Sunday, October 9, 2016

Stanley Explores Western Zambia

Mabuasehube Gate, Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, October 1

Elephant at our campsite, Mayukuyuku
I'm sitting in front of a crackling campfire here under the infinite starry canopy of the southern skies in the middle of the Kalahari Desert, listening to the yips of nearby spotted hyenas (the same guys who ransacked our camp garbage can last night, aided by a lone brown hyena), contemplating the past month of memorable travel here in Botswana, but also trying to recollect the details of our last three weeks in Zambia back in August.  It seems slightly incongruous to be sitting beside a campfire feeling like a San hunter-gatherer while simultaneously typing on a laptop, but such is the life of the 21st century travel blogger.

Lusakan Lassitude

The second half of our Zambian travels began with three days in Lusaka (August 8-10).  These three days were far less carefree and relaxing than our sojourn a month earlier had been, as I had to spend large chunks of two days trying to remedy our lack of a Customs Import Permit for Stanley.  We had failed to get one when we entered from Malawi, and by the time we got to Lusaka, we were long overdue.  The bureaucrats at the Zambia Revenue Agency hemmed and hawed and dragged things out, but finally managed to get the relevant papers processed after soul-destroying hours of waiting for a bribe of US$ 30 (the initial request was for US$ 100, but the official seemed pleased with the smaller amount).  Unfortunately the TIP was only valid for 15 days, meaning that we would have to renew it before we left the country, but at least we weren’t illegal anymore.  We also helped Rob, a volunteer who was going to help out in Livingstone at the Olive Tree Learning Centre, change money at the Bank of China’s Lusaka office; he had been working in China, and a combination of bad luck and bad timing meant that he had arrived in Zambia with only Chinese yuan as spending money, a currency not accepted anywhere in Livingstone.  He returned to Livingstone on the bus with a sewing machine in his luggage for Olive Tree to use in income-generating activities.

Pachyderm paunch:  our resident elephant at Mayukuyuku
Our last day was spent by me trying to get some niggling issues fixed on Stanley:  our reverse lights weren’t working (we had been fined for that by the police in Zimbabwe), and our rear differential lock wasn’t working either; as well I wanted our tires rotated, and our emergency brake and rear brakes needed to be tightened up.  Mr. Mzinga, the mechanic who had worked on Stanley in July, spent the day working on him again, this time out at his workshop in a hardscrabble community out on the outskirts of town.  In the end everything except the diff lock got fixed; that required a switch that could not be obtained.

My friend Nathalie arrived back in Lusaka in the middle of our stay; it was great to see her and catch up on happenings.  Once again we stayed at her house, although the last couple of nights there were extra people staying at Nathalie’s, friends of her colleague Vicky, so we slept out in Stanley in her parking lot instead.  We had a great evening of Indian food with Vicky and her friends (back from a month-long road trip through Botswana and Namibia) and Nathalie at Dil’s, a Lusaka institution that has pictures of George W. Bush eating there a few years ago.
Patient queues of voters in Lusaka's outskirts on August 11

Underwhelmed by Kafue

Defassa waterbuck in Kafue:  note solid white rumps
On August 11th we drove out of Lusaka late in the morning after a sluggish start.  It was election day, the culmination of a long and acrimonious campaign between the incumbent, Edward Lungu (whose campaign T-shirts we had obtained a few days earlier in Shiwa Ngandu, and whose campaign kept crossing paths with us in the north of the country) and the perpetual challenger Hikainde Hichilema.  We drove west out of town along a good road, past long queues of voters waiting patiently for their chance to exercise their democratic franchise.  It all seemed fairly well organized and cheerful and normal.  We drove west for 270 km towards Kafue National Park, one of the largest and best-known parks in Zambia.  It’s so big that it’s actually hard to get to some of the best areas (like the Basanga Plains in the north, which has no budget accommodation options anywhere within a 3-hour driving radius)), so we restricted ourselves to a small section near the main highway and stayed at Mayukuyuku Camp, right on the Kafue River about 10 km off the highway.

Puku, Kafue National Park

Egret in the sunset, Mayukuyuku
Mayukuyuku was a very pleasant place to stay, with a resident elephant who made life interesting at times, and lots of waterbirds and hippos in the river.  We had wonderful sunsets both nights, and on the 12th we went out for a game drive on the local trails.  To be honest, this section of Kafue was a bit underwhelming, with not much game to be seen.  We had heard that Kafue is a great place to see cheetahs, but we saw no sign of them.  In fact we didn’t see any large predators at all.  There were plenty of puku, the red-flanked antelope that is like a burlier version of the ubiquitous impala, as well as the impala itself.  We spotted a Defassa waterbuck as well, a subspecies of the common waterbuck without the usual white ring on its rear end.  We had a great dinner of lamb, corn and sweet potatoes and I sat out under the stars playing guitar late into the evening. 

Lichtenstein's hartebeest
The next morning we drove out along the main highway west towards Mongu, passing through the centre of the national park.  On the way we saw more Defassa waterbuck and a new species for us, Lichtenstein’s hartebeest, as well as wooly-necked storks and spur-winged geese.  Overall, though, I didn’t think Kafue was worth the effort and expense (about US$ 180 for the two of us to camp two nights and spend two days in the park), as it didn’t offer much game that we hadn’t already seen elsewhere, and since (outside the camps) persistent tsetse flies mean that you have to keep your windows rolled up on the vehicle.  I think that if we had given Kafue more time and had gotten further into the interior, we might have found it more impressive, but we didn’t. 

Wallowing Through Liuwa Plain

At the pontoon ferry to Liuwa Plain
We ended up driving 424 km that day, all the way to Liuwa Plain National Park, along a generally excellent road (with one fairly awful section just outside the boundaries of Kafue). We bought fuel and restocked our fridge in Mongu’s huge new Shoprite, and then drove out of town along a brand-new road to Kalabo, a remarkable feat of engineering that cost over US$200 million to build.  It cuts what had once been 8 hours of grinding through deep sand along miserable tracks and through alarming river crossings to 50 minutes of driving pleasure, along the Barotse Plains, the floodplains that border the Zambezi River as it flows south from its sources in the northwestern tip of Zambia and in the Angolan highlands.  We were in Kalabo by 4:30 pm, getting our park permits for Liuwa Plain. 

