Zambia part 1: self-drive in Kafue National Park

For our next destination a 4×4 is highly recommended, as we were doing a self-drive in Kafue National Park. So the day after we picked up my mom and sister it was time to switch our minibus for a 4×4. Because we had to arrange a car on short notice, and we didn’t want to spend thousands of euros on a car for just a few days, we got an older Toyota Prado.

With this car we were able to arrive at Nahubwe Safari camp near Ithezi-thezi. Ithezi-thezi is a town near one of the park entrances of Kafue NP. The campsite turned out to be in a completely different place from what I expected. Google had shown the pin inside the national park. (Nahubwe Safari camp is NOT located here.) When we arrived on site (with directions of the manager) we saw that there was absolutely nothing there, except a run-down green tent. However, I did really like the view!

A panoramic image of the view from the campsite.

In this place – which had no facilities whatsoever – we unpacked our gas stove for the first time. It didn’t work. Later we realized that the gas canister we had with us was empty. The idea was to make a nice and simple macaroni bolognaise. However after struggling with the stove for so long none of us felt like actually cooking anymore. So we ended up grilling ham and cheese sandwiches over the fire.

Getting to the park – Ithezi-thezi entance

The following day we had already packed our tents early in the morning and went on our way to the park. It was time for our self drive through Kafue National Park. However, we couldn’t go straight to the entrance. We first had to get some petrol on the black market (again), because neither this gate, nor the main gate was close to a petrol station. (Why is it so difficult to get fuel in Zambia!?)

Once in the park we would take the ‘spinal road’. This would lead us from south to north through the park. Our next campsite (Mapunga Bush Camp) was namely in the north of the park, as close as we could afford to the famous Busanga plains. The plains are known for the lions and other carnivores that roam this part.

Kafue National Park is only accessible by 4×4 and doesn’t have many tourists. In the south it’s especially very quiet. Animals are therefore easily scared off, opposed to animals in Kruger, for example. The spinal road was horrible because of the very deep corrugations, which even at low speeds caused the car to get out of control. We have not seen many animals in this part at all. A few groups of baboon and some antilopes. Because the animals in this part of the park were so skittish, the people we’ve seen driving behind us, probably haven’t seen any animals at all; every single one of them quickly took off as soon as they saw us.

When we decided to go off the main road

We were getting close to the tar road, which intersects the park from east to west. We decided to take one of the few ‘loops’ in order to see if there was more wildlife away from the main road. The roads in this loop were not very clear and easy to distinguish. It was visible that many people chose their own way or that people had cut the loop short. This loop supposedly followed the river bank on both sides. But since we were there only at the end of the dry season, the river had almost completely dried up; except for some small pools in a long cleft in the ground. At one of those pools we saw many crocodiles, so we decided to shut off the engine and wait for a little bit to see if more animals would show up.

When it seemed that nothing was going to show up, we couldn’t get the car to start! There was a moment of panic, because we were stranded of the main road (which was already not busy), literally next to a pool filled with crocodiles. Fortunately we quickly found out what was wrong: one of the clamps on the car battery had come off. Rik then put it back in place after which we could immediately start the car and continue our journey north.

Problems during our self-drive in Kafue National park: we found out that the car battery clamps had come loose

The ‘touristy’ area of Kafue National Park

Once we crossed the tar road, we entered the ‘touristy’ part of the park, even though the whole park isn’t really to be called touristy at all. Nonetheless the animals here slowly seemed to get less skittish, even though we still didn’t see so many. Right before the camp there was one turnoff at which we decided to try one more detour, and that detour eventually became the highlight of our long day driving. From this road, we spotted the first elephant of our trip to Kafue; it was a solitary male which calmly roamed the bushes. Although, he was calm until he decided that he didn’t really appreciate our presence, after which he suddenly charged at us, ears wide and a loud trumpet sound. Slightly panicked we drove a bit away from him. Nevertheless, it actually was very nice to photograph!

A male elephant photographed while he was charging at us.

Self-drive to Busanga plains

The next morning again we drove off early. Also on this day we had a certain destination in mind: this time, the Busanga plains. We have tried to get information about this area online while plannning our trip. In the few places where we found information, a self drive was discouraged. But where your mom has a will, there is a way. And so we drove off around sunrise on our way to the north.

The drive wasn’t short, but we didn’t encounter any problems. We arrived at the wide open plains in 3 hours and 15 minutes. I had read online that it was very easy to get lost on the plains. The roads were visibly not used very often, but the advice to not go to the plains because of this seemed highly exaggerated. That said, we were very late at the end of the dry season. The plains are not accessible (by car) for a couple of months every year because the plains are flooded. So perhaps any time shorter after the rainy season could provide more problems.

