Last true wilderness

Travelling to the land of waterfalls and large lakes, George and Marlene van Deventer from Trans Africa Self Drive Adventures and Tours again realised that there is a huge difference between studying a route on a map or GPS and physically driving it… With adventure awaiting you around every turn, they describe their first encounter with Route 5 as the last true wilderness in Africa.

Tour guides and books describe Zambia as the land of waterfalls and large lakes. What is often omitted from these tales and writings, though, is that it is also the land of unknown roads; roads that lead to the most beautiful places on this continent. To see a road on a map or GPS and then physically driving it, are two different things altogether, but that is precisely what makes this overlanding thing we enjoy so much so attractive and adventurous. The excitement of the unknown and the adventure that awaits you around the next turn are what inspire us to do it again and again. That was the case with Route 5, just south of Mpika, when we saw it on an old map for the first time.

But wait, let us start at the beginning… To get to South Luangwa you actually have only three choices. If you don’t want to drive via Malawi, there is the boring road via Lusaka, Chongwe and Chipata. For the more adventurous there is the better-known northern road through North Luangwa. And if you’re truly up for a challenge, the southern road via the Muchinga Escarpment and across the Mupamadzi river (over a very dodgy pole bridge) is the way to go. I should probably mention that the latter is only open from July to the end of October or perhaps the first week in November, as the first rains make it totally impassable beyond the Munyamadzi corridor, where large black mud pans and many river crossings will stop you dead in your tracks.

The black mud – commonly referred to as cotton mud – is no man’s friend and once you get stuck in it you might as well leave your vehicle until the dry season because anyone attempting a recovery will probably end up getting stuck right there with you. A five-hour route can easily turn into a five-day struggle after the first rains of the season.

Route 5

Forty kilometres south of Mpika, in the north-eastern part of Zambia, you will find the village of Muchinga. It is here where you turn east on to Route 5. The first part of the route is on a genuinely nice broad dirt road that had been scraped when we drove it. Here the road is still known as the D49 on the Zambia map up to the Tunta Gate in the Munyamadzi GMA (Game Management Area). The road winds through the Miombo forests dominated by Miombo, Muchesa, Mutondo and Mbwerebwere trees that reach up to 21 metres high. These trees do not do well with seasonal flooding in lower-lying areas or in extreme drought and are therefore only found on the escarpment. This route truly is beautiful and you’d be forgiven for thinking that you’re driving through a rainforest.

After a few kilometres, the route takes you past a traditional village 1 30 PAGE PAGE 31 OVERLAND ADVENTURE | Zambia where locals sell vegetables by the side of the road. By all means, stop and support them because you’ll be hard-pressed to find such good quality tomatoes and onions anywhere else. Everything is “organic”, without any fertiliser or pesticides. This is what touring to remote places is all about – supporting the locals. Just before you reach the Tunta gate (S12 19 24.9 E31 32 13.6) you are going to drive through a scout camp with farmland on either side of the road where locals produce their own fruit and vegetables. You’ll also notice brick baking ovens, which actually serve two purposes. Not only are they used to bake clay bricks, but they also produce charcoal, which is sold by the locals. It’s at this point that you will get to know the Tsetse fly, if you have not done so already.

Trust me when I tell you to pack a can (or three) of Doom because this little sucker’s main mission in life is to drain as much blood from you as possible in the least amount of time. And its sting will have you uttering words that will make a sailor blush. You’ll be required to sign in at the Tunta Gate as you’ll be entering the South Luangwa Park shortly thereafter. There are no fees payable upon entry of the park, but you will be required to pay at Mfuwe bridge when you exit the park. It is particularly important that you get a permit as you must be able to prove when you entered the park and that you are there legally. The scouts at the gate are very friendly and helpful, though, and also very keen to share their knowledge of the park and its animals.

Muchinga Escarpment Pass

As you leave the Scout camp, it soon becomes wild and 4 kilometers later you reach the start of the Muchinga Escarpment Pass (S12 20 29.9 E31 32 47.6). Those who have been down this pass with me swear that it is in the same league as Van Zyl’s Pass in Kaokoland. I disagree, though, and would rate it as a Grade 3. It spans almost two kilometres and drops from 1 400 meters to just over 700 metres above sea level as it takes you down to the bottom of the South Luangwa valley.

