Botswana.

A short 45 minute drive from Victoria Falls and we were crossing the border into Botswana and the town of Kasane, which was to be our base for the next couple of days.

In Victoria Falls we had picked up a few new passengers, including four Italian guys, who were in fact two couples and who looked like they were going to be a lot of fun.

Our campsite was on the banks of The Choebe River and was pretty good. The facilities were decent, plus it had a fantastic restaurant and bar which was showing The Rugby World Cup. A big step up from Zimbabwe.

The plan here was to do a game drive the following day and a river cruise on either the first or second evenings. We were cook group that day so chose to do it the following evening.

Cook group is always a hectic time. Planning on what you are going to cook for up to 28 people isn’t easy. Plus you have to be flexible, as when you get to the supermarket or market the ingredients you need are not always available. Then on the day there is invariably a lot of chopping and other preparation before the cooking actually starts.

It looks like we’re having fajitas tonight.

We generally cook once a week and on the other days you rotate between, truck cleaning, truck security and washing up, with the latter being the only real time consuming job. You also have a day off thrown in here and there, plus there are days when no-one cooks and you have to fend for yourself. This usually happens in bigger towns. Since the start we have been in a cook group with a girl called Ana. She is 24 years old, lives in Australia but is half Croatian. She is lovely and always happy and bubbly. We were joined in the cook group after Victoria Falls by a Swedish guy, who needs a little or sometimes a lot of encouragement to get involved. But unfortunately for him Steve is quite happy to give him all the encouragement he needs.

When the group returned from the evening river cruise, they seemed happy but not overly so and were a little disappointed that they hadn’t seen any elephants, who had been billed as the main attraction. However they were soon lifted by our super delicious chicken and vegetable stir fry!!

Later in the evening we went to the great bar and watched England play in the Rugby World Cup Quater Final. It was packed and noisy with a great atmosphere and several different nationalities watching. Not many supporting England though. It was very easy to forget where exactly in The World we were.

The next day brought another game drive in the now familiar 4×4 safari jeeps. Each country seems to have its own slight difference in design but they are all essentially the same. For this game drive there was no ‘Spotter Seat’ like in Zimbabwe, which initially Steve was disappointed about, but he soon changed his mind we we bumped into a pride of Lions on the prowl.

That is just about near enough. Thankyou.

The highlight of our day came in the evening when we went on the river cruise along The Choebe River. We were hoping we might get to see some elephants, but in the end we saw so much more. It turned out to be one of the best parts of the entire Africa trip.

Drifting down The Choebe River.

After cruising along the river for about half an hour spotting a few crocodiles lazing on the banks catching the last of the evening sun, we saw what looked like quite a big hippo ahead of us.

Its always dinner time for some!

It was mostly submerged but it was moving towards some grass and reeds near the bank. We were able to get pretty close as it munched away and slowly emerged from the water.

He was a biggie.

He was huge. The biggest hippo we had seen so far. We watched him for quite some time, until he decided it was toilet time. Now Hippos have an unusual way of going to the toilet, as they expel the days leftovers there little tail spins around like a propeller spreading the poo far and wide. We were just and only just out of range as the S#!t really hit the fan!

Almost immediately after we said goodbye to the hippo we spotted a small group of elephants away in the distance. We made our way towards them and as we did, more and more elephants emerged from the trees.

This was a great sight.

They gathered together on the river bank drinking and playing, and we counted 30 in total. We then noticed one of the bigger females wandered into the water a little and then a little bit more, then more, soon she was half submerged and being followed inline by a few others. They were preparing to cross the river to the other bank.

It was a fantastic sight made even more special when a really small baby followed its mother into the water and very soon got out of its depth. It quickly wrapped its trunk around its mother’s tail and settled in for a tow as mother started to swim across.

We probably won’t see this again.

After reluctantly leaving the elephants we made our way back along the river as the sun started to set on what had been a fabulous evening. Capped off in the bar with a beer and more rugby.

A long days drive across Botswana brought us to our next stop in the town of Maun, gateway to the much touted Okavango Delta.

This was something we were really looking forward to, and had been for a long time. We were heading out into the Delta in mokoro, which are traditional dug out canoes, we were going to be camping in a peaceful remote part of the Delta for two nights and we were going to be doing safaris in the morokos and also on foot. It sounded great.

Unfortunately it ended up being a little bit disappointing. It was surprisingly very touristy, more so than most things we have done so far. We drove to the moroko station, which was quite chaotic, with several other groups both large and small all arriving at the same time. We were loaded along with our gear into a moroko which turned out to be a mass produced fibre glass affair. We were assigned a poleman/polewoman, and all set off in convoy, to our section of ‘remote isolation’.

Off not so deep into The Okavango Delta. But it was still very scenic.

Our alloted camping area was very small and we were all quite close to one another, which didn’t make for a good night’s sleep. There are some serious snorers in the group!

Our illustrious tour leader was doing the cooking for the first time and he had also done the shopping himself. Were we in for a culinary treat? Oh no we weren’t, both nights were a disaster. Over cooked pasta and a tomato paste was served up on the first night and then a bland chicken dish was planned for the second night. However with no fridge and being in 35 degree heat for two days, the chicken looked the worst for wear. Maybe doing the meals the other way around might have been a better option. At least we had plenty of bread, an open fire and a big tub of peanut butter, so Steve was happy enough.

Our campsite.

We did several walking safaris, day and evening. Which were a change from the 4×4 safaris we had been doing. However for safety reasons we were limited to how near we were allowed to get to any wildlife. So having being used to seeing elephants giraffe, zebra etc from just a few metres, it had much less off an impact seeing them through binoculars a hundred metres away.

Taking a break on a waking safari.

We have unfortunately been totally and utterly spoilt on this trip. The saving grace was that we hooked up in a group with The Italiens and they were hilarious, they had Steve’s sense of humour and we had so many laughs with them.

Steve being an idiot!

We also did an evening trip in a mokoro, but animals were pretty thin on the ground, in fact when an elephant appeared in one of the waterways, we quickly turned and headed back where we had come from. The sunset however was pretty special.

A stunning sunset in Botswana.

We will just mention the toilet arrangements before we finish on the Okavango Delta. As a group we were provided with a home made folding metal frame, which had a toilet seat attached to it. A hole was then dug in the bush a few metres out from the camp, the metal frame was placed over the hole and a toilet roll hung on a nearby branch. When you had finished the idea was to use a shovel to throw some dirt on top until the hole was almost full again, whereupon a new hole was dug!

It was quite an experience to sit there as the sun went down watching a couple of giraffe stroll by on the horizon!

So that was Botswana almost over. The Okanvango Delta had not quite lived up to the expectations but The Choebe River had by far exceeded them.

One other exciting thing that happened in Botswana is that we changed trucks. The one we had been travelling in was apparently not allowed into Namibia and South Africa. All sorts of dubious reasons were given. The canvas windows were not regulation there, the trucks registration documents were not valid there. The truck was the wrong shade of yellow! However not only was the truck changed, but the tour leader and driver were also changed. Steve could be heard shouting and cheering all the way back in Kenya when the news was announced!

“Hey Sarah. It’s your turn to dig the hole”

Zimbabwe

Next up was Zimbabwe. A country with a relatively recent turbulent history and home to the World Famous Victoria Falls, and the whole “Doctor Livingstone I presume?” event.

We entered Zimbabwe by crossing the very impressive Kariba Dam, spanning The Zambezi River.

Welcome to Zimbabwe.

Our first stop was then only a couple of miles into into the country at Lake Kariba. A couple of house boats had been organised for a three day trip on the lake. It was an expensive optional add-on to the trip and we had thought hard as to whether we would do it or not. We were getting to the point where we needed some time on our own. We are so used to travelling independently and we were missing the flexibility. Our minds were quickly made up when we arrived at the dock area. We were naively expecting houseboats similar to the great ones we had seen in Kerala, in Southern India. The cost certainly implied they would be. Oh no, these were two old fibreglass ramshackle vessels, one of which could easily have been a converted fishing boat. This, added to the usual organisational incompetence of our leader, meant there were not enough bedrooms for everyone and we would have to sleep on deck. This made our decision very easy, and what a great decision it turned out to be.

We headed off to a nearby campsite and rented a ‘rustic’ bungalow overlooking the lake. Bed, shower, toilet, fridge, outside seating area and a restaurant on site. In this part of The World it doesn’t get much better, or so we thought.

About 20 metres in front of our bungalow was an electric fence. There was a detachable section at one point, enough to get a car through, and then there was about 100 metres of open bush to the lake. The campsite also had several signs saying ‘Beware of the Hippos and Crocodiles’. This could be an interesting stay we thought.

