Starting Point: Mpulungu, Zambia
End Point: Bujumbura, Burundi
Approximately 750kms over 25 days
Starting Point: Mpulungu, Zambia
End Point: Bujumbura, Burundi
Approximately 750kms over 25 days
Tanganyika Paddle Expedition Dispatch
Some of you may be aware that I set out a five weeks ago to try and kayak the length of the longest freshwater lake in the world, Lake Tanganyika in Tanzania.
What started out as a desire to explore this fairly remote eastern shoreline of Lake Tanganyika, has turned into more than I could ever have imagined. I am pleased and relieved to let you know that after 25 paddling days, and a distance of approximately 750km, I have completed the lake from south to north.
As far as I’m aware, the full length has been completed by four men, so it is very possible that I am the fifth person and first woman to do so by non-motorised water transportation.
I started the journey with a fellow South African, Simon Dunshea, who paddled with me from the most southern most town, Mpulungu in Zambia, up to Kigoma in Tanzania. From Kigoma onward, I had the pleasure of paddling with Tanzanian guide, Gaspar Kazumbe, to the most northern point, Bujumbura in Burundi.
I am fairly used to planning expeditions, but anyone who has joined me in this undertaking will attest to the fact that best laid plans almost always go awry and the true measure of a successful expedition is how one deals with shortcomings and finding alternate plans when all seems lost.
This couldn’t have been more true on this journey, and just a week ago I was still being denied access into Burundi. Sometimes taking a small risk and seizing an unlikely opportunity makes all the difference and I honestly feel that the drawbacks and delays that I experienced over the course of the expedition triggered alternate plans which worked far better than initial arrangements.
I have so many people to thank – people who have gone out of their way to ensure that I have the best possible chance of success, friends who have assisted with contacts, opened up their homes, encouraged me from near and far.
Thanks so much to Niall McCann and Jason Lewis for your guidance on long distance paddling expeditions, Lev Wood and Leon McCarron for essential satellite navigation and tracking equipment, Kingsley Holgate and Bruce Leslie for much needed encouragement and for crucial insight into Burundi in particular, and to Roy Watt and Brad Hansen for opening up their homes to me.
But the biggest thanks need to go to my parents, Margi & Barney Dillon (UK), Luke & Chloe Davey (Nairobi, Kenya), Louise & Chris Horsfall (Lake Shore Lodge, Tanzania) and Ingrid and Oddvar Jakobsen (Kigoma, Tanzania) who have worked tirelessly behind the scenes to assist with logistics, contacts and so much more. They have invested their time and energy into making, what is largely a very selfish venture, possible and I can’t thank them enough.
For anyone who wishes to read more about the journey, I have a blog which I will update over the next few weeks. I will also be submitting a report to the Royal Geographical Society for their archives. Please let me know if you would like a copy of this report and I will be happy to forward it on to you.
I trust you all are well and hope to see some of you very soon back in London.
Onward in the quest for an adventurous life,
Lake Shore Lodge – Kipili, Tanzania
Nomads Greystoke – Mahale, Tanzania
Lupita Island – Kipili, Tanzania
Isanga Bay – Mpulungu, Zambia
Jakobsens Beach – Kigoma, Tanzania
13th July 2016 – Lake Shore Lodge, Tanganyika
We’re at the tranquil little piece of paradise that is Lake Shore Lodge, near Kipili on Lake Tanganyika. Three years ago, I had driven through Tanzania on my way down to Cape Town and had stopped by to see South African owners Chris and Louise Horsfall. I had the most wonderful few days there, and knew I’d be back.
Lake Shore Lodge just happens to be a place where I feel completely and utterly relaxed. Chris and Lou are the most incredible hosts and can’t do enough to make my stay a pleasure every time. What’s not to love about this…
Chris is also my main source of information for the expedition as he has lived on the lake for seven years and has paddled from the south up to Kigoma himself. He is also my emergency contact if anything goes wrong…
After transporting the blue and green kayaks down from Nairobi atop my trusted Land Cruiser, I had planned to leave the vehicle at Lake Shore but we still needed to get the kayaks to the very bottom of the lake, 200km south. I had timed this to coincide with the schedule of the MV Liemba ferry; an old WWI gunship that is still in service and runs up and down the lake between Kigoma in the north of Tanzania, and Mpulungu in Zambia at the southern most point. The ferry only goes every two weeks and timing was essential.
“You guys are going to have to paddle out at about midnight and wait. She could be early, she could be late. I’m guessing you might be on your way at about 3am,” Chris informs us. I’m not looking forward to the mozzies…
As we’d received the kayaks a day before leaving Nairobi, Lake Shore was the first opportunity we would have to experience a little paddle before departure. We had one day to get everything together and haul ourselves onto the MV Liemba.
I’m not a paddler. Sitting in London in the months leading up to the expedition, I had no idea what kind of boat I should be looking for, and had no idea how far I would be able to paddle daily. It was all guess work really. But here is my rationale for my boat of choice.
I used a company called Fluid Kayaks – they were the only outfit I could find with a dealer in East Africa (Kris Collyer) who could arrange to get them to Kenya from South Africa for us. My choice… a flat bottom, plastic, sit-on-top kayak.
Most paddlers recoil in horror when I mention these three keywords in succession. In their minds, for long distance paddling, it just doesn’t make sense. But this was no ordinary paddling expedition.
Simon and I set about getting supplies packed into the boats, ready for our paddle out that same evening when Chris comes around the corner, looking slightly distressed.
“I have some bad news for you.” he says, hand on hip, “The Liemba is undergoing repairs in Kigoma and hasn’t left yet. They’re skipping this cycle and will resume in 2 weeks time.”
If you’ve ever met Chris Horsfall, you will undoubtably know that he is the biggest joker south of the equator and so my natural reaction was to tell him to bugger off.
Sadly, it was the truth and our transport to the bottom of the lake was no longer.
After much debating about what to do, we put aside the idea of Chris taking us down in his boat (fuel costs would have been horrendous) or driving us down (long round trip for him), we settled on finding a local fishing boat that could carry us and the kayaks down to the starting point, almost 200kms south.
It’s a squash, there’s barely enough space for the kayaks. Simon and I are perched on top of our kayak seats, and three local guys hop on – the driver, the bailer and one more for the ride…
What should have taken the better part of a day turns into a two day ordeal. We’re going at 10km/h. Saving fuel I’m guessing. We’re fortunate the waves aren’t too bad. Psychologically though, we’re undoing the entire first quarter of our trip. Watching the shore pass by without having to lift a finger, time seems to drag on forever and I a feeling of dread sweeps over me. Have I bitten off more than I can chew here.
This is a VERY long way, and it’s only a quarter of the lake…
After two cramped and lethargic days aboard, we reach Mpulungu in Zambia and pull into the port market get some last minute supplies before setting off for a further hour to the very southern most tip of the lake.
We’re finally here. The GPS confirms it. We’re greeted by the few villagers who live here. As we’ll come to discover, very few local Africans have seen a coloured plastic boat and so we’re swamped from the word go which makes the final pack fairly difficult.
It’s with an equal mix of wild anticipation, nerves and dread that I get into my kayak for the first leg. Simon isn’t far behind. “Asante sana,” I call back to our crew of three.
Let the expedition commence!
9th July 2016 – Kenya and Tanzania
I touch down in Nairobi and step off the plane. I have the unmistakable smell of dust filling my senses and the warm wind on my face. Embarrassingly, my rusty Swahili causes me to mumble through my greeting with the customs official and I make a mental note to brush up before I head off into one of the remotest parts of East Africa. Steven is waiting for me outside the terminal. He’s never late. I catch his eye with a wave, heave my luggage onto my shoulder and move through the throng of taxi drivers with their handwritten signboards.
“Twende Steven”, I say. Let’s go.
I am in Nairobi for a couple of days while I wait for my paddling partner, Simon Dunshea, to arrive from South Africa and am staying in Karen with my good friends Luke and Chloe Davey.
