When Sky, Fire and Water Meet

Faces of Zambia

The sweat from my palms soaked the steering wheel as the tense muscles in my hip throbbed.  My body was on edge and had been for the entirety of the drive south.  Upon arriving in Zambia, I’d been informed by my family that I would be the one responsible for driving our rental car.  Ordinarily not a big deal, but it was my first time driving on the opposite side of the road and in a non-North American country.  The roads in the Luapula Province of northern Zambia did little to allay my fears.  Many are paved, but in such a poor state of repair that there are no such things as lanes.  In truth, you spend at least one third of most drives with one (or both) tires off the road, the car at a 25 degree angle while zig-zaging between potholes large enough to swallow a small tank. The scrape of the car’s undercarriage is a constant reminder that you zig-ed when you should have zag-ed.  By itself that might not be so bad, but then add in large freight haulers and buses that race along the roads at high speed. And if that is not enough, add in head-height grass which lines many of the roads and conceals everything and everyone.  My eyes constantly scanned the road for potholes with quick glance at my rear view mirror in search of large trucks bearing down on me. Then back to the sides of the road where I diligently watched for erratic movement from the veritable army of goats, small children, old grandmothers, and bicyclists who use the roads as walking paths and have a tendency to dart into traffic.  Despite constant and nearly un-blinking vigilance I  found myself forced to slam on the brakes  to avoid people and things at the last moment.

Sunset over Samfya Lake

As I turned the key off and the car stilled I let out an audible sigh of relief. Somehow I’d gotten us to a small guest house along the shores of Lake Bangweulu just outside of Samfya.  As I sat in the driver’s seat collecting myself, I wiped my hands on my jeans leaving dark streaks of sweat.  Finally, I allowed myself to take in my surroundings. The parallel-parking spot I had pulled into faced out onto what looked like a small sea. In reality, it was a sprawling lake.

Sunset over Samfya Lake

As we settled into great little rooms that opened out onto a small sand beach and a wonderful view of the lake, we all struggled with the day’s contrasts.  We had started out in my brother’s small mud brick and thatch hut. A building that is a lovely and cozy place but which lacks electricity or running water and has a small outhouse located behind it. Now, a few hours drive away, we were back on the grid with semi-reliable power, running water, and perhaps most importantly western flush toilets.  It made for a powerful contrast which set the stage for the rest of the evening.

Sunset over Samfya Lake

My brother David is a Peace Corps volunteer and he had brought us to Lake Bangweulu to see the sunset.  I’ll confess that as a big fan of sunsets, I wasn’t entirely sure why the multi-hour drive south had been worth the pleasure of a simple sunset.  Still, he was our guide, the local expert, and it was hard not to be won over by the prospect of a real bed and a cold beer.

Sunset over Samfya Lake

As the sun began to set and the early twilight of late afternoon settled over the lake, it quickly became apparent why the sunset was worth the drive.  Lake Bangweulu is known as the place where the water meets the sky.  It is an aptly chosen nickname for this unusual body of water.  More than 70km by 40km in size, the lake’s depth averages about four meters and fluctuates more than a meter between Zambia’s dry and rainy seasons.   During our visit in the midst of the dry season the lake still stretched beyond the horizon.

Sunset over Samfya Lake

Just beyond a small fence at the end of the beach, we watched as a group of children washed dishes, did laundry, and then set to fishing.  The children, some barely old enough to walk, participated in chores.  The older children kept close eyes on their younger brothers and sisters though I doubt the oldest was more than 10.  There’s a certain responsibility among the young Zambian children that I found incredible to watch … a certain level of maturity that most western children twice their age lack.  Perhaps the most powerful of which were the (slightly) older sisters who diligently took care of, disciplined, and watched over their 2 and 4 year-old siblings with great care and competency.

Sunset over Samfya Lake

Shortly after the children finished their bath and their chores, they wandered back up the bank. A young woman and her son waded down and out into the reeds with bamboo fishing poles.  With the poise, elegance, and stillness of a heron they carefully raised and lowered their poles, gently jigging and probing the reeds for fish.  Their patience and control reminded me in many ways of the street performers who pose as human statues, perfectly still and seemingly lifeless before moving smoothly to the shock and surprise of those passing by.

