Friday, December 23, 2011

Road to the Ferry

I first heard about the Lake Tanganyika ferry from Michael back in Buenos Aires. Michael was a Brit busy spending his pension checks from Her Majesty’s Navy on beer and petrol while traveling around the world in stages on his GS 1200. A year prior he had been in southern Africa and had taken the ferry.

Lake Tanganyika is the longest and second deepest freshwater lake in the world and is shared by four countries- DR Congo, Tanzania, Zambia and Burundi. I would be catching it at its most southern point in Zambia and then taking it up to the chimpanzee country of northwestern Tanzania and just a hair south of the halfway mark between Cape Town and Cairo. A big attraction to the trip is the vessel itself, the MV Liemba, an old German warship from WWI. I have not seen a photo of the ship yet and do not really know that much about it, but do know that the Germans once deliberately sunk the ship at some point to avoid it getting into enemy hands, and later raised it. The ship makes stops along the Tanzanian coast to small remote mostly inaccessible villages carrying passengers and goods. It is a working ferry for the lake with very few travelers on board. From its final destination in Kigoma, Tanzania I will try and secure passage on a cargo ship going to Burundi at the top of the lake. Otherwise, I would have 150-miles on dirt roads into the interior of Tanzania in order to catch the paved road to Rwanda.

In addition to these more obvious reasons, the idea of traveling through at least part of Africa by boat intrigues me, in the spirit of Joseph Conrad I suppose. It may not be a steamship going down the Congo River or in search of the ivory trading post of the deranged Mr. Kurtz, but I am looking forward to seeing how the experience unfolds.

Besides Michael’s personal account of the trip, it has been nearly impossible to find any current or reliable information about the trip. My Lonely Planet book has a meager 1”x1” box about it, stating it leaves every Friday. In Malawi, I heard from another traveler interested in making the trip that she heard it left every-other Friday, not weekly. There is no website or phone number to call, and not much mentioned on the online forums for overlanders, just more questions. My plan, or lack thereof, was to roll the dice and show up at the dock early in the week hoping that it was leaving on that particular Friday.

However, first I had to get to the lake. The logical route is to come up on paved roads from the south of Zambia. But because I went to Malawi and was now well north of any junction to the paved roads, I had two options: I could cut across the most northern part of Zambia on a dirt road or to ride into Tanzania cross over and then drop back down into Zambia also on dirt roads. Problem was, nobody could tell me anything about either of these roads and the rains were coming more frequently now. As my friend Adam would say, “good intel is hard to come by there”. Several times I had mentioned to Peter that I did not have a very good feeling about all this and was more anxious about the crossing than usual. For one thing, I did not like that the Zambian road paralleled so closely to the border (with Tanzania). Border areas can be bad news.

As Peter and I reached Karonga in northern Malawi, we stopped to get some more black market gas, using up what Malawian Kwacha we had before leaving the country, as it is has almost no value anywhere else. I stopped a couple of mature looking local businessmen walking by and asked if they knew anything about the road across Zambia. They said “no”, but did say that road west from the town of Chitipa in Malawi to the border was very bad and very dangerous. “You must not take that road. Promise me.” He apparently just had a friend killed by bandits on that road a week prior. I did not see any reason for him to lie, and he was pretty adamant about me not going that way. “Don’t worry, you only have to tell me once!” Peter and I crossed into Tanzania together and checked into the Landmark Hotel in Tukuyu.

After two nights, Peter and I said good-bye and he took the main road to Dar Es Salaam/Zanzibar and I went only about an hour west to the province capital of Mbeya. I checked into the Mt Livingstone Hotel so that I could get a decent map of Tanzania and some better “intel” on the road conditions going west. I still did not have a good feeling about this, and that in it self was bothering me. With all the recent rains my chief concern was getting stranded somewhere, unable to move forward and unable to turn back due to washed-out or impassable roads. I would also be incredibly vulnerable out there if the roads were bad or wet. Lastly, I did not have any real experience with the Tanzanian people, “how helpful would they be?”

