ZAMBIA AND ZIMBABWE
If you ever want to experience the ‘real’ Africa, there is no place like Zambia. If you have dreamed about wilderness areas so remote, that you do not see people for days, with only wildlife for company, Zambia takes all the accolades. The country boasts some of Africa’s finest and most remote national parks. Shared with Zimbabwe, you will find some of the region’s major highlights: Victoria Falls in southwestern Zambia and Lake Kariba as well as Lower Zambezi National Park in southeastern Zambia. It is also an angler’s dream destination. Fishermen, who hail from all over the world, try their luck on the mighty Zambezi River, in the hope of landing a toothy tiger fish or the rare, giant vundu. Avid birders also flock to Zambia, to catch a glimpse of its fabulous diversity of birds. That was one of the major reasons we wanted to travel through the country. Zambia can be extremely wild in some places and is definitely not for the faint of heart. If you can’t handle mosquitoes, flies, blistering heat and a bush toilet, then don’t bother. All of those are a small price to pay though when it comes to experiencing this absolute wild wonder. That is why not many people travel to these remote wilderness areas. Too much of a mission. We hope that it stays like that forever, for selfish reasons of course.
After our expensive little exercise getting out of Malawi, we were finally in Zambia. We were pleasantly surprised by the energy of the Zambian people. It was Saturday and everyone was wearing their Zambian national football jerseys. Zambia was playing Uganda that afternoon in an Africa Cup of Nations qualifier. It reminded us of home, when the Springboks play a rugby match and everyone is covered in green and gold. Passionate people indeed. Best of all, unlike the other countries we travelled through, no one bothered us. No hustling or begging whatsoever. A rather pleasant experience after being hassled persistently by beggars and vendors during most of our trip. People in Zambia seemed more preoccupied with their own business than wanting to get money out of every tourist who entered their country.
We spent our first two nights at Mama Rula’s campsite just outside Chipata. Hands down one of the best camping sites we had experienced on our trip. It had a big lawn covered by the shade of a little mahogany forest. Perfect for camping out in the blistering heat. We met an elderly lady who lived on the premises with her husband. They were expat South Africans living permanently in Zambia. When she discovered that we were keen birders she immediately asked if we had ever seen the Red-throated Twin-spot Unanimously we answered no, since you don’t find them in South Africa. It took us three years to successfully tick the Green Twin-spot in Magoebaskloof. She told us they were often found in her fruit and vegetable garden and she gladly gave us permission to go and find them in her garden the next morning. Yes! Another rare bird to be spotted. We were up the next morning at five am and stalked into the kind lady’s fruit and vegetable garden. It was larger than the average garden – almost a hectare. After about five minutes of searching, we found our Twin-spots! There were at least twenty of them hopping around the garden.
We spent two mornings in a row in her fruit and veg garden, sighting three more bird species, so rare, that I do not think we will ever see them again. The rest of the time we just lay under the big mahogany trees, staring into space, relaxing and cooking meals fit for a king.
South Luangwa was next on our list. This natural wonder in eastern Zambia, is the southernmost of three national parks in the valley of the Luangwa River, and a world renowned wildlife haven. The park supports large populations of Thornicroft’s giraffe, herds of elephant and buffalo (often several hundred strong), while the Luangwa River teems with crocodiles and hippos. It is considered one of the best African parks for walking safaris and is famous for its leopards, often spotted hunting during night-time game drives.
We had a 160 kilometre drive from Mama Rula to the park and had been told by previous travellers and friends that this stretch was going to be an absolute thriller, since a new road was still under construction. So we set aside the whole of the following day to do the 160 km drive. It turned out to be a thriller, indeed. Our route was a gravel road running next to the new, almost completed tar road. Anything off the few tar roads in Zambia can be quite a challenge. Having all the time in the world came in very handy. I can’t imagine travelling that road if you were in a hurry. It would only mean serious trouble. You would definitely leave a shock absorber or a blade spring behind while bumping your way ahead. If you were not careful, you might also end up with a hole in your oil sump, smashed by one of the many huge rocks scattered all over the road. We did the hundred and sixty kilometers in just over four hours. Slowly but surely we made it to South Luangwa National Park. Our hair felt like straw, my white shirt was stained dark brown and we smelt like world champions. All worth it.
