Uganda

Dead Dutchmen Falls, Uganda

Dead Dutchman Falls, Uganda

Border crossings are almost always a drawn out affair what with the processing through immigration and customs for the country we are leaving and for the country we are entering, plus any add-ons  for third party insurance and local taxes. In our travels so far we have been able to get our visas at the border without any hassles but the paper work takes time. Visas are usually paid for in US$, which we do carry, but fees for a Temporary Import Permit for the car, or for road taxes, or for any other thing the country decides we need, have to be paid for in local currency. This means we also need to find an ATM or a money changer at the border. To do all this we figure a straightforward crossing is likely to take two hours so we are pleasantly surprised when we get through the Busia border crossing from Kenya into Uganda in less than one and a half hours. Hopefully its a good omen for our visit to Uganda.

We are still travelling with Jared and Jen and for our first night in Uganda we are headed for Jinja, the town on Lake Victoria located at the source of the White Nile. Well actually we are headed for a camp site 15 km down river so we are able to miss the traffic in the centre of Jinja but get stuck in the traffic snarl where the ring road crosses the Nile and roadworks are in progress around the construction site of the big new bridge. 

It is late afternoon when we reach The Haven River Lodge and it is probably one of the nicest camps we have stayed at in Africa. We have grassy sites overlooking the river and rapids, shade for us and sunshine for Jared and Jen … which are our respective preferences. Power and WiFi are available at the camp sites and the very clean showers have plenty of space and hot water. Complimentary glasses of orange juice are delivered to our sites on arrival and if we don’t want to walk the short distance to the bar and restaurant we can ring to have coffee or drinks delivered to us. The views of the Nile and the rapids, Dead Dutchman Falls, are fantastic. Its no wonder we end up staying almost a week.

The sun rises above the hills opposite and early morning is also a good time to watch the fishermen putting their nets into the river above the rapids.

As well as wonderful views of the rapids and the river we also have good views of the Plantain-Eaters which are a large Turaco. A Fish Eagle often perches in a nearby tree and hundreds of egrets roost on the trees above the falls. An inquisitive blue lizard watches us from a nearby tree.

Red-tailed monkeys scamper through the trees, they are a shy animal and don’t approach the camps so our food is not at risk from them. 

We travel into Jinja one day to complete a few chores and to visit the source of the Nile. Unfortunately we picked a Friday and traffic is even thicker and slower than when we arrived in the area. We get our new sim card and buy a few supplies at a supermarket, not as much as we hoped as the choices are very limited. Then we find a Mexican restaurant and Jared and Jen are very pleased with the food and declare it the best Mexican style food they have had since they left the US. 

After lunch we cross the river and drive down to some gardens where we can walk down to a monument to see where the White Nile starts its journey to the Mediterranean. There is some argument as to whether the Nile or the Amazon are the longest rivers but there isn’t much in it. 

Dead Dutchmen Falls, Uganda

The Source of the White Nile, Jinja, Uganda

Finally we decide that, although we would like to stay at the Haven for a while longer, we only have a limited time in Uganda and plenty we want to see so we better move on. We are heading toward Kidepo National Park in the far north east of the country. Its a long trip and we need at least two stops along the way. The first is at Sipi Falls in the foothills of Mt Elgon. We stay at Moses Camp and find level spots with fantastic views over the plains below and with just a few steps to a great view of the falls. Facilities are far more basic but we can still get warm showers as they heat the water then carry it to waterbags in the showers. The staff are very keen to make us comfortable and we relax and our one night stay extends to three before once again we feel we need to cover more territory.

A longer drive the next day gets us to Kotido deep into Karamojaland. This used to be a very dangerous area to travel through but since the people were disarmed in 2011/12 when 40,000 AK-47s were confiscated it has become safe for tourists to travel through. Now it is an interesting drive, reasonable roads for the most part and lots and lots of villages and people. Many of the Karamoja men wear hats with a feather stuck in them and Paul’s Akubra with his collection of feathers gains lot of attention and admiration.

We spend the night at the Karamoja Cultural centre where they have an area available for camping next to a small primary school. There are three young girls near the spot we will camp in when we arrive and they come and introduce themselves with the oldest shaking hands and the two younger girls executing perfect curtseys … wonder where that custom came from.

Its an easy drive next morning to the national park. While park fees are cheaper in Uganda than in Kenya or Tanzania they are by no means cheap. Here we have to pay $US40 per person per day plus $US50 for the vehicle entry so we are limiting our visit to the park to just 24 hours. Luckily the camping fees are cheap at just 15,000 Uganda shillings per person ($AUD5.50).

As we enter the park one of the rangers asks if we’d like to see a Cape Cobra which is a short distance up the track partly in the bushes. We get a reasonable view but then it slides back into the grasses, that’s close enough for me and I’m quite happy not to see any others but I think Paul would have liked a closer look. As we drive toward the main camping area we start to see some wildlife including zebra, buffalo and plenty of Jackson’s hartebeest. We have been driving through so many villages and small farms that it is nice to be back in the bush looking over plains to the mountains beyond. Some of the mountains mark the border with the DRC (Democratic Republic of Congo).

