And so we come to the end of this little adventure, but here’s a small innovation for the last travel blog – a combination of photo gallery and blog post with a couple of video clips thrown in. I hope Yury is happy with the balance between text and images at last? 😉
(Click on the photo to open the slideshow view)
And that is about that. Troopy will be in a box until November and I seem to have brought the rainy season to the South of France. Its been entertaining for me – so until next time, thank you for following!
I was worried that this post was going to be all a bit samey…we’d travelled around Lake Malawi and stayed in some lovely places (and some only slightly less so), but enthusing about the beautiful scenery of lakes and mountains and the friendly people of Malawi didn’t seem to have a story to grab the reader. Then we crossed into Zambia and spent a couple of days and nights surrounded by the sights, smells and sounds of wildlife in all its forms, and we have tales to tell. So the delay caused by the scarcity of any usable internet has turned out for the best I think – but apologies anyway!
That isn’t to say our travels through Malawi weren’t worth reporting – a country we went through as a result of a late change of plan after not getting into Mozambique turned out to be a highlight of the trip. Its just that I feel a little as if it was too nice, and we spent lots of time in swimming in the clear (though Bilharzia afflicted) waters, snorkelling and watching the multicoloured fish and crabs. We spent a couple of nights up on the escarpment overlooking the lake at an eco-campsite, eating excellent vegan food (see Katana’s food blog on that) and visiting Malawi’s highest waterfalls.
But again I’m getting ahead of myself – our first experience of Lake Malawi was in fact in Tanzania, just before the border. We camped on a sandy beach under the shade of a tree at the Blue Canoe Safari Lodge at the end of a long day’s drive from Songea – the last 50km in the dark over dusty, rough, stoney roads filled with bicycles, pedestrians, goats and oncoming headlights. We even got bogged in soft sand 2km from our destination – requiring the full 4WD capabilities of Troopy to get unstuck, and leaving us with the front hubs stuck in Lock position as a spring had slipped off inside preventing release. This was the first use since the repairs at Toyota Kenya…so I have suspicions! Its OK now though – I dismantled and reassembled the locking mechanisms in some quiet time further down the lake. But anyway, we spent 2 nights at the Blue Canoe, spending a full day there swimming in the lake and cleaning Troopy inside and out – and maybe having a luxury G&T on the veranda of the lodge whilst watching the sun set. It was an easy place to linger, and the bananas we bought in the village (Matema) were the tastiest I’ve ever had – short and fat, with a hint of pineapple.
On our second morning, we packed up and headed for the border – the rough road was a lot easier to drive in daylight! Apart from a slightly eye-watering fee of $100 for Katana’s visa (my entry stamp cost nothing), the formalities at the border were pretty painless and we rolled into Malawi not really knowing what to expect.
I like Malawi a lot. The people are friendly when approached but not intrusive – even the boys who wanted to ‘guide’ us around the waterfalls got the message that we wanted to just chill and experience the natural environment so left us alone. The lake has the clearest waters I can remember, showing off the multicoloured (and unique) fish that inhabit it, along with some big and colourful crabs that I was surprised to find in a freshwater lake. Away from the lake the forests were dry and dotted with forest fires, but these didn’t seem the result of land clearance rather than random dry-season events. We didn’t venture into the National Parks, but saw plenty of smaller wildlife (and larger spiders!).
Our first night in Malawi was at Chitimba at a campsite frequented by commercial overland trucks – a strange way to travel I think – the trucks we have seen are not particularly adapted to rough terrain or anything (no 4-wheel drive or rugged suspension for example), but they carry lots of camping equipment and it seems a popular way to see the continent. The passengers do seem a little jaded on arrival, though I guess the same could often be said for us after a hard day on the road! We swam in the surf on the lake with a mixture of local kids and western travellers – quite a bruising experience in the morning after the wind had created quite a swell on the sea-sized lake.
We then made the short drive up 15km of rocky track hairpins to The Mushroom Farm, an eco-campsite where we looked down on the lake, swinging in a hammock in the forest. It was from here we walked up the hill to the waterfalls with a classic view of water pouring off an escarpment over a lush forest with vine-bearded trees.
Leaving there we took the back (dirt) road through the hills – mixed forest, fields and banana plants – back towards the lake at Nkhata Bay. On the way we checked out the slightly strange world of Livingstonia – a mission settlement that was established by the Scots up in the hills away from the malaria-ridden lakeshore. It is little more than a hilltop village, but alongside the rather British-looking church it now has a university – I suspect studying here is a different experience to most!
