Zambia Part I: Deepest Africa Found

We were in the middle of another long stop in Zimbabwe.  This time we were pulled over on the road through Zambezi National Park on the short drive from Victoria Falls to the Botswana border where we would spend the night before crossing into Zambia.  There were rumors that the police hadn’t been paid for several months so nobody was surprised that this bribe was taking a particularly long time for our driver to negotiate.  I was gazing out the window hoping to see some animals in the park when I noticed prints in the sand immediately beside the road that I’m pretty sure belonged to a lion or two.  I wondered if the police had seen them.

Eventually we left the police and crossed into Botswana with few problems then returned to our previous campsite in Kasane.  There were now eleven of us; myself and two of my original tripmates from Cape Town who came from Belgium and the USA.  We had been joined in Victoria Falls by four German friends, a mother and daughter from Australia, an Australian couple and two other solo travelers, one each from Australia and the UK.  The reason for the return to Kasane was so that the new group members could experience the overnight safari in Chobe National Park and whilst I could go again at no extra cost there was no way that was happening based on my previous experience that you can read about here.  So I stayed back with our driver and trip leader as the cook went to Chobe with the group and we hung out with another Africa Travel Co crew doing the same thing.

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I had decided to treat myself to a room upgrade that night so after an enjoyable evening with the crews I sunk happily into a soft bed, basked in the air-conditioning and slept like the dead.  As soon as our group arrived back the next morning we hit the road in order to get to the border crossing as early as possible.  Up until this point the crossings had all been fairly easy because the countries we visited had little corruption and more streamlined entry systems.  Zimbabwe was an exception but the border hadn’t been too crowded so we had made it through fairly easily.  Future crossings were to prove a little more challenging and Zambia was no exception.

In this part of Africa the borders of Zimbabwe, Botswana, Namibia and Zambia meet along the Zambezi River, thus why it is often referred to as Africa’s Four Corners.  We were a short drive away from the Botswana/Zambia border but soon found ourselves surrounded by extremely long lines of commercial trucks who can spend several days trying to get out of one country and into another.  They are usually subject to far more rigorous inspections than private vehicles to ensure they aren’t exporting anything illegally and that they have paid any appropriate taxes.  That can be incredibly time-consuming but it starts all over again once they enter the next country where they will probably be subjected to far more rigorous inspections and red tape in order to extract import duties and in some countries  the long game of negotiating a bribe begins.

Our own driver skillfully navigated us through all of the trucks and dropped us at the Botswana exit point where we cleared formalities fairly quickly and had soon walked over the border into no-mans land.  A bridge over the Zambezi is being built in the hope of speeding up border traffic but it wasn’t yet finished so we had to walk for several minutes to a jetty then board a small ferry that was jam-packed with cars, trucks, bikes, chickens and people. I really enjoyed the short trip and the river looked beautiful but photography was prohibited just as it is at most of the world’s border crossings.  After a few minutes the ferry docked and we walked up a busy road toward the Zambian immigration checkpoint, dodging impatient trucks and buses on the way.

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Whilst it didn’t take long to process all of us our driver had a few problems so we walked over the border ahead of him and suddenly found ourselves in a completely different environment.  Our crew had often told us that we wouldn’t see the real Africa until we got to Zambia and they weren’t wrong.  We were suddenly thrust into a throng of humanity in  a large and vibrant market town that had sprung up over the years to make the most out of cross border traffic.  It was incredibly colorful and loud with the sound of humans, chickens and the odd donkey.  The air was thick with the tell-tale African smell of wood smoke and meat being roasted over open fires.

Hundreds of people were selling fruit, vegetables, animals, t-shirts, hats and trinkets.  The traders in Zambia didn’t hassle us mercilessly like the street hustlers in Zimbabwe had.  If you said no to an offer to buy fruit or a fridge magnet they’d just smile, wish you a good day and move on although they’d always keep a close eye to make sure you didn’t buy from a competitor.  Despite being surrounded by so many people trying so hard to earn a living I never once felt unsafe, uncomfortable or intimidated.  It set the tone well for the rest of the Zambian trip and my most vivid memories of that country are of how wonderful the people were.

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A market stall beside the border fence with trucks lining up in the background.

After a short wait our truck came through but was being followed by customs officers who escorted our driver back into the customs office.  It was clear that he was facing a long and complex ‘negotiation’ and in the meantime we waited in the truck that was soon surrounded by women selling fruit and vegetables, none of which we wanted to buy.  Africa Travel Co are really good about buying from local market traders whenever they can so our cook went out to buy some corn and a few other items whilst we looked on.  We noticed that everyone surrounding our truck was staring at us and talking about us.  It didn’t feel malicious or intimidating but it was clear that several conversations were going on about the white people.  We just sat in our truck nibbling on 3-day old candies, drinking warm coke and staring back at them.  Occasionally someone would approach the window and hold up their choicest corn or juiciest tomatoes to try to entice us.  We would smile and shake our heads whilst popping another highly processed corn chip into our mouths.  When you think about it that way we must have seemed absolutely insane.

It was at least an hour later when our driver returned to explain that he had been bogged down in red tape and had eventually been accused of stealing the truck.  He pointed out that this was a ludicrous accusation for many reasons with the main one being that surely the group of tourists on board would have noticed and said something.   This back and forth went on for a while before they agreed to let him pass if he paid a ‘fine’ so after doing that we were finally able to leave.   We were heading to Livingstone on a short drive which took us through rural areas and many small towns before spending an uneventful night just a few miles away from our Zimbabwe camp in Victoria Falls.