The “bellboy” at the hotel took me to find a map and to a Bureau of Exchange office to change about $100 worth of Malawi Kwacha that I found hidden in one of my bags (what a bonehead!). The hotel manager later confirmed that the road west to Sumbawanga was in fact well traveled and was currently under construction. The Chinese were building a new paved road all the way and the detour road should be passable if it wasn’t raining. He did not know much about the road south to Zambia.

(China’s involvement in Africa has been coined as the re-colonization of Africa. China has been improving Africa’s infrastructure in exchange for access to individual countries’ natural resources.)

I set out the next morning on the paved road that took me down to Tunduma and the main border crossing with Zambia. I would be staying on the Tanzania side and catching the road west that skirted the border for 40-miles or so. It was the most chaotic border scene that I had seen for quite some time, and was very thankful that I was not crossing there.

The road was soon dirt and turned to shit pretty fast with potholes everywhere. The day was cloudy, but no rain in sight. It was Friday, so I still had a full week to get to the ferry dock at Mpulungu, on the south shore of the lake. I passed many villages along the route. There were sections of mud, but manageable.

For lunch, I bought some mangoes from some kids standing by the road and ate them under a tree with an ominous exclamation mark nailed to it. I should have heeded the warning!

The jaw-chattering 140-mile trip took seven-hours and landed me in Sumbawanga and the less than glorious Mbiza Forest Lodge. Not much of a lodge, and with terrible food, but they did serve me grilled bananas. I had seen people grilling them on the street, dry over hot coals, but had yet to try them. Not exactly sure what variety the banana is, but the grilling takes out some of the sweetness and toughens up the texture. The coarse salt you sprinkle on them makes them a savory little snack, great when accompanied with a cold Safari lager.

Under mosquito netting, I woke to the sound of rain falling on the metal roof at about 3-am, and could not go back to sleep again until it stopped about 90-minutes later. I kept telling myself that I only have 64-miles to get to the border. After breakfast I packed up the bike. I guess I could have waited a day to see if things dried up, but this was not a very interesting place to be and it could just as easily rained more. I desperately wanted this day to be over.

I found my turn off outside of town and saw that this road was also under construction. It was Sunday and nobody was working on it so I took the smooth dirt road for as long as I could, but soon enough was forced to use the detour road that paralleled. There were many patches of mud that forced me to stop, pick a line and plow through in first gear. A few people were out walking or on bicycles, but no other vehicles to speak of were out. The sky was now battleship grey and threatened of rain. The air was cool.

As the morning progressed, the one, and really only bright spot was passing through the various villages as church was letting out. Against a dark sky, and their dark skin, the women looked especially nice wrapped in their bold colorful fabrics. On this "day of rest" they clearly wore their best and brightest with matching cotton fabric for their skirt, top and head wrap. I love seeing the women wrap their hair up into the small tower of fabric. For me it is “classic Africa” and adds a sense of elegance to their outfit. On any other day, these are the same women that carry large loads balanced on their heads; large containers of cooking oil, bundles of firewood six feet long, or almost anything else you can imagine, but today, without the usual burden weighing them down, they seemed to gracefully float above the red dirt.

Then I got stuck. I tried to pick a line where there was none and the rear wheel was soon buried. I quickly waved down a man walking up the road with a hoe over his shoulder. He came over to help while I tried digging out. Useless. Not five minutes had gone by before a large truck carrying passengers came up the road behind me, the first other vehicle I had seen since starting out 22-miles ago. They too got stuck on their first attempt, but came over to help me first. We tried several things but ultimately, they just lifted the rear of the loaded bike up over the mud and pushed it out. I wanted to kiss them, but thought better of it. I then went over to help them out. After about 15-minutes of standing there I proved to be completely useless and they said I should get back on the road as it was now starting to rain.

