As we returned to the camp from our evening lion viewing, we passed the staff housing area, which included a place for John, a member of the ZAWA anti-poaching patrol, who lives at McBrides’ camp. Patson, a member of the camp staff, had been out on anti-poaching patrol that day with John. They had apparently found a well-used, but unoccupied, poacher camp, and brought back bones and animal parts that had been left behind. They said that they had burned all the blankets and other equipment that had been left behind by the poachers.
Poaching had been very much on our minds as we planned this trip. From our research, we knew that Kafue National Park was vast, and that ZAWA was significantly understaffed and underfunded. In our travels, we heard varying opinions about ZAWA, and my guess is that the variety was due to the variety of ZAWA personnel from location to location. The personnel seem to be spread thin over the massive national parks, thus are probably minimally supervised. In some places, the attitude was that ZAWA was corrupt and in cahoots with the poachers. In other places, ZAWA was heralded as the savior of the national parks. I tend to believe both are true.
Zambia is replicating what other countries have found successful: creating GMA’s (game management areas) surrounding national parks. They provide buffer areas around the parks that allow for limited hunting, which is a lucrative business for many African countries. But, without the personnel to manage the access into the parks, and with minimal infrastructure to facilitate patrols, most management occurs within the radius of the camps.
We were told that the poachers use bicycles to get into areas, and to move their “catch” to market. Often, ZAWA are also only provided bicycles for patrol, and are often outgunned and outnumbered by the poachers. Interestingly enough, the poachers are not only after ivory, but also animal parts that are powerful for traditional medicine. This can include vulture heads and parts of rarer animals, like pangolin.
And all of those bush fires? Some blame them on the poachers, either to drive animals, or to sprout new grass to attract the grazers. Others blame ZAWA, saying that the bicycle patrols do not want to ride through the tall grass, so will set fires to increase visibility and reduce the chance of attack by lions. Yet others say that it is just the cycle of life in southern Africa, as most of the plants are fire adapted, and not really damaged by the smoldering ground fires. However, the fires must have human origins, since there were few clouds and no weather events to strike sparks while we were there. But, given the long human history on the African continent, human actions over the millennia may have selected for fire-resistant species.
By the next morning, it was clear that things had been tidied up when we went for our pre-walk coffee. The dirt between the kitchen and dining areas had been raked, and when we returned from our walk, someone had made our beds, supplied us with towels and swept out our hut.
The food was quite simple – the chef was on holiday – but a nice change from the more formal fare we had at the previous camps. Again, it felt like we were visiting someone’s home.
The animals are decidedly more relaxed near this camp, though. Puku graze not 20 yards from the “porch” of our chalet, and birds perch closely wherever we go. I am constantly entertained by the grunts, snorts and chortles from the nearby hippo pods, and there is regular elephant “traffic” in the camp, evidenced by the numerous dung piles and broken trees.
Our first morning walk was beautiful, although punctuated with uneasy moments. Dapper in a jacket and muffler, Chris had a camera slung over one shoulder and his rifle over the other. Steven, one of the young staff, accompanied us with water, snacks and the radio. We saw mostly relaxed animals: impala, puku, waterbuck and warthogs.
Chris is known for his lion research, done 40 years ago in Botswana. There are supposedly lions regularly near this camp, but we know that it’s a matter of being at the right place at the right time. We saw spoor, but no lions. That doesn’t mean that the lions did not see us. But, the relaxed game suggested that no lions were hunting in the area.
We crossed a dry river channel both on the way out and back from the camp – these moments creating the most anxiety. Partially, this came from reading our escorts’ demeanors. In Botswana, the time we had witnessed lions make a kill had been along a similar alleyway of bush. The riverbed seemed like a perfect place for an ambush, and it was clear that Steven had similar thoughts in mind. But, after 3 hours of walking, no lions. We’ve been told that lions can stroll through the camp with “stupefying nonchalance.” But, none yet.
We had a lovely afternoon cruise down the Kafue River on a double-decker pontoon. The upper deck gave us a view above the high banks of the river, and a kingfisher’s view of the water.
From Mumbwa, we left the human settlements behind more quickly than Kalomo. There were fewer walkers and bicycles but more vehicles. It’s clear that there is something small-scale industrial happening before the national park gate.