Sunset over Samfya Lake

In one last rush before the sunset stole the remaining light, a near constant flow of chitenge-clad women atop reed and dugout wooden canoes made their way past us.  Some used push poles to take advantage of the lake’s shallow depths while others had rough-hewn wooden paddles attached to long poles which they used from a standing position.

Sunset over Samfya Lake

The weather was perfect. The wind was still which left the lake with a glass-like surface and the air was thick with the haze of pale gray smoke from local controlled burns.   By day the late afternoon sky was devoid of clouds but boasted the moon and later the bright glow of a nearby planet.  The horizon itself quickly faded away, lost and indistinguishable from the lake’s smooth waters.   I’ve never seen a sunset that was able to so perfectly blend water and sky. The combination of gentle smokey haze, mirror-perfect water, and clear skies accomplished the unbelievable.  What was left were strange little boats that seemed to have taken flight to float among the clouds.  The sort of strange and mystical spectacle that one might see in movies of far-off places and imaginary lands – but never in the real world. Then the color changed. The soft blue-gray transitioned into a multi-spectrum rainbow centered along the horizon.  The sky’s dark blues re-emerged while the waves reflected the violets and purples of the next stage of the sunset.

Sunset over Samfya Lake

Then as the sun approached the horizon the violets deepened and transitioned into oranges and golden hues as the smoke served as a filter that split off the sun’s otherwise harsh rays and left it visible to the naked eye as a glowing red orb.

Sunset over Samfya Lake

I’m not sure how long the sunset lasted, I suspect close to 30 minutes.  It’s hard to tell though, as every 5 minutes it seamed to drastically change. The colors would shift, the haze would lift, the sun would slip into a smoke bank, or one of the local fishing boats would slowly cut their way across the horizon and in so doing add a new perspective and human element.

Sunset over Samfya Lake

As we sat on the beach enjoying a local Zambian beer I couldn’t help but feel an emotional connection to the area. One brought about and highlighted so beautifully by the sunset.  It was a thing of contrasts, just as Zambia and Sub-Saharan Africa is a place of similarly extreme contrasts. It can be a profoundly harsh place, but it is also a warm and welcoming place with its own element of profound hospitality.  A trip to the heart of Africa, one that takes you into authentic Africa, beyond the walled compounds and neatly pitched tents of safaris and large cities is a must.  It will change you by infusing you with a new perspective and understanding.  It will give you a renewed respect for all nature has to provide, a deep  sense of awe, and an opportunity to connect at a deep level with people who live vastly different lives.

Sunset over Samfya Lake

When we set out for Samfya to watch the sunset, I expected a few minutes of transient natural beauty.  A wonderful thing, but something that hardly seemed likely to offset the hours of anxious and uncomfortable driving required to get there.  As often happens in these types of situations, I was not only wrong but met with an incredibly rich experience that was one of the gems of my visit to Africa.  I’d place the sunset in my top 5 and will forever have its beauty and the wonderful musings that accompanied it burned into who I am and how I see the world.

Exploring Guejar and the Sierra Nevadas

After a day spent exploring the Alhambra’s countless secrets I made my way back to the hostel where I washed up briefly before heading to the hostel kitchen for the night’s special event – a group dinner.  For 5 Euro the hostel provided all we could eat paella, a big bowl of soup, and a drink from the bar.

What is paella you ask?  Paella is a cornerstone of Spanish cuisine and a must try for anyone visiting the region – cooked in large pans, not all that unlike the pans used for stir fry, the dish is predominantly seasoned saffron rice with large pieces of pork, horseshoe muscles, calamari, small clams, shrimp and peas. Depending on your region in Spain, and the cook, various other meats and delightful tidbits may be added. The pan used by the hostel was about 3 feet across and circular.  It was quite the sight.

