A Travellerspoint blog


13. South Luangwa National Park

Lions and leopards on the Luangwa River

We turn off the Livingstone-Lusaka-Lilongwe highway at Chipata to go west to South Luangwa National Park, entering near the village of Mfuwe. Though it is probably the leading park in Zambia, I have not heard of it before our trip. Serengeti, Etosha and Chobe are familiar names, but South Luangwa is not. It proves to a real highlight, the best national park thus far. It has the advantage of a high concentration of wild animals and birds around the Luangwa River, among the most intense in Africa, as well as more limited visitor numbers. When we arrive in mid-April the dry season has just begun, with winter approaching, and the wet season that finished in March has left the jungle lush and green.

We stay two nights at Croc Valley Camp, right on the Luangwa River, full of hippos, their throaty hrumps making us aware of their presence. I am glad there is a high river bank between our tent and the water, though further along they can come up out of the river at night and graze in the camp. I avoid going to the toilet in the darkness, hanging on until the light of dawn.

Our programme includes two game drives with Moses, our driver, in an unroofed open cart. We are joined by an American couple and their two young children and three South Africans. Moses tells us the rules allow him to travel 20 metres off the formed tracks, but he seems to drive anywhere and everywhere, keen to delight his passengers and hunt out the nearby wildlife. The first game drive begins at 6.00am and I am squeezy again, but fortunately it passes quickly.

We see lots of antelope – kudu, waterbuck, puku, impala, as well as warthogs, crocodiles, hippos, baboons and zebra. The latter are interesting in that they are a distinctive sub-species of the locality, known as Crawshay's zebra, and have narrower strips, very definitely black and white. We don’t see any of the Thornicroft's giraffe, which are supposed to be numerous in the area. The highlight of the morning drive is a pride of lions, about 20 females and 3 males and a number of cubs hidden in the bushes. Eddie says there are about 600 lions in South Luangwa, though Moses believes the number to be as many as 1000.

Moses gets wind of the pride and he is off, over the bumpy long grass and through the overhanging bushes. Other game drivers have similar ideas and there is a traffic jam of three or four safari vehicles all converging on the one spot. Moses is forced to reverse and backtrack. Suddenly we are upon the pride with several females sprawled at ease in front of us, surrounded by a circle of vehicles. The previous evening they have made several killings, the bare bones of one carcass evidence of an appreciated feast. Vultures hang around the skeleton, pecking on the remains. Moses shifts the vehicle to the other side of the clump of trees and we see the body of a water buffalo beside the stream and several lions still feeding. It’s wonderful to witness wildlife in action.

The South Luangwa area is rich in bird life and Moses points out a number of interesting fowl, just a few of the 400 species there. There’s a lilac breasted roller, saddle billed storks, a brown breasted snake eagle and some red billed hornbill – just some of the names I wrote down as we went. Martin, wielding a camera with a magnificent zoom lens, is in his element and snaps away with gusto.

We return to the camp for brunch and relaxation. Martin chats to our neighbours, Margreth and Werner who are true independent and intrepid adventurers, driving through Africa on their own in their vehicle which they had sent from their home country of Switzerland. We are to meet them again later at the Malawi border.

South Luangwa is one of the few national parks that allow night safaris and we are privileged to participate in one with some special highlights. We see several groups of elephants – though I understand poaching has placed the elephant population under serious pressure. A group of three elephants cross the boggy land below the road, mother in the lead and two younger ones of different ages following behind. When they level with our vehicle the mother and the older young one turn around to the smallest elephant as if to encourage it and they allow it to go in the middle. The second group we meet includes several young elephants and as they move close to the vehicles, the adults draw the babies in under their wide legs, sheltering them from possible danger. It is delightful to see - I wish that all human adults would protect their babies with the same care and attention as the elephants.

The climax of the evening is provided by a group of leopards. We drive into an open clearing, and before our amazed eyes, a wildlife drama unfolds. A leopard is chasing an impala across the rough short grass. My heart thumps and wills the impala to escape. Though the leopard is very fast during short bursts of energy, the impala has greater speed over a longer period and he out runs her. The leopard gives up the chase and slinks off to the centre of the clearing where she sits down, apparently unfazed by the audience in the watching vehicles. I hardly dare to breathe; she is so close to us, sitting there with her handsome spotted coat.

