direction and would get to the exit before 1800 at our current speed of about 15 mph. The road then got very steep as we ascended the mountain we nearly got stuck a couple of times so I changed down to low range 4x4 and with the power of the engine worked our way up the hill on a series of switch backs. Suddenly the power went, the engine stalled and would not restart I thought it might be a fuel problem as our front tank was getting empty. I also thought it might be better to turn the car around so gravity could help the fuel flow to the engine. I let the car roll back and turned the wheel hard to try a three-point turn. We got stuck like that then I got the winch tied it to a tree and pulled us forward but it was obvious we would not get around. I was quite worried as we were on a road that clearly was not used very often 25km from the gate as the crow flies and 45km from the air strip we passed on our way in. As the front tank was quite empty and the back full I decided to transfer some fuel to the front tank this took ages. Still the car would not start. We had to turn the car around the only way was to pull the car back with the winch so I threaded the cable under the car through the back right suspension, climbed up a small cliff to a tree, attached straps and winched the car back. It was slow progress as this involved pulling in the winch then getting out and moving the earth from behind the wheels with a spade. I was getting worried about the battery getting flat with all the winching. I reckoned we only had to move the car back another foot and I would have enough space to swing her around so we were facing down hill when the cable snapped. Luckily we just managed to get the car around and facing down hill. I then tried to jump start her by driving down the hill - still no luck. It was getting dark I was feeling very low so we decided to set up camp for the night. Cheryl then noticed a small bit of smoke in the valley below us, during the evening it seemed to be getting bigger and closer. Jeez I was getting really depressed. Cheryl then dug out our SAS survival book and read the section on what to do if stuck in a forest fire in an immobilised car (concise book!!). It was not good reading. As it got darker the fire looked even bigger but I was not too worried as we had a big firebreak around the car. Cheryl then picked me up and we laughed at our situation.

 Elephants at toilet block jury rigging
Elephants at the toilet block. Zambian border post.

The next morning I got up with the sun and as I went outside heard some people, what a relief! But then walking down the hill coming towards us were about 10 men all with big pangas (knife with a 45cm blade) walking towards me. I nearly needed a change of underwear and the small can of pepper spray in my hand seemed useless against so many. The leader said "good morning sir can we help you" it turned out they were a road building team come to reopen the road we had just driven up. I managed to jury rig the 5l oil drum attached to the roof with a hose to the engine, bled the fuel system and the engine started and so we made it to the top of the hill and reconnected the main fuel tank. The engine lost power again there was a blockage in the pipe, which I cleared by blowing through some tubing. I was so happy to be safely on the road again so we stopped at a nice campsite had lunch and a few beers and a swim in the pool. Zambia was a tough experience, but rewarding too it just takes a bit of hard work to really appreciate the country! As Cheryl said "we shouldn't judge a country by its border" and the Zambians were very nice and the country beautiful.

We left Zambia and thankfully experienced a much friendlier border crossing in Malawi and then headed to Lilongwe the capital. After the night there we stocked up in the surprisingly good Shoprite and drove to Blantyre. We stayed at Doogles which is the place were all the expats hang out. Unfortunately Cheryl got bad food poisoning from a beetroot lasagne and spent most of the night throwing up. She was really ill so we checked into a hotel, so she could have a toilet to hand. The next day Cheryl was feeling a little better so we drove to Mount Mulanje (the island in the sky) in the SE, tea-growing area of Malawi. We stayed at the golf club and had tea and scones on the balcony… very colonial with a hall for concerts, a snooker table and fantastic gardens. We hired a guide and walked up to a really nice waterfall where I had a freezing cold swim. I probably would not have got in, except our 18-year-old guide, Unex did, leaving me little choice.

At last back in a northern direction the next stop was Liwonde National Park. There seemed to be more animals in the campsite than in the park. We were taking some photos of a monkey in a truck when it suddenly lunged at us and didn't seem at all worried when in defence Andy went in for the attack, growling and trying to kick it. We got away unscathed but still a little shaken. Next to the swimming pool a large warthog happily grazed unconcerned by the tourists taking its photos. There was also a sign warning us that hippos often come into the site, which we didn't notice until the next morning.

Further north we stopped at Cape Maclear where we did a few dives in Lake Malawi. The lake is full of colourful tropical fish called cichlids, as well as catfish and weird fish called Kampanga, which are blind and have long snouts. The locals of the village were celebrating because they had a new chief and so all night there was drumming and music and a procession through the village.

We spent a few days driving up the lake, stopping on the way to do a pottery course which we discovered neither of us had a natural skill for. Cheryl was good at figurine making but unfortunately the elephant she made cracked over night so its head and leg fell off. Then in the morning the tutor dropped it and its trunk and tusk broke. Her traditional pot then exploded in the fire. She did a sterling job at stopping herself from throwing pottery at two annoying Chinese kids (with American accents!) who were also on the course when they started commenting on her misfortune.

Above Cichlid fish in Lake Malawi.
Below Fossil
Above Cheryl's pottery elephant.

We hired a catamaran at Kande beach. I just hope that we don't get bilharzias, caused by a type of worm found in some parts of Lake Malawi. It burrows through your skin and then migrates to your bladder and if it gets too bad you pee blood. Thankfully it is easily cured with some horse pills, but still not pleasant! The last two nights in Malawi were spent at campsites were overland trucks had invaded. Great because lots of people in the bar but bad because all the trucks played their own music so the caphony of noise was quite overwhelming, especially for us as we go to bed at about 8.30 these days!

Before leaving for Tanzania we visited the museum at Karonga, which had a display of a dinosaur found in the area. Due to the Great Rift Valley this whole area is wonderful for finding fossils that have been brought to the surface by the earths movements. Also of course this area played a major part in the evolution of our hominid ancestors. Then we crossed into Tanzania and more friendly customs officials. The landscape became hillier, with some stunning scenery. We climbed to over 2000 metres, which meant the climate became cool but the car got hot.

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