We had a superb meal on our first evening and sat on our little terrace afterwards as the sun set. Then all of a sudden, right there in front of us munching on the grass, was a hippo. We hadn’t even heard it approach. It slowly made its way across the campsite in front of us having its evening meal. A security guard turned up to tell us that as long as we didn’t get “too close” then we would be OK. There didn’t seem to be a specific distance for ‘too close’, it probably depends on how fast you can run to safety!

Our after dinner visitor

During our stay at the campsite we also had five Zebra, several Kudu and numerous other little animals including mongoose stroll by our bungalow.

We also followed two Sea Eagles as they flew from post to post and, as always, Steve went out running and saw four elephants and dozens of baboons.

However, the highlight of our Lake Kariba stop was when we asked the owner if we were allowed beyond the electric fence. His response was “Yes, but make sure to reconnect the electric fence, be back before dark” and, you guessed it, “Don’t get too close to any animals”.

We were deliberating going into the bush as we sat on our terrace one afternoon when Steve said “Look, there is an elephant”, and sure enough, coming out of the trees, just the other side of the fence was a big old elephant. It was followed shortly by another and another and another. In total nine elephants wandered past in line and in the middle were a couple of babies! Our decision was made.

Here come the elephants

We unhooked the electric fence, remembered to reconnect it, and strolled into the bush, making sure the family of elephants were a good distance ahead of us. At one point, two big juveniles, broke from the main group and wandered down to the lakeside for a drink. We watched the main group for about 30 minutes before they started to retrace their steps. At one point, we got a little too close but the big Matriarch soon let us know, standing up tall and sticking out her big ears. We beat a hasty retreat, back towards the electric fence, and waited for them to wander past.

“Don’t get too close, whatever that means”

However, they took a different route back and popped out of the trees only 15 metres or so in front of us. The electric fence suddenly looked very flimsy, as the Matriarch stopped, turned towards us, and once again stuck out her ears. In her excitement and in a little bit of a panic, Sarah tried to get a photo but ended up with her camera on the wrong setting and missed it. “Don’t worry”, said Steve “She will be so much bigger in our memory than in real life”.

That wasn’t the end of the Elephant Action. We had almost forgotten about the two juveniles when they suddenly appeared back in view and we were treated to a great display of ‘Play Fighting’. It looked pretty serious to us as they charged and headbutted each other for over 10 minutes.

The photo doesn’t do this ‘play fight’ justice.

When we returned back into the campsite the owner was there and he had been watching us. “You might have got a little too close there”. He said, “Those juveniles can come straight through that electric fence when they are fighting”. “At least we know what too close is now”, said Steve. The owner also showed us a video he had taken from a 4×4 a few days before, of a pride of lions chasing down and killing a buffalo. It had been taken less than a couple of miles away from where we were. “Maybe we should stay in the campsite from now on”, we both said.

We rejoined the truck after the houseboat stop and we had seen so much more action than the trip on the lake. However, we guess that was more about relaxing and seeing the lake from a different perspective. But we’re so glad we didn’t miss those elephants.

We made our way South across the centre of Zimbabwe and passed through the capital, Harare. Hyperinflation goes hand in hand with Zimbabwe and its history. It was at its worse in around 2008 when inflation was running at almost 100% per day. This means prices were doubling every 24 hours. It meant cash was effectively worthless and the government was printing huge denomination bank notes. 100 Trillion Dollars was the biggest note, that’s 1 followed by 14 zeros!!. Today the US Dollar is the main currency but Zimbabwean Dollars can and are still used but these huge denomination notes are no longer legal tender and just sold as souvenirs. The notes now are much more sensible with 100,000 being the biggest!!

We were in a supermarket one day and saw a man pushing a trolley. The part of the trolley fitted to carry a child was pushed open and rammed full and high with Zimbabwe currency. The guy was paying for just a few groceries with it.

We made our way on a long drive day and stopped over at The Great Zimbabwe Ruins. We went on a three hour tour with a local guide. As a guide he was really good and very enthusiastic but neither of us were that impressed with the ruins.

Walking around The GZR!

It is obviously very important in the history of Zimbabwe and the country takes its name from the town where it is located. But visually, for us, it ranks way down this list of global historical sites.

The view wasn’t too bad.

Our big loop around Zimbabwe continued on towards its second city of Bulawayo. This was to allow us access to Matobo National Park, and the hope of seeing some Rhino. Our guide for the day came with a big reputation and was built up to be some National Celebrity wildlife/ rhino ‘whisperer’

Even baby rhino’s are cute.

To be honest, we were a little disappointed. We did get to see a mother and baby rhino and we got pretty close for some decent photos, and that was a fabulous thing to see. But that was the extent of the wildlife we saw during the whole four hour trip.

Getting this close, would salvage any tour!

We did get to hear the guide tell us about the things he had done and how good he was. It’s a shame his exploits hadn’t been shared with his assistant who was a little lacking in knowledge and contradicted herself a few times. It was a strange tour but Steve enjoyed the ride through the park as the safari jeep had a spotter seat at the front which he got to sit in.

Steve in ‘The Box Seat’

Up until now the campsites in Africa had been way better than we had expected but, other than Lake Kariba, Zimbabwe brought us back down to earth, with either no facilities at all or super basic, pretty dirty facilities. As we drove out of Bulawayo our feelings about the country were mixed. It had been a fantastic start but for us things had dropped off significantly. We had heard big things about the country before we arrived but it wasn’t living up to its big ticket billing.

We had one more stop so we were hopeful things would turn around at Victoria Falls, ‘The Smoke That Thunders’. Would it be like the commercial over touristic Niagra Falls or would it be like Iguacu Falls, totally awesome?

The answer was, for us, that it was somewhere in between. The town of Victoria Falls was not hugely touristy. Yes, it had souvenir shops, restaurants, bars, and all the activities you would expect including bungy jumping, zip lining, helicopter rides, boat trips etc etc. But it wasn’t overbearing and the town and Falls were not jam packed full.

After a few days of rough camping we took the opportunity to rent a room in a villa in town, get cleaned up, and hopefully get some decent sleep. The villa was superb. It had four bedrooms, a huge living room and a pool. It also came with a maid, or domestic as they are referred to here, called ‘Happy’ and a security guard. Luckily for us, we were the only people staying, so we had the entire place to ourselves for little more than we have paid in the past to pitch a tent in the United States! The owner gave us a run down on the town and things to do, and cautioned us that if we were out after dark to make sure we got a taxi home as elephants roam the town at night. Sure enough in the mornings fresh elephant dung in the streets was evidence of the nocturnal visitors!

This was a real treat!

‘Happy’ was there to prepare food, cook, clean, wash and tidy up after us. We felt particularly uncomfortable with that so we did our own prep, cooking and tidying. And we took advantage of using the washing machine as our clothes were badly in need of a freshen up!

We spent a day at The Falls and thoroughly enjoyed it. Although it was The Dry season, The Falls were still very impressive, especially at the Zimbabwe end.

There was significantly less flow at the Zambia side though. Sarah took millions of photos and with it being Africa, Health and Safety was not so heavily enforced as it might be elsewhere, which gave Steve the opportunity for some close to the edge views.

Steve grabs a selfie with the Zambezi below!

Our other full day there was spent wandering the town and its outskirts. We found some amazing cafés to have a cold drink with unbelievable views.

A table with a view.

We also popped into the Victoria Falls Hotel for tea and cake. It’s a beautiful old, colonial hotel with impeccable service and reminded us very much of Raffles in Singapore.

Someone’s happy 😊

Steve managed to get in a couple runs, one of which was worthy of a mention. He ran out of town for about five miles to where the road ran out at a reserve area. He turned around to head back and became aware of a family of baboons on the side of the road. You never know which way baboons are going to react, they can be pretty temperamental, so he crossed to the other side of the road and ran past a bush straight into two warthogs. The startled warthogs sprang up and shot off into the bush, and the startled runner shot off back to the other side of the road, only to go straight towards a four metre long crocodile! It was facing away from him and luckily it was the other side of a two metre wide gully, which thankfully was quite deep. But it was still a lot closer than Steve wanted to be to all those teeth. The rest of the run back was a touch faster than he had planned it to be!

We had a great time in Victoria Falls and thoroughly enjoyed it. Did it rescue Zimbabwe for us? Probably yes, it did. But it seemed to us that there were several other places to visit in the country which may have been more to our liking. If we had visited those it may well have been a fantastic country. But that is a downside overland travel on a schedule.

“So then Sarah, where next?”

“Botswana. We’ve been looking forward to this one”

“Get out, it’s my turn”

“No way, I’m staying here until Cape Town”

Zambia.

Neither of us knew very much at all about Zambia. It is another huge country, not quite as large as Tanzania, but still three times the size of The UK. We had two planned stops in the country, one in the capital Lusaka, and our first stop in South Luangwa National Park.

