Entering East Africa

The Great Mosque, Kilwa Kisiwani

Heading north from Ilha de Mocambique we follow the bitumen north toward Tanzania. Although we would like to see more of the coast the highway curves inland and there are significant detours involved if we want to visit the coast. We narrow our options down and decide to make a side trip to Pemba. The trip is easy and the roads are much better here than in central Mozambique. The land around us is green and as we travel further into the tropics there are more and more people around. Certainly more than in the drier parts of the country.

We take the turn east toward Pemba and shortly before we reach the main part of the town we follow our map and turn toward the camp site we have chosen. After following a dirt road for a while we take a left turn onto a smaller track which gets progressively narrower as we go. Soon we are following tyre tracks which don’t exactly follow the tracks we have on either of the maps we are using. We see some locals and they happily point us in the right direction and we arrive safe and sound at Ilala Lodge. None of our mapping apps seems to handle some of these small, remote towns. George, the French owner, tells us that there isn’t officially any camping allowed here as only Mozambique nationals are allowed to set up camp grounds but we are welcome to stay for free and just pay for wifi if we need it. What a nice guy and what a lovely spot to stay! He shows us an area just at the back of the beach and a little away from the chalets used for other guests and we settle in for a few days. George says we can stay as long as we like. Very tempting!

The tides here are large and the sea is quite shallow as far out as the edge of the reef about 1 km away and there are gentle sand banks before that. Swimming is good at high tide and the water is very warm. Otherwise the main activity is watching the activity of the locals. When the men return to shore after fishing in their dhows they sit on the shore and clean their catch and later the women arrive and wade through the shallows with nets to capture the small fish.

Early morning light at low tide at Pemba in Northern Mozambique

We follow George’s directions that takes us along a much simpler track to return to the highway and we follow the bitumen as far north as it goes. It runs out at Palma and we then have just a short distance on a good dirt road to reach our final stop in Mozambique in the village of Quionga. Here we camp in the yard of a South African missionary, Andreas. There is no fee but a donation is welcomed and we have a peaceful night camping under a huge tree. Andreas is able to give us valuable information about the track north to the Ruvuma River and what time we should leave to catch the ferry as it only operates once per day near the high tide. We don’t need to make an early start and Paul is out taking photos of the village in the morning. He soon attracts a following of young children keen to get into the photos.

We set out in plenty of time to go through the Mozambique border post and then travel a few more kilometres to reach to the ferry. We know the road will be rough and we figure we can have lunch while we wait on the bank of the Ruvuma River.

Rough road on the way to the Ruvuma River, border of Mozambique and Tanzania

Well that plan didn’t work out to well. The road as far as the border post was rough and not muddy but after the border post we descend toward the river and the track becomes more treacherous. We successfully get through a couple of muddy patches then are confronted by a huge mud hole. There appears to be a track on the left side but it looks a little narrow and if we don’t fit along there we could tip over. Next to it is a smallish mud hole and we try it and get stuck but manage to reverse back out. The mud hole on the right is way too soft so we don’t even consider it. By now a couple of locals have stopped to watch the action and one appears to suggest the middle large hole is the way to go and we decide to give it a go.

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Hmm, which way?

Not the right choice as it turns out. While we are still unsuccessfully trying to extract our vehicle a small crowd of local guys has gathered and they offer to push us out for $50USD. We try to negotiate but they don’t budge and when we agree they try to raise the price to $100 but we manage to avoid agreeing to that. They decide the water is too deep and bail it out laboriously then dig soft mud out from under the diff.

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#*#^! Not This Way #*#^!

A couple of attempts have been made to push us out and they don’t even look like succeeding and I’m starting to envisage a night trying to camp in the middle of the mud hole when oncoming traffic heralds the arrival of the ferry from Tanzania. The first vehicle is a 4WD with some American guys who are working in the area, possibly also missionaries. They were stuck here a while back and are happy to help us out so we attach our winch to the front of their land cruiser and we pull ourselves out. Thank goodness!

While we are doing this we see the rest of the traffic, including some 2WD vehicles, take the high side of the track and pass the mud without any problems. We sure got that decision wrong. Even though the local guys didn’t manage to get us out of the hole they have worked extremely hard in trying to help us so we hand over the cash we had agreed on. We’re now not sure we’ll make the ferry but apparently one of the them has rung ahead and the ferry is waiting for us. It is a great relief to get on to it. This wasn’t the type of exit from southern Africa than we had planned on but it is all part of the adventure.

The river is wide and the crossing takes about twenty minutes after which we head for the nearest town of Mtwara. Its a rough road but much better than the road on the southern side of the river. We go through the Tanzanian border post with no problems but it still takes about two hours. It is late afternoon before we reach town. There’s no camping in town and we’re too weary to go further to find a camp so we find a place to stay out of the centre of town opposite the beach. The Cliff and Garden Resort is quite run down but still charming. The owner is an elderly Dutch lady who appears unable to get around much and it appears that things have been let go a little but it suits us. We have a big chalet with a dining room/kitchen as well as bedroom and bathroom and we can park directly outside. Most of the kitchen equipment, ie fridge and stove, doesn’t work but we can bring our own inside and at least we have power, water, a sink and somewhere to prepare and eat food. We order a meal from the restaurant on our first night and are offered a choice of fish and chips or chicken and chips except they don’t have any fish. The serve of chicken is a half a chicken so we decide to share just one meal and it proves to be ample. We want to get a service on the car and have a few ongoing electrical issues looked at so we end up staying three nights.

As well as getting the work done on the car we get a Tanzanian SIM card and data, eat at a great Indian restaurant and visit the local market. Because we don’t have our car for much of the time our travel is a mixture of walking in the hot and humid weather and catching a bijaji. These cost between two and five thousand shillings per trip ($1-3) and are similar to the south east asian tuk tuks.