At the main reception we have the choice of camping there or at a bush camp. We always prefer the bush but its also nice to have some amenities and when we find out the bush camp has showers and flushing toilets it makes it an easy choice. We follow a side track toward the bush camp seeing more game along the way and when we reach the camp we are very pleased with the location. It is on the top of a hill with 360 degree views over the valleys and plains.

Kidepo National Park, Uganda

Great Campsite in Kidepo National Park, Uganda

We pick our spots near the top of the hill and Jared and Jen drop off the trailer and we head out for a game drive. Paul has his camera mount on the side of the car ready for more game viewing and we see more of the same animals and also eland, duikers and elephants and Abyssinian Ground Hornbill, a new one for us.

We complete a loop track near our camp then decide to head for another track on the other side of the valley. When the track becomes muddy and appears unlikely to reveal many animals we decide to turn around and head back by another side track. This track shows little sign of recent use and as we go further it gets narrower and narrower and with more and more signs of mud. Before long it is obvious we can’t get through this way but it is too narrow and too wet along the sides to turn around so we have to reverse to the junction of the two tracks and retreat the way we entered the area. Oh well, its far better than getting stuck.

We head out for another game drive in the morning with high hopes of spotting some lions but no such luck, we have to make do with more of the same animals and beautiful views as yesterday, not such a bad thing at all. After an early lunch we need to make tracks for the park exit to ensure that we are out within our 24 hours. 

Paul’s cold has eased a bit but he now has a tummy bug so its a short days drive and we stop for the night at a guest house and small camping area not very far from the southern gate of the park. Next day we have a longish drive across the north west area of Uganda to a camp site just north of the Murchison Falls National Park. By now Jared, Jen and I are all starting to feel the effects of the dreaded cold so we have a rest day the following day before entering the park. Its a very pleasant place to spend our down time with extremely friendly staff, good facilities and giraffe and cob (a type of antelope) wandering through the property.

Once again we will only be in this national park for 24 hours and the main attraction we are here to see is the waterfall so we book a place on the afternoon boat trip and head south toward the river. Its a good drive with interesting scenery and game scattered along the way and there are plenty of tracks we could explore but we have just enough time to drive slowly to the river where we have lunch while waiting for our boat trip.

Huge baboons wander through the busy picnic area where people are either waiting for the next vehicle ferry to take them across the Nile or have just arrived from the south side on the last ferry before their lunch break. The baboons are big and confident, they rummage through rubbish bins and one hops into the open top of a safari vehicle and finds a banana before being chased out. They can be vicious and are very strong, I would not be at all keen on getting too close to one or trying to chase it away if it didn’t want to leave.

Our boat trip is on a two level open boat and although it is nearly full with people who have boarded on the other side of the river we manage to get some good seats at the front of the top so we have great views going up river. Its not long before we are seeing wildlife along the banks. The giraffe here are a much darker variety and the older they get the darker they become.

Hippos and crocs share the river and its banks and buffalo and waterbuck graze on the green grass.

There are scores of Pied King-fishers hovering above the river, there must be abundant fish, and darters rest on the branches after their morning fishing.

Murchison Falls, also known as Kabalega Falls, is not the highest or widest of falls but it is spectacular. Above the falls the Nile is 50 metres wide and it is then squeezed through a 6 metre gap in the rocks and it crashes through the narrow gorge with unbelievable power. Our boat stops a safe distance away where we are sheltered from the strong current by a small island so we can get some good views of the falls before we turn and return to the ferry crossing with more crocs, hippos and other animals being seen along the way.

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Murchison Falls, Uganda

When we get back to our vehicles we are lucky to get on to the vehicle ferry to cross the river with very little delay as we are all weary after the day’s activities and I for one am still suffering the effects of the nasty cold. We make our way to our campsite which is downstream on the banks of the river and all happily elect to eat in the restaurant rather than cook our meals. It is a delicious four course meal and a very pleasant end to the day.

In the morning we head south to Masindi then south west to the town of Hoima. This side of the country is heavily populated and there are lots of roadworks so the trip takes most of the day. We find a space to stay overnight and then plan our future travels. My cold is not getting better and Paul is also not 100% so we decide to stay in a BnB until we are completely recovered so we can enjoy our travels. Fort Portal is a town further south in the direction we want to go so we book a place in that area but about ten kilometres out of town in the countryside so we can recuperate in peace. Jared and Jen are travelling south when they leave Uganda and they want to visit Kampala so they turn east from Hoima toward the country’s capital. They will meet us in Fort Portal in about four days time.

Our drive toward Fort Portal takes us along more country roads ranging from narrow dirt roads to wide busy roads. Once again there are lots of road works and we decide Uganda probably has the most and biggest speed humps in Africa. Shortly before Fort Portal we leave the main road to reach our destination passing though the middle of tea plantations along the way. Our BnB is basic but very suitable for our needs. We are 11km from Fort Portal so we can pop in there if we need to but we are in a very quiet location just outside the tiny village of Kasiisi.

