Adventures in wild and remote places
The story of this trip really begins on August 11th 1999. There was a total solar eclipse of the sun happening, and the track was to cross the United Kingdom. I’d been looking forward to this for years, and on the morning of the eclipse I was in position to see it. The weather was clear and sunny, and anticipation was high. Sadly, though, as the morning progressed, the cloud thickened, and the sun slowly disappeared from view. When totality began the much-hyped wonders of the Bailie’s Beads, diamond ring and corona came and went unseen.
Later that evening, I got very drunk to console myself, and as the world began to wobble a bit, I said to those around me ‘Well, I’m just going to have to go to Africa for the next one’. At least, I tried to say that. I may not have succeeded.
But the fact remained that the next chance I would have to see a total solar eclipse would be in southern Africa on June 21st, 2001. Some research revealed that west was best, with a longer eclipse and better weather, but west meant war as well, as the eclipse touched Africa first in conflict-ridden Angola. But next in line was much safer Zambia. A look at the map revealed a town called Zambezi right in the middle of the eclipse path. I decided that this sounded ideal, and the plans were laid. And thus I found myself, on June 14th 2001, flying towards Lusaka.
At this stage of the trip I was still not at all sure it was possible to reach Zambezi. I’d heard vague word of the legendary ‘Time Bus’ between Solwezi and Zambezi, but whether I’d get there with days to spare, or find myself sat on my rucksack in the bush watching a partial eclipse, I wasn’t sure. I was travelling with my friend John for the first two weeks, and we’d arranged to stay at a backpacker’s place in Lusaka. Wade, the owner, picked us up at the airport, and as we drove into Lusaka, we told him of our plans. Half-expecting him to say "Are you insane? Do you have any idea where you are?", we were relieved when he told us they sounded good.
When we arrived at the Chachacha backpackers, we found it disturbingly full of neo-hippies, who were flooding into Zambia for a festival. They were all looking forward to 10 days of banging trance, and most had no intention of seeing anything of Zambia other than the festival site. I found them all a bit depressing, and we were keen to get out into the real Zambia, so we made plans to leave early the next morning for Solwezi, on the way to Zambezi.
The bus was supposed to be leaving at 9.30am, and by 8.30am we had bought our tickets and were on board. At 9am the engine started and we were ready to go. At 9.20am the engine stalled. It turned out we needed more petrol, and after getting the bus to a petrol station and filling up, we got on the way at 11am. Quite quickly we were out of Lusaka and into the endless Zambian bush. After a brief stop in the copper-mining town of Kabwe, we were out of the eclipse path and into risky territory. If we got stuck somewhere now, there was a big chance of missing the eclipse altogether.
The bush rolled by, mesmerically, and I slept for a lot of the journey. Zambia is a huge country, three times the size of the UK, and yet has a population smaller than London's. For mile upon eye-popping mile, the countryside was absolutely flat, with featureless scrubby forest growing in red sandy soil.
Mid-afternoon, I was woken very suddenly when the bus encountered a bridge with a ramp leading onto it, at some speed. The bus leapt into the air, action movie style, crashing down a couple of seconds later, shedding bits of bodywork as we careered to a halt a few hundred metres down the road. Some police happened to have been around and gave the bus driver a fine. The guys from the bus spent a few minutes collecting the bits of bodywork from the road and the bush, and we drove on. About 20 minutes later a window fell out, and we thought the bus might crumble and collapse before we got to Solwezi, but nothing else broke. A few windy hours later we arrived in Solwezi, just after sunset. With a Norwegian guy called Rune who we'd met on the bus, we found our way to a hotel.
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The semi-mythical bus from here to Zambezi turned out to be a real thing, which left at 9am on Monday morning, so we spent the weekend in Solwezi. On Friday night we went into town, and discovered nshima, the staple food of Southern Africa. It’s a kind of maize porridge, served with either meat, chicken or fish, and you eat it with your fingers. We also discovered how overwhelmingly friendly Zambians are, and being typically restrained Englishmen, I think we came across as slightly unfriendly. ‘Are you scared of me?’ asked one very drunk guy in the bar.
During the weekend we met many local people. Joe and Chris, who owned the motel we were staying in, turned out to be grandsons of the local chief. We met many members of their family, and we were invited to go to visit the chief with them. But sadly their Saturday evening lasted most of Sunday as well, and they were in no fit state to visit royalty, so we had to give it a miss. We also met Daniel and Clifford, two eccentric characters with a hand puppet, who demanded that we take photographs of them, before accompanying us into town for a drink or two. And we met Martin, an interesting guy who had worked all over southern Africa, and casually mentioned that he’d once spent a year in prison in Angola. Somehow, (it’s still not quite clear how we managed it) we ended up agreeing to pay him to come with us to Zambezi.
When Monday morning came we had to make a quick trip to the bank when it opened to get ourselves a couple of million Kwacha, forced to get huge wads of money by the outrageous minimum commission on traveller’s cheques. And then we went to the bus station and boarded the bus to Zambezi. It was supposed to leave at 9am, and arrive at 6pm, but like all Zambian buses it left the regulation hour and a half late. It was crammed full of people and luggage, with a vast array of possessions piled high on the roof as well. The chaotic process of loading up the bus seemed to have exhausted everyone, for within half an hour as we rolled west, everyone on the bus was asleep, and a peaceful atmosphere prevailed.
For the first couple of hours, the road was smooth tar, but not long after midday the good surface ran out, and we were onto gravel. The bus had no suspension to speak of, and the seats had no padding to speak of either, so very quickly the journey became uncomfortable. We bounced along for a couple of hours before suddenly stopping in the middle of nowhere. Everyone got off the bus to stretch legs and massage weary buttocks, while some urgent bush mechanics got underway. Fortunately the engine was going again within half an hour and we were back on the way.
The mesmerising monotony of the Zambian landscape was beginning to rob me of my sense of time, but I snapped out of it and stopped dribbling as the sun set magnificently, and for a couple of hours I stared delightedly out the window as the twilight colours gave way to inky black darkness, splattered with the breathtakingly bright Milky Way, and interrupted occasionally by the light of fires in and around the villages. Around 8pm I foolishly began to think ‘Well, we must almost be there by now...’
But we rumbled on, slowly and increasingly painfully. Every couple of hours we would stop, and everyone would fall over everyone else as they all tried to get off the bus at the same time. Then the last people off would fall over the first people off as they got back on again. Then as the bus driver revved up, everyone still outside would fall over themselves in their haste to get back on board. I joined in the whole process each time, just for a chance to restore circulation to my legs and get a glimpse of the starry, starry sky.
By two in the morning I was beginning to wonder if the journey would ever end. By wrapping my head in several jumpers and resting it on the back of the seat in front of me, I could attempt to sleep without risk of brain damage, but this was a tougher journey than I had ever anticipated. It doesn’t surprise me in the slightest that Western Zambia is way off the beaten tracks.
I was really expecting to watch the sun rise from the bus, but at four in the morning, battered and bruised, we finally arrived. The bus stopped by the government resthouse, but that turned out to be full. Luckily there were some people from the Zambezi Motel looking for customers off the bus, so we followed them. It was quite a walk from the bus stop, especially after 20 hours of getting smacked about on bumpy roads, and as we staggered along one of them warned me not to expect too much from the Motel. ‘You know the saying, when in Rome do as the Romans do?’, she asked. ‘Well, just remember you’re in Zambezi...this is the bush!’.
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I could have slept for at least a week, but we were woken early by Martin, who was keen for us to see the sights. And oh, what a sight when we pulled back the curtains to see the river winding towards us from Angola, dazzling under the bright sun. Though we were weary and battered, we managed to get up and go for a stagger around Zambezi. The town stood on thick sand, the northern fringes of the Kalahari desert, so walking around was hard work, but we managed it. Soon enough we found our way to a bar, and decided to stop for a while. It was the Riverside Club, which as we were to discover over the next few days, is one of the best places in the world to spend an evening. Still shellshocked from our overnight odyssey, we sat there for some time, drinking cold drinks and watching the river go by.
Rune, who had travelled with us from Solwezi, was intending to go on to Chavuma, right up on the border with Angola, so after a bone-soothing few hours at the Riverside, we wandered off with him to find out about transport in that direction. It turned out that the only possible way of getting there was to hitch, so we found a good hitching spot and left Rune there. Then we decided it was time to get down on the mighty Zambezi and see it close up. It was a timeless scene up there at Zambezi with little dugout canoes ferrying people back and forth between the villages on either bank. We hired one of these for a quick trip up the river.
We decided in the afternoon that some more recovery was in order, and so we did nothing. I sat in the sun, by this great river, reading H. Rider Haggard and feeling like I was lost in the middle of Africa. This happy state of affairs lasted until sunset, when we found enough energy to walk down to the riverbanks to watch the first of many Zambezi sunsets. It was the first of many occasions on which I took a large number of very similar photos.
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Day 7. One day before eclipse day. We were recovered enough to contemplate travel, and we decided we would go to Chinyingi. It seemed amazing to me that between source and sea there were just four bridges across the Zambezi. Chinyingi was the uppermost of them. We headed to the bus station to see if by some miracle there was a bus heading in that direction, but there wasn’t. Instead of a bus, we found Catherine, a bank worker who we had met in Solwezi. She had thought she wouldn’t be able to get time off work to come and see the eclipse, but it turned out she had managed it, and so here she was in the path of totality. Like us, she could not believe what an experience the journey to here had been. Unlike us, poor woman, she would be returning the same way after the eclipse.
