The Great North Road

Our last morning at Mutinondo. Which is too bad. We’ve enjoyed waking to the sun on our faces and a delivery of tea and flapjack with peace and quiet and a great big view.

After breakfast we said our goodbyes to Jeff and promised to write nice things about Mutinondo on TripAdvisor. Before we left, Tom sorted out Jeff’s Instagram account too. That’s what you do when you are fifteen. @mutinondowilderness if you’re interested…

Goodbye Jeff, goodbye Mutinondo. You’ve both been great.

We turned back down the red track to the Great North Road – with the Toyota now prepared to accelerate when the go pedal was pushed, thankfully. After half an hour we said goodbye to our last bush track and turned onto the tarmac.

The Great North Road is another of Zambia’s major arterial routes, covering the whole northern stretch of the country from the Zimbabwe border up to Tanzania. It’s tarmacked and wide enough for two big trucks to pass each other but every so often there is a short stretch of truly terrible potholes; bad enough to take out a truck axle. Within twenty minutes of getting onto the GNR we saw just that at one particularly badly rutted section.

In this region the traffic is nearly all trucks and they come in all shapes, sizes, and states of repair. Some are new and shiny and barrel along sucking unwary roadside walkers into their slipstream. Others lean drunkenly on dead suspension; a bulging tarpaulin trying to gather in the goods on the overloaded flatbed like a fat man in a corset. They crawl on ancient tyres, belching black smoke, but at least they are fairly easy to overtake. More often than not the driver will use his indicators to let you know when it’s safe to pass. Flashing right means not yet. Left – go for it.

Then there are the trucks dead or dying by the roadside, a trail of branches laid across the carriageway in place of hazard triangles, the driver sitting despondently in the cab waiting for some vital part that could take days to get there. There were some truly terrifying wrecks too: flattened cabs and twisted chassis suggesting a brutal end for the driver.

In this fairly remote central section of the Great North Road with hours between settlements of any real size, we passed villages quite regularly, with people on overloaded bicycles and always walking, walking. To live in rural Zambia is to walk great distances all the time and for pretty much everything it seems, for water and firewood and food and transport.

The trucks and buses are a mainstay of the local economies too of course.

Wherever there is a settlement there are people selling things by the roadside.

Buckets of tomatoes, live chickens held up for inspection by hopeful boys, plastic jugs of honey and great piles of yams.

The mysterious black lumps in the tall string bags we decided must be charcoal, as they were always sold in areas where fields and brush had been burnt off. Coming across great swathes of roadside on fire was quite alarming, and it was often very close to a village, but no-one seemed the least bit concerned. The burning season lasts until October apparently.

Apart from the trucks and villages and the occasional wobbling cyclist the only other thing to slow us down were the police checkpoints.

A police checkpoint queue is a commercial opportunity

At most we were simply waved through. At one though the officer took his time to come over to us and said “Where are your hazards? This is a gazetted Police checkpoint and you must approach with hazard lights on. I could fine you three hundred kwacha for that” (about $30). We were still mulling over the word “gazetted”, when he looked suspiciously at our rooftop tents and said, “Are those secure?”. Yes they are officer. “OK, I will let you off with a warning this time, but next time you approach a gazetted police checkpoint, you must have hazards on.” Thank you officer. We must have been through a dozen or more of those checkpoints, gazetted or not, and no-one had ever mentioned the need for hazards before, but at least we knew for next time.

Zambians do tend to be great sticklers for correctness. Things should be done a certain way. Transactions must always start with an exchange of greetings: “Hello how are you.”. “I’m fine thank you, how are you?”. “I’m very well thank you. Could I please have forty litres of diesel?” “Certainly”. Neither have we come across any petty corruption, which would be easy enough at the many checkpoints. At one point we came to a toll station and held out the required 20 Kwacha for a car. The girl in the booth became quite agitated because we had South African number plates, and imports like this have prepaid toll fees. We knew nothing about this but eventually found the correct piece of paper which she stamped with great formality and handed back. In many places they might just as easily have pocketed the 20 Kwacha and waved us on.

