Posted in travel

How to Travel Southern Africa on a Budget

If you’ve ever looked into travelling around Southern Africa, you’ve probably found it’s a bit expensive. Everyone wants to go on safari, but who can afford to pay $1,000 per day? There are, however, ways to see this part of the world on a budget, and without sacrificing too much in the way of comfort, adventure, or experience.

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Pick your locations carefully

Botswana is a notoriously expensive place. It’s hard to complain about it, because they do a great job of using tourist money to protect their wildlife. However, it’s one of the hardest countries to see on a shoestring. Zimbabwe is also pretty pricey, especially around the Victoria Falls area, which gets a lot of tourists.

Right now almost all of South Africa is cheap to visit because the economy is doing so poorly. Changing foreign currency will buy you huge amounts of rand. It’s cheap to sleep, to eat, or to rent a car. Even Kruger National Park – one of the greatest tourist destinations on earth – is cheap to visit.

If you’re planning a long visit, you might want to spend more time in South Africa and Swaziland, and less time in Botswana and Zimbabwe.

Hostel all the way

Even in the more expensive parts of Southern Africa, hostels are affordable. Moreover, Africa has some of the greatest hostels in the world. Whereas in other places they’re often rundown and dingy, throughout most of Southern Africa you’ll find absolutely brilliant hostels. In South Africa in particular they rank really highly – with many of them featuring swimming pools!

Remember to check online before to see prices and ratings. Despite all the great hostels, there are obviously a number of ones to avoid. In places like Cape Town you’re really spoiled for choice. Because of the competition, every hostel goes out of its way to impress its guests. Out in the sticks, however, you might need to look a little harder, and prices might be higher.

Go off-season

The same rules apply as elsewhere in the world – peak season in the most expensive time to visit. In Southern Africa, summer (that’s winter in the northern hemisphere, so think January-February) is considered a bit of an off-season. At this time, hostels are quiet and the national parks are empty of visitors. If you’re looking for vibrant nightlife, this really isn’t the time to go, but if you’re looking for peace, quiet, and budget travel, it’s perfect.

At this time of year, most backpackers are heading to Southeast Asia, which is going through its peak season in Jan-Feb. Southern Africa, on the other hand, is largely ignored at this time. I got great deals on safaris, accommodation, and transport because there was simply no one else around. What’s more, even flights to and around the area are cheaper than at other times.

Use public transport

In South Africa, renting a car is very cheap, but elsewhere it’s neither cheap nor particularly safe. There are long-distance luxury buses that will cart you around the area, or grossly overpriced trains, but these don’t go everywhere and they miss out on the important experiences.

Through Southern Africa the mode of transport most people use is the combi bus – that’s a small minivan that is crammed full of people. You can go anywhere if you ask in advance, and it’s dirt cheap. I travelled all over the place in these vans and met the friendliest people on the way. I seldom paid more than a dollar or two for long rides, and even though sometimes it was crammed and slow, I always enjoyed the journey.

Personally, I hitch-hiked a lot around South Africa and Botswana, although I’m reluctant to recommend it to others. I never felt in danger but of course it is always a risk. In certain places, however, hitch-hiking is quite common and a great way to get where buses won’t go.

Eat local

For my first money in Southern Africa I never spent more than $3 per day on food because wherever I went there was a small kitchen to prepare. I’d just find the local supermarket and buy the basics. If I came upon a restaurant I’d eat the local food, whatever that was. It was always cheap and it’s great to try new things.

When I first arrived in Zimbabwe I ended up in a steakhouse in Bulawayo. It was a western restaurant – the first I’d eaten at in a month – and they had the most amazing steaks I’ve ever eaten in my life. My bill, though, was $25. Now in the West that’s not a bad total, but when you’re used to paying $3 per day for all your food combined, $25 for a steak and a beer suddenly seems a bit steep. Still, one has to spoil oneself sometimes.

 

Finally, be flexible, open-minded, and always travelling intelligently. Make sure that you’re insured, do your research ahead of time, don’t be afraid to try new things. This is one of the greatest places on earth and right now you can see it on a shoestring if you really want.

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Climbing Table Mountain

After an amazing five weeks touring Southern Africa I found myself in Cape Town with one day left before my flight back to China. What would I do? There were so many things from which to choose – touring the wine lands, paragliding, surfing… or climbing Table Mountain.

