Zambia: South Luangwa National Park

5th April - 24th April 2002


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From Lusaka the Great East Road stretches about 570km to the border with Malawi. I had agreed with Graeme to hitch a ride with him to Chipata, the Zambian border town. From there I would travel by public transport to Mfuwe, a small village just south of the Luangwa River, which forms the boundary of the South Luangwa National Park. The trip was not going to be quiet that straight forward as Graeme was already giving a lift to Klaartje, a Dutch freelance journalist who was writing an article on refugees in Zambia. Graeme had obtained permission from the Ministry of the Interior and the Commissioner for Refugees in Lusaka to enter a refugee camp on route to Chipata as Klaartje's driver and photographer; the photography was purely his own personal assignment. As I didn't have the necessary permits I could not enter the Ukumi refugee camp about 70km north of the small town of Petauke, so we agreed that I would spend the night in Petauke. The journey to Chipata would take two days, which worked well with me, as I was not travelling to any tight time schedules.

Graeme was driving a very well kitted out white Toyota Hilux 4×4 with a 2.7 litre petrol engine under the bonnet. It was a South African registered pickup truck with an extra passenger cab so that it could seat up to five people. The bed of the truck had a set of storage lockers bolted to it leaving space underneath for a fridge, water, gas and other supplies. On the roof was a roof tent, a couple of spare tyres and a fuel can. Graeme had bought the truck in South Africa on a buyback basis and either hired or bought all the equipment he needed for his four-month tour around Southern Africa. His trip had so far taken him around South Africa, up into Namibia, across Botswana and into Zambia. The rest of his journey would take him through Malawi to Mozambique, Swaziland and back to South Africa where he would sell back the vehicle to the company he bought it from at an already agreed price.

The three of us left Lusaka on Saturday morning and drove the 400km to Petauke. It was great to be travelling in a private car rather than on the local bus; there was no waiting around for hours or needless stopping along the way. This whole concept of travelling seemed very novel to me after spending nearly three months on local African transport. We cruised east out of Lusaka along a good tarred road. It didn't take long at all to get out of the city and back in to the bush again. About halfway we passed over the Luangwa River on an impressive suspension bridge, from where the road began to deteriorate and by the time we neared Petauke it was slow going, dodging the worst of the potholes. By late afternoon we arrived in Petauke, a few kilometres north of the Great East Road and Graeme dropped me at Brother Willy's Motel.

Graeme and Klaartje continued 70km north of the town to reach the Ukumi refugee camp where Klaartje was going to conduct some interviews and Graeme take some photos. The camp was fairly isolated as it was mainly a temporary home for Angolan refugees from the civil war; a lot of them were UNITA rebels. In the past few weeks a peace treaty had been signed between the government forces and the UNITA rebels in Angola. The recent killing of the UNITA leader, Jonas Savimbi had brought about this seemingly sudden end to this decades old civil war. It still may be a while before these refugees go home, as the majority of them are still scared at what might await them when they return to Angola.

Petauke is the kind of town that no tourists ever visit; there is no point, there is nothing to do or see here. To me that was good enough reason to spend twenty-four hours here, just to meet the local people and to find out what life is like in a small south Zambian town. The staff at Brother Willy's were extremely friendly. I think I was the first tourist to stay here for months. In the visitor's book, under reason for visit, everyone had written either work or business; the majority of these people were working for World Vision. I soon met the gardener and general handy man, Joseph who also had the responsibility of collecting the empty bottles that people throw away in the garden rather than returning them to the bar. He told me that life in Petauke is hard, it's a struggle, there is not much work and no-one has much money. The term Zambians like to use most to describe life is, suffer; in Petauke, like many other towns I had visited, Joseph told me that the people suffer. I also met someone else while visiting the shops, who had come to Petauke to buy precious stones. It appeared that mining was the main local industry but on a very small scale. There were a couple of businessmen staying at Willy's who had been investigating an old disused gold mine near the town. The mine had been started during the colonial times but abandoned in the 1960's after independence; whether there is any gold left in the mine remains to be seen.

It was Saturday evening and a local band set up at the bar at Willy's. The music was good but the instruments had seen better days and the speakers distorted badly. Not many people came to listen, maybe no more than a dozen. Later that evening, after dinner Joseph took me to the liveliest bar in town, at a motel about halfway back to the main road. A band was supposed to be playing there tonight but they never turned up. Instead we drank a few beers and tried to talk with some of the other locals while being deafened by a multi-decibel stereo system behind the bar. By about 23.00 we walked back the couple of kilometres to Willy's under a clear sky sparkling with thousands of stars.

