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.

 

 

 

 

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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.

Trekking and Rafting in the Lao Jungle

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Heading into the Nam Ha National Protected Area

We are sitting on the banks of the Nam Ha River in northern Lao thinking life doesn’t get much better than this. We are in the tiny village of Nalan Neua surrounded by rain forest in the middle of the Nam Ha Protected Area. To get here we’ve had a day’s trekking with our guide Toua through the rain forest up and over a steep hill and down to a small creek which we then followed for another hour to the village. We arrived sore, sweaty and tired but a rest and a swim in the cool river have helped a lot and a Beer Lao while we sit on the banks with our feet in the river is fixing the rest.

On the way here Toua cooked our lunch at a clearing in the forest at the top of the hill. The table and benches are totally constructed from materials that were gathered there and Toua made a pot from bamboo to cook a mushroom and herb soup to accompany pork barbecued in split bamboo and sticky rice, lettuce and pork salad bought in the market in Luang Namtha this morning. The soup was simple with a couple of different types of mushroom, some wild greens and a bit of mint, water, two types of salt, a few whole cloves of garlic and a couple of whole chillis for luck. Toua is a member of the Khmu people who follow an animist religion and, once the meal is served, he takes a small ball of sticky rice, touches it to the different foods saying a quiet invocation to the spirits and tosses it into the forest then repeats the process tossing the second ball in the opposite direction. We aren’t sure if the blessing made any difference but the food sure tasted delicious, it is certainly one of the best meals we have had in our whole trip.

The beginning of the trek, when we left the road behind was very steep but fortunately the steep section was not too long and the track settled into a gentle climb and we could gather our breath and enjoy the scenery on the way up to our lunch stop pausing a few times along the way to enjoy the forest. The trek down the hill was much longer and very steep all the way, pretty hard on our old joints even with the bamboo walking sticks that Toua cut for us, so it was lovely to get down to the pretty creek. Our progress was slowed by numerous rocky creek crossings we had to negotiate and photo stops to enjoy the beauty of our surroundings.

Nalan Neua has a population of over 200 Khmu people in 30 families. The Khmu people migrated from northern Cambodia 2,000 years ago. Each family has two or three elevated huts. One is used for sleeping and for guests, another for cooking, and if they have a third it is used for storage. We are here in the dry season so much of the cooking is done outside on small communal fires so they can socialise while they prepare their meals.

A road into the village was completed a year ago. Before that the only way in was to follow a walking track or travel upriver by boat. New Zealand provided financial aid to build a primary school for the children, pipe drinking water from a stream high on the hill opposite the village and bought small hydro electric units to supply each family with a limited amount of power. The large school building has three rooms but only two are used at present and there are two teachers for the five year levels. Children attending Secondary School in Luang Namtha stay in a dormitory in town during the week then return to the village Friday afternoon. During the weekend they gather food to take back for the following week and they return to town on Sunday afternoon.

Soule, our second guide for the next day of our trip, was waiting for us in the village when we arrived. He’d come in with a raft which we are going to use on our way down river. After our relaxing swim and beers, and a quick nap for some, Toua takes us for a walk around the village explaining different aspects of lifestyle and culture while Soule begins organising our evening meal with the help of one of the local women. When the meal is ready she joins us together with Toua and Soule. We eat by candle light with our fingers and spoons from the dishes which are served on a large banana leaf. Sticky rice is eaten at every meal and is formed into balls and dipped into dishes. Sure cuts out the washing up! After our meal we sit around a fire while Soule goes frog hunting but it’s an early night for us after an energetic day.

Paul has an early start with more photography.

Breakfast of sticky rice and an omelette cooked with tomatoes, garlic and herbs is complemented with some barbecue frogs. They are tiny with soft bones and eaten whole. Guess what, they taste like chicken.

Barbecue frogs for breakfast, Nalan Neua

Stomachs full with sticky rice yet again we stuff our gear into dry bags and hop onto the inflatable raft for our trip down the Nam Ha River. Soule is on the front, Toua at the back and Paul and I have a side each. We all paddle but Soule has the trickiest task of getting us over the rocks in the numerous small rapids. It is fairly late in the dry season and most tour companies have stopped rafting or canoeing on this river but with only four of us in the raft plus skillful guidance by Soule and energetic paddling by all of us we bump our way through most of the numerous small rapids scraping the bottom of the raft on the rocks as we go. The few times we get hung up on the rocks Soule hops off the front and drags us through. The only time we all need to get out is when a fallen tree blocks the river and we all need to get out and lift the raft over a large branch. It’s lucky the inflatable raft is strong enough to handle this rough treatment but it still needed to have the air topped up before we started rafting in the morning and after our lunch break and we had a small amount of water sloshing around our feet, just enough to keep them cool.

The trekking yesterday was great but this is even better as we drift and paddle through pristine rain forest. The forest comes right down to the river and at times we have to duck to dodge overhanging branches. Strands of bamboo appear amongst the tall trees and hundreds of shades of green delight our eyes. We hear quite a few birds and see a few but the flying creatures we see most are brilliant butterflies providing splashes of colour. As we float along Toua and Soule are softly singing traditional Khmu tunes, a perfect soundtrack for the voyage.

 

The only people we see while we’re in the Nam Ha Protected Area are in two other villages. The first is another Khmu village very similar to the one we stayed at last night. The next, NamKoy, has people from a different tribe, who are originally from China and their huts, language and way of life are quite different. Huts are not elevated and have no windows, just a front door used for most purposes and a back door to let the evil spirits out. The general level of health and vitality appears less although we don’t stay long enough to really know.

We stop along the way for lunch, not a barbecue this time but some delicious dishes including sticky rice, a couple of types of pork and vegetables, bamboo shoots and a chili dip. These were prepared in the village before we left and we eat with our fingers from a banana leaf. The river shore we landed upon had dozens of butterflies with colours of yellow, green, blue, black, gold and more.

More wonderful scenery follows our lunch break and by mid afternoon we reach the end of the Nam Ha River where it joins the Nam Tha River. This is the boundary of the NPA and one side of the river is covered in plantations and the trip is far less enchanting. Most of the tour companies are only kayaking and rafting down the Nam Tha, we are sure glad we found the one to take us deep into the forest.

We drift down to the next village where a songthaew meets us and transports us back to town. We have sore muscles for the next couple of days but we are taking away memories that we will treasure.