Overland to Central Kafue Part 2
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Our drive into the Zambezi Valley in Western Zambia via Botswana and Chobe, then across the Caprivi Strip of Namibia, our two-day attempted visit to Sioma Ngwezi National Park and the impressive Ngonye Falls were all the subjects of Part 1. Our main objective, however, was Liuwa Plains National Park. So Michele and I in our 1983 petrol Toyota Hilux, named Violet, and our great friends Tim and Denise Blight, in their recently acquired, much more recent model Landrover Defender diesel, headed for Liuwa.
Our maps showed a road on the western side of the Zambezi River to the small town of Kalabo, the entry point to Liuwa Plains National Park which is situated on the Barotse Flood Plains. The alternative ‘main route’ required two ferry crossings, one to the east bank, to follow the main road through the large town of Mongu, and then another ferry back across the river to get to Kalabo and Liuwa Plains. Why pay two ferry fares, we reasoned, when we could reach Kalabo by simply driving on the west side of the river?
From the limited internet information we gleaned on the area we had a rough budget based on an exchange rate of R(ZAR) 1.60 to the rebased Zambian kwacha (ZMW).
We expected the high border entry costs but considered the exchange rate of R2.00 per ZMW offered at the border, a rip-off so we had vehemently refused to exchange, preferring to try the bank. Problem was it was already late afternoon and the bank at the border was closed. The auto-teller machine rejected our cards so we spent considerable time trying to convince border officials to accept rands. The rate we received at the bank in Sesheke was only slightly better at R1.843/ZMW. That meant our tight budget was stretched even more thinly! We could exchange only cash at the busy bank as their computer systems were temporarily out of order.
Our decision to carry minimal cash and rely on bank cards was counting against us.
Soon after the turnoff to the one-engined community ferry near Ngonye falls the new tar of the M10 ended and we had the choice of the newly-built but yet-to-becompacted road or the parallel, unmaintained old gravel road. We opted off the rough new road for the old, which looked relatively smooth from across the median between the two. But we soon saw the Landy suddenly disappear in an impressive cloud of dust ahead of us when it hit the first of several large "bulldust pits" (very large potholes, often across the whole road, into which your vehicle falls and is suddenly engulfed in copious fine dust from the underlayer pulverised by all the other vehicles that fell into the hole before yours did). At times bumpy rough seemed preferable to bulldust and at others vice versa.
So it was relatively slow, bumpy going for the next about 40km to Sitoti, the last ferry point before Kalabo. At one point, just before an old bridge, I instinctively took the small sand track down the road embankment and through the dry river bed – just as well because a section of the bridge had washed away, not obvious as one approached the bridge on a sligh t incline! No signage or even rocks in the road to direct travellers – a reminder to take it easy when driving unfamiliar rural roads in Africa. It was hard to imagine this area being flooded with water when everything was so very dry.
Near the Sitoti ferry landing we took the only obvious thick sandy turn, up a little incline, onto the ‘main’ road to Kalabo. This was a track of soft sand, barely one vehicle wide and hedged on both sides with a kind of bramble. Old Violet seemed to be making particularly heavy weather of the deep sand and after a few kilometres we stopped to evaluate whether we really wanted to continue ploughing through the soft sand all the way to Kalabo, which might not have much needed foreign exchange facilities, or opt for the ferry and the larger, more travelled main route on the east side of the river to Mongu which would certainly have banks.
When Violet refused to make the turn across the track Tim noted that only her rear wheels were driving.
Now drivers of modern permanently all-wheel-drive vehicles are spared the ignominy of having to climb out of the vehicle and manually engage the front free-wheel hubs in such circumstances. It sort of dents the ‘veteran African bush driver’ image.
Mercifully, apart from the Lord, my wife and our friends, no one else saw. Later we met a party who had opted for the west bank route and took two days to drive the approximately 200km to Kalabo – heavy sand all the way!
Our map showed the distance from Sitoti to Senanga as 34km yet the well-worn sand road wound over parts of the original built road in places and past it in others, also the victim of successive flooding. Actual distance driven was probably significantly further than 34km to accommodate all the detours and it must have taken more than an hour to reach Senanga. From there it was good tar all the way to Mongu.
