Saturday, August 5, 2023

The Epic Road Trip: Zimbabwe, Zambia & Malawi

We arrived at the Kazungula border post tired, hungry, and very dirty after being out in the bush camping. This was our first land border crossing, and we weren’t totally sure what to expect. We received our visas without any issues, but the car was a bit more complicated. To drive a vehicle into different countries you need a temporary import permit. We had some of the required documents from the rental company and then had to fill out some more forms, pay some taxes and road fees, and then give all of these documents back to the customs officers where they would process it all and provide you with your permit. It wasn’t too complicated and there were people there to help us, but the whole process takes a bit of time.

Once through we drove for about an hour and a half to Victoria Falls to N1 Hotel and Campsite. This accommodation was in the tourist area of the town and was fully gated. We were able to camp in the grassy area right next to the pool and had the place to ourselves. Ryan and Sophia decided to stay in a room for a couple of nights. This place was also conveniently located right next to an awesome brewery which we went to for dinner.

Accommodation Rating
N1 Hotel and Campsite: 
Claire – 7.5
Kurt – 7
Sophia – 6
Ryan – 7

Results: Nothing too exciting here as it was in town. It was nice that it was gated and had nice grass, and the staff was really lovely. Kurt and I both had brand-new shower blocks that were really nice, but Sophia had a cold shower in her room. The location was good. Overall we couldn’t fault it and enjoyed staying here, but it was nothing epic like the other campsites we had experienced thus far.

The next morning we picked up some groceries and then eventually set off to see the falls! We were actually able to walk everywhere as it felt quite safe so that was a nice change from having to drive. 

The falls were about a twenty-minute walk away – we could actually hear them from the campsite. We begrudgingly paid the insanely expensive entry fees ($50USD per person), recognising it’s one of the only ways Zimbabwe makes money from tourism and that this is a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

There are about 12 or so different viewpoints of the falls along a walking path. The mist and rain that comes thundering back up from the falls is incredible and we were soon all soaked in our rain jackets. Victoria Falls is called ‘the smoke that thunders’. It isn’t the tallest waterfall in the world or the one with the most volume (Niagara), but it has the largest single sheet of falling water which gives it the title of the world’s largest waterfall. 

We made our way along to the different viewpoints, at one point admiring the baboons relaxing around the trail. Not even thirty seconds later, one of the females suddenly screamed at Kurt and others joined in. Ryan stepped in front of Sophia and I jumped behind Sophia, but Kurt was a little ahead of us. All of a sudden there were twenty baboons all coming at us. They were coming from the trees, all screaming at us. Soon they were on us and Kurt took off running with a trail of baboons following him and jumping up at him. Luckily they all followed him so the other three of us were safe. Kurt ran up to another group of people about 100 metres away and the baboons gave up. It was crazy! It had really come out of nowhere and we really hadn’t done anything to antagonize them. 

The baboons in question.

Unfortunately, Kurt realised that he was bleeding on his hand. While we were pretty sure it was a scratch and not a bite, we spoke to several people who all advised him to go ahead and see a doctor, who agreed that he should get rabies vaccinations. So that has thrown a bit of a spanner in the works as he must receive four immunisations on certain days across a few-week period. Luckily, we are finding that even small towns (as long as they have electricity/refrigeration) have the vaccination available that we are able to purchase over the counter at the chemist, and we have been able to find someone to administer the shot.

After checking out the falls, we hung around the campsite before going on our sundowner river cruise on the Zambezi River. Somehow, we were upgraded to a really nice boat which was exciting. We sipped on cocktails and actually made friends with some Zimbabweans who invited us to hang out that night. We went over to one of their houses, listened to some tunes and had too many drinks, ultimately resulting in a painful next day for all of us. Lessons were learned, haha. But we persisted through and made it through another border crossing into Zambia (same painful process to import the vehicle) and drove for about 10 hours in total in order to reach Lusaka, where we had planned to stay overnight. 