I love to hike, and throughout my African adventure I averaged 12.5km per day. That’s an average of 12.5km per day for about 40 days. I had bought a new pair of hiking boots before arriving and worn them nearly into the ground over some 500km of walking across some of the most amazing landscapes on earth. In Swaziland in one single day I hiked 53km. I genuinely believe it’s the best way to see a new place, in spite of any potential dangers.

So really it was a no-brainer when Table Mountain stacked up against the other options. I’d already seen the sharks and the penguins. Besides, it was visible from my hostel, from the road from the airport, from the train to Simon’s Town… everywhere I went I could see this behemoth looming large and inviting me, nay, daring me to climb it. I couldn’t resist the challenge.

I set off from my hostel on Kloof Street and headed towards the mountain with only the GPS program on my iPhone and the intention of getting to the top. I’d tried to Google hiking trails and failed due to a lack of wifi. Oh well. Exploring is more fun.

At the bottom of the mountain, in the pass between Table Mountain and the Lion’s Head, I took a small path leading along the bottom of the mountain, on the east side. I didn’t want to trudge along busy paths or take the cableway. I sauntered along quietly for almost an hour, seeing not a single person, just enjoying the views out over the Atlantic as I slowly wound up the side of the mountain, following a gentle incline.

Things turned from pleasant to difficult when the path came to an abrupt end. I looked about and couldn’t see where it led, and then I realized that I was meant to climb. There was a small sheer cliff face of maybe two and a half meters. I couldn’t see that the path continued above, but there appeared to be a gap in the vegetation, so I assume that it did. I tossed my bag up and climbed to the next level.

I’m not great with heights. I love climbing, ironically, but as I’ve gotten older I’ve found it harder to cope with heights and so I don’t really climb any more. I find that my balance is now poor and I fear falling. Thus, climbing that small cliff posed a real challenge, and when I got to the top and continued on the path, I was elated. I’d conquered that small obstacle.

As I continued along, it dawned on me that I really needed the path to continue in its present state, with no more cliffs. If I came to one that I couldn’t climb, I’d be in trouble. At the top of the previous one I realized I wouldn’t be able to get back down without real difficulty, and maybe a broken ankle.

Unfortunately, I soon came to another small but tricky climb. Hoping it was the last one, I climbed it and persevered. Then there was another. And another. With each climb I realized the chances of me going back were slimmer and slimmer. I didn’t want to risk climbing down because it seemed so much more difficult and dangerous than climbing up, and also it would take so long that I’d likely never reach the summit.

Pretty soon my hike ceased to be a hike interspersed with little rocky faces to climb, and became a serious climb up a seriously difficult rocky escarpment. Every fifteen meters or so my knees buckled from vertigo and my head spun. I was, for the first time on the whole trip, terrified. I became certain I would die on that cliff face.

And that’s when it started to rain.

I continued on slowly, on the slick wet rock. I kept taking my backpack off and throwing it up to the next level, then climbing up myself, leaning in as closely as possible, aware that any slip by my hands or feet, or any loose rock, would result in me falling not just a few feet and breaking an ankle. Now the stakes were higher – I’d surely go a few hundred meters to my death.

Finally I could see the top. The path, however, branched in two. One way was steep and the other gentle. I chose the gentle path. I followed it as best I could, but it wound its way around the side of the mountain, on thin, worn paths above giant drops, to yet another stupidly difficult climb. Time and again I stopped to get my head together. I was so dizzy that even standing still I felt I’d likely topple over the edge, and each climb became harder and harder.

It was only when I saw the lip at the top of the mountain and knew finally that I’d made it that I got my act together and climbed harder and faster. When I finally reached the summit I was exhausted, having done hundreds of meters on my hands and feet.

I staggered around the top of Table Mountain and then headed down Skeleton Gorge to the Kirstenbosch Gardens. I tried to walk home but by that point I’d walked 20km on a completely empty stomach, had long since run out of water, and ended up finding a taxi back to town.

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Simon’s Town Penguins

With my time in Africa running out, I found myself in Cape Town with only a few days and yet so much to do. Fortunately I’d done so many things on my trip that I could have no regrets, but I wanted to make sure that I saw as much as possible.

Cape Town is a cool city. I honestly don’t like cities and even supposedly nice ones like Durban had been pretty disappointing for me… but Cape Town was incredible. There were simply too many things to do there, and so I picked one almost at random – the penguin colony at Simon’s Town.

