Fred has a knack of finding really good places to stay – you have to accept that he is also capable of finding really bad places to stay – but the good do seem to outweigh the bad by a reasonable margin. As the rains take hold, there are somewhat fewer choices in Zambia anyway, but we all have high expectations of McBride’s and the wilderness experience it offers.
Right from the very first trip, the thing I like most about coming to Africa is that ability to find somewhere truly remote and untouched. It probably doesn’t get any better than Kafue National Park. One of the largest parks in the world – roughly the size of Wales – it offers truly untapped and unfiltered wilderness. As you leave the tarmac, having topped off the fuel tanks in the last town, there’s more than 100km of rough dirt roads still to go to get us to our destination.
The road is bad – but not impossible – but the car is small and my legs are long. I’m delighted to get slowly out at our destination and pour a bottle of water onto my knee to take some of the tension and pain away. I’m fine if I can straighten my leg – I have no problem on the plane for example – but having it bent for about six hours non-stop was just a bit too much. It means I fail somewhat in greeting our hosts for the next week.
Chris and Charlotte McBride have spent much of their lives in the wild, Chris becoming an authority on the habits and dynamics of lions and their relationships with each other. Now they try and share that passion through their books, online and by letting lucky visitors spend some time in their wilderness with them.
So, McBride’s Camp sits on the bank of the Kafue river with hippos and crocodiles at the foot of the lawn and a garden the size of a county! It’s a typical rustic-style camp, with timber and thatch chalets and open-air bathrooms, big comfortable beds and really good mosquito nets. When we arrive, the rains have too. The whole area is green and there are Puku and Impala everywhere, grazing on the fresh grass.
On the evening of our arrival Chris – rifle over his shoulder – takes us for a short walk around the edges of the camp and some way beyond. It is a nice opportunity to see some antelope up close, but also to hear the passion and love that Chris has for his chosen home and the wildlife that inhabits it. You just can’t help liking the place – and that is just in the first few hours of arriving. The river is rising – the hippos are apparently on tip-toe by this time – and getting wider and faster as it deepens. Here at the camp it’s about 100m wide, but as little as 60cm deep in places – often over rocks as well as sandbanks. The water is dark and clear with little sediment, lots of weed and plenty of fish.
Dinner is excellent and the bed offers a good night’s rest – well considering the heat I don’t think I did too bad, waking just around 5am, as the first hint of light was brightening the steel mesh that stands for windows on the front of our cabin. Our routine for the next few days is to be coffee (yuck!) at seven, then some activity before brunch at about eleven; rest until the heat starts to ease around four in the afternoon, then go out again until six or so. Drinks and dinner from around seven then early to bed ready for another day.
With six nights to spend here, we have plenty of time for a bit of variety.
As a bonus, we even have excellent internet connectivity via a satellite uplink. I’m able to keep my friends and customers updated on my progress through Facebook and keep on top of any possible emails that need my attention. Power is solar, but we have some charging points that are connected to this power at various times of the day.
Our first full day starts early with a quick trip across the river for a walk to check an aardvark hole that Chris is keen to place a trail camera alongside. We walk for a few kilometres through the forest, surrounded by puku, impala and waterbuck – they’re all a little shy and don’t seem to be used to people, preferring to keep a considerable distance. We pass the time looking at wonderful flowers that have come out with the arrival of the rains. It takes about an hour to walk a couple of kilometres inland to the location of the excavations, but sadly the aardvark seems to have left some time earlier.
Slightly disappointed, we walk back to the river and return to the south bank for brunch and a rest from the mounting heat. We have plenty of time to wander around the camp, looking for birds and anything else that takes our eye. It is understandably quiet with the afternoon temperatures in the mid-thirties.
Our evening is taken with a leisurely boat ride downstream. We travel for several kilometres, spotting birds on either shore as we drift downstream then motor back. The Kafue river is truly wonderful – gently flowing, clear dark water and steep banks overhanging with trees in endless variety. As mentioned, when we arrive, the river at camp is around 100m or so wide. It varies between about 80m to around 150m in places and presumably the depth varies accordingly. Looking at the shoreline, it is clear that there’s maybe a metre or more yet for it to rise, but that will be a couple of months or more after we have left.
