It has always seemed to me that most of the countries in Africa are defined either by their water or the lack of it. Whether it is the rainforest covered riverbanks of the mighty Congo, the strip of oasis along the banks of the Nile in Egypt, the Swamps of the Sud in South Sudan or the almost total lack of rain and rivers in Algeria, Chad and Namibia, water plays its part in the habitats, shapes and even the very names of the countries of Africa.
Zambia is no exception, being named along with its great river, The Zambesi. Although the river itself mostly just forms the southern border of the country, its great tributaries mould the landscape and define the flora and fauna of much of this vast country. To get a true feel for Zambia, one has to see the great river itself and the tributaries that feed it.
I’m going to take a journey of exploration – with my friends as always – to just three locations across Zambia. First, we shall journey west to the Kafue River and Kafue National Park. Next, we shall head east to the lower Zambesi River itself where the Kafue finally meets it, east of the mighty Kariba Dam and reservoir to see the river as it matures before it leaves Zambia for the sea. Finally, we will journey far north to the valley of the Luangwa River, an area teeming with herds of antelope and the predators that feed on them, to see a deeply seasonal yet highly productive landscape.
I sometimes find it hard to believe that I’ve already been to Africa seven times. With the past history of my friends in mind, it is perhaps harder to believe that I haven’t been to Zambia, as they have all been there many times. However, that is a state of affairs that can soon be remedied and the plan started – as always – with some discussion during our previous 2018 trip to Uganda.
Both Fred and Chris came to the conclusion that they hadn’t really birded Zambia, they’d visited several times but had concentrated on the wildlife of the South Luangwa valley. They were keen to see more of the country and I was enticed by the quantity and quality of the game to be seen – and the thought of visiting a new country and exploring for the first time.
The 2019 trip to Uganda had been a pleasant one, but as I made clear in my book relating to that trip, I had much on my mind and was surely somewhat distracted. It had also been a very “birdy” trip and that was perhaps not totally to my liking.
Zambia promised a more balanced mixture of birds and mammals so by the beginning of spring plans were being made. The first big decision was to limit ourselves to just three locations. Zambia is a big country and the distances are considerable. So large are the distances in fact, that we decided we would have to take an internal flight to journey from Lusaka to South Luangwa.
As always, locations and flights were organised by Fred. His extensive network of contacts on Trip Advisor and elsewhere allow him to pick places that he likes the sound of. Pretty much every time he does this, we are happy with the choice. The choice of airline is more price driven though, and this time we were to be transported by Ethiopian Airlines with a convoluted route of stopping planes via Brussels to Addis Ababa and then via Harare to Lusaka, taking us about 20 hours in total from the Isle of Man and Chris a little less via Heathrow.
Airports are airports and planes are planes. It is just a case of trying to get a little rest while the miles roll along far below and the time passes slowly. All the flights were actually fine. Not really too long and not too bumpy or noisy. There was sufficient leg room for my 1.84m frame and the food was passable.
Immigration was a little bit of an annoyance. The official guidelines from the Zambian Embassy include the Isle of Man, along with the other crown dependencies, on the list of passport holders exempt from paying for a visa – a potential saving of $50 each for the three of us who qualify. Well, this didn’t happen, the senior staff member on duty in Lusaka was adamant that because our passport said that our nationalities were British on the information page, then we had to pay for a visa as a British passport holder – even though the front of the passport clearly says Isle of Man. Fred wanted to argue further, but the alternative is, of course, getting back on a plane and going home.
I’d never really expected it to work out – these things often depend on who you meet on the ground on the day – and I had dollars ready to hand to simplify our onward progress, as did all the others.
Apart from that, our luggage all appeared on the belt, our pickup driver was clearly identifiable and ready and waiting for us and the sun was shining. I seem to recall that I had requested temperatures in the mid to high twenties and I must admit I was disappointed to find that it was actually in the low thirties when we came out into the mid-afternoon sunshine. I did raise this matter with my tour manager, but he seemed unable or unwilling to alter things at short notice.
Fred had found us a typical guest house / campsite for our first night in Lusaka. We would need a place to rest before a long journey the following day and he found us a place not too far away from the airport, but far enough off the beaten track to restrict traffic, airline and people noise to a minimum.
Pioneer camp has nice chalets, decent bathrooms, good food and cool beer – I’m sure it could have been colder, but they were having to spend most of the day on the generator because of ongoing power problems.
More than 80% of Zambia’s electricity needs are provided for by hydro-electricity. With the 2019 rains arriving a little late, the reservoirs (particularly Kariba) were so low that rolling blackouts of up to 18 hours per day were in operation across the country. Building a dam across the mighty Zambesi was one of those 1960’s-70’s megaprojects that hoped to transform the region with abundant cheap power and a lessened risk of flooding further downstream. The dam and its huge generators still work, but the dam is ageing and cannot be effectively used at its full original capacity which exacerbates the problem of drought management.
The rains had arrived – indeed it rained hard on the evening of our arrival – but it takes time for water levels to rise and so the power outages continue. This isn’t really a problem for a one-night stay in a chalet. There’re always solar torches available as a backup and we were tired enough to fall into bed almost immediately after dinner.
In any event, we all seemed to sleep satisfactorily and after a pleasant breakfast we were ready to take to the road for our first long journey of the adventure. Stephen, our driver, arrived in good time and we were soon heading west through the centre of Lusaka and off on good tar towards Kafue National Park.