Getting there requires a train from the central station. It’s a long ride, but after a while you’re out of the city and running along the coast – Table Mountain National Park rising up to the sky on one side, and False Bay’s azure waters on the other. It really is a stunning ride.

I saw many places along the way that I thought would be perfect to get off and explore, but I stayed on until my destination – Simon’s Town – and explored from there. Simon’s Town is a charming, quaint little place filled with old buildings. There are lots of cafes and souvenir shops if that interests you.

I bought some fish ‘n’ chips from a little harbor side cafe and then walked south to find some penguins. On a random, hidden beach I found six penguins just sitting around. I was surprised how close I could get.

I walked on until I found the actual penguin colony – the protected one intended for tourists. I paid to get in but was disappointed to find it crammed with Chinese tourists. They acted just like they do in China – pushy, noisy, and rude.

Still, there were an abundance of penguins to see. Most of them, at this point, were nesting. They seemed unperturbed by the aggressive hordes of Chinese, but were sometimes attacked by giant seagulls. In one case, a seagull pushed a penguin off its egg and flew off with the egg, only to land and attempt to smash it repeatedly on a rock. Nature is merciless.

After strolling along the short boardwalk filled with Chinese people, I wandered off in search of something a bit more interesting and found part two of the protected penguin colony – a beach where you can actually mingle with the penguins. I was able to swim alongside some of them in the icy cold water. Thankfully, because it was shallow, the water was nowhere near as cold as it had been while doing the shark dive.

By a huge coincidence, I met a girl I’d stayed with in Victoria Falls – neither of us knew the other intended to go to Cape Town. She and some friends had rented a car and offered to drive me back to town. I had a return ticket for the train but scrapped it and rode with them instead. On the way back we stopped off at Fish Hoek and Muizenberg to see the beautiful white sand beaches and the scores of surfers.

Back in Cape Town, I headed home to my hostel (Once in Cape Town) and my friends to theirs (91 Loop). Both places are wonderful – although to be fair most hostels in South Africa seem ridiculously good. Then we headed out to Jimmy’s Burger for dinner and the Beerhouse for beers.

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Into the Okavango

In Maun I was staying at the Old Bridge Backpackers largely because I’d read online that they operated community-run mokoro trips into the Okavango. As a child, I grew up watching BBC documentaries about African wildlife and, it seemed, half the time those documentaries were shot in the Okavango. It was a place I couldn’t have pointed out on a map, but whose name was etched into my brain; a place synonymous with beauty and wilderness.

I got up early one morning and was driven by jeep way out to a small village right on the edge of the Okavango Delta. I met my guide, a lifelong mokoro poler, who pushed us out onto the waterways. He was very quite, almost alarmingly so. But then, so was the world around us. We were miles from the nearest road, miles from the nearest town, and heading further into the wild.

From the offset, we were surrounded by wildlife – namely birds. I don’t know much about birds but they were stunning, as they had been all through my African trip. Some of them were like pterodactyls – impossibly large creatures beating the air violently with their massive wings.

I lay on the mokoro – a small, dugout canoe, as he stood, pushing us through the water. We spent about two hours travelling through the shallow channels of this bizarre inland delta, birds all around us. Occasionally the guide would tell me to stand up and we would see zebra or wildebeest beyond the reeds.

Eventually we arrive at what would be our camp for the night. It was only late morning by this stage, but we were to spend the afternoon hiking. First, though, the guide wanted to take a nap. Fair enough – it must have been tiring pushing the mokoro in heat approaching 45 degrees.

While he slept, I walked out into the wild to explore. I didn’t go far, but far enough to find myself walking across plains, surrounded by zebra, wildebeest, and one elephant. It was thrilling. There is no better word. Everywhere I looked there was wildlife that until recently I’d only seen on TV or, sadly, in zoos. The long grass was lion-coloured and I couldn’t help but imagine I was being watched.

A huge storm came in quickly and I soon found myself sheltering from thunder and lightning and torrential rain, which the parched lands badly needed. I went back to my tent and sat watching the lightning all around, and listened to the rain on the tent.

After a few hours my guide awoke and we set out on a 15 km hike through the surrounding area. We tracked animals on foot, coming upon a few lion kills (and even a dead lion), and getting close to a few elephants, dozens of giraffe, and some smaller game. The feeling of walking through that incredible landscape was humbling. This is how humans felt thousands of years earlier, walking through the landscape as a vulnerable speck, hoping a lion doesn’t come running from the treeline.

