Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Getting the He## Outta Malawi

Northern Malawi

Somewhere, anywhere out of Malawi was our destination for today. Actually, it was Mbeya, Tanzania, which is located approximately 260 miles away. To cover that many miles and an international border crossing was an optimistic goal, so our plan was to get an early start. But once again, my plans and Africa collided. We woke to find no power. Perversely, that meant that the shower only had scalding hot water and no cold water. Huh? In Africa, it somehow makes sense. Re braved the heat and got a shower, but by the time I tried, it was too hot for me and my sunburn. Re went to inquire about the water situation and order the included breakfast while I started to pack up. She returned with the news that there might be a tiny bit of cold water soon and that they were cooking breakfast on a gas stove in the courtyard, so it might be a few minutes. I tried the shower again, and sure enough, there was a trickle of cold water, but the hot water had run out. I took a quick shower and we headed for breakfast. We rolled out the front gate around 8:00 am and went in search of petrol. Mzuzu has at least 5 petrol stations, and every one of them had the same non-moving line as last night. We tried several stations, and at each one, the men with the huge jerrycans directed us to the next. After striking out several times, we found the BP station, where we were offered petrol for the low, low price of 1000 kwacha per liter (6 USD). Figuring there had to be cheaper fuel than 24 USD per gallon, we pressed on. We circled the central market and spied two guys carrying the ubiquitous yellow plastic jerrycan and 5 liter measuring jug. We flagged them down and found out that their rate was 700 kwacha per liter. Better, but still a lot of money. They refused to negotiate and walked away. We were then approached by two other guys who said they had 20 liters for 11000 kwacha. They agreed to sell 10 liters for 5500 kwacha, and we agreed. The ringleader jumped on the back of a bicycle taxi and motioned us to follow him. We turned off the main road into what can be politely described as a shanty town. The buildings that line the dirt roads are made out of corrugated metal and sticks. He led us down several streets before stopping in front of a stick building. The further we rode into this area, the more paranoid I got. He hopped off the back of the bicycle taxi and motioned for me to follow him through the fence and into the backyard, all the time, smiling broadly. My momma didn't raise no fool. I refused to get off the bike and told him to bring the fuel to the road. He stopped smiling and walked through the fence. I instructed Re to turn her bike around, heading from whence we came and to keep it running and in first gear. I figured that if things went pear-shaped this would give us the best chance of escape, however, given the leisurely pace with which our bikes accelerate, it would require that our pursuers either twist their ankles or step on nails while they chase us. As I watched through the gap in the fence, I saw the ringleader's head peek around the corner, followed shortly by he and another guy peeking around the corner, and then I saw a third guy peek around the corner. At this point in time, I told Re to hit it, and we “zoomed” our way back to the main road. I don't know what was going on, but I did not like it. So we rode back to the market where yet another helpful salesman directed us to the land of 700 kwacha petrol. In the back of the BP station there is a “store” full of large jerrycans, and I was able to negotiate 10 liters for 6500 kwacha. That works out to be 16 USD per gallon! Ouch. But it should be enough to get us to Tanzania, the land of milk and petrol.

Charcoal kiln and local "ninjas" in northern Malawi
Loaded with petrol and wallets lighter, we headed north. The ride today was beautiful. Mzuzu is in a mountainous area, and we wound our way through the relatively cool air and green trees before again descending to the shores of Lake Malawi. We rode along the lake. The elevation of today's ride began around 4500 feet, descended to 1600 feet, before climbing back over 7500 feet in Tanzania. While we were wiggling our way through the mountains, I signaled for Re to pull over so we could take a picture of another milestone: the 10,000 mile mark. We reached the border sometime after 1:00 pm and breezed through the Malawi side. The Tanzania side was another story. The guides we had consulted said the visa fee would be 50 USD, but it turned out that it had changed and was now 100 USD per person. We also met the local insurance salesmen and dealt with them in time. Approximately 1.5 hours later, we left with visas, 3 months of liability insurance, and another hole in our wallets where 270 USD used to be. Double ouch. But we were through. 

The scenery in Tanzania was beautiful and mountainous. We rode through pine forests and rubber plantations and had plenty of time to appreciate them as we chugged slowly up the hills. The good news was that we picked up an hour of afternoon daylight when we crossed into Tanzania, but the bad news was that our progress was slow. Earlier at the border, we again ran into Marc and Katie, and they told us of a campground in a town approximately 40 miles shy of Mbeya. This was starting to look like a good idea, as we were tired and sore. We were sore chiefly due to the roads in Tanzania. Every small town has multiple sets of speed bumps that required us to come virtually to a stop and crawl over them. Any faster than a snail's pace, and our bikes bottomed out. If you've seen the topes in Mexico, you know what I'm talking about. The road surface was also potholed, patched, and undulating, all conspiring to jolt our spines and beat our butts. We made it to Tukuyu, the town with the campground, where we easily found an ATM and a couple of petrol stations, WITH PETROL! After stocking up, we made for the campground, where we met Marc and Katie. As we were so high up in the mountains, it was chilly enough for Re to actually put on her polarfleece while we set up camp. Because we hadn't seen a grocery store along the way, we ordered dinner from reception, and it was eventually delivered by motorcycle. There are a lot of small bikes in Tanzania, and we've even seen a couple of CT-90s and CT-110s. We enjoyed a delicious homemade dinner before heading to bed.

Crossing into Tanzania was similar to Dorothy entering the land of Oz. Almost immediately after we left the border, we started to climb higher and higher, and as we did, the landscape became more and more lush. There is so much agriculture here- gigantic tea and banana plantations, every other crop you can imagine, all set against a beautiful mountain backdrop. I said to Colin that it's like they can actually afford to buy green in this country, and they did purchase every shade of green from the biggest box of Crayola crayons! 

The Glorious Gift of Petrochemicals

 Bicycle taxis drivers waiting for fares 
10/18 Another early morning after a long night, but today we were heading north. Today's ride would only be a few hours, so we weren't in a particular hurry to get on the road. We also weren't looking forward to the 12.5 miles back to the main road. We packed up the bikes, showered, and were on the road by about 9 am. We made our way back down the horrible road, again taking about an hour to go the short distance back to the paved road. I am happy to report that we both made it without incident. The rest of the ride to Senga Bay was easy but there was no petrol along the way. We reached the town of Salima, which is the turn off for Senga Bay at around noon. We were excited to see a line of minibuses surrounding the local BP station. In anticipation, we swooped in, only to find that fuel had been expected early in the day but did not arrive. We rode into Senga Bay and found a very nice campground as recommended by the Green Monster people. We stayed at Cool Runnings, a campsite and guesthouse run by Sam, a very cool woman who does many good things for the community. Camping here is cheap, but the restaurant is kind of expensive. It is a beautiful place though, with the first grassy lawn we've seen since Victoria Falls. It's so much nicer to camp on grass than in sand. We noticed a set of motorcycle bags outside the tent next to ours. Chatting with Sam, we found that Stefan (the DR800 rider from Harare) had just left that morning for Tanzania, but that Garth, an BMW mounted rider from Seattle, was still here. We spent the afternoon setting up camp, inquiring about the fuel situation (not good), having lunch, and chatting with our fellow travelers. Later in the afternoon, Garth returned from his ride, and we spent much of the rest of the day talking about our respective trips. Garth flew his bike to Frankfurt many months ago and has been riding southward ever since. His trip has been very different from ours and it was fun to hear of his adventures in northern and western Africa. After dinner and a couple of beers with Garth, we retired to the tent for another sweaty night. While we've experienced warmer air temperatures in other parts of Africa, the humidity here in Malawi is much higher. I imagine this is what much of the rest of our trip is going to be like.