Our initial booking was for five nights but we extend several times and eventually stay for nine nights. Jared and Jen join us for three nights and leave one day earlier than we do. We make a couple of trips into Fort Portal to visit the small supermarket and have a look around. An excellent find is the Duchess Restaurant which not only serves nice food in a pleasant setting but also sells bread and cakes baked on the premises, cured meats including salami and chorizo, a range of locally made cheeses and also yoghurt.

When we are both feeling fully recovered and we are finally ready to move on we begin our trip with a visit to the market and a third visit to the Duchess for more goodies. While we are in town we get a message that Paul’s Mum is unwell and in hospital. Initially we are not sure whether to make the trip to Johannesburg and, if so, whether we should drive or fly. While we are waiting to hear more detail we continue south toward Queen Elizabeth National Park. When we get more news later in the day we decide to fly to Jo’burg. By now the quickest way is to continue a little further south then cross from the west of the country to the east via Mbara to Masala then up the highway to the airport at Entebbe which is south of the capital of Kampala. We overnight in Masala and continue on early in the morning.

When we entered Uganda we got a 3 month visa but just a one month Temporary Import Permit for the car which we need to extend because it will expire in a few days. After several attempts to find out where and when we can extend it we finally reach somebody on the telephone who advises that the office in Kampala is open today until 6.00pm so we decide to get that sorted so we can fly out very early the next morning.

The trip is smooth until we approach the outskirts of Kampala when we begin to strike some heavy patches of traffic.

It then eases again until we pass through the centre of the city and then it becomes totally chaotic. There are cars, motorbikes and people moving very slowly in one gigantic snarl.

It looks as though we will arrive at the Customs office at lunchtime so we decide to have some lunch first but when we arrive at the office at 2.00pm we find that they have just closed.

This could be a huge problem for us. We could be up for a sizeable fine when we try to take the car out of Uganda with an expired TIP. After wandering around and speaking to a few people the head security officer approaches us and he goes out of his way to help us after we tell him why we have to fly to South Africa. He gives us a photocopy of our Temporary Import Permit and takes the renewal fee off us, promising to get the thirty day renewal of the TIP processed while we are away. We can get the official paperwork when we come back from South Africa and we promise to be away no more than two weeks. It helps that he has a relative living in Australia.

Everywhere we have travelled we have found almost all the people to be friendly and helpful but here in in Uganda they have, if anything, been even more welcoming and helpful than elsewhere.

We drive south to Entebbe and to a hotel near the airport. Once again the people are very helpful and are happy for us to leave our car in their secure carpark while we are in South Africa and also to plug it into power for no charge. On top of that they provide a free airport shuttle so we can easily catch our 3.50am flight to Johannesburg via Nairobi.

We are in South Africa for a week and a half. Paul’s Mum is in hospital for most of that time but returns home a few days before we are due to leave. Since she has been home she has begun to improve and she is doing better now.

Unfortunately while we are in Johannesburg I receive news that my mother is not well so I make arrangements to return to Australia, leaving South Africa a day before Paul is due to leave. He has to return to collect the car from the hotel in Entebbe, collect the new TIP and travel to Nairobi to get our freezer fixed so we can continue our travels later.

Although our visit to Uganda ended rather abruptly, with a two day dash from the western region to Kampala and Entebbe, we have loved the people and been amazed by the diversity and fertility of the country. Massive rivers, lakes and wetlands as well as mountain ranges, forests and savannahs in the north. If you have a chance to go there then do so. It is a beautiful country.

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North Eastern Tanzania

Tanzania

Traditional Boat Building at Peponi on the Swahili Coast in North Tanzania

Leaving Dar Es Salaam we continue travelling along the Swahili coast. On our first out we are aiming to take a quick look at the town of Bagamoyo then take the road through the Saadani National Park stopping either in or at the top of the park or a little further along at Ushongo before we reach the Pangani River and then Tanga.

Bagamoyo was once an important trading town, the main trade being in slaves. The name ‘Bagamoyo’ means ‘Lay Down Your Heart’ because this is where the caravans reached the coast and the slaves were shipped out to Kilwa, Zanzibar and points more distant. In the late 19th and early 20th century it became the capital of German East Africa. The road along the front of the town is narrow and lined with crumbling colonial buildings and while we aren’t ready to stop for the night we figure it is a good spot to stop for a wander and a morning break. Unfortunately there are admission fees for almost everything including wandering along the street taking photos. Paul manages a couple of quick photos but then we are politely pointed in the direction of the Antiquities Office to pay our fees. Instead we settle for a soft drink across the road at the Firefly restaurant and camp where we admire the restoration of the old building and the simple but colourful decor.

Further north along the main road we take the turn off to the southern entrance of the Sadaani National Park. The dirt road starts off fairly narrow but OK then, after about ten kilometres, we strike a couple of patches of mud which we negotiate without any problems. The next patch of mud we see is much bigger and while we are considering if we want to tackle it a few locals pass by. They assure us we can make it the next village but are unable to provide any information on the track further ahead. With memories of getting stuck in the mud in Mozambique and taking note of the scarcity of other vehicles to help us out if we have a major problem we decide not to risk it and head back to the highway.