Stanley on the Liuwa Plain
This (formerly) remote park is administered by African Parks, the same private trust that runs the Bangweulu Wetlands as well as parks in Rwanda and the DRC.  We paid our money (US$ 200 for three nights and two days in the park, including camping), caught the hand-pulled cable pontoon ferry across the river and set off for our first campsite.  It took us only 200 metres to get stuck the first time in deep, deep sand, although a small posse of local villagers soon pushed us clear again after some energetic digging.  It was the deepest sand we had seen since long ago in Paindane, Mozambique, and it was a foretaste of what was to come over the next few days.  We got to Kayala campsite, two kilometres from the ferry, had a fiery sunset, and popped the roof on Stanley.  We had a great show in the evening sky as all five classical planets were visible:  Venus, Mercury, Jupiter, Mars and Saturn (in order from lowest to highest in the sky) were all in the western half of the heavens.  It felt good to be completely alone on the plain; there were no other campers (the entire park gets only about 500 visitors a year) and the campsite caretaker was away at a funeral. 
Liuwa Plain sundowners
Terri at the wheel

We slept well and awoke at 7, just after sunrise.  We had a delicious breakfast of oatmeal, then packed up and headed further north into the park by 9 o’clock.  It was a seriously difficult stretch of sand driving, with minimal signs, deep soft sand and a confusing spider’s web of interlinked tracks requiring split-second decisions about which fork in the “road” to take. Stanley bucked and swayed alarmingly as we drove along the rutted tracks, bouncing alternately to each side. We got seriously stuck twice, involving lots of digging by me followed by pushing while Terri tried to drive out of the sand trap.  Just after our second escape, we were grinding through the sand when there was a sudden loud crunch under the car.  We thought at first that we had hit a hidden rock, but there are no rocks to hit, so we got out to see what was wrong.  A small drip underneath turned out to be the air conditioning (like all AC, it drips slightly with condensation on the outside), so we started to drive again, but there were still horrible grinding noises from under the car.  Further investigation showed that one of the rear shocks had sheared off the bolt that attaches it to the leaf springs, and the shock was now hanging loose and useless below the car.  I crawled underneath and removed the bolt that was attaching the top of the shock to the chassis, threw the mangled shock into the back and we continued along our way.  After two hours of intense concentration, grinding along in 4WD low range, we had covered about 25 km and arrived at Kwale campsite, where we cooked up bacon, eggs and tomatoes on toast and contemplated our next move.

Stanley breaks a shock
We had a reservation for a more distant campsite, Katoyana, for that evening, and were scheduled to spend the second night at Kwale, but given the broken shock and how slowly we were moving, we decided that it would be best to stay the night at Kwale.  Talking to the friendly campsite attendant, we learned that about 20 km away, at Matamanene camp, there was a mechanic who might be able to help us with the shock.  We set off early in the afternoon and had another miserable drive, getting stuck again and struggling to make headway in the deep sand.  At least we had bird life to look at:  crowned cranes and wattled cranes, both fairly rare and endangered, were out on the plain; we had seen them in Bangweulu, but we had lost the photos when my camera card malfunctioned, so it was nice to get photos of them again.  There was also a korhaan (a smaller version of the bustard) and lots of herds of zebras, although domestic cattle from the local villagers living in the park were definitely displacing the zebras near the villages.

We finally arrived at Matamanene at 4 o’clock to find that there was no mechanic.  We talked with Dan, the young Dutch biologist who runs the Liuwa Plain Carnivore Project, who gave us the name of a good mechanic in Mongu and said that we wouldn’t damage Stanley further by driving without the shock.  We thanked him and set off back towards Kwale along a more direct track.  We were finally out of the dense forest that we had been in since the ferry crossing and got out onto the open plains for which Liuwa is known.  Every year in about November the second-biggest gathering of wildebeest in the world takes place here as the rainy season starts in earnest.  The wildebeest gather from the highlands of Angola and areas in Zambia outside the park, where they spend most of the year.  We had heard that we wouldn’t see the big wildebeest herds, but that we should see lots of hyenas and other game.  As we drove along the track (still sandy, but not as soft and deep as before, so we could actually make forward progress), trying to navigate back to Kwale using vague directions from Dan and his employees and minimal help from our temperamental GPS, we saw a few lone male wildebeest here and there, more zebras and, just before dusk, one lone hyena.  Sunset found us still 12 km from Kwale, so we decided to sleep out on the plain rather than pushing on through the dark.  It was a memorable night under the stars, after a beautiful sunset, and we got into bed in Stanley fairly early as we heard the yipping of hyenas around us in the dark.

Crested and wattled cranes
We woke up the next morning to an unusual sound, like someone clapping their hands together very, very quickly.  It took a while to locate the source, which proved to be the Eastern clapper lark, a bird which displays every morning by clapping its wings together, first on the ground (where we didn’t see them, hidden in the grass) and then in the air, flying steeply upwards for a good clapping session, before gliding back to the ground.  We cooked up a hearty pancake breakfast to give us energy for more sand digging, then drove back to Kwale via a few seasonal waterholes that were listed (with their GPS co-ordinates) in our excellent Bradt guide to Zambia.  It’s been a very dry year in Zambia (and most of southern Africa), so the waterholes were mostly dry.  We had a good morning of watching wattled cranes:  they really are magnificent birds, especially in flight.  Our GPS had another bad morning, sending us in random directions and even losing track of where south was, but we eventually got back to Kwale and set up camp under the shade of some tall trees.

Bathroom bats, Kwale campsite
We ended up spending the rest of the day in camp.  We couldn’t face more sand driving, and there was plenty of birdlife to be seen in the woods.  The campsite looked out over the open plain, but there was almost no mammal life to be seen; I think that if we had managed to drive further north, as was the original plan, we would have seen more animals, but as it was, it was slim pickings.  The camp was a pleasant place to spend time, though; we were the only inhabitants, other than the friendly caretaker, and we took advantage of the hot showers to wash off the thick layer of sand that covered most of our bodies, meeting the resident bats that hung upside down beneath the shower roof.  We cooked up a big chicken curry over the campfire, letting it simmer all afternoon into a delicious thick sauce.  I went for an afternoon run across the plain, keeping a wary eye out for lions (there are very few in the park) and not seeing much wildlife in the grasslands.  Another pretty sunset was followed by some fruitless spotlighting for nocturnal birds; we could hear owls and nightjars, but could not find them.
Villagers on the move across Liuwa Plain
Spot the "road":  on the way back to the ferry
The next morning we woke up to find the enormous footprints of a male lion that had wandered through in the night (making me feel less clever for having gone running the previous afternoon!), breakfasted on oatmeal, then drove back to the ferry crossing.  It was easier going, as we chose a better track than the first time, but there were still long sections of tough sand slogging that Terri handled with aplomb.  Along the way we passed local villagers trekking towards the ferry in long caravans of ox-carts, dressed in colourful clothing that contrasted picturesquely with the golden grass.  Within two hours we were back at the ferry, without having had to dig ourselves out once.  It was an indescribably relief to reinflate the tires from their 1.0 bar half-flat condition so necessary in soft sand to 3.0 bars and then drive back onto asphalt.  We drove back to Mongu along the lovely new road, bought some food at Shoprite, utterly failed to find the mechanic recommended by Dan the carnivore man, and drove off towards Livingstone with one missing rear shock.

Made it!  Stanley waits for the pontoon
Overall Liuwa Plain was interesting, but didn’t quite live up to its hype.  I found it more interesting than Kafue, and seeing the wattled cranes was a big bonus, but the difficulty of driving in the deep sand, coupled with the lack of much game to see, made it not such a compelling place to visit.  My favourite parts of the visit were the night spent out on the plain, and the afternoon in Kwale camp.  I think that Liuwa Plain would be worth visiting later in the season, and with a lightly loaded, more powerful 4x4 like a Land Cruiser or a Pajero.  Stanley definitely struggled with the conditions!

Zipping down the Zambezi

Lovely barbecue spot overloking the Zambezi
It was an easy drive south along the Zambezi on a brand-new asphalt road in perfect condition.  It is such a new road that it doesn’t appear on our Tracks 4 Africa GPS map, which spent much of the trip complaining that we were off the road; the old road ran on the right bank of the river, but we zipped along the left bank, bypassing towns that were on our map and making great time.  At 3:40 we crossed a new bridge across the Zambezi and found a new campsite, the Sioma River Camp, to spend the night.  

