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.


Onward to Luang Nam Tha

Luang Nam Tha Morning Market,
Timeless elegance

After our delightful stay at the Bamboo Nest outside of Chiang Rai we are dropped at the bus station in town and just have time to buy a couple of mango smoothies before we catch a local bus to Chiang Khong. It’s situated on the Mekong River which is the border with Laos. We have an overnight stay and it’s enjoyable with a guest house by the river, a stroll along the waterfront and through the small town in the late afternoon followed by a pleasant dinner.

Mural in Chiang Khong

In the morning, after coffee, we take a songthaew to the border where we pass through immigration on the south of the river, take a shuttle across the bridge then enter Laos. We need US$ for our visa and Lao Kip for our onward travel and with an exchange rate of 1 Aussie dollar to around 6,500 Kip we become instant millionaires with one visit to the ATM.

Instant Millionaires

Another songthaew takes us to the local bus station where we planned to catch the 12.30 bus to Luang Nam Tha but the time table has changed and we have to wait until 3.30 for the bus. Once again it’s a local bus and we are the only westerners on board. The scenery in the first part of the trip is great, especially when we enter the Nam Ha National Protected Area (NPA). By now we are deep into mountains and it is very steep with few patches of flat land. Villages use those patches and they are filled with a line of huts built close together right beside the road and, if space allows, a second row behind them. We catch glimpses of village life as we drove past, it sure wouldn’t be an easy life out here but they seem to be close communities.

Because the bus left later than we hoped it gets dark all too soon and we miss some of the views we would have liked to see. The distance to Luang Nam Tha isn’t great but the trip is slow with narrow and winding roads through the hills, lots of heavy trucks and lots of potholes and broken tarmac. It’s late when we arrive at the bus station and we’ve booked accommodation at the Tai Dam guest house which is a short distance outside the town centre so we grab some cold snacks and take a songthaew the 10 km to town.

In the morning we wake to delightful views and we’re glad we picked this place to stay. We are only a ten minute walk to the centre of town but we look out onto a rural view. The bungalows are constructed of timber and bamboo and have decks overlooking the low lying land below. Mud walls have been used to form fish ponds and rice fields with plenty of crops around the edges. Paul catches the early morning mist in his photos.

Boiling water is available on the verandah so we have a leisurely cup of tea and then coffee then walk to the local morning market just a few minutes away. There are several places to eat and no signs in English but it seems the main dish available is a noodle soup so we order two. It’s probably the best noodle soup we’ve had, at least since Chiang Mai. It’s fascinating to watch the preparations.

We wander around the colourful market after breakfast taking photos and wondering what some of the unfamiliar foods are.

The main part of town has most of the tourists and restaurants and we stroll around calling into several of the trekking and adventure companies along the main street. We’re keen to get into the NPA and we book a two day trekking and rafting trip to commence the next morning. Our other meals in town aren’t as inspiring as our breakfast. The restaurants seem to have modified the dishes to western tastes but we do find some tasty barbecued duck and pork in the night market, some excellent coffee in a small restaurant and French style baguettes with tasty fillings which make an excellent breakfast before the trek the next day.

Our excursion into the NPA begins next morning with a visit to the local market for supplies for the day and a drive through the country past rice fields.

After the trekking we’re weary and aching and just back in town for the night so we stay in a guest house in the centre of town and book our tickets for a songthaew to the bus station and a local bus for our onward journey.

Chiang Rai International Balloon Fiesta

From the White Temple south of Chiang Rai we travelled with Suzannah and James across country to Singha Park to visit the International Balloon Fiesta. We hadn’t been able to get much information about the Fiesta other than there was an evening event so we had not much idea of when to arrive. We were dropped at the entrance to the park mid afternoon and it’s a huge area so we had quite a long walk but it was delightful with the first section passing through colorful gardens.

By then streams of cars were entering the park and when we finally arrived at the venue for the balloons we found a huge area set up for a concert surrounded by food and other stalls. After wandering around there we headed to the top of a small rise overlooking a lake. A couple of balloons and baskets were on the grass so we settled down on the hillside to wait for the action.

To our absolute delight we found ourselves in the middle of the action. About thirty balloons were brought into the area and as soon they had sufficient space they were spread out onto the grass and inflated, initially with a large fan and then with the gas burner. Ground crew would help keep them in place until they were fully inflated and then, with the pilot on board and keeping gas topped up as necessary they would be dragged and floated to the end of the lake up wind of a series of rafts on the lake. More balloons would then have room to be inflated and follow in due course.