After another couple of stops camping by the lake, it was time to head West, possibly without a wild swim until we hit the Atlantic! We’re getting used to these border crossings now, so we had little trouble though some annoyance getting into Zambia – the usual currency touts and a few extra charges were little more than an irritant. After a stopover in Chipata, where we picked up a couple of backpackers who were heading our way, we made the trip to South Luangwa National Park with the aim of seeing some big African wildlife. We were not to be disappointed. Slightly terrified, but not disappointed.
As we set up camp at The Wildlife Camp on the banks of the Luangwa River, just outside the park proper, we were already treated to hippos lounging in the water and a variety of antelope heading down for a drink. Later on, elephants appeared out of the bush on the far bank, crossed the river and passed by the camp just 20m from where we watched. Baboons and monkeys caused minor mayhem as usual and we were told stories of elephants rolling cars over after smelling oranges inside. As more elephants passed behind the camp, something made a fearsome growl from the pond – a hippo had taken up residence and objected to the elephants intrusion…a sentiment I was to appreciate myself, though I’m not big enough to risk or be able to growl like that – it sounded like an angry lion.
That night, we slept to the sounds of hippos booming and munching grass, elephants rhythmic rumblings, and a loud chorus of frogs. In the morning we wondered why the backpackers we had given a lift had moved their little tent across the site and under one of the thatched shelters. It turned out that an elephant had brushed past their tent in the night, and they had thought better of the instruction to stay in your tent on the basis that it was a tiny tent that an elephant could easily tread on and squash them without noticing. This was just 20m from our camping spot in Troopy, and I thought that was quite close enough, even if a little disappointed to have missed seeing it.
We spent the day watching wildlife from the camp – more elephants came and went, and hippos plodded back and forth between the trees and the river. But to see lions, we went on a night drive into the park. Check out the photos for week 19 – we saw leopards close up, more elephants, and lions hunting zebra. It was quite a chilling experience to be amidst big cats in the wild, wandering around and occasionally glaring at us as they woke up and prepared for their night’s hunting. Then it absolutely chucked it down with rain and we were glad of the canvas roof over the open top landrover we were in, even though we still got drenched.
Back at camp we settled in to sleep. Not for long. The unmistakable stomach-rumbling communication of elephants came closer, and we were aware of a big old tusker wandering up the gulley into the camp. We heard the shredding of leaves and snapping of branches as the elephant devoured the nearby trees. Then it was right there outside our mosquito net – this was actually really scary after hearing the stories of wrecked cars and break-ins to storage rooms. We felt extremely vulnerable in the canvas and plastic roof platform we sleep in, just a couple of metres from and at the same level as a big elephant’s backside. Katana was particularly glad it didn’t have to take a leak…we would have drowned. We held our breath and tried to calm our heartbeats…and in the end it moved slowly away and on past the end of the campsite as we watched, now more excited than scared. Another big elephant and a little baby one then came the same way, and by now we were only slightly terrified and hugely in awe. What a fantastic experience?
So as we drove around the park the next day, taking Troopy to see the wildlife (and glad we did because some of the tracks were now very soft and muddy, or just plain wet), we had a slightly different feeling about the big grey silent giants. We saw lots of wildlife, including giraffes which we hadn’t seen since Samburu in Kenya, but couldn’t track down any more lions. Afterwards we camped at another campsite just outside the park gates – I figured we’d try a spot in the middle this time, away from the trees since one close encounter with an elephant was quite enough – unforgettable, actually awesome, but quite enough thank you. So we parked up by a thatched camp shelter and went for a swim in the pool overlooking the river – not bad accommodation for $10? Obviously, an elephant then wandered through camp and went to work hoovering up acacia pods from around the raised pool area. I could have reached out and patted him on the mud-caked head.
So – enough with all the elephants you think? Not quite. The closest, scariest experience we saved til that night. As it turned out, we had camped on the very spot where the previous night some elephants had come raiding the camp and found a metal storage box of food securely locked up. They had smashed it, and used the plastic (sealed) rubbish bins to bang on a car roof. I almost decided to move…
I woke from a deep sleep for some reason. Something moved on the thatched roof outside Katana’s mosquito-net window…oh hell, baboons I thought and made shusshing noises and waved at it. It jumped onto the side of the car and ran down the outside of the canvas. Shhhoosh, get off I whispered and leant over to swat at it. As my hand made contact, I woke up another notch and thought, “That’s not a baboon…”. Baboons are not so dense and heavy feeling, nor are they 6ft long and grey. They also don’t have big, white curved tusks. All those warnings about being quiet, not moving and not startling elephants came rushing back. This could end very badly.
