Chasing Sunrise: Finding Adventure in Zambia

Our camp in Livingstone was fenced but being on an elephant corridor we were warned they sometimes get in, and that the hippos can come up from the river nearby. Everywhere in Africa has a night security guard, this camp had 2 and they patrolled together. They helpfully told us to light our fire as apparently even a small glow of embers is enough to keep the animals away. Naturally we lit a bonfire. We had bought 2 bags of firewood in Namibia we hadn’t used. It had gone surprisingly cold anyway and helped deter the mosquitoes.

Zambia was planned to be a transit country. We’d wanted to visit Namibia and Malawi and Mozambique. To fly and do it in 2 parts was both expensive and time consuming. Hence we decided to drive and this trip became ‘Chasing Sunrise.’ The rough plan was to do 2 big driving days and that should more or less get us across. But South Luanga National Park wasn’t a far detour from the Malawi border crossing and it would be our last chance to do a game drive and see big wildlife, so we added it into our plan.

That didn’t change day 1 though. We were up early and back in Livingstone by 8am. We grabbed some extra supplies from their awesome supermarket and hit the road. It was a long and boring day of driving. The scenery was boring, the roads were sealed and good and often straight. Every town and village speed had to be reduced right down and it had speed bumps. No sooner had you got through it than you’d hit the next one. It was slow going. To Lusaka the capital is around 500km and we finally reached there late afternoon. Even though the day was getting late we made the decision to get through the city rather than lose the next morning.

It was rush hour. It was as chaotic as it gets. We owned our space and inched forward. The street vendors walking amongst the traffic weren’t persistent but it was difficult having them to avoid as well as vehicles. Then there was the dozen roundabouts we had to do, and Zambia has no street signs. At all. You never know where you are, where your turning is or what your speed limit is. Marie’s calm head and good clutch riding skills luckily kept stress levels down as Emma learned to town navigate.

It got harder as dusk fell. The dust in the air made visibility poor. It was dark by the time we’d made it through, but luckily we’d researched and found a campsite on the outskirts of the city down a dirt road. So we didn’t have to attempt to go any further. There were half a dozen other people camped up, some doing big overland expeditions. But given outside of the tourist sights there isn’t much tourist infrastructure we weren’t surprised by this. We set up the roof tent, made dinner and crawled into bed.

This next morning we were up and on the road early. The aim for the day was to get to the small town by the National Park entrance. The drive was more interesting, there were hills and trees and great villages. It was still incredibly long and hot though. Bored or boring sealed roads we decided for the last stretch to take the more direct backroad to the town. It was early afternoon. Google reckoned it would be slightly faster though we didn’t believe it.

We turned off seal onto gravel and there started our Zambian adventure. We loved it. The scenery was great and we went through pretty small villages, there was little traffic and it quickly dwindled off, people waved and smiled. One village had a traffic barrier and the woman looking after it tried to charge us a council tax charge. If she’d asked for a sensible amount we might have believed her and paid it but she asked for 10 times the amount we paid at the border. We patiently insisted we’d paid all necessary fees at the border and showed our impressive array of receipts and paperwork. Eventually she relented and told us to continue.

The road got smaller, the villagers more excited and bewildered to see us now. At forks in the road we took whichever appeared to be better used since we were following a road that was even on our printed map we figured it must be a reason size.

When it became a track and then a 4WD track with some quite technical driving and we hit a fork and didn’t know which branch to take we asked some villagers. The first set were drunk. Drinking is clearly what they do on a Sunday afternoon. The second one of the women was really good and confirmed we needed to carry on forward. She warned us it was 4WD track and would take a long time. We knew we were making slow progress but now we were 3 hours in we were committed. Besides there was no camp where we’d come from and given our guesswork to get this far backtracking wasn’t going to be simple.

We pressed on. We lost the villages and then we lost the people working the forest. Though there must have been some around for some of it as we drove through a burn off (which they do a lot in Southern Africa). It was not comfortable driving past flames on a single file track when we have a double fuel tank to provide us with long range which collectively hold 165 litres of diesel. But we got through ok. The sun was getting lower and Marie’s driving got a bit faster. Our GPS dot showed our progress as being painfully slow and we realised we wouldn’t get there before dark. Driving in the dark was going to be very slow and much harder and we were already tired after a long day.

