Our three and a half months in Africa were extremely varied: we marveled at some beautiful landscapes, had some wonderful wildlife experiences, got to travel with friends, summited a mountain, endured some really rough and uncomfortable overland travel, dealt with some frustrating logisitcal setbacks, and overcame a bit of a "what are our goals here?" phase. Overall, we will remember Africa fondly and cannot wait to get back and explore this humongous continent that we barely scratched the surface of. What follows is a list of some of our favorite places and experiences in South Africa, Mozambique, Malawi, Tanzania, and Uganda.
Best City: It's a tie between stunning and fascinating Cape Town, South Africa and Stone Town, Zanzibar Island, Tanzania, which maintains a surprisingly genuine feel despite the number of visitors this small city receives.
Friendliest People: It was unexpected, especially after the famously friendly people of Malawi, but we thought Tanzanians were tops.
Best Accommodation: This one is tough, but we concluded with a tie between Wild Spirit (Nature's Valley, South Africa), where we immediately felt at home with the warm family who runs it, and Lake Shore Lodge and Camping (Lake Tanganyika, Tanzania), where we treated ourselves to a bit of modern luxury and pampering, western Tanzania style!
Best Safari Park: Decisions are tough, so another tie: Serengeti National Park (Nick's pick) because of the cats and Ngorongoro Crater Conservation Area (Claudia's pick) because of the scenery and sheer numbers of animals (both in northern Tanzania).
Best Sidetrip: Hands down our three-day horseback trip from the Drakensberg Mountains in South Africa into Sehlahatebe National Park in Lesotho.
Best Wildlife Experience: We were enamored with our experience chimp tracking in Gombe Stream National Park, Lake Tanganyika, Tanzania.
Best Diving: Nothing beat the colorful fish, morays, and huge manta ray in the gorgeous blue water at Giant's Castle, Tofo, Mozambique.
Best Adrenaline Rush: We had a blast Class V White Water Rafting on the Nile River in Bujagali Falls, Uganda.
Best Lake: We couldn't get enough of the beautiful and serene Lake Tanganyika, Tanzania.
Best Border Crossing: Our horseback crossing from South Africa to Lesotho and back sure beats public transportation!
Best Sunset: Seeing the sun go down over the Nile River near its source (Bujagali Falls, Uganda).
Best Live Music Experience: Seeing a reggae band play in Nkhata Bay, Malawi.
Best Beer:Another tie: Castle Milk Stout (Nick's pick), South Africa, and Nile Special (Claudia's Pick), Uganda.
Best Hot Sauce: Nali Hot Sauce, Malawi.
Best Meal: Grilled lobster and tons of other delicacies on New Year's Eve at the Karafuu, Michamvi Penninsula, Zanzibar.
Best Cuisine: Cape Malay food, a fusion of Indian, Malaysian, and European influences, in Cape Town, South Africa.
Best Chicken and Chips: We never thought we'd be praising this dish after having to eat it more times than we care to remember, but the perfectly cooked and seasoned fried chicken and chips from a stand in the Mengo neighborhood roadside market (Kampala, Uganda) was a fitting final meal on our last night in Africa.
Best Burger: We still daydream about the burgers we ate at Royale Eatery, Cape Town, South Africa (and the milkshakes were great too!).
A boy walks up to your bus trying to sell you a mousetrap, razor blades, wallets, and watering cans. A woman walks down the highway carrying an infant on her back and the largest sack of potatoes I've ever seen on her head. A truck drives by with several large, dead fish hanging off the side mirrors to dry. A man pulls up on a bicycle with six live chickens tied to the back of his seat. The captain of the boat that was supposed to leave at noon tells us at 2:30 pm that it's looking like we'll probably leave around 4:00 pm because one of the passengers is still running a few errands. The power in town has been off for three of the last five days, but no one's complaining and business goes on as usual...This is Africa.
"This is Africa" or "TIA" is a term we learned almost immediately upon entering Mozambique. It's the phrase that's tossed around whenever an explanation simply doesn't exist for why or how something is happening in Africa. You shrug your shoulders and simply state "TIA". I don't want to make sweeping generalizations, and can only speak to a small part of southern and eastern Africa that we've seen so far, but there are commonalities among the countries we've been to. It's a region of beautiful vistas, but the landscape is often littered with plastic bags as far as the eye can see; a place where some work incredibly hard round the clock with neverending perseverence and others seem to sit around and wait for handouts; a continent where it seems that most villages don't have electricity but almost all villagers own a cell phone. Things happen at their own pace and get done in their own way. It can be challenging for a mzungu (a Swahili word literally meaning European but used to describe any white person) such as myself to make sense of it all.
