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August 21, 2013 / samwilson60

The royal mountains of Swaziland

The border crossing from Mozambique into Swaziland had the makings of an easy one. We needed to change money to pay the road tax but got annoyed with the money changers offering what we thought at the time was a rubbish rate. The Swazi lilangeni is interchangeable with the South African rand and we were, or at least Cat was, adamant we knew the dollar to rand rate. Luckily for us, we coincided at the border with another British pair (the only other people using this supposedly major crossing point). They had plenty of rands and were more than happy to exchange some of them at whatever rate we threw at them, it seemed. Apologies to both the money changers and the generous passers-by we diddled out of a dollar.

On leaving the building, we were feeling quite upbeat about having ‘got one over’ on the money changers, so upbeat in fact that we didn’t even consider the possibility of a vehicle search at the exit gate. We’d seen the boards about the vet fence (along the lines of “No animal, alive or dead, shall pass this point”) but as we don’t have a fridge we don’t tend to carry fresh meat. What we hadn’t reckoned with was the additional fruit embargo. Out of nowhere, the poor official on duty told us we’d have to dump the pineapple we’d bought as a border day treat! Despite all our pleading and all his laughing, there was no getting around it. The pineapple had to go. The saving grace was that he hadn’t noticed the oranges and apples and stopped looking after all the hoo-hah about the pineapple.

Still reeling from the fruit theft and simultaneously feeling a little guilty at the overreaction, our first few kilometres in Swaziland whizzed by. After our brief foray into southern Africa’s other mountain kingdom, we weren’t sure what to expect in terms of road networks but nor were we aiming to get far. As it happens we found ourselves on pristine tar (the likes of which we’d actually have to try hard to avoid) and were at our mountain campsite within the hour. It was a little more full-on than we’d expected. Forcefully friendly is how we’ve taken to describing the very welcoming but slightly overbearing people we met there. They also had two large school groups to deal with so, which the views were stunning and the villages interesting, we chose not to hang around. It was a shame to use such a place as a stopover but they clearly had enough on their plates and were happy with the wad of euros thrust in their hands the following morning (erring on the cautious side of the exchange rate this time).

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The first place we hit on leaving the mountainside was a purpose-built sugar-company town, complete with three banks and an entire shopping plaza. Predictably, the only bank that could, in principle, change money for us inexplicably couldn’t that particular day, so we maxed out our cards at the ATMs, bought a pineapple to replace the one we’d had confiscated at the border and checked out the local library, before dashing off to find some more mountains.

The drive was pleasant and we soon saw various places we could wild camp but, without meaning to sound jaded, we couldn’t shake the feeling that it could get better. Turns out we were right. We knew we’d found our home for that night at least when we turned down into a dry riverbed near a reservoir. It was early and the place was littered with goats and cattle, but after a cuppa up on the hillside (advertising our presence to anyone and everyone and thereby giving them a chance to object or join), we pitched up on the dry side of the dam wall and settled down to an afternoon of odd jobs. There was a constant stream of passers-by along the dam wall but not one seemed the least bit fazed by our presence and most greeted us warmly and offered us sugar cane. After socialising for a bit, changing the oil in the Tinker Beast, catching up on photos and blog notes and fretting about how to make best use of the next week, we sat back to enjoy the silence and the stars.

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The next morning we went for breakfast at another reservoir, just a few kilometres down the track. This had been our other potential wild camp spot and we were glad we hadn’t needed it. It was beautiful, no doubt, but it was also full of hippos and slap bang in the middle of a sugar plantation. How they reconcile the two is anyone’s guess but somehow they must. We saw the sugar plantations and we sure as hell heard the hippos!

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The rest of the morning was an education in sugar production but by the time we’d popped out the other side of the estate we were very excited about swapping the sugar cane for a cross-country drive into some of the most spectacular mountains of the whole trip.

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It was way too early to even think about making camp so we simply meandered slowly, stopping lots and eventually continuing to another mountain nearby. Since we were looking to camp in this second mountain, we weren’t expecting to be anywhere near as lucky with the views. In truth it wasn’t as mind-bending as the last but still it offered a cracking camp. We knew we were exposed even before we saw the goats surrounding us but we liked our spot and it was a long way from any of the surrounding homesteads. Nevertheless, we soon had a visitor/one-man welcome party. “Don’t worry, I’m not a thief!” were Peter’s first words as he emerged from the next-door hillside. A herdsman in his early 20s, he told us that, like everyone else on the mountainside, he’d seen us coming a mile off and wondered what was going on. After reassuring himself that we weren’t any form of officialdom and then unnerving us about the snakes, he said we were more than welcome to spend the night where we were. We were understandably quite a novelty and Peter a very inquisitive and opinionated guy, which made for an interesting (if slightly exhausting) evening.

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We tried to drive out the other side of mountain the next morning, to make another loop, but before long our path was cut by the heavily secured gates of a conservancy. We could see the track continue on the other side (a maximum of a few metres had been eaten up by the conservancy) but with no way around we had to turn back and retrace our steps. By leaving the mountain the same way we came in, we were soon back on the tar and made very good time to the border (remembering to cash in all of our emalangeni before entering South Africa).

