Our one year trip began with a COVID test. It was negative and we were good to go.
If you remember one thing from this blog entry, it should be this: definitely try sailing the Zambezi in a Sesepe boat but make sure you’re heading downstream! But we get ahead of ourselves, that travel lesson was to come in 3 weeks’ time…
Every five years we go backpacking for one year - a life-style that requires a lot of planning. While Covid19 has tried its best to thwart everyone’s plans, we had to choose between travelling in 2021 or not at all. We chose to travel.
|Day 1, bus 1|
Of course Covid19 has added a layer of ethical complexity to a decision like this - we have done our best to protect ourselves, and more importantly, to protect others. Our biggest fear would have been to spread the SA variant beyond our borders - but we were super careful prior to leaving, had a negative Covid test 72 hours prior to departure and were extra careful in the days that followed. The reality we have found as we’ve moved northwards is that besides shopping malls in capital cities, there is little meaningful preventative action being taken to stop the spread of the virus. South Africa looks like a beacon of Covid19-fighting excellence when compared to some of our neighbours. If this virus is going to spread through our continent it will do so because of zero precautions on public transport and not because of travellers. Truck drivers and day traders are moving across even supposedly closed borders quite freely without a Covid test in sight.
The start of our journey was a relatively comfortable bus ride, albeit 24 hours long, from Cape Town to Windhoek. The lush Cape landscape turned into desert in a couple of hours and stayed that way. Having lived most of our lives on South Africa’s coast, it took some time for the vastness of the desert landscapes to sink in. We wore our N95 masks throughout the entire journey, not even taking a sip of water while on the bus. This strict policy required a scramble during the few short loo breaks to ensure that we could gulp some food and water before the impatient bus continued its journey. Hooray for padkos! Adding to the challenge was the South African curfew which meant that the bus had to race to get to the border in time. With the airconditioning not working, it was a hot ride and took commitment to keep those masks on all the time, especially when no-one else was doing so.
It took a few hours at the Namibian border to get through immigration, customs and health checks despite there being very few people. After that, it was a long straight road through the rainy night until we reached Windhoek in the early morning. There we were met by an old friend, Lisa, and her partner Paul who have built a magnificent off-grid eco-house in the bush shared with two very hospitable half-wolves. After a few sociable days swimming in their natural plunge pool, enjoying the sunsets and cooking lovely meals together, we packed up their well-equipped 4x4 and headed towards the Caprivi strip. We had been led to believe that Namibia was a desert, but it rained on every one of our 10 days there and was thus surprisingly green.
The Caprivi landscape was interesting: wooded and green and lined with small, neat homesteads with huts made of sticks and anthill mud. The huts are shorter than the ones back at home with thinner thatch that is sewn together at the apex rather than held in place using a tyre/ponch as we do in the Eastern Cape. Most homesteads are attractively fenced using reeds. The Caprivi strip has huge tracts of land reserved for game parks and conservancies, mostly unfenced areas in which wild animals roam freely (including big cats, elephants, buffalo, hippo, hyena and crocodiles) that could, if they chose, come right up into the villages.
|Paul, Lisa and their 4x4|
Travelling in Lisa and Paul’s 4x4 we got to see beautiful remote campsites in which our little tent felt very vulnerable to prowling predators! Camping in these areas is typically done in 4x4 roof top tents, not little 2 person tents like ours! When we asked a park manager whether our tent on the ground might be vulnerable to baboons or lions, he just giggled and said he had no experience with campers like us, so he didn’t know! Turned out the only attack our little tent had to deal with was the heavy rain. Unfortunately, it didn’t hold up too well.
|North Face tent enhanced with black plastic|
(Spare a thought for the travellers heading towards the Congo rainforest who decide to invest in a new and expensive North Face tent only to find that it leaks like a mosquito net and North Face’s helpful response being that the life time guarantee will be honoured if we send the tent back to them at a courier cost of R2500!! The leaking was solved with a 3m x 3m piece of thick building plastic from the local Chinese shop inserted between the inner tent and the fly sheet which is 100% waterproof but added a kilogram to a backpack that must be carried for the next year.