At night we made a fire and watched the stars. They were so bright and innumerable, and shooting stars shot across and over the horizons.  I walked around in the dark, flashing my torch to see if eyes would shine back in the night. Giant catfish flopped about in the shallow water.

In the morning, I awoke at 5am and watched the sunrise over the baobab trees and mist hang in the long grass over the waterways. We set out walking again – 20+km this time. My boots soon filled with water from the dew. On this walk we saw much of the same as the day before, but got altogether far too close to a large elephant, which charged at us and sent us running. Thankfully, it was a warning charge and it chose not to pursue us further into the trees.

I wish I could have had more time to spend walking through the Okavango. There really is no place I know of which is like it. It is the wildest place on earth and, I think, the experience of simply walking there – even over a hundred or so meters – puts so much into perspective. You feel so small and insignificant on that great landscape, so much at the mercy of the world around you, yet entirely filled with awe at its power and beauty. And that is how life should be lived.

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Hitch-hiking Through Botswana

After a few days at Victoria Falls, in Zimbabwe, I set out for the Botswana border post. I walked west from the town until I came to the cross roads of Livingston Way and Kazungula Road, then hitched a ride to the border. When I passed through into Botswana, which was a hell of a lot easier than getting into Zimbabwe, I found I couldn’t go anywhere. I’d planned to walk to Kazungula and then, depending on what I found there, either hitch-hike into Kasane or head south towards my ultimate destination – Maun. Unfortunately, though, there was a girl working at the border who told me I couldn’t walk to Kazungula.

“You can’t walk,” she told me.

“Why?” I asked.

“It’s too far.”

“It’s ok. I walk a lot. Besides, it’s only a few kilometers.”

“There are wild animals there.”

“I’m not afraid of wild animals.”

“Well, you can’t go.”

“Is it illegal?”

“Yes.”

So she called me a taxi and rode with me. Later, I realized she might have just tried to score a free taxi ride, which she got. In any case, soon I was in Kasane, waiting for a bus to a town called Nata. I was told that from Nata it would be possible to hitch-hike west to Maun.

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At the bus depot, I got into an awkward conversation with a few workers. They were arguing over why white people travel more than black people. Two men said that their country’s government had failed them by not providing a higher income level for its population, while the other said that black people (specifically Africans) prefer to spend their money immediately, and are inherently bad at saving. They were friendly but very intensely arguing, trying to win me over to their respective sides. I agreed with the two guys about their lack of income, but didn’t want to take sides, so I just nodded and listened for a while. They were, like almost everyone I met in Africa, incredibly friendly and helpful.

Soon I was on the bus to Nata. From the window I could see giraffes and elephants walking along the road. We had to stop to go through various checkpoints, and stamp on some wet mat. I never did see the purpose of all this.

At Nata I got off the bus at a service station. Soon the bus left, and I was waiting for another to take me to Maun. But it never arrived. I waited about forty-five minutes, and still nothing.

There was a Swedish girl, too, waiting for this phantom bus. Eventually we gave up and looked around for a hotel. I had Maps.Me working on my phone, and it led us to a little guesthouse near the Nata River. There wasn’t much to see in Nata. Only a few houses, a few tin shacks from which people sold food or drinks or haircuts. There were cows and donkeys roaming the streets. It was just a dusty crossroads in the middle of nowhere.

We found a “Zambian Liquor Restaurant” and had dinner – beef and cabbage and maize – and a lot of beers. After a month in Africa, I finally got stupidly drunk. I would wake up the next morning with a brutal hangover.

 

The next morning I set out to find an ATM, because I didn’t have enough money to pay for my room, and they didn’t accept cards (despite a sign outside claiming the contrary). Luckily I was able to withdraw a small amount for a large fee.

We went back to the cross roads and gave up on the idea of ever finding a bus to Maun. “Let’s hitch-hike,” I said. Johanna said she’d never hitch-hiked before, but I told her I’d hitch-hiked many times in many countries, and said that we should definitely do it.

We sat at the side of the road to Maun, talking. She said that it would be two hours before we go a ride on account of the fact that there were absolutely no cars travelling along this road. I said I bet it would be twenty minutes.