At this point, you would have done only 50 kilometers of the 158-kilometer long Route 5 and more than half the day is already gone. We regularly stopped for photos and road clearing because this is elephant country and the old gentle giants love pushing large trees over. Clearing the road is a team effort involving machetes, axes and winches, but it’s all part of the fun to get the road open again. In fact, this is only the beginning of the fun and games you can expect along with this incredibly beautiful piece of road. The pass itself is in rough shape due to erosion and zero maintenance. It winds down with a lot of hairpin turns and wash-outs but it is nothing serious.

The best way is to tackle it is slowly in 4×4 low range first gear and let the engine do all the braking, otherwise, the brakes are going to overheat very quickly. There are a few places where you will need your passenger or another driver to guide you, but it’s always better to be safe than sorry. At least you will have a bigger chance of coming across an elephant in the road than another vehicle approaching from the front. The road is not driven often by others. As one descends the pass, you’ll see the gradual change of vegetation and terrain as it crosses over from the escarpment to the valley below. The Miombo Forest starts to make way for the Mopani trees and other shrubs.

Camp on a bridge

 After the customary shot of “firewater” for all the survivors of the pass at the bottom, it is time to get back on the road. Just before the bridge over the Mutinondo River (S12 22 25.2 E31 35 43.3) you will come across the remains of the Zambian Wildlife Authorities’ scout camp on the left. This is the last nice open place for camping before crossing the park’s boundary, which is about 10 kilometres further and for which you do not have permission to camp. We usually camp on the bridge. It’s quite an interesting experience and I believe there aren’t many people who can tick the box of camping on a bridge.

Down in the mud, we saw plenty of fresh lion, elephant, buffalo and antelope tracks. That is when you realise you are in lion country now. The ever-present Tsetse flies will try their best to make your life hell, but it is not as bad as in the park itself. Somewhere in the forest around you are the Wildlife Scouts; the men who patrol the park on foot and are the first line of defence against game poachers. Our first encounter with them was quite a story. We had just started making camp when four men appeared out of nowhere, dressed in uniform and with guns in hand. My first thought was “trouble” and that we were not going to be allowed to camp here. The men looked pretty serious and I mentally prepared myself for the worst as I walked up to them. I assumed that the one with the AK-47 was the leader and put my hand out to greet him. A big smile spread across his face as he greeted back. They introduced themselves in perfect English and asked where we were from.

I asked John – the leader – if we could camp there. After looking at our permit he agreed and even offered to protect us through the night. The hair in my neck immediately stood on end. I had no idea what they wanted to protect us from, but he insisted, saying that the lions and elephants were dangerous here. No amount of protesting and explaining from my side could hardships and challenges they face, the many dangerous situations and close encounters they’d already had together as a team and the fight against the poachers they fight every day. I gave them some meat to braai and a two-litre bottle of Coke. They were awake all night and sat next to a small fire.

We were lucky to hear a lion roaring in the distance and I marvelled at how fearless these men were. I thought of the luxury and safety in which we camp compared to how they lived here in the forest. Every night they had nothing but a small fire between them and the wild animals. They had given me a small glimpse into their world and it left me humbled and grateful. It also made me realise why I love travelling so much. Not only to see wonderful places but most importantly, to meet wonderful people in places where you least expect it.

 “Cotton Mud” and roads that disappear

 The next morning, we were up early because the South Luangwa Park was next on our list. After coffee, rusks and goodbyes to our newly found friends, we hit the road to face the next set of obstacles on this incredible journey. The road itself is a typical African two-spoor and not too bad, but this only applies during the dry season since you have several smaller rivers and streams as well as cotton mud pans to cross. It changes completely after the first rains because then it becomes impossible to drive and the road is closed for half a year or more until its dried out enough for vehicles not to get stuck. We started seeing signs of recent rain and my thought was that we were going to have to turn around at some stage. However, this was not the only concern; old and new tracks are always a problem, even if you have a GPS.

