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Throwback Thursday: Will and the Dugout Canoe

Throwback Thursday: Will and the Dugout Canoe

This is the story of Will and the dugout canoe. At Mayoka Village, where we stayed on Lake Malawi, there is a dugout canoe challenge. If you can manage to get into a dugout canoe (already a feat), and paddle it around the swimming raft without falling out, you get a free night. On our last day at Mayoka, while waiting for our taxi, Will decided to try the dugout challenge.  Here’s what happened.

Check out our other experiences in Malawi here

How We Traveled Malawi 2015

Charity vs. Solidarity: Creating a Community School in Rural Malawi

Hiking Mt. Mulanje Malawi

Excellence and Inequality: Reflections from an International School in Blantyre, Malawi

A Pride Premature: Lessons from a School in Malawi

 

Throwback Thursday: Google Earth at Machu Picchu

Throwback Thursday: Google Earth at Machu Picchu

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We had just come down from the top of Machu Picchu Mountain and had reentered the ruins.  Just as we were commenting on the remoteness of the Incan city, we spotted these Google Earth guys surveying the area. The 360 camera was originally mounted on one of their backs – we caught up with them just as they took it off to make adjustments.

Will ran over and started taking pictures. “Are you allowed to take pictures of them?” I asked nervously. “They’re taking pictures of everything and everyone,” Will exclaimed. Good point.

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Will tried to joke with the guy without glasses. “If I’d known Machu Picchu would be on the internet, I wouldn’t have come all this way,” he smiled. The Google guy misunderstood. “You’re not on the internet. We’re not recording right now,” he replied. Oh, but we are on the internet, Google guy. We are on the internet.

 

 

 

Responsibility is More than Compliance: Another Lesson from Switzerland

Responsibility is More than Compliance: Another Lesson from Switzerland

 “You should ask them about their apprenticeships” suggested Melissa, the dynamic English teacher who had let us take over her classroom for the period. We had been asking the Swiss students our usual questions. With some shyness, they had just shared that, if they could change anything about their school they would have less homework.

“What type of apprenticeships will you have next year?” we asked. One student, sitting up straighter than before, said he wanted to be a businessman and would be apprenticing at a bank three days a week. The other two days, he would take classes in English, German, and economics. “And how much will you earn?” asked Melissa. We had no idea the apprenticeships were paid. “800 euros per month for the first year,” the student replied with a smile, “but I don’t know how much for the second and third years.”

Other students in the class proceeded to tell us about their apprenticeships. One student will apprentice with city government, another in computer science, many in business. All spoke with confidence and excitement about this next stage of their lives.

There is a marked difference between the type of responsibility expected of students in Switzerland and the United States. In the US, we often mistake compliance for responsibility. Students act “responsibly” when they decide to follow directions – getting to class on time, cleaning up after themselves, doing their homework, etc. While complying with rules does build good habits (rules are there for a reason), it does not actually transition our young people into adult decision making.

desk at school in switzerland

Swiss schools, in contrast, give students responsibilities in preparation for adulthood. They are required to make judgments that will affect not only their present classwork, but their future jobs and economic stability. This seems intimidating, but it’s not if responsibility is released gradually. At The Ruggenacher School, teachers and administrators ready students for the transition to apprenticeship by requiring them to manage 7-8 hours of independent work time each week and plan their own large-scale social events. When students falter, grown-ups provide support. Students are trusted – not only with their behavior, but with preparing for their life paths. This builds confidence, empowerment, and investment in school. It communicates to students that they are about to become contributing members of society and they are trusted to learn, and be strong, and do the right thing.

We also visited Gymnasium Unterstrasse. At this school, most students are preparing for university rather than apprenticeship. Even so, teachers and administrators trust them to make real life judgments. Students plan and attend a week-long ski retreat every year without any adult supervision. “Aren’t you afraid something will happen?” we asked the headmaster.

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He said there is always the risk of an accident, but students have been trained to know what to do. Every four years the adults at the school turn the building over to the students and allow them to run the entire school for three days – including all teaching, administrative tasks, and building management. It has always gone well.

At both schools, teachers and administrators prepare students for their responsibilities. Ruggenacher provides students with apprenticeship application support. They have a special program to prepare students who are not yet fluent in German or are weak in math. At Unterstrasse students receive specific training in the jobs they perform when adults are not present. This gives students confidence that they can handle the responsibilities they are given.