Zambezi sunset in Sioma
It is perched high above the Zambezi, which here runs through a steep-sided gorge on its way downstream from the Ngonye Falls.  There was a lovely swing seat in the garden to lounge on, and a barbecue platform perched out over the river that was the perfect sunset-viewing spot.  It was one of those unexpectedly lovely places that is always a pleasure to stumble upon.
Ngonye Falls

The next day, Wednesday August 17th, was going to be our last day of driving for a while, as we were bound for Livingstone.  We stopped in to see the Ngonye Falls:  they’re pleasant enough, but don’t hold a candle to the majesty of Victorial Falls.  We were in and out of the falls before the ticket man showed up late for work, saving us the admission price.  Most waterfalls in Zambia are classed as national monuments, meaning US$15 per person, plus a similar amount per vehicle, but I think that Ngonye Falls is run by the local government, so it might be cheaper.  The local council got its own back, though, a few kilometres down the highway where they run an extortion racket, extracting 65 kwacha (US$ 6.50) for any foreign vehicles that pass their roadblock.  Terri was incensed by this legalized highway robbery; it’s a good thing that other local councils around the country don’t follow suit, or you wouldn’t be able to afford driving down the road.  It’s not a road toll, per se; it’s just a tourist levy to cross the territory controlled by the municipal council of Sioma.

The rest of the drive south was uneventful, passing through some very pretty countryside indeed, until the town of Sesheke, where the road runs into the Namibian border.  From that point to the Botswanan border town of Kazungula, the asphalt of the road has disintegrated entirely, meaning that it takes three hours of careful navigating between car-sized potholes to drive the 130 km on this stretch, with the central 85 km being particularly awful.  At Kazungula the pavement returned to its usual immaculate state and we cruised into the familiar surroundings of Livingstone, where we had spent three weeks back in March.  We went straight to our favourite restaurant, Olga’s, for a celebratory lunch, then contemplated where to stay.  We knew that we would end up spending most of our stay at Jollyboy’s Campsite, but we wanted one night out of town.  We looked at the Waterfront, but its campsite was heaving with no fewer than seven overland trucks, as peak tourist season was upon us.  We found a much quieter spot at Maramba River Camp, then went out for sundowners at the Royal Livingstone, Terri’s favourite place in all of Livingstone.  It was good to be back in our familiar home away from home.
Happy at the Royal Livingstone

Lingering in Livingstone

Stanley, Terri and some OTLC pupils and staff
Volunteer family extraordinaire:  Jo and Rob and their 5 children
Digging the new latrines 
The next two weeks passed by remarkably quickly.  Rob and Jo, Terri’s friends from New Zealand, were in Livingstone to volunteer at the Olive Tree Learning Centre, and Jo did a lot of work on the fund-raising website for the school, deploying her impressive graphic arts and web design skills on the project.  Rob and their five children worked both at OLTC and at another school most mornings, playing with children and doing physical labour on the ongoing construction at OTLC.  Sadly, their volunteering stint was curtailed by a thief who managed to steal a huge sum of Chinese yuan cash from their hotel room; since that money was their travel money, they ended up changing their plane tickets to return to New Zealand early, a big loss both to them and to the OTLC project.  Apparently it was the fifth case of theft at that same lodge in less than a month, making it likely that it was an inside job either by the owner or by an employee.

The heart of any good school--OTLC inaugurates its new library
It was good to see the changes at OTLC since we left town in early April.  The new school building that was paid for by fundraising efforts at Terri’s former school, the Kumon Leysin Academy in Switzerland (KLAS), is now complete; the last windows and door gates went into place while we were there, along with electrical fittings.  Terri spent a lot of time huddled with the school’s business manager, going over accounts and trying to set the school on a path to financial sustainability, since KLAS will end its decade-long tradition of sending a student humanitarian service trip to Livingstone.  It was good to see the school expanding and moving in new directions, with the sewing machine and some donated computers being deployed in income-generating activities, and new teachers joining the fold.  Jo gave a great professional development session to the teachers.  We broke ground on new latrines for the students, and inaugurated the library, a sorely needed resource in a community virtually without access to books.  We even watched a partial solar eclipse one morning while working on the new sandpit for the schoolyard.  There is an air of progress and optimism in meeting new challenges that is heartening to see, particularly for Terri who has spent the past decade cultivating the skills of the people who run the school.  We spent some time setting up a sponsorship program to allow people to sponsor a child for a year at the school; taking photos of the children, and writing up their biographies, I realized again how lucky I have been in my own life, being born where I was, when I was to the parents that I have.  
The boss gets her hands dirty during OTLC construction
I won the genetic lottery; some of these students did not, and OTLC represents a chance to give these young minds a bit more of a head start.  The project has been going for long enough that Terri can start to get positive feedback about how well her pupils do after they leave OTLC and move into government primary schools.  It’s been a rewarding experience for me to play a small part in this project, and I look forward to doing so again in the future.  I think Terri can be proud of the help that she has given to children in a tough neighbourhood of Livingstone.
Rob putting his back into construction at OTLC

Jo giving some tech professional development to OTLC teachers
Spaces between leaves make pinhole images of the eclipsed sun
Our time in Livingstone wasn’t all work and no play.  We found time to go whitewater rafting, and it was an exciting full-day trip down some pretty big rapids indeed.  Neither Terri nor I went overboard, although one of our raft-mates did, while one of the other rafts flipped completely and it was some very shaken, scared rafters that we helped to pull out of the river downstream.  
Yes, that's an anti-malarial bednet being used as a fishing net!
We also went abseiling and hiking in a side canyon of the Zambezi while other, braver folks hurled themselves off the Gorge Swing.  I found a tennis court and a tennis partner, Darlington, and spent several happy afternoons playing.  The courts were in terrible condition, and the tennis balls were worse, but it was so much fun, good for my soul.  I got out running most afternoons, and we spent several evenings having sundowners at the Royal Livingstone, watching the sun turn the Zambezi various incredible shades of copper and gold. 
Terri abseiling outside Livingstone

Kids enjoying the new sandpit at OTLC
We met interesting people staying at the campsite as well.  The cyclists of the Joburg2Kili charity ride kept us amused for a few days when we first got to Livingstone.  
Tbe Joburg2Kili cycling team

The new school building at OTLC
Justin, our builder, finishing off the windows

Maya (the Land Rover), Cristelle and Terri
Cristelle, a French woman who has been travelling and working on various small-scale humanitarian projects for several years in Africa, in her trusty Land Rover named Maya, was a source of great information and inspiration.  Douglas and Keira, an Irish couple in another Land Rover, gave us lots of tips for our trip through Botswana and South Africa.  And the teachers and students of the Travelling School, a 16-student, 4-teacher high school semester abroad program that moves through Zambia, Botswana, Namibia and South Africa over the course of 4 months, gave Terri and me inspiration to think about setting up a similar program ourselves in the future; we’ve spent numerous nights around the campfire talking about it.
Child labour:  photogenic pupil Shawn hard at work

