Baboons like Bananas… and other fascinating insights, on the road in Southern Africa
Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe to Lilongwe, Malawi through Zambia
DEET DEET DEET DEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEETTTTTT!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Victoria Falls divides the Zimbabwe and Zambia border, the waterfall flows year round but at different times of the year it can more or less impressive. Some people told us it was better during rainy season ( November to March) because there is more water rushing over the cliffs, we were also told that at that time is can be too misty to see the details. We went in December during their peak rainy season but it hadn’t rained much that year, I don’t think it rained once in the 4 days we spent in Zimbabwe. I think the most disappointing time would be dry season (April to October). You can choose to stay in Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe or Livingstone, Zambia; I am sure there are lovely places to stay on the Zambian side but we chose Victoria Falls because the town itself is built around the Falls, easily walkable to entrance, whereas, from what we could tell, its not walkable from Livingstone.
We flew to Victoria Falls from Harare via Fast Jet. Right away I could tell we had arrived in a well manicured, tourist center when I saw the pristine condition of the airport and the Ndebele song and dance troupe dressed in leopard print, performing outside the arrivals area. Even though it was a touristy accoutrement, they were really good and entertaining.
Our taxi driver informed us that the best time to see the Falls was around 9am, having missed that time, we got cozy at our hostel and then walked around town. Victoria Falls is very quaint and reminiscent of most small tourist towns around the globe except for the frequent baboon sightings and apparently, occasionally beligerent elephants roam through town.
Before going to Zimbabwe I messaged two friends from Montreal that were from Zimbabwe. Surprisingly, Mordecai had a similar trip itinerary and he and his girlfriend would be coming to Vic Falls the day after us. A.K however wasn’t going to be there until New Year’s Eve at which point we would be in Zanzibar. AK told me his brother was living there and gave me his number to get in touch. We shared the following text conversation:
AK: This is Anele’s number, give him a call when you get to Vic Falls.
Me: Hey so you told your brother I am coming right? He’s not going to be like, ‘who is this Chelsie person?’
So I call Anele and a woman picks up, she’s super confused, I’m super confused, then we deduce that AK has given me Anele’s wife’s number….she has never heard of me but says she will let Anele know that I called and he will get in touch with me at the hostel. The people at Shoestring Backpacker’s were very nice about this and took a message for me when he called.
Sadza, is a traditional Zimbabwean meal, it’s more like a side dish that goes with some cooked greens and chicken or beef. It is made from finely ground cornmeal and formed into a mound on your plate. It doesn’t have much taste but once combined with the other ingredients on the plate it will take on that flavour. I had a very similar dish called Ugali, in Kenya and I think the main difference between the two dishes is the name as both are eaten with your hands and generally you take balls of it and dip it into whatever meat sauce or stew you are having. It’s definitely not my favourite food but it’s filling and the chicken that went with it was excellent.
After dinner we just had a few drinks at the hostel and went to bed fairly early to a) get away from the mosquitoes, and b) get up earlyish to go to The Falls!
Shoestring Backpacker’s is great for its chilled out, hippy vibe, but it could definitely be cleaner and quieter. The bar is the main nightlife in town which is convenient when you want to party but don’t expect to get a decent night’s sleep. Also the mosquito situation was daunting; between the 3 of us we had 3 different types of mosquito spray but nothing seemed to work, it was too hot to want to cover up but leaving your skin exposed was like fighting with fire covered in gasoline. Lucky Andrea, her blood was not delectable to the mosquitoes but Jackie and I were irresistible and they sucked on us like horny little vampires; luckily/inexplicably the bites didn’t itch so it was merely unsightly. We asked the owners why they didn’t plant things like citronella and such around to help fight the mosquito invasion and he told us that their policy was not to introduce plants that are not native to the area…I’m not a botanist so I have no viable thoughts on this.
After a delicious, healthy, and hearty bowl of porridge and strong coffee, we left to find a bike tour but after we realized we’d have to do too much searching for the bike company, we decided to just walk the trails. Turns out you can’t ride a bike around the Falls anyway (for good reason), I’m not sure where we got the idea that we could. The entrance fee is 30USD, seeing how well maintained the area is, it’s worth every penny. Victoria Falls did not disappoint, the water wasn’t at its highest most intense level but it was amazing nonetheless. Massive, stunning, inconceivably powerful, the landscape is misty and humid, with short respite in the breezy shade or when the spray from the Waterfall comes down on you like rain. Photo’s and videos can’t do the sights and sounds justice; the feeling you get when you go close to the edge and your stomach plummets as you watch the water rushing over the side. We spent about 2 hours walking around the Falls, going to all the lookout sites and walking along the ridge, sitting on the edge contemplating the smallness of your existence and at the same time thinking how lucky I am to be able to see this natural wonder of the world.
