Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Below the (Copper)belt

Arriving in Zambia we received a very friendly welcome. After reaching the town of Chipata we waited for the minibus to South Luangwa National Park to leave. Whilst waiting we had a chance to try some Zambian foods, namely ‘African Polony’ (a luncheon meat type snack mixed with mashed peanuts) and a re-introduction of Chips Mayai – the Swahili dish of chips cooked in an omelette!

By the time the minibus left it was almost dark and the road to Mfuwe being in very bad condition it made the ride quite nerve-wracking, especially when we hit a pile of rocks that had been placed in the road by some villagers. We arrived at Croc Valley camp quite late, only to find an elephant wandering through the campsite! This was just the introduction, over the next few nights we were regularly visited by hippos, elephants and even crocodiles, wandering around outside our tent, which was pitched just on top of a ridge overlooking the Zambezi river. There was also a leopard that regularly came to drink from the pool, although we never saw it.

We took one game drive into South Luangwa NP. It started off quite disappointingly until we witnessed a leopard and a hyena fighting over a dead impala and then a pride of sixteen lions holding traffic up on one of the main tracks. We had a cup of tea by a stretch of the river teeming with more hippos and crocs before returning to the relative safety of the camp, in the end it was probably worth the money!

Leaving Mfuwe, the town at the park gate, was even more difficult than getting there. Because the minibus leaves around 3am, in order to get to Chipata for the buses to Lusaka and Lilongwe, we had to leave the campsite at 9pm. Like many places in Africa it is unsafe to walk around at night, but here the danger is from lions, hippos and elephants rather than muggers! We were treated to a tour of the various pubs and clubs by the minibus driver and conductor before grabbing an hour or so of sleep in the bus.

The Lonely Planet states that it is better to fly around Zambia than take the bus. Clearly the researchers have never been to East Africa, or worse, Ethiopia. The buses in Zambia are on a par with those in most European companies and the roads mostly in very good condition, with the exception of the road from Chipata to Mfuwe!

We found Zambians to be very friendly and welcoming, similar in this respect to Malawians. The main difference we noticed about Zambians is their awareness of current affairs, both within Zambia and in the rest of the world. It was very easy to have a conversation with a guy in a bus station selling hats or lollipops about politics, something that would never happen in most African countries.

So, we arrived in Lusaka anticipating a long stay. Whilst Brits do not require visas to enter Botswana or Namibia, Czech citizens do, and the Botswana application in particular is notorious for taking a long time, up to 2 months, and once the application has been submitted the payment is non-refundable. Luckily in the end we only had to wait 2 days for the Namibian visa, through virtue of being there on exactly the right day, had we come the next day it would have been a 6 day wait, and four days for the Botswanan visa, through virtue of sucking up to the ambassador and making some (very flexible) bookings to support our application.

Whilst there is not much in the way of sights, Lusaka is not such a bad place to be stuck for a week or so. There are many markets selling the usual fruit and veg, African fabrics and imported Chinese crap to while away some time and there is a 50m ‘Olympic pool’ that has been there since 1964, the changing rooms are showing their ages somewhat but the pool is immaculate. There are also two very modern shopping malls, where everything is available. My grandmother always told me the shops in Zambia were empty, here is proof of how things have changed over the years! We also felt very safe in Lusaka, it did not have the hard edge that many African capitals have. Although perhaps it was the time we were there as suggested in the Lonely Planet – “incidences of armed carjacking are on the rise in Lusaka, especially around Christmas and Easter.” What? Why? Is there some religious motivation?

Zambia’s President Banda is shaping up to be Africa’s next ‘big man’ – silencing the opposition, squandering aid money on the private excess of himself and his cronies and showing a total disregard for his own people. I found particularly amusing the way in which he insists that all donor money comes in the form of hard currency, not in projects or other forms which he could not exploit!

If we didn’t have to visit various embassies on 4 out of 5 days of the week we would have made a trip up to the Copperbelt (to Kitwe or Ndola), or to Lake Kariba or the Lower Zambezi National Park. As it was we spent the whole week in Lusaka and when we received the two visas were ready to press on towards Victoria Falls.

The main food in Zambia is Nshima, just as tasteless and lacking in nutrition as Malawian Nsima, but with an extra letter. Apart from this all that is available is fast food. Zambians live for chickenandchipssausageandchipspieandchips for breakfast, lunch and dinner! It is far tastier and healthier just to self-cater where possible.

We left for Livingstone on a Saturday so all the buses were full of weekenders, which is not suprising given its next door to one of the highlights of the world! On arrival we were met at the hostel by a sight more akin to Lanzarote than Livingstone! For some reason the Victoria Falls area, both on the Zambian and Zimbabwe side, has become one of the worlds extreme sports capitals, so the bars and hostels are full of gap-yearers discussing their bungee jumps or white-water experiences. Which was not so nice. We were happy to see Ruben (from Spain) arrive after a couple of days. We had met him in Lusaka just before he set off for Livingstone by bicycle, a journey of over 500km with no previous experience. We were worried about him and relieved to see that he made it!

We were slightly underwhelmed by Victoria Falls as it is now the dry season and the flow is much lower than just a few weeks ago, some say it is less than 5% of the highest flow. This also means that, eve though we visited during a full moon, there is no chance to see the lunar rainbow either. What we missed due to it being dry we gained in the fact that we could wade along the top of the falls, often less than three feet from the edge. It was quite treacherous in places so we paid a guy $4 to guide us through to Livingstone island and back again! Monika waded through comfortably but I was less composed, needing to grab the guides hand several times per minute!

Suddenly it was time for us to leave Zambia. No time to regret not making more detours we headed for the ferry crossing the Zambezi to take us to Botswana.

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