We checked in at Wildlife Camp just outside the park. What a stunning venue right on the banks of the Luangwa river! Sunsets to die for and game coming out of the bush onto the open sandbanks of the river to drink. It was truly a sight you could sit and stare at for days on end. We stayed there for two nights. Lions roared in the dark, while hippos grunted right below our tent, keeping us entertained throughout each night. During our time there we entered the park to do some self drive exploring. We were totally blown away by the immense biodiversity of the place. Trees and other vegetation we had never seen before, rare bird species in great numbers and rare antelope species, like the puku, all added to the experience. Big game like elephant, buffalo and lion were present in strong numbers. South Luangwa is truly one of Africa’s wild gems. We can only hope that it will stay like that forever. After having had enough of people camping around us, I got a brainwave on the third day and we decided to move on from Wildlife Camp. We were going to take a different route from the one that we came with. I had read about a little ‘route’ you could follow (only in the dry season) through the Luangwa Valley wilderness area, down to the Great East road near Petauke. After a few funny looks and some semi-clear directions from other travellers, we eventually found the little road. I had no clue exactly how long the road was, how long it would take us or if it did still exist. With all the time in the world of course, we were going to find out. Well, what an adventure that turned out to be.
The road took us through the wildest, most remote bush we had ever come across in all our years of bushwhacking. The whole journey took us three and a half days and we only saw four vehicles during that time. One was a truck that drove past us twice in one day. So actually that makes only three vehicles. There were no lodges, houses or anything that resembled civilisation. Parts of the track we followed were covered in piles of dead leaves and we could clearly see that there had not been a vehicle through there for weeks. We spent two nights sleeping on top of the canopy of BushNav. Under the stars, right on the banks of the Luangwa river. Not a soul in sight. Just wild animals to deal with. Keeping in mind that we were outside the boundaries of the park, we saw and heard more lion than when we were inside the park! One morning we woke up, and literally twenty meters from us were three bull elephants making their way down the embankment towards the river. Later that same day, a herd of seventy buffalo came to drink right in front of us. Only the two of us, BushNav and the African bush. Completely isolated from the rest of the world. Definitely a special feeling that would be extremely hard to find anywhere else in the world. After the third day, we eventually exited the bush and arrived in Petauke on the Great East road. We did not shower during the whole trip, so we were looking and smelling very romantic. Petauke is just a one horse town where you pick up some basic necessities and move on. That is what we did and by early evening we left the town and found a quiet little place next to the road to spend the night. Onto the roof of BushNav again and another night under the stars.
After an early rise at four am, we started making our way towards the lower Zambezi valley. From day one we had been warned not to trust road maps of Zambia. Contrary to the warnings, we decided to take a ‘short cut’ that would shave a hundred and fifty kilometers off the journey to the lower Zambezi valley. On the map it was indicated as a secondary road in good condition. We quickly realised that less kilometers do not necessarily mean less travelling time. Our little ‘short cut’ of only thirty kilometers turned out to be a whole six hour drive! It was one of those roads which started off as a wide gravel road. As we travelled along the road, it became smaller and narrower. Then all of a sudden it turned into a hair raising mountain pass. It looked like it was last used by ox wagons in the 19th century. We literally had to build half our road by laying and moving big rocks around. There was no turning back and finding help in that remote mountain pass was going to be a lengthy process. We had to push forward and we were tested in all aspects of off road driving, but were rewarded with beautiful scenery and vegetation like we had never seen before. We realised then why most parts of Zambia are impassable during the wet season. We stopped at one point so that Bouter could pick some of the beautifully coloured leaves that we kept seeing along the way. The dark, dusky pink leaves turned out to be Miombo woodland, and the leaves turned that colour just before the rains. After some more hair-raising axle twisters, the road became more even again. We were grinning from ear to ear. We made it! What an adrenaline rush! That little ‘shortcut’ turned out to be a major highlight of our trip!