We made it to Lusaka quite late, around 8pm, and were all thoroughly exhausted. The hostel we had booked was very sub-par and dare I say it even a bit scary. It was safe, with a fence and a security guard, but the rooms were a bit gross. And then – at 10pm when we’re all heading off to bed to prepare for another long day of driving the next day – a band starts playing. A really horrible, awful, loud band that played until maybe 2-3am. None of us slept much. We all got up at bleary-eyed and a bit frazzled at 4:45am to hit the road.

Accommodation Rating
Lusaka Backpackers: 
Claire – 1.5 
Kurt – 2
Sophia – 2 
Ryan – 2.5

Results: Between the sub-par rooms, the fact that they thought we had only had one room booked, and the insane music, it’s no surprise we all scored this low. The only positives to be found was that it was safe, accommodated our super late check-in and that there were some really nice locals who helped us order pizza. 

The drive across Zambia was really interesting. The landscape started out really flat, with villages dotting the road and going through some large towns. We basically starved the whole first day because we weren’t prepared with our own food and couldn’t find much along the way. The second day was much more hilly, with big trees and shrubs, and we followed a river for most of the way.

We stopped in Chipata at around 3pm to grab groceries, water, fuel, and Hungry Lion, our new favourite African fast-food restaurant and then set off on the last leg to South Luangwa National Park. The road was a bit bumpy and brutal and followed a dirt track along some of the way. We pulled into our campsite, Croc Valley, just as the sun was setting which gave us just enough time to set up our tents before heading to the restaurant for a much-needed dinner.

The Croc Valley Campsite actually turned out to be one of our favourites. It was just outside of the main town, Mfuwe (Foo-ee), and was right on the Zambezi River. The lodge was stunning with one of the coolest bars we had ever seen. The pool was huge and amazing, there was a giant chess set, the staff was incredibly nice, and the restaurant had really good, reasonably priced food, so we ended up eating here quite a bit. Mainly due to the fact that it wasn’t very safe to cook after dark. This campsite also had no fences/gates and the national park encompassed all of the land directly across the river, so animals roam freely. We were warned to be extra careful about food and wandering around at night, and sure enough, that night we had multiple elephants visit our camp. You could also hear the hippos in the river making grunts and chatting with each other all night! It was crazy. They’re so loud, they sound like they’re just outside the tent - which sometimes they actually were! 

Our campsite at Croc Valley.

The wildlife at this camp was seriously amazing. We had our vehicle/tents set up about ten feet from the edge of the river. A quick scan of the water and riverbank and you could see multiple bloats of hippos, floats of crocodiles, dazzles of zebras, sounders of warthogs, and troops of baboons and velvet monkeys (yes, that’s actually what all these groups of animals are called) all within a few hundred metres of each other and our camp. We did heaps of animal watching with the binoculars from our camp chairs. Between this and the wild animal noises and encounters all night, this was a really special experience and a campsite none of us will ever forget.

Accommodation Rating
Croc Valley – South Luangwa National Park: 
Claire – 10 
Kurt – 10
Sophia – 10 
Ryan – 10

Results: I think tens across the board says enough.

Our first day here we had a slow morning and did some laundry. We planned to do a guided night safari that evening so we thought we would make the most of our daily park fees and check out the park ourselves with a late-morning self-drive safari. South Luangwa was much more lush, green, and forested than Chobe National Park, and although there was a river, there weren’t nearly as many animals, and they were harder to spot off the roads through the dense bush. We still spent a couple of hours driving around and saw plenty. 

Some of the highlights were seeing a few ponds full of hippos up close. They even had greenery on their backs as they stood in the water with their babies. We also came across some elephants with their babies as well. We all agreed that the animals here seem much less acclimated to humans, most likely because this park is a bit of a hidden gem, and much less visited than some of the other places we had been. So when we came up on the elephants in the bush, they got a bit spooked, with one even honking (is that what it’s called?!) its trunk at us from about five meters away which was wild. The sound felt like it reverberated through every nerve in my body it was so loud. We also spotted two new kinds of deer-like animals, a waterbuck, and a puku, which was really exciting.