This evening we listened to Sam, the woman who owns and runs Cool Runnings, talk about the various projects she's involved with in the village of Senga Bay. Sam is a nurse. She's from Zimbabwe, lived there with her husband on their farm until they got kicked off their land, then went to South Africa (her husband's homeland), where they lived until he was killed some 10 years ago. She then moved to Malawi, which she considers home (since she spent the first 8 years of her life here),built Cool Runnings with the help and support of the village, and uses her business to support the good works she does. She's been the chair of the community police for years, and the people won't let her retire. She helped build a library for the village by getting the children to collect all the plastic bags in the area over a four year period, which she then took to Lilongwe to sell to a company that turns them into buckets and such. They raised enough money from this to actually buy the bricks and other materials to build it! She helped start a program to build wheelchairs out of recycled materials for people. She started a primary school and hired teachers who want to teach. She takes care of the people of the village, treating their emergency medical problems, takes them to the hospital, and advocates for their care once they're in the hospital. I don't know when she has time to sleep! Sam has two volunteers living in the dorm right now who are assisting with various projects, including teaching the people about planting a type of tree that grows very fast from a cutting off another tree. They can use these new trees after just a year to make charcoal. They are also testing a different type of stove that uses only a fraction of the charcoal their conventional stoves use, also saving the number of trees in the area. Sam is always thinking about new ways to improve the lives of her village and is, in a nutshell, an amazing woman.

Garth from Seattle, on a long adventure of his own
10/19 Sam is also in need of petrol, so every morning she checks on availability. The bad news is that there will be no fuel today unless we would like the privilege of paying 750 kwacha per liter on the black market. Since we need 13 liters, that means it would cost us about 57USD for a little more than 3 gallons. Maybe some day, but not today. Instead, we decided to do some bike maintenance, namely clean the air filters and wash the bikes. While we were getting ready to start on this, we said goodbye to Garth, since he was heading south. Shortly after Garth left, I made a mad dash for the bathroom. It seems that “bad fuel” I consumed the other evening did turn into an exhaust problem after all. Call of the wild answered, we got to work. By early afternoon, we'd finished with Colin's bike, buttoned it back up, and he really wasn't feeling very well at all. We took a break and he made another dash for the loo. Since he felt warm and achy, we decided to spend some time researching our trip to Tanzania, and if necessary, to Mombasa. The rest of the afternoon was spent on the chaise lounges on the lawn next to the lake, books in hand. He felt somewhat better later in the day, so we went for a swim and a walk down the beach before dinner. We showered and went to bed early in our home sweet tent.

First bath in Africa for our little piggies
10/20 Second verse, same as the first. After rolling out of the tent, my first stop, once again, was Sam's office. The only thing that changed since yesterday was the price of the black market fuel. It had now gone up to 1000 kwacha per liter for the final 40 liters available. That makes it 6 USD per liter, and later in the day, a couple from Israel was desperate enough to actually pay that. Considering that camping in this idyllic spot is only 1600 kwacha per night, our decision was obvious- stay another day. As I had pooped out (literally) before getting to Re's bike yesterday, it was the job for today. Since we sat at eye level with the bikes, there was no escaping the fact that they were filthy. We had picked up some cleaner in Harare but hadn't yet found the opportunity to use it. As I still wasn't feeling very well, Re volunteered to find a bucket and some water and wash the little piggies. I once again headed to the chaise lounges by the water and put my time to good use playing spider solitaire on my iPhone. After a while, I returned to find that Re had decided to change into her bikini to wash the bikes. Given the conservative dress displayed by most Malawi women, this was perhaps, the first ever, bikini car wash (ok, motorcycle wash) ever in this country. Earlier in the day I broke into the prescription meds and began a course of Cipro. It eventually makes me feel better, but when I start Cipro, I feel “off” for the first day or two. After lunch from the market, I also put on my bathing suit and we went for a lovely swim in Lake Malawi. The water here is crystal clear, and it was the perfect temperature. What I neglected to put on this morning, was any sunscreen. Due to this oversight and my British heritage, the result was inevitable.

Later in the afternoon, now safely out of the sun, Re and I found ourselves chatting with Sam and a couple of her British volunteers. While we had heard of fuel smuggling across Lake Malawi from Mozambique via the local ferry, and while swimming earlier, I couldn't help but notice Sam's speedboat with attached 40 hp Mercury engine. So later, while we were chatting, I wondered aloud, about how many liters of fuel her boat could bring back across the lake. Doing a little bit of quick math, it was determined that, with the driver and guard along, it could haul approximately 800 liters back to Malawi. Fuel at the dock on the Mozambique side was going for the equivalent of 350 kwacha per liter, and if one could sell all 800 liters at 1000 kwacha per liter, that would net a tidy profit of over 3100 USD (less expenses). Of course, I would never advocate for breaking the law, but pointed out that this could be considered a mission of “mercy.” When we left them, everyone was smiling and laughing about the idea, but maybe the seed was planted. Then, we were back to being beach bums for the rest of the day.

10/21 Third verse, it's getting worse. With a strange feeling of deja vu, I walked up to Sam's office, asked the same question, and got the same answer. No petrol today, and no black market available at all. Maybe there will be black market fuel available tomorrow from the Mozambique ferry. And I was also “glad” to see that no one broke the law at my suggestion and made their own private run to Mozambique. Sigh. Overnight, a new couple had arrived at the campground. Marc and Katie are an American couple who have been volunteering in South Africa for the past four years. Funnily enough, Marc and Colin seem to have the same good taste in swimwear, as they were wearing matching bathing suits.  Their time on the continent is almost up, and they decided to have one final hurrah and camp their way through southern and central Africa before heading back to the states in February. We spent several hours talking with them, and it was good to get their perspectives on Africa and the role of NGOs here. We spent much of the rest of the afternoon out of the sun (@!#$% sunburn) working on RRs and blogposts in anticipation of finding internet access tomorrow. After a dinner of some things that Re found in the local market, good news arrived. Sam came and found us to say that petrol had arrived at the Caltex station in town and was also due later in the day tomorrow at the BP. Since she was going anyway and had a permit to buy (legally) 200 liters in jerrycans, she said she would pick up 13 liters for us at cost. I really do love this woman! This was the best news we'd had in days. Since tomorrow is Re's birthday, I decided to get her the gift of unleaded. The news got even better a little while later, when Sam realized she needed to empty one of her 20 liter jerrycans in order to take it with her tomorrow. I grabbed our cans and ran to the generator room, where she filled them with 13 liters of sweet, sweet love (in the form of hydrocarbons). Well, this changes everything. We've been stopped for so long that we were going to have to remember how to get back on the road. We headed to bed early in anticipation of forward movement.

The dinner I made was our first vegetarian meal in quite some time. It's funny that the only options we were offered at the Cool Runnings restaurant all have meat, since Sam is a vegetarian. Marc and Katie had asked this morning if we knew where the market was in the village, and since I've gone each day, I offered to lead the way. After lunch, the four of us headed through the village, past the school, over the sand dune that doubles as a soccer pitch, and into the market. I bought rice, dry kidney beans, tomatoes, onion, okra, and a tiny bag of oil (they divvy up liter bottles of vegetable oil into smaller bags, so you can buy like two tablespoons of oil at a time if it so moves you). At home, if I cook beans, I always buy canned ones, so I had no idea how long to soak the dry ones. Figuring hot water would work faster than cold, I asked at the restaurant kitchen for some hot water, but the power was out, so they had none. Fortunately, another camper had started a charcoal fire in the braai to boil some eggs, so I moved in and used the heat for my beans for the afternoon. Well, it unfortunately takes more than the three hours I had for beans to soak, so they were a little firm (but not crunchy!). The veggies were great though! And after dinner, when we spoke with Sam, Colin mentioned our surprise over the lack of veg options on their menu. She was surprised herself that we were not offered the full range of menu options, since they have many pasta, TVP (fake meat), and vegetable choices available. We didn't mean to get her staff in trouble, because what we did eat was very good and told her so. She just smiled and said they have been naughty lately and would need to have a talk with them.

