Victoria Falls, the bus rides that got us there, and the adventures in between.
02.10.2014 - 13.10.2014 33 °C
Hello, hello. More than two weeks away from the blog and a lot has happened. The project continues to move forward, only slightly behind schedule, and there were plenty of adventures last week, as Marco and I headed out to Zambia.
First, the happenings here in Neno. The day before we left town, we headed up to Dambe to make sure everything was in order for the following week. It was a rare foggy day for the season, reminiscent of our first trips up to the area back in July. Good progress had been made on the exterior walls of the clinic, with roughly 75 percent to the bottom of the windows. Additionally, a quarter of the entry columns were poured, with formwork for the next two in progress.
In order to get to site, we squeezed into vehicles that were headed to the village for a community event at the primary school just down the road from the jobsite. After walking the site and talking with the foreman, we walked down to the school to see what was going on. There were some local government officials that spoke, along with a few community members (I think), and a few skits. The PIH band also played a number of sounds, leading to a lot of dancing. The event was called Candlelight, though it was during the day and I didn't see any candles. My understanding is that it was some sort of AIDS awareness event. I had my camera with me, but didn't want to start taking pictures right away because just us being there was distracting enough. Once the camera came out, the kids flocked.
After returning from Zambia, Marco and I made it back to Dambe on Monday, after ten days away from the site. I think the longest we had gone previously was three, so there was a small relief to see that progress had continued while we were away. Unfortunately there were some areas that needed to be reworked, but it the grand scheme of things, I was pretty happy with the effort. The columns and slab of the entry were poured, and the walls started. The clinic's walls were all completed to window height, with the corners done to the top of the windows.
We had transport for the entire day, so quite a bit was spent on site. Whenever we can, we try and stay for lunch. I decided to take advantage of the extra time, and walked further into the village, where I hadn't been before.
OK, OK, now for the travel narrative. Brace yourself, it was an action packed 10 days, and as such, there is a lot to show and tell.
Friday morning, the 3rd, our adventure began. We caught a ride down to the tarmac in Zalewa and didn't have to wait too long before a bus pulled into the stop. The buses run from Blantyre to Lilongwe, usually filling past capacity before departing. As a result, you either stand our sit in the aisle. We were left standing for a little over an hour. Just when I was about to give in and take my butt to the floor, we made a stop and the man sitting in the seat next to me departed. Score! Marco shot me an envious look that quickly faded when the seat next to him was also vacated.
The ride to Lilongwe took four hours or so. Arriving at the bus depot was a bit overwhelming after being in the bush for so long. Our original plan was to continue to Chipata, about 2 hours away and just across the border with Zambia. We had plenty of time left in the day to complete that leg of the trip, but the weekend before at Lake of Stars, we had met Global Health Corps (GHC) Fellows, through the Fellows that live in Neno, and they had offered us a place to crash. There was also a birthday party for one of them. We decided spending time with new friends was well worth an earlier start and a few more hours on the bus and decided to stay in Lilongwe. Thankfully the man sitting next to Marco took the time to show us to the ticket offices for buses to Lusaka and also pointed us on the right direction to our friends' house.
After a fun night with an awesome group of friends, night slowly became morning. So, at 3:30am we decided to take an hour nap. Just after 5 we were calling the cabbie that had failed to show up. He finally made it around 5:30 and got us to the bus before it departed at 6. Most of you will think of a nice charter bus w/ aircon and four seats in a row. This bus had 5 seats in a row, 2 on one side, 3 on the other, no aircon, and not a lot of legroom. After initially sitting next to each other, Marco and I each took window seats and hoped for the best. Marco didn't luck out as someone claimed his aisle seat. Just after 6, we were on the road. Shortly thereafter, I was asleep. I woke up at the border, which was an easy crossing, and then we continued on to Chipata. We waited, and waited, and waited some more. When we realized they were going to fill the bus as much as possible before leaving, Marco and I switched to the 3-seat side of the aisle, leaving the middle seat between us. This time, the seat looked uninviting enough that nobody filled it. I can only imagine how uncomfortable that would have been, as it was a struggle to find a decent sleeping position as it was.
Fourteen hours after leaving Lilongwe, we arrived in Lusaka. Our friend that we planned to stay with, Mac, didn't answer. We didn't know where he lived. We were in a huge bus depot, in a giant city, being badgered by cabbies. The friend we were staying with is also a GHC Fellow we met at Lake of Stars. At some point during that weekend after talking about our upcoming trip, Marco got a different Fellows number. There was no name saved with it. He called her and found out they all live in the same area and gave us directions. Clutch! Mac hadn't felt well that week, and there wasn't a lot else going on, so Marco and I took his recommendation for a restaurant named Portico. It was a relaxing night with good pizza, margaritas, and a live band. Things we don't get in Neno.