There are hippos in the river, but mostly small groups of maybe up to 20 animals and well-spaced along the watercourse. This is surely a sign of how low the water levels can be in October when the rains are being eagerly awaited by all the residents of the park.
Our second day starts with an early game drive out into the woods and after the usual few Impala and Puku, we have our first really exciting sighting of the trip. Sitting calmly on top of a small mound, just a few metres from our track, is a young leopard. He takes an interest in us, but is clearly unsure how to react to the strange object in front of him.
He sits up, he lies down again, he turns around and lies the other way, all the time keeping us in sight but looking around for the reassurance of his mum. After a couple of minutes, he stands again and slips off down the back of the mound and away. We try to get around the back of the mound as well, but the undergrowth is thick and we reluctantly have to continue without seeing him again. Annoyingly, there are a few straggly branches between us, but the photos are as good as can be acquired and it is a wonderful thing to see so early in the trip.
We stop at an Aardvark hole to position both Fred’s and one of the camps Trail Cameras to leave for a couple of days to try and catch the action – if there is any. We’ll come back in a few days and retrieve them.
Deeper into the country, the game seems to thin out, but we do see greater kudu and warthog before the time comes to turn back towards camp. As we round a sharp turn in the track, the driver slams on the brakes and reverses a few feet to reveal a 2m rock python in the road blocking our path. We slowly detour around him, trying our best not to disturb his sunbathing. He is really bright and colourful, probably from recently shedding his skin. He tastes the air occasionally but otherwise shows no acknowledgement of our presence as we stop on our way around him several times for stunningly sharp photographs.
After a relaxing brunch and a quiet afternoon, the day is closed with a night drive through the bush. Game drives at night offer a chance to see creatures that are otherwise not seen during the daylight hours. The weather is a little damp, but safely seated and with our waterproofs on and the big spotlight ready we set off into the drizzly darkness.
Our guide quickly spots a couple of small hares, followed shortly by a spotted genet hiding in the undergrowth. The rain keeps much of the wildlife under cover but we see a couple of bush-babies (Lesser Galagos) and some duiker that we would not have otherwise found. Although the rain stops, we don’t stay out too long and soon retire to our beds.
Our third day is to consist of a 15km journey, slowly downstream to the bush camp, relaxing on the boat as we see what birds and other wildlife we can find on the riverbanks and on the water. The sun is shining and the birds are plentiful, mostly herons, open-bill storks, darters and a few kingfishers. There are several pods of hippos, but they seem intent on keeping out of our way, rather than being confrontational.
The bush camp is remarkably well set-up for somewhere so remote and isolated. There’s a comfortable lounge and dining area and several tents with shower and toilet facilities. We have a picnic lunch and spend a couple of hours relaxing and looking around before we must head back against the current. The camp’s location means it is often visited by quite large numbers of mammals, but we were not lucky enough to see any on our very brief visit.
The return trip back to McBride’s is a difficult one. The outboard on the boat isn’t running properly and we struggle along against the flow at only a couple of kph. It’s a great opportunity to start to take some riverscapes.
The little Canon camera is performing admirably, it turns out to be the ideal companion to my Pentax and the now more than 30-year old Sigma 400mm f5.6. I’m also even starting to prefer this lens to the sadly dead Sigma 50-500 that has accompanied me on all the previous trips to Africa. The older lens is – of course – far more primitive, but it has very short focus throw and seems to work better with multi-point focus than the zoom lens ever did. I’m not giving up too much on the range, but have to swop to the Canon whenever I want to capture the scenery or the animal moves a bit closer.
Another boat is sent down just in case, but we are quite happy to take as long as it needs to get back and we motor along slowly for about three hours. The clouds are, however, building and thickening with the odd rumble of thunder and a couple of spectacular flashes of lightning. As the nose of the boat touches the jetty the engine splutters as if to say “I’ve got you home, but now I’m done for the day!”
We make it to dinner just in time, as the downpour begins and continues through much of the night. It’s not tropically heavy, just good steady rainy-season rain that the country badly needs.