Our next stop is to be the village of Kilwa Masoko as we want to visit the Arab ruins on the island of Kilwa Kisiwani which is just a couple of kilometres off shore. There are lots of villages along the way and we need to slow to 50kph going through them. The maximum between the villages is 80kph and sometimes the gap between the villages is only a matter of a few kilometres or less so its a slow trip. As well as trucks there are lots of large and small buses on the road and it is a relief to leave the highway and head for the coast.

After a quick look around the village we find a spot to camp at a lodge on the beachfront. We have a nice shady tree to camp beside and although we are just in front of the restaurant there is noone else around so it is very quiet. The owner is very hospitable and makes sure we are comfortable and the restaurant has great reviews so we decide we will dine in it at least once.

The reef here is a kilometre or two off the coast and the tides are huge. We have great views of the activities of the locals as they follow their daily fishing routines.

Kilwa Kisiwani translates as “Kilwa on the Island” to distinguish it from Kilwa Masoku, which is a small town on the mainland, and the largely abandoned Kilwa Kivengi which is about twenty kilometres north and is where the Germans built their “boma” during their brief tenure of the colony of German East Africa in the late 19th and early 20th century.

To visit Kilwa Kisiwani we pay for a permit at the antiquities office and also for a guide and a boat to take us the three kilometres across the bay from Kilwa Masoku. We leave camp in the cool of the early morning because we know that we will be walking for several hours on the island. We clamber over rocks beside the wharf and step onto our boat which takes about twenty minutes to convey us to the island. Our guide, a young Swahili woman named Jamili, describes our rough itinerary during the trip.

A small village of Swahili people still live on the island and they make a living by fishing and growing what they need to eat. Apart from a primary school, a couple of very small shops and the villagers huts  there remains the extensive ruins which have been partially excavated and are all that is left of the chequered history of the sometimes prosperous town of Kilwa over the last eleven hundred years.

Dhows are used for travel and to bring supplies to and from the mainland as well as for fishing. At low tide they are marooned on the mud flats.

The earliest ruins, some of which were simple walled encampments, date back to the 10th and 11th centuries. They, like all the other buildings, were built from coral rock, which was almost certainly taken from quarries on the island. The walls are one to two feet thick and the later buildings were rendered with lime. Where the rock is exposed it is easy to find places where the patterns of the coral organisms are discernable. The same method of building was used in Zanzibar which was also settled by the Omani Arabs and came to prominence after Kilwa’s decline.

While the earliest ruins in Kilwa were quite simple later buildings were very elaborate and with the latter ones being quite luxurious. Gereza, Kilwa’s Fort is the most complete structure. It was originally built by the Portuguese but most of the existing structure was rebuilt by the Omani Arabs.

We visit the remains of three mosques, the Great Mosque, as its name implies, is the most impressive but the small mosque which was mainly used by the Sultan and his family has a wonderful atmosphere as well.

At one end of the island is Makutani, “the palace of the big walls”, where a very large palace and the remains of other buildings are enclosed within a defensive wall.

The final structures we visit is Husuni Kubwa, a magnificent 14th century palace. It is huge and very complex, a splendid royal residence which was only occupied by one Sultan. After exploring it and marvelling at the lavish life style which would have been enjoyed by the regal family we descend the stairs to the mangrove flats and pick our way out to the boat for our return to the mainland.

We are enjoying the relaxed atmosphere at our camp at Kilwa Masoko so we decide to stay an extra day. After we make our decision our host informs us there is a group coming in later and they are likely to be noisy. She sure was right. An extended Indian family occupy most of the chalets and after a communal dinner they sing and dance. It is nice to listen to and it would be great to be a part of their festivities. They aren’t too late with their songs though so we still get a good nights sleep.

We are now just a days drive from Dar Es Salaam. We are planning a week long visit to the island of Zanzibar so we need to find a place to stay for one night then a place to safely leave the car for the week. The electrical work we had done in Mtwara doesn’t seem to have fixed everything so we look for an auto electrician and find one who says they can do the work and will be happy to store the car for the week. The city is big and busy and has a reputation for being a tough place to stay so we are happy to find a place on the internet which is on the outskirts of the city and looks very laid back.

So much for plans. We are using two apps to help us navigate but neither help and we end up at a loss as to how to get there. We ring and follow the hosts suggestion of asking a bijaji driver to lead us to the right road and eventually, after crossing a river and climbing up and down some very basic tracks, we find the place. It doesn’t live up to expectations though because we can’t get our car off the road and the facilities are way more basic than we expected. We decide to go for plan B and head back to the main road and before long we reach the Safari Lodge in a suburb north of the city. Here we find secure parking with an overnight guard, a comfortable room and very pleasant staff. They offer to let us leave our car here for our week on Zanzibar and, after checking out the auto electrician and deciding they look less than reliable, we take them up on their offer. It sure shows that when things don’t work out the way you expect they can work out even better.

Looking forward to our time on Zanzibar.

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Ilha De Moçambique

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Stone Town, Ilha de Moçambique

Ilha De Moçambique (Mozambique Island) is small in size at less than 3.5 km long and 500m wide but it is packed with history and has lots of fascinating buildings so we are looking forward to exploring it. We travel across the 3.5km one lane bridge which joins the island to the mainland. Luckily there are passing points along the way. The water beneath the bridge is shallow and remarkably clear. There are lots of people living in this area and the water is dotted with fishing dhows, people netting fish and others wading across toward the island.

There is no camping on the island so our first task is to find a place to stay for our visit. We have picked out a number of possibilities and we are soon joined by a throng of young boys offering to guard our car, for a small fee of course, as we make our way from place to place. The main streets are narrow and often one way and the side streets are often alley ways too narrow to drive through so it is slow going and the boys run behind us and sometimes jump onto the back of the vehicle.

The first few are not suitable either because they are too expensive or not available for the whole time we want and we are just working out how to reach the next place when a young man on a bicycle offers to lead us. Mohamed takes us to several more places, a couple would be OK but we’re hoping to find something better and then the final place he takes us to is delightful. O Escondidinho is a grand old building and there is just one room left for the five nights we are planning to stay. It’s in the courtyard just next to the swimming pool and there is plenty of space for Paul to bring his computer inside to work on his photos. We can’t self cater but breakfast is included and we can easily make our own lunch in the room so we will only need to buy one meal each day. Perfect!