Twenty minutes later, exactly, a beat-up old Toyota Corolla pulled up beside us. I’d written “MAUN” on a piece of paper and stuck my hand out. The car was more or less full but we managed to squeeze in. Roaring off into the great barren expanses of central Botswana, I was filled with enthusiasm, thinking, “I’m the greatest hitch-hiker in the world!” What luck to have found a ride so quickly on a desolate road.

After Johanna commented on my luck, I told her that I wasn’t always lucky in travel. In my life I’ve been in a plane crash, numerous car crashes, several motorbike crashes, two bus crashes, on a train whose engine exploded, and on a boat which sunk.

Shortly after saying this, the car’s back right tire exploded and we veered off the road.

After standing by the side of the road in the brutal African sun for half an hour, hoping a lion wouldn’t come out from the bush and eat us, a car finally passed. It stopped and they tried to help us replace the burst tire. Then another car passed, and another. Soon everyone was laughing and joking by the side of the road. This is what I loved most about Africa – the people. Such warm, friendly, decent people.

We got back on the road, now driving in a convoy. The radio blared and people sang and danced in their seats. But after twenty more minutes, the back left tire burst. The convoy stopped and we replaced another tire.

Soon we had to stop again and the driver turfed us out. We weren’t entirely abandoned because another car in the convoy took us, and we set out once again. I regretted having mentioned my awful luck with transportation…

This car broke down four times on the way to Maun, each time due to the engine overheating. I wouldn’t say it was entirely my bad luck – the driver seemed intent on pushing the car to and beyond its limits, driving at breakneck speed through the Makgadikgadi. The road and the heat were unforgiving, and the cars hardly built to withstand such punishment.

Eventually we arrived in Maun. Through all my travels in Africa I’d learned that “just” going a few hundred kilometers would take a long time, and this was another fine example. It had taken almost a full day to get from Nata to Maun, and two full days to get there from Victoria Falls. I’d been naive to think it could’ve been done in a day.

From town we had to take a taxi out to The Old Bridge Backpackers, which sits at the northern end of Maun, on the edge of the Okavango Delta. This was one of my goals in Africa – to see the Okavango. I’d grown up watching BBC documentaries and its name was burned into my consciousness. I had planned out a camping trip, sleeping under the stars amidst the greatest collection of wildlife on the planet.

First we checked into the Old Bridge and I booked a mokoro (a small dug out canoe) to venture off into the wild the next day. It would prove to be one of the greatest and wildest experiences of my life.

 

Photos coming later this week. Follow this blog for updates.

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Zimbabwe pt 2 – Lions and Crocs

After seeing Victoria Falls, there were various activities on offer in the surrounding area. Everything was pretty expensive, unfortunately, but I was keen to see some more wildlife and try some new things.

Everywhere I went, people kept trying to sell me tours, but as I was enjoying my stay at Shoestring Backpackers, I decided to book through their in-house travel agent. They set me up with a canoe trip on the Zambezi River and a Lion Walk – which is, as the name suggests, a walk with lions.

I didn’t know what to expect from the Lion Walk. Its premise was pretty simple, yet utterly unbelievable – walking with lions. It cost $150, and I didn’t know whether my money was going towards looking after lions or exploiting them. In any case, out of curiosity, and with the assurances of the travel agent (whatever that’s worth) I went along one afternoon to find out.

Fortunately for me, as with other parts of my trip around Africa, there weren’t many people on my tour. There were only three of us, in fact. We arrived at a little hut in a National Park and were given a run-down of rules. These included not touching the animals’ heads, not standing in front of them, and not wearing anything that dangles. There were actually a lot of rules and I struggled to remember, but assumed that rather than have a tourist eaten by their lions, the guides would remind me from time-to-time.

Alarmingly soon, we were on our way into the lions’ den. There were no fences – the guide informed us that there was a stream that more or less marked the lions’ territory. There was a man with a gun ahead of us, whom we were told was there to shoot any buffalo or other (non-endangered) big game which might wander into our surrounding area. After only a few minutes we came upon two lions.

It should probably go without saying that walking through a forest and meeting a lion is breath-taking, even when you expect it. They were babies, at only 22 months old, but nonetheless massive and majestic animals. They lay sleepily in the shade, on cool grass. We were told their names (one of them was called Belezulu and I don’t remember the other) and that they were siblings.

