31 August 2009

Roadside checks

There is a lot of talk amongst overlanders about corruption and bribery attempts along the roads. This usually takes place is the form of a speed trap or a police check where something is found missing with the paperwork or the car. We have heard from people who take a special budget of small denomination dollars for the express purpose of paying off bribes, and others who were stopped 8 times in one day in Malawi (we put this down to having South African plates, as South Africans are not very popular in Malawi, for historical reasons). Ever since leaving Botswana we encounter roadside checks multiple times a day, where a couple of uniformed police men and women check on the condition of mini buses, trucks and other local traffic. We are always amazed how these guys get let through, specially considering the condition the vehicles are in most of the time, with back doors tied down by rope and spewing black fumes while inching up the hill due to overloading, but we rarely see anyone pulled over for good. We are often waved through after everyone has had a good look at our strange number plates, the steering wheel on the wrong side and the woman driver, but we have also been stopped for a check on our paperwork. Our papers (driving license, registration, COMESA insurance, temporary import license and carnet) are in a business-looking folder and when we whip it out we are usually given up for a lost cause. No-one so far has asked for money outright, but I suspect that the cops who checked that we carry two warning triangles and that we have a fire extinguisher were secretly hoping that we didn't. Maybe we are dense, on reflection I now suspect that the cop who miserably told me that he hadn't had any breakfast yet was really fishing for a can of coke or a bit of cash. Who knows. Fake speed traps are another apparently popular way to extract some money, so the two times we were stopped for speeding we were very dubious. The first time was in Lusaka, just after we had been subject to a major rip-off by the local laundry, so we were not interested in paying any more money out to a spurious claim. There really was little chance that I had been speeding, as anyone who has driven through Lusaka traffic knows it's not possible to actually clock 80. As the police man came up to us, having flagged us down in the fast lane of the dual carriageway, Stuart - in the back seat - went into outrage overdrive and immediately told the guy that we weren't speeding, we could prove it with our GPS and we would be happy to go to court over it. And by the way, could he please have a complaint form, he would like to make a formal statement. This resulted in a back and forth for a few minutes where the cop claimed we were doing 86 in an 80 zone and anyway, we had probably not slowed down for the hospital zebra crossing earlier. In the end I left my South African address and phone number and left with the information that the police would call me by the end of the week with the court's results... Yesterday we were caught speeding for real, though, and despite arguing that there might not have been a 50 sign (there was, we were just distracted from it by a street seller waving his bunches of maize at us) or that the speed trap machine might be measuring wrong, we had to admit in the end that we had gone to fast. 20000 Tanzanian Shilling (£10/NZ$20) and a proposal of love to Merryl by the traffic cop later we had completed the long process of filling out a receipt - UK addresses are hard to spell - and we were back on our way.

Malawi roundup

We had planned to spend just a few days in Malawi. Come in from Zambia, head for a dive to Cape Maclear, have a meeting in Blantyre, and leave for northern Mozambique. Simple. What we hadn't counted on was Malawi's paradisiacal landscapes, the fascinating lives of its population and the nicest people one could meet.

We cruised in a canoe past hippos on the Lilongwe River, where Stuart had his best bird sightings yet. We lounged at the edge of the World at Livingstonia drinking Kuche Kuche and watching the sun set over the lake far below us. We had our first night drive, a terrifying experience never to be repeated, and a time warp back to Melrose Arch, a little bit of luxury at just the right moment. We went diving in Lake Malawi and lost a few days to its tropical charms and otherworldly serenity.

Malawi has been our most sociable place yet: we met Naomi and Mike (twice), the Belgiums in the orange daffy car, Jaques and Mandy who gave us tips for the trip up North, Moncho the fast talking Spaniard at Fat Monkeys, and Paul the lonely Aussie at Mushroom farm, who made great eggs for breakfast. We learnt about the Malawi education system from Robert and Unex, engineer and programmer in the making, and with their help figured out how to shop in the markets. We drank beer, ate pizza, learnt to play Bao and exchanged mp3s. It took us out of our little travelling bubble. Thanks, guys!