We also had some work done on Stanley, getting the rear shocks replaced (it was a long process, as the right shocks were not to be found and other shocks needed to be modified to fit our Colt) and trying to repair the rear differential lock (the right switch could not be found).  We extended both our visas and our CIP for Stanley (remarkably, both were free of charge and involved little bureaucracy and no demands for bribery, a welcome change from other encounters with the Zambia Revenue Authority).  And then, suddenly, it was September 2nd and we were driving to the Botswana border crossing at Kazungula, keen to head into the wildlife centre of Africa.  It had been a wonderful five weeks in Zambia, but it was time to move on to fresh adventures.
Terri, our sign painter and the KLAS logo on the OTLC wall

The essence of sundowners at the Royal Livingstone
Another Zambezi sunset
How I will always remember Livingstone

Thursday, September 1, 2016

The Wonders of Northern Zambia

Livingstone, Zambia, September 1st

Terri and Stanley at Nsobe
Of all the countries we have visited so far on our southern Africa loop, Zambia is the one that most feels as though we have left the shadow of the developed world for the bright sunshine of “real Africa”, whatever that means.  And in Zambia, it is the area northeast of Lusaka that best exemplifies that feeling of falling off the map.  It was for exploring precisely this sort of area that we bought Stanley in the first place, allowing us as much freedom as possible in terms of travel and independence.  Our swing through that area was one of the biggest highlights so far of Stanley’s Travels, and reliving this trip while writing this blog post has reminded me of how wonderful some of these places are; perhaps it will inspire some of you, gentle readers, to explore northern Zambia on your own.
The Road to Muyombe:  Paved with Good Intentions?

We entered Zambia on Tuesday, July 26th, fresh from our fabulous sojourn on the picturesque Nyika Plateau.  The road to the border on the Malawian side had been miserably corrugated and potholed gravel, deteriorating sharply in quality as we approached the curiously one-sided border post where the Malawians had a presence (albeit a young woman who was filling in for the real border official, and who had to phone for assistance in how to stamp foreigners out of the country), but the Zambians had nobody.  We drove into the country along a track that left us puzzled by its frequent unsigned bifurcations; we ended up stopping and searching for locals to ask “Is this the road to Isoka?”.  We were frequently skeptical of the answers, as the jeep tracks closely resembled footpaths, but local knowledge proved to be accurate as we made our way downhill towards the town of Isoka, some 240 km from the border.
The M14 superhighway
We had no real intelligence about the quality of the track, although we suspected that it would be poor.  This, to put it mildly, was an understatement.  This “road”, graced with the title of the M14, is little more than a cartographer’s cruel practical joke.  It may well be the worst road I have ever driven a vehicle on (although I have cycled on tracks of equal misery in places like Pakistan, Tibet, China and Chile).  Since almost no motorized traffic comes this way, the paths are mostly made by pedestrians and cyclists, who need only have one narrow path for their wheels or feet, rather than the twin paths needed for a car.  The result, given the tremendous erosion and utter lack of maintenance, is a series of deep gullies separated by one, two or even three narrow tracks of compacted red laterite earth that may or may not be the right spacing apart for a vehicle’s wheels.  We crawled along at walking pace, Terri at the wheel, frequently stopping to get out and inspect a particularly hideous stretch of track, cursing the road and the engineers who didn’t maintain it and the mapmakers who pretended that it was a driveable path.  It took absolutely forever to make our way 50 km down the road to the tiny village of Muyombe, one of the few actual settlements along the road.  There were not many villages at all, and those that existed were about as poor as any place we have seen so far on this trip.
Lungu election T-shirts and maize flour--the Muyombe road
We knew that we were approaching a centre of some slightly augmented significance when we spotted the cyclists sporting new Edgar Lungu election T-shirts and carrying bags of famine-relief corn flour on their luggage racks.  Terri and I were just discussing where we would ask for permission to camp (at a village school?  A chief’s house?) when, completely unexpectedly, we came across a sign to a new lodge on the outskirts of Muyombe, Mama Wuyoyo’s.  We followed the sign and soon found ourselves in a newly-constructed compound run by Collins, an articulate Livingstonian who had moved to the sticks a few months before to help start a new hotel built by a local woman made good who wanted to share some of her good fortune with the village she had left behind years before.  The lodge was actually full of district medical staff doing a one-week course, and Collins said that it was the first time in three months that they had had more than a tiny number of guests.  We camped in the garden and had a sundown Mosi Lager before having a meal of extremely muscular chicken in the lodge restaurant and collapsing into bed, utterly spent by the rigours of driving 128 kilometres.
Collins and Terri at Mama Wuyoyo's Lodge, Muyombe
We had heard (or perhaps we had hoped we had heard) that the next day we would hit asphalt after 60 kilometres.  Terri was at the wheel again, as she usually is when the road gets tough, and was bound and determined that she was going to drive us as far as the tarmac before handing over the wheel.  We ground on, past hundreds of people in President Lungu campaign T-shirts and passing several fancy 4WD vehicles speeding the other way.  We finally asked the driver of a passing campaign truck that was grinding its way painfully along the track what was going on.  “President Lungu is coming to Muyombe for a campaign rally today!” we learned.  We asked whether he was driving along the appalling joke of a track, and were not surprised to hear that he was flying into Muyombe in a government helicopter; only his minions had to endure the perils and potholes of the road.  Maybe if he had to drive like everyone else, the road would get repaired sooner?

Sixty kilometres of bad road came and went and there were no signs of asphalt, so after 75 kilometres, I finally convinced Terri to stop, have a sandwich beside the road and change drivers.  There were signs of a new road that had been started a couple of years earlier but then abandoned when the government ran out of money for the project.  We would drive along a few kilometres of smoothish gravel, laid atop a properly drained roadbed with concrete culverts, only for it to come to a crashing halt and leave us back on the horror of the old M14.  Eventually, almost 110 kilometres from Muyombe, we hit asphalt and raced the following 80 kilometres along completely smooth, utterly empty highway at 90 km/h.  Just to remind us of how bad it could be, the final two kilometres leading to the main T2 highway were unpaved again, full of rocks and deep gullies and general unpleasantness.  Once on the road, we had to figure out where downtown Isoka was (it turned out to be about 8 km north of the main road) and search for the immigration office.  Immigration was housed in a tiny, unmarked office that was unmanned, but the police gave us the number of the immigration officer so that we could set up a passport-stamping appointment for the following morning.  Downtown Isoka offered little more than diesel and a disappointing little not-so-supermarket, so we retreated out of town to camp at a little campground just north along the main road.  We negotiated the price down to 70 kwacha (US$7) for the two of us, cooked up some supper and turned in to sleep quite early.  Just as we were about to go to bed, President Lungu’s election truck, the one we had met along the track in the morning, arrived at the campground.  It turned out that Lungu was going to attend a rally the following morning in Isoka.

We managed to get in and out of the Isoka immigration office the next morning quickly, before the Lungu roadshow closed the downtown area, but getting our car formally admitted to the country proved to be impossible.  The police told us that there was no customs office in Isoka, but that we could either process the car in Nakonde (100 km northeast, on the Tanzanian border, in the direction opposite to our route) or else in Chinsali, 100 km southwest.  We got a letter from the police saying that we had tried and failed to obtain the CIP (Customs Import Permit) in Isoka, just in case we were asked for the CIP at a police roadblock, then set off just as the police started closing roads in the downtown core. 

