Ben – At the end of our last installment we were in Harare for the 2nd time, having just dropped Andy (Jens Brother) back there and enjoyed a night at the Book Café watching a few bands play. Well we ended up at the Book Café again on the Monday night, Open mic night.
The day before we’d been at the hostel cleaning and tidying the Disco when Sam and Cat rolled in. Sam and Cat are brother and sister we met back in South Africa’s Drakensberg mountains, and again at Great Zimbabwe. They’ve driven their Land Cruiser from the UK too, but down the west side. It was a great excuse to stay another day in one place and go out for a few beers and steak. The acts that started the open mic evening were “a little shaky” (a couple were way too close to Karaoke), but as the evening went on they either improved, or the beers made it appear that way, we had another splendid evening there. We also planned to meet up with Sam and Cat in Zambia a week or so later. They too had heard fantastic things about Luangwa National Park.
The following day me and Jen headed North towards the Zambia border, our final Zimbabwe stop would be Mana Pools National park. We’d heard great things about that too. The side of the main road was littered with car and truck wrecks, much like all roads in Africa it seems. As we hit the northern hills of Zim the road was closed as 2 recovery trucks were busy trying to haul one of the totalled trucks out of a ravine, and back onto the tarmac. We waited with an ever growing bunch of truckers for about two hours before the truck was on terra-firma. Then one of the recovery trucks broke down blocking the road for another hour or more. The hold up meant our journey into Mana turned into a bit of a “before sun down mission”, made all the more “enjoyable” by the last 2 hours of massive corrugations into the park that shook the Disco and us to pieces.
We arrived in the dark at a wonderful camp right on the edge of the Zambezi. The South Africans we camped close too told us they’d seen a Lion kill an Impala inside the camp the day before! Through the trees to the right you could hear Hyenas, to the left elephants, behind us other things, identity unknown! It was just brilliant. We had been told Mana was wild, and it is. We left the doors on all 4 sides of the roof-tent open so we could see whatever passed in the night! We were not disappointed,. At something like 2am we woke to see and hear a huge elephant wander 10 meters from us, they look bigger through a mosi-net than they do through the window of a Land Rover. He meandered past, grazing as he went before neatly weaving between the 2 ground tents of our South African Neighbours, just brilliant.
In the morning as I walked bleary eyed to the bathroom, I had to stop while two large male Impala’s finished their fight. “Thwack”, they went as they crashed heads and locked horns, before doing a crazy intertwined backwards-forwards dance then ‘STOP’. They both looked quickly up at me “What is this? Who is he? Is he a danger? No!” Thwack, and the dance continued. Finally the bigger one pushed them both far enough off the path that my route to the toilet was clear. The three sandy coloured frogs that live in the toilet roll holder greeted me on arrival, no toilet paper did though, it never does in Africa!
The following night as I lay in the tent, and Jen finished putting her bag away, another elephant crashed though the bushes about 20 meters away. I don’t know if Jen or the elephant looked more surprised, but after a second or two both relaxed and the ele’ carried on its way past. By day in Mana we saw Waterbuck, Nyala, Crocs, Hippos, Hippos and more Hippos, and so much more, but no cats. We also spent a couple of hours on walking safari with one of the rangers, but saw less. The animals seem more afraid of you on foot than they do in the car. It was nice to stretch the legs though.
On the downside our run of travellers-good-fortune ended in Mana Pools, and we became the target of thieves. Jen made breakfast as usual and carefully shut and locked all the doors of the Disco so we could take our chairs to the river front only about 20 meters away. As we sat and savoured our tea and porridge we heard some clattering around the car, and turned to see a very cheeky Vervet Monkey first licking out the porridgey saucepan, then run off with our wooden spoon! I had to chase the little blighter round the car a couple of times before he dropped the bounty and fled to the near by trees. Note: if your trying to lock things safely away in the car, actually put them in the car!! (sorry Jen x).
Anyway, Mana Pools, its great (except the horrible corrugated road in and out)
From Mana we crossed the Border into Zambia, Africa country no. 13 for us. We stopped briefly in the capitol Lusaka to do boring stuff, and by chance met David the Swedish Backpacker again in the hostel. We’d met him briefly in Bulawayo, and said he could join us for a trip into some National Parks in Zambia if we crossed paths again (doing the parks with a backpack on public transport is not easy, we’ve met quite a few people who have had challenges). David was at the end of an incredible round-the-world-trip of 9 month that started in Turkey-Iran-India …… and was ending in Zambia, he was to fly home in a few days. So our 3rd seat was filled as we left Lusaka heading North-East to Luangwa National Park.