Malawi is religion in the shape of Baptist schools, Evangelical clinics and Catholic day care centres; it's bikes used as trucks and wheelbarrows and taxis; women carrying vast loads of firewood on their heads, or gallon drums of water, or big bowls of fruit for sale. It's handkerchief-sized fields and stalls at the roadside selling pineapple, mangoes and tomatoes (I got the strong feeling that Malawi farmers need band together to make the most out of their good soil and hard work). It's the friendliest people we have encountered, even when it rained on the tea plantations the pickers still smiled and waved, Evas helped us get all the veg we needed at the market, Felix took us out to dinner and made sure Stuart got a good fish, Amy - the entrepreneur - got us a good rate on the room, and David told us it's no trouble, this is our home now. It's the strange vastness of Lake Malawi, which looks like the sea, but has no salt to make bathing annoying, which also means that there's no need to rinse out our dive kit! It's finally solving the mystery of the roadside kilns, thanks to Bright, who showed me how to make bricks in his back garden.

Malawi is the hardest place to leave.

28 August 2009

Shopping Part Two

Malawi has no cities to speak of, so all our supplies come from small towns along the road. The days of big Shoprites and Kwikspars are long over, Lusaka was the last place we managed to score luxuries such as sour cream and blue cheese. The villages along this road are busy, lively and real focal points. Lining the roads are lots of shops, but it's the sandy areas on front of the them that it all happens. Women spread their produce on small mats surrounded by wooden frameworks from which hand bundles of purple, blue and black plastic bags. I never imagined that I would be able to get so much fresh fruit along the roadside, from bananas to tomatoes, aubergines, avocados, onions, corn leeks, cabbages, pineapple apples, pears, potatoes and peanuts. Somehow I expected it to be hard to get fresh food, as I imagined the shops to only stock dry goods and non-perishables. On the one hand: a market in Mulanje, where women spread out their fresh produce from the handkerchief sized fields, red onions in bushels, little piles of red tomatoes, fresh and cooked corn in the husks, sacks of peanuts, big heaps of cabbages, leaves scattering everywhere, brown mounds of potatoes, symmetrical assemblies of avocados, pineapples and aubergines. As we pull over, all eyes turn to us. We get out to look at a lady selling tomatoes in small heaps from a mat, and when her English insufficient a local man steps in. Evas, scruffy but clean, helps us out by sending off small children to get any veggies we desire. All around us are gaggles of kids, nosy but shy, and everyone wants to get the chance to sell us something. I was afraid to offend by turning down all these offers of food, but the women who are rejected smile and move on to another customer. This is our first time at a local market, shopping out there rather than in the supermarket. We have deliberately held back in Lilongwe as the food along the road looks so good and fresh. We move on, looking for fresh corn for dinner, but accidentally end up with boiled, which actually makes it easier to prepare later. Maize is still a staple here, although there is so much exotic fruit and veg around that our diet is quite varied. Next we move on to roast peanuts, which are sold by girls and boys in small bags from bowls carried on their heads. After a fair amount of bargaining for all sorts of foods this is the first time we feel we are being charged foreigner's prices. A little girl tells us that the bag of peanuts costs 10 Kwecha, but her big brother chips in to tell us it's 20. Despite the big brother pressure she sells to us for 10 and tells him off for cheating. On the other hand, a People's Superette (local chain) in Selima, where we dropped in with a long list of needs after having camped for a few days and run out of most dairy and some other items:

27 August 2009

Brickmaking for beginners

Ever since we entered Malawi, but absolutely nowhere before that, we see small brick making operations. Every few minutes there is either a small area of bricks out to dry, or heaps of them stacks of them, in kilns and drying beds and preparation areas. I have been fascinated to find out the process of making these bricks, which are turned into these neat houses everyone lives in, and in Mulanje I got lucky. I wanted to know how they are made, and why there are so many brick makers here. Mostly the bricks are red, although I have seen a dull grey brown and a pale ochre, it seems to depend on the colour of the soil. Robert, our guide for a hike up the mountain, and his friend Unex (he wants to be a programmer) took me to see another mate, who is making bricks to build an extension for his sister's house. That's the first thing I found out: there are so many brick makers, because everyone makes his own whenever they need another house or shed or extension. Bright, the young man who is such a good brother, told me that when he makes his own bricks they cost about 1 Kwecha each, but if he had to buy them and get them delivered, they would be at least 5 Kwecha each, as the transport cost is so high. There are few cars or trucks, and one might even have to come all the way from Blantyre for a delivery, since bricks are too heavy to transport by bike, the way absolutely everything else is carted round here.

