A Family Road Trip In Malawi

A Family Road Trip In Malawi

Welcome to the show notes for Episode 2 of the Just Go Places Podcast.  Episode Two is titled A Family Road Trip in Malawi.


In this episode, I speak to Rachel Heller, a blogger and travel writer, who took her family on a road trip down memory lane through the tiny African country of Malawi.

Rachel’s tagline on her blog, Rachel’s Ruminations, is a line from that famous poem by American poet, Robert Frost, The Road Less Traveled.  Rachel is ‘taking the road less traveled by.’ I’d say a road trip through Malawi is definitely a lesser travelled road.

Rachel’s family trip was inspired by her time in the Peace Corps in Malawi in the mid-1980’s where she met her future husband, a Dutch dentist also working in Malawi. So some 20 odd years later, the couple returned with their kids to introduce them to a country which holds a special place in their heart.

A family Road Trip through Malawi in Africa

Listen to Episode 2 below:

Things Mentioned in the Podcast

Exploring Malawi

The first site you should explore if you are interested in visiting Malawi is the official tourist website for the country.  Malawi is one of the poorest countries in the world where almost 3/4 of the population of 13 million lives on less than $1.25 a day.  On the other hand, Malawi is a safe and peaceful country to visit which has been nicknamed the ‘warm heart of Africa’.  Efforts to encourage tourism to Malawi are slowly succeeding but they still don’t have the profile of the big boys in African tourism (Kenya, Tanzania, etc.).  More tourism in Malawi can make a big difference in the lives of its people.

Map of the Republic of Malawi

Mobile banking in a village in Malawi

A mother and child stand near a mobile banking vehicle in Michinji village, approximately 120km west of the capital Lilongwe, Malawi.
Image credit: Gates Foundation

Livingstonia is a town in the North of Malawi established by by missionaries of the Church of Scotland. Rachel mentions this pretty Victorian-era town for its beautiful architecture.  The ecocamp the family stayed at was the Lukwe Ecocamp in Livingstonia.

Lake Malawi is a national park which is listed as a UNESCO world heritage site.  It is one of the Great Lakes of Africa created by the African tectonic plate shifting discovered by the explorer, Dr. David Livingstone (after which Livingstonia is named) .  Estimated to be anywhere between 40,000 to 2 million years old, this lake is the highlight of any visit to Malawi.  The largest part of the lake is located in Malawi but a portion is also in neighbouring Mozambique. Cruising around Lake Malawi Cruising around Lake Malawi is a popular way to see the area..  Monkey Bay is a tourist resort on the Southern shores of Lake Malawi.

Lake Malawi in Malawi

Lake Malawi

Nyika National Park makes up most of the Nyika Plateau in Northern Malawi.  The park spans 3200 square kilometres (1250 square miles).  I guess when Rachel says this is a small safari park suitable for families, she is definitely thinking in terms of African sizes!  It’s got lots of wildlife such as lions, leopards, elephants, antelopes and zebras as well as a rich variety of birds and plant life.

Rachel and her children volunteered at the Malawi Children’s Village is located in Mangochi in Malawi.  It is a village-based centre which helps extended families care for their orphaned and vulnerable children. They provide family support for 37 villages in the area including medical clinics and schools. The children they played with were at the Open Arms Orphanage which takes in babies and toddlers whose relatives are unable to care for them.  The aim of Open Arms is to nurture these children until they are old enough to return to their relatives.

After Malawi, Rachel and her family flew through Tanzania and stopped to visit, Ngorongoro Crater, a UNESCO World Heritage site famous for its luxury safaris.

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Thanks so much!


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Swimming with the Fishes in the Royal Seascope 

Swimming with the Fishes in the Royal Seascope 

We heard mixed reviews about the Royal Seascope glass bottom boat tours in Sharm el Sheikh. Some people loved them while others thought they were lame.

The Seascope boats are semi submerged in the water so that you can experience the sea life without actually snorkelling or diving.

We had a nice reef off the beach in our hotel. The kids weren’t sure if there was better snorkelling elsewhere. I had heard of a recent shark attack off the coast of Sharm. Trying to find out where any shark sightings were proved futile. I get the impression Egyptians will tell you what you want to hear in order to sell you something.