It was all seemed pretty chaotic and we sure wouldn’t be allowed to be that close to all the action in western countries. The pilots were in competition to drop balls or rings into targets on the rafts as they floated over so most of them stayed low and then were dragged back to the starting point for another attempt. Some escaped and floated high above the others, we couldn’t see where they ended up. Others didn’t even make it to the starting point as the balloons were so crowded they couldn’t move.

It was a wonderful spectacle and we took hundreds of photos as we watched with delight. An hour after it started the competition ended and the balloons were deflated. They would be back morning and evening for the next three days so hopefully those that hasn’t been able to get to the starting point would have more luck later. We skipped the concert and headed back to town with Suzannah and James to share an Indian meal, a change from the Thai food we’ve been eating since we arrived in Thailand.

Chiang Rai; The White, The Blue and The Black

On our second day in Chiang Rai Suzannah and James suggested we share a songthaew to visit Wat Rong Kung, better known as the White Temple and then to travel to Singha Park, the site for the annual International Balloon Fiesta.

The White Temple was built by the artist Ajarm Chalermchai who wanted to build the most beautiful temple in the world. It is an amazing spectacle, completely over the top and packed with tourists but still a must see place. Macabre sculptures of demons and other creatures, skulls and outstretched hands represent evil which is left behind when you enter the temple. The temple is white and includes many small mirrors and these represent purity and wisdom. The inside of the temple (no photography allowed unfortunately) is also amazing with beautiful paintings and an enormous Buddha.

Leaving the temple there are more amazing buildings and structures to wander around including a hall which looks as though it belongs on the top tier of a wedding cake and a gold building which is the most amazing toilet block I’ve ever seen.

Adjacent to the temple grounds there is a collection of original art work by Ajarm Chalermchai and it was fascinating, and also far less crowded. He is certainly an extremely talented artist and he was also responsible for the ornate clock tower in town we had dined beside the previous night. Photos of the Balloon Fiesta, and there are lots, are in a separate post.

On our final day in town Paul and I took a tuk tuk for a visit to two other major attractions near the city. The first was Wat Rong Seua Ten, better known as the Blue Temple. It was built by Phuttha Kabkae, a protege of Ajarm Chalermchai. While it’s not as large and glitzy as the White Temple we preferred this one, the blue’s were beautiful, the art-work fascinating, we were allowed to take photos inside the temple, and, much to our relief it was nowhere near as crowded.

From there we went further out of town to Baandam Museum. In Thai ‘baan’ means home our house and ‘dam’ means Black so of course it is simply called the ‘Black House’. It is a collection of buildings scattered around a garden and was created by Thawan Duchanee, an internationally acclaimed Thai artist. It’s another crowded tourist attraction and we filed through the first building and around several others. The buildings and carved wooden decorations are magnificent and interesting and the few art works we saw were also excellent but the collection of animal bones, skins and horns and quite a few of the abstract sculptures were less intriguing.

Perhaps we’d just had too many wonderful experiences in the past couple of days but we cut our visit short and returned to town to continue with our journey.

Chiang Rai City

After our wonderful trip down the river from Tha Ton we spent a busy three days and nights in the city of Chiang Rai. There was plenty to see in town and we took a couple of trips out of town to see some amazing sites. We took so many photos we’ve spread them over three blog posts.

After spending our first night in town in a guest house near Suzannah and James we decided we preferred a more central location and shifted the next morning. On our way to our new guest house we passed the local market. The flower displays were great with lots of flowers, possibly more than usual because it is almost Valentine’s day.

Most of the market stalls are inside a building and there we find fresh produce plus spices, freshly shredded coconut and meat. The meat looks very fresh but not sure how I’d cook the pig’s head.

Chiang Rai is not as attractive as Chiang Mai, it lacks the concentration of old buildings and the laneways we explored in the Chiang Mai ‘old town’. We found a few interesting buildings but also some dank places and the partly finished concrete bus station looks as though work has stalled permanently.

Paul’s iPad needed repair so we went to a huge shopping centre and waited while the repairs were completed. The ground floor had a large supermarket plus a huge food court with a wonderful array of food so it was easy to fill in the time. The oysters, soft shelled crabs and the bugs looked inviting but we chose some of the delicious Thai sausage flavored with coriander, garlic and chili. Sorry, no pictures, we ate it all too quickly.

The night market was much smaller than in Chiang Mai, easier to get around but without the same buzz and atmosphere. Instead of eating there we wandered through the streets to the clock tower and found a small place on the side of the road so we could watch the light show which happens three times each evening.

We joined up with Suzannah and James the next day to share a songthaew 15km south of town to visit Wat Rong Kung, more often simply called the White Temple and later we went to the International Balloon Fiesta. We took so many photos at each of these places they need a blog post each and our visits the next day to the Blue Temple and Black House will be included.