After five and a half hours, we arrived in Kabwe which felt like a full blown city after all the little places we’d been through. At one of the only traffic lights we have encountered in two weeks we turned right into the leafy suburbs. There were good sized, ranch style houses on green lawns often surrounded by a wall and gates. Here we pulled into the South Luangwa Safari Lodge, which was neither in South Luangwa, nor a safari lodge, but had a reasonable reputation on TripAdvisor.

It was fine, but the boss was making what seemed to be a hasty getaway as we arrived “We have a farm not far away and we’re going there tonight”. As an open air disco got under way apparently in our room, we understood why. We gathered on a bed to watch a movie in the hope that maybe things would quieten down in the meantime but they didn’t. Sleep came slowly, but we got there in the end.

The next morning we had assumed we would sleep in, especially after a night punctuated by African Disco from the club nearby. But two weeks of pre-dawn starts have become ingrained in the two of us who aren’t teens and we watched the sunshine creep through the window in our chalet.

The staff at South Luangwa Safari Lodge, have what you might call a laid back attitude to customer service. When we went for supper last night we were the only people in the restaurant and after we’d been sitting for ten minutes in splendid isolation, a young woman brought our pre-ordered meals, left them on the table and departed without a word. No “Drinks?” Nothing. Quite odd. There was also confusion when we pointed out that Tom’s bed was just a mattress leaning against a wall, and that we’d only been given one towel (o the humanity…). There were some embarrassed grins but no-one seemed ready to do anything about it. It all worked in the end though and Tom didn’t have to sleep standing up. But there is sometimes a sense that no-one on the Zambian side knows quite what it is they are supposed to do in this weird meeting of cultures, where foreigners role up with money and wearing shorts and expecting to eat vast quantities of odd food. And it’s usually Zambian men who do the cooking and the serving because that’s a job and the culture dictates that the men do the jobs, even when they are doing something they would expect women to do at home. Which is another level of awkwardness we all have to get past.

We went for breakfast where, again, no one said hello or explained what it was that we were supposed to do. Order something from someone? Assemble our own breakfasts from the implements and foodstuffs on the counter? A young man hovered but didn’t say anything, and the boss (who had returned to the post-disco tranquility) seemed surprised that we hadn’t worked out the system by osmosis. First world problems I suppose…

One final morning of repacking and sorting and making sure every pocket and cubby in the Toyota was empty and we were back on the Great North Road. We’d been driving for a few minutes when there was a small, but noisy explosion in front of us. A tyre on an ancient truck had exploded in a cloud of dust. I was quite glad we weren’t overtaking it at the time.

The trucks multiplied the further south we went until, just North of Lusaka, we were in one big queue of them easing through a scrappy jumble of car repair shops and truck part stores and grimy restaurants. Minibuses sporting religious slogans (“Jesus Bleeds”) jockeyed for roadside passengers, young men dragged unidentifiable bits of metal across the road, women carried babies in slings and chatted on mobile phones.

And then we turned off on an unlabelled bit of dirt track, that led to a brand new bit of road, that went to the airport. I would venture to say that it is the smoothest road in Zambia, with not a single sign to indicate that it went to the airport. There were perhaps three cars on it and ours was one of them

We had a bit of time to kill before handing over the Toyota and followed a sign to “The Palms Resort – Bar Restaurant and Wifi”. It pointed down a terrible dirt road to a newly built collection of modern buildings that were clearly intended to be a resort with a conference centre, a restaurant and chalets. It either wasn’t quite finished, or was finished and no-one knew about it because we were the only people there and the young woman who greeted us as we parked seemed crestfallen by the notion that we had only come for a cold drink and a bit of WiFi.

In the smart and airy restaurant with neatly set tables, the bartender had no idea what soft drinks he had, even when he opened the fridge and got them out for us to see. “Maybe it is passion fruit?” he offered nervously. There was considerable debate between them (and a manager who appeared) about what to do with us. Could we have the WiFi code? Embarrassment, discussion, “It is not available at the moment, I am sorry”. Did we REALLY not want any food? Chips? A salad? We didn’t but it seemed polite to get something so we ordered a plate of chips and a salad, which eventually came in two bowls, covered in clingfilm. The “salad” was in fact a bowl of coleslaw, but perfectly nice. Aware perhaps of the deathly ambience in the room, someone put on a Dolly Parton cd for us. And then all the staff vanished, as if somehow they were intruding. We sat about reading a bit in the empty restaurant, while Dolly crooned. We found the bathrooms, which were immaculate but with no loo paper and nothing to dry your hands on, but no water in the sinks anyway.