On the Zambian side there were people walking and swimming through the water, given how humid it was, this would have been an excellent way to see the Falls but we were trying to be thrifty so guided tours were not in the budget. Also, guided group tours make me edgy.
Afterwards we spent some time perusing the vendors stalls outside the entrance to the park and the craft market in town. I bought a beautiful pair of dangly earrings with blue stones for 3 USD, Andrea and I also picked up some postcards and stamps and wrote our family’s…I found these postcards in my sketchbook a few months later…I used to be good about it but the last few trips I have forgotten to send them so I think I need to stop buying them. The problem is, some hostels and hotels will post them for you so you just give them money and they take care of it because who has time to wander around looking for a post office?! That’s kind of a poor excuse since the post office was quite literally on our way to and from the park, very near the centre of town.
We went to Shearwater Cafe on the corner of the main intersection, where I had a grilled watermelon and chickpea, feta salad; this is essentially the best thing you can eat after a hot steamy walk around Victoria Falls.
My friend Mordecai met up with us after lunch at the hostel for a few afternoon beers, to catch up and make plans for later. They were still pretty jetlagged and left us for a nap. We hung out with some hostel people for awhile and then met Mordecai, Marina, and Anele (AK’s brother) back at the Shearwater Cafe. They often have live music at night but sadly we missed it. The cafe closed so we headed back to the hostel (the only nightlife in town according to Anele) and we hung out there till closing. This is when I learned the truth of AK’s deception…Anele and I both shaking our fists at him.
Anele: Sorry about the confusion, my wife called me at work, she was a bit angry with me asking ‘who is Chelsie?!’ I told her I didn’t know a Chelsie but I was worried because last weekend I went out with some work friends and got pretty drunk so I was like ‘oh no…do I know a Chelsie?!’ AK called me a few hours later to tell me that someone named Chelsie might be calling me. I told him you gave her the wrong number and got me in trouble with my wife.
That night we said our goodbyes, promising to visit Mordecai in Cyprus and he to visit us in Abu Dhabi. We have yet to make good on that promise.
We got a final look at Victoria Falls the next morning as we walked across the bridge connecting Zimbabwe and Zambia. The bridge goes over the gorge where you can zipline and bungee jump…I am notoriously NOT a thrill seeker. I once got stuck ziplining in the Philippines and while it was an adrenaline rush, I felt little need to repeat it. Andrea on the other hand, loves to sky dive so I think she would have loved to bungee jump or zipline. In retrospect, after forcing myself to zipline in Costa Rica, I wish we had done it in Vic Falls.
When I was 15 I got a concussion snowboarding, since then my desire for reckless activities decreased and incidentally my phobias seemed to increase. There have been studies done linking traumatic brain injuries to emotional disorders such as anxiety, phobias, and PTSD so I guess that makes sense.
A new fear developed today as we we crossed the Zim-Zambia border…baboons. Jackie is a delightfully frugal person, she just could not leave those 3 overripe bananas behind at the hostel so she carried them in a clear plastic bag through the border on foot. People kept telling her to ‘watch out for baboons, they like bananas!’ but we thought they were messing with us, trying to get us to pay for a taxi across instead of the hour long, sweltering walk. But no, they were really warning our dumb asses, because suddenly this manic baboon charged towards Jackie and a man had to chase him off so that Jackie wouldn’t get accosted for her bananas. So we carried on, made it through the border, paid 50$ to get into Zambia for 36 hours and went off in search of a taxi to take us to the Livingstone Bus station. Livingstone is Zambia’s dustier, less pleasant version of Victoria Falls. We went all over trying to get Zambian kwacha for the bus but were having a hard time with ATM’s and ended up paying more just to use USD. The bank lineups around town were insanely long and we wanted to make sure we had a bus ticket. We had to wait for an hour or so at the bus station which is basically just a dusty parking lot with various types of buses and some stalls selling everything from bus tickets to food and water. We wanted to use the bathroom before setting off on the 5-6 hour journey so Andrea went to the bar and asked to buy 3 bottles of water and to use the bathroom. They laughed at her and said..’we don’t serve water here, you can buy a beer’. Which to Andrea seemed totally reasonable at 10am; she came back with 3 beers and a bathroom report which was essentially a scrunched up face and ‘take your wipes’. Given the bar’s clientele at 10am I figured as much, to ensure I only went once before departure I waited until the last possible moment, took a deep breathe and pee’d as fast as I could. This is crucial as a traveler, learn how to pee fast. It is inexplicable to me that it takes more than 30 sec to a minute to pee but somehow Jackie is a pro at taking her sweet-ass time in the bathroom even when people and buses are waiting or the locale is suffocatingly hot, stinky, and dirty. People always remark about how fast I am in the bathroom..to which I remark..’wtf do you want to hang around in there for! Drop trow, evacuate bladder with help from pelvic muscles, wipe, flush, wash hands, done.‘ That’s like a minute depending on the complicatedness of your pants.
