The hippo maintained their intermittent symphony last night. I know I keep going on about them but they are a surprisingly interesting lot. I’ve been trying to work out what sets them off. They can all be completely quiet for long stretches. Then one hippo in one pod calls out to another pod in a different part of the river, and that can be a grunt or a snort or a rumble like someone failing to start a chainsaw. Then the other pod will respond with a combination of all of those sounds, and then the original pod answers back and that goes on for about fifteen seconds or so of brain-jangling basso profundo and it all goes quiet again. Last night though, I managed to sleep through most of it for once.
We watched our last sunrise here with tea before turning our attention to breakfast and breaking down the tents. It’s been a very special couple of nights in this wilderness. We heard the lion a few times before we went to sleep and Philippa and Tom both felt the tent shake last night as if something was pushing it. Elephant? Baboon? Who knows in this wild place.
We’d resolved to be out by eight and – almost unbelievably – we actually were. But not before having first said a warm goodbye to our three lovely attendants. It must be a pretty quiet existence for them and they get just four days off each month to spend at home. We scooped up our scout and wound our way back into the forest.
Despite all the concern about aggressive elephants we hadn’t seen any, apart from at a great distance on the opposite side of the river. But within a minute of driving out of the camp there was a female showing us her ears to our right – a bit too close for comfort. At the same time, perhaps twenty meters ahead, three more were coming out of the bush and crossing the road. The one nearest us was getting agitated but backing up would move me closer to her and going forward meant driving towards the others. Our scout went rather serious and had me wind up my window. Suddenly there was an angry trumpeting from the big tusked male ahead of us and it ran across the road, its gaze fixed on us, ears flapping. The others ran with it, deeper into the bush. Quite a moment. “That’s what I’m here for – to protect you” said our scout, smiling.
We dropped him off at the Kanunshya Gate into the park, where he was met by his daughter, a little girl with tight braids in her hair and a plate of mealie porridge.
The gate ranger appeared in a white T-shirt with faded lettering which said “I don’t do mornings” on it. Thankfully he did and signed us out.
At this point we were only about 30K or so from Buffalo Camp. I’d spent quite some time at home trying to work out how to get there from Kanunshya Gate. The Buffalo Camp people said we couldn’t come into the North Luangwa National Park through Kanunshya Gate (its only for park staff) so we had to do a big loop of more than 100k, via a pontoon bridge across the river to the northern entrance. When asked if they had any more specific information about the route, they referred me to the Bradt Guide to Zambia which doesn’t actually tell you how to get to Buffalo Camp but does have details and gps coordinates about getting to the Park entrance.
We bade farewell to our scout and his daughter and set back out in the road through the villages. As it was early in the day, most of the kids were either at school or doing chores so the crowds were smaller and the atmosphere was a bit more relaxed as we drove through.
A small truck was picking people up and dropping them off in the fields and we followed it for a bit before the driver waved us past with a big smile.
With no gps roadmap to follow we were relying on coordinates to pick out the junctions we needed, which were listed in the Bradt guide. We found the first and headed north on a smooth track through mopane forest. There were a fair few people on bikes carrying firewood or bundles of thatch or sacks of vegetables and they always immediately pulled off the road to let us pass. We always said hello and thanked them and they always returned our greetings cheerfully.
Just before we left the line of villages we passed a shop sign which read “Uncle Don’s Glossary Shop”. It felt like the title of a Monty Python sketch, but should you need an alphabetical list of words relating to a specific subject or document, Uncle Don can set you right.
The next coordinate was across an old and overgrown airstrip, with a skeletal windsock, lying limp in the heat. A left turn towards a dusty village and on into more trees. So far so good and we’d made much better progress than we’d thought we would. The next coordinate was for a right turn past a disused bush camp, onto an old game viewing track. We took it.
Before long we came to a section of “river soil” overgrown with dry grass. River soil is the rich silt churned up in the rainy season; a black goo that dries rock hard with deep fissures and potholes left by elephant feet. It is the absolute worst surface to drive over.
I was reluctant to set off into it but it was in exactly the direction we needed to go and it appeared that at another vehicle had been this way, flattening the grass into tyre tracks.
We bounced, juddered and jolted over the river soil at something less than walking pace. Fairly soon it switched to smooth clay and a track with small bushes growing in the middle of it, suggesting it wasn’t well used.
