A pot-holed journey to Sioma Ngwezi National Park

We arrived at Sioma Campsite on August 2nd after about 420 km of travel of which 100+ km was described as a “not a very good road” in our research. It was not a “not very good road” but a “very not very good road”! It was a bit of an adventure and the video clop below gives a good example of what we endured for probably close to two hours of driving. We passed through many rural villages but all had Ministry if education schools and health clinics so positive development is obviously happening in Zambia. The road eventually became a nice paved surface and the remainder of our drive was pleasant but surreal as the road was newly paved with bright centre and shoulder lines freshly painted and yet the villages we passed were still traditional grass thatched huts with reed bunch windbreakers and cattle corrals. We stopped into the town of Sesheke on route and picked up some ice for our cooler and noticed several Halal meat signs on the meat shops. There were also some shop names with the word “Israel” so we assume this village may has a Jewish and Muslin influence. More research needs to be done to confirm this. Once we picked up our ice we proceeded a little further down the road and I thought one of my tires might be a little low so we stopped into “Busy Auto Repair” to check it out. I got out of the truck and met a nice young man and I asked if he could check my tire pressure and he pointed to his sign and said “can’t you read, I’m busy”! Ha ha, I had to throw that in there. Our tires were fine. Bad joke.

Our campsite at Sioma was actually quite beautiful. We overlooked the Zambezi River and would occasionally see fisherman paddling out into the lazy current. Although the road signs on the highway near us warned of elephant crossings unfortunately there were no elephants and worse, no hippos in the waters we overlooked. To add to the slight disappointment, the actual park was several km away and there really wasn’t much to see. Sioma camp has a great website but I think it might be several years old. They advertise first and foremost “cold beer”. They had 6 beers in a freezer. They advertise fishing expeditions. When I asked the Manager or whoever he was about fishing he said his hooks were all ruined. What about the boat I asked? No boat. Maybe this place was happening years ago but as I write this we are the only people staying here and I couldn’t even find anyone around to pay for our firewood. Kinda sad and now we know this is a place to either avoid or at best use for a one night pit stop on the way to Luiwa Plains NP or Mongu enroute to Kafue National Park.

It is 10:00 pm as I write this and rather than listening to the sounds of nature we are surrounded by barking dogs in the distance and far off highway noise. Our next destination, Luiwa Plains is pristine so we are really looking forward to 3 nights of a true untouched non commercialized bush camping experience.

Liuwa Plain National Park

“Because Liuwa Plain National Park is so isolated, it remains one of the most pristine safari experiences available in Zambia. It mainly attracts the 4×4 community who come to explore this unspoiled territory and stay at one of the community campsites within the park. Although African Parks assists with bookings and management, the campgrounds are owned and run by the community”.

Above is a quote from Zambia Tourism.

We spent 3 nights in the middle of nowhere at Katoyana Camp in a pristine and way off the beaten track 3,600 sq.km park. There are four community campsites, ours had five camping spots and upon our arrival, any other tourists who had been in the park had departed. We were the only people in the whole park save for a few small villages scattered around the periphery of the park boundary. It was surreal. The very best time to visit the park is in November after the rainy season when the whole area explodes into flowers and green pastures which supports the second largest Wildebeest migration in the world and a massive array of bird life.

We came to Africa of course to see the wildlife but more importantly this time to experience all of the many other wonders on offer and at Liuwa Plain it was the silence and vast open spaces dotted with Zebra and Wildebeest, with Fish Eagles and Crowned Cranes hanging around watery areas and the occasional Secretary Bird bobbing along through the tall plain grasses. In the evenings as the sunset large flocks of Crowned Cranes flew overhead flying back to to their resting places. You could hear the whoosh of their wings and if there wasn’t a breeze it seemed you could feel the wind from their wings. At sunrise the same happened except this time they were flying to their feeding areas, squawking to each other as if to say turn this way, or that way . It was very hot during the day, at one point registering +40 C and the warm wind barely turned to cool in the evening.