Simon is a friend of my cousins’ in South Africa, and has decided to join the expedition very recently. Initially I had hoped to do the expedition on my own, but the sound of a practically minded farmer on board, didn’t sound like such a bad idea…
With me based in London and Simon in South Africa, everything had been arranged over the phone and we’d only just managed to squeeze in transporting his kayak up from South Africa with mine in time for our departure.
Our journey out of Nairobi and down to Tanzania should have been completed in no time at all. However, on rounding a bend only a stone’s throw from the border of Namanga, I see a large official-looking figure step into the road. Hand raised.
It’s a sight you grow to despise seeing in Africa because more often than not, you know you’re in for a tedious battle between standing your ground and paying a bribe to get on with your journey.
“These things,” he starts, tapping the blue kayak with his baton. “these things are too big. As you can see, they extend over the windscreen. You may not transport them in this manner”.
I’ve lived in Africa most of my life and know very well that carrying two kayaks on the roof doesn’t even begin to compare with the precarious loads we see on some vehicles.
“You can pay me now, or you must return to Nairobi to buy a trailer”. His oversized fingers beckon me out of the vehicle. I can’t help but notice his rotund frame. Too many years of sitting lethargically under an acacia tree with nothing to do except stop passing cars.
Knowing that the kayaks on the roof are well within acceptable limits and weight, I spend half an hour smiling and nodding at the insistent traffic officer who, without actually asking me for the bribe outright, is talking in roundabouts about my ‘overloading’.
“Sure I’ll pay you now, but I need a receipt.”
“No, you will have to appear in court if you do not pay me now.”
“If this law exists, I have already told you I will pay the fine Mr Traffic Officer, but I would merely like a receipt.”
“You will have trouble in Tanzania if you don’t pay me now.”
“Well, why don’t I take my chances and see what they say.”
And so it goes… for 45 minutes. He gets bored with my simple remarks and smiling face. This is one battle I will not lose. We set off again. Onward to Arusha.
I am due to spend the evening at Brad Hansen’s place. He’s an old friend who runs his Safari company from Arusha. I generally stay here on my way through Tanzania and more often than not, I spend the evening looking after his forlorn dogs on my own as Brad is always on safari or expedition, and is seldom home.
As it happens, it’s not Brad’s dogs we spend the night with, but adventurer Kingsley Holgate and expedition team member Bruce Leslie.
What a night. Kingsley Holgate is an absolute delight to be around. He is large in presence and even larger in personality. Copious measures of Captain Morgan loosens the tongue and we discuss parts of Africa we love most, talking deep into the night about adventures, past and present. Bruce has us all in hysterics, recounting stories about expedition members and their antics, and then in horror when he opens up about his stabbing out at sea on the horn of Africa by Somalie pirates. All these experiences blow me away – the lengths the team will go to to really explore Africa is incredible.
“Isn’t life a great adventure” Kingsley writes in my book as we get ready to leave Arusha.
It certainly is.
Two more days of dusty driving though the back roads of Tanzania and we pass through Tabora, and onto Katavi National Park.
Katavi is one of Tanzania’s least visited national parks but is probably one of the most wonderful. It doesn’t exude grandeur on the same scale as the Serengeti but when you’re there, you feel like you’re the only person in the park. Sadly, we had to push on and only had time to drive straight through, passing by the notorious hippo pool next to the road. There was more water here than on my previous visit where the hippos were so tightly packed, one couldn’t see the water at all…
Onward to Lake Shore Lodge, my Tanzanian home away from home.
My route was largely the same as my trip in 2013. For a map of this section click here.
PLEASE NOTE – I have just returned from this expedition. Blog posts will be out from Monday 27th September. Please do subscribe to the blog if you wish to receive information or check back in a couple of days. You’ll not want to miss it! Shara
Yes folks, it’s expedition time again. For years I have dreamed about getting a water expedition under my belt and have settlied on paddling the length of the largest freshwater lake in the world – Lake Tanganyika.
I fell in love with this lake after spending a very brief couple of days on it’s shores at Lake Shore Lodge near Kipili during my London2Cape expedition in 2013. The owners, Chris and Louise Horsfall, were the most incredible hosts and moments spent with them, and the crew that were there at the time, ranks highly in my list of epic memories from the journey.
It’s going to be far tougher than anything I have done before. I have done a few multi day expeditions on water, but they have been guided and pretty tame, never paddling for more than 10-20 kilometers per day. This is a little more challenging as I’ll be paddling 30-40kms per day in a single kayak which also limits what I can take on board. Unlike a river journey, there is no flow and so most of the 673km of water will be physically pulled past me with each stroke. Because of the remote nature of the region, I have to be completely self sufficient and will rely on trading with people in the fishing villages for food and supplies.
With no power supply, I will be relying solely on solar panels and will attempt to update my Facebook page Under African Skies, with with short messages where I can using the sat phone.
I’ve been waiting for this for so long and can’t wait to get onto the water.
Onwards to Africa!
9 months brought together in 6 minutes – enjoy the ride!
Individual countries broken down here: Kenya Tanzania Malawi Zambia Zimbabwe Botswana Namibia South Africa
DISTANCE DRIVEN: 10,085 miles / 16,136 kms
FUEL: £2,200 to drive 16,000km = 13p per km or £13/100km
VISA FEES: £63 (I was using a UK and SA passport)
ROAD TAX (Border Fees) = £123
FOOD ROADSIDE: £165 / 9 months = £0.60 per day
FOOD GROCERIES: £890 / 9 months = £3.18 per day
FOOD EATING OUT: £1030 / 9 months = £3.81 per day
DRINKS: £385 / 9 months = £1.42 per day
TOTAL FOOD AND DRINK PER DAY: £9.14 (bear in mind 3 months was spent in Diani eating and drinking at Kenyaways!)
CONNECTIVITY (airtime & Wifi): £300
ACCOMMODATION GUEST HOUSE / HUT / HOTEL: £965 (44 nights) = £22/night
ACCOMMODATION CAMPING: £155 (27 nights) = £5.70/night
TOTAL ACCOM = £15.77/night
A Vioolsdrift Border (blue) to B Cederberg (red)
B Cederberg (red) to C Cape Town (green)
C Cape Town (green) to D Cape Agulhas (yellow)
D Cape Agulhas (yellow) to E Knysna (purple)
E Knysna (purple) to F Plettenberg Bay (teal)
F Plettenberg Bay (teal) to G Grahamstown (blue)
G Grahamstown (blue) to H Hogsback (red)
H Hogsback (red) to I Bulungula (green)
I Bulungula (green) to J Port Edward (yellow)
J Port Edward (yellow) to B Umhlanga (purple)
B Umhlanga (purple) to C Ballito (teal)
C Ballito (teal) to D Pietermaritzburg (blue)
D Pietermaritzburg (blue) to E/H Nelspruit (red)
E/H Nelspruit (red) to F Paul Kruger Gate (yellow)
F Paul Kruger Gate (Kruger Park) (yellow) to G Malelane Gate (Kruger Park) (purple)
G Malelane Gate (Kruger Park) (purple) to E/H Nelspruit (red)
Lowveld Loop from Nelspruit – God’s Window – There Rondavels – Pilgrimsrest – Sabie – Nelspruit
E/H Nelspruit (red) to F Pretoria (red)
After three years of planning, I tied up my business in London, did final preparations on the Land Cruiser and put it onto a cargo ship bound for Mombasa. That was after the Arab Spring threatened almost every route option and a handful of crippling incidences prevented me from leaving London with my convoy, dashing my dreams from driving the full length of London to Cape Town. Determined to do what I could to salvage the trip, the decision was made to drive from as high up as possible, on my own. Mombasa was the first safe port, and I was reunited with my Beast after six weeks. Loaded up and with the sound advice of local Kenyans, I headed south on a solo overlanding journey of a lifetime.