August 18, 2013 / samwilson60

Coastal paradise and city beats

With kayaking and snorkelling still in mind, we headed further down the coast to the Barra Peninsula. The town here turned out to be another South African holiday hotspot and the locals were unsurprisingly savvy, but we pushed on to the very tip of the peninsula, where we found a real tropical paradise all to ourselves. The beach was stunning and just metres away from our camp on both sides. It was even more impressive at high tide, when the whole campsite was actually cut off, and the flamingos in the estuary were great fun.

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We had a mix of glorious sunshine and torrential rain, but we sat out the latter learning to break into coconuts. There were so many littering the camp and the outer was burned to heat water so we almost felt as though we were doing our hosts a favour, and the birds were over the moon (turns out we don’t actually like real coconut much but they certainly do).

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Once the rain had cleared, we wanted to get straight out on the water in search of seahorses in the mangroves. We miscalculated the tide times so spectacularly we had to wait until mid-afternoon the following day for the water to come in far enough. The saving grace was that the water was so low we could walk pretty much the entire route we’d later paddle. Once actually on the water, we wedged ourselves in the narrowest passageways we could and covered ourselves in snails but sadly found no seahorses.

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On leaving the coast we stayed at a slightly bizarre campsite-come-sawmill that we will always remember as being home to the malaria tree.

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In theory this was the perfect stopover en route to the capital but in practice we squeezed in another. We were keen to check out Maputo, uncharacteristically so, but we were less excited about dorm beds so we went to investigate the out-of-town camping options. We took a ferry across a river and found a spot by the beach that was just too nice to turn down. It was so inaccessible we’d have to stay in a backpackers too if we were to see anything of Maputo but suddenly we were in less of a rush. The lodge was yet another South African enterprise but the manager was lovely and the beach stunning.

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We had a great night and were confident we’d done the right thing, until we tried to leave the peninsula. After an hour or so of queuing for the ferry back to the main road it transpired the boat was broken and no one knew whether it would be hours, days or weeks before service could be resumed. Instead of twiddling our thumbs, we opted to drive the long way round. We were relieved to have confirmation that this option existed and although it was both longer and sandier than expected, before long we’d been joined by a local in a pick-up. His was not a 4×4, as he kept reminding us, but he drove it with the usual gusto. Once we’d let some air out of our tyres and weighed his down with sand, we got both cars out of the sand and up the bank. After that he shot off ahead but every time we thought he was gone for good, we found him patiently waiting for us and/or picking up hitchhikers at the next junction.

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It was a hilarious drive through sand, meadows and yet another sugar estate but it left us almost as far from Maputo as we had been 24 hours previously. We genuinely wanted to make it to the capital now though and, once heading in the right direction again, made surprisingly good time. On the outskirts of town we found ourselves confronted with all the best and worst bits of African capitals, with the added distractions of cool architecture and unpredictable one-way systems. We ended up camping on the AstroTurf roof of the main backpackers, where we tried to get to grips with some end-of-trip practicalities. This was even more emotional a process than usual so we soon turned our attentions to more immediate concerns, i.e. where to find live music on a Wednesday night. Our initial enquiries produced only wry smiles but eventually we got a lead. We had a long wait at the venue but got to know the musicians very well (a hilariously random bunch). When they finally got up on stage we were a little dismayed but the standard increased steadily and when they got into their stride they were awesome. When they were joined by a guest vocalist, they were even better.

We got back to our tent sometime in the early hours and were up at dawn to continue exploring the city before skipping the country. This was quite out of character and nearly ended in tears when Cat’s flip-flops broke along a particularly grotty street, but we ingeniously, if temporarily, fixed the flip-flops with a lighter and were really glad we’d gone out again. It was as whistle-stop as ever but we felt we’d seen a good amount and could now swap the bright lights of Maputo for the big skies of Swaziland.

August 18, 2013 / samwilson60

Lake to mountains to sea

After getting Chris onto his return flight, we were keen to move on but couldn’t decide where to. Ultimately we had to head south and into Mozambique but there were just too many routes to choose from. To stay in Malawi would mean backtracking a bit but also getting to see the very south; to head straight for Mozambique would mean revisiting the Zambezi and the Chimanimani mountains. Once we’d factored in the price of fuel, Mozambique won out and after a little souvenir shopping of our own, we bid sleepy Lilongwe goodbye and headed for the closest border we could find.

The whole day was as easy as they get, which is miraculous really. Everyone we’d spoken to had suggested the Mozambique border officials would be a handful at best and uncooperative to the end. In reality they were a dream. Not overly chatty but incredibly efficient. There wasn’t so much as a raised eyebrow when we said we had no visas and – even with a fully biometric system – we were processed and on our way in no time flat. Scans, photos, fingerprints, bosh. The police outside even helped us change money, with freelance money changers who themselves didn’t even think about screwing us over. It really does seem that the best borders are those from which you expect the worst, but even so we couldn’t believe our luck. Hundreds of kilometres had whizzed by, we were in Mozambique and by mid-afternoon at the latest we should be camped by the Zambese again. There had to be a catch and we thought we’d found it when we hit the worst potholes since Guinea but the real punch was the riverside campsite in Tete. The Zambezi was as beautiful as ever and the campsite right on the bank. It could have been idyllic but instead was a dump. Our view was obscured by razor wire and rubbish, the site was as neglected as they come and nonetheless we felt as though we were intruding on someone’s private space. We eventually tried to say something when half a dozen local children started playing in the rubbish and invading our space but the manager just looked blank. This was a church-run campsite, was the only explanation we got for any issue we raised. Some tough negotiations got the price down a little but it was still a rip off and a let-down that soured an otherwise excellent day and our first night in a new country.

