Welcome to Lusaka

After a trying morning of getting to Lusaka, our arrival was sweet.  We were dropped at Arcades (a large shopping complex) and headed to Mint, a restaurant specializing in wraps, salads, crepes, and coffee :).  YUM.

Our Lusaka hosts, Anna and Ben Winters, got in touch with us and came to pick us up.  Anna and Ben are a married couple who are running their new business, Akros.  Anna, originally from Flathead, and Ben moved to Lusaka from Ft. Collins… and the US part of their business is based in Wyoming!  We had met while I was in Lusaka in June, and they warmly opened their home to us upon our return.  They have rented a home complete with a staff and car for the year.  The house is huge — and the guest room is more like a master suite — bathroom, closets, bed, desk.  And wireless!

We settled in briefly at their place, but we had to take care of errands and getting Dustin’s travel plans settled.  (More on Dustin’s travel plans later — but suffice it to say that they were complicated!)  After running about six errands in a short amount of time, we came back to the house, showered (yeah for hot water!), and had a fabulous Indian meal around the fireplace in the living room.  What a fabulous welcome to Lusaka!

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Traveling in Zambia

Traveling by road in Africa is dangerous.  As my friend Ben told me, even in Lusaka, there are no trauma centers, and there is one emergency doctor in the capital (but he only works three days a week).  Outside of Lusaka, it is even more perilous.  If you get in an accident, the likelihood of a good outcome is small.  We witnessed the aftermath of one accident between two vehicles in Chipata, and not only was emergency medical access a problem, the overcrowding of vehicles, disrepair of those vehicles, lack of seatbelt usage, and poor road maintenance are like perfect storms of disasters.  Traveling by road is not a light choice — we try to choose the vehicles and drivers carefully (because, to add to the list, drinking and driving is common).

Needless to say, much of the travel *has* to occur via road.  One of the interesting things observed while traveling by car is the “Zambia gear” of neutral when coasting.  Literally – the drivers call it that — Zambia Gear.  They shift into neutral when coasting to save gas (and apparently, it does!).

The most interesting road travel was from Petauke back to Lusaka.  We were told three things about getting from Petauke to Lusaka: 1. the first bus comes at 6am and is the fastest, 2. don’t buy a ticket the day before, and 3. wait at the junction and the bus will stop.  We heard these from multiple people in Petauke, so we prepared accordingly.  We got up early on Tuesday, got to the junction at 530am, and found about 10 people there already.  We bought a ticket for the big bus coming at 630am.  And then we waited…

At 630am, the bus showed up.  And it drove right by!  We started getting anxious… A second bus showed up at 640am, and everyone piled around.  It was the wrong company than our ticket was, so we watched.  Of the now 40 people gathered, 2 were able to push their way on.  This was not looking good.  At 650am, another bus (our company) also drove right by…  The thought of remaining in Petauke was unbearable (and this was combined with the fact that we had plane tickets for Livingstone the following morning from Lusaka!!).

At around 710am, a truck pulled up.  And the masses started climbing in the truck bed.  We were heartily encouraged to come along, but there was no way that I was riding in the back of a truck for four hours + (unsafe, uncomfortable, and just not a good idea).  Then, a station wagon pulled up, and another group crowded around it.  The guy who sold our ticket muscled and argued our way into this station wagon (why he pleaded our case, we will never know.  Was it because we gave him a pen?  Were the first to buy a ticket?  He was going to make the most money off of us?)…  After a few worried glances and quick conversations between Dustin and me, we got our luggage in and into the backseat.

There were five of us — the driver, and then four passengers.  We all had comfortable seats and seatbelts in a well-functioning car.  And we could stop when we wanted and didn’t need to pay extra.  It was so much better than the bus!  We found out from our fellow passenger that she had been trying to get back to Lusaka since Sunday (it was now Tuesday).  All the buses were full because of the schools’ break, and we felt even luckier to be in our safe, comfortable station wagon!