Mutoya, a Christian mission station with a campsite for dusty overlanders that offers green lawns under big spreading trees and clean, rustic but well-maintained ablutions, was clearly signposted on the outskirts of Mongu on the Senanga road.
We had not managed to make email contact before departure but we were warmly received for R85 or ZMW50 per person per night (testimony to more favourable exchange rates in the recent past), so we reserved two nights. As we were turning in for the night we heard an unfamiliar soft hoo hoo hoowoowoo owl call. Michele managed to get a good photo of the medium-sized African Wood Owl who seemed relatively unperturbed by our flashlights.
Next day we checked every bank and auto teller in Mongu, a largish dusty African frontier town and commercial ‘capital’ of the ‘wild west’ of Zambia, but could not obtain foreign exchange with our bank cards. As it happened we all had Mastercard and these Zambian banks would not process these. Fortunately Denise had a Visa card account which saved the day. With the high Zambian fuel price, extra ferry crossings, Violet thirstier than ever even after fitting a Weber carburettor with much careful engine tuning, Michele and I were having serious doubts about whether we could really afford the full duration of the trip. Yet we felt it was right, in God, to make the trip. The church had blessed us with extra leave, even though we’d only just completed our first year in Barberton and we had realised enough from investments to just cover anticipated expenses.
Had we been too eager and been disobedient?
We didn’t think so, but… We said nothing to Tim and Denise who announced that evening that they intended to bless us by sponsoring two nights in Liuwa Plains!
What amazing friends and what an awesome God we serve! This was another in a line of blessings we have received since the decision to move to Barberton. We would have to see this trip through!
The signpost just out of the north-western exit of Mongu read, "Zambezi 25km". A Chinese company or consortium has apparently rebuilt the causeway across the flood plain every year for the past eleven years. Each year parts of it are washed away and in the following dry season it is rebuilt. We encountered them frantically busy, with large sections of the road under construction and more sandy detour than causeway driving. Various detours and ‘unofficial detours’ had been created crisscrossing the construction areas.
We passed some small single family settlements on the flood plain dotted on any slightly raised ground available. On the approach to the ferry point the raised roadway was home to a collection of shacks, narrowing the road considerably.
The offices of African Parks were on the main road on the far end of the small dusty village which, we were told, has no foreign exchange facilities – another good reason for going via Mongu. We had not made a reservation in advance since we knew that the park is remote and receives only around two hundred visitors per year. It is accessible only in the four-month dry season (July to October). The rest of the year it is typically submerged or too boggy. Personnel at the main lodge pack up the lodge and truck it and themselves out of the park except for the heavier furniture which is stacked to avoid the water. When the floods have subsided and the tracks are passable once again they drive in again and ‘set up shop’ for four months till the next rains.
They repeat the process each year. There is a sand airstrip near the main lodge.
Crossing the Luanginga River at Kalabo by the hand-drawn pontoon is one of those genuine African experiences. The hollow steel pontoon is unstable and just long enough to take two medium-sized vehicles. If the first vehicle drives on directly to the far end, the thing’s likely to tip up risking landing the first vehicle in the drink or at least making the second’s approach impossible! So the first vehicle has to drive on to about halfway then the second begins to edge on while the first then moves forward to counterbalance. Once the vehicles are aboard a hoard of local pedestrians with their bags of salt and meal also embark.
We all pay our fares and then it’s all hands to the rope to pull the pontoon across to the other side.
The pontoon captain indicates the direction I should take Violet up the sloping sandy bank. Hubs are locked this time. We engage low range second gear and feed her all 64kW but she just runs out of legs before the top. Reverse downhill back towards the pontoon, watched with curiosity by friends, locals and pontoon captain who suggest an alternative route only slightly less steep. Second attempt has the same result.
Only then does Violet’s pilot realise that he increased tyre pressure for the tar run into Kalabo and it needs to be reduced again. ‘Bush driver’ image now completely shattered I lament my lack of practice of remote African travelling over the past few years especially, as Violet reaches the top of the river bank and level ground with a few kilowatts to spare. The more powerful Lindy with ‘baboon tyres’, as Tim calls wide tyres, took the steeper route without flinching.