It’s a common teenage-ism in the US to be waiting for real life to begin, to be itching for the real world. Schools have the opportunity to induct students into the “real world” and adulthood earlier, and more gradually, building investment in the lessons they learn today because those lessons will come into swift practice tomorrow. While many of our thirteen year olds are still required to walk in line to lunch, Swiss students of the same age are planning their careers. It is hard to let go of control, especially in today’s climate of high stakes testing. But gradually trust students with more, and we may be surprised at the investment, empowerment, and adult-teenager relationships that develop.

 

On Comfort Zones

On Comfort Zones

No doubt – Africa was an awesome experience. Between the landscape, the people, the wildlife, and the history – it was a travel experience I will never forget. But by the time we were leaving Malawi, headed for Zanzibar, I was feeling homesick. I was sick of the food, the mosquitos and the heat were getting to me, and the Paris attacks had just added an extra melancholy to being far from home. I fantasized about getting on a plane to the US instead of Italy.

Two weeks later, we flew from Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania to Rome. Upon checking into our hostel and taking a walk through the streets, I felt euphoric. I was back in my comfort zone. We got a cappuccino and a croissant. We took a meandering city walk. We had pasta and wine for dinner. The windows closed and we didn’t need a mosquito net. We could log on to Netflix again. I felt a little guilty to admit it… but being in my comfort zone was AWESOME.

Eastern Africa had me uncomfortable in ways that were both tedious and perspective enhancing. I missed coffee that isn’t instant and milk that needs to be refrigerated. I missed always feeling appropriately dressed. I missed being able to wander city streets and explore without being hassled to buy tourist trinkets. I missed the predictability – of not having to haggle, of reliable electricity, of consistent expectations on public transportation.

Comfort zones get a bad rap when you are doing anything adventurous or challenging – whether it’s traveling or moving ahead in your career or meeting new people. Your comfort zone is where you DON’T want to be if you are looking for an exciting, meaningful, learning-filled life. No one says “yeah, I’m looking to stay in my comfort zone on this next adventure.”

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Just because the magic happens outside your comfort zone doesn’t mean your comfort zone isn’t also magical.

But this makes comfort zones seem like bad places, when really they play an important role in the journey. Your comfort zone is where you regroup. It’s where you process what has been difficult and prepare for the next challenge. It’s hard to be uncomfortable all the time – everybody needs a reprieve once in a while.

Traveling for a year is a huge gift and privilege. But without moments in my comfort zone (for example, the 6+ weeks we spent in western Europe over Christmas) I wouldn’t be able to appreciate and process everything I’ve learned while outside my comfort zone. And I certainly wouldn’t be ready for the next chapter – India and Southeast Asia – if I remained outside a familiar culture straight through the trip.

I guess this all to say: you should definitely get outside your comfort zone and explore things unknown to you. Being uncomfortable is a good thing. It’s also okay to relish feeling at home.

How We Traveled Malawi 2015

How We Traveled Malawi 2015

Traveling in Malawi was definitely outside my comfort zone.  I like lots of information. I like to sort through it, reject some of it, and come to a conclusion about what I can expect and what remains unknown. Unfortunately, you can’t do that in Malawi.  There are a few tidbits of information on the internet, all vague or outdated. We would have to rely on advice from other travelers and hostel bulletin boards.

Of course – considering I’m here writing about it all – we figured things out. Not without hiccups (stories for another day), but by the helpfulness of friends, strangers, and a few taxi drivers, we were able to experience the best of Malawi. In the spirit of paying it forward, I offer the details from our Malawi trip to the internet.  I hope it satisfies a google search or two.

WHAT TO DO IN MALAWI:

There are three main things to see in Malawi: Lake Malawi, Mt. Mulanje, and wildlife. The cities in between are just launch points. We had just come from a safari in Zambia, so we skipped the wildlife.

