Sunday, October 9, 2016

Stanley Explores Western Zambia

Mabuasehube Gate, Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, October 1

Elephant at our campsite, Mayukuyuku
I'm sitting in front of a crackling campfire here under the infinite starry canopy of the southern skies in the middle of the Kalahari Desert, listening to the yips of nearby spotted hyenas (the same guys who ransacked our camp garbage can last night, aided by a lone brown hyena), contemplating the past month of memorable travel here in Botswana, but also trying to recollect the details of our last three weeks in Zambia back in August.  It seems slightly incongruous to be sitting beside a campfire feeling like a San hunter-gatherer while simultaneously typing on a laptop, but such is the life of the 21st century travel blogger.

Lusakan Lassitude

The second half of our Zambian travels began with three days in Lusaka (August 8-10).  These three days were far less carefree and relaxing than our sojourn a month earlier had been, as I had to spend large chunks of two days trying to remedy our lack of a Customs Import Permit for Stanley.  We had failed to get one when we entered from Malawi, and by the time we got to Lusaka, we were long overdue.  The bureaucrats at the Zambia Revenue Agency hemmed and hawed and dragged things out, but finally managed to get the relevant papers processed after soul-destroying hours of waiting for a bribe of US$ 30 (the initial request was for US$ 100, but the official seemed pleased with the smaller amount).  Unfortunately the TIP was only valid for 15 days, meaning that we would have to renew it before we left the country, but at least we weren’t illegal anymore.  We also helped Rob, a volunteer who was going to help out in Livingstone at the Olive Tree Learning Centre, change money at the Bank of China’s Lusaka office; he had been working in China, and a combination of bad luck and bad timing meant that he had arrived in Zambia with only Chinese yuan as spending money, a currency not accepted anywhere in Livingstone.  He returned to Livingstone on the bus with a sewing machine in his luggage for Olive Tree to use in income-generating activities.

Pachyderm paunch:  our resident elephant at Mayukuyuku
Our last day was spent by me trying to get some niggling issues fixed on Stanley:  our reverse lights weren’t working (we had been fined for that by the police in Zimbabwe), and our rear differential lock wasn’t working either; as well I wanted our tires rotated, and our emergency brake and rear brakes needed to be tightened up.  Mr. Mzinga, the mechanic who had worked on Stanley in July, spent the day working on him again, this time out at his workshop in a hardscrabble community out on the outskirts of town.  In the end everything except the diff lock got fixed; that required a switch that could not be obtained.

My friend Nathalie arrived back in Lusaka in the middle of our stay; it was great to see her and catch up on happenings.  Once again we stayed at her house, although the last couple of nights there were extra people staying at Nathalie’s, friends of her colleague Vicky, so we slept out in Stanley in her parking lot instead.  We had a great evening of Indian food with Vicky and her friends (back from a month-long road trip through Botswana and Namibia) and Nathalie at Dil’s, a Lusaka institution that has pictures of George W. Bush eating there a few years ago.
Patient queues of voters in Lusaka's outskirts on August 11

Underwhelmed by Kafue

Defassa waterbuck in Kafue:  note solid white rumps
On August 11th we drove out of Lusaka late in the morning after a sluggish start.  It was election day, the culmination of a long and acrimonious campaign between the incumbent, Edward Lungu (whose campaign T-shirts we had obtained a few days earlier in Shiwa Ngandu, and whose campaign kept crossing paths with us in the north of the country) and the perpetual challenger Hikainde Hichilema.  We drove west out of town along a good road, past long queues of voters waiting patiently for their chance to exercise their democratic franchise.  It all seemed fairly well organized and cheerful and normal.  We drove west for 270 km towards Kafue National Park, one of the largest and best-known parks in Zambia.  It’s so big that it’s actually hard to get to some of the best areas (like the Basanga Plains in the north, which has no budget accommodation options anywhere within a 3-hour driving radius)), so we restricted ourselves to a small section near the main highway and stayed at Mayukuyuku Camp, right on the Kafue River about 10 km off the highway.

Puku, Kafue National Park

Egret in the sunset, Mayukuyuku
Mayukuyuku was a very pleasant place to stay, with a resident elephant who made life interesting at times, and lots of waterbirds and hippos in the river.  We had wonderful sunsets both nights, and on the 12th we went out for a game drive on the local trails.  To be honest, this section of Kafue was a bit underwhelming, with not much game to be seen.  We had heard that Kafue is a great place to see cheetahs, but we saw no sign of them.  In fact we didn’t see any large predators at all.  There were plenty of puku, the red-flanked antelope that is like a burlier version of the ubiquitous impala, as well as the impala itself.  We spotted a Defassa waterbuck as well, a subspecies of the common waterbuck without the usual white ring on its rear end.  We had a great dinner of lamb, corn and sweet potatoes and I sat out under the stars playing guitar late into the evening. 

