Into the unknown

0

From vast wilderness areas to remote swamps, Zambia has much to offer the adventurous traveller. Gemma Catlin explores some of the country’s far-flung corners

HR_Gemma-Catlin_Mutinondo-View-from-Mayense-Rock-landscapeThis is an expedition! You won’t be following roads; you’ll be making them. And don’t expect to see many people; there aren’t many where you’re going,” Mark Sprong, owner of Land & Lake Safaris, tells us with a grin.

Our team comprises Henry, our driver and expert guide; Peter, bush cook extraordinaire; Ulrich, a German banker who spends his holidays stalking big cats with a telephoto lens; Julia, a free-spirited explorer; and me, an enthusiastic glamper. Our plan is to spend the next two weeks discovering some of Zambia’s more far-flung corners, most of which are usually accessed by light aircraft. We, however, have opted for an eight-seater Nissan 4WD.

To reach these remote lands from our starting point, Lilongwe, we break our journey at Thornicroft Tented Camp on the edge of wildlife (and tourist) hotspot South Luangwa National Park. It’s a gentle introduction to the adventure and allows us to acclimatise to the bush. We reach camp a little after dark, and our pre-erected tents are a welcome sight. From here on in, our sleeping quarter comfort will rely on our own pitching abilities.

The following morning, after a 5am wake-up, we are greeted by wildlife guru and guide Godfrey. “We’re going on a drive,” he claps his hands enthusiastically. “We’ll spend the first hour looking for cats, so if you need to take pictures of anything else, let’s do it quickly.”

In a few minutes we’re in the park, and the sounds and scenery are quick to stimulate our senses. After a few hundred metres, a hyena blocks our path. She sniffs the air and glances at us, before lolloping towards an open plain.

A little further on, a squirrel’s alarm call alerts Godfrey, and we make our way towards an enormous tree. His foot hits the brake. “There,” he points with a proud grin. We look up at the leafy branches, and spot a beautiful leopard. Later that day, we see two more, as well as lion, elephant, giraffe, hippo, wildebeest and countless bird species.

The next day’s early awakening is softened by our excitement of getting off the beaten track. We head further west, winding our way through the eerily quiet miombo woodland towards the Muchinga Escarpment. As the mountain range looms into view, the road peters out and the ground loosens. Before starting our ascent, Henry deflates the tyres for added grip, engages the diff lock, and yells, “Hold on tight!” He navigates cautiously up the rugged terrain, but as the incline steepens the truck begins to slip. It’s time to make use of our legs. The sun burns and the climb is a sweaty ramble. Our creaking 4WD crawls up slowly behind us. At last, it seems we’ve reached virtually untrodden lands.

Twelve hours later we bump our way into Mutinondo Wilderness Camp, and there’s just enough time to pitch our tents and grab an ice-cold Mosi beer before sunset. The camp is spectacularly located for hilly walks and mountain-bike rides, but unfortunately our meticulously planned itinerary has us packed-up and on the road by 10am the following morning. Not wanting to miss out, Julia, Ulrich and I set our alarms for 4.15am and climb up to Mayense Rock before breakfast. It takes us well over an hour to reach the peak, but our feat is rewarded with panoramic views over a verdant Brachystegia forest.

Our next stop, Kasanka, is the oldest national park in Zambia. It’s renowned for a rare and elusive species of amphibious antelope called the sitatunga. Due to the timid nature of the dark-chocolatey buck, a viewing platform has been built in a giant red mahogany tree. As we scale the 60ft ladder, the landscape below opens up over hundreds of grazing puku, and once we’re up there, Peter spots a pair of sitatunga among the pale-yellow reeds. They browse their way through the boggy marsh and a calf appears alongside them. The mother nudges it back into safety and all three disappear.

We spend the rest of the day exploring the park on foot. We creep past a dozing croc and tiptoe our way towards a group of openbill storks. The scenery is beautiful, and the lack of tourists creates a sense of isolation that is rarely found in South Luangwa. The area is also home to one of the world’s greatest annual wildlife spectacles: at the end of October, five million straw-coloured fruit bats descend on the park for two months of gorging on fruit. It’s the largest migration on Earth, yet it is still relatively undiscovered by tourists. Kasanka is wild with a capital ‘W’.

Further north, the vast wetlands of Bangweulu (the local word for ‘where water meets sky’) are interrupted only by mirage illusions of water and giant herds of silhouetted antelope. We travel across the plains towards our next destination: Shoebill Island. Two smiling security guards greet us at the gate, inviting us to meet a rescued shoebill chick. This bird, also known as a ‘whalehead’, is an enormous, prehistoric-looking, stork-like bird that resides in some of Africa’s boggiest marshes. As I climb down from the truck, I spot a metre-tall mass of silvery-grey feathers picking its way elegantly across the yard. The bird’s slow, deliberate movement is almost robotic; I question for a moment whether or not it’s actually real. We camp that night in a spectacular spot next to a shallow lagoon, where pelicans roost and hundreds, if not thousands, of black lechwe come to drink.

