Zambia’s watery north

(Better late than never!)

There was no way I could leave Zambia without one last epic adventure.  So, over Christmas, I joined the Pipenator, Utchi, Hicksy & Clive for a 4WD trip through the far Northern reaches of this great country.

A Zambian Christmas

My journey started out in its usual way – in complete chaos.  Two hours into the trip, my bus to Lusaka got bogged on the muddy highway, requiring pushing, digging, and finally winching, before continuing on the 11 hour journey.  Once in Lusaka, things became a lot more civilised.  Christmas Eve was spent at a rained-out, overly-catered, pool party with work colleagues and new friends.

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Then on Christmas Day, we moved to the gorgeous little Village Rest outside Lusaka, where we lounged in the rare sunshine, drank beers, and ate grilled Christmas pudding with brandy butter.  Christmas Dinner was had at the nearby 5-star Lilayi Lodge featuring wildebeest phyllo parcels, turkey roulade, pear crumble, and good wine – a rare delight for a country gal from Chipata.

The relaxing continued over the next couple of days, with a brief interlude back to Lilayi to check out their elephant orphanage.  We oohed and aahed as four baby elephants sauntered into the feeding pen where they were hooked up with giant bottles of milk that they devoured in a few seconds.  One elephant, who was attacked with an axe that severed a nerve to one of his legs was given release from his Forrest Gump-esque metal brace for a few precious hours each day, and hobbled along happily.  The others got a bit frisky with each other, “just like at jungle gym” according to one child.  It was very entertaining.

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28th Decmeber:  Lusaka – Kapishya Hot Springs

Our road trip finally commenced on the 28th December, as we headed North-East towards Tanzania.  Our destination was Kapishya Hot Springs, but along the way we stopped for samosas, drinks and for a quick mercy dash to a local hospital to help out people injured in a minibus accident.  Eight hundred kilometres later, we finally arrived at Kapishya, and had the holiday joy of putting up tents in the pouring rain.

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The rain didn’t stop us from enjoying Kapishya’s famous 41oC hot springs in the dark, lit by romantic lanterns.  This was followed by an outstanding vegan dinner cooked by the local lodge and made almost exclusively from food grown on the premises: spicy home-made tofu, chinese broccoli, a mix of salads, hummus and fresh bread, apple pie with vegan custard.  Chimimba.

29th December:   Shiwa N’gandu – Chishimba Falls

The following morning, the rain had subsided and we enjoyed the gorgeous hot springs before heading down the road to the infamous Shiwa N’gandu Estate.  Shiwa N’gandu is a crazy over-sized, out-of-place English manor plonked in the middle of nowhere by English Aristocrat, Sir Stewart Gore-Brown.  Gore-Brown fell in love with the area after working on Rhodesia-DRC boundary lines just after the first world war.  Now, the estate and attached farm is managed by one of his grandchildren, with Kapishya Hot Springs also falling within the farm’s boundaries and being managed by another of his grandsons.  One can tour the house for a fee but, instead, we just wandered the English country gardens shaking our heads at the peculiarity of it all.  Oh, Africa.

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Back on the road, we headed northward towards Kasama, where we got our first glimpse of the North’s abundant summer mushrooms and stocked up with supplies before continuing on to Chishimba Falls.

Formed from the Luombe River, there are three successive falls over the space of 300-odd metres.  A hydro-electric power plant is stationed just before the upper falls, Mutumuna, which drops about 20m and carries on to the Kayela Rapids (aka the middle falls), and down to the main fall that drops 30m into a beautiful valley.  This is Zambia, so no barricades prevent you from walking right out to the fall’s edge, to sit with your legs dangling over the cliff face, and to meditate upon the amazing view as the water gushes beside you.  Just don’t slip.

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Here we set up camp for the night, feasted on fresh mushroom pasta, and dried our eternally wet clothes beside a massive bonfire that we had all to ourselves.

30th December:  Chilambwe Falls – Ndole Bay

The following morning, we were up at the crack of dawn to cover the massive 396km to our next destination.  Now, 396km may not seem like much, but bear in mind that we were about to enter one of the remotest parts of Zambia….. with a beat-up 4WD….. during wet season.  Most visitors to this area opt to fork out for a private chartered plane to get them there.  Now that I’ve done the trip, I think they are probably quite wise.

