Monday, December 29, 2008

Through rural Zambia (Dec. 9/08 - Flatdogs Camp, South Luangwa National Park, Zambia)

We had one more long day of driving ahead of us until we would be rewarded with two days at what is said to be one of Africa’s best National Parks. South Luangwa National Park is located in eastern Zambia on the Luangwa River and is one of several areas of pristine wilderness that has been untouched by mining and agriculture. The guidebook Iread stated that this was the best place on the continent to see leopards, with roughly one leopard for every 200m of river length. And by the way, leopard is the only animal of the "big five" (elephant, lion, buffalo, rhino, leopard) that was haven’t seen yet - fingers crossed!

The morning’s drive was fast and scenic as we sped along a good paved road past more rolling green land and more thatched hut villages. It was fun to gaze out the window and watch rural Zambians in their daily routines - carrying water home from the river in a bucket on their heads, planting maize in the fields, playing with their kids in the dirt around the houses, and hanging colorful laundry on the line outside. Almost everyone looked up at the sound of our noisy truck and waved, even if they were way back from the road.

After passing a number of tiny little towns in the last few days, we’ve noticed that every town has at least the following amenities:
- a big post office
- an investment broker
- a tire repair shop
- multiple schools, normally primary schools
- a butcher
- some sort of liquor store

But the funny thing is that each building is a tiny little concrete or thatched building about the size of our kitchen, often standing all by themselves in the middle of nowhere - especially the investment brokers’ offices for some reason.

Eventually, we came to the large town of Chipata, where we bought water and food before heading for the boonies. Beyond Chipata, the road was horrible. Dirt with big ruts and washboard that had us jostling around so much that Francis had to keep asking over the intercom if we still had all our teeth intact. That was just the first 30km - after that, it got even worse. Mud puddles big enough to swallow our truck and potholes so big that Raymond had to pretty much stop at each one. At 15km/hr, it was a slow go. People lived all along the road though, and again they all waved as we bounced past. Sometimes the kids would bee us coming and run full speed toward the road, yelling and waving and sometimes holding out their hands for a handout.

Half the people in the truck resorted to standing in the aisle to ride out the crazy bumps, and some people dug out the sleeping mats to sit on to cushion the blow. It was so rough that you couldn’t even drink water out of a water bottle without losing a tooth and/or dumping it all over yourself! To make the most of it, we cranked some bouncy music and just enjoyed the view. Finally, we were back on pavement at the Mfuwe airport, and it was smooth sailing to the Flatdogs Campsite within the park. (latdog means crocodile, by the way!) Within moments of turning into the campsite, we spotted an elephant grazing, a giraffe right beside the road, and a buffalo lying in a mud puddle. I that was any indication, we were in for some fabulous animal encounters!

The camp site is unfenced and adjacent to the Luangwa River, which we were told to steer clear of because of the abundant hippo and crocodile population. And they weren’t kidding - about the hippos anyway - we could hear several of them voicing their deep-bellied laugh as soon as we got out of the truck. Apparently it is a daily occurrence to have elephants, hippos, and baboons walking amongst the tents, so they told us to space out the tents enough to let the animals walk inbetween! There are also strict procedures regarding walking around at night - they even have trained guides stationed around the camp to escort you to and from the washroom at night. They carry a big powerful flashlight and an amusingly small stick (and they know how to use it!).

We cooled off in the gorgeous pool overlooking the river, and as we played an energetic game of water volleyball, two elephants and seven hippos were spotted by the river. This is the real African wilderness! Oh, and as we were setting up our tents we spotted a buffalo grazing about 200 feet away. Awesome!

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