Bright's house was off the main road down a dirt track, part of a small cluster of brick houses. In the yard a few chickens pecked their way around as a small boy was playing with a brick. Apart from Bright we found a few other boys helping him. An area had been set aside for digging, but Bright told me that it really didn't matter, any soil was good enough for making bricks. He dug a small hole with a pick axe and poured some water into the hole. Then one of the other boys took his shoes off, pulled up his trousers and stomped through the mud to make a smooth paste. When the mixing was done and the mud had the right consistency, a few handfuls were poured into a wooden mould, which was turned out next to the other finished bricks at the end of a long row. This way each person can make 2000 bricks per day.

The bricks are dried for a few days before being fired. Bright told me that one of the big expenses of brick making was the cost of fire wood, so when the builder can't afford the wood, they just dry the bricks and use them without firing. A house like that will last 5 to 10 years. The kiln is another ingenious and low tech construct. Instead of having a permanent firing location the bricks are stacked in a clever way so that there is a tunnel underneath them that is loaded with firewood. After the stack is smeared with mud all over to keep the heat in and evenly distributed, the wood is then burned and re-filled all through the night of the firing. After 4 days the kiln has cooled enough to be broken up and the bricks are ready for building.

25 August 2009


Sorry for not posting in a while. Malawi is amazing, and I will write about it soon, but while the mobile data network exists, internet access is pretty feeble, which is also why there are no recent photos. So there will be more writing soon, but for now you can entertain yourself with learning this new game we got obsessed with, called Bao.

Our favourite Malawi beer

Kuche Kuche, apparently lets you keep going all night and you can still feel good in the morning. Great stuff.

18 August 2009

A flash dinner

Our creature comforts have been gradually diminishing as we move further into the heart of Africa, and as our budget takes a beating from all the Savannah (lately discovered South African cider) we drink wherever there is a bar. Hot showers, white sheeted beds and classy restaurants are rarely to be found, and rightly so in a place as basic and poor as Malawi. But occasionally we hit a jackpot, and this one came at an unexpected time and place. We had already spent a night in Blantyre, Malawi's financial centre in the South of the country, on our way to Mulanje mountain, and we were back again to break up the journey to Lake Malawi and for Stuart to meet with the CEO of a financial company to discuss business opportunities. We had stayed in an overpriced and under-cleaned place the last time and had had a long and aggravated bargaining session with another hotel for this one night, spending US$150 for a family room with a toilet that made a noise like an aircraft landing and a TV with only one working channel (our normal camping rates are in the region of US$5 per person, but there is no camping in Blantyre, so our budget was blown for quite a few days). Regardless, we were happy. There was electricity, so I could capture my footage, the movie channel had sound, and I had running hot water to clean the fridge. We had baths with smelly stuff, started cooking dinner and Stuart went off for his meeting. Lovely. But it got much much much better. Stuart returned within 10 minutes to tell us that we had been invited out for dinner. Yes! Merryl and I got dressed in our one non-camping presentable outfit, slapped on some lipstick and perfume, dug round the car for the one pair of ear rings and vaguely matching shoes (we ended up wearing matching tops, we really need to get alternative going out outfits!) and dashed off to meet Stuart and the CEO at reception, feeling decidedly underdressed as we slipped into the leather seats of the brand new Land Cruiser that would ferry us to the restaurant, doors shutting with an expensive clunk as the car automatically adjusted seats and mirrors. Grill 21, the restaurant adjacent to the Protea Hotel, was a time warp back to Melrose Arch for us. Inside was smooth elegance, a haven of luxury with leather couches and glittering candle light, a well-stocked bar and waiters in pressed shirts. We could barely remember the dusty city streets outside lined with faded shops selling nothing very much, peopled by normal Malawians wearing dull coloured clothes for want of a washing machine. Inside we sat at a polished table, choosing Cabernet Sauvignon, discussing tempura prawn starters. It was bizarre, specially as I had the previous day had a discussion with Robert about the school fees he is earning by being a mountain guide in Mulanje, so that he can go to college eventually. His term fee would have been covered by the cost of our main course. A long time ago I would have made a scene and refused to spend the money on frivolous food, but that night I sat and ate and chatted pleasantly, admitting the impossibility of the situation. I also realised how much I needed after almost two months of travel to experience a piece of civilisation, a moment of elegance, a snippet of my previous reality; to get away from badly maintained rooms and cheap furniture, shoddy arrangements and the implicit demands of people who have so much less, from feeling like an alien in my white skin, from being the provider of a week's income at the drop of a bank note.