When all our sight seeing in Chiang Rai was complete our friendly tuk tuk driver dropped us off at the bus station, we picked up our luggage and cooled down with a delicious mango smoothie and some coconut and choc chip ice cream and waited for our pick-up for our visit into the country to the ‘Bamboo Nest’.

Mae Salong

Mae Salong Morning Market

Mae Salong sits high in the north west hills of Thailand very close to the border with Burma. It was settled by remnants of the Chinese army escaping after the Chinese civil war and many of the current inhabitants are descended from the Chinese soldiers. It’s only a short songthaew ride from the Mud House at Hloyo and we arrive mid morning, just in time for an excellent coffee from one of the numerous coffee shops in town. This area was in the heart of the ‘Golden Triangle’ and the source of opium but nowadays the hillsides crops are cherry orchards, oranges, delicious coffee and in particular oolong tea.

Mmmm, wonderful coffee in Mae Salong

We are opposite the hill tribe market and we take a look at the multi coloured craft work but space restricts our opportunity to buy. Some of the stall holders are dressed in their traditional Akha clothing and hope we will purchase from them in exchange for taking their photo. Stalls opposite sell dried beans, nuts, spices and much more providing another splash of colour.

The centre of the town is a kilometre or so further along, an easy walk with our backpacks, and it gives us a chance to check out the buildings. We find a guest house with well priced rooms which are spotless, comfortable and have a balcony overlooking the lower part of the town. After settling in we continue our walk along the very quiet main road and find a restaurant for lunch. We fancy some chicken and it is no problem for the restaurant owner to cross the road to a stall barbecuing delicious chickens and include it in our meal.


Wat Santikhiri sits high on the hillside above the town centre. There are 718 steps to the base of the temple and although we climbed higher to the temple above Tha Ton it was spread over many levels and much of the climb was up a track or road so it gave us ample opportunity to rest. We decide we’ve seen lots of temples and will see lots more so we admire this one from afar rather than tackling the steep climb.

Next morning we visit the small morning market. It’s mainly used by locals buying their fresh produce and after a delicious breakfast (more rice soup for me) we wander around taking in the colourful and lively scene.

More wandering around including a return visit to the hill tribe market fills in the rest of the day and we catch another songthaew in the morning to return to Tha Ton to continue our journey.

Tha Ton

Early morning mist in Tha Ton

From Chiang Mai we headed for the hills on a big orange bus. There were a few tourists on board but it was mainly used by locals travelling to the large town of Fang while a few up-country locals and one other westerner were travelling like us to its final destination of Tha Ton. Seats which we thought the right size for two were actually meant for three but we were lucky, or looked too big, and had one to ourselves. Those trying to fit three to a seat often ended up sitting on the edge of a seat or standing in the narrow walkway. Apart from that it was fine with open windows and fans to keep us cool and rural scenery to watch which kept us occupied through the four hour trip.

Tha Ton is a small country town near the border of Thailand and Burma (Myanmar) and is a huge change of pace from Chiang Mai. It has one main road and straddles the Kok River.  We stayed in a comfortable guest house beside the river for a couple nights and soon had our favourite places to visit for our meals and for coffee, revisiting a few of them several times. We loved the atmosphere of the town and the friendliness of the local people. It was a peaceful stay except for the evening Karaoke across the river from our guest house. Paul enjoyed the early morning mist for some atmospheric photography.

Worth a visit is Wat Tha Ton, a temple which stretches up the hill beside the town. It is set over ten levels and we huffed and puffed our way right up to the top. We had plenty of reasons to stop along the way to look at amazing buildings and the statues at various levels as well as the fabulous views to the valleys and river below. We could even see the Thai army emplacement on distant hill tops which looked out over the border with Myanmar. The many coloured temple at the top contained an eclectic collection of statues.

From Tha Ton we headed further into the hills and into the area previously known as the infamous Golden Triangle, the area near the borders of Thailand, Burma and Laos which used to be the major opium trafficking route but is now a great area for tea and coffee.



Beachfront at Kachere Kastle, Lake Malawi

Malawi is a relatively small country, roughly 900km long and between 80km and 150km wide, in comparison with the others we have visited so far. Almost one fifth of the country is covered by the inland sea, Lake Malawi is the focal point for most visitors and there are also highlands in the north and the south which we want to visit. As well as Zambia, the country also has borders with Tanzania and Mozambique. Its a friendly, inexpensive and easy country to travel in so we plan to stay about five or six weeks.

We cross into Malawi from Zambia in the far north west at the tiny border post of Chitipa. The road from Zambia was very rough and slow for the last part of our trip and it is dark by the time we have cleared the border so we’re happy to find a guest house and take a room for the night. It’s basic but clean and has an ensuite and secure parking, pretty good for 5,000 Malawi Kwacha which is about $9.00 Aussie dollars.