Fortunately, it seemed to take the hint and backed away. I looked out on 2 adults and a young elephant wandering round the back of Troopy. Then a trunk appeared, sniffing at the back window as I struggled out of my sleeping sheet. Then there was a loud tearing noise and a clang of tusk against metal and I had visions of the roof being ripped off with one easy swing of an elephant’s head. I might have slightly lost it at this point and despairingly shouted at the intruding grey face. It seemed to work, or the big old softy felt sorry for me, or didn’t like how I smell (most likely, I hadn’t brushed my teeth) – but all 3 elephants turned and walked off to look at the next camping pitch, and then off the site followed by the 2 night-watchmen and their torches.
There was no damage – the tearing was the velcro of the mossie-net windows being pulled apart. We pulled the roof down and slept downstairs…with just the sound of wild dogs or jackals, hippos and frogs to add to the intermittent alarm calls of the birds. We left the next day, fully satisfied with our wildlife encounters, though I am still rather embarrassed to have mistaken an elephant for a baboon and slapped it on the trunk.
Today I realized, looking at our supplies, that everything we use every day in the car has become an interesting array of international products, some even from countries we haven’t visited! (yet)
Since we left Ethiopia, we haven’t had much luck finding local delicious vegan cuisine, unless you count Indian food. Especially in Kenya and Tanzania we found many Indian restaurants and fast-food places, some specifically listed as “vegetarian”. Starting with Kenya, the first disappointment for us came when we stayed in a hotel and for breakfast, without being asked, were served eggs, liver, and other non-vegan products. This was very upsetting, mostly because we were not even asked what we wanted: the hotel had a breakfast menu, but they just assumed we wanted the Kenyan-style full breakfast. In the end we settled for stale pieces of bread with tiny sprinkles of jam.
When we stayed in Nairobi for a week, we checked out one of the vegetarian restaurants in the city, which was an Indian place. The food really was remarkable, and because the hike to the restaurant was a long, hot and exhausting one, we stuffed ourselves silly. Unfortunately I can’t remember the name of the restaurant now, and I can’t seem to be too sure which of the vegetarian ones listed on HappyCow this one actually was.
We were in Nairobi for a long time, so we had to cook for ourselves for the majority of our stay at JJ’s. Luckily, there was a little market nearby, where we could count on the lovely ladies to sell us the best tomatoes, potatoes, oranges, bananas, and other various vegetables and fruits. One of the first days we were there, Jonathan made a soup out of squash, and a cucumber and tomato salad. It was delicious, considering I don’t even like squash.
No conversation about Kenya is complete without mentioning the banana chips. Dried crunchy banana strips with savory rather than sweet flavoring. We even got the other campers addicted to the stuff!
In Tanzania we had more Indian food – twice in Dar es Salaam, and a few times eating in the campsites’ restaurants. HappyCow has several listings for vegetarian restaurants in Dar, and as it turned out, we tried pretty much the main ones. We had lunch in a small lunch place Purnima Restaurant where the “no animal products” idea was understood correctly and immediately, and we were given a plate of various fried finger-foods, which we devoured mostly before I even remembered to take a picture!
For a pre-dinner snack we headed to yet another fast-food vegetarian Indian place, 56 Bhoq, where we had more fried finger-food, and for dinner we went next door to Retreat Royal, where foolishly I decided to order something that sounded completely alien and not ask in advance what it was – it came with a splash of cheese on top, so I had to swap it for our Rui’s (our dinner guest) meal, which was a basic vegetable curry.
Jonathan’s meal was much more enticing, as it came in pancake-type wrappings. Again, very solid meals with interesting flavors, although sadly not as spicy as we would have liked. The only problem I had was with the starter, some fried vegetable balls which had a minty flavor, and I hate mint.
We had a mishap in Tanzania as well in terms of being vegan: while we were staying in Peponi, on the northern Tanzanian coast, and our vegan needs were clearly understood, one night they were not met. We ordered a couple of vegetable samosas, and one of them turned out to be a crab one. Understandably, it is impossible to tell the difference in pre-cooked samosas, but still it was a nasty shock for me to bite into one. Thankfully I don’t have an allergy to crab meat, but that does not in any way negate my disgust, my sadness, and the stomach cramps I got afterwards. However, we believe this sort of mistake will never happen again at Peponi, as the cook, the servers, and the manager, all took the time to get to the bottom of this situation and apologized many times over.
At another beach lodge, further south down the coast, at Kilwa Beach Resort, we were given a custom meal of carrot and coriander soup, vegetable stew and vegetable curry (which looked exactly the same and had exactly the same ingredients except the flavor and the spices were different), and a fried banana dessert. The food was filling, but not in any way was it spectacular cuisine. Still, we were happy to be catered for and understood exactly what we eat and don’t eat.
