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Wheeling Solo On The Kalahari, Part 3

Posted in Events on May 1, 2010 Comment (0)
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Wheeling Solo On The Kalahari, Part 3

"Your visa is expired, you are here illegally. The fine is one million, eight-hundred thousand Kwacha." His penetrating eyes jumped out from the shadow of his full-brim hat, the sun glistened off his ebony black skin and the patch on his sand-khaki uniform read "Department of Immigration."

"Pardon me, there must be some mistake," I replied. "My visa is good for three years-it is a three-year visa."

"Yes, but you have five days in Zambia for this visit," he said in a heavily accented English. "Look here, it has expired. Please come with me."

I'd been flagged down at a roadside checkpoint between Livingstone and Lusaka, Zambia. Nothing too official about it-just a few orange cones, two khaki-clad gun-toting officers, and a few '70s-era fold-up chairs. I looked again at the handwritten scribble on my passport. Sure enough, it had a date. My three-year visa had expired after five days.

One Cow, Three Goats, and the Road From Hell
The thing I like about traveling alone and without a hard-line schedule is having the ability to change directions, like a squirrel crossing the highway. You meet other travelers, share experiences and tips about interesting destinations around the campfire, and maybe swap a guidebook or two. When the sun rises the next day, the world is your oyster. Pick a destination and turn the wheel east, west, or south. I had a camping reservation in a few days at South Luangwa Game Reserve, 1,000 kilometers to the northeast, but in the interim I decided to visit a couple I had met in Livingstone who lived on Lake Kariba.

Lake Malawi is an aqueous paradise in the midst of a semi-arid bushveld. Home to over 300 species of cichlids (freshwater aquarium fish), its waters are crystal clear and mostly free of crocs.

To define the highway to Lusaka as a bomb-cratered mess would be a generous overstatement. Chuckholes the size of watermelons peppered the entire route, and trucks and buses crawling at a snail's pace weaved to and fro around the minefield of obstacles. After enduring 70 kilometers on the road from hell, I found a dirt side-track on T4A (Tracks 4 Africa GPS map) that would take me to Lake Kariba.

Zambia, formerly Northern Rhodesia and a British protectorate until 1964, is partitioned from its southern neighbor, Zimbabwe, by the Zambezi River. With a per capita annual income of less than $1,200 U.S., and 60 percent of its population living on less that $1.25 per day, it is a poor country. From the earliest days of European intervention, slave-trading raids of the Portuguese, and eventual British oversight, the peoples of Zambia, which are a potpourri of Tonga, Bantu, Nkoya, and Sotho, have struggled with identity and independence.

African bush life is of another dimension. In the morning, we walked through a nearby village and witnessed a dozen women building a mud-brick church. Stopping at the home of a local laborer and his three wives, he shared with me the story of an eleven-year old girl who was raped by her uncle. When a grievance was filed by the father, the local chief, in his greatness and impartiality, sentenced the guilty uncle to pay one cow and three goats in retribution. The father was apparently happy with this agreement, and all was good. My friend said it may be a blessing in disguise for the girl: "If everyone knows she was raped and may now have AIDS, no one will touch her or marry her. She won't get pregnant and might actually have the chance for an education."

Back to Reality: Con Games and Coca-Cola
I stared back into the immigration officer's eyes in an attempt to assess the gravity of my predicament. I ran the numbers in my head and responded, "That is almost $600 U.S. That seems very high, and I have already paid $130 U.S. for a three-year visa. I don't understand." He coldly responded, "Yes, this is a three-year visa," pointing again to my passport," but you were only given five days for this visit. You may pay the fine in Kwacha or U.S. dollars."

Rivers have historically been natural boundaries. Near the confluence with the Chobe River, the mighty Zambezi defines the demarcation between Botswana, Namibia, Zimbabwe, and Zambia. After a 2,000-kilometer trek through Botswana's Kalahari Desert, we eased the wheels off the Kazengula Ferry behind barrel-rolling and crate-carrying locals, and onto Zambian soil.

