Saturday, 21 January 2012


Perhaps it was coincidence that we were listening to Daddy Yankees' 'Gasolina' as we drove into the border post between Zambia and Malawi. Malawi is currently suffering a huge petrol crisis that is crippling the nation's economy. President Bingu wa Mutharika threw out the British High Commissioner after a leaked cable revealed that the Brit had told London that Mutharika was a "combative president… autocratic and intolerant of criticism" and that "the governance situation continues to deteriorate in terms of media freedom, freedom of speech and minority rights". Following that, the EU and US cut aid, and the Malawian Kwacha became an undesirable currency. Malawi can't therefore buy petrol, as no-one wants to sell a valuable commodity to a country whose currency is about as credible as monopoly money. This has led to higher food prices, half-finished building and road works throughout the country, and a burgeoning petrol black market. We were glad that we had two extra jerry cans in the boot, and before going into the border post, we covered them over with our blanket: police will often confiscate good petrol at any opportunity, as it sells at four times the price.

The border into Malawi felt positively easy in comparison to the border into Zambia. One hour total, and we were through. And that included changing money into Malawian Kwacha. The drive over to Lilongwe was calm and pretty, only spoiled by entering Lilongwe itself which, like Lusaka, is utterly charmless and rather ugly. We stopped at St Peter's Guesthouse, on the grounds of a church, and after sharing our noodle soup with the porters, headed into the centre of town. We were thinking of heading into Mozambique after Malawi, and the guidebook said that everyone needs to have a reflector jacket in their car (which we didn't have), as well as a bunch of other kit (which we already had). Heading into the market, we chatted with the two gentlemen running a hardware shop in the market whilst their friend ran to fetch a jacket for us. They recommended we see the South of the country, which, they assured us, was very beautiful.

Walking back to our car, I spotted some local artists who had their paintings stretched out on the ground in front of them. The vivid colours and pictures of women dancing, Lake Malawi and elephants caught my eye. Whenever Alex and I travel, we always buy a painting - we have some beautiful works from India, Italy, Vienna, Paris, Wales and Cuba, as well as prints, pictures and canvases bought for us when we got married (just no house to put them in yet). I tugged Alex's arm and we walked over. Of course, the minute we looked at one artist's paintings we soon had ten around us, all shouting and holding up their paintings. This was a little confusing for a minute until we laughed and started bargaining, coming away with three beautiful paintings and leaving three happy artists running to the shops before they closed to buy food. I wish I had enough money to buy a painting from all of them.

The next day we high-tailed it out of Lilongwe and headed North, towards Kasungu where a friend of Alex's holds a teaching post in a prestigious school. Called over - again - by the police at a road block, we watched as a woman swayed her hips over to the car and languidly leaned on my window, raising one eyebrow whilst glancing over the contents of the back-seat (mostly mud, and the occasional empty water bottle).
"Hello" she said slowly.
"Hello Officer, how are you?" We replied.
"I'm good, but it's coming to New Year's and we have nothing to celebrate with." She said. We braced ourselves for what we knew was coming. "So we can have New Year's on you..." She smiled slowly.
"On us?" We asked.
"Yes. What you got? Coca-cola, Fanta, chocolate, meat... any meat?"
We truthfully replied that vegetarianism meant we didn't carry any meat on us, we didn't like fizzy drinks and so had no coke or Fanta. She looked at us sceptically and there was a long silence.
"You can search the car if you want" we invited. She certainly wouldn't find anything she liked - just tins of beans and pasta.
"Go." She said, waving us on suddenly. We didn't need a second invitation.

Just before Kasungu, we saw a petrol station where a car looked like it was being filled with petrol from a jerry can followed by an exchange of Kwacha. Pulling over, we asked if there was petrol at the pump.
"No, there is no petrol anywhere in the country, at all. It's very bad."
"Ah. So how do people get petrol?" we asked innocently. The pump attendant looked around, then leaned in close.
"Black market" he whispered and named a price - twice the usual price of Malawian petrol, and four times the price of Namibian petrol. We gulped.
"Thank you, we'll think about it" we said, before driving off into the distance.