In a few places there was still a bit of water. Very big groups of red lechwe – and the occasional warthog (which startled the antilopes several times) – were gathered around these pools. Unfortunately there was no sign of the famous lions of this area

Large group of red lechwe antilopes gathered around the pools of water.

Oh well, we would get more chances to see lions and other preditors. Because after our self-drive in Kafue National Park, our next destination was South Luangwa National Park!

The morning my family arrived in Lusaka

Two weeks ago, Rik and I drove to Lusaka in Zambia to pick up my mom and sister from the airport. The drive from Lilongwe to Lusaka was about 9 hours, and we also had to cross the border which would take us about 1,5 hours, so we decided in advance to cut the trip in two. We stayed at Luangwa Bridge, so the next morning we would have to drive only 3 hours to get to the airport.

It all started with getting up early. ‘Rik, come on, wake up. You really have to wake up now, because in 3,5 hours they will arrive at the airport, and it’s still a 3 hour drive!’ Needless to say, Rik isn’t really much of a morning person, but eventually he managed to open his eyes and get our of our van a little past 6 in the morning (oh yeah, we bought a minibus which we are converting into a small camper, but today I won’t go into much more detail regarding that). Because it didn’t seem like our breakfast was ready yet, we slowly started packing our stuff. When we were done there was still no sign of breakfast. However when we went to the other side of the building we found out that they had been waiting for us, before starting breakfast, because they didn’t think we were ready. Oops!

When we finished breakfast we quickly paid the bill and wanted to leave. When we got into the car and tried to start it, we suddenly lost power. What happened? We opened to hood to check out the batteries when suddenly the car started beeping again. Luckily the car did start this time (we later found out the the battery was almost dry and we had to refill a lot of battery acid). At this point we realised that the manager of the lodge – who had asked us earlier that morning for a ride down to Lusaka together with his wife – didn’t come back yet. After 10 minutes we figured out that he lived on the way to the main road and that he was waiting for us there.

We saw that the fuel level was getting quite low, so we asked him whether we could get petrol in the village. The answer was no, and yes. There was no gas station in the village, but we would be able to get petrol on the black market. The next gas station was only in 75 kilometers, so Rik got out of the car and started negotiating a price for fuel, but petrol here was much more expensive than at the fuel station. In the meantime I decided to text my mom, informing her that we were probably getting late: ‘Car didn’t start for a little while, we took the owner of the campsite and suddenly had to buy petrol on the black market, so we’re running late. We’re probably there half past 10. If you have your suitcases and visa within an hour, I’m afraid you’ll have to wait for a bit. Sorry and see you soon! X’

In the meantime, the price per liter of petrol was getting higher every minute and we quickly calculated that we should be able to drive 75 more kilometers with the amount of fuel we still had left, so we left Luangwa bridge pinning our hopes on the upcoming gas station. We tried our best to drive economically, which was not an easy chore with the mountainous road which was filled with holes and speedbumps. Because of this, we drove a bit slower than we normally would, so I was glad I had texted my mom as we would never make it in time.

In the distance we could see the gas station – we had made it! – when we realised that something was off. An employee explained to us that there was not a drop of petrol left. The nearest gas station was only in Chongwe, another 120 kilometers further, but our gas tank warning light was already on for a little while. We had no other choice than driving a few kilometers further until we reached a small village, were we had to try our luck on the black market again. What a disappointment! Rik was also getting very irritated because they were selling petrol just a few kilometers from the gas station with a 30% surplus per liter, but they knew they could do it because there was no alternative nearby. We really had no choice and so we get 15 liters. That would certainly have to be enough to reach Chongwe (which is very close to Lusaka)

While we were worrying about petrol, the daughter of the manager was sleeping like a princess.

At 10:30 – an hour after my mom and sister should have landed – I texted my mom again:
‘ETA is now between 11:15 en 11:30. Navigating towards Avis, because Lusaka airport is not on Google Maps. Hope everything went alright.’
We could drive at our normal speed again, knowing that there are many petrol stations in Chongwe and Lusaka, but in the meantime we were severely delayed. I hoped my mom and sister had to wait quite a while for their visa and suitcases, but half an hour later my sister texted me: ‘Hi Mel, is everything alright? Where are you? We have been waiting for a while. We are in the parking lot. See you soon! X Romana’
Oh no, this meant my mom had never received those texts so they couldn’t know what was going on. Instantly I texted back that we were on our way an that we were almost there.

When we finally arrived at the airport it turned out their flight was a bit early, obtaining a visa went quick and without a hitch and so they had been waiting in the parking lot for almost 2 hours! I quickly put it into perspective and thought: oh well, we made it and we didn’t end up on the side of the road with an empty fuel tank. Then they would have had to wait a whole lot longer.

Welcome to Africa you two.