(one long Slip-n-Slide)

I dropped the bike yet again, this time out of fatigue. My already makeshift right mirror broke again and my right pannier was bent out of shape - again. Once more, there was a man walking his bicycle along with his wife that was nearby and came to help. Tanzanians were proving to be very helpful and always at the right place and right time.It rained for the next 15-miles with more and more mud bogs to pass through. Now every pothole was filled with water and at places, water threatened to overtake the road completely. Keeping the bike from sliding sideways or any other direction took concentration and intense focus. It was exhausting. I first dropped the bike after the tires slid out from under me. I was thrown off and laid flat on my back vowing never to leave paved roads again. I wanted to scream and did. A man heard me wailing and came over to help me pick up the bike. At this point, every mile was counted and celebrated: “Half way there!” “Only 25 more miles!” “Now only 23 more miles”, and so on.

Finally, after an incredibly long four-hours, I got to the small and empty immigration office and found the lone officer on duty. Surprised, he asked how I had made it through the rains. I could only shrugged my shoulders.

Upon being greeted at the Nkupi Lodge near the shore of Lake Tanganyika I immediately asked, “When does the ferry come next?” “You are in luck, it comes this Friday” “YES!”

The next day I went to the port office to find out how much my passage would cost and to secure a cabin. Even here at the dock, information was hard to come by and someone had to text the actual captain of the boat. The man showed me the screen of his phone so I could read his reply, “Due to Christmas, the ferry will not be arriving until December 30th" . . . . a ten-day wait!

As the saying goes here, “TIA!” This is Africa!

Map of my route travelled: Map
Map of the ferry destination: Ferry route

Friday, December 16, 2011


POPULATION: 14-million, 65th most populous country

PRICE OF GAS: $14 a gallon on the black market

MONEY: $1 = 164 Malawi Kwacha


TIME IN COUNTRY: 11/30 – 12/14/2011

The “warm heart of Africa” needs a cardiologist, STAT! The endearing name of the country speaks well of the Malawi people, but the government might be called the “cold hearted greedy bastards of Africa”. Not as eloquent, but to the point.

When I arrived in Malawi through Chipata, Zambia I knew there was going to be some problems. Immediately upon crossing the border I noticed empty gas stations, one after the other - totally barren. I stopped by one and asked the drowsy attendant sitting on the curb when was the last time his station had any gasoline? “Two weeks ago.” When will you get more? “Today…or any day.” Malawi has not had any real gasoline for about 18-months. What petrol it does have comes in at night on trucks or boats from Zambia and Tanzania and sells for about $14 a gallon – far out of reach for any local. In the larger cities a legitimate tanker truck may occasionally supply a gas station with gas, but rather randomly. Once word gets out, the long lines form. Today, a BP station might get some fuel, two weeks later, it might be a Puma station cross-town. Thankfully, Malawi is not a very big country.

Malawi is a poor, landlocked, heavily populated, mineral-poor country that has been ravaged by HIV/AIDS and government corruption. Its economy is largely dependent on agriculture coming from small rural farms. It has long relied on aid from the World Bank, International Monetary Fund and Britain and United States, but much of that was halted in the year 2000 due to many human rights violations and government corruption. (A recent IMF or World Bank (?) report just quantified that government corruption accounts for 5% of the country’s GDP.)

The reason for the gas shortage is because Malawi no longer has any foreign currency and nobody wants to be paid in its Kwacha currency. The last bit of foreign cash on hand was used to buy a private presidential jet in 2009. No gasoline translates into higher prices on everything for people living in one of the poorest and least developed countries on the planet. In July of this year the people did protest and the police quickly opened fire on the crowds using live ammo, killing 22 people (the people on the street say over 40 were killed).

Anyway, you get the picture.

On the upside of things, Malawi is a stunning country. True, it is a landlocked country, but you would never know it with 3/4 ‘s of its eastern border made up of Lake Malawi. The lake was commonly referred to as “the calendar lake”, or at least until that silly metric system was introduced, because of the lake’s 365-mile length and 52-mile width (at its widest point). The shoreline is peppered with comfortable and affordable lodges that make traveling here easy and very enjoyable. The lake has a lot of personality and changes often depending where you are; Kande Beach, for example, was white sandy beach with still warm waters reminiscent of the Gulf of Mexico. Up north, the rocky shoreline with a mellow surf felt like somewhere in the Caribbean with excellent diving and freshwater tropical fish as brilliant and colorful as any of their saltwater cousins. When the shoreline wasn’t white crystalline sand, it was lined with dense green foliage interrupted only by the Flamboyant trees with their burnt-orange blossoms. Fish Eagles were commonly seen in the tall trees waiting to swoop down on unsuspecting fish. One could spend a lot of time touring the lake never repeating the same scenery twice.