Disaster strikes more than once and a near fatal accident puts an almost certain end to the expedition. A potential highjacking, finding paradise, vehicle repairs, gorillas, rafting, near escapes, getting sick and living off mangoes – it all makes for one hell of an adventure!
This is my journey…
Whilst these posts speak more from the day to day life of the expedition, there is far more useful information for those wishing to plan a similar venture. All photo albums can be found on the Under African Skies facebook page.
UPDATE: 9 months after my journey started, I pulled into Cape Town. Tanned and happy, after living day to day in the most simple form, I have never felt more free, more alive and more content with life. I think about this trip and about the possibilities for more adventures daily. Dream big and go for it!
A Trans Kalahari Border (blue) to B Windhoek (red)
B Windhoek (red) to C Swakopmund (green)
C Swakopmund (green) to D Sesriem (yellow)
D Sesriem (yellow) to E Sossusvlei (purple)
D Sesriem (yellow) to F along Route D707 (teal)
F along Route D707 (teal) to G Luderitz (blue)
G Luderitz (blue) to H Ais-Ais (red)
H Ais-Ais (red) – I Noordoewer Border control Border (green)
A Ramokawebana/Plumtree Border (blue) to B Francistown (red)
B Francistown (red) to C Turnoff for Kubu Island (grey)
C Turnoff for Kubu Island (grey) to Kubu Island (green)
Kubu Island (green) to A Turnoff to Maun (grey)
A Turnoff to Maun (grey) to B Nxai Pan (yellow)
B Nxai Pan (yellow) to C Baines Baobabs (purple)
C Baines Baobabs (purple) to D Maun (teal)
D Maun (teal) – E Mamuno/Trans-Kalahari Border (blue)
A Kariba Border (blue) to B Harare (green) – 370km of good tar and takes approximately 5 hours. Make sure you stop at Lions Den butchery between Karoi and Chinhoyi – best biltong in Zimbabwe!
B Harare (green) to C Nyanga (yellow) – 300km of good tar and takes almost 5 hours. Be sure to stop at Halfway House on the road to Rusape. World View in Nyanga is not to be missed!
C Nyanga (yellow) to D Mutare (purple) – 110km of good tar and takes around 1:30 hrs. I took a longer route through the dirt track forestry roads to see Mutarazi Falls and the Honde Valley so I took a full day. Mutare is a biggish town and is good for restocking or vehicle maintanance.
D Mutare (purple) to E Masvingo (teal) – 320km of good tar and takes approximately 4:30 hrs. You’ll cross over the impressive Birchenough Bridge on this route. Don’t miss Zimbabwe Ruins (or Great Zimbabwe) which is a UNESCO World Heritage site and are just south of Masvingo – this is a very worthwhile stop.
E Masvingo (teal) to F Bulawayo (blue) – 280km of good tar and takes near 4 hours. Take a 60 minute detour south of Bulawayo to see Matopos National Park – a beautiful park (also UNESCO WHS) with giant balancing rocks. It’s also the resting place of Cecil John Rhodes, who’s grave can be found at the top of the main set of rocks along with a war memorial. Again, worth the visit.
F Bulawayo (blue) to G Plumtree/Ramokawebana Border (red) – 120km of good tar and just over 2 hours. This is generally a quick and easy border post. Botswana is generally fairly strict so ensure you have all your documents in order.
Sadly, tourism in Zimbabwe (anywhere outside Victoria Falls) is long gone. The campsites and places of interest, once humming with people gawking at the sites and locals selling curios, are all but deserted and local people are struggling without the revenue which tourism brings. It is, however, very safe and I would recommend you visit this forgotten gem of a country!
TO STAY: There are quite a few places to stay in Kariba. The small town on the hillside offers a number of camping options but I found the sites stark, barren and uninspiring. Due to Zimbabwe’s political situation, there are very few tourists around Kariba has just about become a ghost town. You’re able to resupply here but I continued 20kms on around the lake to the Charara campsite (NAU) which was like paradise on earth. Thick grass and trees galore make for a very welcome break. It’s a short walk down to the water’s edge – take a drink with you and enjoy the sunset!
To see the position of the campsite – see the Zimbabwe map here.
TO EAT: Stop at Lions Den near Karoi for the best biltong in just about the whole of Africa!
TO STAY AND DO: I was really fortunate to have family in Harare to stay with. I would recommend using AirBnb to find a family home to stay in here and don’t have any further knowledge of hotels or otherwise. There are a number of top end hotels in Harare – the Crown Plaza, Holiday Inn or the famous Meikles Hotel. There’s nothing of significance to see in the capital city but there are a few things to be aware of that it is illegal to walk on the sidewalks or drive down the road in front of the President’s “palace” after 6 p.m. If you do so, you will be on the wrong end of a large gun and threatened with a large fine and/or imprisonment by the guards. If this happens, keep calm. You will probably have to pay a massive bribe.
Arcadia is a beautiful dam about an hour outside of Harare and makes for a most pleasant day trip.
TO STAY AND DO: Situated in the North East section of Zimbabwe, the area around Nyanga and Mutare is absolutely stunning and one may assume you were in the Lake District or some place of similar beauty. I didn’t have long here and spent most of my days driving through lush green hills and forests. World’s View offers an incredible visa of the Eastern Highlands on a clear day.
Trout beck Inn, below the World View turnoff, has maintained very high standards since it was built. The stone built fireplace in their entrance hall, as been burning continuously since 1951. Fishing is an extemely popular activity in these parts. There are other options for sleeping in the area and I chose to stay at the official Nyanga National Park campsite. Like most other places in Zimbabwe, I was the only vehicle in the campsite that evening.
Leopard Rock hotel is an old favourite with immaculate gardens and a world class golf course.
The Mturazi (or Mutarazi) Falls and Honde Valley are worth a visit.
For a beautiful and windy drive further south, you can visit the Vumba mountains area.
TO DO: Visit Great Zimbabwe (Zimbabwe Ruins) – the largest collection of ruins in Africa south of the Sahara.
Built between the 11th and 15th centuries, Great Zimbabwe was home to a cattle-herding people who also became adept at metal-working. Atop a granite outcropping, walls merge with enormous boulders to form the fortified Acropolis. In the valley below sits the Great Enclosure with almost a million granite blocks in its outer walls. The stonework, entirely without mortar, gradually improves until the newest walls stand double the height and width of the oldest structures. At some points the walls are 11 meters high and extend for over 800 meters.
TO DO: Visit Matopos National Park – an area of granite kopjes and wooded valleys. The national park is the oldest in Zimbabwe, established in 1926 as Rhodes Matopos National Park and was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2003.
A Chipata/Mchinji Border (blue) to B Chipata – 20kms, half an hour with the border, easy driving and good tar
B/D Chipata (red) to C South Luangwa (green) – 160kms, 2.5 hours, this road used to be awful but they have tarred most of it now and were finishing off the final stretch in December 2013
C South Luangwa (green) to B/D Chipata (red) – see above, in reverse
B/D Chipata (red) to E Bridge Camp (yellow) – 340kms, 4.5 hours, the roads are excellent but there is a bit of an escarpment near Bridge Camp which slows things down
E Bridge Camp (yellow) to F Lusaka (purple) – 240kms, 3 hours, great roads so easy riding on flat tar
F Lusaka (purple) to G Kariba Border (teal) – 184kms, 2.5 hours. The road to the Kariba Border is decent but slightly older and narrower than the main roads I’d been on. Most of the traffic heads straight for the Chirindu Border so this road isn’t a major one. Whilst the Kariba route is a litre longer, it’s quieter and the border is a breeze with no trucks
TO STAY AND EAT: On the way from Zambia to South Luangwa National Park I stayed at Mama Rulas camp. It’s perfectly positioned for an early morning launch into the park and the newly tarred road makes the journey fairly quick and painless. The park fees give you entry for one day only (the day of purchase) so it’s worth leaving really early to make the most of your first day in South Luangwa. Mama Rulas has a campsite and budget rooms set in a beautiful wooded area. By early afternoon the bar fills up and you can drink and eat to your heart’s content – all for a very reasonable fee. The town of Chipata has almost everything a weary traveller could ask for – Spar for groceries, mobile phone shops, KwikFit for a spot of vehicle maintenance and even a Debonaires pizza place!