In the morning we have an easy drive down from the high country to the town of Karonga on the shores of Lake Malawi. It’s quite a big town and has a bustling and colourful market where we can stock up on wonderful fresh produce.

Alfred and his wife Elizabeth and their three sons and three daughters have built and run Thunduzi Camp on the shores of Lake Malawi in the tiny settlement of Chilumba. The camp is very quiet but the attached bar and restaurant do a good trade and Alfred has plans to make more improvements to the camping and to add additional accommodation. It’s a very pleasant spot and we need a break from travelling so we are soon set up and settled in for the next couple of weeks. Unfortunately I have a bit of a virus and need to spend a fair bit of the first week sleeping and then slowly recuperating but Paul easily fills in his time with his photos and also taking a walk with one of Alfred’s sons through the village to visit the local ‘brewery’ and to meet some of the local people and sample some street food.

During the second week, when I am mostly recovered, we take a drive back up into the high country to the old mission station and colonial town of Livingstonia. To reach it we have a short drive down the main road next to the lake then a steep climb up an unmaintained dirt track. The last ten kilometres takes an hour and we are very glad we didn’t bring the trailer. The town was built on the edge of the plateau west of the lake by Scottish missionaries in the 1890’s because too many people were dying of malaria at the original mission settlements at the lower altitudes beside Lake Malawi. Livingstonia is picturesque with solid stone buildings spread along tree-lined streets and wonderful mountain views in all directions. It is also much cooler up here and it is pleasant to spend a couple of nights tucked under a cosy doona at the Lukwe Permaculture Camp. Paul walks through the permaculture gardens to the nearby Manchewe Falls but I’m content to sit and enjoy the views and complete my recuperation. Or maybe I was just feeling lazy.

After another couple of nights back at Thunduzi its time to move on and we head toward the Nyika Plateau National Park. We stop overnight in Rumphi on our way and find a place to leave our trailer as we are in for another steep drive. While Livingstonia, at 1200m above sea level, is more than 900 metres above the lake, Nyika Plateau is over 2,500m above sea level. Nights are much cooler, with a light dusting of frost on the grass in the mornings, so we need to dig out our cold weather clothing and add a down sleeping bag on top of the doona. Its worth it though with wonderful views and plenty of chances to spot wildlife. At this altitude there are not a lot of native trees, just the remains of a failed pine plantation in one section, and the hills are covered in rolling grassland punctuated by rocky outcrops. There are zebras, reedbucks, eland and other antelope scattered around the hills and pretty bushbucks hang around the camp ground and the lake by the lodge. Leopard have been sighted recently not too far from the lodge but although we try hard we aren’t lucky enough to see them. There are also elephant and buffalo in the park but at this time of the year they head to lower altitudes in a corner of the park which isn’t accessible by car.

After two and a half days spent driving through the glorious country and two nights huddling around the fire while we gaze at the stars we head back to Rumphi for another night and then on to Vwaza Marsh Wildlife Reserve. We are still well above the level of Lake Malawi and the temperatures are mild but the Wildlife Reserve is covered by woodland along with a large lake and river along one edge and a marsh and wetlands forming at the end of the river. The campground is set on the edge of the lake and although the water level is low there is still plenty left for hundreds, or probably thousands, of hippos. We had planned on camping but by some curious vagary in the pricing it is cheaper to stay in one of the pleasant huts which are managed by the local community than it is to camp, the pricing of which is set by the national parks body. We go for a short drive around the edge of the lake and along one of the bush tracks on our first day and plan to go for longer drives later but sitting on the verandah of our hut we gaze out at a passing parade of impala, kudu, puku and elephant as well as the hundreds of hippos at this end of the lake so we pass the next couple of days lazily. A couple of herds of elephant with lots of tiny babies come down to drink not far from the camp and one group walk right through the middle of it, wonderful to experience. As well as being almost submerged in water the hippos spend quite a lot of time out of the water during the day, probably because the temperatures are mild and they need to warm up a little. It gives us a great chance to see the numerous baby hippos and the adults lazing around the shores of the lake. They lie around for hours at a time and then suddenly, for no reason we can see, the whole herd ups and charges into the water. Soon afterwards they start straggling back out of the water. Very funny to watch.

