Zambian officialdom and a stunning visit to Vic Falls

We left Malawi on a Sunday, and were wondering if this would impact on our ability to cross the border in any way. We’d had one official at the Kenyan–Tanzanian border tell us that because it was a Sunday when we did that crossing we would have to pay overtime. I was very skeptical indeed about this, suspecting him of issuing a thinly veiled request for extra income; but after asking around a bit we figured it was probably genuine, so handed over the cash. Not so at the Zambian border. No. Here it was open corruption with a capital ‘C’. They have a very weird system here, which stems I gather from the country only being open to tourists for 13 years or so.

Anyone entering Zambia on passports other than those from SADC (the surrounding southern African countries) is required  either to pay for a visa or, if they have organised accommodation in the country, they can obtain what is known as a visa waiver. This is basically an application by the establishment at which you are staying to the relevant border which states that you have booked to stay with them and are therefore entitled not to have to pay the visa costs. Why they have this system, I don’t know; but for those of us who don’t know exactly when we’re entering a country, and can’t organise anywhere to apply for such a waiver in time, it leaves the door well and truly open to exploitation.

This is how it happened: I explained to the official that we didn’t have a waiver, and half-heartedly tried to get her to recognise our SA passports, though I didn’t think this would work. It didn’t. She said we would need to pay the full US$60 per person. As we only had hundred dollar bills on us, I asked (as we are now in the habit of doing) if she had change. A very odd look crossed her face. She said no, that was a problem, and what did I have on me. I said I’d be paying with dollar bills, and showed her the two that I had. The next thing I knew, she’d whipped one of them away from me, slipped it in her back pocket, and said ‘Ok, here we go. I’ve stamped your passport with a visa waiver for 14 days. That’s enough, Anti-corruption rhetoric in Zambiahey?’ What could I do? In hindsight I’ve thought I should have asked for a receipt, although I am guessing that she could have produced one, having demanded the extra 20 dollars, and even then I’m not convinced that the money would have made it into government coffers. What made me laugh was that there was a bumper sticker on her cubicle window which proclaimed zero tolerance of corruption. The word corruption had actually been ripped off the sticker. Such must have been the discomfort of her position. A few miles down the road we came across a billboard declaring similar commitment to stamping out corruption. Such is the gaping chasm between ideals and reality!

Glyn in microlight over Vic FallsSpeaking of chasms, we visited Victoria Falls yesterday. What an amazing experience! We decided, on the recommendation of our good friend Sam from Lalibela, to take a microlight flight over the falls. He’d said it was definitely worth doing, and as most of his other recommendations have turned out to be fabulous, we decided to treat ourselves to early birthday and Christmas presents. I was very much looking forward to visiting the falls, as this is where my parents got engaged. Their association with intrepid explorers into the African hinterland has also meant that they have always held something of a fascination for me. So it was just awe-inspiring to finally see them in all their splendour, from the air. As we took off from the airfield one could see the white ‘smoke’ that gives the place its native name, Mosi-o-Tunya, which literally means ‘the smoke that thunders.’ Gaining height, with the land falling away below you, the scale of the Zambezi River and its carving away of the landscape become clear. Beyond the current falls are seven zigzags of gorges, each of which were once where the falls were located. I hadn’t appreciated just how clearly visible this would be from the sky – you certainly don’t pick them up from any of the many pictures taken of the falls, which all focus on the wall of water and its associated mist and rainbows. Today we revisited the falls, but this time on foot. It’s been incredibly wet here, so we tried to go when it wasn’t pouring with rain, which it is again now (and so our bikes, including Glyn’s manky sheepskin, are getting completely soaked!). It was lovely to see them from the ground too – a different and unique experience. And one I’ll never forget.

Meandering through Mangos in Malawi

The border crossing into Malawi was, thankfully, uneventful. Immediately, it became apparent that the few bicycles we’d started seeing in southern Tanzania were probably evidence of the Malawian influence, because the roads were suddenly full of people riding along on anything from old penny farthings (OK, I exaggerate, but they were very clapped-out looking old bikes) to newer mountain bikes with knobbly tyres. We’ve had one or two close encounters of the unwanted kind with these bicycle riders. As Glyn puts it: ‘Lots of bicycles, not a lot of balance!’ One young chap was riding along, hands folded over his chest, clearly miles away and deep in thought. I reckon it was the sound of the bike that stirred him from his revery, and when it did, he got the fright of his life. First he swerved left, then right, then he did a wiggle that I can’t describe; all while Glyn tried to respond accordingly and aim his motorbike where the bicycle wasn’t. It was a close call, but he made it, and I was there to see the boy’s face which, if he’d have been white, would have been ashen as the driven snow!

Another of the hazards on the road has been the copious amounts of mangoes which are grown, sold and consumed in this country. Don’t get me wrong – I love a good ripe mango. I’m particularly partial to dried mango, as colleagues back home probably know. But I prefer my mango on a plate, or in my hand. Not all over the road. It’s amazingly slippery stuff, so we have both been riding with eyes on stalks here, trying to avoid both the unripe green ones which lie, whole, on the road, and the pips and skins that are discarded near to the stalls where people throng to buy and sell them.