TO STAY AND DO: DO NOT MISS SOUTH LUANGWA!! The park is a little out of the way but it is probably the most fantastic park I drove through the entire journey. The park offers day passes at the gate (per vehicle) which expire when the gates close at sundown. There are a number of camps on the border of the South Luangwa gates. I’m fairly sure they’re all as good as each other. We had a look at Flatdogs but it was overrun with overland truck youngsters and their pool was fairly small. We backtracked to check the west side of the bridge. Track and Trail had an awesome swimming pool but very little shade for camping. Next door, and a little further on, is Croc Valley where we settled under some lovely shady trees (and then hopped over the fence for a swim in the campsite with the awesome pool…). We did our own cooking at Croc Valley so can’t vouch for its food but beware the monkeys by day, who will steal food from your hand if you’re not looking, and elephants by night, who have been known to break into vehicles to get into the food left inside. The camp bar will take your food and store it inside its cupboards each night for you to prevent your vehicle from having its exterior rearranged…
Click here to see photos of South Luangwa on Facebook and here to read about the park.
TO STAY AND EAT: There is only one reasonable place to stop between the border of Malawi / South Luangwa / Chipata and Lusaka, and that is Bridge Camp. It’s situated on the Luangwa river just about half way across. I wouldn’t recommend you stay here if you only have a ground tent and can manage the journey to Lusaka in a day as the campsite is stark and is just a section of bare earth. The facilities were ok, nice pool overlooking the Luangwa river, and the food was fair. The whole experience was a little unpleasant with the owners bickering between themselves, and the over zealous pricing didn’t sit well with me either.
TO STAY: Lusaka has all you’ll need to stock up for your next stretch. It has brilliant first world-style malls. There are many places to stay in Lusaka but I was lucky enough to stay with friends who provided me with the comfiest of beds and a welcome braai!
Facebook has all the photos for this part of the trip – click here to have a look.
9th – 10th December 2013
Having left Lilongwe that morning, I had crossed the border without any hassle. Passing acres of neat tea rows, the tar was smooth and the drive was easy going. I arrived in Chipata on the Zambian side and was greeted with a plethora of western shops and take aways (Debonaires in the middle of nowhere!). I hadn’t been grocery shopping since leaving Arusha in Tanzania and dashed into Spar to restock on basics, a few luxuries and some ice! I also took the opportunity to grab a Zambian sim and airtime – my first priority in any country.
My stop for the night was a small camp just outside of Chipata on the road to South Luangwa Game Reserve. Mama Rulas (nice play on the name – clearly owned by South Africans…) is a favourite stop for all travellers who find themselves in Eastern Zambia, and the night I arrived, it was absolutely teeming with a German biking enduro crowd who were on their way up to Malawi from Cape Town. After finding a nice quiet spot and doing the usual routine of setting up camp, a lovely young girl bounded over to me to have a chat. It was Estelle from Germany. She was travelling with her husband Chris and their friend Ryan from American, from Cape Town back up to Stuttgart, in a converted 1970’s German army ambulance called “Hano”- top speed 80km/hour… on the downhills! They were also headed for South Luangwa, and we made a plan to meet at one of the camps the following day.
10th – 12th December 2013
My batteries have been giving me trouble and I can only assume that the deep cycle battery which runs the fridge/freezer is draining the main batteries. The fridge isn’t working now (which is an indication that the batteries are low) and Chris and Ryan took a quick voltage reading and it’s low at 6v, which is why the fridge isn’t working as it needs a minimum of 11.8v to run. Not wanting a repeat of the flat battery incident in Chintheche in Malawi, I took a quick drive back to Chipata as I’d seen a Kwik Fit (yes, this town has everything!) on my way in. They would need at least 3 hours to charge the battery. I didn’t have 3 hours to wait and took the decision just to disconnect the fridge, pack it with ice, head for South Luangwa and hope for the best.
The road up to South Luangwa has a bad reputation for being torn up but I was pleasantly surprised to see fresh tar under the wheels for most of the way. The final 30-40kms was still under construction which meant taking sand tracks through a few villages to get to the park camps. I had been in contact with the German Army Ambulance brigade and we met at Croc Valley Camp, found two shady trees overlooking the river and set up camp before hitting the swimming pool for a much needed dip!
As South Luangwa issues day passes, it was pointless us trying to get into the park that afternoon. The river forms a natural boundary between the park and the rest of the bush so animals are free to roam south of the river and we decided to take a drive in the immediate area and have our own little sunset game drive. I bundled everyone into the Beast and off we set, with some Savannas in hand. We didn’t have to go very far before driving into the most incredible herd of elephants grazing under a tree in an open expanse. It could have been someone’s garden. The sun was setting, and I couldn’t have imagined a place I’d rather have been at that point in time…
Back at camp, we had been warned by the park wardens that the local elephants were a bit cheeky and that 15 vehicles had been damaged over the past few months by elephants trying to get at food left in the vehicles. We moved all of our food stores over to the bar/lapa area where everything was under lock and key. Lugging all my food across the lawn was a bit tedious and I must admit to thinking “what are the chances, surely the elephants don’t come every night, I’m sure we’ll be fine, this all seems a tad overboard.”
Well well well, did we have an interesting night… taking the advice about nocturnally roaming beasts to heed, I hadn’t pegged in my guy lines for fear of some hefty animal charging through, getting caught and ripping my tent from the roof (a bit over the top I know, but I wanted to avoid collateral damage as much as possible). Shortly after going to sleep, I was lured from slumber by the repetitive sounds of munching and peering through my mesh window found the most enormous hippo grazing next to the Beast. Now fully awake for over half an hour and not able to sleep with the disturbance down below, I started needing the toilet. If the damn hippo didn’t move on soon, I was going to have to swing my naked butt over the side of the tent and taking a leak on top of it if necessary!
I must have fallen asleep eventually and was woken again by the clap of thunder in the distance. Africa doesn’t know how to do drizzle and I knew that there was a strong chance we could be in for a storm, which meant, I needed to get down and do the guy ropes as the waterproof fly sheet needed to stay taught to do it’s job of protecting the inner canvas lining. With my bladder near bursting point, I checked to see if I could find the hippo, got down and had a quick wee next to the Beast before finding the mallet. In complete darkness, I brought in my washing and set about hammering the guy lines in to secure the tent in record speed, whilst on constant lookout for the hippo.
Tucked back up in the safety of my tent, I was just about to fall asleep safe in the knowledge that the hippo was going, my washing was in the Beast and with the guy lines secure, I would withstand the approaching storm. Not 10 minutes later and an entire herd of elephants made it’s way into the camp, picking branches off trees, grazing on the leaves and generally snooping around. Ryan, the American friend who had been travelling with Estelle and Chris, had chosen to sleep outside. He had hooked his mosquito tent up to the roof of the small open aired lapa and was asleep on top of a table when the elephants arrived. Watching from my window, I saw one of the elephants start trunking his leg through the mozzie net. I shouted a whisper down to him to tell him not to move. He was completely aware of what was going on and had made the smart decision of pretending to be asleep. The elephant lost interest in him after a short while and moved on. Estelle and Chris had also had a visitor… Lying asleep in the back of their cab, they had woken to find two ivory tusks and a trunk emerge through the open door. It was sweltering that night and they had left the door open for ventilation. Slightly panicked, they watched as the trunk explored the inside of the cab, probing at the pots and pans, rummaging through packets and bags and giving a really good long grope of their leather walking boots. Thank the African gods we had put all our food away, we had side stepped a potentially destructive situation.