Catherine wanted to head to Chavuma, to meet up with Rune, and as Chinyingi is on the way to there, we invited her along with us. In the absence of buses, hitching is the way to head north from Zambezi, but hitching in Zambia always involves a contribution to petrol costs. Usually you pay the same as the bus fare, but sometimes negotiation is involved. We met a guy called Edwin who had a car and would drive us to Chinyingi. ‘How much will you pay me?’, he asked. ‘How much do you want?’, we asked. ‘No no, I asked first!’, he replied. We were still coming to terms with the exchange rate, and ignorant of the price of petrol, but fortunately we managed not to insult Edwin with our first offer, and then find a mutually agreeable price.
So off we drove up the rough road to Angola. There was a surprising amount of traffic on this road, and we were to learn that though the town had had problems with gun-runners in the past, nowadays the situation across the border is more stable, the epicentre of the civil war in that country having shifted. We drove up the road for a while before taking a left turn to cross the flood plain. The rainy season had ended not many weeks before, but the broad plain was now dry. Pretty much all of Zambia is flat, but the flood plain is devoid of trees, and looks even flatter than the rest of the country.
On the way we met Roger and Robert, two Dutch travellers who had got on the bus from Solwezi in the middle of the long, long night. They were walking out to a village north of Zambezi, with a local guide, and though Edwin’s car was small we offered them a lift. They crammed themselves in, somehow, and from somewhere behind their bags they said they were fine. After we dropped them off we drove on up to Chinyingi.
The bridge was built in the early seventies, after four people drowned trying to cross the river in a small boat on a stormy night. The missionaries from the nearby Chinyingi mission, undeterred by a lack of bridge-building experience, built it from materials donated by the mines of Zambia’s Copperbelt, and nearly thirty years later it was still standing. It’s a suspension footbridge, and as we bounced across to the other side, our confidence in the Brothers’ bridge-building skills grew. The river flowed gently into the distance and it was hard to believe it could ever become the raging flood that prompted the building of the bridge.
After a quick look around the grounds of the Chinyingi mission, we wandered down to the banks of the river, and here I began to feel like an explorer. Broad expanses of sand, which must have been uncovered by the dwindling river some weeks before, had not a single footprint to be seen on them. We took some photographs, left some footprints and headed back home. We dropped Catherine off by the road to Chavuma and wished her luck. After another perfect sunset and another over-enthusiastic photography session, we headed to the Riverside bar for the evening.
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Eclipse day. During the night, I had a succession of horrible dreams in which I was in Cornwall again, watching the clouds cover up the crescent sun, or I was waking up in Zambia to find that it was cloudy. And when I woke some time before sunrise I thought my worst nightmares were coming true. I looked out the window to see dull grey skies casting a lifeless light over the land, and my heart leapt into my mouth. Surely this was all wrong! It took a while to realise that this was just the very early pre-dawn light making things look odd, and as the sky tinged blue with the oncoming day I relaxed, just a little bit.
We got up and went down to the river to watch the sun rise. Two years earlier I'd watched the Sun rise over pools of mist from a Cornish hilltop, and I'd listened to Mute by Porcupine Tree. I did the same here on the banks of the Zambezi as I watched the sun sliding inexorably towards its rendezvous with the moon, lurking unseen next to it in the sky. There was not even a hint of a cloud in the sky, so my paranoia began to work on other possibilities. Perhaps the calculations were wrong and we would only see a partial eclipse? Perhaps there’d be a dust storm? Perhaps I’d get food poisoning from my lunch?
In the middle of the morning, we heard a drum begin to beat outside our hotel. It turned out to be a band with dancers, playing the traditional Makishi music which is common in this part of Zambia. We watched the dancing and listened to the singing with a large audience of locals against the stunning backdrop of the river and plains.
After a quick lunch of nshima and meat, we were ready to find an eclipse spot. We headed down to the river to get a boat across to the other side. Horror! There was not a boatman or a boat in sight. This was not what we expected. The local authorities had told the people to stay indoors unless they had a safe way of viewing the eclipse, and clearly a lot of people had decided to take a day off. Eventually a boatman appeared, and found a canoe in which he ferried us across to the other side. As we waited on the east bank, the first bite was taken out of the sun by the encroaching moon, and the eclipse was underway.
We walked along the west bank for a little while until we found a good spot to set up. The sun was now about a quarter covered up, but I knew from Cornwall that things wouldn’t really look any different until the sun was at least three-quarters gone. I tried to keep from panicking as I ran through my photographic plans once again.
And as the predicted time approached, we began to notice that it was getting cooler, and the light was beginning to take on the strange quality of an unreddened sunset. Gradually at first but ever faster, the light was beginning to drain away. I felt like I was going blind. The sun was a breathtakingly slender crescent now, and getting smaller by the second. Darker still and darker, and then - the sun was gone and in its place a great black hole appeared, surrounded by the unearthly, astonishingly beautiful, glowing corona. From all up and down the river there came the sound of shouting from the villages. I uttered some urgent profanities. We could see Jupiter near the sun, and a few other stars as well. I took photo after photo after photo, and managed to find a few seconds in which to stare at this utterly startling sight.
Far too quickly it came to a rapid end. With a sudden brightening, the first rays of sunlight appeared from behind the moon, producing a brief but brilliant ‘Diamond Ring’ effect, before the corona was drowned out by the return of the day. Bands of shadow briefly rippled across the landscape. Within a few seconds it was daylight, and a few minutes later it was like it had never happened. Two small planes chartered by high-rolling eclipse chasers had flown in just before the eclipse, and within ten minutes they were off again, and Zambezi was well on its way to normality. Most of the sun was still covered, though, and we sat on the riverbanks until the moon was clear of the sun once again.
After two years of planning and expectation, the end of the eclipse was a bit of an anticlimax. A herd of oxen was driven by into the river to swim across it, and we followed them in our canoe. It was just after 5pm. We decided to pop into the Riverside bar for a ‘quick post-eclipse drink’. Feelings of anticlimax soon went away as it turned into a raucous eight-hour party, quite by accident. The locals were in the mood for celebrating, and we celebrated with them, dancing energetically and outrageously to thumping Congolese pop, causing hilarity by trying to learn the local languages, and playing pool and chess. A combination of me being a teetotaller and most of the locals emphatically being no such thing gave me a protracted run of success on the pool table, and for some time I reigned as the Zambezi Pool King, to delighted rapture from those who had decided to support me, and some grudging respect from the backers of the local heroes. I began to think of how I would tell the story of the evening when I returned home (“…and after my seventeenth straight victory, they asked me to become their chief!”), but sadly in the eighth game I came up against a more sober opponent, who ended my impudent run with a narrow victory. John, meanwhile, had been battling for the title of Zambezi Chess Prime Minister, with varying success.
The night wore on, more crazy dancing was done, much fun was had, and I really didn’t want the day to end. A magical eclipse experience in a marvellous part of the world, followed by a legendary evening in a superb bar was really beyond my best expectations.
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Tired but happy, we rose early the next morning to make our exit from Zambezi and get on with the trip. We walked to the bus station and found the Solwezi bus loading up. We planned to get this bus to a town called Mumbeji, from where we would hitch a lift to Lukulu, further downriver, but the bus looked like it was going nowhere fast. We asked the driver when it would be leaving. “Oh, about 10.30 I think”, he replied. It was nearly 11am already. We gave up on the bus and decided to start hitching, asking the bus to pick us up if we hadn’t got a lift when it passed by. To our shame it passed by only about 20 minutes later, and we were off.
I was thankful, so thankful that unlike Martin and many others on the bus, we had only two hours until Mumbeji. The journey went OK, with a minor interruption when a goat which had been on the roof fell off and ran into the bush. John was particularly startled by this as it fell past his window. All the passengers trooped off to search for the hapless creature, recovering it before very long and securing it once more to its rooftop spot.
As we got off the bus in Mumbeji, we found ourselves waist-high in enthusiastic food sellers, thrusting eggs, fruit, drinks and chickens at us. We waded through them to a spot by the Lukulu road, and settled down to hitch. There’s not a lot of entertainment to be had in Lukulu, and for these thirty-odd kids, a couple of white guys with backpacks were worth a look. They gathered around in a semi-circle and watched. And watched. After a while, I laid back on my pack and put my hat over my face. The kids found this side-splittingly funny, and more kids raced up to have a look at us. After an hour or so in which no traffic passed by, we thought we might be the Mumbeji freakshow overnight, but fortunately at that point, a big 4WD truck with space in the back passed by, and we negotiated a price for Lukulu. We waved goodbye to the kids of Mumbeji, and drove off, sharing the truck with, among others, a soldier on leave heading home and a fish trader heading to the river for a catch.
We crossed the Kabompo river on a pontoon, and then drove off down the deep sandy road to Lukulu. Here we provided more quality entertainment for the local kids. The truck alone was quite exciting on a road which saw very little traffic, but a couple of white guys in the back was an added bonus. Each village poured forth a stream of kids who shouted and waved at us, delighted when we reciprocated. One kid raced out from his hut with an armful of oranges and hurled them vigorously at us. People who travelled the route regularly said that he always did this.