|Beautiful forest bathroom at Ngepi Camp, Namibia|
The Caprivi area has many beautiful camp sites in stunning locations along the rivers with excellent camping facilities. One of our favourites was Ngepi Camp which overlooks the crocodile-and-hippo-filled Cubango river. They have beautiful natural showers and toilets nestled in the forest and even a swimming cage in the river that allows you to swim without fear of attack by the numerous wild crocodiles.
|Crocodile cage swimming pool Ngepi Camp|
We headed on to a natural conservancy area where private companies have leased land from the local community and set up camps there. Many experts in the field of community tourism and conservation regard these conservancies as the best way to ensure that beautiful, wild spaces materially benefit the neighbouring communities who own the land. Namibia is a world leader in this style of conservation tourism. As we drove into the conservancy along a muddy road, we met a vehicle coming the other way driven by the high-spirited “Mr Moringa” who waggled his eyebrows excitedly and told us in a strong German accent that he had “found mushrooms” and that we should come camp at his place and eat them with him. We were not clear whether these were the local version of the delectable “ikowa” (termitomyces) mushroom or the “magic” variety, but decided that either way it sounded like fun.
|Mushroom party with Mr Moringa and friends|
As it turned out, Mr Moringa had put a bounty on ikowa-type mushrooms in the neighboring village and got phone calls when these unpredictable mushrooms emerged. As with their Eastern Cape “ikowa” cousins, these meaty mushrooms are without doubt the most delicious in the world - but sadly have never been successfully farmed as they only exist in symbiosis with termites. Whoever gets that mushroom farming right one day will be rich. We had a fun-filled evening with Mr Moringa and friends eating mushrooms and listening to wild stories of how the Moringa plant cures every problem known to man. We also heard the first of many dissident theories on Covid19 in Africa that emerge from a tourism industry destroyed by the absence of international tourists. While the South African tourism industry has suffered terribly from the travel restrictions necessary to contain the spread of the virus, at least South Africa has a significant domestic tourism market that generates some income. In countries north of the Limpopo, tourism is almost entirely dependent on non-existant international tourists and have received no support at all from their under-resourced governments. They listened jealously to our talk of monthly UIF-TERS payments and other forms of support. South African tourism has suffered lightly in comparison. Couple this hardship with daily deaths from Covid often in single figures and it is perhaps understandable that there is a lot of scepticism around Covid19 science. Having lost family and friends to the virus, we try our best to put a good word in for the scientific consensus, but it gets little acceptance from a tourism industry in despair.
Our days enjoying the quiet beauty of sunsets, expansive landscapes and wild animals going about their daily business took an exciting turn when our 4x4 plunged into a rather large hole, far from any other human beings and in the middle of lion country. Dave got down and began to dig out the wheel and Paul sized up the scrubby bushes in the vicinity hoping we’d be able to attach the winch with some measure of success. While Lisa walked the area looking for a path through the bush free of more large holes, Rejane was occupied with important lion-lookout duty. With luck on our side, the winch did the job and we could pull the truck out. Flocks of crimson bee-eaters accompanied our vehicle as we headed back to camp where we had another impromptu party with Mr Moringa and friends.
The week of fun 4x4 travel drew to a close and we bade a fond farewell to Lisa and Paul. We swung our packs onto our backs and crossed the border to Zambia - somewhat surprisingly our 10-day-old South African Covid tests met the Zambian Covid health check requirements. The truck drivers ahead of us in the queue who looked confused when asked for a Covid test were waved through with a shrug and a temperature check.
Zambians welcomed us with their friendly and generous spirits. As soon as we crossed the border we began looking for transport to Livingstone and we were offered one for free by someone transporting a second hand car that had been bought in the UK and was being shipped via Walvis Bay to Zimbabwe. The words of the 18th century African explorer Mungo Parks, rang true: “... I was everywhere well-received [by the people I met] ...and the fatigues of the day were generally alleviated by a hearty welcome at night...I found at length that custom surmounted trifling inconveniences, and made everything palatable” ...a statement we have found as true today as it was when travelling through Africa in 1799.