We spent the night on an unmarked road, which we thought would lead to Mvuu Lodge, in the Lower Zambezi National Park. Once again, Zambia’s map deceived us. Not wanting to drive in the dark again, we decided to stop driving and make camp. That was a wise decision indeed. When a local came by on a bicycle, he told us that the road we were on lead to Leopard Hill, a current archaeological restoration project, and it still went on for miles. We had missed the turn off to Lower Zambezi National Park…
Up early the next morning, and in desperate need of a shower, we clocked in at Mvuu Lodge. We thought it quite apt to stay at a camp with the same name twice during our trip. It lived up to the reputation of our first stay at Mvuu Camp in Malawi. Mvuu Lodge is situated on the banks of the mighty Zambezi River, directly opposite Mana Pools National Park in Zimbabwe. The name means ‘Place of the Hippo’. By our camping standards, it was our most luxurious camping spot by far. We were assigned a camping spot with the name of ‘Monkey’ and with it came our very own private en-suite ‘bush bathroom’. The baboons and monkeys around the camp were opportunistic thieves and we had to be vigilant and alert in order to protect our food. One baboon ran off into the bush with a spare boat engine, thinking it was food, and we saw a whole family of monkeys plundering a weekend’s snacks and sweets. They did provide endless entertainment though, and we even caught a baboon having a bath in the wash-up basin. We will definitely be back!
Our next stop, one we were extremely excited about, was Lochinvar National Park. Why? Although not abundant with larger mammals, the park is classified as an Important Bird Area (IBA) and is a park of exceptional beauty. It is also a park that does not attract that many visitors, and was therefore all the more attractive to us. Lochinvar presents outstanding birding opportunities, with over 420 recorded species within its 428 square kilometres. Situated on the southern edge of the Kafue Flats, a wide floodplain of the Kafue River between Itezhi-tezhi dam in the west and Kafue Gorge in the east, the area extends for 33km from the Kafue River in the north to low wooded hills in the south. It includes the large, shallow Chunga Lagoon which fluctuates considerably in size with variations in river levels. It is particularly well known for the large herds of Kafue lechwe, unique to the Kafue flats. Other antelope found there are blue wildebeest, kudu, oribi and buffalo. Waterbirds are especially abundant, and we eagerly took the road.
For the 2nd time on our African adventure, we broke our rule of not driving in the dark. Again, to our disadvantage. The gravel road only had one poorly marked sign indicating ‘Lochinvar National Park’, and when the road split again there were no further signs. Already quite late (9 pm) and with pedestrian traffic thinning considerably, we were forced to stop and ask for directions. Luck and good fortune were smiling upon us! The pair of locals we stopped to ask for directions were game wardens in Lochinvar National Park! They were on their way back to the park and were supposed to start the 5 am shift the next morning. In turn they were just as relieved to find out we were heading in the same direction, as the park was still another 15km away and we could save them the walk.
As Bushnav was jam-packed we offered them a lift on the roof. They were happy to oblige and we travelled at a slow pace of 15km per hour on the bumpy gravel road, with the two guys on top of our roof. A rather amusing sight. On arrival at the park, the one ranger said we could sleep inside the park, in front of the Game Warden’s office, and then the next morning drive back to the gate to pay for entrance and camping. That suited us perfectly. We also had the opportunity to be Good Samaritans, as we lent our jack and flash-light to some of the other park staff who had a flat tyre, and just couldn’t manage to change it in the dark. They were very grateful to be able to get it done and haul their tired bodies to bed. Once again, we whipped out our mattress and slept comfortably on Bushnav’s roof.