Now here’s the thing. There was no track up the river bank, just uniformly sandy. It seems that in such conditions wide, soft tyres rule but in deep sand tracks perhaps narrower tyres work better. We observed that the Park’s Landcruisers were all fitted with original narrow cross ply tyres and they travelled easily along the deep sand tracks. Tim’s theory is that the narrower tyre pushes up less of a sand wall in front of it and offers less sidewall resistance in the deep tracks than wider tyres – bears thinking about. Plentiful engine power is a strong recommendation for a heavy vehicle in deep sand though.
Liuwa Plains National Park is amazing on a grand scale. Endless grassy plains stretch as far as the eye can see in all directions between occasional ‘tree islands’ where trees and bush grow on almost imperceptibly higher ground. Our campsite was thoughtfully arranged in one of the islands, undetectable from the neighbouring plain. Several individual campsites were cleverly arranged around central shared ablutions in such a way that one was hardly aware of other campers. Some tracks are washed away by flooding each year yet others seem to remain for several years, judging by their depth. There are no signposts so GPS with updated Tracks for Africa is essential, together with the sketch map you receive when checking in.
It was hot and very dry with only the occasional sighting of small groups of wildebeest (brindled gnu) or zebra mirage-like in the ever-present heat shimmer on the endless horizon. There was water in shallow dambos dotted about the plains. We were a little disappointed not to witness the massing of huge herds preparing for migration yet we were rewarded with good sightings of hyaena, wildebeest, zebra, side-striped jackal, large flocks of crowned cranes and pelicans, some wattled cranes, open bills, spoonbills, saddlebills, fish eagles, tawny eagles, bateleur, yellowbilled kites and other raptors, sanderlings, red-billed teals, black-winged stilts and flocks of other waders concentrated around some dambos.
We headed for what the sketch map described as an "active hyaena den" to find three hyaena cooling off in the shallows of a nearby dambo. We were able to absorb something of the magnitude of God’s awesome creation by just parking for a few hours next to a dambo with huge flocks of birds and seeing wildebeest frolicking and zebra enjoying rolling in the white sand before drinking. Another treat was witnessing the very early, somewhat uncoordinated running of a newborn wildebeest, with umbilicus still evident, around his mum. These little guys are able to stand within a few minutes of birth and run with their mothers within five minutes. Within a day they can fully maintain their place within the herd! A cloudbank on the western horizon added ome effect to the sunset but the general absence of cloud or serious wind to stir the dust meant no classic sunrise or sunset pictures yet the starkness of these times held their own beauty.
Night sounds were few but we were able to identify squaretailed nightjars and ‘puppy bird’, presumably it was a bird, that made a sound almost like the squealing of small puppies around their mothers, the occasional whoop of a hyaena and brief singing of cicadas.
Liuwa’s fees for campers are steep by local South African standards. Western Zambia is remote and the road approaches are tough, which add to this destination’s attractiveness but are bound to incur substantial fuel and maintenance costs just to get there and back. One wonders whether reduced admission charges might not attract more visitors and more income overall. But then there are probably questions of ecological sensitivity and increased numbers of vehicles might be undesirable.
Management of wildlife areas is costly but I question the wisdom in ‘fleecing’ a small number of visitors in under-maintained facilities. If one is expected to pay top dollar then broken toilet seats, leaky plumbing and slap dash cleaning of ablutions are not good advertisements for attracting future income.
A lesson learned on an extended East African safari in 2000 was that whatever the conditions one encounters this is the experience. Hankering after better facilities, roads, larger numbers or greater variety of animals and birds only serves to frustrate one and detract from the enjoyment of the African experience you came for. For us every part of a trip is to be savoured, from the roadside stops for tea or repairs to the technical difficulties of negotiating road obstacles en route and the variety of game and birds to be seen. This is the stuff of travelling off the beaten track and builds the repertoire of anecdotes!
From Liuwa we headed back to Mongu and Mutoya camp for another night. Our return trip, by the same route, was quicker. Before we realised it we were crossing the river on a temporary steel bridge, apparently only for the use of the construction teams. It seems we’d missed a few detours due to lack of signage, but at all times people were friendly and waved us on with an occasional shrug and smile of disbelief.
The Landy had to have a second attempt to get up the soft sandy bank from the campsite. On our way out the gate guard proudly showed us a 1,6m black cobra he had killed the previous night. We set off for Kafue, about 400km eastward on tar.
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