The mob at the gas station. Notice the soldier with the rifle.
10/22 Since we had to repack virtually everything, we rose early and got to work. We hit the road around 9 am for the 250 miles or so to Mzuzu. Less than 5 miles down the road I spotted a problem: in my haste to get the jerrycans filled, I neglected to make sure that my bike was topped up. If full, the first fuel light should last approximately 25 miles, but mine only lasted for 5 miles. Oops. Considering that even with everything full, 250 miles was close to our limit, that missing liter could turn into a big problem. Consequently, today's ride would be an economy run. As we reached Salima town, we spotted Sam, sitting on the hood of her 1980s vintage, yellow, Chevy shortbed pickup, and swung in to say hi. After again thanking her, she passed along the news that petrol had arrived about 60 miles up the road in the direction we were going. Not sure if it would still be there, we stuck to the economy run idea and cruised at 35 mph, north towards Nkhotakota and the promise of more petrol. After nearly two hours, we reached Nkhotakota and quickly found the fuel station. In fact, we couldn't have missed it due to the near riot situation going on there. We pulled in through the out door since they allow motorcycles to jump the queue and I pulled up to the pumps while Re stayed a safe distance away. I pulled up with the other motorbikes and stopped to appreciate the scene. There was a soldier with a rifle standing next to the pumps and using said rifle to push the crush of people away, while another, much larger officer (in fact, he was the largest non-westerner I have seen in Malawi) grabbed “patrons” by their throats and physically moved them out of the way. The motorbikes kept trying to inch up in front of the cars to get to the pumps but were trumped by a pickup truck that came screeching in. The driver of the truck proceeded to push the crowd out of his way with his fenders. I thought to myself that this just isn't worth it. About this time, another uniformed police officer walked up to chat. I couldn't help but notice the chaos going on behind his back as he encouraged me to consider his friend, the black market petrol salesman. He told me the price was 500 kwacha per liter (of which, I am sure, he gets his cut) and led me to his friend. Five liters would be enough to ensure that we could make it to Mzuzu safely, and so I shelled out the cash and got the fuel. We continued on toward Mzuzu at the same slow pace, determined to save every ounce of fuel we could. At one of the many police checkpoints, we heard there was petrol in the stations in Mzuzu. The slow ride allowed us to appreciate the scenery. Whereas southern Malawi was brown and dusty, northern Malawi was green and verdant. We passed through groves of banana trees and several rubber plantations along the way. The strangest vignette of the afternoon occurred when we stopped for lunch in some unnamed town. There was a small Cash N Carry behind the empty petrol station, and Re went in to find something cold to drink and hopefully something to eat. While she was inside, I stayed out with the bikes and entertained several of the local boys who'd shown up. Re shortly returned with some juice and digestive biscuits (which was pretty much all that was available). We had barely cracked the lid on the juice and opened the biscuits when an odd apparition appeared. I still don't know where she (he?) appeared from, but all we saw was a bony old hand reach in to snatch our juice. We turned to find a person who appeared to only be 4.5 feet tall and maybe 75 pounds after our goodies. She wouldn't take no for an answer and kept lunging for our stuff. Neither of us wanted to touch her with our bare hands and were once again, glad for our Dariens. I finally gave her some of our biscuits and she slipped away. We made it to Mzuzu around sundown and found the recommended guesthouse. It was again, crappier than described, but it was only for one night. Also staying there was a Canadian couple, and we spent a while comparing travel notes before we hopped back on the bikes to head out for dinner. It is Re's birthday, so I wanted to do something nice and had found that there was a good Indian restaurant in town. We had a great dinner before picking up a couple of beers and heading back for the night. The bad news is that there are lines at every petrol station and none of them seem to be moving.

About the biscuit snatcher- I'm certain it was a woman. It was a very strange experience- we sat there on our bikes, and I have no idea where she came from, she just appeared out of nowhere. She was frail looking and never said a word, she simply kept reaching for our food. I've never felt so guilty about drinking a bottle of juice in front of someone before. After Colin gave her some of the biscuits, it was like she vaporized, but I saw her in the crowd of people walking along the roadside after we pulled out of the parking lot.

My birthday dinner was a delicious surprise! I was happy enough with the gift of gasoline, let alone aloo mutter, lemon rice, and naan, among other things.

Cape Maclear, Malawi

In the morning, we woke up when people started talking at around 5:30 am (the sun rises very early, African languages all seem to be spoken at high volume, and if one person is awake, then apparently, everyone else should be as well). Colin was looking at his sheet and noticed that it was covered in tiny bugs, as was I. And the wall next to my bed was also covered. They weren't mosquitoes but were some kind of gnat that was small enough to fit through the nets. Needless to say, after I scratched my imaginary itches for a solid ten minutes, we packed our things with the intention of moving on after hopefully finding more fuel to do so. 

Colin got dressed and rode back down that hellish sand road into town to look for fuel. Unfortunately, both stations in town had been out for days and didn't know when they'd get more. One of the local guides, whose given name was Cheeseandtoast (he swore that was what his mother, evil woman she must be, named him at birth) heard Colin say we needed petrol. He just happened to have a friend who had some fuel that we could purchase, but give him 30 minutes to contact the man. Well, as it turned out, his friend had already sold his stash of petrol, but Cheeseandtoast knew another guy who could “help” us. His other friend was glad to sell us 20 liters of petrol for only 520 kwachas per liter. Mind you, the rate at the petrol stations was around 300 kwachas per liter, which is the equivalent of about 1.75 USD. So at a rate of 3.05 USD per liter, or 12.00 USD per gallon, we got 5 gallons of gasoline. What a bargain! 
The best photo I've ever taken.
Tanks and jerrycans full, we packed the bikes and left for our next stop, Cape Maclear. It's only about 16 miles from Monkey Bay, and was supposed to have nice places to stay right on Lake Malawi. Our guidebook said that the road was a challenging dirt road, but I had spoken with a German couple at our guesthouse in Monkey Bay who said the road was not bad at all, was graded, and in fact, paved in part. We turned off the main road and onto the dirt road to Cape Maclear, which didn't seem too bad at all at first. Then, it turned to corrugated gravel and dirt. Oookay, we could handle this... but then, it changed again to deeply rutted, corrugated dirt. And then, we hit the paved part, which was good, because it was the steepest, most twisty road we'd seen in all of Africa. When we started back down the other side of the hill, it turned back into the rutted and corrugated dirt with the added bonus of deep sand, which I wobbled into and promptly went over. This topple was fortunately at a slow speed, so I did no damage to the bike or to myself, and best of all, didn't spill even a drop of precious fuel. I let a string of loud f-bombs fly and wanted to kick something really hard. This was not fun. Colin came back and once again, helped me lift the bike upright, and we forged on.