Graeme and Klaartje said they would pick me up at 16.00 on Sunday; they arrived back early at 15.00 and we soon set off for the short 160km journey to Chipata. We arrived late in the afternoon and camped at the Zambian Wildlife Conservation Society campground just a couple of blocks north of the main road. We didn't stay long in Chipata, early the following morning Graeme dropped me off at the bus station where I waited for a minibus to leave for Mfuwe. From what I saw of Chipata it looked like a busy, bustling town. There was a huge market that we passed through to get to the bus station and even at 08.00 in the morning the market was packed. Graeme and Klaartje continued to the border with Malawi and drove on to Lilongwe. We agreed to meet at the Kiboko Camp in Lilongwe again either on Wednesday or Thursday, depending on what luck I had with the local transport.

I waited for nearly six hours for the minibus to fill with passengers, when the first bus of the day from Lusaka arrived. On board were seven other travellers, five from Slovenia and a couple from the Netherlands. That was enough to fill the minibus to bursting point and within twenty minutes or so I was at last on my way to Mfuwe and South Luangwa National Park. After filling up with fuel and collecting a spare tyre we turned off the main road, just west of town and headed north along a road that soon turned very rough. The tar only lasted for a few kilometres and then it was a very bumpy, dusty, dirt road. The road had suffered badly during the rainy season and large gullies had been cut across the road by the rain making the progress in an overloaded minibus with low ground clearance very slow indeed. The road was being repaired and after an hour or two we reached a freshly graded section where we made up for lost time by speeding like a maniac. The road climbed up and over two hills where the road was tarred and after about three hours we reached Mfuwe. The back of the minibus was loaded up with luggage leaving the rear door ajar where dust was sucked in from our wake and by the time we arrived in Mfuwe I and everyone else on the minibus was caked in red dust. Hundreds of pedestrians and cyclists were travelling up and down the narrow road around Mfuwe and to the national park, which was paved and lined on either side by grass that was over twice the height of a man.

Along this road and around the blind corners the driver sped as fast as he could, the other road users ducking for cover in the long grass on either side of the road. We came upon an accident and braked sharply. Lying on the road was a cyclist, blood pouring from a wound in his head, his bicycle lying in a heap of twisted metal. A large crowd had already gathered and were offering him help; there was nothing else we could do that someone else hadn't already done, so we drove on. You would think that after seeing this scene of carnage on the road that our driver would slow down and take more care; he did nothing of the sort and soon had his foot flat down again terrorising anyone who dared to move along the road. Finally he dropped the five Slovenians and myself off at Flatdogs Camp; I was glad to see the back of this irresponsible driver. Later that evening I met the doctor who treated the injured cyclist; he had head injuries and a broken leg but would live.

Flatdogs Camp has a legendary reputation amongst travellers of all budgets that stretches far and wide across this continent. It was first recommended to me while I was in Uganda and I had heard a lot about it ever since while I had been on the road; it was great to be here at last. The original Flatdogs Camp (flatdog is the local nickname given to crocodiles) was opened in 1992 at Mfuwe Croc Farm. The owners realised that there was a need and also money to be made from providing decent facilities for people travelling on a budget and on 26th May 2000 opened the new Flatdogs in a beautiful location on the banks of the Luangwa River. The camp is set on the southern banks of the Luangwa River, a short distance from the Mfuwe gate to the national park. I took a tree platform for my nights accommodation and made myself at home up in a sausage tree. The sausage tree gets its name from its fruit, that hangs from it's branches and look remarkably like giant sausages on strings, weighing up to 10kg each. The camp also had a campground and private chalets dotted along the river bank. There was a large bar and restaurant that served some of the best food I had tasted in Zambia. The swimming pool was unfortunately closed and being reconstructed after an incident with a hippo. A sign at reception read, 'the hippo population of the Luangwa River wishes to apologise on behalf of one of our kin, William Bloat (1997-2002). William decided to move into the Flatdogs pool one night in January but omitted to check the depth, or his exit route. Sadly this experience resulted in not only William's demise, but the demolition of the swimming pool. The management assures us that the new pool, with steps, will be completed by June.'