Nothing special can be said about our meal in Masasi, as we just had potato fries and beer. However, it was in Masasi that we bought our biggest, stalest, most bizarre bread loaf yet! It was filling bread, but it had to be toasted in order to be eaten, otherwise it was a strange combination of chewy, dense, dry and mostly inedible.
Driving to Malawi, we stayed one night near the Matema village, in the Blue Canoe Safari Lodge, which had few veggie options on the menu, but they made an amazing Indian vegetable curry there, and had authentic German sauerkraut to go with it. Strange combination, but delicious nonetheless.
What can be said for Malawi, other than the all-vegetarian meals provided in the Mushroom Farm, where we stayed two nights. Both nights we had the communal dinner (with special modifications made for us, and we didn’t even have to explain veganism, the word alone worked its magic) and also on our last morning there we ordered breakfast off the menu, again with small modifications (no fried eggs for Jonathan). I tried a typical Malawian porridge with mashed banana, potato, onion, groundnut and who knows what else! It was very filling and very tasty.
Other than that, any place I haven’t mentioned, we probably cooked in the car or had potato fries, which is the no-fail options for vegans traveling anywhere, at least in Africa. We had them in a market where the lady who fried them spoke no English at all, we had them in an empty campsite where the restaurant and bar area were shut most of the time, we had them in a busy campsite where the bartender did not understand what “vegetable samosa” meant so we ordered fries, again and again and again. My problem with it is the repetition: usually I eat them so rarely that they become a nice little treat, but having to succumb to the oily fried potatoes day-in and day-out, I am getting a little sick of the taste. The only thing that makes it bearable is the variety of hot sauces we have encountered in all the countries so far.
The other amazing thing we found in Malawi, a bit too late I am afraid, is the local corn-puff treat, salty and tasting slightly of instant noodles, we only bought one bag on our way to the Zambian border, and ate it within five minutes.
Another thing to be mentioned here is the lack of variety in most villages’ markets: apart from the usual tomato, onion and whatever local fruit, the markets provide little food even to us, so cooking for ourselves sometimes becomes redundant as well. We’ve encountered cabbage, potatoes, but most of the produce on sale is either over-ripe bananas, unripe or overripe papaya or mango, and buckets of tomatoes, sometimes nice and red, sometimes pale yellow and green. We started buying baked beans in tomato sauce and eating them on toast for breakfast. A little slice of home is sometimes the most welcome.
Originally the idea of going to Dar es Salaam started with Rui – the girl we met on the Danakil Depression tour back in Ethiopia. She is currently interning in Dar es Salaam, so we figured we would go as we needed to visit some embassies in the city as well.
Getting into Dar is a very un-amusing story of horrible traffic and after-dark driving. When we finally got to Mikadi Beach Resort, we were so exhausted that all we could do was drink beer and eat dinner before retiring for the night. The next morning we took the 10-minute ferry from Kigamboni to the center of town, a completely overloaded, extremely cheap, and seemingly efficient piece of transportation. We walked around the center of Dar, visited the Mozambique embassy (which was very unhelpful in telling us which borders are open, or whether we can get visas on the border – but very quick to point out that for a ridiculous amount of money we can get the visas in one day; we left empty-handed), then we took a somewhat expensive taxi to the north of Coco beach to visit the South African embassy. While staying at JJ’s in Nairobi, we met a Russian/Ukrainian/British traveller who informed me that I need a South African visa, and unlike most visas people get traveling overland in Africa, this visa is very hard to obtain with my Russian passport. The lady at the SA embassy in Dar informed me that the rules are very strict – I will need a whole stack of documents, and who knows how long the process will take, considering they apparently would have to send my info to Russia (or the closest Russian embassy I am guessing) to check that I am who I say I am. Well, we also left empty-handed.
Later we walked around Dar some more, had lunch at a small vegetarian Indian diner, where we also bought magical spicy-salty snacks, checked out the Botanical Gardens, and finally in the evening met Rui for a nice Indian meal at another vegetarian Indian restaurant Retreat Royal.
We got on the ferry again, and as it was already dark at this point, and they say Dar is very dangerous at night, took a tuk-tuk back to Mikadi, where we went for a swim in the outdoor pool (salty just like the ocean) and for some reason danced and did imitations of crabs under water. The next morning, after the obligatory swim in the ocean, we headed south. The road was actually pleasant, and it took us around the more relaxed southern coast of Tanzania, where palm trees and tiny villages were all scattered between heavy bushes and general greenery. We came to Kilwa Masoko and from there travelled a bit north and east to find the Kilwa Beach Lodge, a short journey through a labyrinth of tiny roads.