I didn't have 1.8 million Kwacha, and informed my captor I'd need to call the American consulate. Anthony came on the line, and I explained the situation. The bottom line was, "I can only officially help you if you have been arrested. The process could take weeks. They might still fine and deport you." Anthony explained, "If you pay, get an official receipt. But try to talk your way out of it first." I returned to my new friends and explained, "My consulate said this must have been an honest mistake, that Zambians are usually very understanding with their country's guests. Is it possible for you to give me an extension here?" His eyebrow dipped in disapproval. I continued. "If you are not allowed to do this, I can take one of you to Lusaka with me (200 kilometers away); I'll get money to pay the court, and then bring you back."

I then sat down in the dirt at the base of an acacia tree; the ball was in their court. An hour passed. Then another hour, but with a bit of small talk. One of them walked to a market, returned with three bottles of Coca-Cola, and handed one to me. We talked. I waited. I was behind schedule and anxious, but I wasn't going to pay these guys extortion money. Another 30 minutes passed. Then, the lead guy pulled out his binder, scribbled something down on my passport, handed it back to me, and said in a heavily accented voice, "I have given you a five-day extension, you are free to go. We hope you enjoy your stay in Zambia." I let out a huge internal sigh of relief, politely thanked each of them, got in the H3, and got the heck out of there.

Shadows in the Night, the Blood Highway, and Men With Guns
After my run-in with immigration, I was behind schedule and broke one of my cardinal rules of travel: "Don't travel at night." I was warned by a man in Lusaka that continuing on was a bad idea and that I should get a room for the night. "There are many deaths on that road each night, it is very dangerous. If you go, don't stop for anything. Villagers walk drunk in the road and get hit. If there is a body lying on the ground, don't stop." He continued, "Don't touch anyone that is bleeding, they all have AIDS." I was running a day behind and decided to push on (that damn schedule thing again).

The lack of reliable sources of clean water has plagued bush communities for millennia. In the 1980s, CARE International installed hundreds of these stainless steel hand pumps across much of Southern Africa.

His advice was spot-on. Within 50 miles I'd passed several wrecks, one of which, as my informant predicted, had a bloodied blanket draped over what I guessed was a wayward pedestrian. After a way-too-close call with an oncoming semi, which scared the living crap out of me, I pulled over to check my maps (and my shorts) for an alternative route. The only one that went to South Luangwa was on my T4A GPS map and appeared to be a goat track. But T4A had been accurate to this point, and I'd take any alternative to getting killed on the blood highway.

It was a moonless night and the track was as I expected-a windy, bumpy, 80-kilometer goat track through the bush. My IPF auxiliary lights cut through the bush, occasionally illuminating a villager peering out from the shadows. A black-backed jackal darted across the path, and a few minutes later a man on a bicycle with a goat tied to the handlebars dodged off the track as I slowly passed. The occasional campfire burned in the distance, each with a few villagers huddled around it.

This was Africa, real Africa. There were no game parks, fences, tourists, or road signs. The track was rough and my top speed only 15 mph. By 23:00 I'd been on the track for three hours and had covered only half the ground needed. I was tired, and macabre shadows begin to play mind games with my subconscious. Should I stop? Is it safe?

While this may appear very touristy, open-air game drives are the only way to get this close to an African lion. Interestingly, if you stay in the vehicle they don't acknowledge you. But step out, and you may quickly become the food part of the food chain in their nightly hunt.

Thirty minutes later I pulled into a clearing and popped up the ARB tent (there is a certain false sense of security when you are sleeping six feet off the ground). I was about to crawl in when I heard a loud waavwooff in the bush, and a golden hue sent macabre shadows across my camp. I had unknowingly stopped at the edge of a small village, and upon hearing my commotion, someone got up to re-stoke the fire with paraffin. I slipped my hand into my tent, slowly pulled out my machete, and waited to see if I should expect company. A few people scurried around the fire's light. I heard voices, but all seemed calm. I crawled in and went to bed. Being alone in the dark and in a strange place can play tricks on your mind, especially when you were harangued for $600 earlier in the day. I lay in bed listing listening intently to every crackle in the bush and the screech of a howler monkey.

