We crossed into Zambia with a relatively smooth border crossing, but things were starting to become more disorganised on the Zambian side, with several booths to visit and none of them had signs and were all over the place even though you had to visit them one after the other. We ended up buying 2 ferry tickets and no carbon tax but eventually we were released into the lovely country of Zambia. We had booked a hotel because we wanted to be able to visit Victoria Falls for the day and not have to worry about Luxy at a campground and true to form the address given was nowhere near the place, but we really got to know Livingstone quite well. The next day we packed for a day walk and headed to Zimbabwe.
The Victoria Falls separate Zimbabwe and Zambia and to cross to Zim we had to first cross a forged steel bridge that was built in 1905 to get tourists to the falls. It’s still doing the same job now but it of course equipped with a bungy jump if you’re so inclined. This was the first border we had walked across and we were quite looking forward to the change. The place was however completely set up for walk across visitors and within 20 minutes we were in the town of Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe. What a nice little town it was. I say that because it was setup to cater for tourists just like Christine and me. It had nice shops, fast food, clean streets and a post office. Tourist police were on every corner and they all said hello, as did most of the people we walked past in fact. All in all, it was a nice day except that the falls is not a free attraction. They did have a great gift shop and display boards that told the story of the falls but it cost us $30USD each to walk along a trail that has a dozen viewpoints to see the falls. Our fee combined was around a weeks wages for the average office worker or semi skilled worker in Zimbabwe. The equivalent of charging $450NZD each to see the Huka Falls in NZ in terms of buying power. The falls were great though. We thought they would be roaring as the rainy season has just finished in the north but the bulk of the water takes some months to seep out of the delta and flow down to the falls, so it is the middle of the dry season that the falls are actually really flowing hard. For us the really interesting part was the geology of the area and how the falls were formed in the first place. It was a nice day in Zim, but we were happy to have visited that way and glad we didn’t drive. Luxy was happy to see us but sadly for her, Zimbabwe won’t be on her list of countries visited.
The next day we headed off to explore Zambia. It a rugged country with lots of mountains and river valleys. More than half its GDP comes from copper exports and the roads were clogged with trucks loaded with giant ingots of copper heading in all directions. The country also has a number of parks and wildlife reserves that we could see on the maps and in the guide books but like the rest of southern Africa, they were catering to the top end of the market and we were really wondering where we would go and what we would see. We headed to a campground we found on iOverlander and settled in. It was a pretty average campground, confirmed by Luxy who was struggling to find things to do that interested her longer than a minute, when along came Roger and Jenni. They are South African and really wonderful people. From the second we met Roger, who looked at the room they had booked and when Jenni was sorting out the check-in, wandered casually over and told us ‘the room is absolute crap, as is the rest of this place’… we knew we were going to have a great evening. Seldom do we start chatting to people in the afternoon and end up talking all evening, but it was easy with these two. They were great to be around and we had loads in common to talk about. We clicked with them and shared our travel stories for hours. We talked a lot about the places they had been in Zambia and they gave us a lot of great tips for camping and off-road trails. The next morning Jenni gave me a small memento of the evening, a small curved tooth she had found at a campsite by a river they had stayed at. It was very cool and it sat perfectly on the edge of the tachometer. Roger also had a really cool gift for me, a slingshot! Well, it was for Luxy really as it scares off the monkeys. The campground monkeys all around Africa are often (usually) pinged using slingshots to stop them raiding the customers vehicles and campsites so I never needed anything to shoot from it, they run just at the sight of it! The next day we went different directions and we headed east feeling confident about the places we were going to visit on the way to Malawi.
Over the next few days we really did have a lot of fun especially on the back roads and off-road trails Roger and Jenni had told us about. The locals we met were all very nice and welcoming and not too many of the street vendors attempted to triple charge us so the trip was going very well. One of the roads they told us about runs through Luangwa National Parks. The first stop was South Luangwa NP to see some lions!