The journey started out great, with a new bitumen road that gave us a false sense of confidence.  So, we decided to make a quick stop at Chilambwe Falls en route.  A track enables you to climb to the top of the falls, past burgeoning mushrooms, to open fields where the tranquil stream marks the calm before the thundering waterfall storm.  My guess is that not many people bother to visit these falls, and I think they are missing out.

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Our dream of tarred road faded not long after leaving Chilambwe Falls, as the remaining 145km to Mporokoso was under construction (yes, the entire stretch).  Due to the recent torrential bucketing, I got to put my 4WD skills to the test in muddy water crossings stretching up to 50-odd metres at a time.  It was fun, and very messy.

Thanks to Michael Dally for this photo.  Woohoo!

Thanks to Michael Dally for this photo. Woohoo!

We made it to Mporokoso before lunch, where we got the town talking by having four whities wandering the markets and speaking Bemba while stocking up on fresh supplies for the next few days.  Being half way through our day’s journey, we thought it might be nice to take a short detour and enjoy a quick picnic by Kaluma Falls, only 7km away.  This drive redefined my interpretation of “short detour”.  In the North, the tropical rain has a wonderful way of washing away any semblance of a road, leaving exposed boulders, toppled trees and an endless series of ruts and gullies.  Did I mention fun?

We reached the falls after a solid 45 minutes.  Described by the guide book as “small but delightful”, there was nothing small about Kaluma falls – at least not by my naive standards.  We could barely hear ourselves speak above the din of the water crashing down, and we struggled to find a dry spot to set up the picnic rug due to the mass amounts of spray.  I guess, though, the guidebook knew something that we didn’t.

"Small but delightful"

“Small but delightful”

After making our way back (along a different road that was pointed out to us by a local, who added that the road we came in on “is no more”), we carried forth towards Ndole Bay on the South-Western edge of Lake Tanganyika.  Hoping to get there in time for sunset, this 175km stretch took us a mere 7 hours to complete.  In summary, there was mud, potholes, corrugations and a disintegrated shock absorber (it wasn’t my fault, I swear!).  When we arrived at 8pm, the sunset was well and truly gone.

31st December – 1 January:  Ndole Bay

Our first glimpse of Lake Tanganyika came the following morning, as we arose early and lounged on the beach chairs while watching the fishermen and crocodiles bobbing in the water.  The day continued in a very relaxing style:  reading on the beach, stepping into the clear fresh water for a spot of snorkelling, hiking up the hill and getting lost, collecting firewood for a new year’s eve bonfire bonanza.

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As the clock ticked to midnight, our bonfire on the beach was probably visible from space, and our eyebrows were singed as we trialled a new taste sensatation of roasted marshmallows stuffed with Christmas pudding on a stick.  The nearby lodge let off a fireworks display and a series of chinese lanterns that floated away into 2015.

2015 certainly started in an interesting way.  While enjoying my breakfast in the campsite, I spotted something white, green and curled up, fall from the tree.  Upon closer inspection I was confirmed that it was a baby python, which the Zambian staff promptly wanted to kill, and the American backpackers promptly wanted to manhandle.  I chose to sit back and let it be a metaphor for my year: things will drop from nowhere unexpectedly, and at first they might appear terrifying, but upon closer inspection you will discover that it is beautiful and all part of nature’s plan.

With another day of lakeside living, we decided to make the most of it and chartered a dhow out to what a camper described as the “one of the best freshwater snorkelling spots in the world”.  For Manyoni, this was his first ever snorkelling experience, and it is pretty hard not to be amazed by crystal clear, beautifully warm water and thousands of colourful cichlids.

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We headed back to camp for some lunch and a bit of afternoon reading, before hitting the water again – this time on a “party” speed boat.  Our destination was Kasaba Bay.  A number of years ago, the government had opened a resort here and had made big plans to construct an international airport.  Half way through construction, though, there was a change of government and the whole lodge was abandoned with the exception of two very isolated caretakers, herds of elephants, and a series of dirt piles waiting to be made into an airstrip.  Eerie.

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2nd – 3rd January:  Lumangwe Falls

Back on the road, we were not looking forward to the lengthy, bumpy drive South.  Fortunately, we were directed toward a secret road to Luwingu that was described as “better but still bad” by the lodge owners, and as “becoming impassable” by the guidebook.  At this point, we figured that there could be few roads in the world worse than the road we came in on, so we decided to try our luck.  Admittedly, there were stretches where we cursed this decision, but as soon as we made it out on to the ridiculously corrugated and rutted main road to Luwingu, we felt blessed that we didn’t have to endure more of that than was necessary.  Our 360km trip took 11.5 hours, and led us to Lumangwe Falls on dusk.