Our next destination is Mzuzu, the largest town in northern Malawi. We found a great range of fresh fruit and vegetables in Karonga but we haven’t seen a supermarket since we left Lusaka in Zambia so supplies are getting low and we are looking forward to stocking up. We also need to extend our entry permit and we find the government offices right across the road from another colourful market, much more fun visiting the market than lining up in the immigration office. The last service of the car was in Cape Town so that is due as well and we find a very pleasant camp just out of town to spend a couple of nights while we do our chores. The owners of the Maconda Camp, Luca and Cecilia, are Italian and, as well as the small campground and some other accommodation, they run a well frequented restaurant. The food is delicious, especially the pasta and pizza, so we skip cooking and dine in style for the two nights we are here.

Luca recommends another camp further south along the lake and so we stop in at Kachere Kastle in Chincheche. Its an amazing place built over the past seven years by Russell and Kate, originally from England but now enjoying living in Malawi. They have paid enormous attention to detail and did all the plumbing and electrical work themselves to ensure quality control, an amazing effort. Paul starts taking photos and drone footage of the place and Russell and Kate are very impressed by the results so we end up trading a video and still photographs for our accommodation which included a very comfortable room plus dinner on the last of our 8 night stay.

We’ve been in Malawi for nearly a month by now and we’re still in the northern section so we need to hurry ourselves up as there are some spots in the south we don’t want to miss. On a recommendation from Luca in Mzuzu, Mua Mission in central Malawi is our next destination. This mission was built at the beginning of the 20th century and has some wonderful old buildings and a large church but our interest is in museum and cultural centre which houses a huge collection of Gule Wamkulu masks, drums and other accoutrements and a series of murals providing huge amounts of information about the daily life and the traditions of the three main cultural groups in the area. These masks are used in “the Great Dance of Malawi” which is now on the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage register. The dance is mainly performed at funerals and memorial services but also at initiations and other celebrations. The masks worn by the dancers on such performances are believed to capture the soul or spirit of the deceased that brings renewed life. The purpose of the dance is said to be a way of communicating messages of the ancestors to the villagers and making possible continued harvests and continued life. Father Claude Boucher, originally from Montreal, has been in Malawi for more than 50 years and has collected hundreds of masks and documented the characters and their stories. Its late afternoon when we arrive so we spend the night in a chalet and plan to spend the morning visiting the cultural centre and gallery and be on our way before lunchtime. Father Boucher invites us to watch a performance which has been arranged for a group and it should commence mid-morning. The group are late arriving, we’ve already had our lunch and the elaborately costumed performers have also had to wait but we are extremely pleased to have this opportunity as we are enchanted by the performance. The costumes, the dancing, the singing, the drumming and particularly the masked characters combine to tell a story and to pass on a message to the audience.

Liwonde National Park on the Shire River is our next destination. It is in southern Malawi so we’ve left the lake behind us now. It’s late when we arrive at our campground, getting dark before we are even set up so we have a slow start in the morning then drive to the entrance of the national park. The fees are double the amount we were expecting and we are not sure that we will see much wildlife in the half a day we would be in the park so we decide to give it a miss and return to camp. The camp ground is hot, dry and dusty but the baobabs at sunset make our two nights here almost worthwhile.

Bushmans Baobabs, Liwonde NP, Malawi

We need to get out of the dust and the heat for a couple of days so we take a detour from our southerly course and drive up to the Zomba Plateau. The trout farm at the top of the small plateau has a grassy area for camping and it’s a lovely spot to sit for a couple of days. Large trees provide shade for the trailer and car but there are plenty of open patches so our solar panels can keep the batteries topped up. Water from the adjacent creek is channelled to the hatchery nearby and we scoop it out by the bucketful to drink and to fill our water tank. Its the clearest and best tasting water we have had for ages. Most has been bore water which is ok for drinking but contains minerals which coat the kettle and thermos, and the ‘treated’ water available in the towns contains chlorine and other chemicals to make it safe to drink. The climate on the plateau is perfect for berry and avocado growing and we feast on strawberries, raspberries and avocados which we buy from the side of the road on our way up. We aim to buy more on our way down. The only thing we are lacking on this trout farm is the trout to eat as they only have the very small fingerlings, maybe they will be bigger in a year.

We could easily linger longer at the trout farm as there are lots of walks and waterfalls in the area but we need to keep moving so we head to Blantyre, the largest city in the south of Malawi and the commercial and industrial capital of the country. We have a couple of places to visit out of Blantyre but it is the hub of the south so we find a secure camp to drop off the trailer and head straight on to Majete National Park. This is further down the Shire River and we stop in a private lodge and campground very near the entrance. Our site is fabulous, right next to a lovely swimming pool which is surrounded by a deck overlooking the river. We had planned to stay two nights but we arrived late so to allow ourselves a full day in the park and a day enjoying the camp we stay a third night. On the day we spend in the park we have a very early start and leave camp before breakfast so we can be at the gate when it opens at 6.00am. There are a network of tracks in the park and we easily fill in the whole day and stay until the late afternoon. The tracks take us along the picturesque Shire River and to two very popular waterholes. This park has probably the highest concentration of animals in Malawi and we see plenty; lots of elephants and hippos, a good variety of buck including a beautiful sable antelope, buffalo, wildebeest and zebra, but unfortunately no lions or leopards.