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Where the President stays…

We were so excited for the next two nights at Chimwemwe Lodge in Petauke.  We were told that this was where the President stays when in town, and we made reservations in the best of the three categories of rooms.  Goodbye cold water, rats, lack of coverage — here we come Petauke!

So, like with many experiences here, building up expectations can be problematic.  And that proved true in Petauke…  We arrived at Chimwemwe — but couldn’t check in as our room was being cleaned.  No problem — we would happily partake in eating the “best food in town” at the Lodge’s resturant.  We sat down in the garden, looked at the menu, and both of decided it was time for a Castle (or two).  Obvious from the menu that the best place in town was, well, not that awesome.  With a plates of fries and egg omelete ordered, a couple of Castles (beer) were consumed at we prepared for what was likely to be a room situation different than we had hoped…

Let’s just say that we were happy to have running water and even a wireless service!  The first “shower” was cold…  and the ones after, while warm, were better described as stand in a cold bathroom and have some water run out of a hose from a spout on the wall.  And, to top it off, the laundry service ironed a hole through Dustin’s pants (one of two on the trip).  So, that was less than awesome.

BUT – our one full day in Petauke was neat.  We headed to the District Health Office bright and early; we met the Director immediately, but he informed us that the entire staff was gone — and he was leaving too!  So, no interviews to be had :(…  But he did connect us with the head of the malaria task force, who, as it turned out, was doing a training in a rural health post on malaria that day!  We asked to accompany him, and he said yes.  We were off!

Traveling to the village took about 45 minutes over perfect dirt roads.  We arrived and started the training in a school house.  It was so great to be able to witness one of these trainings — we had been hearing about them but had never been able to see one.  There were about 15 people local people attended (chosen from the community), and while the program was mostly in the local language, we could understand a lot.  There was teaching about how malaria gets transmitted, the life cycles of both the parasite and mosquito, and time for discussion about treatment and prevention.

After about 2 hours of training, it was time for lunch.  Again, feigning stomach issues (and escaping to the outhouse to wolf down a granola bar!), I sat lunch out.  And, I am so glad that I did!  As it turned out, the main (and only) course was goat intenstines wrapped around themselves to make it look like some sort of michelin-man  type of sausage.  I stepped out to take pictures while Dustin happily (??) ate his share.  He was served first, and everyone was interested in watching him eat the intestines with nshima (the local fufu-like paste used for eating).

With the training wrapped up for the day, we headed back to Petauke.  Starting the government vechile by pushing it, we then climbed in and started back the way we came.  I requested a quick stop at a rural health center I had seen as we drove up.  I really wanted Dustin to see a Rural Health Center before leaving, and this was the perfect opportunity!  The RHCs are feeders from the villages and communities to the larger clinics and hospitals.  Their pressence increases accessibility, and they are key to successful malaria control and prevention.

RHC tour complete, we got back to Petauke and then were offered a tour of Petauke’s District Hospital, which we gladly took in.  We headed back the lodge, packed, and prepared for our 4am wake-up and 530am departure to Lusaka!

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Dancing the night away…

With a full week of hard travel under our belts, we were looking forward to an easy weekend.  We had explored different options to get us out of Katete sooner — and to the Chimwemwe Lodge in Petauke (where the President stays when he visits!).  The difficulties with the water (cold, when present), listening to rats on the roof nightly, and desiring a consistent phone connection was starting to wear on us.

However, the Lonely Planet highlighted two local village dances that occur, primarily in August.  We had high hopes of attending one of these celebrations.  Tiko Lodge organizes mzungus’ visits (and, along with the economical sustainability part of Tiko’s mission, there is a payment you make to the village leader).  We both thought that this would be an awesome experience, and it would be unlike what we had done thus far.

Dustin found out through some exploring that there would be both the Girls’ Initiation dance and Ghost Dance at a nearby village on Saturday night.  So, we decided to tough it out for a couple more nights to fit in that experience.