Lichtenstein's hartebeest
The next morning we drove out along the main highway west towards Mongu, passing through the centre of the national park.  On the way we saw more Defassa waterbuck and a new species for us, Lichtenstein’s hartebeest, as well as wooly-necked storks and spur-winged geese.  Overall, though, I didn’t think Kafue was worth the effort and expense (about US$ 180 for the two of us to camp two nights and spend two days in the park), as it didn’t offer much game that we hadn’t already seen elsewhere, and since (outside the camps) persistent tsetse flies mean that you have to keep your windows rolled up on the vehicle.  I think that if we had given Kafue more time and had gotten further into the interior, we might have found it more impressive, but we didn’t. 

Wallowing Through Liuwa Plain

At the pontoon ferry to Liuwa Plain
We ended up driving 424 km that day, all the way to Liuwa Plain National Park, along a generally excellent road (with one fairly awful section just outside the boundaries of Kafue). We bought fuel and restocked our fridge in Mongu’s huge new Shoprite, and then drove out of town along a brand-new road to Kalabo, a remarkable feat of engineering that cost over US$200 million to build.  It cuts what had once been 8 hours of grinding through deep sand along miserable tracks and through alarming river crossings to 50 minutes of driving pleasure, along the Barotse Plains, the floodplains that border the Zambezi River as it flows south from its sources in the northwestern tip of Zambia and in the Angolan highlands.  We were in Kalabo by 4:30 pm, getting our park permits for Liuwa Plain. 

Stanley on the Liuwa Plain
This (formerly) remote park is administered by African Parks, the same private trust that runs the Bangweulu Wetlands as well as parks in Rwanda and the DRC.  We paid our money (US$ 200 for three nights and two days in the park, including camping), caught the hand-pulled cable pontoon ferry across the river and set off for our first campsite.  It took us only 200 metres to get stuck the first time in deep, deep sand, although a small posse of local villagers soon pushed us clear again after some energetic digging.  It was the deepest sand we had seen since long ago in Paindane, Mozambique, and it was a foretaste of what was to come over the next few days.  We got to Kayala campsite, two kilometres from the ferry, had a fiery sunset, and popped the roof on Stanley.  We had a great show in the evening sky as all five classical planets were visible:  Venus, Mercury, Jupiter, Mars and Saturn (in order from lowest to highest in the sky) were all in the western half of the heavens.  It felt good to be completely alone on the plain; there were no other campers (the entire park gets only about 500 visitors a year) and the campsite caretaker was away at a funeral. 
Liuwa Plain sundowners
Terri at the wheel

We slept well and awoke at 7, just after sunrise.  We had a delicious breakfast of oatmeal, then packed up and headed further north into the park by 9 o’clock.  It was a seriously difficult stretch of sand driving, with minimal signs, deep soft sand and a confusing spider’s web of interlinked tracks requiring split-second decisions about which fork in the “road” to take. Stanley bucked and swayed alarmingly as we drove along the rutted tracks, bouncing alternately to each side. We got seriously stuck twice, involving lots of digging by me followed by pushing while Terri tried to drive out of the sand trap.  Just after our second escape, we were grinding through the sand when there was a sudden loud crunch under the car.  We thought at first that we had hit a hidden rock, but there are no rocks to hit, so we got out to see what was wrong.  A small drip underneath turned out to be the air conditioning (like all AC, it drips slightly with condensation on the outside), so we started to drive again, but there were still horrible grinding noises from under the car.  Further investigation showed that one of the rear shocks had sheared off the bolt that attaches it to the leaf springs, and the shock was now hanging loose and useless below the car.  I crawled underneath and removed the bolt that was attaching the top of the shock to the chassis, threw the mangled shock into the back and we continued along our way.  After two hours of intense concentration, grinding along in 4WD low range, we had covered about 25 km and arrived at Kwale campsite, where we cooked up bacon, eggs and tomatoes on toast and contemplated our next move.