The ability to at least try to put aside any expectations of sticking to a schedule, especially when it comes to transportation, is quite possibly the most important trait you can possess in order to survive--and more importantly, enjoy--a visit to Africa. Time has a much different meaning than what we are used to in the US. I'm not going to pretend that I haven't had my moments of frustration when "African Time", lack of personal space, being charged twice as much as the locals for a bus ride, or hearing "hello my friend will you please take a look at what I want to sell you" when I really don't want to has gotten the better part of me. In Nkhata Bay alone we spent three days in a row waiting for a ferry that never came, and then another boat that kept postponing its departure time until it decided not to depart and we finally decided to stop wasting our time waiting (unfortunately, due to logistics, this caused us to leave Malawi five days earlier than planned). Scheduled departure times-- heck, even scheduled departure dates-- are loose estimations, and no one but the mzungus seem to be upset when they end up being off by hours or days. On public transportation, there is no such thing as having your own seat, or any personal space, for that matter. I am not exaggerating when I say bus rides in Africa make the Paris subway smell like a flower shop. Your face is the color of a tomato, you're sweating profusely, armpits are centimeters away from your nose, babies are in your lap, chickens are held like hand luggage, bags of food are sitting under your feet: This Is Africa.
While travel in Mozambique, Malawi, and Tanzania has been the toughest we've experienced, we try to remember to appreciate the experience for what it is. I have learned to take a deep breath, look out the window, and take it all in: the dozens of brightly-clad women and children running up to the bus as it pulls into a town to sell us bowls full of ripe mangoes, avocadoes, pineapples and bananas, the man holding a chicken who's been standing in the aisle next to me for the last four hours, or the many women walking dangerously close to traffic speeding by them (there are no sidewalks), balancing anything from huge baskets of fish to a bucket of water to a broom on their heads. It's nuts; it's chaos; it's kind of beautiful in its own way.
Our time in Nkhata Bay, in the north of Malawi and on the shore of Lake Malawi, was a bit mixed: the beginning of our stay was relaxing and exciting, but by the end we found ourselves bored and frustrated. Let me back up.
After a bus ride from Zomba that managed to take "only" ten hours--for the first three we seemed to stop every five kilometers; picture taking a local city bus from DC to Philadelphia--we arrived at 3am, walked the two blocks to our backpackers' and promptly passed out. We woke up to find ourselves in the "Castaway Cabin", a cozy little shack perched precariously over the edge of the lake. Although small and a bit shabby, it came with a lovely breeze, breathtaking, unobstructed lake views, and the sound of waves lapping at the shore to lull us to sleep every night. It was also half the price and considerably more comfortable than our comparable accommodation in Mozambique, and we enjoyed swimming in the lake, sitting on the docks, and eating fresh mangoes from the many trees on the property.
We spent the next two days walking around the small town and neighboring coves and beaches, and while Claudia never quite warmed up to it (too much dried, smelly fish for sale on every corner, and too many drunk locals, from whom Malawi's famous friendliness is less appealing), I rather enjoyed our time in Nkhata Bay. I had the sense that it was a town near the beginning of its tourism life, therefore the place wasn't overrun with tourists, nor the resentment, elevated prices, and diminished service that invariably follow; instead we found many helpful and friendly people, as well as one good restaurant, and one internet cafe. What more could we want for a few relaxing days in a sleepy, lakeside town?
After the first night's three-course Thai dinner, we were approached by an American woman and a Malawian man. The American said that her boyfriend didn't believe that she could tell that we were also Americans merely from overhearing our accents in our hushed voices over dinner, and we struck up a conversation. Before we knew it, we were on our way to a concert put on by their friends. We headed down an unmarked alley to a nameless bar overlooking the lake where the five-man reggae band was tuning up. Reggae isn't usually my favorite type of music (or maybe I'm just sick of hearing the same four Bob Marley songs at every backpackers'), but I'm sure I had a huge smile on my face for the entire concert. Everyone there--both the band and the small crowd--was simply having a great time. The band was a little rough around the edges, missing cues and having to restart songs, but they clearly loved making music, and the fans clearly loved hearing it, dancing freely and authentically and without any of the pretense, self-consciousness, or "cool" that we're used to at shows back home.