Stuffed and in good company we repeated the previous evening’s rituals.  Starting in the hostel bar drinks and stories flowed before we set out to explore the city’s night life and enjoy Spanish music, culture and sights.

Despite morning coming far too early I awoke to a beautiful, crisp winter day.  Blue skies, gentle  and warm – far from what one might imagine a December day in Spain would look like.   Eager to explore the surrounding area and the Sierra Nevadas I made my way through the city to a large square where I’d been told I could catch a bus into one of the small cities in the mountains.   The walk took me into parts of Granada I’d previously left unexplored and added to my love of the city.  After about 20 minutes of walking I found the square and began asking around…trying to discover which of the regional buses would take me to Guejar.  Before long I’d narrowed down the approximate area where it paused along it’s route to collect people…and had a good idea of when to expect it. I’ll confess that my pronunciation of Guejar was abysmal and my heart was racing as I tried to figure out the bus system and isolate which of the 10 bus stops along the square was mine.

Finally feeling fairly confident that I wasn’t going to miss my bus, I grabbed a quick bite to eat and relaxed by the shallow river that stretched along one side of the square.  There I watched a father and his two children at play.  It reminded me of my time in Europe as a child, exploring grand cities and embracing experiences which fostered the curious passion for travel which drives me to this day.

Before long the bus arrived. One Euro Eighty cents later, I had my ticket in hand and was cozily sandwiched into one of the small bus seats.  I’d picked Guejar at random and didn’t know what to expect, beyond that it was in the Sierra Nevadas.  As the bus snaked through the narrow Spanish streets we quickly left the city behind and began winding our way up through several small canyons toward the mountaintops.  Each time the bus slowed down and paused at a bus stop I felt my pace quicken and my stomach leap into my throat.  I had no idea what to expect.  What would Guejar look like?  How long was the drive? Would there be a bus stop or would it be a proper station?

Resisting the urge to hop off each time the bus slowed to a stop I sat, taking in the scenery as we climbed deeper into the mountains. The snow capped Sierra’s drew gradually closer as the road hung on to the side of a rather steep valley.  Soon, I found myself looking out my window and down the steep slopes below – the narrow roads, tiny guard rails and steep drop offs along a lot of European roads is something I’m not sure I’ll ever get completely comfortable with.

Before long we came upon a large dam.  The dam was significant in size and filled in some two-thirds of the valley.  The water it held back was an emerald green with rich, gorgeous waters lazily soaking up the winter sun. I knew immediately it was something that I needed to explore in greater detail.  The quick views as the bus wound along the valley wall hundreds of feet above wasn’t enough.  As I watched it wind away behind me I decided to get off at the next stop – even if it wasn’t Guejar.

Luckily, just a few minutes up the road from the dam we pulled into a beautiful small city which lazily clung to the side of the valley wall.  Somehow, the bus pressed its way through the narrow streets and down tiny alleyways before coming to a stop on a steep incline next to a small square.  The doors opened and the passengers began to disembark.  I soon realized I’d reached Guejar!

Eager to explore the city I quickly set off from the square and into the small town.  The streets were a delightful warren of small open spaces and narrow corridors – many of which suddenly split or dove off down the hillside.  There were beautiful plants everywhere and interestingly most of the doorways had hanging rugs of them.  I’m not sure if it was to keep out the cold, or a regional tradition – either way it added a fun element to the streets and brought them to life with their own special character.

Legs burning from the steep ascent and descent as I explored the small town, I spent a good 30 minutes wandering up side streets and down back alleyways before setting off back the way I’d come in the hopes of reaching the azure waters I’d seen from the bus.

As I left the town I quickly ran into a problem.  The narrow winding road we’d used to reach the town was just that – a narrow two lane road with a steep drop off and small guardrail. This left very little room for me to safely backtrack along the road – leaving me sandwiched between a steep drop on my left and oncoming traffic on the right. Undeterred, I pressed on, carefully utilizing the narrow space between the guardrail and the steep drop down to the river below. It took me another 5 minutes of careful walking before I reached a bend in the road and paused to snap the photo you see above.