I expect the impala to disappear, grateful for his reprieve. But no, he is about to teach the leopard a lesson. As the leopard rises and wanders over in the direction of the impala, it dashes towards the cat, emitting a spitting sound loud enough for us all to hear. Several times the impala retreats, before again chasing the leopard and repeating the spitting noise. I am astonished at the courage and tenacity of the impala. Perhaps he is protecting a nearby herd. At last, the leopard moves away, conceding victory to the impala. She eyes some guinea fowls as she goes, but they move quickly beyond her range.

We move to the river bank for a snack break and watch the pink sky of the sunset reflected in the Luangwa River. The spot lights go on as darkness falls and Moses finds a group of leopards in a tree – one adult up the tree, two cubs a little lower down and another two adults on the ground. We peer through the night and pick out the animals caught in the spot light. One of the leopards on the ground has killed a baboon, and is eating it; we assume it is the same one which had the confrontation with the impala an hour earlier. Moses circles the tree allowing us to get a better look at the leopard family. I drink in the experience and the wonder of it all.

The night game drive is not over. With the aid of the spot light, Moses finds other animals like bushbuck, genet, hyena, mongoose and hippo. He stops the game vehicle and we sit in the darkness of the forest, darkness so complete that there is not the tiniest hint of light. We listen to the sounds of the bush and stare at the stars, all the brighter for the absence of light. Moses indicates the points of the Southern Cross – alpha, beta, gamma, and delta - and shares some of his knowledge about the heavens. A wonderful ending to a great day.

The following day is Easter Sunday. Our Swiss neighbours come over to wish us Happy Easter with chocolates they have brought from home, and as we drive north to the border with Malawi, we see the Zambians walking along the road to church in large numbers, dressed in their Sunday best. Back to Chipata, we call in at the supermarket to stock up on supplies, and are greeted at the entrance with a large poster announcing the resurrection of Jesus. These people aren’t afraid to wear their Christianity on their sleeve.

Posted by rhinospin 21:44 Archived in Zambia Comments (0)

12. On the road through Zambia

Police checkpoints and the dangers of driving

I grew up knowing Zambia as Northern Rhodesia, named after the empire builder, Cecil Rhodes. Towards the end of the nineteenth century it became a British protectorate, but its days as a colony ended in October 1964 when it gained independence. Kenneth Kaunda became president, ruling until 1991 under a one-party government. KK is still around. As we drive through the capital, Lusaka, we see signs wishing him a happy 90th birthday, so he obviously still has favour. Four other presidents followed him, with increasing multi-party participation and economic development. However Zambia grapples with major problems of poverty, corruption, HIV and Aids, maternal and infant deaths, economic dependence on copper and high urban population densities.

We spend a week in Zambia, crossing the south in a north easterly direction from Livingstone to the border with Malawi near Lilongwe, detouring to South Luangwa National Park near Chipata. The first two days beyond Livingstone comprise many hours of long distance driving - 480kms from Livingstone to Lusaka and 590kms from Lusaka to Chipata. But I do not find it dull. The scenery is varied; rural subsistence farming with crops of maize, millet and sugar cane; pretty wooded grasslands with the mountains blue in the distance; excellent wide roads with well-kept surfaces near Livingstone, deteriorating to pot holes, uneven tar seal and road works further on; thin winding roads through the hills, with grass as high as the land rovers; narrow unstable looking bridges across swampy rivers, and other bridges considered so grand and strategic that they are guarded by police and no photography is permitted. On the second day, we pass fields of tall bright yellow sunflowers, ready for harvest.

But it is the people, the people, the people who create the main interest. The roads are highways of people. They carry on their lives and their businesses on the roads of Africa – walking, talking, buying and selling, going to school, cycling, crowded in minibuses, standing in the gravel trays of large trucks, or driving their herds of cattle or goats. A large bag of maize has fallen off a vehicle and lies spilt on the side of the road, free food for those who quickly collect it into containers of all shapes. We pass a small truck with its tray full of young women going to work, and every one has a baby on her back or in her arms. Other women walk, heavy objects on their heads, like buckets of water, bags of corn, cast iron saucepans with handles, firewood in bundles, and baskets of produce. Their little ones walk beside them, doing their share of bearing burdens, objects on their heads.