Although we had seen only small numbers of wildlife since leaving Ngorongoro Crater, our time had been more than adequately filled with the beautiful beaches of Zanzibar and the beautiful people of Malawi. In fact, you should never really get bored travelling through Africa as there is always some scene being played out as you look out of the window. But now it was time to get back to some game viewing.

Getting ready for a game drive in Zambia.

In years to come, when we look back at our travels, we are sure that there will be certain places that will standout more than others. Places that we will remember for good reasons and bad. South Luangwa will very much be remembered for the good, it was exceptional.

We did a couple of game drives in the day time and an evening/night one as well. We saw so much and it was hard to take it all in, thank goodness for cameras.

There is an emense amount of wildlife in the continent of Africa, but people talk a lot about ‘The Big 5’, which are the Elephant, Buffalo, Lion, Rhino and Leopard. They are so called because years ago they were considered the most dangerous and most difficult to hunt. Now, although hunting and poaching is still a big issue, most people ‘hunt’ The Big 5 for that fantastic photo.

Looking out for ‘The Big 5’.

From our experience, the Leopard is by far the most elusive. Solitary animals who spend most of the day hiding out in trees hidden from view. You have to be observant and lucky to see one. We had a brief glimpse of one from a distance of about 50 metres in The Serengeti but, up until now, that had been our total Leopard exposure. Hopefully South Luangwa would prove more rewarding.

We had arrived after dark. When we got up early for breakfast, before a game drive, the sun was just coming up and Steve wandered over to the edge of the river we had been camped next to and saw three elephants slowly crossing from one side to the other. We had a good feeling about this place.

Early morning in South Luangwa

One of the things we will remember about this particular National Park was how close we were able to get to the animals. As we bobbled about the dirt roads in our open 4×4 safari vehicles we had some great encounters. We had seen many hippo wallowing in the water back in Tanzania and also a few out of the water from a distance. But here in Zambia we drove around one corner and came face to face with a big, old hippo who had ventured out of the water right next to us to have a graze.

He was a big boy!

Then a family of three elephants just wandered across a road, only metres ahead of us. You never get tired of seeing baby elephants.

Cameras at the ready.

We drove along to different sections of the park with the driver and the guide always on the lookout, with our 8 pairs of eyes contributing to the scanning as well.

“Stop!!!”, came the shout from the back of the vehicle. The driver kept going “Stop, stop, stop”, came a much louder shout as Steve almost jumped forward and grabbed the handbrake. “I’m sure I’ve just seen a leopard in that tree”. Sceptically, the driver maneuvered the vehicle into the bush towards the tree Steve was pointing towards. “Whereabouts”, he asked. “It was about halfway up, laying on a branch”. The driver moved forward and there it was, coming into view almost directly above our heads, less than 10 metres away.

The leopard stood up on the branch, observed us for a few seconds, snarled a disapproving look at us, and then gracefully jumped down right next to us and trotted off into the bush and in a few strides it had disappeared from view.

The driver and guide couldn’t believe how Steve had seen it and how close we had got. Steve just sat back and said, “That’s my contribution to this entire trip. I’m done!”

Its the Leopard….not a big snake!

Our fantastic encounters in South Luangwa didn’t end there. The evening drive threw up its own amazing experience. We had been driving for about an hour with very little luck at spotting any animals. The sun was setting, the heat was starting to drift away from what had been a particularly scorching day. In the orange glow, and slightly cooler temperatures, South Luangwa started to take on a different feel. The slow lethargic feeling of the day was disappearing and being replaced by a feeling of impending action. It was a time to hunt.

The sun is going down, expectation builds.

We drove on deeper into The Park with still no signs of the big game, until we rounded a corner and there, lounging and sleeping in the road, was a pride of 13 lions! Several big females and their young of varying ages.

It was a fabulous sight. We parked where the guide said we were a safe distance away, which still seemed very close, and we sat back and watched them.

The cubs were easily the most active, play fighting with one another and annoying their mothers by clambering over them as they tried to sleep. One by one the four big females started to slowly move into action, rolling over, standing and stretching, and all the while keeping one eye or ear on us. They rounded up the cubs and maneuvered them into the long grass near to the side of the road.

Then they wandered away over the brow of a small hill. We drove a large circle around in the direction they were heading and found they had walked to a watering hole. They all lined up and crouched down to drink together. They stayed drinking for several minutes, preparing for a thirsty job ahead. One last check on the cubs and then they strolled off into the bush in search of dinner.

We had been with the lions for well over 30 minutes, during which we had virtually no conversation, we just stood up in the vehicle and watched. We probably will never get this close to this many lions, watching the cubs play and the adults prepare to hunt again, so we just soaked it up.

After South Luangwa we drove across Zambia towards the capital Lusaka. It was clear Zambia was still a relatively poor country but not as poor as Malawi. More cars on the road, more brick buildings, more roadside shops and stalls and when we arrived in Lusaka it was a much more modern city than either of us had expected and not the total chaos as had been the case in Dar Es Salaam. We stopped at a large, modern shopping mall which contained a big supermarket so that we could restock on much depleted provisions. The whole complex would not have been out of place in many European cities. We found a great coffee shop with an espresso machine and sat down with great coffee and cake for the first time in what seemed like an age.

Our campsite on the outskirts of Luangwa was also of a good standard and we treated ourselves to a cheeky upgrade and spent the night in a room, in a bed with a thick mattress and an ensuite toilet and a shower with hot water.

Zambia had been a total hit!

We wouldn’t want to forget Pumba!

Malawi.

We have visited a lot of countries, some of which have been fantastic, some have been not so fantastic. It’s all very subjective, what one person enjoys another can dislike enormously. For example, neither of us are fans of Portugal but we meet many, many people who love it. But in almost every country we have visited we have found something we have enjoyed. It could be an iconic building, a particular geological feature, a buzzing city, amazing wildlife or maybe some sort of thrill seeking adventure you had there. Malawi had non of these in comparison to other countries and yet both of us absolutely loved our time there. The reason? The people are just soooo friendly. Malawi is known as ‘The Warm Heart of Africa’, and having visited, we certainly wouldn’t dispute it.

Probably the friendliest people ever!

OK, we will admit getting through Border ‘Control’ was a slow and frustrating process. It was only after three hours we learned that providing the Immigration staff with a few ice cold Cokes would dramatically speed up the return of our passports. We didn’t figure that out on our own either. The Immigration staff actually told us that it would speed up the process!

Once clear of the border we never looked back as we crossed the Country to what seemed like a never ending line of smiling faces and waving hands. Malawi is a very poor country, even by African standards. We knew we would see more poverty on this trip than we have been witness to in the past. It had been evident as we had travelled through parts of Kenya and Tanzania. Villages comprised of buildings built from wood, mud, and straw. But in Malawi that was all it was. We didn’t visit the capital city Lilongwe, so we can’t comment on how modern or wealthy it is there. But we spent five days crossing the country, driving almost the full length of Lake Malawi before leaving at the border with Zambia and almost all we saw were small, basic villages.

Part of a typical village in Malawi. Where there is always a friendly wave and a smile.

We saw people, often children, walking several kilometres to collect water from the nearest well. Children were walking several kilometres to school and back. The most noticeable thing was that they always had a smile and a wave as we went past. As the truck approached villages, adults and children would run to the roadside to wave. In Africa there always seems to be someone on the side of the road walking, wherever you are, someone will be walking, this is especially so in Malawi.

Small children walk to school in Malawi

We camped for a couple of days in a small village on the shores of Lake Malawi. It was a regular stop for the truck and in the past it stopped there every couple of months or so. However, this was only the second time it had stopped since Covid-19.

Our campsite was on the shores of Lake Malawi.

We were invited on a tour around the village where we would visit several places including a birthing unit and the local school. It was done on a free basis with donations gratefully accepted. Tourism isn’t off the ground in Malawi, there are only faint glimpses of it along the lake, with most places having not reopened since the pandemic. They have bigger things to worry about here.

Even on an Overland trip in Africa, Steve was managing to get a bit of fitness done. Cycling was impossible as there were no bikes to hire, and swimming was all but impossible without taking unnecessary health risks. But you can run almost anywhere. He was out one evening on the tracks around the village when a young boy aged about 11 years old, in school uniform, started running alongside him. This happens quite regularly around the World but usually only lasts a few seconds, but the young boy kept running and running. Steve wasn’t hanging around, but the young boy just kept going. His name was Emmanuel and he was telling Steve how he had been playing football with his friends on the way home from school and he lived near the campsite. They ran together for well over a mile, Steve in his lycra, and Emmanuel in his school uniform. Bizarre!