Having travelled through Zambia in the 90’s and early 2000’s the improvement in the economy and infrastructure is impressive. Zambians are bubbling with energy and resourcefulness. Everyone seems to be farming or doing some kind of trade: well crafted furniture is ingeniously made from the local hard woods and welding and maak-a-plan Macgyvering of all sorts goes on in the markets. People are incredibly resilient, patient and focused in pushing through adversity. It feels as if the future might be one with much upside, if the politics can right itself and focus on sensible policies that harness the entrepreneurial energy of its creative people.
|Road-side furniture makers (Mongu, Zambia)|
|Home made lathe|
|Finished product: R3500 for 2 chairs and a couch (hardwood)|
The road from the border to Livingstone turned out to be a rather bumpy ride on a very potholed road. Metres-wide potholes that occured every few metres were so treacherous that most vehicles drove on the grass next to what was left of the tar road. It took us 5 hours to travel the first 100km and then the road became perfect and we completed the next 100km in one hour.
|Other travellers!! The only ones we met in a month.|
In Livingstone we stayed at the beautiful and comfortable Jolly Boys backpackers which had a few dedicated kayakers on their annual pilgrimage to the mighty Zambezi and where we met the only other travellers we would see the whole month (three friendly Frenchies). They had all travelled down from the north of the continent, two of them had hitch-hiked the whole way. It was great to swap stories and to feel that at least we weren’t the only people travelling across Africa in 2021. It was a treat, as always, to see Mosi-oa-Tunya/Victoria Falls which, after the heavy rains, was cascading at a mind blowing 1 million litres a second. On leaving the falls, it was heart-wrenching to see the desperate lines of curio sellers and tourist guides sitting hopelessly waiting for non-existent tourists. At one of the most visited tourist attractions in Africa, perhaps 10 tourists visited the whole day.
|Our favourite Zambian bus: Power Tools|
After a restful week in Livingstone, we were headed west, with a brief stopover in Lusaka. What was a pot-holed road plied by “chicken buses” (think old-style Putco buses) 20 years ago is now a smooth highway with air-conditioned buses with names like “Power Tools”. Lusaka has been similarly transformed with multiple malls and ever-improving infrastructure. Long gone are the days when the backpacker could only afford to stay at the Sikh Temple, now Lusaka is overflowing with affordable accommodation options. Zambia has a home-grown version of “Uber Eats” called Afri-Delivery which provides an excellent service. South Africa’s influence is obvious with numerous gleaming malls having been built and many well-known South African stores visible.
|Airtel (red) and MTN (yellow) mobile money booths|
On every street corner in Zambia there are countless Afritel and MTN booths where one can send and receive money through your phone (in a similar way to Mpesa in Kenya). Charging just 1% cash withdrawal fees, this has made sending money around the country incredibly easy and one is also able to pay for groceries at bigger shops using your Airtel/MTN money balance. The large number of these booths does make one wonder how anyone makes enough money; often one can find 10 booths lined up next to each other offering the same service and 100m down the road another 10 booths.
While on the subject of mobile phone companies, a pleasant surprise has been the cost of data in Zambia: R7/US$0.50 per GB for prepaid data. Namibia has similar prices. South African telco companies - nudge nudge…
|Mid-size bus to iTezhi-Tezhi|
From Lusaka we headed out on a crowded, non-Power Tools bus towards the nature reserves of Kafue on the excellent Great West highway. The road became a muddy mess when we turned off the highway towards the small town of iTezhi-tezhi passing trucks stuck in big mud holes after the heavy rains. Our mid-sized bus was packed to the hilt with passengers and goods, with the 10% of passengers who were wearing masks mostly choosing the popular chin-sling style of non-protection. We are certainly going to test the effectiveness of our N95 masks!