The night guard came and shone his torch and banged on a pan to move them off. The troop left eventually but not before completely destroying the bar area near where we had horded our food supplies, breaking plates and throwing stuff on the ground. I can’t help but imagine that they know where the food is and are frustrated at not being able to reach it.
None of us got much sleep, but as always in Africa, we rise with the sun (and the heat), so at 6:30am we all had breakfast. I packed up my tent and we all bundled into the Beast for a big day of game viewing. We were not disappointed!
With it’s short grass plains, South Luangwa looks like it could be the back of someone’s large garden or a tree lined golf course at times. We weren’t short on elephant sightings and alerted, by another safari vehicle, to a leopard lying in the dappled light of a tree next to the side of the road. The the ranger pointed her out to us and she stayed there for a while, in the cool of the shade before climbing down and heading off into the bush. We were incredibly fortunate to see a second leopard hiding in the shade of another safari truck, ready to pounce on a herd of impala. In the heat of the day, it was a half-hearted attempt and she came back to lie down in the shade of a tree near us. She got up and moved down the road and we followed her for a while before she disappeared into thick bush. After heading back to camp for a midday swim, lunch and a nap, we set out for an afternoon game drive as we’d heard whispers of a pride of lions in a particular area. The afternoon game drive was quiet on the animal sighting front but the sheer beauty of the landscape has us all spell bound! Heading out of South Luangwa, with a storm on the one horizon and the setting sun on the other, I vowed to tell the world about this gem of a game park!
We’d had such trouble with the blady vervet monkeys in camp too. They were everywhere and would take every opportunity to get into your supplies and help themselves. You literally had them waiting in the trees just out of reach and with every step you took away from your vehicle, they would advance one towards it. Start walking towards them and they’d just retreat – like a game of tug of war. It became a huge problem as you had to keep all the car doors closed at all times – which, when living out of a vehicle is near impossible. At one point I was carrying the gas burner and some food out to make breakfast and before I knew it, they were in the Beast grabbing whatever they could find. I watched as my precious tortilla chips were being handed out in tree tops… My tolerance levels had maxed out and I resorted to running straight at them flapping my arms and screaming like a banshee. Only to find that, having left my post, a second battalion was being sent in from behind me to raid the food I was preparing. It was a futile situation and I wasn’t going to win, so I packed up and made do with some dry crackers instead.
[Chris and Estelle’s journey back to Germany is now complete – read all about their adventures here.]
After saying farewell to the Hano crew, I drove back to Chipata through one hell of a storm and took my deep-cycle battery to Kwik Fit in town and left it with them to charge through the night. Everything was soaked and the last thing I felt like doing was unpacking a tent in the driving rain, and so I treated myself to a small room at Mama Rulas – it has to be done every now and then!
The next day, I collected my battery which they had kindly charged for free (incredible generosity all the way through Africa – amazing!) and I set off in the direction of Lusaka. I knew it would probably be a really long day if I chose to drive the entire way. According to a few sources, Bridge Camp seemed to be the only half way stop and there is nothing in between. A 4 hour drive saw me pull into Bridge Camp and I immediately regretted not leaving earlier and trying to make the 7-8 hour journey in one go, but it was too late in the day to push on. Bridge Camp was a huge disappointment. The “camping area” was a barren earth car park, guests who were staying in rooms found their beds occupied with an army of ants. The owner’s wife sat with me for over 2 hours and complained miserably about how awful her life was, how their marriage was on the rocks and how she hated being there – a little awkward. Anyway, I would make the journey all the way if you can, it’s not worth staying there…
14th – 15th December 2013
It’s easy cruising in Zambia. The main road from Chitimba to Lusaka is a breeze and I found myself in the capital in no time. I was to stay with some South African friends who, having met through mutual friends in London, now lived in Zambia. Sarah and Rich live just out of town on a bushveld plot in the most gorgeous house complete with pool. In true African style, I arrived on a night with no electricity and no water but as we all know, having lived in Africa with these minor inconveniences, you just have to make a plan. There’s something so comforting about seeing old friends again. I felt close to home and was grateful to have had the opportunity of catching up over a braai and a Savanna or two. My stay was short though and I was off in the morning, bound for one of my favourite places in Africa, one that holds memories right the way though from childhood – Lake Kariba.
TO STAY AND EAT: Chitimba Camp is one of the only real camps for a stop on the road between the middle and north of Lake Malawi. It’s positioned slightly back from the lake and has a grass camping area as well as basic huts for rent. The bar and restaurant areas are well run and the food is good and you can pick up very slow or non-existent wifi for a fee. From Chitimba, you can do day trips out to see local crafts, waterfalls and hike up to Livingstonia. Definitely worth the stay!
TO DO: Hike from Chitimba Camp up to Livingstonia. Despite my ordeal getting down from the mountain, it really is worth the trek up and back down again. I would stay over for a night or two, to explore Livingstonia and visit the local waterfalls. In my opinion, one day is enough at the top, two if you want to completely relax.
TO STAY AND EAT: Lukwe Eco Camp – perched on the edge of an escarpment looking down over the lake, Lukwe Eco Camp is a great option for anyone wanting to see Livingstonia. For peace, serenity, compost toilets, simple grass huts and the most incredible views, Lukwe is my choice. There is another camp nearby which is equally popular, called Mushroom Farm.
TO STAY AND EAT: Moyoka Bay is a beautifully positioned accommodation has grass huts perched on a rocky outcrop just out of town. The bar and restaurant serve good food and free wifi but you’re competing with everyone else for bandwidth so it can be slow or non-existent. The waters are crystal clear and you will often find small beach areas between the huts for swimming and snorkelling. There is no camping here and no place to open up a roof top tent either, so huts are the way forward. I might be mistaken but I don’t think there are any camping options in Nkhata Bay at all. I’d highly recommend this spot for the views and the ability to step out from hut to lake in three steps.
TO STAY: If you’re looking for a place to open up your tent on the beach and have the waters lapping (just about) at your feet, then somewhere like Chintheche Inn or Kande Beach are great options. I chose Chintheche Inn as Kande Beach is used more for the overlanding trucks stopovers and is full of vibe. Chintheche, although expensive at US$15/night, is far more peaceful and quiet. The camping area is set on beautiful green lawns and there is a well maintained pool for swimming if you don’t feel like taking a dip in the lake. This cabana style inn is used by Wilderness Safaris so lovely rooms are available for rent if you feel like a night of normality. Chintheche has a restaurant and bar that serves good food. There was free wifi in the camping area. This was one of my favourite camping spots and I ended up staying 3 days more than intended.
TO STAY: Sanctuary Lodge – advertised as a luxury spa-like retreat, the Sanctuary Lodge itself sits in my mediocre category. There is a wonderful camping area not far from the Lodge, set under magnificent trees and has a decent ablutions block. I was the only camper during my stay, and whilst I had no reason to feel unsafe, the camping area is surrounded by forest and the walk between the Lodge and camping area at night is a bit of a trek through the darkness (recommend that you take one of the security guards with you). There is a pool at the Lodge and the restaurant is very average but there is free wifi. I did visit Barefoot Camp outside of Lilongwe and that seemed a little disorganised and didn’t have wifi, the camping area was lovely and green but there is no pool and they weren’t serving meals at the restaurant, which meant going all the way back into Liliongwe for groceries for dinner (which is why I ended up simply staying at the Sanctuary Lodge).
TO DO: Snorkeling and Diving Lake Malawi – The south and middle sections of the lake are best for snorkeling and the warm crystal clear waters make this an extremely pleasant past time. The north of the lake is full of silt and there is very little to see.
I used Aritel. The coverage in cities is fine but the moment you’re out in the middle of nowhere, reception is zero.