From Majete we return to Blantyre, replenish the small fridge in the car from the large fridge in the trailer, and drive out to Mt Mulanje. The mountain is a huge mass of granite rising 3,000m above the surrounding plain and it is a very popular destination for hikers. We’re not going to tackle any of the multi day hikes but plan to walk to one of the waterfalls. The first place inside the park we visit to find a place to stay has a group of fifty coming in later that day and all the chalets and rooms are booked so although we could camp we decide to continue looking and the next place is ideal. It is in the lower section of the park but still quite elevated and the temperature has dropped accordingly. We could camp but the lodge has delightful rooms at a very reasonable price so we stay warm and comfortable and enjoy a bit of luxury. Numerous locals offer to guide us to the falls so we agree on a price and set out in the morning. We are able to take the car a fair distance up the track so our walk is halved. Its not a difficult or overly steep walk but we have not done any walking for ages so it is good to stretch our legs and get a bit of exercise as we walk through the bush. It is the dry season so the falls are not roaring but they are still impressive and Paul clambers around the rocks to get different vantage points for his photos. We finish off our visit to Mulanje with a pizza in the town and head back to Blantyre.

As we are approaching Blantyre and the camp where we have left our trailer Paul starts feeling cold although I think it is still quite a mild day. By the time we are in the camping area he is feeling worse and starts shivering uncontrollably. Its an easy self diagnosis of malaria and we hurriedly consider the options. When we were in Mozambique we bought some malaria curative tablets which, if taken promptly, will greatly lessen the severity and length of an attack so Paul takes the first dose while I am checking out the internet for more information on malaria and for the location of doctors or hospitals nearby. As we are in a large city there are several options and I map out a route to a private hospital where I hope we can get quick attention. The curative tablets sure work fast as we are still on our way when Paul stops shaking and doesn’t feel as terrible. Now that we know the tablets are working and a doctor could do little else to help we change our plans and look for a guest house, Paul may be feeling a little better but camping is certainly not an option. I pick one from the guide book which looks easy to get to and drive there to check it out. The room looks ok so I help Paul inside and pile blankets on top of him and he basically sleeps for the next two days. His fever drops as he continues to take the tablets, we are certainly grateful to Barbara and James in Mozambique for their advice about carrying the malaria curative with us.

When I checked out the room I didn’t check the bed and unfortunately it is very hard so as soon as Paul is up and eating again we decide he is well enough for us to move on provided I do the driving and we stay in rooms for the next couple of nights. We finally collect the trailer, very appreciative of being able to leave it there safely and to have had the use of power to keep the fridge running and they don’t even want to charge us anything … Malawi is certainly a friendly and hospitable place. We leave a donation and make our way north to a little place called Dedza. Its on the tourist route because they have a very good pottery and a range of accommodation. We enjoy a very comfortable bed in a delightful room with dinner in the restaurant and a visit to the pottery in the morning. A bit of pampering is certainly a good idea right now.

It is time to leave Malawi so in the morning we take the shortest and easiest route to the border. It bypasses the capital of Lilongwe and we arrive at the border with Zambia by mid afternoon. Its been a delightful country to visit, (its a pity malaria is so prevalent,) the people are friendly and welcoming, accommodation and national park fees are cheaper the surrounding countries, and it has been far quieter and less crowded. The lake is very impressive and the highland areas provided a welcome change in both the geography and the climate, it is certainly a country we would recommend to other travellers.

The Caprivi Strip, Namibia

Hippos in the Okavango River,
Nunda River Lodge,
Caprivi Strip, Namibia

The Caprivi Strip is a narrow band of land in the north east of Namibia stretching more than 400 km east from the north east corner of the main body of the country. At its western end it is only around 40km wide with the Okavango River and Angola as its northern border and the north west corner of Botswana as its southen border. From there it narrows to less than 30km wide and then expands in the centre to follow the course of the Kwando and Linyanti Rivers before tapering out where the Linyanti flows into the Zambezi River. As well as having these large rivers flowing along the edge of or through the Strip this area enjoys a higher rainfall than the rest of Namibia and the vegetation and country is markedly different to the predominantly dry country we have encountered everywhere else in Namibia.