There are many Cheetah in the area but unfortunately we didn’t see any but there are also Brown and Spotted Hyena which we had the pleasure of their visits each evening after we went to bed except for our second night when we had a pleasant encounter at around 6:00 pm, just near sunset. Now to be honest, the night before we had we had pork chops cooked on the brai over our open fire. Having a couple of bones left we figured we would throw them into the bush near our site. That night/early morning we heard the visitor and could hear it crunch the bones and rustle around looking for more scraps so we figured it came back earlier the next evening so not to miss out on more goodies. We were sitting near our fire, I was prepping the foil wrapped squash and carrots and beef sausages and out of nowhere, a very large Spotted Hyena appeared at the periphery of our site. He looked us, we at him, Joyce ran to the truck for her camera and my video camera and we proceeded to watch it circle near by with a look of further food scrap anticipation. It eventually wandered into the tall grass near by and waited patiently for us to go to bed. At this point we did what you really shouldn’t do. We had some raw chicken drumsticks that we weren’t confident in eating so we threw them into the bush near by. Sure enough, Scotty the Spotty came over and probably had his/her first feast in quite a while considering there isn’t whole lot of food around at this point in the season. We were happy to hear satisfaction howls after it finished but then I heard beer bottles clanking. I had squashed some beer cans and put them in a bag with a couple of beer bottles and tied up the bag. Never has this been a problem in the past but Scotty must have liked the barley smell so he/she carted it off to the bushes. We heard a little clinking and clanking and had visions of having to pick up the mess scattered throughout the bush but fortunately when we got up at sunrise the bag was intact and just nearby.

When we initially arrived at our camp we met the Camp Attendant, Agray. He and his family and his families before him grew up in the area and he has been working for Zambia Parks at Katoyana Camp for the last 14 years. He is a wonderful intelligent man and must have a certain inner strength and peace as he is stationed at the camp for weeks on end and for many weeks may not have any human contact. The park is very busy in late October and November but otherwise relatively empty so he spends his time in solitude with only a two way radio for communication and a small radio to listen to news and what have you. He has no refrigeration and his only exercise aside from walking around and maintaining the camp site is to use a “stair-climber” type of water pump to maintain the water levels in the solar water tanks and water supply for the toilet and shower in the camp. We had great conversations and we exchanged contact info. We will definitely keep in touch with Agray.

Our departure back to the pontoon ferry to Kalabo was similar to our departure from Kalabo to our campsite. We sort of got lost but after 2 1/2 hours and a bit of backtracking we made it. But the best (or worst) was yet to come.

 

A “Pit Stop” in Mongu then on to Kafue National Park

The drive from Kalabo to Mongu is about 52 km, if we don’t follow Garmin GPS and Google Maps! We departed Kalabo around 12:30 and arrived in Mongu about one hour later. When we arrived into town we confirmed the name of the lodge we were staying at and then proceeded to try to find directions. We could not find the name of the lodge on any of our electronic guidance systems! We pulled the truck over and checked and re-checked our GPS, Google Maps and Maps.me. The name of the place that was supposedly in Mongu was the Makapayela Lodge.Written beside the name on our itinerary was Ithteke Lodge. I recalled when we picked up our truck we were told the lodge recently changed their name so we searched for Ithteke. Still nothing. We had a phone number on the bottom of our hotel voucher so we called it and spoke with “Max”. Max was and intermediary for Bushlore who we rented our truck from and they had made the accommodation arrangements for us. Max said he would email us directions. We waited and waited so in the mean time we started asking people around us if they knew of the hotel. They all knew the old name, Makapayela and gave us many different directions but all of the directions were not in the town of Mongu where we expected the lodge to be. Long story short, the lodge was 27 km out of town driving on pot holed hell and gravel into the absolute middle of nowhere. When we finally arrived, 2 hours after arriving in Mongu the sign on the entrance said Ithteke Lodge. The sign looked liked it was a hundred years old. Not sure how “recently” they changed their name but certainly not in the last decade! We were the only guests, there was no hot water, they couldn’t fulfill our dinner order and they shut all the power off at 8:00 pm sharp. What a disaster considering our intention and belief was we were to stay in Mongu. We were going to fuel up and get groceries so we could have an early departure to Kafue the next morning. It was not going to happen and it was a very big drag and we won’t speak of the place ever again.

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School girls dancing at a village on the way

More pot-holed pot-holed roads on the way Kafue National Park. But very much worth it!

It’s hard to describe the pot holes on the many roads we’ve encountered so far. It’s not one or two, here and there. It is giant craters scattered across so it is impossible to weave your way around them. You drive one side on the road, the other on the gravel shoulder. You drive a whole new path along the shoulder, sometimes a new makeshift road. You drive no faster than 10 km/hr. IT DRIVES YOU NUTS!

We arrived in Kafue on August 8th to an amazing campsite in a magical location. Our camp site was located on the banks of the Kafue River with a panoramic view across and around the winding river. We spent most of our days sitting and watching. Hippos would congregate on the opposite shore to bathe in the warm sun. Crocodiles would be nearby doing the same and the occasional single or group of elephants would wander down to the river bank for a drink or a snack.

