Wednesday, 16 May 2007

South Luangwe

We now have a series of bus trips to get ourselves up to Lusaka, Zambia's capital, and then out to Mfuwe, the entry village to South Luangwe National Park, our next destination.

The first trip is from Livingston to Lusaka, courtesy of the Mazhandu Family Bus Service. This included a reservation service, a seat number and a departure (and arrival!) time, which were largely adhered to, giving us completely false expectations about future bus travels in Zambia. Lusaka was pretty much a "pass through" for us, though we did have the chance to take Petr (the Czech guy who rescued us in Nata) and his girlfriend Renata out for a beer one night; and also spent another evening chatting to Gunter, a Swiss guy who had cycled from Switzerland - no mean feat.

The next lap was to travel from Lusaka to Chipata, a long leg of around 550km. Khondwani Travel and Tours didn't take bookings, and were very vague about departure times, though they were adamant that the trip would take six hours. As a result we were at their depot round 7, eventually leaving round 9am. You can't leave till the bus is full (read, very full) which includes people sitting in the aisles on their luggage. The drivers drive quite slowly and carefully - not sure whether this is because they are cautious by nature, aware of the consequences of not driving carefully, or merely required to because of the shocking state of the roads; maybe a combination of all of these. Six hours turned into around nine, and darkness fell. After about eight hours we began to wonder whether we'd gone past Chipata, and had left our bags sitting out on the road somewhere waiting for us. All nonsense, but it's quite disorienting driving along in the dark at the back of a big bus without an idea of where you are. However, of course, as soon as I laboriously made my way to the front of the bus to ask the driver how far Chipata was, we were virtually there. Managed to get a taxi from the depot to Dean's Hill View Lodge - a nice and new place run by ... Dean! The evening (what was left of it) passed pleasantly enough, cooking another version of rice and tuna, and chatting with Dean, who left England a few years back and after dabbling in farming and running a nightclub in Chipata, has decided that tourist accommodation is his thing.
The final leg takes us to the village of Mfuwe. Back to the trusty bus depot - this time not till 9am (we are slowly getting wiser!) - and onto a mini bus. We were all settled and ready to go round 10am, but nothing much happened till 12.30, when we drove round the corner to get some diesel. About 1 we were finally off - but this drive was probably one of the most scenic we have had. The countryside has been very flat since the Naukluft mountains in Namibia, but now we were driving over small hills, with larger escarpments in the distance. The countryside here is still very green from the rains, and there are numerous small villages with buildings of grass and thatch roofs, mud bricks, square and round. Some have corrugated iron roofs held down with rocks and some of the more substantial buildings have decramastic roof tiles (yes, from NZ), and even solar power panels. There are fields of sunflowers, maize and cotton, and sometimes just long grass. Our bus leaves the main road to drop people down dusty lanes, and one man returns to the bus to proudly show us his year-old twins - his other five children standing shyly behind him. We all agree "it's probably best to have a rest now"!! At the end of the line, with the bus now empty, our driver and the bus owner, who appears from somewhere, take us the last couple of km to Flat Dogs campsite. It's been a really nice experience, and we are pleased also to be at the camp, having read all about it. The sun is setting over the river as we put up our tent and there are elephants on the other bank. All is well with the world.

There are a couple of nightwatchmen in the camp, with very strong torches but little else to protect us against marauding elephants and hippos. There are no fences here, and after dark one of them takes us the 20 metres or so to the bank, and shows us the hippos grazing. They look like cows - big, dangerous cows - out of the water. At night we can hear them snuffling and snorting all around us. Sounds carry I know, but they sound awfully close. It's kind of exciting, and kind of terrifying, but I sleep soundly enough till Max wakes me up at sunrise (before 6am in this part of the world) to show me the elephant walking past our tent. Yep, we're in Africa.

We do our first night drive this night, and are both determined that this is when we will finally see the elusive Pantherus Pardus (aka the Leopard). It's a great experience, starting at 4pm and finishing after 8, so a couple of hours in daylight and a couple in the pitch black African night, with a wee beer break in between - very civilised. During the night section we see a number of nocturnal creatures we haven't seen before, including a couple of genet (pretty, cat-like creatures) a civet, shrews, and scrub hares, together with lots more hippo and a lion, with a limp who stumbled in the sand occasionally as he ambled away from us. We didn't see a leopard, but did really enjoy the outing, and decided to do it again the next night...and yes, finally a leopard sighting. They are fantastic creatures, and this one was hiding behind a log watching as a couple of zebra walked past. He let them go (don't know why, they looked delicious!), and then focussed his attention on a puku (a kind of fat impala). It was dark while we were watching and there are pretty strict rules about how much light the tours are allowed to shed on a hunting scene, but we did see him slinking through the grass ever so slowly getting closer and closer to the blissfully ignorant puku. After about 20 minutes though, another puku raised the alarm - a loud gurgling hissing sound - and it was all over. Still we'd had a great sighting and can now relax - the Big Five have been ticked off!

One of south Luangwe´s highlights was seeing this baby giraffe shortly after it was born.

The park also has this lake full of Nile Cabbage, and hippos.
The next day we rather reluctantly depart Flat Dogs. It would be good to stay another night, but we have to get to Monkey Bay in Malawi by Thursday evening to catch the once-a-week ferry on Friday. The camp takes us back to Mfuwe about 2pm, when we've heard through the grapevine that the bus to Chipata leaves. As soon as we arrive we are set upon by a couple of blokes who point to a car and assure us "you will take this car". Having been told of the cost for a taxi we reply "I don't think so...", but actually they know best. It's a shared taxi, and we get seats for the same price as the bus. The ride is immeasurably more comfortable and quicker too, and we are back in Chipata before dark. We decide to stay somewhere close to the supermarket, and end up at Larissa's Guest House - which really ought to be called Larissa's Local Bar as that's what most of the business is. They seemed really quite surprised to have a couple of guests for the evening. Nevertheless, they make us welcome, and let us use the house kitchen to cook - and do the washing up for us. The bar is really rocking and we join in carefully, drinking our last Zambian kwacha, leaving just enough for the taxi to the border.

We chat the next morning with the Indian lady owner, Afuzi, who was born a Moslem but converted to Catholicism to marry. She is impressed with Max's Catholic credentials; less so with mine!

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