We roared down the highway, covering as many kilometres in an hour as it had taken almost an entire day two days previously, revelling in the ease of driving.  After 100 km we turned off into Chinsali and passed a series of new government buildings under construction.  It looked promising in terms of finding a good supermarket, refilling our LPG cooking gas cylinders and obtaining our CIP.  The promise was not fulfilled; Chinsali was one of the poorest, least well-supplied cities of our trip; we looked around hardware stores for something as simple as a washer (to help hold our battery in place) and failed utterly.  Chinsali was so poor that we didn’t spot a single Indian-owned shop, a single real supermarket or even a shop that sold beer.  LPG was out of the question, and the customs officials told us that they couldn’t help us get us a CIP, but that in Kapiri Mposhi (some 400 km towards Lusaka) we could certainly obtain one.  We got another letter for any police roadblocks, then gave up on Chinsali and drove south towards Shiwa Ngandu, our first sight to see.  As we headed out of town, we ran into President Lungu’s election caravan for the third time in two days, with huge crowds lining the road to cheer the big man.

Shiwa Ngandu and Kapishya Hot Springs:  Bathed in Loveliness

Stanley at Shiwa Ngandu
It took us another 140 km of great pavement to reach the turnoff for Shiwa, and then another 13 km of reasonable gravel to reach the utterly unexpected sight of an English country manor house transplanted to the wilds of northern Zambia.  It was the life’s work of a remarkable man, Stewart Gore-Brown, a classic upper-class Brit with a taste for remote places, very similar to Wilfred Thesiger.  He arrived at Shiwa Ngandu in the 1920s and tried to make a go of a commercial farm there.  It never really paid for itself, but Gore-Brown ended up falling in love with Zambia and feeling very attached to its people.  He ended up as one of the leading politicians in pre-independence Northern Rhodesia and favoured black rule, unlike many of his fellow white politicians.  He ended up befriending Kenneth Kaunda, the first post-independence president of Zambia, who said of Gore-Brown that “you have a white skin, but a black heart.”  We drove into the estate, now run by Charlie Harvey, Gore-Brown’s grandson, along a ceremonial driveway of towering eucalyptus trees, and wandered around discreetly, peering over the fence at the main house, an imposing brick baronial pile.  There are guided tours of the main house, but they are in the morning, so we were outside visiting hours and contented ourselves with looking from afar.  My friend and former colleague Nathalie, at whose house we stayed in Lusaka, is related to the family by marriage (Charlie’s wife is her aunt) and has visited several times.  I read most of Black Heart, Joseph Rotberg’s biography of Gore-Brown, during our stay in Lusaka in early July and was motivated to get out to see the place.
Local children at Shiwa Ngandu
We bought some fresh beef and some impala from the farm shop, then drove another 20 rutted kilometres to Kapishya Hot Springs, our home for the next three nights.  On the way we ran into yet another Lungu rally (although the president himself wasn’t at it), and finally managed to score a pair of election T-shirts for ourselves.  Kapishya was part of the original Gore-Brown estate and is now run by Charlie Harvey’s brother Mark, a well-known figure in Zambian wildlife tourism.  We fell in love with the place almost immediately because of its riverside campsite, its feeling of remoteness, its birdlife and (most importantly) the hot springs themselves.  I have visited many, many hot springs, both in Japan and in a dozen or more countries around the world, and these are the first ones outside Japan that have rivalled Japanese onsens for class, cleanliness, setting and beauty.  A big outdoor pool with a sandy bottom has been dammed in a small stream, with hot water bubbling up from below into the pool.  Terri and I spent hours lounging in the springs in the mornings, late afternoon and evening. It was a great spot for birdwatching, with lots of birds swooping across the opening in the trees above the hot pool, and for stargazing after dark.

It was hard to put our finger on what felt so good about lounging around in Kapishya.  Part of it was the old-world charm of the gardens of the lodge (next door to the campsite).  Part of it was the feeling of great remoteness, of being well and truly out in the wilderness.  Part of it was the people whom we met, both the other travellers and the staff at the lodge, including a couple of volunteers who were working there for a few weeks or months.  One of them, Zega, a 23-year-old Belgian, was a Zambia connoisseur, having explored almost every corner of the country over the course of half a dozen family trips to Zambia.  We also met a Kiwi couple with a South African friend who had lots of tips for us for our future travels. 

Ross' turaco, Kapishya
We were almost out of LPG, so we cooked almost exclusively on the open fire while we were at Kapishya.  There were some efficient cooking stoves designed by an NGO that made simmering a stew much easier than on an open fire.  We concocted an amazing impala curry one night that was one of the best meals of our trip so far, and made some great pancakes as well.  Gazing out over the river, watching birds soar overhead as food cooked on our fire, we felt like we were right where we wanted to be, deep in the heart of South-Central Africa.  We didn’t see any large game (there are probably too many villages in the area for there to be too many animals close to Kapishya) but the birdlife was excellent.  Our favourite of the birds we spotted was Ross’ Turaco, a spectacularly-coloured bird that hangs out in the gardens of the lodge, although the palm-nut vulture was another big, spectacular bird.

We went for runs both afternoons that we were in Kapishya, out through the scattered miombo woodland that covers so much of Zambia.  We didn’t see any wildlife, but it felt good to be out in the woods, and to see some of the villages in the surroundings.  Both Kapishya and Shiwa Ngandu employ quite a few local people (particularly Shiwa) and support local schools, but these villages are still pretty poor in material terms, with some not-very-fruitful subsistence agriculture and large families.  I attracted lots of kids who tried to run along with me, but luckily I was faster than them in the long run and eventually left them behind.

Kasanka:  In the Land of the Sitatunga

Terri shopping in a roadside market
All good things must come to an end, and after our third night, on the morning of Sunday, July 31st we decided to push on towards our next destination, Kasanka National Park.  We retraced our path back to the T2, where we bought prodigious quantities of fruit and vegetables from roadside vendors for about US$ 7, along with diesel, beer and a bottle of Teacher’s whisky.  We then drove down towards Lusaka, past the turnoff to Mutinondo Wilderness, a destination that sounds wonderful, but which we decided to leave for our next visit to Zambia (sometime in the new year).  We made it to the junction of the T2 with the big north-south highway (the D235), turned right and headed north a further 55 km to the gate of Kasanka National Park, where we paid for our park permits and headed into the park.

