The fear that we would not be able to cross the border with Frank forced our hand and we reluctantly decided to leave Tanzania to future us that will have enough money to actually enjoy the place, fingers crossed.
So we set off, armed with homemade goodies from Sue with South Luangwa set firmly in our sights. The road North was a breeze, flying along the tar with nothing but ease, the turn off however was a stark contrast and Frank was back in his element.
It wasn’t hard to see why the recommendations were to only drive this road during the dry season, soon we were battling down a dirt track that had clearly been ripped apart by the previous seasons flooding.
Travelling at a max of 20 kph it was down to a crawl over hard road but we were rewarded by brief glimpses over the dense forest that, thanks to Zambia’s seasonal changes, were an explosion of reds, yellows and greens, not unlike the autumns in England. Sadly however this slow progress had meant that night fall was fast approaching and the only camp listed didn’t actually exist in real life. As we moved on the likelihood of making a sneaky roadside camp looked less and less possible thanks to the number of bush fires burning in the region. Unsure of what to do next we just kept going, suddenly out of the pitch black we saw headlights, the first car in 4 hours, stopped just next to a small village. At this point we weren’t sure if we should be relieved or worried as the truck pulled over.
In broken english the driver of the pick-up, filled with villagers, suggested that we speak to the chief and stay the night here as the road down the escapement to the park is very tough and would take too long. We were also warned a minimum of ten times that you cannot drive in the park at night. Bean had a quick chat with the chief and after an exchange of 4 repeated words, and having been accosted but 30 local kids, we established he was indicating for us to park at the bottom of the road before the “start” of the escarpment decline.
We drove to the bottom of the village, less than impressed with the sloped camping spot and with slight uncertainty of our new overly curious neighbours, we decided to drive just a kilometre or two onward to see what the road was like. The map showed the entrance gate to the park as little 10 kms away so we decided we would turn around if it got too bad and if it was fine we would just camp at the rangers office at the gate, worried but oblivious to the terrible decision we had just made.
Almost immediately we were descending at what felt like 60 degrees over gravel, loose stones and large rocks down a tight winding road, a frightening experience in 3.5 tonne frank in the complete darkness.
Bean expertly and patiently guided the car as we shunted, shifted and jerked our way down the escarpment in low range, the car was shifting rocks and at points was sliding towards the edge of the cliff before gripping at just the right time. We wanted to turn around but it was impossible, we weren’t going back up, not tonight, not ever, this was by far the toughest 4x4ing we had done, by day or night and I’m not actually sure the car would make it back up at all if we tried.
Our only option was down. Unbeknownst to us we had just descended down an infamous 4×4 track renowned for being one of the toughest in the country. 2 long hours of concentration at snail’s pace, we were shaken up, figuratively and literally, tired and now all we had to do was find the gates and sleep.
Another hour and it was apparent that not only was the gate further than 10kms away, but that the marked road to get us there no longer existed. There was only 1 sandy, barely driven track, and that was taking us heavily off course, but with no other option we followed it. Every time we found a good spot to bush camp we would see another fire nearby, now nearing 9pm the only bonus we could find for driving at this time of night was that we were seeing nocturnal animals moving about, owls, genets and bush babies popped out from time to time waking us up a little and causing brief moments of entertainment.
Eventually we crossed a bridge and decided that if nothing else came up in the next 20 mins that we would sleep there, safe from fires at least. Bean was now at breaking point from the driving and thankfully a few minutes on we found a small village, we parked just outside in a clearing. The chief wandered out and told us that as this was technically inside the national park boundaries that we could not sleep here. He must have seen the desperation on Beans face at this point as he promptly agreed to allow us to stay providing we left at first light, being 5am, 6 hours time. But in our sleep deprived state 5 hours 55mins sleep seemed better than being found by rangers who could assume us to be poachers, and so we took the offer and fell asleep in minutes.
Reluctantly we dragged ourselves out of bed at 5 the next morning, and moved on with the encouragement of our village friends, before leaving one of the guys managed to tell us the gate was another 68kms away (this actually turned out to also be incorrect, and actual distance is closer to 110kms), needless to say at this point we were already planning a sternly worded letter to google, heavily recommending they fire the idiot in charge of Zambian road marking.
Another few hours on, after stopping to refuel Frank and make tea for ourselves, we came across a few buildings where we were advised to drive to the river’s edge and find the ‘Baobab Safari Company’. We would need to forge the Luangwa river and they would be able to tell us where to cross safely. Slightly daunted we moved on yet again, with the want to just arrive at our destination, beating back the fear that we were about to drive our home across one of Zambia’s largest rivers. Finally, after scaring an elephant off the road, we arrived at the river, where we found no trace of the safari company and were met with nothing but dead ends and empty huts.
Like good little 4x4er’s we knew it would be car suicide to drive out into the river blind, and that we needed to check the depth of the water. As we prepared to play rock, paper, scissors to see which one of us got the job of walking out into the crocodile and hippo infested waters I decided to throw the rules out the window and drive down a track signposted ‘do not enter’. Here we stumbled across yet another LandCrusier laden with people just leaving. The driver shortly informed us that he was about to cross the river and that we should just follow him. Jumping at this option we turned around and were soon flowing a stranger down to the river. Beani jumped in the hot seat and without so much as a chance to question the decision we were behind our friends and through a river bed whilst navigating crocodiles, hippos and deep holes. All the while being carefully watched by the 20 locals who thought it was hilarious, no doubt wondering what on earth the two of us were doing, having just driven out the bush with no clue of where we were or what was going on.