Driving in Malawi was always an enjoyable and tranquil experience – the road never straight or flat for very long. Many people use the roads for foot and bicycle traffic so there is always a bit of “theatre” going on around you (and you have to be very careful). Passing through small villages and rural farmland the waving was incessant. Children would run toward the street and wave so hard that their whole body would wiggle. They really seemed to be getting something out of it and I was always afraid that I would not see a kid waving and pass by with out returning the gesture. On travel days, I must have waved at least 300 times a day. I loved it and it made the day so much fun. “Maybe this is why my shoulder feels better?”

The rumors on the online forums of police shaking down foreign travelers for proof of insurance or made-up infractions was unfounded from my perspective. There were many road stops and the cops did shake down the overcrowded minivan taxis, but I was waved on through or simply asked questions about the bike.

One highlight of my time in the country was my 10-day stay at the Myoka Village resort outside of Nkhata Bay. For $15 a night I had a private thatched roof chalet right on the shore. I swam everyday and practiced my balance in one of the dugout canoes. By the time I left, my shoulder pain was gone and felt strong again. There was an eclectic group of travelers all there at the same time and we often went into town for some curry or *nsima and beef stew at a local restaurant or for a cold Carlsberg at one of the very basic nightspots.

The weather by the lake was hot and humid. The 20-minute walk into town during the middle of day would leave you drenched in sweat. Thankfully, the water of the lake was always refreshing, and not the least bit cold. During the heat of the day, it was best to never venture too far from the water. At night, thunderstorms often rolled in and brought with them a cool breeze that great for sleeping.

Because of these rains and the dense population, Malawi can be quite malarial this time of year and I ramped up my anti-mosquito regiment to include mosquito sprays, burning coils and electrical plug-in deterrents. It was a full-on offensive that will probably knock years off my life for breathing in the noxious chemicals, but it kept the bugs away.

Because I swam in the slow moving waters of the Okavango Delta and in several spots in Lake Malawi, I am at risk of getting biharzia. Biharzia is caused by a parasite from a specific freshwater snail that can enter your body through the skin. It can be awhile before symptoms appear, but can be rather nasty if you wait for them as the “bugs” settle you your bowel and bladder. All of us at Myoka picked up the meds at the local clinic for about $1 and will take them six weeks after our last swim.

Lastly, to round out my time in Nkhata Bay, I visited a local school with a Finnish woman who had been volunteering there teaching English. My plan was to look around and observe for an hour and then get back to the lake, but to my surprise the teacher of the 6th grade class handed me some chalk and asked if I would teach English for a couple of hours. “What?” The cement block room with window openings, but no glass or screens was hot and packed with over 70-students. The teacher was gone in a flash to grade report cards or something as it was the last week of school. I was lost. I noticed that all the kids had a returned test in front of them so I looked through the questions. Excellent, they had been studying some basic human anatomy. That got me started. Then we moved on to world geography: the continents and oceans. The kids were polite, but unresponsive and quiet. I introduced the spelling game Hangman (but modified it so nobody was actually killed, and simply called it “Spelling Man”). Finally, I divided the class into two teams of their choice; it was to be England United vs. Arsenal. I used the anatomy and geography terms that we just went over for Spelling Man. The kids proved to be competitive and came alive and we all howled with laughter. Outside, other students peered into our windows with envy. When the teacher asked if I could come back the next day I said, “Absolutely!” I had a blast with the kids, though they probably didn’t learn a damn thing.