Stanley breaks a shock
We had a reservation for a more distant campsite, Katoyana, for that evening, and were scheduled to spend the second night at Kwale, but given the broken shock and how slowly we were moving, we decided that it would be best to stay the night at Kwale.  Talking to the friendly campsite attendant, we learned that about 20 km away, at Matamanene camp, there was a mechanic who might be able to help us with the shock.  We set off early in the afternoon and had another miserable drive, getting stuck again and struggling to make headway in the deep sand.  At least we had bird life to look at:  crowned cranes and wattled cranes, both fairly rare and endangered, were out on the plain; we had seen them in Bangweulu, but we had lost the photos when my camera card malfunctioned, so it was nice to get photos of them again.  There was also a korhaan (a smaller version of the bustard) and lots of herds of zebras, although domestic cattle from the local villagers living in the park were definitely displacing the zebras near the villages.

We finally arrived at Matamanene at 4 o’clock to find that there was no mechanic.  We talked with Dan, the young Dutch biologist who runs the Liuwa Plain Carnivore Project, who gave us the name of a good mechanic in Mongu and said that we wouldn’t damage Stanley further by driving without the shock.  We thanked him and set off back towards Kwale along a more direct track.  We were finally out of the dense forest that we had been in since the ferry crossing and got out onto the open plains for which Liuwa is known.  Every year in about November the second-biggest gathering of wildebeest in the world takes place here as the rainy season starts in earnest.  The wildebeest gather from the highlands of Angola and areas in Zambia outside the park, where they spend most of the year.  We had heard that we wouldn’t see the big wildebeest herds, but that we should see lots of hyenas and other game.  As we drove along the track (still sandy, but not as soft and deep as before, so we could actually make forward progress), trying to navigate back to Kwale using vague directions from Dan and his employees and minimal help from our temperamental GPS, we saw a few lone male wildebeest here and there, more zebras and, just before dusk, one lone hyena.  Sunset found us still 12 km from Kwale, so we decided to sleep out on the plain rather than pushing on through the dark.  It was a memorable night under the stars, after a beautiful sunset, and we got into bed in Stanley fairly early as we heard the yipping of hyenas around us in the dark.

Crested and wattled cranes
We woke up the next morning to an unusual sound, like someone clapping their hands together very, very quickly.  It took a while to locate the source, which proved to be the Eastern clapper lark, a bird which displays every morning by clapping its wings together, first on the ground (where we didn’t see them, hidden in the grass) and then in the air, flying steeply upwards for a good clapping session, before gliding back to the ground.  We cooked up a hearty pancake breakfast to give us energy for more sand digging, then drove back to Kwale via a few seasonal waterholes that were listed (with their GPS co-ordinates) in our excellent Bradt guide to Zambia.  It’s been a very dry year in Zambia (and most of southern Africa), so the waterholes were mostly dry.  We had a good morning of watching wattled cranes:  they really are magnificent birds, especially in flight.  Our GPS had another bad morning, sending us in random directions and even losing track of where south was, but we eventually got back to Kwale and set up camp under the shade of some tall trees.

Bathroom bats, Kwale campsite
We ended up spending the rest of the day in camp.  We couldn’t face more sand driving, and there was plenty of birdlife to be seen in the woods.  The campsite looked out over the open plain, but there was almost no mammal life to be seen; I think that if we had managed to drive further north, as was the original plan, we would have seen more animals, but as it was, it was slim pickings.  The camp was a pleasant place to spend time, though; we were the only inhabitants, other than the friendly caretaker, and we took advantage of the hot showers to wash off the thick layer of sand that covered most of our bodies, meeting the resident bats that hung upside down beneath the shower roof.  We cooked up a big chicken curry over the campfire, letting it simmer all afternoon into a delicious thick sauce.  I went for an afternoon run across the plain, keeping a wary eye out for lions (there are very few in the park) and not seeing much wildlife in the grasslands.  Another pretty sunset was followed by some fruitless spotlighting for nocturnal birds; we could hear owls and nightjars, but could not find them.
Villagers on the move across Liuwa Plain
Spot the "road":  on the way back to the ferry
The next morning we woke up to find the enormous footprints of a male lion that had wandered through in the night (making me feel less clever for having gone running the previous afternoon!), breakfasted on oatmeal, then drove back to the ferry crossing.  It was easier going, as we chose a better track than the first time, but there were still long sections of tough sand slogging that Terri handled with aplomb.  Along the way we passed local villagers trekking towards the ferry in long caravans of ox-carts, dressed in colourful clothing that contrasted picturesquely with the golden grass.  Within two hours we were back at the ferry, without having had to dig ourselves out once.  It was an indescribably relief to reinflate the tires from their 1.0 bar half-flat condition so necessary in soft sand to 3.0 bars and then drive back onto asphalt.  We drove back to Mongu along the lovely new road, bought some food at Shoprite, utterly failed to find the mechanic recommended by Dan the carnivore man, and drove off towards Livingstone with one missing rear shock.