Saturday morning started with a great tour of St. Francis hospital with one of the characters we met at the bar.  This guy, John, is Welsh and has been volunteering in Africa for the past 16 years.  He has been in Katete, working on building a new wing for the hospital for the past three years.  He had us over to his place for coffee and biscuits and took us on an extensive tour of the impressive facilities.  I was very keen for Dustin to see a hospital and a rural health center in Zambia, and this was a perfect opportunity.  We walked around and talked with people for about three hours.  Neat!

We got back to Tiko to finalize the plans for the evening’s festivities, at which point we found out that we would leave at 4pm and get back around midnight.  I was so, so tired, and I could not fathom intense culture experiences for 8+ hours in the bush.  Dustin recommended a nap – definitely a good call!  After napping for a couple of hours, we rolled out of bed to meet the group heading to the village…

There were about 8 of us heading to the village from Tiko.  We were met by one oxcart, enough for half of us to ride in.  So, some piled in, and the rest of us starting walking.  We were off!  The walk to the village was much like our run (we were heading to a different village — there are probably around 100 just in the Katete town area) — sun was setting, walking through fields, meeting people along the way…  Just a lovely afternoon walk.  After about 20 minutes of walking, another oxcart arrived, and the rest of us got in.  As it turns out, riding in an oxcart is relatively comfortable!  Who knew?

We arrived in the village around dusk.  We were greeted by about 60 cheerful, playful children — all wanting to hold our hands and lead us around their home.  We were greeted by multiple adults as we tromped around the large village (population 400).  We made our way to a cluster of trees, under which the village headman (the main man!) greeted and welcomed us.  Neat!

After greeting and touring, we were escorted by running, tumbling, laughing children back to our starting point.  The children then gathered in front of us and started spontaneously singing different songs that they had been learning in school.

Around 6pm, we were told that the Initiation Dance was to begin.  All of us, including the men — they were granted woman-status (the thought process seemed something like: well, you know mzungus — they are strange anyway, so why can’t their men count as women?).  In a hut about 10ft by 12ft (if that!), we crowded in and sat along the hard mud walls.  Women sitting on women, children sitting on laps, and all of us touching and being touched by a few different people each!  With a few candles lit and drums brought in (I think that space in Africa is different from space in other places — you can just fit more things and people in somehow!), the signing began.

The songs and purpose are to teach the new initiates about how to be married — and most importantly, how to tolerate mothers-in-law.  No joke — we were told that the songs and the motions are all about lessons learned and taught.  There were two young girls who were clearly the focus of the dancing and singing.  They seemed nervous and excited about the new chapter in their lives — and all of the women surrounded them were joyfully singing and drumming as if to say “welcome to our group, life is good but hard, and you will be sustained by communities of women, much like this one, wherever you go.”

After these two girls did their solo dancing for 45 or 60 minutes, they exited the hut.  Now, the rest of the women were free to dance and sing as they pleased.  It seemed that each woman had a few songs or dances she particularly liked; she would start the song or have a friend do so, and then start dancing in the circle.  Sometime a few would dance together…

And, as the dancing was letting up, it was time to bring in the mzungus.  Have no fear, I was the first!  I had been interacting quite a bit with the ladies leading up to the dancing and during, and it was so fun.  And that put me squarely in their sites when it was time to incorporate the rest of us.  So, I got pulled up, did a bit of booty shaking — much to the enjoyment of the ladies! — and tried to drag the other female mzungus (mzungu men, while allowed to observe, not allowed to dance) to take part as well.  I was only succesful with one…

The dancing ended some three hours after it started, and I was *exhausted*.  We were taken to another home, where a Thanksgiving-like feast was spread out for us to enjoy with a few of our Zambian counterparts.  I feigned stomach troubles so as not to take part while Dustin dug in (typical of us both!).  I sat on the ground with the woman who made the dinner and wife of one of the head-guys.  Her name was Agnes, and we had an immediate connection.

Agnes and I shared in some stilted stories (english was a bit tough) and shared laughter at her children coming in and out.  I think that I had the best seat, as those around the dinner table were mostly quiet and eating.  I, of course, prefered to talk :).  Dustin reported that the food was excellent — especially some pumpkin concoction.

