Sunday, 12 July 2009

Thundering Smoke

We spent a few more days relaxing in Kasane, although the wildlife made it difficult at times. After the monkeys spent four hours at our camping pitch one day I decided to invest some time in making a catapult. It works really well, we don't need to use it, all we have to do it show it to them and they make sure they're out of sight. Catapults are generally the weapon of choice against monkey raids and they are well recognised. Even so, we've still managed to lose coffee, matches, bread and porridge to them. More annoyingly we lost a brand new 500g pack of butter to a warthog when it raided our breakfast table! The birds have also been braving up, learning that they can land on and eat bread while it's toasting on the fire - clever! It is amazing to watch the monkeys at work though (on other peoples pitches), they are so intelligent - opening drawers and bags, we even had one on the roof of our car trying to unscrew a jerry can!

During our time in Kasane we bumped into Ian, the guy we'd been in touch with since we'd left, and met in Ghana. He had shipped from Ghana to Durban, but our paths had crossed again, in Choppies supermarket of all places. He happened to be staying at the same campsite so we had a good catch up about the trials and traumas of overland travel.

We headed off to a local forest reserve one morning with the hope of spotting lion, inviting Ian along too. A fairly uneventful day, we saw a few animals but no lion. We'd had a slightly squeaky belt that I'd been putting off sorting out. On the way back the air conditioning stopped working. A jesty comment about how it was probably the air conditioning belt that was squeaking and we carried on. A few minutes later Ian spotted the dash board light up like a Christmas tree, and the engine temperature gauge started rocketing upwards. I hit the brakes and pulled off the road, cutting the engine just as it hit the red. A brief inspection confirmed what we'd suspected, the air conditioning belt had broken, unfortunately it had taken both alternator belts with it which also drive the water pump and fan. Fortunately we had spares of all three belts, so out came the car manual and we started fiddling trying to work out how to fit them. After half an hour of battling away a car pulled over to help. Conveniently it was two mechanics from Chobe Motors who happened to be passing. "The fan belt has broken, but it's ok, we've got spares" Ian told them. "Well why don't you put them in then?" came the ever so helpful response. Ah! So that's what we're supposed to do with spares then is it?? They took over and twenty minutes later all the belts were in and the engine was running again.

Friday arrived and we took Stanley into Chobe Motors for them to get to work on our suspension. After they'd changed one spring the car was looking very low at the front. Quick inspection and it was obvious there was not nearly enough lift in the new springs, the rubber stopper touching the axle. After some discussion and disagreement they insisted that if they put the other new spring in the other side it'd be ok, so I left them to it. Sure enough, it didn't help. We now effectively had no front suspension. They tried to persuade us to take the new springs, but as the old broken spring was more effective than the new ones we refused. They made a few calls and discovered they'd got the wrong parts, but they could have the right part the following Friday they said. Not wanting to spend another week in Kasane we looked for other options, I eventually persuaded them to weld the old spring. It would be weak, but it wouldn't do any harm. We had the old springs back in and all was looking good again. The problem now was they refused to refund the new springs, they could only exchange them for the right part. After much discussion we were left with a few options. Wait in Kasane, or come back to Kasane in a weeks time to get what may or may not be the right part, plus we'd have to pay for all the shipping costs, or leave and take the new springs with us to sell at a later date on eBay. So, we're now carrying two useless suspension springs round Africa with us, which isn't ideal when we're tight on space anyway.

We set off the following day for Zambia, only thirty minutes or so down the road to the ferry. Borders further north were a hassle with everyone demanding money, Zambia was similar, just this time the demands were official. Several different taxes, visas, insurance, ferry ticket, after all of which we were feeling very poor. We arrived at Livingstone that afternoon and ended up at "The Waterfront", a nice enough camp site if a little crowded.

We did the thing that has to be done the next day, Victoria Falls. The far nicer, and more appropriate local name is Mosi Oa Tunya, meaning "Smoke that Thunders". We could hear the roar of the falls from our tent in the night 4km away. At 1.7km wide, 108m high and with a flow rate that peaks in the wet season at over twelve million litres of water a second they are phenomenal. That's the equivalent of throwing about 4000 Land Cruisers over the edge every second!

We entered the park and were pointed down the most "exciting" path, so we thought we'd give it a go. The path ran along the top of the canyon opposite the falls. The people coming in the other direction were drenched, it looked like this was going to be a wet experience! Fortunately we'd remembered our waterproofs, and it wasn't long before we started to feel the spray from the falls. We walked from view point to view point, as the light spray turned into a torrential downpour at times, and a torrential uppour at others as the spray raced up the wall of the canyon. The waterproofs proved to be fundamentally useless - not much can stop bucket loads of water! It did also mean that we never saw the bottom of the falls. The spray is so dense at this time of year it's rarely possible. The falls themselves were an incredible sight - the sunlight penetrating the spray created spectacular single and double rainbows. They open the falls at night on a full moon so people can come and view the lunar rainbows that are created.

