Overland to Central Kafue Part 1
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The idea was to explore the ‘Wild West’ of Zambia and use the there-and-back time for more than just ‘getting there’. We reckoned it would be good to look in at Sioma Ngwezi and ‘do’ Liuwa Plains and Kafue National Parks for starters. The plan unfolded after some preliminary internet research and during exploration.
‘Zamkafuzi and associates’? Well, our routing was via Botswana and Namibia to the Barotse Flood Plains of the Zambezi in W Zambia. From there we drove through Kafue National Park and thence along the Zimbabwe side of the Zambezi, visiting Mana Pools and Matusadona National Parks, the latter via the rough ‘back route’, before heading south and homeward to South Africa, via Hwange, four weeks later. That was from mid-September to mid-October 2013, within the four-month dry season.
We were two couples, our friends Tim and Denise Blight in a recently acquired, newish Landrover Defender station wagon, and us in our trusty 1983 Toyota Hilux 4x4 which we’ve owned since 1984. Since our first trip together in 1981 we have enjoyed several southern African expeditions in the Blights’ company. Over the past we had been unable to make expeditions due for financial or leave reasons. At last it was feasible again so when Tim suggested this trip we jumped at it. We all enjoy the challenges of being self-sufficient away from ‘commercialism’ for weeks at a time and have kitted ourselves and our vehicles accordingly.
Population growth and expanding infrastructure development have forced us to travel further afield in search of truly remote areas. Western Zambia was within ‘striking distance’ so it appealed. The ladies pleaded for more nights in each campsite rather than follow the guys’ yen to tackle the driving challenges and explore new territory daily. Our internet research and email contact with ZAWA (Zambia Wildlife Authority) and African Parks, controlling authorities for Kafue and Liuwa respectively, revealed that a week in each of these parks would have way exceeded our budget in half the time we had available! Where else could we go that was relatively new to us and not too far, within the time and cash we could spare?
A suggestion was that we just meander around W Zambia exploring the area, perhaps briefly visiting one or two of the parks, as day visitors from some close-by campsites. But that reminded us of the time, nearly twenty years ago, when we bush camped outside another African park and spent a frustrating ten days, with our young families, seeing virtually no game, even in the two days and single night we felt we could afford in the park! None of us was keen to repeat that! Yet W Zambia beckoned. Apart from the intelligence provided in a magazine article carefully kept by Tim, we had little to guide us, especially as internet searches revealed little, if any, information on other campsites within our budget. I read an old magazine article on Sioma Ngwezi, while in our doctor’s waiting room, which wasn’t very encouraging, yet the lack of its development was tempting.
First stop for us was Francistown where we were blessed with the generous hospitality of ministry friends. We had decided to carry less cash this time than on previous trips and took the bank’s advice to draw foreign currency on our debit cards. So, after successfully testing this system in Francistown, refuelling and purchasing a few supplies for lunch we made for Kasane and the campsite at Chobe Safari Lodge. Thankfully there was one tiny site spare at BWP 85 per person for the night. Roomy, clean well-maintained ablutions and friendly staff. Next afternoon we were to meet our friends after visiting Chobe, so it was an early start – just a place to wash, eat and sleep.
We paid 270 Pula (BWP 270) for our vehicle, named Violet, and the two of us to enter Chobe National Park as day visitors. It was sad to see the shabbiness of the entrance gate and office and the staff apologised that their stocks of maps and pamphlets were exhausted. Along the River Route we saw plentiful buffalo and zebra grazing on the Chobe flood plains but only one large herd of elephant, surprisingly few for a park known for its elephant.
A close but rather obscured leopard dozing in dense bush close to the road was a highlight, as was part of a herd of sable antelope moving slowly into denser bush. Some fish eagles, one eating his catch in a tree near the road, watched by a curious hamerkop, several striking (not downed tools) carmine bee-eaters, saddle bills and open billed storks and lunch in the shade atop Violet all added interest. Michele and I remembered a close encounter with elephant while on foot near Serondela, which was a campsite in 1981, but we could not glimpse the substantial tree we climbed.
We met Tim and Denise on the roadside on that sweltering, dry and dusty African afternoon a few kilometres outside Wenela, the Namibian side of Katima Mulilo, where we topped up all fuel tanks and jerries before crossing into Zambia. They had driven from Kimberley, the length of Namibia, via a friend’s birthday party near Windhoek over a few days.
Intelligence from friends in Lusaka confirmed high fuel prices in Zambia. Botswana’s fuel was usually cheaper so we had filled up fully in Francistown but would have benefitted by doing so rather at Wenela, both in the total cost of 210l of petrol as well as the reduced load lugged through Chobe sand especially! Diesel for the Landy was similarly priced, often a few ‘cents’ cheaper, and the Landy was less thirsty than old Violet.
The figures are actual petrol prices, per litre. Diesel prices were similar.
Zambia impressed as an expensive destination from the moment we crossed the border. Not only was fuel expensive but it seemed that Zambian authorities were intent on capitalising on tourists as each couple was relieved of the equivalent of more than ZAR1000 in border fees and insurance premium. These comprised vehicle insurance, which varied slightly according to engine capacity, road tax that is received only as US$ 20, CIP only as ZMK 100. The insurance company reluctantly allowed us to pay in ZAR while the municipal levy was gladly accepted as ZAR 50 (ZMK 25) per vehicle. Compare this with the other countries we travelled through.