OUR ITINERARY:

Entered Malawi in Lilongwe

Bus from Lilongwe to Nkhata Bay (via Mzuzu)

Bus from Nkhata Bay to Blantyre (via Mzuzu and Lilongwe)

Mini bus to Mulanje, taxi back to Blantyre from Mulanje

Flight from Blantyre to Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania (12 hour layover in Lilongwe)

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Lilongwe (arrived from Chipata, Zambia)

We arrived in Lilongwe from our safari in South Luangwa National Park. Lilongwe is the capital of Malawi, and also had the largest airport. We stayed at Mabuya Camp, recommended to us by travelers we met in Zimbabwe, as well as some of our safari compatriots. As most people will tell you, Lilongwe isn’t much. Many of the other travelers at the hostel were volunteers or working for NGOs. The city is a bit spread out, and you have to take a taxi (or bicycle taxi) most places. We did have a delicious dinner at Bombay Palace – an India restaurant downtown. It is expensive for Malawi, but not expensive for fantastic Indian food.

Lilongwe Malawi Travel

 

THE LAKE:

Nkhata Bay

There are a number of places to visit Lake Malawi.  Monkey Bay and Cape McClear are in the south and have sandy beaches.  Nkhata Bay is in the north and has rock cliffs.  There are many places in between as well.

We got to Nkhata Bay from Lilongwe by bus (to Mzuzu) and taxi. While it’s possible to take a mini-bus, we opted for the safer, big-bus option. AXA is really the only game in town when it comes to reliable, safe, timetable buses. Other busses don’t leave until their full; AXA sticks to a schedule. But the AXA bus doesn’t depart from the main bus station. It has a ticket office in City Mall and that is also where the buses arrive and depart. We bought our ticket in person the day before, but you can also buy the day of or on the bus (not recommended). The ticket cost about 6,600 kwatcha ($12) per person.

Malawi Travel AXA Bus

Once in Mzuzu, we took a taxi to Nkhata Bay for 12,000 kwatcha ($32). Again, you can also take a mini-bus for about 900 kwatcha, but it was getting dark and we decided to splurge on door to door service. The taxi ride was quite a trip. Many people walk along the narrow roads, so the taxi swerves around them, honking a warning to watch out.

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Nkhata Bay is a veritable paradise. Situated on Lake Malawi (the world’s largest freshwater lake), we stayed at Mayoka Villiage – a hotel/hostel that consists of a group of wooden chalets, stone cottages, and winding walkways. Mayoka is built into the side of a steep hill that ends in the lake. There are several rocky points to enter the water, and people frequently utilize the kayaks, paddle boards, and canoes. We met up with our friend Rachel there.  It was a blast.

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We considered taking the ilala ferry from Nhkata Bay to Monkey Bay.  It takes 2.5 days and criss crosses the lake. We chose not to because of windy conditions and the fact that we didn’t have a tent. The first class deck is open air (they have mattresses), which is nice, except that it was stormy while we were there.

On our way from Nkhata Bay to Blantyre we spent one night in Mzuzu. The AXA bus from Mzuzu to Blantyre leaves early in the morning. We originally wanted to stay at a hostel called Joy’s Place – but it was booked. We ended up at a place called Mzuzu Zoo. It was quite inexpensive and had a decent restaurant and bar.

Blantyre

After the 10 hour bus ride to Blantyre, we found ourselves at Doogles – a popular accommodation for western travelers. It is next to the bus station (though not the AXA bus station) and has cheap, clean rooms, and a nice restaurant/bar. Blantyre has more of a downtown than Lilongwe, but not much. I was able to find contact solution at the pharmacy on the main drag – a product that had alluded me since South Africa.

Many people walk in Blantyre, though it is not a pedestrian friendly city. We started out taking taxis, but soon switched to walking – especially to our favorite restaurant there, Veg-Delight, a tasty Indian joint. We also prepared to visit Mulanje while we were in Blantyre, stocking up on food and leaving most of our stuff at Doogles while we were on the mountain.

 

MULANJE:

Mt. Mulanje was a highlight of our time in Africa – but we’ve already written about it. You can check it out here. We spent 5 days in Mulanje, 3 nights on the mountain.

Mt. Mulanje path

Blantyre-Lilongwe-Dar Es Salaam

We decided to fly from Blantyre to Dar Es Salaam to save time. The overland travel would have taken several days, cutting down on our time either in Malawi or Tanzania. We had also heard from other travelers that the buses in Tanzania were particularly bad. We ended up having to pay for the plane ticket in person, in cash, at the Malawian Airlines office in downtown Blantyre. All fligths to Dar included an overnight in either Lilongwe or Johannesburg. We spent one more night at Mabuya Camp and had one more dinner at Bombay Palace before saying farewell to Malawi.