Made it!  Stanley waits for the pontoon
Overall Liuwa Plain was interesting, but didn’t quite live up to its hype.  I found it more interesting than Kafue, and seeing the wattled cranes was a big bonus, but the difficulty of driving in the deep sand, coupled with the lack of much game to see, made it not such a compelling place to visit.  My favourite parts of the visit were the night spent out on the plain, and the afternoon in Kwale camp.  I think that Liuwa Plain would be worth visiting later in the season, and with a lightly loaded, more powerful 4x4 like a Land Cruiser or a Pajero.  Stanley definitely struggled with the conditions!

Zipping down the Zambezi

Lovely barbecue spot overloking the Zambezi
It was an easy drive south along the Zambezi on a brand-new asphalt road in perfect condition.  It is such a new road that it doesn’t appear on our Tracks 4 Africa GPS map, which spent much of the trip complaining that we were off the road; the old road ran on the right bank of the river, but we zipped along the left bank, bypassing towns that were on our map and making great time.  At 3:40 we crossed a new bridge across the Zambezi and found a new campsite, the Sioma River Camp, to spend the night.  

Zambezi sunset in Sioma
It is perched high above the Zambezi, which here runs through a steep-sided gorge on its way downstream from the Ngonye Falls.  There was a lovely swing seat in the garden to lounge on, and a barbecue platform perched out over the river that was the perfect sunset-viewing spot.  It was one of those unexpectedly lovely places that is always a pleasure to stumble upon.
Ngonye Falls

The next day, Wednesday August 17th, was going to be our last day of driving for a while, as we were bound for Livingstone.  We stopped in to see the Ngonye Falls:  they’re pleasant enough, but don’t hold a candle to the majesty of Victorial Falls.  We were in and out of the falls before the ticket man showed up late for work, saving us the admission price.  Most waterfalls in Zambia are classed as national monuments, meaning US$15 per person, plus a similar amount per vehicle, but I think that Ngonye Falls is run by the local government, so it might be cheaper.  The local council got its own back, though, a few kilometres down the highway where they run an extortion racket, extracting 65 kwacha (US$ 6.50) for any foreign vehicles that pass their roadblock.  Terri was incensed by this legalized highway robbery; it’s a good thing that other local councils around the country don’t follow suit, or you wouldn’t be able to afford driving down the road.  It’s not a road toll, per se; it’s just a tourist levy to cross the territory controlled by the municipal council of Sioma.

The rest of the drive south was uneventful, passing through some very pretty countryside indeed, until the town of Sesheke, where the road runs into the Namibian border.  From that point to the Botswanan border town of Kazungula, the asphalt of the road has disintegrated entirely, meaning that it takes three hours of careful navigating between car-sized potholes to drive the 130 km on this stretch, with the central 85 km being particularly awful.  At Kazungula the pavement returned to its usual immaculate state and we cruised into the familiar surroundings of Livingstone, where we had spent three weeks back in March.  We went straight to our favourite restaurant, Olga’s, for a celebratory lunch, then contemplated where to stay.  We knew that we would end up spending most of our stay at Jollyboy’s Campsite, but we wanted one night out of town.  We looked at the Waterfront, but its campsite was heaving with no fewer than seven overland trucks, as peak tourist season was upon us.  We found a much quieter spot at Maramba River Camp, then went out for sundowners at the Royal Livingstone, Terri’s favourite place in all of Livingstone.  It was good to be back in our familiar home away from home.
Happy at the Royal Livingstone

Lingering in Livingstone

Stanley, Terri and some OTLC pupils and staff
Volunteer family extraordinaire:  Jo and Rob and their 5 children
Digging the new latrines 
The next two weeks passed by remarkably quickly.  Rob and Jo, Terri’s friends from New Zealand, were in Livingstone to volunteer at the Olive Tree Learning Centre, and Jo did a lot of work on the fund-raising website for the school, deploying her impressive graphic arts and web design skills on the project.  Rob and their five children worked both at OLTC and at another school most mornings, playing with children and doing physical labour on the ongoing construction at OTLC.  Sadly, their volunteering stint was curtailed by a thief who managed to steal a huge sum of Chinese yuan cash from their hotel room; since that money was their travel money, they ended up changing their plane tickets to return to New Zealand early, a big loss both to them and to the OTLC project.  Apparently it was the fifth case of theft at that same lodge in less than a month, making it likely that it was an inside job either by the owner or by an employee.