Our detour and the need to travel further inland has added a lot of kilometres to our journey and we can’t make it back to the coast the same day. We don’t find a suitable spot to free camp and the only campsite we can find is at the back of the local hotel in Segera at the intersection of the road we need to take to Tanga. Its not much more than a clear area under trees with access to a smelly toilet but its fairly quiet and off the road so its good enough for the night.

After a pleasant and easy drive east to Tanga we take a drive around the town past the port and along the sea front where there are the remains of a few old colonial buildings. South of Tanga on the banks of the Pangani River is the small town of Pangani. We had planned to stay south of the river but have had good reviews of Peponi which is north of the river and easier to get to so we decide to try it. It is right on the beach and the facilities and staff are very good so we decide there is no need to venture further. After the first night we get the prime camping site, right beside the beach and under a large tree and we happily stay six nights. Local fishermen walking past on the beach offer plenty of fresh seafood and we are happy to have a feed of fish one evening.

Once again the reef comes right into the coast and extends out a good distance so there is some interesting walking to be done on the reef at low tide but its not good for swimming. The resort swimming pool fixes that issue though and our days pass easily watching the activities on the reef  and along the beach front and catching up on some reading and writing. Paul is particularly interested in watching the locals building their boats by hand using age old tools and techniques.

When we are ready to move on we ask about the condition of the tracks heading across country to the highway so we can avoid the need to go back through Tanga. We are assured they are OK now and have dried out enough for us to get through. The report was right, sort of, as we reached a section of track which was far to wet, soft and deep for any vehicle to get through but were able to take a fairly long detour through an orchard and open patches of bush and eventually return to the main track. Most of the time we are following two sets of wheel tracks but then we lose one of them and make our way along an area usually only used for motor cyclists and walkers.

Back on the highway we venture west through small villages and larger towns until we reach Mombo. Here we turn off the highway to drive into the Western Usambara Mountains. The paved road winds and climbs into the mountains providing lots of great views along the way.

Tanzania

Waterfall on the way to Lushoto in the Usambara Mountains

We reach Lushoto, in the heart of lush valleys and take a dirt track five kilometres to Irente Farm and Bio-diversity Reserve who offer camping and other accommodation as well as selling their own delicious rye bread and cheeses. The temperature has plummeted since we left the coast and climbed to around 1400m but the staff light a fire for us in the lounge area in the evening and we decide to stay a second night. Walking is the major tourist activity around here with walks ranging from a few muddy kilometres to a waterfall or an easier walk of several kilometres to a view point through to multi-day hikes staying in local villages but I’m afraid we don’t even manage the easy walk but enjoy the peace and quiet and absence of humidity and the views from the deck in front of the lounge and restaurant. Returning to the highway at Mombo we decide to try and return to this area when the roads are drier. There are lots of places to explore and they would be much more accessible in the dry season.

Our next target is the Mt Kiliminjaro area. At this time of the year sightings of the mountains can be difficult as it is often shrouded in clouds. Moshi is the major town in the area but we haven’t heard or read about anywhere good to camp so decide to head up the eastern side of the mountain to camp and to just visit Moshi on a day trip to stock up our supplies and to arrange car insurance for Kenya. Marangu Hotel offers camping as well as a restaurant and bar and we are after a nice meal for my birthday dinner. The camping area looks OK and there is no-one else in it so it should be quiet and although the dining room doesn’t offer what we want we can get a light meal in the bar which has a good atmosphere. Now we just want the clouds to lift and to be able to have our sundowner with a great view of the mountain but Kili doesn’t ‘lift her skirts’ for us so we settle for watching a local couple have their wedding photos taken in the lush garden.

By the time we return to our camp site an Overlanding truck with about 30 passengers has arrived and while most of them retire to their tents at a reasonable hour, a small group stay up until about 2.30 am and as their alcohol consumption continues their voices rise even higher. They are staying a second night so we decide to find a new spot to camp after we return from our day trip to Moshi.

Moshi is a big place and not all that attractive but we manage to get most of the supplies we are after and to arrange COMESA third party insurance which will cover us for all of East Africa. We are glad to get out of the town and return to the peace and quiet of the Marangu area. Our next camp is quite a bit higher up the mountain at Coffee Tree Camp and it is delightful. We are the only people staying in the manicured gardens and as well as a lovely spot to camp on the lush green grass we have the option of staying in a rondavel with an ensuite for just $2 USD more. Easy choice given the cold and sometimes drizzly conditions and with the extra bonus of providing Paul with a space to set up his big computer and work on some of his photographs.

There is a kitchen area with a place to build a fire for cooking and a table and chairs for dining and we are parked right next to it so food preparation is simple. The weather sets in and the rain increases and temperatures drop so we are very happy to be sleeping and spending our days inside. We are now at more than 1600 metres elevation and even though we get some patches of sunshine the mountain above us is continually shrouded.

Each morning we extend our stay by yet another day until we run out of time to stay with our TIP (temporary import permit for the car) expiring. It is time for us to continue our journey up the east side of the mountain to the border crossing into Kenya at Loitokitok and onward to more adventures.

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!