One of the many islands in Lake Malawi
We finally made it to Cape Maclear, after more than an hour to ride 16 miles, and found a place to stay that was much cleaner and without an obvious bug infestation. Since we were again overheated from our most recent stupid ride, I asked at the restaurant for a pair of cold, Diet Cokes. They unfortunately didn't have any, but they did have plenty of cold Carlsberg lagers. In addition to being overheated, we were also exhausted and pissed off, and although we don't normally drink during the day, let alone before noon, but this morning was worth an exception. So for brunch, we drank ice, cold beers and ate breads from the halaal bakery in Monkey Bay. It was delicious! We spent the rest of the afternoon camped out on a double chaise lounge overlooking the lake, enjoying the breeze, the scenery, and not riding. That evening, we went for dinner at a small restaurant and enjoyed some local fresh fish (Colin's fried, mine baked in banana leaf) with sweet potato chips and sauteed mixed veggies by the light of a kerosene lamp since the power went out just before the sun set. We walked back to the guesthouse in the dark (we forgot our flashlights). 
Colin has been chronicling his experiences from a more technical perspective on ADVRider, while I've been keeping this blog for a more general reading audience. The problem's been that I end up rewriting much of what Colin has already written and add my own experiences. We find that this is taking a lot of our very dear internet time. So now we are going to try something new. I am going to print a slightly edited version of Colin's reports (I'll edit out the technical nuts and bolts specific stuff and his references to boobs and butts so it's suitable for the whole family). After his report, I will add my own observations and expand on what was important to me. Hopefully this will allow us to post in a more timely fashion and allow us to use what little internet time we seem to have a bit more effectively. I will put Colin's writings in another color so you know who's writing about what.

Back at the guesthouse, it was a lively scene at the beach bar and many westerners who were volunteering in Malawi had come to the beach for the long, holiday weekend. Before we joined the festivities, we wanted to refill our water bags from the local safe drinking water tap. The water in the bathrooms comes directly from the lake and is therefore unsafe to drink, so some western NGO has installed water taps at half km intervals along the road. I grabbed my flashlight and the water bags and headed out the gate to the nearest one. Since the power was out, it was pitch black on the main road, and I noted one of the very few cars in the area had started its engine maybe a hundred feet down the road from me. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the reverse lights come on, which handily illuminated my path. Suddenly, the driver seemed to floor the accelerator and flew in reverse towards the building behind him. He turned the wheel at the last second and clipped the side of the building. Now he was coming straight at me at full speed in reverse. I ran back towards our guesthouse and missed getting hit by about 10 feet as he careened in reverse through 3 fences before eventually coming to a stop, half inside an unoccupied curio shop. Thinking the driver may be in distress, I pointed my flashlight inside the vehicle and saw a rather startled looking local. When he saw the light, he threw the vehicle into gear and tried to drive off, striking another fence. At this point, several locals came up, shouting for him to stop, and he made two more attempts at driving away. I quickly read his license plate number aloud for anyone to hear, and he came to a stop. By this time, there was a crowd of 30 or more local people, including the owner of the building he'd backed through. A couple of the local men yanked him from his vehicle and brought him in front of the woman whose building he'd damaged. At this point in time, I stepped in to give my account of what happened and left them to sort out the details. I filled up the water bags and headed back inside the compound. Happy to have not been run over by a car in Malawi, I decided to celebrate my good fortune at the beach bar. There were 15 to 20 people already there, a mix of westerners and local guides and “beach boys.” (beach boys are local men who hope to “entertain” wealthy, western women. Their main skills seem to be dressing well, excellent grooming, and playing the drums.) There was already a large fire burning in the fire pit, which seemed kind of redundant as it was around 85 degrees, but we grabbed some beers and found a doublewide chaise near the activity. We had our backs to the fire and the drummers but enjoyed the scene nonetheless. The stress of the past couple of days, coupled with the heat and cold beers, made us kind of punchy, and we laughed and had a good time. At one point, the wind picked up, fanning the fire, and the drumming seemed to grow especially loud. As the light of the flames danced on the blowing leaves overhead, I had the strange feeling that the next thing I would see was an ax coming down to lop off the buffalo's head. A strange night indeed.

People working and playing in the lake
This afternoon while we relaxed and enjoyed the beautiful lake view, a western woman got out of the water and laid her towel on a stretch of sand next to us. She asked if we were the ones on the motorbikes, we said yes, and told her about our trip. When I asked if she is also traveling, she told us that she is actually here working as a nurse in a hospital outside of Lilongwe. Her name is Gunhild, she is Norwegian, and she's in Malawi with an exchange program, supposedly working on a project to start an ICU in the hospital. Unfortunately, the hospital is so understaffed that the two Norwegian nurses haven't been able to begin the project. Gunhild has been working in the pediatrics department with one other nurse taking care of up to 120 patients. The hospital is out of morphine, HIV tests, and glucose monitoring for diabetes, among other things. It's interesting to learn about problems with providing healthcare in a place like this. She told us that diabetes is actually more of a problem than HIV and AIDS because of the issues with teaching people how to monitor it, how to inject insulin, how important it is to deliver doses at specific times of the day, and also with the temperature requirements for insulin (it's supposed to be refrigerated, and people don't have fridges. She said people in the villages bury it in the sand to at least keep it cooler than air temp). Many of the women in the villages don't recognize when they need to bring their children to the hospital, and by the time they do, it's too late. Once this happens, they are afraid to come to the hospital because when someone does, they die. Gunhild's opinion seemed to be that the situation in Malawi is pretty hopeless. The members of the government take what they want for themselves and their families and leave nothing for the rest of the nation's people. They get millions of dollars in aid from around the world and have little to show for it. The country has been struggling with fuel shortages for two years, the people rioted over the summer because of the lack of fuel, and it's affected the prices and availability of everything. On the flip side, the people here always smile, they are warm and friendly, and there is always music and laughter. Gunhild said she tried to take some of that attitude home to Norway with her, but people thought there was something wrong with her for smiling and laughing in the hospital. Our conversation was eye opening and thought provoking, and Colin and I both spent time that evening thinking and talking about the situation here. 
After another hot night's sleep, we woke to another beautiful, clear morning. Somebody really needs to bring ceiling fans to Malawi. We walked down to the beach and looked at the water while we woke up. We had decided that another easy day was the plan. Wifi is available here, but the place that sells access cards for it is 2 km farther up the beach. We decided to head there early in the morning when it's at least a little cooler. The walk was uneventful and ended at a very nice guesthouse and campground. After walking in through the front gate, Re went to look for a wifi card while I headed for the large, overland truck I spotted in the campground. The Green Monster is hard to miss, as it is one of the biggest private overland trucks we've seen and is painted an interesting shade of green. As I walked around admiring the setup, the owners came down the steps. While I chatted with them, Re joined us and we spent more than an hour talking about our travels and traveling. The couple to whom the truck belonged (I wish I could remember their names) have been everywhere in the Monster. The highlight of the conversation, however, was when we commented on the difficulties we'd had driving in. They also remarked how bad the road was for them. Re and I have always assumed that those roads would be a breeze in a big truck with big tires, but apparently no, the washboarding shakes them as much as it shakes us and is damaging to the contents of their rigs. But our biggest laugh was when the driver told us how they were also told that the road was fine, and he said if he ever met them again, he would...and gestured as if he were strangling someone. I then told him what I'd said yesterday about punching people in the mouth, and we all had a good laugh. After they gave us several recommendations for campsites along our route, we said goodbye, bought our wifi card, and headed out for breakfast. We stopped at the same restaurant as last night for coffee and fruit pancakes before heading back to our guesthouse for another lazy afternoon at the beach. We did spend some time catching up on RRs and blogposts and were able to post them when the wifi finally started working sometime after dark. As the weekend was over, we were the only people staying there. Around 7pm we went out in search of dinner, but many of the nearby places seemed to be closed. We happened across a small restaurant with a good sounding menu out front and were invited in by the waiter. As we took a seat, I started to have second thoughts about the place but didn't listen to my better judgment. Re had a local fish with lemongrass and mashed potatoes with onions and coriander, which was very tasty. I had chicken curry with nsima (the local version of mealie pap or sadza) which was also quite tasty. After dinner, we went back to our guesthouse for a drink at the beach bar and a low key evening. As we headed to bed, I was concerned by how much my stomach was grumbling. Oh no.