As I prepared coffee in the morning, a man with what appeared to be a muzzle-loader rifle pedaled by on a bicycle. We smiled and waved to each other. As the eastern horizon came to light, a few villagers wandered over to check me out. Though they did not speak a word of English, and I don't speak any of the 73 Zambian dialects, they were very curious and all smiles. I felt relieved but a little silly-like an alien who landed in the Waltons' farm and expected Mary Ellen to attack him with a skillet.

Somewhat lost one night, I followed a two-track through the bush to its terminus on the Shire River. In the morning, when I was joined by several dozen locals, I realized I was camped on the boat launch.

Rouge Monkeys, Killer Flies, and Flat Dogs Camp
Smack! I hit my leg with purpose in hopes of killing whatever had just buried its teeth into my thigh. I got the little bastard, and smeared my palm around to make sure it was dead. As my attention realigned with the trail, a long red and black wasp shook out its crumpled wings, regained its bearings and flew out the window, seemingly chuckling back at me as it took flight. What the heck was that? Turns out he had friends, lots of friends. So many that I finally closed the windows, stopped the vehicle, and waged war on 30-plus blood-sucking intruders.

I'd been rousted from my sleeping bag this morning to the crackle of limbs being shredded off a tree. Jumping out of my tent, I glimpsed a large elephant tearing branches off a mopani tree a few tents over. Moving on to an overlanding group camp, the massive pachyderm proceeded to trash their kitchen as the camp's occupants scrambled up a tree to a platform.

This was the Flat Dogs Camp on the banks of the Luangwa River (crocs lying on the riverbank are affectionately referred to as "flat dogs"), and there were no fences to keep the critters out. Hippos emerge from the river at all hours of the night to forage through camp, vervet monkeys swoop down from sausage-tree limbs to swipe anything they can get their hands on, and flat dogs soak up afternoon rays just yards from your tent. It is truly a wild and unruly place, and everything-including humans, if they wander into the wrong crowd-may become part of the perpetual food chain that is the African bush.

Swimmers in the Zambezi River are referred to as "Croc Biscuits," and this little guy was only about seven feet long. Considering this image was taken from a raft and we'd been swimming much of the way down the river (tossed out of the raft, to be accurate), we kept our feet out of the water from that point on.

Overlanding is a cheap way to see Africa. For a reasonable fee, you can jump in a 2-ton military truck with a dozen other adventurers and go from one hot spot to another. My neighbors, the tree-climbers, were a group of college students. And one kid, who missed Dumbo's wakeup call from the kitchen, poked his head out of the tent to find a leg-sized proboscis in his face. The overlander guide eventually chased the intruder from camp and the students returned to terra firma.

I spent the morning in the South Luangwa Game Reserve dodging elephants, watching a hyenas gnaw on a three-week-dead hippo carcass (one of the most nauseating things I've smelled), and smashing a few dozen killer flies before departing for the Malawi border. The primary dirt track back to the tar road was fairly good, and the mix of foot, bicycle, and goat traffic reminded me of my night drive a few days earlier. I was flagged down at one point by a few villagers with a goat strapped to the back of a bicycle. It was for sale-and only 120,000 Kwacha (about $40 U.S.). I could have fresh goat for dinner (yes, it was alive). After a bit of bartering, the price fell to 100,000, then 90,000 and finally 80,000. And they'd tie it to my roof rack for free. When I explained that I had no means to slaughter the goat, they offered to sell me a knife as well. I respectfully declined.

In a world where the average wage is one dollar per day, a new Xbox or Gameboy is not an option. Crafted from stuff you would toss in the trash, these remote-control cars provide endless entertainment for local children. (The next time your kids are whining, suggest a little dumpster-diving.) We ran the first Zambian 1000 right in the middle of the track.