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Thankfully, Tete itself was nicer than expected. The following morning we toured around town, adjusting to our new surroundings. It was obvious we were in a different country and one that felt quite unlike any other we’d visited. We had a fun first full day in Mozambique, in fact, and the campsite we found for our second night more than made up for the first. This time we were on the banks of a lake, at a fishing lodge run – like so many – by a South African couple. It was beautiful, and only more so in the morning mist.

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There were plenty of tracks to explore and get lost along, with lots of fish eagles calling to each other as we went. We had a whole fish for two that night (marking the moment Cat ran out of tobacco for the last time), then headed off the next morning to explore the Chimanimani mountains and possibly try to sneak back into Zim. The drive along the lake and up into the mountains was awesome but it went on much further than expected, right onto the top of the ridge that marks the border.

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If it hadn’t been for slight landmine concerns this would have been the perfect place to camp and improvise a hike or two, but as it was we stayed in the car, got as close to the Zimbabwean border as we dared, then turned back to camp at lake level again. This second lake camp was a small local initiative on the eastern shore that couldn’t have been much further removed from the fishing lodge of the previous night, but it was at least as nice in its own right. Once we’d overcome the language barriers (apparently our pronunciation of “Campismo” still needed some work), we were really pleased to be in more “local” surrounds and the morning mist was even more magical than before. We really felt we’d found a hidden gem at Lake Chicamba and were a little sad to leave.

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From here we’d intended to drive the back roads south, sticking as close as we could to the Zimbabwean border. This was partly to explore the mountains and partly to avoid some security issues along a particular stretch of the main coast road. By night two on the lake, however, we’d discovered the back roads were longer and harder than expected, with the possibility of an impassable river a few days’ in. It had the potential to be the drive of the trip but could also go horribly wrong, especially as we’d be tackling it alone, so with heavy hearts we agreed to take the main road, where there was a compulsory military convoy along the most sensitive stretch. We consoled ourselves by also agreeing the convoy could wait another day and headed to a campsite we’d heard about on the outskirts of Gorongosa.

This place was run by another South African family, who were apparently at odds with the local tourist board. As a result they had no licence to charge for camping and operated on a donations basis. It was a bit weird to be on the edge of a national park we didn’t have the time or money to enter (especially as this one seemed to be on the up and up), but we had a great night nonetheless. It was the perfect place to get straight, the birds (including owls and woodpeckers) made us feel as though we were deep in the bush and the resident dogs provided round the clock entertainment in exchange for a spot by the fire.

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The next day, or “convoy day” as we know it, was surprisingly easy and confirmed our initial impression that driving around Mozambique was nowhere near as bad as we’d been led to believe. There were next to no checkpoints and those there were made no attempt to stop us. Even the convoy went smoothly – we arrived about an hour ahead of schedule but it left half an hour early itself so you could say we timed it perfectly. We’re still a little sceptical about the security benefits but we lived to tell the tale so no complaints really 🙂

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Once free of the convoy we drove another 100km down the coast to find a campsite by the beach around Vilanculos. Unlike the rest of the day, this was frustrating. The town can only be described as odd, so we drove a long way through very soft sand to try to find somewhere out of the way to stay. We ran a sandy gauntlet of begging children and decaying properties only to find our campsite was closed. We made it clear we’d pay to stay anyway but the guardian was having none of it, so we turned back through the sand and children to the hippy backpackers in town. It wasn’t entirely to our tastes but once we’d rested up and chilled out we warmed to the barman and were less put out by everyone else, to the point that we decided to stay the following day. Still buzzing from our adventure on Lake Malawi, we couldn’t resist some real sea kayaking. What better way to explore the surrounding islands of the Bazaruto Archepelago, we thought, and for the first hour or so continued to think.

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The shallow waters were calm and crystal clear but once they got deeper and choppier we remembered how little training we’d had. When we saw we were the furthest out of all the vessels we could see, we aborted the coral reef plan and settled for some bay hopping around the mainland. It was fun but we were both a little frustrated, as much with our amateur technique as with our inferior kayak (actually it was quite a good one but we had to blame something other than ourselves!). When we got back to camp we spent an hour or so reading up on paddling skills and vowing to get lots more practice in before the trip was done – but only if we could each have our own kayak.

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August 13, 2013 / samwilson60

Malawian tour guides for a week

We bundled Chris into the car, ingeniously reworked to get around the seatbelt rules that were so obviously not a problem when we had four in the front in Benin. With just a few bolts and a slab of wood removed, it was possible (if not entirely comfortable) to seat one in the luggage store behind the passenger seat.

