Overland to Central Kafue Part 3
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We left Mongu, the capital of Western Zambia, on an almost cloudless 26 September 2013 east-bound for Kafue National Park whose Tatayoyo Gate was about 360km along the M9. The tar surface of the two-lane M9 varied from new-smooth through ‘rapidly undulating’ to some sections with serious potholes and stretches under reconstruction with detours – an easy run for the Landy and Violet. As our trip unfolded it looked as if Kafue might be our mid-point rather than nearly the end point.
The M9 goes east/west right through Kafue National Park and all drivers have to complete a register at the arrival and departure gates for which, pleasantly surprisingly, there is no fee. We were blessed with sightings, from the main road, of roan antelope, warthog, tsesebe, Defasso waterbuck, puku and impala which really whet our appetites for great sightings during our planned two-day stay in this park.
Just after crossing the Kafue River there is a turnoff to Lwengu Community Campsite on its banks. A relatively new initiative of the local community it boasted ‘no park fees’ as it is technically just outside the Park and charged ZMK 100 per person per night to camp although there was little shade for visitors. We wanted to spend some time ‘chilling’ in camp so opted for Myukuyuku Campsite about 20km further east where we discovered the ZAWA (Zambia Wildlife Authority) fee was ZMK 79 ‘park entrance’ (charged per day) + ZMK 19 ‘camping fee’ per person per night. The camp is operated by a private interest whose fee was an additional ZMK100 pppn. Again we were blessed as we chose (on advice of travellers we had met at Mutoya) Main campsite which idyllically fronted on the magnificent Kafue River. Our camp chairs provided ‘ringside seats’ on the raised river bank from which to view a couple of small pods of hippo, various water birds and antelope grazing in the distance across the far bank. Awoken one morning by their bray-like alarm call and a small stampede of hippo from around our camp towards the river, we captured some images of the big African sun rising over the bush and, over coffee and rusks, reflected on the awesomeness of God’s handiwork.
We discovered that the part of Kafue National Park where game concentrations are greatest is the Busanga Plains far to the north-east of where we camped. There they cater almost exclusively for fly-in tourists. Perhaps progress along the sand roads from the M9 to the lodges in the Plains’ area is too slow, on average, for self-drivers to reach a lodge by nightfall? Whatever the reason, self-drivers were discouraged from embarking on that safari. On our game drives in the central area, in addition to the intial sightings from the main road, we saw lots more puku, a few Lichtenstein’s hartebeest, more waterbuck and impala as well as elephant, zebra and bushbuck and we heard of a buffalo sighting from fellow visitors. We recorded some bites and a few kills though …, not of large game but tsetse flies, when we had to attend to a puncture during a game drive! Thankfully tsetses were absent from our campsite!
Achieving tsetse kills though, is worthy of accolade because they are amazingly resilient beasties; you can hit them quite hard and all they do is wriggle and buzz briefly before flying away. Whenever we encounter tsetses we remember our first trip with Tim and Denise in Botswana’s Moremi Wildlife Sanctuary in 1981. Michele spied a tsetse fly that had the audacity to enter the vehicle and sit on the back of driver Tim’s head. Without hesitation and totally focussed, she kicked off a sandal and whacked that fly, only fully realising the consequences of her action when Tim protested, much to the hilarity of all in the vehicle!
The shadows were lengthening when we found Pioneer Camp, off the Great East Road, about 14km out of the city (ZMK 35 pppn, hot showers, restaurant and bar), after an eventful Saturday afternoon in Lusaka. Our brief connection with Zambian ministry friends in the mall parking lot was like a joyous family reunion while the repair of two of the Landy’s tyres by a couple of independent operators, using the facilities of a large tyre fitment outfit and Tim’s stock of patches … an African experience.
We used the two nights at Pioneer to plot our course for the remainder of our holiday. Originally our plan was to spend most of our time in Western Zambia, take in Kafue NP then head home. Our preliminary internet research revealed fees which seriously limited the amount of time we could afford to stay in Zambian wildlife parks but we had hoped to find other, more affordable camping spots within ‘striking distance’ of some of the parks. We had not, so only half our holiday was over and we didn’t fancy risking another high-priced Zambian park with sparse game.
By South African standards fuel was very expensive in Zambia at ZMK 9.91 per litre of petrol everywhere we travelled (diesel was only slightly cheaper). However, we had already incurred cost to get there and it was our holiday. Our logical route home was via Zimbabwe and there were some relatively inexpensive options potentially open to us after visiting Mana Pools which we agreed was a ‘must see’.
