When we told Brett at Mvuu we were heading for Bridge Camp he said “I’d be amazed if the owner’s sober when you get there”. It has a bit of a reputation as a rough and ready place that you stay at only because there is no other option on the long drive up to South Luangwa. It turned out that the owner had packed his bags one night a couple of months ago and left for South Africa never to return. His manager stayed on and was now running the place with friendly enthusiasm. While it ain’t the Ritz, it’s perfectly fine and serves big helpings of hearty food with cold beer which hit the spot after a long day.
Over supper last night we chatted to a big Belgian called Rok, or possibly Rock or even Roque. He was riding a huge BMW touring bike around Southern Africa over two months. He was a pilot with an air freight company. “I turned 55 and said I am going to do this even if I have to leave my job. Everything has been for my family, this is for me”. He loved the countries he’d ridden through “It’s Africa. Everyone is friendly.” Now on his return leg he was heading to Livingstone to meet his wife for a holiday in Namibia. We had great fun swapping stories with him over beers.
Next to us was a very excited young guy who had rented a land cruiser and was about to take our route across the National Park in reverse. Um, the route not the Land Cruiser. “I drive for ten hours through the bush and I love it”. He spent the evening plotting gps coordinates on a laptop plugged into his car battery and I gave him what advice I could about the route. He pulled out onto the road with a wave. I headed to the entrance gate to say goodbye to Rok all togged up in his biking gear.
Then we had the camp to ourselves, watching the sun rise over Mozambique across the river.
Today’s drive would be on good tarmac almost all the way to the entrance to South Luangwa National Park and the Camp manager thought it would be four and a half hours. So a leisurely start with the last of the eggs and sausages and mushrooms and some sitting in the sun with a coffee while children walking by the road called hellos over the wall.
We were off at 1045 in hot sunshine and zipped up to the Great East Road, one of the main highways through Zambia. It too is relatively newly surfaced, and there is much work going on to keep it maintained. Every ten minutes or so we were diverted around another group of road-menders. One flagged us down with an empty water bottle. “It’s very hot. Do you have some water”. We’d given our last plastic bottle to a soldier guarding the entrance to a suspension , but the truck has a reservoir of drinking water so we filled his bottle from the tap at the back. He was pleased and slightly bemused.
The road rise and fell sharply through a range of rolling hills. Villages popped up every few miles and there were people constantly at the roadside. Glossy cows crossed as they wished. The brush had been thinned by firewood collection and there were no wild animals to be seen. It was an easy pleasant drive but with a lots of stopping and starting for the roadworks. Heavily laden trucks lumbered up the hills at walking pace but other cars were few and far between.
Every so often we’d pass through a little town, often with a vigorous motto of some sort painted on the sign; “Creating Aspirations for Future Zambian Citizens!” The flat fronted shops were brightly painted and had great names, from the somewhat alarmist “People’s Last Hope Grocery” to the admirably honest “Humble Beginnings Beauty Parlour”, and one shop just called “Home is Home”. The “Man Tennis General Store” was slightly puzzling and I wondered whether they actually had a menu at the “God Gives Restaurant”.
Petauke was a big agricultural town offering the full-on African experience; crowds milling at a frantic roadside market, serious young women in bright batik with shopping on their heads, great piles of fruit and vegetables for sale, goats clearing up under trestle tables, confident boys in grinning groups on the roadside and a mad man with no shoes walking down the middle of the road.
Chipati was where, after about 250k, we turned left. We’d left Mozambique behind, and Chipati borders Malawi. Like so many border towns it had that slightly on-edge feeling of a place buzzing with hustle. Money changers sidled up at the petrol station and boys wanted money. At the supermarket everyone wanted to carry your bag and outside, fruit vendors rushed up to us with bananas and gorgeous looking strawberries. It wasn’t threatening in any way and no-one took offence at refusal. The place was fizzing with energy and slightly exhausting after a long drive, so we took our turning north as the sun began to fade in the dusty sky.
Flatdogs camp is named after the nickname for the crocs which line the riverside. Immediately after we drove through the gate there was an elephant. We were back in the wilds again. It had taken an hour longer than the Bridge Camp manager had predicted and we were later than planned. I think we are destined never to arrive anywhere much before sunset. The staff were waiting anxiously for us as we’d missed the start of the evening drive but they’d kept a game vehicle for us and a driver. Tired though we were, we got out of our vehicle and into theirs.
Yotam, our guide and Mable, the spotter gave us a great evening. Almost immediately a loping giraffe passed by us and then elephants and then a genet scuttling into a bush. When it.was fully dark, we came across a young male lion calling for his two brothers who (said our guide) were trying to establish themselves in this area of the park. He sounded mournful as he roared but wasn’t bothered by us in the least and we watched from a couple of meters away. It was a grand night drive and invigorating to be in the cooling night air after a long stuffy day.
Back at Flatdogs they gave us big food and Mosi beers. As it says on the bottle: “Truly Zambian. Thunderous refreshment”. We had posh tents with proper beds and mosquito nets and hippos and elephants just a few meters away, making a racket. But not enough to keep us up.