|Bad road to iTezhi-Tezhi|
On arrival in iTezhi-tezhi, we were greeted by a spectacular sunset and a pretty campsite on the edge of the large dam that made the trip feel completely worthwhile. We had a swimming pool, hot showers, a bar and a restaurant all to ourselves. We decided we’d stay for a bit, chill and enjoy. Mornings began slowly doing our few bits of laundry and making coffee on our little spirit burning stove. The afternoons were spent reading our Kindles with dips in the swimming pool. Entertainment was provided by naughty monkeys pulling the thatch off the chalet roof tops, aggressive alpha baboons terrorising their troops and fat dassies that wouldn’t sit still long enough for a decent close-up pic to be taken. In the evenings we practiced cooking on our little stove and turned out surprisingly delicious meals. At night we would sleep in our (expensive, plastic-improved North-Face-crap) tent to the sounds of nature which was dominated by blood curdling screams of monkeys which we were told was either due to them “just being scared” or because of them being preyed on by leopards. Our nights were a little less restful when we found elephant droppings two metres from our tent and the regular bellowing of hippos just below us. The fact that the lodge chef was brutally killed by elephants four years ago not far from where we were camping added to the tension. Living within unfenced conservancies certainly comes with its own risks.
|New Kalala camp|
On the last night, when we decided to treat ourselves to a restaurant dinner, we were joined by the owner of the camp who told fascinating stories of when he was contracted by Nordic nations to supply meat to the ANC and SWAPO in exile in Lusaka. He spoke highly of the gentlemanly Oliver Tambo, the strict vegetarianism of his friend Kenneth Kaunda who loves nuts and is now too old to eat his veggies raw, as he preferred, and the swash-buckling arrogance of some of the other freedom fighters.
It has been revealing to hear how unimpressed Zambians are of South African construction and engineering companies who were seen to be expensive (paying their staff first world salaries) and delivering sub-standard products. Our host, and many other Zambians, spoke highly of the Chinese and Indian contractors who Zambians describe as “serious” - not surprising when one sees giant highway overpasses in Lusaka being built by a large Indian company in less than three months, a gleaming local hydro-electric power plant built by Tata Energy and a number of big Chinese firms rapidly building good roads across the country. The days when South Africa was admired as a construction power-house are long gone. The dismissal by many South Africans of Chinese and Indian contractors as sub-standard sounds like snobbish ignorance. South Africa needs to up its game if it wants to be seen as anything more than a source of efficient retail outlets.
|Mastering our Trangia alcohol stove|
To keep going north we would have to go back out on that demon of a muddy road in a squashed bus so when the lodge owner offered us a ride on the back of his bakkie, we took it. It would probably be more comfortable than the rickety old bus but it was likely to rain. We took the offer anyway and at 6am we were off, covered in our poncho rain suits and settled in between the groundnuts, maize, fruit and veggies sourced from the local farmers for his shops in Lusaka. Bouncy, windy and wet at the back of his truck, we were still more comfortable than we had been on the bus.
|Better to be on the back of a truck than in a crowded bus|
We reached the junction after about two hours and then caught a Power Tools bus for another six hours to reach the town of Mongu. The capital of the region, Mongu has a Shoprite and a PEP Store. For the rest of your shopping, you had small local shops and markets along a dusty main road. The small restaurants had little variety, but the meals were delicious: rice, nshima (pap) or chips with chicken, beef or fish with some green vegetable - pretty much the same restaurant fare is found across Zambia, only the quality differs.
|Typical restaurant meal: nshima with fish/chicken|
Mongu is a vibrant town with atmospheric music emanating in the evenings from many tiny barber shop shacks at which it seems more beer is drunk than hair-dos are styled. Each barber shop has to invest in an large sound system with a computer and DJ equipment in order to entice customers for a festive haircut which for guys cost about R7/$0.50. At night the local nightclub was pumping and we walked past jealously wishing we could join everyone having fun and dancing like it was 2019.
