We’re in Lusaka, Zambia, and we’re quite happy to be here. Not because it’s an amazing city or anything, it’s actually quite average. But after the ordeal we had at the Chirundu border post a couple of days ago, we’re relieved to even be in Zambia at all.
We won’t go into it too much detail, because we’ll get sad all over again, but crossing the border into Zambia was pretty much the worst experience of the entire trip. A good few dollars were passed under the counter, which wasn’t ideal, but it was either that or turn around and find a new route.
At one stage we even canceled our stamps, got into the car and left, only to be called back by someone who clearly saw the chance of some easy money. But whatever, we got through, and learnt a bit about border “etiquette” along the way.
It’s unfair to call Lusaka average. We’ve only been here a day and, like Jozi, it probably doesn’t make the best first impression. But unfortunately we aren’t going to take the time to get to know it. The plan is to use this time to stock up on supplies, replace some broken bits and pieces, maybe even catch a movie , and then hit The Great East Road. But enough about that, this post is actually about Zimbabwe, which was bloody fantastic.
We entered Zim at Kazangula in the northwest and followed the Zambezi down to Victoria Falls, where we spent 3 nights at Shoestrings Backpackers. At R40 a night, it’s an apt, if somewhat unappealing name for a place. But after going over budget almost every day in Botswana, it was a welcome relief.
Shoestrings attracts a pretty diverse crowd, to say the least, but it definitely made for some interesting conversations and a hell of a lot of laughs. One minute you’re getting travel tips from a prostitute, the next you’re trading t-shirts with a Rastafarian, the next you’re in bed with 5 naked, oiled-up members of the Russian Mafia. Ok, that last one’s a stretch. But still, you get the picture. It all was good fun and a nice change from the solitude of the game reserves and, prostitutes aside, we did meet some very cool people there.
But you don’t go to Vic Falls to stay in an eclectic backpackers – there’s also quite a famous waterfall there. We can’t say much about the falls, other than that they are spectacular and a sight we’ll never forget for the rest of our lives. They’re also quite difficult to photograph when there’s a lot of water in the river, unless you have a waterproof housing for your camera.
There was a lot of water in the river. And we didn’t have a waterproof housing.
We really enjoyed Vic Falls. But it’s a pity it was our first stop in Zim, because it kind of creates an unrealistic impression of the country. As you’d expect from one of the 7 Natural Wonders of the World, tourists flock there in their thousands, and they seem to spend their money quite liberally.
We got the feeling we were in a country with a thriving tourist industry and a stable economy. There are fancy-pants colonial hotels, 5-star lodges, a Sun City style casino, posh restaurants and boutique clothing stores around every corner. And they all seem to be doing pretty well.
But the problem with Vic Falls is that most people fly in and fly straight out. It’s this isolated little country-within-a-country that hogs all the limelight, and all the foreign tourist income. This only became apparent once we left town, and began to head east.
Our next stop was Binga, on the southwestern shores of magnificent Lake Kariba. The town’s setting is awesome, and it’s only a few hours drive along a good tar road from Vic Falls, but sadly it was a bit of a ghost town. The first few places we pulled into had closed down, the next few seemed to be on the verge of closing down. But then we got a lucky break.
There weren’t many people around, but when we eventually found someone, we stopped and asked him if he knew any places to stay. As it turned out, he was the manager of a little lodge 10 kms out of town. We liked Masumu River Lodge the instant we drove through the gates. It’s been recently renovated and sits high up on the end of a peninsula that juts far into the lake, so the views are incredible.
We were going to camp, but when we heard how reasonable the self-catering chalets were, we couldn’t resist. After sleeping in a tiny hiking tent for 50 days straight, the thought of a real bed and our own bathroom was just too much. We were going to spend a night, but ended up staying for 3. A bit of a splurge, but hey.
If you’re ever in Victoria Falls, you should look up Masumu River Lodge. It’s an easy drive on a great road, and a refreshing change from the commercialised mayhem of the falls. The rates are excellent, the food good and, if you go in summer, the fishing can be phenomenal. We spent a full day out on one of their boats and only managed some small tigers and a couple of barbel. But it was a very lekker day out on the water nonetheless.
After a shaky start, Binga ended up being pretty awesome. We’ve been saying this a lot lately, but we’d love to go back.