Once past the gate and into the park, we saw no game for many kilometers, although the flies were with us, telling us that there had to be some game present. We followed a combination of written instructions, GPS and signs with arrows to navigate to McBrides’ Camp. There was a lot of nothing for a long time – we could have wandered for hours without all the aids.
We were greeted by one of the camp staff, and soon afterward the legendary Chris McBride appeared – tall and lanky with close-cropped gray hair and beard with a rifle slung over one shoulder.
Steve did the math – this leg of the trip was not pre-paid, so he negotiated for a chalet rather than the camping reservation we had pre-arranged. I’m still mystified why he did this; I was actually looking forward to being independent again, defining how we spent our time. It was clear that they had not planned on non-camping guests – it was a bit of a scramble to get us a meal and a chalet. Things were closed up: it seemed like they were not expecting guests for several days.
Compared to the other chalets, this place was a little rough around the edges. Where there are floors, they are poured concrete, cracked and unevenly finished. The furniture matches from seating area to seating area, but the overall feel is like you have stepped into someone’s home. Books are randomly stacked, skulls, feathers and other artifacts are tucked into the reed walls, with framed prints and botanical collages.
Unfortunately, Chris’s wife Charlotte is away in Lusaka for a few days. My sense is that she is the one that keeps the place running. Chris is a witty conversationalist, and he is clearly seen a lot of life. He holds what we consider traditional South African views. A bush dweller most of his life, he reflexively brushes flies from his face and neck every minute or two, even though the place is mercifully fly-free – probably because we are right on the Kafue River.
Our chalet is basically a boma with a concrete floor, furnished like a studio apartment. We have a spacious bathroom with an open roof and just enough privacy. It feels like we have moved into someone’s house who wasn’t really expecting guests: it’s bit dusty and the bush seems to be slowly taking over the structure. I am convinced that if I get infested with something, it will be here.
It’s sooooo easy for my dearest wife Carolyn to barely mention the tsetse flies. Easy when you have a piece of bait along to attract the flies away from you, my dearest Carolyn!!!
I’m not an Africa expert, but apparently, with the wilds of African wildlife come the flies. But the two parts are important: wilds AND African wildlife. Less wild areas have tsetse fly control, so you can go to less wild areas and not put up with the flies. If there is wildlife and true wilderness, there will likely be tsetse flies. But apparently the flies around wildlife seldom carry sleeping sickness. It’s the flies around cattle that carry the sickness.
Sickness or not, the tsetse flies were a big problem that impacted the pleasure of my trip. If I stepped out of Rover mid-day I was swarmed with literally a hundred big biting flies. My legs were covered with scabs. The itch was really incredible, especially in the middle of the night. Little worked to dissuade the flies other than to travel with the windows rolled up, air conditioner on, and avoid being out of the car other than morning and nights. Long pants and long sleeves helped, but I’m a shorts and flip-flops kinda guy.
Thirty percent DEET did nothing. I think 100-percent DEET did work but as some will know, 100-percent DEET is disgusting and literally melts paint, plastic, and some clothing.
We heard rumor that the Australians had a product that worked. If anyone knows of it, please post or email.
In retrospect: Tsetse flies were never in towns or rural areas. Flies were the worst, by far, in Kafue. Less near rivers. Flies were bad in the woods, less in the open (bad everywhere, except near rivers, in Kafue). They are attracted to black and blue and movement. When we drove along, scores of flies would be attracted to Rover and they would lay in ambush for us to step out.
So the dilemma is: Do you want the WILDS of AFRICAN WILDLIFE, complete with tsetse flies, or do you want the more civilized areas?
If it is any guide to how much the flies will bother you, mosquitoes are also attracted to me, and not to my dear wife Carolyn, who brings me along as BAIT to keep the bugs off her!
Laundry clean and packed, we carted our bags back out to the rover for our drive to the next camp. We managed to embarrass our hostess (and entertain the staff yet again) when we ‘fessed up to hiding naked in the back end of our chalet so that we wouldn’t embarrass her when delivering coffee to our chalet first thing in the morning.
Elizabeth prepared a lunch of sandwiches, hard-boiled eggs and apples for the road, which we carefully packed into the cooler – much better than granola bars! We said our goodbyes, and did the pothole polka to the pavement and our next fuel stop. Next camp: McBrides’.
To get to the northern part of the park, we have to head out to where the Great East Road bisects the park into north and south sections. But, to get to the northern camps, we have to travel east to Mumbwa, then arc northwest back into the park to get to McBride’s: the classic “you can’t get there from here.”