Frequently the truck got bogged down in the sand and had to be dug out. Like almost every vehicle in Zambia it had a duff starter motor, and required a push start every time. Pushing a heavy 4WD truck through sand was extremely good exercise. We stopped off on the way to help the truck driver gather some firewood, which was another workout. Then we drove on, watching the sun set, spectacularly as ever, behind the trees of the endless forest. We also saw an incredibly thin crescent moon, 28 hours past new, setting with the last of the day. Then the stars came out, and we arrived in Lukulu at about 8pm. We said goodbye to our travelling companions and set off in search of the Government Resthouse.
We didn’t find it, instead chancing upon a friendly preacher who offered to drive us to different accommodation, saying the Government resthouse was probably full. And so we ended up at the Washala Washala restaurant and hotel, where we booked a room for the night and got a meal of nshima and bream from the river.
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Lukulu was pleasant enough at first, though still far enough off the beaten path that we attracted a lot of attention. Oliver, the hotel owner’s brother, spent most of his time in our room, asking us about our backgrounds and sharing his with us. But Lukulu is just a dusty town at the end of a dusty road and we were keen to get on the way. We had thought that there’d be less transport north of Lukulu than south of it, and we’d come from the north with no trouble at all, so we were keen to get on the way. Oliver seemed to think we’d be able to get a lift the next day, and said he’d come with us in search of vehicles.
So we went for a wander around town the next day. We lacked the sense of urgency that we were to acquire over the next couple of days, and so we walked through the grounds of the Sancta Maria mission, overlooking the river, much broader here than before. We stopped off at a bar for a coke, or at least tried to. Lukulu is at the end of a very, very bad road, and depends for many supplies on an infrequent truck from Lusaka. The truck normally comes every three weeks, but Lukulu was outside the eclipse path while Lusaka was inside, and the truck driver had decided to see the eclipse and leave Lukulu to survive without soft drinks for another week. There was no Coke to be had, and we drank the last two bottles of Fanta in town.
There looked to be no vehicles leaving. Our alternative plan, should things become desperate, was to get a boat 70 miles downstream to Mongu, but on investigation, it turned out this would involve three days in small rickety wooden canoes, and only just enough space for a boatman, a passenger and a backpack. Our desperation was not yet severe enough, but for some other travellers it was. Roger and Robert, who we’d met in Zambezi, had already been this way and had already got fed up of Lukulu. We met them here, trying to get out, and the last time we saw them they said they were going to get the boat. We have no idea if they’re still alive or not.
Our first day in Lukulu ended with the usual fabulous Zambezi sunset and a feeling of hope that we might be able to move on the next day. We hadn’t considered, though, that the next day was Sunday, and though we were up very early, it quickly became clear that nothing was going to take us anywhere before Monday. After several hours waiting by the roadside hoping in vain for a lift, we went for a long walk through the surrounding area. I was feeling trapped and claustrophobic and sceptical that Lukulu could be in any way interesting, but I was actually wrong. In one of the villages we walked through, we noticed a couple of tiny yellow birds in wooden cages, and once we’d got talking to one of the village men we asked about the birds. He told in fascinating detail how they catch the birds - the first with a trap involving rubber cut from trees, and subsequent ones using the first as a lure. Once they’ve been caught, apparently, they never fly away.
But then Lukulu closed in on me again. We wanted to get some food, and we wanted to eat somewhere other than where we were staying. The unshakeable Oliver decided he would come with us on our search, and after brief conversations in Lozi between Oliver and the proprietors, each place we visited would turn out either not to have any food, or to be unwilling or unable to prepare it. In the end, the only place that bring itself to cook us some food was (surprise!) Oliver’s brother’s place. We resigned ourselves to eating there again, and requested nshima with anything, anything except fish, of which I was extremely bored. Oliver said he’d see what he could do, and after a while returned with a couple of plates of nshima and two bowls containing…aargh.
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If we hadn’t got out of Lukulu the next day I would have snapped, but our luck returned to us in spades on Monday morning. We walked out of the resthouse at 7.30am to find two people outside who we’d spoken to briefly the previous day. They had a very comfortable-looking 4-wheel drive, and they were going to Kaoma. I almost laughed hysterically. And they left almost straight away, defying the normally very reliable ‘Zambian hour and a half’ rule of how the time people tell you you’ll leave relates to the time you actually leave.
The journey to Kaoma was long and tiring. The six hours down the sandy road to Kaoma became indistinct, the monotony interrupted only at a town called Nkulo, where the villagers had a roadblock, and extracted a toll from any Zambezi fish traders passing through. At 2pm we arrived in Kaoma, and drank Coke for the first time since Zambezi. I had become horribly addicted to the stuff - there was no coffee to be had at all in western Zambia, so coke was my only caffeine fix. After a couple of hours, the Mongu bus came along, and on we got. There were no seats, and we sat squashed into the aisle. As night fell, we headed south.
Mongu was like a dream. We checked into a hotel more expensive than usual, just because it was right next to the bus station, it was dark when we got there and we didn’t feel like wandering around Mongu in the dead of night looking for anything cheaper. So we shelled out an outlandish (or so it seemed at the time) £6.50 each for a room. In Lukulu we had been sleeping in a mud hut with a thatched roof, so we could hardly believe where we found ourselves - in a room with a carpet, sheets on the comfortable beds, and even a television. I felt like we were in a different country.
Much restored, we left Mongu the next morning. We were running several days behind schedule and we were in a hurry. We bought ourselves four loaves of bread for our coming journey, and headed for our next destination - Ngonye Falls. We got a minibus to Senanga, which restored our faith in the Zambian hour and a half rule, and was also ludicrously crowded. After a two-hour journey in the Black Hole of Calcutta we arrived in Senanga, and found ourselves a lift in a land rover heading for Sioma, the nearest town to the falls. I went to a nearby shop to buy a couple of drinks, and chatted to the two ladies behind the counter. When I told them we were leaving in about half an hour it provided the best laugh they’d had in weeks. When they’d recovered control of themselves, they told me I wasn’t likely to be leaving Senanga before the morning. Images of Lukulu drifted through my mind. But when I got back to the land rover, the engine was started, it filled with passengers and off we went. Cynics! I never doubted the truck people for a moment.
Now we were on surely the worst road in Zambia. When the potholes are much bigger than the vehicle you’re in, I can’t see how the road could be any worse. It took us a couple of hours to cover the next 20 miles, and there were several moments when I feared for my life as the land rover came within a couple of degrees of rolling over. We passed two buses which simply could not go any further, and we were glad we’d found a lift. One of our fellow passengers was carrying about thirty large plastic gerry cans on the canvas roof of the landrover, and as we bounced uncontrollably along the road, they soon began to work themselves loose of their moorings. Their owner was sat at the back of the land rover, and soon began to look extremely resigned as a bunch of gerry cans repeatedly swung into the truck and smacked him on the side of the head.
After two hours we reached the Zambezi river once again at Kalongola. We crossed on the pontoon as the sun set, and drove on the other side. Before long we stopped at a place called Nangweshi, where most of the passengers got off. We thought we’d be heading on to Sioma, but the truck owner decided he wanted to spend the night here in the hope of picking up more passengers in the morning. This was an unexpected delay, but I wasn’t too upset. The truck guys lit up a fire, and cooked the remaining passengers nshima, made us some coffee (my caffeine nerves, hitherto calm, twitched furiously once more), and were generally extremely hospitable.
As the night wore on and the fire burned lower, I had a long and fascinating conversation with one of the truck guys, about Zambian politics, the history and culture of the Lozi people (for we were in Barotseland, their homeland), and the civil war in Angola. It was now that we discovered that Nangweshi is actually an Angolan refugee camp. We were not many miles from the Angolan border, and in Nangweshi some 20,000 Angolan opposition supporters are gathered. I was wryly amused that while the truck guy insisted that there was no racial tension in Zambia (“White guys, black guys, Asian guys - all humans, aren’t we?”, he said), he and the others were not happy at the number of Angolans who escape into Zambia every year, accusing them of abusing Zambia’s hospitality. At around midnight, we turned in and went to sleep under the stars.
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We got up before sunrise the next morning, packed up all our stuff, re-stoked the fire for a quick breakfast and got on the way at 8am. Sioma was really not very far away, and the turn-off for the falls was just a little further, so by 10am we were being dropped off by the roadside and watching the truck disappear off into the dusty distance. We were about an hour’s walk from Maziba Bay, where the hitherto very reliable Bradt guide to Zambia said there was a lodge, from where you could easily walk to the falls, and also for very agreeable prices it was possible to hire boats and even microlights to see the falls. We set off eagerly through the bush, passing snakes warming themselves in the morning sun.
It was eerily quiet when we arrived at Maziba. We dropped our bags and had a look around, and there were certainly buildings, but no people to be seen. Eventually someone appeared, and we asked if we could stay. We certainly could, he said, but only to camp. And there was no hot water as the pipe had broken. We asked if he might have any cold drinks, but sadly not - no electricity for one thing, and (now the truth came out) the camp had been closed for seven months, so there were no supplies. Our dreams of boats and planes were rapidly falling apart, but we pressed on. Would it be possible to use the boat? It would, if it had any petrol. And (finally, desperately) the microlight? No fuel, it was broken anyway, and the pilot was in South Africa.