Sunday morning didn't come too early, as the bus left at nine. It was by far the most comfortable bus ride of our entire trip and only had a couple stops on the 6.5 hour drive to Livingstone. We arrived in town and headed to Jollyboys, our hostel for the week, then to dinner. Marco and I had decided to try the best recommended, but semi-budget conscious, restaurants we heard of. The first one we tried was Fezbar. Fail. While the burger wasn't bad, we were the only patrons in the restaurant. I'm curious to know where all the rave reviews came from.
Monday morning we went to the booking office at the hostel to plan our week. The gal was a great help and got us book for the Devil's Pool that afternoon, rafting the next day, and Chobe Nat'l Park in Botswana for safari on Wednesday and Thursday. I quickly realized this vacation would not have a lot of down time. I couldn't help but grin with excitement. I spent an hour or two by the pool with a book. That would be the only time I opened it the entire trip.
Most people would take a taxi the 5 or so kilometres to the falls from the hostel. We prefer minibuses. Or at least how much they cost. When we got to the park, we met our guide and started off across the top of the falls. During the rainy season, Victoria Falls is a blur of water and mist. Individual falls and geological features disappear behind the veil. In the dry season, only the main falls thunders, with steady streams over a few others. This allows you to approach the falls by foot from the Zambia side. On the edge of the main falls is a pool. The current is slow, and a rock wall creates a barrier from the rapids of the Zambezi below. We jumped in.
After swimming around for a bit, we headed back to the trails and walked around the park for awhile. Unfortunately, the main falls is best viewed from Zimbabawe. Time and visas prevented us from crossing the bridge. Regardless, it was still a magnificent opportunity to see such a nature wonder. Somebody asked me how I would compare Vic Falls to Niagara. There just different. Vic Falls definitely provided more viewing angles, which helped with its magnitude. After the falls, we headed back to Jollyboys. I sat down and started talking with a group. A couple of gals who were thinking about grabbing dinner at the same place as us, so we all went together. It was the first social sit down dinner I had been to in quite some time. And having real conversation between bites seemed almost foreign. Unlike the night before, Olga's Italian was spot on to the recommendations and delicious. Though having cream sauce for the first time in, well, I don't know how long, it felt twice as heavy.
Tuesday, the adventure continued with a full day of rafting the Zambezi. For those of you wondering, and I know some of you are, it is the stretch of river BELOW the falls. Rated a grade 5 overall, with rapids named things like Stairway to Heaven, Devil's Toilet Bowl, Gnashing Jaws of Death, Overland Truck Eater, and Oblivion, we knew we were in for a fun day. Little did we know, our guide decided he was going to help us out a bit. I didn't buy the pictures, I was feeling cheap, but if I did, they very clearly show him deliberately flipping our boat on multiple occasions. I think the boat flipped four or five times, with 3 other times when half the boat got tossed. My worst spill was into Devil's Toilet Bowl. It has a nice whirlpool that had me spinning around below the surface for a bit. The nice thing about this river, there aren't a lot of rocks in or below the rapids, which makes it pretty easy to ride them through in the water. After rafting, we grabbed a late dinner at Cafe Zambezi. Caterpillars and a croc burger were on my menu for the night. The caterpillars were just crunchy, not much flavor. The burger was really good, but it was a bit more the peri-peri sauce than the meat itself.
Wednesday morning began the safari adventure. We bused to the border of Botswana, which happens to be a river. No silly, there isn't a bridge, you take a little tiny boat across. Watching container trucks cross by ferry, one truck at a time, was pretty cool. After immigration, we continued to the lodge for the first part for our trip, a river cruise. While I brought my 75-300mm lens to Malawi, I decided to leave it there because switching lenses sucks but not as much as carrying and packing the extra one. On our boat there were at least 5 lenses over 8 inches long. I don't know what their capabilities were, but I felt oddly intimidated by them. And then I realized, I love shooting landscapes. If It could get close enough to capture animal portraits, great, otherwise, I wanted to try and incorporate them into the stunning environment. I was successful at times, and at others I went to 55mm and cropped it just a bit tighter. We spent the late morning tracking down hippos and crocs. The hippos were abundant, but hard to capture. We saw a few crocs, but I never got a good angle or had them in a good environment to shoot 'em. Elephants, they were everywhere. And hard to miss.
We returned to the lodge for lunch, and then headed into the park, where we would camp for the night. Because it is the dry season, the river is the most abundant water source and all of the game flock there. Elephants and impala were all over the place, with hippos, buffalo, kudu, and antelope here and there. Later in the day we also found a few giraffes and a herd of zebras. The coolest thing we saw on day 1 was a few lions lounging in the shade of a tree. On the other side of the tree, a baby elephant. Or maybe it was the impala laying high in a tree. No it didn't jump there, a leopard was responsible for its location. Unfortunately we missed seeing the leopard and we weren't able to find it the next day either.