The following day we did the village tour. It was both heart warming and sad at the same time. We went to the village well which had been funded by an EU charity and we spoke to locals. We visited the guide’s house which was so sparse and dark, but he was emensely proud of it. We visited the hospital/birthing unit where Florence Nightingale would have been at home with old, torn mattresses and really old and basic equipment. Malaria is a massive problem in Malawi and this is especially dangerous in infants which contributes to the high infant mortality rate.

Sarah with a new friend.

The final stop was the school. We walked into the grounds and were immediately surrounded by hundreds of children, all wanting to touch us and hold our hands. It was an unbelievable experience.

A great welcome at the village school.

Steve became aware of one child making a real effort to stay close to him and when he looked it was Emmanuel. “Hi Emmanuel, are you running home again this evening”, he said. Suddenly Emmanuel’s ‘Street Cred’ sky rocketed as he knew one of the visitors. He stuck tightly by Steve’s side for the whole visit.

We went into one of the classrooms with the school principal. There were 141 children in that one class that day. It was noisy but the children were so disciplined.

A pretty busy classrom

The village tour had been fantastic. It was not just a highlight of Malawi, or Africa, but a highlight of all our travels so far.

On the way back to the campsite Steve got talking to one of the older boys in the village who was football mad. He said his grandfather was the only person in the nearest three villages who had access to Premier League football. No running water or sewage system though. Priorities? He invited Steve to watch a game the following afternoon which was an opportunity he wasn’t going to turn down. He turned up the next day, a couple of minutes before kick off, and walked into the dark, crudely built one room home to find the most comfortable chair reserved for him at the front in a room which was packed full of the boy’s friends. These are the things that make travel amazing.

Another great experience happened while we were walking along the sandy shores of Lake Malawi and wandered past a cluster of houses effectively built from twigs and branches. The young girls and women were washing clothes and sheets in the lake and drying them in the sand. The girls were fascinated by our white skin and began giggling and then putting soap suds on their legs and arms to make themselves white. Steve went over and put soap suds on one of their faces and they burst into hysterical laughter. We then joined in, wringing out the sheets and clothes and putting them out to dry.

We could write for hours about our experiences in Malawi and its wonderful people. We had such a happy experience there and as we moved on to the border with Zambia it was definitely with a certain amount of sadness.

Tanzania.

Tanzania is a big country. At almost a million square kilometres, it is four times the size of The UK. As such, it is extremely varied and we were about to find out just how varied it is.

We crossed the land border from Kenya into Tanzania with relative ease, picked up a local SIM card, fended off a few of the hawkers, and headed to the town of Arusha.

Arusha is a busy, little town, mainly because it is the gateway to the Serengeti National Park, which is one of the most famous safari spots in Africa. It is huge and we planned to spend 3 days and 2 nights exploring the Park and the adjoining Ngorongoro Crater. Access to some areas of The Park were not practical in the big truck so we split into smaller 4×4 traditional safari jeeps for the trip.

Our transport in The Serengeti

It turned out to be 3 days of unbelievable game viewing. We were certainly thrown in at the deep end. From start to finish we had a fantastic time. There were animals everywhere.

Buffalo gather on the plains.

Zebra having fun.

To be honest we didn’t really know what to expect. We had done a safari before on one of the much smaller, private reserves in South Africa and we had seen a few animals there. At the time it had been a thrilling experience, but The Serengeti was on a whole different level. Herds of elephant, giraffe, zebra, wildebeest, buffalo roamed the plains. We saw a cheetah, a pride of a dozen lions, hippo and a few hyena, prowling around for scraps.

Never been a hyena fan since The Lion King

The time just flew by. Ten hours in the jeep was gone in a flash. At night we camped in the park, with strict instructions on how to listen and scan with a torch for eyes if we had to get up in the night for a pee.

Adjoining the vast plains of The Serengeti is another fabulous location, the 12 miles wide and 2000 feet deep caldera known as The Ngorongoro Crater. It has a strong water supply in the form of Lake Magadi and lush vegetation compared to the dry, arid plains of The Serengeti. Although the Serengeti was fantastic, Ngorongoro Crater was probably a little higher up the spectacular scale, if only for the scenery and the sheer numbers of animals.


Thousands and thousands of wildebeest, buffalo, impala and zebra were wandering along to the lake, keeping a careful eye out for the predatory lions in the long grass.
It was particularly scenic in the morning as the thick cloud cleared to reveal the blue sky and any remaining cloud rolled gently over the rim of the crater like a huge, long waterfall. It was easy to feel that you were in some sort of Wildlife documentary.

Pretty well disguised.

After being in The Crater for a few hours, it was obvious at some point a comfort break would be needed. There is a safe area in the Crater but when that isn’t in range and you have got to go it makes for a very careful and super observant time. Steve said he can now definitely relate a little to how the impala feel, being out there and very vulnerable, always on the look out.

We did make the ‘safe haven’ in The Crater and were surprised to find a guy parked up with an espresso machine and a selection of cakes in a trailer behind his 4×4. He also had a fold out table and 4 chairs. We took advantage drinking coffee and eating cake while watching hippos in the water.

Very civilised.

The Ngorongoro Crater would definitely make it into The Top 10 of places we have ever visited. This had been a great start and we hadn’t even been in Africa a week.

This guy is a biggie!

We now had a couple of long drive days, East across Northern Tanzania towards Mount Kilimanjaro. We weren’t going to be able to climb the mountain as that is a 5 day plus hike and we only had a couple of days there, so we would have to make do with the foothills.

We camped in the small village of Marangu, which is the starting point for one of the several routes up the mountain. Steve found us a guide from the village who, for a couple of pounds, would take us on a hike around the base of the mountain, through a couple of villages and to a waterfall. We were joined by an Aussie couple and we had a great day.

Our guide was getting on a bit, but he was still sprightly and obviously knew everyone in the area. As we walked through the heavily wooded area, we came across a group of villagers working to clear a pathway to create a road wide enough for vehicles to access. This was going to improve their ability to get supplies in and out of the village.

A few of the men were taking turns on a big two person saw, working their way through a tree blocking the way. Sarah was straight in there to take a turn and started sawing away, to much clapping from the locals.

Sarah lends a hand.

We were learning fast, that in Africa many things are run on a cooperative basis on big and small scales. On our walk we passed several immaculately kept allotments which the villagers worked to produce food for everyone and also to sell at local markets.

We eventually arrived at the waterfall, where, if the cloud had broken, we would have had a good view of the mountain. Unfortunately, it didn’t, so our chance of seeing snow in Africa melted away.

Walking on the lower slopes of Kilimanjaro.

On the way back to Marangu we visited a couple of our guide’s friends. One had a small coffee plantation in his garden and he produced his own coffee beans. Coffee is obviously big business in Tanzania and we had been surprised by the standard and availability of coffee shops in Arusha. We thought it might be like Guatemala where 99% of the good stuff is exported and only the sludge is left behind to drink domestically.

We also visited a woman who had a small holding, keeping mainly goats. She used them as currency, trading goats with the local school for an education for her daughter. It is great travelling the world seeing all the famous sights and discovering some amazing not so famous places. But the interaction with local people and seeing their lives is equally if not more rewarding.

So we left Kilimanjaro behind. Perhaps it was there, perhaps not! We set off at 5am for what would be a huge 14 hour driving day South to the capital city of Dar es Salaam.

There was no getting away from it, no sugar coating it, and no pretending it was an alright day. It was hard going, baking hot, sometimes rough roads, slow traffic, smelly traffic, bad driving …. no, … terrible driving. Seeing overturned HGV trucks in a ditch by the side of the road was becoming a daily occurrence. Plus, all the time our progress was slowed by the ridiculous number of road blocks where Police Officer wanted to see relevant paperwork. The relevant paperwork was nearly always a note that had 5000 Schillings printed on it!

The road to Dar es Salaam

Dar es Salaam was a hell hole. We hit the city outskirts at 4pm and squeezed, bumped, and inched our way across the city until at 7pm when we rolled into our campsite, had a buffet evening meal, and headed off to bed. Sleep was impossible as deafening music blasted out until the early hours. What a day. But as they say here, many, many, many times a day T.I.A. This Is Africa!

The next morning we were once again up early, and although we were pretty tired it didn’t bother us as we were off to catch the ferry to The Spice Island of Zanzibar. Even the name itself sounds exotic.

This was effectively a four day break from the trip, where your time was your own. Almost everyone opted for Zanzibar, only one person stayed in Dar, why? I have no idea! Most people were heading to a company recommended hotel on the North of the island. Steve and Sarah headed East to the town of Paje as it seemed a better location to us.

The tour leader had organised the ferry tickets and, as with most other things up until now, he managed to mess that up as well. Once we docked in Zanzibar we were on our own and we were out, off the ferry, through the weird, chaotic Zanzibar immigration procedure, even though it’s still Tanzania, in a taxi and off to Paje before any of the rest of the group were out of their seats.