Kilwa Beach Resort was deserted when we got there, but the next day filled up with a few Japanese swimmers and the owner’s family. It is a very nice spot – clear water, relatively young palms, white sand, cute houses, and an interesting overall design. We camped with a morning view of the ocean!
As per usual when we find a nice place to chill, we decided to stay two nights. The good thing about this resort is the constant wind, which keeps you cool even in the most relentless sunny days. We had a long excursion into the water with our snorkeling gear and my underwater camera, but the biggest life underneath was green-orange seaweed which was a little icky to step on, but actually seemed to contain no life other than tiny burrowing fish.
All good things must end at some point, so on our second morning in Kilwa we said our goodbyes and headed to the ferry border with Mozambique. We didn’t know for sure that we would get our visas on the border, or that this border crossing even existed. One of our maps showed no border crossing at all, google maps was unclear, the paper Tanzania map said “dugout canoe crossing” and only the Mozambique paper map said “ferry”. The drive was similar to most of southern coastal Tanzania. Before hitting the border, we decided to camp for the night in the town of Mtwara, in a place called “Drive-In Garden and Cliff Bar”. A charming little beer garden and restaurant with a space or two for camping, and a couple of rooms as well. The owner seems to be an old Polish lady, who told us she married a Tanzanian man and came here in 1971. We might or might not have had one too many “Safari” beers, which are 5.5% each.
The next morning, when we got to the last town (more like village) before the river, the Tanzanian immigration informed us that there is no way they are going to issue us a visa on the other side, and it made no sense for us to even get on the expensive ferry. Apparently, there are no visas to be issued on the border with Tanzania at all. Crestfallen, we decided to try the next crossing anyway, the Unity Bridge.
We took small roads to get up to Masasi, first following the river Rovuma west, then going diagonally north to join the main road. In some ways, this was an amazing discovery – most of the area was completely wild, with thick bushes or sudden openings onto the river. We saw almost no traffic, only people walking or riding bicycles. Everybody stared at us as if we were aliens, as I am sure very few foreigners pass these parts on a regular basis. Children were laughing, pointing, some waving, older women smiled and waved, and men usually just stared, some literally with their jaws open. We got to Masasi around 4pm, and decided to stay before trying the Unity Bridge the next day. We stayed at a lodge in a nice enough room, and cooked dinner and breakfast in Troopy.
At the immigration post on the Tanzanian side just before the bridge, the same story happened: they told us that the Mozambique side does not issue visas at all. Still, they let us go on the bridge to ask the Mozambique immigration ourselves. It was kind of exhilarating crossing over into the country we have been so excited to see on our travels, but mostly knowing that we won’t be allowed in. The Rovuma river is quite magnificent, if somewhat dry at the moment, and the bridge is new and shiny. The Mozambique immigration were very gracious, but there was nothing they could do: as it turns out, no border crossing along the Rovuma river issues Mozambique visas. It was all a big great waste of time, thanks to a couple of embassy representatives that have led us on to believe false information. By this point we already had a new plan formed, it was only the feeling of not getting to travel to Mozambique that was depressing us. We crossed back into Tanzania, said goodbye to the lovely immigration office, and headed west.
Our new plan is to go to Malawi and Zambia instead of Mozambique. Time is ticking and unfortunately we just don’t have enough to either go back to Dar and wait for visas and then come back south again and go through Mozambique, and we also can’t afford to go through Malawi into Mozambique, to the coast, and then back inland again to Zimbabwe. It is a great shame, but at least we got to see the Indian ocean, and there is always future trips to take care of the Mozambique coast!
From Masasi to the border, then back to the main road and west until Tunduru, all of it on dirt roads, took us most of the day. We stayed in a pleasant guesthouse in Tunduru, ate chips, drank a beer or two, and watched movies. The next morning, bright and early, having spent most of our last Tanzanian cash on diesel, we headed west to Songea, which is the “big” city around these parts. This was the worst road for me so far on the whole trip. It wasn’t just a dirt road, it wasn’t just corrugated, and it wasn’t just potholed: it was every possible horrendous torture that a road could bring, and more. 275 km took us about 7 hours to complete, including a lunch stop in the forest. If the road was better, maybe I could have paid more attention to the lovely surrounding forest, which was mostly wild, with little to no human activity in most parts. We didn’t see wildlife either, but I wouldn’t be surprised that any elephants lurking in the bushes would have been hidden from view by the dust, the thick trees, and their amazing ability to camouflage. In Songea we found a hotel with real internet, so it was about time to update! In two days or so we should be able to reach Malawi.