Luangwa National Park is in two parts, the “developed” South, and the undeveloped North. We’d arranged to meet Sam and Cat at Wildlife Camp in the South on the Tuesday, but were ahead of schedule so arrived on the Sunday. This gave us a couple of days to relax before they arrived.
Jen: Wildlife Camp is stunning (and reasonably priced which is always good!), sat on the banks of the Luangwa River directly facing the park. It certainly lives up to it’s name,. The river is full of hippos which grunt all day and night, we also saw about 15 giraffes on the banks a little way from our camp. On our first night I woke to hear the very loud munching of grass and could make out the huge silhouette of a hippo just metres away from our car. The next night I heard what sounded like a galloping horse and assumed it must be a zebra. The next morning David said he’d also heard the noise and that it was actually a hippo. The sound of it was something else , it must have been really shifting which you wouldn’t expect of such a huge animal, I really wish I’d seen it. There was another morning when Ben was checking the disco over for our trip up to North Luangwa and our camping neighbours said there were elephant just behind the camp… I went to explore and indeed there were a family of 5 elephants with a very cute little one. I got a couple of piccies and then decided to get a little closer, without the cover of the bushes – big mistake! – the mum elephant saw me and decided I was a bit too close to here pride and joy so raised up her ears and started sauntering towards me. This obviously gave me a bit of a fright but fortunately no harm was done – I won’t be doing that again!
David headed out on a couple of guided drives before he headed back to Lusaka and home on the Wednesday. His reports of Leopard spotting were really exciting, and we hoped we hadn’t missed our chance, we hadn’t. With Sam and Cat on the Wednesday we took a guided drive in the morning and after a few hours were sat with a stunning Leopard just a foot from our front tyre. We could see every detail of its beautiful coat as it sat surveying the ground ahead, and then weaving through the collection of game-drive cars that had gathered. Our driver and guide then heard news of Lions at the far side of the park, so we took a long drive out there, we were not disappointed. Three large adults, one male, two female were first lazing then wondering. As Sam said, “The male hasn’t got dinner on his mind”, he was busy with a macho show for the benefit of the ladies.
Later the same day we took an evening and night drive with the same driver and guide, our first night-drive of the trip. The night-drive experience is fairly intense. Firstly all your senses are alive like never before, the air is cool and fresh, your sight is limited, and your focused on the ever scanning spot light on the car moving side to side. If you sit for a moment and watch the people on the vehicle, it looks like they are watching a very slow tennis match. Secondly it seems the drivers and guides have some special kind of extra pride at stake. They don’t stop and chat and share info like in the daytime and if they see something they seem to want to save it for themselves. When something special is spotted and a few vehicles come together a kind of panic seems to ensue between the drivers to get the best view.
We were very lucky again, we had a short spell tracking a Hyena, the guide said that “when they move like he is, they are likely stalking a Leopard, ready to pounce on it prey should it make a kill”. He wasn’t wrong. After a while the Leopard was spotted, a striking powerful image in our spot light. In our manoeuvres to get a better look it kind of back tracked and disappeared, and the Hyena’s cover was blown, we felt bad that we’d interfered. Later a few vehicle lights were spotted across a large ditch. As was drove quickly to get through it, and see what they’d seen, two Hippos appeared in the track ahead of us. It was a surreal moment, spot light illuminating the arses of the Hippos ahead as they strolled down the track, whilst our driver angrily muttered “move you bloody Hippos, I think there’s a Leopard over there”. Eventually they listened and moved aside, and there was indeed another Leopard. They are so elegant, but by this time the frenzy of game-vehicles had sent it heading for cover. On the drive we also glimpsed a Civet, and spent a good few minutes with a playful Gennet. Girrafes and Impala’s and Pukus were in plentifull supply, but we passed them quickly in search of the nocturnal inhabitants.
Our main aim of meeting Sam and Cat was to team up to try the drive from South to North Luangwa. This drive had been on our minds since talking to Inga and Gerrard, a German couple we met back in Kenya at Christmas. They are seasoned Africa travellers, and loved Luangwa. For us , the possibility of heading this way had actually influenced our plan to by-pass Zambia earlier in the trip and head past it to Malawi to Mozambique before heading down to South Africa then up through Zimbabwe and onto Zambia. And why the big diversion? To avoid the Zambia rains, had it worked…..?