Disheartened, we set up camp, and sat for a while on the veranda of the deserted bar of the camp, looking out over to our old friend the Zambezi, over a stunning white sandy beach, relaxing after the tiring walk over deep sand to get here. At about two in the afternoon, just when the day was getting really hot, we decided it was time to set off for Ngonye Falls. Though the lodge was closed it was under new ownership and there were a few staff looking after the place. One of them offered to show us the way to the falls, and off we went. After about an hour’s walk through the bush, we got to the river at a point where a ferry crossed. Roy the ferryman came across to meet us, and took us jovially across to the other side.
Then it was more walking, to the edge of the river again, and now we had to wade across. Though no deeper than knee-high the river was flowing fast and the bottom was slippery. Our guide fairly raced across, but we moved at a slower pace, and even then I slipped half way, briefly dunking my bag, which had my camera in it - thankfully no water got inside. After the wading we had a quick walk over some mud and then some sharp rocks, and then we were at the falls. We were impressed - the river, narrower than it had been at Lukulu but still impressively broad, drops over a broad curved face about ten metres high, before racing on downstream in a turbulent mass of white water. There was no-one else in sight.
After taking in the grandeur of the falls we were about ready for a quick swim. The river was painfully cold, but refreshing after the hot walk. I asked our guide my usual questions about crocodiles but he seemed unconcerned. Curiously, though, he didn’t seem at all inclined to join us for a dip.
We walked back as the sun was setting, spectacularly as ever, arriving back at camp in darkness. We found two other travellers there, Remco and Susan from Holland, who had also been duped by the Bradt guide. We chatted to them for a while as we built a fire on the beach and cooked some dinner for the four of us - soup and beans and bread, but when cooked on a white sandy beach by the Zambezi river it became one of the great gastronomic experiences.
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We made an early start the next day, all four of us hoping to be 250 miles away in Livingstone by the evening. We walked the long walk back to the road, arriving not long after nine. As we knew it would be, the road was absolutely quiet, so we sat down with our bags and taught Susan and Remco to play Shithead, the greatest card game of all time. After nearly an hour, we heard a vehicle in the distance and leapt up. We were in luck - it stopped for us, and asked where we going. We were in enormous luck - it was going all the way to Livingstone. We negotiated our fare and jumped in the back. It was a truck, in untypically good condition, and the only snag was that the back was very small, and already contained fifteen pumpkins and three sacks of maize. With a very tight squeeze we fitted four people and four backpacks in with them, and we were off.
Three of us could lean against the back of the cab, but I was the unlucky one who had to sit on the back of the truck. The road was bumpy and extremely dusty, and I had to hold tightly on to the truck to avoid being thrown out the back. Letting go would have been madness, but holding on meant that I couldn’t brush off the dust which was gathering thickly on my arms and face. Pretty soon I was grey and featureless and the sun was heating up the dust which was slowly cooking my arms. But every now and then a particularly large bump would knock some of the dust off as it sent shockwaves up my spine.
After three hours we reached the river once again, and crossed on the Sesheke pontoon. Here one of the passengers in the cab got out, and so Susan got in. The back was a spacious delight for the next few hours, and the road was smooth sand. I began to doze as the endlessly similar landscape rolled on by. Then, suddenly, my reverie was shattered as I woke to find myself and the contents of the back of the truck about two feet above the truck. As we crashed back down, we realised that we must have hit an unexpected bump. I decided it would be prudent to hold on again.
The rest of the journey went smoothly, very smoothly for the last hour or so as we got onto very good tarmac. We arrived in Livingstone at 7pm, and finding that our preferred choices of accommodation were full, stayed at the Red Cross hostel. Livingstone seemed extremely, extremely touristy compared to the places we'd been, and we thought we might be able to get something other than nshima and fish for dinner. We could, and we ate disgustingly well at a Chinese restaurant. During the meal, we each slipped out to the toilets to freshen up, for we all looked quite ridiculously filthy, covered in dust and grime. Me and John especially appreciated the food: we’d left Mongu with four loaves of bread, but along the way one of them had got soaked in petrol and the other was eaten by an elephant, so we’d not exactly eaten lavishly since then. And my caffeine cravings were at last eased by glorious, fabulous, real coffee. Being back on the beaten path was not entirely disappointing.
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The security guard at the Red Cross woke us early the next day. He was very much the worse for wear, having clearly been drinking all night, and slurred at us that we should get out, that the place next door was much better, that we were being ripped off here, and quite a lot more that I couldn’t understand. We gathered our stuff and managed to check in at the Jolly Boys hostel next door. We spent the morning there doing washing, shopping, and relaxing, before finally working up the energy to go and see Livingstone’s raison d’etre: Victoria Falls
The Victoria Falls are Southern Africa’s greatest tourist attraction. The sluggish Zambezi, over a mile wide, thick and green, has its tranquillity interrupted by a cliff, one hundred metres high, which it plunges over. Downstream, the river is squeezed into a succession of gorges no more than fifty metres wide, churning along in a mass of white water for many miles. Touted as one of the great natural wonders of the world, it draws some 150,000 visitors each year. And it’s incredible: the vast, never-ending wall of water can’t fail to impress. But after the isolation and remoteness of the Ngonye Falls and the rest of Western Zambia, it was a bit disappointing to find little paved walkways, raincoats for hire and souvenir stands.
But even a traveller as snobbish as me could see that the falls were impressive. What impressed me most was that the river basically falls into a great crack in the earth, so you can stand on the opposite side of the crack and view the falls face-on. The river flows out through a narrow gap in the slot-like chasm, and forms the border between Zambia and Zimbabwe. Though you can see less than half the falls from the Zambian side it’s still an awful lot of waterfall.
In the heyday of the British Empire, Cecil Rhodes had the insane dream of building a railway from Cape Town to Cairo, passing through British territory all the way. Between 1918 and 1960 the territory was all there, but by then the dream had died. The railway got as far as Lusaka, and at Victoria Falls crosses the second of the four Zambezi bridges, built so close to the falls that the carriages get wet with the spray as they cross.
We explored all around the falls, and I felt like I owned them. After all, I’d been following this river since Zambezi town, I’d swum in it, fallen in it, seen countless amazing sunsets over it, and now been rained on by it. Who did these tourists on day trips think they were?
Sunset here was possibly the finest of the Zambezi sunsets, and as it got dark the falls took on a new appearance. The previous two weeks of travel had been pretty strenuous, and at times I'd felt like the whole trip was stalling, so it was good to be here.
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The next morning we got up at 5.30am, and headed out to the falls with Susan and Remco. We arrived just after 6am, with the stars still out and the coming day just a glow over the eastern horizon. It was a chilly wait for sunrise, but when it came it was worth it. We watched the first rainbow of the day appear as the delicate golden light of morning lit up the falls, before setting off for a more comprehensive explore than yesterday.
The light coming from a different direction made a big difference to the falls, with parts previously hidden by spray now visible. We took many of the same photos we’d taken the day before, but then explored new parts, walking down to the river edge at the Boiling Pot, where the river swirls around a tight bend from the first gorge into the second. We walked along to the bridge, and upstream a little way, and saw the falls from all the possible angles on the Zambian side. By 10am we felt we’d seen it all and could do with some breakfast, and so we returned to Livingstone.
In the afternoon we went on a game drive, through the Mosi-oa-Tunya national park. It’s a small national park but it’s got a lot of game in it, most of it indigenous except for Zambia’s only five white rhino, a major attraction imported from South Africa. People talk of the ‘Big Five’ but all I really wanted to see was elephants, giraffes and zebras, for their hugeness, implausibilty and colour scheme respectively, and I wasn’t disappointed. The elephants especially were impressive, and we left the truck behind to approach them more closely on foot. They trampled on through the bush as if we weren’t there. We also saw plenty of smaller game like warthogs, monkeys, owls and various antelope.
At the end of the drive we watched the sun set over the river, and were joined by a small pod of hippos, who surfaced in the sun’s glitter path and grunted lazily. We didn’t see the rhinos anywhere but I wasn’t disappointed. I had vaguely expected the game drive to be much like Windsor Safari Park but I was really impressed with it. I was pleased as we drove back to Livingstone past dry-season bush fires as the stars came out.
It was now time to complete our loop around western Zambia by returning to Lusaka. We had hoped to get the train, but it had a reputation for woeful reliability which it certainly deserved. It turned out to have an unspecified mechanical problem and would not be leaving until the next day. So we went to the bus station and found a ‘Super Luxury’ bus leaving for Lusaka at 1pm. We had about an hour so we did a rapid shop before grabbing our stuff and rushing back to the bus station for quarter to, only to find that the Super Luxury bus was full. We watched helplessly as luxury rolled off into the distance, and with great regret spoke to the grinning minibus tout who we’d earlier spurned. We waited on board the minibus for an hour and a half before we set off for Lusaka.
It was a long slow journey, frequently interrupted by diversions for roadworks, and we closed our loop and arrived in Lusaka at 11.30pm. We got a taxi to the backpackers hostel and set up camp. We were going to leave very early the next morning, and for the sake of three hours sleep I couldn’t be bothered to get my sleeping bag out. It was a very chilly night and I regretted this by the morning.