Puku, Kasanka 
Kasanka is a small park that was once, like many Zambian national parks, essentially abandoned.  In the early 1990s a private organization of Zambian wildlife enthusiasts,  the Kasanka Trust, took over its management and has since completely rehabilitated it, building up wildlife numbers and its accommodation facilities.  We drove to the Lake Wasa Lodge, where we paid for our camping (very steep at US$20 per person per night) and watched some of the waterbirds that were gathered on the lake, including some new species for us:  the spur-winged goose, the coppery-tailed coucal and the yellow-billed kite, all of them to feature again and again over the next 6 days.  We drove past the Fibwe Hide, described in our guidebook as the best place to see sitatunga antelope, but utterly bereft of them this time.  The hide is high up a large mahogany tree, necessitating a long climb up a rickety wooden ladder.  Fibwe is really used in November and December to observe the world’s largest bat migration when some 7 million large fruit bats gather for 6 weeks of feeding and mating before dispersing to parts unknown.  This bat gathering is the biggest attraction of Kasanka, and it is when visitor numbers are highest.  When we were in the park, there were two other groups of tourists other than us, so we essentially had the place to ourselves. 
Kasanka puku

Stanley camped at Pontoon Camp, Kasanka
We stayed at Pontoon Camp, the best-known of the four campsites in the park, and it was a great place to sleep, as it should have been given the price! As soon as we arrived, camp attendants appeared to kindle two roaring fires (one for cooking, and one for sitting around) while, across the water of a small pool, some sitatunga antelope, one of the shyest ungulate species, emerged from the shelter of some papyrus reeds to graze.  In most places sitatunga will flee at the first sight of people, but here at Pontoon Camp they more or less ignore humans.  They are dark animals, richly flecked with white, with impressive spiral horns on the males.  Some puku, another antelope species rather reminiscent of the impala (although stockier in build and with heavier horns), also came by to graze along with a family of cute little bushbuck, while waterbirds such as jacanas, egrets and yellow-billed ducks completed the wildlife picture.  We had a spectacular sunset over the water, and I realized that Venus, Mercury and Jupiter were all visible close to the horizon after sunset, while Mars and Saturn were directly overhead.  We have been watching the intricate dance of the planets ever since, observing how their relative positions shift, quite rapidly in the case of Venus and Mercury, night after night.  It was a warm, pleasant evening and we sat outside after a three-course meal listening to cicadas, monkeys settling in for the night, sitatunga calling to each other, hippos grunting contentedly and, in the not-so-great distance, an elephant.  It was one of our absolute favourite wilderness campsites, and felt very primeval and far from modern city life.
Sitatunga doe, Kasanka
The next day we got up at 6:15 and had a quick cold breakfast while taking photos of sitatunga in the morning mist.  I really liked the white highlights on their dark bodies:  their ears, tail and the tips of the males’ horns.  I also ran into a shy duiker who ran off as soon as he saw me.  By 7:30 we had pulled Stanley’s roof down and set off on a game drive.  Kasanka is a small park, but has quite a lot of variety of plant life, from dense miombo grassland to seasonally flooded grassland plains (dambos, in the local parlance) to dense papyrus thickets lining the rivers.  We drove off towards a dambo, Chikufwe, where we had been told a herd of sable antelope, a species I had not yet seen, lived.  We bumped along a pretty rough track through the woods until we emerged onto a flat short-grass plain lined by a profusion of short, thin termite mounds; apparently the termites build these to have a dry place to retreat to in the floods that arrive with the November rains.  We saw lots of puku grazing contentedly, but where were the sables?  We got out of the car and scanned the horizon carefully until Terri spotted them, a couple of kilometres away on the other edge of the clearing.  We counted at least 30 of them, but as we drove around the edge of the dambo, they saw us and got spooked, running into the woods and out of sight.  Search as we might, the dense bush hid them completely, and we eventually gave up the search. 
Sitatunga buck, Kasanka
We drove off to Luwomba Lodge, in the northwest of the park, hoping to do some canoeing.  Both the canoes were out being used by the Czech group who were staying next to us at Pontoon, so we sat and cooked up some tea, eggs over easy and toast to go with the avocadoes and tomatoes we had bought the day before, using up almost the very last dregs of our gas in doing so.  It was a pretty place to wait, looking out over a sizeable river frequented by herons and kingfishers.  By about 11 am, the Czechs were back and we had scored the only real bargain of Kasanka, the use of a canoe for 3 hours for a mere US$10.  We paddled up the river, deeply incised into the sandy plain, watching for kingfishers.  We were not disappointed, spotting malachite, pied, African pygmy and grey-headed, the last two new species for us.  We also saw a profusion of Bohm’s bee-eaters, a riot of primary colours in the trees.  It felt very wild, and we enjoyed the freedom of being away from the sound of car engines, the only noise the sound of our paddles slicing into the water.  The light through the trees on the water was beautiful, a dappled mix of sun and shadow, and we floated contentedly back downstream, happy with our quiet commune with nature.

Terri canoeing in Kasanka National Park
We drove back via Chikufwe again, but this time the sables were nowhere to be seen.  We headed to Kabwe, having heard that Cape clawless otters were to be seen there, but when we got to the camp, the park ranger said that we had been misinformed.  We drove back to Pontoon from there along a narrow strip of golden grassland full of puku.  We were back by 4 o’clock and Terri created a delicious lentil curry on the open fire while I showered and sat watching the rich birdlife on the river and its banks:  jacanas, glossy ibis, yellow-billed ducks, blacksmith lapwings, pied kingfishers, red-necked spurfowl, reed cormorants and African darters.  The late afternoon light was magical, as was the sunset over the reeds.  We admired the planets again and then I sat out learning how to enter GPS waypoints into our car navigation system and playing guitar under a canopy of brilliant stars. 
Water plants, Kasanka
Tuesday, August 2nd began with an early getaway, almost without breakfast, as we headed back to Chikufwe for one more try at seeing the sable antelope up close.  It was a futile effort, but we realized that in the previous 18 hours since our last visit, a rampaging elephant had torn down at least 10 large trees along the track, eventually forcing us to turn back.  Back at Wasa Lodge we talked to Harry, a young Brit from Kasanka Trust who was glad to receive intelligence of the whereabouts of an angry, injured elephant whose trunk was painfully caught in a snare; that very day a vet was flying up from Lusaka to tend to it.  We also learned that Shoebill Island Camp, the place we had planned to stay at the Bangweulu Wetlands, was in the process of closing down, but that we would be able to camp nearby at Nsobe.  We drove back out to the asphalt of the D235 a bit unsure of what we would find out there at Bangweulu.

Bangweulu Wetlands:  Livingstone’s Grave and the Land of the Shoebill

White stork at Bangweulu.
We drove 10 km north, then turned right and onto a gravel road that led 25 km through densely spaced villages full of begging children to the final resting place of David Livingstone.  The great explorer had expired here in 1873, 18 months after his famous encounter with Henry Morton Stanley at Ujiji on Lake Tanganyika.  Livingstone was trying to untangle the river systems of Central Africa and was trying to figure out whether the Luapula River which flows through the wetlands flowed out into the Zambezi, the Congo or even the Nile.  He died in this remote spot leaving the question unanswered, which was the reason that Stanley came back to Africa to settle the mystery of the Luapula.  It seems strange to me that as good a geographer as Livingstone would have thought that there was any chance that the Luapula flowed into the Nile, but Stanley solved the problem by following the Luapula downstream for months and showing that it became the Congo River.  His trip was desperately difficult and dangerous, and it led indirectly to the establishment of the Congo Free State and all the horrors that King Leopold inflicted on the region.  I wonder how history would have been different if Livingstone had survived long enough to do the Luapula trip himself.
The forbidden fruit:  Livingstone Memorial from afar

After 25 uneventful kilometres we arrived at the monument, a simple stone marker that shows where Livingstone’s heart and internal organs were buried before his faithful followers Sussi and Chuma pickled the rest of the body and carried it all the way back to the coast at Bagamoyo.  I was looking forward to a bit of quiet communion with the spirit of the great man, but it was not to be.  The grave has been declared a National Monument, meaning that the price of admission is US$15 per person, a huge price for something that takes about one minute to see.  We argued the point with the ticket lady who was not impressed when we turned on our heels and returned to the car rather than pay up; she pursued us, berating us for being cheapskates and ostentatiously taking down our license plate number.  We drove away, unimpressed with the grasping behaviour of the Zambian government and cursing the ticket lady.