What an awesome day we had. We entered the park and headed to where the guy at the gate had indicated some lions might be. We didn’t find any lions at that time, but plenty of other animals were wandering around and the park was really nice with great tracks and plenty of space to explore. In the afternoon, we thought the best thing would be to head back to the supposed lion spot and wait till dusk when they would be starting to stroll to the water hole. We had until 6:30pm which is great as many parks want the self-drive safari like us out around 4pm so the safari tours operators can offer the best experience for higher paying visitors and encourages people like us to take the tour… When we got close, we started to see safari cars loaded with people everywhere. Well what better way to find the lions than follow the people who should know where they are! I tagged along and soon I could see a circle of cars, maybe 7 or 8 stopped ahead. We were still wondering what they were looking at when a gap appeared and we could see a male lion lounging in the last of the days sun. WOW... At first, I couldn’t believe how close the cars were getting to him, within 1 or 2 meters sometimes. The lion really didn’t care at all and just went on sleeping. We watched from a way back for around 30 minutes as the safari cars came and went, then the old boy started to wake up. Just like Luxy, he rolled around and stretched a bit, then stopped rolling when he was right on his back, just like Luxy does! Then, right at that time, it was our turn to be in the best viewing spot for this guy and we drove up to maybe 2 meters from where he was lying. Holly shit… as we pulled up to the lion, the last few metres before we stopped we could see its eyes following the car! It was looking at Luxy, who was standing on the armrest looking out the left side back window. It rolled over a bit more so it could get a better view of her and just when I was sure it was going to get up and leap at the car all teeth and snarls, it just shut its eyes again and ignored us... It could have been exciting, but we would have been busted for having Luxy in the park and had some explaining to do.
That night we stayed at a great campsite that had elephants wander through at night. It was amazing to see them walk right past us so quietly yet so close! After another great day on the 4x4 tracks, we had another great wild camp just off the road heading to North Luangwa National Park. We then drove on to what was showing as the gate on all the online information and the mapping programs we were using but were turned away saying the road was 'broken' and we had to use the pontoon to cross the river further up. In the wet season, the rivers can do untold damage to roads and bridges and it’s not uncommon for roads to be washed out and bridges down for months if not years, so to go on a pontoon didn’t sound anything out of the normal. We drove for a few hours and rounded a corner to see a sign advertising a campground and we knew we were close to the park and sure enough a few 100 meters on we rounded a corner to see a pontoon floating on the river. It was secured with wire rope between each river bank and pulleys on the pontoon allowed it to float between makeshift piers on either side of the small but deep looking river that separated us from the park. We pulled up and looked at it for a few minutes, looked around and Christine said ‘must be a serve yourself affair’ as the place was silent and deserted and it all looked simple enough and designed for anyone to use, so we headed down and drove on. It was as it looked, very simple and in a few minutes, we were on the other side and preparing to drive off when a group of 6 or so men appeared on the side we had just left, and they were not happy. I went back to the pontoon and had a lengthy discussion, most of which revolved around a scruffy looking chap with an automatic weapon telling me we owed him $65USD for crossing his river. At this stage, all the experience we had gathered from driving through some of the most dangerous countries in the world told me that this was not a park employee. We have a rule of not stopping for armed men that are not wearing a uniform (sounds ridiculous but it’s a reality for this sort of travel) so I told him that we would pay for the service at the park office when we arrived, and off we went.
So started the circus that would last most of the day and ends with us thinking things had really gone too far! We drove through most of the park before we were stopped by some men that had the park name on hats (that some of them were wearing), and after another lengthy discussion we were turned around and we went back to the pontoon to pay the PARK fee... Turns out that the sign saying ‘Bush Camp’ should have said ‘North Luangwa National Park Entry and Registration’ but it didn’t… and the guy that was simply yelling over and over at me ‘you pay $65 to cross’ you pay $65 to cross’ should have been saying, ‘Welcome strangers, the fee to enter the park is $25USD each and $15USD for your vehicle please’ but he didn’t… The other surprising thing was the scruffy looking guy with the gun, now had a nice clean tee shirt on that had 'North Luangwa National Park' in a nice emblem right over his heart, the heart he covered with his right hand to swear to his boss he was wearing the shirt when he first met us, but all that happened later.
