Wednesday, October 10, 2007


Being in Namibia almost feels like being in a western country. There are convenience stores and gourmet supermarkets, and everything seems to be functioning efficiently. But, then your bus hits a springbok on the highway and it takes 10 hours for the bus company to resolve the problem and transport you the final 150 km of your journey, and you think to yourself, nah, "TIA" (This Is Africa).

Still, it's an easy place to visit. The capital city of Windhoek is clean and orderly and has a nice selection of restaurants and markets. We were able to rent a car, buy groceries and pull together camping gear in just a few hours and were headed off to the desert the morning after we arrived. Only a few of the main highways in the country are paved, but since you are driving by some absolutely georgeous mountains and desert landscapes, I supposed its nice to have an excuse to drive slowly anyway.

Our destination was Sesriem, the gateway to the Namib Desert and some of the most spectacular natural beauty we have ever experienced. It's the oldest desert in the world and has truly been aged to perfection! The undulating red sand dunes appear to dance as the sun moves across the sky and are a shocking contrast against the cloudless blue sky. From atop of a dune, you can hear nothing but silence, or maybe the wind blowing sand grains to fill in the tracks you had just made. The colors in the desert are so vivid - purples and yellows and reds and whites - but at the same time, the landscape melds effortlessly together, as if there is no end or beginning to anything.

Each dune or vlei (which is a dry valley) we visited seemed even more spectacular than the last. While Sussesvlei is the most famous, we found the Dead Vlei to be even more amazing. Towering dunes surround a dry riverbed covered with chalky white mud that has dried into a million puzzle pieces. The dead trees emerging from the still white sea are black and horrifically twisted, creating a sense that something tragic (or magical) could happen at any moment.

Luckily, the most tragic thing that happened is that we got some sand in the camera trying to slide down the dunes. Or, maybe it was Gil losing his race against an ostrich when driving out of the park (ok, I made him throw in the towel). The most magical thing that happened was us actually making it back to Windhoek in time to purchase our bus ticket down to Cape Town, despite an empty gas tank and a check post police officer who had a hard time believing that Americans write their dates with month first...

In sum, awesome trip and one of our favorite places to date. Thanks to Nathan for being such a fun traveling partner - have a blast in South America!

The Smoke That Thunders

I am sure you are all sick of hearing of our transportation horror stories, but they just keep coming. We took a packed matatu to the town closest to the Malawi/Zambia border and then packed into a tiny car with 9 other people (the driver was literally sitting on someone's lap) to the immigration office. But, those trips were short and pleasurable in comparison to the next. We piled onto a bus at 7 am and 5 hours later it departed. There were 5 seats to a row, which meant at least 2 people needed to lean forward at all times. We were the lucky ones though, because at least 15 other people were standing or sitting in the isle for the entire 12 hour journey. This is highly illegal, so the bus company hired a taxi to take these people past where they thought the police check point was. Ironically, about 500 meters after they let the folks back onto the bus, we came across the actual police check point. Another 2 hours and several fines (or bribes?) later, we again departed and finally arrived in Lusaka at 10 pm, 8 hours late.

Fortunately, the rest of our journey to Livingstone was lovely, and Livingstone itself is also a pleasant town. The city has a long history as the former capital of the region, but has now been updated to cater to tourists, with plenty of places to get a proper cappucino.

Victoria Falls is a few kilometers from Lilongwe and straddles the border betwee Zambia and Zimbabwe. It's the dry season, which means that we experienced only 4% of the water that descends over its edge at its highest capacity. The falls that you could see from the Zambia side were quite tame - not the massive rush of water that inspired its Zambia name Mosi-oa-Tunya (which is roughly translated as "the smoke that thunders"), but rather a few elegent cascades of water that fell daintly into the deep, dark casm below. But, because river flow is low we got the chance to walk across the top of the falls and right up the edge, which was a pretty cool experience. And, we got a much better look at the narrow canyon that this powerhouse has cut into the rock, which is really quite magestic in its own right.

The second day we ventured over to the Zimbabwe side. It was a costly excursion because of the visa fee, but definitely worthwhile because it gave us a look at an entirely different part of the falls. The main falls are much bigger than those you can see from the Zambia and you could really hear the rush of the water crashing onto the rocks below and feel the spray in the air. From this vantage point, you got a much better sense of Victoria's awesome power, as well as her spectacular beauty, as seen in the many playful rainbows that appear in her mist.

