Lake Malawi was everything that we imagined and more: a serene expanse of clear blue water, so large that it was difficult to see the other side. Although many places along the lake sounded nice, but, in the interest of taking a break from travel, we chose only two: (i) Nkhata Bay, one of the main ports located about halfway up the lake; and (ii) Likoma Island, an island about 70 kilometers from Nkhata Bay and surrounded by Mozambican waters.1 Both places were magical.
After Bulawayo and Masvingo, we were pretty discouraged. Great Zimbabwe had been a nice respite, but it wasn’t enough to completely reenergize us. We set our sights on Lake Malawi and proceeded to bus ourselves across three African capitals in three days.
I’m sure that each of the three capitals (Harare, Lusaka, and Lilongwe) has its own unique character and gems that we didn’t discover during our abbreviated visits; alas, our spirits were so trampled from the rugged travel and the cold that we used the cities as merely convenient stopping points along our route to Lake Malawi. Our journey toward the lake was long and frequently frustrating, but, as a wise man told us at the start of our African adventure, you just have to see the humor in such things – and then laugh out loud at them.
I have always been captivated by the remnants of ancient civilizations (hey, my BA is in Classical Civilizations), and the sole reason I had endured our trek from Bulawayo to Masvingo was the prospect of seeing Great Zimbabwe. The ruined city, constructed between the 1100 and 1450 AD, is an UNESCO World Heritage Site and the namesake of the modern nation of Zimbabwe.
Bulawayo nearly broke me. I very much wanted to make a beeline for the rumored warm tranquility of Lake Malawi, but we couldn’t leave Zimbabwe without first seeing ruins at Great Zimbabwe. Alas, when we began looking at traveling to Masvingo (the closest town to Great Zimbabwe), we realized that things were going to get worse before they got better…
The minibus to Masvingo that we boarded in Bulawayo was crowded and blasting exceptionally loud music, but not unreasonably uncomfortable, and so we began the journey feeling cautiously optimistic.
Our train from Victoria Falls arrived in Bulawayo around mid-morning. After quickly locating a taxi to take us Burke’s Paradise, an inexpensive backpacker place on the outskirts of town, we decided to take it easy that morning and rest after our overnight travels.
Unfortunately, we could not lounge around for too long because Burke’s is a self-catering operation. Thanks to an email from the owner, we knew about this prior to arrival, but we had lacked the energy to stop at the Food Lover’s Market (the Southern African answer to Whole Foods) that we had spotted during our morning taxi ride from the train station to Burke’s. So, after a quick nap, we trekked back to town in one of the shared minibus taxis that ply Bulawayo’s main roads. We ate lunch in the Food Lover’s Market’s enclosed cafe and picked up some supplies to make dinner.
We returned to Burke’s to find that the power had gone out. At first, we were not concerned. Rolling blackouts had been a somewhat common occurrence during our travels across Southern Africa. Unlike those previous circumstances, this power outage persisted for several hours. We watched the sun set, and then sat in the dark, wondering how we would cook dinner – candlelight dining is lovely, candlelight cooking is less fun. Thankfully, the power came back just before we wandered into the shared kitchen to begin chopping up our vegetables. Continue reading Hitting a Wall in Bulawayo→
One of the nicest parts of our adventure across Africa is that it largely lacks any scheduled itinerary, providing us with the luxury of making many of our travel decisions on a rolling basis. Although our journey is only loosely mapped out, we have generally already determined how, and approximately when, we will leave a given location before we arrive. More than anything else, this is simply an effort to keep from inadvertently marooning ourselves anywhere longer than desired.
Consequently, I had been trying to determine the best method for continuing our travels into Zimbabwe well before we arrived in Victoria Falls. Unless you have your own wheels, overland travel in most parts of Africa generally means long bus rides. Because of this, I was especially intrigued to read in our guidebook that Zimbabwe had a functioning passenger rail system that called upon destinations we wanted to visit. That such large-scale, state infrastructure would still be in operation, however, seemed implausible given the economic collapse that had befallen the country just a few years prior. Nonetheless, a quick check of Seat 611 confirmed that Zimbabwean trains were still running – or, at least they were as of June 2013, the date of the site’s most recently posted travel report. In a manner that would be frustratingly rare for the rest of our travels across Zimbabwe, the information we found on online was accurate, detailed, and current.
Victoria Falls, one of the world’s largest sheets of continuously falling water, is one of Africa’s most well known attractions. The Zambezi River plummets over the falls between Zambia and Zimbabwe to the tune of 500 million liters of water per minute during the wet season.1 The great debate is whether the falls are best viewed from Zambia or Zimbabwe – we visited both sides for maximum consideration.
After leaving the Caprivi Strip, we headed for one of the highlights of our camping safari: Botswana’s Chobe National Park, a park that boasts one of the largest concentrations of game in Africa and more than fifty thousand elephants.
After leaving the Okavango Delta, we drove back into Namibia. On paper, the route sounds confusing: Namibia to Botswana, then back to Namibia before driving into Botswana again? Rest assured that we weren’t actually backtracking; instead, we were transiting through and spending the night in the Caprivi Strip – Namibia’s 450km-long panhandle, which juts out over Botswana and underneath Angola and Zambia.1
The border post where we exited Botswana deposited us directly into Namibia’s Bwabwata National Park, where we were treated to an informal game drive as we drove north towards the Caprivi Strip’s main east/west highway. Although we didn’t seek out watering holes or anywhere that animals might congregate, we still had incredible luck with our sightings. We saw everything from the more common animals (impala, kudu, warthogs) to some of the iconic African animals (elephants, buffaloes, giraffes, zebras, hippos, wildebeests) to varieties of antelope we hadn’t yet spotted (roan antelopes and red lechwes). One of the more memorable sightings was an enormous troop of baboons with many small baboons romping around.
After our morning walk with the San people, we got an early start on both the day and our drive across Western Botswana, from the Kalahari Desert up to the Okavango Delta. Along the way, we passed a number of tiny villages and countless heads of cattle roaming across the road. Eventually we reached the town of Etsha 13,1 where we would be leaving behind our bus and transferring into a giant 4WD vehicle with massive tires for the remainder of the journey into the delta.
After unpacking nearly everything from the bus – including everyone’s packs, the tents, and multiple coolers full of food and drinks – and loading it onto the 4WD vehicle, we were on our way. Our destination was Guma Lagoon Camp, a lodge along the banks of Guma Lagoon in the panhandle of the Okavango Delta, where we would be camping for the next two nights. Within minutes, it became readily apparent as to why we needed the 4WD vehicle to complete this last portion of the journey: the route quickly changed from driving along a sandy track to sloshing through water that was several feet deep.2 Along the way, we saw a number of birds, including the instantly recognizable hammerkop and several African fish eagles.3