We were up at the crack of dawn, and drove the 2km back to the park gate. We had to wait for the park attendant to get there, as she cycled to work. She looked like an exact replica of Tina Turner. Just in camouflage uniform. We were also delighted to be the only people in the entire park during our two day stay. Studying the map, we noted that there were two natural hot springs and a couple of wilderness trails, but the main attraction was the floodplains at the furtherest point of the park. The park has no formal camp site or any ablutions, so roughing it was the name of the game. Arriving at the floodplains, we were astounded by the mass of water, and the myriad of birds inhabiting it. We drove as far as we could, and then walked further on foot. There were so many birds to see! We were in bird heaven. Only after our excitement levels calmed down did we manage to agree on a good camping spot. We quickly set up a simple camp and then continued exploring.
A major highlight was the huge concentration of breeding pelicans. Every time they took to the sky, they created flowing, waving ribbons above us. Together with the myriad species of water birds, some bushveld birds, as well as a unique sighting of the Kafue lechwe, it turned out to be one of the favourite parts of our trip.
We spent a delightful day exploring the park. The next morning, on our way out, we stopped at the natural hot springs. The Gwisho Hot Springs occur along a geological fault and is surrounded by lush vegetation and vegetable ivory palms. The water (containing high concentrations of sodium, chlorine, calcium and sulphates) rises by convection from depths of over one kilometer with temperatures ranging from 60° to 90° C.
We were sad to leave after such a short time. It was time to restock and refuel, so we turned Bushnav’s nose in the direction of Livingstone. Driving into Livingstone was like re-entering civilization. It was welcoming and disturbing at the same time. We definitely needed to stock up, but we had been spoiled with privacy and isolation, and really felt connected with nature. Driving into town made it all seem to disappear way too quickly. We found a very special camping place called Baobab Campsite, owned by Jakes, a South African who has been living in Zambia for the past 10 years. He really made us feel at home, so much so that we stayed for 2 nights. With the en-suite bathroom and private kitchen, it was the perfect spot to get some much needed laundry, re-organizing and general clean-up done. He even gave us a case of beer when we left!
It was time for us to cross the border from Zambia into Zimbabwe. Another border crossing and the heart palpitations started all over again. When we got to the Livingstone/Victoria Falls border, we experienced our first trouble free border crossing. Smooth and flawless, without any worries we drove into Zimbabwe. We were heading towards one of our favourite parks in Africa, Hwange National Park. We had been there a year before and were looking forward to our second visit.
Our plan was to enter the park through the northern and most remote gate. Getting there took another three hours through the bush and hunting concessions. It was just after six pm and the gates were already closed. As we did so many other times, we pulled BushNav under a tree and spent the night on the roof under the stars. At six am the next morning we were at the entrance gate of the park. We were heading for Robins Camp where we would spend one night, then onto Sinamantella Camp for two nights and then Main Camp for our last two nights.
Named after a local Nhanzwa chief, Hwange National Park is the largest park in Zimbabwe, occupying roughly 14 650 square kilometres. It is located in the north-west corner of the country, about one hour south of the mighty Victoria Falls.
It became the royal hunting grounds to the Ndebele warrior-king, Mzilikazi, in the early 19th century and was set aside as a National Park in 1929. Hwange boasts a tremendous selection of wildlife, with over 100 species of mammals and nearly 400 bird species recorded. The elephants of Hwange are world famous and the Park’s elephant population is one of the largest in the world.
Arriving at Robin’s Camp, it warmed our hearts to notice that they were busy upgrading the facilities’ roofs with new thatch. The ablutions were squeaky clean, albeit in need of a fresh coat of paint. Definitely a few notches up compared to when we were there previously. We took a quick afternoon drive, and went to the lookout point not too far from camp. We stumbled across a stone tablet dated 18-6-71 with the following bold message: “SILENCE! Around you lies the reference on which to assess human progress or deterioration! Urban material quantity dims the qualities of life. Pledge yourself now to active conservation of an environment which will maintain the quality of living”. The message definitely silenced us and gave us a lot of food for thought. Not only did those words tie in to our bold move from the city and our Designing Life trip, but it also held deep personal meaning for us. On the way back to camp we spotted a herd of 150 buffalo, a perfect end to the day.