The "road" to Bangweulu
We had planned to drive as far as Lake Waka Waka, a handy place to camp before the long slog to the Bangweulu Wetlands the next day.  We made our way along a deteriorating dirt track, through a series of villages in which all the children ran to the road to beg and eventually ran into a grass fire that had us beating a rapid retreat until the flames abated.  No sooner had we gotten through the fire than we encountered a boggy river crossing, just short of Lake Waka Waka.  We didn’t get out to scout the crossing, and this turned out to be a serious error, as we promptly dropped a fairly long way off the road and got ourselves completely mired in the mud with our undercarriage firmly anchored.  We tried to drive out but only succeeded in digging ourselves in deeper.  We got out the high-lift jack and the spade and set to work trying to excavate ourselves, but the more we dug and jacked, the less we got ourselves free of the bog.  Finally, after several hours of effort, we did what we should have done immediately and Terri cycled off on her bike to the camp (which we knew from the GPS was only 3 km away), while I stayed with the vehicle.  It took a long time for her to return, and in the meantime the sun set.  I kept trying to get out, but futility still reigned.
Our rescue squad at Lake Waka Waka
Finally Terri came back in the pitch black, followed by 5 locals armed with a pickaxe and a wood axe.  They set to work with alacrity and in about an hour and a half we had managed to jack Stanley’s rear wheels up high enough (using a nifty jack extension that Etienne, the former owner, had been far-sighted enough to buy) to put a lot of logs underneath; the axes came in handy in trimming the logs to fit, while the pickaxe and spade were used to excavate under the car.  Eventually Terri climbed into the driver’s seat while the rest of us pushed mightily and Stanley roared free of the mud and out the other side of the crossing.  We cheered mightily, gathered up all the bits and pieces of equipment we could find (except for a rubber mallet that disappeared mysteriously) and set off for the camp, giving lifts to a couple of our helpers on the running board and in the cramped confines of the back seat, while the other three rode bicycles.  We were bone-tired when we got into Lake Waka Waka campground, but we still managed to heat up some stew and rice over the fire, acutely aware that we had barely eaten since we had gotten up.  We paid each of our rescuers 50 kwacha (US$ 5), grateful that we weren’t spending the night in the swamp, and they seemed satisfied with the money.
Terri and Jackson at Nsobe Camp
We slept well and woke up to beautiful scenery the next morning, with nice light on the lake surface and lots of birds.  We paid 100 kwacha per person, rather excessive for the limited facilities, had a decent breakfast and set off by 9:30 after repairing the damage of the night before (we had knocked a hinge on a back compartment door loose, and had to remove the broken rivets and replace them with zip ties) and washing the horrible-smelling mud off all our rescue gear.  Terri drove us along a track that veered from wonderful to horrific and back again; there was a section in the densely settled middle which had been properly graded and engineered, while other bits more closely related the M14 to Muyombe.  By 2 pm we had traversed the last of the endless series of villages with their begging children (who also tried to jump up on the back of Stanley, much to our annoyance) and emerged from the woods into the endless flat short-grass plains.  We parked Stanley at Nsobe campsite, a bargain at 50 kwacha per person per night, then got on our bicycles and rode over towards the wetlands conservation office at Chikuni to find out what the deal was in terms of going to look for the shoebill, the rare and prehistoric-looking bird for which the wetlands are famous.
Bangweulu smoke-aided sunset

The Bangweulu wetlands are pretty dry this year, thanks to the epic drought, and it was easy riding over a flat, dry plain.  Pretty soon we spotted shapes on the horizon which soon resolved themselves into hundreds of black lechwe, another antelope species which we had never seen before.  They were magnificent creatures with big sweeping horns on the males, and they were massed in huge numbers around us; it was faintly odd cycling through such a huge herd of animals.  We also spotted ten white storks and got some good photos of them flying.  At Chikuni we met Carl, a South African biologist working for African Parks, another private organization rehabilitating wildlife areas in Africa, and found out the deal.  For 200 kwacha per group (US$ 20), we could have as many guided tours into the swamps as necessary to find the elusive shoebill.  We arranged that we would be back the next morning and cycled back across the plains, scaring up clouds of pratincoles.
Black lechwe, Bangweulu

The view from camp was magical and a little alarming, with huge grassfires raging on the horizon, filling the sky with smoke and making us wonder what would happen if the winds shifted and sent the fire in our direction.  The campsite at Nsobe is widely spaced, so that we were barely aware of our neighbours.  Each campsite is on one of the huge ancient termite mounds that rise slightly above the plain and provide a spot for big shade trees to grow.  Again we had a big open fire to cook over, while another wood fire provided hot water for showers for all the campers.  We watched an impressive fireball sunset, made more dramatic by all the smoke on the horizon, then ate and sat out under the infinite dome of the night sky, sipping whisky and listening to the nearby yelps of hyenas.  If Pontoon Camp at Kasanka was a perfect waterside campsite, Nsobe was a perfect open plain campsite.  We went to bed excited about the prospect of seeing shoebills the next morning.
People silhouetted against grassfire smoke, Nsobe

Shoebills are weird-looking, rare, hard-to-spot birds that rank high on the list of must-see species in central Africa for keen birders.  I had first heard of the bird while reading my Lonely Planet guidebook, and a subsequent conversation with our Lusaka friend Vicky heightened our desire to see this bird.  We looked up the shoebill in a YouTube clip from a David Attenborough nature special and were captivated (and slightly repelled) by what we saw.  We knew that we had to see this bird in the wild, and hence the long (160 km) slog off the main road to Nsobe. 