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With pillows and bedding falling into the right places from all sides, it actually got quite cosy but for the test drive we didn’t push our luck. We hadn’t wanted to spend our first night with Chris in the city (with or without overland trucks) but likewise didn’t want to subject him to a monster drive on his first day in the country. The obvious solution seemed to be to make the shortest beeline we could to the lake. This landed us in Senga Bay, which apparently had the added bonus of live music for the bank holiday weekend. Everyone we asked confirmed the rumour and explained that this was not just any old gig. The headline act was unanimously described as the most popular musician in Malawi so obviously we stayed an extra night and spent Saturday afternoon trying to find out where exactly, when exactly and how much exactly the gig would be.

We were fairly happy with the information we’d gleaned and, as the show was due to go on all night, decided we had time for a snorkelling trip and some home-cooked food before going out. The snorkelling was fun, although the snorkels were each broken in a different way and the fish were not as exciting as we’d been led to believe. Still, there were lots of them and they were brightly coloured. We specifically chose Lizard Island to snorkel around because we also wanted a glimpse of some giant monitor lizards. We saw none but had fun clambering over the rocks all the same and nearly falling off them every time we heard something that might pass for a lizard.

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Back at camp we had an awesome feed, thanks to Chris, our live-in chef for a week and some inspiring conversation courtesy of some fellow Cape-to-Capers (not only on bicycles but heading back from Cape Town via the Americas!). After all this, we trotted off along the beach to find the gig. What seemed so simple a route was actually quite a challenge but after winding our way around fishing boats and resting fishermen, then trampling across various manicured stretches of private beach, we saw lights and heard music. It all looked so promising all of a sudden. There were lots of people and although the music was neither to our tastes nor live, that was to be expected for the warm-up, surely.

The dodgy music was soon accompanied by an equally questionable compere. We could understand only the odd word here and there but it was painfully clear that the ‘entertainment’ now comprised a handful of men trying to chat up a woman, with the audience invited to pick the smoothest operator. We couldn’t believe our eyes but the penny finally dropped as people started leaving in dribs and drabs. We still had no idea what was going on but this was clearly no warm-up act. We later discovered that the bands had started at 7pm and were now long gone, on their way to another gig elsewhere.

Thankfully we all saw the funny side and settled for an earlier than expected night’s sleep. The next morning we left Senga Bay for Cape Maclear. We’d previously thought we’d take Chris back up north but neither he nor we wanted to spend long days on the road and since arriving in Lilongwe we’d heard good things about this southern tip of the lake.

We had as smooth a drive as they get, despite stopping at every fruit-seller and market we passed. Without really investigating the other options, we headed straight to what we knew was a more expensive but secluded lodge, tucked away at the foot of the hills surrounding the bay. When we arrived there were a couple of South African couples already camped up but, after introducing us to the resident lizard (who needs Lizard Island?!), they left us to it the following morning. From then on we had the whole place to ourselves.

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We swam lots, risking life and limb in the face of hungry kingfishers. Cat was a little offended when one dived straight at her ear but Sam instantly saw the photographic potential and spent as much of the next few days as he could perched on a rock watching his new pals (admittedly rather adorable when not trying to eat you).

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After Cat had nearly got herself stuck on top of the rocks, we all went up together and fared slightly better. We still lost the track at every turn but enjoyed the scrambling, found an awesome little beach and got some great views of the lake and the horseshoe hills surrounding Cape Maclear.

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Before going off “hiking” we’d arranged to hire a pair of kayaks off some locals for the afternoon but having refused to pay in advance, they never turned up. Once we’d tired of waiting we had another dip and then set out to watch the sun set from the lodge’s catamaran – more sedate but very enjoyable nonetheless.

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After sundowners on the catamaran, we feasted on another of Chris’s wholesome meals and on his less wholesome marshmallows, toasted on a fire on the rocks. It was such a nice spot we decided then and there to stay an extra day. We called Kayak Africa – based just a few kilometres along the bay – and for the same price we’d haggled the locals down to, we had two kayaks delivered to our lodge that very morning. With all day to paddle around, we covered quite some distance. We also fell in love with kayaking. We followed the coast to start, past Otter Point to a secluded little beach. Then, our confidence mounting, we set out to circumnavigate a sizable but not too distant island. On our way round we found ourselves within metres of multiple Fish Eagles and startled a few dozen Trumpeter Hornbills, who then startled us enough to almost – but not quite – capsize as they flew overhead.

To end the day, we paddled out to yet another little stretch of sand from which we watched the sun set. We eeked it out for as long as possible, to the point that even the fishermen were getting worried about us, but we made it back to our lodge with us and the kayaks all intact, if a little ravenous.

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The following day it really was time to find pastures new and, based on a recommendation Chris had been given on his flight, we plumped for Liwonde national park. While we’d initially been reluctant to spend any more on park fees without a money back guarantee on seeing cheetahs, we realised it would be nice for our visitor to see a hippo or two at least.

