Day 1: Travel To South Luangwa

My trip to South Luangwa National Park began before the first rays of sunshine were out to light my way. Catching the 5:00hrs bus heading east to Chipata meant I could pass some of the trip away with sleep and also get to Chipata in time to catch a minibus headed northwest to Mfuwe in the afternoon. Thinking this far ahead was quickly squashed when my taxi pickup decided not to show. Thankfully, a good man named Ackson was quick to the rescue with his taxi and I made it to the terminal in time. After all, the bus was running on Zamtime so I ended up with time to spare.

The ticket booth for Johabie Express – my chariot drivers towards the east.

Heading off from Lusaka, the landscape was beginning to come to life in the morning light. The city quickly melted away into rural expanses, punctuated by the occasional roadside village or (distressingly large) pile of charcoal bags for sale. It made me think of how many people stop at these roadside vendors – particularly helpful was the reaction of one young woman when our bus stopped and got K50,000 worth of charcoal. The smile on her face and renewed bounce in her step made me assume that the sales were few and far between. Despite this though, these villages continue to line the highways, which also leads me to believe there is enough business from those passing to move their goods with time. I would be curious to know who has the greater total sales – street vendors in town or the rural highway-side vendors. Might be a tough stat to find though…

One of many little villages just off the roadside.

Beyond the shoulder of the highway, remarkable landscapes passed by the bus window. Trees mottled with orange, yellow and red as if they were in the midst of autumn in Canada coated rolling hills and the planes in between. Zambia’s expansive beauty drew my in. We passed through the steep cliffs of the Muchinga Escarpment, or as Zambians call it, Manenekela, and crossed the mighty Luangwa River, which was still just a small, wandering line through it’s sandy basin from rainy seasons past. I exclaimed in a text to Tabo as we carried on “You, sir, live in a beautiful country.”

Is this Zambia or Canada? Sort of looks like the Canadian shield in autumn.

A view from on the bridge crossing the Luangwa River. During high season, the sandy areas would all be the river bed.

We made a few stops along the way, one town perched ever so precariously on the cliffs of the escarpment just before the river crossing, another two in the steamy, hot plains of Eastern Province amidst the rolling hills. At each stop a crowd of women and children hustle over to the bus – at one stop so formalized as to all hop out from numbered stalls in the bus station. Carrying on baskets atop their head yellow and green mangoes, bananas, caterpillars (yeah, you read that correct) and a handful of other fruits they line the sides of the bus looking for sales through the windows or those getting on and off the bus. I get myself a few mangoes and bananas, which were nice and fresh from the trees.

Vibrant plains sure to morph into a green sea with the rains.

When we finally arrived in Chipata after about eight hours one the road, the bustling border town spread out around us in the hills. In Chipata, I was actually only a short jaunt from Malawi. No time to go and pose at the border, but nevertheless, I was close! It turned out to be good that I didn’t miss my 5am bus for a later one because the minibus to Mfuwe was already near to full. And with the drive ahead, it was no wonder few busses braved the route. So after a (surprisingly short) wait of about a half hour we were off one leg two of the journey.

The road to Mfuwe started off not much different than Great East Road that I had traversed hours earlier. Our brown bus and trailer trucked along at a reasonable clip and I began to cross my fingers that the recent road construction I had heard about was completed and there would be fresh tarmac the whole way. Ha. No such luck. Instead it was a taunting bout criss-crossing the in progress construction. Word of the day? Deviation. The new road was blocked off, though part of it paved, relegating our bus to the yippie-kay-yay bounce and rumble along deviations that snaked over and back on the new road. It was almost comical how some of the passages would snake through the trees with a fresh slab of tarmac meters to one side. At one point we had a run in with a grader that was reconstructing the ramp up from the deviation over the roadway. After a couple passes we were able to climb the slope and carry on. Yeehaw.

Uhm, excuse us please?

All the while we were carving through forest landscapes; a dense thicket of lush trees begging for the rains to arrive in full. A storm was approaching from the east and, given the state of the roads we were on, it was in our best interest to beat it to Mfuwe. In one village, the dust was still so light from the dry season closing off that the storm front blew up a thick dust cloud. Not a sight I had been anticipating, though the villagers outside seemed relatively without concern so I assumed it was not to out of the ordinary.

Four hours of Zambian backcountry later we were finally in Mfuwe – mango capital of the world. Seriously, the were in heaps at roadside shops, pits strewn across the road, and nearly a metric ton pouring through the bus windows into people’s bags. I would later learn that these were not only a local human favourite but one ever dear to the elephants.

One last taxi connection brought me into Flatdogs Camp. I was met with a warm greeting and guided walk out to my tent. The park, obviously without a thousand kilometers of fence, didn’t really end at its formal edge for the animals, so the camp property was a common spot for animals of all types. After a delicious dinner, Beef Kebabs I think it was, I settled into my tent for the night.

As I lay in my bed with anticipation of the early morning safari the next day, the lions’ roars echoed out from the park in competition with the laughter of hippos on the river. It was a good sign of the times ahead in this slice of Zambia’s wild side.

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