Terri and a reed fishermen's shelter, Bangweulu
We were excited on the morning of Thursday, August 4th as we woke up early and got on our bicycles for the 8 km pedal across the plains to Chikuni.  Once there we realized that we were sharing the trip with a South African couple, Ben and Suzanne, who had arrived at Nsobe the night before.  It took a little while for them to pay and do the paperwork for the trip, but by 7:45 we were walking away from Chikuni in the company of two guides from Nsobe campsite towards the spot where one of the two resident shoebills had been spotted the day before.  It was a long walk to get there, mostly across short-grass plains, but eventually the path led to the papyrus marshes on the banks of a small river.  As we walked along, there were dozens of other bird species to be seen, including various species of kingfisher, heron and egret and lots of Bohm’s bee-eaters.  We splashed across shallow streams and balanced on mats of floating vegetation to get across deeper water.
Poling through the reeds, Bangweulu
Yellow-billed kites beat across the marshes, searching out easy prey, as we trudged deeper into the marshes, past the simple reed shelters built by local fishermen.  It felt very timeless; we could almost have been characters in a scene carved in an Egyptian Old Kingdom tomb, out fishing and birding in the Nile marshes.  We asked directions from a group of fishermen and they gladly dropped what they were doing and splashed out to join us.  They were fishing for boba, the primitive lungfish that lives in some profusion in the Bangweulu Wetlands and both provides a valuable export for the local community (well over a million US dollars is exported from the nearest village to the DRC every year) and constitutes the staple food of the shoebill.  They claimed to know the whereabouts of the shoebill, and we followed them on an obstacle course of tiny mokoros (dugout canoes), floating vegetation rafts and tall reeds.  At one point we encountered another group of fishermen and a long animated discussion ensued, with much head-scratching and casting around in various directions.
Fishermen's family, Bangweulu
 It turned out that the second group had scared away the shoebill from its usual roost in the hopes of earning tips from tourists (ie, us) by guiding us to the new roosting spot.  We had a few false starts in various directions before the joint efforts of the two parties of fishermen brought us to the banks of a broad pond.  We stared off into the distance, trying to make out a shoebill on the other bank, and suddenly there it was!  A huge grey bird stood half-concealed in the papyrus thicket, looking like a pterodactyl, its bill huge and its eyes creepy with their opaque eyelids. He was hard to see, buried as he was in the reeds.  Two of the fishermen waded across and tossed a fish in front of the shoebill, enticing him out, and after a few minutes he walked a few steps forwards into the light. We stood there for a quarter of an hour, studying the bird through our binoculars and taking photos with our telephoto lenses.  It was exhilarating to see the bird, one of fewer than 10,000 in the world, but we were slightly too far away to take decent pictures.  Was it possible to get closer?
We put the question to our guides, and they agreed that we could wade across.  Terri and I went first, wading thigh-deep through the water and then trying, with varying success, to float our weights on the floating mats of interlocked vegetation.  I sank through a couple of times, but managed to stay upright and keep the camera dry.  Eventually we came to a halt only 20 metres from the shoebill and paused to take much better close-up photos.  When we looked back, Suzanne was following in our footsteps, wading through the reeds and making it successfully to where we were standing.  Ben, being a big man, was dissuaded from following as he was certain to sink through the reeds to the bottom.  We stood looking at the shoebill, feeling like time travellers back to the Cretaceous period, watching him blink and turn his bill in various directions, trying to capture the perfect image. 

Boba lungfish, Bangweulu
Eventually it was time to return.  It was a long wet slog back to where we had left Ben and some of the fishermen, and then a much longer walk along a different route back to Shoebill Island Camp, featuring a mokoro crossing of the river made more complicated by the fact that there was only one pole in the boat.  Eventually we made it to Shoebill, where we found a truck and lots of Kasanka Trust employees packing up everything in the camp, including the toilets and the kitchen sinks, onto a huge truck to take to another national park.  We hitched a lift back to Chikuni, where we picked up our bikes and rode back to Nsobe.
After a tasty lunch of corn fritters, we were tired by our early wake-up call and the 10-kilometre swamp walk, so we took a little siesta up in Stanley until 4 pm.  When we got up, we showered and then Terri created a tasty lentil stew on the open fire.  As we were out of beer, I created whisky sour cocktails to mark the sunset, another dramatic smoke-layered fireball, before we tucked into the lentils with gusto.  After supper we went across to Ben and Suzanne’s campsite for champagne and conversation with them and with Carl, the African Parks biologist.  We sat around the campfire, watching the southern stars dance overhead and swapping stories late into the night.  We went to bed satisfied and content after a perfect day of wildlife watching.

Campfire pancakes
The next morning we slept until 7:30, tired by our late night and long day.  We got up, made pancakes on the open fire, did laundry and then set off on bikes to pay for an extra night at Nsobe at the Chikuni office.  It was a great bike ride across the huge plain, scaring up clouds of collared pratincoles.  We bought some delicious local honey at the office, watched a massive martial eagle swoop down in pursuit of the rangers’ chickens,  then biked off towards the treeline in search of the elusive tsessebe.  We struck out on tsessebe, but ran across a group of ten wattled cranes, a species that is very rare in much of its range but thrives in the Bangweulu Wetlands.  I got great shots of the cranes in flight and then biked back to Nsobe in high spirits to try our hands at baking using an open fire.  Jackson, the boss of Nsobe campsite, had excavated a small hole in the clayey soil to act as an oven and found a couple of sheets of scrap corrugated iron,   We stoked up the campfire and then transferred the coals, along with some charcoal, to the hole to heat up our bush oven, covered with the corrugated iron and another layer of coals.  The oven worked brilliantly, and Terri was able to cook up an exquisite lasagne in it. 

Bangweulu fisherman
We sat around drinking our last beer and some leftover corn fritters while the lasagne cooked.  I downloaded the photos from my camera to my laptop and suddenly saw a strange error message.  By the time I realized what was happening (a virus was eating up my photos one by one), all the photos from the previous two days were gone:  the shoebill, the wattled cranes, the black lechwe herds, the white storks.  I was devastated, and sat there in saddened shock for a long time.  As we ate our lasagne, we talked about what to do.  We decided that we would go out in search of shoebills again the following morning before we drove out of Bangweulu.  We went to bed saddened by the technological failure, but excited to go out in search of the shoebill again.

Cormorant, Bangweulu
The following morning, Saturday August 6th, we got up early again and this time we pulled down Stanley’s roof and drove to Chikuni.  This time there were no other tourists, and with only Terri and I in the party, we moved pretty quickly out towards the shoebill.  This time the guides had a pretty good idea where the bird was going to be, and it took only an hour and twenty minutes to get to its hideout, almost exactly where it was two days previously.  We got even better photos this time, with the shoebill walking and even flying briefly, and by 9:40 we were on our way back to Stanley with two separate photo cards of images of the iconic bird.  By 11:00 we were in the mokoro across the river to Shoebill Island Camp, and by 11:30 we were in Stanley driving across the plain in search of wattled cranes and white storks.  We got great pictures of the huge black lechwe herds and of the white storks, along with a few wooly-necked storks, but we struck out on the wattled cranes.  By noon we were back in Nsobe, saying goodbye to Jackson and the other Nsobe staff, and headed back along the track, exultant at having seen the shoebill a second time.

Guide, fisherman, Terri and assistant guide (in Lungu T-shirt)
The retreat to the D235 was remarkably straightforward.  We took turns driving, and since we knew what was coming up, it was much easier driving than on the way out.  We managed to make it the 160 km back to the main road without incident, driving smoothly through the mud wallow that had swallowed us whole on the way out.  We even found the missing mallet beside the mud hole, its wooden handle blackened by a grassfire that had swept over since we had last passed.  We got to the main road before dark, even after stopping to reflate the tires that we had deflated on the way out to handle the sandy stretches.  We weren’t sure where to stop for the night, but an inspired guess saw us stop at the Kasanka National Park gate and beg for a place to sleep.  The guards let us camp for free just behind the park gate barrier, and we slept deeply, full of leftover lasagne and tired by another long, fulfilling day.

Black sparrowhawk, Bangweulu
The following day, Sunday August 7th, saw us drive a long but uneventful day along the deliciously smooth asphalt of the T2 into Lusaka, past the closed customs offices of Kapiri Mposhi, to the familiar confines of Nathalie’s house.  It felt strange to be leaving behind the wilds of northern Zambia where we had seen so many wonderful wild animals and unforgettable landscapes and sunsets, and we were acutely aware that we might never pass that way again.  It had been a wonderful 12 days in northern Zambia, and while we looked forward to the creature comforts of the big city, we already missed the wide-open spaces and perfect campsites of the north.

Terri cycling in Bangweulu