After eating, we were taken to another area in the village for the Ghost Dance.  Agnes stayed right by my side — literally, we were arm in arm, which was awesome both because it felt nice and because we were walking through the bush in the pitch dark, and she kept me from falling :).  We finally made it to the campfire and situated ourselves in preparation for the Ghost Dance.

Half of our group departed after dinner (one of them was sick, so they headed home), so there were only four of us remaining.  While waiting for the Ghosts to come (literally, it is believed that during this dance, the individuals become ghosts), the children and drummers (and Agnes) sang and danced for about an hour.  Too fun!  There was not enough seats, so Agnes and I alternated sitting on each others’ laps.  I started first on Dustin’s lap, but Agnes dragged me to her lap and held me tight :).

And then, around 1045pm, the Ghosts showed up, calling as they approached and dressed in full costume.  It felt much like I would imagine a Native American dance of a similar nature — lots of twirling, whooping, calling, singing, drumming.  In some ways, it was truly magical and touching, seeing the shadows and glimpses of costumes (it was very dark) with the sounds of the drums and songs.  And sometimes, it felt downright scary — maybe they really were ghosts?

After about an hour of the dancing, the other two in our group declared exhaustion — and we headed back.  The Ghost Dance can continue for hours into the night, and as with many things, mzungus are excused for all sorts of reasons as we do weird things (like leave the Ghost Dance early).

Heading back in the oxcart under a literal blanket of stars (and followed on foot, running, one of the village drunks — lots of drinking was happening around that campfire!), we arrived back at Tiko at 1am.  What a *full* 9 hours!!

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Tikodane

Let’s just say that Eastern Province was a touch more difficult than Southern Province.  This seems to be due to the fact that most tourists fly in and out of South Luangwa (or at the very least, don’t stop along the way to and from the park!).  This means that the water, when it is running, is mostly cold.  The electricity comes and goes as it pleases — and there are not generators to make up for the loss.  And there are rats and “wild things” :) that appear more friendly — or just are noisier? — than in other places visited thus far.  Finally, the transit is much more of a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants deal (i.e. most people are happy and willing to jump in the back of a truck rather than wait for hard to find transport).  These “truisms” were found throughout our journey in Eastern Province — from Chipata to Katete to Petauke.

From our time in Chipata (good research-wise but left something to be desired tourist-wise), we ventured westward to Katete.  Based on the recommendations of other researchers met and the Lonely Planet, we stayed at Tikodane.  Tiko is a local NGO, started and facilitated by a single, older mzungu woman who came to Katete ~15 years ago after her husband died.  Her goal was to start a local, economically sustainable guesthouse and craft center.  We couldn’t wait to get there!

Once we arrived, it was clear that the local part was very true — the locale (in a village on the outskirts of town), the facilities (the Lonely Planet described them as monastic), and the food all where certainly local.  And, the sustainability also seemed to be in full-effect.  Local people are employed (albeit with minimal wages), and local folks do most of the coordination and operation of the guesthouse.  It was certainly a comfortable — if not eccentric! — place to land.  We were surrounded by locals who came by at the end of the day for a beer, travelers who were volunteering for the long-term (these guys were *characters!!*).

Far and away, the most notable part of staying at Tiko was *the best* run had yet on this trip.  We had a 9 miler to complete, and struck out around 4pm.  We ran through the small village, past the local (very well run) hospital, and out to a village.  It was GORGEOUS.  The sun was starting its progression into a setting position, the road was clear of cars — just people walking and riding their bikes, the fields surrounded us on all sides, and we were on the slightest hill which afforded us views of the valley.  As we ran through one small village after another, people would greet us and us them — but we felt less like a spectacle (as we do when running in town).  We ended up jumping from stone to stone to clear a few creeks, running through banana fields, and along narrow pathways.  On our way back, two young Zambians ran with us for one and two miles respectively — they just wanted to hang with us and chat a bit.  Simply perfect — it was the kind of run you dream of having in “Africa.”