Making Our Way from Zim to Moz (rabbits?!?) and on to Malawi

We planned again to get an early start since we'd be crossing into Mozambique and still cannot predict how long the process will take. While we packed the bikes to leave, we said goodbye (again!) to Sue and then ran into Stephan and Nicole, and ended up chatting with them for about another half hour. Needless to say, we didn't leave early. Fortunately the weather was good, and the ride out of Harare was pretty. As we rode northeast, the scenery changed from farmland to giant, rounded boulders heaved from the ground. Between the rocky hills, the purple jacaranda trees, and tidy villages, it was beautiful. 

We had to stop to refuel from our jerrycans about an hour outside of Harare, so we pulled off at the end of a dirt road. While we were filling our tanks, a pickup truck stopped next to us at the end of the road, and the passenger rolled down his window. “I'm from Portland, Oregon,” the man said after looking at our license plates. Being a bit skeptical, Colin asked what neighborhood he was from, and the man named an area near the Lloyd Center. Sure enough, his name was Benny Brown, he was from Portland, and settled in Zimbabwe in 1994 after spending time traveling in Europe. He's a solar energy consultant who dabbles in mining a bit, and loves Zimbabwe. As he said, “it's the only country in the world that's going up!” This story is proof-positive that the world is truly a smaller place than I ever imagined.

Hah! My one Mozambique border control photo
We rode on, made it to the border, and met the first aggressive border touts of this trip. Before we even dismounted our bikes at the Zimbabwe post, we had an insurance salesman incessantly pestering us to buy our Mozambique insurance from him once we crossed the border. He refused to take no for an answer, but we eventually escaped into the building for our requisite passport and Carnet stamps, and then through the gate and into Mozambique, where we met...even more of them. Here, they tried to get us to exchange our US dollars for huge wads of Mozambique meticals and buy their insurance. Colin ended up dealing with the shortest and fastest of the bunch of insurance touts, who was actually helpful with not only the immigration and visa forms (since they were written in Portuguese and poorly translated into English), but also sold Colin the required third party vehicle insurance at a fair price while I waited for the stern man from Immigration to return our passports with new visas affixed. I sat on the porch outside the office and snapped a couple of photos of our bikes with everyone gathered around them and of the front of the building at the border crossing, as I've tried to do at every one we've been through. As I waited, a man in uniform approached me and asked how I was, then what I was doing with my camera. Since I know you're not supposed to take photos at borders, I tried to be surreptitious about it but was apparently less so than I thought. He asked to see the photos I had taken and made me delete them. Thankfully, he didn't take the camera from me or put me in jail (since I promised my parents I wouldn't get locked up on this trip). We made it through the border and into Mozambique and headed toward the city of Tete for the night.

Typical homestead in Tete corridor of Mozambique
Since we didn't get the early start we'd planned and our dealings at the border took longer than expected, we didn't arrive in Tete until nearly dark. We rode through the city, out the other side and across a bridge, realizing that put us where we didn't want to be. We turned around to go back across the bridge into downtown and immediately were stopped at a police checkpoint. This was the first time any officer has asked to see any of our registration paperwork, so we had to dig it out of the locked case for him to see that we were legit. He let us go, we rode back into the city, and found the hotel which was supposed to be cheap, clean, and safe, as the sun set. Unfortunately, the hotel did not live up to even our lowest expectations of cleanliness, and the rate had somehow jumped from 35USD to 95USD. In spite of the impressive mold farm growing in the wall below the A/C unit, we decided to press on. Instead we went in search of the one campground we knew of in town, which happened to be on the other side of the bridge. We turned at the sign for the campground, onto an unlit dirt road that ran along the Zambezi River, and couldn't find it. We rode back and forth on that road, in the dark, until finally, Colin saw a sign on a wall for the campground. Fortunately, it was dark when we arrived so we couldn't see just what a lovely place we'd found. We pulled into the most basic, darkest campground we've found on this trip to date. We set up our tent, blew up our mats, grabbed our bag of dry cereal, and found a crumbling step. We ate a dinner of cereal and water sitting in the dark, and then we went to bed. 

Once we arose, by light of the morning, we fully appreciated the delightful conditions of our home for the night. The bathhouse was built out of a collection of decaying reed mats and scrap metal, with a cold trickle of a shower, a single, dirty sink, and... rabbits. Now, I'm used to various fauna on the walls and ceilings of the ablution facilities around the world, but this was the first time I've seen little bunny foo foo in the corner of a bathhouse. And I had to take a photo. While Colin was in the shower and I packed the bags, a group of local street children, who came in when the campground owner opened the gate first thing in the morning to let the most crapulous safari truck on the continent leave, surrounded me as I worked.  They were all very cute, smiling and touching my hair and distracting me from what was going on behind me. When Colin returned, he saw that one child was at the bikes, investigating our daypacks. He shooed them all away and fortunately, nothing was missing, but I will not make that mistake again. Before we started this trip, I expected stuff like this to happen and know I need to keep an eye on my surroundings, but things had been so easy up to this point that I let my guard down.  All this atmosphere was included in the ultra low price of...22 US dollars. Once everything was packed, we left the campsite and stopped for fuel and to look for food. We found fuel, but since everything in Mozambique is written in Portuguese and we can't read it, we could have passed seventy different grocery stores and I wouldn't know it.  Anyway, we didn't find any food before we left Tete on our way to the Malawi border.
The ride itself wasn't particularly interesting, more dry heat and drier, dusty landscape, and lots of huge, deep potholes in the road. There aren't even many trees left in this region, since the people have deforested most of the land in order to make charcoal. We were both so happy to see the border with Malawi! Our joy waned once we got to the Mozambique border station, where we were swarmed by a group of money changers and insurance touts. An officer came to our rescue and ordered them to leave and then directed us where to go. We got our Mozambique exit stamps and walked back to the bikes and were again surrounded by the same group of people. This time, the officer wasn't around, and they would not move away from our bikes. I yelled as politely as I could for them to please get out of my way so I could get on my bike and finally had to force my way through.

Finally, were able to ride away through the gate and into... what we thought was Malawi. At every other border we've crossed, once you pass through immigration and customs of one country, you cross a bridge or some short piece of real estate before you see some kind of a “welcome to (insert country here)” sign and the immigration and customs buildings of the next country. Well, we rode slowly along, looking for the Malawi port of entry, and didn't see it. We rode a couple of kilometers before we turned around to go back, now pretty sure that we'd just blown through the Malawi border control. We didn't see it on our return journey, so Colin rode up to the gate at the Mozambique side (working all the money changers we'd previously dismissed into a frenzy, thinking we'd changed our minds about their services) and asked where the Malawi border was. It turns out it was about 10 km down the road. So we turned back around and continued further on the road we'd ridden until we arrived at the Malawi border post. There we met another mob of money changers and insurance salesmen who also wanted to “help” us. We eventually managed to get the deals done and moved on.

We needed fuel and started looking seriously for it once we'd entered Malawi (since we didn't see any before we left Mozambique). We stopped at a petrol station in the first small town we entered, only to be told that they didn't have any, hadn't had any for four days, and didn't know when they'd get anymore. When I asked where we might be able to find fuel, he suggested the city of Blantyre, which was not on our way, but is the largest city in Malawi. We considered what to do, couldn't make a decision, and rode on to the crossroads where we would have to decide. Since we could make it to Blantyre on the fuel we had, we opted to go in that direction. 

