Mandla has been talking a lot about African experiences and says that if he sees something interesting, such as a woman carrying a heavy bucket of water on her head, he'll stop so we can take pictures (after he's checked its ok and maybe paid a small tip) and, if we're lucky, even have a go! His favourite saying, which I can tell already will get very annoying before the tour is over, is "learning and discovery". He says it every time he points something out along the way!
Straight outside the gate this morning we stopped for the first time. A local lady was carrying a heavy sack on her head. Mandla got her to take it down and checked inside. It was full of leaves which he explained are a type of vegetable commonly eaten by the locals and it's a bit like spinach. Even though it was just leaves the sack was still quite heavy and a few people got down to have a go at lifting it. Mandla went first, he likes to do a lot of weight lifting during toilet stops and when he gets up in the mornings and even he struggled under the weight! Although I dare say his neck never gets quite the workout his arms do anyway! I regret to say that Adam and I were still too tired to get back off the truck but enjoyed watching and taking pictures! It was clear the sack was heavy and most people's necks weren't strong enough to hold it!
Today we are heading to the South Luangwa National Park where, thankfully, we will be spending 2 nights! It's another long drive though along one of the worst roads I've ever experienced! We only have 120km to cover but the estimated driving time is 6-8 hours! It felt like closer to 8…!
To make matters worse a new road is being built to make the park more accessible but in these conditions, with local workers, it's likely to take years to complete! The existing road is mainly deeply rutted track which persistently crosses the new road from one side to the other over deep ruts. It's the type of journey you would expect to undertake in a 4x4 vehicle not a 2 wheel drive truck and there were times I really expected us to get well and truly stuck in the mud! Some pretty impressive driving by Mandla I must say!
At the front of the truck is a small table with seats around it and Stefan and Roen have taken to playing cards with Adam and I to pass the time. Sometimes the other Sarah will join in too but she suffers from motion sickness and can't play for long before returning to her seat. I can see we'll be playing cards quite a lot on this leg of the tour!
We finally arrived at our campsite and I must say I was extremely relieved! It's been the worst journey of my life today and what makes matters worse is that there is only one way in and one way out…we have to go back that way in a couple of days!
The campsite is on the edge of a river and there are no fences to this National Park meaning the animals are all around us. The hippos laze in the river during the day but come out onto the banks, right outside our tents, during the night to graze. We have been told that under no circumstances are we to leave our tents after the dark and to go to the toilet before going to bed and not drink too much!!!
There are also elephants wandering around, both these animals can be extremely aggressive and dangerous, not to mention big and strong enough to kill! On a more pleasant side there are many other animals wandering around that would be nice to see at close proximity, just as long as they are not leopard's or lion's!
After putting up our tents we were picked up by a local guide who drove us back to the main road and through the local town (some 20 km's or so) to a local textile factory. We really weren't sure what to expect from this and were confused by the itinerary which just said "textile village tour". Anyway, we got to see lots of locals making and painting textiles such as cushions and throws, etc. Some of the items were really very nice and very unique although extraordinarily expensive. We wandered through the shop afterwards and found out that the biggest trade is through exportation via their website.
The locals are clearly very talented people and it's amazing how much detail they can put into something free hand with no real training. We didn't stay long though as it was out of season and most of the place was empty and not all that inspiring. In all most of the group were quite disappointed with this. My highlight was making friends with 4 black kittens!
What we didn't realise though is that out itinerary hadn't been all that clear and there was more to come. We jumped back into the 4x4 that had brought us here and headed back into town, but just as we got to the edge of the area where it started to get busy we turned off down a dirt track. Immediately we picked up a lot of followers and lots of children started running and cheering behind us.
A short way down the track we turned a corner and arrived a local village. Of the type made of wooden huts similar to the Himba Tribes. This wasn't expected at all!
We were greeted whole heartedly by the villagers and especially the children and were also introduced to the Head Lady. She was very friendly and rather large! In Africa the men are proud if their women are fat because it shows they can afford to feed them well! It's a bit like a status symbol. Anyway I'm not sure if it was her size or her impressive presence but I found her quite intimidating! She was welcoming though and invited us to take a tour of her village.
Our guide teamed up with one of the English speaking teenage villagers and proceed to show us around but it was really the children that conducted most of the tour. There were hundreds of them! Most could only speak a few words of English but I managed to establish from one that they are all related…In other words this particular village of about 10 huts contains just one family which accounts for all the adults and some of the children around. All the other children are mainly cousins from other small "villages" nearby!
I got the distinct impression that only Nomad visit's this particular village meaning they only get a tour about once every couple of weeks meaning it didn't have the forced feel of the Himba village visit. These people really were pleased to see us and very welcoming. Of course they wanted tips and food, who doesn't, but in all this was a very exciting experience for them and the children especially couldn't stop stroking the "white skin" on our arms.
I learned very little about the village itself or the hierarchy of its people because I was constantly bombarded by questions from the children. Mainly "what is your name?" or "where do you come from?" over and over again. Sometimes they would ask these questions even though they had just heard the answer I had given their older sister or brother. My guess is they just wanted to practice their English. Sometimes they would stop walking and literally hang off my arms separating me from the rest of the group. They meant no malice, they just wanted to stop and stare and to show the other children that they were lucky enough to get to hold my hand. I had no chance of hearing what the guides were saying and I wasn't the only one in the tour to experience this. Several times I had to break up fights between the children as they would literally slap and kick each other to get to hold my hand…weird!
After our "tour" we walked back to the village entrance where the adults were waiting. We had to sit down (the men on chairs and the women on a bamboo mat on the ground!) and the adults all performed local songs and dances for us. They tried to invite us to get up and dance with them but only Amy was willing to give it a go! Good on her though!
One elderly lady must have been in her 80's and she was up and dancing with the rest of them. If anything putting much more energy into her dance than they were! This is not the first time we've seen this and it always surprises me just how fit and active the elderly are here. Despite what you hear about the average life span of African's, those who survive things such as Malaria and/or Aids, or any one of the many other diseases that affect these people, seem to live much longer, healthier and active lives than you would expect! Perhaps we could all learn something from this laid back way of life where physical possessions mean so little and apart from survival, the only thing that really has any meaning at all is family!
After the dancing we each gave a little tip which we were assured by Mandla could only be allocated by the village elder for food or books and pens for the children and we all headed back to the truck.
On the way back to the road the children once again ran after us all the way and, once we hit the road, waved until we turned a corner! It was a really nice experience, probably better because it was so unexpected. Most of us were much happier to visit a village like that than the ones you normally see that receive many, sometimes hundreds of, tourists a day.
In the evening after dinner we all sat around the pool by the bar at the campsite which is right on the river bank and reflected on our experiences. As the sun set there was a thunderstorm in the distance across the river with some of the most impressive lightning bolts I've ever seen. It's a very picturesque and beautiful location and perhaps, all the better for being so remote!