Pajè was fantastic with blinding white sand, ans the sea had a ridiculous number of shades of blue and green. The small town was rough around the edges but contained everything we needed and our little thatched cottage by the sea was perfect.

We really enjoyed Zanzibar

Steve managed to rent a fatbike for three days and explored the Southern part of the island. We spent a few hours walking along the seemingly endless, wide beach where there was always something going on. Kite surfing and full on 11 a side football matches were the most common. The food was good and the people were friendly. We loved it and could have stayed much longer. Although group overland travel has its advantages in certain parts of the world, it does have its draw backs and lack of flexibility is probably the biggest one. The lack of ability to stay longer in a place or move on earlier is something we do miss.

It’s hard to leave this behind.

After 3 nights in Pajè we moved across the island to its capital Stone Town for a night. We were surprised by Stone Town and it had more to offer than we had anticipated. A big, old Moor built fort, a myriad of alleyways to explore, and of course it has a strong connection to Queen singer Freddy Mercury, who grew up here. His house has been converted to a small museum and we made the almost obligatory visit.

Our time in Zanzibar was over way to quickly. We met back up with everyone to catch the ferry back to Dar and, you guessed it, the Tour Leader had messed up the tickets, this time so much so that it was a last second dash to get on board.

The truck was waiting for us at the port and with several people leaving after Zanzibar, we were now down to 14 passengers. With the seating situation and a few other things sorted out, hopefully a more comfortable trip lay ahead as we rolled on to the border with Malawi.

Africa at Last!

We have planned, booked and failed on a couple of occasions to get a trip to Africa up and running. Covid-19 was one of the things that scuppered our plans and several of the countries we wanted to visit were understandably slow at getting back on their feet.

Eventually we found a slot in our plans which looked like it would work, from August to November 2023, through 11 countries, on an overland truck very similar to the one we did in South America almost 5 years ago. We did actually book with the same company as before, only to have that trip cancelled. “Africa is just getting going again and people are still hesitant to travel”. So we found a different company that was definitely travelling, booked, paid and hoped for the best.

Then, the week before we were due to go, a family medical emergency struck, which meant we had to postpone our flights. Thankfully, everything turned out good and we eventually took off from Heathrow 3 weeks late.

We arranged to catch up with the truck in Nairobi, Kenya and had, unfortunately, to miss Uganda, Rwanda and most of Kenya. But there was still what looked like a fantastic trip ahead visiting 8 countries enroute to Cape Town. In fact, South Africa was the only country on this trip we had previously visited, so there was a whole load of new experiences to be enjoyed.

The truck itself was the same make as the previous one, a converted Scania, but the layout was different in many ways. The most noticeable difference was that the majority of the seats were forward facing just like in a normal coach, not fitted around the outside facing inwards like before.

It was still going to be 90% camping in the same heavy duty, almost military stye tents as before. They are easy to erect and have loads of space for two. They are extremely heavy and thankfully we don’t have to carry them around on our bikes or backs!

The majority of the rest of the passengers were in their early 20’s from an array of different countries. Initially they didn’t fancy following The Company rules regarding seating, on board etiquette, and a few other things. This attitude, coupled with a weak and pretty incompetent Tour Leader, didn’t bode well for a trip lasting well over 2 months. A few of the older travellers had been suffering in silence, and not confronted the issues, but by the time we had left Zanzibar, about 10 days in, Steve had spoken with a few people, including the Tour Leader, explained the error of their ways and things had settled down enormously.

And so we trundled slowly across Kenya, heading for the border with Tanzania. From there we would visit The Serengeti, the foothills of Mount Kilimanjaro, and the island of Zanzibar. Then it’s South into Malawi with its huge lake. From there we turn West and cross Africa from The Indian Ocean to The Atlantic, through Zambia, Zimbabwe, Botswana and Namibia, before our final turn South heading to the finish in Cape Town.

Let’s see how it goes, but this isn’t a great start 😂

Taking the Back Roads

With our month in Apt sadly over it was time to get back to what has become the norm on our journeys across Europe, a loaded up car and a tent!

On our way South to The Luberon we had avoided the motorways and instead taken the back roads of France. We had enjoyed it so much, we decided to continue on that way as we made our way back North.

We found that we saw much more of the country as we passed through villages and along rural roads. It was also much easier to stop at scenic points, interesting sights or just for a coffee. Although this way of travel takes much longer, time is our friend these days, and it is certainly a more relaxing way to drive.

First stop was the Ardeche Gorge, only a short hop from Apt. This was the third time in the last five years we have stayed in the tiny village of St Martin d’Ardeche. It is definitely a beautiful location, positioned right next to the river, with a pebble beach and the steep walls of the gorge on either side.

Sarah rented an electric bike and joined Steve on the 80 kilometre cycle around the gorge. Everything was going great until a couple of kilometres before the longest, steepest hill on the route and Sarah’s bike developed a problem and lost power. Panic set in, as although Sarah could probably have slowly made it to the top on her own bike, the heavy electric bike was a no go.

She cycled on the flat furiously pressing every combination of buttons and switches possible, as the climb out of the gorge loomed closer. Then, with only a couple of hundred metres to go Steve heard a big shout of relief and saw Sarah throw her arms in the air as power was restored. Although she encountered the same issue a couple of more times on the way, we arrived back in Saint Martin pretty much unscathed.

The other advantage of taking the back roads is it takes you to areas you may not normally venture because they are not too well known and are a fair distance from the motorways. The Ardeche National Park fitted this scenario.

Many people visit the Ardeche gorge but few venture further into the National Park. We rented a basic log cabin for a couple of days by Lake Naussac and explored the region. It was so peaceful and the scenery was stunning, definitely worth the stop.

Next on our route was as stop in The Gorge du Tarn. We had visited the Southern end of the gorge a few years ago, so this time we stopped in the unbelievably pretty village of St Enimie at the Northern end.

We seriously considered not mentioning this stop in the blog. We don’t want too many people to know about it. We can’t understand why it is not much more popular than it is. Maybe it’s because it is that little bit more inaccessible, but if you like scenery that includes roads cut into the overhanging rock, twisting alongside the river, passing through picture perfect medieval villages. This place should certainly be on your itinerary.

The area is also home to one or two alternative communities and some of the villages have a historical circus connection. As such the communities occasionally put on theatrical shows which tend to feature some form of high wire act. It is quite a sight watching someone walking a tightrope across the gorge, high above the river, while playing a trumpet!

At this point we headed North to the small village of Volvic. Not to sample the famous water, but to watch the Tour de France which was scheduled to pass through. On the day of the race we packed a picnic, our camping chairs and sunscreen (like most of the past month the mercury had been hovering in the mid 30’s) and we set off to join the thousands of others on the route.

The main group of almost 200 riders normally take about 8 seconds to speed past. So in order to entertain the crowds it is preceeded by a seemingly endless line of support vehicles and the famous (well, famous among cycling fans) Tour Caravan. This is a line of extravagantly decorated floats representing the Tour sponsors which speed along at around 50 kilometres per hour, handing or more accurately throwing out all manner of free items, known as ‘Tour Tack’. It takes about 30 minutes for The Caravan to pass and Sarah was in her element, diving here, there and everywhere, pushing small children and climbing over anyone in the way to get her hands on anything from an air freshner to a key fob!

Eventually the cyclists came past and fortunately for us they had split into three groups. So we were able to experience the noise and speed on a few occasions.

At the end of a long but entertaining day we made our way back to the campsite for some food and for Sarah to model some of her ‘Tour Tack’.

With our Tour experience over, we headed to the Dordogne, an area popular among both French and Foreign tourists alike. The Dordogne does not have the dramatic scenery of mountains and gorges as some areas of France, it is more rolling and forested countryside. But it is still an area well worth visiting.

Pretty villages, and dramatic looking castles, follow the meandering Dordogne River as it snakes its way through South Central France. We rented a converted barn for a few nights. Well actually it was a tiny quater of a converted barn and the other three quarters were still derelict, so it sounds a lot grander than it was. However, although small it had been renovated to a high standard and was perfect for our stay.

We spent our time in The Dordogne pretty much the same way as we had done in Apt. Steve cycling in the mornings and then exploring the area together for the rest of the day. Although on one day we had slightly less time than we had planned when Steve was enjoying himself too much and took a wrong turn making his planned 130 kilometre route into almost 200!

Probably our favourite villages in the area were Sarlat de Canada, Beynac and La Roque – Gageac. Although you can’t really go wrong wherever you visit.

Our final stop on our route North following the backroads was in The Loire Valley. We chose to stay in the town of Amboise, which is where Leonardo de Vinci spent his final years and is buried in the town.