I lingered and took in the view – one that reminded me in a way of the Grand Canyon and Colorado river.  Don’t get me wrong, the view was vastly different – but there was something about it that captured my heart and mind in the same way. It left me slightly awed.  As I paused and shot a few photos/took some quick video I considered my options.  I could continue along the road which continued from my perch for a short ways before winding back behind a small hill and away from the dam for about a quarter of the mile – or I could climb down the hillside a ways and get a better view of the lake, valley and several interesting structures on the opposite side.  Careful not to fall and die, I slowly made my way down the steep hillside – heading towards a slightly flatter area which had been leveled off during the construction of several large power lines – why not right?  What better than large power lines to ensure my safety as I climbed down a steep hillside.

Eventually, I found my way down to the flattened area – where I paused for a drink, some photos and to take in the sights.  The descent had taken me down some 1/3 of the hillside and left me across and slightly above a group of goats and a shepherd I’d been observing from the roadside earlier.   Having descended below the power lines, I finally had an unobstructed view of the lake.  What better place to stop and read for a while?  Enjoying my perch and the moment I pulled out my book and read for about 20 minutes before plotting the next stage of my exploration.  I considered my location, looking back up the steep hillside I quickly decided that down was a far more interesting (and less difficult) alternative – and why not?  I hadn’t hurt myself yet!

In a hail of small stones, mumbled curses and periodic gasps I eventually made my way down two thirds of the way to the river.  The whole affair would have no doubt made the most clumsy of mountain goats proud.  Eventually, I found a small path and decided to follow it instead.

Wondering if I was trespassing and about to get chased off by a local farmer with a pitchfork, I followed the path as it wound back towards Guejar in the general direction of the shepherd and his goats.  The path quickly cut up and took me immediately them…leaving me under the watchful stare of two of his goats.  One of which had an amazing, billowing goat beard and large set of horns.

I wound up, around, between properties and soon found myself back in the city.  With ample time to spare I set to satiating my burning hunger.  No easy task given the quiet nature of the city. Differentiating between tapas bar, bookstore and hardware store was far more difficult than one would think.  None of the residents needed signs.

After exploring the city for another 20 minutes or so I finally found a little hole in the wall joint.  The food was good, the price was incredible, the floor was dirty and the place was populated by old Spanish men – perfect.  I headed inside, ordered and carefully tried to take the following incognito video…my apologies on its…authenticity:


After a quick meal, I headed back to the square – checked my watch and relaxed in the winter sun as I read my dad’s book – The Spirit in the Ruins by C. Descry.  Eventually the bus driver emerged from one of the local tapas bars and we began our winding trip back to Granada.

That evening I joined a number of friends from the hostel for a wonderful night out on the town which came to a close at 4 am as we sat perched in the Albayzin looking across at the beautifully lit Alhambra.

It was December 30th.  The following day I caught a train early in the morning to Madrid, where I began preparing for New Years and my return to the U.S.  – what an incredible adventure!

Monsoons & Tempe Town Lake

Tempe Town Lake - Alex Berger

The winds grow high; Impending tempests charge the sky; The lightning flies, the thunder roars; And big waves lash the frightened shores. – Matthew Prior

Last night the valley got its first real monsoon of the season. With howling winds, thunderous bolts of lightning, and rain that left a number of roads shut down overnight, it burst upon the valley and left us all splashing about in the warm rain and clean air.

After a small get together at my brother’s place where I weathered the worst of the storm, I headed down to Tempe Town Lake in the hopes of snapping a few fun shots, avoiding getting drenched, and playing with one or two newly discovered features on my camera.

Tempe Town Lake - Alex Berger

Tempe Town Lake - Alex Berger

Tempe Town Lake - Alex Berger

If you’d like to see full-sized versions of these images and others from the evening, they are available in the photography section of my website.  Click here for a direct link. All photos were shot on a Canon G7. The shots in this post were taken with a small portable tripod and 2-15 second exposure times.