15 August 2009

Pictures from the road

The local phone network has made an indelible impression. Cool colour scheme or what? Check out the meaningless marketing slogan.

Is this his backup income stream?

Absolutely everything can be carried on the back of a bike in Malawi. These are bags of charcoal.

Money money money

We still haven't found the best way to acquire local currency and US dollars (the usually accepted currency North of Namibia). Our requirement is to have enough local currency to keep us going for camping, food shopping and the occasional meal out, Internet access and laundry while not having too much left over at the border crossing so as not to be at the mercy of the unofficial money changers. We have no problem finding ATMs, even small villages along the Okavango in Botswana have them. Petrol stations only take cash, so they always have an ATM attached, but they only give us local currency and only with some cards (it turns out that New Zealand's ASB cash cards are universally accepted while I have had no luck so far getting cash from my UK HSBC account - go Kiwis!). The other fun fact we found was that Lloyd's TSB insists on putting a block on our card every time we use it in a new African country (which is every few weeks) and we have to call them to unblock the card. We tried to give them an itinerary, but in the immortal words of Little Britain: 'Computer says No'. We love ASB for that reason and the fact that we can just email Jennifer at the bank to sort things out for us. Thanks, Jennifer! The problems with getting US dollars - our emergency currency and increasingly the preferred local payment method - can be manifold: 1) In Cape Town we got Rand from the cash machine but weren't allowed to change it into US dollars as we had no proof where the Rand had come from. Lesson learnt: Make sure you keep your ATM receipts when you withdraw cash for exchange, so you can show the bank you are not a money launderer. 2) When we tried to get dollars in Swakopmund (a fairly normal tourist destination in Namibia, which is a pretty well-visited country), the banks needed anything from 24 hours to 2 weeks notice to get US dollars. All exchange transactions go via Windhoek, a half day's drive away, so any money exchanged gets sent there every day. One bank managed to scrape together some dollars for us by holding back their day's takings, a unique event, it seems. Lesson learnt: Get cash in the capital when you can or try the banks early in the morning so they can hold currency for you as it comes in. 3) In Shakawe, nothing more than a spot on the map in North West Botswana - which surprisingly hosted a Barclays branch - the teller was so slow to process our money exchange that Stuart had time to fill in the satisfaction questionnaire twice (Was your teller knowledgeable? Did you receive prompt service? Was your wait in line reasonable? Did your teller treat you with courtesy and professionalism? No to all, twice). The rate we got for Namibian dollars and South African Rand was completely different, which came as a surprise, as the two currencies are officially linked. Lesson learnt: If you can, spend your money before you leave the country. Exchange local currency only, rather than the last country's, as the rates are guess work. 4) In Lusaka we had learnt all our lessons and were still caught out when we tried to exchange US$2000. It turns out that each country has different limits on the foreign currency it is allowed to sell, and in Zambia that's US$1000 only. There are also limits on the cash available on a credit card, and the transaction (times two, as both Stuart and I exchanged $1000 each) took forever, the paperwork was all done by hand as a grumbly queue formed behind us. Lesson learnt: Leave lots of extra time to get through bank bureaucracy. It's easier to cross some African borders than to get Kwachas changed into US dollars.