A coach bus means nothing in Zambia, essentially it means that the bus is as large as a Coach but they will pack you in like an open can of sardines left in the sun too long. I suspect that seats were added to the original floor-plan of the bus and the 1-2 bags per customer rule is unheard of. Two hours into the bus trip my ass was falling asleep, my back aching, and sweat was coming from every pore…why are the windows closed????? Schedules also mean nothing here as our bus departed later than expected, and the 5-6 hour trip was extended to about 9.
We appear to be having some mechanical bus problems but I don’t know about these things so I just ignore and hope we don’t get stranded and I have to make friends with Lions, which I think is definitely possible because we are kindred spirits…I have yet to test this theory but it’s just a feeling I get when I see them. The bus pulls into a little town which according to Google Maps is called Kalomo and we are told that there is something wrong with the bus and they will be sending another one asap, it will be at least 2 hours.
There’s a cute little restaurant next to our broken bus so we sit and order food, we think to have another beer but this is a Christian establishment blasting very loud Christian music and no alcohol signs so we journal, we play cards, we walk, we find a pleasantly maintained bathroom, we eat some chicken and we get very, very restless. 3 hours later a bus rolls in and everyone hangs out around it with their bags and finally, FINALLY, they let us on..the seats are even more crammed on this bus than the last and the seats in front of Andrea and I are leaning back and its as if the passengers are sitting in our laps; the seats do not go to the upright position…awesome. 5 hours later we arrive in Lusaka, its about 9pm and we are supposed to be back at the “bus station” at 5:00a.m to go to Lilongwe, Malawi. Other than just being frustrating, breaking down meant that we had no time to check out Lusaka and we had to scramble around the “bus station.”
The “bus station” again, is just a collection of stalls selling tickets to various locales. We had to scramble through people who were trying to sell us fake tickets to different places, or get us in their cabs so they could over charge us, or sell us something or other. This place was no joke, it was chaotic, crowded, the people were intense and we were exhausted and in no mood to deal with the sensory overload. We started walking around looking for Kobbs Bus Service, the entire time this man followed us asking us to buy some kind of goods or service, or possibly to simply give him money, we couldn’t get away from him, we walked up some stairs to a more official looking building, on the flat landing at the top there were more stalls selling food, water, etc…and people sleeping everywhere on mattresses laid out on the ground. It was unclear if they were homeless or simply sleeping there for the night waiting for an early morning bus. We saw a sign saying reception and made a beeline towards it, the man at the desk looked at us with surprise and when we asked where Kobs Bus Service was, he looked as if contemplating how best to give directions and then decided it was easier to take us there. At this point our stalker disappeared and we followed this man through a veritable maze of stalls and vendors and people to an out of the way, almost tranquil spot. The man helped deal with our bus tickets and he tracked down a taxi driver and arranged to have us brought to our hostel at a reasonable rate and to be picked up the next morning to return to the bus station. They bus service people needed to see our passports, we handed them over, some curious men came over to ask our guide what the hell we were doing there and as our passports were handed back to us, they took them and started perusing them and discussing them to each other in what may be Bemba, but I am not sure. Passports are sacred items…they are your lifeline, having random strangers manhandling your passport at a crowded bus station in a country not your own is disconcerting; but it turns out they were merely curious and passed them over to us when they were done looking.
While we were waiting, 2 young children came towards us, they were sad little things, who very clearly needed food. Thankfully, Jackie had saved those bananas from the baboon and was able to give them the bag, which they proceeded to rip open and devour the bananas as fast as they could. I was for once, glad for Jackie’s frugal sensibility.
Our Lusaka hostel was really nice and it was quite unfortunate that we were not able to spend more time there. I had originally wanted to spend an extra day here but the bus was leaving for Malawi the following day, or we’d have to wait 4 days to get the next bus or have to take a series of minibuses and taxis. We hadn’t eaten since our bus broke down in Kalomo, 8 or so hours prior to this and we were so tired but at the same time amped up, we ordered some beers, shared a chocolate bar and a bag of chips and called it a night. It was a damn shame that we were not hanging around here longer I noted, as I brushed my teeth and watched a very fine male specimen walk past in his boxers.