The compromise the kids and I reached was the Royal Seascope.  

The good points:

  • There is a whole floor under the boat with lots of seats for everyone to see.
  • It’s great for little children and older people who can’t or don’t want to snorkel.
  • It’s an enjoyable short excursion the whole family can enjoy together.

The bad points:

  • You might as well be in an aquarium. I guess the difference is that on the Seascope you are the one in a glass tank.
  • You don’t see as much marine life as the sales pitch tells you that you are going to see. I’m sure the shadow of a hulking boat scares away many creatures.
  • Vendors are trying to sell you stuff before, during and after the tour. It drove me crazy as a parent when sellers stick ice cream right under the children’s faces.

Our verdict?  Just go snorkelling if you are able to do so. There are nice coral reefs near land so that you can avoid any deep water issues.


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Dolphin Encounter in the Gulf of Aqaba

Dolphin Encounter in the Gulf of Aqaba

What started out as a simple snorkelling expedition off the coast of the Sinai Peninsula turned into the most amazing dolphin encounter.

We set off from Sharm el Sheik in a small inflatable boat bound for Tiran Island in the Gulf of Aqaba.  Tiran Island is known for having great snorkelling.

Remember we took the Royal Seascope Adventure in Sharm because because my son had an irrational fear of sharks in the area and my daughter just didn’t like snorkelling at all? Well, I was able to tempt my son with the thought of visiting a shipwreck. My daughter was a harder sell.  She was satisfied though when she was outfitted with full face snorkel mask (so any fish/fish poop wouldn’t brush her face – yes really that was the concern!).

As luck would have it though, on our way, we were surrounded by a pod of dolphins.  They jumped from the deep blue water for the sheer joy of it.  Some of them tried to race the boat underwater.  These dolphins were super fast!

Neither my kids nor I had ever seen dolphins in their natural habitat before.  We have, of course, seen them at aquariums or at places like the Florida theme parks.  This experience was completely different.  Their playful nature and intelligence was readily apparent as they formed groups to jump, to call to each other and to race.

Dolphins in the Gulf of Aqaba , Egypt

We opted to spend so much time watching the dolphins we did not have time to see the famous shipwreck of the Thistlegorm which was sunk by the Germans during World War II.

Dolphins Gulf of Aqaba Egypt

Did we regret our decision to skip out on a famous shipwreck?  Nope. Ok, well maybe just my son who has a ghoulish boy’s interest in disastrous events, natural phenomenon etc.  My daughter and I thought that even the fabulous snorkelling at Tiran Island was nothing compared to the exuberance of the dolphins.


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The Entertaining Old Market in Sharm

The Entertaining Old Market in Sharm

People tend to think of Sharm El Sheik as a fairly new resort town. In fact, there was a small community here long before the hotels and tourists arrived en masse.

The heart of the old part of Sharm is Old Market, a maze of little streets that make up an Arab bazaar. Despite the convoluted streets and crush of people, the market really isn’t very big.  Not like the Marrakech Medina where you could easily get lost.  

The stores sell everything from fish for the locals to fake designer bags for the tourists.  

It’s a fab place to pick up souvenirs.  I wondered if a belly dancer costume would be appropriate for my daughters World Book Day outfit next year. I’m sure there was a belly dancer in 1001 Arabian Nights.  And it couldn’t be worse than the kid who went as Christian Grey this year.

There was so much stuff to tempt you to part with your money. I was scared off buying anything because I just wasn’t in the mood to haggle.

 I was surprised by all the signs in Russian. Apparently the British and the Russians make up the majority of tourists to Sharm.  

As ever, there were men with camels trying to coax you on for a ride.

Our favourite part was the section called Old Egypt. For a small cover charge, the kids and I sat and watched a lot of different entertainment. 

A couple of restaurants had stages which showed everything from snake charmers and fire throwers to belly dancers.  You could sit at tables or the traditional divans and relax. 

Drinking sodas in the balmy night air, we lounged and were thoroughly entertained.   Unlike the Marrakech Medina,he Marrakech Medina, the snakes and the charmers were on a stage at a safe distance from the kids which they appreciated!

This camel guy stood on his camel’s hump to try and get attention away from the cobra dancer. It didn’t work but his diversionary efforts were amusing!