14 August 2009

African Nights

A few days ago we misjudged the distance from the Zambian border to our camp in the South of Malawi and ended up driving at night to get to our destination. It was a harrowing experience. There are endless bicycles on the road, but not one has lights front or back. Of course there are just as many people walking as there are in the daytime, and of course they are wearing dark clothes, and of course no-one carries a torch. There are no street lights anywhere, as there is little electricity, so the nights are pitch black when there isn't a moon, and other cars seem to be reluctant to use their head lights - I can't work that one out, is it to save energy, because they don't work, what? The roads are pretty hazardous in daylight, potholed and unmarked with no hard shoulder, with goats and cows and dogs wandering into the street, with masses of people crossing any which way in the villages and children playing by the roadside. But at night we felt blind and frightened that we would drive off the side of the track or into something - we have even been warned to watch out for elephants, who blend in nicely with the grey tarmac. We are determined not to repeat that particular stupidity. Our second theft happened at night, when we were parked in a hotel camp ground in Maun. Some sticky fingers got into the car through an almost-closed window (open a crack to cool the fridge) feeling for something interesting, but only got away with some bits of cabling from Stuart's camera bag, not the camera or the medical kit that lay below it. They could have opened the locked car, but were obviously worried about making too much noise. But not all nights are fraught with imminent danger or nuisance. At Livingstone a few weeks ago we saw a lunar rainbow curving into the falls, the white water spawning a milky arc where the full moon's light hit it. It was a perfect geometric shape amidst the chaos of falling water, the mist splashing back up to envelop us, the loud boom of the Smoke That Thunders (its local name) providing an aural backdrop. As far as sounds are concerned, ever since we left Namibia's deserts behind we have been going to sleep to the snorting of hippos proclaiming their territory, although we have not seen a hippo at night. They like to stay in the water or go off to graze when it is cool in the dark. We have listened to baboons loudly telling each other to shut up all night long like a rowdy group of drunkards in a dormitory, after giving us the fight of our lives at Third Bridge camp in Moremi (I guess we shouldn't have parked under their sleeping tree) We have seen jackals skirting the tents looking for shoes left outside tents and had our bag handles chewed off by them when the bag was too heavy to drag off, and we have watched elephants working off their testosterone on each other and on passing rhinos in Etosha. The best animal encounter by far came one night a few days ago when we woke up at 1 am to the sound of munching and shuffling to find a group of elephants next to our roof tent (hooray for roof tents!) crunching their way around the trees and tents in their desire to pick up the very last of the elephant biscuits - seeds that drop off the trees here, big spirally pods filled with protein goodness. A large specimen walked right past us as we held our breath in an attempt not to make a sound, watching him through the mosquito netting as he shambled past us at eye level. Eventually the grey shadowy shapes disappeared, but it was a most dream-like encounter.

Zambia roundup

We arrived in Malawi on Wednesday, our Zambian visa having run out. When we entered at Kazungula from Botswana we had planned Zambia to be a transit route to Malawi and Mozambique, so we only got a 10 day visa, which seemed ample time to see Victoria Falls, get our laundry done in Lusaka and drop in on South Luangwa National Park. It didn't turn out that way. 40 odd days into the trip we are finally slowing down enough to not need to 'complete' every country in the time allotted to it, so we are spending more time in less places. Roads are getting worse, too, so it's not feasible to plan a 600 km drive in a day anymore. And Zambia has been captivating in a whole new way. We are starting to leave the established tourist locations behind, specially those traditionally visited by South Africans, the major tourists in the region. Even Victoria Falls, which in any other place would have been inundated with tourist coaches all day long, was remarkably peaceful. The view from the road changed as soon as we left Botswana. The occasional small villages consisting of reed roofed huts and fenced open spaces became more numerous and interspersed with rows of small dilapidated shops with little porches busy with people. Apart from Livingstone and Lusaka, we came across nothing that we could call a town. Even the border town of Chipata is just a long row of shops along the road to the border, and dusty sidewalks filled with market stalls. Most shops, general traders, 'supermarkets', boutiques and bars, were painted faded greens and creams, but many had recently been repainted a loud fuschia, the livery of Zain, the local mobile network. We decided that Zain's marketing budget has been spent in its entirety on emulsion and subsidised house painters who offer cut price jobs in any colour as long as it's Zain pink! The abiding image of Zambia has been people on bicycles along the roadside, carrying all sorts of loads - sacks of charcoal, baskets of fruits and vegetables, bundles of fire wood, furniture and crates of bottles, or just other people - younger brother, wife and baby, friend, colleague. Also along the road we saw signs for local schools (motto: Knowledge for Life; Learning is Service) and religious centres, representing every flavour of Christianity from Jehovah's Witnesses to Evangelicals, Presbyterians to Catholics, Baptists to the Church of Enlightenment. I guess Livingstone started a trend, but the small schools next to the villages in the middle of nowhere were a good sign. For a country where 80% of the population lives on less than US$1 a day Zambia felt organised, clean and well-managed, with working communities full of people with a purpose. Zambia was the white foam of Victoria Falls, where water came at us from all sides and in all forms, creating magic light from the sun and the moon. It was the women along the road carrying every conceivable item on their heads, from carrots to oil drums, all the while lugging a small child in a sling across their backs. It's the boys on bicycles, some of whom could barely reach the pedals, and some dressed to the nines on their way to a night out. It was elephants munching their way through the camp site two, three times a day, vervet monkeys stealing pears, hippos grunting at night and the silence of crocs pretending to be logs. It was Lusaka's crazy traffic and friendly car park attendants, the laundry rip-off and Harry Potter 6, an escape to another, more standard lifestyle for a few hours. It was the chaos of border towns: Kazungula's ferry, Livingstone's bridge to Zimbabwe and Chipata's long rows of trucks waiting to cross, dodgy money changers and insistent souvenir sellers, and too many baboons living off human leftovers.