Amboise was a great location to explore this part of the Loire. The region is pretty much pancake flat and perfect terrain for Sarah to get out on her bike. On one morning she accompanied Steve as he went for a long run along the side of the Loire River. Coming back into town it was almost lunch time and the roads had become quite busy. We had to cross the main bridge to get back to our campsite and it was heaving with cars. Sarah, who was behind Steve, went to join him on the much quieter pavement. Suddenly Steve heard a crash and turned around to see Sarah had clipped the pavement and fallen entangled in her bike half on and half off the pavement.

We quickly established it was only superficial grazes and potentially bruised knees and hips and, with a big dose of embarrassment, she remounted the bike. The cuts and bruises will definitely be there for a while to come!

Luckily we had already done most of our sightseeing in the area with Chateau Chenechau being the outstanding highlight.

This is a beautiful Chateau which spans the river, set in amazing gardens, and has a bucket full of hundreds of years of history. We spent most of the day there, wandering around inside and out. It was an enjoyable and relaxing way to finish off what has been another fantastic couple of months in France.

Lazing in The Luberon

We have been away from this blog for a few months now due to all sorts of reasons. The first one being we just needed a break from it. Well Steve did anyway!

We had been talking about having some static time for over a year now. We move about a lot and although neither of us would swap our way of life right now, it does get tiring sometimes. There is always plenty of research and admin to do and then the travelling itself can be tiring especially the trips where we move on every couple of days.

Initially we said a three month stop would be good. Then we thought that might be too much so we dropped it to two months and then to just one month. In the end it was a mistake. We should have stuck with the three month option or even stayed longer.

So where did we stay? Well you could say we were a little boring. We went to The Luberon in Southern France. It’s somewhere we’ve been going to since before we finished work and where we came to prepare for our cycling trip from Canada to Mexico, so we know the area relatively well.

We had always wanted to spend some time inside the walls of an ‘Old Town’ as we have always enjoyed visiting them throughout Europe. So we rented an apartment in the centre of Apt, the largest town in The Luberon but still quite small with a population of around 10,000.

The apartment was on the third floor of an old building accesed via a winding set of 50 stone stairs, which presented a challenge to say the least when it came to unpacking a car completely full of clothes, camping equipment and three bikes. A job that was made even harder by the lack of nearby parking!

But after a strenuous hour and a half and with the car parked on the edge of town, we sat down and looked forward to the next month.

The apartment was a great size, more than we needed to be honest, which made storage easy. It was so nice to actually unpack and hang up clothes. Everything about it was perfect and it even had a decent sized roof terrace, which overlooked the higgledy-piggledy terracotta tiled roofs of the Old Town.

We settled in very quickly. We shopped at the fantastic Saturday Market which was so close we had to squeeze past a stall holder as we walked out of our front door. We soon found our favourite bakery for fresh bread and croissants. We practiced our French to the amusement and appreciation of the locals and Sarah visited the local coiffure for a ‘short back and sides’. Everyone was friendly towards us.

We quickly settled into a routine where Steve would cycle some of his favourite routes in the morning and either meet Sarah in one of The Luberon villages or come back to the apartment and we would head off in the car exploring together.

The villages of The Luberon are almost without exception, picturesque and beautiful with each one having something slightly different to offer. They all have a weekly market so it is possible to go to a different market every day for probably three weeks!

We did have a few favourite markets but we also found the villages quite different on non market days too when they would take on a sleepy, very quiet atmosphere.

All of the villages were worthy of a visit, however, we did have a few favourites. Loumarin was fantastic on both market and non market days.

Loumarin is a sleepy town with a small maze of narrow stone streets, which come to life on Fridays when hundreds of stalls and thousands of shoppers cram the streets as art and crafts, fruits and veg, clothes, meats and all manner of local produce are bought and sold.

Our other two favourites were the smaller, less visited villages of Saignon and Saint-Saturnin-les-Apt. The first one seemed to have everything great about the area crammed into a small space. A beautiful square, fountains, narrow cobbled streets, a derelict castle to wander around, a café selling coffee in bowls and a fab ice cream shop.

Saint Saturnin was similar but it was surrounded by a medieval wall which you could walk along and the village was set high on the hillside with a church at the very top, where the view over the valley was incredible. Saint Saturnin also had a great public swimming pool where Steve became a regular visitor and very friendly with the staff who enjoyed his schoolboy French!

We also had a couple of trips out of The Luberon. The first was to the Gorge du Verdon. What an incredible place. The drive to the gorge itself was worth the trip.

The river through the gorge feeds into a vivid blue crystal clear lake. Perfect for lazing around and even more perfect for swimming in.

Our second day out was one which Steve, as a cyclist, could not miss. It was a ride up Mont Ventoux. Being 21 kilometres long, with gradients regularly over 10%, it is one of the most visited mountains in The Tour de France. Consequently, it is a place frequently visited by cyclists of all levels and Steve has done it on several occasions in the past. For some people it is an all day affair. For one or two professionals it is possible in under an hour. Steve huffed and puffed his way up and managed to do it in just over an hour and a half in an all out effort. Then took almost twice as long to recover!!

It seemed in the blink of an eye our time in The Luberon had come to an end. Neither of us were anywhere near ready to leave. But we saw this as a good thing as we now feel confident that, in the right places, we can settle for a few months at a time which is what we hope to do in the future. We know we can’t continue our current way of travelling for ever, but we have a while left in us yet though!

The Ha Giang Loop

We left our hotel room in Hanoi at 6.30am and boarded a relatively luxurious bus for the 8 hour trip North. We had already come to realise that traffic rules in Vietnam are, at worse non existent, and at best open to interpretation. So we soon became accustomed to the constant blaring of the horn as we sped through red traffic lights with not the slightest intention of slowing down, and we winced as we carried out the multiple vehicle overtaking on blind corners where oncoming traffic was just an inconvenience and forced off the road.

If only it could have continued so slow.

A couple of comfort breaks en route gave us some respite from the death race and when we finally arrived in the city of Ha Giang we felt it was more by luck than judgement. However, the bus was the only way of getting back to Hanoi, so we were going to have to endure it all again in 4 days time.

Ha Giang is a smallish city by Vietnamese standards and is not really set up for tourism which, after our previous week, we were quite happy with. Steve made friends with some of the locals helping out with the road sweeping!

“Remember you don’t have a working visa”

Before we left town though we did want to get some calories in the bank as we were anticipating the food not to be that great. Sarah managed to find a hole in the wall pizza place down a side street. It was run by a Spanish guy and the pizzas were not half bad.

The following morning we made the walk across town to the meeting place for the tour and for a brief introduction on how it would all work.

There were twelve of us in total and we made up a real international bunch. Most did not actually live in the country in which they were born and the group as a whole possessed way more passports than there were people.

Our group on the loop.

If you were a competent motorcyclist (which we certainly aren’t) it was possible to ride your own bike and two chose this option. An English guy living in OZ who had his Filipino/Australian girlfriend on the back and a Russian girl living in California. The rest of us opted for what is known as an ‘Easy Rider’. This is a local Vietnamese guy who knows the roads and the bikes pretty well and you just sit on the back and enjoy the ride. This proved to be a great option as the ones riding themselves were concentrating more on staying on the roads than taking in the views.

So with our backpacks strapped to the bikes and our ‘Easy Riders’ ready to go we hit the road in convoy out of Ha Giang.

None of the ‘Easy Riders’ spoke a single word of English with the exception of Lee, the tour leader who spoke great English. It just happened that he was Sarah’s ‘Easy Rider’ and so she was always lead bike, flying ahead, blazing a trail with her bright red Vietnamese flag T-Shirt standing out as a good marker to follow!

Follow that flag!

It’s going to be hard to describe what the next three days were like. For us personally it saved Vietnam. We had been sitting on the fence undecided as to whether we gave it the thumbs up or thumbs down. Almost everywhere we had visited up to now had been undoubtedly incredibly scenic but some of the areas had been choked by over tourism coupled with over commercialism.

The Ha Giang Loop made the previous Vietnamese scenery seem almost bland. It was spectacular. They say there is no bad time to do the trip as the views change with the seasons. At certain times of year the rice fields are green and at other times vibrant yellow but it can also be very wet and cold at these times of year.

It was beautiful up here.

We did it in 30 degree heat with either blue skies or hazy high cloud. We didn’t get the vibrant colours but we had expansive views and great riding weather.

The road itself is a 350km long, twisting, winding route that weaves it way up and over mountain passes, then down into a valleys and then immediately back up again. It does this over and over and over again. You can often see the road for miles in the distance. Sometimes when it is below, it is difficult to work out and visually how you are going to get down there, as it doesn’t seem possible. Then you turn a corner and drop down a series of ridiculously steep hairpin bends and you are suddenly directly underneath where you were a couple of minutes before.