We stopped at a market town on the way, where we sampled more street food than even Chris could handle, i.e. at least one of everything available. Then we stocked up on fruit and veg and rolled ourselves back into the car. Once on the outskirts of the park, we had to choose between two campsites. The first was run by a guy Sam had spoken to numerous times on the phone and they’d built up quite a rapport. If it hadn’t been so cramped we’d have stayed there without a doubt but as it was, we decided to check out the one next door. This offered much more space, a better viewing platform and – the clincher – kayak trips (instead of motorised boats) into the hippo-infested lagoon. It was only after we’d set up camp that we realised the owner was drunk, and permanently so. This didn’t fill us with confidence in the safaris he had on offer (his was the only camp that deemed it safe to explore the lagoon by kayak) but his staff were lovely and we’d set our hearts set on paddle-power before even considering the wisdom of our choice.

Safe or not, we survived. And we loved almost every minute of it. We thought it would be a treat for Chris but hadn’t realised how special it would be for us. As it happens, we had our closest hippo encounters to date. We were over the moon, and then we got closer still. When we asked our polers how they could tell how close was too close, we were told there was no such thing. While they acknowledged that in some places hippos were considered dangerous, theirs were friendly and would simply swim off if they weren’t in the mood for an audience.

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On our loop around the lagoon, we also saw lots of impala, our first open-billed storks, some up-close waterbuck and no crocodiles (probably for the best).

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After the boat trip we bundled Chris into the car to explore the rest of the park, at which point we realised quite how beautiful a place we were in. The lagoon was magical but on dry land it felt completely different again and genuinely enchanting.

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Animal-wise, we weren’t expecting a great deal. Even so, when all we’d seen after a few hours were herd after herd of impala, we were over the moon when we spied a couple of elephants on the far bank of the river. They were a little distant but undeniably elephants all the same. And a lunch we overheard that those on guided safaris hadn’t been as lucky, so we were quite smug and decided anything more would be a bonus.  As we headed out after lunch, we got our first “bonus” in the form of four warthogs circling the car park. Chris was noticeably underwhelmed and a little bemused by our excitement, but these were some of the most beautiful warthogs we’d ever seen.

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Once Chris had dragged us away, we headed off to see how far north we could get before we had to leave the park at sunset. Before we’d done even a quarter of our intended loop we spotted some more elephant, about 20 of them in fact. They were on the other side of the river again but since we were right on the near bank this time, we had a great view. Despite the already great view and despite knowing we weren’t supposed to leave the car, there was no stopping Chris. He bounded over to the water’s edge, only to spin round shrieking moments later. Still very red in the face, he announced he’d seen his first crocodile. Once he was over the shock he was no more cautious, and gradually even we gave in and joined him on the bank. There was no one else around, Chris had clearly scared off all the crocs and the elephants were crying out for an audience.

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We were feeling very smug and fully content with our day’s game viewing as we finally piled back into the car. Time was no longer on our side, so we agreed to continue along the riverbank just as far as a nearby viewing platform. After that we’d have to turn on our heels and head back to the gate. It took us twice as long as expected to continue these few hundred metres, the bank – and in some cases track – littered as it was with hippos. We really were in luck 🙂

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Once finally at the viewing platform we saw hundreds of bee-eaters (too quick for the camera), yet more hippos and some exciting birds of prey.

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After trying and failing to identify this particular bird, we reluctantly started back towards the park gate. When we’d arrived and paid our fees, the warden had been very lax about us being out by 6pm. “Try to make it there or there abouts,” he’d said, “but don’t worry if you get waylaid,” he clocked off at 6 but a night watchman would take over and let us out whenever we rocked up. This had made us laugh at the time but in reality, with no spotlight or guide, there was little to be gained by driving the length of the river in the dark.

We made surprisingly good time once we put our minds to it, leaving ourselves ample opportunity to watch the sun set and exit the park no more than an hour late. As we were looking for the perfect vantage point for sunset, our path was intersected by a massive herd of buffalo. And just minutes after sunset, metres from the exit gate, we stumbled across the most comical buck we’d ever seen – just as Chris had been trying to ask if we’d seen anything new that day. It took a while back at camp but we worked it out in the end – we’d just seen our first bushbuck, and a very excited one at that!

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After all the excitement of the park, all we needed was to have our camp invaded by a herd of bachelor elephants! Chris was over the moon, understandably, and once we’d got over yet another near miss, we were quite chuffed too. We cooked up a storm that night (what will we do without a live-in chef?!) and focused our attentions on Chris’s last night in Malawi. We had to get to Lilongwe the following day, which meant a long-ish drive punctuated by lots more markets and street food, followed by a night on the town to make up for our failed attempt at live music earlier in the week. As it happens, by the time we’d made it to Lilongwe we felt like shit (Chris having offloaded all his germs) and no one knew of anything worth venturing out for. Chris persevered but the party never left the backpackers. This was a shame but we were secretly quite relieved and Chris seemed happy enough. It also meant he was up the next day in time for his flight, and some more last-minute shopping. Result.

July 13, 2013 / samwilson60

Hello Malawi!