Chirundu border crossing was a pleasure – dealing with both Zambian and Zimbabwean immigration and customs officials in this one-stop facility. We had not obtained South African police clearance certificates for our vehicles so we received a polite reprimand after a short delay. We had spent a relaxed previous afternoon and night at Zambezi Breezes about 10km north of Chirundu, on green lawns under shady trees on the banks of the Zambezi (ZMK 50 pppn camping), blissfully drifting off to sleep with the sounds of the lazy river and a lion roaring far away. That made this situation only mildly stressful.
The largely straight red sandy road to the riverside Nyamepi campsite in Mana Pools National Park was fringed with bush and kinked a little at times to avoid some large spreading trees. It was hot and we had to keep windows closed to keep the tsetses out. The bush looked like it had been fairly dense but was now sparse, dry and dusty. The sparseness and absence of grass suggested either a prolonged drought or overstocking with game. Hence we expected the animals would concentrate close to water so we hoped to see much around Nyamepi Camp, forty some kilometres from the entrance gate.
As we neared the camp and the park’s HQ it seemed our ‘suspicions’ were confirmed – fish eagle on the ground, waterbuck, impala, kudu, warthog, baboon, ground hornbills and elephant were dotted about. Later that afternoon we added a few buffalo, saddle bills, Batteleur, long-tailed starlings and white-crowned plovers (lapwing) to our list of ‘identifiables’. By the next afternoon we had added a couple of hyaena, side-striped jackal, eland and several species of water birds.
From our riverside campsite we had a panoramic view of the great Zambezi which must be about 500m wide at that point, a stretch broken by sporadic tree and bush-covered islands. We were able to sit and watch a lone elephant crossing the river to a nearby island, several pods of hippo, crocodiles, a little egret, with his curiously yellow feet at the end of black legs, at the water’s edge, various kingfishers, marabou and openbill storks. Warily we weathered the occasional monkey raid although they managed to steal a rusk or two. One early afternoon we were watching a small herd of elephant grazing and browsing among the campsites when a mother elephant and her calf of perhaps two or three years came specifically to visit us. Mum scrutinised the contents of our kitchen table from close quarters and junior almost walked into our washing line strung between the vehicles and a tree on the river bank.
Thankfully he realised the danger and reversed passed Violet who was parked quite close to the top of the bank in dense shade. Several fellow campers joined us for the ensuing photo-shoot provided by the pair as they grazed, drank and generally investigated the short section of grassy water’s edge below our camp. The little egret kept them under close observation too. What an awesome privilege!
Mana Pools is evidently a prime tourist destination. A riverside campsite cost $100 US per night for up to six people plus $15 per vehicle and $15 per person per day park fees. The accepted general exchange rate within Zimbabwe at the time was R10 per $1 and, probably because they recognised our licence plates, we occasionally received change from toll gates and filling stations in rands, having paid in dollars.
Our attempts to economise in the second part of the trip seemed doomed. Near the town of Kariba, Tim and Denise had managed to rent an inexpensive houseboat the previous year. Unfortunately none was available this time so, after camping the night, we set off via an old hunters’ road, now used to access the power lines, up the escarpment bound for Tashinga Camp in the Matusadona NP. Tim knew the way, and from his mention of joining the main road, I foolishly assumed we would be able to buy petrol again en route.
Because of Violet’s thirst I always try and optimise fuel usage and cost. Experience in Southern and East Africa is that fuel prices tend to decrease as one approaches the border point through which it is imported. So I filled only one tank in Kariba, to take advantage of lower prices as we headed southward. At least that was the theory but it was not a good decision! The ‘hunters’ road’ was steep, winding and rough with spectacular views of Lake Kariba and valley.
The main road we joined at the top of the escarpment was severely corrugated with much ‘ploughing’ through loose gravel with a distinct absence of habitation and no hope of filling stations. The track down the escarpment again to Tashinga, on the Lake shore, was an enjoyable off-road exercise (about 70km). The net effect of these driving conditions was that the needle on Violet’s fuel gauge seemed to be racing some unseen opponent to well south of the ‘finished’ line. Having established that there was no petrol for sale at Tashinga but that it could be obtained by boat from a nearby game farm, "if the boat was going in the next day or so," there was no option other than to purchase that at $2.50 per litre! The price at Kariba had been $1.55!
Tashinga’s a very special campsite on a small stubby peninsula on the Lake shore providing a 270 degree lake front so that the sun rises and sets over the lake when viewed from the campsite. On the way down to the camp we had seen a small herd of roan antelope and glimpsed the stragglers of a buffalo herd just disappearing into thick bush at the roadside, while on a grassy section of flood plain there were a few oxpecker-speckled hippo grazing, some kudu, a large herd of impala, warthog, waterbuck, Egyptian geese, egrets, herons, hornbills, hamerkop, yellow-billed and openbill storks and glossy ibis. Tea and rusks under the Landy’s awning on the edge of a slight rise overlooking the flood plain … that’s Africa!