 

TIPS:

Cell phone

Malawi has two major cell phone carriers: airtel and TNM. We went with airtel because it was widely recommended by other travelers. In order to use the sim card (which cost 3000 kwatcha, or $6) you have to load it up with “airtime” or “talktime.” You buy these little vouchers for certain denominations of money (from 100 kwatcha to 1000 kwatcha), load them onto your phone using the instructions (you have to dial a number and punch in a code) and then dial a different number to purchase either data GB or voice time. It is confusing at first, but once you figure it out, it becomes easy.

We used the data on our phone a lot, but our voice time would not load correctly onto the phone. We would put a significant number of minutes on the phone and then it would only give us one or two calls. If this happens, I recommend abandoning voice and trying to stick to internet or having the hostel make a call for you.

Internet

Malawi has a national internet service called Skyband. You can buy GB and use Skyband at certain hotspots (some hostels are hotspots.) This is an okay solution, but is not always reliable.

Recommended: Turn your phone into a hotspot if you can. We loaded our iphone 5c up with data (4GB for about $12) and used that. It was great. It was reliable and could handle our internet needs. We even used it to Skype. We did the same thing in Tanzania.  It was not more expensive than Skyband.

Money

Most places in Malawi only take cash. Also, the largest denomination currency equals about $1.80. So, get comfortable making multiple withdrawals at a single ATM stop.

FINAL THOUGHT

If you can, approach Malawi as a camping trip.  Every place we stayed had camp grounds and we saw a few people cooking their own food on camp stoves. None of the hostels had kitchens, so having a camp stove is really the only way to cook for yourself.  You can save a ton of money, plus have all the gear you need for Mt. Mulanje and for taking the ilala ferry in comfort!

Malawi is a beautiful country with wonderful people. We are certainly not experts, but questions are welcome!

Ciao,

Elizabeth

Zambia Safari: The Animals of South Luangwa National Park

Zambia Safari: The Animals of South Luangwa National Park

Our previous game drives were all a precursor to our big Africa treat – a 3-night safari in South Luangwa National Park.  Located in northern Zambia, the park is known for its high density of big cats, among other wildlife.  The end of October is an excellent time to go because animals are easier to spot – the brush is thin and animals all gather at the same, limited water sources.  We went with a safari company called Kiboko, which would drop us off in Malawi at the end of the trip.

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We saw too many animals to picture in one post, so here are the highlights.  These beautiful zebras were a frequent sight. We even caught one scratching it’s butt on a tree stump.

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Impalas are everywhere in the park. They’re quite dainty antelopes with distinct markings.

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These baby warthogs are called piglets.  Moments later they started chasing the antelope in the background.

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Baby baboon hangs on tight.  This arrangement doesn’t deter mama baboon from jumping from limb to limb or trying to steal human food.

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These two waterbucks were best friends a minute ago and will be best friends again several minutes later.

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It’s unusual to see the whole hippo.  Mostly we saw half-submerged hippo heads. Can you tell which ones are babies?

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As the sun gets hotter, animals take naps.  We caught these two baby elephants napping together.  Other elephants were also napping around them, with one elephant standing up to keep guard.

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One of my favorite sightings – the guinea fowl, with a bright blue head and polka dot feathers, runs kind of like a turkey.

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And then there were the lions.  We got word at afternoon tea that there had been a buffalo kill sighted.  On our evening game drive, we headed straight for it.  Most of the lions had finished eating and were lounging about.  These two – a young adult and one of the older lions – were last to eat.

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Here the alpha female tolerates her playful cub.  Later, she swats him away.  Don’t you know Mommy’s digesting?

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Lions in a food coma.

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On our final night drive, we were able to catch this leopard.  Our guide was able to get out in front of his path so we could watch him walk by. Sorry for the blurriness!

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Our Zambia safari was more than we expected.  We saw a remarkable number of animals, had some great times with our fellow travelers, and enjoyed the camp where we ate, slept, and went for afternoon swims between game drives.  There is nothing like seeing animals in their natural habitats.  If you get a chance to go on a safari – you should.