The heart of any good school--OTLC inaugurates its new library
It was good to see the changes at OTLC since we left town in early April.  The new school building that was paid for by fundraising efforts at Terri’s former school, the Kumon Leysin Academy in Switzerland (KLAS), is now complete; the last windows and door gates went into place while we were there, along with electrical fittings.  Terri spent a lot of time huddled with the school’s business manager, going over accounts and trying to set the school on a path to financial sustainability, since KLAS will end its decade-long tradition of sending a student humanitarian service trip to Livingstone.  It was good to see the school expanding and moving in new directions, with the sewing machine and some donated computers being deployed in income-generating activities, and new teachers joining the fold.  Jo gave a great professional development session to the teachers.  We broke ground on new latrines for the students, and inaugurated the library, a sorely needed resource in a community virtually without access to books.  We even watched a partial solar eclipse one morning while working on the new sandpit for the schoolyard.  There is an air of progress and optimism in meeting new challenges that is heartening to see, particularly for Terri who has spent the past decade cultivating the skills of the people who run the school.  We spent some time setting up a sponsorship program to allow people to sponsor a child for a year at the school; taking photos of the children, and writing up their biographies, I realized again how lucky I have been in my own life, being born where I was, when I was to the parents that I have.  
The boss gets her hands dirty during OTLC construction
I won the genetic lottery; some of these students did not, and OTLC represents a chance to give these young minds a bit more of a head start.  The project has been going for long enough that Terri can start to get positive feedback about how well her pupils do after they leave OTLC and move into government primary schools.  It’s been a rewarding experience for me to play a small part in this project, and I look forward to doing so again in the future.  I think Terri can be proud of the help that she has given to children in a tough neighbourhood of Livingstone.
Rob putting his back into construction at OTLC

Jo giving some tech professional development to OTLC teachers
Spaces between leaves make pinhole images of the eclipsed sun
Our time in Livingstone wasn’t all work and no play.  We found time to go whitewater rafting, and it was an exciting full-day trip down some pretty big rapids indeed.  Neither Terri nor I went overboard, although one of our raft-mates did, while one of the other rafts flipped completely and it was some very shaken, scared rafters that we helped to pull out of the river downstream.  
Yes, that's an anti-malarial bednet being used as a fishing net!
We also went abseiling and hiking in a side canyon of the Zambezi while other, braver folks hurled themselves off the Gorge Swing.  I found a tennis court and a tennis partner, Darlington, and spent several happy afternoons playing.  The courts were in terrible condition, and the tennis balls were worse, but it was so much fun, good for my soul.  I got out running most afternoons, and we spent several evenings having sundowners at the Royal Livingstone, watching the sun turn the Zambezi various incredible shades of copper and gold. 
Terri abseiling outside Livingstone

Kids enjoying the new sandpit at OTLC
We met interesting people staying at the campsite as well.  The cyclists of the Joburg2Kili charity ride kept us amused for a few days when we first got to Livingstone.  
Tbe Joburg2Kili cycling team

The new school building at OTLC
Justin, our builder, finishing off the windows

Maya (the Land Rover), Cristelle and Terri
Cristelle, a French woman who has been travelling and working on various small-scale humanitarian projects for several years in Africa, in her trusty Land Rover named Maya, was a source of great information and inspiration.  Douglas and Keira, an Irish couple in another Land Rover, gave us lots of tips for our trip through Botswana and South Africa.  And the teachers and students of the Travelling School, a 16-student, 4-teacher high school semester abroad program that moves through Zambia, Botswana, Namibia and South Africa over the course of 4 months, gave Terri and me inspiration to think about setting up a similar program ourselves in the future; we’ve spent numerous nights around the campfire talking about it.
Child labour:  photogenic pupil Shawn hard at work

We also had some work done on Stanley, getting the rear shocks replaced (it was a long process, as the right shocks were not to be found and other shocks needed to be modified to fit our Colt) and trying to repair the rear differential lock (the right switch could not be found).  We extended both our visas and our CIP for Stanley (remarkably, both were free of charge and involved little bureaucracy and no demands for bribery, a welcome change from other encounters with the Zambia Revenue Authority).  And then, suddenly, it was September 2nd and we were driving to the Botswana border crossing at Kazungula, keen to head into the wildlife centre of Africa.  It had been a wonderful five weeks in Zambia, but it was time to move on to fresh adventures.
Terri, our sign painter and the KLAS logo on the OTLC wall

The essence of sundowners at the Royal Livingstone
Another Zambezi sunset
How I will always remember Livingstone