09 August 2009

My capturing setup

In the background is the Luangwa River, some hippos sunbathing and a
bunch of vervet monkeys, well, monkeying around.

07 August 2009

Pig in shit part 2

Tonight we have acquired a kitty to sleep in our tent. Much more purry and less smelly than last night's occupant. Not Stuart, the dog.


Hopefully below you will be able to see some cool lion photos Stuart shot in the Okavango Delta (if they managed to upload). If not, head here.

06 August 2009

Pig in shit

We have acquired a night time companion for tonight. One of the camp
dogs made friends with Stuart, which was a good move, as he is a lot
more susceptible to cute sad dog looks than I am when it comes to
bedtime, so he now gets to sleep at the bottom of the duvet. Lucky dog!

05 August 2009

Our pudding

Thank you Merryl!

Month One roundup

I didn't get a chance to post a Namibia roundup, or a Botswana roundup, so here is a Month One recap:

After the mad dash through South Africa Namibia seemed like a dawdle, we stopped in a bunch of places for two nights or even three. this gave us time to get our heads together and sort out the car, and just slow down to consider how we want to travel. We made some rules (which frequently get broken), like not driving more than 300km in a day or if we do, stopping for two nights; like making sure we have breakfast before we leave and that we stop for lunch; getting to the camp site before dark with enough time to put up the tent; etc.

Namibia was a long straight road, lined by high yellow grass bending in the wind, occasionally with mountains on the horizon that never seemed to come closer. It was cold mornings and hot afternoons that cooled down drastically as soon as the sun went, specially in higher altitudes like Naukluft. Namibia was German and cake and a time warp to the 50s and neglected towns that are still the pride of the locals even though they will be nothing like they were ever again. It was Kudu crossing the road at dusk, jackals circling our tents in the dark, hearing my first hippo snort and elephants having testosterone tiffs at the waterhole. It was our first theft and having a wisdom tooth extracted and falling off a horse. It was making eggs while watching the sunrise over Fish River Canyon, doing the washing up in the Namib desert, and paddling on the Orange river.

I was very clear about the places I wanted to visit in Namibia, even though we didn't get to all of them. When we reached Botswana I felt myself beginning to be vague. The only place I really wanted to see was the Okavango Delta, but we soon realised that the lodges deep in the delta were way out of our range of budget, plus they were only reachable by plane. Thanks to some people we talked to and the Bradt we found two camp sites that were reachable by car (Guma Lagoon and Moremi Third Bridge), so we did get to the delta. The rest of the places we visited were kind of incidental, like Tsolido Hills in the Northwest and our three day stay in Maun. We really spent time at each camp site, so it felt a lot more relaxed when there was time to get the hang of a place. We consolidated our travel routines, specially after having made some more space in our luggage, and gave up on some ambitions like capturing footage as we go along and editing little films for your delectations. Between keeping a diary and blogging and mapping and calendaring there would be little time left to really see the countries we drive through, so that is going to have to wait.

Botswana was green and wet and dry at the same time, with swamps and channels of water and dusty shrubby plains spreading across the base layer of the Kalahari. It was calm and relaxed and a little fuzzy. It was driving through deep sandy tracks, wading through the occasional flooded channel, flying over the maze of water and reeds in a plane and swishing through it in a boat, and wondering if I am going to get eaten on the way to collecting firewood. It was begging dogs at the dinner table, baboon attacks, fluffy donkeys and big horn cows by the side of the road, lions making out, grumpy crocs and smooth baby elephants, and the eternal harrumphing of the hippos at night. It was Andy the civil engineer turned hotel proprietor and his tales of plane crashes, KT the reticent Tsodilo guide, Greg of Postnet giving us extra bandwidth in Maun, Phil and Clare who were stuck in Moremi and then they were not, the angry Boer who tried to drive his caravan into the swamps, and the idiot Italians who left their rubbish for the baboons.