About 10 km down that road, we came upon a gas station with a long line of cars. Hopeful that we wouldn't need to go to Blantyre, we joined the queue and were motioned to cut in line by what must have been the town drunk. He took our jerrycans from Colin and carried them to the pumps and harassed the two women who were pumping gas until they agreed to fill our cans. Everyone else was there to fill not only their car tanks, but also multiple, huge jerrycans. Our assistant convinced them to fill ours since we actually needed fuel in order to not get stuck there. He was either very convincing or just super annoying, but either way, they took our cans, filled the 5 liter can and started on the 10 liter one, when... the pumps ran dry. We got the last 7.2 liters the station had, which made us very happy (even though we really could have used another 7.8 liters). Colin tipped our helper the equivalent of about a dollar, which made him very happy. We continued on, now toward our preferred destination, Monkey Bay, which is at the southern end of Lake Malawi. 
Sometime in the mid-afternoon, we stopped at another empty petrol station (in hope of topping off our such luck though) and grabbed lunch (peanuts, potato chips, and cold water- only the finest for us). The day wore on, and the sun dipped lower in the sky as we rode onward toward Monkey Bay. After passing a road sign, Colin pulled off the side of the road, and I pulled in next to him. The sign said Monkey Bay was 60 miles further along this road, but our GPS wanted us to turn right onto a dirt road that promised to save us 20 miles. Considering we didn't have 60 miles of fuel with us, the 20 mile dirt road was our option. As it turns out, the road was fine, but we had to slow down to avoid the deep ruts and to hit the planks on the bridges just right. We learned an invaluable lesson on this road- follow the bicyclists. They're local and know the smoothest route down the roads. In saving the 20 miles of fuel we didn't have, we entered a race against the setting sun. The dirt road was fine during daylight hours, but after dark, we'd have no chance of making it safely due to our lackluster headlights. We made it to the paved road as the sun set, but we still had another 20 miles to go. Colin led the way, and I followed, using his headlight and covering my beam with my hand to cover its reflection off the jerrycan. 

We rode slowly, avoiding the continuous stream of life that occurs on the roads in Malawi. Since so few people have cars, everyone walks, bicycles, sits, converses, markets, lives on the roads, so they are all just glorified sidewalks. We made it to the turnoff for our guesthouse after dark and turned off onto a dirt road...that turned into... deep sand. We struggled for the final kilometer as it was entirely deep sand, and at one point, Colin got off and walked next to his bike as it chugged along in first gear. By the time we got to the gate about a half hour later, we were drenched in sweat and panting hard from duck-walking the bikes. The guard opened the gate and we tried to ride through and found... even deeper sand. With our thigh muscles now on fire, we got off the bikes and tried to check in. At reception, we met Auntie, who informed us that due to the Malawi national holiday of Mothers' Day, they were full and only had two beds left in the dorm that she would need to “negotiate,” so we should go to the restaurant for dinner while we waited. After a good hour, she came and said the room was ready. We followed her to the dorm, to find that it was now ours, since the people who were staying in it had apparently left for some reason. The room was...shabby, and the bathroom was, um, rustic. On the plus side, the mosquito nets were intact. I needed to take a shower after the last portion of our ride, so I grabbed the soap and headed to the bathroom, where I took a cold shower while standing on a wood pallet, trying not to slip between the slats and twist an ankle (I didn't). Colin wasn't up to the shower situation, so we brushed our teeth and went to bed.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Zimbabwe, Part 2

We left Victoria Falls for the city of Bulawayo after we packed up and exchanged email addresses with Sue. The ride to Bulawayo was hot and dry. We stopped part way there in the city of Hwanke for fuel, and the first two stations were out. Colin rode on to try a third station at the far edge of town and I went to the store to get lunch. We continued on toward Bulawayo, stopping again, this time for some cold drinks at a dusty wide spot in the road with a couple of buildings. We asked the men sitting along the roadside (as many people do here) if there were “coldrinks” and they pointed us to a small storefront with three small boys seated on the porch. They stared at us like we were from outer space when we pulled in front of their shop, dismounted the bikes, and walked in to buy our Cokes. We sat on the front stoop and drank our drinks under the intense stare of those six big eyes before we waved goodbye and rode away. 
We got to Bulawayo late in the afternoon, with our fuel lights blinking, and found our way to a guesthouse after asking for directions at the gas station. They were supposed to have camping, but no. The unfriendly woman at reception said no. And the room rate was twice what the guidebook said it should be. But it was late, it was dark, there are very few street signs, and we had no other options, so we stayed. They had a kitchen, so I asked where the grocery store was and about cooking dinner. The woman said it costs extra to use the kitchen, and the price depends on what you cook. The grocery store was in the city, it was not safe to walk there (and we don't ride after dark), and I really didn't feel like paying extra for the privilege of cooking our own dinner, so we went to the Athletic Club pub and restaurant next door to eat. The food was good, the beers were cold, and we were tired, so we walked back to the guesthouse and went to sleep.

The next morning we got up and got on the road with the intention of seeing Matobo National Park, aka Matopos. It is a game park, recreational park, Unesco World Heritage site, and the burial place of Cecil Rhodes (to whom Colin's father is related). It's also one of the last places to see white rhinos in the wild, and we wanted to see it all. We rode the 20-some miles to the park and up the road to the entrance. We walked up to the man at the window, who was studiously ignoring us and texting away on his phone, and asked how much the fee was. He looked up at us and said no motorbikes were allowed in the park. We asked why and he just replied, “animals.” I said please, I promised that we would not get eaten and offered to accept all responsibility on the off chance that we did, but he ignored me and returned to his phone. So we rode back to our crappy guesthouse in the crappy, ugly, decomposing city of Bulawayo.

To make the best of our new day off, we spent the afternoon writing ride reports and blog posts and went in search of an internet cafe, since the internet was not working at the guesthouse (since yesterday morning, the owner told me, but he assured me he was calling his service provider as soon as they opened. Neither Colin nor I held our breath). After we put up our posts, we walked back to the guesthouse, stopping to pick up dinner at Mr Chips on the way. We bought greasy chips with vinegar, Russians, which are basically kielbasa, some apples, and a rock bun that lived up to its name. We returned to the guesthouse, greasy bag in hand, only to find that the power was out. A new, also not nice, woman at reception told us it should be back on around 9:00 (am or pm, she didn't say). We ate our grease bomb dinner, sitting on our bed, by the light of the candle she gave us for the room. After we finished eating, Colin went outside to look over the bikes, and who did he find? Sue! She took the overnight train to Bulawayo and got in that morning and was staying to check out some of her old haunts. So we chatted with her for a while, and then we went to bed.

The next morning, we got up, had coffee and peanut butter on crackers for breakfast and tried, once again, to get an early start, this time to Harare. Our efforts, however, were defeated by another flat rear tire on my bike. We removed the tire from the wheel and found a new hole in the tube, so we replaced the old tube and put everything back together, rushed through the shower (I had to go outside to turn off the sprinklers when Colin was in the shower because they sucked all the water from the bathroom), and then got on the road.

The ride to Harare was another dry, dusty one, with limited fuel availability along the way. We got to the outskirts of the city late in the afternoon, and the scenery changed to farmland. I was really surprised by the amount of agriculture just outside the city. And everything was so green by comparison to the western part of the country. We rode into Harare during rush hour, fighting our way through the minibus taxis the whole way. Once we got to the city center and started looking for street signs, we found, as in Bulawayo, none. Fortunately we were stopped at a light next to a police vehicle, and Colin asked them for directions to the area where the guesthouse was. They pointed us in the right direction, and we eventually found the place thanks to the GPS unit we almost didn't bring on the trip. Neither of us felt particularly hopeful about the guesthouse because of our previous experience, but we were pleasantly surprised. They not only had rooms, but they were very nice rooms. And the rate was very reasonable. There was a clean pool in the yard, a small restaurant, and the employees were welcoming and friendly. And they had wifi! After eating a tasty dinner in their restaurant and catching up with family via Skype, we decided that it might be nice to stay for a day in Harare. 