We were loving it.

Sometimes you can see the road run along the side of the mountain ahead and realise there are no safety barriers and you can see a 500 metre drop straight to the valley floor. A few minutes later you are on that section of road putting enormous faith in your ‘Easy Rider’.

The road conditions are also very varied. It’s never really wide, just different levels of narrow! The surface also changes and although the majority is asphalt, it is often uneven with endless potholes. There are sections of gravel where extra care is needed and sections of sand where extra extra care is needed.

At one particular section we pulled over and were told the next segment was particularly dusty and we were all given plastic ponchos, trousers and boots to protect our clothing. We put on our new outfits and set off again.

The things we do.

Now it must be pointed out that the temperature at this point was hovering around 33 degrees and pretty soon Steve started to melt inside his plastic bag. He and three others got stuck behind a lorry for a couple of minutes and got separated from the red Jersey of Sarah leading the tour. Steve’s suit was slowing filling with sweat and he decided enough was enough, “I don’t care how dusty I get, I need to stop sweating”.

So he ripped the front of his poncho open. Just as Janus, a guy from Germany living in Australia, appeared alongside also slowly disappearing into a pool of sweat. He saw Steve rip open his poncho, gave him the thumbs up and did the same. They were quickly followed by the other two in the detached group and they all spent the next 30 minutes slowly demolishing their plastic suits while riding along in the cooler air.

When they arrived at the next stop they were cool and fresh even if their protective attire was a little worse for wear. They found the rest of the group swimming in their own sweat, gasping for air and water. They soon de-kitted and we all set off again.

Steve and Janus compare whats left of their outfit!

The next section, however, was the real dusty part. We rode through clouds of dirt and dust kicked up by bikes and lorries coming in the opposite direction and for probably the only section of The Loop Sarah ended up not being at the front and was getting the kick back from the bikes ahead of her. By the time we stopped again we were all covered in dust from head to toe!! It was hilarious.

Along dusty roads.

We stopped on the first evening in the most Northern town in Vietnam, Dong Van. To get there we had passed only 2km from the Chinese border. Dong Van was a strange little town and we quite liked it. The main street was typical of most other non descript towns we had passed through in the last couple of weeks. But it did had a small old section around a town square which was different from the harshness and rubble strewn streets and uneven broken pavements of the main area.

In the evening we all went out as a group to a local family owned and run restaurant. If you eat in the local restaurants in Vietnam you almost always get the same food of rice, noodles, chicken, beef or seafood in a pretty bland soup or sauce depending on if it is breakfast or dinner. We have never found the food in Vietnam to be anywhere near as tasty as it is in other parts of Asia, especially Thailand.

But the evening was never going to be about food. It was about the two great passions in Vietnam, ‘Happy Water’ and Karaoke.

Our group together for dinner.

‘Happy Water’ is the local alcoholic spirit made from either rice or corn depending on the time of year and the location within the country, and more often than not brewed and fermented on site. Up in the North they are particularly mad about it and we soon learned the Vietnamese for “cheers” and “drink up”! It is served in tiny shot glasses and with most of the Easy Riders and hosts offering up some form of toast or another the volume soon started to add up. “Be careful not to spill any on your clothes”, said Steve, “It will burn straight through them!”

After the food and the ‘happy water’ it was off to the main square and the town karaoke bar. It is hard to explain the passion Vietnamese have for karaoke. It is almost the National sport. We have literally walked past bars, on more than one occasion, with just a single customer singing karaoke to an audience of zero. I, of course, use the term ‘singing’ very loosely.

This bar, however, was packed and a the effects of ‘Happy Water’ were too much and wore down Steve’s resistance as he was dragged up by Tirza, a Dutch girl living in New Zealand, for a duet. It was ugly to say the least!

Ouch!!

On the way back to the hotel we saw a crowd of locals gathering in the main square around what looked like a large fire about to be lit. So we wandered over to have a look. There was a lot of shouting and cheering in Vietnamese and the fire was lit. Sarah stepped back to take a photo and the crowd all started to circle the fire and Steve suddenly found himself the only non local dancing around the fire in what can only be described as a Vietnamese ‘Conga’!

The second day was even more scenic than the first. As Steve’s ‘Easy Rider’ spoke no English whatsoever and Steve’s two Vietnamese words for “Thank you” and “delicious” didn’t contribute much to extended conversations, he began listening to music as we rode along. He was in his element with great weather, amazing scenery, flying around the twisting mountain roads with music blaring in his ears. Life was pretty damn good. It might have been perfect if he had been on his road bike instead of the motorbike.

“I wish I had my road bike”

Every 45 minutes or so we would pull over at some great view point for a drink and some photos and this was probably the only downside to the tour. Although tourism is just in its infancy here there are still a fair few different tours on The Loop at any one time. It obviously looks busier than it actually is because for each person there is also a motorbike and an Easy Rider. But everyone wants to stop at the best of the best spots for photo’s and when two or three groups are there at the same time it can look pretty busy. Once you set off again though it doesn’t take long to re-establish distances and we were soon all alone in your little convoy of twelve.

“Take a look at this view Sarah”

Once word starts to really spread about this place and the roads are fully constructed and paved it is only going to ger busier. If it goes the way of some other places in Vietnam it will just become a litter strewn traffic jam which is a crying shame because it is so amazing.

Our last stop on day 2 was along a 3km track which no way qualifies for a road even in Asia but we bounced and bumped along it and arrived at a small waterfall and swimming hole. We were the first group there and were surprised to see a Tiki Bar in existence with music blaring out. Lee, the team leader, jumped in from the rocks above the waterfall and Steve being Steve followed suit!

In he goes.

It was great to cool down in the chilly water but it wasn’t long before it started to get busy. It was obviously the last stop of the day for all the tours and by the time we left there must have been well over a hundred people taking up every inch of space. “There will be a waterside, a ferris-wheel and a fairy light grotto here by next year”, was Steve’s comment.

We spent the night in a homestay and were lucky enough to get one of the rooms. It pays to be the oldest in the group sometimes! Those who didn’t get a room slept on mattresses on the floor separated by curtains. But after the next round of ‘Happy Water’ it didn’t really matter. The rooms were super basic with plyboard walls and windows that didn’t close but the view was to die for and we both had a fantastic nights sleep.

The view from our window.

Our final day continued where the other days had left off and it was a hard call to make as to which was the better. The incredible scenery or the motorbike ride through it. But when you add them together with a great bunch of like minded people it was turning into an unforgettable experience.

We eventually dropped down into a long valley riding alongside a wide river and passing through several villages which were home to the H’Mong people going about their daily business. They were dressed in their colourful, traditional dress and, as is common in a lot of Vietnam and other parts of Asia, the women seemed to be carrying out a lot of the hard work. They were carrying huge amounts of crops on their backs and working the fields with really primitive style tools.

Off to work.

As the children saw us coming they shouted and waved and sometimes lined up for a high five as we slowed down to pass them.

Gimmie 5

Late on the third afternoon we descended out of the Dong Van Karst Plateau, which is the official name for the area we had been touring, and back into the city of Ha Giang.

We were seriously hungry with our diet over the previuos 3 days made up primarily of steamed rice and soy sauce…. oh and the occasional Happy Water. We headed straight for the Spanish pizza maker for another calorie fest and a celebratory beer. A job well done and finished.

Or so we thought. We still had our 8 hour bus ride back to Hanoi the following morning. The crazy bus driver who had driven us up to Ha Giang turned out to be more towards the safer end of crazy. Our return driver seemed like he had a death wish and spent at least 25% of the trip on the wrong side of the road and 50% on his mobile phone. Plus, it started to rain heavily and he didn’t alter anything about his driving style. We considered getting off but our options were pretty much non existent, maybe pay a local to take us to Hanoi but how reckless might he be.

We did arrive back in Hanoi in one piece but the journey definitely became number one in our scary bus ride table. Knocking our 5 hour trip across Panama in a 22 seater with 50 passengers off top spot!

With about 10 days left before returning back to the UK, we had to decide what to do. Our initial plan had been to spend some time in Borneo seeing the Orang Utans and other wildlife, but the weather was seriously miserable over there. We toyed again with the idea of Ha Long Bay but it doesn’t really seem to be our thing.

We looked at each other and almost simultaneously said “You look knackered”. It’s been a fantastic 6 months in South East Asia and New Zealand but we have been on the go, moving around, hiking, doing Ironman races etc etc for most of the time and we just wanted to sit on a beach. So we got out the map, checked the weather around the nearby counties and ended up on a beach in Langkawi, an Island off Malaysia. Just enjoying being static and the sun.

Back on the beach……
…..and in the water.