3:45 am wake up in my clothes, brush my teeth and jump in a cab, back to the bus station, we boarded yet another overloaded coach bus. They had 3 seats crammed onto 1 side of the bus and 2 on the other, so it’s 5 across with a teeny tiny aisle and seats that appear to have been custom made for a medium sized infant. There are families of 4 or 5 stuffed into a row of 3 and every manner of luggage fit to burst, in every nook and cranny, turning the already too small aisle into a veritable obstacle course. Inconceivably there is a mattress stuffed in the back and a table top sitting on someone’s lap. The prospect of sitting on this bus for over 10 hours did not entice but we had little choice in the matter. To make matters worse the reclining handle on my seat had lost its rubber and since the seat was too small, my butt was hanging off the edge and this piece of metal was jammed into my hamstring. I used a package of wet wipes to cushion the metal a bit which helped but created an entirely new problem; one leg being higher than the other for 10+ hours makes for a painful spinal cord situation.
Several uneventful hours went by, it rained the bus stopped here and there and people clambered over each other to pop a squat by the side of the road. I was careful to dehydrate myself sufficiently but not too much. During a downpour the bus kept barreling down the road at the same rate, taking turns on a massively overloaded bus didn’t seem to faze anyone so I decided I wouldn’t let it faze me either. I read my book, I tried to sleep a bit.
We stop in a small town to drop off/pick up, everyone starts getting off so Andrea and I decide to go outside to stretch, even though it’s pouring rain. Jackie stays on the bus, at least that’s what we thought; so when the bus looked like it was going to leave, Andrea and I get back on only to find that Jackie had slipped away, we didn’t see her get off, we don’t know where she went, what her intention for leaving the vicinity of the bus was…we’re in a small town in Zambia, several hours from our destination in another country, it’s pouring rain.
Me: She can’t have gone far right, we were just there for a few minutes.
Andrea: What the hell Jackie!!! I didn’t even see her get off.
Me: Shit the bus is moving. (We are looking outside, can’t see far because of the rain but we don’t see Jackie).
Me: Hey driver! Ummm can you stop, our friend is still here?
Andrea: (probably giggling)
Bus people: Hey stop, there is someone back there.
(Meanwhile the bus is slowly rolling down the road)
Me: Hey, no, but really, can you please stop, you’ve left my friend.
No response, by this point everyone is yelling at the driver. He stops for 30 sec and I sit down and we wait..everyone looking out the windows.
Me: Where the fuck did she go!
Andrea: Oh my god Jackie, why did she leave the bus!
Bus starts again, everyone yells again, driver stops
Andrea: I see her, hahahahaha, she’s running now.
Bus doors open, Jackie soaking wet gets on the bus, everyone on the bus is pretty entertained.
Andrea: You almost got stranded in the middle of Zambia!
Me: So curious, how did you feel when you realised the bus wasn’t there/what was your plan?
Jackie: I figured I’d have to set up shop until the next bus rolled through.
Me: Good plan.
Andrea: But really where the hell did you go?
Jackie: I went to the BATHROOM!
Me: Jackie, if you need to pee, you pop a squat behind the bus like everyone else.
Lesson learned: Do not leave the vicinity of the bus, there is no proper schedule of stops, where, when or how long, they do not do a headcount to ensure everyone gets back on.
Anyway later on we hit a cow, didn’t stop and just barrelled on down the road, all the way to Chipata, Zambia.
The bus stayed in Chipata for about 2 hours..no idea why. We tried getting off the bus to walk and stretch and maybe get some food but we were instantly swarmed by people trying to sell us stuff. This gets exhausting after awhile and when you say no to the same person over and over again only to have them follow you and and continue to harass you, well it’s easier to stay on the steamy, hot and cramped bus.
The border was uneventful except to say that it took awhile, and what we thought was a 50$ visa entry fee turned out to be 75$. Finally after a grueling 2 days of busing through the Zambian and Malawian countryside, we made it to Mabuya Camp in Lilongwe, where we promptly inquired about hiring a driver for the next leg of our journey.
As a vacation traveler…having limited time and wanting to see a lot, you have to be prepared to throw money at problems sometimes, part of me wishes we had found a driver from Lusaka to Lilongwe but at the same time, it was an experience..albeit an unpleasant one; you learn a bit more about how it all works in that part of the world. I didn’t need anymore of those lessons for this trip, so we hired a driver from Lilongwe to Nkhata Bay and it was the best decision we’ve ever made! When all was said and done it took 14 hours to get from Lusaka to Lilongwe, with the short stops, and the long Chipata stop, and then the time spent at the border, which btw was the only time Andrea and I went to the bathroom. After 14 hours sitting on a crammed bus you get full on pregnant lady cankles…apparently. For those who don’t know, cankles are when your ankles and your calves become one… it is a concerning circumstance when all the blood in your body has just settled in your feet and ankles and has altered the form of your legs. (I don’t know if that’s scientifically accurate.). That night we sat with our feet up, staring into space, unable to communicate effectively, think of anything to do, or really move at all.
Stay tuned for more about our time in Malawi.