Most of the historic buildings are in Stone Town which occupies the northern section of the island. They were constructed between the early 16th and late 19th centuries when the Portuguese occupied the island and locals were banished to the mainland. The local people now live in Makuti Town in the southern part of the island and Stone Town buildings are mainly used for tourism or are in varying states of decay. Each day we wander around the quiet streets always finding new alleys or revisiting others we enjoy.

The details are in the buildings are fascinating, especially the doorways and windows.

At the north end of the island is the Fort of São Sebastião which was built in the 16th century. It is huge and we spend several hours wandering around and Paul returns in the late afternoon just before they close for the day so he can take even more photos.

Behind the fort, right at the very tip of the island is the Chapel of Nossa Senhora de Baluarte. Built in 1522, it is considered to be the oldest European building in the southern hemisphere.

Another place well worth a visit is the Palace & Chapel of São Paulo, the former governors residence. The residence has been completely restored and we wander around the many rooms with our guide explaining the history. The restoration has been extremely well done and it is easy to imagine the grand life the Portuguese rulers led, at the expense of all of the local people and of the slaves being trafficked through the island. No photography is allowed inside the residence but we were able to take photos in the chapel.

Mohammed led us through Makuti town and it is a bustling lively place, very different from the quiet streets in Stone Town and the splendour of the old buildings. Narrow walkways thread between shacks with the occasional wider thoroughfare.

The main road which runs through the centre of Makuti Town is bustling and it becomes much quieter as we approach Stone Town. A street side shoe stall intrigues me and Paul enjoys watching a pick up game of soccer. An unused church stands at the southern end of the island.

The Memorial Slave Garden is a reminder of the dreadful history of the island and the lives of the many slaves who passed through here or died on the way here.

As it is a small island you are never far from the water and it is always interesting to watch the numerous dhows and the general ‘goings on’.

The sun sets quite early and we try to find a nice spot for sundowners so we can enjoy the changing colours. Later we try out various restaurants and enjoy reflecting on our day.

 

 

 

 

Heading North in Mozambique

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Sunrise at Morrungulo on the Mozambique Coast

Border crossings from South Africa to Mozambique have a reputation for being slow and possibly with problems of corruption or at least pestering. I’m happy to say the Giryondo Border Post in the centre of Kruger and the Limpopo National Parks offered a friendly and efficient service and we were through the South African and Mozambique offices of Immigration, Customs and National Parks in just over 40 minutes. That included obtaining our Mozambique visa on arrival and saw us head into Mozambique by mid morning. Our visa is valid for 30 days and we plan to use all or most of that time in our travels from here to the Tanzanian border in the far north of the country.

We are heading for the coast and the first section of the road through the Limpopo park is slow going rocky with plenty of corrugations. We take it slowly and the car has seen much worse roads in the past so I am surprised when I glance in the side mirror to see one of our spare wheels bounding off into the bushes behind us. The weld on the rear tyre carrier completely failed and it is just as well I saw it go as the wheel which took off into the bush is carrying our rear number plate. It would be a nuisance and some expense to replace the wheel and carrier but it would be an administrative pain to try to get a new number plate. We retrieve the tyre from the bush, remove it from the broken piece of the carrier and strap it on top of the storage box on the roof rack. It will be a relatively easy job to get the weld repaired as we travel.

The rest of our journey to the coast is uneventful and the bitumen road, when we reach it, is in far better condition than we expected. That was until we reached the larger sections where the road replacement is under way and for many kilometres we travel along a dirt track a short distance off to the side of the road. This slows our average pace and as we have travelled further east with no change in time zone the sun is setting earlier so it is well and truly dark by the time we reach our camp site at the Sunset Beach Lodge and it is an easy decision to eat in the restaurant. The meal is good and cheap and when Paul spies crayfish on the menu at an extremely good price we decide to stay an extra night so we can enjoy a feast on the balcony for lunch the next day and a walk on the beach.

The stop over for an extra day means we are travelling north on a Monday so we are able to have the tyre carrier re-welded and to stock up on our food as we travel. Supermarkets become few and far between as you travel north in Mozambique so we can’t miss out on any opportunity to restock.

On our last trip to Mozambique we enjoyed an extended stay at Morrungulo Beach Lodge and we are returning this trip. James and Barbara and their son Harry have a beautifully maintained camping and chalet area on a glorious beach and, although we hadn’t planned to stay too long, we end up staying for a week. We set up the ground tent for the first time, relieved that it is very simple as we had managed to lose the instructions, and Paul is able to spend time working on his photos. Of course he also takes some more great photos from the beach and the drone while we are there.

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Morrungulo Beach at Sunset

We swim twice every day, walk for kilometres along the beach on the firm sands, enjoy the lush green campgrounds and generally relax while we work on our photos and writing. Local fishermen offer their catches and we feast on crayfish one night and buy a huge barracuda which is filleted and feeds us for another two nights and also leaves us with enough fish for another five nights. Yum. Its a hard place to leave but we really need to pick up our travels again. To my surprise the tent easily fits back inside its bag.

Our next significant destination is Ilha da Mocambique (Mozambique Island) which is more than 1,700 km and thousands of potholes north. We met Tessie, Anton and Carol while we were at Sunset Beach Lodge and they were headed for their place at Inhassaro and invited us to stay. Inhassaro is 20 km off the main highway but we decide to drop in as it would be good to see them again. We have lost their phone number so don’t even give them advance warning but they make us very welcome at their place, Yellowfin Lodge, and give us a room for the night and we join them for a delicious dinner and a good yarn.

We are travelling on EN1 (Highway One) and hit some bad potholes as soon as we had travelled north of Vilanculos before we reached Inhassaro. As we continue north they get worse. We try various ways to describe them: you don’t drive over these potholes, you enter them then some time later come out; even the potholes have potholes; sometimes the potholes on the side of the road are so bad you go back to the original potholes in the middle of the road; and then sometimes the road condition was so bad it was no longer potholes, just holes with virtually no bitumen left.