When we got back, we paid the fee and as we were paying one of the now smaller group saw the tooth Jenni had given me on the dashboard. I was told to ‘give it’ to the ringleader and they told me that I stole it from the park! Again, it’s not uncommon for people to look into the car and just ask for things they see and the answer is always the same, no. This went on and on for altogether too long as they wouldn’t let us cross the river and eventually I tossed the tooth away in total frustration and told him it’s his to find. At this stage, I should remind you we came across on a pontoon which was now on the other side to us (and actually, we weren’t supposed to use it by ourselves we discovered). They told us to leave by going through the park, our original direction but we just wanted to leave the place now and weren’t too keen on travelling all the way through the park again but after a wait of over an hour in which they started to get the pontoon ready a few times, we took their advice and turned around and drove to the north. We didn’t get far when we were stopped by yet another machine gun wielding park employee who told us to wait and shortly later a Landcruiser roared up behind us and a very very stroppy little man jumps out and barges past me and grabs the keys from my ignition and starts to demand we turn around yet again. At this stage, we have complied with each and every request they have given us, except when a scruffy un-uniformed guy was demanding US dollars cash from us, we have been co-operative and sometimes polite but this guy was different, he really meant business. He wanted to seize our car and everything in it, on the spot, for some crime we had committed and it was about as serious as it sounds. We spoke for 5 minutes (it was difficult to understand him) on the road and this guy really did make the situation sound pretty grim for us but we were eventually given the keys and told to go back to the pontoon and wait (again) so we drove back, very slowly.
We quickly discussed our next move and we both agreed that it had reached the point of seriousness where we needed to call in a 3rd party to help us get our story across whatever that might be as at that time we had no idea what we had done, just that we were in big trouble. So, we hit the SOS button on our inReach 2-way satellite communicator and contacted the emergency services as we drove. We have never used the inReach for an emergency before and to be honest, I cannot remember reading the user manual (but let’s just say I did) on what to expect when you hit the button. Should we just stop and look up for rescue helicopters? Will they send in the SAS? Well, no. All they wanted to do was call in search and rescue as they assume we are lost or disabled but we wanted to be able to contact the police so we could understand why they wanted to imprison us. Had we known the emergency services would be also contacting our parents in the middle of the night as well, we might not have done it at all. By the time we had reached the pontoon we had disconnected from the inReach service and were on our own to deal with the problem and a large problem it was.
On the other side of the river was what looked like a platoon of soldiers, each with a big gun ready in both hands to tackle this foreign threat that was terrorising the park. After we crossed the river and were confronted, I asked for ID and of course not one single one of the entire large group had or was willing to show me who they really were so I didn’t get out of the car, instead we talked through a small gap in the window. Turns out it was all about the tooth. It was a crocodile tooth and although the animal is not endangered, the teeth are still an item that is illegal to ‘traffic’, unless you have papers to prove where you got it from. When I finally had a chance to speak in my defence, I just played the old “I’m a complete fool and it was a misunderstanding that I take full responsibility for” line, which really did stump him as I think he was looking for a long and drawn out roadside legal battle so he just let us go! His decision did cause a bit of a stir with some of the armed men and the local pontoon men, who I am sure were behind the entire witch hunt, but we got out of there as fast as we could while we could. Jenni, I loved the tooth, but it’s gone. I can still see where it was as it made a mark on the clear plastic cover of the tachometer but even if I couldn’t see that mark, I’m not forgetting that tooth anytime soon. The ordeal had left its mark on us as well and in the middle of it we decided that we have had enough of Africa and this constant drama and were leaving. We changed the navigation app that afternoon to a direct route to Tanzania’s port city of Dar es Salaam, via Malawi. Not much was said about the incident but one thing we both agreed on is we were too familiar with cable bridges, cableways and swing bridges from our hiking trips around the world and thought nothing of going over the pontoon unassisted. That was the mistake and we should have waited for the men to show us how it’s all done… Onwards to Malawi and some peace and rest!
it's Our Epic Trip...
David & Christine are from New Zealand and are embarking on a trip around the world the slow way, on foot and by personal vehicle. This could get interesting!