The fourth day in Kafue dawns overcast and even a little drizzly. It doesn’t look promising, but we set out on a drive to recover the trail cameras and see what we can see out in the bush. We travel a few kilometres deeper into the bush, but there’s little to see in the dreary morning. We do manage to find a couple of interesting birds, but the area is quiet. As we near camp on our return, the rain starts afresh and we end the drive under a porcupine of umbrellas in the back of the truck.
Sadly, that is pretty much it for the day. We take a couple of short walks around camp between the heavier downpours, but the rain is more or less constant for the rest of the day. All we can do is enjoy our supper and hope that the morning brings something better.
Our fifth day is our last full day at McBride’s and also my birthday. There’ll be no unwelcome surprises here, just good company and whatever we can find for the day. The plan from the previous night was to take a short game drive to visit the local hot springs, then sit comfortably under some shade and see what wanders or flutters by.
Upon meeting to get ready, plans are cast aside as elephants have been sighted. We make for the boat, as this is initially thought to be the best way to get a good sighting. This is abandoned after just a couple of minutes in favour of getting into the safari truck and moving inland. Initially Charlotte and I can both smell that elephants are near and she is sure she sees on as we are leaving the boat.
However, we make it out to the springs without seeing them and I’m beginning to think they will remain too deeply in cover. We spend a few minutes at the spring, watching some Grosbeak Weavers building their nests in the reeds. It starts to drizzle as we head back to the car and set off once more.
A few hundred metres further on and there are elephants – three or four of them – deep in the bush.
We manoeuvre to get some photos and just sit quietly for a few minutes until they drift slowly out of site, browsing as they go. Elephants for my birthday seem like a fine present to me, certainly one that I don’t get every year, but have now had two years in a row!
Clearly our drivers are wary. These are not east African Elephants and they need to be respected. We don’t try and chase after them, preferring to leave them to their browsing in peace.
Afternoon tea turns into the start of my birthday celebrations. The whole staff sing happy birthday – and somehow, I’m not so bothered this time as last. I still don’t enjoy being the centre of attention, but I can live with it better than I did last year. There’s a nice cake to go with our usual snacks then off for another game drive.
The evening game drive is just as good as the morning one, with a family of bush pigs that I manage to not get a photo of, a magnificent view of a bushbuck and – and I’m sure this was engineered a bit – another chance to see the four elephants we had encountered in the morning.
Then back to camp for drinks and dinner. I’d been asked what I would like, so knew we were having a roast of lamb, but not that we were having sparkling wine and a nice wine with the main course. It was a proper birthday dinner and something I don’t think I’ve ever really allowed for in the past. I think everyone had a great time, I know I really enjoyed myself with good food, good wine and great company.
Sadly, we had to be up early for a very quick breakfast. We had a 400km drive ahead of us and Stephen, our driver, had arrived after eight the previous evening, commenting that the roads were quite wet in places. Sadly, it was time to say farewell to Chris and Charlotte, together with the other staff. I would perhaps see Charlotte in another week or so, as I’d promised to look at her laptop when we were back in Lusaka on the 18th.
Of we set, making as good a speed as could be expected or managed. Four hours out of the park on pretty rough dirt roads, then a long two hours or so to Lusaka. We take a nice break for an ice cream at a busy mall to the south of the city then head off towards the south-east corner of the country and the Lower Zambesi.
I must admit that I remain intrigued by the vast unspoilt nature of Kafue National Park. It is one of the first places that I have visited – perhaps the very first – where I have though that I could return and make a film. I’m no film-maker, but I have some equipment and love to experiment. A couple of weeks with trail cameras, time-lapse, action cameras and my hand-held cameras would maybe offer an exciting look at a truly wild place in an ever-shrinking world. It’s not going to happen soon, but it is intriguing to think that it is something that I could maybe do one day.
The counter-argument to this is of course one of exposure. If I somehow tell the world about this last great African wilderness, will they all want to experience it too and then it loses its wildness as the tourist numbers increase. Honestly, I don’t know. Most tourists wouldn’t be prepared to put up with the difficult conditions to get to Kafue and those road conditions are not going to be improved substantially any time soon even if more people want to go there.