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Not much of the road left, EN1, Highway 1 in Mozambique

Our next overnight stop is at a camp near the Gorongosa National Park. The camp is about 15 km off the main road and it is delight to hit the relatively smooth gravel road. We reach the turn off into the camp, pass an abandoned building and head deeper into the bush. The campsite is run by the local community with payment by donation and is set amongst the bush. A couple and their young child had arrived just before us and were the only other campers for the night. We have a relatively short drive planned for the next day so it was lovely to wake in the bush and to have a relaxed start to the day.

James and Barbara recommended M’Phwinge Lodge for an overnight stay and although they have no camping sites they have very reasonably priced chalets. We have been in touch with the owners and Pat has given us directions for a dirt road around the top of the Gorongosa National Park so we can miss the worst section of the main road. It is a delightful drive and worth doing even if it didn’t have the added bonus of missing that dreadful stretch of road. The scenery is great, especially as we drive past the southern side of the Gorongosa massif and through villages filled with brightly dressed local people. There are a couple of river crossings which make this route impassable in the wet season but they are no problem now. Unfortunately some of the buses and trucks are also taking this route and the road is barely wide enough so we just try to get right out of their way as soon as we see them coming.

Eventually we reach the other end of the dirt road and turn on to Highway 2 (EN2), which instead of being potholed bitumen is sand. A few sections are fairly soft sand but most is packed down and, while we need to take care, it is much easier to cope with than potholes. We pass through the town of Inhaminga with ruins of Portuguese buildings along the main road and down side streets and lots of people near some market stalls. The sandy road continues right up until we reach the EN1, thankfully past the pot holed section, and just a few kilometres along we turn into M’Phingwe Lodge.

We have a comfortable night and a nice meal at M’Phwinge and chat with Pat and Ant White. The lodge is set amongst trees and a tame Blue Duiker wanders around the grounds. They are very rare and endemic to this area. He had been rescued and raised in a pen until he was led enough to fend for himself and was just released very recently. He hasn’t left for the bush yet and still likes being rubbed between the tiny horns but when he is ready he can leave and go back to the bush.

In the morning we have another 20 km of pot-holes to negotiate but Pat assures us the road is much better after that. We have more than 700 km to travel today so we leave very early and as we cross the Zambezi the mist is rising through the early sunshine. The river is huge here, many times bigger then when we crossed it first in western Zambia then again as we crossed it as we left Zambia for Zimbabwe and finally as it thundered over the Victoria Falls. Many rivers feed into it and they have all carried water from the rainy season.

The road is excellent and we make good progress. An unusual sight is a poor goat tied to the top of a large truck, even while cornering the goat managed to stay on its feet. The land around here is dotted with huge granite outcrops called Inselbergs and we start seeing them about an hour before we reach our destination of Nampula.

The camp is 15km outside of the busy town and we arrive before dark. The camping area  is set in a manicured garden next to a lake at the base of an Inselberg. Its a very unusual setting and we compare it to our other camps since we arrived in Mozambique; on top of sand dunes at Sunset Beach, under trees just behind the beach at Morrungulo, in a lovely private lodge at Inhassaro, in the jungle at Gorongosa, and in the bush at M’Phingwe.

It was a full moon a few nights ago and there is still lots of light in the middle of the nights so Paul is up taking photographs for a couple of hours in the middle of the night and then again at first light. Luckily we have only a few hours driving to reach our destination for the next five nights, Ilha de Mocambique.

 

Revisiting Kruger National Park

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Zebra, and Giraffe Crossing, Kruger NP

We visited Kruger National Park twice previously and both times the park was very dry after enduring drought for several years. It made the animals easier to see but we wanted to see the park after the last two good rainy seasons so we decided to travel through the park on our way toward East Africa.

We entered the park at the Punda Maria Gate and spent a leisurely four hours driving to the Shingwedzi Rest Camp. We spent three nights at the camp which gave us a good chance to explore the area around it on drives each morning and afternoon before we moved south to Tsendse Bush Camp which is just south of the Mopani Rest Camp. After another three nights with more days exploring around there we headed out of the park crossing the border into Mozambique at the Giryondo Gate.

Even though there was plenty of good cover for the animals we saw plenty of wildlife and really enjoyed the different aspect the green growth and plentiful water provided.

There are boards at the rest camps where people mark the locations they have seen different animals and each day there were sightings of lions and leopard reported and we visited and revisited the areas they had been seen in. We had no luck with seeing lions but a leopard strolled across the road in front of the car on one of our drives. She headed for a bush just by the side of the road but before Paul could get his camera ready she had second thoughts about settling down there and moved through thick bush and out of sight. I managed to catch a quick shot through the windscreen.

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Leopard, Kruger NP

The only other predators we saw were a couple of hyena lying beside the road early on morning.

I was particularly pleased with the numbers of giraffe we saw. they are amazing animals and can seem gangly with their long, long legs and their swaying walk but they somehow manage to always appear graceful. Sometimes they are busy feeding and ignore us but often they are curious and stop to stare at us just as we stare at them. I loved getting detail of their heads and lush long eyelashes and kind eyes as well as detail of their intricate patterns.

We saw plenty of buck on our travels. The waterbuck were plentiful near the rivers and pretty  nyala could be seen among the bushes.

We saw individual or small groups of buffalo frequently, particularly wallowing in mud in the riverbeds. We also saw two large herds numbering in the hundreds, always great to experience.

Zebra are another frequent sighting and warthogs were seen fairly often but they usually head away as soon as they feel threatened.

Amongst the birds we saw were the pretty Little Bee-eater and the stately Egyptian Geese.

Last but by no means least are the elephants. We saw plenty of them while we were at Shingwedzi and they are great to sit and watch as you can see the family interactions and their characters really show. Then as we approached the Mopani camp we saw more and more of them. There were hundreds in the area feeding on the lush growth.