A Songwe Border to B Chitimba Camp – 135kms, this is perfect tar but driving is limited at 80kms per hour and often slower due to the number of people and animals walking along either side of the road – read about this section here
B Chitimba to C Nkhata Bay – 178kms, good tar all the way. This takes quite a long time as the road breaks away from the lake shore and winds up an escarpment and down the other side – read about this section here
C Nkhata Bay to D Chintheche – 40kms, easy driving – the villages are set right on the road so watch out for children that play here! – read about this section here
D Chintheche to E Lilongwe – 350kms, long days drive here but very do able. The tar is excellent all the way – read about this section here
E Lilongwe to F Mchinji/Chipata Border – 125kms, easy riding on flat tar. Look out for the beautiful tea farms along the way – read about this section here
Facebook has all the photos for this part of the trip – click here to have a look.
2nd – 4th December 2013
After agreeing to transport one oversized mama Malaiwan traffic cop who had requested transportation to Rumphi, I scrambled to clear the passenger seat littered with things I need at arms reach when driving. Watching her heave her large frame off the ground and into my raised-suspension Beast was quite something. I had to give her instructions about where to put her feet and where to hold to help pull herself into the cruiser. Once inside, she flumped into the seat, wiped the sweat off her brow, laughed and slapped her thigh with relief.
“My name is Thelma. My people can’t say it right, so just call me ‘Felma’. You may proceed.”
So off we drove, me and Felma.
After around 20 minutes, I noticed she wasn’t wearing her seatbelt, so I asked her to buckle up in case I was stopped by a traffic cop and fined breaking the law for transporting a passenger with no seatbelt.
“Ha, you will be fine with me in the car. They will see me and know I am in charge.” she said laughing.
She buckled up anyway and I was quite surprised (and glad) to see the seatbelt had enough length for her girth.
The next hour or so was spent discussing Malawian policing systems, education, family life and anything else I could find to keep Thelma talking. The drive takes you away from the lake, up and over some beautiful mountain passes. Rumphi was a little off my bearing but I decided to drive Thelma all the way to the local police station and dropped her off inside their compound. She was so chuffed and got the rest of the cops a the Rumphi Police Station to come out and wave me goodbye.
My next stop was Nkhata Bay. With the lure of cobalt blue waters, I was excited to see this bay I’d heard so much about. Now what people hadn’t told me, was that there is no real camping in Nhata Bay as the town is set on the sides of a rocky hill and there is no flat ground, or campsite to be found. I made my way over to a few of the recommended places to stay in the Lonely Planet and found Mayoka Village to be the best option.
With individual huts perched on top of a steep rocky shoreline of crystal clear waters, Mayoka Village is a maze of undulating pathways and steps from huts to ablutions to restaurant. I paid for two nights and got settled into my grass hut overlooking the bay. For two days I completely relaxed. I read, swam, snorkelled, ate and tried to get as much note taking and blogging done as the restaurant had free wifi. Free if you want to join the other twenty guests sharing the bandwidth and wait half an hour for a picture to load…
Whilst this was stop was wonderful, I really was in search of a beach that I could camp next to and, on recommendation, I set off for Chintheche, 50 kilometres south of Nkhata Bay.
4th – 8th December 2013
With no real village or town in sight, Chintheche Inn is on a remote and beautiful stretch of the lake. The gates opened up and I was immediately greeted by really friendly staff, the kind who insist on showing you around, explaining the ins and outs of the place. The inn serves as a cabana-type hotel on the shore of the lake and the remaining grass area is available for camping. Considering I was in Malawi, US$15 per night is by no means a cheap stay but it was just what I was looking for and I almost had the place to myself. The only other guests in the campsite were Callie and his two sons James and Peter, who were riding from Cape Town to Egypt. The boys couldn’t have been older than 16 and 18 – what a great thing for a father and his sons to do together. I heard them start up their motorbikes before the sun rose the next morning, and they were off. I do hope they made it all the way up!
I parked the Beast under a large mango tree and immediately went for a swim in the most incredibly warm and calm waters. I’d been informed that there was a resident crocodile that would swim by every now and then, but not to worry because they had locals looking out for him. Nothing like placing your reassurance in something as insubstantial as that. I would have to take my chances.
Over the next few days, I took root and for the first time since leaving Diani Beach, I stayed in one place for more than two nights. I hit the repeat button on my daily routine of waking, swimming, eating, reading, swimming, blogging and sleeping and just kicked back. With no one else in sight, I had a small kingdom of paradise to myself. Waking with the birds and watching the sun rise over the lake from the window of my lofty green castle, I would survey my private kingdom below. The campsite and lake became my playground and the trees dropped sweet, ripe mangoes for me daily.
After a couple of months on the road, you find that you really don’t need much to sustain a relatively passive form of living. I had been given a bag of biltong by Paul Metcalf when leaving Mbeya in Tanzania a few weeks earlier and was still rationing out 2 or 3 pieces a day. Nuts and dried fruit were a favourite and if I found time in the evenings I would cook some garlic rice and mix in a dollop of Malawi’s incredibly Nali sauce which adds a peri-peri kick to the meal. Other than that, I was happy with tomatoes of which there was always an abundance of at roadside stalls. But it was those sweet mangoes that I looked forward to every day and I could have lived under that tree for weeks if time hadn’t been a bit of an issue.
Whilst at Chintheche I met two ladies who were staying at the inn. Janet comes out every year for a few weeks to continue the work set up by her charity following her daughter’s passing. She raises money for the local orphanage school and brings in supplies, desks, chairs and school books. I also met Ruthe who has been working on a homeopathic malaria prevention programme. She has been working in the area for some time now, administering this to local children and has been monitoring the programme for some years now with fantastic results. As I was not on any prophylactic of my own, I took some of her muti, enough to last for the rest of my trip (it’s only a sip per day) and swigged the required dosage each morning. Needless to say I never got malaria.
It was at Chintheche, that I witnessed the infamous lake flies. I took a walk down to the lake one morning and saw, what can only be described as black smoke or dark spiralling clouds brooding on the horizon which grew constantly. I have been told that the fly larvae live on the lake bottom where they feed. When they form pupae they float to the surface and hatch all at once causing the giant swarms. Winds often blow them to the shore and women from local communities catch them in baskets and squash them together to create a local delicacy (a burger-like patty which is then deep fried). I was most upset when this swarm made landfall that evening. Before I knew it they were everywhere. Every light attracted a million of the damn creatures and I have never been caught up in a swarm of so many insects – up your nose, in your mouth and eyes – just completely unpleasant! Dashing back to the safety of my tent, I was then confined for the rest of the evening knowing that my light was drawing them to the mesh of my windows. I woke up the next morning to find piles of dead lake flies under every possible light fitting. The local ladies were besides themselves, running up and down the beach with their baskets full of the blady things!
A day later I woke to the sound of a morning storm. I have seen a fair few storms in my time but this was on the heavy end of the spectrum. The tent was getting absolutely lashed but Howling Moon have a good rep for a reason but with the sheer volume of water things were starting to sag. I zipped up the canvas windows and with a bit of maintenance to prevent the water pooling and weighing the roof down, I remained mostly dry. The battery on my phone was just about dead and, as I was hoping to leave that morning, decided to get down to the cab, start the engine and charge the phone to do a bit of research for the road ahead. Racing from under the tent at the back of the Beast, opening the door, flinging myself in – I was drenched, and so were the books in the door holder… I plugged in the phone, turned the key and… nothing… battery had flatlined! That’s what you get for running your fridge/freezer for 4 days without starting your wagon. Plan B. I raced across the campsite in the bucketing rain and lighting to the ablutions only to find that the power has been taken out by the lightning. Racing back to the Beast, now drenched, I didn’t want to sit inside the tent or on the seats for that matter. Luckily the rain had abated somewhat and I saw one of the gardeners under shelter nearby. I ran over to ask if he could help me find someone to charge the battery. A short while later I had the camp manager, DK, and a team of workers with their camp vehicle trying to jolt some life into my batteries. They had considered removing both my batteries and running them down to the village where they have a battery charger but the power was down in the entire area. After 3-4 hours of trying various things, it seemed hopeless! Eventually some clever clog got under the Beast and manually got the starter motor running which would set the batteries charging. By now the rain had stopped and it was midday. There was no way I was going to make it to Lilongwe. DK, looking at this drowned shivering rat, offered me a room at the inn for the night. Well, how’s that for incredible hospitality! Ahhhh you can’t imagine how good it felt just to take a warm shower, have nice fluffy towels and just have space to dry everything out. That night, tucked up in a divine double bed with crisp clean linen, I couldn’t sleep a wink and lay awake all night… typical.