When it was time to leave I rode off with Peter, from Denmark, who was also traveling on a motorcycle. He had been traveling two-up with his wife Christine, but she had become ill and had to be flown home. Peter needed to get to Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania where he would sell his Honda Africa Twin before flying home. After Myoka Village we spent one night at Kande Beach and then another high above the lake at the old Scottish Christian mission of Livingstonia. The black market gasoline was expensive but always easy to find. I ended up exiting Malawi with Peter and we spent a couple nights in Tukuyu, Tanzania before heading our separate ways.

True to its reputation, the people of Malawi are what make the place so special, that and the lake of course. It is an amazing place with great potential but with the gas problems and the daily power and water outages, I was ready to leave when we did. I hope things turn around for the country soon. The story of corrupt African politicians seems to play on a repeating loop for many of these African countries, and of course a lot of good innocent people suffer for the benefit of the greedy.

*Nsima is a new food experience for me and has since been commonly served in northern Zambia, Malawi and Tanzania. It is finely ground corn meal that is served on your plate looking like a large scoop of mashed potatoes. With your right hand you pinch off a small piece and form a ball. With the ball you use it to scoop up or “pinch” your other food, often times a chicken or beef stew and cabbage salad. The nsima does not have a lot of flavor but soaks up whatever you are eating it with and is of course, quite filling. Luckily too, there is always a bottle of peri-peri sauce, or hot chili sauce on table. Because you eat with your hands, restaurants will bring out a dish of warm water for you to rinse your hands or provide soap and water station somewhere in the dining area.

A video of images of Malawi: Video

The route of my time in Malawi: Map

Thursday, December 1, 2011



Languages: English, Setswana

Money: Pula, approximately 6 to $1

Gasoline: On par with South Africa and Namibia

Population: 1.7 million

No visa or carnet needed

It’s all about the animals in Botswana. Not being much of a motorcycle country, you would fare much better traveling by horse, boat, or helicopter. The basic road network will get you close to where the action is, but to get into the middle of it all you will need to get far from any pavement. Problem is, once you are off pavement, you are in deep soft sand. My old nemesis!

Botswana is a landlocked-country, but who needs an ocean when you have a sea of diamonds? So much so that the center of the diamond industry is preparing to relocate from the United Kingdom for its new home in Botswana. Because of this wealth, small population, and better management of its resources than most African governments, Botswana is one of Africa’s most stable countries. All this and a good human rights record! Due to this stability and cash flow the country has been able to protect many of its wilderness areas.

As mentioned in the last post, the Kalahari Desert makes up most of the central and southern part of the country and is largely uninhabited. My focus was to be on the northern areas: the Okavango Delta and the Chobe National Park.

The Okavango Delta is the world’s largest inland delta. The waters originate from the Angolan highlands and flood into the Kalahari basin. Due to the heat, much of the water is lost to evaporation and there is a drastic change of water level throughout the seasons. When the water levels are high it attracts some of the greatest concentrations of wildlife anywhere. Currently, the water levels are high and many areas that had been dry for decades are now flooded again. It was just recently discovered how the fluctuating water levels follow a natural 40-year cycle.

I was incredibly fortunate, as I would be staying with some locals while in Maun. My good friend and horse lover Steve introduced David and Robyn Foot to me, from Seattle. Through an exchange of emails, David and Robyn invited to stay with them at their house outside Maun on the Thamalakane River. David’s last email with directions to the house closed casually with “we are just outside Maun on a deep sandy road” ARGH!

After a long hot day on flat straight paved roads from Windhoek I arrived at the house in the dark smelling like an unwashed goat. Harry, their 10-year old son peppered me with questions about the trip while David handed me a cold beer. I was feeling at home within 15-minutes. David and Robyn had prepared a tent for me on a small rise in the yard right above the river. It was a proper safari tent with a cot and folding table with a stainless water pitcher and cup. If it is one thing the two know, it is how to make people comfortable in the bush. After building a successful horse safari business in Malawi, the couple relocated the family and business to Botswana (due to the maladjusted government of Malawi). I have since learned how much David Foot Safaris is respected in the horse community.