Large and small crocs would drift by in the current and the occasional Bushbuck and of course the pesky monkeys would wander by within feet of our location.

We had originally planned on spending two days at our first stop, Mayukuyuku Bush Camp, and then move on to another camp, McBrides but when we found out how far and long the drive would be to McBrides and even more so how much we loved where we were, we decided to stay four days and stay put. Fortunately our site was available. We were very happy campers. The Camp Attendant, Pizon, was amazing.  He would come by every morning and do our dishes. Yes, do our dishes and in the late afternoon would show up with a wheelbarrow full of wood and start our fire. Every day he offered to do our laundry and on the third day we acquiesced and he returned a few hours later with fresh clean laundry. This was certainly something we have never experienced before and probably never will again. He was always happy and if we said ” thank you”, he said thank you in return. What a guy!

On our arrival we were told of a dead hippo that was stuck in some rocks upstream from the camp. The next day we did a short hike and in the distance we could see, and smell the bloated body of this has been hippo. The next day it broke loose from the rocks and drifted down towards our site and presented us with the most amazing crocodile feeding frenzy you could ever expect to see. True National Geographic stuff.

I’m the Chief Cook and Bottle Washer and loved every minute of burning my fingers and daintily slicing vegies etc. with our serrated knife.

We were told by a couple of South African campers that an elephant had swam across the river and walked straight into their campsite. We were hoping this would happen when we were there and on the 3rd morning at about 5:45am I heard a loud crunch in the bushes beside our truck. I looked out through the screen and saw two large tusks and then a beautiful large elephant pass right beside us. Joyce pulled out her iPhone and caught these two pics before it ambled off into the next camp site and into the bushes. This is what makes memories in Africa!

The hippos in the area were abundant and we happened to look over a grassy area on the banks of the river. Every evening just after dusk the Hippos would become very vocal and slowly make their way to land to feed. We just happened to be overlooking one of the areas where they would pop in for a bite and on our second evening we were treated to several that came ashore and grazed within 20 metres of where we sat watching. On our 3rd night we watched under the almost full moon close to a dozen wander up onto the land but they were just a bit to the side of our viewpoint but watching the dark figures snort and splash as they made landfall under the moonlight was spectacular.

We reluctantly departed Kafue on the August 12th and made our way to a small lodge/campsite just out side of Lusaka. Below is a typical bathroom break scene.

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Kafue to Lusaka for a camp pit stop. Lusaka to Petauke for another camp stop then on to South Luangwa National park for 4 nights of more un-fenced camping.

We departed Kafue NP on August 12th and camped overnight at Pioneer Lodge, just outside of Lusaka, about a 6 hour drive. The next morning we loaded up on groceries and headed out along the Great Eastern Road to Peatuke, a small town about 4 hours drive from South Luangwa National Park. As we checked in to get our campsite another couple from Germany arrived. They had pulled up in a fully decked Land Rover and were dressed the part. Safari pants and shirts, Crocodile Dundee hats and…they both wore a knife sheath and knife on their left waist. Very cool. Not! Now, no offence to the German population but cultural appropriation which they absolutely love didn’t even fit here. Joyce and I spent the rest of the evening wondering what the hell the knives were for. They did mention to us that they were going to take the off -road route to South Luangwa so maybe they were going to skin a few Impala on the way to add to their fridge and maybe make some Impala schnitzel to roast over their open fire. Who knows. It was strange.

We opted to have dinner in the lodge restaurant. The menu was varied and exciting (again not) with ultimately only three choices. We wanted a burger, they only had curried chicken, 1/4 roasted chicken or stir fried chicken or something. We split a very salted stir fry.

We departed early the next morning for a 4 1/2 hour drive to Croc Valley Camp, located on the Luangwa River on the opposite side of South Luangwa NP. We’ve become used to camping in very private surroundings. Croc Valley wasn’t what we were used to. Our site was nice in that it was on the banks of the river but there was no privacy. There were two large groups within spitting distance on either side of us. South Luangwa NP is a popular place so we really can’t complain about the crowds. We are a little spoiled considering where we have camped so far however the view from our site was excellent save for the effing monkeys who will steal the shirt off of your back if you’re not paying attention.

