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African Adventure Nine: Zambia

Traveled to Kasane and had a boat cruise. Entered Zambia via the most chaotic checkpoint imaginable, and went to Victoria Falls, met some shifty blokes. Had an exciting white-water riverboarding adventure in the crocodile infested waters of the Zambeze, survived.

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Road Under Construction

Wednesday's plan was to drive to Kasane, the boarder town to Zambia, before making the crossing the next day. You drove 135km over a Road Under Construction, which seemed less like a road and more like a series of coincidentally connected pothole patches. Along the way you met a chameleon who you helped cross the road; he reluctantly accepted a ride on your hand, impressively changing his colour to match. Considering this was a main road there sure were a lot of elephants milling about in the middle; you met eight along the way, some shy and others grumpy. The dirt road eventually became asphalt lined by tall grass. The grass became the next problem: tight curves hid oncoming traffic, so every time a lorry came roaring round the bend you nearly wet your pants. Somewhere along the 300km of road that day you saw a beautiful horned ...thingy, for which Meike skidded to a slippery screeching (scary) halt. This confirmed the ABS was turned off.

The motel in Kasane was a classy joint but its campsite was crappy. You treated yourselves to a buffet lunch gloriously not cooked by you both over coals for three hours. You booked a sunset cruise, set up the tent and spent the rest of the afternoon by the jetty affront the hotel commenting quietly on other annoying tourists.

As soon as the boat's bar opened there was a rush of whities ordering gin and tonics, followed immediately by "when are we gonna see the animals!?" Damn them whities (mostly American tourists), making you look bad! You photographed all kinds of interesting birds, while the barman helped you spot some crocs amongst other things. There were many monitors casually mingling with the crocodiles, and lots of colourful birds. The boat later came across groups of hippos flopping gracefully into the water as hippos do best. They kink of stand at the waters edge and look at it for a while, and then flop forwards chin-first and let their hind legs slide in behind them. There were a few baby hippos here and there, some playing in the water "like dolphins" said the guide. The boat tour guide had with him a mammal bible detailing all local animal and bird species. He joked that you should be careful not to fall in: "crocs like white meat".

That night there was a most bizarre noise outside your roof-top tent. It sounded like an armada of propeller driven planes flying overhead during a torrential rainy downpour. There was nothing obvious when looking from the tent's mesh window. When you went to brush your teeth it hit you - or better they hit you. It was a swarm of beetles! There were so many bugs all flying chaotically at full-speed that their combined flapping wings and bumping into leaves created the bizarre noise. During the fifteen meter walk to the amenities block you plucked about five beetles from Meike's hair. They weren't especially offensive or bothersome bugs; they were just big normal beetles. The next morning there was not a single bug to be seen, but white bat poo was splattered on every surface throughout the entire camp.

Trip distance: 7496 km

Zambia, Victoria Falls

You ate breakfast beside your bat-poo covered vehicle and watched a wild bore with big tusks strut nonchalantly by. There had been squeaky noises the night before, assumably from his kids, but the piglets were hiding this morning. You drove to the Botswana-Zambia boarder with all remaining Pula (money) hoping to use it there. The Botswana checkpoint went by without a hitch; the gate wasn't even guarded. In no-mans-land between the boarder checkpoints were long lines of lorries waiting to enter Zambia. You drove past them and up to the river where a barge was waiting for vehicles. A bloke waved you forward, ushering your into place and asked Meike to get out of the vehicle. Strange, but you went along with it. For whatever reason (maybe due to capsizing risk) she was not allowed to drive onto the barge with you, but had to walk onboard. One huge truck and another two cars joined you for the trip over the river, during which you paid you fare in US$ - receiving incorrect change, but friendly corrected - and chilled in the 4x4 cab wondering how many crocodiles were waiting for capsized cargo.