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Chipata

Ahhh, Chipata.  You are a mid-sized Zambian town with the added benefit of being both a Provincial and District capital.  However, rather than sharing the delights of fabulous Indian and Italian food like your counterpart, Livingstone, you are much like Mazabuka…  bland and boring.  Granted, you *are* full of interesting people doing work in the government and NGO communities who are wonderfully helpful, but as a town, you have little to offer.


Dean’s Hill View Lodge was (relatively) good to us… Dean, the man himself, was a spunky character with a charming heart for animals (chickens, ducks, horses, dogs — all had free range for the entire day and sometimes most of the night!  Imagine a large horse traipsing around, at night, directly outside your tent when you desperately need to use the facilities…).  The “lodge” staff was nice and gave us an excellent reference for a super-reliable and reasonable taxi driver, Alick.  But, there was little water (at all) and only occasional hot water, no soap available (for hand washing all of the time and dish washing some of the time), the smell of meat permeated everything in the kitchen, and the electricity varied considerably.

Dean’s/Chipata was a semi-reasonable place to land, and we were there for ONE WEEK, the first half in a tent and the second in a room.  The room was exceptionally clean (especially notable given the inability to clean with the lack of water (let alone hot water) or soap!).  All in all, I was happy to move along to our next destination, Katete.

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Walking South Luangwa

(from Dustin again)

Monday morning brought one of the other unique aspects of South Luangwa, a walking safari.  Apparently very few other parks offer them, in part because the safari vehicles provide a significant amount of safety (the animals don’t separate the people and the vehicle into different objects), and in part because this mode of safari covers much less ground.  The advantage though, is that you do move slowly.  That gives the opportunity to see things that are usually missed as you whisk by in a car.

South Luangwa has a long history of walking safaris, due to the first British organizers that operated from here.  It is one of the earliest parks, and also innovative as well.  The guides are particularly well trained (so we heard), and the companies have a long history of working closely with the local people and chiefs – so that they benefit from the tourism as well (whereas in many other parks the locals are left out, while the European tour companies rake in the cash).  Anyway, a special aspect of the walking safaris is an accompanying armed guard – ours was named ‘Super Lucca.’

As expected, we didn’t see a lot of wildlife outside a fair amount of birds – but we were thoroughly educated in animal poo, and all of the behavior it reflects (such as diet, herd organization, etc).  At the end of the walk we did happen upon a group of ten zebras, and it was certainly a different feeling to observe them from nearby and on the ground!

Julianna had been quite exhausted by the previous day’s long drive (and some poor sleep, maybe due to the malaria medicine), so she decided to stay back at camp and get some additional rest.  As it turned out, she got her own close up experience.  When she woke up and exited the tent she found a family of elephants right outside eating their breakfast!  So, she took plopped down on the front patio of the tent and got a real front row seat to a morning of elephants.

That wrapped up our quick weekend safari, and we headed back to Chipata for meetings the next day.  On the way we stopped by Tribal Textiles, a large shop who’s products we had seen all over Zambia.  It is run by a European woman, but she has built the business to provide sustainable wages – and she hopes to eventually turn over ownership to locals who are learning the trades.  Via Lonely Planet, we learned that this place provides 150 good jobs, so it probably supports about 1,000 local people via those 150 families.  That’s the kind of model we try to support in our travel purchases, not to mention we really liked their products – so we picked up our fair share!

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Going Dutch

(from Dustin again)

Although our experience at Flatdogs so far had been perfect, the next day we branched out to another company for our time in the park.  We were only staying two nights, so we (well, mostly I) wanted to get the most out of our time by doing a full day drive (and Flatdogs didn’t have enough interested customers to organize one).  After calling another nearby camp (called Track and Trail) we found out that they had a full day drive already organized, and that we could join in!  The caveat was that we would be joining a family of five and the drive would have a photography focus.  The photography focus meant that we would be stopping for longer than usual to allow for more shooting, which sounded great to us because it meant a more relaxed pace with extra time to observe the animals.  The other part was that they had three kids, ages 6 to 9, which sounded interesting to us – so we signed up for the adventure.