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Elephant at the Water tank, Kruger NP

From Kalahari to Kruger

Giraffe in the Okavango Delta

After we leave the Central Kalahari Game Reserve our next major destination is Kruger National Park so we need to cross Botswana and the top of South Africa. We have a few places we want to visit on the way and the first is a return stay in Maun.

We were in Maun for a couple of weeks last year and had some great trips into Moremi Game Reserve in the Okavango Delta and Paul really wants to fly over the Delta in a helicopter while it has a good amount of water in it. We also have a few chores to do in town, including cleaning off all the mud presently caking the car so we’ll return to Sitatunga Camp just outside of town and catch up with Gerald and Corinne.

We didn’t leave the Central Kalahari until late morning because we had spent time looking for game and negotiating a few muddy patches inside the park. The drive out to the highway also takes quite a while because of all the water on the track. Once on the highway its an easy but long drive and we arrive at Sitatunga in the late afternoon, just in time for a drink in the bar before an easy meal and bed. We stay four nights, the chores get done, the car gets cleaned, Paul processes some photos and video from our last visit and I work on the backlog of posts. Most importantly Paul has his helicopter flight late one afternoon and captures some amazing photographs. There’s one at the top and another couple here, with more to come.

Young elephant covered in white sand in the Okavango Delta

Buffalo in the lush grass in the Okavango

We finish our chores on Monday morning and by late morning we head east. Its a very long day to get across Botswana to the busy city of Francistown and then south for another couple of hours until it is time to leave the highway and find a bush camp. Along the drive east we were amazed by the amount of water along the side of the highway.

Flood waters beside the highway across Botswana

Our long day put us in easy reach of the Tuli Block, a collection of privately owned properties which are mainly game reserves. As well as the opportunity to see wildlife we also hope to enjoy interesting scenery and to see some of the cultural history sites in the area. We start re-thinking our plans almost as soon as we leave the bitumen. A patch of very slippery mud has us sliding all over the road with our tyres caked and unable to grip. If there is a lot of this mud it will make it difficult to get to all of the places we have planned. Luckily the place we hope to spend a night or two in is not far and we reach it with only one more tricky spot, a creek crossing on the property which had been churned up by crossing vehicles. We get stuck momentarily but our diff-lockers save the day and we don’t have to get out the winch.

Our camp site is lovely with beautiful trees all around and our own private ablutions and wash up sink. A short walk down the bank gets us to the Limpopo River with more lovely trees across the river on the South African side. We wanted to spend at least one more day in the area exploring but decide to shorten our stay and reach what we can today and then cross into South Africa.

We want a bush camp not too far from the border but as soon as we cross into South Africa the nature of the countryside changes. Fences stop us from leaving the road as the land is either under cultivation or managed as private game reserves for hunting and meat production. We push on and just before it gets dark we are happy to find a lodge which offers camping just outside the small town of Alldays. The site is a bit rundown and the bore water is dreadful but at least it is safe spot to spend the night.

Our next stay is a huge contrast. The Zakanaka camp site is in the Soutpansberg Mountains not far from the town of Makhado (previously known as Louis Trichardt) and it has lush gardens, a backdrop of impressive mountains, immaculate and very decorative amenities, free fire wood, our own private covered kitchen area including a stove and sink, cleared walking paths and delightful hosts. Gail and Alistair invite us to join them for sundowners when we wander up to the house and we swap tales as we enjoy watching the changing light and the sight of a shy bushbuck wandering past. It is so nice in fact that we decide to stay another night. This gives Paul a chance to download and sort his recent photos and to fly the drone. Gail and Alistair join us after dinner to see some of Paul’s photos and give us directions for the most scenic route to Kruger.

The drive is delightful and we enter the park before lunch time, plenty of time to start our game viewing on the way to our first camp.

 

 

Central Kalahari

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The Central Kalahari Game Reserve is a huge park, the second largest in the world at 52,800 square kilometres, and has a wide range of animals scattered throughout it. It is technically a desert but has a range of habitats and as we are visiting after the rainy season there is abundant vegetation. Accommodation in the park is limited and can be difficult to book so our camp site locations are dictated by what is available at late notice. We are entering through the Xade Gate which is a long way south and west of the main part of the park we want to visit. Our first two nights in the park will be more than 160 km from the entrance so we spend a night bush camping just outside the park boundary. Unlike our last camp just outside the Kgalagadi Trans-frontier park we have no nocturnal visits from lions, the only wildlife we see are some butterflies forming a cluster on damp sand.

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After we leave the park reception at Xade the first section of the drive is through quite dense bush and slow going and, although we see signs that elephant have been in the area very recently, we don’t catch sight of any. In fact we see very few animals at all until we reach Piper Pan where we see the usual complement of Springbok and Oryx. A less common sighting is the fascinating Secretary Bird, so named because the feathers sticking out from its head can appear similar to pens stuck behind the ears of an office worker. Not sure I see that myself but it makes a memorable name.

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After lunch at one of the campsites we continue the second half of the journey and arrive at our campsite by mid afternoon. Just as we are nearing it we see giraffe crossing the road in front of us. More and more appear and eventually we count seventeen, the largest herd we have seen. They are walking away from the direction of our camp so we hope it is on their normal path to or from water.

Most of the campsites in the park are very spaced out, our nearest neighbours are 14 km away. Our campsite is on a rise above the San Pan but the views are limited by trees and the ground is uneven and covered in prickles, maybe that is why it hadn’t been booked already. Paul shovels away the prickles to give us room to sit and to work at the kitchen and we shovel out some sand under one side of the car to level out the vehicle. Its not an ideal spot but the reappearance of the giraffe next morning makes up for it. They are passing behind the car and are very curious and stop to gaze at us.

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We head out for a drive in the morning and spend most of the day parked under some trees beside the Tau Pan which is not too far away. We see quite a few antelope milling around but none are very close. Its very pleasant though and a lovely spot to enjoy being out in the bush and reading in between gazing around. After lunch we decided to drive a little further around the pan and then to head back to camp. Less than 200 metres away we see a young male lion lazing under a bush. We watch for a while but then our attention appears to annoy him, or perhaps it is just time to make a move, and he ambles off. We are able to follow for a while but he eventually leaves the road and heads into the bush.