Washboard arms!
The next morning, I took use of the laundry sink (with washboard!) that I found out back and scrubbed the stink out of our nasty clothes. We spent some time working on ride reports again before lunch, and I rode to the grocery store to find lunch. In an attempt to keep the grease we've eaten since our arrival in Africa from completely obstructing our blood vessels, I got yogurt, muesli, a whole pile of fresh fruit, and 100% fruit juice. Oh boy, was it all delicious! 

We decided to ride out to a place called Bally Vaughn, which is a refuge for abandoned or injured animals, after lunch. There they have lions, a leopard, zebras, a bunch of baboons, vervet monkeys, a hyaena named Kylie who has morphed into a fur-covered, assumedly diabetic, barrel, assorted small animals, and birds which they've taken in for a variety of reasons. We wandered the grounds, looked at the animals snoozing happily in their enclosures, and waited for 4:00 to arrive: that is large carnivore feeding time. While we waited, we sat at the cafe, drinking sodas, when a group of young people sat down at the tables around us. About five of the girls joined us at our table and struck up a conversation. They wanted to know where we were from, and they all want to visit America, in particular, Hollywood. As it turns out, the group are students from a local and rural high school. When it was feeding time, everyone stood up and walked toward the lions. We spoke with the class's teacher, who said this was a field trip in honor of their excellent performance in a national drama competition. He was really excited for them to have an opportunity to speak with Americans. I think we had as much fun talking with the students as they had with us. I asked if I could take a picture of them, and they crowded in together for a group portrait. Then, they each wanted their photo taken individually, which I did. It was fun to see them pose and examine the resulting pictures. One of the girls, named Kathy, gave me her email address, and I will be sending her their portraits.  We also had the opportunity to speak with the woman in charge of Bally Vaughn and learn about the animals they care for there.  It was an interesting experience all around and was great to find a place where the unwanted and uncared for animals can have a permanent, good home.  
Esther, Kathy, Lucia, Redemptia, and Melissa
We left Bally Vaughn at around 5:00 pm and returned to our guesthouse for the evening.  When I walked past the TV lounge to go to our room, I saw, sitting on the couch... Sue!  She was tired of the crappy guesthouse and Bulawayo in general and took the bus to Harare for a few days before her plane to Johannesburg.  So we chatted some more over dinner, and then, in walked a German couple, named Stephan and Nicole, whom we had spoken with at the Botswana-Zimbabwe border!  What a reunion.  We spent the rest of the evening comparing travel notes, various itinerary options and border crossing stories with Sue, Stephan, and Nicole before we went to bed. 

Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe

Since I am behind in my blogging, I am going to try to catch everyone up on the past week of travel. We left Chobe National Park and Botswana the morning after our wonderful day watching the wildlife The next morning, we got up to ride to Zimbabwe, which was only about ten miles away. We packed our gear, had breakfast, and said goodbye to Christel and some of our other fellow campers. The border crossing was no problem; the Botswana side, very professional and easy, and the Zimbabwe side, a little less so. The officers at Immigration in Zimbabwe were quite sure that I was a spy and asked me repeatedly if I was certain that I wasn't there to uncover their national secrets and share them with the US government. They also thought Colin might be a criminal, and laughed when he said he was an attorney, saying they are the worst criminals of all. They had a good time, as did we, and we got our visas (hand written- no automated scanner/printer setup like we've seen elsewhere). When I got back to the bikes to wait for Colin to finish with Customs, a fuel tanker driver asked if I might like to sell him my bike once I tired of riding it. Maybe, if he is in the US in about a year, we might make a deal, I told him. Once we finished at the border, we rode into Zimbabwe on our way to Victoria Falls. 

Since it's one of the seven natural wonders of the world, and since we were so very close, it seemed a tragedy to miss it. The ride to Vic Falls was flat and dry woodlands and not very scenic but for the baboons. There were LOTS of baboons. At one point, they spilled out of a tree, like the did from my barrel of red, plastic monkeys I had as a child. There must have been at least fifty of them, falling, cartwheeling, and leaping out of a single tree and running across the road in front of us. It was a sight!

Tire change at Shoestring Backpackers
We got to the town of Victoria Falls and set up camp on the shady lawn at Shoestring Backpackers. After walking into town to grab some lunch supplies, we pulled the bikes onto the hard driveway to change the rear tires. While we worked on the second tire installation, one of the gardeners (?) came over to (I thought) see what we were doing and learn (?) about changing tires. As I tried to explain what we were doing, he wanted to help by holding wrenches and the wheel in place. After the wheel was back in place, he asked for a tip for providing his assistance. A little befuddled, I gave him a dollar. Zimbabwe is an incredibly poor nation. Several years ago, you may recall that they had rampant, uncontrolled inflation, to the point of issuing fifty trillion dollar notes. The government changed their currency to the US dollar four years ago, and things have stabilized a bit. Food is now more available but very expensive and with little variety, and fuel can be found at about every third gas station. The unemployment rate is somewhere around seventy percent, and people struggle. I don't mind tipping a dollar in this sort of environment, even though we would have been done faster without his help. When we were finished and repacking the tools, an Australian woman came over to check our our rides. 
Here is where we met Sue, a Darwinian who had been working in Kenya for an aid organization and was on her way home via Johannesburg with a stop in Vic Falls for a few days. She is very well-traveled, has worked in Africa and the Pacific, and rides a bike at home that she calls her “nifty fifty,” even though it has a 100cc motor. We spent the evening chatting over (not very good) pizza and (very cold) beer, and she has kindly offered to pick us up at the Darwin airport in about ten months if and when we arrive and to put us up in her home. 
The next morning, we had a leisurely breakfast of coffee and bread with peanut butter, walked into town to the grocery store for some picnic supplies, and then continued on to see the waterfalls we could hear from a mile away. This grocery run was Colin's introduction to the contrast between Zimbabwe's food situation and every other country we've visited in Africa. He was really taken aback by the lack of variety and the expense of things. We got some cheese, crackers, and fruit for lunch and walked through town to the falls. Along the way, we encountered people begging and others selling souvenirs rather half-heartedly. I'm used to the hard sell tactics of southeast Asia, but here, they just take no for an answer immediately and go away. It's actually pretty sad that people accept no that quickly. 
We got to Victoria Falls, paid our entrance fee (30 dollars each! I really hope this is worth it!), and followed the path to the falls. And it was worth the money. The scenery is so unlike everything around the area- it's lush, and verdant, with huge ferns growing everywhere. The spray from the waterfalls is so heavy that it falls from the trees like it's raining. And this is during the dry season! The water level right now is only a tiny fraction of its maximum, and that was a good thing, because if it was higher, you wouldn't be able to see the falls through the mist. The sound is also unbelievable- an incredible, thundering noise. It was really an awe inspiring sight. Colin and I both wondered at what it must have been like to come across the falls for the first time, as David Livingstone did. 
After we walked along the falls twice, we headed back into town to get stuff for dinner. Unfortunately, the grocery store closes at 1:00 on Sundays. We did find a “7 until 11” shop around the corner, and from their selection, bought ground beef, some ramen noodles, and a half of a basketball-sized head of cabbage. From this, I made meatball, cabbage, and noodle soup in the communal kitchen at Shoestring. At the same time, one of the male employees was also cooking dinner for some of the staff. He seemed as curious about what I was making as I was about his sausage curry concoction. Since there was no way on earth that we could eat all the cabbage, I asked if he'd like the quarter of a cabbage that I wasn't using. He gratefully accepted it. We ate what we could of the pot of soup (it was better than it sounds, but not my finest culinary experiment) and I offered the same man the rest of the soup. He was again very thankful, and he put it in a container for later. The next morning, I asked if he could use the remainder of our jar of peanut butter, and he actually said, “God bless you, and thank you.” Life is hard for many people here.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

THIS Is Worth Getting Up Early For!