What to look out for when buying a pre-pay SIM card in Africa

This is the fourth time I have bought a SIM card, and my experiences
have varied. There is never a problem with calls, but access to mobile
data has been more complicated, although I have managed to get it in
the last two countries, wherever there has been mobile reception. So I
thought I'd write down some considerations, questions to ask and tips
to remember for those of you reading this who are wont to buy foreign
pre-pay SIMS:

Top tip:
Try to buy a SIM in a cell phone shop. The staff are more likely to
know how to get it working and how to fix problems. That's not always
possible when you're crossing a border, as SIM cards are sold in the
oddest places round here - today I bought my Zambian SIM in a general
trader from an Indian proprietor who was about a hundred years old and
had no clue when I asked about internet on the phone. That means
calling the help desk. Don't expect to get things sorted on the first
call, between accents and terminology it takes a while to get
everything straight.

Questions to ask when calling the help desk:
In order to get mobile data do I have to get the number activated for
it (like on Vodacom SA, Botswana Telcom and Zambian Zain networks -
although not on Orange Botswana, which sets up data access by
default)? Do I need to buy data bundles or does the data come off the
pre-pay credit? What is the APN to access the data network (much
easier to figure out how to set this up yourself than waiting for the
SMS settings that never arrive - one reason I didn't get data in
Namibia was that the text I sent to MTC obviously went down a rabbit

Pre-pay SIM cards are cheap, and super useful for making calls in the
country - we are booking all our accommodation a day in advance now,
rather than making a detailed plan. It's possible to buy credit
absolutely everywhere, from clothes shops to general stores to falling-
down shacks in the middle of no-where to women sitting by the side of
the road with little tables selling single sweets and small
denomination credit scratch cards.

Reception has been pretty good, too, considering we have driven
through some seriously remote places. In Namibia there was reception
only in the towns, or near the National Park entrances. In Botswana we
had mobile phone access along all the mayor roads, and we had Edge in
Maun and Kasane. Here in Zambia we have Edge most places, although
when the mobile signal drops, so does Edge, obviously. On the way from
Livingstone to Lusaka, that has only happened a few times.

So all in all it is an unexpected treat to be able to facebook on the
phone and read my feeds while travelling, but it is possible so far.
Who knows how long it lasts.

04 August 2009

His and Hers

Toilet signs at Victoria Falls Park.

03 August 2009

Kazungula Ferry

Stuart has decided we have finally arrived in Africa. The ferry across
the Zambesi from Botswana to Zambia is a little boat the size of the
Pahia ferry, only a lot crazier. Agents try to sell their services
with dogdy forms and everything is done with cash and slowly
handwritten receipts. It's hot and dusty. But we are now in Zambia!

02 August 2009

Lunch on the run

Long drive today, from Maun via Nata to the border at Kasane. The road is potholed to the max, so we are driving slowly. No time for lunch, so Merryl makes her fab Ryvita on the run.

Foot and mouth

Botswana is riddled with vet fences to contain the spread of foot and
mouth disease, which means that we frequently have to get out the shoe
box and wipe them across a damp mat while a guy sprays the tyres of
the car. All this to satisfy EU requirements for beef import. It also
stops the annual migration of zebra and wildebeest which has resulted
in killing off the large herds.

01 August 2009

Does not compute....


When baboons attack

Moremi's Third Bridge camp site is idyllic, set amongst water holes and reed beds as it is, with fabulous views of sunrise and sunset. It's quiet and spacious sites are visited by hippos, kudu and -unfortunately - baboons.