The towns are crowded with people especially if there is a market on. If I hadn’t been to Kampala, Uganda, in 2010 (to help build a house for Watoto) and experienced the shock of ‘wall to wall’ people in the streets of that city, I would have struggled when we reached Zambia. As it is, I take it in my stride and seek to capture the life of the road on my camera. Photos through a land rover front window screen, often dirty and smeared with dust, are a hit and miss affair. But every so often, one is reasonable, catching an aspect of African life that pleases me.

The signage is always worth reading: Aids is avoidable and preventable - abstain or practice safe sex; Ever Joy Restaurant; Faith Kills Fear Shopping Centre; Divine Blessing Boutique. A sign outside a quarry is written in Chinese as well as English. I assume Chinese finance and labour are involved, and wonder if it is connected to roading or copper mining. There are so many notices announcing schools and churches, or aid agencies –World Vision, Child Fund, US Aid. We begin to think through the issues of aid. There are so many organisations at work. Our guides make a few sardonic comments which we ponder. In a supermarket in Chipata, there is a large poster at the door portraying Jesus, in honour of the Easter celebrations.

‘Yes, they got that one right.’ I think to myself. ‘At home in the supermarkets it's all about marshmallow eggs and chocolate bunnies.’

We camp the night outside Lusaka, too late in the day to attempt entering the busy city traffic. An overlander truck comes in late about 8.30pm with its usual round of noise; they are up about 4.30am and away by 5.30am, making me so glad that I am travelling by land rover and not in an overlander. But this morning we are also up early. Eddie wants us through the city before the heavy traffic begins, so we are up at 5.15am and away by 6.30am. He and Jan give us plenty of instructions: forget your good manners, stick together and don’t get separated, lock all your doors including the back one, and if the light turns red ignore it and drive on. In fact, our dash through the city proves smooth and free from problems.

But some travellers are not so fortunate. Around a corner, the road is strewn with warning branches, and we find two smashed vehicles, a light truck and a van bus stationary near the centre line; as we slow down, we see the van is badly damaged on the front right, indicating that the driver may have been seriously injured or died. People are lying on the grass and there is a large pot hole in the road which perhaps contributed to the accident. I am silent in my own thoughts, as are all our team. Twenty minutes later we pass an ambulance presumably on its way to the accident. Later in the same day we overtake another accident.

Later I learn that over 1000 people every year in Zambia die on their roads and traffic accidents rank the third highest cause of death after HIV/AIDS and malaria. Is it dangerous to travel in Africa? Yes, but not so much because of political instability or crime, the things in people’s minds at home when they ask such questions. The roads can be hazardous and great care is needed.

Police check points are common now that we are in Zambia. We are having lunch on the side of the road near the town of Mazabuka, when several uniformed ladies arrive, set up their check point and begin to inspect drivers’ licenses. The first time we are stopped, I am not sure what documents to present.

‘Mamma has her passport out,’ the policeman says. ‘I don’t need that. Just Poppa’s driver’s license.’ As well as police check points, most villages have speed bumps in the tar seal at the entrance and exit. Not just ordinary ones such as you find in suburban New Zealand, designed to slow you down, but lethal judder bars, calculated to vibrate and shudder every loose item of your vehicle and in your body.

‘Watch the judder bars,’ calls out someone in the leading land rover, warning the others.

On the road up to the South Luangwa National Park, we stop at Tribal Textiles. It is Good Friday, a public holiday, and the factory is closed but we see enough to understand that all the brightly coloured textiles are handmade, including the clothe itself and the art work. The shop is open, displaying the beautiful finished products. It is Graham’s birthday and he buys Judy an attractive red leather hand bag. I buy a wall hanging with giraffe motifs to take home, and also a key ring at a stall in the factory grounds to give to Graham later. Alison from Tribal Textiles and a friend of Jan, joins us at the camping ground on the banks of the Luangwa River for a great dinner of steak, egg salad and tomato salsa, followed by fruit and birthday cake in Graham’s honour. We give him the key ring and Martin makes a speech. In reply Graham mentions that we have now travelled 5923 kilometres on our journey from Cape Town to Nairobi - just over half way.