We finally reached Kasungu and turned East towards the school where Alex's former Latin teacher, Andrew Goodson, has worked for 10 years teaching Latin and Greek to the students. Andrew, according to Alex, didn't look a day older than when he last saw him and was full of energy and enthusiasm. Showing us around the lovely grounds of the school, we discussed the petrol crisis.
"I waited for seven hours at the pump one day and didn't get any petrol - because the attendants were filling up their own jerry cans to sell on the black market at twice the price. On Christmas Day they finally had another re-fill and I only waited three hours before I was able to fill up. A good gift!" We told him about being offered black market petrol.
"The problem with it is that you don't know if it's actually petrol. Many people's cars have been ruined because they've filled up with what they've thought is petrol but is actually a mixture of different substances." Andrew opened a door to the school clock tower which we rapidly climbed up. "Technically, we're not supposed to be up here" he said with a shrug and a smile, our delight at the view soon pushing aside any moral quibbles. For Alex, catching up with his former teacher was a highlight of Malawi and a great way to spend some time before New Year's Eve. We joined Andrew and two young men for dinner, enjoying a fantastic combination of delightful conversation and amazing cooking. Andrew had studied a great many languages, among them Armenian. Alex and I recalled the language with great pleasure, having studied it for a month in Yerevan this time last year. Andrew was also studying Chichewa, Malawi's national language, and entertained us with renditions of various sentences.
"Interestingly," he said, "there are no names for the stars in Chichewa. The people are like chickens: as soon as it gets dark, they go inside and stay in their huts."
"Too dangerous to be out at night" agreed his young Malawian sidekick.

At the school with Andrew

Leaving Kasungu the next day, we drove to Senga Bay on Lake Malawi, stopping off at various points of interest en route recommended to us by Andrew the day before: a tree where David Livingstone sat to speak to locals, famous potteries now serving as a restaurant. The villages teamed with life, and driving required considerably more attention than in Namibia. We drove between 80-100km/h to ensure good fuel economy and turned off the a/c. We were sure we could make it to the Southern border with Mozambique on the petrol we had, but we didn't know what petrol supplies there were on the other side of the border. The Lonely Planet stated that petrol can be tricky in Mozambique too. We thought there would probably be a petrol station on the other side of the border, but information wasn't easy to find, either in the Lonely Planet or on the 'net, and when we crossed into Botswana for the first time, the petrol stations nearest the border had run out of petrol. If the same thing happened in Mozambique, did we have enough to get down to a town further away from the border? We didn't think so... but pushing these worries aside, we came into Senga Bay and our first glimpse of Lake Malawi. Stunning, stunning, just stunning.

The beach at Senga Bay

That night was New Year's Eve, and by the time we'd arrived at the hotel, the party was already underway. After pitching the tent in the hotel's campsite, we stripped to our swimwear and ran into the lake. Deliciously warm, with a shelf that ran for a huge strip of the lake, meaning that you can wander out for a fair distance before it becomes deep. Music pulsed from the campsite next door to ours, and we picked up cocktails from the bar before settling on the beach with a good book. "Reminds me of Cuba" Alex said, referring to a few days we'd spent on our honeymoon on the beach drinking rum and mojitos in between bouts of swimming in the fabulously warm waters. We'd decided to book in for the New Year's dinner at the hotel, and after bribing the campsite guard to keep an 'extra special eye' on our car and tent, we walked up to the restaurant where the band was already playing a mixture of Malawian and international music. Dinner and dancing in the restaurant soon moved to the beach just before midnight, and as the clock struck twelve, Shakira's 'Waka Waka' was blared out on speakers loud enough for it to be heard over the border. Every song that contained the word 'Africa' followed in quick succession and the crowd went wild. The party continued well into the early light.