We arrived early afternoon, set up camp and relaxed for the remainder of the day. I lit the fire and cooked chicken paprika over the flames with a nice side of scalloped potatoes and carrots with butter. We decided to pay for a morning safari drive so we hit the sack early and arose at 4:45 am the next morning so we would have time for two cups of coffee, instant oatmeal with banana and a small yogurt before our 6:30 am departure. There were only four of us in the truck, perfect for a 4 hour drive. Zambia has been suffering through drought so the area seemed to be particularly drier than our last visit in 2017. There was less game and after a couple of hours we began to think this drive was waste of time and money but there were still good photo ops for the scenery and animals.

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Lilac Breasted Roller

Fortunately another safari vehicle pulled up beside us and told us a pride of lions had been spotted about a km away so we proceeded to race to the scene where we were greeted by a beautiful male lion, three females and four cubs. They had just settled down for a nap so we were able to get up close for some good photos. They obviously had a recent kill as their stomachs were bloated, especially one of the cubs who laid on his side panting heavily as he snoozed and digested his recent gorging.

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On the 16th we departed and overcrowded and no-privacy Coc Valley Camp and proceeded to the northern sector of South Luangwa to Zikomo Camp.

On to the Northern Sector of South Luangwa NP, Zikomo Camp

We departed Croc Valley on the 16th and left the crowds and rowdy monkeys behind for the peace and tranquility of Zikomo Camp. As has frequently been the case so far, we had the whole camp to ourselves. The camp was situated a little distance from the Zambezi River but the Puku, Baboons, Elephants and Hippos were plentiful and we had an almost panoramic view of the flatlands and dried ravines. I lit a fire late in the afternoon and prepared another gastronomical gourmet delight of sausage and foil wrapped snap peas, green beans and squash with butter. As we we finished eating, the local safari truck drove by on the flats with their spotlight arcing left and right over the dry terrain when they came to a stop not far from our site. They paused for a few minutes and then continued on back to the lodge. Joyce and I commented that if it was a lion or lions that they spotted then they probably would have stayed at that spot longer but wouldn’t it be funny if they came over to our site to let us know lions were in the area. Well probably 10 minutes later we see lights from a truck coming towards our camp. The Safari truck pulls up and four men get out. Two are decked out in guide outfits and the other are lodge employees. We tell them they’re too late for dinner. They tell us there is a male lion and two females right in our vicinity so we go to the banks of our site, shine our light and there sits a beautiful large male lion. We’re told the females are probably right behind or near us in the bush so keep our eyes open and off they go. It is very dark outside. We sit near the fire and listen and to be honest we were a bit apprehensive. Then……a loud roar followed by a guttural grunting. Damn! This lion is close! Now our site is such that you either face towards an area where the banks extend to the flat lands or, you face looking towards bush to the front and left and right of us. We faced the the larger area of view but behind us was the blind spot. We sat scanning the area, hair on the backs of our necks bristling, feeling something sneaking up behind us. It was getting late, around 8:00 pm so we figured it was probably time to go to bed. As we drew our sleeping bags over us another roar but this time further away. They had moved on. That was an exciting evening!

The next day and evening were uneventful but we did have hippos in the evening feeding very close to our site and on the morning of our departure on the 18th had a great close encounter from a visiting elephant.

A very long back-track drive, another camping pit-stop then on to the Royal Zambezi Lodge

We departed Zikomo Camp on the 18th and had to back-track at least 600+ kms to get to just outside of Lower Zambezi National Park. We originally planned on stopping back in Petauke where we pit-stopped on the way to South Luangwa NP but after leaving fairly early and making very good time to Petauke, it was 1:00 pm and there was nothing to do in Petauke, we decided to just keep going and stop at Pioneer Camp outside of Lusaka, a previous stop on our way to South Luangwa. We arrived just at sunset, about a 9 hour drive but worth it because if we stopped in Petauke we don’t know how long our drive would have been the next day to get to the Royal Zambezi, probably about 11 hours.

Departing at around 8:30 am on the 19th we arrived at the Royal Zambezi Lodge at around 2:00 pm. Finally a little pampering for three days!

We were treated royally at the Royal Zambezi Lodge and we had an excellent view from our deck!

Below are some pics of the Royal Zambezi Lodge. Almost two years to the day we canoed past the lodge on our 4 day, 72 km paddle journey. We thought it would be nice to return some day and try out the lodge. We’re glad we did.

The second day of our stay we did an afternoon drive through the protected reserve area surrounding the lodge. The area is administered by the local communities and supported by RZL (Royal Zambezi Lodge) and local NGO’s. There has been a fairly severe drought in the area and the animals are having a difficult time foraging for food so unfortunately some human intervention has been required with the scattering of large hay bails, salt licks and watering holes maintained by bore-hole pumps. It seems to be helping as the elephants didn’t display the level of hunger (no ribs and thigh bone protrusions as was evident in the national park). Hopefully normal rains will return in October.