The pavement was relatively good once we emerged from the river road, and we spotted elephants near the river. We approached Mumbwa with a little apprehension. Mumbwa was our next fuel stop, and the pumps are notoriously dry more often than not.
As we pulled in, several men approached the rover, but none from the fuel station itself. They tell us that the pumps are dry, but they might be able to help us with some fuel. By now, we know that we are only topping off the tank – 20 liters should be all we need. One gentleman offers us “high-grade” diesel for 8,000 kwacha and “low-grade” diesel for 7,000 kwacha. Not sure what “low-grade” diesel is, and not wanting to ruin the engine with something closer to grain alcohol than diesel, Steve negotiates 20 liters of “high grade” for 7,500 kw. (Not bad, considering that we were paying 6,999 at the pump in Livingstone.) Still not sure what we were buying, one gentleman appeared with a plastic water bottle, biting off the bottom with his teeth to create a funnel for our fuel.
Tank full (maybe?), we headed west back into the national park, holding our breath the first few kilometers for the engine coughing signs of bad fuel. A little later, I couldn’t help but wonder if we had just repurchased the diesel we had left behind a few days earlier in Itechi Techi. What are the odds…?
Propeller cage repaired, we headed back out on the water the next morning with fishing gear in tow. Steve is the fishing guy, and proceeded to catch something on his first cast. I was content to hang out on the rocks, take pictures and look at birds.
As the only guests at the lodge, we had the luxury of deciding what we wanted to do, and when we wanted to do it. Kaingu has a hide, so we said that we’d like to spend the afternoon hanging out at the hide. Boyd walked us out there – about a 10 minute walk – with our journals, cameras and binoculars. We did spot lion tracks along the way, but not the lions themselves, while we were walking. This hide was just a reed structure with benches, and a shelf for resting elbows and binocs. Rather than up on a platform, the entrance is at an angle to create a slight baffle.
We been out there for maybe an hour or so, when we heard a lion…or something large…grunt. We looked as far we could around the viewing “window” of the hide, and Steve peered around the edge of the opening of the hide. We knew that Boyd would be back for us, but I tucked myself further into the hide, and we stayed alert. The most we saw all afternoon were impala, puku and warthog, but we could very well have had other visitors near by.
For sundowner, we headed out to The Big Rock not far from camp. Egbert first stopped by a project he had worked on the previous year, creating an interpretive center for the iron foundry site near the camp. In John Reader’s Africa: A Biography of the Continent, he outlines the evidence of iron smelting in northern Africa at least 3,000-4,000 years ago. This technology probably moved south with the Bantu-speaking people, and there is evidence that the ancient methods were still being used in the Kafue area as recently as a few hundred years ago. The process included charcoal-making and kiln building and venting – quite a laborious and complicated process. And, the knowledge of the process was tightly protected within families, creating a kind of iron-smelting cartel. Clearly, the technology and the iron produced were valuable.
As sundown approached, we headed to the top of the rock, used locally by the native residents for ceremonies and celebrations. We watched the sun sink into the smoke from bush fires further west, while we asked about the persistent smoky pall we were experiencing on this trip – actual blue skies had been rare. As the sun set, we watched the glow of the fires as they flared – at one point we could actually see flames.
The resident mice came out with the moon rise – clearly accustomed to “leftovers” from sundowners on the rock. We headed back to the camp for yet another fabulous meal. Steve completely flustered Elizabeth when she came out to announce the menu, telling her, “I luuh-ve you,” expressing his appreciation for the caramel dessert the night before. Zambians are far more reserved, but they took the American-style joshing and joking in stride. We had a merry fireside dinner with Egbert, and great conversation about life in the Kaingu area.
Part of the attraction of stopping at Kaingu was the opportunity to spend a few days on the river. But, we had to adjust our expectations since we are not accustomed to the hazards lurking under the surface of African rivers. Tossing yourself into the water for a refreshing swim on a hot day is just not an option. After our midday siesta, we headed out with Egbert and Boyd, the camp’s guide, on the water for a sunset cruise.
In the low water, many of the rocks along this stretch of the Kafue River are exposed, adding natural sculpture to the scenery. But, not all the bumps above the water were rocks. We skirted the deeper pools and open areas: the kingdom of the hippos. Big and bossy, hippos will flip your boat if they feel threatened in the water, and they will trample you in a stampede to the water if they feel threatened on land. As ungainly as they seem, they should not be misjudged.