After another night at our campsite we move to our next camp which is only a few hours easy driving away. The only time we need to pause in our drive is when we see another lion. Sometimes it can be difficult to see lion in the bush, this one is hard to miss. Its actually lying on the road as we approach and shows no sign of moving until we get quite close when it moves to a bush right next to the road. We travel past and apart from turning to watch us he shows no sign of disturbance, and before we leave the area he has settled down for another snooze. At least he is not on the road now so he won’t have to move when the next pesky lot of tourists drive by.

We arrive at our new camp, Lekubu, by late morning. It is also lacking a view but at least it has no prickles. It is situated just at the start of Deception Valley so we continue on to a better spot for a picnic lunch and soon find another grove of trees near an open area with large herds of Springbok and Oryx as well as Zebra. Recent rains have added a sprinkling of wildflowers to the grass.

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As we continue our drive we see plenty more game including lots of ostrich roaming across the pans along with large herds of wildebeest, oryx and springbok.

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Deception Pan is damp and, rather than take one of the tracks right next to it and risk getting bogged, we travel part way around on a drier track. Its getting later in the afternoon and storm clouds are gathering but there is time for yet another photo of the majestic Oryx, this one in full flight.

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Rain starts before we get back to our campsite and soon becomes very heavy. We had considered camping in the grove of trees where we had our lunch but now we see why the camp sites are set on rises away from the edge of the pans. The track becomes very muddy and we slide our way through several sections of the track but reach our sandy and safe camp site with no problems.

We have one more night in the park and another longish drive to reach it the next day. We are a little concerned about the track, or at least I am, but our trusty vehicle, and experienced driver, get us through the muddy patches with no worse than a little slipping and sliding. We pass the two largest of the campgrounds, Kori overlooking the Kori Pan and Deception not too far away. Here the sites are closer together and they are the easiest to reach, perhaps accounting for why they are all fully booked. We are continuing on to one of the three camp sites in the Passarge Valley via tracks that pass by Sunday Pan and Leopard Pan. Again we are 14 km from our nearest neighbour. We haven’t seen as much wildlife in this area but the scenery has been great and the camp site is by far the nicest we have been in so it is well worth the drive. Thankfully no more rain falls during the night. Instead we leave the area to the sight of the valley still slumbering under a heavy morning mist.

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The mist lifts as we breakfast beside the Leopard Pan. There have been recent sightings of, you guessed it, leopard and we are hopeful but out of luck. Still it is a very pleasant place for our cereal and coffee before we make the long drive out of the park and up to Maun. Luckily the sun is drying out the roads but we still have several patches of mud to negotiate and twenty kilometres of large mud pools on the road after we leave the park. We even have ducks swimming on the road. I thought this was supposed to be a desert!

 

 

Kgalagadi Trans-frontier Park

 

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A Field of Springbok

When we visited Botswana last year it was towards the end of the dry season and the weather was getting very hot. Too hot, we decided, to visit the desert areas of the Central Kalahari Game Reserve and the Kgalagadi Trans-frontier Park. We promised ourselves we would return to travel in those areas when there had been some rain and the temperatures would be more comfortable.

After we flew back into South Africa in early March it took us two busy weeks in Johannesburg to finalise all the changes we wanted to the fitout on our vehicle and to spend time with Paul’s mother, sister and other family members.

Because we had sold the trailer we needed to make numerous changes to the fitout of the Toyota so we had more fridge, fuel and water capacity and space to fit in all the things we would need to carry to make our lives comfortable and safe for the next two plus years, including of course all Paul’s camera and computer gear. We also wanted a new roof top tent which was more comfortable, easier to set up, and had more air and light as well as a new awning to provide better shelter. While we were out of the country Gary had completed lots of work re-fitting out the interior of the land cruiser. He had installed our new fridge where the back seat had been and made a great shelving system next to and in front of it so Paul could securely stow all his camera and computer gear and still be able to easily access it all. A new water tank and gas bottle carrier had been ordered and our new roof top tent and awning was due to be installed a couple of days after we arrived. The roof rack had been modified to allow them to fit and Jerry cans and our storage box for awnings and mats were in place. Other handy features Gary had designed and built were tables which could be clipped on to both sides of the rear of the truck or on top of the drawers at the back and a wash basin support which fitted on to a rear spare wheel.

We were very happy with all the high quality work he had completed and after living with it on the road for a month we are even happier with it all. Thank you Gary.

Paul would still need somewhere to set up his iMac to process his photos so we bought a ground tent we could set up when we were staying put for a little longer.

By the time we had had the roof top tent, awning, water tank and gas bottle carrier fitted, had the car serviced, found and bought a list of items we needed, stocked up our provisions, caught up with some people we had met on our last visit and installed the solar panels we were just about out of time and Paul struggled to find time to reorganize his photographic files and process a few to share while I juggled everything to make it all fit in the car.

It was time to get back into the bush and we headed west out of Johannesburg in the pouring rain two weeks after we landed in South Africa. By mid afternoon the next day the weather was hot and sunny and we were checking into our campsite at Twee Rivieren at the South African entrance to the Kgalagadi Park.

All together we spent six nights in the park, two at Twee Rivieren and two at Nossob in the South African section and one each at Polentswa and Swartpan in the Botswana section. We also had one night just north of the Kaa gate in Botswana. We took drives each morning and afternoon so we had a good chance to explore quite a lot of the area.

Beautiful Gemsbok, also called Oryx, were abundant showing why the South African section used to be called the Gemsbok National Park. Springbok were the other very abundant type of antelope and we also saw wildebeest, hartebeest, impala, and bush duikers.

Other animals we saw included zebra, black backed jackals, a bat eared fox and lots of ostriches. I finally saw some meerkats and loved watching them standing upright and peering all around before scurrying back to their holes. We also saw lots of social weaver nests, they are quite a feature of the park. We had a distant sighting of a cheetah but hardly enough to pick out its markings as it rested in the shade of a tree several hundred metres from the track.

