At the beginning of summer I made a last minute decision to visit my friends who were volunteering in Malawi. With just a few weeks to research and pack it wasn't long before I was on my way from LHR to Lilongwe in Malawi, via South Africa.
Flying out on my own was a little daunting, especially as my "arranged" taxi to the hostel wasn't in fact arranged - not the best start, but onwards and upwards! After a few days in Lilongwe I met my friends, Lizzy and Alice, and we began our journey to Zambia in a very full minibus and a rather informal looking taxi. Our first main stop of the trip was South Luangwe National Park, which was perhaps one of the most beautiful places I've ever been to. We were greeted by the staff at Marula Lodge with fresh juice and big smiles, and after a tour of the lodge grounds we relaxed in the open plan restaurant, cup of tea in hand and the sounds of birds and crickets surrounding us. But soon enough, just as we began to feel settled and comfortable our attention was drawn to a dark figure moving slowly behind us - a hippo - chomping away on the grass just metres from my feet. This individual hippo, who seemed to be a regular, was later named Mozzarella and became a favourite amongst our group!
Our dorms were very large, very clean but nothing special. This was my opinion on arrival at the lodge, but that opinion changed at 11:32pm on our first night at Marula. Here is a short diary extract from that night...
"I woke to the sound of leaves rustling behind me, my eyes stitched closed with tiredness, but my hearing sharp with the relative silence of the savannah. moving slowly towards the dorm window expecting to see nothing but a wandering villager, my breathing became naturally quieter. As I pushed aside the curtain I realised I was in the presence of something much greater."
This presence was that of the African Elephant, or more accurately, 5 of them. Every day at around 12 and every night at 11:30 this wild herd would arrive in camp to feast on the nuts and seed pods cluttering the ground. To be able to watch these scarily powerful yet beautifully gentle creatures so close was unbelievable. Despite spending most of our time in the relative safety of the restaurant area, the presence of potentially dangerous animals all around me made me feel surprisingly free, and that's something I now miss back in the UK. Over the next four days we woke up at 4:30am every morning, had a quick breakfast and headed out with our guide Duncan, crossing the river into the park in time for sunrise.
The diversity of life within the park was phenomenal, with countless bird species I'd never seen before, and even more that I didn't even recognise! Over the four day period we saw a leopard cub and its mother, a lion pride on a kill and over 35 elephants crossing the river at sunset. This was, of course, alongside many other amazing wildlife spectacles. Just before sunset everyday we would stop for tea on the river bank, here is a diary extract describing the scene...
"The sun was setting faster than I'd ever seen before; the last few moments of exposure causing the surface of the Luangwa River to shine like the sun itself - a blanket of shattered glass unbroken until the horizon. The edge of the world."
Following the four days of safari we caught a night bus from the nearest village to Lusaka - a very, very long journey beginning hours before sunrise but not arriving into Lusaka until twilight. We stayed at Lusaka Backpackers, a small but inviting hostel in the middle of this bustling city. After a day of sightseeing and some rest we continued our onward journey to Livingstone, the tourism capital of Zambia. One of the highlights was, of course, Victoria Falls or "Mosi-oa-Tunya" as it is known by local people, which translates as "the smoke that thunders". On the path up towards the falls, which twisted through thick undergrowth, Alice got a banana out despite the numerous warnings of animals, and ended up throwing into the air in fear of being mugged by the troops of baboons lining the track. Something which I now wish I'd caught on camera! The beauty of the falls can't be put into words, but there was something else which caught my eye...
"The air was cold with the fine mist of the falls, light bouncing everywhere, a cloud of embers burning through the blue, and otherwise unbroken, sky. Nearly unbroken. A figure appeared, silhouetted against the skyline like a ship on the horizon, seemingly metres from the edge of the falls, and minutes from the inevitable."
After the falls we visited a local market where there were many stall holders also named Billy - what an amazing coincidence!! This market also had "no pressure shops" which really didn't live up to their name. Nevertheless I ended up leaving the market with a two wooden hippos, a bowl and a few other essentials - this was the kind of market you bought things first and asked yourself why later.
The next day was one of my trip highlight, setting off from Jollyboys (our lodge) with around 10 other fearful backpackers ready for a day of guaranteed adrenaline lined up. Following a short trip we arrived at the gorge, got our life jackets on and completed a form which signed away our insurance, and practically our lives. Our boats guide, Boyd, didn't make much effort to reassure us, but rather told us how rough the water was looking, and that a "flip" would be guaranteed. He was right. The croc infested waters of the Zambezi were stronger than even the most powerful swimmers, so if you fell in you just waited until the rapids spat you out again ... not the most relaxing lazy river.
The last few days of our trip were spent mainly around the lodge, exploring the markets and trialling the local cuisine, with Cafe Zambezi being our favourite with some fantastic veggie options! Overall it was a fantastic adventure; one which I will remember for many many years to come, not just because of the experiences we had but also the company we enjoyed.