Friday, 28 June 2013

From Lilongwe to the South Luangwa National Park in Zambia

Brightly coloured shop fronts were a feature of our holiday

This is the second in a series of posts from my recent holiday to Malawi and Zambia.

I only had one worry before our holiday, and that was getting to the South Luangwa National Park in time for our safari. We'd turned down the expensive private taxi ($500) and decided to opt for public transport. A journey which would involve a bus, taxi, international border crossing, second taxi, another bus and then somehow making it from the nearest town to our safari lodge. Could we make all the connections and complete our journey in one day?

I was woken at 4:30am by noises coming from outside our window and the smell of smoke wafting in. When I plucked up the courage to poke my head out through the curtains I saw that a man had dig a fire pit and was placing sweet potatoes inside. No doubt hoping to sell them later in the day.

We left our guesthouse at 6am and walked down to the bus station. We got the last two seats on a minibus to Mchinji and were off in no time. The journey was a pretty efficient 2hrs. There weren't many other vehicles on the road, just lots of bicycles, some carrying incredible amounts of produce on the back. The journey cost us 1,500 MWK / £3 each.

When we got to Mchinji a few taxi touts crowded the bus trying to get our fare. The only hassled us for a couple of minutes, but once we walked about 10m away from the bus they left us alone. I was thankfully they weren't too persistent. We bought some freshly fried chips from a local street stall. They were a bit undercooked and got our hands incredibly greasy, but was a quintessential Malawian experience.

After breakfast we headed back to the taxis and hopped straight in one heading for the border (500 MWK / £1).

The five hour wait for our minibus to fill up

 When we got the border the money changers pounced on us, but again they weren't particularly persistent. There were no obvious signs telling us what to do, but we found the Malawian immigration post who were friend and efficient and stamped us out of the country.

We then walked over to the Zambian border post who were even more friendly. We had to pay $50 for our tourist visa but they didn't check the expensive Yellow Visa vaccination certificates we had done in London before leaving.

After getting our visa stamp we walked into Zambia. The money changers followed us (they didn't seem to worry about the border!) as we headed for the taxis to Chipata. We didn't want to change money on the black market and agreed with the taxi driver we could pay him once we'd reached town and found a bank.

We were crammed into the taxi with seven of us (including the driver) sharing the ride into town. One person even tried to hope in and share the drivers seat as well! When we got into town the Foreign Exchange Bureau was closed, which probably shouldn't have surprised us on a Sunday. We ended up having to change enough money with the rude, and racist ("stupid white brains"), black market money changers so that we could pay the taxi driver (15 ZMK / £3).

We escaped across the road to a small shopping centre and found a much more civilised Barclays ATM where we were able to withdraw some money.

Half build house with rustic bricks, a typical feature by the roadside

We were following an excellent article on Wikitravel to help us plan our journey. The article gave the phone number of the minibus driver in and we texted him to arrange a pick up. While I'd popped into the supermarket to collect some supplies he arrive in a 10 tonne truck to pick us up! It was the first time I'd been in a truck that large and it was quite fun to hop into the cab for the drive round to the bus station.

We'd just missed the morning bus to Mfuwe (nearest town to the National Park), but were in time for the afternoon bus. We had a five hour wait in the bus station until the minibus had filled up and was ready to depart. It could have been incredibly tedious, but it wasn't. We'd made it to Chipata in time for the bus and that meant we should get to our safari lodge on time.

We read and watch the world go by. We saw men holding hands, a unlikely sight in the West and something I haven't seen in India. We ate snacks from some of the sellers that came round (popcorn, a potato pie and hard boiled egg) and just chilled out.

When the bus was full, they somehow packed all of the accumulated luggage into the minibus, and finished everything off with an amp and obligatory boom box and portable DVD player and we were off into the Zambian countryside. The boot didn't close, but our bags looked like they had been tied down pretty securely. Best not to think about whether they'd be there at the other end.

A typical market from our trip

I loved driving through the Zambian countryside as the sun set, the landscape went a beautiful golden colour. The road was about 60% tarmac and 40% gravel. We saw lots of cyclists and people walking along the side of the road. Bags of homemade charcoal lining the roadside for sale, mud bricks drying in the sun, small hamlets of a few mud huts and local markets.

It was pitch back by the time we arrived in Mfuwe town. After the sun had gone down I was able to catch glimpses of houses a bit further back in the bush, illuminated by fires and the odd electric bulb.

We'd negotiated that our minibus would take us direct to our lodge (100 ZMK / £20). When we arrived the safari lodge had a definite wow factor. Our safari was going to be good.