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A Hippo safe-place away from the crocs

On our third day we did an early morning drive into the Lower Zambezi National Park. We didn’t have any luck spotting Lion or Leopard during our stay at The Royal but the drives, scenery and wildlife was spectacular nonetheless.

The lodge was everything we hoped it would be. Comfortable accommodation, excellent meals and meal choices and a superb staff who went out of their way to ensure we had an enjoyable and memorable stay. We had two very nice surprises on our second and third nights. On the second evening Joyce and I were enjoying sundowners at the bar, talking with Prosper, the bartender and a couple of American visitors. We had made our dinner choice for the evening meal, we both went for the chicken cordon bleu and were getting set to move over to our “table for two” when we were told not to go there because they had a surprise for us. Looking at each other we wondered what was in store. They led us to the dining area and then pointed to the wooden walk way leading to the boat docks on the river and out in the middle of the walkway on an expanded area was a candle-lit table for two, far removed from a large American contingent that were sitting to eat. Exquisite privacy where only hours earlier an elephant had spent some time munching on the flood plain grasses. The stars were in full bloom and the evening was perfect.

Our second surprise came the next evening. Again we were having our sundowners at the bar and had realized we hadn’t put in our dinner meal request. Hoping we weren’t too late we asked if we could see the menu. No we were told, grab your drinks and follow us to the safari truck. A little late for a safari but we followed and were met by Vincent who had been our exclusive safari driver for the two drives we had done. We hopped into the truck and off we went for what was a 5 minute drive. We assumed we must be going to the Royal airstrip where maybe tables had been set up as we didn’t think there was much else around but after a short drive, in the distance was a very large bonfire and a crowd of people milling about. There were lanterns and torches surrounding the area and we were on the banks of the Zambezi River. Tables were set, the bar was fully stocked and we walked into a beautiful scene out of an old African movie. There was one other British couple who were staying at the lodge, us and the Managers of the lodge, Vincent, an NGO rep and several others associated with the lodge and the protected area. There was Impala stew, chicken curry, nishimi, rice, vegetables etc. etc. which was described to us by the head chef from the lodge. Wow! We were made to feel at home and very welcome. We’re not sure if this a standard routine but we had great conversations throughout our stay with the staff and management and were as always friendly and polite (Canadian eh?) so maybe this helped us snag what we thought was a very nice gesture and what will be something we will not forget. Our hats are off to everyone at the lodge for giving us a very memorable experience. A big thank you to everyone at the Royal Zambezi Lodge!

We hit the sheets late (about 10:30 which is late for us on this journey), awoke later than planned a little fogged by the wine and departed for a long journey back towards Lusaka and a continuation on to Zimbabwe to experience the World Heritage site which is Mana Pools National Park knowing we would miss the comfy bed but looking forward to again camping in the African wilds.

Mana Pools NP back to Livingstone

We departed Mana Pools on the 26th, had an easier crossing back into Zambia and proceeded to Livingstone. We did a one night pit stop at the Golden Pillow Lodge in Monze. It was comfortable and the the pub next door sold 750ml bottles of Carling Black Label for the equivalent of $1.50 CAD. I was happy.  We proceeded to Livingstone the next day where we stayed at the Victoria Falls Waterfront Lodge. We had stayed at this lodge almost two years to the day back in 2017. Joyce was very ill and I basically hung around during the day and then hung around the bar during the evening. The lodge is located on the Upper Zambezi River and has nice accommodation ranging from camping to “luxury bungalows”. We paid a few extra dollars and stayed in a nice unit facing the river. The food is very good and the outdoor bar is very busy with locals and the younger crowd who are here for whitewater rafting. It is a place we would recommend for a couple of nights stay on your way to/from Chobe NP in Botswana or the parks in Zambia. A highlight of our stay was meeting Linda (again). She was serving us our lunch and I looked at her, she looked familiar so I asked how long she had worked at the lodge. Three years. I told her we had been at the lodge two years ago and mentioned Joyce being sick the whole time. She immediately remembered us and me, the lonely soul who yes, I am married and my wife is sick back at the bungalow and that’s why I’m standing here drinking beer all alone! It was great to see her again. This time Joyce wasn’t sick but, as she is an insect attractor, she was attacked by a Bee while we were having lunch. It stung her on her upper lip and for the rest of our stay she walked around looking like an example of a very bad botox job.