A couple of times I stopped to hack down some of the bigger branches and we pressed on, only to come to a vast field of river soil.
It looked to have something of a track across it but after fifteen minutes of being thrown around, any remnants of a track had vanished. I got out to see if we had missed it somewhere, but the only tracks anywhere near us were animal paths. It was pointless to continue, despite the fact that we were clearly heading in the right direction according to the coordinates of the pontoon on the gps. It may have been the route once, but not any more and if we carried on like this something was going to break. Possibly me. All we could do was turn around and retrace our steps
After twenty minutes of agonising jolting, we got back to our junction and continued on our original track, wondering whether it would take us where we needed to go.
The Bradt guide now proved to be quite wrong about where the pontoon was relative to the other waymarks, but we got there in the end. It was deserted but after beeping the horn, the pontoon man (“I am the pontoon man”) appeared and told us to go back to a bush camp we’d passed a few hundred meters back, to sign into the park.
North Luangwa only gets a few hundred visitors a year and the northern part of it is a rhino protection area, patrolled against poachers. So they are fairly fussy about who goes in and out and for how long. We sat with a ranger under the shade of a thorn tree. There was much paperwork involving carbon copies and names and dates and license plates and the payment of many dollars. We were the second people through that day and the ranger radio’d Buffalo Camp to say we were on our way. I picked thorns out of my scalp where I’d been a bit too quick standing up and then we went back to the pontoon.
It was just big enough for one vehicle, and the approach was on a rough mat made from tree branches that was fiendishly difficult to drive over. Once I’d driven on, Philippa and Tom were allowed to get in, sidling along the edge of the pontoon. The pontoon man attached a wooden handle to the cable and began pulling us across. It was very hard work and I wondered what would happen if we got stuck.
Halfway across, we got stuck. The pontoon was grinding on the river bed. Pontoon Man jumped into the water to try to bounce us free while Tom and I picked up a wooden handle each and became pontoon men. Between us we got it moving again and reached the other side. Philippa said “You know, I thought I’d had adventures before…”.
We’d gone over the route to Buffalo Camp with the ranger who said there would be signs at the various junctions; “One will point to the airstrip, keep going and follow the sign for Buffalo Camp” etc. We didn’t pass a single sign. Somehow though we guessed the turnings in the bush correctly and soon we were checking into the rhino reserve area, where a sign said we were not allowed to stop, and if we didn’t reach the exit gate by a certain time, they would send people in to look for us.
Despite now being in the National Park, the track was still fairly adventurous.
We saw a lot of warthogs but no rhino, and just as Buffalo Camp came in sight, a discrete sign pointed at it saying “Buffalo Camp”. Thanks for that.
It is a very low-key compound with reed-thatched roofs sheltering beds covered in mosquito netting. Each hut is open at the end overlooking the Mwaleshi river.
There was an elephant on the other side being a postcard for us when we arrived.
It was 3.30 and we were hot and tired but would we like a game walk at 4? Well, it’s why we came all this way, so yes.
We set off in the late afternoon light walking alongside the river. It’s so shallow at this time of year that all the hippo and crocs have gone down the Mwaleshi to the Luangwa River (where we camped at Kanunshya). It was the first proper exercise we’ve had since we got here and lovely to be outside in a landscape lit golden by the late afternoon light. It perked us all up. Because so few people come here, the animals are skittish around people. We saw kudu and other antelope vanishing off ahead of us and a fine family of elephants having a drink.
Gilbert our scout, a serious man with a hint of army about him, took the lead with a big rifle. Our guide Kofi gave us the usual explanations about dung that you tend to get on these walks and Julius brought up the rear also acting as a spotter and carrying a radio. All Bush walks in Zambia have to conform to that pattern with a guide, scout and rear spotter and no more than six other people.
Just before sunset we stopped for big and delicious gins and tonics on a rise. The sun sank and we chatted with Emma, the Aussie manager, as the stars came out.
A game vehicle took us all back to camp spotting gennets and the most wonderful, huge, eagle owl.
Supper was a delicious roast chicken at a big wooden table. Crickets and frogs serenaded us. Later, in bed we heard hyena and a couple of lions. What a day, and now here we are among only a handful of people in this huge wilderness.