Since we had a really short ride to Chobe today, we actually slept in and spent a leisurely morning enjoying breakfast along the river and rearranging our duffel bags to make better sense of them. The Namibia-Botswana border was only about 35 miles from Katima Mulilo, so we made it there in no time. After filling out our Namibian exit forms and a getting a few more stamps on our documents, we were on our way across the bridge to Botswana. Before we got to the Immigrations and Customs building, we had to pass the anti-hoof and mouth disease checkpoint, which involved stamping our shoes on a wet rug in a basin and driving our bikes through about a 9-inch deep pool of muddy water (this was officially my second water crossing!). Once we completed our Botswana entry forms, got our passports and Carnet paperwork stamped and signed again, we rode almost immediately into Chobe National Park, where we had to sign in and register our vehicles before we could continue. This is when things got interesting.

Within the first mile of entering Chobe, the welcoming committee appeared. As I did yesterday, I rode, scanning from side to side for animals, and slammed on the brakes to see the elephants eating about 50 feet to the left of the road. Colin came back to see the “elephants in the corner of the room” and we watched them for a few minutes before continuing onward. Maybe five minutes later, we both hit the brakes again, this time, for the giraffes off to the right of the road. And before I even got back up to speed after seeing the giraffes, there were zebras! The number of animals we saw, just on the public road transiting the park was amazing.

Colin and I were both so engrossed in the scenery that we more or less forgot that we needed to refuel until we headed up a hill, and my bike coughed and then, stopped. We pulled off the road to fill the tanks, and at this point we realized that for the first time ever, we were in an area where we were not the biggest predators. We both kept an eye out for anything with big teeth while we worked, but Colin was not at all amused when I called, “here, kitty kitty, come here, puss puss puss,” before we got back on the bikes to ride STOP! ride STOP! and look some more. This went on for the thirty-some odd mile journey to the town of Kasane, where we would camp for the night. When we arrived at the lodge and campgrounds, we set up our tent in the communal campsite and booked a day trip into Chobe National Park for the next day. We spent the rest of the day doing laundry, relaxing in the pool, and giving Colin a much-needed al fresco haircut sitting on the edge of the pavilion in our campsite.

The next morning was an early one. Many of you know that I  am not and have never been a morning person, and it has to be something really important for me to get up at 5:00am. We had to meet for a game drive at 5:30am, so we did just that, jumped out of the tent, splashed water on our faces, brushed our teeth, and grabbed the camera and binoculars for the trip. Our ride for the morning was a large, open-sided safari truck, 4WD (of course), and we all piled in for the journey. The sun was just on the rise as we entered the park. Our guide, Richard, stopped to lock the front hubs on the truck before we started down the deep, sandy tracks. Shortly after we entered, we stopped to watch elephants eating in the woods. We drove farther and saw a herd of impalas, then a pile of banded mongooses feverishly digging through the dead leaves and dirt for bugs. Then we drove a little farther and stopped near a kudu carcass, where we actually glimpsed a wild dog for just a moment! Wild dogs are supposedly the most endangered carnivore in Africa, so I feel really fortunate to have seen one at all.

Our progress was slow along the tracks, and Richard stopped anytime anyone asked him to in order to see the wildlife. He was a great guide, telling us the names of animals, about their behaviors, numbers in the park and beyond, and about the scenery.  We drove along a waterhole, where more impalas, water buffaloes, and water bucks fed before riding up a hill and stopping by a tree in full leaf to see a LEOPARD. It had apparently already eaten and was napping, stretched out along a limb. We could see its hind legs hanging lazily, toes pointed down, tail along another branch, front legs stretched out. We watched it barely move through the binoculars (its tail twitched, and its front paws flexed). AMAZING! When everyone in the truck said to proceed, Richard drove on, stopping for impalas, antelope, beautiful birds, including carmine bee-eaters, fish eagles, and all sorts of other creatures. We passed another truck headed out, and the driver told Richard there were lions ahead. So he drove us on, and sure enough, on a small hill up ahead, were four lionesses snoozing in the morning sun. It was incredible! When we rode back, we passed the leopard in the tree and stopped to watch it again since it was climbing to another branch. This time, we saw its face!  Before we left, we passed the kudu carcass again, but now it was nearly stripped dry by the hundred-plus vultures perched in the trees above. We rode back to the campground after about four hours of game viewing and picture taking, totally in awe.

When we got back to the campground, Colin and I had to move our gear and tent to another site, since one of the big safari companies had reserved the spot where we had stayed. So we picked up and moved to the one that was recommended by the security guard who was standing in reception, which was big, empty, and right near the Chobe River's edge. We had coffee, some breakfast, and tried to absorb everything from the morning.  Later that afternoon, a fellow camper named Christel, from Rouen, France, walked over with her uninflatable Thermarest pad to see if we might have a repair suggestion.  We got our sleeping pad repair kit out and glued a patch on the hole she located.  While we stood around chatting, the security guard who recommended the campsite came to see if everything was okay.  We resoundingly said yes, it was great, and thanked him for the advice.  He said it was a nice spot and that on many evenings, hippos and elephants will walk along the river in front of the site.  Since it was just about time for us to meet up again for a boat ride on the Chobe River, we packed our bag with the camera and binoculars again and climbed on the same truck from the morning trip and rode it to the jetty, where we boarded a large pontoon boat. Our guide was again Richard. As we rode, he and the boat's captain told us some of the history of the islands in the middle of the river and about the animals we should see. Soon after we took off, we started seeing elephants out on the islands. And LOTS of birds. And then, hippos. We stopped to look at them all, watching the hippos raise the tops of their heads out of the water to look at us. The captain moved the boat out farther into the river, and we felt and heard something BUMP! on the bottom of the boat. They said it was a hippo. Fearing we'd hit it, the guides told us just how territorial hippos are, and that they actually ram boats and try to flip them when they enter hippo territory. The hippos will then bite the people in the boat, kill them, and leave them to the crocodiles. Feeling happy that we were in a large, stable boat, we continued on, and as Colin and I looked behind the boat, we saw... a hippo rise out of the water like a porpoise with its jaws open wide. WOW! I had no idea they could move like that and cannot believe we were looking in the right place to see it happen! We saw crocodiles lying on the riverbanks in the sun, watching the unsuspecting birds and buffaloes, more impalas, more river bucks, and large herds of a different kind of antelope called a red lweche. 

The sun was setting as we cruised slowly along the river, watching the animals and truly enjoying the whole experience. We rounded a turn in the river and saw huge herds of elephants, on the islands and on the shore. We watched a group of about fifteen elephants of various ages drink at the edge of the water. Through the binoculars, I noticed something very small rolling in the water at the very edge, behind the bigger elephants. It was a tiny baby! I asked Richard how old it was, and he suspected it was only a few days old, which was kind of what I suspected since I could see what looked like umbilical cord.  Richard said that when they're born, they don't know how to use their trunks to drink, so they kneel down to drink with their mouths, which we watched it do.  The herd turned to leave the shore, and as they walked, I could see the mother elephant guiding her baby with her trunk.  It was such a sweet sight!  We also watched as huge adult elephants walk from the shore to the islands. The water is too shallow for them to swim, so when they walk across, you can only see the tops of their heads and backs. As they exit the water, they look like they've been painted for battle with a two-tone black and gray paint job. I was so overwhelmed by everything we'd seen in this one single day that I cried as we rode back to the jetty.

When we got back to the campground, Colin and I had a quiet dinner and tried to process the events of the day. We headed back to our campsite afterward and heard rustling in the grass between us and the river. Sure enough, there were nearly a dozen elephants grazing in the grasses and trees just beyond our campsite. It REALLY doesn't get any better than this. Today was one of the very best days of my entire life!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!