Before leaving the area, I took an exploratory drive down some incredible paths and tracks, and found the most smiley, inquisitive and friendly children playing in the fields, African children have beautiful souls and seem so content with life, without a care in the world. This was one of my favourite places of the entire trip.
8th – 9th December 2013
I had a pretty easy drive from Chintheche to Lilongwe, and like any capital town in Africa, it has it’s perks – western restuarants and malls greeted me as I drove through the streets. I drove out to Barefoot Camp which had been recommended in the guide books but found that, although the lawns were nice, it was a long way out of town and wasn’t serving food. So I drove back into town and bought a few groceries. By this stage I just wanted to stop for the day and chose to check out the campsite at Sanctuary Lodge which was in town. The campsite is attached to the Sanctuary (don’t be fooled by the name, it’s nice but not that nice…) and, as it borders a wildlife reserve, is beautifully lush with heavy leaved trees and thick lawns. Again, I was the only person in the campsite but it was pleasant and so were the ablutions (always a plus). that evening I made my way up to the lodge to gain access to their free wifi and on retuning at around 9pm that night (with a guard in tow), found the back of the Beast completely open. In my haste to get to the Lodge three hours previously, I had completely forgotten to close the tail gate and lock up… absolutely everything was in place and not a thing was missing. With everything I owned, including my passport and all the money in my possession inside, I had undeniable sidestepped a major crisis just then… thank you Africa!
*Not a thing was stolen thoughout my entire journey, except a 2l bottle of prized Mazoe concentrated juice from the back of my Beast in Cape Town… pretty incredible!*
Facebook has all the photos for this part of the trip – click here to have a look.
30th November – 2nd December 2013
Livingstonia is a town set high up on the Nyika Plateau, towering 900m above Lake Malawi and is just a few kilometres west of Chitimba – straight up. Not to be confused with Livingstone in Zambia, Livingstonia is an old mission station which has developed into a town. Cape Maclear had been the original site for the 1894 Scottish mission but on realising that their lakeside location was rife with malaria, the missionaries moved their calling 600km north, to the heights to escape the mosquitos who were killing all those they were trying to save. With it’s colonial stone buildings perched on the edge of this escapment and beautiful tree-lined streets, one might forgive you for thinking you’d gone back one hundred years in time. People walk the earthen streets in their Sunday best as if they’ve just been to church, and are proud of their University, school, museum, hospital and mission church that still serve as the central hub around which community life revolves. Getting up to Livingstonia is a tale in itself…
From Chitimba Camp you can approach Livingstonia in two ways. Walk or drive. Unfortunately neither of these is terribly pleasant. I had originally planned to drive up, but on discussing this with the owner of the bar, I suddenly had second thoughts. The “Gorode” (as it’s referred to by the locals) up the almost-vertical escarpment is a series of 21 switchbacks on a single gravel track. I’m talking about wheels-almost-over-the-edge type driving. The journey is said to take around an hour and some of the switchbacks involve a three point turn to get around the corner. If faced with a vehicle coming down while you’re going up, one of you needs to reverse until you find a switchback with a little room for you to manoeuvre around each other – and there aren’t that many about. You can’t drive if it’s been raining, as your vehicle will simply slide off the edge. I’m not the best when it comes to heights, sliding mud, crumbling road verges or reversing down cliff-dropping switchbacks and so I elected to walk up instead.
(Turns out the Beast would have managed the climb no problem, but without someone with me to spot I’m kind of glad I didn’t drive)
Chitimba Camp can arrange for a local guide to take you up to the top, and so at 5:00am I was ready for my pathfinder, Lawrence, at the gate. The distance from Chitimba to Livingstonia by road (via Lukwe) is around 18kms, and with a total elevation of around 900m this was bound to be a tough walk. The guides know ‘shortcuts’ straight up between the switchbacks which cuts the distance down somewhat but your’e climbing almost straight up. I had packed a backpack for one night’s stay at the top but with my camera equipment and two litres of water, I wasn’t travelling light. I’ve walked up Table Mountain in Cape Town before and, aside from the weight I was carrying, this was a fairly similar trek.
As I’ve mentioned before, Malawi is one of the poorest African countries so very few local people have vehicles. The only way up and down from Livingstonia is by walking, and for some, this happens every day, sometimes multiple times a day. On my way up I passed several groups of mostly women (and a few older children) walking down absolutely laden with produce balanced on their heads and carried in their arms. I asked Lawrence about this and he told me that the villagers bring fruit, vegetables, grain and other food stuff up and down the mountain daily. These women were mostly barefoot and I couldn’t help but be reminded how hard some people work to earn a meagre living.
After hours and hours of climbing, the punishing gradient tapered off and Lawrence took me down a side road to my place of rest for the night. Lukwe Eco Camp is perched precariously on the very edge of a sharp drop off and has views all the way to Lake Malawi in the East. The grass huts jut out over the edge and have the most fantastic views. The camp has been built from local resources and is run on solar power and wood fuel. Lukwe have their own organic gardens and compost toilets which require the scooping of ash and soil, from nice neat pots, into the tank below to cover your contribution.
Lukwe is around 4kms before the actual town of Livingstonia so I dumped most of my things in my grass hut, thanked Lawrence for getting me up to the top and discussed a meeting time for him to walk up and fetch me the next morning. I didn’t necessarily need a return service as the only way is down, but when you see how hard these people work for every penny, spending of $10 becomes a little more purposeful. Lawrence would see me at 7am the next morning.
I had heard about Manchewe Falls and thought I’d visit this site on my way up to Livingstonia. After walking past a few remote huts and farmland, I suddenly realised I was being followed. Every time I looked back, giggling boys would dart back into the bush to hide. I felt a little like the pied piper after a while and gestured for them to come and walk with me which they did. They lead me to the Manchewe Falls and we all had a bottle of Fanta together. The falls were a nice little attraction, dropping down in to the valley below and surrounded by lush forest.
It took about another hour of walking uphill to get to Livingstonia where I bumped into a group of travellers from Chitimba Camp along the way. This incredible town is built along a one kilometre tree-lined dirt road. We decided to explore together as a group and stopped in at the market for a bit of fresh produce. We popped into the barber’s shop to see about a hair cut for one of the boys, but the barber had a queue and looked to be fairly busy (I’m not sure the styles on offer were what he was hoping for either) so we tried to visit the museum in Stone House instead, but it was closed. Near the end of town we dropped into the Craft Coffee Shop and met the shop keeper, Isaac. I was parched and so we stayed for a drink. Isaac speaks perfect English and was well versed in African history. Taking time out to listen to his stories was well worth the stop! Since the mission establishment in Livingstonia over a hundred years ago, the town has been visited constantly by missionaries who continue to educate the local children and adults. Livingstonian folk speak the best English of all the African people I have ever met.
At the far end of town the impressive church stands proudly between the trees. We couldn’t help but notice the enormous stained glass window depicting David Livingstone, the Scottish explorer after whom the town is named. Obed, the enthusiastic caretaker, lead us on an extended tour through the church halls, past the choir and up onto the roof, through the rafters and out onto the open air bell tower from where we could see all the way out over the edge of the escarpment and down to Lake Malawi.
Livingstonia Church Choir in rehearsal for a special event – amazing!!
