Rainforest in La Gomera

Laurisilva – a beautiful word for a unique place. On La Gomera, our first walk of the holiday was in the Garajonay National Park. Huge trees, becoming taller as we descended, reached for the sky. Tree trunks were covered with furry green moss and wispy lichen. Birdsong filled the air. Splashes of vivid green, like mini tree ferns, were at the higher levels. A magical place, dark and haunted in places, where the tree canopy became tangled above, and the ever present clouds dripped their rain. Splashing streams collected all this water and bubbled over rocks in the valleys. It felt like being in a rainforest, up in the clouds, and very, very old.

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Some art, a lot of nature, but not much water

We have had two near misses in South Africa. One reason we planned our trip in the order we did, was to see the amazing display of wild flowers that happens each spring: except this year it didn’t! We went to Clanwilliam first in the hope of seeing this spectacle, but this third year of drought has meant the flowers haven’t really happened. Clanwilliam dam was at about 37% capacity, and the whole area around Cape Town and the Western Cape is suffering from drought. The town had cancelled its annual flower festival, and a lot of visitors were hunting the flowers in vain. So we will have to come back another year!

The kind of flowers we were hoping for – these were in the Botanical Gardens (where they get watered) so cheating a bit

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South Africa … 

We have been in South Africa all of 2 weeks now, so it’s time to blog about it. But where to start? And how on earth to make sense of it? We have only covered a small part of a large and varied country, and one which has undergone so much change in the space of my lifetime. As a child, I remember my family boycotting South African fruit, John actually came to visit relatives here in the 70s, when apartheid was in full swing, and I vividly remember, when my kids were little, the release of Mandela and the first free elections, a huge deal in the news then. The whole political upheaval of South Africa has always seemed very much in our consciousness in the UK. More recently, I have heard those who fought against apartheid, and people who love the country, in despair about how the South African government is going, about how all that Mandela achieved is being betrayed and hopes dashed.

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  Getting around Zambia

I’m doing a bit of backtracking here, but feel the need to write about how we arrived at South Luangwa for our safari. This involved getting across Zambia, which is a pretty big country. The quickest option from Livingstone to Mfuwe was to fly, which would take just under 3 hours and cost several hundred pounds each. We decided to take the bus.

Our first day involved a Shalom bus complete with luggage trailer

Or rather buses. In fact two buses over two days, with an overnight stay at Lusaka Backpackers. It was much cheaper (a total of about 36 pounds each), and offered an experience we certainly wouldn’t find by flying.

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Libraries, Livingstone style

Picture a tiny school compound with 120 ish excited children, and some ridiculous dancing by adults in yellow T Shirts! That was our farewell Book Bus reading session at Zwelopili Reading Room in Livingstone, Zambia, last Thursday. As well as our daily visits to schools each morning, we have been spending Tuesday and Thursday afternoons at libraries reading one to one with any children who turn up.


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Devil’s Pool and a Local Cowboy

Five crazy English women swimming at the top of Victoria Falls – 

This is one of the highights so far – in terms of the touristy side of things of course. We really were right at the top and stepping over that natural ledge, which you can’t see as it’s under the water, would take you over the edge of a 108 metre high waterfall. It did seem pretty surreal, but surprisingly safe, mostly thanks to our lovely guide O’Brian (seen at the back of the picture). His instructions were clear and precise, and we followed them implicitly. If O’Brian said swim up-river because the current is strong and will sweep you back towards the falls, we swam upstream. If he said hold hands in a chain, we did (we did a lot of hand holding!). If he said slide off this safe rock into a pool which doesn’t have anything between you and death, we believed him. The other guy taking the photos – well, he was actually walking along the very edge with 2 of our cameras, and it didn’t bear thinking about what would happen if he slipped. Anyway, it was a fantastic experience, and a lot of fun with 4 of my Book Bus friends. Safely back on Livingstone Island, we changed into dry things (in a changing room which strangely had no walls and was in full view of other folks eating their tea! – we improvised with lots of towels – and tucked into a gourmet high tea and a much needed G and T. The speed boat trip back to proper dry land, with the sun about to set, was pretty good too, especially as we were all still a bit hyper from the whole experience. It looks even scarier from th other side – if you zoom in you can see tiny figures on the edge!

Devil’s Pool dredevils from the Zimbabwean side

The Devil’s Pool trip starts at the Royal Livingstone Hotel, apparently one of those top hotels on lists of places to stay before you die. We whisked through pretty fast, but it did look beautiful. It also made me feel, once again, the inequalities here (and many other places of course). We had paid $140 each for our Pool trip. Many tourists here will do several trips, bungee jumps, helicpter flights, rafting, sunset cruises, etc. At one of the schools we visit, parents are asked to pay the equivalent of $30 per term, which means my afternoon trip would pay for about 18 months education for a child. And seeing the luxurious Royal Livingstone, is such a contrast to some of the housing we see on our way to schools. Many kids around here have never seen the Falls,  the largest waterfalls in the world, and the reason why most tourists are here. The Book Bus did take a group of kids to see the Falls a couple of years ago, which seems a vary fair thing to do. I know the local economy is based on tourism here, and if it didn’t happen many people would be without jobs and much worse off …  but it just makes me think.

Anyway, to the rescue comes the Local Cowboy. This was a bike tour that another volunteer and I did at the weekend, $25 each for a full 4 hour tour. These tours fund a community school that the organisation set up, led by Cowboy Cliff, at first under a tree, but now with buildings including a new classroom going up now. Our guide was fantastic, telling us as we cycled around so much about Zambian life. As Book Bus volunteers we see a lot more than the average tourist, but we learnt a lot more. He took us through a village where he poorest people make their living from breaking stones from a shallow quarry, and met a lady of 82 who still does this work – at the Southwell Workhouse back in Notts, this is one of the demeaning jobs we display, that inmates were forced to do. But the village has a school, and running water and electricity for the few households that can pay. Another village was much more prosperous and middle class, with larger houses, and power and water to every house. 