Fearsomely early the next morning we were up and away. I was heading north for Mpulungu while John was heading east for Chipata, so we parted ways in the dark at one of Lusaka’s many bus stations. We were to meet again in Malawi in three weeks time.
I found out that the 6.30am bus I had been hoping to get no longer ran on Mondays, and I would have to get another bus to Kapiri Mposhi at 7.30am. No worries, I thought, we’ll be on the way by 9am. But sadly the Zambian hour and a half was to be painfully protracted this time - I’d not realised it was Heroes Day, a national holiday, until someone told me, and my heart sank when I saw a sign at the bus station, reading ‘To our esteemed customers, please note that Sundays and public holidays being slow days, We Do Not Observe Time’.
The next four hours passed very slowly but I could at least catch up on some sleep before the bus finally left just after 11am. It was a very comfortable bus, and we arrived at Kapiri at 1pm. Here I found my way onto a minibus going to Serenje, about half as far from Lusaka as I’d hoped to get, but as far as I could possibly get that day. I arrived at Serenje at 5.30pm, and walked to the Mapontela guest house to check in. It was colossally expensive by my standards, but I was knackered and I just wanted to lie down. When I got there I did just that, closed my eyes for a second and woke up the next morning.
Half way. 19 days done, 19 days still to go. I hoped I would get to Mpulungu by the end of the day. I left Serenje at 7.30am and walked two miles to the main road, from where northbound buses leave. All was quiet, and I waited on my own for a while, before a Zambian guy called Kevin joined me. A little while later, a Peace Corps volunteer called Bridget also joined us, and the three of us waited for a northbound lift. Kevin was heading for Mansa and soon got a lift, but sadly for me and Bridget there was nothing heading for Mpulungu (she was going to Kasama, which is on the way). Usually, apparently, there would be loads of stuff going, but this was Unity Day, another public holiday. If yesterday had been slow, it was bustling compared to the fourth day of a four day weekend.
So we sat by the roadside, eating chicken and sugar cane, and I managed to stab myself quite horribly in the hand cutting the cane. After three hours, we were really on the point of giving up totally and staying in Serenje again when a truck turned up that was going to Kasama. It was a good road for much of the way north from Kasama and we covered the ground quickly. We stopped briefly in Mpika on the way, before heading on towards Kasama as night fell. By great good fortune as I was telling Bridget about what I do as an astronomer, the International Space Station sailed overhead.
We arrived in Kasama at about 8pm, and I discovered that there was no budget accommodation there. The choice was between a couple of really nice but expensive places, or a couple of shockingly grotty and depressing dives, cheap but very bad value indeed. After a quick taxi tour around the options with a taxi driver who had darkened windows and a nodding dog on the dashboard, I opted for the oddly named ‘Despot B&B’. It was a worrying place - I was showed to a room which had no lock on the door. If it had had a lock, the big hole in the door raised further questions about security. I pointed this out to the owner. ‘Don’t worry!’, he said, ‘I’m the security guard as well!’, but I wasn’t altogether reassured. But jamming some pieces of sugar cane in the hole and moving the bed up against the door I managed to convince myself it was an alright place to stay.
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I got out of the Despot B&B as quickly as I could the next morning and headed north. After their four day weekend it seemed that everyone was easing back into things gently, and though I got on a bus to Mpulungu straight away, the Zambian hour and a half lasted three hours and included a trip to the shops. But wow, what a journey once we were underway. It was a fairly nondescript run to Mbala, with the usual Zambian scenery, but after Mbala we left the high plateau which makes up almost all of Zambia and dropped down into the East African Rift Valley to Mpulungu. Lake Tanganyika, Africa’s second biggest lake, was glittering beneath us in the hot sun, and it was extremely beautiful. And it was hot down there, steamy and sweaty. Up on the plateau it had been very chilly at night and in the mornings, and got to the high twenties at best by the mid afternoon, but down here in the valley it must have been well into the thirties. I wandered around trying to find where I could get a boat out onto the lake from, and a very friendly guy wandered around with me and helped me to find the next boat leaving. He dropped me off at the beach where it was going from and left me with a friendly wave and a warning that all those around me were criminals.
And so I set about negotiating a fare. I wanted to go to a place called Mishembe Bay, right next to the border with Tanzania, and after a few attempts to get me to pay hundreds of pounds for a three hour boat journey, I settled on an agreeable fare with the owner of a boat. We left within half an hour of when he’d said we would, and it was a fantastic journey across the lake in the late evening sun. I was trying to believe that this lake is the longest in the world, stretching from down here in the south all the way up to Burundi at the northern end, squeezed between Tanzania and the Congo on its way. It’s also one of the deepest lakes in the world, and the majority of the fish living in it are of species found nowhere else.
The journey continued as the sun set. As we stopped at successive villages along the shore the boat gradually emptied, until by the time we got about three-quarters of the way to Mishembe Bay, I was one of only two passengers left on the boat. The boat’s owner had got out a little while before, leaving his brother to drive on, but his brother at this point told us he’d run out of fuel and couldn’t go on. A long and detailed argument followed, and he told me that he’d known from the start he didn’t have enough fuel to go all the way along to Mishembe, but hadn’t told me because I was dealing with his brother. After about half an hour he decided the solution was to get some guys from the village to get me to Mishembe in a canoe. It was a wildly unstable craft, and it was now night, but thankfully there was a full moon so we could see where we were going.
After half an hour or so, we got to the village just before Mishembe Bay, and they told me it was just a short walk on to there. Luckily the other remaining passenger said he’d show me the way - it turned out to be nearly half an hour’s walk. And now I discovered that where my guidebook had said there was accommodation here, what it meant to say was that accommodation was being built here. It wasn’t finished, but I had my tent and the builders who were living there were very friendly and sorted me out with some hot coals and water to cook with. They helped me to set up my tent and then I sat with them on the beach talking and eating dinner until it got late.
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The next morning I had a fantastic awakening to the sounds of the lake lapping on the beach, and emerged from my tent to find the beautiful lake stretching away in to the hazy distance across to the mountainous shore on the Congo side. I thought my clock was wrong as it said it was 5.30am, and I'd been used to it getting light much later, but I eventually realised that all of Zambia runs on the same time but from east to west it’s about a time zone and a half wide. I'd covered a lot of ground over the past few days.
Today I planned to go to the Kalambo Falls, the second highest in Africa. Thomas, one of the builders, arranged for a couple of local children to show me the way and at 7.30am we set off. For the first half an hour it was very hard going as we climbed up the Rift Valley escarpment. Once we were at the top the way on was pretty flat, and the view over the lake was stunning. The walk took us through some beautiful scenery, with lots of baboons and colourful birds around, and after an hour and a half we heard the falls. Coming from my direction it seemed the falls were in the middle of nowhere, but there is a very rough road to them from Mbala, and a little entry hut at which foreigners have to pay about £3 to see the falls. I happily did so and walked down a small hill to the falls.
The Kalambo River is only a few metres wide. I stood on the Zambian bank, almost able to reach across and touch the trees on the Tanzanian side. But for such a small river there's a lot of water in it, and a great white streak of water drops 200m into the valley below. Victoria Falls had been half as high, and Kalambo was so tall it was difficult to appreciate what a massive drop there was. I climbed over the rocks to the very edge of the cliff, and looked down into the terrifying depths.
A short while later another tourist arrived - it was Ralf, a German traveller who had been in Western Zambia for the eclipse. He’d got on the bus at about 2am, arrived with us in Zambezi at 4am and left for Chavuma at about 8am, and was therefore, we had decided, quite crazy. We swapped details of our travels so far and wished each other luck. After a little while longer at the falls, I reluctantly headed back up to the entry hut. Here I sat for quite a while chatting to the three guys who were there, about our countries and culture. We talked about the weather, and they were shocked that I was hot. For them it was a cool mid-winter’s day. They also asked whether we had the rainy season and dry season in England and seemed sympathetic when I told them it rains all the time there. I signed the guestbook, noted that I was the first Englishman to visit the falls for a month, and headed back to Mishembe.
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In the evening I sat on a rock at the edge of the bay and watched the village fishermen bringing in the day’s catch as the sun set. It was a timeless scene, with an amazing amount of activity and commotion considering the tranquillity of the day. As I sat on the rocks, locals who weren't occupied with the fishing came over and chatted, wondering what I was doing in their part of the world. After the catch had been brought in and night had fallen I went and ate dinner with the builders. They insisted that I share their food, and so I had a good meal of nshima with tiny little fresh fish called capenta and some dried fish with an extremely strong flavour called bamba. We talked for a while before I turned in.
In the morning a boat passed by, and I negotiated a fare back to Mpulungu. No disasters this time and I arrived without incident two hours later. From here I needed urgently to get to the border with Malawi, because I’d recently noticed that when I’d entered Zambia, I’d stated that I would be in the country for ‘about three weeks’, but my visa had been stamped valid for exactly three weeks. I needed to get out of Zambia by sunset if I didn’t want to outstay my visa. I wasn’t to make it, though - all the buses to the border leave early in the morning, and it was already 10am by the time I reached Mpulungu. Disconsolately I got a bus to Mbala, just to feel that I’d at least made an effort. There was not much happening in Mbala, but I was most impressed to find that the New Grasshopper Inn had a huge bathtub and plenty of hot water. A long, long bath and a good night’s sleep left me prepared to face the border guards with an expired visa stamp the next day.