Posted by rhinospin 02:54 Archived in Zambia Comments (0)

11. Crossing the Zambezi into Zambia

The Victoria Falls, David Livingstone and the Royal

To get three land rovers across the Zambezi River takes all morning. It’s part of the majority world travel experience. From Kasame we cross into our fourth African country, Zambia, and taste of the uncertainties of travel in Africa. The two border offices of Botswana and Zambia are reasonably well-organized, but between them is the Zambezi River which we must negotiate via vehicular ferry.

When we line up to board the waiting ferry, belonging to a Botswana company, we can’t all get on. There is room for only two land rovers, and it is decided that Jan will wait for the next ferry. Eddie buys Botswana tickets for the two vehicles, his four charges and himself, and a separate one for Jan and his land rover on the next ferry, belonging to a Zambian company. We set off on the 10 or 15 minute crossing to Zambia, assuming Jan will arrive shortly afterwards.

But, oh no. The Zambian ferry instead chugs downstream to take some machinery to another ferry under repair some distance away, leaving Jan on the Botswana shore. The only ferries now crossing the river belong to the Botswana ferry company and Jan has a ticket for the Zambian company. We wait and talk and watch life go by around the river. We wait, along with all the trucks whose drivers have also purchased Zambian tickets. We wait and we watch the Botswana ferry dock with empty spaces on it. We wait, trying to deflect the vendors of trinkets and goods, whose attentions we don’t want.

More than an hour goes by, and Eddie decides we have done enough waiting. He buys Jan a Botswana ticket, hoping to get re-imbursement for the Zambian ticket. Soon he discovers the Zambian ferry office has closed – after all, there are no Zambian ferry crossings at present for which to sell tickets – and he is unable to get a refund. Eddie is frustrated but resigned. Jan arrives on the next Botswana ferry, frustrated but pleased to join the team.

We all go off to be processed at the Zambian passport office, lining up in the hot sun on a narrow concrete platform outside an office big enough to hold the official, his desk and one passport customer. I note the new buildings under construction next door and assume improvements are on their way. The ‘all’ being processed includes the land rovers as well as the people. For each vehicle has to be checked for the correct Carnet de Passage en Douanes, an internationally recognised customs document allowing temporary duty-free vehicle importing into particular countries.
As we drive into Zambia, the lines of trucks continue. I had already counted 40 trucks waiting behind the Botswana border, and now I count 112 at the Zambian border. In addition there must have at least 30 around the river, waiting to cross or to be processed. Further down the road in Zambia another multitude of trucks wait around the weigh bridge. I cannot help admire the patience of African truckies but I wonder what all that waiting does to the economy of the countries involved. It can hardly be beneficial. At least the trucks are mostly in good order with well-treaded tyres. Eddie tells us that the Zambian government has tightened up recently on vehicle regulations.

Our destination is the well-known town of Livingstone and the celebrated Victoria Falls. They are known as Mosi-oa-Tunya, the Smoke that Thunders, by the indigenous people, a wonderfully apt description. It was David Livingstone, the Scottish missionary and explorer, who named them after his British queen in November 1855. He is believed to be the first European to set eyes on the mighty falls. Later at the Livingstone Museum, we learn a little more about his missionary and exploration exploits, including his momentous anti-slavery campaign.

If you want to get absolutely drenched and thoroughly saturated, despite wearing a raincoat, the Falls in April is the place to be. As we approach the mighty cataract, we can hear the overwhelming thundering roar of the plummeting Zambezi River as it descends into the First Gorge. It is the end of the rainy period, and thus the peak of the flood season. I have had visions of enjoying the spectacle of the full length of the Victoria Falls, as we did at Niagara last year. But we can get a good view only near the beginning of the walkway. Beyond that, thick spray covers the face of the Falls and the walkway, and it is impossible to see the foot of the Falls. We make our way through the shroud of mist and across the narrow Knife Edge Bridge, hanging onto the railings and peering down uncertainly into the hazy abyss below. We continue along the path as far as we can go, getting wetter and wetter and seeing very little for our efforts. Fortunately it is warm and we don’t take long to dry off.