We came up on a really cool area in the park that was a big, green plain surrounded by forests. Here there were so many different animals just hanging together in the clearing -  zebras, giraffes, warthogs, impalas, kudu, puku just to name a few. It felt like we were driving through the Lion King movie.

These baby zebras were so cute. One of them had the zoomies.

After a few hours, we made our way back to camp to relax for a bit before our night safari which started at around 3:30pm. We hopped in a safari car with our two guides and two other girls from The Netherlands who were really lovely. We drove around for a bit and then pulled up to the river for sunset where we had some delicious homemade cookies and juice. Then the real action started, and we began to drive around in the dark, with one of the guides using a really powerful spotlight to continuously scan on either side of the vehicle looking for animals while we all did the same with our head torches. Animals’ eyes glow in the dark if light is shined on them, so that’s what we were on the lookout for. Ryan had the first good spot and pointed out two tiny eyes underneath a bush, which turned out to be a large spotted genet. It was hard to tell what it was at first as we could only see its little face with its big eyes illuminated back at us, but after ten seconds or so it turned around and scurried off, giving us an amazing view of its big, beautiful spotted coat.

This is a 'Sausage Fruit' tree, which leopards like to sleep in. Many animals like to eat the sausage fruit, particularly hippos.

We continued, hoping to see some big cats as South Luangwa National Park has the highest concentration of leopards in Africa. We spotted some bushbabies, and then came up on a spotted hyena which I was really excited about! It was solitary which is apparently common for this type of hyena in this area, and we were able to follow it for about 10 minutes/.5km. We were able to keep the spotlight on it without it caring much and watched it trot along, eventually crossing over from our right side to cross the road directly in front of us before disappearing into the bush. 

As we were driving along, somehow our guide even spotted a chameleon hiding in the trees which was also really exciting! It was also nice to have a guide to help us identify birds. Usually, one of us looks at them through the binoculars and calls out identifying features while the other three of us scour the bird pages of our animal book until we can figure out which one it is, and then we all have another look to confirm. So having a guide to know what the species are instantly makes it much easier.

We didn’t end up seeing any leopards or lions that night but it was still a lot of fun. It was cool to be out in the park after dark and we got to see a lot of new animals in the park that we hadn’t yet seen. South Luangwa actually has different species of giraffes, zebra, and wildebeest in other parts of Africa, with the giraffes actually endemic to this national park. The main difference across all three species is that they’re a bit smaller than other species, and they have different markings. For example, the zebras only have black and white stripes (others may also have brown stripes) and they turn in a different direction on the back half of their body. They’re really fancy looking.

The next day was Sophia’s 31st birthday! So we had a special activity planned for the morning – an Art Safari. We went down the road into Mfuwe to a place called Tribal Textiles, which serves as a local hub for artists where they can sell their items. We were able to pick a white piece of fabric that had a pre-drawn template on it that they had made out of flour and water. Sophia and Ryan both chose ones with elephants, Kurt chose one with giraffes, and I chose a patterned one. We were then able to use the natural paints and pick our colours and fill in the fabric. It was really relaxing and nice to be able to focus on being creative. We all had a lot of fun and love what we painted. We had to leave them with the art shop so they could then wash and fire the items and then sew them into pillowcases. They’ll be shipped to us back in Australia and we can’t wait to see how they came out. Tribal Textiles supports the employment of over 80 people in this village and was an awesome space. I’d love to order some more things from them online in the future.

We had made friends with Dickson, a local guy who had been at our campsite the day before, so he and another friend, Luka, came and joined us towards the end of our art safari. They then went into town with us and showed us around a bit, and even helped us source Kurt’s next anti-rabies vaccination. Dickson was so nice and had called a local pharmacist who confirmed they had the vaccine, and then he also sorted out a nurse who was able to administer it. After that, the two of them showed us around their village, their homes, and the river where they spend a lot of time. It was really nice getting to meet the two of them and hear about their lives. They’re both incredibly nice guys.

