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June 16, 2013 / samwilson60

South to North

Game viewing aside, another big draw of the area was a plan we’d been hatching with Ben and Jen to drive up from South Luangwa, to and through North Luangwa. In theory there were multiple routes but it soon transpired only one was worth considering and what information we could glean on that was sketchy at best. We kept asking – we would have to back-track a long way if it didn’t work out – but it wasn’t sounding good. Eventually one guy came forward with some constructive information. One month earlier it would’ve been a definite no-no, and in one month’s time it’d be a goer for sure. Right here and now, it was touch and go, but he did know the pontoon required to get us across the Luangwa River was running. How it would compare with the West African bacs was anyone’s guess but it was worth finding out.

After some swift calculations to ensure we had the fuel range to back-track from near the end if we had to, the trip was tentatively on. We were all very much of the opinion we were in no rush, and as we had no idea how far we would actually get we decided not to push it on day one and head for a known bush campsite about 70km down the track. It sounded like we should be able to get that far at least and from there we might be able to get more reliable information on what followed.

As it turned out day one was about as easy (and dusty) as it gets and we rolled into camp around lunchtime. We felt very much like we were entering by the back door into a bush camp only used on prior arrangement but there was a toilet and shower of shorts, a recent fire was still smouldering and before long someone turned up. At best he was the guardian and initially he wanted $100 but when we threatened to push on we managed to negotiate it down to a much more reasonable $7.50!

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We enjoyed a great afternoon and evening of hippo and croc spotting and all agreed the outdoor shower was magical – all except Jen perhaps, who had the unexpected treat of a microlight flying overhead during her dip.

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We left keen to cover a bit more distance the next day and were aiming for a camp by the pontoon into the park. Day one had apparently left us a little complacent about what would follow and led us to conveniently forget about all the other river crossings between us and our destination (and the biting flies, out in force by 7am, aaaaaaaaaaargh). The river crossings also came think and fast but thankfully most were dry and demanded nothing too technical. Just enough to keep us on our toes and wondering what might be around the next corner.

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The ‘next corner’ came soon enough, in the form of a very shaky-looking improvised bridge. Initially it looked ropey, but a closer inspection declared it downright dangerous. After a bit of head scratching and a lot of riverbed poking, the boys had decided on a plan. And within about an hour we had both cars safely on the far bank.

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A well-earned tea break was interrupted by the arrival of a local Land Cruiser pickup carrying half a dozen passengers in the back. We moved our cars out of their way and made our concerns about the bridge known, fully expecting them to plough on regardless. Much to our surprise they agreed it was an accident waiting to happen and wanted to know exactly how we’d got over the problem.

After a further half an hour of explaining why they we’re stuck on a section we’d breezed through (one free-wheel hub locked, the other not), why they were struggling to pull away on the soft sand (try pulling that lever towards you) and why they were screaming the nuts off the engine once back on the firm track (push the lever back again!), we decided we’d had our break and pushed on, to the next dry river bed.

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The next challenge came in the form of very long grass. It doesn’t sound like much of a challenge but when it’s taller than the car in the middle of the track it gets a bit daunting. We knew it wasn’t the most well used route but this was getting silly.

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After a very hectic village and two more river crossings we decided to call it a day and set up camp in a clearing right on the side of the track. It would have been the perfect spot to relax after a pretty full-on day were it not for the lions roaring a bit too close by.

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Day three was dominated by hippo foot prints. Hardly a major obstacle you say? Try driving over them when they’re the size of dinner plates and over a foot deep!

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Undeterred we wove our way around the worst holes and through the others, all the way to the infamous pontoon marking the entrance to North Luangwa national park. We were expecting a camp and a park warden but we were a little taken aback when they all rushed us through to the river. Apparently the camp was undergoing renovations, and to be fair to them it was about 10am when we rocked up, so everyone agreed for us that we should just hop on the boat and go into the park. We didn’t want rushing so got the tea and biscuits out to help us think, but we all came to the same conclusion. The park warden was very vague but not particularly reassuring about our prospects of camping anywhere before the exit gate on the other side of the park. We were fairly confident we could make it that far if we wanted to and could camp wild if we didn’t so we got back to the immediate matter of getting two rather weighty 4x4s onto some floating planks of wood.

We thought we’d seen it all in terms of sub-standard river craft but we’d never before been rowed by means of a stick on a steel cable! Loading was a bit sketchy, offloading even worse, but the actual crossing (all 12 or so metres of it) was surprisingly smooth and both cars made it safely onto the opposite bank.

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On entering North Luangwa proper, the first thing we did was look for a tea stop, much to Ben and Jen’s amusement. We actually found quite a nice watering hole but saw only a warthog and numerous birds. We were cursing our shiny new copy of Newman’s Birds until it helped us identify our first ever bateleur. Once in the park, we also had our fair share of river crossings – wetter than before even, but certainly no more technical.

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In fact, the trickiest bit of the park itself was finding anyone to let us into the campsite on the other side. Eventually we found a park warden to told us to let ourselves in – good enough for us – so we set up camp by the river (the only running water) and set about cooking a bulk load of Ben and Jen’s meat on a particularly slow-burning braai. It was a feast appreciated by all in the end but the aperitif was a little drawn out, exhausting as it did the entirely of our combined alcohol supplies.

The next morning we were a little taken aback by ‘already’ having completed our quest so the four of us headed for one last night together at Mutinondo Wilderness, after stocking up on what we could in Mbala (the Sunday market basically ran to beer and tomatoes). On our way into Mbala we were stopped at a checkpoint and ‘fined’ for not having any reflectors on the front of our car (the most astounding part of which was it was a genuine offence). Thankfully Ben had heard of such things and had some spare reflective tape so we stuck it on and negotiated the fine.  On the way out of town, Ben and Jen were stopped for having defective indicators (a much more serious matter, you’d think). They sorted it on the spot and got away with no fine. We all counted our blessings, knowing how much more painful and long-winded such incidents can be, and headed off to find our campsite. It was as overpriced as the last but this one had hot, running water at least and seemed to be staffed fairly well, so eventually we all agreed to stay. The staff were nowhere to be found when the horses came to raid the cars but we forgave them that (very pretty horses). The four of us took a brief strut up a rather large mound for sunset, after which we cooked dinner, with our own food this time (tuna pasta bonanza). The next morning we went for a more leisurely walk and said our goodbyes (for now, at least).

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One Comment

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  1. Peter Cullen / Jun 16 2013 8:54 am

    I’m not sure that negotiating that on a motorbike would be all that easy!!! Well done.

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