Old Market is a somewhat chaotic place with all the traders, entertainers and shoppers. It’s fantastic for people watching and getting a favor of a real Egyptian bazaar.


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Our Biggest Disappointment in Egypt 

Our Biggest Disappointment in Egypt 

Some things you hear about so much that they are never going to live up to your expectations. The pyramids at Giza were even better than I could have imagined from photographs or scenes from movies. The Great Sphinx of Giza, on the other hand, we found oddly disappointing. 

It had nothing to do with the hordes of souvenir touts or the fact that the Great Sphinx monument is in poor condition.

The Sphinx at the Pyramids of Giza

The pyramids’ size relative to the Sphinx

Having seen the Disney movie Aladdin, I knew that the Sphinx lost his nose when Aladdin and Jasmine flew by on their magic carpet.  No surprises there.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bXaf9p378UI]

So why exactly did I find the Great Sphinx of Giza disappointing? After all, the Great Sphinx of Giza is one of the world’s oldest and largest monuments.

  • The Sphinx itself is not that big. I assumed it was huge but it is dwarfed by the pyramids. The photographs I have seen clearly used a wide angle lens.
  • The area around the Sphinx itself is closed off to prevent further deterioration. So the viewing platform area is swarming with tourists. You don’t actually feel any sense of majesty when tourists are climbing all over each other to take selfies.
  • It’s hard to visualise how the Sphinx would have looked in its heyday.  Disney lied!!  It was only supposed to be the tip of the nose that was missing.
The Sphinx at the Pyramids of Giza

That’s more than the tip of the nose gone!

  • The front of the Sphinx is cordoned off with seats for the nightly light and sound show.  It felt Disneyesque to me. See point 2 about missing some undefinable air of majesty or mystery.
  • Taking up valuable space, there is a mini-market leading up to the Sphinx.  The stalls are selling the usual made in China tourist tat. More visual clutter.
  • The Sphinx faces pretty much straight onto American fast food restaurants and souvenir stores.
The Sphinx

Image: Mitch Altman

I can summarise my disappointment down to one key fact. I don’t believe this monument is getting the space it needs to appreciate it.

So, there you have it.  I expect the Sphinx were he alive would be sorely disappointed by the position he finds himself in today.  Never mind, what pharaoh Khafra whose face is supposed to be on the Sphinx would have thought.  I’d be mightily annoyed that having built a monument to myself proclaiming my power for all eternity, my view was not of awe-struck plebs but a fast food restaurant.


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Tips For a Family Visit To The Giza Pyramids

Tips For a Family Visit To The Giza Pyramids

Think you know about the Egyptian pyramids? Think again.  My children who had studied ancient Egypt in school were desperate to visit the pyramids.  Having spoken to enough people to gauge safety issues, I decided a day trip to visit the pyramids at Giza would work.

Here are some cool facts that you can trot out to impress your kids (or tour guide).  We had a private guide to take us to the pyramids in Giza as well as around Cairo.

Our tour guide only knew the history he had memorised so it was helpful that we had learned some stuff ourselves beforehand.  The tourist industry in Egypt has taken a hit with recent events and I expect there are a lot of guides out there of varying quality. Of course, you can visit the pyramids on a self-guided tour.

Egyptian Pyramids Generally

Each pyramid took decades to build. Pharoahs would start building their pyramid and other funeral preparations as soon as they ascended the throne.

A pharaoh’s priests told them where it was auspicious to build the pyramid. There are about 140 pyramids scattered throughout Egypt.  From the pyramids at Giza, on a clear day you can see some of the older pyramids in the distance.

top tips for visiting pyramids.

In the distance you can see the steppe pyramids from an era even older than the Giza pyramids.

Egyptian pyramids were built on the West bank of the Nile.  Generally, the East bank of the Nile was for maintaining life and the West bank was for death.


The Pyramids of Giza

The Pyramids of Giza, built about 4500 years ago, were a wonder in the ancient world and are a phenomenon still today.  In fact, the Great Pyramid is the only wonder of the ancient world that is still in existence today.

The pyramids of Giza were built with granite on the inside carted from miles away near Luxor. They were covered in polished limestone.   Shining in the bright Egyptian sun, they could be seen as far away as Israel!