We take the walkway towards the Victoria Falls Bridge and watch a number of baboons entertain the tourists in the scrub on the way. Because of the wet slippery conditions and the poor visibility in the gorge, we do not negotiate the path down to the Boiling Pot, but we are able to get some good views of the bridge when the mist parts. We also walk along the path above the Falls and view the pool near the lip of the descent where people swim in the dry season. No one is foolish enough to try it now, but even in the dry season I think it is a risky business.

Those wanting their adrenaline fix today line up on the Victoria Falls Bridge to make a bungee jump. We, concerned for life and limb, are quite content to watch. We walk out of the Falls area and down the road to the bridge where we chat to some of the prospective young jumpers, wound up in anticipation and excitement. A notice beyond the bungee jump area informs us that we are now entering Zimbabwe; if we want to go further than the end of the bridge we have to pay something like $50 US each for an entry visa. A photo of the famous Zimbabwean Victoria Falls Hotel across the gorge in the distance will suffice. We retreat to the Falls Café for lunch refreshments and an excellent view of the bungee jumping.

One of the vendors attaches himself at my elbow when we first approach the bridge and despite my best efforts, I am unable to shake him off.

‘Something for a dollar,’ is his opening gambit. I should ignore him then and there, but I am tempted to look. I find I don’t want any of his one dollar masks or carvings of a chief, but he now regards me as a prospect.

‘Where are you from?’ he asks, and when I respond, he says, ‘Kiwis. All Blacks. Auckland.’ He has obviously met others of my fellow countrymen. He is still waiting for me when I emerge from the café, satisfied and mellowed. Perhaps it is better to buy some of his products, giving him support, than donate to someone begging. He begins at 70 kwacha for one carved rhino but after some haggling, we agree on 30 kwacha. When I offer a 50 kwacha note, he says he has no change. I should have seen that one coming! I end up buying a rhino and a hippo for my 50 kwacha note.

On the return to our camping accommodation at The Grotto, we stop off at Zambia’s equivalent of the Victoria Falls Hotel, the Royal Livingstone Hotel, to enjoy a slice of the colonial high life. Giraffes and impalas set the scene as we drive in, grazing along the road way. Amid elegantly manicured gardens and beautifully mannered staff, we enjoy wild berry smoothies on the hotel veranda. Beyond the wide lawn and the classy swimming pool is a stylish wooden platform decked with lounge chairs and tables on the edge of the fast flowing Zambezi River. The low roar of the Falls in the distance does not diminish the genteel and peaceful atmosphere. We soak it up and write another postcard to three year Isaac at home. After all, we have heard that our last post card proudly did the rounds to kindy and every member of his wider family.

The following evening we dress up in what finery we have and return to the Royal Livingstone with Judy and Graham for pre-dinner drinks on the deck by the river. White and black stripped zebras, beautiful against the green lawn, wander around, controlled by a shanghai-wielding warden, who pings them on rump to keep them in place. We are told they can give a tourist a thumping whack with their heels, given the opportunity. We enjoy the atmosphere as we watch the glow of the sun disappear beyond the river.

‘Martin,’ I say, ‘if we ever come back to this part of the world, I want to stay a night here.’ He grins, knowing there is so much more of the world to see. We had hoped to have dinner at the Royal Livingstone, but there isn’t room and so we change to the neighbouring Zambezi Sun with its agreeable all-night band and African style decor. We have a most congenial setting near the pool and enjoy the buffet dinner that includes delicious bream and kudu steak.

The evening finishes with a very funny incident. On their way back to the Grotto, Graham and Judy stop at the Livingstone post office to post some cards. As Graham mounts the stairs to the post box, a gun-carrying policeman follows him.

‘What are you doing?’ the policeman asks.

‘I’ve just got a couple of letters to post,’ Graham says.

‘Oh no,’ says the policeman. ‘You can only post letters between 9.00am and 6.00pm. Look at the hours on that sign.’

Graham stares at the open slot in the wall with ‘International Mail’ over it. Then he looks at the gun and the rounds of ammunition, and he decides that discretion is the better part of valour. So he retreats with his letters, to be posted another day. We roar with laughter as he later relates the story.

Posted by rhinospin 02:32 Archived in Zambia Comments (0)

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