Sunday morning at 6am the driver and family arrived to pick us up, and we headed out for 12 hours in South Luangwa.  It turned out that the driver/guide for the day was the owner of the other camp, a friendly and interesting Dutch guy named Peter.  We said hello, and also thanked the family for allowing us to join their drive.  Their kids were very nice, and pretty shy to start out – the oldest one wasn’t feeling to well and ended up spending the most of the day lying face down in the back row of seats – seemingly trying his best to graduate early to teenage angst.  The youngest was a girl named Anna, who was pretty shy, but warmed up fairly quickly with Julianna – as is bound to happen!  Their parents were very nice and we had a funny exchange to start out, as we compared our ‘point and shoot’ camera to his bag full of camera backs and lenses.  After a bit of conversation we learned that the dad was a professional photographer, coupled with owning a Dutch travel magazine focused on African wildlife and safaris.  So, every summer their family would go to a new park for a week and the wildlife photos would become the pictures for their magazine.  New friends made, and context for the day set, we had begun our full day drive with our six Dutch companions.

A primary advantage of the full day drive is the opportunity to venture deeper into the park, and away from the more heavily trafficked portions near the main entrance.  So we headed north, making a few stops along the way for picture opportunities.  South Luangwa is particularly rich in a wide variety of bird life, so the morning consisted of learning about many new types of birds.  There were many varieties with stunning colors, but you’ll have to take our word for it – as our little camera doesn’t fare too well in capturing the little guys with any detail.  But, as expected, the ‘photo shoots’ gave a welcome opportunity to sit and enjoy the quiet surroundings with the engine off, just soaking up our transfixing surroundings.  From this point forward we only crossed paths with about five other vehicles over the coarse of the entire day, so it was fun to feel like we were really out on our own, exploring the park!  Besides the birds, the morning offered plenty of elephant, giraffe, hippo, and impala again – each new sighting can feel like the first of the day – with a quick rise of excitement when something is spotted around the corner or on the horizon.  We also had a great time chatting with Peter and the Dutch parents, who all had a fun sense of humor and compatible interests on things from traveling to politics.   It was also fun to see a family with young kids, making travel in Africa work – something we hope to be able to do someday too.

Along the way the family told us about their experience the previous night, when they had the fortune to witness a leopard kill an impala.  Not only that, but after making the kill, some hyenas moved in and stole the carcass from the leopard.  This all happened in the dark, while they watched with a spotlight – so we returned in the morning to investigate the crime scene.  They found a bit of blood where the kill was, but the entire carcass was gone, apparently scattered by the scavengers.  Just as we were getting ready to move on Peter looked up in the tree and saw half of the remaining carcass.  It seems that the leopard got the carcass back and took it up the tree for safekeeping!

From there we continued onward to the less trafficked areas of the park.  Our driver Peter also doesn’t frequent these areas, so we explored various road spurs, seeking out whatever we might uncover.  At one point we saw another car, and in the corner of her eye Julianna thought she saw a leopard walking in the bushes – so we headed back to try and get a better look.  The leopard seemed to have gone off in another direction, but the people in the other car confirmed that they saw it too!   After a bit more exploring, the morning concluded, we stopped by a lagoon in a grove of ebony trees for a relaxing lunch.  We had some great food and conversation and then headed off for the last part of the day.