Finally we came out into a big clearing. With the sun about to drop and a double junction on the track we finally admitted we were lost. The GPS was even lost. We didn’t know where we were and we didn’t know how to get back onto an actual road either. The last village we’d passed must have been close to an hour ago.

After some swearing we decided to go back a short way and try the other branch of the first junction. We found ourselves driving straight into a camp. We were massively relieved we’d found people. It meant we weren’t completely on our own with the wildlife. We spoke to one of the guys and explained where we were trying to go, he didn’t know how to get there and spoke to a couple of other guys. After much head scratching they’d concluded it was a long way but no one was sure how to actually get there.

They were sober and friendly. We were about to ask if we could camp for the night with them when in another part of the camp a jeep started moving and one of the guys realised they were going our way and said follow them. It turned out we’d stumbled into a camp of the National Park’s anti-poaching squad. The vehicle was picking up a couple of the team to drop them home. The driver had the unit boss with him and they were both heading to their main camp in the National Park. We followed them in the dusk and dropped off the 2 guys in the back of the jeep with guns. Then we picked up a woman with a baby (who we insisted get into our back seat as she was going to ride in the Jeep’s open back and the track was incredibly dusty) and then they bought some charcoal for cooking, in the dark. On the way we’d also readily accepted an invite to stay at the boss man’s house. The next morning we’d follow the driver out.

We set our tent up between the trees outside the front of his house. There were a couple of other guys staying there. Being in the National Park they told us the camp was often visited by different wildlife. Shortly after Emma went to the toilet and her torch lit up an elephant just beyond it eating the trees. While we had dinner a couple more elephants came to the outskirts of the camp so we ate our dinner while watching them in the torchlight. Kenneth (the boss) took us closer to them and we asked about their work. He has a team of 50 guys and they were mainly focussed on protecting the elephants and lions. We could hear the hippos in the river and the guys told us that after lights out the hyenas would come into camp to scavenge.

Shortly after we went to bed a lion roared and it was very close to camp. We resolved that no matter how dire the situation going to the toilet was not happening until daybreak.

There was a huge commotion on the other side of the camp in the night that rudely woke us up. There was the most bizarre noise in amongst it like an incredibly loud crackling radio. It had us wide awake and hearts pounding for quite some time. A jeep has also arrived in the dead of night and in their headlights we could see it collecting a guy with a gun before heading off. There was definitely life outside of camp. .

We’d agreed with the driver (also called Kenneth) we’d be ready to leave with him just after 6am. So at daybreak at 5:30am we were up but stayed close to the vehicle given animals would still be active.

When he arrived Kenneth said it sounded like something had made a kill in the night and we’d take a detour to see if we could find it. We didn’t find it, but we did find plenty of elephants that we had to drive right past, antelopes, warthogs and a huge herd of buffalo went running across the track in front of us. An incredible sight. We also stopped to admire a fresh lion print and learnt how to tell a male elephant footprint from a female’s. By the time Kenneth dropped us at the proper entry gate for the National Park 2 hours later we felt like we’d already done a safari.

We paid to go in. It’s expensive but we felt that we’d already had our money’s worth. It turned out to be awesome. We saw heaps of animals and there wasn’t much other traffic. They had no map but the routes were pretty well signed so we only nearly got lost a couple of times. We finished the morning on a high. We found a pride of lions – 3 lionesses with 4 cubs. Right by the road, in the shade and already panting in the heat of the day. We were stoked.

We found a camp near the park entrance. A beautiful setting we overlooked the river and could see and hear the hippos and the odd herd of elephants in the distance going for a drink. We were completely filthy after our adventure, as was the 4X4 and everything in it. We spent a few hours in the heat of the afternoon, cleaning the vehicle and the worst of it outside, showering and doing laundry. Then we headed back into Park for an afternoon game drive. We headed straight for where the lions were and they were still there. The cubs were up near the road this time and were becoming more lively as the temperature started to ease. They were joined by one of the lionesses. She literally came and lay 3m away from us. 2 of the cubs suckled and then cubs all climbed the tree. It was incredible to watch.

Eventually we dragged ourselves away and we saw lots more animals before calling it a day. We left a bit before the Park closed as it was getting dusk and our track to camp had elephants around it. You don’t want to meet one in the dark.

A big camp with a number of overland groups staying, and complemented with hippo calls, the campsite was quite noisy but after our adventures we sleeping was not a problem.

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