We’re planning on spending the last two weeks of our time in Namibia on the banks of these permanent rivers in the Caprivi Strip but first we have to make a detour. While we were in Etosha our trailer fridge/freezer stopped working. Luckily the freezer was nearly empty and our fruit and vegetables were also low so we managed to keep our food in the far smaller fridge in the Landcruiser but it needs fixing before we leave Namibia. The nearest authorised repair place is in Otjiwarongo which is on the road south from Etosha toward Windhoek. Jared and Jen have a bigger detour to make as they need to travel all the way to Windhoek to get some warranty repairs made to their trailer. We both have time to fill before our appointments so we set out from Etosha at a leisurely pace planning to find a place to stay near Otjiwarongo either tonight or tomorrow.

By mid afternoon we have visited Tsumeb and reached Otavi without finding a suitable camp for the night and we call into the supermarket to buy a few supplies. As we are leaving, Boet, who drove with us up to Marienfluss, greets us. He and his wife Martie live just a few minutes away and he invites us to visit which we do. Afrikaans people are extremely hospitable and before we know it we are camping on their front lawn for the night and Martie is cooking a delicious dinner for us all. We swap stories about our travels since we last saw them and about other travels they have done in southern Africa and have a very enjoyable evening followed by a delicious cooked breakfast, and lots of cups of coffee, in the morning.

Thoroughly fortified we continue south to Otjiwarongo. There’s a camp site in town but it is far from appealing so we decide to try Weavers Rock camp about 30km south of town. Its set up on a hillside with great views, has a pool and a bar and restaurant, good WiFi, and very friendly staff so its easy to decide to stop here. We plan to stay two nights as the repairs are to be completed tomorrow (which is also Paul’s birthday) and Jared and Jen will stay a third night.

Weavers Rock,

In town the next day the repairs are quickly carried out (turns out it was a broken pipe which released all the gas) so we stock up at the supermarket and butchers, and we find two good cafes for our breakfast and lunch. Back at camp we prepare a birthday dinner; Jen makes a delicious eggplant dip for starters and a large pork belly is spiced and slowly cooked on the braai to be accompanied by roast vegetables and our last bottle of good Franschoek wine from the Cape Winelands.

We’ve enjoyed this camp so much that even before dinner Paul and I have decided to extend our stay for an extra couple of nights. Jared and Jen still need to leave as planned so we farewell them and arrange to meet later. After Windhoek they are heading for Khaudum National Park and will be travelling through it on their way to the Caprivi Strip. We have decided not to visit it partly because it is very sandy and we don’t want to tow the trailer through the park and also because we want some rest and relaxation time before we leave Namibia. Paul has loads of photos he wants to work on and I’m way behind on my writing. It’s wise to travel through Khaudum with at least two vehicles so Jared and Jen are meeting up and travelling with Roger and Jenny, the couple we met on our last night in Etosha.

After our four nights at Weavers Rock we start our journey north toward Caprivi. We travel back through Otjiwarongo and Otavi and stop in Tsumeb to have new tyres fitted and then pass through Grootfontein. It’s late afternoon by now but we have a long way to go before we reach the area we want to stay in and we would like to make it there tomorrow so we drive until after dark and stop at a roadside rest area before making an early start and continuing in the morning.

Our early start pays off as, even with a stop in Rundu, we reach the Okavango River and find a lovely camp near the tiny settlement of Divundu. The Nunda River Lodge offers chalets, safari tents and camp sites as well as a great deck over the river, bar and restaurant, swimming pool and ablution blocks which offer extremely hot water supplied by a donkey which is lit each morning and late afternoon and boast a small, well-tended garden in the centre between the toilets and showers. There are only nine camp sites and we aren’t lucky enough to get one right on the river for our first night but they juggle the bookings and we get a fabulous and large river-side site for the remaining nights.

We end up staying a week and a half and enjoy the luxury of a well run camp ground combined with our location right at the end of the camp sites so we can sit on the edge of the river and feel like we are out in the bush on our own. Numerous hippos spend their days nearby and while they move to feed at night they don’t go too far as we can hear them at random times throughout the night as well as all through the day. There are crocs in the river as well but the only ones we see are a couple of youngsters, less than two metres long on the far bank. One day we watch in delight as a herd of elephants stir up the dust as they wander along the river bank opposite our camp. We haven’t crossed the Okavango here so technically we’re on the western bank but the river winds so much we are facing west and can enjoy fabulous sunsets over the water.

As well as the animal life we love the birds around us. Majestic African Fish Eagles call from the tops of nearby trees. Their call seems to symbolise the sound of Africa to me. Pied Kingfishers hover above the river and dive into the water to find their catch. Tiny bee-eaters sit on the branches watching and their dive is for insects flying below them. A White-browed Robin-Chat becomes so accustomed to our presence that as I am peeling apples for stewing it briefly lands in the handle of the pot before the pot tilts and he flies off. Other birds hover and hop around with starlings flashing bright blue.