The remainder of the day brought three highlights – the first was just around the corner as we left.  As we followed the river south we spotted two hippos across the way, moving slowly towards the water.  Nothing particularly unusual about that, until we noticed that they seemed to be headed straight for a sunning crocodile!  So we stopped to wait a bit and watch the standoff, which ended anticlimactically with the hippos continuing straight by in close proximity, but completely uneventfully.  I guess the fun part was all the imagined scenarios we concocted as they approached each other.  The next big sighting was a herd of over 100 buffalo (one of the ‘big five’ animals ‘required’ for a good safari).  They are quite odd looking animals, we stopped for a good amount of time for picture taking in what our photographic experts called ‘interesting light.’  So, once more we relaxed and took in the experience – watching the herd react to their surroundings, cycling between alert and relaxed as they observed our movements and listened to us.  There was a definite two way street in this observation!  Finally, with daylight waning and our drive about to end, we came upon a lioness strolling down the road.  It was a great way to finish the day, because many lion sightings primarily consist of just watching them relax and lay around.  At this point we were back closer to the entrance, and combined with the lion sighting, there was a decent crowd of vehicles – so we got a little of the human spectacle as well.  After a good long chance to watch the lioness, about 10 minutes of her walking down the side of the road (sometimes only 5 feet away from us!), we headed out of the park to return home.  We had one last adventure after exiting the park, our driver Peter noticed an old remnant of a road that was roughly in the direction of the camp Julianna and I needed to return to – so we went on one last adventure – exploring a little used road that did lead us right back to camp.  That last bit of spontaneity provided a fitting conclusion to a great day in the park.

You can find some pictures here:

http://www.flickr.com/photos/dustinandjulianna/sets/72157624727928032/

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An Evening in South Luangwa

(Posting from Dustin)
Following a short night’s sleep and tiring journey to the park, we took the opportunity to catch up on a little rest with a nice afternoon nap in our riverfront digs. From our bed we could watch the hippos follow suit in the cool river, and the crocodiles sunning on the bank. We were resting up for one of the specialties of the park, a nighttime drive.  The park is named South Luangwa, and according to Lonely Planet it rivals any other park in Africa on the merits of its dense wildlife population and beautiful setting.  It was also one of the first organized parks in all of Africa, and has some unique aspects compared other parks – which include evening game drives as well as walking safaris.  The walking safari experience would come Monday morning, but tonight we would embark on a four hour drive, starting at 4pm.  With sunset around 6pm we had two hours of daylight to observe many of the animals during their most active as the temperature cools and they seek dinner, followed by two hours in the dark with a spotlight to get a more rare chance to observe the nocturnal population of the park.

The first two hours were a welcome return the joy of observing animals in their natural habitat.  Just one minute into the drive we came upon a group of giraffes grazing on the trees.  The species of giraffe here are called Thornicraft, and differ a bit from the typical giraffe in that their spots are a bit smaller, more defined, and stop at their knees.  We then crossed into the official park and found abundant elephant, zebra, impala, warthogs, and more.  We even happened upon a cobra crossing the road, who turned around after crossing and arched its neck to show off for us. The overall experience certainly lived up to expectations in providing ample opportunity to soak up the natural beauty and settle into the serenity of the intricate and diverse ecosystem.  The daylight portion of the drive was capped off with a more human experience, on a quest for the capstone of the safari experience: a lion sighting.  Due to the relatively short time span of the drive we often ran into other vehicles exploring the same somewhat small area, and the phenomenon is amplified when all parties converge on the rumor of a lion.  We had experienced this in the past on our previous safari, and the event provides a somewhat humorous opportunity to observe humans in the wild as they crowd around a valued find.

This iteration didn’t fail, and even provided an extra twist.  Our driver had heard about the lion from other drivers and headed towards the location. We arrived on what seemed to be the lion, given the large collection of safari vehicles, but upon closer inspection we found that the group was at the bank of a river of dry sand – and all the drivers were debating the risks of getting stuck in the sand.  Our driver had the right mix of experience and machismo to not extensively ponder the choice, and with some slight encouragement from our group decided to brave the crossing.  That broke the ice and inspired a waterfall of additional drivers to follow suit (pardon the weak puns given the dry river bed!).  Upon reaching the other side we were rewarded with a male lion lounging idly along the dry river.  Julianna will want it noted that the lion bore a striking resemblance to Jersey – or was it the other way around?