Back in the car park we spotted a very familiar looking car. Virtually identical to ours in everything but colour - a UK registered 80s series Japanese import Land Cruiser prepared by Footloose 4x4. There was a note on our windscreen saying "We're Footloose too, where are you?". We found Mark and Cain later, they'd shipped to South Africa and had been driving round for the last eight months loving every minute of it.

A decision was made to splash out a little the next day and treat ourselves. Victoria Falls is on the Zambezi separating Zimbabwe and Zambia with the falls best viewed from the Zimbabwe side. Being British we'd get stung for the highest visa charge if we entered Zimbabwe, $55 each, so we decided to spend a little extra and pay for a microlight flight from Zambia. That way we get to view the falls in their entirety without having to pay for a visa. The flight was amazing, only fifteen minutes, but we made two passes across the falls at an altitude of 500m, returning to the airstrip spotting elephants, hippos, giraffe and impala on the way. Unfortunately we weren't allowed to carry a camera, and $20 to pay for the photos they took was too much, so memories are all we have, but they are amazing memories.

Lake Kariba was the next destination with some fishing planned. A few hours from Livingstone we arrived at a deserted campsite, beautifully located on the edge of the lake, unfortunately with a cold gale blowing. The night watchman eventually turned up and we set up camp for the evening. The following morning it was still cold, windy and choppy out on the water so we decided to give the fishing a miss and head off.

The next plan was South Luangwa national park. We'd never realised quite how large Zambia was, and it wasn't until we left that we noticed it'd take us three days to get there. We had a stop just outside Lusaka so we could do some shopping the following morning. We needed to replace the spare fan belts that had been used. Hannah has also been on a mission to find some new shorts ever since I left the only pair she brought on a washing line in Gabon. Unfortunately with it being the Southern African winter they only have the winter stock in. Despite the daytime temperature being in the high 20s in some places, there are no shorts available.

After a night at Bridge Camp, we took the scenic route to the park, turning off the main road at Petauke. The road certainly wasn't great, but we'd driven far worse. About 60km down the track we started getting loud clunks from the suspension, a now familiar problem. Once again we had a broken stabiliser bar. More critical than the previous stabiliser bar breakage that we'd had on the trip - without this one the entire rear axle was shifting from side to side creating horrible noises. It was, however, not a new problem. This part had also broken before and had been welded by Footloose before we left the UK.

We strapped it up as best as we could and made the decision to battle on for the remaining 110km. The journey was very slow, not helped by detours round destroyed bridges and swamps. We eventually arrived at Wildlife Camp shortly after sunset. We pitched up at a spot on the riverbank with great views across the water into the park, falling asleep that night to the familiar sound of grunting hippos.

We decided we should have a sort out day, tracking down a welder in Mafuwe and doing some shopping. Later that day we walked from the campsite towards reception to arrange some activities, but only made it half way as there was an elephant chewing on a tree next to the footpath. We decided to try again later.

There was no lie in the following morning as I had to be up and out by 6:30am for a walking safari, Hannah had decided to give this one a miss! Zambia, and South Luangwa specifically, is renowned as one of the best and safest places in Africa for walking Safaris. All guides have to pass exams to qualify, and all walks are lead by a guide and an armed scout. The idea being the armed scout always leads the group to deal with any "confrontation". Should a situation arise the guide can tell the clients what to do while the scout keeps his target firmly set on the animal in question to deal with it should the situation get out of hand. David, our scout and an ex hunter, showed us the hefty bullets he was putting in the gun, good for buffalo, elephants and hippo apparently. I asked if he'd ever fired a shot on a walking safari, a reassuring no was the answer.

Andrew, the very informative and knowledgeable guide impressed me immediately, although the long stories he told to get every point across got a little tiresome after a while. And wasting an hour while seven of us debated the theory of evolution on the walk wasn't exactly what we'd paid for. Overall it was an educational experience, it's just a shame there wasn't more walking and less talking. We saw a heard of Buffalo and that was about it!

That evening we had a "night drive". This was a drive starting at 4pm and ending at 8pm, so there were a couple of hours either side of sunset. Hannah came along for this one, and Sly was the guide this time who was a lot quicker in getting points across than Andrew was. We saw all the usual suspects, and were treated to a very sleepy looking male lion lying in the grass at the side of the road. After sunset a spotlight came out and we started hunting for nocturnal creatures, leopard being the word on everyone’s lips. We saw less than we'd hoped, just a Genet, Hyena, mongoose and bush baby.

We'd decided by now we'd had enough of animals so it was time to move on to Malawi, famous for its lake. We had a night at a backpackers in Lilongwe and were amazed to hear so many British accents, it hadn't been like this since Dover! Malawi is well and truly on the British backpacker’s circuit. We left the next day heading for Senga Bay. A little like Kariba, cold and windy so we set off the following morning for Cape Maclear. We stopped in at a fish farm on route, they export fish from the lake all over the world for aquariums. There are around 500 species of fish in the lake, most of these are cichlids, and 99% of these are found no where else on earth. That was all learnt from a guide book as the guide at the fish farm was probably the least informative person I've ever met. He never spoke unless questioned and most questions received a monosyllabic answer.