 

 

A Ride in a Long-Tail Boat

Our trip in a long-tail boat from The Ton to Chiang Rai, Thailand

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After two coffees each in the bakery in Mae Salong we stand on the street waiting for the first yellow songthaew of the day to take us down to Tha Ton in time to catch the 12:30pm boat to Chiang Rai.

To our slight consternation the yellow songthaew never arrives. Eventually a green songthaew stops and we decide to take that part way down the road, knowing we will have to switch to a yellow one later. Twenty minutes down the road we stop to pick up James and Suzannah, a couple from Gympie, Australia, who we had first met just as we were leaving the Akha Mud House in Hloyo. Our travel plans for the next few days roughly matched and we agreed that travelling together to Chiang Rai would give us the minimum of four people required for the ‘once-a-day’ public boat so we made our plans.

After a brief pause for James and Suzannah to clamber aboard we continue down the road. Ten minutes later we reach the little ‘bus station’ at the next intersection and are pleased to see a yellow songthaew waiting which will mean we can continue our journey to Tha Ton with very little delay. It isn’t long before we are there. We enjoy the short walk across the bridge and along the river to the waiting boats.

After some discussion about the merits of taking the public boat or hiring one which will make a few stops on the way down river we opt for the private hire. As luck would have it a young Italian couple stroll up at that point and they are quickly inveigled into joining us by James, which gives us all a slightly less expensive ticket, plus the few stops along the way and a chance to meet someone new. After a quick coffee we are back to board the boat and we are on our way. As we leave we pass the Guest House where we stayed in The Ton

To begin with the river takes broad turns through the fertile plains just south of Tha Ton. We see many different types of crops as we pass by the irrigated fields including maize, sugar cane, and rice. In places the river is gradually eroding the banks and in others it is depositing tons of sand. In a few spots there are dredges at work to keep the river navigable and to collect sand for building. Even so, some parts of the river are obviously pretty shallow. The chap steering the boat does a great job of sticking to the deeper channels … albeit with just one eye! In the shallower stretches he has to lift the propeller out of the water and we glide over the sandy bottom. With seven of us in the boat, plus luggage, the water is only inches from the top of the gunwales.

Up ahead we can see that the river is going to pass between a range of hills. It isn’t long before we reach the first hills and the river narrows and we are making our way between rock-lined passages. The scenery is great and the jungle comes right down to the water’s edge. Our redoubtable captain now has the challenge of steering his way through several small rapids and rougher water. Sitting in the front as we are we cop a soaking a few times. But it’s a warm day and this is great fun.

We are still within the range of hills when we make our first stop at a village and we can stretch our legs.

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Some of the scenes along the Kok River

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Our second stop is at a national park and we take a small walk to see the hot springs (56 degrees Centigrade).

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As we make our way down the river we enjoy the scenery and the sights.

Our last stop enroute is for a very tasty lunch in a small town not far north of Chiang Rai.

We are surprised when we are dropped off just short of Chiang Rai and there is a songthaew waiting to take us into the city. We had expected to be dropped much closer but we go along with it and after dropping the Italian couple at the bus station we are soon at the place where James and Suzannah are staying. There is no room for us but we quickly find something nearby but our room won’t be ready for thirty minutes. We head back to meet James and Suzannah and have a beer with them and make arrangements to meet for dinner.

James and Suzannah are great travellers as well and you can follow them on their Facebook Page and Blog

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Our thoughts now are that we will move to a place slightly closer to the city centre tomorrow and then figure out what we would like to see in Chiang Rai.

Across  Mozambique 

A journey through the Mozambican bush.

Baobabs on the Track, Mozambique

Baobabs on the Track, Mozambique

It’s a warm and humid morning on the shores of the Indian Ocean in Mozambique. We are sitting under some shade trees drinking coffee while we are using the free wifi at the very pleasant, but strangely named, Kilimanjaro Cafe in the small town of Vilanculos. We got into town in the late afternoon yesterday after two long days of driving across Mozambique from South Africa. Sitting in this very pleasant place drinking decent coffee it’s a good time to reflect on our journey into Mozambique. So let’s rewind to the start two days ago …

We leave our camp at Punda Maria in the Kruger National Park in South Africa and from there we drive north to the Pafuri picnic site and have our mid-morning coffee. While we sit at a rough wooden table under some massive fig trees we enjoy watching a large herd of Cape Buffalo browsing and drinking along the banks of the slowly flowing river below us. Throw in a couple of warthog, some kudu and you have the scene. After coffee we organise ourselves for the border crossing into Mozambique … money for visas, passports, third party insurance, truck and trailer registration documents, etc. After putting a required sticker on the back of the trailer we head the short distance east to the Mozambique border. The South African formalities are a breeze. Then we pass through a boom gate and, so it seems, a time warp into a scene from a spaghetti western. We enter a derelict town with wide dusty streets, faded signs in Portuguese and a few remaining intact block buildings with faded white and grey, pock-marked render. A couple of armed soldiers direct us to park outside the customs building and we walk across the street to the immigration office.

The elderly chap in the immigration office is helpful and cheerfully accepts our money, quite a bit more than we had expected, for a thirty day visa after we fill out the requisite forms. While we are doing this we chat to a South African bloke going the other way. He tells us he is running a farm near Mabote, which is on our route, and he gives us some tips on finding the right onward track at a couple of towns and also what to expect across the street when we front up to the customs officers.

