Leaving luxury, Zimbabwe border hassles, a little bribing, and then into amazing Mana Pools National Park

What can you say. We left luxury and an amazing staff and stay at the Royal Zambezi Lodge to be faced with yet another boondoggle of red tape, white ledgers, “agents” purporting to represent our truck rental company and a lack of a “police clearance letter” for our vehicle. When we crossed into Zambia at the Kazungula crossing we were a little (well not much) prepared for the what was to come. We had spoken to several locals in Zambia and were told crossing into Zimbabwe was a snap. We crossed at the Chirundu Bridge crossing which crosses the Zambezi River and we were not surprised at what was to come. It was the same unorganized chaos. We don’t understand why there isn’t a coherent system. It would be so simple. First, get the departing country customs stamp, in this case Zambia. Second, Zimbabwe customs and visa payment. Then there should be a simple number system. #1, carbon tax forms and payment. #2, Temporary Import Permit. #3, INTERPOL vehicle clearance. #4, I don’t know if there was a number 4, there definitely was entering Zambia but at the end of the process you need your gate exit card. This gets you into the country so it is very important and if you haven’t filled all the forms and paid all the fees you have to figure out what part of the puzzle is missing before you get your sacred card.

Entering Zimbabwe we didn’t have a police clearance letter. We didn’t have this for Zambia either but it didn’t seem to be a problem. We did have an actual Bushlore rep help us so maybe he could pull some strings but according to our Zimbabwe “agent” it was a problem but it wasn’t a problem if we pay a 400 kwacha ($40.00 CAD) bribe. So we did. Someone made money, probably our agent but regardless, we got the clearance.

We couldn’t get a dual entry visa, single-entry cost $150 US for two. “Reciprocal rules” we were told. Zimbabweans can’t get a dual entry into Canada so why should Canadians get one for Zimbabwe, fair enough. Road tax, this tax, that tax all added up to $383.00 USD! Jesus! We eventually made it through and counted our money and had little US dollars left so decided right there and then that we would not proceed with our other Zim plans because (a) it cost too much to enter and (b) it’s way too much hassle and we were only going to spend two more nights in Hwange NP so not worth it.

If you want tourists to come to your country with hard-to-come-by foreign currency, GET YOUR SHIT TOGETHER! We’ve travelled all over the world, we are not Nancy Pansy travellers, we expect the hassle and red tape and enjoy the challenges so maybe this is what makes Africa unique, maybe if it was easy to cross borders and move freely some of the adventure would be taken away. Maybe it shouldn’t change. Food for thought. Walking across the border is simple, with a vehicle, a whole different story.

On that note, Mana pools was fantastic aside from the mix up with our campsite reservations care of Bushlore truck rentals. If you have followed our blog you will know of the hassle we encountered on our pit-stop in Mongu before heading to Kafue NP. Well they screwed up this time as well and if we didn’t do a last minute phone call to confirm our camp site locations and learn it wasn’t the sites we thought we booked and paid for months ago well, we would have made it work but they screwed up.

We departed the Royal Zambezi on the 22nd for what turned out to be a much longer than expected drive. We stopped in Chirundu, Zambia and loaded up on food and beer at the new Shoprite. This is where we met our so-called Bushlore Rep. After the above shenanigans we cleared Zimbabwe customs and drove 40 km to the Nyakasikana Gate where we were asked for our park entry form. What park entry form we asked? Well, the form that you fill out at the park office just as you leave the customs area at the border. What park office? Just as our frustration had ebbed from the border clearance ordeal I could feel my blood pressure reaching critical! So we have to drive all the way back to the border? Can we fill out the form here, at the park gate like any other park gate in the world? No. But, you can drive another 7 km over the escarpment on the world’s most shitty road and get a permit at the office located just after the cratered, pot-holed crashed-semi cemetery. Oh, and there’s no charge! Off we go, driving 5 km/hr behind a tanker truck labeled “ACID”. Great. I could use some acid by this time but we got our free form, headed back to the gate and proceeded to drive on what can only be described as a battlefield excuse for a graded gravel road for the next 35km. An hour plus later we reached the second gate. Once I collected all of my teeth I presented our park permit and then proceeded another 40 kms on what was actually a nice semi-sandy/gravel and generally smooth road.

IMG_0981

Time is ticking and we finally reach the main wardens office where we have to check in and get directions to our “new” and unknown site. We’re told it’s about 8 or 9 kms, then you will see a sign that says “private, no entry” ignore the sign and proceed. This will take us to our camp. It didn’t. It took us to a lodge, quite nice actually and I proceeded to park and look for someone to give us directions. There wasn’t a soul around. No one, nobody, no signs of habitation. Hmmmm. I walk back to the truck and Joyce says there is someone walking over. Thank gawd. I speak english, he doesn’t. I show him the map. Blank stare but lo and behold there was another fellow who spoke english. He explained to drive back to the main road and after you pass the hanger (a makeshift building on the right) you will cross a bridge. After ony 50 meters, turn right and you will be at New Ngundu Camp #1, our new and unknown site that we just found out about this morning.

