Country number: 195
When? August 2018 Coming from the Congo, going on to eSwatini
How? Car, safari vehicle, on foot
Who? Solo travel
He who paddles two canoes, sinks.
It’s been a very long day. I’m flying from Brazzaville to Lusaka. As the crow flies Zambia is to the south east, but that’s not how it works. I have to travel north east to Nairobi and change planes and then fly southwest to Lusaka, covering over twice the distance a crow would. What’s more I have to stop en route at Kinshasa. At ten minutes this is surely one of the shortest international flights ever and the subject of sheer terror in case they make me get off the plane and won’t let me back on again. We also stop at Harare on the second leg and Harare isn’t exactly on a straight line from Nairobi to Lusaka either. It’s now 1.15 a.m. so it’s technically tomorrow anyway. The driver who picks me up insists on waiting for a passenger who subsequently turns out to be fictitious. I wait in the bus with a Zimbabwean who used to be a BBC engineer. He’s playing modern hymns full blast on his phone, ‘so that I can hear it too’. It seems churlish to point out that I’m not really in the mood. And it’s 3.30 in the morning before I get to bed.
Needless to say I’m spending most of the day sleeping. The city is another urban sprawl and reading isn’t throwing up any must-sees. There’s a definite western influence apparent. My hotel is surrounded by shopping malls –it looks as if they’re still building most of them – and this seems to be where life in the city is centred. I’ve been for a wander round. It’s all very sixties, even though it’s new and the large Spar supermarket products are displayed along American lines – robust and well organised rather than elegant. It certainly isn’t cheap for such a poor country.
Reading also tells me that Zambians are exceptionally friendly and this is definitely true. Everyone has a greeting or offers help (though there’s also some begging). There are rules about who speaks first and, French style, you mustn’t initiate a conversation before exchanging a greeting. Apparently it’s also fine to call on Zambians unannounced. Though I assume that only applies to friends and relations.
It’s now clear skies for the first time this trip and scorching hot. An extremely bumpy landing in the midday thermals, on yet another minute plane, brings me to South Luangwa Park. It’s a scenic drive to the lodge across palm strewn plains and through several villages, though the poverty is very obvious. There are numerous thatched rondavels, and traditional circular store houses on stilts, as well as mud brick buildings , mainly shops and businesses, with great names, ‘God First Super Mall‘, ‘The Divine Hair Salon, ‘Shopping Centre’ (the latter all of a metre square).
I have a riverside chalet and a ringside seat for the bucks, elephant and hippos on the opposite bank. Though the river is shallow and sometimes the show comes much closer. The hippos calling resonates across the water, a brass band tuning up.
There are four hour evening and morning game drives in an open sided safari vehicle. My guide is Vic (short for Vickson),who has good write ups on Trip Advisor, and the truck is crammed with Italians. My fellow Europeans have no concept of how to behave in the wild and chatter constantly and loudly, shrieking with laughter, smoking and waving their flashlights at all the animals as well (illegally) as at all the passing trucks. Even they manage to stick to an awestruck whisper, when we come across a young male lion devouring an impala it has stolen from a leopard. It can’t be the same leopard we next encounter. He has gorged on (more or less) a whole warthog (the remains are in his tree) and is so full he can’t move. He’s lying askew on the ground, breathing heavily. I can’t really criticise the Italians for the flashlights- all the safari cars are using them too, choreographing the animals movements like stage performances. The big cats don’t seem to mind. They just carry on placidly minding their own business.
The restaurant at my lodge has decided it might be nice if I eat dinner with Vic. My heart sinks, but I manage to inveigle a table on my own and am just settling into my starter when a large South African ‘Call me JP’, plonks himself down at the bar adjacent and continues to talk all through my meal. He’s smoking too. Doh! He’s unfortunate enough to be driving the Italian group back down to Malawi tomorrow, so I don’t blame him for putting away beer in large quantities. And I pretend to be deaf when he offers to escort me back to my room. We’re not allowed to walk on our own at night because of possible hippo encounters.
It’s crack of dawn starts again. Vic told me we would be on our own today. We’re not- a family with one very noisy daughter accompany us on both of today’s outings. So the noise levels aren’t that different to yesterday’s. The park is parched brown and it’s relatively easy to spot the game when it emerges into the morning sun. We career along various trails, through thickets, across bush and along riverbeds, both sandy bedded and dry and reasonably full of water. The latter is studded with crocodiles lounging. The leopard has dragged itself 20 metres and is still spread-eagled on the ground, rolling occasionally.
The local pride of lions is ruled over by two brothers who have been named Ginger (because he’s pale- almost albino) and Garlic. I’m not sure they’re very dignified names, but the lions seem to be having a relatively easy existence, sunbathing along the banks of the dried up river bed. The whole pride has been feeding for several days on an elephant that died last week (of natural causes). The stench now fills the whole area and the carcass has been more or less abandoned to the vultures, but the lions are replete and happy. The females, together with three cubs, are lazing further along the edges of the river. We sit in our car, (and half a dozen other vehicles who have all come pelting in) only a couple of metres away. This is much too close for my liking; there are no doors between me and the big cats. Vic seems unperturbed, though he does point out that we should not stand up and present an obvious target. And the lions do, indeed, all doze peacefully, the mothers licking the cubs, until they spot a lone kudu advancing. Even though they are not hungry this is too good a chance to pass up. The largest lioness is immediately alert and on her feet, passing close by our vehicle (we earn a keen assessment) before she lopes away, followed swiftly by the others. Even the male lions bestir themselves. The kudu is having the fright of his life. He shoots off, like an arrow, into the distance and over the river. He’s decided crocodiles are a better option than lions and luck is with him, or the crocodiles aren’t quick enough. He makes it safely to the other side and the lions return sulkily to their sun lounging.