We drive into Divundu a couple of times. It boasts two supermarkets as well as smaller shops and businesses and of course several shebeens. Fresh produce is scarce but we are fairly well stocked and enjoy what we find to supplement our diet. Another outing is down river to the Mahango National Park. We set out before breakfast and take a slow drive along the river road to a picnic spot. There’s nothing in particular here except a shady clearing above the water and we happily sit here for several hours having breakfast and coffee then reading and relaxing as we listen to the sound of hippos and birds. It’s not a big park and game doesn’t seem abundant but when we think about what we’ve seen it amounts to an impressive tally. The animals include Kudu, Impala, Zebra, Lechwe, Elephant, Buffalo, Warthog, Hippo, Vervet monkeys, Baboons, Ostrich and Sable Antelope. Birds are also plentiful including the pretty Blue Waxbill, Lilac Breasted Roller and Little Bee Eater, the brilliant Crimson Breasted Shrike, the unusual Violet Wood Hoopoe, the ugly Maribou Stork, and the regal Saddle-billed Stork. Paul returns the next day to visit the waterhole in the late afternoon and gets some close up views of elephants and an ostrich drinking, which is quite unusual.

It is just as well we have such a large site as the camp is almost full when Jared and Jen and Roger and Jenny arrive after their Khaudum trip but they are all able to join us on our waterside site. They loved Khaudum with its huge herds of elephants and very remote bushland. They tell us that the trip out of the park was very sandy, and they had to dig themselves out on two occasions. We would certainly have struggled with our trailer and while we may have missed a great park we have really enjoyed our time here beside the Okavango River. Roger and Jenny stay two nights then head south into Botswana. After Botswana they are planning to travel into Zambia so we may cross paths again there. We stay an extra couple of nights so we’ve had a good week and a half of relaxation to ready us for more adventures. Jared and Jen are going to spend another two days on maintenance and paperwork before they also head south into Botswana. We’ve been travelling with them most of the time since we met in Luderitz which was more than two months ago. Our plans for the rest of this year differ but hopefully we’ll catch up somewhere in East Africa next year. They have been great company.

We drive further east through the Caprivi Strip until we cross the next major river, the Kwando. About 30km south along the river we find another wonderful camp along the river bank at Malyo Wilderness Camp. This camp is far less structured but has a different charm. There are a few safari tents but most of the area is grassed with scattered trees providing plenty of shade but also good spots to set up our solar panels. There is no power or potable water here but we are self sufficient and happy with the simple camp. There are very few other campers and we quickly decide we will spend three nights here. Tall reeds cover the opposite bank and birds hop in and out of its shelter. Pied kingfishers are plentiful as are the beeeaters. Both are lovely to watch as they hunt for their food … diving for fish in the water or snatching insects out of the air.

There are two small sections of national park near here and we spend one of our days exploring. We drive through Mudumu Game Reserve and are not hopeful of seeing much game but grazing along the side of the road are Zebras, Warthogs and Impala. A little later Paul spots an elephant approaching the road. He’s very shy and as soon as he sees us stop the car he retreats into the bush. We reverse to give him room and after a pause to gain his courage he approaches the road. Once again as soon as he spots us he turns back into the bushes so we reverse even further to give him more room and finally we are far enough away for him to feel confident he has enough space. He completes his crossing and disappears into the bush on the other side.

Further south we take a side road toward Nkasa Lupala Nature Reserve. This is the bottom section of the Caprivi Strip and the Linyanti Swamp can be very muddy and difficult to travel in during the wet season. It has dried out enough now to allow us to travel through part of the park but there are still large sections which are impassable. We spend several hours driving slowly along rough, ‘two spoor’ tracks but apart from about twenty or thirty vultures circling or perching in trees not far from the road we see very little game. Apart from warthogs that is, they are so numerous we rechristen the park Warthog Park. Finally we are rewarded with some elephants, hippos and an African Fish Eagle perched in a tree just above the track. We may not have seen lots of game but it has been a lovely day and we return to camp ready to move on the next day.

Our final camp is just outside Katima Mulilo on the banks of Zambezi River. This camp is far more manicured than the last two with paved campsites and well maintained lawns and gardens. Once again we are able to set up right on the bank of the river and it is a very pleasant place to spend our last two nights in Namibia. It is three months since we arrived in this wonderful country and we have enjoyed every bit of it. It is a country with great variety; in its geology, climate, vegetation and people. We have met so many friendly people, both locals and fellow travellers, and seen plenty of wonderful animals and birds. From here we head across the border to Zambia and no doubt more great adventures.