The first thing to do was work out which border I actually needed to go to. I wanted to be heading for Chitipa, on the border with Malawi, but the word was the road was completely impassable, and people recommended that I head for Nakonde, on the border with Tanzania. Like many Zambian towns, Mbala is a few miles from the main road and most buses don’t bother to actually come into town, so I got a lift out to the junction with a Zimbabwean construction worker who was upgrading gravel roads in the area. From there a bus took me to Nakonde.
After waving aside the scrum of people who tried to carry, cycle or otherwise transport my luggage to the border, I asked around about getting to Chitipa. No joy to be had was the unanimous verdict, so after much consideration and trepidation I decided I’d have to go through Tanzania to get to Malawi, despite having no guidebook, map, or knowledge of Swahili. But to get to Tanzania I’d first have to get out of Zambia.
At the time it didn’t seem too traumatic. I’d just read ‘North of South’ by Shiva Naipaul, in which he finds himself in exactly the same situation. He’d ended up bribing the border guard to get his exit stamp. So when I was threatened with a massive fine, I pleaded my innocence. I’d certainly not intended to stay beyond my stamp. Then they threatened me with prison. I was pretty sure a bribe would sort it out but I wanted to wait until that was made totally clear. In the meantime I had to let the guard enjoy his power trip. After a few minutes they told me to go and speak to the head immigration officer. He lectured me for a while about not outstaying welcomes and being a good traveller, and I nodded and agreed contritely. And then he said that in the interests of good relations between Zambia and Britain, he wouldn’t take any action. Very grateful, I picked up my bags and wandered over to Tanzania. It was only much later that I noticed my spare camera was no longer in my pack.
Tanzania! A country I’d dreamed of. Kilimanjaro, the Crater Highlands, Zanzibar. And now I was here, feeling disorientated and clueless. The flat Zambian plateau which had made me thirst for the sight of a hill these last three weeks gave way at the border to stunning rolling hills and mountains, lush and green in amazing contrast to the dusty red soil of Zambia. The change was so sudden it almost looked fake. There can’t be many countries in the world with such a striking change of geography between them.
I wandered up the hill, not really knowing where I was heading. I knew there was a town called Mbeya not far from here, from where I thought I could get a bus to the Malawian border. I soon found a minibus to Mbeya, and squashed myself in. Tanzanian buses were somehow even more packed than Zambian ones, but I could see out the window at least, and appreciate the dramatic scenery. Perhaps it was just because I’d only seen about three hills in the whole of Zambia, but the undulating landscape here seemed quite breathtaking.
After a little while I arrived in Mbeya, still a little bit startled to find myself in a country I’d had no intention of visiting just yet. It was a nightmarish scrum at the bus station, but fortunately I met a very friendly guy called Frederick, who showed me where the bus to Tukuyu was leaving from. He said it was too late to be going to the border, but that Tukuyu was well on the way and it would be easy to get from there to Malawi the next day. So off we went to Tukuyu and on the way I learnt a few useful words in Swahili.
I found my way to the Langiboss Motel in Tukuyu, where I found hot showers and cold cokes, and also an Englishman called Tom. We chatted for a while, and it turned out that he was driving from Arusha down to Malawi, and would be crossing the border the next day. He offered me a lift, on the condition that I helped him change a wheel on his Land Rover the following morning.
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So early the next morning we were outside by the motor, working out how the jack worked and pulling spare tyres around. It had rained in the night, although this was the dry season, and the car was parked on grass, so there was a slight problem with the jack sinking into the ground. But between us and a local man and his son who came out to help, we got the tyre back on. We jumped in the car, Tom said 'OK, let's go!', turned the ignition key and nothing happened. With a smile frozen on his face he tried again, and still nothing happened. Not even a splutter. We rolled the motor down to Tukuyu's main street and found a mechanic, who said an engine part or two needed replacing. He said it would take twenty minutes, and about an hour and a half later the work was all done and we were off.
It was a pretty short drive down to the Malawian border at Songwe. I was pleased to see that the scenery across the border looked much the same as the scenery on the Tanzanian side. The border crossing was uneventful and we drove on the other side to Chitimba, on the northern shores of Lake Malawi, and stopped at a campsite. There was a bar here, and a pool table, but in contrast to the perfect flat green baize we had found in Zambezi, this was the worst pool table in the southern hemisphere if not the world, so lumpy that slow shots would meander hopelessly and almost never hit the target, while fast shots would simply fly off the table. We challenged some other travellers to a game and after several hours when we finally finished, we vowed never to go near that table again.
The following day was my 23rd birthday. A year previously, after a terrible mishap, I'd found myself in hospital with a fractured skull, so this time I was overjoyed to emerge from my tent and find myself by the beautiful Lake Malawi, safe and well. Tom and I decided that morning to climb up the Rift Valley escarpment to the town of Khondowe up on the top, famous for the Livingstonia Mission. I'd climbed up the escarpment four days earlier by Lake Tanganyika, but this time it was a longer, tougher climb. We could have walked up a switchback road which had fairly gentle gradients, but we decided to take the short cuts, which basically meant scrambling up a 45 degree slope for three hours. We hired a local guide and set off. There were some stunning views on the way, and the climb ended at Manchewe Falls, 45m high. From the lip of the falls, the view down to the lake was marvellous.
There was a small shop just up the road from Manchewe which sold warm coke and biscuits and got a lot of business from people hiking up. We bought some food and drink and walked another hour to get to Livingstonia.
Livingstonia was a strange place. It was much cooler up here, and overcast. There were not many people about, and it felt like a different country compared to the valley far below. We looked around and had a chat to someone who turned out to be someone important at the mission, before trying to get some food at the Stone House, one of the original buildings of the mission. We asked what they had, and they told us they had chicken, rice and beans. We said we'd have a plate of that each, and off they went. We sat and drank some cold Fanta, looking forward to a meal after the climb. After about 10 minutes, someone came out and said that unfortunately they actually didn't have any chicken. We said never mind, we'd just have rice and beans. We waited for about another ten minutes, and someone came out again and said that actually there were no beans either. Needing sustenance, we requested the rice, but after another few minutes word came through that in fact there wasn't any rice either.
Now the situation was urgent. The campsite served food, but only until 4pm, and it was already 3.15pm. So we set off down the hill at a blistering pace, running and leaping down precarious slopes in a way that wasn't good for the knees. Our bare-footed guide was much the fastest mover of the three of us, and I occasionally looked forlornly at the hiking boots I'd spent lavishly on. Our best efforts were not enough and we arrived at Chitimba, tired and ravenous, at 4.15pm, facing a long wait until we could get dinner at 7pm. Luck was on our side, though, because the barman took pity on us and rustled us up a big fat cheeseburger each, for which I am still profoundly grateful.
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The next day I decided to go across the lake to Chizumulu and Likoma Islands, close to the Mozambican shore and actually an enclave of Malawi surrounded by Mozambican territorial waters. Tom was heading to Mzuzu, the main town in the north of Malawi, from where I could travel on to Nkhata Bay, the port for the lake ferry. The drive to Mzuzu was pretty incredible, up and down dramatic hillsides with the deep blue lake on the left and forested mountains to the right. After a couple of hours hanging around in Mzuzu I got a minibus down to Nkhata Bay.
Everything I'd heard before I arrived in southern Africa suggested that bus journeys would invariably involve considerable terror and fear for one's life. Up until now, I'd really not found that, perhaps partly because the roads were often so bad that speeds above about 40mph were impossible. But here the road was smooth tarmac, downhill and had lots of sharp bends, and I did indeed think it was all over several times as we careered around the corners at speeds that just weren't sensible. All the while a very friendly guy called John was chatting to me about various things, smiling and laughing, apparently oblivious to the fearsome danger we were in. Between gasps and whimpers I tried to chat back.
We made it alive to Nkhata Bay. I didn't have any idea when the boat was actually leaving for Chizumulu Island, but it turned out to be going in just an hour's time. Having just put my bags down at a hotel I grabbed them and set off for the dock. I bought my ticket and some fruit from some dockside vendors and got on board. To my amazement the boat left exactly on time, and the run across the lake was one of the most memorable journeys I've made. The lake was as smooth as glass and the air was warm for the duration of the five hour crossing. I lay flat out on the upper deck, under an inky black sky split from horizon to horizon with the Milky Way. The lights of fishing boats were strung out in a line extending many miles from Nkhata Bay, but once we were clear of them the only man made things in sight were the boat and the occasional light on the distant shore. It was sad to have to disembark when we arrived at Chizumulu Island at three in the morning.
On Chizumulu island I sat back and relaxed; there really wasn't any other choice. The island is small enough that you can walk around it in about three hours, and once you've done that you've seen it all. Because of the steamer schedule I had five days to kill between here and Likoma Island, and I killed them very slowly. This first day on Chizumulu I got up at 11am to find the day cloudy. For some hours I sat around and read, in the hope that things would look better later on, but nothing changed. In the mid-afternoon I roused myself from my hammock and set off to walk around the island, which was very pleasant. There were no roads, no cars and no electricity on the island, just a beautifully made footpath around the edge, which I followed until I was on roughly the other side of the island from where I started.