After that we all headed back to our camp and had a swim in the pool, then hung around our camp and sat by the river and had a few drinks before having dinner. Kurt and I had gotten Sophia a really cool travel hammock for her birthday, but we had given it to her earlier in the trip so she could maximise its use. 

The next morning was another early one as we set off for Malawi. We made it through our last land border crossing with the usual pain of importing the car. The drive took a bit longer than we expected, as per usual. It seems that both google maps and our Tracks 4 Africa GPS continuously underestimate how long it takes on these tiny highways, full of giant potholes and massive trucks that are hard to overtake. Plus, driving through any larger-sized village or town takes ages and we constantly have to stop for goats, cows, etc. to cross the road. So alas, we ended up driving out to Lake Malawi in the dark. The area we were heading to is off the beaten track, and the road was under construction in some parts, so we had detours and dirt roads. There were definitely moments when I wondered where the heck I was taking us, so I’m sure Kurt, Ryan and Sophia had similar thoughts. But luckily, we made it to Cape Maclear to our camp, Chembe Eagles Nest, around 8pm, and it was a very welcome sight. We set up camp and made a quick veggie pasta, and then went to sleep. 

We woke up to the beautiful sight of Lake Malawi just outside our tents. Our campsite was at the back of a small campground, on the very far end of the resort, which sits at the very far end of Cape Maclear, which meant behind us there were just trees and the village. The sun hitting the clear blue water in the morning was incredible, as are the sunsets over the lake, directly opposite our camp, which illuminates the mountains on the other side of the lake and paints the sky in different ombre colours until dark settles in. The sunsets are truly beautiful, and nothing beats sitting on the rocks, watching the fishing boats head out for the evening bite. 

Above: Sunrise.
Below: A few sunsets.

One interesting thing about these fishing boats is that they pack one large, motorised boat, with as many people and wooden canoes as they can fit. And then they head out, and once they arrive at their spot, the men hop into the canoes and head off to fish on their own. Really interesting way of doing it.

Our first day here we relaxed and checked out the resort. It was beautiful, with the tables set up right on the beach. Little self-contained chalets looked out over the water. The pool sits right on the beach overlooking the lake. Sadly though, these were all mostly empty during our stay here, contrarily to the camping area which was pretty busy. Between Covid and the recent cyclone that smashed the area, Lake Malawi has struggled to regain its tourist numbers pre-pandemic. 

Accommodation Rating
Chembe Eagles Nest – Cape Maclear, Lake Malawi: 
Claire – 9.5 
Kurt – 9
Sophia – 9.5
Ryan – 9

Results: This was a really nice campsite that we all really liked. It was stunning, with our Land Cruiser sitting atop rocks with nothing else between us and an unobstructed view over the water. The pool was good, the food at the restaurant was good, the staff was nice, nice bathrooms. Our only complaint was the occasional, horrible smell of fish. The town is very much a fishing village, and every day they lay out the fish onto wooden racks to dry. I'm talking hundreds and hundreds of fish. Our campsite was south of most of the village, but there was still an area behind the campsite where they were drying fish and unfortunately, if the wind blew the wrong way, there was an absolutely atrocious smell. It actually woke me up in the middle of the night several times. But hey, that's Africa and it's part of the adventure. I won't however, be able to forget the smell for a very long time.

We took a walk through the village to see if we could find any food, water, beers, etc. which was not all that successful. Funnily enough, we had always made sure to stock up on supplies before heading to a new campsite just in case they didn’t have much available, but there had always been grocery stores. This time there weren’t any grocery stores, so we settled for some beers we bought from a local pub, if you could even call it that, and got creative with the food we already had. 

A Malawian beer, Kuche Kuche. Delicious.

So many goats in Africa. But this one was my favourite.

