Leopards Hill Road

Now, I like close-harmony singing as much as the next man. But at 5.30 in the morning, blasting out through stadium-sized amplifiers it feels like the singers have come into your room and are bellowing three inches from your head. Ah those revivalists… I couldn’t help thinking God would have appreciated them just as much without the amps. And perhaps a bit later. Next came the minister, at about a million decibels, exhorting everyone to repent. I was repenting our choice of accommodation. An hour later they stopped for breakfast and as it was now light, we got up.

It was a lovely spot in fact. P and I sat on the step in the rising sunshine watching the light slide over the trees.

At breakfast the young man serving us asked if we’d slept well. “Yes, until 5.30”. He gave us a rueful grin. “It’s the Catholics. Every August”.

As we were eating, Tshidiso the Bushlore guy arrived with our vehicle. A serious, unsmiling man who was all business. It’s the same Toyota Hilux we’ve had before but in better nick and with better camping gear too. He took us through everything; from the cooking gas cylinders to the compressor for the tyres and using the high lift jack; “It’s dangerous. Try not to use it”. OK… The water tank was full, the fridge was empty.

We tested the satphone and signed the paperwork and then we were on our own. Literally. As we were checking things out, Tshidiso vanished into the ether and we couldn’t find him to say goodbye. We packed up and drove the five K or so to the main road over the jolting track to find the supermarket. Tom captured our glorious departure on video, wearing his flat hat and Cecil B deMille trousers.

The whole route is about 2000 K and roughly two thirds of that will be over bush tracks miles from anywhere so we needed to get stocked up. Shoprite was like any modern supermarket anywhere though perhaps with better fresh fruit and vegetables. Pleasingly most were grown in Zambia. Up we stocked and then we unlocked the doors to head to the petrol station. The back doors didn’t open. Child-locks? No. Open from the inside? No. Nothing would open the rear doors and while Tom could just squeeze in behind the front seats, this wasn’t ideal. We drove to the petrol station and called Tshidiso back. Thankfully he wasn’t too far away and pulled into the petrol station twenty minutes later. We went through the fuses and there was much head shaking and “This is very very strange”. Which it was. Tshidiso had a chat with the mechanics in the garage and came back with a renewed sense of purpose, pulling out a panel from next to the driver’s door. That was, it turned out, where the electrics for the door locks were based and they were wet. The guy who cleaned the car had been a bit too enthusiastic with the pressure washer and soaked them. We hitched up the compressor, dried all the connectors and “click” the doors opened. Phew.

This time we did get to say goodbye and thanks to Tshidiso, and with 160 litres of fuel on board we were finally off. And this is where the adventure really began.

Our door lock problem meant we were setting off late, but then we spent an age trying to find the right track to start our journey to the Zambezi area for our first night camping. I’d looked up the route in advance and it seemed to go back past Pioneer Camp but a few K beyond it, a chained gate blocked the route. P looked at the map and worked out that the route we needed was a turnoff just before the camp in fact so we took that and were soon on glorious sweeping tarmac. Well this is going to be easy then. And apart from the odd heart-stopping moment when all of a sudden the tarmac COMPLETELY ENDED AND TURNED INTO RUTTED TRACK, it was. We cruised along heading south until the tarmac did finally end and we were bumping along on red dust through small villages in the Bush, with kids in uniforms walking home from school and goats wandering about and women in brilliant reds and greens walking and carrying. People waved and smiled and we slowed down so as not to coat them in dust and all seemed fine, except for the nagging sense that we had actually left it too late to be setting out. The villages were soon left behind and we were into wild scrubland.

The track became more deeply rutted. As we approached the hills, it got a lot steeper too. After couple of hours of jolting and climbing, wheels struggling for grip, Tom looked at a section of apparently vertical river bed ahead of us and said “Is that actually possible”? Halfway up, the Hilux ran out of power and bogged down in a rut. P and I looked at each other. It looked like it maybe wasn’t possible. She and Tom got out to lighten the load and I gritted my teeth. Power on, clutch protesting, tyres slipping, with occasionally only three wheels on the ground, I slithered to the top of the hill and stopped the engine. Smoke drifted from the clutch as Philippa and Tom walked up to meet me. It wasn’t the only time they had to get out, and doing the down bits was almost as hair-raising as doing the ups.

At one point our T4A satnav map, hilighted a comment from a previous driver on that route. “What does it say?” Asked Philippa. “Best not know right now” I said. The comment was “serious off-road section”. The light was just beginning to fade too and we still had perhaps 50K of hard-going still to do. We knew that once we hit the riverside track we would pass a series of camps so we decided if we could get there before nightfall, we would break the rule about not driving at night. But if we couldn’t we would have to wildcamp, so we noted every likely looking flat space we passed. There were perhaps two on the whole route.

As night fell, we reached the Zambezi and saw moonlight gleaming from it through the trees. We turned left towards Mvuu and there were people again and a couple of small villages and scrappy little bars with fairy lights and music drifting out. The track was no better but it was at least level and we rumbled through the darkness heading towards the Zambezi National Park. Philippa called Mvuu to say we would be late but we’re still coming and please keep the restaurant open! “Sure, sure, no problem”. Again we left the villages behind and animals appeared in our headlights. Impala bedding down for the night by the road. A mongoose running into the scrub. Then Philippa said “Elephant”. Through the bushes she could see it standing in the moonlight. We didn’t stop, and it underlined why you try to avoid driving here at night.

Just before eight we pulled into Mvuu camp which seemed to be almost completely dark. Brett, the owner came to greet us. “At eight thirty we were going to start looking for you” he said, smiling. “Which way did you come?”. Over the hills from Pioneer. “Leopards Hill Road??! Oh my gosh why did you come that way?”. Good question, and the answer is I didn’t spend enough time considering the route beforehand. The only other route was three times further and both the satnav and google thought the shorter route was quicker, and a woman in Pioneer said yes, that was the way to head south. But I don’t think she really knew the route. So, lesson learned. But over a hearty supper in the dining room Brett said now we’d driven that route we could go anywhere and that felt rather good.

Categories: ZambiaTags: , , , , , ,

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