So, our groups’ lust for a lion sighting fulfilled, we headed back across the treacherous dry riverbed for the safety of the main roads.  But, on returning to the riverbed we found two vehicles stranded in the loose sand unable to move.  The next 15 minutes provided an entertaining spectacle of the drivers collaborating to pull the stranded vehicles from their sandy graves – all the while receiving instructions from some Texans who seemed to think they knew much better how to deal with the situation.  After snapping a couple of cords attempting to dislodge them from their ruts, eventually everyone was rescued and all went off on their own ways.  We drove to a quiet spot and stopped for ‘sundowners’ – which consisted of a Mosi (a Zambian beer) while taking in the sunset.  The stop made for a nice conclusion to the first half of our evening drive.

The second half of the drive commenced at dark with the consistent scanning of a handheld searchlight by our ‘spotter.’  The light spanned an arc across the horizon around us, bumping up into the sky occasionally to avoid shining directly into the eyes of the passengers of a nearby vehicle.  The idea of the night drive is to observe the nocturnal population of the park, which in large part consists of cats that become more active in search of dinner.  Leopard and hyena are rarely seen in daylight because they are nighttime hunters.  A leopard is a prized safari sighting, and South Luangwa is known for it’s dense population. We were lucky and able to come upon one laying in the grass, I suppose deciding on what to have for dinner. We didn’t find any hyena, but did see a group of four female lions, which made for a satisfying end to a very full four hours of safari!

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Flatdogs

Dustin here, with an interlude from the weekdays of authentic Zambian experiences to the ultimate in cliché African adventures… a weekend of safari.  After two nights in our tent at Dean’s in Chipata I already started lobbying for upgrading to a room – with the excuse that we needed the space and electricity (lights) to get our packing done before our early morning departure to head off to the park.  So we broke down the tent and moved all of our luggage into the dorm.  Two hours later we had sorted, collated, reorganized, and repacked all of our gear and settled in for a short night’s sleep.

We got up at O-dark-thirty to be ready for our ride, which had requested that we be ready to go at 6am (we found out later the reason was because he needed to get to the park in time to pick up some other folks for a return trip).  Given that Julianna is an excellent planner, we had showered, eaten, and gotten our bags ready to load by a few minutes to six. Forty-five minutes later our ride arrived, after what he described as ‘battery problems.’  We had called twice (after 15 and 40 minutes) and both times got the answer: “I’ll be right there” followed abruptly by the call ending.  Transportation is one aspect of travel in Africa that rarely runs like clockwork.

After a quintessential beginning to our weekend we arrived at our destination about 50 miles north, 3 hours later.  You can do the math – we weren’t moving very fast.  Although our destination is one of the top two tourist attractions in all of Zambia (perhaps second to Victoria Falls), our route along the most direct road was anything but developed.  Most of the journey was over dirt roads, which might best be described as an obstacle course.  Even in our 4×4 vehicle the driver had to constantly weave back and forth across the entire road in search of the least pocked path.  Ironically, for most of the way we were driving directly next to a large nicely graded road that is under construction (although our driver expected it to be completed ‘in a few years’).  Towards the end of the journey we picked up a paved road, which continued to the park.  It turns out that the pavement started at the airport, which is how most tourists travel to the park – for reasons that were at this point quite clear to us!

So, at 10am we rolled into Flatdogs, our accommodations for the weekend.  The place came highly recommended, and didn’t disappoint. High on the list of reasons for the accolades is the kitchen, which was our first stop.  A late breakfast of French Toast, fresh fruit, and an omelet really hit the spot.  The rest of the meals over the course of the weekend were great too, comparable to an average meal out in San Francisco – which means they far exceeded the quality of any other meals I had had in Zambia so far!

Last up for the morning was checking into our safari tent, situated right on the bank of the river. The prime locale of the accommodations is another area where Flatdogs gets top marks, as well as its namesake! As we were checked in to the tent, and shown the nice view of the river from the front patio, we got strict instructions to not venture beyond the grass.  Beyond the grass was a large sandy riverbank, which is well populated with crocodiles – otherwise known by their local nickname: flatdogs.

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