After leaving the luxury of our little room in Binga, we continued east towards Karoi, where an old varsity friend of mine lives and farms. It was a long, bumpy and frankly rather kak drive, and we only arrived in Karoi very late in the afternoon. But Diaan and Yvonne and their little son Rick welcomed us into their home like we were family, and after a few beers, a good catch up and a delicious roast, the day’s drive was forgotten and we were soon getting our best night’s sleep of the entire trip. It felt so good to be in a home again. And we really can’t thank the Lubbes enough.
From Karoi it was a short but very pretty drive down to the town of Kariba, on the far eastern corner of the lake. We spent our first night there at a place called Lomagundi Lakeside Resort, where the local hippos and a very nice couple from Cape Town kept us company. We then moved next door, to Warthogs Bush Camp, where we had a herd of elephants and a nice couple from the UK to keep us company.
Kariba was pleasant enough and we could easily have spent a week there. But we were itching to get down into the Zambezi valley.
Whilst staying with the Lubbes, we met Diaan’s brothers, who were good enough to invite us to a place on the lower Zambezi called Mongwe, where he and some mates were staying for the weekend. I had actually been to Mongwe a few years earlier, and in fact had enjoyed New Year’s eve at the very house where the Lubbes and their mates were staying. It was a serious coincidence, and weirdly nostalgic.
On our way in, we were lucky enough to see a pride of about ten lion on a buffalo kill. We’ve seen plenty of lion on this trip, but all in game parks, where you’d expect to see them. These lions were on the side of a highway, at midday, 4 kms from the town of Chirundu. Every few minutes a truck would steam by and the lions would go dashing for cover. We couldn’t believe what we were seeing.
We had a very entertaining night in Mongwe with a crazy and very funny bunch of Zimbabweans, and we both woke up with a bit of a headache. That morning, Willem was good enough to take us out on one of the boats for a bit of a fish, and then rude enough to catch all the big fish for himself. It was definitely a case of the local showing us how it’s done.
But fish or no fish, hangover or no hangover, there aren’t many things that can compare with drifting quietly down the Zambezi on a perfectly still morning. It was a great way to end our little stop off in Mongwe, and we need to thank yet more Lubbes, neither of whom we’d ever met before, for looking after us so well.
From Mongwe we backtracked a little before turning left on the badly corrugated road that leads down to Mana Pools National Park. Like Moremi and Chobe, there are no fences around the camps, and it is often described as one of the wildest places on earth. Needless to say, we were quite excited to be there.
Quite by chance though, we arrived at the beginning of the Zimbabwean and South African school holidays, so there were plenty of people in the camp and it didn’t feel as remote and wild as it actually is. But maybe that was a good thing because the screaming kids and raucous fireside banter seemed to keep the lions and hyenas at bay. At least until everyone went to bed.
Each night we lay awake in our little tent while hyenas and honey badgers groveled around our campsite, only a few feet away. On our last night a big male lion and a lioness strolled within meters of our tent, and although we didn’t see them, seeing their massive footprints the next morning certainly sent a few shivers down the spine.
On our way out of Mana, we stopped to have a look at a place called Chitake Springs, where some friends of ours had camped in December and where a man was recently killed by a lion while taking a shower. The small spring that seeps out of the base of the escarpment there is literally the only water for 40 odd kms around, so it attracts game like a magnet.
Buffalo skulls littered the ground and vultures soared above, but we didn’t see any predators. We got the sense though that had we hung around a bit, it would only be a matter of time. It felt quite eerie being there alone, but with a bit of a bigger group (and maybe a rooftop tent) it could be one hell of an experience.
The drive from Mana to the border at Chirundu took about 2 and a half hours. We then spent another 2 and a half hours trying to get through the border itself. It wasn’t fun. But it will make for a good story one day.
Zim has come a long way in the last couple of years and it’s a pity that more people aren’t traveling there. They need all the foreign income they can get. It’s not the easiest country to travel, but it’s as beautiful as ever, fuel is relatively easy to come by, and the fact that they’re now on the US Dollar means that you don’t have to carry a truckload of cash around with you, which is rather handy.
Zimbabweans from all walks of life have had to deal with a serious amount of trouble in recent times, as anyone with ears and eyes would know. But to be honest, us South Africans (and the rest of the world) don’t even know the half of it.
Somehow though, whilst the country was collapsing around them, its people managed to retain a warmth and a friendliness and a genuine sense of hope and optimism that’s bloody inspiring. Nowhere in the last couple of months have we been made to feel more welcome, and nowhere have we felt more safe. We’re already planning another trip back.