A Black Rhino Fight and Other Highlights

A Black Rhino Fight and Other Highlights

“We want to see a rhino,” we told the hostel manager. “Then you want to go on this game drive,” she said, pulling out a pamphlet.  Several days later we were being picked up in a safari vehicle by Patrick, our incredibly knowledgeable, and obviously passionate, guide.

“Welcome to my office,” Patrick joked as he opened the game reserve gates. “Any requests?” ”Rhinos,” we chimed.  Patrick explained that Stanley & Livingstone Game Reserve was part of the black rhino breeding program, an effort to increase the population of this endangered animal.  The reserve started with three rhinos and now has nine.  “There’s no guarantee we’ll see one,” he cautioned, “but we will try.”  Will and I tempered our expectations as we bounced around in the back of the safari truck.

Safari Zimbabwe Travel

The drive started with some elephants and giraffes.  This was our first game drive, so we were excited.

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As the sun started to go down, Patrick took us to the area where they sometimes see the rhinos.  Straining our eyes in anticipation…we saw a beautiful sable instead.  It’s unusual to see the sable, a relative of the zebra.  We began to believe this would be the highlight of the evening.

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There was one more spot to try, though, Patrick assured us.  There were several man-made watering troughs that the rhinos frequented.  We pulled around a bend, and there he was.  A dinosaur among animals.

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Two skittish zebras waited patiently for the rhino to finish drinking, keeping a safe distance.

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The male rhino finished and began to walk around the area, marking his territory with spray pee.  Just then, we spotted Mama Rhino and Baby Rhino approaching from a distance.

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THREE RHINOS.  We couldn’t believe it.

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The male, who we learned was indeed Daddy Rhino, postured to claim the watering hole and Mama Rhino gave him a run for his money.

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black rhino travel

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Ceding the area, Daddy Rhino spray peed a few more bushes on his way out, but ultimately exited the scene.

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Mama and Baby enjoyed a drink and then Baby had its dinner.  At that point, Mama noticed us and stared, so we headed on for our sundowner (when you have a drink and watch the sun go down…a safari tradition.)

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We couldn’t believe our luck – three rhinos, including a baby and a FIGHT!  It was not only a highlight of Zimbabwe, but a highlight of the entire trip.

Borders and Buses: How We Got from Livingstone to Lilongwe

Borders and Buses: How We Got from Livingstone to Lilongwe

Unlike South America, Africa has many fewer bus companies and there is very little information online. We got our information from a pair of travelers from Malta who had gone from Tanzania to Livingstone by bus. Here is a summary of what we got from Livingstone to Lilongwe, followed by our experience.

Livingstone, Zambia – Lusaka, Zambia: Mazhandu Family Bus Services (blue bus), K120 or $10

Lusaka, Zambia – Lilongwe, Malawi: KOBS Bus, K220 or $18 (ended up being K160 or $13.50 for us, getting off in Chipata)

Zambia-Malawi Border: $75 Visa for US Citizens, must be paid in USD, bills no older than 2006

*Note: there are also mini-buses on all of these routes if you are adventurous and want to take that route.

 

Livingstone to Lusaka

Livingstone was the first place where I saw an outdoor bus station. Each of the bus companies has a little hut with a hand painted sign. The buses pull up in a big dirt area next to the street. Street vendors sell bananas, chips, and drinks out of wheelbarrows.  Its located several blocks off the main road.

We took Mazhandu Family Bus Services from Livingstone to Lusaka. This was by far the nicest bus we have taken in Africa (outside of South Africa). We were given assigned seats and our bags went under the bus without a problem. The 7 hour ride was comfortable and straight forward. The buses left multiple times per day.

The Lusaka bus station is not for the faint of heart. We were barraged by taxi drivers even before getting off the bus. Drivers were pointing at Will through the windows. Pushing our way through the crowd, we got our bags and identified a taxi driver we wanted to go with. He took us to the KOBS ticket window where we bought our ticket to Lilongwe. We found out that the Lusaka-Lilongwe route does not run on Tuesdays, so we planned to stay an extra night at Lusaka Backpackers, which was in walking distance of the bus station. It’s good to leave yourself some extra travel days in case schedule changes happen. As far as we know, KOBS is the only company running the Lusaka-Lilongwe route.