The previous night we had woken to see the shadowy forms of elephant in our campsite as they fed on the fruit of the huge African fig tree that provided our shade. There was something deeply moving about being almost at the same eye level as these huge creatures from the vantage of our rooftop tent. We marvelled at how silently and carefully they trod around our camp table and chairs, not disturbing one! Elephant visited the campsite typically late morning and afternoon each day too, en route to drink from the lake.
We saw none of the cats but Tim recounted a terrifying experience of one of his friends, scarcely two years prior to our visit to the very same campsite with the same A-frame shelter. His friend was part of a group of experienced hunting-fishing types who were camped there for the night. Feeling weary and known for his loud snoring, he headed for the A-frame, about 20m away from the campfire, still being enjoyed by most of the party. Sometime later the fireside group were alerted by a commotion inside the A-frame where a lioness had their friend’s head in her mouth and had shaken him out of his sleeping bag.
They managed to drive off the lioness and rushed the badly injured victim to nearby Bumi Hills for aerial evacuation to hospital. We were privileged to meet this gracious gentleman the following week when we overnighted at his home in Bulawayo. The feint scar above his nose and well-fitting prosthetic eye are a tribute to excellent and prompt medical care. Although physically well healed he was not in any hurry to go on a hunting trip.
A finger-sized stick through its sidewall was the nemesis of a Landy tyre while one of those previously repaired was leaking slowly. I was pleased I retained the original split rims, with flaps and tubes, on Violet after we battled to break the bead on the offending Landy tyre so we could repair it. Driving onto the tyre would not dislodge it. Even placing the foot of the high-lift jack close to the rim and jacking the vehicle on that had to be repeated several times before success. The bigger wheel size and stud conformation of the Landy compared to Violet meant we could not swap any wheels but we carried two complete spares each so, although our repair was not perfect, the Landy would not be incapacitated by another puncture.
Camp fees for Tashinga comprised $15 per person per night. Add to this a conservation fee of $12 per person and $15 per vehicle, both of which were payable once every 7 days of your stay. We spent two glorious nights in this piece of Eden.
After refuelling (at $1.62/l) and camping, with a dip in the very welcome cool pool at Binga, we headed for Deka where we hoped to spend a night or two with friends. Unfortunately management of the lodge had changed and renovations were underway so next stop, Hwange National Park, about 180km from Binga.
Main Camp in Hwange NP provided basic camp site with simple ablutions at similar prices to Tashinga. Their supply of park maps had run out so we used our photo of an aging display in the reception area for reference. Elephants, although among our favourite animals, seemed to be too numerous for the park but perhaps they had migrated to the more northerly area at this time of year. We were blessed to have some really great views of elephant frolicking in a waterhole from a nearby wooden platform built for the purpose. The blessing extended to a pride of lion with cubs and a group of adult cheetah, sable antelope, steenbok, kudu, hyaena, baboon and a variety of birds. The artificial water points were certainly attracting the game at that very dry time of year.
After two nights in Hwange NP and another in Bulawayo we bade Tim and Denise farewell as they prepared to head back to Kimberley and we returned to Barberton via the length of the Kruger National Park. We spent two nights in Kruger and saw all of the ‘Big Five’ and much larger numbers of game than we had in any of the Zambian or Zimbabwean parks. Camping facilities were excellent, well-maintained and prices very reasonable by comparison.
We had travelled a total of 6 000km via Botswana and Caprivi through south western Zambia, across to Kafue National Park, ‘followed’ the Zambezi and Lake Kariba on the Zimbabwe side from Mana Pools to Deka and thence, via Hwange NP, Bulawayo and South Africa’s Kruger National Park. A little more than half of this was tarred road, necessary to reach the more remote destinations we thrive on visiting. We enjoy the challenge of pitting our vehicles and driving skills against those challenges and being in wild places unspoilt by the effects of excessive human habitation. We are always grateful to God for blessing us with means, skills and time to enjoy these wild frontiers and we are prepared to ‘rough it’ in order to enjoy them. We understand that sightings of animals in the wild can never be guaranteed and we were blessed to see species that either do not occur or are rare in South African parks but our impression is that the Zambian and Zimbabwean wildlife authorities have largely lost the anti-poaching war, when one considers the small numbers and skittishness of game species we saw.
Whilst we are prepared for no facilities, to have to pay top dollar for minimal game sighting and under-maintained facilities does rather stick in the crop. Some of the overseas visitors we encountered had low expectations but also felt that value lagged the money spent.
The cost of reaching these destinations is high as is their maintenance but one wonders whether reducing tariffs would not result in higher occupancy and, ultimately, higher revenue. Whatever the arguments, the fact remains that if patrons have a good experience they will be happy and return or at least be good advertisers.
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