From there I decided to make a detour inland over the two low hills which dominate the island. It looked like a simple job to walk up to the top, but actually I was soon picking my way slowly and carefully through cassava plantations, taking a surprisingly long time to make any headway. And at the top there was dense woodland, so I actually didn't get any good views at all. Disappointed, I walked down the other side back to my tent, and once again took up my position in the hammock. After it got dark the insect nightlife got going in a big way, so at 8pm I went to bed.
The next morning, appalled by my sloth-like activity the day before, I got up at 5am, and set off anticlockwise around the main path. The sky was clear and blue and the sun was about to rise. I set a blistering pace and got to the easternmost point of the island just in time for the sunrise, which was glorious. Then as the red morning light turned into yellow daytime light I circuited the island completely, stopping to sit and watch the sea at deserted beaches, chatting to local people and enjoying the scenery. When I got back to where I was staying I found a couple of other travellers about to set off to get a boat to Likoma Island, and feeling that I'd seen all there was to see on Chizumulu, I decided to go with them.
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It was a half hour walk to the bay the boat was going from. When we arrived we found a ramshackle looking vessel, from which copious amounts of water were being bailed. Huge buckets were filled with water and poured over the side. But it was the only means of getting between the islands so along with three other travellers and two locals I jumped in. The boat was not a huge thing and once we were out of the sheltered cove the swell moved us up and down a quite unpleasant amount. Rapidly I began to feel that it was just a matter of time before I threw up, and for half an hour I concentrated intently on the mast and breathed deeply. Then suddenly proceedings were livened up when the sail ripped. The skipper gave it a weary glance and decided it didn't look to bad, so we carried on. All the way buckets and buckets of water were being bailed out, and if I hadn't felt so ill I think I'd have been quite worried.
But the next hour passed uneventfully - the boat stayed intact and I held on to my stomach contents. I was very glad to be approaching a beach on Likoma Island, firstly because I thought I wouldn't last much longer, and secondly because the mast at this point snapped in two. We were close enough to coast the rest of the way onto the beach, but as I got off I couldn't help but wonder what would have become of us if that had happened out at sea.
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But we had made it to shore, and we spent a little while standing around and chatting before we set off to look for accommodation, and we found ourselves as so often the source of amusement for the local kids. We left the beach for what proved to be a long walk to where we stayed, and soon discovered an endearing Likoma habit: the kids, on seeing white people, would shout 'HELLO! HELLO! HELLO!' repeatedly and at the top of their voice, even if they were standing only inches away from us. Then as soon as we had passed them they'd shout 'GOODBYE! GOODBYE! GOODBYE!' with undimmed enthusiasm until we had disappeared over the horizon. We had many of these enjoyable encounters along the way.
We walked to the main settlement on the island, which contains a huge stone cathedral. It looked wildly incongruous among the thatched huts and baobab trees, and really quite impressive. It was built by Scottish missionaries, whose presence was really the reason these islands just off the coast of Mozambique ended up in Malawi's hands. We wandered around it for a little while before setting off on our trek once more.
This final leg was most impressive. Baobab trees are an instantly recognisable symbol of Southern Africa, with their massive trunk and tiny branches. Especially now in the middle of winter, they were an arresting sight. These islands are known for their large numbers of baobab, and I'd seen a few on Chizumulu, but here there were lots, with almost no other vegetation around except for grass. Under the deep blue skies it was a remarkable sight. We crossed this field and found on the other side the steep walk down to the beach where we were going to stay.
Here, more relaxation was the order of the day. There really was nothing to do except make occasional forays up the steep hill to look around the island. I had to spend two days here before the steamer arrived for the return leg to the mainland, and saw quite a lot of Likoma island. I took possibly too many photos of the remarkable field of baobab trees. I plucked up enough courage to brave the crocodiles and go for a swim in the lake. I saw stunning sunsets every night. After three days I was ready to move on, and on the morning the boat was supposed to be coming I (and almost everyone else there) packed up my bags and hiked up the hill to head for the dock.
The boat was supposed to be leaving at 10am, but was seen still crossing the straits at 9.30am. I knew that the unloading and loading was going to be a protracted procedure: when we arrived at Chizumulu at 3am four days previously, the boat had not left for Likoma until 9am. So I visited the market near the dock, bought some deep-fried doughballs and peanut butter, and settled in for a long wait. I slept for a while, then had a drink at the fantastic 'Hot Coconut Bar', then had a long conversation with a beggar, who left me an address and a demand for size 9 shoes.
The boat is in dock for a long time mainly because there's no proper harbour on either of the islands. The boat has to wait out in the deep water while its lifeboat is used to ferry people, livestock, sacks of maize and everything else between boat and shore. It took about 10 return journeys just to get the people on board, which made me wonder how useful the lifeboat would actually be in an emergency. Eventually everything was on board except the last boatful of people, so we got in the lifeboat and motored across to the MV Nkhwazi.
Once we were on board we had a little bit more waiting around before finally, at 4.30pm, some six and a half hours late, we set off for Nkhata Bay. For the first hour and a half we were in the choppy seas between Likoma and Chizumulu, and even in the relative comfort of 'first class' at the back of the boat things were quite lively. I dreaded to think what it was like for those at the front. At 6pm we docked at Chizumulu, but because the boat had only come from there that morning there was not a lot of stuff to transfer between boat and shore. We were there for a couple of hours, during which time the sun set and the stars came out, and then we were off to Nkhata Bay.
The lake was calm away from the islands and the run back to the mainland was again a good one. I slept for much of the way, waking to find the strings of fishing boat lights approaching, and shortly after we arrived at Nkhata Bay. It was 1.30am but thankfully I found a place to stay that was open.
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The following morning I got up at 6.30am, intending to travel to Blantyre, some 500 miles away to the south. There were two ways to go about this - inland via Mzuzu along a fast road, or along the coast, slower but more scenic. I decided to go the coast way, and found a bus heading that way. There were just two problems. First was that this was a country bus, and therefore stopped about every two minutes to pick people up and drop them off, making the journey painfully slow. Second was that the coast road had been washed away some time before about two hours south of Nkhata Bay, and the bus dropped us off in the middle of nowhere by the remnants of a bridge. There was a makeshift footbridge over the river, and on the other side there were pick-ups waiting to ferry people to Dwanga, the nearest town on the other side, from where we could get onward buses.
From Dwangwa I got a bus to Salima, and from there I got straight on a bus for Balaka. This leg was right up there in the most absurdly overcrowded journeys I've ever made, and once I'd squeezed myself, my backpack and my day pack into my seat, I could only move my forearms. I spent the journey trying to eat fruit without dropping it and trying to manoevre my walkman into place so I could listen to some music. I managed it, and even had time to listen to a couple of tunes before we arrived in Balaka. Once more my luck held, and I waited in the layby at Balaka for no more than a couple of minutes before I found a minibus going to Blantyre. The driver said he'd drop me off right at the door of where I was going to stay, and at 8.30pm after eleven hours on the road, five journeys and a total cost of about 7 pounds, I arrived in Blantyre.
Sadly I'd chosen to stay in a place next to the bus station, and at about 5am the next morning, the insanely loud tannoy began blaring out the day's arrivals and departures. My intention in this part of the country was to go hiking on Mount Mulanje, Malawi's highest mountain, topping out at 3002m, so I set off into town to gather some information. Blantyre was really a very pleasant city, with all the facilities a traveller needs. I managed to catch up on my e-mail, did some food shopping in the well-stocked supermarkets, bought a guidebook to Mount Mulanje, bought and sent some postcards, spent a while drinking real, real coffee in a nice little cafe, and generally enjoyed the ambience. I spent the evening relaxing and reading about the mountain, in preparation for the three day hike I planned.
So early the next morning I headed for Mount Mulanje. A quick bus journey to Limbe got me in the right places for buses to Mulanje town, and before too long I was on my way. I slept for a while along the way, and when I woke I had my first view of the mountain, rising dramatically, blue in the distance, from the endless flat tea-growing fields. I slept for a while more, then woke again to find us right next to the mountain. It's more of a plateau than a mountain, and it rises almost sheer from the flat surroundings to about 2000m. Much of the top is gently rolling hills, but there are about 20 peaks, the highest of which, Sapitwa, was my target. From Mulanje town I got a truck to Likhubula, the starting point for the climb. At the forestry station I found a guide, called Stern, and at 11am we set off for Chambe hut, on the plateau.
It was quite a hike. For two hours it was relentlessly steep, and very hot. The views on the way kept me going, though, and we made a good pace. With just a couple of short breaks, we made it to the edge of the plateau in just under two hours. From there it was a gentle walk to Chambe hut, about an hour away. The hut was in a beautiful place, facing the dramatic Chambe peak, surrounded by woodland, and with a stream running in front of it. There was a fire inside, very welcome because it was much cooler up here than it had been at ground level. When I arrived I was the only person there, but as the day wore on more hikers arrived, and we socialised as the sun set and the stars came out. It was a magnificently clear night, and we were all looking forward to the hikes we had planned for the next day. After a fantastic instant pasta meal (these things are always more tasty in the wilderness) I turned in, ready to climb the next day
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The big day started early: I got up at 5am to pack up my supplies for the climb. I was ready to go at 6.15am, but Stern reckoned my bag was too bulky for the climb and I repacked my stuff in his much smaller bag. At 6.45am we left, into a bright and sunny morning. From the start the scenery was impressive, through dense woodland then onto exposed ridges with broad views, across grassland and past rocky peaks. I thought we were going rather slowly, though, and after an hour it became clear why. Stern suddenly disappeared into the bushes, leaving me standing bewildered on the path. After some time he returned and said he felt ill. 'My stomach has opened!' he said. He decided he was not going to be able to make it to the peak. I was gutted to think I might not be able to get to the peak, but Stern decided he would be OK to walk across the plateau to the base of the climb. From here he reckoned I'd be able to find my way to the peak OK.