|Fresh produce for sale In Mongu|
This region is home to the Lozi people who famously live on the Barotse floodplain. These plains are a huge, flat lowland that floods every rainy season much like the Okavango and through which the giant Zambezi river flows. The culture here is for the people to move on to the plains during the dry season for farming, grazing and fishing and then to gradually move away from the plains as the flood waters rise - abandoning their houses to be inundated - and moving to higher areas, like Mongu, that remain dry throughout the year. We had arrived as the waters were rapidly rising and the exodus from the plains had begun.
|Exploring the mango forest near Mongu|
From Mongu town we moved on to a homestay in a nearby farming village where we enjoyed walking around under the massive mango trees, seeing farming life and learning a little Silozi language which is similar enough to isiXhosa, for us to follow the general gist of a conversation. The main crops in this region are maize and rice grown on the edge of the flood plains and vegetables grown on the drier, raised areas. The soil is almost pure sand and runs to a depth of 70 metres before becoming rocky. The trees here grow incredibly fast: we saw 10 month-old papaya trees standing 3 metres high laden with fruit and 8 year-old Avocado trees standing 10 metres tall. No doubt the roots can easily travel long distances in the sandy soil to find water and nutrients. Tomatoes are grown in huge numbers, but one could also easily find aubergines, onions, chinese cabbage, rape, green beans, ground nuts, garlic, ginger, wild mushrooms (R7/$0.50 per 5L bucket), cabbage, sweet potato and lots of other veggies. Fruit was much more scarce with even bananas being hard to find some times. The farmers are well supplied even in small villages by little agro-shops that supply all the fetiliser, pesticides, livestock medication and equipment that a small-scale farmer could need. If only we had these little shops in the Transkei!
|10 month-old papaya tree in our host's lush garden|
With the roads on the floodplain being flooded, an option for travelling on to Lukulu, our next destination along the Zambezi river, was by boat. There are fibre glass Banana Boats and long wooden boats with small engines called Sesepes. Banana boats were not recommended for long journeys as they are unstable in the wind so we took a wooden Sesepe.
|The "port" near Mongu on the Zambezi river|
After a little confusion and waiting around we caught a skoro-skoro pickup along a beautiful Chinese-built, raised highway into the plains. The highway ran next to a miserable, failed road built by the Saudis that was melting back into the water. At the bridge over the Zambezi we caught a Sesepe boat heading off to the village of Liwonda, where we would spend a night and then travel on to Lukulu the following day. Liwonda was a village literally off the map and on the way all one could see on the banks of the mighty Zambezi river were little fishing settlements with small huts made entirely of grass supported on a timber A-frame. It was re-assuring to see that these huts used a sheet of black plastic sandwiched between the layers of grass as water-proofing much like our piece-of-crap-North-Face tent. The villagers eke out a living catching, smoking and salting fish and doing their best to avoid the many crocodiles and hippos. As we chugged peacefully upstream we admired the quiet, spectacular beauty of the vast Zambezi river and the communities moving and living slowly along it and felt increasingly like we were heading into the middle of nowhere.
|Seasonal fishermen's camp on the Barotse floodplain|
|Sailing North towards Liwonda|
After a couple hours of sailing along in the pitch dark, we arrived in tiny Liwonda where we were shown to a very basic guest house that cost R35/$2.50 per night for the room. With the Zambian kwacha having weakened considerably, a plate of food with pap, chicken and a little veg costs R15/$1 and can go down to as low as half that price, for a small piece of beef with pap. You can buy 6 guavas or 3 bananas for 1 kwacha (about R0.70/$5c) - avocados cost 2 kwacha.
The boat moving on to Lukulu was ready to leave at 6am the next morning. We had wanted to stay another night and explore Liwonda but it seemed that if we didn’t take this boat, who knew when the next one might come around. We decided not to chance it. Turns out that was probably a good idea. We were soon to understand just how scarce transport was on this part of the river: it could easily have taken a week before the next boat.