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The next few days entailed some very long drives and this was something we would have to get used to for the rest of the trip.  Most other tourists had by now disappeared and there were few campsites.  Even if we had time there wasn’t really anywhere to stop at so on the first day we made a 6 hour drive to Lusaka through all manner of villages and towns.  We had begun to notice lots of election billboards and posters, some of which appeared to have been defaced or even burned.  We saw women wearing skirts emblazoned with election advertising, something I couldn’t imagine happening back home.  As we approached Lusaka our tour leader warned us that elections had been held in the last few days and ballots were still being counted.  It had been a controversial and hotly contested race resulting in the government shutting down an independent newspaper and some violence in Lusaka in the previous weeks.  The situation was therefore tense as the country waited for the results to be announced and these were expected to be very close, possibly resulting in rioting once the announcement was made especially because there were accusations of election rigging.  Sound familiar?  Anyway…

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As we entered the capital city we found Lusaka to be colorful and busy yet calm as far as the elections were concerned.  As we crawled through traffic I began noticing things that would become a common site throughout the rest of my African trip.  Firstly a lot of roadside stalls were selling plants yet nobody ever seemed to be actually selling them never mind buying them.    Sometimes these were random little piles of plants on the roadside in the middle of nowhere and in larger towns they seemed to line the road for half a mile yet there were never any humans in sight that appeared connected to the stalls.  I also began seeing dubious signs for shady-sounding doctors like the one below.  I wondered how busy this guy gets and how on earth he fixes some of those problems.  And what exactly is the good doctor ‘quick selling and buying’?

img_0179img_0202 I noticed an increasing Chinese presence in Africa.  Some of the billboards were in Chinese characters and I later found out that the country is a major investor in Zambia, controversially because the economy hasn’t seen any real benefit from this.  Finally (and I never got to the bottom of this) Zambia is full of used tyres (tires).  They appear everywhere on the side of the road and are used as seats, toys, to hold up signs or tables, to sell things from or as was the case at our campsite, simply for decoration on the entry road.  There were also a lot more people present so that waving to excited children was almost constant by now as were classic African scenes such as women gracefully walking whilst balancing huge loads of produce, grains or water on their heads.

It seemed that almost every second shop was painted with the Airtel logo, a major African mobile phone company.  And the lack of public services became obvious as litter piled up around towns in the absence of any regular refuse collection and small private schools were prevalent in larger towns, presumably to provide a better alternative for wealthier people to the vastly overcrowded and underfunded public schools.

img_0156img_0150img_0178img_0208With the potential for things to go wrong with the election we were pleased to get to our campsite on the outskirts of town and our driver stayed in the cab of his truck for several hours glued to BBC World Service broadcasts just in case he heard something that meant we would have to make a quick exit.  The next morning we left before dawn for a 9-hour drive to South Luangwa National Park.  The sunrise over Lusaka was blood-red and smoky but things were still peaceful as people went about their usual business of setting up roadside stalls, hanging out laundry and biking to work.  Later on we heard that the announcement of the election results was going to be delayed so there were no issues for us during the rest of the trip.  I found out when I got home that the sitting president won and numerous independent international bodies declared the elections to be fair and free, although all agreed the media had faced suppression and control by the sitting government.  To my knowledge there was no subsequent violence.

During this long drive we began to see miles and miles of grass and shrub along the road being burned.  In some places the air was so thick with smoke it was hard to breathe.  This is part of a traditional yet controversial farming method used throughout Southern Africa.  The soil is generally not fertile so trees are felled then burned along with grass in order to create a nutrient-rich soil by mixing the ash into the dirt.  This allows crops to grow for maybe three years but then the soil must be left alone for 20 to 30 years until new trees grow.  This used to work well to feed small amounts of people but as populations grow and land is more scarce it has become inefficient.

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In the meantime the wood chopped down is burned in various types of rudimentary kilns to create charcoal, a key energy source throughout the region.    Whilst charcoal itself burns relatively efficiently the process of making it which includes cutting down woodland is very damaging to the environment to the point that it has been outlawed in many African countries.  However with people living below the poverty line and with more and more land being taken for commercial ventures many people are left with little choice both in terms of producing charcoal to sell and utilising more efficient farming methods.  Sadly it is an issue many governments in Sub-Saharan Africa have been slow to address so in the meantime thousands of acres of woodland are destroyed every year with relatively little to show for it in terms of food and income whilst inflicting a lot of damage to the environment.

I noticed that the landscape was slowly getting more tropical and lush as we headed further north.  Dry grassland dotted with parched trees was starting to give way to green grass and pockets of thick forest.  There were more rivers, palm trees appeared more frequently as did large fields of green crops.  By the end of the day as we approached South Luangwa National Park close to Malawi it was obvious that we had entered an entirely new and beautiful kind of geography.  The desert was long gone and despite the region being caught in a drought the landscapes looked lush and plentiful compared to where we had been.

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In the past 3 days we had traveled over 1,000km and crossed pretty much the entire country.  Zambia so far had mainly been about observing humans.  Now it was time to leave people behind and head into the bush to observe the animals again.

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