When we arrived early yesterday afternoon we were pleased to see that a lovely camping spot under some trees was still available (park camp sites in Botswana are few and need to be booked in advance - we can't go to Chobe Wildlife reserve, as all three sites are booked out for the whole of August). Perfect, we thought, and put up out hammock, set up the tent and unfolded the roof tent. It was hot and we all had a snooze, followed by a bit of reading, then Stuart went for a shower while Merryl and I decided to start cooking dinner. Mushroom risotto, yum. The fire place was a way across the clearing, so we got the fire started and then got going chopping onions and getting out ingredients from the kitchen built into the side of the car. We had noticed earlier that a few baboons were ambling past, and we had read in the Bradt that baboons were a nuisance round the camp, specially when people left food behind amongst their possessions when they took off for an afternoon game drive. So we had waved our arms, shouted and generally tried to shoo them off - there might have been some throwing of sticks - but they were singularly unimpressed by our antics, although they eventually disappeared.

It was only when Stuart returned from his shower that we realised there were lots more baboons in the bushes than we had first thought. In fact there were about twenty of all sizes, including mothers with babies clinging to their fur, small ones and lanky teens, as well as a large dark grey male, who grumbled at me but kept his distance. Suddenly all hell broke lose as the baboon herd started closing in. I now realise that the two teens we had seen earlier had been scoping out our camp site and when they had discovered food smells they signalled the rest of the gang for easy pickings.

The big alpha male kept coming closer and started circling the car, grumbling threateningly at us all the while, while the smaller ones were all sitting around watching from the side lines. We realised he was figuring out how to get to our food, and as Stuart and I stood guard Merryl packed away everything into the car. Stuart was armed with a burning stick from the fire (very Planet of the Apes) and I first with a towel (for flicking), the first thing to hand, and then, when the baboon tried to grab it off me, a folding chair. It felt like being in a bar brawl, as we were holding off a 5ft, 60kg baboon who kept making threatening feints to get past us, meanwhile showing his massive canines (bigger than a lion's apparently). We weren't sure whether he was showing off to his mates, trying to save face as we were standing our ground in the face of his threats, or to trying to get at our stuff, but as the food was all packed away I am not sure.

As we were clearing away the dinner preparation from one side of the car I noticed alpha male eyeing up something on the other side, where Stuart had left one of the tool boxes from the recovery gear side of the car on the floor. I thought it was our medical kit, but it later turned out to just have been a box containing our 'water gear': solar shower bag, water hose and window cleaner. The box was sitting on the ground by the back wheel and when I wasn't paying attention for a minute, the ape swiped the tool box, hugged it with both arms and tried to make off with it. I did not want all our expensive medical supplies being nibbled at by a baboon and chased after him. Luckily he realised I would catch up with him and he wouldn't make it into a tree with the heavy box, and dropped it. Humans 1, Apes Nil. He immediately turned on me again and tried to scare me, but I snatched back the box and retreated. It was like a pitched battle. He climbed a tree stump next to our tent, still watched by his mates all waiting to see who would win this fight.

As a precaution we packed up the tent again and closed all the windows in the roof tent, and while our backs were turned Alpha Male tried to snatch our cutting board with his big hairy hand grabbing as fast as a monster in a horror movie. This time Stuart fended him off, as even pushing at him with the chair didn't deter him - he just tried to pull the chair off me, baring his teeth all the time and making a low growling sound. It was pretty scary being so close to an undomesticated animal, specially such an aggressive one, even though lots of it was just posturing - it worked to intimidate us.

Eventually we had everything safely stowed in the car, including Merryl, who decided she would prefer to sleep on the back seat rather than brave the possibility of being baboon bait. We later realised that the spot we were camping in was actually the baboon herd's sleeping trees, and that another camping group had trouble the night before and had moved for that reason, but neglected to point this out to us. Neither did the ranger who came to collect rubbish earlier in the day. So I guess the humans at this site were pretty much as useless as the baboons.

As it got dark Alpha Male wandered off with his entourage and harem in tow and as it got dark they all settled down to sleep - barring a few noisy squabbles.

Postscript: the night contained a few more noisy rebellions that had to be put down by the seniors which all involved high-pitched squealing, breaking of branches, slapping of inferiors and a constant loud roar from Alpha Male and his competitor - it sounded like very aggressive shouts of  'Rahoo, Rahoo' which went on for far too long.

Postscript Two: We have become Third Bridge folklore already.When we met a group of young German students at the other side of the camp site this morning to scope out a better sleeping place and other people's baboon experiences (they had a two kilo bag of pasta stolen last night), they asked us if we had heard about the people who had to fight off a group of baboons with a chair! We have great hope that our story will end up being mentioned in the next edition of the Bradt guide.