The road changes every season as new tracks are made when people try to avoid the last patches of mud. It’s hard to guess which track leads where and I have learned that the best way to navigate these roads is to stay parallel to the GPS track. This is one of those places where you do not want to get stuck because the bush is dense and South Luangwa Valley is home to Zambia’s largest lion population. It is regarded by National Geographic’s Big Cats Initiative as one of the 21 high-priority lion conservation areas in Africa. The Zambian Carnivore Program (ZCP) works with several partners to ensure that the valley is preserved as one of the last remaining strongholds for the king of the jungle. Did I mention that I am highly allergic to a lion’s bite…?

It’s not long before you reach the Mupamadzi River (S12 26 32.6 E31 43 05.7). This river crossing is newly built each year using sandbags and logs. The Mupamadzi is a tributary of the Luangwa river and always has water, but in the rainy season, it becomes a strong river that makes it impossible to cross. This is one of those old-school river crossings where you get the feeling that you are really way off the beaten track. The crossing is actually far easier than it looks and once you’re through and driving up the bank, you’ll get to a picnic spot on your right. I personally think that only Chuck Norris would be able to stop here for coffee and sandwiches due to the Tsetse brigade that is highly active and always on the lookout for fresh blood. We just stared at the lovely spot under the trees with longing eyes … Not much further from the river crossing the cotton mud claimed its first victim. I was the first to get stuck and yes, Toyotas with big tyres and lots of power can also bog down.

It was my first and my last, but I can’t say the same for the rest of the group. There were quite a few very quick recoveries. If you think you have time to take it leisurely, think again. Brother Tsetse and his comrades will make you a Speedy Gonzales before you can say bite me. Those guys pack a punch and their bite hurts, they draw serious blood and leaves a trickle running down the bite mark. They zap you through your shirt and after a while, you can clearly distinguish the victims with the numerous red spots on their clothes. Believe it or not, but even this is all part of the fun and games, sometimes to the great amusement of those sitting in their vehicles with the windows closed and the air persuade him. It was their duty, he said. I had a long conversation with them. They told me about the conditioning. We made good progress and before we knew it, we were through the part that had gotten rain. Fortunately for us, it only rained a little because we would not have made it with much more rain. Luckily, the cotton mud pans (S12 48 39.9 E31 45 25.9) were still dry. The road began to open up, and we started seeing more wildlife as we drove closer to Mfuwe Lodge.

 Back in civilisation

Just before the Mfuwe Bridge gate is Mfuwe Lodge, which is well known for the elephants that sometimes walk through the lodge. Each year, between late October and mid-December, the matriarch – named Wonky Tusk – brings her family through reception at the lodge looking for the wild mango’s (Cordyla Africana) which falls from a tree just outside the open-plan foyer. Why walk around if you can take a shortcut through the foyer?

Wonky Tusk’s one calf, Lord Wellington, was born at the lodge in 2009 and was just two days old when he took his first steps through the foyer. He’s not shy or afraid and is known for stealing a pen or two with his trunk. The lodge is not accessible to day visitors, but if you ask the manager nicely you can get something for the throat to flush down the dust of the past two days. Who knows, you might even see Wonky Tusk and her family there. Upon our arrival at Mfuwe Bridge gate, it was time for paperwork and payment. This is quite an expensive park and cost us $30 for the vehicle and $15 per person. The first question the officer asked was where we had come from and she was surprised to learn that we had taken Route 5, as it was supposed to be closed.

She immediately contacted Tunta gate by radio and instructed them to officially close the road until the next year. It was probably the mud covering our vehicles and the fact that it was already the second week in November that convinced her. We were also very fortunate to see a lot of game and lions in two different places. There is plenty of wildlife in the Luangwa River-valley and surrounding areas. Elephants and buffaloes are common here, as are a variety of antelope can be found here. Be on the lookout for Crawshay’s zebra, Thornicroft giraffes and Cookson wildebeest that are indigenous to the area.

Lions, hyenas, wild dogs and leopards are the main predators in the areas. Leopards feel particularly at home here and your chances of seeing them are exceptionally good. The next stop is the Wildlife camp but that is a story for the next time…

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