We were still early in the season, the rains had not long finished, would the route be open and passable? We asked as many people as we could and got typically vague and differing views. Our most reliable news came from Conrad at Wildlife Camp in South Luangwa, he told us that a month before he would have said definitely don’t try it, and in a months time it would definitely “be passable”, but now ?? He kindly radio’ed some friends of his doing research in the area, and they said that “some vehicles had passed”, and a pontoon had been up and running for a week or 2. We all decided to give it a go.
Day 1 we did a short half-day drive to a known camp at Chitimbe. Aside from an unnecessary dry river bed crossing all went well, (we spent half an hour walking and defining a rocky route through a small stream, only to see another car drive 200 meters further and cross a small bridge we’d missed a few minutes later, as we had a celebratory cup of tea (Sam and Cat like a cup of tea, and Jen likes any excuse for a biscuit!!)). The camp was rustic and great. We pitched right on the Zambezi again, and cooked dinner whilst watching the Hippos playing in it. It did have an open air toilet and shower that looked out across the river, just perfect for a wilderness spot like this where no-one would pass. No-one that is apart from the two guys on a micolight who did a low flyby in the morning as Jen showered off the previous days dust in the open air bush shower, brilliant timing!
Day 2 was a longer one. Early on as we transited across another small National Park (Luambe) we encountered a challenging dry river crossing where the road through was well mashed up. We took an hour or so to carefully get round it though a route of our own making. Then we watched a local in an old landcruiser combine our route and take our advice (Sam introduced him to his low-range, hub locks and four-wheel-drive system !!), with his typically African strategy of maximum attack. He made it too eventually, and lurched away with his passengers hanging on for dear life to our cries of “High range, high range” You have to love the African strategy of maximum attack and no knowledge of how their vehicle works.
Jen: Part of our ‘challenge’ of getting through the tricky river crossing was doing a three point turn is some very soft sand in order to get ourselves pointing in the right direction. Once this was done we thought it was relatively plain sailing to get through the river and up out the other side… not so.. As Ben bumped over the track of tree branches he seemed to get stuck, after a little investigate we found that one cheeky log had got stuck in the bracket for our anti roll bar and was stopping us move forwards. We tried to lever it down so that we could drive over it, we also tried to pull it out of the ground but this little pesky branch was not going anywhere. Fortunatley Sam came to the rescue with a small hand saw and soon removed the offending item. We decided that it would be only right to ceremoniously burn it on our fire that night. The photos below shows the events of the offending branch and I promise it was an accident of how the final photo turned out… it caused us much amusement around the fire that night so thought that you might enjoy it too!
We passed though a number of other rocky river beds before coming out onto a hugely overgrown section where the bush squealed its way down the side of the Disco and in places all you could see ahead was Disco high grass. The piste under tyre was OK though, apart from the small section that caused my first puncture of the trip!!!! It was slow going though, and we made the decision to stop short of the Chifunda Camp that we had heard about, and bush-camp instead. This was fabulous. Wild bush indeed complete with roaring lions, close, but not too close!
Day 3 started with a couple more hours through the undergrowth.
From there we headed to the Pontoon, a reassuringly sturdy looking collection of steal cylinders welded together, with a worryingly long and rickety looking causeway to and from it made of piles of branches and stuff. The Crocs and Hippos either side of the vessel added a certain ‘je ne sais quoi’??
Both vehicles disembarked the vessel without incident, and we’d arrived – this was North Luangwa National Park. We spent the rest of the day slowly making our way across the park, stopping at various water holes to watch the birds and Warthogs, and hoped for more Cats, or elephants or something. But sadly the animal life was not forthcoming. Still, we didn’t really mind, we’d seen some of real Africa again en-route, some tiny tribal villages, and proper wilderness, and the landscape as we got to the west side of the park was beautiful too. We camped up at a community camp site at Mana Gate and BBQ’ed the large piece of fillet beef that we’d been saving in the fridge to celebrate successfully negotiating the Luangwas, it was delicious.
From there we spent one more night with Cat and Sam in the Muntinondo Wilderness area at the most expensive camp site of the trip I think, lovely but well over priced. We had an evening and morning walk with the others before saying ta ta, and going our separate ways again, Sam and Cat headed north to Tanzania, we headed South (yes south, we’re heading the right way again after going the wrong way, north, for the past couple of months) toward Victoria falls for a second time, (we saw the other side of it in Zimbabwe). Now we are chilling there for a few days.
Its been a fantastic journey here from Harare, some incredible and wild places, (sorry if I’ve waffled on too much about it all!), we’ve got more to come soon in Botswana and Namibia, I cant wait!!!!
Ta ta for now