As sunset approached we started driving right along the river, towards our camp. We stopped for a while to look at a pride of lions just off the road, looking out over the river. The sunset was amazing. Being in Neno, the sun sets behind the hills. It is still beautiful, but there is something special about seeing the sun hit the horizon. The only downside of soaking in the sunset, was that we were driving when at moonrise. It was a full harvest moon and the full spectrum of oranges were present. It was stunning. We arrived at camp and shared some drinks around the fire, before dinner was served. It might have been the best meal of the trip. Then again, sitting around a fire, with a full moon lighting the sky will make most meals taste that much better.
The next day we were back out searching for game. There were some great elephant, zebra, and giraffe sightings but as I mentioned, no matter where we drove, we never found a leopard. I was also disappointed to catch a good look at a male lion. There was one sleeping a ways off, but nothing worth taking a picture of. We saw the circle of life in full effect while leaving the park. Where the lions had been the day before, vultures had arrived to complete the next phase.
After arriving back at Jollyboys, we walked into town to buy bus tickets for the next morning, back to Lusaka. We then hit the last restaurant on our list, The Golden Leaf, for some delicious butter chicken, palak paneer, and garlic naan. Love me some Indian food. Our last night ended up being our latest, as a fair number of people we had met throughout the week stayed up chatting late into the night. The week at Jollyboys was full of meeting new people from all over the world, but oddly close to home. We met new friends from New Zealand, the UK, Norway, Amsterdam, Germany, Ireland, Spain, Israel, Canada, and the US. Basically all over the globe. But a group of gals from Norway work at Queen hospital in Blantyre and had taken the same bus route over a Marco and I. Kenshi, from Vancouver B.C., and Samuel, who went the Western Washington and lived in Seattle before moving to Rwanda. An older group mostly from Montana, with a few guys from Seattle. Oh yeah, they decided everyone somehow knew everyone in Montana. Sure enough, one of them lives in Billings and recognized, though didn't know, Kerns, a cousin's last name. Then there was a group that had been on a mission trip in the area. They go to church in the other Vancouver. You know, by Portland. One of them grew up in Selah and sure enough, knew my buddy Trevor Brink. It boggles my mind the think about how vast the world is, but how quickly the dots can be connected.
Friday morning we wandered back to the bus station to catch our bus. It was definitely the morning with the most miscues. First we somehow missed the main stretch of shops, where we had hoped to pick up Zambia national team jerseys. Not because we loved Zambia that much, but because they were just really slick. Then, when we got to the bus depot we attempted to get on the wrong bus. Evidently, being exhausted from the safari and the heat, we bought tickets for the wrong bus! It left at the same time, it just wasn't as nice and made more stops along the way back to Lusaka. It made the trip a bit more uncomfortable than it needed to be, but it wasn't the end of the world. When we arrived back in Lusaka we did some research to figure out or best option back to Chipata. The options included a wide range in bus quality, with departure times around 3, 7 or 10. One of the better buses left at 3 and we decided to book it, hoping it would make sleep more likely. There was a GHC birthday, so we headed out to dinner with that group and then to the bar afterwards. When they decided to move to another bar, around 2am, we caught a cab to the bus station.
It was a long ride. It wasn't too bad until the sun came up and it started to warm up. The bumpy roads and heat just put me into a semi-conscious state, awake but constantly dosing off. We made Chipata around noon, convinced a shared taxi to stop so we could get lunch, and then headed to the border. After immigration, it was onto a minibus back to Lilongwe. Our GHC friends were at a retreat for the weekend, leaving us without a friendly place to crash. Luckily, the contractor we are working with put us up at a hotel he operates. It just so happens to be one of the nicer places in town. If we hadn't made plans to meet up with friends that night, I likely would have gone to bed by 7pm and just laid on the comfortable bed. Instead, we went out. Another short night of sleep before our worst bus ride of the trip. While it is the shortest drive, it was the most uncomfortable bus. 2x3 seats, cramped legroom, and seats that felt more like a cheap meeting room chair than a bus seat. Eventually we made it to Zalewa, where we only had to wait for a half hour before getting transport back to Neno.
Overall it was a great week to rejuvenate for the last couple of months here in Neno. We were extremely blessed for the friends that helped us out along the way and the new people we shared memories with, if only briefly.
If you read this entire post, I would like to congratulate you because this is the longest piece of literature I have written in years. Please pat yourself on the back, smile, and have a great day. Also you get to see my favorite today's favorite picture from the trip.