Soon the lions were on their feet and we walked them around a well-trodden path. The three tourists took our turns walking beside the lions as they wandered hither and thither, pouncing on dragonflies and chasing guinea fowl. The guide gave strict and constant instructions of where to stand and what to do in order to not get eaten.

It was a wonderful and surreal experience. At the end we were again given information about the cause and allowed to ask questions. It seems the lions are taken in as babies and raised by rangers. They are exposed to humans until 24 months, after which time they have absolutely no contact with people. They are, however, monitored for about three years, before going truly into the wild.

Next up was a canoe trip on the Zambezi River, run through a company called Wild Horizons. This began early morning with a game drive through Zambezi National Park. We spotted plenty bird life and some big game, but nothing spectacular. I didn’t mind because I’d had some great safari tours so far on the trip, and was looking forward to the canoeing.

When we arrived at the river there was a crocodile immediately in our path. It was just a little one, but it was right beside where we intended to launch the canoes. Our guide informed us that the crocodiles weren’t a big problem. He said crocodiles aren’t particularly dangerous when canoeing and that we really needed to worry about hippos, which are bad tempered and could flip or destroy a canoe with ease.

After being given a lot of guidance in how to react during the rather likely event of a hippo attack, we set out onto the river and it was surprising how slow the current moved. We very gently let the current carry us along. I was in one canoe with the guide while the two other tourists were in another canoe behind us.

From the canoe we saw numerous impressive birds and dozens of hippos. We stayed clear of the hippos as much as possible, but now and then they’d just appear from nowhere.

After two hours were went through a small rapids and emerged almost on top of three large hippos. My guide, who was steering from behind, banked hard right and we paddled for an alternate route, away from the giant animals. Soon we slowed right down and let the current take us once again.

After a few seconds, however, my guide, who had been unflappably calm throughout the whole trip, flipped out when there was a sudden bump underneath us, and he started shouting: “A big croc! A big croc! Go! Go! Go!” I thought it was some sort of joke and paddled towards the shore; however, when we got there and turned to look back, there was indeed a massive crocodile where we had just come from. The old English couple behind us paddled unwittingly past the croc to the bank and got out.

I stood and watched the crocodile, listening to the guide as he calmed down. He’d hit the crocodile accidentally with his paddle and it had come up under our boat and hit us. It was hardly a “croc attack” but it was a nice exciting story to take away from another otherwise relaxing and pleasant trip down one of the world’s great rivers.

The next morning, having spent altogether far too much money, I hitched a ride to the border with Botswana – the start of a long, long hitch-hiking journey throughout Zimbabwe’s neighbor to the west.

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Victoria Falls

After posting two stories from last year’s trip to North Korea, I’m back to blog about this year’s trip to Africa. 

After visiting Matopo National Park in the middle of Zimbabwe, I took the train north to Victoria Falls, on the border with Zambia. The train ride was fairly pleasant and I awoke at dawn to watch the sunrise over Hwange National Park.

The train eventually rolled into Victoria Falls and I walked to Shoestring Backpackers. On the way I was accosted by a number of hawkers selling tours, t-shirts, crappy souvenirs, and bank notes for trillions of Zimbabwean dollars. It was annoying and would only get more annoying as the days went on.

I checked into the hostel and walked around town, making my way through the packs of hawkers to the Falls. Zimbabwe had proven very expensive so far and I wanted something cheap to do, so I was disappointed that to even see the Falls cost $30. What a rip-off… or so I thought.

When I got inside and actually had my first look one of the Seven Wonders of the World, I no longer regretted paying the money. It was well worth every penny. I spent the next three hours wandering around the park, looking at the Falls from every angle.

It’s known as the “Smoke that Thunders” because the sound of water is deafening and the mist rises way into the air like smoke. While I was there, there actually was thunder and it the water was too loud to hear it at first, but then the lightning came and I made for cover. I grabbed a beer at the cafe and the rain poured down. I hadn’t noticed the rain because the mist was so thick.

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Hluhluwe–iMfolozi Park

I left Swaziland after just a few days, and arrived at the border with South Africa at Lavumisa. Upon crossing the border, however, I encountered a pretty big problem… There was nothing there. I’d expected a few minibuses like I’d found at the other buses I’d crossed, but there was nothing at all.

I didn’t know what to do. Looking at maps.me I found nothing nearby that would indicate any sort of transport system. The nearest town I could find was more than 100km. It also seemed that I was pretty much in the middle of a game reserve, too… which meant that even if I could somehow walk 100km (and my feet were still badly blistered from hiking in Swaziland) I’d have to avoid being eaten or gored to death.