Coffin Makers in MalawiAnother feature of riding through Malawi are the number of indicators that the country is experiencing an AIDS pandemic. It’s not been noticeable in any other country that we’ve ridden through so far, but here there are signs everywhere, if you care to notice them. Firstly, there’re the many orphanages signposted along the road. Then there are the signs for carpenters and joiners whose first choice of product to advertise is the coffin! I find this really weird. But we see them everywhere. And some have names that make you want to laugh even as you’re feeling deeply moved inside by the implication of the proliferation of these roadside vendors. Signs like ‘Comfort Coffin Carpentry’ and ‘Heaven Bound Coffin Makers’ I find both funny and poignant in the extreme.

Aid agencies, not working in the health sector, also clearly abound here. I’ve seen more than 20 signs for a Farm Income Diversification Programme, acronymised to FIDP, which is being supported (presumably funded) by the EU. It’s the EU flag that catches my eye every time. Cynically, I have to wonder how much the signs all cost and whether or not the money couldn’t be put to better use on the actual project; but I guess I’d never have known about it if they weren’t there. More cynically, I really want to know what motive the EU has for encouraging Malawians to have piggeries! I may be looking for devils where there are none, but after hearing that the Japs sponsored the Valley of the Kings visitors’ centre in Egypt just to get the Egyptian vote for whaling, and asking myself why the Chinese are being so kind as to build Ethiopia’s roads, I just can’t help myself. It’s a fascinating world we live in, that’s for sure!

Lake Malawi activitiesOn the plus side, we made it to Lake Malawi! This has been one of my must-sees for a while now, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. It helped that we stayed a whole day longer than planned, in a lovely lakeside beach hut which would not pass any kind of health and safety inspection in the UK, but was perfectly adequate for our needs. The gaps in the reeds which made up the walls and roof were actually quite welcome, as the midday heat is quite intense and they allowed what little breeze there was to come through into the room.

That was at Nkhata Bay, in the north of the country. We also stayed in the south, at Senga Bay, where we opted to sleep in the tent. It was equally as hot here though, which probably contributed to the build up of a terrific thunderstorm which hit that evening. Accompanied by bright flashes and very loud thunderclaps, some of which made you jump involuntarily, the deluge was something to behold. Sadly, the little tent has seen better days, and it leaked a bit, which didn’t help us settle in for the night. But as with many African thunderstorms, almost as soon as it started it was over and we finally got to sleep with the sound of water dripping off the branches of the tree above us and plopping onto the canvas.

As you might imagine, we have enjoyed a number of lovely beach walks. What I’ve particularly enjoyed has been seeing the locals carrying on with their daily business on the lake shore – fishing with lines and nets, cleaning pots and pans with the sand from the beach, sitting atop some of the rocky islands offshore and washing clothes in the natural cavities there; all of these have been intriguing to watch from a distance and savour as examples of Africans using the resources to hand as a means of existence. Also, as Glyn always reminds me, it always feels more relaxing to be at rest when someone else is working. He’s usually referring to hearing a lawn mower or people playing cricket while you laze on the grass on a hot summer’s afternoon; but I had the same sensation here and have thoroughly enjoyed it.

Bee stings, baboons and baobabs

We left the comfort of our home from home in Arusha a full five days ago now, and have been gently making our way south.

The ride out from Arusha took us within sight of Kilimanjaro, where we stopped for the obligatory (but not very successful) photo of mountain with bikes in the foreground. Not far from here, we reached a junction where we then turned south, and for quite for a while I was riding with Kilimanjaro in my rear view mirror, conscious of the symbolic relevance of its receding icecap for climate change. I also felt peculiarly aware that the concept was highly unlikely to feature in the minds of the Masai to whom we were waving on the side of the road, despite the fact that it is people like them who will probably bear the brunt of this global phenomenon as it becomes a reality, if they haven’t already.

Putting these thoughts out of my mind was pretty easy when we got close to the border with Malawi. Southern Tanzania much resembles the southern section of Ethiopia, where everything is lush and green, banana trees grow in abundance and where fruit and blossom abound. It must have been this that accounts for the fact that I got my first ever bee-sting on this section of road. The little critter flew right up my right sleeve and, sadly for it, released its poison into my forearm. It was excruciatingly painful, and I pulled Glyn over pretty sharpish to have a look and apply the insect-sting gel that we had with us. You wouldn’t believe it, but the same thing happened the next day, only on the other side of the same arm. The result was a very swollen and itchy arm for a couple of days. At one stage Glyn rolled on the floor with laughter at me because I wondered out loud if my skin could cope with two stings either side – he said he couldn’t contain himself at the mental image that my arm was going to peel like a banana!

The road to Malawi also saw us pass through what is known as Baobab Valley. The area is absolutely brimming with these huge, exotic looking trees, which look like they’ve got root systems for branches, hence the local mythology that they were planted upside down by God in anger. I can’t remember the full tale, but it’s something like that anyway. Well, they were all in leaf, which I don’t think I’ve ever seen before, and a few were even flowering, which Glyn stopped to take a photograph of as we’d neither of us seen this either.

The area was also teeming with baboons, most of which seemed to take fright at the sound of the motorbikes, although a couple looked on nonchalantly, not moving from their roadside perches. One even looked for all the world like an old man, perched on the side of the road as he was, elbows on knees, watching the traffic go this way and that with a look on his face that seemed to suggest he was thinking ‘OK, so what’s new? I’ve seen this all before!’