The village here and the people are incredibly kind. Malawi is called ‘the warm heart of Africa’ and it truly is that. Despite being a beautiful lake and a tourist destination, they still don’t get as many tourists as other countries do, so the people seem to be very interested in what we’re up to. The kids stare at us and wave as we walk by, and a group of them come up to the fence every day asking for treats, so we’ve given them some popcorn, cookies, etc. 

On our second day, we went out in one of the wooden boats for a full day out on the lake. It was just the four of us, our guide, Hastings, and the boat driver. We started off heading out to the right and went in the tiny gap between Domwe Island and the shore. Our guide called out to a pair of fish eagles that lived in this area, and when he knew he had their attention, he threw out a fish into the water. The birds were incredible and would swoop in, tuck their wings back, and dive straight for the fish with their legs outstretched, at the last second they would grab the fish, put their wings back out, and soar back up. It was really incredible to watch. Throughout the day, as we moved around to different spots of the lake, we would come across different pairs of eagles, which the guides usually knew by name and would be sure to give them a feed as well. 

After that, we went over the Thumbi West Island and finally got to see the cichlids! Long story short, Kurt and I have had a fish tank for the last five years, and our favourite fish to keep are African cichlids. We’ve always known that they come from either this lake or Lake Victoria which isn’t too far away. We love these brightly coloured fish. They almost look like saltwater fish and come in blues, reds, bright yellows, and a mix of colours. They can be a bit aggressive in fish tanks, but we still love them. So for years we have been wanting to come to Africa specifically to visit Lake Malawi and see the fish in their natural habitats. And today was finally the day! As we pulled up to the snorkelling area, the fish began basically swarming the boat. There were hundreds of fish of all different colours. Our guide gave us some bread to feed them, and as soon as tossed a piece into the water, the fish would swarm into a frenzy trying to get a piece. We soon jumped in with our snorkels and spent some time swimming with the fish. There were so many of them! The water was crystal clear and amazingly warm. 

Our guide, Hastings, was hilarious and caught a fish so we could have a closeup look at their colours.

After snorkelling, we went over to a picnic spot on the island where our guide cooked us an amazing lunch. They cooked everything over a fire, including rice, which was really impressive, and a million times better than I can ever make rice. It was delicious.

After lunch, we head off to Otter Point, which was full of big boulders. We swam a bit more and enjoyed the water. Kurt of course busied himself with jumping off of the big boulders.

It was a really lovely day overall, and we made it back to camp around 3pm. For $40 each for a private, 6 hour boat trip including lunch, it was also a bargain and one of my favourite days of the trip.

Dinner on the beach.

The next day we drove over to Monkey Bay, about a half hour away, to try and find Kurt another anti-rabies vaccine. We went to a couple of different chemists, the hospital, and even a vet who tried to give him a dose that was clearly labelled ‘for animal use only’ which we politely declined, but we were unsuccessful. On the bright side, we found more beers, some amazing, cheap veggies for Sophia and I’s lunch, and a soccer ball and some other little balls for the kids back in Cape Maclear. 

The rest of the day we just hung out at camp and had lunch, swam in the pool, laid in the hammock, had a campfire, and watched the sunset. Another one of my favourite days.

Malawi incidentally turned out to be one of my most favourite countries. The mountainous landscape, crystal clear waters of the lake, relaxed vibe, and nice people really make it an incredible place to visit, and I honestly think it’d be at the top of my list to visit again one day. 

The next morning was another early start as we drove back to Lilongwe where we would return the car and head to the airport. We took a different route this time and ended up getting stuck in a small town by the highway for about 40 minutes, waiting for the President and his procession to drive by. We literally weren’t allowed to get onto the highway. There were an insane number of people either lined up by the side of the road to have a look or stopped and waiting to be let through just like we were. Finally, the President’s car and about 10 other black SUV’s sped by us, and we were able to keep moving. We stopped for a quick lunch and then went to the airport where we said our goodbyes to our beloved Land Cruiser. And just like that, our epic road trip across south-eastern Africa was over.

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