Lusaka to Lilongwe (or Chipata in our case…)

We ended up altering our ticket to get off in Chipata, which is the town just before the Zambia-Malawi border, since our safari would be starting from there. We were still on the same bus, however, mostly with folks headed for Lilongwe.

The bus boarded at 4:00am, and by that time most of the cargo space was taken. We ended up paying one of the KOBS employees 50 Zambian Kwacha to squeeze our bags into one of the spaces. On the bus, no one paid attention to the seat assignments on the tickets. We ended up sitting on the side of the bus that is 3 people across. I was squeezed between Will and a woman who was not too happy to be on the bus herself. The aisle was packed with bags and there were cases of soda under all the seats. The bus seemed about to burst with cargo and people.

At the time of our travel, the road from Lusaka to the border was largely under construction. As such, most of our journey occurred on dirt roads next to the main, paved roads. It was a bumpy, dusty, 10-hour ride to Chipata. Those going on to Lilongwe had a 15+ hour bus ride. On the plus side- they played a few entertaining movies, including Home Alone 2.

We brought sandwiches with us, which was a good idea. KOBS serves a cookie and some sort of soda, but it is not much, and extremely processed. At some of the stops you can buy snacks off vendors through the windows of the bus (if you have access to window).

The Zambia-Malawi Border

We crossed the border with our safari group instead of the bus, but the process is the same. As of October 1, 2015, Malawi now requires entry visas for any country that requires an entry visa for Malawians. This means US citizens must pay $75 for entry. Some information says that you must obtain the visa in advance. We traveled during the month of October 2015 and were able to get a visa at the border without a problem. We heard from other travelers that going to the Malawian embassy (in Zambia or Mozambique) only ends up costing you more money because they say you need extra documents (like a letter of approval, etc.) and charge you for it.

I will warn you, while we were actually at the border a Japanese man was having a very hard time getting through. He had money but did not get prior approval. The immigration officials told him initially that he would have to go back to Lusaka and go to the embassy. After conferring with their supervisor, however, the officials made an exception (or so they said) and let him through upon payment for the visa. While this Japanese gentleman was given a hard time, those in our party (US and UK citizens) were given visas by the same officials without a blink of an eye. It took us about 30 minutes to get our visas processed, but we arrived before a line formed. The visa is a bit laborious for the immigration clerks – they have to handwrite the visa twice and then mark up your paperwork.

Once in Lilongwe

Lilongwe is not a particularly walkable city, but taxis are also fairly affordable. We stayed at Mabuya Camp, which is a 2000 Malawian Kwacha ($4) ride from the middle of town. From Lilongwe we used the AXA Bus to travel to Mzuzu and Blantyre. The AXA Bus doesn’t leave from the regular bus station, but from City Mall, and you can buy your tickets in advance. The buses are clean and make pit stops, though the seats are narrow and cramped.

I hope this logistics rundown was helpful for those traveling in Zambian and Malawi. That being said, ask the other travelers around you.  It wouldn’t be traveling in East Africa if you didn’t have to figure things out as you go and ask for help when you need it.

Cheers!

Victoria Falls: Zambia v. Zimbabwe

Victoria Falls: Zambia v. Zimbabwe

Victoria Falls is more than a waterfall. It’s the hub of a host of adventure tourism activities that sprawl across three countries. We spent two weeks there partaking in a canopy tour, the best one-day white water rafting in the world, two safaris, a swim in Devil’s pool, a sunset cruise, and of course, a day at the falls, which are amazing. And what we did doesn’t even count some of the most popular activities; bungee jumping, a gorge swing, or a helicopter tour. While we did a lot, we still took a slow pace and ended up spending much of our time like hippos, submerged in the pool or lazily drying next to it.

But any visit to the falls is ultimately framed by two questions: Where to stay (Livingstone, Zambia or Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe)? and When to go (high water or low water)?

Where to stay? Zambia v. Zimbabwe

Let’s be clear, no matter where you stay you’ll be able to see the falls from both the Zambia and Zimbabwe sides. It’s fairly easy to cross the border and return in a single day. Doing so requires 3 taxis.  From Zimbabwe you take one taxi to the border ($5), one across the border ($5), and one to Livingstone ($10). Then repeat on the way back. There are plenty of taxis lined up at each point. Just make sure you get a Kaza Visa when you fly in. It’s $50 but allows for unlimited border crossings between the two countries. Otherwise, you’ll get hit with serious visa fees each time you want to cross.