So it’s now back to the UK. We’re finishing this blog sat with a coffee in King’s Cross Station and it’s bloody freezing. As Steve looks across at Sarah he sees she is on her phone, searching the Internet…….. planning our next trip!!!

“Pass me some earplugs!”

After our spell in Da Lat, it was time to hit the road again. We took a short fifty minute flight to the coastal city of Da Nang. This was in order to connect with the Reunification Line which is the main railway in Vietnam connecting Ho Chi Minh in the South and Hanoi in the North.

It was due to take around 18 hours by train to Hanoi but we planned to break the journey a couple of times, firstly in Phong Nha.

Our connection from plane to train went smoothly and according to plan and gave us enough time to grab a drink and for Sarah to stock up on snacks from the station kiosk.

We won’t go hungry on this trip.

There are about five trains each day which run South to North and planning your arrival and departure times can be crucial, otherwise you could find yourself arriving in a city in the middle of the night and we didn’t really fancy that.

We had booked ourselves on a train departing mid afternoon, arriving late evening and Steve had managed to get us the last remaining two berth 1st class cabin.

This was a fantastic way to travel and although we didn’t need the beds for sleeping, it was great to have a quiet space to relax and watch the World pass by outside. The first couple of hours were the most scenic as the line was built about half way up a jungle clad mountain with fabulous views of the coastline.

OK. Just a little snooze!

We pulled into the small city of Dong Hoi which was about an hours drive from our final destination. We had arranged a car to pick us up through our homestay accommodation and the driver was there and waiting.

Phong Nha is just appearing on the travellers’ radar thanks to a relatively recent discovery of the World’s largest cave, Son Doong. This cave can be explored on a four day expedition! We are not that mad about caving so we visited two of the other caves in the area instead.

On the way to Phong Nha cave

The first was Phong Nha cave which involved a 40 minute boat ride along the river. You then enter the cave via the river before getting off for a 15 minute walk inside.

We are noticing many things about Vietnam which differ significantly from other countries in South East Asia. The first one is the noise, mainly from the locals. They never seem to stop talking and they talk over each other in an ever increasing volume until it becomes a shouting competition. Then, almost always, someone is on a video call where no earphones are used and so ultimately the volume is turned up as the conversations around increase to deafening levels.

Unfortunately, we ended up in boat with a Dutch girl and a family of nine Vietnamese. At one point Steve seriously considered jumping out of the boat and swimming back but the water didn’t look too inviting! But despite the incessant noise the cave was still pretty good to see and probably just about worth the trip.

The following day we decided to visit Paradise cave. This was touted by many as a must visit and so, in the hope that it would not be as noisy, we rented mopeds and set off on the hour ride to the cave.

The scenery was beautiful.

The ride there alone was enough to justify the trip. We rode through rice fields and between limestone karsts on narrow twisting roads in a fabulously scenic area. The women worked in the fields, and the men didn’t, and the water buffalo grazed in that slow lethargic way only water buffalo seem to do.

We arrived at the parking area for the cave to be faced with a 30 minute walk to the entrance. To be fair although the walk was mainly uphill and it was an interesting walk through the jungle with not too many people around.

We entered the very small hole in the rock face, down some steps and into a huge cavern. What we saw stopped us in our stride and it took a few seconds to comprehend what we were seeing. The cave was immense, it was pretty well lit and illuminated a vast array of stalactites, stalagmites and other formations on a scale of which we had never seen. We had previously visited a cave in Australia which we had found impressive but this was on a whole different level.

Just a small small section of an amazing cave

It is possible to do a few days expedition in the cave to explore the whole 31 kilometers or a 7 kilometer full day walk. We, however, just did the first kilometer and found that to be outstanding.

It went on into the distance.

The other thing we noticed was how quiet it was. Then we realised that there were very few Vietnamese there. We would come to realise over the next couple of weeks that unless the excursions run from the centre of town or there is a coach to take them to the entrance and they step off the coach onto some form of transport to whizz them around, they just aren’t interested. The thought of making their own way there and walking, just doesn’t seem an option.

We made our way back to town via an even more scenic route than the way out, having a great time riding on the quiet roads. It had been a throughly enjoyable day.

For the time being, Phong Nha is all about the caves. So after seeing two of the big ones, it was time for us to move on.

We made our way back to Dong Hoi to catch the midnight train. We gave ourselves a few hours to see the city, but that was probably a mistake. It was just an old run down seaside town with not too much to offer other than some take away pizza!!

Pizza from a box. Our highlight in Dong Hoi.

Our next train journey was almost 10 hours and with no two berths available we ended up in a four berth with a German couple who were already in bed and asleep when we boarded.

The beds had plastic mattresses and a blanket but we carry our silk sleeping bag liners with us most of the time, so we were in them in a flash and slept pretty solid for almost eight hours. Before we knew it we were pulling into Ninh Binh, our next stop.

Waiting for the midnight train.

The area of Ninh Binh, or more specifically the villages of Tam Coc and Trang An, come with a big reputation of having some of the best scenery in Vietnam. We would say this reputation is probably deserved, but it comes with a huge caveat.

It really is a special area.

The area is popular and as such you can do many things from the town. There are coaches to take you everywhere and there is no necessity to walk anywhere. Consequently it is busy. No it is very busy. Well actually, it is completely and ridiculously mobbed. It was our first big introduction to the over-tourism that many would say is ruining Vietnam. The situation is made worse by the fact the huge city of Hanoi is only two hours drive away making Ninh Binh accessible from there on a day excursion.

Heading out on the quiet route!

It is a very difficult situation to understand. From ours and many western visitors’ perspective Vietnam knows how to ruin its own natural beauty. Flashing coloured lights, deafening music and ridiculous childish features and settings litter the most beautifully scenic locations. There appears to be no regulation or control as to who erects what and where and as such everybody wants a slice of the tourist dollar.

Mayhem at the Mua Cave

However, we are part of the masses and therefore part of the problem. Probably more importantly the Vietnamese absolutely love it. It certainly appears that what we would call ‘tacky’ they would call paradise.

Stonehenge might benefit from something like this?

So for three days we endured Ninh Binh. We jostled with the hundreds, if not thousands, of boats in the National Park, taking the least popular of three routes and doing our best to take decent photos. We queued with the hoards to reach the view point at Mua Caves and actually gave up on reaching the very top as another Vietnamese passion, that of taking the perfect selfie, was causing a complete blockage. We also endured the chest pummelling volume from the fleet of neon light covered ‘Karaoke’ buses stationed in the centre of town as we walked out to dinner each night.

I’ve got to get out of here!

We saw as much as we could and vowed never to return!

We jumped on an early morning bus to Hanoi and watched the endless stream of day tour coaches heading in the opposite direction full of deafening chatter and selfie sticks.

It is beautiful though.

We have been to Hanoi previously and roughly know the lay out of the city and how it works. Our favourite area is The Old Quarter. A real mix of old rickety buildings and various eateries mixed in with small modern boutique hotels all vying for space amongst the maze of narrow streets.

Sarah in search of our hotel in Hanoi.

It’s easy to become disorientated in The Old Quarter as it seems like every other shop is selling exactly the same thing, ‘fake’ clothing by The North Face. T-shirts, sweatshirts, trousers, jackets etc etc, all at absolutely ridiculously low prices. Some of it is not too bad but the majority of it is pretty low quality, so don’t expect it to last too long. We met someone whose jacket had started to disintegrate after a couple of days and I suspect more than one person has turned up at the airport to depart, only to have a trouser leg fall off. Steve is watching Sarah’s new purchase with interest!

Steve looking tall.

At one end of the Old Quarter is a lake. It’s about a mile around the outside and it is a popular activity for locals and tourists alike to wander around in the evening. On weekends the road is closed and all manner of activities take place with one of the most popular being groups of women participating in a cross between line dancing and aerobics.

Dancing by the lake.

There are also food stalls and exhibitions going on and we saw what looked like quite a big junior dance competition. The music, however, was soooooo loud we found it reminiscent of a heavy metal concert where you could feel the music physically vibrating your chest. It was impossible to stand and watch.

After Hanoi we had to make a decision as to what to do next. We were planning to head to Halong Bay. This is one of the most famous areas of Vietnam with its limestone karsts jutting out of the bay. However, we had heard and read about how busy and polluted it had become, how a theme park has been built there, and with over 900 vessels registered to tour the bay most of them advertising music cruises, it was all looking like a nightmare for us. So we decided to leave it alone and go somewhere else.

We had been hearing more and more of The Ha Giang Loop. This was a three day, 350km motorcycle trip around the mountains on The Vietnam/ Chinese border. When we discovered the most popular way was to do it as a pillion passenger, we decided to give it a go.

What happened next was elevated straight in to one of the top five things we have ever done!

A new exhibit for outside The Tower of London maybe?