Once we’d successfully negotiated our way through the border, and still blissfully unaware that the official money changer had fleeced us, we were back in rolling hills, these ones Malawian. Clearly the whole area had once been thick forest but now you could see for miles. There was evidence of tree felling everywhere, with stumps littering the hills and piles of timber lining the road. Fortunately for us, less so for the locals, the primary means of transporting all this wood seemed to be by bicycle! As we pootled along, we identified our first African Harrier Hawk, had our first glimpse of Lake Malawi and sampled the new street-side delicacies (meat samosas and doughnuts!).

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The lakeside stretches drew longer and the surrounding hills bigger until we reached the Livingstonia escarpment. Here we turned inland and up the almost-sheer rock face! The drive up the escarpment was as you would expect – really fun, with great views (except while we were in the trees, which was quite often).

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We didn’t get as far as Livingstonia but turned into a lodge just on the edge of the escarpment, where we camped alongside another pair of Cape-to-Capers. We explored the fantastic gardens surrounding our camp, taking in the stunning views and all that was going on around us.

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We would have loved to stay and explore Livingstonia itself but had to carry on south. Chris was arriving in 48 hours and we were still about 600km from the airport. We consoled ourselves with the possibility of bringing him back up here, and with a slightly indulgent loop back down the escarpment the following morning. It was actually an easier drive than expected (as proven by the young European girl coming the other way in a Micra) but a nice, scenic start to the day. The chameleon was an added bonus that involved yet another successful emergency stop.

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We hit the tarmac just 60km north of Mzuzu, where we hoped to find reflective tape for the car and a sim card for the phone. We got the first and soon forgot about the second, eager as we were to find our forest camp 100km further south. There was still plenty of tree felling going on but there were now a few more trees to speak of, which was reassuring.

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The actual forest, much like Livingstonia, merited a longer stopover but again, perhaps we could come back with Chris. We were keen to do something active and this would be the perfect place for it. In the meantime, we settled for a sedentary drive on to Lilongwe. There was no real checkpoint banter to speak of but one random policeman did flag us down for speeding in a 100km/hour zone. We were so stunned by the suggestion that we’d exceeded even our self-imposed 80km/hour limit, we laughed a lot and asked to see his speed gun. There was none and we all knew he was trying it on, so he waved us off in a “no hard feelings” kind of a way.

Lilongwe itself was pretty low-key. We managed to find our way all the way to the backpackers we were aiming for, via the Mozambique embassy and the Toyota dealership. At the embassy we were greeted by a sign announcing that, as of 5 July (it was now 4pm on 4th), no visas would be issued here. Then at Toyota they kindly told us they didn’t have the filters we wanted but if we could wait a month they’d be all-too happy to order an “express delivery”. We politely declined and headed off to our backpackers, where we settled down to all the other things on our to-do list. This went remarkably well – even booking flights home from South Africa for the end of August was easier, cheaper and less emotional than expected – and we rewarded ourselves with a rare cocktail to celebrate our ten months on the road.

We then had an even rarer second cocktail when we realised we were to be hemmed in by 20 or so obnoxious 20-somethings partying the night away alongside our tent. The barman had been too polite to refuse our request for a mojito despite having none of the required ingredients. After a full tumbler of what anyone else would call tequila and soda water, no amount of partying was going to keep us from our tent. As luck would have it, the revellers decamped to a local club at around the same time and we had a surprisingly good, tequila-induced sleep.

We spent the morning doing yet more useful jobs, then drove out to the airport via the shops. All we needed was a cash machine, a supermarket and a scanner, preferably in that order. We found three supermarkets and a scanner but no money. We did what we could with the limited funds we had but needed more. And if none of the cash machines in the capital worked, what were our chances elsewhere? At precisely the time Chris was due to be landing, we found one that would take our cards. We’d got a bit complacent about the time it would take him to get through security; we’d not thought about how long it might take us to inch through the inner-city traffic. We made it late but a minute or two less late than Chris so everyone was happy, including our friendly car-park attendant, Stephen.

July 13, 2013 / samwilson60

Goodbye Tanzania

Back at Chogela, we spent the afternoon identifying all the wildlife we weren’t already familiar with and in the evening further developed our still slightly far-fetched plans to deliver a car to the NGO based there. It was great fun but turned into a much later night than expected and when we dragged ourselves up in the morning we were in desperate need of some sustenance.

As luck would have it, we were heading back through Iringa, where we knew for a fact we could find all the hangover cures we needed before continuing south to the farm we’d already visited for more of the usual faff. On the way we were stopped at a checkpoint and accused of having “defective” tyres. We were so genuinely offended by the suggestion, the policeman was a little taken aback and soon let the matter drop.

Once at the farm we were joined by the overlanding equivalent of Come Dine With Me – eight or so identical, heavily branded and brand new Ford Rangers full of South Africans. We later learned that they were competing to win one of the cars by best organising their appointed legs of the trip (8,000km through 6 countries in 21 days).

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Even at our most sociable, this would be too close for comfort. Plus, there were another half dozen out of shot!

The competitive element explained a lot of things as we reflected on it but despite our curiosity we were glad to see them go. We had another night at the farm, this time with the entire campsite to ourselves and we treated ourselves to another fantastic meal (we’re going soft, clearly).