Country entry fees
Tim’s magazine article praised Kabula Tiger Lodge’s facilities and campsite on the banks of the mighty Zambezi so, since it was only about 60km north along the main tar road (M10) from Katima, that was where we headed. Kennister and Delicious made us feel immediately at home and ensured we had plentiful shade, firewood and hot water under spreading shade trees on the rolling well-kept lawns of the campsite adjacent to the lodge. Although the GPS listed the lodge it could not pinpoint the turnoff from the main road, probably confused by the very recent, almost completed rebuilding of that part of the M10. When we located it, after local enquiry, we had simply missed the largish signpost in the slanting late afternoon sun. Camp facilities were comfortable, clean and well-maintained and we had the place to ourselves so, at ZAR115 per person per night, we booked two nights. That went some way towards satisfying our ladies’ request and gave some time to investigate the slight trickle of axle oil I had first noticed at our Kasane campsite the previous night, that had become a well-developed star-like sludgy smear on the inside of Violet’s right rear wheel.
A troop of vervet monkeys entertained us during our leisurely breakfast next morning, especially with their antics around the camp’s irrigation system. Lodge management has signs requesting guests to help keep the monkeys wild by not feeding them and mostly the monkeys had got the message, except for the odd curious guy who lurked in likely vantage points from which to launch lightning ‘strikes’. Close examination of the oil seal revealed that it’s inside diameter was exactly the same as that of the bearing retainer it ran on – an undetected fault after that bearing was replaced in preparation for the trip. Thankfully very little oil was lost and the differential preserved. No suitable replacement seal was available in Sesheke or Katima so we pressed on with one oil-sodden rear brake drum.
We decided to attempt entry to Sioma Ngwezi National Park from the south. Again, despite updated Tracks for Africa, the GPS was unhelpful, neither were there any road signs. The spirit of adventure kicked in and we headed west on a likely-looking track. Our track became rapidly sandier and Violet’s front hubs had to be locked and tyre pressures reduced. A local resident, travelling in his small sedan, confirmed we were on the right track so we pressed on without seeing another vehicle or habitation, twisting and winding through endless bush for several hours in thick sand.
This was Africa!
The GPS occasionally suggested we had entered the eastern edge of the park but there was no other sign to confirm this. The only signs of animals were occasional cattle dung and spoor and almost no birds.
Tim was rather deprecating of the fat high-speed tyres fitted on the Landy, especially when one was punctured on this track, probably by a stick piercing the characteristically thin sidewall of this type of tyre. Changing that wheel entertained the kids in a school we’d stopped at to check directions. Definitely he was going to change tyres after this trip!
Before we reached the school and nearby village we had seen almost no other signs of human or animal habitation and the track seemed to have no significant branches. In fact it went very clearly into the village but not out again. One of the villagers walked us to the ‘exit’ and road to ‘Kapua’ we thought they said. It needed a healthy dose of imagination to recognise any track at that point but the flat topography, endless sand and use of makoros for cattle water troughs in the village suggested that this area was also flooded periodically. After the village we and an ox cart piloted by two small boys, took turns in passing one another along the once again well-defined track. We made camp behind a large, apparently vacated, termite mound a little way off the track. The flies and gnats from kilometres around were delighted to have our company but, instead of reciprocating we cowered under pieces of shade cloth to avoid them, especially when a swarm of bees decided to join the party! To the couple of locals who walked by on the track at dusk the scene of bundles of talking, quaking green shade cloth must have been quite eerie. Thankfully peace descended with the sunset.
We left ‘Fly Camp’ soon after sunrise to escape the inevitable swarms and, after a brief breakfast stop where a largish tree had fallen across the track, ploughed on towards the ‘ZAWA people’ the villagers had mentioned. Around another bend in the track about an hour later, suddenly there were some buildings and in the road leaned a young woman whose whole demeanour challenged, “Don’t mess with me!” As we slid to a sudden stop we noticed a roughly hand-painted sign on a nearby tree, “ZAWA”. She announced that we had entered a national park and thus park fees were due. I countered by describing our route, stating that there had been absolutely no signposts, we had not used park facilities but camped in the bush and the only animals we’d seen were cattle. She confirmed some details of our route then graciously replied, “In that case you may proceed.” Within 400 metres we were on the M10 heading north again for Mongu. We had probably travelled less than 130km in thick sand in a rough winding arc west of the M10, perhaps criss-crossing the park border on occasion. The few pans we saw were very dry and although they had obviously seen heavy activity when wet, they had seen no new visitors for weeks, maybe months … cattle or game? Perhaps the game was concentrated more towards the western border with Angola – likely if there was water there.
Further north, on the newly-tarred M10, the sign read, “Ngonye Falls”. We were blessed by the sight of these multiple ‘low’ cataracts across divided streams of the Zambezi at this spot. We could see only part of the main cataract from our vantage point on the west bank as we had declined the offer of a row boat trip to the island for a fuller, closer view at an additional cost of ZMK 26 per person. The motor boat was being repaired. There is an entry fee of ZMK 26 per vehicle and ZMK 14 per person – both daily. The guide’s fee for a walking tour was ZMK 50. This community project also offered camping at an additional ZMK 26 per person nightly.
Also operated as part of the local ‘community project’ was a nearby ferry that our host at the Falls encouraged us to use, rather than the ferry at Sitoti further north. We reasoned that we should stay on the west bank heading for Liuwa and save the ZMK 150 per ferry crossing charged per our foreign-registered vehicle (ZMK 60 for local vehicles) to cross to the east side of the Zambezi and back again en route to Kalabo, the gateway to Liuwa Plains National Park. Our maps showed the road continuing up the west side of the river all the way to Kalabo. The ‘community’ ferry was delayed over lunch to allow its single functional engine to cool, so we decided to test our hypothesis and keep driving. Oh boy!
To be continued ….
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