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 Moz was almost entirely spent on its coast, so almost everything we ate was seafood with either chips (french fries) or rice, with piri-piri sauce on the side. The most popular dishes were camarões (shrimp), lagosta (lobster), lagostina (something between a lobster a crayfish), and of course, fresh fish of the day. All meals are served with piri-piri, a hot sauce from piri piri peppers, which can be purchased in liter-sized bottles from stands alongside almost any road. The stuff is hands down the hottest hot pepper sauce I've ever tried. It's the kind of thing where you use a few drops, your lips start to tingle, your eyes are watering, yet you continue to add more and more until you can no longer feel your lips and you're in tears. Or maybe that's just me. In any case, that's how most meals ended for me. Can you blame me? Potatoes and rice need some spicing up when you eat them twice a day!
Aside from everything I doused in piri-piri, the two tastiest dishes I ate were a peanut and coconut-based curry sauce that I had one night with crab and one night with fish, and a classic Mozambican dish of pumpkin leaves stewed with peanuts and shrimp. Both were incredibly tasty, erring on the sweet side without being overly sugary. Dinners were washed down with a Doshem (the national beer): the perfect end to a day at the beach!
After three nights in Vilanculos, we were ready to make our way to Malawi. When we got to the bus station to buy our ticket for the next morning, we found out that the bus we needed to take would not be running, so our options were to wait a day or to take a chapa to the junction 20 km away and try our luck there hailing a bus coming from Maputo. We were somewhat itching to leave, so instead of staying another night, we decided to try our luck at the junction. We got there around 7am, and within 20 minutes, a truck driver approached us and asked where we were going. He offered us a ride and we agreed on a price. We had heard that hitch-hiking with truckers is quite common in Moz since public transport can be scarce, so while we were a bit apprehensive, we were comforted by the fact that what we were doing was not uncommon.
The next six hours ended up being an emotional rollercoaster for me. That sounds quite dramatic, but I believe it's an accurate description of how I felt. The ride started out uneventful; there were even two locals hitching a ride as well, which we took to be a good sign. However, their conversation quickly started to make me feel uncomfortable. While we don't speak Portuguese, it's close enough to Spanish and Italian that we can understand enough to know when we're being talked about. The driver's partner (whose name we'd find out later was Pitcho) was making fun of how much money we were paying for the ride, and I don't know what else he was saying about us but everyone seemed to be having a fabulous laugh at our expense. The two locals got out after about an hour, and then the ride became a bit eerie. There are no towns on this stretch of highway except for a couple sketchy junctions where truckers stop for a quick meal. As we approached a weigh station and police checkpoint, Pitcho asked for our passports because the police would be checking them, then flipped through them and carefully studied all our stamps and personal info. The police never asked us to see them, but once we got going again, he began to tell the driver about everywhere we had been, how old we are, etc., occasionally turning around to look us over and stare at us. His manner of speaking was loud and came off as aggressive and even angry and his looks made me quite uncomfortable, as my smiles were always returned with a suspicious stare.
At this point, my mind began to wander: I thought of the fact that we're two young people who have been to many countries and therefore might be considered very rich and fortunate--perhaps even spoiled--in the truck drivers' eyes, that perhaps they resented us for our relative wealth, and resentment could turn into violence. I thought about the fact that we had all our stuff with us, and they could easily kick us out of the truck and leave us on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere and speed away with everything, leaving us with no way to call the police (and in any case, Mozambican officials are notoriously corrupt)...I did my best to keep my mind from wandering into worst-case scenarios, but my body was tense, and all I could do was stare at the clock and pray that the ride would be over with soon. I know I sound paranoid, but sometimes you get a really bad feeling about a situation, and there's nothing you can do to get out of it. I had a terrible feeling about our decision to get into this truck, and felt trapped because of it.
After pretty much the longest hour of my life, we reached one of the scruffy truck stops where Pitcho and the driver motioned us to get out and have something to eat. I was too nervous to eat so we hung around near the truck at a little shack that sold drinks. Pitcho bought himself a beer and offered us each a Coke. Neither of us wanted one, but he insisted so we thanked him and sat and drank our Cokes in confusion. The Cokes calmed us down a bit, and we got back in the truck. Within minutes of being back on the road, Pitcho began to turn into another person, chatting with us, asking what we do at home, where we live, where we're going after Mozambique, etc. He commented on the fact that I am older than Nick, which is a culturally unacceptable situation in Mozambique ("Nicholas! You are young and she is old!"). Slowly the tension in my neck began to release a bit, and as we talked in broken English, Portuguese, Spanish, and Italian, answering more and more of his questions, and asking him some as well, Nick and I both began to realize that we weren't in any danger. Perhaps we initially appeared so different to him that he didn't know how else to greet those differences other than with suspicion (and maybe we were doing the exact same thing to him); maybe he thought we were spies with our US and Italian passports and all their stamps, or perhaps the beer just loosened him up a bit. All we know is that he turned out to be quite a friendly guy, and when we reached the junction where we needed to be dropped off, he entreated us to stay with them for the next 20 hours in the wrong direction, and even carried my bag the 2km from where the truck stopped to the chapa stand up the road. He also insisted that we exchange phone numbers, and said "We are brothers now. You call me next time you're in Mozambique!"