New Year's Eve, just before the party began

The beach after the rain the next morning

The next morning, the rainy season started in earnest, and we realised that we'd be unable to cook breakfast for a while. The advantage, however, of using a campsite attached to a posh hotel is the use of the facilities. We went to the hotel gym and worked off the excess of the last few days while the hotel staff cracked up with laughter watching us. Seeing the rain had cleared to reveal beautiful blue skies and sun, we enjoyed a huge breakfast of veggie sausages, egg and beans. Alex had booked a swimming and snorkelling trip to an island near the middle of the lake, and that afternoon we raced over in a speedboat before enjoying a few hours snorkelling and swimming down to wrecks of cars that nestled near the bottom of the lake. In between bouts of swimming, we drank water and snacked on the island. At one point, a large boat of 50 men passed by, shouting to the crew with us that they were on their way to Mozambique to watch a football match. Then they spotted me in my bikini, walking back onto the island, and let out a huge cheer. Red with embarrassment, I ran over to Alex and threw on my sarong to cover up, at which point they let out a collective cry of protest.
"Another thing that's common across cultures" stated Alex as the boat disappeared into the distance and I harrumphed in annoyance.

On the boat on our way to the island

In between snorkelling bouts

The view from the island

That evening, the party on the beach continued. Alex and I slipped out of our hotel's beach and wandered over to the beach next door, where locals were partying hard. Looking around, we noticed we were the only white people, a fact quickly picked up by everyone else. Three children came over and sat next to us, giggling.
"Hello" I said.
"Hello" they replied "Give us money."
"That's a naughty thing to say" I said.
"Oh, sorry. You're pretty. Can we sit with you?" Alex and I laughed and said of course. They quickly asked where we were from, did we like the place, the music, the food. We asked about their families, where they were from, were they enjoying the music. They giggled with each reply.
"Hey, how are you?" A tall young man said, walking over holding a beer.
"Good, how are you?" We replied. Joseph, a young Malawian, was home on leave from his work as a soldier in the British Army ("Here, here's my ID" he said, flipping open his wallet), and he was currently based in Devon. He'd been to Afghanistan with the British Army, and was pleased to be back in the UK. While he added Alex on facebook through his phone and Alex bought him a beer, I danced with the three young boys - who, even at age 8, had considerably better moves than me. One of the boys' mothers came over laughing and began twirling me and the boys around. Alex returned and watched, smiling, before beginning to chat with another local man, called Lloyd. Lloyd told Alex it was nice seeing white people there, and as they chatted long into the night, they discussed Malawi, the UK and Europe, the petrol crisis and international relations. Lloyd tied a bracelet onto Alex's wrist, and then another onto mine when I came over panting, danced out. A sign of friendship and something to ensure we'd never forget him or Malawi. Alex bought him a Coke as we had nothing else to give in return at that moment, and he didn't drink alcohol. He was very pleased and toasted us, the UK and our friendship. The DJ slowly wrapped up and after the crowd had dispersed, we wandered back to our campsite in the dark, paddling in the shallows of the Lake. The stars twinkled brightly as we zipped up the tent and went to sleep.

Lake Malawi

The next day, we sat down and seriously looked at our calculations of petrol, km and distance to go. We'd have enough to get over into Mozambique, but there was still the question of petrol on the other side. We decided not to risk it, and headed back to Zambia. The border crossing was very easy - our previous paperwork was still valid, so going back in cost us nothing at all. An Afrikaaner family said hello as we walked out, and stated that they'd only just made it through Malawi.
"What happened?" we asked
"Couldn't get petrol in that last part of Mozambique" they said "so we had to rush over here. Weren't sure if we'd get here at all. Last time we filled up was Maputo. We've gone through all our jerry cans." We gulped. Looks like it was the right decision to make, even if going back through Zambia was a pain, and a 300km diversion to get to Zimbabwe.

We drove right the way back to Lusaka that day, and gave into temptation to spend another night at the InterContinental. We'd had an email from our insurance people about our claim for the robbery in Botswana. We called them from the hotel phone, and they called us back so it was on their bill (have you ever heard of an insurance company being that considerate?). We held our breath to listen what they had to say.
"We've paid it, it's all been authorised. Money will be in your account shortly."
"Fantastic - do you need receipts?"
"What for?" They replied. Clearly things here were done a little differently to back home.
"Well, great!" We said, and after hanging up we worked out what the amount would be in pounds. Enough to buy back everything we'd lost. Wooohoooo! The new year was going well - so far. Tomorrow, we were facing the border crossing into Zimbabwe. And this time, it was our car that would also need to be stamped in.