Great, we had already passed the “hanger” and the bridge. We were close and it was 5:45 and the sun was going down. We head back to the main road, turn right, pass the hanger, cross the bridge and drive. 50m, 150m, 500m, no road to turn onto. Now what.

We are getting a little antsy by now to say the least. The sun is going down and we have no idea where to go. I suggest committing hari-kari on the spot right now but Joyce’s calm and relaxed attitude quiets me down. After wiping the blood of my scratched arms from Joyce grabbing me and yelling “what are we going to do?” off in the distance we see a safari truck heading our way. We flag them down and are told we are almost there, just follow us which we do and they direct us to the road to our site. The sun has set, the beer is cold in the fridge and we made it. To Hell!

It was totally dark when we set up camp. Our headlamps helped and there was firewood stocked beside the brai so I proceeded to light a fire. Dinner was easy, we were prepared. At the Shoprite in Chirundu we picked up some barbecue chicken so dinner was ready to go. We would heat it up on the brai, maybe open a can of beans or corn and settle in for a nice relaxing evening. Well, the firewood wasn’t grown for making fires. I wasted several pieces of “Bic” fire starter. All I could get was a smoulder which happened to come in handy because when we looked over at our outside truck lights, set to red light to prevent bug congregations there were 10 billion bugs swarming the lights. Maybe only 10,000 but they were incessant. High pitched buzzing surrounded our ears. There was no way to stop them. I used a smouldering branch to try to smoke them out but it seemed like catnip to high-craving cat!

We could not put any lights on, our site was in the bush with only a small view of the river overlooking a a deep embankment. The bugs were driving us nuts so we ate cold chicken, seriously thought of our next moves and went to bed. We like camping in the wild but we couldn’t find the drop toilet that was supposed to be there until daylight so we held back on our “movements”. We had to because I tried to dig a pit and the ground was as hard as rock and from what we could see there was no toilet. We were not happy campers but we did have a good nights sleep although amongst a thousand little bugs that infiltrated our sleeping area. We awoke the next morning determined to leave this god forsaken place no matter what. The camp site looks nice in the pictures but three pictures does not a true story make!

In the morning we drove back to the warden’s office. What was supposed to be an 8 or 9 km drive was in fact 20kms. No wonder we couldn’t find our site. After driving about 10 kms the night before we figured we had gone too far so thus the major confusion in finding the site in the first place. On our way back we pulled into “Old Ndungu Camp #1” to have a look. It was an amazing spot. On our first meeting with the wardens office they mistook us for staying at “Old #2″and said we could stay there for the whole time. Perfect. Let’s hope that still the case.

Anyhow, to make a very long story a little shorter we were able to stay at “Old Ndungu Camp #1” for our remaining three nights. It was an amazing site. We felt like we were sitting in a zoo full of animals with daily unannounced elephant visits, hippos grazing nearby in the evenings and lion roars in the distance. We did a few self drives in the park, primarily to and from the warden’s office, once for a shower and once to confirm we could stay at the site. We saw more animals all day long at our site than on the drives. There was no need to drive. It was all there, right in front of us. Magical!

Every day we had elephants popping in to our camp unannounced. They are incredibly quiet when they walk so they can come up behind you within feet and you wouldn’t know it. This happened several times. Joyce and I would be gazing over the flats, her or I would look over or behind us and, “elephants”!. We would get up from our seats and watch them as they approached. They would watch us, slowly swaying their trunks, deciding if we were friend or foe. They would get close. Very close. We would walk over to the truck, slowly keeping our eyes on these beautiful pachyderms and ultimately they would decide we weren’t a threat and they would make their merry way down the embankment onto the flats to graze. We did have one encounter where it was a little more anxious. Six elephants strolled into our camp the second afternoon of our stay. There were a couple of large females, a young calf and three juveniles. We watched them, they watched us when out of the corner of our eyes we spotted two very large males making their way through the bush behind us. Six infront of us, two big ones behind us. Joyce walked to the truck and hopped in. The bulls were at the rear of the truck on the drivers side. My side! I slowly walked towards my door keeping eye contact with the biggest tusker. I opened my door and they slowly turned and continued behind the truck and down onto the flats. Very, very cool!

One other surprise came while I was just finishing up shaving. Checking for any missed whiskers Joyce announces “elephants”. Not more than 10 feet away five of the eight visitors from the day before wandered in. I think they recognized us and they wandered a little closer and then again, made their way down to the flats.

This is what camping in Africa is all about.

DSC08429

I really enjoy cooking on the open fire. Really!

Final sunset at Mana pools.

DSC08440