We cruised upstream past the scrimmage line of hippos with a large enough outboard motor to outrun any surly ones. We enjoyed traditional sundowner fare, then headed back downstream to the camp. Unable to avoid every rock, the cage around the propeller was bent, disabling the motor. We paddled and poled our way to the dock, staying out of the deeper parts of the river, watching for croc eyes.
Safely landed at the dock, we met the camp chef, Elizabeth, who delivered a spectacular meal, complete with a caramel dessert: Steve’s favorite. We went to sleep to the sound of hippo grunts and snorts, hoping they would be under our deck and strolling past our chalet.
After fueling up, we soon diverted off to the river road to Kaingu, a single vehicle track passing through several villages. There was a time or two that we weren’t sure if we were on the right track or not, and we mostly depended on the GPS. In wet weather, the going is probably sloppy and slow. The current dry condition took more attention to navigate the holes and ruts. Even at low speeds, the swerving and rocking made me realize that there were not many place to hang on in the seat. Holding onto the one handle on the dash directly in front of the passenger seat made me feel like I was on an amusement park ride. After a good whack to my head with the seat belt bracket, I used the door to brace against the dips and bumps as Steve did the pothole polka with the road.
Securing fuel in rural Zambia can be an iffy thing. Our first fuel stops in Livingstone and Kalomo were pretty straight forward transactions, after getting comfortable with handing over hundreds of thousands of kwacha (the Zambian currency). But, it was our third stop that really presented a challenge.
We had very detailed instructions regarding the fueling procedures in Itechi Techi – a small town on a hill, based along a large dam on the Kafue River. The dam was built years ago with international funds, with the promise of delivering electricity to the region. However, the manufacturer of the generators did not have faith in the installation contractors hired over the manufacturer’s objections, and so the generators sit in a warehouse in Lusaka, gathering dust, becoming obsolete. Or, so we’re told.
Anyway, the fuel pumps are surrounded by a high chain link fence topped with barbed wire at the bottom of the hill. In order to purchase fuel, you must have enough remaining in your tank to get to the top of the hill to the fuel company offices. There you must project how much fuel you need, prepay that amount and then drive (or coast) back down the hill to present your receipt to the man at the pumps to receive your fuel. As convoluted as this all sounds, the folks in Itechi Techi take this as normal. Oh, and there are no refunds if you estimate too much. It’s diesel roulette.
In the US, someone who pumps your fuel is usually you, as the days of full service fueling have long gone. But, in Itechi Techi, it’s the best job in town. Here’s why: many self-drive trips (like us) make the stop in Itechi Techi for fuel, as there are so few places in the Kafue area with reliable fuel. And (like us), many visitors are unfamiliar with the fuel tanks of their rented vehicles. So (as we found), estimating the amount of empty space in your fuel tanks is a tricky thing. And remember, there are no refunds if you “overbuy.”
In our case, we had two fuel tanks on our Landrover: one held about 80 liters, and the other about 23 liters. The gauge on the dashboard shows that the tank is full while you burn through the first tank, and only starts to register fuel levels when you tap into the second one. The trick is to know which tank is empty when the needle starts moving.
Since we had been driving all day for 2 1/2 days with the air conditioner on, and mostly in second gear, we assumed that we had burned through the larger tank, and were tapping into the smaller tank. We thought. Doing some quick math based on the fuel gauge level, we paid for 60 liters of fuel, and headed back down the hill with our receipt. Imagine our surprise when only 29 liters of fuel went into the tanks. The pump man rocked our vehicle, squeezing in a few more liters. At 6999 kwacha per liter, we paid nearly twice the price for 31 liters.
We asked the pump man if a refund was possible: he politely called the office (so he said), and reported that the response was “no refund.” Steve negotiated 100,000 kwacha out of the pump man for some of the pre-paid fuel we were leaving behind. We suspect that the pump man’s phone call was to a friend, who probably pulled in minutes later with 20 liter gerry cans to sop up our unclaimed diesel.
With $1 equaling 4800 kwacha, it was just a $21 mistake. But now we know which tank empties first. And the pump man has the best job in Itechi Techi, selling pre-paid fuel on the black market that tourists like us leave behind.