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!


  1. Hi there, wonderful pictures. It looks like you are having a wonderful experience.

    I've got onto your blog by following the link from the VSO blog site, hoping to make contact with someone who can guide me with finding out more on how to become a volunteer, particularly in the field of HIV/Aids, and business, community and general project management. I'm currently in South Africa, but there is the possibility of us moving to Namibia within the next 6 months. I will then have the ability to volunteer for 12-24 months. Can you suggest anyone who van assist? I can't seem to register from South Africa.

    Kindest regards, and best wishes with your journey and efforts. You can email me at

  2. Hi Emil,

    Thanks for your comment - unfortunately, because of budget cuts in the UK, VSO Namibia was one of the offices chosen by VSO UK to be closed down and will wind up finally in March 2013. They're not taking any more volunteers on - we were the last from the UK to come here - and other donor agencies are also withdrawing rapidly from Namibia as it's been classed a 'middle income country' (stupid considering the unequal distribution of wealth). However, there are lots of opportunities to volunteer here, but only if you're prepared to work for free - absolutely free. If you are, then I can put you in contact with some people who would be happy to have extra hands.

    Best wishes,


  3. Hi Linda, thanks for the response. Yes, the idea was always to volunteer without the expectation of earning. I would really appreciate some contacts, and I can take it from there. You are welcome to e-mail me on aegjung(at)gemail(dot)com.
    All the best for the remainder of your time.