We were not sure what to expect when we crossed over to Zimbabwe, because the country is decending into total economic chaos with inflation approaching 8,000%! We found that the town of Victoria Falls is safe and trying very hard to maintain its status as a tourist destination, but the effects are visable everywhere you look. We stopped at a cafe for lunch, but less than half of the menu was available due to food shortages. I can't imagine how bad it is further in the interior of the country, because at least these people have the opportunity to go over to Zambia to buy bread and other essentials (which we saw them carrying back by the armload). The markets were pretty depressing as well, with hundreds of men trying to sell crafts and no more than a handful of tourists browsing. We heard a lot of desperate pleas for us to make a purchase or, preferably, trade them something of use, like a pen or our shoes! Still, the spirit of the people remained strong and they continue to do what they can to earn a buck, be it performing traditional dances in costume to playing in a murrumba band. We can only hope that the situation resolves itself quickly and peacefully.


We headed to Lilongwe, the capital of Malawi, to sort out onward transport to Zambia and try to figure out a way around the ridiculously high $100 visa fee for US citizens. Thanks to the wonderful owners at Mabuya lodge we found a hotel that would arrange a tourist waiver for us, but it meant we needed to hang around a few extra days.

Lilongwe is much smaller than any of the other Africa capitals we'd been to, and as one of the poorest nations in the world, seriously lacking in important luxuries like cheap internet and good restaurants. But, it was a friendly enough place and easy to navigate. We loved exploring its many markets, where you could by everything from auto parts to fried baby chickens. We also enjoyed the "jug" band that sprung up nearby the craft stalls one afternoon. How many of you can turn an old gas can into a bass guitar?

The layover also gave us to the chance to go to the US Embassy for additional passport pages. With the idiotic smiles of George, Dick and Condi welcoming us in and the representative looking up from picking his fantasy football team to help us, we almost forgot we were in the middle of Africa. It was so clean, so efficient - and the toilet paper was so soft!

Lake Malawi

After Zanzibar, we spent a couple more days in Dar es Salaam taking care of some business (yes, vagabonds have business to take care of too!) and arranging the next portion of our journey. We were heading southwest to Lake Malawi, which ended up being an exhausting 40 hour traverse by bus, minibus, matatu, taxi, minibus, taxi and another taxi. The scenery we passed was breathtaking, but at times difficult to appreciate - like the times when someone is sitting in your lap nursing their newborn and your arm is faling asleep because it's been pinned behind you for 3 hours.

When we finally made it to Nkhata Bay on Lake Malawi, we were ecstatic and the crew at Big Blue made use feel right at home by offering us beers and entertaining us with hilarious stories of their escapades over the past month. Two Brits and a South African recently took over management of the place and are working to fix it up, along with a team of 20+ Malawians. It seemed like a huge task to us, but they appeared to be loving every minute of it - especially the daily beers with the police chief and local politicians to ensure things ran smoothly...

Lake Malawi has some of the most amazing fresh water marine life found anywhere in the world. Swimming around feels like being inside a giant aquarium. It's very relaxing, as is just sitting on the porch of your hut overlooking the lake, reading a book or watching the locals paddle by in their dugout canoes. The people are ultra-friendly in Malawi and, for a landlocked country, it oddly has a bit of a Jamaican feel. It was nice to be able to let our guard down after East Africa, where you sort of have to be on the look out for people trying to rip you off at all times.

We wished we had more time on the Lake, but decided to continue overland to South Africa, and so the push was on!

Sunday, October 7, 2007

Nungwi, Zanzibar

From Stone Town we took a dala dala to the northern beach town of Nungwi. A dala dala is a small pick-up truck that has a roof and benches added to the bed. It was even more ridiculous than the matatu we took from Sipi Falls in Uganda, because at one point there were 33 people jam packed into the back and hanging off of the bumper, and at least 4 more in the front cab. As uncomfortable and odoriferous as it can sometimes be, we never regret traveling like the locals do (for short trips, at least) because it gives you great insight into the culture. One thing we've observed repeatedly is how quiet and content the babies and children in Africa are, no matter how hectic the atmosphere is. We are trying to figure out the secret to pass along to all of you new or expecting parents...

Nungwi is supposed to be the "party" town in Zanzibar, and although there were some really fun beach bars, there were plenty of opportunities for relaxing as well. The powdery white sand beaches and aqua blue sea are definitely post card perfect, especially when the horizon is lined with hundreds of wooden sailing boats called dhows. Another beautiful sight was watching the colorful local women trawling the shoreline with fishing nets at sundown.

We took a dhow to a private island where you could enjoy the surrounding reef and amazing multi-colored fishes. On the way back we stopped at a secluded beach for a fish BBQ. We also enjoyed walking up the shore at low tide to the the next town over, Kendwa, which had an amazing broad beach backed up against some beautiful woodlands. Heaven.