Your experience entering Zambia was the most arduous three hours of your entire Africa trip. Nothing will ever compare to the bewildering chaos that was this boarder crossing. It began with a dodgy-looking bloke directing you to park amongst a mass of vehicles. When you stopped a swarm of car washers and watchers, bag-carriers and boarder-agents surrounded the 4x4, blocking you from even opening the door. They bombarded you with a barrage of unsolicited offers of: Wash your windows? Wash your car? Wash your wheels? Wash your windows? ... A polite no seemed to mean ask me again, because no matter what you did or said they keep at it. You had moved two meters from your vehicle when the next wave came in; this time 'boarder agents'. There are a lot of people who profit from the disorganisation of boarder crossings and confusion/naivety of tourists. The first agent looked quite dodgy, especially when he asked for your passports in exchange for his mobile phone without explaining why. You brushed him aside and then came the next one, this time wearing pants (without holes) and shoes: "Good thing you didn't trust that other guy - you can trust me. Here's my phone, give me your passports." You brushed him aside only to be accosted by a third agent wearing shoes, pants and a neat collared shirt: "Good thing you didn't trust that last guy - you can trust me. Here's my phone, give me your passports." Coincidentally, you had just made it to the You do not need an agent sign near the immigration bureau.

To enter Zambia you require five different pieces of paper, thus began your confusing bureaucratical quest. After a short, pleasantly air-conditioned wait you were seen by an angry looking immigration officer in uniform who requested vehicle registration papers... which you didn't have. Fuck! You suddenly understood why the 4x4's camping table had "Vaughn's a cunt!" engraved into it. Our letter allowing us to take the rental vehicle anywhere in Africa was apparently not enough, so he took all other details and documents and disappeared into the back office. There was a well-travelled looking couple also waiting for their papers to be processed, who (un)reassured you: "If he's in a good mood you'll get through - just keep smiling". Meike set her innocent-blonde-girl smile to full strength and within two hours the unhappy-looking officer returned with everything mysteriously in order.

All border permits required a payment of some kind, payable in the currency of their choice; some wanted US$ and other Zambian Kwatscha. One of the many problems with this boarder was no ATM's - you had to bring cash. In Zambia it's illegal to bring Kwatscha into the country, so you have to acquire at it boarders in exchange for US$. It's also Illegal to exchange cash on the streets with non-licensed agents. This wouldn't be a problem if the Currency Exchange was inside the boarder control crossing area, but no: it was over the boarder inside Zambia. Fuck! You are forced to leave your vehicle in no-man's land and cross the boarder past the armed guards into Zambia by foot! This treacherous journey was further hindered by more swarms of currency agents and mud-puddle swamps. The fuckers were being so pushy with their best rates that you couldn't see where you were walking and they herded you into ankle-deep mud! You exchanged 300 Pula and 15 US$ for 300,000 Kwacha (a huge wad of cash) and trekked back out of Zambia to meet Meike who was watching the vehicle.

Carbon Emissions Tax was the next piece of paper to collect, and was paid in Kwacha. No problems there, but you did notice something funny: lots of black guys (grown men) hold hands when they walk together. You went to the police station for... god knows what, but it cost a few thousand Kwacha. On one side of the tiny station was a woman breastfeeding, and on the other two officers with their feet lazily up on the desk who seemed to have melted into their chairs. The small desktop fan didn't seem to be doing much good for any of them. Beside the police station was the boarder toll office, and piece of paper number four. You walked in and could barely breathe from dust in the air - they were literally performing pc maintenance with brooms and vacuum cleaners! You were told to come back later, and in the mean time visited the insurance box - a hut as small as portable loo - for piece of paper number five. You were swamped by agents and dealers again on the way there but you were getting used to it a little. Later when the dust had settled you returned to pay the boarder toll. After all this confusing bouncing about you were feeling a little run down. The bloke in the toll office wondered why you your lovely lady was doing all the talking, to which Meike answered you were her bodyguard. After mentioning that you were Australian he said that Australians should look happy, and she reply was that bodyguards are meant to look unhappy. He was nice.

To drive to the gate you had to almost drive into the river to get past the trucks. At the gate the armed boarder guards took the five pieces of paper and walked off in different directions. At this point the only thing stopping you from just driving through the checkpoint was a single traffic cone; the fact the guards had machine guns made it an effective deterrent. They returned with stamped papers and you were finally free to enter Zambia!