I'm not sure exactly what lesson is to be learned from this experience. I could conclude that we should never hitch-hike again because crazy people exist and there is a chance we could have been left on the side of the road, robbed of our belongings and beaten up. Or I could conclude that I should loosen up, and not assume the worst of people I don't know. Perhaps we should have made a bigger effort to strike up conversation with him so that he felt at ease with us. Perhaps I should conclude that his animated way of speaking was just a personality or cultural trait and not a sign of anger or aggression. In any case, it was quite an experience and one that I will remember for a very long time!
The rest of our trip to Malawi was tough but comparatively uneventful. After getting off the truck, we took a one-hour chapa to a town called Chimoio, where we spent one short night in a cute trailer at a funky backpackers', and woke up at 3 am the next morning to catch a 6-hour minibus to Tete, an uninspiring town and supposedly the hottest place in Moz. In Tete, we walked across a long bridge to catch a chapa full of sweaty people, crying children, chickens, cases of soda, bags of rice, and huge jugs of cooking oil, which drove over two hours to the Moz-Malawi border. After formalities on the Moz side, we took a quick taxi ride 7 km to the Malawi border post. Formalities again went smoothly, and after about an hour wait, we were on a two hour chapa to Blantyre, Malawi's largest city, where we checked/collapsed into the first room we've had in Africa with its own bathroom! Phew.
After South Africa, we headed east to Mozambique for some beach time. Moz is starkly different from its neighbor; first, the main language is Portuguese, since it had once been colonized by Portugal, the population is almost all black, and the country was in a bloody civil war until the 1990s. Our first necessary stop was the capital, Maputo, which is on the water and supposedly a nice place to spend a few days. We ended up being a bit disappointed, due to a number of factors: our lodging situation (the first place we spent a night "temporarily" had no electricity or running water and the one we moved to on the second night was quite expensive), the fact that it was a city holiday meant that everything was closed and the town was dead, and prohibitively expensive taxis, which caused us to decide not to go to dinner at a famous seafood restaurant a bit out of town (taking public transportation at night would be too risky). All in all, we ended up feeling a bit trapped and ready to leave sticky Maputo after spending only two nights.
We took a crowded minibus (which would turn out to be our most comfortable ride in Mozambique!) to the beach town of Tofo, about 8 hours up the coast, and stayed at Bamboozi Beach Lodge, which consisted of a group of simple reed huts (the kind most Mozambicans call homes), communal kitchens, bathrooms, and a restaurant/bar that sat up on the dunes with great views of the ocean. One of the main reasons we picked this place is because it has an on-site dive operator, and I wanted to take my open water diving class.
Our time in Tofo was pleasant; Nick passed his days relaxing and reading (finishing Moby Dick, and reading all of Heart of Darkness and Gulliver's Travels), while I spent four days diving and studying the PADI open water course book. In the evenings we either cooked or went to dinner with the friends we met on the bus from Maputo, a fun group of people from Portugal, Germany, Holland, and Belgium. Tofo is nothing more than a small cenral market and a few blocks of sandy roads with a handful of restaurants and surfboard rental shops, sitting on a 2-km stretch of wide beach dotted with beach lodges. The seafood in Tofo is good: most dinners consisted of shrimp, calamari, or fresh fish of the day cooked simply and served with a heaping portion of coconut rice or chips (french fries). One evening one of our friends bought lobsters off a fisherman on the beach and we cooked a feast of vegetable pasta and lobster tails, followed by a bonfire under the stars.
I ended up really loving scuba diving. At first I was apprehensive, and I was giving myself a 50/50 chance of dropping out of the course after my first open water dive. The diving in Tofo can be a bit scary for a beginner because it's all done from a boat in the ocean, and the swells and currents can be quite strong. It turned out that getting into the water was the worst part, and as soon as we descended, I was enthralled with my surroundings and not bothered at all that I was breathing underwater. I ended up doing five dives during my time there: the four that are required for the course and then one deep water (30-meter) adventure dive. The last one ended up being my favorite, with the visibility perfect, the fish beautiful and varied, and I even saw a manta ray, which is what Tofo's diving scene is known for, but they had been scarce of late. The PADI course was on the expensive side in Tofo, but the dives were rewarding, and I wanted to have the class done so I'd be able to dive during the rest of our trip in Lake Malawi, Zanzibar, Thailand, etc.
Having had our momentary fill of seafood and diving, we decided to start the long haul north toward Malawi. Most people we had talked to over the previous weeks told us that travel in northern Moz is very difficult if not impossible: hitch-hiking, days on cramped chapas (mini-buses, really more like vans), and nights spent on the side of the road would be the only way to get through the area. But then we met people who had done the trip, and while they confirmed that it was certainly long and uncomfortable, it was doable. That, coupled with the high price of the flights ($550 and up) led us to decide to just buck up and head to Malawi overland. The first logical stop on the trip north is Vilanculos, another beach town and the gateway to the Bazaruto Archipelago, which made it worthy of staying for a few days.
Vilanculos is more spread out than Tofo, and while there is a central area, it's not where all of the resturants and lodging are. We picked a place to stay that was near the beach called Zombie Cucumber, which had a few hammocks and wasn't too far from the center of town, and our hut ended up being much more comfortable than the one we had in Bamboozi (it even had a double bed, a table, and a fan!). The islands in the Bazaruto Archipelago are not too far offshore, but the lodging options on the islands are prohibitively expensive. Instead, we took a day trip to the nearest island, Magaruque, which was lovely. There were only six of us on the tour, and we went with some locals on their "dhow" sailboat. We spent the day walking around the island, snorkeling, and eating a fresh grilled fish lunch. The only other people we saw on our 2+ hour walk all the way around the perimeter of the island were a few fisherman fixing their boats.