We recross the dusty square to the long, rectangular customs building and are directed up a short flight of stairs into the front office with a long wooden counter. Behind the counter is one, somewhat rotund, customs officer in a smart blue and white uniform. He doesn’t say anything, just places some forms on the counter in front of us to complete and sign. It takes us a little while as we have to find and enter the correct identification numbers for the car and trailer as well as our personal details. We are expecting this chap to quiz us and I have 100 Rand in my pocket in case we need to smooth the way, but all he does is to take the completed forms and wave us away.
Back outside we head for the Landcruiser and are quickly intercepted by two young uniformed soldiers. Now it is their turn. They explain that they want to search the whole vehicle for illegal goods. We smile and agree, they can look at whatever they want. But this is not the answer they want and they quickly lose interest.

A third soldier wanders over and he does speak a little better English. He asks us to open the back of the trailer and we show him the kitchen but there is nothing there that interests him. He spots the cool box on the back seat and asks if we have any beer or cold drinks. Unfortunately for him all we have in there are several bottles of water. Eventually he starts to lose interest and asks us if we have purchased our temporary license. We tell him we don’t need one as we have our international driver’s licenses but he insists that we must pay R100.

He leads us back to a large, open-sided concrete shelter which the soldiers are using to stay out of the sun. Sitting on the ground a little further towards the back is an African woman with a child. He takes us up to her, says a few words to her and tells us we must pay her R100. We ask if we can get a receipt and he says, yes, yes. A few more words to the woman and she pulls out a large receipt book replete with carbon paper and she starts to fill it in. We shrug our shoulders, pay the money and accept the receipt. We are free to continue our journey.

From the border post we follow a fairly well-formed dirt track heading south through the ecological buffer zone that runs down the eastern border of the Limpopo National Park. Our farmer friend told us to follow the graded road on this part of the trip down to Mapai. We find enough graded sections to assure us that we are on the right road and we are also using an App on my iPad called Tracks4Africa to navigate.

Graded Road to Mapai, Mozambique

Graded Road to Mapai, Mozambique

It’s still tricky when the track branches unexpectedly and we end up on a smaller and narrower parallel track which takes us through a wonderful forest of fever trees.

Fever Tree Forest, Mozambique

Fever Tree Forest, Mozambique

Fever trees are a type of thorn tree which grow fairly tall and have the typical spread and flattened top. The trunks, branches and leaves are all a beautiful light green color which contrasts with the reddish dirt and the blue sky. I think they are called fever trees because if you sleep under them you wake with a fever, possibly malaria. They look so inviting but watch out for those thorns though!

The narrow track rejoins the graded road and we are soon driving through a string of small villages. The Limpopo River is away in the middle distance on our left for this part of the trip and we will cross it when we eventually turn east to the town of Mapai. The course of the river is discernable by the taller trees and thicker, green bush but everything is dry and grey to our right. The villages in this area are quite small and only a few kilometres apart. Cooking pots are hanging on raised wooden racks made from bush wood, or on nails in single posts. The huts are mainly round and roughly thatched and some are raised on stilts. The village centres tend to be under the biggest shadiest trees where the villagers sit on stumps or wooden logs. We see almost no signs of anything for sale in these villages and no cars. They are several days walk from any town.

Mozambican Village

Mozambican Village


Mozambiquan Village

Mozambican Village

Our progress is slow and steady, we are averaging around 40km per hour but often having to slow to half that speed for rougher patches in the road. We reach an intersection in the early afternoon. To the east is the town of Mapai and to the south west is the Mapai camp site in the Limpopo National Park which we had thought we might stop at for one or two nights. But it is still fairly early and very hot so we decide to continue heading east.

We aren’t sure how long it will take us to reach the coast and our farmer friend had told us that GPS systems aren’t much use out in the bush here. He also told us that when we leave Mapai we need to find a sandy track that follows a line of green, treated timber power poles and to follow those all the way to Machaila and then to Mabote. But we still need to get to Mapai first and it is on the other side of the Limpopo River.
From the intersection we head east. This close to the river, and this close to a town there isn’t really any space between the villages so we are driving casually down the road trying to match the snatches of directions we have been given with the road in front of us. In the main we choose to follow the one that looks most used.

Eventually we come to a stretch of road, well not so much of a road as something that looks like a deep bed of churned up river sand. We are pretty sure this is the way to Mapai so I change to first gear in low range and keeping the revs up we head across the sandy bed. It’s about 150 metres to some solid ground on the other side and we have our fingers crossed that we don’t slow down because, with the weight of the trailer, we are unlikely to be able to get going again. We did drop the tyre pressures when we started which helps a lot and we manage to make it to the other side with thick billows of fine black dust enveloping the trailer and car. Then, as we follow the road, we see a boom across the road and some guys sitting around under a tree. Is this the right way?