You drove along the 100 km/h road towards the lodge - it was 46 km/h in towns (strangely accurate) - and stopped in Livingstone for some cash and groceries. You withdrew two million Kwacha and stocked up on all essentials. Kwacha is a funny currency: when inflation makes it incalculable they just chop off a few zeros and continue on. On the way out of the shopping centre someone came running up behind you to return the cucumber you dropped - how nice! You found the lodge and a man with very bloodshot eyes opened the gate for you. You found your spot, booked a river boarding adventure at reception and headed out again to Victoria Falls. The Victoria Falls carpark was a mass of eighty tents and stalls full of pushy blokes aggressively peddling souvenirs. "It's free to look!" they boasted. You resisted on principle to show that forcing people to buy crap is bad business, and just skipped it. Meike got a nasty fly bite on her ankle; perhaps karma for not buying a hand caved wooden giraffe chair.

Inside the Victoria Falls gate were stalls to hire raincoats. Since it wasn't raining you walked past without a second thought. Upon arriving at the first lookout you reconsidered your hasty decision - the waterfall spray was immense and immediately soaking. You admired the moist view, trying not to destroy your camera in the process, and wandered about the paved paths to each lookout point. The paths were very jungly and lantana was creeping in in some areas. The souvenir shop sold postcards and Zimbabwean one billion dollar notes. Zimbabwe had recently abandoned their own currency and officially began allowing all transactions to be made in foreign currency. There had been an amusing reader-submitted picture in the latest Getaway magazine of a toilet sign: "Do not use Zimbabwe dollars as toilet paper", after it became less valuable than regular toilet paper. You ventured on to the best photo point where there was a nice view and a dodgy bloke waiting. Inside the Victoria Falls it's illegal for individuals to sell things but every bugger tries it. This shifty character tried directing you to the Victoria Falls Bridge via a small path protected by barbed wire and hanging over the cliff edge. When you refused to go he tried selling you jewelery. You refused again and he asked "Why don't you support Africa?". Meike's comeback was "There's a difference between supporting Africa and supporting you!". It's a shame she thought of that after we'd already left.

The best photo point looked down into the Boiling Pot: the bend in the river after the waterfalls converge into the Zambezi River. You walked down into the jungle towards it for a better look. There were lots of steps and it was pretty wild; there were fallen trees blocking the path and quite a few monkeys laughing about. Standing at the Boiling Pot let you look upwards at the Victoria Falls Bridge from below. It started raining on the way back, but nothing tropical. Just before leaving another dodgy bloke acted suspiciously nice and tried coaxing you to visit the Devil's Pool. Devil's Pool is a natural basin which sits just over the rim of the Falls, so you have to traverse the river above and jump off the edge to reach it. If the water flow is too high it becomes very dangerous to visit. You had even heard a story about a hippopotamus who ventured too far downstream and was washed over the Falls during heavy rain. Somehow the idea of a hippo flying off the Falls was tragically hilarious. You wanted to see the top of the Victoria Falls but the shifty bloke's persistent encouragement set off warning bells. At the point he waded barefoot into the river to demonstrate it was safe, and was waving at you to take off your shoes and follow, you made a subtle detour and left. This kind of over-friendly helpfulness is usually followed by begging, extortion-guilt or just plain theft; this seems to be standard business practice in dealing with white tourists.

Back at the lodge you had drinks at sunset by the river, and then went to bed.

Trip distance: 7597 km

Zambezi River Boarding

Meike's ankle fly-bite and it had swollen to resemble a baby elephant's foot. You had breakfast and waited to be collected by Safari par Excellence tour group to go rafting boarding on the Zambeze. At their headquarters you had the option of a second breakfast but passed, and met Sven the Viking from Alpin Raft in Interlaken Switzerland. He apparently works alternating seasons between Zambia and Switzerland. You got your safety instructions in a big group, 90% of which were loud hungover cattle truck animals. Normall the rafting starts in the Boiling Pot below Victoria Falls but the water lever had rissen and was not safe enough. Instead, the rafting began a little downstream in a big calm lagoon. To get there you rode a horribly uncomfortable and bumpy truck over a pothole road, and hiked down into the gorge along a steep, slippery jungle trail carrying paddles. At the bottom on the rocky rim of the lagoon the black guys were pumping rafts and setting up equipment. The water was about 27°C, so nice and warm. You took your board, jumped in and waited on the raft.