We arrived at Fat Monkeys and Hannah noticed the car was looking a little odd from the back. Our number plate had gone missing, the mounting snapped off! We trawled back along the bumpy 20km or so of road to Fat Monkeys but no luck in finding it. We're wondering if a kid may have tried hanging off the back of the car on the way through the village, as they often do, and broken it off. Fortunately we had a spare (thanks Andrew) which we stuck to the rear windscreen.

Cape Maclear was more successful than Senga Bay. A sheltered setting with light winds and calm water. We thought ourselves very lucky to grab a camping spot right on the beach front, a lovely location. We soon realised why it was empty, having to say "no thank you" every couple of minutes to the beach vendors walking past was quite tedious. They were trying to sell everything from fish and fruit to drugs and boat trips.

We did a boat trip the following day (not bought through a beach vendor) out to an island for a spot of snorkelling. Beautiful fish, although certainly not as spectacular as a good coral reef. We then had some fresh fish, cooked over a fire on the island, delicious. Fish eagle feeding was the next event, we set off in the boat, the boatman throwing out fish and whistling to the well fed fish eagles trying to persuade them to eat even more for the tourists. One eventually obliged and swooped down snatching a fish out the water.

Time for another change of scenery, we went further south down to Mulanji, Malawi's, and one of Southern Africa's highest mountains. Beautiful scenery and tea plantations on route eventually arriving to the obligatory hassle from "guides". Fortunately Mulanji is well set up with an office that all guides should be arranged through. They cycle all the official guides insuring everyone gets work. A man came rushing up on a motorbike demanding we went to the office rather than talked to the loitering guides. We assumed he was an official, although all became clear when we arranged our guide and he walked through the door to be introduced as Edmonton, the next guide on the list.

We'd unknowingly timed our visit to Mulanji well, the porters race was the talk of the town, due to start at 7:30 the following morning. Originally set up in 1996 and as the name would suggest, it was a race for the mountain porters. It's grown into a fairly large event, sponsored by NBS Bank with anyone welcome to take part. There were approximately 300 runners and about £300 for first prize, a lot of money in this part of the world. It's a gruelling event, a 25km(ish) race to the top, at 3001m, and back down again. The start is at just over 800m so it's a 2200m steep climb over uneven rocky terrain. For tourists this is normally a 10 hour walk over two days.

We were camping just up the road from the start and were woken up at about 5:45am by music blasting out of the speakers. Edmonton turned up at 7am and we wandered down. We missed the start of the race, either Edmonton was ill informed or they'd set off early. We went for a walk to a waterfall for a couple of hours, on the way back we spotted something red on the path in the distance, it was one of the runners on his way back down already. We quick marched down the very steep slope to the finish line with several more runners passing us on route. Edmonton excitedly insisted that we must take a photo of "number one", so we went to track down Mike, judging by his kit he was no novice athlete. He'd beaten Francis someone or other (I'm not good with these athletes names) who Edmonton was saying is a Malawian international. He'd completed the route in a record time of 2 hours 5 minutes.

The most amazing thing about the race was the average runner, there were a few people running in standard running attire, but most weren't, they were just running in their clothes, for many the only ones they'd own. Obviously running shoes are way out of reach for most people, over a months earnings for an average pair, so most runners were in bare feet over very difficult terrain. There were medical staff on hand at the finishing line dousing feet in antiseptic. Many women were running in long skirts, not good for allowing leg movement! Around about the 3 hour mark there were big cheers as a kid, who can't have been more than about 12 years old came over the finishing line. An impressive time on the flat for someone of that age, surely an athlete of the future if his knees survive! Big cheers again around the 3:45 mark when the first white person finished, there were five or so white runners, all severely outclassed by the locals.

The next day we decided to add another country to the list and crossed the border into Mozambique. We had to get visas on the border, the only English speaking border official piped up saying it'd be $100 for two visas. I thought the visa was around the $30 mark so was a little surprised. We paid up and I asked for a receipt for the visa payments, he'd have to go and talk to his boss and we should come back later. We sorted the car paperwork and returned for our receipt and passports but they'd run out of receipts and wouldn't be able to give us one. By now we were very suspicious and made it perfectly clear that we would not be leaving until we had a receipt. Off the border official went to talk to his boss again, returning fifteen minutes later, they'd found the receipt book and had two receipts for $25 per visa. He then went on to explain how these were receipts for half the money, and the visas themselves were the receipts for the other half. Not being born yesterday we didn't accept this and started to argue our case. With my Portuguese being non-existent and the border officials English failing him he turned to a waiting Mozambique citizen who spoke English to help reassure us, which he obligingly did at first. I then explained the whole situation to him, saying that if we'd paid $100, we'd expect a receipt for $100. There was then what sounded like a bit of a debate between him and the border officials in Portuguese, at the end of which, a very embarrassed looking border official picked up the $100 we'd given him, counted out $50 and sheepishly handed it back to us. We thanked the guy that had helped us and hit the road.

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