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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.

Spice of Life in Zanzibar and Dar Es Salaam

Spice of Life in Zanzibar and Dar Es Salaam

Dar Es Salaam is big and dirty. Cars and motorbikes swerve around pedestrians. Potholes fill with murky puddles. Parts of the sidewalk by our hotel were taken up by people welding a variety of metal contraptions. But the city is also a vibrant mix of peoples and cultures. Mosques, churches, and Hindu temples can be found just a few minute walk from one another. A variety of tea shops offer masala (chai) tea and an assortment of delicious snacks. There’s at least one sprawling vegetable market that wraps around two sides of a large city block and some of the best Indian food we’ve ever had. Coming from Malawi, Dar seemed like a return to civilization, but it’s also the sort of place that can tax your energy just getting from one place to another.

Most people come to Dar Es Salaam on their way west to do Safaris in the Serengeti and Ngorongoro crater or to take the ferry to Zanzibar. Dar doesn’t have any ‘attractions’ per se, but it’s definitely an interesting place to explore for a day or so. And, seriously, if you’re there, find some Indian food.

We stayed at Safari Inn. We had our own room. No frills but affordable.

Ferry to Zanzibar

The Ferry is pretty straight forward, but follow basic travel advice when buying your ticket. 1) Ignore the people who are telling you they’ll take you to where the tickets are and just go in the building that’s obviously marked as the place to buy tickets. 2) There are a ton of porters who will ask to help you. Our taxi driver emphasized that we should not let them take our bags.

Stone Town

stone town square

Some people go straight to the beach and only do Stone Town as a day trip. This is a mistake. Stone town in unlike anywhere else in East Africa. There are narrow streets, a variety of stores selling clothes and spices, and an outdoor eat-on-the-spot seafood market that makes for an unforgettable experience. There are ‘sights,’ like a couple palaces and museums but they’re pretty run down and not really worth the effort. The church where the old slave market used to be makes for an interesting and powerful visit though.

The real joy of Stone Town comes from wandering the streets, buying snacks from local shops, and perusing the textiles and crafts, before heading to the seafood market for dinner. The hidden treasure there though isn’t the seafood at all, it’s the Syrian kebab stand on the edge of the market. Delicious.

night market zanzibar

We also took a day trip to a spice plantation from Stone Town, which surpassed my expectations. We walked through the forest and our guide pulled spices and fruits from the trees around us. Black pepper, bark from a cinnamon tree, cardamom, roots for turmeric, and several fruits whose names I’ve forgotten. We got to taste it all. You don’t see the manufacturing side but I preferred the hands on, spices-in-mouth approach much more.

zanzibar spice tour

We stayed at Zanzibar Lodge. At first we thought we walked into a woman’s home but we had the right place. Free breakfast, affordable private room, and great location.

The Beach

Zanzibar sunset

There are several ways to do the beach in Zanzibar. The northern part of the island has a reputation for being more developed and having a better nightlife. We didn’t stay there. Instead, we opted for the undeveloped east side. And that’s what we got. There really isn’t much here at all, other than a few hostels and one mid-size hotel. We could walk for a mile in either direction on the beach and only see a handful of other people. There are a few options for activities. I took a traditional sail boat to go snorkeling one day, which was awesome. Other people at our hostel took day trips to Stone Town and to the jungle in the middle of the island where you can see red backed monkeys. One night there was a birthday party for a guy who works at the hostel and we were invited to take shots and eat a goat they roasted, but I don’t think that’s a common thing. Mostly we just lounged and relaxed at the back and in the hammocks around our hostel. It was perfect for what we wanted. But if you’re looking for more of an active scene you may want to check out other parts of the island.

swimming zanzibar

Tips: check the tides before heading to the beach. At low tide the water slinks back behind the seaweed and it’s pretty tough to get to.

We stayed at Sagando Hostel. It was nice. Sand floors. Lots of hammocks. There’s one local restaurant on the other side of the dirt path, where you can eat for a bit less but options there are limited. We ate most of our meals at Sagando where the food was a bit more expensive but outrageously delicious.