The camp is noted for the wildlife that wanders past; there is an elephant crossing very near to the camp and it is not unusual to see a herd of elephant strolling past. I went and sat down by the river with a cold beer in my hand trying to wash the red dust out of my throat from my journey from Chipata. The river was full of hippos wallowing as the sun set; on the other bank a lone elephant walked past and a couple of kingfishers perched on a twig near by fishing in the river. It was a wonderfully peaceful scene as the sky turned red silhouetting the trees on the opposite bank. Later that evening, while I was sitting at the bar having a drink with the manager, one of the staff came running in saying that there were three lions outside reception. I joked to the manager saying, 'Don't the lions know that the camp is full tonight'. We ran down to reception and took one of the safari Toyotas down along the track to the main road. After only driving about 100m from reception we spotted the lions with a searchlight, lying in the grass. I had only been at Flatdogs for one evening and had already seen giraffe, impala, elephant, hippo, kingfishers and lions and I still hadn't entered the national park.

I had a great night sleeping in the sausage tree with just my mosquito net as protection from the elements. I woke up early at 05.30, to go on the first of two game drives for that day. On the way to the park gate we saw the three lions again drinking from a stream near reception. The park entrance fees were US$20 per twenty-four hour period and Flatdogs charged US$25 for the first game drive and US$20 for the second. The park covers an area of 9,050 sq km and encompasses a range of vegetation from dense woodland to open grassy plains. April is probably not one of the best times of year to visit as it is just at the end of the rainy season and the animals are spread widely across the park due to the abundance of water and the grass grows very high obscuring views of the game. We set off though in our open topped Toyota Landcruiser across the bridge and into the park. I had seen most animals now on this trip on previous safaris in Kenya, Tanzania and Zambia; the only animal I hadn't seen yet was a leopard, so I kept my eyes peeled. The game was not as abundant as I had previously seen in other parks, there were not so many of the huge herds of herbivores, if there were they were hidden by the grass. We did see impala, zebra, elephant, baboons, buffalo, hippo, crocodiles, puku and greater kudu; the last three were the first time I had seen them in the wild. After a few hours we returned to Flatdogs and I spent the day resting in my sausage tree until the evening game drive departed at 16.00. The evening game drive went fairly much the same as the morning drive; we did see a pride of seven lions, which was the highlight of the drive. During the night drive we didn't spot anything of interest and I left the park still without spotting a leopard; my quest continues.

Public transport from Mfuwe leaves at a ridiculous time in the morning, at 01.00 so that people can connect with the early morning busses from Chipata. I had arranged with a driver while I had waited in Chipata to pick me up on Wednesday night at Flatdogs. I had to vacate my sausage tree and after dinner I curled up on a comfy sofa at reception to wait for the transport to arrive. At 00.45 a truck pulled up and the five Slovenians, myself and a couple of others climbed into the back for the long and bumpy ride to Chipata. On the way through Mfuwe we picked up some more passengers, including a man moving house. We had everything on board, bed, mattress, table, chairs, pots and pans etc. The truck did not get as packed as I thought it would, I still found the most comfortable way to travel was to stand. It felt magical to be travelling in the middle of the night, in the back of a truck through the African bush illuminated by the silvery light from the moon.

After a very bumpy ride we finally arrived, covered in dust again in a deserted Chipata at 04.30. The Slovenians went off to wait for the Lusaka bus on the main street and the truck took me back to the main bus station past the deserted market and a club that was still going into the early hours, music pounding out into the sleeping street. I was surprised to see so much activity around the bus station at this early hour of the day. Within a quarter of an hour I was in a share taxi heading for the Malawian frontier. The driver drove like a maniac, I hid on the backseat crouched behind the front passenger seat waiting for the inevitable impact when we hit an unsuspecting cyclist or pedestrian. Amazingly we didn't, we only had a close shave with an oxcart that tested the taxis brakes to the full. The drive seemed like a lifetime but at the speed we were doing only took about ten minutes before we were at last brought to a halt by the border gate across the road.

There was only one other women, a local lady from Lusaka, who was crossing the border. We walked into the small Zambian immigration office and woke up the immigration officer who was asleep at his desk at the back of the office. After filling in his register with our details and stamping our passports we were free to leave the country and walked through the small pedestrian gate and into Malawi; it was 05.20 and the horizon was just beginning to brighten as the sun rose to start another African day.

I continued this journey in Malawi.

Continue reading this journey: Lilongwe to Livingstonia