Having exhausted all the possibilities of The Palms Resort – Bar Restaurant and WiFi, I went off to find someone we could pay. They had no change whatsover, but remarkably they had a functioning credit card machine. We felt a bit sad for the staff, doomed to play out their roles in this Twilight Zone of a place. It felt like a government venture with not quite enough investment to really get it off the ground. We thanked everyone and wished them a good day and headed back to the Toyota.

With our night flight some way off we still had time to kill and there was a popular Reptile Park just a few K further which seemed like a place where we could stretch our legs, and get a closer look at many of the beasts we’d either consciously tried to avoid, or only seen from a distance.

The car park was packed and it was full of Zambians enjoying an afternoon out, many of them in their church clothes (it being a Sunday). It was really the only time we encountered black Zambians just relaxing. There were barbecues and a pool full of children, and families kicking a football about. There were plenty of wide eyes at the snakes and crocs too, but it felt like the sociability was what the place was all about.

They also had a great line in signs…

It was probably the only nature park I’ve been too where they also sold you bits of the animals to eat. It was all crocodile meat, dispensed from big freezers. And they had plenty of stock to go at…

After wandering around the croc ponds we whiled away an hour or so surrounded by happy people. We had ice creams and cold drinks and felt part of it all too.

Having spent nearly all our time in the bush, and travelling through tiny villages here was a chance to see urban, middle class Zambia at play and be reminded that you can’t judge a country from its backroads and wildlife!

Zambians are not generally wealthy. On a list of 187 countries, Zambia is ranked at 149 in terms of per capita GDP. But it’s economy is one of the fastest growing in Sub-Saharan Africa and Lusaka in particular is booming.

As we closed in on the airport we saw more and more warehouses, industrial units and dormitories built and operated by China. They were covered in Chinese characters and one sign proclaimed the development to be part of China’s “Belt and Road” initiative, by which China is making huge inroads in the developing world. The problem is when countries can no longer afford to pay for the extensive Chinese financing, and the projects revert to being wholly Chinese owned and operated, as with a recent port development in Sri Lanka.

Our journey was at an end. Just before sunset we handed over our Toyota to Tshidiso, after some confusion about where exactly we were to meet. When he’d told me he would be waiting in a pull-off just before the airport that we couldn’t miss. I made the mistake of taking him literally, and had parked up in a pull off just before the airport. What he actually meant was for us to do was head for the short term car park, take a ticket at the barrier and drive to the middle of it. He said he thought I “would have realised”.

No matter. We handed over the Toyota unbroken, which at times on this trip seemed an ambitious goal. We hadn’t even needed either of the spare wheels, which also seemed miraculous. We covered 2,217 Km, more than half on remote bush tracks. We met perhaps four other vehicles the whole time we were driving off the tarmac. It was very hard work at times – harder than we had expected – but it gave us access to some spectacular and special places. The magic of the Lower Zambezi with elephants playing in the river. The profusion of animals in South Luangwa. Camping by the hippo colonies in Kanunshya. The wild isolation of North Luangwa, and the history and romance of Shiwa Ngandu. There were so many lovely people, and especially those who in the tiniest of villages greeted us with a smile and a wave. Zambia is a special place, where they are making real efforts to protect the wildlife which seems to be recovering strongly after years of hunting. Vast areas of it are still hard enough to get to that you feel like you have them to yourself. I suspect it won’t always be that way, but it probably will be for some time yet. In many ways, it represents an idealised stereotype of Africa, with stunning wildlife, big landscapes, friendly people, relatively few tourists and endless quiet tracks snaking off into the bush, all waiting to be explored.

Categories: ZambiaTags: , , , ,

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