The next day we took our one big outing in Nkhata Bay: Claudia got to use her SCUBA certification for the first time in a new body of water, and I came along for the ride and did a bit of snorkeling. One of Lake Malawi's claims to fame is that it was included in the BBC series Planet Earth, and before the ride we were shown the clip, which was mostly filmed in Nkhata Bay, to familiarize ourselves with the types of fish we would see. The majority of fish in the lake (over 1000 species) are in the Cichlid family, and most of these are endemic to the lake, all reputedly descendents of a small number of ancestors who became trapped inland. Claudia enjoyed the new conditions: the entry was much calmer than in the ocean, the visibility was better than she expected, and she swam through some rock tunnels. The highlight, of course, was the wildlife: we both saw many beautiful and colorful varieties, and Claudia saw the special and aptly-named Upside-down Cichlid, which spends its whole life swimming upside down to feed on the underside of rocks.
The other animal the lake is famous for is the Lake Fly, which we were lucky enough to observe most of the mornings we were there. During the rainy season, after the rains taper off around dawn, the fly larva come to the lake's surface and hatch by the millions, spend a few hours mating, then fall back into the lake. The result is enormous columnar clouds of the insects which look like smoke from on the horizon, but were quite difficult to capture with our camera.
On our third day, we were planning on leaving on a weekly ferry to head to two islands, Likoma and Chizumulu, a few hours' journey away. The islands sounded incredible to us: the type of remote, relaxing, slow lifestyle that's the promise of every tropical island, they were probably the destination in Malawi we were most excited about, and we skipped most of the central and southern parts of the country in order to have enough time to visit them. A few hours after packing our bags and checking out of our room in anticipation of the evening's ferry departure, we were told that the ferry was having some mechanical trouble and had not left its previous port as scheduled. Since the last stop is at least 12 hours away, and it was already mid-afternoon, we realized we weren't going to leave that day, although everyone we asked assured us it was a minor problem and the ferry was sure to leave in a few hours. We checked back into the backpackers', and planned on a departure the following morning, which wouldn't have severely affected our plans.
However, the next day we heard much the same story, and we began to get anxious. We still had enough time to be flexible, but we were getting a bit bored with the town's limited options for food and activities, so we spent the day concocting a back-up plan. We found another lodge on the mainland, an eight-hour boat ride north in a very secluded location near a small fishing village on the lake. The lodge's owners said that they knew of a local boat going north that was scheduled to leave the following day at noon. We decided that if the ferry hadn't left by the end of the day (putting it at least two days behind schedule), we would abandon the islands and head to this lodge instead. We didn't feel ready to give up on Malawi yet and still wanted to get to know this friendly country.
Predictably, the ferry to the islands still had not left its previous port when we woke up the next morning, so we once again packed our bags, did some food shopping, and headed into town to await our 12pm departure. The 12pm departure, however, turned into a 2:30pm departure, which turned into a 4pm departure, which was when the boat's captain postponed the trip until "maybe tomorrow". At this point, dejected with our bad luck and with a mounting case of cabin fever, and sick of checking in and out of the same backpackers', we decided three days of waiting for boats was too much, and we had to get out of town, so we hopped into a minivan headed to Mzuzu, the region's transport hub, to make plans for our next destination. We weren't quite sure where to go next because we were already so far north (the direction we're heading so we can be in Tanzania to meet our friends), so we didn't want to backtrack and go back south within Malawi, adding a few days of bus travel in each direction. However, we had only been in Malawi for nine days and felt like we had barely scratched the surface of a country we had been really excited to visit.
Throughout the trip, when we've had experiences like this, when things get frustrating and we're in our lowest spirits, we're still aware of how lucky we are to have this opportunity, and wouldn't trade our experiences this year for anything. In fact, it's often the case that the times that challenge our patience, our comfort, and even our sanity are what make the good times all the more enjoyable. There would be no point if it was easy all the time, right?