After about half an hour's more walking, he said he'd stop here and wait for me to come back. He said the way ahead was mostly obvious but that if I couldn't see the path ahead I shouldn't try and go on. We agreed that he'd either wait for me here, or go back to the hut and get someone else to meet me so I could find my way back to the hut. I set off, and after the slow pace we'd been making I was keen to get on, so I walked fast. In twenty minutes I was at the base of the climb, where I met two Spanish hikers who had already been defeated by Sapitwa, and were looking pretty shattered. After a chat to them I set off, undaunted. Pretty soon I was on the mountain proper, climbing very steeply over barren rock. Worryingly there was quite a lot of cloud rolling up over the edge of the plateau and I though I might not get a view from the top.
For an hour or so I walked on up, at about 45 degrees, following the red paint marks which showed the route. Occasionally I'd need to look around a bit to find the next mark but I was making fast progress. Quite soon I'd reached the top of the first steep bit, after which it was a more gentle climb for a while. Things began to get quite challenging further on, though, with the occasional very steep scramble, and some dense vegetation to push through. At one point I simply could not find the way ahead, and I was on the point of giving up in frustration, when I heard some voices from up ahead. Two climbers and a guide who'd made it to the peak and were on their way down appeared, and showed me the way ahead. With renewed enthusiasm I set off again, apparently with just an hour to go.
The climb got ever more tortuous, and quite often I'd find that a hard 10 minute scramble had left me only about 50 metres from where I had been. About half an hour on, on a relatively flat bit, I found some pockets of ice, and I chipped off some chunks to put in my water bottle. I ate some as well, which was very refreshing. Then it was onwards and upwards again, and now things were getting silly. There were several places where I had to squeeze myself through tiny gaps to make progress, and other places where I had to scramble up some very narrow ridges. My hiking pole had been great on the lower slopes but was really just a hindrance here, so I left it on the path and went on, picking it up later on the way down.
Then I got to the most absurdly narrow gap I'd yet come to, and here I again though about giving up. I had no idea how much further I had to go, and I was beginning to think I might be running short of time. In the end I decided to push through and see if I could see the summit from the other side. So I did that, and to my delight I found that I was only about 20 metres below the summit. I was so pleased I hadn't given up that I ran the rest of the way.
Sapitwa! Highest point in all of Central Africa! And I had it to myself. The clouds that had threatened earlier had gone away and I had stunning views all over the plateau and of the surrounding countryside. I felt great, and I was so pleased with myself I shouted and sang a bit. The feeling of solitude was amazing: there was no-one as high as me for at least a thousand miles in every direction. I took a roll and a half of film of the amazing views, and then reluctantly set off back down the mountain.
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Progress was quite slow on the way down: it seemed much harder to see the red marks in many places. Whenever I had to stop and look around for the next mark I was startled by the absolute stillness and quiet all around. But I made it to the bottom with (I thought) plenty of time to get back to Chambe, and walked quickly to where I had left Stern. There was no sign of him or anyone else, and I shouted his name a couple of times, but heard no reply. I thought perhaps he'd moved down the path to somewhere with more shelter, and walked on, occasionally shouting, but never hearing any reply. After a while I decided he must have abandoned me, and I began walking as fast as I could for the hut.
For a while I thought I was making good progress, and though I sometimes didn't know if I was on the right path or not, I kept coming to familiar places. I walked on, and I could see Chambe peak getting closer and closer. The sun set, but I thought I was near enough to make it back to the hut in the last of the daylight. As the stars were coming out I was still optimistic. In a fit of well-preparedness I had actually brought a torch along with me, though I had thought I couldn't possible need it, so I picked my way on by torchlight.
Somewhere along the way I managed to take a wrong turn. It was amazingly difficult to follow the path by torchlight, and at one place where the path split I took the wrong branch. This became clear when the path stopped in the middle of the forest. It was pitch black now, and my mood changed instantly from optimistic to grave concern. I thought about the options, which really came down to blindly walking about in the dark in the hope that I'd find the hut, or stopping where I was for the night. In the end I decided it would be better to stay still than wander hopelessly, and I decided to see what kind of shelter I could rig up. I found two large rocks with a narrow gap between them, and decided to make something of that. For an hour or so I ripped branches and leaves off the nearby trees, to sleep on and under, and then I spent some time photographing the stunningly clear skies. If I was going to have to spend a night out in the middle of absolutely nowhere I could at least get some good night photographs out of it. I'd run out of water now, and all I had to eat was about eight small chunks of chocolate. I ate four of them now, and saved the rest until the morning. Then I spent a while blowing my whistle and flashing my torch in case anyone was looking for me, but to no avail. After an hour or so I decided to try and get some sleep. I tried not to think about the possibility of leopards and hyenas being around.
For a while I was not too uncomfortable, squeezed into that little space between the rocks. I had a jumper and a coat, and the leaves and branches seemed to have some kind of insulating effect. As the night wore on, though, it got colder and colder, and for who knows how long I was awake, shivering, and only occasionally sleeping for very short moments. Animal noises in the forest frequently made me jump up and look around. The stars slowly turned across the sky, and I watched their progress. When Mars set I knew the dawn could not be too far away, and sure enough the sky began to lighten. I've never been so relieved to see the dawn. By the time the sun actually rose I had packed up my stuff, tried to get all the undergrowth out of my clothes, and set off walking back up the path. It was my last day in Malawi, I was currently lost on a mountain and I needed to be in Lilongwe by the evening, so I didn't want to hang around.
After about twenty minutes I came to a small stream, from which I tried to fill up my water bottle. It was a tiny stream and probably not the best drinking water, but I was very thirsty, and a couple of sips made me feel an awful lot better. I ate my last chocolate and walked on. Briefly I wondered what would happen if I didn't find anyone or get found that day; I didn't want to think about another night out in the open. But after only about another 10 minutes, I heard a shout from behind me and turned to see Stern coming over a small rise. He'd abandoned me on the mountain and not sent anyone else to meet me, and he clearly had not been out looking for me when I failed to make it back to the hut, and really I think I should have had a proper go at him. But I was so relieved to see someone that I shook his hand. He said he had waited where I left him for a long while, but left before the sun set, because he 'didn't want to be alone on the mountain at night'. Neither did I, pal, neither did I.
We were about an hour's walk from the hut, and I saw now what a stupid mistake I'd made. I'd had to climb over quite a large fallen tree to take the wrong path, and in the darkness I'd not seen the right path leading off unobstructed to the left. My feet were aching terribly, I was extremely hungry and thirsty, and I was pretty cold as well, so to say I was pleased when I saw the hut again is an understatement. When I arrived I found that all the people staying at the hut that night had heard there was someone lost on the mountain, and had all been very worried. They all showered me with sympathy, and gave me fruit, soup, tea, coffee, porridge and bread. I was overwhelmed with it all and I really thought I might cry. I restored myself with all the hot food and drinks I was offered, and drank the most satisfying water I've ever tasted.
Gradually everyone left for their hikes, and eventually I was the last one in the hut. I spent a while tending to my battered feet (when I took my boots off, they were actually steaming) before wearily setting off, still with a three hour hike to do to get down the mountain. I don't really know how I made it but I did, and I felt another flood of relief when I got back to the Forestry Station. I got the best cold Coke I've ever tasted at a bottle shop, then started to make my way back to Blantyre. I got a truck to Chitakali, then a bus to Limbe, on which I fell absolutely fast asleep. I woke to find myself slumped embarrassingly against the woman next to me. Then it was just a quick minibus to Blantyre. Back at Doogle's, where I was staying, I had a more refreshing hot shower than I've ever had before.
Then I walked into town to buy a bus ticket to Lilongwe and some food. I spent lavishly on the bus but when I saw it I couldn't have been more pleased. I think it was the most comfortable bus I've been on anywhere in the world. In my wrecked state I took a taxi from Doogle's to the bus depot, got on board and fell asleep. I slept right through until Lilongwe four hours later, and got a cab to a hostel, where in a hopelessly vague arrangement me and John had said we'd probably try and end up at. As I paid the taxi driver I heard a familiar voice behind me and remarkably enough it turned out we had both made it there. There was one bed spare at the hostel and once again greatly relieved I checked in.
And that was all the adventure over, really. I spent the evening explaining my wild and dishevelled appearance to John and Jessica, who I had met on Likoma Island and was now here, and raging at John because he'd flown here from Mzuzu, before passing out. In the morning we made our way to the airport for the weekly flight back to London. Ten hours later we arrived at Gatwick and headed off into the night.