Thankfully after another 2 hours of driving, where the only big event were some zebras, we finally made it to a camp near the gates, where, unbeknownst to us, our next battle would ensue. Tash & Bean V overly aggressive, food thieving baboons.
Ready at the gates for their 5.30am opening we were first in line and eager to find Luangwa’s hoards of leopards. The lady behind us had notched up 4 separate sightings the previous day so needless to say hopes were though the roof! The first few hours were fairly uneventful, although the brightly coloured carmine bee-eaters and the (new to us) lechwe certainly added some fun, taking up most of our time along with species of zebra and giraffe endemic to this area of Zambia.
We bumped into a park ranger who informed us he had seen lion, telling us to “just drive down the dirt track, past the 2 baobabs on the left, keep straight past the wild mango on the right and then they are in the grass near the tamarind tree”. There was no hope of us finding them. Amazingly we got to where another car was parked but it seemed as if they had gone, we couldn’t see them anywhere in the distance or long grass, nor did we know what a tamarind tree looks like. We drove to the other car to ask, the driver looked at us slightly confused and slowly pointed to a nearby bush, the bush we had just been parked next to, and that I had been leaning over to look out. Feeling rather stupid, and thankful to be alive after having my head out of the window less than 2m from the sleeping lion we found a spot to sit in the shade and wait for movement.
Over the next 30 minutes a few cars came and went, we didn’t move off like the rest and were rewarded. After all the other cars had left one of the lioness’ got up and walked over to our car, it felt like she was going to come straight up to my door but ended up sitting less than half a meter in front of the car, in the shade. We are always aware of respecting the animals space but what happens when the favour is not returned.
There we waited for a while, hopefully they were going to make a kill, but sadly the sun was now too high and sleeping was the only item on the agenda for this young pride.
We were booked onto a night drive that evening and thankfully there was just ourselves and a swiss couple on board, before leaving we told our guide that we were looking for leopard whist the Swiss were keen to see lion, so the poor guy had his work cut our for him. The first hour was beautiful and our guide was knowledgeable but there wasn’t too much game around. After a quick stop for a sundowner and the toilet (a termite mound) we were starting to wonder if perhaps the ship had sailed.
An encounter with a bull elephant almost saw us chased out of the park but thankfully we were faster than him. As I was looking at a small herd of impala our guide turned and said “leopard” whilst pointing at the other side of the road. Sure enough there was a beautiful female leopard attempting to stalk the impala.
We quickly switched to the red light to give her the best chance of a kill but sadly the arrival of another car thwarted her chances. As they drove off however she began to stalk again. Our spotter turned to the red-light again and it seemed imminent. As the impala realised they were close to being dinner they started to bark their alarm calls, but it was too late, as she ran in for a kill 3 impala broke off to the left, a flurry of activity broke out and dust was kicked up into the air causing the scene to be covered in a blanket of brown mist. All we could hear were the cries of the impala and the leopard growl. After about 5 seconds, which felt like minutes, the dust began to thin out we realised that it wasn’t the leopard growling but lion, 5 of them, all females that had interrupted the leopards hunt and had taken down 2 impala in the confusion, only a few meters from us. A quick scan for the leopard revealed that she too had made her own kill to the left. The lioness were then joined by their 2 younger cubs. We couldn’t believe our luck, we were left looking like we were watching Wimbledon with our heads darting back and forth between the cats and their meals.
The lions hungrily pulling their kills apart whilst the leopard sat patiently with her jaws clamped around the impalas neck. Finally after 5 minutes when, the lion were half way through their food, the leopard was satisfied, and she began to eat. It was then that 3 hyena moved in, after a few minutes they realised that they had no chance of taking a meal from the lion and they moved their attentions toward the leopard. We watched helplessly whilst she lost her kill to the hyena.
After 15 mins of siting with them we were nearing the gates closing time and had to move off, astounded by what we had seen. It felt like a once in a lifetime sighting but I really hope it wasn’t. It was truly an amazing experience that not many will be so fortunate to witness.
On the drive back we found a few genets that Beani had wanted to see for ages, but they seemed to enjoy slightly less glory after the encounter we had just been a part of.
The next few days were spent battling the baboons for our food, made more difficult by the fact that they were totally unperturbed by my presence, despite Bean having armed me with a stick to swing at them if they did get too close. They would only very reluctantly move off when Beani chased them and were happy to retreat when the rocks started flying. The only other thing worth mentioning was beanis reaction to my zip up “lesbian pants”, quite literally threw him into histerics every time he looked at me. Not quite sure what the deal was, I thought they looked great and very flattering.
Despite having had such amazing experiences in Zambia the allure of water was getting louder and we decided to make our way towards Malawi, once again the fun game of spotting who was carrying the most ridiculous cargo ensued, a seamless crossing of the border and we were Eastward bound for the massive Lake Malawi.