Text: Ralph Spilsbury
Photography: Ralph and Angela Spilsbury
“Why don’t we just stand here and hand out money?” Angela asked sarcastically. Luckily, the Zambian customs official ignored the jibe, or perhaps he simply didn’t hear it, because he continued to process our documents as if nothing had been said.
It has to be mentioned, however, that Angela’s remark was an understandable reaction to a seemingly endless bureaucratic process consisting of countless forms that need to be filled in and a rather alarming number of fees that have to be paid.
In the two hours it took us to complete the process, we were forced to part with around R1300 in order to enter Zambia with our vehicle for 30 days. And to make things even more interesting, some charges had to be paid in US dollars, while others had to be handed over in Zambian kwachas (ZK).
Paying a ZK30 000 council tax sounded frightening, until we remembered that it was 670 kwachas to the rand. Apart from the council tax, we also had to pay for visas (not necessary for South Africans), a carbon pollution tax (ironic in a country where forests are been burnt down for charcoal), third-party car insurance, a road access fee and human methane emission tax. Okay, I made that last one up, but if there had been one
I wouldn’t have been surprised!
Of course, the fact that this exorbitant amount had to be paid in a dilapidated caravan that appeared old enough to have been used by David Livingstone only added to the frustration. Where was all this tax going?
We were travelling in Zambia with fellow Brits Jerry and Lisa. Patriotic lot that we are, Jerry and Lisa were driving a 110 Defender, while Angela and I were in a 1999 V8 Discovery 2. Once over the border, our first stop was Foley’s Land Rover in Livingstone in order to make sure that both vehicles were in decent running order. The technician inspected our Discovery and delivered some very surprising news: the Disco was in excellent shape. The engine was running smoothly and nothing had apparently dropped off since we left Johannesburg.
Jerry and Lisa were not as fortunate. The Defender’s fuel tank was leaking and had to be replaced.
We passed the time by exploring the Zambian side of the Victoria Falls, and once the repairs were done, we headed for Kafue National Park. We took a relatively unused route that follows the eastern side of the park.
Roads in this area were actually 4×4 tracks, making a good satellite navigation system with Tracks4Africa a prerequisite.
Kafue proved to be a beautiful park, and the Kafue River a particular highlight, with classic Tarzan-movie vistas and elephants and hippos wherever you looked. The area surrounding Mukambi River Lodge is a particularly popular hippo hang-out. One hippo, Basil, uses the lodge lapa as a sunshade during the day and we enjoyed the rare experience of standing four feet from a wild hippo. It was sobering to think that he was a half-grown teenager!
Indeed, nosy and precocious animal behaviour proved to be a running theme throughout our Zambian trip. Sitting around the campfire at Mukambi one night, Angela said: “I think it’s too dark for the monkeys now.”
The words had barely been uttered when a vervet monkey dropped down from the branches, dashed towards the fire and grabbed two foil-wrapped potatoes from the flames. He executed the heist flawlessly, but his ill-gotten loot was a bit hotter than he’d expected. Watching him attempt to juggle the spuds was one of the most hilarious animal moments we’ve enjoyed in Africa.
After nine glorious days in the wilderness, it was a shock to get back on tarmac and hit the capital, Lusaka, during peak-hour traffic. The congestion, noise and sheer size of the population was a bit overwhelming. The street vendors also put their South African brethren to shame. In addition to the usual hats, football jerseys, chairs and brooms, rabbits and puppies were shoved through our open windows. It was difficult to believe the Zambian guidebook, which stated that Zambia is one of the least-densely populated countries in Africa. I suppose the majority of the country’s citizens live in Lusaka!
From Lusaka, Jerry and Lisa returned to Livingstone, while Angela and I decided to explore the lower Zambezi River, which forms the border with Zimbabwe.
Angela is not keen on canoes, especially if there are hippos in the vicinity, so how exactly she ended up on a sunset canoe trip down the Zambezi remains a mystery. It probably had something to do with Jenny, the manager at Mvuu Lodge, who assuaged her fears by saying there would be an experienced guide in each of our canoes.
As we travelled down the river, however, it occurred to me that the advantage provided by the guide is minimal at best. I could think of only two ways in which he added to the experience. Firstly, he was doing most of the paddling. And since it was a stiflingly hot day, this was quite a blessing. Secondly, in case of a hippo attack, he increased my chances of survival substantially. If a hippo attacked the canoe while I was alone, there was a 100% chance that I would be identified as the most edible substance bobbing in the water. With a guide in the boat, the odds dropped down to 50%!
Now, the presence of the guide might have increased my odds of survival, but our first encounter with a hippo was still very tense. Sitting only slightly above the water in a ridiculously thin piece of fibreglass while 12 hippos inspected us nonchalantly was an unnerving experience. Nevertheless, after about six encounters, we managed to relax a little and enjoy the scenery.
As it turned out, canoeing also proved to be the cheapest way of experiencing the area. Zambia charged US$75 (R533) a day to access their park, but Zimbabwe trumped that with a staggering US$150 (R1065) a day, so we declined to do either. Instead, we uncovered a pleasant alternative. Mvuu (which means hippo) Lodge sits in the game management area right next to the Zambezi, so you get the same scenery and animals, without the ridiculous park fees. The only unreasonable cost was the pontoon ferry over the Kafue River, a tourist-milking US$28 (R199) each way for an 80m trip.
Mvuu proved an idyllic spot with a charismatic resident hippo that kept a close eye on us each day. Our campsite, tellingly named Ellie, also offered exciting (and alarming) encounters with elephants.
One morning, while washing clothes in the outdoor sink, I was interrupted by a group of four elephants that squeezed through the small space between the riverbank and the sink. Talk about a close encounter!
Prior to visiting Zambia, we’d assumed it to be an arid place, but the opposite proved to be true. It is a lush country criss-crossed by rivers and nourished by generous summer rains.
The next river on our agenda was the Luangwa, which forms the southern boundary of the South Luangwa National Park. The park has a reputation for walking safaris, but with a daytime temperature of 44C and squadrons of tsetse flies on standby, we decided to stay in our comfortably air-conditioned Disco. Staying in the vehicle, however, did not prevent the tenacious tsetse flies from gaining access to exposed skin. We’d been warned about tsetse flies before we arrived in Zambia, and once bitten, we understood why. Unlike a mosquito bite, the tsetse bite is very painful.
But despite the tsetse flies, scorching heat and US$75 (R533) charge, South Luangwa proved a beautifully scenic park with loads of wildlife. We spotted several lion prides and nearly ran right over a leopard lazing on the road. And once we had recovered from the shock of encountering it on our path, we followed it as it stalked some bushbuck.
The combination of expensive park fees, high petrol prices (roughly R11 a litre), large distances and very high food prices meant that our time in Zambia was inevitably going to be limited. We were sad to leave the lovely parks, good roads and friendly people ? a rare combination in Africa. So it was with great reluctance that we left South Luangwa and headed over the border to neighbouring Malawi for what we hoped would be a more affordable experience. But we’ll always have fond memories of the country. And we might be back, particularly if we win the lottery.
* Get the rest of the story and the travel planner in the March issue of Leisure Wheels. On sale now!