Livingstone, Zambia, September 1st
|Terri and Stanley at Nsobe|
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.
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.
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.
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|
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 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|
|Stanley camped at Pontoon Camp, 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.
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|
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.|
|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|
|Our rescue squad at Lake Waka Waka|
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|
|Poling through the reeds, Bangweulu|
|Fishermen's family, Bangweulu|
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|
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|
|Terri cycling in Bangweulu|