Lumangwe Falls

Lumangwe Falls

Lumangwe Falls is often referred to as “mini-Victoria Falls”.  It is easy to see why, as we woke up in a cloud of mist stretching 160 metres wide, and rising 40-odd metres from the base of the falls to our campsite 100m away.  Recovering from our previous day’s drive, we ate, drank, read, took walks to different viewpoints, and bathed in life non-threatening pools.  We also drove to the nearby Kabwelume Falls, where we stayed all of five minutes because of the intense drenching that we received from the furthest-most view point.

Kabwelume Falls - a Michael Dally photo

Kabwelume Falls – a Michael Dally photo

4th January: Mansa via Ntumbachushi

I wonder if there is such a thing as waterfall overload.  I have my doubts.  Today’s drive took us to Luapula’s provincial capital of Mansa, but not before taking a slight detour to yet another set of falls called Ntumbachushi.  By this stage in our trip, the main falls failed to give us the wow factor that we experienced earlier, but we took a hike up, up, up to the far upper reaches of the falls and were treated to the most beautiful natural swimming pool with only a slightly dangerous current.  Days don’t get much better than this.

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After a swim, lunch, swim, dry off, swim, we carried on to Mansa – home of our travel buddy Pipenator.  She gave us a quick tour of the city’s three streets, before we had our first hot shower in over a week.  The evening took advantage of the big city lights, feeding ourselves on local fish, chips and Congolese beer, before ending the night with a quick trip to the Congolese nightclub Elle et Moi, where dancing solo up against a mirror is considered perfectly acceptable – obligatory, even.

5th January:  Mutinondo via Kundalila

A relaxing start to the day allowed Utchi to visit his relatives that he hadn’t seen for 20 years, and allowed the rest of us to do some food shopping and tyre repairing (oops!).  Then it was back on the road.  Making good time, we decided to stop at one last set of falls for the trip, described as “one of the most beautiful falls in the country”.

Kundalila, meaning ‘cooing dove’, didn’t have the amount of water as other falls, but snaked its way down an 80m vertical series of rocky outcrops into a crystal clear pool below, with the stunning Muchinga escarpment as its backdrop.  When standing at the top of the falls, one is very tempted to take that extra step towards the ledge to get a good look at the bottom.  Several people have not survived that extra step.

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Without losing anyone, we headed on to our final destination for the day – Mutinondo Wilderness.  This area is a private 100km2 reserve that encompasses pristine miombo woodlands, huge granite whalebacks, crystal-clear rivers and stunning waterfalls.  Apparently.  By the time we had made our way down the 30km dirty road, the rains had made a very marked presence, and we could barely see 2 metres in front of us.  Camping was going to be fun.

Clearly unable to pitch a tent, we ran instead for the bar.  There we met Gillian, the lovely overseer who took one look us and decided we needed some hot beer-battered mushrooms.  Over the next couple of hours, the drinks and mushrooms warmed us up, while the rain gradually subsided, and we were finally able to make our way to the campsite.  Rather than pitch a tent in the mud, we opted to sleep in an open thatch rondavel that had a lovely fireplace.

Having never lived in a house with a fireplace and chimney, it had never occurred to me that I should probably check the chimney before lighting a fire.  This lesson was learnt rather quickly when a shrieking, scorched squirrel fall from above into the fireplace where we had our dinner on the boil.  Poor little Sparky the Squirrel then consumed much of our attention for the rest of the night.  None of us had the stomach to put him out of his misery so we naively attempted to improve his quality of life by moving him into the rain to cool down, then making him a cardboard tent, then eventually taking him out to the bushland in the hope that that would give him a will to live.  I didn’t find Sparky the next morning, so I am naively assuming that he survived and is being nursed back to health by his loving squirrel family.

6th – 7th January:  Lusaka and beyond

All good things must come to an end, and having covered 3,200km in 8 days, it was time to head back to Lusaka.  What better way to end than with the roadside purchase of an edible mushroom measuring ~50cm in diameter.  A ridiculously perfect dinner to end a ridiculously perfect trip.  Thanks Zambia.

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Categories: Exploring | 1 Comment

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One thought on “Zambia’s watery north

  1. Tim

    … as you do.

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