Still, the question remains, which side to choose?

Seeing the Falls

For views of the falls Zimbabwe is definitely a stronger choice. The falls drop from Zambia and fall in the river that divides the two countries. From the Zimbabwe side you can walk the entire length of the falls and there over a dozen viewing points which face the falls head on. Also, we enjoyed finding monkeys who make their home in the rainforest on the Zimbabwe side.

Victoria Falls Zimbabwe Travel

The Zambian side however offers a view from the side of the falls that is dry during low-water. During high-water your limited in your perspective and during low water you can’t see much at all. This photo is from the Zimbabwe side, but you can see what you might view from the Zambian side.  This whole area is covered by a wall of water during high season.

Victoria Falls Low Water Travel

Price

Some older research online says that Zimbabwe is cheaper so we were not so pleasantly surprised to find some of the highest prices we’ve seen anywhere in Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe. The reason being that after a bout of hyper-inflation (you can buy 10 billion dollar notes in the street) Zimbabwe switched to the US dollar as its currency. The dollar is strong now so prices are expensive. A driver confided to us he was afraid the strong dollar would keep away the local tourists who normally come around Christmas. On the bright side, you can get $50 bills from ATMs which comes in handy when traveling across Africa.

Zambia was much cheaper for expenses like food and accommodation. However, the cost for activities, which are priced in US dollars on both sides of the falls, are pretty much identical.

Infrastructure

We encountered both scheduled and unscheduled power outages on both sides of the falls but they were definitely more frequent of the Zambian side. Apparently Zambia is dependent on hydro-electric power and when the river is low electricity becomes harder to produce.

Our first night there was a mess. Power went out in our hostel, taking the water pump with it. We ventured into the street to find comfort in a nice dinner and found the whole city was in darkness. Fortunately the super market had a generator. It was packed, and people were sweeping the floors to prep for closing, but we got some sausages, bread, and cheese and made due.

The Towns

Victoria Falls is a small tourist town, built completely around the falls. The main street is mostly tour companies and places to buy souvenirs. Baboons hang out in the streets. You see the occasional warthog. The OK supermarket is pretty well stocked. You can also walk to the falls from the town, which is quite charming.

Livingstone on the other hand is a proper city with more options for restaurants and night life and two substantially nicer supermarkets.

Black Rhinos

The only activity that can’t be easily done from both sides is a game drive in the private Stanley and Livingstone game reserve. They are a certified participant in the black rhino breeding program and are probably the single best place to get a chance to see this very endangered species amongst other animals.

Black Rhino Victoria Falls Travel

Overall

We had a better time in Zimbabwe. But this may be largely due to the number of unexpected outages in Zambia, a lack of air circulation at our hostel (Fawlty towers) which led to very unpleasant nights and the fact we met a lot of great people at our backpackers (Victoria Falls Backpackers). We did find the souvenir markets to be better and more affordable in Zambia and transportation in and out of the area is easier and cheaper to arrange.

When to go? High Water v. Low Water

Victoria Falls gets its fame from being the longest waterfall in the world. However, this is only really true in high water. During high water you can see the fall in all its 1.8km glory and there’s enough mist to drench anyone who gets near. As one guide told us, “you may as well bring shampoo.”

But we were there during low water. At first we were disappointed that there was no water for over half of the falls, but we ended up being glad we visited during this time since low water season has many distinct advantages.

1.Devil’s Pool & Livingstone Island – On the edge of the main falls there’s a spot called Devil’s Pool where you can safely swim right up to the edge of the falls and look into the gorge while water drops from the cliff just a few feet away. It’s a phenomenal experience and not an option during high-water when it would be impossible to not be taken over the edge.  The featured photo also shows us on Livingstone Island, which is the entrance point to Devil’s Pool and only accessible during low water.

Devil's Pool Victoria Falls Travel

2. Rafting – Obviously we didn’t raft in both seasons but apparently some of the best rapids are closed during high water for safety reasons. Low water has the reputation of being the best season for rafting. Will says it was one of the most exhilarating experiences of his life.