|Poling through the reeds to the main Zambezi channel|
|Heading north on the Sesepe boat towards Lukulu|
The trip to Lukulu started out magical. We were two of just five passengers plus three crew and some salted fish. The skies were clear and we sailed along at a steady, albeit slow pace of about 10km/h. You could walk around the boat, chat to your fellow passengers and cook lunch on the charcoal stove. For us it was a luxurious way to travel. We took in the quiet vastness and thoroughly enjoyed the experience of life on the Zambezi. As we went, we collected passengers who would stop the boat by waving and yelling from the river bank. The river itself was lined with giant beds of grassy reeds that grew taller and taller as the plain filled up with water. The “cockswain”, as the boat driver was locally known, would often leave the main river, pole through a few hundred metres of grass reeds only to emerge in a new river channel that seemed to be preferable as the water was flowing against us more slowly.
|This fishermen's home was about to be abandoned to the rising floodwater|
|Dried and smoked fish to be loaded onto the boat|
|Tiger fish for lunch|
For lunch we shared some delicious freshly fried tiger fish and boiled ground nuts. We also got to explore some of the temporary fishing settlements that were being abandoned while the inhabitants loaded their dried fish and joined us on our boat. As the afternoon progressed we loaded more and more passengers and tons of dried fish and one very sick, old man who was struggling to breathe. The time began slipping away with each stop taking up to an hour of loading time and by 6pm, it looked like our journey that was meant to take 12 hours, would probably only arrive long after dark. The wooden benches of the boat began to bite into our behinds and the overloaded boat began to struggle along at half of its already slow pace. We were moving up stream at walking speed when the rain storm blew in. And it rained...for hours...we got stuck in trees, thick reeds, stranded on sand banks and then at 4am, with the rain not having let up at all, the boat ran out of fuel. We estimated at least a three hour wait until daylight when the captain could call someone to bring fuel (we were only five kilometres from Lukulu now). Having not slept at all, we settled onto our bench. There were too many passengers and goods to allow ones legs to stretch out and since the river was too high to get to dry ground, the only relief from sitting in the boat was to stand in the river, in between the reeds in the rain. Not one boat had passed us on this entire trip so there was nothing to do but wait. By 8am, we expected that the fuel would soon be arriving but then we realised that the inept captain was unsuccessfully trying to get a friend to bring us some fuel as a favour. We gave up on the captain and along with some other passengers managed to get another boat to bring fuel and transport us to town. We reached the Lukulu guest house shivering and wet, after 28 hours, having travelled a total distance of 80km. All the passengers agreed that this was the worst boat trip ever and swore never to use that captain again. We had experienced a way of life that one can only be seen by boat and we highly recommend it, but we’d suggest starting in the north and sailing downstream. That way your boat will keep going at a decent pace, even when it runs out of fuel!
|Rain and no fuel (about 20 people under the plastic!)|
Lukulu, known locally as “the land of plenty” is a bustling one road town split rather strangely into the Old Market and the New Market sections separated by a kilometre of undeveloped Catholic church-owned land. The main form of transport between the two halves of town were motorbike taxis which are a cheap and fun way to travel.
Our days in Lukulu were spent exploring the markets for ingredients for dinner and trying to find the best sweet snack options. Zambia has surprisingly few snacks for those with a sweet tooth which probably explains the slim, fit figures of most Zambians. We settled on the ubiquitous and tasty Milk-It flavoured milks (R5/$.30), Tennis biscuits and the rarer yoghurt drinks.
|Waiting for the truck in the background to fill up with passengers|
|Attractive, leafy homesteads around Lukulu|
From Lukulu we had to catch the only public transport option namely an ancient Land Cruiser pickup loaded with goods and passengers on a terrible road that had apparently last been maintained 30 years ago. We admired the attractive, leafy villages shaded by giant mango trees and surrounded by maize and kasava fields as we slowly left the plains, covering 70km in five hours. We crossed the mighty Kabompo river on a ferry and then reached the tar road where we were able to hitch a lift on a passing Power Tools bus and within an hour we were in the attractive small town of Zambezi staying in a lovely - though empty - lodge with a magnificent view of the Zambezi river and the wooded plains that stretch out to the Angolan border in the distance. From here we will head inland and gradually make our way towards the DRC as we continue our journey northwards.
|Ferry across the Kabompo river|