Unfortunately, we were not in Malawi long enough to get a good taste for what the country's cuisine is all about (unless it really is just chicken and chips, in which case we had more than enough time to get a taste for it...), but one thing we loved about every meal in Malawi was the addition of the country's beloved piri-piri sauce. Nali comes in mild, hot, gold, and garlic, the last one being my personal favorite, because it is not too hot but very tasty, so I don't have to end all my meals in tears. Nali Garlic also makes the perect burger topping or chips condiment when mixed with ketchup. We left the country with only two souvenirs: bottles of Nali Hot and Nali Garlic. 'Nuff said!
After a stressful and uncomfortable two days of travel in northern Mozambique, we entered southern Malawi looking for a bit of relaxation and a break from the heat. We spent two nights in Blantyre, where we enjoyed a historical tour of the city's oldest building, the international influence of a Hindu temple and a distinctly African take on Indian food, and a tour of a local nonprofit focused on education through paper recycling.
Before long, we were headed on to Zomba, a small village (sister city to Urbana, Illinois!) at the foot of an imposing plateau which we were to ascend to escape the heat. Upon leaving the bus station, we were approached by the usual throng of people trying to sell us onward bus trips, taxi rides, crafts, and various food items, and we politely turned them down, as we had some errands to do before ascending the plateau. As we walked from the bus station to two banks, two supermarkets, and an open-air vegetable market, we were followed by one particularly persistent taxi driver who engaged us in conversation about our home, our jobs, our trip, as well as suggesting to us the best places to go for the supplies we needed. While we have learned so far on the trip to be wary of such pushy salesmen, since in most places they are merely feigning politeness in order to secure our business (and charge us a higher-than-market rate), we eventually came to realize that this man was genuinely polite and interested in us, and he would be an early example of the type of kind and helpful people we would meet all throughout Malawi (although he did overcharge us for the ride up the plateau). We had read that Malawian people were some of the friendliest in Africa, and time and again we've met people with big smiles who wanted nothing more than to shake our hands and exchange a few words with us. It's a nice change of pace from the feeling in Mozambique that everyone was trying to make a buck off us.
The Zomba plateau really has only two lodging options: a super-posh resort, and a backpacker-friendly spot called the Trout Farm. The resort being out of our price range, we tried our luck at the Trout Farm. On arriving we were told that it was undergoing a change in management and we found the facilities to be a bit neglected, with the trout pond all but dry and all the buildings in serious need of a coat of paint. We had been envisioning a few comfortable days to recuperate from our traveling, and so were a bit put off by the shabby exterior, but without any other real option, we settled in and tried to make the best of it. After a nice pasta dinner and a good night's sleep, things looked a lot better: we focused on the beautiful and pristine surroundings and the fresh, clean, pine-smelling mountain air. The next day was Thanksgiving, and we took a short walk in the morning, past a waterfall and to a vista overlooking the town and surrounding plains, meanwhile passing many men walking bikes loaded with an incredible amount of firewood, then returned to the Trout Farm to work on our Thanksgiving dinner.
While we've met many travelers here in Africa, very, very few of them have been Americans, so we had put out a couple of feelers on online travel forums, looking for expats in Malawi's cities to share the holiday with, but weren't holding out much hope. When we didn't receive any responses to our posts, and didn't meet any Americans in Blantyre, we headed up to Zomba, accepting the fact that we'd be eating alone. We picked up a chicken, some sweet potatoes, the ingredients for an impromptu stuffing, and apples to bake for dessert, and didn't think any more about it.
After returning from our walk we sat on our porch to rest for a bit, and you can imagine our surprise when two girls with American accents walked into the farm carrying an apple pie! We quickly struck up a conversation--it turns out that they were Peace Corps volunteers in Malawi, soon to be followed by three more friends--and we agreed that we should certainly all celebrate the holiday together.
A few hours later we were sitting down to a candlelit dinner on a dock above a dry pond in rural Malawi, with heaping plates of chicken, sweet potatoes, two kinds of stuffing, creamy garlic mashed potatoes, carrots grown in one of the volunteers' gardens, green bean casserole, Velveeta macaroni and cheese (ingredients for these last two sent by the volunteers' concerned families), and of course a turkey, bought from another of the volunteers' neighbor, and slaughtered, cleaned, and expertly cooked by the volunteers. After only meeting two Americans in our first six weeks in Africa, we found it just perfect that we would meet the next five on Thanksgiving day, and it all made for a unique Thanksgiving and one we won't soon forget!