We stop and look at our maps, and then figure we might as well ask someone. As we draw closer to the boom we see a rough sign which says something about an Immigration border and quotes a fee of R100 per vehicle (which is about 10 Australian Dollars) or 300Mt in local currency. The whole thing looks distinctly fishy! As we stop at the boom one of the guys comes up to us and says what a terrible bit of road that was. They would have heard and seen us approaching from their seats under the tree. Based on what we hear later I wouldn’t be surprised if the road was left that way so they could make some extra cash extracting vehicles from the sand.

We can’t see any alternative to paying something to these guys but R100 is a bit rich so I pull out my wallet and take all my Rands out which comes to about R50. This is all I have I say. Not enough he says. Eventually, after some remonstrations on our part, we start fishing out some coins so we get enough together to keep him happy. We wait for our ‘official receipt’ and we are free to move along.

Pretty soon we can see some boats lying high and dry on the sand so we figure we are getting closer to the Limpopo River. The track is great, no soft sand to worry about here! We cross a narrow stretch of shallow water with a rocky bottom and that’s it! We have crossed the “great, grey, greasy Limpopo River” and we only have a few more kilometres until we get to Mapai.

Banks of the Limpopo River, Mozambique

Banks of the Limpopo River, Mozambique

When we reach the intersection with the north-south tar road we find a petrol station which we didn’t expect so we take the opportunity to fill our tank even though we are carrying plenty of fuel. The town of Mapai is just a few kilometres north. We also spot a sign pointing the way to the next village of Machaila and lo and behold there is a line of green, timber power poles running alongside the track.

Gravel Road, Mozambique

Gravel Road, Mozambique

Our maps show that the road to Machaila is a narrow sandy, two wheel track. From where we are standing the start of the track looks much wider and well-formed, but that may change of course as we get further from town. We decide to keep moving east. We will be heading away from any rivers and we assume that there will be fewer villages so if we can’t make it to Machaila we may be able to spend the night on the side of the road.

It soon becomes apparent that our maps are out of date. The sandy track is being upgraded to a gravel road. It is tricky driving though as the road has not been properly leveled and we have to concentrate. Many of the culverts are still being constructed. Again our speed is no more than 40km per hour and typically slower. Very occasionally we might have a short run at 50km per hour.

It doesn’t take long before we realise that this country is very, very dry and is experiencing the full impact of the long drought that has affected so much of southern Africa. The villages are a bit further apart and there aren’t as many large shady trees. As we travel parallel with the power line we realise that this is probably one of the few bits of modern technology that connects the villages in this part of the country. We start to see firewood and large bags of charcoal for sale on the side of the road, but we don’t see any crops at all. One of the most common activities in the villages is the drawing and fetching of water from nearby wells. The women carry the plastic containers of water on their heads with no discernable strain even though they must weigh around 20kg.

Water carrier, Mozambican Village

Water carrier, Mozambican Village


Village, Mozambique

Village, Mozambique

Our progress is steady and we can see that we will probably reach Machaila after dark so we start looking for a place on the side of the road, or a village where we might ask permission to camp. From one of our maps we know that there is probably a camp site near Machaila that one of the villages has set up and we hope that it is still there. For some reason we don’t see anywhere that attracts us and we reach Machaila just after dark.

It is Saturday night and there seem to be quite a few people around and about. Some of the lighted buildings look like bars and eating houses. We are tired and the air is still very warm so we don’t feel inclined to tackle a town full of people in party mode. Heading south east we turn onto the track to the next town, Mabote. This is definitely a two wheel, sandy track and the camp site is supposedly located just a few kilometres along it.

In the dark we do the best we can to try and spot the camp site. When we are sure we are close I get out of the car. There are two side tracks that are possibilities. I spot a young girl walking towards me from one of the tracks and I ask her about the camping. Luckily the Portuguese word for camping is similar and she seems to understand me. She points back down the track she has just emerged from and I ask her to show me. We walk a short distance and she points further into the bush where I can see a small building, roughly constructed from local timbers. There is a cleared space near the building that looks perfect. We have found the camp site!

As we walk back to the road I hear sounds of other people through the bush. The other side track must lead to a village that is very close by. Then a voice from that direction calls out and the young girl answers. Somebody else has heard us and wants to know what is going on. There is a brief conversation called out in the dark through the bush, just as though we were merely in the next room.

Camp Site, Machaila, Mozambique

Camp Site, Machaila, Mozambique

Back at the car I describe the place to Julie and we head down the track to the building and then get out to decide where to park the trailer so we can leave most easily in the morning. The young girl reappears and says no, we must go further down the track and deeper into the bush. So we go a little further and find a larger space with a bush shower and long drop toilet. This is even better!

Camp Site, Machaila, Mozambique

Camp Site, Machaila, Mozambique


Camp Site, Machaila, Mozambique

Camp Site, Machaila, Mozambique


Camp Site, Machaila, Mozambique

Camp Site, Machaila, Mozambique


Long Drop, Camp Site, Machaila, Mozambique

Long Drop, Camp Site, Machaila, Mozambique

As the space is dotted with trees we have to unhook the trailer and turn it around ourselves then hook it up again. We are tired so we set up the roof top tent on the car instead of opening up the trailer. Much easier even though we haven’t done it many times before, and not for a while. After a quick dinner we are lying in bed looking at the stars and there is a slight breeze which is very welcome. The air is still very warm and dry.