From the farm we broke new ground by turning south before Mbeya, heading straight for the Malawi border. We wanted to save the border crossing for the following morning but clearly wouldn’t find anywhere suitable for wild camping, so when we saw a signpost for Bongo Camp about 20km before Malawi we had to give it a go. Although the setting was beautiful, we weren’t expecting much in the way of tourist infrastructure. The campsite was as basic as expected but so much more characterful, complete with wayward calf and full of thoughtful touches. There was no running water but the manager was forever boiling water for bucket showers – we must have been particularly smelly because she seemed to want us to have at least three each in the short time we were there. It was a village initiative and there were loads of things going on, mostly financed by the very reasonable camp fees, so we felt a little bad using it as a stopover. We were bang on schedule for meeting Chris at the airport in Lilongwe in a few days’ time and couldn’t justify another night, but we did at least stay for breakfast. It was an eclectic platter but each thing in isolation was delicious.

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Stomachs full, yet again, we set off for the border. The drive down there was lovely – right through the rolling hills and without a truck in sight. That, we later learned, was because every large vehicle in circulation was blocking the border post. Between them and the money touts we really didn’t see this one going well, but the officials were lovely. For once they were actually the saving grace.

July 5, 2013 / samwilson60

Happier than pigs in shit

From our baobabs south of Dodoma we made a beeline for Iringa and our favourite café in Tanzania. We knew the internet was probably still down (our only real excuse for going there), but they had been lovely on our first visit and they sold the second best scotch eggs Sam’s ever tasted so we really had no choice but to pop by.

We ate well, got no internet access and stocked up as best we could before heading back to the riverside campsite we’d stayed at on our way north. The firewood still left a lot to be desired but it was at least plentiful. More importantly, from here we knew we could get to the outskirts of Ruaha National Park, via our not-so-beloved post office/internet café in town.

The track from Iringa to Ruaha is long but starts out promisingly. Just as it was starting to deteriorate into one long corrugation we turned off into a campsite we’d had recommended to us. They were in the midst of a two-day convention (apparently, we later learned, a meeting of village chiefs to discuss elephant poaching) so we were pretty much left to our own devices, until the staff of a small NGO based at the campsite took us under their wing. Their focus is also on elephant poaching and their tactics refreshing. They help set up bee fences in the surrounding villages (it having been recently discovered that elephants are scared of bees) but they also take groups of locals into the park (when the car’s running that is). As a result, they know the park pretty well and gave us a tonne of helpful tips about routes to take, places to stay and things to look out for. We had a really fun evening around the fire, plotting a scheme to help them out and finish our Africa loop, then a really frustrating morning killing time before entering the park. Because of the park fee system it made no sense to go in before lunchtime but by about 11 we were packed up and itching to go. Good job too because it took a lifetime to drive the last stretch to the gate. We thought we’d seen corrugations before but these nearly had us both in tears and/or in the ditch.

Wow was it worth it though! Just getting into the park proper we could see we would like it here. The main feature was the Great Ruaha River, a beautiful, hippo-filled stretch of water, but the surrounding hills were so appealing too that we wouldn’t have known where to start if it hadn’t been for our bee-fencing friends.

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We followed the river round to the campsite we’d be staying at to check it out and check in. We’d been told to stay in the bandas, which are inexplicably cheaper, but they were full so the campsite it was. Initially we were outraged at the price tag but we soon forgot about the money once we’d seen the place. We bagged the prime spot for the tent, cooed at the hippos over a cuppa, then dashed off out again to see what else we could see. This basically amounted to more hippos, a tonne of quite stroppy elephants, more giraffe than ever before and some fun birds, as always.

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The now familiar fish eagle

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An oh-so-stylish crested eagle

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Saddle-billed stork

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Lilac-breasted roller

Oh, and quite a lot of ex-buffalo – gruesome but surely a good sign! To be fair, we really didn’t do too badly for a first afternoon. On our way back to camp we also stumbled across a pair of adorable jackals.

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Back at camp we’d been joined by a couple of other overlanding Europeans, but they were respectfully camped at the far end and quite fun company when we wanted it. For the most part, though, we huddled round our little fire listening out for big cats. All we heard were the hippos, and the army of baboons who blasted through the middle of the campsite. We were slightly bemused by the complete lack of staff or guardians but, Sam’s close encounter with a pair of hippos aside, were perfectly happy fending for ourselves. Our permit said we were allowed back out at 6am but though the sun didn’t rise until gone half past, so we split the difference and were at a nearby picnic spot just as the sky was getting colourful. We had just enough time to pour ourselves a cuppa before hearing some ominous roars. They were coming from back towards the campsite but were clearly not far away so we jumped back into the car with our cups and drove a few metres back to another viewpoint on the bank of the river. Within minutes, if that, we could see where all the noise was coming from. A big male lion was walking straight towards us.