Even though we didn’t see any of the lions which are one of the main draw cards of the Botswana section of the park we enjoyed the rugged bush scenery and and the general feeling of isolation.

When we left the park we drove just a short distance from the gate to the Kaa pan where herds of springbok, Oryx, Eland and Wildebeest grazed on the short grass covering most of the area. We decided it would be a good place to make a bush camp and have a good view of the full moon a well as a good chance of seeing more wild life in the morning. We selected a spot well clear of any trees or bushes so we had a good field of vision and settled down to enjoy the views.

About 2.00 am we woke to the cough of a lion. Instantly wide awake we peered out of the windows and, under the light of the full moon, we could make out a distant movement. As we watched we saw more movements and eventually we had a pride of at least seven lions, including two large males, circling our vehicle. The nearest was a curious female who approached within 50 metres. We felt quite safe in our hard topped roof top tent, well pretty safe anyway, but we certainly weren’t venturing out of it to get a camera to record the amazing experience.

The show continued for an hour or so but finally they lost interest in us and faded away into the night. In the morning there was no trace they had been there, with just a few springbok grazing as the mist lifted. The drive out to the main road continued for the next couple of hours through this buffer zone surrounding the park but eventually our sightings of springbok and other wild game gave way to sightings of cattle and goats, and, as we began passing people and villages the road turned to bitumen and this part of our Botswana adventure ended. Onward to the next!

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Springbok grazing as the mist rises at Kaa Pan

Gracious Luang Prabang

Grand old car and grand old building in historic and gracious Luang Prabang

The city of Luang Prabang sits on the mighty Mekong River in the north east of Laos. At its heart is the charming and historic old town which is included in the UNESCO World Heritage List of important cultural sites. It’s an easy place to visit with an international airport and plenty of accommodation and dining options to suit all budgets and, in our opinion, should be on everyones ‘must see list’. It’s the last destination on our trip to northern Thailand and Laos and it’s a charming city in which to wrap up our visit to South East Asia.

The entire old town in Luang Prabang is included on the UNESCO World Heritage List of important cultural sites and it was a treat to wander around and look at all the French Colonial Buildings and take in the atmosphere.

Buddhist Temples abound, large and small. It’s very easy to find yourself on quiet back streets or lanes with no other tourists around and maybe monks sweeping leaves in the temple grounds.

Luang Prabang is situated on a peninsula with the wide Mekong River flowing past one side and the much smaller Khan River forming the other boundary. During the dry season bamboo bridges are built to allow locals to cross the smaller of the rivers to other parts of the city. Ferries shuttle non-stop across the Mekong to carry people and vehicles across its expanse.

Other interesting places we found on our ambling walks were fabric and weaving showplaces, photographic galleries, great places for coffee and amazing croissants. On our wanderings around the town we meet up with a fellow traveller from China. Like us he travels in a 4WD and he has had some great experiences travelling throughout Asia, including Mongolia which is on our must see list. Paul and he made an instant connection. He is also an artist but while Paul works with digital photographic images, he paints on canvases and the top of his vehicle is stacked with new canvases and half the interior is filled with completed works. When he runs out of room he ships them back to his home in China and has new canvases sent onward to him. He took a liking to Paul’s hat and they traded for a photo.

Paul meets a fellow traveller who wanted to swap hats.

Every morning the monks from the many temples collect alms from the faithful followers who line the streets. Paul was out early on several mornings to capture more images of them.

We treated ourselves to a very comfortable room in a guest house overlooking the Mekong. From our balcony we could watch the sun setting over the river or, if we wanted a view unobstructed by branches, we could simply cross the road to a bar opposite and enjoy our sundowners there. At the end of the dry season a lot of fields are burned to prepare them for the next planting and the continual haze in the sky creates a very red sunset.

After our sundowners we would set out to find yet another wonderful place to eat. With its French and Asian influences combined with a constant tourist population, Luang Prabang certainly has lots of good places to eat. The cheapest place for an evening feed is probably in the night food market where less than $2 AUD will get you a plate you can pile high with all sorts of vegetarian food and for a little more you can choose what meat or fish you want grilled. You can then grab a Beer Laos and sit on of the bench seats opposite the stall and chat to other people while you wait for the meat to be cooked.

The night food market is in a small lane just off the main street where a night market stretches for half a kilometre. Lots of local crafts are for sale there or alternatively you can stop at a smaller market which operates all day. Next to it we found the best spot for mango smoothies, or any other type of smoothie you want. As well as any fruit you can add peanut butter or Oreo cookies, but we’ll stick to our mangoes! Our favourite restaurant is deep in the heart of the old town, a tiny place with just five tables and a counter and often people standing patiently in the street waiting. It certainly rated a return visit.

Tuk tuks patrol the streets and congregate on corners seeking passengers. The most common offering is a trip out to Kuang Si Waterfall and it is well worth a visit. We agree on a price and travel 30km out of town to the falls. They are in a large reserve with a ten minute walk to the beautiful falls. The crystal clear water has lots of calcium in it and smaller falls cascade through a succession of pools. Swimming is allowed in some of the larger pools a little away from the main falls.

After enjoying the beauty of the falls and the pools and green rain forest areas surrounding them we return to entrance calling into the Sun Bear enclosure on the way. Then we walk down the hill for a couple of hundred metres to a Butterfly Park. Beautiful orchids and other flowers line the path on the way to the enclosure and the splendid array of butterflies provide even more beautiful colours.

Finally it’s time to finish this section of our adventures and take a long plane flight on to Johannesburg in South Africa to experience more of that huge continent. Backpacking has been fun and I’m sure we’ll incorporate more side trips like this in our future travels.

Heading on to our next adventure

 

Travelling back in time to Muang Ngoi

Mist rising in Muang Ngoi

I fell in love with the village of Muang Ngoi in Laos when I visited it five years ago and when I reluctantly left I kept some local money as a promise to myself that I would return. Finally I’ve made it and Paul is keen to visit the area as well.