After a few minutes of pondering my lack of options, I decided that the only option was to hitch-hike. I’d hitch-hiked the United States back in 2007, and in South Korea a few years later. In all attempts I’d been pretty successful – ie I got a ride quickly and hadn’t been murdered.

This time I stuck my thumb out and waited all of two minutes. A car pulled up and a man asked where I was going. “St. Lucia,” I told him. I hadn’t booked anywhere but I figured St. Lucia was a good place to go. It shouldn’t be hard to find a place to sleep.

“Mtubatuba,” he said.

“St. Lucia,” I replied, not understanding.

“I can take you as far as Mtubatuba,” he explained.

I jumped in and looked at my map. Mtubatuba was only 25km from St. Lucia. I could surely get a combi or taxi from there.

On the road I spoke to the man very little. He wasn’t unfriendly but also wasn’t particularly forthcoming. At one point he said, “I’ve never been to St. Lucia but I hear it’s nice… White people get all the nice things.” From there one things were pretty uncomfortable.

Eventually, the man agreed to take me all the way to St. Lucia for the equivalent of about $15. It was well out of his way and saved me a lot of hassle, so I didn’t mind paying. Besides, he’d driven me a long way from an isolated border post.

In St. Lucia I found a nice “hostel” was which actually a collection of tents on a roof. The tents were pretty luxurious, and I was disappointed to be kicked out the next day due to overbooking.

In St. Lucia I hiked around and spent time photographing the crocodiles and hippos in the nearby river and estuary. Then I booked a tour to the Hluhluwe–iMfolozi Park that offered a good chance of seeing the Big 5. I’d not seen a lion at Kruger so I was excited about my prospects.

The above photos show some of what I saw that day.

My guide around iMfolozi was an interesting old man. Whereas my guides to other parks had been very young, this guy was well into his sixties or seventies, with long silver hair. He’d grown up in Zimbabwe when it was known as Rhodesia, and worked then as a hunter. The irony that he know worked as a tour guide in a park protecting animals was not lost on him… although he did often talk about the importance of hunting in conservation.

We saw a lot of rhino that day and our guide, too, talked about the importance of legalizing the trade in rhino horn. In six years we’ll have no rhino left, and none of our efforts to stop poaching have proven successful. The only choice, he claimed, was to farm it. It was an interesting perspective with which I tend to agree.

Posted in travel

Arriving in Maputo

I left Scotland on the 13th from Edinburgh for my much-awaited trip to Africa. I’d spent twelve days back home in Scotland having a belated Christmas with my family, but although I was sad to leave, I was excited to see a new continent. 

Unfortunately, the flights were all delayed. First there was an ISIS attack in Istanbul, and as I was flying Turkish Airlines I had to wait an extra hour in Edinburgh, and an extra three hours in Istanbul. The plane stopped for an hour and a half in Johannesburg, too. 

When I finally arrived in Maputo I navigated the bizarre immigration system for the first time. You’re now meant to have a visa prior to arrival, but for a small fee (bribe) you can still get a visa on arrival. They’re surprisingly open about this. I got a weird mugshot and soon was waiting to have my bags arbitrarily x-rated before setting out into the city. 

  
Having passed through immigration and customs, I looked for transport to my guesthouse. There isn’t much of anything at Maputo airport. Eventually a pushy man convinced me to go with him. On the way to his sketchy car, I saw a real taxi and decided to take that instead. The man was furious. “Look me something!” he shouted. He meant give him money. 

Later, the taxi driver told me that this other man was a “bad man,” whatever that meant. 

I checked into the Guesthouse Lokal, which was very nice, though a little expensive. Every room in Maputo had seemed expensive, but at least this one, unlike others, was clean. 

  
After checking in I decided to explore the city. I didn’t take my camera because I’d heard there are so many muggings and it seemed to be inviting trouble. I also didn’t take out my iPhone to take pictures for the same reason. 

Maputo is a strange, dusty city. It’s hot as hell, even at night. The pavements are falling apart and so walking is dangerous, and the high fences and armed security guards make you feel a little wary. I walked around but saw nothing, then bought supplies at a little convenience store. It was nice to see bread and cheese on offer after so long in China. 

Tomorrow it’s off to Inhambane and then Praia do Barra.