Friday, 20 January 2012

Zambia (and a bit of Zim)

The ferry from Botswana to Zambia

Trooper on the ferry - notice there's no ropes holding the car down, or a lip at the back to stop anyone rolling off.

It took five hours all in all to cross from Botswana to Zambia. We arrived at 6am and, after an hour at the Botswana border post, waited another two hours in the queue to get onto the ferry, which could only take one lorry and two cars at any one time. Given that there was a queue of lorries 1.5km long that morning, we were glad that cars were able to just nip in front of them on each journey. By 9am, we'd crossed over the river and then set about the enormous task of completing the paperwork on the Zambian side. We'd already got our visas - brilliant - but then had to get a 'temporary import permit' for the car, pay carbon tax, insurance, and police tax for the car, and each of these things is in a different building and a different queue. Some of it had to be paid in US dollars, some in Zambian Kwacha. And since you can't really get Kwacha outside of Zambia, you have to change some money there and then. There's a bank, but it's well hidden and hundreds of touts are tugging on your shirt to get you to change money with them. All in all, it was a slightly stressful two hours, and Alex and I felt a little frayed by the time we finally pulled out onto the road to Livingstone, at 11am.

At the first police check, the policeman stopped us immediately.
"Where is your front registration plate? This is very serious." I got out of the car to look - we hadn't even noticed that it was gone until then (we later looked back through our photos, and saw the one of Trooper on the ferry. The front plate was indeed gone - we'd had it when we went into Chobe...). Some definite over-politeness would be needed to get us out of this one, although he seemed very friendly.
"Oh Sir, thank you so much for showing us!! We drove through Chobe and got stuck in the mud. It got sucked off! We are hoping to get a better one here in Zambia, I hear the quality is better here."
He smiled broadly. "Did you see the lions in Chobe?" he asked
"It was beautiful! So many... and so many elephants"
"Elephants!! How wonderful. Go on, you can go. Enjoy our country."

The day before Christmas Eve, we booked a booze cruise on the Zambezi river from one of Livingstone's nicer hotels (this meant we didn't have to suffer a boat trip with some of the awful French teenagers staying in the same hostel as us). The boat was of Titanic proportions, the setting was beautiful, and more importantly there was an open bar on every floor. Alex and I quickly sorted ourselves out with enough wine to inebriate a small elephant and settled on deck watching the hippos and crocodiles in the water (from a safe distance). A Zambian guide got up and gave a garbled account of Zambia's colonial history, and in the silence that followed, a slightly deaf American tourist loudly complained that she 'couldn't hear a darned word he said'.

The mighty Zambezi

Enjoying drinks on board

Sunset and Hippos

We worked our way up the decks, and by the end of the evening had settled on the top deck of the boat swapping 'worst guest' and drinking stories with the bar staff after they found out I'd also worked in a hotel in the UK. They liked my tale of a Saudi prince who'd stayed in our 4 star hotel in Cardiff and called down to room service demanding that we send up a woman. We'd popped over the road to Tescos and sent up some Hustler instead. This is the difference between a 4 and a 5 star hotel in the UK, I explained.

Second stop in Zambia: Victoria Falls. This wonder of the natural world crosses the border between Zambia and Zimbabwe, and since the political trouble in Zimbabwe, the Zambian side has seen a booming tourist industry. Christmas Eve, Alex and I drove down to the national park, paid our entry fee, and wandered in. The noise hit us first - a huge, tumultuous roaring. Then the spray, soaking us instantly. And then, wandering around the greenery, the first sight of the Falls, tonnes of water tipping over the edge of the rocks and crashing down to the shelf below. Rainbows glistened in the sun. After wandering around and appreciating the Falls from as many angles as the Zambia side allowed, Alex and I walked to the top of the Falls and waded across, with a park guide, to the edge of 'Angel's Pool', where it's safe to jump into the Falls and land in a pool of water, swim to the edge and look over. In this pool, you don't get carried over the edge, (fortunately), and we waved to the tourists on the Zimbabwe side who were excitedly taking photos of our endeavours. Afternoon nap, reading and relaxing before enjoying a supper of noodles and soup.