The next morning, we drive towards the swamps, an area favoured by nesting shoebills at this time of year (September). When the land becomes too soft for the 4WD, we pull on our gumboots and follow our guide on foot. The cold, muddy water floods our boots and progress is slow and exhausting. After several sun-cream applications and multiple lost wellies, our leader motions for us to stop. It seems we’ve stumbled across a nest occupied by a shoebill chick. Meanwhile, its mother circles overhead.

Bangweulu is often considered too difficult to reach, so very few tourists make it here. But this remoteness, of course, only adds to the wonder of your time here.

Our final destination is too far to travel in a day, so we are forced to have an overnight pit-stop at a local guesthouse in the small town of Mpika. We gather supplies in the bustling, dusty streets, a far cry from the wild Zambia we have come to know. In the market’s winding alleyways, sellers jeer loudly from behind mounds of dry fish, potatoes and other vegetables, and an exotic jumble of spices prickles the inside of my nostrils.

On arrival in North Luangwa National Park, our host Mike welcomes us to Buffalo Camp with refreshing beers and a pad of paper to take our sundowner orders. Having been shown to our en-suite reed chalets, teetering along the riverbank, we head out for a walk. There are virtually no roads here, so the best way to explore is on foot. Our armed guard Patrick leads the way. Fifteen minutes before sunset we reach a small track, where Mike waits for us in an open-top jeep. He drives us to his favourite sundowner spot and we sip our gin and tonics next to a small herd of elephant.

Early the next morning we pass a couple of hyena, a herd of zebra and some wildebeest. We pull up close to a bank, and Patrick tells us to hop out and take off our shoes and socks. We walk across the gently trickling river, while an enormous colony of vibrant carmine bee-eaters chatter in a nearby tree.

As we continue downstream, we spot a group of baboons grooming one another among a herd of silently grazing impala. Two kori bustards — the world’s largest flying bird — peck at the loose soil and some kudu enjoy the shade of a large acacia.

We’re just admiring another group of zebra, when a buffalo looms out of the thicket, with another pair emerging behind it. Then another. By the time we’ve found some shade, there must be at least 50 of them heading towards the almost-dry riverbed. Some start to run, pushing younger calves out of their way. Eventually 200 or so are bathing and drinking in the final shallow pools, surrounded by one of Africa’s most awe-inspiring remaining wilderness areas.

• To view more photos of Zambia’s wildest corners, visit travelafricamag.com

6 top tips
✓ Wear khaki and avoid blue — specifically electric — the tsetse flies love it.
✓ Take a bottle of Dettol and apply liberally to skin and/or clothes in tsetse fly regions — they seem to hate it.
✓ For even the most unenthusiastic of birders, binoculars are a must.
✓ Visit the lady selling spice mixes in the market in Mpika town. They add an interesting twist to simple dishes and, at about 35p a bag, are an absolute steal.
✓ Bring a spare pair of socks for swamp wading. Your feet are bound to get wet!
✓ Even during the warmer months, evenings and early mornings can be very chilly. Pack something warm and light — my ultralight down jacket was a lifesaver.

Safari Planner
• Getting there  South African Airways and Kenya Airways both fly to Lusaka and Lilongwe with stopovers. The writer booked her adventure through Land & Lake Safaris, which specialises in tailor-made trips to Malawi and Zambia. Its 13-day ‘Wild Zambia’ tour, which costs from £2030 (all-inclusive, except park fees) makes it possible to get off the beaten track, combining the Muchinga Escarpment, Mutinondo Wilderness, Kasanka National Park, the Bangweulu Wetlands and North Luangwa National Park in a two-week road trip. The journey starts and finishes in Lilongwe, and includes a brief visit to South Luangwa National Park.
• Where to stay  There are various options to suit all budgets. The Land & Lakes itinerary includes camping at various sites and accommodation at Thornicroft Tented Camp in South Luangwa, Mutinondo Wilderness Camp, and Buffalo Camp in North Luangwa National Park.
• When to go  Zambia has a sub-tropical climate. Weather patterns are increasingly unpredictable, but you can expect rain between December and March, dryer weather in April and May, and warm and cloudless days between June and August (peak season). The temperature soars in September and October, and the rains usually begin in November, which is also the main bat migration month in Kasanka.
• Health  Visit your local GP or travel clinic well in advance of your trip to ensure you have the necessary vaccinations and antimalarials.
• Further reading  Bradt Guide to Zambia (6th Edition) by Chris McIntyre; Bradt Guide to Southern African Wildlife (2nd Edition) by Mike Unwin.

Bushwire
“The remoteness of the trip is exciting in itself — you truly get ‘lost’ in the wilderness with no one else around you for miles. And then, of course, the abundance and variety of species that you see in this region is quite unique, especially since many of them are endemic to the area and are seldom seen elsewhere in the world!”
Henry Gundula, guide, Land & Lake Safaris

Share.