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This two week stint in Tanzania was the final chapter in our Africa adventures. At the airport, I began to feel a premature nostalgia for the continent we were leaving behind. But once we got to Italy that feeling quickly slipped away. Stay tuned for more.

  • Will
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.

Nhkata Bay Lake Malawi 02

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.

Nhkata Bay Lake Malawi 03

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.

Zambia safari africa travel

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.

zambia zebra africa travel

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

impala africa travel

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

warthog africa travel

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

baboon africa travel

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

zambia safari africa travel

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

hippos africa travel

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.

elephants africa travel

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

guinea fowl africa travel

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.

lion africa travel

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

lion africa travel

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!

leopard africa travel

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.

safari zimbabwe 04

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

safari black rhino 05

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.

safari black rhino 06

THREE RHINOS.  We couldn’t believe it.

safari black rhino 07

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

safari black rhino 09

 

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

safari black rhino 10

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.)

safari black rhino 11

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

How We Were Almost Robbed: The Cape Town ATM Scam

How We Were Almost Robbed: The Cape Town ATM Scam

I had read about ATM scams being a problem in Cape Town, but as we disembarked the train from Simon’s Town, exhausted and cold, I didn’t remember any of the precautions I was supposed to. The ABSA ATM looked legit enough – it was your usual bank-attached, two kiosk, ATM.

I imaged an ATM scam happening at dingier, sketchier, not as centrally located ATM. Looking back, I guess the bus/train station is a usual place for theft, so we shouldn’t be too surprised it happened there.

As we entered the ATM, another man entered after us. I stood to the back, since Will was the one taking out cash. I saw the other man was holding 40 Rand like he was going to make a deposit – which was weird because 40 Rand is about $3.50. Two other men also entered the ATM – I thought to myself “we got here just before the rush.”

Will finished his transaction, and I walked past the men to leave. As we got to the door, the first man called out “wait! You have to cancel your transaction. You left it open. You have to put your card back in, or someone can take your money.”

Will turned to look at the ATM. It was flashing two options. He tapped the screen and then went to put his card back in. “You have to hold it up, sir. You have to hold the end up and put it in. Just tap it.” The man said. Will tried to insert the card as instructed but it would not go into the machine. “Let me show you,” said the man, and he put his hand on Will’s card. Will yanked the card away.

Will went back and forth with this man for a moment, the man offering help and Will keeping his card away from him. The next man in line chimed in, “He’s right. You have to cancel your transaction. Just put your card in, but you have to hold it up.” Will tried again. “No, you will break your card. Let me show you.” The second man reached for Will’s card and Will yanked it away.

“I think it’s canceled, let’s just go.” Will said. He motioned to the next man in line to do his business. “They’re right,” the third man said. “I wanted to make a deposit, but now I can’t because you haven’t canceled your transaction.” Will tried it one more time, again unable to insert the card. The THIRD man offered to help and put his hand on the card to take it. Again, Will yanked it away, stating firmly “I don’t need help.”

Suddenly, all three men disappeared. All I heard was a flip phone hitting the glass and breaking on the sidewalk.

Cape Town ATM Scam travel

“You’ve been robbed!” called a short man in a trenchcoat, holding a briefcase and a walkie-talkie. He said he was police (a CCID officer), observed we were being hassled, and had just called security from around the corner. I was initially a little suspicious, because the logo on his jacket was neon green, but indeed, the CCID is an arm of law enforcement in Cape Town.

It turns out we were not robbed. If you are still in physical possession of your debit card, the thieves can’t access your money. The police assured us that the men had our PIN – apparently there are ways for cell phones to read your PIN just by being in close proximity. But without the actual debit card, the PIN is worthless.

Cape Town ATM Scam travel

We were lucky. Many people aren’t. We ended up at the police station later that night to fill out a report, file attempted theft charges, and ID two men who were caught. Unfortunately, there were several other tourist couples at the station filing actual theft reports – they were not as lucky as we were.  Hopefully our story will help others avoid similar situations.  Be careful out there, and never let anyone touch your card!

Ciao,

Elizabeth

The featured photo was taken from this Southern Courier article.