Muang Ngoi lies on the Ou River (Nam Ou) between Muang Khua in the far north west of Laos and Luang Prabang, the major city in the north of Laos. The river is almost the only means of reaching the village and at that time only a handful of tourists visited it. It felt as though the village existed in a time warp with no cars or motor cycles and with chooks roaming freely in the main street.

I was worried that increasing tourism may have changed the nature of the village since my last visit. Tourism had certainly increased but I’m very happy to say that, in my opinion, the village has retained its essential character and the changes which have occurred have hopefully brought about many positive opportunities for the local people and few detrimental side effects. A new dam being built up river may have more alarming consequences, I guess only time will tell.

To reach Muang Ngoi we caught a public boat from Muang Khua along with about 15 other tourists and a few local people travelling to villages down stream. The boat had a few reasonably comfortable seats at the front which were quickly filled and the rest of us sat on low planks lining the sides of the boat. To bypass the new dam we were off-loaded above the construction, crammed into a tuk tuk along with all our packs, and then dropped off below the dam to wait for another boat to collect us. This time Paul and I managed to snaffle the comfortable seats for the final ride to Nam Ou.

The trip lasted about four hours but any discomfort  was more than made up by the beautiful scenery along the way.

After our delightful trip we reached Muang Ngoi and climbed the stairs from the river along with a few of the other travellers. We called into some of the guest houses lining the river and found a rustic bungalow overlooking the river where we could relax for a lazy five days. The bungalow was mainly constructed from bamboo and the view from the hammock on the small verandah more than compensated for the very basic bathroom and the rough and ready construction.

We sampled different restaurants for our meals but often ended up at one of two adjacent places which had the best views of the river and all the activity on the river and reliably tasty food.

Apart from eating, our main activity was taking short strolls around the tiny village. Longer treks into the surrounding forests and up mountains or boat or canoe trips were available but although we considered them the time passed very easily.

Paul was out before sunrise several times and captured some nice shots of the monks from the temple at the edge of the village and of the early morning light.

Finally it was time to leave Muang Ngoi and travel further down river to Ngong Kiaow where we caught a mini bus to Luang Prabang, our final destination in Asia for this trip.

Leaving Muang Ngoi, passing our two favourite restaurants

A Tale of Two Towns, Muang La and Muang Khua

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Dancing in the Street, Muang Khua

After our energetic two days trekking and rafting we hobble downstairs to catch a songthaew to the bus station so we can continue our journey through Northern Laos. Our small bus is nearly full of local people but we find some space and are soon on our way. We start with a 3 1⁄2 hour journey to Oudomxai, also spelt Oudomxay or Udomxai and also referred to as Muang Xai. No wonder we keep getting confused when we looked at maps. We’re not in the protected area any more but we have great views as we travel along the ridge tops descending into valleys now and then to cross a river or stream then climbing back up to another ridge. As before tiny villages and small towns make use of any available flat land and some agriculture extends around the village and along creek sides but much of the country is too steep and difficult to access so lots of forest remains in this region.

Oudomxai is a major interchange bus station and a busy city and we are just in time to catch a minivan for the one hour trip north to the village of Muang La. This time we’re joined by two other westerners who are travelling further than we are and the mini van is packed full. We’re stopping in Muang La because we read of a pleasant guest house, some hot springs for soaking in and we’ve seen lovely photos of the area around the Nam Pak River. We aren’t actually sure what we’ll find however as recent reviews suggest the situation has changed. That proves right; the guest house by the river is closed for renovations following flooding and the springs are not available to the public any more as they seem to have been closed off by a new exclusive, and very expensive, resort.

We find a guest house easily enough but finding a place to get a late lunch proves more difficult. A nearby place is sign-posted as a restaurant but the roller shutter doors are firmly closed and we can’t find anyone who speaks English to ask for information about the restaurant or where else we can get a meal. I knew we should have made more effort to learn Lao but suspect even if we did we would still struggle in a place like this. The centre of town is about a kilometre away and we figure if we don’t find a restaurant along the way we should get something there so we head in that direction. There is a small market including a couple of stalls selling cooked meat and a few other things but just before it are three noodle shops and we pick one and are very happy with the flavors and freshness. In fact it is so nice we return to the same place for our evening meal, the menu might be limited, to only one choice, but the food is good.

By now it’s mid afternoon and hot so we take a back road to the guest house for a rest until it cools. On our way to dinner we meander down a back road taking in the views along the way. When we return via the main road we find the restaurant which had been shut earlier is now open and a couple from Germany are finishing their meal. They rented a motor cycle in Oudomxai so they have more freedom to explore the countryside and are staying the night in the same guest house we are.

Paul is up early, again, for misty photos, they sure make the place look good. He also visits Wat Pha Singkham, the local temple on a hill overlooking the town. Later we have our breakfast in the nearby restaurant and, as there is no regular bus stop in town, the helpful owner writes a sign to alert the driver of the bus we want to catch. He turns up right on time, and has room for us so we are soon on our way to Muang Khua arriving there in the middle of the day.

Muang La, “Please stop to pick up two farang bound for Muang Khua” or words to that effect

Muang Khua is the last town I visited on my previous trip to Laos, five years ago, and is the kick off point for our trip down the Nam Ou (Ou River) which we have been looking forward to. It’s an interesting town in its own right though with a busy market, lots of photogenic old buildings and interesting laneways and paths to wander down. It’s built at the junction of the Nam Ou and the Nam Pak rivers. Travellers passing through either travel up or down the Nam Ou or along the road between Oudomxai and the north west corner of Vietnam. It’s well set up to cater for backpackers and we soon find a comfortable guest house and explore the town.

There aren’t a huge number of restaurants but we enjoy our meals, particularly a dish of stir-fried mushrooms which is packed with fresh shiitake mushrooms plus other varieties as well. In between meals we wander through the town taking in the sights, and taking more photos.

Morning photos include the early morning alms giving, school children and workers heading off for their day and boats on the misty river. After breakfast we line up by the Nam Ou river with other backpackers ready for our boat trip down to Muang Ngoy.