3. Animals – If you also want to go on a safari low water is a better time for two reasons. 1) There’s less water so animals are more concentrated around the areas where water exists. 2) The bush is dry and it’s easier to spot animals. During high water, leaves and green bushes end up obscuring your view.

Still if seeing ‘the smoke that thunders’ in its full Discovery Channel scope is your sole focus you want to make sure you’re there during high-water. (High water is Feb-Aug, with a peak in April, Low water is Sept-Jan)

All the best!

Ciao,

Elizabeth

Penguins in Simon’s Town, or Learning the Hard Way

Penguins in Simon’s Town, or Learning the Hard Way

We started our day foiled. The Robben Island ferry had been canceled for a second time, even though the sun was shining. We didn’t have any other open days to reschedule, so we had to move something around. The weather seemed nice, so we decided to go to see the penguins in Simon’s Town.

Cape Town seemed warm on that Wednesday morning, so we changed into our Chacos and left our rain jackets at the hostel. We didn’t want to lug them around on a beautiful day. This, of course, is a surefire way to jinx your trip. Thinking about taking your rain jacket and then deciding not to almost always guarantees rain.

Getting to Simon’s Town, a small beach town near the city, is usually quite easy. Light rail trains leave regularly, and as long as you are on the correct line, you just take it to the end. We bought our tickets and then ran across the train station with one minute to spare, jumping on the noon train just as the doors closed. “We’re on the right train, right?” Will asked me. “Yes, the ticker said platform 1.”

Simon's Town 01

Will had read that the train takes about 1 hour. Our train seemed to stop for long periods of time, so we were only mildly concerned as we approached 90 minutes in our seats. Finally, we stopped at Fish Hoek and everyone got off except us. We knew there were at least two more stops, so we sat tight.

Fifteen minutes later, an older woman got on the train and asked us where it was going. “Simon’s Town” we said. “Oh, no. You are very far from Simon’s Town” She said. Panic started to brew. Did we get on the wrong train? Or was this lady just crazy? She was talking to herself…

Finally, we got a tip from another traveler who explained that they were doing work on the tracks and there were buses to take us on to Simon’s Town. Relieved, we hopped off the train and found the bus.

At this point we were quite hungry (we had planned to have lunch in Simon’s Town) and quite cold. Unfortunately, the rain had not stopped and the temperature had dropped.

Simon's Town Cape Town Travel

After a bus ride and a long walk, we came upon the center of Simon’s Town and its small, but excellent selection of waterfront seafood restaurants. I had the best shrimp of my life – butterflied and covered in something lemon and garlicy. Worth the unpredictable (and long) train ride.

We waited out some heavier rain in a tea shop, at which point I started cursing my Chacos and cold feet. We ducked into a shoe store, treated ourselves to some new socks, and continued on toward the penguins.

At first, I believed myself to be a genius for buying socks…until the rain got even harder and my feet got even wetter and colder. By the time we got to the Boulders Beach Penguin Colony, I was freaking out. I was so cold and so wet. Will tried to convince me that the penguins would be worth it, but I wouldn’t listen. He left me at a coffee shop down the street from the penguin reserve to wait out the rain.

About to order a hot drink, I realized that Will had all of our money. I ran after him and ended up walking to the penguin reserve as well.

Cape Town Penguins travel

We got into the reserve about 30 minutes before it closed. The penguins were out and about in full force – waddling around, making funny noises, and doing other hilarious penguin activities.

Cape Town Penguins 15

Cape Town Penguins 19

I ran around the boardwalk, trying to see everything quickly and enjoy as much as possible before running back to the covered area. All around us were people in raincoats, properly dressed for the weather, and enjoying themselves.

Cape Town Penguins 33

By the time we started the 3km walk back to the train station to get the bus, the rain had slowed down. We found a shared taxi to take us to the bus and the rest of the journey back to Cape Town was uneventful. Until we almost got robbed. For more on that, look here.

So what is the final word on Simon’s Town? The penguins are awesome, definitely worth the trip, as was the seafood.   Cape Town weather, however, is varied and unpredictable. This is not the trip to risk it. I learned a lesson in preparation the hard way – hopefully you won’t have to!

Ciao,

Elizabeth