Our guide with local kids

Then there was the market, full of locals buying and selling, a peanut butter making stall, a corn grinding stall where you take yor own corn to be milled. Annie shocked a stal holder by buying hand carved wooden spoons for her husband, who is a great cook – but by Zambian standards that is all wrong. Even our young guide seemed a lttle surprised!

The peanut butter man

Our final stop was at the school we were helping to support, where 200 children from Grades 1 to 6 are taught, with Grade 7 coming when the new building is finished. Parents agreed at a meeting when the school started how much to pay, but vulnerable kids go free. 

Local Cowboy Community School

The whole tour was so worth doing, and a really positive insight into Zambian life, so if you’re ever in Livingstone, please do it – as well as the amazing Victoria Falls

Holiday time

So it is now school holiday time here in Zambia, which means us carrying on working, but doing holiday clubs instead of school time sessions. These are voluntary for the kids, so unpredictable numbers, and more flexible planning. It is also variable between schools. At Zwelopili, a community school in a built up area on the edge of Livingstone, we arrived to find masses of children! I was in the “baby” group with 3 other volunteers, based inside the Reading Room (the Book Bus Library there), with abut 50 children, and baby is not far off the mark.


As well as the Grade 1 and 2 pupils, there were toddlers, babies carried on the backs of tiny but walking sisters, and a fair amount of chaos. We did 2 sessions of Going on a Bear Hunt, with lots of actions and teddy bears to colour. and survived. Repeat next day with similar numbers and different books.

Then we had 3 days, 2 different schools, a bit more remote, where numbers were lower. On Thursday, our group was just 5 Grade 4s, with 2 volunteers and the head teacher of the school to translate – which made the kids very quiet and shy as I think they are in awe of her! But we could do a lot more one to one, checking their understanding, and really doing some in depth work, which with 50 is obviously not quite so easy.

Our lovey little Kamatanda group working hard

We have met some really inspirational Zambian people in schools. All the staff in the schools and libraries we have been to are so incredibly grateful, and yet we are only spending a few weeks here, and enjoying a holiday while we’re here, and then going back to our own relatively priviledged lives. They work here all year round, and achieve amazing things for some very vulnerable children. Like Teacher Ann, the head at Kamatanda School, a long drive out into the country from Livingstone. A retired teacher, she set up a school for the community 5 years ago, under a tree, and now has 3 good buildings on the site (including a new library), as well as running a feeding programme, which gets kids to attend, as well as helping the families. Parents pay 15 Kwacha a month which covers materals and salaries (when there is enough money – many teachers in community schools are volunteers). 15 Kwacha is about 1.50 pounds. We met a family nearby, and the son was one of Ann’s first class. Now 18, he is at secondary school in Grade 8, and aims to be an engineer. Without Kamatanda School he would never have been to school as there is nowhere else nearby. Kids walk up to 5Km to school, and are taught in 2 shifts – some 7AM till midday, others in the afternoon.

Teacher Ann deonstrating the local well

And then at Zwelopili (where there is also a Reading Room, i.e. Library – please take note, UK schools who are closing their libraries!) the founder of the school recently died. His brother came one day to thank us for our work, and his niece and nephew Claudia and James work as vounteers at the Reading Room. Claudia told me that the school’s future is in doubt now, though they will do everyhing they can to carry on. It is a tiny school, with 120 ish kids from a poor area, with no water or electricity – but lots of enthusiasm!

And then we have the Book Bus staff, Bwalya (who does a great job organising and looking after us), Rachael (who does everything around the camp and in schools with us) and Edward (our driver – also brilliant at spotting interesting animals on the way to schools). They work hard with no time off, and give us all the support we need, and after 2 weeks feel like real friends.

It isn’t all hard work, and I’ll put more about our extra curricular activities in another post – but highlights this week have been swimming at the Devils Pool, i.e. at the very edge of the huge Victoria Falls, and seeing elephants, zebras, a giraffe, and impala on the morning commute.

On our way to school yesterday
Five crazy English women on the edge – of Vic Falls at Devil’s Pool
Bwalya, our leader, lifting a full 20 litre water bottle onto her head – to the amusement of the local ladies

One week down

So, my first week is done, with visits to 3 schools and one library session. One school, Chilileko, had 3 visits, which is good as you start to get to know the children, as we take the same groups each time.

Chilileko was where I got the kids writing and drawing postcards, which went really well with Grade 6 and OK with Grade 4. They were fascinated with my photos of home I’d brought out – I was really trying to show them pictures of Nottingham, but they loved the ones of my family, especially me dwarfed by my tall husband and sons.

Here I am demonstrating the concept of a postcard with the British royal family – the only postcard on the bus!

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First two schools 

I’m not finding much time to blog, as we are pretty busy – yesterday was 2 sessions at one school plus a library visit in the afternoon, back to base at 5, planning for the next day… and it gets dark at 6!

So here I am at 7AM sitting in the campsite bar (at the best table for wi-fi!) by the beautiful Zambezi River, with spray from the Vic Falls in the distance, feeling decidedly chilly in my fleece. Gloves maybe would have been a good idea!

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Bags of books

Nearly ready for the off, I’ve been doing a dummy run of packing – don’t want any last minute panics on Friday morning when I find it won’t all fit!

My fundraising went so well that not only am I taking a bag full of books and stationery to Zambia for the Book Bus, but John is bringing some out when he comes at the end of August. This is what we need to fit in our bags (as well as our personal luggage of course, and keeping it all within South Africa Airways admittedly generous allowance):

A cornucopia of books

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