The pyramids in Giza held up so well through they years because of the mortar used to hold the blocks together.  To this day, however, no one knows what this mortar contains.

Tips for visiting the Giza pyramids

You can climb up the pyramids on the outside to a certain extent. Each ‘brick’ is gigantic in size.

A large portion of the limestone covering of the Giza pyramids was ‘recycled’ by Saladdin to create his citadel in Cairo.  In the photo below, you can see some of the smoother remaining limestone.

pyramid of Khafre

The pyramids at Giza are precisely aligned with the constellation of Orion.  This placement was deliberate because Orion was associated with Osiris, the Ancient Egyptian god of the dead.

The Great Pyramid of Giza (the pyramid of Khufu) was the tallest structure in the world for nearly 4000 years. Created with approximately 2.3 million blocks,  some of these blocks weigh as much as 50 tons.  In total, this pyramid weighs 5.9 million tons.

blocks from the pyramids of Giza

The second of the Giza pyramids, that of Khufu’s son, Khafre, was built on higher ground so that it looked from a distance to be as impressive as the pyramid of Khufu. Khafre didn’t have the money to build a larger pyramid and so used this illusion.  Clever!

The tunnel inside the pyramid was only large enough to carry the sarcophagus inside.  Everything else the pharaoh needed for his afterlife such as beds and chariots were assembled inside the pyramid.

Our guide was careful to point out that slaves were NOT used in the building of the pyramids.  Basically, a pharaoh would start on his pyramid as soon as he ascended the throne.  If you consider that they thought of the afterlife as a continuation of their current life, it’s not as macabre as it seems.  During the non-farming seasons (because cultivation along the Nile could only follow the Nile flooding patterns), the farmers were paid to work on the Pharaoh’s pyramid during their downtime.  They were paid in food and goods to tide their families over until the next harvest season.

Visiting the Pyramids

Here are my top tips for a family visit to the Giza pyramids.

Having read about Gary Arndt’s visit to the pyramids, I was prepared for the hassle.  We had a better experience than Gary because of our guide.  Of course, even the guide tried to get extra money out of us but I feel we came out better than if we had been on our own.  I don’t have the patience for large tours and so that was not even an option.

In Egypt, everyone is trying to get money from you.  Everything, even a visit to the bathroom, requires a tip to the attendant.  We did the obligatory camel ride (negotiated, and I use the term loosely) between the guide and his trusted camel ride provider.

Tips for a Family Visit to the Giza Pyramids

The camel guy was a pro at taking tourist photographs. Can you believe the pyramids were swarming with tourists but there aren’t any in the photos?  I was seriously impressed.

family photo in front of pyramids

Here, we look like we are in the middle of the desert.  Nope.  The pyramids are surrounding by residential buildings, hotels, and tourist stores on several sides.

The guide did keep most of the souvenir touts away from us much to their fury.  I am thankful because I find it difficult to manage the children with people sticking merchandise in front of their faces.  After our experience in the souks of Marrakech, my children knew better than to take anything from anyone even if it was thrust into their hands.

Our guide also recommended going into Khafre’s pyramid instead of Khufu’s.  I would definitely suggest that as well.  The tunnel in Khafre’s pyramid is about a 1/3 shorter to navigate which is a blessing when you are hunched over going up and down steps.

tunnel in Khafre pyramid

My daughter (who is a little over 4 feet) was the only one of us who did not have to bend down to walk.  By the way, there is only one tunnel to go in and out.  So that narrow passage has to accommodate two lanes of traffic.

I spoke to people from our hotel who chose not to go inside the pyramids.  They did not miss much because there is very little to see inside.  You go inside the pyramid just to say you have been inside a pyramid.

The Sphinx statue is located a bit further away from the pyramids at Giza but in its general vicinity.  The temple area near the Sphinx is where the pharaoh’s body was prepared for embalmment and  burial by his priests.  Most people drive down to the Sphinx area as opposed to walking in the oppressive heat followed by souvenir vendors.

Top tips for a visit to Giza pyramids

Some top tips for a visit to the Giza Pyramids.

Overall, our family visit to the pyramids of Giza was an amazing experience and I would highly recommend it.  You really get no sense of the scale of the structures until you are up close and personal beside it.