With their help I scheduled a three-day makoro (dug out canoe) trip into the reeds and water of the delta, but before that I was on hand for the celebrated first rain of the season, November 16th. (Life at the Foot house takes place on the incredibly tranquil patio facing the river. It is furnished with cozy sofas and the dining table where Robyn serves up some very tasty and healthy meals.) The thunder and lightening was spectacular and the rain came down in buckets. I wasn’t as excited as they were, as the beginning of the rains means something different to me, but I appreciated the fresh smell in the air and the cooling effect that it had. I day later I got to speak at Harry and Julie’s primary school (click here for details).

I ended up as a 5th-wheel with two young American couples going into the delta. Everything we needed to set up camp on one of the islands was placed into the narrow makoros. The “polers” were incredibly skillful at navigating the waters and managing the load (I would appreciate this more later when I gave it a try in an empty boat). We passed hippos and saw many different bird species. Once camp was established our days consisted of a morning wildlife hike and later a sunset cruise. During the heat of the day we would swim or wade around in the water. There was talk of Black Mambas, Spitting Cobras and crocodiles, but thankfully none ever appeared. We saw zebra, many more hippos and an elephant skeleton during our outings. All in all it was a nice relaxing trip and a way to get a small taste of what this massive delta is like.

Before leaving Maun, I needed to take care of some “housekeeping” and David pointed me in the direction of a friendly tire shop. I had the Michelin Anakee tires installed that I had been carrying since leaving Jo’burg and changed all the fluids on the bike while also adjusting the valves. In the process of all of this I found a crack in the frame – something I had been expecting. The welder on site said he could do it right away. I mentioned needing to disconnect the battery before he grounded out his welder on the bike. He was adamant that it wouldn’t be necessary, but the one thing I remember from Ewan and Charlie’s trip was that a welder fried out the electronics of the ABS system when they didn’t fully disconnect the battery and the bike was left with no brakes. Without Ewan and Charlie’s budget and support crew, I could’ve been stranded and screwed for quite some time. “I owe you a beer Ewan and Charlie”.

After a somewhat sad good-bye, I headed off to Kasane at the border of Botswana, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Namibia – kind of like the “four-corners” area in the Untied States. I saw elephants along the way and some ostriches surprised me by crossing the road in front of me. Once again, I had luck with me and Robyn passed me off to her good friend Cathy who has a large house right on the Chobe River, which conveniently had a vacant spare bedroom available.

Originally from South Africa, Cathy is an established wildlife artist and knows almost everyone in the small “safari based” community. She arranged a day trip into Chobe National Park for me (motorcycles are never allowed in the wildlife parks). Again, I was put into a group of all Americans - this almost never happens. The schedule consisted of a morning boat cruise up the river and then after lunch we would return via land in a modified open-air Land Cruiser. We saw many animals, but no big cats, though they were there somewhere. (Note: There are NO TIGERS IN AFRICA! Embarrassingly this question always seems to come from Americans. Google it before leaving home please).

Chobe Park has one of the highest concentration of wildlife in Africa and probably the largest elephant population on the continent, at over 50,000. Sadly, this poses a problem outside of the park where elephants are also plentiful, and roam around the town. These giants can be very destructive, tearing down moderate size trees and anything else in their path. Cathy has almost a resident family in her yard, though not while I was there. As tourism has grown in the community outside the park, some of the new safari lodges and municipal projects have started putting up stronger electrified fences to keep the elephants away from the precious riverfront properties. Of course, the elephants were there first and they are the whole reason people are drawn to the area in the first place. Residents often use rubber bullets to drive the elephants from there land, and sometimes - not rubber. Interestingly and timely, just this week I read of a new discovery by a South African researcher about how elephants are afraid of bees, simple honeybees, and by building a "fence" of bee hives this will keep elephants away. The bees can sting the inside the elephants’ trunk and just hearing the buzzing scares them off. Click here for the article.

I enjoyed my time with Cathy and ended up staying a third night. We had a few sundowners together and she introduced me to several of her friends. I could have easily stayed two-more weeks, but needed to move north before the rains get too bad.

On November 27th I took the 10-minute ferry ride across the Zambezi River to Zambia.

Here is a map of route through Botswana: Map