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He walked bold as brass up to the truck, looked us up and down, then sauntered off behind us. As soon as we lost sight of him, we saw another, and this one had a lady in tow. They took exactly the same approach and came just as close to us, but unlike the first decided we looked like quite nice company. She lay down in front, a metre or so from the driver’s window, and he behind. Completely alone and completely hemmed in, shock and awe are the only words to describe our emotions, and that’s before they started roaring!

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Beauty’s in the eye of the beholder

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Even the first male, now at more of a distance but not much, joined in the chorus. Our couple were so close we could see their breath in the cold morning air and we could feel the roars cutting right to the core. It’s so hard to describe but will never, ever be forgotten. The lioness was actually the most vocal but her companion the most photogenic 🙂

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Eventually, Cat wigged out. We were parked in such a way that to go forwards would mean falling off the bank and to go back running over a large lion. Before we could do either we had to turn the engine back on and if you’re not supposed to beep your horn around wild animals, what do they do when you make twice as much of an unexpected noise starting up? With hindsight, without lions roaring alongside us, we can both say they’re used to people and engines, neither of which are particularly mouth-watering even when you are a hungry lion (and these two obviously had other things than food on their minds). But at the time it was a little overwhelming. Once we’d successfully extracted ourselves from their little gathering, even Cat could have stuck around, but we had cheetahs to find so left the lions in peace.

As it grew lighter and hotter we were almost kicking ourselves for leaving our lion friends. The birds were still awesome and provided lots to speculate about (novice identifiers that we are) but we were after cheetahs and finding none. Frustrating as this was, we soon agreed the scenery alone was value for money. As always when we stop whinging, we are rewarded. These lions were a little further away and much less vocal but absolutely adorable in their own right.

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From here we were minutes away from the confluence, where a now dry river meets the main one. It was a magical spot and an awesome drive from there across the dry river into the cheetah-friendly plains on the other side.

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There were no cheetahs here either and our 24-hour permit was rapidly running out. Without much discussion we decided to drag our heels just enough to force us to extend. We both knew we couldn’t give up that quickly. So instead of heading back to the gate we swung by the park HQ to get the all clear to continue and to book into the bandas for our second night (saving a fairly insignificant sum in reality but making us feel better about our extravagance), only to then remember we had no food. We wasted another hour or so of the hottest part of the day checking into the bandas and seeking out a restaurant of sorts that provided us with shade and meat, then continued our independent exploration of the park. We had previously agreed that if we had no luck by ourselves and wanted to keep trying we’d be better off paying a bit extra for some assistance but after our earlier lion encounters, and having met no guides that had seen any cats at all that day, we were starting to get a bit cockier about our skill/beginners’ luck and agreed we’d have more fun on our own.

The rest of the day was pretty uneventful, although we did see our first dik-diks (cutest buck to date) and we had a great cruise around the depths of the park.

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The views from this side were awesome but the biting flies were the dominant feature so we turned back feeling a bit hot and bothered. It was getting later and would soon be getting cooler, increasing our chances with the cheetahs, but we were running out of ideas and less confident in our cat-spotting skills, so you can imagine our amazement when Sam spied a spotted bum disappearing behind a hedge.

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Actually we both saw the whole thing but we were so thrown by it this was the only photo we got. For a split second we thought it was a cheetah but knew deep down it wasn’t. The following day, when we were showing our photos to our bee-fencing friends back at Chogela camp, they identified it instantly (and surprisingly easily) as a serval. They also told us this was a much rarer sight than a cheetah, making us feel quite smug 🙂

Once we’d got over the excitement of the spotted bum and kicked ourselves for not photographing first and puzzling later, we realised it was nearly dark and we were supposed to be back at the bandas. We made it back on time in the end but didn’t think much of being a few minutes late, given the complete lack of supervision at the campsite. As it happens, we were greeted by multiple members of staff and an armed guard. We thought this was a little overkill until a family of elephants, complete with baby, ploughed straight through where we’d have been sitting if our guard hadn’t forced us to move. We also spotted a lion’s bum disappearing into the hedge on our way to bed so were a little less complacent the next morning. We wanted to be out at first light again but this meant getting up in the dark, and our trusty guard was nowhere to be seen. Still, we both made it across to the car without getting trampled by any elephants (a closer call than Cat realised at the time) and were ready to resume the safari by 6am again.

First stop was, of course, where we’d been joined by the lion couple the previous morning but this time there really were just hippos so we carried on in search of somewhere more cheetah-friendly.

On our way we spied yet another male lion in the tall grass. We almost dismissed him as a termite mound but he gave us just enough of a nod to confirm his existence.

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And minutes after that we found a pair of bat-eared foxes (also identified as such by our bee-fencers), lounging by the side of the track. Apparently as rare a sight as the serval!

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After that we spent the morning dodging elephant herds and spotting as many kudu, waterbuck and dik-dik as we could, plus possibly our first sunbathing crocodile. We carried on along the river on the other side of the exit, dragging out our time as best we could but without any real hopes of any more cats. So we really did a double-take when we spied this one wandering up alongside us…

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He seemed so content walking along with us it felt almost rude to leave but our time was up. There’d been little doubt at any point but certainly none now, wherever the cheetahs were hiding, we’d had an amazing 48 hours in Ruaha and were happier than any pig in shit could hope for.