After a while we start to hear singing. It sounds like a group of kids being led by a few adults. The rhythm and tones are distinctly African and we have smiles on our faces as we fall asleep.

We are up just after sunrise the next morning and sitting enjoying our coffee in the cooler air when the young girl returns and presents us with a visitors book to fill in. We can see the rate from the previous entries and after we pay she gives us a receipt. Very organised and we have been left to ourselves although it would have been great to hear some more singing. Fairly soon afterwards we pack up and head out, turning east towards Mabote which we expect will be a bigger town.

Sandy Track near Machaila, Mozambique

Sandy Track near Machaila, Mozambique

Now this is the kind of bush track we have been expecting. We are still following the power lines and treated timber poles but the track is sandy and has just two wheel ruts so if we meet a car coming the other way one or both of us are going to be heading into the bush. I don’t think we saw another vehicle the whole time though. And no villages or very few until we reach the shores of a lake which we don’t see because of the thick growth of dry reeds. There is obviously very little water but the dry reeds are thick and the road turns north to a causeway which crosses a narrow neck in the top of the lake. As we turn north the road ‘improves’. This section seems to have been upgraded some time ago. We preferred the sandy track though. It was actually smoother and we could keep a constant speed, albeit a little slower.

Not long after we cross the causeway we reach Mabote, a dusty town with block buildings lining a main street. We drive around the block and turn up the main street towards the buildings. There are a few side roads but almost all activity seems to happening here. It’s around lunch time so I suggest buying something and I park outside a place with a promising sign ‘Snack Bar’. It’s all promise though as all they have is a single fridge with a couple of dozen Coca Colas. When I explain that I am looking for some food a young chap takes me down the road to a place that has a few more people and is serving food and beers. After I figure out that ‘frangos’ means chicken I choose something from the menu, but I have no idea how it will be cooked. When I add that I want it to take away I have to pay a bit more to cover the cost of the polystyrene container. It takes some time, but eventually I am back at the car and we head out. The chicken comes with rice and some salad. Not great but it keeps us going.

We pass through several villages where they seem to have concentrated on producing charcoal and we see many spots with dozens of large bags of charcoal for sale. I’m guessing that there will be trucks that pick them up to take to the bigger population centres on the coast where there is less wood around.

Drought Conditions, Mozambique

Drought Conditions, Mozambique


Mozambican Village

Mozambican Village

The gravel road is now quite wide and a bit smoother and a couple of hours later we reach the main north south highway through Mozambique, the EN1. We turn north and head for Vilanculos where we are pretty sure we should find a much bigger town and a place to stay by the sea.

It’s not long until we turn east again and it’s only about 15 more kilometres to the town. There are many more people now and the traditional villages have almost given way to block buildings and also small houses made from corrugated iron. Wow! They must be hot inside during summer. There’s much more for sale alongside the road now including fruit and vegetables. With the numerous mobile phone towers along the highway there are also plenty of buildings painted with the red and white of Vodacom, a major telephone company in Africa.

The first thing we do when we get to town is to find an ATM so we can get some local currency. At the second bank we have success so we start exploring the town looking out for the local camp grounds which we have read about. It’s Sunday afternoon and the town is quite busy, especially along the beach front. The road is dusty and narrow, and with so many people and vehicles we find it quite tricky to negotiate. This is not our thing so we head south of town looking for a place which, on paper, looks much more inviting. We drive through a lovely little suburb near the airport with a mix of traditional huts and concrete block buildings. The sandy yards are all neatly swept and lined with heavily trimmed bushes and trees. It has a nice feel to it.
South of the airport we get to the place we are looking for. It has a good looking beach, a huge swimming pool and a camping area, but the pool is empty and the place is closed. They have run out of water!

It’s getting late and there’s nothing for it but to head back to a place we saw earlier beside a lagoon just west of town. It’s not near the beach and it’s not somewhere we will be staying at for more than one night. We get there to find that the camp ground is closed and the only person there is a guard. He is very friendly and shows us a couple of chalets, one of which overlooks the lagoon. It also has an air conditioner, a mosquito net above the bed and, most importantly, a hot shower! We ask how much and are somewhat perplexed when he quotes a price in the millions! We have only just been to the ATM but we didn’t get that much. It is only after we ask him to write the amount in the sand that we understand he means ‘thousands’. Some quick calculations and we work out that it is about $50. A bit more than camping but very inviting after a long hot day so of course we take it.

We get set up for a light supper, have a very welcome shower and sit outside on the small verandah with a cold beer and a glass of wine while the air cools. The lagoon looks like it’s about half full and there’s a chalet built on poles which will be ‘over water’ when the rains arrive. There are plenty of mozzies around and we eventually head inside for the night.

The next day we head back into Vilanculos to get some supplies before we head south. After shopping we spot the Kilimanjaro Cafe with free WiFi. Looks good and we need to do some research on our next ‘port of call’. It’s also a chance to get online and catch up with family and friends.

Next stop is definitely a place by the beach!!