My group of merry travellers decided to stop for a bit of lunch, but by this time I wasn’t feeling good and simply ordered a plate of rice. I’m not one to get ill and hadn’t been sick once since the trip began. In fact, it’s rare if I even get a cold once a year. I attribute my incredible immune system to my many teaching years, being exposed to just about every strain of germ and virus going around, so it’s very unlike me to feel unwell.
We all walked together back down the hill to our camps. The rest of the travellers were staying at Mushroom Farm, a kilometre further than Lukwe and so we’d arranged for Lawrence and myself to meet them on the way down – giving Lawrence an extra bit of cash for the group of us. After walking the 16kms almost straight up to Livingstonia and a further 4kms back to Lukwe, I was not in a good place. A recent loss of appetite over the past two weeks had meant that I hadn’t been eating much and with quite a strenuous trek up the mountain that day, my resources were depleted and I crashed in my hut and slept for a few hours.
At small camps in these remote places, you tend have to put your dinner orders in at around lunch time so that the cooks can acquire exactly what they need for their guests during the day. On arriving earlier that afternoon I had optimistically chosen the steak, mash and vegetables off the Lukwe menu. There were only two other guests at Lukwe that night and so I sat down with them for dinner. The food came out, I stared at it, poked at the rice but couldn’t touch a thing. You’re always at risk offending people by sending their lovely home cooked meals back to the kitchen but I asked that someone explain that I wasn’t well and that the staff were welcome to have my dinner. I also though it wise to tell someone that I wasn’t well and the lovely African lady who runs the place, went to speak to the European owner about what to do. He mentioned that he was driving down the mountain the next morning at 11am and I could get a lift with him to Chitimba. With slight relief and with no dinner, I staggered back to my hut and called Lawrence on his cell phone. In my best simple English tried to explain the situation to him. I didn’t want him walking up in the morning if I was getting a lift down in a car. He seemed to understand eventually but, as with most lovely African, when they find out someone is sick, they are always hugely concerned and want to help. I explained that I would be fine for the night, and as I was getting a lift, I’d be back in Chitimba without further problems in the morning. I had no way of informing the other travellers, who I knew would be waiting for me at 7am down the road, but figured they would head down by themselves after my no-show.
Things progressed from bad to worse – back in my hut I got progressively more ill. I was lethargic, clammy, was cramping badly and had dire nausea. Without any immediate (I mean “in my hut” immediate) access to fresh water, food or medication I felt completely useless. I managed to get hold of Boris by text and he told me to get to a hospital as he was worried it may be malaria. I had one of the worst nights of my life, fighting nausea, cramping, and in my exhausted state, had to trek up the pathway every time I needed to use the compost toilet… I should have just slept sitting down on it.
I must have fallen asleep in the early hours of the morning, and at 7am dragged myself to the bar to ask if the owner could take me to Livingstone hospital but he wasn’t around. I went back to bed, waiting for him to leave a little later, and was eventually woken by the cleaning lady at 11am who told me I needed to be out of the hut so she could clean. I explained that I wasn’t well and was waiting to catch a lift down the mountain with the owner. She looked puzzled and said that she didn’t think he was going that way today. My first hope was that she didn’t know what she was talking about, but I got up and stumbled down the pathway to the bar area in search of the owner. I couldn’t find him, but his African assistant confirmed the worst – he had decided not to go down that day after all.
Well that was just about the moment all my hopes came crashing down around me. I could try to walk up to the Livingstonia hospital, but that was 4kms away, uphill, and would take well over and hour. It also meant that I was walking in the opposite direction to where my car and my medicine was, and without those two lifelines, I felt hopeless. It was too late to phone Lawrence to come and get me as it would take him an hour and a half at least to get up to me. What a calamity of events, I’d cancelled my guide, I’d missed the cool early morning start and now I’d be hours behind the rest of the group from Mushroom Farm. I decided to head down and hope for the best
The next three hours are a bit of a blur, anticipating malaria, I knew I needed to get myself to help fairly quickly but with the delay and miscommunication, I was setting off in the midday sun. I had a few snack bars to chew on and a two litre bottle, so that’s all the water I could carry. In the days leading up to this, I had been surviving on nuts and fruit and had not had a proper meal in ages. Coming down the steep descent was torture on the legs which had turned to a shaking mess. I found a stick to use for balance and would change course just to walk in shade, even if it meant a longer path. I started counting my steps to take my mind off things but with the sun beating down on me, I was absolutely exhausted and was losing what little energy I had left, fast.
At one point, I spotted a vehicle heading down but as I was on the steep decent in-between the switchbacks I wasn’t on the road to flag it down. I tried to pick up pace but it had passed the road beneath me before I could get down. It was slow going but all I could think about was getting back down in one piece. My vision was hazy, the weight of my bag wasn’t helping and I had long since finished my water when I heard someone call out from behind me.
It turns out, Green (yes, I checked a number of times – that is his name), a 20 year old local man had been visiting his grandfather up in Livingstonia and was now on his way back down the mountain. He offered to help and guide me down. For fear of seeming like a feeble tourist who can’t handle something these locals do everyday, I didn’t want to tell him how I was feeling and tried to keep up with his blistering pace. Eventually I asked him to slow down as I was starting to lose my footing regularly on the steeper parts. I wanted to throw up but I’m as stubborn as an old mule and couldn’t believe my body was shutting down on me like this. We made it out of the steepest section of the walk, where the land gradually slopes though the town of Khondowe and down to Chitimba Camp on the lake – another 5kms away. Leaving the wooded slopes behind us, we were walking under the harshest sun and my water had long since gone.
I took my mind off how blady awful I felt by talking to Green about his schooling, his family and about life on the lake. We went back and forth together with my simple words and his broken English. As with most Africans I spoke to along my journey, he was incredibly resilient, happy with very little and saw the world through content and hopeful eyes. We parted ways in Khondowe at the foot of the mountain and I thanked him with the money I had intended on giving Lawrence. Another forty minutes of sun slogging, I stumbled past the carving stalls near the entrance to Chitimba Camp when Lawrence appeared, completely unaware of day’s events and now completely ashamed of himself for not guiding me down. He had been busy carving my name into a wooden keyring to thank me for giving him work the day before. It didn’t help how many times I tried to explain the situation in my simplest English, he just couldn’t understand why I hadn’t phoned him to ask him to help me. That’s African benevolence for you right there.
Getting back to the cruiser, I consumed all my purified water in one downing before standing under a cold shower for almost half an hour, too tired, too weak to move. The thought of drying myself seemed a chore… I got myself to the bar area and got some electrolyte mix, coke and more water into my system before collapsing on a chair where I sat and stared, completely drained, out over the lake until fell asleep. I’d started to feel better that evening and figured that this had probably been a case of heat exhaustion and lack of sustenance than malaria and so the urgency of getting to hospital soon abated.
I needed to press on the following day and decided against heading up to the Nyika Plateau in favour of finding some more wonderful camping spots on the lake further south. Nyika Plateau is higher up than Livingstonia and the only way to get there is by going around the plateau, 100kms south to come back almost 100kms north, something I didn’t have time for. So I turned the Beast south towards Mzuzu and Nkhata Bay.
Not five kilometres into my day’s journey and just outside the town of Khondowe where I had walked the day previously, a robust and very official looking lady stepped into the road ahead with her left arm high indicating that I should stop. Road blocks of this type are common; where are you going? where have you been? can I see your drivers licence and insurance (that’s not a question, that’s a command). She sauntered over to me, her voluminous bust had the shirt buttons at bursting point and her skirt stretched to capacity round her rear end. Leaning on my open window she peered into the cruiser, spying my recently washed pants and bras hanging from the washing line over my back seat.
“Where are you going?” – here we go…
“I’m going to Mzuzu and then to Nkhata Bay, Mayi” I respond in the respectful tone, addressing her as madam in Chichewa.
“Very good” she says “I’m requesting transportation to Rumphi. Let’s go.”
Well what choice did I have but to oblige? I had just become the official escort for the Malawian traffic police.