You jumped off the boat at the first corner with Malvin - your river boarding guide who was very enthusiastic about barrel rolls - to the amazement of everyone else. You had booked river boarding rather than river rafting because it sounded so much more fun. Why go down the Zambeze on a raft when you can do it on a bodyboard with fins! When the water was calm it was nice to float along the river, but was at the same time unnerving thinking this river was crocodile infested. The water was brown so if there were any hungry crocodiles nearby they'd be free to swim up unannounced and nibble your toes. Malvin reassured you by mentioning he had forgotten his knife today, and that they call white people crocodile biscuits. This was amusing until you had to get out and walk past rapid no. 9 - a grade 6 white water rapid, too dangerous for the inexperienced and not even possible on a body board - and walked past a crocodile chillin' in a pond below. After that you felt more relaxed being thrashed about in white water than in calm sections of the river. Manning a bodyboard in white water is the same as being dumped by a wave at the beach, which lasts several minutes rather than seconds. You had no control whatsoever, just a permanent struggle to keep your head above water. It was tremendous fun!

After an hour or so you had a lunch break. The guides threw apples to everyone from their water-proof bags and you sat on the rocks in the sun. After lunch there were sections you had to do on the raft. You raft got stuck in rapid no. 15 ("The Washing Machine") in some circulating water, and then spontaneously flipped over. Further down you saw some baobab trees, fishermen and the occasional crocodile. Then, out of no where, came a tropical summer deluge of jumbo raindrops. It was beautiful. You lay on your bodyboard half submerged with your eyes at waterlevel and watched the surface dance. The rain made a deafening din as it blurred your view splashing water at you from every direction. The river banks steamed and the air smelled of a saturated jungle. The rain eased and most rafters jumped into the river. At the end everyone floated over to the sandy bank, got out and waited for the cable car to haul them up out of the gorge. To ride it, you had to sign an insurance waiver; this filled you with confidence.

At the top was a truck with hard seats waiting to take you back to base. You were all giver beers for the bumpy ride back through the countryside, passing farms and small villages. Many kids followed behind the truck and the guides handed them the empty bottles - probably a very useful object for them. It reminded you of The Gods Must be Crazy. You were a little sunburnt by the time burgers were being served back at the base, and Meike's ankle was the size of a grown elephant's foot. Everyone tipped the guides in US$ and you got a lift back to the lodge. Even if the vehicle hire bloke was being difficult about registration papers, which were apparently being kept in a safe in South Africa, overall it was a brilliant day!

Long Drive to Luangwa Bridge Camp

You drove into Livingstone for petrol and postcards, and resisted all persistent window washers and two billion Zimbabwe dollar note sellers while parked. One bloke tried selling you red and white reflectors - you had no idea what that was all about, but lots of African countries have strange road rules. For the next 135km the road crossed in and out, literally between two parallel courses, of new and old sections. It was nice scenery all the way until Lusaka, the capitol of Zambia. The city reminded you of India, or at least from what you've seen in pictures, with super-busy streets of car-jams and people walking window to window selling crap. You could purchase anything form the convenience of your drivers seat: crosswords, scrabble boardgames, dog collars, drinks, even whole watermelons. It wasn't fun driving in Lusaka because most of the time was spent sitting in motionless traffic. You stopped for petrol and was served by a friendly guy who couldn't count change. He handed you some money (not enough) and looked at you as it awaiting further instructions. "More... more... more..." you kindly advised until he'd given you enough 1000 Kwacha notes. It was a quick transition to the countryside again, back to low level rain forrest and tiny villages. This particular stretch of road had monster speed-bumps that even a high profile 4x4 needed to respect. The road wound endlessly through the scenic hills but after a while became tiring. There were people walking along the road in both directions carrying bags of coal; this system could have been improved by a little coordination.

You arrived at the Luangwa Bridge Camp in the early evening and were met by the first white person in a while. He gave you dry wood for cooking potatoes but it was really smokey. The camp's hot showers gave brown water, so you walked back to the car naked to rinse. The camp had a quaint little bar for drinks that night. Lights-off was at 9pm which included the toilets; you learnt while sitting there, suddenly in the dark.

Trip distance: 8340 km