Victoria Falls, Zambian side

Totally soaked, utterly happy.

Angel's Pool, our guide jumping in. The cliff in the background is actually on the Zimbabwean side.

Alex has a go

I'm not so sure, slightly put off by the tourists in Zimbabwe shouting 'do it'!

Alex has another go

Swimming in Angel's Pool

Walking back through the park, looking down over the edge

Christmas Day, we decided to see the Falls from the Zimbabwe side as well. Of course, we had no idea if this would be possible, but we thought we'd try. Getting into Zimbabwe for Brits is notoriously difficult, with various bribes and fines the order of the day. Maybe, we thought, since they're used to tourists here, it might be ok. The Zambian side of the border was easy - especially since we were there at 6am on Christmas Day, we were the only ones around and we were on foot having left the car on the Zambian side. We walked over the bridge that separated Zambia from Zimbabwe and gingerly went into immigration to greet the gentleman sitting behind the desk.
"Good morning Sir, how are you?" we greeted deferentially "is it possible to go and see the Falls today?"
"Yes, indeed it is. What country are you from?"
"UK." He narrowed his eyes.
"Then that will depend if you fulfill the visa requirements, and if you have enough money on you."
"Ok, no problem at all, Sir. We are sooooo looking forward to seeing your beautiful country, Sir. We've heard sooooo much about it, the friendly people, the beautiful landscape, the lovely food. We thought, we must bring our dollars here and see it ourselves." His eyes widened with pleasure. After a few more minutes of polite chatter and praising of the country, we were finally granted a double-entry visa ("It will save you money when you come through again"), and nearly ran through the gates at the other end.
The Falls from the Zimbabwe side were stunning - much more expansive than on the Zambian side, and more impressive. The spray prevented us from getting any amazing photos, but we were very, very glad to have seen both sides of the Falls. The Zimbabwean Victoria Falls Park, on the other hand, felt neglected, run-down, a little sad even. And very quiet. We were looking forward to passing through Zimbabwe on our way back to Windhoek - the people had been very friendly once you got past the border posts and the country was clearly very beautiful. We walked back over to Zambia (thank goodness we got multi-entry visas) and checked out of our hotel, setting out for Lusaka for the rest of Christmas Day.

Our first glimpse of the Falls on the Zimbabwean side

Lusaka is a rather charmless and ugly city. Alex was pulled over twice by police for 'fines' even though his driving was top-notch, especially when compared to the driving of those around him - but we do stand out a little as foreigners. The first fine we were told, was going to be US$50. Alex stated "Sir, we don't have the money" and pulled out our police report from Botswana. It worked. They shook their heads, said "too bad for you" and let us go on our way. We breathed a sigh of relief until the same thing happened ten minutes later in the middle of the city - and this time, the officer wanted us to accompany him to the station. As we parked in the police station car park, he ushered into the building a man in handcuffs and a woman whose neck, shoulders and face were badly grazed and bleeding. She'd lost two front teeth and her lips were swelling by the minute. Some bloody gauze stuffed in her mouth stemmed the flow of blood. The man had, apparently, pushed her from a moving vehicle. While one officer watched the couple, the more senior of the two showed us into his office and swung his stomach into a seat behind his desk, smiling broadly.
"So... what are you doing in Zambia?"
"We're tourists. We're volunteers in Namibia."
"You are not from Namibia?"
"No, UK."
At that moment, a sudden cry was raised outside. The man in handcuffs had taken advantage of the quiet to run away and had jumped the fence! The officer with us gulped and said quickly "you two, I forgive you, you can go" before running outside. We watched as three officers pursued the man Keystone-Cops style into the distance. The bleeding girl was crying with rage and hurt. We gave her some water, sorry that the officers were more preoccupied with making money off us than helping her.