Malawi and the Zomba Plateau
October 8th, kilometer 6900: Malawi has marked itself as being the friendliest country in Africa. Entering the country was as no more of a hassle than ordering a pizza. I provided the Carnet de Passage for the Hummer, paid $37 U.S. for local insurance, and a few bucks for a visa-no carbon tax, no road tax, nada. However, there were a couple of local men hanging out near the immigration office in hopes of exchanging their Malawian Kwacha for my U.S. dollars. And considering I was their only client at the moment, I received their undivided attention (they won't leave you alone). But their rate was fair and they were polite-and they wanted the U.S. greenbacks. We made a deal, shook hands, and I had a handful of colorful Malawian currency. I liked Malawi already.

A villager showed up while I was making coffee, then another with a bicycle. Within 30 minutes I had 30 new friends, all with bicycles. From the far side of the river, three men maneuvered a small wooden boat to a muddy landing near my camp (the Shire is about a mile wide at this point). Two men jumped out and began loading bikes on the bow, then people on the stern to counter balance, then more bikes, until the boat took on the appearance of a lopsided penguin ready to capsize. The captain, Mr. Kaste, insisted that I come with them for the day to the village on the other side to visit his family and friends; I could return on the afternoon ferry.

I assessed the stability of this overburdened vessel while remembering the crocs and hippos along the river's edge. I politely declined the offer. The oarmen pushed off as the last passenger scrambled over the gunwale and they drifted away. The rest of the day was spent exploring the banks of the Shire and watching hippos, crocs, fish eagles, and several species of undulates.

It would be hard for most Americans to believe that there are parts of the world where building timbers are still cut by hand. These four men and a pair of eight-foot handsaws, circa 1850, crafted the pile of lumber before them. A good wage for the area is $1.50 per day.

A friend in Cape Town had suggested I visit the Zomba Plateau in Southern Malawi. Rising from rolling hills and fertile valleys, Zomba towers above like a monument to the gods of the sun, wind, and moon. The nearby city of Blantyre, a fuel stop, was a throng of congestion and hustlers. Stopping in a parking lot to review my route, I was approached by three men. As usual, they wanted to be my guide, guard my car, exchange money, sell me jewelry, wash my car, etc. It was like a mobile one-stop superstore. Though polite, they were persistent to the point of annoyance. I eventually got back behind the wheel and moved on. What a pain.

Dozens of men pushed empty bicycles up the dirt road that lead to the top of the plateau. The timber that Livingston described was as thick as a brier patch, but it is being harvested from the mountain one bicycle load at a time. The bikes heading up were empty, but those coming down were stacked precariously high with machete-cut logs. (Chainsaws are expensive, but labor is cheap and plentiful.) In Blantyre, a woodcutter's two-day effort would net him about two dollars. The view from the Zomba Top, which had been clear-cut of marketable timber and extended west towards Zimbabwe and east into Mozambique, was spectacular.

Because there aren't many cars when you get away from the cities, roads are primarily occupied by foot, bicycle, and bovine traffic. This view through the windshield of my H3 was a fairly typical sight in rural villages.

Journey's End
The odometer clicked 7,900 kilometers; my trek through the Kalahari was complete. I eased the Hummer into Mozambique and reflected on the past six weeks: I'd been rousted by elephants, chased out of the Kalahari by a massive brushfire, had three-meter crocs under my mokoro (dugout canoe), and blasted across the Makgadikgadi salt pan under a crimson African sunset. I'd spent over 30 nights in my ARB rooftop tent under the southern skies, and the Hummer H3 I'd borrowed in South Africa had performed flawlessly. It had been an epic expedition-a trip of a lifetime, you might say. I pulled out my stack of unused maps-Tanzania, Kenya, and Rwanda-places yet to be explored. I slipped them into my map pouch, knowing that Africa would call me back one day.

The Luangwa Valley is a wildlife mecca, and any number of species-elephant, hippo, lion, or leopard-may visit your camp. After this large male pachyderm chased an overlander group into a tree and trashed their kitchen, this late sleeper finally poked his head out of the elephant tent. And you didn't think elephants can read?

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