Later, we halt to allow a group of elephants (it’s too small to be called a herd) cross in front of us, two babies and two females. One elephant, very curious, confronts me face to face with me, trunk waving. ‘You should have stayed still’ says Vic ‘It wasn’t angry’. Okay for him –he wasn’t the one in the firing line.
The night’s drive brings a female leopard drinking at a pool and a return to the lions. They are still sleeping in virtually the same spot, with both males sprawled right across the track, trucks making detours around them and parked up all along the riverbank. Garlic is sitting up, yawning and twitching as he summons the energy to set off for the night. The spotlights play around him. It’s just like the opening credits of an MGM movie.
It wasn’t a great night’s sleep. A hippo spent most of it chomping noisily along the other side of the wall by my bed and snorting to his friends in-between mouthfuls. Today’s safari companions are a cute family of Zimbabweans. The three children are quieter than yesterday’s one English girl, though they are very young and rapidly lose their enthusiasm for big game. They don’t understand the rarity value of today’s (painted) wild dogs although the ensuing scramble to follow them is a bit like taking part in a high speed car chase in a movie. Lucy, the local leopard is quietly perched above a gully and not adding any entertainment value and the lions are elusive today. I can’t say I’m surprised. I think I would have gone and hidden in the scrubbiest, most inaccessible piece of land I could find, if I had been subjected to the indignities that were inflicted on them last night.
My last drive, at night mainly involves joining a line of cars pursuing Lucy, who is out hunting. So we’re stalking the stalker. She is hiding in a gully, waiting for night to fall, as she’s not super-fast, but to her disgust is given away by a guinea fowl. His frantic clicking call is echoed by the puku antelopes, who are Lucy’s target. Several spotted hyenas are prowling, heading in the direction of the elephant remains. They’re taking over the night-time shift, from the vultures.
Overall, this is some of the best game viewing I’ve ever encountered, in terms of proximity to the animals. Most of them seem to have become fairly well habituated to humans. Is this ethical I wonder? I suppose this is the only way they get to co-exist in this modern world. By the time I’ve completed five game drives my tally of notable animals is: lion, leopard, elephant, warthog, mongoose, lilac breasted roller, bee-eaters, hippos, crocodiles, storks of varying kinds, monkeys, baboons, impala (of course – disporting the MacDonalds’ M on their rear as that’s what they mean to lions), weaver, bushbuck, puku, kudu, waterbuck, vultures, hyena, giraffe (Thornicroft –endemic to this park), zebra (a variety of Burchells with stripes all down its legs), wild dog (very rare) and genet. So that’s four out of the Big Five- no rhino here. Vic also maintains that there’s a Little Five (I saw an elephant shrew which belongs in this group), a Green Five (vegetation) and an Ugly Five. I think the latter is a bit unkind. It features marabou stork, warthog, vulture, hyena and wildebeest. (I’ve seen all of them here.) If pushed I might argue the case for the inclusion of the hippo, which I think is squeamishly ghoulish out of water.
As I write, a herd of elephants is grazing across the river, looping the tenderest shooting branches with their trunks. A hippo is infiltrating their ranks. He looks tiny in comparison. And a troop of minuscule monkeys is wandering single file past my chalet door, peering in. It’s firmly closed to stop them staging a raid. And to deter the insects. The tsetse finally got me this morning. Twice.
When the captain announces over the intercom, ’We’ve got a bit of a situation on our hands’, it doesn’t do much for your nerves. Fortunately, it isn’t too bad. A light aircraft landing at Lusaka has burst a tyre and blocked the runway. It looks as if we might have to divert, but after a few circuits of the city, while they tow it away and repair the tarmac, we land safely and I’m back in the land of malls and fast food.
Palaeontologists have significant evidence that shows that early humans inhabited present- day Zambia. The first known tribal peoples were the Khoisan peoples, supplanted by the in the thirteenth century. Colonialism brought the British protectorates of Barotziland-North-Western Rhodesia and North-Eastern Rhodesia towards the end of the nineteenth century and these were merged in 1911 to form Northern Rhodesia. It was governed in the main by an administration appointed from London advised by the British South Africa Company. Zambia became independent of the United Kingdom in 1964, and Prime Minister Kenneth Kaunda became the inaugural president.
Zambia is one of the poorest countries in the world, but in 2010, the World Bank named it one of the world’s fastest economically reformed countries. After a downturn in the price of copper, the main export, has started to rise again and tourism has been developed. The Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA) has its headquarters in Lusaka
The population of Zambia is concentrated mainly around the capital, Lusaka in the south and the Copper belt Province to the northwest.
The national symbol of Zambia is the African Fish Eagle, which is found on the national flag and looks much like the American Bald Eagle.
To see more of my photos of Zambia, visit this page.