The next morning we were up at 5 am and ready to track some lion, as we heard them roaring all night, very close to camp. We decided to take the same route as the previous afternoon. In less than 20 minutes, right after we crossed a low bridge, we spotted him. A mature male lion in his prime, patrolling his territory. The early rays of the sun highlighting his magnificent mane. Again, we were grinning from ear to ear. After breakfast we made our way to Sinamatella Camp, planning to stop en route at one of our favourite picnic spots, Dateema Dam, where we had over-nighted on our previous trip. As we took the turn-off we spotted a herd of 11 roan antelope. Spotting roan in the wild has always been a special sight for us.
As we entered the enclosure at Dateema Dam, it was again evident that some refurbishment had been taking place. On our previous visit, during the wet season, the dam was full. Now a completely different scene met our eyes. The dam was almost dry, except for a nearly dried up mud pool. An elephant carcass was lying in the middle of the dam and two lions were busy feeding on it. We could hardly contain ourselves. Whilst snapping away with our cameras, it took us about ten minutes to notice the rest of the pride of lions, lying to the left of the hide, watching us intensely. In all our excitement we didn’t even notice them! Some more snapping of our cameras ensued. As we were the only people in the hide we decided to spend a couple of hours there.
It was interesting to watch the lions’ reactions when other animals came to drink water. They had the perfect vantage point, being hidden from sight, but still being able to peer over the ledge to see who was thirsty. The lions’ bellies were bulging and hung close to the ground when they walked, stuffed from the elephant they had been feeding on. You could see how lazy they were, when with great effort, they took turns to chase off the vultures and maraboes. We watched with great interest when the skinniest little warthog we had ever seen, came to drink some water. That is the advantage of being in Hwange during the dry season. Being completely landlocked, with no natural rivers or dams, most of the water is derived from pumps, sponsored by private investors, thus resulting in most animals congregating around the little bit of water that is left. The little warthog quenched his thirst and then wallowed in the mud, happy as the proverbial pig in shit. Completely unaware of the pride of lions a few meters away. One lioness got up to chase the vultures off the elephant carcass, and then lazily walked back. Both the lion and the warthog were unaware of each other until they were literally on top of one another. The poor warthog got the fright of his life and jumped up in defensive mode. The lioness, obviously not in the mood, having had a whole elephant for breakfast, tried circling around the warthog. The warthog must have still been in shock, as he put his head down and stormed the lion! The lioness snarled, and the warthog stormed again, with such force that he landed with his nose in the dust! That was enough to get the other lions going, and one of the young males, that was looking on with interest, came trotting down the dam wall. One swat from his paw, and a bite from the lioness, and poor Pumba was no more. We are convinced that if he weren’t so arrogant, the lions would’ve left him alone. We managed to get our ‘kill’ on video, and what a highlight of Hwange it was!
We spent that night at Sinamatella Camp, where we met Godfrey, and our idea of a game ranger academy was formed. We have since posted him a game ranger book and still remain in contact with him.
As we made our way to Main Camp, we came across 13 more elephant carcasses. We had never seen anything like it. At Main Camp we spoke to some of the local rangers and were told that Hwange has a big elephant problem. The capacity of the park is forty thousand, and currently it is holding seventy thousand elephants. Our time at Main Camp was spent observing nature from the Nyamandlovu Platform, resulting in hours of pleasurable viewing. It was with a heavy feeling in our hearts that we said farewell to Hwange.
We had come to the end of our trip through Southern Africa. We made our way to the Beitbridge border crossing, where we re-entered South Africa, and then drove to the Pafuri gate of the Kruger National Park. A week in the Kruger Park was the perfect end to our journey. Nine thousand kilometres in 77 days.
To end off our story: despite all the rough and tumble that was part of the trip, it was worth it. Every second of it. It was a life changing experience and we are better people for it. We have a new outlook on life and look forward to taking on the next trip. If you ever feel you need to spark things up in your life, why not pack a tent, pack your car and head off into the wilds. I guarantee you will come back with a story to tell…