We spent the rest of Christmas Day checked into a posh hotel in Lusaka, the InterContinental, a treat for the holiday. We enjoyed a good dinner whilst discussing how we felt about Christmas and holiday traditions. I thought back to a boy's group I ran in Windhoek, when I'd asked them what they were looking forward to about Christmas. "We each get our own cool drink!" said one, and another added "and then we go to the village and make a fire. Our grandparents tell us what it was like to be young and how to make traditional medicines. Then we dance and clap. I'm really looking forward to it!" We were both missing our families at this time of year, hugely, but we didn't miss the commercialism and stress of the holiday.

The following day, having obtained a new number plate for the front of the car for a cool US$15, we headed off to a campsite just on the Luangwa river, where we bumped into two Canadian English teachers, one working in Malawi and one in Beirut. Their car - a Land Rover - had broken down and they were awaiting a mechanic. "Make sure you take enough petrol to Malawi, there's a real shortage there" they said. We were glad we had two jerry cans with us. The night was passed with whisky, and intense discussion of the merits of bunjee-jumping and whether men should cry or not (the two subjects are definitely related). We left the next day before we knew if their car was repairable - wherever they are, I wish them well! Shortly afterwards, we heard about the Australian tourist whose bungee cord snapped at Victoria Falls that same week. She fell into the Zambezi, but survived with minor injuries, and was fished out by the Zimbabwean Police. I wonder what the Canadians thought about it.

Luangwa River

Our campsite

Tikondane Community Camp, in Katete, was our last stop in Zambia before heading on to Malawi. We'd read about the community centre in the Lonely Planet, which discussed some of the good work they do in the area. We stopped off for a couple of nights, and had the luck of bumping into John, a VSO volunteer who had been with VSO since 1991, and was something of a VSO legend. Discovering that I was Welsh, he revealed that he also was from Cardiff, and we spent the evening over three beers discussing Maggie Thatcher and the miner's strike, Cardiff Bay's new developments, the latest rugby matches, and all things VSO and Africa-related. John had met Mandela when working in South Africa, and had been here so long that he now felt that Africa was more his home than the UK. He showed us around the local hospital, which made Katatura state hospital in Windhoek look positively luxurious. His big project there was the building of a new children's wing, which was going splendidly - John really knew what he was doing. I wish with all my heart the very best of luck to John and his projects.

We also had a glass of wine with Elke, the dynamic German woman who runs Tikondane. Having left Germany at a young age, and lived in Australia, Elke runs Tikondane with a huge passion. Alex helped Elke by looking at some funding proposals that she was considering writing. One was for USAID, which offered funding to projects that had 'universal applicability' and could be 'scaled up and used everywhere'. The fact that USAID thinks that there should be an easy one-solution-fits-all project for all development everywhere regardless of cultural, political and historical context demonstrates the continuing idiocy of donors, who expect the earth for the meagre sums they deign to give, and then expect local solutions to local problems to work everywhere from Afghanistan to Argentina. Elke arranged for us to see the Tikondane centre and the local community, to see how they were approaching solutions to their development issues. We went with two new interns to meet a village headman to discuss why he had given huge amounts of land to Tikondane for development projects, and walked around the centre with one of the volunteers there. Alex gave the volunteer a tip afterwards, and the following day he told us "you have put food on my table - thank you so much" before heading off to do more work.

Cyclists in Katete

Villages lining the road

John, a VSO-er since 1991


Playing with the puppies at Tikondane

Rotary gets everywhere - here they've sponsored a school in the community

The young man working at the community centre with the two interns, on our way to meet the village headman

On our way to Chipata and then the border

Avoiding the touts who hammered on our windows offering to change money on the black market, we headed to the border with Malawi, making sure we filled up with as much petrol as we could. We were really excited about seeing the lake over New Year's, and visiting a friend in Malawi too. And then - who knows? Zikomo, Zambia - it was great!